Chaco

Sun dagger

 

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

So where’s the gem in this story?

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

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

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

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

Dinosaur imprint

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

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

Corn grinding metate

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Technological context

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Portland Spring: Consciousness Stream

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!

Arizona Cataclysm!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Scary Roads We Love to Hate

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

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

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

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

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

7 Minute high speed drive from Ouray to Silverton Colorado

Moki Dugway, Rte. 261 Utah

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

Whitney Portal Road

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

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

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

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

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

Saline hot springs oasis

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

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

Yes, this is nearly a vertical canyon wall

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

Drone view of Burr Trail switchbacks

Pine Creek Canyon Road (Route 2)

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

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

Gates Pass to Tucson
Below Gates Pass near Saguaro State Park

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

Gunfight in Old Tuscon mission

Doherty Rim, Oregon Hwy. 140

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

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

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

Wheeler Peak, Great Basin, Nevada

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

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

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

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

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

Bodie & Bodie Masonic Roads

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

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

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

California SR 99 & Highway 108: Sonora Pass

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

20-car crash on Highway 99

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

RV pinned on a sharp curve

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

Travertine Hot Springs

 

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

 

Arizona Route 66

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

Meteor City Trading Post
Twin Arrows Cafe and Trading Post

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

Abandoned Twin Arrows interior

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

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

 

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

How to Design a Campground Bathroom

by Ruth

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

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

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

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

Campground Characters

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Circ on front left

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

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

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

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

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

Scene Along the Road 4: Winds and Tracks of Time

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Human graffito inscription above deer paw print presentation

 

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

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

“Say what?!”

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

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

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

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

Collumbola, aka Springtail

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

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

 

Quadrillion pennies stacked up behind recognizable edifices

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two for 2; and Exploring 1.61803

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

Music, magic, and mathmagic

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

Anza Borrego

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

Monetization

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

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

Meeting with some of the oldest living things on earth

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

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

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

Jurupa Oak, Riverside, California

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

Pando- Quaking Aspens in Fishlake, Utah

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beginning of waterfall at Longhouse

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

 

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

Warning from the Collared Lizard of Hovenweep

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

19th Anniversary Celebration at the crash site cairn.

Traveling through bendable time on steel rails

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Boxes

by Ruth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Boondockin’ the Old Spanish Trail

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bonus treats!

“Where ya from?…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Real Time Savannah Adventures: Part 2

 

 

 

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

Do Not Service marker

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

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

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

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

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

Talmadge Bridge as seen from downtown Savannah

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

Downtown Bluffton, South Carolina

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Disney World: not for the weak-hearted

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

E ticket from 1977

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

Scene Along the Road: 1

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

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

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

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Caliginous Cacophony

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

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

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

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

Fireflies illumine the moonlit night

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

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

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

Bioluminescence

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

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

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No Truck: No Texas, and Going Postal in America

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

So what’s the lesson here?

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

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

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

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

Post Office Angel

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Galveston Island and the Bryan Museum

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

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

Bryan Museum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NOLA: It’s about the food

by Ruth

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

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

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

Clover Grill burger

 

Clover Grill

 

 

 

 

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

The Quarter during…nothing
Quiet time in the Quarter

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

Chicken & waffles, debris & eggs

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

I want that hat!

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

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

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

Calas to die for

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

Breakfast of Champi… um, me

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

 

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

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

Does this lead to the Gates of Hell?

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

Does Satan carry a cellphone?

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

 

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

Barack Obama ready to dig in

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

“Oh, no, you don’t!”

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

Nothin’ says Amurica like the rodeo!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now these are names to reckon with!

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

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

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

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

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

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

Arizona Reprised: Ajo (Part 2)

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

Early Phelps-Dodge open pit mine in Ajo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Slag being dumped on slag mountain top

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

Ajo, Historical Society and St Catherine Indian Mission

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

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

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

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

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

Quartzsite, Arizona

Our S.E. campsite quadrant
Quartzsite view by air

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

Quartzsite BAZAAR
Quartzsite big tent sales aisle

 

 

 

 

 

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

Quartzsite buffalo heads

 

Skulls for sale

 

 

 

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

Grocery overstock sales

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

Railroad track knives and cutlery

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

Beer Belly Outdoor Bar

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

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

Airstream group camp circa 50s

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

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

360 degree panorama at Dome Rock

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

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

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

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

Joshua Tree evacuation

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Where Ya From?”

