THE OREGON TRAIL REVISITED: Part 2

by Patrick Branyan

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. 

Snake River – Three Island Crossing SP

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. 

Catching up with Linda at Three Island Crossing SP


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!

Two For The Road – Heading Out from Summit Point on Our Rendezvous with the Teton Dam Failure

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.

Snake River at Sunrise

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. 

Traffic on the Columbia River at Memaloose State Park

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…

Multnomah Falls Before it Flows into The Columbia River

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.

Gray Digger Squirrels

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.
 

Salmon Berries Used By Native American to Make Pemmican

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 Big Leaf Maples are BIG at Armitage Park – Eurgene, OR

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. 

Peregrine Falcon at the Cascades Raptor 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. 

Daisy Being Lifted Into The Truck

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.

One of the Lovely Covered Bridges East of Eugene

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.

Swallows on Bridge at Dexter Reservoir – Lowell, OR

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?” 

“Manchester,”he said. 

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.

Threading through Whistlers Bend Campground – Not Easy – Roseburg, OR

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.

Tucked Into Our Campsite at Whistlers Bend Park

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.

Common Mergansers on the Umpqua River

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.

Mama Osprey – Eugene, Oregon

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.

Albino Pigeon at Whistler’s Bend Park – Roseburg, OR

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. 

DiAnne

Big surprise. 

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. 

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.

IMG_3802
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.

IMG_3800
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.

IMG_3812
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.

IMG_3815
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.

IMG_3830
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.

IMG_3866
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.”

Fall Trip, Part 4: Shivering On The Battlefields

By Patrick Branyan

We really liked Medicine Hat, and that holds for every place we visited in Canada. I’ve confused Medicine Hat, Alberta with Mexican Hat, Utah for about 25 years since driving from Las Vegas to our old farm. We spent several days in Vegas back then with our friends Dan and Janet. Before we left Austin a friend called and asked me to play $10.00 for her with me fronting the money.

Medicine Hat to Havre Through The Great Plains of Rolling Grasslands and Green Coulees
Leaving Medicine Hat.jpg

It took Dahna and I about two days to lose our $200.00 gambling budget. The morning we left Dan told me he was hungry and to hurry up and lose the ten bucks I was fronting for my friend Lynn. I saw a huge slot machine sitting by itself against the wall like Jabba the Hutt and fed the money to it. About two minutes later I won $130.00. I turned around and said, “Can you believe this shit?” Dan looked at me with sleepy eyes and said, “I’m hungry.” We split up after breakfast and started the drive home. 

That afternoon it became apparent there were no motel vacancies anywhere in the southwest in summer. Hadn’t thought of that. We were stuck with over a thousand miles to go and no room at the inn.  I said, “Let’s just go home to the farm.” Dahna still loves that 80 acres more than anyplace on earth, so that’s where we went. Sometime past dark we drove through rolled up Mexican Hat. I don’t remember much about it except liking the cool name. I think Medicine Hat is a cool name too, and it has the vibe to go with it. Both names pay homage to minorities that once were majorities not that long ago. Anyway, we camped out beside our old wheat field around midnight.

When we got home to Austin, Dahna and I took the elevator to Lynn’s office and I peeled off six twenties and laid them on her desk. “I’m keeping my ten dollars,” I told her. She looked at the money and then up at us and said, “Let’s go to the Four Seasons. On me,“ Win win, that day.

Not long after regretfully leaving Medicine Hat we pulled up to the U.S. border at the Montana state line fully prepared this time for their citrus fetish. The last time we crossed was up in Maine and the chipper border lady cheerfully confiscated our precious limes. God knows what she did with them. This time Dahna juiced out about a dozen into a plastic jar and threw away the incriminating rinds. You can thank Dahna now or later for this little tip if you cross the border and need lots of lime for your sundowner. If you drink Old Crow like we do, you’ll want that lime. 

I was disappointed when the border officer obviously thought I was too harmless to do anything dastardly like smuggle in limes. No search, no questions. I hate to say it, but I don’t think I’m on any lists and at this point that’s shameful.

We headed for Havre because it was too far to make it to Hardin located close to the Little Bighorn. It looked on the map like a desolate spot, but it was beautiful like most of Montana. The RV park was privately owned by a young hard-working couple, the Hansens. It wasn’t perfect yet, but they thought hard about their modest place, and it showed in the ways that make for a nice park.

Hansen Family Campground near Havre, MT
DSCN3775.jpg

Burro: Part of Hansen Family Campground Petting Zoo
DSCN3822.jpg

We didn’t know it, but we were close to the spot where the Nez Perce were finally defeated at the Battle of Bear Paw. I’ll bet you a cookie that as a youngster you were among the millions who remember their chief’s haunting eloquence when he said, “From where the sun now stands, I will fight no more forever.” The more you know about our treatment of the Indians, the more likely that sentence will make you cry.

We headed for the battlefield on our second day near Havre. The site is located a little over a dozen miles south of the little town of Chinook, MT. It was cold and windy with a light mist hanging over everything when we parked in the almost empty parking lot near three small monuments. We let Sacha out on her leash, and since I didn’t see anyone but a lone hiker high up on a ridge I thought of letting her run free. That’s when we noticed a ranger mowing downslope near a restroom, actually a dry toilet called a vault.

The Nez Perce encampment was on the flat ground to the fore of the trees.
Nez Perce Encampment Site.jpg

The ranger soon rode the mower up to where we were and introduced himself. We asked him a few questions while he petted Sacha. He gave us a master class in courtesy by the way he gently got it across to us that we were standing on ground sacred to the Nez Perce, and that it would be better for Sacha to remain in the truck. He pointed out that the bundles we saw left near the the monuments were offerings and some contained bones. With Sacha happily boarded in the back seat, he asked us if we would like to hear the story of the Nez Perce War of 1877. Dahna and I did a psychic high-five and almost together said, “Yeah!”

Dahna and I are native Texans and don’t know how to pronounce anything, so I asked Ranger Casey Overturf how to say, ‘Havre’. He said that long ago back in town a couple of guys liked the same girl. One night at a dance they fought over her, and the big guy gave it to the little guy good and hard. Lying there on the floor he looked up at two big fists and said, “If you want her that bad you can havre.”  We laughed a little, and then he got down to business.

Ranger Casey Overturf  And Some Old Guy That Wandered Up

Casey Overturf.jpg

One year after the Battle of Little Big Horn, The Nez Perce had been removed from their ancestral lands in Oregon to a reservation in Idaho. The U.S. Army was unable or unwilling to stop white miners and settlers from taking over large areas of the reservation forcing the Indians onto a small fraction of its original area. This pegged the Pissed Off meter of some of the young warriors, and they took their revenge on a few of their loud new neighbors, temporarily restoring an element of quiet in those quarters. 

Chief Joseph, the peaceable leader of the Nez Perce, knew then he had to get out of Dodge fast. With about 800 people including roughly 200 warriors he led them on one of history’s greatest series of running battles. It might surprise you to know that the Indians either won each of these engagements or held their own throughout the 1200 mile escape attempt. It was finally at Bear Paw where the old axiom was again proved that you can win every battle and still lose the war. Our side was reminded of that a hundred years later after the dust settled in Vietnam.

Swainson’s Hawk -Bear Paw Battlefield
Swainson Hawk

History buffs of a military bent will appreciate the brilliant blend of guerrilla and fixed emplacement tactics that bloodied the U.S. Army so badly. General William T. Sherman spoke of the Indians as having “…fought with almost scientific skill, using advance and rear guards, skirmish lines and field fortifications” (Wikipedia). Leadership and tactical judgment are separate things, but the Nez Perce had both in spades when the bullets flew. But tactics and strategies are different things too.

Chief Joseph was neither the tactician nor the strategist of the war. Rather, this fell to the chiefs of other bands such as White Bird, Looking Glass and men like Poker Joe who was a warrior, guide and interpreter. The outcome of the war might well have turned on the winner of the critical debate between Looking Glass and Poker Joe. That winner was Looking Glass.

He argued for a slower pace of travel in order to allow the women and children an easier time of keeping up. Makes sense. Poker Joe argued for a faster pace in order to out-distance the pursuing army. That makes sense too. But Poker Joe lost the debate and the U.S. Army won the war when they caught Chief Joseph at Bear Paw, just 40 miles from the Canadian border and safety. Looking Glass was killed at Bear Paw and so was Poker Joe during the siege lasting several days.

Chief Joseph’s Statement of Surrender at Bear Paw Battlefield
Chief Joseph Speech.jpg

I can’t overstate the wonder of having a person like Ranger Overturf stand with you at that site and give you the extraordinary benefit of his knowledge and skill in story-telling. With a little imagination it’s almost like watching the battle in real time. I’ll say this too. If you travel down the history of our treatment of the Indian nations, you’ll discover it wasn’t a crime. It was a sin.

We only stayed at the Hansen Family RV Park and Storage for three nights. Soon we found ourselves headed to another park near Hardin, MT for a long-desired visit (on my part) to the Little Big Horn. The park was set up like the one in Banff. In these you share a site with another camper. Let me give you a word of advice if you plan to travel in an RV: Avoid these parks unless you hate privacy. The only good thing about it was that the rain held off just long enough for us to get set up. The rain was dogging us like Columbo but without the funny quirks.

Bunny at Hansen Family Campground
DSCN3792

In the spring of 1975 I was pulling an ancient one-way disc plow over my 20 acre pinto bean field when I looked up and saw a familiar blue car at the other end. A little closer and I thought to myself, ‘Damn! That is Jack Burkhead.’ He was talking to Dahna, and I stopped the old Minnie Moline tractor when I got close and then walked up to see him. He wasn’t as glad to see me as he might have been because he had just been on a wild goose chase looking for our place, and that rubbed off some of the shine for him.

Jack travels a lot and on this particular day, there he stood on our high, dry land farm near Summit Point, Utah. Summit Point isn’t even a ghost town anymore because there are no buildings left, just a few wispy Dust Bowl memories, even back then fading away. Today, nothing has changed way out on the Point; still no electricity or running water and still remote.

 He was already tired when he got to Monticello whereupon he asked a local guy if he knew the whereabouts of a one-armed hippie and his skinny girlfriend. The guy pointed toward Moab and off Jack went. He did find a one legged guy somewhere out there which is fine, of course, but it did cost him several more hours, a big bucket of gas and a chip out of his disposition. I can’t remember how he finally found us. Anyway, there he was. Jack is preternaturally good-natured and positive though, and the ordeal quickly became part of his large personal repertoire of stories.

The story I want to talk about in a minute is the Battle of the Little Big Horn. In my life that’s one of the places where Jack comes in. He’s one of only two people I’ve known who has a true, margin-to-margin photographic memory. The other, God help me, is my wife—selfsame skinny hippie chick aforementioned. Of the three of us, it’s abundantly clear who the slow step is. I give myself credit for adjusting though and you would too if you were in my shoes for a few minutes. I suppose you can still be dumb as a post and have a photographic memory, but that’s not my experience with these characters. They ring the bell out at the old IQ carnival while I sell tickets.

Site of Indian Encampment Beyond the Little Bighorn River
Indian Encampment on LBH River

Back when Fischer and Spassky were engaged in their knuckle-biting struggle for the chess crown Jack taught me how to play better. I already could beat a good few of the dumb people I played hanging around Houston, but he brought several orders of magnitude of skill to our games. I can’t give a precise number of orders of magnitude because I never could quite fathom how he did those things to me on the chessboard. He tried to show me as he recreated the games from memory, but the winning lines might just as well been those woven into his tattersall shirt for all I could tell. I swear, my mother had to be chain smoking when she carried me. She liked Pall Malls. Unfiltered.

I mention all this because all those years ago in our little farmhouse Jack told me the story of the Battle of the Little Bighorn from that same big memory vault. At the end of about two hours I had the picture. I didn’t read any more about it except as mentioned in other things I read through the years. As it turned out I didn’t have to. I already had a vivid account nestled in my head like a hard-shelled walnut.  

A few days ago Dahna and I stood under umbrellas a few feet from where Custer fell. From that small patch of high ground much of the battlefield is in view, an area I suppose to be around eight to ten square miles, maybe more. You look down from there to where the Little Bighorn River meanders through the trees that line its banks, the place where the lodges of the Lakota and their Cheyenne allies made up one of the largest assemblies of plains Indians ever known.

Little Bighorn Last Stand Memorial
Memorial LSH

I looked left and right and there it all was just like I thought it would be. Familiar. It wasn’t just the terrain I “remembered” but the battle itself. It came back to me that day and the next; the heat, the dust clouds from the horses charging and plunging, the barked orders amid the war cries, the smoke and noise of the gunfire, the curses and the screams. It wasn’t just that either but the movements of the two main detachments of Custer’s 7th Cavalry Regiment. I remembered some of that too, mostly from Jack.

Indian Account

Depiction of The Last Stand
Depiction of Last Stand.jpg

The Indians had great leaders like Gall and Crazy Horse and others who inspired the warriors and guided them strategically, tactically and with discipline. But, I think of the way they rode through and around the soldiers in close combat, dissolving the cohesion of the cavalry and, finally, its discipline and effectiveness. Where did they get that kind of courage? Sitting Bull had a vision a few weeks earlier that predicted victory against an attack by white soldiers and, after the battle started, Crazy Horse told his warriors that they could “…kill them all…” Maybe that’s partly where they got it.

Red Stone Markers Where Warriors Fell Are Few Since Most Were Carried Away for Tribal Rites.
DSCN3828

The Battle of the Little Bighorn is Rashomon made large. I know from my own experiences in combat that those heightened perceptions, especially, are much less reliable in recall than those of the everyday. And, keep in mind the small range of survival chances in the mind of each man at some point in the battle, soldier or Indian warrior—from the high possibility of death to the absolute certainty of it.

Marker for Custer’s Fall
GACuster Fell Here

Everybody knows the outcome of the fight, and there’s much agreement about the how of it too. But many details will never be known because of ordinary interpretative biases and the Rashomon effect distorting the survivors’ accounts. It’s hard enough to accurately recount what happened at work yesterday, much less a day with several hours of Death trying to choke off your every breath. Adrenaline might save your ass, but it’ll defeat your memory.

I think it was unimaginable to Custer that his regiment could be beaten regardless of the size of the encampment. First of all, his scouts’ reports varied but at least one was accurate. Like most of us though he settled on those figures most comfortable to him, the lower counts. Custer planned more time for scouting, but he was given evidence his camp had been spotted and the element of surprise lost. So, he attacked prematurely—before he knew the true count of enemy warriors. It was his biggest mistake and it came wrapped in several other faulty assumptions including misjudgments about his subordinate commanders.

