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—
Water-rich verdant loam, thick moss enveloping vertical and horizontal facades in spongy viridescense;
rivers, streams, creeks, rivulets riffle through and around; sentinel snow-peaked mountains chaperone the horizons; roadways imitate the land’s regional cardinal directions yet deviate circuitously in roundabouts, dead ends, S-curves, merges, and verges; signage and direction changes challenge and defeat GPS coordinates and cavalier Uber drivers; neighborhood monikers echo rich diversity, and young spirit pervades everywhere; Portlandia-hipster impressions emerge and fade through streets streaming with human intercourse;
waves of rain and sun enrich social engagement in the micro and macrocosm balance of living; food trucks, carts and shacks cluster in bunches like ripe glistening grapes in many neighborhoods, foodies and gourmands swarm like ants, spilling into the streets and sidewalks;
tattooing is de rigeur and ubiquitous throughout the populous; alt-cultural rainbow-haired colors illuminate popsicle-sucker-swirled heads in banks, in counterpoint to trim and suited business attire;
homeless meander in singles and packs, sleep in doorways, habituate art-themed street corner encampments emigrating/immigrating grunge into grunge;
pungent-sweet marijuana smoke wafts from passing cars and trailing aggregations of strolling revelers; rain in torrents, drizzle, mist, speckled sun, moisture, wind, then sunbursts; a cacophony of color in blossoms and blooms, each street-neighborhood a rainbow of reverie, shimmering fata morgana of hallucinations: framboise, amaryllis, verbena, lacewing, cordovan, tatami, taupe, opaline, verdigris, bisque, jonquil, yarrow, jacaranda, a paroxysm of garden pride in fulminations of flowers—delightful Portland paradise!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
When we cross fenced barriers, open broken doors, and step across rubble-strewn entranceways, we hear voices echoing in time.
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.
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!”
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
Ensure that the holes in the drains are small enough that water accumulates in the sink, leaving an ugly scum.
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.
Mirrors: Are always optional.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Bonus points if you do not supply non-slip floor coverings.
Temperature control: Please enroll in our “Advanced” course.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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!
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:
License application procedures
Radio and signals fundamentals
Electricity, components, and circuits
Propagation, antennas, and feed lines
Amateur radio equipment
Communication procedures with other hams
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!
Zephyros Ah, Joshua Tree! We find ourselves again at a favorite boondocking site, just adjacent to the National Park border, with the I-10 corridor’s blistering fast cell and data connection. Every iteration is a learning experience, and this time we come armed with a simple elegant phone app that locates east and west to align our solar directly south for energy maximization. We are now positioned with our awning north-facing, and winter sun creates a solar reflector off the aluminum skin at all times of the day. Thanks to Vinnie Lamica’s polish job, we can be seen from miles away, easy to signal the cavalry if attacked by rampaging zombies or wind-blown jumping chollas—probably the most deadly cactus on the planet!
Days One and Two passed in serene bliss: warm days and a night sky lit like millions of shotgun shell blasts through a black, back-lit canopy. We lit our propane fire pit, sipped evening libations, and read to each other, pausing to tell stories and anecdotes.
But an onslaught soon blindsided us. Weather reports are notoriously fickle and inaccurate, as everyone knows. Early the following day, I sat outside basking in the silence of the desert, scanning the northern mountain ranges. Layering rock and strata patterns revealed shades of varying browns filled by meager earth footholds, patches of green vegetation in their grasp below folded peaks sharply contrasting a cerulean sky. While mentally free-floating, a subtle ghostly apparition began to cloud the clear view with a growing smoky haze, though no telltale olfactory signs emerged. The distant ranges disappeared into an unseen dimension, replaced by a cold wind seeping across the landscape, like a darkly magical Etch a Sketch-erasing moment. Mean winds obscured the prospect of all that once sat in stillness, knocking chairs over and disheveling all that could not stand in its insistence. The temperature dropped by twenty degrees, and it blew and blew….
The French experience Le Mistral meaning “master wind.” This dry cold northerly wind blows in squalls toward the Mediterranean coast of southern France, tormenting people for weeks on end, and has driven people mad. They say even murder is forgiven after a week of Le Mistral! “If the Mistral blows for nine days, then a murder on the ninth day was treated as a crime of passion, not as a cold-blooded murder,” states Professor Marion Diamond, University of Queensland. There is also the Sirocco which blows from north Africa across the Mediterranean to southern Europe. Web search reveals at least 75 different world culture names for winds to include: Bayamo, from Cuba; Chubasco, Central America; Haboob, Sudan; Nor’easter, from guess where?; Santa Ana, southern California; Williwaw, Aleutian Islands; and lastly, Zephyros, from the ancient Greeks, to name just a few.
Returning back to the “driving people mad” statement, we scurried into the Silver Submarine in haste against the onslaught, and sat while the Airstream shook violently despite being firmly anchored by stabilizers and weight of body and contents. There was no let-up from wind blasts growing in intensity at times close to around 50+ miles per hour. Orienting our rig east-west opened our long sides to the full force of the northerly wind; opening the door against this took every bit of strength to the critical balance point where the wind chose whether to pull it open for you, or slam it closed and induce ear trauma. If you’ve ever experienced an earthquake magnitude about 4–5 on the Richter scale, you can appreciate our growing apprehension. The only barrier from madness was the arrival of our friend John, who was passing through to explore the East Coast and graced us with hours of debauchery and insightful storytelling. His plans to tent in our camp quickly became laughable.
Two days—and many libations—later, the relentless wind carried him away east, leaving us to ride it out to acceptable levels after four days of Zephyros’s torture.
Being on a rocking boat for days on end and stepping on shore brings reality to the term “sea legs,” and post-wind we walked around camp like drunken sailors…or was that still the effects of our two-day liquid libertinism?
Tracks of Time
One of the secrets to successful boondocking is minimizing water use and discharge, in the form of grey water wash and black water human waste. We were luckily located far enough in the “boonies” to trek a short distance into the remote desert expanse with shovel, and explore flora, fauna, and geographics as we kept our trailer black tank light. It is interesting to note how rare rain water flows in the desert, moving through the pathways of least resistance. It was on one of these duty jaunts that I came across a section of hardpack mud, where the water had pooled until it found release. Post-rain squalls, water disappears instantly here, and it left behind, in this case, a smooth surface suitable for recording tracks of movement before quickly drying into hard pan.
On the island of Crete, encased in mud, researchers discovered the nearly six-million-year-old tracks of what appear to be human, or close to human, footprints.
Ape foot prints present themselves remarkably different, so these newly discovered impressions are serious contenders for human origin, or at least a branch off ape-like ancestors closer to our own. The closest confirmed human footprints discovered so far are in Laetoli, Tanzania, and are dated at 3.65 million years.
Studying tracks and traces is a fascinating detective pastime, opening up the wonders of creatures that passed previously invisible. Animal scat is another intriguing study along this theme and I was about to carefully bury mine forever, but a side glance to a hardpack section of easy walking revealed numerous human and animal tracks and traces. The hoof prints of deer registered clearly.
In the study of animal tracking we learn there are hoppers, draggers, and walkers, both four foot and single track, which category deer fall into. Directly adjacent to the deer tracks and close in time were the markings of human habitation: a fire ring, bike tire tracks, and graffiti scratchings. Humans never reflect much order or efficiency, and usually exhibit a non-discerning scream of existence. In my daily desert duty hikes, I found medicine pill bottles filled with marijuana, various alcohol bottles, cans, plastic containers, bags, and—richest of all, scratched into the dried mud to await the layering of perhaps millions of years, and eventual discovery by some distant civilization, if such exists—this graffito:
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Mirror: “Humanity’s ego reigns extreme,
but beneath your feet lives some supreme.”
A short stroll here, in the Anza Borrego Desert, remnant dried sea from a distant past, reveals a landscape pockmarked with hilly, funneled interior walls, dark entrances tunneled into the mysterious unknown.
I am reminded of scenes in the movie Time Machine, taken from the H.G. Wells novel, where a time traveler speeds nearly 803,000 years into a future earth where the Eloi, a gentle human species, is preyed upon by Morlocks, apelike creatures who live in wells deep within the planet.
What is this ubiquitous creature/s our mirror reveals reflectively? What better place to discuss species profligation (how’s that for a hundred-dollar word!) than in the desert, mostly considered barren and boring, lacking in life. Wikipedia states that 99% of all living things, numbering over 5 billion species that ever lived on earth, are estimated to be extinct. Estimates of our current living species range from 10-14 million, of which 1.2 million have been documented.
Research reveals that there are 300 pounds of insects for every pound of humans—200 million insects for every human. Now, looking closer into our didactic mirror we see some astounding facts: beneath our feet lives the most prolific creature thus known, the Springtail, or Collumbola, ranging from .25-10mm in length, of which there are 10-200,000 living in each square meter of soil on earth! Incidentally, they are called Springtails because they can flick their tiny tails and spring up to 10 cm to avoid predators.
Here’s a challenge. Get down on your knees with your magnifying glass and get to work studying the microcosm. On every scale, things are eating and being eaten, a mind-boggling silent, scary, munching sound that resounds all over the earth. What value does a thing so small have in our master civilization, you ask? Well, the tiny inherit and create the earth. Springtails are responsible for approximately 20% of vegetative decomposition so essential to plant life cycles.
What controls every millimeter of our earth wherever they live, which is pretty much everywhere? Right up there with the most prolific species on earth, and the creator of our sand-funnel mountains previously described, is the ant, with population estimates of 10,000 trillion to a quadrillion: 1,000,000,000,000,000.
That’s over a million ants per human on earth!
Ant populations are highly prolific and “civilized,” with reported super colonies extending thousands of kilometers’ expanse in numerous locations on earth. It is said that all the ants in the world combined weigh as much as all human beings. This is an amazing fact considering that a human weighs a million more times than the average ant.
As long as we’re talking dominant species, ants can lift 1,000 times their own weight over their heads. Here is an interesting factoid written by Graham Templeton in the Geek.com website:
“Consider a cube with sides 1×1×1 inches. The total volume of this cube is one cubic inch, with a total surface area of six square inches. That’s a six-to-one ratio of surface area to volume. What’s important to understand here is that, with respect to muscles, ‘volume’ is our proxy for mass, and ‘surface area’ stands in for strength; an ant’s muscles function pretty much like our own, with the contractile power coming from fibers on the exterior of the muscle.
“Now consider a cube of 10×10×10 inches; this gives us 1,000 cubic inches of volume, but just 600 square inches of surface—our six-to-one ratio has now become 0.6-to-one. This is because volume, and thus mass, increases according to a cubic function (X times X times X) while surface area increases as a square (X times X times some unchanging constant). This means that, as you get smaller, you also get stronger relative to your own body weight. It’s all about relative strength, though: you could still beat an ant in an arm-wrestle.
