Green

Late January, 2016

The land around the Salish Sea is warm. It almost never freezes there. Snow is visible in the higher elevations of the Cascades and the Olympic mountains, but the lower regions are temperate during the whole year. Forests cover huge areas. Vast stands of fir and cedar tower above everything else. Even in winter, when the deciduous trees have shed their leaves, the whole place is intensely and impossibly green.

 

 

 

One morning, Karin, Stefan, and I walked through the Grand Forest on Bainbridge Island. It is a area of old growth forest on the island. It has trails, and we hiked one of them for over an hour. Stefan was impressed by the size and height of the trees. He asked me how tall they were: one hundred feet? two hundred feet?. I couldn’t tell. All I knew is that at their base they were as big around as our dining room table. The morning was damp and overcast, and the woods were dark and deep green. Grey lichen and bright green moss clung to everything that didn’t move. Occasionally, the sky cleared enough that a shot of sunlight sliced through the gloom, and we saw the forest in all its glory. The light illuminated the reds in bare wood of the fallen cedar trees, a sharp contrast to the overpowering green. Dead trees had mushrooms and ferns growing from them. The forest was taking back its own. A close look at the bushes told me that spring had already come. There were leaf buds on most of the smaller plants. It was going to be even greener.

 

The land, like the water, teams with life. Even in the city, there was a feeling of growth, a feeling of nature just barely held in check. Make no mistake: at the shores of the Salish Sea, men make their mark, but it is Nature that rules.

 

Northern Water

Late January, 2016

Rain streaked the window of our sleeper car, as the Empire Builder slowly wound its way through the Cascades. The tracks followed alongside a wide, fast-flowing river that was full of rocks, and had water that was milky with silt. Low hanging clouds obscured the mountaintops. The train ride reminded me of when Karin and I went through the Alps many years ago. We came out of the mountains near Everett, and then the Amtrak hugged the cliff along the coast, heading south toward Seattle. Looking out the right window, we could see Puget Sound, at least for a little way. Our vision ended a few hundred meters beyond the shoreline, where the rain and mist hid everything beyond. The train stopped a few miles north of Seattle because of a rock slide that blocked the tracks. Heavy rains had caused the slide, and it was several minutes before the train could move again.

 

Senji met us at King Street Station. Stefan, Karin, and I got off the train. He looked just like the Japanese Buddhist monk that he is; he had a shaved head, and was wearing grey pants and jacket, with a saffron-colored sash going from his shoulder to his hip. He had a shoulder bag with him and his umbrella. We gathered our belongings and he got us a taxi. We drove a few blocks to the entrance of the dock for boarding the ferry to Bainbridge Island, Senji’s home. From where we were, the island wasn’t visible. We knew it was across the water, but we couldn’t see it. Then Senji took us to Ivar’s, a local seafood place, to eat fish and chips while we waited on the ferry.

 

We rode the ferry across the sound to Bainbridge Island. Riding the ferry was one of the first things that we did when we arrived in Seattle. Riding the ferry was also one of the last things we did while we were there. The ferries are shown on many of the postcards and photos of the Seattle area, and for good reason. The waterways both divide and connect the various towns and cities of the region. It is impossible for anyone to go far without taking a ferry or crossing a bridge. A person is never more than a few miles from the sea.

 

Our last ferry ride was across the sound from Kingston to Edmonds. On our last night in Seattle, Mira had taken us to free film showing at a small theater in Kingston. The film was called “The Unknown Sea”, and it was about some young researchers who were sailing through the inland waters. Joe Gaydos, the chief scientist from the Seadoc Society, gave a short talk after the movie. He explained that Puget Sound wasn’t really Puget Sound any more. The whole inland water world that extends from Vancouver in the north to Olympia in the south had been renamed the Salish Sea. It is one enormous ecosystem, full of fish and crabs and clams and sea lions and orcas. None of these creatures recognize the U.S./Canada border. The inland sea is also home to eight million humans. I stood at the bow of ferry as it took us home to the Seattle side of the sound. It was night. I could see thousands of lights on the far shore, and lights reflected in the water.

Water surrounded us. It embraced us. The Salish Sea was ever present in our minds, and the minds of those around us. The light rail system is called “ORCA” for god sake. The graffiti on the building walls often shows pictures of whales or octopi. People told us about going clamming or crabbing when the tides were right. Mira took us on her favorite walk in Seattle, to Carkeek Park. It’s a park that extends down the hills to the shore of the sound, where the brown sand is covered with driftwood, shells, and bits of red seaweed. Even on the one sunny day, when the sky cleared and we could finally see Mount Rainier in the distance, we saw it all from the end of the pier in Indianola, with the waters of the sea lapping at the posts below us.

Grand Canyon

May 29th, 2017

“He who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead; his eyes are closed.” – Albert Einstein

Thirty-seven years ago, I hiked the Bright Angel Trail. I was with a friend from the U.S. Army Military Intelligence School. We had driven north to the Grand Canyon early one morning from Fort Huachuca. Paul and I were both twenty-two years old, and relatively fit. Once we arrived at the South Rim of the canyon, we decided to walk down to the Colorado River. We had a backpack full of doughnuts and Michelob, and we both carried canteens of water.

