The Return (Part 1)

The Return (Part 1)

Following the fantastic time at the Tree Lot (see “A Tale Of Trees“), it quickly dawned on me that we were nearing the time to begin our return journey. Although we still had a few months ahead of us and countless experiences yet to come, I was still filled with a sense of impending finality as we headed south down the California coast. As already documented in Tanya’s post “Californication”, we enjoyed marvelous times in southern California and witnessed some of the most beautiful scenery imaginable. With stops in Hollywood, San Diego, Joshua Tree, and of course Slab City, our roster of experiences continued to increase drastically as I in turn continually tried to remind myself that there was still plenty of the journey left.

Now that we are back, it seems that most folks are curious about the aforementioned Slab City. Still government owned property, it is the remains of what was once the World War II Marine barracks of Camp Dunlap. Now home to Rv’ers, squatters, and the homeless, Slab City is commonly referred to as the last free place in the U.S.. People tend to stay during the winter months and head out in the early spring as temperatures begin to rise to unbearable levels. One of the residents informed us that those who decide to stay through the summer are never quite the same come the following autumn…Slab City (37)REV
For my part, I found it a strange yet intriguing place filled with dichotomies and contrasts running the gamut of all expectations. While looking at some incredible folk art in one area, we could see plumes of black smoke rising from the burn pile of someone trying to clean up their junked up “yard” in another. There were beautiful and expensive RV rigs set up in one section, while others contained burned out shells surrounded by yet more junk, with perhaps a dog tied under a makeshift lean-to for shade. I would have stayed longer if the kids were not with us as I was fascinated by this strange, almost apocalyptic landscape with its denizens of various backgrounds, filled with stories and tales of journeys that led them finally to this… place. As Tan put it, “There was art and there was junk-art. There was hip and there was hippy. There was trash and there was trashy. There was clean and there was dirty. There was young and there was old.”

Turning east again, we tried to take some different routes as we continued along our homeward trek. Some of this territory we had already been through and wanted to change it up a bit so as to not repeat places we had already seen (although some places we did want to see again). One new stop was the town of Quarzsite, Arizona. We had heard about Quarzsite from some fellow RV’ers we had met while doing the Sugar Beet Harvest. Generally a winter destination, the area boasts lots of BLM (Bureau of Land Management) land therefore making it an attractive and (like Slab City) cheap place to hang one’s hat for a bit. However unlike Slab City, it is not a lawless community where anything goes until there are serious problems.

Quartzsite is actually a dying destination for RV’ers, although thousands still flock to the town for the winter. Tents, flea markets, and open air markets abound mostly with people selling and shopping for gems and minerals of various nature, along with vendors peddling everything from used books to clothing to RV parts. In recent years the Gem and Mineral Show in nearby Tucson has taken some of the wind out of Quarzsite’s sails and its winter population doesn’t reach the heights it once did, but as a newbie you would hardly know it.
One nearby attraction of interest was the Nellie E. Saloon desert Bar.
Now you all know how much Tan and I love new bars so this was one we couldn’t miss.  Located in (kinda) nearby Parker, AZ, you have to travel five miles down a dusty, dirt road until finally arriving at the desert bar. Pulling into the parking lot after those long five miles, we were more than ready for a couple tasty beers and soft drinks for the kids. The atmosphere was great, and with a good band playing and people dancing and having a good time, we were anticipating a fun afternoon… until we saw the beer choices. Budweiser and Coors Light. That’s it. Yea, you could get a mixed drink, but that just wasn’t what I had in mind. Beer snob that I am, I was hoping for a good IPA or something along those lines. Now don’t get me wrong, I love a frosty Bud after mowing the lawn or some other sweaty activity, and after that long drive on a hot day one of those would have been more than welcome but… I was hoping for a few more choices. Anyway we did have a good time and it was well worth the drive and opportunity to check out something new!

Eastbound again we followed Route 10 into Phoenix for a few days, spending time with a crew of great folks we had met outside Seattle previously. Making new friends is always a welcome event, but keeping in touch and meeting up again is always the trick.  We spent an afternoon doing a little desert exploration while afterwards Riv got to show off his new guitar, and get a few tips from our friend George. AZ (13)REVThese folks really welcomed us with open arms and allowed us a few days of nice rest and relaxation before continuing the trek south and east to Tucson for another stop. Once again luck was on our side and we were fortunate enough to spend some time with a family member who had flown in for the Gem And Mineral Show that week.

Back down towards Texas we went, following the same route we had originally come west on. We tried as much as possible to avoid repeating highways but in some cases it is unavoidable, although seeing the same scenery from the opposite direction can at times be interesting…. I guess. We finally altered our course turning south into Texas and through El Paso. A night in the local Camping World was good enough for us in that city and we continued our breakneck pace across the Lone Star state to a much anticipated stop in Corpus Christi.

