Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Lord of the Flies

WARNING! Animals were harmed in the making of this post.

At my late dispersed campsite, there were so few bugs that I could have almost left the screen door open. It almost seemed too good to be true. And you know what they say about...

Moving over to Alpine, AZ, I went out searching for a dispersed campsite and good places to mountain bike, helped by Jim & Gayle's advice.  Much to my surprise I stumbled upon a place where the Mogollon Rim fell precipitously into a canyon. I say 'stumbled' because I was NOT out there looking for scenery -- I was looking for a side road to camp on. The long-suffering reader knows that I'm going to argue that 90% of this pleasure wasn't really from the scenery per se, but rather, from the surprise.

How strange that some folks want to be told -- exactly -- where to camp, as if finding it isn't half the fun. Despite the lucky break with the scenery, there was no place to camp. So I went back into the travel trailer for a second.

What the ...!  There were at least 50 flies buzzing away inside my travel trailer. But they hadn't been noticeable in the forest. Was some food spilled inside? Something dead under the bed? It was a disgusting experience! At least they were ordinary house flies, rather than those peanut-sized deer flies of last year.

Fortunately I had a fly swatter and the flies cooperated by gravitating to screens. At first the carnage took effort, aim, and timing. Soon my arm tired. It's a wonder that the fly-swatter didn't break.

But soon I learned to relax, like in the movies, when the apprentice is mastering one of the martial arts, and his master tells him, "Too much mind!", or "Just feeeeel the Force, Luke." The fly-swatter became to me what the light sabre was to Luke Skywalker. I stopped aiming and started killing quickly, repeatedly, effortlessly. The Buddha would not have approved.

At some point in the carnage the kill-rate fell to two flies per minute. Steady-state. Flies were coming into my trailer at a rate of two flies per minute. But where? And why hadn't this ever happened before? I didn't know what to do because I had no explanation for any of this.

It's true, there was a wet, soggy creek-bottom a couple hundred yards away. But like I said, flies were not particularly noticeable outside the trailer. Only inside. I needed an idea.

When I was a lad, my school teacher father once told me that if an educated man was killing time in an airport, waiting for an airplane, he would find something interesting to think about. This example never really impressed me all that much at the time. But for some reason, this fly fiasco made me think about how badly I was doing just by thinking, and that something else needed to enter the picture.

Recall that some of the most historically important documents every written about human thinking were those of Francis Bacon. He argued that unaided human reason was a pitiful and weak thing, prone to numerous errors. He advertised in favor of observations, demonstrations, and instruments.

So, with that in mind, I renounced sterile theorizing and went outside to look for clues. It wasn't hard to spot. Their malevolent sibilance was concentrated near the broken cap of the grey-water vent on the roof of the travel trailer. At any given time there were about 20 flies in the gaggle. Some couldn't resist the siren-smell of the vent: they flew down into the abyss, presumably never to return. 

I could put my ear to the vent pipe, which was like a musical instrument in using sound-resonances. I could hear the grisly, resonant buzzing of the doomed.

Silver City, NM. "" watches his doppelganger falling through the Net of Doom, into the abyss.
Indeed, there was a strong odor coming out of that vent. Also flies were crawling through cracks between the vent tube and the roof, proper. 

So that was it, eh? I replaced the cap on the vent and filled the gaps. The fly problem disappeared. Later I dumped some of the bacterial treatment made by Roebic into the grey tank.


There was something satisfying about this experience. When you camp alone you are aware of your own puniness and isolation from society. You are also undistracted by the trivial busy-ness of city living. The mind naturally gravitates to the timeless and fundamental. In thinking about Bacon and the problem of unaided human thinking, I was connecting with History and Civilization. My school teacher father would have approved. 

I was like the thin layer of life on the outside diameter of these huge ponderosa pines in the forest where this experience took place. The inside of the tree trunk might be "dead", but its strength supports the living annulus on the periphery. 

How many of the blogs that I read will be thought of as fundamental when looked back on, from the future? What is the shelf life of most of the trivial junk on the internet? It's probably not even as long as 24 hours.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

"Top Gun" at Cliff's Edge

Luna, NM. If you ever spend time reading product reviews or discussion forums on digital cameras, well, I hope you get more out of them than I do. It's far easier to just say that the "best" camera is the one that gets taken -- every time.

Recently I was chewing myself out for forgetting my camera on the short dog-walk when Coffee Girl treed the coatimundi, the first I've ever seen. It's so easy to do so because short walks don't seem to "count." 

A few days after the coatimundi sighting: "Come on down, whoever you are, and I'll go easy on ya!"

