The Forever Road Turns East


[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.


[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.


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


[Near Hurricane, Utah]


[Monument Valley, Utah]


[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.


[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…


[Sunset in Arizona]

I’ll Be There To Catch Your Soul, Cragen

I’ll be there to catch your soul, Cragen.

If only you love me, Claudia.

There is some truth in the short tale I am about to tell.  If you’re from a particular place in New York State, you will know what the true parts are.  If you love wine, you will be able to offer an informed guess on what is real and what is not.  If you appreciate creativity, art, love, tragedy and a life lived to the fullest, the main player(s) will be apparent to you.

This is a fable of a person who can be honestly described as a Renaissance Man.

Once upon a time, on the hills of the Finger Lakes of New York State, there was a moderate sized vineyard.  The wine that was produced was labelled under a well-known brand name, that of the family that owned and operated the acres of grapes.  It was quite successful.  But, after decades, the passing of the older owners led to a decreased profit margin.  Soon, in order to survive, the family had to sell out to Coke Cola, Inc.  They took charge of the winemaking.  The product quality began to lessen, as things like that do when strangers come in to tend the tender grapes.

The oldest son, Walter, grew dissatisfied and began to complain to the giant beverage company.  Nothing came of his many pleas to improve the quality of the wine that was legally being marketed under Walter’s family name.  A lesser man might have taken a buyout and walked out to start over, perhaps in California.  But Walter, who for some reason was known among his intimate circle of friends as Cragen, loved the rolling hills of the Finger Lakes.  So he did what all sons of the soil do, he bought another vineyard and began to produce his own wine…his own way.

There was a problem, though.  He could not legally use his family name of which he was so proud.  So, in the corner of his labels, he printed his name, but left a black rectangular box where his family name would be.  That was legal.

Which brings us to the labels, his labels.  As I said, Walter (Cragen) was a Renaissance Man, he could do many things and do them well.  He was an artist and he used his talent to put his own illustrations on the label.  Some were wood block prints and some were pastels and some were simple illustrations.

After several years, Walter fell in love with a woman he met at a wine-tasting event.  Her name was Claudia.  To celebrate his love for her, he drew a label depicting a man and woman sitting at a table with glasses of wine, some cheese and some crackers.  The quote at the top of this page was drawn in as speech balloons used in comic strips.

Claudia and Cragen lived a full life of travel and culture.  He bought a second home in Florida so he could ride out the harsh winters of upstate New York.  It was near his winter home that tragedy entered the lives of these two people.

Cragen was involved in a car crash.  It wasn’t minor.  It left him a paraplegic.  This once robust man, full of energy, creativity and life, was not bound to a wheelchair.

Did that show Cragen down?  Well, probably a bit, but he went on to gain enough dexterity to continue to paint his labels for his wine.

Claudia passed away a few years after the accident.  Perhaps it was from a broken heart, brought on by seeing your love…your perfect love not whole, but a little broken.  Cragen mourned his loss…and that is where he began to lose interest in the things they had shared.

One afternoon, while Cragen sat in his wheelchair among the rows of grapes and the harvest was nearly over and the leaves of the trees were gold, red and scarlet, Walter saw Claudia standing some distance away.  She was beckoning him as she stood between the plantings.  Cragen grabbed the arms of his chair and stood.  He began to walk toward Claudia as she held out her arms.

Suddenly he felt himself falling…not to the ground but up and through the air.  He was falling up and then down into her waiting arms.

“I told you I would be there to catch your soul, Cragen.”

“You did love me Claudia, you did love me.”




Travels 26: A Grave Situation and a Cold Grey Sky From Lake Erie

I know, intuitively, that my readers are gathered on street corners, in cafe nooks, penthouses, cabanas, taco trailers, art theater lobbies, bowling alleys, massage parlors and sleazy bars all across America saying:

“The guy must have run out of ideas by now.  Surely, his well of experiences has run dry.  What else can the old man find to blog about?” said Larry.

“Our last GPS fix on his location was something like 42 degrees 10 minutes North and 80 degrees 10 minutes West.  That’s what I had on my cell phone before Rhonda came by and grabbed it so she could talk to her sister, Gladys in Cincinnati,” said Hal.