Paul and I walked down the river and back in one day. That was a fourteen mile round trip, and a mile difference in elevation between the rim and the river.  At one point, a concerned park ranger stopped us to tell us that we were damn fools. Of course, he was right. The hike was absolutely brutal, and totally worth it. It was nearly sunset when we crawled back to the parking lot, and then slept in my ’77 Chevy Impala (it had bench seats). My entire body ached, but my mind was full of the fantastic images.

I thought about the hike when Karin and I drove from Flagstaff to the Grand Canyon.  I knew that we were not going to hike the canyon. That wasn’t even a possibility. However, we needed to see it. Karin had never been to the Grand Canyon, and it would have been a sin to miss it. We had left Flagstaff very early to make the drive. Since it was tourist season, I expected the park to be crowded.

I was not disappointed. At the gate there was already a long line of cars. Thirty bucks got us into the park. We found one of the last parking places in a lot large enough to accommodate all the spectators at the Super Bowl. This was at 9:00 AM. I don’t know where people parked their cars after that.

It was already getting hot when we walked to the Welcome Center. Karin and I got a map. There is a “village” at the South Rim. I don’t know if it was there back in 1980. I can’t remember. The whole area is built up. The Welcome Center has a bike rental shop and a café of sorts. There are numerous shuttle buses. It’s much bigger operation than it was years ago, but then I had planned on that.

Karin and I walked among the milling crowd. Like Yellowstone, this park was loaded with foreign tourists.  I don’t begrudge them being there. If I was traveling to the U.S., I would want to see the Grand Canyon too. As we walked along, I could hear a variety of languages. Some I recognized. Some I didn’t.

We arrived at the rim. The canyon is impossible to adequately describe, so I won’t try. We looked down and we could see just a glimpse of the Colorado River, a mile below us. I felt dizzy when I looked straight down into the gorge. This was disturbing to me because I never used to feel like that. Hell, I had been a helicopter pilot. Why was I feeling light-headed now?

Karin wanted to take photos as we walked along. She stopped every few feet to snap another picture. Most everyone was doing the same thing. I felt wobbly when I got too close to the side. I was okay if I could lean against a rail, but there was a sensation of almost falling. I had to stay back a couple meters. Other people were clambering onto rocks at the very edges of the cliffs to take selfies. That was hard to watch.

I let Karin go on ahead of me. I sat down on a large stone. I just wanted to look at the canyon. Just look. I saw no point in taking pictures. Photos simply cannot do justice to the scene. They can’t convey the massive proportions of the Grand Canyon. They can’t show the grandeur of it all; the way the sunlight shines on certain strata of rock, making them almost glow with color. Pictures are just a tease.

What is awe really? It’s a hard emotion to describe, but I recognize it when I feel it. I felt it while I sat on that rock and stared into the distance. It’s like my mind couldn’t take it all in. I knew intellectually that this seemingly bottomless chasm existed, but somehow I could not quite believe it. I mean it was right there in front of me. However, part of me rebelled at the thought. It just couldn’t be real. Nothing could be that big. At that moment my mind froze. Analysis stopped. Words failed.

It just is.

Awe.

I went searching for Karin. She was happily conversing with a German family from near Stuttgart. Not only were they speaking in German, but they speaking Karin’s home dialect. We stood around and talked with Stefan and Sinna, while they kept track of their little children, Tim and Francesca. I don’t understand exactly how it works, but Stefan and Sinna managed to score six weeks of paid vacation. They seized on the opportunity and came to the States. They rented a camper in L.A. Then they started their endless road trip. They had plans to go Vegas, San Francisco, and God only knows where else. Cool.

I think it was after that when Karin asked me about going to Las Vegas.

“Are we near Las Vegas?”

“Yeah, sort of.”

“That Goddess Temple is near Las Vegas, isn’t it?”

“Yeah…”

”Well, it sounds like a nice place. We could maybe see it?”

“Mmmmmmmm…not this trip.”

“Why not? Oh, wait. You don’t want to get in trouble with the police again, right?”

“That has something to do with it.”

Sigh. “Oh well…”

Yes, we were making a very large loop around the entire state of Nevada. I don’t like to push my luck. I needed the bad energy to dissipate.

Karin and I stopped at the café for food. They just had pre-made sandwiches and that sort of thing. The Park Service runs the show, and there was no place else to eat. While in the checkout line, a young woman with pink hair at the register noticed my “Coexist” t-shirt. She gave me a thumbs up.

We found some shade, and started to eat a light meal. Then somebody said to us,

“Don’t you live on O’Brien Road?”

I was expecting to hear the music from “The Twilight Zone”. We looked over to our left and saw a family that lived down the block from us. Damn, that was weird. Strange karma. We talked for a while, and then Karin and I went back to the rim.

As we walked, we passed a man sitting at a table covered with books. He was tall and thin, well-tanned. Grey hair going to white. He wore beads around his neck and he was completely dressed in peach-colored clothes. He had a white chalk mark on the middle of his forehead. He got up to greet us.

