Saturday, September 29, 2012

Scenery as an Excuse to Go There

As long as I'm coming clean on past transgressions, I might as well extend the streak. Today I'll admit that pretty scenery does actually serve a constructive purpose, although it's not the one that people usually advertise. Scenery serves as an excuse to go somewhere, and it's the going that actually matters, not the silly scenery itself.

For instance you are probably aware that there is some postcard scenery near Abiquiu, NM. The movie, City Slickers, was shot near here; and before that, what's-her-name did a lot of painting here, with the topography sometimes serving as inspiration. 

So I took off on a mountain bike ride along the cliff edge. How nice that the road followed the edge for a couple miles! When the main road finally left the cliff, I tried to return to it by opting for smaller and smaller roads. Eventually there was no road at all, except for the faintest linear vacuity perhaps left from some firewood cutting long ago. There was also more sky showing through the trees, as there always is near a cliff or saddle. 

There is always that magical moment in the fainting away of a trail when it becomes immaterial, and when you finally realize that you are just imagining it. It is a slow moving and non-slapstick version of the classic cartoon image of the Coyote running out over the edge of the cliff before he finally senses that something is wrong and then looks down. The experience is even tastier if you hear a little voice whispering to you that maybe you really aren't supposed to be here.

I was tempted to lean the mountain bike against a ponderosa and walk on. But it's surprisingly easy to lose a bike that way. So Coffee Girl, the bike, and I plowed through oak scrub as we stubbornly aimed at a cliff that was still only a possibility.

Finally the viewscape opened up:

Perhaps I'll even drop in down there for a closer look if I'm in the neighborhood. But there will probably be fees, nature-nazi regulations, rangers with guns on their hips, and crowds of windshield-tourists looking for a paved parking lot and a gift shop with what's-her-names paintings for sale. 

When travelers are surprised by roads, it's usually an unpleasant surprise. At the moment I am experiencing the exact opposite of that. The gravel/dirt road has the sort of marking on my DeLorme and Benchmark atlases that usually means, "Try it with the trailer, but first probe it with the mountain bike." But a month ago this road was given quite an upgrade, from start to finish. (A local firewood cutter confirmed this.) My gosh, even the shoulders have been graded. I'm not sure what to compare this experience to.

Good luck should be enjoyed, but I'm not going to get over-confident and expect this to happen the next time. Probing forest roads with the bike (or towed or detached tow vehicle) is a necessary step when you are a dispersed camper.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Livestock Security Services in New Mexico's "Basque" Country

Abiquiu, NM. On a day of ooze and muck, it is time that I came clean. Much as I love to debunk four-wheel-drive vehicles and brag about how well my rear-wheel-drive van pulls the trailer through the mountains, I sing a different tune when the dirt roads become wet. When I learn there is clay in the road, the tune stops altogether. Fortunately a Forest Service guy gave me fair warning.

He also explained why these high ridges north of Abiquiu are so attractive: they burned 100 years ago and the trees haven't been able to get reestablished, resulting in a balanced combination of pastures and forests. It never gets better than this.

I was experiencing a great success primarily due to telling the internet where to go. This allowed me to expand, almost euphorically, into new ground. Nothing makes western North America get BIGGER than kissing off the internet. So I'm exploring the northern counties of New Mexico contained in the highway loops formed by US-285 on the east, US-84 on the west, and Abiquiu/Espanola on the south. Actually it's not really internet-free, but it's almost Verizon-free. Fortunately Verizon allows roaming here (the so-called Global Access network), which is working quite well along the highways.

On the mountain bike ride I saw and heard the largest and noisiest herd of ovine-Americans that I've ever seen. Perhaps 200. I was surprised at how rampaging and "army-like" a large herd of sheep can seem, and how quickly they move along the pastoral ridgelines at 9500 feet. 

On the return trip they waylaid me right on the dirt road. Hey wait a minute. What about that warning about the "livestock protection dogs" of a couple posts ago? I stopped and watched the sheep herd for ten minutes, but saw no giant man-eating sheepdogs. How disappointing!

