Thursday, August 30, 2012

Update -- Scenery Compared to Food

It's easy to predict what kind of food a child will choose: the more sugar the better. Adults move on to other foods that are more interesting in a non-teeth-sticking sort of way, which means that they have to apply quite a bit of imagination and discipline to develop a good diet. Naturally the adult looks down on the child's food preferences, but not in a mean sort of way.

How many times has restaurant food really knocked your socks off? I can't remember a dessert doing so, at least during my adulthood. But recently I was having breakfast with a friend (a professional caterer from Patagonia AZ), when we both commented on the hash browns as being the best we had ever had in our lives. Their mighty secret: they made the hash browns out of potatoes  -- fresh. They barely needed any tabasco sauce to make them interesting. Most restaurants presumably thaw out ready-made hash browns from the Sysco truck.

I also had some natural scenery knock my socks off recently, and that is saying something, considering that I've been a full time RVer for 15 years. It happened in the sagebrush hills around Gunnison CO. Some of the hills were only a couple hundred feet high -- puny by Colorado standards. There were no trees. The sagebrush didn't have the blue-green tint that it has in "greater Nevada" in May, after the snow melt. Wikipedia says that sagebrush drops some of its leaves in late summer. Here and now it looked so funereal.

Because of the pathetic appearance of the sagebrush, some people would call these hills "ugly." But "austere" is a better word. How fine austere land can be! The shape of the hills has that marvelous "woman reclining on her side" look; they would have been gorgeous if green. My mind kept moving these hills off to the Great Basin in May when the color would have been rich.


Speaking of Patagonia (Argentina, this time), I wonder if it too has a lonely and austere beauty like the area I was dispersed camping in. My mind drifted off to Hudson's "Idle Days in Patagonia," recommended by William James in his classic "Varieties of Religious Experience."
"I spent the greater part of one winter at a point on the Rio Negro, seventy or eighty miles from the sea, where the valley on my side of the water was about five miles wide.  The valley alone was habitable, where there was water for man and beast, and a thin soil producing grass and grain; it is perfectly level, and ends abruptly at the foot of the bank or terrace-like formation of the higher barren plateau.  It was my custom to go out every morning on horseback with my gun, and, followed by one dog, to ride away from the valley; and no sooner would I climb the terrace and plunge into the gray universal thicket, than I would find myself completely alone and cut off from all sight and sound of human occupancy as if five hundred instead of only five miles separated me from the hidden green valley and river.  So wild and solitary and remote seemed that gray waste, stretching away into infinitude, a waste untrodden by man, and where the wild animals are so few that they have made no discoverable path in the wilderness of thorns.  There I might have dropped down and died, and my flesh been devoured by birds, and my bones bleached white in sun and wind, and no person would have found them, and it would have been forgotten that one had ridden forth in the morning and had not returned...
...day after day I returned to this solitude, going to it in the morning as if to attend a festival, and leaving it only when hunger and thirst and the westering sun compelled me.  And yet I had no object in going--no motive which could be put into words; for although I carried a gun, there was nothing to shoot...

 ...the weather at that time was cheerless, generally with a gray film of cloud spread over the sky, and a bleak wind, often cold enough to make my bridle hand feel quite numb...

 ...in the scene itself there was nothing to delight the eye.

...But during those solitary days it was a rare thing for any thought to cross my mind...in that novel state of mind I was in, thought had become impossible...I had become incapable of reflection: my mind had suddenly transformed itself from a thinking machine into a machine for some other unknown purpose.  To think was like setting in motion a noisy engine in my brain; and there was something there which bade me be still, and I was forced to obey.  My state was one of suspense and watchfulness: yet I had no expectation of meeting with an adventure...The change in me was just as great and wonderful as if I had changed my identity for that of another man or animal;...something had come between me and my intellect..."
But back to Gunnison CO again: still overwhelmed by the austerity of my sagebrush-covered hills I found a single track mountain bike trail right next to my dispersed campsite. It was smooth, hard dirt. It was fun. I hardly ever have fun on single tracks because of their technical difficulty. This was the best luxury I could have asked for; how ironic I found it here. Then again, maybe the willingness to appreciate austerity created or intensified this luxury. This wasn't the effortless fun of an eight-year-old at the Dairy Queen, which is how enjoying beautiful scenery is usually presented in travel blogs.
 

