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 7: Yellowstone, Where It All Began

By Dahna Branyan

Maybe you weren’t born with a silver spoon in your mouth, but like every American, you carry a deed to 635 million acres of public lands. That’s right. Even if you don’t own a house or the latest computer on the market, you own Yosemite, Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon, Golden Gate National Recreation Area, and many other natural treasures. – John Garamendi

What better way to end our national parks tour than with the very first national park, Yellowstone. Ferdinand Hayden, for whom Hayden Valley is named, was a geologist and naturalist who first surveyed the land and helped convince Congress to protect this treasure as a national park. President Grant signed an act naming it the first national park in 1872.

We tried hard to beat the crowds on this tour. We learned that while that’s not possible, we certainly were gaining on winter. We finally caught up to it in Yellowstone. We drove in on a cold dreary rain that turned to snow overnight.  As soon as we got set up, I looked out the window to see elk right next door.

The next morning looked more favorable for sightseeing so we headed into Yellowstone. The park is beautiful in itself, but it’s so exciting to see the wildlife. 

Ring-Necked Ducks

Trumpeter Swan – Yellowstone claims to have 12 nesting pairs within the park so I feel lucky to have seen this one taking a nap. These birds are our biggest waterfowl and can weigh up to 25 pounds.

Oh, Now He’s Awake

 

We first headed up to Mammoth Springs at the north entrance, driving through the steaming geyser basins. Steam rising from myriad pools and vents makes you worry a just little about just how dormant IS this ancient caldera. The whole area seemed to be boiling under the surface.

Lower Geyser Basin

We stopped to take a look at Gibbon Falls, one of many throughout the park. The rock formations in this area were magnificent and made me wish I had taken a geology course when I had the chance. The raven below thought it was a good place to raise a family.

Gibbon Falls

Raven’s Nest

Mammoth Springs is fascinating.  Water that seeps underground along fault lines  is heated by old magma chambers, remnants of the ancient volcano. The heated water mixes with gases, including carbon dioxide, acidifying the water  and allowing it to dissolve deep limestone (calcium carbonate) layers.  The water bubbles to the surface at the springs, where it deposits the calcium carbonate  as travertine. There are chemical equations lurking about, but I won’t take you there. (Thank me later and I won’t ruin your next 4th of July explaining why fireworks are different colors). Anyway the wonderful coloration arises from various algal colonies that grow in the pools and chalky deposits. Sometimes the fault lines shift a bit and the springs move, leaving some travertine terraces dry while others come to life anew.

Mammoth Springs

Adjacent to Mammoth Springs is the North Visitors Center and the remains of Ft. Yellowstone, commissioned to manage the park. Eventually, the National Park Service took over the management and the fort now serves at the park’s headquarters. But tell that to the bison that navigate between the cars and tourists.

North of the visitor’s center is a turnout where we turned around to head back. Pat noticed a big bull moose atop the hill behind the center. I jumped out, camera in hand to take a picture of my first moose, but by the time I got the lens cap off, he had descended down the other side and out of my sight. Well, there is still a chance to see moose in Banff this fall. 

It had been a pretty full day of seeing the sights and we were ready to get back to our campground and relax a bit when things came to a standstill. Three hours later and a mere seven miles closer to camp, inching down a narrow canyon with about 1500 other vehicles, we discovered why traffic was at a virtual standstill. A small herd of bison and their babies were ambling along, taking up both lanes oblivious to the havoc they were causing. About the time we reached them, the canyon widened and they shuffled off to the side and let a few cars by. By the time we got back to camp, drinks were definitely in order.

Traffic Tie-Up

The next day we drove over the pass to check out Yellowstone Lake. The lake, still frozen over, looked lovely from the overlook, but we stopped there.  By then the snow was looking serious so we got back in the truck and headed back over the pass.

Back on the western slope, it was a bit warmer and we had our first bear sighting – a small black bear, pretty far off, but hey, it was our first bear.

Before heading back, we went to see the main attraction, Old Faithful, go off on schedule. It’s pretty astounding to think of the heat and pressure at work below ground to make that geyser erupt every 50- 90 minutes  for so many years. They say that the time between eruptions has increased due to both lighter precipitation and earthquakes which affect water levels in the area.

Thar She Blows!

Just as we were leaving the park to head back to camp, we saw him – a beautiful Golden Eagle no doubt contemplating his next meal.

Before hitting the road, Pat has a few chores to do to make sure the next travel day is smooth – checking tire pressure on the trailer and truck, along with torquing lug nuts on the trailer, gassing up, etc. This is usually my time to do a bit of birding. Fortunately, Henry Lake State Park, directly across from our campground, provided a great birding opportunity, even though the cloudy skies and intermittent rain did not help the photo quality.