The next morning the herd was right outside my front door. Coffee Girl was excited. She has learned not to harass cattle; maybe it's time to do the same with sheep. But just in case, I left her inside the van and went to check for giant sheep dogs.

There were two of them, a matched pair. They saw me before I saw them. They don't really stand out since they're the same color and size as the sheep.

They walked toward me, but then stopped. They wouldn't leave the herd. They didn't look so scary. I didn't want to push my luck but government agencies love to, uhh, cry wolf; that is, they give exaggerated warnings to citizens who they see as their dumb sheep.

In fact the two sheep dogs seemed amazingly professional. I watched them for a few minutes to see if they would stay in the center of the herd, try to lead it, or go back to round up stragglers. I swear that somebody had a bell around their neck. 

Which breed do you think they belong to? (As usual, click to enlarge.)

For such a reputed curmudgeon and cynic I find the romance of high pastures, Basque shepherds, sheep dogs, and cougars to be irresistible. Guess which DVD movie I'll fall asleep to tonight? Hint: made in Australia in the 1990's, and features a lot of talking animals.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Eric Margolis Rocks!

Every now and then I read an editorial that makes me want to jump up and cheer. I saw one such piece by Eric Margolis today, "Fury at the American Raj."

Recently Mish Shedlock made an astute comment on why Romney will lose the election: the GOP doesn't have enough appeal to independents, who hate Perma-War and the huge waste of national resources on "defense", which really means global empire of course. In fact the Republican party today stands for little else other than war against every country in the Mideast that hates Israel and has oil or other resources.

It wasn't so long ago that foreign policy was seen as a strength of the Republican party. That was obliterated by George W. Bush and his neocon advisers. Rather than repudiate this recent perversion, Romney has embraced it. 

What geniuses the Republicans are! Many Americans of all political stripes would love to see Wall Street bankers go to jail or at least get a firm smack-down. And who do the Republicans choose as their candidate: a Wall Street insider and multi-millionaire. Brilliant.

Ironically the reelection of a Democrat president might be to the advantage of the GOP long term. The world-- including the USA -- has relapsed into recession. None of the financial problems exposed in 2008 have been even partially solved; they've simply been deodorized with unprecedented reckless narco-Keynesianism. The central bankers have successfully reignited inflation in food and energy. Obama's car and truck mileage requirements, EPA mandates, Green energy cronyism, and health care requirements will be even more hated four years from now.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

My Favorite Mountains on the Way South

Southwest of Monte Vista CO, national forest, over 9000 feet. The aspen were at their peak blaze. I enjoyed it for -- forgive me -- a few seconds, and then looked for more interesting things to think about. After slamming one of the holiest cliches of the tourism industry, I should propose an alternative. I'll do so shortly.

Seriously, why do people waste time and money to go to look at yellow aspens? Sure, bright yellow is a fun color, but you could stay at home, close your eyes, and imagine the color yellow. It would be just as vivid.

If your imagination needs help you could buy a blue-ray DVD travelogue put out by National Geographic, say, "America's Top Ten Fall Color Road Tours." Don't underestimate how good the modern big screen televisions have become. If you are still not satisfied because your retinas haven't yet registered all that they are physiologically capable of, then go to menu-setup and blast the contrast or saturation on the television screen.

I camped up there one night. It stayed warmer than expected. Forests serve a valuable purpose in May and June when they shield a camper from the lethal southwestern sun. But at the September equinox, forests are just a depressing nuisance, as they rob you of daylight at the beginning and end of day.

All the bitching and moaning up there was worth it, just so I could experience the relief of seeing the land open up on the drive back down to the San Luis valley (Alamosa, CO). I turned towards the sun, driving south on US285, and soon crossed the New Mexico border.

There are a couple mountains in this area that have always impressed me. They are symmetric volcanic swellings; they look so noble the way they lord over the surrounding sagebrush flats. They almost look too gentle to have ever erupted. But from the volcanic rocks in the area, lava at least crept out of these mountains.