Flashback. This reminded me way too much of when I would get accosted by the Hare Krishnas at LaGuardia Airport back in the ‘70s. The guy had that same blissed-out look in his eyes. Perhaps if we just ignored him…

No such luck. He started to engage me in conversation. Generally, when I don’t wish to speak to someone, I give off obviously negative energy. Most people detect this radioactivity and steer clear. Not this guy. He was on a mission.

“Have you ever read the Bhagavad Gita?”

“Yes, I have.” (This is true.)

The man smiled serenely. “What did you think of it?”

“It was okay.”

“Only okay? I have studied the Gita for many years. It has answers to so many of the questions in life.” He nodded sagely.

“Uh, yeah.”

He reached over to his table, and picked up a book. “Would like to take a copy?” he said, still smiling gently.

“No thanks. I have one at home.” (This is true.)

“That’s wonderful. There are so many translations. This one is my favorite.”

“I bet.”

“What is your name?”, he asked, holding out his hand.

“It’s Frank“, and I shook his hand. It was kind of limp.

He inclined his head slightly, and he said softly, “I am Swami.”

Of course you are. Who else could you possibly be?

Karin and I bid farewell to our new friend, and we hurried away. What I don’t understand is why the U.S. Park Service allowed this guy to evangelize on the path leading to the rim of the Grand Canyon. Nobody else had a table. Why only this Gita guy? Where were the Bible-thumpers? Where were the Jehovah Witnesses? It didn’t seem fair. I could not wrap my head around it at all.

The park was filling rapidly. It was time for us to go. We had miles still ahead of us. That was a pity. Honestly, the Grand Canyon deserves more than a few hours. It deserves days, maybe weeks. It should be savored. It demands awe.

 

Flagstaff

May 28th, 2017

We rolled into Flagstaff on a Sunday evening. It wasn’t quite dark yet. It was Memorial Day weekend, so things were still happening in town. There were crowds of people milling around. Karin and I had just left I-40, and we were slowly creeping along San Francisco Street looking for our night’s lodging, the Grand Canyon International Hostel. The hostel was supposed to be on our left. San Francisco is a one-way street, and the GPS suddenly told us that we had passed our chosen destination. I abruptly pulled into the parking lot of some motel, and we wearily exited the Toyota. The drive from New Mexico had been exhausting, and we needed food and rest. We needed to be anywhere besides inside the Corolla.

Looking about, we noticed a sign hanging near a door indicating that we had, in fact, found the Grand Canyon International Hostel. Oh joy! Oh rapture! We shuffled toward the entrance of the hostel and went inside.

The foyer was crowded with young people. It became instantly obvious to Karin and myself that we were, by far, the oldest people in this establishment. Many of the youngsters were sitting around on old sofas, fooling around with their smart phones. There was jazz music playing loudly in the background, and pamphlets for tours of the Grand Canyon scattered everywhere. There was microscopic booth for the concierge, but he was absent from his post. I looked around helplessly until a girl told me, “Ring the bell! Then he’ll come!”

I rang the bell. A thin, lanky man came quickly round the corner and greeted us. He had long, grey hair pulled back into a ponytail and a short goatee. He wore large glasses, and he had a ready smile.

“Are you folks looking for a place to stay? Do you have a reservation? Because we are booked solid tonight.”

“We have a reservation.”

“Cool“, he said, as he looked at his computer screen.

“Did you make a reservation with us, and or did you go through a hostel website?”

“A website”.

“I thought so. When you go through the national website, the amount you pay after your initial deposit is always some funky number. I think these people play around with the currency market, because the fees change slightly every day.” He shrugged and looked for our names.

“Okay, here you are. It will be another fifty dollars, and then you’re set.”

I paid the man with my credit card, and he said, “Okay, let’s do the tour.”

I asked the man’s name. It was Lance.

Lance gave Karin a key and he gave me a key. We were staying in different rooms. I was going to be on the ground floor with the guys, and Karin was staying upstairs with the ladies. Lance went to a closet and got each of us a bath towel. He showed us the breakfast room and the bathroom/showers. Karin went up to see her room, and Lance showed me where they have a big screen TV, and a small room with a computer that had Internet access.

I checked out my room. It had two bunkbeds, and a sink with a mirror.  I was going to be sharing the room with three other guys during the night. I tossed my towel on top of one of the top bunks.

Karin and I needed to find a place to eat, but first I wanted to set up lodging for the following night. We were planning to meet up with our friend, Jody, who was making a bicycle pilgrimage through California, visiting each of the old Spanish missions. Jody was a moving target. She expected to be near Santa Barbara during the next few days, but her exact whereabouts were uncertain. Karin and I looked at the road atlas, and we realized that the drive from Flagstaff to the California coast was just too long for one day. We needed a stopping point along the way.

I went to talk with Lance. He had told me a few things about himself. He had been born in Galway, but raised in southern California. Lance had noticed that Karin had a German accent, and he told us that he had been there. Actually, Lance had been damn near everywhere in the world. He spent years as a reporter for Reuters. He told us a story about when he was in El Salvador. He had photographed an intact American-made cluster bomb, with all its production markings visible. Upon his return to the U.S., he had given the film to his employer for development. Later, Lance had been confronted by his boss who told him, “Don’t ever ask about that film again.” Lance was only recently back in America. He had been living in New Zeeland, and he had come back to America to “see how things were.” He was kind of shocked by the Trumpian political environment.

