In Kingman, Arizona, on the western edge of the Route 66 corridor in western Arizona, it’s not all about the confluence of historic road kitsch, railroad stops, native Americana, proximity to grand dams, Vegas glitz and glitter, Grand Canyon breathtaking geologic history, associated Hualapai First Nations’ Sky Walk, river rapids, helicopter rides, and various and sundry tawdry tourist distractions. No: it can be a simple quest for dinner. The native resident population of Kingman is around 28,000, and there are approximately 79 eating establishments in the Kingman metropolitan area; if everyone arranged a yearly eat-out day, there would be . . . well, you do the math of populace per restaurant. As wandering mendicants, we aspired to quality over quantity.
But this Scene Along the Road story takes us to our heavily researched Italian restaurant of quality, Mattina’s Ristorante Italiano, described online, and by our informative waitress, as the only fine dining restaurant in town, and—to distinguish itself from the culinary crowded cantinas, cafes, coffee shops, and chophouses—it was located off the beaten path of hungry roving tourist eyes and rumbling ruminant intestinal tracts. Once upon a time, in an earlier, more genteel era, one might be expected to enter this establishment in semi-formal attire, in contrast to today’s banal baseball cap-wearing, baggy shorts, tank tops, and sandals crowd. (We wore none of the above.)
But . . . let’s drill down even deeper into this scenario. We witnessed the front door opening and a captivating couple entered the room as in an E.F. Hutton commercial, “When E.F. Hutton talks, everyone listens.” A vacuum of attention passed through the room drawing all eyes to this couple, in their early- to- mid-30s, but the vortex of attention was to the Woman in Black. If you look up an example of the “little black dress” on the web, you would see the image of that femme fatale magnetically attached to her partner.
All eyes were on the Dress that rode her like cling wrap on a damp bowl. Lace rimmed the edges of precipitous danger zones, and the hemline rode in the upper quadrant of legs that stretched from black high heels to a voluptuous hip:waist ratio. I looked at Ruth, she at me, and we sucked in our breath to capture it before it escaped like air from a blown-up balloon into the scene before us. The Woman in Black had eyes and hands completely focused on her man: I’m not even sure she realized she was in a restaurant. In the prospect before me, my vision blurred for a moment and I saw the mirage of a spider spinning a web around its prey. This was going to be an informative and entertaining evening.
The couple were seated at a table adjacent to us, and at first the Woman in Black sat across from her paramour. She quickly decided that the distance between them could not provide her with the proximity necessary to press her case, and moved next to her seemingly oblivious beau, who yammered on about stocks and shares (or was it bytes and RAM?). Was he playing it cool, holding tight to the appearance of aloofness? The constant drone of the man’s voice engaged her in a one-way conversation, and we stole furtive glances out the windows past them to witness her stroking his neck and arms, tousling his hair and whispering into his ear. He appeared to take no notice of the spell being cast by her cat purrs. I wondered if he was savvy to her guile, and at least saw the game being played with clear eyes. Were we witnessing the power and pinnacle of her life’s flowery bloom, working to capture her mate?
I must say parenthetically, that after a few icy cocktails, a delicious Silver Oak cabernet was set before us, the aroma of Napa Valley California terroir captivating our senses. This set the stage for a shared crisp caesar salad, titled “The Big Boss,” with soft palatable anchovies and the pièce de résistance entrees of spinach ravioli in tomato vodka cream sauce for Ruth (moniker: “Uncle Paulie’s Ravioli Espinachi”). Rib eye steak was my choice, “The Capone,” cooked excellently medium rare with a crisp charred crust to offset the soft juicy inner core oozing with fatty umami flavor. Complementing this awesome cut of beef, angel hair pasta in Sicilian sauce provided a tangy Mediterranean counterpoint to, and lightening of, the fare. The admixture of the couple drama faded in contrast to the sensual demands of the banquet before us.
While our Woman in Black pushed the limits of public propriety, I tempered my embarrassment with subtle sips of winemaker Dan Baron’s finest 2013 vintage, tasting the essences of sandalwood, leather, blackberry liquor, sage and a soft tannin finish that resonated in the palate like wind rippling across a still lake. But I digress.
It appeared as though our couple would be getting their “dessert eats on” post-prandial, away from the public eye. Our spider Woman in Black had played her hand to the max to capture her prey, we assumed, but all that is best left for speculation.
We celebrated their equally captivating and relieving departure by examining the dessert menu, and after consulting with the Maître d’, who informed us that Chef Yashica baked her own creations, he recommended—and brought us—the unique carrot/cheesecake topped with whipped cream, and a generous slice of rich, tangy key lime pie. We stimulated our senses back to attention after our sumptuous meal with a couple of cups of well-brewed “joe.” I called for cream and sugar but after a quick taste of this bare-naked perfect brew, let this cup cap a delightful dinner experience.
This scene along the road was dinner theater at its finest.
Yep, freewheeling on the road is an antidote to constipation of the spirit. What strange synchronicity of events conjures a “good” or “bad” day? Do events in time create attractiveness like magnetic black holes?
We wind through dark, narrow, rain-drenched canyons, encountering no traffic crazy enough to be on these serpentine roads in this ominous weather. Passing entrance and exit markers of the Shoshone and Paiute tribes, we watch the road ahead for rock falls, avoid road collapse on our passenger side—river rapids reaching the road edge beckon our wheels to exchange mediums of contact. Squiggly arrow warning signs inform us of 10 miles of sharp curves ahead to our destination, Wild Horse Canyon, behind the dammed reservoir of the same name. Through the rainy mist, our objective emerges—barred by a closure sign and rusted gate. Reluctantly, we press on another 80 miles to the bustling metropolis of Elko, Nevada. Ruth engages research mode to find accommodation at a regional state park, and we enter a zone of ominous probability.
Backing our rig into the campsite, I feel rolling resistance, stop, and see that a low-lying, 12×12 wooden barrier has traveled between the turned front wheels and the under-frame of the truck. To add insult to injury, the ground beneath the wheels is soft enough to drop the carriage of the truck down to sit on top of the impaling post. Unable to go backward or forward, I choose the path of least resistance, which results in the barrier ripping out the plastic bumper trim with a heart-rending crunch. Hours of insurance and repair shop bureaucracy ensued. Not having the “luxury” of living rooted, time of completion—and just getting information!—was critical.
We settled into an evening of pensiveness, watching the sunset illuminate the edges of the cloudy western horizon. Retiring to the Airstream, I pulled the door to close us into the sheltering embrace of our silver home, and felt the metal door handle drop through my hand onto the floor. We were locked in! Our inner screen door (and the fact that my toolbox is in the truck) prevented me taking apart the inner door lock assembly, leaving two exits available to us: ripping out the bedroom emergency window screen—better reserved for a fire exit—or engaging help from outside. The solution was simple: just walk up to our door and open it, but the great beyond was as quiet as a grave yard. **It happens!
We called the state park office number, which at that time of night was closed. The number automatically transferred us to the local sheriff’s department—on their 911 line. A very official dispatch woman listened to my entreaty, responding in short staccato bursts, “Your name, sir?” “You’re where, sir?” “You did what, sir?!” Long phone silence…me asking, “Are you still there?” Dispatcher, “Where are you, sir??” Ruth and I side talk, trying to remember just where we were exactly. Oh, yeah, “South Fork State Recreation Area, East Campground, site 14.” Dispatcher, “We’ll send someone out.” She disconnects before we can suggest, perhaps, something less drastic? Calling the ranger that’s within sight of our windows?
A very strange sense of claustrophobia emerged within me, and I grappled with my rationality. For crying out loud, I live in this place and spend hours within, and now I feel trapped?! A few deep breaths, a last peek outside the windows by flashlight, the fading hopes of seeing an accessory to relieve this insanity, and a long wait until headlights appeared.
A bright flashlight illuminated the side of our Airstream and a voice came out of the darkness: “Ben?” What do you say at a time like this, I pondered? “Just open the door, we’re locked in.” In a second, the door opened, and I grabbed the disembodied door handle to show the sheriff that, indeed, we weren’t pranking The Force. Then immediately thought better of it, but too late. The trained eye of the sheriff, spying my emergence, fell upon the black gun-shaped object in my hand. I quickly held my hand open and out to my side, and in a millisecond we had an understanding that I’m afraid would not have gone as well with our darker-skinned brothers and sisters.
Stepping back a bit, to increase safety space, he provided me with the prospect of a sharply dressed and pressed, hair perfectly coiffed, body camera in full frontal projection, and more armaments than a National Guard contingent, sheriff to “Serve and Protect.” At this point in time, I was in full accord with that phrase! The sheriff’s face transformed into a big smile—after all, he probably drove quite a distance to perform this most difficult of tasks—and we knew he would have a great story for the team back at the station. We parted in handshakes and with great thanks of relief.
In response to our blog posting regarding catastrophic meteor strikes, Michael Sullivan, a former Peace Corps, wacky bohemian, omniscient, and seeker of crazy wisdom, suggested a couple of research topics. One regarded the relationship between Joules and ancient Babylonian mathematics (which is on the back burner), the other referenced probability theory, statistics, and mathematical postulations by the French scientist Siméon Denis Poisson (1781–1840), who developed a theory expressing the probability of a given number of events occurring in a fixed interval of time or space, if these events occur with a known constant rate and independent of the time since the last event. Probability-Synchronicity-**It happens, it seems, has a mathematical basis and a cultural creed? Modern physicists would add more calculations in the 21st century to accommodate another level of possibility: quantum theories, and a “world” where observation changes outcomes, but “that, my dear Watson, is not elementary.”
As long as we’re on the subject, those who believe in astrology (we don’t!) saw the illusion of the planet Mercury appearing to move from east to west in its orbit around the sun (it travels west to east), and called this Mercury Retrograde. With the inception of the popularity of astrology in the early 1900s, people began to associate Mercury’s astrological relationship with communication, media, travel, and technology, and the perceived backwards movement of the planet, with everything going wrong in the afore mentioned aspects of life. All planets go into seeming retrograde, but in Mercury’s case, its orbit is faster and smaller than Earth’s, hence it catches up and passes Earth, appearing to move backwards. With the power of the internet, and the speed in which information travels, any crank, armchair philosopher, pseudo-doctor, or nutty fake-scientist can post their theories. Those seeking answers outside of the facts of science are attracted like flies on horse manure, and here we are.
Where else can we turn for answers to our magical, metaphysical dilemma? The Hopi Native Americans believe in the principle of Koyaanisquatsi, which means life out of balance, or crazy life. (For those of you who are very adventurous, and want to experience this film in its entirety, click the link and tumble into the Hopi vision.) You may remember this was the topic of an experimental film in the early ’80s. I would not go so far as to blame the incidents described above as living out of balance, though this will require some contemplation. Call it chance, chaos that invites restructuring to harmony, a kick in the butt from the gods, perhaps all the things going right or wrong in life appear to coalesce around random moments in time?
As I close off this commentary, a deafening roar emanates from our Airstream roof and flashes of lightning illuminate my laptop screen. Looking out the window, the source of this racket becomes evident: 1/8-inch hailstones! Perfect for an Airstream’s aluminum skin. What closure-opener to this topic—
One of our readers, Michael Luxem, wrote a fact-check comment in response to the blog post, Arizona Cataclysm, that stated, “It is difficult to imagine something only 160 feet in diameter—about the length of three semi-tractor trailers—having that much destructive power. F = ma.”
I pulled the statistics for this blog post from numerous web sources including Wikipedia, but I must admit I didn’t math-check the material, so after Michael’s challenge, it was research time. My worry at this point is not the revelation of incorrect facts, but that many of the links and pathways burrowed me into explosion and bomb impact studies, potentially resulting in the arrival of black Suburbans and the infamous Men in Black from Homeland Security. Read on and see…
In the formula: Force = Mass × Acceleration, it should be noted that weight and mass are different. The mass of an object is the amount of matter in the object, whereas weight is the measure of the amount of force exerted on the object within a gravitational field, or how hard gravity pulls on it. For example, the weight of a person varies on Earth compared to the moon. A one-kilogram mass placed on a bench presses down on the bench with almost 10 kg of force.
One newton is the force needed to accelerate one kilogram of mass at the rate of one meter per second squared. Force (one newton) = mass (one kilogram) × acceleration (one meter per second squared).
The meteor described in the blog was approximately 160 feet in diameter. Assuming it was a perfect cube, which it wasn’t, the dimensions of that cube would have been 160 feet long, by 160 feet wide, by 160 feet deep, for a total of 4,096,000 cubic feet. You might be surprised to note that one cubic foot, 12 inches by 12 inches by 12 inches of iron—of which the meteor was comprised—weighs 491 pounds! Hollywood dulls our senses to reality when we see bank robbers break into a vault and carry out gold bars under their arms. A one-cubic-foot bar, again the same dimensions as our iron bar above, would weigh 1,206 pounds! Yes, gold has more mass than iron. Oh, if only meteors were made of gold! The gold ingots stored in Fort Knox weigh 36.5 pounds each, not such an easy feat to slip out of the vault…but I’m getting away from topic here.
It’s simple to calculate the mass of our meteor by multiplying its total cubic feet by the weight of one cubic foot—491 pounds—to arrive at 4,095,999 pounds. Converted to tons, we get 2,047, which is significantly off from the 300,000 tons claimed by one of my reference websites, and consequently changes the impact force on Planet Earth, as we shall see shortly. Nevertheless, this is no insignificant puppy. A fully loaded semi-tractor rig is approximately 80,000 pounds. The mass of our meteor entering Earth’s atmosphere was 51 times that, at an accelerated force monumentally greater than a semi’s highway speed.
Now, let’s make sure all our units described follow the metric (SI) nomenclature.
Mass: 1,859,728 Kg
Acceleration: 12,964 m/s
Force: 44,837,137,865,368 newtons (4.48 × 1016)
I discovered an online TNT calculator and did some rough math to determine meteor force impact which could take me, as I mentioned above, into black Suburban influence, and came up with an explosive force of around 10 megatons of TNT. As a reference, the World War II nuclear explosion over Nagasaki was 20 kilotons. When you see the size of the Arizona impact crater, this all becomes clear.
Another force calculation which helped me understand the immense size of the impact crater was by calculating Kinetic Energy = KE, the formula is written as: KE = m(mass) × v(velocity)² ÷ 2.
A Joule is: the SI unit of work or energy, equal to the work done by a force of one newton when its point of application moves one meter in the direction of action of the force, equivalent to one 3,600th of a watt hour.
It is estimated that before atmospheric entry the meteor had the energy of 5.36 × 1016, approximately 12.8 megatons of TNT.
In January 2018, an estimated six-foot-wide meteor exploded in the atmosphere above Michigan with the power of 10 tons of TNT, it was said. I didn’t do the math proof. Here is the YouTube video.
Purdue University constructed a rough app called “Impact Earth,” in which you can extract hypothetical meteor impact data and watch a simulated video of your design.
For some detailed and complex impact mechanics calculations researched by the US Geological Survey, here is a fascinating link dating to 1928.
Thanks, friend Michael, for pushing me to spend the day (and into the night) researching some of the minutia of that famous monumental Arizona meteor impact, and as a consequence, frying my brain cells. I hope I got the calculations right. You might want to double check them (smile). The challenge is that there is a vast amount of conflicting information out there, much of it weakly researched. Add mine to that list. If you don’t hear from me soon, after a day’s plumbing the depths of explosive impact science, you know where to start looking.
You and fellow members of your tribe are foraging and hunting across cool, moist, partly-grass, partly-forested terrain. Your clan has successfully completed that rarest-of-rare hunts: a 12-foot tall, hairy, curved-tusked creature that will provide food for all your families and those throughout the region for weeks. Your salt supply in the near hills guarantees your provisions’ sustainability.
As you set about the long task of cutting meat and stripping hide for clothing, a bright light appears in the sky to rival the sun warming your back as you toil. Within the blink of an eye, an even brighter flash and streak across the sky is followed by sound louder than any thunder you have ever heard. You are pushed back onto the ground, now shaking under you, and fear precedes a powerful heated wind muffling the cries of your fellow hunters. A huge cloud of smoke rises before you, spreading out and up into the sky obscuring the sun and turning day into night. Rocks fall around you and burn your skin. You pull your animal hide covering around your head and join your comrades running to escape the nightmare dreams come to life before you. An overhang in the rocks provides temporary shelter as a premature cold darkness falls upon you all…
Driving along the two-lane blacktop, we leave the interstate and proceed six miles south along barren, scrub-lined, mostly flat terrain and up a rise like the outside of an anthill, to claim parking outside the Meteor Crater visitors center. Paying our admission, we trek up a number of flights of stairs and soon the prospect of an unearthly crater comes into view before us.
It’s as if we’ve been transported to the moon. Statistics for this giant hole in the earth state that it is was created 50,000 years ago. Blasted out by a meteor approximately 160 feet across, and weighing 300,000 tons, it mostly vaporized during impact with a force of 10 megatons. A giant crater was created, three-fourths of a mile across and almost two-and-a-half miles in circumference. The most powerful nuclear weapon ever exploded was 50 megatons and Russian in origin. The bomb that exploded over Hiroshima was 15 kilotons, considerably smaller in force.
Entering the atmosphere, the meteor was traveling eight miles per second, or almost 29,000 miles per hour. At almost 38 times the speed of sound, this blast through the atmosphere would have created a monstrous sonic boom! In the visitors center rests a residual artifact of the meteorite—constructed of mostly iron and many trace minerals and weighing 1,409 pounds—that was discovered several miles away. Standing on the rim of the crater, I felt the sense of falling into its maw, which rose 560 feet from base to rim, approximately equivalent to a 52-story building. If you are not full of statistics by now, let me point out that it has been calculated that the crater bowl can hold 20 football fields and the equivalent of two million spectators seated around its sides.
