Chaco

Sun dagger

 

Hearing the echoes of tens of thousands of ancient trail trekkers and home seekers, we returned, after 20 years, to a point of light that became a supernova in the culture of the Southwest.

The road to our destination opened on Highway 550—formerly the ominous 666, the “Devil’s Road”—one of the most infamous corridors in North America. This highway overflows with tales of grisly deaths, mysterious hitchhikers that vanish in the night, eerie lights, skinwalkers, “Satan’s sedan” that speeds up on your bumper during night driving, time loss, and the Hounds of Hell that some say cause numerous accidents, ripping into tires with their razor sharp teeth. This four-lane road rolls along as if teeter-tottering through troughs of ocean waves. Momentarily, your view of the way ahead is blocked by an endless series of hogback hills. You must trust blindly in the skills of oncoming drivers, and that trust drops in proportion to the rollercoaster rise to the highway’s pinnacle: then you catch your breath in the revealing streak of oncoming traffic.

We keep a wary eye out for the ubiquitous brown highway sign informing us of the turn to Chaco Culture National Historical Park, and embark onto a devil’s highway of the very real kind. Now begins a series of road quality diminishments from two miles of narrow 45-mph asphalt, to eight miles of 20-mph rough gravel, then the bone-jarring final seven miles at slower than walking speed, over washboard rough as the frozen tops of the ocean. Stray vehicle parts compete with road perimeter tire tracks of drivers who futilely sought to avoid shaking their cars to pieces.

 

 

 

 

 

At times, we can almost reach out our windows to scratch the chins of wandering cows, standing in the road, mindlessly chewing. Suddenly a road mirage appears before our rig: a half-foot-high chasm separates the rocky red scree of our travails from the smooth asphalt entrance into the National Park Service official—flawlessly paved—road. Our four sets of wheels ease up onto it, and we feel the wind fill our sails. Arriving at the campground, we assess the damage. Our inspection reveals ripped-out door latches, loose screws, and objects transported across the floor like those mysterious sliding rocks in the desert. Our microwave, apparently longing to escape its cabinet confines, sits half-balanced on the precipice of the shelf, contemplating a jump to freedom.

Chaco isn’t an easy place to camp in this harsh, barren, and remote region. Potable water is available only in the visitors center, a mile or so away from the campground. RV parking is limited but rarely full, as there are no electrical hookups—but honestly, it’s the road in: it just sucks! There is a dump station; restrooms have flush toilets. Ice is nice in the 100+-degree heat, and can be had at the visitors center for $5—for a bag the size of a small Chihuahua. In daytime, flies and gnats masterfully and relentlessly avoid our swatting hands, seeking the moisture of our eyes, and bite into our skin, accessing fresh blood. At night, the onslaught creeps to a halt. But as the sun descends behind the mesa tops and pleasant breezes cool the earth, night wraps her cloak around the land and a new wave of night crawling creatures seeks out passages through our hair, up our legs, and into our clothing.

I awoke one night to the sound of Ruth’s incessant sneezing. It seemed to pass, and I fell asleep again. But the next morning, she was in her chair, still sneezing and blowing her nose. Suddenly, she looked at the tissue she’d just pulled away from her face and blanched. Are you squeamish? You might want to skip the rest of this paragraph. Several hard nose blows revealed a long black object. Upon closer inspection, we identified it as the carcass of an insect with multiple grasping legs seeking out a moist dark home to . . . you fill in the blank! This was Ruth’s Chaco freakout moment (and, I admit, my own as well). Flashlight inspection appeared to find no further evidence of body parts or reproduction. We proceeded to perform a military-style inspection of our entire living space, and eliminated close to a dozen similar interlopers. Could the thought of sleep be entertained after this event?! [Note from Ruth: I slept—if you can call it that—with tissues stuffed in my nose and earplugs for several nights.]

So where’s the gem in this story?

Chaco Canyon sits in the northwest corner of New Mexico in high desert, 6,200 feet on the edge of what was once a vast inland sea that rose and fell over the millennia—picture the American continent split into two separate halves.

Evidence of that ocean exists today as you hike up on the mesa tops above the vast settlement of Chaco Canyon. Fossilized ocean sea shells litter the sedimentation layers and iron stains the tubes of ancient sea worms that once lived in the primordial ooze.

Sandstone sea worm or sea shrimp fossil casings
“Ironized” sea worm tube
Fossilized sea shell

Ice ages came and went, water entered and receded. Oxygen levels rose and fell. Our continent drifted north from near the equator, and land masses lifted. The Appalachian mountains once stood as tall as the Himalayas. In this unique terrain in the center of the continent, the most ancient rock foundations of North America are found. The earliest known humans that migrated into this region found a special sense of place rooted in the depths of time. There is a confluence of life force here through the synergy of evolution. Dinosaur bones are layered in proximity with areas of geologic distinctiveness;

Dinosaur imprint

 

 

 

 

 

above and around them are ancestral Puebloan habitations, their sacred kivas, and concentrations of extraordinary social intercourse. The ancient ones seemed to understand the feng shui, or harmony, of environment and capitalized on developing this in the spread of their settlements, building extended roads of communication in all directions.

Approximately 1,200 years ago, a spark of synergy brought people to this place. Human creativity and engineering exploded a rapidly-evolving community to life. Huge living complexes were built, grinding stone upon stone. Detailed brickwork elevated these multi-story buildings with hundreds of rooms along the canyon mesa top and bottom, extending for miles.

News of these creations spread like wildfire throughout the region, luring seekers like moths to flame. These immigrants brought gifts to bestow, as well, upon the genius of this creation: the upwelling of cultural evolution. Macaws from deep in Mesoamerica adorned the growing clan gatherings in color and texture, huge collections of mined turquoise, competing and eclectic pottery designs, copper bells, shells from the Pacific—all contributed to the accelerated blending of clan traditions and social organization.

We climbed up a narrow crack in the wall of the canyon, up 300 feet inside an escarpment just wide enough for a human to squeeze through, over rocks and boulders to the mesa top, in the footsteps of countless Chacoan people before us.

Beneath us a spectacular view of the Great Houses below and the beginning of a 5–6 mile, 4-hour hike in near 100-degree heat.

 

 

 

 

 

Soon we trod upon excavated sections of the Chacoan Road, the remains of which stretch due north hundreds of miles into distant trade communities. The workers carved steps into the sandstone rock faces to facilitate the movement of goods and people. Along our hike, evidence of stone ceremony circles

Corn grinding metate

 

 

 

 

 

and signaling stations appeared, as well as pecked-out circular cairns for collecting water and grinding corn.

The Chacoan elite were very aware of the movements of the sun, moon, and stars, and this often amazes our modern sensibilities, though if you think about it for just a minute, it shouldn’t: without artificial light, these people lived in close connection with the sky in all its moods. Every year during summer solstice, the sunlight splits through a crack in the rock on the top of the distant Fajada Butte, beaming a light, called the Sun Dagger, onto a petroglyph spiral pecked into the cliff face of giant slabs of rock.

Other such examples exist in other regions around Chaco depicting other major solar events. These people understood perfectly, as so many other ancient societies demonstrated, the movements of the cosmos. Much of the building in this region centers around cosmological placement. Recently excavated sky viewing stations have been discovered throughout the region. How did this technology arise? Many excavations in Mesoamerica postdating Chaco by a hundred years remarkably resemble, if not directly copy, its architectural design and construction, including construction along astronomical ley lines.

I set out on a long, hot hike to a remote Great House at the far end of the Chaco Canyon wash from the primary building complex, to find pictographic evidence of an astronomical event. (Pictographs are created by spreading pigment onto the rock, as opposed to petroglyphs, which are pecked into the rock.) Tucked in the ceiling below an overhang, protected from the elements, are paintings believed to depict the supernova in the Crab Nebula that occurred in CE 1054, and was observed and recorded around the world.

This event was bright enough to be visible in daytime for a month and dominated the night sky, enthralling wondering observers. Hopi oral traditions state that this event precipitated a convergence of clans at Chaco, hence the presence of the hand in the pictograph. In further travels, I encountered another pictograph of four hands at the Betatakin cliff dwelling in Arizona, and was informed by my Native American guide that it represented the departure of the four Hopi clans from that sanctuary.

