SPRING TRIP, Part 8: No Conclusion! No Conclusion!

by Pat Branyan

It seems odd sitting here at home in Comanche in the wallowed out cushion of my couch looking across the room at Dahna on her own couch. It’s odd because we’re actually halfway through our big RV trip out west but, obviously, we’re not traveling. It doesn’t exactly feel like we’re “home” either…sort of a limbo state of being.

For those of you too bored to keep up with our exciting new strategy of long-distance travel, we left our camper in storage in Missoula at the end of the spring portion of the big western loop to be followed in August by the return-home Fall portion. We hightailed it back to Texas, sans trailer, in the interim in order to save Patty’s sanity and begin hacking back the jungle that spread over the place thanks to the incredible wet spring. You no doubt remember the rain regardless of where you live.

An El Niño-inspired, tightly-packed succession of Pacific lows marched ashore spritzing us good as we traveled up the Sierras. They really unloaded when they spun over the Rockies into the thick Gulf moisture awaiting in the Plains thanks to the Atlantic’s southeasterly trades. East meets West. Record flooding again and again because we now live on a different planet than we think we do. I’d guess that when it comes to east vs. west, oceans are more alike than continents. Right now, I’m thinking about how a westerner like me might consider how the two land halves of America, split vertically, feel different when traveling through them.

Simple things such as old sayings like “Back East” and “Out West” seem a good place to start. I don’t know if I should capitalize the E and W, but I think of them now as specific places rather than mere directions, so I’m giving them proper names. I’m really not sure whether or not to capitalize a lot of stuff, and that goes for where to put a lot of my commas too. I distinctly remember the thin little copy of Strunk and White I had in high school, but I don’t remember reading it.

Dahna and I seldom went east except when driving through the Deep South to visit relatives. And, we bought our ketch over in Ft. Lauderdale 20 years ago. But, I don’t include those states south of the Mason-Dixon Line when I think of Back East. Although my family came out of the Deep South, I think of it now mostly in association with Joseph Conrad. Nope, the two halves of the region east of the Mississippi have always been segregated, so to speak, north and south as they lie, still eyeing each other with suspicion. 

Last fall as we headed northeast on the long ride up to Nova Scotia, the notion of Back East dawned on me when we got to Dayton to visit our friends, the Curtoys. They kindly took us on a tour of the town, and as part of that we found ourselves in an accurate replica of the Wright Brothers’ shop. It was easy to imagine, almost hear, the productive whirr of man and machine in motion there, part steampunk, part Apollo 11. 

Maybe I didn’t read S & W’s Elements of Style, but I did read about Carnegie, Ford, Rockefeller and Morgan. They were real jerks alright, but they unleashed a lot of productivity and ingenuity with a huge, if unwanted, assist in courage from FDR, Guthrie, and Parks. Millions of others joined in with hammers, grain drills and slide rules in the Great American Hubbub. Back East, mostly. That part of the country was like a big noisy house with lots of busy people charging from room to room waving their blueprints at each other, raising their voices in a broad blend of accents.

I guess for a few of them it was too noisy, too crowded, just too much altogether so, when the wagons rolled by or the circus hit town they’d join up, hop aboard and go…Out West. Out to the land. 

The desert southwest is home to me and Dahna, and we once lived high up on the western slope of the Rockies. Now we’re down low on its southeastern U.S. edge in central Texas. What hadn’t occurred to me until this trip was how near the desert seems to be everywhere you go in the west, even its northern reaches. Everywhere we went, from the Davis Mountains in south Texas to California to Montana, there it always was, the rocks, the big sky and, all around, the sagebrush. There is no doubt that if there’s a heaven, it smells exactly like the desert air after a shower wets the sagebrush on a sizzling summer day. Well, maybe bacon sizzling—it’s hard to choose.

Sagebrush and Antelope Bitterbrush in the foothill of Crystal Peak on the California-Nevada border near Verdi, NV
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Antelope Bitterbrush (Purshia tridentata) in bloomDSCN1035.jpg

So, if the east is a place steeped in history soaking into every picturesque town, hill and stream, I guess the west is an exhalation of relief, in a way, and a kind of private awe when breathing in the stupendous natural beauty. I suppose this is about right in the most general of senses, at least for us recent immigrants. But, if you look at the names of most of these places, it’s easy to remember that our veneer of understanding of this land pales before those who came so long before us. And yes, that is a pun.

Fully cognizant that we’re all wildly different in our tastes and so happy knowing there’s no accounting for it, I’d have to say California is the most beautiful state and it has a climate to match. I see why we stole it from Mexico. I’m pretty sure most Californians feel no guilt over this since we also swiped Texas thus relieving the Mexicans of a terrible burden. But, and this is true, every Californian we talked to spoke of their love for the state but also expressed real dismay at the cost of living. And, they wondered how long they could continue living there.

Stellar’s Jay – Verdi, Nevada
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Dahna and I are big on progress and California is nothing if not progressive. But, we’re old enough to remember the general prosperity of FDR’s New Deal when progress, and lots of it, didn’t price everybody out—quite the opposite. So, there’s a disconnect there, one I really don’t understand about California even speaking as an expert American, latter day. Can it be that ping-ponging endlessly between beautiful beaches and beautiful mountains across beautiful fruited valleys in perfect weather not only inspires lofty avant-gardian thoughts but also overcrowding, clinical neurosis and housing bubble economics no pin can pop? SNL used to have a recurring bit about it, but I’ve known from boot camp in San Diego long ago that I could’ve happily lived there forever.  

I have to admit that even as an expert American, I had no idea how lovely northern Nevada is. I always thought of the entire state as a giant sandbox sparsely littered with grubby casinos and hucksters and girls lookin’ good in neon and not much else. America’s perfect metaphor, even more apropos at the moment. Well, we’ve all been there, and I hate to confess to it, but there comes a time when you have to say, “…done that.”

Before we reached Nevada we toured Yosemite, and during our five days there, I had a teeny-tiny accident. I missed the turn into the parking lot of the Mexican restaurant in Groveland by a few feet on its little Main Street. There wasn’t much traffic, so I backed up fast to turn around and tapped a wooden post supporting the porch roof of another business lining the street. The red lens of the taillight broke in a little tinkle, and after I parked we went back, picked up the pieces, kicked the base of the post about an inch back into plumb and then walked to the restaurant. We had a great meal and lots of fun playing peek-a-boo and making faces with a little Muslim girl sitting in her highchair. Back at the park we also met the Milhouses which proves that if you move around a little you’re bound to bump into history and have a good time doing it.

