Friday, June 29, 2012

Gasoholics Should Stay on the Wagon

Springerville AZ, the White Mountains. James Howard Kunstler must be furious. American gasoholics (virtually all of us) feel that 'happy days are here again,' now that regular gasoline has plummeted to $3.50 per gallon. Let's hope they are still making money on snacks, cigs, or the 40 ounce buckets of fructose fizz they are known for. Gee maybe it's time to bring back the Hummer?

Has Kunstler ever written an essay about the RV industry? It would be amusing to read it, if you could handle his goose quill, dipped in venom. For my part I think that RVers have their work cut out for them if they want their lifestyle to continue long into the future in a way that is recognizable. Sure, they could camp in one place forever and drive around town in a tiny "towed", but too much of that would represent a completely different lifestyle. 

Despite the recent -- and no doubt temporary -- relief at the fuel pump I continue to press against promiscuous driving, that is, the sort of driving you do mindlessly out of habit, or just for the sake of entertainment. More concretely, my driving is limited to one shopping trip per week. At first this seems like punitive abstemiousness -- a self-imposed guilt trip. But, as with any form of abstemiousness, it is best to consciously dwell on the positive program instead of on 'thou shalt not,' since that just provokes rebellion against the discipline.

And indeed there are pleasant surprises when taking one trip per week. I want to keep pushing on finding more benefits of this project. 

It's a project that can't help but have some nostalgia wafting in the background. Our rural ancestors only a generation or two ago looked forward to "market day", Saturday. They usually took a full-body bath only one day per week, and then went to town for a movie or a dance.

It's surprising how much fun it is to go to town and see everything from the perspective of a wide-eyed hillbilly who is astonished by it all. For instance the dogs and I were in McDonald's loading up on 99 cent, plain McDoubles. The lad who waited on me was so well-spoken and intelligent that I couldn't believe it. He spoke quickly and in complete sentences, and with wit; almost too much wit for a young whippersnapper. I normally expect nothing more from such workers than a perfunctory, corporate-programmed greeting. Occasionally they might venture an 'uh-huh' or 'OK'. But they are barely sentient hominids, raised on mental junk food such as MTV rap videos.

One of the advantages of a Mencken or a Kunstler is that they can get away saying things that many people think, but are afraid to say out loud. One of these troubling thoughts is that miscegenation is taking place in America, and on a vast scale. If it isn't literally biological it's at least cultural.

And yet, this particular lad belied the general trend. Is it because northern Arizona is greater Utah, and he is at least affected by Mormon culture, even if he isn't part of the church? Whoever would have thought that a perfect stranger could evoke such a pleasant and hopeful feeling in another person?

At any rate it was great fun to watch my 17.1-year-old miniature poodle dance up and down on the passenger seat as I dispensed tripes of the fast food industry to him. We drove back to our campsite in the high country, thoroughly pleased with our weekly bacchanal in the big city.

Monday, June 25, 2012

The First RV Boondocking Team Member

And so my career in the RV Quest for Community Caravan is over. I left for another campsite in the same area this morning.

It was a noble experiment and, I think, a successful one. By "success" I mean that it involved non-trivial interaction between members, resulting in certain changes in their behavior or daily lifestyle.

Two raptors chase a raven around a thermal uplift.

Whatever else, we avoided the standard malaise of intentional/planned Utopias: repression and stasis. Recall your Toynbee (*):

For these works [planned Utopias] are always programmes of action masquerading in the disguise of imaginary descriptive sociology.

Hence in almost all invincibly stable equilibrium is the aim to which all other social ends are subordinated and, if need be, sacrificed.
The experience also required me to scrutinize my behavior around other campers, and then try to file off some of my sharp edges.

Or one could look at it as a good little Hegelian. Think of the RV stereotype as the "Thesis"; the Quest for Community Caravan as the "Antithesis"; and now it's time for a "Synthesis." In order to break free of some trap or rut, it helps to think about or experiment with its opposite, even it this "opposite" is no better as a match-up than the initial trap/rut.

The Synthesis I have in mind is more of a "Team" than a Community. I am not comfortable with the "...dawning of the Age of Aquarius" culture of the community. And besides, it's a chick term (grin). An "intentional mobile community" also makes some people uncomfortable because the very word "intent" implies social engineering, and most of us don't want to be socially engineered.

