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
Version 2

Sylvan Lake At Custer State Park
Sylvan Lake CusterSP

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

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

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

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

Mt. Rushmore – The Fab Four
Rushmore

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bison at Wind Cave National Park
Wind Cave Buffalo

Pronghorn At Wind Cave
Wind Cave Pronghorn

Prairie Dog At Wind Cave
PrairieDog

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

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

Too Proud To Beg
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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
Verbena Stricta Wooly Verbena.jpg

 FALL TRIP, Part 1: Back in the Saddle Again

By Pat Branyan

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

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

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

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

Magnificent Rock Formation in Yellowstone
Rock Formation.jpg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lonely Bull Bison-Yellowstone N.P.
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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
Yellowstone Lake after the Fire.jpg

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

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

Smith Mansion
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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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SPRING TRIP, Part 2: Big Rockhound Candy Mountain

by Pat Branyan

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

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

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

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

Lark Bunting, breeding male. These little sparrows winter in southern New Mexico and southward.  This is a first sighting for us. In spring they head north to the prairies. Interestingly, the females are pretty fickle in mate selection from year to year. One year she might prefer a strong beak in her mate, while the next, she might go for more distinctive wing bars. What’s a fella to do? Genetically, it does keep the male traits from becoming exaggerated.
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I looked out at the beautiful winter scene of thick piñon pine and Juniper stands ringing the blanketed wheat and pinto bean fields. The Blue Mountains were snow covered and looked close enough to touch through the sharp air. When the agent finally caught his breath and I could not hear a single sound, I said, “I’ll take it.”

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

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

Curved Bill Thrasher – His long curved bill is used to sweep through leaf litter on the ground to find bugs, often flipping dried cow patties to get the bugs underneath and washing them down with cactus fruits. This thrasher was singing his heart out from the top of an ocotillo at sunset. Their song and mimicry of other birds is akin to the mockingbird’s song.
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The park host called her husband, and he soon met us on his John Deere Gator. He led us to our spot, an easy back in, and waited to help out if necessary. Naturally, I quickly made a mess of it. I was embarrassed, of course, but embarrassment is an old friend of mine. When I got out of the truck, I stuck my hand out and laughed, “Piece of cake. I’m Pat.” He laughed too and we shook hands. “I’m Orville,” he said. Every fiber of my being wanted to ask him, “Oh? How’s Wilbur?” Alas, maturity is finally creeping up on me so I just said, “Glad to meet you Orville.”

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

View From Our Campsite – Yes, that is prickly pear in the foreground. Most of the greenery is prickly pear and creosote bush. There are a number of trails winding through the cactus to the top of the mountain, but be careful not to trip, fall and roll down slope.
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Apart from its scenic wonders, there are a couple of things that distinguish this park from most others. The small camping fee entitles you to access three other nearby state parks. One of them, City of Rocks S.P. consists of igneous rock originally created by vulcanism and then slowly carved out by erosion over millions of years into something like giant figurines, all closely packed together and standing up tall. The big formations dot the park and are connected to each other by a mini canyon maze of pathways, hence the “city” in the park’s name. 

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

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

Scaled Quail, or “Cotton-Tops” scurry around the campground, along with Gambel’s Quail.
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(Female) Gambel’s Quail are mostly ground birds, but we also saw them perched in small shrubs calling.
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The rocks you can find there are pretty cool. Black perlite, quartz and jasper samples are found plus geodes and thunder eggs with a little effort. I admit that after a full year of geology, I never heard of thunder eggs. Either that or I forgot…whatever. Anyway, these are rocks that have a solid mineral core of varying crystals, unlike the semi hollow geodes. They got their name from some Oregonian Indians who used to find them strewn thereabouts. The lore goes that occasionally the gods atop Mt. Jefferson and Mt. Hood would generate thunderstorms by getting mad at each other and pelting each other with eggs laid by the thunderbirds.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cactus Wren – Before you see the Cactus Wren, you might see their nests in low brush and cactus – large football-shaped affairs made from grass and agave fibers with a small entry hole in one end where they can raise up to three broods in a season.
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Finally, there was the laundromat. Ordinarily there’s not much fun in that, but when we pulled up and got out, a strong Latina woman of 35 or so was standing beside her old Tahoe bawling out one of her kids on her cell for not helping with the family’s big wash load. Her hybrid tirade in Spanish and English was a thing of high art and beauty, sprinkled mightily with expletives in both languages. Her voice would swell into a roar then drop to a whispered snarl. I hope that kid of hers grows up to be president. She sure had the mom for it. 

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

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

Sacha, NOT on a travel day

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SPRING TRIP, PART 1: The Agony and the Excedrin

by Pat Branyan

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

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

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

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

Davis Mountains State Park (Taken by Travis K. Witt – Wikimedia Commons) The white building in the distance is the Indian Lodge built by the CCC in the 1930’s.
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We began the new experiment on April 1st, about the time,”…showers pierce to the root,” as Geoffrey C. said to me from the 14th Century in Ms. Rummel’s senior English Class. We did a good job preparing, having gotten better and better, but there’s always a rub. This time it was bad back spasms for us both at the outset and they dogged us like nasty little stilettos each time we moved a certain way. We did make the 375 miles to our first campsite in Texas’ incredible Davis Mountains, but the first two days were spent on the tenderest of light duty.

