This is supposed to be an obscure travel blog written by an aging-to-aged Boomer couple as they RV their way across the country. A country, I might add, that still occupies the same gorgeous land mass it always did if not the love and respect it once had in the world’s broken heart.
We know it pretty well. Young hippies in the early 1970’s, we travelled in the old green van or hitchhiked packing a pup tent and a toothbrush. Mostly out West and we’re still doing it, but now we’re also liable to travel back and forth in time, way out there on the windswept edge of our dotage.
It’s been good lo these many years meeting hundreds of colorful characters on the road. They were generally delightful but a handful needed a good switching on their bare legs. Most of our 50 years of traveling found us sleeping in cabins or crummy motels or at the homes of far-flung friends when we got lucky. The RV thing started late, nearly 8 years ago when the inevitable idea sauntered up to us like a drowsy old cat.
During the motel years we were fortunate to have close friends like Betty who’d happily drive out to our country place to feed, water and horse around with our dogs and cats while we were gone. We still have close friends like Patty and Sally that will housesit them while we’re gone on longer trips, including the dogs too if necessary.
Allan and Becky live nearby and haven’t grumbled too much about coming by to feed our evil Miho, a small but fierce cat, plus a big deer herd, flocks of migratory birds and our 900 lb. Duroc pig. Her name is Miss Letty and she’s named after a special friend from days long past.
You’ve heard of Belle Starr I’m sure. Well, the lady Letty Jones was a tall, elderly and skinflint cattle rancher and multimillionaire uranium mine owner who befriended Dahna and I back in the 1970s. That’s when we dry land farmed wheat and pinto beans 17 miles out of Monticello, Utah on Summit Point. High Desert.
She checked on her herd in an old Buick Electra with freaking left hand threads on the lug nuts. I found that out the hard way when I changed a flat for her. According to the locals, when Letty was young in the 1910’s and 1920’s she and and her husband robbed and cattle rustled their way through the open territory as notorious outlaws. Maybe, but she got away with it.
She was pretty much a loner when we met her, but she liked us and came for dinner now and then when she wanted company. She crocheted a sun bonnet together from triangular pieces of white Clorox bottles with various colors of yarn, and it was a treat to watch the brim of that thing flounce around when she strode up on her long legs.
She sat all splayed out like a man and was great fun and still as mischievous as a raccoon. She also had a girlish “hee hee” laugh that was warm and a little conspiratorial with a ‘know-what-I-mean’ look thrown in. We laughed and laughed but she never said a damn word about her past occupation nor mentioned her long dead husband. Always brought us ear corn.
Dahna spotted Letty’s namesake pig about a year ago lying across our fence to the west. We thought it was probably feral and would, no doubt along with its bristled companions, get on our place eventually and tear it up good. Texas, including Comanche, has a terrible feral hog problem. These guys wreak incredible damage to property and will come at you too when cornered. When they get through with a place it looks like a giant rototiller got loose and went psychotic on the ground and vegetation. It’s bad.
Some time later, we saw Miss Letty again but a little closer and noticed she had a plastic tag punched into her ear. O Hallelujah! A feral hog became a stray domestic pig in the blink of an eye. Some time after that, we found her lying against the fence next to our shop. We walked up and snorted at her and she snorted back like an old pal. We asked her if she’d like a little deer corn and it turned out she liked it quite a lot. That and anything else you bring her and that’s why Becky has to feed her too when we’re gone. Like today.
Often after she eats, she’ll sidle up against the fence, lie down and roll over so we can scratch her belly, reaching through the net wire with the handle of a counter brush. Then I use my hand to scratch behind her thick ear and pat her huge head goodbye ’til next time.
When she lies down she’s about 6 feet long and 3 feet wide, 3 deep and you might think of her as just a nasty ol’ hog. But we think of her as our own sweet little pig and we worry about her when we try to snort her up and she doesn’t show. She lopes up pretty fast on a front leg limp when she does, drooling like she’s as rabid as Old Yeller.
So, here we are finally at Guadalupe River State Park, a fine place that caters to the wet set for rafting, canoeing and kayaking. It’s not far above San Antonio and it’s heavily forested in scrub oaks, Ashe juniper and the like plus plenty of brush—good for critters of all types like the dead rattler we saw stretched out on the road. Lots of good rock for their dens. We’ve tried to come here twice before but couldn’t thanks to incredibly destructive flooding when the river shut the park down for months. There was another time we tried to come but couldn’t for some other reason I can’t remember.
It’s a popular park and was probably booked solid when we wanted to come that time. The fine state park system here in Texas got even more popular when the pandemic struck. Camping is about the safest way to get out of the house when you’re worried about a super contagious disease dropping thousands like dominos with yourself possibly in the lineup. But, we almost didn’t make it this time either and I was beginning to think the place was off limits to us in a jinxed sort of way. Really though, it’s this:
Why didn’t I prepare earlier like any other halfwit traveller? Instead I waited until the trip was practically on top of us to find the truck battery doornail dead and the trailer brake system out of sorts. Not to mention the shower faucet in the RV that wouldn’t shut off. Not even packed and still putzing around out in the woodshop. Jammed again and I’m thinking, ‘Man, you’re too old for this. You need to get rid of this thing and drag the old rocker out to the porch.’ Actually though, it was probably just Covid.
We’re both vaxxed to the max and reasonably careful. I don’t think either of us has caught it yet, but my quotient of stupid to smart has gone way up a lot in the last 3 years. Coincidence? It could be the constant distractions of 2020 with its bleach injections, horse wormers and a good election with its awful, never-ending aftermath. Maybe it’s just the natural onset of old age dementia knocking on the door.
Well, something is lousing up my golden years and I’m putting my money on Covid in particular and in general for good measure. Internally, externally I don’t think it matters. I’m sure there’s only a handful of people on the planet still alive who haven’t been negatively affected by this disease, and Dahna and I have it way good in comparison with just about everyone else. Even so …
Nearly 3 years ago when this horrible thing washed up on our shores and then turned around sucked out the tide, we discovered that all of us were swimming naked as the saying goes. This was especially true of our former president. With all his shortcomings exposed to the world, a droll David Niven would have given us a good laugh. He lost reelection perforce and nearly half the country lost its Ivermectin-addled mind.
Well, winter’s coming as everyone knows and there’s reason aplenty to be worried about everything in the next few days, months and years. So, I say let’s indulge our geezer selves (only if you qualify) and be unreasonable. Maybe take a tip from the old Peggy Lee song and just keep dancing.
My pal Rocky up in Montana said to me, in effect, “Hey, for years we did our bit for the country and the planet. But if people are going to vote for idiots that don’t give a shit about anything but power there’s not a whole lot we can do about it now. We can still keep a hand in, but let’s enjoy ourselves in the time we have left, stop worrying and not let ‘em get to us.”
Maybe easier said than done in times like these but it’s good advice when the arthritis and achy joints set in deep enough. Old is as old does I guess and I do forget things these days. Things like the fact that this is supposed to be a travel blog. But like I said, Covid is to blame, not me.
With that excuse in hand, let me say we met a cool gent camping alone next to us in a new and magnificent Gazelle tent that he somehow erected by himself. Dahna watched how he worked slowly and deliberately and up the big thing went for what could have been its maiden flight thanks to the windstorm we had that night.
The next day he told us the tent met the rigorous blow your house down test and would do quite well with a few tweaks. It’s sort of a tent mansion for him and his little white fur ball, Beni, and certainly for others later on. Very interesting guy. He’s about Dahna’s age and sports what he calls his “wild pandemic beard” and longish, white hair brushed straight back. He seemed mildly embarrased about it and said, “My wife would never let me look like this.”
She died a little over 3 years ago and you can see the love he has for her plainly on his face. When he speaks of their 40 years together it’s best not to interject. He won’t ignore you exactly but he’ll turn you down like a radio while he remembers and tells you a little about her.
He met her in New Orleans while playing nights in a band around town. The daughter of a prominent chef of the city, she was a French citizen, registered nurse, and mother of his son and daughter. Her speciality was in oncology and she was even published in scientific journals for her research on the disease. My own chemist wife perked up at that, a cancer survivor and published a few times herself.
But, I gathered that her toughest job was when she worked as a school nurse for some years, dealing with the same kind of things that make teaching harder these days than it has to be. Any version of being a nurse, anytime, anywhere has got to be tougher than just about anything. “Essential personnel,” indeed.
Once in high school, I felt crappy and went to the school nurse so I could go home. I told her I had a “temper” and didn’t catch it until I got home with my fever. She must have thought, ‘Dumb jock.’ I had a flattop at the time and was, in fact, a dumb jock. I am no longer a jock.
Kerry’s is no fantasist but he can imagine one as you’ll see. He lives in this world and thinks mostly about his kids and bandmates and what’s in front of him like that tent. Even so, he seems a bit wistful and looks out past you when he thinks back to her.
I think most men married to their wives for a long time don’t expect to outlive them because, first, they know the probabilities recorded in the actuarial tables are solidly against it. Second, living alone without your true love is just unthinkable, unacceptable. But sometimes it happens anyway.
He tapped a few times on his phone and then held it up to us. And there she was, this absolutely beautiful young woman.
He’s immensely proud of her and said, “You can see I was way, way out of my league.” Kerry is a trained musician, a percussionist in fact. But after uncounted gigs playing in bands around the country and in Europe, he thinks of himself as a drummer. It’s well known to horny young boys eagerly buying their first guitar, or drum kit in this case, that girls lean to the dulcet and seductive tones of music, its special resonance de la vie.
I’m not saying this is why Kerry became a musician or why Anne Marie first considered smiling at this young, ginger haired drummer because, at least from this man’s point of view, there’s an awful lot of good stuff in his head beside music. I’m sure she noticed that too, right away.
For one thing, he has another degree in landscape architecture, spending many years working days as a professional with the highway department and retiring vested. He duly showed me on his phone a CAD design he made of the elaborate landscape changes he’s making in his backyard. Seeing that clued me in about how the man was able to pitch that new tent by himself so straightaway. I can’t do CAD or even text very well, and I gave up on tent raising many years and many expletives ago.
He’s also a fine artist specializing in beautiful line drawings in intricate detail. He showed me several on the phone and now I think he can draw anything perfectly. I saw wonderful portraits, animals and landscapes including one of a rich fantasy world out of something like the Ring Trilogy. I can draw much simpler things in 2 or even 3 dimensions but need a T-square and a 30° triangle. That and a big eraser.
Well, it’s a perfect day in every way and I’m sitting here at the picnic table happily listening to Stephen Stills’ hoarse voice through the camper’s external speakers. Sacha’s lying at my feet and Dahna just walked up after a long spell birding with her stomach growling. Maybe that’s mine. Off to town for lunch. Kerry’s gone off with Beni canoeing a nearby lake and we hope to meet up with them again later.
Okay, we finally did get to The Limestone Mexican Grill in Bulverde that Dahna picked out, but things weren’t auguring well for our dining experience. Getting there was a bitch first of all because of a bumper-to-bumper traffic snarl that took 20 minutes to go less than a mile through 3 or 4 eternal red lights. After overshooting the place because I’m apparently not good with signs, and pirouetting that big truck through a couple of tiny, insanely curbed parking lots to backtrack, we sat at our table out on the patio with Sacha.
The waitress brought out a little basket of tortilla chips and a tiny bowl of water-thin salsa. The flies got to it about the same time we did but fortunately, I guess, the wind picked up. The flies blew away but the wind chill arrived with its nip. Dahna had her back to it and wore a light jacket. I just wore one of my cheap pull over Polo type shirts and a pair of shorts.
Waves were about to form in the salsa and I was starting to get cold when across the road a small Bobcat backhoe with a crazy loud backup beeper started darting back and forth in a maniacal frenzy. Dahna and I looked across the table at each other. We scanned the flat plastic Waffle House style menu, sighed and ordered from the lunch menu; enchiladas verde for her and, what the hell, beef fajitas for me. They were cheap enough.
Our brisk and quiet waitress brought our food out seemingly too soon for comfort and set the plates down quickly and left. The fajita meat was piled high mixed in with grilled onions and peppers and hissing loudly in its cast iron dish with its potholder. The big plate of double rice, guacamole and pico de gallo was also too hot to touch and I learned about that on my own. I warned Dahna but she ignored me as usual and I must admit I had to suppress a giggle when she let out a yelp followed by, “Jesus!”
So, the wind died down and the backhoe left and the flies stayed gone and we had a fantastic lunch because … Well, I don’t know. That’s just how it went down, one bite at a time. One of the great lunches and only 26 bucks with tip! Sacha got fed lots off our plates, and we were so stuffed that later for dinner we just split a single ham sandwich and an apple between us. Sacha got her usual cut. To be fair, that apple was a very big Honey Crisp. Sadly, there were cookies too.
We were at Guadalupe River S.P. for 5 days and 4 nights and they were all good ones. The birding was middlin’ in spite of Dahna’s intrepid stalking, and she suspects the lingering effect from last year’s terrible winter bird kill. This happened during the infamous big freeze that also planted not a few Texans. But, the weather was fine and so was the company and the food. Nothing much not to like about the place.
Dahna left the big D-500 Nikon with its huge telephoto lens at home because it’s too ungainly and heavy for her. In fact, just looking at that lens makes my neck hurt. I think she’s going to sell the lens for a smaller, lighter one pretty soon. However, she got some good shots as usual with her P-900 and that brings me to this:
Is there anything on this tiny blue ball spinning way out on the edge of this pissant little galaxy more beautiful than a grey fox? Sacha is? Okay, I’ll give you that.
We broke camp the same time as Kerry. He was taking down his tent when I walked over and offered to help. He said, “Thanks, but I’d better teach myself how to do this so I can do it better next time.”
Yeah. That’s the secret to the good life in this wonderful place where we all live together. Somehow.
Climate change and habitat loss, both tied to human activity, are taking a heavy toll on the birds and other critters. It is hard to truly know how many are now extinct or near extinction. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) put that number at 159 species as of January, 2021. However, at the end of 2021 the Fish & Wildlife Service has proposed re-classifying 11 birds (and 12 other species) removing them from the US endangered list to extinct in the US alone. We are still discovering species, so undiscovered birds have likely gone extinct before they could even be named or counted. Many scientists are referring to these losses as the Sixth Extinction Event, or Anthropocene Extinction due to man’s effect on the planet. You can read more about this and previous extinction events here: https://www.amnh.org/shelf-life/six-extinctions
This fuels my desire to learn more about the natural world, especially birds. But climate change is also making it harder and harder to talk Pat into escaping the cold winter weather and heading for the beach in South Texas. On Christmas we ate dinner with the windows open wearing short sleeves. It was a “brisk” 88˚ ! Why go anywhere when the weather is just fine where you are? La-Z-Boy is not just a recliner in Egypt.
One chilly morning before that though, I convinced him to head to Goose Island State Park for some warm, salt air and an early “Christmas” bird count. While the park has recovered from Hurricane Harvey, over four years ago, the birds have not yet bounced back from last February’s deep freeze — directly tied to climate change. According to meteorologists, an unusual warming event in the Arctic weakened the Polar Vortex that keeps frigid air up there and shunted it down south to Texas.
At first, I thought we had beaten the bird migration to the coast because there were noticeably fewer birds than any of our prior visits to the park. But after talking with a local birder, I realized what a devastating toll those frigid temperatures last winter took on the shore birds. Many birds that did not succumb to the cold had trouble finding food since the shallow water fish and shellfish were also impacted by the storm. She told me that they managed to survive the first night of the freeze, but the second night took a heavy toll.
She was still heartbroken over the loss and confided that after Hurricane Harvey and the Big Freeze, she was ready to move away from the bad memories she harbored of those two events. Having mourned my own Eastern Phoebe colony, frozen to death by those same frigid temperatures, I had some idea of how she felt.
The Lost Dances of Cranes
– Julie Wilson
Your fields are empty now
Only your ghosts dance
while cranes of another kind
dance cities into being
All that remain of your are
a fading crackle of your energy
and some grainy video footage
That people in the new cities
will watch to marvel
at the wonder the world
One big draw to Goose Island and nearby Aransas Wildlife Refuge is that it’s the winter home to a number of Whooping Cranes, and you can count on seeing these magnificent birds when you visit. Once estimated to have numbered in the tens of thousands, the Whoopers were driven to near extinction by loss of habitat and severe over-hunting for meat and plumage. In 1938 there were only 28 birds remaining until a hurricane in 1940 reduced their number even further.
Today, it is a joy for birders to see their numbers rebound due to the efforts of the National Audubon Society and the Whooping Crane Conservation Association. Thanks to their great work protecting and expanding habitat, improving public education and successfully lobbying for a ban on hunting, the crane population has grown to a bit more than 500 — still a small number, but thankfully growing. So, it was especially heartening to see proud Whooper parents this year showing off their twin babies.
It’s hard to get close enough to these birds to capture just how big they are. The largest birds in North America, fully grown, they are about 5+ feet tall and their wingspan can extend to nearly 8 feet.
Whoopers feast on blue crabs, abundant in the park’s shallow waters and wetlands, along with other crustaceans, frogs, small fishes, and even small mammals. Goose Island also provides habitat for the wolfberries they love. The bushes were blooming this December but offer the promise of a sweet snack in the spring before they head back to their summer home.
I assumed our visits were at the wrong time of year because as many times as we’ve visited this park, I have yet to see a goose here. I checked the park’s birding checklist and it seems that sightings even in winter are rare. So, how did the island park get named for these birds? While Goose Island and the Texas coast from Sabine Pass to Corpus Christi was once the winter home to many thousands of geese, both habitat and food availability have changed. Accordingly, the geese have altered their habits. Rice and sorghum farming became more efficient, leaving less grain for them to forage.
Meanwhile, the state’s coastal landowners began catering more to duck hunters providing more habitat for them at the expense of goose habitat. At the same time, corn and grain production increased further north along their flyway offering ample forage while shortening their southward commute. Wetlands from reservoirs and power plants provide nesting habitats close to corn and grain fields. So while Texas might be good at attracting new businesses with low taxes and incentives, it is losing out to Oklahoma and Kansas in attracting geese. Climate change might help keep them further north.
Although the geese were AWOL and the total bird count was down, there was still a good variety. The pelicans, herons and other wading birds were happy to take up some of the slack. Great Blue Herons and Great Egrets are always on dignified display and more visible because of their size.
While White Pelicans predominate the Goose Island population, Brown Pelicans are making a comeback. After WWII, the use of organochlorine pesticides, including DDT, severely interrupted their life cycle by making their shells so thin they often could not withstand incubation and their numbers plummeted. Their addition to the Endangered Species list and the regulation of that class of pesticides greatly helped increase their numbers along the Texas coast over the past few decades.
I love to watch the pelicans glide just above the water looking for food. Then, flying back a bit higher, Brown Pelicans often dive bomb their prey from the air. Watching a squadron fly over the bay to spot their prey, do a sharp 180˚, and dive on their targets is as much fun as an airshow.
The White Pelicans, by contrast, have a much more sedate feeding routine. A pod will paddle around to spot a group of fish and then dunk their heads in unison to fill their pouches with small fish. It’s like watching a synchronized swimming event. It’s startling to see them out of the water, mainly because they are big birds that have very large bright orange legs and feet. Zooming in on a tern next to a pelican on a sandbar, it was amazing to see their stout legs and feet.
Great Blue Herons and Great Egrets are always about and more visible because of their size. The smaller Snowy Egret and Little Blue herons tend to forage more in the wetlands, inconspicuous among the cordgrass and sedges. But sometimes they fly in and land practically next to you and pose like the Little Blue below. Little Blue Herons are more or less stationary hunters, moving only slowly while waiting for a fish to pass by. The Snowy Egrets feed more actively. It’s fun to watch them walk or run, splashing their bright yellow feet through shallow water, startling their prey.
Tri-color herons are slender herons with graceful, long necks. I love to watch a Tri fold his neck close to its body and when the right moment comes, they strike out at their prey like a coiled snake.
Although I saw fewer gulls and terns (gull family Laridae) in gross numbers, I did see more different species, especially the terns. At Heron Flats on the west end of the island, they gather out on the sandbars which are mostly too far away to get good photos of small birds, even with a good lens. But I take the photos anyway because it helps identify what you’ve seen. Gulls and terns look quite a bit alike to the untrained eye (I still have my training wheels attached), but gulls tend to be larger with a hooked bill, while terns are smaller with straight bills, shorter legs, and webbed feet. In flight they are easier to identify. Terns have more streamlined wings than gulls and forked tails. When feeding they tend to hover above their prey and then dive bomb to catch it.
Black skimmers are also common at Goose Island and could be seen on the sandbars sunning with the other seabirds. They are the most interesting of the gulls and terns. Their distinctive black wings with a white breast and uneven orange bill make them easy to spot. Their lower mandible plows the water and when it encounters a fish, the shorter upper mandible, or maxilla, clamps down on it like a spring trap. This tactile hunting method allows them to feed even at night. And day or night, because they feed on the rising tide, they are also known as flood gulls.
Because they feed heavily on molluscs, Oystercatchers are normally found somewhat offshore, close to shallow oyster beds, so they are usually out of camera range. This one wasn’t.
Every year when we come to Goose Island, I meet more and more birders. Since the pandemic it seems that folks have found RVing to be a safe way to travel and birding has become an increasingly popular travel activity. With our binoculars and cameras hanging from our necks, we are easy to identify. Oh look, there’s a Quebecoise birder over there. You can tell by her license plates. I should have taken a picture, but that was impossible with my 150-600mm lens. She was a very friendly and knowledgeable birder who showed me the difference between male and female Northern Harriers.
At the end of the day, I headed back to the trailer before Patrick sent out a search party. After the long drive to get here, he enjoyed a day of lolling about and even started a post of our last Las Cruces trip. We took Sacha for a long walk, careful to keep her out of the sandburs that cover the park. Back at the trailer, it was time to sit outside with a sundowner watching the sunset before dinner. Perfect.
It was a good thing I spent the first day birding. The next day we awoke to fog and light rain and a great excuse to go back to bed. Finally, when the clouds began to lift a bit, we sat outside with coffee and enjoyed the sea breeze with the sun shining through the mist. Out in the bay we could hear a loon’s plaintive cry calling for its mate. We finally caught sight of the loon but never saw its mate. Later in the day I spotted a lone female Red-breasted Merganser diving for fish out in the bay. These mergansers are one of the fastest ducks in the air, and can fly up to 80 mph!
The next day Patrick wanted to revisit to Port Aransas and look at the boats in City Marina. We have fond memories of our sailing our ketch, S/V Alchemy, down to Port A. Although our lovely anchorage in the Lydia Ann Channel opposite the lighthouse has become a barge parking lot, the marina is still there and has seen improvements. Those old ricketty piers have been replaced with floating docks, but dolphins still fish in the lanes and though we didn’t see them this time, I am sure the sea turtles do as well.
We walked the docks admiring the boats. Many lovely old sailboats have been replaced by large sport fishing boats, but there are still enough sloops and cutters to make you want to cast off the lines and head out into the gulf. It’s been years since we sailed these waters, but I remember every detail of our boat – how she smelled and how she felt underway with the wind in her sails, ghosting along on a moonless night with the Milky Way dusting the sky like powdered sugar. I can still tell you where everything was stowed. I dream of those days with sails taut on a beam reach and of those nights at anchor in the Lydia Ann with halyards slapping the mast while dolphins spout around the hull — heady days and silky nights.
I must go down to the seas again, for the call of the running tides Is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied; And all I ask is a windy day with the white clouds flying, And the flung spray and the blown spume, and the sea-gulls crying. -John Masefield
Sigh. After letting Sacha sniff every smelly thing in the marina and nearby park, we stowed our memories and headed back, but not before a short stop at the Leona Turnbull Birding Center. This small wetland behind the waste treatment plant serves as a rookery for various seabirds. You can always find a large contingent of Green-winged Teal and Northern Shovelers here, along with a number of wading birds. You might spot an alligator or two enjoying the birds. On this day there were also two Whooping Cranes in the distance.
On our last full day we were met with more fog. After it lifted, we took a drive over to Holiday Beach to see how the houses on the Copano Bay side fared from the hurricane, Many of the old beach houses were gone, replaced by taller, beefier more expensive homes that might withstand the next one. While it’s nice to see all the re-building, it is sad to know that a lot of it was at the expense of the under-insured homeowners who couldn’t afford to rebuild their weekend homes and had to sell out to make way for the new. We saw that happen after Hurricane Ike hit Bolivar Penninsula and property values skyrocketed. The long arc of progress tends toward the wealthy, I guess.
