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…

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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]

Epitaphs: Part V–A Desert Grave

As a rule, this post is about unusual and interesting words, the last words, the final words that are carved onto a headstone.  In this case, there are no words.  Perhaps there is a name and a date, but the face of the stone was difficult to see.  I was held back by a fence.  The sun was bright and glaring.  I could not find a name.

So, one is left to be curious about who this person is.

The location itself may be helpful.  I spotted a cluster of about five graves about a hundred yards off the road leading into Death Valley.  In the distance, dug into the yellow-brown hillside, was the scar of an old mine.  There was no other signs of human presence as you turned a 360 to survey the landscape.  Here, most likely, was a miner and his family.  Resting forever in the absolute silence of the desert.  Absolute?  Maybe not.  The wind blew through the scrubs.  The wind moved the sand against the headstone.  A small rodent may scurry past.  The old sun-bleached boards that were scattered about may shift with a breeze.  And, perhaps the silence was so absolute that the moon and stars made the only sound.  Could it be that only dead, deaf ears can hear clouds pass overhead?

The funeral must have been something to witness.  A few wagons…a small cluster of people standing around the hole and watching as the coffin went slowly into the dry earth.

Then they left.  Then it was silent once again.

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Travels 19: The Last Man And His Wife

An amazing discovery has been made here in northern Arizona by Federal, Local and International Agencies.  As unbelievable as it seems, these officials (speaking only on condition of anonymity) have located the last American citizen who has never seen the Grand Canyon.  It is believed that his wife is traveling with him and has been known to make similar claims about never having been to the most famous American Landmark in the world.

“The oddest thing about this whole sordid affair is that the guy majored in geology for a time.  And, gosh, he spent his 33 year teaching career in the earth sciences” said one Deputy.  “There’s just no excuse for that kind of behavior.  We can sort of understand how his wife found herself in this position, after all, she’s from Queens.  But this guy is from Upstate New York, he should know better…and he’s acting like someone from…I don’t know, Ohio, I guess.”

“We got onto his tail when one of our tech guys was listening in on the Internet for hackers.  Then we ran across this goofy series of blogs this guy was posting.  We secretly attached a GPS device on the fender of his tiny RV…I mean, good lord, the thing is no bigger than a few phone booths tied together.  Anyway, we tracked his movements after a long time spent in a place called Orting, WA.  He was there to visit his grandson.  After his alleged visit was over we interviewed his daughter.

“Well, there must be some mistake,” she said.  “Elias’ grandfather ran away with a stripper from Mexicali back in ’79”.

The Deputy continued: “He’s an odd sort of guy.  We’ve observed him driving through Death Valley, stop the car, get out and walk about 100 paces into the desert and sit for about 8 minutes.  Then he comes back to the car and complains that he’s hot.  I mean, it’s 96 degrees out there…what does he expect?”

“So, now that the man and his wife are under deep surveillance, he’s going to be given a police escort to the South Rim on Monday, Oct. 28.  There will be two choppers from the Arizona Air National Guard to provide air coverage.  Let’s just keep our fingers crossed that he finally makes it to the Grand Canyon.  He’ll be happy for a while.”

“Then he’ll probably find something else to complain about.”

“But just between you and me, I sort of understand the frustration of the old guy.  I mean, I’m embarrassed to say it but I’ve never been to Teaneck.”

Travels 18: The Call of the Desert: or If I Can’t Stand the Heat, What Am I Doing in Death Valley?

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

Count Anteoni  from “The Garden of Allah” (1936)

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I think it’s the isolation that attracts me to the austere places on the planet.  I love the North because of the intense bone-crystalizing cold.  The water-logged plants and animals without name or end that populate the Rain Forest astound me.  The endless sea, sky and water separated by a sometimes imaginary line, frightens me yet holds me firm to the experience.  The soaring heights of the Great Mountains of the World, where you could fall from a broken piton and drop for hours and your oxygen starved brain can kill you in mid sentence, thrill me.

These places will slap you hard on the face and make you pay attention to the tenuous nature of life itself.

But, the desert!  The desert is somehow unique.  I believe that the very nature of the emptiness of these places gives a hint that this is the world of gods.

The major religions all had their start in the desert.  Jesus went into the desert to fast for thirty days.  The native populations of the deserts of the world have a complex nature unlike other societies (feel free to argue the point).  Very few places allow you to be so utterly alone with your own soul and heart and brain.  You can talk to yourself without feeling crazy.