Barrow’s goldeneye

Trumpeter Swan On Nest

Audubon Warbler (a yellow-rumped warbler, affectionately known as a Butterbutt by birders)

 

White-Crowned Sparrow ( She had built her nest on the rocky ground!)

Swainson Hawk

Northern Flicker, Red-shafted

We did get enough decent weather to see a lot of Yellowstone, but some of the roads were still closed from winter snows. A return trip might be in order, but for now it was time to hit the road to Montana to see old friends and stash the trailer for a couple of months

Bison at Play

 

Spring Trip, Part 6: Yosemite, Our Own Notre Dame

by Dahna Branyan

“It was like lying in a great solemn cathedral, far vaster and more beautiful than any built by the hand of man.” – Theodore Roosevelt 

The next leg took us uneventfully back down to the valley through the orchard country of Fresno and Merced, and then as we headed back up into the Sierras, destiny, in the form of Apple Car Play, took a hand.  Siri sweetly guided us to an old logging road sporting a “road closed sign” where a woman rancher happened to be repairing a fence. We explained our Siri problem and asked if the road was really closed. She said it was open, but there were low spots that might still have water. She hesitated before saying that yes, that from there it was the road to Groveland, near our campground. We cursed Siri for the next ten miles as we rattled and rolled down the forest service road to the connecting highway. Again Siri told us to take Old Priest Road up to Groveland, CA and our campground. This time we ignored Siri and took New Priest Road instead, giving her a piece of our mind about her routing judgement. It was a steep grade zig-zagging  to the top. Pat got a bit worried when the transmission started heating up so we used a few pullouts to let it cool down a few minutes before going on. Once at the top and settled into our new digs, we found we were right to ignore Siri since RVs and travel trailers were not allowed on Old Priest Road because it was a straight 17 % grade.  We also met a neighbor who burned up his transmission on the new road, proving again that Pat is a pretty smart fellow for letting the transmission cool on the way up.

Mountain Dogwood
Mountain Dogwood


We still had to climb further up the Sierras before descending down into Yosemite Valley the next day. It was not as arduous as the roads into Groveland or Sequoia, but what a lovely drive through the evergreen forest, dotted with mountain dogwoods and manzanita. The curves were alternately punctuated with luscious waterfalls and breathtaking views of the valley below, including previews of El Capitan and Half Dome in the distance.

First Look at Yosemite Valley and Merced RiverDSCN0804

Greenleaf Manzanita (Arctostapylos patula)
ManzanitaGL.jpg

The Valley AwaitsDSCN0710

 

It is easier to feel than to realize, or in any way explain, Yosemite grandeur. The magnitudes of the rocks and trees and streams are so delicately harmonized, they are mostly hidden. John Muir


Muirishview.jpg

But only from the valley floor can you glimpse what Muir was talking about.  The interplay of the valley’s granite walls with the fast moving Merced River and the beauty of the diverse foliage is sublime. If one can filter out the cars and people, it takes little imagination to see this  beautiful rugged valley the way the native Awahneechee saw their home, Awahnee (translated as “gaping mouth”).  It’s hard to say if they named it after the geology of the valley or their initial reaction to the magnificent valley. Well, that was our reaction anyway. 

El Capitan, Its Heart Exposed
HeartofElCapitan

Merced River
DSCN0769.jpg

Yosemite Falls
Yosemite Falls

The Majestic Half Dome
DSCN0761.jpg

We were very happy campers coming back home to Yosemite Pines RV Resort. Our neighbors, Gary and Shelley from Whittier, CA had just returned from Hetch Hetchy  so we sat out with drinks and talked about all we had seen. When they mentioned Whittier, Pat remembered it was Nixon’s home turf. Turns out, Gary is related to Nixon on the Milhous side of the family. We had a great time visiting with them. They had recently retired from running a family seafood business. I wish we could have visited longer – I might have been able to talk them out of a recipe or two. But they were leaving the next morning and we were headed back to Yosemite, this time to see Hetch Hetchy ourselves.

John Muir and the Sierra Club fought from 1901 to 1913 to save the Hetch Hetchy Valley, lying within Yosemite National Park, from a dam that the City of San Francisco wished to build within Yosemite, arguing that there were better alternatives. As he wrote in Yosemite

“Hetch Hetchy Valley, far from being a plain, common, rock-bound meadow, as many who have not seen it seem to suppose, is a grand landscape garden, one of Nature’s rarest and most precious mountain temples. As in Yosemite, the sublime rocks of its walls seem to glow with life, whether leaning back in repose or standing erect in thoughtful attitudes, giving welcome to storms and calms alike, their brows in the sky, their feet set in the groves and gay flowery meadows, while birds, bees, and butterflies help the river and waterfalls to stir all the air into music—things frail and fleeting and types of permanence meeting here and blending, just as they do in Yosemite, to draw her lovers into close and confiding communion with her.”

They lost that battle  and the city built a dam impounding the Tuolumne River to supply the city with water and electricity. The beautiful valley was lost.

