Joshua Tree Diary: Christmas in the Desert

[Desert view outside Joshua Tree. Photo is mine.]

This is where it all began, right?  I don’t mean California…I mean the desert.

The Nativity story is set in the desert; much like the one I see from my bedroom window.  Very much like it, except that desert, with the Star, is half a world away.

Two years ago, we celebrated this season in Fort Myers, Florida.  There, the temperatures were in the low 90’s.  I remember wearing shorts and sitting outside my favorite Java cafe, sipping an iced coffee.  I had to position myself at an outdoor table so I could catch the AC’d air rolling out of the brand name outlets.  The palm trees were wrapped in holiday lights, Bing Crosby was singing on the PA system, shoppers were hurrying into Bass, or Tommy…but the feel of the season wasn’t inside me.  Red and green lights and Bing didn’t fulfill the images on Christmas cards.

Now, this year, we are enjoying the high desert of Joshua Tree, 29 Palms, Yucca Valley and the Mojave Desert.  And, it’s chilly if not downright cold.  Yet I know there’ll be no white Christmas here this year.

It’s hard to imagine experiencing the Yule without even the probability of several inches of white powder.  That’s because I was raised in Upstate New York, where snow was mostly guaranteed.  I built snow-people, skated with my childhood friends and tobogganed the longest slopes I could find.  I studied the crystals of the flakes when I caught one on my mitten.  I believe it’s true that no two snowflakes are alike.

But deserts are alike in many ways.  Strange and exotic plants, sand, crying coyotes and the limitless sky…filled with stars and a crescent moon.

Ironically, though, it’s here, in the California desert, that I can feel the true sense of the Nativity story.  When you’re raised with religious images of Joseph and Mary traveling across the desert, it’s hard to meld that into a backyard in New York, twelve inches of snow and a snow person.  I’ve never traveled to the deserts of the Middle East so I can’t speak to the winters there, but I can’t believe that the winter in the Holy Land is much different than it is here.

True, they probably don’t have storefronts like these:

[Souvenir shop. Photo is mine.]

Or,

[Storefront lights in Joshua Tree.  Photo is mine.]

But, maybe they do.

I can imagine the solitude, the expansive star-filled sky…and the silent peace that fills those scenes we were raised with, in the pages of the Bible.

About an hour from where I write this, a raging fires is destroying hundreds of thousands of acres near Santa Barbara.  Peoples lives will be ruined.  No holiday cheer for them.

No fires will come to the desert.  There’s nothing much to burn.  It’s vacant and austere backed up by isolation and loneliness.  That’s the way deserts are.  Places to get lost and places to stand and contemplate the ways of the world and to confront the Great Empty.  That’s when you find that the Empty is not only a physical description of a desert…but also of your own mind.  The Desert Fathers of the Old Testament sought these places out.  The three great religions of the West were founded in the sands.

How different the high desert is.  There is, outside my window, all of the above (along with our rented Toyota), but there is something missing.  Beyond our sandy yard, beyond the Welcome to Joshua Tree sign, beyond the glow of Palm Springs and Los Angeles…something is dreadfully missing.

The peace.  Where is the peace and love that the whole Nativity narrative implies?

It’s just not there.

[Note to my readers: The next post is very special to me.  Please take time to read and comment on it.]

 

 

 

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A Halloween Ghost Story Told To Me By My Niece.

 

[Photo source: Google source.  This is not the spirit girl described.]

My niece and I share a fascination with stories.  Many of them are odd and unusual.  Many of them are ghost stories.

I’ve shared copies of ghost story collections with her over the years, mostly M.R.James and Lovecraft and Lord Dunsany.  All were classics and I hoped she pulled the comforter to her neck as she read them in her small cabin in eastern Maine.

Mostly, she lived alone in that state of endless forests, pulp wood factories and rocky coastlines.

