My MRI: The Awful Truth

SONY DSC

SONY DSC [Image from Wikipedia]

I have lower back pain.  I’ve had it for years.  Many of my readers will be saying:

“What’s he complaining about now?  I’ve had it for years.”

Point taken.  But, I moved to the North Country for a reason…I wanted to hike and climb more mountains.  Now, this back pain makes those dreams a bit unattainable.  And, besides, I already had back surgery for spinal stenosis back in December of 2013.  So, why the pain now?

I can think of several reasons:

-I lean too far forward when I change the spark plugs in my Ford Escape. (Joke)

-I spend too much time on my knees, with a hand lens, bending over in my small Adirondack lawn, and examining the next insect that will bite the crap out of my forearm and make me bleed like a leaky garden hose. (Joke, but our hose does leak)

-I spend too much time sanding the back deck in order to paint it, yet again, with a paint that is guaranteed to last at least five years. (True)

-I spend too much time bending over, when I visit New York City, to read the headlines of the New York Times without having to pay $2.50 for a copy. (Pretty much true)

-I spent too much time sitting behind the wheel of our Ford Escape on the recent 13,589 mile road trip and not enough time hiking in the Mojave Desert or Joshua Tree National Park. (True, but if you haven’t read all those blogs, then shame on you)

-I spent too much time bending over my laptop writing about forty blogs about the trip. (True)

So, I make an appointment with my neurosurgeon in Manhattan to get an MRI to see if my left side needs surgery to repair the damage from whatever.

On May 18th, I went to my appointment at Mount Sinai to get the truth, the truth that only an MRI can tell you.

I was laid out and tucked in on the moveable bed.  I looked up and saw how much smaller and narrower this “tube” was than the last time I had the procedure done.  I knew I was going to become like a Coney Island Kielbasa or a Nathan’s Hot Dog.  That is, if this thing had a mind of its own and somehow squeezed in on me.

The technician asked if I’d like to hear anything on the earphones.

“Anything but JZ or Big Daddy”, I said.  “How about some Mozart?”

“Fine”, he said.

“I’d like to hear Mozart.  Can you find Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, Adagio and Fugue, KV 546?”, is that possible?”, I asked.

“Not a problem,” he said.

And I began to feel the bed slide me inside the stainless steel tube.

I heard the opening notes…and then all I heard for the next ninety minutes was either a soundtrack from Star Wars or a Phillip Glass piece…repeating chords and noise.

When it was all over, the guy helped me stand up straight, which was nearly impossible, and informed me where the nearest bathroom was located.

I knew that my Neurosurgeon was going to see me in several days to discuss the results.  Well, I demanded to speak with the Radiologist on duty that day…I wanted a quick read of the images so I could make future plans, if I had any to make.

Once he heard my name, and that I was a famous blogger from Owego, NY, he readily agreed to give me a quick summary of what he had on his computer monitor.

“Well”, he said, “see these little pinches in between your L-4 and L-5?”

Spine MRI image

[This is not my spine.  Image from Wikipedia]

“Of course I see them”, I said looking at a screen that resembled a NASA image of the far side of Charon, a moon orbiting Pluto.

“But, something worrisome is showing up here,” he said. “See the area just to right of my pencil point?”

“I see,” I said.

“Well, right down here near the end of your endothelial membrane, I see a disturbing sequence beginning to take form.”

“Give it to me straight, Doc, I can handle it.”

“Well, I see a growing sense of self-doubt and insecurity,” he said. “See here?”

I looked and said “yes”.

“Over here, near your Lumbo-sacral spine, is a large mass of guilt and misgivings.  Alongside that is a well of worry and loneliness.”

“I think I see,” I said.

“But there is also a distinct lack of morality, pleasure and sincerity,” he said, “and over here, see, there is growing sense of self-doubt, a mass of existentialism and nihilistic thought, as well as an approaching feeling of fear and trembling.”

He glanced at a copy of Kafka in my shoulder bag.

