Wednesday, October 29, 2014

The Mesa Minders

OK I admit to feeling a naughty grin when I looked down on the mesa where some Lazy Dazers are camped. My dog and I were on a mountain bike ride on a higher mesa popular with my breed, near St. George UT.

They are down there somewhere. I thought I saw them.

Zooming in, I can see somebody's rigs, left-center and slightly to the right of center.

An allegory popped into the mind: do you remember that episode in the third season of the original Star Trek, called "The Cloud Minders:"  a community of exalted intellectuals, musicians, and poets live in a city called Stratos that is levitated in the sky. They do nothing but pursue intellectual and aesthetic pursuits all day. Meanwhile, down on the planet's surface, live the miners who do all the grunt work that allows the elitism and luxury of Stratos to exist. 

As I looked down on the Lazy Dazers and grinned naughtily -- and haughtily -- the allegory grabbed control over my mind. Why was it so powerful? It was not caused by the visual stimulation alone, impressive as it was. Maybe it was a (musical) leitmotif that kept playing in my head.

And yet, what was so special about that leitmotif? In fact I didn't even know if it was used in the "Cloud Minders" episode. (I had heard the leitmotif in another Star Trek episode with a classical Greek theme.) Maybe that is why all this came together and affected me so strongly. 

I was being given the opportunity of combining outdoor scenery and exercise with an allegory from somebody else's story, and then combined that with some music from another context. My imagination was being teased and provoked into working. "Imagination" basically means combining things, making comparisons, or forming connections. Perhaps you could take this experience as a template for getting the most from an outdoor experience. Even better, it just seemed to happen by itself; these outside factors just seemed to impose themselves on me. 

Finally we made it to the edge of "Stratos." Here Coffee Girl looks down onto the squalor of the Lazy Dazers lowly earthbound camp.

The Lazy Dazers use a certain approach to nature that is well-intentioned, but mistaken. Every day, they visit the scenic freakishness of nearby Zion national park. Is that the way to give Nature a chance to make its maximum impact on you?

I never go with them, probably because I look "down" on their approach. I can't see the difference between what they are doing and a 7-year-old who wants food to be exciting. For him that means going to a Dairy Queen and pigging out on one of their lacto-globular sugar-bombs.

Or compare their approach to nature to an adolescent boy who masturbates twice a day while looking at genetic freaks in Playboy magazine. Meanwhile, a couple desks away from him in the classroom, there is a nice, average-looking, young woman that he won't even give the time of day to.
(Must I add the disclaimer that this post was written in the spirit of raillery, at the expense of people who are doing so many things right that they can afford to be good sports about getting zinged a couple times? They are having a wonderful time together, and I am envious.)

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Time Travel in Utah's High Country

On a recent mountain bike ride near Richfield UT, they caught me sleeping. I was focusing on choosing a path between the rocks, when my herding group dog, Coffee Girl, took after a herd of sheep that we had almost stumbled into. But she was eventually scolded into returning to me, and the sheep weren't too rattled.

Hey wait a minute, weren't we only a couple seconds from an ambush by giant white dogs, screaming out of the sagebrush to protect their herd?

But none came. As we sidled up the ridge, the size of the herd became more apparent.

Where were the dogs and the human shepherd? Eventually we spotted him. But he seemed to only have a couple border collies to help him.

I waved at him so he'd notice that my dog was now on a leash, but he didn't respond. Maybe he didn't speak English, or even Spanish. Maybe he was a Vasco, that is, a Euskal from the Basque country. I'm a bit skeptical about Great Pyrenees dogs being hostile to humans, but I wasn't so sure what they would think of my "coyote," Coffee Girl, even on her leash. So we kept our distance from the shepherd, and he was spared a dozen questions from me.

We kept climbing on this rocky ATV trail. Half the time I had to dismount and push the mountain bike. You don't want to be naive about ridges. Why are they ridges in the first place? Because they are erosion-resistant volcanic rock, surrounded by easier-eroding sedimentary layers.

