Thursday, June 27, 2013

A Lesson on Where NOT to Camp

South Fork, CO. There is a quiet, but profound, satisfaction when using a mountain bike for "foraging" and reconnaissance, rather than mere entertainment or exercise. The more business-like camping and exercise become, the more authentic they feel. That's what makes this a job, rather than a vacation.

It's an under-rated pleasure to mountain bike on a perfect forest road; one that is smooth, graded, hard, and relentlessly, mercilessly uphill. The shade held up well, and it kept getting cooler. The forest changed into thick, overgrown spruce at 10,000 feet. Other than the shade over the road there isn't a single good thing to say about spruce forests.

Finally I got an open view of the neighborhood mountain. Alas there was probably no way to hike above tree-line from this road without bushwhacking through that disgusting spruce forest. Finding this out was why I was there.

Some automatic mechanisms clicked into place when I found the best dispersed campsite on this road. The "app" in my brain-stem started assessing angles, widths, levelness, etc.

Hey wait a minute. The forest fire that is still burning in this area reached "Biblical proportions" because of the huge buildup of beetle-killed spruce. What the media and the authorities absolutely CANNOT say is that there are three times as many trees per acre as there should be, and who do think is responsible for that?

At this particular site the trees were probably 6 feet apart -- and I've seen worse. Furthermore, only 20% of them were dead. So, by Colorado standards, this forest is in relatively good shape.

But I was not even tempted to go back there to camp, despite the cool temperatures.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Gotterdammerung on the Upper Rio Grande

How I Remember this Devastated Land

It is always fun to visit a dispersed camping area that you haven't seen in quite a few years. I went back to the higher country, just uphill of where I've been camping the last few days, because the fire has become less dramatic. In fact, I now see it as a make-work project for government-sector employees and crony-capitalists.

Well, that's how the upper Rio Grande valley still looks at the ingress of the San Juan mountains in southwestern Colorado.

And forest fire or not, there are still many wild roses in bloom. I need a break from the smell of smoke, haze, and destruction.

So life goes on.

Monday, June 24, 2013

The Bleak Part of the Battle Begins

South Fork, CO.  What's it like to be a refugee family trying to kill time in a high school gymnasium, while hiding from the forest fire? It was probably an adventure the first day. But after several days? And the authorities are careful not to give the refugees a specific date when they can return to their homes. 

Sometimes I wonder about the sluice-gate of federal (FEMA) dollars that starts flowing once a crisis reaches a certain threshold, and whether authorities and crony capitalists try to over-extend the crisis just to suck every last dollar out of the ol' cash cow. In that sense, a naive trust of authorities will just turn you into a captive/hostage. That -- and not reckless overconfidence or thrill-seeking -- is probably the real reason why some non-sheeplike people won't evacuate when the authorities order them to.

Seeing the kindly neighbor-woman drop in on me several times -- yesterday she wanted to know if I needed water -- brought several out-of-date and laughable ideas to my atavistic brain. I thought back to how we used to imagine disasters, in the old days, and especially in small towns. 

Do you think people would have just laughed if I had gone down to a refugee center and tried to volunteer for something? There are so many government employees that look almost militarized. They each have a $100,000+ rig to drive. They would probably look down on me as a nuisance; "no, Mister, we can't use you unless you have a Class 4x-Q7 Red Cross rating with a certificate signed more recently than 2.83 years ago."

They might also slap a wristband on me and not allow me to leave.  That would be everybody's dream: indefinite internment in a Nanny State POW camp.

The dreadful truth is that I don't care about this country and society. It isn't mine. Nor do I care how many bubble-financed McMansions burn down. But I do feel sorry about the animals. There are three horses in the pasture below me, and I wonder who is taking care of them.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Cecil B. DeMille in the San Juans: Going Pyro-Cumular!

Noon MDT, South Fork CO: In order to burnish my credentials for employment in the responsible mainstream media, I was going to entitle this, "West Fork Wildfire Goes Thermonuclear." 