O’Shaughnessy Dam and Hetch Hetchy Reservoir
HH3Dam

But after visiting Hetch Hetchy, I feel somewhat conflicted. Yes, the beautiful valley was lost, but there is still a certain rugged beauty in the reservoir against the stone walls. There are still quiet trails to explore and a few primitive campgrounds. It is not congested with cars and tourists tramping over everything like Yosemite Valley experiences daily. Relatively few people visit. Who is to say what is the greater harm?  By all accounts, the amount of sediment that has covered the valley floor is negligible. Perhaps one day, the proponents of restoring Hetch Hetchy will win or the dam will fail (it has been there for a hundred years now.) and a restored Hetch Hetchy may end up less damaged than what has been done to Yosemite Valley.

Hetch Hetchy Reservoir
HH1

California Indian Pink (Silene Californica)
California Indian

We ended our Yosemite visit with a trip to the Mariposa Sequoia Grove, one of three groves of giants within the park. Stopping  off at the Wawona area to visit the interpretive center and the Big Trees Lodge (formerly the Wawona Hotel) , built in the 1850’s,

Big Trees Lodge
BigTreesLodge.jpg


A thunderstorm erupted during our visit and prevented us from seeing the full grove and some of the named trees, like the Grizzly, but it was still awesome to stand among the giants.

DSCN0815

A Fallen Monarch On A Rainy Day
Fallen Giant

Dark-eyed Juncos
DSCN0339.jpg

Spring Trip, Part 5: In The Land Of Giants

By Dahna Branyan

Journeying north from Yucaipa, we drove through the corporate fruit basket of the west. Mile after mile of orchards – mostly oranges, lemons and olives. Just add water to California’s famed golden hills and it turns into big ag’s version of the Garden of Eden. We stopped in a small village outside of Sequoia National Park, Three Rivers, California, named for the convergence of the three forks of the Kaweah River. We camped beside the North Fork of the Kaweah at Sequoia Ranch RV Resort. 

Fisherman On The North Fork Of The Kaweah River
 

This charming park was shaded with Valley Oaks, sycamores and western cedar. The campground was lousy with  Acorn Woodpeckers taking advantage of the bounty of Valley Oak acorns. You don’t think of woodpeckers as being noisy birds until you are awakened to the sound  of over a hundred of them Ker-racking to one another at first light. I’m pretty sure Ker-rack translates as “stay away from my acorns, Redhead.” But hey, we were here to see trees.

Acorn Woodpeckers

Every tree in the park had become a repository for the season’s acorn stash.




“Do behold the king in his glory, King Sequoia. Behold! Behold! seems all I can say…. Well may I fast, not from bread but from business, bookmaking, duty doing & other trifles…. I’m in the woods woods woods, & they are in mee-ee-ee…. I wish I were wilder & so bless Sequoia I will be.” ~John Muir

Sequoia Park literature recommended vehicles longer than 22 feet not attempt traveling the road closest to our campground into the visitor center due to the steep and winding entrance. Okay. Since we were just under 22 feet, we drove the very long winding road up to King’s Canyon National Park the first day to visit with General Grant before we attempted the more direct route up to Sequoia National Park.  General Grant, even after suffering damage to his canopy, did not disappoint at a height of 278 feet and a circumference of 107 feet, it’s easy to see why these trees were named Sequoiadendron giganteum. General Grant’s lesser foot soldiers were nearly as impressive. 

General Grant

A Few of General Grant’s Foot Soldiers


A Fallen Monarch


We didn’t expect large crowds at this time of year. Many of the park roads were still closed for snow and the kids were in school. We failed to account for the horde of selfie-stick wielding foreign travelers. From the sound of the chatter around us, the Russians and Chinese have plenty of our dollars to spend seeing the wonders of this beautiful country.  If only we had the concession on CruiseAmerica ’s RV rental business.




As it turned out, the road to King’s Canyon was pretty danged curvy. With that under our belt and after talking to our neighbor who’d already driven into Sequoia in a similar truck, we ventured up the hairpin-curved highway to Sequoia to visit General Sherman. Arriving at the parking lot to see the general, you see the giant standing right in front of the museum. Oh wait, that’s not General Sherman, that giant is The Sentinel, which the sign explains that although the tree is 2,200 years old, it is just an average sized specimen in this grove. It definitely looked above average to us. The general’s grove was a few miles up the road.

The Sentinel

 The hike to see the general was a mere half mile straight down – the easy part. Knowing that all the folks with better knees passing me on the way down would still be there mouths agape taking in the tree, I stopped short and viewed it from the “back” trying to imagine what it would have been like to wander through these woods  a few hundred years ago and happen upon an unmolested grove of giants. Apart from their size, the luster of the reddish-gold bark and the emerald green foliage atop sets them apart from the rest of the forest trees. With the sun’s rays filtering through the undersized canopy, the giants seem a bit unworldly.  Trudging back up that steep hill to the visitor center, the crowd seemed subdued and reflective to have stood in the presence of a living fossil, perhaps wondering at all these trees had witnessed. 