“On the other end of the spectrum is a blue whale, a creature so large that it could never have existed on land. Only with the helpful buoyancy of water (and sea water at that!) can a beast that massive hope to even control its own mass; when a whale beaches itself and feels the full weight of its own body, it’s often too weak to even shimmy back into the sea. Similarly, the classic doomsday scenario of a scaled-up ant terrorizing the nation with its super-strength is an overblown threat at best; any ant unfortunate enough to be super-sized in that way would immediately collapse under its own weight, dying a tortured and laborious death.”
Yes, even monstrous dinosaurs, that were growth-assisted by an overabundance of period atmospheric oxygen, submitted to physics in evolutionary size constraints.
I noted earlier that one quadrillion ants, that is, one with 15 zeros, are estimated to live on earth today. The total human population is around 7.4 billion. It is estimated that as of 2015, there have been 108 billion humans who have been born on earth in the history of humanity. Compare these quantities using the understanding that a billion is equal to 10 to the 9th power. I’m thinking there is some species humbling and awe inspiration going on now, eh?
Having said all this, we return, hats in hand, to face our truth-telling Mirror to ask,
“Mirror, Mirror, on the wall, what’s the smallest living thing of all?”
Truth be told, I cannot see,
deep into emerging reality.
Be still, open your mind,
learn facts from fiction,
and soon you’ll be cured
of this mirror affliction.
Two months have now passed since the passing of Gyp, and we are crossing into the outfield of two years’ exploring a life of enchantment on the roads less traveled, hence the blog post title. There was, though, a pit stop at our nonagenarian parents’ house in San Diego to perform some Bodhisattva carpet installation and minor repairs throughout. Ruth set a tantalizing goal of researching the restaurants in town that held the historical provenance of “oldest in continual operation.” It would be our challenge to sample and explore, eat and drink in as many as possible during our temporary residency. Look for her fascinating blog post to come.
Music, magic, and mathmagic
All business completed, we pushed east into Alpine, California, to the cozy home of Brian and Nancy in time to participate in a house music concert, which was sublime indeed. The Eve Selis Band, comprising a posse of incredibly talented master musicians, arrived with an approximate combined devotion to the muse of music of nearly 200 years. An intimate venue embracing approximately 50 people, in the presence of a band that can play pretty much anything in your imagination, who had shared the stage with some of the world’s best musicians, cradled in the living room of a welcoming desert home, is mystically transformative.
There is something unique in live music where musicians and participants share a synergy of energy not unlike a musical Fibonacci series—or Golden Mean—where one plus one morphs into three, growing and spiraling exponentially into mystical transformative change. If you take a series of numbers, start with 0, 1… and calculate each successive number from the sum of the previous two (e.g., 0+1=2, 1+2=3, 2+3=5, 3+5=8, etc.), you are now exploring the Golden Mean.
Let’s take a moment to examine our musical scale in relationship to Fibonacci: There are 13 notes in the span of any note through to its octave. For example, the octave of C on the piano has 13 notes in total: 8 white keys and 5 black keys. However, to play the scale of C, we only play the 8 white keys.
A scale is comprised of 8 notes, of which the 5th and 3rd notes create the basic foundation of all chords.
We also have harmonizing intervals of 3rds and 5ths.
To produce a 3rd, we play the first note and a note 2 tones higher than this note.
To play an octave, we play the first note, and then another note 8 tones higher.
Note in all the above, (which is the basis of all music), all of the notes and intervals only use Fibonacci numbers 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, and 13. The series can also be used when composing music to make patterns of notes that are pleasing to the ear. Experts claim that classical composers like Mozart and Bartok used the Fibonacci Series in some of their pieces. More contemporarily, rock & roll music leans heavily on power chords, which are 5ths intervals.
The above diagram represents the Golden Ratio. It can be represented simply, without performing a quadratic formula as 1.61803…or mathematically notated as “Phi.” If you draw a line 1.61803 times larger, or 61.8% larger, than the one before it, you are traveling along the Golden Mean.
We need fingers to play our musical notation as described above, and just looking at our fingers to perform this act we see the distance between each joint in each finger matches quite closely the Golden Ratio, as does the ratio of forearm to hand. Leonardo Da Vinci recognized this series in facial patterns, and applied it to one of his most famous portraits, the Mona Lisa.
Nature is chockablock with examples of this nature, seen in the spiral growth of plants, flowers, and shells; and it is found in art and architecture that “for some reason” pleases us. The great masters knew of this synergy and played it. Live music taps into the heart stream of this magic, and the people who entered into this musical cradle were rocked and rolled, leaving with their atoms excitingly rearranged and reassembled in a new place.
For those inquisitive folks that would like to deeply explore the magic of the Fibonacci Series, here is a link to a 45-minute podcast from BBC Radio 4, titled “The Fibonacci Sequence.”
Warning! Opening this door could cause you to enter an awakening of mind, similar to that enjoyed by Donald Duck in the 1959 Walt Disney short film, Donald Duck in Mathmagic Land.
Mid-November finds us in sunny and warm Anza Borrego State Park to reprise a memorable visit a year ago. We begin training hikes to ramp up to our next year’s Pilgrims Way walk from London to Canterbury, England, and several months’ worth of deep in-country exploration. Thanks to Ruth’s research, we will boldly go where few tourists travel, snooping below cathedral carpets for hidden crypts, stalking narrow corridors along dark twisted back streets, embracing in fire-warmed corners of local neighborhood pubs, blowing dust off antiquarian books stacked in dimly lighted museum libraries, deciphering hidden messages on hand-stitched tapestries, and much more….
Some people have asked us why we don’t monetize our blog site, that is, apply links to products that we have found useful along our journey as full-timers (and get kickbacks from Amazon). This works successfully for many as a supplementary “on the road” income, but our intent is to keep this body of work fully in the realm as described in Latin in the old opening movie credits for MGM: Ars Gratia Artis (art for art’s sake). This is not to say that at some point we won’t invite you to purchase an eBook of this rapidly expanding treasure trove of travel trekking. Stay tuned.
A life of enchantment, to cast a magic spell, to sing…we hear the ever-present call of the muse of the road…anon, Muse, anon…
August 10, 1952: Patricia Huber was feeling very uncomfortable. She was a few days, or perhaps hours, from giving birth, and her baby’s kicking and rolling about was tempering her tolerance for the event soon to come. She shuffled over to the Philco black and white TV, clicked it on, and waited the obligatory minute for the tube to excite into a grainy image. It, too, expressed its displeasure by providing little response to her shuttling of the rabbit-eared antenna on top. Clicking the antenna switch and turning the antenna in 360-degree arcs brought little satisfaction, though holding it in the air two feet above the set sharpened the picture non-acceptably. Several weeks before, she had removed a number of tubes from the back of the set and brought them to the Rexall Drug Store down the street for testing, replacing one. This was not the time for the set to go on the fritz. Clicking through channels she settled on Kukla, Fran, and Ollie,
and thought to herself that it wouldn’t be long before her soon-to-arrive child might be entertained by this show. Two days later, unassisted by early network TV, a baby boy—me—was born.
August 10, 2017, 65 years later: Ruth and I drive slowly and deliberately up an eight-mile winding switchback road, arriving at Wheeler Peak in Great Basin National Park, to begin a pilgrimage to one of the oldest living things on earth: bristlecone pines. There are other lofty contenders: cloning oak (Jurupa Oak),
which is thought to have reproduced itself for over 13,000 years, lives in Riverside, California, in a thicket of 70 stem clusters that all share the same genetics. If that 13K age pushes your alertness button, there is another tree grouping called Pando in Utah, which is not a single tree but a grove of 47,000 quaking aspens that share the same root system. This massive underground organism shares a similarity to huge subterrestrial fungal/mushroom mats, and it is a matter of interpretation whether they are a single living thing or a multiplicity of identical trees spread out over 107 acres of land. Here is the most stunning fact in regard to this ancient living, cloning, entity: it is estimated to have lived for over one million years! Yes! You read that right. Trees that may have predated humanity.
I don’t want to steal the thunder from these massive methuselahs, as they have the uniqueness and advantage of communal support. There is much to be said about the power and strength of this lifestyle. We, however, set out on a trek into our particular portal of the past, in Great Basin, one of a few spread-out bristlecone enclaves throughout the western United States.
These uniquely individual trees stand stalwart in all weather and conditions, growing infinitesimally over time and adversity. They have a provenance handed down by previous generations through fossil records dating back more than 40 million years, to the Eocene Epoch, when modern mammals first emerged.
Our destination grove contains bristlecones averaging around three to four thousand years of age, but some of the oldest dated by dendrochronology (the study of tree growth ring patterns) still stand at around 4,800 years. These precious Ancient Ones are guarded from the curious and often destructive masses by secreting their locations. Studies of long dead, yet still undecayed bristlecone trunks, have revealed their ages to be around 8,000 years or more. We observed the grounded corpses of trees that died over one thousand years ago, looking much like their vertical living family.
Many pilgrimages demand sacrifice from seekers, and our shibboleth was a hike over steep rocks and roots beginning at 9,800 feet, plodding up, step by careful step, sucking precious elusive air, to arrive at the time capsule island of Ancient Ones at 10,400 feet. To instill clarity to this journey, I’ve broken down our pilgrimage of 1.4 miles one way, into a timeline of a typical bristlecone lifespan. A few facts before I begin:
An average person walks approximately 2,000 steps per mile, with a single stride of about 2.5 feet
Some of the oldest bristlecones at our destination have lived 4,000 years
4 trail distance miles, one way = 7,392 feet, with an average stride of 2.5 feet = 2,957 steps
Assigning the number of steps taken to years of bristlecone life, on our journey, from the start of the trail to the grove: 2,957 steps; divided by 4,000 years gives us: 1 year of life = ¾ of a stride or about .74 steps per year. Whew!
No. of steps
What was happening in history
California Gold Rush
Signing of the Declaration of Independence
Shakespeare writes Hamlet
Leonardo Da Vinci paints the Mona Lisa
The Incas rule Peru
The Ming Dynasty begins in China
Chartres Cathedral in France is consecrated
Angkor Wat in Cambodia, one of the wonders of the world, is completed
Classic Pueblo Anasazi culture thrives in North America
Mohammed flees from Mecca to Medina; 1st year of the Muslim calendar
Rome falls to the Vandals
The Chinese develop paper
Great Wall of China is built
The Parthenon in Athens is built to honor Athena, goddess of wisdom
Cyrus the Great of Persia conquers Babylon and frees the Jews
Lao Tse, founder of Taoism, is born
The Iliad and The Odyssey are composed, possibly by Greek poet Homer
Hebrew elders write the Old Testament books of the Bible
The Olmec civilization thrives in Mexico
Hammurabi, king of Babylon, develops the oldest known code of laws
Stonehenge is constructed, the Pharaohs rule Egypt, the Great Pyramid of Giza is completed in approximately 2,680 BCE.
