The Davis Mountains

by Patrick Branyan

We travel a lot dragging a trailer around all over the place. That is, we did until Trump decided it’d be fun to let a deadly virus run wild through the most scientifically advanced nation in human history. We all know now that scientific brilliance and reason are no match for a nation’s political stupidity and moral degeneration. So, while The Donald bragged and whined and mugged like Mussolini at his homicidal rallies, we stayed home like any other non-nitwits that had the luxury to do so.

Dahna and I have no kids, no family or debt to speak of, no real responsibilities other than to our friends and neighbors to bear the simple burdens of citizenship our founders left to us in their more “enlightened” moments; that is, as free individuals and by a free press and freedom of inquiry, to use reason to govern ourselves and to know, generally, what the hell we’re doing as a people in, let’s say, the face of an historic and lethal threat. 

So, instead of going anywhere we returned to our useful training in science to best try to ascertain how to to play the odds to our favor, and for those around us, by behaving cautiously. We’d lend an ear to Anthony Fauci as he walked his swaying tightrope over an orange Niagara of bullshit, and we read and discussed some of the more technical stuff as it became available to us. And we were fully vaccinated by Valentine’s Day. Dahna called ahead.

Unlike hundreds of thousands of our fellow citizens, we survived, so far at least, partly by driving the 35 miles to Stephenville’s HEB supermarket for curbside delivery. We passed each time by the Bayer RV dealership (Airstreams and Dutchman) and we noticed that their lot was emptying fast. We’re thinking, ‘What’s this all about …?’ So, we asked the internet. Turns out cabin fever was ravaging the lucky, and/or, smart survivors and RVing, sensibly, seemed to be a safe way to get out of Dodge for awhile.

The rich hoovered up the Airsteams, and the rest were snatched up by rabble like us in a free-for-all similar to our successful attack on the nation’s supply of toilet paper.

Whitemouth Dayflower (Commelina erecta)

Well, Ol’ Joe Biden was president, the horrific death rate was dropping like a stone, and it was time to get moving again. Down the road and up in spirits. Suddenly, untold thousands simultaneously got the same idea. Unfortunately, the herd hasn’t stampeded to Covid immunity yet, but it has laid waste to RV, boat, and used car lots.

By the 14th of June, the ground was dry enough to pull the camper out from under its cover and up to the house for systems checks and packing. On the 18th, we headed for our intermediate stop, Lake Colorado City State Park near Big Spring. Normally, we head first to South Llano State Park, a fine place just south of Ft. Stockton. But, I wanted a change of view.

I’ve wanted to go to Big Spring since 1969 when “Midnight Cowboy” came out. That’s when I first saw the great actor and political doofus, Jon Voight as Joe Buck, quitting his job as the dishwasher in a Big Spring cafe at the beginning of the movie. One of the first of his many fine performances in a stellar film career to date.

Bractless Blazingstar (Mentzelia nuda)

We got to the park by mid-afternoon, set up like pros, and nearly died in the heat. Let’s see … What else? Umm, that’s about it. We grew up in Houston without air conditioning in the 1950s and ’60’s, but now our survivable temperature/humidity bandwidth is much narrower. When it cooled down somewhat, Dahna went birding while I don’t remember what I did. Nothing probably but a nap in the AC which is de rigueur anytime I pull 7,000 pounds of camper anywhere. Sacha peed and pooped, a champion in her sport.

Well, I bow to no one when it comes to my love of Texas, but my opinion isn’t necessarily shared by some of our friends. Especially those former natives that live in other states now. A lot of them think Texas is in direct competition with Florida for Hellhole of the World. They’ve got a point if you’re talking about the archaic period before freon existed in an important way.

Sunrise Over Lake Colorado City


But, what they’re really talking about is the politics of the place. Texas has mostly been run by conservatives, formerly Southern Dixie-style Democrats and now, ever since Pat Buchanan taught Nixon how to dog whistle, Republicans of the increasingly virulent and mutating Trump strain. But even these guys love Texas enough to pause occasionally from their tax slashing and releasing the hounds on our various minority groups to actually throw some pretty good coin, comparatively speaking, to Parks and Wildlife. 

As a result, our state has one of the best state park systems in the country, and you should check it out. We Texans are no loonier than Idahoans, and probably friendlier. At least we’re not as suspicious and our militias are far less disciplined. Come visit and you’ll find that this Lone Star park feature includes the nicely managed and equipped Lake Colorado City State Park.

Don’t come to Texas looking for a bunch of National Parks. But we do have two and one is a doozy: Big Bend in south Texas. Be sure to visit this special place before you get divorced and nothing matters anymore. The other is Guadalupe Mountains N.P. and I’ll bet it’s terrific too—it’s on our list. Almost all the rest of the land in the state is privately owned; mostly ranches and farms protected formerly by Stetsons and .30-30 Winchesters, traded in by the latest generation for tattoos, AR-15s and camo with an ironically conspicious red cap perched on top.

Our new park out there by Big Spring was light on both flora and fauna, except for snakes, cottontails and prickly pear. A spindly coyote crossed in front right before we got to the park and right after that I slammed on the brakes to avoid hitting a long snake. I think it was a coachwhip by its build and speed. It seemed to know I couldn’t slow down much pulling a heavy trailer because that skinny snake was really hooking it across that two lane.

The birding was lousy consisting mostly of two very horny mockingbirds making a lewd racket and a large number of the only other species out there; grackles. Now, I have a special fondness for both of these birds. 

Some time ago a mockingbird followed me around the place for a couple of summers and would sing to me. I’d blow it a kiss in return. Dahna liked to make up dirty jokes about that bird’s desire to break an interspecies taboo, but It wasn’t a serious relationship. Just platonic.

Showy Menodora (Menodora longiflora)

And grackles. Everybody hates grackles. But, when you have a biblical plague of grasshoppers like we did in 2011, you’ll learn to love them when they flock in to the rescue. They’re nothing like the fast sweeps or sissy seed eaters Dahna spends a fortune on. Nope, they’re like Tolkien’s Orcs stomping all around voraciously gobbling up every crunchy grasshopper unlucky enough to be in their Shermanesque march of death. So, from me it’s, “Hi guys! Make yourself at home,” with a low sweep of my hat.

And, often while waiting out in the hot parking lot while Dahna roots around in some store, I like to watch them waddle by like weird little bent over penguins. Now and again one will cock its head and look you over with a mischievous golden eye, and somehow it reminds me of Groucho flicking that big cigar in his hand and those eyebrows jumping up and down. A little comedy out there on the asphalt.

On our second day at Lake Colorado City, I was getting our of the shower when Dahna wondered, “Pat? Do you remember somebody from Garner State Park named Susan …” Before she even finished her name, I knew exactly who Dahna was talking about. But, it wasn’t just a somebody. Susan was a lovely young girl I met at that magic park nearly 60 years ago.

Back in the early 1960s Garner was the place to go in summer if you were a teenager in Texas. Maybe it still is. Families would rent the musty cabins, and guys like me would sleep out in the open on the spacious grassy meadow, or in a pup tent if we had one, or in our cars with the doors open. It was two bucks per night per vehicle, and that was a good bit more than a big bottle of Bacardi across the border in Cuidad Acuña 90 miles away.

The crystal clear Frio River ran cold beside us for swimming and tubing in its swift current, and you could rent a nag and ride up in the foothills of Mt. Baldy, which I liked to do. There were all kinds of things going on under the racket of hundreds of kids laughing and joshing each other or roughhousing  just for fun or maybe guys fist fighting for keeps in the summer heat over some slight or girl.

The main event though was the nightly dance at the beautiful stone pavilion built by Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps back in the 1930s depression. We’d dance slow and close or a bit faster and slightly apart with the courtly cowboy Whip. The music was so fine from the dusty jukebox, a masterwork of mood artistry that set a romantic tone under the stars no Texas teenager could ever forget who experienced it. And that’s where I met Susan one night in the summer of 1963 when I was 15 and she about the same, maybe a little younger.

I must have gotten up the nerve to ask her to dance, or some buddy dared me to, but somehow there we were, known now to each other in the crowd. I spent a few hours over the next couple of days in her company, and I’m not sure we even held hands. But, I remember slowly walking with her through the shade of the live oaks of the pavilion and the parking lot, and I felt good beside that gentle, pretty girl.

Our time together was very brief and yet there was a little spark; enough to exchange phone numbers before she returned home to Houston with her family. And, she gave me a little hair bow with a sweet message written on the fabric in ink:

Don’t Forget Me

S.M.E.

When I got home I pinned the bow to my cork bulletin board hanging on the wall in my room. We talked on the phone a few times and then school started and that was it. But that bulletin board and its cartoons and newspaper clippings and a few track ribbons stayed on that wall for 20 years or more. And so did that little bow pinned low and in the center.

I left home at 17, off to college then Vietnam, but I went home often to visit my parents. I’d sleep in my old bed in my old room either alone or, later, with Dahna. Now and then through all those years, I would walk up to that small piece of oak-framed cork, and I’d snicker again at the old cartoons and read my name in the yellowed sports clippings for some minor success in track or football. 

And I’d see the bow, and I would do as she asked. I’d remember her face and her kind way, and I’d silently repeat her full name to myself, almost automatically, by rote really, and I did it for years until she became a permanent part of my memory. It wasn’t anything I was trying to do. It was just a little thing, that bow, for us both.

When she contacted us I couldn’t have been more pleased or surprised. It was like getting an answer from a message in a bottle tossed into the ocean long ago, and what a day it made for me. Dahna smiled too. A lot.

Susan found the old note she made of my phone number after re-discovering her old diaries, long stashed away. With Google and a “What the heck,” she found me and Dahna. With emailing and Facebook friending, we’re getting re-acquainted again as long-lost friends with her husband James and Dahna there with us.

Susan’s Note

Susan plowed through some of our stories on Trail Writers and found that we’ve lived remarkably parallel lives. She and James have travelled the world in the summers, but also North America extensively; down many of the the same roads to the same places, and she exclaimed, “…even Nova Scotia!” 

We like the same music and they, like us, have no truck with mob rule. James had a long official career counseling troubled juveniles, and Susan just had to be a teacher too, I guess, like most of our friends and me. Both of them living their lives working with children.

In one of her emails, she said she’d taught for over 30 years, first in Houston in Home Economics and later, Pre-k in central Texas. When I saw that, a big brass Sousa band blared in my head with 76 trombones and a dozen twirlers spinning flaming batons. I say this because no one ever benefitted more from a good Home Economics teacher than I have. Ask anybody.

