Monday, May 31, 2010

Unfriendly full moon

The Theater of Fear

Perhaps we should believe the Media occasionally, but it's hard not to be skeptical. These days we are hearing about a crisis brewing in Korea. Don't touch that channel button, folks; you need to find out if that wacko in North Korea is going to start lobbing some nukes! The Media always portrays Kim Jong-Il, the leader of Stalinist North Korea, as mentally unbalanced and dangerous.

Korea, Iran, etc., have actually become franchises in the crisis industry. As the crisis du jour, it's a great opportunity for the American secretary of state or president to look like a hero by defusing the crisis at the last moment. Later, we learn that Kim Jong-il quietly managed to get a few billion dollars as part of the deal, for "agricultural development" or whatever.

The timing of the most recent crisis in Korea is somewhat curious. It was starting to look like the American taxpayer was going to get stuck bailing out Europe. After all, it's the End of Europe, folks!!! Perhaps Kim Jong-Il of North Korea was feeling jealous and neglected; after all, he had "dibs" on the American taxpayer.

A cynic might see his "I got nukes and I'm borderline nuts" act as a ploy, and that he is actually a shrewd and talented shake-down artist -- perhaps the most consistently successful one since Jesse Jackson in his prime.

Perhaps we don't really appreciate the shake-down artist as we should. It's probably moral condemnation that gets in the way. In contrast, when we watch a nature show we admire the athleticism and artistry of an eagle or osprey diving down to snatch its prey; we don't ruin it by moralizing about the poor wittle bunny-wunny who got snatched.

Occasionally one of these shakedown artists can wax philosophical. You might remember the classic western, "The Magnificent Seven," or at least its memorable soundtrack by Elmer Bernstein. A band of banditos regularly plundered a Mexican village. The head honcho (Eli Wallach) justified his profession by saying that 'if God didn't want the villagers to be sheared, He wouldn't have made them sheep.' Indeed.

The world is full of talented scoundrels who employ variations of the shakedown artist theme. They differ widely in the violence that is actually employed. The most accomplished use little violence; fear and theater are his real weapons. Recall the scene in the "Godfather", just after they've knocked off Don Corleone; the Gangster-on-the-way-up tells the Robert Duvall character, 'I don't like violence, Tom. I'm a businessman. Blood is a big expense.'

Unions, trial lawyers, terrorists, climate scientists, Barbary pirates a couple hundred years ago, Cap-and-Trade senators, and environmental doomsday prophets -- they are all creative con-men who should be seen as talented innovators. To their credit they've adjusted better than most of us to an economy based on government, funny money, media entertainment, and Fear.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

New Grasses in the Field

There were times when it didn't seem like anything was going to grow this spring. The field was nothing but worn-out grasses left over from last autumn. I stopped bringing my camera to the field. But finally some new grass has appeared overnight.

Let's see if Blogger is working right. A click should enlarge the photo.

Geologic Time

Normally I only have a bit of success in getting anything out of geology books. It's not the geologist-author's fault (ahem) necessarily--it's the nature of the subject to have lots of jargon and memorization in it.

On a mountain bike ride the other day, my little poodle and I headed up the Uncompahgre Plateau on a smooth dirt road. It was pleasant but unexciting, and since there was no special scenery along the way it seemed like the ride might be a little disappointing.

But then the magic started happening; I started to lose self-consciousness and melt into the landscape.
There is a trance-like quality to one's state of mind at times like this. Perhaps because of that, or because of the congruity of the bicycle's speed and the gradual changes up the plateau, I was able to imagine the grandeur of geologic time. "Imagine" or "appreciate?" I'm not sure. But in either case it would have been impossible for me to experience this any other way.

Editing Versus Writing

While editing my RV travel posts as I migrate the old blog to the new, it occurred to me that my interests had changed somewhat. I was less interested in spouting off on a topic, and more interested in savoring tasty and memorable morsels of experience. That's not to say that spouting off doesn't have a positive value: it sometimes provides the impetus that is needed to overcome natural laziness.

Curved bill thrasher

My camera is still fond of the curved bill thrasher. Here's a photo of curves on curves. But personally my favorite bird is the raven, with its playful flight patterns.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

The Sinking Balloon of Real Estate

Montrose, CO. From the point of view of the valley, the Uncompahgre Plateau is a ramp that climbs to the west. Looking upward and westward from the valley on these frigid autumn mornings, you can see the Plateau being lit by the sunrise. It warms the Plateau until it becomes pyroclastic, and then it flows back into town. It is the fastest sunrise I've ever seen.

It's the time of year for rising and falling, for balloons and festivals. In Montrose,CO, three balloons took advantage of this cold calm morning to practice for the main event in Albuquerque. One of them looked like he was going to crash onto the roof of a forlorn strip mall, being offered by none other than Remax:

How fitting and proper it is that the balloon chose to crash onto the real estate company that uses a rising balloon as its symbol of success. Alas, over the last few years real estate has flown a bit too high, like Icarus of Greek myth:

The Vast Wasteland of RV Culture

One of the oddities of RV culture is its schizophrenia: it bandies romantic cliches about adventures, dreams, and the freedom of the open road, while it harps on practical matters. Why so?

RV wannabees and newbies are so insecure that they can never get enough  'how-to' tips. Commercial blogs target these naifs because they have the greatest number of purchase decisions still to be made. And they believe ads.
The same is true of individual RVer's blogs that make the reader's eyes run a gauntlet of google ads.

RV clubs think of themselves as being on the side of the rank and file RVer instead of the side of RV manufacturers. This is largely true. Still, RV clubs are in the business of selling memberships and dues. And they too aim their practical tips at wannabees and newbies because it's what makes them cough up the dues.
All of this is as it should be. People need to make a living and newbies need advice.  

But after a couple years in RV organizations you might as well drop out and save yourself the dues. They will keep catering to insecure newbies, while you have moved on to a type of orphanhood. An experienced RVer must find his own way.

