Thursday, December 31, 2015

A Newbie Couple Camps With an Ol' Desert Rat

There are some disparities that are made to poke fun at: men versus women, old versus young, northern Europeans versus Mediterraneans, city slickers versus rural hayseeds, and even newbie campers versus grizzled old "mountain men."

A long term bicycle club friend of mine visited my camp recently. She and her significant-other were embarked on their maiden voyage in a converted van. They don't know of my blog. So hopefully I can write about their experience with candor. Although it may seem like I am poking fun at them, their foibles and mistakes are no different than any other newbie, including myself at one time in history. They both have a lot of practical skills, and I suspect that their RV careers will be a great success if they keep with it.

The idea here is to describe a newbie's ideas, habits, and mistakes, in order to let the reader flush out the principles and draw their own conclusions. I will try to suppress my own shop-worn sermons.

They reminded me how difficult it is to be transitioning to RVing. "Honey, where did you put that spoon?"  Supposedly they have downsized from two middle class houses, and embarked on a life of 'Simplicity' and 'Nature'. But they still spent most of their time looking for crap. Which box is it?

Their van is not completely converted. They are still operating a bit like a weekend car-camper. That means cooking outside. This all seems very romantic until it rains or, more likely, the wind begins howling. All those boxes with troublesome lids, all that crap spread out over the mesa.

But we enjoyed having a fire at dusk, something that I never bother with, when camped alone. It essentially lengthened the winter day by an hour. How precious that hour is! There really isn't much heat that actually gets transferred to the human body, but it is wonderful anyway. She didn't care for my fire-building, though. She wanted to add 6 pieces of firewood at a time. I was building the fire on the down-wind side of the tallest rocks of the firepit. She thought the fire would look prettier if I put the wood on the opposite (exposed) side of the firepit.

How she came up with such a great meal from a one burner backpacker stove, I don't know. It seemed almost scandalous that these two liberal environmentalists would use paper plates! (And of course, I had to poke them on that, a little.) But of course, it made sense for people who are trying to minimize washing dishes. He noticed that I went into my trailer to retrieve a deep melamine bowl to hold the meal, rather than a flat plate. Here I finally had to shoot my mouth off: it makes no sense spending an hour cooking a delicious hot meal -- for a cold winter evening -- and then put it on a plate -- outdoors -- and watch it sag cold in 20 seconds. He bought it.

They taught me a fun board game to play inside their van. In fact, their rotating captain's chairs made for better seating in their van than I had in my trailer. But I was dressed in my insulated bibs, with a winter parka over the top, and a Thinsulated stocking hat. Then they would turn the engine on and run the heater. I finally had to say that I was getting nauseous. So I stepped out of the van, sat down on the gravel, and wrestled with removing my bibs, in the dark. Sure enough, somebody opened the side door of the van and almost bashed me in the head. I took every ounce of available willpower to resist screaming, "I can't live like this!"

Earlier in the day they disposed of some food on the ground. (They are good environmentalists back in the city, you understand, and like composting.) A couple hours after sunset there were two yipping screaming coyotes outside my door. They sounded like they were having a food fight with each other or some other animal, and somebody was dying. I am surprised that my dog didn't completely freak out.

Sure enough, at about 4 in the morning, the wind began blowing. I had to step out with a flashlight and weigh down some of that camping debris, so it wouldn't blow into the next county.

But the thing that surprised me the most was that my old bike friend didn't even remember to bring trail-runner sneakers so that I could show-off the canyon maze to them. So we stayed on top of the mesa, where the walking was easier. She had on some sort of goofy impractical female-type footwear, in a land of sharp gravel and cactus. But they liked the view. At least she wasn't wearing Teva sandals or Birkenstocks...

Friday, December 25, 2015

Doing Serious Things In an Un-Serious Way

Wasn't there a best-selling book of the 'self help' type, several years ago, with a title like "Everything I needed to know, I learned in kindergarten?" I never read it. Perhaps it referred to the fact that most people agree with many of the general principles and proverbs that are supposed to guide you in living your life. But the trouble is in the applications...

...or rather, putting the moral platitudes into practice. I don't think the main problem is intellectual; rather, it is the inability of a cliché to engage our imaginations and to motivate us to alter our behavior. That is why I was excited about the consequences of failing at reading Dostoevsky for the umpteenth time: for the first time in my life I became wildly appreciative of the principle of doing serious things in a not-so-serious way.