She had a job as a receptionist at an Inn in North Conway, NH.  I’m sure you know the kind of inn where she worked.  Nestled in the midst of the White Mountains, where the shadows of Mount Washington darkened the glens and trails and leantos…where the evening shadows came early in the valley’s New England pubs and quaint olde hotels that could be found at many cross roads.  She would tell me local ghost tales, but I never had the opportunity of staying at the Inn where she worked.  Then she told me about the little ghost girl who was a legend at the Inn.  She laughed at the idea but I, to the contrary, thought that the story was something of interest.  Spectres of children always evoke a certain melancholy in me.  I’m a skeptic when it comes to ghosts in a general sense, but I love the ‘idea’ of them.  (I’ve never encountered a spirit, restless or not…that I know of…although I’ve have had some strange feelings in many an old hotel).

So, a few months ago she emailed and, with much excitement, said “I saw the girl in white”.  She said she was looking out of the window of her office and saw a little girl in white running around the corner of the Inn.  My niece ran to the back window expecting to see the girl…but there was no one in the large backyard.

She felt she had seen the “girl ghost”.  I’ve no reason to doubt her.  After all, its New England, it’s in keeping with legend and tradition and it fits all the requirements to compel me to tell this story.

At this time of year, as the night of All Hallow’s Eve is upon us.

This story of a little lost girl who died on some unknown date many years ago.  My niece’s astute observation skills puts to rest any need or reason for embellishment.

I trust my niece and I trust you to believe this old New England ghost story.

It’s a classic.

 

 

At The Museum…For Decades

[I loved this Alaskan canoe when you could see the people in it.]

The more things change, the more they stay they stay the same…

-Anon.

I never understood the above quote, except to say that I think it means that history repeats itself.

I certainly can get that…considering the Trump Era.  You can figure the rest out for yourself…if you believe in reading history and science.

But’s that’s not the point of this post.  No, I want to go back when I was about ten years old and my parents took me to the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH).  It was decades ago…long before The Night At The Museum.  

When I was a child, I saw the dioramas of the ice ages, the history of farming along the Hudson valley, the mineral crystals as large as a park bench and, of course, the dinosaurs!

Over the years, when I was a teacher in NYC,  I had chaperoned so many trips to the AMNH that I think I should have been on their payroll.

What is amazing is that some of the building on Central Park West and between 81St and 77th Street has changed dramatically…and some of the exhibits haven’t changed since I was a child. The beautiful old Hayden Planetarium gave way to a giant glass cube.  More ‘state of the art’ but less architecturally beautiful.

[Hill of skulls…I don’t know what skulls they are.]

Is that good?  Shouldn’t museums remains in a state of stasis or should they “change with the times”?

Want my opinion?

I want both.  Up to date science about climate change (yes, it’s real) and astronomy (there’s so much new stuff out there, it will blow your Star Trek Mind).

Take me to the old galleries that haven’t changed in decades and let me dream about how I fell in love with science, anthropology, evolution, minerals and the stars when I was a child.

And, take me to the Hall of the Native Northwest Americans.  Show me the ceremonial mask that is supposed to

be ‘haunted’.  Night staff won’t go near it.

[Is this the haunted mask? I don’t know.]

 

Then, tell me that science and myth don’t blend in a beautiful and mysterious way. And, I’m praying to whoever may be the god of myth and history and childhood, I would love to walk my grandson, Elias, through the halls of history and myth and childhood.

It meant so much so me and I wish I could pass it on to my grandchildren.

That’s what Natural History (and family history) is all about.

 

D’Arcy At The Bat

A bat. [Source: Wikipedia]

bat n : any of an order of night-flying mammals with forelimbs modified to form wings.

[Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary]

I considered naming this post “Listen to them…they are the children of the night. What beautiful music they make” but I decided: a) it was too long for a title, and, b) the possibility of a copyright violation because it was the classic line spoken by Bela Lugosi in the 1931 film Dracula (Universal Studios retain some killer lawyers, I hear).

But, actually my chosen title speaks more to the point of the story (all true, I assure you) as I am about to relate.  Less than 24 hours ago (as I write this), my friend and seasonal neighbor (his real home is in Ohio), D’Arcy Havill, had an hour-long, somewhat contentious, battle with a real bat that entered his house in the dark hours, after sunset and during a rainstorm.