Consider non-commercial (ad free) RV travel blogs run by individuals.
Maybe you too are in the habit of running across RV travel blogs with high hopes, and then becoming disappointed. For instance, the blogger starts off promising to talk about personal transformations that can occur in an alternative lifestyle. But then he expostulates on how two blocks of wood can be screwed together, in such and such a way, to make custom leveling blocks.

They lure the reader's eyeballs with buzzwords like 'adventure' and 'dreams,' and then you learn that the adventures are motor vehicle-based sightseeing trips, not all that different from what any July tourist would do. Their dreams are just escapism.
Why do RV bloggers tell you whether they did laundry today and what they had for breakfast? Sigh. Truly, RVing on the Net is a vast wasteland of thinly disguised infomercials, or the dreariest prose, replete with turgid descriptions of picayune details.

Perhaps the non-commercial blogs by individual RVers are just imitating the rest of the industry. That's a shame; it's such a missed opportunity.

Back Home in Plateau Country

When people see somebody head off to go full time RVing they probably think that the traveler will settle down in a couple years. (They can only be going through a phase, you know.)  In my case this phase has lasted ten years. But in a metaphorical sense, they were right. There is a place I feel at home at--not a zip code, but a topographic form, a physiographic region.

We're roaming free-range again in plateau/mesa/canyon country. Specifically we're in the unpronounceable uncomparable Uncompahgre, west of Montrose, CO.

Why should mesas and canyons be one's favorite topography? Perhaps it's the balance and contrast between flatness and sharp declivities, between grassy foregrounds and distant mountains, or the ease of accessibility to an RV and a mountain bike.

From our current RV boondocking campsite on a small mesa we can see the San Juan mountains, the Uncompahgre Plateau, and the unmatchable Grand Mesa.

After having forests block my foreground since June, I love seeing distant horizons again. The Uncompahgre started off as an uplift coeval with the Rocky Mountains, but then its orogenic career plateau'd early (ahem), while the Rockies when on to bigger and better things.

The very term, mountain bike, is a misnomer. Hiking boots are the right technology for mountains, whereas the misnamed mountain bike is ideal for hill country, plateaus, and mesas.

We headed off on a mountain bike right from the trailer door. There is nothing more perfect than a gradual, relentless climb, in which no altitude is wasted. Riding up the Uncompahgre was like that. I enjoyed watching the forest and geological layers transform, as we climbed. Although the dirt road was monotonically uphill, there were inflection points that fooled me into expecting summits. We weren't even close to the top when we turned around. I didn't care.

There was little eye candy here, in the usual postcard sense. The great attraction was the sense of luxurious spaciousness and freedom--away from tourists, Jeep Wrangler traffic jams, and guys with uniforms and badges.

Being close to the San Juan Mountains (Tourist Central), but a bit away, is working well for me. It is one more example of the Shadow Principle.

On the long downhill coast back towards Montrose, CO, I had to put gloves on, while the little poodle wore his handsome fall jacket!

True Grit in the San Juans

Western Colorado. As much as I love afternoon clouds during the monsoons, autumn rains are completely different. So I fled the upper Gunnison River valley for the torrid lowlands of Montrose (6000 feet) and the Uncompaghre River Valley. But it was stormy down here, too. East of the river there are shale badlands which turn into a quagmire when it rains.

I have written before of how much the right book or movie can combine with the right location. With the San Juan Mountains in the background, this seemed like the time to watch "True Grit."  Soon I found a low BLM mesa to camp on, about thirty miles from where much of the mountain scenery of True Grit was shot. At a couple times during the movie, I stepped out of my trailer to admire specific mountains and rocks that were prominent in scenes in the movie.

A couple days later another autumn storm blasted the San Juans, as seen from my RV boondocking campsite:

The next day they were snow capped. I must admit a fresh cladding of snow can freshen and crisp up a mountain range considerably.

Maybe I should just stay in Colorado this winter. Yea right. 

How fine it was to walk around on my little mesa, facing these scenes of the San Juans, while listening to that magnificent soundtrack of Elmer Bernstein, and imagining John Wayne charging across the meadow toward the bad guys with the reins in his teeth, his eye patch, shooting his pistol, while twirling and cocking the rifle with the other hand!

Monday, May 24, 2010

The End of Europe?

Lately we've been hearing that if the euro currency fails, Europe fails. Shame on me for not losing any sleep over this.

What exactly do they mean 'Europe?' A historian might say that 'Europe' began with Charlemagne. It had barely beaten off an attack from Muslims from North Africa, by way of the Iberian Peninsula. The way Islam was growing, it seemed like it was going to take over the world. Then Europe had to face the depredations of the Northmen. It survived, and even converted those barbarians to its civilization.

Next was the Little Ice Age, and the rise of the Ottoman Turks, who threatened the south and east of Europe for hundreds of years. Let's not forget the Black Death which killed a fourth of Europe.

The religious wars hit hard in the 1500s and early 1600s. Yet Europe survived. It also survived the French Revolution and the Marxist irruption. To top it all off, Europe survived two World Wars over a thirty year time span in the early twentieth century.

Of course, that doesn't mean we should give in to overconfidence, but I think Europe would survive the demise of the euro currency. It's only a decade old; how did Europe survive before the euro? The euro is not absolutely necessary in order to have a free trade zone in Europe.

So who is really threatened by the demise of the euro currency: French-style bureaucrats in Brussels, who think that having a single currency is their ticket to accumulating more power.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Tour of SilVURKistan

As yet, I haven't been able to convince any of the local cyclists of the charms of Sil-VURK-istan, which is what I call the high desert and grasslands to the south of the Little Pueblo. It really does remind me of photos that I've seen of the Stans of central Asia. I find it refreshing to look across a landscape and see no houses or buildings. Just land and plants, dominated by texture.

This isn't an area that explodes with flowers in the spring, following a wet winter. Our plants are cautious; they wait until the end of the monsoon season in September. So I appreciated the flowers that did show themselves on today's ride.

These days cellphone towers must be disguised as trees to escape the strictures of the local planning busybodies. Well then, perhaps RV parks should require the nearly-universal TV dish to be disguised. What's this? Somebody's already thought of that.