A few days later we camped near Reno and Dahna called the Chevy house to find out how much it would cost to fix the truck. About $500.00! Grrr. She hung up and mused out loud, “I wonder what our deductible is?” I couldn’t remember either, so I said, “Call and find out.” She got a woman from USAA on the phone and soon found herself answering questions about my little mishap. Finally, she told the lady that she didn’t want to file a claim, just find out what our deductible was. It was $500.00 so, naturally, we shrugged it off and Dahna went straight to YouTube, the DIYer’s paradise of how to.

A few minutes later she said, “Heck yeah. We can do this ourselves. There’s only two screws holding the whole assembly in.” Being the man of the house, I told her to call the Parts Dept. and see if they had one in stock. The guy told me they did in fact have one and he’d hold it if we got there pretty quick, which we did. We changed the thing out in 10 minutes flat in his parking lot at a total cost of $227 plus change. That did include a military discount puffed up a little because the parts guy really liked Marines. You’re probably asking yourself why I’m telling you all this. It’s because I want you to benefit from our experience.

Spotted Towhee – Verdi, Nevada
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A few days later we got an email from USAA stating that they were processing our claim. I won’t bother you with all the details of my call to their agent, but let’s just say it was, in the words of Thomas Hobbes, “…nasty, brutish and short.”

His position was that we reported an accident and it was their policy, therefore, to file a claim automatically. He said that since I was a good driver and fixed the truck at my own expense with no cost to USAA my rates might not go up, but he couldn’t guarantee it. According to the neighbors, I said, “I remember a time in this goldarned country when an American had the prerogative to file his own dang claim. I didn’t report an accident and I didn’t file a frickin’ claim.” There’s more but even the euphemisms are unprintable. BTW, don’t get the wrong idea about my “once upon a time in America” rant. I haven’t gone all MAGA out there on the endless crumbling highway.

The point is, it’s like having a gun. Don’t point it at somebody unless you intend to shoot them. Likewise, don’t call your insurance company unless you intend to file a claim. If you have to call them for any other reason,  you ask the questions. Never answer one of theirs. Just hang up on the bastards.  Memorize your deductible amount. You won’t always have easy access to your policy if you’re normal.

The parts guy raved about Lake Tahoe, and we knew it was a big deal since Chevy named a big SUV after it. We drove almost around the whole thing but didn’t see much of it because of the ritzy condos and lodges blocking the view. There were a number of turnouts, but they were choked with Japanese vehicles (we like Outbacks). It is a beautiful deep lake in a fine alpine setting. But, it’s not a lake you can just go to like our Lake Proctor up the road from the house. Tahoe is a destination it’s best to prepare for in advance. Come as you are but bring money.

Cinnamon Teal – Lake Washoe State Park, NevadaDSCN0968

We had to detour to Carson City three fourths of the way around Tahoe due to a road closure and it worked out great. North of town is Lake Washoe, fully accessible and a wildlife refuge lousy with birds but not people. Where we were on the shore there were no restrictions, and we let Sacha run wild which worked out fine since she dislikes water and never chases wildlife except rodents like squirrels, gophers and prairie dogs. She imitates prairie dogs by sitting upright on her haunches and waves her front paws in the air to tease out a belly rub. Our quirky girl does lots of other things that cause onlookers to say, “Never saw a dog do that…hmmm.” She’s perfect for us.

When planning this trip I worried about how to get gracefully from Reno to Yellowstone. I was worried because I had a misconception of northern Nevada. I pictured it as the vast aforementioned sandbox of bleached skulls and maybe a fly-specked diner out of “The Petrified Forest” with Duke Manatee and his boys lurking about. I wondered if you could still get a water bag to hang off the hood to cool the radiator like in the 50s.

We had to stop somewhere, and I picked out a miserable looking spot in the tiny town of Wells. Dahna checked it out and immediately stamped “VETO” all over it. She found another little RV park outside of town and made reservations for three nights. When the time came to leave Reno and Lake Tahoe and head that way it was with no little trepidation that I fired up the big Silverado. Wrong again.

It was one of my favorite drives of all time. The desert was a lush silver green from the frequent spring rains and there were mountains on both sides all along the way, beautiful out in the distance and harmless as a pillbug to even the laziest driver. It was easy to lean back and spread my elbows way out on the armrests and sail the clean sagebrush air. When we finally slow rolled into Welcome Station RV park I was pleasantly surprised once again. It was a gem of an oasis out in the desert. Way out there. Not expecting that.

Yellow Warbler – Welcome Station RV Park, Wells, NV
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The place was small but expertly managed and maintained. Again the heavy spring rains had done their work and it was so green it almost hurt your eyes. The grass could have stood in for a Pebble Beach fairway, and on each side ran a clear babbling brook straight out of Disney with all the right gurgles.  Birds for Dahna too. Lots of them. Nancy, the owner, filled me in why Sacha didn’t like water. “It’s in their genes,” she said, “A husky knows if it falls through the ice it’ll die.” Got it.

Pat & Sacha Out for a Walk near Welcome Station RV Park, Nevada
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Spotted Sandpiper – Welcome Station RV Park, Wells, Nevada
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Everybody had a great time there with only one little dark cloud at the laundromat in Wells. That’s where Dahna, you know her, met the World’s Most Irritating Woman. The poor woman was very lucky that day, and so was I not having to spend the rest of my life on the lam. But, soon it was time to leave the welcoming arms of Nancy and Steve’s Welcome Station for the Snake River’s Lake Walcott, Idaho—our last stop before Yellowstone.

Yellow-headed Blackbird – near Rupert, Idaho
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The rain followed us to Lake Walcott S.P. and the drive was, as per the routine, stupendous. I was starting to feel like I’d eaten too much chocolate. To get to the park we had to drive through Rupert, the weirdest little town that a befuddled stranger ever tried to navigate. I swear, that town deliberately made me take the “wrong” road out to the park, the extra long way that hugged the Snake, and it was, you guessed it, stupendous.

Western Tanager, Lake Walcott State Park, Idaho
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It rained most of the time, but it stopped long enough for Dahna to discover that she was sitting in the fat middle of the Garden of Eden of birding. She went wild with that Nikon and fanned that digital shutter like the Waco Kid in “Blazing Saddles.” By the third day I knew I had to act, so I bribed her with breakfast in town at a cafe I found on the internet. The only problem was finding the place because it was in Rupert.

Female Bullock’s Oriole  – trying to use fishing line for nesting material. Sadly, this results in severe injury and death to many birds. Please properly dispose of old line.
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I’ve never seen a place like this. First of all, the main drag slashes through the town at a 45 degree angle which is enough to cheese you off by itself because half of the businesses present themselves at an angle too. You can’t see their signs until you’ve overshot and have to turn around, also at an weird angle. Then, to add insult, the drag, and I mean that in every sense of the word, consists of two separate streets running parallel with a bizarre arrangement of railroad tracks running between them. But wait! There’s more! The whole town has a street numbering system that makes no sense to anyone using base 10. Dahna punched the address for the cafe into Apple CarPlay, and we soon found ourselves in the driveway of a lonely farmhouse sitting out in a field. I’ll admit it was a pretty picture sitting out there like that.