Chastened by self-nagging, I went for a late afternoon dog-walk, this time with my camera. Out the RV door we went, walking up the short distance to the cliff's edge.

Although I could camp -- and in fact have camped -- right at the cliff-line for a dramatic view, experience has shown it best to camp a short distance away. This is a statement that many optical sybarites would never buy. I can think of one Lazy Daze motorhomer who would back his living room and IMAX window right up to -- or even hang over -- the cliff, if he were here. (grin)

The situation here is analogous to RVers trying to jockey their beached whales right onto the sand, when they camp in Baja California. What they won't go through to get the biggest window to face the ocean! They do so because it reminds them of a front cover on some glossie RV magazine. The result is wind, sand, and salt spray. They are lucky if they escape getting stuck in the sand.

Although it almost seemed perverse, it worked better to camp on the inland side of the highway, hidden (!) from the ocean view by small sand dunes. Then, every brief dog-walk out to the beach produced a blast across the eyeballs, a blast that refreshes you because you are conscious of it. Each variation in the viewscape is like an incoming ocean wave itself: you can sense the wave, but not the ocean.

The beach was a mirror, with incoming waves on one side, and our brief and recurring dog-walks on the other side, as the mirror image.
And so it was that we went on a short dog-walk to the cliff's edge, with the camera. A few steps away from the RV's door I noticed something odd.

A large bird, probably a raptor of some kind, was levitating about 50 feet from the edge of the cliff, just ahead of us. By 'levitating' I mean that his wings were not flapping and his ground speed was zero. So perfectly stationary was he that a camera on a tripod could have filmed him for 30 seconds or more, without moving the camera!

When the fumbling over the camera was over, I noticed the wind, the ridge lift, that the raptor was exploiting. "Wind whispering in the pines" is a hackneyed expression; "Whispering Pines" is a stereotypical name for a resort cabin lodge.

"Whispering," eh? This was no nambie-pambie sibilant sound.  The wind in the tops of the ponderosas sounded like a freight train. That was the other reason I gave up on camping right at the edge of the cliff: I was afraid of ponderosa pines falling on me.

Since this area is so volcanic, the ponderosas develop shallow root systems. The volcanic rock is porous, so water soaks in and leaves tinder-dry ponderosas, hence the monster fires that the area is prone to.

There have been many times when I've admired birds at cliffs or ridgelines. Frequently it is ravens who seem to display an intelligent playfulness when disporting with ridge-lift. But this situation did not require intelligence; it took sheer guts and athleticism. I've never seen anything like it.

White breast and hooked beak.

  I've got to take up hang gliding!

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Beating the Dry Season in the Southwest

Here we go again: Dry Heat, enervating sunshine, and relentless blue skies. As a veteran of the Southwest I assure you that the trick is to glory in noble suffering. [*] In five weeks, the monsoons start. And besides, there aren't even any wildfires raging right now.

 Until then, we must use a little horse sense with the southwestern sun...

Many animal species use horse sense about the sun. Dogs are crepusculent at sunrise and sunset, and somnolent in mid-day.

Don't think for a moment that I had to train the Little Poodle to do this.

A parking garage for a miniature poodle.

Mexicans and other cultures of hot climates have a lot of sense. But homo sapiens (var. gringo) isn't so good at the game sometimes, especially when vanity about a suntan is involved. Now don't take this as a personal insult. Mal-adaptation to the sun is simply part of our Northern European and Protestant DNA. But we're not completely foolish either...

Gringos knowing how to enjoy the free Blues festival in Silver City, NM.

Years ago I imitated other gringos in wearing sandals during the Dry Heat. Big mistake. My heels would crack and bleed. I tried every possible unguent. None did much good. The only remedy was to wear sneakers with lots of mesh -- the heels stayed moist.

Single-digit relative humidity can cause nose-bleeds. I watch my fingernails spall off daily. My skin is so dessicated and un-supple that tiny mistakes cause cuts that bleed. The good news is that blood doesn't need to coagulate -- it dessicates first.

But at least in one department, victory has been achieved. Recall my advertisement for the Salsa "Anything" bottle cage for bicycles. I've put some rough miles on it by now, and it appears dependable. Just think, 2 liters of agua for me and the dawg.


[*] Since I'm camping at 8300 feet under ponderosas, where it can barely crack 75 F in the afternoon, that does detract somewhat from my bona fides as a noble sufferer.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Verizon Creates a New Camping Mecca

I don't talk about specific dispersed campsite locations and resent it when other people do. Why this should be so might be the subject of a later post. Today I want to tell you about a large area of dispersed camping that is now attractive, thanks to it finally getting Verizon cell coverage. How many times does a huge block of high quality public land open up? Actually it isn't all that often that Verizon adds a whole new tower in a rural area. This is news, folks.