Later a four wheel pickup truck came by. The friendly young man was the owner of singleTrackMapping.com, a mapping company for trails in Durango, Crested Butte, and other popular areas. His maps also contain trail information for motorcycle, horse, and hiking. The semi-miraculous thing is that he was performing on-the-ground verification of the maps. I always wondered if map companies ever did anything like that, or whether they just take the "easy route" by playing garbage in/garbage out with their computer.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

The College Loan Bubble Explained, Photographically

During presidential election years it is typical for the two main political parties to rent an empty store in a strip mall and use it for their local campaign headquarters. I happened to be going by the Democrat headquarters this morning, in the college town of Gunnison CO, when I saw this. 


This isn't aiming any specific accusation at the Democrats. I doubt that they were doing anything illegal, and if I knew where the Republican headquarters was, I might have seen a similar sign. 

The "college loan bubble" has been been getting a lot of attention lately, at least on the internet. Is it a "complex" issue? Or does this photograph undercut the need for, not only a thousand words, but also a thousand pages of a book about government funding and the ability to corrupt everything it touches?

Monday, August 27, 2012

New Rig Dreams

When your RV rig gets old you might as well start window shopping early, since finding something might take a long time. Of course, that problem is worse when the shopper is stubborn about camping in quiet and interesting places and avoiding unnecessary expenses and luxuries. You would make it easier on yourself, during the shopping process, if you thought like a mainstream RVer, but then the negative payoff would come later when you end up with a rig that is expensive and troublesome to repair, and you can't camp where you really want to camp. 

Here's my most recent heart-throb:


It's made by Tiger RV, circa 1990. What a nice camping experience these lucky people must have had! They had gotten to a campsite that big or "overhang-ey" rigs couldn't get to. They could walk right out of their rig to dozens of mountain bike/multi-purpose trails. Here is RV camping at its finest: the perfect balance of outdoor flavor combined with realistic and hard-shelled comfort.

Alas Toyota hasn't even made a compact pickup truck since 2005. Their Tacoma has become a victim of bloat. Why don't they make just one model of pickup if they are going to make the Tacoma so close to the Tundra? Thus modern Tiger RVs (made in Colorado, amazingly enough) are built on full-sized pickup truck bloat platforms. Sigh.

Actually I am barely willing to pay more than $2000 for the "housey" part of an RV. The real part of an RV is the engine and powertrain that make it move down the road. The "interior" stuff could be done easily enough by the owner, using thin plywood, and plastic boxes, especially if he understands electricity, solar equipment, etc.

I've long had an interest in box vans. I saw one in a parking lot and yakked it up with the owner for 20 minutes. By "box van" I mean the smallest size of "cubical U-Haul-type van," built on a cargo van chassis. The box is 10 feet long and about 8 feet wide, and just over 6 feet high (standing height). It's much roomier than a class B motorhome or a conversion van, but it's the same length.

Did you know that on Uhaul.com you can go to the bottom of the front page, click on "buy used trucks", and see a list of used box vans and box trucks available from them in big cities? But I'm not sure if you will find any low mileage ones. Also I don't know if the Dept. of Motor Vehicles requires a different type of license for them, or whether your insurance company will insure a "commercial" truck like this. But it's something to fantasize about. 



Friday, August 24, 2012

Where is the Outdoorsy Athletic Middle Class?

These days there is quite a bit of discussion on business and investing blogs about the slow decline of the once-mighty American middle class; we are splitting into losers -- 99% of us -- and a 1% who are benefiting from bankster and Washington DC corruption. That is, we are becoming a kleptocracy of the kind that is common in Latin American or third world countries. Indeed, it is in such countries that an American traveler might first notice that "most in the middle" is not the global norm, and that he has been taking it for granted all his life.

How long has this phenomenon have been noticeable? Boswell reported an outline made by Samuel Johnson after his one and only trip to France, near the end of his life. Johnson remarked that everybody in France appeared desperately poor except for the few who were unbelievably rich, and how different that was from England. A historian would probably explain this in the context of the rising bourgeoisie in the late Middle Ages in Europe, as well as Protestant culture in northern Europe...