I did get to see a few more birds that afternoon. Walking Sacha down to the fishing pier, we spotted Long-billed Curlews in the shallows hunting for mud crabs and other burrowing prey. Closer to shore were a few Semi-palmated Plovers and Ruddy Turnstones feeding. On a last swing by Heron Flats we found my favorite water birds. The Roseate Spoonbills seined through the mud for small mud shrimp and other prey.
The next morning offered a clear sunny day perfect for birding, but our time here was up, so we started our long migration north back to Comanche and waved goodbye to the birds. Maybe we’ll see them again as they fly over our Comanche home heading back north in Spring.
Oh, and the bird count? I sighted 62 different species at Goose Island and 25 at the Leona Turnbull Birding Center. I’m good with that.
Dahna periodically convinces me that we’re too old (by that, she means me especially) to keep up with the physical demands of our 20 acre Comanche place and that we need to sell it and move. Out of Texas in particular. I love our place, and Texas, so I periodically convince myself that I’m still in the prime of life at 74 in spite of the evidence lying all around. Regardless, back we went to L.C. to check it out again, for the second time.
Previously we had considered re-retiring to Grants Pass, Oregon and then we looked at Grand Junction, Colorado. We visited both at some length and they seemed fine, but once we got back home they retreated further and further into the backs of our minds until “poof,” they were gone like our short term memory. Las Cruces was different though.
First of all it was perfect. It has a population of a little more than 100,000 and sits just 42 miles down the road from El Paso (Texas!) where everything in the world is available, pandemic permitting, especially good health care, stores and all that. Don’t forget the sunshiny skies and clean desert air, plus plenty of lumber yards for me to amble around in and nostalgically sniff up the ambience of the sharp pine and fir resins wafting about.
The Mexican food is good even if it is not Tex-Mex which, of course, is the absolute best along with Texas hamburgers, chili and barbecue and Gulf shrimp and Lone Star beer plus Toni Price and Port Aransas which is just 30 miles from where I’m sitting right now. Even shorter as the seagull flies. And City Marina where we tied S/V Alchemy up 20 years ago on our Gulf hops from Kemah to Port A. Wait. I’m leaving Texas?
One of the very best things we were looking forward to on the trip was visiting with two sets of new friends, L.C. residents Frank and Paul and the native Texas duo, James and Susan. Since all four of them are terrific people it was a “can’t miss” thing, like shooting fish in a barrel. We automatically had a great time with all of them.
The experience of visiting a new city really is much better in the company of friends, and new friends are best since they’re not sick of your crap yet. The real estate issue was a different story, however, even though it wasn’t the town’s fault at all.
When not hanging out with our friends, we did drive-bys around the town and outskirts looking at various properties that were in our price range. After awhile, I asked Dahna, “Where’s all the good stuff like we saw last time?”
She said, “I think the stuff we could afford back in April is out of our price range now. Big time. Maybe we could buy a vacant lot and pitch a tent.”
“Yeah,” I said, “we could probably afford a pretty big tent too, like the one you made a while back. Two bedroom at least!”
She thought of that great tent and the 70 pounds of heavy canvas duck she drug through her mom’s tough Singer sewing machine back in Huntsville in the 1970s. “Maybe I shouldn’t have cut it up into tarps,” she mused quietly.
“We got a lot of use out of those tarps,” I reminded her. “Covered a lot of lumber piles and all our stuff moving to Oklahoma.”
“That damn trailer. Like ‘The Grapes of Wrath’,” she fumed. “Don’t remind me of moving to Oklahoma!” She shook her head.
“Okla…” She shook her finger at me.
You’ve read all about it in the digital “papers,” and we knew about it too. But, the wild real estate price increases we see today happened practically overnight in a lot of places. We thought the lead-up to the housing bust in 2008 was surreal even though we profited from it, but that particular horror took the evil geniuses on Wall Street a good decade long in order to create that particular Frankenstein.
It’s not hard imagining them high on cocaine rubbing their hands and cackling like Mr. Burns while they looked down on their marks below in the street scurrying around like ants from a kicked anthill.
But the thing now killing us poor villagers doesn’t meet the strict definition of “IT’S ALIVE!!” Nope. While not strictly a dead thing either, a lethal virus can spread more havoc than any greedy manmade thing. That’s especially true when the deadly pathogen is lovingly nurtured by the avatar of moronic solipsism who first fleeces, then kills, his own cult followers for personal gain or sadistic pleasure or whatever the hell it is that drives a maniac like that. Montgomery Burns would sit in awe … stunned, mouth agape.
I suppose I really shouldn’t bitch and moan about zooming house prices in Las Cruces since they’re only a small product, comparatively speaking, of this terrible disease that’s on track to kill more than a million of us idiot Americans. That’s the main thing, I’ll admit. I also admit my little concerns can be really petty, and that’s not even my worst feature.
Besides, Blackstone and Zillow, among other pillagers, are spending billions buying up properties too for some galactically evil purpose, and I don’t even want to think about that. It’s not just Californians bailing out and invading the rest of the country with oodles of cash from selling their million dollar 2 bedroom, 1 bath bungalows.
Well, skipping way ahead to our second to last full day in L.C. we ran into Frank on our way to the Main Street Market Day, a biweekly event, lined with booth after booth of fresh produce and homemade arts and crafts. He moseyed along with us for awhile, pointing out a few things about the place, then went on his separate way to the Pagan Festival nearby.
I’m not sure his being a Catholic vegan explains that, but I damn sure wasn’t asking because there’s a lot more to Frank than that. I wish we’d gone with him, but we had an appointment to meet a realtor a little later who was recommended by friends of his and Paul’s. We met their friends earlier in the week at Becks, a good coffee shop catty-corner to our casita, and Paul too for the first time in person.
There wasn’t much in the booths for us or presents for friends, but I bought a plain leather belt from an old Army veteran transplanted from Kentucky of all places. We had a good time trading hilarious war stories, which is a real thing, while he trimmed the belt’s tongue down to fit something a little smaller than a hippo.
By now we’d reached the end of the booths and were right on time to meet with with the realtor, whose office was just behind the vet’s leather booth. From driving around, we knew something big had changed in the area price-wise, but the realtor gave the news to us “good and hard” to borrow from Mencken.
He said he’d been selling houses hand over fist without even showing them in person, just by giving the eager buyers virtual tours. The real kicker was when he told us that the simple median price, at the moment, was $375,000! I could see the digits spinning up in my head like the National Debt Clock in New York City.
Las Cruces is a nice town, and it has a lot going for young families and for old retirees like us as well. But $375,000? I really don’t think of L.C. as a garden spot, and where I come from that’s a lot of money for a house I might have bought for a little more than half that a year ago. Expecting to fix it up some too.
Of course, prices like that are happening all over, and it’s probably true that my own place is now “worth” a lot more than it should be. It’s true worth, speaking strictly for myself, is in the serene way I feel living there, mostly in my underwear. But, I’m not the only one who lives there and that matters. A lot.
Well, it might all be relative, but the volatility we’re seeing today scares the crap out of me because I’m not all that brave when it comes to money. I’ve learned from experience that money’s a slippery thing and easy to lose, sliding right through your grubby fingers. Dahna’s even less brave about money. Or, as she’d put it, “More sensible.” We needed to get our minds on something else for awhile, that’s for sure.
On our last day, after meeting up with Paul and Frank, we strolled together through a downtown celebration of the Mexican holiday, Dia de los Muertos which runs sort of parallel to Halloween in the formerly United States. The dress, as you might expect, was on the Gothic, Morticia side with the women and girls wearing most of the costumes and ghoulish makeup. Most of the guys stuck with t-shirts and ball caps, naturally.
The kids were racing around practically between our legs and giving their parents fits keeping up. In spite of the dark theme of the street party, it was a cheery thing with bright southwestern sunshine beaming down on all of us. Sauntering along in fine company with Frank and Paul, they showed us the sights while providing the history of some of the buildings like the Rio Grande Theatre. It was restored in 2005 and features runs of classic film series and live performances. A cultural center of the town.
Down the block a little way is the humongous used bookstore, COAS Books, spreading its labyrinthine aisles over two storeys. Dahna inhaled the rich essence of over 500,000 old books and started to sneeze in her mask. I had to get her out of there fast before she made a histamine mess and caused a COVID stampede. Thank God for Kindles and clean desert air! Frank and Paul went their separate way by then after inviting us to their house for drinks later.
Toward the end of the roped off street was a long line of kids with their parents that terminated into a booth that was backed up by squad cars. Inside a couple of beefy cops handed out candy to the kids in orderly fashion. We didn’t think about it much at the time, but those cops were busy protecting the kids from our own two big bags of fun-size Butterfingers we bought to pass out later that night.
No trick or treaters showed up at our little BnB casita on the park though. Not one single kid darkened our tiny porch. Fortunately, we love Butterfingers ourselves but are a little wistful for the country we once lived in. At least big parts of it.
We used to love Halloween almost as much as Christmas when we were kids. Greg and I would rub charcoal on our arms and faces and go as hobos complete with bindles of rags on sticks over our shoulders. We’d run wild that night dodging the grabby big kids, and we’d extort a good haul of candy in no time, house by house, filling a big paper grocery sack full to ripping. Then we’d eat ourselves sick before bed. Pure joy and kid bliss ’til it hurts like it should.
Well, back to pondering our future. Knowing that discretion is the better part of valor, we’re thinking of sitting tight until the foul plumes of the plague dissipate some and maybe just try to appreciate the nice, safe place we already have for awhile.
I was on the phone to my friend James the other day, and we were talking about this among other things. He and Susan live not far from us in a lovely home he built in central Texas some time ago. He was summing up a list of our Texas region’s advantages over L,C. in the succinct way that he puts things. “Grass,” he said firmly at the last.
There ain’t much grass in the desert of Las Cruces to be sure. Plenty of dirt and gravel and dust all right. The prospect of continuing drought that climate change is right now gripping the area with bodes ill for what little grass remains there now. The lack of water worries Frank too after living there for decades. Worries us.
When James hung up I told Dahna what he said and she got the point the same way I did. “Yeah,” she said. “Grass. That really is an important thing to consider. And for Sacha too.” Less mowing though. A lot less, but even so … Grass. James was right. Grass can stand for some key things about a place, and so can the lack of it.
I’ve only known James for maybe six months, and I’ve already come to appreciate the benefit of his thinking on a variety of subjects. One reason possibly stems from the fact that he was an only child like I was. Good parents are helpful to be sure, but solitary kids like us don’t have the gritty back and forth with brothers and sisters to help us grow up. We have to do that pretty much on our own, hit or miss.
I remember years of sitting alone in my room for hours on end imagining all sorts of things with not a single interruption. I learned how not to be bored just by thinking further and further out there about whatever rolled through my little head in that quiet room, a sanctuary for daydreams. Finally, bored with myself, I would read anything lying around. Got used to it early, then couldn’t stop.
I’m not saying it’s better or worse, but when you have to figure out things a bit more on your own, you might develop a unique way of looking at things, and that’s what James has. And when he speaks, I turn down the racket in my head to listen to him. Listening is his speciality, by training and by nature, and I hope to learn more about the things he’s found out. I’ll have to listen in to get it, like in class.
James is married to my oldest friend, Susan, who’s normal in the best possible way except around a deck of cards. That’s where she breaks bad. You’re sitting there at the table, finally with the hand you’ve been waiting for all night, just about to grab the brass ring. She’ll chirp out a little, “Oh!” Then she’ll take a hexed-up hand of hearts and diamonds with maybe a few clubs, lay it down, and treat you to a stiletto-sharp little coup de grâce to the belly.
Then, with a look of motherly concern, she’ll kindly pat your hand as the blood drains from your face and pools on the floor. You look over at James and he gives you a shrug with a smile, a little lifeline of empathy just before you go down.
I love how she says, “We’re not cutthroat card players like some of our friends.” She says that a lot.
She’s my oldest friend because we shared a few bucolic days together all the way back in 1962 as teenagers. She was the good Catholic girl who, kindly, was wasting her time on this callow kid, namely me. Partly by teaching me how to dance, no mean feat. Unfortunately, I’m no longer in touch with anyone else from the time before I met her and, frankly, I miss a lot of them.
So, that makes her my oldest friend though we’ve been out of touch for nearly 60 (!) years. Both she and James have lots of friendships older than those I’ve kept. I admire people who go to the trouble of maintaining their old connections, and I wish like hell I had done a better job of it.
I knew some pretty great dudes back when I was a kid. I still do, but I wish I had grown older while still hanging out with a few of my childhood buddies. Shoot, even with some of those smart girls who sat up front. Cooties and all.
Susan, playing a long shot, found us a few months ago on the internet as described in my previous post, “The Davis Mountains” and the rest is recent history. I think it’s a great story, and you might take a look if you care about these kind of things in your own life. Taking care to take care of your old friends is a thing she and James would tell you to do—straight out. Call your old pals before it’s too late.
Anyway, the four of us have overcome the sad verity of how hard it is for older people to make new friends, and we’re enjoying each others’ company more and more. At least Dahna and I sure are enjoying theirs.
Right before we made this second trip to Las Cruces, they left for a road trip through the Southwest to some of the big desert parks and then down to Tucson to visit old friends that live there, a town of fine cactus gardens and the extraordinary Linda Ronstadt.
From there, happily, they stopped in L.C. for a couple of days to hang out with us awhile before driving home. On the first full day they were with us we took them down to the old historic town of Mesilla abutting L.C. to its southwest.
We walked around the town’s pretty but slightly touristy plaza looking for gifts and, heading back to the car, stopped at the lovely little church at the end, Basilica San de Albino. Susan wanted to light a candle for her parents. Her beloved father recently passed away at 99, and her mom before, and so we other three and Sacha waited outside in the shade for her.
When she came out a little while later we moved on, driving out to Dripping Springs Natural Area east of town to poke around in the desert. The desert pokes back hard and, being what it is, good sense led us primarily to the terrific visitors center. I stayed outside with Sacha trying to keep her out of the spikier plants and away from the toothier critters while she peed on everything else. James puffed on one of his deliciously fragrant cigarillos while Dahna and Susan were inside nosing around.
When my turn came, Dahna took Sacha’s leash and I went inside alone. I started getting more and more into the geology, artifacts, history, and so on about the area until the N-95 mask I was wearing made my nose run. My snuffling started to scare the masked lone ranger manning the place, so I got out of there pretty quick and we drove back to our rented casita.
This little jaunt replaced a much better plan for that afternoon that I stupidly cancelled because of a bullshit concern about the weather involving Sacha. We all wanted to drive over to Silver City, and that’s what we should have done because it’s a beautiful little town out in the mountains and everybody really wanted to see it! But no. My own personal dumbassery (that I won’t go into due to length) ruled the day.
So, now James and Susan get to wait who knows how long to see it for themselves. That’s my only regret of the whole trip, but it’s a big one. Dahna and I drove out there after meeting the realtor later that week which makes me feel even worse about the whole sorry thing. The moral of the story is, Go see Silver City. Anyway, we took some photos of the handsome, whitewashed adobe university for Allan and a panorama of the little city from a rutted, all wheel drive climb up to a hill with a tiny chapel on top .
The night before that fiasco we all watched the Houston Astros play the Atlanta Braves in the first game of the World Series. Most people hate the Astros because they got caught cheating and seeing them back on top chagrinned the hell out of just about everybody. But, we’re from Texas, so we rooted hard for those lovable scamps.
Dahna and Susan sat together on the casita’s broken down loveseat that caved to the middle. They clung to the armrests to keep from tumbling into each others’ laps, which I’d pay to see. James and I pulled up kitchen chairs behind them and watched the game looking over their heads. It’s a tiny casita after all.
We ran our own quiet commentary while our wives whooped or groaned with groaning dominating because the Astros sure weren’t.
At one point when the game got tense at a critical point, Susan jumped up and hid in the hall, fingers crossed, to keep from jinxing the ‘Stros by shielding them from her witchy presence. I laughed and James smiled. But, I know exactly what she was doing. In spite of trying to pass myself off as Mr. Rational Science Guy, I actually have all sorts of little superstitious tics that would destroy the space-time continuum if I revealed them. So, I get it.
In spite of Susan’s efforts, the Astros, by not capitalizing on the break she gave them, lost the game to thunderous cheers heard ‘round the world. But not in our little casita. They did win the game the next night, and we all celebrated by going out to eat at Dennys, a place where consistency matters late at night. It was a lot of fun watching the games with those guys, and the food was good enough. Café fare.
They left for home the next day but first spent one last night at the Lodge in the Davis Mountains, a favorite place of theirs and ours. We missed a chance to introduce them to our other new friends, Frank and Paul, and that’s a shame. These guys built a wonderful “smart” solar house that almost pays them to live in it.
It’s close by our casita, and we got to see it for the first time on this, our second visit to L.C. We sat at the big plumbed island that separates the sleek kitchen from the spacious and open living and dining area while our hosts prepared drinks and a variety of nifty snacks that we were hard pressed not to grab and gobble in the Branyan manner.
Dahna remembered the beautiful dining set from a picture they sent to us months ago, and she zeroed in on it almost immediately. Frank noticed and told us that Paul made the table and chairs some years ago in his spare time when he worked for awhile in a furniture shop. They’re functional things of pure beauty far surpassing our own woodworking skills, I’m embarrassed to say.
We made a fair living for seven years back in the 1980s lathe turning high end lamps from assemblies of exotic and native woods. They were quite nice, expensive with a nine coat high lacquer finish. But, they were not in the same league as Paul’s work. He was modest about the dining set, but its art and craftsmanship spoke eloquently for itself and for its maker.
The table and chairs were indicative of their design for the home itself. A kind of clean beauty and function fitting in with the desert where they live. The lines are simple and clutter is nonexistent, not allowed by house rule. Function is at the forefront of the room design, and the things they contain, but it doesn’t drive them to severity. Everything needed is there in this small house, but it lives bigger, for one thing, because what’s not needed isn’t there.
We were very comfortable in that smart, engineered house, one carefully thought through by its owners and the builder, also carefully chosen for his own ability to contribute good ideas to the project. Modern though it is, the house fits perfectly in its old adobe neighborhood, blending in architecturally and with beautifully xeriscaped grounds that any Tucson cactus garden, or desert for that matter, would aspire to.
Frank found the correctly-oriented lot while riding his bike through the old neighborhood, and that was essential for the active and, especially, the passive solar applications that make the house so efficient. Paul said he doesn’t think they’ll ever recover the cost of the installation, but imagine getting paid by the power company each month for the energy you produce. Frank and Paul don’t have to imagine it.
If you’re considering a cold move to a new town, you can warm it up a little by being lucky enough to meet somebody like Paul and Frank to give you an intelligent perspective before you jump. They laid it out objectively, the pros and cons of Las Cruces with no buffing either way. A city they know well. We remain deeply in their debt for all the help they’ve given to us.
There’s a good bit more about Frank and Paul in a previous piece I wrote for this blog, “Las Cruces Checks All Of The Boxes.” They’re another good reason to move there along with all the others when it becomes necessary to sell the Comanche place. Like us, they’re more than a little taken aback by the dramatic escalation in property values, not to mention the general craziness running rampant through today’s America.
Nevertheless, Paul makes one hell of a margarita, and that helps a lot.
Driving home, Dahna and I agreed that Las Cruces, at the very least, still checks most of the boxes. It isn’t disappearing into the foggy mind-void of old cootery like the other towns we considered. If we move there, maybe we can convince Rocky and Elaine to leave the ice and smoke of Montana and join us. Elaine lived there once and liked it, I think. Might be a hard sell though.They have a really nice place, and you can get attached to something like that.
But, I want to talk to James some more, and being closer to him and Susan works just fine too. So, what to do? While we’re here, maybe at least we can figure out how to beat them at cards just once. Yeah, that’ll happen! Well, I suppose it could. Really though it’ll probably go for me and Dahna like it did for Dory Previn in “The Game.”
I watch the game …
The chips are down …
I know I cannot win …
ALRIGHT God damn it!
Deal me in.
And there’s all our other friends here we care so much for and love dearly. Allan and Becky and kids Matthew and Michael. There’s my bestie Lorey and husband Ron and David and Donna and Jack and Patty flying low in her new white Outback XT (turbo!) and Sally and Betty and DeNita and my Trumper pal Ray across the road with all his guns and me with mine that we shoot together and trade now and then while strictly avoiding politics as if our close friendship depends on it, clinging for dear life.
He’ll come over and we’ll sit on our respective golf carts parked side by side talking for hours, worlds apart but close still somehow. He’s finally vaccinated now thanks to his LVN wife, another sensible Susan, who harangued the big dope no end. So, now he’s allowed back in the house again to rib Dahna at will from the barstool while manfully absorbing her fierce counterblows. Very entertaining.
And there’s the ancient and magnificent Burkett pecan tree I’m killing with my ardent, but jinxed, love. I would sorely miss it too even though it’s nearly dead now. It’s my favorite of them all with its four huge limbs that once radiated out from its massive trunk, twisting upward like a scary delight from Sleepy Hollow.
But over the last few years it’s lost three of them, one by one, broken down to the ground. Only one limb is left to make me almost cry when I dare look. Maybe if I stood in the hall with my eyes closed and fingers crossed it would live and get strong again.
Like our young master plumber Cody. He just took 15 steps on his own in rehab after spending two months in the ICU in San Antonio with COVID-19.
So, there’s a little hope for us all. Oh, here comes Omicron.
We travel a lot dragging a trailer around all over the place. That is, we did until Trump decided it’d be fun to let a deadly virus run wild through the most scientifically advanced nation in human history. We all know now that scientific brilliance and reason are no match for a nation’s political stupidity and moral degeneration. So, while The Donald bragged and whined and mugged like Mussolini at his homicidal rallies, we stayed home like any other non-nitwits that had the luxury to do so.
Dahna and I have no kids, no family or debt to speak of, no real responsibilities other than to our friends and neighbors to bear the simple burdens of citizenship our founders left to us in their more “enlightened” moments; that is, as free individuals and by a free press and freedom of inquiry, to use reason to govern ourselves and to know, generally, what the hell we’re doing as a people in, let’s say, the face of an historic and lethal threat.
So, instead of going anywhere we returned to our useful training in science to best try to ascertain how to to play the odds to our favor, and for those around us, by behaving cautiously. We’d lend an ear to Anthony Fauci as he walked his swaying tightrope over an orange Niagara of bullshit, and we read and discussed some of the more technical stuff as it became available to us. And we were fully vaccinated by Valentine’s Day. Dahna called ahead.
Unlike hundreds of thousands of our fellow citizens, we survived, so far at least, partly by driving the 35 miles to Stephenville’s HEB supermarket for curbside delivery. We passed each time by the Bayer RV dealership (Airstreams and Dutchman) and we noticed that their lot was emptying fast. We’re thinking, ‘What’s this all about …?’ So, we asked the internet. Turns out cabin fever was ravaging the lucky, and/or, smart survivors and RVing, sensibly, seemed to be a safe way to get out of Dodge for awhile.
The rich hoovered up the Airsteams, and the rest were snatched up by rabble like us in a free-for-all similar to our successful attack on the nation’s supply of toilet paper.
Well, Ol’ Joe Biden was president, the horrific death rate was dropping like a stone, and it was time to get moving again. Down the road and up in spirits. Suddenly, untold thousands simultaneously got the same idea. Unfortunately, the herd hasn’t stampeded to Covid immunity yet, but it has laid waste to RV, boat, and used car lots.
By the 14th of June, the ground was dry enough to pull the camper out from under its cover and up to the house for systems checks and packing. On the 18th, we headed for our intermediate stop, Lake Colorado City State Park near Big Spring. Normally, we head first to South Llano State Park, a fine place just south of Ft. Stockton. But, I wanted a change of view.
I’ve wanted to go to Big Spring since 1969 when “Midnight Cowboy” came out. That’s when I first saw the great actor and political doofus, Jon Voight as Joe Buck, quitting his job as the dishwasher in a Big Spring cafe at the beginning of the movie. One of the first of his many fine performances in a stellar film career to date.
