Oatman Massacre: The Bones Still Speak

 

Olive Oatman

A cool wind blows from east to west across our lonely mesa, impeded only by scattered low-lying creosote bushes and straggling steadfast saguaro, and a volcanic rock field spread helter-skelter to the horizon sustains a barely perceptible mournful moan from time past. Standing here in silence, screams of terror echo from an event that took place here 167 years ago. A signpost awaits our laborious hike up the rock-strewn, hardscrabble cut in the cliff face; the rock underfoot is scarred by the wagon wheels of the Butterfield Stage that passed twice a day for three years and wore grooves in the rock. We reach a plain metal sign that reads simply: “Site of Oatman Massacre, Feb. 18, 1851, Yuma County Historical Society.”

Oatman massacre site

The Butterfield Stage was to follow the tracks of countless travelers to this spot—Native Americans, intrepid explorers, and the fated Oatman family. It is here where our story begins.

Wagon ruts worn in rock

Roys Oatman was born in Vermont in the early nineteenth century, descended from Dutch immigrants, and in time his family became captivated by the religious fervor of the time, converting from the Dutch Reformed Church to Methodist. Members of the family began migrating, as was the zeitgeist of those times, escaping poor weather and economic hardships, to arrive in New York just as a wave of evangelical fervor swept America. New sects were popping up like weeds, and the Oatmans joined the masses of aspirants to a better life, prospecting farming opportunities in the Ohio River valley, Indiana, and Illinois regions.

When Roys turned 23, he married Mary Ann Sperry, and they produced seven children between the years 1834 and 1849. During those years, the family came in contact with a former Vermonter named Joseph Smith, the charismatic self-proclaimed prophet of a religious sect designated as the Latter Day Saints, known by most as Mormons.

The Mormons and the Brewsterites

Smith was said to have a gift of spiritual insight, using crystal balls to see “ghosts, infernal spirits, and mountains of gold and silver,” and he tapped into the spiritual fever spreading like wildfire across America. When he was 25, he published his Book of Mormon, translated from, he claimed, golden plates found buried in the side of the hill near his father’s farm. These magical plates purported to tell a history of ancient peoples, the Nephites (“a white, delightsome people”) and the Lamanites (“a dark, filthy and loathsome people”) who fled Jerusalem around 600 B.C. settling in America.

These gold plates were never revealed (why doesn’t this surprise me?), and were allegedly kept in a locked box behind a curtain to be translated only by the home-schooled Smith with the help of special glasses given to him by the Angel Moroni, their guardian. Surprisingly, many people were taken in by this phantasmagorical religious creation, and sought affiliation. Others dismissed it a harmless fraud, and yet others—a growing number—were outraged, branding it blasphemy. In the midst of this social tornado, Smith claimed to have received the revelation that his flock were meant to seek out the New Jerusalem, or City of Zion. He dutifully sent his “saints” in a quest for its discovery.

In Ohio in 1838, a revolt against this upstart faith resulted in Smith and his close followers being tarred and feathered and they were run out of the state. Smith’s cult continued to be harassed and ensuing arguments, battles, and a war resulted in their flight to Illinois in 1839. The Illinoisans were sympathetic to those suffering what they perceived as religious persecution and welcomed Joseph’s flock. This sanctuary was to be short-lived, however, as people soon learned of the new church’s belief in polygamy, antithetical to their own religious doctrine.

Roys Oatman and his family were caught in the spell of Mormonism, though, and joined the church with the same enthusiasm that had shown itself in their previous transformation to Methodism. Like all religions, the Mormons believed that they alone were God’s chosen people. However, the large numbers of orthodox Christian deserters, the polygamy that offended prevailing moral principles, and Smith’s expanding political power—he had become the mayor of Nauvoo, Illinois, and was even considering running for the office of President of the United States—ignited a groundswell of anger against the church. Warrants for the arrest of Smith and his brother, Hyrum, were issued after Smith closed down the local newspaper that criticized him for sexual malfeasance; many believed that he was intending on declaring himself king. The Smith brothers surrendered to the authorities and were jailed, along with several of their followers. A mob of angry citizens—incited, some say, by the local Masonic lodge, who sought revenge against Smith for stealing Masonic secrets to establish Mormon ritual—stormed the jail, shooting and killing Joseph and Hyrum Smith, though some of his followers survived.