I want a "team" of RV boondockers who either exercise or pursue less athletic outdoor sports, without engines. Examples include mountain biking, hiking, photography (but not through the motorhome's windshield), fly fishing, rock collecting, off-leash dog walking, etc. As emphasized a couple posts ago, it would be great to see real, non-trivial, human interaction between team members  -- a band of mere exercise partners would be a huge disappointment.

The amazing news is that the first team member is showing up -- perhaps today! Now, if we can only coax his low-ground-clearance Class C through the lava bumps...

(*) Arnold J. Toynbee, A Study of History -- abridged volume 1, "The Arrested Civilizations," page 183.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Teaming up with a Bear in the Laundromat

It has been a long time since I've come out of a store with a big smile on my face. The Western Drug and General store in Springerville AZ was really too big to call a general store. It was really a home-grown department store of a type you probably thought extinct. Now I know what you're thinkin': that I'm about to use the cliche, eclectic, to describe it. But 'eclectic' usually implies gifts, souvenirs, or cyootsie-wootsie junk that appeals to women. Instead, the store had an excellent selection of practical goods.

The store reflected the local character of Springerville, the capital of Arizona's White Mountains, by having an excellent collection of camping supplies, hunting and fishing equipment, etc. I've had a running argument (a joke actually) with a fellow camper about how easy it is to buy 3/4" wide Arno straps and Benchmark or DeLorme atlases. She contends that these items are so exotic that they can't be gotten in a small western town, but of course I saw both in this wonderful store.

Off to the laundromat I went. If an RVer had to choose his favorite errand, what would he choose: 1) dumping his tanks with a leaky hose and cuts on his hands, or 2) doing laundry at the average laundromat? Answer: #1. Why? Because it's cleaner and all the signage is in English. So when I slid my quarters into the first washer and nothing happened, I rolled my eyes and then sighed. What else is new?

But in fact something was. A big burly bear of a man was putting the finishing touches on six loads of laundry. His baritone voice boomed over the squeaks and rattles of dilapidated laundromat machines. Few people would have been able to resist the energy and charm of this man. He works much of the year in the oil fields of North Dakota.

We seemed to connect on the subject of outdoor "fashions", if you can believe that. I told him how much time I had spent in the photo-camera (speed-trap) capital of northern Arizona, Show Low, trying to buy a long-sleeved, pocket T shirt in order to keep the deer flies and broiling sun off my arms. He agreed that long sleeve shirts were best for an outdoor worker. Then we moved on to outdoor fabrics in general. (This wasn't the stereotypical example of male-bonding, taking place over a brewski while arguing about the upcoming football season, but it worked.)

We talked about his industry, the pay scale, and how cold it got in mid-winter. We both got laughing when he talked of former computer-oriented, office workers trying to make it in the oil fields of North Dakota. Clearly he was hitting his stride now. He even mentioned that he good-naturedly and helpfully warned them that they probably wouldn't last three days.

There is no federal judge in Eugene OR who has offered an ever-expanding interpretation of the Endangered Species Act to "protect" a specimen like this man. I didn't think that such men still existed in a unisex culture of metropolitan and suburban cubicle drones. During the westering of a younger and more energetic America, there must have been many such men 'of the big shoulders,' building canals and railroads, felling white pines in Michigan and floating 'em down the Manistee, or working in the steel mills and stockyards.

Off I went, back to camp in the high country. Perhaps I was still under the charisma of that big ol' bear when I got back to my "community". There's something about that word that makes me feel uneasy. What is it exactly? Is it redolent of Hillary Rodham's "It Takes a Village?" What if we held hands in a circle while singing "If I had a hammer, I'd...", hugged trees, or had drum circle on a full moon?

But earlier in the morning, before the trip into Springerville, I'd offered to take trash in for other people, and fill up water jugs. The blue jugs of one fellow slid easily into a storage area in my cargo van, since I have it set up for the same blue jugs. Laugh if you will but this was so satisfying! It evoked an image from the semi-classic movie, "True Lies," when Tom Arnold reminded Arnold Schwarzenegger of something, and Arnold said, "What a TEEEAAAM!"