We had heard that Corpus Christi is not a particularly nice place, having dirty water and trash washing up along the shore. Fortunately we were pleasantly surprised and found ourselves in the clean, open air of Mustang Island State Park which adjoins Padre Island on the east coast of Texas. Although a little too breezy to swim, we were rewarded with days in the mid-seventies to low-eighties and just enjoyed a quiet time along the Gulf. Even though it was late February, the prospect of returning home began to loom heavily over my head as I began to reconcile the thoughts of life after this. The road had certainly become our home and I was comfortable with the idea of venturing from place to place while still keeping a distant attachment to work and our responsibilities back east…

After just about a week in the state park, it was time to move on again this time with the full intention of returning someplace we had already been. We loved Fontaine Bleu State Park in Louisiana so much the first time that a return stay was well in order. Another trip to the Abita Brewery (this time with the kids) was on the agenda as well as a little more exploration of the area of Mandeville along Lake Ponchartrain. Tan and I were directed to a wonderful Brew Pub (why does that always happen?) along the lake shore that we couldn’t believe we missed the first time around. We loved the little neighborhood there so much that we brought the kids out the next day for a stroll, all the while trying to half-jokingly convince them that we needed to stay.Abita (1) REVWith a pang of remorse we set off again along Route 10 for our final approach back to the east coast. Once again with a destination in mind and friends to see we happily entered the Sunshine State knowing we would be in the Florida sun for a few weeks before turning north towards the colder weather. 

First stop was Orlando to visit friends, and deliver on our promise to the kids to go to a fine waterpark. After finding another state park to hang our hats for a few days, Tan and I slipped out for a little grocery shopping and to solidify our plans with the afore-mentioned friends. With plans to meet that evening, upon our return to the campground we were pleasantly surprised to find our friends hiding in the RV with the kids! It was a truly endearing reunion as they had allowed us the pleasure of staying with them over a year ago when we were on our way out to the vast wilds of the country. Seeing their smiling faces sitting unexpectedly in the RV was such a wonderful sight that will always stay with me. Frederickson'sWe spent the next few days with our friends, enjoying their hospitality and relaxing poolside as guests in their resort complex. The days and evenings were filled with laughter and the comfort of spending time with people you truly care about and respect. The week was capped off by a trip to the waterpark in Disney and we all enjoyed a great time doing the slides, rides, and swimming in the giant wave pool. Sadly it was time to go and we bid them farewell for now…

A return trip to Jensen Beach was up next and I greatly looked forward to seeing my father who I hadn’t seen in almost a year and a half. We were able to secure a spot not too far from where he was staying and spent the week again enjoying the sun and fun that a resort community offers. We reconnected with folks we had met on our first stop in Jensen Beach at the beginning of our trip and talked much and shared stories about our mutual travels and experiences on the road.Jensen Beach (57)REVA pleasant surprise was a visit from my two step brothers who had also come to visit my dad in Florida. We got to hang out with those guys for a few days and really got re-connected. We had never really spent much time together as adults, and although I was not surprised, it was very pleasant to be able to hold intelligent conversations, and laugh and joke comfortably as people who have known each other for a long time do. I can only hope that as many years don’t go by before we can all get together again. 
As our impending return edged ever closer, the time came for us to begin the last leg of our journey. Heading north up the east coast for the first time in 18 months brought feelings of happy anticipation as well as tinges of sadness. Happiness knowing that we would soon be reunited with friends and family that we hadn’t seen for over a year and sadness to leave behind a lifestyle that suits us and that we truly feel at home in…   

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A Tale Of Trees

A Tale Of Trees

I can remember Christmas Tree shopping as a kid when my father would drag us to at least six lots before finally settling on the perfect tree. I remember the feeling of excitement as we drove from the lot across from Quick Check to another lot in Westfield, then maybe over to Bowcraft (was there a tree lot there?) and up to a couple in New Providence and Berkeley Heights. Bounding around in the red M&M delivery van (once or twice with our Fanwood cousins) we would spend the entire evening combing the area for what would be the centerpiece of our Christmas holidays.

With those memories in mind, I enthusiastically agreed when Tan asked me if we wanted to manage a Christmas tree lot in California. I pictured us eagerly assisting joyous customers as they picked out their trees on our small lot. I envisioned myself happily pulling out the various trees for people as their small children stood staring in wonderment, the family picturing each one I displayed for them covered with their own ornaments.

These thoughts were a hazy, faint memory as I lugged the 114th 7’ Noble Fir off the delivery truck in the pouring rain. With only 164 more of various sizes left to unload, and the knowledge that we would be getting another delivery of roughly the same amount in a few days, I had to ask myself what in the name of Saint Nicholas was I thinking?  Sloshing through the mud and dumping the load from my rain soaked shoulders onto the growing pile of trees, I couldn’t help but think about last years’ Christmas in Florida and how the spirit of the season remained so elusive until Christmas Eve itself… but oh how good that sun and warmth would feel right now! Let me back up a little...    

We probably should have known this operation was going to be a bit bigger than anticipated when a steady stream of teenage boys starting showing up at the RV to fill out job applications. Tan and I figured we’d do the majority of the work ourselves so as to maximize our overall profit. How many guys would we really need? After all, how hard could it be? Show a few trees, carry one out to a car, tie it on if need be. No big deal. The kids could certainly help if needed, right? Right! But oh so wrong.

Parked near the lot next to us was a storage trailer. Once work began getting the lot ready it finally dawned on me that this was much more than we thought. Fortunately the area was already set up with fencing, posts and railing, etc. We just needed to set up the tents, decorate, put out the water bowls(?), set up the flocking machine (Flocking? What‘s that?), run power to the flocking machine, run power to the pre-drilling machine(?), make sure the chain saws were running, make sure the cash register worked, make sure we had flame retardant to spray on a tree if necessary(?), learn how to change the nets on the netter(?), set up the stereo… On and on it went as we looked at each other, our eyes glazing over with the knowledge that we had no idea what we were doing and wondering what we had gotten ourselves into.  However, salvation came in the form of Dale. A relative of the lot’s owner, he was assigned the initial task of getting us organized and help us get the lot ready for business. Without his help I don’t know how we would have gotten our act together in time to open for the crushing throngs of people that wanted to purchase their trees on Black Friday.

