Friday, July 30, 2010

Hungry Squatters

I've only noticed this in one spot of my dog-walking grassy field: a cluster of hungry squatters, munching away on their campsite.

Dogs of Iron, Rocks of Wood

Northern Arizona, a couple summers ago. What a relief it was to drive away from 7000 feet and snow and head down and north to Snowflake AZ. Certain things gave me a chuckle, like "Alaska Oil" gas stations and "Our Lady of the Snow" Catholic church.

After driving only fifteen miles it seemed like a different state. Northeastern Arizona is a strange combination of LDS (Mormon) towns, Indian reservations and fossilized trees.

I thought of the joke that ended the movie,
"Raising Arizona." It was nice to be back in "greater Utah" in some ways. Nobody could lay out a town like Brigham Young. I chose one of those wide streets and pulled a U-turn, just because I could.

Once I asked a couple men of good taste which state had the best looking women. We all agreed: Utah. They exude wholesomeness, an underrated  quality in a society saturated with media smut.

There was another wholesomeness that you can appreciate best when you compare it to most of the Southwest, where museums and "history" celebrate the cheesy Hollywood version of the old West: gunslingers, gamblers and saloon girls. Doc Holliday slept here, Billie the Kid was born there...

But in Snowflake I saw the Pioneer House; every LDS town has one. They might be over-restored, but it's nice to see a culture memorialize a builder instead of a derelict.
There was one coffee shop in this close-knit LDS town. It had a wholesome name so that it wouldn't look so depraved. (Caffeinated beverages are not allowed for Mormons.) It would be interesting to see a remake of the movie, "Chocolat," with a sensual Juliette Binoche running a coffee shop in a town like this.

By good luck the town was having a festival this weekend, featuring horsey stuff and a pit bull competition. I like just about any dog show in which any breed of dog does anything other than walk around in high heels and a swimsuit.

The sled-pulling competition was entertaining. Some of the dogs were as stoic and ritualistic as sumu wrestlers. Some resembled Russian weight lifters. Some showed teeth during the tug. Others focused on their owners who yelled, "Work, work, work." Why didn't I pay more attention to their names? If one of them had been named "Cupcake" I probably would have noticed.

The sinew of cyno-muscle strained mightily. I felt sorry for the nylon harness! It was easy to imagine all of that fiber groaning and screeching like the metal hulls of ships or submarines in movies when the ship is about to head to the bottom.

And now for one last, heroic tug...arrrrgh...uuuggghh!

The crowd roared, children squealed with delight, women swooned, but my little poodle squirmed uncomfortably.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Kestrel's Eye

I compliment Netflix quite a bit on this blog, and have to do it again. A Swedish documentary called "Kestrel's Eye" caught my eye the other day. The opening moments were not confidence-building: how could a nature documentary without narration or a musical background hold my interest for almost an hour and a half?

Much to my surprise the lack of narration helped the movie. It made it seem so real. There have been other times when I've watched a movie in which the action was slow and the dialogue was understated, and wondered if this was really a movie. With "Kestrel's Eye" the viewer has to make a persistent effort to be satisfied without the noise and razzle-dazzle that we are accustomed to in entertainment products. And it worked.

The other advantage of no narration is that you are spared the predictable sermons and platitudes about 'what man has done to the Earth' or the 'delicate balance of nature.'

It's funny how animals are so good at certain things -- like hovering in the kestrel's case, and diving down to snatch the rodent -- but they seem confused and bumbling at other tasks. And you thought mistakes were invented by homo sapiens.

The first time I saw Papa kestrel carry the ejected egg from Mama to a safe location, I really didn't know what was happening. It was quite amazing. He certainly was a good provider, bringing rodents to the nest where Mama snatched them away and dispensed them to her brood of five chicks. How did she even keep track of which of those wiggling, cheeping heads hadn't been fed yet? It seemed like two of the five got 80% of the food -- a scene that should not have played all that well in socialist Sweden. Then again, maybe it was a different pair of chicks each time.

For variety's sake the film maker showed humans in proximity to the kestrels. It might not have been the film maker's intent, but he made the Swedes look so boring and tidy; their activities seemed so pointless and futile that, from the kestrel's perspective, humans were a curious and entertaining species. The nest was in a nook of an old church. They all made for such good neighbors.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Appreciating Humidity

Back East they complain that 'It's not the heat, it's the humidity.' I'm here to tell you that it's not as simple as that. Easterners suffer from such an excess of moisture over an annual cycle that they never think of the hardship of aridity. 

I just finished a bicycle ride in enormous humidity by New Mexican standards: 60% in mid-morning. It only takes 30% to generate an afternoon thunderstorm. The fields have become green with all the rain and humidity lately. The Easterners yawn at this news. But not me. Soon my camera will go to work on fields full of seed heads, texture, and flowers. Bear in mind that in April, after a freakishly wet and snowy winter, everything was still brown.

Some people's idea of sensual luxury is to go to a spa and be pampered with hot springs, massages, aromatherapy, etc. I'll settle for an experience like today: I didn't need to smear my skin with that crisco-like sunscreen, since the high humidity partly blocked the sun. I really hate that greazy crap, and can't relax after a ride until I remove it. Merely taking a shower is not sufficient; a scraper like you use on the bottom of skis is called for, in addition to lacquer stripper.

