Chaco

Sun dagger

 

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

So where’s the gem in this story?

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

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

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

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

Dinosaur imprint

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

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

Corn grinding metate

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Technological context

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Portland Spring: Consciousness Stream

Water-rich verdant loam, thick moss enveloping vertical and horizontal facades in spongy viridescense;

rivers, streams, creeks, rivulets riffle through and around; sentinel snow-peaked mountains chaperone the horizons; roadways imitate the land’s regional cardinal directions yet deviate circuitously in roundabouts, dead ends, S-curves, merges, and verges; signage and direction changes challenge and defeat GPS coordinates and cavalier Uber drivers; neighborhood monikers echo rich diversity, and young spirit pervades everywhere; Portlandia-hipster impressions emerge and fade through streets streaming with human intercourse;

waves of rain and sun enrich social engagement in the micro and macrocosm balance of living; food trucks, carts and shacks cluster in bunches like ripe glistening grapes in many neighborhoods, foodies and gourmands swarm like ants, spilling into the streets and sidewalks;

tattooing is de rigeur and ubiquitous throughout the populous; alt-cultural rainbow-haired colors illuminate popsicle-sucker-swirled heads in banks, in counterpoint to trim and suited business attire;

homeless meander in singles and packs, sleep in doorways, habituate art-themed street corner encampments emigrating/immigrating grunge into grunge;

pungent-sweet marijuana smoke wafts from passing cars and trailing aggregations of strolling revelers; rain in torrents, drizzle, mist, speckled sun, moisture, wind, then sunbursts; a cacophony of color in blossoms and blooms, each street-neighborhood a rainbow of reverie, shimmering fata morgana of hallucinations: framboise, amaryllis, verbena, lacewing, cordovan, tatami, taupe, opaline, verdigris, bisque, jonquil, yarrow, jacaranda, a paroxysm of garden pride in fulminations of flowers—delightful Portland paradise!

Arizona Cataclysm Reprised: In the Matrix

One of our readers, Michael Luxem, wrote a fact-check comment in response to the blog post, Arizona Cataclysm, that stated, It is difficult to imagine something only 160 feet in diameter—about the length of three semi-tractor trailers—having that much destructive power. F = ma.”

I pulled the statistics for this blog post from numerous web sources including Wikipedia, but I must admit I didn’t math-check the material, so after Michael’s challenge, it was research time. My worry at this point is not the revelation of incorrect facts, but that many of the links and pathways burrowed me into explosion and bomb impact studies, potentially resulting in the arrival of black Suburbans and the infamous Men in Black from Homeland Security. Read on and see…

In the formula: Force = Mass × Acceleration, it should be noted that weight and mass are different. The mass of an object is the amount of matter in the object, whereas weight is the measure of the amount of force exerted on the object within a gravitational field, or how hard gravity pulls on it. For example, the weight of a person varies on Earth compared to the moon. A one-kilogram mass placed on a bench presses down on the bench with almost 10 kg of force.

One newton is the force needed to accelerate one kilogram of mass at the rate of one meter per second squared. Force (one newton) = mass (one kilogram) × acceleration (one meter per second squared).

The meteor described in the blog was approximately 160 feet in diameter. Assuming it was a perfect cube, which it wasn’t, the dimensions of that cube would have been 160 feet long, by 160 feet wide, by 160 feet deep, for a total of 4,096,000 cubic feet. You might be surprised to note that one cubic foot, 12 inches by 12 inches by 12 inches of iron—of which the meteor was comprised—weighs 491 pounds! Hollywood dulls our senses to reality when we see bank robbers break into a vault and carry out gold bars under their arms. A one-cubic-foot bar, again the same dimensions as our iron bar above, would weigh 1,206 pounds! Yes, gold has more mass than iron. Oh, if only meteors were made of gold! The gold ingots stored in Fort Knox weigh 36.5 pounds each, not such an easy feat to slip out of the vault…but I’m getting away from topic here.

It’s simple to calculate the mass of our meteor by multiplying its total cubic feet by the weight of one cubic foot—491 pounds—to arrive at 4,095,999 pounds. Converted to tons, we get 2,047, which is significantly off from the 300,000 tons claimed by one of my reference websites, and consequently changes the impact force on Planet Earth, as we shall see shortly. Nevertheless, this is no insignificant puppy. A fully loaded semi-tractor rig is approximately 80,000 pounds. The mass of our meteor entering Earth’s atmosphere was 51 times that, at an accelerated force monumentally greater than a semi’s highway speed.

Now, let’s make sure all our units described follow the metric (SI) nomenclature.

Mass: 1,859,728 Kg

Acceleration: 12,964 m/s

Force: 44,837,137,865,368 newtons (4.48 × 1016)

I discovered an online TNT calculator and did some rough math to determine meteor force impact which could take me, as I mentioned above, into black Suburban influence, and came up with an explosive force of around 10 megatons of TNT. As a reference, the World War II nuclear explosion over Nagasaki was 20 kilotons. When you see the size of the Arizona impact crater, this all becomes clear.