In a sense, it all began as my wife, Mariam and I were finishing dinner at the Belvedere Restaurant in Saranac Lake.  The dinner (I had Salmon) was to celebrate D’Arcy’s wife’s birthday.  Her name is Judy.  You’ve read about this couple in past blogs.

It was a warm muggy afternoon and there were scattered evening thunderstorms.  We drove home in a light sprinkle of rain.  I pulled our car up to their garage and parked.  Judy and D’Arcy opened the garage door and went into their house.  Mariam and I followed…but we took the walkway to the front door.  We were there to end the evening with a bit of chocolate cake and ice cream.  No sooner was I inside and heard the screen door slam shut behind me, I heard D’Arcy say the dreaded words: “Who let the bat in?”  I thought he said “Who let the cat in?” and I became confused because I could see their two cats, Delilah and Sylvester standing in the hallway.  The cats suddenly began to act as though they were walking on a bed of hot coals…they hopped about and were looking up.  There it was.  A bat had come in behind us and was making circular flights around the ceiling fan.  The cats were immediately banished to the master bedroom…and for good reason.  When cats and bats tangle, things can get rough and ugly.

Being from the mid-west, D’Arcy probably had an edge over Mariam and me when it comes to bats.  The Adirondack bat population has plummeted in recent years because of something called “white nose disease” (don’t ask).  Consequently, the mosquito population has spiked (keeping me indoors until the first frost…probably in late September).  So he (D’Arcy) issued the first command: “Open the doors!”

Meanwhile, as the bat kept circling the ceiling fan, Mariam took my iPhone into the kitchen and found “bat calls”.  I had no idea there was an app for that sort of thing.  I thought at first that she had found a really awful jazz station on the radio, but they were indeed, bat calls.

I thought for a few minutes and realized she may have been playing an aggressive angry call instead of a mating call (that would have attracted the bat, one would think), so I suggested that she not play the calls.  Next thing I hear is some conversation that was recorded by a family who were facing the same situation…a bat in the house.  Their problem ended when the mother shooed the bat out of an open door with a broom.

“Let’s get a broom,” said Judy.

“No,” said D’Arcy, eyeing the ceiling fan and several antique paintings, clearly envisioning an interior design fiasco.

The radio did suggest that the lights should be turned off.  The bat would become disoriented by a lot of light since they used echolocation and are known to have poor eyesight (you know…”blind as a bat”).

So the adults retreated to the screened-in porch to ponder the situation.  Here we were, four adults, all past retirement age, with three and a half Master’s degrees between us.  I was a science teacher but I never taught a lesson on bats.  What were we going to do?  Mariam and I just couldn’t say “good night” and leave the Havills with a rogue bat flying around their white vaulted ceiling.

Someone suggested using a butterfly net.  The only problem was that none of us caught or collected butterflies.  But, no authentic Adirondack camp is without an antique fishing net…the hand held kind.  D’Arcy had two.

We went back into the living room and found that the bat had landed on the wall, about fifteen feet above our heads.  We went back to the porch.  The fishing net thing gave me an idea.

“Just a thought, but why don’t we attach one of your nets to a pole and capture the bat while it is resting on the wall?” I said.

D’Arcy went to work like a true mid-westerner.  He grabbed his wooden hiking stick, disappeared into the garage and soon we were duct-taping the handle of the fishing net to the stick.

Back to the living room.  We turned on a single light and we soon had the bat trapped by the net (after a long reach). But as he was dragging the net down, the bat crawled out from the gap where the net handle and walking stick were joined.  Off it went to make more orbits of the ceiling fan.

Back to the porch.  Mariam suggested that if he turned the net inside out, there would be no gap.

“Then we would slide the bat down the wall and slide a piece of cardboard against the wall and the net, thereby trapping the bat.

We waited until the little mammal needed a rest and sure enough, it went to almost the same place it had been a few minutes earlier…only a few more feet higher.  D’Arcy made the supreme reach and covered the bat.  He dragged it slowly down, this time leaving the creature no gap to escape.  I slid the cardboard against the wall and before you could say “strike two”, we had it outside.  But then the problem of getting it out of the net presented itself.  It was hopelessly tangled.