But, secondly and besides, he thought his battle plan solid enough to accommodate larger numbers based on two things: the high protectiveness of the warriors for their women, children and old men (true) and the possibility of a quick collapse of resistance due to surprise (false). Indian sentries reported soldiers in the area but they didn’t expect to be attacked, and so the village remained peaceful and unprepared. Regardless, they were off their reservation and Grant ordered them moved back. The unimpeded mining of Black Hills gold was the booty to be won.

Custer divided his regiment into three battalions, two for the assault and one held in reserve. He assigned Major Marcus Reno the mission of attacking first at the south end of the village thus drawing the warriors to fight there. As the noncombatants ran for safety to the north, Custer intended to capture and isolate them there while trapping the warriors between the jaws of his own battalion and Reno’s to their front. A kind of squeeze play known as the Anvil and Hammer. Pretty basic.

If Sitting Bull and the other chiefs quickly saw their situation to be hopeless and surrendered, all to the good. If not, Custer had their wives and children as hostages to force the issue. Further, if things really got out of hand, he could use the hostages as human shields and, by rifle volley, signal his reserve battalion under Captain Frederick Benteen to reinforce him and Reno. Good plan. Mice and men.

Crow Ponies Running At Little BighornCrow Ponies

A number of things factor into why the plan fell apart almost from the beginning. A few include the fact that a significant number of troops were recent immigrants from Europe, some who couldn’t speak English. A lot of them were very poor and just needed a job and the possibility of advancement. But military cutbacks since the end of the Civil War stressed the army too, cutting armaments, supplies and morale. On the other hand, the Indians felt strong in number and rode with the visionary power of Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse and other powerful chiefs. It was plenty for that day, June 25, 1876.

Almost immediately at the onset of Reno’s attack to the south, Custer’s favorite Indian scout, Bloody Knife, was shot through the head. Blood and brain spattered the side of Reno’s face, rattling him and causing him to fall back into a defensive position. As the Indians began to arrive in larger numbers he broke his skirmish line in spite of low casualties and retreated to a stand of timber nearby. Many had lost control of their horses and were on foot by then. Panic was in the air.

Major Reno Retreated At This Crossing Of The Little Bighorn River
Where Reno was chased across

Reno might have made a good defensive stand in the trees according to Indian accounts. But, he broke again and ran, exhorting his men to make a dash for the river in hopes of taking higher ground on the other side. The race from the trees to the river turned retreat into rout and that’s when the Indians stopped fighting the soldiers and began “hunting them like buffalo.”

Indian accounts describe the soldiers as appearing drunk, wildly waving their arms, and firing into the air as they were run down and tomahawked or shot by arrow or rifle bullet. The Indians broke off the slaughter of Reno’s men when the survivors managed to cross the Little Big Horn River. They spotted Custer moving against the north end of the encampment, so they stripped Reno’s dead of clothing and arms and turned in full force to meet the new threat. Reno and those who escaped gained the high ground whereupon they dug in and remained in relative safety with Benteen assisting.

Custer was not aware of Reno’s rout and the evaporation of his “anvil” when he initiated his assault—the “hammer.” Instead of capturing non-combatants trying to escape though, he was besieged by several thousand charging warriors with a strong taste for blood and total victory. Some analysts believe he never managed any offensive action at all, but was able only to mount a series of defensive reactions as he fell further and further back to high ground.

Markers Where The Soldiers Fell At Last Stand Hill
Last Stand Hill

Lt. Colonel George A. Custer’s self-assigned battalion was destroyed to the last man possibly in less than an hour. No reserve unit came to his aid in spite of several rifle volleys fired in distress. I think I know why. Numerous Indian accounts speak in admiration of the courage shown by Custer’s men, and of him personally. I believe these accounts prove that of the three battalions on the field that day Custer’s was the one far better led. I’ll leave it at that.

The battle continued through the next day as the Indians attacked Reno and Benteen’s perimeter. Spotting a column of reinforcements, the Indians disengaged, broke camp and left the Crow reservation’s Little Big Horn behind. But, their victory was short-lived, to say the least.

After we left the monument on Last Stand Hill we travelled the park road that wound through the battlefield. Throughout the sites of significant events, you’ll see the widely-scattered white marble markers where each soldier fell, some in small groups and some alone. That’s when you’ll get the picture for yourself in full force.

Dahna generally spends very little time considering the whys and wherefores of war because she hates the idea of it, the stupidity, and will say so to any enthusiast. This time she was strongly affected because of her appreciation of the Native American way of life and its harmonious relationship with nature. She noticed that the Native American Peace Through Unity Memorial had few visitors compared with Custer’s and she chalked it up as one of the things that is still wrong with this country.

We were cold and our legs were wet, and Sacha had been left alone in the camper too long even though she loves that thing like we do. On the way home, Dahna said she wanted to come back the next day to visit the Indians’ monument, a far more recent addition to the battleground than the soldiers’ white obelisk erected a few years after the battle. She also wanted to listen to the Native American docent’s account.

We got up early and gathered our cold weather rain gear and put our heads down into an even colder day with hard rain and strong winds. It was our last chance to go though, so we took the shot leaving Sacha in her toasty camper, poor little baby. The docent had just begun his remarkable lecture when we sat down to listen in the freezing wind-swept patio reserved for that purpose. Like Ranger Overturf, the man really knew his stuff, and it was obvious he felt a strong emotional attachment to the tragedy it was and so remains.

When he concluded after 45 minutes or so, he scanned the white sea of our faces and then asked us, “Couldn’t we have done better than this? Don’t you think we could have done a lot better than this?” The crowd burst out in applause, but I think Dahna wanted to cry.

Peace Through Unity Memorial
PeaceUnity1PeaceUnity3PeaceUniry2PeaceUnity4DSCN3885

We were alone when we climbed the hill only a few hundred yards away from where Custer fell. We passed two white markers a few feet to the side of the pathway and continued up. The memorial first appears as a mound, but as you approach you find a partially-walled circular structure, with openings to the east and west. The circle contains a beautiful welded line sculpture of spirit warriors on one side and engraved stone panels for each of the tribes that fought on the others. The names of many of the warriors who fought and died there are inscribed as well as some translated excerpts of accounts given by the survivors. 

The miserable weather of the day added to our somber mood and we were hushed as we walked back down. We stopped to look again at the two white markers for a moment while the cold rain struck hard at our umbrellas. 

I knew something of what those two men felt in their last moments.

Asclepias speciosa – Showy Milkweed At Little Bighorn
Asclepias speciosa Showy Milkweed.jpg

I’ve been worried and nervous, and I’ve had my share of frightening jolts like stepping on a snake or a close call on the highway. I had a number of very close calls in Vietnam, certainly when I was wounded. But, I’ve only been scared once in my life. It was during Tet ’68 or right after, maybe later in March of that year, southwest of Da Nang. My platoon went through a medium-sized village and one of our guys cut down some banana trees with a machete and then killed a pig with it. There was no firefight, but that caused plenty of tension.

That night we dug in nearby. My buddy Jenkins and I found a trench three or four feet deep and took up our positions there. Not long after dark we were hit with heavy and sustained automatic fire. The tracers fanned across our trench just inches from our heads. We were completely pinned down and unable to return fire.

Dark-Eyed Junco (White-Winged)
White-winged Junco

Even through the noise of the firing I could hear something else. I realized it was the buckles of my helmet’s long rotted off chinstrap rattling loud. I was trembling. I went through a macabre debate of what ifs; whether or not to take it off to be quiet or leave it on to protect my head  from getting blown off. Back and forth again and again. Finally, I kept it on and leaned back with my rifle’s barrel pointed just above the out-facing lip of the trench ready to fire at anything. The helmet rattled away.

Next to me Jenkins pulled the pin of a grenade and kept the spring-loaded “spoon” down with a death grip. He held it that way all night, unbeknown to me sitting next to him. His plan was to kill himself with it to keep from being captured and tortured. Some of Custer’s men committed suicide for the same reason. But, that night our casualties were light because we called in artillery almost on top of our own position and got them off of us. That was scary too.

The next morning Jenkins showed me the grenade in his hand, and he wanted my opinion as to what to do about it. My impulse was to strangle him, but since he was still holding a live grenade I just told him to throw the damn thing. It wasn’t a dud. 

A few weeks later, “Jinx” got shot through the fat part of his thigh. When another guy and I carried him back to the road for medevac, he just laughed and laughed. “Million dollar wound P.J.” he said more than once, “Goin’ home.” I told him to shut up or I’d kill him myself. We shook hands after we loaded him on the big 6 x 6 and I never saw him again. Jenkins was a black man and one of the finest men I ever knew, grenade incident aside. He’s where my casual southern racism died a quiet death. He stays in the back of my mind and his memory still helps me out from time to time.

Hairy Woodpecker – Custer, SD
Hairy Woodpecker

Dahna walked off, but I stayed looking at the markers just long enough to shiver a little bit. It was cold out there.

I suggest taking my account of the battle with a grain of salt though. It would be better if you saw it through your own eyes and biases. I think you would agree with the docent that, yes, we could have done better. A lot better. We can do a lot better today too and maybe we will. But the shadows that darken our history still move along with us…so, who knows? These days I’m not as confident as I used to be.

The next morning I went around the camper to dump the holding tanks before packing up. I was trying to be quiet since another RV sharing our site was only inches away. I jumped when a disembodied voice said, “Good morning.” Looking around for a ghost, I finally figured out it was the guy in the abutting RV. He had opened the window next to my ear and wanted to know if we were going to the battlefield. I told him we went the day before, and he was incredulous, “In that rain??”

The cold front blew in good weather for the drive to Custer Mountain RV park near Custer State Park, SD. It was a nice park with the usual caveat or two. The main problem was the unleashed dogs that wandered around. I wouldn’t mind this ordinarily because I’m all for puppy power. But, the dog we have used to be a stray and had to fight for food. Nowadays, when she gets close to another dog she makes a Hulk-like transformation from sweet, lovable Lassie into White Fang. That, in turn, forces my activity level up to “energetic” which is not my nature. Snowballing, my politics instantly devolve from liberal live-and-let-live to strident, red-faced leash Nazi. Then I hate myself for a little while until I get over it.

View from Custer Mountain RV Park, Custer, SD
DSCN4148

We stayed there for five nights and covered a lot of miles driving around in the truck. On the first full day we drove over to Sylvan Lake which I didn’t like because too many dogs, and I was pretty vocal about it. Holding White Fang back was work. Dahna’s comment was, “Well, that’s pretty stupid, it’s a nice lake.” Nevertheless, we cut the lake thing short and headed down a twisty little road to see the Needles rock formations. The road passes through several short “eye tunnels,” super narrow one-way passages through the rock. I folded in my side mirrors and went into the first one at a crawl.

One of Many Needles Rock Formations
Version 2

Sylvan Lake At Custer State Park
Sylvan Lake CusterSP

Right away we came to a pair of beautiful mountain goats that were licking a mineral seep off the port wall near the tunnel’s exit. There was no getting around them, so I shut the engine off and waited. In the ten or so minutes that followed a healthy line of vehicles formed up fore and aft. Ten minutes of inconvenience due to concern over wild animals is intolerable to many Americans, and a woman at the exit started ranting at me to push them out of the way.

I enjoyed stalling for another five minutes on her behalf, winding her up tight. When I figured the goats had enough I gave them a little toot and got them to sidle by. If I had a left hand I could have petted them as they passed, but alas. Pulling out of the tunnel Dahna said to the woman, “These goats have the right of way, not you.” The lady smarted off, and Dahna let her have it like a howitzer. A shaken guy standing out there could be heard as we drove off yelling, “Hey now!” He couldn’t hear me laughing.

Mountain Goats in Eight Foot Wide Tunnel
Mountain Goats CSP- tunnel Needles Hwy

The next day we visited Mount Rushmore.  Dahna was new to the monument, but I had been there 50 years ago winding up my solo trip mentioned in my last post, “Back in the Saddle Again.” Dahna wasn’t really excited about Rushmore preferring more natural wonders, but I wanted to see it again. Actually, I was most interested in seeing the monument’s restaurant made famous in Hitchcock’s “North by Northwest.“ By coincidence, I sat in the same spot 50 years ago eating lunch alone where Cary Grant sat before he was “shot” by Eva Marie Saint in the great movie. I wanted to see that little table again.

Mt. Rushmore – The Fab Four
Rushmore

Unfortunately, the spot was still there but not the table. Everything else was the same, so I had a little nostalgic moment. The place was overrun with people, and we’d left Sacha in the cool parking garage and didn’t want to leave her there very long alone. So, we headed back to the camper after only about 30 minutes at Rushmore. For Dahna it was like our Iranian friend we met at Geneva S.P. in Ohio said about Niagara Falls, “You see a thing and then you go see something else.”

Pat at Carver’s Cafe, Mt. Rushmore
NorthbyNorthwest 50 years late

Later, back at the RV park, a big bright red Ford F-350 diesel pickup began backing in an equally bright red Winnebago travel trailer. We made ourselves scarce in order to let the North Dakotan couple set up in peace. Later, while taking Sacha for a walk, I had a little daydream about that truck. I could imagine all that power and torque in my own hands whisking our heavy trailer over a high mountain pass. I like my lighter truck just fine, but I’ve been blown off the road by big diesel pickups pulling trailers damn fast on many a mountain.

I had one more vivid memory I wanted to resurrect from that old trip back in ’69. It was, in fact, the last memory I still had from that trip, but since I was in the neighborhood why not try to dig it up? I was 21 then and sitting in the middle of Custer State Park on Hwy 87 looking up at the huge head of a bull bison who was looking down at me. Traffic was stopped by the herd, and there I sat, low to the road in an XK-E roadster with the top down. The buffalo was about eight feet away from me, and I froze holding my breath.

[BTW: In 1969 you could buy a brand new E Jag roadster (silver gray/black top and interior)—“the most beautiful car ever built” (Enzo Ferrari)—for  $6,200. A new Corvette was about $5,000. I kept the car for two years and then bought a used cargo van because my plans radically changed. Those new plans led me straight to this couch somehow.]

So, on our third day we headed to Custer S.P. by way of Wind Cave National Park. The cave itself was closed because the elevator was broken, but the drive through was open. We saw bison, lots of prairie dogs (Sacha’s favorite rodent) and the “begging donkeys.” The donkeys are wild but hang with the tourists because they feed them. Eventually, the road led up to a familiar place in Custer.

Bison at Wind Cave National Park
Wind Cave Buffalo

Pronghorn At Wind Cave
Wind Cave Pronghorn

Prairie Dog At Wind Cave
PrairieDog

Unlike my original visit there in ’69, this time there was no traffic and precious few buffalo. After awhile, things started to goose my memory. I stopped at last on the highway and told Dahna. “This is where I stopped in the Jag.” She wanted to know if I was sure and I said, “Yeah, unless there’s another place just like it.” There wasn’t, so I had another cool, direct wire back to my misspent youth.