As usual, most flowers grow right alongside the road. Blogger seems to be having problems uploading photos right now, so use Picasa Web albums instead. Here's the link.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Living with a Laccolith

North of Gunnison, CO. My little poodle and I hiked up the small "mountain" behind the camper. There was no real trail. We kept traversing the slope so it wouldn't be too steep. Eventually we found a game trail to follow. Then we'd lose it, or at least, it seemed so. This became a game, far more interesting than following a real hiking trail.

We found a large spherical mushroom, with a crack. It made me thick of that scene in "Jurassic Park" when they watch the dinosaur egg hatching.

The little "mountain" was not tall and we were soon at the top. It proved to be quite flat on top--maybe just a little tipped or domed. Geologists would call this a "laccolith," formed by igneous material intercalating sedimentary stratifications, followed can see why reading geology books is about as much fun as conjugating verbs in Latin. What the geologists would say if someone taught them English is that hot lava under pressure squeezes between flattish layers of sandstone or shale, doming the top layer a little. Then the top layer of sandstone erodes away over the ages, leaving the volcanic rock as an erosion-resistant, flattish, domed caprock. But just imagine the pressure that was needed to split the layers of sandstone!

Our little mountain was a miniature poodle-sized version of the laccolith. There are quite a few of them in this section of Colorado. The top dog is the Grand Mesa, just east of Grand Junction, CO.

There was a nice stand of grass and aspen on top, and there should have been a herd of elk or deer too. 
Although there was no scenery to brag about, it was pleasant and soothing to walk lazily over the flattish glade. It was only as wide as a large lawn, in town, and felt quite personal; a comfortable, private little world hanging in the sky.

Real Reason for RV Boondocking Exposed!

If a normal RV camper asks an RV boondocker, Why? The answer might be:

The usual answers about crowding, high prices, unneeded facilities, highway noise, etc., are all true, but something is still missing.

But let's reverse the perspective: what do non-boondockers think of boondockers? They are probably too polite to say what they really think: that we are half-destitute low-lifes, loners, Thoreau wannabees, etc. Heck I even feel that way sometimes--especially when camping close to half-crazed desert rats, or old guys in the forest who wear camo.

A recent comment from a reader got me thinking along a certain line that perhaps leads to the real reason for RV boondocking.
Someone, perhaps Chesterton, once said that an adventure is nothing more than an inconvenience rightly considered. By 'rightly' he meant romanticized.

There are RVers who think that the conventional RV lifestyle is fine, as far as it goes, but it is too tame and antiseptic.  In order to feel inspired they need to rise up in the morning to a certain amount of serendipity and surprise, rather than comfort and security.

The Modern Lighthouse

Lighthouses in a landlocked state? Well yes, if you look at it right.

I'm probably not the only one who sometimes dawdles or procrastinates when they arrive in a new town. Sometimes there are so many choices, and they seem like such big projects, that you do nothing. That's why it helps to work for a dog. They have more sense than we do sometimes. They just want to get out there, and without thinking about it too hard. 

So we hike to the first cell tower or radio antenna site. These are more than the source of cellphone and wireless internet signals; they are navigational aids to the entire lifestyle of an RV boondocker. They are to me what an old-fashioned lighthouse was to a seamen. They don't look like each other, exactly, but they have other similarities. Both are tall edifices that stand out and emit powerful signals of electromagnetic radiation. The main difference between their respective "lights" is the wavelength, which is a million times longer for the cell towers.

Ahh but the old lighthouses are things of beauty, you say. A solitary lighthouse-keeper saved the lives of seamen. And the modern cell tower is merely a bland, utilitarian, tech-wiz gadget. But remember that in their day lighthouses on a sea coast were utilitarian, high-tech wonders too, with powerful lamps and Herschel lenses. They weren't put there to be picturesque.

Over the years lighthouses became icons of the postcard industry. Must something be obsolete in order to romanticize it? Will people at the end of this century flutter their eyelashes at the remains of cell towers of our own quaint and charming times?

River Walking

If you follow the financial news you hear a lot about liquidity crises. I've always had my own form of "liquidity" crisis: an inability to connect with water, despite consistent success in having great experiences with outdoor life, in general.

All summer I've noticed how special it was to see the little dog walk down to the stream behind our RV boondocking site and drink from it. It has been years since he had a chance to do that. Just think!--liquid water, actually running--not just a dry wash or arroyo! How exotic!

After wearying of just looking at the mountain stream next to camp, near Silverton CO, the frustration boiled over one day. I put on a pair of old shoes and took my little poodle out to the mountain stream; we waded out into the foot-deep river. He is no Labrador retriever and doesn't really care for water, but it was a warm afternoon and he seemed to enjoy it.
It's been years since I touched the water myself, except for taking a shower. Other campers watched our water ballet, and laughed their heads off. But say, maybe I've invented a new sport: river walking. It felt so good to be doing something with water rather than just sitting there looking at it!

Of course a new sport will never catch on unless it can be used as an excuse to buy some expensive, specialized, sports equipment. Perhaps the waders and boots used by fly fishermen could be adopted to this hot new sport.
I can just see the front cover of some glossy magazine bragging up this new craze.

Colorado's San Juans

Clearly, the San Juans are Colorado's best eye candy, in the usual postcard sense. The San Juans are newer than the other ranges and are volcanic, rather than folded or fault block ranges. Here was our first route in the San Juans:

Stratified sedimentary layers I'm used to--but a green layer? How could a wind-blown seed find purchase on a slope like this?

A motorist stopped when he saw my little dog in the BOB trailer behind the mountain bike. He was a serious amateur photographer and was studied up on nature. He thought the seeds would have been dropped by birds into the cracks or holes that even a steep slope must have. Probably so, but how did these plants or bushes propagate up there?

We finished our ride and returned to find a Silverton couple saddling up two llamas, for an overnight trek up to an alpine lake. 