Dahna hated high school in Pasadena, Tx. So much so, she dropped out and sailed alone to Australia on an Italian cargo ship and lived there nearly a year. If you asked her about it, she’d say, “The only thing worth a damn about that school was Home Economics.” That’s where she learned to sew and cook and etcetera, etcetera and got the beginnings of how to do just about everything else under the sun. 

That year of Home Ec. launched Dahna’s development of the Very Large Array of Competencies (VLAC) that distinguishes her from, let’s say, me who dozed through woodshop. Need to build a house, then plumb and wire it? Maybe you just need a fast prom dress or a large wall tent. Hungry for perfect enchiladas chiapas with cinnamon buñuelos for dessert? How about pork tenderloin you can cut with a fork with a side of perfect pecan rice? Got an Organic final? Calculus killing you? What if mice chewed through the wiring on your car or your tractor won’t run because its diesel engine needs to be bled. Do what I do. Call the Dahna Help Line. 

And thank Susan too and those capable people who teach us how to do all the things we desperately need to know how to do. 

State funded Pre-K now exists, but I’m not sure it did when I was a four year old in Houston in the early 1950s. It was private “nursery schools,” then, I think. But, I can see that girl I met at Garner sitting down low with those little tykes and carefully preparing them for the wider world. Each one of the little darlings was, of course, a vast enterprise sent off to both make and meet their destinies and, perhaps, ours as well. 

Any one of them might change the world like the Georges, Washington or Floyd, but I bet every one of them remembers Susan. Well, not like I did, but still …

Later, we made our first trip into Big Spring, and it was surprisingly impressive. Big, wide avenues and a beautiful courthouse plus handsome municipal buildings scattered around made for a very nice, and pretty big, town way out there mostly by itself. It’s the kind of town where you can ease back, pull out your shirttail, and talk to the guy at the next pump about the merits of his Ford F-250 compared to your Silverado HD 2500.

Rough Nama (Nama hispida)

A caveat: If you do this at the H.E.B. gas station like we did, be sure to wear a mask even if you’re double vaccinated. I’m saying this because the pumps are heavily curbed and only spaced far enough apart to accommodate a Mini Cooper comfortably. Social distancing is impossible there. You look out across the place and every stall is occupied by a big pickup wedged in tight with nary a Mini in sight. It makes you wonder if the designer had any idea where the hell she lived. I hope her shoes are too small too.

We bought a few groceries and headed back to the park. I leashed Sacha up and took her for a short loop through some of the temporarily empty sites baking in the heat. This is a very nice park and the covered picnic tables were bolted to a level concrete slab. Sacha was sniffing at a couple of small holes under one of the slabs, and I was watching a boat motor slowly across the lake, far out. 

Out of the corner of my eye I saw her stiffen and dig her back feet into the hardpan. Then she pulled her nose out of the hole and violently shook her head to kill the baby cottontail she had in her mouth. I yelled at her loud enough to nearly set off a car alarm and she dropped it, eviscerated, to the ground. I backed her away a little and knelt down and stroked her saying, “Good girl. That’s my girl.” 

For the record, I am opposed to vicious baby bunny killing, but I am very much in favor of a dog that will override thousands of years of genetically encoded hunting instinct to instantly stop slaughtering and listen to my concerns. When I got back to the camper I started to brag about our terrific dog, but was cut off by a stern Dahna who had another opinion, as usual.

Blackfoot Daisy (Melampodium leucanthum)

“No! You’re a BAD dog! BAD dog!” She stabbed an accusing forefinger at the poor mutt. I leapt to Sacha’s defense, “Whoa! This is a great dog. Hell, you can’t blame her. She’s still practically a wolf!” We went back and forth with the poor dog’s head swiveling like at a tennis match. Finally, the Defense rested with, “Besides, there’s a million of those rabbits out there.” She couldn’t argue with that. Acquitted. Case closed.

Bad Dog Sacha


BTW, did you know that a baby rabbit is called a kitten? I didn’t, and it just doesn’t seem right to me. 

On our last day at Lake Colorado City S.P., we decided to risk life on a ventilator and go out to eat at the Kelley Cafe nearby. The reviews were okay, so we plugged the address into Car Play and the truck took us to a big elementary school. Huh? Well, we’re game for the bizarre, so we followed the signs, masks cinched up tight.

The cafe was in the abandoned school’s huge cafeteria. I don’t know about you, but what I remember about an elementary lunchroom is the rank funkiness of a 100 open lunchboxes, not to mention 200 sweaty little armpits. Mine was a rusty Roy Rogers, and I don’t miss it a bit. But, this cavernous room smelled really good and the tables were 20 feet apart at least, and the waitress wore a mask. In Texas! 

Pat at Kelley Cafe


We had a fine meal, a relaxing sundowner back at camp, a night of solid sleep, and got a good West Texas vibe from the whole place. Might go back, maybe in late Fall or Winter. Our trailer is a “four seasons” model and the pipes are protected from freezing. You can meet some hardy souls in cold conditions and sometimes they’re pretty interesting. Sometimes they’re just nuts. Good either way.

On the fourth day we got back up on I-20 and headed west for the Davis Mountains. Four or five hours later we pulled into Davis Mountains State Park and looked for our site. We were eager to get set up and walk down the hill to meet our old and close friends, Allan and Becky. The only thing wrong with the park is that the RV sites are wildly out of level having to do with the mountain nature of the thing. Bring extra blocks for your jacks if you come.

Davis Mountains (*)


The first time I visited the splendid Davis Mountains, it was late at night in the early Spring of 1969, and you really couldn’t see them much. A friend and I were on our way to visit a mutual  friend who was an AWOL Marine sergeant and Vietnam combat veteran who was holed up in LA with his new wife. Bill wasn’t dumb exactly in spite of the corner he was in, but his wife, Elizabeth, was cerebral and a native of Fargo. They ended up in Canada shortly after our visit, got divorced, and Bill stayed there until he was pardoned by Jimmy Carter. Bill’s aunt was Dahna’s beloved 2nd grade teacher as a matter of pure coincidence.

Dahna was recently in contact with Bill, a good man living in Georgia, on Facebook, and they had a respectful debate over politics. She was alarmed though when Bill posted a photo of himself hugging Marjorie Taylor Greene right before Trump’s failed insurrection on 1/6/21. On the 7th, Bill informed his Facebook friends he was “going dark,” and that’s the last we heard of him.

So long, Buddy. Charley couldn’t kill you with his AK. It took poison to do that.

Indian Lodge at Davis Mountains State Park (*)

Well, I took a little side trip, but one more thing … Back in the late ‘60s, if you were dumb enough to get caught by certain people driving through west Texas with long hair in a convertible, you might find yourself sporting a brand new flat top minus the flat. And, Mike and I might have gotten close that dark night in Alpine, Tx on our way to LA to see Bill and Elizabeth.

Black-headed Grosbreak – Davis Mountains State Park


It was three or four in the morning when we pulled into a cafe across from Sul Ross University that was a college back then, I think. When we walked in, all you could hear was the creak of leather from the belts and holsters of four or five Border Patrol agents as they turned on their barstools to stare at us. We kept our long hair that night by quietly keeping our own counsel in a booth, but those guys had a little fun sipping their coffee in the most malevolent way you can imagine. Think of Lee Van Cleef giving you the side eye every so often.

Later, as it dawned, Mike and I took Highway 54 north out of Van Horn, and you should do this too. Seriously, it’s one of the highways I’ve never forgotten; stark, beautiful and wildly lonesome, past high buttes and desert sage, going like an arrow to the Guadalupes and Carlsbad. We never saw another vehicle on that road all the way to the locked gate entrance to Carlsbad Caverns—still closed for winter back then. Take this road.

View From Fort Davis (*)


After setting up and letting our clothes dry from the sweat, Dahna and I walked down the hill, past the Airstreams to see Allan and Becky camping in their Lance pickup camper. We’ve been close to these two for 35 years. I met Allan in a terrific Historical Geology class sitting across from him. I think I made a 93 on the first exam, but a little glance told me that this kid made a 96. I was a late bloomer 37, and he was 22, already a high school science teacher going for his masters in Biology.

The pattern held held throughout the course: I’d make a 95, he’d score a 98. It was like Butch and Sundance, “Who is this guy??” Well, I never caught up with him scholastically, but we did become good friends. A year or so later we met Becky when she and I both took an Oceanography course together. 

The four of us camped together at fabulous Port Aransas, down there on a watery field trip out in the Gulf on UT’s research vessel, netting plankton to study with the onboard microscopes. Our “chaperone” was Dr. Reuben Walter, Dahna’s favorite organic chemistry professor and his wife, Mary, my lab instructor colleague and friend. The Walters, unfortunately, turned green as broccoli on that little three hour tour, but the four of us scampered around on that small ship like old tars. 

A dozen or so years later, Dahna and I would sail our ketch, Alchemy, out of Kemah to Port Aransas, and not getting seasick, even in rough six foot seas, was one of the very nice things about those trips. Apparently, the only real cure for this horrible malady is a tree, but I wouldn’t know. I’ve got problems, but that ain’t one of them. If you have a blue water boat, sail her to Port A. Best in Texas.

Speaking of water, Allan is the kind of guy that used to study by reading textbooks in the bathtub. Don’t ask me how I know that, but it’s true. He went on to get his doctorate at OU, and I can just see him looking like a prune at his orals. 

Allan and Becky


He went on to teach Botany to college kids and oldsters like me for 27 years, 23 of those at our old alma mater, Tarleton State University, as professor and, until recently, Biological Sciences department head. Allan distinguishes himself from Tarleton’s “teaching” professors by remaining a dedicated up-to-date scholar and full time research scientist; publishing over 60 peer-reviewed papers, and dozens more abstracts than that in various botanical journals nationwide. 

Allan’s the same guy who, beginning at age 12, worked after school in the grocery store as a sacker, deliverer and butcher, captained the football team as, get this, a guard, was elected Class President all four years of high school, and married his true love, the magnificent Parisian-born, French-American beauty, Rebecca, of seven siblings and a sergeant major dad. All this before walking across the little Comanche stage in cap and gown. 

Well, there are a couple of differences from then to now. For one, he and Becky can now afford a fancy hot tub. They can both wrinkle up together while looking out over the big lake that laps up on their own private beach. Pretty cool.

