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—
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
Zephyros Ah, Joshua Tree! We find ourselves again at a favorite boondocking site, just adjacent to the National Park border, with the I-10 corridor’s blistering fast cell and data connection. Every iteration is a learning experience, and this time we come armed with a simple elegant phone app that locates east and west to align our solar directly south for energy maximization. We are now positioned with our awning north-facing, and winter sun creates a solar reflector off the aluminum skin at all times of the day. Thanks to Vinnie Lamica’s polish job, we can be seen from miles away, easy to signal the cavalry if attacked by rampaging zombies or wind-blown jumping chollas—probably the most deadly cactus on the planet!
Days One and Two passed in serene bliss: warm days and a night sky lit like millions of shotgun shell blasts through a black, back-lit canopy. We lit our propane fire pit, sipped evening libations, and read to each other, pausing to tell stories and anecdotes.
But an onslaught soon blindsided us. Weather reports are notoriously fickle and inaccurate, as everyone knows. Early the following day, I sat outside basking in the silence of the desert, scanning the northern mountain ranges. Layering rock and strata patterns revealed shades of varying browns filled by meager earth footholds, patches of green vegetation in their grasp below folded peaks sharply contrasting a cerulean sky. While mentally free-floating, a subtle ghostly apparition began to cloud the clear view with a growing smoky haze, though no telltale olfactory signs emerged. The distant ranges disappeared into an unseen dimension, replaced by a cold wind seeping across the landscape, like a darkly magical Etch a Sketch-erasing moment. Mean winds obscured the prospect of all that once sat in stillness, knocking chairs over and disheveling all that could not stand in its insistence. The temperature dropped by twenty degrees, and it blew and blew….
The French experience Le Mistral meaning “master wind.” This dry cold northerly wind blows in squalls toward the Mediterranean coast of southern France, tormenting people for weeks on end, and has driven people mad. They say even murder is forgiven after a week of Le Mistral! “If the Mistral blows for nine days, then a murder on the ninth day was treated as a crime of passion, not as a cold-blooded murder,” states Professor Marion Diamond, University of Queensland. There is also the Sirocco which blows from north Africa across the Mediterranean to southern Europe. Web search reveals at least 75 different world culture names for winds to include: Bayamo, from Cuba; Chubasco, Central America; Haboob, Sudan; Nor’easter, from guess where?; Santa Ana, southern California; Williwaw, Aleutian Islands; and lastly, Zephyros, from the ancient Greeks, to name just a few.
Returning back to the “driving people mad” statement, we scurried into the Silver Submarine in haste against the onslaught, and sat while the Airstream shook violently despite being firmly anchored by stabilizers and weight of body and contents. There was no let-up from wind blasts growing in intensity at times close to around 50+ miles per hour. Orienting our rig east-west opened our long sides to the full force of the northerly wind; opening the door against this took every bit of strength to the critical balance point where the wind chose whether to pull it open for you, or slam it closed and induce ear trauma. If you’ve ever experienced an earthquake magnitude about 4–5 on the Richter scale, you can appreciate our growing apprehension. The only barrier from madness was the arrival of our friend John, who was passing through to explore the East Coast and graced us with hours of debauchery and insightful storytelling. His plans to tent in our camp quickly became laughable.
Two days—and many libations—later, the relentless wind carried him away east, leaving us to ride it out to acceptable levels after four days of Zephyros’s torture.
Being on a rocking boat for days on end and stepping on shore brings reality to the term “sea legs,” and post-wind we walked around camp like drunken sailors…or was that still the effects of our two-day liquid libertinism?
Tracks of Time
One of the secrets to successful boondocking is minimizing water use and discharge, in the form of grey water wash and black water human waste. We were luckily located far enough in the “boonies” to trek a short distance into the remote desert expanse with shovel, and explore flora, fauna, and geographics as we kept our trailer black tank light. It is interesting to note how rare rain water flows in the desert, moving through the pathways of least resistance. It was on one of these duty jaunts that I came across a section of hardpack mud, where the water had pooled until it found release. Post-rain squalls, water disappears instantly here, and it left behind, in this case, a smooth surface suitable for recording tracks of movement before quickly drying into hard pan.
On the island of Crete, encased in mud, researchers discovered the nearly six-million-year-old tracks of what appear to be human, or close to human, footprints.
Ape foot prints present themselves remarkably different, so these newly discovered impressions are serious contenders for human origin, or at least a branch off ape-like ancestors closer to our own. The closest confirmed human footprints discovered so far are in Laetoli, Tanzania, and are dated at 3.65 million years.
Studying tracks and traces is a fascinating detective pastime, opening up the wonders of creatures that passed previously invisible. Animal scat is another intriguing study along this theme and I was about to carefully bury mine forever, but a side glance to a hardpack section of easy walking revealed numerous human and animal tracks and traces. The hoof prints of deer registered clearly.
In the study of animal tracking we learn there are hoppers, draggers, and walkers, both four foot and single track, which category deer fall into. Directly adjacent to the deer tracks and close in time were the markings of human habitation: a fire ring, bike tire tracks, and graffiti scratchings. Humans never reflect much order or efficiency, and usually exhibit a non-discerning scream of existence. In my daily desert duty hikes, I found medicine pill bottles filled with marijuana, various alcohol bottles, cans, plastic containers, bags, and—richest of all, scratched into the dried mud to await the layering of perhaps millions of years, and eventual discovery by some distant civilization, if such exists—this graffito:
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Mirror: “Humanity’s ego reigns extreme,
but beneath your feet lives some supreme.”
A short stroll here, in the Anza Borrego Desert, remnant dried sea from a distant past, reveals a landscape pockmarked with hilly, funneled interior walls, dark entrances tunneled into the mysterious unknown.
I am reminded of scenes in the movie Time Machine, taken from the H.G. Wells novel, where a time traveler speeds nearly 803,000 years into a future earth where the Eloi, a gentle human species, is preyed upon by Morlocks, apelike creatures who live in wells deep within the planet.
What is this ubiquitous creature/s our mirror reveals reflectively? What better place to discuss species profligation (how’s that for a hundred-dollar word!) than in the desert, mostly considered barren and boring, lacking in life. Wikipedia states that 99% of all living things, numbering over 5 billion species that ever lived on earth, are estimated to be extinct. Estimates of our current living species range from 10-14 million, of which 1.2 million have been documented.
Research reveals that there are 300 pounds of insects for every pound of humans—200 million insects for every human. Now, looking closer into our didactic mirror we see some astounding facts: beneath our feet lives the most prolific creature thus known, the Springtail, or Collumbola, ranging from .25-10mm in length, of which there are 10-200,000 living in each square meter of soil on earth! Incidentally, they are called Springtails because they can flick their tiny tails and spring up to 10 cm to avoid predators.
Here’s a challenge. Get down on your knees with your magnifying glass and get to work studying the microcosm. On every scale, things are eating and being eaten, a mind-boggling silent, scary, munching sound that resounds all over the earth. What value does a thing so small have in our master civilization, you ask? Well, the tiny inherit and create the earth. Springtails are responsible for approximately 20% of vegetative decomposition so essential to plant life cycles.
What controls every millimeter of our earth wherever they live, which is pretty much everywhere? Right up there with the most prolific species on earth, and the creator of our sand-funnel mountains previously described, is the ant, with population estimates of 10,000 trillion to a quadrillion: 1,000,000,000,000,000.
That’s over a million ants per human on earth!
Ant populations are highly prolific and “civilized,” with reported super colonies extending thousands of kilometers’ expanse in numerous locations on earth. It is said that all the ants in the world combined weigh as much as all human beings. This is an amazing fact considering that a human weighs a million more times than the average ant.
As long as we’re talking dominant species, ants can lift 1,000 times their own weight over their heads. Here is an interesting factoid written by Graham Templeton in the Geek.com website:
“Consider a cube with sides 1×1×1 inches. The total volume of this cube is one cubic inch, with a total surface area of six square inches. That’s a six-to-one ratio of surface area to volume. What’s important to understand here is that, with respect to muscles, ‘volume’ is our proxy for mass, and ‘surface area’ stands in for strength; an ant’s muscles function pretty much like our own, with the contractile power coming from fibers on the exterior of the muscle.
“Now consider a cube of 10×10×10 inches; this gives us 1,000 cubic inches of volume, but just 600 square inches of surface—our six-to-one ratio has now become 0.6-to-one. This is because volume, and thus mass, increases according to a cubic function (X times X times X) while surface area increases as a square (X times X times some unchanging constant). This means that, as you get smaller, you also get stronger relative to your own body weight. It’s all about relative strength, though: you could still beat an ant in an arm-wrestle.
“On the other end of the spectrum is a blue whale, a creature so large that it could never have existed on land. Only with the helpful buoyancy of water (and sea water at that!) can a beast that massive hope to even control its own mass; when a whale beaches itself and feels the full weight of its own body, it’s often too weak to even shimmy back into the sea. Similarly, the classic doomsday scenario of a scaled-up ant terrorizing the nation with its super-strength is an overblown threat at best; any ant unfortunate enough to be super-sized in that way would immediately collapse under its own weight, dying a tortured and laborious death.”
Yes, even monstrous dinosaurs, that were growth-assisted by an overabundance of period atmospheric oxygen, submitted to physics in evolutionary size constraints.
I noted earlier that one quadrillion ants, that is, one with 15 zeros, are estimated to live on earth today. The total human population is around 7.4 billion. It is estimated that as of 2015, there have been 108 billion humans who have been born on earth in the history of humanity. Compare these quantities using the understanding that a billion is equal to 10 to the 9th power. I’m thinking there is some species humbling and awe inspiration going on now, eh?
