Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Standing on a Corner and Wandering Around Winslow, Arizona

            In spite of loving Moab, we kept to our schedule and following our exciting day of Jeeping, a day now officially known in the Caravan as Dr. J.’s “Favorite Day of the Trip,” we headed south.  The goal was Arizona, ultimately, The Grand Canyon, South Rim.
            I pretended that I was being a wonderful, homeschooling dad and taking the boys, first, to Meteor Crater.  But let’s be honest, my real objective was a ten-minute Hippie-Codger indulgence:   Standing on a Corner in Winslow, Arizona.
Standing on "The" Corner
            As usual, Knightsmama found us a campground sort of in the middle of things.  Meteor Crater RV Park is located a few hundred yards south of Interstate 40, on the road to the Meteor Crater site, and only about twenty minutes from Winslow.  The RV Park, of course, is really just a spot in the desert, but somehow they have water.  The campground sports some trees and greenery.  The folks there are extremely cordial, and since the campground appears to border the remnants of the old Route 66, they maintain a 50’s and 60’s vibe, including a constant office soundtrack of The Beach Boys.  I like The Beach Boys.  In fact, I think Brian Wilson is one of the Great American Song Writers, almost up there with Irving Berlin, Hoagy Carmichael, and Cole Porter, and such.  But . . . . all day?  That is testing one’s affection.
            We stayed in the area two nights, which means only one day.  So it was Winslow in the morning and Meteor Crater in the afternoon.  That turned out to be just the right amount of time, spent in just the right way.   We began the day at the corner of North Kinsley and Route 66 (Interstate 40, business), which has now become an official stop for Codger Touring.   A building has been lost to fire on this corner, so there is some walking around room and space for a statue of a dude with guitar, hair over his ears, looking all California and cool.  The statue is by sculptor Ron Adamson.  On the brick building behind the statue is a fun mural by John Pugh, with “a girl, my lord, in a flat bed Ford, slowing down” and taking a look.  Above the painting of the truck is stage two of the narrative, with some hanky panky goings on upstairs, seen through The Trompe L’oeil windows.  (We can dream, can’t we. If we can’t remember).   On two other corners are curio-souvenir shops for the tourists, and believe it or not, there are tourists here, all wanting to take their picture while they “Take It Easy.”   I thought of asking Dr. J. to make a video of me standing by the statue with Knightsmama driving by in The Big Ass Truck, but I figured that was asking just a bit too much from my semi-tolerant family.
Fred Harvey
            Knightsmama, of course, has limited patience with my nascent status in Codgerhood.  I mean, she was four years old when the Eagles released their famous song in 1972.  I was a freshman at the University of Texas, and I loved the Eagles’ first two records, and everything by Jackson Browne for five or six years.   After Desperado, the Eagles became just a little too perfect or something in their production values; maybe it just seemed like they became date music.  And, Lord knows, I didn’t do any dating in college or even in graduate school.  I had girlfriends in graduate school, two special women with whom I am still friends, but looking back it doesn’t seem like we “dated.”  I was so poor.  I guess I forgot how to date.  We just did stuff together.  I finally became interested in the Eagles and related projects again when Don Henley released “The End of the Innocence” in 1989.  I was married then, and the song somehow seemed meaningful.
            While I am writing about the Eagles (I probably shouldn’t write about this, but, damn it, it's a part of the story) I am remembering when I first heard “Hotel California.”  There was a fellow graduate student who for some reason took a liking to me.  As I remember it, there was a week or two when she would come by the office that I shared with Carl Yost and chat and such.  I wasn’t particularly attracted to the young lady, but I was a twenty-three or four year old guy, didn’t date, and she liked me and nobody else did.  I think we had a date, and at some point she asked me over to her apartment.  Another oddity.  I lived in an old ramshackle house with feral cats; and she lived in an apartment complex.  Who lives in apartment complexes when they can live in a breezy, funky house?  Don’t get me wrong.  She was a fine lady.  I wish her well.  I wish I had been more honest with her, being even more at ease would have been a step in the right direction.  So I went over to her apartment, and she was very excited about the new Eagles album and put it on the stereo.  She was really into “Hotel California.”  We began making out.  Were we drinking?  Because I don’t remember much about the night.  In any case, morning arrived, and I departed.  I don’t think we ever saw each other again, even though her office was just down and around the hall.  I know I was scared of her:  a “You can check in any time you like, but you can never leave” kind of thing.   If nothing else, of the “seven women on my mind,” I felt she was one who wanted to own me.  And now if she remembers me at all, she most likely wants to stone me. 
            Nowadays I can listen the Eagles and enjoy them.  They are on the play list on the ipod, and I sincerely appreciate the later incarnation with Joe Walsh (I was a James Gang fan) and Timothy B. Schmidt (I have had a boy crush on him since he first joined Poco).  And I rather like Long Road Out of Eden, their 2007 double album.
            Sorry, for the diversion.  guys, this is what happens to me when I stand on a corner in Winslow, Arizona.  Sometimes, the past is not prologue:  the past is not even past. 
Mary Colter
            After taking our photos and washing my personal history off of me, we wondered down to the Old Trails Museum, sponsored by the Winslow Historical Society.  The museum is just a somewhat small storefront.  But it is free and the staff is very friendly, helpful, and informative.   Once you scratch the surface, most towns have fascinating histories.  Winslow is no different.  From its Native American roots, to the railroad, to Route 66, to a Charles Lindberg designed airport and a brief connection to Howard Hughes, Winslow was an important stop until the way Americans traveled changed and grew and by-passed the town . You know, it is funny what you don’t know, sometimes.  In this museum, I was introduced to The Harvey Hotels, The Harvey Girls, and Mary Colter.  How did I not know of these people before?
            If our trips through the East just re-affirmed my interest, appreciation, and horror at the Astors, Vanderbilts, Carnegies, Rockefellers, Edisons, and Fords, the West has now introduced me to Frederick Harvey.  He’ll be part of my research when I get home, but so far I am intrigued, not horrified.  Fred Harvey was born in London in 1835 and immigrated to the United States when he was 17.  He found employment in what we call today “the food service industry.”  A classic American entrepreneur story, he worked his way up, tried this, tried that, succeeded here, failed there, but eventually he ended up in Kansas and made a deal with the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railways to provide car service and restaurants.  His restaurants were a huge success, providing decent, quality food for the upper and middle-class traveler.  Credited with bringing civilization to the West, he opened restaurants and hotels from Kansas to California. 
La Posada
            Harvey also did something extraordinary.  In the late nineteenth century until the nineteen fifties, he hired young women waitstaff.  While my post-modern liberal political mind can turn this into an exploitation story, until I discover any facts to suggest otherwise, I will trust that the official, happy story is true.  Harvey provided jobs and adventure for young women.  They were polite and well-behaved, had curfews and a dress policy.  If one chooses, one can view Harvey has helping promote a feminist agenda.  Even though Judy Garland stared in the 1945 movie, The Harvey Girls, from which emerged the song “The Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe,” I had never heard of The Harvey Girls, Fred Harvey or the Harvey Hotels. 
            And I am ashamed to say that I had never heard of Mary Colter, an amazingly talented designer and architect, much of whose career was associated with Fred Harvey.  Again, this is one of those cases—I hope you have them, too, because I don’t want to be the only person who has been blithely ignorant of these very interesting Americans—where I just stand stunned thinking, “How could have I missed this for 61 years?”  In any case, there it is.  In 1901, at the age of thirty-one, Colter began working for the Fred Harvey Company, decorating the Alvarado Hotel in Albuquerque.  Fred Harvey died in 1901, so she must have then worked for his son.  She ended up becoming an architect for several hotels and even designed distinctive dinner ware, which is now collected and commands high prices.  I am finding her at least as fascinating as Frank Lloyd Wright.  [Part of the time lag:  while writing this, we have already been to The Grand Canyon, where Mary Colter and Fred Harvey are also much celebrated--the photos of them above are from a museum in El Tovar at the canyon.]
Finishing Lunch at Las Marias
            It turns out that Winslow is home to one of the hotels that Colter designed, La Posada.  After leaving the museum, we wondered down a few blocks and walked around and in La Posada, which truly is a gorgeous and peaceful building.  As many of the hotels that the Harvey company built during the heyday of railroad travel, La Posada was closed in the mid-fifties.  The story goes that after many years of being refashioned into an office building, which meant moving and adding walls and such, La Posada was purchased by businessman Allan Affeldt, who is returning the building and gardens to their original splendor.  He is also involved in doing the same to another Harvey hotel, the Hotel Castaneda in Las Vegas, New Mexico (not at Colter building).  If I weren’t moving around with The Monster and if I had the money to spend, I would love to spend a few nights in La Posada.  I can understand the impulse to simply pay the money to set oneself up in an atmosphere that soothes and calms one.  What’s a couple hundred bucks if the coffee cup is well designed?  Well, to be honest, for me, now, that couple hundred bucks represents basketball shoes for my boys.  In another life maybe.
Winslow's 911 Memorial