Joseph and Hyrum Smith’s murder scene

Joseph Smith’s death opened a hole in the leadership of his church and others attempted to fill it: we will follow the one that leads to the conclusion of this story. The Oatmans, still holding onto the faith of the Mormon Church, looked for signs of new leadership, and that leadership was revealed to be James Colin Brewster. When he was just ten years old, word spread that Brewster had a gift for seeing visions and objects not seen by the natural eye, such as “ancient records that are to be written.” Overlooking the vagueness of his visions and, like Smith, his complete lack of education, the boy was examined by Mormon temple elders, and they soon declared that Brewster was a prophet, a seer, a revelator, and a translator. Not surprisingly, this led the boy to have more “revelations,” this time in the form of an angel commanding him to write the “books of Esdras.” Young Brewster’s lack of education meant that he could not write himself, so his semi-literate father took dictation. Eventually, scribes were employed to assist and finally a message was received that a gathering place had been appointed for the “saints.” No actual location—despite “divine” intervention—was provided, but it was said to be located in a vague, remote corner of Southwest America. It was a place called Cedonia, the Land of Bashan, the Land of California, the Land of Peace…and this author can’t help including: the Land of OZ!

The official Mormon Church quickly denounced Brewster, whose prophetic proclamations and growing ego challenged and denounced Joseph Smith. The Church stated that only Smith was appointed to receive the commandments as received by Moses. A power war of words ensued between the Mormon hierarchy and the newly self-appointed “Brewsterites.”

The Dark Road Ahead

Roys Oatman, now head of a family of nine, found his shibboleth in Brewster. He sold the family’s possessions, the family packed what little they thought they’d need for a new life, and they set off West on May 6, 1850, joining the Brewsters and a small caravan of hopeful aspirants to discover “Bashan.” Soon though, many in the group became annoyed by the lackadaisical attitude of the Brewster family in maintaining a focused journey. Some seem to have felt that the Brewsters had no clue what their destination was, and perhaps were stonewalling. Unrest smoldered among the families, and some separated themselves from the main group. Approximately 90 people pressed on following, for a time, the Santa Fe Trail across the Plains into the mountains of New Mexico and the unknown dangers of Indian country. After all, it had been prophesied in the Mormon scripture that the “Lamanites would one day accept the gospel,” whereupon “their scales of darkness shall fall from their eyes, and many generations shall not pass away among them, save they shall be a white and a delightsome people.”

It was hard travel for the Brewsterites. The season was late, hot, and dry, fomenting restlessness. Arguments and campfire meetings deteriorated into shouting matches. The emigrants chose the quicker, southern route in an attempt to save travel time, and consequently crossed the part of the country that the native Mexicans called the “Jornada Del Muerto,” the Journey of Death. Ominous human bones, dead pack animals, and castoff travel detritus littered their route, stoking fears among the group. A passing U.S. Government mail train warned the travelers that Indians had been spotted in the area and advised them to leave. Brewster proclaimed that they were under the special protection of the Almighty, and they pressed on. Nearby Native Americans were very aware of the pilgrims’ presence, and tested their defenses by stealing some of their livestock at night. Tensions continued to mount among the wagon teams, and on October 9, 1850, those sympathetic to the Brewsters split from the Oatmans. Passing into Chiricahua Apache territory, the Oatman party was preyed upon, losing several of their animals again. The Oatman team didn’t realize that the winters of 1850-51 were some of the driest on record in the Southwest and the Native Americans were under similar drive and pressure to survive. The naïve and misinformed travelers were engaged in a growing struggle for survival.

On January 8, 1851, the exhausted families arrived in Tucson, at that time a Mexican town, to purchase the meager amounts of food and supplies that were available due to Apache raids in the area. Little rest time was allotted, and the Oatman party trekked around El Picacho (“the Peak”), a mountain observation point employed for hundreds of years by the O’odham Apaches and other tribes, to arrive at a friendly Pima native village. Despite their desperation for supplies, the Pimas informed them that what little they had could not be shared. Apache raids had claimed any surplus.