“But, I care about people,” I protested.

“You’d never know it from this,” he said, leaning back on his IKEA office chair.  “But, there’s more. Can you take it?”

“Hit me, Doc,” I said.  “Give me your best shot.”

“There is a large mass of growing dread and fear over here near your nerve-fibrillae.  You fear that your real active life and vigor of youth are gone,” he said.  “Am I right?”

“But, I’m going to be celebrating my 69th birthday in a few days…people will send me cards and letters.”

“Cards and letters? Where have you been, guy, off in a desert somewhere?”

“Actually, yes,” I said.

“You’ll be lucky if anyone notices your Facebook page at all.  And, your blog site? Well, I’ve seen it.  Nothing but pictures of cacti and sand and you posing in a cheap cowboy hat with the Queen of the Sonoran Desert at some rodeo in Yuma.”

“Hey, that hat cost me $14.95 (+ tax)”, I retorted.

“Well, happy birthday, dude, want the real medical story now?”

“Sure.”

“You have age appropriate degeneration of the lower spine.  Live with it.”

“Gee, thanks Dr. Oz.”  I got up to go.

“Oh, one good thing, Patrick, you’re covered by your AARP.”

 

 

 

Roadside Attractions From The Rearview Mirror

compassRose

I feel like I’ve driven half-way around the earth’s diameter.  Actually, according to the odometer on the red Ford Escape, we did indeed travel that far.

Our total distance driven, including side trips for sight-seeing, came to an astounding 13,589 miles!  If you’re into engine care and maintenance, that’s would be three oil changes (and filter, of course).  And, as we pulled into our driveway, we were overdue for a fourth change.

I walked into the kitchen and saw the calendar next to our Samsung refrigerator.  Take a look:

2015Calendar

That was our departure date, October 15.  I see it was a Thursday.  I took the calendar down (I was thinking there was something superstitious about leaving old calendars on the wall.  I only see them in Auto Repair Shops and they have Betty Page photos and the dates are around 1956 and the guys that work in some of these places often have seen times of hard luck).  It took me a day to locate the 2016 calendar I bought (20% off) at a Barnes & Noble store in Texas.  The theme is Circus “Freaks”.  Changing calendar themes from Vintage England Travel Posters to The Circus Sideshow must say something about my change in tastes.  The sideshows are vanishing from America…but there will always be an England.

Unusual things and marginalized people have always fascinated me.

Don’t ask.

So, here’s the new calendar:

AprilCalendar2016

In case you can’t read the dates very well, we got home on April 1.  I was so exhausted and sore from driving that I didn’t find anyone or anything to play a prank on.

But, the Tattooed Girl will brighten that corner of the kitchen until May 1!  This brings up an interesting thought…this sideshow girl was once considered an oddity…she made her living exhibiting herself in a circus.  At least half the baristas in the Starbucks I visited had tats far more artistic, exotic and erotic than our Miss April, 2016.

Culture changes…but, as I said, there will always be an England.

So, let me run the numbers.  Using the above dates, we spent 169 days out there…somewhere out there, driving, camping, hiking or just sitting on a beach.  This come out to 40.6% of a year.  Nearly 41% of a year of my life has just been spent looking at things.

We emptied the r-pod (we’re going to sell it, but it needs a few repairs first) and I piled our guides and maps and memorabilia on the floor.  Of course, I arranged everything to look haphazard and casual, but every pamphlet and sticker and book and CD is carefully placed to give you an idea what we accomplished.  I probably should mention that I couldn’t find most of the guide books and National Park maps and tee-shirts that we purchased along the way.  They’ll show up sometime in late July.

GuidesOnfloorFromTrip

I even re-highlighted my route on our Rand McNally.  Here it is:

Atlas

I’m aware that it’s hard to see clearly, but you only need to see the orange line and the green/blue line.  The orange line was our route to Palm Desert, California.  This is where we made a turn on a highway that was surrounded by wind-mills, and began to set our course eastward.  That’s the green/blue line.