I was feeling inspired by the romance of the Basque High Country, and made a rare decision: to go for a loop route instead of the more typical out-and-back. Yes, loop routes are 10 times more likely to get you into trouble, especially since I don't bring a GPS or maps, or even study maps at home all that much.

We were helped by being on the Paiute ATV trail of central Utah. And I did find a loop back home, although it took 5 hours. But along the way there were those moments of Doubt and Foreboding Doom that make an outing interesting. I'm not being facetious. False summit after false summit. I yearned to hear a noisy ATV or to see the dusty contrail of a pickup truck, because that would signify that we had finally succeeded at finding the quick road back home!

Back at camp around sunset, my dog and I heard the tinkling of a single bell. Sure enough, out on the road in front of camp, the herd of sheep was moving along, and rather briskly at that. I thought there were about 300 sheep in the herd, but was later to learn it was 1200! The herd moved almost noise-lessly as a dense pack, with barely a baah out of them. 

Was the bell on an "alpha" sheep? Was it meant to help the herd, shepherd, or the dogs follow the herd? Or was it meant to help on foggy nights?

Once again we saw the shepherd. Instead of only two border collies he had a small herd of border collies and blue heelers. Is that a walking stick in his hand? He certainly needs one. I guess they don't use those long shepherd's staffs with the rounded crook at the end, anymore.

And yes, three Great Pyrenees. How noble of Purpose they are!

This pastoral experience enriched a wonderful and difficult day of mountain biking. It made it about more than just eye-candy and aerobic exercise. It helped me appreciate, what?, 8000 years of anthropological changes: our development from hunter/gatherers to a pastoral phase with domesticated herds, to agriculture and settlements, then to cities and long-distance sea trade, to industry, and finally to our current phase, such as it is.  


Let's do a movie quote from Sydney Pollack's 1994 remake of Bill Wilder's "Sabrina": the money-man, Linus (Harrison Ford), has taken Sabrina (Julia Ormond) to his "cottage" on Martha's Vineyard. They take in the view from the oceanside window. Sabrina hands Linus her camera:

Sabrina: "Don't take a picture. Just look."

Linus looks through the view finder and describes what he sees, "Ocean (yawn), ocean, ocean, quaint little fishing village...lighthouse. A guy is going into a lighthouse. There's a job for you. What must that be like? What kind of guy takes a job keeping a lighthouse?"

What kind of man, indeed. And what kind of man becomes a shepherd in the modern age? Is our shepherd (in the photo) out there all night? In the past they must have been. Imagine how cold it must have been, and how solitary. It is easy to see why there was a link between the religious and the poetical imaginations.

After a night of shivering, the shepherd awoke in the mountain fog upon hearing the tinkling of a single sheep's bell. He knew the herd was close and safe.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Finally! The New Ford Van in Real Life

In August 2014 Ford started manufacturing the full-sized Transit van -- not to be confused with the teeny Transit Connect. The full-size Transit is the replacement for the venerable full-sized Econoline E-series vans, which is what I have been driving for the last 239,000 miles. 

So why haven't I been able to find one on a dealer's lot? Somebody suggested it was because the dealers don't really know what the market wants, and they don't want to guess wrong. The new 2015 Transit has a lot of choices: three roof heights, two wheel bases, cargo versus passenger, and three engines to choose from.

At long last I got lucky and saw one at a truck stop:

Unfortunately it was a long-wheelbase passenger van, rather than the short wheel-base, low roof, windowless cargo van that I want. Still, it made a positive impression. Remember that this is a uni-body -- stamped and spot-welded sheet metal -- rather than a box on two frame rails, like a truck.

I didn't have a tape measure handy but there was a Ford Econoline van right next to it, for comparison. The new Transit was a couple inches lower in overall height, an inch or two narrower (hooray!), and closer to the ground (boo!). 

The ground clearance was better than I thought:

Looking from the bow, towards the stern. Pretty clean underneath.
I've often wondered how they measure the "ground clearance" of a vehicle: to the lowest point? To the lowest vulnerable point? And how vulnerable?

