Thursday, May 31, 2012

(Updated) Armageddon Hits the Cathedral of Nature

It must be mere impressionism because it really doesn't make sense that a mountain biker would see more wildlife than a hiker, but such has been my experience. On today's ride I saw a bobcat stop in the middle of the forest road, a hundred yards ahead of Coffee Girl and me, and then do a double-take. Connected by a leash tied to my hip, we must have looked like a pretty strange animal to that bobcat. After a couple seconds it scampered off. There's no mistaking that short tail.

Speaking of impressionism is it really true that the middle of a forest is as depopulated of wildlife as it seems, or do too-many-trees simply get in the way of seeing what animals are there? Wildlife biologists must know the answer to that. My version of common sense -- which could be mistaken -- is that there just isn't as much to eat in the middle of a pine tree monoculture as there is at the edge of a forest, or for that matter, in somebody's backyard on the edge of town. You'd think the locations that offer the greatest variety, such as forest glades or forest/grassland boundaries, would have more goodies.

This certainly belies the notions of the standard, suburban, coffee-table-book, environmentalist-sentimentalist. Some journalist must have had them in mind recently when he wrote about the Whitewater-Baldy fire, the biggest in New Mexican history...

...threatening the narrowheaded garter snake, the Mexican garter snake, and a species of frog. It must have been a slow news day.

Environmentalist corporations and think tanks exploit forest fires to try to sell their sinking climate change bogeyman. They won't put any of the blame on the modern forest management policy of Non-Use (by homo sapiens), which replaced the Multiple-Use that was used prior to the last couple decades.

Nowhere is there a better example of how fanatical and inescapable the Metropolitan Bubble Syndrome is than the near ban on timber harvesting in national forests.

Update for RV "Loose-Caravan" for Outdoorsmen-Boondockers who exercise: soon I'll take what I've learned from a month of successful caravanning with the Mobile Kodger group, and apply it to a completely new group dedicated to boondocking and outdoor interests that involve some level of exercise (hiking, mountain biking, fly fishing, rock collecting, off leash dog walking, etc. -- but not four wheeling, satellite TV, potlucks, social science workshops, etc.) 

I'd love to hear from people who are interested and have a boondock-worthy rig. Currently I'm in Springerville AZ. Email me at  ; those are underlines, not hyphens.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Building an RV Community of Outdoorsmen-Boondockers

Long-suffering readers know that I'm not naive about utopian, pie-in-the-sky dreams about some vaunted community, especially one tainted with Age of Aquarius culture. But that's not the point.

A better RV lifestyle needs to be constructed, and the term "community" expresses that goal as well as any other single word. Before theorizing and polemicizing about this project, let's keep our feet on the ground by observing some very tribal animals: our dogs.

My fellow camper has two Corgis, a grandmother and her grand-daughter. Notice the moral support Grannie gives to the Pupster as she engages in community recreational activities with my dog, Coffee Girl (the larger, black dog at the bottom of the pile):

Initially Coffee Girl was afraid of the Pupster. But soon she learned how to play with her with just the right amount of roughness. Clearly it has become fun for both of them.

Normally their play begins with the Pupster trying to bring it on. The caption here might be, "Coffee Girl, your momma wears army boots!":

Soon the spirited Pupster has Coffee Girl on her back, and when her shoulder blades hit the ashy forest soil the ten-count starts:

...8, 9, and 10! Hooray the Pupster is victorious again! After this rough-housing, regardless of who won, the two dogs are good sports about it, and express their mutual satisfaction:

Somehow I think there's more to learn from watching a pack of rowdy dogs disport at a dog park than in all the social schemes and buzzwords offered in this month's edition of "Social Engineering Today" or "Utopian World" glossy magazines.

Those who are suspicious of the aspirations of "visionaries" -- and history has shown that you should be -- might be put at ease by experiencing another concrete embodiment of a chemical laboratory based on conflicting personalities, all stirred up by mobility and serendipity. Consider watching the movie, Bagdad Cafe. I rewatched it recently, courtesy of the ever-so-hospitable public library of Glenwood NM. I liked it better this time, in part because it brought the Mobile Kodger's platitudes down from the clouds.

Blogosphere update: other bloggers have commented on the idea of RVers caravanning together and melding into a little tribe. For instance Kurumi Ted has commented favorably on the idea. He has his own contribution to the design of a better RV lifestyle: carrying a small motorcycle on the back of his small class C motorhome.

Oddly enough, even Wandrin' Lloyd sort of liked the idea, despite his unregenerate loyalty to unaffiliated wandering.

Earlier Mark at Box Canyon Blog assayed the idea. This brought on an avalanche of comments to his post.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Mystery Musicians in a Ponderosa Forest

It's funny how you begin to hear something when somebody else mentions it. My fellow camper pointed out a funny clicking sound in a mostly ponderosa forest. It was pretty subtle. I spent the next half hour trying to figure out its cause, coming up with some pretty absurd explanations.