But that might have caused unnecessary worry. And "pyro-cumular" sounds much more positive and friendly than "thermonuclear."  Besides, I don't really know if this is due to a sudden flare-up (intensification), or whether calm winds are allowing a chimney-column to form. But what happened to the pall of smoke that was blocking this view? Did it blow away suddenly, just before this column developed?

Consider all the history books a history buff can read over the course of a lifetime. The historian loves playing Monday morning quarterback, based on a collection of papers and documents known to the historian, decades after the battle. But what was known to the commanding general at the time of the decision? The fog of war is something I will appreciate more because of this experience.

Becoming an Adrenaline Junkie after a Fire

It appears that the forest fire crisis just missed South Fork CO and is moving towards Creede. Please don't let me move towards Creede! It was the direction I was heading before all this nonsense started. But the real draw is that now I know what it's like to be a "storm chaser", or some other adrenaline junkie.

I wonder how the firefighters adapt to the psychological let-down of off-duty normalcy. Even before this experience I appreciated some things written in "War" by Sebastian Junger. (And I hope the reader appreciates how rarely a modern book gets a plug from me.)

Recall that the book was based on Junger's experiences as an "embedded" journalist with American troops in one of the dodgiest valleys of eastern Afghanistan, close to the mountainous border with Pakistan. His object was to avoid politics and write about the experiences of the combat soldiers from their perspective.

page 144: War is a lot of things and it's useless to pretend that exciting isn't one of them...but the public will never hear about it. It's just not something that many people want acknowledged. War is supposed to feel bad because undeniably bad things happen in it...

...war is life multiplied by some number that no one has ever heard of. In some ways twenty minutes of combat is more life than you could scrape together in a lifetime of doing something else.
The soldiers who survived combat had a tough time going back to the "real" world:
Page 233: Civilians balk at recognizing that one of the most traumatic things about combat is having to give it up...To a combat vet, the civilian world can seem frivolous and dull, with very little at stake and all the wrong people in charge.
When men say they miss combat, it's not that they actually miss getting shot at... it's that they miss being in a world where everything is important and nothing is taken for granted. They miss being in a world where human relations are entirely governed by whether you can trust the other person with your life.

Page 265: The petty tyrannies of garrison life have returned, and the men do not react well to getting reprimanded by other men who have never been to war. O'Byrne gets yelled at for not sitting in an armchair properly...
The let-down. Back to civilian or garrison life. Back to pissing life away one day at a time. Useless, futile housekeeping, house and lawn care, shopping, television; and at work, the same old commute, meetings, reports, etc.

But I've preached too much about living at the point of diminishing returns to hypocritically live at "the edge", that is, to make a career out of chasing adrenaline highs. So I won't go to Creede. Besides, the highway from South Fork to Creede has been closed. Of course I could go around the long way...

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Smoke, but no Flames for South Fork

Update 2000 MDT: the sheriff came to check on a forest road gate. We had a nice chat. He said the fluctuations of the wind are fooling everybody: it looks like the evacuation is "long term." He confirmed that the flames had come within 2 miles of South Fork yesterday. (And therefore 4 miles from me.) Old Sol looks pretty battered and bloodied:

Update 1245 MDT: Whoa baby! The high wind has chased the intervening and obstructing smoke out of the upper valley of the South Fork of the Rio Grande. And now for the first time I can see where the action is, up by Wolf Creek Pass, the continental divide.

Update 1153 MDT: The wind recently kicked up to 30-40 mph. But it's blowing the smoke to the north. Everything around South Fork is clearing up. I can't believe how quickly the air cleared up over such a large area (many square miles). It looks so good to see the mountains again!
Update 1000 MDT: a recent and useful new article from the Denver Post:

South Fork, CO. I expected a night of fitful sleeping. I stayed dressed in bed, ready for a fast getaway. A local woman had checked in on me late Friday afternoon. She explained that "mandatory" evacuation doesn't mean that people actually have to leave. But if they do leave, the highway back is closed until the mandatory evacuation is lifted.

