Scene Along the Road 4: Winds and Tracks of Time

Zephyros
Ah, Joshua Tree! We find ourselves again at a favorite boondocking site, just adjacent to the National Park border, with the I-10 corridor’s blistering fast cell and data connection. Every iteration is a learning experience, and this time we come armed with a simple elegant phone app that locates east and west to align our solar directly south for energy maximization. We are now positioned with our awning north-facing, and winter sun creates a solar reflector off the aluminum skin at all times of the day. Thanks to Vinnie Lamica’s polish job, we can be seen from miles away, easy to signal the cavalry if attacked by rampaging zombies or wind-blown jumping chollas—probably the most deadly cactus on the planet!

Days One and Two passed in serene bliss: warm days and a night sky lit like millions of shotgun shell blasts through a black, back-lit canopy. We lit our propane fire pit, sipped evening libations, and read to each other, pausing to tell stories and anecdotes.

But an onslaught soon blindsided us. Weather reports are notoriously fickle and inaccurate, as everyone knows. Early the following day, I sat outside basking in the silence of the desert, scanning the northern mountain ranges. Layering rock and strata patterns revealed shades of varying browns filled by meager earth footholds, patches of green vegetation in their grasp below folded peaks sharply contrasting a cerulean sky. While mentally free-floating, a subtle ghostly apparition began to cloud the clear view with a growing smoky haze, though no telltale olfactory signs emerged. The distant ranges disappeared into an unseen dimension, replaced by a cold wind seeping across the landscape, like a darkly magical Etch a Sketch-erasing moment. Mean winds obscured the prospect of all that once sat in stillness, knocking chairs over and disheveling all that could not stand in its insistence. The temperature dropped by twenty degrees, and it blew and blew….

The French experience Le Mistral meaning “master wind.” This dry cold northerly wind blows in squalls toward the Mediterranean coast of southern France, tormenting people for weeks on end, and has driven people mad. They say even murder is forgiven after a week of Le Mistral! “If the Mistral blows for nine days, then a murder on the ninth day was treated as a crime of passion, not as a cold-blooded murder,” states Professor Marion Diamond, University of Queensland. There is also the Sirocco which blows from north Africa across the Mediterranean to southern Europe. Web search reveals at least 75 different world culture names for winds to include: Bayamo, from Cuba; Chubasco, Central America; Haboob, Sudan; Nor’easter, from guess where?; Santa Ana, southern California; Williwaw, Aleutian Islands; and lastly, Zephyros, from the ancient Greeks, to name just a few.

Returning back to the “driving people mad” statement, we scurried into the Silver Submarine in haste against the onslaught, and sat while the Airstream shook violently despite being firmly anchored by stabilizers and weight of body and contents. There was no let-up from wind blasts growing in intensity at times close to around 50+ miles per hour. Orienting our rig east-west opened our long sides to the full force of the northerly wind; opening the door against this took every bit of strength to the critical balance point where the wind chose whether to pull it open for you, or slam it closed and induce ear trauma. If you’ve ever experienced an earthquake magnitude about 4–5 on the Richter scale, you can appreciate our growing apprehension. The only barrier from madness was the arrival of our friend John, who was passing through to explore the East Coast and graced us with hours of debauchery and insightful storytelling. His plans to tent in our camp quickly became laughable.

Two days—and many libations—later, the relentless wind carried him away east, leaving us to ride it out to acceptable levels after four days of Zephyros’s torture.

Being on a rocking boat for days on end and stepping on shore brings reality to the term “sea legs,” and post-wind we walked around camp like drunken sailors…or was that still the effects of our two-day liquid libertinism?

Tracks of Time
One of the secrets to successful boondocking is minimizing water use and discharge, in the form of grey water wash and black water human waste. We were luckily located far enough in the “boonies” to trek a short distance into the remote desert expanse with shovel, and explore flora, fauna, and geographics as we kept our trailer black tank light. It is interesting to note how rare rain water flows in the desert, moving through the pathways of least resistance. It was on one of these duty jaunts that I came across a section of hardpack mud, where the water had pooled until it found release. Post-rain squalls, water disappears instantly here, and it left behind, in this case, a smooth surface suitable for recording tracks of movement before quickly drying into hard pan.

On the island of Crete, encased in mud, researchers discovered the nearly six-million-year-old tracks of what appear to be human, or close to human, footprints.

Ape foot prints present themselves remarkably different, so these newly discovered impressions are serious contenders for human origin, or at least a branch off ape-like ancestors closer to our own. The closest confirmed human footprints discovered so far are in Laetoli, Tanzania, and are dated at 3.65 million years.

Studying tracks and traces is a fascinating detective pastime, opening up the wonders of creatures that passed previously invisible. Animal scat is another intriguing study along this theme and I was about to carefully bury mine forever, but a side glance to a hardpack section of easy walking revealed numerous human and animal tracks and traces. The hoof prints of deer registered clearly.

In the study of animal tracking we learn there are hoppers, draggers, and walkers, both four foot and single track, which category deer fall into. Directly adjacent to the deer tracks and close in time were the markings of human habitation: a fire ring, bike tire tracks, and graffiti scratchings. Humans never reflect much order or efficiency, and usually exhibit a non-discerning scream of existence. In my daily desert duty hikes, I found medicine pill bottles filled with marijuana, various alcohol bottles, cans, plastic containers, bags, and—richest of all, scratched into the dried mud to await the layering of perhaps millions of years, and eventual discovery by some distant civilization, if such exists—this graffito:

Human graffito inscription above deer paw print presentation

 

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“Mirror, Mirror, on the Wall, What’s the Supremest Species of Them All…?”

Mirror: “Humanity’s ego reigns extreme,
but beneath your feet lives some supreme.”

“Say what?!”

A short stroll here, in the Anza Borrego Desert, remnant dried sea from a distant past, reveals a landscape pockmarked with hilly, funneled interior walls, dark entrances tunneled into the mysterious unknown.

I am reminded of scenes in the movie Time Machine, taken from the H.G. Wells novel, where a time traveler speeds nearly 803,000 years into a future earth where the Eloi, a gentle human species, is preyed upon by Morlocks, apelike creatures who live in wells deep within the planet.

What is this ubiquitous creature/s our mirror reveals reflectively? What better place to discuss species profligation (how’s that for a hundred-dollar word!) than in the desert, mostly considered barren and boring, lacking in life. Wikipedia states that 99% of all living things, numbering over 5 billion species that ever lived on earth, are estimated to be extinct. Estimates of our current living species range from 10-14 million, of which 1.2 million have been documented.

Research reveals that there are 300 pounds of insects for every pound of humans—200 million insects for every human. Now, looking closer into our didactic mirror we see some astounding facts: beneath our feet lives the most prolific creature thus known, the Springtail, or Collumbola, ranging from .25-10mm in length, of which there are 10-200,000 living in each square meter of soil on earth! Incidentally, they are called Springtails because they can flick their tiny tails and spring up to 10 cm to avoid predators.

Collumbola, aka Springtail

Here’s a challenge. Get down on your knees with your magnifying glass and get to work studying the microcosm. On every scale, things are eating and being eaten, a mind-boggling silent, scary, munching sound that resounds all over the earth. What value does a thing so small have in our master civilization, you ask? Well, the tiny inherit and create the earth. Springtails are responsible for approximately 20% of vegetative decomposition so essential to plant life cycles.

What controls every millimeter of our earth wherever they live, which is pretty much everywhere? Right up there with the most prolific species on earth, and the creator of our sand-funnel mountains previously described, is the ant, with population estimates of 10,000 trillion to a quadrillion: 1,000,000,000,000,000.

 

Quadrillion pennies stacked up behind recognizable edifices

That’s over a million ants per human on earth!

Ant populations are highly prolific and “civilized,” with reported super colonies extending thousands of kilometers’ expanse in numerous locations on earth. It is said that all the ants in the world combined weigh as much as all human beings. This is an amazing fact considering that a human weighs a million more times than the average ant.

As long as we’re talking dominant species, ants can lift 1,000 times their own weight over their heads. Here is an interesting factoid written by Graham Templeton in the Geek.com website:

“Consider a cube with sides 1×1×1 inches. The total volume of this cube is one cubic inch, with a total surface area of six square inches. That’s a six-to-one ratio of surface area to volume. What’s important to understand here is that, with respect to muscles, ‘volume’ is our proxy for mass, and ‘surface area’ stands in for strength; an ant’s muscles function pretty much like our own, with the contractile power coming from fibers on the exterior of the muscle.

“Now consider a cube of 10×10×10 inches; this gives us 1,000 cubic inches of volume, but just 600 square inches of surface—our six-to-one ratio has now become 0.6-to-one. This is because volume, and thus mass, increases according to a cubic function (X times X times X) while surface area increases as a square (X times X times some unchanging constant). This means that, as you get smaller, you also get stronger relative to your own body weight. It’s all about relative strength, though: you could still beat an ant in an arm-wrestle.

“On the other end of the spectrum is a blue whale, a creature so large that it could never have existed on land. Only with the helpful buoyancy of water (and sea water at that!) can a beast that massive hope to even control its own mass; when a whale beaches itself and feels the full weight of its own body, it’s often too weak to even shimmy back into the sea. Similarly, the classic doomsday scenario of a scaled-up ant terrorizing the nation with its super-strength is an overblown threat at best; any ant unfortunate enough to be super-sized in that way would immediately collapse under its own weight, dying a tortured and laborious death.”

Yes, even monstrous dinosaurs, that were growth-assisted by an overabundance of period atmospheric oxygen, submitted to physics in evolutionary size constraints.

I noted earlier that one quadrillion ants, that is, one with 15 zeros, are estimated to live on earth today. The total human population is around 7.4 billion. It is estimated that as of 2015, there have been 108 billion humans who have been born on earth in the history of humanity. Compare these quantities using the understanding that a billion is equal to 10 to the 9th power. I’m thinking there is some species humbling and awe inspiration going on now, eh?

Having said all this, we return, hats in hand, to face our truth-telling Mirror to ask,

“Mirror, Mirror, on the wall, what’s the smallest living thing of all?”

Mirror:
Truth be told, I cannot see,
deep into emerging reality.
Be still, open your mind,
learn facts from fiction,
and soon you’ll be cured
of this mirror affliction.

The Gastronomical Time Machine

by Ruth

What do you do when you’ve visited a town several times a year for over 20 years, after having grown up there? You find a theme to fill your days, that’s what. And this time, I decided on: “San Diego restaurants in continuous operation since before 1961.” Meaning, they predate even me.

With the goal of having at least a drink, and probably a whole meal, at each of these, we loosened our belts and strapped ourselves into the gastronomical time machine. Here’s what we found:

Following the repeal of Prohibition in 1933, many restaurants added alcoholic  beverages and music and dancing to their food service. One of these local restaurants, opened in 1931, was the Cho Book You restaurant in North Park, which featured “dine and dance” and meals served in “exclusive booths.” Playing upon the popularity of “exotic” Chinese food, in 1935 the proprietors remodeled the façade (advertised as “new attractive oriental front”) and changed its name to Pekin Café.

Pork chop suey, egg foo yung, fried rice

With old-school Chinese food this consistently good, it’s no wonder that the oldest Chinese restaurant in town has been serving San Diegans for almost 90 years. Wikipedia tells me that, while chop suey is widely believed to have been invented in America by Chinese Americans, anthropologist E. N. Anderson traces the dish to tsap seui (“miscellaneous leftovers”), common in Guangdong province, where many early Chinese immigrants to the U.S. are from. Add stir-fried noodles and it becomes the Chinese-American chow mein—literally, “fried noodles.”

How old is THIS clock?

We had the pork chop suey plate that came with old-school egg foo yung (a dish that,  as early as the 1930s, was created by Chinese chefs in the U.S., and consists of a pancake filled with eggs, vegetables, and meat or seafood, covered with brown gravy), and fried rice; followed by the House chow mein: bean sprouts, celery, napa cabbage, onions, peapods, water chestnuts, and mushrooms; and chicken, bbq pork, beef, and shrimp. These dishes would go on to become a stereotypical staple of Chinese-American meals.

The food here was so good, so fresh, we actually visited twice, and both times were served by one of the friendly descendents of the original owner.

Seriously, who in San Diego hasn’t heard of the Chicken Pie Shop (1938)? Though it’s moved at least twice that I know of, it still serves up delicious chicken pot pies with sides of mashed potatoes, cole slaw, fresh-baked yeasty rolls, and “vegetable of the day.” And each dinner comes complete with a slice of pie for dessert as well. While there are other dishes on the menu (the grilled half chicken is worth a special trip), really, just get the Pie Dinner.

Pecan waffle

One morning’s breakfast time found us at The Original Pancake House, a chain founded in Oregon in 1953. Okay, so it’s not San Diegan, and it’s a chain. Whatever. Anyway, very generous (and delicious) breakfasts, served with friendly efficiency. A bonus for us was that our table was next to the open doorway to the kitchen, where we could watch this finely tuned machine churn out breakfast after breakfast, like clockwork.

Red Fox Room (1959). As a child, I remember seeing the neon sign for this place every time we drove into Hillcrest on El Cajon Blvd.

Marion Davies

It looked so sophisticated, so grown up, so, well, Rat Pack (remember, this started when I was about five) that its mystery has stayed with me all these years. So when we pulled open the heavy door and entered its dimly lit interior, I couldn’t wait to see what was inside. To be honest, it was part letdown, part super-cool.

The super-cool part is that some of the décor in the Red Fox Room dates from around 1560—apparently it was part of an inn in Surrey, England, and brought to California in 1926 by Marion Davies, actress and long-time mistress of William Randolph Hearst. The Tudor-era building was dismantled, shipped to Los Angeles, and completely rebuilt to form her beach house, which she called her “Ocean House.” During the 1950s, the house was sold and the pieces—consisting of Tudor paneling and an intricately carved mantelpiece—were put into storage until they were bought by and moved to the Red Fox Room. We dined on perfectly cooked steaks in the shadow of that mantelpiece, which bears the date of 1642.

Gimlet: the perfect pairing with burger & fries

The Waterfront Bar & Grill has been a fishermen’s hangout since 1933, and boasts the longest continually held liquor license in town. We had some expertly made cocktails and a couple of burgers, just right for this slightly down-at-heel pub. The recent renaissance of San Diego’s Little Italy has improved the prospects of this bar, and it’s packed on weekends, though it’s a little cleaner, a little less seedy than I remember it when I used to hang out here in the 80s.

A hidden gem of a location, Tobey’s 19th Hole Café (1934) is set in the grounds of San Diego’s municipal golf course just outside Balboa Park. This café boasts the best view in town; the food is just okay, but the mimosas are generous, the service fast and very friendly (this is San Diego, after all), and it’s now on my list for a must-visit whenever we’re in town.

JFK passes by Rudford’s; he didn’t know what he was missing.

Rudford’s (1949) was the quintessential San Diego 24-hour diner on Old Highway 80, called by locals “The Boulevard,” and now a popular LGBTQ hangout. Go there for breakfast, grab a seat at the counter, and order a cup o’ joe.Then step outside and around the corner to pay your respects to President Kennedy (remember when we had real presidents?), whose motorcade passed by here. A life-size mural of the event now decorates the west wall.

Come early on a Friday night to the kitschy Turf Supper Club (1950) in Golden Hill, to guarantee a table and enough space on the grill for your meal. Yes, here you cook your own steak (or chicken, burger, or kebab) on the big grill set in the middle of the dining room. Steaks are great—at least ours were, expertly cooked by Ben—and cocktails are generous, served up by friendly (again, San Diego) staff. The baked potatoes were a little underdone, and the grill can’t really fix that. But there’s a piano bar on Sundays, and if you’re under 30, this is a happening place—we were the oldest people in the room by at least 20 years. Bonus: The whole place is 21+ only.

Sunday’s High Tide Breakfast at La Jolla’s Marine Room (1941) offers French-inspired dining with the surf crashing against the windows right next to your table. As a kid, I remember hearing that “the Marine Room is closed because of flooding,” but it looks like they figured out how to prevent that AND make an attraction out of it.

The Sunday breakfast, timed to coincide with high tide, was generous and delicious (chocolate-stuffed French toast, anyone?) and we enjoyed it in excellent company: our friends Kira & Todd, who flew down from the Bay Area, and Nancy & Brian, local pals.

We did note, however, that the amount of botox in the room made a curiously contrasting counterpoint to the young surfers and swimmers just outside the windows.

 

One evening, we decided to see a movie all the way out in El Cajon, and Wong’s Golden Palace

(1966—sorry, a bit out of the timeline, but close) was on the way. I looked forward to the Island of Flowers signature dish, and tiki drinks and the Signature Wong Cup from the Dragon Room bar. Alas, alas, they’d had a fire just a few weeks before, and only the bar was open (luckily the koi pond survived). One uninspired cocktail later, we were on our way to the movies.

The Bali Hai (1954) is San Diego’s favorite chic Polynesian paradise.

50s beauty greeted by the Tiki god.

If you want spectacular views of San Diego Harbor and the downtown skyline, this is the place to come. Signature cocktails include The Zombie—guaranteed to make you move like one—and the Mai Tai, a pure alcohol concoction that a running-total neon sign informs us over

two million have been served just in 2017. Warm open-air breezes make this a great location for just sitting and staring out at the view; time absolutely zooms by. Oh, and don’t miss the kinda creepy, giant tikis featured throughout.

 

 

On our penultimate morning in San Diego, I wanted to celebrate by visiting an old edge-of-downtown haunt, Hob Nob Hill (1944), originally called Dorothy’s Oven. 

So, up at the crack of dawn, I left Ben sleeping while my parents and I went out to seek some history for breakfast. While the Hob Nob specializes in American comfort food, I ordered the slightly exotic quiche of the day and a mimosa, and fondly fancied myself genteel. Great coffee, too.

Honorable mention

While these two places haven’t been around for anything like 50 years, they deserve mention here as being just, well, fabulous.

Snappy Dog. “Give me a hot dog—and make it Snappy!” Windy City native Ben discovered that this famous Chicago eatery has recently opened a location here in San Diego, and we trekked out to the San Diego State University area to find it. Here you can get authentic Italian beef (wet, dry, or “semi-dry”), mozzarella sticks (aka Snappy Stix), and, of course, the signature Snappy Dog—the Chicago-style, original Vienna hot dog with mustard, relish, chopped onions, pickle spear, tomatoes, sport peppers, and celery salt. Why Snappy Dog? Because it snaps when you bite it.

La Lucha Libre. Love Mexican wrestling? Addicted to Mexican wrestling-themed B movies (that rival Bollywood for exciting—and confusing—drama)? Never even heard of it? Well, the folks at La Lucha Libre not only have, they celebrate it at this mind-bending taqueria on Washington Street. While it’s just your typical taqueria for the most part—except for the Mexican wrestling paraphernalia and continuous-loop movies—if you plan ahead you can reserve “the Champion’s Booth,” and be treated like the champion you are. The booth is all about bling, and operates under the premise that “too much is never enough.”

Once seated, you are served a variety of 10 different salsas and (my favorite) a ringside-type bell to announce your every gastronomical desire: the moment you ring, a server rushes out attend to The Champions’ current whim. It’s the only table in the place that provides waitstaff. And, of course, a choice of masks. Let the Taco Smackdown begin!

Todd, Kira, Ruth, & Ben act like Champions!

 

Two for 2; and Exploring 1.61803

Two months have now passed since the passing of Gyp, and we are crossing into the outfield of two years’ exploring a life of enchantment on the roads less traveled, hence the blog post title. There was, though, a pit stop at our nonagenarian parents’ house in San Diego to perform some Bodhisattva carpet installation and minor repairs throughout. Ruth set a tantalizing goal of researching the restaurants in town that held the historical provenance of “oldest in continual operation.” It would be our challenge to sample and explore, eat and drink in as many as possible during our temporary residency. Look for her fascinating blog post to come.

Music, magic, and mathmagic

All business completed, we pushed east into Alpine, California, to the cozy home of Brian and Nancy in time to participate in a house music concert, which was sublime indeed. The Eve Selis Band, comprising a posse of incredibly talented master musicians, arrived with an approximate combined devotion to the muse of music of nearly 200 years. An intimate venue embracing approximately 50 people, in the presence of a band that can play pretty much anything in your imagination, who had shared the stage with some of the world’s best musicians, cradled in the living room of a welcoming desert home, is mystically transformative.

There is something unique in live music where musicians and participants share a synergy of energy not unlike a musical Fibonacci series—or Golden Mean—where one plus one morphs into three, growing and spiraling exponentially into mystical transformative change. If you take a series of numbers, start with 0, 1… and calculate each successive number from the sum of the previous two (e.g., 0+1=2, 1+2=3, 2+3=5, 3+5=8, etc.), you are now exploring the Golden Mean.

Let’s take a moment to examine our musical scale in relationship to Fibonacci: There are 13 notes in the span of any note through to its octave. For example, the octave of C on the piano has 13 notes in total: 8 white keys and 5 black keys. However, to play the scale of C, we only play the 8 white keys.

  • A scale is comprised of 8 notes, of which the 5th and 3rd notes create the basic foundation of all chords.
  • We also have harmonizing intervals of 3rds and 5ths.
  • To produce a 3rd, we play the first note and a note 2 tones higher than this note.
  • To play an octave, we play the first note, and then another note 8 tones higher.

Note in all the above, (which is the basis of all music), all of the notes and intervals only use Fibonacci numbers 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, and 13. The series can also be used when composing music to make patterns of notes that are pleasing to the ear. Experts claim that classical composers like Mozart and Bartok used the Fibonacci Series in some of their pieces. More contemporarily, rock & roll music leans heavily on power chords, which are 5ths intervals.

 

 

The above diagram represents the Golden Ratio. It can be represented simply, without performing a quadratic formula as 1.61803…or mathematically notated as “Phi.” If you draw a line 1.61803 times larger, or 61.8% larger, than the one before it, you are traveling along the Golden Mean.

We need fingers to play our musical notation as described above, and just looking at our fingers to perform this act we see the distance between each joint in each finger matches quite closely the Golden Ratio, as does the ratio of forearm to hand. Leonardo Da Vinci recognized this series in facial patterns, and applied it to one of his most famous portraits, the Mona Lisa.

Nature is chockablock with examples of this nature, seen in the spiral growth of plants, flowers, and shells; and it is found in art and architecture that “for some reason” pleases us. The great masters knew of this synergy and played it. Live music taps into the heart stream of this magic, and the people who entered into this musical cradle were rocked and rolled, leaving with their atoms excitingly rearranged and reassembled in a new place.

For those inquisitive folks that would like to deeply explore the magic of the Fibonacci Series, here is a link to a 45-minute podcast from BBC Radio 4, titled “The Fibonacci Sequence.”

Warning! Opening this door could cause you to enter an awakening of mind, similar to that enjoyed by Donald Duck in the 1959 Walt Disney short film, Donald Duck in Mathmagic Land.

Anza Borrego

Mid-November finds us in sunny and warm Anza Borrego State Park to reprise a memorable visit a year ago. We begin training hikes to ramp up to our next year’s Pilgrims Way walk from London to Canterbury, England, and several months’ worth of deep in-country exploration. Thanks to Ruth’s research, we will boldly go where few tourists travel, snooping below cathedral carpets for hidden crypts, stalking narrow corridors along dark twisted back streets, embracing in fire-warmed corners of local neighborhood pubs, blowing dust off antiquarian books stacked in dimly lighted museum libraries, deciphering hidden messages on hand-stitched tapestries, and much more….

Monetization

Some people have asked us why we don’t monetize our blog site, that is, apply links to products that we have found useful along our journey as full-timers (and get kickbacks from Amazon). This works successfully for many as a supplementary “on the road” income, but our intent is to keep this body of work fully in the realm as described in Latin in the old opening movie credits for MGM: Ars Gratia Artis (art for art’s sake). This is not to say that at some point we won’t invite you to purchase an eBook of this rapidly expanding treasure trove of travel trekking. Stay tuned.

A life of enchantment, to cast a magic spell, to sing…we hear the ever-present call of the muse of the road…anon, Muse, anon…

Cycling full circle, life and death in the eternal NOW

 

We arrived back to home base, one cycle completed, and you will not be bored with numerical mileage and travel details. Doctor visits, and “home base” business, most complicated from the road, would fall into place. We crossed the last mountain range, the Vacas (“cows” in Spanish) to immediate change in weather from Sacramento heat, to cool Mediterranean ocean and Bay breezes. I opened our truck windows for a moment to reawaken my senses to the familiar smells of local flora: sticky monkey flower, oat grass, madrone, golden yarrow, live oaks, eucalyptus, bay laurel, musk sage, bricklebush, yerba buena, and much more, welcoming us to our former rooted abode.

Dropping the Airstream for yearly routine maintenance for a couple of weeks, we returned to our friend Jesus’s house where, nearly one year earlier, we launched, wings unfurled, into the unknown of travel adventure. One year is a tiny snippet in time, but before the familiar home patterns could reestablish themselves, we looked and saw with beginner’s mind. This was a special moment to observe change that frequently escapes those who live through familiarity, and we grasped each new observation like hands attempting to hold water. Fresh awareness transforms into familiarity, passes into the background, and enters the roar and cascade of the moment into deep memory and unconsciousness. Perhaps this is our brain’s prescription for sanity as awareness of the consistent process of change would overload our circuits.

Compiled lists of “to do” items fully saturated our three-week hiatus, but there existed one item that could not be subverted and tucked into the ignore list: our dog Gyp’s life and health was slipping away quickly. Gyp and I had conversations during the past several months, mostly me talking, her ears perked up looking for a stick for me to throw, was our lifetime routine. Looking into eyes that would lock unblinkingly at you, to win any staring contest, pulled you back in time to the inception of border collie herding genetics. Ours was a driven and stoic working dog from puppy fumbling to now old age arthritic stumbling. Her love was expressed by the incessant desire to serve us, and as sheep and cattle were not readily available, balls and sticks of every variety and size would suffice.

It is no easy decision to relieve permanently your dog/child, companion and faithful friend of many years of her pain and loss of dignity. We spent long hours weighing the pros and cons to arrive at the decision that this was to be the day. I walked out on the front deck facing the main thoroughfare, tears streaming down my face in unbridled grief, awakening to the ebb and flow of life around me. Cars streamed in cycles through the periodicy of rush hour morning commutes. Traffic lights controlled corpuscles of flowing vehicles, emulating life’s ebbs and flows through organic arteries imprinted through countless evolutionary cycles. Young and fit members of the nearby cross-fit cult trotted out of their dark den to run street loops and perform weight stretches and lunges, as an old woman, stabilized by cane, doddered past. I became keenly aware of the dark green of Mt. Tam and foreground vista that just one short year earlier was banded in multi-colored fall leaf shades, now displaying hues of mature rich forest green.

Mt. Tam in Fall 2016

 

Mt. Tamalpais-deep summer 2017

The noise of deconstruction and construction emanated from across the street, renewing my awareness of the tide and breath of life. A subtle lingering scent in the air of fall’s return shifted my spirit and thoughts to the one sense remaining with Gyp, all her herding focus narrowed into the careful awareness of air’s life-instilling treasures through her nose. This was the Now moment. All that came before and would come to be, nestled closely and silently in the din of this pulse of life. It just didn’t seem fair, though I knew deep down it was, that one so dear should pass away from this moment to enter into endearing memory. Life is not fair. Joyfully and painfully real, but not fair.

We perceive life in the now, celebrate its arrival in birth and mourn its passing. These thoughts crossed my mind many times as I observed our “puppy” slide slowly toward the eternal sheep fields. I struggled to stay in the now of thankfulness. We gathered together, the vet, her assistant, and Jesus (aka Erik), our steadfast friend, and brought Gyp into our group center to enjoy our love and gratitude for her abiding, single-minded devotion to our pack. We stroked her soft thick fur and muzzle as relaxing anesthetic was administered and her faithful heart slowly passed into silent peace. Her memory will live with us as a constant reminder and thankfulness of the preciousness of life in the mysterious now.