Our bristlecone pine is now a sapling, 3 feet high and already 40 years old.
Having attained our destination, I felt impelled to reach out and wrap my arms around the steel-hard and environmentally twisted wood trunk, and imagine my miniscule 65-year life span as if it could be comprehended by my ancient tree, or even I by it? I have lived one one-hundredth the lifetime of this embraced master of elements. How much life force, a wisdom of sorts, was absorbed into this tree’s moment-to-moment existence? The elements that gave it life, temperature, nutrients, air quality, environmental forces to resist growth, drought, imperfect seasons, insect pests, wood rotting fungi, attempts by man to cut down, trim and remove limbs for fire, lightning strikes, avalanches, rain, flooding and wind storms, shifting terrain, climate change, earthquakes, old age, emanated in its magnificence.
In the world of man, our cares appear to revolve around us. We exist at the peak of life’s pyramid, or so we perceive it, yet the bristlecone pine stands silently living—gnarled, limbs broken, bark stripped, trunk twisted, yet thriving in adversity through the millennia. Reaching out again, I feel the ancient trunk with respectful hands, nearly three-quarters of my life past, but at the moment very honored to be in the presence of One who continues to silently impart life lessons reflectively.
I hate boxes. No, not the cardboard kind that Kitty plays in. I mean those boxes people put you in (and you put them in) the minute you put a label on something.
The Box: “My husband, who is retired, and I travel in our RV” = an old, maybe bent, thinning-white-short-haired guy, wearing baggy cargo shorts and a Walmart Hawaiian shirt doddering around, flipping switches on a Class A RV the size of a building, with four slideouts and two yappy dogs who don’t listen to a word their owners bark at them.
The Reality: Ben’s bright red ponytail (we can’t use purple in the Airstream, it gets everywhere) sometimes gets caught in all the bracelets he wears. His Hawaiian shirts are custom made with that fabulous pinup girl fabric we’ve collected over the years. (Erm, by me, of course.) (Box: “My wife would never let me wear that!”) I won’t even talk about the Airstream other than to say it’s an Airstream. And the dog is, of course, our geriatric border collie, who would no more not listen to our commands than breathe. And hasn’t barked in years. The day she doesn’t obey will be because she’s already herding sheep in that big field in the sky.
The Box: “Husband” = hates shopping, would rather spend Friday night with his buddies; “wife” gets mad at him for drinking with his buddies, makes him cut his hair, rolls her eyes at his tattoos.
The Reality: Yep, he’s drinking with his best buddies, which includes me, and I’m probably pouring as well. My tattoos rival his. His son was surprised to learn I have a motorcycle license. Why? And why was his CC instructor surprised when I handled Ben’s Glock competently? Sure, mine’s a Smith & Wesson, but c’mon. There’s nothing intrinsically contained in the X chromosome that makes one more or less competent.
Our guide on the train the other day was excellent and knowledgeable, but when she said, “Guys, I’m sorry, but I have to say this: ladies, the shopping is on XX Street, and especially jewelry,” she lost a few credibility points with me. I couldn’t care less about jewelry (you can’t eat it, it doesn’t keep you warm), but you’ve all seen Ben and his collection. And I have to drag him out of stores. Then, she lost more points when she said, “And guys, the best beer is at…” Because I can’t appreciate good beer?
The sad thing is, people start believing the boxes, and then they start changing their life to suit the box, instead of the other way around: “My wife would never let me wear that!” People think the word that incenses me there is the verb (wear, drive, buy, think), but no, it’s let. I’m not his mother, it’s not up to me what Ben wears, or does, or thinks. Nor am I responsible for it. I spend enough time wrestling with what I am responsible for.
And on the subject of consanguinity, I’m not his mother or his sister so, no, we don’t have the same last name. That would be creepy. That is a holdover from an age when women were what our current president thinks they are (box), not what we actually are (reality).
Don’t get me wrong, many boxes are useful. When we ask to see a wine list, and the waiter or sommelier asks us where we’re from, we cut to the chase and say “California wine country.” That box means: We know our wine, you’re welcome to suggest but don’t try to upsell us or make us drink swill.
Sometimes, our box is, “just north of the Golden Gate Bridge.” That places us near San Francisco, but not in the City, because, well for starters, where would we put the Airstream? “Airstream”—there’s another box. Not a bad one.
Often, Ben’s first question to a fellow full-timer is “Where is ‘home’ when it’s not the RV?” but to me, the fact that they’re on the road means no label, no box; they’ve chosen, like us, to be from nowhere. From everywhere.
And speaking of boxes, I started this little essay in Dodge City. What does that tell you? Badly acted gunfights, cheesy wax museums, olde tyme photo parlours, ye olde gifte shoppes, you know those boxes. Awesome!
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.
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-footelevation 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.
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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Tornado warnings brought our tiny cavalcade of one to a halt outside of Hutchinson, Kansas (“Hutch” to the locals). We were headed for a nearby campground, but thanks to our NOAA weather app, we knew a “severe thunderstorm” with “possible tornado warnings” was headed straight for us, following the same route. Winds up to 85 mph, hail the size of grapefruit, power out all over the area, drama, drama, drama. Worst of all, it would be centered, essentially, right over our campsite. The same campsite that offered no shelter in the way of trees to keep the promised hail off the Silver Submarine, nor wind to keep us from lying awake, listening to every gouge of every hailstone.
So, about six miles from our destination, we pulled into a truck stop to decide what to do. We’d already driven more than our self-allotted maximum miles, and we were too tired to continue anyway. The sky was looking rather dramatic, sort of like the background in the first black-and-white scenes with Dorothy and Toto in The Wizard of Oz. Uh oh. In that moment, we looked at each other and said, “Where would be safe to stay the night?” and our gaze wandered over the ranks of semis ranged along the fence. “Um, here?”
Ben masterfully snuggled our little rig between two of the humming, thrumming monsters, calculated to be just far enough apart to open our door. We opened all the windows to let fresh air in, and it started to rain. And rain. Then rain. Then really rain. And then the wind blew, strong enough that it was a test of strength and stamina just to open our door. Hail the size of pennies speckled our porthole windows. Hail is anathema to Airstreams, but apparently pennies are small enough change. We heard the wind die, were briefly in the eye of the storm, then it shifted direction and blew and rained some more. We fell asleep to the gentle rocking of our rig, the strong winds blunted by our titanic, diesel-warbling neighbors.
The next morning, I woke to a clear blue sky, birds singing, flowers blooming, just like after Dorothy lands in Oz (no, no Munchkins). Across the freeway was the town water tower which read: Southern Hospitality, Kansas Style. Sorry, not really my style.
Quickly skirting the few remaining semitrucks in the lot (these guys get up and on the road early), Gyp and I spotted a kiosk surrounded by landscaped lawn, with a little parking lot nearby.
Walking over, we saw that it was the Hutchinson Salt Company historical marker. A 1,260-pound block of—you guessed it—salt.
Apparently this is a big deal here in Hutch. You can press a button to see what the discoverer, Benjamin Blanchard, would have seen gazing into a big hole in the earth (“as seen on The Discovery Channel”). Which looked like, well, a big dark hole in the earth.
This salt is reputedly so marvelous, it’s exported as far away as Minnesota, California, and even the northern Mexico territories—truly a global enterprise, Kansas Style!
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Savannah, Georgia is a stunning gem of a city that has as its progenitor a man that set in motion a cascade of events placing this locale apart from any city in America, perhaps the world. All creations emanate from a source, and the source we will now visit was a man with extraordinary vision and social consciousness instigating waves that rippled through time.
James Oglethorpe was a British visionary, social reformer, and military leader who dreamed of creating a haven for England’s working poor and strengthening the colonies through trade. He landed along a bluff on the Savannah River in 1733, and named the 13th American colony Georgia, after King George II.
Upon settling, Oglethorpe met with the local Yamacraw Indian chief Tomochichi, and after establishing good relations, a settlement was agreed upon and named Savannah after either a name for the Sawana people who inhabited the region, or from the Shawnee Indian word for Savannah River.
Oglethorpe supposedly had four rules for his new community: no slaves, no Roman Catholics, no strong drink (rum), and no lawyers. This perhaps goes to show that you can’t get it all right all the time, nor can you judge history with 21st century consciousness, but I digress…
Oglethorpe designed the basic layout of the new city into blocks of five symmetrical 60×90-foot lots. Included in this plan were 24 public squares, though only 21 remain in existence today. These were intended to be meeting places, and potential gathering or camping spots to fortify against native attacks, the Spanish who ruled nearby Florida, or pirates. The genius of these public squares would come into their own in time and grow in beauty, as in them grew verdant live oak trees covered in Spanish moss and cultivated gardens, statuary, and fountains, a veritable beguiling social haven.
Oglethorpe and his fellow founders envisioned Savannah as a colony where settlers could achieve a comfortable living in contrast to the huge plantations and isolated personal fortune found in surrounding British America. It was understood by the charter granted to him by George II, that Oglethorpe could not hold office, own land, or receive a salary in the new colony, yet he put his vision ahead of personal gain. Part of Oglethorpe’s dream was a classless society, one step removed from the other 12 colonies and a giant step away from the homeland: restrictions were put on how much land could be owned and no slavery was allowed. In his original plans, heads of households were to work their own land, though later after the colony was established and Oglethorpe left to return to England, economic pressures from the production of cotton saw slavery return to keep in competition with the large cotton plantations. There existed an incomplete ideal however, in that women could not own land in the new colony due to the belief that each plot of land required a male worker and defender.
The motto of the trustees and new colony was: non sibi sed aliis: “Not for self but for others.” Considering the zeitgeist of the times, this motto served the colony well: the Catholics, due to their alliance with the French, were ostracized for fear their sympathies would assist them if conflicts arose between the two world powers.
The intention of this blog piece is not to bore you, dear reader, with historical facts but to describe a pattern that is engrained within the Savannahian culture, and so one more moment in history must be described. Savannah, which had a very large free African American population before the Civil War, suffered terribly during the Union Navy’s coastal blockade. Savannah city leadership traveled to meet General Sherman and his oncoming Union soldiers to beg that they not burn down the city as was the fate of Atlanta. (You may be remembering bits of storyline here from the movie Gone With the Wind.) It is said that Sherman was so impressed with the beauty of the city that he could not destroy it.