She was ready to evacuate quickly. She was in phone communication with a network of locals -- the ones who stayed, that is. I should have remembered to give her my cell phone number, but presumably she would come by again if she was in flight. (I'm practically at the base of her driveway.)

Two types of contrails.
The smoke was annoying. A few house lights and pole lights stayed lit last night. I checked about four times. Each time there was something reassuring about those lights. How nice it was to see the Verizon tower on the mountain "in dawn's early light." (Now I know how Francis Scott Key felt when he woke up to see the American flag still flying above the fort.)

Even more reassuring was the absence of visible flames anywhere in the area. I think the worst is over. But that's really up to the wind. The best news link that I've found so far is here:

Friday, June 21, 2013

Mandatory Evacuation! (with updates)

Update 1925 MDT: It bothers me that the town of South Fork is visually disappearing because of the smoke. It's only 1.5 miles away. Nor can I see the Verizon tower on the nearby mountain.

But I can't see any flames. Maybe that will have to wait until sunset. Will house lights and street lights be visible tonight?

The town is so quiet, so empty.

Update 1644 MDT: Are they serious? The fire is supposed to only be 2-3 miles west of South Fork, CO), which means 3-4 miles from me! It was 20 miles away this morning. There are so many government emergency workers these days, and so many weather websites and cable news channels. It makes sense that there would be exaggeration. But I don't want to be complacent, either.

Anyway, when I read this latest news it reminded me of the shock of people in Atlanta, in "Gone With the Wind": first they couldn't believe "Yankees in Georgia!" Then they couldn't believe that Atlanta would be taken and burned down.

By the way,  Verizon 3G wireless internet speeds up considerably when a town evacuates.

Update 1500 MDT: my new campsite (just east of South Fork, CO) is safer than the old one, for about four reasons. I can monitor the emergency news. If the internet croaks, I'm leaving immediately for Del Norte and Monte Vista. Those towns have become quite crowded with refugees.

Update 1300 MDT: As far as I can tell, the forest has not been closed on the safe (east) side of the town of South Fork. The best emergency link seems to be this one.

Quoting their communique: 

Eric Norton, Fire Behavior Analyst for the NIMO Team, said “The fire behavior we saw yesterday was so extreme, it was undocumented and unprecedented” The fire more than doubled in size going from 12,001 acres to close to 29,000 acres today.
I am not happy about seeing a dark cloud on both sides of me. Although the forest isn't closed, it seemed prudent to move camp down closer to the highway. I am surrounded by 50 yards of bare dirt (no burnables) in all directions. (It's a snowmobile park.) I can see the town itself. Lots of emergency vehicles are tearing down the highway with their flashers on. I feel sorry for the cows in a nearby pasture. 


10 am, MDT: I got stuff to say, as always. But right now I'm getting ready to skedaddle. Last night half of Texas was streaming downriver on US-160, after Wolf Creek Pass was closed. The town of South Fork CO has emptied out this morning, after it received a mandatory evacuation notice. The state highway up to Creede is closed -- those poor devils.

Maybe it's time to move.
Geesh, I'm starting to feel like that old codger that wouldn't leave the Mt. St. Helens area before she blew.

Modern Mother Nature as a Wrathful Old Testament God

At one time or another, most people have wished that they had more imagination. But recall the old proverb about 'being careful what you wish for.' Too much imagination can actually kill you if it creates panic in the water, and causes you to drown. In other situations it can at least cause you to worry more than you should. 

South Fork, CO. It was the smell that I noticed first. Oh sure, we've all smelled smoke before, but wasn't the forest fire supposed to be over 20 miles to the west -- off in some useless, dreary Wilderness Area that nobody really cares about?

Doesn't a sudden change in odor imply that danger is close? And when the edge of the fire-storm-cloud is sharp, doesn't that imply that the danger is close? Otherwise, it would be smeared out, wouldn't it?

And why did I feel heat against my body, when there was darkness at noon?