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

Davis Mountains – Formed 35 million years ago from volcanic activity in the region, they form a sky island in the Chihuahuan Desert. Sky islands are isolated  mountains surrounded by lowlands with a vastly different environment. Renamed for Jefferson Davis, we prefer to think of them by their previous name the Limpia Mountains, so named for the creek than runs through them as a place of spiritual cleansing.
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This was our second visit to the Davis Mountains, a favorite place for us and anybody who’s ever been there. It pairs nicely with Big Bend National Park to its south which I think is Texas’ only park owned by Uncle Sam. Almost all Texas land is private, enforced in the Lone Star imagination with barbed wire, big-wheeled pickups, and Model 94 30-30s.” Our friend Ron gets animated just thinking about these desert parks and says there’s no place like them. Of course, no place in Texas is like any other place because Texas long ago slipped the surly bonds of “place.”

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

Black-headed Grosbeak – Stopping Over In the Davis Mountains to Refuel Before Heading Home to mate (to the west and northwest) This handsome feminist shares egg sitting and feeding with his mate.
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Months before our visit, we made reservations to go to the Star Party at McDonalds Observatory. The cosmologists there set up several outdoor telescopes and give a presentation to orient us rubes to our stellar position, thus our insignificance as if we needed any more evidence. Unfortunately, it happened the first night of our arrival and our aching backs forced our genteel southern upbringing to cancel on our behalf. It didn’t want us yelping through the talk much less screaming as we bent down to look through the scopes, probably knocking them over. Dahna smiled bravely through the disappointment and said, “I guess we’ll have to come back,” “Yeah,” I said, “The horror,” and we had a little laugh.  

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

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

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

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

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

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

Scott’s Orioles thrive on the yuccas that abound in the park. They drink the nectar from the flowers and eat bugs that also feed on the plant. Their nest bags, built from woven dead yucca leaves, are often found hanging from the yucca itself.
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“You’re really getting sentimental in your old age,” Dahna said. “You tear up all the time now,” she tittered, “I remember the tough Marine I married.” I said, “You only married me because I was rich and good looking.” “You’re still cute,” she said. “I’d rather be rich,” I said, “But thanks just the same, Four Eyes.” “Hey!” She barked.

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

Lazuli Bunting  – migrating through the mountains. Like all buntings they make their nests in thickets and dense chaparral. I had just enough time to get a single photo before he flitted away.
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MAPLE LEAF RAG: Prologue, Epilogue, and Home From the Hill

by Pat Branyan

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

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

Meanwhile, back at the pecan ranch…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s not you Virginia, it’s me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brown Creeper, near Longview, Tx on the Road Home
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MAPLE LEAF RAG Part 5: Planting the Flag and Hauling the Mail

by Pat Branyan

I can’t remember a thing about the ride up to Grand Island where we camped just south of Niagara Falls. Even though I’ve surprised myself by becoming an old coot and memory is becoming a sometimes thing, I don’t worry about it. A whirlwind trip like this would muddy the memory of almost anyone. In any case I can rely on Dahna to remind me where we stayed yesterday because she sees distinguishing details where I see blobs that run together into clumps.

I do remember the Branches of Niagara campground and our happy neighbor Brian, computer analyst and Buffalo native. The campground is privately owned and one of the few that capably caters to adults and children. The kids have plenty of playgrounds and games plus their own zip line. The adults have one too along with a pretty lake and lots of room to walk or jog. We were even able to let Sacha off her leash so she could run off some of the treats we’re helpless to stop giving her.

Mallard at Branches of Niagara
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As a general rule, private campgrounds are more expensive than state parks and tend to put the sites closer together so as to maximize profits. They offset these drawbacks by offering more amenities like cable TV and WiFi internet and complete hookups including water taps, power and sewer. We prefer state parks because they’re always beautiful, much larger, the sites are more spread out, and they’re cheap.

It might be my imagination, but I think the campers at the state parks are happier and friendlier. Cost might be a factor, but it is undeniable that the campers in the state parks run the gamut of economic class and I think that eases everything out a bit for everybody. Too, the natural beauty surely helps to put everybody in a good, hobnobbing mood. Letting Sacha go and watching her run through the woods chasing out her almost boundless energy is pure pleasure for us and helps us forget the news for awhile.

On the road we get our news on the internet, usually provided by our new iPhone. We bought an “unlimited” data plan to go with it which works fairly well as an internet hotspot for three out of the four weeks per month we use it. AT@T then tells us we’ve been greedy and slows the speed down to a dial up crawl. I get a kick out of AT@T telling me how greedy I am. Anyway, I asked my neighbor Brian why this was happening. He said that automatic upgrades of the phone’s apps eat up a lot of data, and that you could turn the updates off. When I told Dahna about this, she was her usual step ahead of me and said that she already had turned them off. AT@T…what’s not to like?

Brian also told us about the Erie Canal town of Lockport and a boat ride you can take through a manmade cave. The cave was designed to complement the Erie lock gates in moving water faster down the canal to speed passage of the barges through the system. It was painstakingly excavated by placing small gunpowder charges in drilled holes by young, nimble and, presumably, replaceable boys and blasting out small chunks at a time. The cave produced a “hydraulic raceway” of rushing water that also mechanically powered a series of factories up above that mostly burned down to the ground either accidentally or by design.