Thus ran my thoughts as I watched a pro bicycle race in Gunnison CO. Gunnison has really developed a strong bicycle culture in town; the town's smallness and flatness lends itself to cruiser bikes. Also, the town is surrounded by sagebrush-covered mesas and hills, most of which is BLM land. The number of multi-use trails has expanded noticeably since the last time I was here. Even better, you can access those trails right from your front door in town!

I wanted to join the rest of the crowd in enjoying the start of the race, but I held back for some reason. Should endurance sport racing really be celebrated? Is it all that constructive or healthy? It's what gets the publicity and the glamour, of course.

A couple days later the news broke about Lance Armstrong being stripped of his Tour de France titles. Perhaps I shouldn't have been shocked: I was friends with a retired professional bicycle racer once. He told me that ALL top cyclists dope. After all, the human body is a biochemical machine, so biochemical tools are needed to get the last 0.1% of physiological performance out of an endurance athlete.

It has been a source of much frustration for me to live in a culture built around automobiles and fast food and obesity. Then, once in a great while, you meet one of that small elite group of Americans who isn't a standard couch potato, only to find out that his Ego is entirely concentrated on How-Far and How-Fast he can go. Most likely he will someday undergo knee surgery, thanks to the relentless abuse of running; or perhaps he will have many months of expensive and painful physical therapy to endure, as he recovers from a bicycle crash.

Do we need racing to whip up interest in walking, cross-country skiing, running, or bicycling? Why can't we just see human-powered transportation on safe and pleasant trails as an integral part of the Good Life? Whether they be dopers or not, maybe it's time that less glory and money went to a handful of physiological freaks like Lance Armstrong, and more attention went to building a more energetic physical culture out of millions of average bodies.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Blog Revisions--Update

At the beginning of Tom Jones, one of the first and most enduringly popular novels in the English language, Henry Fielding tried to give the reader a succinct and accurate description of what was coming in the novel, analogous to the bill of fare that a prospective customer might see on the door of a restaurant. 

As a reader of blogs I can sometimes get annoyed with vague or misleading titles. They are used, presumably, by writers who want to harvest the greatest number of eyeballs, regardless of whether the reader's time is being wasted.

It seemed long overdue to refine the subtitle on this blog so that readers can immediately decide whether they are barking up the wrong tree or not. So I've added "television-free" to the subtitle. Why is this important? A person can eat junk fast food on a frequent basis and not blimp out or develop health problems for a while, but it will catch up with you eventually. So too can you fill your eyeballs and brain with mental and cultural junk food from the television, while still maintaining a certain amount of personal sovereignty and independence. But the odds are against it, and if you keep it up you'll eventually succumb. 

Declaring independence from television was the first decision I made as a young adult. I was quite passionate about it, but it was so long ago that I neglected to mention it in the blog's subtitle on the first iteration. Without independence from the dominant mind-fucks of television, advertising, the educational system, the mainstream media, and the government, I don't see how anyone can presume to write. 

A non-independent thinker could be replaced by a computer program. Take the limiting case of stereotypical blog writing: travel blogs. Couldn't somebody develop an iPad "app" that writes daily travel posts? There might well be a market for such an app. Just think of all the gasoline it would save.
_____________________________________________________________

The second revision is replacing "RV travel" with "dispersed RV camping." The old phrase might mislead a new reader into thinking that this was one more "me too", mainstream, RV travelogue.

I was careful not to use the term "boondocking", which can also lead to misunderstanding. That term can mean camping on the street in town (some Dream!), in casino or Walmart parking lots, or (over-priced) national forest or state park campgrounds that lack hookups. "Dispersed (area) camping" is unambiguous: it means hookup-free camping outside of established campgrounds on public lands (typically). It is the only kind of camping that is inspiring and beautiful. All the rest are dismal, lackluster, anti-dog, unadventuresome, noisy, cramped, or expensive -- and probably most of these at the same time.