Far be it for me to brag, but I do think we took in a pretty good chunk of the lower part of the Lower 48.

If you’ve been following the many blogs I sweated and struggled to produce for your entertainment, you will know that I did accomplish quite a bit more than just fill up the memory chip in my digital camera.

I became certified in sailing (any keel boat up to 30′).  I posed with Miss Sonoran Desert Queen (and she put her arm around me willingly and eagerly…as she thought of her long deceased grandfather).  I saw my first rodeo, an American child’s dream (if you were raised in the 1950’s).  I saw the graves of dead outlaws and B & B’s that were former brothels.

I drank Tequila in a bar in Juarez, Mexico…the same bar where Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor, James Dean and Steve McQueen drank.  I tried to feel their spiritual entities, but looking for the nooks where they sat and kissed and drank, only led me to the men’s room.  We crossed the International Bridge from El Paso.  I looked down at the line of defense our government has built to deter (read ‘keep out’) illegals.  The trenches, fences, walls and razor wire reminded me of the Berlin Wall or the Maginot Line.  I was struck by the seven inches you unknowingly step across that separates two cultures that are so close yet so far apart.  I also did this on a day when I was in constant FB messaging with my son Brian.  I pleaded with him to dig into his iTunes for Bob Dylan’s “Just Like Tom Thumbs Blues”, so he could, somehow in the cyber-world, be connected with me as I walked across the border bridge…and he would, at that same moment be listening to:

When you’re lost in the rain in Juarez and it’s Eastertime too.  And your gravity fails and negativity don’t pull you through, don’t put on any airs when you’re down on Rue Morgue Avenue, they got some hungry women there, and they really make a mess outta you.”

We crossed the bridge.  Brian said he listened.  But it wasn’t raining and there’s no Rue Morgue Avenue in Juarez.  I did find a Mexican busker who sang Cielito Lindo for us, but no hungry women.  But, I’m not such a dreamer to believe that there are really no hungry women in Juarez…or hungry children…or hungry old men who sit and smoke and drink and think.

Sometimes facts get in the way of a good story.  For me, I have to immerse myself in a landscape, get my hands dirty, my mouth full of dust, get pricked by a cactus or bitten by a scorpion to fully understand where it is that I am standing. If I’m in Mississippi, I listen to Delta blues, if I’m in Texas, Bob Wills goes into the CD player.

Anytime on this trip, “Happy Trails” would be a welcome tune.

I drank a Lone Star beer at the Broken Spoke in Austin when Mariam, my friend William McHone and myself took lessons in the Texas 2-Step.  I even bought a pair of cheap cowboy boots for that night.  I didn’t do very well.  I have no sense of rhythm…only the desire to move around the dance floor to the sound of Texas Swing…and hold my honey in my arms.  I still have the boots, but I still can’t dance the Texas 2-Step.

I saw things that made me cry.

I saw acres of cattle, with no place to graze, penned and waiting to be herded to the killing rooms.  The miles I drove past these death-camps smelled of cow shit.  I wondered if it was their diet…or their fear.

I saw shanty-towns of the most squalid poverty and hopelessness.  I saw Native Americans reduced to playing “Indians” for the tourists…like me.

When we entered a National Park, I flashed my Golden Pass, which allowed us, as seniors, free entry.  I pondered the situation of an average family with four kids paying close to $100 to see the extraordinary landscapes that really belong to all of us.

I laid a flower at the grave of a prostitute in Dodge City, Kansas…a luckless young woman (somehow, I prefer the term “Soiled Dove”) who died from an infection caused by bar-room brawl over a cowboy, or was it Bat Masterson, or a banker, or a lover.

I placed another flower at the grave of an old friend of mine who died forty-some years ago.  He died and I lived.  We were hiking the same trail in the High Peaks.  I lived to return to his grave and place that Adirondack wildflower I had picked months earlier.  Now it was dried and withered from months on the road.  A flower from the mountains that were his last views of his life on this earth.