This gem of a city has a long history of integration, deep southern culture, independence, and relative isolation from the interior southern populations—and is proud of it. Its historic district remains one of the largest in the nation and if you walk or drive through the 21 public squares you immediately note that traffic must slow to a crawl, Southern style, to navigate around them. The design of this central district sets the tone for the town: people stroll languidly in an envelope of oxygenic-rich heat and humidity that encourages the lushness of foliage and social intercourse. The air of aestheticism, gentility, and of course that ever-present courtesy, permeates throughout like the scent of magnolia, and ties you to a time when good breeding was expressed through polite refinement and affable cordiality.
Architecture reigns supreme here as all manner of period structures challenge your eyes and mental inquisitiveness. Some of the many homes to be found encircling the squares and surrounding regions were built in the styles now known as Federal, Georgian, Gothic Revival, Greek Revival, Italianate, Regency, Romanesque Revival, Second French Empire, and of course the more modern early 20th century, mind-numbing, classless design. All too often you find yourself sending a huge “Thank you!” back in time to General Sherman’s saving impulses. The layers of richness here are overwhelming and challenge the senses to remain at their highest level of consciousness. If you are looking for an awakened redefinition of Muse-e-um, this is it.
You can’t spend any appreciable time in Savannah without hearing the name SCAD mentioned, which stands for Savannah College of Art and Design, founded in 1978. Everywhere you look, you see references to SCAD—refurbished buildings (particularly in the historic district), downtown offices, theaters, ancillary branches and sub-schools throughout the region, students everywhere. The College has expanded its campuses to Atlanta and Hong Kong, and has approximately 11,000 students studying any of eight majors: Building Arts, Communication Arts, Design, Fashion, Entertainment, Digital Media, Fine Arts, Foundation Studies (drawing), and Liberal Arts.
I’m a big fan of college towns, and the freshness and infusion of ideas and culture they bring to a place is patently recognizable as we travel across the country. SCAD is like a continuous intravenous infusion of vitality of arts into Savannah that has kept the ghosts of its past alive, giving them bones of aesthetic support, and the breath of youthful living-in-the-moment. Perhaps in a final capstone of restoration to one of the original four rules the colony was founded upon, which stated, “No Catholics,” we can look up the root definition of Catholic, which is: “Including a wide variety of things, all embracing.”
The institution of SCAD has brought full circle that missing element to Savannah in a philosophical and metaphorical way. Its restoration of buildings and city infrastructure also restores the blood flow of modernity, to the melting pot of a town that is a pretty doggone special place. Oglethorpe would be proud.
Look for a following blog post to chronicle our adventures in the real time “Catholic” Savannah!
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We slowly meandered east and up along the south Texas coast line hugging the Gulf of Mexico’s warm waters, and serendipitously chose Galveston Island as our place of refuge and discovery for a time. We discovered a pleasant campground, Galveston Island State Beach, and were placed on the bay side, away from the roar of the waves and the salt surf, in a peaceful circle of 20 peripatetic RVs, phasing in and out, like birds in a nest.
Our usual practice is to study the web for local spots of interest to explore, and Ruth mentioned the Bryan Museum. I perked up immediately when she described it as one of the foremost museums of western history and artifacts. I’ve had a long fascination for the subject, and, well, we have been traveling through most of the heart of the West these past months, so for crying out loud this opportunity fits right in like a well-used pistol in its carefully oiled holster.
The Bryan Collection, assembled by JP and Mary Jon Bryan, houses one of the largest collections of historical artifacts, documents, and artwork relating to Texas and the American West, spanning more than 12,000 years. JP is the descendant of Emily Austin Bryan Perry, who was Stephen Austin’s sister. Stephen Austin was the man who founded Texas by leading 300 families from the US into the region in 1825. The Bryan collection has its roots deep within the family, as both Bryan’s father and uncle were collectors; not merely to spotlight the illustrious family legacy and pedigree, but also their relationship to western American history.
Let me tell you, the imposing edifice that houses this collection is metaphorically like the inside of the mysterious warehouse that held the Ark of the Covenant at the end of the film, Raiders of the Lost Ark, except that this building is nothing like a warehouse. Every aspect from the outside to the inside of this structure carries the imprint of quality, care, and attention to detail that represents the family and its legacy.
Walking into the building you are struck by the fastidiousness and craftsmanship in every quadrant. The woodwork, top to bottom, is finely finished and polished and every exhibit presents itself with the utmost in appropriate technology and thoughtfulness to the legacy of the period and its transmission to our 21st century milieu. Many of the exhibits offer, outside their displays, iPads for further detailed research and examination. For example, you can peruse the page-by-page journal of Cabeza de Vaca, an early explorer and adventurer who was shipwrecked in Galveston and traveled for many years throughout the region. (If you want to discover an adventure story unlike any other, read these journals and be transported to a time and introduced to a person of superhuman fortitude and perseverance.) Another iPad allows the viewer to study in fine, magnified detail each of the numerous rare handguns and rifles displayed in the case, each with its significant connection to historical events.
If this hasn’t piqued your interest, you might, after studying a huge diorama of the battle of San Jacinto—depicting the decisive battle of the Texas revolution led by Sam Houston engaging Santa Anna’s Mexican army—examine the iPads and follow the engagement from both the Texans’ and Mexicans’ perspectives. You will spend so much more time in your fascinating inquiry than the fight, which lasted just 18 minutes.
We had the opportunity to self-explore through the museum but our timing was perfect to be led by our docent, Jack Evins. Our group of four was held enthralled for close to two hours by Jack’s erudite and easy manner of making history and the collection come alive. In keeping with the demeanor of quality permeating the Bryan, Jack answered all the questions from our group with care and detail. Early on, after a description of a rare pistol in a display case, I queried Jack about the cartridge caliber. He responded that he was unsure but after the tour he would look into it. Sure enough, immediately following our excursion, he came to me to explain that he had contacted the museum exhibit manager, who showed up shortly thereafter and proceeded to open the display case, remove the pistol with white gloves, examine it, and answer my question. I don’t encourage this, but try that on a docent tour in your run-of-the-mill museum, my friends. This speaks to the museum’s (and Jack’s) level of the love of subject, deep interest, the desire to continue accumulating knowledge, and dedication of service with no recompense expected. All this to say, this is a pretty special understated gem of a place where people of means have taken upon themselves to display their passion for others to enjoy, instead of cloistering their collection hidden behind gated walls.
I have barely scratched the surface here, from the building itself (which has a long and compelling history of its own), to art, to artifacts, clothing, weapons, and historical and rare documents. The permanent collection contains examples of all these and more, from prehistory, through the Spanish colonial era, to Texas frontier and statehood. Also housed within the exhibits are western rarities in general, and paintings both period and modern that can stand “Texas Tall” against any museum in the world. It is not just a place of sights, but also of sounds. After a brief description of an exhibited Spanish mission bell, my childlike curiosity to reach out and tap it with my ring to hear its tone (very strongly discouraged!) was assuaged by the recorded tone as we passed by—a satisfying, sybaritic, and satiating sound, saving me admonishment and embarrassment.
We were honored to be able to engage on this level of enrichment and endowment of family, history, and country. I was exhausted from attempting to retain as much of the richness of detail into memory. From now on, if you say Galveston, I say “The Bryan!”
Seeing a rodeo was big on our bucket list, and Rodeo Austin—our San Francisco-away-from-home in the middle of the conservative melting pot of the Lone Star State—would be the host. We’ve been talkin’ ’bout goin’ to this halfway across this fine country. Well hell, we’ve got our boots, hats, belts, and sheep dog, and we’re falling steeply into an easy drawl as we speak with the locals. To top it off, despite Ruth’s cringing reluctance, Dwight Yoakam is the musical headliner at the first night of the show. My earlier years living in the south inoculated me to the musical brand, gotta say.
In driving rain, we pulled into the huge gateway to the rodeo and fair ground causeway, inching our way in the vehicle throng to pay the $10 dollar parking fee. This granted us permission to be waved into the vast expanse of field mud, muck, and rocks, to park in anonymous rows…ruh row. Finding our horse upon return is going to be one heck of a challenge. “Not to worry,” I said to myself as I pulled out my cell phone parking app and clicked Current Location.
The carnival midway was lit up like Vegas on a Friday night, but the driving rain rendered attendance on the rides to close to zero. The colorful lights refracting through the rain drops made the scene an island-like mirage likened to a scary clown carnival movie set, and if you’ve seen the 1962 film Carnival of Souls, well…
Disappearing into a dark hole of hell was not to be our destiny that night as we soon were encapsulated into the throngs of people working their way into a huge oblong interior stadium with seating all the way from ring side high up into bleachers. All seats were ticketed, though not necessarily practiced, and folks competed politely for better seating. There was a fair share of reluctant shuffling through the tight rows—like everything else in Texas, most folks are BIG. In order to get to our seats, however, we had to pass through the portals of commercial chaos, venders selling everything western, from clothing, hats, belts, accoutrement, household art, farm equipment, animal supplies, and of course the ubiquitous beer and refreshments of the baser kind. We discovered, after seating, someone drinking one of Ruth’s favorite ciders and this synergized her rodeo experience. The wait in line for said drinks though, rivaled that of ladies’ restroom lines in a rock concert.
Just as my drink purchase finished, the stadium lights fell, and in the darkness an attractive young filly—woman, that is—rode out into the bright moving searchlight on a stunning pure white horse carrying an American flag and rode in synchrony and circles to the music. All hats were off, everyone standing, many with hands over hearts. The rowdy rumbling crowd transformed itself into a silent, worshiping unified mass of damp eyes and trembling patriotic hearts. As the “…land of the free, and the home of the brave,” stanza completed, a monstrous cheer arose from the throng. Capturing the moment’s ardent devotion, a video appeared on the massive center ring screen portraying all-American western scenes and images from the rodeo’s past. We had arrived at our destination.
“Why go to a rodeo?” you might ask. Well, tie-down roping, team roping, steer wrestling (or “rasslin’”), saddle bronc riding, bareback bronc riding, bull riding, and barrel racing, all vestiges from the Golden Age of the American West.
When you’re going to have a baby, and of course you’re planning on having your kid take up rodeo, your choice of names may just make the difference between winning and losing. These are the actual (we presume) first names of the contestants:
Bull riding: Wyatt, Chase, Dalton, Troy, Colby, Toby, Nate Barrel racing: Kara, Cayla, Rachel, Kaitlyn, Morgan, Molly, Katelyn, Kimmi Saddle bronc riding: Luke, Toby, Brady, Preston, Tom, Dusty Steer wrestling (rasslin’): Jacob, Taz, Cody, Chason, Cody, Kody, Trell Tie down roping: Justin, Cooper, Cade, Dillon, Cody, Clint Team roping: Will/Tanner, Jake/Tyler, Cale/Nick, Clayton/Dakota, Jessie/Jet, Brett/Wesley, Zac/Will, Ty/Krece
Now these are names to reckon with!