Team. It's a guy word. And that changes a lot.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

The Exercise Partner Syndrome

I make no secret of having little faith in building a loose RV camping caravan/community on the basis of idealism, platitudes, hippie-dippie cultural values, or group therapy while sitting in chairs. Talk is cheap. For me what matters is common activities in the outdoors -- activities that really matter to people -- and then acknowledging that these outdoor interests are more fun when sharing them with other people.

It is a great challenge to do this within an RV milieu because of mainstream RV culture's fanatical negativity towards using the human body for anything other than operating a motor vehicle or waddling down to the next potluck. And most of them are too old, too fat, completely out-of-shape, and have health problems. 

I have an ex-RVer friend who now lives in Tucson, which has a huge hiking club. He has had many hours of enjoyment with them. He had little opportunity for the same success with RVers, and that's one reason why he abandoned RVing. Apparently he made a good decision, at least for him.

But once I asked him whether most of the other hikers in the club were mere acquaintances and exercise partners rather than real friends. He sighed and admitted that most were just exercise partners.

Over the years I have been involved (at the level of many hundreds of hours of cycling) with a dozen road bicycle clubs. I did manage to beat the Exercise Partner Syndrome by becoming friends with several unique and admirable people. Several times they revealed their frustration with the Exercise Partner Syndrome.

The limiting case of that was a woman who was very outgoing and had many friends in church, political causes, and book clubs. But she finally gave up on the bicycle club because she didn't make friends there. That was a poignant moment for me.

Alas, they were tied to a specific town, job, and house, while I was footloose and fancy free, so the friendship died when the lousy camping and the overpopulation caused me to abandon ship.  

The first couple years of RVing I tried the bicycling/hiking club angle again, this time in a (birds-of-a-feather) sub-group of the Escapees. Instead of just having a newsletter, providing information to each other, and being pen-pals, I organized gatherings in which we camped together and then went off on outings. There was a small positive response to these gatherings, and with more persistence it might have grown into something permanent and significant.

Besides safety, one of the reasons why I'd like to camp with a group of (non-motorized) outdoors-activity-buffs is to negotiate Aging better. None of us knows how long or short the genetic straw is that we drew from our parents. When a setback occurs, are we going to just give up, or will we roll with the punches?

Consider all the runners who have ripped their knees up, switched to cycling, and went on to a rewarding second "career." There must be other such possibilities. Maybe my good luck with health with run out a year from now and I'll have to abandon cycling. Wouldn't it be great if there was a fly fisherman or rock collector or bird photographer in the camping group who infected me with enthusiasm for his activity.

Conversely I do a lot of things right when mountain biking. Given half a chance I could infect a hiker with the advantages of mountain biking, especially in summer, or on flatter land, which of course is easier to boondock on.  Many people don't even know how easy it is to bring a dog along on their outings.

Above all else many people have not had a chance to share outdoor activities with other people who are indifferent to equipment and who aren't obsessed with How far? and How fast? They need exposure to outdoor epicures and hedonists.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Is Agony on the Trail so Bad?

Maybe he was right after all; the commenter that is. Recently a commenter chided me on my inconsistency in denigrating single-track riding when mountain biking, since I usually praise the Agony-and-Ecstasy dualities of heat/cold, downhill/uphill, Dry Heat/monsoons, city/outback, etc. 

I just got back from a "nice" ride today. You know what? I feel disappointed compared to the ride a couple days ago, when several things went wrong. "Nice" sort of means "boring."

I was following an ATV trail. Who says that motorized and non-motorized sports can't be compatible? The trail was smooth and troughed. It was delightful to mountain bike on, and it was a perfect running track for my kelpie, Coffee Girl.

Then it started dying step-by-step. First it devolved from a two track to a single track; then it became a gnarly hiking trail; finally it turned into a game trail with fallen logs every few feet. My gosh, does it ever get tiresome to lift a heavy mountain bike over logs every few seconds! I was not enjoying this -- or was I?

Why keep going? I like to deliver safety sermons against plunging onward on loop routes, while praising the safety of out-and-backs. I warn against hubris. But on this outing I knew where I was, despite not bringing a GPS gadget. Something -- not exactly hubris  -- but more like macho stubbornness "forced" me to keep going. It might be that stubbornness is just hubris in disguise. Is hubris like influenza virus: it keeps morphing to a different strain when you get good at beating it in its old form?