            So after a few moments of wandering around La Posada and dreaming of another life—thank you very much, Ms, Colter (and Allan Affeldt) for that experience—we strolled back to our truck parked near The Corner.  I am, of course, driving the family crazy, humming “Take It Easy.”  Before heading back to the campground and then on to Meteor Crater, we stopped at Las Marias for an early lunch.  We just couldn’t pass up the prices:  the white board outside the restaurant proclaimed three tostadas and drink for under five dollars!  One of the joys of the second half of this trip—that is, the move west—is the return of Mexican food to our diet.  We just didn’t have the nerve to try it—except on one or two occasions—in the East.  My tostadas were fresh and light and crispy.  The salsas (note there were several choices) were punchy.  Now Las Marias is just a little hole in the wall kind of place, but Dr. J. filled up on cheese enchiladas and Captain Crunch enjoyed his beef tacos.   Knightsmama was happy with the price.  Often we have trouble escaping from restaurants for under $50, but not this day.   

            Anyway, so there we go:  What began as a silly indulgence, a kitschy, meaningless tourist stop, became a real history lesson, and an appreciation of two American personalities, the entrepreneur and the artist, Fred Harvey and Mary Colter.   I’ll end this post here, and take us to Meteor Crater another time.  But before we leave Winslow, let me simply mention that they do have a small memorial for 911 with two metal beams from the Twin Towers.  In part the plaque reads, “We hereby dedicate this Garden to Northern Arizona's promise that 'WE WILL NEVER FORGET.'"  Great sentiment.  The problem is that in these United States there is so much to remember.

Soundtrack.  Eagles:  "Take It Easy."

Friday, April 25, 2014


There are four of us on this adventure.  Often one or the other of us gets short-changed while someone else’s dream comes true.  Obviously, since I am The Dude, and I am footing the bill for this adventure, my dreams come true more often than others.  So sue me, I am a dictator.  But, I think, a benevolent one. 
On Saturday, April 12, after a middling long day on the road from Durango, Colorado, to Monticello, Utah, by way of the Four Corners, we settled in for some chilly mornings, and on the 13th basically hunkered down, during some changeable weather, staying near the trailer for some writing and reading and x-box and television, depending on the hour and one’s inclinations.   See the previous post.