For some reason skin is my main sense-organ, unlike most people and their eyeballs. People under-appreciate semi-humid air. (I said 'semi.') It overwhelms a person with gentleness and mildness. It's a medicinal unguent flowing over the skin. Even your eyes can relax; no longer are they grimacing with fear. I was so euphoric on the return ride that I entertained the ultimate outdoors fantasy: riding a bicycle without sunglasses (gasp!).

Saturday, July 24, 2010

The National Codpiece

I was interested in a recent article in asia times dotcom that speculated on whether China would emphasize aircraft carriers or anti-carrier missiles. With their satellites they know exactly where American aircraft carriers are, and to knock them out it only takes a high-tech missile that costs, what?, 0.3% as much as the aircraft carrier. The missile can be fired from anywhere -- even a fishing trawler. Of course the US Navy believes that nothing projects a country's power like the carrier battle group.

One of the most amazing features of modern American life is how much money it spends on its military, and how useless most of it is. Fred Reed is a favorite writer of mine who has a military background that has left him with a respect for military personnel and a savage disrespect for political/military policies.
Perhaps the US should recognize that it has a second-rate military at phenomenal cost – an enormous, largely useless national codpiece. It is embarrassing. The Pentagon’s preferred enemies are lightly armed, poorly equipped peasants, which makes for a long war and thus hundreds of billions of dollars in juicy contracts for military industries.
With the government that China has, does it need to buy votes by setting up a large sector of the economy as perpetual government-dependents, as American politicians have done? Will China soon embark on Perma-Wars (in the 'Stans perhaps) to keep its military parasites employed?

It's easy to look on carrier battle groups as an example of 'generals (or admirals) preparing to fight the last war.' Most people have heard of and sympathize with this old saw. So then, why do we let them do it? Is America still so rich that it can squander money without consequences?

I suppose most voters are docile about issues that sound a little complex; they prefer to leave it to the experts, even when the experts are just buttering their own bread. To even point that out makes you unpatriotic and a "negative thinker."

Or maybe the average voter is really a good-hearted and generous fellow, who doesn't mind the other fellow getting a handout -- no matter how expensive and wasteful it is -- as long as that voter gets his ethanol subsidy, college loan guarantee, housing bailout, cash for clunker, or $600,000 of Medicare coverage the last two weeks of his life at age 83, etc.

Friday, July 23, 2010

My New Favorite Species

Somebody needs to break the sad news to the curved bill thrashers of the world: ravens are now my favorite bird species.

Giving up on Historians

The North-South cultural split in Europe still intrigues me. Sure, it's fallen off of the front page of the news, but Europe's financial problems are not over with, and they could have quite an impact on the world. Besides, this blog is not enslaved to the Breaking News Syndrome. 

I've found a shelf of books at the local college library that seemed like it would enlighten me on the North-South cultural split in Europe. But after reading a half dozen books on the origins of cultures and civilizations, I was disappointed and frustrated. Think of history as a machine that has an input and an output. What is the input other than other books? But there weren't a lot of books written when Germans were being Christianized and de-barbarianized. And what was written doesn't really explain the habits of thought and feeling that evolved in northern Europe and set it apart from the Mediterranean South. (I've already rejected Protestantism as an explanation or Cause; it is an Effect.)

Historians sometimes do have an imagination, although using it might seem subjective, unscientific, and unprovable. Consider Toynbee's emphasis on the under-rated point that medieval Europe was a frontier society. There are habits of thought and feeling that go with frontier societies.

It was also an agricultural frontier: forest was converted to field. Did that make it easier for yeoman farmers to get their own land than in Mediterranean lands? If so, that could have encouraged Germans to develop an earnestness to their work that a Mediterranean peon wouldn't have had.

The City survived in the South, as did a bit of trade and transportation. The North was almost entirely based on subsistence agriculture. Agriculture in the North must have been different than in the South. Let's not forget that the vast majority of people were farmers until the last few generations. Historians tend to forget this; they are city-slickers, trapped in the library.

Northern soils were heavier and richer than the South. The growing season was shorter. During a Northern winter, firewood chopping and gathering must have been a task that you could never relax from.

Was dairy farming more prevalent in the North? Isn't there a daily relentlessness and meticulousness to dairy farming that could spill over to life in general? If you work a little harder or better, the cheese, meat, and turnips might survive the winter in a root cellar, thanks to the cold climate of the North. (And you could also dig the cellar; there wasn't pure rock under a thin layer of soil like in the South.)  Alas, I'm too much of a city slicker myself to answer these questions.

Christianity took over the North 500 years later than the South. Although the Roman Empire was long-gone in the Middle Ages, the Roman bureaucratic, legal, and organizational mindset survived in medieval Catholicism. Perhaps these traditions were weaker in the North, where people were more interested in the emotional and psychological buzz and benefits of religion. Again that fosters an earnestness to an important part of life.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

A New Plane/Plain of Existence

In the desert west of Phoenix, a couple years ago. It's been so long since a real cold front blasted through, like they do back east. Wonderful. We went out to explore the desert plain around our new boondocking site near Tonopah, AZ. The altitude was just over 1000 feet. Some of my plastic bottles were flattened by the air pressure.