They are members of the camel family, but don't have humps. Their hooves are more like a hard pad, with two-toes and funny toe nails. How would these pack animals fare in a competition with burros? It would all depend on the rules. The llamas would probably survive drought better. They are ruminants that could survive on a wide variety of grasses and plants. Burros have to pack their own chow. 

I've decided that Colorado's San Juans have better eye-candy than recreation, at least from my specialized point of view. Harsh volcanic ground is murder on dog pads and mountain bikes. Topography can be too steep for RV boondocking. I am better off in the Arkansas or San Luis valleys. But most of all, crossing the dirt-road passes in Jeep Wranglers has been turned into a mass-tourist thing, which ruins it for mountain biking.

The Bunk House of Silverton

Now that I finally knew the route to the old Bunk House (or Boarding House) on the cliff at the 12,000 foot mine, it was time to do it! I drove up a road that was really meant for ATVs or small jeeps, but the odds were pretty good that I wouldn't pass any other motor vehicles. Vacationers don't like early starts or dead end roads, and Labor Day was over.

Maybe this is why they invented ATVs and Jeep Wranglers!

I parked below treeline in order to enjoy hiking through it and into the open. We hiked the narrow footpath that presumably was used to build the tramway that sent ore down from the mine, and supplies and men up to the Bunk House.

It was no mystery how miners chose a spot to start digging: they looked for quartz veins at the surface. Gold dissolves in quartz at high temperature. Indeed you can still see such quartz veins.

This was the steepest face we have hiked on, this summer. My little dog enjoys scaring me by scampering by me, on the outside of course, and sending small rocks rolling down the side of the mountain. The outside corners of the trail reminds one of Roadrunner and Coyote cartoons, where cars go leaning out over the edge as they round the corner.

Finally we got our first view of the Bunkhouse. The fly fisherman of three posts past said that a preservation society landed a helicopter up there to re-roof the buildings. Where on earth did they land the helicopter?! Maybe it had to lower supplies with a rope. The trail approached the Bunkhouses about 100 feet above them. 

At first I was disappointed to see the trail end, leaving no way to get down to the Bunkhouses for a non-climber. But it was nice to see the Bunkhouse keep its aura of mystique. The Bunkhouse had line of sight to Silverton. My cellphone even worked.

Let's hope the miners could afford a brass telescope, and after a hard day in the mines, sat out on the porch and smoked their pipes, and passed the telescope back and forth. They looked back to town, and dreamed of all the blandishments on Blair Street, if only they'd get lucky this time.


Labor Day weekend in Silverton, CO. There is always some excitement in the middle of the day in Silverton, when the tourist train arrives from Durango, and disgorges the suckers and marks. The economy of the town depends on them. I've come to appreciate this daily ritual.

But part of the credit for the festive mood this weekend must go to the Harley riders. Even if you dislike their hobby -- and I do -- they really do bring a sense of visceral excitement to town, like a Biblical plague of flying insect pests.

Do Harley people really deserve the disdain they so often get? Sure, most of us hate their noise and other features shall I say it... their over-studied affectation of a commercially-prepackaged faux rebelliousness.

But to their credit, they've found a partial remedy for the pathological over-earnestness of middle-age, and the joylessness of old age. What is so bad about a matron feeling like a hot young chick in her over-priced leather fashions? Or is an old boy really so crazy to take some risk riding a motorcycle, rather than settling into a meaningless and painful old age?

According to the accident statistics there is a 1 in 1200 chance that a motorcyclist will have a fatal accident, any given year. That sounds pretty bad compared to other modes of transportation, but it also means that most motorcyclists will not be killed.

There is a rational courage in taking some risk to do something you love while you still can, rather than quietly slipping into a more conventional senescence, in which you learn "to lose and neglect the creeping hours of time." (Shakespeare, As You Like It).

Bloggers of the World, Unite!

Reading an email from a friend and fellow blogger, I got fired up. He complimented me on editing some of my old posts. In part I am doing that because they will be obliterated when I drop the old blog hosting service in mid-June. Since the old and new sites won't easily switch the old posts to the new, I must use brute force, which in fact is fun.

But I was worried about alienating readers. Would they think it was cheating to recycle old stuff? Actually, some probably do, but so what? Why do amateur bloggers like me think they need to be popular? Why do we think it's our job to give readers a free morning newspaper to read, full of Breaking News? A blogger should write for his own benefit, mostly.

A Box Canyon that Opened Possibilities

Today's ride was in a "gulch." That's an ignominious name for a beautiful U-shaped box canyon/valley, scooped out by glaciers.

This little house on the prairie was cute, especially the broom.

It was parked by a corral with horses. This little trailer was meant to be a repositionable cottage or boarding house, not an RV, but for whom?
If only a Basque shepherd or vaquero would have stepped out of it.

Soon we came to the high end of the "gulch", and saw large waterfalls. The dirt road devolved into foot trails that climbed over the top of the surrounding, U-shaped massif.

On the return trip I stopped to chat with a fly fisherman, a likable guy, but I usually like fly fishermen. Close to the Continental Divide the streams are only a foot deep, and are fast. A fish must be desperate to make a living if it swims in this stream all day. Once again I toyed with the possibility of taking up fly fishing, but wasn't sure why. It certainly wasn't the appeal of all that cluttery paraphernalia. Nor does standing stationary seem interesting. Still, I was hooked on the idea.

Perhaps it is the beauty of a couple books by fly fishermen. Consider
"A River Runs Through It", by Norman Maclean. p. 43:

"Ten or fifteen feet before the fly lights, you can tell whether a cast like this is going to be perfect, and, if necessary, still make slight corrections. The cast is so soft and slow that it can be followed like an ash settling from a fireplace chimney. One of life's quiet excitements is to stand somewhat apart from yourself and watch yourself softly becoming the author of something beautiful, even if it is only floating ash."

Or consider "Home Waters," by Joseph Monninger, p. 46:
"I cast to the tail of the pool, not far from where a log lay submerged beneath a white sheen of running water. In the instant the cricket landed, the white sheen seemed to gather its molecules and become a trout. The shape appeared not from the bottom or from the darkness near the log, but came, as a thought, to take the fly. I lifted the tip of my fly rod and suddenly the fish swirled and became separate from the water, and I saw it as an animal, a creature, and I led it to me."

