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?

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

Boondockin’ the Old Spanish Trail

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bonus treats!

“Where ya from?…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Caliginous Cacophony

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

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

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

Fireflies illumine the moonlit night

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

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

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

Bioluminescence

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

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

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Arizona Reprised: Ajo (Part 2)

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

Early Phelps-Dodge open pit mine in Ajo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Slag being dumped on slag mountain top

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

Ajo, Historical Society and St Catherine Indian Mission

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

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

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

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

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

Washing the traces of the world away…and away

 

I’m sitting 20 feet off the beach on the coast, just north of Ventura, California, listening to the hypnotic whoosh of wave breaks on the shore. Glancing to my right, the silver rear end of the Airstream and its panoramic windows frame an infinite horizon to the west. This would be the land’s end of the westward expansion in the 19th century: “Go West young man, go West.”

The eye-squinting brilliance of aluminum reflecting the sun’s rays against the azure blue sky, and sand-muddied purple turbulent waters, is dulled somewhat by microscopic coatings of regional terroir layering its skin at 60 mph and three quarters of a thousand miles.

Several times in nearly 4,000 miles we have sought out a truck and car wash to wipe clean our badge of nomadic wanderlust and return to that iconic marketing and public display look. Our first being the Blue Beacon, on the outskirts of Las Vegas, having just dropped out of the high desert down deep into the 104-degree heatwaves of this manmade oasis of sin and pleasure. Our rig and truck stands an imposing 50 feet in length solo, but next to semi tractors and trailers is diminutive and tinkertoyesque (may have created a new word?!). We fell into the queue to a huge building with two bays 30 feet high and 20 feet wide, and slowly worked our way closer to the maw of a dark opening from which we could hear the shouting of many men in the throes of battle with the machines contained within. Our turn arrived, and we were instructed to pull into a mob of about 10 to 15 men wielding six-foot water-blasting wands of tremendous power and multiplicity, from a trickle of soap, to wash and soap mix, to rinse and waxy chemical treatments.

Blue Beacon Truck Wash

The sounds of the water blasts were deafening as they echoed through the semi darkness within the foggy mist, antidoted by earplugs. A team leader shouted commands and the men moved in a syncopated dance around us, their camaraderie formed by countless hours’ labor in this sound-deafening sauna. Their labored barks and yells took on the rhythm of the famous “field hollers” which characterized the laboring African American cotton pickers of the South, and which developed into the Blues we know today.

There is something quite pleasurable in watching your vehicle come clean through the movie screen of your front windshield, yet the time to move out into the blinding light and heat arrived with a wave from our team leader and a beckon toward the pay station. I slid a respectable tip into an underling’s hand and received in turn an additional tire sidewall polish. We were “Ready for our close up, Mr. DeMille!”

Arriving in San Diego, it was time for another round of ablution, but this time, our truck went solo as nothing was available for the complete ensemble. We negotiated a hand wash over the quickie machine in-and-out option, and sat in the waiting area. This is a perfect environment for people-watching; they come in and then we try matching their image and personalities to their cars when they drive out. Time elapsed and we became keenly aware that the waves of customers passing through the car wash event in front of us were multiplying. Yes, we paid for a hand wash…and we waited. The minute hand of my watch rounded the dial, and I stepped out to spy the location of our truck now parked in its own bay, with one person diligently laboring within. I reached into my wallet and with a grin mentioned to Ruth that for every ten minutes of this kind of labor, I would add another dollar to the tip. That wallet unzipped three more times and this time with a wry grin I said that certainly the peak of the curve had been reached and that as each ensuing ten minutes passed, I would subtract a dollar; but it just couldn’t be the right thing to do…

Fifteen minutes passed, and to relieve a sore butt and stretch out a tired back, I surreptitiously walked out to determine the cause of the delay. I returned shortly to exclaim that it appeared that they were color matching the paint that they had wiped off in their washing diligence during the past hour and a half. Well, I was close to correct as shortly our beast arrived and we had to pull out our sunglasses to dull the glare. I don’t believe we have ever seen such a perfect finish on any truck, perhaps not even when it was presented to us at the dealership. Our detailer received his tip—a $5 bill with a thick wad of ones artfully wrapped within—with a gracious smile, and we set off to hopefully delay the inevitable return but, again hopefully, not with the same timeframe. Someday a dirt repellent surface will be invented, but perhaps not too soon to keep a labor-intensive, yet honorable and immediately gratifying, profession from dying away.