Canada Goose, Family in Tow at Lake Walcott, Idaho
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Even though Rupert is Rod Serling’s idea of a town, we finally found Sophie’s Chatterbox Cafe and it looked normal enough walking in. It’s useful, though, to remember that when you’re in an electromagnetic vortex like Rupert, normal doesn’t have to mean anything if it doesn’t want to. Case in point: After a few minutes of silent and thoughtful chewing, Dahna pointed her fork at me and said in a whispery voice, “This is the best omelette I ever had…no, wait…maybe the best breakfast I ever had!” I couldn’t remember a better breakfast myself, and I think we both got a little spooked. A couple of days ago out in the shop, while bolting on a new carburetor to the old rider, she shook her head a couple of times and roared out, “Damn that was a good omelet!” I took the wrench away, put my arm around her and brought her back to the house.

The Lovely Wilson Theater in Rupert, Idaho (Someday you might be able to get to it). There’s something about Rupert…
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Red-winged Blackbirds – Lake Walcott State Park, ID
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I imagine Sophie cribbed the name of her cafe from the mythical Chatterbox Cafe from “A Prairie Home Companion.”  All things considered, it could be that Garrison Keillor might well have stumbled into Sophie’s while doing his broadcast from the Wilson Theater and lifted the name instead from her very own actual, possibly magical, cafe. Who knows? It’s a mystery. Speaking of mysteries, anybody heard from Garrison lately?

Lark Sparrow – Lake Walcott State Park, Idaho
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Yellowstone. The last time Dahna and I went to Yellowstone was in the summer of ’76 hitchhiking through the northwest. We couldn’t get in because the campground was full, so we had to catch a ride down to Jenny Lake in the adjacent Grand Teton National Park some distance away to pitch our tent. It was a nice consolation prize anyway. This time we did get in and got to see the huge park in all its magnitude. Well, not really. In point of fact, Yellowstone is a monster not unlike Bruce the shark in “Jaws” and most of it lurks beneath. All you can see is on what’s on top. Let’s revisit the word “magnitude” and reflect that Yellowstone’s magnitude should read, “magmatude.”

Young Buck at Lake Walcott
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A great deal of Yellowstone’s surface is a caldera that keeps the lid on a massive super volcano simmering below. When we watched Old Faithful go up my thought picture of the big geyser changed from a  nice piece of Americana to a suspicious mole you’d better keep an eye on. It is, of course, a little demonstration of what will happen if the caldera lets go and the sudden eruption blows a good chunk of the continent right up America’s collective, overfed butt. The scientists claim that it’s not going to happen, but they also failed to predict the zombie apocalypse now eating brains inside the D.C. beltway and beyond.

Don’t let paranoia get the upper hand though. Just chill out and take a walk on the wild side. Yellowstone is magnificent without question and it’s impossible to find fault with any part of it. And, no that’s not a pun. Relax and take your time surveying its incredibly wide vistas. Enjoy the bison grazing in the valleys with their calves bouncing around and the eagles and ospreys gliding above ready to dive. If you’re just a little lucky you might catch sight of a bear ambling around poking its nose into something. Maybe a crafty wolf stealing by that might remind you of a beautiful dog like our girl Daisy, now gone.

White Pelican – Lake Henry,  Island Park, Idaho
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You might do what I do and go back a post or two to Dahna’s photo essays on Yellowstone and the big Californian parks. Or Google them and plan a trip or maybe send a donation. Remember, the National Park Service took a big hit when their already scarce funds were diverted to the tune of $2,500,000 for Trump’s military spectacle on the Fourth of July.

Our last travel day on the Spring trip was close to a six hour ride northwest up through Montana from West Yellowstone to Missoula. It was, once again, a gorgeous drive, one that got better and better the closer we got to Missoula where our old friends Rocky and Elaine live. We stayed in nearby Lolo for five nights giving ourselves plenty of time to prepare the RV for storage plus quality time with our friends.

A few hours after we arrived they brought fried chicken and trimmings out to the camper making the living easy. Isn’t it wonderful having friends you can impose on with impunity?
Cedar Waxwing – Rupert, Idaho
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A day or so later Rocky cooked a flank steak for us that through some sort of sorcery turned the humble cut into one of the best steaks we ever had. Sacha loved their place too and quirked it out like only she can by trapping herself within the invisible force field of their living room carpet. She would not step onto the hardwood floor of their kitchen for all the wienies in Pelosi’s caucus. 

Anyway, Rocky is a landscape architect who has now turned his attention mostly from flora to the legal protection of wildlife fauna, wielding the spoken and written word. I hope to post more about this in the future regarding his ideas involving the legal avenue of the Public Trust Doctrine in pursuit of that objective as well as wider ones.

Little Larkspur (Delphinium bicolor) – Lolo, Montana (a little blurry, taken with my iPhone)IMG_0293.jpg

Elaine is an admitted thespian, both actor and director, and can also be thought of as Missoula’s Florence Nightingale of pet rescue. These days she volunteers at the animal shelter where she recently worked as an employee. Only now she purposefully takes on the most boring chores like addressing envelopes in order to free up the staff’s time for more hands-on animal care. I’m trying to remember the last time I did something like that. I’m sure it’ll come to me eventually. I like to talk politics with Elaine because it’s good for me. Where I’m all roundabout, she gets to the point like a rifle. Bang!

Well-fed Evening Grosbeaks on Rocky & Elaine’s Back Porch – near Missoula, MT
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We spent three nights and four days driving home from Missoula to Comanche. Our first stop in Billings was nice enough, and I don’t remember much about it. But our next reservation was in Ft. Collins and I do remember that. When we got to the fraying Quality Inn the rain was leaking heavily through the windows of the lobby while the desk clerk spent ten minutes sparring with two tough looking and irate customers. I don’t know if you saw “The Florida Project” movie yet, but our motel was a dead ringer for the one one portrayed on the screen.

It came with groups of guys hanging in the doorways checking us out as we commiserated over the place’s condition with our neighbor, a young tattooed lady who told us to bang on the wall if we needed help for any reason. We thought about leaving, but then we thought, ‘Hey, that girl was really nice being willing to mix it up on our behalf, heart of gold, and besides…we’re supposed to be better than that, liberal and all.’ So, we stayed and enjoyed a few brief and friendly acquaintances on the earthy side. I probably should rephrase that, but it’s getting late and Sacha’s halfway to the bedroom and looking over her shoulder at us.