The other thing is that he grew up to become a genuine scientist, and he’s the kind of guy we need to listen to carefully right now regarding the virus that’s still mutating and killing our friends and loved ones. You could listen to someone like Becky too.

Becky is an artist. Sure, she draws and paints like many others do, but I’m using the term in the deepest sense I can dig down to. She’s an artist in the same sense Allan is a scientist. By nature; and in her case, by that I mean she’s grounded solidly in Cherokee mother earth. You know somebody like that and they’re in your life as the most vivid people you’ve had the fortune to meet. Dahna loves her as a sister and often asks in wonder, “She’s so amazing … Where does all that come from?” She’s fun and real funny too. A “blast” we used to say back in the Space Age.

A Sample of Becky’s Creations – Coasters Made From Dried Wildflowers


I’ll also add she spent decades as an elementary school teacher who emphasized hands-on science, rounding off the sharp edges and making it safe and a kick for those little kids. She and Allan are now in the early stages of collaborating on a field guide for the flora of South Padre Island. Allan writes the descriptions and technical keys for accurately identifying the plants; Becky illustrates them with detailed line drawings. Neither are opposed to tiny umbrellas in their drinks. A team of lovers, those two.

After we met up and hung out awhile, Dahna cooked tacos al pastor, and we drank a couple of rounds of Old Crow. But we were all a little tired (we were not drunk), and so we went to bed early. Early for us night owls, anyway. In the early morning, Dahna tried to get Sacha out to pee without waking me up, but I could hear the little doll prancing on the Lino in the doggie version of, “ooh! ooh! ooh!” as Dahna slipped the collar on.

Canyon Towee


So, I got up and Dahna went birding with her new camera that weighs as much as a medium anvil. Her results were pretty good, as you can see,  because she’s beginning to master the incredible complexity of this pricy Nikon. I flipped open my laptop, connected with the park’s wifi, amazingly, and let the cursor hover over several news sites. I learned during our self-imposed quarantine that even moderately rational persons can play themselves like a fiddle by exercising what some religious people mistake for free will.

Vermillion Flycatcher


So, I asked myself: ‘Shall we start with pathetic straw clutching rising to thin, but hopeful, optimism? Or are we up for raw fear and panic descending into white hot rage and helplessness?’ Well, it was a little too early for rage, so I opted for happy crap. I clicked on the appropriate web site and, sure enough, there was Ol’ Joe smiling that crooked smile and looking straight at me with those tired, squinty eyes. And beside him was Jill, no pole dancing trophy wife, but, as he might say himself, the real deal. The best deal he ever made to be sure. Hopefully, there’s more to come.

I was wise in my choice, and the day went along swimmingly with minimal cursing. We had pre-grilled hamburgers for lunch with Allan and Becky, and then we all jumped into my truck and started climbing the wonderful Skyline Drive. The drive is a little vertigo-inducing, and the tight switchbacks call for slow and careful maneuvering up the narrow two lane grade. Once you’re up there, boy, what a view. We were alone except for a young couple who quickly left, probably because of Allan’s pandemic Duck Dynasty beard. He calls it his John Muir beard, but those kids were taking no chances.

Bighorn Sheep – Davis Mountains


From the height of over 8,000 feet, it’s not hard not to grasp the idea that the Davis Mountains contain their own micro climate, thrust up as they are from the desert below; an anomalous extrusion of now-cooled volcanic magma into various igneous rocks along with broken chunks of limestone from the ancient seabed below. The higher elevation of the mountains receives about twice the annual rainfall than the surrounding “Trans-Pecos” desert, and that supports a larger variety of more temperate flora and fauna such as piñon pine and black bear. The Davis Mountains have been classified as a rare “sky island,” one of the very few in Texas.

Black-throated Sparrows


We took in the 360° panoramic view while Sacha picked her way through the spiky flora and, finding the proper spot, let ‘er rip. I had a poop bag in my back pocket, but there were no trash cans, and while I was scratching my head over what to do, Allan dropped a flat rock over the evidence. Problem solved, and no doubt some human-like creature will discover a fascinating coprolite some millennia hence.

Indian Lodge From Skyline Drive


I downshifted to ease the truck back down the mountain, and, since the day was still young, we took my favorite drive: the Scenic Loop. If you Google it, you’ll see it’s about 75 miles of two lane that goes through and around the sky island, and you get a number of perspectives. Going out of the state park, you’re up and down in the mountains already. Soon you’ll pass famous McDonald Observatory where you can arrange a viewing of the dark night sky by the astronomers that work there.

The Mountains Await (*)


Moving on, you wend and wind your way around through the mountains’ forest groves, sometimes graced with a spring but often dry. Then you descend down to the Chihuahuan desert floor where from a distance you can pan across the plain and see the mountain skyline. I think it’s best if you do it like I do at 45 mph with all the windows down so you can smell it too.

Blue Grosbeak – DMSP


If you’re younger, you might want to ride a good bike. There’s very little traffic and you can hear us old farts coming a mile away. Plenty of time to pull way over on the bunch grass which is a good idea to do often anyway. Use the clarity of your young eyes to see and not just look. Like Becky does. Spend a little more time with it in your mind like Allan does. Learn, then teach.

On the third day Becky asked me to go down and visit Allan. One of his graduate students had to defend his masters thesis early in the next week, but the guy wasn’t prepared, and Allan, who is also, I forgot to mention, a shepherd, was fretting as shepherds do when one of their lambs goes astray. There’s nothing worse than hanging with a shepherd who’s constantly wringing his hands, so I got it across as well as I could that he had no choice but to go home early and help this dumb idiot out. 

Bract Milkweed (Asclepias brachystephana)


“Okay,” he said. “But we’re taking you and Dahna to that Mexican place for your anniversary before we go.” So, they left a day early and it was a relief, especially for that kid. Before they got home, they stopped by our house, unasked, and fed the cats, the deer, the birds and watered the plants. Once they got to their house on the lake, Allan jumped into the old Prius and silently roared off to Stephenville to meet Thesis Boy. The kid successfully defended because … Allan, and now he’s off to the PhD. program at Rutgers, I think it was. 

White-breasted Nuthatch

 

Well, we got home too, two restful days later. It was a long, slow drive at 65 mph with the trailer and we were tired but happy. Good friends, old and new, plus new birds for Dahna and a favorite desert drive for me. Of course, it’s always good to be home again, and so it was.

A Personal Note
On this Fourth of July, Dahna and I were sitting out on the porch with Sacha and the cats listening to the scattered and desultory pops and bangs from a few folks setting off fireworks. There used to be a grand fireworks exhibition  in Comanche, but that ended five or six years ago when the beloved chiropractor who set up the display was killed when his trailer exploded just as he began to set up another performance. The shock wave rattled the windows of our house and me too, remembering another explosion in 1968 that took my arm in Vietnam, fighting for democracy in my young mind.

I try not to dwell too much on the violence in our nation’s past, but I am fully aware of it. It’s what I feel looming ahead of us that I think most about now. It’s true that we are now living in a time of our history when thousands of Americans, armed to the hilt with the kind of weapons like the one I once used, hear that old siren song of civil war. A spasm of violence to give them release from an evil fever dream stoked by the worst among us.

I told my old friend Sally last night that I’m optimistic and happy about the election, but that, like her, sometimes I sink a little into despair. January 6th made a lot of people feel that way. 

I’ve done some bad things and behaved poorly, but I’ve tried to become a better man as I watch the years go by. But I’ll tell you now, I’ll never be as good as some I know personally that honestly would never wish harm on another human being. An anonymous commenter on the Washington Post wrote at the bottom of an article about the heroic medical efforts to save the life of a uniquely bad man:

“What fresh Hell is this that in a time of plague, Trump lives and John Prine dies?”

Exactly.

 

Lesser Goldfinch (Often Referred to as the Bernie Bird)



(*) Marked Photos Courtesy of Susan

Las Cruces Checks All Of The Boxes

by Patrick Branyan

Nearly six weeks ago we put the rear seats down and loaded up the passenger half of the Outback with some stuff and left a driver side corridor open for our semi-Siberian husky, Sacha. We jumped in and headed for Las Cruces and a little Airbnb casita in the town’s Mesquite Historic District, nearly 600 miles away. It was midmorning. 

The car has a turbo, and I enjoyed punching it and blowing by the old pickups on the 80 mile two lane milk run to Abilene. I especially like it when Dahna says, “Oh just stop.” But, I ease up a little when she says, “You’re starting to scare me with this thing.” Sometimes I scare myself. We got up on I-20 West, and I set the cruise to 83 somewhere out of town, pushing the new speed limits a little. 

Texas is pretty good about letting you kill yourself if you want to, and the desert was really flying by. It didn’t look that way, of course, because there’s not much in the desert to fly by. It just seems to float by no matter your speed, but we got there pretty fast by daydreaming along with the iPod. We pulled up to the casita (emphasis on the ‘ita’) in the late afternoon and got out fairly quickly thanks to the Outback’s great seats. Sacha hit the thin L-shaped strip of grass that led from the front and went down the side street, marking her new digs.

Mesquite Historic District Casita

The living room was fully occupied by a nice, dog-scratched sleigh queen bed that we covered with one of our old blankets to protect it from Sacha’s dogginess. We used pillows as bolsters and never sat in the chair. The bath was just fine with a powerful shower and its pretty talavera tile basin. The kitchen was too small for a table but there was a bar, sized just for two, facing a wall with a small window that looked out over Mesquite Street. There was a nifty private patio in back with a table under an umbrella and Sacha, lying underfoot, kept watch while we talked out there with our bourbon.

Klein Park, The View From Our Casita

It was great little place and it faced a small park that was in almost constant use by kids either singly or in groups of friends or in teams coached by their parents, everybody hustling. When I was a kid playing sports I never thought about the adults watching over us. I had no idea how much pleasure they took just sitting up in the stands or out on the sidelines. We spent a lot of time on the front porch watching those neighborhood kids play.

So, once again we’re thinking of selling our Comanche place. Why Las Cruces? Or Grand Junction? Or Grants Pass, Oregon? What’s wrong with Comanche? It’s more a matter of what’s wrong with us. Nothing so much really, but things are changing and have been for some time.

Almost two years to the awful day when Dahna lost her best friend Patty to a cerebral hemorrhage, she was diagnosed with triple-negative breast cancer. She’d been a little late in getting her annual mammogram but, spurred on by survivor Andrea Mitchell nagging her from the TV set, she finally went in. But, she was three full months overdue. This was in October of 2011. 