Twas The Night Before The Trees
Twas The Night Before The Trees

Then the trees arrived… and arrived. And arrived some more. Not only did we carry the usual assortment of 6 – 8 foot trees, we had 9, 10, 11, and a few 12 foot trees. By this point we wisely had a full staff of high school and college age kids to help unload. My knees grew weak at the prospect of having to load (or even deliver) one of these monsters onto someone’s car or truck. My only hope was that when we sold any of these gargantuans that I would have enough staff to give me a hand. Of course the small trees were not a problem and even Mercy was able to earn some keep by unloading the 3 – 5 footers.

Tree Unload
“And just how many more 10 footers are in that truck?”
Tree Unload
“Really Riv, I can take this one by myself”
Our Crew
Our rockin’ crew

From that day on, our lives were filled with nothing but the constant stream of Christmas music, the ever present aroma of the trees, and the intermittent sound of the chain saws. And flocking…

The calm before the storm
The calm before the storm

I had never heard of flocking before but was soon getting my first lesson on how to flock a tree. Flocking is the practice (it’s actually an art…) of spraying fake snow on a tree. I don’t mean the spray cans you buy at your local craft store, this is an operation that I soon discovered Californians take very seriously. The dry flock is drawn through a hose into the flocking gun where it meets another intake of water and the combination is then sprayed on the tree in such a manner as to give it the most realistic snowed-upon look as possible. The flock being a chemical, I had to don a mask, goggles, and coverall (actually a black plastic trash bag with head and arm holes cut out) so as not to breathe or get the wet flock on me. At one point I actually had an EPA guy tell me to make sure I had my mask on while spraying this stuff!

Flocking Tree Dance
Flocking Tree Dance

Soon enough we were ready. The next few weeks were spent running the lot from 9 – 9 every day. Tan would open while I hung back at the RV working my regular job. With the mornings not an especially busy time for tree shopping, I could work peacefully while getting the occasional interruption if she needed help with a larger tree or if things got a little too busy. The kids would do some school work then head down in the afternoon. River was able to make quite a bit of money being the only helper on the lot before any of the staff showed up. The Bay Area weather being mild, it was pleasant to get outside a bit and then spend my entire afternoons and evenings in this merry holiday atmosphere. As holiday music constantly played, I couldn’t help but get caught up in the good feelings that the holidays bring. Perhaps I was making up for last year!

Mercy Fir
“Don’t I look great in green”

The town of Walnut Creek was a most pleasant place to spend the season. With a little shopping area within walking distance, we could get groceries and other necessities quickly and conveniently. Although the lot was located a few miles from the actual town center, when time allowed (not often and after 9pm!) we enjoyed running down to do a little Christmas shopping and perhaps grab a beer.
Finally as the season wore down and after selling a multitude of trees, it was time to bring things to a close. Late Christmas Eve, after our final day of selling trees, I was taking Daisy for her usual nighttime walk. I had circled the block as I usually did and upon returning to the lot saw a car parked there. A man emerged dressed all in black. Black cap, black coat, black pants. The only way to describe him was that he had the look of a cartoon burglar from the 1950’s. It wouldn’t have surprised me if he were wearing a mask!
Ducking into the shadows so as not to be seen, I watched as he quietly made his way over to the small pile of remaining trees (that we had been selling that day for the bargain price of $25). With no more fencing to keep people out, the trees were left in the open for anyone’s taking. I silently followed a little behind and when he reached down to grab a tree, I asked if I could help him. He looked up with a pained expression on his face, realizing that he had been caught. He kindly asked if I minded him helping himself and I decided that since it was Christmas Eve and we wouldn’t be selling any more trees anyway, he was welcome to it. He was very thankful, explaining that his daughter was hoping to wake up to a Christmas Tree and that he wasn’t capable of buying one earlier.
As he started to drag the tree back to his car, feeling an overpowering wave of Christmas spirit, I reached down and picked up the other end. Being touched by his story and not being able to bear seeing the tree so mistreated, I couldn’t help myself. Suddenly and ironically it dawned on me that I was doing exactly what I had asked him… I was indeed helping him. Helping him to steal one of our trees!
Going to bed that night with the comforting feeling of knowing that for the first time in a month we had no responsibilities the next day, I thought of what an exhausting, yet exhilarating experience it was. The kids learned a lot about working a small business. With Mercy helping with the register she got a hands on lesson in customer service and continued her math lessons by making change without the aid of a machine. Riv also got his fair share of customer service by helping people with their trees and loading them into cars. Once he realized the tips he could make, it was sometimes hard to keep him off the lot!

Tree Tying
” I get the tip, right Dad?”

Tan and I got to work together all day, every day and I enjoyed the evenings when it was just the two of us for the last hour, listening to the Christmas music, and trying to keep warm in the little shed, occasionally stepping out to help the few customers that came tree shopping at night. The physical work and time spent outdoors contributed to my overall feelings of healthiness and self satisfaction and I can’t remember a more joyous holiday season in years. The only thing that could have improved it was the presence of friends and family who were hopefully enjoying their own feelings of goodwill back home.