"Boondocking" used to mean what I'm doing right now. "Dispersed (Area) Camping" is the term I'll use from now on. Gee, do you think it's OK to dump grey water here? Maybe the neighbors will complain.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Rage in the Sage

Sagebrush-covered flats and hills were my first love as a dispersed-area-camper/mountain biker in the West. It's fun to be back in it. Greater Nevada and Utah are really the place to be if you like sagebrush, but Gunnison (CO) has a lot of it over 8000 feet. It would be more interesting if it was mixed with more grass. Would that be the case if controlled fires were used more?

This hillside seemed odd when I first looked at it:


You can't appreciate it as a postcard. What matters is what it represents. Presumably the dark (sagebrush) streaks are barely-visible troughs that collect rainwater and snow melt, allowing the sagebrush to survive -- barely. How much strife there is in Nature! Normally this brings up an image of scratching claws and bloody fangs, but that isn't the case here -- unless you see these streaks as the curved talons of a drought-beast, reaching down to rip at the soft flesh of the lower hill. 

One way to insult a place is to say that it is 'in the middle of nowhere.' But being in the middle of somewhere is hardly less dull. So much of Life takes place, not in the middle of anywhere, but at the margin, the boundaries.

But what's this? Who is this impudent and prideful male ungulate?


Why, it's a pronghorn antelope. Notice the colorful neck bands:



By now my kelpie, Coffee Girl, was completely provoked by this pronghorn. Off she went, to vanquish him.



Now, for you softies in the readership, note that Coffee Girl has no chance against a long-legged antelope. The Wikipedia article on pronghorns says that they are the fastest runners in North America. This particular pronghorn seemed blase about being treated as prey.

Coffee Girl has a strange playful hunting style that resembles touch football. She almost reached the unconcerned pronghorn, when she turned right around and ran back to me, as if to say, "I won, Pops!"


All in good fun, or so I thought. These sagebrush-covered hills are loaded with ground squirrels. Coffee Girl has learned to bound over the sagebrush like she has springs in her feet. She finally caught one, and killed it in two seconds. It was her first confirmed kill.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Chic in the Sagebrush

Gunnison CO. I've never been in town when the college students were back in session, so the town seems crowded. Colorado, with its exercise and non-obesity culture, makes for some enjoyable girl-watching. Now, I think we can all agree that the decline of girl-watching is one of the things that shows America's inexorable moral and cultural decline.

But I had more fun watching some of the middle-aged women in town. I'm not being facetious. Colorado has developed a "Copenhagen chic" bicycle culture that has spread even to backwoodsy Gunnison. What an improvement it is to abandon the uni-sex athletic jock look, with a boy's bike, spandex, and a plastic/styrofoam brain bucket; and then to see real women -- in flouncy summer dresses no less! -- jump on ("into", actually) an old-fashioned girl's bike with chrome fenders and wicker baskets and streamers on the handlebars; and off she pedals to a store to do some errand. Girls will be girls after all, so there seems to be some kind of style competition with these colorful and funky bicycles. Even the rims are brightly colored.

How impressive it is to see a middle-aged woman -- heavy hooved by a too frazzled life -- magically transformed into a completely different creature, right in front of your eyes! It's not an exact comparison, but it invokes an image from Henry Fielding's Tom Jones:
"The lowing heifer and the bleating ewe, in herds and flocks, may
ramble safe and unregarded through the pastures. These are, indeed,
hereafter doomed to be the prey of man; yet many years are they
suffered to enjoy their liberty undisturbed. But if a plump doe be
discovered to have escaped from the forest, and to repose herself in
some field or grove, the whole parish is presently alarmed, every man
is ready to set his dogs after her; and, if she is preserved from the
rest by the good squire, it is only that he may secure her for his own
eating.

I have often considered a very fine young woman of fortune and
fashion, when first found strayed from the pale of her nursery, to be
in pretty much the same situation with this doe. The town is
immediately in an uproar; she is hunted from park to play, from court
to assembly, from assembly to her own chamber, and rarely escapes a
single season from the jaws of some devourer or other..."