My goodness, I'm such a sucker for this fly fishing-cum-philosophy stuff. Or maybe it's the memory of how hunting, during my adolescence, led to the realization that I didn't care about shooting a silly squirrel--I was only using that as an excuse for walking outdoors in cool, autumn mornings. This led to hiking, and then to bicycling.

What would fly fishing, if I let out enough line, lead to? I only knew the short term answer: the fisherman pointed out the old Boarding House clinging to the side of a mountain, high over our heads, at 11,000 feet. 

A famous old mine was up there. Living on site spared the miners not only a daily "commute," but also the snares of notorious Blair Street in nearby Silverton. One look at this sight and our next hike was decided. 

Friday, May 21, 2010

Camping Close to Water

Silverton, CO. Since I am camping close to a small mountain river, and since it looks like the front cover of a glossy RV magazine extolling the RV Dream, there were other campers nearby. What an odd feeling. Initially it seemed like a luxury to have people to chat with. But then I started noticing and recalling how narrow the RV demographic is.

I refrained from taking one of these  RV dream-sites, in part so that those whose really wanted one could get it.

But the selfish motivation was that I dislike camping close to others. One night, one of the blockheads was running a generator the entire night, probably to run an electric heater. It's only late August but it has frosted here already. 

It is amazing how tourists and campers are drawn to water, despite the fact that most of them don't do anything in the water besides sit there and look at it. Having to choose between lakes and rivers I prefer the rivers. They seem more alive.

Once I camped with other RVers on a windy bay near La Paz in Baja California. A full time RVer told me the story of her life and her present financial difficulties. She spent most of the year in Southern California. So then, why not find a cheaper place to live? She stared off in a distance, fluttered her eyelashes a little, and replied that she loved being "close to the water." She had no boat or water sport, yet she saw something that I couldn't see.

I'm not complaining about this tendency. Since it doesn't afflict me personally, I can use it to advantage. When camping in Baja I would sneak off a bit inland and camp free. It was nice to escape the blowing sand and salt spray. Then the dog and I had the excuse to take a short walk whenever we felt like seeing the water.

Another Baja camper used to make a big project out of jockeying her huge motorhome to get its main window facing "The View." She continually risked getting stuck in the sand.
But it was her Dream to sit on her couch in a "gigante" RV, look out a huge window, and take in a 'breathtakingly beautiful' scene, just like what you'd see on the front cover of an RV industry glossy.

But back to my current RV boondocking site along the river. Every night my neighbors have a campfire on the round, alluvial gravel. I look forward to sunset and the smell of their fire starting up. They are just the right distance away--I hear their voices, but cannot understand them. It is just a soft murmuring, like the stream a few feet behind them. There really aren't many sounds more soothing than this, except perhaps a woman singing to her baby.

A Practical Philosopher

It was time for one last ride near Leadville, CO. It was my first time here and I have sort of fallen in love with the place. I chose to mountain bike up a dead end road; they are unpopular with weekenders. Heck, they were even unpopular with me during the first couple years of full time RV boondocking. It took some real effort to break away from the nearly universal preference for a loop road.

On the ride we passed a fine old cabin. Apparently somebody lived in it, at least seasonally. It had a marvelous view back to Mt. Elbert. When I hike or bike uphill I never turn around, per Satchel Paige's classic advice. But in this case I'm glad I did. Although it was only mid-morning Mt. Elbert already had a canopy of threatening clouds. We explored a bit more before returning.  Coming down was such a glide!

At one point I went to check out a spur road that went up an exposed ridge, my favorite topographic form. The freshening breeze was so delightful, on a day when most of the country was burning up. No bugs, moderate humidity, a muted sun. I couldn't help but feel euphoric. Dry Heat conquered at last!

There was still a ways back to the van. I seldom descend with any speed, especially with my hat on, instead of a helmet. But I had to do something to celebrate the occasion, the mood. With the little poodle unbound and leading the charge in front, I let it go, even to the point of feeling a little giddy.

There is no idea so absurd that a human philosopher hasn't embraced it, at one time in history. For example think of the ascetic, quiet-ist tradition that aspires to happiness by renouncing all desires. It's a credit to the human race that few of us ever actually followed these sages, although we sometimes pretend to admire them.

No dog ever did. Maybe that's why the scene of doggie yoga in the movie, "Good Boy," is so funny. A dog would never believe anything as silly as "Less is More." But he will believe that Enough is Enough. One minute he can be careening down a road, enjoying one of his favorite pleasures: running outdoors with a man that he loves. But when he's had enough, he curls up and goes to sleep.

Thursday, May 20, 2010


While slaving away on editing my old blog posts I was distracted by the most boisterous musicality of some bird in the area. His tail was about as long as his body, proper, and the tail had white bars, I think. His topside was grey. I get a lot of satisfaction catching a "greedy little songbird" (recall the movie, "Amadeus") in the act.

As usual click to enlarge, or go to my Picasa web albums by clicking the Photo Albums link near the top of the home page.

Experiencing a Book, While Traveling

When traveling I try to experience a book, rather than merely read it. With some luck a traveler's location can add something chemical and explosive to the book.

This happened to me recently in Leadville, CO. I was camped by a national forest road that was on the race course of two separate races that featured the most amazing athletes. My mind drifted off to Greek Olympic athletes. I picked up a book on Greek mythology, and was amazed to find myself actually interested in that silly nonsense, for the first time.

Other things contributed to this chemical reaction, such as monsoon clouds accumulating before their mid-afternoon schedule, and lightning strikes so close to my trailer that they sounded like a shotgun blast outside the trailer door. So I was willing to play along with reading about Zeus the Cloud-Gatherer and Thunderbolt-Thrower. If this seems too whimsical for the reader, remember that your mind and body are the same as the homo sapiens of a few thousand years ago. All that has changed is the layers of modern security blankets and conveniences that insulate you from the capricious force of real nature. That, and you've been taught that everything is scientifically explainable, and hence dull.