Watching this extravaganza is mind boggling in its complexity, hand-eye coordination, strength, and damn-sure tenacity. Tossing a lasso at full gallop to capture a running calf’s legs while your partner at the same time lassos its head in approximately seven seconds takes countless hours of horse, calf, and human exercise. Watching any bareback or saddle bronc or bull riding makes you cringe as you image the G forces rackingyour body and the feeling of being thrown from your mount countless times to acquire these skills, renders your knees weak. Certain areas of a cowboy’s anatomy would be the first to agree. This is a young man’s sport, to be enjoyed by us thankful spectators. I can’t imagine what drug could remedy the pain both short term and long from this sport. Perhaps this explains the rodeo’s popularity? This is spectacle, not only of skill but raw physicality that we perhaps all envy when it is past, if it ever came.
On the other side of the coin is the ever popular mutton-bustin’, where 3- to 9-year-olds take turns being hoisted up on the backs of sheep to see how long they can ride before dropping like full ticks off a dog. This is a real crowd pleaser, as everyone waits to see the wackiest position a kid can wrangle themselves into while barely grasping their woolen reins. The poor kids looked kind of lost in the exercise, not really sure what the heck was going on, and too young in most cases to develop a complex based on being laughed at by a crowd. At the end of this “Joke’s on You” exercise, each kid got an identical trophy regardless of time riding, not exactly the kind of message of winners and losers in life to portray. Incidentally, there is actually a phobia of sheep believe it or not called Ovinophobia. Put that in your woolen drawer. It may well be that some of these kids will go on to look up that definition later in life…or they’ll move on to horses and bulls. By the way, did you know that there is also a phobia of horses and bulls too: equinophobia and taurophobia?
No rodeo is complete without the ubiquitous clown, which in this case proceeded to make a fool of himself and the crowd, hey…isn’t that what a clown is for?! You got your clown arguing with the announcer, clown stealing a fan’s cell phone and looking up texts to read to the audience, clown spearheading vendor giveaways to sections of the crowd, clown leading crowd cheers, clown climbing in the classic clown barrel to be head butted by angry, agitated bulls. That was my favorite activity for that clown, yep justice.
And the moment we’ve all (mostly, except for Ruth) been waiting for! Tractors pulling trailers piled into the stadium loaded with sound equipment and a platform that folded out into a revolving stage. Dwight Yoakam’s roadies put on a premiere performance of setting up in 20 minutes for a band of five members and all their gear; very impressive. Unfortunately, the acoustics sucked in the stadium and you had to really struggle to get the words to the music. 99% of the songs were Dwight’s hits so the crowd, knowing the music, sang along…yes, me too in places, though Ruth struggled with this. I helped her with one of the lines in the truck later though:
“I’m a honkey-tonk man, and I can’t seem to stop,
love to give the girls a whirl to the music of an old juke box.
When my money’s all gone, pick up the telephone, say,
‘Hey hey, momma, can yer daddy come home.’” Yep!
One hour of solid music passed, including a tribute to the late Merle Haggard, and people intuitively sensed that if they didn’t leave then, they would be in a world of traffic hurt. I didn’t, thanks to undying Dwight fever to the last. Ruth and I agreed to meet at our entrance point to the stadium, and she gratefully bolted. I should have followed her, as how often do we forget that everyone leaving at once is not the same as everyone coming in over a period of several hours. I stared at my parking app in the rain for several minutes until Ruth took control and said, “Just follow me.” Our horse was tied where we parked her, and as is often the case, every one of the thousands present appeared to leave ahead of us on the one-lane exit road. Then there was the road construction on the streets of Austin that rivals that of the worst of any city I’ve ever seen. But that friends, is a different story!
I wake in the middle of the night to the sound of the wind beating our aluminum trailer skin, and crack an eye to watch it blow through curtains, carrying memories from time lost, when wind and water shared this space…this is a place where the earth dreams and remembers when continents bonded together in primordial conversations, waters delineating horizons.
This was a time when Earth brought to light the elements of itself to explore. There were no mammals, birds, or bees; or flowers to reflect color and awaken genesis through evolution. Dragonfly was king of the air; waters seethed in eddies of life; Earth simmered, memories of its youth still fresh to express; water, the womb of earth, nourished the cycle of change and transformation. Trilobite, one of the earliest of sea creatures, was nearing the end of its existence, and the reefs were closed off by tectonic movement. Land rose, water reformed itself in harmony with its contours, and all intercourse, interactions, and detritus in this liquid abyss of life slowly passed down, particle by particle, drawn by Earth’s gravity to settle on the sea bed, slowly accreting over countless eons of time.
Sea levels rose and fell as Earth morphed, and froze at times. Looking back in the mists of antiquity with the “eye of today” into those night skies would provoke questions and confusion, for galaxies and stars would be unrecognizable in contrast to our present panorama.
Countless skeletal fragments and marine organisms that fell through the abyss of water and time developed into our limestone sedimentation found all over the world, and particularly in our latest region of travel, central and southern Texas. The fossil reefs can now be seen in road cuts throughout the region and we stopped to bask in the rock time machine, and study with fascination the zoology in a small sampling within these cuts.
It is interesting to note that creationists state that the Great Flood, which we all learned carried Noah and the ark to safety (after, let’s not forget, killing every living being on earth, including innocent babies and children), is presumed to have taken place somewhere between about 4,000 and 100,000 years ago (yes, this is a considerable span of conjecture!). In order to fit this biblical paradigm into the development of limestone which is factually dated to approximately 350 million years ago, creationist hypotheses state that too much limestone exists on earth to be created in such a short time to fit into the biblical itinerary. They then postulate that it was created by the earth’s natural chemical/geologic formulations such as are found deep in the ocean near the tectonic trench and—I am not making this up—close to the “lost city.” (I’m not going here, okay?!) There are some mighty complicated chemical combination explanations as well as challenges to how long it takes for caves to be formed. Seems creationists haven’t heard of Occam’s Razor.
But there’s more: It was noted that the care keepers of caves continually shorten their projected dates of origin, and that stalagmites were “observed” to be formed in a matter of days (I’m not going to ask about their method of data collection, and anyway, I digress). You can sharpen your critical thinking and perspectives one way or another, by checking out any number of creation “science” (oxymoron alert!) websites. One, in particular, allows you to delve into profound subjects such as the origin of the Grand Canyon, the earth’s radioactivity, an explanation of the elongated and flattened Mastodon penis, and technical notes to fill in the details on how the great catastrophic flood projected rocks into space which became…comets…? But I digress: I bet you want to return to the aforementioned mastodon of the moment. “Creationist research” (oxymoron alert!) noted that when a man is strangled, his penis becomes elongated. (No, I don’t know why they felt the need to study this.) They then leap—and it’s most definitely a leap—to the conclusion that said mastodon strangled itself on grasses while eating at the time of the great cataclysm, because said cataclysm threw water up into the atmosphere, which was then super-cooled, and then returned to the earth to freeze our unfortunate mastodon mid-mastication, pressing and preserving its unfortunate organ for posterity. But I digress…being on the road tends to focus the mind.
Directly adjacent to our campsite, along a tributary of the Pecos River that flows into the Rio Grande, an ancient people painted pictographs on the undersides of the rock wall grottos in Seminole Canyon State Park, Texas. Millions of years post-limestone formation, ground water erosion had created the perfect sweet spot for human migrants to record their exploits hunting camel, bison, elephants (yes, you’re reading this right), and speaking to their gods through magic symbolism and human/animistic interpretations. Once again, the detritus of human interaction rained down on the grotto floors over thousands of years to slowly raise the earthen level, allowing those dreamers to challenge our eyes to understand how they could draw so high up on the rock faces. Did they build ladders? Perhaps. Maybe they stood on each other’s shoulders. It can’t be any more improbable than the Grand Canyon being created in a blink of the eye.
Back in the real world, it seems that mid-19th century cattlemen found these dwellings, housed their cattle in the protected alcoves, and their stock in turn trampled down and moved the earth to lower and earlier human inhabitant levels. This was followed by modern archaeologists who dug down to “rediscover” the lifestyles of our forebears. This lifestyle stands in sharp relief to our current culture, though in some extremely rare occurrences, vestiges can still be found among us today, as can be seen by this rare sighting in the Whole Foods flagship store in Austin, Texas. Notice the staggering “out of time” confusion and uncertainty of this subject seen next to the pastry fridge in a daze…but I digress.
We all stand on the shoulders of giants or, in reality, trillions of bits of tiny marine microorganisms.
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Who knew there were so many roadside oddities to see, not only in this country, but just here in Texas?
Let’s begin with Marfa
Famed for the Marfa Lights (which were explained years ago, though the town continues to promote the “mystery”), its big claim to fame is that it is where the movie Giant, starring Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson, and James Dean, was filmed. As we drove toward Marfa over the flat, desolate, windy prairie, we wondered aloud why this location was chosen. Perhaps because it is flat, desolate, and windy.
On the road to Marfa is the mostly-famous Prada Store, out in the middle of nowhere. No, its not really a store, just a storefront, used for a movie and then abandoned.
What many people don’t know, though, is that just four miles down the road in Valentine, there’s another storefront, not nearly as famous, but possibly more familiar.
Oh, and Valentine’s other claim to fame? You can send mail here to be postmarked on February 14, from Valentine. With a population of just 129 souls, I suspect it’s their big day.
We arrived in the small town of Marfa and headed for El Cosmico, the local hippie campground/trailer park/teepee & yurt village. A small grouping of lovingly restored vintage travel trailers were nestled next to a circle of yurts, with a collection of teepees lurking in the background. A communal bathhouse, wood-fire-heated hot tubs, and outdoor kitchen completed the hippie commune picture. We loved it; and stayed for two nights.
In town, the hotels where the movie stars stayed make their reputation with it: At the Hotel Paisano, home of the cast and crew of Giant, we had a cocktail and delicious dinner in “Jett’s Bar.” Across the street at the Hotel St. George, we had cocktails and a not-so-delicious dinner. According to their website, “the original Hotel St. George (which was torn down in 1929) was, for most of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, an oasis for travelers—offering amenities found nowhere else in this corner of the world.” After our long, empty drive to reach Marfa, well, it kinda still is.
The Lost Horse Saloon had to qualify as our favorite haunt, though. We met Carl (pictured here), who welcomed us to yet another open-carry state with a friendly lick, then proceeded to fall asleep on the bar.
Trailer parks and food trucks
We had a date with an ancient trailer park in Austin, Texas, for the week before the South By Southwest Festival, so hightailed it east. Not without a stop in the countryside at Salt Lick BBQ, justifiably famous for its barbecue.