The trip from Ft. Collins to Dalhart was long and rainy, but I like it when you leave I-25 in Raton and slant southeast to the Texas Panhandle on Hwy. 87. The mountains drop back out of sight as you slide down onto the flattest place on earth, and we cruised along with the wipers metronoming us almost unconscious. Getting close to Dalhart Dahna got on the net to check the forecast and discovered it was under a tornado warning. I looked past her and there it was, south of town about seven or eight miles.

It was pretty big and on the ground but the funnel was “rain shrouded,” as they say. Little funnels sprouted from its side high up then dissipated. Dahna then read the warning statement which said it was moving south which meant away from town. I’d never heard of a tornado moving south, but I guess this one got lost or something. I said, “Boy, I sure hope they’re right,” and we drove in to the motel. The tornado wasn’t a killer, but the meal at the XIT Woodfire Grill sure was. Named after the famous ranch, the aroma of its barbecue smoke mingled with the tang of feedlot as we walked in the big door. It was good to be back in Texas, land of the meat sweats.

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I remember nothing of the drive to Comanche until I parked by the house. Sacha jumped out and made a beeline for the great black cat, Doghouse Riley, stretching out in the yard. When he fanned her face with his tail we were all happy. Happy to be home.

TO BE CONTINUED…

At Home With a Few of The Branyan Peach Eaters
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Spring Trip: Friendly Aggravation

While visiting Yosemite National Park we camped in an RV park not far from the entrance. The pull-through sites there are so closely spaced, intimately so, that it’s a sure thing you’re going to want to really like your neighbors. On the afternoon of our third day there a sleek motorhome pulled in next to us, and we made ourselves scarce. Setting up is a private affair and it’s good form to leave people alone while they’re doing it.

After awhile Gary and Shelley Milhous joined us at our picnic table with their own drinks after politely declining my offer of the venerable Old Crow house drink. You probably remember the old 50s movie, “Friendly Persuasion” with Grace Kelly and Gary Cooper. It was based on a book by Jessamyn West, The Friendly Persuasion and the narrative of its fictional family was based on stories handed down of her own Quaker family, the Milhouses of Indiana. If a bell is going off put on your earmuffs because our new friends are Quakers from that same family and they live in Whittier, CA. They’re lots of fun too.

Gary is a pilot and loves flying his own personal plane. Shelley is a committed terrestrial and doesn’t mind waving to him from the ground. For many years they owned one of Whittier’s favorite restaurants, and you can read about in in an article in the Whittier Daily News. Just click on the link.

Seafare Inn restaurant in Whittier to close after 53 years

Below is their account of a mishap all RVers dread–the blowout. Big campers put a lot of  pressure on our tires and when they blow the spinning, flapping debris can do a lot of damage to the coach body. You’ll also see that their opinion of insurance companies aligns with my own. In fact my coming epilogue of our Spring trip describes my encounter with our insurance company but with saltier language than the Milhouses would use.

They didn’t stay long and we really missed their company when they left. Extra chocolate ice cream didn’t help.

Lovely people…


Hi Pat and Dahna,

Couldn’t think of anything to blog about until last weekend.  We moved on from Yosemite Pines, went to see our daughter and her family, saw my Uncle for his 100th birthday up near Olympia, WA. Then we spent a month in Sunriver, OR and left there to drive across Eastern Oregon on Saturday.  65 miles outside of Burns, OR the inside left rear tire on the RV blew up, taking with it the trim strip on the wheel well and crushing the compartment containing the black and grey water tanks.  We called Geico for the roadside assistance they say they offer, but apparently you have to be in a more convenient spot in order for them to get help for you.  The agent tried for two hours, then said we were on our own.  So, we took the tow car off and drove 25 miles an hour 65 miles into Burns to Les Schwab and got a new tire put on.  We debated about turning back, but decided not to be whimps.  Today we took the remains of the Goodyear tire into Boise and they are shipping it to Goodyear to see what, if anything, they will do, since the tires are fairly new.  We got really excellent help at Superior Tire on Fairview in Boise.  Jerry the manager got on the phone to Goodyear and set up the claim for us.  We tried for over two hours to reach their claim department and never got any assistance—just the runaround and numerous phone numbers to call, none of which were answered. So, tomorrow we are back on the road through Idaho, Nebraska, South Dakota and on to Wisconsin.

One thing we were told during this latest RV debacle is that Geico and Liberty Mutual do not pay the tow companies enough to cover their expenses and so many of them will not respond to requests from those insurance companies.  I don’t know if that’s the case, but we sure got no satisfaction from Geico, even though the agent tried to help.  I guess we learn as we go forward, but no insurance company is going to admit that you can only get roadside assistance if you choose the right road to break down on.

Well, another RV crisis behind us.  Hope the rest of your trip went well.

Shelley and Gary Milhous

 

Spring Trip, Part 7: Yellowstone, Where It All Began

By Dahna Branyan

Maybe you weren’t born with a silver spoon in your mouth, but like every American, you carry a deed to 635 million acres of public lands. That’s right. Even if you don’t own a house or the latest computer on the market, you own Yosemite, Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon, Golden Gate National Recreation Area, and many other natural treasures. – John Garamendi

What better way to end our national parks tour than with the very first national park, Yellowstone. Ferdinand Hayden, for whom Hayden Valley is named, was a geologist and naturalist who first surveyed the land and helped convince Congress to protect this treasure as a national park. President Grant signed an act naming it the first national park in 1872.

We tried hard to beat the crowds on this tour. We learned that while that’s not possible, we certainly were gaining on winter. We finally caught up to it in Yellowstone. We drove in on a cold dreary rain that turned to snow overnight.  As soon as we got set up, I looked out the window to see elk right next door.

The next morning looked more favorable for sightseeing so we headed into Yellowstone. The park is beautiful in itself, but it’s so exciting to see the wildlife. 

Ring-Necked Ducks

Trumpeter Swan – Yellowstone claims to have 12 nesting pairs within the park so I feel lucky to have seen this one taking a nap. These birds are our biggest waterfowl and can weigh up to 25 pounds.

Oh, Now He’s Awake

 

We first headed up to Mammoth Springs at the north entrance, driving through the steaming geyser basins. Steam rising from myriad pools and vents makes you worry a just little about just how dormant IS this ancient caldera. The whole area seemed to be boiling under the surface.

Lower Geyser Basin

We stopped to take a look at Gibbon Falls, one of many throughout the park. The rock formations in this area were magnificent and made me wish I had taken a geology course when I had the chance. The raven below thought it was a good place to raise a family.

Gibbon Falls

Raven’s Nest

Mammoth Springs is fascinating.  Water that seeps underground along fault lines  is heated by old magma chambers, remnants of the ancient volcano. The heated water mixes with gases, including carbon dioxide, acidifying the water  and allowing it to dissolve deep limestone (calcium carbonate) layers.  The water bubbles to the surface at the springs, where it deposits the calcium carbonate  as travertine. There are chemical equations lurking about, but I won’t take you there. (Thank me later and I won’t ruin your next 4th of July explaining why fireworks are different colors). Anyway the wonderful coloration arises from various algal colonies that grow in the pools and chalky deposits. Sometimes the fault lines shift a bit and the springs move, leaving some travertine terraces dry while others come to life anew.