Nomads, Hobos, and Bohos

At a very early age, going on vacation had a special place in my psyche. The force of wanderlust was compelling. I remember seeing a mysterious trail or an unknown road, and just going, with no thought of return―causing my family much concern. The drive to keep moving forward beyond the known, to see what was around the next corner or just out of reach was such a compelling push of rapture, unlike mostly any singular joy in life…yet perhaps, the essence of life itself.

I’d heard countless people speak of the value of recreation and that word stuck in my mind by way of two syllables: re-creation. Now this perspective of the word brings much more value to the meaning. To take something mundane and make it new, to transform routines into revelations, ennui to enthusiasm.

Exercise is certainly a form of recreation, but travel introduces so many more dimensions. Through travel we hopefully climb out of our routines and engage others who most probably have a much different perspective. Geography and proximity to divergent life styles form living patterns. There are reasons that more liberal mindsets are usually found on opposite coasts with diversified cultures and concentrated educational systems. On the other hand, in the hinterlands and remote areas, you will often find those of a like mind that gravitate in sympathy with each other, strong in tradition, suspicious of change, powerfully supportive as a clan, yet very often most welcoming and open socially. This is expressed in regional pride as “southern,” “country,” or “mountain” hospitality.

Traveling offers us the opportunity to slip through the American life stream using perhaps the metaphor of a honeybee moving from flower to flower, extracting the nectar of sustenance. Becoming rootless, our stories and consciousness unfurl to encompass all who we come in contact with, opening up new vistas, and expanding our boundaries of learning limitlessly.

Just moving from place to place and making the effort to talk with people and listen to the stories of their lives, families, local lore, the goings on, and then equally transfusing our own in return, changes our world one moment at a time, a domino effect of huge proportions.

Throughout our civilization there have been those who lived the nomadic life, beginning with the hunter gatherers, and this genetic drive remains one of the primal urges of humanity as we spread across the globe over the millennia.

 

The story of humanity is one of conquering and confiscating the lands of the vanquished, who either assimilated or moved on to find safe havens. The study of diaspora throughout history affirms this political and religious fact.

The phrase, “Go west, young man!” attributed to the author Horace Greely, regarding America’s westward expansion related to the concept of “Manifest Destiny,” which was popular in the mid-1800s. It was believed that settling the West would relieve our country of the “crowded” cities and poverty that abounded. People saw the West as the savior and solution to poor systems management, creating another diaspora of the native Americans in the grab for land and ensuing gold and silver rushes.

Now that humanity has filled in most of the habitable spaces on the planet we are like ants on a rock reaching out―but just not quite getting to―a sweet juicy peach on the picnic table of the solar system and stars. Yes, if we survive ourselves…there will be Manifest Destiny off the earth; and this is a story for future generations and theorists.

In traveling we search for truth in context and meaning in recreation. There have been nomads of the land but also of the heart, traveling among us in the form of wandering minstrels carrying song, story, and education to those bound by necessity. Showmen and funfair itinerants brought pleasure where drudgery abounded. Throughout the Middle Ages, masons worked in guilds or clans created to protect the secrets of the building of the great cathedrals in Europe with roots back to ancient Egypt. The stonemasons of the time who were “operative,” and not “speculative” as we have with us today, were very unusual in that they―unlike those under the kings and lords of the time―were free to move from place to place, keeping their extensive learning alive and inducting apprentices along their journeys. Many of the major edifices in Europe were a century in the building and knowledge and information passed between the builders as needed. This would soon morph into the development and protection of the arts and sciences from the prying eyes of a dogmatic church and state.

Of the most recent itinerants in America you will find hobos, tramps, and bums. Hobos were and are today’s traveling workers. Tramps work only when forced too, and bums don’t work at all. The etymology of the term hobo come from the late 1890s, some possible derivations are “Hoe Boy,” or farm hand, “Ho boy,” as a greeting, or as Bill Bryson suggested in his book, Made in America, that “Ho Beau” was an abbreviation for “homeward bound,” taken from a railroad greeting. Lastly, there was “Homeless boy.”

The railroad played a large part in the development of the hobos’ movement across America, though a number of possibilities existed as door-to-door salesmen, knife sharpeners, and workers for hire/handymen.