We learned about all this and more from our perky tour guide who was a sweet young woman of about twenty. She was surprised by her sister who had just driven in on the sly from California to see her and we were all delighted by the affection they had for each other. Our little group would tag along from point to point as they led, holding hands, and excitedly whispered to each other. They both loved their historic little town in an endearing, wry kind of way. The whole thing put everybody in a jolly good mood.

We watched a large tour boat full of passengers move through one of the many locks that stair-step the nearly 600 foot elevation difference from the Hudson river in Albany to Lake Erie near Buffalo. The original canal itself was dug by shovel, wheelbarrow and oxen-pulled scrapers in one of the greatest engineering feats of the early 19th Century. It linked the Great Lakes and much of the continent’s system of rivers to New York City’s harbor and was essential to the development of the midwest and the western expansion. New York City did okay too, and you can, and should, read all about it. We used to do big things back in the day of American Exceptionalism.

Tour Boat Waiting for the Lock to Fill
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Oh! I almost forgot Niagara Falls. But what really impressed me was the Niagara River itself. In fact, most of the rivers we crossed on this trip have been impressive. These monsters are huge compared to the dinky streams we call rivers in Texas. In spite of the Austin Lounge Lizards singing about Texas rattlesnakes being the coil-i-est and our beaches being the oil-i-est, our rivers aren’t the anything-i-est…maybe the mud-i-est. You want water? Go East young man! Seriously.

Niagara Falls
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Niagara Falls is impressive as you no doubt know since you’ve probably seen it if you’re like most of the people on the planet. If you haven’t been there, a word of warning. Never get in the way of a Japanese man and his camera, especially at elevated landmarks where you can fall to your death. I know that sounds racist and you could credibly accuse me of this particular sin if I hadn’t restrained my natural impulse to slug the guy when he shoved me out of his way to get a shot of his family at the rail.

The same thing happened to Dahna twice: once a little later on at Acadia National Park and once a long time ago at the Grand Canyon. I’m working on the idea that photographic shoving is not considered rude in some cultures, and I hope to internalize the notion more in order to remain out of jail in my golden years. Let me add in my defense that 50 years ago I had a great time on R & R in Tokyo. Loved the place and the people.

From Niagara our next stop was at a nice private park on the Mohawk River near Schenectady. Our three days at that park confirmed what we suspected about the big trip as we headed north and east and deeper into Fall. It was going to get colder and wetter. I wondered if they made raincoats for dogs which is a pretty dumb question if you’ve ever been in a big Pet Smart. Before you knew it, we were standing on the Mohawk’s bank with Sacha in her new Day-Glo lime green raincoat looking at the sailboats transiting our part of the modern Erie Canal system.

Pat and Sacha Just Walking In The Rain on the Mohawk River
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A steady parade of sailboats motored by, masts lowered and carried in deck cradles. They were traveling from the Great Lakes to points east, up to and including New York’s harbor. From there it’s the world if you choose and have the boat for it and we had the boat, almost—her deep keel drew 6’, a little too much for some rivers, but great for oceans. Back when we were sailing Alchemy out in the Gulf, we sometimes entertained the idea of tackling the “Great Loop.” This is a roughly 6,000 mile circumnavigation of the eastern U.S. and part of Canada using interconnecting rivers, lakes, canals and various waterways like the Intercoastal. Oh well. Mice and men.

The cold rain followed us up to Old Orchard Beach, ME on Saco Bay just south of Portland and has stayed with us ever since. We have been very lucky to have enough beautiful days to keep our spirits up and see most of the sights we had in mind. Best of all we were lucky in our timing vis-a-vis the fall colors. Almost from the beginning it’s as if the trees decided to explode in their fieriest colors just as we arrived to see them. I understand now why the peak fall colors in New England and Canada are so famous. It’s unreal. Some of the trees actually looked as if they were on fire. For hundreds of miles, Dahna took shot after shot of the trees in a jerky series of dangerous roadside swerves and stops.

Marsh Grass Saco Bay, Maine
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The biggest downside of driving way up north in the Fall is the decrease in camaraderie with the people you’re camping amongst. Hell, everybody’s tucked inside their heated RV. This isn’t entirely true because some of the people who live up north think drizzly 40 degree weather is perfect for sitting around a smokey, wet-wood campfire. We think it’s perfect for giving these people a wide berth. But, sadly, you meet a lot less people when it’s wet and cold, loony or not.

We didn’t get to know anyone at Old Orchard Beach, but we did have our first, and best, lobster roll near there in Saco at the Sea ’N Salt Restaurant. Getting to eat a lot of lobster was one of the prime attractions for me and I wasn’t disappointed—neither was Dahna. We ate our weight in lobster (mostly rolls) up and down again from New Hampshire to Nova Scotia. In our minds, the quality of a lobster roll depends on the ratio of tail meat to claw meat, and you always want to go with the higher number. Another thing is making the right choice of other stuff to put on it.

If you forget to specify you’re liable to get your not-cheap lobster roll slathered in mayonnaise or some other cheap crap. You want to order them “naked.” The lobster roll, I mean. That’s when they grudgingly break out the good stuff—drawn butter, the only thing that justifies taking the lobster’s life. Now, I know there’s no small controversy about the pain a lobster feels when it’s being boiled to death, but I also know that its “brain” is just a small ganglia mass.