General Sherman on Approach

General Sherman Clip

Necks stiff from looking up at trees and Pat’s shoulder sore from maneuvering the tight curves for two days, we spent the next day catching up on laundry and resting. Of course resting involves bird-watching for me. Once you quit jerking your head around at the Acorn Woodpeckers, there were actually quite a few other interesting birds hanging around the river.

Bullock’s Oriole –  With an orange orchard just across the road I expected to see a lot of orioles, but this fellow was the only oriole I saw on the campground side of the street.

I love the way this Black Phoebe looks like our Eastern Phoebes putting on the Ritz in a tuxedo.

Ash-throated flycatchers migrate from the Pacific slope of Mexico and Honduras up to their spring breeding grounds, often in California.

 Red-shouldered hawks feed mostly on small mammals, amphibians and reptiles. This one was in a good feeding area where gophers and blue belly lizards are plentiful.


Blue Belly Lizard


The next day we checked out Lake Kaweah, a large catchment for melting snowfall and rain from the Sierras and transported by the Kaweah River. It was built by the Army Corps of Engineers both as a flood control and irrigation for the orchards.


After listening to wild turkeys call all during our stay, I took Sacha on a walk before we loaded up to move on. I could hear the turkeys on the river so Sacha and I headed that way. The hen flew across the river, but when the tom saw Sacha, he stood his ground and put on a full display as a warning. I took this shot as we turned away and hit the road.



Spring Trip, Part 4: A Desert Forest In Bloom

by Dahna Branyan

When planning this trip, we were warned on a travel forum that the RV resort nearest to Joshua Tree National Park might be noisy due to wind generators. Boy howdy. Once past Palm Springs, the wind funneling through the San Gorgonio Pass between Coachella and San Bernadino valleys makes it a prime location for wind generation.  I think the number of wind generators might possibly rival the number of Joshua trees in the park.  Though not near as pretty, the generators appear to be keeping the lights on in Southern California. We opted to keep going, fighting the mighty headwinds to park the camper in Yucaipa.

DSCN9917

This was the smart choice. Yucaipa Regional Park is a gem – spacious sites with lots of trees and grass and three small lakes. As we met other new arrivals to the park, we were met with comments like, “Can you believe this beautiful place?” Although sycamores and eucalyptus trees dominate the park, there were a number of plantings of other trees, like Japanese Larch, Redwood and Incense Cedar.

DSCN9807

And did I mention birds? As soon as we got out of the truck, I spotted a new (for me) species, A Nuttall’s Woodpecker. Notice how the barring stops lower on the back than a Ladder-backed Woodpecker.

DSCN9797

We saw several other new birds for us, including this Plain Titmouse perched in a white alder. I never knew that alders had cones!

DSCN0019 (1)

Lawrence’s Goldfinch – this pretty little finch’s breeding territory is limited to Southern California and sometimes Arizona. Interestingly, the males gain a more intense yellow coloring from wear rather than through molting, as brown feather barbules wear off to expose the underlying yellow.
DSCN9924

Hooded Oriole – these orioles are limited to the southwest, breeding along the US/Mexican border area from Texas to California.
DSCN0045

The next day we were off to Joshua Tree National Park, back over the San Gorgonio Pass (and wind generator tunnel). The Oasis of Mara was our first stop after entering the park. It is one of five oases within Joshua Tree National Park, where uplifts of hard rock layers allow water to move to the surface. These oases are prime habitats where California fan palms flourish. They were once relied upon by Native Americans as watering holes and places to gather palm nuts to grind into meal.

Oasis of Mara
Oasis of Mara

Expecting to visit a flat desert terrain dotted with cactus and yuccas, we were astounded by the wonderful rock formations, eons in the making, standing like colossal monuments in the desert. 

DSCN9877

DSCN9913

DSCN9874

The Joshua Tree, or Yucca brevifolia, can be found throughout the park loop. These trees grow quickly, 7-8″ per year at first, then more slowly, 1-2″ per year after about ten years. They top out at about 15 feet. Their roots go deep, and many can live hundreds, even thousands of years. While it can grow from seed, it also spreads from underground rhizomes.
DSCN9907

DSCN9880

Joshua trees don’t bloom every year, but due to a wet spring, they were still blooming during our visit. The flowers rely on Yucca Moths for pollination. Afterward, they form fleshy green fruits, seen in abundance. The moth caterpillars stick around to feed on the seeds. Besides the moths, only small mammals seem to feed on the seed. Since they have a relatively small range to scatter seeds through dung deposits than birds might, the Joshua tree can’t easily expand its range.  This might be problematic as climate change accelerates.