We hiked up a non-descript mountain near Leadville -- one that barely deserved a name.
We got an unusually late start, and once above tree-line I started to worry about agglomerating clouds approaching from both sides. My head was the highest object on this exposed ridge. How can you tell how risky that actually is? Recently a Denver weekender told me about a jogger being killed by lightning.

But just when I was ready to surrender and turn around, the sun would come out. This happened several times. Something--or someone--seemed to be playing with me.

Then we came up to this mine shaft. I truly hate these things, and yes, it's a bit of a phobia

They are the very portals of Pluto, god of the Underworld, Hades. I'll bet the miners hated them even worse.
I forced myself to walk closer. When only a body's length away I reached down for a rock to sound the portal's sinister, subterranean depths. How many seconds would a lucky toss go before hitting a solid stop?

A lurid image kept coming to mind: the falling rock was turned into my dear little dog, who had been lured over by the siren call of marmots. Or maybe the rock had been transformed to my dog by whats-her-name, that goddess who turned Odysseus's crew into swine.

At any rate, in reaching down, water dribbled out of water bottle, apparently.  When I felt water falling...falling...down my arm, it so startled me that I dropped everything and backed away from the abyss, and nearly stumbled over a rock.

In case the reader thinks this is a fanciful encounter with an old dead god of ancient Greece, let him think about the recent headline story about the miners in Utah. What was the human drama there, exactly? The death of six men, and the grief of their families? Of course not--that happens all over the world, every day. The drama was the fact that nobody actually knew if the miners were dead or alive--it was the shadowiness of the Underworld, all over again.

Finally it seemed like Zeus would spare me. Why would a god of his stature bother to smite a man who hiked up such a minor mountain? The gods punished mortals for overweening pride, hubris, and my choice of such a humble mountain peak had let me off the hook.

Say, that was rather clever, wasn't it? I gloated inwardly, congratulating myself on beating the System once again. Just then I noticed a molybdenum-colored cloud ahead. It seemed to be moving right towards the peak, if that was the peak.

This mountain top was one of those convexities that tantalizes you with a continually receding false summit. So it wasn't just a cloud. It was a new malevolence, a local Zeus wannabe not mentioned in my mythology book, which was aimed at a national audience, after all. It was Climaxos, the sky-god who guards Leadville's lesser peaks.

Again I was spared. The sky-god moved off to the north and east, to his home on Colorado's continental divide--a place unique in all mythology, a place where the sky gods and the god of the Underworld live as neighbors--the famous Climax molybdenum mine.

Extreme Exercise

Since arriving in Colorado I have been extolling its outdoors exercise cult to the point of boosterism. It's time for a little balance.

This weekend Leadville had a 100 mile Run! Runners had 30 hours to complete it. I'm not sure of all the rules, but apparently they could walk or rest whenever they needed to. But they had to make intermediate cutoff points by the deadline or be disqualified.

The 100 miles had its share of climbs of course. The altitude varied between 9500 and 12000 feet. In the afternoon the runners had to contend with rain and lightning. I saw some of the survivors crawling in on Sunday morning. Some hobbled in, looking very sore.

Why is there this obsession in running, biking, etc., with enormous distances? Why not shorten the distance, increase the speed and intensity of the race, and make it more interesting by some other angle? My best efforts at amateur psychoanalysis is that these people have a drastic self-esteem problem that can only be assuaged by self-inflicted torture.

In an earlier era, say, the ascetic era of the early Christian Church, people like this had names like St. Anthony. They thrived in the desert, inflicting pain and suffering on themselves, sitting on flagpoles for years, wearing hairshirts, drinking only water, eating who knows what--probably bugs and rodents.

At the finish line the runners had to run up a steep uphill, so steep that just by looking at the Finish Line banner the bleary, confused runner would look at the sky over the highest town in the US, like a medieval sinner staring into heaven.

The announcer gave their name and hometown, and congratulated them for finishing the Race Across the Sky. Perhaps he thought the phrase was inspiring--an allusion to winged Pegasus of Greek myth, or the Ride of the Valkyries of Teutonic myth.

But wouldn't it be better to compare all this to the annual pilgrimage of Shiites to the Holy City of Qum, with them practicing self-flagellation along the way?

Alpine Mushrooms

West of Leadville CO a couple summers ago. We started on the dirt road that leaves the Turquoise Lake paved road.

What better way to start a day than to find yourself on a smooth, well-maintained road that ascends mildly but relentlessly to a high mountain pass! A mountain biker notices road texture more than scenery, no matter how "breathtakingly beautiful" the postcard scenery might be. This road seemed determined to give us a perfectly balanced ride. In particular I loved the variety of viewscapes.

As the ride developed I felt an overarching sense of gratitude. Perhaps because the object of my gratitude was so nebulous, the gratitude seemed more transcendent than the alpine vistas themselves.

Only a few gasoline athletes passed us. Do they resent us?  In their minds they are adventuring with mighty jeeps, big 'tars,' winches, fancy GPS gadgets, and all. Sometimes they even caravan--there's safety in numbers, you know. Then they pass a little "foo-foo" dog, trotting up to the pass like it's a walk around the block. 

Soon the little dog and I were on top, at the pass, where a jeep couple was gathering mushrooms at 12,000 feet! The mushroom lady was quite proud of her collection. She delivered a little tutorial on the art of mushroom hunting. At first it looks like such a humble and unexciting hobby. 

But in fact it seemed important. In the ordinary course of daily life, back in town, jostling in the street as the poet William Blake would put it, most people seem like uninteresting nuisances to me. But here at Hagerman Pass, frisking with a pet obsession, freed of the daily grind, people can seem as charming as a kitten unrolling a ball of twine.

RV Snowbird Plans Winter

My favorite seasons as a full time RVer are the shoulder seasons, when I have to form some sort of plan for the upcoming migration. In autumn the most fundamental question is whether you want to travel in the winter or hibernate in "townie" mode.