Picacho Peak

One of the women in the Oatman party gave birth on February 7, but Roys Oatman insisted that they press on to “Bashan,” just, he claimed, a short couple of hundred miles to the west. The new parents, along with all the other families, chose not to continue travel out of fear of attack and the uncertainty of resupply. Mrs. Oatman was also expecting a baby, due within three to four weeks, but Mr. Oatman’s stubbornness dominated. Waiting, regrouping, and traveling on as a group, must have monopolized their conversations. But obsessiveness and weakness of numbers brought danger, like a vise, close in around them, and Roys Oatman continued on, taking his large family with him.

Fateful Decisions

The Gila River flowed northwest, then west, and then southwest, and the Oatmans set as straight a course as possible to intersect the southwest segment. This shortcut required a passage over rough terrain. Their animals stumbled painfully. Before them lay a series of steep climbs and drops onto and off of plateaus. Oxen required assistance navigating these inclines. Unloading, lifting and guiding the wagon wheels, braking down the slope, and repacking again until the next rise forced them to do it all over again became a monotonous, mind-numbing routine. It was back-breaking work moving rocks and sand to permit their wagon’s wheels’ purchase on the volcanic rock faces. They believed they had stumbled upon a barely discernable foot path and trackway, perhaps the Mormon Battalion trail, blazed between the years 1846 and 1847.

Mormon Battalion’s trail marker at the Oatman massacre site

February 18, 1851, would be a date and memory that would live in the legends of the surviving Oatmans and annals of western history. The day dawned clear, bright, and cool, as the family crossed the Gila River and came up the sand bank to the base of a steep rocky road cut into the cliff side. They looked at each other with despair, as it seemed that the succession of ascents and descents to similar mesa tops would never end. Once again they would have to engage in the well-practiced and agonizing trial of hill negotiation.

Wagon road up to Oatman massacre mesa

Lorenzo, one of the sons, paused during the herculean push, wiped the sweat from his brow, and looked out at the slowly expanding vista of the Gila basin behind them. He thought he spied movement among the Palo Verde trees scattering the river banks below. The family managed to reach the top, livestock slipping and stumbling over loose rock, and after taking stock of the way ahead, decided to rest. They let the animals graze, gathering strength for night travel under a cool, bright, full moon. Lorenzo’s fears were realized when they spied a large group of Indians coming up the trackway.

Roys Oatman greeted the menacing group of approximately 17 Native Americans in Spanish, and the family felt waves of fear pass through them. The tribal members wanted tobacco and pipes, and after they finished smoking, demanded corn meal. Roys replied that he had almost no food to feed his own family, but offered some bread. When they had eaten the bread, the warriors demanded more. Their tone was threatening, and Roys declined. This time, one of the native group, perhaps seeing no defensive weapons, climbed into the Oatman’s wagon and began rummaging around their goods. He shouted out in insistence for meat, but Roys again said no. Immediately a group of Indians jumped up and began taking supplies from their wagon, tucking them into their clothing. Roys passively ignored this invasion, perhaps hoping not to incite a more aggressive response. While the warriors commiserated among themselves, he proceeded to repack the wagon with the items that had been carelessly thrown onto the ground. Olive Oatman, the oldest daughter, and Lorenzo recollected that no one in the family provoked the warriors in any way, but the native assemblage erupted instantly into a massive shouting and screaming charge at the family.

Lorenzo was struck on the head and fell to the ground. He attempted to rise and was struck again. Simultaneously, Roys, his pregnant wife, his daughters Lucy and Charity Ann, and sons Roys Jr., and Roland were beaten to the ground. Olive recalls seeing all of her family lying in a blood-soaked, grotesque scattering of bodies, then she passed out.

The warriors started a looting spree among the fractured, broken, and bleeding inhabitants, stripping the wagon, removing the wheels, unyoking the cows and oxen, and—most essential to our story—capturing 13-year-old Olive and her 8-year-old sister, Mary Ann. The scene of carnage left behind would leave its mark on history and the horror of those moments of rage, fear, and terror would echo in time on that lonely plateau.

Captivity

Olive and Mary Ann recollect that their attackers divided into two groups, one herding the animals and carrying the looted items while the others shepherded the captured girls about half a mile to a campsite. After a brief rest and some food, which the girls refused, they continued their march. By this time their captors had removed the girls’ shoes, knowing that would prevent their escape. Their feet were quickly bruised and bloodied by the volcanic rock, rubble, and innumerable cactus thorns. Mary Ann was too weak to continue and was carried on the back of one of the attackers. All the Oatmans’ oxen and livestock were butchered, and Olive remembered that they marched on for three or four days to the Native American village.