Together at the Tree Lot
Pete’s Trees- Walnut Creek CA
Daisy, our festive greeter
Daisy, our festive greeter
The Other North Coast

The Other North Coast

The air shifted and definitely became a little cooler as we drove west from the BurntwoodsStock music festival. With the music still in our ears and the fullness of heart from meeting new friends, we headed out to the Pacific coast. We had already spent the previous week around the Portland (Oregon that is… the SECOND Portland) area and had quickly become enamored with the place. Tan and I both immediately felt that it is somewhere that we could go eventually to escape the long winters yet still maintain a sense of changing seasons. It has that same feel that our own Portland area does with rolling hills, plenty of trees, a sense of culture and of course, good natured people. The only difference is the ocean is on the left. We definitely felt that we could fit in. But I’m years ahead of myself…
    As I kind of work this narrative backwards a little (sorry) I have to mention the Columbia River and the beautiful landscape around it. We initially came west that way and were mesmerized by the gorgeous views of the river as we meandered along. I love seeing hills in the distance with a scattering of windmills along their peaks. It makes me feel that at least on some level, we’re trying to do the right thing environmentally. Many folks would argue that the sight of windmills clogs up the scenery and takes away from the natural beauty, but to me it takes me to another place and time. Perhaps a simpler one where wind power was a valuable resource to the surrounding village and where the people who lived there had more time to appreciate the real things in life like love, friendship, and family. My only regret was that we didn’t stay a couple nights there along that river.

Columbia River
    So, after a brief stay in Portland and our great weekend at the music festival, we finally made it to the Pacific Ocean. Feeling a little like Lewis and Clark, our journey seemed to have reached a certain point. Not a conclusion, but something. A milestone perhaps as the Pacific Ocean was certainly a destination. But even at that moment I realized the journey is far from over.
    One of the first things we noticed about the coast is that it’s not quite as “oceany”. It just doesn’t have that aroma of salty air that is ever present on the Atlantic. Regardless though, the scenery is breathtaking with rocky crags, pebble beaches, and tons of driftwood. The sight of the tall outcroppings of rock just a little ways out into the surf add an air of mystery to the place as they come into view through the fog. While I was always under the impression that pirate activity was relegated to the Caribbean, I could understand how this rough coast with its myriad coves and hiding places was host to its own rich history of piracy.
    Another enchanting difference was the presence of seals floating in nearby waves. Resting on their backs for a bit, they would suddenly disappear into the foam to resurface a dozen or so yards away, their heads poking up to have another look around. As we ventured out across the low-tide sandbars towards the stony islands just off shore, we would come across various eddies filled with all kinds of sea life, like starfish and countless anemone of some kind or other. Gazing up at the cliffs along the shore, I couldn’t help but imagine what it might be like to live up there just through the trees always having a spectacular view into this majestic scene with the rays of distant sunshine slicing through the fog.
    Back in-land we headed for we were told that we could not dare to miss; Crater Lake, especially if we were already this close. While taking us a little further south than we expected to go on this leg, I am happy to say that I am glad we did. Being the deepest lake in America, it is also known for its clear, blue waters. Driving around the perimeter, you are rewarded with spectacular views all around the lake as it sits in its recess formed by the collapse of the volcano Mount Mazama. On such a gorgeous day we could see clear across the five or six miles easily making out the rocky formations of the mountainsides as they descend into the deep blue crater.

Crater Lake
    
    Suddenly finding ourselves with a deadline in hand, we returned north again, although this time staying a bit inland through Oregon on a course towards Seattle. We picked up a job working the sugar beet harvest so now we only had a certain amount of time before we needed to be in eastern Montana for the month of October.
    Along that way we experienced much more of the great Pacific northwest and the intense division between the fog and rain along the coast and the relative warmth and sunshine just a few miles inland. A couple nights outside of Forks, Washington made this phenomenon all the more (un)real as it is the area where the Twilight series takes place. It truly is a great setting for a tale of vampires and werewolves. Of course the town of Forks itself boasts more than a few tourist/fan traps, such as the high school and the beaches where the story takes place, as well as gift shops dealing in Twilight related finery.

Rialto Beach
    A few casino parking lots later we found a wonderful little fairgrounds RV park we could call home for a week or so. From there we could visit Mount Rainier and hopefully meet up with an old friend in Seattle. Unfortunately the hookup with the friend didn’t pan out. (An aside: I’m wondering if people along our path fear that we are expecting them to put us up, and therefore feel uncomfortable making plans. I’d like you all to know that we are entirely self sufficient and don’t expect or plan on any kind of accommodations from anyone. If you have, or know of somewhere we can park it, great. But if not, please do not feel obligated to make arrangements for us. We will find a way.) But fortunately we met some new friends who we hope to see again.
   Mt. Rainier turned out to be pleasant, though not an unexpected surprise. The drive through the park to the mountain itself wound up and up until finally reaching the base. With a few different paths to choose from to begin a hike, we picked one and began our ascent. After a half mile or so we began to distance ourselves from the denser foliage and emerged onto the inclining slopes of snow and flowers that form the lower regions of Mt. Rainier.