We got to the park by mid-afternoon, set up like pros, and nearly died in the heat. Let’s see … What else? Umm, that’s about it. We grew up in Houston without air conditioning in the 1950s and ’60’s, but now our survivable temperature/humidity bandwidth is much narrower. When it cooled down somewhat, Dahna went birding while I don’t remember what I did. Nothing probably but a nap in the AC which is de rigueur anytime I pull 7,000 pounds of camper anywhere. Sacha peed and pooped, a champion in her sport.
Well, I bow to no one when it comes to my love of Texas, but my opinion isn’t necessarily shared by some of our friends. Especially those former natives that live in other states now. A lot of them think Texas is in direct competition with Florida for Hellhole of the World. They’ve got a point if you’re talking about the archaic period before freon existed in an important way.
But, what they’re really talking about is the politics of the place. Texas has mostly been run by conservatives, formerly Southern Dixie-style Democrats and now, ever since Pat Buchanan taught Nixon how to dog whistle, Republicans of the increasingly virulent and mutating Trump strain. But even these guys love Texas enough to pause occasionally from their tax slashing and releasing the hounds on our various minority groups to actually throw some pretty good coin, comparatively speaking, to Parks and Wildlife.
As a result, our state has one of the best state park systems in the country, and you should check it out. We Texans are no loonier than Idahoans, and probably friendlier. At least we’re not as suspicious and our militias are far less disciplined. Come visit and you’ll find that this Lone Star park feature includes the nicely managed and equipped Lake Colorado City State Park.
Don’t come to Texas looking for a bunch of National Parks. But we do have two and one is a doozy: Big Bend in south Texas. Be sure to visit this special place before you get divorced and nothing matters anymore. The other is Guadalupe Mountains N.P. and I’ll bet it’s terrific too—it’s on our list. Almost all the rest of the land in the state is privately owned; mostly ranches and farms protected formerly by Stetsons and .30-30 Winchesters, traded in by the latest generation for tattoos, AR-15s and camo with an ironically conspicious red cap perched on top.
Our new park out there by Big Spring was light on both flora and fauna, except for snakes, cottontails and prickly pear. A spindly coyote crossed in front right before we got to the park and right after that I slammed on the brakes to avoid hitting a long snake. I think it was a coachwhip by its build and speed. It seemed to know I couldn’t slow down much pulling a heavy trailer because that skinny snake was really hooking it across that two lane.
The birding was lousy consisting mostly of two very horny mockingbirds making a lewd racket and a large number of the only other species out there; grackles. Now, I have a special fondness for both of these birds.
Some time ago a mockingbird followed me around the place for a couple of summers and would sing to me. I’d blow it a kiss in return. Dahna liked to make up dirty jokes about that bird’s desire to break an interspecies taboo, but It wasn’t a serious relationship. Just platonic.
And grackles. Everybody hates grackles. But, when you have a biblical plague of grasshoppers like we did in 2011, you’ll learn to love them when they flock in to the rescue. They’re nothing like the fast sweeps or sissy seed eaters Dahna spends a fortune on. Nope, they’re like Tolkien’s Orcs stomping all around voraciously gobbling up every crunchy grasshopper unlucky enough to be in their Shermanesque march of death. So, from me it’s, “Hi guys! Make yourself at home,” with a low sweep of my hat.
And, often while waiting out in the hot parking lot while Dahna roots around in some store, I like to watch them waddle by like weird little bent over penguins. Now and again one will cock its head and look you over with a mischievous golden eye, and somehow it reminds me of Groucho flicking that big cigar in his hand and those eyebrows jumping up and down. A little comedy out there on the asphalt.
On our second day at Lake Colorado City, I was getting our of the shower when Dahna wondered, “Pat? Do you remember somebody from Garner State Park named Susan …” Before she even finished her name, I knew exactly who Dahna was talking about. But, it wasn’t just a somebody. Susan was a lovely young girl I met at that magic park nearly 60 years ago.
Back in the early 1960s Garner was the place to go in summer if you were a teenager in Texas. Maybe it still is. Families would rent the musty cabins, and guys like me would sleep out in the open on the spacious grassy meadow, or in a pup tent if we had one, or in our cars with the doors open. It was two bucks per night per vehicle, and that was a good bit more than a big bottle of Bacardi across the border in Cuidad Acuña 90 miles away.
The crystal clear Frio River ran cold beside us for swimming and tubing in its swift current, and you could rent a nag and ride up in the foothills of Mt. Baldy, which I liked to do. There were all kinds of things going on under the racket of hundreds of kids laughing and joshing each other or roughhousing just for fun or maybe guys fist fighting for keeps in the summer heat over some slight or girl.
The main event though was the nightly dance at the beautiful stone pavilion built by Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps back in the 1930s depression. We’d dance slow and close or a bit faster and slightly apart with the courtly cowboy Whip. The music was so fine from the dusty jukebox, a masterwork of mood artistry that set a romantic tone under the stars no Texas teenager could ever forget who experienced it. And that’s where I met Susan one night in the summer of 1963 when I was 15 and she about the same, maybe a little younger.
I must have gotten up the nerve to ask her to dance, or some buddy dared me to, but somehow there we were, known now to each other in the crowd. I spent a few hours over the next couple of days in her company, and I’m not sure we even held hands. But, I remember slowly walking with her through the shade of the live oaks of the pavilion and the parking lot, and I felt good beside that gentle, pretty girl.
Our time together was very brief and yet there was a little spark; enough to exchange phone numbers before she returned home to Houston with her family. And, she gave me a little hair bow with a sweet message written on the fabric in ink:
Don’t Forget Me
When I got home I pinned the bow to my cork bulletin board hanging on the wall in my room. We talked on the phone a few times and then school started and that was it. But that bulletin board and its cartoons and newspaper clippings and a few track ribbons stayed on that wall for 20 years or more. And so did that little bow pinned low and in the center.
I left home at 17, off to college then Vietnam, but I went home often to visit my parents. I’d sleep in my old bed in my old room either alone or, later, with Dahna. Now and then through all those years, I would walk up to that small piece of oak-framed cork, and I’d snicker again at the old cartoons and read my name in the yellowed sports clippings for some minor success in track or football.
And I’d see the bow, and I would do as she asked. I’d remember her face and her kind way, and I’d silently repeat her full name to myself, almost automatically, by rote really, and I did it for years until she became a permanent part of my memory. It wasn’t anything I was trying to do. It was just a little thing, that bow, for us both.
When she contacted us I couldn’t have been more pleased or surprised. It was like getting an answer from a message in a bottle tossed into the ocean long ago, and what a day it made for me. Dahna smiled too. A lot.
Susan found the old note she made of my phone number after re-discovering her old diaries, long stashed away. With Google and a “What the heck,” she found me and Dahna. With emailing and Facebook friending, we’re getting re-acquainted again as long-lost friends with her husband James and Dahna there with us.
Susan plowed through some of our stories on Trail Writers and found that we’ve lived remarkably parallel lives. She and James have travelled the world in the summers, but also North America extensively; down many of the the same roads to the same places, and she exclaimed, “…even Nova Scotia!”
We like the same music and they, like us, have no truck with mob rule. James had a long official career counseling troubled juveniles, and Susan just had to be a teacher too, I guess, like most of our friends and me. Both of them living their lives working with children.
In one of her emails, she said she’d taught for over 30 years, first in Houston in Home Economics and later, Pre-k in central Texas. When I saw that, a big brass Sousa band blared in my head with 76 trombones and a dozen twirlers spinning flaming batons. I say this because no one ever benefitted more from a good Home Economics teacher than I have. Ask anybody.
Dahna hated high school in Pasadena, Tx. So much so, she dropped out and sailed alone to Australia on an Italian cargo ship and lived there nearly a year. If you asked her about it, she’d say, “The only thing worth a damn about that school was Home Economics.” That’s where she learned to sew and cook and etcetera, etcetera and got the beginnings of how to do just about everything else under the sun.
That year of Home Ec. launched Dahna’s development of the Very Large Array of Competencies (VLAC) that distinguishes her from, let’s say, me who dozed through woodshop. Need to build a house, then plumb and wire it? Maybe you just need a fast prom dress or a large wall tent. Hungry for perfect enchiladas chiapas with cinnamon buñuelos for dessert? How about pork tenderloin you can cut with a fork with a side of perfect pecan rice? Got an Organic final? Calculus killing you? What if mice chewed through the wiring on your car or your tractor won’t run because its diesel engine needs to be bled. Do what I do. Call the Dahna Help Line.
And thank Susan too and those capable people who teach us how to do all the things we desperately need to know how to do.
State funded Pre-K now exists, but I’m not sure it did when I was a four year old in Houston in the early 1950s. It was private “nursery schools,” then, I think. But, I can see that girl I met at Garner sitting down low with those little tykes and carefully preparing them for the wider world. Each one of the little darlings was, of course, a vast enterprise sent off to both make and meet their destinies and, perhaps, ours as well.
Any one of them might change the world like the Georges, Washington or Floyd, but I bet every one of them remembers Susan. Well, not like I did, but still …
Later, we made our first trip into Big Spring, and it was surprisingly impressive. Big, wide avenues and a beautiful courthouse plus handsome municipal buildings scattered around made for a very nice, and pretty big, town way out there mostly by itself. It’s the kind of town where you can ease back, pull out your shirttail, and talk to the guy at the next pump about the merits of his Ford F-250 compared to your Silverado HD 2500.
A caveat: If you do this at the H.E.B. gas station like we did, be sure to wear a mask even if you’re double vaccinated. I’m saying this because the pumps are heavily curbed and only spaced far enough apart to accommodate a Mini Cooper comfortably. Social distancing is impossible there. You look out across the place and every stall is occupied by a big pickup wedged in tight with nary a Mini in sight. It makes you wonder if the designer had any idea where the hell she lived. I hope her shoes are too small too.
We bought a few groceries and headed back to the park. I leashed Sacha up and took her for a short loop through some of the temporarily empty sites baking in the heat. This is a very nice park and the covered picnic tables were bolted to a level concrete slab. Sacha was sniffing at a couple of small holes under one of the slabs, and I was watching a boat motor slowly across the lake, far out.
Out of the corner of my eye I saw her stiffen and dig her back feet into the hardpan. Then she pulled her nose out of the hole and violently shook her head to kill the baby cottontail she had in her mouth. I yelled at her loud enough to nearly set off a car alarm and she dropped it, eviscerated, to the ground. I backed her away a little and knelt down and stroked her saying, “Good girl. That’s my girl.”
For the record, I am opposed to vicious baby bunny killing, but I am very much in favor of a dog that will override thousands of years of genetically encoded hunting instinct to instantly stop slaughtering and listen to my concerns. When I got back to the camper I started to brag about our terrific dog, but was cut off by a stern Dahna who had another opinion, as usual.
“No! You’re a BAD dog! BAD dog!” She stabbed an accusing forefinger at the poor mutt. I leapt to Sacha’s defense, “Whoa! This is a great dog. Hell, you can’t blame her. She’s still practically a wolf!” We went back and forth with the poor dog’s head swiveling like at a tennis match. Finally, the Defense rested with, “Besides, there’s a million of those rabbits out there.” She couldn’t argue with that. Acquitted. Case closed.
BTW, did you know that a baby rabbit is called a kitten? I didn’t, and it just doesn’t seem right to me.
On our last day at Lake Colorado City S.P., we decided to risk life on a ventilator and go out to eat at the Kelley Cafe nearby. The reviews were okay, so we plugged the address into Car Play and the truck took us to a big elementary school. Huh? Well, we’re game for the bizarre, so we followed the signs, masks cinched up tight.
The cafe was in the abandoned school’s huge cafeteria. I don’t know about you, but what I remember about an elementary lunchroom is the rank funkiness of a 100 open lunchboxes, not to mention 200 sweaty little armpits. Mine was a rusty Roy Rogers, and I don’t miss it a bit. But, this cavernous room smelled really good and the tables were 20 feet apart at least, and the waitress wore a mask. In Texas!
We had a fine meal, a relaxing sundowner back at camp, a night of solid sleep, and got a good West Texas vibe from the whole place. Might go back, maybe in late Fall or Winter. Our trailer is a “four seasons” model and the pipes are protected from freezing. You can meet some hardy souls in cold conditions and sometimes they’re pretty interesting. Sometimes they’re just nuts. Good either way.
On the fourth day we got back up on I-20 and headed west for the Davis Mountains. Four or five hours later we pulled into Davis Mountains State Park and looked for our site. We were eager to get set up and walk down the hill to meet our old and close friends, Allan and Becky. The only thing wrong with the park is that the RV sites are wildly out of level having to do with the mountain nature of the thing. Bring extra blocks for your jacks if you come.
The first time I visited the splendid Davis Mountains, it was late at night in the early Spring of 1969, and you really couldn’t see them much. A friend and I were on our way to visit a mutual friend who was an AWOL Marine sergeant and Vietnam combat veteran who was holed up in LA with his new wife. Bill wasn’t dumb exactly in spite of the corner he was in, but his wife, Elizabeth, was cerebral and a native of Fargo. They ended up in Canada shortly after our visit, got divorced, and Bill stayed there until he was pardoned by Jimmy Carter. Bill’s aunt was Dahna’s beloved 2nd grade teacher as a matter of pure coincidence.
Dahna was recently in contact with Bill, a good man living in Georgia, on Facebook, and they had a respectful debate over politics. She was alarmed though when Bill posted a photo of himself hugging Marjorie Taylor Greene right before Trump’s failed insurrection on 1/6/21. On the 7th, Bill informed his Facebook friends he was “going dark,” and that’s the last we heard of him.
So long, Buddy. Charley couldn’t kill you with his AK. It took poison to do that.
Indian Lodge at Davis Mountains State Park (*)
Well, I took a little side trip, but one more thing … Back in the late ‘60s, if you were dumb enough to get caught by certain people driving through west Texas with long hair in a convertible, you might find yourself sporting a brand new flat top minus the flat. And, Mike and I might have gotten close that dark night in Alpine, Tx on our way to LA to see Bill and Elizabeth.
It was three or four in the morning when we pulled into a cafe across from Sul Ross University that was a college back then, I think. When we walked in, all you could hear was the creak of leather from the belts and holsters of four or five Border Patrol agents as they turned on their barstools to stare at us. We kept our long hair that night by quietly keeping our own counsel in a booth, but those guys had a little fun sipping their coffee in the most malevolent way you can imagine. Think of Lee Van Cleef giving you the side eye every so often.
Later, as it dawned, Mike and I took Highway 54 north out of Van Horn, and you should do this too. Seriously, it’s one of the highways I’ve never forgotten; stark, beautiful and wildly lonesome, past high buttes and desert sage, going like an arrow to the Guadalupes and Carlsbad. We never saw another vehicle on that road all the way to the locked gate entrance to Carlsbad Caverns—still closed for winter back then. Take this road.
After setting up and letting our clothes dry from the sweat, Dahna and I walked down the hill, past the Airstreams to see Allan and Becky camping in their Lance pickup camper. We’ve been close to these two for 35 years. I met Allan in a terrific Historical Geology class sitting across from him. I think I made a 93 on the first exam, but a little glance told me that this kid made a 96. I was a late bloomer 37, and he was 22, already a high school science teacher going for his masters in Biology.
The pattern held held throughout the course: I’d make a 95, he’d score a 98. It was like Butch and Sundance, “Who is this guy??” Well, I never caught up with him scholastically, but we did become good friends. A year or so later we met Becky when she and I both took an Oceanography course together.
The four of us camped together at fabulous Port Aransas, down there on a watery field trip out in the Gulf on UT’s research vessel, netting plankton to study with the onboard microscopes. Our “chaperone” was Dr. Reuben Walter, Dahna’s favorite organic chemistry professor and his wife, Mary, my lab instructor colleague and friend. The Walters, unfortunately, turned green as broccoli on that little three hour tour, but the four of us scampered around on that small ship like old tars.
A dozen or so years later, Dahna and I would sail our ketch, Alchemy, out of Kemah to Port Aransas, and not getting seasick, even in rough six foot seas, was one of the very nice things about those trips. Apparently, the only real cure for this horrible malady is a tree, but I wouldn’t know. I’ve got problems, but that ain’t one of them. If you have a blue water boat, sail her to Port A. Best in Texas.
Speaking of water, Allan is the kind of guy that used to study by reading textbooks in the bathtub. Don’t ask me how I know that, but it’s true. He went on to get his doctorate at OU, and I can just see him looking like a prune at his orals.
He went on to teach Botany to college kids and oldsters like me for 27 years, 23 of those at our old alma mater, Tarleton State University, as professor and, until recently, Biological Sciences department head. Allan distinguishes himself from Tarleton’s “teaching” professors by remaining a dedicated up-to-date scholar and full time research scientist; publishing over 60 peer-reviewed papers, and dozens more abstracts than that in various botanical journals nationwide.
Allan’s the same guy who, beginning at age 12, worked after school in the grocery store as a sacker, deliverer and butcher, captained the football team as, get this, aguard, was elected Class President all four years of high school, and married his true love, the magnificent Parisian-born, French-American beauty, Rebecca, of seven siblings and a sergeant major dad. All this before walking across the little Comanche stage in cap and gown.
Well, there are a couple of differences from then to now. For one, he and Becky can now afford a fancy hot tub. They can both wrinkle up together while looking out over the big lake that laps up on their own private beach. Pretty cool.
The other thing is that he grew up to become a genuine scientist, and he’s the kind of guy we need to listen to carefully right now regarding the virus that’s still mutating and killing our friends and loved ones. You could listen to someone like Becky too.
Becky is an artist. Sure, she draws and paints like many others do, but I’m using the term in the deepest sense I can dig down to. She’s an artist in the same sense Allan is a scientist. By nature; and in her case, by that I mean she’s grounded solidly in Cherokee mother earth. You know somebody like that and they’re in your life as the most vivid people you’ve had the fortune to meet. Dahna loves her as a sister and often asks in wonder, “She’s so amazing … Where does all that come from?” She’s fun and real funny too. A “blast” we used to say back in the Space Age.
I’ll also add she spent decades as an elementary school teacher who emphasized hands-on science, rounding off the sharp edges and making it safe and a kick for those little kids. She and Allan are now in the early stages of collaborating on a field guide for the flora of South Padre Island. Allan writes the descriptions and technical keys for accurately identifying the plants; Becky illustrates them with detailed line drawings. Neither are opposed to tiny umbrellas in their drinks. A team of lovers, those two.
After we met up and hung out awhile, Dahna cooked tacos al pastor, and we drank a couple of rounds of Old Crow. But we were all a little tired (we were not drunk), and so we went to bed early. Early for us night owls, anyway. In the early morning, Dahna tried to get Sacha out to pee without waking me up, but I could hear the little doll prancing on the Lino in the doggie version of, “ooh! ooh! ooh!” as Dahna slipped the collar on.
So, I got up and Dahna went birding with her new camera that weighs as much as a medium anvil. Her results were pretty good, as you can see, because she’s beginning to master the incredible complexity of this pricy Nikon. I flipped open my laptop, connected with the park’s wifi, amazingly, and let the cursor hover over several news sites. I learned during our self-imposed quarantine that even moderately rational persons can play themselves like a fiddle by exercising what some religious people mistake for free will.
So, I asked myself: ‘Shall we start with pathetic straw clutching rising to thin, but hopeful, optimism? Or are we up for raw fear and panic descending into white hot rage and helplessness?’ Well, it was a little too early for rage, so I opted for happy crap. I clicked on the appropriate web site and, sure enough, there was Ol’ Joe smiling that crooked smile and looking straight at me with those tired, squinty eyes. And beside him was Jill, no pole dancing trophy wife, but, as he might say himself, the real deal. The best deal he ever made to be sure. Hopefully, there’s more to come.
I was wise in my choice, and the day went along swimmingly with minimal cursing. We had pre-grilled hamburgers for lunch with Allan and Becky, and then we all jumped into my truck and started climbing the wonderful Skyline Drive. The drive is a little vertigo-inducing, and the tight switchbacks call for slow and careful maneuvering up the narrow two lane grade. Once you’re up there, boy, what a view. We were alone except for a young couple who quickly left, probably because of Allan’s pandemic Duck Dynasty beard. He calls it his John Muir beard, but those kids were taking no chances.
From the height of over 8,000 feet, it’s not hard not to grasp the idea that the Davis Mountains contain their own micro climate, thrust up as they are from the desert below; an anomalous extrusion of now-cooled volcanic magma into various igneous rocks along with broken chunks of limestone from the ancient seabed below. The higher elevation of the mountains receives about twice the annual rainfall than the surrounding “Trans-Pecos” desert, and that supports a larger variety of more temperate flora and fauna such as piñon pine and black bear. The Davis Mountains have been classified as a rare “sky island,” one of the very few in Texas.
We took in the 360° panoramic view while Sacha picked her way through the spiky flora and, finding the proper spot, let ‘er rip. I had a poop bag in my back pocket, but there were no trash cans, and while I was scratching my head over what to do, Allan dropped a flat rock over the evidence. Problem solved, and no doubt some human-like creature will discover a fascinating coprolite some millennia hence.
I downshifted to ease the truck back down the mountain, and, since the day was still young, we took my favorite drive: the Scenic Loop. If you Google it, you’ll see it’s about 75 miles of two lane that goes through and around the sky island, and you get a number of perspectives. Going out of the state park, you’re up and down in the mountains already. Soon you’ll pass famous McDonald Observatory where you can arrange a viewing of the dark night sky by the astronomers that work there.
Moving on, you wend and wind your way around through the mountains’ forest groves, sometimes graced with a spring but often dry. Then you descend down to the Chihuahuan desert floor where from a distance you can pan across the plain and see the mountain skyline. I think it’s best if you do it like I do at 45 mph with all the windows down so you can smell it too.
If you’re younger, you might want to ride a good bike. There’s very little traffic and you can hear us old farts coming a mile away. Plenty of time to pull way over on the bunch grass which is a good idea to do often anyway. Use the clarity of your young eyes to see and not just look. Like Becky does. Spend a little more time with it in your mind like Allan does. Learn, then teach.
On the third day Becky asked me to go down and visit Allan. One of his graduate students had to defend his masters thesis early in the next week, but the guy wasn’t prepared, and Allan, who is also, I forgot to mention, a shepherd, was fretting as shepherds do when one of their lambs goes astray. There’s nothing worse than hanging with a shepherd who’s constantly wringing his hands, so I got it across as well as I could that he had no choice but to go home early and help this dumb idiot out.
“Okay,” he said. “But we’re taking you and Dahna to that Mexican place for your anniversary before we go.” So, they left a day early and it was a relief, especially for that kid. Before they got home, they stopped by our house, unasked, and fed the cats, the deer, the birds and watered the plants. Once they got to their house on the lake, Allan jumped into the old Prius and silently roared off to Stephenville to meet Thesis Boy. The kid successfully defended because … Allan, and now he’s off to the PhD. program at Rutgers, I think it was.
Well, we got home too, two restful days later. It was a long, slow drive at 65 mph with the trailer and we were tired but happy. Good friends, old and new, plus new birds for Dahna and a favorite desert drive for me. Of course, it’s always good to be home again, and so it was.
A Personal Note On this Fourth of July, Dahna and I were sitting out on the porch with Sacha and the cats listening to the scattered and desultory pops and bangs from a few folks setting off fireworks. There used to be a grand fireworks exhibitionin Comanche, but that ended five or six years ago when the beloved chiropractor who set up the display was killed when his trailer exploded just as he began to set up another performance. The shock wave rattled the windows of our house and me too, remembering another explosion in 1968 that took my arm in Vietnam, fighting for democracy in my young mind.
I try not to dwell too much on the violence in our nation’s past, but I am fully aware of it. It’s what I feel looming ahead of us that I think most about now. It’s true that we are now living in a time of our history when thousands of Americans, armed to the hilt with the kind of weapons like the one I once used, hear that old siren song of civil war. A spasm of violence to give them release from an evil fever dream stoked by the worst among us.
I told my old friend Sally last night that I’m optimistic and happy about the election, but that, like her, sometimes I sink a little into despair. January 6th made a lot of people feel that way.
I’ve done some bad things and behaved poorly, but I’ve tried to become a better man as I watch the years go by. But I’ll tell you now, I’ll never be as good as some I know personally that honestly would never wish harm on another human being. An anonymous commenter on the Washington Post wrote at the bottom of an article about the heroic medical efforts to save the life of a uniquely bad man:
“What fresh Hell is this that in a time of plague, Trump lives and John Prine dies?”