I saw an elderly man after he tripped on the curb outside a 7-Eleven.  He was bleeding.  The EMT’s were all over the situation.  But…was I seeing myself in fifteen years?

I saw a woman crying while she sat an outside table at one of the thousand Starbucks we visited.  She was alone in whatever sorrow had overcome her.  It took me days to get the image of her heartbreak out of my head.

I saw another woman crying in a bar.  She was with a male friend.  What happened?  Was she leaving him?  He leaving her?  I couldn’t tell, but the scene made me turn away.  I sat in her seat more than once in my life.

I cried one afternoon in the countryside outside of Dallas.  It didn’t have to do with the trip, directly.  I was driving to visit a large cemetery about fifteen miles southwest of the city.  I was listening to NPR and I sat up straight in the seat of the red Ford when the radio host announced that David Bowie had died.  I mulled this over for a few miles.  I realized I didn’t have any Bowie music on any of my playlists.  Then it happened.  They began a segment of “All Things Considered” with the opening riffs…the soaring chords of  “Let’s Dance”.

I didn’t dance.  I pulled over onto the shoulder and wept.  I wept for the lost talent, the lost beauty, the lost art…and another lost member of my generation’s music.

But, I saw sights of jaw-dropping beauty.  Rainbows that lasted over an hour.  Rock colors I never knew existed.  Canyons and valleys and washes and rivers, many that are famous and many that are unnamed.  Actually, I think nearly everything in the world has a name, I just didn’t have the right map.

When you travel, always have the right map.  It doesn’t have to be of any place you’re planning on visiting, but it’s good to have the map anyway.

There are maps of the wild and empty deserts of Arizona and California.  And, there are maps that exist only inside one’s mind.  These are usually the most interesting ones to use as guides.  Landscapes, towns, roads, Interstates, trails and horse paths can change with a sudden rainstorm.

But, the map that has your heart and soul and restless spirit as the compass rose…those are the maps to carry.

You can’t buy them on Amazon.  You were born with them deep in your chromosomes.

FinalPicAtEndOfTrip

Measuring The Final Miles

LastMilesMap

[Divider antique tool provided by D’Arcy Havill. Used with permission}

“Why”  That seems to be the operative word rolling around in my mind as I sit and write this post, this nearly final post of our Epic Trip of 2015-1016.

We’re at our friend’s house in Camp Dennison, Ohio.  I’ve written of D’Arcy and Judy on several occasions.  They have a summer-house on our road at Rainbow Lake.  We stopped here in the last days of our first trip to Orting, WA., in 2013.  If you’ve been following me, faithfully following my blogs, this is the place where I helped to win an election and the place where a yellow house (across the street and apparently still haunted) is where we park our RV.  Their house has big rooms and wide driveways–unlike all the other places we’ve stayed since mid-October of 2015.  We’re more than grateful for their friendship and hospitality on both trips.

This afternoon I stood in the showroom of Road Rivers and Trails, an outdoor/gear/clothing shop in nearby Milford.  I was drawn to a wall mural map (by the National Geographic Society) of the U.S.A.  My eye drifted to the NYC area and, naturally, began, on its own, to trace our six month road trip.

Why?  What would prompt me to undergo such a major undertaking, at our age, in an r-pod that was too small for two…for that long?  What was I thinking?

A distant memory came to mind.  The more I gave the recollection some mental fertilizer, my desire to be on the road and discover new places…the more the memory became clear.

It was September of 1960.  I was  beginning my eighth and final year at St. Patrick’s School in Owego, New York.  But our classroom had one empty seat that fall.  It belonged to my childhood friend, Peter.  He wasn’t present for the first attendance call.  And there was a very good reason.

His father was, probably one of the last, I might add, of the generation of family doctors who actually made house calls.  Dr. G., (we eighth graders were told) had been diagnosed with terminal cancer.  He chose to close his practice and take his rather large family on a cross-country road trip–to see America–to show his children the Grand Canyon and all the sights that Americans should see in this unbelievable country of ours.