It seemed as though the heat was coming from just over the ridge to the west, the direction of the conflagration. Had the extreme winds kicked it up? Why hadn't the town panicked?

I drove around some, for better views. But in fact the most dreadful view was right at camp. There the ridge blocked the view partially; and so the mind fears an infinite Wrath on the west side, the fire side, of the ridge. 

My red-tinted sunglasses were also adding to this exaggeration. This was a new experience for me. I over-reacted on the side of caution: I got the trailer ready to hitch up and move in 30 seconds.

The sharp edge of fire-storm-cloud was actually over 20 miles away, but the obstructing-ridge made it appear to be just on the other side.

The heat that I thought that I felt from the fire was from the sun. Perhaps the longer wavelengths still came through smoke pretty well, and half-a-sun at 8000 feet still feels warm.

Just a bit east of the cloud stood the local Colorado postcard, with perfectly clean air. It had been mercifully passed over.

In the evening the wind died down. There was less to see in the sky. I popped a movie into the DVD machine: Cecil B. DeMille's "Ten Commandments."

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Liking One Style of Traveling/Camping, But Not Others

Recently I was camped with a non-self-contained van camper. It was remarkable how much fine cooking she could do just with a Coleman stove, ice chest, and picnic table. Mind you, her creations were done in the face of New Mexican "horizontal gravity," the wind. Unlike me, she was also organized with packing and unpacking her van. Clearly she should just go on doing what she has become good at.

Then there's the rest of us. I never liked camping when I was young. How ironic that I became a full time RVer who emphasizes dispersed RV camping.

If I had to do it all over again, I would. But how did I manage to do it in the first place?! It was just dumb luck that I managed to distinguish some outdoor activities from others. You can love walking or bicycling in the outdoors, and dislike housekeeping, cooking, or reading in the outdoors. You can like living in a small, hard-walled box and dislike tent camping.

Don't let me or anybody else oversell the Great Outdoors. There's a reason why homo sapiens started living in caves tens of thousands of years ago, and then upgraded to thatched huts. This is just another manifestation of what I posted a couple days ago: the best lifestyle is partly outdoors.

She loves the descents on her morning mountain bike rides. But in the afternoon, she'd just as soon nap indoors.

Non-self-contained camping has very little appeal to me. It's a daily strain to endure public restrooms, wind-swept picnic tables, and motor vehicle noise. 

Something similar happens in the traveling racket. You can dislike packing and unpacking suitcases at the motel, but you can love sleeping in your own bed every night, as we RVers do. 

You can dislike making reservations because it robs the travel experience of spontaneity and freedom, but you can love going out onto public lands to look for a campsite, with no guarantee of success. 

You can dislike making travel plans, and love deciding at the last minute whether you will turn left or right, at the fork in the road. In fact I literally did just that, in Chama NM recently, and ended up in South Fork, CO.

A person can be so sensitive to changes in the details of camping or traveling -- details that might not look terribly important from a distance, that is, when you are painting with too broad of a brush. 

We can't think without lumping things into categories. We'd drown in fractured details. Every noun is a "category" -- you wouldn't propose to have a language without nouns. But it is also important to see sub-categories. 

The shame of it is that many people will be too hasty or otherwise fail to make vital distinctions between different styles of traveling and camping; thus they will miss some great opportunities.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Nostalgia on a Shore Line

It seemed like a pretty hopeless place to enjoy water sports: a New Mexico state park. (Heron Lake.) The lake looked like somebody pulled the cork out of the bottom. And yet, the 6 or 8 paddlers, sailors, and fishermen seemed to be enjoying themselves.

I personally never had great success with water sports, despite a fair bit of effort. But the two sailboaters here were putting the New Mexican wind to good use.  Overnight they camped right down by the water, in their small rigs. Even after a night of relative aeolian quiescence, the waves were still making a pleasant music against the shoreline at sunrise.

Isn't that great!? State park bureaucrats actually allow people the freedom to have fun, here. Don't ask me how they reconcile such behavior with Patriotism and America's security needs. 