Nearly six weeks ago we put the rear seats down and loaded up the passenger half of the Outback with some stuff and left a driver side corridor open for our semi-Siberian husky, Sacha. We jumped in and headed for Las Cruces and a little Airbnb casita in the town’s Mesquite Historic District, nearly 600 miles away. It was midmorning.
The car has a turbo, and I enjoyed punching it and blowing by the old pickups on the 80 mile two lane milk run to Abilene. I especially like it when Dahna says, “Oh just stop.” But, I ease up a little when she says, “You’re starting to scare me with this thing.” Sometimes I scare myself. We got up on I-20 West, and I set the cruise to 83 somewhere out of town, pushing the new speed limits a little.
Texas is pretty good about letting you kill yourself if you want to, and the desert was really flying by. It didn’t look that way, of course, because there’s not much in the desert to fly by. It just seems to float by no matter your speed, but we got there pretty fast by daydreaming along with the iPod. We pulled up to the casita (emphasis on the ‘ita’) in the late afternoon and got out fairly quickly thanks to the Outback’s great seats. Sacha hit the thin L-shaped strip of grass that led from the front and went down the side street, marking her new digs.
Mesquite Historic District Casita
The living room was fully occupied by a nice, dog-scratched sleigh queen bed that we covered with one of our old blankets to protect it from Sacha’s dogginess. We used pillows as bolsters and never sat in the chair. The bath was just fine with a powerful shower and its pretty talavera tile basin. The kitchen was too small for a table but there was a bar, sized just for two, facing a wall with a small window that looked out over Mesquite Street. There was a nifty private patio in back with a table under an umbrella and Sacha, lying underfoot, kept watch while we talked out there with our bourbon.
Klein Park, The View From Our Casita
It was great little place and it faced a small park that was in almost constant use by kids either singly or in groups of friends or in teams coached by their parents, everybody hustling. When I was a kid playing sports I never thought about the adults watching over us. I had no idea how much pleasure they took just sitting up in the stands or out on the sidelines. We spent a lot of time on the front porch watching those neighborhood kids play.
So, once again we’re thinking of selling our Comanche place. Why Las Cruces? Or Grand Junction? Or Grants Pass, Oregon? What’s wrong with Comanche? It’s more a matter of what’s wrong with us. Nothing so much really, but things are changing and have been for some time.
Almost two years to the awful day when Dahna lost her best friend Patty to a cerebral hemorrhage, she was diagnosed with triple-negative breast cancer. She’d been a little late in getting her annual mammogram but, spurred on by survivor Andrea Mitchell nagging her from the TV set, she finally went in. But, she was three full months overdue. This was in October of 2011.
Looking East from our Casita – The Organ Mountains
Just after the biopsy came back, we sat with her radiologist who lit up the offending mammogram right beside its clear, unthreatening predecessor taken in 2010. This anxiety-ridden lady wanted us to know that she didn’t miss anything on the earlier one. She hadn’t. The thing is, triple-negative is a very aggressive type of breast cancer, and that’s what ground a dirty boot heel into the wound. Not every dark cloud has a silver lining, but this one did, somehow.
Chemotherapy drugs are fierce hunters of fast growing cells and triple-negative cells are about as fast as they come. Speedy little killers. But the poisonous drugs love to seek out and kill the rat bastards, in particular, with special glee. The infusions got there just in time before the berserkers broke loose and went wild and took my girl away. Thank you, Andrea.
La Nueva Casita Restaurant, Across From Our Casita
As you should know, and rue, Andrea married “über Republican” Alan Greenspan, a vastly over-rated little gnome who’s still deservedly exiled in Ayn Randland. Personally, I’d rather she’d married Ben Bradlee, and I know that if she had, she’d be a lot happier today even if he is dead as a hammer. You can see it in her eyes. Well, I’ll always love Andrea Mitchell for saving Dahna’s life even though she needed a little help from me, truth be told.
In what probably stands as the clearest insight of my life, I said, “You’re going to M.D. Anderson.” Dahna said, “That’s too far,” and I said, “I like to drive.” She couldn’t argue with that, and it would have done no good anyway. I was fully prepared to pull the man thing on her, putting my own life seriously at risk, but she folded pretty fast. She seemed distracted, but I wasn’t.
So, it was about 600 miles per round trip from Comanche to Houston where the finest doctors in the world and a beautiful woman named Denita live. She was a distant friend in both time and space when our other great Patty intervened by mentioning to her that Dahna needed help. Purple Sand Verbena ( Abronia angustifolia)
Denita didn’t hesitate a second and we stayed with her during each of our 20 or more trips for Dahna’s treatments, tests, and surgeries. I guess we stayed at her house at least 50 or more days spread out over nearly a year and a half. She never failed to lift our spirits, and I often think of her voice and laugh, her fine intelligence and good sense. Dahna recently had the chance to repay a little of her kindness and generosity, but it’s a big debt. A lot more than we ever owed to any bank. Denita was paired up tightly with her terrier Buddy and he became our friend too, but now he’s gone.
The diagnosis came just one year after we finally moved into the new house we built—our fourth and last, by God! Actually, I’m sketching one in my mind right now, but a builder will build that one if it ever comes to pass. At 73 and worn out by the last four years, especially the last one, I’m in no shape in any sense to get involved with another massive project involving nail guns or any other loud thing, frankly. Maybe a doghouse or two for Comanche All Pets Alive when lumber prices finally fall from Trump’s foolish Canadian tariff and combined with their Covid distortions. If they ever do fall.
Crazy lumber prices aside, where would we build this last house I’m thinking of? Unlike Comanche, it’d damn sure be close to a major medical center. But how can you have that without having to live in a giant, snarled mess of a big city? Maybe find a town smaller but big enough for practically everything else you need but…near a giant, snarled mess of a big city. Maybe like laid back Las Cruces lying a comfortable 42 miles northwest up I-10 from sprawling El Paso? Why not?
BTW, Las Cruces is one of the few towns that has two interstates (and a river) running through it. You can catch I-25 N/S or I-10 E/W and head for anywhere in the northern half of the western hemisphere if you get the bug, and our world doesn’t end in another civil war. To badly misquote James Baldwin, “The Tweet Next Time.” Even in an apocalyptic Mad Max America, those interstates are handy. Need to bug out and make a run for Canada? Well, off you go on I-25. Prefer to make a last stand at the Alamo? No problem. Your interstate awaits.
Gypsum Phacelia (Phacelia integrifolia)
Assuming our better angels prevail, you can hit I-10 for the big parks in California plus the Tommy burgers in LA; or go east for the swamps and general craziness of Florida after making a fool of yourself in New Orleans. Visit your old friends in Arizona and Texas if they’re no longer mad and maybe make some new ones just in case.
We liked Las Cruces a lot, especially the somewhat mixed, mostly Hispanic old neighborhood where we stayed for five nights. It’s also true that after checking out Grants Pass and Grand Junction several years ago, we also liked them. But, both of them sport a higher cost of living, and we’ve grown accustomed to the luxuries of our upper lower class income. We decided that Oregon is beautiful and a wonderful place to visit, but we’re more comfortable in the dry desert. Desert southwest.
Organ Mountains East of Las Cruces
Grand Junction is a neat high desert town except for the fact that some maniac is installing traffic rotaries all over the place, enough to make you dizzy. Spin out of one then suddenly there’s another up ahead, and you go, “Ah, shit!” We checked it out because it’s ideally positioned for travel all throughout the American West, which is the best as Jim Morrison said. And, you can easily head out from there to points east if you have a mind to once you get over the Divide. It’s got a VA hospital which is just peachy for me, in general, but we both might need that big city medical center at some point, and Denver is too far away.
First, Comanche, to repeat, is too far from the kind of medical services we’ll need soon and, second, our little 20 acre place ain’t so little when you limp into your 70’s with bad backs, knees and aching feet. We make a little on our hay and pecans but the place is far too small to invest in the harvesting equipment, so we hire others to do most of that work, a profit killer. Still, it’s getting harder to keep up just on the maintenance with entropy and climate change always poised to unravel everything.
There’s a lot of work to do before we sell, about a year’s worth—much of it we could have already done in this last stupefying year. But, we didn’t do much at all the whole time. Before that we travelled extensively, and the place frayed a little around the edges in our absence. Hard to move. Hard to stay. It used to be a lot easier back in the long gone days of the old green van. Especially since practically everything we owned was in the old green van.
We’ve always loved New Mexico, its adobe architecture; the vigas, the gentle curves and the thought of cool Saltillo tiles under your bare feet in summer. A long time ago out in the high desert of southern Utah I helped carry the long pine vigas for a new adobe house some friends from Santa Fe were building. It took about seven of us with the monster vigas on our shoulders walking carefully in line to get them from the pile to the house a hundred yards away. Every time the guy in front or back stepped into a little hole, you’d catch half the weight of his load. You’d be surprised how an uncomfortable 150 lb. point load on your shoulder can crush you into the ground when it suddenly, and painfully, jumps to 225 lbs. The yelps sounded a little like a flute.
Mesa Pepperwort (Lepidium alyssoides)
The house was sited on the remote south canyon rim of Lisbon Valley, and there never was a more stunning view anywhere. Vast Disappointment Valley is in sight reaching out way, way out there below the La Sals. Little Indian box canyon lies just to its east. Zane Grey was reputed to have camped nearby when he was inspired to write Riders of the Purple Sage. But, our friends abandoned the house before it was finished, and we lost touch. The last time Dahna and I went out there, the thick adobe walls, exposed to the elements, had slumped to the ground. It’s just one of the sad things that can happen when something big changes in good peoples’ lives.
On our first full day in Las Cruces we went to the Chamber of Commerce and got a terrific driving map of the town and surrounding area. With the town in the middle, it included all the places of interest from Radium Springs to the north to Anthony in the south at the state line with Texas. Just across the line, El Paso has that big medical center, including a VA hospital. Las Cruces itself has small VA clinic and a serviceable, mid-sized medical center. It sits east of town in the desert as it rises up to the craggy Organ Mountains further out.
Go over the mountain pass and you come to famed White Sands Missile Range and Holloman Air Force Base producing its share of veterans. It’s not so close, but the drive is scenic and I like coming down mountains onto a flat desert expanse. Something nice about it. It’s roomy.
White Sands National Park
White Sands itself was a little disorienting. For a couple of Texans used to the oily brown beaches of the Gulf, blinding white sand didn’t make sense. And, the warm white stuff should have been ice cold to a Siberian husky’s confused genes. She stepped on it a little gingerly at first. There wasn’t much to sniff, and she looked at me with a puzzled look the way dogs do. Sledding down the dunes on plastic seems to be a big thing, and we watched a young Asian couple awkwardly give it a shot. I think it was one of those, ‘when in Rome’ things for them.
Sacha, On You Husky!
Gypsum Sledding, Before the Rain
Through four full days, we drove out a tank of gas moving slow through and around town looking at the inner neighborhoods. There was plenty of attractive acreage of “ranchette” size too, a couple acres, but we really liked where we were staying by the park in town. It was nice sitting still on the porch watching all the young people walking by with their dogs or their lovers, the happy kids, and the bicycle cops practicing their maneuvers through a gymkhana-style obstacle course there in the park. We were like a couple of weathered rocks in a lively trout stream.
Softball Practice, Klein Park
Las Cruces seemed to check all the boxes we could think of for a good place to live out your latter days. With the pandemic concerns, we weren’t as free as could be to really hit the eateries, but we did get some fairly good Mexican food. It’s a city of a little over 100,000; large enough for just about everything you could need. In any event, El Paso has it or you probably don’t need it.
It is a clean town, seemingly well-managed and everyone we met spoke fondly of it. There were no discernible rush hour traffic jams, just easy driving all day. The Rio Grande runs just to the city’s west when it has water in it. A lot of its water is diverted for agriculture, mostly for pecan orchards as far as we could tell. Some of them were extensively flooded with water from the river. I’d describe its exposed bed as “puddled.”
Our little pecan orchard is also flooded at the moment because we catch the water that runs around a huge pond when it can’t hold the floods of a 900 acre watershed. It’s a good thing until it isn’t. Right now it isn’t to say the least. We were told once by an expert that it takes 14 gallons of water to grow a single pecan, and that might make you wonder why the hell they’re growing them in the frickin’ desert around Las Cruces.
The Mighty Rio Grande (Greatly reduced flow due to Crop Irrigation on the Corridor) and Drought
Standing on the bank of the mostly dry riverbed of the Rio Grande, I wondered about that myself. The lonely snowy egret on the other side didn’t have much to do, but some swallows were swooping around, probably gathering a little mud for their nests. There was plenty of that and plenty of things I’ll never quite get. We were close to a dam on that river, and it was dry on both sides. I wish I could give it a few acre feet of water off my place right now. No charge. If we move there, maybe I’ll understand that famous river a little better.
Snowy Egret in Search of Water, Leasburg Dam State Park
We were already in a good mood the morning we packed the car to leave. We liked Las Cruces a lot and were comfortable there. It seemed to have everything we wanted and needed, Mick Jagger aside. We were thinking, ‘Yeah, let’s move here when we’re ready.’ We were just about to hop in the car and head home when a tall masked man stopped, at a very safe distance from our unmasked selves, to chat for a few minutes. When it came out that we were thinking hard about moving there, Frank offered to help.
Frank and his husband Paul have lived in Las Cruces a little over 30 years. How they got there from growing up in the Midwest reads like a mixture of reason and chance, the kind of thing that makes for a good story with good outcomes. They met about 40 years ago working at the then newly-created Chicago Board Options Exchange as market makers in stock options. Speaking as a guy who bought defunct Tellabs (and GM, moments before it zeroed out), instead of Apple, the thought of what they were doing gives me a little tremor of residual fear.
Paul & FrankCelebrating Their New Home
I’m guessing, but I think they must have been pretty good Masters of the Universe because they got out early enough and lived a number of interesting lives since with a pretty high degree of freedom. Most of the people I know like that are the kind you love to sit up with past midnight, pouring out a good supply of dry reds and aspirin for later. Both, like us, had parents to care for; Paul’s in Florida and Frank’s in Arizona, close to Phoenix, whose relative proximity led ultimately to their living in Las Cruces.
On their long ago first day visiting the town, they exited the freeway and drove around forever looking for a restaurant, a memory that amazes them even today considering how many there were. I can’t say how many times that’s happened to us too in who knows how many strange towns we’ve pulled into. Imagine all the people in all the cars meandering around all the towns in all the world looking for a damn restaurant and, in desperation, finding themselves parked in front of an equivalent, if not an actual, Waffle House. Been there. Now, of course, you can locate any restaurant in minutes with your wi-fi mobile phone. Seconds, if you’re a kid.
Paul, practically on a lark, ended up working for IBM for five good years after accepting an invitation to a short internship on the basis of, “Sure, Why not?” Frank, meanwhile on another lark, decided to terrorize sailors on U.S. Navy warships by teaching them math. He’d taught for years at high school and college levels. The closest I’ve ever came to suicide was before a calculus final. Driving to class that day, I thought if only that oncoming pickup would swerve a little…
Frank’s civilian tour ended because of the 911 attacks which ended a lot of good things. Not long after that the couple ended up in Florida for a few years helping Paul’s parents, the way it’s supposed to go. Then back to Las Cruces where they bought another house, then traded it in on a Northwood Nash RV trailer and hit the road full time for about seven years, traveling the country. BTW, Northwood made our Arctic Fox, and I recommend them. I bet they could write a couple of books just about their life on the road.
Rabbitfoot Grass (Polypogon monospeliensis), Rio Grande at Leasburg Dam State Park
Occasionally, they’d park the RV in a Las Cruces RV park and hang around awhile, thinking over their long range plans. One day, Frank found a lot in the Mesquite Historic District oriented a few degrees east of south for solar. They bought it and sat on it awhile thinking about the design of a new home to build with a carefully vetted builder that could contribute to their ideas and execute them properly. On the functional side it had to be very efficient, incorporating solar, and modern, but aesthetically it had to adhere to that of the neighborhood’s quiet and lovely low slung adobe architecture.
I know all this because when we met Frank, we exchanged our info, again at a safe distance. Since then, both of them have generously sent PDF files of pertinent building codes and a biographical compilation of the property’s past owners plus themselves. Paul and Frank have given talks at nearby New Mexico State University about the beautiful and super efficient house they built. They’ve also been written up in several of the town’s newspapers.
A Slice of Paul & Frank’s Xeriscaped Yard
You know what? If you get out of the house and go down the road a bit, you’re liable to have a little brush with history. I remember back in Houston when I first got my driver’s license and found myself at 15 years old sitting out by the pool illegally drinking beer with the recently late, and lamented, B.J. Thomas. I was there with a friend and his older brother who knew him. I had to travel there. A couple of years later, he and his Triumphs played at my senior prom.
When Dahna was five her parents took her and her brother and sister to Magnolia Gardens, a small country music venue way up north of Houston. It was one of the stops of the Louisiana Hayride circuit. One of the singers picked cute little Dahna up and walked her around on his shoulders. Then he took her for a ride in his Cadillac convertible around the parking lot. That guy, back in 1955, was Elvis when he was just becoming king. Dahna has a funny way of describing that shoulder ride, but I won’t go into it here. The point is that on that day, they didn’t just lie around the house like most people do. They got out in the car and met royalty.
So, we threw some stuff in our car and went off to Las Cruces and had another brush with history. In 2013, the same year Paul and Frank moved into that new house, they stood at the head of a line early one morning to become the first same sex couple to be issued a marriage license in New Mexico.
Every now and then something really good happens in this poor country, but it rarely comes without a fight. In the streets and in the legislatures and the courts. But sometimes it happens. John Lewises’ good trouble, then good law, and then a better country for us all to live in. This little blog is called Trail Writers and it doesn’t matter too much, but there are trail blazers out there and they count for a helluva lot, everything really. This country “wouldn’t be squat” without them.
We plan to go back in the Fall assuming the Spring flooding eventually lets up and we’re not washed out to sea. We got a pretty good lay of the land during our trip but missed a lot too. We barely scratched the surface of the good Mexican food available, never really looked for a prized cafe for a late night breakfast. We really need to spend a few hours walking around the university campus and see what it and other educational and cultural organizations have to offer and think about what we might have to offer in return. How we could contribute to a new desert hometown.
Well, we have a few months to read a lot more about Old Mesilla and all the other historic places in and around Las Cruces. We’ll spend more time there when we go back for all that and the chance to firm up our plans a little. High on the list is the possibility of getting to know Frank and Paul better, wine or no wine. It was a stroke of serendipitous good luck that Frank decided to say, “Hello in there,” as he walked by. Well, it wasn’t all luck. We travel a lot if you know what I mean.
Roseburg was our target town to resettle in, but it didn’t quite work out for us. The data was right, but there’s a lot of slack in the way data points relate to each other in reality. That’s not to say a single data point can’t be a deal breaker. Too low of an average winter temperature in my case, or too high in summer for Dahna. Rocky needs more sun than Vermont can supply. We all have our limits: Too many snakes—not enough birds. No bears! Cougars? Okay. Too many redneck neighbors—too much latte sippin’. Needs more restaurants—no, just better ones. Look at the frickin’ traffic! Rotaries?? No way José!
So, we moved on a little south, down to Grants Pass. We liked it a lot better even though the data was similar to Roseburg. If we ever move to Oregon, that’s probably where we’ll go. Who knows? Like my mom used to say, “Whatever.” Well, four long, long years ago this last part happened there, in the state of Oregon.
Roseburg’s climate has a healthy quota of cloudy (and rainy) days, but compares a bit favorably to Eugene and Salem, both of which pass sunshine muster, if barely. The problem we’re having is the economic climate which, I admit, might not be fair since Roseburg wasn’t alone in being passed over in the last few decades. Housing prices are certainly high enough, but the town seems a little past its prime.
Like Comanche, there are lots of houses long past their repaint due date. It has a workaday feel which we generally like and there’s nothing hoity toity about it, but something… So, we drove out to some of the small outlying communities which did absolutely nothing for our mood. We’re not giving up on Roseburg though. To be fair, most places we’ve seen in the last few decades look little green around the gills.
By the time we got back to Whistler Bend’s river and trees and the tiny graveyard that holds the bones of the kind people that donated this land to We the People, we two people plus canine were happy campers again. With splashes of Old Crow, a kosher dill pickle and the king of all foods, the hamburger, I was feelin’ good and lookin’ good as I can these days. In a few minutes we’re having Tillamook Double Chocolate ice cream which is better than your ice cream and, yes, I’m talkin’ to you, Blue Bell.
David sent an email the other day and asked if we knew Greg Brown’s “Eugene.” We like his music a lot, but we didn’t have it on the iPod with his other songs. Dahna got on Youtube and played it. Then we played it again it was so good, and you’ll thank David too if you give it a spin.
Solidly in a Greg Brown mood, we listened again to his “Skinny Days.” Dahna misted up through that and David’s own version of the great song. David made a CD of some of his favorite songs, also sung wonderfully by David himself, and we listened to it while we ate dinner. I’ll admit I snuffled a little when John Prine’s “Hello in There” came up, but then I always do with that one.
David thought “Eugene” would hit home for us on this journey and did it ever. The correct pronunciation of “Willamette” comes through loud and clear, for one thing, if you ever cared. He tips his hat to the values of the younger generations with a rueful look back at ours, and his, soon to shuffle off this mortal coil. None too soon in his opinion.
Brown would appreciate the struggles of the young couple camped next to us in a tent. We met them beside the little graveyard and got to talking. They’re homeless but have an old car that takes the guy to his job as a salesman for a telemarketer. She stays behind and cooks, shops and keeps the books. They have to break camp and move frequently as their park permits run out. Then they move on to another state or county park nearby for an alloted time. Sweet and gentle people like the ones we knew in Montrose long ago. I don’t know their names. Never came up.
Today, we’re off on a 200 mile loop to the coast, over to Coos Bay then up to Reedsport, then back to the pretty park. Laundry tomorrow and a stroll downtown plus a dining out date if we can swing it with Daisy. When we have to leave her in the camper, we leave it unlocked and ask our neighbors to let her out if it catches on fire or the AC breaks down and goes quiet. It’s standard procedure among RVers.
In the many years we’ve been married, Dahna and I have often felt a bit like gypsies and have moved many times, often for reasons that make little sense in the common sense sense. The old feeling is at play again, especially in Dahna. But this time there are some more concrete reasons that show up uninvited and unwanted if you live long enough.
Living a long time is the better thing, I think, and to hell with the “Die young and leave a good looking corpse” nonsense. Shoot, none of our friends are on the cover of Vogue either, so who gives a damn? But, long life should at some point force you to admit to the disconnect between the young Peter Pan face in that lying mirror and that old man in the photograph that just can’t be you. You know, the pic your wife loves best.
At that point you’ve got to finally recognize and act your age and stop picking up heavy stuff. At the very least, stop joking about compound leverage and actually start using it. Remember 8th Grade Science? Levers, pulleys, inclined planes, and don’t forget hydraulic front end loaders.
Unfortunately, at our place there’s a lot of heavy stuff that always needs picking up, stuff that was lighter when we bought it 9 years ago. My roofer thinks it’s wise to keep picking the stuff up anyway but he’s in his 50s, so what the hell does he know?
When we came out here to Oregon in a rental car a few years ago, we enjoyed ourselves rhinocerosly as my old friend, and boss, Jim Everitt used to say. Since that trip, the change in scenery has sparked the old restlessness, and now, the political insanity, gloriously well-represented in Texas, has fanned the flames. And, that heavy stuff keeps getting heavier.
That’s not to say all’s well here in Oregon. No sir. I saw a guy roaring past in a monster big-wheel 4×4 a few days ago flying a large, two-faced flag, its pole planted back in the bed Iwo Jima style. Stitched together were same-sized American and Confederate flags, back to back. They, or it, flapped righteously in the truck, proudly displaying the touching patriotism so lacking in the Iwo Marines that only raised Old Glory by itself.