Let us return back to our fictitious presumed Paleolithic traumatized tribe. If the timeline of the meteor strike was skewed forward in time from 50,000 years to between 13,000–16,000 years, the coexistence of tribe and event would have been likely. As of 2017, there is a hotly contested revision of human history on the North American continent, claiming some form of pre-modern human, perhaps Neanderthals, extending back 130,000 years.
This is based on crushed Mastodon bones found in San Diego, with nearby stones resembling smashing implements. Currently it is understood that humans did not range out of Africa until about 50,000–80,000 years ago. There is a good probability that Mastodons did coexist with our ancient North American native population at the close of their extinction between 10,000–11,000 years ago. It is conjectured that human predation was the cause or at least the hastening of their extinction. The last known evidence of Mastodon habitation was on Wrangel Island off the coast of Alaska between the years 2,500 and 2,000 BCE, approximately simultaneous to the construction of the Great Pyramid of Giza.
Whether it was human, mastodon, or both that witnessed this cataclysmic event, the effects have sounded and resounded on through time.
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Have I already mentioned to you that we don’t like to travel on interstates? Oh yes, when necessity dictates, a timely run, or the interstate is the only road option—but the interstate is to the destination as back roads are to the journey. We’ve been on some doozy roads, and I’ll share some of them with you here.
NOTE: This post contains many images and video best viewed on a screen larger than your phone!
Highway 550 in Colorado is called the Million-Dollar Highway for the amount of precious metals that passed down that road to spark the fevers of fortune hunters; or perhaps it was the cost of a million dollars a mile to construct in the 1920s, or that its fill dirt contained a million dollars in gold ore. Needless to say, it twists twenty-five miles along the Animas river from the lovely old town of Silverton to Ouray, Colorado, along switchbacks and precipitous drop-offs—with no guardrails—over three mountain passes, each over 11,000 feet.
If you are not short of breath from the white-knuckle drive, you will be when you arrive in Ouray, not just from the simple beauty of a town nestled in the folds of the surrounding 13,000-foot mountains, but in the rarified 9,000-feet-above-sea-level air.
We drove this route on one of our travel expeditions and after that ordeal, chose more recently to experience it looking out from the windows of a 19th century steam-driven train. Add huge layers of adrenaline from sheer dropoffs outside the train car hundreds of feet down the canyon, to the raging rapids below.
This is a road, if you can call it such, not for the faint-hearted, constructed in the late 1950s by a uranium mining company to shorten the distance of ore transport. Unsuspecting drivers arrive at the precipice of a mesa, and the asphalt abruptly—and unexpectedly—morphs to graded dirt. They peer out and down 11,000 feet to the valley below, and the approximately 14-foot-wide road, while the 11% downgrade beckons them to death. There are no guardrails to provide psychological safety, and trucks and RVs are informed in large-lettered signage to avoid traveling along the snake-like grade cut into the cliff face. We sucked in our breath and proceeded down, our truck in four-wheel-drive, realizing too late that some clown thought he could drive up pulling a large trailer. We weren’t about to play chicken. White knuckle cannot describe the timing of our encounter midway. We both had passed the point of no return. Luckily we found a slight pull-off on a potential hang glider launching site, and Ruth leaned out her window to slowly guide me, to inch our wheels within a foot of the dropoff. The rig passed us with inches to spare with both our mirrors pulled in. Why do vows to never do this again fade into time? “Well…” you may say to yourself, “why do I even bother to travel on the Moki Dugway?” If you’re interested in visiting the breathtaking Valley of the Gods, or the beautiful Four Corners region, you have a choice of driving the Dugway, or adding another 80 or so miles to your journey. Is that a rock and a hard place? Perhaps it would be better to say, “Between rocks and wide open space.”
Whitney Portal Road
Nearby Highway 395 in central California provides a staging area for those who seek to hike up to the lower 48 states’ highest mountain, Mt. Whitney. It, too, tests the temerity of drivers climbing up to the clouds along guardrail-less switchbacks. You watch the land fall away below, grip the wheel tightly, and in spring and autumn, hope that your tires grip equally as well over potential ice patches as you ascend 8,000 feet along 13 miles of switchbacks. There are frequent rock falls onto the road and if you should be unfortunate enough to drive off the road, the local bears get first pickings of human prime cuts.
The last five miles of this serpentine roadway has a grade of 9%. Once you settle your heart rate, the views from on top, down into the Owens Valley, are spectacular and the jagged peaks of Whitney beckon you to break through any residual fear of heights.
Saline Valley Road is not far from Mt. Whitney and makes up for what it lacks in scary precipitous dropoffs by providing about 25 miles of rocky, sometimes 10-12% grade four-wheel-drive slogging. The country around this rarely traveled “road” is stunning in beauty, and we bounced slowly along for almost three hours, imaging ourselves traveling back in time without worrying about our horse losing its footing on the rocky surface.
We were jolted back to the moment in the sudden blast of a low flying F18 from the nearby Air Force base. There is a reward for the traveler of this tire- and transmission-testing trackway: Saline Valley Hot Springs. Small-plane pilots in the know fly into this desert oasis on the edge of Death Valley, California—avoiding dogfighting jets—that is overseen by the National Park Service and manned by serious hardcore hot springs aficionados.
There is, by the way, some very high-temperature water boiling out of the ground, so care testing of toe placement is in order. We camped for about a week and learned that stays for up to a month are possible with careful provisioning.
Burr Trail was one of our discoveries on an early road trip in the Southwest. We crossed Bullfrog Bay in Lake Powell on the ferry, and drove a stunning scenic dirt road about 30 miles into Burr Canyon. Before us lay a zigzag road cut into the canyon rock face, 800 feet high with extremely tight switchbacks and, of course, no guardrails.
Intestinal fortitude is necessary to drive this scary mountain goat climb. Our first foray up the Trail was in our Toyota Tacoma stick shift, and I quickly learned to manage 4WD and careful speed management to prevent back creep on sharp switchbacks. Sliding backwards wasn’t an option, with the canyon below lying in wait. I became aware of a peculiar optical effect while rounding each bend going up, where the front of the hood prevented my view of the turn radius. This forced me to have to roll down the window and lean out to judge the truck’s position and not miss the road center. Ruth couldn’t take the white-knuckle scariness of the journey and opted for walking the duration of the way up. Afterwards she stated that the view from inside the cab of the truck was deceiving, that walking changed one’s perspective of drivability. I intellectually agreed but somehow the truck, by blocking road judgement, multiplied the fear factor. This is where you ponder the voice of Obi Wan Kenobi in your head to, “Use the Force.”
Pine Creek Canyon Road (Route 2)
We serendipitously discovered this off-the-beaten-path dirt mountain road on the edge of the California–Oregon border while looking for a camping spot next to a mountain lake. All went well and a number of years later while camped at Goose Lake State Park, we decided to reprise our visit and reclaim our memories. We just couldn’t believe we drove on the same road. Perhaps it was changed by trolls, gnomes, or tectonic plate movement? Our route reprise seemed much more narrow, twisty, rocky, inclined, and compounded by many camping vehicles trying to pass each other with few pullouts. Nevertheless, add this one to a way-off-the-road-camping-with-no-limits area.
Gates Pass Road runs east–west between Tucson and Saguaro National Park, and I’ll call this one a pink-knuckle drive on a narrow road, particularly near the top of the pass to and from Tucson.
The road drops with no guardrail protection steeply down into the Saguaro National Park region and some spectacular camping at the Gilbert Ray Campground. DO NOT THINK ABOUT driving an RV on this road or you will have nightmares that will require coaching to alleviate, and the next destination leads us to night terror sweats…Near the Gilbert Ray Campground is the famous Old Tucson former Old West film set, now tourist western reenactment amusement park. Expect stunt shows, train rides, saloon “family tame” burlesque entertainment, pony rides, shoot outs, sundry shlock, and much, much more. (Read Ruth’s review of it here.)
Doherty Rim, Oregon Hwy. 140
Traveling east–west in Nevada reveals the consistent “basin and range” topography. You drive up a 5,000–6,000 foot pass and down 5–10 miles into a barren, sage brush-inhabited basin, then up the next pass, and repeat, over and over. Traveling north, we decided to break free from this monotony and take the road less traveled into a region so sparse of population and lacking of any cell communications, that if you broke down, your bleached bones would warn the next intrepid traveler. We spent the night in the Sheldon National Wildlife Refuge, where birds come to seek freedom from harassment, wild burros and horses range free, and hot springs run twenty-four hours a day through volunteer-built bathhouse showers. Can it be a strange coincidence that as you near the crossing from one state to another out West, the landscape changes and you can state clearly that now you are in Idaho, or Colorado, or Oregon? It seems as though the surveyors looked out, saw a geological change in the land, and drove a stake into the ground delineating one state from the next. We had barely crossed into Oregon when, on the road, the warning signs appeared. The ubiquitous image of a truck facing down a grade appeared with the 8% grade notification. Okay, this one was going to be steep. Mostly we see 6%ers. The next sign read, “Warning. Steep Grade Ahead. 25 mph. Trucks Use Low Gear.” Then, “Take Your Time, Don’t Rush, And You’ll Get There Alive.” With no apparent change in the prospect around us, we speculated what could all the fuss be about? A final large yellow sign read, “This Is Your Final Warning! Turn Back Now If You Have A Heart Condition!” Well…perhaps I embellished the last sign’s admonishment slightly.
We crossed the crest of the hill before us and I swear it was just like that roller-coaster moment when you arrive at the pinnacle of no return and you anticipate the terror of a dead drop…only this drop was 1,000 feet and a three-mile-long scream in duration. We dropped into walking speed, and sure enough, as is always the case, cars stacked up behind our 50 feet of truck/trailer in what I imagined was impatient rage. No one passed us though. What a surprise. Maybe they thought I would jerk the steering wheel over into their path to ease them of their need to get to the bottom two minutes ahead of us? In ten minutes we reached the bottom and vowed to never drive Highway 140 again, even if it meant driving around the entire West Coast to achieve a 100-mile trip.
If it’s summer and if you swelter from 100+ degree heat crossing the Loneliest Road in America, Highway 50, just set your compass on a half-hour drive up to Wheeler Peak, and watch your vehicle thermometer drop quickly to around a cool 60. This drive lacks most of those barrier-less roadways. I said “most.” You’ll get a lot of practice though, twisting your steering wheel around a 360-degree arc on your way up to the staging area for a four-mile hike in rarified air, to pay tribute to the Bristlecone Pine grove. If you are pulling a trailer or driving a large RV, don’t put yourself through the mental anguish. The Bristlecones won’t mind, though; they’ve seen it all, having lived 4,000 years or more—they are some of the oldest living things on Earth. See my earlier blog post on this subject here. One short side note: If you pull a rig, a trailer, or Class A, or even just tent camp, be wary of aggressive mice that have been habituated to human presence, and are known to suicidally stow away and end their lives on a road trip with you!
Hell’s Backbone, Box–Death Hollow, Hog’s Back Ridge
All three of these scary, off-putting, and dangerous-sounding locations are to be found in the same general area in Utah: Highway 12, between Escalante and Boulder. Hog’s Back Ridge is one of those roads that commences in gently undulating curves, lulling you into submission until it’s too late, and you find yourself on a narrow two-lane road, with no shoulder, and sheer dropoffs on each side. It’s incredible how your imagination can create a hell for you when none exists. You can walk a two-by-four plank on the ground without skipping a beat. Raise it 500 feet and all bets are off. So it is with Hog’s Back. Sometimes it’s just best to keep your eyes on the road, for a number of reasons.
Hell’s Backbone follows the same rules as above, though not quite as steering wheel-grippingly tense. Consistent curves lull you into a hypnotic trance until around a corner, a fine ribbon of asphalt leads you over a one-lane bridge. This bridge has a three-foot-high guardrail on each side, though I surmise its only function is to provide structural support as you cross over a 1,500-foot canyon. We stopped our truck on an earlier trailer-less road trip at the entrance to the bridge, and walked our dog across. No one came or passed us in either direction. Devilishly strange?
Box–Death Hollow. I just threw this in for the name…as far as I know! We discovered an awesome campground there one year with unlimited firewood left for us, no fee at that time, no other campers, and a creek tinkling around our tent site to lull us to sleep. I suppose this was payback for the harrowing drive to discover it. Thinking back on it, I must again say, “Devilishly strange.”
Bodie & Bodie Masonic Roads
We’ve sought out and visited the magical old ghost mining town of Bodie, nestled in the hills off California 395 on Highway 270. The drive is 10 miles on pavement and, depending on the season and state of the road, three more miles on the edge of 4WD. The altitude in town is nearly 8,500 feet, so expect very changeable weather. There are two ways into Bodie, and the Masonic Road is much rockier and somewhat longer. In a fit of adventure-seeking insanity, we attempted to reach the ghost town one winter day, despite warnings that the road “may be impassible due to snow.” Adventure always comes to those who are willing to cross the fence into lunatic land. We were lucky to get away from there before the spirits of the miners claimed our souls. The town of Bodie lies in situ, frozen in time, and it is worth the visit to walk streets that carried the feet of 100,000 aspirants of fortune, and stare into windows revealing stories of their lives. Smoke seems to emanate from chimneys, the sounds of laughter and music blend with the wind’s passage across rooftops. All about you the streets give the impression that just before you rounded the corner, they were there.
This is an eerie spot, and many claim the often troubled winds echo the insatiable cries of condemned spectral seekers of their always-elusive gold.
There are a number of routes across the Sierras, and Highway 108, a southern east–west transit point, lies between Modesto, at the intersection of State Road 99, and Bridgeport, Highway 395. SR 99, incidentally, runs vertically down the center of California, and, despite its wide, flat, straight layout, is listed as the most deadly highway in America. Over the past five years there have been over 62 fatal accidents per 100 miles of the 400-mile stretch of highway. We try to avoid this route at all costs, which is not a good lead-in to Highway 108.
In a narrow band of seasons, driving a car on 108 presents no problems other than exercising steering wheel spinning like a Las Vegas roulette wheel. The highway takes you up to an elevation of 9,624 feet, one of the highest mountain roads in California. Switchbacks and hairpin turns are extremely numerous. There are up to 26% grades in some sections! Signs post warning restrictions on trucks and RVs to avoid traveling this highway. Each time we’ve taken this route, we’ve seen those warned vehicles trapped in hairpin turns, traffic stuck behind or being routed around them—warning signs are for others, after all. It’s messy when the center of a long vehicle sits on the pinnacle of a curve, seesawing and preventing the front and rear of the rig from moving. It can take hours to jack up the mass and clear the intersection.
If this is your rig, it will go down into the nightmare log book. If you plan on traveling on this gem of a road, weather often closes it down from November to May. If you exit the highway near Bridgeport, do a Google search for hot springs and take a free soak of a lifetime. One hot spring sits directly above the town with stunning views out across the valley. We enjoyed a winter snow camp adjacent to the springs one year, attaining such core body heat from lengthy soaks that we walked naked in the moonlight through snowdrifts, steam billowing around our bodies, blocking out starlight around us.
Route 66, the “Mother Road,” as it is affectionately named, was officially decommissioned in 1984, but still clings to life in fits and starts across eight states and three time zones. What once was a major transportation artery across America from Chicago to Los Angeles, providing fuel and sustenance to travelers in oasis stops, now harbors ghosts of its past. Ruth and I simply can’t resist the magnetic pull of abandoned kitscheterias, trinket shops, gas stations, and cafes, providing a fresh marquee for graffiti and social commentary.
When we cross fenced barriers, open broken doors, and step across rubble-strewn entranceways, we hear voices echoing in time.
Around us are the artifacts of a not-too-distant past, once discarded in the American dream of rapid interstate transportation, that stimulate reflective awakening and pining for a simpler time. The adventure of discovering unique food, lodging, and inhabitants exclusive to the region faded away from the Mother Road like upstart children grown out and away from the old ways.
There is a move afoot to restore much of this once grand road, and it is all not driven by commerce. Two-lane Route 66 traverses barren country, connecting small towns and historical, geographical, and geological points of interest. We hunger to escape the highway of mundane, ordinariness, mediocrity of chain stores and restaurants—mind-numbing mall uniformity—exchanging comfort for quirky, off-base stimulation.
While ruin-spelunking we discovered some elegant graffiti conceived by a poetic peripatetic traveler with the moniker of Boots, who states on her Instagram page, “I write poetry while traveling, photographing, and spray painting my poems in abandoned places.” She, like many others, has left her mark on the canvas of remnants and ruins, to breathe art and awakening form to ephemeral spirits within deserted places.
Our stopping point along a multi-week progress along the Little Colorado River brings us to Homolovi State Park, where we continue our exploration of a chain of archaic indigenous peoples’ habitations. Petroglyphs, relics, rubble, and remnants of primeval lives lay scattered about partially excavated mounds of former thriving communities.
Messages—graffiti, if you will—abound from the past telling stories we strive to decipher. New American immigrants, explorers, and trailblazers “discovered” the ancient petroglyphs and, in kind, added their own “tags,” memorializing the primordial urge to proclaim, “We were here!”
It appears quite clear that images of animals, humans, and nature, so carefully pecked into ancient desert varnish-baked rock faces, are not all about life’s essentials, or to simply make our mark, but an enduring expression of passionate art. For this reason, I am drawn to these symbolic voices from the past, for they are OUR declaration: “We were here, we are here, and we will be here.”
Welcome, campground designers! Whether you own an RV park or administer a state- or county-owned campground, this course is for you. Our curriculum includes all you need to know to design a bathroom guaranteed to provide a memorable experience for your campground guests.