Ruth and I spent glorious nights recuperating from our daily explorations, sitting outside staring up at the wonders above us. A more perfect star gazing environment could not exist. The Milky Way revealed itself above us in a serape of billions of lights. The moon came up full, the following night rising a half hour later, and a half hour later again the ensuing nights. Patterns of stars and planets commanded our attention and moved across the sky as time passed. As the moon waned, its time of rising soon matched that of the sunrise and was quickly overtaken. We noted that the sun’s daily track across the sky in summer was high enough to not require raising our solar panels. What would the ancient ones think to see us pull into our campsite, reach for a strange rectangular tablet, and open up a compass app to delineate East–West for solar panel alignment and maximum power production? If we, in just 3–4 days could observe simple changes in the heavenly bodies, how much could a people so in tune with their physical world to navigate, operate, design, and build by its presence, learn, comprehend, and plot the signs of the seasons?!

With the assistance of 21st century technology, and the reality that most of our life on the road is outdoors, we recognized that greater awareness of our surroundings was demanding our attention. The Chaco visitors center, deducing the answer to the questions asked by countless others like us—many who had never seen the heavens like this before—provided the solution. The excellent Field Guide to the Constellations, by Jonathan Poppele, provides a comprehensive means of recognizing planets, stars, and constellations, and their seasonal movements. This invaluable resource helps us join our ancient forebears in taming the beast of questioning wonder.

Research into the history of the Puebloan people of the Southwest always brings up their mysterious disappearance around the end of the 1200s and 1300s. They developed a stunning civilization, built great structures that embraced the advancement and elevation of progress, and then they all just walked away? Struggling for answers, some ill-informed folks claimed that these tribal cultures left us in alien ships. But archaeologists, studying the changing weather patterns, noticed a period of sustained draught. Probably the development and over population simply outgrew the resources of the region.

Archaeological evidence shows that the Puebloan people had been migrating for centuries. We observe this in the vast amount of pottery left behind when their dwellings are excavated, and in the evolution of how their pottery designs morphed as they transferred in trading from one tribe to the next. A new artistic vision expressed on ceramic ware spread like wildfire through the regions much like it does today: think Impressionism, Art Nouveau, Art Deco, Pop Art, to name a few. It has been said that we see history as a static frame, missing the moving pictures around it. In the case of Chaco, the people didn’t just walk away. Excepting for alien abduction, elements of the aforementioned theories hold truths. The transformation back from an agrarian to a hunter-gatherer existence in deep canyons and cliff dwellings indicates that warfare was rampant, and this, coupled with the changing environment, led people to seek safety elsewhere.

The populace had been here before, and now returned to build anew on top of old structures, or simply tore down and rebuilt with newer technologies. In reality, it was a pattern of migration seeking optimal conditions that stimulated human migration across the world, and the Americas in particular. Ancestral Puebloans followed the path of least resistance across the landscape of the Southwest and northern Mexico, leaving traces of their villages and culture to be discovered in time.

The eventual border between America and Mexico created an artificial and political boundary that resisted broad archaeological exploration into the vast cross-tribal trade. Huge areas of northern Mexico remain unexplored and cataloged. Mesoamerican native culture, carrying the vestiges of ancient Aztec and Mayan civilizations, migrated north, mixing with the southerly movement of Puebloan peoples along the Sierra Madre mountains in Mexico. This movement created pockets of amalgamated dwellings. The largest of these settlements was centered in the Chihuahuan region of Mexico, called Paquimé, or Casas Grandes, which survived until the mid-1500s. It was said that war scattered its inhabitants into smaller communities throughout the region. The populace sought asylum in remote sheltered and camouflaged geographic regions. It was rediscovered by Spanish explorers around one hundred years later during the time of the new world Spanish exploration and “conquest.”

Again we return to the question of the disappearance of the pinnacles of population throughout the Southwest. The Spanish conquerors, and the Jesuit priests that followed them seeking to convert the so-called heathens, brought with them a devastating horror unknowingly wrapped in the garb of advancement and civilization: disease. This would be the unexpected contribution of the Old World to thriving New World communities, where populations of one hundred people were reduced to a few lone survivors. The plague of western civilization’s diseases, from which westerners had immunity, devastated the native population, perhaps providing clarity to the mystery of the great disappearance.

Technological context

A question kept popping up in my mind as we traveled and studied the history and civilization in this amazing region of America. What was the state of technology in the Eurasian and Puebloan cultures around the time of Spanish exploration? Was there disparity? If so, why?

The sight of the Spanish explorers snaking north along the mountainous terrain of northern Mexico must have been an astonishing sight to the local population, who had no knowledge of horses. Strange hairy man-beasts clad in armor and leather, glittering with lances and swords in the sunlight. Remarkable four-legged beasts carrying the loads of three men shook the ground and sweating support contingents, clad in clinking chain mail, snaked out along the trail into the endless expanse of the twisted canyon walls.

It was an imposing sight. The native population was perceived in equal respect by the trooping soldiers, witnessing power structures centered upon chiefs adorned in turquoise and colored feathers, being carried in palanquins. The Spanish passed through hundreds, if not thousands, of highly organized villages throughout the region, actively engaging in elaborate trade centering in grand marketplaces; and slave markets, buying and selling. Despite their imposing countenances, however, they were hugely outnumbered in the tens of thousands by organized armies. But for the mighty force of the musket, powerful crossbow, and armor, the Spanish invaders might have been turned away.

The Puebloans were no strangers to warfare, and soon realized the vulnerabilities of these new interlopers: unlike gods, they bled like humans. Why the disparity in technology?

Let’s look at a sampling of the state of technology in Eurasia around the period from 800 to 1200 CE.

  • Construction of many of the great cathedrals in Europe such as Durham in England and Chartres in Paris
  • The movement of goods, inventions, and ideas along the Silk Road from China to Europe
  • Invention of gunpowder
  • Intercontinental navigation, the compass
  • Development and production of iron, blast furnaces, the plow
  • Development of weaponry and armor
  • Invention of paper-codifying ideas and technology
  • Clocks, cranks-the wheel
  • Algebra, discovered by the Muslims

When the Spanish explorers arrived in North America, they introduced horses, cows, sheep, goats, and pigs. The native population had only dogs, turkeys, and chickens. The author, Jared Diamond, who wrote the book Guns, Germs, and Steel: The fates of human societies, postulates that:

  • Farming and domesticating animals provide social stability that is lacking in hunter-gatherer societies. Labor specialization enables certain groups to develop weapons.
  • Major portions of Eurasia had a natural advantage in developing agriculture and domesticating animals because of geography and the presence of plants and animals that could be easily domesticated.
  • The landmass of Eurasia, laid out on an east-west axis, allowed for the sharing of crops, animals, and ideas. The Americas, stretched out on a north-south axis, traverse climate zones and geographic boundaries that discourage trade.
  • The diversity and density of Eurasian populations created an immunity to germs and pathogens, such as the plague, that would later wipe out the more isolated populations of the Americas.

Diamond also postulates, and I strongly agree, that the power of the written word plays a major role in the development and spread of technology. The Puebloan people shared a petro-pictographic communication system that may have been lost in translation across regions, as well as speaking multiple dialects that inhibited cross-tribal sharing of ideas. Cultural and historical retention depends upon storytelling and oral traditions.

Visiting and exploring Chaco Canyon has opened multiple doors into the richness of this region we travel in: geography, geology, culture, astronomy, rock art, the history of pottery in the Americas, the development of technology in the post-classical period. We’ve traveled a long road since our first visit years ago. That beam of sunlight, our Sun Dagger, crosses our spiral of time once again, revealing answers, posing more, and rekindling the wanderlust of living and exploring on the road.

 

Scene Along the Road: 7

Dinner Theater

In Kingman, Arizona, on the western edge of the Route 66 corridor in western Arizona, it’s not all about the confluence of historic road kitsch, railroad stops, native Americana, proximity to grand dams, Vegas glitz and glitter, Grand Canyon breathtaking geologic history, associated Hualapai First Nations’ Sky Walk, river rapids, helicopter rides, and various and sundry tawdry tourist distractions. No: it can be a simple quest for dinner. The native resident population of Kingman is around 28,000, and there are approximately 79 eating establishments in the Kingman metropolitan area; if everyone arranged a yearly eat-out day, there would be . . . well, you do the math of populace per restaurant. As wandering mendicants, we aspired to quality over quantity.

But this Scene Along the Road story takes us to our heavily researched Italian restaurant of quality, Mattina’s Ristorante Italiano, described online, and by our informative waitress, as the only fine dining restaurant in town, and—to distinguish itself from the culinary crowded cantinas, cafes, coffee shops, and chophouses—it was located off the beaten path of hungry roving tourist eyes and rumbling ruminant intestinal tracts. Once upon a time, in an earlier, more genteel era, one might be expected to enter this establishment in semi-formal attire, in contrast to today’s banal baseball cap-wearing, baggy shorts, tank tops, and sandals crowd. (We wore none of the above.)