After lunch, on the continuing drive, I noticed that, out here in the middle of nowhere in Texas, people must make their livings however they can. A few of the signs (and I am not making these up): bed & breakfast and construction company;Yee-Haw outfitters; and my all-time favorite: orchard, peach ice cream and taxidermy.
We checked into our RV park (a glorified label, it’s really just a crappy trailer park, except for the location—right across the Colorado River from downtown Austin).
We felt right at home, though, with a collection of vintage Airstreams across the way, and miles of trails to hike with Gyp. Most of the people we met in the park were either retirees passing through, or Millenial hipsters taking advantage of the relatively cheap rent in a plum location.
Right down the street from us was one of Austin’s famed food truck courts, containing the likes of Kebabilicious, Hey…You Gonna Eat or What?, The Mighty Cone, and, my favorite, Hey Cupcake! For dinner, I had an avocado stuffed with chicken and cheese, then lightly battered and fried (because, remember, this is Texas). Dessert was a sampler plate:
Keeping Austin weird
You’re waiting for more roadside Americana, right? Well, look no further than the Museum of the Weird,in downtown Austin. In its purposefully dim interior, we worked our way through the collection of Sasquatch footprint casts, three-legged calves, mummies, and various sideshow gaffs* to be guided to their latest acquisition, the famed Minnesota Iceman.
According to Wikipedia: The Minnesota Iceman is a sideshow exhibit that depicts a man-like creature frozen in a block of ice. It was displayed at shopping malls, state fairs, and carnivals in the United States and Canada in the 1960s and early 1970s and promoted as the “missing link” between man and Neanderthals. In February 2013, the Minnesota Iceman was auctioned on eBay. The listing read: “This is the actual sideshow gaff billed as ‘The Minnesota Iceman’ by Frank Hansen in the 1960s. This is a one of a kind hoax that was fabricated by a mid-20th century showman.” It was purchased by Steve Busti, owner of the Austin, TexasMuseum of the Weird, and put on display so that I could share it with you, dear reader.
Finally, we were treated to a classic sideshow stunt of “nail in the head” by the dapper Eric. I’d have taken a photo for you, but I had to look away, sorry.
* Gaff: Anything controlled or faked, for example, P.T. Barnum’s Feejee Mermaid. A gaff isn’t a genuine freak of nature, regardless how convincing it looks, but a specimen manufactured to look freakish.
It ain’t Texas without a rodeo
Half rodeo, half country “music” concert (forgive the quotation marks, but you all know that I believe “country music” to be an oxymoron). I negotiated with Ben to sit through an hour of the twangy Dwight Yoakam (apologies to Jan in England) so that we could see the first finals of Rodeo Austin. More about the rodeo coming soon from the talented pen—erm, keyboard—of Ben. But my impression? Bucking broncos, steer roping, barrel racing, bull riding—super-fun, and I signed myself up on the rodeo circuit mailing list.
Remember the Alamo—or, not
We blew out of Austin just before the SXSW Festival began, and headed south to San Antonio. Well, you can’t visit San Antonio without everyone encouraging you to visit the Riverwalk and the Alamo. The Riverwalk is, essentially, a crowded tourist mall, lined with mediocre restaurants, expensive and crappy gift shops, and hundreds of fat-butted tourists weaving around in oblivion, or sitting listlessly in the countless tour boats that float past, a bored guide monotoning some quasi-historical fact or other. My advice? Skip it. Unless, of course, you can travel back in time, to 1911 when the Riverwalk was the largest red-light district in Texas—it ranked third in the nation. In fact, the district was so popular that a guidebook was published directing you to all manner of “sporting” establishments, such as road houses, cock-pits, and, of course, brothels. The 25-cent booklet states, “This Directory of the Sporting District is intended to be an accurate guide to those who are seeking a good time.”
And the Alamo? As “hallowed ground and the Shrine of Texas Liberty,” it does its job, I guess, though the gift shop is the biggest part of it. As to the reliability of the “history” they promote, well, as I’m so fond of saying, don’t believe everything you’re told, check it out for yourself.
Toilet seats, glow-in-the-dark mini golf, and stuffed heads
Rounding out our tour of little-known places to visit, we headed for Barney Smith’s Toilet Seat Art Museum. Retired Master Plumber Barney Smith started creating his one-of-a-kind toilet seat art about fifty years ago using toilet seats that were set to be thrown away, and, as of today, has completed more than 1,200.
Each seat is unique, commemorating some person, place, or event, such as Michael Jackson, San Francisco (which we autographed, natch), cosmetic dentistry or leathercraft, or the Mt. St. Helens eruption.
We spent a happy half-hour chatting with Barney, who loves to talk about his work and, just when you’re working your way out, will say, “Wait! Here’s one about …” and you’re sucked back in.
At the end of the day, there’s nothing like a round of mini golf, and a visit to Monster Mini Golf is nothing like a round of mini golf. Well, okay, it IS mini golf, but check it out.
Lit by black light, strobe lights flashing, techno music pumping at full blast, it’s an afternoon to remember.
Lastly, cocktails at the Buckhorn Saloon & Museum and Texas Ranger Museum, featuring the Carnival of Curiosities and the American Sideshow; the only museum where you can enjoy a cocktail while you stroll the exhibits. The collection of stuffed animal heads here rivals the one at Foster’s Big Horn in Rio Vista, California, and when questioned, the bartender said, “We have every animal here.” Every animal? I challenged him with the Foster’s Big Horn platypus. “Oh, well, no, we don’t have a platypus.”
Drinks on the house.
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Picture, if you will: An RV park that appears on the shimmering horizon, beckoning you to an oasis of organization and security from the wilds of BLM camping. Tanks are in need of dumping and refilling, laundry and larder are in need of replenishment for the miles ahead. Your web search reveals that this encampment is cooperatively owned and this is new to you, so you enter: The Twilight Zone?
Registration at the office is VERY organized, and you scan your immediate surroundings to notice that bulletin boards grace the walls with rules, times, dates, and organizational details found only in the upper strata of RV parks. Your admission hits a minor glitch when you find that the queue is two days long for a spot with full hook-ups, confirmed by a glance out the window at the line-up of huge Class A rigs waiting their turn for entry. The super-friendly and professionally attired office personnel assure you that patience will produce a week-long spot at a beyond-reasonable rate of $50, so you move into a holding area at the high end of the park. Your temporary spot is overlooking a stunning valley framed along the horizon by a jagged mountain chain topped in snow. Not so bad for a holding pattern.
You drive to your temporary spot at a safe and carefully marked 10 mph, and pass many people moving about their duties, all waving and wishing you well. Golf carts pass you, the occupants wave greetings, you observe that each RV plot is immaculately landscaped. This sure is a friendly place. No sooner do you perform your set-up ritual, then a golf cart approaches, its driver, wearing the ubiquitous name tag, leans out to extend a welcome and the declaration that your newly found park is extremely friendly. You chat amicably, aided by knowledge of the driver’s name and title ID’d on his chest badge. You are informed that you should absolutely sign up for The Tour, and you acknowledge politely.
Soon a new neighbor pulls in next to you, interestingly in a similar Airstream, and they reveal that they were invited to take The Tour as well. What is The Tour? And for that matter, what’s up with this place? you wonder. In every outside activity you are greeted warmly by ID-badged occupants, hands wave from passing golf carts, dog walkers nod warmly. Tossing a trash bag into the dumpster you are encouraged to swap travel stories and plans, and when you find the clubhouse-kitchen-auditorium-laundry facility, everyone engages you as family. You are frequently asked if you have taken The Tour.
Two days pass, and you are escorted to your promised hook-up spot to start the week’s discount. Your next door neighbor arrives with his wife to greet you, looking very much like they stepped out of a Norman Rockwell painting to ask…yep, you know, “Have you taken The Tour?” But now more information is divulged to fill in the gaps of wonder. You are informed that after The Tour you should sign up on The List to acquire a spot to join the co-op. It appears that this park is “special,” in that you can sign up and put up a down payment to ensure a spot to bid on a lot when it opens. This eventually leads you up the food chain to gain better spots as they open up…and this opens the door to this overtly friendly retirement community where everyone has a place, every place is carefully defined, everyone has a job with a name tag (as is expected in this co-op), and you can then reach out to warmly offer the fruits of community living, and The Tour, to newcomers into your family enclave.
So what is The Tour, you ask yourself? The answer comes quickly from your recent Airstream neighbors, who are relocated just down the street from you. A large golf cart manned by, of course, a badged tour guide comes to take prospects for a two-hour detailed description of the co-op which your Airstream neighbors describe as being, “One and a half hours too long.” But…they might have drunk the Kool-Aid, for the community seems intriguing to them.
Looking out across the park of approximately 800 lots—all carefully manicured—you see that everything and everyone has its place, and this of course rationally maintains necessary organization and comfort for the occupants.
Walking around the streets you notice that rocks of different sizes have been painted with pictures of animals and flowers, all of the desert vegetation ringing the avenues is carefully pruned and labeled with identification tags, buildings housing workshops are open and maintenance crews are busy making repairs and improvements. A “Founder’s Park,” with gazebo and nearby convenient porta-potty hosts group events and, particularly, each evening’s Happy Hour, to bolster the co-op’s body politic. You ponder the name of this co-op for future reference, SKP Saguaro (say “S-K-P” aloud and you hear “Escapees,” the actual name of the organization).
You speculate on all the possibilities that this co-op has to offer, daily and nightly activities not limited to billiard tables, dancing—with associated lessons—yoga, movie nights, crafts, lunches, special potluck dinners, and much more, all very socially comforting. But large in your mind is the freedom to explore, to discover the magic around each bend in the road, the education in conversation with the diversity of those you meet, and the lessons they amplify to broaden your perspective and wisdom. Yes! You are already on The Tour!
We barreled down the long desert highway, wipers straining against wind and rain gusts, holding tight to the center of the road against the onslaught of semis streaming from Mexico, our 8-foot wide trailer on a 12-foot wide road meeting oncoming truck blasts with unwavering tenacity. Through rain-streaked windows we perceived millions of Saguaros jutting up from the verdant landscape, their protuberant arms poised in an anthropomorphic interpretive stance.
Your mind plays tricks on you in the desert. You begin to see Saguaro (for the neophyte, pronounced: “soo are o”) speaking to you, telling stories; faces appear; dances and cactus orgies beguile and seduce you with flimflam…wait…your head swivels against the gyroscopic need to stay in the lane-lines…the desert speaks to you.
This is no barren habitat, for your mind hears the call to join in symbiotic dance. Saguaro, so abundant here, live in balance with the earth through a lifeline much longer than ours. Single 15- to 20-foot high stems don’t grow their recognizable arms until they reach the age of around 95-100, and those with five arms have developed until at least the age of 200, and stand up to 45-70 feet tall. The Saguaro is not only a master of disguise and trickery but also of water engineering and conservation, saving liquid deep inside its core during rainy periods and expanding and contracting as needed.