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

 

 

Dog noses make “scents,” and you make the road by walking it

Part 1: Our Border Collie, Gyp, takes out her herding frustration with us by bringing us sticks to throw, and her impulsiveness led me to look up the definition and explanation of OCD in the dictionary. What a surprise to find her picture in the heading, poster child of the affliction! Watching her in action is a study of wonder. I throw the stick, and as she’s getting quite a bit older, fifty percent of the time she misses seeing where it lands—and this is where it gets interesting. Putting her nose to the ground, she follows a hidden scent trail cast off by the stick as it passes over the earth, and/or is able to track the stick in a maze of perambulations, closer and closer in a fine scent trail of discovery. There are times, though, that she misses her prize and in a stretch of my imagination, she thinks, “Heck, I’ll just find another stick and bring it to him. A stick is a stick as long as we can continue this endless mind-numbing game.” Believe me when I say this, 99 percent of the time I have to be the one to stop this neurosis or it could go on for hours. One time we were invited to a friend’s house for a party that lasted long into the night, and our deranged dog wore through dozens of rounds of stick- and ball-throwers through the entirety of the event. If only Border Collies could be project managers, things would get done, yes?!

This was taken from the website Dogster: Psychologist and prolific dog book author Stanley Coren gave an example of what that huge sniffer sensitivity looks like. Let’s say you have a gram of a component of human sweat known as butyric acid. Surprisingly, humans are quite good at smelling this. If you let it evaporate in the space of a 10-story building, many of us would still be able to detect a faint scent upon entering the building. Not bad, for a human nose. But consider this: If you put the 135-square-mile city of Philadelphia under a 300-foot-high enclosure, evaporated the gram of butyric acid and let a dog in, the average dog would still be able to detect the odor.

Border Collie nose in action
Border Collie nose in action

Now getting back to that alternative stick. If I throw it, Gyp will often then track to the first stick and I can see her pause in recognition but then move on as she recognized the scent pattern fade as an earlier throw. She then moves on to find the first and either bring it or—just to add some complication—go back to the first stick and pick it up as well, to drop at my feet. At one point I started to teach her in stages: after she brought me one stick, I would say, “ONE.” If she dropped two sticks, “TWO,” and so on, to imprint numbers with sticks. This didn’t go well with me, as I lacked patience and follow through, thinking that she was only hearing: “La-la-la-stick,” or “Not close enough,” meaning, when she could hear, that the stick was just too darn far away. She would oblige me in her Border Collie stubbornness by picking up the stick and moving it a half-inch closer. To this day, our stubborn dog will not give us any quarter, always trying to get the jump on us.

As we have all seen, dogs communicate by sniffing each other’s butts and nether parts. Be a dog for a moment if you can, and imagine: what they are sensing?! Gender, food eaten, frequency of walks, environment of origin, pee scent to counter with their own and possibly recognize in future walks. They can sense fear, anxiety, and aggressiveness to avoid or attack, including hormone changes that define the encountered dog’s wellbeing or lack of, as well as their treatment; and what else?

We often have to put up with a lot in our dogs but imagine what they must tolerate in us? How can they endure the onslaught of scents we subject them to, so far above our range of recognition?

 

Part 2: If you’re the person who rolls your eyes when you read some of my philosophical ramblings, you can skip this next deeply insightful, and potentially life-changing section.

When I was teaching at City College of San Francisco, I would often tell my students that they were not as helpless as they imagined, that in fact they had much more control of their lives than they thought. Actually, most often they were creating results absentmindedly that ran counter to their intentions, kind of like getting on a horse and letting it go wherever it wanted, rather than taking the reins and being in control.

Let’s say, hypothetically, you need a pair of shoes, a car, or whatever is in your mind’s eye. You research your needs, check pricing, determine availability, etc. Then you find yourself noticing people wearing shoes, probably your desired choice, or for some reason that car that was looking pretty fine is now on the street wherever you look. Why is this? Ruth and I will discuss a subject at length, or research a theme and it just keeps popping up in the strangest places in seemingly unrelated situations. Is there a hand in the sky or invisible aliens playing cosmic games with our desires and sensibilities, or can it be something closer to our noses and we are the unconscious magicians playing with forces we know not what?