So, was that why I was on the road?  I think that a little bit of that memory of Peter and his family, drove me to make a grand loop through the amazing landscapes.  For sure, I wanted to see these places for myself, and to share the experiences with my wife, Mariam, but Peter’s childhood adventure–with its sad ending–was deeply buried in my psyche all the time.

We’re sitting on the Havell’s patio.  D’Arcy is burning brush and a rotting Adirondack Chair (here in Ohio…Ironic?).  I’m reclining on a chaise ( I had to blow away the ashes that had drifted down from the small bonfire).  I dozed.  It was warm.  I had unzipped my fleece vest and I dozed.  The last things I heard were the cardinals, taking the seeds at the feeder.

I dozed and began to see maps in my dreamy visions–maps–I had maps, more maps than the law allows.  I had studied the details of the maps for months…I had maps that had imbedded their images into my brain like the word food embeds into a dog’s brain.

I began to see routes, roads, byways, highways, scenic byways and unscenic thruways.  I began to recall the towns, the cities, the rest stops and the tourist traps I had seen and stopped at along the way…

There was the beginning:

AdkMap

The two months in Floridia, where I learned to sail and Mariam lost ten pounds from sweating in the heat and humidity in the first two months:

FortMyersMap

And, the points west, first in Natchez, Mississippi, where we attended a Baptist service on a Sunday morning and still get mailings from the members of the congregation.  Then, Vicksburg, where I met the wonderful Malory, at the Tomato Place…and toured the Battlefield, wondering why the deaths in those clay hills had to happen–onto Monroe, Louisiana, where I laid a flower on the grave of my very good friend–who died too young and too close to me:

MonroeMap

Then driving west and south to Dallas, Austin–where we spent time with Madeline and William and where I bought a pair of cowboy boots just to take lessons in the Texas 2-Step:

ElPasoMap

Then to El Paso, and further west:

YermoMap

And, further into the Great Desert:

ZionMap

Then, the turn-around–eastward:

St.LouisMap

CincinnatiMap

Finally, the last leg–the ending of an adventure that I may never have the chance to do again.  Oh, the places I’ve seen! Oh, the places where I could call home…

I regret missing the Canyonlands, Mesa Verde, hiking the Vermillion Cliffs, getting lost in the Superstition Mountains and finding destinations I haven’t even seen on the map yet.  Do I have time left to do all these things?

I know the country was there for Peter and his family to explore in 1960.  Fifty-six years later, it’s still there…but so many grey-haired guys like me are there too.  Where is the solitude?  Where is the real wilderness?

It’s all there, it’s all still there.  It’s just harder to find.  It’s so much much harder to find the kind of desolation and isolation I crave at this time in my life.  The quiet and unpeopled places are out there.  One just has to hike that four miles beyond the last signpost…that place beyond the last ATV track…that place where the old grey-haired guys like me are still looking for.

This post is loaded with maps and I hope you enjoyed them.  But, even as I say I love maps, I understand they are of limited use.  They show me where the roads are and where the paths end…but they don’t show where my own trail leads and where it will end.  Sometimes there are no maps where you need to be…where you should be and where you want to be.

I just hope I have the time and quality of life to go and discover.

[Map photos are taken from the National Geographic Mural Map of the U.S.A.]

 

The Warm Moon, Our Sixth Moon…The Hidden Moon

image

I waited until after midnight to go out of our r-pod to look up at the sixth full moon of our trip.  My weather app was correct, there would be a thick cloud cover tonight.

And there was.  For me, this was a first.  Since October, we had been favored by a clear sky.  The western sky is usually cloudless.

Last nights moon is known as the “warm moon.”  We just welcomed spring a few days ago.  There is warmth in the air but, for me, a certain sadness covers my thoughts.  Soon, we will be unpacking the RV and most likely prepare it for sale.  Our life, our days that have been unfolding with a new landscape with each new highway and each new town will now be as predictable as…the rising of the next full moon.