On Monday, we headed to Moab, and within twenty minutes of arriving, I was planning how we were going to extend our stay.  What can I say?  This is the kind of town I love or want to love.  Not too big, rolling along in a river valley.  Coffee shops, bookstores, bicycles, a micro-brewery, malcontents, dropouts, dreamers, nature lovers, individualists.  Everything I wish I were, but haven’t had the courage to be.  I mean, really, guys, isn’t this where all us want to live?  In a little town composed of various versions of Henry David Thoreau, Edward Abbey, Terry Tempest Williams?  (Well, maybe not all of you.)   The Caravan just spent half a year in the Eastern United States, and yes, we loved the cities and art museums, but I am thinking that the places I love best, the places that I thought, “Oh, I could drop it all and move here,” were places where the ancestors of the settlers of Durango and Moab and such places hailed from.  Bar Harbor.  Vermont. The Appalachians.  The wild men and women.  Screw all the domestic folks, the homebodies. 
Hello from The Arches
I know this is not fair and not even accurate.  But I am searching for a reason that Knightsmama and I felt drawn, a few years ago, to Salida, why we so much enjoyed our boys’ avocation of mountain biking,  why we wish we could drop everything, right now, and move to Western North Carolina, or Durango, or maybe even Moab. 
So Monday, we did the tourist thing, the thing on the schedule, the thing on the list.  We dropped by the Visitor’s Center, got ourselves oriented, got our National Park maps, and headed to Arches NationalPark.   Look, right now, I am not even going to try to capture in words what this place is like.  Knightsmama seems to have some faint memory of visiting here as a child, memories of her father, The Buckaroo, walking around and grabbing some green rocks and hiding them somewhere in the station wagon to take back to Texas.  I have no memories of Utah at all.  I don’t think I have ever been in the state, and I am positive as positive can be that I have never been to Arches before.  Still this part of the United States and moving down south to Monument Valley is the landscape I grew up watching in Westerns and car commercials.  John Ford Country.  For me, this adventure would have been an empty exercise if I had not visited Arches and environs.  And, now, here, having seen it, I don’t know what to say.  Or rather the process of getting to the words will have to travel through the right side of the brain, the creative side, then into the lefty verbal side, and I think my emotional reactions still at this moment are pre-verbal.  So I end up with easy words, like “amazing,” “stunning,” gigantic stone,” “crushed rose in color.”  I bought a little booklet that explains the geology of the region that I will use when I write a fuller version of this many moons from now.  And I can’t wait to read books by John McPhee when the trip is over—thanks to Frank Pool for the reminder. 
Knightsmama at Delicate Arch
(As a side note, the Back of Beyond Bookstore in Moab,has a great selection of McPhee and Abbey and Williams and Stegner.  The store is partly used and partly new books.  I found a first edition of Thomas Wolfe’s 1938 journal of his trip through the western national parks, the last thing he wrote before he died.  I am very excited about that.)
The most memorable part of the day was our trek to Delicate Arch.  All the brochures and trail markings proclaim the hike to be a mere mile and a half, there and back.  So three miles total.  I am not so sure of that.  It sure seemed longer.  Geez, after not so many steps, the pleasant little walk in the high desert began to seem like a pilgrimage, like a test of faith.  After a bit, around this and over that, I told Knightsmama and the boys to walk on ahead. I didn’t think I would make it.  My back and hip, which has been testing my fortitude the entire year, was being severely cranky this day.  There was a great rock dome up ahead we had to surmount.  I wasn’t going to bet that I would make it.  Captain Crunch, ever the gentleman, said he would stay back with me.  So Knightsmama and Dr. J. bounded ahead of us. 
The frustrating part of the walk up—which I divided into several sections of brief walks and long rests—was that facing us and passing us on their way down were a number of families, especially young families, men and women in their late-twenties or early-thirties, and their five year olds skipping down the rock.  I cannot say they were all cheerful and singing Disney songs.  But they certainly, in the final moments of the journey behaved with more grace and vigor than I wanted to in these early moments.  I hate getting old.  I hate what I have let my body become.  I don’t gracefully accept this state of being.  On the other hand, I kept saying to myself, “If a five-year old can do this, I can.” 
Eventually, I did.  Perhaps in record slow time.  At the very end, when the trail smoothed out, The Captain bounded ahead and found Knightsmama and Dr. J. already returning.  I was almost there, so Knightsmama agreed to go back up the final portions with me, and the boys got to climb around on other large rock features, off trail and, most likely, off limits.  Knightmama was careful not to tell me that the final portions of the hike were on a three-foot ledge without any railings.  Luckily going up I was on the inside and could attempt to grab the rock wall as we ascended. 
Then we made it.  And as we have experienced so many times on this trip, once we make the point of destination, we become part of a community.  Spread out along the smooth rock, looking across a gulf—maybe a hundred yards across—to the rock formation called Delicate Arch, were families and children and couples of all ages.  We overheard conversations.  One man my age had recently completed radiation for a cancer, and a twenty-something woman, after listening to her mother (we assume) complain about the trek up, announced she would find another family to hike down with.  Other conversations, we don’t understand, Chinese, French, German.  Again, in our journey through the United States, we find The World discovering and exploring these states along with us. 