So, here I am.  Camped in a place called Furnace Creek.  Which, by the way is -190′ below sea level.  Nearby is the Queer Mountain Wilderness Area.  That would be just a little to the north of the Funeral Mountains.  Just to the south are the Black Mountains.  These surround Badwater Basin.  Just off Badwater Basin is Coffin Creek.  And overlooking the Basin is Dante’s View.

The entire National Park is dotted with ghost towns.  Places like Greenwater and Skidoo.  Towns that boasted opera houses, banks, hotels, saloons beyond count and of course, brothels.  Houses of ill repute run by the likes of tough-as-bark madams.  Does anyone not have the imagination to picture Diamond Tooth Lil getting off the stage-coach and wandering into the local saloon to drink with the men!  Oh, dear me!

I wanted to experience the heat and the emptiness yesterday, so I parked the car and left my wife with the AC running.  I walked 100 paces into the desert and sat.  I pulled out my pocket thermometer.  It read 96 degrees!  Maybe that was my pocket temperature, who knows?  (But I’m not that hot of a stud).

The ground I sat on felt like it never felt a drop of rain.  I closed my eyes.  I saw visions of lonely miners wandering off to their death.  I saw crowds of people, laden with their belongings moving as one toward the west.  They were leaving someplace.  I wondered if there was a Lady Antebellum concert nearby they were avoiding.  But, I knew they were seeking the gold fields of the Sierra Nevada Mountains.  In my mind, I felt like getting up and following them.

I opened my eyes and I got up.  It was too bloody hot out there.  I could see my flesh turn brown before my eyes.  My expensive sunglasses did nothing to dim the glare of the scorching and blinding sun.  The sky was as blue as any I’ve ever seen.

But it was back to the car for me.  Did I have a mystical experience out there?  I don’t know.  I’ll have to think about it while I sip an icy tonic water back at the ’49er Cafe.

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Travels 12: A Rest Farewell

And though the line is cut,

It ain’t quite the end,

I’ll just bid farewell till we meet again.

—Bob Dylan “A Restless Farewell”

I’m sitting at Erin’s breakfast table composing the final post of our visit to Orting.  In an hour or so we will be on our way homeward.  The route back is going to be much different.  We’re heading down the Oregon coast for a few days, then into Northern California, Death Valley, Monument Valley (remember the John Ford westerns with John Wayne?).

On the way to Orting, each hour was just that many fewer miles between the R-Pod and Elias.  Now, each hour takes me farther away.

Thanks to the reasonable heads that reopened the Federal Government (and National Parks) late last night.  As far as I’m concerned, the Tea Party can go back to their districts and spin their loss any way they would like.  They failed to dismantle the Affordable Care Act in a way that made the USA the laughing-stock of the educated and informed world.  I’m glad to put this disaster behind me.  Our only real remaining obstacle now is to get through Tioga Pass and over the Sierra Nevada Mountains before the highway is closed.  But these challenges are in front of us.  What’s behind us?  What will I remember about our visit?

The answer is far too long to answer in this short space.  We had a wonderful time here.  Elias has made progress even in the time we were here.  He is pulling himself up to a standing position with no effort at all.  I watched as he enjoyed story time at the local library.  I carved a scary pumpkin for him.  And, I’ve seen him meet new people with my wife’s special friend, Maureen and her husband who live in Seattle.

But all was not glory.  We made a drive to see the Olympic Peninsula but I wasn’t feeling that great so we returned after one night by a road that took us over the famous Tacoma Narrows Bridge (where a previous bridge collapsed due to wind shear back in the 1940’s).  We never made it to Forks where the “Twilight” books are set.  But there were plenty of signs of the occult and esoteric in places like Port Townsend.

I must say that I did enjoy riding my bike for a few minutes along the Foothills Bike Path, until my front tire blew out.  It’s a good thing that I was wearing my helmet because when I fell my head came within two inches of an un-mowed patch of grass!

I also regret having a real coffee from one of those cute little cafes that serve one’s lattes from a drive-thru window.  These shacks seem to be particular to the Northwest.  I actually did stop at a few of these…but not the ones where the female baristas where bikinis.  Personally, I am offended by such a practice.  It is so not politically correct.  The male baristas should be made to wear bikinis as well…just sayin’.

So, now I’m off on the final leg of the journey.  Adventure calls.  Strange things will be seen.  I’ll even be driving part of the old Route 66, where I hope to get my kicks.

Friends and readers, more posts will be coming your way soon.  So, sit back and enjoy.

This time I’ll be following the rising sun.

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