That will be on April 22.

We’ll be home and I will be watching, waiting for the Pink Moon.

Where will you be?

Shot Out Of A Cannon/Driving Until The Wheels Fall Off And Burn

Cottonwoodflowers

[The first day of Spring]

Lately, I’ve felt like I, the r-pod, the red Ford, Mariam and life in general have been shot out of a cannon.  Our departure from the desert southwest happened so fast, I somehow missed the line that I could point out, photograph, and say: “Well, there goes the desert…we’re in the midwest now.”

Indeed, the world of this:

MojaveHighway

…changed into this before I could think of something to say:

Clovers

Yes, I missed that line that separates the two geographic anchors of my life.  My home in the North Country of New York State–and the engaging, terrifying and empty beauty of the arid lands.  I’ve said it before–The Empty Quarter.

So, I’m sitting in the r-pod, on the first day of Spring.  In two nights, I will see the fifth full moon rise–the fifth time I’ve looked eastward and waited for the big orange orb ascend.  I don’t think I’ll have time to write a killer blog on this fifth moon (we will be on the road) so I’ll just say that it was close to full the other night I took this:

NearFullMoon

In this way, with the setting sun at our backs, we crossed the Missouri River just after leaving Kansas City.  After a night in Columbia, Missouri, we finally caught sight of the Arch of St. Louis.  The Arch represents the Gateway to the West, but we were coming out of the west.  So, for us, it’s the Gateway to More Familiar Terrains–home.

We visited Union Station, once the largest train station in America.  When I was there in 1989, the interior was a bustling and crowded shopping mall.  Now, the stores were empty and yellow tape blocked the escalators and hallways.  I asked someone about what happened and was told that it was going through a renovation.  I hope so.  The interior is stunning.  There is a Doubletree Hotel located in the front portion of the terminal.  The grand hallway, that now serves as a spacious lounge and bar, was jaw-dropping in its beauty.  I saw stained glass:

StainedGlass

…a ceiling that had a fabulous light show every hour…

StationLight

I looked up at two statues, females that held lamps, high and proud…

UnionStationStatue

I wondered if her bronze arms ever tired of holding the lamps so majestically…

I wondered if my arms will cease feeling the grip of the steering wheel.  I wondered if I will sit on my back deck in a few weeks and be thankful for where I am and for what I’ve seen…or will I yearn for the Yucca and the Joshua tree?  Will the Adirondack trees push in on me?  Will I wonder what the heat of Death Valley will be like in June?  Will I swat the infamous Black Fly and wish for a scorpion instead?

Will I ever be satisfied standing still?

Part of me wants to turn around and drive back into the desert, face my worries, think my thoughts and sing:

“Tumbling Tumbleweeds…..”

 

The Forever Road Turns East

KansasTreeRutsTripLarned

[Near Fort Lenard, Kansas]

I didn’t write the following paragraph, but I wish to the eternal sky that I did…

Look out from the mountains edge once more. A dusk is gathering on the desert’s face, and over the eastern horizon the purple shadow of the world is reaching up to the sky. The light is fading out. Plain and mesa are blurring into unknown distances, and the mountain-ranges are looming dimly into unknown heights, Warm drifts of lilac-blue are drawn like mists across the valleys; the yellow sands have shifted into a pallid gray. The glory of the wilderness has gone down with the sun. Mystery–that haunting sense of the unknown–is all that remains. It is time we should say good-night–perhaps a long good-night–to the desert.

These are the words of John C. Van Dyke in his 1901 book, The Desert.  It is part of an anthology that I am reading, The New Desert Reader, edited by Peter Wild.  An excellent collections of historical and recent reflections on the mystique aura that is the Great American Desert.  I read this while I am tucked snugly into the R-pod, after several hundred miles of driving on the endless road…the Forever Road.