I should have been more deliberate, but instead relied on dumb luck to follow the game trail to the south side of the mountain, where the dreary spruce/fir forest gave way to a bright aspen forest.

Soon that gave way to open pasture on the slope of a volcanic knoll. The game trail had grown over with grass, so I could only follow deer scat. The view on top of the knoll was a great relief and reward. Amazingly enough, I bushwhacked down the knoll and ended up on the initial trail, thereby completing a very messy loop route. But it will be memorable.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Rapture on a Ridgeline, II

Arizona's White Mountains, Springerville. Actually it seems less like mountains around here than high lava-based plateaus with occasional volcanic knolls. Some of these were connected by a grassy ridgeline, and you know how I get with ridgelines and saddles. But first...

Since there are new readers on this blog lately, some explanation should be offered to them as to why I don't show them scenic postcard after postcard of all the photo cliches of the West: Monument Valley, red arches in Utah, snow-capped peaks in the Rockies, etc.  The short answer is that I see full time RVing as a profession or occupation, not as a short term vacation. If you are looking for scenery-based escapism, you have arrived at the wrong blog.

Let's make the case for appreciating these high grassy plateaus, knolls, and ridgelines by looking back to something I wrote earlier when visiting the San Luis Valley in Colorado. Then, after the second horizontal line, I'll return to today.

The dogs and I are enjoying camping (boondocking) on BLM land at 8100 feet on the west side of the San Luis Valley, Colorado. This area is not the most popular part of Colorado with mainstream scenery-tourists. 

It seems like we're in the Okanogan Valley of eastern Washington. We are surrounded by grassy ridges, squared off with exposed volcanic layers. Laccoliths. Our first hike was up the western side of the nearest ridge, still unwarmed by the morning sun. I walked perpendicularly to what seemed like a high and long ridge, and aimed at a tree possibly near the top of the ridge. Perhaps its flattened shape was a tribute to the ridge and its winds, or so I tried to imagine. I wouldn't turn around and look at the RV until the crest. The view was a fine harvest from just a few minutes of hiking. 

Walking on these ridges you feel humbled by the large peaks of the Rockies, off in the distance. They are the War that you must fight and win someday. But today you must win a Skirmish with this ridge.

There is a profound difference between free-walking a ridgeline and trudging on a marked trail. Official trails seem arbitrary, unnatural, and constrained. They frustrate you by following no sensible pattern regarding the terrain or the viewscape. The mathematical simplicity of a ridgeline is easy to notice when you walk it; it makes the walking purposeful and rational. With each step you become a little more confident.

The ease of motion and the expansive views in most directions put the hiker in a calmly euphoric mood. But there is still some doubt about the top of the ridgeline. On the other side of a dip a half mile away, three elk were silhouetted along the ridgeline. 

There is something dangerous and glamorous about animals or humans creeping along a distant ridgeline. Think of all the westerns that you've seen in which Indians ride silently and menacingly along a ridgeline. Or imagine being a Han Chinese, on the western fringe of one of their past empires, looking at pony-mounted Mongolians trotting along a ridgeline. And then there's that famous photo of the Great Wall following a sinuous ridgeline.

The ridgeline needn't be solid ground. Think of the terror experienced by an Irish monk at one of their island monasteries, about 900 A.D., when he spotted the appearance of a Viking long boat at the surf-line.

And then of course there is the classic scene at the end of Bergman's "Seventh Seal", in which the Grim Reaper leads his victims away, along the top of a ridgeline.

We finally reached the terminus of the ridge and found a cliff. In a way it was annoying to be interrupted. But birds appeared and the wind intensified. After being cranked up with endorphins and feeling the cool breeze, it was easy to imagine walking right off the end of the ridge and into free space. 

The birds weren't big-winged soaring birds like you would expect; rather, they were small birds with iridescent blue wing tops, a white belly, and a swallow-like silhouette. They flew around like combat fighter craft, but they could also catch the ridge lift and hover motionlessly. One of these birds did this about fifteen feet over my head and scrutinized me, curiously. He seemed so playful and friendly, as if he wished to join our hiking club -- or maybe he was inviting us to join his flying club.