We all made it back to the truck and drove around viewing more rock formations, and eventually, after getting a propane tank refilled (the nights have been nearing freezing), and grabbing dinner at the Moab Brewery, we made it back to Monticello for the night.
The Fins at The Arches
So that was, I guess, “my” day at The Arches.  Tuesday was Dr. J.’s day.  Back in December at Massanutten, Virginia, when the boys discovered they loved skiing, we had promised them skiing in Colorado.  Well, as you know, our schedules got screwed around, and by the time we made it to Colorado, skiing season had just passed.  So how do we make up for it?  Jeeps!  On Monday, we had stopped in several companies that lead jeep and 4-wheel excursions and/or rent jeeps to inexperienced tourists.  Dr. J. wanted the freedom of exploring on our own.  So we arranged to rent a jeep for a day.  On Tuesday morning, we woke early, drove the miles from Monticello to Moab, once again, and by nine o’clock we were loaded in the jeep, water and lunches and snacks all packed, and on our way off-roading. 
One thing I should explain first:  The reason we were camped in Monticello,  many miles south of Moab, while spending all our time in Moab, was that, as chance would have it, we were exploring the area during the nine-day 2014 Jeep Safari, sponsored by a The Red-Rock Four-Wheeler Club.  This thing has been going on for 48 years, so it is popular, and thus Knightsmama’s research could not turn up a campground at a price we could agree to.  The Safari looks like a very cool event, which includes a vendor show.  In addition, one can gawk.  Just stand on a street corner and gawk and golly at lots of really amazingly jacked-up vehicles.  A great number of oohs and aahs are to be heard.  (And for the newbies like us, a lot of sublimated and diverted penis envy:  “his jeep is bigger than my jeep” kind of thing.  But the heart of the event appears to be guided drives through the most interesting and often unavailable roads in the areas.  Four or five of these a day.
Since we were newbies and didn’t own a own jeep (actually, last summer I sold my 4-wheel drive Jeep Liberty to buy the Big Ass Truck, but the jeeps here were Wranglers with roll bars, not Liberties with juice cup holders!), we rented one.  We can recommend without reservation (though you will need one to rent a jeep) the fine folks at Canyonland Jeep Adventures, right there on the main drag in Moab.  They set us up in a Modified Four-Door Wrangler, a cooler of ice and water and off we went.  First, stop:  Gemini Bridges.  As we turned off Highway 191, onto the dirt road, we noticed a line of perhaps a dozen Wranglers, and assuming they were part of an organized tour, we caught a sign that pointed us toward a road heading up the side of a hill.  The anticipation and happiness inside our jeep was palpable:  we were doing it, heading off road and zig-zagging up a hill.
Since we spent the entire day driving around the Arches and Canyonlands area, I will not impose upon you each and every twist and turn, each thrill or tedious stretch of desert.   Our itinerary was a typical one for beginners, and our highlights were the ones that beginners have.  There are wonderful sites here.  The land is dramatic in its extremes, and inspiring in its difficult beauty. 
The Crest of Gemini Bridges:  Mind the Gap
Gemini Bridges:  It’s almost eight miles from the highway to The Bridges.  We went only to the top where we walked along high edges and pondered the six-foot wide slit in the crown of the rock that creates the bridges below.  Gemini Bridges=twin bridges, get it.  There’s a way, I believe, to drive to the base of the Bridges and look up at them.  We didn’t do that one.   We wandered around on top.  With our little adventure boy, Captain Crunch, running around, I finally had to simply take a seat on a rock, stop shouting warnings, and pray.  Of course, people have died here.  On the web, you read about an 18-year old Boy Scout, who just knew he could jump the gap between the two bridges.  He fell 100 feet to his death.  Another young man tried to drive his jeep over The Bridges, but failed.  A story by someone who was near-by when that accident occurred can be found on someone’s Flicker page.  This one sounds like a terrible failure of common sense all around.  There is a plaque commemorating his death.  On the one hand, one could be offended that the stone has been defaced with the advice,  “Turn it up as loud as you want.”  On the other, the plaque serves as a warning to all:  challenge the land and the land will defeat you. 
The Long Canyon Trail.  Most of the roads leading to Gemini Bridges are actually pretty wide and gentle, once one gets used to jeep roads.  Leaving the Bridges, there was one patch were I gunned it and just hummed over the road, much to the boys’ entertainment.  Then, in about five miles, we hit Highway 313, headed south, and caught the Long Canyon Trail, about seven miles long.  It begins easy, but soon enough we entered the descent into the canyon.  Here we met a mountain biker in granny gear, pedaling up.  The great fun of this road is its narrow, bouncy, rocking nature.  I had kind of forgotten its moderate difficulty until I reviewed my and others videos.  This one is fun, just too short.  The highlight is a passage under a fallen bolder that forms a triangle of light as you approach and you just can’t believe that you can get past it.  Of course, I had to put the jeep in park at that point and just sit and admire the cliffs and parched high desert floor. The miracle that our little family had driven here.   From there, we made it to Highway 279, and headed south again for the Potash-Shafer Trail.  You see, we are just sort of zigzagging, cross cutting between highways.  
Just Another Afternoon Drive