Having said all this, we return, hats in hand, to face our truth-telling Mirror to ask,
“Mirror, Mirror, on the wall, what’s the smallest living thing of all?”
Truth be told, I cannot see,
deep into emerging reality.
Be still, open your mind,
learn facts from fiction,
and soon you’ll be cured
of this mirror affliction.
Two months have now passed since the passing of Gyp, and we are crossing into the outfield of two years’ exploring a life of enchantment on the roads less traveled, hence the blog post title. There was, though, a pit stop at our nonagenarian parents’ house in San Diego to perform some Bodhisattva carpet installation and minor repairs throughout. Ruth set a tantalizing goal of researching the restaurants in town that held the historical provenance of “oldest in continual operation.” It would be our challenge to sample and explore, eat and drink in as many as possible during our temporary residency. Look for her fascinating blog post to come.
Music, magic, and mathmagic
All business completed, we pushed east into Alpine, California, to the cozy home of Brian and Nancy in time to participate in a house music concert, which was sublime indeed. The Eve Selis Band, comprising a posse of incredibly talented master musicians, arrived with an approximate combined devotion to the muse of music of nearly 200 years. An intimate venue embracing approximately 50 people, in the presence of a band that can play pretty much anything in your imagination, who had shared the stage with some of the world’s best musicians, cradled in the living room of a welcoming desert home, is mystically transformative.
There is something unique in live music where musicians and participants share a synergy of energy not unlike a musical Fibonacci series—or Golden Mean—where one plus one morphs into three, growing and spiraling exponentially into mystical transformative change. If you take a series of numbers, start with 0, 1… and calculate each successive number from the sum of the previous two (e.g., 0+1=2, 1+2=3, 2+3=5, 3+5=8, etc.), you are now exploring the Golden Mean.
Let’s take a moment to examine our musical scale in relationship to Fibonacci: There are 13 notes in the span of any note through to its octave. For example, the octave of C on the piano has 13 notes in total: 8 white keys and 5 black keys. However, to play the scale of C, we only play the 8 white keys.
A scale is comprised of 8 notes, of which the 5th and 3rd notes create the basic foundation of all chords.
We also have harmonizing intervals of 3rds and 5ths.
To produce a 3rd, we play the first note and a note 2 tones higher than this note.
To play an octave, we play the first note, and then another note 8 tones higher.
Note in all the above, (which is the basis of all music), all of the notes and intervals only use Fibonacci numbers 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, and 13. The series can also be used when composing music to make patterns of notes that are pleasing to the ear. Experts claim that classical composers like Mozart and Bartok used the Fibonacci Series in some of their pieces. More contemporarily, rock & roll music leans heavily on power chords, which are 5ths intervals.
The above diagram represents the Golden Ratio. It can be represented simply, without performing a quadratic formula as 1.61803…or mathematically notated as “Phi.” If you draw a line 1.61803 times larger, or 61.8% larger, than the one before it, you are traveling along the Golden Mean.
We need fingers to play our musical notation as described above, and just looking at our fingers to perform this act we see the distance between each joint in each finger matches quite closely the Golden Ratio, as does the ratio of forearm to hand. Leonardo Da Vinci recognized this series in facial patterns, and applied it to one of his most famous portraits, the Mona Lisa.
Nature is chockablock with examples of this nature, seen in the spiral growth of plants, flowers, and shells; and it is found in art and architecture that “for some reason” pleases us. The great masters knew of this synergy and played it. Live music taps into the heart stream of this magic, and the people who entered into this musical cradle were rocked and rolled, leaving with their atoms excitingly rearranged and reassembled in a new place.
For those inquisitive folks that would like to deeply explore the magic of the Fibonacci Series, here is a link to a 45-minute podcast from BBC Radio 4, titled “The Fibonacci Sequence.”
Warning! Opening this door could cause you to enter an awakening of mind, similar to that enjoyed by Donald Duck in the 1959 Walt Disney short film, Donald Duck in Mathmagic Land.
Mid-November finds us in sunny and warm Anza Borrego State Park to reprise a memorable visit a year ago. We begin training hikes to ramp up to our next year’s Pilgrims Way walk from London to Canterbury, England, and several months’ worth of deep in-country exploration. Thanks to Ruth’s research, we will boldly go where few tourists travel, snooping below cathedral carpets for hidden crypts, stalking narrow corridors along dark twisted back streets, embracing in fire-warmed corners of local neighborhood pubs, blowing dust off antiquarian books stacked in dimly lighted museum libraries, deciphering hidden messages on hand-stitched tapestries, and much more….
Some people have asked us why we don’t monetize our blog site, that is, apply links to products that we have found useful along our journey as full-timers (and get kickbacks from Amazon). This works successfully for many as a supplementary “on the road” income, but our intent is to keep this body of work fully in the realm as described in Latin in the old opening movie credits for MGM: Ars Gratia Artis (art for art’s sake). This is not to say that at some point we won’t invite you to purchase an eBook of this rapidly expanding treasure trove of travel trekking. Stay tuned.
A life of enchantment, to cast a magic spell, to sing…we hear the ever-present call of the muse of the road…anon, Muse, anon…
August 10, 1952: Patricia Huber was feeling very uncomfortable. She was a few days, or perhaps hours, from giving birth, and her baby’s kicking and rolling about was tempering her tolerance for the event soon to come. She shuffled over to the Philco black and white TV, clicked it on, and waited the obligatory minute for the tube to excite into a grainy image. It, too, expressed its displeasure by providing little response to her shuttling of the rabbit-eared antenna on top. Clicking the antenna switch and turning the antenna in 360-degree arcs brought little satisfaction, though holding it in the air two feet above the set sharpened the picture non-acceptably. Several weeks before, she had removed a number of tubes from the back of the set and brought them to the Rexall Drug Store down the street for testing, replacing one. This was not the time for the set to go on the fritz. Clicking through channels she settled on Kukla, Fran, and Ollie,
and thought to herself that it wouldn’t be long before her soon-to-arrive child might be entertained by this show. Two days later, unassisted by early network TV, a baby boy—me—was born.
August 10, 2017, 65 years later: Ruth and I drive slowly and deliberately up an eight-mile winding switchback road, arriving at Wheeler Peak in Great Basin National Park, to begin a pilgrimage to one of the oldest living things on earth: bristlecone pines. There are other lofty contenders: cloning oak (Jurupa Oak),
which is thought to have reproduced itself for over 13,000 years, lives in Riverside, California, in a thicket of 70 stem clusters that all share the same genetics. If that 13K age pushes your alertness button, there is another tree grouping called Pando in Utah, which is not a single tree but a grove of 47,000 quaking aspens that share the same root system. This massive underground organism shares a similarity to huge subterrestrial fungal/mushroom mats, and it is a matter of interpretation whether they are a single living thing or a multiplicity of identical trees spread out over 107 acres of land. Here is the most stunning fact in regard to this ancient living, cloning, entity: it is estimated to have lived for over one million years! Yes! You read that right. Trees that may have predated humanity.
I don’t want to steal the thunder from these massive methuselahs, as they have the uniqueness and advantage of communal support. There is much to be said about the power and strength of this lifestyle. We, however, set out on a trek into our particular portal of the past, in Great Basin, one of a few spread-out bristlecone enclaves throughout the western United States.
These uniquely individual trees stand stalwart in all weather and conditions, growing infinitesimally over time and adversity. They have a provenance handed down by previous generations through fossil records dating back more than 40 million years, to the Eocene Epoch, when modern mammals first emerged.
Our destination grove contains bristlecones averaging around three to four thousand years of age, but some of the oldest dated by dendrochronology (the study of tree growth ring patterns) still stand at around 4,800 years. These precious Ancient Ones are guarded from the curious and often destructive masses by secreting their locations. Studies of long dead, yet still undecayed bristlecone trunks, have revealed their ages to be around 8,000 years or more. We observed the grounded corpses of trees that died over one thousand years ago, looking much like their vertical living family.
Many pilgrimages demand sacrifice from seekers, and our shibboleth was a hike over steep rocks and roots beginning at 9,800 feet, plodding up, step by careful step, sucking precious elusive air, to arrive at the time capsule island of Ancient Ones at 10,400 feet. To instill clarity to this journey, I’ve broken down our pilgrimage of 1.4 miles one way, into a timeline of a typical bristlecone lifespan. A few facts before I begin:
An average person walks approximately 2,000 steps per mile, with a single stride of about 2.5 feet
Some of the oldest bristlecones at our destination have lived 4,000 years
4 trail distance miles, one way = 7,392 feet, with an average stride of 2.5 feet = 2,957 steps
Assigning the number of steps taken to years of bristlecone life, on our journey, from the start of the trail to the grove: 2,957 steps; divided by 4,000 years gives us: 1 year of life = ¾ of a stride or about .74 steps per year. Whew!
No. of steps
What was happening in history
California Gold Rush
Signing of the Declaration of Independence
Shakespeare writes Hamlet
Leonardo Da Vinci paints the Mona Lisa
The Incas rule Peru
The Ming Dynasty begins in China
Chartres Cathedral in France is consecrated
Angkor Wat in Cambodia, one of the wonders of the world, is completed
Classic Pueblo Anasazi culture thrives in North America
Mohammed flees from Mecca to Medina; 1st year of the Muslim calendar
Rome falls to the Vandals
The Chinese develop paper
Great Wall of China is built
The Parthenon in Athens is built to honor Athena, goddess of wisdom
Cyrus the Great of Persia conquers Babylon and frees the Jews
Lao Tse, founder of Taoism, is born
The Iliad and The Odyssey are composed, possibly by Greek poet Homer
Hebrew elders write the Old Testament books of the Bible
The Olmec civilization thrives in Mexico
Hammurabi, king of Babylon, develops the oldest known code of laws
Stonehenge is constructed, the Pharaohs rule Egypt, the Great Pyramid of Giza is completed in approximately 2,680 BCE.