So, do they feel pain when cooked? Probably. Did Marie Antoinette wince when her head face-planted in the basket? Again probably, but I’m sure she forgot all about it soon enough. The thing is, you don’t know if it hurts or not for sure. You’d have to ask them and they ain’t talkin’ are they? That gives us the moral wiggle room we need to happily eat lobster and humanely whack off heads from time to time. The mind is a marvelous thing. Voting Republican can even make sense to a Christian.

We generally have good natures even though they do slide up and down the scale a little. I consider myself to be a “very fine fellow” every time I don’t tip a Japanese photographer over the railing. On the other hand, to be honest, I worry that I’m only “basically a good person” when the butter sauce is flying. But, that’s good enough when it comes to lobster, so dig in!

Our next stop was at famed Acadia National Park up along Maine’s rocky coast. This park is one of America’s headline attractions on the order of Yellowstone or Yosemite. Mostly we remember the rugged shoreline with its big jutting rocks, the prevalent cold rain and the huge wet trees that seemed to whisper, “Kill yourself.” That’s a little unfair because you shouldn’t judge a place solely by its weather at the moment. Actually, the sun would come out periodically and the peak leaf color would smash into your retina like a freight train making everything groovy all over again. It also smelled great there, like Christmas trees and all the Rawlings ball gloves and WHAM-O slingshots that go along with it. I bought a hat.

Rocky Coast at Acadia National Park
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Four-Masted Schooner Off of Bar Harbor, Maine from Atop Cadillac Mountain, ACADIA NP
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The Rockefellers and Dahna’s dad have an interesting history with the place involving Naval Intelligence during WWII. Because of the site’s lack of background clutter, Schoodic Point at Acadia, donated by John D. Jr, was used a a radio direction finder station serving to locate enemy ships, especially U-Boats, in the North Atlantic. Then, U.S. hunter aircraft could launch from carriers, find and sink them with bombs or torpedoes.

Schoodic Institute Campus includes the former Naval Observation Station
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Dahna’s decorated dad was a turret gunner on one of the planes. His job on the bombing run was to keep German gunners away from their deck guns with his electrically-operated twin .50 caliber machine guns as they flew away. Occasionally the hunter became the prey, and he was shot down into the drink twice. His main bitch was that certain assholes, I mean Assholes, would steal the chocolate bars from the life raft rations. Dahna had no idea about her dad’s combat experience and was shocked when she overheard Sid and I telling war stories. Like most WWII vets, he didn’t talk much about the war.

Sid liked to fish for perch from the bank. He wasn’t much of a boater.

Greater Yellowlegs – Schoodic Point Acadia National Park
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We only stayed three days at Acadia which doesn’t begin to do it justice even in perfect weather. When we planned this northy trip we knew time wasn’t on our side considering the distance involved. In order to get to Nova Scotia and back without jackknifing into a snowbank, we had to really scoot along and we did. Before we knew it we were at the Canadian border.

The Canadian Trees Greet Us at the Border Wearing Their Best Fall Colors
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The traffic was oddly heavy coming back into the U.S. but we were the only vehicle going into Canada. I thought, ‘Huh, what the…?’ That made no sense to me considering…well, you know…but that’s the way it was. When I pulled up to the booth the young, unsmiling woman asked for our passports and drivers licenses. I gave them to her and then she asked me to recite our address and destination which I did. I can’t say that being from a place called Comanche, Texas had anything to do with it but the rest of the conversation was very close to that below, in its entirety:

She: “Did you bring your guns?”
Me: “No, I didn’t bring any guns.”
She: “So, there are no guns in the RV or in the truck, is that correct?”
Me: “There are no guns aboard, that’s correct.”
She: “You left your guns at home?”
Me: “Yes Ma’am, I left my guns at home.”

That was it. She let us through after about one minute of our little gun minuet. We were on our way to Canada’s Fundy National Park and teeny tiny Alma, the New Brunswick town now of fond memory.

I’ve wanted to see the Bay of Fundy since learning about its enormous tides which can measure up to 40 feet. The low tides produce vast sloping tidal flats which should be great to explore, but the one at Alma resembled more of a desert than a chock-full-o’-life seabed suddenly exposed. We wondered about that as we unhooked Sacha from her leash in the gentle drizzle. Since we’re not Bay of Fundy experts, we could only speculate as to why.

Lobster Boats High & Dry During Low Tide at Bay of Fundy in Alma, New Brunswick
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Our best guess is that the critters that live in the water have adapted over the many ages to not be caught high and dry like they would be immediately before the arrival of a tsunami. All that was left was a bare sweep of compact sand that was nice to walk out on and it gave Sacha plenty of traction for her high speed jukes and jives. We were scanning the retreating bay when we noticed a solitary, red-haired woman walking toward us under a bright yellow umbrella, about 1,000 feet away.

Sacha Makes a New Friend, Irish Kate!
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My first paranoid thought was that she must be some pompous ass coming to insist we get Sacha back on her leash. Some say that people like that exist in great numbers, like fraudulent voters, and I’m sure that’s true since they say so even though I’ve personally never met such a jerk type person. It turned out that my fears were, as usual, misplaced. It was Kate, a citizen of Northern Ireland, domiciled since 1971 in the U.S. in various places like California but now living in Alma, N.B. where she owns a home. Like any sensible person, she beats a retreat in winter and goes down to Florida near Daytona to kick back until it’s over.