Another force calculation which helped me understand the immense size of the impact crater was by calculating Kinetic Energy = KE, the formula is written as: KE = m(mass) × v(velocity)² ÷ 2.

1,859,728 kg × 12,964 m/sec² ÷ 2 = 1.56 × 1014 J (Joules)

A Joule is: the SI unit of work or energy, equal to the work done by a force of one newton when its point of application moves one meter in the direction of action of the force, equivalent to one 3,600th of a watt hour.

It is estimated that before atmospheric entry the meteor had the energy of 5.36 × 1016, approximately 12.8 megatons of TNT.

In January 2018, an estimated six-foot-wide meteor exploded in the atmosphere above Michigan with the power of 10 tons of TNT, it was said. I didn’t do the math proof. Here is the YouTube video.

  • Purdue University constructed a rough app called “Impact Earth,” in which you can extract hypothetical meteor impact data and watch a simulated video of your design.
  • For some detailed and complex impact mechanics calculations researched by the US Geological Survey, here is a fascinating link dating to 1928.

Thanks, friend Michael, for pushing me to spend the day (and into the night) researching some of the minutia of that famous monumental Arizona meteor impact, and as a consequence, frying my brain cells. I hope I got the calculations right. You might want to double check them (smile). The challenge is that there is a vast amount of conflicting information out there, much of it weakly researched. Add mine to that list. If you don’t hear from me soon, after a day’s plumbing the depths of explosive impact science, you know where to start looking.

Arizona Cataclysm!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Scary Roads We Love to Hate

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

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

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

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

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

7 Minute high speed drive from Ouray to Silverton Colorado

Moki Dugway, Rte. 261 Utah

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

Whitney Portal Road

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

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

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

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

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

Saline hot springs oasis

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

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

Yes, this is nearly a vertical canyon wall

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

Drone view of Burr Trail switchbacks

Pine Creek Canyon Road (Route 2)

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

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

Gates Pass to Tucson
Below Gates Pass near Saguaro State Park

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

Gunfight in Old Tuscon mission

Doherty Rim, Oregon Hwy. 140

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

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

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

Wheeler Peak, Great Basin, Nevada

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

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

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

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

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

Bodie & Bodie Masonic Roads

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

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

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

California SR 99 & Highway 108: Sonora Pass

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

20-car crash on Highway 99

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

RV pinned on a sharp curve

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

Travertine Hot Springs

 

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

 

Arizona Route 66

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

Meteor City Trading Post
Twin Arrows Cafe and Trading Post

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

Abandoned Twin Arrows interior

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

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

 

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

How to Design a Campground Bathroom

by Ruth

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

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

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

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

Campground Characters

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Circ on front left

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

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

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

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

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

Scene Along the Road 4: Winds and Tracks of Time

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Human graffito inscription above deer paw print presentation

 

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

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

“Say what?!”

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

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

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

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

Collumbola, aka Springtail

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

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

 

Quadrillion pennies stacked up behind recognizable edifices

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two for 2; and Exploring 1.61803

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

Music, magic, and mathmagic

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

Anza Borrego

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

Monetization

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

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

Cycling full circle, life and death in the eternal NOW

 

We arrived back to home base, one cycle completed, and you will not be bored with numerical mileage and travel details. Doctor visits, and “home base” business, most complicated from the road, would fall into place. We crossed the last mountain range, the Vacas (“cows” in Spanish) to immediate change in weather from Sacramento heat, to cool Mediterranean ocean and Bay breezes. I opened our truck windows for a moment to reawaken my senses to the familiar smells of local flora: sticky monkey flower, oat grass, madrone, golden yarrow, live oaks, eucalyptus, bay laurel, musk sage, bricklebush, yerba buena, and much more, welcoming us to our former rooted abode.

Dropping the Airstream for yearly routine maintenance for a couple of weeks, we returned to our friend Jesus’s house where, nearly one year earlier, we launched, wings unfurled, into the unknown of travel adventure. One year is a tiny snippet in time, but before the familiar home patterns could reestablish themselves, we looked and saw with beginner’s mind. This was a special moment to observe change that frequently escapes those who live through familiarity, and we grasped each new observation like hands attempting to hold water. Fresh awareness transforms into familiarity, passes into the background, and enters the roar and cascade of the moment into deep memory and unconsciousness. Perhaps this is our brain’s prescription for sanity as awareness of the consistent process of change would overload our circuits.

Compiled lists of “to do” items fully saturated our three-week hiatus, but there existed one item that could not be subverted and tucked into the ignore list: our dog Gyp’s life and health was slipping away quickly. Gyp and I had conversations during the past several months, mostly me talking, her ears perked up looking for a stick for me to throw, was our lifetime routine. Looking into eyes that would lock unblinkingly at you, to win any staring contest, pulled you back in time to the inception of border collie herding genetics. Ours was a driven and stoic working dog from puppy fumbling to now old age arthritic stumbling. Her love was expressed by the incessant desire to serve us, and as sheep and cattle were not readily available, balls and sticks of every variety and size would suffice.