Potash-Schafer Trail.  Somewhere along the way—I don’t remember where—Knightsmama and I shifted as drivers.  (Although Dr. J., has his driver’s license, he is not supposed to drive rental vehicles.  Therefore, I will never confirm nor deny that Dr. J. had a few opportunities at the wheel also.)  But what we began learning was that Knightsmama is a pretty tough adventurer.  This is a terrible and wonderful jeep eighteen-mile road for getting a sense of the land and canyons from below.  Terrible, because a good bit of the road travels through land that the Moab Salt Company (Intrepid Potash) generously allows visitors to travel.  I am not being ironic—this is a good thing they do.  But, you know, for those of us untrained and unexcited by mining, any disturbance to the land makes us uneasy.  Still, their facility, or what we could see of it from the road, as we wound beside the Colorado River, is fascinating.  What we do get to see are the large open air holding tanks, which look something like cattle watering ponds in Texas, that allow water to evaporate and potash to remain.   Is this all a good thing or bad thing? I don’t know.  I haven’t studied the company, its processes, or its history.  On the one hand, you have to be amazed at what human technology can do.  On the other, one should always be fearful of what human technology can do.  But then, here I am driving a four-wheel vehicle through delicate land, merely and only for my entertainment and aesthetic education.  Which use of the land is more trivial for the fewest people?
In any case, this is also a wonderful and longish drive, so we all just sat back and enjoyed it.  We took a great deal of pleasure making occasional stops, getting out of the car, and just looking. Here, often, we drove in the in-between lands.  Above us canyon walls and Dead Horse State Park and Canyonlands National Park.  Below us, more canyons and the Colorado River.  At one point, we drove under the cliff that Thelma and Louise drove off into the Colorado.  (The plot line of the movie says the event occurred at the Grand Canyon; the filming took place in Dead Horse State Park.)  I can’t say I know exactly where this is.  We did not get out of the car and say a little prayer of forgiveness and appreciation for these two women. Knightsmama and I were quite conscious of the cultural significance of this portion of landscape, and made the boys listen to us talk about it.   I remember when I saw the movie when it came out, which, in 1991, was smack dab in the middle of The Men’s Movement era.  My first wife may remember this differently, but I seem to remember believing that at this moment feminism had taken a new turn and made a very important statement that we men could not and should not ignore.  If you haven’t done so recently, take a look at the end of the movie that stop frames on their leap.  And then take a look at what is supposedly an alternate ending.  Amazing what a soundtrack and editing can do.
The drive on Potash/Shafer road is pretty serene until the final mile.  That last mile seems to be more or less straight up.  We had seen this moment coming from a ways back, and so I took over driving again.  Therefore, I can’t tell you much about the drive, itself, except for the tense neck and white knuckles.  What I know is that in about a mile, the road, dirt and stone, basically one lane, ascends 1500 feet.  Up a bit, switchback, up a bit, switchback.  Don’t look over the side!  I have already admitted to a fear of heights—I had trouble with the walking path to Delicate Arch, remember.  Well, that was nothing.  Up a bit, switchback.  Oh look here come a jeep coming down toward us.  And I am on the outside!  How big is that pull off?  Half the size of the jeep.  How close am I to the edge?  Why do they let amateurs like us do this?  Up a bit, switchback.  Here comes someone else!  It's that mountain biker we saw on the Long Canyon Trail.  He's riding down this thing!
Anyway, you get the picture.  This was one of the greatest moments of our entire trip this year!  Now that it is over and we lived.  But I swear going up, I regretted not taking an extra blood pressure pill that morning.
The Off Roaders
Klondike Bluffs:  That was basically the day.  But Knightsmama and Dr. J had not quite had enough. So on our way back to Moab, we pulled off for Klondike Bluffs.  Admittedly, most of the driving we had accomplished during the day had been on relatively easy roads. They wanted something more challenging.  I, of course, was wanting something more refreshing, like a brew from Moab Brewery.  And I have to say here is my only regret—at one point, I got out of the jeep, sat down on a relatively flat stone and said, “Head on, I wish you well.”  I had just had enough.  I wasn’t mad; I wasn’t sad.  I had just, at that moment, had my fill of rocking along in a jeep.  We had come to a point where we were driving more or less in a dry creek bed.  Did I say Knightsmama was driving?  We came to a place where a family and their four—count them, four—off-road vehicles—were dismounted and discussing how to navigate a certain cut in the land, up one way, down another, all at a 90 degree turn.  The man of the family—gray like me, but I am guessing a few years younger, certainly in physique—says to me, “We call this place ‘Pick your poison.’ Any which way you go is a treat!”  He was being ironic.
Now, this is my family and why I love them.  All that the dad’s comments did for them is excite them.  Dr. J. and Captain Crunch exited the jeep and began evaluating the size of this drop, the steadiness of that rock, the arch of this branch for the tree,  the depth of that cut in the erosion.  Knightsmama craneed her head out the widow and began gunning the engine.  Oops.  A false move.  Cutting too closely to the bolder on the driver’s side.  Backup and ease forward more before turning. Dr. J. shouted instructions.  The front right tire dropped.  The back passenger tire rose six inches off the ground.  One tire at a time, Knightsmama coaxed the jeep off then back onto solid ground.  Dr. J. was jumping up and down, screaming that his mom is monster.  “You did it!”  Then, ready for more, Captain Crunch headed off down the road, trotting like a scout.  Dr. J. got back into the jeep, and off they rolled down away from me.  I waved, temporarily happy to be freed from worrying about dents and flats and insurance claims.  I sat, momentarily, in silence, and stillness, and solitude. 