But the sound was concentrated near one bushlike tree that was close to eye level. Here was the culprit (transferred to the animals album of my Picasa album):

It's an adult cicada, about an inch long. You gotta love those transparent, veined wings. You expect to hear a loud screech from cicadas, rather than subtle clicking. Wikipedia has an interesting article on them. 

Did you know that cicadas are "timpanists" rather than "violinists" such as grasshoppers or crickets? They have thin membranes on their abdomens that buckle to produce their normal screeching sound.

So what's wrong with our local timpanists; why don't they make the usual screech? Cicadas are loudest in the heat of the summer day, so maybe it is too cold here at 8250 feet.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Designing the Ultimate RV Camping Machine

This is a followup to a post a couple days back about getting a group of RVers to design the perfect rig. 

Like baseball, real RV-camping (boondocking) is a 'game of inches.'  Too bad I didn't photograph the inch or two of clearance yesterday when I almost pinned my travel trailer between two ponderosa pines. 

It could have been worse: I could have bought my travel trailer a few years later, after the RV industry had "progressed" from the old 7-foot-wide standard (mine) to 8 foot. (For comparison, a Ford Econoline van is 6.5 feet wide.)

Once again I have benefited from traveling with a group and getting a chance to weigh the pro-s and con-s of a group of rigs. One of our party has the standard 8 foot width in his travel trailer. Bad news! The greater width will make life more comfortable when winter-camping in the desert, or on a casino or Walmart parking lot, but 8-foot is terrible in canyons, mountains, or forests.

'Nothing exceeds like excess,' should be the official slogan of the RV industry and mainstream RV culture. Of course you can still boondock in forests with an 8 foot width. But you will have to accept fewer choices, especially amongst the quieter, higher, cooler campsites. And remember, if the campsite holds your big-ass rig, it holds everybody elses too, which means that the site will already be occupied by a large party of noisy campers with toy haulers, 8 kiloWatt construction site generators, boomboxes, and motorcycles.

Meanwhile the van camper (Class B motorhome) in our group can pull in anywhere she wants. Backing out or getting turned around is so easy for her. Disgusting! 

The RV industry still makes 7-foot-wide travel trailers, but you will need to look harder for them, and it might be harder for you to sell it someday. Isn't it amazing that even though James Howard Kunstler assures us that the Cheap Oil Era is over, it's almost impossible to imagine the RV industry turning the clock back to 7-foot-wide travel trailers.   

Friday, May 25, 2012

Wilson Sleek Cradle Booster

I really enjoyed my stay at Glenwood, especially at their public library since it goes a long way toward wiping out the hole in the Verizon coverage there. And they allow visitors to check out books and DVDs, which encourages you to stay longer.

  It's always fun to drop in on the Cat Walk again:

On the drive from hot Glenwood NM to cool Luna NM we passed a classic New Mexico wreck. There was nothing special about it except that I love all such wrecks.

Using my notes from the past I chose a boondocking site near Luna NM that is quite high. We just barely made it in. Then I walked over to my RV community camper, pulled a sad face, and apologized to her for only being at 7000 feet. She was gracious about it, and promised not to rub my nose in it, too bad. As it turned out, the GPS needed a little longer to find the satellites through the ponderosas. We're actually at 8250 feet.

It's easy to see the hotspot of the Whitewater/Baldy/Gila fire near Mogollon/Glenwood NM. Thank goodness it is downwind of us!

Thanks to having my own personal electronics tester, I recently procured a Wilson Sleek cradle booster amplifier, which I use in conjunction with a Verizon (Novatel 2200) mi-fi. Today it proved its worth. Our new campsite is in the Luna NM area, with the nearest Verizon cell tower being about 15 miles away. The 3G (EVDO) signal is -105 decibels. (Hold the cursor over the network bars on the VZ Access Manager box.) You could call it zero or one bar, out of four bars total.

Then I slid the mi-fi into the Wilson Sleek cradle booster amplifier. The signal went up to -95 decibels: that's a 10 decibel improvement, which is a lot! Or call it a one-and-a-half bar improvement. (I'm only using it with the 5 inch tall antenna that magnetically mounts to a steel surface, such as the trailer frame.)

Thus our little RV community is able to enjoy internet (and forest fire warnings) at an eye-popping location, thanks to the Wilson Sleek.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

The Cloud of Doom Threatens Little Glenwood

Sigh. I missed my calling in life as the writer of newspaper headlines in the yellow press. OK, so Glenwood NM is not really threatened. Still, it was an interesting day with the local forest fire.

You would think that a forest fire would produce hazy, smeared out clouds, as well as weird orange or yellow colors in the sky at the right time of day. That's how it looked during this morning's mountain bike ride, which was chosen to go in the opposite direction from the fire.

On a late afternoon walk into town I stopped dead in my tracks when I saw this cloud peeking over the nearest ridge. I had never seen such a solid and serious-looking cloud. Is this how Mt. St. Helens looked when it blew its top?

A dog walker behind the library (where I go to internet) told me the official name of this kind of cloud is 'pyro-cumulus'. Presumably that is condensed water vapor at the top of the forest fire's plume. The particulate matter browns up the bottom of the cloud, since it can't rise as far. Since today was calm, the cloud climbed vertically. High winds are a'comin, so this cloud will soon smear out into a general haze. Fortunately the winds are blowing away from town.