This is not a new idea of course. Essentially it is equivalent to Walt Disney's "whistle while you work" song in one of his animated classics. But what a difference it is to breathe life into an old principle, and to make it yours.

Usually it is 'suffering' or dire necessity that brings a platitude to life for me. I can't think of a better topic to write about on a personal blog. But what if the personal experience that brought the platitude to life for me is uninteresting and useless to the reader?

One possible solution is to move the general principle to a more universal context, such as a classic movie or book. Many readers have probably seen or heard about the award-winning movie "Amadeus", made back in the 1980s. Personally, I never appreciated Mozart's music until I saw this wonderful movie, despite being a classical music and opera fan for many years before the movie.

Apparently this happened to many people. To some, listening to Mozart is something you do only when it is homework. Imagine a BBC or NPR program on Mozart: a professor of Musicology or History of the Movies would talk at the camera. A bald, middle-aged, white guy with glasses, lecturing the camera. How exciting! He would bore you with a thousand-and-one historical facts about Mozart and his times, or the technicalities of music, etc. He would condescendingly tell you what the consensus of the experts is, about Mozart. The word 'genius' would be used 15 times. And you would change the channel.

But in the play and the movie, Mozart is presented less as a historical personage than as an object of envy to his rival, Antonio Salieri, played by F. Murray Abraham. (His old man/young Salieri performance is the best I have ever seen in the movies.) 

Before a musical performance there was food, drink, and talk. During this, Salieri tried to guess which young fellow actually was Mozart. The answer astonished Salieri. Salieri then acted out the music that Mozart conducted. I think that this performance (and the writing behind it) converted me to Mozart, once and for all.

Throughout the movie, the viewer is delighted with humor and wit, and visual scenes. The historical buildings in Prague were gorgeous and authentic. Or consider the late 18th century costumes: for male chauvinist pigs there was ample decolletage in the women's dresses, sometimes to the point of making the woman look like toothpaste squirting out the top of the dress. For fools like me, there is a scene between Mozart and dogs! Even the kiddies looked cute in their little 18th century costumes, and I am not prone to calling children cute.

The music was well chosen. Even better, it was made visual: Mozart's operas were featured so the viewer could see something. Just think how easy it would have been to let the camera rest on an orchestra of musicians sawing away on their instruments. Could anything have been more boring?

Thus, every trick of trade was used to delight the movie viewer with Mozart's music. He wasn't homework anymore! That is a significant and serious addition to a person's life, and yet it was accomplished in a delightful way.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Pascal's Winter Cabin

Winter is not just a season of climate, but is also a phase in a person's mind. In 18th and 19th century novels, the rural gentry conventionally retired to London in winter. Can you blame them? It wasn't just the darkness and weather, it was the muddy roads. People living in "normal" places in the modern world forget how frustrating muddy roads can be.

Every now and then I run into an Alaskan in the Arizona desert in the winter. They usually curse the darkness in the North more than the cold. Easy to believe.

I suppose there is a correlation between northern latitudes and alcoholism. Some of that might be the lack of grapes, and the northern grains lending themselves to hard alcohol. But surely some of it is due to the darkness and isolation.

There is something about sinking into the reality of winter-camping that brings a piquancy to a famous quote from Blaise Pascal in his Pensées, probably the only work of his still read today:
When I have occasionally set myself to consider the different distractions of men, the pains and perils to which they expose themselves at court or in war, whence arise so many quarrels, passions, bold and often bad ventures, etc., I have discovered that all the unhappiness of men arises from one single fact, that they cannot stay quietly in their own chamber.
Well, maybe Pascal would have been good at making it through winter in Alaska. 

But there is a bitter-sweetness to the rest of the chapter, as he advertises for an internal life. He was so ill. He was walking away from his brilliant accomplishments in mathematics and physics during the "breakout" century, when European Christian civilization led the world out of superstition and scientific ignorance. The long term consequences were so great it was as if homo sapiens had become a new species.

And yet this brilliant fellow was shifting his emphasis from explaining the real world in order to move towards morbid religious sensibility. If he had lived longer and continued down this track, what would he have accomplished? Sit indoors and wallow in a pool of emotion? Wouldn't he have wasted his life in self-absorption and introspection, as so many monks and holy men had done before him? What was new or brilliant about that?