Gyp’s ashes

 

Meeting with some of the oldest living things on earth

August 10, 1952: Patricia Huber was feeling very uncomfortable. She was a few days, or perhaps hours, from giving birth, and her baby’s kicking and rolling about was tempering her tolerance for the event soon to come. She shuffled over to the Philco black and white TV, clicked it on, and waited the obligatory minute for the tube to excite into a grainy image. It, too, expressed its displeasure by providing little response to her shuttling of the rabbit-eared antenna on top. Clicking the antenna switch and turning the antenna in 360-degree arcs brought little satisfaction, though holding it in the air two feet above the set sharpened the picture non-acceptably. Several weeks before, she had removed a number of tubes from the back of the set and brought them to the Rexall Drug Store down the street for testing, replacing one. This was not the time for the set to go on the fritz. Clicking through channels she settled on Kukla, Fran, and Ollie,

and thought to herself that it wouldn’t be long before her soon-to-arrive child might be entertained by this show. Two days later, unassisted by early network TV, a baby boy—me—was born.

August 10, 2017, 65 years later: Ruth and I drive slowly and deliberately up an eight-mile winding switchback road, arriving at Wheeler Peak in Great Basin National Park, to begin a pilgrimage to one of the oldest living things on earth: bristlecone pines. There are other lofty contenders: cloning oak (Jurupa Oak),

Jurupa Oak, Riverside, California

which is thought to have reproduced itself for over 13,000 years, lives in Riverside, California, in a thicket of 70 stem clusters that all share the same genetics. If that 13K age pushes your alertness button, there is another tree grouping called Pando in Utah, which is not a single tree but a grove of 47,000 quaking aspens that share the same root system. This massive underground organism shares a similarity to huge subterrestrial fungal/mushroom mats, and it is a matter of interpretation whether they are a single living thing or a multiplicity of identical trees spread out over 107 acres of land. Here is the most stunning fact in regard to this ancient living, cloning, entity: it is estimated to have lived for over one million years! Yes! You read that right. Trees that may have predated humanity.

Pando- Quaking Aspens in Fishlake, Utah

I don’t want to steal the thunder from these massive methuselahs, as they have the uniqueness and advantage of communal support. There is much to be said about the power and strength of this lifestyle. We, however, set out on a trek into our particular portal of the past, in Great Basin, one of a few spread-out bristlecone enclaves throughout the western United States.

Bristelecone pine grove at the base of Wheeler Peak. Great Basin National Park, Nevada, USA.

These uniquely individual trees stand stalwart in all weather and conditions, growing infinitesimally over time and adversity. They have a provenance handed down by previous generations through fossil records dating back more than 40 million years, to the Eocene Epoch, when modern mammals first emerged.

Our destination grove contains bristlecones averaging around three to four thousand years of age, but some of the oldest dated by dendrochronology (the study of tree growth ring patterns) still stand at around 4,800 years. These precious Ancient Ones are guarded from the curious and often destructive masses by secreting their locations. Studies of long dead, yet still undecayed bristlecone trunks, have revealed their ages to be around 8,000 years or more. We observed the grounded corpses of trees that died over one thousand years ago, looking much like their vertical living family.

Many pilgrimages demand sacrifice from seekers, and our shibboleth was a hike over steep rocks and roots beginning at 9,800 feet, plodding up, step by careful step, sucking precious elusive air, to arrive at the time capsule island of Ancient Ones at 10,400 feet. To instill clarity to this journey, I’ve broken down our pilgrimage of 1.4 miles one way, into a timeline of a typical bristlecone lifespan. A few facts before I begin:

  • An average person walks approximately 2,000 steps per mile, with a single stride of about 2.5 feet
  • Some of the oldest bristlecones at our destination have lived 4,000 years
  • 4 trail distance miles, one way = 7,392 feet, with an average stride of 2.5 feet = 2,957 steps
  • Assigning the number of steps taken to years of bristlecone life, on our journey, from the start of the trail to the grove: 2,957 steps; divided by 4,000 years gives us: 1 year of life = ¾ of a stride or about .74 steps per year. Whew!
    No. of steps Year What was happening in history
    118 1849 California Gold Rush
    168 1776 Signing of the Declaration of Independence
    291 1601 Shakespeare writes Hamlet
    360 1503 Leonardo Da Vinci paints the Mona Lisa
    405 1438 The Incas rule Peru
    454 1368 The Ming Dynasty begins in China
    529 1260 Chartres Cathedral in France is consecrated
    607 1150 Angkor Wat in Cambodia, one of the wonders of the world, is completed
    712 1000 Classic Pueblo Anasazi culture thrives in North America
    977 622 Mohammed flees from Mecca to Medina; 1st year of the Muslim calendar
    1,093 455 Rome falls to the Vandals
    1,482 100 BCE The Chinese develop paper
    1,562 215 BCE Great Wall of China is built
    1,725 447 BCE The Parthenon in Athens is built to honor Athena, goddess of wisdom
    1,779 525 BCE Cyrus the Great of Persia conquers Babylon and frees the Jews
    1,835 604 BCE Lao Tse, founder of Taoism, is born
    2,077 8-900 BCE The Iliad and The Odyssey are composed, possibly by Greek poet Homer
    2,112 1000 BCE Hebrew elders write the Old Testament books of the Bible
    2,461 1500 BCE The Olmec civilization thrives in Mexico
    2,671 1800 BCE Hammurabi, king of Babylon, develops the oldest known code of laws
    2,800+ 1500-2000 BCE Stonehenge is constructed, the Pharaohs rule Egypt, the Great Pyramid of Giza is completed in approximately 2,680 BCE.
    Our bristlecone pine is now a sapling, 3 feet high and already 40 years old.

    Bristlecone sapling in foreground, well into 100+ years old.

Having attained our destination, I felt impelled to reach out and wrap my arms around the steel-hard and environmentally twisted wood trunk, and imagine my miniscule 65-year life span as if it could be comprehended by my ancient tree, or even I by it? I have lived one one-hundredth the lifetime of this embraced master of elements. How much life force, a wisdom of sorts, was absorbed into this tree’s moment-to-moment existence? The elements that gave it life, temperature, nutrients, air quality, environmental forces to resist growth, drought, imperfect seasons, insect pests, wood rotting fungi, attempts by man to cut down, trim and remove limbs for fire, lightning strikes, avalanches, rain, flooding and wind storms, shifting terrain, climate change, earthquakes, old age, emanated in its magnificence.

In the world of man, our cares appear to revolve around us. We exist at the peak of life’s pyramid, or so we perceive it, yet the bristlecone pine stands silently living—gnarled, limbs broken, bark stripped, trunk twisted, yet thriving in adversity through the millennia. Reaching out again, I feel the ancient trunk with respectful hands, nearly three-quarters of my life past, but at the moment very honored to be in the presence of One who continues to silently impart life lessons reflectively.

The Ancient Ones: Mesa Verde, Hovenweep, Slick Rock Country, and Living on the Edge

Many of us have what we call our “home base,” and for us it is the Southwest. Moving west through Colorado, we watched the terrain shape shift from peaks and rolling plains to rocky red cliffs and haunting hoodoos beckoning to us in anthropomorphic, deceptive shadows. Over the years, we have shied away from the tourist-impacted regional ruins of the Ancient Ones, as the required ranger-led walks tended toward the lowest common denominator; but this time, we dug deeper to discover educational enlightenment further afield.

From our camp near the entrance to Mesa Verde National Park, we drove a circuitous, steep, and breathtaking road, past numerous sharp turn pullouts a quarter of a mile above the distant landscape, through the clouds with views of terrain flattened by elevation into the horizon. It is no wonder the Ancestral Puebloan people chose this place of stunning contrasts and connection to nature, sharp as their carved stone arrowheads, as their home. Our park map informed us that our destination, Long House, on Weatherill Mesa, was 27 miles away, with a maximum vehicle length of 25 feet—we squeaked by at 24 feet, 11 and 15/16 inches. The evidence of civilization’s intrusion was omnipresent despite our limited speed limit of 30 mph amidst the demands of geographic and floral captivations. Vehicles came rushing up in the rearview mirror to near bumper impatience in a hurry to go…where? Perhaps to take a picture of themselves in front of their destination signage and the claim, “We were there!” There were a couple of moments on tight corners when I visualized them standing in for Thelma and Louise as in the movie (which incidentally was shot in nearby Moab, but that’s another story), their ’66 Thunderbird convertible careening off the canyon’s lip into space. 27 miles, and a one-hour estimated drive time, does open space to the imagination.

To avoid speeding on dangerous driving roads, we allowed ourselves plenty of time to arrive, taking the opportunity to make a side trip to another neighboring cliff dwelling, known as Step House. A 100-foot descent along a one-mile trail into a cool shaded dwelling with outstanding petroglyphs was the perfect prelude to the premier hike of our Mesa Verde excursion, Long House, a two-and-a-quarter-mile, two-and-a-half-hour-plus hike into a gem of the Ancestral Puebloan Peoples’ meeting and ritual center.

There are some men and women whose candle burns brightly among the masses. Such a person now moved around our gathering tour group like a desert coyote, gathering information, querying place of origin, reasons for arriving, engaging in conversation, and testing and expanding the receptivity, friendliness, and malleability to fresh learning within our newly formed tour clan. I recognized these group analysis techniques from my teaching years, where on the first day, I gathered vital clues like a fortune teller reads a client, preparing teaching strategies to shock and awe learners. This grey ghost disappeared behind a concession stand to light up a cigarette and I began my own sniff circle of it to discern its sincerity, believability, and integrity to the theme and place, like a good student should test a teacher. I threw out questions testing knowledge of Ed Abbey (who frequented and wrote about this area), which were received in promising recognition but unrevealing of this Coyote’s background and knowledge. Our long afternoon hike would reveal all in mesa and canyon time.

Our Coyote took the form of a 70-plus-year-old Native American man, David Nighteagle (Lakota for owl): gaunt, thin-faced, with prominent hook nose, and long grey hair in two tight braids wrapped in fine leather framing his face and neatly falling below his breast to become handles for his expressive hands.

He stood slightly stooped, was blind in one eye, and explicitly informed everyone that he expected them to stand on his good side so as not to be missed by his doubly watchful good eye. Nighteagle was impeccably dressed in regulation National Park Service uniform and hat, smartly pressed and prepped to display an image of professional currency with the visage of a man stepping out of antiquity. He quickly—with storytelling, questions, and answers—captured us with assertive leadership, warmth, and wicked, testing, Coyote humor. Many of you will understand this statement, if you are familiar with the Native American legends of Coyote, the trickster.

Our journey down canyon began in intense mid-day heat, and all around us storm clouds darkened the red canyon rocks, threatening deluge and storm. We were informed that this high Mesa Verde region suffers more lightning strikes annually than any other place in America, and the surrounding terrain revealed this truth in the skeletons of burned out juniper and pinyon pine trees that didn’t survive firefighting attempts to save critical areas of the park over the years.

A mile down trail soon brought our quickly spread out group to the edge of a steep canyon.

The narrow pathway along rocks and stubborn ancient trees, found cleavage in the stone, to share growth with the cacti, sage, bunch grass, amaranth, and pinyon pines. The versatile yucca plant shared proximal real estate, providing fibers for weaving clothing, making sandals, baskets, amazingly strong rope, and needle-like tips that could be used for sewing and weapons.

As is often the case, the Ancient Ones located their homes and meeting places in the crook of canyons with water seeps deep in the neck of vast semi-circular sandstone overhangs. Malleable sandstone could be worked into shape, and ground up and mixed with proper ingredients to form a strong cement to bind stones into walls, kivas (circular underground rooms), and partitions for living spaces, as well as storage for food and animals. This was our prospect as we turned a corner to stand before an awe-inspiring, massive edifice of nature and man.

Nighteagle called forward a young girl from our group to shout a traditional welcoming greeting to the ancestral spirits in the maw of our massive cliff dwelling. Her “Hello!” echoed away in eerie silence and we all found ourselves anticipating a return call to ensure our safety from the dwellers of the ancient past.

We climbed ladders and meandered among the ruins listening to stories of the Ancient Ones. Soon, though, the sky darkened, taking on a deep and foreboding purple hue; lightning and thunder became prominent. Cool wind chased the heat of the mesa from our refuge and brought with it the sweet scent exclamation of vegetation embracing revitalizing water. The cracks of thunder echoed up the canyon like tidal waves to crash into our enclosure, curl back onto itself, intensifying and focusing the vibration into the bowels of our solar plexuses. Our brother guide, Nighteagle, called for a time of silence to contemplate the voice of nature resounding and magnifying in this womb of sandstone. Large globules of raindrops slowly began exploding upon the super-dried desert sand outside the cliff dwelling overhang, quickly increasing into the insistent roar of a thousand cymbals. One hundred feet overhead, rain water seeking release from saturated soil above found a natural spout in the rock and began pouring in dribbles, buckets, and hundreds of gallons down across us, as we stood assimilating this symphony of sound.

Beginning of waterfall at Longhouse

Nighteagle silently reached for a tubular pouch strung across his back, pulled out a hand carved cedar flute, and began playing a haunting tune to accompany the weakening reverberation of rain, thunder, and lightning.

 

I thought I saw, for a moment, out of the corner of my eyes, people run laughing to stand under the newly created waterfall and collect this precious resource. The illusion passed when the sound of Nighteagle’s long-range radio crackled with the news that the storm was passing into the south, opening up a window of opportunity to sadly leave this mirage in the mesa. The return to our point of origin became a walking meditation and benediction to these magical moments.

Warning from the Collared Lizard of Hovenweep

I can remember it like yesterday, though it was nearly 20 years ago. We set off seeking adventure into the wilds of the Southwest, traveling in serendipity to discover, far off the beaten path, miles from civilization and supply, a National Monument: Hovenweep. You don’t have to scratch below the surface to discover the depth of human history in this region. Nomadic Paleoindians hunted and gathered food with the seasons in this region for 10,000 years. Around A.D. 800 they began to settle and cross pollinate culture and technology to reach their nadir around the 1200s and a population of around 2,500 spread among six villages. Much remains of their elaborate buildings using similar construction techniques to those found at Chaco Canyon and Mesa Verde. Square and round towers can be found perched on the edge of canyons: these might have been celestial observatories, granaries, defensive structures, storage facilities, residences, or combinations thereof. Below these impressive structures, the inhabitants terraced the hillsides, built catch dams for water storage, and harvested vegetables.

We pulled into a campsite with minimal amenities, only one water source for the campground, one simple toilet structure, and no electricity at the time, and cell service was a vision to become future reality. After waiting for the intense heat of the day to diminish, we loaded our camera gear and water supply and set off across the slick rock following the traditional rock cairns to stay on trail. We stood in awe of the building styles of the Ancient Ones, with tiny chinks of rock nestled carefully within mortar courses holding the hand hewn, ground and fitted sandstone and local rock. Crossing a relatively flat slick rock section we noticed a colorful shape bobbing up and down in the shade of a stunted bonsai-like juniper tree.

Our guidebook identified it as a Collared Lizard, beautifully clad in a brilliant blue/green body adorned with yellow mottling and a yellow-and-black collar circling his neck. A bright yellow face set its dark eyes in deep relief. We stood stock still so as not to chase it away. Surprisingly, it trotted out to meet us halfway. We barely had time to glance at each other in surprise when the lizard crossed the remaining distance to arrive at our feet, staring up at us in challenge. Its mouth opened and closed as it bobbed up and down as if it was trying to speak to us. What was it saying?

I got down on all fours to face our fearless interloper and it crept closer to approach my face, its mouth still shaping soundless words. I backed away for fear the little tyrant would attack. But really?! Not it, but we, backed away to return to our campsite and discuss the turn of events.

Several days later we left the Monument and saw along our road an unmarked dirt trail heading off in the general direction of our travel, and the day was young. We bounced along on the mesa top to reach its rim and the road dropped precipitously, into sharp corners with deep enough drop offs to launch us into turkey buzzard heaven. The weather changed suddenly, as it often does in this region, turning dark, and the wind began to howl. We reached the bottom of our rock-strewn, downhill road, and comfort set in to take the fine rock road ahead with increasing speed. Turning a corner to the right the road cambered a bit down to the left and I accelerated into it—with no recovery in traction. The truck slid sideways in the direction of the camber, which allowed less than one second to steer away from a five-foot-high embankment. The steering wheel was as unresponsive as wheels on oil. We launched sideways into space…how time changes when you are flipping sideways, rotating upside down in a split second and the crushing metal, broken glass, screaming partner next to me…and stunned silence. The truck came to rest right-side-up, gently and silently rocking from the inertia.

Luckily, Ruth always moves her seat back when traveling, and this helped her avoid being smashed by the caved-in windshield on her side. Broken glass covered the front cab and us. We jumped out of the truck to find comfort and safety in unmoving ground and surveyed our situation. Ruth needed a quick wrap to staunch a bleeding elbow, and we were in the middle of nowhere, with no cell reception—we had to fend for ourselves. I turned the key in the ignition, and it fired up immediately…thank you, Toyota! We picked up some of our belongings that had flipped out of the back of the truck, including the unbroken champagne bottles that would be chilled in celebration later, and I managed to find a moderately shallow spot to drive back up on the road in four-wheel-drive. We continued along our previous route very slowly, both in severe shock, until we reached a tiny hole-in-the-wall adobe building nestled in trees and large rocks: Hatch Trading Post.

The proprietress, Laura Hatch, told us her radio didn’t work in this weather, and proceeded to put us in her broken-down Buick and drive (at breakneck speed, on deep potholed roads, with ruined shock absorbers) 45 miles into the town of Blanding for medical care and x-rays for Ruth. The drive to town was slightly more stressful than our multi-second accident, as we thought, for sure, we wouldn’t survive the bouncing journey.

Later we reprised what had happened. Weather was an issue, yes. The road condition was a big contributor, yes. Driver error, most definitely, yes. But the LIZARD?! What was it trying to say to us…?

19th Anniversary Celebration at the crash site cairn.

Traveling through bendable time on steel rails

As one who has always encouraged his students to build upon the knowledge previously imparted, these numbers should look familiar―37.2691273,-107.8825162―but if clarification is necessary, refer to our last post, Boondockin’ the Old Spanish Trail.

Trains for us have always been the confectionary opiate of travel, and we’ve satiated ourselves to the edge of tomorrow. However, the rarity of steam conveyance intrigued us, and we would shortly climb aboard the Durango-Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad. On the train, visual senses take a hind seat to the scent bouquet of mechanically mixed grease, lubrication oil, century-old expanded and contracted metals, oxidized brass, and bursting superheated steam, carrying in it the tens of thousands of cycles of compressed water and scale collected from mountain cascading streams: a 100-year-old scent timeline of machine.

The original rail cars themselves smell of wood, lacquer, leather, lubricating oil, and an ever-present essence of coal fire accumulation―slightly sickly sweet―and creosote, a smell long gone from modern noses.

It is said that scent and memory neurons share proximity in the brain, and memories long past spring to my mind of inhaling chimney smoke from coal-heated buildings during Chicago winters; a memory of watching an old stooped-back black man, shoveling coal from a monumental street pile into a wheelbarrow and from that into basement windows from 8:00am to 3:00pm, every day.

Our belching and rhythmic steam train now awakens ruminations of countless mountain miles, its living, young, sinuous, coal tender pitching shovel after shovel into the firebox maw, kept the beast chugging for a round trip of 90 miles and seven hours’ travel time.

These hungry beasts consume five to six tons of coal per trip. Later steam technology introduced the stoker, which automatically dumped in coal faster than the tender could shovel, but not on this train. For you more technically minded folks, six tons of coal produces about 48,846 KWhrs, equivalent to 28 barrels of oil, and just a smidgen under seven megawatts of power. This is a heck of lot of energy, enough to power between 2,800 and 6,300 homes a year, depending on how much they are energy hogs. Locomotives are powerful beasts, ranging from 1,000 hp small switching yard “mules” to monster 7,000 hp diesel mountain pullers.

I’ll say just one more thing on the technical side here before moving on to the ride of a lifetime. Very simply, engines are rated by “tractive effort,” which is how much the train can pull up the track, and this is variable depending on the weight of the engine, weight over the driving wheels, its capability of producing power through heat expansion, and the peak track uphill grade to overcome. This is the extremely simple version. If we travel any further up this rail line we’ll have to begin using our calculators.

When folks bring up the topic of trainspotters, there is often an exchange of “that look,” and perhaps a snarky comment, but this subject commands serious attention. The steam power years on the railroad were a wonder of emergent technology and exponential growth. Libraries have been written on the subject and no matter where you go on a train, it doesn’t matter what type, people are compelled to stop and wave. And then there are the binocular and note-taking breed that can tell you everything you would ever want to know about the engine, motive power, range, application, and wheel arrangement, of which there have been 32 varieties, and much more, ad nauseam. Am I starting to sound like a spotter?

There are a number of railroad museums across America, and we’re at a wonderful national treasure, here in Durango, Colorado, housing all things railroad, including two to three retired steam engines. We are about to embark on a magnificent journey….

We arrived at the train depot trembling with excitement at 7:30am, for an 8:30 departure.

Ours was to be the second of three trains to leave that day, and we chose the Mama Bear (my terminology, not the train’s) ticket level. Papa Bear was the Presidential car, accepting about 15 passengers, and supposedly matching service level to the moniker. Ours, with just 30 intrepid souls, happened to be the last car on the train, making it―in our opinion―the best car of them all. Imagine stepping out the back door onto the rear platform, to watch canyon vistas slipping backwards into the distance, a metaphorical passage of life’s realized adventurous pursuits. Both Papa and Mama cars had the luxury of nicely appointed bar service and seasoned attendants. The Baby Bear coaches offered, besides standard seating, the option of a fully open roof rail car for stunning vistas, plus the rare opportunity to experience omnipresent coal dust and smoke belching from the locomotive―at no extra charge. Safety glasses were available to protect eyes from tiny coal dust sparks and a warning to NOT rub eyes if an errant smidgen should migrate in.

With a tiny lurch, we set off through downtown Durango and quickly picked up speed across flood plains below the mountainous horizon, created by long past retreating glaciers. Our car attendant informed us that shortly we would be pouring on power to hit the beginning of a long steep grade. Our engine, we learned, had a sweet spot of torque-to-power that maximizes mountain climbing. It seemed like minutes before the land fell away around each bend to reveal breathtaking beauty, yes, but if you suffer height issues, it will challenge you to keep breathing. Soon, 500 feet of air carried the distant sound of the raging Animas River rapids to our ears, the tracks a mountain goat’s body away from the precipice alongside us. Looking around me, I saw that others had my same reaction of pulling away from the open windows as if that would help keep the train from tumbling over the edge.

I took comfort, though, in knowing that this railroad had been in service since 1881, and had experienced only a few catastrophic wrecks…

As we climbed higher and higher, the river followed us in waves from deep chasms to roaring just beside our gently swaying cars, and back again, to switch sides like a slithering snake seeking safety, as we crossed trestles.

At one point, the train stopped with the engine directly over the center of a high trestle to discharge a blast of steam and accumulated scale that kept the boiler from clogging.

It is fascinating to learn that this old technology attempts to be energy savvy. They don’t pump water to the engine to maintain steam. Instead the train stops several times during each leg of the journey under over-track reservoirs, collecting cascading snow runoff and effortlessly delivering 10,000 gallons of water to engine holding tanks for each round trip. The water is free, and so is delivering it to the train. That pesky coal, however, has to mess up our efficiency equation.

We hopped off the train in Silverton, one of the highest towns in the United States, established in 1874, and trudged off toward the center of town feeling a bit woozily at an altitude of 9,318 feet. There should be no surprise as to how the town got its name. We were nestled in a sub-alpine valley and all around us towered neck-craning, snowcapped 13,000–14,000 feet peaks. The air was pleasantly cool in contrast to that of Durango almost 3,000 feet below us. It should be no surprise also to travelers that Silverton is primarily a tourist-centered town with only about 400–500 permanent residents.

As was often the case in towns like this, there existed the dark and light sides, and so it was in Silverton. The main street, Greene, which was paved, divided the “society,” west, light side of town from its notorious east, dark side, and the famous four-block, unpaved Blair Street section.  The “dark side” sported saloons, dance halls, and around 29 bordellos, housing up to 117 working girls (a very specific number?), about three-quarters of the town’s female population. Many stories abound of raucous events, gunfights, and drama that could be expected from an enterprise such as this. I find it interesting that as much as society abhors such degenerate activities, it continually patronizes their “depraved, libertine, and lewd eminence” today. Families troop down to locate themselves in these “disreputable” spots to eat ice cream, take pictures of themselves pretending to be these characters, holding replica guns in fudge-smudged hands.

It’s fascinating to observe men festooned as gunslingers and women dolled up like Miss Kitty in Gunsmoke, a whitewashed, good-natured bar prostitute. Sigh…all is theater and we are all paying to play.

Silverton is similar to many cruise ship ports of call in Alaska that depend on the massive influx of passengers for their survival. The town sits barren as a ghost town until transportation drops a teeming horde of tourists with cameras and whining kids in tow to scavenge, like vultures, tchotchkes for their home horizontal surfaces. We joined them, barely escaping the daily summer afternoon rain-and-hail storm by finding a fake saloon to quaff brews and munch on all-American buffalo burgers and fries. Ah, the Wild West!

Leaving Silverton was not as easy as we anticipated. One of the train locomotives jumped the tracks in town―thank goodness no one was hurt―and logjammed the return home by over an hour. Our return trip became an educational extravaganza thanks to our train car attendant, Ellie, who before her long stint on the Durango-Silverton line, worked as a geologist in Alaska. As we rolled carefully back down the track, she studiously explained much of the fascinating two billion years of geological formation that created the landscape we traveled. That is a long story but framed by a knowledgeable and entertaining teacher is fascinating. Again, we encountered the rise and fall of the earth over vast geologic time, which I find fascinating to imagine mountains forming, planning down to be covered by seas that then drained north instead of south today. These events occurred numerous times, recorded in the rock walls along our journey, a time machine that boggles and humbles the mind. Then humanity appeared in the relative blink of an eye, supremely faster than a hummingbird’s wing flap compared to the age of the earth itself. How seeming quickly our presence on this planet erupted, and how profoundly powerful are the changes we mandate by this existence. We purchased a geology map of the train line to study as we moved along, guided by Ellie, who discovered another geologist on board our car, and much good-natured argumentation and hand waving ensued.

Looking out the side of our car into the moving vista, we noticed burn marks on the ground beside our tracks and learned that in the dry summer high elevation heat, sparks from our locomotive can set the brush along the tracks on fire, which can be catastrophic. Behind every train, a “speeder,” a small one- or two-person rail car with a 30-gallon tank of water, checks for smoldering brush that can evolve into a conflagration in a heartbeat.

The railroad also has employed a helicopter to fly the entire route with a water bucket to check for emergent burns. As if this isn’t enough, a “gang car” equipped with 330 gallons of water, can assist the prop car to extinguish any hot spots, shoot water up to 400 feet, and pump water directly from the Animas River that flows alongside most of the route. We wondered if in the early days of train travel, such care was instilled into their systems.

The evening closed in on us standing on the back of our car as we dropped down into the lowlands, watching the light and track recede into the distance.

We were suffering from “museum fatigue” after packing in all of the sensory input from our day’s activities. This was a monumental, mountainous, awe-inspiring journey of a lifetime, and if you are planning to hang out for a while, catch the bicentennial (in 2081). It will be a notable event for you and the railroad.