But . . . let’s drill down even deeper into this scenario. We witnessed the front door opening and a captivating couple entered the room as in an E.F. Hutton commercial, “When E.F. Hutton talks, everyone listens.” A vacuum of attention passed through the room drawing all eyes to this couple, in their early- to- mid-30s, but the vortex of attention was to the Woman in Black. If you look up an example of the “little black dress” on the web, you would see the image of that femme fatale magnetically attached to her partner.

All eyes were on the Dress that rode her like cling wrap on a damp bowl. Lace rimmed the edges of precipitous danger zones, and the hemline rode in the upper quadrant of legs that stretched from black high heels to a voluptuous hip:waist ratio. I looked at Ruth, she at me, and we sucked in our breath to capture it before it escaped like air from a blown-up balloon into the scene before us. The Woman in Black had eyes and hands completely focused on her man: I’m not even sure she realized she was in a restaurant. In the prospect before me, my vision blurred for a moment and I saw the mirage of a spider spinning a web around its prey. This was going to be an informative and entertaining evening.

The couple were seated at a table adjacent to us, and at first the Woman in Black sat across from her paramour. She quickly decided that the distance between them could not provide her with the proximity necessary to press her case, and moved next to her seemingly oblivious beau, who yammered on about stocks and shares (or was it bytes and RAM?). Was he playing it cool, holding tight to the appearance of aloofness? The constant drone of the man’s voice engaged her in a one-way conversation, and we stole furtive glances out the windows past them to witness her stroking his neck and arms, tousling his hair and whispering into his ear. He appeared to take no notice of the spell being cast by her cat purrs. I wondered if he was savvy to her guile, and at least saw the game being played with clear eyes. Were we witnessing the power and pinnacle of her life’s flowery bloom, working to capture her mate?

I must say parenthetically, that after a few icy cocktails, a delicious Silver Oak cabernet was set before us, the aroma of Napa Valley California terroir captivating our senses. This set the stage for a shared crisp caesar salad, titled “The Big Boss,” with soft palatable anchovies and the pièce de résistance entrees of spinach ravioli in tomato vodka cream sauce for Ruth (moniker: “Uncle Paulie’s Ravioli Espinachi”). Rib eye steak was my choice, “The Capone,” cooked excellently medium rare with a crisp charred crust to offset the soft juicy inner core oozing with fatty umami flavor. Complementing this awesome cut of beef, angel hair pasta in Sicilian sauce provided a tangy Mediterranean counterpoint to, and lightening of, the fare. The admixture of the couple drama faded in contrast to the sensual demands of the banquet before us.

While our Woman in Black pushed the limits of public propriety, I tempered my embarrassment with subtle sips of winemaker Dan Baron’s finest 2013 vintage, tasting the essences of sandalwood, leather, blackberry liquor, sage and a soft tannin finish that resonated in the palate like wind rippling across a still lake. But I digress.

It appeared as though our couple would be getting their “dessert eats on” post-prandial, away from the public eye. Our spider Woman in Black had played her hand to the max to capture her prey, we assumed, but all that is best left for speculation.

We celebrated their equally captivating and relieving departure by examining the dessert menu, and after consulting with the Maître d’, who informed us that Chef Yashica baked her own creations, he recommended—and brought us—the unique carrot/cheesecake topped with whipped cream, and a generous slice of rich, tangy key lime pie. We stimulated our senses back to attention after our sumptuous meal with a couple of cups of well-brewed “joe.” I called for cream and sugar but after a quick taste of this bare-naked perfect brew, let this cup cap a delightful dinner experience.

This scene along the road was dinner theater at its finest.

**IT Happens…

Yep, freewheeling on the road is an antidote to constipation of the spirit. What strange synchronicity of events conjures a “good” or “bad” day? Do events in time create attractiveness like magnetic black holes?

We wind through dark, narrow, rain-drenched canyons, encountering no traffic crazy enough to be on these serpentine roads in this ominous weather. Passing entrance and exit markers of the Shoshone and Paiute tribes, we watch the road ahead for rock falls, avoid road collapse on our passenger side—river rapids reaching the road edge beckon our wheels to exchange mediums of contact. Squiggly arrow warning signs inform us of 10 miles of sharp curves ahead to our destination, Wild Horse Canyon, behind the dammed reservoir of the same name. Through the rainy mist, our objective emerges—barred by a closure sign and rusted gate. Reluctantly, we press on another 80 miles to the bustling metropolis of Elko, Nevada. Ruth engages research mode to find accommodation at a regional state park, and we enter a zone of ominous probability.

Backing our rig into the campsite, I feel rolling resistance, stop, and see that a low-lying, 12×12 wooden barrier has traveled between the turned front wheels and the under-frame of the truck. To add insult to injury, the ground beneath the wheels is soft enough to drop the carriage of the truck down to sit on top of the impaling post. Unable to go backward or forward, I choose the path of least resistance, which results in the barrier ripping out the plastic bumper trim with a heart-rending crunch. Hours of insurance and repair shop bureaucracy ensued. Not having the “luxury” of living rooted, time of completion—and just getting information!—was critical.

We settled into an evening of pensiveness, watching the sunset illuminate the edges of the cloudy western horizon. Retiring to the Airstream, I pulled the door to close us into the sheltering embrace of our silver home, and felt the metal door handle drop through my hand onto the floor. We were locked in! Our inner screen door (and the fact that my toolbox is in the truck) prevented me taking apart the inner door lock assembly, leaving two exits available to us: ripping out the bedroom emergency window screen—better reserved for a fire exit—or engaging help from outside. The solution was simple: just walk up to our door and open it, but the great beyond was as quiet as a grave yard. **It happens!

We called the state park office number, which at that time of night was closed. The number automatically transferred us to the local sheriff’s department—on their 911 line. A very official dispatch woman listened to my entreaty, responding in short staccato bursts, “Your name, sir?” “You’re where, sir?” “You did what, sir?!” Long phone silence…me asking, “Are you still there?” Dispatcher, “Where are you, sir??” Ruth and I side talk, trying to remember just where we were exactly. Oh, yeah, “South Fork State Recreation Area, East Campground, site 14.” Dispatcher, “We’ll send someone out.” She disconnects before we can suggest, perhaps, something less drastic? Calling the ranger that’s within sight of our windows?

A very strange sense of claustrophobia emerged within me, and I grappled with my rationality. For crying out loud, I live in this place and spend hours within, and now I feel trapped?! A few deep breaths, a last peek outside the windows by flashlight, the fading hopes of seeing an accessory to relieve this insanity, and a long wait until headlights appeared.

A bright flashlight illuminated the side of our Airstream and a voice came out of the darkness: “Ben?” What do you say at a time like this, I pondered? “Just open the door, we’re locked in.” In a second, the door opened, and I grabbed the disembodied door handle to show the sheriff that, indeed, we weren’t pranking The Force. Then immediately thought better of it, but too late. The trained eye of the sheriff, spying my emergence, fell upon the black gun-shaped object in my hand. I quickly held my hand open and out to my side, and in a millisecond we had an understanding that I’m afraid would not have gone as well with our darker-skinned brothers and sisters.

Stepping back a bit, to increase safety space, he provided me with the prospect of a sharply dressed and pressed, hair perfectly coiffed, body camera in full frontal projection, and more armaments than a National Guard contingent, sheriff to “Serve and Protect.” At this point in time, I was in full accord with that phrase! The sheriff’s face transformed into a big smile—after all, he probably drove quite a distance to perform this most difficult of tasks—and we knew he would have a great story for the team back at the station. We parted in handshakes and with great thanks of relief.

In response to our blog posting regarding catastrophic meteor strikes, Michael Sullivan, a former Peace Corps, wacky bohemian, omniscient, and seeker of crazy wisdom, suggested a couple of research topics. One regarded the relationship between Joules and ancient Babylonian mathematics (which is on the back burner), the other referenced probability theory, statistics, and mathematical postulations by the French scientist Siméon Denis Poisson (1781–1840), who developed a theory expressing the probability of a given number of events occurring in a fixed interval of time or space, if these events occur with a known constant rate and independent of the time since the last event. Probability-Synchronicity-**It happens, it seems, has a mathematical basis and a cultural creed? Modern physicists would add more calculations in the 21st century to accommodate another level of possibility: quantum theories, and a “world” where observation changes outcomes, but “that, my dear Watson, is not elementary.”