I mentioned to Lance about the recent anti-drone protest at Creech AFB in Nevada, and about the subsequent unpleasantness with the local police there.

Lance looked at me seriously, and asked, “Just what did you think of the Las Vegas jail?”

I replied, “It reminded me a lot of Arlo Guthrie and ‘Alice’s Restaurant’.”

Lance thought for a moment, and then roared laughing. “I can see that! I can totally see that!” Then he went back to work.

I was tempted ask Lance why, after all his experiences, he was now working in a hostel in Flagstaff, Arizona. Of course, he could also ask me why, after all of my experiences, I was staying in a hostel in Flagstaff, Arizona. There are no good answers to those questions. Some things just are.

I went to Lance and asked him, “What is midway between here and Santa Barbara?”

He thought for a moment, cringed, and said, “I’m afraid to say that it’s Needles.”

“That’s bad?”

Lance sighed and asked, “You aren’t planning to be there long, are you?”

“No, just overnight. We are trying to get to Santa Barbara, but that’s too far to drive in one day.”

Lance rubbed his eyes. “Yeah, that is too far. Well, you could stay in Barstow. The next morning you would still have to drive across the north side of the valley. If you hit rush hour, it could be bad. There is a radio station that I always monitor in L.A. It’s good for keeping tabs on the traffic.”

“So, we should try Barstow?”

Lance shrugged. “It’s probably the best you will do.”

Karin and I went to the common-use computer and found a Quality Inn in Barstow. We set up a room for the next night. We had a plan, and now it was time to explore.

It was about 8:00 PM when Karin and I got on the street. We walked down San Francisco, past a microbrewery and over the railroad tracks. Long freight trains roll through Flagstaff every few minutes. The sidewalks were crowded with young people. Northern Arizona University is at the other need of the road from downtown Flagstaff, and the students were out in force. The bars and restaurants were packed with folk. It was a busy night. One tavern had the doors wide open and a band playing. The lead singer was a girl with multiple tattoos who was belting out a song from the Cranberries. Lots of people and lots of noise.

We wanted to get some postcards and maybe a souvenir shot glass for Stefan. Karin and I made it a habit to buy Stefan a shot glass at each new stop. He collects them. We walked into a place called “Crystal Magic”. It was a New Age kind of place. The store specialized in selling spiritual consumer goods. A person goes there to buy pieces of enlightenment. The girl at the counter had a waif-like appearance. She wore a shapeless sort of dress, and she had gold sparkles in her eye shadow. The young woman had an unfocused gaze and a breathless manner of speaking that sort of indicated that she was either at a higher plane of being, or maybe just plain high. We bought postcards. The store didn’t have any shot glasses.

Karin and I walked a little further. I saw a guy sitting on the sidewalk staring straight ahead. He looked to be about my age. He had blond hair that was going grey. He had a cup in front of him, with a tiny collection of coins at its bottom. People walked around him and over him. He seemed utterly forlorn.

Karin wanted to check out a store across the street. I told her, “Go ahead. I need to talk to this homeless guy.”

I walked over to the man on the sidewalk.

“Hi, how are you?”

The man didn’t look up. He shrugged his shoulders slowly and said, “Okay, I guess.”

I stretched out my hand to him. “My name is Frank.”

He looked at me and reached up. He shook my hand and said, “My name is Anthony.”

“Can I do something to help you, Anthony?”

He raised an eyebrow and said, “Well, I’d like to get myself a sandwich.”

I fished in my wallet. “Here’s a ten. Will that help?”

Anthony’s faced brightened. “Yeah, that will get me a sandwich, and maybe some breakfast for tomorrow. Thanks.”

“Okay. Do what you need to do.”

I turned around to look for Karin. She had disappeared. How could I have lost her already? I turned back toward Anthony. He was gone too.

Karin called out to me from across the street. She had seen something she liked, but she wasn’t going to buy it. We moved along to find a place to eat. It was getting late enough that some of the restaurants were closing down. We found a place that we liked just after they had locked the doors. It was getting to the point where we would have to find something soon or go hungry. Action needed to be taken.

Tucked into a corner of a building was a little place called the “Historic Brewing Company”. We were home at last. The place was extremely busy. The waitresses and the manager were desperately trying to fill orders. There was a certain number of confused looks at order slips and plates of food. Karin and I stood at the bar and examined the chalkboard which displayed a variety of home brews. I selected an Imperial Stout and Karin got something called an “Undercover Cucumber”. We also ordered hot pretzels with mustard dip.

We sat outside. There was a crescent moon overhead. It was getting colder. Flagstaff sits at about 7000 feet above sea level, so the temperature drops like a stone after sunset. We relaxed and ate and drank. It was fun. By the way, the Undercover Cucumber is a blond ale with just a hint of cucumber juice. It’s actually quite refreshing.