Standing on a rounded boulder at the edge of the cliff and looking up at the fast moving birds while the wind destabilized me, I started to feel vertigo. It seemed like the dream scene in the recent movie version of "Pride and Prejudice." Too bad I wasn't wearing a loose cape or poncho like Liz was in that scene.

...back to today. It wouldn't be right to burden the reader with personal experiences unless they are concrete illustrations of a more general principle that also apply to the reader, albeit in a slightly different manifestation. In part the satisfaction of biking and walking over this land comes from the imaginative effort in perceiving beauty, and then physically working at it, rather than merely passively consuming pretty scenery. To new readers, note the 'early retirement' in the description of this blog. Fundamental to early retirement is the rebellion against normal, middle-class habits of consuming. Why should that only apply to shopping?  Let it apply to scenery as well!

Here in the White Mountains near Springerville AZ there are huge grassy pastures at over 9000 feet:

Since they aren't as vertical as other topographies they make second-rate postcards. But postcards are usually of completely useless land. These pastures make fine summer grazing for livestock, and the surrounding ponderosa pine forests are an excellent source of lumber, where Green theology hasn't managed to obstruct timber harvesting.

Of course it doesn't hurt that high grassy pastures and ridges are perfect for  boondocking and mountain biking.

It is pleasing to think of this land as the perfect Woman: fertile and useful, as well as attractive. It's not for nothing that ancient religions imagined land as feminine and maternal. 

But sadly, for most Americans of our times, the Metropolitan Bubble Syndrome and the sickly theology of the Greens have destroyed our appreciation of land that is both beautiful and useful.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Boonie Meets Bambi

Springerville, AZ. On a sunset walk one night, Coffee Girl and I crossed a large pasture at 9200 feet. Dark forests lined the edge of it. At that edge she went looking for trouble, and you know what dogs usually find when they go looking for trouble...

Something was behind the downed dead log. It made a horrendous sound and started moving. Try as I might, no words adequately describe that sound. The creature stood up, as Coffee Girl ran circles around it, and barked her head off. After panicking for a couple seconds I finally got a view of the monster:

But where was Momma? Was she just off looking for food while "Bambi" stayed behind and hid next to a log? Or was Bambi a young orphan and about to starve to death or, if she was lucky, get eaten by a predator?

OK I might as well admit that I felt an urge to bring Bambi food and water, except that I had no idea of what kind of food would be accepted. But more importantly Bambi is wildlife, not a pet. The predator or scavenger that would eventually benefit from her meat had as much right to eat as Bambi did, despite having been overlooked by Walt Disney Corp. So I resisted the urge to "help". I just let nature takes its course.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

The End of a Political Era

Since being listed on recently (due to no effort of mine) this blog has many new readers. I probably owe it to them to tell them about this blog so they don't waste their time.

This is not one more RV blog that discusses where the blogger is today, whether he got the oil changed at Walmart, or whether RV toilet paper should be one ply or two. Nor am I interested in selling you solar panels, LED lights, etc. Presumably you don't need me to tell you that there is 'breathtakingly beautiful' scenery in XYZ national park.

I don't want more readers -- I want better readers and commenters. So then, let's put our newbie readers through a sink-or-swim test by depriving them of the travel escapism and eye candy that they expect.

Anyone who reads a lot of editorials and opinion on the internet must feel frustrated much of the time. So it is a pleasure to announce a rare victory: an editorial that is worth rehashing. Naturally it pertains to the recent Wisconsin recall election.

Perhaps you think you've heard enough about that already. But most of that was probably just partisan cliches and shibboleths, left versus right. It is far more interesting to read editorials that are written with some historical perspective.

Via I ran into this editorial in the ever-shrinking New York Times, by Ross Douthat:
To understand the broader trends at work, a useful place to turn is Jay Cost’s essay on “The Politics of Loss” in the latest issue of National Affairs. For most of the post-World War II era, Cost argues, our debates over taxing and spending have taken place in an atmosphere of surplus. The operative question has been how best to divide a growing pie, which has enabled politicians in both parties to practice a kind of ideologically-flexible profligacy.
But not anymore. Between our slowing growth and our unsustainable spending commitments, “the days when lawmakers could give to some Americans without shortchanging others are over; the politics of deciding who loses what, and when and how, is upon us.” In this era, debates will be increasingly zero-sum... 