About ten minutes later, I began to hear an engine, and though the brush and boulders, I caught the sight of the jeep.  Here they were returning, Captain Crunch trotting ahead as before.  After a bit more of Dr. J.’s geometry, Knightsmama eased the jeep back up the gulley.  I learned all that I had missed, but more I could see in everyone’s eyes that this is what they had been yearning for all day.

Soundtrack.  B. B. King:  "Better Not Look Down."

Gary Leatham:  "Fiery Furnace at Arches National Park"

Sunday, April 13, 2014


So we are sitting the Peace Tree Juice CafĂ© in Monticello, Utah, and a nice young lady is explaining Utah’s liquor laws to a table of six young men who have been speaking German.  You see, in Utah, in a restaurant you must be eating something if you want to drink beer. 
            “Do you want to order chips and salsa?  Maybe hummus? That’s the cheapest.”
            Turns out the men ask for a menu.  They want something more substantial. 
            “And before I get you that Bud Light, I need to make sure you are twenty-one.”
            Knightsmama and I are reading through IRS documents and writer’s guides on-line to make sure that we are not breaking any laws with the tax deductions we are taking for the Caravan.  Let me say this boldly, if you haven’t been paying attention:  I do sincerely intend to turn these writings, based on this crazy trip across these here United States, into some kind of book that will make me a millionaire, and if not that, then like all my other writings, a thousandaire.   Just you wait and see, I raise my fist and shake at the ceiling. 
We Are Moving West
            It has been a crazy day, here in Southern Utah.  First of all, it is my father’s birthday (and also Thomas Jefferson’s—strange, we are in Monticello).  If he were living, my dad would be 103.  I have said in previous posts, my father’s life, ambitions, and pleasures have informed this adventure a great deal.  He was one of those Americans from The Greatest Generation who enjoyed his automobile and employed it to see America.  The family photograph albums, now in storage, are basically a record of vacations, sightseeing, and family gatherings and reunions.  When the Caravan began its wanderings, I could say that some time in my life I had visited maybe 40 of the 50 states on vacations my father took with my mother, sisters, and me.  The problem was that I didn’t remember many of these places because I had visited them when I was very young. The crazy part is that as many sons, as much as I have tried not to be like my father, is how much I have become like him.  On this trip, the similarities:  national parks and historical sites, battlefields, baseball, and beer.  The differences:  the caravan itself, art museums, coffee shops, graves of dead writers.  Of course, the most important difference is this blog, these posts.  I write about the adventure.  Even though he let me know quite definitively that he did not support, would not support, my writing habit, I do think he would find, at least, the reportorial aspects of the blog entertaining.   Therefore, tonight, I will lift a beer to him—not a Budweiser but a Devastator, an 8% abv Double Boch, from Wasatch Brewery in Park City, Utah.    Cheers, thanks for the gift of loving travel and the history and land of this nation.
Peace Tree Juice Cafe in Monticello, Utah
            What has really been strange today is the weather.  This morning is was chilly but sunny.  Then all of a sudden around ten, the sky clouded, and sleet and snow fell for an hour or so.  At moments, the sky was so thick, we could not see the 11,360 foot tall Abajo Peak that stands right out our trailer window.  Then our snow and sleet melted, blue shown brightly, and the peaks radiated white.  Odd how quickly it all happened.  Odder that it happened twice more during the day.  Winds stirred, and fell still.  Sleet and snow sliced the air, and disappeared.  The sun radiated, and turned dark. 
            In the Peace Tree, we met a fellow who stopped in for a burger.  He was traveling from Salt Lake City to Albuquerque.  We discussed our travels, and he asked if we had been caught in the drizzle in Moab, and I told him we had been in Monticello all day and about our surprise at the changing weather.  All he could add was a glib, “Welcome to The West.”  In Texas, we talk about rapidly changing weather—a Blue Norther charging in and dropping temperatures 40 degrees in an afternoon.  But that is nothing to what we experienced today.
            I don’t know what else to tell you.  Today was sort of a wasted day.  Except, of course, that we completed our taxes using the Wifi in the Peace Tree.  For a while we seemed to be on a useless chase for internet.  Our campground Mountain View RV Park in Monticello provided decent connections, but during all the haywire weather, things got sketchy. (The internet is working now, obviously.  I am posting this from the campground.)  In addition, Knightsmama and I figured that as we finalized our taxes, we would want to talk without the boys arguing, begging for junk food and sodas, or loudly playing electronic devices.  So we hit the road searching for some place to light.  Not finding anything open in tiny Monticello, we actually drove 26 miles to Blanding, thinking we remembered the town as something more substantial.  Wrong.  You know, Southeast Utah is sparse.  And on Sunday something open is even sparser.  We even began to wonder if on Sunday everyone just ate at home.  When by 1:00 we had returned to Monticello, we found neon signs proclaiming the Peace Tree had opened.  Was it open before and we just missed it?  I don’t know.  I am not going to investigate.  Whether through stupidity or chance, on the road Knightsmama and I were able to engage in adult conversation for an hour or so.  I had some pet theories about Eastern and Western states and industrial waste, which she convinced me were not ready for prime time.  She had regrets that we had missed ski season in Southern Colorado and wanted to make sure we scheduled other, substitute activities for the boys.  My checkbook groaned a little bit, but agreed. 
            Like I say, it was a strange day, a kind of wasted day.  Knightsmama ate a bagel with salmon spread at Peace Tree.  I ate a hummus wrap with blue corn chips with a cup of coffee.  Both were tasty.  Other folks near us got some carrot juice that looked as yummy as any I have seen at Wholefoods in Austin.   I recommend the Peace Tree.  Back at the trailer, the boys played x-box and watched Netflix through the Mountain View RV internet connections, which seemed to settle down once the weather returned finally to bright, chilly, and windy.
On US 160 on Way to Four Corners
            The only thing I have to add is that we drove here yesterday from Durango, Colorado, but took a longish detour to catch Four Corners—that place where New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, and Utah touch.  It was nothing like what I expected.  All that I hoped it would be is simply a marker on the side of a road.  Something simple, and merely statish and official.   Maybe kitchy.  What we found instead was a quick right off at the top of a little rise on Interstate 160, which I missed, and had to turn The Monster around for.  Good thing there isn’t much traffic on this road.  Once we got The Monster pointed down the correct dirt road, we met a strange lady in a ticket booth, who informed us that to go further would require $5.00 per person.  You see, it turns out that the four corners happens to be on land reserved for the Navajo people.  I say the lady was strange, not because she was Navajo.  I have no information about her.  But she took our money, and while my Big Ass Truck’s diesel engine roared and hummed, she just stared at her cash register or something else I couldn’t see inside the ticket booth.  This went on for a minute or two, until another lady appeared in front of the truck, came around, then entered the booth, and said a few words to her co-worker.   The first lady returned from her puzzlement or reverie or whatever it was and handed me a receipt. 
            Since we were in the desert, there was plenty of parking, a lot of space to guide The Monster to a pretty little spot all poised for a quick getaway if needed.  The Navajo Nation has created, I think, a very interesting monument.  Of course, there is the metal marker on the ground that indicates where the corners of the four states meet.  For those of us who look for these kinds of things, I note that we have straight lines.  A “T,” or a cross.  I have no idea if the border between Colorado and New Mexico, on the east, and Utah and Arizona, on the west, are perfectly North/South.  Nor do I know if the border between Colorado and Utah, on the north, and New Mexico and Arizona, on the south, runs perfectly East/West.  I assume they are not. But one could say, either poetically if not factually, that we have the marks of the compass right here.  But our linear selves are disrupted by the great brick circle that encompasses, surrounds, and encloses these straight lines.  We enter the larger circle, and  we notice circles inside of that one, guiding us, concentrically, to the point, the center, this political mark on the imaginary grid of our geography.
Captain Crunch Bridging the Four Corners

