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.

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Greenleaf Manzanita (Arctostapylos patula)
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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


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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
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Merced River
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Yosemite Falls
Yosemite Falls

The Majestic Half Dome
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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
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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
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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
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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.

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A Fallen Monarch On A Rainy Day
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Dark-eyed Juncos
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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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

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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.
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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
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 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)
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Mohave yucca (Yucca Shigedera)
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Desert Canterbury Bells (Phacelia campanularia)
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Mojave Pin Cushion (Chaenactis xantiana)
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Mojave kingcup cactus (echinocereus mojavensis)
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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
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Canyon Wren Belting Out His Sweet Song
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Western Bluebird with Anna’s Hummingbird
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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.
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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!
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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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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)
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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
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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)
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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
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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
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“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
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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
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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.
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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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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 
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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
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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
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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
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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
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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.

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

by Pat Branyan

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

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

Meanwhile, back at the pecan ranch…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s not you Virginia, it’s me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brown Creeper, near Longview, Tx on the Road Home
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