I was glad to hear that the forest service had been building a firebreak at the wilderness boundary, thereby allowing the fire to burn inside the wilderness proper. It's about time they stopped invoking the "Full Employment Act of year 19XY" to give the forest service and its contractors something to do. 

Most of our national forests thickets are ridiculously overgrown. Don't get me started on using millions of taxpayer dollars to protect the McMansions of wealthy retirees who build right next to a forest.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

A Project for an RV Camping Group

Although there are boondockers who praise Solitude for the sake of itself, I disagree. Solitary camping for me is largely the result of two things: 
1) most men are paired with a woman who thinks boondocking is uncomfortable and unsafe, as well as boring since it's a 5 hour drive to the nearest Coach or Nieman-Marcus. 
2) most rigs are not designed for, or well adapted to, the needs of boondocking. (Point 2 is partly the result of Point 1.)

Therefore if you want to boondock, young man, my advice is to stay single and get a good dog. Hence I usually had to camp alone, by necessity.

But if we do manage to found a core group of boondocking outdoorsmen, it would make a great group project to "design" a suitable rig for our lifestyle. The RV industry builds rigs for a typical customer whose desires are very different from ours.

There are two basic approaches: 1) Select and combine a system of mass-produced rigs/vehicles/appliances that are readily available and repairable, or 2) Go into Do-It-Yourself mode.

You've probably seen extremely customized rigs that the owner was very proud of, and rightly so in one sense. For some guys, this is a labor of love. But how do you roll into a standard auto parts store or repair shop in a small town in the mountains and effect repairs on a "cute" or exotic rig? How would you insure all those hundreds of hours of work?

The Do-It-Yourselfer is also prone to the traps of reinventing the wheel as well as underestimating the power of mass production compared to the extreme slowness of home-making everything.

I'll assume that most readers -- being experienced and well-seasoned fellows -- have already agreed that Approach 1 is preferred whenever possible, and that Approach 2 should be reserved for filling in the interstices of the overall project.

Try to imagine the brainstorming of a group of real RV campers, as opposed to mainstream RVers at a Gathering. First we might use the "Lessons Learned" technique. All of our rigs have had features that were a pain in the neck. At the very least, a better RV should avoid such mistakes. The "negatives" are so concrete that we should quickly inventory them and then move on to the positive aspects of designing the ultimate camping machine. Obviously the positive aspects will eventually fade out into the subjective and uncertain.

I've already learned from other people's rigs: the first time I saw a fifth wheel trailer with an unusually small number of windows that were also below average in size, I thought the fellow had made a mistake. But he was right. Excessive window area is a classic mistake for RVs. (The RV industry makes this mistake year after year because it helps make the rig look larger and cheerier at the point of sale. Gullible customers expect large windows to make their RV look like a cute little McMansion-on-wheels.) Windows are one step better than a hole in the wall, but they cook you in the summer and freeze you in the winter. But yours are darkly tinted, you say? Fine -- touch that darkly tinted window on a hot sunny day; now touch the insulated wall. You won't have trouble feeling the difference.

Many people would be impressed if they had a chance to step into an A-frame folding trailer, as I had recently with Box Canyon Blog. You can only get so far by looking at websites or RV forums. You need to see it in the flesh and talk to a non-sales-oriented owner.

I always study other trailer's tire size and ground clearance. The 13 inch tires and low ground clearance that my ultralight travel trailer came with were a serious nuisance  -- in town as well as in the outback. Fortunately it also came with a compensating feature: under-rated axles. When I bent both axles I had the trailer lifted 2.5 inches, which made a world of difference. But in the future, I will insist on 15 inch tires like some travel trailers have.

It also helps to use rubber couplings on the holding tank's drain tubes -- the drain plumbing is very exposed on a low trailer. Either something is allowed to slip off, after hitting a rock, or it gets destroyed.

I would love to have van-people in my camping group. One of the people in my current Kodger Caravan has a van, and it has convinced me of its advantages. But I don't care for the excessive stuff they they try to cram into too small a space.

Arguably, the best camping machine for a single traveler is a spartan E-150 Ford cargo van (i.e., no windows), 2 wheel drive, with a high top, and no added exterior trim or storage. It serves as your den, bedroom, and kitchen. Then you pull a small, single-axle cargo trailer behind it, which stores toys, water, propane, batteries, generator, gas can and automotive chemicals, and perhaps serves as the shower. And it needs high clearance!

It helps to have a portfolio of rigs around when you are thinking of the next rig or the next improvement on the current rig. Otherwise your mind stays trapped in its solitude or is at the mercy of misinformation and sales-hype on the internet. 