Olive retold stories of mistreatment and forced labor while living with the tribe. She and Mary Ann, in poor health, were treated harshly as captives, which was the custom among the native peoples at that time. Over the course of about a year, though, they slowly assimilated into tribal life, learning how to avoid being beaten, and Olive learned the language of her captors, thought to be Tolkepaya.

One day, another native group, presumed to be the Mohaves and friendly with the Tolkepaya, came into their camp, learned of their captives, and sought to trade for them. The leader of this Mohave group was a young woman who, Olive later learned, was the daughter of their chief, “beautiful, intelligent, well-spoken, fluent in the languages of both tribes,” and most important, sympathetic to the predicament of the girls. Olive and Mary Ann were asked if they would prefer staying with their captors or leaving with the Mohaves. They declined to answer for fear it would be held against them. After much tribal discussion and controversial argumentation it was agreed they would be sold or traded for horses, blankets, beads, and foodstuffs. The girls then traveled with the Mohaves on a journey of about ten days through the desert to an area near the Colorado River where the states of Arizona, Nevada, and California intersected. Indeed this was not to be the wondrous “Bashan” that the Brewsterites had traveled so long, with tragic painful loss, to discover.

Olive and Mary Ann entered the chief’s household, where they were expected to work for their lodging, gathering wood, picking berries, and joining in the labor of sowing and harvesting wheat, corn, beans, pumpkins, and melons. In time, as the girls’ language skills improved, they entered into a deeper engagement with the Mohaves, discovering many who treated them with kindness, and friendships were forged. The chief’s wife assumed a motherly role with the girls, giving them plots of ground to cultivate as their own. Friendship flourished between Olive, Mary Ann, and the chief’s daughter, and to formalize this relationship, the tribe renamed Olive “Spantsa.” A mark of tribal relationships among the Mohaves was tattooing, and both Olive and Mary Ann joined in this initiation.

They were decorated with chin tattoos and single lines on each arm, with pigments from the juice of weeds mixed with blue powder ground from river rocks, and rubbed into the bleeding lines.

During the ensuing years after their transfer to the Mohaves, Mary Ann continued to grow weak from lack of nutrition. Despite Olive’s and the tribal chief’s family’s efforts, she died in the year Olive presumed to be 1855. Olive buried her sister, who had joined the growing number of Mohaves who also died of starvation in those drought years. Her burial was against the tribal tradition of cremation, but the tribe allowed Olive to do this.

Discovery

Retracing our steps to the day of the massacre, we take up Lorenzo’s story. With amazing good luck, he managed to survive the Native American attack, he surmised, by either being thrown over the edge of the mesa, or falling over the cliff and remaining undiscovered by the marauding band as they left the scene of destruction. Lorenzo managed to make his way slowly to an emigrant encampment, where he recovered and spent the next five years seeking his fortune. Eagerly, he attempted to unearth more information about his family’s demise. While in Los Angeles, he joined up with men trekking into the mountains prospecting for gold, hoping that two goals might be met: information about his sisters—who he hoped might still be alive—and a means to make a living. News was received that one of them had died in captivity, but that the surviving sister was still living with an unknown tribe. Letters and petitions moved across the chain of government and military hands until one day, after runners had been sent out among the indigenous peoples, information returned that indeed Olive, or at least, a white woman named Spantsa, had been discovered. A Quechan tribal member offered to intercede and negotiate for her release.

February 1856 thrust Olive and her tribal family into turmoil and transition. The tribal emissary did indeed appear, and entered into an arduous three-day negotiation for Olive’s release. The tribal council argued that keeping her as a means of future friendly engagement with the white military would be more advantageous than her release. Finally the chief agreed to part with Olive, sweetened by the “gift” of a white horse. Accompanied by the chief’s daughter Topeka, Olive returned to Fort Yuma, dressed in her tribal attire of only a willow bark dress. A calico gown was quickly found so that she could be “properly” presentable.