Boxes

by Ruth

I hate boxes. No, not the cardboard kind that Kitty plays in. I mean those boxes people put you in (and you put them in) the minute you put a label on something.

The Box: “My husband, who is retired, and I travel in our RV” = an old, maybe bent, thinning-white-short-haired guy, wearing baggy cargo shorts and a Walmart Hawaiian shirt doddering around, flipping switches on a Class A RV the size of a building, with four slideouts and two yappy dogs who don’t listen to a word their owners bark at them.

The Reality: Ben’s bright red ponytail (we can’t use purple in the Airstream, it gets everywhere) sometimes gets caught in all the bracelets he wears. His Hawaiian shirts are custom made with that fabulous pinup girl fabric we’ve collected over the years. (Erm, by me, of course.) (Box: “My wife would never let me wear that!”) I won’t even talk about the Airstream other than to say it’s an Airstream. And the dog is, of course, our geriatric border collie, who would no more not listen to our commands than breathe. And hasn’t barked in years. The day she doesn’t obey will be because she’s already herding sheep in that big field in the sky.

The Box: “Husband” = hates shopping, would rather spend Friday night with his buddies; “wife” gets mad at him for drinking with his buddies, makes him cut his hair, rolls her eyes at his tattoos.

The Reality:  Yep, he’s drinking with his best buddies, which includes me, and I’m probably pouring as well. My tattoos rival his. His son was surprised to learn I have a motorcycle license. Why? And why was his CC instructor surprised when I handled Ben’s Glock competently? Sure, mine’s a Smith & Wesson, but c’mon. There’s nothing intrinsically contained in the X chromosome that makes one more or less competent.

Our guide on the train the other day was excellent and knowledgeable, but when she said, “Guys, I’m sorry, but I have to say this: ladies, the shopping is on XX Street, and especially jewelry,” she lost a few credibility points with me.  I couldn’t care less about jewelry (you can’t eat it, it doesn’t keep you warm), but you’ve all seen Ben and his collection. And I have to drag him out of stores. Then, she lost more points when she said, “And guys, the best beer is at…” Because I can’t appreciate good beer?

The sad thing is, people start believing the boxes, and then they start changing their life to suit the box, instead of the other way around: “My wife would never let me wear that!” People think the word that incenses me there is the verb (wear, drive, buy, think), but no, it’s let. I’m not his mother, it’s not up to me what Ben wears, or does, or thinks. Nor am I responsible for it. I spend enough time wrestling with what I am responsible for.

And on the subject of consanguinity, I’m not his mother or his sister so, no, we don’t have the same last name. That would be creepy. That is a holdover from an age when women were what our current president thinks they are (box), not what we actually are (reality).

Don’t get me wrong, many boxes are useful. When we ask to see a wine list, and the waiter or sommelier asks us where we’re from, we cut to the chase and say “California wine country.” That box means: We know our wine, you’re welcome to suggest but don’t try to upsell us or make us drink swill.

Sometimes, our box is, “just north of the Golden Gate Bridge.” That places us near San Francisco, but not in the City, because, well for starters, where would we put the Airstream? “Airstream”—there’s another box. Not a bad one.

Often, Ben’s first question to a fellow full-timer is “Where is ‘home’ when it’s not the RV?” but to me, the fact that they’re on the road means no label, no box; they’ve chosen, like us, to be from nowhere. From everywhere.

And speaking of boxes, I started this little essay in Dodge City. What does that tell you? Badly acted gunfights, cheesy wax museums, olde tyme photo parlours, ye olde gifte shoppes, you know those boxes. Awesome!

Boondockin’ the Old Spanish Trail

What better opportunity to free ourselves from the unrelenting crush of summer excursionists flowing in and around us, like red corpuscles along arterial trackways, than to disengage into a ten-foot-wide opening in the highway fence. The promise of solitude and freedom from DDD: “Determined Driving to Destination” called to us, and we slowed to a crawl on deeply rutted dirt, highway receding into the distance in circles of dust shielding, in brown haze, our arrival. Unhitching our trailer, we set off in search of our oasis for the week. A circuitous mile trampolined past, to reveal a fork in the road and a captivating clearing with views of snow-capped mountains rimming the 360-degree horizon.

Secluded campsite along the Old Spanish Trail (click to enlarge)

But for the wind, the thrum of blood coursing in our ears was the prevalent sound. We were standing on the edge of BLM-controlled land, on the Old Spanish Trail. This terrestrial trackway was trod by wildlife, Native Americans who tracked them, and—between the years 1829 and 1848—became known as the shortest path to riches for traveling Mexican caravans between Los Angeles and Santa Fe. (The roots of this “road” possibly reach back to North American pre-history and the aboriginal Pueblo people of Chaco Canyon, AD 900-1150.) These highly sophisticated Puebloan natives developed trade routes and commerce spanning great distances. Their prolific social transactions acquired tortoise and abalone shells from the Gulf of Mexico and Pacific Coast; turquoise, copper bells, parrot and macaw feathers from the jungles of Mexico, Central, and South America; and perhaps knowledge of the great Mayan and Incan cultures that flourished before them. Here, in our temporary homestead, we would listen for the long dead ghosts of their hopes and aspirations. The loose network of pathways meandered across the western frontier of the United States, crossing the Mojave Desert, and became the established trade corridor that soon attracted frontier and mountain men, and military expeditions, seeking safe passage across the daunting peaks of the West. The 2,700 miles of trail became known as the longest, most arduous, and crookedest pack mule route in America. There are many stories and legends told of the intrepid Kit Carson, who traversed this route numerous times in his lifetime, exploring, leading immigrants, and in service to the U.S. Cavalry in the Mexican American War.

Santa Fe, a Spanish outpost, was established in the early 1600s, ten years before the arrival of the Plymouth Colony on the Mayflower. The Spanish Trail became a network of connection and commerce between the colonies on the California coast, Presidio Monterey and San Gabriel Mission, Los Angeles, and those in the interior of New Mexico. This trail, though it became more prominent in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, has roots deep and wide throughout First Nations’ history. Long before the arrival of Western culture, these paths supported the sustenance and evolution of tribal living. In writing this my thoughts diverge…

…I grew up being taught and believing that Cristoforo Colombo discovered America. Imagine my letdown when I learned that the dude never made it, instead landing on an island in the Bahamas! He was preceded to North America by many others. There are historical claims and perhaps evidence that the Chinese arrived on the West Coast a thousand years before Chris, opening a string of Golden Palace, Panda Express, and China Café restaurants, but the locals never caught on to those hard noodles in the chop suey…

…The driven and dangerous Danes hit the East Coast around the year 1,000, but never hit it off with the natives, who didn’t like being put through mazes of aisles just to get to the cooking utensils. And who needed complicated furniture construction instructions anyhow? The indigenous population were back-to-the-landers, keeping it simple, breaking free from urban and suburban trendy lifestyles. The Vikings eventually returned whence they came, as it appears they encountered a deeply unsatisfied population that would gather in large groups and shout in unison, in their native tongue, “Eye Kee Yaa! Eye Kee Yaa!” Centuries later, it was eventually recognized that the translation from their almost dead language was “Pale-faced, long-haired invaders, Go Home!” But not before the newly civilized Norse of the North returned to honor their memory with the mistranslated named store, “Good Home…”

…For years at the summer solstice, crowds of people flocked to Chaco Canyon to await, in awe, the arrival of a vertical shaft of light, The Sun Dagger, that arose over the buttes and pierced a spiral petroglyph chipped into the rock by ancient locals exactly at its center.

It is no longer visible however, due to shifting rock slabs and increased erosion from extreme visitation. There are other similar manifestations in Chaco, of solstice light penetration into specific sacred Kiva windows. It truly is a wonder how a supposed savage people could command such knowledge. A commonly held belief though, thanks to an undereducated motel manager’s fantastic musings, is that this depth of technology could only have come from alien inspiration. When in doubt, blame it on aliens, credit where credit is due. But I’ve digressed…

Exploration of our temporary homestead revealed scattered bones of horses, sheep, cows, and detritus of grazing, symbolic of the passage of commerce along this route. Our own four-wheel exploration led us deeper into a rocky National Forest area that beckoned us to travel its sinuous trackways, but we held fast before entering a road of no return. There were to be other adventures awaiting us yet ahead.

Just a mere quarter mile away from our alien silver ship, rose a solitary mountain that I named, “Le Petite Teton,” for reasons clarified by observing this image.

This mount called to us like all objects just beyond our reach, and we could spy a rocky hint of a pathway up its talus slope. Fortified with water-filled backpacks, we set out against a relentless climb at an angle increasing exponentially to close to 60 degrees near the summit. Our home campsite sat at a 7,971-foot elevation and we discovered that our “teton” peak destination was at 8,447 feet. I’ll do the math for you: This is an average rise of about a third of a foot for every foot traveled up the slope. Upon reaching the summit, I noticed a glint of copper reflected off a flat rock face.

It revealed itself to be an NGS (National Geodetic Survey) marker drilled and set in concrete in 1935. Intrepid hikers will discover these markers in diverse locations throughout America, emanating by direction of Thomas Jefferson in 1807, to carefully define the geography of our lands. These markers, once calculated and laid laboriously by hard labor, have since migrated to satellite and GPS reckoning systems.

Every NGS marker has a name or number which can be looked up online. Ours was named Limekiln from a local tributary, and upon research was numbered HL0468, with the geographic coordinates of 37.618466, -106.280297. So now you can plug these numbers into your GoogleMaps and locate exactly the place we stood…except the NGS notes from later surveys (there have been three since) stated that the marker had moved 3 centimeters, perhaps due to shifting rock. I’m not going to think about how much a 3cm movement would look like over 50 million years…Find and claim our camping spot if you are ever in the area (coordinates above). Check it out in satellite view.

Just for the sake of breathing perspective, our 7,971-foot-high campsite is exactly the elevation of Machu Picchu, Peru—you know, the famous hike where non-native visitors chew coca leaves to survive elevation sickness. This is not quite accurate though, as in order to fly in for this excursion you come into Cusco, the highest population city in the world, at 11,152 feet, where said leaves are so much in demand to mitigate elevation sickness. Those wacky Spaniards that marched across America in search of, yet never finding, the famed Golden City, perhaps even along segments of our Old Spanish Trail, were foiled again upon climbing up these perilous peaks.

Bonus treats!

“Where ya from?…”

We posted this short video clip a number of months ago—how time does slip by—but it seems appropriate to once again revisit it as an icon to our response that seems to pop up inevitably no matter where we go, and pretty much as regular as the new day dawns. This was snipped from that very iconic film, The Magnificent Seven, staring Yul Brenner and Steve McQueen.

As we travel West, there is a subtle shift in the spirit that Ruth and I have noticed and discussed often. Generally speaking, in the history of our country, there has been a continual migration of the populace West in search of fortune and freshness of opportunity. Some immigrated to America, stayed, and rooted. Others moved West, and West again. We’ve read biographical accounts of families that carved out lives and homesteads against great odds, heard the call to newer horizons, and pulled up stakes to recreate their hopes anew. What challenges and trials they encountered! When we stop and contemplate the effort that went into just acquiring food to eat; remember, no refrigeration, no prepackaged grocery items, no Cabela’s to purchase ammunition, no police force to protect from those seeking short cuts to their labors, or from angry natives seeking revenge for your invasive presence on their lands.

No judgement here, but among those who stayed for generations, a powerful spirit of community and pride of place and roots developed. They found their Valhalla. And then there are those pesky migration genes that drive humanity ever onward and westward, metaphorically. I’m not going to ask you to guess which category we fall into, but as you travel West you begin to feel that subtle call to seek that which is just beyond the next hill. Dare I quote the voiceover, opening lead-in, to the Star Trek television series, in reference to the Starship Enterprise? “…to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no one has gone before.”

The West is geographically less compact, more amenable to movement: the open spaces push away constriction of mind and challenge you to explore. There are reduced comfort factors, yes, perhaps fewer meticulously cross-stitched “Home Sweet Home” decrees emblazoned in picture frames on living room walls.

There is a burgeoning inner voice emanating from the soul of civilization reframing itself in the new millennia to demand a revisitation and reaffirmation of our earthly stewardship. Concurrent in that consciousness is the old familiar nomadic urge to migrate (no longer constrained by gravity), exhorting humanity to lift off terra firma and seek new homes among Earth’s sister planets.

I just hope humanity can transcend its militant animalistic nature in time to make this leap. Perhaps we all reside in a nexus of civilization. In the meantime though, mindful of this, we move on, meeting, sharing, and learning as we go. I am reminded of the definition of epigenesis: development involving gradual diversification and differentiation of an initially undifferentiated entity. It is true that we may have a genetic predisposition to violence passed down from our ancestors, but this predisposition impels, but doesn’t compel, action. It is modified by an infinite environment of factors such as formal education, and life lessons through interpersonal intercourse.

The theory of epigenesis presents us a unique opportunity to participate and prove the theorem scientifically through active engagement in civility, tolerance, broad-mindedness, and vulnerability that comes from placing oneself, through travel, in unprescribed environments. This is a tall order, an aspiration to emulate for sure. We return to ponder momentarily the Star Trek theme.

The call of Go West! is still alive, though the West Coast is stackin’ ’em up and pushin’ ’em back as the populace expands, but the response remains as strong as it was when Chris, Yul Brenner’s character was asked the question, “Where ya goin’?”

 

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Real Time Savannah Adventures: Part 2

 

 

 

“When you enter through the portal, you may never return the same.” Savannah’s siren call echoes in your mind and body, a sinister syncopation matching the growing intensity of our truck’s windshield wipers. A veil of light rain announces, in crescendo, our approach to the point of no return: our Rubicon. The intensity of falling rain builds faster than our comfort zone permits, and the matching wipers’ sibilant sound, “sluuuck…sluuuck…sluuuck,” quickly changes to maximum motor speed, “lukluklukluklukluk.” Lightning bursts and wind-gusted sheets, draperies, and walls of water slow us to a 10 mph crawl. Shapes and emergency flashers blur past our windows like a movie seen through astigmatic lenses. The roar of rain hammering the thin metal skin of our vehicle is like standing behind a waterfall. The elements have seized control. We drive nearly blind, searching desperately for direction-reckoning landmarks to avoid catastrophe. Neck muscles connected to shoulder tendons strain to hold arms in precarious balance in the white-knuckled grip on our steering wheel. “Breathe!” is your mantra; “Luck!” as the windshield wipers seem to insist, is your mode of transport through this hopefully benign trial. Savannah has our attention as we emerge through the veil of grey into hazy slats of sun painting the prospect of a riverfront city frozen in time.

Jane. The last we saw Jane, now our point of contact in Savannah, was fifteen years ago in the passenger departure lounge of the airport in Havana, Cuba. Little did we know it at the time, but our interminable hot, humid delay was but a decoy to give the baggage handlers time to break into our luggage and pilfer those electronics that were prized by the populace at the time—but that is another story. Jane was a member of our two-week educational Culture and Music Study Abroad Program in Cuba, offered through City College of San Francisco. She was a principal banner-carrier for significant socialization and partying during our stay, which was, to say the least, an attractive draw to us now as we entered this magical city. We anticipated tapping into the shared lifeline of juju that percolates and erupts uniquely from the crucible of Cuba. Something happens to a people suppressed and culturally compressed, and they—like we—found rhythmic outlet in sultry back rooms amidst the maze of dilapidated streets and buildings. We mamboed, cha-chaed, salsaed, tangoed, line danced, shimmied, drank, shouted, sang, and sweat until our clothes could no longer absorb the water from air or body, all to the music orchestrated from this genre’s master musicians…for us, in that magical moment!

We walked into the Andaz Hotel in downtown Savannah and there was Jane, not leading a conga line as memory had it, but now behind the bar counter in the lobby lounge, orchestrating drink mix formulas like in a Hollywood horror laboratory.

 

 

She instructed a young drink-mix-apprentice while simultaneously serving hotel hipsters with boozed bar banter, and experimenting with various concoctions. After a time of re-acquaintance she shouted, “It’s Fernet Branca time!” (Italian: alcoholic, herbal, aromatic, bitter) and mini-bottles emerged, held aloft, and a bar-wide salute ensued. Yep, this was our Jane. This moment can be likened to having a conversation, turning your head to speak to the person next to you, fifteen years morph pass, and you turn your head back and pick up where you left off.

Bonaventure Cemetery. Ruth and I, with Gyp in happy tow, set off the next day to recuperate from our previous night’s adventures and traveled across town to the Bonaventure Cemetery, on a bluff overlooking the Wilmington River, east of Savannah. We arrived in true 19th Century Victorian Style with a large box of Savannah eatery fried chicken, cole slaw, fresh baked biscuits, and a jug of iced tea, to picnic with the dead. Having satisfied our earthly appetite, we released our bodies to the pull of the spirits enshrined around us. Meandering aimlessly, time passed for us in sync with the infinite. Life’s duration changes with the epochs. We noted the scourge of disease through the population, a scythe stealing indiscriminately from famous and infamous, young and old alike. Monuments were left to those who lived life large in marble, brass, and copper,

and in immediate proximity a sweep of the feet pushing aside vegetative detritus could reveal a curt snippet of recognition carved into a cracked concrete block. Many gravesites held brass plaques engraved with Perpetual Care. Others marked clearly, Do Not Service.

Do Not Service marker

So it is today, as we all pass away in time and memory. In today’s death care market, 40-50% of all plot costs go to perpetual care funds, for keeping the dead alive long after their memory fades and their bodies rot. I wonder to myself, now that I write, about the nature of these digitally codified thoughts passing into epochs of perpetuity…or perhaps to have the metaphoric leaves kicked aside to reveal a long lost voice from the past…

This grand grave reminder of Death, celebrated in ages past and largely unspoken of today, comes to the fore as we perambulated, pondering our own destiny and mortality, very thankful and privileged to be here. Another Savannahian gift from the past, into perpetuity.

Touring the Town. “Now, ya’ll…I am not your regular driver, ya’ll, but will just take you to our depot and you will board the tram for your regular tour, but did ya’ll know that this highway was once the central car sales strip, ya’ll?” I glanced over at Ruth. She at me. She shakes her head almost imperceptibly, wordlessly warning me not to speak out loud. Our tour guide shuttle pick-up driver is loquacious in the southern extreme, aided by a microphone dialed up to 10—or is it 11? “Did ya’ll know that on Victory Drive—which we will be on shortly, ya’ll—there’s palm trees planted, one for each soldier killed in World War Two?” I couldn’t help myself, having done a wee bit of homework before hopping on board, and corrected her, “They were planted in World War One; and not one for each soldier killed, which would be huge, but just as a general commemoration.” The driver mumbled something into the mic, then said, “Yeah, World War Two, One, I get ’em mixed up, y’all.” She warbled on, and we prayed that this woman would not walk over and hop into our main tour vehicle, the classic “everytown tour USA” fake cable car on wheels, that ferried toad-like tourists blankly inattentive to driver drone.

Our reprieve came, though, through the emergence of our actual tour driver, a middle-aged, white-haired Brit with typical dry English humor, backed with extremely prolific historical knowledge. We luxuriated next to the open windows and influx of rich Savannahian breezes over the next 90 minutes as we wound around most of the lush garden oases and key points of interest. There was, however, a bit too much pandering to the architecture and location Hollywood hounds seeking local references to the book and movie, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. All told though, this was a wonderful adjunct to our hikes, explorations, research, and knowledge base of the area.

Bluffton, South Carolina: Crucible of Chic. Jane invited us to listen to her boyfriend, Matt’s, band play. We traveled blind, on a whim, without map consultation, to the town of Bluffton across the Talmadge Bridge spanning the Savannah River,

Talmadge Bridge as seen from downtown Savannah

cruising through forested lowlands, past the dark foreboding Savannah National Wildlife refuge, along a narrow two-lane highway passing intermittent bayou-esque shacks with rotten-toothed banjo players on front porches, to earn our destination. We murmured out loud, “Why the heck would anyone come way the hell out here to play music, and what sort of venue would host it?” Our answer materialized as we burst as though through a portal into a tony Mill Valley; a swanky, fashionable, colorless—dare I say it?—refuge of gentrification; this place exuded that sense of comfort, safety, and enlightenment that comes through encouraging arts in all genres.

Downtown Bluffton, South Carolina

We searched valiantly for parking through the streets of town, passing one restaurant after another filled to bursting with well-heeled patrons. Families and chicly-dressed lovers holding hands promenaded through the well-trimmed central parkade. Music, laughter, and pleasant evening conversation filtered out from everywhere on a welcoming, cooling, and inviting breeze. A 24-mile drive on a suggestion and a whim began to grow on us, though still percolating. We quickly found ourselves at The Roasting Room’s upstairs entertainment space to catch Isaac Smith, the opening band with a refreshing country, folk, rock, roots, and Hawaiian mashup sound.

We took our place next to Jane, who was offering test-drive sample drinks of Angel’s Envy rye whiskey along the back wall of the music venue that held, back lit through translucent glass, scores of diverse bottles of alcoholic pleasure.

On our other side, we could see a face intently focusing on an iPod screen that controlled the venue lighting and sound balance.

Next up, Matt’s band, Clouds and Satellites, played a rockin’ honky tonk, driving rock ‘n’ roll set that got everyone movin’ and groovin’.

As it turns out, Matt is not only a connoisseur of sound but also, like Jane, of spirits of the liquid kind, and is the owner of the famous Original Pinkie Masters bar on the edge of the Savannah Historic District. We parleyed like pirates there one balmy night, listening to classic rock, house music, and joining the devoted and faithful locals in celebrating the only and best day of our lives.

Too soon, the time to make the wee-hours, lonely, dark, and contemplative drive back to swaddling Savannah was upon us. We arrived in Bluffton with wonder, we left satiated and satisfied, another gift from this celebrated source of Southern civility.

Leaving Savannah. Breaking free from the Spirit of Savannah was a hard undertaking. Her clutches encircled us like the covetous, insistent arms of an octopus. That same siren song we traveled toward not so long ago, through the rain driven portal, now was echoing in our minds, calling ever more insistently as we crossed a new veil of passage. But the song had changed. It wasn’t just a call but sympathetic harmony to a refrain emerging from us. Reaching again the apex of the bridge across the Savannah River, a glance into the rearview mirror revealed a ghostly, luminous wave of heat. A seeming mirage of water shimmered below it, the last vestiges of downtown Savannah buildings blinked for a moment above, and were gone…the long road stretched ahead. We smiled and hummed to ourselves.

 

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Scene Along the Road 3: Severe Storm Warning

by Ruth

Tornado warnings brought our tiny cavalcade of one to a halt outside of Hutchinson, Kansas (“Hutch” to the locals). We were headed for a nearby campground, but thanks to our NOAA weather app, we knew a “severe thunderstorm” with “possible tornado warnings” was headed straight for us, following the same route. Winds up to 85 mph, hail the size of grapefruit, power out all over the area, drama, drama, drama. Worst of all, it would be centered, essentially, right over our campsite. The same campsite that offered no shelter in the way of trees to keep the promised hail off the Silver Submarine, nor wind to keep us from lying awake, listening to every gouge of every hailstone.

So, about six miles from our destination, we pulled into a truck stop to decide what to do. We’d already driven more than our self-allotted maximum miles, and we were too tired to continue anyway. The sky was looking rather dramatic, sort of like the background in the first black-and-white scenes with Dorothy and Toto in The Wizard of Oz. Uh oh. In that moment, we looked at each other and said, “Where would be safe to stay the night?” and our gaze wandered over the ranks of semis ranged along the fence. “Um, here?”

Ben masterfully snuggled our little rig between two of the humming, thrumming monsters, calculated to be just far enough apart to open our door. We opened all the windows to let fresh air in, and it started to rain. And rain. Then rain. Then really rain. And then the wind blew, strong enough that it was a test of strength and stamina just to open our door. Hail the size of pennies speckled our porthole windows. Hail is anathema to Airstreams, but apparently pennies are small enough change. We heard the wind die, were briefly in the eye of the storm, then it shifted direction and blew and rained some more. We fell asleep to the gentle rocking of our rig, the strong winds blunted by our titanic, diesel-warbling neighbors.

The next morning, I woke to a clear blue sky, birds singing, flowers blooming, just like after Dorothy lands in Oz (no, no Munchkins). Across the freeway was the town water tower which read: Southern Hospitality, Kansas Style.  Sorry, not really my style.

Quickly skirting the few remaining semitrucks in the lot (these guys get up and on the road early), Gyp and I spotted a kiosk surrounded by landscaped lawn, with a  little parking lot nearby.

Walking over, we saw that it was the Hutchinson Salt Company historical marker. A 1,260-pound block of—you guessed it—salt.

Apparently this is a big deal here in Hutch. You can press a button to see what the discoverer, Benjamin Blanchard, would have seen gazing into a big hole in the earth (“as seen on The Discovery Channel”). Which looked like, well, a big dark hole in the earth.

This salt is reputedly so marvelous, it’s exported as far away as Minnesota, California, and even the northern Mexico territories—truly a global enterprise, Kansas Style!

 

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Scene Along the Road 2: Rules of the Road, Writ in Sand

I glance into the driver’s rear view mirror…I spot check the rear trailer video camera…all clear. One second later a vehicle passes on the left as fast as a blink of the eye, and gone. Not a moment to take your attention off the road in this arena.

There is a lot of machismo on the roads of America. When the above mentioned situation arises and there is a car barreling along in the fast lane (ya’ll know that the left lane is for passing only, yes?! [We have at least one reader from England, and to you I say, “Bear with me.”]), the speeder plants himself conspicuously on the slower driver’s rear bumper with an unspoken claim to the lane. This can go several ways. Our slowpoke might not even notice, due to his lively in-car conversation, his mobile phone capturing his attention. But eventually he wakes up and moves over, or often there will be the selfish response, “I’m here, and will not be moved away by you.” We’ve watched this tension explode into the uncomfortable escalating drama of flashing lights and honking horns. Invariably, the put-upon driver will swing around to the right lane, thus blocking the slow driver’s ability to move over, creating a dangerous impasse with no easy resolution. Speeding drivers often move in packs, like rabid wolves in search of prey, so this sets up our slowpoke to get over immediately or face the wrath of the next pursuing four wheeled quadruped.

You will usually find us in the far right, truckers’ lane, where I’m counting coup on road kill. Pulling a fifty-foot rig over thousands of miles requires a lot of gallons of diesel fuel, and traveling at interstate speeds creates an exponential loss of miles per gallon. For this reason, we usually hang around 60 mph and get to our destination just a little bit later than Google maps or GPS routing notates, but we put our saved cash into the “entertainment fund.”

Now getting back on the machismo sound bite. On- and off-ramps create some interesting drama for drivers and their reactions to our Silver Submarine. The macho types have issues with following us to their nearby highway exit and will speed up, careen around us, and at the last microsecond, pull hard into our lane and across into the exit ramp, barely missing us, and forcing me to stomp hard on the brakes. This is very much like bull fighting, and we’re the matador. The stubborn macho driver will cut over and across our bumper, accident avoided by my wide-eyed, adrenaline-fueled braking assistance, and it seems at times as though I can almost hear the sound of his horns scraping our silken-bumpered pantaloons. The only difference is there is no shout of Olé! from the crowd, just an expletive from me complemented by a lean on the horn, barely escaping being gored!

Oh…sorry…did I mention turn signals? “No!” is your wry reply. Certain makes and models of drivers apparently don’t come with them.