“Guys, guys…I taught geography for thirty-two years.  I know my stuff.  Let’s see,” said Carl, as he twiddled his fingers in the air.  “That would put him near Erie, PA, somewhere near Presque Isle.”

The exotic landscape is behind me now.  The low hills, fields, farms and forests of western Pennsylvania look like so much of the part of New York State that is in front of us until we make our final lap into the Adirondack Mountains…and home.  The autumn colors are long gone now.  Only the last of the burnt browns and damp yellows can be seen against the near-black of the trees.  The skeletal branches reach up against a sky as grey as wet slate.  The low clouds blow in from Lake Erie and bring tiny flecks of sleet.  It’s 39.9 F outside the R-Pod, but feels much colder.

Unless something quite out-of-the-ordinary happens to us during the final 400+ miles, I feel the need to share an experience that occurred to me a short time ago, before we passed through Ohio.

I was sitting in the campground common room.  Our RV was parked and stabilized.  I needed some warmth so I wandered over to the building that housed the laundry, showers and common room.  There was a pool table, ping-pong board and a TV.  The cable reception at many of the campsites was dicey at best.  Here, I could sit in warmth and give Mariam some time to catch up on email.  And, since I held the remote, I controlled the channel selection.  I had several choices: a rerun of “Duck Dynasty”, a high school football game, and a documentary on Entertainment Tonight on “Vanna White: The Early Years.”  It promised rare footage of Vanna performing “I Don’t Know How To Love Him.” at the Englebert Humperdinck Mall off Exit 17B outside Toledo.  The reviews said she handled the mega-phone like a true professional and predicted that her talent would carry her to the top in the rarefied world of game shows.  The only other choice was a PBS airing of bloopers from The Charlie Rose Show.  I opted for the Vanna White documentary (I already had the Charlie Rose thing on DVD).

Just as I was settling back in the sofa, which smelled faintly of cat urine, I felt the presence of a guy who had just sat down.  I looked at him.  He was wearing sweats and seemed a little red in the face.  I looked at what little neck he owned and noticed it too was the color of a tomato.  There were drops of sweat rolling off his ear lobes so I figured he had just come from the steam room located in the Motel 6 across the road.  Apparently, the motel and campground had a sweetheart deal going…you could use their gym for $12.00, if you could show your campsite pass.

What a steal, I thought.

“Hey,” he said.  “Name’s Buster.  Buster Nibbins.”

“Evening,” I replied.  “I’m Pat.”

“Hey,” he said.  “Wanna hear a good story?”

I wanted to be alone with Vanna, but the moment had passed.

“Sure,” I said, as I muted the TV.

“I’m a Cemetery Sexton,” he began.  “And I really wanted to tell you about how my friend and I probed in the graveyard yesterday.”

I didn’t like where this was going but I gave Buster the benefit of a doubt.  Maybe there was a story here after all.  I glanced over my shoulder, pretending to scratch my right elbow, to check how close I was to the door.

“Yeah, it was quite a thing,” he said.  “I was checking the cemetery grounds the other day and I came across this woman standing alone and looking down at a headstone.  She saw me coming and noticed my SEXTON badge on my sweatshirt.  I had just picked up a flattened Budweiser can when she stopped me. ‘What’s mama’s gravestone doing here?’  I said that it was there because that’s probably where she was buried.  She objected…strongly objected.  ‘No, she’s not.  We had her disinterred and moved to California so she could…could sleep with the rest of the family.’  No, ma’am, I told her.  I’m the SEXTON, touching my badge.  We haven’t had a pull -up here in years.  I would know.  I’m the SEXTON.  She looked at me with a growing impatience.  ‘Sir SEXTON,’ she said.  ‘I think you’re mistaken.  I have the papers right here.  Mama was disinterred and shipped to the West Coast…San Jose, to be exact.  We own several plots here and I came out to look them over as we plan on selling them.  Now, I’m asking again, why is Mama’s stone still here?’