Looking East from our Casita – The Organ Mountains


Just after the biopsy came back, we sat with her radiologist who lit up the offending mammogram right beside its clear, unthreatening  predecessor taken in 2010. This anxiety-ridden lady wanted us to know that she didn’t miss anything on the earlier one. She hadn’t. The thing is, triple-negative is a very aggressive type of breast cancer, and that’s what ground a dirty boot heel into the wound. Not every dark cloud has a silver lining, but this one did, somehow.

Chemotherapy drugs are fierce hunters of fast growing cells and triple-negative cells are about as fast as they come. Speedy little killers. But the poisonous drugs love to seek out and kill the rat bastards, in particular, with special glee. The infusions got there just in time before the berserkers broke loose and went wild and took my girl away. Thank you, Andrea. 

La Nueva Casita Restaurant, Across From Our Casita


As you should know, and rue, Andrea married “über Republican” Alan Greenspan, a vastly over-rated little gnome who’s still deservedly exiled in Ayn Randland. Personally, I’d rather she’d married Ben Bradlee, and I know that if she had, she’d be a lot happier today even if he is dead as a hammer. You can see it in her eyes. Well, I’ll always love Andrea Mitchell for saving Dahna’s life even though she needed a little help from me, truth be told.

In what probably stands as the clearest insight of my life, I said, “You’re going to M.D. Anderson.” Dahna said, “That’s too far,” and I said, “I like to drive.” She couldn’t argue with that, and it would have done no good anyway. I was fully prepared to pull the man thing on her, putting my own life seriously at risk, but she folded pretty fast. She seemed distracted, but I wasn’t.

So, it was about 600 miles per round trip from Comanche to Houston where the finest doctors in the world and a beautiful woman named Denita live. She was a distant friend in both time and space when our other great Patty intervened by mentioning to her that Dahna needed help.

Purple Sand Verbena ( Abronia angustifolia)


Denita didn’t hesitate a second and we stayed with her during each of our 20 or more trips for Dahna’s treatments, tests, and surgeries. I guess we stayed at her house at least 50 or more days spread out over nearly a year and a half. She never failed to lift our spirits, and I often think of her voice and laugh, her fine intelligence and good sense. Dahna recently had the chance to repay a little of her kindness and generosity, but it’s a big debt. A lot more than we ever owed to any bank. Denita was paired up tightly with her terrier Buddy and he became our friend too, but now he’s gone.

The diagnosis came just one year after we finally moved into the new house we built—our fourth and last, by God! Actually, I’m sketching one in my mind right now, but a builder will build that one if it ever comes to pass. At 73 and worn out by the last four years, especially the last one, I’m in no shape in any sense to get involved with another massive project involving nail guns or any other loud thing, frankly. Maybe a doghouse or two for Comanche All Pets Alive when lumber prices finally fall from Trump’s foolish Canadian tariff and combined with their Covid distortions. If they ever do fall.

Crazy lumber prices aside, where would we build this last house I’m thinking of? Unlike Comanche, it’d damn sure be close to a major medical center. But how can you have that without having to live in a giant, snarled mess of a big city? Maybe find a town smaller but big enough for practically everything else you need but…near a giant, snarled mess of a big city. Maybe like laid back Las Cruces lying a comfortable 42 miles northwest up I-10 from sprawling El Paso? Why not?

BTW, Las Cruces is one of the few towns that has two interstates (and a river) running through it. You can catch I-25 N/S or I-10 E/W and head for anywhere in the northern half of the western hemisphere if you get the bug, and our world doesn’t end in another civil war. To badly misquote James Baldwin, “The Tweet Next Time.” Even in an apocalyptic Mad Max America, those interstates are handy. Need to bug out and make a run for Canada? Well, off you go on I-25. Prefer to make a last stand at the Alamo? No problem. Your interstate awaits.

Gypsum Phacelia (Phacelia integrifolia)


Assuming our better angels prevail, you can hit I-10 for the big parks in California plus the Tommy burgers in LA; or go east for the swamps and general craziness of Florida after making a fool of yourself in New Orleans. Visit your old friends in Arizona and Texas if they’re no longer mad and maybe make some new ones just in case.

We liked Las Cruces a lot, especially the somewhat mixed, mostly Hispanic old neighborhood where we stayed for five nights. It’s also true that after checking out Grants Pass and Grand Junction several years ago, we also liked them. But, both of them sport a higher cost of living, and we’ve grown accustomed to the luxuries of our upper lower class income. We decided that Oregon is beautiful and a wonderful place to visit, but we’re more comfortable in the dry desert. Desert southwest.

Organ Mountains East of Las Cruces


Grand Junction is a neat high desert town except for the fact that some maniac is installing traffic rotaries all over the place, enough to make you dizzy. Spin out of one then suddenly there’s another up ahead, and you go, “Ah, shit!” We checked it out because it’s ideally positioned for travel all throughout the American West, which is the best as Jim Morrison said. And, you can easily head out from there to points east if you have a mind to once you get over the Divide. It’s got a VA hospital which is just peachy for me, in general, but we both might need that big city medical center at some point, and Denver is too far away.

First, Comanche, to repeat, is too far from the kind of medical services we’ll need soon and, second, our little 20 acre place ain’t so little when you limp into your 70’s with bad backs, knees and aching feet. We make a little on our hay and pecans but the place is far too small to invest in the harvesting equipment, so we hire others to do most of that work, a profit killer. Still, it’s getting harder to keep up just on the maintenance with entropy and climate change always poised to unravel everything. 

There’s a lot of work to do before we sell, about a year’s worth—much of it we could have already done in this last stupefying year. But, we didn’t do much at all the whole time. Before that we travelled extensively, and the place frayed a little around the edges in our absence. Hard to move. Hard to stay. It used to be a lot easier back in the long gone days of the old green van. Especially since practically everything we owned was in the old green van.

We’ve always loved New Mexico, its adobe architecture; the vigas, the gentle curves and the thought of cool Saltillo tiles under your bare feet in summer. A long time ago out in the high desert of southern Utah I helped carry the long pine vigas for a new adobe house some friends from Santa Fe were building. It took about seven of us with the monster vigas on our shoulders walking carefully in line to get them from the pile to the house a hundred yards away. Every time the guy in front or back stepped into a little hole, you’d catch half the weight of his load. You’d be surprised how an uncomfortable 150 lb. point load on your shoulder can crush you into the ground when it suddenly, and painfully, jumps to 225 lbs. The yelps sounded a little like a flute.

Mesa Pepperwort (Lepidium alyssoides)

The house was sited on the remote south canyon rim of Lisbon Valley, and there never was a more stunning view anywhere. Vast Disappointment Valley is in sight reaching out way, way out there below the La Sals. Little Indian box canyon lies just to its east. Zane Grey was reputed to have camped nearby when he was inspired to write Riders of the Purple Sage. But, our friends abandoned the house before it was finished, and we lost touch. The last time Dahna and I went out there, the thick adobe walls, exposed to the elements, had slumped to the ground. It’s just one of the sad things that can happen when something big changes in good peoples’ lives.

On our first full day in Las Cruces we went to the Chamber of Commerce and got a terrific driving map of the town and surrounding area. With the town in the middle, it included all the places of interest from Radium Springs to the north to Anthony in the south at the state line with Texas. Just across the line, El Paso has that big medical center, including a VA hospital. Las Cruces itself has small VA clinic and a serviceable, mid-sized medical center. It sits east of town in the desert as it rises up to the craggy Organ Mountains further out. 

Go over the mountain pass and you come to famed White Sands Missile Range and Holloman Air Force Base producing its share of veterans. It’s not so close, but the drive is scenic and I like coming down mountains onto a flat desert expanse. Something nice about it. It’s roomy.

White Sands National Park

White Sands itself was a little disorienting. For a couple of Texans used to the oily brown beaches of the Gulf, blinding white sand didn’t make sense. And, the warm white stuff should have been ice cold to a Siberian husky’s confused genes. She stepped on it a little gingerly at first. There wasn’t much to sniff, and she looked at me with a puzzled look the way dogs do. Sledding down the dunes on plastic seems to be a big thing, and we watched a young Asian couple awkwardly give it a shot. I think it was one of those, ‘when in Rome’ things for them.

Sacha, On You Husky!


Gypsum Sledding, Before the Rain


Through four full days, we drove out a tank of gas moving slow through and around town looking at the inner neighborhoods. There was plenty of attractive acreage of “ranchette” size too, a couple acres, but we really liked where we were staying by the park in town. It was nice sitting still on the porch watching all the young people walking by with their dogs or their lovers, the happy kids, and the bicycle cops practicing their maneuvers through a gymkhana-style obstacle course there in the park. We were like a couple of weathered rocks in a lively trout stream.

Softball Practice, Klein Park

Las Cruces seemed to check all the boxes we could think of for a good place to live out your latter days. With the pandemic concerns, we weren’t as free as could be to really hit the eateries, but we did get some fairly good Mexican food. It’s a city of a little over 100,000; large enough for just about everything you could need. In any event, El Paso has it or you probably don’t need it. 

It is a clean town, seemingly well-managed and everyone we met spoke fondly of it. There were no discernible rush hour traffic jams, just easy driving all day. The Rio Grande runs just to the city’s west when it has water in it. A lot of its water is diverted for agriculture, mostly for pecan orchards as far as we could tell. Some of them were extensively flooded with water from the river. I’d describe its exposed bed as “puddled.” 

Our little pecan orchard is also flooded at the moment because we catch the water that runs around a huge pond when it can’t hold the floods of a 900 acre watershed. It’s a good thing until it isn’t. Right now it isn’t to say the least. We were told once by an expert that it takes 14 gallons of water to grow a single pecan, and that might make you wonder why the hell they’re growing them in the frickin’ desert around Las Cruces.

The Mighty Rio Grande (Greatly reduced flow due to Crop Irrigation on the Corridor) and Drought


Standing on the bank of the mostly dry riverbed of the Rio Grande, I wondered about that myself. The lonely snowy egret on the other side didn’t have much to do, but some swallows were swooping around, probably gathering a little mud for their nests. There was plenty of that and plenty of things I’ll never quite get. We were close to a dam on that river, and it was dry on both sides. I wish I could give it a few acre feet of water off my place right now. No charge. If we move there, maybe I’ll understand that famous river a little better.