And, I remind myself, the Trump campaign has a big office here in Roseburg in order to Make America Great Again for Flag Boy. So, it helps to keep a little perspective. It ain’t just in Texas. Molly Ivins would’ve had just as much fun if she’d lived here in Oregon. But, we were the lucky ones that had her. We saw her a couple of times eating alone at the Magnolia Cafe in Austin. Both times she read a paperback while she waited for her food, grace respectfully undisturbed.
After seven days here in the environs of Roseburg, we’ve decided this isn’t the place for us. You remember Gertrude Stein’s observation about Oakland, I think it was. Here, there is a there there, a nice one mostly, but it doesn’t click for us. I hadn’t thought about it before, but if you need a fairly big lot for a shop in a little mountain town you’re pretty much SOL. There’s just not enough flat ground for many people to have one and a house too. At least at Oregon prices.
If you look out of town where it’s cheaper, you start getting into too much acreage where the heavy iron things are, and you lose the feel of “neighborhood.” That’s something we’ve missed for a long time. I guess, to be honest, Roseburg just doesn’t feel quite right. Metaphorically, the trees need to be the right height.
A few days ago, we escaped the unusual triple digit heat of Whistler’s Bend in a run for the coast. Heading west from Roseburg and over the Coast Range you come to the pretty Coquille valley. This did feel right. Everything was the right size but there were a couple of deal breakers.
First of all, we probably couldn’t afford it since the moderating trashy element seemed a little too small. Doctors would be available there or in Coos Bay, a pretty big town on the coast just up the road. But also, we’ve ruled out the coast due to the cold rain that falls a little too much there. Maybe when we were younger in that other, hardier life. Really though, if it’s got to be cold we prefer dry snow lying up on the high desert. Can’t have everything.
It was a picturesque ride all the way through. The big rivers with the log rafts headed for the mills, the salty shops run by tough people, and the twisty, forested roads leading finally to the sea. It had Ken Kesey’s Sometimes A Great Notion kick about it which jibes since he was from Springfield, next to Eugene. The Simpsons reputedly live in Springfield too, and I admire both equally which probably says a little too much about me.
The coast excursion had the desired effect of cooling us off nicely and clearing our heads some about Roseburg as well. We walked Daisy in a quick hurry in a small park overlooking the Pacific and nearly froze to death from a sharp wind off the water that bowed our heads. It was hard to believe we’d soon be sweltering back over the range.That day was good though in more ways than one, start to finish. Here’s how it started:
The coast trip was going to be a long one so we got up early. We were drinking coffee at the picnic table, each hard at work. Dahna was trying to juggle our schedule to spend less time in Roseburg and more elsewhere, preferably down around Grants Pass or back up to Salem on the way home. I was plotting the day’s route to the coast and back making a scenic loop. Both of us were face down, concentrating hard, when the air quivered then shattered with, “DID YOU CATCH ANY FISH YET?!!” We both jumped out of our skins in an instant, electric WTF?? And there he was, about 30 feet away. This guy.
Conjure up an image of John Wayne. Big hat, dust scarf, leather vest and pants, big .45 Colt on his hip. Now, back up a little until you see Ward Bond standing there beside him. Shrink Ward down about a third until the top of his hat is level with Duke’s shoulder, but be sure to keep the big booming voice and twinkly eyes and don’t forget the hale fellow, well-met part. Keep all that real big and meet my friend Joe.
Joe is a retired electrician, the 10th of 11 kids and born on the Christmas Eve following Pearl Harbor. His mom was born in 1897, same as my grandmothers, and everyone in that huge family lives past 80, by statute. If you saw Joe, you’d believe it in a second. It’s amazing how one woman could impart so much life into that many kids, or even just one Joe. I guess it’s something in the soil of the Pacific Northwest where they’re from. Maybe just the tasty oysters out in the water, come to think of it.
We didn’t talk about fishing at all which was okay. Fish are safe from me. I couldn’t catch one if it jumped in my lap and slapped me in the face. Instead, we talked about everything else and it was just one of those good things, the way they happen sometime.
He stood away from the table and he’d kind of mince up, gesturing some story to life. Then he’d ease back, arms crossed, letting his creation hang in the air. He was a good storyteller, so I tuned in. He’d been going on and on like that for at least 15 or 20 minutes when he mentioned that he and Susan once owned a store on the coast. He looked up at the sky, pleased at the memory, and said, “You could get just about anything in that little place.”
Then he ticked off a list on his fingers, “bread, lettuce, baby powder, a .300 Weatherby…” He paused for effect, looking down at me where I sat on the bench.
I was barely nine when my stepfather came into our little family, my father long dead. Nearly a year later, on my 10th birthday, he gave me a brand new Remington Model 551 Scoremaster .22 bolt action rifle. He was a good engineer and correctly calculated that keeping me happy was key to his own happiness, vis-a-vis his pretty new wife. My buddy Greg down the street had an old over and under .22/.410 break open breechloader, a Marlin I think it was. The Scoremaster was so sweet I couldn’t sleep that first night. Visions of us hunting elysian fields kept me awake.
I was happy with my new gun, and so was my new dad living in bliss with the love of his life, evermore. I truly loved that long-barreled .22, still have it and still appreciate the zen of a fine bolt action rifle. I know a lot about guns too, probably because of that birthday and my smart “Pop” who taught me how to shoot way out on the San Jacinto river. I’ll never forget that first whiff of cordite when I pulled the trigger of that new rifle. It smells good to a boy. Maybe too damn good.
I said, “.300 Weatherby…never fired one. My .270 kicked hard enough for me.”
He smiled that toothy Ward Bond grin, “Aw, it’s not that bad. I had three of ‘em. Accurate. My son took one out to a target at 100 yards and all three rounds punched holes that touched each other.”
That’s when I hooked him, “Must’ve been a real Weatherby to shoot that tight.” Then, I reeled him in, “Tighter than a minute of angle,”
I looked up at him over the rim of my glasses. He stared back. Then he walked up to the table and sat down. “It was a real Weatherby,” he said as he reached out, “I’m Joe.”
Caught me a big fish.
We talked for another hour until Dahna got antsy about getting a late start to the coast. We’d covered a lot of ground and, following the script, we had a lot in common—to the point he commented on it. I agreed with most of it but had a little problem when he said we were the same age after I mentioned I was 68 years old. He said he was 74 which, I’m sorry, ain’t the same as 68 if you look at it like I do.
About the same time my dad taught me to shoot, I was dealing with fractions and he decided to blow my little mind by introducing me to the slipperiness of numbers and time. Using our respective ages to illustrate, he made Joe’s case for him nearly 60 years ago.
He said, “You’re 10 right? And I’m 30. That means I’m three times older than you, correct?” It was also true that he was a good bit younger than my mom which never meant anything to those two.
I was thinking, ‘…huh?’
Then he went on, “So, you also can say you’re 1/3 my age, right?”
It took a furrowed brow but finally I said, “I guess so.”
“Okay,” he went on, “What happens 10 years from now when I’m 40 and you’re 20?” I couldn’t imagine being 20 years old.
The look on my face must have tipped him off that he wasn’t looking at the next Einstein, but he continued anyway, “By that time I’ll only be twice as old as you, not three times. You’re only 1/3 my age now, but in 10 years you’ll be 1/2 as old as me. I’ll always be 20 years older than you, but as long as we both live you’ll be catching up with me. See?”
I’ve thought about that all my life and how time can take you on a fast dance around some number and make your head spin if you let it. And I let it spin me around alright when Joe tried to make me think I was as old as he was. Like I caught up with him the way my dad put it so long ago. So, I let Joe have his point with my usual lack of wit, not to mention too much deference to a grinning elder.
What I should have said:
“Not so fast Joe. Let’s say we both live to be 80, not unreasonable. You’ve got diabetes and I’m too fat with a little hypertension. So, you’ve got 6 years to live but, hey, I’ve got 12. Shoot, you’re actually twice as old as me. In fact, you might say I’m only 1/2 your age. Gee mister, I’m just a kid.” I’d try out my own bucktoothed grin.
You’d think after 58 years of thinking about these things I’d be able to flip my dad’s Aggie arithmetic lesson around on old man Joe. But, no. That’s not what I said. I will, however, admit that Joe and I do live in the same general stage of life, and what we were really talking about was the pressing necessity of coming to grips with it. We’re both having a good time, but it’s getting harder for both of us to do a lot of the things we used to do, physically. At least without thinking first to keep from hurting ourselves.
Joe and Susan have a five acre place outside a small community that’s close to Salem to their east. They’re contemplating selling and moving to Grants Pass to be closer to their respective families; his in northern California, hers in southern Oregon. They raise most of their own food and work hard on the place keeping it trim and in order. Like with us, the heavy things are getting heavier each year so they’re thinking, ‘maybe it’s time’ to adjust a little.
We met again for another long spell and traded phone numbers and addresses. Later, I decided I really wanted to see his place and talk to him some more when we made it back up to Silver Falls State Park for a few days on the trip home. The park is close to Salem, probably 30 miles or so from his house. I wanted to let him know we were actually coming, sort of asking permission.
I didn’t want to just show up and have him yell at me about getting off his damn lawn.
We walked over to the escarpment overlooking the Umpqua near his camp, but he was in the middle of a big group of Susan’s relatives, so we didn’t intrude. However, one of the relative’s boxers came out and nearly slobbered us to death before we made it back to the camper. A little while later, Joe broke loose and came over and we talked past dark when Susan walked up to remind him of his familial duties to the kin.
The next morning early, Dahna looked out and said, “Joe’s gone.” I rolled over and went back to sleep. I had his address.
It’s close to 10:00 AM, Saturday the 3rd. We’re showered and about to have a quick bite before loading up and breaking camp. We’re headed to Valley of the Rogue State Park near Grants Pass. It looks pretty good on paper and we’re a little excited. I’m anxious to see what Joe sees in the place. I’ll bet it’s good. Not too far from here.
We took I-5 south and, as you know, interstates are usually a snooze which can get you killed real quick. Not today. I’d have to say the short 65 mile trip down from Roseburg to Grants Pass is one of the most magnificent drives I’ve ever taken. It consists entirely of high mountain passes free falling into tight valleys or even tighter canyons with the Umpqua often running beside or cutting back and forth across your path like a beautiful girl strutting her stuff.
My poor truck really whined and howled at all the downshifts, pulling uphill and braking down. Dahna said, “WOW!” in one of the great understatements of all time. If you came to Oregon just for this one little drive and then went right home, you’d miss a heck of a lot. But, you might just think it was worth it after all, and nobody else would care in any case.
We got to the park before 2:00 and the young lady ranger at the gate was all sweetness and light. We pulled into our spot, set up like pros, and I was about to take a bow when I stepped in a hole and twisted my ankle. That’s when I really got everybody’s attention, but they weren’t clapping.
Later, while I was lying up in bed with an ice pack, Dahna flagged down another ranger who shoveled a little dirt into the holes. Dahna asked her if they had grey digger squirrels here and she said, “Yeah. Aren’t they evil?” Maybe they really should be called “grave diggers,” the little bastards.
This park is full of people and they all have dogs. We don’t have a dog, we have Daisy. She’s part coyote we tell them. They believe it too because she really is and they sense the difference when they reach out to pet her. Maybe it’s the low growl. The thing is, they all have dogs because they’re dog people.
Dahna had a question, “You know who’s not here?” And she had an answer, “Motel people.” That got me thinking. All around are RVs and dogs. [Love and marriage, horse and carriage] Before we bought this thing, we couldn’t go anywhere because dogs. Get rid of the dog then, right? It is to laugh.
So, who’s behind the RV craze? I’m saying it’s the dogs and I think I know why. You know who really likes to travel? Daisy. No, I’m serious. They’re way smarter than you think.
Valley of the Rogue State Park lies about 10 miles south of Grants Pass beside the Rogue River. The headwaters of the Rogue originate high in the Cascades near Crater Lake which is another thing you could dedicate a visit to. The river runs a little over 200 fast miles to Gold Beach on the coast, just above California.
These rivers change personality depending on various local conditions; variables that include things like watershed section, fall, forking, ox bowing and a bunch of things Allan knows about. In Roseburg the Umpqua was like a beautiful babbling brook but much bigger, scattering light everywhere, siren singing to the fly fishermen. Toward the coast it becomes stately, larger, deeper and slower like that old “rollin’ river” of song.
We don’t know the Rogue as well and regret having so little time to better acquaint ourselves. Here at the park, and in Grants Pass, the Rogue is like a locomotive. It’s big, fast and powerful—dangerous too. Crossing the bridge beside the pretty public park in Grants Pass, Dahna looked downriver and saw a capsized McKenzie river boat, beat up and aground on a gravel bar. I’m sure the river is a pussycat somewhere but not here.
We like it just fine.
Yesterday, when we drove into Grants Pass for the first time, Dahna looked around and sniffed the air for maybe 5 minutes. I’m thinking, ‘What the hell?’ Then she said, “Drop me off here. Call me when you sell the house.”
I protested, “What? I can’t live on peanut butter!”
She thought back, “Sure you can. I remember your apartment. Pull over and let me out.”
Once again, brilliant foresight saved the day. I have a new truck with master kiddie locks on the doors (Thank you Ralph Nader) and tonight it’s fine dining on crab chowder with garlic toast. I like to say “chowdah” like Jack Kennedy did.
We just might not pass on Grants Pass. Dahna loves everything about it and I love typing Grants Pass without having to hunt for the apostrophe key. It’s a win-win. The town rests comfortably lengthwise in a small valley, its streets undulating just enough but not too much. I figure it’ll be easy to find a place flat enough to check the oil without having to use trig. Mine’s getting rusty which, come to think of it, is another good excuse to buy, not build, another house.
One of the things about Oregon, including Grants Pass, that totally confuses me is this: Why in the world are houses so expensive when your chances of getting run over by a logging truck are so high? Aren’t they made out of wood here? This place is so lousy with wood, you’d think they’d give you the damn house just to get rid of the stuff.
Really though, you look at the little brochures and they want you to make your dream come true in an 850 sq.’ “cottage” on a “big” 0.27 acre lot for “only” 199K. In Texas you can buy a small town for that and you eventually get used to the smell. And, if the fertilizer plant blows up, why hell, that’s what insurance is for. Okay, I’m exaggerating—a little. But 850 sq’? Isn’t that the den?
Dahna says we can do this though. Get ‘em down to 165K, take bids on a little 20’ x 30’ shop, fill it with cheap Grizzly woodworking saws and sanders and other Chinese crap from their big store in lovely Bellingham up the coast. Then convert to Full Gospel Latter Day Oregonism for under 200K in a neat tuck ’n roll. Ta da! Piece of cake. I get it. I really do.
Grants Pass, like I said, runs basically parallel through its valley with pretty mountains all around but at a bit of a distance where they can’t hurt you. When you get to the cool downtown, a big sign arcs like a rainbow over the main drag beckoning: “It’s The Climate.”
What they’re bragging about is the fact that Grants Pass only averages about 30” of rainfall annually, about like Comanche. This compares quite favorably to most of the rest of the Pacific northwest which is basically a drumming rainforest. Seasonal Affective Disorder is less of a downer in Grants Pass and the revolvers mostly stay in the closets.
The population of the town is about 36,000 and has been growing steadily. Like I said, total annual rainfall here is almost identical to Comanche. The difference is in the distribution and delivery. Here the summers are dry with almost all of the rainfall occurring in the winter months in a gentle cold rain, perfect for naps. Coincidentally, I’m a nationally-ranked napper.
In Comanche, the rain (and hail) comes almost any month, too often hammering your psyche with terrifying tornadoes spawned by butterfly farts somewhere in Oklahoma. Dahna says if it gets too dank and gloomy in the winter, we can always hitch up and drop down to sunny California for a spell. Maybe my old fave, LA. Hey, remember the Bat Cave? That old bottomless joint off Sunset way back in the early 70s? Me neither.
Yesterday, we still felt guilty for ditching Daisy the day before in a mad dash downtown for breakfast at the venerable Powderhorn Cafe. I don’t know if you’ve ever been mesmerized by the artistry of a crazed fry cook slinging hash in full fury, but it’s a sight to behold. When we walked in, the place was packed and the clatter was absolutely symphonic.
Have you ever been flattened by a 130 lb. waitress? No? Go to the Powderhorn at 11:00 AM and stand in her way. Dahna and I are cafe people, (not Waffle House—we do have standards), and we’d rather go a place like the Powderhorn than the Four Seasons any day. Man, it was good. Pancakes to die for and we came close. Actually, we’ll be back on Atkins when we get home, remembering every bite per pound.
There are two exit ramps for Grants Pass off I-5 and they’re connected by two parallel one-way thoroughfares that serve as the spine of the town. They run through the nifty downtown full of little shops, of which not too many are frou-frou. Most of them actually serve a utilitarian purpose other than propping up the vanity of some rich jerk from Chicago.
The neighborhoods radiate out on both sides of the thoroughfares in the same eclectic architecture found elsewhere in Oregon. The lots are a little bigger than Roseburg, prices about the same, and it rains a hair less. Rainfall drops off, generally, as you head south. Further south gets you to Medford.
Medford lies only about 30 miles below Grants Pass. It’s much larger and is largely uninhabitable according to some interpretations of the climate data. It’s blistering hot in summer and develops weird temperature inversions and evil fogs that’ll pock your face. True, sort of. Grants Pass is much nicer, according to reports. I do have a special fondness for Medford though, and I’ve had it for years. It’s a stupid thing, but it always makes Dahna laugh.
You might have seen the great film noir, “Double Indemnity,” with Barbara Stanwyck, Fred McMurray, and Edward G. Robinson in what might be his best role. Based on the novel by James M. Cain, it’s a tight, sweaty tale of lust and murder out in the ‘burbs of LA. At one point the killer meets a man from Medford on the train who’s come down to California on business. During an exchange of introductory pleasantries, the exuberant Oregonian proudly says, “I’m a Medford man, myself!”
So, when some fool says, “I’m so blessed,” I’m liable to chirp up brightly, “I’m a Medford man myself!” When Dahna invariably laughs, the chosen one usually gets the message and looks down at his shoes. Very handy when you’re in the mood for an awkward moment. Sometimes, I say it just to say it and Dahna still laughs. It’s an old warhorse.
There’s another town, one that’s really something to see, located south of Medford. We hadn’t planned to go that far down until we got a tip from a beautiful brunette who lived there once and still dreams about it. It’s little Ashland, tucked up into the hillsides and looking more than a little bit magical. Actually, it is magical.
Ashland is pretty famous for its high quality theatrical productions and boasts a distinguished alumni of thespians who honed their acting chops there. We felt a little gauche driving through and parting a waiting sea of patrons with our dirty pickup, but I’m sure the Texas plates mollified them.
A quick browse of the real estate brochures explained in no uncertain terms why the likes of us can never live there, but if we move to Grants Pass we can take in a play now and then. If you visit us, we can treat you, perchance, to a bit of the Bard at one of three theaters modeled after his Globe.
Well, that’s it, almost—the end of the line on the Oregon Trail Revisited. We’re at Silver Falls State Park near Salem on the trip home. It’s going to be Grants Pass. Done. Mission accomplished. I hate to keep bringing up Mitt, really I do, but the tree thing was a factor. In Grants Pass they’re the right size; smaller, much more deciduous and less coniferish. Dahna complained that she couldn’t see the birds they were up so high in the tall firs and pines. That made her grumpy—not good for me.
Hammering home the point, the trees here at Silver Falls are the most majestic yet, real sky scrapers dripping with a mossy lichen. The park reminds me of the mountain jungles of Vietnam, beautiful but dark and wet and spooky too. Once saw a centipede a full foot long in there, fat as a cigar. I got back on my feet.
Dahna is reading Astoria, a good book about John Jacob Astor’s failed attempt to develop a trading empire centered around the mouth of the Columbia River in the early 1800s. One of the chilling passages recounts men being driven mad by the incessant rain, cold mud and gloom. She pointed to the dense, dripping forest all around and said, “This.”
The moral of the story is that leaving Texas is not a matter of trading a hellhole for Paradise. In its own way, Oregon is harsh too and so is every other place if you think about it. Well, maybe not San Diego unless you’re a Marine boot in which case Hell hardly describes it… But, like Pop used to say, “You pays your money, you takes your cherce.”
I’ll always be a Texan and if Dubya is too, well then, so are the Dixie Chicks. I love Texas and I’m proud of it, but if somebody ever tells me how blessed they are, I’ll just be from Medford passing through.
We had to wait a good while to take a tiny ferry to get to Joe and Susans’ country place. Enroute Dahna called ahead and Joe said, “Yeah, I took that ferry…once.” Onstar didn’t say a damn thing about a tiny ferry on that particular route to their house.
We spent several hours with Joe and Susan. It was terrific, and you should see their place, a lovely Craftsman style farm house surrounded by their apple and cherry orchards, blueberry beds and raspberries plus several cavernous shop buildings. They also raise turkeys, chickens and cows. And asparagus and I could go on. We continued our conversation about everything and, sure enough, it rolled around to Buddy Holly. He asked me if I knew the date when he died. It went:
Pat: I’m not sure about the exact date. I’ll say January 9th, 1959.
Joe: Nope, February 3rd, 1958.
Pat: Bet you a nickel, ’59.
Joe: You’re on!
Susan got on the net and proved us both wrong, but at least I got the year right and that’s what the money was riding on. The news hit Joe pretty hard. He said, “That can’t be right. It was the Junior dance…I remember…” His voice trailed off a little, “Shoot, I’ve been saying ‘1958’ for years.”
I said, “Well Joe, look on the bright side. You must have some pretty good friends to let you get away with a thing like that.”
Susan has a 96 year old aunt who lives in San Antonio and they intend to visit her soon, for obvious reasons. We invited them to come see us, maybe stay a day or so. When we got in the truck to leave I told Joe, “I’ll take that nickel when you get to Texas.” He’d forgotten all about it and, not being one to welch on a bet, he sort of jumped and started digging in his pockets. Susan said, “Stop that Joe. We’ll bring that nickel to Texas.”
Won the bet and got a big sack of the best apples, right off the tree. They got us almost all the way to Mesa Verde coming back home to Texas and our cats, cool breeze Doghouse Riley and crosseyed little Miho, lying in wait. Evil as ever but kind of sweet in her own way.
Awhile back I got on Google Satellite and hovered over our old farm. It no longer looked as if anyone still lived out there. The old dirt driveway we made up to the house was plowed under and planted back to wheat. Frank was a two-time cancer survivor and, at 77 when we met him, who knows? When we got back home from Oregon we corresponded a little and traded Christmas cards later that year. Then he called me on the phone.
He said he’d thought it over long and hard. Then he made such a sweet offer that I didn’t know what to say. Maybe we could move back out there after he died, he said, and he’d leave us all his belongings. Even put it in writing as his will. He said it would be like completing the circle with us coming back home where it all started.
I thanked him from deep in my heart. I told him we might do it too if we weren’t so old that we needed to be closer to doctors. Actually, through all the years we’ve often thought of buying that place back. But it’s not really practical, much less necessary. In a way, we never really left.
From the farm we headed northwest for the Willamette and the little town of Roseburg in Oregon. It was south of the big valley, and we thought we might settle there after looking at some of the climate and other data about the place. We thought basing out of Oregon might work generally for conveniently traveling the continental west. I secretly thought we might buy another used sailboat, possibly a small trailerable trimaran. I never said anything about it because the rule at the time was no more boats. We loved our old ketch, Alchemy, sailing Galveston Bay and the Gulf but she was a demanding mistress. We still sweetly dream about her and seldom wake up in a cold sweat anymore.
We left the Delores River on the 7th taking highway 491 to Monticello, UT. When we lived out there, before Reagan smiled, cocked his head and blessed the Ancien Régime, it was called Hwy. 666. They changed it for some reason after he came in. Why? It’s so easy to remember 666. Whatever, when we drove past our old dusty/muddy old friend, West Summit Road (now paved!), we looked out and up the mesa’s rise toward our old place about 17 miles north by crow flight, past Paiute Knoll.
Clio was in her fifties back then when she was Dahna’s best friend and merely tolerated me. When she was a little girl in the 1920’s, she remembered seeing smoke signals from the knoll. The two of them used to go “moki pokin” looking for arrowheads and spear points. They both had the eyes for it and there was a lot of, “Wow, look at this one!” I found, like, one…tops. I quit going when the futility, not to mention their snide snickering, got to me. It was a small club, clique really.