Follow these easy instructions and you’re well on your way to joining the ranks of successful campground owners/administrators.
Be sure you do NOT hook up the hot water heater to the sink faucet, particularly if your campground is in a location that can drop below 70 degrees. We believe that campers, even when it’s 20 degrees outside, much prefer to wash their hands in freezing water.
If you install push-on faucets, be sure to set them so that they stay on for no more than three seconds; fewer, if possible.
Ensure that the nozzles on the soap dispensers are crooked to one side or the other, enough so that they dispense the smallest possible amount of soap, preferably onto the floor rather than the camper’s hands.
Ensure that the holes in the drains are small enough that water accumulates in the sink, leaving an ugly scum.
Do not provide any type of shelf or extra space around the sink. We are assured that campers have become quite adept at holding their toothbrushes, sponges, washcloths, and towels under their arms or between their knees.
Mirrors: Are always optional.
Drying: If you choose to provide any type of drying mechanism (optional), there are two to choose from:
Paper towels. Choose a dispenser that is guaranteed to jam after each sheet has been pulled from it. Additionally, if it can be loaded in such a way that the camper can, in no circumstances, actually get the paper to feed through the slot, even better. It goes without saying that the knob provided to help feed the paper should not work.
Air dryers. First, mount the dryer so that it is low enough that the camper must stoop to use it—older campers are particularly fond of having to bend their lower backs. Additionally, choose a dryer that has the lowest possible fan velocity, forcing the camper to stand for at least five minutes through multiple cycles of on-and-off. As in #1, above, be sure the air is not heated.
Hang NO MORE than two hooks on the wall, preferably close enough to the shower that the camper’s towel and/or clothing will be saturated. Be sure to purchase hooks that are both short and shallow, so that no more than one article of clothing can be hung at a time. This allows the camper the option of wearing either pants or socks, but never both.
Ensure that hooks are not securely anchored in the wall; this causes them to disengage from the plaster or tile when any object weighing more than four ounces is hung on them.
Under no circumstances allow any hook to be large enough to hold a full sized bath towel. We believe that campers prefer to get extra exercise by bending down to pick up towels that have fallen on the (preferably wet) floor.
Choosing and installing the shower head:
Take care to choose a shower head that has at least one jet of water that shoots out at a 90-degree angle (campers will want their towel and/or clothing to be as wet as they are when they finish their shower).
Try to install the shower head so that campers taller than 4’5″ will have to stoop to get wet above their shoulders. NOTE: If you choose the “pushbutton” variety of shower control, ensure that it stays on for a maximum of 15 seconds at a time, requiring multiple pushes.
If you supply a bench for the camper’s convenience, it should be manufactured of wood that splinters easily, and be placed well within range of the shower’s spray.
Bonus points if you do not supply non-slip floor coverings.
Temperature control: Please enroll in our “Advanced” course.
Paper: Under no circumstances use paper that is thicker than one-ply. Paper should preferably be made of the same material that manufacturers use to wrap plastic parts for shipping.
Paper holders: There are several designs to choose from, any of which will ensure the maximum camper frustration.
Flat bar: This type of holder is designed to require the maximum effort from the camper. Three to five rolls are shoved onto a flat bar, making it impossible for the roll to actually roll. Instead, the camper must patiently work the paper around the bar. Bonus points if you mount the bar so close to the wall that this is practically impossible.
Giant roll: This 16- to 18-inch diameter dispenser has two major features:
The camper will not be able to find the end of the roll, no matter how often he/she reaches up and winds the roll around.
Each sheet of paper is designed to separate from its neighbors at the slightest touch, requiring the camper to pull one tiny piece of paper after another from the roll.
Extra narrow: This dispenser type will be particularly unpopular with campers, for it results in a basket-weave paper design which, while pretty if the camper is engaging in arts and crafts, is virtually useless for its intended purpose.
Toilet design: Choose an automatic flusher to provide maximum frustration. Be sure to set the sensor so that it flushes dramatically when the camper is seated. However, when he/she stands up, the sensor should be set so that it does NOT activate, requiring the camper to search for the tiny button that will manually flush. If possible, mount this button in the most inaccessible part of the toilet stall.
Final note: Bathroom and shower doors, and toilet stalls, should be designed with the minimum of privacy. Whether you choose bolts that do not line up with hasps, or simply leave locks off doors altogether, each camper is assured of being well remembered by fellow campers. Happy camping!
One of the joys of being permanently on the road is knowing that you’ll never know who you’ll encounter—what wacky adventure, trial, or magic moment will reveal itself or where any of these will pop up like a whack-a-mole game. As I alluded to in my last blog post, “You make the road by walking it,” A leads to B…leads to C…leads to 3.14159265359…!
We parted with fond farewells from one of our hundreds of campsites, to move on “into the misty,” and an incongruous vision approached us from the road’s shimmering heat mirage. Two mule-drawn wagons approached, as if transported through a veil from the 19th century. We pulled our 21st century Airstream to the shoulder abreast of the teams who appeared eager to break from their incessant plodding. I thought to myself, as we jumped out to engage the mule drivers, “Now, this is a picture of contrasting conveyances!” A story unfolded that one of their compadres had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, recently died, and consequently his buddies engaged in a grand honorable mission of educational awareness, from the hills of Tennessee to the mountains, deserts, and beaches of California.
Let’s ponder for a moment the sort of logistics required to enter into an undertaking of this magnitude: How do you continuously provision two mule teams and yourselves? Do you pull into grocery or Walmart parking lots? What roads would be acceptable to traverse across three quarters of America? Storing and preparing food for the animals and drivers is complicated. In many locations overnight accommodations can be complex; terrain, traffic, and weather challenging. There’s a ton of minutiae, of course, and I couldn’t help but think what it must have been like to make this journey in the 18th or 19th centuries. Did you have enough ammunition to provide for food provisioning and security? What pathways were navigable and what means did you have to repair and/or replace broken equipment? A minor injury could transform swiftly into deadly casualty. The trackways laid by migrating Europeans were strewn with the detritus of unwanted luxuries and household goods, as well as the graves of those stricken by disease and native attacks.
Our 21st century minds find it difficult to comprehend life without our conveniences. Imagine an 18th or 19th century time traveler navigating our common strip malls. Reverse the perspective. If you don’t hunt, you don’t eat. If you don’t live by your wits, you don’t survive. A quick glance around will drive home how the mighty have fallen. We’re as soft as a kitten’s belly, as industrious as driving a car, leash out the window to walk the dog.
Our educational system struggles at times with the topic of history and its relevance in our lives. The adage, “Those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it,” looms large before us. Life on the road sharpens our awareness of activities, events, and history in an ever evolving kaleidoscope of perspective that expands our critical thinking. Perhaps this is what so fascinates me as I stroke the mules’ big, soft, floppy ears. The saying “stubborn as a mule” doesn’t apply to these guys. They’re the apex of function for their breed. Are we?
Sometimes direction of travel is self-evident. In alternate moments a small nudge, a chance meeting, or a wrinkle in time opens up doors onto undiscovered roads. My brother, Bryan, texted me one day as we were camped near his family just outside of Safford, Arizona, to suggest a drive up the mountain that looms nearby. I looked over my shoulder at the cloud-blocking edifice, spied a car zigzagging up a circuitous, guardrail-less road, pulled my hat down over my acrophobic eyes, and stammered, “Uhh, yeah…let-t-t’s g-go-o-o.”
In sunny desert 75-degree warmth, we left the lowland terrain pursuing our path to the peak that telescoped out in front of us for a straight mile up, at a 6% grade. Entering into sharp snake-coiled switchbacks, I glanced over the precipice—suppressing the desire to push a non-existent brake pedal—and simultaneously noted my brother whirling the steering wheel coolly and comfortably with one hand in the six-o’clock position. The terra firma of the beginning of our journey receded rapidly below us, resembling a view from an airplane window. Fifteen minutes along, the flora had morphed from dry desert cacti and creosote bushes to scrub oaks and junipers, and the car’s outside temp gauge began to drop into the cool sixties. We traded diverse and eclectic family stories, rattling the dust off skeletons pulled from our respective closets, as the air around us rarified.
As I was muttering out loud about the time it takes to drive from Safford’s 2,900 feet to near 10,000, the road swung around to the back side of the mountain near the peak, and we quickly saw the results of the previous year’s forest fire that had swept indiscriminately through the now alpine pine forest. A grouping of trees would stand verdant, adjacent to huge swathes of brown, burned-out hulks. Fire is such an unpredictable demon, as those who fight its wrath attest. It was said that this late summer fire was kindled by lightning strikes, and we considered the fury that ensued back when all fires burned free. There are positives and negatives, of course. Fire clears away accumulated underbrush. Some seeds require high heat to crack open their pod shells, enabling regrowth. Fire clears the earth’s palate, yet it is an indiscriminate despoiler. I recalled images of rescuers bandaging bears’ scorched paws following their attempts to escape from the recent California firestorms.
We rounded a bend past a middle-aged couple photographing farmers’ fields, plowed in circles like giant green pearls on this wetter, windward side of the mountain. The geography here tells the story of moisture-rich clouds, rising, cooling, and unable to surmount the summit, discharging their payload down the mile-plus return to welcoming soil. Our journey up brought us though the leeward (dry) side, also called the “rain shadow” of the peaks, and the lack of density and height of flora reflected this deprivation. Those that owned and worked the land on this side knew the lay of the land.
Very shortly our road came to an end at a barrier and transition between asphalt and dirt. More miles lay ahead according to signage, eventually to arrive at an astronomical observatory. At the end of our upward excursion, we shot some obligatory memorial selfies in the now near freezing temperatures, and were joined by the photographing couple we had previously observed.
Conversation can flow easily among those who have sought and achieved a challenging milestone. Two vehicles and their occupants had consummated their quest for the symbolic end of the road, albeit artificially cut short. During our conversation I noticed aloud that a familiar state park camping tag, matching ours, hung from the other vehicle’s mirror. The driver, Gary, and his wife, Jean, invited me over for an RV info share when we made it back to camp.
Later that evening, I walked over and noted that our friendly couple had a ham operator’s license plate and set about to resolve some lingering questions about this hobby; questions that I’ve had for almost 50 years. My employer in 1972 had a strange number/letter code posted on his car window and, responding to my curiosity, he explained briefly the meaning of a ham radio operator, and offered to show me his “rig.”
Being a gadget geek, I once owned an old tube radio that enabled late night listening to shortwave from around the world. The interminable ebbing and fading of voices, static, squawks, and crackles, stirred the demons of distraction from my mother’s late night black-and-white television adventures with The Twilight Zone, Perry Mason, and Jackie Gleason. In my defense though, her frustration was largely rooted in the constant necessity of getting up to readjust the rabbit ears and clicking the numbered dial on its face in search of the virtually non-existent clear picture.
With this childhood memory in my mind, my eyes popped out of my head during the visit to my boss’s radio “shack,” and now you know where the now-defunct company got its moniker. He introduced me to strange boxes with glowing dials, sweeping needles, rising and cascading lights, microphones, wires, controllers, amplifiers, antenna rotators, all sorts of gadgets that made my head and heart swim and swoon, then demonstrated how he could bounce radio voice signals off the ionosphere to Europe. It was a magic moment that I stored away to reopen at the nexus of opportunity and synchronicity.
That moment in time arrived upon meeting Gary and Jean, and I found myself standing on the edge of the precipice of change, pronouncing before them that I would begin studying for my ham technician license. I hadn’t realized that the decision was made long ago, and turning back now is not an option.
Why the effort and what’s the point? you ask. To start with, accessing assistance and information is not limited to cell reception and data limitations, nor the limited range of family frequency walkie-talkies. Being full-time on the road, we often are able to assist in weather and emergency response as well as obtain local and regional travel advice. Believe it or not, it is possible to bounce radio signals off comet tails and Aurora Borealis ionization (and how cool is that?!?). Knowing this, why the heck would you not have some fun too?
The Science of Study
My order of operations starts with ordering the American Radio Relay League’s Ham Radio License Manual, and preparing for 35 test questions compiled from nine licensing categories:
License application procedures
Radio and signals fundamentals
Electricity, components, and circuits
Propagation, antennas, and feed lines
Amateur radio equipment
Communication procedures with other hams
I’m using pretty much the same procedure of study as for my previous test prep for automotive technician licensing, and organize as follows: Read through the e-manual and answer all embedded question links for each category. Read all referenced annotations and online references and video study materials. Finally return to the compendium of actual test questions, answer and study all missed items. Register with the FCC, locate a local test center, ace test, and await FCC notification of my official call sign.
Luckily electrical theory isn’t much of a problem for me, as I have a strong automotive electrical background, particularly with Ohm’s Law and power equations. Some questions require a bit more attention, such as, “How much transmitter power should be used on the uplink frequency of an amateur satellite or space station?” Never ran into that issue before. One cannot confuse alcohol with tower support systems in a question asking the purpose of a gin pole? Test proctors look askance at testers who laugh at questions regarding “rubber duck” antennas. I’ll not belittle the complexity and memory requirements necessary to pass this level of ham licensing, but will close these thoughts with a response to a question that will move you into the failure category: “Which of the following actions should you take if a neighbor tells you that your station’s transmissions are interfering with their radio or TV reception?” Answer B: Install a harmonic doubler on the output of your transmitter, increase the amplifier power output to maximum, wrap duct tape around the key of your microphone, and play heavy metal music until the neighbor begs forgiveness!
Now…that’s making the road not to walk, but run it!
A cool wind blows from east to west across our lonely mesa, impeded only by scattered low-lying creosote bushes and straggling steadfast saguaro, and a volcanic rock field spread helter-skelter to the horizon sustains a barely perceptible mournful moan from time past. Standing here in silence, screams of terror echo from an event that took place here 167 years ago. A signpost awaits our laborious hike up the rock-strewn, hardscrabble cut in the cliff face; the rock underfoot is scarred by the wagon wheels of the Butterfield Stage that passed twice a day for three years and wore grooves in the rock. We reach a plain metal sign that reads simply: “Site of Oatman Massacre, Feb. 18, 1851, Yuma County Historical Society.”
The Butterfield Stage was to follow the tracks of countless travelers to this spot—Native Americans, intrepid explorers, and the fated Oatman family. It is here where our story begins.
Roys Oatman was born in Vermont in the early nineteenth century, descended from Dutch immigrants, and in time his family became captivated by the religious fervor of the time, converting from the Dutch Reformed Church to Methodist. Members of the family began migrating, as was the zeitgeist of those times, escaping poor weather and economic hardships, to arrive in New York just as a wave of evangelical fervor swept America. New sects were popping up like weeds, and the Oatmans joined the masses of aspirants to a better life, prospecting farming opportunities in the Ohio River valley, Indiana, and Illinois regions.
When Roys turned 23, he married Mary Ann Sperry, and they produced seven children between the years 1834 and 1849. During those years, the family came in contact with a former Vermonter named Joseph Smith, the charismatic self-proclaimed prophet of a religious sect designated as the Latter Day Saints, known by most as Mormons.
The Mormons and the Brewsterites
Smith was said to have a gift of spiritual insight, using crystal balls to see “ghosts, infernal spirits, and mountains of gold and silver,” and he tapped into the spiritual fever spreading like wildfire across America. When he was 25, he published his Book of Mormon, translated from, he claimed, golden plates found buried in the side of the hill near his father’s farm. These magical plates purported to tell a history of ancient peoples, the Nephites (“a white, delightsome people”) and the Lamanites (“a dark, filthy and loathsome people”) who fled Jerusalem around 600 B.C. settling in America.
These gold plates were never revealed (why doesn’t this surprise me?), and were allegedly kept in a locked box behind a curtain to be translated only by the home-schooled Smith with the help of special glasses given to him by the Angel Moroni, their guardian. Surprisingly, many people were taken in by this phantasmagorical religious creation, and sought affiliation. Others dismissed it a harmless fraud, and yet others—a growing number—were outraged, branding it blasphemy. In the midst of this social tornado, Smith claimed to have received the revelation that his flock were meant to seek out the New Jerusalem, or City of Zion. He dutifully sent his “saints” in a quest for its discovery.
In Ohio in 1838, a revolt against this upstart faith resulted in Smith and his close followers being tarred and feathered and they were run out of the state. Smith’s cult continued to be harassed and ensuing arguments, battles, and a war resulted in their flight to Illinois in 1839. The Illinoisans were sympathetic to those suffering what they perceived as religious persecution and welcomed Joseph’s flock. This sanctuary was to be short-lived, however, as people soon learned of the new church’s belief in polygamy, antithetical to their own religious doctrine.
Roys Oatman and his family were caught in the spell of Mormonism, though, and joined the church with the same enthusiasm that had shown itself in their previous transformation to Methodism. Like all religions, the Mormons believed that they alone were God’s chosen people. However, the large numbers of orthodox Christian deserters, the polygamy that offended prevailing moral principles, and Smith’s expanding political power—he had become the mayor of Nauvoo, Illinois, and was even considering running for the office of President of the United States—ignited a groundswell of anger against the church. Warrants for the arrest of Smith and his brother, Hyrum, were issued after Smith closed down the local newspaper that criticized him for sexual malfeasance; many believed that he was intending on declaring himself king. The Smith brothers surrendered to the authorities and were jailed, along with several of their followers. A mob of angry citizens—incited, some say, by the local Masonic lodge, who sought revenge against Smith for stealing Masonic secrets to establish Mormon ritual—stormed the jail, shooting and killing Joseph and Hyrum Smith, though some of his followers survived.