White knuckles ease up on the steering wheel and change in color to a flushed blush as the speed limit signs signal our entry into the small town of Ajo, just a short distance from the Mexican border. We suck in the sights at 25 mph: Chevron gas station, colorfully adorned adobe homes brightly painted and many with unique bas-relief art, Mexican Insurance, sheriff’s SUV, closed gas station, Mexican Insurance, closed restaurant, Border Patrol SUV, Mexican Insurance, laundromat, Border Patrol SUV, Mexican insurance, large grocery—probably the only one in town—Border Patrol again; okay, two open restaurants, Shell gas station next to our RV park destination. Something is different about the town despite the high percentage of law and border enforcement, and it will become clear upon the ensuing day’s adventures. The mysteriousness of this town will be revealed in an upcoming blog post.
We travel south toward the heart of the Sonoran Desert, unique in the Americas for its flora and fauna, into Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument to a secret spot recommended by an old woman in the Ajo Chamber of Commerce who, once upon a time, worked in the monument as a tour guide. We followed her instructions: “Go to mile marker X, past a wire fence, turn left, drive three miles on a rough dirt road, and prepare for a two-mile hike along a seasonal wash into a 19th century cattle homestead in the middle of a stunningly endless Saguaro vista.” Bumping along the dirt trackway, a strange break in the natural perspective caught our eye, a twenty-foot-high pole with a 360-degree infrared camera, long-range telecommunication capability, and a sign below beseeching those “in need” to push the button to report “assistance” or observation of those who need Border Patrol ministration and deliverance. We took this to mean identifying illegal immigrants passing through, in need of Border Patrol rescue to find their way across the desolate desert into the “safety” of America’s arms.
Our hike brought us to the ruins of the homestead, and through this and immediately adjacent to it was the obscure, unpublished spot in the middle of the seasonal wash. We discovered metates formed in pre-history by Native Americans who ground the pods of mesquite trees for food with manos, or grinding stones, that left circular impressions over great periods of time.
I found one such grind hole and felt myself transported in time to a moment where the heavy weight of a child burdened my back, sun beating down on my thick work-burdened body, a daydream to be shucked off to return thankfully to the present. These people, however, knew no borders. The land was theirs to be worked for survival and sustenance.
Driving to and from our magic hidden-in-plain-view destination, we passed though the Border Patrol check station on the lonely road between the town of Ajo and Mexico. A warning one mile before arriving prepares drivers for the eventual examination ahead. 65, 55, 45, 35, 25, 15, and 10 mph speed warnings across speed bumps into a narrow “cattle chute” to the waiting officer was enough to scare any would-be illegal alien into admitting guilt before the officer’s interrogation.
It was, we assumed, a racial profile interrogation in stages. Ruth’s blonde hair and blue eyes and my Anglo looks passed the superficial examination we presumed, but those outside these standards would have to face other more stringent tests such as vehicle searches, papers, visas, and other arcane standards. We surmised these Border Patrol officers differentiated those seeking the “Give me your tired, your poor…” Statue of Liberty covenant that drew millions seeking safety and promise in freedom, from those south-of-the-border illegal miscreants, crossing on foot, lacking the price of a ship steerage ticket. How many in our great country can claim with pride our family’s immigration story? What made them legal other than a desire to find freedom and opportunity on our shores?
We drove through the nexus of the dark side of the line between perdition and promise. Ruth rolled down the window to greet the twenty-something Border Patrol officer who asked us, “How it was going?” We responded with a flippant colloquial quip to certify our command of the English language, hence “probable citizenship” and were on our way, through false trial to an unknown uncertain security ahead.
It certainly is funny how a routine Border Patrol stop can make you feel like a suspect, because you are. It is a fine line of insecurity that gets challenged. We all take our “American way” of freedom for granted. I’m reminded of the time I worked as a contractor for the US Embassy refugee program in Thailand during the Cambodian, Laotian, and Vietnamese diaspora. I participated in countless refugee examinations, culminating in the final INS interview that determined “go or no-go” to America. Not only were those interviewed stressed and bewildered, but it felt as if I was on a roller coaster ride out of control. Many of the “grand inquisitors” were kindly and supportive, but a very few exhibited the megalomania, ego, and power-hungry sadism that is raising its head in government these days. One person in particular took great pride in breaking down the interviewed with his appearance in cowboy hat, fancy boots, and cute young refugee women who hung on his arm like remoras on a shark. He would examine families’ ear lobes for differentiation and look for cracks in their stories to exploit. He was greatly feared, and he played on it. Memories of these moments cross my mind every time I am confronted by those who walk the razor’s edge with their given power.
Now with these thoughts resounding in my head, we drove on past the check point and soon, looming ahead, breaking the stunning beauty of our desert panorama, a giant edifice appeared on the horizon like the black monolith in the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. We slowed down to identify what could be placed in such an unlikely spot, like dropping a Manhattan office building in the middle of nowhere. The United States Border Patrol moniker shone back at us in huge imposing letters framed by shiny steel and glass, and a backdrop of a hundred or more official vehicles ready for action.
This was a giant middle finger on the landscape, paid for by the US taxpayer, probably under the auspices of George W. Bush. Every few minutes a Border Patrol vehicle would pass us at great speed—who in power needs to follow the rules of the masses? We looked at each other in wonder. How could this desolate place have such an overwhelming border enforcement presence? Okay, yes, there are the illegals, drug dealers, opportunists, and such seeking to suck the nourishing life force and deprive the opportunities of everyday you and me but—whoa! This was huge. And very soon, as we traveled on to our next destination, we quickly discovered more of these fortress-like structures within close proximity to each other…and they want to build a wall along 2,000 miles of the US/Mexico border..? As Pogo once spoke in the comic strip of yesteryear, “We have found the enemy, and it is us!”
Oh! Did I mention the Sonoran Desert in the title of this blog? This place is truly one of the wonders of North America, supporting flora and fauna unique to this region. If you look up the definition of desert, you will find a completely different meaning than imagined of this place. As I write, the sweet scent of creosote bush (not asphalt) wafts through the air. Bird sounds are everywhere. A brilliant red cardinal, overwintering here, just landed on a nearby cactus, building sustenance for the long flight north in spring. Yesterday’s dog walk put us close in proximity to a pack of yipping coyotes, and that of a day earlier to large family of javelinas (or more properly, peccaries) that look like small pigs.
Colorful butterflies flutter near branches of desert willow, near shaded hummingbirds sipping nectar from cactus flowers. Bees are abundant. The occasional kit fox crosses sandy trackways created by countless animal foraging. Evidence of crawling creatures is found in the tarantula and snake holes under shaded desert marigold, globe mallow, and brittlebush. Life is abundant and lives in the scale and scope of evolution from a much earlier geologic time when this region transformed from sea to savanna, to ice cap, to forest, and eventual desert. The timeline is unimaginable to us, who view life in the perspective of around 100 years. North America formed between 1.5 and 1 billion years ago from a planet that is around six billion, so let’s do the math, eh? That’s 15 million lifetimes. If we could speed up time like that simulated in the movie The Time Machine, change would boggle our minds, as matter materialized and dematerialized in a vertigo of imagination. Nothing is as it was, yet all share the same common materials recycled again and again, infinitely.
We had the opportunity to touch a meteorite displayed at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum just outside of Tucson, predating the formation of our sun and solar system, long before the earth was just a mass of glowing gases not yet congealed. It was composed of known elements, of course. I started to ask so many questions. Where did the water that sustains life come from on a planet originally composed of fiery gasses? And on and on. More about one of the most amazing museums I have ever visited in a later blog. I am asking a new question now: Will there ever come a time when borders and politics no longer separate people and opportunities from each other? Will we ever come to recognize that we all come from the same “stuff?” That when we view our earth from space, all matter is equally bound together in symbiotic embrace: viewed from the stars, are we not all conjoined elements?
Needless to say, we are in love with this place, rich in diversity and living wonder. Life is both abundant and endangered, some species are only to be found here in remote and protected areas. As Ruth quoted in an earlier blog post from Marshal South: “The Desert! Either you will love it, or you will hate it. If you hate it, you will fly from it, and never wish to see its face again. If you love it, it will hold you and draw you as will no other land on earth.”
For more photos, check out our Instagram posts: @LyfsArt and @BenMacri52
Driving into Quartzsite, one is at first struck with the specter of a vast hive of humanity’s industry: the ebb and flow of foraging, building, prospecting, constructing, provisioning, transitioning, connecting with new and old friends, and mostly, as far as the eye can see, the vagabonds’ conveyance: RVs. I surmise that a quarter of America’s recreational vehicles are represented here, and maybe a third of Canada’s, tens of thousands it seems, as far as the eye can see in any direction. Quartzsite isn’t really a town per se but rather a compression of interactive, symbiotic, and associative interests, a living entity that morphs in season and time to match the moment. Being one of the hottest places in America with temperatures often exceeding 120 degrees Fahrenheit in the summer, winter is its sweet spot.
It has been said that this seasonal gathering is the Burning Man event for the retired crowd and everywhere you go, geezers are abundant, mixed in with the grizzled, bearded, tattooed, prospector, Harley-Davidson-driving, renegade wannabees. There are also a plethora of Toy Hauler RVs carrying innumerable ATVs, which are also seen careening along desert tracks and old mining roads in shrouds of dust. It is not unusual to be passed on the highway by huge million-dollar 40-foot Class A RVs towing 20-foot cargo boxes filled with ATVs, garage and sun shelter construction supplies and equipment, and all the goodies needed to make the unsustainable desert a suburban playground.
Our pre-arrival planning instigated a YouTube search on the region and “event.” As many fairy tales originate, “Once upon a time, many years ago,” prospectors discovered the mountains contained loads of quartz, and where there is quartz, there is…GOLD! As is usually the case, a few got rich, then mines dried up, but their skeletons survive, dotting the hillsides. The real gold is found by the over 1.5 million tourists and those “geezers” I mentioned earlier under the multi-acre big tops and multiple Costco-sized rows, a true bizarre bazaar
of gem shows; food stalls; massage chair personal care; stuffed buffalo heads and every imaginable type of deer and animal skulls;
weapons and concealed-carry license classes; Pakistani/Indian clothing; incense and consumables; row after row of Chinese knockoff tools and equipment of every type and size; complete RV resupply equipment and LED adornments; walls of boxed RV satellite systems; bins of expired grocery seconds and castoffs;
saddles and leather work; ATV rentals; entire hardware stores; salt feng shui lights; knives made from railroad tracks;
food stalls with the ubiquitous captivating and sensuous smoke of BBQ and ribs; and ice cream made from a chugging single-piston engine contraption with pulley and belt driven cream stirrers—wafting essences of eclectic foreign and domestic foods. At the heart of all these kicks and chaos sits Beer Belly’s Bar,
containing an entertaining mixture of Star Wars-like characters amidst gone-to-pasture hippies and wannabe pirates…all geezers, Ruth and I noted. It was kind of like Burning Man Center Camp minus the scantily clad nubile nymphs and satyrs. A live band was playing “oldies” and I witnessed numbers of weathered and creased faces mouthing the words of the current song, “…when I get older, losing my hair, many years from now…” Oh my! We’ve arrived! A well worn, yet fashionably dressed, cowgirl corralled two French bulldogs under her table as she sipped her brew. They fought each other playfully, rolling in the sand and rocks capturing the attention away from the musicians and one dancing couple, the man leaning on his cane swaying counterpoint to the woman’s short strides, both in life-force-conservation mode.
