Monday, November 29, 2010

Anti-Consumerist Rant

Think of the conversations you've had over the years, usually with males I'm afraid to say, who hear one wrong buzzword out of your mouth. That's all it takes for their "mind" to snap closed, and off they go onto an angry rant, spewing out absolute opinions. The rants are mental recordings which the fellow gets off on. Digital thinking of this type poses as manly forcefulness, while in fact, it is emotionally self-indulgent and mentally lazy.

The best essays and blog posts are those that allow a wide range of readers to be in partial agreement. It would please me if people read my posts who think that 15% of my opinions are not complete crap, and therefore I might be redeemable. And yet, brutal honesty requires us to admit that there is something gratifying about going on a rant on the internet. Occasionally.

James Quinn outdid himself recently in an anti-consumerist rant about credit cards, big screen TVs, McMansions, SUVs, sprawl, etc. In a similar vein I wish I had a nickel for every time I've walked across the grocery store parking lot and had to dodge some noisy, diesel, brontosaurus-sized pickup truck. The driver is cutting a diagonal through the parking lot at 30 mph. He makes so much noise it sounds like he's flooring it. In his wake he leaves terrified and scattered ravens, and a carcass or two of stray cats.

Apparently that's the kind of vehicle people need to haul one human body to the grocery store, to work, or to drop off an obese child at school. Please don't say that he needs a ram-tough truck like that for the ranch, 20 miles from town. How many people make their living on the "ranch?" They spend their incomes from a job in town on their house in the exurbs, and the weed-whacker, riding lawn mower, horse trailer, four cars in the driveway, and a sun-bleached RV that sits in the back yard and gets used 6 days per year, probably on a NASCAR infield. There aren't many high-paying jobs in this area. I always wonder how the idiot affords that $40,000 monster.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Rebellion in Winter

So maybe Robert Falcon Scott and Richard E. Byrd (author of Alone) wouldn't be too impressed with the "cold" that we've been having here in the highlands of southern New Mexico -- after all, it's only a Dry Cold. But then again, so was theirs. 

Last night I got overconfident and slept without wearing my winter parka. Big mistake. When I jumped out of bed this morning I wondered first if the water had frozen inside the RV. In my rig, freezing the plumbing is not destructive since the plumbing runs off of the water pump and inside reservoir, which makes for plenty of air spaces in the plumbing. It hadn't frozen, but the water pump hesitated like the starter motor in a car, after a cold winter night.

Since I was getting suspicious of a "hard freeze" inside the RV, I had implemented standard winter survival techniques, such as filling a pan of water the night before. In the morning, if you do discover a freeze, you can still get breakfast going. What a difference it makes when that first bit of hot food or beverage starts to warm you from the inside.

The next bullet to dodge was the laptop computer. It won't fire up when the temperature gets too close to freezing. Gee, do I need to change the anti-freeze? It did fire up this morning, but just barely. The computer screen backlit my condensed breath as I typed.

The reader might be asking: why not just spend $100 per month on heat, for three or four months per year? How unsporting of the reader! As a child our house was kept at 72 F every day of the year by parents who normally wasted nothing. But worse than the money was the monotony and sterility of it all. And even worse was the fanatical indoorsy mindset that it implied. Perhaps it is that very fanaticism that caused me, as an adult, to rebel against the standard housie lifestyle.

I like to stand somewhat aside from my own skin and watch my mind focusing on one primal threat to survival. There is a dramatic intensity to it, just as there is when bicycling up a killer hill. The endless clutter of the outside world fades into insignificance. The Cold cleans the mind just as it cleans everything else in the natural world. 

If nothing else, playing with this type of adventure is a break from the standard RV stereotype of seeking "adventure" by sucking gasoline down every mile of paved highway in North America, or fighting for the laundry cart with an old biddie in Yuma.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The Wing Artist

On a standard mountain bike route the other day, I was passing by the western edge of a hill. The first runner that I've seen in a long time came by and joked about how cold and windy it was. I had to agree, but wouldn't complain about sunny, cold, and windy weather. It is New Mexico after all.

A few seconds later I was at a cliff face that faced west, where a raven was showing off, thanks to ridge lift. The raven was so close. He folded his wings in and, for just a second, paused, suspended in space with all the drama of an Olympic high diver at the edge of the board. Then he fell straight down.