For years it has been a pleasant drive through southwestern New Mexico, going from Silver City to Springerville AZ on US-180. There were many dirt roads heading off into interesting public lands, but I seldom stopped for long, because there was no Verizon cellphone/internet coverage. What a pity.

From the Catwalk, near Glenwood, NM.
This year I was delighted to pick up a strong signal near Glenwood, NM. I pulled over to scan the horizon for a new tower. The only one visible was on a tall mountain three miles west of Glenwood. The tower wasn't new; previously it offered signals for the forest service or microwave repeaters or something other than Verizon. But after driving into holes and coming out, and watching the bars on the cellphone, that is where the signal must have been coming from.

This was almost too good to be true. There is no better cell tower than one that is on a tall mountain, with a huge viewscape of a general area.

Old house with mountain stream in front, in the semi-ghost-town of Mogollon, NM

I felt like celebrating, so I actually went to a small cafe and ordered a complete meal, with dessert. (I only do that about four times a year.) I made quite a nuisance of myself interrogating locals about the location of the tower, when they got it, etc. It is usually a mistake for a traveler to ask informational questions of any kind. It is astonishing how ignorant most people are of just about everything, except the daily drudgery of their jobs, the drive to work, and what TV programs are on tonight. Even worse is how little people care about where the necessities of life come from, and how they are created.

The waitress said that the forest service had been blocking Verizon from adding the new service for years, because of "signal interference." I suspect the real reason issue was cost-sharing on that mountain: road maintenance, electricity, backup generators, etc.

The result of forest mismanagement in the Gila National Forest, last year.

One of the charms of the Glenwood area is how old-fashioned and under-populated it is. There are few places like that left in the West. Most of the dispersed camping is 5000 to 7000 feet in altitude, so the area is best during the shoulder seasons. 

If you visit this area, you'd better not expect a cutesie-quaintsie tourist town, full of coffee shops and art galleries. And you'd better stock up the pantry before showing up. There are few groceries available, and no automobile repair shops -- not even a place to fix a flat tire. You'll have to be towed 70 miles to Silver City. But there are a couple restaurants and gas stations, and a surprisingly good public library that is generous to visitors.

Monday, May 20, 2013

RV Camping is a Game of Inches

...positive inches, when you're lucky. I've done a lot of back-and-forth about whether my next travel trailer should be a converted cargo trailer 6 foot or 7 foot wide. When we discussed trailer size a few months back, didn't an experienced RV camper say that width doesn't matter much? He wasn't necessarily wrong, of course. It all depends on your camping style. If you spend a lot of time camping in ponderosa forests, where trees are far enough apart to suck you in, width does matter.

Note the driver's side mirror and the nearest tree. To heck with 7 foot wide trailers. Six feet is the width of the tow vehicle.

But in this case, I was using a flank attack (where width mattered) rather than a direct frontal assault, where ground clearance was even trickier. It's an example of how logically-distinct design criteria blur together in the real world.

At any rate, the campsite (near Luna, NM) was worth it.

The forest fire last year near Glenwood NM. 

Friday, May 17, 2013

Strange Animal Urges

Silver City, NM. People who don't walk or mountain bike with dogs might not realize that they can be an asset in finding wildlife. They might think the dog would just chase off the wildlife or scare them away. But it's easy to forget the power of a canine's olfactory. They know something is up, when the human is oblivious.

Coffee Girl disports with a Pronghorn Antelope, on sagebrush hills near Gunnison, CO

Yesterday Coffee Girl, my kelpie, took off like a maniac. Soon I heard her barking in an uncharacteristic style. Actually that's a misnomer. Dogs bark in different styles for different prey. I was alarmed by this particular bark, so I ran over to her. 

She had treed something. She had her front paws on a tall pinyon pine. (This area is full of the tallest pinyons I've ever seen.) She looked rather triumphant about it.

I had to look carefully, but there it finally was: a coatimundi, the first I've ever seen. Interesting creatures.


Another strange thing happened yesterday. The blog's hit-count tripled for some reason. I was foolishly curious about the website that was sending all the eyeballs over to me. It turned out to be a raunchy porn site. Now what  were the keywords in my most recent post that were latched on to by the search engine? Good heavens, the post was about welding a cracked aluminum mountain bike frame.

Ah ha. I had mentioned the bicycle shop, named after prominent mountain peaks in this area. Twin Sisters. Oh good grief!