Most of the time we get stuck on solving some problem, it's because we overlooked something right at the beginning. Having other people around can help a lot; they can challenge your assumptions.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Update: A Funny Smell on the Trail

Southwestern New Mexico. There is so much change in altitude in the Southwest that you can stay comfortable all year, despite your winter hangout being only a few hours drive from your summer place. Considering the price of gasoline, tires, and a new pickup truck (over $60000) -- while the narco-keynesians pay zero interest in bank accounts -- it seems advantageous to concentrate in this area, and abandon the notion of transcontinental "channel surfing with gasoline", which is how the RV lifestyle used to be seen.

And so I have. But there's always pro-s and con-s. This morning I took a stab at a forest access road. I decided to hike since it seemed likely that it would get too steep for mountain biking.

Everything went well. Coffee Girl had a great chance to chase squirrels, while I was delighted with trees-that-have-leaves. (Actually there isn't a technical word for that, is there?) I was a bit astonished with the grandeur of a couple of Arizona Sycamores along the way.

Then suddenly the smoke from the nearby forest fires became more noticeable. Why so sudden? I started getting that yukky feeling that I was digging my own grave if I got macho and stubborn. Back at the trailhead kiosk the Forest Service's notice had said nothing about fire or trail/road closures in my area. But apparently I was getting closer to where the "action" was.

This is a good reason for not getting too attached to the high country of New Mexico and Arizona. Every May and June forest fires are at least a nuisance, and possibly a disaster. It's a good reason not to give up on places that are wetter, such as Colorado.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

To Nail a Mockingbird

They say that coyotes can fool you into thinking there are a half a dozen yipping away, when in fact it's only a couple. I've been experiencing that with a "flock" of birds in the riparian areas around Glenwood NM. 

It's so hard to write about the pleasure of hearing birds in the morning. It always sounds corny or sappy. But over the years, I notice that this pleasure is growing.

I couldn't take it anymore. I just had to find out who was making all the noise in my camping area. Actually most of it was quite musical. Maybe it was just one bird who was vocally gifted. At long last I photographed the culprit.

I really should learn how to record sound on my camera and present it on the blog. This fellow could make at least a half dozen distinct sounds; he would switch from one hit-tune to the next. It was hard to keep track of them all.

He is a medium-sized, slender bird with a grey back, white breast, and showy white bands on the wings, which are most noticeable when flying.

Besides his amazing range of vocalizations, he was impressive in his goofy fluttering from his perch on a tree. The white bands were most visible.

But there can be only one explanation for his showy and ludicrous crooning and athleticisms; there are certain forms of male behavior that are universal:

I'm afraid the poor lad is smitten with the Grand Passion. So are we agreed that he is a mockingbird?

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Flexibility and the Traveler

Glenwood NM. This is the first area I stopped at last August when I got back on the road. I was very mindful of being a better traveler than before.

This is harder than it sounds. An experienced traveler learns that some camping situations work better than others; and some places are better than others. As you follow an annual migratory cycle, you polish your technique so that it works better and better.

The trouble is that you become a successful specialist, with all the narrowness and lack of variety that that brings on. 

For example we usually allow wireless internet and phone service to affect our itinerary, at least implicitly. There is a real downside to giving in to internet addiction.

The Glenwood NM area is a Verizon hole. The experienced and specialized traveler might just blow through the area, and barely stop. He has really lost something. Does he even bother to discover that there is DSL in the area! That surprised me -- it means that wi-fi and the "extended cell tower" options are available at several stores. So you do in fact have internet access; you just need to take a short trip to get it.

It takes flexibility to adjust to this situation and make the best of it. Flexibility is a "happy talk" way of saying that you must toughen up and tolerate some inconvenience. You must write rough drafts, read downloaded eBooks, and photo-edit off-line in camp, and defer your internet connectivity. It might sound corny to say this is good for the soul. But it is. 

Another mistake that a specialized traveler might make is to underestimate the compensations that people and nature provide to situations that originally looked disadvantageous.

In Glenwood the altitude is too low and the temperature too hot for a traveler who has specialized to cool high country. But what about the green leaves that grow along the river, and the birds, and water actually moving in the streams! These are the benefits that it takes a little effort to appreciate.

Being forced off-line gives the traveler time to relearn the pleasure of reading books or looking at juicy quotes that you've squirreled away in the past. Consider William Barrett's Irrational Man, in the chapter, The Flight from Laputa, p. 135:

A society that is going through a process of dislocation and upheaval, or of revolution, is bound to cause suffering to individuals, but this suffering itself can bring one closer to one's own existence. Habit and routine are great veils over our existence. As long as they are securely in place, we need not consider what life means; its meaning seems sufficiently incarnate in the triumph of the daily habit. When the social fabric is rent, however, man is suddenly thrust outside, away from the habits and norms he once accepted automatically. There, on the outside, his questioning begins.

What is true of society at large, as he was writing about, is also true for the individual traveler trying to branch out.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Oddities in Rural Living

Glenwood, NM. What time is it? My cellphone comes on and looks for service without finding it. Thus it won't display the time. Perhaps the first lifestyle adjustment you must make when living in remote towns is turning the clock back to the day when we all wore wristwatches.