As long as we’re on the subject, those who believe in astrology (we don’t!) saw the illusion of the planet Mercury appearing to move from east to west in its orbit around the sun (it travels west to east), and called this Mercury Retrograde. With the inception of the popularity of astrology in the early 1900s, people began to associate Mercury’s astrological relationship with communication, media, travel, and technology, and the perceived backwards movement of the planet, with everything going wrong in the afore mentioned aspects of life. All planets go into seeming retrograde, but in Mercury’s case, its orbit is faster and smaller than Earth’s, hence it catches up and passes Earth, appearing to move backwards. With the power of the internet, and the speed in which information travels, any crank, armchair philosopher, pseudo-doctor, or nutty fake-scientist can post their theories. Those seeking answers outside of the facts of science are attracted like flies on horse manure, and here we are.

Where else can we turn for answers to our magical, metaphysical dilemma? The Hopi Native Americans believe in the principle of Koyaanisquatsi, which means life out of balance, or crazy life. (For those of you who are very adventurous, and want to experience this film in its entirety, click the link and tumble into the Hopi vision.) You may remember this was the topic of an experimental film in the early ’80s. I would not go so far as to blame the incidents described above as living out of balance, though this will require some contemplation. Call it chance, chaos that invites restructuring to harmony, a kick in the butt from the gods, perhaps all the things going right or wrong in life appear to coalesce around random moments in time?

As I close off this commentary, a deafening roar emanates from our Airstream roof and flashes of lightning illuminate my laptop screen. Looking out the window, the source of this racket becomes evident: 1/8-inch hailstones! Perfect for an Airstream’s aluminum skin. What closure-opener to this topic—

**It Happens!

Arizona Cataclysm Reprised: In the Matrix

One of our readers, Michael Luxem, wrote a fact-check comment in response to the blog post, Arizona Cataclysm, that stated, It is difficult to imagine something only 160 feet in diameter—about the length of three semi-tractor trailers—having that much destructive power. F = ma.”

I pulled the statistics for this blog post from numerous web sources including Wikipedia, but I must admit I didn’t math-check the material, so after Michael’s challenge, it was research time. My worry at this point is not the revelation of incorrect facts, but that many of the links and pathways burrowed me into explosion and bomb impact studies, potentially resulting in the arrival of black Suburbans and the infamous Men in Black from Homeland Security. Read on and see…

In the formula: Force = Mass × Acceleration, it should be noted that weight and mass are different. The mass of an object is the amount of matter in the object, whereas weight is the measure of the amount of force exerted on the object within a gravitational field, or how hard gravity pulls on it. For example, the weight of a person varies on Earth compared to the moon. A one-kilogram mass placed on a bench presses down on the bench with almost 10 kg of force.

One newton is the force needed to accelerate one kilogram of mass at the rate of one meter per second squared. Force (one newton) = mass (one kilogram) × acceleration (one meter per second squared).

The meteor described in the blog was approximately 160 feet in diameter. Assuming it was a perfect cube, which it wasn’t, the dimensions of that cube would have been 160 feet long, by 160 feet wide, by 160 feet deep, for a total of 4,096,000 cubic feet. You might be surprised to note that one cubic foot, 12 inches by 12 inches by 12 inches of iron—of which the meteor was comprised—weighs 491 pounds! Hollywood dulls our senses to reality when we see bank robbers break into a vault and carry out gold bars under their arms. A one-cubic-foot bar, again the same dimensions as our iron bar above, would weigh 1,206 pounds! Yes, gold has more mass than iron. Oh, if only meteors were made of gold! The gold ingots stored in Fort Knox weigh 36.5 pounds each, not such an easy feat to slip out of the vault…but I’m getting away from topic here.

It’s simple to calculate the mass of our meteor by multiplying its total cubic feet by the weight of one cubic foot—491 pounds—to arrive at 4,095,999 pounds. Converted to tons, we get 2,047, which is significantly off from the 300,000 tons claimed by one of my reference websites, and consequently changes the impact force on Planet Earth, as we shall see shortly. Nevertheless, this is no insignificant puppy. A fully loaded semi-tractor rig is approximately 80,000 pounds. The mass of our meteor entering Earth’s atmosphere was 51 times that, at an accelerated force monumentally greater than a semi’s highway speed.

Now, let’s make sure all our units described follow the metric (SI) nomenclature.

Mass: 1,859,728 Kg

Acceleration: 12,964 m/s

Force: 44,837,137,865,368 newtons (4.48 × 1016)

I discovered an online TNT calculator and did some rough math to determine meteor force impact which could take me, as I mentioned above, into black Suburban influence, and came up with an explosive force of around 10 megatons of TNT. As a reference, the World War II nuclear explosion over Nagasaki was 20 kilotons. When you see the size of the Arizona impact crater, this all becomes clear.

Another force calculation which helped me understand the immense size of the impact crater was by calculating Kinetic Energy = KE, the formula is written as: KE = m(mass) × v(velocity)² ÷ 2.

1,859,728 kg × 12,964 m/sec² ÷ 2 = 1.56 × 1014 J (Joules)

A Joule is: the SI unit of work or energy, equal to the work done by a force of one newton when its point of application moves one meter in the direction of action of the force, equivalent to one 3,600th of a watt hour.

It is estimated that before atmospheric entry the meteor had the energy of 5.36 × 1016, approximately 12.8 megatons of TNT.

In January 2018, an estimated six-foot-wide meteor exploded in the atmosphere above Michigan with the power of 10 tons of TNT, it was said. I didn’t do the math proof. Here is the YouTube video.

  • Purdue University constructed a rough app called “Impact Earth,” in which you can extract hypothetical meteor impact data and watch a simulated video of your design.
  • For some detailed and complex impact mechanics calculations researched by the US Geological Survey, here is a fascinating link dating to 1928.

Thanks, friend Michael, for pushing me to spend the day (and into the night) researching some of the minutia of that famous monumental Arizona meteor impact, and as a consequence, frying my brain cells. I hope I got the calculations right. You might want to double check them (smile). The challenge is that there is a vast amount of conflicting information out there, much of it weakly researched. Add mine to that list. If you don’t hear from me soon, after a day’s plumbing the depths of explosive impact science, you know where to start looking.

Arizona Cataclysm!

You and fellow members of your tribe are foraging and hunting across cool, moist, partly-grass, partly-forested terrain. Your clan has successfully completed that rarest-of-rare hunts: a 12-foot tall, hairy, curved-tusked creature that will provide food for all your families and those throughout the region for weeks. Your salt supply in the near hills guarantees your provisions’ sustainability.

As you set about the long task of cutting meat and stripping hide for clothing, a bright light appears in the sky to rival the sun warming your back as you toil. Within the blink of an eye, an even brighter flash and streak across the sky is followed by sound louder than any thunder you have ever heard. You are pushed back onto the ground, now shaking under you, and fear precedes a powerful heated wind muffling the cries of your fellow hunters. A huge cloud of smoke rises before you, spreading out and up into the sky obscuring the sun and turning day into night. Rocks fall around you and burn your skin. You pull your animal hide covering around your head and join your comrades running to escape the nightmare dreams come to life before you. An overhang in the rocks provides temporary shelter as a premature cold darkness falls upon you all…

Driving along the two-lane blacktop, we leave the interstate and proceed six miles south along barren, scrub-lined, mostly flat terrain and up a rise like the outside of an anthill, to claim parking outside the Meteor Crater visitors center. Paying our admission, we trek up a number of flights of stairs and soon the prospect of an unearthly crater comes into view before us.

Awesome but VERY large image file: view on large screen. Humans in upper right.

It’s as if we’ve been transported to the moon. Statistics for this giant hole in the earth state that it is was created 50,000 years ago. Blasted out by a meteor approximately 160 feet across, and weighing 300,000 tons, it mostly vaporized during impact with a force of 10 megatons. A giant crater was created, three-fourths of a mile across and almost two-and-a-half miles in circumference. The most powerful nuclear weapon ever exploded was 50 megatons and Russian in origin. The bomb that exploded over Hiroshima was 15 kilotons, considerably smaller in force.

Entering the atmosphere, the meteor was traveling eight miles per second, or almost 29,000 miles per hour. At almost 38 times the speed of sound, this blast through the atmosphere would have created a monstrous sonic boom! In the visitors center rests a residual artifact of the meteorite—constructed of mostly iron and many trace minerals and weighing 1,409 pounds—that was discovered several miles away. Standing on the rim of the crater, I felt the sense of falling into its maw, which rose 560 feet from base to rim, approximately equivalent to a 52-story building. If you are not full of statistics by now, let me point out that it has been calculated that the crater bowl can hold 20 football fields and the equivalent of two million spectators seated around its sides.