“Miss,” I said, “Nothing has been dug up here.  See.  No fresh dirt.  There must be some mistake.”  She said: ‘The mistake, mister, is yours.  Your records are clearly not current.’  Miss, I said again, there’s been no digging here except for burials.  Now unless this disinterment was done at night, someone would have noticed a back-hoe, flood lights, workers, a funeral director and me, actually.  And nothing like that has happened here since…well, let’s just say it’s never happened here.  Now, how do you know for sure your mama arrived on the west coast? I asked.  ‘I don’t really, that part of the family doesn’t talk to me.’  Well, there’s your answer, lady.  She still here.  ‘No, she’s not.  I have papers from our lawyer that state that it was all taken care of.  It’s all here in my purse, along with his bill…for $9,000.’  Well, we’ll just have to see about this”, I told her.  We parted after I gave her my SEXTON card.  So yesterday morning, my friend and assistant, Ozzy and I came out here just before dawn and probed to check if the concrete vault was still in place.  If it was, it meant the coffin was still inside, unless they just took the coffin and left the vault, which they’re not supposed to do.  Our probes would touch the top of the vault, it’s only about 8 inches down, if it was still there…but if the vault lid was removed and taken, then we would likely miss something, which means there could be a vault that may or may not contain the coffin.”

I stared at Buster and blinked twice.

He leaned closer and lowered his voice.

“And, guess what?” he whispered.  I could smell his Old Spice body lotion. “We…”

Just then the door to the common room swung open and a woman in a hot pink terry cloth robe stood there.  Her hair was set in rollers the size of Ajax cans.  There was an awful lot of terry cloth covering what could have been a set of triplets.

“Buster, you get your sorry ass back to the trailer…NOW”  Without a word, he was past me and out of the door, somehow squeezing past his wife.

“Sorry, Mister,” she said, looking me up and down.  “He’s been like this since the operation.  Sorry.”

The door slammed and she was gone.  The Vanna White documentary was nearly over.  I punched the remote and the TV went dark.

As I walked to the door, I noticed something on the floor.  I bent over and picked it up.  It was a laminated, legal and very legitimate license.  A license to be a cemetery SEXTON.


Judgement Day at the RV Park

Judge not, lest you be judged.  —  The Bible

First let me say that the story you are about to read is being told to you in a non-judgmental way.  I’m only telling it as I saw it.  Simple as that.  Do unto others…that’s what I say.  I’m as open-minded as most good liberals are.  I do not judge people by their looks or their actions, but if I do, it’s mostly by their actions, that’s all.  And maybe by the weird color of their hair or the number of tats.  Hey, live and let live, that’s what I say.

We were only forty-two miles from home.  It wasn’t terra incognita but the road was one we had driven only a few times before so it was basically unknown to us.

The RV park was beside a babbling brook (it really did babble), but the really nice spots were back-ins and not pull-throughs.  We were on our maiden voyage to try out our new little camper.  Its called an R-Pod and it’s about as cute as a Junior Varsity Cheerleader, or maybe even a Prom Queen.  I wasn’t used to backing the thing in any size space so we chose a pull-through.  No fuss, no headache.

On one side of the park was a large field of newly mown hay.  On the other side, beyond the aforementioned babbling brook, was the road that led north to Canada.  On the way to Canada was a Native American Casino.  I had a strong feeling that most of the cars were going to the gambling mecca of upstate New York.  Those stuffed in the cars were in a hurry to drop the tokens into the slots or lose big at the Blackjack table.

And there’s nothing wrong with that.  “Whatever floats your boat”.  That’s what I say.

We unhitched and leveled the trailer, then chocked the wheels and opened her up to air out from the long, slow drive from our home.  And that’s when we started to camp.

Many of you readers don’t know me so let me point out some things about my experience:  I have been camping since I was five.  I’ve hiked the High Peaks, X-country skied, snowshoed frozen lakes and kayaked waters both sweet and smooth and rough and wavy.  I’ve been to Alaska, the Last Frontier, where I did some mountaineering for a few days.  I’ve rock climbed in the Gunks and canoed in the General Clinton Canoe Regatta from Cooperstown to Bainbridge (about seventy-five miles, and let me tell you…).