We walked back to the hostel. We were bone tired. Thirty years ago, we would have closed down that brewery, but those days are over. We are slowly coming to grips with the fact that we are getting old.

Two of my roommates were there to greet me upon my arrival. They were both young men from Fort Smith, Arkansas. They were doing the tour of the desert Southwest, with their backpacks, hiking boots, and empty wallets. They finally turned off the lights. I crawled up into my bunk, and closed my eyes. Sleep evaded me for several hours. Drunk students roamed the streets until about midnight. I wasn’t really offended by their ruckus. I remember those days. I drifted off.

Promptly at 3:00, the two Razorbacks turned on the overhead light and started to pack up their shit. I thought to myself, “You cocksuckers!” These two guys insisted on moving around gingerly on tiptoes. It would have quieter and quicker if they had just grabbed their belongings and bolted out the door.  Eventually, they had what they needed and they left for parts unknown.

Now I was awake. Again. I decided to shave and take a shower. I had earlier done some ciphering, and I had concluded that there were probably thirty guys and one shower on my floor. The odds of getting to use the shower at 6:00 AM was minimal. At 3:30 my odds were much improved.

After showering, I laid down again. Sleep hugged me. Then at 5:30 AM Karin texted me: “Are you up?” Well, yeah, I guess I am. I stumbled out of the bunk, grabbed my stuff and met Karin in the hallway. Her night had been more peaceful. She had shared a room with three girls from Spain. One of them had stumbled into the room late, but it wasn’t too bad. We packed up the car, and went back inside for breakfast.

The new guy at the desk had set things up. There was cereal, yogurt, bread, butter, jam, and fruit. The hot coffee smelt good. Karin and I sat down with some other early risers. There were three girls there from Argentina. There was also a girl named Ellen, who was originally from Scotland. Ellen had flaming red hair and a discreet number of tattoos and piercings. She worked in Vancouver. She was a labor organizer and anarchist. I told Ellen about the history of the Catholic Workers. She actually seemed interested.

With breakfast done, we dropped off our keys.

On to the Grand Canyon.

Welcome Back to L.A.

 

May 31st, 2017

“Los Angeles is a bleached-out, soulless pit.” – Robert Sean Leonard

Let me start by saying that I know there are wonderful things in Los Angeles: museums, great restaurants, shows, and sports. It’s a world class metropolis. It’s place where a person can probably find and, with enough cash, buy anything. It even has Disneyland, the Magic Kingdom.

Unfortunately, most of my memories of the Los Angeles area are from driving a car. It had been over thirty years since the last time we challenged the freeways of L.A., and my muscle memory still puckered up at the prospect of doing it again. However, it needed to be done. We were meeting a friend near Santa Barbara, and the road to the coast from Barstow necessarily went through L.A. We had to run the gauntlet.

Traffic got heavy right after when we entered Victorville. This was already a bad sign. As I drove along, I once again noticed that those who shared the freeway with me displayed certain peculiar driving habits. Nobody used a turn signal, ever. Passing on the right was to be expected. Cars weaving in and out of traffic was apparently encouraged. Charles Darwin or Malthus could have best explained the interaction of motorists as we drove west. It was all survival of the fittest.

The GPS took us around the northern edge of the Los Angeles metro region. From I-40 we hit I-15. Then to I-210. The sky grew dim with smog by the time we were in Ontario. I could high tension wires fade away in the grey murk. The road heading west went from three lanes to four lanes to five lanes to whatever. No matter how wide the road, it was always full.

I wouldn’t have minded so much if traffic had continued to move along at a rapid pace. It didn’t. We were be hammering along through Pasadena, and the road made a sharp left curve. Once past the curve, all I saw was a wall of brake lights. Solid red. Everybody coming to a sudden halt.

The slowdown gave me time to think about things, like about the jackass who was trying to nudge his Acura between me and the Volvo in front of me. I also started to reconsider the wisdom of driving a stick shift in L.A. (the last time we drove here, we had the ’83 BMW 320i, which was also a stick). The whole experience tends to make a person mean. Patience wears thin. Empathy evaporates.

At least I saw what had caused the slowdown. Somebody was off on the left shoulder. His sports car had sustained some damage. The price of repair would probably equal that of a small bungalow in Milwaukee. He was one of those guys who had rolled the dice once too often. He had tried to slip in between two cars, and the space was not quite big enough.

Now, a person with a normal capacity for compassion would probably have said something like, ”Oh, my goodness! How terrible! I hope no one was hurt!”

My reaction was: “Serves the bastard right. I hope he has a high deductible.”

Somewhere in Glendale we decide to pull off the highway. We went to use the bathroom at a filling station. Of course, you need a quarter to do so. Pay to piss. I filled up the car, and I stood next to it while I waited for Karin. I looked at the flowers, the green trees, the neat houses. I felt the warm breeze.

I thought to myself, ”You know this really isn’t bad. I wouldn’t mind this at all if this was our final destination. BUT IT’S NOT! We have to go back on that freeway! We have to ride the beast! We have to get back on that thing!”

I groaned audibly. Karin came up to me and asked, ”Would you like me to drive for a while?”

God exists, and He is merciful.