My sons hear, and repeat to me, a man saying, “Is this all there is?  And I paid $5 for this?”  There is a point here, several points actually.  Why did any of us drive so far out of our way:  33 miles from Shiprock, New Mexico; 40 miles from Cortez, Colorado;  65 miles from Bluff, Utah; 77 miles from Kayenta, Arizona?   What did we expect to find here?  A carnival, a gunfight, a monument detailing the history of The West, a declaration of independence?  Did we expect a certified vision delivered to us on the wings of Eagle, on the back of rattlesnake? 
Let me tell you what I saw there, in my vision.  I witnessed a bunch for folks like me and my family taking photographs.  One man slightly younger than I with a man slightly older—father and son, most likely—hugging side by side, feet straddling two states each, then changing position.  A slightly over-weight woman in her fifties, doing Downward Dog, one hand or foot in each state, her somewhat flabby butt raised triumphantly to the sky:  “I told my yoga instructor that I would do this.”  Her husband, as straight as a small town banker, clicks her photograph and smiles at me.  A teenage girl lies on her back, arms and legs forming an X, one limb into each state, her manipura chakra over the spot where the states meet.  More and more families and couples forming a raggedy circle, all witnessing each other, all noting whose turn is next.  Congratulating each other, laughing with each other, celebrating each other.  Captain Crunch forming Setu Bandha Sarvangasana or, in English, the Bridge Pose, kind of like Downward Dog, but upside down.
            And around all this, witnessing these individual rituals, in booths enclosed in the outer circle, are the Native Americans selling their jewelry, arrows and bows, dream catchers, sand paintings, and food.  (Both Knightmama and I have new earrings; the boys got fry bread.) We have entered a place unique in our American journey.  But something in me is reminded of the Lincoln Memorial and the Statue of Liberty.  Above us, the US flag, the four state flags, and the Navajo and Ute Mountain Ute tribal flags remind us of the complicated history that transpired in arid landscape.  But here also in 2014, people are gathering, people are called together onto one strange piece of ground, and if we are lucky we begin to see something beyond state boundaries.  I begin  to recognize both the pain and horror of American history and the never ending desire to right those wrongs.  I don’t have much hope that we will ever come to terms with the great migration, or the great invasion, if you will, of The West.  In addition, as with slavery and its mark on Americans and our history and sense of self, I am a bit wary of rituals where the oppressed forgive the oppressors.   Sure, you can accuse me of Liberal guilt, if you like.  Or we could listen to my father, who as an adamant believer in manifest destiny, and admit that “we” stole this land, fair and square. 
The Devastor

            I can tell you one thing, I am not going to complain about paying $20 for my family to stand on this ground.  And while wars go on in Afghanistan and Syria, and while Russia claims the Crimea and Ukraine creates or loses its future, I know I must recognize the historical realities of populations and migrations and wars and cultural independences and cultural alliances.  Our history in The West in the Nineteenth Century is no different. Still, my moods shift as often as the weather out here.  I guess I am just going to keep pondering what the hell all this means ought here and wonder where we go from here.  Time for that Devastor, Dad.

Soundtrack Double Feature.  Jerry Jeff Walker.  "My Old Man."
Peter Rowan and Tony Rice Quartet, "Cold Rain and Snow."