Let us return back to our fictitious presumed Paleolithic traumatized tribe. If the timeline of the meteor strike was skewed forward in time from 50,000 years to between 13,000–16,000 years, the coexistence of tribe and event would have been likely. As of 2017, there is a hotly contested revision of human history on the North American continent, claiming some form of pre-modern human, perhaps Neanderthals, extending back 130,000 years.

https://www.nytimes.com/2017/04/26/science/prehistoric-humans-north-america-california-nature-study.html

This is based on crushed Mastodon bones found in San Diego, with nearby stones resembling smashing implements. Currently it is understood that humans did not range out of Africa until about 50,000–80,000 years ago. There is a good probability that Mastodons did coexist with our ancient North American native population at the close of their extinction between 10,000–11,000 years ago. It is conjectured that human predation was the cause or at least the hastening of their extinction. The last known evidence of Mastodon habitation was on Wrangel Island off the coast of Alaska between the years 2,500 and 2,000 BCE, approximately simultaneous to the construction of the Great Pyramid of Giza.

Whether it was human, mastodon, or both that witnessed this cataclysmic event, the effects have sounded and resounded on through time.

Follow our adventures by clicking the red FOLLOW button below right.

Scary Roads We Love to Hate

Have I already mentioned to you that we don’t like to travel on interstates? Oh yes, when necessity dictates, a timely run, or the interstate is the only road option—but the interstate is to the destination as back roads are to the journey. We’ve been on some doozy roads, and I’ll share some of them with you here.

NOTE: This post contains many images and video best viewed on a screen larger than your phone!

Highway 550 in Colorado is called the Million-Dollar Highway for the amount of precious metals that passed down that road to spark the fevers of fortune hunters; or perhaps it was the cost of a million dollars a mile to construct in the 1920s, or that its fill dirt contained a million dollars in gold ore. Needless to say, it twists twenty-five miles along the Animas river from the lovely old town of Silverton to Ouray, Colorado, along switchbacks and precipitous drop-offs—with no guardrails—over three mountain passes, each over 11,000 feet.

If you are not short of breath from the white-knuckle drive, you will be when you arrive in Ouray, not just from the simple beauty of a town nestled in the folds of the surrounding 13,000-foot mountains, but in the rarified 9,000-feet-above-sea-level air.

We drove this route on one of our travel expeditions and after that ordeal, chose more recently to experience it looking out from the windows of a 19th century steam-driven train. Add huge layers of adrenaline from sheer dropoffs outside the train car hundreds of feet down the canyon, to the raging rapids below.

7 Minute high speed drive from Ouray to Silverton Colorado

Moki Dugway, Rte. 261 Utah

This is a road, if you can call it such, not for the faint-hearted, constructed in the late 1950s by a uranium mining company to shorten the distance of ore transport. Unsuspecting drivers arrive at the precipice of a mesa, and the asphalt abruptly—and unexpectedly—morphs to graded dirt. They peer out and down 11,000 feet to the valley below, and the approximately 14-foot-wide road, while the 11% downgrade beckons them to death. There are no guardrails to provide psychological safety, and trucks and RVs are informed in large-lettered signage to avoid traveling along the snake-like grade cut into the cliff face. We sucked in our breath and proceeded down, our truck in four-wheel-drive, realizing too late that some clown thought he could drive up pulling a large trailer. We weren’t about to play chicken. White knuckle cannot describe the timing of our encounter midway. We both had passed the point of no return. Luckily we found a slight pull-off on a potential hang glider launching site, and Ruth leaned out her window to slowly guide me, to inch our wheels within a foot of the dropoff. The rig passed us with inches to spare with both our mirrors pulled in. Why do vows to never do this again fade into time? “Well…” you may say to yourself, “why do I even bother to travel on the Moki Dugway?” If you’re interested in visiting the breathtaking Valley of the Gods, or the beautiful Four Corners region, you have a choice of driving the Dugway, or adding another 80 or so miles to your journey. Is that a rock and a hard place? Perhaps it would be better to say, “Between rocks and wide open space.”

Whitney Portal Road

Nearby Highway 395 in central California provides a staging area for those who seek to hike up to the lower 48 states’ highest mountain, Mt. Whitney. It, too, tests the temerity of drivers climbing up to the clouds along guardrail-less switchbacks. You watch the land fall away below, grip the wheel tightly, and in spring and autumn, hope that your tires grip equally as well over potential ice patches as you ascend 8,000 feet along 13 miles of switchbacks. There are frequent rock falls onto the road and if you should be unfortunate enough to drive off the road, the local bears get first pickings of human prime cuts.

The last five miles of this serpentine roadway has a grade of 9%. Once you settle your heart rate, the views from on top, down into the Owens Valley, are spectacular and the jagged peaks of Whitney beckon you to break through any residual fear of heights.

Saline Valley Road is not far from Mt. Whitney and makes up for what it lacks in scary precipitous dropoffs by providing about 25 miles of rocky, sometimes 10-12% grade four-wheel-drive slogging. The country around this rarely traveled “road” is stunning in beauty, and we bounced slowly along for almost three hours, imaging ourselves traveling back in time without worrying about our horse losing its footing on the rocky surface.

On the road to Saline Valley
Descendants of prospectors’ burros
Glutton-for-punishment winter driver on Saline Hot Springs Road

We were jolted back to the moment in the sudden blast of a low flying F18 from the nearby Air Force base. There is a reward for the traveler of this tire- and transmission-testing trackway: Saline Valley Hot Springs. Small-plane pilots in the know fly into this desert oasis on the edge of Death Valley, California—avoiding dogfighting jets—that is overseen by the National Park Service and manned by serious hardcore hot springs aficionados.

Saline hot springs oasis

There is, by the way, some very high-temperature water boiling out of the ground, so care testing of toe placement is in order. We camped for about a week and learned that stays for up to a month are possible with careful provisioning.

Burr Trail was one of our discoveries on an early road trip in the Southwest. We crossed Bullfrog Bay in Lake Powell on the ferry, and drove a stunning scenic dirt road about 30 miles into Burr Canyon. Before us lay a zigzag road cut into the canyon rock face, 800 feet high with extremely tight switchbacks and, of course, no guardrails.

Yes, this is nearly a vertical canyon wall

Intestinal fortitude is necessary to drive this scary mountain goat climb. Our first foray up the Trail was in our Toyota Tacoma stick shift, and I quickly learned to manage 4WD and careful speed management to prevent back creep on sharp switchbacks. Sliding backwards wasn’t an option, with the canyon below lying in wait. I became aware of a peculiar optical effect while rounding each bend going up, where the front of the hood prevented my view of the turn radius. This forced me to have to roll down the window and lean out to judge the truck’s position and not miss the road center. Ruth couldn’t take the white-knuckle scariness of the journey and opted for walking the duration of the way up. Afterwards she stated that the view from inside the cab of the truck was deceiving, that walking changed one’s perspective of drivability. I intellectually agreed but somehow the truck, by blocking road judgement, multiplied the fear factor. This is where you ponder the voice of Obi Wan Kenobi in your head to, “Use the Force.”

Drone view of Burr Trail switchbacks

Pine Creek Canyon Road (Route 2)

We serendipitously discovered this off-the-beaten-path dirt mountain road on the edge of the California–Oregon border while looking for a camping spot next to a mountain lake. All went well and a number of years later while camped at Goose Lake State Park, we decided to reprise our visit and reclaim our memories. We just couldn’t believe we drove on the same road. Perhaps it was changed by trolls, gnomes, or tectonic plate movement? Our route reprise seemed much more narrow, twisty, rocky, inclined, and compounded by many camping vehicles trying to pass each other with few pullouts. Nevertheless, add this one to a way-off-the-road-camping-with-no-limits area.

Gates Pass Road runs east–west between Tucson and Saguaro National Park, and I’ll call this one a pink-knuckle drive on a narrow road, particularly near the top of the pass to and from Tucson.

Gates Pass to Tucson
Below Gates Pass near Saguaro State Park

The road drops with no guardrail protection steeply down into the Saguaro National Park region and some spectacular camping at the Gilbert Ray Campground. DO NOT THINK ABOUT driving an RV on this road or you will have nightmares that will require coaching to alleviate, and the next destination leads us to night terror sweats…Near the Gilbert Ray Campground is the famous Old Tucson former Old West film set, now tourist western reenactment amusement park. Expect stunt shows, train rides, saloon “family tame” burlesque entertainment, pony rides, shoot outs, sundry shlock, and much, much more. (Read Ruth’s review of it here.)