On occasion, comfortably in cruise control, we come upon a line of cars snaking behind a slow moving vehicle in the right lane. They pull out and move around as spaces permit, into the fast lane and allow the next impatient driver to take his place in the queue. Not soon enough, our turn arises, and we then must allow time and room to pass around. This poses a problem, as oncoming drivers from the rear see our predicament and grin steely in selfish satisfaction as they pass us. There is no way in hell they are going to slow down and let us escape. It’s our turn to suffer, and suffer we will. We have a highway eternity to contemplate and calculate the driver mindset ahead of us. A sign approaches and at first I understand the cause. It reads 40 mph. Of course. There is road work ahead, and I missed the warning. I’m in the wrong…until the word “minimum” emerges in clarity. The driver in our windshield is just probably old or interstate insecure, which becomes apparent as we eventually pass, her blue-haired head and eyes focused forward, unwavering like a shop window mannequin, both hands gripping the wheel in white knuckled fear, speed unwavering. No cops are going to bust her for bad driving. No, sir.

On-ramps bring out a new set of challenges. Will the oncoming drivers see us as we approach from their left? The same set of conditions are in force here as the earlier mentioned fast lane blockers, but we’ll add one more condition: the driver is old, young, or inexperienced and they haven’t figured out what to do with that strange long pedal on the far right of those other pedals, leaving me to guess their speed and ramp entrance trajectory. Did you ever walk toward someone on the street and both you and they move in the same direction to avoid each other? Well, the same situation can occur when two vehicles converge upon each other, one from an on-ramp, and the other in the slow lane at the same speed. You think they will speed up, they think the same. Now add traffic completely blocking the left lanes. You slow down to allow them to pass, as getting 50 feet of metal moving requires some significant time and power. So do they! You quickly scan your rear view mirror and see an impatient driver that would rather not be following a trailer and is contemplating swinging around you to make that bull run to the next exit…Olé!

Truck drivers, for the most part, are pretty safe, though we’ve seen some hellacious trailer rig wrecks. Mobile phones do creep into everyone’s driving habits and are seen on roads everywhere as vehicles waver in and out of lanes, oblivious to surrounding drivers. It is fascinating to pull up alongside drivers holding their phones like pancakes on their hands and observing their expressions as they speak. What percentage of road recognition exists, you wonder?

Occasionally we’ve encountered drivers that resent our presence on the roads in any situation, though often they are found in inner cities, during driving rain storms and severe traffic. They see us as an impediment to their travel and pass us waving frantically to pull into some other lane which most often connotes off the highway altogether, we reckon.

The great way to study the psyche of society on America’s roads is to get out and drive. There are some wonderful folks out there, but there are also a passel full of crazed unpredictable bulls…and we know what becomes of them ultimately…

 

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Oglethorpe’s Savannah Vision: Part 1

Savannah, Georgia is a stunning gem of a city that has as its progenitor a man that set in motion a cascade of events placing this locale apart from any city in America, perhaps the world. All creations emanate from a source, and the source we will now visit was a man with extraordinary vision and social consciousness instigating waves that rippled through time.

James Oglethorpe was a British visionary, social reformer, and military leader who dreamed of creating a haven for England’s working poor and strengthening the colonies through trade. He landed along a bluff on the Savannah River in 1733, and named the 13th American colony Georgia, after King George II.

Upon settling, Oglethorpe met with the local Yamacraw Indian chief Tomochichi, and after establishing good relations, a settlement was agreed upon and named Savannah after either a name for the Sawana people who inhabited the region, or from the Shawnee Indian word for Savannah River.

Actual photograph of Oglethorpe’s negotiations with native Americans.

Oglethorpe supposedly had four rules for his new community: no slaves, no Roman Catholics, no strong drink (rum), and no lawyers. This perhaps goes to show that you can’t get it all right all the time, nor can you judge history with 21st century consciousness, but I digress…

Oglethorpe designed the basic layout of the new city into blocks of five symmetrical 60×90-foot lots. Included in this plan were 24 public squares, though only 21 remain in existence today. These were intended to be meeting places, and potential gathering or camping spots to fortify against native attacks, the Spanish who ruled nearby Florida, or pirates. The genius of these public squares would come into their own in time and grow in beauty, as in them grew verdant live oak trees covered in Spanish moss and cultivated gardens, statuary, and fountains, a veritable beguiling social haven.

Oglethorpe and his fellow founders envisioned Savannah as a colony where settlers could achieve a comfortable living in contrast to the huge plantations and isolated personal fortune found in surrounding British America. It was understood by the charter granted to him by George II, that Oglethorpe could not hold office, own land, or receive a salary in the new colony, yet he put his vision ahead of personal gain. Part of Oglethorpe’s dream was a classless society, one step removed from the other 12 colonies and a giant step away from the homeland: restrictions were put on how much land could be owned and no slavery was allowed. In his original plans, heads of households were to work their own land, though later after the colony was established and Oglethorpe left to return to England, economic pressures from the production of cotton saw slavery return to keep in competition with the large cotton plantations. There existed an incomplete ideal however, in that women could not own land in the new colony due to the belief that each plot of land required a male worker and defender.

The motto of the trustees and new colony was: non sibi sed aliis: “Not for self but for others.” Considering the zeitgeist of the times, this motto served the colony well: the Catholics, due to their alliance with the French, were ostracized for fear their sympathies would assist them if conflicts arose between the two world powers.

The intention of this blog piece is not to bore you, dear reader, with historical facts but to describe a pattern that is engrained within the Savannahian culture, and so one more moment in history must be described. Savannah, which had a very large free African American population before the Civil War, suffered terribly during the Union Navy’s coastal blockade. Savannah city leadership traveled to meet General Sherman and his oncoming Union soldiers to beg that they not burn down the city as was the fate of Atlanta. (You may be remembering bits of storyline here from the movie Gone With the Wind.) It is said that Sherman was so impressed with the beauty of the city that he could not destroy it.

This gem of a city has a long history of integration, deep southern culture, independence, and relative isolation from the interior southern populations—and is proud of it. Its historic district remains one of the largest in the nation and if you walk or drive through the 21 public squares you immediately note that traffic must slow to a crawl, Southern style, to navigate around them. The design of this central district sets the tone for the town: people stroll languidly in an envelope of oxygenic-rich heat and humidity that encourages the lushness of foliage and social intercourse. The air of aestheticism, gentility, and of course that ever-present courtesy, permeates throughout like the scent of magnolia, and ties you to a time when good breeding was expressed through polite refinement and affable cordiality.

Architecture reigns supreme here as all manner of period structures challenge your eyes and mental inquisitiveness. Some of the many homes to be found encircling the squares and surrounding regions were built in the styles now known as Federal, Georgian, Gothic Revival, Greek Revival, Italianate, Regency, Romanesque Revival, Second French Empire, and of course the more modern early 20th century, mind-numbing, classless design. All too often you find yourself sending a huge “Thank you!” back in time to General Sherman’s saving impulses. The layers of richness here are overwhelming and challenge the senses to remain at their highest level of consciousness. If you are looking for an awakened redefinition of Muse-e-um, this is it.

You can’t spend any appreciable time in Savannah without hearing the name SCAD mentioned, which stands for Savannah College of Art and Design, founded in 1978. Everywhere you look, you see references to SCAD—refurbished buildings (particularly in the historic district), downtown offices, theaters, ancillary branches and sub-schools throughout the region, students everywhere. The College has expanded its campuses to Atlanta and Hong Kong, and has approximately 11,000 students studying any of eight majors: Building Arts, Communication Arts, Design, Fashion, Entertainment, Digital Media, Fine Arts, Foundation Studies (drawing), and Liberal Arts.

I’m a big fan of college towns, and the freshness and infusion of ideas and culture they bring to a place is patently recognizable as we travel across the country. SCAD is like a continuous intravenous infusion of vitality of arts into Savannah that has kept the ghosts of its past alive, giving them bones of aesthetic support, and the breath of youthful living-in-the-moment. Perhaps in a final capstone of restoration to one of the original four rules the colony was founded upon, which stated, “No Catholics,” we can look up the root definition of Catholic, which is: “Including a wide variety of things, all embracing.”

The institution of SCAD has brought full circle that missing element to Savannah in a philosophical and metaphorical way. Its restoration of buildings and city infrastructure also restores the blood flow of modernity, to the melting pot of a town that is a pretty doggone special place. Oglethorpe would be proud.

Look for a following blog post to chronicle our adventures in the real time “Catholic” Savannah!

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Disney World: not for the weak-hearted

We hadn’t done it in over 30 years, neither of us, so we rolled into Disney’s Fort Wilderness Resort and Campground for a week’s adventure…now, “rolling in” is an understatement as the Disney Dream Machine bought land for cents on the dollar long ago in the “Way Back Machine.” Driving into Disney World is like visiting Yellowstone NP—if you think you are going anywhere fast in time and distance, forget about it. Both places sport “great huge tracts of land.”

Fort Wilderness opened in 1971, the same year the Park opened, and in true Disney fashion has 799 campsites, and 409 air-conditioned wilderness cabins on 700 acres of forest and lakes (the italics are mine). This piece of paradise sits among four theme parks: Epcot, Magic Kingdom Park, Disney’s Animal Kingdom Park, and Disney’s Hollywood Studios. Oh, and there are two more water parks, sorry: Disney’s Blizzard Beach and Disney’s Typhoon Lagoon. I’m not even going to get into the numerous resort hotels that service this giant monolith, nor the massive vehicle infrastructure: buses, cars, trucks, boats, monorails, trains, horses, carriages, golf carts, bicycles…I know I’m leaving something out here! Well, maybe I will get into it, we’ll see…

We pulled up to the greeting kiosk and were given the tummy tickling Disney welcome and visitor package which included the most-important Magic Bands in the colors of our choice, unless we’d decide to purchase a customized one from the Disney stores located everywhere throughout the Park and, of course, online.

This state-of-the-art band has the look of an exercise tracker, and uses an R-Fid chip to electromagnetically track your every desire, allowing you to program it to fast track you through the often one-hour waits on the attractions, and to lighten your pocket of any necessary cash and credit cards. Wearing this band simulates the illusion of life in the 24th-and-a-half century, when we no longer have to use money, just wave your hand over a pick-up and your wish and your command come true. It’s almost that easy. A wave, and sometimes a little pin code if you’re purchasing big ticket items like lunch or dinner. You can’t let your euphoria dull your senses though, as these purchases on the Disney properties are, for the most part, expected pricing times two.

The Magic Band admits you to the Park after a very careful passage through metal detectors and airport quality TSA inspection of all carry-ons. I didn’t forget to leave my switchblade concealed weapon behind, which in Florida requires a special permit, allowing a concealed carry gun as well, but that’s not allowed in the Park, and is another whole story. When you first enter the Magic Kingdom, you wave your armband over a four-inch metal representation of Mickey Mouse, wait for the magic circle to change color from warning red to freeing green, place the finger of your choice over the fingerprint reader until it is recorded, and from then on your presence and safety within the Park is preserved for posterity.

Pausing for a moment to contemplate the degree of infrastructure needed to operate this massive monster of the Park of Muses is like peeling away layers of an onion that grow as you strip them down. Looking at the property as a whole, it spans 40 square miles, the size of San Francisco! Maintaining the grounds, roads, and what lies below them to look like a happy, clean, safe, welcoming Small World, gingerbread, cartoonesque dreamland is a massive undertaking on a city scale. Moving people and vehicles efficiently, handling food, utilities, waste; supply and use of energy; housing guests in all the venues; security/safety, inter-intra communications; public relations and entertainment; maintenance of all rides that run a minimum of 12 hours a day and carry huge numbers of people, requires an amazing network of interconnectiveness.

Let’s look, for example, at the Pirates of the Caribbean. 50 boats carrying approximately 1,150 people at a time, travel over 630,000 gallons of water during the eight-and-a-half-minute ride, and encounter 119 complex audio-animatronic characters. The music, explosions, effects, and timing boggle the mind. The rollercoaster ride, Space Mountain, has 13 two-car trains that can carry a total of 78 passengers, running continually at speeds up to 28 miles per hour, which seems faster in the dark. Speaking of Space Mountain, your mind plays time and space tricks with you, on a 26-foot drop of only two and a half jerky, speed- and direction-changing minutes.

Two men seeking punishment in the Kingdom attempted to tackle all 46 rides in Disney World’s four theme parks in a 17-hour day in 2015, and succeeded. Engineering of all genres is king in the Kingdom!

We purchased a three-day pass into the Magic Kingdom for a king’s ransom, and were allowed fast pass privileges with our Magic Bands for three rides per day, the rest on a queue basis. I was curious about the ticket price to enter the Park when it opened in 1971, and learned that it was $3.50 for admission plus ride ticket books ranging from $4.50 to $5.75, allowing entry into the rated rides as many of you may remember, from A-E. You may also remember the E-ticket, and how it has entered our lexicon as getting on the best ride experience. Our cost ran approximately $1,200, including lodging and one three-day Park entry and ride privileges.

E ticket from 1977

Most RVers rented golf carts to move around the Fort Wilderness property’s tennis courts, theme-related trinket shops, groceries, and roadways, and just tool around like 12-year-old kids on their first driving experience. (Disney World provides this attraction in a much desirable safer mode, where you can pilot your own mini car along a roadway bouncing from one side of a safety control rail to the other, preventing the inevitable side impact crash that would come from 98% of the drivers.) At times I felt like I was back in Thailand on the streets of Bangkok, where traffic rules were implied, enforced by bribes, and a small motorcycle or bicycle would carry mother, father, children, animals, sacks of groceries, and appliances, weaving in and out of crazed, chaotic traffic.

We avoided this melee, and each morning rode our bikes to the dock of Bay Lake on the edge of Fort Wilderness to board the boat carrying us to the entrance of the Magic Kingdom. After passing through the checkpoints we joined thousands of people debarking from the above-mentioned vehicles who thronged to the entrances of the six lands within the kingdom: Adventureland, Fantasyland, Frontierland, Tomorrowland, Liberty Square, and Main Street USA. Everyone crowded up Main Street, and the swarming multitudes were held back from entering their chosen Land until the cannon fired precisely at 9:00 am.

Everyone had a planned go-to before-crowd ride. Most attempted to avoid the mind-numbingly scientific crowd control queues that wended in a slow moving crawl around tight turns like intestinal folds that if stretched out, would at guess, be a mile in length. Fans and misters were mounted above in strategic locations to ameliorate heat stroke in the melting sun, and goofy (pun intended) diversions placed along the pathways kept parents from murdering their impatient kids during the long wait. A curiously minded person has much time to contemplate whatever thoughts he or she may wish to entertain. I often picked out a person, often a scantily clad nymph, to track. As we wended our way in and out of the infinite ribbon of passage, I couldn’t help from pushing back the realization that “could one hour of waiting be worth a three-minute joy ride on a fast moving roller coaster?” Well…looking at the previously mentioned eye candy and asking that question brought up the inevitable answer, my friends.

 

One memory I do have from my last visit to the Park years ago was how hot it can get in central Florida. Not just hot but humid, with both in the mid-nineties. Ruth and I found a secret shelter and respite from both in a sheltered ice cream parlor in Adventureland that had a protective wooden wall along its front and a dark narrow corridor with just enough room to pass through from ordering to pickup. There were three windows along this dark passageway: one to order, one to pick up, and a third that was shuttered, with slats spaced to allow a massive air-conditioned blast to pass through, and a small nook for us to stand in and stare out through the blinding heat toward the teaming hordes moving by in a curtain of heat. Needless to say, this became our oasis of refuge over the days of our visit. The ice cream purchasers passed us, satisfied with its cooling qualities and wondered what two lone people were doing standing in that dark hallway. Some recognized immediately our status and remarked admiringly. We used the Jedi mind trick on them to save our secret igloo.

There’s lots of time to think, but so little opportunity to hear your thoughts! From the time you enter the Magic Kingdom, there is sound—often subliminal at times—mostly very present and in your face and body really: music. 1950-60s cute, Disney, mind-numbing music, and cartoon voices coming from everywhere. It doesn’t leave you alone, the music and sound grabs your consciousness like a mongoose sinking its fangs into a cobra. You can’t escape it. It’s on the walkways everywhere, in the bathrooms, in the queues, on the rides, in the restaurants, everywhere it explodes in your head telling you that you are being entertained and happy.

Entrance audio loop for you to play during a pleasant deck party! (Warning: it’s an hour long…)

At the end of the day in the Park, we begged for mercy from the onslaught, barrage, and salvos of sound. It was in many ways more exhausting than the combined crowds and heat that magnified as the days grew long. The grand finale, of course, was the end of the evening pre-Park closing fireworks display where all the elements crescendoed to complete the migraine-inducing explosion of noise and send you away, a stumbling, satiated zombie. Mind you, we love fireworks more than just about anyone, but we savored being safely and silently on the boat back to our bikes, our quiet campsite, and the Silver Submarine. We think we have finally satisfied a desire to return to our lingering memories of the entertainment of the Magic Kingdom.

Scene Along the Road: 1

“One call ya’ll!” “Truck injury? Call: 800-Lawyer-Up!” How about this one: an image of a Mohawk-haired professional wrestler and the caption, “Are you asking for it? 800-ASKGARY.” Or the voracious and dangerous female sharks: “Ever argued with a woman? 863-XXX-XXXX.” That lawyer makes you start paying for your call and service from the get-go.

Sharks are approaching endangerment in our oceans, but thrive along the roads of the South on billboards stretched along the horizon, stacked up like dominos on the landscape. Drivers on America’s dangerous roads are chum on the run. One of my favorites, which matches perfectly with today’s political leadership is: “Just because you did it, doesn’t mean you’re guilty. Larry X, attorney at law.” Some sharks are flat out honest in their intent: “Legal Genius: I’m Rich, B*t*h! 800-XXX-XXXX.”

The next time you hop in your vehicle, particularly down in the slumbering South, and if you’re down on your luck and jobless, the odds are much better than the casinos—have a healthy wreck. It’s a fine occupation hidden in plain sight. But…if you’re really savvy, get your shark on. It’s win-win all the way to the bank in the tank.

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Caliginous Cacophony

Spoiler Alert! If you’re reading this on a cellphone, and consequently not seeing the photos, you’re missing out—find a bigger screen!

We open the silver door and step out into the warm moist night, Gyp and I. A full moon illuminates a landscape flush with vegetation rich in verdure. Spanish moss sways in sultry breezes, and immediately I become aware of the chorus of sound reverberating around us, two approximate pitches actually, a low grate, like large countless unoiled gears meshing, and a higher announcement akin to the hands of a  stadium full of people running their fingernails over the teeth of plastic combs. All life of the night declaring, “I’m here! I’m here!” As we meander along the diaphanously lit pathway, I identify the source of nature’s caterwauling—bullfrogs and crickets—not by sight though, as rummaging through the deep dark underbrush could awaken a slumbering alligator near the lakeshore. We hear off in the near distance the rhythmic lapping of waves around the roots of cypress trees with their lower trunks happily immersed in dark ominous water. The cool water and its submerged inhabitants invite—sanity and safety caution otherwise.

Gyp makes an immediate crossover from a slow ambulation on my left to inspect a dark mass on the path near right…moving slowly away with the sound of feet shusshing leaves, a large turtle near three-quarters of a foot long is seeking a place of refuge, being too near the dangers of thoughtless alien four-wheeled machines of the night. Looking up between the branches of the trees I spy the outline of a magnificent magnolia blossom framed by the full moon and, after a short period of light adjustment, see—and really smell more—scores of wondrous white flowerets. The northern magnolia doesn’t hold a candle to its relative here in the South, the scent of which commands attention like few flowers in the fifty states, fulfilling its biological imperative in the reproductive world. Most of my memories of the South are of the scent of magnolia hanging sensually in the warm moist air of the night, and this moment is magical synergy of the first order.

As we meander through moon shadows along our pathway, twinkling fairy lights—magical fireflies in the tens of thousands—illuminate the forest on either side of us.

Fireflies illumine the moonlit night

There is great difficulty determining the borderline between the illumination of firefly “language” and the broadcasting light of the stars, both proclaiming presence in time and space. We cross from an audio into a visual universe where a flash can make the difference between defending turf or sexual attraction. This biological light show serves just one purpose, the propagation of the species. Males usually flash a “neon” advertisement while the females lurk in the foliage studying and ranking each suitor’s viability and suitability of mating.

Firefly lights are one of the most efficient in the world, 100% efficient in contrast to incandescent light, which is 10%, or even compact fluorescent, with 90% efficiency. The scientifically named “cold lights” found in the firefly’s tail contain two chemicals, Luciferase and Luciferin. Luciferin is heat resistant and it glows under the right conditions. Luciferase is an enzyme that triggers light emission. ATP, a chemical within the firefly’s body, converts to energy and initiates the glow. All living things contain ATP, but interestingly, an imbalance allows medical researchers to detect certain diseases such as cancer and muscular dystrophy when the chemicals from fireflies are injected into humans. Did you know that some of our remote space exploration satellites contain these same chemicals to boldly detect life where “…no one has gone before?”

My memories turn from the light show before us to adventure on an island off the coast of Thailand, where bioluminescence in the waters caused any movement in them to activate an eerie blue green glow. Every wave crash on shore sparkled neon bright like an acid trip in a fairyland lake.

Bioluminescence

Moving one’s hands and feet briskly, or spinning in the water, created a light bright enough to read a book. Spinning and jumping about too much would get you labeled a nut case, and you could read your book under the 24-hour watch lights of a Thai psych ward. Seriously though, if you city slickers need a more related metaphor, imagine a low rider’s car, subwoofers announcing its presence in bone- and- diaphragm-vibrating beat. Below the car, a neon blue illumines its underside, and it appears to be gliding on a lubricant of blue firefly light along the busy byway.

What a synchronous symphony of sound, light, and smell in the night, an exemplification of the great diversity and wonder on this planet! It is a reminder to waken the senses, that each breath of life is magical in every moment, and is part of the great mystery of life…now to keep those thoughts alive…

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No Truck: No Texas, and Going Postal in America

No truck, no Texas: If you aren’t driving a truck in Texas you are less than human, or at least not a true blood, and I’m not talking your run-of-the-mill, half-ton, maybe-weekend hauler. You’ve gotta have at least a three-quarter-ton, in-your-face statement of machismo. A one-ton dually (one rear axle, four wheels), for goodness’ sake, puts you on top of the heap, a lift kit puts you high above city slickers and posers, and if you’re a died-in-the-wool redneck, a rubber simulated testicle sack hanging from the rear ball hitch and a rebel flag emblazoned somewhere on your rig. Trucks are so ubiquitous in Texas that most, if not all, manufacturers have Texas Special Editions with bold badging for sale to the proud purchasers in this independent nation of a state. One in particular is the Ford King Ranch truck that celebrates the legacy of the largest cattle ranch in Texas—825,000 acres, which is more land than the state of Rhode Island. Nothing says, “I’m an independent, studly, rough-tough, ‘Don’t mess with me’ hombre than this branding…and of course there’s the word association: branding…. This whole genre smacks of the SUV commercial image of vehicles barreling through rivers, over rocks, climbing hills, and tearing off up stunning country vistas into the sunset, as most urbanites envision themselves. But, this is the American Dream, yes?

We couldn’t help but put a small emblem on the rear of our truck to make a statement of our own, to signify the University of Texas in Austin, and one of the most liberal “island” cities in the US. Just a little dig to those rapidly approaching trucks from the rear that sneer at our tiny three-quarter-ton hauling beast that we call “Artemis.”

 

Going Postal in America: When you are a wandering nomad on the roads of America you enter a twilight zone of mail delivery that home-rooted folks never imagine. The system might consider us homeless in a sense, but a home on wheels is a home by no stretch of the imagination, and there is little to no infrastructure in place for homeless in the traditional sense. Friends who are renting our house save important mail for pickup by another friend, who comes by once a month, who then stuffs these items in a small prepaid United States Post Office mailer box. We have to carefully plan and coordinate our travels with our sender, as we usually spend a week or less in any location. Any missed communication in these logistics can lead to a delivery after the microscopic exhaust fumes from our truck have left a trail behind us.

Some of you may have experienced the tension that can exist within the postal portals. Now, you can take this for what it’s worth, but not all postal employees are the sharpest knives in the drawer, or have learned appropriate customer care psychology, hence the term “Going postal.” Years ago I worked in postal sorting facilities during the Christmas rushes and experienced the deep hierarchical culture and often lazy attitudes of many of the postal employees that say, “Don’t work faster or better than us, or we’ll look bad.” Sorry, USPS! Procedures were abandoned, short cuts and tempers led to lost mail and an often toxic work environment. You can imagine standing in a long line in your local postal facility and when finally reaching the desk, meeting a sullen, angry, impatient, non-helpful, non-service-oriented employee. This spreads through the facility like wildfire.

We’ve taken to looking up online post office evaluations, finding many scathing reports, and we move on. One of my coworkers once had a phrase for the management style of his company: “Retroactive daily rules.” It seems that from one post office to another they have or enforce different rules about accepting General Delivery packages: that is, one delivered to a post office in Anywhere America addressed to you. All post offices declare that they accept delivery in this format but not all practice it. One such example of a major use of this system is for those who are through-hikers on the Appalachian and the Pacific Crest Trails who forward supply boxes ahead of their travels to provision themselves along their routes.

There is a variable monkey wrench in the system of having an order, say from Amazon, which ships UPS, who then transmits your delivery to a USPS office, that then delivers to you. This is a common inner city practice but out here in the Neverlands, the retroactive daily rules apply.

Here’s a real-life scenario to enjoy: I placed an order with Amazon for a set of lightweight, soft silicone wine goblets, very critical for a pair of wandering parched nomads. It was addressed to the local post office in New Orleans, care of me, General Delivery. I received a confirmation from UPS that the package was delivered and signed for. When I arrived at the post office and completed a 10-minute body search just to enter the building, they told me that their branch didn’t accept General Delivery that I should go to the main branch. The main branch said that they were only open from 6 to 10 am. Returning early the next day, they told me no package was delivered despite my showing them the UPS slip. I returned to the previous office and after another body search, was told they didn’t have the package. So what do you do here?! I filed a return-to-sender and reordered to a new location in our travels. My thought was, “If you can pick up the original package for return delivery, why can’t you just give the damn thing to me?”

Okay, just one more and I’ll leave this alone…for now. I ordered a pair of sunglasses to replace a stupid donation to some lucky person, and again had them delivered to the local post office in our next travel stop, Pensacola Beach, Florida. UPS texted me the requisite delivery notification and we nervously made our way there to hear the familiar, “We don’t accept General Delivery, you must go to the main post office.” The main branch informed me that they don’t accept UPS deliveries as “there is no monetary value” in handling their packages. My supplication for support and showing the UPS delivery notice and the name of the person who signed for it at that location brought the branch manager out, who testily informed me that no such package existed. I filed a lost package claim with UPS and received another text that the package left Pensacola where they claimed it didn’t exist and traveled to Jacksonville, and then on to Tallahassee, and then back to Pensacola, to renewed claims that said package didn’t exist. After 30 minutes on the phone both with UPS and the shipper, I decided to send the phantom sunglasses back to the company and reordered. Now I was into paying for two pairs of a yet unreceived purchase.

So what’s the lesson here?

  1. Don’t ship to a post office that hasn’t been called in advance (many don’t answer their phone at all or automatically forward to the main 800 number) to verify acceptance
  2. Never ship a UPS package to a USPS (don’t mix up those letters!) facility
  3. Stop ordering frivolous items
  4. Go postal!

Sunglasses order update: Now that the sunglasses have been reordered, we arranged to have them sent to Melissa, one of our mail angels, who sends us monthly care packages of accumulated mail from our home and miscellaneous items as needed. She has arranged to forward them to us at our next stop, Fort Wilderness, Disney World, Orlando, at which point we have learned there will be a $5.00 handling charge to take the box from the delivery person and hand it to us. All told, this order should be collecting stickers from the 28 different locations it has traveled before reaching the final destination. It’s too late now, but I recall the person who sent a garden gnome around the world to miscellaneous and unknown receivers to be photographed and sent on. I should have transformed this into a similar peripatetic art project…but the mindsaving redemption is, “life’s art.”