Begging Burros At Custer State Park
Please Don't Feed Animals

Too Proud To Beg
Begging Break (1).jpg

Later, back at the RV park, Dahna fixed drinks and we went out with Sacha to the picnic table. I was still mooning over our neighbors’ red pickup when they came around and we met them. It was one of those things where everybody clicked, like with the Milhous’s, and we spent a nice evening getting to know them. Sheila and Hoad Harris live in Fargo and, as you might expect, it wasn’t long before I had to ask Sheila about the popular Coen movie.

Red Crossbill (The crossed bill facilitates removal of seeds from conifer cones.)
Red Crossbill2

She began by saying that she is not a fan of Coen movies, and I told her I understood completely. My friend Sally and I like some Coen movies and not others, maybe 50/50 thumbs up or down. The thing is, Sally dislikes the very same movies I do like and I’m on the other side about her choices. We went together in high school and fought like cats and dogs. Anyway, I never met anyone like Sheila who, strikingly, has no use for their movies. But, I can see how it can happen…like Sacha’s single blue eye.

Pronghorn At Custer State Park
Pronghorn CSP

She told us that only the opening establishment scene was actually filmed in Fargo. The rest were shot in Minnesota because it had that “frozen tundra” look the Coens were after. I liked “Fargo,” especially Frances McDormand. I first saw her in one of my favorite noirs, the Coen’s “Blood Simple.” The great thing about that movie is that all of the characters are operating under false assumptions. Not one of them knows what’s actually going on in this murderous little flick.

Downy Woodpecker – Custer, SD
Downy Woodpecker

While making small talk with the Harris’s I was reminded of Mickey Mantle’s probably not original line, “If I knew how long I’d live, I would have taken better care of myself.” They were younger than us but not enough to account for their appearance compared to the one I see in the mirror every day. They looked a lot younger, and I thought I knew why after briefly considering, then discounting, the Dorian Gray theory.

Both Red-Breasted and White-breasted Nuthatches – Custer, SD
RB NuthatchWB Nuthatch

They’re long term fitness junkies often going on killer mountain hikes that sometimes involve climbing using your hands, deep water scuba diving, and other exertions too horrible to contemplate. The only price paid that I could tell was Hoad’s somewhat fragile knees from years of running. Physically, the one thing I’m proud of is my good knees. Of course, the last time I ran anywhere was across a rice paddy dike (damn fast!) during my John Wayne days.

Okay, it makes sense even to me that a lifetime of good habits is probably good for you in the long run. What I didn’t understand was how they could have raised eight children (can that be right?), sent every one of them through college and still be standing, much less all the other stuff they do. If we raised eight kids and had to earn the money to get them through school, Becky would have scattered our ashes out in the orchard years ago. But there they sat with vodka cocktails.

Gray Jay – Custer Mountain RV Park
Gray Jay 2

It turns out they both have careers in health services. Hoad is a physician, a GP with his own practice in Fargo. When I heard that, my limbic (lizard) brain stirred like Grendel in Beowulf and started sending little ache and pain impulses to various parts of my body in an shameless bid for free medical advice. By the time my alarmed conscious
(Hi! I’m Pat!) brain wrestled the dragon to the floor, it was too late. I’d already saved several hundred bucks. I did manage to mumble something a little apologetically about it, but Hoad generously chuckled and waved it off. Beau geste.

Sheila is a Reconnective Healing practitioner. She didn’t really talk about this, so I don’t want to get out over of my skis too far to use a completely inappropriate metaphor in my case. Generally, the idea is that conditions and events deeply imprinted in childhood can stunt adult lives both physically and mentally. The goal is to reconnect the client to a larger adult awareness and balance; sort of a maturation process, I think, that pays off in overall health benefits. Familiar psychological therapies are not involved and neither are drugs or religion. You don’t have to spend a fortune, nor do you have to flog yourself in a freezing convent or monastery somewhere on a mountain top.

Red Squirrel At Custer Mountain RV Park
Red Squirrel Custer Mtn

I’d better stop there, and I might be off the mark even at that. I can confidently say that Sheila and Hoad are among the most delightful and accomplished couples we’ve met on the road, so whatever it is they’re doing works like a charm. It could be the vodka, but the probability of that is pretty small, I think. After I groveled a bit, Sheila promised to consider writing something for our blog. Maybe she’ll link to her own website, and you can dispense with my characterization of her work as a healer. Better that.

White-Tailed Deer, Custer Mountain RV Park
DSCN4060.jpg

Hoad is also a pilot, and I think I know why, at least in part. When he was young his dad took him on a helicopter tour of this same area around Custer State Park and environs. The helicopter was a Bell 47, like the ones seen in M.A.S.H. with the “soap bubble canopy” (Wikipedia). If you think about it, that’s a pretty exciting ride for a kid; perfect for infecting him with the aviation bug. Another neat thing is that tour is still available with the same type of helicopter.

On our last day there Hoad and Shiela took the tour and were flying high while we lumbered along on the ground in the truck. One famous place they flew close to was the nearby Thunderhead mountain being sculpted in the image of Crazy Horse. This work in progress has been going on for about 70 years primarily because it’s entirely privately-funded. Today, only the head is finished, but the design calls for him to be sitting astride his horse while pointing to the horizon. The scale is roughly 1/3 larger than Rushmore, and the work itself is controversial among the Oglala Lakota.

Crazy Horse Memorial
DSCN3889

The issue is whether or not it’s appropriate to fashion an image out of a mountain that’s sacred to the Indians. The pro side argues that Crazy Horse is as important as the Rushmore quartet and should be memorialized by a monument as well. That was the original impetus for the construction. The other side argues that’s it’s sacrilege to deface the mountain with an image even if it is Crazy Horse. They also argue that he would have opposed it himself being something of an ascetic. Overall, that’s what I’d call an open question for debate.

Stockade Lake at Custer State Park
Stockman Lake CSP

That night we spent our last fun evening with the Harris’s and went to bed wishing we could hang around another day. They were sweet to get up a little early to say goodbye the next morning, and it was much appreciated. Hoad looked sleepy, and Sheila looked determined to get him back to sleep as part of her plot to have him fully restored and relaxed when he returned to Fargo and his patients.

Stockade Lake Picnic Shelter Built By the CCC (I’ll never accuse Pat of overbuilding again)
CCC Picnic Area.jpg

I took one last good look at that beautiful red pickup as I pulled out headed for our next stop near Lake McConaughy, Nebraska, moving south toward home in Texas. The Harris’s plan to attend a wedding in Austin fairly soon, and there’s a chance we can sneak in another visit. One can hope.

Buffalo Ambling Down The Road At Custer State Park
DSCN3961 (1).jpg

Verbena Stricta  – Wooly Vervain, Custer State Park
Verbena Stricta Wooly Verbena.jpg

 FALL TRIP, Part 1: Back in the Saddle Again

By Pat Branyan

Spring sprang with a vengeance in Comanche, but after about six weeks we managed to get every blade of grass cut on our 20 acres. That included the pecan orchard after picking up about a dozen trailer loads of limb fall and grinding up twice that much in place with the “shredder” (brush hog). On the positive side, the rain did generate a great hay crop and Angel rolled; 61 big bales in two cuttings. Of course, everybody else had a great crop too, so the price fell through the floor, landing well below production cost.

Our Personal Deer Herd Munching on the Third Cutting (sent by Becky Nelson)
Third Cutting.jpg

That’s farming. Bad crop, high price; good crop, low price—either way you’re screwed. We farmers are a proud bunch of losers though because the president calls us great patriots. Even though his views of the loser community are well known, we’d gladly take a bullet from him on 5th Avenue. Maybe two.

The rains juiced our old pecan trees too. They’re setting good pecan clusters of three or four which we refer to as threesies and foursies. Some growers have trees that set threesomes and foursomes, but our trees would never do that.

By the time we left for the Fall Trip on August 13th, the place looked pretty darned good considering who owns it. Patty came up a couple of days early to housesit again, per usual, and, as we went over all the operations, she wore a sardonic mien. When I started to go over the steps involved in running the two old Cub Cadet riders, she gave me a look that said, ‘I know more about these mowers than you do, bud.’ That could be true since she’s mowed the place almost as much as I have.

It took us six days to get back to Missoula where we stored our Arctic Fox trailer after the Spring Trip. On the first day we headed back to the same motel in Dalhart, Tx. where we stayed coming home a few months earlier. It was good then; quiet, clean and a fine meal in the evening. This time the young lady desk clerk asked us if we’d like ear plugs because of the trains. I thought, ‘Huh?’ Being a wise guy I said, “We don’t need no stinkin’ ear plugs. We like trains.” She cooed through pursed lips, “Oooh-Kay,” and handed me the room keys.

Wild Raspberries in Yellowstone
Raspberries.jpg

I love trains, have since I was five when my granddad bought me an American Flyer “Comet” train set. I’d sit on the floor and watch it go around the little oval track gradually turning the transformer knob until it jumped the track and landed on its side, its silver passenger cars all askew. I still have that old train set, and it would be worth a lot of money if it wasn’t so banged up. The last time I rode a train was the Santa Fe out to boot camp from Houston to San Diego. I enjoyed reading Sammy Davis Jr’s paperback I bought at a depot on the way, Yes I Can. It was nearly three days of fine clickity-clack loafing followed by many more days of not loafing for a single minute.

Well, the moral of the story is this: When the girl offers you ear plugs, put your rapier wit back in your hip pocket and take the damn things and jam them firmly into your head’s big dumb ears. Later, while walking Sacha, the train blasted its hell horn, and I think it changed my identity. Sacha did the dog version of Saint Vitus’ dance and Dahna shrieked in agony but, like in space, you couldn’t hear her. Or anything else for about half an hour. Also, don’t order tacos al pastor in Dalhart. Anywhere in Dalhart. They’re not a thing there, trust us.

Fireweed (Chamaenerion angustifolium) – Yellowstone National Park
Fireweed.jpg

Moving right along, we headed for Cheyenne, WY via the plains of eastern Colorado. We decided to take this route because I-25 isn’t much fun even in Colorado. U.S. 385 runs due north out of Dalhart and leads to Springfield, CO. I hadn’t been to Springfield in exactly 50 years, and I wanted to see how it changed from a dusty little town then to what it might be now. Sure enough, like most places, it had swelled in population and possessed all of the franchised accoutrements of what Greg Brown calls the blandification of America. Still, I was happy to be there again.

Back in the summer of ’69 I got the bright idea to drive from Houston to Colorado without a map, just using the sun and stars. I made a lot of good memories on that trip and suppressed the bad ones.

Magnificent Rock Formation in Yellowstone
Rock Formation.jpg

The general direction was northwest and I was going good until I got into a spiderweb of gravel roads out in the Oklahoma panhandle. I broke into Kansas and fell back into Oklahoma four times and started to doubt my sanity when, finally, I crossed the Colorado line with a cheer nobody heard. I ate a good lunch in Springfield and moved on west. Somehow, I spent the night on the ground in the mountains with an encampment of Children of God cultists, but they were sweet back then and still sensible enough to leave me alone. Lots of stars.

The next night I met a group of college guys while shooting pool and drinking 3.2 beer in a joint in Boulder. They invited me to stay with them in their big rooming house nearby. The next day they left on a hike, but I stayed behind and watched the moon landing on a black and white TV with a lonely UC Physics professor who lived in the house. He explained to me the entire process from launch to touchdown in one of my life’s luckiest breaks. That’s when I first started thinking about the singular power of science. But, I never would have guessed I’d teach it myself one day. Kismet and all that.

Dahna was partying on an Italian ship in the Pacific coming home from a year in Australia. She’d watched the landing by satellite at sea and then saw the luminous streak of the Apollo 11 capsule high in the sky as it descended toward splashdown. That’s pretty cool too, but Dahna didn’t consider science until, as a math major, she took Dr. Walter’s Organic class. She changed her major (keeping math as a minor) and became a chemist. I’m pretty positive she’s the only person since Newton who could study Calculus while watching TV at full blast and still ace three semesters of the stuff. I ground out a low B in one semester myself and was grateful.

I knew for sure she was special in a Rain Man kind of way, but without most of the quirks, when I overheard her explain a complex organic reaction mechanism to one of her befuddled professors. Later, he came out to the house and brought her an expensive bottle of wine, but she fed him hamburgers. I still had some pull.

Dahna got tired of eastern Colorado quick because mountains are a big thing to her and there aren’t any there. I laid back in a slouch and drove along easy, relaxing all the way with a little smile that annoyed her no end. With a secret little giggle to myself I amped it up to 11 when I asked her to play K.D. Lang on the iPod. She hates K.D. Lang for some reason that’s a mystery to me, and she’d happily throw Emmy Lou (“What’s that bitch whining about?”) Harris into the snake pit too. Everybody else loves little Emmy Lou just like they worship Van Morrison. But, if Trump shot Van on 5th Avenue I’d have to consider voting for him.

When it comes to music, books, movies, pickups, dogs, whiskey or just about anything else (except religion and politics), personal tastes are almost infinitely at variance, and competence and good sense seem to have nothing to do with them. For instance, Pat Zelman does not like the soaring arias of Roy Orbison, full stop. Hard to believe, isn’t it? Heck, “Crying” was mine and Linda’s song in Jr. High back in ’62. My love for Roy is strong, but doesn’t approach my love for Pat. Nowadays, I have to listen to his operatics with a critical ear, rooting around in each song to find out where Pat’s displeasure lies. I’m still looking, but the clues are ethereal and waft away in the clanking windmills of my mind..

Apparently, just thinking about the plains of eastern Colorado can make your mind wander off just as fast as driving through it. Apologies. 

It didn’t take too long to get back to Dahna’s mountains as we met I-25 north of Denver, barely nicking its crazy anytime traffic. Actually, every city, town and wide spot now has crazy traffic with jillions of people scooting around all over the place going wherever the hell they go. It’s way too many people having way too much fun sex if you ask me, but what can you do?

We got to the room in Cheyenne in fairly short order and nothing much happened which is typical of motels. I remember telling Dahna about staying in Cheyenne at a motel on that same solo trip in ’69 and that I watched TV from the bed and saw Milburn (“Doc! Doc!”) Stone co-host a local fair/rodeo thing. She yawned and asked, “And…?” I shrugged, “That’s it.”