I eagerly look forward to seeing them every time I pass through the upper Rio Grande. The world seems so glorious and bright and BIG (!) when the sun rises and sets on the real horizon, instead of 30 degrees up in the air.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

A Professional Attitude Toward Autumn Migration looks like thermal collapse in a couple days in southern Colorado. Here I go again. After 15 years of full time RVing there is still a nervous drama to. I still feel anxiety about the fall migration, so much so in fact that it's a bit embarrassing. Or is it? Although I can't really explain it, it seems that I must be doing something right if I still have strong feelings about the migration, after all these years. 

But why do I only get emotional about the autumn migration, and not the spring migration? You'd think that it would be symmetric.

But there is something that I can explain: it is important to resist hitch-itch in migrating too far south too fast. It's not that the warmer desert locations aren't appealing. I like them well enough. But in migrating south, imagine pouring yourself and your rig into a conical funnel whose downstream tip is at Yuma, AZ. As you proceed "downstream", North America keeps shrinking. Your options become fewer and fewer.

The only way to defeat the Shrinking Funnel Syndrome is to winter in Mexico -- an option that I exercised a couple times, but which I now reject -- or to learn to enjoy chillier weather. Do you really need to play golf in shorts with palm trees in the background, just because you saw that on the front cover of some glossy retirement magazine? Did you really hate northern winters because of the Cold proper, or because of the crap that went along with the Cold there?

It's easy to preach. A couple days ago it got down to the upper 20s F at night on BLM land near Alamosa CO. I was struggling not to run my furnace. I hate the inconvenience of buying propane, and the expense. 

And yet just a week ago I was glorying in the shadows of September. I spent all day, outside, working on a storage shelf improvement in the van and an aluminum rack on the mountain bike. The afternoon temperature was only 75 F, but the monsoons are over now, so the southwest is back to zero percent humidity and bright sun. As the sun marched across the sky, it was like watching a malevolent sun dial. I kept fleeing but it kept chasing. I had to move all of my tools and work from one side of the RV to the other in order to keep them out of the blistering sun where they soon became too hot to touch.

Somehow we have to overcome weakness and get better at appreciating crisp chilly air and scalding sun. The payoff is huge.

Monday, September 17, 2012

The Boy Who Cried "Sheep"

Del Norte, CO. Considering what public land management has become these days, you have to envy the crony capitalist who gets the government contract for signage. This was the first time I ever saw a sign like this. A list of Do-s and Don'ts is on the bottom, too small to read in the photo.

So we were cautious on our first mountain bike ride on the open range out here. But there was no sign of sheep or "livestock protection" dogs. Perhaps it's the wrong time of year.

How grand it would be to run across a Basque shepherd and learn a little about the grazing racket. (So far, I'm only familiar with grazing at Costco on "open range Saturdays.") Better yet, I'd like to ride over a ridge, look across a sagebrush flat to a ridge on the other side, and see a white Great Pyrenees dog protecting his charge against the depredations of coyote, wolf, and cougar.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

The "Hustler" in Sidewinder Canyon

"Tawniness" is the perfect camouflage on BLM land, and yet the beast's tawny color was so bright in the morning light that I could see him more than a half mile away. The bright tawniness doesn't come through in the photograph, but let's hope the reader won't claim that he can't see the mountain lion in the photograph: its ears erect and alert, waiting and warming in the morning sun, perching on a ridge, ready to leap down on its unsuspecting prey and grab its neck. Soon this mountain biker would be on the trail right in front of nature's most magnificent predator, and below him. 

But as it turned out, the morning was a little less disastrous than all of that. Nature's most magnificent predator turned out to be a broken tree, with prongs that made it look like ears. I claimed to be disappointed.

How silly! This is what happens when you read Jack London's White Fang the night before an outing. Early in White Fang's puppyhood his mother and he had an epic battle with a lynx. That was a great chapter or two in the book. London did a fine job imagining what the world looked like to a curious wolf pup who had just left the safety of the den. Since I had a puppyish dog along on the ride, running off leash, it was easy to imagine myself being moved into London's book even though I was doing a most unbookish activity, riding a mountain bike on deserted BLM land near Del Norte, CO. What would be the wolf pup's next adventure?