The case could easily be made that an RVer needs some balance over the course of a year. From a travel point of view, North America shrinks in the winter, so it might be preferable to go into "townie" mode in the winter, if townie mode one must go. The biggest advantage of townie mode is that you get to know people. In contrast, when I'm in travel mode I make Thoreau at Walden Pond look like a social butterfly. And he only lived there two years!

If only I actually liked one of the warm spots of Arizona! The large cities are just smaller versions of LA. There are few medium sized cities in the snowbird  areas of the Southwest. Yuma is so crowded, and it's hardly a bargain anymore. And the small towns are dusty, impoverished, desert rat towns.

What about Mexico?
Mexico is a big country, so you have to guard against grand generalizations based on spotty anecdotes. I cherish the memories of my Mexican adventures. The internet is making it easier to winter in Mexico. Mexico has its RV boosters. Generally I agree with them about its attractions, but boosters seldom tell both sides of the story. The cliche about 'how cheap Mexico is' might be correct in a narrow sense, but you must add in the substantial cost of getting there.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

A Puppet on a String

There's cute and then there's...

She's a yorkie-poo, two months old. Click photo to enlarge, or click the (blue) "photo albums" link at the top of home page.

Orogeny and Erosion

We are camped in the national forest right on the route of the recently completed Leadville Trail 100 mountain bike race. The other day we rode a forest road up to the foot of Mt. Elbert, the tallest peak in Colorado. The most pleasant surprise was the marvelous, hard-packed, sandy texture of that particular forest road.

I couldn't get the word 'orogeny' out of my mind. What a beautiful word. It means mountain-building. Of course the opposite of orogeny is just as important. Erosion is one way to look at it. As detritus is swept down the side of a mountain, to the valley, the small stuff should drop out last, at lower altitude. Indeed we were benefiting from that today on the ride.

The forest was a lodgepole pine monoculture. If ever a tree was aptly named, it is the lodgepole pine. The forest was as bland as you can imagine, but it wasn't as dark and depressing as a spruce/fir forest. When I stopped pedaling and held my breath, I could hear nothing--no wind, no birds. Did anything live here?  It was as empty as the Mojave Desert.

Finally we got to the end of this marvelous forest road where we could see faint trails going up the ridges of Mt. Elbert. With binoculars I could see a group of twenty peak-baggers descending from the just-vanquished peak. They were 3500 feet above us. You really have to stare at these ants to tell what direction they're moving.

Looking down at the little dog I could tell what he was thinking. The smaller the fuzzball, the bigger the dreams. That recent Thirteener has whetted his appetite for his first Fourteener. Before he had any more time to think about it, I turned us home.

Is it really fair to curse the ugliness of pine and spruce forests? Some of my favorite western scenery is the Palouse of eastern Washington, which consists of rolling hills covered with wheatfields. But how attractive would that be to a mouse? And that's the problem. A man is too small to enjoy this lodgepole pine forest. If he were 150 feet tall and walked here, it would be gorgeous.

This seems like mere whimsy--playing Gulliver in the Rockies. But maybe it explains the great appeal of an outdoor sport like hang gliding or parasailing. Getting your eyes above the clutter allows you to appreciate the land's contours and texture.

A Jack and a Jill Went up the Hill

This was only the second festival weekend for me this summer. Previously I gave up on the game plan of visiting one summer festival after another. I'm glad Leadville's Boom Days is one of my successes. Some people fit in so well with the historical look, you have to wonder what they do the rest of the year. I could live without the Doc Holliday and saloon girl schlock. Ahh, now this is better:

How resplendent she had been in the parade! Afterwards at a food booth, she dropped something and a man came running up to pick it up for her. I was fumbling with the camera, and didn't see it, but let's hope she repaid him with a little curtsy.  What a sap I am for anything archaic! What a loss it is to civilization that women no longer "wear" parasols. I'll bet they used to be as expressive with them as a dog is with its tail.

On Sunday it was time for the crowd-pleaser: the burro race up to Mosquito Pass. Just imagine running, walking, and pulling on that stubborn burro for 21 miles (round trip) and a 3000 foot altitude gain! (Burros, donkeys, and asses are three words for the same animal. The male is the jack, the female is the jennie.)

I had no idea how competitive this sport is. Those burros aren't just for looking cute. There was a shorter course for the women. But one woman was actually entered in the men's race. And look who came in as the winner!

She was the first woman to win the main race. Previously I had half-noticed that she was athletic, but I just didn't notice how athletic. I guess I'd spent all my time looking at her ass.

It's Only a Dry Heat

Eighty percent of the discomfort felt by a full time RV boondocker occurs during summer. It needn't be so. Step One is to stop going north in summer, as counter-intuitive as that is. Going north will only keep you cool during the shoulder seasons. Would that they lasted longer than a couple weeks!

Shame on me for taking so long to realize that latitude is a secondary variable and that altitude is preeminent. Through a geographical accident, most of the high altitude towns are in the Southwest.

It's easy to underestimate the pleasantness of the southwestern monsoon season, from early July to mid-September. Even before the afternoon sky-and-cloud show, the higher humidity mutes the sun. By noon cumulus clouds have formed foamy white tops and darkling bottoms. Their bottoms darken as the vertical development continues. Finally they flocculate into a thundershower -- transient, local, and topographic.

This praise of clouds and rain must seem surreal to those of the Pacific Northwest. But an RV snowbird can easily get too much sun. Besides the mistake of going north in the summer, the other source of thermal misery is mismanaging the solar panels on your RV. They cause you to park in the sun instead of the merciful shade. Yes, you could move them to the roof of your tow vehicle, so that your trailer can park in the shade. And I have done that. But it makes life a little complicated and causes you to buy additional equipment.

Now that solar panels are cheaper than they used to be, it is a good idea to buy 500 Watts of them, and get charged up with a couple hours of sunlight in the morning. As long as you are in the shade from 2--6 pm, you will be happy in 90 F weather in the Southwest.

Beating the hot sun is a serious profession for RV boondockers in the western states. Either get serious about it or resign yourself to a permanent grimace on your face, eyes that narrow into a squint, finger tips that crack and sting, heels that crack and bleed, facial skin that blotches red into keratosis, which finally becomes skin cancer.