Frank asked me if we were coming back that way on the trip home. I said, “No,” but that was a lie. We’ll pass by coming home to Texas, but we won’t stop then. I do intend to write him and hope to learn more about his life and his plans. You don’t meet a guy like that very often. The classic desert hermit, no crazier than the average and fun to talk to.
We had some good laughs, and Dahna was discreet when she occasionally cut her eyes at me.
In Monticello, we turned north and picked up Hwy 191 north and sort of bumped our way up the ancient two lane through CanyonLands and Arches National Parks. If you’ve never seen this country then you should be spanked because it’s among the most beautiful anywhere on earth, or the moon which it resembles in some respects. It was a long, slow ride in a dream state and I still wonder if we ever got there, but I guess we did. We were headed for a place I didn’t know but won’t forget.
Let me say that even though we had never heard of Spanish Fork, UT, it’s a very pretty place. The “RV park” was a different story. Notice the scare quotes. It’s been a long time since I felt like some inanimate thing or place was trying to do me in, but this place… I’ll bet I spent 20 minutes trying to back our poor little camper into a cramped spot between two big motorhomes. I just kept missing it, rolling the truck over this stupid curb again and again and attracting plenty of unwanted attention.
I won’t bore you anymore about my language except to say that Dahna kind of enjoyed the operatic quality of the cussing this time, complete with little trills on the endnotes, and it took some of the edge off of the horror and embarrassment for her.
Along the way so far, we’ve noticed in RV Land the same class strata that’s sadly come into focus over the last few decades. If you lost your butt in the last crash, or the one before that, and you need to put the touch on some super rich high flyer who made hay on one of them, this might be the place. You wouldn’t believe some of the buggies they drive.
But, they’re not the only denizens out here in the wild blue diesel exhaust. A lot of people are living in RVs, the not so nice ones, and many are dirt poor. Lots of blue tarps strung around to replace the busted awnings, too expensive to replace. That and to cover the leaky roofs.
We hear them getting out early for work, often living alone and on the move following the jobs, such as they are. We met a 40ish guy in the park, overweight and diabetic, losing ground as a freelance (not by choice) pipeline trencher. He was about to leave after several months of spotty employment and was dreading having to go back home, hat in hand, to his unhappy wife in Denver.
I remember, too, a kid coming to my elementary school barefoot, and what I simply thought then was “weird” about him I now recognize as just being sad. We went nearly everywhere barefoot in the 50s, but not to school. We were tough. At least our feet were.
We’d leave sunken, identifying footprints in the melted asphalt of the hot Houston parking lots on Telephone Road. Still, I bet that kid was tougher than we ever were. We saw kids living in this park like that boy I remember. That downcast, somewhat vacant look familiar from the old sepia photos of the Depression. We felt a little guilty by being relieved to leave that place.
The 300 mile trip to Idaho’s lovely Three Island Crossing State Park was all Interstate, and the only notable thing about it was the incredible pollution that had settled over Salt Lake City. It made us want to hold our breath in passing, but the heavy stop-and-go traffic nixed that idea. But, sweet Jesus, what a park waited down the road! Somehow we got the absolute best spot there and it was one of only three pull throughs—no backing.
I almost think the universe felt bad about destroying my trailer-backing-up confidence in Spanish Fork and gave me this gift as recompense, but I know better. I’ve learned through hard use that the universe is scrupulously neutral, and the chuckling you sometimes hear in your head is just yourself trying to maintain some sense of dignity, a little self-deprecating balance in a banana peel world. It’s not the gods, per se, amusing themselves in our little noodles, it’s just us chickens. I’m sure of that…I think.
Linda, our old friend from the 60s drove down from Helena through no little discomfort (long story) to meet us and plot our revenge on the Democratic Party after its shameful primary. We had hoped Rocky and Elaine could join us too, so we would have, “the wind of the old days blow through our (thinning) hair,” as Baez put it so well. It was not to be, but we soldiered on.
Those of you who know Linda know she’s spent her entire adult life fighting the bastards first as a Vista Volunteer in the 60s then as a high-functioning Democratic operative in the bowels of Montana politics.
One morning before Linda came for coffee, we fell into conversation with our neighbors who announced their politics with the immigration “issue.” This was mentioned along with their general anger about the rottenness of our choices this election go around. I agreed wholeheartedly with them while slipping in the fact that we were New Deal liberals—and I used that word! Throw in a scoop of JFK, the rare man who could learn, and that’s us. Yep, dinosaurs.
One month after Dahna and I moved in together, we lined up at an elementary school in Houston’s famous Montrose area. Probably the most liberal neighborhood in Texas. We stood there in a cold drizzle to vote for George McGovern. It was about 8:00 AM and we were surrounded by young Nixon voters, dressed in suits. They were chatting and laughing about the blowout they knew was coming. They were nice enough and didn’t call me a girl even once.
Hell, we were dinosaurs even then. Very young, naive dinosaurs. It’s one thing to be an old dinosaur, but when you’re a young dinosaur it’s an interminably long slog through eons of defeat. Hey! Maybe in four years! Well, it was a shock. We couldn’t believe the country would actually vote again for that guy, but they did in record numbers. He was tricky, that Dick.
Oddly enough, our campmates didn’t bat an eye, much less pull a gun, and we had a fine conversation with lots of points of agreement. Finally, the husband, an Air Force lifer said, “This is our fault. We let this happen and it’s our fault for not paying attention.” Truer words…
Occasionally, while Linda and I were head to head reminiscing or fretting about the future, Dahna would slip out with Daisy, walk down by the river and take some beautiful pictures of the landscape and its birds. The Snake posed no threat to us this time, but once, back in ’76, we were backpacking and hitchhiking to Montana (to see Linda) when the earthen Teton Dam broke near Jenny Lake close to Yellowstone. We camped there the night before because Yellowstone was “full” of more respectable campers. At least that was the message we got: No Hitchhikers!
The Snake swept its valley the next morning killing a number of people. We would almost certainly have been killed ourselves had we been successful in catching a ride down by the river that morning. But, nobody going that way would pick us up. Finally, a big Buick taking the high road pulled over. We got in because it was all we could get. The elderly couple said we were the first hitchhikers they ever picked up. It was the best ride we ever got, boring as hell.
Best ride anybody ever got.
Forward to this century, Dahna saw huge trout breaching the water and they were THIS BIG! I see you don’t believe me. I don’t believe her either.
Idaho is a beautiful state with lots of neat people and you should go there. Even their famous crazies are nice if you don’t tell them too much. The park was a delight, and so was Linda and we had the best time. But it’s 6:00 AM, the wheel bearings are greased, the lug nuts torqued, and the Snake is starting to bounce a little light. Time to go to Memaloose State Park on the beautiful Columbia River in Oregon. Memaloose roughly means “place of the dead” and refers to a Native American cemetery.
Our little camper is a 19’ silver, aluminum clad, “canned ham” style retro that only weighs 2 tons with all our stuff in it. We bought a new truck to pull it because our old one was old and a little wheezy in the mountains. Daisy owns most of the truck, taking the entire back seat and center console while we’re scrunched up in our little seats up front.
She generally rides full flop on the pillowed center console and drools into our cup holders which is just the best. We weren’t sure how it would go hauling our blind, 50lb. girl around all over, but it’s been good. She seems to like all the new company and has gone from her normal 2 poops per day to 1 every 2 days. This can save a lot of poop bags over the long run, and you have to have them these days or else.
We left Idaho early because Memaloose was a long way at 435 miles for us even by interstate. Originally, we scheduled a two day stop there but cancelled one day in order to spend an extra day with Linda. It was certainly worth it, but it meant having to saddle up again the next day with little rest before heading out later to Salem.
I was pretty tired as we approached Memaloose, but I was confident in the On Star turn-by-turn directions that come as a complimentary, if short, subscription when you buy a GM vehicle. It had always performed flawlessly before and I was a fan. Not this time.
We ended up on the top of a mountain on a tiny little road that would scare the crap out of a bighorn ram. Dahna punched the On Star button with her fist, and the poor lady that answered quickly washed her hands of the whole damn disaster and connected us to the park rangers far, far below. They said, “Whatever you do, don’t use On Star or your GPS!” “Thanks for the tip,” replied Dahna in the Exorcist voice I hope you never hear.
Not long ago, Rocky and I were musing, in a series of dark emails, about the possible plans our robot overlords have for us. I’m not saying the Algorithminians were trying to kill us up there, but Jesus Christ!
My desperately new-found backing skills saved us from the vultures already circling, and we finally made it back down to the park sited beside the magnificent Columbia River. The Columbia isn’t the biggest river in the country, but it’s in a class by itself. Something everyone should see at least 50 times. A thing like that might make you wonder why you stayed in Texas so long. Not me, but Dahna’s antsy.
We only stayed one night at Memaloose. We didn’t have all the time in the world to get to the Willamette and towns south of it and that was the problem. We were pretty serious about moving somewhere in Oregon and wanted to spend as much time near prospective locations as possible. Once we got set up, Dahna cooked a fine meal and the Old Crow came through. It was nice and relaxing that night.
The next day we met the most attractive young couple you ever saw “camping” next to us in the most humungous 5th wheel trailer. I guess the monster was limited in size only by the laws of physics. It was a “toy hauler” which stored their Harleys way out in back and spun more tires than a semi. About 40, Glen just got his 20 year pin at Coors working as a carton packager, the stuff of which surely tastes better than the “moose piss” they package, as Rocky puts it.
Unlike our unfortunate pipeline friend back in Spanish Fork, Glenn knew young to get a good job and keep it long term by being the best at what he did. I have no idea what it takes to do that, but Dahna doesn’t seem to mind.
If you’ve ever worked in an American factory you know it ain’t easy. But, unlike a lot of us, Glenn never had to take his job home with him. Instead he and Tammy, a property appraiser, put the energy into their marriage and it shows in the glow, so to speak. I once worked hard on the floor of a sandpaper factory. But, when the day was over that was it. I was free of the place. I remember partying with the other hands and having a great time. No worries until I landed an office job there. A lot more pay but a lot less fun too. Less invites and the damn homework…
That’s when I understood why Sid kept turning down the supervisor job at Armco, and Glenn was smart about that too. He struck me as being smart enough to run that plant if he wanted to. These are hard times to be sure, and Glenn and Tammy’s success in living the dream is getting much harder for a lot of people, even those with their good sense and discipline.
[Note]: Running belly to the ground, the squirrels out here have the habit of digging really big holes. They’re called grey diggers (“grave” diggers if you’re from Texas and a little hard of hearing). In the parks, which number in the zillions, Boy Scouts come along behind the little devils, filling in the holes to keep you from twisting your ankle. I’m sure the kids were happy to get outdoors and away from their scoutmasters for awhile, even it was shoveling dirt.
You may have heard that Oregon is a liberal state. It is and infrastructure is big here—more Keynes, less Friedman. We might just stay here. Seriously. Actually, we came to Oregon to look it over as a place to resettle, something we’ve done a lot of times.
When Tammy got on her big Harley, she turned around and said, “I’m going to scare Daisy now, sorry.” We both jumped when she fired that thing up, and I must admit I was more than a little jealous watching them rumble down the park road on their way out. We were gone when they got back, headed to the Hee Hee Illahee RV park in Salem. It didn’t look very inviting from the satellite view, and we weren’t looking forward to it, but it was all we could get. Boy were we wrong!
Hee Hee Illahee means “a fun place to be” in Native American phraseology according to the park pamphlet we got with our receipt. It sounds like a chuckle out of Blazing Saddles, but this park is really serious about “Puttin’ on the Ritz.” It’s 100% Native American owned and we, and our immediate neighbors, were struck by the opulence of the place. I wondered why they were being so nice to us, treating us like kings. Had they forgotten? Or was it a trap?
The spaces were close together, which sounds bad and is sometimes, but not here for some reason, and each one was a pull through and pancake flat ’n level. A no hassle RV set up, deluxe city supremo. It had a pool, sauna, laundry with lots of machines and something I’ve never seen—about nine keypad-coded single occupancy bathrooms, each with a shower and each big enough to furnish as an apartment. Salem’s Hee Hee Illahee, RV Mecca of the northwest. Who knew? A little pricy but not bad, considering.
Salem sits in the north end of the Willamette Valley, our target destination, and is a pretty little city that felt good to us and we liked it. Living in a city has its advantages; certainly Austin did when we lived there awhile in the 90’s. The problem with our settling in Salem or anywhere in the Willamette, though, was its vast grass seed farming. Dahna has bad allergies, and buying in a place like that is just asking for it. And, I ain’t asking for it.
Even so Salem is the capital and it felt good to our younger selves. Lots of smart people walking around, mostly young and fit like we were back when. They had places to go and seemed pretty ernest about getting there. I hope they manage it, but it won’t be easy. We didn’t leave them much, and we can’t even seem to get out of their way. But, it’s nice to watch them walk by. City life.
Nine years ago when we bought the Comanche place, I went up to Abilene to visit Betty. I was telling her about the orchard and the hay fields and the house we were going to build and on and on when she took my hand and said, straight up, “You’ve got to stop doing this.” I said, “yeah, well, you know…” and she said, “No, you listen to me Patrick. You’ve got to stop doing this.”
Nine years later, Betty’s good advice has a friend in my 68 year old body and Dahna’s lawyer. This time we buy, not build. But not in the Willamette. Maybe further south and out of the valley. Rocky suggested Roseburg, and the data looks pretty good.
After a couple of days snooping around Salem, we hooked up and regretfully left the Hee Hee for Eugene. All of you are travelers in one way or another and know how it is to come up on a city or town via the Interstate. You crest a hill and there it is, laid out before you. Or, if it’s just flat like Houston, you find yourself quickly surrounded by businesses and houses, billboards all over the place, zooming by, and you know you’re in a big thing with a name. Can’t miss it.
Not so Eugene. You can sail right through and not know it because Eugene is actually a forest with a lot of people living in it, but you can’t see them because they’re inside the forest which is what Eugene is. It’s a pretty big city, but it’s eerily hard to see even when you’re in the big fat middle of it. It’s like, “Where is this freakin’ place??”
“This’ll take some getting used to,” said Dahna the first day, “I’m just not sure about this.” Most of the time I just wanted to know where the hell we were, and I’m pretty sure I heard the lady in the GPS sob, or maybe it was just me. Was that Hansel and Gretel over there? Man, I could have used some bread crumbs. We were all glad to finally get back to the camper and the Old Crow flowed that night. Eugene hadn’t grabbed me yet, but as I stretched in bed the next morning, a little twinge made me remember when the mother of all charley horses sure did back in Idaho.
For those of you who never had a charley horse, you probably think it’s just a bad cramp. That’s not true. It’s actually a life-altering, possibly fatal, crush of pain that has few equals. Given a choice between a charley horse in my thigh or lit bamboo jammed under my fingernails, I’d have to think it over.
Tom, my brother in arms, taught me years ago that these monsters were caused by overnight dehydration as a side-effect often caused, as in this case, by over-medicating with cheap whiskey after a bad day or even a good one. Doesn’t matter. He said to drink a lot of water, fast, and I did thanks to Dahna’s quick pouring, and that’s why I’m still alive. Anyway, at my age, even yours, it’s wise to prophylactically drink a large glass of water before climbing into bed if you’ve abused the grape or corn mash, or whatever.
Sure, you’ll have to get up in the middle of the night, old timer, but you’ll be glad just to be peeing rather than screaming and waking the neighbors.
I’m sure you remember when Mitt Romney was campaigning in Michigan, his home state, and he gaffed out loud by saying the trees were the “right height.” Actually, the goober was on to something. The trees here are tall, really tall, and it’s disconcerting when you’re used to mesquites, post oaks and pecans. For one thing it means you’re in the shade a lot which is definitely not like being in Texas, and your eyes have to adjust to the new, leaf-mottled reality.
The question is, can we adapt? Too-tall trees aside, let’s look at the positives:
1. This is a liberal state which significantly reduces our exposure to gunfire, and remember, the Bundys are in jail.
2. There are a lot of athletic young people kayaking and bicycling around, but there’s also plenty of fat old people, so no problem there.
3. The produce alone is reason enough to move here. The fruit is luscious and grows on the trees that are everywhere here. There are so many apple trees, it’s hard to imagine what Newton might have discovered had he lived here.
4. The Willamette Valley is becoming the new Napa Valley thanks to climate change and all the Californians scurrying up here. Lots of vino accordingly, but remember to drink plenty of water afterwards.
5. The climate is moderated by the ocean, but not too much thanks to the intervening Coast Range. It rains a lot in the fall and winter months which can be depressing, but if you have an RV you can always bail and go to LA for awhile. I like LA. There are no hurricanes or tornadoes here and I’m tired of dodging them both…big bonus.
6. The Cascades. It’s true they have a bit of a bad temper, but they probably won’t kill you. If you catch the scent of sulphur in the air you might want to take a look around. But, there’s no escaping the fact of their beauty.
7. Water! It’s water, water everywhere and you can drink a lot of it too. Oceans and rivers and lakes, oh my! Just like in Texas, except you can look right through the water and see the bottoms. No kidding. It’s transparent.
8. You can begin life anew here, even discover your inner nutburger. At the incredible fruit stand in Santa Clara, I watched the creakiest, most ancient couple, still breathing, but barely, painfully climb out of a brand new red Corvette convertible that was so hot it made Daisy pant. The first thing they did was light a cigarette. True story. You know they didn’t grow up around here. No way. Gotta admire that in a place.
9. They have Death With Dignity laws here on the books (see #8).
I think that’s a pretty good list, but I’m sure there’s more. A couple of hours ago we were on the path that runs down by the McKenzie River watching a group launch their canoes into the swift current. A skinny jogger pulled up to watch and chat and he began to extoll the wonders of Eugene like those mentioned above. Then he archly told us not to tell anybody in order to keep the riff-raff out, I assumed.
He mentioned he was a high school science teacher, and after I said, “No kidding? Me too,” it went like this:
He stuck out his hand and said, “I’m Pat.”
I shook it, idiot that I am, and exclaimed, “Me too! I’m Pat and this is Dahna.”
The wraith looked at her and then back at me, “My parents were Pat and Donna (sic). Actually, Pat was my Dad’s nickname. His real name was Bernie.”
The little voice in my head got a lot louder, ‘For God’s sakes moron, back away from the entity.’
Then he trotted off like a character out of Carlos Castaneda’s peyote-powered imagination. Rocky said we were on a spiritual journey, and I’m starting to believe it. Hell, I do believe it! I just hope I don’t have to pay a brujo’s price for blabbing about Oregon all over the place after being told not to. Maybe you don’t believe me, but I have a witness. She’s around here somewhere…
Two days ago, I told Dahna I needed a rest from driving, but I was good for one specific jaunt to the Cascades Raptor Center. This worthy is located high up in its own aerie south of Eugene a little bit and out of the valley. Its main function is its veterinary care for large birds of prey, but it also has an education mission. For gawkers like me (Dahna is a serious birder) the attraction was the large outdoor enclosures that house a number of raptor “residents” who, through injury or illness, found their way to the center.
These beautiful birds, unable to survive in the wild, are lovingly cared for here and are now safe, if regrettably captive. Their number include a variety of hawks, falcons, eagles, owls and kites. I’m sure you’ve marveled at their beauty from a distance, but up close they are truly majestic.
Dahna said that if we moved here she was going to volunteer her services at the center. I told her that if she did, she’d have her own reserved parking place in the incredibly sloped and tiny parking lot. I knew that because that’s where I parked when she got out.
In close to a week we’ve looked at most of the little communities that abut Eugene. We kept our eye on the grass seed thing but figured it might be a bit better at the valley’s south end. Maybe a little less rain too.
The housing is quite unpretentious, but relatively expensive even so compared to Texas. In addition to its plain aspect, the housing’s square footage is more parsimonious per dollar than its yahoo cousins. There are 800 square foot cottages all over, and they ain’t all that cheap. It kind of reminds you of the small portion conceit of the tony restaurants that were so fashionable back whenever the hell it was.
Tomorrow, we’re driving Miss Daisy out to Lowell and beyond to see the big recreational lakes up in the foothills of the Cascades’ western slopes. It’s simply amazing all the things you can do here within a short drive in any direction. There’s hiking, biking, kayaking, rafting, sailing, skiing, skating, and toking. Grass is legal here, but if it’s not your thing anymore, there’s always the winery crawl.
Come as you are, just bring money and a designated driver because the roads are killer twisty, shoulderless and will drop you into an 8’ deep ditch if you drift even a little. The roads out here will show you no mercy, no kidding. They’re like the sea that way.
Jim Morrison said people are strange, and so we are, but so are RV parks. We’re starting to accumulate quite a number of them in Dahna’s logbook and each has its own thing going for it, or not. Sometimes it’s hard to put your finger on the whys and wherefores and Armitage Park in Eugene is a case in point. Like many of its public brethren, it’s lovely. But, it has a peculiar taciturn quality that inhibits the “Hello there” mingling. It reminded us of suburbia, quiet and private, the people close together but not really together all that much.
We didn’t meet very many folks in this park although there was the retired engineer, now a bright-eyed emissary for Billy Graham. We stopped to chat when we spotted the beautiful cedar strip canoe he built. It turns out that building that canoe, and Billy, saved him many years ago from a life of alcoholism. It’s a good story, and good on Billy, but he couldn’t talk very long because he had to meet his daughter at the university.
He was outside watching TV on a big screen built into the side of his motorhome as were half a dozen others. We’d never seen anything like this before and wondered if this accounted for the strange Stepfordness of the park. But, one sweet thing, at least for me, happened there on the first day when we arrived in Eugene, so I saved it for last.
After setting up, eating lunch and napping for awhile, per usual, I went out with Daisy to the picnic table. It was getting late in the afternoon when a kid, 11 or 12, walked out onto the meadow that served as a common. He had a bat and ball and began tossing the ball up in the air and trying to hit it when it came down. He was having a little luck but not much, and it was such a lonesome picture that his mother came out to help.
She took the bat and he lobbed the ball while she swung. I hope you all know by now that I love women and consider myself as good a feminist as the next jughead, but oh brother! I had to cover my eyes it was so, well, horrible! Finally, to spare her son any more damage, the good lady retired, and he went back to his more or less futile pursuit.
After another 10 minutes or so of yielding to the park’s hushed persona, I could “stands no more.” “Hey!” I shouted, “you want me to pitch to you?” He looked at me and nodded, so I told him to first ask his mom, times being what they are. When he came back, I found myself walking, once again, like in my old glory days, out to the “mound”.
I loved playing in Little League. I was a pretty good ballplayer, if I say so myself, and had a good little career even capping it off as an All Star, special white cap to boot. I was big for my age, strong and rangy, and played first base and pitched. I could hit too.
I had no acquaintance with the curve, but I didn’t care because I threw a hard fastball and didn’t need it against those kids. Most of them would have much preferred cleaning their rooms or doing their homework or anything, rather than face me. I got tired pretty quick though and then threw a little wild, but still hard. This appealed to my manager’s dark side, so he’d leave me in. It was all good. Really good.
So, the kid trotted up and tossed me the ball which I hideously dropped in a flailing spasm that brings to mind Jerry Lewis. But, after we both limbered up a little it got a lot better, and he started getting a little wood on it. When he finally connected for a solid single, I asked him if he was a ballplayer.
“No sir,” he said, “I’m English and don’t know the game.”
“You’re pretty good,” I lied, “Where’re you from in England?”
I wracked my brain, “futbol, right?”
“Yes sir,” says he in the accent that makes me sound like an idiot.
Yogi and Pee Wee were off that day so the kid had to shag his own balls whether he hit ‘em or missed. He was a little chubby from visiting this country too long and was huffing pretty hard when I asked him if he wanted to quit. “One more,” he said, and we took our places when he caught his breath.
I toed the rubber and shook my head at the sign until I got the right one: index finger straight down, then a flick to the inside—a heater to brush The Kid off. He’d smoothed the dirt with his cleats then dug in, his bat not too high off his right shoulder, classic. Unconcerned, I pulled up and checked the runner at First. Then I reached way back and let ‘er rip. When he came around on that ball I had to flinch at the crack of his bat. The ball streaked over my head, hung in the air for a moment, then dropped behind the fence in deep Center. It put a ding in my ERA and brought joy back to poor Mudville at last.