And speaking of fun. The next morning Kurumi Ted took Chaco, the Labrador retriever, and my kelpie, Coffee Girl, down to a stream that actually had flowing water in it. The lab gave his imitation of a Cabela's catalog cover boy...

But why wasn't his comfortable enthusiasm with the water rubbing off on my herding dog? Granted, she had never been in deep water before. Finally my friend E, Chaco's mommie, coaxed my dog out a little deeper.

Look Pops! My belly is wet, so it counts as "Swimming."

Friday, June 14, 2013

The Sandman Finally Comes for the RVer

Some time ago I joked about RVers who have been diagnosed with the Early Bedtime Syndrome. But actually, sleep is too serious a matter to joke about. If the problem were merely one of rising too early in the morning, that wouldn't be so bad.  But the real issue is that going to bed too early also detracts from the depth and quality of sleep. 

Snuggling in early on a winter evening, in front of the catalytic heater.

This problem becomes even worse if you need to camp in some noisy campground or city; there  you need to stay up as late as possible, so that the din has a chance to die down some.  

Currently I'm basking in a week of success at overcoming this dreadful scourge, so perhaps it's time for an update. The long days of June are certainly the time of year to get serious about beating this sucker. 

My earlier theory was that the Early Bedtime Syndrome was brought on by not running enough lights at night. The good news is that the LED lighting revolution has come to our rescue  -- even for late adopters! Unfortunately I've found the benefits of more light to be somewhat smaller than hoped. Still, let's be happy to make progress one small bit at a time, if necessary.

Recently I was mooch-docking on a friend's driveway when a long overdue idea finally popped into my head: maybe people in normal houses are less prone to the Early Bedtime Syndrome than RVers because they walk around in their houses at night. Even a couch potato has to stand up during commercials and walk a certain distance to the refrigerator. But in an RV it is easy to stay glued to one piece of furniture, and thus be pulled into the abyss too early.

So I've started doing more housekeeping late in the evening. It helps quite a bit. Besides, it's pleasant to wake up in the morning and realize that all those dreary chores are already done.

One more suggestion. Don't get into bed to watch a movie; sit up in an office chair and watch the movie, if you must. You can't literally fall asleep sitting up in an office chair (as opposed to an easy-chair.)

Now consider what van-campers -- or tent campers -- must overcome! I admire their toughness, but don't think I could make it work for me.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Wanted: An App for Adding Value to Reading

(Trying to see the Big Picture, while camping at the edge of a cliff, halfway up Mt. Taylor near Grants NM.) 

With all the progress in our Information Age, it might seem ungrateful and spoiled to merely shrug it off as being over-rated. But I can't help it. Most of this "progress" comes down to building a bigger mountain of useless crap.

What we really need is qualitative improvement, not mere quantitative enlargement. And how much of that have you ever run into, in this techno-narcissistic society? Having eBook gadgets might offer some conveniences; and in principle they should lower the price of books. But it doesn't add much to the effectiveness or impact of reading books. Gadgets don't help you find books that are worth reading.

The other day I reread "Gone with the Wind", for whatever reason. I never cared that much for the movie or the book; they were too easy to shrug off as being "for women."  The main character, Scarlett O'Hara, just wasn't that interesting to me.

But when rereading the book I was surprised to find something of value, albeit in the background of the silly love triangles.  The issues faced by the book's characters show up in any era.

How should a person react to defeat and humiliation? Go on a vengeful rampage? Wallow in romantic dreams of the good old days or the "Lost Cause?" Or adapt to reality?

Scarlett adapted and survived. But that too has its dangers if you become too much like the hateful creatures that conquered you.

There are many times in a person's life when they might go through this experience of defeat-and-adaptation to survive. The most frequent example would be a reorganization at your workplace; or the winds of Wall Street blowing in the wrong direction; or a lost election; or economic changes that you don't approve of, but are powerless to stop. You can find yourself on the losing end of cultural changes, as well.