The Olive Oatman welcomed at the fort was a woman transformed by five years of change beyond the ken of most people. Her English was halting, her countenance darkened by hard labor in sun and elements, and of course the inescapable permanent facial tribal tattoos created unsought attention. She was taken into the care of women in logistical support of the fort and slowly regained her familiarity with the English language and American acculturation.

Her brother Lorenzo soon heard of Olive’s recovery, and left California to reunite with his sister, and they spent much time acclimating themselves to the ensuing year’s changes and hardships. The last Olive saw of her tribal family was a final farewell with a member of the Mohave tribe who greeted her as she and Lorenzo were leaving the fort by wagon. It is said that Olive told him in his native tongue, “I will tell all about the Mohave and how I lived with them. Good-bye.”

Epilogue

Olive Oatman shared her story with newspapers throughout the West, and her and Lorenzo’s fame spread throughout America. She went on the lecture circuit, connecting with the Reverend Royal Byron Stratton, pastor of a Methodist church, and author of a semi-factual book recounting her experiences. The book became wildly popular in a country fascinated with Native encounters. Olive eventually married a wealthy cattle baron and banker who shielded her for the rest of her life from public scrutiny.

Middle-aged Olive, heavily made up to hide her facial tattoos

Lorenzo married and struggled unsuccessfully for success. He died at the age of 65, followed by Olive a year and a half later. Rev. Stratton became mentally unstable, and was defrocked from the church. There were always unsubstantiated rumors that Olive had half-Native American children, but never any proof.

And so we circle back to the ill-fated Oatmans. Roys’s choice to follow and believe in a charlatan’s made-up visions, and his stubborn refusal to heed his internal conscience and the warnings of others, cost his and his family’s lives, and incredible suffering for Olive, Mary Ann, and Lorenzo. The ensuing written publication of the Oatman Massacre places the blame of this tragedy on the Native American tribe as a consequence of the societal beliefs at the time. A chunk of this remains true, but the lion’s share can be laid squarely on Roys’s decision to blatantly disregard forewarning.

For years, the remains of the deceased family lay in situ, to rot and join the food chain on that rocky mesa top, bones scattered haphazardly among the rocks and cactus. Occasional wagons struggled over and past, including the Butterfield Stage that shared that remote trail, until at some point, the bones were gathered and covered in rock cairns. Later, travelers paused to remove the stones and re-inter the bones down the cliff to a spot where they could be buried in the soft sandy earth bordering the Gila River. The Gila, however, rampaged and flooded the burial spot. Many years later, the Daughters of the American Revolution banded together to build a more permanent granite and concrete memorial with a bronze plaque inscribed with the words

In Memory Of
The Oatman Family
Six Members Of This Pioneer
Family
Massacred By Indians In March
1851
Erected By The Arizona Society
Daughters Of The American
Revolution – 1954

Oatman family burial plot

Campground Characters

 

When you nose into any campground you pass through a veil of probability. There are multiple layers of consideration: location; privacy; facilities; feng shui of view; positioning of solar if necessary; proximity to hiking, biking, entertainment, re-provisioning; ease of ingress and egress; and—high on the list if you are full-timing—what characters will you encounter? Will people sequester themselves in front of flat screens and closed doors, or will there be an atmosphere of welcoming inquisitiveness and interest? Let’s consider the latter!

A few days before Christmas, we returned to a spot in Arizona that we discovered a few years ago on a summer trip. At that time we had arrived late in the afternoon and the earlier temperatures in the triple digits were quickly easing back, leaving only pesky flies to linger until they disappeared into obscurity with the night breezes. Scores of campsites spread out across the desert around us were bookmarked by several volcanic rock piles inscribed with glyphs scratched by ancient desert dwellers. No water, electricity, or tank dumping was available, though spotless pit toilets and sun shelter provided some civil relief in this remote spot. No human habitation was present. The silence was eerie.