From the back we can see the lowest points, I think:

From the stern, looking towards the bow.

The lowest spot might be the welded bracket that grabs the lower end of the rear shock absorber. It also sticks out low on most vehicles, including pickup trucks.

Unlike the Econoline, the new Transit has a (horizontal) rear stabilizer bar, similar to the one in front. But this stabilizer bar is slightly higher than the bottom of the differential housing, as well as slightly aft of the differential. So although the stabilizer bar looks somewhat vulnerable, it might be protected by the differential housing.

The weakest spot in the Transit van are the small tires. There is no bigger handicap than small tires! They aren't even LT series. They are about 3 inches smaller in diameter than the ones on the Econoline van right next to this Transit van. 

But the wheel-wells are pretty roomy. If you could fit bigger tires on the Transit, it might be a viable option as a boondocking machine. But it is still over-priced, and fuel economy is poorer than a pickup with the same engine.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

How Can Morale Be So Good in Some Large Businesses?

Once upon a time, perhaps up to a decade ago, Walmart was a winner. You could feel something amongst its employees. But how would you ever have proved it was real instead of subjective and impressionistic? But I was convinced of an elan vital amongst all those low-wage employees in that giant corporation. But in the middle Aughts, it seemed that spirit started draining out of Walmart.

Today I went to Walmart for a routine oil and lube job. There were no long lines, which was a pleasant surprise. Or was it? The first thing they started doing was fumbling with those handheld gadgets that supposedly "manage information" about your rig: real rocket science stuff, like your name, address, and odometer reading. I've yet to see one of their employees use these gadgets without struggle and delay.  No doubt these handheld gadgets were sold as "productivity enhancers" by some executive in the I.T. (information technology) department, back at corporate headquarters.

The next thing they told me was that my tires were worn on one side and they weren't willing to rotate them. Furthermore 'I was to blame,' and so the tire company  wouldn't cough up some money for not living up to the guaranteed mileage. That argument was perhaps correct for two out of the four tires in question. In any case, it was asserted so quickly and aggressively that I became suspicious. 

Inside the store I was asked to sign too many legal disclaimers, avowing that I had been warned by Walmart that I needed a couple new tires.

(I had a flashback at what happened when I bought these lousy tires at Walmart a couple years ago. The employees seemed like real losers. When I got home I popped off the hubcaps and found that 2 nuts out of 8 had not been tightened.)

Hmm, what should I do? It had been years since I bought tires at one of Walmart's competitors. I drove over to Big O Tires. They showed a completely different attitude. The employee who grabbed me at the door did everything: helped me select a tire, gave me a sale price, helped me park in a rather crowded parking lot, and did the installation without making me unhitch the trailer! You know, air-wrenches and floor jacks!  He even finished up with the typical computerized cash register fumble, without handing it off to another employee. 

I was amazed that one employee "owned" me through the entire process. Typically the customer talks to a "customer's man" at the front desk. The guy typically know little about anything automotive or mechanical, but he dresses in cleaner clothes, speaks college-boy English, and is a little more personable. (Or thinks he is.)

The customer might have a pertinent piece of information: the symptom occurs after X, but not Y. Do you think any of that is going to be passed to the guy who actually repairs your car? I once had a repair job become a nightmare because of a poor information-hand-off like this.

The employee at the Big O Tire then helped me learn about a possible upgrade to my trailer tires. Once again, he immediately jumped in with a can-do spirit, infused with experience and skill.

So how would you analyze this company? Would you really learn anything by looking at a financial spreadsheet, subtracting column C from B, and then dividing by column R, ad infinitum? Even if you came up with the perfect formula, have you really explained anything? Can it predict anything? It seems to me that spreadsheet arithmetic merely confirms the Effect, without elucidating the Cause.

We live in an age when something must be scientific to be intellectually respectable. And to look scientific, it must be mathematical, or at least, numerical, countable, measurable. But what if the Cause of a company's success is about cultural values in the corporation? How do you measure or quantify those?