VermillionCliffs

[The Vermillion Cliffs of Arizona]

As the trip odometer on the Ford clicked over another tenth of a mile at 44.4 miles from Dodge City, Kansas, I pulled the last of the iced coffee through the straw.  The morning sun had been glaring down on and warming up my icy brew for about thirty minutes.  The sun is strong here in the Great Plains–the prairie–now that spring is approaching and even my Starbucks thermal mug, decorated with a few stickers (I had removed the “Don’t Mess With Texas” label…too big!) couldn’t keep ice being ice for very long.

I stared at the road ahead of me.  We’ve been traveling since mid-October.  The road seems endless.  The road seems to go on forever.  The road is infinite for those who choose to drive it–like the surface of a basketball is infinite to an ant crawling on its surface.  One could go on until The Rapture (expected by some to occur some Thursday afternoon in a few months).

In a few days we will be crossing the Mississippi River.  “Big Muddy” separates the west from the east.  Behind us–can I still see them in the rear-view mirror?–are the waterless gulches and salt flats of Death Valley, the Full Moon of Joshua Tree National Park, the Buttes of Monument Valley, the shockingly painted Vermillion Cliffs of northern Arizona, the terrifying beauty of the canyon of the Virgin River in Zion National Park and the vast and forbidding mother of deserts, the Mojave.

MojaveHighway

[The road into the Mojave from Twenty-nine Palms, CA]

HurricaneUtahButte

[Near Hurricane, Utah]

MonumentValley

[Monument Valley, Utah]

4Corners

[Mariam and me at Four Corners]

It’s all behind us now.  And, I am sad at the thought that it may be a few years before I return, return to try to comprehend the comfort I took in those emptiest of places.  Collectively, the locations we visited in the southwest, attract me like a colossal lodestone.

As one who was born and raised in the northeast part of America, I was used to green in the summer, scarlet leaves in the fall and the white of snow during the shortest days of the year.  It shocked me to realize that there was more grass in my backyard in Owego, New York, than in 10,000 acres of the Nevada desert.

WatchmanWalk

[Hiking the Watchman Trail, Zion National Park, Utah]

At night, the sky was visible from horizon to horizon–half my field of vision–and filled with more stars than I have ever seen (with a few exceptions).

I spent this day trying to find something to fix my eye on.  Is it an exaggeration to say that the Kansas prairie stretches so far that you can discern the curvature of the earth?  Maybe.  Yes, I tried to find something to focus on except the endless road, the white or yellow lines, and the sky.

I drove through the Wolf Creek Pass and paused at the Continental Divide at approximately 10,000 feet.  Out here, the tallest structures I can see–and I can see them twenty miles before I speed past them–are grain silos.

There were times, in the last few weeks, I felt that I could have been walking on the surface of Mars–the red desert–or sitting on a lunar landscape.  Now, with each passing mile, the backyards, malls, fast-food outlets and football fields are beginning to look more and more familiar.

The prairie is quite fascinating in itself, but the deserts of California and Nevada and Arizona have the bonus of being ringed by mountains.  I’ve read that when the Plains Indians were forced to move to reservations in Arkansas and Nebraska, they nearly went mad from the monotony of a featureless landscape.  It’s been said that these once noble masters of the deserts took to climbing trees to see–just see–as far as their eye could allow.  But, no mountains were in view.

I’m going home.  One of the first things I intend to do is watch the 1936 film, The Garden of Allah, with Charles Boyer and Marlene Dietrich.  In it, the Boyer character, suffering a crisis of faith, goes to the Sahara to search his soul for truth and meaning.  There he finds Dietrich, but that’s another story.  It’s what Count Anteoni, says to Boyer that sticks in my mind:

“A man who refuses to acknowledge his god is unwise to set foot in the desert.”

I’m going home.  It’s time to say good-bye to the barren and arid earth of the Great Empty.  But, to me, those places seem as interesting and limitless in their beauty as any Garden of Eden or Garden of Allah.

I like a place where a man can swing his arms…

TucsonTreeSunset

[Sunset in Arizona]

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]