Our bristlecone pine is now a sapling, 3 feet high and already 40 years old.
Having attained our destination, I felt impelled to reach out and wrap my arms around the steel-hard and environmentally twisted wood trunk, and imagine my miniscule 65-year life span as if it could be comprehended by my ancient tree, or even I by it? I have lived one one-hundredth the lifetime of this embraced master of elements. How much life force, a wisdom of sorts, was absorbed into this tree’s moment-to-moment existence? The elements that gave it life, temperature, nutrients, air quality, environmental forces to resist growth, drought, imperfect seasons, insect pests, wood rotting fungi, attempts by man to cut down, trim and remove limbs for fire, lightning strikes, avalanches, rain, flooding and wind storms, shifting terrain, climate change, earthquakes, old age, emanated in its magnificence.
In the world of man, our cares appear to revolve around us. We exist at the peak of life’s pyramid, or so we perceive it, yet the bristlecone pine stands silently living—gnarled, limbs broken, bark stripped, trunk twisted, yet thriving in adversity through the millennia. Reaching out again, I feel the ancient trunk with respectful hands, nearly three-quarters of my life past, but at the moment very honored to be in the presence of One who continues to silently impart life lessons reflectively.
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…?
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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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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“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!”
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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Ruth and I drove into Tucson to celebrate a long lost connection with my brother Bryan, his wife Karri, and their son Joshua, at the popular downtown Mexican eatery, La Poca Cosa. We arrived a bit early, so I mentioned to Ruth that I had seen a Bank of America just a few short blocks from the restaurant, and I sauntered off to pull out some backup cash.
Approaching the teller machine (what’s a teller these days?), I saw two men standing on either side of their buddy, who was at the machine waving his arms in a very excited—though non-threatening—manner. This man’s face was completely tattooed, facial piercings prominent, poly workout pants sagging deep below his butt, which was nonetheless adorned in designer undies. My eyes had plenty of time to size up this posse. It didn’t take but a second to recognize a disturbance in the prospect of this group of depositors. The man to my right had a large holster to secure what looked like a 45 caliber semi-automatic pistol at the ready, and he laughed and bantered with his partner who composed the third leg of the trio. Now this was a sight I had never seen, being, as we are, from non-open-carry, strict gun-control California.
At first glance it seemed to me that the armed man was the bank security officer, but this melted away quickly in the absence of any official uniform and recognizable insignia. My mind raced with situational processing as I observed Teller Man reach into a large paper bag, pull out a stack of $100 bills about an inch thick, jam an ATM card into the slot, and, after a long series of keypad punches, stuff them into the cash feed slot. I have seen bill counting machines in Vegas and remembered their telltale sounds—shluck, shluck, shluck, shluck—at one-eighth-second intervals. The machine took a seemingly interminable amount of time to count the stack, and I kept my personal space well outside the hand feeding the ATM’s hungry maw. I could feel the consciousness of the trio sizing up my look, perhaps scanning for a competing pistol bulge, and stepped outside myself to see through their eyes, making sure there was a slight, friendly-cool smile on my face. Just enough to not raise suspicion.
I listened to their parried jokes infused with street slang trading in counterpoint to the sorting tabulation, and struggled to comprehend. The machine finished its money mastication, Teller Man jerked his arms as if swatting flies, did a spin, and while seeming to talk nonsense, reached into his sack, pulled out an additional stack of cash, and began the whole process again. Five minutes had now passed, and I just knew that copping an attitude about my length of time in the queue could turn their gaiety into something more ominous.
The machine kept up its counting rhythm and finally, after a protracted amount of time—made even longer by my need to connect with my family—it fell silent. Teller Man pulled out his card, reinserted another (all the while rapping non-stop), punched in numbers, and then jammed in a fresh replacement stack of endless green bills. Flabbergasted, and cautiously cranky, as now ten minutes had passed, I looked around in hopes of discovering a hidden ATM, any available bank, in which to take refuge, but there was none.
Finally the money count ended, but the transactions did not conclude until Teller Man stabbed the screen in deliberation and determination to eject cash out, which disappeared in a blur of arm waving and staccato street verse into the hands of his compadres. The posse slapped hands, confirming their esprit de corps, and as they walked away I carefully thanked them for depositing enough cash so that I could complete my transaction. They all paused, staring at me with steely faces for a breath-holding moment.
After what seemed like days, they processed my attempt to break the fast of speech with levity, and smiles broke out. I breathed a sigh of relief as their fading laughs, jive talk, and the ominous pistol faded down the street.
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.
We barreled down the long desert highway, wipers straining against wind and rain gusts, holding tight to the center of the road against the onslaught of semis streaming from Mexico, our 8-foot wide trailer on a 12-foot wide road meeting oncoming truck blasts with unwavering tenacity. Through rain-streaked windows we perceived millions of Saguaros jutting up from the verdant landscape, their protuberant arms poised in an anthropomorphic interpretive stance.
Your mind plays tricks on you in the desert. You begin to see Saguaro (for the neophyte, pronounced: “soo are o”) speaking to you, telling stories; faces appear; dances and cactus orgies beguile and seduce you with flimflam…wait…your head swivels against the gyroscopic need to stay in the lane-lines…the desert speaks to you.
This is no barren habitat, for your mind hears the call to join in symbiotic dance. Saguaro, so abundant here, live in balance with the earth through a lifeline much longer than ours. Single 15- to 20-foot high stems don’t grow their recognizable arms until they reach the age of around 95-100, and those with five arms have developed until at least the age of 200, and stand up to 45-70 feet tall. The Saguaro is not only a master of disguise and trickery but also of water engineering and conservation, saving liquid deep inside its core during rainy periods and expanding and contracting as needed.
White knuckles ease up on the steering wheel and change in color to a flushed blush as the speed limit signs signal our entry into the small town of Ajo, just a short distance from the Mexican border. We suck in the sights at 25 mph: Chevron gas station, colorfully adorned adobe homes brightly painted and many with unique bas-relief art, Mexican Insurance, sheriff’s SUV, closed gas station, Mexican Insurance, closed restaurant, Border Patrol SUV, Mexican Insurance, laundromat, Border Patrol SUV, Mexican insurance, large grocery—probably the only one in town—Border Patrol again; okay, two open restaurants, Shell gas station next to our RV park destination. Something is different about the town despite the high percentage of law and border enforcement, and it will become clear upon the ensuing day’s adventures. The mysteriousness of this town will be revealed in an upcoming blog post.
We travel south toward the heart of the Sonoran Desert, unique in the Americas for its flora and fauna, into Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument to a secret spot recommended by an old woman in the Ajo Chamber of Commerce who, once upon a time, worked in the monument as a tour guide. We followed her instructions: “Go to mile marker X, past a wire fence, turn left, drive three miles on a rough dirt road, and prepare for a two-mile hike along a seasonal wash into a 19th century cattle homestead in the middle of a stunningly endless Saguaro vista.” Bumping along the dirt trackway, a strange break in the natural perspective caught our eye, a twenty-foot-high pole with a 360-degree infrared camera, long-range telecommunication capability, and a sign below beseeching those “in need” to push the button to report “assistance” or observation of those who need Border Patrol ministration and deliverance. We took this to mean identifying illegal immigrants passing through, in need of Border Patrol rescue to find their way across the desolate desert into the “safety” of America’s arms.
Our hike brought us to the ruins of the homestead, and through this and immediately adjacent to it was the obscure, unpublished spot in the middle of the seasonal wash. We discovered metates formed in pre-history by Native Americans who ground the pods of mesquite trees for food with manos, or grinding stones, that left circular impressions over great periods of time.
I found one such grind hole and felt myself transported in time to a moment where the heavy weight of a child burdened my back, sun beating down on my thick work-burdened body, a daydream to be shucked off to return thankfully to the present. These people, however, knew no borders. The land was theirs to be worked for survival and sustenance.
Driving to and from our magic hidden-in-plain-view destination, we passed though the Border Patrol check station on the lonely road between the town of Ajo and Mexico. A warning one mile before arriving prepares drivers for the eventual examination ahead. 65, 55, 45, 35, 25, 15, and 10 mph speed warnings across speed bumps into a narrow “cattle chute” to the waiting officer was enough to scare any would-be illegal alien into admitting guilt before the officer’s interrogation.
It was, we assumed, a racial profile interrogation in stages. Ruth’s blonde hair and blue eyes and my Anglo looks passed the superficial examination we presumed, but those outside these standards would have to face other more stringent tests such as vehicle searches, papers, visas, and other arcane standards. We surmised these Border Patrol officers differentiated those seeking the “Give me your tired, your poor…” Statue of Liberty covenant that drew millions seeking safety and promise in freedom, from those south-of-the-border illegal miscreants, crossing on foot, lacking the price of a ship steerage ticket. How many in our great country can claim with pride our family’s immigration story? What made them legal other than a desire to find freedom and opportunity on our shores?
We drove through the nexus of the dark side of the line between perdition and promise. Ruth rolled down the window to greet the twenty-something Border Patrol officer who asked us, “How it was going?” We responded with a flippant colloquial quip to certify our command of the English language, hence “probable citizenship” and were on our way, through false trial to an unknown uncertain security ahead.