According to Jay Cost, the great American "share-out" is over. Politics is likely to become nastier. The end of any era is worth thinking about.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Update: How to Enjoy a Windy Day

Consider for a moment how much boondocking can enhance the RV camping experience, compared to the sterile non-adventure of suburb-imitating RV parks.

Likewise, any kind of non-motorized activity can enhance your enjoyment of the outdoors.

It makes sense to combine these two things -- boondocking and exercise  -- and hope that 'the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.'

Yet look at how rare this combination is in mainstream RV culture, with its attitude of "windshield tourism" and "channel surfing with gasoline." Do they really think the RV Lifestyle is 365 days a year of scenery vacationing?

When I got back on the road last August I claimed to be looking for ways to be a better camper. This wasn't just an empty platitude. Perhaps I have now found my main project/mission/cause: to build a loose caravan of RV boondockers-who-exercise. If not me, well, then somebody needs to do it. The goal is a three-way combination of group camping + boondocking + exercise.

Coffee Girl (my 5 year old kelpie) and I had the sort of outing today that was perfect as far as it went. But it would have been even more fun if other human and canine critters would have been along.

We started from camp at 8500 feet and mountain biked to a cell tower mountain at over 10000 feet. You've heard me say it before: when in doubt as to how to start enjoying a new area, try mountain biking or hiking up the service road to the nearest cell tower or radio tower.

Soon we were enjoying a showy yellow flower that wasn't here two days ago.

Looking at these photos makes me realize how good digital cameras are, and yet, purely visual beauty misses the point. The real pleasure comes from the physiological  -- and then psychological -- changes that occur when you are exercising. It's all about mood alteration. If somebody besides my dog would have been along, the experience would have been better yet.

When a lad's eyelashes are fluttering and his heart is palpitating with meadows and flowers... there any way to top it? Probably not, unless it's the sight of...

...4 bar wireless-internet service at 10,000 feet, and the destination of the day.

It was no small thing that the cool wind kept the flies off of us all the way up. It's easy to overlook the advantages of wind, but summer bugs and summer heat can cure you of that. In fact, of all the challenges such as heat, cold, wind, bad roads, rain, etc., insects are my least favorite.

Coffee Girl and I are good at what we do. It's high time to start sharing this with others who might enjoy it in person. I am bored with armchair travelers, vicarious traveler addicts, and free postcard consumers on the internet.


Monday, June 4, 2012

Smoky Sunrise on a Mountaintop

 Springerville, AZ. Ahh, there's nothing like your RV camper facing the sunrise, especially when you're looking into the smoke of the Whitewater-Baldy fire. (This photo has been moved to my "sky,weather" photo album.)

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Using a Fellow Camper as a Minesweeper

Springerville AZ. My fellow camper and I were finding so many RV boondocking sites that it was almost embarrassing. We were having so much fun with the drive that we climbed above the ponderosa pine and hit cheerful aspen and (ugly) spruce/fir. 

Large yellow/black butterflies made use of clumps of pale blue/purple flowers. (Moved to my animals Picasa photo album.)

Perhaps my fellow camper was surprised that cynical ol' Boonie would stop for 20 minutes just to photograph butterflies and flowers.  Is it a Western Tiger swallowtail alighting on a columbine?

I wish somebody would correct me. I do have a desire to know the names of things that I encounter at the moment of observation and inspiration, but you can act on this impulse only if you have a field guide, or these days, some kind of gadget and app. By the time you get home the impulse disappears.

We chose a patch of ponderosa forest (8500 feet) that belied my previous assertion that timber harvesting was a thing of the past in national forests since they are run according to Green theology rather than forest science. The forest here is drastically better for the selective logging taking place. They even did a good job of cutting stumps close to the ground so you don't have to look at them. After the first monsoon season this area will come booming back with flowers and grasses.

Ahh, but those stumps are well camouflaged. We came in all puffed up with overconfidence, as a result of which my fellow camper suffered some light damage due to a stump that was a half-inch too tall. 

It made me appreciate the extra care that needs to be taken with a Class B motorhome compared to a naked van, thanks to the plumbing and plastic trim that hangs underneath the Class B motorhome. We had no excuse not to walk one person in front to serve as the "minesweeper."