Monday, August 13, 2012

Visualize Whirled RVs

Once, a friend in a bicycle club told me a little about his job driving a mini-bus for the city -- one of those buses that responds to individual calls to pick up people with special needs. His supervisors were quite systematic in the training they gave him to visualize big clockwise loops, with no left hand turns, and with no back-and-forth wastefulness.

An RVer would benefit from training like that, especially now that the era of cheap oil is over, and the cost of maintaining motor vehicles escalates at double digit rates. I have found this easy to do on a "strategic" level. Even as a newbie RVer I had no interest in the mainstream RV cliche of 'visiting every state and Canadian province' on some sort of bucket list, and then buying one of those silly maps that you put on the door, and coloring in each mighty conquest as it happens.

The freshman year was the last year for RVing east of the Rockies, for all the obvious reasons. It was also the last year for visiting British Columbia; the rivers and lakes were great, but the forests were dark and dreary; there just wasn't anything special enough to justify the extra transportation. Alaska, I never even considered. (Remember I'm a professional early retiree, not somebody who retired at the standard age and only has to make their money last a year or two before health issues drive them "off the road.") 

Mexico was a great adventure for a couple winters, but then I gave up on it; it's only a "bargain" from the point of view of certain straw-man comparisons, such as comparing daily rates at RV parks. This really doesn't even matter to a public lands boondocker. Also people, who brag about the cheapness of their Mexican RV trip, conveniently ignore the cost of getting there and returning, as well as insurance and cellphone costs. On top of that they probably drastically underestimate the true cost of transportation -- they act like gasoline is the only expense. Also, Mexico is a terrible place to take your dog for a walk, outside the walled, razor-wired, gringo fortress.

When fuel doubled in the mid-Aughts I dinged the Pacific Northwest from my list, and restricted myself to the American Southwest ever since. ("Focussed" sounds better than "restricted.") The good news is that there is enough variation in altitude and enough public land that I don't really feel restricted.

But the "tactical" level is more difficult.  There are daily temptations to be wasteful and inefficient with unnecessary trips, especially of the out-and-back kind. This morning I have to decide for the Colorado River watershed or the Rio Grande watershed. I need to decide when laundry is done in a few minutes. Hmmm...


Friday, August 10, 2012

"Of Two Minds" Rocks!

This morning I had the pleasure of reading the best financial post in a long time, on "Of Two Minds." Why doesn't the destruction of middle class wealth by the ratholes of health care, higher education, and housing get more attention than tanned female Olympic athletes frolicking in cheeky leotards or exultant NASA nerds imitating Olympic victory celebrations for their latest successful Giga-boondoggle?

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Firewood Cutting on Public Land

Uncompahgre Plateau, west of Montrose, CO. I am pleased to stumble upon my second "forest miracle" in one summer. Up here at 9000 feet the locals are busy as beavers harvesting firewood in various areas where it is allowed. It's nice to see them actually get some use out of their oversized, overpowered, and overpriced pickup trucks, the official car of Colorado. Maybe one of them will tell me how much a full load of firewood is worth, compared to buying heat from the power company.

Of course, I just love seeing downed timber get cleared away. It makes the forest a lot more attractive and removes "ladder fuel" from a potential forest fire. And Coffee Girl can chase squirrels up tree with fewer speed bumps on the forest floor. (Then again, she has amazing buoyancy in bounding over logs.)

Progress is being made in this forest, and I don't want to sound greedy, but do you think that commercial companies can get permits to cut firewood and then sell it to the general public? It would certainly make sense since many people lack the chain saw and pickup truck, as well as the desire and ability to get out there and do it.

I'll bet most grass-roots-level environmentalists would have the same reaction to firewood cutting that I am having. After all, what is the point in whining about an economy addicted to non-renewable resources (oil, etc.) if you don't take advantage of resources that are replenishable and sustainable, such as forests or agriculture in general? (And don't they use catalytic convertors in the chimneys of wood-burning stoves, these days?) Of course environmental organizations and federal judges are unlikely to use any of the common sense of a grass-roots environmentalist.