I dreaded returning to the creosote bush-dominated desert of lower Arizona. Perhaps
it was monotony of a desert plain dominated by one plant; or maybe it flatters the ego to live at high altitudes. But someone who has been hiking in thorn and sticker country recently can see creosote bush as a blessing, since it has no stickers or thorns! That is no small miracle. Just a few feet from this monotony you could see the lush boscage of a dry wash. Maybe they were ironwood and elephant trees. Just imagine walking across this hellish plain in June, and finally finding this shade!

This desert plain is covered with desert pavement, like at Quartzsite. But instead of sharing it with 500,000 Onan and Coleman generators, I am the only camper here. Desert pavement is a wonderful surface to camp or walk on, and it was adorned with glittering quartz rocks.

The first day in our new boondocking location we headed for the nearest saddle at sunset. We espied what first looked like a mosque near mountains in Morocco. I started fantasizing about Gabriel Yared's soundtrack for the "English Patient." Recall the beginning of the movie: the WWI aeroplane flying above the rippled, shadowed dunes in North Africa. After getting closer I saw that it was the roof of a nuclear power plant!

During the first blast of that cold front, tumbleweeds blew across the road. How classic! Back in Colorado this past September I saw what looked like a model airplane flying about a hundred feet off the ground; its navigation seemed electrically guided. But it was going too slow to be a model airplane. Getting closer, I saw that it was a plant similar to tumbleweed, at least aerodynamically. Apparently an afternoon thermal had grabbed it and lifted it away from the pedestrian life of common plants on the hot, dry plain. It had been spirited off to a higher plane of existence. 

Do full time travelers delude themselves with the notion that they have gone through a similar transformation? Do they feel legitimately superior to the sedentary and common plane of house/job existence, or is this just self-flattery?

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

A Doctor for the Dismal Science

When you follow economic news these days, it's easy to overlook how extraordinary it is that so few ideas are actually discussed. But why should we overlook this? How could an entire field be so moribund? Maybe the only way to make sense of this is to back up a step and imagine that you're living in 1776, when the first economics book was published by Adam Smith.

Consider the status of other sciences during this year when economics was founded as a science. For instance, look at the condition of medicine. If somebody had a serious injury of any kind, out came the leeches; or the physician bled the patient. This was based on the ancient theory of the Four Humours being out of balance. 

In the 1800's a wounded soldier could expect little help other than a tourniquet and a saw. When you see that happening in the movies, you think, "Oh no, not another amputation; is that all you guys are good for?" It's strange to think that only a few generations ago, medical science hadn't made much progress since Galen in ancient times.

In contrast the science of economics got off to such a good start in 1776. After Adam Smith some good minds, like Malthus and Ricardo, added to the new field.

So what happened? Why did economics, the so-called dismal science, become the dead science over the last couple generations? To appreciate how dead it is, compare it once again to the medical sciences over the same time period. Have there been any economic ideas since Keynes?

In the 1970s the Keynesian Faith was losing believers since we saw high unemployment and high inflation at the same time. But with the financial problems of the last couple years, Keynes is making a big comeback, perhaps because in a crisis people instinctively turn back to the Faith of the Fathers. In fact you could say that today we are ruled by the Narco-Keynesians. I don't believe in them any more than an old-time physician who bled the patient to death.

All you hear is the same old Keynesian caffeine-jolt therapy that has been practiced for decades. Perhaps this can be explained by looking back at the career of Keynesianism: politicians were already buying popularity with deficit spending before Keynes provided them with intellectual cover. Politicians gain legitimacy when they can appeal to the authority of science. Many economists these days are employed, directly or indirectly, by the government. Lots of good jobs are at stake when government and science become intertwined in a symbiotic relationship. But the science dies.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Serpents in Paradise

San Luis Valley, Colorado, a couple summers ago, on a mountain bike ride with my two dogs.

I couldn't see it, but there was no mistaking the sound. Finally I saw the rattlesnake just two steps off the mountain bike trail. He was moving a little. His rattles were up in the air. This rattler was huge. And he was pissed. My first concern was to get both of my dogs on the leash. 

It's odd to have finally heard and seen a rattle after all these years in rattlesnake country. I was beginning to think that they were just a chimera. Prior to this week I had seen two rattlesnakes in eleven years of hiking and biking in rattlesnake country. Fortunately they are dormant in the winter, or as the Bard would put it, they lie there in "the borrowed likeness of shrunk death." In the summer, our early starts in the morning keep the rattler issue manageable. But today's rattlesnake was the third one this week. Apparently the west side of the San Luis Valley of Colorado is the rattler capital of the West.

A couple days ago I saw a semi-dormant rattlesnake on a dirt road, early one morning. I wondered if I could get, say, ten feet away and photograph him. Then a pickup came by and deliberately ran the snake over right in front of me, while I was setting up for the photo shoot. Now there was an opportunity to take some real closeups and write it up on the blog as a death-defying experience. But the photos were poor. It would have been naughty to trick my readers like that, but the Devil made me do it. I mean the serpent.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

A Helping Hand

Grooming each other must be one more manifestation of the Raven's sociability, along with their sportful flying, talkativeness, and dog-teasing.