…and if I made you think the post office was so terrible…I had no choice but to have a package delivery (or is that devilry?) from Fedex to a tiny post office in Ebro, Florida: one gas station with a Subway inside, and a population of 256. We went in, and met the most wonderful postal clerk, Donna S., who not only listened to our postal horror stories and didn’t throw us out, but laughed in acknowledgment. She told me that as long as she was present, any outside delivery vendor would be allowed to leave a package. But the ultimate capper was that even when the post office was closed, if she was there, she would call my cell to allow me to come in and pick it up. Now that is an antidote to the devilry!

Ruth and I spent some time in town and picked up this little token of our appreciation for her goodness, delivered to her through the mail slot, anonymously.

Post Office Angel

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Galveston Island and the Bryan Museum

We slowly meandered east and up along the south Texas coast line hugging the Gulf of Mexico’s warm waters, and serendipitously chose Galveston Island as our place of refuge and discovery for a time. We discovered a pleasant campground, Galveston Island State Beach, and were placed on the bay side, away from the roar of the waves and the salt surf, in a peaceful circle of 20 peripatetic RVs, phasing in and out, like birds in a nest.

Our usual practice is to study the web for local spots of interest to explore, and Ruth mentioned the Bryan Museum. I perked up immediately when she described it as one of the foremost museums of western history and artifacts. I’ve had a long fascination for the subject, and, well, we have been traveling through most of the heart of the West these past months, so for crying out loud this opportunity fits right in like a well-used pistol in its carefully oiled holster.

Bryan Museum

The Bryan Collection, assembled by JP and Mary Jon Bryan, houses one of the largest collections of historical artifacts, documents, and artwork relating to Texas and the American West, spanning more than 12,000 years. JP is the descendant of Emily Austin Bryan Perry, who was Stephen Austin’s sister. Stephen Austin was the man who founded Texas by leading 300 families from the US into the region in 1825. The Bryan collection has its roots deep within the family, as both Bryan’s father and uncle were collectors; not merely to spotlight the illustrious family legacy and pedigree, but also their relationship to western American history.

Let me tell you, the imposing edifice that houses this collection is metaphorically like the inside of the mysterious warehouse that held the Ark of the Covenant at the end of the film, Raiders of the Lost Ark, except that this building is nothing like a warehouse. Every aspect from the outside to the inside of this structure carries the imprint of quality, care, and attention to detail that represents the family and its legacy.

Walking into the building you are struck by the fastidiousness and craftsmanship in every quadrant. The woodwork, top to bottom, is finely finished and polished and every exhibit presents itself with the utmost in appropriate technology and thoughtfulness to the legacy of the period and its transmission to our 21st century milieu. Many of the exhibits offer, outside their displays, iPads for further detailed research and examination. For example, you can peruse the page-by-page journal of Cabeza de Vaca, an early explorer and adventurer who was shipwrecked in Galveston and traveled for many years throughout the region. (If you want to discover an adventure story unlike any other, read these journals and be transported to a time and introduced to a person of superhuman fortitude and perseverance.) Another iPad allows the viewer to study in fine, magnified detail each of the numerous rare handguns and rifles displayed in the case, each with its significant connection to historical events.

If this hasn’t piqued your interest, you might, after studying a huge diorama of the battle of San Jacinto—depicting the decisive battle of the Texas revolution led by Sam Houston engaging Santa Anna’s Mexican army—examine the iPads and follow the engagement from both the Texans’ and Mexicans’ perspectives. You will spend so much more time in your fascinating inquiry than the fight, which lasted just 18 minutes.

We had the opportunity to self-explore through the museum but our timing was perfect to be led by our docent, Jack Evins. Our group of four was held enthralled for close to two hours by Jack’s erudite and easy manner of making history and the collection come alive. In keeping with the demeanor of quality permeating the Bryan, Jack answered all the questions from our group with care and detail. Early on, after a description of a rare pistol in a display case, I queried Jack about the cartridge caliber. He responded that he was unsure but after the tour he would look into it. Sure enough, immediately following our excursion, he came to me to explain that he had contacted the museum exhibit manager, who showed up shortly thereafter and proceeded to open the display case, remove the pistol with white gloves, examine it, and answer my question. I don’t encourage this, but try that on a docent tour in your run-of-the-mill museum, my friends. This speaks to the museum’s (and Jack’s) level of the love of subject, deep interest, the desire to continue accumulating knowledge, and dedication of service with no recompense expected. All this to say, this is a pretty special understated gem of a place where people of means have taken upon themselves to display their passion for others to enjoy, instead of cloistering their collection hidden behind gated walls.

I have barely scratched the surface here, from the building itself (which has a long and compelling history of its own), to art, to artifacts, clothing, weapons, and historical and rare documents. The permanent collection contains examples of all these and more, from prehistory, through the Spanish colonial era, to Texas frontier and statehood. Also housed within the exhibits are western rarities in general, and paintings both period and modern that can stand “Texas Tall” against any museum in the world. It is not just a place of sights, but also of sounds. After a brief description of an exhibited Spanish mission bell, my childlike curiosity to reach out and tap it with my ring to hear its tone (very strongly discouraged!) was assuaged by the recorded tone as we passed by—a satisfying, sybaritic, and satiating sound, saving me admonishment and embarrassment.

We were honored to be able to engage on this level of enrichment and endowment of family, history, and country. I was exhausted from attempting to retain as much of the richness of detail into memory. From now on, if you say Galveston, I say “The Bryan!”

NOLA: It’s about the food

by Ruth

The trouble with writing an ongoing blog is, well, you can easily get sidetracked. We got sidetracked by New Orleans. Those of you who know us well will not be surprised. Between some of the best food to be found anywhere and drinks to go, it’s a difficult place to focus.

We parked the Silver Submarine at the French Quarter RV Park—a bit of a misnomer, as it’s a couple of blocks from the Quarter proper, but within easy walking distance, which was the main thing.

Our first stop in the Quarter is always the Clover Grill. Open 24 hours a day, and serving the “World’s best hamburgers.” And they’re right. It’s a tiny place, made famous (more’s the pity) by the film Benjamin Button.

Clover Grill burger

 

Clover Grill

 

 

 

 

The next day, we were joined by our good friends from Portland, Jen and Casey. They rented a cute little bungalow in the Marigny, a far, quiet cry from the Quarter, though at this time of year the Quarter is surprisingly empty and quiet.

The Quarter during…nothing
Quiet time in the Quarter

Our first dinner was at our favorite restaurant, Irene’s. Irene DiPietro opened this French Quarter beacon of garlic and red sauce in 1993.  It is at once a cozy, lively, busy, homey place. We started with soft shell crab and bruschetta. Since there were four of us, we were able to sample dishes including a pan-seared freshwater drum (comparable to snapper); duck breast, roasted crispy and glazed with a raspberry pancetta demi and topped with pecans; and Irene’s signature grilled lamb chops with roasted garlic mash and sauteed haricot verts, then finished with a rosemary port wine demi glaze. There was one more dish that I confess I don’t remember. Then, desserts. A bread pudding redolent with raisins and warm bourbon sauce, and a key lime pie with delectable sweetness.

Chicken & waffles, debris & eggs

On Saturday, Ben and I walked about 40 minutes to Bywater for the Drag Brunch at The Country Club, “a neighborhood secret for over 40 years.” We had a delicious brunch: Ben had chicken and waffles, and I had debris topped with poached eggs and hollandaise. For those of you who don’t know what debris is: it’s pronounced “DAY-bree.” It’s the crispy ends of roasted pork that are left in the pan when you pull out the roast. Doesn’t sound like much, but all the flavors of the roast and its ingredients, mingled and cooked into pulled pork heaven.

I want that hat!

Our mimosa-fueled brunch entertainment was a fabulous performance by the Southern Barbitchuates, three lovely drag queens, who worked their way through the restaurant, gathering tips and applause with varying degrees of grace. Southern drag has its own particular style—think big hair and sequined gowns, like Dolly Parton with a dirtier edge. It has a long history here, too; performers inherit the last names of drag houses that predate the 1960s in some instances.

That night, we went to a live performance of Biloxi Blues, the Neil Simon semi-autobiographical play about Eugene Jerome, a young recruit who enlists in the army at the end of WWII. He is shipped from his home in Brooklyn to basic training in Biloxi, MS. At boot camp, Eugene is antagonized by a manic drill instructor and is introduced to adulthood through his experiences with a diverse group of young recruits, a Biloxi beauty, and a local prostitute. The performance was put on by a talented ensemble cast at the World War II Museum in the Warehouse district. This being New Orleans, the play was accompanied by wine and a delicious dinner of braised short ribs—not your typical dinner theater fare, but right up there with some of the best food we’ve had.

Easter Sunday dawned with breakfast at Elizabeth’s in the Upper Ninth Ward, a bustling little place with amazing food.

Calas to die for

We started with calas, dumplings made of cooked rice, yeast, sugar, eggs, and flour—then deep-fried, sprinkled with powdered sugar, and served with honey or maple syrup; they’re like beignets with a punch. Though the rest of the breakfast was, indeed, deserving of the “best breakfast in New Orleans” title, it was the calas that made the meal.

After that, we wandered into the Quarter and found ourselves along the Easter Parade route. Unlike bigger festivals like Mardi Gras, the Easter Parade route had plenty of open space to sit on stoops or doorsteps, or stand on the curb and dance along to the music. You won’t be surprised to learn that I did the former, while Ben did the latter. Here are a few pix of the parade:

Grand Marshal, great 70s hair!
Elvis impersonators on scooters
Ben and Casey with parade swag

 

Later in the afternoon, the Gay Easter Parade was scheduled. We walked over to that parade route, bought a couple of cocktails and found a perch to watch the parade. Here are a few photos of that:

Rainbow unicorn leading the parade
Lovely Easter bonnet
Girl, those upper arms give you away
Right on!
Oh, the hat!
Best Easter bonnet EVER

 

 

 

Ben, Ruth, Jen, & Casey with just a fraction of our Easter Parade swag

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

That night we went to Frenchman Street and wandered from club to club: blues, jazz, R&B filled the air. Some of the best music came not from the clubs, but from street musicians in doorways along the avenue.

Our last brunch with our friends, this time in the Marigny.

Breakfast of Champi… um, me

Pulled pork and poached eggs have become my favorite breakfast, accompanied by either a Bloody Mary or mimosa. To go, of course.

 

After they left, we strolled back to the Quarter for the must-stop at Café du Monde, not at all crowded during the week, for the de rigeur beignets and café au lait.

On our final day, we drove to the Odd Fellows Cemetery, reputed home of the Gates of Hell. Although we knew it was closed, we also had heard through the grapevine that we could talk our way in with an “offering” and the name of a deceased, both of which we had (though we may have incurred the wrath of the dead by stealing flowers from a nearby graveyard).

Does this lead to the Gates of Hell?

The only way out of the cemetery is by calling a number written on a matchbook—Satan’s own cellphone, perhaps? Alas, alas, when we got there, we found a phone number to call, but the person on the other end, instead of sounding like the Prince of Darkness

Does Satan carry a cellphone?

with flames in the background, sounded just like an ordinary guy with daytime TV in the background. He apologized and said he could get there in a couple of hours.

 

With no time to wait, we made the excellent decision to visit Dooky Chase’s, in the Treme, for lunch.

Barack Obama ready to dig in

We were shown to a table—perhaps the very same table our hero, Barack Obama, sat in when he visited.

“Oh, no, you don’t!”

The story goes that, when he reached for the hot sauce to add to his gumbo, owner and chef Leah Chase gave him a double barrel of “Oh, no, you don’t!”

Miss Leah, now in her 90s, has been working the restaurant since 1957. This largely self-taught “Queen of Creole,” who never measures an ingredient—she measures the results—has been inducted into the James Beard Foundation’s Who’s Who of Food & Beverage in America and honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Southern Foodways Alliance.

The real fame of Dooky Chase’s, however, comes from the time when blacks and whites couldn’t eat in the same restaurant together—except at Dooky Chase’s. Miss Leah knew that no one would be arrested in her restaurant or a riot would break out. Therefore, all civil rights meetings in New Orleans took place inside.

We had the lunch buffet of salad, corn and crab soup, red beans & rice, dirty rice, spicy sausage, meatloaf, and—now you find out—The Best Fried Chicken on the planet. Followed by a fresh peach cobbler, right out of the oven.

The next morning, we packed up, somewhat sadly, but ready for our next adventure—Mississippi, here we come!

 

 

 

 

Finding the Blues

For those of you who are enjoying this blog and have not checked out our 2013 blog: Black Cat Bone and Mojo: Finding the Blues, click on Fun Links to travel with us on our journey to find the devil that convinced Robert Johnson to trade his soul for immortality.

Nothin’ says Amurica like the rodeo!

Seeing a rodeo was big on our bucket list, and Rodeo Austin—our San Francisco-away-from-home in the middle of the conservative melting pot of the Lone Star State—would be the host. We’ve been talkin’ ’bout goin’ to this halfway across this fine country. Well hell, we’ve got our boots, hats, belts, and sheep dog, and we’re falling steeply into an easy drawl as we speak with the locals. To top it off, despite Ruth’s cringing reluctance, Dwight Yoakam is the musical headliner at the first night of the show. My earlier years living in the south inoculated me to the musical brand, gotta say.

In driving rain, we pulled into the huge gateway to the rodeo and fair ground causeway, inching our way in the vehicle throng to pay the $10 dollar parking fee. This granted us permission to be waved into the vast expanse of field mud, muck, and rocks, to park in anonymous rows…ruh row. Finding our horse upon return is going to be one heck of a challenge. “Not to worry,” I said to myself as I pulled out my cell phone parking app and clicked Current Location.

The carnival midway was lit up like Vegas on a Friday night, but the driving rain rendered attendance on the rides to close to zero. The colorful lights refracting through the rain drops made the scene an island-like mirage likened to a scary clown carnival movie set, and if you’ve seen the 1962 film Carnival of Souls, well…

Disappearing into a dark hole of hell was not to be our destiny that night as we soon were encapsulated into the throngs of people working their way into a huge oblong interior stadium with seating all the way from ring side high up into bleachers. All seats were ticketed, though not necessarily practiced, and folks competed politely for better seating. There was a fair share of reluctant shuffling through the tight rows—like everything else in Texas, most folks are BIG. In order to get to our seats, however, we had to pass through the portals of commercial chaos, venders selling everything western, from clothing, hats, belts, accoutrement, household art, farm equipment, animal supplies, and of course the ubiquitous beer and refreshments of the baser kind. We discovered, after seating, someone drinking one of Ruth’s favorite ciders and this synergized her rodeo experience. The wait in line for said drinks though, rivaled that of ladies’ restroom lines in a rock concert.

Just as my drink purchase finished, the stadium lights fell, and in the darkness an attractive young filly—woman, that is—rode out into the bright moving searchlight on a stunning pure white horse carrying an American flag and rode in synchrony and circles to the music. All hats were off, everyone standing, many with hands over hearts. The rowdy rumbling crowd transformed itself into a silent, worshiping unified mass of damp eyes and trembling patriotic hearts. As the “…land of the free, and the home of the brave,” stanza completed, a monstrous cheer arose from the throng. Capturing the moment’s ardent devotion, a video appeared on the massive center ring screen portraying all-American western scenes and images from the rodeo’s past. We had arrived at our destination.

“Why go to a rodeo?” you might ask. Well, tie-down roping, team roping, steer wrestling (or “rasslin’”), saddle bronc riding, bareback bronc riding, bull riding, and barrel racing, all vestiges from the Golden Age of the American West.

When you’re going to have a baby, and of course you’re planning on having your kid take up rodeo, your choice of names may just make the difference between winning and losing. These are the actual (we presume) first names of the contestants:

Bull riding: Wyatt, Chase, Dalton, Troy, Colby, Toby, Nate
Barrel racing: Kara, Cayla, Rachel, Kaitlyn, Morgan, Molly, Katelyn, Kimmi
Saddle bronc riding: Luke, Toby, Brady, Preston, Tom, Dusty
Steer wrestling (rasslin’): Jacob, Taz, Cody, Chason, Cody, Kody, Trell
Tie down roping: Justin, Cooper, Cade, Dillon, Cody, Clint
Team roping: Will/Tanner, Jake/Tyler, Cale/Nick, Clayton/Dakota, Jessie/Jet, Brett/Wesley, Zac/Will, Ty/Krece

Now these are names to reckon with!

Watching this extravaganza is mind boggling in its complexity, hand-eye coordination, strength, and damn-sure tenacity. Tossing a lasso at full gallop to capture a running calf’s legs while your partner at the same time lassos its head in approximately seven seconds takes countless hours of horse, calf, and human exercise. Watching any bareback or saddle bronc or bull riding makes you cringe as you image the G forces racking your body and the feeling of being thrown from your mount countless times to acquire these skills, renders your knees weak. Certain areas of a cowboy’s anatomy would be the first to agree. This is a young man’s sport, to be enjoyed by us thankful spectators. I can’t imagine what drug could remedy the pain both short term and long from this sport. Perhaps this explains the rodeo’s popularity? This is spectacle, not only of skill but raw physicality that we perhaps all envy when it is past, if it ever came.

On the other side of the coin is the ever popular mutton-bustin’, where 3- to 9-year-olds take turns being hoisted up on the backs of sheep to see how long they can ride before dropping like full ticks off a dog. This is a real crowd pleaser, as everyone waits to see the wackiest position a kid can wrangle themselves into while barely grasping their woolen reins. The poor kids looked kind of lost in the exercise, not really sure what the heck was going on, and too young in most cases to develop a complex based on being laughed at by a crowd. At the end of this “Joke’s on You” exercise, each kid got an identical trophy regardless of time riding, not exactly the kind of message of winners and losers in life to portray. Incidentally, there is actually a phobia of sheep believe it or not called Ovinophobia. Put that in your woolen drawer. It may well be that some of these kids will go on to look up that definition later in life…or they’ll move on to horses and bulls. By the way, did you know that there is also a phobia of horses and bulls too: equinophobia and taurophobia?

No rodeo is complete without the ubiquitous clown, which in this case proceeded to make a fool of himself and the crowd, hey…isn’t that what a clown is for?! You got your clown arguing with the announcer, clown stealing a fan’s cell phone and looking up texts to read to the audience, clown spearheading vendor giveaways to sections of the crowd, clown leading crowd cheers, clown climbing in the classic clown barrel to be head butted by angry, agitated bulls. That was my favorite activity for that clown, yep justice.

And the moment we’ve all (mostly, except for Ruth) been waiting for! Tractors pulling trailers piled into the stadium loaded with sound equipment and a platform that folded out into a revolving stage. Dwight Yoakam’s roadies put on a premiere performance of setting up in 20 minutes for a band of five members and all their gear; very impressive. Unfortunately, the acoustics sucked in the stadium and you had to really struggle to get the words to the music. 99% of the songs were Dwight’s hits so the crowd, knowing the music, sang along…yes, me too in places, though Ruth struggled with this. I helped her with one of the lines in the truck later though:

“I’m a honkey-tonk man, and I can’t seem to stop,
love to give the girls a whirl to the music of an old juke box.
When my money’s all gone, pick up the telephone, say,
‘Hey hey, momma, can yer daddy come home.’” Yep!

One hour of solid music passed, including a tribute to the late Merle Haggard, and people intuitively sensed that if they didn’t leave then, they would be in a world of traffic hurt. I didn’t, thanks to undying Dwight fever to the last. Ruth and I agreed to meet at our entrance point to the stadium, and she gratefully bolted. I should have followed her, as how often do we forget that everyone leaving at once is not the same as everyone coming in over a period of several hours. I stared at my parking app in the rain for several minutes until Ruth took control and said, “Just follow me.” Our horse was tied where we parked her, and as is often the case, every one of the thousands present appeared to leave ahead of us on the one-lane exit road. Then there was the road construction on the streets of Austin that rivals that of the worst of any city I’ve ever seen. But that friends, is a different story!

One short story, above 25 stories, above 40 centuries, on the bottom of the ocean, 265 million years ago…or…

Long roads: short thoughts

I wake in the middle of the night to the sound of the wind beating our aluminum trailer skin, and crack an eye to watch it blow through curtains, carrying memories from time lost, when wind and water shared this space…this is a place where the earth dreams and remembers when continents bonded together in primordial conversations, waters delineating horizons.

This was a time when Earth brought to light the elements of itself to explore. There were no mammals, birds, or bees; or flowers to reflect color and awaken genesis through evolution. Dragonfly was king of the air; waters seethed in eddies of life; Earth simmered, memories of its youth still fresh to express; water, the womb of earth, nourished the cycle of change and transformation. Trilobite, one of the earliest of sea creatures, was nearing the end of its existence, and the reefs were closed off by tectonic movement. Land rose, water reformed itself in harmony with its contours, and all intercourse, interactions, and detritus in this liquid abyss of life slowly passed down, particle by particle, drawn by Earth’s gravity to settle on the sea bed, slowly accreting over countless eons of time.

Millions of years of sea bed accretion

Sea levels rose and fell as Earth morphed, and froze at times. Looking back in the mists of antiquity with the “eye of today” into those night skies would provoke questions and confusion, for galaxies and stars would be unrecognizable in contrast to our present panorama.

Countless skeletal fragments and marine organisms that fell through the abyss of water and time developed into our limestone sedimentation found all over the world, and particularly in our latest region of travel, central and southern Texas. The fossil reefs can now be seen in road cuts throughout the region and we stopped to bask in the rock time machine, and study with fascination the zoology in a small sampling within these cuts.

It is interesting to note that creationists state that the Great Flood, which we all learned carried Noah and the ark to safety (after, let’s not forget, killing every living being on earth, including innocent babies and children), is presumed to have taken place somewhere between about 4,000 and 100,000 years ago (yes, this is a considerable span of conjecture!). In order to fit this biblical paradigm into the development of limestone which is factually dated to approximately 350 million years ago, creationist hypotheses state that too much limestone exists on earth to be created in such a short time to fit into the biblical itinerary. They then postulate that it was created by the earth’s natural chemical/geologic formulations such as are found deep in the ocean near the tectonic trench and—I am not making this up—close to the “lost city.” (I’m not going here, okay?!) There are some mighty complicated chemical combination explanations as well as challenges to how long it takes for caves to be formed. Seems creationists haven’t heard of Occam’s Razor.

But there’s more: It was noted that the care keepers of caves continually shorten their projected dates of origin, and that stalagmites were “observed” to be formed in a matter of days (I’m not going to ask about their method of data collection, and anyway, I digress). You can sharpen your critical thinking and perspectives one way or another, by checking out any number of creation “science” (oxymoron alert!) websites. One, in particular, allows you to delve into profound subjects such as the origin of the Grand Canyon, the earth’s radioactivity, an explanation of the elongated and flattened Mastodon penis, and technical notes to fill in the details on how the great catastrophic flood projected rocks into space which became…comets…? But I digress: I bet you want to return to the aforementioned mastodon of the moment. “Creationist research” (oxymoron alert!) noted that when a man is strangled, his penis becomes elongated. (No, I don’t know why they felt the need to study this.) They then leap—and it’s most definitely a leap—to the conclusion that said mastodon strangled itself on grasses while eating at the time of the great cataclysm, because said cataclysm threw water up into the atmosphere, which was then super-cooled, and then returned to the earth to freeze our unfortunate mastodon mid-mastication, pressing and preserving its unfortunate organ for posterity. But I digress…being on the road tends to focus the mind.

Directly adjacent to our campsite, along a tributary of the Pecos River that flows into the Rio Grande, an ancient people painted pictographs on the undersides of the rock wall grottos in Seminole Canyon State Park, Texas. Millions of years post-limestone formation, ground water erosion had created the perfect sweet spot for human migrants to record their exploits hunting camel, bison, elephants (yes, you’re reading this right), and speaking to their gods through magic symbolism and human/animistic interpretations. Once again, the detritus of human interaction rained down on the grotto floors over thousands of years to slowly raise the earthen level, allowing those dreamers to challenge our eyes to understand how they could draw so high up on the rock faces. Did they build ladders? Perhaps. Maybe they stood on each other’s shoulders. It can’t be any more improbable than the Grand Canyon being created in a blink of the eye.

Back in the real world, it seems that mid-19th century cattlemen found these dwellings, housed their cattle in the protected alcoves, and their stock in turn trampled down and moved the earth to lower and earlier human inhabitant levels. This was followed by modern archaeologists who dug down to “rediscover” the lifestyles of our forebears. This lifestyle stands in sharp relief to our current culture, though in some extremely rare occurrences, vestiges can still be found among us today, as can be seen by this rare sighting in the Whole Foods flagship store in Austin, Texas. Notice the staggering “out of time” confusion and uncertainty of this subject seen next to the pastry fridge in a daze…but I digress.

They are still among us!

We all stand on the shoulders of giants or, in reality, trillions of bits of tiny marine microorganisms.

Follow us as we go by clicking the link on the left to the “Map our travels to the horizon.”

More Roadside America: The Great State of Texas

By Ruth

Who knew there were so many roadside oddities to see, not only in this country, but just here in Texas?

Let’s begin with Marfa

Famed for the Marfa Lights (which were explained years ago, though the town continues to promote the “mystery”), its big claim to fame is that it is where the movie Giant, starring Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson, and James Dean, was filmed. As we drove toward Marfa over the flat, desolate, windy prairie, we wondered aloud why this location was chosen. Perhaps because it is flat, desolate, and windy.

On the road to Marfa is the mostly-famous Prada Store, out in the middle of nowhere. No, its not really a store, just a storefront, used for a movie and then abandoned.

What many people don’t know, though, is that just four miles down the road in Valentine, there’s another storefront, not nearly as famous, but possibly more familiar.

Oh, and Valentine’s other claim to fame? You can send mail here to be postmarked on February 14, from Valentine. With a population of just 129 souls, I suspect it’s their big day.

We arrived in the small town of Marfa and headed for El Cosmico, the local hippie campground/trailer park/teepee & yurt village. A small grouping of lovingly restored vintage travel trailers were nestled next to a circle of yurts, with a collection of teepees lurking in the background. A communal bathhouse, wood-fire-heated hot tubs, and outdoor kitchen completed the hippie commune picture. We loved it; and stayed for two nights.

El Cosmico accommodations
The bathhouse

 

 

 

 

 

In town, the hotels where the movie stars stayed make their reputation with it: At the Hotel Paisano, home of the cast and crew of Giant, we had a cocktail and delicious dinner in “Jett’s Bar.” Across the street at the Hotel St. George, we had cocktails and a not-so-delicious dinner. According to their website, “the original Hotel St. George (which was torn down in 1929) was, for most of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, an oasis for travelers—offering amenities found nowhere else in this corner of the world.” After our long, empty drive to reach Marfa, well, it kinda still is.

Carl, the Lost Horse Saloon host

The Lost Horse Saloon had to qualify as our favorite haunt, though. We met Carl (pictured here), who welcomed us to yet another open-carry state with a friendly lick, then proceeded to fall asleep on the bar.

Trailer parks and food trucks

We had a date with an ancient trailer park in Austin, Texas, for the week before the South By Southwest Festival, so hightailed it east. Not without a stop in the countryside at Salt Lick BBQ, justifiably famous for its barbecue.

Salt Lick BBQ

After lunch, on the continuing drive, I noticed that, out here in the middle of nowhere in Texas, people must make their livings however they can. A few of the signs (and I am not making these up): bed & breakfast and construction company; Yee-Haw outfitters; and my all-time favorite: orchard, peach ice cream and taxidermy.

We checked into our RV park (a glorified label, it’s really just a crappy trailer park, except for the location—right across the Colorado River from downtown Austin).

Airstream Row

We felt right at home, though, with a collection of vintage Airstreams across the way, and miles of trails to hike with Gyp. Most of the people we met in the park were either retirees passing through, or Millenial hipsters taking advantage of the relatively cheap rent in a plum location.