I said, “Hey, I’m Irish,” and told her my name. She thought for a moment and slowly shook her head, “I don’t know any family name of Branyan. There are similar names though…maybe your name is derived from one of them.” So much for my fantasy of being being warmly welcomed home by my long lost kin of the Emerald Isle. Maybe the good island folk forced my family to flee to America for hoarding the only good potatoes left from the blight or something. If our name is derivative, it’s probably for our own protection.

This is a delightful lady and we got to know her over a dinner later that evening of lobster and chowder at one of the little restaurants on the main, and only, drag. Irish Kate, as she’s known about town, is an artist. As soon as we found that out, Dahna got out the iPhone and, using Canada’s excellent wifi internet, hosted by the cafe, brought up the some of the paintings by our friends, Paul and Enid of South Carolina. They spent a good while looking at them and conversed in some arcane art lingo leaving me, mercifully, out of it.

Then Kate dug her own phone out of her purse and fiddled with it while telling us the story of her “Fish Head” painting. There is apparently a healthy international trade in fish heads from Iceland that the Canadian lobstermen use for bait in their traps. Kate is close to the owners of one of the restaurants in Alma, the Lobster Store, and they showed her the heads once on one of their boats.

When she got the picture of her painting on the screen and showed it to us, we both let out a little squeak of pleasure. You might not think a painting of a bunch of fish heads can have much impact but it did. The triangular heads were arranged in a beautiful mosaic of color, tightly fitted together and the whole idea of it really jumped out at you. She laughed when she rotated the picture electronically and said, “See? You can look at it from any position…up or down or sideways.” That was true, and it was also true the heads could look at you from any position as well.

I could still kick myself for not asking if any prints were available but, at least, I have the image seared permanently, and happily, in the forefront part of my brain. In addition to that gift, she gave us a CD of the Chieftans. Her cousin was a member of the band and played the harp. She told us that he was the only Protestant in the group. That brief touch on religion led us to a shared view on politics to the discreet relief of everyone.

We had a nice leisurely visit with her and when we parted company, she gave us a hug and that same smile you see in the photo. Sacha loved her and, as Kate said, (They had) “the same hair color.” So Dahna took the shot capturing her smile and a panoramic view of mutt butt in the foreground. Dahna cropped that last part out in a nod to decency and to spare Sacha embarrassment.

Common Loon – Bay of Fundy
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Kate was headed up somewhere in Nova Scotia the next day and so were we. She was going to see friends for Canadian Thanksgiving, and we were going to Cape Breton, specifically a park near Baddeck. It was a long drive through several towns, including St. John, complicated by being unschooled in the national signage system. So, there were a few missteps and anxious moments and neither of us would deny there was an accusation or two, but we made it. The roads, like the internet, are great in Canada and we miss them both now, now that we’re back, back in the U.S.A.

Iconic Owl’s Head – Fundy National Park, New Brunswick
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Caribou Plain Bog – Fundy National Park
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We only spent four days in Nova Scotia. If we had it to do over again, we would have left Comanche earlier and spent the extra time there because we loved it even though the crappy weather still dogged us. Four days doesn’t even scratch the surface of a place like that, so we’ve resolved to go back sometime for a much longer stay. There are plenty of logistical problems considering the distance and shiver factor, but we liked everything about it. Maybe the best plan would be to buy or rent a little place for the summer like Kate, and bail out around mid October for points south. Well, grist for the mill.

I mentioned in an earlier piece that the little town of Baddeck is the birthplace of Canadian aviation which occurred only a few years after the Wright Brothers’ Kitty Hawk flight. The first flight by the Silver Dart took off and landed on the frozen waters of Baddeck Bay in the winter of 1909. The plane’s construction was a joint American/Canadian effort partly financed and designed by Alexander Graham Bell. Bell loved the place so much he spent much of his life there on his large summer estate, complete with genius inventor laboratory. He messed around with fast boats too, apparently enjoying himself like a kid in his later years. You can get the whole story at his museum in Baddeck which, unfortunately, we missed.

We did get a very good look at Cape Breton’s world famous Cabot Trail. We allocated a whole day for the big Cabot Trail loop that begins and ends near Dahna’s perfectly-chosen camp near Baddeck and runs for nearly 200 miles. We were again lucky with the weather for that day because it stopped raining and cleared off. The sun came out and once again fired up the bright Day-Glo red, yellow and orange leaves to set against the deep blue Atlantic ringing most of the course. What a Maxwell Parrish day!

The Land Views of the Cabot Trail
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And the Atlantic View of the Cabot Trail
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I probably couldn’t describe it better for you even if I tried. Much better for you to see it for yourself. Sure, it’s a bit of trouble to get there, but that’s part of my point. Go to Nova Scotia because it’s there and if you’re there, you’ll see what I mean. It’s an extraordinarily beautiful and friendly place.

From Baddeck you can take the trail either clockwise or counterclockwise. I have to give myself a great deal of credit for taking the counterclockwise direction instead of the stupidly “preferred” clockwise one. Any moron could see that the counterclockwise motion offered easy access to the many ocean-side pull outs along the way instead of having to cross the heavy traffic going the other way. Any moron could see that…Well, I’m sure we all can think of one moron who couldn’t.