It certainly is funny how a routine Border Patrol stop can make you feel like a suspect, because you are. It is a fine line of insecurity that gets challenged. We all take our “American way” of freedom for granted. I’m reminded of the time I worked as a contractor for the US Embassy refugee program in Thailand during the Cambodian, Laotian, and Vietnamese diaspora. I participated in countless refugee examinations, culminating in the final INS interview that determined “go or no-go” to America. Not only were those interviewed stressed and bewildered, but it felt as if I was on a roller coaster ride out of control. Many of the “grand inquisitors” were kindly and supportive, but a very few exhibited the megalomania, ego, and power-hungry sadism that is raising its head in government these days. One person in particular took great pride in breaking down the interviewed with his appearance in cowboy hat, fancy boots, and cute young refugee women who hung on his arm like remoras on a shark. He would examine families’ ear lobes for differentiation and look for cracks in their stories to exploit. He was greatly feared, and he played on it. Memories of these moments cross my mind every time I am confronted by those who walk the razor’s edge with their given power.
Now with these thoughts resounding in my head, we drove on past the check point and soon, looming ahead, breaking the stunning beauty of our desert panorama, a giant edifice appeared on the horizon like the black monolith in the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. We slowed down to identify what could be placed in such an unlikely spot, like dropping a Manhattan office building in the middle of nowhere. The United States Border Patrol moniker shone back at us in huge imposing letters framed by shiny steel and glass, and a backdrop of a hundred or more official vehicles ready for action.
This was a giant middle finger on the landscape, paid for by the US taxpayer, probably under the auspices of George W. Bush. Every few minutes a Border Patrol vehicle would pass us at great speed—who in power needs to follow the rules of the masses? We looked at each other in wonder. How could this desolate place have such an overwhelming border enforcement presence? Okay, yes, there are the illegals, drug dealers, opportunists, and such seeking to suck the nourishing life force and deprive the opportunities of everyday you and me but—whoa! This was huge. And very soon, as we traveled on to our next destination, we quickly discovered more of these fortress-like structures within close proximity to each other…and they want to build a wall along 2,000 miles of the US/Mexico border..? As Pogo once spoke in the comic strip of yesteryear, “We have found the enemy, and it is us!”
Oh! Did I mention the Sonoran Desert in the title of this blog? This place is truly one of the wonders of North America, supporting flora and fauna unique to this region. If you look up the definition of desert, you will find a completely different meaning than imagined of this place. As I write, the sweet scent of creosote bush (not asphalt) wafts through the air. Bird sounds are everywhere. A brilliant red cardinal, overwintering here, just landed on a nearby cactus, building sustenance for the long flight north in spring. Yesterday’s dog walk put us close in proximity to a pack of yipping coyotes, and that of a day earlier to large family of javelinas (or more properly, peccaries) that look like small pigs.
Colorful butterflies flutter near branches of desert willow, near shaded hummingbirds sipping nectar from cactus flowers. Bees are abundant. The occasional kit fox crosses sandy trackways created by countless animal foraging. Evidence of crawling creatures is found in the tarantula and snake holes under shaded desert marigold, globe mallow, and brittlebush. Life is abundant and lives in the scale and scope of evolution from a much earlier geologic time when this region transformed from sea to savanna, to ice cap, to forest, and eventual desert. The timeline is unimaginable to us, who view life in the perspective of around 100 years. North America formed between 1.5 and 1 billion years ago from a planet that is around six billion, so let’s do the math, eh? That’s 15 million lifetimes. If we could speed up time like that simulated in the movie The Time Machine, change would boggle our minds, as matter materialized and dematerialized in a vertigo of imagination. Nothing is as it was, yet all share the same common materials recycled again and again, infinitely.
We had the opportunity to touch a meteorite displayed at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum just outside of Tucson, predating the formation of our sun and solar system, long before the earth was just a mass of glowing gases not yet congealed. It was composed of known elements, of course. I started to ask so many questions. Where did the water that sustains life come from on a planet originally composed of fiery gasses? And on and on. More about one of the most amazing museums I have ever visited in a later blog. I am asking a new question now: Will there ever come a time when borders and politics no longer separate people and opportunities from each other? Will we ever come to recognize that we all come from the same “stuff?” That when we view our earth from space, all matter is equally bound together in symbiotic embrace: viewed from the stars, are we not all conjoined elements?
Needless to say, we are in love with this place, rich in diversity and living wonder. Life is both abundant and endangered, some species are only to be found here in remote and protected areas. As Ruth quoted in an earlier blog post from Marshal South: “The Desert! Either you will love it, or you will hate it. If you hate it, you will fly from it, and never wish to see its face again. If you love it, it will hold you and draw you as will no other land on earth.”
For more photos, check out our Instagram posts: @LyfsArt and @BenMacri52
Don’t be concerned. No story of danger awaits you, dear reader! Just a play on words…
Ten glorious days boondocking—or sometimes known as dry camping—here has gifted us with extreme solitude amidst the sharp borders of the hot sun in cold air and nightly star-studded canopies. The waxing and waning of the moon morphs brilliantly lit rocky pathways of nightly strolls into dark stumblings of muscle memory, avoiding hidden cactus homesteads. The weather has quickly changed here and elsewhere across the southwest from a residual autumn warmth to a transitional night rain and cold unsettling winds that buffet our trailer as the failing light of the year reaches its nadir. We soon find ourselves the uninvited guests to the doppelganger of the infamous French Le Mistral, winds that blow intensely for days and weeks, and are often said to drive animals mad and people to suffer from headaches and restlessness. Our trailer rocks all night as if on an earthquake shaking table…shake, shake, shake-shake-shake, and vibrate. My thoughts turn, after a quick self-reassurance that we won’t tip over, to the works of Hollywood foley artists who recreate the necessary sounds for movie soundtracks. Lying awake now at 3am, I see in my mind’s eye several men high up on 10-foot ladders holding a large sheet of 8×8 aluminum, and shaking it to create the sound of wind blasts. If only…a quick jump out of the warmth of our multi-weight comforter, and a glance out the window, reveals cactus fronds frantically chasing angry eddies in the chaotic tempest.
Our “silver submarine” has three tanks to sustain our lifestyle and all must be managed in balance. Fresh water: 39 gallons; grey water (that is, wash water from sinks and shower): 37 gallons; and black water (toilet): 39 gallons. The challenge resides in how much of each can be balanced with no hook-ups. We are seven miles from the ranger station and the park’s only dump station and fresh water supply. It’s not too far to navigate just to replenish our water by truck, with four five-gallon military grade water cans, but too much hassle to hook up and pull our 28-foot trailer up and back through a slight mountain pass. Technically the grey tank can be hose-dumped into the terrain here, as it contains only bio-degradable materials. Instead, we wash our dishes in a handled dishpan in the sink allowing us to walk it outside to surprise the succulents. This slows down the rapid filling of the grey tank to showers, which should make those of you permanent foundation dwellers smile in satisfaction and comfort.
Boondocking showers are taken military style: wet down, turn off water, soap up, and rinse off, while standing in a restaurant bus tub that we later empty. Most folks never ponder the amount of water wasted each day in normal household use. The average person uses approximately 80-100 gallons of water per day! Flushing the toilet is number one in the consumption scale, followed by showers. These two are our challenges. Our total fresh water availability for two is ant-sipping in comparison, yet we don’t live like street gypsies. Living in an energy efficient home for so many years has taught us some valuable lessons in conservation. If there ever was a time when I have considered cutting my hair (don’t worry, I’m not really), it is during these speed showers. 60% of our water supply of 39 gallons, a little over 24 gallons, lasts us about 3-4 days.
Now let’s get to the compelling and interesting part you all have been waiting for: toilet administration…this could be a new government agency? I have, in chivalry, given up my usage of our porcelain throne to Ruth completely, for the more primitive but powerfully pleasant, environmental mise en scene of ambling off into the desert to dig a “cat hole.” There is nothing more relaxing than having the world in your prospect as you squat over your creative hole. At this level of view, the desert comes to life. Ants make a living, birds dance about the bushes, stones of various sizes and colors emerge to capture your attention, the air carries from the distant mountains a wonderful scent of the primordial earth, tiny lichen and succulents color the limitless gravel tailings of millions of years of geological change. But, there is work to be done yet in this moment in time to satisfy my end (there is a pun here, yes). The winds still to a whisper, then great gusts arise from 30 to 50 mph. I am learning the skill that bomber pilots achieved to strike their targets with accuracy involving gravity and air drag. Things can get a little complicated as I am not a moving plane. It is all about timing with the wind gusts and moving placement to compensate for the aforementioned vectors, to hit the target. It does take practice, which luckily I have in spades…somewhat a play on words here, sorry! Finally, after the hole is filled and returned to earthly harmony, I find hidden artistic patterns emerge as outlines of previous holes could be blended into an earthly moire finish, establishing an aesthetic of completion.
So you see, boondocking challenges can be transformed into artistic accomplishments and enjoyable learning experiences to break free from daily monotony…whatever that is?…
Part 1: Our Border Collie, Gyp, takes out her herding frustration with us by bringing us sticks to throw, and her impulsiveness led me to look up the definition and explanation of OCD in the dictionary. What a surprise to find her picture in the heading, poster child of the affliction! Watching her in action is a study of wonder. I throw the stick, and as she’s getting quite a bit older, fifty percent of the time she misses seeing where it lands—and this is where it gets interesting. Putting her nose to the ground, she follows a hidden scent trail cast off by the stick as it passes over the earth, and/or is able to track the stick in a maze of perambulations, closer and closer in a fine scent trail of discovery. There are times, though, that she misses her prize and in a stretch of my imagination, she thinks, “Heck, I’ll just find another stick and bring it to him. A stick is a stick as long as we can continue this endless mind-numbing game.” Believe me when I say this, 99 percent of the time I have to be the one to stop this neurosis or it could go on for hours. One time we were invited to a friend’s house for a party that lasted long into the night, and our deranged dog wore through dozens of rounds of stick- and ball-throwers through the entirety of the event. If only Border Collies could be project managers, things would get done, yes?!