The fall was so different than the flight, and yet, they both borrowed from something outside that individual bird. The raven was borrowing the Will of Gravity and Wind, combining them, and composing something that befitted his intelligence and playful mood.

In all the rides and walks that I've been on, over the years, I've never seen anything quite like that. 

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Creepie Crawlie

This creepie-crawlie was on the pavement one cold morning recently. If you count those two spindly forelegs, there are eight total. But scorpions have high tails and a pair of front pincers. Perhaps this is an immature scorpion in one of its numerous manifestations (molts). (The photos on the internet never show immature critters.)

I gave icy glares to passing motorists. Somehow the creepie-crawlie made it through the car tires without being squished. Forgive me for not carrying it to the other side of the road.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Arizona Arroyos

There are plenty of arroyos (dry washes) in the Little Pueblo, but bein' az we're at the foot of the mountains, they are usually soggy and full of plants. They just don't make for the peerless walking of the arroyos of lower Arizona. Forgive me for feeling a little nostalgia for them; during my traveling years I'd be in Arizona at this time of year. 

My dogs and I hardly ever walked real hiking trails in the uplands there, since the rocks were too sharp for dog paws. A woman in the campground here sewed up a boot out of cloth for her dog. She was amazed how short the boot's life was. But even leather doesn't stand a chance. I spent a couple years trying different brands and materials before finding Neo-Paws.

Contrast the prickliness of an Arizona razor-rock hike with the pleasure of an arroyo. Cactus and mesquite grow on the banks, but not in the middle of the "stream." As if that wasn't relief enough, the rocks and gravel are mercifully rounded. They look like they belong on a wave-lapped shoreline of a lake or ocean. How could an occasional flash flood have rounded them so? If the walker -- why do I resist the term, hiker?-- has no particular interest in geology or rocks, arroyos might inspire him to develop one, especially if he sees the wild pleasure of his dog running down an arroyo.

When Coffee Girl was new to the family she seemed like a huge beast to me; I was used to a 14 pound miniature poodle, and she weighed 40 pounds. We were in the upper end of the Verde River of central Arizona one fine morning in November and were walking in a dry tributary. She was definitely wearing her puppy face that day, so I unsnapped her and let her rip. I've always wanted to see a flash flood in the southwest, but never have. But in a way I did experience a flash flood while watching Coffee Girl tear down that arroyo. Why didn't she trip over the football-sized rocks?

There was a den for a large animal dug into the bottom of a vertical sidewall of this dry wash's bank. I was afraid to get up close for a good photo. There were some imposing claw marks outside the den. What kind of beast lived there?

Diluvial evidence was everywhere, but of course, not a drop to drink. The speed of erosion -- and thus the shortness of life -- are most evident in the plants, large rocks, or red dirt that are ever so close to falling into the "drink." 

A couple weeks later we were boondocking outside Wickenburg, one of the few Arizona towns that I like. It's proud of being the horse capitol of Arizona. All this horsey business makes for lots of informal hiking trails in the desert. There are many faint horse trails that cut across dry washes and over the spiny ridges that separate them. The ridges and dry washes fit together in a complementary, inter-digitated fashion. These trails, faint as they are, make for smooth walking. There is a special moment when you realize that you have almost lost the trail. And then it comes back briefly, only to dissipate for good a moment later, like thoughts and memories flitting in and out of a half-seniorish mind.

It's strange how I have a special place in my heart for the small, unpostcardish arroyos of Wickenburg AZ. Sometimes the coarse sand is unnaturally flat and hard packed, as if rolled by a machine. The dry wash can be as narrow as a sidewalk in town. Geologically I believe this is caused by water eroding the ground down to a flat, erosion-resistant layer. Walking these little arroyos we were in perfect comfort. But it was unnerving to be in such a dangerously narrow safety zone. Just outside these little arroyos were ghastly teddy bear cholla, which the little poodle remembers from his battle last year.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Identity Crisis

My favorite spot at the arroyo, where desert-grasslands and riparian plants get confused. At any rate it makes this area a good place for wildlife.