Lonely Bull Bison-Yellowstone N.P.
DSCN2440

In the hallway Sacha’s blue eye stopped a young guy sent on a mission by his girlfriend who stayed in their room. He was to take a picture of the moon with his phone that she told him was, in his own words, “wah wah wah…” Dahna lost patience and cut him off, “Waxing!” “Yeah, that’s it,” he said, “It had been in geb geb gib…” “Gibbous,” I said. “Right!” he was delighted, “That’s what she called it!” This little fandango went on for awhile until we taught him a little moon trick, and he took notes by ballpoint on his palm. He said, “Cool! I bet she don’t know ‘bout this.” He warned us about bears then stepped outside with his phone.

Black Bear-Yellowstone
Black Bear SS.jpg

 

You probably do know ‘bout this but for those lacking in lunar literacy: If you can cup the lighted curve of the moon with your right hand, it’s waxing. If you can cup it with you left, it’s waning. If you can cup it with both hands, it’s full you idiot. 

Since I donated my left hand to the Containment Theory long ago, the moon’s always waxing as far as I’m concerned. But, you’re good to go.

On the Spring Trip we made a pretty good tour of west Yellowstone, but we didn’t make it to the eastern side because the park’s too big. The west side is magnificent, but the east side appealed to us even more. Here you get the long, long valley view with the mountains generally all around but far enough back to get super wide side-to-side views upslope. The Yellowstone and Lamar rivers run through the whole thing in turn making its huge vistas perfect for spotting all the famous avian and terrestrial wildlife that wheel and romp there.

Yellowstone Lake – After The Fire
Yellowstone Lake after the Fire.jpg

We only had a day to drive through east Yellowstone, so we reserved a room at an old motor court near the entrance, a bit west of Cody. Dahna didn’t like it too much, thinking it smelled a little musty. I thought it smelled a little doggy which was fine by me and Sacha. The amazing thing about the place was its clear view of the Smith mansion up on an high hill adjacent.

Frances Lee Smith was an well-respected engineer who lived and worked in Cody not that long ago. He got a bee in his bonnet about building a monument to himself, a mansion that reached for the sky. But, like the Tower of Babel, something had to go wrong. One day in 1992, working at the top without a safety tether, he slipped and fell five or six storeys to his reward, the Darwin, proving that stupidity isn’t confined to the lower percentiles of the IQ scale. The town left the thing the way it stood that day as a memorial to Smith alongside many others dedicated to its namesake, Buffalo Bill Cody, who’s just as dead but more famously. Still, you can read about Smith on the internet.

Smith Mansion
DSCN2409.jpg

If you go to Cody try to find the little bar and grill a bit down the road toward Yellowstone. Can’t remember the name. They make just about the best hamburger, or bison burger (I guess), you ever had and that’s saying a mouthful. Wonderful fries with A1 sauce right there on the table without having to ask. No Fox, just good baseball on the big overhead TV with no sound and a wry, no BS, waitress right out of a Bogart movie. Perfect. You can gas up there just before the entrance to Yellowstone and fill up your car down the street.

Upper Falls – Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River
GCof Yellowstone Upper Falls

Lower Falls – Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone
Lower falls

Below the Falls
Below the Falls

The best hamburger I ever had before Cody was from the old Chuckwagon on Broadway in Houston’s east side where you stood outside to order and eat. Big guys dressed in splattered white aprons would make you a “wheel” if you were real hungry, or a “hub” if you were merely hungry, or a “spoke” if you wanted a hot dog for some reason. No fries, just chips, and it was plenty with huge black sesame seed buns and black pepper slung on the frying patties just right, heavy and with authority. Afterwards, Greg and I would jump on our Schwinns and belch basso all the way to the underpass. Sadly, the Chuckwagon is long gone and so is the one and only Greg Caraway, best friend a lucky kid ever had. 

Grizzly at a Very Safe Distance
Distant Grizzley

 

Black Bear At A Less Safe Distance

 

We only had a day to drive north up Yellowstone’s eastern side and loved every second of it. Unforgettable. But it wasn’t over yet. Both Rocky and Sally pointed out one of America’s most famous drives, the Beartooth Highway, and  it’s hard to believe that I’d never heard of it. For a driver guy like me, that has to rank as unfathomable ignorance, a black mark on my life record.  Fortunately, we took the road– better late than never.

Beartooth Mountains
Beartooth Mountains

When you leave a place like Yellowstone, you naturally expect a descent from a high state of beauty to a lower one, but that’s not what happens if you drive the Beartooth to Red Lodge, MT. Nope. It just gets more and more incredible until you want to bang your head against the wheel to make it stop. Seriously, it’s much too good to pass it by, and you shouldn’t. It’s not that far away, not like Patagonia or El Paso.

From the Top of Beartooth Pass
Beartooth Pass

Like Cody at the other end, Red Lodge is packed in season with portly geezers like us lumbering around in pickups and Tahoes and trim young couples zipping by in Outbacks, CRV’s and RAV4s. The town looks like what it is, a prosperous tourist destination with a plethora of good restaurants, designer shops and lots of no vacancy signs.

Tailing a Couple of Indian Flyers Down the Pass
Version 2 (1).jpg

Sally Reid, close friend, author and high school girlfriend deluxe, recommended one restaurant in particular, the Carbon County Steakhouse. Aside from the fact that her daughter-in-law manages the place and her firefighter son, Ryan, helps out there too, it’s reputed to be tops in Red Lodge. Unfortunately, the day had no room for the CCS or any other restaurant. We were dead tired, more road weary than hungry and our “room” settled the question of why bother to even eat at all.

Descending the Beartooth
Descending the Beartooths

Dahna booked the room at the two storey, dog friendly motel months earlier. Since Sacha hates stairs and new places generally, Dahna reserved a downstairs room in case I had to carry her in. Down is easier than up in this universe. But “down” at this place was in a deep basement with a dark entrance leading to a landing, then down again—an intimidating eight mismatched steps that terrified Sacha and scared me too. Up would have been a lot easier as it turned out.

Where the Antelope Play…
Where the Antelope Play

 Normally, Sacha doesn’t mind when I have to pick her up with her supportive “lifting harness” and carry her 55 pounds into a new room or hallway. This time she squealed through the whole descent, and I whined in empathy, partly for her. But the cherry on top of the whole thing came when we opened the door to our room and the fetid air of a thousand dungeons hit us like a hard right cross smack in the old schnozzola (Goodnight Mrs. Calabash, wherever you are).

Dahna said, “It’s a little musty in here.”

I said, “It stinks.”

She said, “A little doggie.”

I said, “Stinks.”

She said, “Okay, a lot doggie.”

I said, “A lot doggie where they all died three weeks ago.”

She: “So? What do you want me to about it? The whole frickin’ town’s booked.”

Me: “Call the desk and get ‘em to bring some air freshener or something.”

She: “You call them!”

Me: “With what phone?”

“No phone?? Christ on a cracker!” (* her Catholic upbringing)

“Use the cell.”

“Still in the truck.”

“Well, I ain’t going up there.”

“Then shut up.”

The volley gave Sacha that doleful look of misery only dogs can muster, and we both laughed when we saw it. We gave her kisses and hugs and that made us both feel better. All three of us were beat and not up for anything. We weren’t hungry, happy or sad, just done. Using her acute powers, Dahna observed that we both could miss a meal, suggested a stiff drink instead and it was so ordered. Then another. Soon after, we collapsed on the bed and stayed there in surrender watching TV and reading a little. The miasma of the place settled over us, saturating our disposition and our clothes and, befittingly, paralleled the news of the day. We might have slept. Can’t remember.

It dawned on Dahna that places that take dogs aren’t necessarily the Ritz, and, in fact, couldn’t be if they wanted. She thought we should be glad so many were available to us on the way. I concurred with the caveat that basements were out in the future. I never understood the basement concept anyway. I consider good luck and overbuilt houses to be the best defense against tornadoes, and who wants to carry a pool table down a flight of stairs anyway? I don’t know how our house smells to other people, probably not great, but I don’t think about it much since our friends are all dog nuts and likely don’t care.

We agree that Yellowstone deserves its ranking as a terminal destination for us in the foreseeable future, maybe two years from now. Aside from the pleasures more YS will give, we’ll have more visits with Linda, Rocky and Elaine, and maybe give the Carbon County Steakhouse a chance to soak us for a couple of its renowned steaks. We left the “motel” with an Obama-esque shoulder flick, complete with Dubya smirk, and it was off to Helena to see Linda and a much better evening, that’s for sure.

Bison Babies Enjoying the Sunshine
Bison Babies.jpg

Our night in Helena was our last before picking up the RV in Missoula. The room that night was the nicest by far, and the reunion with Linda made it even better. She came down to Comanche to visit a couple of years ago not feeling her best to put it mildly. A couple of years before that she trudged through the snow to her barn intending to feed her horses when a stacked hay bale fell down breaking her leg in a terrible compound fracture. Just try to imagine making the long crawl back to the house like Wyeth’s Christina, but in agony, dragging a broken leg through the snow in a Montana winter and living to tell about it.

The operations and medications took a heavy toll and ended a lifetime of competitive and pleasure riding that stretched from her girlhood in Houston to heading Montana’s racing commission and beyond. She found good homes for her horses and began the process of reordering her life, now on a new, unexpected and unwelcome path. I suppose most people go through this process as they grow older, but not so suddenly.

We were, therefore, thrilled to find the Woman of Horses we’ve known for 50 years, that pretty Scandinavian hippie chick with the quick laugh and bright eyes, back with us and sparkling once again. She took us to a snappy bar and grill where we sat on stools at a high table and ordered big gooey sandwiches. Linda had a good reuben and tried a local brew, while Dahna and I split two French dips, one heavy with bacon, one thankfully without. Wonderful.

Defying Gravity
DSCN2463.jpg

Afterward, she drove us around town in her trusty Subaru, and I asked her to take us by the old house she used to own with her partner, Dave. Forty-three years ago Dahna and I hitchhiked from our old farm in SE Utah to Helena to visit them there, and I wanted to see if my memory matched up with reality. It did some but only a little. The house looked great, remodeled like the rest on the street, and I recognized some aspects of it but others slipped in memory.

We stayed with them for a couple of days listening to good music through giant speakers, played a game of Hearts with an unhappy Dave partnered with a flustered Dahna, new to the game, and watched a sudden hail storm beat the living crap out of their garden. Linda remembered that and beamed, “You know that little garden came back, big time!” I just shook my head, “Unbelievable.” The storm had pounded it flat right before our eyes. Brutal. Back at the room we laughed and reminisced about the good times and bad, all those years, and talked of our plans for the future. We kissed her goodnight as she left, read a little and drifted off to sleep, pleased and on a good bed.

We’ve enjoyed the beautiful ride coming into Missoula from the east several times. The mountains and valleys always keep our mood good, and this time we were happy as clams just by the thought of retrieving our comfy camper, truly our second home, from storage in nearby Florence. We called ahead and met Elaine at their nifty house near Clinton, tucked in its own picturesque mountain valley. We stopped to pick up a couple of items we shipped ahead to their address. One was an electric mattress pad we bought online from Target to replace the old electric blanket that didn’t fit and always tripped us in the dark with its loops of wires hanging out like snares.

These devices really save propane when you’re traveling in cold climes like we do sometimes. RVs are heated with costly propane you buy wherever, but the electric costs are built into the flat price of the site rental. It’s okay if the cabin temperature drops a lot through the night as long as your bed is toasty, and your husky whatever mix won’t mind a bit. It’s a kick to get goosed by a cold nose when she bellies in to snuggle between us on frigid mornings. Three happy peas in a pod, snug as a bug in a rug, the middle one with urgency issues and a whappy tail.

About six hours after leaving Elaine we had the trailer set up in our site and running, the new electric mattress pad lying in wait under the clean sheets and bedspread. We got to the Sehnerts’ about 7:00 PM for dinner of Rocky’s special soup, crusty bread and wine—very European, very good. Sacha loves their place and that night overcame her fear of the hardwood kitchen/dining floor. After timidly walking out on it from the safety of the living room carpet and not falling into the abyss, she had free run of the house and deck. Everything but the back rooms where the cats lurked in ambush.

Sawsepal Pentsemon (Penstemon glaber)
DSCN2584.jpg

On the third day in Missoula, Dahna awoke to hives on her arms and stomach and in her ears. She went straight for the Benadryl, popping a pill and slathering the gel all over. The hives went away. The next morning they were back just as bad. More Benadryl. We stripped the bed and removed the new mattress pad and repackaged it and then washed the sheets. The morning after that…no hives. Dahna, being a scientist, studied the data set and concluded, “This damn thing is going back to Target and I’d better get my money back.” She did.

The wonderful thing about doing business with a leviathan like Target is that the clerks are always on your side, at least when their managers aren’t snooping around.

I needed to get my truck serviced so Rocky met me at the Chevy house in his truck. The plan was to fool around in town while they worked on it. I showed him my back left tire that only had about 1/8” of tread left compared to the three others that looked okay with about twice that much. I thought maybe I should buy a new tire, but Rocky told me something I didn’t know about tires and four wheel drive vehicles. He said the tires on these vehicles had to be the same size because of the way their differentials work. He said, “I doubt they’ll sell you a single tire because the difference in size puts too much stress on the rear end.”

Sure enough, the Chevy house wanted me to sign a waiver holding them harmless if I went with a single tire. They recommended a full set. Rocky just grinned and shrugged with his arms crossed. The paranoia lobe in my brain screamed, ‘Tire Scam! Tire Scam!’ So, I showed them and ordered a single tire. Rocky just shook his head. The tire wasn’t in stock and had to be ordered and that gave the nellie nervosa lobe in my brain time to freak out. What if my differential exploded in some God forsaken place like Canada where they all speak French gibberish and I can’t find my passport and…and…and so on. So, I cancelled the one tire and ordered a whole set.

You’re probably wondering why the hell I’m buying tires from GM, and I don’t really have an answer for that. Especially when they decided to hit me with a $45.00/tire overcharge for the terrible burden of having to load them on the truck in Butte. Look, I enjoy wasting money as much as the next guy, even more sometimes, but that day I just wasn’t sympathetic to their plight. I cancelled the whole thing.

In the meantime, Rocky had researched his subscription to Consumer Reports and gave me a comprehensive breakdown of their top picks, complete with sub ratings. He also gave me the names of several local tire shops he trusted. Dahna and I shifted into high gear and went out for bid on the cell. We got a good deal on a set of Michelin All Season LT 265/17s with a 121 load rating, an E load range 10 ply and an R speed rating that’ll let me run on these babies all day at 106 MPH, no sweat. And I’m happy. Happy but broke. Of course, now I’m worried about the trailer’s tires but, thankfully, I can’t afford them.