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Boondocking with Big Butts

People, who have RVed only half as long as I have, can easily be more experienced about rigs in general, since some people change rigs every couple years instead of holding them forever like me. It would be kind of fun to experience different rigs, and measure up their pro-s and con-s. But unless a person is an awfully good trader, it seems as though you would be eaten alive by the chain of ancillary expenses that ensues every time you change a rig.

Perhaps I am thinking about that more than usual because of the squatters' camp that has gotten established in my neighborhood. Three Lazy Daze Class C's are detracting from the view from my prestigious view-property, further up the hill. At the very least they could have parked with uniform spacing, parallel or perpendicular to the paved highway. Just think what they are doing to my property values!

But let's not be small about such things. I welcomed these campers to my BLM estate, but they can't even make it over a small dip that is halfway here.

Is it really true that class A motorhomes have trouble going over convex humps because they might hit the ground in the center of the rig? That is, they "high center" because of their long-wheelbases and mild rear overhangs. And is it also true that Class C motorhomes crunch at the rear when going through concave dips because of their rear overhangs?

I don't have a constructive suggestion for the Class A's, but some equipment in the neighborhood flagstone quarry has given me an idea for improving Class C's. Just back 'em up...

...carefully of course...and we'll lop it off in, say, 4 foot increments until you can finally camp with the serious campers.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Make Room for Mistakes and Surprises in Your Sport

It was surprisingly chilly this morning so I switched from a mountain bike ride to a hike down some canyons, right outside my trailer door, on some BLM land near Torrey, UT. But what if they turned out to be nothing more than uninteresting gullies? 

Some rather ordinary Utah/Martian scenery outside my rig, and just outside a national park. Would this hike turn out to be fun?

This must be a surprise to the other hikers in our camping group, since I squirm out of just about every hike that they propose. But this is the right kind of hike. And once again it worked beautifully, but with a gratifying twist at the end. 

At the risk of sounding like the Judi Dench character in "Room with a View", here is the exact science of an interesting hike:

1. Start from the the trailer, early enough for chilly weather. Don't drive an hour to some trailhead; by the time you would get there, you are already lost "spiritually."

2. Choose ordinary scenery, not some tourist attraction that is written up and photographed to death in a guide book, probably entitled "Top Ten Hikes in Capital Reef National Park."

2b. As an aid to #2, consider taking said book, National Geographic-branded maps, and your GPS device; and then pour gasoline over them, and light a match.

Starting any project right is half the key to success. For a hike this means renouncing your expectations. Recall the famous line from Charles Dickens's David Copperfield:

'My other piece of advice, Copperfield,' said Mr. Micawber, 'you know. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen nineteen and six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery. The blossom is blighted, the leaf is withered, the god of day goes down upon the dreary scene, and--and in short you are for ever floored. As I am!'

By performing #1 and #2 you have corralled your visual greed and lust; you have abandoned seeing nature as a type of upscale shopping experience: your hike is more like shopping at a thrift store or a garage sale, at least at the beginning. Of course it might surprise you, and the surprises will all be on the upside.

3. Walk off trail; that means walking down arroyos in desert country. If you see a brown stake bearing the imprimatur of some land-use bureaucracy, turn around and try something else.

4. Bring your dog of course. Even better, let the dog's wild joy infect you. Aspire to doghood, as the ancient Cynic philosophers did in Athens. 'Cynic' means 'doglike' in Greek, rather than what the word means today.

5. Don't surrender to the craven safety-worship of the modern Nanny State.  Take prudent risks, i.e., ones in which higher benefits accompany higher risks. Spice things up a bit.

6. Don't hike like a puritanical donkey, plodding away for long distances through the heat. Change course as your mood changes. Investigate. Let yourself be distracted from your goal.

If the first half of the hike is descending arroyos, and the second half is ascending back to the starting point, you are more likely to get lost than when ascending first and then descending. Put it like this:

Descend first/Ascend second = hard.
Ascend first/Descend second = easy.