This was taken from the website Dogster: Psychologist and prolific dog book author Stanley Coren gave an example of what that huge sniffer sensitivity looks like. Let’s say you have a gram of a component of human sweat known as butyric acid. Surprisingly, humans are quite good at smelling this. If you let it evaporate in the space of a 10-story building, many of us would still be able to detect a faint scent upon entering the building. Not bad, for a human nose. But consider this: If you put the 135-square-mile city of Philadelphia under a 300-foot-high enclosure, evaporated the gram of butyric acid and let a dog in, the average dog would still be able to detect the odor.
Now getting back to that alternative stick. If I throw it, Gyp will often then track to the first stick and I can see her pause in recognition but then move on as she recognized the scent pattern fade as an earlier throw. She then moves on to find the first and either bring it or—just to add some complication—go back to the first stick and pick it up as well, to drop at my feet. At one point I started to teach her in stages: after she brought me one stick, I would say, “ONE.” If she dropped two sticks, “TWO,” and so on, to imprint numbers with sticks. This didn’t go well with me, as I lacked patience and follow through, thinking that she was only hearing: “La-la-la-stick,” or “Not close enough,” meaning, when she could hear, that the stick was just too darn far away. She would oblige me in her Border Collie stubbornness by picking up the stick and moving it a half-inch closer. To this day, our stubborn dog will not give us any quarter, always trying to get the jump on us.
As we have all seen, dogs communicate by sniffing each other’s butts and nether parts. Be a dog for a moment if you can, and imagine: what they are sensing?! Gender, food eaten, frequency of walks, environment of origin, pee scent to counter with their own and possibly recognize in future walks. They can sense fear, anxiety, and aggressiveness to avoid or attack, including hormone changes that define the encountered dog’s wellbeing or lack of, as well as their treatment; and what else?
We often have to put up with a lot in our dogs but imagine what they must tolerate in us? How can they endure the onslaught of scents we subject them to, so far above our range of recognition?
Part 2: If you’re the person who rolls your eyes when you read some of my philosophical ramblings, you can skip this next deeply insightful, and potentially life-changing section.
When I was teaching at City College of San Francisco, I would often tell my students that they were not as helpless as they imagined, that in fact they had much more control of their lives than they thought. Actually, most often they were creating results absentmindedly that ran counter to their intentions, kind of like getting on a horse and letting it go wherever it wanted, rather than taking the reins and being in control.
Let’s say, hypothetically, you need a pair of shoes, a car, or whatever is in your mind’s eye. You research your needs, check pricing, determine availability, etc. Then you find yourself noticing people wearing shoes, probably your desired choice, or for some reason that car that was looking pretty fine is now on the street wherever you look. Why is this? Ruth and I will discuss a subject at length, or research a theme and it just keeps popping up in the strangest places in seemingly unrelated situations. Is there a hand in the sky or invisible aliens playing cosmic games with our desires and sensibilities, or can it be something closer to our noses and we are the unconscious magicians playing with forces we know not what?
When I would teach electrical theory I would often take students of a trip through the universe via the great film created by the team Charles and Ray Eames in 1977 titled, Powers of Ten and the Relative Size of Things in the Universe. This nine-minute short takes place in the park on the lakefront in Chicago and we see from one meter away a couple sleeping in the sun. The landscape steadily moves out in powers of ten in larger increments until it reaches the farthest know region of space that is currently known. Then at a rate of 10 to the 10th meters per second, the footage returns back to the same view in the park from one meter away and reverses into the skin of the man in negative powers of ten through the blood vessels, DNA, into the vast inner space of a single carbon atom again to the limits of our understanding of matter at this level.
As it turns out, in the microcosm, the laws of physics don’t follow the same rules that apply in the larger universe. Quantum physicists surmise through scientific analysis, that the observer can alter the observed and that matter is both present and not present in a “magical” quantum state or matrix. With this awareness of the universe as an infinite matrix we can see a bit more clearly that all matter is either bonding or disassociating in a constant state of flux. What seems solid is not. At an atomic level, the distance between the electrons and nucleus in a typical hydrogen atom, one of the most common elements in the universe, is metaphorically described thus: If we build a scale model of an atom with the nucleus one foot in diameter, the electron would be the equivalent of a little more than ten miles away! Now, do you believe your senses if there is no such thing as “solid?” Don’t even go there with me and ask, “What is real?”
My point is that we are part of a limitless micro/macrocosmic matrix and we do have something to do with its operation on some level. There are scientists that postulate that we live in multiverses coexisting simultaneously in space, time, matter, and energy, and the laws that govern them may be very different from our existence in this time and space. If we can set reciprocal actions and creations in motion by mere thoughts, what is possible? Am I naïve to postulate that we can “make the road by walking it?” Are we helpless players in this world on a stage of hopelessness? I think not.
Three summer months traversing the western US, three months prepping our house for friendly renters/caretakers, and now we are off again on a journey with no concrete destination or time constraints.
We’ve taken one week in Rio Vista, close to our Airstream storage facility in Fairfield, California, to stage and prep our journey.
Our campsite is on the mouth of a maze of sloughs and canals on the edge of the Sacramento Delta. It is strange, looking out from the kitchen window seats and watching motorboats cruise out of the local docks below us, cows trolling the farm land directly behind, and an incongruous ocean vessel seemingly slowly skimming the landscape in a hidden deep water canal in the background.
What would be the best of camping, for this week is tempered by having to pay a pretty exorbitant site fee for the privilege of having no electricity, sewer, or water hookups, as the local water supply has been deemed unfit, so boondocking we go. Well… there are flush toilets (those that aren’t locked for the season), and the wildlife is awesome: owls, eagles, egrets, ground squirrels, feral cats, and the cacophony of cows remains constant. We meet fellow Airstream travelers, Scott and Cornelia, to share stories around the campfire. The serendipitous synchronicity of these types of meetings is magical, even more so fueled by fine wine.
Did I mention owls? I’ve always had a fascination for these silent swooping night scavengers with haunting hypnotic calls. You know you’re a geek when: you listen to hours of Roger Tory Peterson’s bird calls on CDs, the announcer listing the name of each bird and a recording of the call is played…twice. Having said this, when I tell you that we have heard the screech owl exclusively, there will be no doubt!
The most exciting thing besides recognizing the call of this mostly invisible predator is discovering owl pellets! They are usually found directly below roosting branches in hangout trees (kind of like beer cans in 7-11 parking lots) and contain the undigested remains of the owl’s meals. Careful inspection may reward you with what looks like coyote scat covered in hair and often with a pointy end…don’t make the mistake of probing that one, unless you are a geek of the third order! I picked up three (owl pellets) adjacent to our trailer and cut them open to discover small mouse bones and teeth buried deep within an “Easter egg” of fur.
One pellet contained the leg bone of a small crab, which answers the question: Are owls into “surf and turf?”
The obvious: travel takes us outside our norms and patterns of everyday life. The world around us bombards our senses with countless electro-chemical stimuli which we in turn order and form into patterns of recognition and consciousness. Perhaps one example of this would be the study of Pointillism, a technique of painting in which distinct dots are applied in patterns to form an image. Georges Seurat was one of the originators of this style, and I remember visiting the Art Institute of Chicago and standing too close to the painting, A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.
Thousands of colored dots overwhelmed my senses, but upon stepping back everything blended into a focused and pleasant image.
Travel changes our perspectives and reframes our comprehension of the usual, besides pulling us away into the bigger picture. There is ever-present danger in this action though, as it challenges our opinions and world view. A study of humanity is very much a study of migration and exploration that, we believe, will take us into the stars.
Our human tribe does have several branches, however. Nomads are infected with the push of wanderlust provoking the desire to see what is around the next bend, whereas the pastorals find comfort and safety in the castle of hearth and home.
We like to think we have the best genes of both tribes in our Airstream. A moveable base camp with creature comforts and wheels to permit movement on terra firma, with a secondary tow vehicle permitting deeper flexibility of exploration.
Our summer wanderings taught us that there is potential agony and ecstasy in every moment, meetings with remarkable people and places, challenges to be met, and lessons to be learned. We’ve spread our wings and now travel south for warmth for winter and the road ahead.
People ask me what I love about being on the road. Perhaps this will answer that question.
I should have known what kind of day it would be when, first thing, I broke my bootlace. And had no spare.
As background, just know that when we got “home” (that is, San Anselmo) in early September, our internet had been down since July: no web, no phone. I had set up myriad appointments with our doctors, dentists, hair & nail salons, you-name-it, for the few weeks we’d be here. Starting today, with two back-to-back doctor appointments first thing in the morning, one for me, the other for both of us. After that, a pleasant ferry ride into the City, to meet our prospective tenant (and good friend), G, for lunch.
Ben called Comcast on Wednesday, and was told by their office (um, in Manila) that someone would be there “between now and 6pm tonight.” One guess. Nope. Thursday morning, he was told by someone else in their Manila office that a tech would be out “between 4pm and 6pm tonight.” Guess again. Nobody. Finally, the third guy (and we’re still talking to Manila) said, “They might be able to squeeze you in tomorrow, between 7:30am and 5pm.” Really? Because we have nothing better to do with our time?
