THE OREGON TRAIL REVISITED: Part 1

by Pat Branyan

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.

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Heading Down Into The Canyon

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.

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Desert Life

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.

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Coronado Campground – Bernalillo, NM

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.

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The Mighty Rio Grande From Our Campsite

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.

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Hummingbirds. – Dolores River Campground

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.

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Dolores River

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.

Dahna (1)
Carpenter’s Apprentice Dahna Ready To Work

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.

House Front
Home Is Where The Heart Is
Outside Fireplace
Outside Rock Fireplace Facing West (minus the last section!)
Dot Back Porch
My mom posing with Raspy, King Of Dogs
Dahna Back Porch (1)
Dahna on the Back Porch (east side)

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.

Fireplace
Sid’s Masterpiece
Sid Fireplace
Sid – Cozying up to the first fire

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.

Pat Utah
Pat – Wondering What It’s All About

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.

Garden
Dahna with Laurette, Sparky & Lara Harvesting The First Garden

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.

Utah Kitchen
Home Comfort Cookstove

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.

Bud Truck
Budweiser Beer Truck Pat Painted John Deere Yellow

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.

Rigby Wright
Sheriff Rigby Wright and wife, Della

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.

Clio Nebeker (1)
Clio Nebeker

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.”

Wheatfield
Our First Wheat Crop

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.

Stairs
Going Up? Not so fast.

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!

Sewing Machine
Dahna’s Old Treadle Singer Machine

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.

Dahna's Birthday 1974

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.”

One thought on “THE OREGON TRAIL REVISITED: Part 1”

  1. Good morning!

    Enjoyed the new and expanded version of the trip and the story of the bean farm in Utah was fantastic!

    I loved the picture of your carpenter apprentice! Pure joy in that pose. the house you guys built was amazing and I can’t imagine doing all that with hand tools. It was a little bigger than the image I had in my mind and the location among the pinyons was beautiful. My favorite pine!

    Sid created a beautiful rock fireplace! And the cook stove was amazing. I can see Dahna cooking in that space. I’ve never had canned venison but based on my experience with many dinners made by Dahna, I’m certain it was delicious in the many ways she prepared it over the years!

    There is no doubt that the bean farm made you guys. The pictures show that and you gained experiences that few will ever know. You lived my dream, which I’ll never do! From childhood, I have always wanted to disappear and live in the wilderness but never had the courage to do so (or the skills!)! I’ve read lots of books and fantasized about it but that is not the same as living the dream. Great piece of writing that captures a wonderful place in your shared journey together. This story is going in my mom’s curio cabinet where Matt will discover it some day.

    Liked by 1 person

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