Mammoth Springs

Adjacent to Mammoth Springs is the North Visitors Center and the remains of Ft. Yellowstone, commissioned to manage the park. Eventually, the National Park Service took over the management and the fort now serves at the park’s headquarters. But tell that to the bison that navigate between the cars and tourists.

North of the visitor’s center is a turnout where we turned around to head back. Pat noticed a big bull moose atop the hill behind the center. I jumped out, camera in hand to take a picture of my first moose, but by the time I got the lens cap off, he had descended down the other side and out of my sight. Well, there is still a chance to see moose in Banff this fall. 

It had been a pretty full day of seeing the sights and we were ready to get back to our campground and relax a bit when things came to a standstill. Three hours later and a mere seven miles closer to camp, inching down a narrow canyon with about 1500 other vehicles, we discovered why traffic was at a virtual standstill. A small herd of bison and their babies were ambling along, taking up both lanes oblivious to the havoc they were causing. About the time we reached them, the canyon widened and they shuffled off to the side and let a few cars by. By the time we got back to camp, drinks were definitely in order.

Traffic Tie-Up

The next day we drove over the pass to check out Yellowstone Lake. The lake, still frozen over, looked lovely from the overlook, but we stopped there.  By then the snow was looking serious so we got back in the truck and headed back over the pass.

Back on the western slope, it was a bit warmer and we had our first bear sighting – a small black bear, pretty far off, but hey, it was our first bear.

Before heading back, we went to see the main attraction, Old Faithful, go off on schedule. It’s pretty astounding to think of the heat and pressure at work below ground to make that geyser erupt every 50- 90 minutes  for so many years. They say that the time between eruptions has increased due to both lighter precipitation and earthquakes which affect water levels in the area.

Thar She Blows!

Just as we were leaving the park to head back to camp, we saw him – a beautiful Golden Eagle no doubt contemplating his next meal.

Before hitting the road, Pat has a few chores to do to make sure the next travel day is smooth – checking tire pressure on the trailer and truck, along with torquing lug nuts on the trailer, gassing up, etc. This is usually my time to do a bit of birding. Fortunately, Henry Lake State Park, directly across from our campground, provided a great birding opportunity, even though the cloudy skies and intermittent rain did not help the photo quality.

Barrow’s goldeneye

Trumpeter Swan On Nest

Audubon Warbler (a yellow-rumped warbler, affectionately known as a Butterbutt by birders)

 

White-Crowned Sparrow ( She had built her nest on the rocky ground!)

Swainson Hawk

Northern Flicker, Red-shafted

We did get enough decent weather to see a lot of Yellowstone, but some of the roads were still closed from winter snows. A return trip might be in order, but for now it was time to hit the road to Montana to see old friends and stash the trailer for a couple of months

Bison at Play

 

Spring Trip, Part 6: Yosemite, Our Own Notre Dame

by Dahna Branyan

“It was like lying in a great solemn cathedral, far vaster and more beautiful than any built by the hand of man.” – Theodore Roosevelt 

The next leg took us uneventfully back down to the valley through the orchard country of Fresno and Merced, and then as we headed back up into the Sierras, destiny, in the form of Apple Car Play, took a hand.  Siri sweetly guided us to an old logging road sporting a “road closed sign” where a woman rancher happened to be repairing a fence. We explained our Siri problem and asked if the road was really closed. She said it was open, but there were low spots that might still have water. She hesitated before saying that yes, that from there it was the road to Groveland, near our campground. We cursed Siri for the next ten miles as we rattled and rolled down the forest service road to the connecting highway. Again Siri told us to take Old Priest Road up to Groveland, CA and our campground. This time we ignored Siri and took New Priest Road instead, giving her a piece of our mind about her routing judgement. It was a steep grade zig-zagging  to the top. Pat got a bit worried when the transmission started heating up so we used a few pullouts to let it cool down a few minutes before going on. Once at the top and settled into our new digs, we found we were right to ignore Siri since RVs and travel trailers were not allowed on Old Priest Road because it was a straight 17 % grade.  We also met a neighbor who burned up his transmission on the new road, proving again that Pat is a pretty smart fellow for letting the transmission cool on the way up.

Mountain Dogwood
Mountain Dogwood


We still had to climb further up the Sierras before descending down into Yosemite Valley the next day. It was not as arduous as the roads into Groveland or Sequoia, but what a lovely drive through the evergreen forest, dotted with mountain dogwoods and manzanita. The curves were alternately punctuated with luscious waterfalls and breathtaking views of the valley below, including previews of El Capitan and Half Dome in the distance.

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Greenleaf Manzanita (Arctostapylos patula)
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It is easier to feel than to realize, or in any way explain, Yosemite grandeur. The magnitudes of the rocks and trees and streams are so delicately harmonized, they are mostly hidden. John Muir


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But only from the valley floor can you glimpse what Muir was talking about.  The interplay of the valley’s granite walls with the fast moving Merced River and the beauty of the diverse foliage is sublime. If one can filter out the cars and people, it takes little imagination to see this  beautiful rugged valley the way the native Awahneechee saw their home, Awahnee (translated as “gaping mouth”).  It’s hard to say if they named it after the geology of the valley or their initial reaction to the magnificent valley. Well, that was our reaction anyway. 

El Capitan, Its Heart Exposed
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Merced River
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Yosemite Falls
Yosemite Falls

The Majestic Half Dome
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We were very happy campers coming back home to Yosemite Pines RV Resort. Our neighbors, Gary and Shelley from Whittier, CA had just returned from Hetch Hetchy  so we sat out with drinks and talked about all we had seen. When they mentioned Whittier, Pat remembered it was Nixon’s home turf. Turns out, Gary is related to Nixon on the Milhous side of the family. We had a great time visiting with them. They had recently retired from running a family seafood business. I wish we could have visited longer – I might have been able to talk them out of a recipe or two. But they were leaving the next morning and we were headed back to Yosemite, this time to see Hetch Hetchy ourselves.

John Muir and the Sierra Club fought from 1901 to 1913 to save the Hetch Hetchy Valley, lying within Yosemite National Park, from a dam that the City of San Francisco wished to build within Yosemite, arguing that there were better alternatives. As he wrote in Yosemite

“Hetch Hetchy Valley, far from being a plain, common, rock-bound meadow, as many who have not seen it seem to suppose, is a grand landscape garden, one of Nature’s rarest and most precious mountain temples. As in Yosemite, the sublime rocks of its walls seem to glow with life, whether leaning back in repose or standing erect in thoughtful attitudes, giving welcome to storms and calms alike, their brows in the sky, their feet set in the groves and gay flowery meadows, while birds, bees, and butterflies help the river and waterfalls to stir all the air into music—things frail and fleeting and types of permanence meeting here and blending, just as they do in Yosemite, to draw her lovers into close and confiding communion with her.”