Bottom line here is that I’m no stranger to tents and sleeping bags, but this RV camping was a new experience for me.  However, I’m a quick study if I do say so myself, so if I can climb the big boys in Alaska, then I can handle the trailer thing.  When we bought it, the dealer tried to explain the difference between black water and drinking water.  I was gazing at the puffy cumulus clouds when he gave us the details but I was too busy trying to see if the clouds made funny shapes like Idaho or (God forbid) Florida.  The dealer interrupted me as he handed me the keys.

“Good luck,” he said, looking at me like I was from New Jersey or some other strange place.

I looked at the keys, the R-Pod and the car.

“Hey, aren’t we supposed to have the trailer hooked up to the car or something?” I asked.  He seemed to hesitate a tad and just stared at me.  Maybe he’s Canadian or whatever and doesn’t understand what I’m asking, I thought.

And there’s nothing wrong with being Canadian just so long they know what horse they’re saddled to, if you catch my meaning.

While he explained how to attach to the car, I watched the teenage girl riding her lawn mower across the road.  I figured I’d pick up on the finer points later on when I needed to.

We drove off.

So here we are in this RV park.  Being as I’m so accustomed to solo wilderness experiences  (I once went off the trail ((on purpose)) at the Bronx Zoo), I felt crowded in by the big newer models.  Our R-pod looked like a VW Beetle in a parking lot of 18-wheelers.

I took a walk around the loop drive to check out the other units.  Right away I saw the thing that bugs me the most.  It was a “family” trailer and written on the spare tire cover was this:  Hi! We’re the Trouts.  Ken (pilot) & Florence (co-pilot).  With Little Ken, Dottie, Fran, Stevie, Wally and our youngest, Lake.  Oh, and “Puff-Puff” and the “Twinkster” On the road again!!  See ya around the bend.

I really dislike the “billboard” about who was inside the Winnebago.  But, not that there’s anything wrong with all that.  It’s just not where I’m coming from, if you see my point.

Like I said, I’m a very nonjudgmental person.

A few steps further down the lane I saw a “heavy-set” guy sitting in a folding camp chair drinking a Bud Lite (the next day he was in the same chair but he had switched to Miller Lite).  As I passed by, his friend, brother or maybe a cousin was reaching into the storage compartment.

I slowed down and pretended to look out and admire the highway across the babbling brook.  Then I saw that he was pulling something out of storage.  I couldn’t have been more shocked if he had pulled out a dozen illegal migrant workers from Juarez.

Now if you are a person of, shall we say, delicate sensibility, or are easily frightened, then I would advise you to read no further.  You can go back to playing Words With Friends and I would never know, would I?

Not that there’s anything wrong with Words With Friends, mind you.

Ok, so he pulls out, what looks to me like some kind of farm tool.  It’s a lawn mower!  Yes, he pulled a lawn mower.  I know what you’re thinking, but don’t be judgmental.  He began mowing around his trailer!  I had to lean against a tree and try to keep my breakfast down and not vomit all over an empty BBQ pit.

I was promised a “wilderness experience” (I think I read that on the pamphlet) and I get, not a sighting of a warbler, but a guy from Akron or someplace like that mowing his campsite!

I thought about demanding my money back but the thought of re-hitching the R-Pod was too much.

Feeling like I was going to swoon, I went back to our little camper and lay down on the bunk and held my head.

Then it occurred to me that there really wasn’t anything wrong with mowing your campsite.  To each his own, is what I say.

When it came time to go back home, we packed everything quickly.  I tossed the lawn chairs on top of the camper and secured them with a K-Mart bungee cord.  We drove off.

I looked in the rearview mirror and saw the big trailers in the distance.  I muttered a few things about the inexperienced, the “pansy” campers, the “Casper Milktoasts” of the wilderness.

I looked back one more time and caught a glimpse of two lawn chairs bouncing along the left shoulder.  A few cars had to swerve to avoid getting hit by the projectiles of aluminum and plastic.

I shook my head in disgust.  Another beginner out of his league.

But there’s nothing really wrong with that.

[This is not my photo and this is not the campground beside the babbling brook.  I take no credit for the image.  I would post my own, but I’m having a hard time trying to figure out how to use my Coolpix.]