Joseph Smith’s death opened a hole in the leadership of his church and others attempted to fill it: we will follow the one that leads to the conclusion of this story. The Oatmans, still holding onto the faith of the Mormon Church, looked for signs of new leadership, and that leadership was revealed to be James Colin Brewster. When he was just ten years old, word spread that Brewster had a gift for seeing visions and objects not seen by the natural eye, such as “ancient records that are to be written.” Overlooking the vagueness of his visions and, like Smith, his complete lack of education, the boy was examined by Mormon temple elders, and they soon declared that Brewster was a prophet, a seer, a revelator, and a translator. Not surprisingly, this led the boy to have more “revelations,” this time in the form of an angel commanding him to write the “books of Esdras.” Young Brewster’s lack of education meant that he could not write himself, so his semi-literate father took dictation. Eventually, scribes were employed to assist and finally a message was received that a gathering place had been appointed for the “saints.” No actual location—despite “divine” intervention—was provided, but it was said to be located in a vague, remote corner of Southwest America. It was a place called Cedonia, the Land of Bashan, the Land of California, the Land of Peace…and this author can’t help including: the Land of OZ!
The official Mormon Church quickly denounced Brewster, whose prophetic proclamations and growing ego challenged and denounced Joseph Smith. The Church stated that only Smith was appointed to receive the commandments as received by Moses. A power war of words ensued between the Mormon hierarchy and the newly self-appointed “Brewsterites.”
The Dark Road Ahead
Roys Oatman, now head of a family of nine, found his shibboleth in Brewster. He sold the family’s possessions, the family packed what little they thought they’d need for a new life, and they set off West on May 6, 1850, joining the Brewsters and a small caravan of hopeful aspirants to discover “Bashan.” Soon though, many in the group became annoyed by the lackadaisical attitude of the Brewster family in maintaining a focused journey. Some seem to have felt that the Brewsters had no clue what their destination was, and perhaps were stonewalling. Unrest smoldered among the families, and some separated themselves from the main group. Approximately 90 people pressed on following, for a time, the Santa Fe Trail across the Plains into the mountains of New Mexico and the unknown dangers of Indian country. After all, it had been prophesied in the Mormon scripture that the “Lamanites would one day accept the gospel,” whereupon “their scales of darkness shall fall from their eyes, and many generations shall not pass away among them, save they shall be a white and a delightsome people.”
It was hard travel for the Brewsterites. The season was late, hot, and dry, fomenting restlessness. Arguments and campfire meetings deteriorated into shouting matches. The emigrants chose the quicker, southern route in an attempt to save travel time, and consequently crossed the part of the country that the native Mexicans called the “Jornada Del Muerto,” the Journey of Death. Ominous human bones, dead pack animals, and castoff travel detritus littered their route, stoking fears among the group. A passing U.S. Government mail train warned the travelers that Indians had been spotted in the area and advised them to leave. Brewster proclaimed that they were under the special protection of the Almighty, and they pressed on. Nearby Native Americans were very aware of the pilgrims’ presence, and tested their defenses by stealing some of their livestock at night. Tensions continued to mount among the wagon teams, and on October 9, 1850, those sympathetic to the Brewsters split from the Oatmans. Passing into Chiricahua Apache territory, the Oatman party was preyed upon, losing several of their animals again. The Oatman team didn’t realize that the winters of 1850-51 were some of the driest on record in the Southwest and the Native Americans were under similar drive and pressure to survive. The naïve and misinformed travelers were engaged in a growing struggle for survival.
On January 8, 1851, the exhausted families arrived in Tucson, at that time a Mexican town, to purchase the meager amounts of food and supplies that were available due to Apache raids in the area. Little rest time was allotted, and the Oatman party trekked around El Picacho (“the Peak”), a mountain observation point employed for hundreds of years by the O’odham Apaches and other tribes, to arrive at a friendly Pima native village. Despite their desperation for supplies, the Pimas informed them that what little they had could not be shared. Apache raids had claimed any surplus.
One of the women in the Oatman party gave birth on February 7, but Roys Oatman insisted that they press on to “Bashan,” just, he claimed, a short couple of hundred miles to the west. The new parents, along with all the other families, chose not to continue travel out of fear of attack and the uncertainty of resupply. Mrs. Oatman was also expecting a baby, due within three to four weeks, but Mr. Oatman’s stubbornness dominated. Waiting, regrouping, and traveling on as a group, must have monopolized their conversations. But obsessiveness and weakness of numbers brought danger, like a vise, close in around them, and Roys Oatman continued on, taking his large family with him.
The Gila River flowed northwest, then west, and then southwest, and the Oatmans set as straight a course as possible to intersect the southwest segment. This shortcut required a passage over rough terrain. Their animals stumbled painfully. Before them lay a series of steep climbs and drops onto and off of plateaus. Oxen required assistance navigating these inclines. Unloading, lifting and guiding the wagon wheels, braking down the slope, and repacking again until the next rise forced them to do it all over again became a monotonous, mind-numbing routine. It was back-breaking work moving rocks and sand to permit their wagon’s wheels’ purchase on the volcanic rock faces. They believed they had stumbled upon a barely discernable foot path and trackway, perhaps the Mormon Battalion trail, blazed between the years 1846 and 1847.
February 18, 1851, would be a date and memory that would live in the legends of the surviving Oatmans and annals of western history. The day dawned clear, bright, and cool, as the family crossed the Gila River and came up the sand bank to the base of a steep rocky road cut into the cliff side. They looked at each other with despair, as it seemed that the succession of ascents and descents to similar mesa tops would never end. Once again they would have to engage in the well-practiced and agonizing trial of hill negotiation.
Lorenzo, one of the sons, paused during the herculean push, wiped the sweat from his brow, and looked out at the slowly expanding vista of the Gila basin behind them. He thought he spied movement among the Palo Verde trees scattering the river banks below. The family managed to reach the top, livestock slipping and stumbling over loose rock, and after taking stock of the way ahead, decided to rest. They let the animals graze, gathering strength for night travel under a cool, bright, full moon. Lorenzo’s fears were realized when they spied a large group of Indians coming up the trackway.
Roys Oatman greeted the menacing group of approximately 17 Native Americans in Spanish, and the family felt waves of fear pass through them. The tribal members wanted tobacco and pipes, and after they finished smoking, demanded corn meal. Roys replied that he had almost no food to feed his own family, but offered some bread. When they had eaten the bread, the warriors demanded more. Their tone was threatening, and Roys declined. This time, one of the native group, perhaps seeing no defensive weapons, climbed into the Oatman’s wagon and began rummaging around their goods. He shouted out in insistence for meat, but Roys again said no. Immediately a group of Indians jumped up and began taking supplies from their wagon, tucking them into their clothing. Roys passively ignored this invasion, perhaps hoping not to incite a more aggressive response. While the warriors commiserated among themselves, he proceeded to repack the wagon with the items that had been carelessly thrown onto the ground. Olive Oatman, the oldest daughter, and Lorenzo recollected that no one in the family provoked the warriors in any way, but the native assemblage erupted instantly into a massive shouting and screaming charge at the family.
Lorenzo was struck on the head and fell to the ground. He attempted to rise and was struck again. Simultaneously, Roys, his pregnant wife, his daughters Lucy and Charity Ann, and sons Roys Jr., and Roland were beaten to the ground. Olive recalls seeing all of her family lying in a blood-soaked, grotesque scattering of bodies, then she passed out.
The warriors started a looting spree among the fractured, broken, and bleeding inhabitants, stripping the wagon, removing the wheels, unyoking the cows and oxen, and—most essential to our story—capturing 13-year-old Olive and her 8-year-old sister, Mary Ann. The scene of carnage left behind would leave its mark on history and the horror of those moments of rage, fear, and terror would echo in time on that lonely plateau.
Olive and Mary Ann recollect that their attackers divided into two groups, one herding the animals and carrying the looted items while the others shepherded the captured girls about half a mile to a campsite. After a brief rest and some food, which the girls refused, they continued their march. By this time their captors had removed the girls’ shoes, knowing that would prevent their escape. Their feet were quickly bruised and bloodied by the volcanic rock, rubble, and innumerable cactus thorns. Mary Ann was too weak to continue and was carried on the back of one of the attackers. All the Oatmans’ oxen and livestock were butchered, and Olive remembered that they marched on for three or four days to the Native American village.
Olive retold stories of mistreatment and forced labor while living with the tribe. She and Mary Ann, in poor health, were treated harshly as captives, which was the custom among the native peoples at that time. Over the course of about a year, though, they slowly assimilated into tribal life, learning how to avoid being beaten, and Olive learned the language of her captors, thought to be Tolkepaya.
One day, another native group, presumed to be the Mohaves and friendly with the Tolkepaya, came into their camp, learned of their captives, and sought to trade for them. The leader of this Mohave group was a young woman who, Olive later learned, was the daughter of their chief, “beautiful, intelligent, well-spoken, fluent in the languages of both tribes,” and most important, sympathetic to the predicament of the girls. Olive and Mary Ann were asked if they would prefer staying with their captors or leaving with the Mohaves. They declined to answer for fear it would be held against them. After much tribal discussion and controversial argumentation it was agreed they would be sold or traded for horses, blankets, beads, and foodstuffs. The girls then traveled with the Mohaves on a journey of about ten days through the desert to an area near the Colorado River where the states of Arizona, Nevada, and California intersected. Indeed this was not to be the wondrous “Bashan” that the Brewsterites had traveled so long, with tragic painful loss, to discover.
Olive and Mary Ann entered the chief’s household, where they were expected to work for their lodging, gathering wood, picking berries, and joining in the labor of sowing and harvesting wheat, corn, beans, pumpkins, and melons. In time, as the girls’ language skills improved, they entered into a deeper engagement with the Mohaves, discovering many who treated them with kindness, and friendships were forged. The chief’s wife assumed a motherly role with the girls, giving them plots of ground to cultivate as their own. Friendship flourished between Olive, Mary Ann, and the chief’s daughter, and to formalize this relationship, the tribe renamed Olive “Spantsa.” A mark of tribal relationships among the Mohaves was tattooing, and both Olive and Mary Ann joined in this initiation.
They were decorated with chin tattoos and single lines on each arm, with pigments from the juice of weeds mixed with blue powder ground from river rocks, and rubbed into the bleeding lines.
During the ensuing years after their transfer to the Mohaves, Mary Ann continued to grow weak from lack of nutrition. Despite Olive’s and the tribal chief’s family’s efforts, she died in the year Olive presumed to be 1855. Olive buried her sister, who had joined the growing number of Mohaves who also died of starvation in those drought years. Her burial was against the tribal tradition of cremation, but the tribe allowed Olive to do this.
Retracing our steps to the day of the massacre, we take up Lorenzo’s story. With amazing good luck, he managed to survive the Native American attack, he surmised, by either being thrown over the edge of the mesa, or falling over the cliff and remaining undiscovered by the marauding band as they left the scene of destruction. Lorenzo managed to make his way slowly to an emigrant encampment, where he recovered and spent the next five years seeking his fortune. Eagerly, he attempted to unearth more information about his family’s demise. While in Los Angeles, he joined up with men trekking into the mountains prospecting for gold, hoping that two goals might be met: information about his sisters—who he hoped might still be alive—and a means to make a living. News was received that one of them had died in captivity, but that the surviving sister was still living with an unknown tribe. Letters and petitions moved across the chain of government and military hands until one day, after runners had been sent out among the indigenous peoples, information returned that indeed Olive, or at least, a white woman named Spantsa, had been discovered. A Quechan tribal member offered to intercede and negotiate for her release.
February 1856 thrust Olive and her tribal family into turmoil and transition. The tribal emissary did indeed appear, and entered into an arduous three-day negotiation for Olive’s release. The tribal council argued that keeping her as a means of future friendly engagement with the white military would be more advantageous than her release. Finally the chief agreed to part with Olive, sweetened by the “gift” of a white horse. Accompanied by the chief’s daughter Topeka, Olive returned to Fort Yuma, dressed in her tribal attire of only a willow bark dress. A calico gown was quickly found so that she could be “properly” presentable.
The Olive Oatman welcomed at the fort was a woman transformed by five years of change beyond the ken of most people. Her English was halting, her countenance darkened by hard labor in sun and elements, and of course the inescapable permanent facial tribal tattoos created unsought attention. She was taken into the care of women in logistical support of the fort and slowly regained her familiarity with the English language and American acculturation.
Her brother Lorenzo soon heard of Olive’s recovery, and left California to reunite with his sister, and they spent much time acclimating themselves to the ensuing year’s changes and hardships. The last Olive saw of her tribal family was a final farewell with a member of the Mohave tribe who greeted her as she and Lorenzo were leaving the fort by wagon. It is said that Olive told him in his native tongue, “I will tell all about the Mohave and how I lived with them. Good-bye.”
Olive Oatman shared her story with newspapers throughout the West, and her and Lorenzo’s fame spread throughout America. She went on the lecture circuit, connecting with the Reverend Royal Byron Stratton, pastor of a Methodist church, and author of a semi-factual book recounting her experiences. The book became wildly popular in a country fascinated with Native encounters. Olive eventually married a wealthy cattle baron and banker who shielded her for the rest of her life from public scrutiny.
Lorenzo married and struggled unsuccessfully for success. He died at the age of 65, followed by Olive a year and a half later. Rev. Stratton became mentally unstable, and was defrocked from the church. There were always unsubstantiated rumors that Olive had half-Native American children, but never any proof.
And so we circle back to the ill-fated Oatmans. Roys’s choice to follow and believe in a charlatan’s made-up visions, and his stubborn refusal to heed his internal conscience and the warnings of others, cost his and his family’s lives, and incredible suffering for Olive, Mary Ann, and Lorenzo. The ensuing written publication of the Oatman Massacre places the blame of this tragedy on the Native American tribe as a consequence of the societal beliefs at the time. A chunk of this remains true, but the lion’s share can be laid squarely on Roys’s decision to blatantly disregard forewarning.
For years, the remains of the deceased family lay in situ, to rot and join the food chain on that rocky mesa top, bones scattered haphazardly among the rocks and cactus. Occasional wagons struggled over and past, including the Butterfield Stage that shared that remote trail, until at some point, the bones were gathered and covered in rock cairns. Later, travelers paused to remove the stones and re-inter the bones down the cliff to a spot where they could be buried in the soft sandy earth bordering the Gila River. The Gila, however, rampaged and flooded the burial spot. Many years later, the Daughters of the American Revolution banded together to build a more permanent granite and concrete memorial with a bronze plaque inscribed with the words
In Memory Of
The Oatman Family
Six Members Of This Pioneer
Massacred By Indians In March
Erected By The Arizona Society
Daughters Of The American
Revolution – 1954
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?!”
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 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!
Mirror: “Humanity’s ego reigns extreme,
but beneath your feet lives some supreme.”
A short stroll here, in the Anza Borrego Desert, remnant dried sea from a distant past, reveals a landscape pockmarked with hilly, funneled interior walls, dark entrances tunneled into the mysterious unknown.
I am reminded of scenes in the movie Time Machine, taken from the H.G. Wells novel, where a time traveler speeds nearly 803,000 years into a future earth where the Eloi, a gentle human species, is preyed upon by Morlocks, apelike creatures who live in wells deep within the planet.
What is this ubiquitous creature/s our mirror reveals reflectively? What better place to discuss species profligation (how’s that for a hundred-dollar word!) than in the desert, mostly considered barren and boring, lacking in life. Wikipedia states that 99% of all living things, numbering over 5 billion species that ever lived on earth, are estimated to be extinct. Estimates of our current living species range from 10-14 million, of which 1.2 million have been documented.
Research reveals that there are 300 pounds of insects for every pound of humans—200 million insects for every human. Now, looking closer into our didactic mirror we see some astounding facts: beneath our feet lives the most prolific creature thus known, the Springtail, or Collumbola, ranging from .25-10mm in length, of which there are 10-200,000 living in each square meter of soil on earth! Incidentally, they are called Springtails because they can flick their tiny tails and spring up to 10 cm to avoid predators.
Here’s a challenge. Get down on your knees with your magnifying glass and get to work studying the microcosm. On every scale, things are eating and being eaten, a mind-boggling silent, scary, munching sound that resounds all over the earth. What value does a thing so small have in our master civilization, you ask? Well, the tiny inherit and create the earth. Springtails are responsible for approximately 20% of vegetative decomposition so essential to plant life cycles.
What controls every millimeter of our earth wherever they live, which is pretty much everywhere? Right up there with the most prolific species on earth, and the creator of our sand-funnel mountains previously described, is the ant, with population estimates of 10,000 trillion to a quadrillion: 1,000,000,000,000,000.
That’s over a million ants per human on earth!
Ant populations are highly prolific and “civilized,” with reported super colonies extending thousands of kilometers’ expanse in numerous locations on earth. It is said that all the ants in the world combined weigh as much as all human beings. This is an amazing fact considering that a human weighs a million more times than the average ant.
As long as we’re talking dominant species, ants can lift 1,000 times their own weight over their heads. Here is an interesting factoid written by Graham Templeton in the Geek.com website:
“Consider a cube with sides 1×1×1 inches. The total volume of this cube is one cubic inch, with a total surface area of six square inches. That’s a six-to-one ratio of surface area to volume. What’s important to understand here is that, with respect to muscles, ‘volume’ is our proxy for mass, and ‘surface area’ stands in for strength; an ant’s muscles function pretty much like our own, with the contractile power coming from fibers on the exterior of the muscle.
“Now consider a cube of 10×10×10 inches; this gives us 1,000 cubic inches of volume, but just 600 square inches of surface—our six-to-one ratio has now become 0.6-to-one. This is because volume, and thus mass, increases according to a cubic function (X times X times X) while surface area increases as a square (X times X times some unchanging constant). This means that, as you get smaller, you also get stronger relative to your own body weight. It’s all about relative strength, though: you could still beat an ant in an arm-wrestle.