It is no easy decision to relieve permanently your dog/child, companion and faithful friend of many years of her pain and loss of dignity. We spent long hours weighing the pros and cons to arrive at the decision that this was to be the day. I walked out on the front deck facing the main thoroughfare, tears streaming down my face in unbridled grief, awakening to the ebb and flow of life around me. Cars streamed in cycles through the periodicy of rush hour morning commutes. Traffic lights controlled corpuscles of flowing vehicles, emulating life’s ebbs and flows through organic arteries imprinted through countless evolutionary cycles. Young and fit members of the nearby cross-fit cult trotted out of their dark den to run street loops and perform weight stretches and lunges, as an old woman, stabilized by cane, doddered past. I became keenly aware of the dark green of Mt. Tam and foreground vista that just one short year earlier was banded in multi-colored fall leaf shades, now displaying hues of mature rich forest green.

Mt. Tam in Fall 2016

 

Mt. Tamalpais-deep summer 2017

The noise of deconstruction and construction emanated from across the street, renewing my awareness of the tide and breath of life. A subtle lingering scent in the air of fall’s return shifted my spirit and thoughts to the one sense remaining with Gyp, all her herding focus narrowed into the careful awareness of air’s life-instilling treasures through her nose. This was the Now moment. All that came before and would come to be, nestled closely and silently in the din of this pulse of life. It just didn’t seem fair, though I knew deep down it was, that one so dear should pass away from this moment to enter into endearing memory. Life is not fair. Joyfully and painfully real, but not fair.

We perceive life in the now, celebrate its arrival in birth and mourn its passing. These thoughts crossed my mind many times as I observed our “puppy” slide slowly toward the eternal sheep fields. I struggled to stay in the now of thankfulness. We gathered together, the vet, her assistant, and Jesus (aka Erik), our steadfast friend, and brought Gyp into our group center to enjoy our love and gratitude for her abiding, single-minded devotion to our pack. We stroked her soft thick fur and muzzle as relaxing anesthetic was administered and her faithful heart slowly passed into silent peace. Her memory will live with us as a constant reminder and thankfulness of the preciousness of life in the mysterious now.

Gyp’s ashes

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beginning of waterfall at Longhouse

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

 

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

Warning from the Collared Lizard of Hovenweep

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

19th Anniversary Celebration at the crash site cairn.

Boxes

by Ruth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Boondockin’ the Old Spanish Trail

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bonus treats!

Real Time Savannah Adventures: Part 2

 

 

 

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

Do Not Service marker

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

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

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

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

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

Talmadge Bridge as seen from downtown Savannah

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

Downtown Bluffton, South Carolina

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Oglethorpe’s Savannah Vision: Part 1

Savannah, Georgia is a stunning gem of a city that has as its progenitor a man that set in motion a cascade of events placing this locale apart from any city in America, perhaps the world. All creations emanate from a source, and the source we will now visit was a man with extraordinary vision and social consciousness instigating waves that rippled through time.

James Oglethorpe was a British visionary, social reformer, and military leader who dreamed of creating a haven for England’s working poor and strengthening the colonies through trade. He landed along a bluff on the Savannah River in 1733, and named the 13th American colony Georgia, after King George II.

Upon settling, Oglethorpe met with the local Yamacraw Indian chief Tomochichi, and after establishing good relations, a settlement was agreed upon and named Savannah after either a name for the Sawana people who inhabited the region, or from the Shawnee Indian word for Savannah River.

Actual photograph of Oglethorpe’s negotiations with native Americans.

Oglethorpe supposedly had four rules for his new community: no slaves, no Roman Catholics, no strong drink (rum), and no lawyers. This perhaps goes to show that you can’t get it all right all the time, nor can you judge history with 21st century consciousness, but I digress…

Oglethorpe designed the basic layout of the new city into blocks of five symmetrical 60×90-foot lots. Included in this plan were 24 public squares, though only 21 remain in existence today. These were intended to be meeting places, and potential gathering or camping spots to fortify against native attacks, the Spanish who ruled nearby Florida, or pirates. The genius of these public squares would come into their own in time and grow in beauty, as in them grew verdant live oak trees covered in Spanish moss and cultivated gardens, statuary, and fountains, a veritable beguiling social haven.

Oglethorpe and his fellow founders envisioned Savannah as a colony where settlers could achieve a comfortable living in contrast to the huge plantations and isolated personal fortune found in surrounding British America. It was understood by the charter granted to him by George II, that Oglethorpe could not hold office, own land, or receive a salary in the new colony, yet he put his vision ahead of personal gain. Part of Oglethorpe’s dream was a classless society, one step removed from the other 12 colonies and a giant step away from the homeland: restrictions were put on how much land could be owned and no slavery was allowed. In his original plans, heads of households were to work their own land, though later after the colony was established and Oglethorpe left to return to England, economic pressures from the production of cotton saw slavery return to keep in competition with the large cotton plantations. There existed an incomplete ideal however, in that women could not own land in the new colony due to the belief that each plot of land required a male worker and defender.