Angling for Cutthroat Trout
Angling for the Cutthroat

We had a great time with Rocky and Elaine, good food and talk, and we left Missoula a little wistfully headed north for Kalispell and Glacier National Park. We wondered when we’d see our old Montana friends again, geography being what it is. But if this trip has proven just one thing, it’s like Jim Morrison said, “The west is the best.” The scale of it, the beauty, draws you back again and again, so it might not be too long before we come back.

Right now, it’s the late afternoon on the last full day of our seven days in in the midst of Canada’s biggest pearl, Banff National Park. Adjoined by four other incredible parks, Jasper, Yoho, Glacier and Kootenay, there are no words to describe what your eyes cannot believe. That’s why I’ll let Dahna tell you all about it. Incredible photos come with and even a few short videos you’ll love. Stay tuned.

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

by Pat Branyan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sagebrush and Antelope Bitterbrush in the foothill of Crystal Peak on the California-Nevada border near Verdi, NV
DSCN1049 (1).jpg

Antelope Bitterbrush (Purshia tridentata) in bloomDSCN1035.jpg

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

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

Stellar’s Jay – Verdi, Nevada
DSCN1017

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

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

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

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

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

Spotted Towhee – Verdi, Nevada
DSCN1038

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

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

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

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

Cinnamon Teal – Lake Washoe State Park, NevadaDSCN0968

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

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

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

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

Yellow Warbler – Welcome Station RV Park, Wells, NV
DSCN1192

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

Pat & Sacha Out for a Walk near Welcome Station RV Park, Nevada
DSCN1139.jpg

 

Spotted Sandpiper – Welcome Station RV Park, Wells, Nevada
DSCN1156

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

Yellow-headed Blackbird – near Rupert, Idaho
DSCN1543.jpg

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

Western Tanager, Lake Walcott State Park, Idaho
DSCN1485

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

Female Bullock’s Oriole  – trying to use fishing line for nesting material. Sadly, this results in severe injury and death to many birds. Please properly dispose of old line.
DSCN1762

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

Canada Goose, Family in Tow at Lake Walcott, Idaho
DSCN1309

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

The Lovely Wilson Theater in Rupert, Idaho (Someday you might be able to get to it). There’s something about Rupert…
IMG_0292


Red-winged Blackbirds – Lake Walcott State Park, ID
DSCN1515

I imagine Sophie cribbed the name of her cafe from the mythical Chatterbox Cafe from “A Prairie Home Companion.”  All things considered, it could be that Garrison Keillor might well have stumbled into Sophie’s while doing his broadcast from the Wilson Theater and lifted the name instead from her very own actual, possibly magical, cafe. Who knows? It’s a mystery. Speaking of mysteries, anybody heard from Garrison lately?

Lark Sparrow – Lake Walcott State Park, Idaho
DSCN1718.jpg

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

Young Buck at Lake Walcott
DSCN1404.jpg

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

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

White Pelican – Lake Henry,  Island Park, Idaho
DSCN2078.jpg

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

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

A few hours after we arrived they brought fried chicken and trimmings out to the camper making the living easy. Isn’t it wonderful having friends you can impose on with impunity?
Cedar Waxwing – Rupert, Idaho
DSCN1656

A day or so later Rocky cooked a flank steak for us that through some sort of sorcery turned the humble cut into one of the best steaks we ever had. Sacha loved their place too and quirked it out like only she can by trapping herself within the invisible force field of their living room carpet. She would not step onto the hardwood floor of their kitchen for all the wienies in Pelosi’s caucus. 

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

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

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

Well-fed Evening Grosbeaks on Rocky & Elaine’s Back Porch – near Missoula, MT
Version 2.jpg

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

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

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

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

IMG_0323.jpg

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

TO BE CONTINUED…

At Home With a Few of The Branyan Peach Eaters
DSCN2289 (2)

    

Spring Trip: Friendly Aggravation

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

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

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

Seafare Inn restaurant in Whittier to close after 53 years

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

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

Lovely people…


Hi Pat and Dahna,

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

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

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

Shelley and Gary Milhous

 

SPRING TRIP, Part 3: A Pineapple in the Desert

By Pat Branyan

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

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

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

First Saguaros!
IMG_0233

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

Superstition Mountains
DSCN9714.jpg

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

The Flatirons at Lost Dutchman State Park
DSCN9585.jpg

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

Brown-headed Cowbird Checking out a Saguaro Blossom
DSCN9671

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

Gilded Flicker
DSCN9664 (1).jpg

 

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

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

Bendire’s Thrasher
Bendire's Thrasher.jpg

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

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

Verdin
DSCN9764 (1)

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

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

Gila Woodpecker
DSCN9678 (1).jpg

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

Abert’s Towhee
Abert's Towhee.jpg

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

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

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

Tortilla Flat on the Old Apache Trail
DSCN9711.jpg

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

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

I’ve got his number if you need it.

Phoenix Reunion with Tom and Karen West
IMG_0238.jpg

  

 

 

SPRING TRIP, Part 2: Big Rockhound Candy Mountain

by Pat Branyan

It was pitch black when I woke up and reached over to the night table for my trusty old Timex. It lit up blue when I pressed the stem, and I tried to focus on the dial but I had to look through six hours of sleep. “5:15 AM,” it said when the little black hands appeared out of the fog. I let out a little exploratory cough but Dahna didn’t move, so I got up. I put a few things on in the dark, walked into the living area and punched a couple of buttons on the thermostat. The propane furnace came to life, and then I punched another one for the coffee, sat down and waited with Sacha.

The trailer was getting toasty when the cell phone’s weird alarm went off next to Dahna’s head about 15 minutes later. I always let this happen on travel day because I prefer not to get cussed out that early. However, I don’t mind the cell phone getting it good and hard. Her dad was the sweetest man ever born, but he was a sailor and I guess that’s where she gets it from. Anyway, she generally hits the “snooze” like a prizefighter and heads for that in-between state that’s safer to wake her up from. I call her when the coffee’s ready and so begins another travel day.

Our next stop was Rockhound State Park just south of Deming, NM. We both love New Mexico having tramped over a good bit of it in our 47 years together. We especially like the Ruidoso area and nearly bought land there back in ’72. Unfortunately, I had long hair and a beard and the realtors (a seedy lot) wouldn’t talk to me. The next day in a rest area near Socorro, Dahna cut my hair, and I whacked off my beard. 

Right after New Years, a Mormon United Farm agent was pleased to take us way out on Summit Point in the high desert (7200’) of southeastern Utah. We bought a remote 80 acres which was half of the homestead of a lovely Dustbowl couple originally from Kansas. We had to walk a quarter mile through two feet of snow to look at the place, and the poor agent was a little too short for the struggle.

Lark Bunting, breeding male. These little sparrows winter in southern New Mexico and southward.  This is a first sighting for us. In spring they head north to the prairies. Interestingly, the females are pretty fickle in mate selection from year to year. One year she might prefer a strong beak in her mate, while the next, she might go for more distinctive wing bars. What’s a fella to do? Genetically, it does keep the male traits from becoming exaggerated.
DSCN9405.jpg

I looked out at the beautiful winter scene of thick piñon pine and Juniper stands ringing the blanketed wheat and pinto bean fields. The Blue Mountains were snow covered and looked close enough to touch through the sharp air. When the agent finally caught his breath and I could not hear a single sound, I said, “I’ll take it.”

I’m not sure how he felt a few months later when he saw us in Monticello, long hair and beard somewhat restored. But, we were a local sensation. Farmers and ranchers traveled miles out to see us almost every day, and after awhile they thought of us fondly as “their hippies” from Texas. One day the famous Rigby Wright, sheriff of San Juan County rolled out to visit. He accepted Dahna’s dinner invitation, and over coffee the subject of marijuana came up. I asked him, “Does it grow up here?” He answered me with a big grin, “I was going to ask you.” We’ve always felt at home in the desert after living there.

The Little Florida Mountains at Sunset -Another “Sky Island” in the Chihuahuan Desert
DSCN9340

Through the years we have driven past Deming on the interstate but never visited. This time we drove right through it to get to the campsite tucked up in the base of the Little Florida Mountains. We could see the park about two miles away by looking up a little, and I muttered, “Rough as a cob.” The mountain desert certainly is rough, brandishing its violent volcanic past with rugged cliffs and boulders and a spiky flora of cacti and mesquite. The fauna is on the bitey side with a healthy complement of cougars, bobcats and rattlers. It’s a good idea to keep your eyes open and watch out. And your little dog too.

Curved Bill Thrasher – His long curved bill is used to sweep through leaf litter on the ground to find bugs, often flipping dried cow patties to get the bugs underneath and washing them down with cactus fruits. This thrasher was singing his heart out from the top of an ocotillo at sunset. Their song and mimicry of other birds is akin to the mockingbird’s song.
DSCN9351

The park host called her husband, and he soon met us on his John Deere Gator. He led us to our spot, an easy back in, and waited to help out if necessary. Naturally, I quickly made a mess of it. I was embarrassed, of course, but embarrassment is an old friend of mine. When I got out of the truck, I stuck my hand out and laughed, “Piece of cake. I’m Pat.” He laughed too and we shook hands. “I’m Orville,” he said. Every fiber of my being wanted to ask him, “Oh? How’s Wilbur?” Alas, maturity is finally creeping up on me so I just said, “Glad to meet you Orville.”

We had a nice chat, and then we got down to the business of setting up in his fine park.

View From Our Campsite – Yes, that is prickly pear in the foreground. Most of the greenery is prickly pear and creosote bush. There are a number of trails winding through the cactus to the top of the mountain, but be careful not to trip, fall and roll down slope.
DSCN9366.jpg

Apart from its scenic wonders, there are a couple of things that distinguish this park from most others. The small camping fee entitles you to access three other nearby state parks. One of them, City of Rocks S.P. consists of igneous rock originally created by vulcanism and then slowly carved out by erosion over millions of years into something like giant figurines, all closely packed together and standing up tall. The big formations dot the park and are connected to each other by a mini canyon maze of pathways, hence the “city” in the park’s name. 

This arrangement creates numerous discrete camping spots for day use, each delineated by the high rock walls. We visited on Easter Sunday, and it became a city of picnickers since what looked like half the populations of Deming and Silver City filled every nook and cranny of the place. A happy hullabaloo out in the desert.

City of Rocks State Park
DSCN9456

The other unique thing about Rockhound is the encouragement of the campers to actually rockhound a little. Each person is allowed to take home up to 15 pounds of rocks in a complete departure from the environmental strictures we’ve always known in the parks. We’re not rock collectors, but for those that are, the 15 pound weight limit makes sense. First, the policy makes other rocks available for the folks that follow. Secondly, an old 50s movie provides a cautionary tale for greedy rockhounds. Maybe you’ve seen the Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz classic comedy, “The Long Long Trailer.” The salient point is that souvenir rocks get real heavy in an uphill hurry as Lucy and Desi found out the hard way.

Scaled Quail, or “Cotton-Tops” scurry around the campground, along with Gambel’s Quail.
DSCN9408

(Female) Gambel’s Quail are mostly ground birds, but we also saw them perched in small shrubs calling.
DSCN9448

The rocks you can find there are pretty cool. Black perlite, quartz and jasper samples are found plus geodes and thunder eggs with a little effort. I admit that after a full year of geology, I never heard of thunder eggs. Either that or I forgot…whatever. Anyway, these are rocks that have a solid mineral core of varying crystals, unlike the semi hollow geodes. They got their name from some Oregonian Indians who used to find them strewn thereabouts. The lore goes that occasionally the gods atop Mt. Jefferson and Mt. Hood would generate thunderstorms by getting mad at each other and pelting each other with eggs laid by the thunderbirds.

It doesn’t seem so far fetched to me, speaking as one whose roof once got hailed out in a rotating Texas thunderstorm. Fortunately, I had Acts of the Gods insurance. They’re quirky and you can never be too prepared when they get all up in a big snit with each other.

Another park in the “free” network of passes is Pancho Villa State Park about 30 miles south of Rockhound. It lies near dusty Columbus, NM on the Mexican-U.S. border. Its claim to fame rests on its history as the only American town attacked by Mexicans, specifically Pancho Villa, during its ten year Revolutionary War (1910-1920), and the last in the continental U.S. by any foreign army to date. In the spring of 1916, Villa had been defeated by reactionary elements, and his army was dispersed, demoralized, and needed arms and supplies.

Desert In Bloom
DSCN9458

 

Looking across the border, Columbus seemed like a good bet. Unfortunately for Villa, his reconnaissance team’s count of the troops manning the American calvary garrison in town was woefully inadequate. He invaded early in the morning, shooting up, burning and looting the place until the surprised troops and townspeople got it together to return fire. He managed to capture the arms and supplies he needed but had to hotfoot it back over the border pronto to try to outrun the enraged American calvary men pursuing with blood in their eyes.

President Wilson, miffed to the max, ordered Gen. John J. “Blackjack” Pershing to basically bring him the head of Villa in what was called the Punitive Expedition. Even though Pershing deployed trucks and aircraft for the first time in American warfare, he failed to deliver Pancho. He did manage, with a young and eager George Patton, to bloody what was left of Villa’s army, but the mission was not a success because Pancho escaped and Wilson’s personal vendetta remained unsatisfied. WWI interrupted the futile pursuit, and it was in Europe where Blackjack found his glory, such that it was.

Pancho Villa was assassinated Bonnie and Clyde style while still a young man, although it was a happy short life. He was reportedly married dozens of times without the inconveniences of divorce dogging him. He was after all a general and, well…rank has its privileges.

Jackrabbit on a Lazy Desert Day
DSCN9492

Monday, our last day there, was a work day in Deming. First we needed to cash a check. We had a little fun with the late middle aged teller through the long process. I had to provide a lot of ID plus sign a number of documents and even leave a thumbprint. We were in a good mood though, and so was she and pretty soon all three of us were laughing about how stupid it all was. Gaiety aside, she was a pro and continually admonished the fidgety people waiting in line behind us that, “I’ll be with you in a moment.”

Next was a quick lunch in the truck from a super fastidious kid working alone at the Subway. Since we had Sacha with us I stayed with her while Dahna went inside to order a couple of sandwiches. After nearly 30 minutes I was about to go looking for her when she came out with the food. Subways aren’t great but they’ll always do in a pinch. These two six inchers were by far the best we ever had because, as Dahna told me, the kid was actually a born-to-be chef, and he constructed the sandwiches as though they were entrees in a Michelin 3 star French restaurant. Of course, by the time we got them we we hungry enough to eat the caliche off a Hill Country road cut.