It didn't take long to find out. My dog, Coffee Girl, has a strange obsession with flying birds. It probably goes back to her days being harassed by ravens. An unusually large red-tailed hawk was flying low to the ground, so off Coffee Girl went, with everything she had.

Other than the size I would barely have noticed the hawk. But with Coffee Girl's antics my imagination was pulled back to White Fang's first close-call out of his den: a hawk had nearly attacked him, but it chose the ptarmigan mother instead. (She had been valiantly defending her chicks against White Fang.)

There was something else, as that mostly-black dog streaked toward her unlikely prey. She seemed less like a dog than an arrow or javelin or some other extension of my arm. Hmmm...

I hope the reader has seen the classic movie, The Hustler, starring Paul Newman, George C. Scott, and Jackie Gleason. Just think: they still made black-and-white film noir in 1962. Most of the scenes were dark and grim, except one, in which the Hustler (Newman) and his girlfriend leave the urban grit of New York City and head off for a picnic on a slope above a lake. They relax on a blanket and take in the view.
The Hustler to his girlfriend: Do you think I'm a loser?
He had been told that he was by the Gambler (George C. Scott), despite enormous talent playing pool. It was because of his character flaws. The Hustler started to admit that it might be true, as he recounted a string of recent mistakes.
Girlfriend: Does it bother you what he said?
Hustler: Yea. Yea, it bothers me a lot.
One of his mistakes was showing how good he was and winning a lot of money from some second-rate players, instead of disguising his ability as a good hustler should. It got him beaten up.
Hustler: I could have beaten those creeps and punks cold, and they never would have known. I just had to show 'em what the game is like when it's really great. Anything can be great. Bricklaying can be great, as long as the guy knows what he's doing, and why, and if he can make it come off.

And when I'm going, when I'm really goin', I feel like a jockey must feel. He's sittin' on his horse, he's got all that speed and power underneath him, and he's coming into the stretch and the pressure's on him. He just knows when to let it go and by how much, because he's got everything working for him, timing, touch... that's a great feeling.

It's like all of a sudden I got oil in my arm. The pool cue is part of me. It's a piece of wood, with nerves in it. You can feel the roll of those balls. You don't have to look -- you just know. You make shots that nobody's ever made before. Ya play that game like nobody's ever played it before.

Girlfriend: You're not a loser, you're a winner. Some men never get to feel that way about anything.

"Anything can be great." I think we can all learn something from the Hustler. How many RV travelers really try to make their lifestyle great? Or are they content to pleasantly while away their waning years doing the standard, expected things?; the boring RV parks with organized and stereotypical "activities", the endless hours of satellite television, the innumerable potlucks, the routine windshield tourism and sightseeing. Are they being "men of low intent", as the Mobile Kodger put it?

For my part I'm going to keep pushing on the mountain bike pedals, and watch my wild girl chase prey over spacious empty BLM land. The bike, the dog, and the land -- they seem like extensions of me. That's the game. It can be really great.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Must a Dispersed Camper be a Hermit?

Saguache/Del Norte, CO. In the upper left quadrant of this photo you can see a white speck. It is my van and travel trailer, camping alone with excellent Verizon service. The photo was taken from one of the dirt roads/two tracks that make for excellent mountain biking in the public lands near Saguache.

Why should I camp alone, instead of sharing it with other campers that I have something in common with? I don't expect them to be mountain bikers, of course. Most people can be interesting about some topic or activity. 

In fact I rolled into a parking area in a special recreation site near Del Norte CO, and quickly told the camper who was already there not to worry about having his little sanctuary invaded, because I just wanted his opinion on any special dispersed camping restrictions there. I did end up camping next to them and it was great. They had a pickup camper that pulled a small utility trailer. When he told me that he even helped a buddy turn a utility cargo trailer into an "RV" I went crazy with one question after another. That really is what I should do for my next travel trailer. Sigh. I wish I had more non-solitary experiences like this. Why doesn't it happen more often?