The motto of the trustees and new colony was: non sibi sed aliis: “Not for self but for others.” Considering the zeitgeist of the times, this motto served the colony well: the Catholics, due to their alliance with the French, were ostracized for fear their sympathies would assist them if conflicts arose between the two world powers.

The intention of this blog piece is not to bore you, dear reader, with historical facts but to describe a pattern that is engrained within the Savannahian culture, and so one more moment in history must be described. Savannah, which had a very large free African American population before the Civil War, suffered terribly during the Union Navy’s coastal blockade. Savannah city leadership traveled to meet General Sherman and his oncoming Union soldiers to beg that they not burn down the city as was the fate of Atlanta. (You may be remembering bits of storyline here from the movie Gone With the Wind.) It is said that Sherman was so impressed with the beauty of the city that he could not destroy it.

This gem of a city has a long history of integration, deep southern culture, independence, and relative isolation from the interior southern populations—and is proud of it. Its historic district remains one of the largest in the nation and if you walk or drive through the 21 public squares you immediately note that traffic must slow to a crawl, Southern style, to navigate around them. The design of this central district sets the tone for the town: people stroll languidly in an envelope of oxygenic-rich heat and humidity that encourages the lushness of foliage and social intercourse. The air of aestheticism, gentility, and of course that ever-present courtesy, permeates throughout like the scent of magnolia, and ties you to a time when good breeding was expressed through polite refinement and affable cordiality.

Architecture reigns supreme here as all manner of period structures challenge your eyes and mental inquisitiveness. Some of the many homes to be found encircling the squares and surrounding regions were built in the styles now known as Federal, Georgian, Gothic Revival, Greek Revival, Italianate, Regency, Romanesque Revival, Second French Empire, and of course the more modern early 20th century, mind-numbing, classless design. All too often you find yourself sending a huge “Thank you!” back in time to General Sherman’s saving impulses. The layers of richness here are overwhelming and challenge the senses to remain at their highest level of consciousness. If you are looking for an awakened redefinition of Muse-e-um, this is it.

You can’t spend any appreciable time in Savannah without hearing the name SCAD mentioned, which stands for Savannah College of Art and Design, founded in 1978. Everywhere you look, you see references to SCAD—refurbished buildings (particularly in the historic district), downtown offices, theaters, ancillary branches and sub-schools throughout the region, students everywhere. The College has expanded its campuses to Atlanta and Hong Kong, and has approximately 11,000 students studying any of eight majors: Building Arts, Communication Arts, Design, Fashion, Entertainment, Digital Media, Fine Arts, Foundation Studies (drawing), and Liberal Arts.

I’m a big fan of college towns, and the freshness and infusion of ideas and culture they bring to a place is patently recognizable as we travel across the country. SCAD is like a continuous intravenous infusion of vitality of arts into Savannah that has kept the ghosts of its past alive, giving them bones of aesthetic support, and the breath of youthful living-in-the-moment. Perhaps in a final capstone of restoration to one of the original four rules the colony was founded upon, which stated, “No Catholics,” we can look up the root definition of Catholic, which is: “Including a wide variety of things, all embracing.”

The institution of SCAD has brought full circle that missing element to Savannah in a philosophical and metaphorical way. Its restoration of buildings and city infrastructure also restores the blood flow of modernity, to the melting pot of a town that is a pretty doggone special place. Oglethorpe would be proud.

Look for a following blog post to chronicle our adventures in the real time “Catholic” Savannah!

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Scene Along the Road: 1

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

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

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

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Caliginous Cacophony

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

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

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

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

Fireflies illumine the moonlit night

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

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

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

Bioluminescence

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

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

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No Truck: No Texas, and Going Postal in America

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

So what’s the lesson here?

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

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

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

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

Post Office Angel

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NOLA: It’s about the food

by Ruth

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

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

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

Clover Grill burger

 

Clover Grill

 

 

 

 

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

The Quarter during…nothing
Quiet time in the Quarter

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

Chicken & waffles, debris & eggs

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

I want that hat!

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

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

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

Calas to die for

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

Breakfast of Champi… um, me

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

 

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

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

Does this lead to the Gates of Hell?

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

Does Satan carry a cellphone?

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

 

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

Barack Obama ready to dig in

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

“Oh, no, you don’t!”

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

Nothin’ says Amurica like the rodeo!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now these are names to reckon with!

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

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

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

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

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

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

One short story, above 25 stories, above 40 centuries, on the bottom of the ocean, 265 million years ago…or…

Long roads: short thoughts

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.

Millions of years of sea bed accretion

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.

They are still among us!

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.”

More Roadside America: The Great State of Texas

By Ruth

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.

El Cosmico accommodations
The bathhouse

 

 

 

 

 

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.

Carl, the Lost Horse Saloon host

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.

Salt Lick BBQ

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).

Airstream Row

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.

A selection from Hey, Cupcake!

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 mallsstate 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, Texas Museum 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.

The Minnesota Iceman(?)

* 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

Just a sign, or an opinion?

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.

Toilet seat art

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.

Ruth with artist Barney Smith

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.”