Gunfight in Old Tuscon mission

Doherty Rim, Oregon Hwy. 140

Traveling east–west in Nevada reveals the consistent “basin and range” topography. You drive up a 5,000–6,000 foot pass and down 5–10 miles into a barren, sage brush-inhabited basin, then up the next pass, and repeat, over and over. Traveling north, we decided to break free from this monotony and take the road less traveled into a region so sparse of population and lacking of any cell communications, that if you broke down, your bleached bones would warn the next intrepid traveler. We spent the night in the Sheldon National Wildlife Refuge, where birds come to seek freedom from harassment, wild burros and horses range free, and hot springs run twenty-four hours a day through volunteer-built bathhouse showers. Can it be a strange coincidence that as you near the crossing from one state to another out West, the landscape changes and you can state clearly that now you are in Idaho, or Colorado, or Oregon? It seems as though the surveyors looked out, saw a geological change in the land, and drove a stake into the ground delineating one state from the next. We had barely crossed into Oregon when, on the road, the warning signs appeared. The ubiquitous image of a truck facing down a grade appeared with the 8% grade notification. Okay, this one was going to be steep. Mostly we see 6%ers. The next sign read, “Warning. Steep Grade Ahead. 25 mph. Trucks Use Low Gear.” Then, “Take Your Time, Don’t Rush, And You’ll Get There Alive.” With no apparent change in the prospect around us, we speculated what could all the fuss be about? A final large yellow sign read, “This Is Your Final Warning! Turn Back Now If You Have A Heart Condition!” Well…perhaps I embellished the last sign’s admonishment slightly.

We crossed the crest of the hill before us and I swear it was just like that roller-coaster moment when you arrive at the pinnacle of no return and you anticipate the terror of a dead drop…only this drop was 1,000 feet and a three-mile-long scream in duration. We dropped into walking speed, and sure enough, as is always the case, cars stacked up behind our 50 feet of truck/trailer in what I imagined was impatient rage. No one passed us though. What a surprise. Maybe they thought I would jerk the steering wheel over into their path to ease them of their need to get to the bottom two minutes ahead of us? In ten minutes we reached the bottom and vowed to never drive Highway 140 again, even if it meant driving around the entire West Coast to achieve a 100-mile trip.

Short high speed video clip of the drive down Doherty Rim Road

Wheeler Peak, Great Basin, Nevada

If it’s summer and if you swelter from 100+ degree heat crossing the Loneliest Road in America, Highway 50, just set your compass on a half-hour drive up to Wheeler Peak, and watch your vehicle thermometer drop quickly to around a cool 60. This drive lacks most of those barrier-less roadways. I said “most.” You’ll get a lot of practice though, twisting your steering wheel around a 360-degree arc on your way up to the staging area for a four-mile hike in rarified air, to pay tribute to the Bristlecone Pine grove. If you are pulling a trailer or driving a large RV, don’t put yourself through the mental anguish. The Bristlecones won’t mind, though; they’ve seen it all, having lived 4,000 years or more—they are some of the oldest living things on Earth. See my earlier blog post on this subject here. One short side note: If you pull a rig, a trailer, or Class A, or even just tent camp, be wary of aggressive mice that have been habituated to human presence, and are known to suicidally stow away and end their lives on a road trip with you!

Hell’s Backbone, Box–Death Hollow, Hog’s Back Ridge

All three of these scary, off-putting, and dangerous-sounding locations are to be found in the same general area in Utah: Highway 12, between Escalante and Boulder. Hog’s Back Ridge is one of those roads that commences in gently undulating curves, lulling you into submission until it’s too late, and you find yourself on a narrow two-lane road, with no shoulder, and sheer dropoffs on each side. It’s incredible how your imagination can create a hell for you when none exists. You can walk a two-by-four plank on the ground without skipping a beat. Raise it 500 feet and all bets are off. So it is with Hog’s Back. Sometimes it’s just best to keep your eyes on the road, for a number of reasons.

Hell’s Backbone follows the same rules as above, though not quite as steering wheel-grippingly tense.  Consistent curves lull you into a hypnotic trance until around a corner, a fine ribbon of asphalt leads you over a one-lane bridge. This bridge has a three-foot-high guardrail on each side, though I surmise its only function is to provide structural support as you cross over a 1,500-foot canyon. We stopped our truck on an earlier trailer-less road trip at the entrance to the bridge, and walked our dog across. No one came or passed us in either direction. Devilishly strange?

Box–Death Hollow. I just threw this in for the name…as far as I know! We discovered an awesome campground there one year with unlimited firewood left for us, no fee at that time, no other campers, and a creek tinkling around our tent site to lull us to sleep. I suppose this was payback for the harrowing drive to discover it. Thinking back on it, I must again say, “Devilishly strange.”

Bodie & Bodie Masonic Roads

We’ve sought out and visited the magical old ghost mining town of Bodie, nestled in the hills off California 395 on Highway 270. The drive is 10 miles on pavement and, depending on the season and state of the road, three more miles on the edge of 4WD. The altitude in town is nearly 8,500 feet, so expect very changeable weather. There are two ways into Bodie, and the Masonic Road is much rockier and somewhat longer. In a fit of adventure-seeking insanity, we attempted to reach the ghost town one winter day, despite warnings that the road “may be impassible due to snow.” Adventure always comes to those who are willing to cross the fence into lunatic land. We were lucky to get away from there before the spirits of the miners claimed our souls. The town of Bodie lies in situ, frozen in time, and it is worth the visit to walk streets that carried the feet of 100,000 aspirants of fortune, and stare into windows revealing stories of their lives. Smoke seems to emanate from chimneys, the sounds of laughter and music blend with the wind’s passage across rooftops. All about you the streets give the impression that just before you rounded the corner, they were there.

This is an eerie spot, and many claim the often troubled winds echo the insatiable cries of condemned spectral seekers of their always-elusive gold.

Drive-a-haulic, 5-minute high-speed dizzying video of the drive into Bodie Ghost Town

California SR 99 & Highway 108: Sonora Pass

There are a number of routes across the Sierras, and Highway 108, a southern east–west transit point, lies between Modesto, at the intersection of State Road 99, and Bridgeport, Highway 395. SR 99, incidentally, runs vertically down the center of California, and, despite its wide, flat, straight layout, is listed as the most deadly highway in America. Over the past five years there have been over 62 fatal accidents per 100 miles of the 400-mile stretch of highway. We try to avoid this route at all costs, which is not a good lead-in to Highway 108.

20-car crash on Highway 99

In a narrow band of seasons, driving a car on 108 presents no problems other than exercising steering wheel spinning like a Las Vegas roulette wheel. The highway takes you up to an elevation of 9,624 feet, one of the highest mountain roads in California. Switchbacks and hairpin turns are extremely numerous. There are up to 26% grades in some sections! Signs post warning restrictions on trucks and RVs to avoid traveling this highway. Each time we’ve taken this route, we’ve seen those warned vehicles trapped in hairpin turns, traffic stuck behind or being routed around them—warning signs are for others, after all. It’s messy when the center of a long vehicle sits on the pinnacle of a curve, seesawing and preventing the front and rear of the rig from moving. It can take hours to jack up the mass and clear the intersection.

RV pinned on a sharp curve

If this is your rig, it will go down into the nightmare log book. If you plan on traveling on this gem of a road, weather often closes it down from November to May. If you exit the highway near Bridgeport, do a Google search for hot springs and take a free soak of a lifetime. One hot spring sits directly above the town with stunning views out across the valley. We enjoyed a winter snow camp adjacent to the springs one year, attaining such core body heat from lengthy soaks that we walked naked in the moonlight through snowdrifts, steam billowing around our bodies, blocking out starlight around us.

Travertine Hot Springs

 

Artifacts, Hulks, Ruins, Relics, Rubble, Remains, Remnants….

 

Arizona Route 66

Route 66, the “Mother Road,” as it is affectionately named, was officially decommissioned in 1984, but still clings to life in fits and starts across eight states and three time zones. What once was a major transportation artery across America from Chicago to Los Angeles, providing fuel and sustenance to travelers in oasis stops, now harbors ghosts of its past. Ruth and I simply can’t resist the magnetic pull of abandoned kitscheterias, trinket shops, gas stations, and cafes, providing a fresh marquee for graffiti and social commentary.