When I would teach electrical theory I would often take students of a trip through the universe via the great film created by the team Charles and Ray Eames in 1977 titled, Powers of Ten and the Relative Size of Things in the Universe. This nine-minute short takes place in the park on the lakefront in Chicago and we see from one meter away a couple sleeping in the sun. The landscape steadily moves out in powers of ten in larger increments until it reaches the farthest know region of space that is currently known. Then at a rate of 10 to the 10th meters per second, the footage returns back to the same view in the park from one meter away and reverses into the skin of the man in negative powers of ten through the blood vessels, DNA, into the vast inner space of a single carbon atom again to the limits of our understanding of matter at this level.

As it turns out, in the microcosm, the laws of physics don’t follow the same rules that apply in the larger universe. Quantum physicists surmise through scientific analysis, that the observer can alter the observed and that matter is both present and not present in a “magical” quantum state or matrix. With this awareness of the universe as an infinite matrix we can see a bit more clearly that all matter is either bonding or disassociating in a constant state of flux. What seems solid is not. At an atomic level, the distance between the electrons and nucleus in a typical hydrogen atom, one of the most common elements in the universe, is metaphorically described thus: If we build a scale model of an atom with the nucleus one foot in diameter, the electron would be the equivalent of a little more than ten miles away! Now, do you believe your senses if there is no such thing as “solid?” Don’t even go there with me and ask, “What is real?”

My point is that we are part of a limitless micro/macrocosmic matrix and we do have something to do with its operation on some level. There are scientists that postulate that we live in multiverses coexisting simultaneously in space, time, matter, and energy, and the laws that govern them may be very different from our existence in this time and space. If we can set reciprocal actions and creations in motion by mere thoughts, what is possible? Am I naïve to postulate that we can “make the road by walking it?” Are we helpless players in this world on a stage of hopelessness? I think not.

Back on the road: musings in metaphysics of the wandering kind

Three summer months traversing the western US, three months prepping our house for friendly renters/caretakers, and now we are off again on a journey with no concrete destination or time constraints.

We’ve taken one week in Rio Vista, close to our Airstream storage facility in Fairfield, California, to stage and prep our journey.

Our campsite is on the mouth of a maze of sloughs and canals on the edge of the Sacramento Delta. It is strange, looking out from the kitchen window seats and watching motorboats cruise out of the local docks below us, cows trolling the farm land directly behind, and an incongruous  ocean vessel seemingly slowly skimming the landscape in a hidden deep water canal in the background.

What would be the best of camping, for this week is tempered by having to pay a pretty exorbitant site fee for the privilege of having no electricity, sewer, or water hookups, as the local water supply has been deemed unfit, so boondocking we go. Well… there are flush toilets (those that aren’t locked for the season), and the wildlife is awesome: owls, eagles, egrets, ground squirrels, feral cats, and the cacophony of cows remains constant. We meet fellow Airstream travelers, Scott and Cornelia, to share stories around the campfire. The serendipitous synchronicity of these types of meetings is magical, even more so fueled by fine wine.

Did I mention owls? I’ve always had a fascination for these silent swooping night scavengers with haunting hypnotic calls. You know you’re a geek when: you listen to hours of Roger Tory Peterson’s bird calls on CDs, the announcer listing the name of each bird and a recording of the call is played…twice. Having said this, when I tell you that we have heard the screech owl exclusively, there will be no doubt!

 

The most exciting thing besides recognizing the call of this mostly invisible predator is discovering owl pellets! They are usually found directly below roosting branches in hangout trees (kind of like beer cans in 7-11 parking lots) and contain the undigested remains of the owl’s meals. Careful inspection may reward you with what looks like coyote scat covered in hair and often with a pointy end…don’t make the mistake of probing that one, unless you are a  geek of the third order! I picked up three (owl pellets) adjacent to our trailer and cut them open to discover small mouse bones and teeth buried deep within an “Easter egg” of fur.

 

 

 

owl-pellets-disected

 

One pellet contained the leg bone of a small crab, which answers the question: Are owls into “surf and turf?”

 

Why wandering, travel?

Re-framing, risking, imagining, cycling, exploring, provoking, questing, migrating, proportioning, stimulating, re-creating…

The obvious: travel takes us outside our norms and patterns of everyday life. The world around us bombards our senses with countless electro-chemical stimuli which we in turn order and form into patterns of recognition and consciousness. Perhaps one example of this would be the study of Pointillism, a technique of painting in which distinct dots are applied in patterns to form an image. Georges Seurat was one of the originators of this style, and I remember visiting the Art Institute of Chicago and standing too close to the painting, A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.