“Yes. That would be fine. Go ahead.”

Karin took us the rest of the way. Even she, a veteran of the autobahn, found driving on US101 to be a bit tense. Things didn’t clear up until we were in Thousand Oaks. Hours of stress. Grey air and asphalt all the way.

I have to admit one thing. The freeways in L.A. have kickass medians. I mean really. The medians are full of flowering oleander bushes, cedars, eucalyptus trees. They are truly beautiful. Kudos.

Suddenly, on our left, there was a patch of deep blue. Yes! It was the Pacific Ocean! We made it! Laughter! Joy!

 

Barstow

May 30th, 2017

“We were somewhere around Barstow at the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold. I remember saying something like, ‘I feel a bit lightheaded; maybe you should drive…’ And suddenly there was a terrible roar all around us and the sky was full of what looked like huge bats, all sweeping and screeching and diving around the car, which was going at least one hundred miles an hour with the top down.” – Hunter S. Thompson

Karin and I stayed overnight in Barstow, the armpit of the Mojave. Actually, we were thrilled to get to Barstow. The trip to there from Flagstaff was at one point rather stressful. Most of the ride was okay. We barreled down I-40 after we had visited the Grand Canyon. Everything was going well until we hit the California border. Then, about one hundred miles east of Barstow, traffic stopped. It just stopped.

There was no obvious reason for the delay. Karin and I couldn’t see any evidence of an accident. There didn’t seem to be any construction activity. It was almost 6:00 PM, so any road work should have been completed for the day. However, neither lane of traffic was moving. At best, we creeped along the highway. We got a good look at the creosote bushes that lined the road. Karin was driving, and she never got out of first gear. For one and a half hours, we inched along I-40. We covered only seven miles during that entire period.

This is the sort of thing that makes a person edgy. One begins to wonder if traffic will ever move again. How hot is it outside? Will we spend all night in this desert? Will we burn out the clutch before we get to Barstow? How much gas do we have? Do we have any water?

At last things loosened up. I-40 had narrowed down to one lane for maybe a mile or so. That, and only that, had caused this back up. Once past the bottleneck, everybody floored it, and the race was on. We just kept going faster and faster. We sure as hell weren’t going to see any cops. None of those guys were around when we had been stuck in a seven mile long parking lot in the desert. No donut shops out here. Just get to Barstow. People wanted to make up for lost time.

We pulled off I-40 at Ludlow to use the bathrooms at the gas station. Everybody else heading west did the same thing. The line for the women’s restroom extended out of the building. I filled up the tank and waited for Karin. Karin drove the final stretch to Barstow. We did get to see a gorgeous sunset.

I’m not entirely sure why Barstow exists. I don’t think it has any natural resources. There is no water and no agriculture. It doesn’t provide venues for immoral activities like Las Vegas. Even the scenery sucks. However, Barstow has a unique geographical location. It lies equidistant between other, more hospitable locations. It is apparently a transportation hub, for both rail and vehicular traffic. It is also surrounded by military bases: China Lake, Fort Irwin, Edwards AFB. The sole purpose of these installations is to make the desert even more of a wasteland than it already is. Most of the military population is transient. So, Barstow is essentially a modern caravan stop, much like Samarkand was in the days of the old Silk Road through Central Asia.

People don’t go to Barstow. People go through it.

 

West of West Texas

May 25th, 2017

The problem with Texas is that there is too much of it. Almost all trips in the state are measured in terms of hours. The journey from College Station to El Paso was supposed to be ten hours and forty minutes of driving time. That’s not the total amount of time; that’s just windshield time. Looking at it a different way: the distance comes to 685 miles. Good Lord.

The drive was interesting for the first couple hours, even if I discount the unfortunate incident with the Texas Highway Patrolman. Karin and I were initially traveling through the Texas wine country; vineyards, orchards and stands of oak trees. We went past the LBJ Ranch. Even west of there, the landscape was full of rolling hills and winding turns.

Once we got onto I-10, things started to change. The terrain is was still rugged, and it stayed that way for many miles. It actually became mountainous through the Pecos. However, the vegetation changed for the worse as drove west. First, we saw lots of scrub oak and juniper. Then those trees disappeared and we saw mesquite. Later the mesquite gave way to creosote bushes, yucca, and sage. Eventually, we were just looking at dirt. The closer we got to El Paso, the more things resembled a lunar landscape.

In most of the places we’ve been, there have always been advertisements for coming attractions. Metropolis, Illinois, has an enormous statue of Superman. Wisconsin has the House on the Rock. South Dakota has both Wall Drug and the Corn Palace. Near Idaho Falls is the Potato Museum. Missouri has billboards for Meramac Caves all along I-44. Just about any little town in the nation can come up with something interesting to lure in the suckers. There are always crudely written signs that say things like: “Welcome to Gotefuqq, Arkansas! Home of the World’s Tallest Midget!”

Not so in west Texas. There are no billboards for attractions because there are no attractions. The scenery is beautiful in a brutal, life-threatening sort of way. However, there isn’t much out there to bring in tourist dollars. The biggest town on the way to El Paso is Fort Stockton. Go online and look up pictures of Fort Stockton, and try not to get depressed. The town’s claim to fame is that it has two exits off the freeway.