Cabot Trail – North Side of the Island
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Each year for nine days in the fall, the natives get all up for the Celtic Colours music festival on the Ceilidh (“kildee”-means party) Trail where Celtic bands perform all over the island. After eating yet another killer lobster roll at the Yellow Cello, we walked across the street and down to the bay to the Baddeck Yacht Club for a free performance. A girl set the up tempo beat with a couple of spoons tapping against her leg while the other musicians came in with a little hand drum called a bodhran, a guitar and two fiddles. We listened to them play a nice set of Irish favorites until a lady walked in with a tambourine as we, regretfully, walked back out into the rain.

Ceilidh at Baddeck Yacht Club
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We had to leave early before the Post Office closed in the vain hope our vote-by-mail ballots had arrived. Even though Patty had forwarded them to us a couple of weeks earlier, they got hung up at U.S. Customs for some reason, no doubt BENGHAZI! Those damn things chased us for about three more weeks until we finally got to Ft. Meade near Washington D.C. We did manage to get our vote in barely on time to help improve our dire political situation a little. Maybe. Who knows? Texas is pretty bad but at least it’s not Georgia, so maybe they got counted.

The rain let up overnight giving us a chance to get hooked up comfortably the next morning for the long trip home. When everything was all done and Sacha, the perfect dog, was settled in I started the truck. Dahna said, “Why can’t we just stay here?” I said, “We can come back. We know how to get here.” She said, “All right then,” a tad emphatically. A few minutes later it started to rain and didn’t let up for a long way. Finally, the sun came out again and so did the magnificent color of the maple leaves as they shook themselves dry in the wind. They look good on the flags too.

Rain Can’t Quench The Flames as We Depart Cape Breton
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MAPLE LEAF RAG Part 4: Really Erie Lakes and Canals

When you’re traveling between one location and another while transporting nearly eight tons of steel, plastic, explosive liquids and gasses, mileage concerns displace your normal thoughts of wealth, fame and glory. The distance from Dayton to Geneva State Park up on Lake Erie just past Cleveland is about 25 miles less than the range of the rig per tank. In situations like that I always think, ‘Yea, I don’t have to stop for gas.’

It’s always lovely to think we can just hook up our long, extra wide, heavy trailer and drag it several hundred miles without having to creep into a gas station with it looming up back there. Sidling up to a pump in an unfamiliar and always busy station with the huge thing in tow requires an in and out strategy rivaling a complex military maneuver.

Since I didn’t go to West Point, I always try to comfort myself by thinking of it as a challenge, ‘You know kid, enjoy it.’ Yeah, right. It’s always a white knuckle thing and I’ll never get used to it. I almost always have to stop even when the new park up ahead is within range. Why on earth? Why, fear of course…unbridled, stampeding fear.

I start to worry about running out of gas anyway on some shoulderless two lane in the middle of Bum(f word) Egypt with no cell phone service. That’s worse than the torture of stopping for gas isn’t it? Or is it? All I know at this point is that Dahna better find me a gas station on the GPS pretty damn quick which she always does. So far I’ve managed to gas up without knocking over any pumps and making the national news. I always feel great when I pull out with a full tank and get back on the road close to my destination. Top of the world, Ma! In this case it was Geneva S.P.

You would expect a park on Lake Erie to have a marina and it does, a very nice one with sailboats after our hearts. We went there first because I took my usual wrong turn and ended up in its parking lot, camper and all. Like Buck Creek the park had no individual water taps or sewer hookups so we had to be nearly self-contained except for electrical power which it did provide. It meant relying entirely on our water and storage tanks for the four days we were there. No problem if you don’t mind navy showers, hardly the worst thing that ever happened to you.

We had an easy time setting up and I was starting to think we were getting good at it. After three years of doing this we are getting better. Good? That’s relative. Anyway, we finished up, tossed Sacha into the truck by her “lifting harness,” and headed for little Great Lake Erie. That’s relative too, heh heh.

I like the word, “relative.” Dahna and I are relativists, political correctness be damned. Science will do that to you. That said,there are some things in the universe that approach absolutism, simple things. Gas laws for instance. Another might be Newton’s Laws of Motion which inform the inherent stability of speeding bicycles.

I even think evolutionary biology can be understood as couplet that approaches absolutism in its contrast with mankind’s vanity:

Mankind: The form of his works will follow function (lasts several thousand years)
Nature: The function of her works will follow form (lasts eons, literally)

Yea Nature! Like Sara Lee, nobody doesn’t like Nature. Really though, do we all don’t not like it? Vote.

Along with little dogs, Sacha does not like water and the lake was not her thing at all. She regarded it like she does her water bowl. She drinks water but only because she’s vastly out of place living down south with us and, as a husky, would certainly prefer melting snow in her mouth for that particular nutrient.

She did like some of the nasty stuff washed up on the beach and Dahna kept a firm hand on the leash to keep her from rolling. Get distracted for just a second and you’ll turn to see Sacha flat on her back, legs in the air, doing the doggy twist on some horrible putrescence straight out of H.P. Lovecraft. Sacha aside (but only for a moment), Dahna and I loved the lake since we love all bodies of water and the bigger the better.