Cactus Wren – Before you see the Cactus Wren, you might see their nests in low brush and cactus – large football-shaped affairs made from grass and agave fibers with a small entry hole in one end where they can raise up to three broods in a season.
DSCN9498

Finally, there was the laundromat. Ordinarily there’s not much fun in that, but when we pulled up and got out, a strong Latina woman of 35 or so was standing beside her old Tahoe bawling out one of her kids on her cell for not helping with the family’s big wash load. Her hybrid tirade in Spanish and English was a thing of high art and beauty, sprinkled mightily with expletives in both languages. Her voice would swell into a roar then drop to a whispered snarl. I hope that kid of hers grows up to be president. She sure had the mom for it. 

We had a fine time in Deming that day, and I think we’ll always think fondly of that somewhat poor, but happy, little town. We drove back out to Rockhound later in the afternoon, had a couple of drinks outside and enjoyed the panoramic desert views and the clean, dry air. We didn’t stay there long because we wanted to spend a little more time with our friends in Phoenix, Tom and Karen West. Still, we hated to leave so quickly and so we put Rockhound and Deming on our lengthening list of places to come back to.

We went to bed early that night and Dahna set the cell alarm for 5:30 AM.

Sacha, NOT on a travel day

DSCN0214.jpg

 

SPRING TRIP, PART 1: The Agony and the Excedrin

by Pat Branyan

Today is the last day of our first stop on the six week western half of a two part RV journey spanning three time zones, two countries, eleven states, seven famous national parks, and 6,000 miles. I’m tired just thinking about it and re-reading that first sentence didn’t help any. Unlike the last 6,000 miler to Nova Scotia, we’re trying something new, in our feeble way, to make long distance trailer travel easier and better and less taxing on Patty, our steadfast house sitter.

This new notion consists of two main parts. First, drive a good way farther on travel day in order to be able to spend more time in fewer sites along the way. You get to know each place better, and you significantly reduce the set up and break down hassles which can be pretty frustrating. No matter how tiring travel day is, you’ll still have plenty of time to recover and see the sights before you hit it again.

Secondly, instead of spending three months on the road, break the odyssey up into two, six-week segments. Store the camper for several months where you end Segment 1 and quickly drive home sans camper, staying in motels. Get some rest, catch up around the house, relieve Patty and go back when you’re ready. You pick up the camper where you left it and begin Segment 2. This saves Patty the expense of three weeks in therapy from going stir crazy in Comanche, Texas after too many months of outpost duty. It puts more miles on the truck but less on us, at least that’s the theory.

I call the first segment Spring Trip and the second segment Fall Trip. Dahna likes to squeeze my hand and tell me how creative I am.

Davis Mountains State Park (Taken by Travis K. Witt – Wikimedia Commons) The white building in the distance is the Indian Lodge built by the CCC in the 1930’s.
Davis Mountains

We began the new experiment on April 1st, about the time,”…showers pierce to the root,” as Geoffrey C. said to me from the 14th Century in Ms. Rummel’s senior English Class. We did a good job preparing, having gotten better and better, but there’s always a rub. This time it was bad back spasms for us both at the outset and they dogged us like nasty little stilettos each time we moved a certain way. We did make the 375 miles to our first campsite in Texas’ incredible Davis Mountains, but the first two days were spent on the tenderest of light duty.

Say’s Phoebe – These little flycatchers can be seen all over the park. They tend to perch low, jump on a bug and return to the same perch.
Version 2 (1).jpg

Our little town Comanche is pretty much in the middle of nowhere, as Patty knows too well, and to get to the Davis Mountains, also in the middle of nowhere, you have to go through Bum @#$%, Egypt. Out past San Angelo on the Concho River going southwest, the Chihuahuan  desert starts to announce itself as the mesquites get shorter and thinner. The grass hangs around for awhile to keep the dust down, but we know we have sand storms in our future further west. I love the way it happens. It makes me relax, and I always get a kick out of Conductor Dahna when she happily cribs a line from the Firesign Theater, “All out for Fort Stinking Desert!”

Davis Mountains – Formed 35 million years ago from volcanic activity in the region, they form a sky island in the Chihuahuan Desert. Sky islands are isolated  mountains surrounded by lowlands with a vastly different environment. Renamed for Jefferson Davis, we prefer to think of them by their previous name the Limpia Mountains, so named for the creek than runs through them as a place of spiritual cleansing.
DSCN9147.jpg

This was our second visit to the Davis Mountains, a favorite place for us and anybody who’s ever been there. It pairs nicely with Big Bend National Park to its south which I think is Texas’ only park owned by Uncle Sam. Almost all Texas land is private, enforced in the Lone Star imagination with barbed wire, big-wheeled pickups, and Model 94 30-30s.” Our friend Ron gets animated just thinking about these desert parks and says there’s no place like them. Of course, no place in Texas is like any other place because Texas long ago slipped the surly bonds of “place.”

Go to Outer Mongolia and tell the guy you’re from any other state or country, and he’ll probably scowl and take a little step toward you. Tell him you’re a Texan, and he’s liable to offer you his daughter. I like the way all other Americans, possibly excepting Alaskans, hate us with a passion. I’m pretty sure it runs the way they hate the NY Yankees—so it’s good. You can’t see Russia from Texas because all you can see from Texas is more Texas and that’s good too. Especially the Davis Mountains and Big Bend. Ron and Lorey are mulling over another trip out there in their little pop up camper. I can just see Ron straining to keep Lorey’s blonde head in sight as she charges over hill and dale on Mission: See Everything.

Black-headed Grosbeak – Stopping Over In the Davis Mountains to Refuel Before Heading Home to mate (to the west and northwest) This handsome feminist shares egg sitting and feeding with his mate.
DSCN9281

Months before our visit, we made reservations to go to the Star Party at McDonalds Observatory. The cosmologists there set up several outdoor telescopes and give a presentation to orient us rubes to our stellar position, thus our insignificance as if we needed any more evidence. Unfortunately, it happened the first night of our arrival and our aching backs forced our genteel southern upbringing to cancel on our behalf. It didn’t want us yelping through the talk much less screaming as we bent down to look through the scopes, probably knocking them over. Dahna smiled bravely through the disappointment and said, “I guess we’ll have to come back,” “Yeah,” I said, “The horror,” and we had a little laugh.  

I don’t remember much of the second day since I slept through most of it. I was vaguely aware of Dahna “woofing” as the spasms knocked the breath out of her while she got ready for a bit of light birding. The third day I remained motionless and finished off the fourth of Raymond Chandler’s most famous noir novels and typed the first draft of the title of this piece. Dahna meanwhile ranged out further and longer on her birding trips and got some great shots including a Scott’s Oriole, a Townsend Solitaire, and a Black Headed Grosbeak, all new to her. The spasms were losing their grip.

Townsend Solitaire – Although he’s a thrush, who normally spend their time close to the ground, these birds sing prettily and defend their territory from the treetops.
DSCN9161

The fourth day was my second favorite. It was Thursday, the best time to go to Cueva de Leon Mexican Restaurant in Ft, Davis. On that day, each week, five old codgers like me, except with talent, come out to play nifty sets of old, well-written country rock songs on the big covered dog- friendly patio. We caught them on our last visit with Sacha tied to our table next to a big and sweet old German Shepherd female tied to hers. For once our also sweet, but alpha, Siberian Husky/Akita mix rescue didn’t attack, so we ate our fine enchiladas in peace to the songs of John Prine and Townes van Zandt sung live, if barely.

This time Dahna had the Chili Relleno platter while I stuck with my enchiladas because I am a child. This is a fine restaurant and you should stop by, especially on Thursdays. We puttered around town and went back to the park to laze around, especially in my case. Dahna disappeared into an avian wonderland while I kicked back with Wallace Stegner’s  Angle of Repose, one of Dahna’s favorites. I wrote a little too, napped and took Sacha out so she could jump at a darting lizard or two. We just sort of breathed it all in until the sun set down beyond our next stop.j

Big Bend Tree Lizard slinking out of the shadows for this little noir moment.
DSCN9258

Our last full day was my favorite. We remembered that we had forgotten to bring any cash on the trip, so after a long leisurely morning we headed to Ft. Davis to get some. We got to the bank at 12:50 PM and it was closed, no doubt for lunch. So, we waited across the parking lot at a little fenced-in memorial built and maintained by the Daughters of the Confederacy. Along with a few benches and trees, it had a small two-sided wall engraved with the names of all the local boys who took up arms to defend whatever country their leaders said they were citizens of. It didn’t discriminate and included everybody up to the present. There were a lot of names on it, and I thought it nice you didn’t have to get killed to be listed on it like on some walls.

About 1:04 PM with no tellers in sight, a long-lapsed little Catholic girl, the kind I wasn’t allowed to hold hands with back in the 50s, clicked a little gear into place and practically shouted, “Jesus Christ! It’s Good Friday!” I sort of groaned, “Ahhh…damn.” Finally, I said, “We got a lot of gas in the truck. Let’s go get lost in the Davis Mountains,” and that’s what we did.

We headed back toward the park and beyond up toward the observatory. As we went by, Dahna said, “I can’t believe we’ve been here twice and never looked through a telescope.” I said, “We gotta come back.” We looked at each other, “Yesss,” she said. The little two lane took us through it for a hundred miles nearly. I rolled the windows down to let in the cool air and set the cruise to 45. It was all up and down, over and around with the desert all over everything, the granite and the sand. Finally, we settled into a long slope that wound down into the flat, and I just let the whole thing wash over me. God, I love Texas.

Scott’s Orioles thrive on the yuccas that abound in the park. They drink the nectar from the flowers and eat bugs that also feed on the plant. Their nest bags, built from woven dead yucca leaves, are often found hanging from the yucca itself.
DSCN9155

“You’re really getting sentimental in your old age,” Dahna said. “You tear up all the time now,” she tittered, “I remember the tough Marine I married.” I said, “You only married me because I was rich and good looking.” “You’re still cute,” she said. “I’d rather be rich,” I said, “But thanks just the same, Four Eyes.” “Hey!” She barked.

We pulled into Ft. Davis a little after three and I gassed up. We started thinking about heading out to New Mexico and got up way too early the next day for us night owls. We had a new theory to test, and that meant a long, long travel day ahead.

Lazuli Bunting  – migrating through the mountains. Like all buntings they make their nests in thickets and dense chaparral. I had just enough time to get a single photo before he flitted away.
DSCN8789

   

  

MAPLE LEAF RAG: Prologue, Epilogue, and Home From the Hill

by Pat Branyan

One year ago we let the real estate contract expire on our Comanche place. We had it listed for six months and priced it sky high. We had some interest but not enough to pay my price, one I hoped would discourage any but the nuttiest buyer. It worked! Nobody bought it and I was happy because I love the place and my crazy neighbor, Ray. He’s well-known locally as Black Bart and, believe me, you don’t want to cross Ray.

[BTW, John Wesley Hardin killed a deputy about two miles from our house on the square in Comanche back in the days long before James Arness. We did, however, have a famous sheriff that never carried a gun. Nobody ever outdrew him. His name was Gaston Boykins and he’s mentioned in “No Country For Old Men”]

Meanwhile, back at the pecan ranch…

Dahna was not pleased at the outcome because she had set her sights on living full time on the road in a Class A motorhome financed by the sale of the property. Her stated rationale made sense whenever I hit the Old Crow a little too hard but I always came to my senses, such that they are.

“Look,” she’d say, “this country’s gone completely off the deep end, and God knows what’s going to happen. If we’re self-contained on the road we can escape to Canada or Mexico if worse comes to worst.”

I’d say, “Sure, let’s go to Canada now that they hate us and freeze our butts off as a bonus. Oh oh! I’m sure we can get by with pidgin sign language in Mexico,” I waved my hand in the air, “Besides it’s too hot there.”

She’d say, “Are you crazy? It’s 108 degrees out there.” pointing at the door. “There are mountains in Mexico and towns like San Juan de Allende where David goes all the time that are nice and cool.” I’d pretend to shiver, “Brrr.”

She’d look at me through slits like I was a pile of Sacha’s poop, “We shoulda’ sailed Alchemy to Europe when we had the chance.” The pitch and amplitude of her voice was rising like a bad following sea, “You know, like we planned! We’d be there now if you hadn’t decided to sell the boat.” And I’d say, “Now whoa there big fella…”

It would go back and forth like this, over and over. The truth is Dahna is really a gypsy and is not comfortable anywhere for long no matter the political climate, or any climate for that matter. We have spent a fairly long string of years in a couple of places, but you really have to look at the averages to get a true picture of the lady. In 46 years we’ve lived in 13 places because she gets bored. If you do the math, you’ll see that holding her back is like restraining a team of huskies in flip flops.

But I won this time. “For now,” she reminds me.

All I had to do was less physical labor, support her deer herd and birds, and travel more–a lot more. Hence the new winter-livable Arctic Fox. I mentioned that we had never traveled east to speak of when she admitted that she’d never been to Ohio.

Covered Bridge – Geneva, OH
IMG_0048.jpg

“The hell you say,” I was shocked, “Why, that’s unAmerican!” I was in an expansive mood though so I said, “We can go through Ohio on our way to…Nova Scotia!! She lit up like a Christmas turkey, “Yeah!,” she actually jumped, “Now you’re talking.” “We can visit the Curtoys,” I said. She said, “Yeah, and go up to the Great Lakes… Nova Scotia…” You could almost hear the gears whirring in her head, “Maybe in the Fall. See the colors.” “Yeah, and all the birds you don’t see here,” I added with a greasy Ted Cruz smile.

My nefarious plot worked. She was hooked on the idea. The only problem…excuse me…One of the problems was that I was going to have to haul my fanny up north where it’s cold and shivery. Another was getting my head around the logistics of a three months long excursion which is one of the many things I’m terrible at. Then I remembered…Dahna’s great at logistics along with practically everything else. I was starting to relax when she left the room saying, “You’d better get busy planning this trip.”

I cracked my knuckles and was about to start when I saw a cat video on the internet. Later, I got down to work with Google Maps and a big spreadsheet. Actually, we both worked pretty hard scheduling the big trip.

Starting from Comanche, I’d locate state parks or private parks, if necessary, along the route within a comfortable driving range no longer than 325 miles. Then we’d research each one for the kind of things we like such as dog runs, ease of entry, cost, facilities, etc. Sometimes Dahna would scratch the place I picked out and she’d look for another, even changing the preferred route.

Double Crested Cormorant – Salisbury, MA
DSCN8078

Finally, we had scheduled about 3/4 of the trip, making reservations at 18 different parks along the way up to Cape Breton, NS and back down to Washington DC. We knew it would get cold and rainy up north leaving in September from way down Comanche, Texas. Driving and camping through rain and cold? Why sure…but snow? The prospect of pulling a big trailer through snow and ice scares me almost as much as a combat zone scares Trump. We had to get to Nova Scotia fast, look around, plant the flag, and get the hell out of there pronto.