Thursday, November 18, 2010


Bronze Age Warriors Reincarnated

Nobody likes a thermo-wimp. Early winter's cold caught me by surprise, and I struggled to make it through the night without using heat in the RV. How could 45 F inside conquer a man? Off I went on a mountain bike ride, one cold windy sunny morning. Carelessly or deliberately I under-dressed, for the first time in years.

It turned out to be a blessing. Being chilled brings on fear first and then anger, finally leading to combat. At some point I stopped at the top of a small cliff by an old mining area and faced the foe, the cold wind.

I love visiting and writing about ridgelines, but this was different. It was bloodthirsty, vengeful, and triumphal. Maybe a book was working on me. In The Discovery of the Mind, by Bruno Snell, he talked about Homer's language being quite different from later (classical) Greek; Homer used 'skin' or 'limbs' in situations where later Greek or English would use 'body.'
"Thus the early Greeks did not, either in their language or in the visual arts, grasp the body as a unit. The phenomenon is the same as with verbs denoting sight..."
Hmm. Maybe that explains why a mountain biker (or an unleashed dog, or a pony-riding Mongol of Genghis's day) relates to the outdoor world...

...differently from slow-moving hikers, couch potatoes admiring a coffee table book, or car-driving tourists whose windshield is their living room window or TV set. For years I have wondered why I felt uncomfortable around other outdoorsmen and nature-lovers; perhaps this explains some of it.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

A New Stoopid Party?

The internet is abuzz with howls of protest about the TSA's new procedures for screening airline passengers. I wasn't too interested in this at first, probably because I haven't flown for years. But then I saw an angle that did interest me.

When an issue fits neatly into the Left-versus-Right paradigm, it can be quite boring. All the shibboleths and slogans are so predictable. If you ask somebody for their opinion, it ends up being a mere recording. But it is much more interesting when an issue produces mixed feelings and cross-currents on both sides.

Let's consider the poor Democrats first. A good liberal's instinctive reaction to some -- nay, to any -- new or expanded federal government program is that it must be a step towards Progress. At least its intentions must be good; what else matters?

And yet, this is part of the War on Terror, which is Bush's War. And the airline unions hate the new procedures. Furthermore privacy issues are a not-insignificant part of the liberal coalition. Remember the bumper stickers of years ago: Get Your Laws off my Body! It must give a good liberal pause to imagine female passengers ordered onto an ob-gyn table, told to spread their legs, and then get poked and prodded by night-stick-wielding, bottom-of-the-labor-pool cretins who work for the TSA.

Most of the howling is probably coming from the GOP. They must be torn. After all, the new procedures are a positive step towards making an American police-security state, and as the American Likud party they should be supportive of that. Oh sure, Small-Government folks are a part of their coalition and the dominant wing of the GOP has to let a few crumbs fall off the table every now and then to that minority. But how can they do that here?

Of course when all is said and done, partisan advantage -- and not theories or principles -- will decide the day. The new TSA rules are a godsend to Republicans. It is the most recent example of the unlikeable personality and image of the Democrats: that they are imperious, intrusive, and even perverse. Recall that famous photograph of the 1990's: Janet Reno's storm troopers grabbing the screaming little Cuban boy to give him back to Castro.

Well, I want to end on a positive note. America has always prided itself on its healthy, stable two party system. The new TSA procedures show that, indeed, we do have two Stoopid parties in competition.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Veterans' Day

As national holidays go, Veterans' Day is a rare success. It stands for something serious instead of frivolous or merely traditional. Oh it's true that there are a few political cranks (like me) who get nervous about too much patriotic bluster on 11 November because they think it contains an implicit advertisement for the permanent Warfare state that America has become. But many people would admonish the cranks thusly: Why not put your stupid politics aside for one day of the year, and honor the individuals who suffered and sacrificed and were proud to do so?

Very well then, let us put politics aside and admire individual soldiers for what they went through. But wasn't war itself once called 'the continuation of politics by different means?' If that is true, and if we are serious about ignoring politics, we should be just as happy to honor soldiers who fought on the "other side." Why focus exclusively on American troops?