I am not really sure I agree with Pascal's quote. I don't want to lose the healthy and external orientation to life in the winter. I don't want to become a monk or a 'holy man of the desert.'
But any winter camper or resident in an isolated cabin has an internal emphasis forced on them by the darkness and the social isolation. How far should we go in that direction? There is no one correct answer, of course. I do not seek one. But I would be pleased to identify the symptoms better, so I can switch back to an external orientation when I have gone too far.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Lust in the Dust

No doubt the reader is expecting some soft-core porn about mountain bikes of the "+ or plus" type, that is, ones that can use 3" tires. But actually, the lust I had in mind is more vile and swinish.

Camping in the desert doesn't seem like the likeliest place for an episode of earthly lust (unless you are a geologist.) And yet it happened twice on the same day. Odd things like that always make me want to explain them and blog about them.

It's not that the two experiences were unpleasant. In fact, it was almost a relief. But it was difficult comporting myself with dignity. When an old boy talks to a pleasant-looking woman thirty years younger than himself, it is hard to look into her eyes and not feel transparent, which then turns into a type of embarrassment.

She has a powerful effect on me, but I don't want her to know it. If she did, she might walk away, sniggering and mocking me with, "Well, I have made a new conquest...", such as the formerly blind girl did in Charlie Chaplin's classic "City Lights." That is what she said when she bumped into the Little Tramp on the street, without knowing that is was he who paid for her successful eye surgery. 

Therefore, I try to be brief and pleasant. Hopefully she will go away thinking, "What a nice old gentleman..." 

Although the younger woman is unintentionally embarrassing me, she is also benefiting me with intense and poignant nostalgia, and an optimistic experience of the circle of life. But what can I do for her?

Certainly it wouldn't flatter her that an old goat finds her attractive. Old age has simply given him "beer goggles" about younger women. But what if he can hint at a type of behavior that goes beyond the limitations of her own time? He has experienced both sides of Past and Present. She has only seen one side: the uni-sex, utilitarian, informal blandness of the modern age. So let him hint at old-fashioned formal politeness and courtliness.  She might enjoy a little bit of it without really understanding it. It was a dimension of life once. 

Meanwhile, I walk away from her with an extra spring in my gait, knowing full well what has happened and why.  


Tuesday, December 15, 2015

The Ultimate Heater for Winter Camping

Winter campers might argue about what the best kind of heater is, but frankly, I don't like using a heater at all -- for the obvious reasons of fuel cost, safety, and condensation. Besides, it seems wimpy.

There is another approach to winter heating. I owe this success to a camping neighbor. He doesn't buy expensive leather outfits for riding his Harley, but instead wears insulated bib overalls from Walmart. Well of course, that is what mechanics, construction workers, and oilfield workers wear in the winter. 

(I love having useful conversations with camping neighbors. Especially when they mention some trick-of-the-trade that I have overlooked. These conversations are so much more valuable than the usual small talk, long-winded stories about the past, personality salesmanship, etc.)

I have never owned bib overalls. But I took his advice and bought a pair of Walls brand from Walmart for $70. The insulation is not really thick, but they aren't supposed to be a snowmobile suit. I was sold the second I saw those metal zippers running down the leg.

This morning, my unheated trailer started out at 40 F, as usual. Once you slap them puppies on, and put a jacket over the top, it seems foolish to use a heater and generate all that condensation and waste all that propane. Why hell, with a sheet of sleeping bag foam on the ground at night, you could sleep outdoors with these things on.

The other campers will have to get used to seeing me strut over the mesa at sunrise and sunset, "modelling" the ultimate in desert winter boondocking chic. I'm not sure that women-campers are all that impressed with my advice, but little girls in kindergarten sure look cute in these things. 

Of course big girls can look pretty cute too, in bibs. Here's Jill Ireland pleasing Mr. Spock with her outfit.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Resurrecting a Tired Old Figure of Speech

A multi-fingered canyon system is just as interesting to explore at the top as at the bottom.

You can walk out on the peninsulas to the point where two canyon fingers join. But you can get a bit nervous with these mudstone (?) walls:

Don't walk too close to the cliffs when they are made of mudstone or whatever this crap is!

Incipient "colapso" on a canyon wall.

I keep a safe distance between myself and the cliff. But how can I know what that distance is?

One day I looked across the canyon and saw a crumbling isthmus on the adjacent peninsula. (The peninsula widened out again as you passed over the isthmus.) I became obsessed with knowing whether the isthmus was continuous and walkable. But I am always developing these little obsessions.

Coffee Girl checks out the tenuous isthmus in mesa caprock. I have to be doing something right to become obsessed about things like this.