Most of the signs on the I-10 are subtly disturbing. Messages like: “No services for 100 miles” or “542 miles to El Paso” or “Exit only. No return to freeway”. Exit only? That last sign bothered me. Why would they only have an off ramp? Why would they want a person to be unable to get back onto the main (and the only) highway? Especially here, where there is literally nothing but heat and scorpions, why have a one way road to Hades?

As Karin drove, she liked to check on the outside temperature.

“Hey, it’s 101 degrees out there!”

“Nice,” I replied.

“Oh, now it’s 103.”

“Excellent.”

“I bet its gets hotter as the day goes on.”

“Yeah, I bet.”

“The sun is getting pretty high.”

“How much gas do we have?”

“Why?”

“Oh, just curious.”

We kept the temperature inside the car at about 72 degrees while we drove. Eventually, we stopped at one of the rare rest areas to take a break. I opened my door and the heat slapped me upside the head.

“Holy shit!”

Karin asked, “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing. I’m just trying to get some oxygen.”

Some people have told me that it’s not so bad in the desert because it has dry heat. I am aware that I sweat a lot more in humid climates (I remember my days in Alabama), but, at some point, hot is hot. The surface of the planet Mercury has dry heat. I don’t want to live there.

One time, I saw a couple oil derricks in the distance. They must have been burning off natural gas, because there was a large orange flare. Nearby, a pickup truck was rolling across a dirt road that led from nowhere to nowhere. The truck was kicking up a cloud of dust. Sometimes it was hard to tell moving vehicles from the dust devils. From far away the dust looks the same.

We sometimes saw a travel trailer or a camper in the wasteland, surrounded by creosote bushes, and slowly baking in the sun. I guess somebody lives there. But why? Why live here? This is Mad Max territory. This country has that desolate, post-apocalyptic feel to it. This is not a land for the weak.

Hans was talking to us about getting a job in west Texas. A friend told him that he could be making mega-money if he went back to the oil fields. Hans mentioned that the oil companies are having trouble finding workers to go out there. No shit. I can’t imagine why.

When we came close to El Paso, we could see the green fields near the Rio Grande to the left of us. Any land near the river was irrigated, and green as green could be. It was hazy in the direction of the Rio Grande, probably from the moisture in the air. To our right, the desert showed itself in all its stark grandeur. It was like this for miles.

The bad thing was that our journey wasn’t over in El Paso. We planned on staying in a retreat house in Las Cruces, which is forty-five miles beyond El Paso. It was a reason for celebration when we finally got to El Paso, but it was also just a tease. We weren’t home yet.

Holy Cross Retreat Center is in Mesilla Park, New Mexico. That is a southern suburb of Las Cruces. Holy Cross is another one of those locations that refuses to show up on the GPS. The GPS got us close enough. Holy Cross is an oasis, literally. There are pecan groves all around the facility. Narrow concrete channels funnel water to the trees. Stray dogs drink from the channels. Local kids chase the dogs.

The retreat center has that Mexican adobe look to it. This makes sense, since we are only a few miles from the border. There was a beautiful chapel and a large retreat house with dozens of rooms. After all that time on I-10, this property looked lush. There were huge mulberry trees, along with pines, cedars, and rose bushes. Karin and I found our room. We settled in, and then Father Tom came over to visit with us. He’s about our age. He limps. Father Tom grew up on a farm in Indiana, and he lost part of his leg in an accident as a child.

Holy Cross is run by Franciscans. The Franciscans are a distinct flavor of Catholicism. They go back to the 12th century in Italy, back to their founder, St. Francis of Assisi. Franciscans are focused on simplicity, poverty, and compassion. They are Zen Catholics. I love them.

That evening, I spent quite a while talking with Father Tom. After having been with Hans for a while, I needed to vent concerning how I felt about God. I told him flat out that I wasn’t sure that God gave a damn. Father Tom didn’t have any pat answers to my questions. He just acknowledged that I was hurting, and then he told me that God really does love Hans, and Hannah, and Stefan, and Karin, and even me. There aren’t any good answers to the question of suffering, but we believe in God anyway.

We had a good night at Holy Cross. After a breakfast of tortillas, huevos, and frijoles, Karin and I left to go to another retreat house. We drove north to Christ in the Desert.

 

West Texas

May 25th, 2017

“If I owned Texas and Hell, I would rent out Texas and live in Hell.” – Philip Henry Sheridan

The flashing blue lights behind me caught my attention. I wasn’t actually surprised to see them. I had seen the Texas Highway Patrol car pull off the median and follow us just when I had passed him at eighty miles an hour. I had hoped for a brief moment that maybe, just maybe, he was looking for somebody else. Not.

I pulled off to the shoulder of US290, just east of Johnson City. The highway patrolman pulled in right behind me.

Karin asked, “Why are we getting off the road?”

“Cop.”

“Are we going to get a ticket?”

I rested my forehead on the steering wheel. “Don’t know.”

Karin went back to her knitting.