They lost that battle  and the city built a dam impounding the Tuolumne River to supply the city with water and electricity. The beautiful valley was lost.

O’Shaughnessy Dam and Hetch Hetchy Reservoir
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But after visiting Hetch Hetchy, I feel somewhat conflicted. Yes, the beautiful valley was lost, but there is still a certain rugged beauty in the reservoir against the stone walls. There are still quiet trails to explore and a few primitive campgrounds. It is not congested with cars and tourists tramping over everything like Yosemite Valley experiences daily. Relatively few people visit. Who is to say what is the greater harm?  By all accounts, the amount of sediment that has covered the valley floor is negligible. Perhaps one day, the proponents of restoring Hetch Hetchy will win or the dam will fail (it has been there for a hundred years now.) and a restored Hetch Hetchy may end up less damaged than what has been done to Yosemite Valley.

Hetch Hetchy Reservoir
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California Indian Pink (Silene Californica)
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We ended our Yosemite visit with a trip to the Mariposa Sequoia Grove, one of three groves of giants within the park. Stopping  off at the Wawona area to visit the interpretive center and the Big Trees Lodge (formerly the Wawona Hotel) , built in the 1850’s,

Big Trees Lodge
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A thunderstorm erupted during our visit and prevented us from seeing the full grove and some of the named trees, like the Grizzly, but it was still awesome to stand among the giants.

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A Fallen Monarch On A Rainy Day
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Dark-eyed Juncos
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Spring Trip, Part 5: In The Land Of Giants

By Dahna Branyan

Journeying north from Yucaipa, we drove through the corporate fruit basket of the west. Mile after mile of orchards – mostly oranges, lemons and olives. Just add water to California’s famed golden hills and it turns into big ag’s version of the Garden of Eden. We stopped in a small village outside of Sequoia National Park, Three Rivers, California, named for the convergence of the three forks of the Kaweah River. We camped beside the North Fork of the Kaweah at Sequoia Ranch RV Resort. 

Fisherman On The North Fork Of The Kaweah River
 

This charming park was shaded with Valley Oaks, sycamores and western cedar. The campground was lousy with  Acorn Woodpeckers taking advantage of the bounty of Valley Oak acorns. You don’t think of woodpeckers as being noisy birds until you are awakened to the sound  of over a hundred of them Ker-racking to one another at first light. I’m pretty sure Ker-rack translates as “stay away from my acorns, Redhead.” But hey, we were here to see trees.

Acorn Woodpeckers

Every tree in the park had become a repository for the season’s acorn stash.




“Do behold the king in his glory, King Sequoia. Behold! Behold! seems all I can say…. Well may I fast, not from bread but from business, bookmaking, duty doing & other trifles…. I’m in the woods woods woods, & they are in mee-ee-ee…. I wish I were wilder & so bless Sequoia I will be.” ~John Muir

Sequoia Park literature recommended vehicles longer than 22 feet not attempt traveling the road closest to our campground into the visitor center due to the steep and winding entrance. Okay. Since we were just under 22 feet, we drove the very long winding road up to King’s Canyon National Park the first day to visit with General Grant before we attempted the more direct route up to Sequoia National Park.  General Grant, even after suffering damage to his canopy, did not disappoint at a height of 278 feet and a circumference of 107 feet, it’s easy to see why these trees were named Sequoiadendron giganteum. General Grant’s lesser foot soldiers were nearly as impressive. 

General Grant

A Few of General Grant’s Foot Soldiers


A Fallen Monarch


We didn’t expect large crowds at this time of year. Many of the park roads were still closed for snow and the kids were in school. We failed to account for the horde of selfie-stick wielding foreign travelers. From the sound of the chatter around us, the Russians and Chinese have plenty of our dollars to spend seeing the wonders of this beautiful country.  If only we had the concession on CruiseAmerica ’s RV rental business.




As it turned out, the road to King’s Canyon was pretty danged curvy. With that under our belt and after talking to our neighbor who’d already driven into Sequoia in a similar truck, we ventured up the hairpin-curved highway to Sequoia to visit General Sherman. Arriving at the parking lot to see the general, you see the giant standing right in front of the museum. Oh wait, that’s not General Sherman, that giant is The Sentinel, which the sign explains that although the tree is 2,200 years old, it is just an average sized specimen in this grove. It definitely looked above average to us. The general’s grove was a few miles up the road.

The Sentinel

 The hike to see the general was a mere half mile straight down – the easy part. Knowing that all the folks with better knees passing me on the way down would still be there mouths agape taking in the tree, I stopped short and viewed it from the “back” trying to imagine what it would have been like to wander through these woods  a few hundred years ago and happen upon an unmolested grove of giants. Apart from their size, the luster of the reddish-gold bark and the emerald green foliage atop sets them apart from the rest of the forest trees. With the sun’s rays filtering through the undersized canopy, the giants seem a bit unworldly.  Trudging back up that steep hill to the visitor center, the crowd seemed subdued and reflective to have stood in the presence of a living fossil, perhaps wondering at all these trees had witnessed. 

General Sherman on Approach

General Sherman Clip

Necks stiff from looking up at trees and Pat’s shoulder sore from maneuvering the tight curves for two days, we spent the next day catching up on laundry and resting. Of course resting involves bird-watching for me. Once you quit jerking your head around at the Acorn Woodpeckers, there were actually quite a few other interesting birds hanging around the river.

Bullock’s Oriole –  With an orange orchard just across the road I expected to see a lot of orioles, but this fellow was the only oriole I saw on the campground side of the street.

I love the way this Black Phoebe looks like our Eastern Phoebes putting on the Ritz in a tuxedo.

Ash-throated flycatchers migrate from the Pacific slope of Mexico and Honduras up to their spring breeding grounds, often in California.

 Red-shouldered hawks feed mostly on small mammals, amphibians and reptiles. This one was in a good feeding area where gophers and blue belly lizards are plentiful.


Blue Belly Lizard


The next day we checked out Lake Kaweah, a large catchment for melting snowfall and rain from the Sierras and transported by the Kaweah River. It was built by the Army Corps of Engineers both as a flood control and irrigation for the orchards.


After listening to wild turkeys call all during our stay, I took Sacha on a walk before we loaded up to move on. I could hear the turkeys on the river so Sacha and I headed that way. The hen flew across the river, but when the tom saw Sacha, he stood his ground and put on a full display as a warning. I took this shot as we turned away and hit the road.