But I'm not going to jump on one of my favorite stump (ahem) speeches about the Church of the Holy Green. Instead, it's time to show how 'fair and balanced' this blog can be. Let us accept, without protest, the basic tenet of Green theology: as long as no business makes a profit doing it, cutting trees might be not be a Mortal Sin under certain circumstances. (Recall the New Testament story about Jesus showing rage in throwing the money-changers out of the Temple. Thus feel the Greens about evil capitalists in their Cathedral of Nature.)

So we'll let the Forest Service hire unionized government employees -- and what could be more sacred to Green Democrats than that? -- and they will take a chainsaw to trees that are sick or old or growing too close to each other. (Or maybe they could use AmeriCorps volunteers, or unemployed college graduates.) They could even bring along a New Age or Native American shaman to say a prayer for the soul of each tree just before it is cut -- just before it is severed from Mystical Union with the forest. After lying on the ground for whatever time period is needed for drying, the firewood scavengers will be turned loose on them. 

Why wouldn't an arrangement like that make everybody happy? I'm willing to give-and-take, to look at the situation from their point of view, and to consider any concession, as long as somebody gets rid of a few trees!

Seriously, how many homes could be heated if dog-hair-thick national forests were thinned for firewood? If I have been too satiric, can you think of a non-satiric way to explain the vast scale of forest mismanagement that has taken place over the last 20 years?

Saturday, August 4, 2012

What a 25 year old SHOULD Do

With the exception of a doctor repairing our body, is there anything that relieves us of worry like getting our motor vehicle repaired? I thought about this after a long-distance tow to town, recently. Both the van and the trailer were towed, so I could sleep overnight in the repair shop's parking lot. Being stranded at an inopportune place could cause a lot of worry for an RVer.

I envied the owner of the repair shop. He did a job that was tangible and crucial to his customers. Contrast that with some insignificant college boy in a cubicle at a large organization, wasting his life by writing reports that no one will read, attending useless meetings, following arbitrary organizational rules, laughing at the boss's jokes whether they are funny or not, and hoping to dodge layoffs in middle age. Of course there are a number of reasons why my mechanic might think that running a car-repair business is a hard way to make a living. Do you think he subscribes to the one-time American Dream of sending his son to college, as if that really were a step up in the world? (Maybe it used to be.)

Maybe my mechanic would be happier to be an employee rather than a business owner. Well, at least he has that choice. Joe SalaryMan, in the cubicle of a corporation or government agency, probably doesn't. My mechanic will never have to worry about which country the car is designed or built in; same with the parts. His job can not be replaced with slave labor in East Asia.

A specialized college degree might force it's victim to work where ever the job is, rather than where he really wants to live. He'll probably end up at corporate headquarters in some ghastly megalopolis. Over the course of a lifetime, literally years of his life will be squandered fighting metropolitan traffic. In contrast, the auto mechanic could probably find a job in any location. (Thanks for pointing this out, Sondra.)

An automobile mechanic is also in harmony with a societal megatrend. There seems to be no limit to how complex and expensive automobiles will be legislated to become, in the future. The soccer moms in the suburbs hear that Candidate X wants to mandate higher fuel economy standards; so she thinks, "Gee, what a nice guy. He wants to protect the environment." Meanwhile another government agency, the safety Nazis, mandate yet more safety equipment. (And the suburban soccer mom says, "Gee, what nice folks, they want to protect the Children.") Generally safety equipment increases the weight of the vehicle, which cancels the effect of the fuel economy mandates.

So who wins, besides government regulators? They have turned a mechanical contraption into a financial and bureaucratic "perpetual motion machine." (Eric Peters writes a lot about this issue.) 

As the average length of motor vehicle "mortgages" increases, the financial arm of the automobile companies will rake it in. But many people will go into sticker shock over the price of a new pickup truck and will refuse to take out a long term mortgage on it. Instead, they'll plow several thousand dollars per year into repairs for their older, high-mileage vehicle. So your mechanic wins.

This trend seems endless. A mindset has overtaken society; it doesn't ask about Benefits versus Costs. It doesn't even consider the concept of Diminishing Returns. It looks at environmental and safety issues as holy, religious things. Although he isn't responsible for this insanity, the guy who will laugh all the way to the bank is your auto mechanic. And that, young man, is what you should do for a living. Don't go to college.