That meant a whirlwind trek, which it was. You would think you could go just about anywhere at a leisurely pace over a period of three months. That’s true if you don’t go very far. But, we traveled over 6,000 miles stopping at 26 campgrounds through a beautiful, feature-rich North America. In mid-October, when we turned around and headed back, moving south from Cape Breton, we could feel Winter breathing down our necks. Campgrounds were closing for the season right behind us and we felt like Indiana Jones being chased by that huge round boulder.

Our first stop on the return trip was at friendly Ponderosa Pines Campground on Hopewell Cape, New Brunswick. We practically had the nice place by ourselves and the owner gave us a big space for a small price. He also let us wash our rig which was filthy with road grime. When we finished I’m sure it pleased him because the whole park looked better.

The big draw here is the Hopewell Rocks. These are big rocks in the Bay of Fundy that are a little startling at low tide because you hardly ever see big rocks jutting up from a tidal flat with trees growing on top of them. If you’ve never seen these things, you’re not alone because we haven’t either. It was cold, rainy and they charged for the high privilege of seeing them. Plus, there were 101 steps going down, and that added up to 202 steps of “Screw it.” It was also, happily, close enough to our fave little town, Alma, to drive back to for a terrific scallop dinner overlooking the bay.

Hopewell Rocks – (We Settled for the Photo Over the Real Thing)
Hopewell Rocks

Our next stop was at the border where, after a 20 minute wait, we met our friendly American Customs agent. She was very cheerful, even witty, as she searched our RV’s refrigerator and confiscated our precious limes. This played havoc with our house drink later that night making me pine for our pretty and nonintrusive, if grim, Canadian agent with the gun fetish. Try not to think of a sexy East German border guard in braids with a snappy little whip. Maybe that dates me a little.

From there, we stayed at Cold River Campground near Bangor, ME where Stephen King lives. I like Stephen King and I was an English major for two years, so there! Besides claiming the Horror meister, Bangor is a cool New England town with that witchy Wyeth architecture that kind of looms up in your imagination, especially if you grew up around a bunch of flat ranch houses. I’m sure the food there is great too, but I can’t really say because we never ate there. We ate and ate at the Eagle’s Nest, about a mile from our park.

Cold River Campground
IMG_0152.jpg

We ate a lobster roll there that was out of sight…literally. You could not see the roll itself for all the lobster piled on top. We were trying to figure out how to eat the thing when a burly waiter delivered a loaded seafood platter as freight to a couple at an adjacent table. The husband gave us a little wink as he dug into the heaps off haddock, oysters, shrimp, and scallops sitting on top of a one foot diameter bed of French fries. Later, after scooping the remainder of the food into several big to-go boxes, he gave me another, slightly different, wink on the way out. I’d like to think their plans for the leftovers ran along the lines of that old “Tom Jones” movie (wink wink).

Whatever, we went back the next night and had the platter. We ate seafood for two more meals from that platter and, at 34 bucks, we probably had a bigger investment in Alka Seltzer than the food. It was great, worth every painful burp.

Seafood Platter at the Eagle’s Nest Restaurant In Brewer,ME
IMG_0155

The morning we left Cold River RV Park, Wayne, the young owner, was out on a backhoe in the cold rain working on the foundation for a music venue for his campers. Big dreams and hard work—I can still remember his cheerful, “Good Morning!” as I walked by with Sacha in her raincoat. He and his wife, Pam, carved several long trails through the woods that Sacha loved to run through at full blast. There were a lot of ticks though, not just there but throughout New England. I easily got one off of Dahna’s back thanks to a tip she picked up somewhere before she picked up the tick: With your finger, lift the tick and spin the little bastard around until he backs out. It works.

Old Man’s Beard (Clematis drummondii) at Schondack Island State Park
IMG_0156

Next, we pushed on to the Hudson River at Schondack Island S.P. near Albany. We planned to visit FDR’s Hyde Park, but the day we had for it was killer windy, cold and rainy. Perfect pneumonia weather, so…no thanks. We mostly huddled in our cozy camper reading and arguing over whose turn it was to walk Sacha. It was a nice park with plenty to do, but our timing was lousy and we were glad to get out of there. We were anxious to visit our old friends, the Zelmans, in D.C. but first we had to make it through Pennsylvania, Dahna’s least favorite place.

Father & Son Fishing on the Hudson River at Schondack Island State Park
DSCN8105

When you drive through a state, stopping in a park or two for a few days, you really don’t get a very good idea of its charms. You only have a fleeting impression of the place gained by the tiny sliver you saw as you zipped through. It’s unfair and inaccurate, but there it is. We make judgments about things by what we know of them even if what we know of them is squat. Dahna knew squat about Pennsylvania except that she hated it.

Coming out of Upstate New York into rural Pennsylvania, slanting down through Scranton toward Lebanon, was a stark contrast. Where New York seemed neat and trim and lushly forested, Pennsylvania seemed neglected, a little bare and thatchy, kind of like my poor little pecan orchard during the lazy season. Dahna said, “This place looks like hell.” I said, “Yeah, but working people live here like Pasadena and it’s tough.” Dahna grew up in tough Pasadena, Texas and she knows all about rough and tough and can be that way herself if need be but still…she just didn’t like it there.

Things didn’t get any better when we pulled into our spot at Twin Grove RV Park near Lebanon. I couldn’t believe it, but the pad was almost 6” out of level side-to-side. That meant I had to jack one side of the camper up almost twice the height of the leveling boards I had with me. I was starting to hate Pennsylvania too.

Dahna was already in a bad mood, and you could almost hear her grinding her teeth as she stomped off toward the office way over in yonder glen. I was pretty pissed off too as I walked around with the level looking for another site that wouldn’t send our camper sliding down the hill. I finally found one that was only 3” out by the time Dahna got back with the good news that it was still unreserved. So I backed around and took it. After getting set up, we discovered that the park’s WiFi was out. That meant we only had our iPhone hotspot that AT@T had just throttled back to Slug Speed. Great. Just great.

Dahna started to hyperventilate like Yosemite Sam, steam and all, and was about to lift off when we noticed a guy in slacks(!) walking around with some kind of gadget. BAM, suddenly we had high speed Internet. Dahna’s mood improved to the point that she conceded that the park was at least a nice place for kids while noting that she was glad they were in school far, far away. The owners did manage to link into that chain of competent officials and private citizens who continuously forwarded our ballots to us giving us a chance to shiv You Know Who. Overall, it wasn’t that bad.

The highlight of our Pennsylvania experience was hiking the Appalachian Trail near Lebanon. From the highway, Dahna decided to strike out south, so down the narrow trail the three of us went, that-a-way. About 100 yards in, we came to a little clearing in the trees with a posted sign warning: WORKERS SPRAYING INVASIVE PLANTS. We put on the world weary look that’s so attractive on older faces and I said, “Not today,” and we turned around, “Let’s go north.”

Back at the highway, we met a young athletic woman wearing a big backpack struggling to catch her breath. We told her about the spraying and she waved, ‘Thank you’ and forged on anyway. Crossing the highway, we took about 20 steps down the trail where suddenly it dropped precipitously into a deep ravine, the same one that took the woman’s breath away. Looking down, I said, “No steps.” Dahna looked too and said, “No problem,” and headed back to the highway with me in tow and Sacha left behind with a ‘What the…’ look on her face.

Dahna took a picture of me and Sacha at a sign marking the trail and I’m very proud of it.

A Very Short Hike on the Appalachian Trail
IMG_0166.jpg

Looking back, our return trip from Nova Scotia to Comanche was really not much more than a hasty retreat from Winter with only three significant stops; Washington D.C. with the Zelmans, Chattanooga, TN and finally Tupelo and my father’s nearby hometown in Mississippi where he, my grandparents, and an old childhood friend are buried. Leaving Pennsylvania, we were road tired to the bone and weather blown but, luckily, we had the prior good sense to schedule a full week near D.C. to rest, see the city, and, mostly, visit our friends.

We stayed at Ft. Meade Army Base in their terrific, full service RV park. Those services include access to the base exchange and commissary plus restaurants, golf course and other facilities you would associate with an actual town. It was really upscale compared to my old Marine hangout, Camp Pendleton back in ’67. Back then we were tough as nails and could live on John Wayne crackers that were as old as we were and wash ‘em down with paddy water. We hated the Army and all its works, but now that I’m a lot older and fatter it’s, “Lead me to the food court, Sergeant!”

We spent the first couple of days hanging around the base doing chores like laundry, grocery shopping, and letting Sacha run wild in one of the spacious greenbelts that fronted Burba Lake which was full of Canada geese and mallards. The birds were gorgeous, but nothing’s better than watching a happy red Siberian run hell-for leather with her ears flattened back in the pure pleasure of being young and on the loose. Of course, she’d usually take a crap afterward but almost always next to a trash can. Perfect Dog you are pretty girl. Yes you are.

Domestic Blue Swedish at Burba Pond
DSCN8344

Unfortunately, the RV park, though very nice, wasn’t perfect like Sacha. There was no WiFi for Chrissakes! Back to our slow iPhone hotspot and Dahna’s increasingly bitchiness about her glitchy $150.00 refurbed Apple MacBook Pro. You can buy an Apple laptop for $150.00 and you can also buy a BMW for $2000.00, but you probably shouldn’t. If you’re used to BMWs and Chevys leave you cold, that $2000.00 Beemer might sound attractive. It’s the same with Apples. That cheap refurb sounds good until it goes south which it’s bound to do before you know it.

Anyway, it was “Time For a New Computer“. That phrase is relatively new in the lexicon. Not so long ago it was just, “Time for a new water heater,” or, “Time for a new Timex.” Well, times change. Finally though, along with the process of buying a new computer (which is becoming more like buying a new car), doing our chores and taking a couple of long naps, our batteries were finally recharged enough for the main attraction—getting together with the Zs.

You might not know Pat and Don Zelman, but I’ll bet you a cookie you know somebody who does. These two came to Texas as young zealots nearly 50 years ago on a mission to raise the IQ of the state a few points by turning goat roper Tarleton State University into a hotbed of rationality. If you think Texas is a dumb place now, you should’ve seen it before they got here. It’s true they had other plotters in on the conspiracy like the aforementioned Curtoys and a few other brilliant professors like Allan Nelson. But, if you see a really stupid yard sign or reactionary billboard defaced with a slashing Z, it’s probably not Zorro that did it.

They retired near D.C. to be with their two granddaughters and their own singular daughter, Julie. I use the word singular not only because she’s an only child, but because she’s brilliant and beautiful in an eerie Elizabeth Taylor type way. We first met Julie when, as a little girl, she came to our house in tow with her friend and the girl’s mom for a short visit. Julie sat at Dahna’s piano like Lily Tomlin’s Edith Ann and banged out an awful racket.

Over the years watching her grow up, it occurred to me that she might have been banging out a little Bartok. Who knows? I wouldn’t know Bartok if he bit me on the butt, but I bet Julie does. Well, now she’s a senior official at the SEC. If you still have faith in our political institutions, you might want to raise your glass to people like Julie. Pat and Don are enormously proud of their girl as are all of us who know her. And that’s a lot of people.

The Zs live in Collington, a full service planned community of mostly retired government officials and other professionals. They fit in perfectly since both Pat and Don are historians and political scientists. These days Pat is presiding over a foreign policy discussion group of State Department types and other smarty pantses.

Pat and Don Zelman – MLK Memorial
IMG_0201.jpg

One time long ago, Pat had a little fun with me when I said something stupid. I can’t remember what I said, but suddenly she had me in a Socratic logic trap that Houdini couldn’t have escaped. I learned an important lesson: When you’re lucky enough to hang out with people like that, it’s a good idea to know what you’re talking about. Otherwise, keep quiet and just listen or you might find yourself at the Little Big Horn hiding behind your dead horse of an argument.

I used to love it back then when Pat would tilt her head and say, “Let’s go smoke.” We’d go out to the little table in their backyard and light up, enjoying one of life’s greatest guilty pleasures. Actually neither of them were “real” smokers. But, when people like me and Dahna were around, they’d bum a cigarette in self defense. Finally though, when almost everybody wised up and quit for good, Pat rang the bell for all former smokers when she said, “The worst part about quitting is being a nonsmoker.” If you have to think about that…

When we approached the part of of the complex where they lived, Pat was out on the sidewalk to meet us. Don, in his inimitable way, went the wrong direction. I posited awhile back that there are few absolutes in this world, but one of them is that no one is more fun to be around than Don Zelman except, possibly, Pat. Okay it’s a tossup. Anyway, there are a million funny stories that revolve around Don, and a big part of the fun is the pleasure he takes in his own absent-minded predicaments. There’s a famous photo of Don’s feet propped up on his desk at work wearing one brown and one black shoe. Don’t get the wrong idea though. He retired as the Dean of Arts and Sciences.

After visiting for awhile, we walked over to their swanky dining hall and were immediately surrounded by a thick knot of their friends. After wading through successive knots, we finally had a great lunch. Along with a couple of Pat’s foreign policy nerds, we also met one of Don’s bandmates. They play in Collington’s jazz band. When Pat gave us a tour of their stylish “cottage,” I noticed a clarinet next to some sheet music in Don’s office. I had no idea he was a musician, but there you go. We recently sneaked a peek at their newsletter and there was Don’s picture featuring him as a soloist, the big ham.

We continued to get caught up since our last time together a couple of years ago at their going-away party in Stephenville, and planned the next day’s trip by Metro to the Washington Mall. We wanted to see the memorials and especially, in my case, The Wall where the names of Pat’s younger brother Bill and some of my buddies are engraved in black granite.

Going to that place with me was a burden for her, and I’ll always appreciate having her there beside me. The date April 4, 1968 is a hard one for all good-hearted people, but it is more than doubly hard for Pat.

Don said something that Dahna and I both felt as we stood near the spot where Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his great speech at the foot of the Lincoln Memorial, “You know, I love everything all this is supposed to stand for,” his hand swept the expanse, “but now it seems so degraded, so small somehow.” He shook his head, “I can’t believe what’s happened in this country.”

Don is an incurable optimist and I never heard him say anything even remotely that somber. We all stood silent for a moment, frozen right there in the sunshine.

With The Zelmans at the MLK Memorial
IMG_0196 2.jpg

We walked a long way that day because The Mall is a big place with a lot to see and our feet were getting bigger than our shoes. We were getting hungry too when Dahna spotted a cab parked on the other side of a wide playing field. He seemed to be waiting for us to cross over and it turned out he really was. He could tell just by looking that we would gladly crawl on our hands and knees to get to him, so he waited for us with a little grin. Fly, meet spider.