Snowy Egret in Search of Water, Leasburg Dam State Park


We were already in a good mood the morning we packed the car to leave. We liked Las Cruces a lot and were comfortable there. It seemed to have everything we wanted and needed, Mick Jagger aside. We were thinking, ‘Yeah, let’s move here when we’re ready.’ We were just about to hop in the car and head home when a tall masked man stopped, at a very safe distance from our unmasked selves, to chat for a few minutes. When it came out that we were thinking hard about moving there, Frank offered to help.

Frank and his husband Paul have lived in Las Cruces a little over 30 years. How they got there from growing up in the Midwest reads like a mixture of reason and chance, the kind of thing that makes for a good story with good outcomes. They met about 40 years ago working at the then newly-created Chicago Board Options Exchange as market makers in stock options. Speaking as a guy who bought defunct Tellabs (and GM, moments before it zeroed out), instead of Apple, the thought of what they were doing gives me a little tremor of residual fear.

Paul & Frank Celebrating Their New Home


I’m guessing, but I think they must have been pretty good Masters of the Universe because they got out early enough and lived a number of interesting lives since with a pretty high degree of freedom. Most of the people I know like that are the kind you love to sit up with past midnight, pouring out a good supply of dry reds and aspirin for later. Both, like us, had parents to care for; Paul’s in Florida and Frank’s in Arizona, close to Phoenix, whose relative proximity led ultimately to their  living in Las Cruces. 

On their long ago first day visiting the town, they exited the freeway and drove around forever looking for a restaurant, a memory that amazes them even today considering how many there were. I can’t say how many times that’s happened to us too in who knows how many strange towns we’ve pulled into. Imagine all the people in all the cars meandering around all the towns in all the world looking for a damn restaurant and, in desperation, finding themselves parked in front of an equivalent, if not an actual, Waffle House. Been there. Now, of course, you can locate any restaurant in minutes with your wi-fi mobile phone. Seconds, if you’re a kid.

Paul, practically on a lark, ended up working for IBM for five good years after accepting an invitation to a short internship on the basis of, “Sure, Why not?” Frank, meanwhile on another lark, decided to terrorize sailors on U.S. Navy warships by teaching them math. He’d taught for years at high school and college levels. The closest I’ve ever came to suicide was before a calculus final. Driving to class that day, I thought if only that oncoming pickup would swerve a little… 

Frank’s civilian tour ended because of the 911 attacks which ended a lot of good things. Not long after that the couple ended up in Florida for a few years helping Paul’s parents, the way it’s supposed to go. Then back to Las Cruces where they bought another house, then traded it in on a Northwood Nash RV trailer and hit the road full time for about seven years, traveling the country. BTW, Northwood made our Arctic Fox, and I recommend them. I bet they could write a couple of books just about their life on the road.

Rabbitfoot Grass (Polypogon monospeliensis), Rio Grande at Leasburg Dam State Park


Occasionally, they’d park the RV in a Las Cruces RV park and hang around awhile, thinking over their long range plans. One day, Frank found a lot in the Mesquite Historic District oriented a few degrees east of south for solar. They bought it and sat on it awhile thinking about the design of a new home to build with a carefully vetted builder that could contribute to their ideas and execute them properly. On the functional side it had to be very efficient, incorporating solar, and modern, but aesthetically it had to adhere to that of the neighborhood’s quiet and lovely low slung adobe architecture.

I know all this because when we met Frank, we exchanged our info, again at a safe distance. Since then, both of them have generously sent PDF files of pertinent building codes and a biographical compilation of the property’s past owners plus themselves. Paul and Frank have given talks at nearby New Mexico State University about the beautiful and super efficient house they built. They’ve also been written up in several of the town’s newspapers. 

A Slice of Paul & Frank’s Xeriscaped Yard

You know what? If you get out of the house and go down the road a bit, you’re liable to have a little brush with history. I remember back in Houston when I first got my driver’s license and found myself at 15 years old sitting out by the pool illegally drinking beer with the recently late, and lamented, B.J. Thomas. I was there with a friend and his older brother who knew him. I had to travel there. A couple of years later, he and his Triumphs played at my senior prom.

When Dahna was five her parents took her and her brother and sister to Magnolia Gardens, a small country music venue way up north of Houston. It was one of the stops of the Louisiana Hayride circuit. One of the singers picked cute little Dahna up and walked her around on his shoulders. Then he took her for a ride in his Cadillac convertible around the parking lot. That guy, back in 1955, was Elvis when he was just becoming king. Dahna has a funny way of describing that shoulder ride, but I won’t go into it here. The point is that on that day, they didn’t just lie around the house like most people do. They got out in the car and met royalty.

So, we threw some stuff in our car and went off to Las Cruces and had another brush with history. In 2013, the same year Paul and Frank moved into that new house, they stood at the head of a line early one morning to become the first same sex couple to be issued a marriage license in New Mexico. 

Every now and then something really good happens in this poor country, but it rarely comes without a fight. In the streets and in the legislatures and the courts. But sometimes it happens. John Lewises’ good trouble, then good law, and then a better country for us all to live in. This little blog is called Trail Writers and it doesn’t matter too much, but there are trail blazers out there and they count for a helluva lot, everything really. This country “wouldn’t be squat” without them.

We plan to go back in the Fall assuming the Spring flooding eventually lets up and we’re not washed out to sea. We got a pretty good lay of the land during our trip but missed a lot too. We barely scratched the surface of the good Mexican food available, never really looked for a prized cafe for a late night breakfast. We really need to spend a few hours walking around the university campus and see what it and other educational and cultural organizations have to offer and think about what we might have to offer in return. How we could contribute to a new desert hometown.

Well, we have a few months to read a lot more about Old Mesilla and all the other historic places in and around Las Cruces. We’ll spend more time there when we go back for all that and the chance to firm up our plans a little. High on the list is the possibility of getting to know Frank and Paul better, wine or no wine. It was a stroke of serendipitous good luck that Frank decided to say, “Hello in there,” as he walked by. Well, it wasn’t all luck. We travel a lot if you know what I mean.

Oregon Trail Revisted: Part 3

by Pat Branyan

Roseburg was our target town to resettle in, but it didn’t quite work out for us. The data was right, but there’s a lot of slack in the way data points relate to each other in reality. That’s not to say a single data point can’t be a deal breaker. Too low of an average winter temperature in my case, or too high in summer for Dahna. Rocky needs more sun than Vermont can supply. We all have our limits: Too many snakes—not enough birds. No bears! Cougars? Okay. Too many redneck neighbors—too much latte sippin’. Needs more restaurants—no, just better ones. Look at the frickin’ traffic! Rotaries?? No way José!

So, we moved on a little south, down to Grants Pass. We liked it a lot better even though the data was similar to Roseburg. If we ever move to Oregon, that’s probably where we’ll go. Who knows? Like my mom used to say, “Whatever.” Well, four long, long years ago this last part happened there, in the state of Oregon. 

Roseburg’s climate has a healthy quota of cloudy (and rainy) days, but compares a bit favorably to Eugene and Salem, both of which pass sunshine muster, if barely. The problem we’re having is the economic climate which, I admit, might not be fair since Roseburg wasn’t alone in being passed over in the last few decades. Housing prices are certainly high enough, but the town seems a little past its prime. 

Like Comanche, there are lots of houses long past their repaint due date. It has a workaday feel which we generally like and there’s nothing hoity toity about it, but something… So, we drove out to some of the small outlying communities which did absolutely nothing for our mood. We’re not giving up on Roseburg though. To be fair, most places we’ve seen in the last few decades look little green around the gills.

By the time we got back to Whistler Bend’s river and trees and the tiny graveyard that holds the bones of the kind people that donated this land to We the People, we two people plus canine were happy campers again. With splashes of Old Crow, a kosher dill pickle and the king of all foods, the hamburger, I was feelin’ good and lookin’ good as I can these days. In a few minutes we’re having Tillamook Double Chocolate ice cream which is better than your ice cream and, yes, I’m talkin’ to you, Blue Bell.

Umpqua River, Whistlers Bend Park

David sent an email the other day and asked if we knew Greg Brown’s “Eugene.” We like his music a lot, but we didn’t have it on the iPod with his other songs. Dahna got on Youtube and played it. Then we played it again it was so good, and you’ll thank David too if you give it a spin. 

Solidly in a Greg Brown mood, we listened again to his “Skinny Days.” Dahna misted up through that and David’s own version of the great song. David made a CD of some of his favorite songs, also sung wonderfully by David himself, and we listened to it while we ate dinner. I’ll admit I snuffled a little when John Prine’s “Hello in There” came up, but then I always do with that one.

David thought “Eugene” would hit home for us on this journey and did it ever. The correct pronunciation of “Willamette” comes through loud and clear, for one thing, if you ever cared. He tips his hat to the values of the younger generations with a rueful look back at ours, and his, soon to shuffle off this mortal coil. None too soon in his opinion.

Brown would appreciate the struggles of the young couple camped next to us in a tent. We met them beside the little graveyard and got to talking. They’re homeless but have an old car that takes the guy to his job as a salesman for a telemarketer. She stays behind and cooks, shops and keeps the books. They have to break camp and move frequently as their park permits run out. Then they move on to another state or county park nearby for an alloted time. Sweet and gentle people like the ones we knew in Montrose long ago. I don’t know their names. Never came up.

Today, we’re off on a 200 mile loop to the coast, over to Coos Bay then up to Reedsport, then back to the pretty park. Laundry tomorrow and a stroll downtown plus a dining out date if we can swing it with Daisy. When we have to leave her in the camper, we leave it unlocked and ask our neighbors to let her out if it catches on fire or the AC breaks down and goes quiet. It’s standard procedure among RVers.

In the many years we’ve been married, Dahna and I have often felt a bit like gypsies and have moved many times, often for reasons that make little sense in the common sense sense. The old feeling is at play again, especially in Dahna. But this time there are some more concrete reasons that show up uninvited and unwanted if you live long enough. 

Living a long time is the better thing, I think, and to hell with the “Die young and leave a good looking corpse” nonsense. Shoot, none of our friends are on the cover of Vogue either, so who gives a damn? But, long life should at some point force you to admit to the disconnect between the young Peter Pan face in that lying mirror and that old man in the photograph that just can’t be you. You know, the pic your wife loves best. 

At that point you’ve got to finally recognize and act your age and stop picking up heavy stuff. At the very least, stop joking about compound leverage and actually start using it. Remember 8th Grade Science? Levers, pulleys, inclined planes, and don’t forget hydraulic front end loaders.