When he came back after this last long and happy shag, he held out his sweaty little hand and said, “Thank you.” I said, “You’re welcome,” and we parted company. I felt pretty good walking back to the picnic table where my girl sat beaming and handed me a drink. They left soon after that, and I hope The Kid never forgets the pure pleasure of solidly putting bat to ball. Maybe he’ll even remember the old coot that pitched to him that day, but I hope, better yet, that someday he’ll play the great game.
Four days later it was close to noon by the time we got Silver saddled up and Daisy loaded with all her accoutrements. We moseyed on down the dusty four lane trail to Whistler’s Bend County Park and got there around 2:00. This terrific park lies along the Umpqua River, near Roseburg, and is so new (less than a year old) they haven’t quite mastered the signage yet. Maybe they never will because the signage gene seems to be recessive in Oregonians as a rule.
So, we wandered around lost for awhile, wending our way through the tall firs and cedars and pines and cedars and firs until I actually mad-honked at a young hiker and made him tell me where the hell I was. He did, you bet. Since the mass shooting in Roseburg not long ago, everybody’s real polite, see.
We had a pull through and it should have been easy, but it wasn’t. Never mind. We walked a short distance to the precipice that overlooks the river where I yawned and it was, for me, ‘Ho hum, another beautiful river.’ I went back to the camper with Daisy and napped with the AC on full blast. It was Texas hot. Didn’t expect that.
Dahna walked the long road down to the river to be with her birds when a big osprey flew right at her. I’ll have to back up a little here.
Dahna seems to have developed a talent for talking to birds. At home she talks to bob whites, cardinals, owls, bluejays and the wild turkeys when they’re around. She does a really comical imitation of a mockingbird, the way they go through their repertoire of imitations like Rich Little. I especially like the goofy bird look she puts on her face when she does it. Mockingbirds are pretty loud when you’re sitting next to one on a golf cart.
Dahna doesn’t just make noises; it’s evident the birds listen and talk back to her. If you pay attention, you can almost get the gist of what they’re saying to each other. But really, who cares? They’re birds. The main thing is to encourage this dialogue since you never know when they’ll will decide to go Hitchcock all over you, and Dahna, nice lady, might just tip you off ahead of time. They go for the eyes first they say.
This osprey thing is just more of what I’m talking about. Back in Eugene, a mating pair had a nest high up on the old steel trestle that spanned the McKenzie. They have a call that sounds like Jane Goodall shrieking at her chimps. So, right away Dahna bounces it right back at them and before you know it they’re really going at it, on and on, back and forth about bird stuff, I guess.
I asked her if the osprey that flew at her said anything. “Nope,” she said, but I’m not so sure about that, the way she said it. She’s pretty discreet and can keep a secret.
Can you hear the wing creaks of a murder of crows flying by? Dahna can. You hear the flapping sure, but the creaks of hundreds of tiny, articulated bones covered with feathers? Instead of listening to crows flying around, no doubt up to no good, I wish she’d sit in with a parliament of owls and let me know what that’s all about. We could use a few wise political tips these days.
Roseburg sits among a bunch of really big, round humps that aspire to be mountains. The humps form up into little ridges of two or three humps per ridge, and these short ridges bump into each other at various angles. The town of about 22,000 squirts out in all directions around the humps, some of whose slopes have been logged, clear cut style. They kind of remind you of Friar Tuck’s tonsure, or mine (a natural, more glorious tonsure), big bald spots ringed with second growth, often a wee sparse.
Dahna thought the logging might have peaked some time ago judging by the thick golden grass that’s firmly rooted in the cleared spots where the big trees had been. It must have been some time ago because the mountainettes didn’t seem scarred, and the slash was gone. Other ravaged logging sites we’ve seen elsewhere in Oregon and Washington state looked like something out of a wistful John Prine song. In fact, the park caretaker told us the logging industry had been depressed for the last few years.
Whatever your views on the subject of logging, you know Dahna and I have been very generous to the industry for many years. Too many according to Betty, and I reluctantly agree. So does Allan. [A piece of advice: Never mention clear cutting to Allan. Bad idea. He’s normally not a violent man, just be careful.] All that said, depressed economy or no, you’ll still need to dodge a few maniacal logging trucks hereabouts.
Back in the early 70’s, Dahna’s big sister DiAnne fell in love with a guy in Vermont and brought him to our farm. They stayed with us for awhile until I shot my mouth off, and they abruptly left. They wanted to buy a used logging truck and go back to the land. It was all the rage at the time, believe me. But, Joel and I didn’t like each other and one day we went public with it.
He said, “We’re gonna go up north to Idaho where the trees are taller.” But he said it with a haughty air of distaste as he looked around at our little piñions and junipers. Pissed me off royally which wasn’t hard to do at that point.
“They ain’t gonna be so tall when you haul them off in your loggin’ truck,” I said with my own little sneer.
I’ll admit it was a cheap shot, but my hospitality was running thin. It was hypocritical too because nobody loves raw lumber more than I do. That’s okay. In Joel’s case I could live with ten thousand board feet of hypocrisy. I’m not as blasé about earning DiAnne’s enmity for about 15 years though. That wasn’t good, but she finally came around after that, and we reconciled.
Looking back, I’d say it wasn’t worth the pleasure I took in getting rid of that SOB. You never want to get between close sisters that deeply love each other like those two. DiAnne finally got rid of him too, but the damage had been done by then. They never made it to Idaho.
Not everyone would know why a person might leave Vermont, but I know one reason. A good one too. Once upon a time, Rocky thought about moving to Vermont and, being a researcher, he went to the library. After a while, he announced, “Nope. Too many cloudy days,” and that was that. DiAnne, a wonderful woman but no researcher, called Bullshit.
“That’s dumb,” she sniffed with her typical dismissal of nonsense as she saw it. She had recently moved to Vermont and “loved it.” It wasn’t long, though, before she came highballing out of there with a sheepishness very uncharacteristic of her. “Too many cloudy days,” she said. That and the lived experience of sliding around in its mud season. So, for the rest of her days, except those weeks spent with us in Utah, she lived in New Mexico.
Oh, I forgot the little interregnum in Houston when Joel destroyed Sid’s pickup.
We just wish she’d left by herself that long ago day when she put Vermont in her rear view mirror and came to us out west.
We had thought of buying an RV and traveling, but couldn’t imagine doing it with two big dogs. But in April, 2015 we had to put our beloved red heeler, Libby, down at 17. Now, sadly, we figured we could travel even though our other one, Daisy, was now blind. We ended up buying a 19’ retro “canned ham” camper and started making plans.
We had fast-traveled the Northwest by rented car a couple of years before, and we wanted to go back. So, that’s where we aimed our ambitions. The route out and back covered 4,500 miles and took six weeks, leaving Comanche on September 1, 2015.
We’d taken a few short trips earlier, but this was our first major odyssey in our new camper. We thought of selling the Comanche place and moving to Oregon and wanted to take a good look at it. Not going to happen now but fun to think about at the time.
We made it to fabled Palo Duro Canyon in the late afternoon, September 1st, and set up in the blazing heat with surprisingly few MFers. It looks a bit like the Grand Canyon only a lot smaller, but it’s still beautiful. The campsites are way down in the canyon floor in some of the roughest country you ever saw. The park ranger told me to be sure to carry plenty of water when hiking, and he laughed back when I laughed in his face.
At first light the next day, Dahna took her binoculars outside to look for birds when a bobcat came up behind her and pooped. She was unaware of this love offering until the cat circled around and they had a little moment together. Daisy and I missed it because we were sensibly inside the camper asleep. Later, a woman warned us about the big diamondback that crawled through her camp nosing around. Her eyes were still pretty big when she got to us as she made her warning rounds.
This site is where McKenzie had his big battle with the “Noble Savage.” Apparently, in a fit of pique, he slaughtered over a thousand of their ponies. Our old and long lost friend, Mike, wrote his dissertation about this little sideshow. The dissertation I never wrote would not have been about this asshole since Dahna and I were once members of the horsey set. Our neighbors out in Utah gave us a couple of horses, Crow and Tilly. Anyhow, Mike turned his dissertation into a book that some of his other friends read.
We only stayed in the canyon for two days because we wanted to get out of the Texas heat fast.
We made it to Coronado Campground in Bernalillo, NM on the 3rd. I immediately ran over the rubber cone marking our spot with a name tag. The tag was attached by a long screw that I drove deep into the tread of a front tire. After a number of MFers, I finally got backed into the weirdly arced and steeply sloped space. It wasn’t until Daisy finally relaxed after a lot of petting that we started to notice the stunning view of the Rio Grande running fast below us. Dahna’s hummingbird feeder was an instant hit, and “hit” is the right word for it. Then we mellowed out nicely, me taking a nap with Daisy.
The next day we went next door to the Coronado Monument Museum to check out some of the frictions between the now-vanished Conquistadores and the now-vanished pueblo natives that once lived there. We were looking at the exhibits when a trim little docent asked if we wanted a tour of the kiva paintings that were miraculously removed, restored and brought to the gallery next door. Next thing we knew, we were being treated to an exclusive and fascinating lecture about the delicate recovery of the paintings and all the symbolism each and every single one contained.
I say fascinating, and it probably was, but early on I adopted my patented attentive face and slipped into that old daydream that got me through all those years in school. He might have been on to me because I noticed a cocked eyebrow when we finally shook hands. He wasn’t smiling, but I was.
Spooky cool shit: A fine looking Latino man was camping across from us, and we caught each other’s eye. I liked his little old style camper and he liked our retro. He said he had a bigger trailer too, but he really liked the little one because he could slither through the trees with it like a snake. He showed me how with his hand, and we talked about that and some trouble he was having with his old truck. It looked brand new. I noticed he had purple heart plates and said something and he said, “Yeah, 1st Marines, Vietnam.”
I said, “Semper Fi jarhead, 7th Marines, Vietnam,” and we shook hands again. Turns out he worked the same areas around Da Nang I did but about a year earlier, and soon we were showing each other our various scars. It was just like that great scene out of “Jaws.” Being shot up is different than being blown up, and we couldn’t decide which we liked better. He was a pinto bean farmer like me, and we went deep into “the price of beans in Bangkok,” so to speak.
Dahna was there by then and the conversation went on to include a number of other things strangely common between us. It got to the point that Dahna asked us if we were twins separated at birth. When we got the camper hooked up to leave, my brother-in-blood said, “Have a safe trip, corporal.” I hadn’t said anything about my rank, so I was really rattled. I said, “How’d you know I was a corporal?”
He grinned and said, “Because I was a corporal.” The earth shifted a little under my feet. No kidding.
We headed for our old stomping grounds in southwest Colorado.
On the 5th we found ourselves packed sardine style among a vast group of wealthy RVers in towering motor homes. We looked like the Little Engine That Could next to these behemoths. It must have tickled them because a bunch scampered over to meet us and “admire” our little rig.
Bob taught me how to avoid making an ass of myself by correctly pronouncing our destination, Oregon’s Willamette Valley, as “Will ám ette” rather than “Will a métte” as I stupidly put it prior. In return, I taught him how to pronounce “Glen Rose” like a true native in case he ever got real lost and found himself there. The townspeople of this little burg, like in a lot of small Texas towns, pronounce things uniquely, kind of sideways. But, even if you come from Brooklyn and go to Glen Rose and say its name right they’ll ask, “Yew from around here?” Bob got it down after practicing a little.
This was on the Delores River in Colorado close to Cortez about 65 miles from our old farm across the border into Utah. I was looking forward to driving out there the next day, a drive we’d made countless times when we lived there 40 years ago. I was a big chatterbox yapping about all the changes we saw along the way, but Dahna was pretty quiet. She had her reasons.
I had an old snapshot memory of driving to Cortez from our place to buy groceries and farm stuff. I looked over at Dahna, a beautiful young woman and thought about how lucky I was. I wondered if she’d stay.
The Farm: Several years ago, thanks to the miracle of Google satellite, I thought it looked like someone was living in the long-abandoned house Dahna and I built as kids. It was still cold and snowing in April, 1973 when we cleared the site of sagebrush from a rocky spot inside a little grove of juniper and piñon pine.
It looked out over our little 80 acre dry land wheat and pinto bean farm and had a view of three mountain ranges if you went to a little trouble. On a clear day, which most of them were, you could see Shiprock in New Mexico due south. I drew the house plan on a Hallmark box lid and then paced around the little clearing for a few days until Dahna had an epiphany: ‘This guy’s lost.’
We got the house up pretty fast with the help of Modern Carpentry from the library in Dove Creek (“Pinto Bean Capital of the World”). Dahna insisted on getting the book when she figured out I didn’t know the first damn thing about building a house. With no electricity, every board and beam was cut with a Disston crosscut or rip saw. The entire Cressler family came out for an Amish style roof raising, and those hand saws got red hot in the hands of those beefy farmers. The women brought fried chicken and elk plus gallons of iced tea.
Later, my dad helped us put on the corrugated galvanized roofing. He wasn’t happy about the 10/12 pitch (about 40°), but he got up there anyway. He had a triple bypass two months later and lived another 20 years, nearly making it to 68. He lived on Pall Malls, Old Crow, steak, barbecued brisket and sausage. He was an engineer, good with numbers, but statistics wasn’t his thing. Back in the day, I’d smoke one or two of his cigarettes, but I never understood them. Mexican weed was milder. The food was great at his house though, especially when he grilled on the Old Smokey.
Best of all was Dahna’s dad, Sid. This guy, over a week, built us a fabulous fireplace of lichen-covered river rock on the outside and red flagstone inside. It had a juniper mantle and was really beautiful, but not as beautiful as he was. He even brought the beer along with boxes of strong Armco Steel nails that he…obtained. He worked at Armco as a blast furnace mason for 35 years and pointedly refused to be a supervisor to the end. I’d been bitching about the soft Japanese nails that bent over on the second blow of my 20 0z. Bluegrass framer. Problem solved.
Sid was short and muscular, so they made him a turret gunner on a TBY. He hunted the Wolfpack U-Boats in the North Atlantic and was shot down twice. He said the worst thing about floating around in a life raft was the missing chocolate bars the packers stole when they stowed the rafts on the plane. “Sum Bitches,” he called them, but he was the most generous man I ever met and would have given the bars to them if they asked. He said he was going to live to be a hundred and turn into an old grey mule. But, he only made it to 84, chain smoking Winstons and living on a diet of cookies and pie.
The house was about 1,000 square feet, two storeys with a kitchen and walk in pantry, living room and dining table, plus a “chess room” that doubled as a guest room. We hung a pretty door to it our neighbors Paul and Clio gave us as a present. I knew I was outclassed when Dahna perfectly lined up and chiseled out the hinge and lock mortises.
We slept upstairs and hung mule deer from the collar braces in the late fall until Dahna could get them into the canning jars she put up with a big pressure cooker sitting on her Home Comfort wood stove. She was a sorceress of sauces and made the venison not only good but really good in an almost infinite variety of ways.
She put in a big garden we shared with the coyotes who had a special fondness for Early Sunglow sweet corn. Once, Dahna got chased out of the garden when a military helicopter sneaked up and circled low while she was working topless.
Sparky was about six, towheaded and sincere, when he asked me if I was around when there were saber tooth tigers. I was a very old 25 that day out in the garden.
That stove was in great shape and we only paid $45.00 for it at a decrepit ranch house near the community spring where we got our water. That was close to Egnar which is range spelled backwards. The name Range was already taken, so the unincorporated citizens decided, by golly, they’d show them, and so they flipped it around. That strikes me like getting a bad tattoo just to piss off your mom, but I’m not criticizing.
“Egnar” doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue, but the Mormons aren’t any nuttier than anybody else if you think about it. On second thought, maybe they are. They did offer me a job teaching school because I had a year and a half of college before Vietnam as a Pre-Law/Psychology/English major. I was pretty versatile in a dilettantish, unqualified sort of way.
There was no electricity way out on Summit Point (elev. 7200’) or running water. We hauled it in on a 550 gallon baffled water tank, filled halfway to a manageable slosh. It usually sat in the bed of a two-wheeled trailer made from an old pickup truck. Drawing from its tap, we filled five gallon water jugs that Dahna carried two at a time to the house, walking like Chaplin’s Little Tramp. I carried them one at a time like Walter Brennen, a little faster than her.
We bought the trailer at an estate sale near Dove Creek across the Colorado/Utah state line. I got it for $50.00 by outbidding the famous sheriff of Utah’s San Juan County, Rigby Wright. He’d heard about the hippies out on the Point and knew who we were at the sale because of the Texas plates on our van. He visited us shortly afterward and stayed for coffee. He said it looked like we needed the trailer more than he did, so he let it go to us cheap. He was really like that.
The subject of marijuana came up, and I asked him if it grew out there. He smiled and said, “I was going to ask you.” Rigby liked us and showed up once and awhile. In late summer the next year he drove out with his wife Della while campaigning, and they had dinner with us. He passed out wooden nickels that said, “Don’t Take a Wooden Nickel, Vote Wright!” Dahna took one anyway, and we voted for him like everybody else. Still have it somewhere.
We hauled our water and lit the place with six or seven kerosene lamps, but we weren’t savages. We did have some conveniences. Neighbor Paul was a rancher and deputy game warden (so he said), but that didn’t keep him from stealing a two hole outhouse for us. This was about a week after we first got there and pitched our Montgomery Ward tent. He was huffing and wheezing after we carried it out behind the house site. I thanked him but told him that a really good neighbor would dig the hole too. He just kind of looked at me. So, I just kind of looked at Dahna, and I think that’s where she first got into birding.
Paul and Clio lived in a little three room house about two miles north on our shared dirt road. One day they rode down on their horses and brought a jug of wine Paul made. It was a wonderful dry and powerful rosé made from Welch’s grape juice and sugar mixed into a ten gallon carboy. It was sealed with a large, thick-walled balloon that swelled up dangerously from the fermentation gases until the wine became part of a very good year. We drank and drank and had the best time. I’m just glad I didn’t have to ride a horse home afterward right there in the middle of the broad damn daylight.
Paul was a heavy smoker and rolled his own from Bugler tobacco he kept in a small Prince Albert can that fit in his pocket. He died of lung cancer the next summer at age 54. The last time we visited him at the hospital in Monticello, he was asleep, so we waited until he woke up and the nurse called us. When we walked into his room he said, “I knew it was somebody from the Point when I saw the sunflowers. Sorry about the wind.” We laughed and visited a few more minutes then said goodbye.
Two days later, Clio and her sons buried him not far from the house out in the east pasture. It was a hot day, and as the hearse slowly drove up through a mirage of heat waves, I heard Ross, our mutual friend from Santa Fe, say softly, “Fellini.” A short eulogy and prayer from the Mormon bishop, and that was about it. The boys stayed several days and put up a barbed wire fence around the grave to keep the cattle out.
If you ever mention someone’s blue eyes, Dahna will tell you about Paul’s. She’ll say they were like those of that other Paul, Paul Newman, only much prettier. Clio lived for many years alone out on the Point looking over the cattle her sons sort of managed from a distance. She was well-known locally for her intricate macramés she referred to as “my knots.” She made a much bigger splash when Ross hung her beautiful quilts in his gallery in Santa Fe. Later, she moved to Monticello and liked it well enough to stay there until she died in her nineties, not that long ago.
We later sold our place to a shell-shocked Korean War veteran whose sanity had taken flight from some foxhole. Some of you visited us out there and remember it was no Taj Mahal, but we worked hard to make it a pretty little place and we were proud of it. Let’s just say the old vet changed the ambiance in such a fundamental way that our former neighbors considered burning it down to spare us the sight of it. So, you can imagine Dahna’s trepidation in going back out there decades later.
When we drove up the red winter wheat had ripened to gold, and the breeze was having its way, making waves. Dahna and Daisy stayed in the truck while I went up and yelled, “Hello the house!” A spry old man with a white beard stepped out on the porch, and I asked him, “Can I come up?” He said, “You might want to get back in that truck while I get my gun.”
I was trying to remember the way I used to run among the little bullets when he laughed and said, “Sure, come on up.” When he got a good look at me his eyes got wide and he wondered, “Say, are you the man who built this house?” I said, “I am,” and he said, “I’ve wanted to meet you for years. Did you know you’re a legend out here?” Now, let’s think about this for a just a little minute.
Let’s say you want to become a legend. Well then, if in the absence of actual talent, take a tip from awe-inspiring little ol’ me: Go out to some God-forsaken place. Fool around a little while and then disappear for 40 years. When you come back, who knows, maybe there’ll be a shrine to your divinity like a cargo cult or something. You haven’t lived if you never had an armed hermit eagerly pump your hand.
I think this “absence dynamic” also operates when an artist dies and the paintings left behind soar in value. I bring this up because our new friend, Frank, turned out to be an artist and a pretty good one too. We spent two hours in the company of this fine and intelligent man and became good friends in that short time if you can believe it. It was clear that Frank’s boundaries were beyond… Well, I’m not sure how to put it. Let’s just say it was a wonderful visit, mostly sitting outside in old steel chairs drinking his coffee.
But, when we stepped into our old house Dahna’s gloomy premonition came true. Her once bright little nest had turned cramped, dark and disordered. That said, Frank is 77 years old, in excellent health and has lived out there rent-free for 16 years thanks to the generosity of the long-dead vet’s sister who still owns the place. She even gives him her share of wheat and beans the fields produce. You wouldn’t like it now if you saw it, but he does and so do I because he does. Something like that.
He did have a gun, a big automatic lying on a table by the thick support post where Dahna and I used to read before we went to bed upstairs. The wall mount kerosene lamp we screwed to the post was long gone. I noticed the stairs were no longer there either and I asked about them. He said he never went upstairs, so he tore them down and cut them up for firewood. I said, a bit lamely, “Well, it does get cold here.”
It hurt a little remembering the care I took laying out the cuts for the stringers and how those steps, my first, turned out pretty nice. They had a comfortable rise and plenty of run. We had friends in from Houston and Jim, Laurette’s kind boyfriend, helped me with some of the careful notching cuts. But now they were gone. So it goes as Vonnegut says.
I was looking forward to going upstairs to see the place where we slept on the old full sized bed and play with one of our better contraptions. We built an hinged and insulated hatch that sealed the first floor from the second. On the upstairs side, we attached a rope to the hatch at the non-hinged end. Then, we ran the rope through a rafter-mounted pulley and brought it back down where we tied its other end to a sack of potatoes for counterweight.
With the just the right amount of spud in the sack, you could walk up the stairs and gently push up with one finger, and the heavy 4’ x 8’ x 4” hatch would rise up and out of the way until the sack hit the floor. Plenty of head clearance and it would stay up until you went down. In that case, you just pulled down on the hatch handle to close and seal off the second floor as you walked down. Voila!
On cold winter nights, we’d lift the hatch and wait about 20 minutes until it got too cold to read. Then we’d go upstairs where the heat rose and hit the sack in a nice warm bed with Clio’s lovely quilt on top. Worked great until the potatoes dried out and lost mass. Then the hatch got harder and harder to lift.
You’d need two fingers, then three, and it didn’t take long before I was out of fingers. So, we replaced the potatoes with longer lasting rocks. It was so good we put the same system in our Comanche house for the attic hatch, except instead of potatoes or rocks, we used free weights in a bucket. Well, we weren’t using them. Anyway, Frank kept the hatch closed in place, and I’m trying hard not to think about what it must’ve look like upstairs. He might have saved us from another fright.
There was a pair of unscreened windows up there over our bed. We opened them at night in good weather before going to sleep. One balmy night Dahna woke me up with a painful poke in the ribs using the pointy elbow only a scared 98 pound girl can cripple you with. She said at the top of her whisper, “There’s a bat in here!”
I told her I couldn’t hear anything, and, besides, I was too sleepy to care. Naturally, the damn thing immediately peed on my neck, and I sat bolt upright and yelled, “THERE’S A GODDAM BAT IN HERE!! It was dark so I couldn’t see the expression on Dahna’s face, and I’m grateful for that.
So, we stumbled around and finally got the lamp lit to attract him. We quickly hotfooted it downstairs, opened the front door, and soon I understood where Bram Stoker got his big terrifying idea. It’s face was well lit when it flew down the stairs and out, dodging my face at the last second.
The best part was it not getting stuck in Dahna’s long hair, and I was smart not to mention it.