Someone has to wait for Comcast, and since I had the 8:30 doctor appointment and it didn’t make sense to bring two cars and then try to park them both at the ferry, I went into Uber and requested a pickup. I’d have my 8:30 appointment, then Ben could come and meet me for our 10am, and we’d drive to the ferry together. But, with the Comcast thing looming “anytime,” now the plan became Ben arriving at 10am, going to our appointment, then dropping me at the ferry and coming back home to wait. Except we now needed someone to be at the house while we were both at the 10am appointment. Luckily, our neighbor and dog nanny, Gini, came to the rescue. I got this all set up, and suddenly realized the Uber was now only 2 minutes away, and had to rush to get out the door, cramming phone, wallet, and everything else into my pockets. “Should I bring my laptop?” I asked, thinking aloud, then decided, “No, to hell with it, no time. I have my phone. It’s 100% charged.”
Uber got me to my doctor’s office in record time. The door was locked, but it was only 8:15, and my appointment was for 8:30. I heard a sneeze from the stairwell, and my doctor appeared, looking fresh and sparkling clean. I was reminded again of how I look when I rush out the door, my faded and weathered old field coat’s pockets bulging with my stuff. I greeted the doc cheerily.
“Do you have an appointment?” he asked, puzzled. “My staff doesn’t come in till 9.”
“Well, yes, at 8:30.”
“Hm. Well, come on in, let me figure this out.”
He unlocked the door, asked me to have a seat, and disappeared into the back office, coming out a few minutes later with the news that the appointment had been canceled.
“Didn’t they call you?”
“Phone’s been out—since July,” I told him. And then launched into a completely unnecessary and pointlessly boring story of our internet repair adventures. He listened politely.
“Well, they wouldn’t have canceled without getting ahold of you. Let’s just do this.” And he proceeded to diagnose and treat what I already suspected. Nothing bad, those of you who care, just a minor foot injury. He wrapped me up and I was on my way.
On my way out, his staff had since arrived, and I asked, “What happened?”
“Your appointment was for yesterday,” I was told. “You were a no show. We tried to call.”
“Yeah, phone’s been out—since July.”
Aside: Those of you who know me, know that I make accurate appointments. Those of you who don’t, trust me: I don’t make these mistakes. No big deal, move on.
I looked at my phone, it was 9am. My next appointment, right across the hall, was at 10am. With Ben, who hopefully was getting ready to leave the house; or better yet, was already talking with the Comcast guy. I desperately needed a coffee so, despite the limp, I walked about half a mile to the nearest coffee cart. That went okay, except the guy toasted my croissant. Toasted? Whatever.
I limped back to the medical center, and met Ben driving in. “No Comcast?” I asked, though I could see from his face that the answer was No. “They said between 9am and 4pm,” he replied in answer to my look. “So I guess I have to sit around all day waiting for them.”
We started up the stairs, and I told him about my appointment mixup. “I hope this one works,” he offered forebodingly. “No way!” I laughed. “It couldn’t happen twice.”
On this day, though, apparently it could. The door was locked. I got on my phone and called. “I have an appointment at 10am in your Greenbrae office, and the office is locked,” I told them.
“Our Greenbrae office is closed on Fridays,” I was told.
“Then why do we have an appointment there?” I wanted to know. Just as a side note, when I made the appointment, I specifically stressed that I wanted to change to the Greenbrae office, and asked if that was possible; they said No Problem. Well, here was the Problem. This day just keeps getting better.
We worked it out, made another appointment. Then I looked at the time. “You know, we could make the 10:10 ferry,” I said to Ben. “Let’s try. That way, I can meet G early and have more time with him.” Miraculously, we hit all the lights green and made it with a couple of minutes to spare. I’d half-expected to miss it by one minute, and have to wait 50 minutes for the next one.
Just as I settled on the ferry, my message pinged me. It was from G:
G: I may get pigeonholed into a meeting that ends at 12:30.
Great, I thought, if he’s going to cancel, could he have texted me ONE minute earlier, and Ben and I would be on our way back home? I laughed (this was starting to get funny) and read on to discover it was just a postponement. Oh. And I’d hopped an earlier ferry hoping to have an earlier day. Well, I can always find something to do in the City. Right?
So far, this day has been an almost total waste, so I thought, “What the hell,” and went up to the bar (I love the ferry system!). I ordered what I thought would be the easiest drink, one that wouldn’t make the bartender have to think at 10am: a Bloody Mary. First, the bartender ran out of vodka. When she’d replenished her stock, she pulled out the Bloody Mary mix and yes, it ran out also. I won’t even tell you she ran out of limes, you wouldn’t believe me. But she did. As she was rummaging around in her tiny closet for more, and I turned to the grey-haired woman behind me and apologized. “For what?” she asked, “not your fault.” Then began a discussion about how people get so upset at delays, when, as she reminded me, “We’re on a boat. Where else can they go?” And the bartender joined in with comparing the different commuting times and relative levels of crankiness of the passengers. We all agreed that “any day above ground is a good day,” and the grey-haired woman ordered a vodka gimlet.
So, I was working on my drink, enjoying the view, when we were engulfed in a fog so thick, you couldn’t see five feet out the window. “If this boat crashes and sinks,” I thought, “that’d be just perfect for today.”
I was giggling to myself about that (and causing the neaby passengers to look sideways at me) when my phone pings me with another text. This time from my boss:
B: Hello! Are we having our call today?
Oops. We have a call every Friday at 10am, and it was now 10:25. Dammit! I thought.
R: Oh, fuck. [You see we’re very professional.] Sorry! What a morning!
I couldn’t even begin to explain, and she kindly offered her sympathy. We agreed to postpone.
The ferry docked at the Embarcadero without incident, and I wandered into the bookstore to waste some time. Now, I love bookstores, despite my reliance on eBooks (yes, I know, but I have over 400 books on my tablet, and where would I put 400 books in the Airstream?), but what is the use of a bookstore without chairs to sit and read? I sat in the only kiddie chair in the store and thumbed through a guide to Parisian cemeteries, but it was no use. When the bookstore clerk looked at me fumbling with my pockets (to get my phone and see what time it was) and said pointedly, “Can I help you?” I realized it was time to move on.
I strolled out into the madness of a weekday morning in the Financial District, remembering to curb my instincts to be friendly and greet passersby. As I walked by the Autodesk “campus” (why do they call it that? So Millenials will think they’re still in school?), I saw a sandwich board out front advertising their free “gallery.” What the hell. I got on the elevator and it emptied me onto the gallery floor. I signed in—extra measures of security don’t bother me these days—and began to wander around. Wow. I love technology, and was soon engulfed in a hopeful vision of the future where cars grow on trees (literally) and we monitor and reverse coral reef destruction from satellites.
Too soon it was time to come back to the realities of the 21st century, and get me an Uber. After a not-unexpected mixup about which door I was waiting at, Gene got me to the Starbucks near the Adobe “campus” (again!) without incident, where I ordered my second huge coffee of the day. Oh, did I mention that my phone battery was dying? From 100% to 35% in about three hours. Never before or since has it done that. I needed Starbucks and their wireless charging tables.
I chose a seat facing the window, and sat sipping my coffee and watching the flocks of Millenials go by. My text dinged again, this time my co-editor:.
M: Can you look up the GoPro ad block? And all the emails about it?
I pulled it up on my phone and started scrolling through the history, when I realized I would never get the gist on my tiny phone screen. Oh, yeah, that’s why I was gonna bring my laptop. Oh, no, now a phone call. I hate phone calls.
Luckily, with only a little bitching and moaning about vendors on the side, M and I worked out the problem with an elegant solution (if I say so myself), and all were happy.
My text dinged again. It’s 12:26.
G: Oy Oy Oy [uh oh]
R: Take your time, I’m just strolling over from Starbucks, I’ll wait.
G: OK, awesome, I will come grab you in ~10 mins or so.
I chose a seat on a quite comfortable sofa facing the door and reception desk, and recommenced my observations of Millenials and those who work with them. And I must say, if you aren’t under 30, please, do yourself and everyone else a favor, and don’t try to dress like you are. Baggy jeans and untucked shirts are fine if you’re a slim 25-year-old, but if you’re 40? Just say no, and resign yourself to khakis and a button-down. Please.
It’s now 12:37.
G: Oy, working on leaving. [No, G isn’t Jewish. But if his day is like mine, he is now.]
R: I’m chillin’, watching the Millenials flock.
G: Aaaak, please don’t hate me. I think it will be more like 10m extra. I’m getting stacked. I’ve pushed back the meeting chomping for our end time!
R: Not worried about lunch, just want to see you.
G: I promise we will get it together, this visit was not a waste!
Then, at 1:00:
G: Oh no. Where are you?
R: In your lobby…
And he was at Starbucks. I laughed out loud, startling the receptionist, and began to gather my things. I met G on the sidewalk, we proceeded to a wonderful little restaurant called School, and had a tasty lunch—oh, and a cocktail called a Samurai.
Lunch and business over, it was time to start the trek back to the ferry. As I’m standing, waiting for the ferry to arrive, my phone pings. This time, it’s Ben:
B: Garbage disposal is frozen, trying to unstick it.
R: Of course it is! Add it to the list.
B: Finally got a “real” answer after 2 hours fighting with Comcast. A tech will arrive between 4 & 6.
R: Ha. My ferry gets in at 3:30. Classic end to this comedy-of-errors day! I’ll get a bus.
I turned and asked a man who was obviously a regular commuter, “Does the commuter bus still run from the ferry?”
“Yes,” he answered, “but I don’t think it starts until the 4pm ferry.” Oh. There’s always Uber—the one thing that’s worked today.
So, I’m sitting on the ferry nursing my vodka & tonic (ah, the ferry!), when my text dings again. This time it was David, my cooking and drinking buddy.
D: You home?
R: No, but if you pick me up at the ferry at 3:30, I’ll buy drinks!
When I got to his truck (not hard to find, parked illegally across two handicapped spaces, I love my friends), I didn’t look in the seat behind, so when I sat down I was immediately engulfed by his 160-pound English mastiff. Drool—not my own—running down my arm, I said, “I’ve had a day, but it’s getting better by the minute. Where to?”