Unfortunately, at our place there’s a lot of heavy stuff that always needs picking up, stuff that was lighter when we bought it 9 years ago. My roofer thinks it’s wise to keep picking the stuff up anyway but he’s in his 50s, so what the hell does he know?

When we came out here to Oregon in a rental car a few years ago, we enjoyed ourselves rhinocerosly as my old friend, and boss, Jim Everitt used to say. Since that trip, the change in scenery has sparked the old restlessness, and now, the political insanity, gloriously well-represented in Texas, has fanned the flames. And, that heavy stuff keeps getting heavier.  

Elk Grazing in the Umpqua River Valley Near The Coast

That’s not to say all’s well here in Oregon. No sir. I saw a guy roaring past in a monster big-wheel 4×4 a few days ago flying a large, two-faced flag, its pole planted back in the bed Iwo Jima style. Stitched together were same-sized American and Confederate flags, back to back. They, or it, flapped righteously in the truck, proudly displaying the touching patriotism so lacking in the Iwo Marines that only raised Old Glory by itself. 

And, I remind myself, the Trump campaign has a big office here in Roseburg in order to Make America Great Again for Flag Boy. So, it helps to keep a little perspective. It ain’t just in Texas. Molly Ivins would’ve had just as much fun if she’d lived here in Oregon. But, we were the lucky ones that had her. We saw her a couple of times eating alone at the Magnolia Cafe in Austin. Both times she read a paperback while she waited for her food, grace respectfully undisturbed.

After seven days here in the environs of Roseburg, we’ve decided this isn’t the place for us. You remember Gertrude Stein’s observation about Oakland, I think it was. Here, there is a there there, a nice one mostly, but it doesn’t click for us. I hadn’t thought about it before, but if you need a fairly big lot for a shop in a little mountain town you’re pretty much SOL. There’s just not enough flat ground for many people to have one and a house too. At least at Oregon prices.

Day Trip to Crater Lake

If you look out of town where it’s cheaper, you start getting into too much acreage where the heavy iron things are, and you lose the feel of “neighborhood.” That’s something we’ve missed for a long time. I guess, to be honest, Roseburg just doesn’t feel quite right. Metaphorically, the trees need to be the right height.

A few days ago, we escaped the unusual triple digit heat of Whistler’s Bend in a run for the coast. Heading west from Roseburg and over the Coast Range you come to the pretty Coquille valley. This did feel right. Everything was the right size but there were a couple of deal breakers.  

First of all, we probably couldn’t afford it since the moderating trashy element seemed a little too small. Doctors would be available there or in Coos Bay, a pretty big town on the coast just up the road. But also, we’ve ruled out the coast due to the cold rain that falls a little too much there. Maybe when we were younger in that other, hardier life. Really though, if it’s got to be cold we prefer dry snow lying up on the high desert. Can’t have everything.

It was a picturesque ride all the way through. The big rivers with the log rafts headed for the mills, the salty shops run by tough people, and the twisty, forested roads leading finally to the sea. It had Ken Kesey’s Sometimes A Great Notion kick about it which jibes since he was from Springfield, next to Eugene. The Simpsons reputedly live in Springfield too, and I admire both equally which probably says a little too much about me. 

The coast excursion had the desired effect of cooling us off nicely and clearing our heads some about Roseburg as well. We walked Daisy in a quick hurry in a small park overlooking the Pacific and nearly froze to death from a sharp wind off the water that bowed our heads. It was hard to believe we’d soon be sweltering back over the range.That day was good though in more ways than one, start to finish. Here’s how it started:

Cold Windy Stop on The Oregon Coast – Brrrr.

The coast trip was going to be a long one so we got up early. We were drinking coffee at the picnic table, each hard at work. Dahna was trying to juggle our schedule to spend less time in Roseburg and more elsewhere, preferably down around Grants Pass or back up to Salem on the way home. I was plotting the day’s route to the coast and back making a scenic loop. Both of us were face down, concentrating hard, when the air quivered then shattered with, “DID YOU CATCH ANY FISH YET?!!” We both jumped out of our skins in an instant, electric WTF?? And there he was, about 30 feet away. This guy.

Conjure up an image of John Wayne. Big hat, dust scarf, leather vest and pants, big .45 Colt on his hip. Now, back up a little until you see Ward Bond standing there beside him. Shrink Ward down about a third until the top of his hat is level with Duke’s shoulder, but be sure to keep the big booming voice and twinkly eyes and don’t forget the hale fellow, well-met part. Keep all that real big and meet my friend Joe.

Joe is a retired electrician, the 10th of 11 kids and born on the Christmas Eve following Pearl Harbor. His mom was born in 1897, same as my grandmothers, and everyone in that huge family lives past 80, by statute. If you saw Joe, you’d believe it in a second. It’s amazing how one woman could impart so much life into that many kids, or even just one Joe. I guess it’s something in the soil of the Pacific Northwest where they’re from. Maybe just the tasty oysters out in the water, come to think of it. 

We didn’t talk about fishing at all which was okay. Fish are safe from me. I couldn’t catch one if it jumped in my lap and slapped me in the face. Instead, we talked about everything else and it was just one of those good things, the way they happen sometime.

Common Mergansers on the Umpqua River

He stood away from the table and he’d kind of mince up, gesturing some story to life. Then he’d ease back, arms crossed, letting his creation hang in the air. He was a good storyteller, so I tuned in. He’d been going on and on like that for at least 15 or 20 minutes when he mentioned that he and Susan once owned a store on the coast. He looked up at the sky, pleased at the memory, and said, “You could get just about anything in that little place.” 

Then he ticked off a list on his fingers, “bread, lettuce, baby powder, a .300 Weatherby…” He paused for effect, looking down at me where I sat on the bench.

I was barely nine when my stepfather came into our little family, my father long dead. Nearly a year later, on my 10th birthday, he gave me a brand new Remington Model 551 Scoremaster .22 bolt action rifle. He was a good engineer and correctly calculated that keeping me happy was key to his own happiness, vis-a-vis his pretty new wife. My buddy Greg down the street had an old over and under .22/.410 break open breechloader, a Marlin I think it was. The Scoremaster was so sweet I couldn’t sleep that first night. Visions of us hunting elysian fields kept me awake.

I was happy with my new gun, and so was my new dad living in bliss with the love of his life, evermore. I truly loved that long-barreled .22, still have it and still appreciate the zen of a fine bolt action rifle. I know a lot about guns too, probably because of that birthday and my smart “Pop” who taught me how to shoot way out on the San Jacinto river. I’ll never forget that first whiff of cordite when I pulled the trigger of that new rifle. It smells good to a boy. Maybe too damn good.

I said, “.300 Weatherby…never fired one. My .270 kicked hard enough for me.” 

He smiled that toothy Ward Bond grin, “Aw, it’s not that bad. I had three of ‘em. Accurate. My son took one out to a target at 100 yards and all three rounds punched holes that touched each other.”  

That’s when I hooked him, “Must’ve been a real Weatherby to shoot that tight.” Then, I reeled him in, “Tighter than a minute of angle,” 

I looked up at him over the rim of my glasses. He stared back. Then he walked up to the table and sat down. “It was a real Weatherby,” he said as he reached out, “I’m Joe.” 

Caught me a big fish.

We talked for another hour until Dahna got antsy about getting a late start to the coast. We’d covered a lot of ground and, following the script, we had a lot in common—to the point he commented on it. I agreed with most of it but had a little problem when he said we were the same age after I mentioned I was 68 years old. He said he was 74 which, I’m sorry, ain’t the same as 68 if you look at it like I do.

About the same time my dad taught me to shoot, I was dealing with fractions and he decided to blow my little mind by introducing me to the slipperiness of numbers and time. Using our respective ages to illustrate, he made Joe’s case for him nearly 60 years ago.

He said, “You’re 10 right? And I’m 30. That means I’m three times older than you, correct?” It was also true that he was a good bit younger than my mom which never meant anything to those two.

I was thinking, ‘…huh?’ 

Then he went on, “So, you also can say you’re 1/3 my age, right?”

It took a furrowed brow but finally I said, “I guess so.”

“Okay,” he went on, “What happens 10 years from now when I’m 40 and you’re 20?” I couldn’t imagine being 20 years old.

The look on my face must have tipped him off that he wasn’t looking at the next Einstein, but he continued anyway, “By that time I’ll only be twice as old as you, not three times. You’re only 1/3 my age now, but in 10 years you’ll be 1/2 as old as me. I’ll always be 20 years older than you, but as long as we both live you’ll be catching up with me. See?”

I’ve thought about that all my life and how time can take you on a fast dance around some number and make your head spin if you let it. And I let it spin me around alright when Joe tried to make me think I was as old as he was. Like I caught up with him the way my dad put it so long ago. So, I let Joe have his point with my usual lack of wit, not to mention too much deference to a grinning elder.

What I should have said:

“Not so fast Joe. Let’s say we both live to be 80, not unreasonable. You’ve got diabetes and I’m too fat with a little hypertension. So, you’ve got 6 years to live but, hey, I’ve got 12. Shoot, you’re actually twice as old as me. In fact, you might say I’m only 1/2 your age. Gee mister, I’m just a kid.” I’d try out my own bucktoothed grin.

You’d think after 58 years of thinking about these things I’d be able to flip my dad’s Aggie arithmetic lesson around on old man Joe. But, no. That’s not what I said. I will, however, admit that Joe and I do live in the same general stage of life, and what we were really talking about was the pressing necessity of coming to grips with it. We’re both having a good time, but it’s getting harder for both of us to do a lot of the things we used to do, physically. At least without thinking first to keep from hurting ourselves.

Joe and Susan have a five acre place outside a small community that’s close to Salem to their east. They’re contemplating selling and moving to Grants Pass to be closer to their respective families; his in northern California, hers in southern Oregon. They raise most of their own food and work hard on the place keeping it trim and in order. Like with us, the heavy things are getting heavier each year so they’re thinking, ‘maybe it’s time’ to adjust a little.

We met again for another long spell and traded phone numbers and addresses. Later, I decided I really wanted to see his place and talk to him some more when we made it back up to Silver Falls State Park for a few days on the trip home. The park is close to Salem, probably 30 miles or so from his house. I  wanted to let him know we were actually coming, sort of asking permission.

I didn’t want to just show up and have him yell at me about getting off his damn lawn.

We walked over to the escarpment overlooking the Umpqua near his camp, but he was in the middle of a big group of Susan’s relatives, so we didn’t intrude. However, one of the relative’s boxers came out and nearly slobbered us to death before we made it back to the camper. A little while later, Joe broke loose and came over and we talked past dark when Susan walked up to remind him of his familial duties to the kin.