Imagine how tired waitresses get (in towns like this) when outsiders make weird dietary requests. One city slicker won't eat meat; another eats nothing but meat. None of them is happy with canned goods off-loaded from the Sysco truck or Little Debbie's fine baked goods, which is all there is to rural cuisine. They must wonder if there is anything that isn't against somebody's food ideology.

James Howard Kunstler would be amazed with places like Glenwood. He sees America as a dispersed and ugly strip-civilization of fast food joints and big boxes. Our suburban nation is based on cheap oil, but rural areas are even worse. It is staggering to consider how much malinvestment there is in America which has no future since the Cheap Oil Era is over, or so he argues.

And yet look around you at rural homes and hobby ranches; look at their full complement of small engine-equipped machinery; look at the monstrous size of the pickup trucks. Somehow life goes on. How do you keep all these engines and vehicles in good repair when the nearest repair shop is 50 miles away?

By doing it yourself? Well sure, in remote rural areas boys know how to change the spark plug on the weed whacker by age 4. But the nearest auto parts store is also over 50 miles away. How can you fix any challenging problem on a vehicle or a house without making multiple trips into auto parts and hardware stores? Also, it used to be easier for a backyard mechanic to effect repairs on vehicles that were purely mechanical. Today you can't fix everything by grabbing for a socket wrench -- it has too many electronic components.

Perhaps, I am underestimating the compensating advantages of remote rural living. For instance, their use of their own land is not hobbled by dozens of meddling, micromanaging zoning laws; so they can have a storage shed  -- or even a barn -- filled with what looks like detritus, but is in fact the stockpile that they draw on to avoid driving to a "parts" store 50 miles away.

Perhaps their daily habits adjust more than I think. They are probably less perfectionist than the city dweller; thus they can distinguish the repairs that can be postponed (to the next grand shopping trip to town for 30 things) from those that absolutely must be solved now. Many of these urgent problems can perhaps be solved temporarily by some inventive improvisation.

But still, there must be an effect of high petroleum prices on "country dream" living. Whenever I've interrogated rural-tanians on this, they deny that the End of Cheap Oil is having a huge effect on them. Kunstler would be disappointed. Perhaps the questioner needs to ask more gently, and not come off as a prosecutor moving in for the kill.

There are other ironies and incongruities in remote rural areas, besides the aforementioned one of trying to base a culture on giant pickup trucks after the End of Cheap Oil. Anyone who is prone to fluttering his eyelashes at the idea of remote country living must be disappointed when he sees the omniscient satellite television dish hanging on the side of buildings which would otherwise be charming and picturesque.

For instance, when I got back on the road last August my first stop was in Mogollon NM, just a few miles from where I am now, in Glenwood. It practically broke my heart to see satellite TV dishes on the quaint old mining buildings up there. After all, if life was such an escapist dream there, why would they need something like television? Why not just live in a normal boring place? The TV would be the same.

It's no secret that remote rural areas have a lot of Bible Christians. And yet they watch satellite television for many hours per day, despite its smut and idiocies assaulting their Christian values during every minute of TV programming and commercials. How can they tolerate this?

Nevertheless it's an observable fact that the "mental" culture of remote rural living is centered around satellite television 6 days per week. On the seventh day the Bible takes precedence. Of course a family of chubby rural-tanians must squeeze into the full-sized pickup truck and drive to the Bible Church, with all the transportation expenses involved.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Blogging Outdoors Under Real Leaves

Who were the first "bloggers" in the English language? Arguably they lived in the 18th century. They were fellows like Addison & Steele, Samuel Johnson, and Benjamin Franklin. They wrote with a goose quill stylus and paper instead of a laptop of course. But the term, blogger, still seems right since they wrote personal essays on a wide variety of topics.

Sometimes they wrote in a hurry, as Johnson admitted to. There are advantages to both slow and fast writing. If the blogger is working on a difficult theme, the slow approach works best.

But fast writing can better capture the spirit and mood of the writer. Sometimes that is the better approach, such as when a traveler arrives in town and feels a bit giddy because things are working out better than he expected. Don't let anybody tell you that concerns and worries are terrible and negative things. Without them, how could we have upside surprises?

I'm having one right now -- right this minute -- in Glenwood, NM. This time I didn't have to get towed 50 miles back to Silver City. I'm behind the library on long picnic tables, sucking wi-fi (open 24 hours) from the library, and charging everything up with my 100 foot long extension cord.

I could be working inside the rig, parked nearby in the parking lot. But it's so much more sensuous here under the shade of an ash tree, with cool breezes ruffling its leaves. In the interior West you can only find a real tree -- one with leaves instead of needles -- in town. But city noise is so oppressive that it just isn't worth it.

Ahh, but it is in a little burg like Glenwood. I took my siesta stretched out on this hard picnic table and looked up at the fluttering ash leaves.

Camping with the Quest-for-Community caravan has reminded how much I miss sitting outside in warm air, with shade. Why should someone have to be reminded of that? So I bought my first folding chair in years!

All it takes is a nice breeze and you won't feel warm in single-digit relative humidity. In the mountains outside Glenwood, that same humidity is responsible for a small forest fire. It's that time of year.