Spring Trip, Part 4: A Desert Forest In Bloom

by Dahna Branyan

When planning this trip, we were warned on a travel forum that the RV resort nearest to Joshua Tree National Park might be noisy due to wind generators. Boy howdy. Once past Palm Springs, the wind funneling through the San Gorgonio Pass between Coachella and San Bernadino valleys makes it a prime location for wind generation.  I think the number of wind generators might possibly rival the number of Joshua trees in the park.  Though not near as pretty, the generators appear to be keeping the lights on in Southern California. We opted to keep going, fighting the mighty headwinds to park the camper in Yucaipa.

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This was the smart choice. Yucaipa Regional Park is a gem – spacious sites with lots of trees and grass and three small lakes. As we met other new arrivals to the park, we were met with comments like, “Can you believe this beautiful place?” Although sycamores and eucalyptus trees dominate the park, there were a number of plantings of other trees, like Japanese Larch, Redwood and Incense Cedar.

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And did I mention birds? As soon as we got out of the truck, I spotted a new (for me) species, A Nuttall’s Woodpecker. Notice how the barring stops lower on the back than a Ladder-backed Woodpecker.

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We saw several other new birds for us, including this Plain Titmouse perched in a white alder. I never knew that alders had cones!

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Lawrence’s Goldfinch – this pretty little finch’s breeding territory is limited to Southern California and sometimes Arizona. Interestingly, the males gain a more intense yellow coloring from wear rather than through molting, as brown feather barbules wear off to expose the underlying yellow.
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Hooded Oriole – these orioles are limited to the southwest, breeding along the US/Mexican border area from Texas to California.
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The next day we were off to Joshua Tree National Park, back over the San Gorgonio Pass (and wind generator tunnel). The Oasis of Mara was our first stop after entering the park. It is one of five oases within Joshua Tree National Park, where uplifts of hard rock layers allow water to move to the surface. These oases are prime habitats where California fan palms flourish. They were once relied upon by Native Americans as watering holes and places to gather palm nuts to grind into meal.

Oasis of Mara
Oasis of Mara

Expecting to visit a flat desert terrain dotted with cactus and yuccas, we were astounded by the wonderful rock formations, eons in the making, standing like colossal monuments in the desert. 

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The Joshua Tree, or Yucca brevifolia, can be found throughout the park loop. These trees grow quickly, 7-8″ per year at first, then more slowly, 1-2″ per year after about ten years. They top out at about 15 feet. Their roots go deep, and many can live hundreds, even thousands of years. While it can grow from seed, it also spreads from underground rhizomes.
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Joshua trees don’t bloom every year, but due to a wet spring, they were still blooming during our visit. The flowers rely on Yucca Moths for pollination. Afterward, they form fleshy green fruits, seen in abundance. The moth caterpillars stick around to feed on the seeds. Besides the moths, only small mammals seem to feed on the seed. Since they have a relatively small range to scatter seeds through dung deposits than birds might, the Joshua tree can’t easily expand its range.  This might be problematic as climate change accelerates.

Joshua Tree Blossom
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 The wet desert spring had many other plants  showing off their blossoms in an impressive show of appreciation.  Nature dressed up in its Sunday best.

Apricot Mallow (Sphaeralcea ambigua)
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Mohave yucca (Yucca Shigedera)
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Desert Canterbury Bells (Phacelia campanularia)
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Mojave Pin Cushion (Chaenactis xantiana)
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Mojave kingcup cactus (echinocereus mojavensis)
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After an eye-popping day of the best the desert has to offer, we retreated back to the San Bernadino Valley and Yucaipa to rest up for the next leg of the trip and of course, look for more new birds. Sacha was having none of the birds. She had discovered gophers.

Before leaving on this trip, we took Sacha to the vet for a rattlesnake vaccine booster. The vet, when learning that we were going to Joshua Tree, warned us about the Mojave Rattler. The vaccine would be worthless against this particular snake’s venom because it contained a strong neurotoxin. While we fretted about that, unaware that Sacha would not be allowed on the trails, she developed a fixation on the many gophers aerating the soil in our campground. Sticking her nose in every hole, she finally snatched one out of it’s home. Pat may or may not have saved it from her death grip. She dropped it and he hustled her back to the camper. Going back to see how the gopher fared, it was gone. A raven might have picked it up, but we like to think the little rodent was only playing possum and returned to its underworld labyrinth to lick its wounds.

Sacha Waiting To Pounce On the Next Unlucky Gopher
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Canyon Wren Belting Out His Sweet Song
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Western Bluebird with Anna’s Hummingbird
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Blue-gray Gnatcatcher (notice the nest to the left) Both the male and female were tending to the nest, but they were so fast, I could only catch one on film.
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Olive-sided Flycatcher – Similar to the Eastern Phoebes we have at home, I watched this one return again and again to the same perch after snaring an insect meal.
Olive-sided Flycatcher

If the darn gasoline and real estate weren’t so expensive, I might have convinced Patrick to retire to this little bit of heaven. But gasoline was well over $4/gallon and real estate well out of our price range. Most of the Californians we met loved living here except for the high cost of living. There’s still “gold in them thar hills,” but it’s in the real estate, I suspect.

We could have stayed much longer in Southern California, but bigger trees were calling. Next stop, Sequoia National Park with the generals, Sherman and Grant.

SPRING TRIP, Part 3: A Pineapple in the Desert

By Pat Branyan

The last time I drove to Phoenix was over 25 years ago. I was hauling five of my fellow school teachers there to an education conference focusing on proven new theories of teaching. In fact, those same teachers were among the most talented and creative people I’ve ever known and were themselves at the forefront of progressive new approaches to public education. In Texas, they held the seminars.

They, and thousands like them, burned oceans of midnight oil to bring back the light into American classrooms that was dimming from the Eighties backlash, one that continues to darken public schools today. Most of the reforms discussed there in Phoenix, and implemented in many of the nation’s schools, have long been quashed in the rising anti-intellectual fervor of those days which has only grown. 

Zombie-like, it continues now with idiotic testing regimes designed to stress and malign our public schools. But, I’ll never forget that brief time when we were sure the country was reversing the stupidity, starting to right itself beginning, appropriately, in the classroom.

First Saguaros!
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After those 25 years I did forget about driving over the Superstition Mountains in the approach to Phoenix from the east. It’s one thing to drive over a mountain pass with a van load of happy teachers in perfect weather. It’s perfectly forgettable. It’s another to white knuckle the same pass in a slashing rainstorm down a steep grade of switchbacks, most under construction with tight, coned off lanes, dragging a heavy RV with an ashen-faced wife ready to jump.