This is just an example of how much a reader could benefit from a new "value added" layer in our Information economy. We'd benefit from an app that does more than just recommend books to read; it should function almost as a pointer, or look-up table, that recommends book X when you are having a certain problem Y, or are in a mood Z.

It should tell you, not just What to read, but When and Why.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Imagination Is Needed After a Forest Fire

My work was cut out for me. In order to enjoy all the goodies of the Mogollon Rim and the White Mountains of east-central Arizona, it is necessary to overcome a natural revulsion of burned forests. If you haven't seen a burnt forest... might underestimate the strength of your reaction. Human nature recoils from fire damage, be it a house or a forest, unless you're like Civil War general, William T. Sherman. It's a primal and fundamental reaction.

How, then, do you get any pleasure from a mountain bike ride through all this ghastly destruction? In the summer, heat and aridity are always a challenge. I rode up an old ATV trail, climbing, and climbing some more. The air got cooler sooner than it should have, which is another way of saying that there was more breeze than is normal, no doubt due to the denuded state of the burned forest. Refreshing air was no small advantage of an open (albeit devastated) canopy.

It was possible to look between the ugly spars to see sky and mountains. (In a typical overgrown national forest, you can barely see the sky.) It was entertaining to hear the sounds of woodpeckers. They sound so mechanical and artificial. How could such a small bird be responsible for such a sound? 

No shortage of food for Woodpeckers in the burned forests of the Southwest.

Surprisingly enough, the Greens haven't been able to block the logging of all of the dead trees. (They want to make sure that the resource industries remain dead, so that the Greens will have a complete hegemony over public lands.) Still, bugs will harvest more dead trees than chainsaws. You'd think that half the woodpeckers in North America would relocate to this area.

A bright green carpet of aspen was getting well-established, only two years after this fire. Someone whose eye and brain are drawn to violent contrast can find a certain grim satisfaction in a burned forest. And any outdoorsman should enjoy the unpopularity of burnt forests to the tourist hordes.

This experience set a new personal record for getting pleasure through skin rather than eyes. 

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Fully Living Partly Outdoors

A traveler who prefers open country and big skies is wise to extend his stay in high grasslands into late April and early May.  Silver City, NM, is an excellent place to play that game because it is at the boundary of grassland and ponderosa forests. Typically, in the second half of May, the oven door opens up, and it's time to flee to the forest. This year it was the wind that drove me into the ponderosa forests.

But it took a certain amount of fist-making and teeth-clenching. I admit that forests do have certain advantages, such as shade and cooler temperatures, and that they make good wind-breaks. But they will never be my favorite places. Still, I've been getting better at it.

Something quite wonderful happened during the first sunset, back in the forest. A patch of yellow sunlight appeared opposite a window, and ABOVE it. It was a stolen sunlight, seemingly from below the horizon. 

It's just the opposite of what you expect in a forest  -- normally the trees would clip off your rightful sunlight for the first and last two hours of the day. (And it shows that it would be a great camping policy to seek out north/south ridges.)

As ghastly and overgrown as our national forests are, they are actually thinned -- think chainsaws and logging equipment -- near the "urban/forest interface."  That is why I was getting sunlight at sunset. The thinning is a great reason to camp close to town, in addition to the other reasons. It's a real bright spot, literally and figuratively, in an otherwise dysfunctional forest management policy. I hope I'm encouraging you to appreciate it and take advantage of it.

It reminded me of something. During my two trips to Mexico in an RV, I developed a great appreciation for "Spanish architecture." No, I don't just mean colors and shapes...

... like clay tiles on the roof, arches, and las bugamvillas over the door. I mean interior courtyards, thick adobe walls, generous roof overhangs, palm frond roofs, solar screens, and all the other things that make you feel like you are living partly outdoors. Even better is when you can adjust the degree of outdoorsiness, according to conditions. How profoundly satisfying that was!

Living in a thinned ponderosa forest is like that. Tweeking altitude (by moving your campsite) is like that. It is a very different way to live than the usual gringo way of hugging a furnace for one half of the year, and hugging an air-conditioner the other half.