You would get the impression from what many people write about dispersed camping that they are having some kind of pseudo-religious experience out there, the way they puff up with sanctimonious language. In fact they probably spend most of the day watching satellite television.

Or maybe that's just the old man. It is quite amazing that, forty years after women's lib, many women still think their job in a household is to stand at the kitchen sink and spray things with water, half the day. (The other half of the day they go shopping.) You just can't do that when you're camping outside an RV park; maybe that's why the old lady doesn't want to dispersed camp in the first place.

Or maybe people think that dispersed camping is a 'back to nature' experience. This idea gets confused by a misunderstanding of Thoreau's Walden. Even more confusion comes from the 'holy man of the desert' image. If people really saw dispersed camping as being back-to-nature, they might consider that the animal species known as homo sapiens is a mildly gregarious creature, a tribal animal.  

So why do I dispersed camp alone, as shown in the photo above? Because I have to. I insist upon a high quality camping experience, and that simply will not result from imitating mainstream RVers who are indoorsmen and portable suburbanites.

Do you know of any organizations that foster a camping/outdoorsman culture? The Escapee's Boondocker sub-group does, to some extent. But when I knew them, they didn't have gatherings in the Southwest in the summer. The WINS are basically about getting hitched up, and I ain't talking about trailers. Perhaps the LOWs do more than I think. 

So I'll just keep doing what I'm doing. When more social interaction is needed there's always the option of camping in a city that has a good bicycle club. In fact I'm thinking of returning to Yuma this winter. Somebody please talk me out of it!

Friday, September 7, 2012

Avoiding 'the Medium is the Message' Outdoors

What's this? So early in September and only at 10,000 feet?

Oh dear. Soon the travel blogs will be falling all over themselves trying to bury the readers/viewers with fall colors. Their Photoshop software will be burning holes in the computer's LED screen. Consider getting a pair of safety goggles.

But that's not really a complaint. I was delighted to run into these aspens so early. Of course most of the fun wasn't coming from the 'blazing golds', but from the under-rated sport of mountain-bike-based saddlebagging -- that is, bagging saddles, mountain passes. It takes a close look to spot daylight through the trees on the road ahead, and sense that you're nearing the top. That happened when the yellow aspens surprised me. What a treat!

The world suddenly doubles at a saddle. There you get the Big Picture, as you stare Janus-faced at the Atlantic and Pacific watersheds of North America.

This summer I had two opportunities to camp and hike with fellow RVers at excellent locations. It was encouraging to see RVers team up. Even more, it was nice to see that less-than-perfect matchups can still be fun. (They were all hikers. I was the only mountain biker.)

When I got back into solo mode I felt a certain relief, but not for the sake of camping alone. All that hiking with the groups reminded me of how advantageous mountain biking is: up you go!, right from your dispersed campsite. You "compress" gravity like it was some giant spring. Go ahead and give it everything ya got, because at the top you can release the energy stored up in that spring. You have been looking forward to it all the way up; now you get to coast back down to camp. I can't imagine a rhythm that could be more satisfying than that. (In contrast hikers seldom look forward to the descents.)

This post isn't trying to belittle hiking or the stunning still-photography that it lends itself to. I love them both. But it's good to guard against the 'medium is the message' syndrome. Combine these things with a two-dimensional computer screen (on the blogosphere) and you have a powerful and seductive combination. Almost too seductive. It can distract the reader from the important fact that most of the beauty and pleasure of outdoor experience is kinetic rather than static.

Therefore I'd like to convince hiking RVers to give mountain biking a second look. Imagine yourself at a mountain pass, a saddle. In one direction you see a burro, slowly clippity-clopping down a hot and stony trail, its back bent under a heavily-loaded basket. In the other direction you see something from the beginning of the movie, SeaBiscuit: a herd of horses galloping gloriously through Western ranch country, with the mountains as the visual backdrop.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Frustrations in Buying a New Rig

Just think, my current rig (Ford Econoline van pulling a 21 nominal foot travel trailer) has given me shelter (and massive amounts of storage) 365 days per year for 15 years and for 200,000 miles. The combined cost was $26,000. I would say that I got my money's worth. Call it beginner's luck: I bought these units despite never having slept in an RV before, and despite doing very little homework.

