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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