A selection from Hey, Cupcake!

Right down the street from us was one of Austin’s famed food truck courts, containing the likes of Kebabilicious, Hey…You Gonna Eat or What?, The Mighty Cone, and, my favorite, Hey Cupcake! For dinner, I had an avocado stuffed with chicken and cheese, then lightly battered and fried (because, remember, this is Texas). Dessert was a sampler plate:

Keeping Austin weird

You’re waiting for more roadside Americana, right? Well, look no further than the Museum of the Weird, in downtown Austin. In its purposefully dim interior, we worked our way through the collection of Sasquatch footprint casts, three-legged calves, mummies, and various sideshow gaffs* to be guided to their latest acquisition, the famed Minnesota Iceman.

According to Wikipedia: The Minnesota Iceman is a sideshow exhibit that depicts a man-like creature frozen in a block of ice. It was displayed at shopping mallsstate fairs, and carnivals in the United States and Canada in the 1960s and early 1970s and promoted as the “missing link” between man and Neanderthals. In February 2013, the Minnesota Iceman was auctioned on eBay. The listing read: “This is the actual sideshow gaff billed as ‘The Minnesota Iceman’ by Frank Hansen in the 1960s. This is a one of a kind hoax that was fabricated by a mid-20th century showman.” It was purchased by Steve Busti, owner of the Austin, Texas Museum of the Weird, and put on display so that I could share it with you, dear reader.

Finally, we were treated to a classic sideshow stunt of “nail in the head” by the dapper Eric. I’d have taken a photo for you, but I had to look away, sorry.

The Minnesota Iceman(?)

* Gaff: Anything controlled or faked, for example, P.T. Barnum’s Feejee Mermaid. A gaff isn’t a genuine freak of nature, regardless how convincing it looks, but a specimen manufactured to look freakish.

It ain’t Texas without a rodeo

Just a sign, or an opinion?

Half rodeo, half country “music” concert (forgive the quotation marks, but you all know that I believe “country music” to be an oxymoron). I negotiated with Ben to sit through an hour of the twangy Dwight Yoakam (apologies to Jan in England) so that we could see the first finals of Rodeo Austin. More about the rodeo coming soon from the talented pen—erm, keyboard—of Ben. But my impression? Bucking broncos, steer roping, barrel racing, bull riding—super-fun, and I signed myself up on the rodeo circuit mailing list.

Remember the Alamo—or, not

We blew out of Austin just before the SXSW Festival began, and headed south to San Antonio. Well, you can’t visit San Antonio without everyone encouraging you to visit the Riverwalk and the Alamo. The Riverwalk is, essentially, a crowded tourist mall, lined with mediocre restaurants, expensive and crappy gift shops, and hundreds of fat-butted tourists weaving around in oblivion, or sitting listlessly in the countless tour boats that float past, a bored guide monotoning some quasi-historical fact or other. My advice? Skip it. Unless, of course, you can travel back in time, to 1911 when the Riverwalk was the largest red-light district in Texas—it ranked third in the nation. In fact, the district was so popular that a guidebook was published directing you to all manner of “sporting” establishments, such as road houses, cock-pits, and, of course, brothels. The 25-cent booklet states, “This Directory of the Sporting District is intended to be an accurate guide to those who are seeking a good time.”

And the Alamo? As “hallowed ground and the Shrine of Texas Liberty,” it does its job, I guess, though the gift shop is the biggest part of it. As to the reliability of the “history” they promote, well, as I’m so fond of saying, don’t believe everything you’re told, check it out for yourself.

Toilet seats, glow-in-the-dark mini golf, and stuffed heads

Rounding out our tour of little-known places to visit, we headed for Barney Smith’s Toilet Seat Art Museum. Retired Master Plumber Barney Smith started creating his one-of-a-kind toilet seat art about fifty years ago using toilet seats that were set to be thrown away, and, as of today, has completed more than 1,200.

Toilet seat art

Each seat is unique, commemorating some person, place, or event, such as Michael Jackson, San Francisco (which we autographed, natch), cosmetic dentistry or leathercraft, or the Mt. St. Helens eruption.

Ruth with artist Barney Smith

We spent a happy half-hour chatting with Barney, who loves to talk about his work and, just when you’re working your way out, will say, “Wait! Here’s one about …” and you’re sucked back in.

At the end of the day, there’s nothing like a round of mini golf, and a visit to Monster Mini Golf is nothing like a round of mini golf. Well, okay, it IS mini golf, but check it out. 

 

Lit by black light, strobe lights flashing, techno music pumping at full blast, it’s an afternoon to remember.

Lastly, cocktails at the Buckhorn Saloon & Museum and Texas Ranger Museum, featuring the Carnival of Curiosities and the American Sideshow; the only museum where you can enjoy a cocktail while you stroll the exhibits. The collection of stuffed animal heads here rivals the one at Foster’s Big Horn in Rio Vista, California, and when questioned, the bartender said, “We have every animal here.” Every animal? I challenged him with the Foster’s Big Horn platypus. “Oh, well, no, we don’t have a platypus.”

Walrus, platypus, and cocktail at Foster’s Big Horn

Drinks on the house.

 

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Smiling Seniors Siren Saga

Picture, if you will: An RV park that appears on the shimmering horizon, beckoning you to an oasis of organization and security from the wilds of BLM camping. Tanks are in need of dumping and refilling, laundry and larder are in need of replenishment for the miles ahead. Your web search reveals that this encampment is cooperatively owned and this is new to you, so you enter: The Twilight Zone?

Registration at the office is VERY organized, and you scan your immediate surroundings to notice that bulletin boards grace the walls with rules, times, dates, and organizational details found only in the upper strata of RV parks. Your admission hits a minor glitch when you find that the queue is two days long for a spot with full hook-ups, confirmed by a glance out the window at the line-up of huge Class A rigs waiting their turn for entry. The super-friendly and professionally attired office personnel assure you that patience will produce a week-long spot at a beyond-reasonable rate of $50, so you move into a holding area at the high end of the park. Your temporary spot is overlooking a stunning valley framed along the horizon by a jagged mountain chain topped in snow. Not so bad for a holding pattern.

You drive to your temporary spot at a safe and carefully marked 10 mph, and pass many people moving about their duties, all waving and wishing you well. Golf carts pass you, the occupants wave greetings, you observe that each RV plot is immaculately landscaped. This sure is a friendly place. No sooner do you perform your set-up ritual, then a golf cart approaches, its driver, wearing the ubiquitous name tag, leans out to extend a welcome and the declaration that your newly found park is extremely friendly. You chat amicably, aided by knowledge of the driver’s name and title ID’d on his chest badge. You are informed that you should absolutely sign up for The Tour, and you acknowledge politely.

Soon a new neighbor pulls in next to you, interestingly in a similar Airstream, and they reveal that they were invited to take The Tour as well. What is The Tour? And for that matter, what’s up with this place? you wonder. In every outside activity you are greeted warmly by ID-badged occupants, hands wave from passing golf carts, dog walkers nod warmly. Tossing a trash bag into the dumpster you are encouraged to swap travel stories and plans, and when you find the clubhouse-kitchen-auditorium-laundry facility, everyone engages you as family. You are frequently asked if you have taken The Tour.

Two days pass, and you are escorted to your promised hook-up spot to start the week’s discount. Your next door neighbor arrives with his wife to greet you, looking very much like they stepped out of a Norman Rockwell painting to ask…yep, you know, “Have you taken The Tour?” But now more information is divulged to fill in the gaps of wonder. You are informed that after The Tour you should sign up on The List to acquire a spot to join the co-op. It appears that this park is “special,” in that you can sign up and put up a down payment to ensure a spot to bid on a lot when it opens. This eventually leads you up the food chain to gain better spots as they open up…and this opens the door to this overtly friendly retirement community where everyone has a place, every place is carefully defined, everyone has a job with a name tag (as is expected in this co-op), and you can then reach out to warmly offer the fruits of community living, and The Tour, to newcomers into your family enclave.

So what is The Tour, you ask yourself? The answer comes quickly from your recent Airstream neighbors, who are relocated just down the street from you. A large golf cart manned by, of course, a badged tour guide comes to take prospects for a two-hour detailed description of the co-op which your Airstream neighbors describe as being, “One and a half hours too long.” But…they might have drunk the Kool-Aid, for the community seems intriguing to them.

Looking out across the park of approximately 800 lots—all carefully manicured—you see that everything and everyone has its place, and this of course rationally maintains necessary organization and comfort for the occupants.

Customized RV lot

Walking around the streets you notice that rocks of different sizes have been painted with pictures of animals and flowers, all of the desert vegetation ringing the avenues is carefully pruned and labeled with identification tags, buildings housing workshops are open and maintenance crews are busy making repairs and improvements. A “Founder’s Park,” with gazebo and nearby convenient porta-potty hosts group events and, particularly, each evening’s Happy Hour, to bolster the co-op’s body politic. You ponder the name of this co-op for future reference, SKP Saguaro (say “S-K-P” aloud and you hear “Escapees,” the actual name of the organization).

You speculate on all the possibilities that this co-op has to offer, daily and nightly activities not limited to billiard tables, dancing—with associated lessons—yoga, movie nights, crafts, lunches, special potluck dinners, and much more, all very socially comforting. But large in your mind is the freedom to explore, to discover the magic around each bend in the road, the education in conversation with the diversity of those you meet, and the lessons they amplify to broaden your perspective and wisdom. Yes! You are already on The Tour!

 

 

Downtown Drug Deal?

Ruth and I drove into Tucson to celebrate a long lost connection with my brother Bryan, his wife Karri, and their son Joshua, at the popular downtown Mexican eatery, La Poca Cosa. We arrived a bit early, so I mentioned to Ruth that I had seen a Bank of America just a few short blocks from the restaurant, and I sauntered off to pull out some backup cash.

Approaching the teller machine (what’s a teller these days?), I saw two men standing on either side of their buddy, who was at the machine waving his arms in a very excited—though non-threatening—manner. This man’s face was completely tattooed, facial piercings prominent, poly workout pants sagging deep below his butt, which was nonetheless adorned in designer undies. My eyes had plenty of time to size up this posse. It didn’t take but a second to recognize a disturbance in the prospect of this group of depositors. The man to my right had a large holster to secure what looked like a 45 caliber semi-automatic pistol at the ready, and he laughed and bantered with his partner who composed the third leg of the trio. Now this was a sight I had never seen, being, as we are, from non-open-carry, strict gun-control California.

At first glance it seemed to me that the armed man was the bank security officer, but this melted away quickly in the absence of any official uniform and recognizable insignia. My mind raced with situational processing as I observed Teller Man reach into a large paper bag, pull out a stack of $100 bills about an inch thick, jam an ATM card into the slot, and, after a long series of keypad punches, stuff them into the cash feed slot. I have seen bill counting machines in Vegas and remembered their telltale sounds—shluck, shluck, shluck, shluck—at one-eighth-second intervals. The machine took a seemingly interminable amount of time to count the stack, and I kept my personal space well outside the hand feeding the ATM’s hungry maw. I could feel the consciousness of the trio sizing up my look, perhaps scanning for a competing pistol bulge, and stepped outside myself to see through their eyes, making sure there was a slight, friendly-cool smile on my face. Just enough to not raise suspicion.

I listened to their parried jokes infused with street slang trading in counterpoint to the sorting tabulation, and struggled to comprehend. The machine finished its money mastication, Teller Man jerked his arms as if swatting flies, did a spin, and while seeming to talk nonsense, reached into his sack, pulled out an additional stack of cash, and began the whole process again. Five minutes had now passed, and I just knew that copping an attitude about my length of time in the queue could turn their gaiety into something more ominous.

The machine kept up its counting rhythm and finally, after a protracted amount of time—made even longer by my need to connect with my family—it fell silent. Teller Man pulled out his card, reinserted another (all the while rapping non-stop), punched in numbers, and then jammed in a fresh replacement stack of endless green bills. Flabbergasted, and cautiously cranky, as now ten minutes had passed, I looked around in hopes of discovering a hidden ATM, any available bank, in which to take refuge, but there was none.

Finally the money count ended, but the transactions did not conclude until Teller Man stabbed the screen in deliberation and determination to eject cash out, which disappeared in a blur of arm waving and staccato street verse into the hands of his compadres. The posse slapped hands, confirming their esprit de corps, and as they walked away I carefully thanked them for depositing enough cash so that I could complete my transaction. They all paused, staring at me with steely faces for a breath-holding moment.

After what seemed like days, they processed my attempt to break the fast of speech with levity, and smiles broke out. I breathed a sigh of relief as their fading laughs, jive talk, and the ominous pistol faded down the street.

Arizona Reprised: Ajo (Part 2)

The town of Ajo, as mentioned in an earlier blog post, sits close to the border of Mexico, and takes its name, it is said, either from the Spanish word for garlic, or perhaps from the First Nations People’s similar sounding pronunciation of the word for paint (o’oho), as they were said to have collected red pigment body paint from this area. There probably will not be an answer to this question of origin but one thing is very clear when you take a short drive just outside of town and you talk with the long-time locals. This was a mining town. High grade copper ore was “discovered” by Europeans, who assumed mining from the native Americans who lived in what is now Ajo. The town boomed in 1911 and became Arizona’s first copper mining region.

Early Phelps-Dodge open pit mine in Ajo

Copper was mined in an open pit unlike the subterranean approach which followed a gold or silver vein deep into the earth. Early pictures from the onset of mining in town show a very large open pit with concentric ringed roads dropping into the maw of the earth. On the edge of this maw, some of the remaining local tribes had their village and were hired to work within it. The mine changed hands several times and was eventually bought by Phelps Dodge in 1921, the largest copper mining company in America. A railroad was built from Gila Bend to serve the mining industry and it operated until the fateful year of 1985. The town of Ajo was fully supported by Phelps Dodge, and by this I mean everything was controlled and run by the company: schools, hospital, fire and police departments, all infrastructure. It was very much a self-sufficient, self-serving operation, employing thousands with tentacles reaching throughout the region.

There is a fine line of existence between large company operations, its workers, the economy, and the zeitgeist of attitudes of the time. The union-affiliated workers demanded more money and benefits from the company, the economy was hitting the skids in the mid 80s, dissatisfaction grew, and a labor strike devastated the workers and town. The company brought in non-union workers to fill their spots for a couple of years but the company could not sustain this arrangement. Phelps Dodge pulled out of their Ajo operations and placed their emphasis in other areas with greater return on investment.

Ajo Strike: Winning the battle, and losing the war
Recent Ajo open pit mine closed in 1985

This is a story that has been replayed many times in the saga of industry and labor, creating the inception and growth of the labor movement and with it many stories and songs that are part of Americana.

Walking through Ajo today one sees a town holding on by the strength of mostly the employment of the Border Patrol. It is close to being a ghost town. Huge segments of former mine smelting, crushing, and ore transport in town were cleared away by the company when it moved, leaving the town pockmarked with open space. Near the top of the town sits a boarded up, silent and eerie, four-acre hospital complex, now for sale at $349,000. Ruth and I joked about buying it, calling in Ghost Hunters to certify that it’s haunted, then selling tour tickets.

Abandoned and for sale Phelps-Dodge Hospital…haunted?!

Ringing the town, looming high as a small mountain and running for thousands of yards, sits the slag residue of the crushing and smelting operations from close to 70 years of mining. After long questioning of “in the know” locals, we discovered that Phelps Dodge has not completely relinquished their investment in town. They continue a very small token participation for the reason that at first, had not dawned on us. The clean-up operation of this huge debris field rivaling a Superfund site would devastate the company’s coffers if they were to pull out completely, so a small controlling ownership keeps the EPA at arms’ length.

Slag being dumped on slag mountain top

Just outside of town, at the edge of the tall barbed wire fence that keeps out those seeking danger and satiating curiosity, sits the Ajo Museum, manned by an old former mining engineer.

Ajo, Historical Society and St Catherine Indian Mission

It is a quaint, simple and educational experience for visitors with artifacts from ancient pottery, a recreation of the town’s dentist office, newspaper printing type and presses, now-antique TV broadcasting camera equipment, mining supplies, school desks, and examples of everyday town life that remain as reminders of a once better time before the company closed. One can see the very real comparison to the gold and silver mining ghost town of Bodie, California, that died when the ore dried up and everyone left en masse, leaving their personal effects spookily in situ, perfectly preserved for posterity.

In the museum I dug around in shelves of old books and papers trying to look back in time to discover the town’s soul. Several shelves contained the carefully categorized collection of the town’s high school yearbooks beginning around the end of the 1930s and progressing up to the crash of the mid 80s. I felt like a voyeur, yet was driven to read the teenagers’ inscriptions to each other next to their high school activities. There were cute names for football players, and pledges of friendship between long-skirted, carefully coiffed girls in home economics classes, and assurance to those seeking to go to war. Obvious blending between native American, Latino, and Caucasian students. The ubiquitous prom kings, queens, and courts, proclamations of hope and promise for the future from the high school principal in the forward of each year’s book. Most faces, pictures, and lives long passed, from a town with hope, now gone, school no longer present, building repurposed.

The old museum docent approached me to ask if there were any questions. Thinking for a second, I asked if he went to high school in Ajo. He replied that he had. Holding up a year book, I asked him for his year and he and I dug through the stacks to find the book, look up his name in the index, and I held the book up to his face to compare the picture to the man before me, whose eyes had seen so much since those halcyon days of anticipation of future rewards and success.

Ajo Museum Docent Jose
Docent Jose’s 1958 Year Book picture

Next to his yearbook picture was his sister’s face as well, beaming in high school hope. As is often the case, next to each portrait is listed their aspirations. My docent, Jose, and his sister never fulfilled their high school dreams, yet both still survive, rich in memory, family, and success in their own right. For Jose, the years and mine labor had taken its toll, and had changed his countenance reflecting a hard life, yet with eyes that shone bright in wisdom.

Arizona Reprised: The Desert Museum (Part 1)

 

In recent past blog posts I mentioned that a few places would be revisited for special mention. One of these is the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, which I had briefly described as one of my “favorites.” It sits just on the edge of Saguaro National Park and at first glimpse we both anticipated a fairly mundane desert history, flora, and fauna description. Boy were we wrong! As a kid, when visiting museums, it was pretty much de rigueur to walk past dioramas of ancient scenes of taxidermied animals, dinosaurs being attacked by cavemen…(some people actually believe this one), woolly mammoths, and the like; very often placed behind thick plate glass to prevent the viewers from tossing in their cast-off cigarettes. The Desert Museum, though, is a living exhibition in which you are part of the changing diorama. Walking along a smooth stone pathway, we came to the Earth Sciences Center, passing into a cave so real, through a portal invisibly blended with the natural rock wall face, we had to carefully inspect the material to convince us it was artificial. There were narrow cave passageways to be explored, confining enough to awaken claustrophobic fears, broken by openings with geologic history and rock formations explained, all in an Arizona context. We passed occasional tables set up for docent specialists to answer any questions and expound on special topics. Water flowed and could be heard trickling around, over, and under rock formations lit by the same colored lights that are found on any cave tour.

After passing through the cave environment, a deep explanation of the development of Arizona in the context of the earth’s evolution in its epochs was succinctly and clearly explained. At this point we felt prepared to be connected to the climactic and geographic regions we were about to pass through and the flora and fauna associated with them.

When we passed through the entrance we received a guide map and legend of the nature park, and at first glance it seemed as though part of this place was a zoo, but this was not the case. This living museum takes regions and blends animals and everything around them into context. After we passed the mountain lion and bear habitats, I couldn’t help but glance at our guide’s safety warning that sightings and encounters with wild animals could occur and that should we see a wild animal loose on the grounds we should not approach it—we were to notify museum staff at our earliest opportunity… You betcha!

In a number of habitats animals could be viewed both above and below ground and water. A beaver, for example, could be observed swimming through rocky pools disappearing into its den, but—never fear—a quick skip down a tunnel would bring you to a viewing station and a convenient push button to turn on a light in its windowed hideout. I took advantage of this, and after surreptitiously glancing around to see if anyone was looking, flashed the light on and off to try to irritate it enough to make it look through the glass and bare its massive teeth. It was useless. Countless kids before me had already conditioned my eager industrious buddy to pay no heed.

A mile long dirt pathway was constructed either to simulate a desert loop trail or a hike though a desert canyon with coyotes roaming about, separated from the viewer by only an extremely fine, almost invisible mesh fence. Countless cactus and desert plants were carefully placed and marked to educate and stimulate the senses.

Desert Loop Trail

Crossing a series of bridges over flood washes, signs alerted us that packs of Javelinas took refuge in the cool darkness below. At that moment, a park docent drove by in a golf cart loaded with lettuce and proceeded to pitch it to a rapidly emerging assembly of snorting, tusked peccaries (as they are properly called). They had practiced this drill before and they trotted in-line to the easy hand-outs. We smiled, remembering just a few days before walking through the town of Ajo through packs of these buggers looking much less friendly than in the safety of our current setting.

When we entered the park, the ticket attendant asked me if I was interested in purchasing additional tickets to enable us to have a stingray encounter. I accepted, though years earlier, as a diver, I had the opportunity to observe them in their own environment. By now you are beginning to get the impression that I was one of those troublesome mess-with-the-animals-and-environment kind of kids that caught the eyes of park and zoo caretakers? I suppose so, but that trickster curiosity put me in good stead later in life when learning actually did take place.

Getting back to our story, though: In a pavilion with a large concrete pool, there swam about seven or eight stingrays, circling the perimeter. After paying a couple of bucks for “stingray food” (comprised of squid and shrimp that I threatened to eat myself), we were shown how to hold the food in our hands so that the rays who had no teeth could settle over the food and suck it in.

Their skin was soft and slick like someone had spread liquid laundry detergent over it. They seemed to enjoy our touch, though perhaps it was just the anticipation of food, and they passed over and around our hands like silent ghosts in the water. It was quite calming yet eerie watching and feeling these underwater “birds” slowly and silently flapping their wings past us.

We passed into a very large cactus garden and, though I can see you yawn in familiarity, I suspect you have never seen so many different varieties of cactus in one place. We sure hadn’t. There were creeping, “jumping,” variegated, twisted, flowered, scented, vined, fat, and tall—you-name-it—examples of desert cactus evolution over the thousands of years.

Thorn Fringe cactus

 

Phallocactus
Alien cactus

Seriously impressed and jacked up, we walked almost immediately through a carefully laid out rock labyrinth wherein we contemplatively found peace surrounded by buzzing bees and afternoon songbird calls.

Then there was the hummingbird aviary, which required us to pass through a set of doors and a hanging layer of chain to prevent the buzzing beauties from escaping out of confinement into their real environment. It was amusing to watch clutches of people frozen in place like statues while around them the multicolored hummers darted at hyper-speed. Occasionally a bird took interest in someone’s red clothing and everyone shuffled over to ooh! and aww!, again freezing into place hoping for a replay. But the birds had the upper hand, and it seemed like they were choreographing the humans’ movement.

All good museums’ pathways end with the gift shop and restaurant, and by this time, in the heat of the end of the day, my thoughts turned to the soft-serve ice cream that museum staff skillfully publicized to entice the weary and provide ammunition to whiney kids’ parents. But, it was not to be. Our fascination and interest used up every available minute and we were faced with the closing announcement. Our vehicle was one of the last to leave the parking lot and as we drove out satiated, we both exclaimed that it was admission well spent.

Inside a T. rex, The Historama!, and what is The Thing?: Getting lost in Roadside America

By Ruth

Webster’s dictionary defines kitsch as: “Something that appeals to popular or lowbrow taste and is often of poor quality.”

Well, YES! But what Webster’s doesn’t tell you is that, when it comes to roadside attractions, this kitsch is, in a word, irresistible. Most roadside attractions date from the 1940s through the 1960s, the Golden Age of the American Road Trip, when gas was cheap, cars were the size of yachts, and seat belts were unheard of. Originating in America and western Canada, these oddities were designed to separate tourists from their cash by roadside entrepreneurs who were often as odd as the attractions they built. I remember as a child in the 60s, going on road trips with the family and seeing the billboards as they passed. If nothing else, they broke up the endless monotony of the miles and miles of driving.

While we’ll never be able to recreate the newness, excitement, and titillation of the 1960s roadside attractions, we have sampled a few in the past few weeks:

First stop: Desert Hot Springs, California, just a few miles north of its better-known neighbor, Palm Springs. We spent a lovely long weekend there with our wonderful friends, Debra & Dan, soaking in the lithium hot springs, having tasty meals and sparkling cocktails, and catching up.

But bright and early Saturday morning, the four of us headed west to Cabazon, home of the iconic pop-culture Cabazon Dinosaurs since 1975. As the website states: “Mr. Rex’s Dinosaur Adventure includes a dinosaur exhibit featuring over 50 lifelike dinosaurs, a dinosaur dig, fossil panning, and access to climb inside Mr. Rex all the way up to his mouth!”

And we did. Here’s the view.

The Cabazon Dinosaurs are everything they should be, and more. A lush jungle setting in the desert, dinosaurs peeking through the vegetation at every turn in the path. Indoors, sound effects and audio-animatronics recreated scenes from the Jurassic.

Ben saddles up!

Some dinosaurs even had saddles affixed, for convenient dinosaur riding (for those young-earth creationists with no head for actual facts that believe humans and dinosaurs co-existed).

 

Second stop: The Old West (Old Tucson & Tombstone).

A couple of weeks later, finding ourselves camped outside of Tucson, Arizona, we opted to spend a day at the nearby Old Tucson Movie Studio. This is what Disneyland would be on a budget and with little talent (though there was some, as you’ll read later). Over 400 movies and TV shows have been filmed here, some of which include Gunfight at the OK Corral, Rio Bravo, Have Gun Will Travel, Death Valley Days, Rio Lobo, The Outlaw Josey Wales, Gunsmoke, Bonanza, and The Quick and the Dead. Suffice to say, the place is strangely familiar.

 

 

 

Our first stop was at the Saloon and Palace Theater, whose show featured a sadly talent-deprived troupe of young women, trying oh-so-hard to act, sing, and dance, but crippled with a bad script and the inability to act or dance (though they could sing). The opening solo was, anachronistically, the 1946 “I’ve Got the Sun in the Morning and the Moon at Night,” reminding me of those western movies made in the 1960s, when, instead of 1860s hairstyles and no makeup, all the women had 1960s bouffant ’dos and makeup.

So there this poor woman was, belting out a Cole Porter song to an Elvis generation. Dressed as a madam in an 1880s saloon.

There was a thin plot line about this madam looking for new “girls” for her show. The three obligatory shy, hick, and tomboy personalities came up to “audition.” The show was so incredibly—but oh! I can’t go on.

Happily, the saloon had a full bar, and that just about put us in the right mood. We gratefully exited at the end of that show, and wandered around, struggling to find something that wasn’t too painful to watch. Thankfully, most of the retired, baseball-capped, Old-West-experience seekers waddled from venue to venue, keeping up with the show schedule; this left many of the streets deserted, and it wasn’t hard to turn an empty corner and imagine ourselves in the Old West. We enjoyed striking up conversations with the many costumed actors and workers milling around and manning the mostly-empty exhibits. We saw an okay bank robbery/shootout; the stunts were pretty good, but again, who wrote that script?!?

After a disappointing lunch at Big Jake’s (shamelessly named after the John Wayne film), we found a seat at the top of the bleachers for the Stunt Show. If anything was going to be good, or so downright bad that it would be good, this would be it. And this is where what little talent employed at Old Tucson shone. The three young men put on a show that was actually interesting, and most of the stunts quite good. They demonstrated classic fist-fighting; stomach-punching and face-kicking; how to look like you’re shooting someone when you’re not (and yes, blanks can hurt or kill you if not done right, just ask Brandon Lee—oh, wait…); how to take a fall (sometimes from quite scary heights); and how NOT to get burned in a burning building. And all this while keeping up a steady stream of goofy slapstick, entertaining dialogue, ballet-like choreography, and (mostly) funny jokes.