There are plenty of lakes you can’t see across, but one the size of Lake Erie registers as oceanic in your mind even on a calm day like that one. On that day it didn’t have the deep power rumble of the ocean and so it felt like a lake, an oceanic lake. Apparently, I can’t describe it, but I will say that it shared with the ocean a sense of the earth’s curvature in the mind’s eye.

Dredge and Sailboat Share Lake ErieDSCN6892 (1)

I can’t remember the ocean ever being quiet at the shore, even after living there for several years. I was once becalmed on our sailboat on a Gulf crossing and it was very quiet, like the big lake that day. On the shore of Lake Ontario during a windy day near Niagara Falls, we “heard” the ocean once again as big waves raised by the long fetch crashed against the shore. Power and beauty like Beethoven or Serena Williams.

Without doubt, one of Nature’s most beautiful productions are the little dinosaurs we live with today—birds. Instead of just piddling around solely with Chemistry and Mathematics, Dahna should have picked up a degree in Ornithology. It doesn’t really matter though because she’s well on the way to mastering the subject as an avocation. She usually leaves me and Sacha asleep in the camper while she braves the elements at first light in pursuit of the flitty folk. She often meets earthbound folk with cameras who are also afflicted with the same obsessive compulsive disorder.

She ran into a retired Brooklynite at nearby Arcola Creek Park who was on a special mission. He was scarecrowing the crows away from a select group of blackbirds he was feeding. These birds had lost their tail feathers and couldn’t fly south. He was feeding them until they grew back and could then make the trip. Like Dahna at home, he was able to call his birds to him. They roosted near the creek that formed a small estuary near the lake where she later met a young couple fishing for bait.

Tailfeatherless Red-Winged Blackbird at Arcola Creek ParkVersion 2

They were kind and friendly, anxious to share with Dahna some points of interest in their community of Madison and its environs. She was struck by their love of their home and a healthy outdoor life. Dahna took a picture of the pretty little golden shiner they caught and several more of a hungry juvenile bald eagle nearby. She came back to the camper all happy and smiley and made me almost wish I’d gotten up and gone with her.

Golden Shiner at Arcola Creek ParkDSCN7001

Juvenile Bald Eagle at Arcola Creek ParkDSCN7031 (1)

In another wetland area in our park, Dahna got a good picture of a Reddish Egret, a new “lifer.” A lifer bird is birding talk for any bird successfully identified to the Life List of a birder. I asked her how many birds she has so far but she didn’t know. She thought maybe she’d count them when we got home, but I don’t think she’s keeping score. She’s pretty solid about the value of things.

Reddish Egret Geneva State ParkDSCN7075

One of the things we both value is a good cafe. In a strange place it’s sometimes hard to find one, but the town of Geneva has a great one, Honeybees. It reminded us of another great find way over in Grants Pass, Oregon—the Powderhorn. Anyhow, we walked into Honeybees about 10:30 AM and started to pass a little sign by the door. Dahna glanced at it and almost broke her neck doing a double take. It said, “Eggs Benedict—$5.95.” Dahna jabbed her finger at the sign and said a bit loudly, “That’s what I’m having.”

When we got to the table, I looked around and told her that $6.00 Eggs Benedict might not be a good idea, know what I mean, Vern? She said, “I’m having $6.00 Eggs Benedict and you can have whatever you like, little man.” When our dynamite Filipino waitress came to take our order, they both made me feel like a fool for sticking with my usual plain jane breakfast which I’m here to say was damn good. Of course, Dahna smiled across the table at me with every bite of her $6.00 Eggs Benedict and when she finished, patted her lips with her napkin and said, “Best breakfast ever!” I should have had what she had, and I was relieved when she held off doing her “Meg Ryan in the Restaurant” imitation.

Afterward, we did a little sightseeing in the town and some more birding not far away back at Arcola Creek Park. We only saw a few cormorants and crows but Sacha had a good time charging around and doing her sniffery. When we got back to our camper, the  huge 5th wheel trailer was gone and in its place was a tiny pup tent with a motorcycle parked beside it. The contrast was good enough for me to snipe, “Riches to rags.”

I’ve noticed in my life that every time I make a snotty comment like that, it always comes back to bite me in the butt. You’d think I’d learn but…not so much. It turns out that the guy in that tent was not poor in any respect. We started our conversation across the way about Sacha or his bike or something—I can’t remember. As we talked and moved closer together, I wondered about his accent and since we were close enough to Quebec I asked if he was Canadian. I wasn’t far off. He was Iranian.

[With autocratic governments murdering their own citizens all over the world and our own government, if not supportive, at least looking the other way, I’m not going to use his real name.]

I had enough sense not to offer him a drink but, rather, coffee. He declined as he sat down at our picnic table, “I just finished my tea,” he said. BZ was almost 60 years old and was on his way to Montreal via Niagara Falls. We also were headed to the Falls a couple of days after he planned to leave on the morrow. Dahna said that maybe we’d meet up again there, but he doubted it. “It probably depends. Sometimes you go to a place like that and you look at it for a little while and you go, ‘eh’, and,” he shrugged,  “then you go someplace else.”

Dahna laughed, “I know what you mean. Like when we went to the Grand Canyon, you see it and then it’s back in the car and you’re off. Next place, please. Peggy Lee had a song about it.” That confused BZ a little and it didn’t help when I mentioned Leonard Cohen. He didn’t know the name but he knew Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” I mentioned that he was from Montreal and created a large and exceptional body of work, and Dahna added that he was officially a Canadian National Treasure.