“On the other end of the spectrum is a blue whale, a creature so large that it could never have existed on land. Only with the helpful buoyancy of water (and sea water at that!) can a beast that massive hope to even control its own mass; when a whale beaches itself and feels the full weight of its own body, it’s often too weak to even shimmy back into the sea. Similarly, the classic doomsday scenario of a scaled-up ant terrorizing the nation with its super-strength is an overblown threat at best; any ant unfortunate enough to be super-sized in that way would immediately collapse under its own weight, dying a tortured and laborious death.”
Yes, even monstrous dinosaurs, that were growth-assisted by an overabundance of period atmospheric oxygen, submitted to physics in evolutionary size constraints.
I noted earlier that one quadrillion ants, that is, one with 15 zeros, are estimated to live on earth today. The total human population is around 7.4 billion. It is estimated that as of 2015, there have been 108 billion humans who have been born on earth in the history of humanity. Compare these quantities using the understanding that a billion is equal to 10 to the 9th power. I’m thinking there is some species humbling and awe inspiration going on now, eh?
Having said all this, we return, hats in hand, to face our truth-telling Mirror to ask,
“Mirror, Mirror, on the wall, what’s the smallest living thing of all?”
Truth be told, I cannot see,
deep into emerging reality.
Be still, open your mind,
learn facts from fiction,
and soon you’ll be cured
of this mirror affliction.
What do you do when you’ve visited a town several times a year for over 20 years, after having grown up there? You find a theme to fill your days, that’s what. And this time, I decided on: “San Diego restaurants in continuous operation since before 1961.” Meaning, they predate even me.
With the goal of having at least a drink, and probably a whole meal, at each of these, we loosened our belts and strapped ourselves into the gastronomical time machine. Here’s what we found:
Following the repeal of Prohibition in 1933, many restaurants added alcoholic beverages and music and dancing to their food service. One of these local restaurants, opened in 1931, was the Cho Book You restaurant in North Park, which featured “dine and dance” and meals served in “exclusive booths.” Playing upon the popularity of “exotic” Chinese food, in 1935 the proprietors remodeled the façade (advertised as “new attractive oriental front”) and changed its name to Pekin Café.
With old-school Chinese food this consistently good, it’s no wonder that the oldest Chinese restaurant in town has been serving San Diegans for almost 90 years. Wikipedia tells me that, while chop suey is widely believed to have been invented in America by Chinese Americans, anthropologist E. N. Anderson traces the dish to tsap seui (“miscellaneous leftovers”), common in Guangdong province, where many early Chinese immigrants to the U.S. are from. Add stir-fried noodles and it becomes the Chinese-American chow mein—literally, “fried noodles.”
We had the pork chop suey plate that came with old-school egg foo yung (a dish that, as early as the 1930s, was created by Chinese chefs in the U.S., and consists of a pancake filled with eggs, vegetables, and meat or seafood, covered with brown gravy), and fried rice; followed by the House chow mein: bean sprouts, celery, napa cabbage, onions, peapods, water chestnuts, and mushrooms; and chicken, bbq pork, beef, and shrimp. These dishes would go on to become a stereotypical staple of Chinese-American meals.
The food here was so good, so fresh, we actually visited twice, and both times were served by one of the friendly descendents of the original owner.
Seriously, who in San Diego hasn’t heard of the Chicken Pie Shop (1938)? Though it’s moved at least twice that I know of, it still serves up delicious chicken pot pies with sides of mashed potatoes, cole slaw, fresh-baked yeasty rolls, and “vegetable of the day.” And each dinner comes complete with a slice of pie for dessert as well. While there are other dishes on the menu (the grilled half chicken is worth a special trip), really, just get the Pie Dinner.
One morning’s breakfast time found us at The Original Pancake House, a chain founded in Oregon in 1953. Okay, so it’s not San Diegan, and it’s a chain. Whatever. Anyway, very generous (and delicious) breakfasts, served with friendly efficiency. A bonus for us was that our table was next to the open doorway to the kitchen, where we could watch this finely tuned machine churn out breakfast after breakfast, like clockwork.
Red Fox Room (1959). As a child, I remember seeing the neon sign for this place every time we drove into Hillcrest on El Cajon Blvd.
It looked so sophisticated, so grown up, so, well, Rat Pack (remember, this started when I was about five) that its mystery has stayed with me all these years. So when we pulled open the heavy door and entered its dimly lit interior, I couldn’t wait to see what was inside. To be honest, it was part letdown, part super-cool.
The super-cool part is that some of the décor in the Red Fox Room dates from around 1560—apparently it was part of an inn in Surrey, England, and brought to California in 1926 by Marion Davies, actress and long-time mistress of William Randolph Hearst. The Tudor-era building was dismantled, shipped to Los Angeles, and completely rebuilt to form her beach house, which she called her “Ocean House.” During the 1950s, the house was sold and the pieces—consisting of Tudor paneling and an intricately carved mantelpiece—were put into storage until they were bought by and moved to the Red Fox Room. We dined on perfectly cooked steaks in the shadow of that mantelpiece, which bears the date of 1642.
The Waterfront Bar & Grill has been a fishermen’s hangout since 1933, and boasts the longest continually held liquor license in town. We had some expertly made cocktails and a couple of burgers, just right for this slightly down-at-heel pub. The recent renaissance of San Diego’s Little Italy has improved the prospects of this bar, and it’s packed on weekends, though it’s a little cleaner, a little less seedy than I remember it when I used to hang out here in the 80s.
A hidden gem of a location, Tobey’s 19th Hole Café (1934) is set in the grounds of San Diego’s municipal golf course just outside Balboa Park. This café boasts the best view in town; the food is just okay, but the mimosas are generous, the service fast and very friendly (this is San Diego, after all), and it’s now on my list for a must-visit whenever we’re in town.
Rudford’s (1949) was the quintessential San Diego 24-hour diner on Old Highway 80, called by locals “The Boulevard,” and now a popular LGBTQ hangout. Go there for breakfast, grab a seat at the counter, and order a cup o’ joe.Then step outside and around the corner to pay your respects to President Kennedy (remember when we had real presidents?), whose motorcade passed by here. A life-size mural of the event now decorates the west wall.
Come early on a Friday night to the kitschy Turf Supper Club (1950) in Golden Hill, to guarantee a table and enough space on the grill for your meal. Yes, here you cook your own steak (or chicken, burger, or kebab) on the big grill set in the middle of the dining room. Steaks are great—at least ours were, expertly cooked by Ben—and cocktails are generous, served up by friendly (again, San Diego) staff. The baked potatoes were a little underdone, and the grill can’t really fix that. But there’s a piano bar on Sundays, and if you’re under 30, this is a happening place—we were the oldest people in the room by at least 20 years. Bonus: The whole place is 21+ only.
Sunday’s High Tide Breakfast at La Jolla’s Marine Room (1941) offers French-inspired dining with the surf crashing against the windows right next to your table. As a kid, I remember hearing that “the Marine Room is closed because of flooding,” but it looks like they figured out how to prevent that AND make an attraction out of it.
The Sunday breakfast, timed to coincide with high tide, was generous and delicious (chocolate-stuffed French toast, anyone?) and we enjoyed it in excellent company: our friends Kira & Todd, who flew down from the Bay Area, and Nancy & Brian, local pals.
We did note, however, that the amount of botox in the room made a curiously contrasting counterpoint to the young surfers and swimmers just outside the windows.
One evening, we decided to see a movie all the way out in El Cajon, and Wong’s Golden Palace
(1966—sorry, a bit out of the timeline, but close) was on the way. I looked forward to the Island of Flowers signature dish, and tiki drinks and the Signature Wong Cup from the Dragon Room bar. Alas, alas, they’d had a fire just a few weeks before, and only the bar was open (luckily the koi pond survived). One uninspired cocktail later, we were on our way to the movies.
The Bali Hai (1954) is San Diego’s favorite chic Polynesian paradise.
If you want spectacular views of San Diego Harbor and the downtown skyline, this is the place to come. Signature cocktails include The Zombie—guaranteed to make you move like one—and the Mai Tai, a pure alcohol concoction that a running-total neon sign informs us over
two million have been served just in 2017. Warm open-air breezes make this a great location for just sitting and staring out at the view; time absolutely zooms by. Oh, and don’t miss the kinda creepy, giant tikis featured throughout.
On our penultimate morning in San Diego, I wanted to celebrate by visiting an old edge-of-downtown haunt, Hob Nob Hill (1944), originally called Dorothy’s Oven.
So, up at the crack of dawn, I left Ben sleeping while my parents and I went out to seek some history for breakfast. While the Hob Nob specializes in American comfort food, I ordered the slightly exotic quiche of the day and a mimosa, and fondly fancied myself genteel. Great coffee, too.
While these two places haven’t been around for anything like 50 years, they deserve mention here as being just, well, fabulous.
Snappy Dog.“Give me a hot dog—and make it Snappy!” Windy City native Ben discovered that this famous Chicago eatery has recently opened a location here in San Diego, and we trekked out to the San Diego State University area to find it. Here you can get authentic Italian beef (wet, dry, or “semi-dry”), mozzarella sticks (aka Snappy Stix), and, of course, the signature Snappy Dog—the Chicago-style, original Vienna hot dog with mustard, relish, chopped onions, pickle spear, tomatoes, sport peppers, and celery salt. Why Snappy Dog? Because it snaps when you bite it.
La Lucha Libre. Love Mexican wrestling? Addicted to Mexican wrestling-themed B movies (that rival Bollywood for exciting—and confusing—drama)? Never even heard of it? Well, the folks at La Lucha Libre not only have, they celebrate it at this mind-bending taqueria on Washington Street. While it’s just your typical taqueria for the most part—except for the Mexican wrestling paraphernalia and continuous-loop movies—if you plan ahead you can reserve “the Champion’s Booth,” and be treated like the champion you are. The booth is all about bling, and operates under the premise that “too much is never enough.”
Once seated, you are served a variety of 10 different salsas and (my favorite) a ringside-type bell to announce your every gastronomical desire: the moment you ring, a server rushes out attend to The Champions’ current whim. It’s the only table in the place that provides waitstaff. And, of course, a choice of masks. Let the Taco Smackdown begin!
Two months have now passed since the passing of Gyp, and we are crossing into the outfield of two years’ exploring a life of enchantment on the roads less traveled, hence the blog post title. There was, though, a pit stop at our nonagenarian parents’ house in San Diego to perform some Bodhisattva carpet installation and minor repairs throughout. Ruth set a tantalizing goal of researching the restaurants in town that held the historical provenance of “oldest in continual operation.” It would be our challenge to sample and explore, eat and drink in as many as possible during our temporary residency. Look for her fascinating blog post to come.
Music, magic, and mathmagic
All business completed, we pushed east into Alpine, California, to the cozy home of Brian and Nancy in time to participate in a house music concert, which was sublime indeed. The Eve Selis Band, comprising a posse of incredibly talented master musicians, arrived with an approximate combined devotion to the muse of music of nearly 200 years. An intimate venue embracing approximately 50 people, in the presence of a band that can play pretty much anything in your imagination, who had shared the stage with some of the world’s best musicians, cradled in the living room of a welcoming desert home, is mystically transformative.
There is something unique in live music where musicians and participants share a synergy of energy not unlike a musical Fibonacci series—or Golden Mean—where one plus one morphs into three, growing and spiraling exponentially into mystical transformative change. If you take a series of numbers, start with 0, 1… and calculate each successive number from the sum of the previous two (e.g., 0+1=2, 1+2=3, 2+3=5, 3+5=8, etc.), you are now exploring the Golden Mean.
Let’s take a moment to examine our musical scale in relationship to Fibonacci: There are 13 notes in the span of any note through to its octave. For example, the octave of C on the piano has 13 notes in total: 8 white keys and 5 black keys. However, to play the scale of C, we only play the 8 white keys.
A scale is comprised of 8 notes, of which the 5th and 3rd notes create the basic foundation of all chords.
We also have harmonizing intervals of 3rds and 5ths.
To produce a 3rd, we play the first note and a note 2 tones higher than this note.
To play an octave, we play the first note, and then another note 8 tones higher.
Note in all the above, (which is the basis of all music), all of the notes and intervals only use Fibonacci numbers 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, and 13. The series can also be used when composing music to make patterns of notes that are pleasing to the ear. Experts claim that classical composers like Mozart and Bartok used the Fibonacci Series in some of their pieces. More contemporarily, rock & roll music leans heavily on power chords, which are 5ths intervals.
The above diagram represents the Golden Ratio. It can be represented simply, without performing a quadratic formula as 1.61803…or mathematically notated as “Phi.” If you draw a line 1.61803 times larger, or 61.8% larger, than the one before it, you are traveling along the Golden Mean.
We need fingers to play our musical notation as described above, and just looking at our fingers to perform this act we see the distance between each joint in each finger matches quite closely the Golden Ratio, as does the ratio of forearm to hand. Leonardo Da Vinci recognized this series in facial patterns, and applied it to one of his most famous portraits, the Mona Lisa.
Nature is chockablock with examples of this nature, seen in the spiral growth of plants, flowers, and shells; and it is found in art and architecture that “for some reason” pleases us. The great masters knew of this synergy and played it. Live music taps into the heart stream of this magic, and the people who entered into this musical cradle were rocked and rolled, leaving with their atoms excitingly rearranged and reassembled in a new place.
For those inquisitive folks that would like to deeply explore the magic of the Fibonacci Series, here is a link to a 45-minute podcast from BBC Radio 4, titled “The Fibonacci Sequence.”
Warning! Opening this door could cause you to enter an awakening of mind, similar to that enjoyed by Donald Duck in the 1959 Walt Disney short film, Donald Duck in Mathmagic Land.
Mid-November finds us in sunny and warm Anza Borrego State Park to reprise a memorable visit a year ago. We begin training hikes to ramp up to our next year’s Pilgrims Way walk from London to Canterbury, England, and several months’ worth of deep in-country exploration. Thanks to Ruth’s research, we will boldly go where few tourists travel, snooping below cathedral carpets for hidden crypts, stalking narrow corridors along dark twisted back streets, embracing in fire-warmed corners of local neighborhood pubs, blowing dust off antiquarian books stacked in dimly lighted museum libraries, deciphering hidden messages on hand-stitched tapestries, and much more….
Some people have asked us why we don’t monetize our blog site, that is, apply links to products that we have found useful along our journey as full-timers (and get kickbacks from Amazon). This works successfully for many as a supplementary “on the road” income, but our intent is to keep this body of work fully in the realm as described in Latin in the old opening movie credits for MGM: Ars Gratia Artis (art for art’s sake). This is not to say that at some point we won’t invite you to purchase an eBook of this rapidly expanding treasure trove of travel trekking. Stay tuned.
A life of enchantment, to cast a magic spell, to sing…we hear the ever-present call of the muse of the road…anon, Muse, anon…
August 10, 1952: Patricia Huber was feeling very uncomfortable. She was a few days, or perhaps hours, from giving birth, and her baby’s kicking and rolling about was tempering her tolerance for the event soon to come. She shuffled over to the Philco black and white TV, clicked it on, and waited the obligatory minute for the tube to excite into a grainy image. It, too, expressed its displeasure by providing little response to her shuttling of the rabbit-eared antenna on top. Clicking the antenna switch and turning the antenna in 360-degree arcs brought little satisfaction, though holding it in the air two feet above the set sharpened the picture non-acceptably. Several weeks before, she had removed a number of tubes from the back of the set and brought them to the Rexall Drug Store down the street for testing, replacing one. This was not the time for the set to go on the fritz. Clicking through channels she settled on Kukla, Fran, and Ollie,
and thought to herself that it wouldn’t be long before her soon-to-arrive child might be entertained by this show. Two days later, unassisted by early network TV, a baby boy—me—was born.
August 10, 2017, 65 years later: Ruth and I drive slowly and deliberately up an eight-mile winding switchback road, arriving at Wheeler Peak in Great Basin National Park, to begin a pilgrimage to one of the oldest living things on earth: bristlecone pines. There are other lofty contenders: cloning oak (Jurupa Oak),
which is thought to have reproduced itself for over 13,000 years, lives in Riverside, California, in a thicket of 70 stem clusters that all share the same genetics. If that 13K age pushes your alertness button, there is another tree grouping called Pando in Utah, which is not a single tree but a grove of 47,000 quaking aspens that share the same root system. This massive underground organism shares a similarity to huge subterrestrial fungal/mushroom mats, and it is a matter of interpretation whether they are a single living thing or a multiplicity of identical trees spread out over 107 acres of land. Here is the most stunning fact in regard to this ancient living, cloning, entity: it is estimated to have lived for over one million years! Yes! You read that right. Trees that may have predated humanity.
I don’t want to steal the thunder from these massive methuselahs, as they have the uniqueness and advantage of communal support. There is much to be said about the power and strength of this lifestyle. We, however, set out on a trek into our particular portal of the past, in Great Basin, one of a few spread-out bristlecone enclaves throughout the western United States.
These uniquely individual trees stand stalwart in all weather and conditions, growing infinitesimally over time and adversity. They have a provenance handed down by previous generations through fossil records dating back more than 40 million years, to the Eocene Epoch, when modern mammals first emerged.
Our destination grove contains bristlecones averaging around three to four thousand years of age, but some of the oldest dated by dendrochronology (the study of tree growth ring patterns) still stand at around 4,800 years. These precious Ancient Ones are guarded from the curious and often destructive masses by secreting their locations. Studies of long dead, yet still undecayed bristlecone trunks, have revealed their ages to be around 8,000 years or more. We observed the grounded corpses of trees that died over one thousand years ago, looking much like their vertical living family.