Friday, July 16, 2010


I was pleased and flattered the other day when a friend and fellow blogger used one of my posts as a point of departure for his essay. It will probably surprise him to see the same thing happen to him. He mentioned the word 'simplicity' three times. Growl. Why have I always reacted so angrily to a "nice" word like that?

Perhaps this essay will only find sympathetic ears amongst folks who have a mean streak of anti-romanticism. Simplicity sounds escapist and sentimental. Even worse, it sounds sanctimonious. When a modern disciple of holy Simplicity praises it, he starts fluttering his eyelashes; he imagines Gandhi or Thoreau looking down from heaven and smiling upon-eth him.

Simplicity is connected with Minimalism, another of the holy mantras. I have no interest in making life empty. Perhaps Simplicity is associated with cultural fads and trends that are pseudo-Buddhist, New Age, etc.

In the early nineties, an authoress turned Simplicity into quite the little industry. I read a couple of her books, but then noticed that the books became thicker each time, and were too full of detailed plans -- too much minutiae -- on how to simplify your life. That was the end of it. Do you think the Simplicity Industry has continued to thrive, since then? Its oeuvre might now be as thick as Encyclopedia Britannica, with expensive seminars in Aspen or Sun Valley, drawing well-heeled rat-racers from the Big City. Then of course there are coffee mugs and tee-shirts with slogans and quotes from venerable sages.

I'm afraid that I just can't get into all of that. I knew Simplicity when Simplicity was, well, simple. To me it is the result of facing up to the unpleasant fact that most ownership experiences, in the general sense of the word, are frustrating and disappointing. The owner usually ends up getting owned by the ownee. There is plenty of Good Stuff out there in life, and I want to get to it; how can I unless the Crap is first pushed out of the way. It's that simple.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

New Landlord

A raptor just doesn't rate too high in my book without a good, blood-curdling screech. The neighborhood hawks were silent. But lately the neighborhood is ruled by a new (?) red-tailed hawk who is noisy; he is always fighting with small birds. For once he got close enough to our morning dog walk for this photo, right before he flew off with an indignant screech.


Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Art Appreciation

More than once a friend has astonished me by appreciating only the most dreadful music or none at all. I pitied them.

And yet it has always been that way for me regarding any kind of Art, besides music. No doubt other people see that as a deficiency in my central nervous system. Or maybe the deficiency is not physiological, but instead lies in narrow opinions. "Art" has always seemed like a useless and expensive decoration that a bourgeois woman sticks in her living room, in order to evoke praise from dinner guests.

Whatever the cause, I was floored the other day when I was reading a book on the ascent of our species, thousands of years ago.

 “The constructive character of the potter's craft reacted on human thought. Building up a pot was a supreme instance of creation by man. The lump of clay was perfectly plastic; man could mold it as he would. In making a tool of stone or bone he was always limited by the shape and size of the original material; he could only take bits away from it. No such limitations restrict the activity of the potter. She can form her lump as she wishes; she can go on adding to it without any doubts as to the solidity of the joins. In thinking of “creation,” the free activity of the potter in “making form where there was no form” constantly recurs to man's mind; the similes in the Bible taken from the potter's craft illustrate the point.” V. Gordon Childe, "Man Makes Himself," chapter on the Neolithic Revolution, p. 79.
Now why didn't I run across this idea decades ago? To me, at least, it is a completely fresh way to look at something that I'd previously put no value on;  the human mind finding a power that breaks down the barrier between itself and the material world, and in doing so, creates something attractive and useful. I will never denigrate the Arts again by immediately jumping to the misleading notion of The Pretty-poo.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Home on the High Chaparral

South of Tucson, a couple springs ago. Full time RVers are often asked whether they have found 'that perfect place' where they will settle down. It might be meant as a yes or no question, but it usually evokes a long-winded answer. Why must there be only one? In fact on the mountain bike ride today we got a glimpse of land that brought a lump to my throat. It's not many people's idea of the perfect postcard, but I like it so much that I visit every year.

Elephant Head, in the background, is one of my fiducial points--an important reference point that measures the year. It's the grasslands that attract me the most, I suppose.

Spring is certainly noticable in Arizona, but it's a mild experience compared to what people go through north and east of here. There is a real drama to the agonies and ecstasies they experience when the first crocuses poke up through muddy snow, and then the worst snowstorm of the winter hits. Thinking back on all that, from a safe distance, I can even convince myself that I miss it.

Back to Real Camping

Casa Grande AZ, a couple springs ago. The last day of my urban boondocking I rebuilt the trailer's battery box. It was enjoyable to learn more about how the travel trailer was built, and to think how it should have been built. During this work in town the dogs were a real nuisance to me. They only got one real run at sunset in an open field--on one of those deeply furrowed, irrigated fields that central Arizona is famous for. Or used to be.

Sometimes my youngish dog, Coffee Girl, would gambol across the field, jumping the furrows like it was a steeple chase. At other times she adjusted her angle across the furrows so that she ran horizontally--her stride's wavelength commensurate with the bottoms of the furrow. She had reinvented the principle of the interference filter, which a thin layer of oil on water can also do.