The next morning early, Dahna looked out and said, “Joe’s gone.” I rolled over and went back to sleep. I had his address.

It’s close to 10:00 AM, Saturday the 3rd. We’re showered and about to have a quick bite before loading up and breaking camp. We’re headed to Valley of the Rogue State Park near Grants Pass. It looks pretty good on paper and we’re a little excited. I’m anxious to see what Joe sees in the place. I’ll bet it’s good. Not too far from here.

Grants Pass, Oregon

We took I-5 south and, as you know, interstates are usually a snooze which can get you killed real quick. Not today. I’d have to say the short 65 mile trip down from Roseburg to Grants Pass is one of the most magnificent drives I’ve ever taken. It consists entirely of high mountain passes free falling into tight valleys or even tighter canyons with the Umpqua often running beside or cutting back and forth across your path like a beautiful girl strutting her stuff. 

My poor truck really whined and howled at all the downshifts, pulling uphill and braking down. Dahna said, “WOW!” in one of the great understatements of all time. If you came to Oregon just for this one little drive and then went right home, you’d miss a heck of a lot. But, you might just think it was worth it after all, and nobody else would care in any case.

We got to the park before 2:00 and the young lady ranger at the gate was all sweetness and light. We pulled into our spot, set up like pros, and I was about to take a bow when I stepped in a hole and twisted my ankle. That’s when I really got everybody’s attention, but they weren’t clapping. 

Later, while I was lying up in bed with an ice pack, Dahna flagged down another ranger who shoveled a little dirt into the holes. Dahna asked her if they had grey digger squirrels here and she said, “Yeah. Aren’t they evil?” Maybe they really should be called “grave diggers,” the little bastards. 

Gray Digger Waiting to Trip Someone up

This park is full of people and they all have dogs. We don’t have a dog, we have Daisy. She’s part coyote we tell them. They believe it too because she really is and they sense the difference when they reach out to pet her. Maybe it’s the low growl. The thing is, they all have dogs because they’re dog people. 

Dahna had a question, “You know who’s not here?” And she had an answer, “Motel people.” That got me thinking. All around are RVs and dogs. [Love and marriage, horse and carriage] Before we bought this thing, we couldn’t go anywhere because dogs. Get rid of the dog then, right? It is to laugh.

So, who’s behind the RV craze? I’m saying it’s the dogs and I think I know why. You know who really likes to travel? Daisy. No, I’m serious. They’re way smarter than you think.

Valley of the Rogue State Park lies about 10 miles south of Grants Pass beside the Rogue River. The headwaters of the Rogue originate high in the Cascades near Crater Lake which is another thing you could dedicate a visit to. The river runs a little over 200 fast miles to Gold Beach on the coast, just above California. 

These rivers change personality depending on various local conditions; variables that include things like watershed section, fall, forking, ox bowing and a bunch of things Allan knows about. In Roseburg the Umpqua was like a beautiful babbling brook but much bigger, scattering light everywhere, siren singing to the fly fishermen. Toward the coast it becomes stately, larger, deeper and slower like that old “rollin’ river” of song. 

We don’t know the Rogue as well and regret having so little time to better acquaint ourselves. Here at the park, and in Grants Pass, the Rogue is like a locomotive. It’s big, fast and powerful—dangerous too. Crossing the bridge beside the pretty public park in Grants Pass, Dahna looked downriver and saw a capsized McKenzie river boat, beat up and aground on a gravel bar. I’m sure the river is a pussycat somewhere but not here. 

Drift Fishing MacKenzie Boat on the Rogue River.

We like it just fine.

Yesterday, when we drove into Grants Pass for the first time, Dahna looked around and sniffed the air for maybe 5 minutes. I’m thinking, ‘What the hell?’ Then she said, “Drop me off here. Call me when you sell the house.” 

I protested, “What? I can’t live on peanut butter!” 

She thought back, “Sure you can. I remember your apartment. Pull over and let me out.” 

Once again, brilliant foresight saved the day. I have a new truck with master kiddie locks on the doors (Thank you Ralph Nader) and tonight it’s fine dining on crab chowder with garlic toast. I like to say “chowdah” like Jack Kennedy did.

Grants Pass Claim To Fame

We just might not pass on Grants Pass. Dahna loves everything about it and I love typing Grants Pass without having to hunt for the apostrophe key. It’s a win-win. The town rests comfortably lengthwise in a small valley, its streets undulating just enough but not too much. I figure it’ll be easy to find a place flat enough to check the oil without having to use trig. Mine’s getting rusty which, come to think of it, is another good excuse to buy, not build, another house.  

One of the things about Oregon, including Grants Pass, that totally confuses me is this: Why in the world are houses so expensive when your chances of getting run over by a logging truck are so high? Aren’t they made out of wood here? This place is so lousy with wood, you’d think they’d give you the damn house just to get rid of the stuff. 

Really though, you look at the little brochures and they want you to make your dream come true in an 850 sq.’ “cottage” on a “big” 0.27 acre lot for “only” 199K. In Texas you can buy a small town for that and you eventually get used to the smell. And, if the fertilizer plant blows up, why hell, that’s what insurance is for. Okay, I’m exaggerating—a little.  But 850 sq’? Isn’t that the den?  

WPA Mural – Grants Pass Post Office

Dahna says we can do this though. Get ‘em down to 165K, take bids on a little 20’ x 30’ shop, fill it with cheap Grizzly woodworking saws and sanders and other Chinese crap from their big store in lovely Bellingham up the coast. Then convert to Full Gospel Latter Day Oregonism for under 200K in a neat tuck ’n roll. Ta da! Piece of cake. I get it. I really do.

Grants Pass, like I said, runs basically parallel through its valley with pretty mountains all around but at a bit of a distance where they can’t hurt you. When you get to the cool downtown, a big sign arcs like a rainbow over the main drag beckoning: “It’s The Climate.” 

What they’re bragging about is the fact that Grants Pass only averages about 30” of rainfall annually, about like Comanche. This compares quite favorably to most of the rest of the Pacific northwest which is basically a drumming rainforest. Seasonal Affective Disorder is less of a downer in Grants Pass and the revolvers mostly stay in the closets. 

The population of the town is about 36,000 and has been growing steadily. Like I said, total annual rainfall here is almost identical to Comanche. The difference is in the distribution and delivery. Here the summers are dry with almost all of the rainfall occurring in the winter months in a gentle cold rain, perfect for naps. Coincidentally, I’m a nationally-ranked napper. 

In Comanche, the rain (and hail) comes almost any month, too often hammering your psyche with terrifying tornadoes spawned by butterfly farts somewhere in Oklahoma. Dahna says if it gets too dank and gloomy in the winter, we can always hitch up and drop down to sunny California for a spell. Maybe my old fave, LA. Hey, remember the Bat Cave? That old bottomless joint off Sunset way back in the early 70s? Me neither.

Yesterday, we still felt guilty for ditching Daisy the day before in a mad dash downtown for breakfast at the venerable Powderhorn Cafe. I don’t know if you’ve ever been mesmerized by the artistry of a crazed fry cook slinging hash in full fury, but it’s a sight to behold. When we walked in, the place was packed and the clatter was absolutely symphonic.

Have you ever been flattened by a 130 lb. waitress? No? Go to the Powderhorn at 11:00 AM and stand in her way. Dahna and I are cafe people, (not Waffle House—we do have standards), and we’d rather go a place like the Powderhorn than the Four Seasons any day. Man, it was good. Pancakes to die for and we came close. Actually, we’ll be back on Atkins when we get home, remembering every bite per pound.

There are two exit ramps for Grants Pass off I-5 and they’re connected by two parallel one-way thoroughfares that serve as the spine of the town. They run through the nifty downtown full of little shops, of which not too many are frou-frou. Most of them actually serve a utilitarian purpose other than propping up the vanity of some rich jerk from Chicago. 

Grants Pass Mascot

The neighborhoods radiate out on both sides of the thoroughfares in the same eclectic architecture found elsewhere in Oregon. The lots are a little bigger than Roseburg, prices about the same, and it rains a hair less. Rainfall drops off, generally, as you head south. Further south gets you to Medford.

Medford lies only about 30 miles below Grants Pass. It’s much larger and is largely uninhabitable according to some interpretations of the climate data. It’s blistering hot in summer and develops weird temperature inversions and evil fogs that’ll pock your face. True, sort of. Grants Pass is much nicer, according to reports. I do have a special fondness for Medford though, and I’ve had it for years. It’s a stupid thing, but it always makes Dahna laugh.

You might have seen the great film noir, “Double Indemnity,” with Barbara Stanwyck, Fred McMurray, and Edward G. Robinson in what might be his best role. Based on the novel by James M. Cain, it’s a tight, sweaty tale of lust and murder out in the ‘burbs of LA. At one point the killer meets a man from Medford on the train who’s come down to California on business. During an exchange of introductory pleasantries, the exuberant Oregonian proudly says, “I’m a Medford man, myself!”  

So, when some fool says, “I’m so blessed,” I’m liable to chirp up brightly, “I’m a Medford man myself!” When Dahna invariably laughs, the chosen one usually gets the message and looks down at his shoes. Very handy when you’re in the mood for an awkward moment. Sometimes, I say it just to say it and Dahna still laughs. It’s an old warhorse.

There’s another town, one that’s really something to see, located south of Medford. We hadn’t planned to go that far down until we got a tip from a beautiful brunette who lived there once and still dreams about it. It’s little Ashland, tucked up into the hillsides and looking more than a little bit magical. Actually, it is magical.  

Ashland is pretty famous for its high quality theatrical productions and boasts a distinguished alumni of thespians who honed their acting chops there. We felt a little gauche driving through and parting a waiting sea of patrons with our dirty pickup, but I’m sure the Texas plates mollified them. 

A quick browse of the real estate brochures explained in no uncertain terms why the likes of us can never live there, but if we move to Grants Pass we can take in a play now and then. If you visit us, we can treat you, perchance, to a bit of the Bard at one of three theaters modeled after his Globe.

Well, that’s it, almost—the end of the line on the Oregon Trail Revisited.  We’re at Silver Falls State Park near Salem on the trip home. It’s going to be Grants Pass. Done. Mission accomplished. I hate to keep bringing up Mitt, really I do, but the tree thing was a factor. In Grants Pass they’re the right size; smaller, much more deciduous and less coniferish. Dahna complained that she couldn’t see the birds they were up so high in the tall firs and pines. That made her grumpy—not good for me.