In the YouTube videos mentioned earlier, I discovered some cool family films, scanned Kodachrome slides, and pictures captured on video clips recovered from the 50s and 60s showing long and low family V-8 station wagons pulling RVs and, particularly, Airstream trailers.
Time and technology has certainly changed tow vehicle capabilities with anti-lock braking, computer engine efficiency controls, GPS guidance systems, well-designed hitches, and of course, all the creature comforts. We still see, occasionally, signs from an earlier area posted before long uphill grades warning drivers to “Turn off air conditioning to avoid overheating.” In the next several years, manufacturers will be producing at least initial RV -self-drive-and-park functions. Just wait for the following wave…virtual travel in the comfort of your own Barcalounger, it’s already been conceptualized in the movie Total Recall.
Toward the end of our stay in Quartzsite, I climbed up to the top of Dome Rock, a small mountain that looks out over the teaming masses of RVs. Standing at the pinnacle, an American flag planted at its apex, there lay around me, in 360 degree splendor, the nexus of over 70 years of mass migration. [Click on the image below to enlarge it, and then you can scroll for a Panavision view. Extra points for finding our rig.]:
The spirits of those original peripatetic desert pioneers who sought warmth and respite from the winters and heard the voice of the Muse of Wanderlust, have perpetuated a tribal ritual that has now pulled Ruth and me into its embrace.
There are so many stories to be discovered here in this mobile city of reinvention. I will leave these to your inquisitive minds, dear readers, such as the death in Quartzsite of Danny Rapp of the famous musical group, Danny and the Juniors, who wrote the song “At the Hop,” which was immortalized on Dick Clark’s American Band Stand, and in the movie American Graffiti.
Two more stories awaiting revelation are the accounts of the “naked man” bookstore and the Hi Jolly tomb…where did those camels go?!
The Quartzsite Specter now lurks behind you. Is it beckoning? Join us.
A few of you have commented that you haven’t heard from us in a while. We were in San Diego, celebrating my parents’ 70th wedding anniversary, and got caught up in all the partying—well, as much partying as you do when the guests of honor are in their 90s! More details to come, but in a nutshell:
Oh, all the great food to be found in San Diego! Mexican, Greek (oddly lacking in the Bay Area), Ototo Sushi (the Godzilla ribs are excellent), the best fish & chips outside of that little place in Exeter in England, and, of course, my favorite pub (erm, in America, that is), The Shakespeare.
Here’s a small view of some of the fabulous desserts we had to choose from at Extraordinary Desserts in San Diego:
While in Anza Borrego the week before, we re-met some marvelous folks we’d briefly met years ago, Nancy and Brian, and spent an evening dining, drinking, and playing while getting better acquainted. Brian taught me to breathe fire. Here’s a short video, sorry it won’t embed (starting to hate WordPress), but it’s safe to download and it’s not a big file. Umm…you might want to turn your sound down:
How could I not love them? Then, while in San Diego, we met up with them again for an afternoon sail in San Diego Harbor, on Brian’s brother, Les’s, sailboat. It was a beautiful, almost-80-degree sunny day, such a lovely respite from the cold north.
We then spent nearly a week in Desert Hot Springs visiting our fab friends, Dan & Debra, and using the hot springs at the resort where they stayed. We had our own pool and spa at our resort, but theirs was lithium, so natch, we went there. Fun day trips, delicious meals, and relaxing soaks were the order of the days we were there.
Gyp was happy with the dog park at our resort, nearly an acre, all grass, plenty of room to run and play. No dinosaurs in the dog park, though.
Dan made this from the wood of our old cherry tree:
and Debra made this, by sacrificing one of Dan’s t-shirts:
as Airstream-warming gifts. Such generous friends!
Now, we’re in beautiful Quartzsite, Arizona, known as the “Burning Man for old people,” and well, it’s kinda like that in terms of camping, but not in so many other ways. For $40, we are now the possessors of a Long Term Vehicle Area pass, good for 14 days in any BLM LTVA area. There’s one near Yuma where we’re heading next, so for less than three bucks a day, we will have some lovely desert camping.
“The desert! Either you will love it or you will hate it. If you hate it you will fly from it and never wish to see its face again. If you love it, it will hold you and draw you as will no other land on earth.” – Marshal South
So now you’re all up to date on our travels. Sorry there aren’t more details, but I worked more than usual over the holidays (filling in for a holidaying coworker), and consequently couldn’t wait to get away from my laptop when the work day was over. I hope the photos make up for it.
Stay tuned for Joshua Tree, Anza Borrego (and the haunting–and haunted?–hotel), and ??
Don’t be concerned. No story of danger awaits you, dear reader! Just a play on words…
Ten glorious days boondocking—or sometimes known as dry camping—here has gifted us with extreme solitude amidst the sharp borders of the hot sun in cold air and nightly star-studded canopies. The waxing and waning of the moon morphs brilliantly lit rocky pathways of nightly strolls into dark stumblings of muscle memory, avoiding hidden cactus homesteads. The weather has quickly changed here and elsewhere across the southwest from a residual autumn warmth to a transitional night rain and cold unsettling winds that buffet our trailer as the failing light of the year reaches its nadir. We soon find ourselves the uninvited guests to the doppelganger of the infamous French Le Mistral, winds that blow intensely for days and weeks, and are often said to drive animals mad and people to suffer from headaches and restlessness. Our trailer rocks all night as if on an earthquake shaking table…shake, shake, shake-shake-shake, and vibrate. My thoughts turn, after a quick self-reassurance that we won’t tip over, to the works of Hollywood foley artists who recreate the necessary sounds for movie soundtracks. Lying awake now at 3am, I see in my mind’s eye several men high up on 10-foot ladders holding a large sheet of 8×8 aluminum, and shaking it to create the sound of wind blasts. If only…a quick jump out of the warmth of our multi-weight comforter, and a glance out the window, reveals cactus fronds frantically chasing angry eddies in the chaotic tempest.
Our “silver submarine” has three tanks to sustain our lifestyle and all must be managed in balance. Fresh water: 39 gallons; grey water (that is, wash water from sinks and shower): 37 gallons; and black water (toilet): 39 gallons. The challenge resides in how much of each can be balanced with no hook-ups. We are seven miles from the ranger station and the park’s only dump station and fresh water supply. It’s not too far to navigate just to replenish our water by truck, with four five-gallon military grade water cans, but too much hassle to hook up and pull our 28-foot trailer up and back through a slight mountain pass. Technically the grey tank can be hose-dumped into the terrain here, as it contains only bio-degradable materials. Instead, we wash our dishes in a handled dishpan in the sink allowing us to walk it outside to surprise the succulents. This slows down the rapid filling of the grey tank to showers, which should make those of you permanent foundation dwellers smile in satisfaction and comfort.
Boondocking showers are taken military style: wet down, turn off water, soap up, and rinse off, while standing in a restaurant bus tub that we later empty. Most folks never ponder the amount of water wasted each day in normal household use. The average person uses approximately 80-100 gallons of water per day! Flushing the toilet is number one in the consumption scale, followed by showers. These two are our challenges. Our total fresh water availability for two is ant-sipping in comparison, yet we don’t live like street gypsies. Living in an energy efficient home for so many years has taught us some valuable lessons in conservation. If there ever was a time when I have considered cutting my hair (don’t worry, I’m not really), it is during these speed showers. 60% of our water supply of 39 gallons, a little over 24 gallons, lasts us about 3-4 days.
Now let’s get to the compelling and interesting part you all have been waiting for: toilet administration…this could be a new government agency? I have, in chivalry, given up my usage of our porcelain throne to Ruth completely, for the more primitive but powerfully pleasant, environmental mise en scene of ambling off into the desert to dig a “cat hole.” There is nothing more relaxing than having the world in your prospect as you squat over your creative hole. At this level of view, the desert comes to life. Ants make a living, birds dance about the bushes, stones of various sizes and colors emerge to capture your attention, the air carries from the distant mountains a wonderful scent of the primordial earth, tiny lichen and succulents color the limitless gravel tailings of millions of years of geological change. But, there is work to be done yet in this moment in time to satisfy my end (there is a pun here, yes). The winds still to a whisper, then great gusts arise from 30 to 50 mph. I am learning the skill that bomber pilots achieved to strike their targets with accuracy involving gravity and air drag. Things can get a little complicated as I am not a moving plane. It is all about timing with the wind gusts and moving placement to compensate for the aforementioned vectors, to hit the target. It does take practice, which luckily I have in spades…somewhat a play on words here, sorry! Finally, after the hole is filled and returned to earthly harmony, I find hidden artistic patterns emerge as outlines of previous holes could be blended into an earthly moire finish, establishing an aesthetic of completion.
So you see, boondocking challenges can be transformed into artistic accomplishments and enjoyable learning experiences to break free from daily monotony…whatever that is?…
Ruth here, finally chiming in, because this place is just too magical not to share. Tell no one.
We’ve spent the past three nights at Emma Wood State Beach, just outside Ventura, CA. That doesn’t sound exactly exciting, right? Well, while exciting may not be the right word, this place is amazing. The campsites, while pretty close together, are right on the beach – as you can see, I’m writing this within easy sound of the crashing waves. The Amtrak trains go by frequently, and those of you who know us, know that we believe the sound of a train is one of the most magical sounds there is. Daybreak walks with Gyp are just the best.
We spent yesterday in old downtown Ventura, which is a cool collection of renovated old buildings, diners, and brewpubs. Here are a few pix of fun signs I found around town, including my favorite, the Elvis shrine on a local taqueria.
Here’s one of the many breweries we visited, TopaTopa, which had lagers and good IPAs, but alas, no real malty brown ale for me.
Next time, perhaps I’ll tell you about the awesome Cuban sandwich I discovered; and where to get the best hard cider on the planet outside of England.