Our new visit awakened this remembered lay of the land, but with a much altered attendance. RVs and tents were sparsely scattered across the landscape and we trolled to an appropriate site that would meet our above-mentioned criteria. No sooner had I deployed the telescoping ladder to raise our solar panels—capturing the maximum winter sun—than a request emanated from the far side of the Airstream, asking about our solar capability. Standing before me, a tall, lanky, bright-eyed, white-haired, and pony-tailed “Russell” welcomed us to the campground, and we ambled over to the concrete picnic bench to spend the next hour free-flow chatting. We discovered he had led an eclectic life. To name a few of his pasts: construction work, National Park ranger, sheriff’s deputy, and custom trailer manufacturer, coupled with a long-standing love of photography, which produces stunning visuals. He mentioned an attribute that we have encountered continually on the road: a desire to be free from the rat race of society, and a need to discover a contemplative lifestyle in solitude. It was during hiking with Russell that we observed another characteristic: he had an uncanny ability to trail walk with the “nose” of a bloodhound, picking out obscure landmarks and signs like a skilled Native American tracker. This was very handy later when we all hiked out to an open-secret quartz field. In the desert, the plethora of saguaro and rocky features can delude—or perhaps entice—you to follow a path of their choosing. One native remarked that, “If you are not respectful, you will be led to your doom!” I smiled at the time…

During a conversation that amalgamated strangers into new friends, another voice requested, “Permission to come aboard!” Michael introduced himself as the owner of an Airstream parked in the nether regions of camp, and quickly we became a party of four, chatting as in a Sunday social. After long hours of conversation, hikes, and adventures with Michael, we discovered in him an extremely thoughtful, kind, and inquisitive nature, questioning the roots of philosophy, history, language, and engagement across a wide spectrum of academic, scholarly, literary, and scientific subjects. We would later self-initiate into our newly created club with the moniker “Boulder Brothers,” having climbed strenuous peaks, as you will see shortly.

It is engaging when polymath conversationalists come to the table with a wealth of life force and history, introducing eclectic topics as flitting moths (real moths, we soon discovered, emerged in force at the moment of sunset to harass us in the crepuscular light). Russell had spent quite some time here and familiarized us with the lay of the land and local flora and fauna. He mentioned that he had climbed the nearby mountain with a tiny hut on its crest, which for reference I will call Painted Rock Mountain. Michael and I seized upon the possibility that we could challenge ourselves to this initiation and immediately made a climb date three days hence.

The following morning, upon opening the door to greet the day, we immediately took stock of a gift left by night visitors on our door mat: kit fox poop. The gauntlet of retaliation was held high, but restraint stayed our hands to allow forgiveness to seize the moment. The next day, I went out to put on my hiking boots and quickly noted that one shoe had the laces carefully chewed off down to the boot tongue, leaving laces in situ on the door mat.

There was no doubt as to the perpetrator. We were warned that the resident kit foxes had divided up the campsites into fiefdoms, and after split-second mental conflict it seemed appropriate that a token of receipt of their mischievous presence was in order. I asked Michael if he had any rodent sticky traps, and true to what we learned was very careful foresight, he pulled a pair out of the recesses of a well-stocked-and-stowed hatch. I made a mental note to randomly put him to the test with requests for obscure items and see if in turn, they could be produced: perhaps a venetian blind duster, maybe a breech loader musket, or more practically, a hands-free automatic, electric, vertical, nonstick, easy, quick, egg cooker.

Night fell, and a 6-inch by 3-inch radically adhesive tray lay in the exact spot where the fox left its calling card. The following morning, the tray was gone. Somewhere, either a three-legged fox or one with monocular vision returned to its den in a sticky situation. Another night passed, and the intrepid fox saw our hand and raised it, leaving a little brown gift on top of our tiny one-inch by three-inch outdoor light controller that we’d balanced on the edge of the three-by-six-foot camp table: this was no mislaid aberration. I decided to call the hand, leaving another sticky rectangle, and in the dark, forgetting its presence, proceeded to step on it myself! Humbled, after an hour of scraping and wiping with the help of Goof Off cleaner (thanks again to Michael’s cornucopia of seemingly endless supplies), I was not daunted. The trap was re-laid and this time, location duly noted. The following morning…trap was gone and no more attacks ensued. Fox and human: all in.

Speaking of daunting, that tiny mountain crest hut awaited the earlier promises that we, the intrepid hikers, had made. It’s funny how you can look at an object—our mountain in this case—and distance seems to smooth out the intended path of travel.