Surely most people have the greatest admiration for a soldier who is literally fighting to protect his own soil, his home, and loved ones. How many of America's wars were fought on American soil? This is a statement of geography, not politics. Obviously most of America's wars were fought on foreign soil because of Fear, alliances, or theories. Such things are a branch of politics, which we agreed to put aside on Veterans' Day. The fact remains that if we admire soldiers for protecting their own homes, 90% of the honor we dish out on Veterans' Day should be aimed at soldiers who were fighting the American armed forces. 

Now let's focus on the courage and sacrifices of individual soldiers, regardless of whether we like the politics of their country's leaders. Review in your mind the sacrifices of American troops compared to individual soldiers who fought on the other side. Which soldiers fought with unshod feet, with starvation rations, and inferior weapons? Which soldiers were always running out of gasoline? Who had all the high-tech toys and body armor? Which soldiers were squeezed by privations of all types, while their opponents had it cushy enough to present candy bars and nylons to the local female population?

Friday, November 12, 2010

Nature Before Rousseau

It's probably time to explain why I am so resentful about being clumped in with the itinerant nature-monks and desert ascetics who are not so rare in the RV blogosphere. At times it seems that they belong in the Canterbury Tales. Most of them were young adults who were influenced by Earth Day 1970, and are now retirement age.

The irruption of nature-romanticism circa 1970 is one of those recurring fantasies that our civilization is susceptible to. Before Earth Day 1970, nature-romanticism had been in abeyance since the publication of Thoreau's Walden. Naturally young hippies, with little interest in old folks' history, thought they were on to something novel and exciting with their recycled sentiments of the Romantic age. They painted up the VW bus and headed back to the Garden of Eden with just a plastic sheet and some bean and squash seeds, back to an age of innocence and peace when man lived in Harmony with Nature, and shared everything equally.

In its 1970 reincarnation, in Thoreau's Transcendentalism, or even back in Rousseau's time, nature-Romanticism was a post-Christian belief system. "Searchers" weren't really that interested in nature herself; they were looking for a replacement for the Faith that had been emptied of all its blood by the great leech of Enlightenment. From a history book I'm enjoying at the moment,
"Many people came to hold, more or less loosely, something like this Idealist-Romantic position, meaning that we can see God or a higher reality in Nature, actually commune with it, feel its basic kinship with our souls." (An Intellectual History of Modern Europe, Roland Stromberg, Ch. 7, p. 214)
I don't really care for finding a Divine Immanence in a silly forest, but I'll admit that Thoreau's need to do so led to his inspired writing. In contrast I am loyal to a pre-Christian approach to outdoor experience: Epicureanism, the avoidance of Pain and the search for Pleasure.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Aesop's Flickers

So now I learn that a commenter thinks I watch too many movies. Hmmpf. Anyone who subscribes to Netflix watches a lot of movies of course. Some people watch their Netflix movies instead of watching boob toob sitcoms, soaps, "news", etc.

Actually the case could be made that I watch few movies if "watching" refers to paying attention to a story. The stories are usually pretty uninteresting. If you've seen one adulterous love triangle, with its psycho-sexual obsessions, you've seen them all. Then there's rags to riches, revenge, who dunnit, poor boy meets rich girl, honest poor guy versus evil pol/priest/businessman, etc. I'll bet that a discriminating movie junkie could count on his fingers the movies that had good scripts, such as Network, All About Eve, Twelve Angry Men, Bridge over the River Kwai, Ikiru, The Manchurian Candidate (1962), Shakespeare in Love, The Mission, and Traitor.

In addition to good soundtracks and cinematography, the real reason for watching movies is to mine them for metaphors. Classic movies provide metaphors in the same way as Aesop's Fables, the Bible, Shakespeare, Boswell's Johnson, and Star Trek episodes. In the movies the metaphors are situational and visual, which can be impressive. 

You'd think that the recent commenter, visual sybarite (grin) that he is, would appreciate the mind-painting that comes from shopping around in the movies for images.

Monday, November 8, 2010

"Wagon Train" for Retirees

The other day I finally looked systematically into the links followed by readers who follow this blog, in order to find new websites to read. It's always been easy to be lazy about this sort of thing, in part because the number of websites soon mushrooms into an unmanageable number.