Joshua Tree Blossom
DSCN9868

 The wet desert spring had many other plants  showing off their blossoms in an impressive show of appreciation.  Nature dressed up in its Sunday best.

Apricot Mallow (Sphaeralcea ambigua)
DSCN9908

Mohave yucca (Yucca Shigedera)
DSCN9902

Desert Canterbury Bells (Phacelia campanularia)
DSCN9875

Mojave Pin Cushion (Chaenactis xantiana)
DSCN9881

Mojave kingcup cactus (echinocereus mojavensis)
DSCN9458

After an eye-popping day of the best the desert has to offer, we retreated back to the San Bernadino Valley and Yucaipa to rest up for the next leg of the trip and of course, look for more new birds. Sacha was having none of the birds. She had discovered gophers.

Before leaving on this trip, we took Sacha to the vet for a rattlesnake vaccine booster. The vet, when learning that we were going to Joshua Tree, warned us about the Mojave Rattler. The vaccine would be worthless against this particular snake’s venom because it contained a strong neurotoxin. While we fretted about that, unaware that Sacha would not be allowed on the trails, she developed a fixation on the many gophers aerating the soil in our campground. Sticking her nose in every hole, she finally snatched one out of it’s home. Pat may or may not have saved it from her death grip. She dropped it and he hustled her back to the camper. Going back to see how the gopher fared, it was gone. A raven might have picked it up, but we like to think the little rodent was only playing possum and returned to its underworld labyrinth to lick its wounds.

Sacha Waiting To Pounce On the Next Unlucky Gopher
DSCN9856.jpg

Canyon Wren Belting Out His Sweet Song
DSCN0077 (1).jpg

Western Bluebird with Anna’s Hummingbird
Version 5

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher (notice the nest to the left) Both the male and female were tending to the nest, but they were so fast, I could only catch one on film.
Version 3

Olive-sided Flycatcher – Similar to the Eastern Phoebes we have at home, I watched this one return again and again to the same perch after snaring an insect meal.
Olive-sided Flycatcher

If the darn gasoline and real estate weren’t so expensive, I might have convinced Patrick to retire to this little bit of heaven. But gasoline was well over $4/gallon and real estate well out of our price range. Most of the Californians we met loved living here except for the high cost of living. There’s still “gold in them thar hills,” but it’s in the real estate, I suspect.

We could have stayed much longer in Southern California, but bigger trees were calling. Next stop, Sequoia National Park with the generals, Sherman and Grant.

SPRING TRIP, Part 3: A Pineapple in the Desert

By Pat Branyan

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

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

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

First Saguaros!
IMG_0233

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

Superstition Mountains
DSCN9714.jpg

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

The Flatirons at Lost Dutchman State Park
DSCN9585.jpg

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

Brown-headed Cowbird Checking out a Saguaro Blossom
DSCN9671

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

Gilded Flicker
DSCN9664 (1).jpg

 

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

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

Bendire’s Thrasher
Bendire's Thrasher.jpg

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

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

Verdin
DSCN9764 (1)

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

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

Gila Woodpecker
DSCN9678 (1).jpg

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

Abert’s Towhee
Abert's Towhee.jpg

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

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

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

Tortilla Flat on the Old Apache Trail
DSCN9711.jpg

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

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

I’ve got his number if you need it.

Phoenix Reunion with Tom and Karen West
IMG_0238.jpg

  

 

 

The Road Taken

by David Williams

 

“There is no reason why the camel of great art should pass through the needle of  mob intelligence.” – Rebecca West

It didn’t occur to me for some years that one reason I have traveled to Mexico and Western Europe for almost five decades was to escape the blandness and sterility of American life. That does’t mean that one can’t escape those things by staying home. My attempt at escape actually began at home, in 1973, when, at the age of twenty-two, I went to my first art exhibit. It was sort of a fluke, really. I was sharing a drab, cheap rent house on the north side of Fort Worth with a friend. We both worked for the same small company; my job was dull, repetitive and a good reason to return to college as a more serious student. My roommate and I both read the Fort Worth newspaper in the evenings after work, and it is probably there that we learned of this art exhibition at the Kimbell Museum. It was a Russian collection of impressionist and post-impresssionist paintings, a small but stunning group of forty-two paintings displayed for less than a month at the end of the summer.

Not long ago I contacted the Kimbell through their website to ask about the exhibition. So many years had passed, and many of the details of that 1973 visit eluded me. Katherine Stephens, a curatorial assistant at the Kimbell, answered my email and filled in some of the missing parts. The paintings came from the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg and the Pushkin Museum in Moscow. The exhibition traveled to five major U.S. museums and featured works by Braque, Cezanne, Andre Deraine, Gauguin, Van Gogh, Fernand Leger, Matisse, Monet, Picasso, Camille Pissarro, Renoir, Henri Rousseau, Alfred Sisley and Maurice de Vlaminck.