A week or so later, we set up camp in Benson, Arizona, about 50 miles from Tucson and just down the highway from the (in)famous The Thing? (more below). But first, more of the Old West. Bright and early Sunday morning, be-hatted and booted, we headed to Tombstone, The Town too Tough to Die. Also known as The Most Famous Western Town in the World and Home of the O.K. Corral. Roadside billboards show a quartet of black-hatted, droopy-mustached lawmen, pointing their guns straight at you and shouting “Gunfights DAILY! See Wyatt Earp & Doc Holliday!” And who can resist?

 

We started the morning with a visit to The Tombstone Historama: The True Story of Tombstone, narrated by Actor (need that title!) Vincent Price. A triumph of early 1960s technology, Tombstone’s history “comes alive” in the shape of a lumpy, “laser-controlled” diorama on a revolving stage, decorated with small vignettes from Tombstone’s early history.

Morgan Earp goes THUNK!

The story of Tombstone unfolds through blinking lights, jerky wooden figures, garbled sound effects, and a projection screen that lowers and rises over the diorama to show Western movie clips—although it often rises and lowers in the middle of whatever it is that you’re supposed to be watching—and to allow the diorama to rotate to the next scene. My favorite bit was the vignette showing Morgan Earp being shot while playing pool. The little figure stood for a moment in the spotlight, there was the sound of a gunshot, and poor Morgan abruptly bent at the waist and landed on the pool table with an audible “thunk!” Our laughter mercifully drowned out the soundtrack for a while.

You may well ask, “Why Vincent Price? Why not Walter Brennan, or Jack Elam, or one of the other many supporting actors whose voices we know and love from movie westerns?” Alas, the story is less interesting than we’d hoped: Vincent Price was a friend of the original owner of The Historama, and did it as a favor.

Guided by signs “To the O.K. Corral!”, we sat through an excruciating reenactment of the famous gunfight: the Earp brothers and Doc Holliday versus the Clantons and McLowerys; and it was then we realized just how much talent the guys at Old Tucson had. Seems that any old biker with long hair and a mustache can be employed in the streets of Tombstone—just give ’em some chaps, a pair of boots, a raggedly hat, and hey, presto! another authentic reenator. It helps if they can drive a team of horses, but even if not, they can stand in the street, hawking the various attractions: “O.K. Corral gunfight, starting in 5 minutes!” “Come eat at the original Crystal Palace Saloon!” “Have a drink at Big Nose Kate’s!” and “See the Bird Cage Theatre, one of the West’s Most FAMOUS LANDMARKS and #1 Most Haunted Building in America!”

We loved it.

Third stop: The Thing?

“Mystery of the Desert.” “Ghost of the Past.” “What is it??” These are just some of the many billboards advertising America’s most purposefully mysterious attraction, The Thing?. What is The Thing? Well, to find out, we entered a gift shop full of an amazing collection of kitsch, where we were greeted cheerfully by a gray-haired, bespectacled old lady who asked, “Can I help you?”

“We’re here to see THE THING!” I announced in the same tones you might say, “The Smithsonian!” or “The Louvre!”. She grinned and welcomed us, took our $1 each, and we stepped through the rear door of the gift shop, following the gold footprints painted on the narrow sidewalk. The exhibit consists of three large sheds housing a collection of—what to call it?—the type of old junk you might find in anyone’s garage or barn. The first shed contains old farm implements, tractors, cars. One sign reads, “1932 Buick. This antique car was really THE THING.” “1937 Rolls Royce,” reads another. “This antique car was believed to have been used by Adolf Hitler…THE THING is, we can’t prove it.”

The strangest exhibit was a metal cage full of life-sized wooden figures (carved by Ralph Gallagher, “Artist”), being tortured by hooded mannequins. “This display is worth many thousands of dollars,” we are told by a sign. And this incomprehensible display (my favorite):

But what you all want to know is: What IS The Thing? Well, if we told you, we might become victims of the Curse, so we’ll just have to keep The Secret of the Desert.

Ajo, Sonoran Desert, and The Border Patrol

We barreled down the long desert highway, wipers straining against wind and rain gusts, holding tight to the center of the road against the onslaught of semis streaming from Mexico, our 8-foot wide trailer on a 12-foot wide road meeting oncoming truck blasts with unwavering tenacity. Through rain-streaked windows we perceived millions of Saguaros jutting up from the verdant landscape, their protuberant arms poised in an anthropomorphic interpretive stance.

Saguaro National Park East, ca. 1935.
Saguaro vista

 

 

 

 

 

 

Your mind plays tricks on you in the desert. You begin to see Saguaro (for the neophyte, pronounced: “soo are o”) speaking to you, telling stories; faces appear; dances and cactus orgies beguile and seduce you with flimflam…wait…your head swivels against the gyroscopic need to stay in the lane-lines…the desert speaks to you.

Howdy Folks…nyuck, nyuck!
Rock Climbing Saguaro
Saguaro dragon

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Waltzing Saguaros

This is no barren habitat, for your mind hears the call to join in symbiotic dance. Saguaro, so abundant here, live in balance with the earth through a lifeline much longer than ours. Single 15- to 20-foot high stems don’t grow their recognizable arms until they reach the age of around 95-100, and those with five arms have developed until at least the age of 200, and stand up to 45-70 feet tall. The Saguaro is not only a master of disguise and trickery but also of water engineering and conservation, saving liquid deep inside its core during rainy periods and expanding and contracting as needed.

 

White knuckles ease up on the steering wheel and change in color to a flushed blush as the speed limit signs signal our entry into the small town of Ajo, just a short distance from the Mexican border. We suck in the sights at 25 mph: Chevron gas station, colorfully adorned adobe homes brightly painted and many with unique bas-relief art, Mexican Insurance, sheriff’s SUV, closed gas station, Mexican Insurance, closed restaurant, Border Patrol SUV, Mexican Insurance, laundromat, Border Patrol SUV, Mexican insurance, large grocery—probably the only one in town—Border Patrol again; okay, two open restaurants, Shell gas station next to our RV park destination. Something is different about the town despite the high percentage of law and border enforcement, and it will become clear upon the ensuing day’s adventures. The mysteriousness of this town will be revealed in an upcoming blog post.

We travel south toward the heart of the Sonoran Desert, unique in the Americas for its flora and fauna, into Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument to a secret spot recommended by an old woman in the Ajo Chamber of Commerce who, once upon a time, worked in the monument as a tour guide. We followed her instructions: “Go to mile marker X, past a wire fence, turn left, drive three miles on a rough dirt road, and prepare for a two-mile hike along a seasonal wash into a 19th century cattle homestead in the middle of a stunningly endless Saguaro vista.” Bumping along the dirt trackway, a strange break in the natural perspective caught our eye, a twenty-foot-high pole with a 360-degree infrared camera, long-range telecommunication capability, and a sign below beseeching those “in need” to push the button to report  “assistance” or observation of those who need Border Patrol ministration and deliverance. We took this to mean identifying illegal immigrants passing through, in need of Border Patrol rescue to find their way across the desolate desert into the “safety” of America’s arms.

Our hike brought us to the ruins of the homestead, and through this and immediately adjacent to it was the obscure, unpublished spot in the middle of the seasonal wash. We discovered metates formed in pre-history by Native Americans who ground the pods of mesquite trees for food with manos, or grinding stones, that left circular impressions over great periods of time.

Metates in wash circa 1000+ years
Metate as would be seen by native American using mano

 

 

 

 

 

Metate with a quarter for size reference.

 

 

 

 

 

I found one such grind hole and felt myself transported in time to a moment where the heavy weight of a child burdened my back, sun beating down on my thick work-burdened body, a daydream to be shucked off to return thankfully to the present. These people, however, knew no borders. The land was theirs to be worked for survival and sustenance.

Driving to and from our magic hidden-in-plain-view destination, we passed though the Border Patrol check station on the lonely road between the town of Ajo and Mexico. A warning one mile before arriving prepares drivers for the eventual examination ahead. 65, 55, 45, 35, 25, 15, and 10 mph speed warnings across speed bumps into a narrow “cattle chute” to the waiting officer was enough to scare any would-be illegal alien into admitting guilt before the officer’s interrogation.

US Border Patrol check point near Ajo, Arizona

It was, we assumed, a racial profile interrogation in stages. Ruth’s blonde hair and blue eyes and my Anglo looks passed the superficial examination we presumed, but those outside these standards would have to face other more stringent tests such as vehicle searches, papers, visas, and other arcane standards. We surmised these Border Patrol officers differentiated those seeking the “Give me your tired, your poor…” Statue of Liberty covenant that drew millions seeking safety and promise in freedom, from those south-of-the-border illegal miscreants, crossing on foot, lacking the price of a ship steerage ticket. How many in our great country can claim with pride our family’s immigration story? What made them legal other than a desire to find freedom and opportunity on our shores?

We drove through the nexus of the dark side of the line between perdition and promise. Ruth rolled down the window to greet the twenty-something Border Patrol officer who asked us, “How it was going?” We responded with a flippant colloquial quip to certify our command of the English language, hence “probable citizenship” and were on our way, through false trial to an unknown uncertain security ahead.

It certainly is funny how a routine Border Patrol stop can make you feel like a suspect, because you are. It is a fine line of insecurity that gets challenged. We all take our “American way” of freedom for granted. I’m reminded of the time I worked as a contractor for the US Embassy refugee program in Thailand during the Cambodian, Laotian, and Vietnamese diaspora. I participated in countless refugee examinations, culminating in the final INS interview that determined “go or no-go” to America. Not only were those interviewed stressed and bewildered, but it felt as if I was on a roller coaster ride out of control. Many of the “grand inquisitors” were kindly and supportive, but a very few exhibited the megalomania, ego, and power-hungry sadism that is raising its head in government these days. One person in particular took great pride in breaking down the interviewed with his appearance in cowboy hat, fancy boots, and cute young refugee women who hung on his arm like remoras on a shark. He would examine families’ ear lobes for differentiation and look for cracks in their stories to exploit. He was greatly feared, and he played on it. Memories of these moments cross my mind every time I am confronted by those who walk the razor’s edge with their given power.

Now with these thoughts resounding in my head, we drove on past the check point and soon, looming ahead, breaking the stunning beauty of our desert panorama, a giant edifice appeared on the horizon like the black monolith in the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. We slowed down to identify what could be placed in such an unlikely spot, like dropping a Manhattan office building in the middle of nowhere. The United States Border Patrol moniker shone back at us in huge imposing letters framed by shiny steel and glass, and a backdrop of a hundred or more official vehicles ready for action.

US Border Patrol Station 3 near Ajo, Arizona

This was a giant middle finger on the landscape, paid for by the US taxpayer, probably under the auspices of George W. Bush. Every few minutes a Border Patrol vehicle would pass us at great speed—who in power needs to follow the rules of the masses? We looked at each other in wonder. How could this desolate place have such an overwhelming border enforcement presence? Okay, yes, there are the illegals, drug dealers, opportunists, and such seeking to suck the nourishing life force and deprive the opportunities of everyday you and me but—whoa! This was huge. And very soon, as we traveled on to our next destination, we quickly discovered more of these fortress-like structures within close proximity to each other…and they want to build a wall along 2,000 miles of the US/Mexico border..? As Pogo once spoke in the comic strip of yesteryear, “We have found the enemy, and it is us!”

Oh! Did I mention the Sonoran Desert in the title of this blog? This place is truly one of the wonders of North America, supporting flora and fauna unique to this region. If you look up the definition of desert, you will find a completely different meaning than imagined of this place. As I write, the sweet scent of creosote bush (not asphalt) wafts through the air. Bird sounds are everywhere. A brilliant red cardinal, overwintering here, just landed on a nearby cactus, building sustenance for the long flight north in spring. Yesterday’s dog walk put us close in proximity to a pack of yipping coyotes, and that of a day earlier to large family of javelinas (or more properly, peccaries) that look like small pigs.

Wild Javalinas foraging for food

Colorful butterflies flutter near branches of desert willow, near shaded hummingbirds sipping nectar from cactus flowers. Bees are abundant. The occasional kit fox crosses sandy trackways created by countless animal foraging. Evidence of crawling creatures is found in the tarantula and snake holes under shaded desert marigold, globe mallow, and brittlebush. Life is abundant and lives in the scale and scope of evolution from a much earlier geologic time when this region transformed from sea to savanna, to ice cap, to forest, and eventual desert. The timeline is unimaginable to us, who view life in the perspective of around 100 years. North America formed between 1.5 and 1 billion years ago from a planet that is around six billion, so let’s do the math, eh? That’s 15 million lifetimes. If we could speed up time like that simulated in the movie The Time Machine, change would boggle our minds, as matter materialized and dematerialized in a vertigo of imagination. Nothing is as it was, yet all share the same common materials recycled again and again, infinitely.

We had the opportunity to touch a meteorite displayed at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum just outside of Tucson, predating the formation of our sun and solar system, long before the earth was just a mass of glowing gases not yet congealed. It was composed of known elements, of course. I started to ask so many questions. Where did the water that sustains life come from on a planet originally composed of fiery gasses? And on and on. More about one of the most amazing museums I have ever visited in a later blog. I am asking a new question now: Will there ever come a time when borders and politics no longer separate people and opportunities from each other? Will we ever come to recognize that we all come from the same “stuff?” That when we view our earth from space, all matter is equally bound together in symbiotic embrace: viewed from the stars, are we not all conjoined elements?

Needless to say, we are in love with this place, rich in diversity and living wonder. Life is both abundant and endangered, some species are only to be found here in remote and protected areas. As Ruth quoted in an earlier blog post from Marshal South: “The Desert! Either you will love it, or you will hate it. If you hate it, you will fly from it, and never wish to see its face again. If you love it, it will hold you and draw you as will no other land on earth.”

Come join us!

 

 

 

 

For more photos, check out our Instagram posts: @LyfsArt and @BenMacri52

Quartzsite, Arizona

Our S.E. campsite quadrant
Quartzsite view by air

 

 

 

 

 

 

Driving into Quartzsite, one is at first struck with the specter of a vast hive of humanity’s industry: the ebb and flow of foraging, building, prospecting, constructing, provisioning, transitioning, connecting with new and old friends, and mostly, as far as the eye can see, the vagabonds’ conveyance: RVs. I surmise that a quarter of America’s recreational vehicles are represented here, and maybe a third of Canada’s, tens of thousands it seems, as far as the eye can see in any direction. Quartzsite isn’t really a town per se but rather a compression of interactive, symbiotic, and associative interests, a living entity that morphs in season and time to match the moment. Being one of the hottest places in America with temperatures often exceeding 120 degrees Fahrenheit in the summer, winter is its sweet spot.

It has been said that this seasonal gathering is the Burning Man event for the retired crowd and everywhere you go, geezers are abundant, mixed in with the grizzled, bearded, tattooed, prospector, Harley-Davidson-driving, renegade wannabees. There are also a plethora of Toy Hauler RVs carrying innumerable ATVs, which are also seen careening along desert tracks and old mining roads in shrouds of dust. It is not unusual to be passed on the highway by huge million-dollar 40-foot Class A RVs towing 20-foot cargo boxes filled with ATVs, garage and sun shelter construction supplies and equipment, and all the goodies needed to make the unsustainable desert a suburban playground.

Our pre-arrival planning instigated a YouTube search on the region and “event.”  As many fairy tales originate, “Once upon a time, many years ago,” prospectors discovered the mountains contained loads of quartz, and where there is quartz, there is…GOLD! As is usually the case, a few got rich, then mines dried up, but their skeletons survive, dotting the hillsides. The real gold is found by the over 1.5 million tourists and those “geezers” I mentioned earlier under the multi-acre big tops and multiple Costco-sized rows, a true bizarre bazaar

Quartzsite BAZAAR
Quartzsite big tent sales aisle

 

 

 

 

 

of gem shows; food stalls; massage chair personal care; stuffed buffalo heads and every imaginable type of deer and animal skulls;

Quartzsite buffalo heads

 

Skulls for sale

 

 

 

weapons and concealed-carry license classes; Pakistani/Indian clothing; incense and consumables; row after row of Chinese knockoff tools and equipment of every type and size; complete RV resupply equipment and LED adornments; walls of boxed RV satellite systems; bins of expired grocery seconds and castoffs;

Grocery overstock sales

saddles and leather work; ATV rentals; entire hardware stores; salt feng shui lights; knives made from railroad tracks;

Railroad track knives and cutlery

food stalls with the ubiquitous captivating and sensuous smoke of BBQ and ribs; and ice cream made from a chugging single-piston engine contraption with pulley and belt driven cream stirrers—wafting essences of eclectic foreign and domestic foods. At the heart of all these kicks and chaos sits Beer Belly’s Bar,

Beer Belly Outdoor Bar

containing an entertaining mixture of Star Wars-like characters amidst gone-to-pasture hippies and wannabe pirates…all geezers, Ruth and I noted. It was kind of like Burning Man Center Camp minus the scantily clad nubile nymphs and satyrs. A live band was playing “oldies” and I witnessed numbers of weathered and creased faces mouthing the words of the current song, “…when I get older, losing my hair, many years from now…” Oh my! We’ve arrived! A well worn, yet fashionably dressed, cowgirl corralled two French bulldogs under her table as she sipped her brew. They fought each other playfully, rolling in the sand and rocks capturing the attention away from the musicians and one dancing couple, the man leaning on his cane swaying counterpoint to the woman’s short strides, both in life-force-conservation mode.

In the YouTube videos mentioned earlier, I discovered some cool family films, scanned Kodachrome slides, and pictures captured on video clips recovered from the 50s and 60s showing long and low family V-8 station wagons pulling RVs and, particularly, Airstream trailers.

Airstream group camp circa 50s

Time and technology has certainly changed tow vehicle capabilities with anti-lock braking, computer engine efficiency controls, GPS guidance systems, well-designed hitches, and of course, all the creature comforts. We still see, occasionally, signs from an earlier area posted before long uphill grades warning drivers to “Turn off air conditioning to avoid overheating.” In the next several years, manufacturers will be producing at least initial RV -self-drive-and-park functions. Just wait for the following wave…virtual travel in the comfort of your own Barcalounger, it’s already been conceptualized in the movie Total Recall.

Toward the end of our stay in Quartzsite, I climbed up to the top of Dome Rock, a small mountain that looks out over the teaming masses of RVs. Standing at the pinnacle, an American flag planted at its apex, there lay around me, in 360 degree splendor, the nexus of over 70 years of mass migration. [Click on the image below to enlarge it, and then you can scroll for a Panavision view. Extra points for finding our rig.]:

360 degree panorama at Dome Rock

The spirits of those original peripatetic desert pioneers who sought warmth and respite from the winters and heard the voice of the Muse of Wanderlust, have perpetuated a tribal ritual that has now pulled Ruth and me into its embrace.

There are so many stories to be discovered here in this mobile city of reinvention. I will leave these to your inquisitive minds, dear readers, such as the death in Quartzsite of Danny Rapp of the famous musical group, Danny and the Juniors, who wrote the song “At the Hop,” which was immortalized on Dick Clark’s American Band Stand, and in the movie American Graffiti.

Two more stories awaiting revelation are the accounts of the “naked man” bookstore and the Hi Jolly tomb…where did those camels go?!

The Quartzsite Specter now lurks behind you. Is it beckoning? Join us.

Anza-Borrego Desert and Borrego Springs: The town out of time

The Anza-Borrego Desert is a 600,000 acre gem hiding in plain sight, nestled deep in the valley west of the Laguna Mountains and framed north and south by the Santa Rosa and Vallecito mountain ranges. It is the largest state park in California and the second largest in the contiguous United States. The park takes its name from Juan Bautista De Anza, an 18th century Spanish explorer who came into contact with the now rare Borrego, or bighorn sheep. Sensitive and observant travelers to this area discover the ancientness of this region that has transformed through the millennia from warm ocean waters through tropical forests, savannas, and woodlands. The fossil history richly reveals the lives of previous inhabitants such as baleen whales, salt and fresh water shells, clams, sea urchins, shrimp, shark, and—on the large end of the scale—woolly mammoths, much later in the timeline. Our earliest human ancestors in this region may have encountered the feared Smilodon or saber-toothed cat,

Smilodon

around the time of its extinction 10,000 years ago. It is believed that human contact contributed to their demise on earth; their fossils are to be found throughout this region and particularly in the La Brea Tar Pits, in Los Angeles.

Native Americans populated this area for thousands of years, leaving petroglyphic and pictographic records on rocks and in caves.

Leaving pre-history and entering the Hollywood era, humans were attracted to the mild desert oasis of Borrego Springs with its temperate winter weather just as they were to Palm Springs. The latter winter haven developed in popularity and population but Borrego Springs did not. Why? Roads play a big role in the growth of Palm Springs. There are major thoroughfares crossing it, providing easy access. Borrego Springs lacks easy in and egress with one more major block to growth, water. Borrego Springs relies on a natural aquifer for its water supply that is naturally replenished each year to the tune of 1.8 billion gallons. For decades the amount of water pumped out has far exceeded the replenishment, most recently 6.1 billion gallons a year.

Now, Borrego Springs is not running out of water per se: there are three aquafers stacked on top of each other. The crux of the problem lies in the cost to drill deep enough to access this precious commodity, making it economically infeasible to pull water from the ground. The popularity of the area meets economic reality—similar perhaps to the attempts to desalinate the ocean to make the desert thrive in the Middle East. In northern Borrego Springs, farms that produce grapefruits, lemons, tangerines, and palms have historical water rights to 70 to 80% of the water available; the rest is consumed by golf courses, resorts, and residents. I wonder if Borrego Springs is suffering from the same quandary that the Anasazi encountered when their resources could not keep up with the population growth.

Palm Desert Canyon Ancient Oasis
Palm Desert Canyon Springs
Mouth of Palm Desert Canyon

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

300 Year Old Barrel Cactus–64 Year Old Time Traveler

There once was a halcyon time when both Palm Springs and Borrego Springs hosted the rich and famous of Hollywood. The Rat Pack, Marilyn Monroe, Clark Gable, John Wayne, Angie Dickenson, Burgess Meredith, Will Rogers, and many more, sought refuge and relaxation from the bright lights and fame in local resorts such as La Casa Del Zorro and The Palms. Lon Chaney opened up a community theater in Borrego Springs where many actors spent time beefing up their skills, improving and experimenting in their craft.

Ruth says: Walking the one main street of Borrego Springs, we are confronted with time travel: hotel and restaurant signs that hover above still-open businesses, but look like images from a ghost town.

  

One local trailer park, recently renamed The Vintage (no doubt taking marketing advantage of its many eponymous trailers), still sports restroom signs reading Guys and Dolls.

La Casa Del Zorro is still popular and active. The Palms stands shrouded by palm trees hanging on to life by a thread. Ruth and I could see it off in the distance from our Airstream campsite and it beckoned to us with voices from the past. We drove off the asphalt road onto sand into a circular driveway in front of a once-grand portico. I was inspired to sing a few lines from the Eagles song Hotel California, “…you can check out anytime you like, but you can never leave…”

Hoberg/Palms Hotel, circa 1940s

It was eerie…the hotel was open, but no one but a few desultory tile workers populated the entire edifice. To one side lay a huge Olympic swimming pool, water crystal clear but cold: better experienced during the sweltering days of summer.

Palms Hotel Pool with Deep End View Ports

I wandered over toward where the diving board once stood and noticed an inscription carved into the cement where countless feet sprang into the deep refreshing water: the names of the hotel owners, dating from the 1930s. A maw of darkness caught my eye to the right of the missing board and I discovered steps leading down into a catacomb of musty darkness. Stepping past the Do Not Enter sign, my eyes became accustomed to the darkness and there appeared before me two large plate glass windows with a voyeuristic underwater perspective of the deep end of the pool.

I could imagine the Rat Pack swilling martinis and snarkily commenting on the forms of shapely starlets streaming through the water trailing shimmering bubbles of beauty. Now the room was bare. Paint peeled off the walls. Rusted pipes broke through the cracked cement floor. An aura of claustrophobia came over me and I sought relief up the broken stairs into the sunlight and room windows clearly reflecting swaying palm trees and distant mountains, yet hiding unseen interiors.

Ruth and I took separate pathways of exploration around the vacant hotel interior. Everything was in place, check-in desk with two packages of robes and keys waiting (I presumed) for incoming guests, pictures on the walls depicting people and views frozen in luxurious time, a hotel once grand and desirable, now a candidate for a team of ghost hunters to suss out the calls and laughter from long dead denizens of the silver screen.

Hoberg-Palms Resort Rogues Gallery
Marilyn’s Borrego Springs Secret Hideaway

Ruth says: While Ben explored the lobby, I wandered into the bar, restaurant, and kitchen. Again, no sign of habitation, though everything was laid out, spotless, like a movie set about to come to life. Upstairs, past standing puddles of water on the concrete, was a row of hotel suites: floor-to-ceiling windows revealed luxurious interiors while reflecting the stark desert mountains. Not a sign of a single human, though the beds were made, the towels laid out, the pillows carefully plumped. Back in the lobby, a small typed notice read: Spa is heated from 5pm to 8pm only. So there ARE people here: but where?

The desert draws to itself escape from the man-made construct of inner city life, and for those of means, luxury, and creature comforts that fame and money provide. The muse of the arts and the bohemian lifestyle of living and acting, free of regard for conventional rules and practices often draws those seeking self-awareness. Those who hear her clarion call seek to embrace the source of life, simplicity, inspiration, and reconnection with the essence and earthly beauty which the desert embodies.

One early 20th century poet, author, and artist, Marshal South, pursued the natural lifestyle with his family from 1930 to 1947 in remarkable simplicity and perseverance in the Anza-Borrego Desert.

Marshal South Family circa 1946

He and his wife experimented in extreme living, building an adobe house and compound on the top of a waterless desolate “Ghost Mountain,” where everything necessary to exist had to be built or carried in with extreme effort. During these years, Marshal and his wife raised three children, and home-schooled them, while they authored 102 articles and poems for Desert Magazine. Marshal built a printing press and the children learned linoleum carving and printing. Their creation caused a stir at the time and fueled Marshal’s doctrines of living, to his and their detriment: he became so locked into his vision and righteousness of lifestyle that he couldn’t bend with necessity and change. His relationship with his wife soured and the “experiment” on the mountain failed.

Ghost Mountain Home 1940s
Ghost Mountain Ruins Today

Getting back to the land, and reconnecting to the heart flame of humanity, sung by Joni Mitchell in the 1960s hippie theme of returning to the land, “We are stardust, we are golden, and we’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden…” caught the recycled wave of Marshal’s naïve attempt at Utopia. So many hear the call of the Muse, and so few find the balance and wise intelligence necessary to exist in our complicated world, to live in the balance between utopian dreams and the reality of the daily struggle for existence.

Hello, and we’re back!

A few of you have commented that you haven’t heard from us in a while. We were in San Diego, celebrating my parents’ 70th wedding anniversary, and got caught up in all the partying—well, as much partying as you do when the guests of honor are in their 90s! More details to come, but in a nutshell:

Oh, all the great food to be found in San Diego! Mexican, Greek (oddly lacking in the Bay Area), Ototo Sushi (the Godzilla ribs are excellent), the best fish & chips outside of that little place in Exeter in England, and, of course, my favorite pub (erm, in America, that is), The Shakespeare.