One of Numerous Waterfalls at Silver Falls SP

Hammering home the point, the trees here at Silver Falls are the most majestic yet, real sky scrapers dripping with a mossy lichen. The park reminds me of the mountain jungles of Vietnam, beautiful but dark and wet and spooky too. Once saw a centipede a full foot long in there, fat as a cigar. I got back on my feet.

Campsite at Silver Falls State Park
CCC Lodge at Silver Falls

Dahna is reading Astoria, a good book about John Jacob Astor’s failed attempt to develop a trading empire centered around the mouth of the Columbia River in the early 1800s. One of the chilling passages recounts men being driven mad by the incessant rain, cold mud and gloom. She pointed to the dense, dripping forest all around and said, “This.” 

Rainforest Teeming With Soggy Life

The moral of the story is that leaving Texas is not a matter of trading a hellhole for Paradise. In its own way, Oregon is harsh too and so is every other place if you think about it. Well, maybe not San Diego unless you’re a Marine boot in which case Hell hardly describes it… But, like Pop used to say, “You pays your money, you takes your cherce.” 

I’ll always be a Texan and if Dubya is too, well then, so are the Dixie Chicks. I love Texas and I’m proud of it, but if somebody ever tells me how blessed they are, I’ll just be from Medford passing through.

We had to wait a good while to take a tiny ferry to get to Joe and Susans’ country place. Enroute Dahna called ahead and Joe said, “Yeah, I took that ferry…once.” Onstar didn’t say a damn thing about a tiny ferry on that particular route to their house. 
     

McKenzie River Ferry

Joe & Susan and Their Wonderful Home

We spent several hours with Joe and Susan. It was terrific, and you should see their place, a lovely Craftsman style farm house surrounded by their apple and cherry orchards, blueberry beds and raspberries plus several cavernous shop buildings. They also raise turkeys, chickens and cows. And asparagus and I could go on. We continued our conversation about everything and, sure enough, it rolled around to Buddy Holly. He asked me if I knew the date when he died. It went:

Pat:  I’m not sure about the exact date. I’ll say January 9th, 1959.

Joe:  Nope, February 3rd, 1958.

Pat:  ’59.

Joe:  ’58.

Pat:  Bet you a nickel, ’59.

Joe:  You’re on!

Susan got on the net and proved us both wrong, but at least I got the year right and that’s what the money was riding on. The news hit Joe pretty hard. He said, “That can’t be right. It was the Junior dance…I remember…” His voice trailed off a little, “Shoot, I’ve been saying ‘1958’ for years.”

Joe & Susan

I said, “Well Joe, look on the bright side. You must have some pretty good friends to let you get away with a thing like that.”

Susan has a 96 year old aunt who lives in San Antonio and they intend to visit her soon, for obvious reasons. We invited them to come see us, maybe stay a day or so. When we got in the truck to leave I told Joe, “I’ll take that nickel when you get to Texas.” He’d forgotten all about it and, not being one to welch on a bet, he sort of jumped and started digging in his pockets. Susan said, “Stop that Joe. We’ll bring that nickel to Texas.” 

Won the bet and got a big sack of the best apples, right off the tree. They got us almost all the way to Mesa Verde coming back home to Texas and our cats, cool breeze Doghouse Riley and crosseyed little Miho, lying in wait. Evil as ever but kind of sweet in her own way.


We Bid Farewell to Oregon at Farewell Bend Recreation Area, Ontario, OR
Leaving the River to Cross the Arid Hills Beyond Was a Daunting Prospect

Hills at Sunset – Farewell Bend Recreation Area
Mesa Verde National Park
Anasazi Cliff Dwelling at Mesa Verde
Home Again

EPILOGUE

Awhile back I got on Google Satellite and hovered over our old farm. It no longer looked as if anyone still lived out there. The old dirt driveway we made up to the house was plowed under and planted back to wheat. Frank was a two-time cancer survivor and, at 77 when we met him, who knows? When we got back home from Oregon we corresponded a little and traded Christmas cards later that year. Then he called me on the phone.

He said he’d thought it over long and hard. Then he made such a sweet offer that I didn’t know what to say. Maybe we could move back out there after he died, he said, and he’d leave us all his belongings. Even put it in writing as his will. He said it would be like completing the circle with us coming back home where it all started. 

I thanked him from deep in my heart. I told him we might do it too if we weren’t so old that we needed to be closer to doctors. Actually, through all the years we’ve often thought of buying that place back. But it’s not really practical, much less necessary. In a way, we never really left. 

That’s the last we heard from our friend, Frank.

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.

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Heading Down Into The Canyon

At first light the next day, Dahna took her binoculars outside to look for birds when a bobcat came up behind her and pooped. She was unaware of this love offering until the cat circled around and they had a little moment together. Daisy and I missed it because we were sensibly inside the camper asleep. Later, a woman warned us about the big diamondback that crawled through her camp nosing around. Her eyes were still pretty big when she got to us as she made her warning rounds.

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Desert Life

This site is where McKenzie had his big battle with the “Noble Savage.” Apparently, in a fit of pique, he slaughtered over a thousand of their ponies. Our old and long lost friend, Mike, wrote his dissertation about this little sideshow. The dissertation I never wrote would not have been about this asshole since Dahna and I were once members of the horsey set. Our neighbors out in Utah gave us a couple of horses, Crow and Tilly. Anyhow, Mike turned his dissertation into a book that some of his other friends read. 

We only stayed in the canyon for two days because we wanted to get out of the Texas heat fast. 

We made it to Coronado Campground in Bernalillo, NM on the 3rd. I immediately ran over the rubber cone marking our spot with a name tag. The tag was attached by a long screw that I drove deep into the tread of a front tire. After a number of MFers, I finally got backed into the weirdly arced and steeply sloped space. It wasn’t until Daisy finally relaxed after a lot of petting that we started to notice the stunning view of the Rio Grande running fast below us. Dahna’s hummingbird feeder was an instant hit, and “hit” is the right word for it. Then we mellowed out nicely, me taking a nap with Daisy.

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Coronado Campground – Bernalillo, NM

The next day we went next door to the Coronado Monument Museum to check out some of the frictions between the now-vanished Conquistadores and the now-vanished pueblo natives that once lived there. We were looking at the exhibits when a trim little docent asked if we wanted a tour of the kiva paintings that were miraculously removed, restored and brought to the gallery next door. Next thing we knew, we were being treated to an exclusive and fascinating lecture about the delicate recovery of the paintings and all the symbolism each and every single one contained.

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The Mighty Rio Grande From Our Campsite

I say fascinating, and it probably was, but early on I adopted my patented attentive face and slipped into that old daydream that got me through all those years in school. He might have been on to me because I noticed a cocked eyebrow when we finally shook hands. He wasn’t smiling, but I was.

Spooky cool shit:  A fine looking Latino man was camping across from us, and we caught each other’s eye. I liked his little old style camper and he liked our retro. He said he had a bigger trailer too, but he really liked the little one because he could slither through the trees with it like a snake. He showed me how with his hand, and we talked about that and some trouble he was having with his old truck. It looked brand new. I noticed he had purple heart plates and said something and he said, “Yeah, 1st Marines, Vietnam.”

I said, “Semper Fi jarhead, 7th Marines, Vietnam,” and we shook hands again. Turns out he worked the same areas around Da Nang I did but about a year earlier, and soon we were showing each other our various scars. It was just like that great scene out of “Jaws.” Being shot up is different than being blown up, and we couldn’t decide which we liked better. He was a pinto bean farmer like me, and we went deep into “the price of beans in Bangkok,” so to speak.

Dahna was there by then and the conversation went on to include a number of other things strangely common between us. It got to the point that Dahna asked us if we were twins separated at birth. When we got the camper hooked up to leave, my brother-in-blood said, “Have a safe trip, corporal.” I hadn’t said anything about my rank, so I was really rattled. I said, “How’d you know I was a corporal?”

He grinned and said, “Because I was a corporal.” The earth shifted a little under my feet. No kidding.

We headed for our old stomping grounds in southwest Colorado.

On the 5th we found ourselves packed sardine style among a vast group of wealthy RVers in towering motor homes. We looked like the Little Engine That Could next to these behemoths. It must have tickled them because a bunch scampered over to meet us and “admire” our little rig. 

Bob taught me how to avoid making an ass of myself by correctly pronouncing our destination, Oregon’s Willamette Valley, as “Will ám ette” rather than “Will a métte” as I stupidly put it prior. In return, I taught him how to pronounce “Glen Rose” like a true native in case he ever got real lost and found himself there. The townspeople of this little burg, like in a lot of small Texas towns, pronounce things uniquely, kind of sideways. But, even if you come from Brooklyn and go to Glen Rose and say its name right they’ll ask, “Yew from around here?” Bob got it down after practicing a little.

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Hummingbirds. – Dolores River Campground

This was on the Delores River in Colorado close to Cortez about 65 miles from our old farm across the border into Utah. I was looking forward to driving out there the next day, a drive we’d made countless times when we lived there 40 years ago. I was a big chatterbox yapping about all the changes we saw along the way, but Dahna was pretty quiet. She had her reasons.

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Dolores River

I had an old snapshot memory of driving to Cortez from our place to buy groceries and farm stuff. I looked over at Dahna, a beautiful young woman and thought about how lucky I was. I wondered if she’d stay.

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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!)

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My mom posing with Raspy, King Of Dogs

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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
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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
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Burro: Part of Hansen Family Campground Petting Zoo
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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.
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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

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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
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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
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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
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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.
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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
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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
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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
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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
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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
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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
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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
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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)
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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
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Verbena Stricta  – Wooly Vervain, Custer State Park
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 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)
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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
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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
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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
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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.
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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
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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
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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
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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
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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
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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
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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)
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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
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Antelope Bitterbrush (Purshia tridentata) in bloomDSCN1035.jpg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cinnamon Teal – Lake Washoe State Park, NevadaDSCN0968

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TO BE CONTINUED…

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

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

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

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

Seafare Inn restaurant in Whittier to close after 53 years

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

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

Lovely people…


Hi Pat and Dahna,

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

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

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

Shelley and Gary Milhous

 

SPRING TRIP, Part 3: A Pineapple in the Desert

By Pat Branyan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’ve got his number if you need it.

Phoenix Reunion with Tom and Karen West
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