Many pilgrimages demand sacrifice from seekers, and our shibboleth was a hike over steep rocks and roots beginning at 9,800 feet, plodding up, step by careful step, sucking precious elusive air, to arrive at the time capsule island of Ancient Ones at 10,400 feet. To instill clarity to this journey, I’ve broken down our pilgrimage of 1.4 miles one way, into a timeline of a typical bristlecone lifespan. A few facts before I begin:
An average person walks approximately 2,000 steps per mile, with a single stride of about 2.5 feet
Some of the oldest bristlecones at our destination have lived 4,000 years
4 trail distance miles, one way = 7,392 feet, with an average stride of 2.5 feet = 2,957 steps
Assigning the number of steps taken to years of bristlecone life, on our journey, from the start of the trail to the grove: 2,957 steps; divided by 4,000 years gives us: 1 year of life = ¾ of a stride or about .74 steps per year. Whew!
No. of steps
What was happening in history
California Gold Rush
Signing of the Declaration of Independence
Shakespeare writes Hamlet
Leonardo Da Vinci paints the Mona Lisa
The Incas rule Peru
The Ming Dynasty begins in China
Chartres Cathedral in France is consecrated
Angkor Wat in Cambodia, one of the wonders of the world, is completed
Classic Pueblo Anasazi culture thrives in North America
Mohammed flees from Mecca to Medina; 1st year of the Muslim calendar
Rome falls to the Vandals
The Chinese develop paper
Great Wall of China is built
The Parthenon in Athens is built to honor Athena, goddess of wisdom
Cyrus the Great of Persia conquers Babylon and frees the Jews
Lao Tse, founder of Taoism, is born
The Iliad and The Odyssey are composed, possibly by Greek poet Homer
Hebrew elders write the Old Testament books of the Bible
The Olmec civilization thrives in Mexico
Hammurabi, king of Babylon, develops the oldest known code of laws
Stonehenge is constructed, the Pharaohs rule Egypt, the Great Pyramid of Giza is completed in approximately 2,680 BCE.
Our bristlecone pine is now a sapling, 3 feet high and already 40 years old.
Having attained our destination, I felt impelled to reach out and wrap my arms around the steel-hard and environmentally twisted wood trunk, and imagine my miniscule 65-year life span as if it could be comprehended by my ancient tree, or even I by it? I have lived one one-hundredth the lifetime of this embraced master of elements. How much life force, a wisdom of sorts, was absorbed into this tree’s moment-to-moment existence? The elements that gave it life, temperature, nutrients, air quality, environmental forces to resist growth, drought, imperfect seasons, insect pests, wood rotting fungi, attempts by man to cut down, trim and remove limbs for fire, lightning strikes, avalanches, rain, flooding and wind storms, shifting terrain, climate change, earthquakes, old age, emanated in its magnificence.
In the world of man, our cares appear to revolve around us. We exist at the peak of life’s pyramid, or so we perceive it, yet the bristlecone pine stands silently living—gnarled, limbs broken, bark stripped, trunk twisted, yet thriving in adversity through the millennia. Reaching out again, I feel the ancient trunk with respectful hands, nearly three-quarters of my life past, but at the moment very honored to be in the presence of One who continues to silently impart life lessons reflectively.
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.
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…?
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.
I hate boxes. No, not the cardboard kind that Kitty plays in. I mean those boxes people put you in (and you put them in) the minute you put a label on something.
The Box: “My husband, who is retired, and I travel in our RV” = an old, maybe bent, thinning-white-short-haired guy, wearing baggy cargo shorts and a Walmart Hawaiian shirt doddering around, flipping switches on a Class A RV the size of a building, with four slideouts and two yappy dogs who don’t listen to a word their owners bark at them.
The Reality: Ben’s bright red ponytail (we can’t use purple in the Airstream, it gets everywhere) sometimes gets caught in all the bracelets he wears. His Hawaiian shirts are custom made with that fabulous pinup girl fabric we’ve collected over the years. (Erm, by me, of course.) (Box: “My wife would never let me wear that!”) I won’t even talk about the Airstream other than to say it’s an Airstream. And the dog is, of course, our geriatric border collie, who would no more not listen to our commands than breathe. And hasn’t barked in years. The day she doesn’t obey will be because she’s already herding sheep in that big field in the sky.
The Box: “Husband” = hates shopping, would rather spend Friday night with his buddies; “wife” gets mad at him for drinking with his buddies, makes him cut his hair, rolls her eyes at his tattoos.
The Reality: Yep, he’s drinking with his best buddies, which includes me, and I’m probably pouring as well. My tattoos rival his. His son was surprised to learn I have a motorcycle license. Why? And why was his CC instructor surprised when I handled Ben’s Glock competently? Sure, mine’s a Smith & Wesson, but c’mon. There’s nothing intrinsically contained in the X chromosome that makes one more or less competent.
Our guide on the train the other day was excellent and knowledgeable, but when she said, “Guys, I’m sorry, but I have to say this: ladies, the shopping is on XX Street, and especially jewelry,” she lost a few credibility points with me. I couldn’t care less about jewelry (you can’t eat it, it doesn’t keep you warm), but you’ve all seen Ben and his collection. And I have to drag him out of stores. Then, she lost more points when she said, “And guys, the best beer is at…” Because I can’t appreciate good beer?
The sad thing is, people start believing the boxes, and then they start changing their life to suit the box, instead of the other way around: “My wife would never let me wear that!” People think the word that incenses me there is the verb (wear, drive, buy, think), but no, it’s let. I’m not his mother, it’s not up to me what Ben wears, or does, or thinks. Nor am I responsible for it. I spend enough time wrestling with what I am responsible for.
And on the subject of consanguinity, I’m not his mother or his sister so, no, we don’t have the same last name. That would be creepy. That is a holdover from an age when women were what our current president thinks they are (box), not what we actually are (reality).
Don’t get me wrong, many boxes are useful. When we ask to see a wine list, and the waiter or sommelier asks us where we’re from, we cut to the chase and say “California wine country.” That box means: We know our wine, you’re welcome to suggest but don’t try to upsell us or make us drink swill.
Sometimes, our box is, “just north of the Golden Gate Bridge.” That places us near San Francisco, but not in the City, because, well for starters, where would we put the Airstream? “Airstream”—there’s another box. Not a bad one.
Often, Ben’s first question to a fellow full-timer is “Where is ‘home’ when it’s not the RV?” but to me, the fact that they’re on the road means no label, no box; they’ve chosen, like us, to be from nowhere. From everywhere.
And speaking of boxes, I started this little essay in Dodge City. What does that tell you? Badly acted gunfights, cheesy wax museums, olde tyme photo parlours, ye olde gifte shoppes, you know those boxes. Awesome!
What better opportunity to free ourselves from the unrelenting crush of summer excursionists flowing in and around us, like red corpuscles along arterial trackways, than to disengage into a ten-foot-wide opening in the highway fence. The promise of solitude and freedom from DDD: “Determined Driving to Destination” called to us, and we slowed to a crawl on deeply rutted dirt, highway receding into the distance in circles of dust shielding, in brown haze, our arrival. Unhitching our trailer, we set off in search of our oasis for the week. A circuitous mile trampolined past, to reveal a fork in the road and a captivating clearing with views of snow-capped mountains rimming the 360-degree horizon.
But for the wind, the thrum of blood coursing in our ears was the prevalent sound. We were standing on the edge of BLM-controlled land, on the Old Spanish Trail. This terrestrial trackway was trod by wildlife, Native Americans who tracked them, and—between the years 1829 and 1848—became known as the shortest path to riches for traveling Mexican caravans between Los Angeles and Santa Fe. (The roots of this “road” possibly reach back to North American pre-history and the aboriginal Pueblo people of Chaco Canyon, AD 900-1150.) These highly sophisticated Puebloan natives developed trade routes and commerce spanning great distances. Their prolific social transactions acquired tortoise and abalone shells from the Gulf of Mexico and Pacific Coast; turquoise, copper bells, parrot and macaw feathers from the jungles of Mexico, Central, and South America; and perhaps knowledge of the great Mayan and Incan cultures that flourished before them. Here, in our temporary homestead, we would listen for the long dead ghosts of their hopes and aspirations. The loose network of pathways meandered across the western frontier of the United States, crossing the Mojave Desert, and became the established trade corridor that soon attracted frontier and mountain men, and military expeditions, seeking safe passage across the daunting peaks of the West. The 2,700 miles of trail became known as the longest, most arduous, and crookedest pack mule route in America. There are many stories and legends told of the intrepid Kit Carson, who traversed this route numerous times in his lifetime, exploring, leading immigrants, and in service to the U.S. Cavalry in the Mexican American War.
Santa Fe, a Spanish outpost, was established in the early 1600s, ten years before the arrival of the Plymouth Colony on the Mayflower. The Spanish Trail became a network of connection and commerce between the colonies on the California coast, Presidio Monterey and San Gabriel Mission, Los Angeles, and those in the interior of New Mexico. This trail, though it became more prominent in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, has roots deep and wide throughout First Nations’ history. Long before the arrival of Western culture, these paths supported the sustenance and evolution of tribal living. In writing this my thoughts diverge…
…I grew up being taught and believing that Cristoforo Colombo discovered America. Imagine my letdown when I learned that the dude never made it, instead landing on an island in the Bahamas! He was preceded to North America by many others. There are historical claims and perhaps evidence that the Chinese arrived on the West Coast a thousand years before Chris, opening a string of Golden Palace, Panda Express, and China Café restaurants, but the locals never caught on to those hard noodles in the chop suey…
…The driven and dangerous Danes hit the East Coast around the year 1,000, but never hit it off with the natives, who didn’t like being put through mazes of aisles just to get to the cooking utensils. And who needed complicated furniture construction instructions anyhow? The indigenous population were back-to-the-landers, keeping it simple, breaking free from urban and suburban trendy lifestyles. The Vikings eventually returned whence they came, as it appears they encountered a deeply unsatisfied population that would gather in large groups and shout in unison, in their native tongue, “Eye Kee Yaa! Eye Kee Yaa!” Centuries later, it was eventually recognized that the translation from their almost dead language was “Pale-faced, long-haired invaders, Go Home!” But not before the newly civilized Norse of the North returned to honor their memory with the mistranslated named store, “Good Home…”
…For years at the summer solstice, crowds of people flocked to Chaco Canyon to await, in awe, the arrival of a vertical shaft of light, The Sun Dagger, that arose over the buttes and pierced a spiral petroglyph chipped into the rock by ancient locals exactly at its center.
It is no longer visible however, due to shifting rock slabs and increased erosion from extreme visitation. There are other similar manifestations in Chaco, of solstice light penetration into specific sacred Kiva windows. It truly is a wonder how a supposed savage people could command such knowledge. A commonly held belief though, thanks to an undereducated motel manager’s fantastic musings, is that this depth of technology could only have come from alien inspiration. When in doubt, blame it on aliens, credit where credit is due. But I’ve digressed…
Exploration of our temporary homestead revealed scattered bones of horses, sheep, cows, and detritus of grazing, symbolic of the passage of commerce along this route. Our own four-wheel exploration led us deeper into a rocky National Forest area that beckoned us to travel its sinuous trackways, but we held fast before entering a road of no return. There were to be other adventures awaiting us yet ahead.
Just a mere quarter mile away from our alien silver ship, rose a solitary mountain that I named, “Le Petite Teton,” for reasons clarified by observing this image.
This mount called to us like all objects just beyond our reach, and we could spy a rocky hint of a pathway up its talus slope. Fortified with water-filled backpacks, we set out against a relentless climb at an angle increasing exponentially to close to 60 degrees near the summit. Our home campsite sat at a 7,971-footelevation and we discovered that our “teton” peak destination was at 8,447 feet. I’ll do the math for you: This is an average rise of about a third of a foot for every foot traveled up the slope. Upon reaching the summit, I noticed a glint of copper reflected off a flat rock face.
It revealed itself to be an NGS (National Geodetic Survey) marker drilled and set in concrete in 1935. Intrepid hikers will discover these markers in diverse locations throughout America, emanating by direction of Thomas Jefferson in 1807, to carefully define the geography of our lands. These markers, once calculated and laid laboriously by hard labor, have since migrated to satellite and GPS reckoning systems.
Every NGS marker has a name or number which can be looked up online. Ours was named Limekiln from a local tributary, and upon research was numbered HL0468, with the geographic coordinates of 37.618466, -106.280297. So now you can plug these numbers into your GoogleMaps and locate exactly the place we stood…except the NGS notes from later surveys (there have been three since) stated that the marker had moved 3 centimeters, perhaps due to shifting rock. I’m not going to think about how much a 3cm movement would look like over 50 million years…Find and claim our camping spot if you are ever in the area (coordinates above). Check it out in satellite view.
Just for the sake of breathing perspective, our 7,971-foot-high campsite is exactly the elevation of Machu Picchu, Peru—you know, the famous hike where non-native visitors chew coca leaves to survive elevation sickness. This is not quite accurate though, as in order to fly in for this excursion you come into Cusco, the highest population city in the world, at 11,152 feet, where said leaves are so much in demand to mitigate elevation sickness. Those wacky Spaniards that marched across America in search of, yet never finding, the famed Golden City, perhaps even along segments of our Old Spanish Trail, were foiled again upon climbing up these perilous peaks.
We posted this short video clip a number of months ago—how time does slip by—but it seems appropriate to once again revisit it as an icon to our response that seems to pop up inevitably no matter where we go, and pretty much as regular as the new day dawns. This was snipped from that very iconic film, The Magnificent Seven, staring Yul Brenner and Steve McQueen.
As we travel West, there is a subtle shift in the spirit that Ruth and I have noticed and discussed often. Generally speaking, in the history of our country, there has been a continual migration of the populace West in search of fortune and freshness of opportunity. Some immigrated to America, stayed, and rooted. Others moved West, and West again. We’ve read biographical accounts of families that carved out lives and homesteads against great odds, heard the call to newer horizons, and pulled up stakes to recreate their hopes anew. What challenges and trials they encountered! When we stop and contemplate the effort that went into just acquiring food to eat; remember, no refrigeration, no prepackaged grocery items, no Cabela’s to purchase ammunition, no police force to protect from those seeking short cuts to their labors, or from angry natives seeking revenge for your invasive presence on their lands.
No judgement here, but among those who stayed for generations, a powerful spirit of community and pride of place and roots developed. They found their Valhalla. And then there are those pesky migration genes that drive humanity ever onward and westward, metaphorically. I’m not going to ask you to guess which category we fall into, but as you travel West you begin to feel that subtle call to seek that which is just beyond the next hill. Dare I quote the voiceover, opening lead-in, to the Star Trek television series, in reference to the Starship Enterprise? “…to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no one has gone before.”
The West is geographically less compact, more amenable to movement: the open spaces push away constriction of mind and challenge you to explore. There are reduced comfort factors, yes, perhaps fewer meticulously cross-stitched “Home Sweet Home” decrees emblazoned in picture frames on living room walls.
There is a burgeoning inner voice emanating from the soul of civilization reframing itself in the new millennia to demand a revisitation and reaffirmation of our earthly stewardship. Concurrent in that consciousness is the old familiar nomadic urge to migrate (no longer constrained by gravity), exhorting humanity to lift off terra firma and seek new homes among Earth’s sister planets.
I just hope humanity can transcend its militant animalistic nature in time to make this leap. Perhaps we all reside in a nexus of civilization. In the meantime though, mindful of this, we move on, meeting, sharing, and learning as we go. I am reminded of the definition of epigenesis:development involving gradual diversification and differentiation of an initially undifferentiated entity. It is true that we may have a genetic predisposition to violence passed down from our ancestors, but this predisposition impels, but doesn’t compel, action. It is modified by an infinite environment of factors such as formal education, and life lessons through interpersonal intercourse.
The theory of epigenesis presents us a unique opportunity to participate and prove the theorem scientifically through active engagement in civility, tolerance, broad-mindedness, and vulnerability that comes from placing oneself, through travel, in unprescribed environments. This is a tall order, an aspiration to emulate for sure. We return to ponder momentarily the Star Trek theme.
The call of Go West! is still alive, though the West Coast is stackin’ ’em up and pushin’ ’em back as the populace expands, but the response remains as strong as it was when Chris, Yul Brenner’s character was asked the question, “Where ya goin’?”
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“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.
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,
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.
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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Tornado warnings brought our tiny cavalcade of one to a halt outside of Hutchinson, Kansas (“Hutch” to the locals). We were headed for a nearby campground, but thanks to our NOAA weather app, we knew a “severe thunderstorm” with “possible tornado warnings” was headed straight for us, following the same route. Winds up to 85 mph, hail the size of grapefruit, power out all over the area, drama, drama, drama. Worst of all, it would be centered, essentially, right over our campsite. The same campsite that offered no shelter in the way of trees to keep the promised hail off the Silver Submarine, nor wind to keep us from lying awake, listening to every gouge of every hailstone.
So, about six miles from our destination, we pulled into a truck stop to decide what to do. We’d already driven more than our self-allotted maximum miles, and we were too tired to continue anyway. The sky was looking rather dramatic, sort of like the background in the first black-and-white scenes with Dorothy and Toto in The Wizard of Oz. Uh oh. In that moment, we looked at each other and said, “Where would be safe to stay the night?” and our gaze wandered over the ranks of semis ranged along the fence. “Um, here?”
Ben masterfully snuggled our little rig between two of the humming, thrumming monsters, calculated to be just far enough apart to open our door. We opened all the windows to let fresh air in, and it started to rain. And rain. Then rain. Then really rain. And then the wind blew, strong enough that it was a test of strength and stamina just to open our door. Hail the size of pennies speckled our porthole windows. Hail is anathema to Airstreams, but apparently pennies are small enough change. We heard the wind die, were briefly in the eye of the storm, then it shifted direction and blew and rained some more. We fell asleep to the gentle rocking of our rig, the strong winds blunted by our titanic, diesel-warbling neighbors.