Walrus, platypus, and cocktail at Foster’s Big Horn

Drinks on the house.

 

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Smiling Seniors Siren Saga

Picture, if you will: An RV park that appears on the shimmering horizon, beckoning you to an oasis of organization and security from the wilds of BLM camping. Tanks are in need of dumping and refilling, laundry and larder are in need of replenishment for the miles ahead. Your web search reveals that this encampment is cooperatively owned and this is new to you, so you enter: The Twilight Zone?

Registration at the office is VERY organized, and you scan your immediate surroundings to notice that bulletin boards grace the walls with rules, times, dates, and organizational details found only in the upper strata of RV parks. Your admission hits a minor glitch when you find that the queue is two days long for a spot with full hook-ups, confirmed by a glance out the window at the line-up of huge Class A rigs waiting their turn for entry. The super-friendly and professionally attired office personnel assure you that patience will produce a week-long spot at a beyond-reasonable rate of $50, so you move into a holding area at the high end of the park. Your temporary spot is overlooking a stunning valley framed along the horizon by a jagged mountain chain topped in snow. Not so bad for a holding pattern.

You drive to your temporary spot at a safe and carefully marked 10 mph, and pass many people moving about their duties, all waving and wishing you well. Golf carts pass you, the occupants wave greetings, you observe that each RV plot is immaculately landscaped. This sure is a friendly place. No sooner do you perform your set-up ritual, then a golf cart approaches, its driver, wearing the ubiquitous name tag, leans out to extend a welcome and the declaration that your newly found park is extremely friendly. You chat amicably, aided by knowledge of the driver’s name and title ID’d on his chest badge. You are informed that you should absolutely sign up for The Tour, and you acknowledge politely.

Soon a new neighbor pulls in next to you, interestingly in a similar Airstream, and they reveal that they were invited to take The Tour as well. What is The Tour? And for that matter, what’s up with this place? you wonder. In every outside activity you are greeted warmly by ID-badged occupants, hands wave from passing golf carts, dog walkers nod warmly. Tossing a trash bag into the dumpster you are encouraged to swap travel stories and plans, and when you find the clubhouse-kitchen-auditorium-laundry facility, everyone engages you as family. You are frequently asked if you have taken The Tour.

Two days pass, and you are escorted to your promised hook-up spot to start the week’s discount. Your next door neighbor arrives with his wife to greet you, looking very much like they stepped out of a Norman Rockwell painting to ask…yep, you know, “Have you taken The Tour?” But now more information is divulged to fill in the gaps of wonder. You are informed that after The Tour you should sign up on The List to acquire a spot to join the co-op. It appears that this park is “special,” in that you can sign up and put up a down payment to ensure a spot to bid on a lot when it opens. This eventually leads you up the food chain to gain better spots as they open up…and this opens the door to this overtly friendly retirement community where everyone has a place, every place is carefully defined, everyone has a job with a name tag (as is expected in this co-op), and you can then reach out to warmly offer the fruits of community living, and The Tour, to newcomers into your family enclave.

So what is The Tour, you ask yourself? The answer comes quickly from your recent Airstream neighbors, who are relocated just down the street from you. A large golf cart manned by, of course, a badged tour guide comes to take prospects for a two-hour detailed description of the co-op which your Airstream neighbors describe as being, “One and a half hours too long.” But…they might have drunk the Kool-Aid, for the community seems intriguing to them.

Looking out across the park of approximately 800 lots—all carefully manicured—you see that everything and everyone has its place, and this of course rationally maintains necessary organization and comfort for the occupants.

Customized RV lot

Walking around the streets you notice that rocks of different sizes have been painted with pictures of animals and flowers, all of the desert vegetation ringing the avenues is carefully pruned and labeled with identification tags, buildings housing workshops are open and maintenance crews are busy making repairs and improvements. A “Founder’s Park,” with gazebo and nearby convenient porta-potty hosts group events and, particularly, each evening’s Happy Hour, to bolster the co-op’s body politic. You ponder the name of this co-op for future reference, SKP Saguaro (say “S-K-P” aloud and you hear “Escapees,” the actual name of the organization).

You speculate on all the possibilities that this co-op has to offer, daily and nightly activities not limited to billiard tables, dancing—with associated lessons—yoga, movie nights, crafts, lunches, special potluck dinners, and much more, all very socially comforting. But large in your mind is the freedom to explore, to discover the magic around each bend in the road, the education in conversation with the diversity of those you meet, and the lessons they amplify to broaden your perspective and wisdom. Yes! You are already on The Tour!

 

 

Downtown Drug Deal?

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.

Arizona Reprised: Ajo (Part 2)

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

Early Phelps-Dodge open pit mine in Ajo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Slag being dumped on slag mountain top

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

Ajo, Historical Society and St Catherine Indian Mission

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

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

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

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

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

Inside a T. rex, The Historama!, and what is The Thing?: Getting lost in Roadside America

By Ruth

Webster’s dictionary defines kitsch as: “Something that appeals to popular or lowbrow taste and is often of poor quality.”