It turned out to be not quite continuous, but still walkable. You are on a narrow finger of mesa cap-rock that separates two separate fingers of the canyon system. So you must step carefully.

Talk about the 'slippery slope' metaphor/cliche made real and fresh! When I walk along places like this I wonder how far off the high spot you could step before you slide on crumbling mudstone. And once that happens, you stumble onto a lower spot where it collapses easier than the first mis-step. And so on. It would only take a couple mistakes like this before you slide continuously, and then finally go over the side of a vertical or overhanging  cliff.

The cliff is only 20 to 80 feet high. But that would be enough to put you in the hospital or the morgue. Thinking about real situations like this makes the old figure of speech so forceful and powerful again. I wonder who first used it?

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Being a Geo-political Strategist is Tough

(Must I add that the title is meant tongue in cheek?)

 As I read an interesting book on geo-politics, I am struck by a couple things:
1. How incompetent politicians and diplomats are at avoiding war. (Perhaps because they don't want to avoid it.)
2. How naive and easily deceived the masses are. They will believe anything. Immediately the war drums are being beaten. Preachers are talking about their War God from their pulpits. And how useful the Media is in starting a war.
3. How powerful hindsight is.
4. How poor I am at looking at international crises today, determining who is really behind it, what they hope to gain, and what is likely to happen.

In fact, #4 is so strong that I sometimes think that reading history is a waste of time. For instance I was surprised by Russia's military involvement in the current Syrian crisis. Then I was surprised by the recklessness of the War Party in Washington DC in wanting to send American planes and troops to Syria, despite the risk of an incident with the Russians. Such an incident feeds into #2 above. We have already survived one such incident when Turkey (a member of NATO) shot down the Russian bomber. 

No doubt, the incident was planned to provoke Putin into doing something rash, but he was too 'cool a customer' to fall for the trap.

Very well then, it is time to be foolish and predict how this mess is going to play out:

1. Russia's military commitment is enough to stabilize their ally, the Assad regime of Syria. But it isn't enough to ensure its long term survival. But Assad will survive until Washington DC gets a new president.

2. Russia is creating a bargaining chip which they will cash in during the early days of the next American president's term. The Russians will pull out of Syria, and leave a hypocritical war against ISIL to NATO, while in the background, NATO will pull away from the regime in Ukraine.

3. Both Putin and the new American president will look like great states-persons and peacemakers, so their popularity ratings will soar.

4. Washington's neocon warmongers, and Sunni regimes in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey, will then be free to finish destroying Syria, install a friendly puppet, build their pipeline from Qatar, and keep Israel happy now that Hezbollah in Lebanon has lost its ally, Assad, in Syria.

5. The Russians will be happy to keep NATO from expanding into the Ukraine.

6. A sense of crisis along the way will keep empowering Washington DC, London, and Paris to rub out the civil liberties of their serfs citizens.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

The Ultimate Cliff Dwelling

Last episode I talked about camping near a pseudo-cliff-dwelling. Imagine finding a perfect one! The opening would face southeast, I guess. In the winter the low angle of the sun would warm up your mornings. In the summer you would stay cool. And you would be sheltered from the northwest wind in the winter.

But wait -- don't I already have a cliff dwelling? One that can be repositioned as required? One could argue that that is the ultimate cliff dwelling.

Not sure that mudstone is the ideal building material for a comfortable cliff dwelling.

Here is my improved version:

The low and bright winter sun toasts the inside of my portable cliff dwelling.The magnetic closure makes the screen dog-friendly.

The low and bright winter sun toasts the inside of my portable cliff dwelling

Granted, the cargo trailer was not sacred to the Native Americans. But it has everything else going for it. Laying down on the bed, my body is being warmed by the sun, but my face is shielded from direct sunlight. The west and northwest wind can't hurt me. There are screens across the entire back of the trailer, but you hardly need them at this time of year.

It is almost embarrassing to me how much pleasure I get from this. How can this be explained? Long-suffering readers are used to me praising the skin as our largest and most under-rated sensory organ. But there is more to it than being 'freeze-toasted' on my bed. 

Archive photo of winter ice and New Mexican sun.

Is there such a thing as 'sweat equity' in our appreciation of natural pleasures like this? It did take me two months of working sunrise to sunset to do the cargo trailer conversion.

Or is the appreciation enhanced by thinking independently? It means that I'm alive, and that's actually a little scary for anybody in a culture like ours. 

Not sure. But it is important to see the patterns of what causes intense gratification, in order to reproduce it in new applications.