Officer Ruiz walked over to the passenger side of the car. Karin cranked down the window. Behind his reflector shades, Ruiz was clean cut and unfailingly polite.

“Sir, could I see your driver’s license and your proof of insurance?”

I dug my license out of my wallet, and Karin fished the insurance paperwork from the glove compartment. Officer Ruiz took both items and later returned to his patrol car.

“Where are y’all coming from?” the cop asked.

“College Station.”

“Where are you headed?”

“Las Cruces.”

“Oh, that is a long way.”

I had time to think. Karin was in no mood for conversation at this point. My mind wandered into dark and paranoid places. I wondered if, perchance, the cop’s computer system interacted with that of Nevada, and would he know of my recent arrest in Vegas? I promptly discarded this notion. My experience is that Texans have almost no interest in the problems of the other, lesser, forty-nine states of the Union. Texas is a world of its own, and Officer Ruiz would most likely only be concerned with what happened in the Lone Star State.

Time dragged. The advantages of speeding soon became immaterial. Whatever time I had gained, was now lost. Cops know this. That’s why it takes so long for them to process the information. They want to make you wait, and wait.

I think sometimes about the advice of Hunter S. Thompson in this sort of situation. He remarks:

“Few people understand the psychology of dealing with a highway traffic cop. Your normal speeder will panic and immediately pull over to the side when he sees the big red light behind him…and then we will start apologizing, begging for mercy.

This is wrong. It arouses contempt in the cop-heart. The thing to do-when running along at about a hundred or so and you suddenly find a red-flashing CHP-tracker on your trail- what you want to do is accelerate. Never pull over with the first siren howl. Mash it down and make the bastard chase you at speeds up to 120 all the way to the next exit. He will follow. But he won’t know what to make of your blinker-signal that says you’re about to turn right.”

Oh, that is soooo tempting. However, it is clearly advice for the single man. For the married man this is akin to suicide. It just doesn’t work.

Officer Ruiz returned to Karin’s window.  He gave us back our paperwork.

“Sir, I am issuing you a warning. I would advise you to following ALL the posted speed limits.”

“Yes. Always“, I replied.

“Have a safe trip.”

Officer Ruiz went back to his vehicle.

I pulled off the shoulder slowly and safely. I merged smoothly with the traffic on US290.

We stopped at a gas station in Johnson City. I bought a map. I filled the tank. We both went to the bathroom.

Karin told me, “You know, the speed limit here is 35. You were doing forty.”

Yeah. I expected to hear this sort of talk for at least the rest of the day.

Las Cruces was at least ten hours away. We had a lot of West Texas to see.

Visiting Old Friends

April 24th, 2016

Karin, Hans, and I drove out to the Catholic cemetery in Calvert. Tom is buried there, alongside his wife, Delphia. Delphia died in 2012. We drove along the cratered road to the cemetery, and stopped at Tom’s fresh grave. The large mound of reddish clay had some wilted flowers on top of it. Karin saw a food wrapper laying near the grave, and asked Hans, “Do you think this belongs here?”

 

Hans said, “Unless Tom got up to get himself a Big Mac, I don’t think so.”

 

Karin said that sometimes people leave odd offerings at graves, but then she picked up the wrapper and threw it away.

 

We said a prayer for Tom and Delphia. I don’t know how Hans felt. He had been there for the funeral a few days earlier. Hans had arranged a military color guard for Tom. Tom’s family had appreciated it, since Tom was a vet.

 

After a while, we left and drove to another Catholic cemetery, this one in Bryan. We had a hard time getting to it, because the road was all torn up. We parked next to my brother’s grave. Marc Blaze died in 1998 in a car crash. He was married to Shawn for seven years. Shawn’s second husband, Bob, is lying next to Blaze. Bob died of cancer in 2012.

 

A lot of people that Hans knew are gone now. Hans was close with Tom, Delphia, and Bob. Hans knew Blaze years ago, but I’m not sure how much they connected. Mark, Shawn’s brother, killed himself last year, and Hans was tight with him. Hans lost a couple of his veteran friends last year too. Overall, Hans has seen a lot of death, both in war and here at home. It depresses him, and he grieves silently. Hans often seems much older than his twenty-nine years.

 

High Value Target

April 24th, 2016

I’m not sure how we got on to the subject, but Hans started telling me a story about when he was in Iraq. It was typically strange.

 

Hans said, “We were at a checkpoint, and we captured a high value target. We called the information to the higher ups. A little while later, a Humvee comes roaring into the checkpoint. It had all sorts of Iraqi flags all over it. But the guys who got out of the Humvee weren’t Iraqis.”

 

“Who were they?”

 

“Well, they had Iraqi uniforms and full beards, but they looked really white. Also, they carried weapons that the Iraqis usually didn’t have. The Iraqis were slobs. These guys looked neat.”

 

“They looked like pros?”

 

“Yeah, you could tell just by how they talked and how they carried themselves. Maybe special forces.”

 

“So, what happened?”

 

“The two guys talked with our lieutenant, and then they grabbed the target, put a black hood over his head, threw him in the trunk of the Humvee, and drove off. We never saw the guy again.”

 

Hans shrugged. “It wasn’t my problem.”