Mt. Rainier
    We continued on always moving uphill, with a tremendous view of the summit, and eventually decided that was good enough for us (as much as we could have gone on, we don’t always have eight hours to dedicate to long hikes that we can’t bring Daisy on) and began the gradual trek down. The geography surrounding us looking away from the mountain was almost as breathtaking as the peak behind us and I couldn’t help thinking that I was in The Sound of Music or something!
    With the aforementioned deadline to be in Sidney, Montana for the fall beet harvest, we had to head a bit east again. After a quick trip to Seattle (see Mercy’s post) we made a straight shot across the northern plains with a stop in Idaho to see some family of a friend back home. With a welcome that felt as if we already knew each other, we fell right in and extended our planned stay a couple times. River was taught how to shoot and properly maintain a variety of guns, and Mercy got to do a little horseback riding; something she had been asking to do for quite a while now.

Weippe

We couldn’t have hoped for a better and friendlier stay as we made some great new friends. I can only hope that they make their way back east so we can see them again sooner rather than later!
    Sidney proved to be quite an interesting place (see Tanya‘s previous post). A strange dichotomy where many of the residents are quite well off due to the oil richness of the Bakken, yet the town  itself is virtually devoid of culture. Suffice it to say that after a couple of weeks I was more than ready to move on despite the kindness and hospitality of the locals we met and worked with at the beat harvest.
    With just hours to spare we made our way south again trying to avoid the snow and increasingly chilly temperatures descending on the northern plains. Not entirely successful in our escape, we wound up spending a couple frosty nights in southern Montana and Wyoming on our path to northern California. With the west offering a warmer climate where we could explore the Redwoods and coastal routes that would take us down to the San Francisco Bay area, we were more than happy to finally escape the cold of the encroaching winter.
    As I finish this up in our warm and cozy home on Christmas Day, I begin to think back on the last month and the craziness that has been our life selling Christmas trees since that retail nightmare known as “Black Friday”. Still in decompression mode from those busy, exhausting (yet exhilarating) few weeks, I’m thinking of friends and family back home and hoping all have had a very merry and happy Christmas.

Mercy's tree
    Next: A Tale of Trees
 

The Devil Made Me Do It

The Devil Made Me Do It

Devils Tower    On our way to Devil’s Tower, Wyoming along Highway 24 I was hoping beyond reason that it would live up to all of my expectations. After all, I have been envisioning that huge monolithic tree trunk of sorts, in my mind and dreams for almost as long as I can remember. I used to draw pictures of it in school while I was supposed to be doing math, and even built a model of it out of Lego once.
As we approached along the winding road, rising and falling with the hills, I began to notice something odd. There was no traffic coming from the other direction. This went on for miles and miles as I began to see that there were no people about either. The few businesses we passed seemed to be closed, the only motion being the swirling dirt clouds kicked up around the dusty parking lots. Strange.
With the tower hazily coming into view in the distance, I saw some cattle lying down in the grassy field we were passing. Coming up to another ranch, we noticed that those cattle were also sleeping. Because the area presented a nice view of the surrounding area, we pulled over to take a few pictures. The cattle lying near the road continued their slumber regardless of our noisy presence. As we got out of the truck Mercy exclaimed, “Eww, what is that smell?!” I approached the cattle while at the same time slapping at a rather large green fly, and realized that the smell was coming from them. Immediately it dawned on me that these cows weren’t sleeping… they were dead. In fact all of them were dead!
We jumped back into the truck and continued on our way towards the tower. Suddenly a military jeep came flying up over the hill before us. As they passed in the opposite direction I looked in my rear view mirror only to see them spin around to give us chase. Not wanting to get myself in trouble, I pulled over hoping that they would continue past us. Unfortunately the jeep pulled off right behind us and two armed MP’s wearing gas masks approached both sides of the truck. “Please step out of the truck sir,” the one on my side said through his mask.
“What’s the problem Sergent?” I replied.
“This area has been evacuated due to an airborne contagion. You’ll all need to come with us,” he ordered as I noticed his grip tighten on his assault weapon. With that I threw the truck into gear and sped away as fast as I could leaving behind a huge cloud of dust as the tires bit into the dirt. Tan screamed at me as we hurled down the road when suddenly a barbed wire barrier stretching across the asphalt ahead came into view. Not wanting to get caught up in this madness and unable to stop in time, I crashed the gate sending wood and wire in all directions, as I continued our race towards Devil’s Tower!
As dusk began to settle over the hills we continued our mad trek towards the tower, the military jeep left in our dust. Finally we neared the base of the huge dome; a mountain of pure rock jutting into the open sky surrounded only by the emerging stars. I put the truck in park and dove out never even bothering to close the door.
“Hurry!!” I yelled to Tan and the kids, “We’re going to miss it!”
“Miss what?” they asked, unable to comprehend my apparent madness. But suddenly we heard an ear-rattling rumbling noise and the sound of what could only be described as the blowing of a giant tuba. And there before us, but somewhat eclipsed by Devil’s Tower came rising a huge craft of metal, and lights, and glass…
“The aliens!” I shouted as I felt Tan’s hand on my shoulder. Quickly she began shaking me and I turned as she yelled in my ear.
“Bri, you’re dreaming about Close Encounters of the Third Kind Again!”