I learned something else from Ms. Stephens that was, in its own way, particularly gratifying. This exhibition was the first loan exhibition for the Kimbell, which had only opened to the public the year before, in 1972. It was an auspicious start for a small museum and has been followed by scores of other loan exhibitions.

The paintings affected me in a way that’s hard to describe. For one thing, having grown up in a small town sixty miles west of Fort Worth, I knew virtually nothing about art or artists. Honestly, I don’t know that I had ever seen an original painting. People in my family and community did not have the interest or resources to make art. My parents were working hard and, although they did not realize it at the time, struggling to rise into the growing middle class. Even the few people around us with money–usually large landowners–had no apparent interest in art. It was a different time, our world was culturally closed.

Labourage nivernais by Rosa Bonheur (1849)
Labourage nivernais (1)

One aspect of the paintings that I liked was the rich, yet not overdone use of color. I also liked the subject matter of impressionism and post-impressionism: landscapes, farm scenes and workers, fruit trees and orchards, still lifes of flowers and fruit, portraits of people who might be your neighbor or friend. I don’t remember much about the individual paintings I saw that day at the Kimbell, but I do remember the beauty that had been so finely rendered on canvas.

Labourage nivernais – Detail
Labourage nivernaisDetail

Today, in 2019, I look back at more than forty years of travel. In those years many of my travels took me to art museums in Europe, some to major museums in New York, Washington, D.C. and San Francisco. I have also seen a lot of art in Mexico. The last four years, in December, I’ve spent forty days in Paris, an amazing city and arguably the pinnacle of urban life and culture in the West.

The amount of art in Paris, in the permanent collections and the temporary exhibitions, seems almost infinite. There are also many gorgeous churches to visit, and of course the marvelous Gothic masterpiece, Notre Dame. On my last trip in December 2018, I went inside the cathedral, only the second time that I had entered, the first being over forty years ago, in 1976. I have walked past this Parisian landmark–the heart of the city–many times, but the recent fire, which caused extensive damage to the roof, will likely close it to the public for years, so I was doubly glad that I went in. The interior of the popular cathedral is just as sublime as the exterior.

Notre Dame Interior (2)
NotreDame2 (1)

NotreDame1 (1)

In addition to the churches and cathedral, Paris also offers other unique architectural works: the Eiffel Tower; the strange, Frank Gehry-designed Luis Vuitton Foundation; the strikingly odd Georges Pompidou Center. (Coincidentally, Richard Rogers and Renzo Piano designed the Pompidou complex; Piano also designed the Kimbell’s most recent addition, the Renzo Piano Pavilion).

The Orsay Museum
OrsayMuseum

Most art lovers know of the Louvre and probably the Orsay Museum, too, but what surprised me when I began to look online and in Paris guidebooks was the generous number of small museums: the Rodin, the Marmottan Monet on the west side of town, the Orangerie, the Picasso in the old Jewish Quarter (the Marais); two small sculpture museums, the Zadkine and the Bourdelle. And there are more than the few I have listed.

Most of the art museums in Paris have permanent collections, some so large that the art is rotated periodically. There are also temporary exhibitions all over the city. Last year, for example, Rose et Bleu, featuring some of Picasso’s early works, opened at the Orsay. Two venues without permanent collections, the Grand Palais and the Luis Vuitton Foundation, always seem to have temporary exhibitions. Last year for the second time I visited the Quai Branly Museum, which houses a permanent collection of indigenous art from around the world, where I found a special exhibition titled “The Art of Bamboo in Japan,” which included beautifully intricate, sometimes abstract, weavings of bamboo.

From the Art of Bamboo Exhibition
TheArtOfBamboo

“I dream of painting and then paint my dream.”   Vincent Van Gogh

 

To get out of the city for part of a day on my last visit, I took a short train ride out to Auvers sur Oise. For years I’ve wanted to see this small town northwest of Paris where Van Gogh lived briefly and painted his last canvases, and where he died. He is buried there, next to his brother, Theo, against the north wall of the cemetery, ivy covering the graves, and two small, simple headstones: Ici repose Vincent Van Gogh, 1853-1890, and a similar one for Theo. The cemetery is just outside the town proper, and if you go you will want to see the nearby church at the edge of town, the painting of which is in the small Van Gogh collection in the Orsay.

Van Gogh Gravesite
VanGoghGrave

Walking from the church to the cemetery, one immediately comes upon fields, rising slightly, leveling out near the cemetery. The lay of the land reminds me of the painting, “Crows Over a Wheatfield,” considered one of the last the artist painted, now one of the works in Amsterdam’s Van Gogh Museum.