The little poodle looked completely different running across the furrows. He looked like a small skiff sinking into the trough of an ocean wave, and then bobbing up on top. Finally I had to give it a go. I ran perpendicular to the rows, landing in the bottoms. The soil was soft so there was no danger of turning an ankle. But I had to lift my knees so high it seemed like they would slap my jaw. It would have been comical for anyone to watch.

And so we finally headed west from Casa Grande, off to Table Top mountain. On the way out there were huge holding pens for thousands of cows! How do they survive in summer? Roofs provide shade for only some of them. The rest should turn into medium-rare steaks while still on the hoof.

I often try to imagine unimaginably slow geologic processes, like the deposition of soil so flat that you can farm it with furrow irrigation. But near Stanfield AZ I saw a huge "field Zamboni" actually grading and leveling the field. Apparently that is a service that farmers pay for, around here.

Finally we crossed the cattle guard and were home again, on BLM land. The washboard held me down to about 8 mph. Were the dogs as happy as I was to be out of town and back to a place where they could run free? Who knows -- you know how secretive dogs are with their true feelings.

Climate Change in the Sonoran Desert

Boondocking east of Gila Bend AZ, a couple (early) springs ago.

These volcanic knolls aren't exactly Irish hills but that doesn't stop them from trying to be, this spring. They are surrounded by sloping lawns of grass. At the base of the knolls are guard-rings of vicious cholla. The cholla seem to like good drainage.

From the top of the volcanic knoll Coffee Girl surveys her empire.

I seem to be encountering strange optical effects lately. This sloped valley of hers had plants on it that seemed to be arranged in parallel rows.

On any given day all of central Arizona is covered with "climate change," Phoenix style: smog during the day and light pollution at night. I'm not sure which of these ever-expanding, glowering blobs is more hideous. You must tolerate this if you are going to enjoy the BLM land that is now called the Sonora national monument. The pollution does create some interesting optical effects, like colorful sunsets and this:

It looks more like ridges near the Smoky Mountains, back east.

In one of the dry washes there was a vertical side-wall, knee-high and north-facing, that was covered with lichen that belongs on the Olympic Peninsula. It was a moist cladding, a half-inch thick.
This lichen has to survive 115 F temperatures in June. I kneeled down to photograph it and chuckled when the flash came on. Imagine that on a day as bright as this the camera would think a flash was called for! It was slipping into the local mood of time and place. It had developed a sense of humor.

Normally when you think of a micro-climate in the desert, you think of some place like Havasu Falls, near the Grand Canyon. But that is just the standard postcard embodiment of a general principle. Visual beauty, frozen into a postcard, is like once-fresh wit, worn into a cliche or platitude.

There were humble examples of micro-climates everywhere around us that will never make it onto the front cover of the "National Geographic." Sometimes they were commodious gaps in a jumbled pile of volcanic rocks. Someone had once slept there. Usually these little motel rooms opened to the north.

The other day Coffee Girl dug up a mouse. Ever since then I have been thinking about this netherworld under the desert surface. In our modern age we've forgotten what it means to grow things in the ground, to store them in root cellars in the winter, or to draw cool water up from a well in the summer. Just think how cool it must be down there in a Sonoran desert summer.

Hohokam Empire of the Sun

In our day many people feel revulsion towards the Valley of the Sun, metropolitan Phoenix. And yet people are still moving here. If ever there was a proof that 'Reputation is a Lagging Indicator..."

I've avoided this smoggy monstrosity for most of my career as a full time RVer. It has been a pleasant surprise this winter to find some areas on the western fringe that are still nice. This was probably the largest, irrigable, agricultural valley in the Colorado River system. Only the Grand Valley near Grand Junction, CO, or the Dome Valley east of Yuma come close. And yet the specialness of this never made much of an impression on me before.

Just after sunrise one morning I noticed
pendulous bulbs of dew hanging on the side of the van. But just barely. Tap the van, and they collapsed like a monsoon downpour. They were accentuated by the rays of the sun striking them at a glancing angle.

Suddenly I was a schoolboy doodling at the blackboard, and why not? Our  imaginations need to overflow the narrow embankments of adulthood, every now and then.
Touch one of these heavy drops and it coalesces with a neighbor. Now too heavy to just sit there, it sloughs downward, pauses, and then blasts down the side, like a flash flood.

I wanted to draw the river-scape of the major rivers of the West with my finger tip -- drawing in just a few seconds what time and geology have spent eons doing. But it was difficult to write because of scratches in the paint; they are the latent image of thorny mesquite trees that scratched the van, and now they have been developed by the morning dew.

I couldn't help smiling.
These scratches were like the vast array of irrigation canals dug by the Hohokams, without metal tools. What did they use--wood shovels and adzes? Perhaps that's not the disadvantage it first seems, if they used the ironwood that grows in the Sonoran desert.