In this case, a seemingly easier diagonal route morphed into a volcanic rock-and-boulder slog of epic proportions. An hour and a half migrated into two hours, and our vision of skipping along the crest to our destination receded into the distance like a trick movie shot. Hiking acumen was superseded by perseverance though, and we were able to maneuver rock by careful rock, circuitously up and down to avoid having to crawl on all fours, and—having reached a point 50 feet below our target tin hut—scrambled up to the ridge top vista.

A half-closed door covered the maw of an empty ten-by-ten tin building that at one time held electrical equipment supporting the remains of a metal tower, downed and disassembled, covered in ground wire.

Graffitoed names and dates covered the shack’s exterior and interior dating back a least to the time of its active use, in the 1940s and 50s. Hooked to the wall, a torn plastic bag held yellowing notebooks containing the logged names and places of origin of all those daring to make the climb. We felt like eagles returning to our aerie, drank copious amounts of water, and plotted our return route, which would be a more direct immediately downhill attack that had, from a distance, looked impossibly difficult from below.

The peripatetic lifestyle often attracts those who have fallen down as well as away from rooted living, and down the road from us, it was pointed out by more than a few, “those tent campers” were in a long-term bivouac. They stabled at least two dogs tied to their concrete table that lived in continual whining and barking discontent, and kept their vehicle hood open to run wiring from their ever-draining battery to various electronic devices. During much of the day they would sit in the front seat and listen to music amidst clouds of sweet-smelling spirit-inspiring smoke. Our campground hosts nodded knowingly in their direction to describe their comings and goings in coordination, they assumed, with the monthly receipt of welfare checks. It is easy to categorize people through superficial observations, but I have experienced, at times, engagements with remarkable people and have heard it said that we may encounter “angels disguised as man.” Charity and civility is a watchword in our world.

Across a creosote scrabble, through sandy and rocky terrain, a 1960s “old school” trailer with vintage wooden ceilings and walls, and original period draperies, marked the campsite of Lisa and Kris, two lovely women from a town listed by the Smithsonian as, “One the best small towns to visit in 2016”: Mancos, Colorado. A sort of unspoken rule here, in the wilds of wanderlust, is that an open door is an invitation to request a conversation. We ambled over and announced our presence. Chairs and upturned buckets were commandeered as seats, and several hours of spirited mutual discovery ensued. Both Kris and Lisa had spent their lifetimes in the search for, and dance with, joie de vivre through rafting, animal husbandry, hiking, ranching, adventuring, and shared, as we sat, a mutual love of moving south with the winter. Both women appeared to be in their mid-to-late 60s, and wore the natural beauty of a lifetime of outdoor life, creased, well-weathered features falling naturally into long-laid smile and laugh lines, eyes sparkling with the wisdom of dancing to the music of following their own calling.

Later, a convocation of three previous Painted Rock Mountain climbers gathered, looking out and up, a devilish plan brewing. Since climbing punishment was clearly not sufficient, torture would be the action plan of the near future. We wondered, in a tornado of increasing lack of sensibility and growing mischievousness, how it would look from below to plant solar-powered lighting on the top of our prized peak to frustrate the wonder of future observers and lead them to ask, “What the heck is up there?!”

Moonlight over Painted Rock is much stronger than L.E.D.

A lonely flickering light at mountain’s top here would not necessarily be an aberration, as this is strange country. Much has been written about UFOs and mysterious lights in the sky in this region, compounded by close proximity to an Air Force base. Nightly, bright yellow flares illuminate the sky to light up the landscape for miles, and planes circle continuously at all altitudes, their blinking lights competing with the Milky Way and bright star canopy. We speculate the reason for it all: Are they references for targeting? No sound of gunnery can be heard. Perhaps these lights illuminate a hunting border patrol as we are so close to Mexico? If that was the case, the flares would be appropriately located and they are often off near the direction of Phoenix, whose light can be seen bleeding over the tops of the mountains to the northeast. We hope our pinpoint of light can stand the test of the contrast of curiosity. The planning is stayed by the influx of high winds, dark clouds and rain on the horizon.

After the purchase of some cheap solar-powered lights at Harbor Freight, we tested their visibility across the easy-to-test campground distance and came to the realization that our plan of placing a light or lights on our Painted Rock mountaintop, two miles away as the crow flies, was, alas, too advanced for the technology at hand.