Meteor City Trading Post
Twin Arrows Cafe and Trading Post

When we cross fenced barriers, open broken doors, and step across rubble-strewn entranceways, we hear voices echoing in time.

Abandoned Twin Arrows interior

Around us are the artifacts of a not-too-distant past, once discarded in the American dream of rapid interstate transportation, that stimulate reflective awakening and pining for a simpler time. The adventure of discovering unique food, lodging, and inhabitants exclusive to the region faded away from the Mother Road like upstart children grown out and away from the old ways.

There is a move afoot to restore much of this once grand road, and it is all not driven by commerce. Two-lane Route 66 traverses barren country, connecting small towns and historical, geographical, and geological points of interest. We hunger to escape the highway of mundane, ordinariness, mediocrity of chain stores and restaurants—mind-numbing mall uniformity—exchanging comfort for quirky, off-base stimulation.

 

 

While ruin-spelunking we discovered some elegant graffiti conceived by a poetic peripatetic traveler with the moniker of Boots, who states on her Instagram page, “I write poetry while traveling, photographing, and spray painting my poems in abandoned places.” She, like many others, has left her mark on the canvas of remnants and ruins, to breathe art and awakening form to ephemeral spirits within deserted places.

 

Our stopping point along a multi-week progress along the Little Colorado River brings us to Homolovi State Park, where we continue our exploration of a chain of archaic indigenous peoples’ habitations. Petroglyphs, relics, rubble, and remnants of primeval lives lay scattered about partially excavated mounds of former thriving communities.

Homolovi II excavation of two rooms that were two floors high. 1200 rooms in total. Pottery shards left by visitors on room divider wall
Homolovi I partial excavation site. Previously two stories with 700 rooms. Unexcavated rooms behind.
Homolovi petroglyphs
Eagle or thunderbird
Hopi hide stripping/cleaning stone
Hopi loom weaving stick hole
Visitor collected and NOT TAKEN pottery shards

Messages—graffiti, if you will—abound from the past telling stories we strive to decipher. New American immigrants, explorers, and trailblazers “discovered” the ancient petroglyphs and, in kind, added their own “tags,” memorializing the primordial urge to proclaim, “We were here!”

European rock art 1880 or ’90
European immigrant rock art tag
Modern terra-ephemeral petroglyph

It appears quite clear that images of animals, humans, and nature, so carefully pecked into ancient desert varnish-baked rock faces, are not all about life’s essentials, or to simply make our mark, but an enduring expression of passionate art. For this reason, I am drawn to these symbolic voices from the past, for they are OUR declaration: “We were here, we are here, and we will be here.”

 

How to Design a Campground Bathroom

by Ruth

Welcome, campground designers! Whether you own an RV park or administer a state- or county-owned campground, this course is for you. Our curriculum includes all you need to know to design a bathroom guaranteed to provide a memorable experience for your campground guests.

Follow these easy instructions and you’re well on your way to joining the ranks of successful campground owners/administrators.

Sinks
  1. Be sure you do NOT hook up the hot water heater to the sink faucet, particularly if your campground is in a location that can drop below 70 degrees. We believe that campers, even when it’s 20 degrees outside, much prefer to wash their hands in freezing water.
  2. If you install push-on faucets, be sure to set them so that they stay on for no more than three seconds; fewer, if possible.
  3. Ensure that the nozzles on the soap dispensers are crooked to one side or the other, enough so that they dispense the smallest possible amount of soap, preferably onto the floor rather than the camper’s hands.
  4. Ensure that the holes in the drains are small enough that water accumulates in the sink, leaving an ugly scum.
  5. Do not provide any type of shelf or extra space around the sink. We are assured that campers have become quite adept at holding their toothbrushes, sponges, washcloths, and towels under their arms or between their knees.
  6. Mirrors: Are always optional.
  7. Drying: If you choose to provide any type of drying mechanism (optional), there are two to choose from:
    • Paper towels. Choose a dispenser that is guaranteed to jam after each sheet has been pulled from it. Additionally, if it can be loaded in such a way that the camper can, in no circumstances, actually get the paper to feed through the slot, even better. It goes without saying that the knob provided to help feed the paper should not work.
    • Air dryers. First, mount the dryer so that it is low enough that the camper must stoop to use it—older campers are particularly fond of having to bend their lower backs. Additionally, choose a dryer that has the lowest possible fan velocity, forcing the camper to stand for at least five minutes through multiple cycles of on-and-off. As in #1, above, be sure the air is not heated.
Showers
  1. Hang NO MORE than two hooks on the wall, preferably close enough to the shower that the camper’s towel and/or clothing will be saturated. Be sure to purchase hooks that are both short and shallow, so that no more than one article of clothing can be hung at a time. This allows the camper the option of wearing either pants or socks, but never both.
  2. Ensure that hooks are not securely anchored in the wall; this causes them to disengage from the plaster or tile when any object weighing more than four ounces is hung on them.
  3. Under no circumstances allow any hook to be large enough to hold a full sized bath towel. We believe that campers prefer to get extra exercise by bending down to pick up towels that have fallen on the (preferably wet) floor.
  4. Choosing and installing the shower head:
    • Take care to choose a shower head that has at least one jet of water that shoots out at a 90-degree angle (campers will want their towel and/or clothing to be as wet as they are when they finish their shower).
    • Try to install the shower head so that campers taller than 4’5″ will have to stoop to get wet above their shoulders. NOTE: If you choose the “pushbutton” variety of shower control, ensure that it stays on for a maximum of 15 seconds at a time, requiring multiple pushes.
  5. If you supply a bench for the camper’s convenience, it should be manufactured of wood that splinters easily, and be placed well within range of the shower’s spray.
  6. Bonus points if you do not supply non-slip floor coverings.
  7. Temperature control: Please enroll in our “Advanced” course.
Toilets
  1. Paper: Under no circumstances use paper that is thicker than one-ply. Paper should preferably be made of the same material that manufacturers use to wrap plastic parts for shipping.
  2. Paper holders: There are several designs to choose from, any of which will ensure the maximum camper frustration.
    • Flat bar: This type of holder is designed to require the maximum effort from the camper. Three to five rolls are shoved onto a flat bar, making it impossible for the roll to actually roll. Instead, the camper must patiently work the paper around the bar. Bonus points if you mount the bar so close to the wall that this is practically impossible.
    • Giant roll: This 16- to 18-inch diameter dispenser has two major features:
      1. The camper will not be able to find the end of the roll, no matter how often he/she reaches up and winds the roll around.
      2. Each sheet of paper is designed to separate from its neighbors at the slightest touch, requiring the camper to pull one tiny piece of paper after another from the roll.
    • Extra narrow: This dispenser type will be particularly unpopular with campers, for it results in a basket-weave paper design which, while pretty if the camper is engaging in arts and crafts, is virtually useless for its intended purpose.
  3. Toilet design: Choose an automatic flusher to provide maximum frustration. Be sure to set the sensor so that it flushes dramatically when the camper is seated. However, when he/she stands up, the sensor should be set so that it does NOT activate, requiring the camper to search for the tiny button that will manually flush. If possible, mount this button in the most inaccessible part of the toilet stall.

Final note: Bathroom and shower doors, and toilet stalls, should be designed with the minimum of privacy. Whether you choose bolts that do not line up with hasps, or simply leave locks off doors altogether, each camper is assured of being well remembered by fellow campers. Happy camping!

Scene Along the Road 5: Serendipitous Encounters

Tennessee to California mule cart

One of the joys of being permanently on the road is knowing that you’ll never know who you’ll encounter—what wacky adventure, trial, or magic moment will reveal itself or where any of these will pop up like a whack-a-mole game. As I alluded to in my last blog post, “You make the road by walking it,” A leads to B…leads to C…leads to 3.14159265359…!

We parted with fond farewells from one of our hundreds of campsites, to move on “into the misty,” and an incongruous vision approached us from the road’s shimmering heat mirage. Two mule-drawn wagons approached, as if transported through a veil from the 19th century. We pulled our 21st century Airstream to the shoulder abreast of the teams who appeared eager to break from their incessant plodding. I thought to myself, as we jumped out to engage the mule drivers, “Now, this is a picture of contrasting conveyances!” A story unfolded that one of their compadres had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, recently died, and consequently his buddies engaged in a grand honorable mission of educational awareness, from the hills of Tennessee to the mountains, deserts, and beaches of California.