What happened here, along the Salt and Gila rivers, happened elsewhere:
between the Tigris and Euphrates in Mesopotamia, and along the Nile and Indus, back when civilization was taking its first steps, like children starting to organize a game on the playground.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Old Fat Man, Thank you

Not surprisingly, blog host providers don't make it particularly easy to switch to a new service. Perhaps the problem was on the blogger-blogspot end. In any case, one of my readers, Barney, the Old Fat Man, notified me that photos were showing up as rectangles or X's on the older revised posts which I had cut and pasted to my new blogspot site, which you are now reading.

I have found the solution, albeit a labor intensive one. So there shouldn't be any of those funny little placeholders indicating photos, soon. I've already corrected the blog back into late May. Whew, it took a few hours, but I've fixed the photos in the entire blog.

Once again, thanks Barney.

Friday, July 9, 2010

The Clan of the Cave-poodles

Wickenburg AZ, a couple years ago. I learned a new trick for enjoying the land near Vulture Peak. On the leeward side of the peak the teddy bear chollas are manageable, and much better for camping. The windward side is the dangerous side. Nevertheless we had to go to that side to use the trail up to the top of Vulture Peak.

It was a challenge to negotiate the minefield of teddy bear chollas on the way up to Vulture Peak. I leashed my dogs until we were near the top, when the chollas disappeared.  

Looking at the 360 degree view from the top of Vulture Peak, it was easy to appreciate the strategic location of Wickenburg, AZ. At an altitude of 2000 feet it's only a couple degrees cooler than Phoenix. Off to the northeast the mountains begin their march up to the Mogollon Rim. Vulture Peak itself is not large, but it protrudes photogenically from the desert plain that surrounds it. A hiker would feel quite exposed if he were caught up here during a monsoonal thunderstorm. Perhaps he and his frightened dogs could jump into this alcove-like cave for cover.
The dogs were almost funny on the way up; the sudden switchbacks on the trail confused them. Dogs are shod with cartilaginous pads, not hooves; the sharp rocks of Arizona are too harsh for them. In the desert they thrive only in dry washes, with their wonderful gravel and sand. Actually the word 'thrive' doesn't do justice to the mad joy of a dog in a dry wash.

It is rare for me to hike on an official trail. I never sign in, lest I feed the Beast of "improvements," signage, more visitors, fees and restrictions. There were a few upward-bound hikers on our way down. It would have been nice to stop and chat, but I've learned to keep my distance, the way primitive man or any form of wildlife learns to be wary of an alien species.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

The Strip "Mauling" of America

A CNBC headline announces that strip mall bankruptcies are up. Indeed, a video store that I walk by everyday has gone out of business, recently.  All I can say is, It's about time. I'm not wishing harm on the individuals running the businesses of course. But it's a pleasant fantasy to imagine a country with less blight.

Surely I can't be the only one who has wondered how there could be so many little stores, selling useless things, all across America. They looked empty most of the time, but they stayed in business somehow. And they were always building another one! Video stores, bridal shops, vitamins, nail parlor, mini-gym, payday loans, etc.

As for video stores you'd think that most of them would have closed down years ago. I can't even remember the last time I rented a movie. Netflix rendered them obsolete.

Think of how inefficient a bricks-and-mortar store is. What is the customer actually paying for, when he buys his wizzmo? Online shopping is so much better, except for the shipping charges and the return hassles.

Another mystery is why dollar stores and big boxes haven't expanded their online stores at the expense of Amazon. Trucks make deliveries every day, so if your online stuff was on that truck, wouldn't it save everybody money? It's nice being able to return stuff to the store rather ship it back, with all the hassles and expenses. And with things like electronics, there's a 25% chance that it will have to be returned.

This fantasy only really works if the tacky little stores are torn down and their parking lots are plowed up and returned to agriculture or native grasses. Why do I believe the taxpayers will end up owning bankrupt commercial real estate?

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Teddy Bear Cholla

Wickenburg AZ, a couple years ago. How can dogs run so easily through the desert? For years, my miniature poodle scampered between the cacti while only suffering one mild incident. So it isn't surprising that when we came to Wickenburg AZ we weren't expecting anything but some nice desert hikes and scenery. Indeed, we found a nice wide dry wash behind the RV campsite. I took a shortcut back to the trailer, late one afternoon. The little dog went ahead.

When I came out of the dry wash the little dog was bucking violently at something. He had three sticker balls on his forelegs, and more in his lip. He was wildly panicked, and I was just as bad. But at least there wasn't a lot of blood on his mouth even though there were spines inside his mouth.

My only thought was to do nothing that made it worse! Panic is something you have to get out of one notch at a time. A dog goes for stickers on his leg with the mouth, so I flicked the remaining ones off of his legs with a comb, which they say that you should always have in the desert for occasions like this.

The other thing they recommend are tweezers, but they were useless. My only option was to pull the spines out of his lip with my fingers. After that he seemed to calm down a little. But spines were still in his mouth. I couldn't think of what to do.

What came out of his mouth was astonishing--not blood like you'd expect, nor green vomit like in the movie "The Exorcist," although his head was still bucking violently like the possessed girl in the movie. It was saliva that absolutely poured out of his mouth.

He calmed down a little. Either the saliva had loosened the spines and he licked them out, or the saliva softened them and he swallowed them. I didn't stop worrying until I saw no blood in his stool.