David was on a time schedule, and was just going to take me home. Wow, braving Friday rush hour traffic just to take me home? What a friend!
When we got there, I greeted Ben and poured all three of us a stiff drink. Comcast still hadn’t arrived, so Ben could have been with me all day, and we’d have had a great time together in the City. Alas. After David left, Ben asked, “What’s for dinner?” and I just looked at him and said, “Anything I don’t have to make.” Pizza it is!
Just as the pizza guy was showing up, so did the guys from Comcast—at last. After waiting nearly three days, being glibly lied to by a myriad of Filipinos who had no intention of doing their jobs, our nearly-two-months-broken internet was restored. While our pizza got cold. Now I have to get their accounting department to give me two months’ credit. I pity the poor person who answers my call on Monday*.
And that, my friends, is why I live on the road.
*Note: I actually spoke with a wonderful woman, Teresa, in Comcast accounting. She credited us two months’ service. Just like that.
I’m sitting 20 feet off the beach on the coast, just north of Ventura, California, listening to the hypnotic whoosh of wave breaks on the shore. Glancing to my right, the silver rear end of the Airstream and its panoramic windows frame an infinite horizon to the west. This would be the land’s end of the westward expansion in the 19th century: “Go West young man, go West.”
The eye-squinting brilliance of aluminum reflecting the sun’s rays against the azure blue sky, and sand-muddied purple turbulent waters, is dulled somewhat by microscopic coatings of regional terroir layering its skin at 60 mph and three quarters of a thousand miles.
Several times in nearly 4,000 miles we have sought out a truck and car wash to wipe clean our badge of nomadic wanderlust and return to that iconic marketing and public display look. Our first being the Blue Beacon, on the outskirts of Las Vegas, having just dropped out of the high desert down deep into the 104-degree heatwaves of this manmade oasis of sin and pleasure. Our rig and truck stands an imposing 50 feet in length solo, but next to semi tractors and trailers is diminutive and tinkertoyesque (may have created a new word?!). We fell into the queue to a huge building with two bays 30 feet high and 20 feet wide, and slowly worked our way closer to the maw of a dark opening from which we could hear the shouting of many men in the throes of battle with the machines contained within. Our turn arrived, and we were instructed to pull into a mob of about 10 to 15 men wielding six-foot water-blasting wands of tremendous power and multiplicity, from a trickle of soap, to wash and soap mix, to rinse and waxy chemical treatments.
The sounds of the water blasts were deafening as they echoed through the semi darkness within the foggy mist, antidoted by earplugs. A team leader shouted commands and the men moved in a syncopated dance around us, their camaraderie formed by countless hours’ labor in this sound-deafening sauna. Their labored barks and yells took on the rhythm of the famous “field hollers” which characterized the laboring African American cotton pickers of the South, and which developed into the Blues we know today.
There is something quite pleasurable in watching your vehicle come clean through the movie screen of your front windshield, yet the time to move out into the blinding light and heat arrived with a wave from our team leader and a beckon toward the pay station. I slid a respectable tip into an underling’s hand and received in turn an additional tire sidewall polish. We were “Ready for our close up, Mr. DeMille!”
Arriving in San Diego, it was time for another round of ablution, but this time, our truck went solo as nothing was available for the complete ensemble. We negotiated a hand wash over the quickie machine in-and-out option, and sat in the waiting area. This is a perfect environment for people-watching; they come in and then we try matching their image and personalities to their cars when they drive out. Time elapsed and we became keenly aware that the waves of customers passing through the car wash event in front of us were multiplying. Yes, we paid for a hand wash…and we waited. The minute hand of my watch rounded the dial, and I stepped out to spy the location of our truck now parked in its own bay, with one person diligently laboring within. I reached into my wallet and with a grin mentioned to Ruth that for every ten minutes of this kind of labor, I would add another dollar to the tip. That wallet unzipped three more times and this time with a wry grin I said that certainly the peak of the curve had been reached and that as each ensuing ten minutes passed, I would subtract a dollar; but it just couldn’t be the right thing to do…
Fifteen minutes passed, and to relieve a sore butt and stretch out a tired back, I surreptitiously walked out to determine the cause of the delay. I returned shortly to exclaim that it appeared that they were color matching the paint that they had wiped off in their washing diligence during the past hour and a half. Well, I was close to correct as shortly our beast arrived and we had to pull out our sunglasses to dull the glare. I don’t believe we have ever seen such a perfect finish on any truck, perhaps not even when it was presented to us at the dealership. Our detailer received his tip—a $5 bill with a thick wad of ones artfully wrapped within—with a gracious smile, and we set off to hopefully delay the inevitable return but, again hopefully, not with the same timeframe. Someday a dirt repellent surface will be invented, but perhaps not too soon to keep a labor-intensive, yet honorable and immediately gratifying, profession from dying away.
46 acres with spaces for 935 RVs, a “Centurion” posted at the front gate for the security of the guests, separate family and adult pools with waterfalls and spas, restaurant, banquet facilities, fitness center, and 18-hole putting course. At every RV spot there are the remnants of phone service from the more hip Rat Pack era, to call either another RV and plan a cocktail hour, or the 24,000 foot clubhouse to coordinate a White Wedding in their chapel. Perhaps you and 280 special guests can celebrate your daughter’s Quinceanera in the elegant ballroom, trailer park style.
This place has got it all, baby! Gyp and I took some serious walks together late in the evening in a balmy 90-degree heat, following a 104⁰ water sucking, dry desert day heat.(Gyp noted no swimming facilities for dogs.) It was almost magical at night with each RV mini-home lit up with activity in air-conditioned comfort. A number of years ago, Ruth and I began noticing trailer “handles,” or monograms if you will, and this was the place to build out that list. Mind you, my notations were taken at night through the dim light of each RV pad pedestal light, but here goes (as you read, think about what emotions these names elicit in your mind):
Adventurer, Sea Breeze, Avenger, Dominator, South Wind, Springdale, Designer, Road Warrior, Freedom Elite, Silverback, Cyclone, Brave, Magic Bus, Carriage, Imperial, Montana, Summit, King of the Road, Coachman, Pursuit, Elk Ridge, Voyager, Cardinal, Cougar, Lynx, Alumiscape, Rockwood, Vectra, Sportsmaster, Prowler, Cherokee, Conquest, Bighorn, Wave, Alpenlite, Sierra, Westport, Cameo, Bayhill, Pinnacle, New Vision, Big Country, Mountain Air, Cornerstone, Bounder, Caribou, Outlaw, Prevost, Patriot, Funfinder, Starcraft, North Trail, Cruiser, Heritage Glen, Cedar Creek, Solitude, Denali. We would be remiss for not adding in our own baby, Airstream International Serenity.
So I got about 60 here and there were untold numbers of repeats, and, forgive me for falling down on my reporting duties, but do you know how long it takes to walk around near 900 candidates? The park was very full the night of our extended walk and armed with this census and an insatiable need to collect useless facts, Ruth and I calculated that if the park was just 3/4 full, and each site paid approximately $50 (which is middle- to low-range daily rates), the daily operational take would be $33,750, or a very cool $1,012,500 per month. This will pay the electric bill, I reckon, not counting ancillary fees…and the casinos are just down the street!
Leaving Angel Creek National Forest Campground, which was high above Wells, Nevada at 8500 feet, we drove south along Highway 93, a long lonely highway much like Highway 50. Up a rise, down a valley, two lanes, cruise control pegged at 60, speed limit 70, and semis and impatient drivers passing by just feet away from our 50-foot rig; keeping alert was paramount. To keep sharp and combat the mind-numbing recurring horizontal planes, we turned on Sirius XM and one of the stations was playing all road travel songs to celebrate the anniversary of the first interstate highway in 1953. You may remember that President Eisenhower mandated that such highways be constructed for the national defense, making it possible to travel coast to coast without a stoplight.
We pulled into a rest area with information boards hallmarking the passage of the Pony Express along this very route, with one very telling recruitment advertisement for those early daring riders: “Wanted! Young, skinny, wiry fellows not over 18. Must be expert riders, willing to risk death daily. Orphans preferred.”
During the Pony Express’s 19 months of operation it grossed $90,000 — and lost $200,000. News of the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter which began the Civil War was carried by Pony Express riders with pride to serve their country. The inception of the telegraph supplanted the need for a speedy mail news service.
The famous William Cody, aka Buffalo Bill, rode the Pony Express for a time and made the longest ride of 322 miles over one of the most dangerous sections of the route, taking 21 hours and 41 minutes, and using 21 horses to complete his journey.
There was one more small concrete post close by a larger-than-life metal sculpture of a Pony Express rider. It had the name, Lincoln Highway, imprinted on it. This was an “Aha!” moment.
The Lincoln Highway never was an interstate in the mid-twentieth century definition, but it was the very first transcontinental highway inaugurated in 1913. The highway was 3,389 miles in length but in the late 20s was broken up into numbered segments as America organized its highways. Travel on this early highway was no easy feat, often taking a month or more and drawing on strong technical and navigational savvy. Lodging and fuel were sparse, initiating the advent of auto camps and a growing support infrastructure for the new, ever-wandering populace. Designers of the Lincoln Highway knew that the cost to construct such a project was monumental so they went from town to town and pitched the “seedling mile” concept. Local chambers of commerce and the well-to-do community saw an advantage to having a major highway serve their town that had only dirt roads, so the highway builders built a smooth, mile-long concrete ribbon close to their homes along the highway route. At this point, when their cars climbed up out of the muddy gumbo or winter frozen tracks, and the engine picked up speed, the car came alive and left horse-drawn power behind forever.