    That’s what I was hoping for anyway… an immense cornucopia of lights and sound floating behind Devil’s Tower and rising into the sky. I could most definitely see why Steven Spielberg chose this place as a major “character” and the setting for the film’s climax.
Formed millions of years ago (ask Mercy, she’ll know) it is truly mysterious and magnificent at the same time.  An immense body of lava rock that cooled within its path to the surface, forming what can only be described as a molten plug. Then, over the course of eons, the land around it was slowly eroded away leaving the solid rock jutting over 1200 feet into the air. To the Native Americans this is sacred land, and it’s easy to understand why. As it sits upon a rising bluff gloriously overlooking all of the surrounding area, you can’t help being transfixed as the sun sets and the stars come into view around its darkened silhouette. With the quiet of night, broken  perhaps only by the howling of wolves, I was filled with the spirituality that this place invokes.Devils Tower

During the day we took a hike up to, and around the tower. It was quite a walk up the hill and I kept looking over my shoulder for some sort of devil or odd creature to pop out of the woods and give reason for the tower’s name. Unfortunately (fortunately?) none materialized and we enjoyed a nice walk around the base gazing up at the shifting faces and shadows as we made our way through the surrounding woods.

The trip back down was highlighted by a jaunt through “Prairie Dog Town”, a field bordering the campground that is the home to countless prairie dogs. It was quite comical to walk along the path as one would bark out a little warning of our presence only to disappear down its hole as we approached. The warning call would then be taken up by another ‘little dog’ further down the path, again vanishing as we neared. This little scenario played out again and again for half a mile keeping us in stitches the entire time.

Once again the time came to move on. Driving off I couldn’t help stealing as many views of the tower as possible as we headed back over the hills and by the fields we passed on the way in. With Devil’s Tower receding in the distance I told myself that I will most definitely have to return there someday. As we finally neared the pair of MP’s standing off to the side of the road I gave one a nod of recognition, and noticed the gas mask attached to his belt. He returned the acknowledgement saying, “Nice to see you again.”
Wait… what?Devils Tower

Final Thoughts On The Grand Canyon: A Comedic Interlude 2

Final Thoughts On The Grand Canyon: A Comedic Interlude 2

    We were hiking down one of the Grand Canyon trails that leads down to the Colorado River. The trail winds it’s way down the cliff side through a series of switch-backs. Although not a particularly difficult or strenuous hike, it is quite steep at times and there is a real danger of getting yourself killed if you manage to fall over the edge.
    This particular day was slightly busy with plenty of other tourists and hikers. Some were prepared with plenty of water and the correct hiking attire, while others astonishingly decided to brave the dirt, dust, and turning inclines with heals, black slacks, and designer handbags. Oh, and plenty of bling! Of course you don’t have to journey all of the way to the bottom. Along the descent there are stop offs at the 1.5 and 3 mile marks, where you can refill your water and use a restroom if need be. It being a hot day, we decided on the 1.5 mile stop (making for a 3 mile hike round trip). Not a long one I know, but enough to get a taste of what it’s like deeper in the canyon, and enough that by the time Mercy starts complaining we are almost done.  
    Of course we weren’t the only ones thinking this way, so needless to say that upper tract of the trail was heavy with traffic at some points. Eventually we managed to run ourselves up (or down rather) into a large school group being led by a couple Park Rangers. Being on a school trip I suppose, they would stop often while one of the guides would explain this or that, and ask the students some questions. With all of the stopping it soon became a bit of a burden for us, so at an opportune moment during a little rest they were taking, we decided to bypass and continue down our merry way.  
    As you descend further down, you get some fantastic views of the canyon walls and edge which are now above you. With a different perspective than viewing down into the canyon from the rim, you get a closer view of the various plateaus, cliffs, and sub-canyons that make up the whole GRAND Canyon system. While truly a remarkable sight, I found myself repeatedly gazing up at the walls and down into the valleys trying to take it all in.Don't try this in heels!
    During one such gaze, I was looking back up the trail along the cliff side to see where that school group was. As I turned in my track, taking in the mesmerizing view, I somehow lost my footing and… you guessed it. I went head over heals over the side.
    Fortunately for me though, I fell to the INSIDE of the trail. The Grand Canyon experts and engineers had been wise enough to dig a little culvert of sorts about 8” lower than, and separated from, the main trail by 16” -24” high boulders to allow for rain water to run down the sides without washing out the trails. This is what I fell into. When I lost my footing I went over those boulders and with the weight of the backpack making me a little top heavy, I tumbled over into the culvert. I think I even screamed… a little (again!).
    So there I was with my upper body in the trench and my legs sticking almost straight up and kicking as I tried to get some leverage to right myself. Mercy finally came running over as I was able to extend an arm for her to pull me up. Unable to do it alone, Riv was fast behind her to give an extra hand and they were able to pull me up and back over. Tan of course thought I was faking the whole thing with my legs kicking and cries for help!
    I must admit that I was somewhat mortified. Suffering nothing more than a mildly bloody palm scrape, I was embarrassed that I, with my hiking boots and preparedness, was the one to suffer such insult rather than the lady with the high heals and designer city-wear. After my snippy and angry attitude wore off I realized that it was probably better me to weather that slight than the unprepared fools who wander down the trails as if they are entering the gift shop. THEY may actually go over the WRONG edge to the delight of some mischievous cliff spirit. And that wouldn’t be pretty.