Well, YES! But what Webster’s doesn’t tell you is that, when it comes to roadside attractions, this kitsch is, in a word, irresistible. Most roadside attractions date from the 1940s through the 1960s, the Golden Age of the American Road Trip, when gas was cheap, cars were the size of yachts, and seat belts were unheard of. Originating in America and western Canada, these oddities were designed to separate tourists from their cash by roadside entrepreneurs who were often as odd as the attractions they built. I remember as a child in the 60s, going on road trips with the family and seeing the billboards as they passed. If nothing else, they broke up the endless monotony of the miles and miles of driving.

While we’ll never be able to recreate the newness, excitement, and titillation of the 1960s roadside attractions, we have sampled a few in the past few weeks:

First stop: Desert Hot Springs, California, just a few miles north of its better-known neighbor, Palm Springs. We spent a lovely long weekend there with our wonderful friends, Debra & Dan, soaking in the lithium hot springs, having tasty meals and sparkling cocktails, and catching up.

But bright and early Saturday morning, the four of us headed west to Cabazon, home of the iconic pop-culture Cabazon Dinosaurs since 1975. As the website states: “Mr. Rex’s Dinosaur Adventure includes a dinosaur exhibit featuring over 50 lifelike dinosaurs, a dinosaur dig, fossil panning, and access to climb inside Mr. Rex all the way up to his mouth!”

And we did. Here’s the view.

The Cabazon Dinosaurs are everything they should be, and more. A lush jungle setting in the desert, dinosaurs peeking through the vegetation at every turn in the path. Indoors, sound effects and audio-animatronics recreated scenes from the Jurassic.

Ben saddles up!

Some dinosaurs even had saddles affixed, for convenient dinosaur riding (for those young-earth creationists with no head for actual facts that believe humans and dinosaurs co-existed).

 

Second stop: The Old West (Old Tucson & Tombstone).

A couple of weeks later, finding ourselves camped outside of Tucson, Arizona, we opted to spend a day at the nearby Old Tucson Movie Studio. This is what Disneyland would be on a budget and with little talent (though there was some, as you’ll read later). Over 400 movies and TV shows have been filmed here, some of which include Gunfight at the OK Corral, Rio Bravo, Have Gun Will Travel, Death Valley Days, Rio Lobo, The Outlaw Josey Wales, Gunsmoke, Bonanza, and The Quick and the Dead. Suffice to say, the place is strangely familiar.

 

 

 

Our first stop was at the Saloon and Palace Theater, whose show featured a sadly talent-deprived troupe of young women, trying oh-so-hard to act, sing, and dance, but crippled with a bad script and the inability to act or dance (though they could sing). The opening solo was, anachronistically, the 1946 “I’ve Got the Sun in the Morning and the Moon at Night,” reminding me of those western movies made in the 1960s, when, instead of 1860s hairstyles and no makeup, all the women had 1960s bouffant ’dos and makeup.

So there this poor woman was, belting out a Cole Porter song to an Elvis generation. Dressed as a madam in an 1880s saloon.

There was a thin plot line about this madam looking for new “girls” for her show. The three obligatory shy, hick, and tomboy personalities came up to “audition.” The show was so incredibly—but oh! I can’t go on.

Happily, the saloon had a full bar, and that just about put us in the right mood. We gratefully exited at the end of that show, and wandered around, struggling to find something that wasn’t too painful to watch. Thankfully, most of the retired, baseball-capped, Old-West-experience seekers waddled from venue to venue, keeping up with the show schedule; this left many of the streets deserted, and it wasn’t hard to turn an empty corner and imagine ourselves in the Old West. We enjoyed striking up conversations with the many costumed actors and workers milling around and manning the mostly-empty exhibits. We saw an okay bank robbery/shootout; the stunts were pretty good, but again, who wrote that script?!?

After a disappointing lunch at Big Jake’s (shamelessly named after the John Wayne film), we found a seat at the top of the bleachers for the Stunt Show. If anything was going to be good, or so downright bad that it would be good, this would be it. And this is where what little talent employed at Old Tucson shone. The three young men put on a show that was actually interesting, and most of the stunts quite good. They demonstrated classic fist-fighting; stomach-punching and face-kicking; how to look like you’re shooting someone when you’re not (and yes, blanks can hurt or kill you if not done right, just ask Brandon Lee—oh, wait…); how to take a fall (sometimes from quite scary heights); and how NOT to get burned in a burning building. And all this while keeping up a steady stream of goofy slapstick, entertaining dialogue, ballet-like choreography, and (mostly) funny jokes.

A week or so later, we set up camp in Benson, Arizona, about 50 miles from Tucson and just down the highway from the (in)famous The Thing? (more below). But first, more of the Old West. Bright and early Sunday morning, be-hatted and booted, we headed to Tombstone, The Town too Tough to Die. Also known as The Most Famous Western Town in the World and Home of the O.K. Corral. Roadside billboards show a quartet of black-hatted, droopy-mustached lawmen, pointing their guns straight at you and shouting “Gunfights DAILY! See Wyatt Earp & Doc Holliday!” And who can resist?