“Scissors!” he yelled.  He was like a surgeon and Judy promptly brought a huge pair from the kitchen drawer.

We snipped and cut and gently, string by string, finally freed the bat, who promptly flew off toward our house…hopefully to gorge itself on all the mosquitoes that had been eyeing me for the last few days.

We let the cats out of the bedroom (where they had clawed the edges of the carpet trying to escape).

Mariam and I went home and watched two hours of a tense murder mystery series on PBS.

It’s been said that the last few Batman movies have become darker, more brooding.  I can totally get it.

And, even though we all lost a precious hour, I still believe, “Every little bat is sacred”.

Not like last night, but close. [Source: National Park Service. The Carlsbad bat flight]

D’Arcy’s net the morning after. [My photo]

 

 

 

 

 

Kissing The Moon

[Source: Google search.]

So, there is a story.  It goes something like this:

A certain Chinese poet, Li Po, was said to have tried to kiss the reflection of the moon from his boat.  He leaned to plant the kiss…fell overboard  and drowned.  What is the moral of the story?

I am fascinated by the moon.  The werewolves, in legend, were dictated by the full moon.  The moon’s 28 day cycle has been linked with the monthly cycle  of a woman.

The moon.

I may have had my first kiss on a night of the Full Moon. I just don’t remember…I was moon struck. I walked home from a date one night when I was in high school.  My readers will know who the girl was.  I stepped into the playground of the elementary school where I attended for eight years.  It was a Catholic school.  There was a cross on the peak of the ‘tower’…I don’t know what else to call it.  I aligned the cross with the full moon that was rising over the Susquehanna River.  I looked across the street where, earlier, I had been sitting with my girlfriend on a stone bench…still there along Front Street…watching the moon rise over the ripples of the slow-moving river.

But, after my session with the moon and the cross, I walked home strangely altered…how? I can not say, but the experience stays with me.

Did we really walk on the moon?  I gaze at it often and wonder how, when a laptop crashes, we mustered the technology to go all the way there and come back…a dozen times.

As a science teacher,  I once had a plexiglass disk with a moon rock in my hands.  It was unreal.

I used to talk to my fading sweetheart, when I was in college, from a pay phone…I could see the moon through the glass…I asked her if she would look out of her window, 1,200 miles away to see the same moon.

The same moon that shed it’s light on all of history.

So, what is the real story I’m trying to tell?  I’m not sure, I guess it’s about dreaming, night and desiring something that may be the last fatal desire.

Don’t try to kiss the moon…kiss the one you love…or love the one you’re with.

The moon.

[A Full Moon in Paris. My photograph.]

A Short Walk Up Boot Hill

 

SoiledDove1

[An unknown prostitute of Dodge City]

My reason for being on the road for so long has a great deal to do with my growing dislike of the winters of the North Country.  It also enables me to wander and explore my interests.  I love history, I am attracted to stories of the pioneer days, the cattle drives, the lives of the Native Americans and white settlers on the prairie, the exploration, the hardships and the state of life, love and death in the Old West.

I’m also fascinated with the human stories of individuals that never made the popular history books…those who came into this country with hopes and dreams and expectations.  The lives of people who live on the edges of society are compelling to me because they are so human, and therefore, so flawed and full of missteps and errors and simple bad luck.  Clearly, the life of a woman in these cattle towns is the stuff of myths and stories, real and fictional, romanticized and ugly, and sad.

Those interests brought me to Dodge City, Kansas, a legendary city that sits on the famous Santa Fe Trail.  The 1870’s were a time of cattle drives, lawlessness and violence.  The law was not a strong presence in the dirt streets or along the boardwalks.  This is the time of the development of the myths about Dodge as we know them today through films and TV shows.

That’s what took me to the Boot Hill Museum on Wyatt Earp Boulevard.  I paid my $9.00 entrance fee and found the path to the “real” Boot Hill cemetery.

I had done my homework.  I knew who I was looking for.  I wanted to lay a single flower on the graves of the three “soiled doves” who were reputed to be buried among the gamblers, killers, buffalo hunters and gamblers.