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

How a Mountain Biker can Fix a Broken Heart

When the mountain bike frame cracked a couple days ago, I was resigned to the worst: a new frame or maybe even a new bike. It is too bad that the industry has gone to 5-year frame warranties.

Annie, of Twin Sisters bicycle shop in Silver City NM, surprised me when she mentioned a local guy who has done TIG (tungsten inert gas) welding of aluminum bicycle frames. Here is the happy outcome:

A TIG-welded aluminum bicycle frame repair job.

His price was ridiculously low. Since the bicycle shop deprived itself of selling a new frame (or even a new bicycle) by providing this information, I went back and gave her a generous "finder's fee," which surprised and pleased her.

A commenter, Brian, recommended welding a triangular gusset at the broken joint. I agree with him. In this case the welder chose not to do that because he thought he'd get too close to the carbon-fiber suspension parts (the little black swing arm, in the photo). Instead, he chose to build up the thickness of the TIG weld. He also sliced completely through the cracked aluminum tube so that the new weld would go through the entire thickness of the tube, not just the outside.

With hindsight, I should have removed anything bicycle-specific because the welder is naturally cautious about parts that are outside his expertise.

So then, is this a success? Maybe it will re-crack after leaving town and migrating north. So I took it out for a test drive on single-track trails and pushed the envelope a little bit. In fact I had an "end-over-the-handlebars" crash that send me sliding down the side of the mountain for 20 feet. It took about 5 minutes to get back on the trail. The result was: nothing was hurt but my pride. The new weld held.

If you are ever in the Silver City NM area and need some welding done, I highly recommend Mike Holloway, 257 Arenas Valley Road, 575-388-5329.

The diving board style rack, which clamps to the seat post, has been decommissioned just in case it was responsible for the original cracked tube. With a little effort, my junk found new homes elsewhere on the bike. 

Perhaps you already know of the "Anything Cage," made by Salsa. It holds larger water bottles (and is mounted in the usual threaded holes, like any other water bottle cage.) I installed one and am encouraged. You are supposed to be able to hold a half-gallon plastic bottle, of the kind that take up a double row at the average grocery store these days. I need the extra water for my Coffee Girl, a kelpie, who usually accompanies me on rides.

The "Anything Cage" from Salsa allows you to strap large water bottles to your bike.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Mountain Bikes and the School of Hard Knocks

It wouldn't be so bad -- really -- to come home one day and find that your wife ran off with an itinerant revival preacher, that your pickup truck was towed and impounded, and that your dawg was run over. At least they'd write a country/western sawng about you.

But who is going to give any sympathy to a mountain biker with a broken heart and a cracked frame? It cracked some time last week, just fore of the seat post/top tube weld.

Sigh. With a little bit of analysis I think I know who the culprit is. I had ridden with a rear rack that was cantilevered off of the seat post, because you can't mount a standard rack on a full suspension bike, which bends after all.

The rack warns people to put no more than 25 pounds on it. I put on less than half that. With 20/20 hindsight I suspect that their number was pulled out of thin air (or the next most imaginary source, computer modelling.) It would be too expensive for the rack manufacturer to do real-world, destructive testing on all the bicycles in the world.

The moral of the story is to avoid these cantilevered, seat-post-mounted racks, and find other places to mount your stuff.

A reader/commenter, Wayne, asked about mountain bikes the other day. Would this disappointment of mine also be a negative advertisement for full-suspension mountain bikes (i.e., those with shocks/flexure on the back as well as the front)? I was disgusted to learn what I should have paid attention to, earlier: that full suspension bicycle frames are only guaranteed for 5 years, unlike the lifetime guarantee on many of the "hardtail" bikes (i.e., those with shocks only on the front; the rear triangles are rigid.) But you need to check that for your bike -- the situation with warranties is degenerating.

Nobody bikes with two shocks instead of one, with all those extra pivot points, and expects it to have lower maintenance costs than a hardtail. But full-suspension mountain bikes are much more comfortable on washboard roads, let alone real trails. The case could be made that a hardtail with the bigger tires (29 inch) is the optimal middle ground. If so, then I have to admit that Box Canyon Blog was right and I was wrong. And I ain't prepared to take that step!

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Mentors, Proteges, and the Sociological Spreadsheet

Silver City, NM. During the Vietnam War protest era, the educational establishment sprouted new fads, including the one that the students should decide which subjects get studied and which don't. A relatively well-known educator countered at the time that if a teacher has spent decades of his adult life at his job and has learned nothing more than inexperienced children, then that teacher has wasted his life. I agree with that argument and think that it applies just as well to professional travelers and full-time RVers.