 

We started the morning with a visit to The Tombstone Historama: The True Story of Tombstone, narrated by Actor (need that title!) Vincent Price. A triumph of early 1960s technology, Tombstone’s history “comes alive” in the shape of a lumpy, “laser-controlled” diorama on a revolving stage, decorated with small vignettes from Tombstone’s early history.

Morgan Earp goes THUNK!

The story of Tombstone unfolds through blinking lights, jerky wooden figures, garbled sound effects, and a projection screen that lowers and rises over the diorama to show Western movie clips—although it often rises and lowers in the middle of whatever it is that you’re supposed to be watching—and to allow the diorama to rotate to the next scene. My favorite bit was the vignette showing Morgan Earp being shot while playing pool. The little figure stood for a moment in the spotlight, there was the sound of a gunshot, and poor Morgan abruptly bent at the waist and landed on the pool table with an audible “thunk!” Our laughter mercifully drowned out the soundtrack for a while.

You may well ask, “Why Vincent Price? Why not Walter Brennan, or Jack Elam, or one of the other many supporting actors whose voices we know and love from movie westerns?” Alas, the story is less interesting than we’d hoped: Vincent Price was a friend of the original owner of The Historama, and did it as a favor.

Guided by signs “To the O.K. Corral!”, we sat through an excruciating reenactment of the famous gunfight: the Earp brothers and Doc Holliday versus the Clantons and McLowerys; and it was then we realized just how much talent the guys at Old Tucson had. Seems that any old biker with long hair and a mustache can be employed in the streets of Tombstone—just give ’em some chaps, a pair of boots, a raggedly hat, and hey, presto! another authentic reenator. It helps if they can drive a team of horses, but even if not, they can stand in the street, hawking the various attractions: “O.K. Corral gunfight, starting in 5 minutes!” “Come eat at the original Crystal Palace Saloon!” “Have a drink at Big Nose Kate’s!” and “See the Bird Cage Theatre, one of the West’s Most FAMOUS LANDMARKS and #1 Most Haunted Building in America!”

We loved it.

Third stop: The Thing?

“Mystery of the Desert.” “Ghost of the Past.” “What is it??” These are just some of the many billboards advertising America’s most purposefully mysterious attraction, The Thing?. What is The Thing? Well, to find out, we entered a gift shop full of an amazing collection of kitsch, where we were greeted cheerfully by a gray-haired, bespectacled old lady who asked, “Can I help you?”

“We’re here to see THE THING!” I announced in the same tones you might say, “The Smithsonian!” or “The Louvre!”. She grinned and welcomed us, took our $1 each, and we stepped through the rear door of the gift shop, following the gold footprints painted on the narrow sidewalk. The exhibit consists of three large sheds housing a collection of—what to call it?—the type of old junk you might find in anyone’s garage or barn. The first shed contains old farm implements, tractors, cars. One sign reads, “1932 Buick. This antique car was really THE THING.” “1937 Rolls Royce,” reads another. “This antique car was believed to have been used by Adolf Hitler…THE THING is, we can’t prove it.”

The strangest exhibit was a metal cage full of life-sized wooden figures (carved by Ralph Gallagher, “Artist”), being tortured by hooded mannequins. “This display is worth many thousands of dollars,” we are told by a sign. And this incomprehensible display (my favorite):

But what you all want to know is: What IS The Thing? Well, if we told you, we might become victims of the Curse, so we’ll just have to keep The Secret of the Desert.

Ajo, Sonoran Desert, and The Border Patrol

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.

Saguaro National Park East, ca. 1935.
Saguaro vista

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

Howdy Folks…nyuck, nyuck!
Rock Climbing Saguaro
Saguaro dragon

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Waltzing Saguaros

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.

Metates in wash circa 1000+ years
Metate as would be seen by native American using mano

 

 

 

 

 

Metate with a quarter for size reference.

 

 

 

 

 

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.

US Border Patrol check point near Ajo, Arizona

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.

US Border Patrol Station 3 near Ajo, Arizona

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.

Wild Javalinas foraging for food

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.”

Come join us!

 

 

 

 

For more photos, check out our Instagram posts: @LyfsArt and @BenMacri52

Quartzsite, Arizona

Our S.E. campsite quadrant
Quartzsite view by air

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

Quartzsite BAZAAR
Quartzsite big tent sales aisle

 

 

 

 

 

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

Quartzsite buffalo heads

 

Skulls for sale

 

 

 

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

Grocery overstock sales

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

Railroad track knives and cutlery

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

Beer Belly Outdoor Bar

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

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

Airstream group camp circa 50s

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

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

360 degree panorama at Dome Rock

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

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

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

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

Anza-Borrego Desert and Borrego Springs: The town out of time

The Anza-Borrego Desert is a 600,000 acre gem hiding in plain sight, nestled deep in the valley west of the Laguna Mountains and framed north and south by the Santa Rosa and Vallecito mountain ranges. It is the largest state park in California and the second largest in the contiguous United States. The park takes its name from Juan Bautista De Anza, an 18th century Spanish explorer who came into contact with the now rare Borrego, or bighorn sheep. Sensitive and observant travelers to this area discover the ancientness of this region that has transformed through the millennia from warm ocean waters through tropical forests, savannas, and woodlands. The fossil history richly reveals the lives of previous inhabitants such as baleen whales, salt and fresh water shells, clams, sea urchins, shrimp, shark, and—on the large end of the scale—woolly mammoths, much later in the timeline. Our earliest human ancestors in this region may have encountered the feared Smilodon or saber-toothed cat,