I felt like a dusty cowboy striding into the Long Branch and asking for the affections of one of the “girls upstairs”.  Instead, I was climbing a small rise, a block from the Boulevard, to find myself inside a sparse burying-ground, fenced in to hide the view from the traffic on the street.

It took a little searching.  Few of the original markers remained.

I was looking for Dora Hand.  She was the lover of the mayor of Dodge.  She was also the woman who was fancied by one “Spike” Kenedy, a cowboy.  To teach the mayor a lesson (and to ‘free’ Dora from the clutches of the old guy), this fellow rode by the house of the mayor and fired a bullet.  The slug went through the mattress of a friend of Dora who was spending the night.  The lead continued into the next room and killed poor Dora instantly.  The mayor was visiting Fort Dodge…he wasn’t even home.  She was the victim of a ride-by shooting…perhaps the first.  She died on October 4, 1878.

I was looking for Alice Chambers.  The cause of death?  I never learned that.  I don’t know what brought her to her death-bed where she uttered her last words: “Circumstances led me to this end” on May 5, 1878.

I was looking for Lizzie Palmer.  To me, hers is the saddest tale.  Apparently she loved Bat Masterson.  So did another dance hall girl.  There was a bar-room brawl.  Lizzie died a few days later from an infection that set in after she was cut on the head.  Her death date is unknown.  What is known is that Reverend Ormond Wright spoke the blessed words at her burial.  He was a second choice.  The first preacher who was approached, refused to offer his prayers for her soul.

So much for the mercy of the good Christian man of the cloth.

I bent over and placed a small wildflower at each of the graves.  At Lizzie’s marker, I ran my finger over my shoes and was amazed at the amount of dust that had collected on the tan leather.

But, it got me to reflecting on dust.  These unfortunate women, in this profession by reasons unknown to me, were by now, dust.

Maybe the dry earth and the shallow grave still holds the thin and fragile bones of these three “tainted ladies”, these “soiled doves”, these lost and lonely souls.

SoiledDove2

[Another unknown Dodge City prostitute]

[Images are mine.  I took the photos of posters on the wall in the Boot Hill Museum]

 

The Snow Moon Over The Mojave

DSCN0093

Last night the Snow Moon rose over the Coxcomb Mountains of the Mojave Desert.  It’s the fifth full moon we have watched since our journey began

There will be one more to witness before we are home again.  Will we see the Warm Moon from where ever we will be in the third week of March?  I’ll bet a finback that it will be a cloudy night.

That’s the reason I miss so many celestial events like meteor showers, aurora and eclipses back home in the Adirondacks.  Cloud cover is a way of life when you enter the states east of the Mississippi River.

Out here, in the dry clear air of the Southwest, the skies have been spectacular.

But, my pleasure is mixed.  I feel enchanted and mystical when the full moon is lighting my night-time environment in the soft glow of paleness…like a lingering campfire or night-light that is bright enough, just enough, to illuminate a book or allow me to walk without a headlamp.

This post is celebrating the full moon, but I should be writing one, in two weeks, that speaks to the awesome and dazzling population of stars and planets that a desert sky displays on nights that are moonless.

Last night, I could barely make out the belt of Orion.  I could hardly see the Milky Way…but I could read a poem.

Last night, the giant globe passed by Jupiter (which sits near one of the feet of Leo) and rose high and proud.  The goddess Luna, was strutting her stuff and her act could make you halt in your steps and look up…look up and think sublime ideas.  Think romantic thoughts, poetic phrases and sad memories.  Sit on a rock and look up, look around you, look inside your mind and soul.  Remember someone you loved once…or still do.

I have had many conversations with Luna, the Roman goddess of the moon.  Sometimes she sends her Greek sister, Selene to sit with me and talk of melancholy things.  I’ve been reminded that I’ve been alive for approximately  825 full moons in my life…and I still don’t fully understand how the human heart works and why it’s so fragile and why the moon plays such an important role in our thoughts and beliefs.

I think I need another several hundred lunar cycles to fill in the gaps of my own nature.

“Drink in the full moon as though you might die of thirst.”

–Sanoben Khan