But their respective careers are winding down. Now that I'm only a year-and-a-half away from robbing the piggy bank (IRA withdrawals), it's time to knock the ball out of the park when buying new rigs. And this gives me a chance to play RV Wannabee, instead of RV know-it-all. This time around, homework will be done; I demand significant improvement from myself.

Once again I will be looking for a low cost rig intended for dispersed camping near the desert-grassland/forest interface. This is usually where you can still get an internet signal, have the most variety in the scenery, stay acceptably cool in the summer, minimize transportation expenses to town, maximize dog happiness, and where the best mountain biking starts. The various components of my lifestyle really do fit together perfectly, and I want vehicles that keep it like that. Four wheel drive will remain an unnecessary expense. (A more serious hiker might disagree with that.)

So I'll stick with a two vehicle combination, such as a pickup truck with a CapriCamper on top, pulling a small utility trailer full of bicycles, water jugs, generator and gas can, and perhaps containing the "house" batteries, and even the bathroom.

Option #2 is to stick with an Econoline van, but this time pulling a (self-contained) Carson Kalispell travel trailer, whose box is 6 feet shorter than my current travel trailer, and whose tires are 15 inchers instead of my current ghastly 13 inchers. Also, it will weigh 500 pound less. Ground clearance and easier turn-arounds in the back country will be the main benefits.

Much to my surprise, the "housie" half of the total unit was the easy part. Perhaps this should have been expected; after all, a box is a box. Most of the complexity and maintenance of a total rig pertain to the "motor vehicle" half.

I expected it to be easy to find a pickup truck, since they are so common. I started with Toyota Tacomas. What a shock! It seems that most used Tacomas lack a "towing package." (Transmission lubricant cooler, hitch, connector and wiring, and a couple other things.) Perhaps most original buyers of Tacomas are actually thinking like an SUV buyer, so they omit the towing package. They also want the inside of the truck to have all the amenities of a high end living room. It's terrible to see the pickup truck become suburbanized, but that is the status of pickup trucks these days.

My eyeballs have been strained reading about cupholders, vanity mirrors, alloy rims, 6 disk CD players, four or six speakers, electrochromic mirrors, electric power windows and seats. On and on it goes. There is no cargo bed left to the average pickup these days -- it's all seating. Sigh. If I get a Toyota, I'll probably have to go with a Tundra to get a towing package.

The Ford F series truck is virtually the best selling model of car or truck in North America for decades now. So buying one should be easy. Wrong again.

Considering all the computing power on the internet these days, you'd think that you would go to a standard search engine (,, ebay, yahoo, or Craigslist) and type in your selection, and ka-pow!, all these choices would instantly appear. But it doesn't work like that. Craigslist is the worst. Perhaps this is because entering complete and accurate information into these databases costs money. Or maybe they are more interested in shuffling you off to an insurance or finance company.

This has been very discouraging, and yet look at recent success stories on the blogosphere about people buying older motorhomes with low mileage, all at a great price. This is an example of irrationality and emotionalism on the part of one segment of consumers (the buyers of new motorhomes) creating a marvelous opportunity for shrewder consumers.

Perhaps the moral of the story is that the internet really isn't the place to find a real bargain, and that you should do it the old-fashioned way, looking for distressed sellers advertising a rig with a crude sign in the parking lot.

Ideally I need to find a guy who has screwed the resell value of a two-wheel-drive pickup or van with a towing package, perhaps by chain-smoking; or maybe his 100 pound dog has had an accident or two on the passenger seat; or he spilled a can of paint inside it; or chose an unpopular color. Maybe he parks it every night underneath a mulberry tree that hosts a small flock of birds. I couldn't care less about any of that. But it would drive the price down.