Monday, May 14, 2012

RV Caravan Becomes Reality Television

Even people who don't watch television can't help but be aware of reality TV hit-shows. Although I've never watched "Survivor", I can imagine it. It seems that our Quest-for-Community caravan is becoming the show. In fact, it looks like a 17-year-old miniature poodle is likely to be the eventual winner.

So far, we've survived being towed up mountains, infected doggie sutures, possible food poisoning, cargo doors that wouldn't close, tooth infection and pain, bad U-joints, a holding tank's drain valves being smashed against a rock, and nearly stepping on a rattlesnake.

To the hard-bitten realist, solving problems and surviving disasters is a better way to build a real community than rhapsodizing about dreamy platitudes in the clouds. So maybe all these problems are a blessing in disguise.

The latest disaster created an educational opportunity. In cellphone service-free Glenwood NM, we were struggling to find an old fashioned public phone in order to call a towing service. Rolling up to the Glenwood Trading Post, the only gas station and convenience store in town, we were amazed to find 4 bars (out of 4) signal strength.

As it turned out, the store offered Verizon's "Extended Cell Tower" service: the DSL (landline) service feeds a modem in the store that puts out voice to all Verizon phones -- even non-smart phones!-- and to Sprint smartphones, or perhaps to any device that reads wi-fi. It also puts out internet data. Amazing!

Remember that services like this don't show up on the Verizon coverage map. On top of that, the people at Glenwood Trading Post were kind and helpful to me in my hour of need. 

The moral of the story is to stop avoiding remote areas purely on the basis of some phone carrier's coverage map showing no service there.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

A New Community for RV Camping Outdoorsmen

No doubt a couple people -- including myself -- have been surprised by me surviving almost three weeks in a mobile "intentional community," without being booted out. Another phrase for what we are doing is "an RV caravan with a difference." We are attempting to build a community, rather than one more routine RV group.
Normally RV Gatherings and caravans are about having a good time, i.e., potlucks, happy hour, local sightseeing, and maybe some how-to seminars. RVers -- typically newbies -- have paid dues to join some organization, and they see the gathering as a chance to recoup some of that money by plugging themselves into a standard product that is at least good for a little entertainment or education. You all arrive as amiable strangers, spend a few days playing "Ten Questions" (Soooooo, where ya from...?), and then depart as strangers, never expecting to see that group of bores again. 
For the next few weeks I will learn what I can from our experiment, because something is missing from the permanent-stranger and perpetual-aimlessness syndromes of RV travel. Perhaps I can duplicate some of this group's success by starting a new mobile community that is closer to my own interests.

This new RV community would be dedicated to a non-motorized, outdoorsy lifestyle while boondocking on public lands for a week or two at a time, before moving on to the next place, taking climate and altitude into account. We are focusing on the high altitude lands of the interior West, actually the Southwest. (Should gasoline drop to pre-Obama prices and bank accounts revert to pre-Bernanke interest rates, it might make sense to expand the geographical reach.)
What does an "outdoorsy" lifestyle mean? Must you be a youngish Iron Man competitor? Of course not. I simply mean that you have some outdoor activity -- not necessarily strenuous -- that you do regularly enough to be an important part of your lifestyle and personal identity. Considering where we are likely to camp, the logical activities would be hiking, mountain biking, photography, walking your dog off-leash, fly fishing, rock collecting, etc.; in fact, anything but satellite television, driving to town to go shopping, potlucking in a circle of wide-body chairs, and four wheeling. 
Nor is this community for people who haven't exercised for years but who have a vague sympathy for the general idea, the sentiment, the dreamy platitude, and who will show up completely out of shape and then hope to get in shape when other people rub off on them. This is not a commercial spa or fat-farm for would-be dieters.
When we reach critical mass, I'd expect the community to split into two: one for boondocking and one for campgrounds-with-hookups.
So far, my only co-conspirator is over at Box Canyon Blog. We'll see how he responds on his blog. If you are interested in this project, please email me at . (underlines, not hyphens.)
Community Update: I got email from Ted at about what kind of rig would be needed. Four wheel drive is not needed, since most public lands boondocking is accessible from bladed 3 digit forest roads. Sometimes there is a ditch or berm that must be crossed to get to the actual campsite, and this can be a bit touchy for low-clearance rigs.
Large motorhomes and fifth wheels and Class C motorhomes with excessive rear overhang are troublesome for boondocking; they aren't absolutely unwelcome, but they must expect to put out the extra effort to find a compatible site, which might be miles from the main group. Vans (Class B motorhomes), pickup campers, small Class C's (Chinook type), and small trailers are best. 

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Monastery in the Wilderness

The Continental Divide Trail, north of Silver City NM, was more rugged than the dirt roads that I usually ride. It frequently dipped down into ravines and creek crossings, which eventually took their toll. It wasn’t long before I regretted not bringing food. Why was I resting so much? Something was wrong. I was starting to feel light-headed. It was actually a little scary. Should I turn tail and head back to the van parked at the trailhead, or plod on?