The interstates took over the role of bi-coastal connectors and the closest we have to the grand old Lincoln is Interstate 80 from New York to San Francisco.
These past couple of weeks, writing has been on hiatus due to constant moving, set up, break down, sightseeing, serious winery partying, sailing… more adventures and stories on the way!
At a very early age, going on vacation had a special place in my psyche. The force of wanderlust was compelling. I remember seeing a mysterious trail or an unknown road, and just going, with no thought of return―causing my family much concern. The drive to keep moving forward beyond the known, to see what was around the next corner or just out of reach was such a compelling push of rapture, unlike mostly any singular joy in life…yet perhaps, the essence of life itself.
I’d heard countless people speak of the value of recreation and that word stuck in my mind by way of two syllables: re-creation. Now this perspective of the word brings much more value to the meaning. To take something mundane and make it new, to transform routines into revelations, ennui to enthusiasm.
Exercise is certainly a form of recreation, but travel introduces so many more dimensions. Through travel we hopefully climb out of our routines and engage others who most probably have a much different perspective. Geography and proximity to divergent life styles form living patterns. There are reasons that more liberal mindsets are usually found on opposite coasts with diversified cultures and concentrated educational systems. On the other hand, in the hinterlands and remote areas, you will often find those of a like mind that gravitate in sympathy with each other, strong in tradition, suspicious of change, powerfully supportive as a clan, yet very often most welcoming and open socially. This is expressed in regional pride as “southern,” “country,” or “mountain” hospitality.
Traveling offers us the opportunity to slip through the American life stream using perhaps the metaphor of a honeybee moving from flower to flower, extracting the nectar of sustenance. Becoming rootless, our stories and consciousness unfurl to encompass all who we come in contact with, opening up new vistas, and expanding our boundaries of learning limitlessly.
Just moving from place to place and making the effort to talk with people and listen to the stories of their lives, families, local lore, the goings on, and then equally transfusing our own in return, changes our world one moment at a time, a domino effect of huge proportions.
Throughout our civilization there have been those who lived the nomadic life, beginning with the hunter gatherers, and this genetic drive remains one of the primal urges of humanity as we spread across the globe over the millennia.
The story of humanity is one of conquering and confiscating the lands of the vanquished, who either assimilated or moved on to find safe havens. The study of diaspora throughout history affirms this political and religious fact.
The phrase, “Go west, young man!” attributed to the author Horace Greely, regarding America’s westward expansion related to the concept of “Manifest Destiny,” which was popular in the mid-1800s. It was believed that settling the West would relieve our country of the “crowded” cities and poverty that abounded. People saw the West as the savior and solution to poor systems management, creating another diaspora of the native Americans in the grab for land and ensuing gold and silver rushes.
Now that humanity has filled in most of the habitable spaces on the planet we are like ants on a rock reaching out―but just not quite getting to―a sweet juicy peach on the picnic table of the solar system and stars. Yes, if we survive ourselves…there will be Manifest Destiny off the earth; and this is a story for future generations and theorists.
In traveling we search for truth in context and meaning in recreation. There have been nomads of the land but also of the heart, traveling among us in the form of wandering minstrels carrying song, story, and education to those bound by necessity. Showmen and funfair itinerants brought pleasure where drudgery abounded. Throughout the Middle Ages, masons worked in guilds or clans created to protect the secrets of the building of the great cathedrals in Europe with roots back to ancient Egypt. The stonemasons of the time who were “operative,” and not “speculative” as we have with us today, were very unusual in that they―unlike those under the kings and lords of the time―were free to move from place to place, keeping their extensive learning alive and inducting apprentices along their journeys. Many of the major edifices in Europe were a century in the building and knowledge and information passed between the builders as needed. This would soon morph into the development and protection of the arts and sciences from the prying eyes of a dogmatic church and state.
Of the most recent itinerants in America you will find hobos, tramps, and bums. Hobos were and are today’s traveling workers. Tramps work only when forced too, and bums don’t work at all. The etymology of the term hobo come from the late 1890s, some possible derivations are “Hoe Boy,” or farm hand, “Ho boy,” as a greeting, or as Bill Bryson suggested in his book, Made in America, that “Ho Beau” was an abbreviation for “homeward bound,” taken from a railroad greeting. Lastly, there was “Homeless boy.”
The railroad played a large part in the development of the hobos’ movement across America, though a number of possibilities existed as door-to-door salesmen, knife sharpeners, and workers for hire/handymen.
The culture developed an entire sub-language of words understood by fellow “’bos,” the term used to address fellow hobos. A few of many words of this hidden itinerant language were: Banjo: a portable frying pan Bone polisher: dog Buck: a Catholic priest good for a dollar California blankets: newspapers used to cover oneself on a park bench Grease the track: get run over by a train
and many other juicy expressions. Many of these words have entered into our common lexicon such as “the big house” or “glad rags.”
As many words as were available for ’bos to communicate, there were an equal number of symbols, too, left for the discerning eye to catch in an obscure spot or fence post, such as a triangle with hands to signify a man with a gun, or a horizontal zigzag signifying a barking dog.
Many notables have lived the hobo life for a time, tapping into the heart and soul of Americana. Jack Dempsey, Loren Eiseley, Woody Guthrie and Dave Van Ronk (both Bob Dylan mentors), Jack Kerouac, Jack London, Louis L’amour, Robert Mitchum, and Carl Sandburg.
A twist in our lingo brings us to the “Boho,” from Bohemian, and the last connection to the wanderlust lifestyle. In pre-hippie years a bohemian was known as a person practicing an unconventional lifestyle with few permanent ties, a vagabond, wanderer, and adventurer. The word came into our language in the nineteenth century to describe unorthodox, marginalized, impoverished artists, writers, musicians, and actors, who practiced free love, often living intentionally poor lives. The Romanis, or gypsies, were often associated with this moniker as they were always on the move, loved music, dance, and flew in the face of rules and conventionality.
Journalists in America and specifically San Francisco in the late eighteen and early nineteen hundreds became strongly associated with the idea of bohemianism, and Mark Twain and other writers tied themselves to this concept, organizing the Bohemian Club, which is still in existence today. Certain areas of the US have been designated as bohemian hot spots, many of which you are aware of: Greenwich Village, North Beach, Venice Beach, Topanga Canyon, Ojai, Boulder, Key West, and many others.
To sum up, whether you admire nomads, hobos, bohos, vagabonds,
adventurers, peripatetic wanderers, letting your hair down, or re-creating,
hear the call of the wild. Go! Listen, share, and be beguiled!
Looking out our Airstream’s panoramic windows and pondering on this languorously hot July day how life experiences diverge so quickly from their moment of creation. We often ask ourselves how things would have been so different if we had only…let’s say bought that house in that other neighborhood, which led to not meeting some of our closest friends, which led to many incredible experiences, and on and on in an infinite chain of events. It is like a multidimensional cone expanding out in time and space. Each moment is like this. Every choice. Every decision pregnant with opportunity and a different life. Whew! Looking backwards brings smiles and sadness, cringing and cackling.
In the book, The Once and Future King by T.H. White, Merlin mentored the young Arthur and gave him the experience of transference into other beings. I am attempting to learn this lesson now, watching hawks being harassed away from nests by much smaller, fearless birds. I spy dozens of ground squirrels jumping out of their burrows and scurrying to another cool entrance, touching noses with one another, exchanging some form of communication, followed by chases, then back down into the darkness below the relentless heat. Slowing down to awaken the senses and become aware of the micro and macrocosm is the exercise of the moment. Monarch butterflies shimmer in the sunlight as their wings flutter in counterpoint to the wind-tufted leaves, movements like visual musical notes.
This benchmark in life, retirement, is bringing up questions and musings on my work and careers, as there have been so many chapters to this encyclopedia of experiences. Teaching has been the Elysian Fields throughout my careers, surrounded by a semi-permeable electric fence to keep bureaucratic machinations, confusion, and the numbing roar of the mass mind out yet admit the rejuvenation of change. Speaking of electric fences: just recently, I was hiking up a deserted country road along a pasture fenced with nylon twine. A horse within and I spied each other simultaneously and it approached me but kept at arm’s length from the fence and my reach. I stretched my arm as far as I could between the twine rungs to come within just a couple inches of the horse’s nose for polite recognition, but it wouldn’t accept my touch. Looking more carefully at the twine I recognized the cause of the horse’s reticence. Within each strand of nylon there was a very thin spiral wire, almost invisible to the eye but most definitely not to the touch, which carried an electrical admonition to stay away. The definition of horse sense came to mind and I thanked my lucky stars that I didn’t have to relearn my lesson again from childhood.
That electric fence kept that horse from wandering, safe from interlopers. My mental fence is a barrier against mediocrity and to safely contain within the remembrance to swim upstream, climb the waterfall, to paint clown faces on the stern, black and white portraits of those who dictate, “It must be done this way!”
Slowing down and seeing. This is the clarion call of this chapter of change. To see a galaxy twinkling in the Milky Way, perhaps now millions of years dead, the light from which traveled through space at 186,000 miles per second since before life on earth, impacting the nerves, creating memories. Is this light now within, from that distant source, reincarnation?
Humanity is broadcasting itself through the electromagnetic spectrum into space at a significantly lower speed than light. I Love Lucy TV shows from the 60s are radiating out of our solar system as a gift to future travelers. If we could travel fast enough, we could relive our broadcast history “live.”
There may come a time when we realize that our search for extraterrestrial life as we know it has been futile. We may someday decode some as yet unknown electromagnetic spectrum or subset, perhaps light itself, continually bombarding earth with, “Welcome to the Universe!” greetings.