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Go West

I have some thoughts.  They will not be coherent.  At least, I don’t think they will be.  We will have to wait for the end of this post to see if the thoughts add up to anything.  Not that this situation is all so different from other posts, but at this moment I feel particularly ungrounded and unsure about what I am feeling.
            The Waller Grant Caravan of Wonder has been back on the road for seven nights.  Today begins the second week of what we hope will be a four and half month journey through the West.  We have a little less time and a little more space to cover for the second half of our adventure.  And if you have been following the blog lately, you will know that we had a three month lay-over in North Texas, where my wife, Knightsmama, cared for her father following a stroke.  In these past seven days back on the road, we have visited Balmorhea State Park, Davis Mountains State Park, Marfa (Texas), Carlsbad, and Santa Fe.  Last night, we arrived at the Alpen Rose RV Park in Durango, Colorado.  We have a lovely pad, Site A, with full hook-ups, and picnic table.  Right now the boys and Knightsmama are exploring downtown Durango, hanging out in a city recreation center where Dr. J. is playing basketball with some boys, and Captain Crunch is climbing an indoor rock wall.  It was below freezing this morning; it is about 70 and bright and sunny right now. 
The Durango in Durango
Yesterday was the first day of the last class I will take through American Military University to qualify me to teach humanities, so I have been completing introductory assignments and beginning my first readings for the class.  The course concerns the Enlightenment.  Our readings move us from Catherine the Great’s Russia to Thomas Jefferson’s America.  Also, today, I have repaired four drawers in The Monster.  Drawers break fairly often because when we haul The Monster down the highway at 60 miles per hour and we hit a bump or pothole, all hell breaks loose like a quarterback’s brain on the concussive side of a blitz.   Ever so often, we just need a time out to catch our breath, let things settle and reconnect.
            So I am sitting here looking out my window at a beautiful red rock formation streaking across a mountain wall.  I am trying to catch my breath.  Literally, since we are at 6500 feet elevation, and I can feel my heart beating a little bit stronger to move the oxygen around.  Figuratively, because the adventure has begun again and there were moments in the past months that I didn’t know if it ever would.  And because, we are in The West.
            Already it is hitting me how different The West is.  West of what?  West of the Mississippi, sure.  But really, west of the 98th Meridian.  In August, we began the adventure  just east of the 98th in Wills Point, Texas, heading north to Tulsa, then east to St Louis.  There, we toured the Museum of Western Expansion and rode to the top of the Gateway Arch.  But, next, we traveled east eventually to Maine, then south reaching South Carolina before being called back to Wills Point.  Now in April, we have crossed that geographical boundary where The West begins.  We watched the land flatten and dry out; we watched trees disappear.  Around Midland and Odessa, we witnessed the pumping wells of the second or third Great American Oil Boom.  Then we entered the rising mesas of the Davis Mountains, cooler, still arid, with brief respites of ground water.  Almost 600 miles from Wills Point and still in Texas.    Perhaps Donald Judd had it right out there in Marfa:  cement blocks, rectangles, unpainted; that’s art.  (Personally, I don’t think so, but I can understand how an Easterner gets reduced to simple geometry out here.)
Searching for Meaning in the Desert
            Then after a night on top of a mountain at the McDonald Observatory viewing the stars in pitch black skies, we headed north and spent an afternoon viewing the mysterious workings of ancient seas and reefs, tectonic movements, hydrogen sulfide, and all sorts of other processes to create the wondrous caverns at Carlsbad. Equally dark but quite a contrast.  The far and near.  The above and below.  Yet still, time incomprehensible:  light years or geographic eons.  I ponder this now:  did I think of these things rumbling in the subway in New York City, or gazing from the rocky shores of Bar Harbor, or driving in Vermont valleys penetrated by the stabs of fall colors.   I was not so small or so alone as in West Texas and Southern New Mexico.  It’s down right existential out here.
            Even in only a week, we have gone further.  Almost 700 miles from Marfa to Durango, Colorado, by way of Santa Fe.  But it is more than miles.  Marfa, founded in the 1880s as a stop for the railroad.  Santa Fe settled by the Pueblo people around 1100, named a provincial capital of Spanish America in 1610.  Since in October we visited Plimouth Plantation and a few years ago, the family explored Jamestown, let’s say this again:  Santa Fe has been a town since the 1100s and a “Western European” town since 1610.  It is always a mistake to think that The West is new.  The West doesn’t have the same kind of patriotic historical obscurity that Boston, New York, Philadelphia, or Richmond has—the haze of noble revolution that obscures who dealt with the Penobscot, Narragansett, and Rappahannock. Instead, The West has a mere century and a half of dime novels and western movies and television to ennoble and horrify, or so we are supposed to believe.
In Carlsbad
            But I am getting off point, a bit, in examining my confusion.  What really puzzles me is the fact that my family stopped traveling west, never crossed the Mississippi until my father moved me, my sisters, and mother to Texas in 1964.  My mother’s ancestors stopped in Franklin, Tennessee, in 1820.  My father’s ancestors stopped in Southern Illinois in the 1850s.  My family was part of the great Scots-Irish migration over the Appalachian Mountains, and then they ceased traveling.  But there was another group of folks who kept going.  They were wildly ambitious men like Sam Houston ready to create another empire.  They were mountain men like Jedediah Smith.  They were dreamers for wealth and gold like Mark Twain or entrepreneurs like Levi Strauss.  Cattlemen like Charlie Goodnight.  Or just plain folks who wanted a small stake in something new.  My folks stayed put.
            Like Walter Webb, the University of Texas historian, friend to J. Frank Dobie and Roy Bedichek, pointed out, for normal people (my phrase) western expansion stopped at the 98th meridian because all the old tricks, the cultural institutions and practices, quit working.  In the east, you have rivers to travel.  In the west, not so much.  In the east, you have wood for fences and homes.  On the plains, not so.  In the west, you needed horses, windmills, barbed wire, and the colt 45.  Expansion had to wait until someone  invented these.  
            So we crossed the high deserts north of Santa Fe, traveled into Georgia O’Keefe country and were excited into exclamations.  Then we kept going higher and passed over into Chama, then into the lower reaches of The Rocky Mountains into Pagosa Springs and Durango.  Here we find a second West.  Of course, there is more than one "West."  Of course.  I began to sense something different in myself.  I do not know what it is.  Something about freedom.  Something about strength.  Something about ascending and sitting taller in the saddle.  Something about bears and elk and wolves, not prairie dogs and coyotes.  Something about trees and water, not cacti and sand.  Whatever the desert is, it is not ennobling.  One watches horizons not peaks. 
Looking South toward Abiquiu

            So I still don’t understand what I am feeling.  But let’s say the obvious, this part of The West is different.  It calls something out of you that the East and The Desert Plains do not.  I don’t know what it is.  But I like it.  I wish I could say this more clearly, but I wanted to record the confusion, the intuition, the recognition that there is a power here that is unlike what we have seen so far.  It is not Western European Enlightenment; it is not civilized. It is not Nomad Existenialism and Aloneness.  It's something larger.  It is not cynical or ironic or empty.

Soundtrack.  Linda Ronstadt:  "Colorado."