The culture developed an entire sub-language of words understood by fellow “’bos,” the term used to address fellow hobos. A few of many words of this hidden itinerant language were:
Banjo: a portable frying pan
Bone polisher: dog
Buck: a Catholic priest good for a dollar
California blankets: newspapers used to cover oneself on a park bench
Grease the track: get run over by a train
and many other juicy expressions. Many of these words have entered into our common lexicon such as “the big house” or “glad rags.”

As many words as were available for ’bos to communicate, there were an equal number of symbols, too, left for the discerning eye to catch in an obscure spot or fence post, such as a triangle with hands to signify a man with a gun, or a horizontal zigzag signifying a barking dog.

Many notables have lived the hobo life for a time, tapping into the heart and soul of Americana. Jack Dempsey, Loren Eiseley, Woody Guthrie and Dave Van Ronk (both Bob Dylan mentors), Jack Kerouac, Jack London, Louis L’amour, Robert Mitchum, and Carl Sandburg.

A twist in our lingo brings us to the “Boho,” from Bohemian, and the last connection to the wanderlust lifestyle. In pre-hippie years a bohemian was known as a person practicing an unconventional lifestyle with few permanent ties, a vagabond, wanderer, and adventurer. The word came into our language in the nineteenth century to describe unorthodox, marginalized, impoverished artists, writers, musicians, and actors, who practiced free love, often living intentionally poor lives. The Romanis, or gypsies, were often associated with this moniker as they were always on the move, loved music, dance, and flew in the face of rules and conventionality.

Journalists in America and specifically San Francisco in the late eighteen and early nineteen hundreds became strongly associated with the idea of bohemianism, and Mark Twain and other writers tied themselves to this concept, organizing the Bohemian Club, which is still in existence today. Certain areas of the US have been designated as bohemian hot spots, many of which you are aware of: Greenwich Village, North Beach, Venice Beach, Topanga Canyon, Ojai, Boulder, Key West, and many others.

To sum up, whether you admire nomads, hobos, bohos, vagabonds,
adventurers, peripatetic wanderers, letting your hair down, or re-creating,
hear the call of the wild. Go! Listen, share, and be beguiled!

Lessons learning and other musings

Looking out our Airstream’s panoramic windows and pondering on this languorously hot July day how life experiences diverge so quickly from their moment of creation. We often ask ourselves how things would have been so different if we had only…let’s say bought that house in that other neighborhood, which led to not meeting some of our closest friends, which led to many incredible experiences, and on and on in an infinite chain of events. It is like a multidimensional cone expanding out in time and space. Each moment is like this. Every choice. Every decision pregnant with opportunity and a different life. Whew! Looking backwards brings smiles and sadness, cringing and cackling.

In the book, The Once and Future King by T.H. White, Merlin mentored the young Arthur and gave him the experience of transference into other beings. I am attempting to learn this lesson now, watching hawks being harassed away from nests by much smaller, fearless birds. I spy dozens of ground squirrels jumping out of their burrows and scurrying to another cool entrance, touching noses with one another, exchanging some form of communication, followed by chases, then back down into the darkness below the relentless heat. Slowing down to awaken the senses and become aware of the micro and macrocosm is the exercise of the moment. Monarch butterflies shimmer in the sunlight as their wings flutter in counterpoint to the wind-tufted leaves, movements like visual musical notes.

This benchmark in life, retirement, is bringing up questions and musings on my work and careers, as there have been so many chapters to this encyclopedia of experiences. Teaching has been the Elysian Fields throughout my careers, surrounded by a semi-permeable electric fence to keep bureaucratic machinations, confusion, and the numbing roar of the mass mind out yet admit the rejuvenation of change. Speaking of electric fences: just recently, I was hiking up a deserted country road along a pasture fenced with nylon twine. A horse within and I spied each other simultaneously and it approached me but kept at arm’s length from the fence and my reach. I stretched my arm as far as I could between the twine rungs to come within just a couple inches of the horse’s nose for polite recognition, but it wouldn’t accept my touch. Looking more carefully at the twine I recognized the cause of the horse’s reticence. Within each strand of nylon there was a very thin spiral wire, almost invisible to the eye but most definitely not to the touch, which carried an electrical admonition to stay away. The definition of horse sense came to mind and I thanked my lucky stars that I didn’t have to relearn my lesson again from childhood.