There are other characters here, yes! Circ (“as in ‘circus,’” he says) and Cindi roll in, and all heads follow their large fifth wheel trailer pulled not by a heavy duty pickup, or by a four-wheel rear-axle “dually,” but a full blown Volvo tractor trailer cab that is normally seen hauling freight along our highways. As we soon discover, they have big plans, both being avid outdoors people, particularly mountain bikers: they are in the process of custom-building a trailer to match the magnitude of their automatic transmission, two 250-gallon diesel fuel tank behemoth. Their design plans are no holds, no weight, no amenity barred (including a wine cellar!), with such a vehicle to pull it. They invited us up into the driver’s seat to get the “lay of the land,” and I must say, the view was better in most ways than our truck. I always thought semi-trucks were daunting, but sitting in their cab changed my opinion…but…Ruth and I smiled at the thought of pulling our relatively tiny Airstream with such a rig. In a truck like this, you find your best fuel price, and drive 5,000 miles before refilling (we thought 450 miles in ours is great!).

So if you think Circ and Cindi are great alliterative sounding words, the story that travels with them develops the character. Circ was not his birth name, but when he fell in love with a woman of the circus he acquired it by fiat of physical acumen, particularly among his colleagues as a contractor, as he could climb ceiling joists like a tightrope walker. The term head-over-heels would be very appropriate in this case. His paramour was a high-wire walker and Circ, driven by love (the best and fastest way to learn), jumped up on the wire and learned to walk it in amazingly fast time, graduating to riding a bike along the thin strand. Soon his rapidly developing skills began to be noticed by other performers that had acquired their abilities through a much more laborious pathway. When one of them got in his face to demand that he never use their act, followed by finding the love of his life in bed with a performer (I’d like to think it was the clown), Circ left the circus for good, taking only his moniker as a reminder. He met Cindi, who complements his passion like figure skaters’ synchronous ballet movements. She holds numerous mountain biking championships to include 6X Xterra World Champion, and 11X Xterra National Champion, and is well known in the circuits.

Circ on front left

Circ and Cindi are riding the road to everywhere, and their love for adventure, biking—and did I mention fine wine?—lay ahead of them. Two more examples of the wanderlust inhaling and exhaling in our tiny magic campground kingdom here.

Marshall pulled up in his pickup beside our Airstream with five(!) cute kids, to say that he and his wife admired our rig. A brief conversation revealed that they had been on the road for a year, leaving the rat race of office and corporate politics in Kentucky. It seems they were showing pictures of the wonders of America to their children and quickly realized the shallowness of that one-dimensional experience. Selling home and most possessions, they purchased an old Airstream to restore it but the time factor just didn’t match their desire to be free and on the road. They then purchased a fifth wheel and are immersed in non-virtual reality, home schooling their kids as they follow the seasons. We are seeing more and more young people who are chucking the restraints of daily commutes, nine-to-five or, more likely these days, ten- to twelve-hour days, pushing papers or electrons across an office intranet. Accessibility of the internet across the country is beginning to blast into America and the world’s mindset that it is not necessary to sit in a cubicle with a supervisor to verify completion of work. Like Ruth, Marshall’s wife is successfully employed and also maintains as much integrity of office interface and communication as any of their colleagues. Work is required: work is completed with excellence, maybe not with as much “office watercooler” social time but social media being what is, thanks to the strong remaining tether of internet, equally engaged.

As I write, a vehicle pulls in next to us that I have never seen before, and I’m heading out to get the scoop…it’s a vehicle a little larger than a camper van, made by the company Hymer out of Germany.

We now share neighbors from Holland, Johan and Loes, who shipped their camper van to Canada, crossed into the U.S. to travel each year during their “dark time,” and store it in California’s Central Valley when they are away. They benefit not only from the warm sunshine and dryness of the Southwest but also the friendly euro-to-dollar exchange rate. We spent several hours learning of their travels each year and sharing cultural exchanges. Holland has much to speak for it in cultural and social support systems, things sadly lacking in America and diminishing every day.

I’m pulling the plug on this conversation for now, as it would be so easy to explore the daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly tide, cycle, and stories of those who live, love, and wander the roads, discovering joy and adventure. Let there be no doubt, wanderlust is alive and well, and the richness of life is humbling. So much to be thankful for!

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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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…

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.

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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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?…