He was from some exotic country that I can’t remember, and we had a really neat ride with him. Don sat up front and had the cabbie going pretty good, making the guy’s day. I forked over the 12 bucks for our ride to the Agriculture Department which was the bargain of the day considering my sore feet. Pat wanted to eat lunch there because the food’s really good.

Before heading to its cavernous dining room, we had to pass through a metal detector and my big belt buckle set it off. The guard wanted me to take my belt off but I told him my pants might fall down. You could almost hear him thinking, ‘Old fart…fat gut …tighty whities…don’t wanna see that.’ He changed his mind pretty quick, reached under the counter and said, “Sir, if you’ll just step over here I’ll wand you down,” which he did. I passed and soon we were all headed down the big hall for lunch like we owned the place which, actually, we did until we let it go back to the bank.

Later, back in their home, we had a last cup of coffee and said our goodbyes. They were leaving in a few days for Vietnam and a trip up the Mekong to Cambodia in yet another one of their globetrotting adventures. In an earlier email I warned them to stay off of the trails, and I guess they did because they got home safely from that little jaunt.

Don wrote to say the heat and humidity were ferocious and hard to take and it gave him a new appreciation for what we went through during the war, climate-wise. That’s for sure. I’ll never forget stepping off that air-conditioned Braniff plane in Da Nang in July and feeling like I walked into an blast furnace. I wasn’t sure I’d survive it, forget the gunfire, and I grew up in Houston in the 50s without air conditioning!

On the last day before we left Ft. Meade, we did some last minute provisioning which consisted mostly of buying another bottle of Old Crow. When we stepped out into the food court, Dahna announced she didn’t want to fix lunch, so we looked around at our fast food choices. About all we wanted that day was pizza, but unfortunately it had to be Dominos. You might remember when they almost went out of business because their pizzas tasted worse than the box they came in.

Well, we remembered but went for it anyway. We ordered their super duper pepperoni or whatever the hell they called it and sat down at our table in a blue funk. When the pimply-faced kid rudely plunked the box down on the table, I almost flung the thing as far as my partially torn rotator cuff would let me. However, I managed to control myself just long enough to take a bite and damn if it wasn’t one of the best pizzas I ever bit into. HEY AT@T!! If Dominos can fix their lousy product, maybe you can too. Give it a try, MFers.

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker near Roanoke, VA
DSCN8161

We left Ft. Meade early on November 1st headed south through rural Virginia toward Knoxville. I was looking forward to a pretty country drive and getting a look at the region my mother’s family came from. Patty loves Virginia and Dahna was starting to like it too…just about the time I started hating it. The Fall colors were still radiant, but there was something about the hills. They were too close together or sloped the wrong way or some damn thing, I don’t know. Shiver me timbers, they were like a steep chop that was pounding my little boat to pieces, they were.

It’s not you Virginia, it’s me.

White-breasted Nuthatch, Roanoke, VA
DSCN8191

I had to get to Tennessee to recover and by the time we got to Chattanooga I was feeling pretty good, especially when I saw the Russell Stovers billboard with an arrow pointing up ahead. The only thing better than a kid in a candy store is a kid in a candy store with a credit card. Dahna doesn’t have many weaknesses but when it comes to chocolate, let’s just say she’s an easy date. Even so, she tried to hold me back as I raced around the store dropping fifty bucks worth of boxes into the basket. She was okay with it later.

Black-crowned Night Herons near Knoxville, Tn
DSCN8209

I like Tennessee, especially Chattanooga and Russell Stovers has nothing to do with it. Well, maybe a little. I really like the smart cookies they elected to run the place who decided to actually serve the citizens. They pushed aside the big telecom monopolies and installed their own super fast, fiber-optic broadband municipal system as a utility. You know, of, by, and for the people—the people who live there and now own it. Last I heard, the telecoms took the city to court so they can destroy the whole wondrous thing and muscle back in with their sorry junk, the bastards.

Pie-Billed Grebe – Harrison Bay State Park
DSCN8433

While we were there, we had by far the fastest internet we’ve ever experienced in this dumb country—or even in Canada where it’s also great. Dahna’s new Mac nearly jumped out of its case with the speed. They don’t call it “Gig City” for nothing.

I could write about this place all night but I’ll spare you the heavy sighs. I will say that if we ever move to another town, Chattanooga is high on a very short list. Go to Wiki and read about the museums and the music, the nifty and historic downtown tucked into a fold of the mighty Tennessee River. Pay your respects to the bloody Civil War battles fought there and how they helped blaze the improbable path of U.S. Grant to final victory and the White House. He didn’t brag and he didn’t whine. You might have heard of Chickamauga, Missionary Ridge, and Lookout Mountain. There’s a lot to see and do and learn about in Chattanooga, a special place.

Chattanooga from Atop Lookout Mountain
IMG_0215

If you really want to experience the history surrounding the great general, you should read Ron Chernow’s biography, Grant. It’s very good, but keep in mind the fact that you can zip through War and Peace a lot quicker and I’m speaking from experience. He also wrote acclaimed biographies of Washington and, famously, Hamilton—the book Lin-Manuel Miranda adapted for his smash Broadway musical. “Smash” is the operative word here because that’s what’ll happen if you drop the thing on your foot.

I got my own copy of Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton from Linda Curtoys when we visited her and Jeremy near Dayton. Jeremy liked it, so she gave it a try but she couldn’t get through it any more than a .357 Magnum bullet could punch through it. She said something about having a life to lead. Jeremy gave me a little cat-that-ate-the-canary smile when she handed it to me. I get it now because that book stares me down every time I look at it. I’m a slow reader and not getting any younger.

If you go to Chattanooga, don’t miss Lookout Mountain unless you suffer from vertigo. Parked right next to the city, it juts almost straight up and it’s really high. Looking down from the top the people don’t look like ants, the buildings do. I’m not afraid of heights, but I’ll admit I got a little lightheaded when I looked over the edge and I even had that sinking feeling you get when your elevator drops too fast. Still, one helluva view.

When we saddled up and headed to Tupelo, we were a little wistful in the leaving. Chattanooga was an unexpected pleasure for us road weary old salts, and we filed a mental note to go back someday and stay longer.

Tupelo has a presence in the American mind because Elvis was born and mostly raised there. Tupelo honey went international with the Van Morrison song and you might think the stuff comes from there but it doesn’t. It only comes from Florida. They made a serviceable movie about it called “Ulee’s Gold” with Peter Fonda in the title role. If you go to Tupelo, they’ll sell you some “Tupelo” honey, but it ain’t the real deal.

Like any sane Boomer, I like Elvis just fine. The boy could sing, but my real interest in the place concerned a couple of personal matters. First, My biological father and grandparents are buried down the road in the small town of New Albany. Second, I wanted to see if I could find the big house in Tupelo where I once spent an enchanted night as a little boy with Minrose, the little girl whose family owned it.

I couldn’t have been much older than five when my recently widowed mother took me with her to the big house to visit her friends, Erin Taylor, Minrose’s mother and Dan, her stepfather. Mother’s connection was through Dan, a Navy carrier pilot in WWII and my father’s best friend growing up in New Albany in the ‘20s and ‘30s.

Minrose was a little older than me and that night she took me out in the front yard where she taught me how to catch fireflies in a jar and keep them alive by poking holes in the lid with a sharp icepick. Back in those days we were allowed to play with matches and run with knives, maybe even encouraged. Somehow, we survived and Minrose grew up to become a writer as well as a professor at The University of North Carolina and is now retired. That night and that house have remained vivid almost all my life.

The last time I saw Minrose, I was a teenager when she and her family visited us in Houston. That’s when I lost touch until a couple of years ago when my cousin Ginny called to say that Minrose wrote a book about her life growing up, and that she read it and would mail it to me. Ginny is the daughter of my father’s brother and they knew Minrose and her family too.

The memoir, Wishing for Snow by Minrose Gwin, is a fine study in Southern Gothic ala Flannery O’Connor with a healthy dose of The Liar’s Club by Mary Carr. If you haven’t read any of the latter two authors, you can catch up quick with Minrose’s book. Unknown to me, she was living in a bizarre world of dysfunction created by the disaster of Dan and Erin Taylor’s marriage—one that led to real madness.

Minrose’s mom was a Southern Belle with a confident aristocratic bearing. She was also a fine and published poetess. She would seem familiar to those who knew my own mother, Dorothy. Dan, the villain in the book, was referred to only as “the salesman.” He was, in fact, a freelance salesman of heavy industrial valves and such.

He visited our home often on his rounds in the ‘50s and ‘60s and, as a kid, I liked hanging around with him and my folks in the little dining room after dinner. He would talk with my parents of a more interesting and larger world in his quiet voice. He was slim and handsome, very taciturn and, as Minrose says, a ringer for Alan Ladd. I liked him, but through all that blue smoke I never saw him smile. Not once I can remember.

I suppose we all suffer through significant dangers and soul-crushing indignities growing up, but I think reading a book like that makes most of us grateful for the childhoods we had, full of fond memories like my long ago night in Tupelo and parents that protected us. For those like Minrose who, in spite of the odds, not only make it in the world but flourish, we should celebrate. If you buy her book, you’ll like the part about the fireflies in Tupelo even though, sadly, I’m not mentioned. She still obviously loves those little “devils.” [see luciferin]

I didn’t look for Minrose, but I did find the house of my 65 year old remembrance. She mentioned its location in the book and on the first day in town, Dahna punched “Church Street” into AppleMaps on the iPhone that was plugged into the truck’s touch screen. About 30 minutes after we left our site in beautiful Tombigbee State Park, there it was in all its evocative glory; two large brick storeys, the full length paved front porch we played on, and the elevated corner lot with concrete steps leading down to the street.

The trees were there too and, like the great philosopher once said, it was déjà vu all over again. I was pretty pleased the rest of the day, but that night I thought about visiting the graves in New Albany the next morning. I’m not often spotted in graveyards because I don’t think the dead are there. Just the markers really. I agree with Lincoln that it’s for the living we honor the dead, and it’s only for myself that I go there at all. I hadn’t been to this cemetery in 35 years when last my grandmother died and I felt it was about time to go back.

The day was appropriately gloomy; overcast, misty and biting cold with a hard north wind. The small cemetery was cut in half by the highway and I thought the part up on the hill was where my folks were buried. I pulled into the narrow gravel lane and quickly came face to face with the driver of another pickup truck. We rolled our windows down and started a conversation, country style like Ray and I do out on our road when we meet.

He was a retired stock broker, native to New Albany, and he knew my family name but not the people. Since he was about my age, I asked him if he knew Doug Pannell, my childhood buddy who lived next door to my grandparents. I spent a number of Huck Finn summers there, and in the mornings I’d grab my illicit BB gun (secretly stored by my Daddy Doyle and unknown to my parents) and head out to meet Doug. We’d wander barefoot through the apple trees and fields and plink around. Then we’d walk along the tracks and shoot the breeze. The smell of creosote always reminds me of the rail sleepers from those days.

The guy in the truck was named Jerry, I think, and he answered my question with a big smile, “Yeah, Doug was my best friend.” We talked for around ten minutes about the Pannells and Doug’s short unhappy life until I said, “Well, he was a good kid.” Jerry brightened a little and he agreed, “Yeah, you know? He really was a good kid.” He nodded to me, “Well, good luck finding your people,” and with that he drove out.

I was wrong about the cemetery. We buttoned up our heavy hooded coats, left Sacha in the truck, and started searching. We split up but came back to the truck about 45 minutes later empty handed and frozen stiff. That meant they were across the highway somewhere in the five or six acres of the low side. Jesus!

We drove the short distance to the nearby Subway to warm up and eat lunch when another customer saw our Texas plates and came over to our table to visit. Southerners! What’re ya’ gonna do? It so happened that one of his teachers had been Doug’s wife. And like Jerry, he’d heard of my name but didn’t know my folks. He filled us in a little more on Doug’s story while we ate and he talked kindly about his small town.

We were full and defrosted when we got back to the cemetery’s low side. I parked halfway up the lane, bisecting the long thin strip of grassy plots, some curbed but others in the open. We walked Sacha first along the little road and back and then started hunting again.

James Holloway Branyan, RIP
DSCN8448

After we covered almost every square foot, damp and chilled to the bone, I yelled at Dahna, “That’s Enough! Let’s go home!” I was very close to the truck when I walked up on Doug’s grave. There were the others too of his parents and grandparents. The last time I saw him was when we were about 30 at my grandfather’s funeral. He was vice president of the local bank and a lot fatter than the skinny kid I remembered. If he was happy, it didn’t show and it didn’t last.

Some time after that, Doug embezzled money from the bank to cover his losses to some shady characters he got mixed up with in a bad buy of an auto dealership. He had oversold shares to too many investors in something like Mel Brooks, “The Producers.” He got caught but it wasn’t funny like the movie. With the law closing in and his reputation shot, he took his own life. He was 42. At least that’s the pieced-together story I got that day and back over the years from my family.

As Dahna walked up, she spotted my family’s marker beside that of the Pannells. We looked at every practically grave in that whole cemetery and finally found it in the last place left—right next to the truck! It’s fitting that the two families are buried together because they were all close friends.

My father was a young reporter for one of our town’s big dailies, The Houston Post. He was their fair haired boy, hired on due to the quality of his earlier reporting of the Texas City disaster for the Beaumont paper. He was given the plum assignment of traveling to Indonesia with a group of other journalists from around the country to interview a number of Dutch vs. Indonesian officials, including President Sukarno. The issue was Sukarno’s push for independence, the Dutch pushing back and their their effort to seek American support for their side through favorable reporting.

The Dutch lost their colony and my father and his colleagues lost their lives returning home when the charter KLM Constellation crashed on approach to Bombay’s (Mumbai) airport in bad weather. “Lousy Irish Luck…” the big Post headline said. It was July 12, 1949, and my father was 31.

His short life was certainly more interesting than most, including mine, and I’ve often thought of doing the research necessary to write about it with some justice. But it’s a big subject and, like Dylan said, the hour’s getting late. His Indonesian story is one of the long links in our chain of postwar successes and failures that encompassed Soviet and Sino containment policy including, in this particular case, its notorious Domino Theory and my own subsequent experience in Vietnam.

Another noted writer from New Albany, MS
DSCN8454

We were still a long way from Comanche and had to stop two more times to keep from killing ourselves. Those stops were brief and unremarkable. On the morning of our last day, we got the trailer hooked up after breakfast and had a good light check. Dahna walked back up and got in the cab.

“Home James,” she said with a little brush of her hand.

Brown Creeper, near Longview, Tx on the Road Home
DSCN8472