Hunger favored plodding onward, since there would be a small town and restaurant in just a few miles. Then I saw the Benedictine monastery peeking through the ponderosas, on the other side of a steep ravine. If only I could drag the bike across this ravine to the monastery, it would make for a huge shortcut back to the van. 

The bell tower of the monastery seemed so close! I was half-crazy with hunger by now. Getting to that monastery was my best hope. But the ravine proved to be uncrossable; I had to face the grim reality that there would be hours of hunger and toil before making it home, via the long route.

At that moment the monastery’s bell tower rang out. It was so comforting to hear that bell; so evocative of the Middle Ages when cathedral bells measured the day. It was clear and penetrating, despite all the ponderosas in the way. It soared over the quiet, background sounds of birds and breeze. This church tower bell was the last man-made sound to someone headed north from town; beyond the ravine was the
vastness of the Gila wilderness. 
You've probably noticed how marvelous the writing can be in the opening paragraphs of many books -- even history books. Consider the opening of The Autumn of the Middle Ages, by Johan Huizinga. (The first edition was mis-translated as ''Waning" rather than "Autumn.")
To the world when it was half a thousand years younger, the outlines of all things seemed more clearly marked than to us. The contrast between suffering and joy, between adversity and happiness, appeared more striking. All experience had yet to the minds of men the directness and absoluteness of the pleasure and pain of child-life.

Illness and health presented a more striking contrast; the cold and darkness of winter were more real evils. We, at the present day, can hardly understand the keenness with which a fur coat, a good fire on the hearth, a soft bed, a glass of wine, were formerly enjoyed.

For at all times the vision of a sublime life has haunted the souls of men, and the gloomier the present is, the more strong this aspiration will make itself felt.

Thus religious emotion always tended to be transmuted into images. Mystery seemed to become graspable by the mind when invested with a perceptible form.

Johan Huizenga would surely have been delighted with my experience in a most unlikely place, and that his book was an integral part of the experience. Blending a book and an outdoor or boondocking experience was a discovery I made during my first few days of real camping, way back in the late 1990's. It doesn't happen very often, but it is so memorable and precious when it does.

A couple years later I mountain biked to the same monastery from town on an easier approach. After getting there I sat down outside the chapel and listened to sonorous chanting inside, just like what you would imagine taking place in a Gothic cathedral in Europe.

Since I grew up in the Midwest with a protestant background, halfway between Lake Wobegon and Mayberry, I understand Garrison Keillor's envy of the Catholics' picturesqueness and pageantry.

I was quite happy to listen to more of the chanting, but they surprised me by coming out in a long procession and walking right by me. I was embarrassed, sitting there in my bicycle garb. I probably shouldn't have even been there. I took off my hat.


Saturday, May 5, 2012

Shopping at the Nature Store

Boondocking on raw, unimproved land has a great effect on your notions of value and common sense.

What does it really mean to "improve" land, such as they are said to do in national parks, monuments, and other "special" areas? Recently I was in the Tucson area where one such park is called Madera Canyon. It is a special area in the national forest in the Santa Rita mountains south of Tucson. I always go into such a place with a chip on my shoulder. Despite that, it is fair to say that the US Forest Service is doing more things right than wrong there. 

I rode the mountain bike up to the summit in the canyon. At the entrance a sign warned the visitor that a list of rules and regulations was coming up soon. I tensed up. But the rules were small in number and full of common sense, of all things. These days a "park" of any kind is expected to be anti-dog, unless it's a dog park. That is the first manifestation of city-slicker culture that makes me growl. (They prefer cats, goldfish, and gerbils.) But Madera Canyon only insists on leashes. The entrance fee for cars was only $5; bicycles and pedestrians paid no entrance fee.

Pedaling up the canyon was a good endorphin buzz. But in order to get even more from this, I tried to look at everything as if seeing it for the first time. So why did they do this, or that? Good heavens, the road was even paved! Is that even a good idea?

But most visitors don't think their metropolitan nature park is over-improved. Did it ever occur to them how artificial their appreciation of "nature" is? Probably not. They are all part of the same Metropolitan Bubble Syndrome.

A busload of grade school kids were on a field trip. They were led by volunteers who seemed a bit like clucking hens. Put yourself in the kids' shoes; how boring it must have seemed. What does the name of this or that tree have to do with their lives back in the human hive of Tucson? It would have been interesting to follow along and listen to the indoctrination being dumped on the bored kids by these officious volunteers. They are probably in favor of a new rule that visitors must take off their hats as they pass the entrance booth and enter the Cathedral of Nature.

On raw land just outside the nature park there is none of this to put up with, so why isn't everybody there, instead? Well, because the scenery inside is more spectacular, you say. Sometimes that really isn't true since you need a certain distance to mountains to really see them best. Besides, when people say scenery is "spectacular", don't they really mean "vertical?"  Indeed high-contrast, vertical topography appears impressive when looking at a coffee table book or a nature show on television. But as a mountain biker I prefer land to stretch out more horizontally, with just enough verticality to be interesting.