Smilodon

around the time of its extinction 10,000 years ago. It is believed that human contact contributed to their demise on earth; their fossils are to be found throughout this region and particularly in the La Brea Tar Pits, in Los Angeles.

Native Americans populated this area for thousands of years, leaving petroglyphic and pictographic records on rocks and in caves.

Leaving pre-history and entering the Hollywood era, humans were attracted to the mild desert oasis of Borrego Springs with its temperate winter weather just as they were to Palm Springs. The latter winter haven developed in popularity and population but Borrego Springs did not. Why? Roads play a big role in the growth of Palm Springs. There are major thoroughfares crossing it, providing easy access. Borrego Springs lacks easy in and egress with one more major block to growth, water. Borrego Springs relies on a natural aquifer for its water supply that is naturally replenished each year to the tune of 1.8 billion gallons. For decades the amount of water pumped out has far exceeded the replenishment, most recently 6.1 billion gallons a year.

Now, Borrego Springs is not running out of water per se: there are three aquafers stacked on top of each other. The crux of the problem lies in the cost to drill deep enough to access this precious commodity, making it economically infeasible to pull water from the ground. The popularity of the area meets economic reality—similar perhaps to the attempts to desalinate the ocean to make the desert thrive in the Middle East. In northern Borrego Springs, farms that produce grapefruits, lemons, tangerines, and palms have historical water rights to 70 to 80% of the water available; the rest is consumed by golf courses, resorts, and residents. I wonder if Borrego Springs is suffering from the same quandary that the Anasazi encountered when their resources could not keep up with the population growth.

Palm Desert Canyon Ancient Oasis
Palm Desert Canyon Springs
Mouth of Palm Desert Canyon

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

300 Year Old Barrel Cactus–64 Year Old Time Traveler

There once was a halcyon time when both Palm Springs and Borrego Springs hosted the rich and famous of Hollywood. The Rat Pack, Marilyn Monroe, Clark Gable, John Wayne, Angie Dickenson, Burgess Meredith, Will Rogers, and many more, sought refuge and relaxation from the bright lights and fame in local resorts such as La Casa Del Zorro and The Palms. Lon Chaney opened up a community theater in Borrego Springs where many actors spent time beefing up their skills, improving and experimenting in their craft.

Ruth says: Walking the one main street of Borrego Springs, we are confronted with time travel: hotel and restaurant signs that hover above still-open businesses, but look like images from a ghost town.

  

One local trailer park, recently renamed The Vintage (no doubt taking marketing advantage of its many eponymous trailers), still sports restroom signs reading Guys and Dolls.

La Casa Del Zorro is still popular and active. The Palms stands shrouded by palm trees hanging on to life by a thread. Ruth and I could see it off in the distance from our Airstream campsite and it beckoned to us with voices from the past. We drove off the asphalt road onto sand into a circular driveway in front of a once-grand portico. I was inspired to sing a few lines from the Eagles song Hotel California, “…you can check out anytime you like, but you can never leave…”

Hoberg/Palms Hotel, circa 1940s

It was eerie…the hotel was open, but no one but a few desultory tile workers populated the entire edifice. To one side lay a huge Olympic swimming pool, water crystal clear but cold: better experienced during the sweltering days of summer.

Palms Hotel Pool with Deep End View Ports

I wandered over toward where the diving board once stood and noticed an inscription carved into the cement where countless feet sprang into the deep refreshing water: the names of the hotel owners, dating from the 1930s. A maw of darkness caught my eye to the right of the missing board and I discovered steps leading down into a catacomb of musty darkness. Stepping past the Do Not Enter sign, my eyes became accustomed to the darkness and there appeared before me two large plate glass windows with a voyeuristic underwater perspective of the deep end of the pool.

I could imagine the Rat Pack swilling martinis and snarkily commenting on the forms of shapely starlets streaming through the water trailing shimmering bubbles of beauty. Now the room was bare. Paint peeled off the walls. Rusted pipes broke through the cracked cement floor. An aura of claustrophobia came over me and I sought relief up the broken stairs into the sunlight and room windows clearly reflecting swaying palm trees and distant mountains, yet hiding unseen interiors.

Ruth and I took separate pathways of exploration around the vacant hotel interior. Everything was in place, check-in desk with two packages of robes and keys waiting (I presumed) for incoming guests, pictures on the walls depicting people and views frozen in luxurious time, a hotel once grand and desirable, now a candidate for a team of ghost hunters to suss out the calls and laughter from long dead denizens of the silver screen.