The results were surprising: I was led to websites run by Rousseau or Thoreau wannabees. What commonality does the reader see between such blogs and mine? For one thing I do not see Mobility as a journey to the promised land. Some of these 'Freedom of the Open Road' blogs have the same attitude towards travel that religious pilgrims had, in the Middle Ages. The difference is that the latter had a more optimistic belief: they could actually make it to the sacred shrine. They could finish.

In Rob Reiner's wonderful coming-of-age movie, Stand by Me, the boys were having a philosophical conversation around the campfire, at least by the standards of 12 year olds. One boy mused: Wagon Train is such a cool TV show, but did you ever notice that, even though they are always traveling, they never really get anywhere? So it goes with the websites in question.
Combined with Mobility worship there is a Rousseau-ian romanticism of nature. They are always preaching about simplicity or swooning over windmills and solar panels, as they drag 20,000 pounds of stuff over every mile of highway in North America. If they want to expunge evil materialism and luxury from their lives, why don't they start with gasoline?

With the newbies in the Brotherhood of the Wheel there is usually an idolatry of pretty scenery that is plum-silly. It seems as though the most important step in joining the Brotherhood is to act as though you have no body parts above the neck, other than a pair of eyeballs.

So why is this blog linked in with the Brotherhood? I really don't know; maybe I need to write more clearly.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

I took a chance on a new trail yesterday. It worked out well, and was a perfect autumn day, as well. The sun penetrated the forest in a few places; sometimes it would incandesce a small oak tree that lived under their suzerains, the ponderosas. Looking for these spots was a pleasant game that honored the occasion.

At one spot along the rough forest road there was a homemade sign for a trail. I walked up the short trail toward what seemed like the top of a small mountain. Just before reaching the top, an Australian shepherd came down to greet me. This was quite a surprise. What a beautiful dog, smiling from ear to ear. The dog's owners were resting at the overlook at the top. They had walked the two or three miles up from the Littler Pueblo, which looked like a Swiss mountain village from this vantage.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Layers of Existence

What is it about grassy fields at sunrise or sunset that I love so much? Part of it is my tacto-centric view of nature, that is, feeling the world through the skin and feet and lungs rather than through over-rated eyes. The best moment is when the seed heads are dense, as well as incandescently yellow; they seem to float a foot above the ground, as a separate layer.

At such times, ambling through a dry, tawny field reminds me of kayaking in shallow clear water, as strange as that sounds. In the middle of a lake a kayaker can be quite bored with the featureless reflective surface of the water. He might be surprised to paddle in, almost to shore, and in foot deep water find more of interest than the rest of a large lake. The reflective surface of the water reflects reeds and marsh plants, nearby; but the surface is also transparent to rocks, sand, shells, and small plants on the bottom. It can be quite exciting to "exist" on two separate planes, at the same time.

It's not for nothing that Thoreau crawled belly-down onto the ice of a frozen Walden pond to admire ice, cracks, and lake bottom.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Armchair Travelers

There's probably somebody out there who knows how many armchair travelers lurk on internet travel blogs. For purposes of discussion let's assume it's 90% of the readers of travel blogs. Having fallen into the ignoble category myself, I have often wondered why I keep coming back for more. After all most bicycle touring blogs don't make for great reading unless you are really interested in whether they had oatmeal or pancakes for breakfast, or whether they found a laundromat that was open, etc.

Most of these people are remarkable endurance athletes, but poor visitors. They simply crunch miles all day long, and end the day over-accomplished in one activity (burning calories) and impoverished in all others, leaving them with little to say despite all their effort.

So why read their silly blogs? For awhile the explanation seemed to be that theirs is a true adventure, in contrast to motor-vehicle-based vacationers or RV bloggers. But that wasn't totally satisfactory.

Lately I've been on the receiving end of rudeness from motorists, while bicycling. (Nothing dangerous, though.) After all, New Mexico isn't Oregon or Colorado when it comes to bicycle friendliness. There's a delicate balancing act after minor incidents like that. 