That is because one route becomes two at each confluence when you are ascending back home, and you will forget the correct one. Oh sure, you could mark the route in various ways, but why not develop a sharp eye for your own hoof prints? From time to time I turned around in order to remember some navigational key.

I was sure that I would pop out of the final branch right at the front door of my trailer. But by the time I hit the road, I was off by about one mile. Magnificent!

This is one of the tricks-of-the-trade. It seems discouraging and unnatural to descend a canyon system during the first half of the hike, but it actually can be turned to your advantage.

Nearby national park scenery. (Yawn.) My Nikon camera has been repaired since it was less than one year old. They outsource this to a firm called Luxtech. The entire process was pleasant and confidence-building. I never would have believed it if I didn't experience it first-hand.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

If Eclipses Don't Terrify Anymore, What Good Are They?

Whew, what a relief! Tonight is supposed to be cloudy, so I needn't get up at 425 a.m. MDT to watch the Blood Moon total lunar eclipse.

Now isn't that a terrible thing to say? But admit it, how many times have you watched the media buildup to some celestial event -- be it an eclipse, a comet, or the Northern Lights -- only to be disappointed by the actual event? But like most people, I want the event to be interesting.

Why then are these celestial events such let-downs? We tend to forget that throughout the superstitious and religious period of our history, celestial events were truly frightening. That made them NEWS. But thanks to our scientific knowledge [*], celestial events have devolved into mere visual entertainment. As eye candy goes, they are rather slow and unimpressive. Compare them, as visual entertainment, to action scenes and special effects in a movie.

Perhaps you are dissatisfied with this grim truth. Maybe we can think of some other way to make such events interesting and significant. Consider this quote from John Stuart Mill's famous Autobiography:

He (a certain English intellectual) saw little good in any cultivation of the feelings, and none at all in cultivating them through the imagination, which he thought was only cultivating illusions. It was in vain I urged on him that the imaginative emotion which an idea, when vividly conceived, excites in us, is not an illusion but a fact, as real as any of the other qualities of objects; and, far from implying anything erroneous and delusive in our mental apprehension of the object, is quite consistent with the most accurate knowledge and most perfect practical recognition of all its physical and intellectual laws and relations.

The intensest feeling of the beauty of a cloud lighted by the setting sun, is no hindrance to my knowing that the cloud is vapour of water, subject to all the laws of vapours in a state of suspension;
This is a fine sentiment of Mill's. So why doesn't it inspire me? It seems so luke-warm and watered-down, so dull compared to the sheer terror about eclipses in a superstitious age. Thus it is not an adequate solution to the blandness of a modern, utilitarian, and scientific age.

The way around this deficiency is to admit that visual beauty is an insipid thing and to stop expecting too much from it. Even if it impacts you with force, it soon fades away -- sooner, in fact, than the total eclipse itself.

If nature isn't terrifying anymore and if mere prettiness is inadequate, in what direction should we move? I don't have a good answer for eclipses in particular, but maybe a bit of progress can be made for natural experiences in general. We need to find tricks-of-the-trade that make nature powerful and serious.

What about the link between music and the landscape? I am not talking about programmatic music, such as Beethoven's Symphony #6 or Grofe's "Grand Canyon Suite" or anything that school teachers made us listen to in grade school. But there are times when a certain piece of music fits the character and mood of an outdoor experience. Finding such music and making the link could help to put mystery, excitement, and meaning back into nature.

Recently I have been camping and recreating with some other RVers. We have a history of "F Troop" style operations as a group. But the mood and motion of a group can float through your mind during an afternoon nap, after the event. There is something about those naps that seems like a "religious experience", even though your rational mind knows that it isn't. Lately I might have found the perfect piece of music that fits the mood of these group events: it must be a small ensemble piece, not a symphony and not a concerto. Still working on it. 
[*]An early step in this demystification was when philosophers noticed the circular shadow of the earth crossing the moon. You could only conclude that the earth was spherical. I believe Aristotle mentioned that, in a matter-of-fact sort of way. And yet the myth still exists that "people" thought the earth was flat until Columbus.