That electric fence kept that horse from wandering, safe from interlopers. My mental fence is a barrier against mediocrity and to safely contain within the remembrance to swim upstream, climb the waterfall, to paint clown faces on the stern, black and white portraits of those who dictate, “It must be done this way!”

Slowing down and seeing. This is the clarion call of this chapter of change. To see a galaxy twinkling in the Milky Way, perhaps now millions of years dead, the light from which traveled through space at 186,000 miles per second since before life on earth, impacting the nerves, creating memories. Is this light now within, from that distant source, reincarnation?

Humanity is broadcasting itself through the electromagnetic spectrum into space at a significantly lower speed than light. I Love Lucy TV shows from the 60s are radiating out of our solar system as a gift to future travelers. If we could travel fast enough, we could relive our broadcast history “live.”

There may come a time when we realize that our search for extraterrestrial life as we know it has been futile. We may someday decode some as yet unknown electromagnetic spectrum or subset, perhaps light itself, continually bombarding earth with, “Welcome to the Universe!” greetings.

“I always have relied on the kindness of strangers.”

– Blanche Du Bois, A Streetcar Named Desire

Seven days into to our stay at Goose Lake has been like Eden after Adam and Eve ate the apple, still Paradise; but shadows of background irritation pass occasionally across the landscape of bliss in the form of pesky voracious mosquitoes sneaking into peak twilight firepit pondering and reverie. Twenty five percent Deet holds their peckishness at bay, as they perceive a warm blooded creature as a mirage fading into and out of perception. Drinking and driving for them is a recklessness driven by need. “Should I, or not, test this mirage’s reality?” Only one hundred percent Deet or close transforms the wearer into the “invisible man” at the cost of melting anything related to plastic, health be damned! Oh and the smell…but let me get to the point of my topic.

In this particular campground every hookup site except for two are standard 20 amp, home style receptacles. Two 30 amp boxes are reserved for the campground host, and one lucky spot which was occupied by tenters who were gone all day. We coveted that site so we could utilize the comfort of our air conditioning, and Ruth could work all day deeper into the Eden I mentioned earlier. Ruth did mention to me that Ed Abbey would roll over in his grave if he saw our dependence on such comforts. My reply was, “Yeah, Old Ed would rail and write about this degeneracy, but would probably practice the opposite as was his wont.”

We were told by the park ranger that our usurpers would be leaving in several days but one day early, Ranger Tina knocked at our door to inform us that the site was apparently clear and she would cone it off to prevent others from squatting. I’m thinking to myself, “Now this is thoughtful!” Later we spied Tina mowing the vast grass and vegetated fields around the campground. She waved. Mental note, “She’s friendly as well.” Doggone it! People don’t have to act like this…have I lived too long in the iron grip of urban living, or been strangled in the guarded gentility of Marin County, California?

The next morning there was another knock at our door, and upon opening it, Ruth was greeted by Ranger Tina again who handed her a dozen fresh eggs stating that her hens were extremely prolific, and she wanted to share the bounty.

Tina's farm fresh eggs 2

Now, we can add gracious, giving, and a poster child for human kindness to strangers to this mental list, pretty darn close to the best brand of kindness on the planet, no expectations of reciprocity.

I had to speak with this beneficent soul, and Gyp and I perambulated on a pilgrimage toward the ranger station to be met by Tina just leaving for the day. The magic of travel transforms us through human intercourse, through which we share our stories, advice, wisdom, and just plain living, which bind us all together into a precious tribe. Our conversation flowed easy. Strangely, we shared many commonalities, like families that lived in close proximity and some similar experiences. So many times I ask myself, “How many degrees of separation are we all from each other?” The joys of travel accentuate and magnify this wonder.

The last thing that Tina said upon leaving us was, “Are you guys egg eaters? I can bring some more for the road.” My response was a glowing heart and an electric smile.