Opuntia bigelovii. It sounds like such a friendly plant. Some people call it Teddy Bear cholla (CHOY-uh) since its arms and legs are covered with fur, just like a cute little teddy bear.

Fur, huh? Look more closely:

Most cactus doesn't mess with you unless you walk right into it. But cholla breaks off in three inch segments. Teddy Bears are almost deciduous with their segments.

It's impossible to run through a carpet like this without being ruined. The segments roll around and blow away from the mother plant. And that is what gets the dogs.

Think of that scene in one of the "Alien" movies when Sigourney Weaver finds the nest, with the Great Mother Alien guarding her offspring. And then Sigourney blasts them with a flame thrower.

This hateful plant produces seeds. Recall Sigourney's dream of an Alien irrupting from her convulsing stomach:

The risk of teddy bear cholla can be managed with needle nose pliers -- included in some mini-multitools, a comb, and a dog leash. There is no reason to let them keep you from enjoying the desert.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Teddy Bear Cholla, part 2

Wickenburg AZ, a couple winters ago. My noble experiment has hit a snag. I was trying to improve the winter RV boondock camping experience by tolerating cooler weather, in order to find prettier land and less crowded camping. But lately the weather has been wet, rather than just cool. I don't know if I could ever readjust to wet weather again.

I wasn't the only the person standing on the bridge over the mighty Hassayampa "River", gawking at it. I took some photos but won't show them since there are readers north and east who refuse to be wowed by water flowing through a river.

The dogs and I headed up to Vulture Peak, right from the trailer door, by screaming up Cemetery Wash. It is amazing how you can play with dry washes and the ridges between them. Day after day you can walk the same basic area, but small variations make the loop interesting.

There are a lot of horsemen in the Wickenburg area. Normally horseshoes are written intaglio into a dirt road. But these are actually standing in bas-relief. How could that be possible? It also seems unlikely that spider webs could hold so many heavy water drops.

I kept my eyes open for our old nemesis, teddy bear cholla. Last year my little poodle had a terrible experience with this evil plant, just a couple miles away from here. Did he remember?

Sunday, July 4, 2010

The Bureaucrat, part 2

I leave it to the reader to decide whether it is a vice to look for images to overcome confusion or disorientation when confronting a new situation. At any rate looking for an image was what I did recently when I volunteered for a committee that tries to develop walking and bicycling trails in my little city.

As luck would have it, I soon thereafter ran into an interesting movie: "Ikiru (to Live)" by the famous Japanese director and auteur, Kurosawa. The supposed greatness of his other films has always escaped me; I've never been able to finish them. Fortunately I gave "Ikiru" a chance.

The movie is about an older man who was section chief in city government. He had spent the last thirty years sleep-walking through his job of stamping approvals on meaningless paperwork. Then he found out that he had terminal cancer. At first I thought this was going to be a Japanese film version of Tolstoy's "Death of Ivan Ilyich." But there was no Tolstoy-ian groping for Absolute Religious Truth. Neither did it offer Hollywoodish sentimentalism. There is something valuable about access to international movies. Thank you, Netflix.

At any rate this movie, whose ending was a surprise, served as a valuable and beautiful metaphor to my dilemma of working on a committee that tries to build trails. We all have a terminal disease called aging. The protagonist of "Ikiru" had a solution to his own life and death that applies to all of us, in some form.

Somewhere in Bertrand Russell's "Conquest of Happiness" he says that, as a man in his fifties, he enjoys life more than when he was younger. There were several causes for that,
"But very largely it is due to a diminishing preoccupation with myself.
Gradually I learned to be indifferent to myself and my deficiencies; I came to center my attention increasingly upon external objects.

But over and above these self-centred considerations is the fact that one's ego is no very large part of the world. The man who can centre his thoughts and hopes upon something transcending self can find a certain peace in the ordinary troubles of life which is impossible to the pure egoist." 
The Horribleness of Death is proportional to how seriously we take our own egos. There is a small amount of consolation in busying oneself with public projects -- like the trail building -- instead of acting like my own Individual Ego is the center of the universe.

There is one more reason to continue in this community busybody-ism: there might be some Guilt and Duty involved in "giving back" to the community. Ordinarily I would rebel against them. But in the case of trail-building, I feel genuine gratitude. This is one of the fairer -- and yes, rarer -- flowers of human nature, and when by some miracle we genuinely feel gratitude towards others or receive gratitude from others, it makes sense to lengthen and deepen the experience.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

The Noble Scavenger

While sitting at my desk I saw a coyote saunter by, nonchalantly, and just a few feet from the window. Why had he not smelled my dogs and run off? What insolence! When I stepped out the door and yelled at him he trotted off prudently and cautiously but not fearfully. He was smaller than Coffee Girl, my 40 pound Australian kelpie (similar to blue heelers). How would she would react to a close encounter with canid kin of the feral kind? I know how my miniature poodle feels about coyotes--he hates them and howls at them. How had that miniature poodle survived fourteen days of being lost on a high plateau in Colorado without running into coyotes and being killed? But leaving my concern for my dogs out of it, I've always had a sneaking admiration for old Wile E. Coyote.