Final Thoughts On The Ranch: A Comedic Interlude 1

Final Thoughts On The Ranch: A Comedic Interlude 1

 So, you know those pop-up shade houses with the canvas tops that attach to the white metal frame of the structure with Velcro? What are they called? Easy Ups? Well we’ve had one of those for years. It has always been more handy when being used as a tent canopy than a shade house. In fact on more than one occasion it has spared us some serious tent flooding on various camping trips over the years. For that very reason it has always been dear to me and I have taken it on every outdoor, camping-like excursion (including this one) for as long as we have had it.
    Well, being out in the southern Arizona desert for a month, I decided to break it out and let it do the job it was born to do. With the lack of trees and shady places to sit in, I set it up apart from the RV to serve as a little sitting/relaxation area, away from our general living space so to speak. I put a little camp table we had acquired out there and even thought about running some power to it so as to have some music or whatever else may require electricity, to help enjoy an afternoon in the desert shade.
    Although Tan had warned me that these strong desert winds might do a number on my little oasis, I staked down the legs and felt fairly confident that the Easy Up would weather any heavy winds. After all, the tent I had set up for Mercy was doing just fine in these conditions. Well one particular day we decided to leave the ranch and head into town for the afternoon. Again, the winds were strong but I wasn’t too concerned… until we got back! The tent of course was fine but my shady rest area was a mangled mess! The canvas top had torn in multiple places and the frame lay in a bent up heap due to the monstrous gusts of wind causing it to collapse in upon itself.
    I abandoned all thought and ran for my poor shelter like a father charging to the rescue of an injured child. I pulled the shredded fabric from the wreckage and surveyed the damage. After some careful untangling, the frame wasn’t actually in that bad a shape. It had bent at some of the joints but I was able to make some repairs using my trusty grip locks and some minor replacement parts I just so happened to have. Whew! A few days later, after plucking up the courage to assess the torn canvas, I was happy to see that the hideous, ragged rips I had envisioned turned out to be a few straight (although loooong) tears that I could probably quite easily repair using that which fixes EVERYTHING… Duck Tape! (I will mention briefly that the only worthy duct tape is DUCK brand duct tape!)
    Like a surgeon pulling back together each side of a gash left in the skin from a nasty knife fight, I carefully repaired the wounds in the skin of my desert companion. After an hour or so in the beating hot sun and after using almost 1/3 of a roll of Duck Tape, I had completed the necessary repairs. Proud of my work and glad to have healed a friend, I gently gathered up the weathered canvas and carried it over to be reunited with its equally weathered and mended frame. With care I tossed the repaired canvas top over the frame and secured all of the Velcro straps and various attachment points. After completing my task, with the sun beating down I settled into my chair in the newly created shade and comfort of my old friend. With a sigh of relief and satisfaction, I thought to myself, “Job well done, and next time the winds are strong I’ll simply remove the top and put it away until the calm returns. No worries.”
    Later that very same afternoon of what was a calm, yet very hot day, Tanya and I were standing by the front of the RV. Mercy was further away in the pen feeding the animals we had been charged with caring for here on the ranch. Suddenly one of those mini tornadoes (“dust devils” are they called?) materialized right before our eyes in front of the garage near the animal pen. We hollered to Mercy to take cover in the animal shelter as the whirling devil whipped up a swirling cloud of dust. As if that were just for show it proceeded to tear a plywood wall off of one of the other A-frame animal shelters as it headed down its path of destruction. Tanya and I ducked beside the RV as the dust forced us to cover our eyes and turn our backs to the vortex of the mini tornado. As the winds died down it suddenly dawned on me the path that bastard devil had taken. I rose and with my heart in my throat I ran (I think I even screamed!) and turned the corner of the RV to see my newly repaired shade cottage in the exact same mangled heap as before. The dust devil had vanished as if it were never there.
    The roof was now torn in about half a dozen new places (the duck tape repairs held – but what a sacrifice!) with some all of the way across the fabric. I removed the re-injured material and while cursing the heavens stuffed it into the trash can feeling like “the old man” in “A Christmas Story” disposing of his leg-lamp. I can only guess that after watching me toil in the sun, using half of my coveted duck tape, that some desert god or wind spirit decided to make me the unwitting target of its mischief, perhaps looking for a little amusement out in the desert heat.
So I ask you this; does anyone have a canvas canopy top to a pop-up shade house they don’t use anymore? In baby blue? Please?

Desperately needing an EZ top
Excessive Fluctuations

Excessive Fluctuations

    From the hip, musical setting of urban Austin with its outlying regions of rolling hills and greenery, we went west and south into the vast openness of south western Texas. As we journeyed on, the landscape became increasingly dry regardless of the massive storm clouds that dumped marble sized hail on us. Just after the temperature dropped twenty degrees in five minutes. While a bit nerve racking to be driving headlong into the blackness of those whipping winds, we decided to pull off and wait out the passing storm in a conveniently located rest stop. That brief scare however, was rewarded by the blue skies and streaks of sunset orange that greeted us on the other side of the passing storm.