You walk from the grocery store to your car across a sun-softened asphalt parking lot, feeling worried and guilty about your poor dog in the car which is hot as a pizza oven. You drive out of the parking lot leaving tire ruts in the black, pyroclastic goo.

The sun, the aridity, will suck the very spit right out of your mouth. Think of that scene in "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly," when the Ugly tries to slowly murder the Good by marching him through the desert sun. "They say people with fair skin can't take too much of this sun," the Ugly says. He leers at his victim sadistically, while toying with a dainty, woman's parasol over his own ugly head.

The scriptwriter for this movie blew it. They should have had Clint Eastwood, crawling in the hot sand with sunburned lips and face, look up with one of his classic squints at the Ugly and the murderous Sun, and say, "Yea, but it's only a dry heat."

The Pilgrims of Mosquito Pass

Leadville, CO. The Benchmark Atlas labeled nearby Mosquito Pass, elevation 13,186 feet, as the "highest auto (jeep) pass in the US." Which of my four bicycles would be best?

I smiled thinking of the beginning of the Spaghetti Western, "For a Few Dollars More." The bounty hunter, Lee Van Cleef, has only a few seconds to shoot the bad guy who is getting away. The bounty hunter pulls a string on his saddle, and a leather rack of four guns rolls down the side of the horse: his tools of the trade, for every occasion.

The road started smooth and steep, which is my favorite kind of road. It wasn't long before I saw something unusual: a large group of fully-loaded backpackers, who would coalesce and then disperse. It was a church group from Texas, on its way over the pass. We caught up with them at the last mining tower, near tree-line, where you can faintly see the two thousand feet of switchbacks that await these hikers from sea-level homes. Faith can move mountains, indeed!

They were quite impressed with the intrepidness of my little poodle. When I told them that he was adopted in "Krrvull", Texas, and therefore "ain't no li'l dashboard dawg," they nodded their approval.

They didn't mention the name of their church, but presumably it was a Bible-oriented Protestant church. Can we at least agree, without hurting any feelings, that Protestants have always been rather un-picturesque compared to Catholics? And that is what made this chance encounter so special to me. When people backpack over rough roads, they look down and move slowly, solemnly. They appear to be praying. 

With the high country in the background, they seemed like peregrinos (pilgrims), walking through the Pyrenees on their way to the shrine of Santiago de Compestela, in the northwest corner of Spain. This famous old pilgrimage has been going on for more than a thousand years.

It's too bad one of them didn't have a shaggy, white Great Pyrenees dog to guard them on the way. Actually, I'll bet my little poodle could have out-skedaddled him. Here is the little poodle celebrating triumphantly at Mosquito Pass.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010


To the casual observer, a full time RVer might seem to be wandering at random, at least on a daily basis. But on a seasonal basis that is certainly not true. As the summer progresses he moves upriver to higher altitudes. Doing so, all roads lead to Leadville, CO. This is the end of the road, altitude-wise. The city is at 10,150 feet.

I had never been to Leadville before. A woman in the torrid lowlands downriver (at 7000 feet) told me it was ugly. But I sized her up as a fussy-female type, and consider her comment a positive recommendation. Indeed, approaching the city limits of Leadville there were mine tailings and dilapidated shacks with the windows boarded up with plywood. I was hooked.

The first surprise was to see a large Mexican-American population. Apparently they work in construction in the ski resort, condo, and McMansion towns. They live in Leadville because they can.

Are we really only a couple generations from the hardy men who mined around Leadville? The modern American economy is a complete enigma to me. What would Carl Sandberg do today if he wanted to write a poem about a city with big shoulders? Maybe Shanghai, but not Chicago.

Just imagine January at 10,000 feet. I will imagine it from southern Arizona.

One of the gift shops had a Victorian era theme, which is certainly appropriate since Leadville boomed in 1879, after a pre-boom in 1860. The shop had a wax figure of a woman in Victorian dress. I had to look several times to convince myself that it wasn't a real woman. She was sitting in a chair at a table, like she was thinking about writing something.

I walked on.  A couple seconds later I returned to the shop because the figure's skin tone looked too realistic. And "she" was quite attractive. [Maybe I need to get out more.] Once again, the figure was utterly motionless. And then her hand moved. She stood up and walked to the back of the story. What an eerie experience!

If I have the story straight, the Climax molybdenum mine is still in operation, partially. A gift shop had a rock with a large vein of molybdenum in it. It has a dull dark grey look to it. No sooner did I walk out of that shop than I saw this appealing medley of grey:

No wonder they used to call this town, "Cloud City." Mt. Massive and other nearby mountains are professional cloud makers every afternoon.

Good Tourist, Bad Tourist

Isn't it odd how the word, tourist, is almost universally applied as a pejorative, a slur? This is true even though most people look forward to vacations and holidays, during which they typically are tourists. In America it is even said that many people vacation as long as fourteen days, almost every year.

The T word is used most negatively by those whose livelihoods depend most on tourism. The local yokels of a popular tourist area leave their own area, full of scenic wonders which they have become bored with, and vacation in other tourist areas that might be inferior to their home turf.

Here in the upper Arkansas River valley I am, for the first time in my life, seeing tourism as a positive thing. Perhaps the key distinction is mass tourism versus outdoorsy, specialized  tourism. Consider for a  moment the mass tourist -- that motor-bound chowhound who tries to enjoy the wonders of nature by staring through his vehicle's window glass. Say what they will, tourists like this must experience disappointment when scenery goes from "breath-taking" to banal in three minutes.

Scenery operates through the eye on our central nervous system and brain the same way that odors do, through the nose: they knock you off your feet for a few seconds, and then you become jaded and bored. Then you go to a restaurant for stimulation or back to the motel to watch TV.

Mass tourists want to have a good time, but are usually pretty unsuccessful. They don't even look happy. The outdoorsy tourist, who is actually moving his own body, does look happy. Recently we saw a father experiencing what could be called rapture.