I was ready to change the subject so I said, “Well, he’s dead now. He had the infinite good sense to die the day before Trump got elected.” That opened the door to a lengthy and intimate discussion that lasted several hours. BZ shook his head and said, “You can’t go backwards, you can’t do it. That’s what my country did and now look. You go back and it’s war, and all war is bad. ALL WAR! “ He was almost shouting.

BZ teaches certain pediatric surgical procedures at a state university since recently closing his practice. His wife and children live several hundred miles away, and he commutes home on weekends to see them. They attend a good public school and he refuses to move them until the last one graduates next year. His trip to Montreal was his last big road trip by motorcycle and because of that it had a special resonance, a last salute to his youth.

I said, “Yeah, it is. I lost my arm in Vietnam.”

He nodded and touched the table several times with his finger, “Then you know what I mean. You were a soldier too.”

“Marine,” I couldn’t let that ride, “You’re right, it’s all bad but it never stops does it?”

“No”, he said, “I’ll tell you how I got to this country.”

“It wasn’t too long after high school when the revolution came, and I was getting ready to go to college. In the first year they arrested and executed my older brother. He was a lawyer and he was carrying a banned newspaper. So, they killed him.”

Dahna couldn’t believe it, “They killed your brother because he had a newspaper?”

“Yes. They killed many people for trivial reasons. No reason. I knew people, students, who were in the United States studying and that’s where I wanted to go too. But, the Iraqis had invaded our country. They knew we were weak because the shah was gone and, by then, I could not get a passport. I could only get one by joining the army for two years first.”

I looked at him, “You fought in that war for two years to get a passport?”

“Yes,” he answered, “and I knew the first day I was sent to the front I would be killed. I got there with a group of guys, but I was the only one with a drivers license. They assigned me to transport and gave me a truck but an officer was interested in me and started talking. So, he made another guy take the truck. It hit a mine and blew up and killed the driver who should have been me. The first day.”

I kind of smiled a little, “I was too dumb to think I’d be killed even though there were a lot of close calls, a lot of firefights. One time my canteen got hit and a corporal came over and told me how lucky I was. About a half hour later, he was dead. There were a lot of twists of fate.”

He shook his head, “Yeah, you know about it. There were times when I had to walk on bodies. It was unbelievable that I survived. But I’ve had a good life in this country. Many times I think about what happened to my country and how glad I am to be here. Here with you!

Dahna and I both laughed and she said, “We’re glad you’re here with us too.”

We talked about the Islamic Revolution and the war and his country under the shah until the mosquitos won out. The next morning Dahna had a big cup of coffee for him and we spent almost an hour talking about our present lives and plans. Then he returned to the subject of Iran. He talked about how his country was modern then with a growing professional class. When I expressed some doubts and mentioned SAVAK, the shah’s secret police, he brushed it aside. It was much better then he said.

He was surprised when Dahna mentioned our overthrow of Mossadegh in the coup that installed the shah.

“You know about that? Yes, that was bad, but everything was better under the shah,” he said, “You knew about that.”  He was a little mystified, but pleased and his eyes lit up, “Everyone loved Mossadegh!”

I remembered back, after we sold our farm in the 70s, walking to class one summer at the University of Houston. I often had to make a detour around a large group of Iranian students demonstrating in the parking lot against the shah. One day there was an incredible mackerel sky above us, a sure sign of rain, but I had no idea what either the sky meant or the demonstration. It was just an inconvenience to me.

It’s hard to imagine but about that time, our close friend Lorey lived in Tehran as a young English teacher at a Department of Defense school. Her husband was an U.S. Army officer stationed there and one day they decided to drive to Kabul to buy some carpets, and that’s what they did. It’s almost impossible to imagine that now, isn’t it?

After our coffee, Dahna took Sacha for a birding walk through the park while BZ struck his tent and packed his bike for the trip up to Niagara Falls. I went back in the camper to write a bit at the dinette. I opened the shade when I heard him throttle up the bike and as he passed by he saw me through the window and we waved goodbye.

Several days later when we got to the Falls, we looked for him but he was gone…off to Montreal, I guess. I hope he goes down to the water and sees the chapel where

“…the sun pours down like honey
on our Lady of the Harbor”

Maybe he’ll hear some really fine music before he goes home to his happy family. We both hope so.

My own musical history began with what is now a dim echo of memory of my mother singing me to sleep with a lullaby. Next, and firmly implanted in my consciousness, is Patti Page’s “How Much is That Doggie in the Window?” That thing has much to do with our outlays over the years of thousands of dollars in dog food, vet bills, squeaky toys and the like.

After that, no doubt in Kindergarten, I learned the Erie Canal song, singing:

“I had a mule, her name was Sal
Fifteen years on the Erie Canal”

I’d always thought of that song and the canal itself as somehow exotic, stuck in that Peter Pan part of my brain that never grows up. For almost the entirety of my life, I wanted to see that thing and now my chance was coming up. Our next stop was near Buffalo, NY at one end of the canal. We were camping at Grand Island from which you can almost hear the roar of Niagara Falls.

Last Look at the Lake Erie ShoreDSCN6880

 


Continue reading MAPLE LEAF RAG Part 4: Really Erie Lakes and Canals