    What wasn’t a pleasant sight was the sudden jump in gas prices the further we headed out into desert country. Just like that change in temperature (except in the opposite direction) gas prices seemed to increase .50 cents a gallon in twenty five miles. Always the bummer that it is to see gas prices rise, I can’t say we weren’t expecting this. Just not so much of a hike so quickly. By the time we neared our destination of Big Bend National Park, we had to pay… oh never mind. You don’t want to know and I want to forget.
    And fortunately, forget it I did as we drove the sixty or so miles through the desert from the nearest town to the majesty of Big Bend. All along that southern route the mountains grew larger and the surroundings increasingly more amazing as we entered what I would call our first taste of truly “alien” territory. You see, apart from the general differences that one region has from another, all in all the overall look of the country hadn’t really changed until we reached that part of  Texas. Great expanses of hot, dusty plains with a layer of harsh, low lying vegetation gave way to the colorful, soaring peaks that surrounded us in the distance. With the browns and reds and shadows cutting into the mountains with the layers of time readily seen across their faces, I really felt like we had entered a different world.  
    The campground was top shelf, offering splendid views across the Rio Grande and into Mexico. The kids thought it pretty cool (as did I) that at one point on a short hike we took, we were literally twenty feet from Mexico with nothing but the eight  inch deep water of the river to stop us from crossing over. I had to explain that as fun as that may be, if we were to get caught we would have to travel 100 miles in either direction to get back in at a proper border crossing.


    At one point in the southern end of the park, the mountains are notched with the Santa Elena Canyon that can be seen from far off as you drive ever nearer. An impressive sight from a distance, it only increases as you get closer until you find yourself standing before a scene of epic proportions. Following the river into the canyon with sheer cliffs on either side, I half expected some dinosaur or monstrous creature to come lumbering up from between the canyon walls. As the dry, hot rock gave way to shady enclosures of lush vegetation, it felt like we had traveled back in time as the place seemed utterly void of modern interference.
    Unfortunately the time arrived when again we had to move on. With an April 1st deadline to be in southern Arizona for a month of ranch sitting, we had about a week to make it there with a few stops we wanted to make along the way, including a couple delves we wanted to take into the strange…
    First up was Ft. Davis, Texas and a look at the mysterious lights in nearby Marfa. Unexplained for over one hundred years, the lights appear and vanish intermittently in no particular order or pattern. It was very odd to sit there watching them blink on and off, and move, and not know what they are or what causes them. I hardly expect that they are of some extra-terrestrial origin, as who in their right mind (alien or not) would go on trying to weird us out for almost 150 years! Alright already! Oh well, the mystery continues.
    And the mystery continues in Roswell, NM as well, where we spent some time in the UFO Museum and Exhibit. Following the timeline of events that supposedly occurred there, it is quite convincing that something did happen and our trusty and protective government went through a lot of trouble to keep it quiet. What else is new, right? The government changed the story or explanation four times in the ensuing years to keep this event covered up. Filled with testimonials and eye witness accounts, the exhibit was entertaining to say the least and certainly worth the $5 to get in. Strange what goes on in the desert when no one’s looking…


    Prior to that though was a stay in Carlsbad and a trip to the fabled Caverns. This was the third time for me and Tan (we went twice twenty years ago) and it was just as magical and impressive this time as those. I got a specific thrill filling the kids with anticipation of what I knew was going to be an extraordinary experience. The initial descent into the darkness of the cavern is almost the best part until you find yourself in these massive caves with “decor” unlike anything you’ve ever seen. Once again my imagination took over as I envisioned some demonic creature pulling its slimy body from one of the endless dark holes or pits that are everywhere along the way. Cool stuff.  


    Luckily, we stayed in some very nice state parks along the way, usually two nights in each place. Most sported some fantastic views of the surrounding areas with desert vistas as far as one could see. That’s the thing about it out here. Lots of desert. I particularly like it in the evening, a couple hours before sunset but not so much during the day. In the evening, things are starting to cool down and it’s nice to sit and take a load off after a day of touristy activities, work in the local library, or a few hours driving during the afternoon hours under a blazing sun. It’s those seemingly endless drives through the hot desert expanses that begin to make me feel uneasy. Don’t things happen in deserts that no one finds out about for weeks, months or years? Especially during the day?
    But in the desert we are, as we ranch sit in southern Arizona for the month. Just forty miles from the Mexican border, we took a ride down to check out the town and give the kids their first experience of a different country. I’m pained to say that it was very much a disappointment. I certainly understand that you’re not going to experience the true culture of any country in a border town, but Agua Prieta was a dirty place that, as we were reentering the U.S, the American border patrol agent described in much less than favorable terms. I did joke about it a bit on Facebook afterwards, but I was truly heartbroken that my kids’ first foreign country experience was this little slice of… whatever. We should have been clued in when we strolled into Mexico no questions asked. As we continued walking it suddenly dawned on us that we were actually in Mexico. Talk about anticlimactic… and I said so to Tan and the kids. We’ll try again, maybe in Nogales. I don’t want their vision of Mexico to be of that.  
    So, the closest town with any sort of real amenities is forty miles away in the opposite direction. This is seriously the middle of nowhere. Acres and acres of dry scrub sectioned and fenced off into homesteads of various sizes from the small (like the eight we’re on) to the truly massive. Aside from school, Mercy tends to the animals, comes up with crafts, and cuts my hair (with Tan‘s help)! Riv and I started some driving lessons (what better place than on back ranch roads) and he even drove a few miles down empty Highway 181! The days are hot, dusty, and dry and the nights are cool and cloudless, with the stars shining brightly. The evening quiet of the desert is only interrupted by the far off howls of coyotes and the nearer responses of the neighboring dogs keeping watch over their territories. A month of desert life will be enough for me but it’s the peace, calm, and tranquility of the evenings that I most enjoy here.