Let’s ponder for a moment the sort of logistics required to enter into an undertaking of this magnitude: How do you continuously provision two mule teams and yourselves? Do you pull into grocery or Walmart parking lots? What roads would be acceptable to traverse across three quarters of America? Storing and preparing food for the animals and drivers is complicated. In many locations overnight accommodations can be complex; terrain, traffic, and weather challenging. There’s a ton of minutiae, of course, and I couldn’t help but think what it must have been like to make this journey in the 18th or 19th centuries. Did you have enough ammunition to provide for food provisioning and security? What pathways were navigable and what means did you have to repair and/or replace broken equipment? A minor injury could transform swiftly into deadly casualty. The trackways laid by migrating Europeans were strewn with the detritus of unwanted luxuries and household goods, as well as the graves of those stricken by disease and native attacks.

Our 21st century minds find it difficult to comprehend life without our conveniences. Imagine an 18th or 19th century time traveler navigating our common strip malls. Reverse the perspective. If you don’t hunt, you don’t eat. If you don’t live by your wits, you don’t survive. A quick glance around will drive home how the mighty have fallen. We’re as soft as a kitten’s belly, as industrious as driving a car, leash out the window to walk the dog.

Our educational system struggles at times with the topic of history and its relevance in our lives. The adage, “Those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it,” looms large before us. Life on the road sharpens our awareness of activities, events, and history in an ever evolving kaleidoscope of perspective that expands our critical thinking. Perhaps this is what so fascinates me as I stroke the mules’ big, soft, floppy ears. The saying “stubborn as a mule” doesn’t apply to these guys. They’re the apex of function for their breed. Are we?

You Make the Road by Walking It (or Talking It?)

Mt. Graham, Safford, AZ

Sometimes direction of travel is self-evident. In alternate moments a small nudge, a chance meeting, or a wrinkle in time opens up doors onto undiscovered roads. My brother, Bryan, texted me one day as we were camped near his family just outside of Safford, Arizona, to suggest a drive up the mountain that looms nearby. I looked over my shoulder at the cloud-blocking edifice, spied a car zigzagging up a circuitous, guardrail-less road, pulled my hat down over my acrophobic eyes, and stammered, “Uhh, yeah…let-t-t’s g-go-o-o.”

In sunny desert 75-degree warmth, we left the lowland terrain pursuing our path to the peak that telescoped out in front of us for a straight mile up, at a 6% grade. Entering into sharp snake-coiled switchbacks, I glanced over the precipice—suppressing the desire to push a non-existent brake pedal—and simultaneously noted my brother whirling the steering wheel coolly and comfortably with one hand in the six-o’clock position. The terra firma of the beginning of our journey receded rapidly below us, resembling a view from an airplane window. Fifteen minutes along, the flora had morphed from dry desert cacti and creosote bushes to scrub oaks and junipers, and the car’s outside temp gauge began to drop into the cool sixties. We traded diverse and eclectic family stories, rattling the dust off skeletons pulled from our respective closets, as the air around us rarified.

As I was muttering out loud about the time it takes to drive from Safford’s 2,900 feet to near 10,000, the road swung around to the back side of the mountain near the peak, and we quickly saw the results of the previous year’s forest fire that had swept indiscriminately through the now alpine pine forest. A grouping of trees would stand verdant, adjacent to huge swathes of brown, burned-out hulks. Fire is such an unpredictable demon, as those who fight its wrath attest. It was said that this late summer fire was kindled by lightning strikes, and we considered the fury that ensued back when all fires burned free. There are positives and negatives, of course. Fire clears away accumulated underbrush. Some seeds require high heat to crack open their pod shells, enabling regrowth. Fire clears the earth’s palate, yet it is an indiscriminate despoiler. I recalled images of rescuers bandaging bears’ scorched paws following their attempts to escape from the recent California firestorms.

We rounded a bend past a middle-aged couple photographing farmers’ fields, plowed in circles like giant green pearls on this wetter, windward side of the mountain. The geography here tells the story of moisture-rich clouds, rising, cooling, and unable to surmount the summit, discharging their payload down the mile-plus return to welcoming soil. Our journey up brought us though the leeward (dry) side, also called the “rain shadow” of the peaks, and the lack of density and height of flora reflected this deprivation. Those that owned and worked the land on this side knew the lay of the land.

Very shortly our road came to an end at a barrier and transition between asphalt and dirt. More miles lay ahead according to signage, eventually to arrive at an astronomical observatory. At the end of our upward excursion, we shot some obligatory memorial selfies in the now near freezing temperatures, and were joined by the photographing couple we had previously observed.

Conversation can flow easily among those who have sought and achieved a challenging milestone. Two vehicles and their occupants had consummated their quest for the symbolic end of the road, albeit artificially cut short. During our conversation I noticed aloud that a familiar state park camping tag, matching ours, hung from the other vehicle’s mirror. The driver, Gary, and his wife, Jean, invited me over for an RV info share when we made it back to camp.

Later that evening, I walked over and noted that our friendly couple had a ham operator’s license plate and set about to resolve some lingering questions about this hobby; questions that I’ve had for almost 50 years. My employer in 1972 had a strange number/letter code posted on his car window and, responding to my curiosity, he explained briefly the meaning of a ham radio operator, and offered to show me his “rig.”

Being a gadget geek, I once owned an old tube radio that enabled late night listening to shortwave from around the world. The interminable ebbing and fading of voices, static, squawks, and crackles, stirred the demons of distraction from my mother’s late night black-and-white television adventures with The Twilight Zone, Perry Mason, and Jackie Gleason. In my defense though, her frustration was largely rooted in the constant necessity of getting up to readjust the rabbit ears and clicking the numbered dial on its face in search of the virtually non-existent clear picture.

With this childhood memory in my mind, my eyes popped out of my head during the visit to my boss’s radio “shack,” and now you know where the now-defunct company got its moniker. He introduced me to strange boxes with glowing dials, sweeping needles, rising and cascading lights, microphones, wires, controllers, amplifiers, antenna rotators, all sorts of gadgets that made my head and heart swim and swoon, then demonstrated how he could bounce radio voice signals off the ionosphere to Europe. It was a magic moment that I stored away to reopen at the nexus of opportunity and synchronicity.

That moment in time arrived upon meeting Gary and Jean, and I found myself standing on the edge of the precipice of change, pronouncing before them that I would begin studying for my ham technician license. I hadn’t realized that the decision was made long ago, and turning back now is not an option.

Why the effort and what’s the point? you ask. To start with, accessing assistance and information is not limited to cell reception and data limitations, nor the limited range of family frequency walkie-talkies. Being full-time on the road, we often are able to assist in weather and emergency response as well as obtain local and regional travel advice. Believe it or not, it is possible to bounce radio signals off comet tails and Aurora Borealis ionization (and how cool is that?!?). Knowing this, why the heck would you not have some fun too?

The Science of Study

My order of operations starts with ordering the American Radio Relay League’s Ham Radio License Manual, and preparing for 35 test questions compiled from nine licensing categories:

  1. License application procedures
  2. Radio and signals fundamentals
  3. Electricity, components, and circuits
  4. Propagation, antennas, and feed lines
  5. Amateur radio equipment
  6. Communication procedures with other hams
  7. Licensing regulations
  8. Operating regulations
  9. Safety

I’m using pretty much the same procedure of study as for my previous test prep for automotive technician licensing, and organize as follows: Read through the e-manual and answer all embedded question links for each category. Read all referenced annotations and online references and video study materials. Finally return to the compendium of actual test questions, answer and study all missed items. Register with the FCC, locate a local test center, ace test, and await FCC notification of my official call sign.

Luckily electrical theory isn’t much of a problem for me, as I have a strong automotive electrical background, particularly with Ohm’s Law and power equations. Some questions require a bit more attention, such as, “How much transmitter power should be used on the uplink frequency of an amateur satellite or space station?” Never ran into that issue before. One cannot confuse alcohol with tower support systems in a question asking the purpose of a gin pole? Test proctors look askance at testers who laugh at questions regarding “rubber duck” antennas. I’ll not belittle the complexity and memory requirements necessary to pass this level of ham licensing, but will close these thoughts with a response to a question that will move you into the failure category: “Which of the following actions should you take if a neighbor tells you that your station’s transmissions are interfering with their radio or TV reception?” Answer B: Install a harmonic doubler on the output of your transmitter, increase the amplifier power output to maximum, wrap duct tape around the key of your microphone, and play heavy metal music until the neighbor begs forgiveness!

Now…that’s making the road not to walk, but run it!

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!