A Sunday on La Grande Jatte - 1884

 

Thousands of colored dots overwhelmed my senses, but upon stepping back everything blended into a focused and pleasant image.

 

Close up image
Close up image of Seurat’s painting

 

 

Travel changes our perspectives and reframes our comprehension of the usual, besides pulling us away into the bigger picture. There is ever-present danger in this action though, as it challenges our opinions and world view. A study of humanity is very much a study of migration and exploration that, we believe, will take us into the stars.

Our human tribe does have several branches, however. Nomads are infected with the push of wanderlust provoking the desire to see what is around the next bend, whereas the pastorals find comfort and safety in the castle of hearth and home.

We like to think we have the best genes of both tribes in our Airstream. A moveable base camp with creature comforts and wheels to permit movement on terra firma, with a secondary tow vehicle permitting deeper flexibility of exploration.

Our summer wanderings taught us that there is potential agony and ecstasy in every moment, meetings with remarkable people and places, challenges to be met, and lessons to be learned. We’ve spread our wings and now travel south for warmth for winter and the road ahead.

Washing the traces of the world away…and away

 

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

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

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

Blue Beacon Truck Wash

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

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

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

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

Backtracking in time, through waypoints

Leaving Angel Creek National Forest Campground, which was high above Wells, Nevada at 8500 feet, we drove south along Highway 93, a long lonely highway much like Highway 50. Up a rise, down a valley, two lanes, cruise control pegged at 60, speed limit 70, and semis and impatient drivers passing by just feet away from our 50-foot rig; keeping alert was paramount. To keep sharp and combat the mind-numbing recurring horizontal planes, we turned on Sirius XM and one of the stations was playing all road travel songs to celebrate the anniversary of the first interstate highway in 1953. You may remember that President Eisenhower mandated that such highways be constructed for the national defense, making it possible to travel coast to coast without a stoplight.

We pulled into a rest area with information boards hallmarking the passage of the Pony Express along this very route, with one very telling recruitment advertisement for those early daring riders: “Wanted! Young, skinny, wiry fellows not over 18. Must be expert riders, willing to risk death daily. Orphans preferred.”

During the Pony Express’s 19 months of operation it grossed $90,000 — and lost $200,000. News of the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter which began the Civil War was carried by Pony Express riders with pride to serve their country. The inception of the telegraph supplanted the need for a speedy mail news service.

The famous William Cody, aka Buffalo Bill, rode the Pony Express for a time and made the longest ride of 322 miles over one of the most dangerous sections of the route, taking 21 hours and 41 minutes, and using 21 horses to complete his journey.

There was one more small concrete post close by a larger-than-life metal sculpture of a Pony Express rider. It had the name, Lincoln Highway, imprinted on it. This was an “Aha!” moment.

The Lincoln Highway never was an interstate in the mid-twentieth century definition, but it was the very first transcontinental highway inaugurated in 1913. The highway was 3,389 miles in length but in the late 20s was broken up into numbered segments as America organized its highways. Travel on this early highway was no easy feat, often taking a month or more and drawing on strong technical and navigational savvy. Lodging and fuel were sparse, initiating the advent of auto camps and a growing support infrastructure for the new, ever-wandering populace. Designers of the Lincoln Highway knew that the cost to construct such a project was monumental so they went from town to town and pitched the “seedling mile” concept. Local chambers of commerce and the well-to-do community saw an advantage to having a major highway serve their town that had only dirt roads, so the highway builders built a smooth, mile-long concrete ribbon close to their homes along the highway route. At this point, when their cars climbed up out of the muddy gumbo or winter frozen tracks, and the engine picked up speed, the car came alive and left horse-drawn power behind forever.

The interstates took over the role of bi-coastal connectors and the closest we have to the grand old Lincoln is Interstate 80 from New York to San Francisco.

These past couple of weeks, writing has been on hiatus due to constant moving, set up, break down, sightseeing, serious winery partying, sailing… more adventures and stories on the way!

Nomads, Hobos, and Bohos

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Open Door and Confessional Whore

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh yeah…and I picked up our ice…