Van Gogh’s Chapel
VanGohChapel (1)

I went to Auvers on a Monday, the small museum there, in Dr. Gachet’s house, closed, the cafes and restaurants closed, the town quiet. I stayed only a few hours and caught my train back to the city, where I took the metro out to the west side to the Luis Vuitton Foundation, located in the edge of the Bois de Boulogne. That evening I saw the temporary installation of works by Jean- Michel Basquiat and Egon Schiele.

It pleases and amuses me that my travels of almost fifty years, which have taken me to many fine museums, started at the Kimbell in Fort Worth.That first exhibition of impressionism and post-impressionism in 1973 opened a door in my small provincial life. A lot has changed since then. For one thing, it is not necessary to travel very far to see great art if you live in north central Texas as I do. Just in Fort Worth alone, three museums–the Modern, the Amon Carter and the Kimbell–clustered together in the arts district, all within walking distance of each other, offer permanent and temporary exhibitions of fine arts to the public. Thirty miles away, Dallas has its own complex of museums.

A sense of urgency marks my travel these days. In my late sixties, I see the time coming when my travels will end. I walk a lot in these great cities and towns I visit–often five miles in a day, sometimes as much as ten–on hard surfaces–stone, asphalt and concrete. I’ve told family and friends that I don’t intend to be one of these oldsters, gimping around the streets of Paris or San Miguel. When the day comes I’ll be content to stay home–a good place after all–and, as Greg Brown says, “fiddle with my memories.” It’s enough.

SPRING TRIP, Part 2: Big Rockhound Candy Mountain

by Pat Branyan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

City of Rocks State Park
DSCN9456

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

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

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

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

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

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

Desert In Bloom
DSCN9458

 

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

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

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

Jackrabbit on a Lazy Desert Day
DSCN9492

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sacha, NOT on a travel day

DSCN0214.jpg

 

SPRING TRIP, PART 1: The Agony and the Excedrin

by Pat Branyan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

   

  

My First Trip to Europe

by David Williams

When I was a young man and a recent college graduate, I went to Europe for the first time. It was 1976, the bicentennial year here in the United States. On the foreign language bulletin board at school I had noticed a small card telling of an organization, SIA Interchange, that would find temporary jobs in Europe for young people.

SIA Interchange turned out to be, surprisingly, a one-man organization based in Amsterdam. Murray Platt was that man. Murray had come from New Zealand, where he had worked in the textile business. He was a personable man of about fifty-five, already quite bald, always willing to help, and quite the diplomat, which must have helped him a lot as he negotiated, often over the phone, and sometimes through the post, with prospective employers across Western Europe.

We corresponded through the mail several times over the course of three or four months, and finally Murray told me in a brief letter to come on to Amsterdam and he would find me a place to work. He also furnished information about cheap charter flights from New York City to Brussels, and with less than two  hundred dollars I took off.

True to his word, Murray found a job for me in Brienz, Switzerland. It was at the Hotel Sternen, a small twelve-room hotel with a restaurant and small staff. I worked there for two months, joined after a few days by two young American women from New Jersey (Diane) and New York (Denise), who worked as chambermaid and waitress.

Brienz was a small town in the middle of the Alps–towering mountains all around–and flanked on its southern edge by a gorgeous lake, the Brienzee. The town was the center of a small wood-carving industry and attracted a lot of tourists; buses filled with them came and went regularly.

My job consisted of kitchen cleanup and whatever else in the way of dull, menial work my boss, Vreni Michel, gave me. We were obligated to stay for two months, and when my two months were done, I was ready to go, the equivalent of about $500 in my pocket and a desire to see as much of Europe as possible. Diane was ready to leave, too, and we set off together.

The Church of St. Eustache, Paris 
steustachechurch

Our money lasted about six weeks, and through a combination of hitching rides and using the bus and train systems, we made our way from Brienz to Geneva, then on to Paris, back to Amsterdam, across the English Channel to London and Oxford. In this last place Diane and I parted, with plans to reunite a few weeks later in Barcelona. She had bought a Eurorail pass and wanted to go to Greece, and I decided to hitch north to Scotland.

During our first two or three weeks of travel we had been fortunate to spend several nights, at no cost to us, in apartments with locals. In Brienz, a Swiss waitress working with us at the hotel restaurant gave Diane and me an introduction to friends in Geneva, who put us up on a pallet in the living room for one night. In Paris we had shared travel stories and plans with a young man who had recommended a friend in London, who provided a thin mattress and bedding on the floor of a tiny, odd-shaped room in his apartment. We passed several days in London, and this humble room saved us money, helping us to stretch our travel budget a bit further.

Eiffel Tower
Eiffel.jpg

These first few weeks had also given us a chance to see some wonderful things. In Paris we went to the Louvre and spent a few hours, also to the diminutive Jeu de Paume, which at that time housed a small collection of Impressionistic art, later moved to the Musee de Orsay. And can you spend any time in Paris without seeing the beautiful Notre Dame cathedral and the Eiffel tower? We couldn’t. We visited more art museums in London and saw masterpieces everywhere we went. At Albert Hall we attended a concert of classical music with full symphony orchestra, and in Oxford we saw a semi-professional production of one of Shakespeare’s plays.