The first reaction is to salute the motorist with an extended middle finger. But 'Uses of Ugliness' is a theme that interests me currently. The motorist's behavior was not intended as an act of friendliness, but it could be turned into a helpful act, nonetheless. It's a reminder of how careful you must be, and since most motorists are polite and safe, it's easy to forget this. For me at least, it takes a major imaginative effort to do what some cyclists do: instead of anger, they react with a friendly wave and smile and say, "Thanks asshole," and they really mean it. (The motorist can't hear what you're saying.)
This is where armchair traveling comes in beneficially. Rather than be angry or discouraged by jerks on the road, I must think about the incidents that bicycle tourers suffer as they cross an entire continent, and how good they are at overcoming them. My job should be much easier.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

When GOP Euphoria Wears Off

If I were a Republican I'd be careful about post-election euphoria. None of the fundamental weaknesses of the GOP have been addressed. It is still seen on the coasts as the party of low IQ Bahbl-bangers in the hinterlands.

When an independent voter thinks of the GOP, unpopular perma-wars in the Mideast are the first thoughts to come to mind. If the "God and Country" coalition that dominates the GOP had its way we would find new wars, starting with Iran. The coalition is made of Rapture Christians, neo-cons, and defense industries.

The label, conservative, is still misapplied to the GOP. The party was taken over by neo-cons during the G.W. Bush's administration. Neo-cons pay some lip service to the idea of limited government, but their real loyalty is to post-WWII hegemony by the USA. When they talk of "patriotism," they really mean defending the American global empire, starting with Israel of course. Rapture Christians naturally feel the same way.

It won't be very long before the GOP has a chance to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory: unemployment benefits are running out for millions of Americans soon and Congress would need to pass legislation to extend those benefits. The American people don't blame the unemployed for being unemployed; it's the big banks that are the ultimate bums who need to be kicked off the welfare rolls. The GOP has the perfect chance to solidify their image of not caring about the little guy, and goaded on by Tea Party ideologues, I suspect they will take that opportunity.

Another chance to screw up is to overlook a tough and popular leader in a blue state, such as Governor Christie of New Jersey, as their presidential candidate. His crusade against the overpaid and over-pensioned public employees unions could resonate across America. But he doesn't speak with a southern accent, nor does he look like he has just enough brains to teach Sunday school kindergarten at a Bible church, a la Sarah Palin. Thus I suspect she will be the GOP's candidate in 2012.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Mohawk Hairdo

If I had known that I would someday be interested in a bird named phainopepla, I never would have gotten into this birding racket. (The usual disclaimer: unlike my opinions on sex, politics, and religion, my bird IDs are prone to occasional error.) Still, you gotta love that crest and red eyes. Finally we are getting some migratory birds, but it hasn't been a blockbuster season like last autumn.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

The Internet and Elections

Every now and then the Internet is given credit for having an effect on the elections by way of fundraising and organization. But what about the quality of public discourse?

Remember how narrow opinions were just a few years ago before the internet. What a disgrace it was that a country like ours was satisfied to sit before the newspaper, radio, or boob toob, and passively consume the drivel of a small number of corporate opinion providers.

The opportunity is indeed huge compared to what has happened in the past. How was public discourse improved by the Hearst newspaper chain when it became nationwide? All we got was a disgusting little war, the Spanish-American War, and the "Teddy" cult. We turned our back on our proud tradition of non-interference in other countries and embraced imperialism, all because it made good copy for Hearst.

A couple decades later, the high-tech miracle of the day was radio, which had a huge effect on the politics of the 1930's: it amplified Hitler's harangues across all of Germany. It also enhanced the power of an American president with an excellent radio voice, aristocratic and reassuring. But did it really improve the quality of anything?

Just a couple years before my birth, television established a hegemony over the human mind: never before, in the history our species, had idiocy been so universal and inescapable. Now elections could depend on whether women thought the candidate resembled a movie star. Imagine the political fortunes of an eloquent, but homely, man like Abraham Lincoln appearing on a televised presidential debate. For that matter, imagine his high-pitched voice on the radio.

There are tremendous opportunities for the internet to improve the quality of public discourse in elections, but it might be naive to think that we're really to cash in on those opportunities. For instance, every day the text on the website becomes a little less important, while video grows. And you know what that means.

Bloggers should not compete against professional pundits on the latter's terms. If independent bloggers don't question the assumptions of Establishment media, who will? Important things which aren't normally considered News could be discussed instead of the latest Breaking News.