Superstition Mountains
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Dahna practically kissed the rocks when we finally got down to Lost Dutchman State Park. It’s tucked in the western foothills of the Superstitions in the Sonoran desert and actually abuts Mesa/Phoenix. I don’t remember much about setting up, probably because of the huge Flatiron formation that rose out of the ground straight up and almost within reach of my hand.

The Flatirons at Lost Dutchman State Park
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I remember my mother pointing out the Flatiron Building on Peachtree Street near her home in Depression Era Atlanta. Not limited to that city, flatirons are distinctive, wedge-shaped buildings tucked in the acute angle of sharply intersecting avenues found in several large cities. I imagine the fat cats that perch in the horizontal apexes of these buildings would have nothing to do with with the steep face of the Flatiron of infamous Maricopa County, Arizona.

Brown-headed Cowbird Checking out a Saguaro Blossom
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Tom West, my old friend of 50 plus years, stood next to me and looked up at the big rock and was typically unfazed by its challenge. “It kind of makes me wish I’d brought my gear. Maybe give it a try,” he said. The idea of my hiking up to the top of the thing struck me as insane, far beyond the pale, but I figured Tom probably could do it if he really wanted to even though he’s a little older than I am. The park’s pamphlet warned in no uncertain terms that the Flatiron should only be attempted by expert hikers in top shape, but Tom’s a tough old Marine so there’s that.

Gilded Flicker
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I didn’t know his first name until 18 years ago even though he’s one of the most important people in my life, and has been through all those years, 33 of them out of touch. I met him in early July, 1967 when I first walked into my “hooch” (squad tent) as a “new guy” in 2nd Platoon, Hotel Company, 2nd Battalion, Seventh Marines located on a firebase atop of Hill 60 just west of Danang, Vietnam. Smitty, my new squad leader, introduced me to a diverse group guys sitting on their “racks” (cots) that included one playing Spades who looked up. “That’s Pineapple,” Smitty said, “Hawaiian.”

Tom’s mom is a native Hawaiian of Polynesian and Japanese ancestry who married a GI after the war and wound up in the midwest. He’s a genetic mutt like the rest of us, but the tag, Pineapple, stuck to him pretty good and always made sense to me. Whatever you want to call him, no other man ever helped me like has. He calls me P.J. because that’s how I was known there, and I doubt he knew my first name until I learned his at a company reunion in June, 2001, right before 9/11.

Bendire’s Thrasher
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When I was wounded I left Vietnam behind in body and mind. I tried to adjust over the years to life as an amputee, initially with no particular skills useful to a civilian. Thirty-three years later, Dahna noticed that my company was having a reunion in “Leatherneck,” the Marine Corps magazine, and I told her, absent-mindedly, to see what it was about. She did that, and I immediately got a call from another long-lost squad mate. Gerry was, in fact, organizing that year’s reunion in Des Moines, and I told him I’d come if Pineapple did.

He came with his wife Karen, a lovely Finn originally from the far north country of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. We spent a little time catching up the lost years, but mostly we went back to the old ambushes and firefights, the details of which we’ve now spent years trying in vain to accurately reconstruct. It’s an ongoing mystery to us how those vivid moments live like phantoms in our shared memory. It’s something like two old chess players trying to recreate the most exciting and bewildering game they ever played together, no rules in a heightened, near hallucinatory state. One far beyond simple recollection.

Verdin
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In the years since we met up again, Tom has helped me in a number of ways, notably in the unbelievably generous donation of several months of his vacation time helping me build my house. I told him it was his house too, and he understands that in the sense that home really is where the heart is.

There are lots of reasons we stopped near Phoenix, and Tom and Karen are all of them. In the beginning though, Pineapple and I would stand together on Hill 60 watching the155 mm howitzer blast out its big shells in random “harassment and interdiction,” or H & I fire. Or later, from Hill 190, we would look out over Thuy Tu where Cisco got his third Purple Heart and got to go home, back in “the World.” Or, at Dai Loc during Tet where we’d look out over famous Liberty Bridge at the barren and abandoned firebase, Phu Loc 6 on the other side. That’s where snipers shot at me twice, once causing me to knock over a can of chicken noodle soup I was heating up with a little blob of C-4 plastic explosive. It’s much better than Sterno if you light it carefully. No fumes.

Gila Woodpecker
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Tom and I stood together time and again looking out at that beautiful but blood-soaked land, and we talked until we became close. He didn’t know it until a few weeks ago, but I drew a lot of strength from those little talks. His innate optimism and good sense steadied my nerves and helped give me the confidence I needed to function well in spite of my fear. That’s why when the shooting stopped he was the first one I looked for, and that’s ultimately why I stopped in Phoenix.

Abert’s Towhee
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Well, this is a travelogue, and this piece might seem like a bit of a detour. I suppose it is, but when you travel like that for Uncle Sam your whole life takes a detour. It’s still traveling even if it’s not always good or right. War is hell as any sane combat Marine will tell you, evil and beyond stupid in every way. It’s also true that you might not meet a man like Pineapple any other way. Maybe that’s why our best writers keep writing about it.

On day two, we had a fine visit with Karen cooking for us in the pretty condo they own for the winter months. In Spring they head back to their home in Ft. Wayne saying goodbye to their son, Michael, and stopping by to see their two daughters in Bend, OR or another one over in Michigan. That plus a large number of friends and other family along the way. Sacha, the little floozie, fell in love with their neighbor who just might have thought about kidnapping her. Who could blame them?

The day before we left Arizona, Tom and Karen drove us up in the mountains to Tortilla Flat, a private town consisting of a restaurant, and a little museum detailing its role as the last stage stop during the construction of Lake (Teddy) Roosevelt around 1910 or so. Oh yeah, it has an ice cream parlor. I had Sacha on a leash and therefore declined an ice cream cone with the others. Dahna got a single scoop of some chocolate/coffee gelato and gave me a bite. Best damn bite of ice cream I ever had. Add that to all the reasons to go back to Phoenix.

Tortilla Flat on the Old Apache Trail
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That night we took them to a pretty good Mexican restaurant where after another fattening meal, we said another “So long ’til next time.” We were leaving the next day for Yucaipa, CA close to Joshua Tree National Park. One day after that, Tom and Karen left for Bend.

If the Flatiron and Tortilla Flat’s unrivaled ice cream isn’t enough of a draw to bring you to the Sonoran Desert area of Apache Junction, maybe the tale of the Lost Dutchman Mine is. Apparently, there is a fortune in lost gold somewhere up in the Superstition Mountains. Over the years a lot of people have gone in there looking for it. Some of them, even recently, never came out. There are old maps and lots of clues to work over if you have the heart for it, but be careful. Speaking as one newly reacquainted with those mountains, it might be a good idea to talk it over with Pineapple before you go in. 

I’ve got his number if you need it.

Phoenix Reunion with Tom and Karen West
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