One spring a couple years ago, near Silver City NM, a friend came over from the Arizona Territory to visit the wolf/dog sanctuary nearby.
On the way out to the sanctuary we asked for directions from a neighbor--she raised her hackles and showed us some tooth. Apparently she was no fan of her neighbor's wolf sanctuary. The day looked promising.

The driveway to the house and sanctuary was a dry wash. The woman who ran the sanctuary wouldn't even tell us her real name since she's always on the edge of legal problems. She told us to call her "Wild Wolf Woman." She had over thirty wolf/dogs. I was surprised by the white ones. Wasn't Jack London's "White Fang" a white arctic wolf?

Wild Wolf Woman actually sleeps on the ground with the wolves in summer. Just think of that the next time you watch the movie "Dances with Wolves." She has a remarkable dedication to her cause. But it must be burdensome, rather than glamorous, to take care of so many wolf/dogs on a daily basis.

As the tour progressed, I felt annoyed by my lack of interest in the wolves that I had come out to see. Perhaps it was because Wild Wolf Woman kept emphasizing their harmlessness to man or beast. If they were just big lapdogs with over-sized feet, why does it matter if they go extinct? Once we start to envision the entire animal kingdom as furry pets, it becomes less interesting.

There was a lone coyote who came and went as he pleased just by jumping the fence. He treated the other canids as his personal seraglio. So regal! He alone was Wild, and I was drawn to him more than the wolf/dogs that I had come out to see. Maybe it was the official and anointed status of the Wolf. Once environmental groups make a poster child of some photogenic or cute species, I lose interest in it. It becomes a mere icon, a photo cliche.

But look at the face of this coyote:

Wily, indeed! Here is nobility, intelligence, and self-reliance. RV boondockers should model themselves after him. How would you like to be the forest ranger who tries to enforce the 14-day camping rule on that coyote?

Friday, July 2, 2010

The Boonie and the Bureaucrat

After my flop with volunteering on the Continental Divide Trail I started working on a committee that tries to expand recreational trails in town. Since I've benefited from other people's work on such trails many times in my life, maybe it is high time I contributed something. Yes, that is a bit of a guilt trip, but for some reason it doesn't matter in this case.

Everybody likes the old Chinese proverb of 'lighting one candle rather than cursing the darkness.' Can you think of a better application than a recreational trail in an American city? To me, trails are one of the few things that make life in a city worth living. Kunstler refers to the American landscape as "The Geography of Nowhere," due to our noisy automobile-sewers, big-box parking lots, nation-wide uniformity, etc.

It was a bizarre experience to attend the first meeting at a county-annex building in a strip mall. These days, county governments are bigger than the Federal Government during the Jefferson administration. It's been years since I've been in an office building like that: acoustic ceiling tiles, ghoulish fluorescent lights, cubicles. The poor devils who worked there looked so bored and miserable.

What tenacious optimism and follow-through the people on my committee have! They understand a hundred acronyms. They are good at the "game."  My own ability at such things is quite limited, but it probably helps their morale and the committee's clout to have more people show up.

The Organization. Oh dear, it was all coming back to me now. There are only a couple people who really matter at any meeting; the rest are just audience. So what was the harm in letting my imagination run away? Instead of resisting feeling miserable about being in an Organization again, why not wallow in it? Think of it as noble and beautiful: the Suffering Servant of the book of Isaiah, or the voluntary suffering as portrayed in a Renaissance Pieta.

I'm glad I played along with this reverie, because it paid off a couple weeks later. Next time.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Footprints in the Sand

Cottonwood AZ, during a recent autumn. (This is an attempt to eliminate confusion, Rick.) The location and land-form of my new campsite are attractive. What's this? Other RVs boondocking nearby. In fact some are unappetizing Desert Rats. For some reason I pulled in anyway; normally I won't camp near others, for obvious reasons.

A couple of the Desert Rats had a campfire the first night. Seeing them huddled around it, it was easy to imagine them as the male, desert version of the "Weird Sisters" in the opening of "MacBeth."

The next morning the dogs and I walked down to the Verde River. Our first pleasant surprise was limestone. Ahh, I had a fit of nostalgia for the limestone caprock of West Texas and the Hill Country, where I spent my first snowbird winter. Limestone might not be much to look at, but it is a marvelous layer for wheels, heels and dog pads.

Soon we were along the Verde River, which was flowing with great force thanks to the recent rain. We started walking on another riverbed that seemed to parallel the Verde. Was this an overflow riverbed? There were artifacts of flow everywhere, luxurious curves of alluvium, and comet tails behind every piece of gravel.  At the very bottom were large piles of detritus dumped on the river bottom.

Try as I might, it is impossible to imagine the world as sensed by an animal that has a sense of smell, what, 500,000 times stronger than ours.
But their enthusiasm here was tactile: hard sand is a perfect running surface. Say, maybe this is a chance for human senses to outclass their canine senses for a change. After all, how could a callous-like dog pad be as sensitive as the human foot and toes? Besides, how long has it been since I walked barefoot outdoors, anywhere, or for any reason?
So I chucked my shoes and socks. Although the sun was warm on my face, the sand felt surprisingly cold, wet, gritty, and... my gosh, how does it feel to a third world peasant when he puts on his first pair of shoes? It must be like dropping a bag over his head.