Here’s a small view of some of the fabulous desserts we had to choose from at Extraordinary Desserts in San Diego:

 

While in Anza Borrego the week before, we re-met some marvelous folks we’d briefly met years ago, Nancy and Brian, and spent an evening dining, drinking, and playing while getting better acquainted. Brian taught me to breathe fire. Here’s a short video, sorry it won’t embed (starting to hate WordPress), but it’s safe to download and it’s not a big file. Umm…you might want to turn your sound down:

Ruth breathes fire

How could I not love them? Then, while in San Diego, we met up with them again for an afternoon sail in San Diego Harbor, on Brian’s brother, Les’s, sailboat. It was a beautiful, almost-80-degree sunny day, such a lovely respite from the cold north.

We then spent nearly a week in Desert Hot Springs visiting our fab friends, Dan & Debra, and using the hot springs at the resort where they stayed. We had our own pool and spa at our resort, but theirs was lithium, so natch, we went there. Fun day trips, delicious meals, and relaxing soaks were the order of the days we were there.

Ben rides a … stegosaurus??
B*A*C*O*N

Gyp was happy with the dog park at our resort, nearly an acre, all grass, plenty of room to run and play. No dinosaurs in the dog park, though.

Dan made this from the wood of our old cherry tree: 

and Debra made this, by sacrificing one of Dan’s t-shirts:


as Airstream-warming gifts. Such generous friends!

Now, we’re in beautiful Quartzsite, Arizona, known as the “Burning Man for old people,” and well, it’s kinda like that in terms of camping, but not in so many other ways. For $40, we are now the possessors of a Long Term Vehicle Area pass, good for 14 days in any BLM LTVA area. There’s one near Yuma where we’re heading next, so for less than three bucks a day, we will have some lovely desert camping.

“The desert! Either you will love it or you will hate it. If you hate it you will fly from it and never wish to see its face again. If you love it, it will hold you and draw you as will no other land on earth.” – Marshal South

So now you’re all up to date on our travels. Sorry there aren’t more details, but I worked more than usual over the holidays (filling in for a holidaying coworker), and consequently couldn’t wait to get away from my laptop when the work day was over. I hope the photos make up for it.

Stay tuned for Joshua Tree, Anza Borrego (and the haunting–and haunted?–hotel), and ??

Joshua Tree evacuation

Don’t be concerned. No story of danger awaits you, dear reader! Just a play on words…

Ten glorious days boondocking—or sometimes known as dry camping—here has gifted us with extreme solitude amidst the sharp borders of the hot sun in cold air and nightly star-studded canopies. The waxing and waning of the moon morphs brilliantly lit rocky pathways of nightly strolls into dark stumblings of muscle memory, avoiding hidden cactus homesteads. The weather has quickly changed here and elsewhere across the southwest from a residual autumn warmth to a transitional night rain and cold unsettling winds that buffet our trailer as the failing light of the year reaches its nadir. We soon find ourselves the uninvited guests to the doppelganger of the infamous French Le Mistral, winds that blow intensely for days and weeks, and are often said to drive animals mad and people to suffer from headaches and restlessness. Our trailer rocks all night as if on an earthquake shaking table…shake, shake, shake-shake-shake, and vibrate. My thoughts turn, after a quick self-reassurance that we won’t tip over, to the works of Hollywood foley artists who recreate the necessary sounds for movie soundtracks. Lying awake now at 3am, I see in my mind’s eye several men high up on 10-foot ladders holding a large sheet of 8×8 aluminum, and shaking it to create the sound of wind blasts. If only…a quick jump out of the warmth of our multi-weight comforter, and a glance out the window, reveals cactus fronds frantically chasing angry eddies in the chaotic tempest.

Our “silver submarine” has three tanks to sustain our lifestyle and all must be managed in balance. Fresh water: 39 gallons; grey water (that is, wash water from sinks and shower): 37 gallons; and black water (toilet): 39 gallons. The challenge resides in how much of each can be balanced with no hook-ups. We are seven miles from the ranger station and the park’s only dump station and fresh water supply. It’s not too far to navigate just to replenish our water by truck, with four five-gallon military grade water cans, but too much hassle to hook up and pull our 28-foot trailer up and back through a slight mountain pass.  Technically the grey tank can be hose-dumped into the terrain here, as it contains only bio-degradable materials. Instead, we wash our dishes in a handled dishpan in the sink allowing us to walk it outside to surprise the succulents. This slows down the rapid filling of the grey tank to showers, which should make those of you permanent foundation dwellers smile in satisfaction and comfort.

Boondocking showers are taken military style: wet down, turn off water, soap up, and rinse off, while standing in a restaurant bus tub that we later empty. Most folks never ponder the amount of water wasted each day in normal household use. The average person uses approximately 80-100 gallons of water per day! Flushing the toilet is number one in the consumption scale, followed by showers. These two are our challenges. Our total fresh water availability for two is ant-sipping in comparison, yet we don’t live like street gypsies. Living in an energy efficient home for so many years has taught us some valuable lessons in conservation. If there ever was a time when I have considered cutting my hair (don’t worry, I’m not really), it is during these speed showers. 60% of our water supply of 39 gallons, a little over 24 gallons, lasts us about 3-4 days.

Now let’s get to the compelling and interesting part you all have been waiting for: toilet administration…this could be a new government agency? I have, in chivalry, given up my usage of our porcelain throne to Ruth completely, for the more primitive but powerfully pleasant, environmental mise en scene of ambling off into the desert to dig a “cat hole.” There is nothing more relaxing than having the world in your prospect as you squat over your creative hole. At this level of view, the desert comes to life. Ants make a living, birds dance about the bushes, stones of various sizes and colors emerge to capture your attention, the air carries from the distant mountains a wonderful scent of the primordial earth, tiny lichen and succulents color the limitless gravel tailings of millions of years of geological change. But, there is work to be done yet in this moment in time to satisfy my end (there is a pun here, yes). The winds still to a whisper, then great gusts arise from 30 to 50 mph. I am learning the skill that bomber pilots achieved to strike their targets with accuracy involving gravity and air drag. Things can get a little complicated as I am not a moving plane. It is all about timing with the wind gusts and moving placement to compensate for the aforementioned vectors, to hit the target. It does take practice, which luckily I have in spades…somewhat a play on words here, sorry! Finally, after the hole is filled and returned to earthly harmony, I find hidden artistic patterns emerge as outlines of previous holes could be blended into an earthly moire finish, establishing an aesthetic of completion.

So you see, boondocking challenges can be transformed into artistic accomplishments and enjoyable learning experiences to break free from daily monotony…whatever that is?…

“Where Ya From?”

Perhaps nothing epitomizes the theme of our travels better than this clip from the original Magnificent Seven, staring Yul Brynner.

 

 

Road food, diner kitsch, and cooking on the road

(by Ruth)

Thursday was a road food day. We started with a late breakfast (lunch?) at Red House BBQ in Tehachapi, CA, about 100 miles from our stockup point in Bakersfield. While Ben took Gyp out for a quick walk, I scouted the menu and layout—Road Food Rule #1: If the menu’s written on a chalkboard,red-house-bbq3it’s gonna be good. When I walked in, just 15 minutes after opening time, a line of people snaked halfway around the restaurant from the front desk. “Place must be great,” I thought. The three old men in front of me told me, “You’re gonna wish you’d gotten here ahead of us.”

I thought they were joking that they’d eat everything, because it looked that good. No. This group of seniors, as they stood in line, gazed at the chalk-written menu board for minutes on end—one would assume with the idea that they’d be making a decision and be ready to order when they approached the counter. But, when each one got to the front (and each had to order separately), he came up short with a start and an “oh!,” like he had no idea what to do next. This went on for about 20 minutes, while the mere six people in line ahead of us worked their way through the menu, and asked all the same questions of the ever-patient woman at the register. When she totaled up the bill, the old guy would apparently suddenly remember that he’d actually have to pay for this, and only then proceed to dig around in his pocket to pull out a wallet, slowly open it, and deliberately count out each dollar. By the time we made it to the front, we were truly ravenous.

Ben had a plate of ribs, Cajun stuffing, and mac & cheese. The fall-off-the-bone ribs were drenched in a spicy barbecue sauce that had him reaching for his iced tea time and again. The Cajun stuffing was rich with andouille sausage, corn kernels, and who-knows-what, all of it tasty. Lastly, his mac & cheese was good without being great—though we also had a sample of the “spicy” mac & cheese, and that was divine.red-house-bbq1 I had a plate of brisket, fork-tender and juicy, a side of beans that was generously laced with jalapeños, and freshly-made hush puppies to round it out. Oh, and a beer to cut the spice, of course.

red-house-bbq2  

Carrying our stomachs before us, we climbed back in the truck and drove through a light rain on to our overnight stop: Peggy Sue’s 50s Diner (or, as they punctuate it, “50’s”). We pulled into the huge parking lot about an hour before sunset. The original diner was built in 1954 (complete with “Diner-saur” park, soda fountain, and gift shop) and is the ultimate in road trip kitsch. peggy-sues-signIt appears Peggy Sue and her husband had some experience in show biz (he at Knott’s Berry Farm, she in an unspecified movie job), so the diner is an opportunity to share their memorabilia and their love of travel kitsch. They generously allow anyone to park overnight in their huge paved lot for free, and we chose a place along the back fence, our little Airstream nestled snugly amid a row of semi trucks loaded with everything from Walmart groceries to propane to live cattle.

Ben and I were still so stuffed from the lunch we’d had seven hours earlier, we couldn’t bring ourselves to eat. But, we felt we had to see what Peggy Sue had to offer, so, after waiting as long as we could, wandered through the parking lot and Diner-saur park, peggy-sues-dino4
the pizza parlor and meeting room, and found a seat across from the original counter, in one of the three remaining original booths. peggy-sues-conniepeggy-sues-dinerWe split the Buddy Holly Bacon Burger, curly fries, and Italian meatball soup.peggy-sues-burger peggy-sues-shakeThe chocolate shake called to me—this IS a diner, after all! The burger was delicious, tasting exactly like a diner burger should, with just the right mixture of lean and fat, and sesame seed bun. Curly fries were crisp on the outside, soft on the inside, again, just like diner fries should be. The Italian meatball soup was good, and hot, which was the main thing: it was a long, cold walk from the carpark. Near the end of the meal, Ben wandered off to the soda fountain and returned with a strawberry/pistachio sundae, topped with whipped cream and chopped nuts. The pie looked amazing, peggy-sues-piebut I truly felt as if I would explode, so I had to pass on that. As we were so late, the gift shop was already closed, so we hope to see it in the morning,peggy-sues-elvis-memorabilia and perhaps have our fortunes told by The King himself.peggy-sues-elvis

Now a bit about this chef’s road food

Despite Ben’s clearly expressed predilection for 50s housewives in pearls and high heels heating up Swanson TV dinners (see his blog, “Meandering with the Muse of Music”), swansontvunlike many RVers we’ve met, we don’t do pre-prepared food on the road. Our teeny freezer is stocked with fresh-frozen meats and vegetables, and our 7-cubic-foot fridge with fresh vegetables, dairy, and assorted condiments like dijon, garlic, mayo, chili sauce, etc. Yes, my spice rack is more limited than at Olive Avenue, but it contains: salt, pepper, cajun seasoning, pasilla (chile) powder, oregano, ginger, cumin, parsley leaves, herbes de provence, and fresh bay leaves picked the morning we left Marin. The cabinet holds cans of tuna, dried barley, rice, dates, olive oil, vinegar, and assorted nuts. Oh, and popcorn for movie nights—the only time we use the microwave.

It isn’t much, but we can combine these ingredients to create quite a variety of tastes, from Creole to Mexican, from French to classic American. Last night, we pressure-cooked a pork loin Cajun style, simmered in chicken broth with onion, bell pepper, and garlic. The extra liquid made a tasty and spicy sauce for the steamed broccoli—and an extra breakfast treat for Gyp. We’ve prepared Steak Diane on our cast iron grill, Moroccan-style chicken tagine with pomegranate sauce, homemade barley and vegetable soup, Thai-style chicken and vegetable stir fry over lemon rice with a side of peanut noodles, turkey cheeseburgers with roast potatoes, oven barbecued chicken and cornbread, and we always use our leftover meat on the next day’s fresh salad or veggie-stuffed omelet. Iron Chef Airstream, indeed.

But enough about food. I’m off to take yet another walk with Gyp, to help work off all this delicious road food.

gyp

 

 

Joshua Tree National Park

You pull through Twentynine Palms, California, just before your entry into Joshua Tree National Park, where the Mojave and Colorado Deserts join in approximately 800,000 acres of stunning landscape. This region is one of earthly power and tension, as the famous San Andreas Fault separates the Pacific and North American plates on the southern border of the park. The North American plate slides down toward Mexico and the Pacific plate crushes into it moving north, sumo wrestlers creating a compression zone of movement about two inches per year…except for those times when it jumps radically, as is due at any moment!

As you drive up to the park’s northern boundary, you curiously check Google for the origin of its name. Mormon settlers passing through this region in the mid-nineteenth century saw strange trees with uplifted branches and it reminded them of the biblical story of Joshua reaching his arms up to the sky in prayer and leading them to the Promised Land.

Joshua Trees
Joshua Trees

Driving up to the ranger park kiosk, you’re greeted cordially and informed that there will be a $20 per day fee to pass through the park. “No problem”, you whisper half audibly, reaching into your wallet to pull out your Lifetime Senior Pass. This pass is the bargain of bargains, as a mere $10 added to reaching the age of 62 gets you and all in your vehicle into all national parks and federal lands free forever. There are some returns on investments of years.

Now the adventure begins at 35-45 mph across 45-50 miles of winding roads constructed, you presume, to either force you to drive slowly, or most probably to change your viewing perspective and wonder with each bend in the road. An hour later you arrive at the southern border of the park and following the recommendations of previous park boondocking pioneers, immediately turn off onto a dirt washboard road to pass a scattering of RVers. A mile passes and soon there is no one around you but the awesome vista of the San Andreas Fault valley below and, several miles away, the artery of I-10 carrying silent tiny corpuscles of moving vehicles. You pause for a moment to wonder how the life force in each vehicle could compare to this moment and place.

Camp is prepared, your Airstream is positioned due east/west to maximize the solar tracking across the solar panels that are arranged into position.

East-west solar orientation
East-west solar orientation

Dusk falls slowly and the sky changes from a blue so intense it creates an after-image of golden yellow on your closed eyelids. A hummingbird darts from cactus flower to flower, safely circumventing skewering thorns. Sunlight reflects veins of multicolored layers of geologic history in the surrounding mountains. Mt. San Jacinto, far off in the southwest, provides a midway curtain between Los Angeles and San Diego, layered in shades of bluish grey in the haze escaping that megalopolis. Coming suddenly from behind, you hear a “thump thump!” in the air, and passing above your head a jet-black crow with wings so dark they appear as liquid reflected in the sunlight, alights on a rock 20 feet in front of you. It gurgles and greets you in its indecipherable language, then lifts off to drift in the thermals ahead.

The panorama around is lush with desert vegetation, smoke tree, brittle bush, dune primrose, barrel cactus (which people like to dig up and replant in their gardens, unfortunately),

Barrel cactus becoming endangered
Barrel cactus becoming endangered

 

 

cholla cactus,

cholla-cactus
Cholla cactus

and jutting into the sky around you, the pencil-thin, flowery and thorny arms of the ocotillo.

Baby and mama ocotillo
Baby and mama ocotillo

 

Ocotillo at sunset
Ocotillo at sunset

 

 

This particular bush looks like spindly ocean coral that, having millions of years of seas erased around it, chose to adapt to living in marshlands, and in ultimate stubbornness stoically stuck to the eventual barren desert landscape.

You become keenly aware of a silence so deep and profound you can hear the blood rushing through your head. In the increasing crepuscular light, small white cotton ball clouds form and close in on each other like herds of sheep gathering into an enclosure, and form into a central lenticular cloud shape

 

Lenticular cloud formation
Lenticular cloud formation

like a huge UFO in the sky. Colors begin to emerge, painting the billowy clouds with orange and eventual fire red as if you were looking into the glowing embers of an upside-down fire pit.

Sunset at Joshua Tree
Sunset at Joshua Tree

Colors slowly grey away, darkness settles in, an occasional star emerges, and the moon, now full, illuminates the landscape, returning the clouds to an earlier glow. The moon’s new backlight halos rapidly moving bats searching out a meal in those buzzing creatures seeking one around you, their nearly indiscernible radar squeaks guiding them to their prey. You sit meditating in silence, your mind clear and free in the cool air, the weight of sensual overload now weighing heavy in the night. Sleep comes on the gentle breezes.

Meandering with the muse of music

Being on the road naturally lends itself to rhythm, the throb of the engine, the thrush and thrum of air pushed aside, vibration of wheels in the contours and cracks of the pavement. I’m reminded of several manmade musical roads. The first is in Lancaster, California,

 

and if you drive at about 55 mph it is presumed you will hear a sort of snippet from the William Tell Overture. You tell me? You can hear America the Beautiful on Route 66 between Albuquerque and Tijeras in New Mexico at precisely 45 mph.

 

 

I remember years ago discovering, quite by accident, a section of road, I just can’t remember the location, where the “asphaltaphone” played We Wish You a Merry Christmas. It’s probable it was taken out to appease the politically and religiously correct. “So how do they do this?” you might ask. Anything that vibrates 330 times in one second in the air will produce an E note. To produce an E note with a car, you have to space the rumble strips such that, at 45 mph for one second, the car hits 330 strips. Doing some math, we find that leaves 2.4 inches between each strip. So now all you have to do is break down the music into chunks of time and spacing for each note. Engineers weld metal bars together in a template, then heat the asphalt with massive blow torches and press them in, and voila! Pragmatically I’ll say this all is just a sneaky way to get people to drive the correct speed.

So we find ourselves in mostly polluted and fantastically exciting Bakersfield, California,

Welcome to Bakersfield
Welcome to Bakersfield

on a replenishment break. The highlight of culture here―besides the location of Weedpatch, a migrant camp featured in John Steinbeck’s novel, The Grapes of Wrath, that will someday be a real tourist waypoint―is the Crystal Palace, built by the late Buck Owens. This is a must see! Museum, restaurant, and musical venue in one place; we moseyed on down for dinner and a concert by the Stampede Band. First of all, ya’ll know Buck? His was a classic story of rising from the depths of sharecropping into country music and TV fame with the show “Hee Haw” in 1969. The Smothers Brothers’ “Laugh-In” was taking a lot of heat at that time for speaking out against the Vietnam War, and “Hee Haw” provided safe entertainment in houses with proudly waving American flags, two cars in the driveway, two-and-a-half kids, and moms in high heels baking Swanson’s TV dinners.

I confess to having a secret appreciation for country music, having spent a number of years living in the mid and deep South, and I lit up when the Stampede Band opened their set with Dwight Yoakam’s Streets of Bakersfield.

This music personifies the “Bakersfield Sound” that developed as a revolt against the slick Nashville music scene. It had its beginnings with the influence of the migration of the Okies, blending with western swing and an injection of the early electrification of the guitar, finding fertile and welcoming homes in honky-tonk bars throughout the region. It is generally believed that the Bakersfield Sound, which is really just a southern California regional creation, became the progenitor of country rock played by groups such as the Grateful Dead, the Eagles, Gram Parsons, Flying Burrito Brothers, The Byrds, Creedence Clearwater Revival, and on through bad boy Merle Haggard, and the previously mentioned Buck Owens and the Buckaroos, and Dwight Yoakam.

You may cast a wry grin my way regarding my fondness for country music (Ruth certainly does), but in contrast to the “asphaltaphone,” there is something about the call of the dance floor, and even just the unconscious foot tapping, leg shaking from that muse in the electric steel pedal guitar, the siren call from the wail of the Fender Telecaster, and the swing backbeat that reinforces my love for Country…but now Bakersfield?

P.S.

For those of you who have a hankerin’ to explore more musically, specifically on the connections between blues and country, read our extensive blog spot: www.benandruth.blogspot.com .

Scroll to the beginning of: Black Cat Bone and Mojo: Finding the Blues, and travel with us as we follow the routes of the blues from New Orleans up along the Mississippi River on Highway 61 to Chicago.

We all live in a silver submarine, silver submarine, silver submarine…

We are now approaching four months of on-road travel; still novices, but patterns are developing. Science does require long term analysis so further study and reporting will be ongoing.

What are our fellow wayfarers driving along the road? Here’s a primer: There are, primarily, Class A, B, C, fifth wheel, and travel trailers, followed by pop-up campers and custom build-it-yourselves, and teardrop trailers.

The highest level and most expensive RV is the Class A,

Class A
Class A

which is built on a heavy duty bus chassis (like the tour buses you see), and a mileage of eight to ten—generally diesel-powered—miles per gallon. These suckers have at least two to four slide-outs, turning a bus into a house living room-sized space, some with fireplaces, and often 40inch (or bigger) outside flat screen entertainment centers with parallel systems inside, and the interior has the look of a high class condominium. You could store the belongings of a small town football team in all the lockers on board these babies. I am looking now at a rig that just pulled in and the owner is walking down one side and unlocking six lower storage lockers on one side. I can’t see the other side but presume it is similar. For this luxury you will be forking out the cost or more of a house ranging from $100,000 to $800,000! Very often this class of RV is pulling a “toad,” a car or SUV to explore where the beast cannot boldly go. We often see them pulling 10-12-foot cargo boxes with even more creature comforts enclosed. This is equivalent to squeezing your house into a long rectangle, putting wheels on it, and driving down the road. We’re talking 50 to 60 feet long and a little over 8 feet wide.

Class A interior
Class A interior

A typical fuel tank holds 100 to 150 gallons and a fill-up could run $300-$800—do the math. We’re talking about 1,200+/- miles a fill-up. By the way, most regular filling stations limit your gas purchase to $150 to protect against those who “drive and dash,” as this is the maximum a credit card company will reimburse the station, so fill-ups are achieved at truck stops with usually no limitations.

Class B RVs, constructed on a van frame, are large and maneuverable enough to handle easily, usually have no slide outs, and have a raised roof for standing room.

Class B
Class B

 

Toilet and shower are combined in one space. Sometimes you can shower while sitting on the “can.” Don’t even ask. Gas mileage ranges from 18-25 miles/gallon depending on fuel type; the downside is much diminished storage space but with an upside of greater mobility. If you are trying to visualize the difference between a Class A and B, imagine sitting in the driver’s seat of a semi-truck and attempting to make a 90-degree turn in any direction in any urban area. That would be a Class A. Backing up? Forget about it if you are pulling a toad. Class B rigs have the flexibility to back in to a campsite, and range in cost from about $40,000-$120,000. Camper van Class Bs can be covered under an automotive policy whereas Class As need special RV insurance.

Class C RVs are like a studio apartment on wheels, much scaled down but providing some of the convenience of a Class A. Visualize a sleeping area in the rear and one often located in the cab over the front of the vehicle.

Super C Motorhomes - Class C Diesel Motorhomes
Super C Motorhomes – Class C Diesel Motorhomes

 

These RVs average 10-15 miles/gallon with tanks holding 25-55 gallons. Fill-ups run $80-$400 and you can expect a range of about 500-800 miles/tank. Separate RV insurance is necessary. The Class C type is the most common, as it provides the most bang for the buck in size, range, and cost. Recently, however, we’ve run into a disproportionate number of people who have complained about the quality level of their Class C rigs, as after 2-3 years they experience roof leaks, electrical problems, and other breakdowns. For that matter this discussion has come up in lower-end Class As as well. A word of warning to any potential buyer of any type of RV: Buyer beware! Do your homework well, quality varies greatly per brand, model, day of week, and planetary alignment.

A fifth wheel takes its name from the wheel-like trailer mount located in the bed of the pickup truck pulling it, similar to a semi-truck connecting to a trailer rig.

5th Wheel Trailer
5th Wheel Trailer

Obviously, this arrangement eliminates most of the storage space within the back of the truck, though not completely. Both Class As and fifth wheels are about the same size with the caveat that a fifth wheel can be driven backwards behind a truck and a Class A towing a toad cannot. Maintenance costs are much less in a fifth wheel and as time passes and technology changes, a tow vehicle can be upgraded, whereas a Class A cannot, eventually requiring expensive repairs or complete engine overhaul.

Mileage is similar in both classes and storage in a fifth wheel is usually located up front near the attachment arm to the truck bed. Of course with a fifth wheel you can drop your trailer and drive your truck away, nice when you need to get gas, or go shopping or sightseeing. I’ve seen some disasters in the making with huge rigs attempting to pull into fueling stations with limited diesel pump access and narrow and short bays. We’ve had a few close calls requiring some backing-and-forthing with our Airstream in the past and try at all costs to drop the trailer before attempting these hazardous fill-ups.

Our Airstream travel trailer, I’ll brag, gets infinite miles per gallon…when not being pulled by a tow vehicle.

Our Silver Submarine
Our Silver Submarine

There are so many angles and considerations in the playing field when you factor in every facet of which RV is best for an application. Our trailer set us back close to $100K, but if you consider the cost of the tow vehicle, suddenly we fall into the high end of a Class C and the low end of a Class A. Whatever! You just have to plot out what works best in as many scenarios as possible.

A travel trailer is similar to a fifth wheel as a trailer, but the latter does have a feature that could give it a leg up. The attachment point between trailer and truck is directly over the rear axle and virtually eliminates the dreaded trailer sway. This is horror to anyone towing, and can quickly get out of hand, leading to catastrophic accidents. A standard trailer needs to have a substantial hitch, properly set up to counter the lateral and vertical forces and blasts of wind created by semis barreling past just feet away in the opposing lane. It can get really gnarly when strong cross winds are momentarily blocked by a semi-truck in the oncoming lane, mixed with tornado passing tail winds, and restored with vengeance as it passes. Oscillations can be created that only experienced drivers can mitigate and a well-designed trailer hitch virtually erases this issue.

We will leave driving skills for potential future blogs and return to nuances and quirky practices often found within the community of our peripatetic voyagers in relation to class, style, and culture. We have seen that a very high percentage of our RV community travel with their pets, and we are no exception.

Dogs are primarily the travel companions of choice, though cats on leashes are occasionally seen as they have learned to stay close to “home” or become coyote bait. Our latest axiom is, “The larger the RV, the smaller the dog.” Ruth and I have a contest to guess, when an RV pulls up, how many dogs will be carried out under each arm or leashed up, binding their owners in an uproar of chaos. I don’t have issues with dogs but these little snarfy, high strung, leg tripping, dust devils push my buttons. We all have stories of high strung dogs with big attitudes. Just today I watched a million dollar rig pull in, and the dog standing on the dashboard like a ship’s figurehead jumped down as the door opened, and two dogs appeared and were leashed. They challenged every other canine in range, pulling against their owner’s lead to the point of standing on two hind feet, barking challenges of confrontation.

All around us every rig has what appears to be the same breed of dog?! Is this some clone conspiracy? Are they using us for their master plan? Is there a buy-one-get-one-free option that escapes us?

A Dog in Every RV?
A Dog in Every RV?

We hope this changes, but so far the bigger and most expensive rigs tend to be the most isolated. They pull in, go through the usual set-up, the slide-outs slowly expand, the stabilizers drop, and suddenly it becomes like the monolith in the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey.

 

2001 Space Odyssey-Monolith
2001 Space Odyssey-Monolith

Strange vibrations emanate from within, no one without (except for those pesky little dogs…hmmm?). I’m reminded of my walks through our neighborhood in Marin at night. Passing house after house, the major windows reflected the pixel glows of big screen TVs illuminating the visages of people seated imprisoned around them in trance-like somnolent states.

We’ve had some remarkable encounters with travelers in smaller, Class B and C RVs and trailers, which will soon include our entire nomadic community, in timeless storytelling, questioning, and discovering the wonder of who we are, why we are here, and marveling at the wonder of life we are seeking and finding on our road of life.

Deco-liner
Deco-liner