I thought of the bitter winter nights of -20° and the now missing Franklin fireplace that came from Spain. It was more efficient than Sid’s masterwork, so we used it when it got really cold. It arrived with a small crack in the side that widened as it heated up. It got red hot when we threw in a piece of piñyon that had a vein of resin in it, and that crack got scary big. It’s a miracle the thing didn’t kill us in our sleep, but we kept our eyes on it when we were awake. I looked to the left over to the two grimy single hung windows and thought back to a long ago day when Dahna and I took our own Magical Mystery Tour.
It was late in October ‘73, not long past the first snow that ended a fine Indian summer when we hauled in our winter’s firewood on an old ’48 Ford one ton flatbed truck. We were lying on the daybed under those very windows watching it snow big wet flakes that floated straight down through the trees in slow motion. The sun lit them up off and on as they fell, and they melted on the ground. Not a breath of wind. Not a sound. So, I turned on the radio.
I’ll never know who that guy was, but he must have taken over that crappy AM radio station by gunpoint, because he was obviously on some kind of subversive mission.
If you’re old enough, you probably heard some of the old spaced out DJs in the late sixties plying their trade on free form FM radio. The great ones put together fabulous, long music sets with perfect segues that would freeze you in place. That era didn’t last very long once the suits glommed onto the stations and coopted the whole thing. But, it happened, and out in the cold high desert of Utah it happened again to us. It was the best thing ever.
This might sound crazy, but for two solid hours we listened to an incredible weaving of the best lonesome old cowboy songs with John Fahey’s loopiest and most mesmerizing guitar pieces in between. There were a few perfectly chosen Roy Clark guitar masterpieces thrown in too. Dahna was amazed that the goofy star of “Hee Haw” could be that good, and I couldn’t figure it out either. No commercials.
I can guarantee you’ve never heard anything like it or better, and the cheap radio never faded out, not even once. That was its own little miracle. I can still see Lobo running in vain from the angry hunters and then next, right after, the sound of Fahey’s guitar keening in lament. Dahna and I will always be grateful for the wonder of that day and the renegade DJ that blew God only knows how many Mormon minds. As for our own minds, we both agree the acid had nothing to do with it.
Dahna and Daisy were back in the truck when Frank asked me if I liked cats. I said, “Don’t give me a cat Frank.” He snorted and wanted to know if I thought he looked like the kind of guy that would give me a cat. I said, “Frankly, you do.” He ordered me to wait there and disappeared into the house. A few minutes later he came out with a signed, beautifully rendered colored pencil drawing of a kitten with a nice inscription to us on the back. Framed too.
Safely away, Dahna said she thought the piece was technically very good but a little kitschy. I, however, had the foresight to flunk Art History 50 years earlier and was therefore not so limited in my tastes concerning the Fine Arts. I’m convinced the thing will be worth a fortune when Frank buys the farm, so to speak. I’m not sure I’ll outlive him though because, like I said, our little place agrees with him.
Dahna was a little depressed due to the state of the house and grounds, but I felt pretty good. After awhile, she said a little quietly, “Frank’s great. It’s a good thing.”
Over the years we’ve gone back home there many times in heart and mind. We only kept it three years but they were just packed, every single day of every single year. It was more than the house and the fields, driving my old John Deere Model A and Dahna sewing on her treadle Singer. It was also the fine people we knew, those who lived there and those we met on the road that stayed with us for awhile. And the natural beauty and clean dry air of the high desert.
But mainly it was where we became a working team and discovered that together we could live well by our own lights. It’s where we grew to love each other one bent nail, one field rock, one canning jar at a time. Not very long after we sold it, we got married.
We usually have our same old sundowner every other day out on the front porch. But sometimes we have two, and then we usually end up talking about our home on the farm in Utah. We get a little sentimental, but it wasn’t all rosy. There were some brutal things that happened out there in that wild country; things we seldom talk about, even to ourselves. But it was the best thing that ever happened to us, hands down.
Sometimes at the end of that second drink, Dahna will toss the ice cubes into the yard and say, “That place made us.” I always say, “Yeah.”
This is an old essay that I wrote ten or twelve years ago about my time at the Hotel Sternen in Brienz, Switzerland. I spoke briefly about my job at the hotel in my second post for Trailwriters. Although the subject seems fairly innocuous and, at least to me, had some humor as well, it opened my eyes to things we have taken for granted in this country for really our entire history on this continent, particularly cheap and plentiful energy and resources. Figures I have seen repeatedly in articles on independent news sites the last few years claim that Americans represent five percent of the world’s population yet use twenty-five percent of the world’s resources. If these figures are accurate, and I believe they are, then what we have done and continue to do is tantamount to gluttony. Setting aside any entertainment value my essay may have, this profligacy should make it still relevant today. I hope you don’t mind if I dust off this old relic and include it here.
Water and bathing quickly became problems for us three Americans working at and living in Hotel Sternen. Back home we were used to taking a bath or shower every day. In Europe we learned that water is more precious and the energy required to heat it more expensive.
Denise and Diane stayed in one of the hotel rooms. It had two small beds, a chair and small table, and most important, to me at least, a small sink with hot and cold water. This arrangement was common for lower priced lodging in Europe. The girls had to “bathe” in the sink; they had to sponge-bathe, as we often call it here.
When I had arrived at the hotel, our boss and the manager of the hotel, Vreni Michel, had given me a room on the east end of the second floor hallway. It was not a hotel room and appeared to be set aside for workers like me. Unlocking the door to enter, I had first to make my way along a narrow path through a roomful of discarded and unused hotel furniture. The path led to the door of my room. I liked my room. It wasn’t cramped, contained an adequate small bed, an old writing table and chair, a bedside stand, and an armoire in the far corner against the east wall. This wall also held a window that looked out over the town to the east and thus down the main street through the town. Standing at the window and leaning out slightly I had two lovely views: one to the right with the Brienzee and mountains on the other side of this lake; the other to the left with the towering mountains rising up above the town. In both vistas rooftops and houses from my vantage point on to the east.
There was a sink, as I recall, in the bathroom at the west end of the hall at the top of the stairs. Only cold water came from the tap.
What I didn’t understand was how to bathe myself. When I asked Vreni Michel, she raised her eyebrows inquiringly,—a typical response from her—mumbled something to herself in German and said, “Yah, I’m finding something for you now.” She disappeared into the kitchen and promptly returned with a red plastic water pail. It held about three gallons of water.
“Me thinks you using this now,” she explained, and thrust it into my hands.
And thus I learned how to sponge bathe and did so in my room every evening after work. Filling the pail with hot water from the kitchen or, if I could find it open, the laundry room, I carried it to my room for my evening ritual. First I poured out some water to shave in. After shaving, I took a quick sponge bath, and while the water was still hot, I soaked my feet, a heavenly sensation after being on them on the hard floors all day.
In the two months that I worked at Hotel Sternen, I went through this bathing routine every evening. Well, there was one exception.
Within a week of our arrival, we discovered the large, deep bathtub in the laundry room on the second floor. Diane worked as a chambermaid, cleaning rooms and changing linens on beds. The used linens she took to the laundry room, so she probably spotted the bathtub first. Naturally, she and Denise began to discuss the prospect of a deep, hot bath. This idea seemed to grow and take on added dimensions of meaning as the days passed and they tried to adjust to bathing themselves in the sink. I didn’t envy them that sink either. It was small and probably held about half the water of my bucket. There was no way you could soak both feet in it at the same time. As for shampooing hair, I have no idea what they did. Well, the girls worked themselves into a state of longing and expectation that only a deep tub of steaming hot water would satisfy. You might say that they were obsessed with the laundry room bathtub. In reality, they likely would have been obsessed with any tub. Or a shower for that matter.
Since the laundry room was kept locked, we had no way to get in for a bath unless we could come up with the key. A stout, attractive, middle-aged woman of Italian descent, Chaussi, worked in the laundry room a few days a week, and it was to her that the girls went first. Chaussi explained that she could not give them the key, that she had to take and return it each time she came to work from the rack of keys on the wall near the cash register in the restaurant.
This left them with only two possibilities for bathing in the tub. They could either take the key while no one was looking and bathe without being discovered by Vreni Michel. Or they could ask her for the key and permission to bathe. The first option seemed all but impossible. So someone would have to go to Vreni Michel and ask for the key.
“Go on, she’ll let you have it.” (Diane)
“She likes you.” (Denise)
“She’s not going to beat you or fire you just because you ask for the key.” (Diane)
“The worst she can do is say no.” (Denise)
So one day after lunch and just before our three hour afternoon break, I approached Vreni Michel in the restaurant.
“The girls would like to take a bath,” I said. Well, it was partly true. She looked at me, puzzled, with that wonderfully expressive face. The eyebrows rose on her forehead, drooped a bit, rose some more. She studied me with that face, her eyes piercing me as she did.
“What?” She must have been incredulous.
“A bath. The tub in the laundry room. We want to take a bath.”
My words registered, and in her face I could see her processing them, mulling them over briefly; a fleeting look of disappointment and annoyance, maybe even betrayal, passed over her features. She turned and reached up to the rack of keys.
“Me thinks I’m giving it to you this time,” she said, and handed me the key.
I took it straight to the girls, who were waiting with anticipation, and a bathing queue formed, with me at the end. I didn’t mind. That afternoon we had our baths. We each ran a deep tub of hot water, soaking and luxuriating in it, indifferent to the cost for the hotel, for which Vreni Michel was ultimately accountable. The hotel, under her management, had fallen on hard times, and I wonder all these years later if she fretted over excesses like ours, which must have increased operating expenses. Well, it was only three baths.
It was inevitable that we would ask for another bath. Less than a week later the girls once again sent me, their bathing ambassador, to ask for the key. This time, however, the inquisitive, puzzled look did not show in her features. There was hardly any hesitation.
“No, I’m not giving you the key this time. No more. The girls they having the water in the room, and you have the…the…”
“The bucket,” I said.
“Yah, that. The bucket. Is enough. You not asking any more the key.”
And that was the end of bathing in the big bathtub at Hotel Sternen. What remained of our time—about a month and a half—I bathed with the bucket. I don’t recall any hardship or inconvenience either. I don’t look back on that time with bitterness. Using the bucket simply became an established routine, one that I quickly grew used to and hardly gave a second thought.
A decade later I would build a woodworking shop on my parents’ land in central Texas. After it was completed I added on a small bedroom and lived there four years. As in the days at Hotel Sternen, I bathed with a bucket most days since I didn’t have a bathroom. Outside, I built a privy—an outdoor toilet. In the shop itself there were two water spigots, both with cold water. In the summer I heated water for bathing and washing dishes on a hotplate; in the winter I used a wood-burning stove.
Looking back on those years, I remember no significant hardships or difficulties because there was no bathroom. I also lived without air conditioning and other conveniences. I still believe that I lived very comfortably. Once I settled into a routine and established what I would need in order to live well—a refrigerator, a wood stove, a hot plate, a fan to sleep under in the worst heat of summer, and yes, later, a telephone—I never longed for the conveniences that people today see as necessities.
After four years I left the shop and since then I have lived in houses with bathrooms. And although I bathe or shower daily, I remember humbler times and that helps me not take for granted the availability of water and the energy to heat it. Those humbler times began at Hotel Sternen, in the middle of the Swiss Alps, in a country that most people would consider as having a high standard of living. We might look around the world sometimes and take a lesson from others.
It’s December and I am in Paris again–probably my last time. This makes five consecutive years here, my usual stay ten days. This year I have scheduled eleven, with hopes to go to Amsterdam to visit the Van Gogh museum and the Rijksmuseum. That won’t happen; there’s a transportation strike on here and public transport is at a bare minimum.
I’ve been lucky with hotels and one Airbnb the last four years, but my luck has run out this time. My hostess is a kind woman, but her place is hopelessly cluttered, and it’s not easy to clean around clutter. The two trash cans in the kitchen floor were both full to overflowing when I arrived; the kitchen faucet is broken but functional after a quick lesson; in the bathroom the sink faucet flops around when you work the handle; there is no shower curtain.
To get to my room at the back of the place I must walk through a small open-air courtyard with–what else?–more clutter, most of which is absolute trash. (This courtyard could be a charming place with a little effort and a dump truck to haul off the junk.) The mattress on my bed is a lumpy mess; one of the covers is an old sleeping bag unzipped and opened to cover the full-sized bed, the lone pillow almost flat as a pancake. The north wall of this room is covered in bookcases, with just enough room in one corner for an armoire, this latter apparently not for my use since it is already full of clothes.
There is also a desk in the room with enough open space on the top to put some of my things. The chair bottom is broken down and needs a pillow on it to keep the sitter from falling through. A small electric coil heater stands by the desk. I read at this desk in the morning with coffee, in the evenings with a glass of wine. (I decided to bring Crime and Punishment by Dostoyevsky; I read it about thirty (or more) years ago and have wanted to reread it; great story)
On the positive side, the room does shelter me and provide me with a base from which to get out in the city. In the mornings I can make coffee and have a little breakfast, both important items on my daily agenda. It rained often on this trip but never very hard, and the sound of it on the apartment roof with two skylights was as pleasing as the song of the meadowlarks at home.
The apartment is in the twentieth arrondissment, on the far east side of Paris; it’s quite a walk into the center, about two miles I’d say. However, it’s not far to the Pere Lachaise cemetery and the nearby Place Voltaire, where I stayed in a good hotel in 2015, and from there it’s not far to the Bistrot Paul Bert. That first day I was exhausted from the transatlantic flight, having slept very little, so I ruled out a visit to the city center and walked over to the Paul Bert for an early afternoon meal.
Bellville Park – The area I stayed in was a working class neighborhood; my hostess told me about this lovely park, so I walked up there a few minutes one day.
This bistro comes highly recommended in most guide books; I eat there each year at least once, often it’s my main splurge for dining out. For dinner, with wine, and coffee afterwards, the bill can be seventy or eighty dollars; lunch can be had for around thirty dollars–no wine. This year for lunch my first course was three small pieces of breaded fish with the best tartar sauce I’ve ever tasted. The main course was beefsteak, not very large, a cut I could not identify which seemed a little tough when I cut it up but wasn’t when I ate it; it was juicy and delicious. The steak came with French fries and mayonnaise (This last combination I was first introduced to in Amsterdam in 1976. It’s a good combo.); dessert was a slab of chocolate cake in a pool of light-colored cream sauce, excellent, too.
I had a lot of good food in Paris this time, mostly Middle Eastern and Italian. I found several hole-in-the-wall sandwich shops where you could get a hot meal for ten to twelve dollars. My favorite was a vegetarian sandwich shop that served a wonderful falafel pita pocket sandwich. The proprietor prepared it by drizzling the inside of the PP with hummus, sprinkling in some lettuce, dropping in four or five falafels, then handing it off in a paper sleeve to the customer who could then add toppings from an impressive array of chopped delicacies, vegetables and sauces. Whoa! Then came a sleeve of French fries and a bottle drink and voila: a fine dining experience. $12.
One more thing on food and I’ll stop (I’m getting hungry). Last year I found a good Italian restaurant, La Comedia, on the Rue Monge, where I ordered an eggplant and ham lasagne that was divine. I returned there twice this year and ate the same lasagne the first time and a lasagna with two types of salmon the second. At the tables around me happy customers were enjoying pizzas, salads and pasta dishes. In front of me sat a middle aged man and his son, who each ordered a pizza and proceeded to eat every bite, crust and all. My waiter was a young man who reminded me of an Italian version of Pee Wee Herman. I asked him how long he had worked there, and he said twelve years.
Eating Lasagne at La Comedia
I went to one art museum each day except the first day and the last. Here’s a quick (I hope) rundown:
Modern Art Museum at the Pompidou Center: There was a special exhibition here, the work of Francis Bacon, with emphasis on writers such as Conrad, Eliot, and Nietzsche who had influenced the painter. After the Louvre, the Pompidou must have one of the largest collections of art in its permanent collection of any museum in Paris. I spent three hours here.
Marmottan Monet Museum: One of my favorites, this small museum had a special exhibition this year of the early figurative work of Piet Mondrian. I loved these small landscapes, portraits, etc. in simple wood frames, paintings that Mondrian chose for his biggest collector, Salomon B. Slijper. The permanent collection of Claude Monet’s work, though not large, is astounding.
Piet Mondrian Paintings
Claude Monet: Japanese Footbridge. Toward the end of his life Monet was almost blind, and his work apparently reflected it and became almost abstract.
Louvre: I went on a Sunday and enjoyed three hours wandering around this huge museum with its vast collection.
Napoleon Bonaparte by Jacques-Louis David , end of the 18th century – The Louvre
Orangerie Museum: The only museum in the area I found open on Monday, with a special exhibition dealing with the influence on the art world of Felix Feneon. I visited the two rooms of eight Monet water lily paintings, too, which are part of the permanent collection.
Monet water lily painting, one of eight large works of water lilies in the Orangeries Museum
Quai Branly Museum: This large collection of indigenous art from around the world is always worth a visit. This year the special exhibition featured metal working from Africa, work performed by hand with very rudimentary tools, artists all unknown.
Taurine Figure – African Indigenous Art, Quai Branly Museum
Picasso Museum: Only my second visit and a disappointment this time as the permanent collection was closed. The temporary exhibition: Picasso, Tableaux magiques. Dave’s Picasso Theory: this painter was so prolific, I figure we could take about half of the total, the minor works of course, and give all the retired teachers in Texas one, and we could all exclaim, as we visit our old colleagues, “Hey, I see you’ve got a Picasso, too.”
Orsay Museum: There was a special exhibition of Edgar Degas (opera paintings?), many of ballerinas, which I breezed through except for a few paintings that stopped me for a moment in my tracks, with rich, sublime colors and forms that deserved a stop. To be honest, I went in the museum to see the Van Goghs one more, last time. Imagine my dismay when the section was closed. Off I trudged to the opposite side of the museum, only to find that the museum is being re-ordered, works are being moved around. I liked the first new section I encountered, one of my favorite Orsay paintings was the first work on the right wall, Rosa Bonheur’s large oil painting of oxen plowing, two large teams (I included the photo of it in a previous post). Then I found the Van Goghs and other great works (impressionist and post-impressionist) from the closed off section. There were eighteen Van Goghs in two rooms; and, as a little something special, as I stood looking at a self-portrait, three women walked up and one of them began, in English, to analyze and explain it to her companions. It was mesmerizing. It is obvious looking at the self-portrait, that Van Gogh was deeply troubled as he rendered himself. The woman, who was probably a hired quide, explained how the artist’s use of color and line plus probably a few things I have forgotten, contributed to the overall effect. When it comes to art museums in Paris, there are many good ones, naturally, but this one is certainly a gem.
Constant Troyon: Oxen Going to Labor, Morning Effect – Orsay Museum
Modern Art Museum of Paris (Tokyo Palace): I like this museum and have seen several temporary exhibitions that were wonderful. This year did not disappoint with a showing of the paintings of Hans Hartung, a retrospective of his entire body of work. Unfortunately, the permanent collection was closed.
Paintings by Hans Hartung –
Rodin Museum: My last museum visit, another favorite, many fine works inside, and outside some of the great bronze sculptures: the Gates of Hell; the Burghers of Calais (a poignant story of self-sacrifice); a controversial rendering of the French writer, Honore de Balzac; and the Thinker. (The Thinker actually had a controversial beginning, located at one point in front of the Pantheon, during a tumultuous period, removed apparently so as not to incite the masses.) Also inside, one Monet and one Van Gogh, plus other paintings that belonged to Rodin and some that he painted as well. A small visiting exhibition of sculptures by Barbara Hepworth furnished an appropriate ending to my last museum visit in this great, troubled city.
Barbara Hepworth – Elegant Wood Sculptures, Rodin Museum
Sunday, December 15, was my last day, and I decided to visit a few churches on the Left Bank. I had planned to go to mass at St. Severin, as I did a few years ago, but I missed the time so I just went inside and sat down a few minutes. This fine old church is in the thick of a tourist zone, with lots of souvenir shops and mediocre restaurants on its north side.
The Church of St. Severin
Leaving St Severin, I strolled up the Boulevard St. Michel a ways, then crossed over to the Luxembourg Gardens. It was the best day of my trip for weather, and many Parisians were out; the tennis courts were all in use. From parts of this garden you can see the round towers of the nearby St. Sulpice church. I had only visited it once so I stopped in again. This is another massive church, with a few murals by Delacroix. Victor Hugo and Adele Foucher married here in 1822. At the back of the church there is a famous organ with seven thousand pipes; a twenty-five minute recital follows the 10:30 to 11:30 mass. I regret that I did not go to one of these. Shame.
Church of St. Sulpice – in the heart of the Latin Quarter
Notre Dame, the great lady of Paris, begins the long process of renewal. Note the barricades, scaffolding, wood supports for the flying buttresses and construction cranes.
I usually walk a lot in Paris and use the metro, too, but with the strike I wore myself out walking every day. Paris has a lot of bicycle lanes now, and many people were using them. But like most large cities in the world, Paris is ruining itself with the automobile. Lung cancer is the leading cause of death in the city, some of that likely caused from smoking. Two years ago I flew home on an airplane full of hackers, and twice I’ve returned with upper respiratory infections and needed antibiotics. And the curse of the automobile is not simply in poisoned air. Both Lewis Mumford (The Highway and the City) and James Howard Kunstler (The Geography of Nowhere) discuss other shortcomings of autos, aesthetic issues such as the uglification of the world. Our love affair with these machines may prove these problems intractable; indeed, the car and oil companies have fought mass transit, fuel efficiency and emission controls every step of the way, and have often won.
In addition to the car problem, the major metropolitan centers of the world, Paris included, share another, even older, problem. Edward Gibbon wrote about it in his history of the Roman empire, and although I can’t quote it verbatim, I think I can paraphrase it well enough: Gibbon claimed that the fertility and abundance of Rome’s agricultural lands filled the sewers of Rome. Think about what must come into a city like Paris, not just in edibles to feed several million people, but in many other products as well. (I read just the other day that France’s largest oil company, Total, is now drilling and producing oil in Libya; the result of another NATO war passed off as “humanitarian intervention” or some such euphemism, but really having ulterior and dubious motives.) And what do our cities return to the countryside as replacement? Probably very little. Better minds than mine have written about these issues–Wendell Berry comes to mind–and the understanding that our ways of dealing with waste (so-called because it is wasted) and fertility and the proper care of the land are unsustainable.
In closing, another contemporary problem deserves mention, or at least I think it does; that is the cellphone. I don’t have a cellphone, and I don’t want one, but today it is becoming difficult to travel without one. Although it bothers me to borrow a phone, I find myself forced to do so at times. Starting a few years ago, I arrived at DFW airport and could not find a pay phone with which to call my shuttle service. Last year, after calling my shuttle service on a borrowed phone and waiting forty-five minutes, I had to borrow a second phone to call again.
On the streets of Paris, as you can imagine, hundreds of pedestrians were using cellphones, some with Bluetooth devices so that the phones were tucked away in a pocket, but most of them with phones in hand. Some could even text while walking, after a fashion, but a couple of times I encountered this: on a busy sidewalk, in the center of town, darkness having just fallen and people heading from work to home or to a rendez-vous with friends or to a store for Christmas shopping, a lone pedestrian, completely stopped and heedless of those around her, punching on her phone. The flow of foot traffic split and went around this woman on both sides like the waters of a stream around a large boulder.
These pernicious devices are finally beginning to receive some richly deserved negative press. A few weeks ago I saw one article on a major news site about a few celebrities who don’t like cellphones and don’t have them. A better article by Ross Barkan on the Guardian (US edition) website lamented the ubiquity of the cellphone and what it has meant for all of us personally and socially. (The Smartphone Is Our Era’s Cigarette) I don’t look for them to go away any time soon, however, and for those who like and use them and have to keep their batteries charged all the time, take heart: the recent coup in Bolivia, which the United States doubtless had a hand in, should allow Western corporations to lay hands on one of the largest lithium reserves in the world, lithium being of course important in the production of batteries.
Because of the transportation strike I had to ask my Airbnb hostess to help me with a taxi to Charles De Gaulle airport. She did it all on her cellphone, naturally, a complicated business that took multiple phone calls and texts. Finally a taxi arrived, and a hefty debit from my checking account and an hour later, I stepped out of the taxi at the airport. A long day of flying and hanging around airports awaited me, but at the end of it was home, and a decent bed, cleaner air, and the promise of more good days to come on the farm.