The next morning, I woke to a clear blue sky, birds singing, flowers blooming, just like after Dorothy lands in Oz (no, no Munchkins). Across the freeway was the town water tower which read: Southern Hospitality, Kansas Style. Sorry, not really my style.
Quickly skirting the few remaining semitrucks in the lot (these guys get up and on the road early), Gyp and I spotted a kiosk surrounded by landscaped lawn, with a little parking lot nearby.
Walking over, we saw that it was the Hutchinson Salt Company historical marker. A 1,260-pound block of—you guessed it—salt.
Apparently this is a big deal here in Hutch. You can press a button to see what the discoverer, Benjamin Blanchard, would have seen gazing into a big hole in the earth (“as seen on The Discovery Channel”). Which looked like, well, a big dark hole in the earth.
This salt is reputedly so marvelous, it’s exported as far away as Minnesota, California, and even the northern Mexico territories—truly a global enterprise, Kansas Style!
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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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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.
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.
“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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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.
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.
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: 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?
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
Never ship a UPS package to a USPS (don’t mix up those letters!) facility
Stop ordering frivolous items
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.
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We slowly meandered east and up along the south Texas coast line hugging the Gulf of Mexico’s warm waters, and serendipitously chose Galveston Island as our place of refuge and discovery for a time. We discovered a pleasant campground, Galveston Island State Beach, and were placed on the bay side, away from the roar of the waves and the salt surf, in a peaceful circle of 20 peripatetic RVs, phasing in and out, like birds in a nest.
Our usual practice is to study the web for local spots of interest to explore, and Ruth mentioned the Bryan Museum. I perked up immediately when she described it as one of the foremost museums of western history and artifacts. I’ve had a long fascination for the subject, and, well, we have been traveling through most of the heart of the West these past months, so for crying out loud this opportunity fits right in like a well-used pistol in its carefully oiled holster.
The Bryan Collection, assembled by JP and Mary Jon Bryan, houses one of the largest collections of historical artifacts, documents, and artwork relating to Texas and the American West, spanning more than 12,000 years. JP is the descendant of Emily Austin Bryan Perry, who was Stephen Austin’s sister. Stephen Austin was the man who founded Texas by leading 300 families from the US into the region in 1825. The Bryan collection has its roots deep within the family, as both Bryan’s father and uncle were collectors; not merely to spotlight the illustrious family legacy and pedigree, but also their relationship to western American history.
Let me tell you, the imposing edifice that houses this collection is metaphorically like the inside of the mysterious warehouse that held the Ark of the Covenant at the end of the film, Raiders of the Lost Ark, except that this building is nothing like a warehouse. Every aspect from the outside to the inside of this structure carries the imprint of quality, care, and attention to detail that represents the family and its legacy.
Walking into the building you are struck by the fastidiousness and craftsmanship in every quadrant. The woodwork, top to bottom, is finely finished and polished and every exhibit presents itself with the utmost in appropriate technology and thoughtfulness to the legacy of the period and its transmission to our 21st century milieu. Many of the exhibits offer, outside their displays, iPads for further detailed research and examination. For example, you can peruse the page-by-page journal of Cabeza de Vaca, an early explorer and adventurer who was shipwrecked in Galveston and traveled for many years throughout the region. (If you want to discover an adventure story unlike any other, read these journals and be transported to a time and introduced to a person of superhuman fortitude and perseverance.) Another iPad allows the viewer to study in fine, magnified detail each of the numerous rare handguns and rifles displayed in the case, each with its significant connection to historical events.
If this hasn’t piqued your interest, you might, after studying a huge diorama of the battle of San Jacinto—depicting the decisive battle of the Texas revolution led by Sam Houston engaging Santa Anna’s Mexican army—examine the iPads and follow the engagement from both the Texans’ and Mexicans’ perspectives. You will spend so much more time in your fascinating inquiry than the fight, which lasted just 18 minutes.
We had the opportunity to self-explore through the museum but our timing was perfect to be led by our docent, Jack Evins. Our group of four was held enthralled for close to two hours by Jack’s erudite and easy manner of making history and the collection come alive. In keeping with the demeanor of quality permeating the Bryan, Jack answered all the questions from our group with care and detail. Early on, after a description of a rare pistol in a display case, I queried Jack about the cartridge caliber. He responded that he was unsure but after the tour he would look into it. Sure enough, immediately following our excursion, he came to me to explain that he had contacted the museum exhibit manager, who showed up shortly thereafter and proceeded to open the display case, remove the pistol with white gloves, examine it, and answer my question. I don’t encourage this, but try that on a docent tour in your run-of-the-mill museum, my friends. This speaks to the museum’s (and Jack’s) level of the love of subject, deep interest, the desire to continue accumulating knowledge, and dedication of service with no recompense expected. All this to say, this is a pretty special understated gem of a place where people of means have taken upon themselves to display their passion for others to enjoy, instead of cloistering their collection hidden behind gated walls.
I have barely scratched the surface here, from the building itself (which has a long and compelling history of its own), to art, to artifacts, clothing, weapons, and historical and rare documents. The permanent collection contains examples of all these and more, from prehistory, through the Spanish colonial era, to Texas frontier and statehood. Also housed within the exhibits are western rarities in general, and paintings both period and modern that can stand “Texas Tall” against any museum in the world. It is not just a place of sights, but also of sounds. After a brief description of an exhibited Spanish mission bell, my childlike curiosity to reach out and tap it with my ring to hear its tone (very strongly discouraged!) was assuaged by the recorded tone as we passed by—a satisfying, sybaritic, and satiating sound, saving me admonishment and embarrassment.
We were honored to be able to engage on this level of enrichment and endowment of family, history, and country. I was exhausted from attempting to retain as much of the richness of detail into memory. From now on, if you say Galveston, I say “The Bryan!”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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:
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.
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).
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
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.
We were shown to a table—perhaps the very same table our hero, Barack Obama, sat in when he visited.
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!
Seeing a rodeo was big on our bucket list, and Rodeo Austin—our San Francisco-away-from-home in the middle of the conservative melting pot of the Lone Star State—would be the host. We’ve been talkin’ ’bout goin’ to this halfway across this fine country. Well hell, we’ve got our boots, hats, belts, and sheep dog, and we’re falling steeply into an easy drawl as we speak with the locals. To top it off, despite Ruth’s cringing reluctance, Dwight Yoakam is the musical headliner at the first night of the show. My earlier years living in the south inoculated me to the musical brand, gotta say.
In driving rain, we pulled into the huge gateway to the rodeo and fair ground causeway, inching our way in the vehicle throng to pay the $10 dollar parking fee. This granted us permission to be waved into the vast expanse of field mud, muck, and rocks, to park in anonymous rows…ruh row. Finding our horse upon return is going to be one heck of a challenge. “Not to worry,” I said to myself as I pulled out my cell phone parking app and clicked Current Location.
The carnival midway was lit up like Vegas on a Friday night, but the driving rain rendered attendance on the rides to close to zero. The colorful lights refracting through the rain drops made the scene an island-like mirage likened to a scary clown carnival movie set, and if you’ve seen the 1962 film Carnival of Souls, well…
Disappearing into a dark hole of hell was not to be our destiny that night as we soon were encapsulated into the throngs of people working their way into a huge oblong interior stadium with seating all the way from ring side high up into bleachers. All seats were ticketed, though not necessarily practiced, and folks competed politely for better seating. There was a fair share of reluctant shuffling through the tight rows—like everything else in Texas, most folks are BIG. In order to get to our seats, however, we had to pass through the portals of commercial chaos, venders selling everything western, from clothing, hats, belts, accoutrement, household art, farm equipment, animal supplies, and of course the ubiquitous beer and refreshments of the baser kind. We discovered, after seating, someone drinking one of Ruth’s favorite ciders and this synergized her rodeo experience. The wait in line for said drinks though, rivaled that of ladies’ restroom lines in a rock concert.
Just as my drink purchase finished, the stadium lights fell, and in the darkness an attractive young filly—woman, that is—rode out into the bright moving searchlight on a stunning pure white horse carrying an American flag and rode in synchrony and circles to the music. All hats were off, everyone standing, many with hands over hearts. The rowdy rumbling crowd transformed itself into a silent, worshiping unified mass of damp eyes and trembling patriotic hearts. As the “…land of the free, and the home of the brave,” stanza completed, a monstrous cheer arose from the throng. Capturing the moment’s ardent devotion, a video appeared on the massive center ring screen portraying all-American western scenes and images from the rodeo’s past. We had arrived at our destination.
“Why go to a rodeo?” you might ask. Well, tie-down roping, team roping, steer wrestling (or “rasslin’”), saddle bronc riding, bareback bronc riding, bull riding, and barrel racing, all vestiges from the Golden Age of the American West.
When you’re going to have a baby, and of course you’re planning on having your kid take up rodeo, your choice of names may just make the difference between winning and losing. These are the actual (we presume) first names of the contestants:
Bull riding: Wyatt, Chase, Dalton, Troy, Colby, Toby, Nate Barrel racing: Kara, Cayla, Rachel, Kaitlyn, Morgan, Molly, Katelyn, Kimmi Saddle bronc riding: Luke, Toby, Brady, Preston, Tom, Dusty Steer wrestling (rasslin’): Jacob, Taz, Cody, Chason, Cody, Kody, Trell Tie down roping: Justin, Cooper, Cade, Dillon, Cody, Clint Team roping: Will/Tanner, Jake/Tyler, Cale/Nick, Clayton/Dakota, Jessie/Jet, Brett/Wesley, Zac/Will, Ty/Krece
Now these are names to reckon with!
Watching this extravaganza is mind boggling in its complexity, hand-eye coordination, strength, and damn-sure tenacity. Tossing a lasso at full gallop to capture a running calf’s legs while your partner at the same time lassos its head in approximately seven seconds takes countless hours of horse, calf, and human exercise. Watching any bareback or saddle bronc or bull riding makes you cringe as you image the G forces rackingyour body and the feeling of being thrown from your mount countless times to acquire these skills, renders your knees weak. Certain areas of a cowboy’s anatomy would be the first to agree. This is a young man’s sport, to be enjoyed by us thankful spectators. I can’t imagine what drug could remedy the pain both short term and long from this sport. Perhaps this explains the rodeo’s popularity? This is spectacle, not only of skill but raw physicality that we perhaps all envy when it is past, if it ever came.
On the other side of the coin is the ever popular mutton-bustin’, where 3- to 9-year-olds take turns being hoisted up on the backs of sheep to see how long they can ride before dropping like full ticks off a dog. This is a real crowd pleaser, as everyone waits to see the wackiest position a kid can wrangle themselves into while barely grasping their woolen reins. The poor kids looked kind of lost in the exercise, not really sure what the heck was going on, and too young in most cases to develop a complex based on being laughed at by a crowd. At the end of this “Joke’s on You” exercise, each kid got an identical trophy regardless of time riding, not exactly the kind of message of winners and losers in life to portray. Incidentally, there is actually a phobia of sheep believe it or not called Ovinophobia. Put that in your woolen drawer. It may well be that some of these kids will go on to look up that definition later in life…or they’ll move on to horses and bulls. By the way, did you know that there is also a phobia of horses and bulls too: equinophobia and taurophobia?
No rodeo is complete without the ubiquitous clown, which in this case proceeded to make a fool of himself and the crowd, hey…isn’t that what a clown is for?! You got your clown arguing with the announcer, clown stealing a fan’s cell phone and looking up texts to read to the audience, clown spearheading vendor giveaways to sections of the crowd, clown leading crowd cheers, clown climbing in the classic clown barrel to be head butted by angry, agitated bulls. That was my favorite activity for that clown, yep justice.
And the moment we’ve all (mostly, except for Ruth) been waiting for! Tractors pulling trailers piled into the stadium loaded with sound equipment and a platform that folded out into a revolving stage. Dwight Yoakam’s roadies put on a premiere performance of setting up in 20 minutes for a band of five members and all their gear; very impressive. Unfortunately, the acoustics sucked in the stadium and you had to really struggle to get the words to the music. 99% of the songs were Dwight’s hits so the crowd, knowing the music, sang along…yes, me too in places, though Ruth struggled with this. I helped her with one of the lines in the truck later though:
“I’m a honkey-tonk man, and I can’t seem to stop,
love to give the girls a whirl to the music of an old juke box.
When my money’s all gone, pick up the telephone, say,
‘Hey hey, momma, can yer daddy come home.’” Yep!
One hour of solid music passed, including a tribute to the late Merle Haggard, and people intuitively sensed that if they didn’t leave then, they would be in a world of traffic hurt. I didn’t, thanks to undying Dwight fever to the last. Ruth and I agreed to meet at our entrance point to the stadium, and she gratefully bolted. I should have followed her, as how often do we forget that everyone leaving at once is not the same as everyone coming in over a period of several hours. I stared at my parking app in the rain for several minutes until Ruth took control and said, “Just follow me.” Our horse was tied where we parked her, and as is often the case, every one of the thousands present appeared to leave ahead of us on the one-lane exit road. Then there was the road construction on the streets of Austin that rivals that of the worst of any city I’ve ever seen. But that friends, is a different story!
I wake in the middle of the night to the sound of the wind beating our aluminum trailer skin, and crack an eye to watch it blow through curtains, carrying memories from time lost, when wind and water shared this space…this is a place where the earth dreams and remembers when continents bonded together in primordial conversations, waters delineating horizons.
This was a time when Earth brought to light the elements of itself to explore. There were no mammals, birds, or bees; or flowers to reflect color and awaken genesis through evolution. Dragonfly was king of the air; waters seethed in eddies of life; Earth simmered, memories of its youth still fresh to express; water, the womb of earth, nourished the cycle of change and transformation. Trilobite, one of the earliest of sea creatures, was nearing the end of its existence, and the reefs were closed off by tectonic movement. Land rose, water reformed itself in harmony with its contours, and all intercourse, interactions, and detritus in this liquid abyss of life slowly passed down, particle by particle, drawn by Earth’s gravity to settle on the sea bed, slowly accreting over countless eons of time.
Sea levels rose and fell as Earth morphed, and froze at times. Looking back in the mists of antiquity with the “eye of today” into those night skies would provoke questions and confusion, for galaxies and stars would be unrecognizable in contrast to our present panorama.
Countless skeletal fragments and marine organisms that fell through the abyss of water and time developed into our limestone sedimentation found all over the world, and particularly in our latest region of travel, central and southern Texas. The fossil reefs can now be seen in road cuts throughout the region and we stopped to bask in the rock time machine, and study with fascination the zoology in a small sampling within these cuts.
It is interesting to note that creationists state that the Great Flood, which we all learned carried Noah and the ark to safety (after, let’s not forget, killing every living being on earth, including innocent babies and children), is presumed to have taken place somewhere between about 4,000 and 100,000 years ago (yes, this is a considerable span of conjecture!). In order to fit this biblical paradigm into the development of limestone which is factually dated to approximately 350 million years ago, creationist hypotheses state that too much limestone exists on earth to be created in such a short time to fit into the biblical itinerary. They then postulate that it was created by the earth’s natural chemical/geologic formulations such as are found deep in the ocean near the tectonic trench and—I am not making this up—close to the “lost city.” (I’m not going here, okay?!) There are some mighty complicated chemical combination explanations as well as challenges to how long it takes for caves to be formed. Seems creationists haven’t heard of Occam’s Razor.
But there’s more: It was noted that the care keepers of caves continually shorten their projected dates of origin, and that stalagmites were “observed” to be formed in a matter of days (I’m not going to ask about their method of data collection, and anyway, I digress). You can sharpen your critical thinking and perspectives one way or another, by checking out any number of creation “science” (oxymoron alert!) websites. One, in particular, allows you to delve into profound subjects such as the origin of the Grand Canyon, the earth’s radioactivity, an explanation of the elongated and flattened Mastodon penis, and technical notes to fill in the details on how the great catastrophic flood projected rocks into space which became…comets…? But I digress: I bet you want to return to the aforementioned mastodon of the moment. “Creationist research” (oxymoron alert!) noted that when a man is strangled, his penis becomes elongated. (No, I don’t know why they felt the need to study this.) They then leap—and it’s most definitely a leap—to the conclusion that said mastodon strangled itself on grasses while eating at the time of the great cataclysm, because said cataclysm threw water up into the atmosphere, which was then super-cooled, and then returned to the earth to freeze our unfortunate mastodon mid-mastication, pressing and preserving its unfortunate organ for posterity. But I digress…being on the road tends to focus the mind.
Directly adjacent to our campsite, along a tributary of the Pecos River that flows into the Rio Grande, an ancient people painted pictographs on the undersides of the rock wall grottos in Seminole Canyon State Park, Texas. Millions of years post-limestone formation, ground water erosion had created the perfect sweet spot for human migrants to record their exploits hunting camel, bison, elephants (yes, you’re reading this right), and speaking to their gods through magic symbolism and human/animistic interpretations. Once again, the detritus of human interaction rained down on the grotto floors over thousands of years to slowly raise the earthen level, allowing those dreamers to challenge our eyes to understand how they could draw so high up on the rock faces. Did they build ladders? Perhaps. Maybe they stood on each other’s shoulders. It can’t be any more improbable than the Grand Canyon being created in a blink of the eye.
Back in the real world, it seems that mid-19th century cattlemen found these dwellings, housed their cattle in the protected alcoves, and their stock in turn trampled down and moved the earth to lower and earlier human inhabitant levels. This was followed by modern archaeologists who dug down to “rediscover” the lifestyles of our forebears. This lifestyle stands in sharp relief to our current culture, though in some extremely rare occurrences, vestiges can still be found among us today, as can be seen by this rare sighting in the Whole Foods flagship store in Austin, Texas. Notice the staggering “out of time” confusion and uncertainty of this subject seen next to the pastry fridge in a daze…but I digress.