Tina and Gyp

Open Door and Confessional Whore

I’m going to push back the promised post, “Mountain Men, Immigrants, Prospectors, Gold Rush, Settlement!” to tell you some stories of our current location at the Honey Lake RV park. Honey Lake is an endorheic sink, which means that the location absorbs water flow from the surrounding mountains with no drain out, which turns the “lake” into a summer alkali flat mirage. Our RV park sits just off 395 running alongside the tan brown waterless expanse, and is about on the same latitude as Red Bluff, California, on Interstate 5. This very road, in the latter part of the 19th century, was the main thoroughfare for the “Honey Lakers,” who farmed the area and directed the richness of their fields and cattle to provision the miners of the Comstock Lode and other gold and silver strikes further south. These folks were serious opportunists, recognizing that they could control the roads, and turned what would become 395 into a toll road.

Ruth and I pulled in, performing our routine setup of the trailer: leveling side-to-side, front-to-back, unhitching, dropping trailer stabilizers, connecting water, sewer, electrical, unbattening interior necessities, extending awnings, and connecting LED adornments. (Ah! That old Burning Man spirit and expression lives proud in us, and nothing says Airstream at night more than the reflection of LEDs off the aluminum skin of our silver twinkie).

Our truck has, in the back seat area, a large Yeti cooler which acts as a backup fridge to our trailer and makes a fantastic perch for Gyp to lie in her bed and look out at the prospects of the changing terrain.

I ambled over to the park office, walked up to the counter, and asked for a bag of ice from the man behind the counter, then quickly became aware of the shelves and items packed all around us. It was like a disheveled grocery-hardware-furniture-antique-old cassette video-store compressed into a closet the size of a Manhattan apartment. The man stared at me for a long minute, and finally spoke saying, “I just had triple open heart surgery and can’t lift more than a loaf of bread.”

With one eye trying to convey cordiality and the other spying and hoping that the name Ted on the park permit on the wall was his, I addressed him with words of reassurance that he wouldn’t have to lift a finger. He gave me another long look, and we became engaged in a rapidly deepening conversation on his not understanding why life could take his 28-year-old son with a lung clot from a girlfriend’s misplaced playful kick in the leg, yet he would go on to live so long and survive a catastrophic surgical event. He described how he felt pain radiating down both arms and a stiff neck one night, and called the local fire medics for assistance…just in case. After quick assessment they called in a helicopter which quickly landed and brought him to Reno about 80 miles south. I was thinking to myself, this man either has one hell of an insurance policy or will own a major bill for what could be in store.

Ted told me that after tests, the medical team told him that he should prepare for surgery in 24 hours; then in a short time returned to inform him that it would be immediately. The last he remembered as the anesthetic took him was the surgeon telling the OR team to hurry and get a vein because, “This man has only hours to live.”

It was my turn to stare long and hard at my narrator.

Recovery was long and hard. He had to relearn everything and he told me the most excruciating pain he ever experienced in his life was sneezing. He said that if he had a gun he would have put it to his head and pulled the trigger. We both commiserated on the process of cracking and stretching open ribs and all the cutting and manipulation of the chest which would have to mend in hard earned time. Thoughts of my recovery from simple pleurisy, lungs rubbing against the chest wall lining, and how painful that was played in my mind, like stories of the inflictions of religious inquisitors.

At this point Ted stood up slowly and said, “I wouldn’t show this to a woman but look at my chest!” He was right about one thing. Damn! Cut from stem to stern, but the work was masterful and had healed cleanly. I reckoned that in short time you wouldn’t hardly notice the scars. I also noted that in regard to Ted’s personality, the mental scars would be practically invisible soon as well!

Ted spoke about how during his convalescence his wife ran the RV park, worked a full-time job as a local postal inspector, and still found time to drive almost daily into Reno to help him recover and participate in physical therapy. During our conversation I was trying as hard as I could to squeeze back my tear ducts from releasing a torrent. We talked about living and learning, opening up our minds and hearts to opportunities and appreciating what we have, when and while we have it. Our proprietor invited me to visit his son’s shrine which he built with a running water fall and a koi pond. Ted reminded me that his RV rates were frozen at the turn of the 21st century because he just didn’t need the money despite the protests of parks in the general vicinity who claimed that he was taking business from them. Ted told them that he wasn’t making it hard on them but easier for the customer.

Now, this place is no wonderland KOA Kamping experience. The RV pull-ins are sandy. The water pressure is sporadic. The more permanent clients are scary looking, and the closest town, Susanville is about 25 miles away; but Ted dropped to me that he brings in a quarter of a million dollars a year and just doesn’t need to get rich by ripping off customers. Now that’s a twist!

Oh yeah…and I picked up our ice…