Suburban nature lovers come to these metropolitan nature parks expecting everything to be pretty, pretty, pretty. Visual entertainment is the whole purpose of nature, as far as they believe. They want a Disney World with a nature theme. Their activities are so controlled, and there are so many rules and regulations, that they couldn't have a natural "experience" if they wanted to, and most of them don't want to. Rather, they are there to consume a product -- nature has been turned into a consumer brand.

The great draw to the nature park is a paved loop road. The parking lots need to have concrete slabs and yellow strips to remind the visitors of a strip mall back in the suburb. The next thing on the list is a visitor's center where, hopefully, there will be crowds of people, an IMAX-like movie to watch, and a gift shop. Without a chance to spend money every couple minutes, the average suburbanite will become bored to the point of screaming. 

But visiting a place like this is not an isolated shopping experience to these visitors. They see a place like Madera Canyon as an individual outlet in a nationwide chain of nature stores run by the forest service and park service. The generic forests, grasslands, and deserts that I camp on are bland, uninteresting places to these visitors. 

One visitor to Madera Canyon wandered off the reservation and stumbled into the low-rent district just outside, where I was camped. She asked, "What about all these cows?" I guess she saw cows, horses, cowboys, thorns, stickers, and -- shudder -- cow pies as some kind of threat to my Western camping experience. I really didn't know how to answer her.

She would probably like it if all public lands were managed with the fees and restrictions of national parks; the ostensible reason would be "environmental protection" of course. But I think the real reason is that general purpose (lightly regulated and unfee-ed) public land is as boring to her as walking down the breakfast food aisle in a grocery store and looking at store-brand corn flakes. But a national monument or a national park, well, that's like $10 per pound organic mueslix imported from Europe. Only high-end consumer brands will do for her.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Onto the Field of Honour with Mr. Frey

At long last it is time for the Duel. In order to appreciate the drama of this you might consider watching the end of Barry Lyndon, where you will find more than courage and honour involved. You'll also see intricate rules and rituals being followed to the letter, whilst Schubert's excellent piano trio plays in the background.

Young Lord Bullington, the step-son of Barry Lyndon, spoke to him: "Mr. Redmond Barry (aka Barry Lyndon): the last occasion on which we met you wantonly caused me injury and dishonour, in such a manner and to such an extent to which no gentleman can willingly suffer without demanding satisfaction, however much time intervenes. I have now come to claim that satisfaction."
I couldn't have said it better myself. In the original challenge I neglected to explain how the winner would be determined. Rest assured that it will be decided by a distinguished group of "seconds", as well as the head "factors" in charge of our respective estates and manors. Although their decision is final they welcome comments from readers, and promise to take these into account.

Now then, per the Wikipedia article on duelling, the challenged party (Mr. Frey) is entitled to shoot first:

I have selected essay #487 - "Disengagement" from Fred On Everything as his best. I think it is his best because he validates what I have come to believe. I have been disengaging slowly but surely ever since I quit my 'career' job in 1990 and am now a full time RVer. This is not the end of my disengagement, but simply another step along that path, but it is encouraging to read something that supports the direction that my life has taken. I also think it is his best because he touches on almost all of the subjects included in his other essays. By reading this one you will get a good introduction to what he writes about.
It is probably worthwhile to read the essay by clicking before reading more of my comments.
This essay includes topics that Fred writes about many, many times in the over 500 essays that he has in his archives. If you find that you disagree with his positions expressed in this one then you probably will not enjoy reading very many of the others.

Governmental Oppression, loss of freedom and political correctness are frequent topics in his essays.

Patriotism is also discussed many times. You may be turned off by what he says in this essay but by reading many of his others you will come to understand how and why he has come to have this position.

Education and Affirmative Action are also discussed repeatedly. This essay provides only a summary of what he thinks regarding our schools, many other essays go into greater detail.

Consumerism and Debt are discussed in much more depth in some of his other essays.
He only briefly touches on the subject of being an expatriot in this essay but many of his others discuss the subject in much more detail not only about Mexico but other places in the world.

My opponent's choice of #487 was a surprise since it was on my own list of semi-finalists. In fact I considered firing my pistol into the ground, thereby announcing my satisfaction and the end of the duel.

I've chosen #153, Military Reflections. Recall your Orwell: 'nothing worth reading is produced unless the writer practices a certain amount of self-abnegation.' That is a two-way street; and I was in the mood to practice a certain amount of self-abnegation as the reader. There were other essays that seemed more original, more pertinent to my own life, funnier, etc.

Rightly or wrongly, I chose an essay that offered what was unique to Fred Reed: there are few pundits and writers that have any direct experience with the soldiering business. This is a big problem considering how fundamental military culture and Permanent War are to the American Empire.

Fred Reed volunteered for the Marines during the Vietnam War and was in combat there, where he was wounded. His essays on war are pro-soldier and anti-Establishment. His bitterest assessments are of neo-con chicken hawks, the college boys who work in think tanks and can't wait to get America into the next Permanent War, as long as they, their offspring, friends, and acquaintances don't have to fight.

I admit that my opponent's choice offers a better one-essay sample of the range of Fred Reed's opinions.