Ahh but there is a problem. None of us really likes to listen to free advice from anybody. The minute you start giving advice you are presuming a type of superiority over other people. This is the emotional appeal of nominating yourself as "world improver" and social reformer, a la Ralph Nader or Mayor Bloomberg.

Onto these two counter-currents we can add a third: as we age we might feel a concern for our "legacy." We are forced to acknowledge how puny our individuality is and how short life is. It is consoling to at least partially obviate that puniness by connecting to something larger and more permanent and -- dare I say it -- more noble.

Imagine that society is an Excel spreadsheet, with each person getting their own column. The columns stack up in parallel, to the right, as many as there are people. Now stick within one column, and go down the page. Each row (of that column) represents a different year, memorable experience, or stage of that person's life.

Row Q of Column A thinks it's a lot wiser than Row C of Column A, and isn't afraid to say so. But he'd better not spout off to Row Q of Column B.  That's easy to understand.  But what if Row Q of Column A started offering free advice to Row C of Column B? Would that "cell" of the spreadsheet also resent the advice?

The trouble about advice-giving and advice-taking between people is that we are always confusing comparing rows with comparing columns.

I want to restrict my spouting off to outdoor activities. One of the biggest missed opportunities for most RVers in the West is mountain biking. Many RVers have mountain bikes bungeed to the back of the rig, but they seldom ride them. Others have tried mountain biking, only to find it unpleasant, and then quickly give it up.

I'd like to suggest that mountain biking wasn't given a fair chance. Perhaps you rented one from a bicycle shop in a tourist area. The shop probably sold you a map or book, with a title like "Top Ten Mountain Bike Rides in the..." Then you went out and found the single-track trail too steep and rocky. The bicycle equipment itself didn't work quite right or fit right. You were always worried about falling. You ended up pushing the bike more than you wanted, and you kept banging your shin against the left pedal. Your conclusion was that mountain biking just wasn't for you.

Finally finding some lush grassland between Prescott and Jerome AZ

You had a typical dysfunctional introduction to the sport. You should:
  1. Avoid national parks and other tourist traps that have postcardish -- and therefore excessively vertical -- topographies. The trails there are better for hiking, and besides, they don't allow mountain biking (or anything else that's fun) in national parks. Instead, seek out flatter land a few miles away from the big peaks. Go for plateaus, mesas, grasslands, or ponderosa forests. Typically, there are happy hunting grounds at the border between BLM land and national forests. 
  2. Avoid certain geologies. Extremely sharp volcanic rocks are terrible, as is loose sandy locations such as the over-rated red sandstone of Utah. Similarly with decomposed granite. You want dirt trails. Look for grass! Limestone is a good layer to mountain bike on.
  3. De-emphasize single tracks, because they are usually too technical. Because they can't make money off of it, the industry under-emphasizes the zillions of miles of dirt/gravel roads in national forests and BLM lands. Cash in on them! You don't need to buy any of those silly "Top Ten This or That" books; just buy a Benchmark or DeLorme atlas for the state.
  4. Avoid mountain bike meccas such as Moab UT, Fruita CO, and Crested Butte CO. Develop more appreciation for Montrose, Gunnison, and Monte Vista CO, northern and western New Mexico, and the Mogollon Rim in Arizona. 
Perhaps I was wrong to go into explicit details. The points above are really just manifestations of the Metropolitan Bubble Syndrome and the RV Vacation Syndrome. But those are standard stump speeches that I wanted to spare the reader.

High pastures at 9000 feet -- still actually used for something! -- near Springerville AZ.


Let us wash our hands of these details and back off to the big picture. Mountain biking in the West is not just a sport, with its puny little pro-s and con-s. It hearkens back to a glorious Past, back to the horse culture of the Plains and the mountainous West. Hiking can't do that. Only mountain biking can. 

The West is no longer very Western. The whole economy is based on health care and retirement housing for wealthy city-slickers who will pay any amount of money for a spectacular view. There is a smallness to a culture that squanders its wealth sitting around in ridiculously large houses and sticking its chest out about how great the view is.

Rather than becoming doomed-and-gloomed by the travesty of the modern West, let's turn it to advantage by visualizing the mountain biker as a modern reincarnation of the horsemen and caballeros of a heroic Past. It's a consolation to a person getting older to renounce the obsession with their own Ego, and to blend their identity with something bigger. Think of the proud prance and arched neck of a beautiful Andalusian horse, as seen in movies [*]. An Idea can be immortal. 

Horses relaxing along the upper Rio Grande, near Creede CO.

[*] I believe it's on an Andalusian that The Bad makes his grand entry, in The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly, about three minutes into the movie.