We all stand on the shoulders of giants or, in reality, trillions of bits of tiny marine microorganisms.
Follow us as we go by clicking the link on the left to the “Map our travels to the horizon.”
Who knew there were so many roadside oddities to see, not only in this country, but just here in Texas?
Let’s begin with Marfa
Famed for the Marfa Lights (which were explained years ago, though the town continues to promote the “mystery”), its big claim to fame is that it is where the movie Giant, starring Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson, and James Dean, was filmed. As we drove toward Marfa over the flat, desolate, windy prairie, we wondered aloud why this location was chosen. Perhaps because it is flat, desolate, and windy.
On the road to Marfa is the mostly-famous Prada Store, out in the middle of nowhere. No, its not really a store, just a storefront, used for a movie and then abandoned.
What many people don’t know, though, is that just four miles down the road in Valentine, there’s another storefront, not nearly as famous, but possibly more familiar.
Oh, and Valentine’s other claim to fame? You can send mail here to be postmarked on February 14, from Valentine. With a population of just 129 souls, I suspect it’s their big day.
We arrived in the small town of Marfa and headed for El Cosmico, the local hippie campground/trailer park/teepee & yurt village. A small grouping of lovingly restored vintage travel trailers were nestled next to a circle of yurts, with a collection of teepees lurking in the background. A communal bathhouse, wood-fire-heated hot tubs, and outdoor kitchen completed the hippie commune picture. We loved it; and stayed for two nights.
In town, the hotels where the movie stars stayed make their reputation with it: At the Hotel Paisano, home of the cast and crew of Giant, we had a cocktail and delicious dinner in “Jett’s Bar.” Across the street at the Hotel St. George, we had cocktails and a not-so-delicious dinner. According to their website, “the original Hotel St. George (which was torn down in 1929) was, for most of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, an oasis for travelers—offering amenities found nowhere else in this corner of the world.” After our long, empty drive to reach Marfa, well, it kinda still is.
The Lost Horse Saloon had to qualify as our favorite haunt, though. We met Carl (pictured here), who welcomed us to yet another open-carry state with a friendly lick, then proceeded to fall asleep on the bar.
Trailer parks and food trucks
We had a date with an ancient trailer park in Austin, Texas, for the week before the South By Southwest Festival, so hightailed it east. Not without a stop in the countryside at Salt Lick BBQ, justifiably famous for its barbecue.
After lunch, on the continuing drive, I noticed that, out here in the middle of nowhere in Texas, people must make their livings however they can. A few of the signs (and I am not making these up): bed & breakfast and construction company;Yee-Haw outfitters; and my all-time favorite: orchard, peach ice cream and taxidermy.
We checked into our RV park (a glorified label, it’s really just a crappy trailer park, except for the location—right across the Colorado River from downtown Austin).
We felt right at home, though, with a collection of vintage Airstreams across the way, and miles of trails to hike with Gyp. Most of the people we met in the park were either retirees passing through, or Millenial hipsters taking advantage of the relatively cheap rent in a plum location.
Right down the street from us was one of Austin’s famed food truck courts, containing the likes of Kebabilicious, Hey…You Gonna Eat or What?, The Mighty Cone, and, my favorite, Hey Cupcake! For dinner, I had an avocado stuffed with chicken and cheese, then lightly battered and fried (because, remember, this is Texas). Dessert was a sampler plate:
Keeping Austin weird
You’re waiting for more roadside Americana, right? Well, look no further than the Museum of the Weird,in downtown Austin. In its purposefully dim interior, we worked our way through the collection of Sasquatch footprint casts, three-legged calves, mummies, and various sideshow gaffs* to be guided to their latest acquisition, the famed Minnesota Iceman.
According to Wikipedia: The Minnesota Iceman is a sideshow exhibit that depicts a man-like creature frozen in a block of ice. It was displayed at shopping malls, state fairs, and carnivals in the United States and Canada in the 1960s and early 1970s and promoted as the “missing link” between man and Neanderthals. In February 2013, the Minnesota Iceman was auctioned on eBay. The listing read: “This is the actual sideshow gaff billed as ‘The Minnesota Iceman’ by Frank Hansen in the 1960s. This is a one of a kind hoax that was fabricated by a mid-20th century showman.” It was purchased by Steve Busti, owner of the Austin, TexasMuseum of the Weird, and put on display so that I could share it with you, dear reader.
Finally, we were treated to a classic sideshow stunt of “nail in the head” by the dapper Eric. I’d have taken a photo for you, but I had to look away, sorry.
* Gaff: Anything controlled or faked, for example, P.T. Barnum’s Feejee Mermaid. A gaff isn’t a genuine freak of nature, regardless how convincing it looks, but a specimen manufactured to look freakish.
It ain’t Texas without a rodeo
Half rodeo, half country “music” concert (forgive the quotation marks, but you all know that I believe “country music” to be an oxymoron). I negotiated with Ben to sit through an hour of the twangy Dwight Yoakam (apologies to Jan in England) so that we could see the first finals of Rodeo Austin. More about the rodeo coming soon from the talented pen—erm, keyboard—of Ben. But my impression? Bucking broncos, steer roping, barrel racing, bull riding—super-fun, and I signed myself up on the rodeo circuit mailing list.
Remember the Alamo—or, not
We blew out of Austin just before the SXSW Festival began, and headed south to San Antonio. Well, you can’t visit San Antonio without everyone encouraging you to visit the Riverwalk and the Alamo. The Riverwalk is, essentially, a crowded tourist mall, lined with mediocre restaurants, expensive and crappy gift shops, and hundreds of fat-butted tourists weaving around in oblivion, or sitting listlessly in the countless tour boats that float past, a bored guide monotoning some quasi-historical fact or other. My advice? Skip it. Unless, of course, you can travel back in time, to 1911 when the Riverwalk was the largest red-light district in Texas—it ranked third in the nation. In fact, the district was so popular that a guidebook was published directing you to all manner of “sporting” establishments, such as road houses, cock-pits, and, of course, brothels. The 25-cent booklet states, “This Directory of the Sporting District is intended to be an accurate guide to those who are seeking a good time.”
And the Alamo? As “hallowed ground and the Shrine of Texas Liberty,” it does its job, I guess, though the gift shop is the biggest part of it. As to the reliability of the “history” they promote, well, as I’m so fond of saying, don’t believe everything you’re told, check it out for yourself.
Toilet seats, glow-in-the-dark mini golf, and stuffed heads
Rounding out our tour of little-known places to visit, we headed for Barney Smith’s Toilet Seat Art Museum. Retired Master Plumber Barney Smith started creating his one-of-a-kind toilet seat art about fifty years ago using toilet seats that were set to be thrown away, and, as of today, has completed more than 1,200.
Each seat is unique, commemorating some person, place, or event, such as Michael Jackson, San Francisco (which we autographed, natch), cosmetic dentistry or leathercraft, or the Mt. St. Helens eruption.
We spent a happy half-hour chatting with Barney, who loves to talk about his work and, just when you’re working your way out, will say, “Wait! Here’s one about …” and you’re sucked back in.
At the end of the day, there’s nothing like a round of mini golf, and a visit to Monster Mini Golf is nothing like a round of mini golf. Well, okay, it IS mini golf, but check it out.
Lit by black light, strobe lights flashing, techno music pumping at full blast, it’s an afternoon to remember.
Lastly, cocktails at the Buckhorn Saloon & Museum and Texas Ranger Museum, featuring the Carnival of Curiosities and the American Sideshow; the only museum where you can enjoy a cocktail while you stroll the exhibits. The collection of stuffed animal heads here rivals the one at Foster’s Big Horn in Rio Vista, California, and when questioned, the bartender said, “We have every animal here.” Every animal? I challenged him with the Foster’s Big Horn platypus. “Oh, well, no, we don’t have a platypus.”
Drinks on the house.
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Picture, if you will: An RV park that appears on the shimmering horizon, beckoning you to an oasis of organization and security from the wilds of BLM camping. Tanks are in need of dumping and refilling, laundry and larder are in need of replenishment for the miles ahead. Your web search reveals that this encampment is cooperatively owned and this is new to you, so you enter: The Twilight Zone?
Registration at the office is VERY organized, and you scan your immediate surroundings to notice that bulletin boards grace the walls with rules, times, dates, and organizational details found only in the upper strata of RV parks. Your admission hits a minor glitch when you find that the queue is two days long for a spot with full hook-ups, confirmed by a glance out the window at the line-up of huge Class A rigs waiting their turn for entry. The super-friendly and professionally attired office personnel assure you that patience will produce a week-long spot at a beyond-reasonable rate of $50, so you move into a holding area at the high end of the park. Your temporary spot is overlooking a stunning valley framed along the horizon by a jagged mountain chain topped in snow. Not so bad for a holding pattern.
You drive to your temporary spot at a safe and carefully marked 10 mph, and pass many people moving about their duties, all waving and wishing you well. Golf carts pass you, the occupants wave greetings, you observe that each RV plot is immaculately landscaped. This sure is a friendly place. No sooner do you perform your set-up ritual, then a golf cart approaches, its driver, wearing the ubiquitous name tag, leans out to extend a welcome and the declaration that your newly found park is extremely friendly. You chat amicably, aided by knowledge of the driver’s name and title ID’d on his chest badge. You are informed that you should absolutely sign up for The Tour, and you acknowledge politely.
Soon a new neighbor pulls in next to you, interestingly in a similar Airstream, and they reveal that they were invited to take The Tour as well. What is The Tour? And for that matter, what’s up with this place? you wonder. In every outside activity you are greeted warmly by ID-badged occupants, hands wave from passing golf carts, dog walkers nod warmly. Tossing a trash bag into the dumpster you are encouraged to swap travel stories and plans, and when you find the clubhouse-kitchen-auditorium-laundry facility, everyone engages you as family. You are frequently asked if you have taken The Tour.
Two days pass, and you are escorted to your promised hook-up spot to start the week’s discount. Your next door neighbor arrives with his wife to greet you, looking very much like they stepped out of a Norman Rockwell painting to ask…yep, you know, “Have you taken The Tour?” But now more information is divulged to fill in the gaps of wonder. You are informed that after The Tour you should sign up on The List to acquire a spot to join the co-op. It appears that this park is “special,” in that you can sign up and put up a down payment to ensure a spot to bid on a lot when it opens. This eventually leads you up the food chain to gain better spots as they open up…and this opens the door to this overtly friendly retirement community where everyone has a place, every place is carefully defined, everyone has a job with a name tag (as is expected in this co-op), and you can then reach out to warmly offer the fruits of community living, and The Tour, to newcomers into your family enclave.
So what is The Tour, you ask yourself? The answer comes quickly from your recent Airstream neighbors, who are relocated just down the street from you. A large golf cart manned by, of course, a badged tour guide comes to take prospects for a two-hour detailed description of the co-op which your Airstream neighbors describe as being, “One and a half hours too long.” But…they might have drunk the Kool-Aid, for the community seems intriguing to them.
Looking out across the park of approximately 800 lots—all carefully manicured—you see that everything and everyone has its place, and this of course rationally maintains necessary organization and comfort for the occupants.
Walking around the streets you notice that rocks of different sizes have been painted with pictures of animals and flowers, all of the desert vegetation ringing the avenues is carefully pruned and labeled with identification tags, buildings housing workshops are open and maintenance crews are busy making repairs and improvements. A “Founder’s Park,” with gazebo and nearby convenient porta-potty hosts group events and, particularly, each evening’s Happy Hour, to bolster the co-op’s body politic. You ponder the name of this co-op for future reference, SKP Saguaro (say “S-K-P” aloud and you hear “Escapees,” the actual name of the organization).
You speculate on all the possibilities that this co-op has to offer, daily and nightly activities not limited to billiard tables, dancing—with associated lessons—yoga, movie nights, crafts, lunches, special potluck dinners, and much more, all very socially comforting. But large in your mind is the freedom to explore, to discover the magic around each bend in the road, the education in conversation with the diversity of those you meet, and the lessons they amplify to broaden your perspective and wisdom. Yes! You are already on The Tour!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
In recent past blog posts I mentioned that a few places would be revisited for special mention. One of these is the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, which I had briefly described as one of my “favorites.” It sits just on the edge of Saguaro National Park and at first glimpse we both anticipated a fairly mundane desert history, flora, and fauna description. Boy were we wrong! As a kid, when visiting museums, it was pretty much de rigueur to walk past dioramas of ancient scenes of taxidermied animals, dinosaurs being attacked by cavemen…(some people actually believe this one), woolly mammoths, and the like; very often placed behind thick plate glass to prevent the viewers from tossing in their cast-off cigarettes. The Desert Museum, though, is a living exhibition in which you are part of the changing diorama. Walking along a smooth stone pathway, we came to the Earth Sciences Center, passing into a cave so real, through a portal invisibly blended with the natural rock wall face, we had to carefully inspect the material to convince us it was artificial. There were narrow cave passageways to be explored, confining enough to awaken claustrophobic fears, broken by openings with geologic history and rock formations explained, all in an Arizona context. We passed occasional tables set up for docent specialists to answer any questions and expound on special topics. Water flowed and could be heard trickling around, over, and under rock formations lit by the same colored lights that are found on any cave tour.
After passing through the cave environment, a deep explanation of the development of Arizona in the context of the earth’s evolution in its epochs was succinctly and clearly explained. At this point we felt prepared to be connected to the climactic and geographic regions we were about to pass through and the flora and fauna associated with them.
When we passed through the entrance we received a guide map and legend of the nature park, and at first glance it seemed as though part of this place was a zoo, but this was not the case. This living museum takes regions and blends animals and everything around them into context. After we passed the mountain lion and bear habitats, I couldn’t help but glance at our guide’s safety warning that sightings and encounters with wild animals could occur and that should we see a wild animal loose on the grounds we should not approach it—we were to notify museum staff at our earliest opportunity… You betcha!
In a number of habitats animals could be viewed both above and below ground and water. A beaver, for example, could be observed swimming through rocky pools disappearing into its den, but—never fear—a quick skip down a tunnel would bring you to a viewing station and a convenient push button to turn on a light in its windowed hideout. I took advantage of this, and after surreptitiously glancing around to see if anyone was looking, flashed the light on and off to try to irritate it enough to make it look through the glass and bare its massive teeth. It was useless. Countless kids before me had already conditioned my eager industrious buddy to pay no heed.
A mile long dirt pathway was constructed either to simulate a desert loop trail or a hike though a desert canyon with coyotes roaming about, separated from the viewer by only an extremely fine, almost invisible mesh fence. Countless cactus and desert plants were carefully placed and marked to educate and stimulate the senses.
Crossing a series of bridges over flood washes, signs alerted us that packs of Javelinas took refuge in the cool darkness below. At that moment, a park docent drove by in a golf cart loaded with lettuce and proceeded to pitch it to a rapidly emerging assembly of snorting, tusked peccaries (as they are properly called). They had practiced this drill before and they trotted in-line to the easy hand-outs. We smiled, remembering just a few days before walking through the town of Ajo through packs of these buggers looking much less friendly than in the safety of our current setting.
When we entered the park, the ticket attendant asked me if I was interested in purchasing additional tickets to enable us to have a stingray encounter. I accepted, though years earlier, as a diver, I had the opportunity to observe them in their own environment. By now you are beginning to get the impression that I was one of those troublesome mess-with-the-animals-and-environment kind of kids that caught the eyes of park and zoo caretakers? I suppose so, but that trickster curiosity put me in good stead later in life when learning actually did take place.
Getting back to our story, though: In a pavilion with a large concrete pool, there swam about seven or eight stingrays, circling the perimeter. After paying a couple of bucks for “stingray food” (comprised of squid and shrimp that I threatened to eat myself), we were shown how to hold the food in our hands so that the rays who had no teeth could settle over the food and suck it in.
Their skin was soft and slick like someone had spread liquid laundry detergent over it. They seemed to enjoy our touch, though perhaps it was just the anticipation of food, and they passed over and around our hands like silent ghosts in the water. It was quite calming yet eerie watching and feeling these underwater “birds” slowly and silently flapping their wings past us.
We passed into a very large cactus garden and, though I can see you yawn in familiarity, I suspect you have never seen so many different varieties of cactus in one place. We sure hadn’t. There were creeping, “jumping,” variegated, twisted, flowered, scented, vined, fat, and tall—you-name-it—examples of desert cactus evolution over the thousands of years.
Seriously impressed and jacked up, we walked almost immediately through a carefully laid out rock labyrinth wherein we contemplatively found peace surrounded by buzzing bees and afternoon songbird calls.
Then there was the hummingbird aviary, which required us to pass through a set of doors and a hanging layer of chain to prevent the buzzing beauties from escaping out of confinement into their real environment. It was amusing to watch clutches of people frozen in place like statues while around them the multicolored hummers darted at hyper-speed. Occasionally a bird took interest in someone’s red clothing and everyone shuffled over to ooh! and aww!, again freezing into place hoping for a replay. But the birds had the upper hand, and it seemed like they were choreographing the humans’ movement.
All good museums’ pathways end with the gift shop and restaurant, and by this time, in the heat of the end of the day, my thoughts turned to the soft-serve ice cream that museum staff skillfully publicized to entice the weary and provide ammunition to whiney kids’ parents. But, it was not to be. Our fascination and interest used up every available minute and we were faced with the closing announcement. Our vehicle was one of the last to leave the parking lot and as we drove out satiated, we both exclaimed that it was admission well spent.