Notre Dame
NotreDame.jpg

With her train pass, Diane set off from Oxford to Stonehenge, then returned to the continent and continued on to Greece. We were well into October by then, and I began my hitching journey northward. On that first day I learned of the generosity of English drivers. I hardly spent any time on the side of the road, and almost reached Edinburgh in one day. My last ride, as darkness came, was with a man who taught in the public schools. He remarked the time of day–it had been dark for a while–and claimed to know a good pub to get a bite to eat and a bed and breakfast to spend the night at. I was grateful for both.

At breakfast the next morning I met Nigel and his father, Peter. They were on their way to Edinburgh and offered a ride, saying that they planned to stop in at a castle of historical interest to them, if I didn’t mind the slight inconvenience. I was in no hurry and there was no inconvenience, so off we went.

In Edinburgh I didn’t do much. It was a lovely city with a castle on a hill and the fine aroma of breweries, but I had my mind on the Scottish Highlands and soon found a road out of town and stood waiting for a ride. On a narrow blacktop road with little traffic, my hitching luck continued. Two young Scottish women from Edinburgh, both nurses, picked me up on their way to Fort William, where they would hike up Ben Nevis, the tallest mountain in England. The two-lane highway had very little traffic, and the heather-covered hills and the lochs were lovely; after a couple of days in Fort William, the Scottish women had to return to Edinburgh, so I did the sensible thing and rode back with them.

From Edinburgh I hitched back to London, then to the ferry and crossed the Channel, returned to Amsterdam and took a bus to Barcelona.

As planned, Diane met me in this splendid northeastern Spanish city, where we passed a few days going to art museums and seeing some of Gaudi’s unusual creations, one being the church of the Sacred Family, which at that time was still not finished. We also splurged on paella at Los Caracoles, still open today after almost two hundred years. Running low on money by then, we were forced to consider an inevitability: returning to the States and home. Soon we were standing by the highway outside of Barcelona with thumbs up for a ride north into southern France.

About this time we had to phone the charter service in Brussels and commit to a departure date. We chose November 6 or 7, about the time that Jimmy Carter won the presidency. Our date confirmed, money and time running low, we had little choice but to move on. Hitching out of Barcelona provided a lesson in futility, and soon we found a train station and traveled the short distance into southern France, where we resumed hitching. The French were more generous than the Spaniards had been and in a short time we were dropped off in Montpelier.

This is where memory failed me. I’ve told this story many times over the past forty-two years, and recently I told it again to friends. A man picked us up after we left the train station just across the Spanish/French border and took us as far as Montpelier. It was getting late in the day by then, so he drove us to the center of town and dropped us off on a sidewalk there, saying that we could find a cheap hotel nearby. Thanking him, we turned up the sidewalk a few steps and around a corner. There in front of us, still in good condition after more than twenty centuries. stood a magnificent Roman coliseum. We were astounded. There were other Roman ruins there as well, including the Maison Carree, sometimes translated as “square house,” considered to have been built in 12BC. Those remnants of the Roman empire seemed so emblematic of Europe, with its rich, varied history.

Arenas de Nimes
Urlaub in der Provence 18. - 21. Maerz 2008
(www.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Arenes_de_Nimes_panorama.jpg#filelinks

There was only one problem, a rather significant one: those ruins are not in Monpelier, they are in Nimes, not far away. All these years I’ve been mistaken and have told the story wrong. As I was thinking about writing this, I knew I should verify some facts, so I looked online and learned of my mistake.

And what of Montpelier? This is what I think happened. Diane and I were dropped off in Montpelier at the end of the day, found a hotel and spent the night, and hitched the next morning to Nimes, where we were dropped off on that sidewalk to discover a bit of Roman history in what you might call its hard form. We stayed a few hours to see the other ruins and architecture and, time running out, caught a train north. We arrived in Brussels in time to catch our plane, with only a few dollars left.

Paris Scene of Tuileries Garden  painted by David Williams, 1986
thumbnail

Our flight took us to New York City–JFK airport–where Diane (from nearby New Jersey) had someone waiting with a car to take her home. We said goodbye at the airport. I called family in Texas to ask for money and a ticket home.

I’ve just finished my fourteenth trip to western Europe. Each time I have visited world-class museums and seen an abundance of great works of art and history–in Paris, Amsterdam, London, Madrid, Barcelona, Florence, Munich. I’ve learned something of the fascinating histories of this places and seen architectural wonders old and new. But that moment–not in Montpelier, but in Nimes–turning the corner on that sidewalk and seeing that marvelous coliseum, was a defining one for me. I’ve been unable to stay away since then.