Saturday, June 27, 2015

A "Rez" Dog at the Stage Coach Stop

Cuba NM is a shabby rez town, like they all are. And yet, there was something I liked about it. It is the only real shopping between Albuquerque and Farmington, NM, on busy US-550. Travelers do need services, you know. There is something redolent of the old southwestern stagecoach way station in this place. 

When you drive in perpendicularly to the busy highway after seeing no population for 100 miles, it is gratifying to see people and stores again. You know better of course, but it is enjoyable to put that aside for the moment.

If any place were the modern equivalent of the old stage coach stop, it would be the McDonalds, convenience store, and gas station. Cars drove in and out in a hurry; it was like being back in the "real world."  It really is true what they say: 'busy-ness implies purpose in people's lives.'

I sat in my van, soaked up the free Wi-fi, and compared all the different motor vehicles coming in off the highway. Something grabbed my eye as not quite fitting in. It was a half-lab dog, a lactating female mother dog, presumably. She wandered around from the door of the McDonalds to the gasoline pumps, and somehow avoided being run over. Apparently she had experience. She seemed quite professional, friendly, and got attention from the suckers.

But she wasn't scoring much food. All of a sudden the pathos of this hit me: here was the reality of being in "harmony with nature." For a female that means being constantly knocked up, and desperate to feed a new litter of pups. Imagine what sort of condition the pups were in. Nowhere could the Darwinian struggle for existence be more grim for a mother dog and her pups than on an Indian reservation or some other third world country.

So I softened and bought a $1 burger for her.  When her vacuum-cleaner tongue touched my hand with the food in it, I was alarmed to see a bloody wound around her neck, as if she had had a biting collar on, and desperately struggled to escape it. (Think of that the next time you are visiting a pile of rocks in a national monument, and the white suburban PC college-educated ranger or volunteer is rattling on about this, that, and the next thing being 'sacred to the Native American.')

But even when a hungry dog's tongue touches your hand, a hand holding Survival itself, you are remarkably separate, as if inhabiting two parallel universes.

In the "Tholian Web" episode in the third season of Star Trek, Spock explains the importance of the "Interphase" in getting the Captain back alive.
Picture it this way, Mr. Chekhov. We exist is a universe which coexists with a multitude of others, in the same physical space. For certain brief periods of time, an area of their space overlaps with an area of ours. That is the time of "interphase", during which we can connect with the universe of the other ship...
Silly science? Sure, but that isn't the point. Science fiction provides metaphors and modern myths: it personifies the universal. We can't live without some of that.

A multitude of parallel universes overlapping in physical space, for short periods of time... Doesn't that account for much of the special-ness of travel? Think of some of the semi-classic travel movies: "Stagecoach" (1939) which made Monument Valley and John Wayne a star. Or "Baghdad Cafe."  Or any movie on a ship, or at a desert oasis, like "Casablanca."  Or the 'being trapped together' type disaster movie.

Of course the metaphor appears profoundly, but less frequently, in non-travel life. Such as just after the dreaded announcement is made at work, and your cubicle-mate is cleaning out his desk, but you aren't. Or a friend's funeral. 

The limiting case of the metaphor might be when holding your mother's hand as she lies dying in the intensive care unit of a hospital, the same hospital where you were delivered many years before. 

My dog playing mommie with someone else's Corgi pup, a couple years ago.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Conversations with Strangers in Coffee Shops?

I stand before you today to announce a great and newly discovered truth: that it is possible to have an interesting and useful conversation in a coffee shop. With a stranger. Do you think I am exaggerating? Consider just one feature of this conversation: it was 10 or 15 minutes before he fell back on the old 'Soooo, whar ya frum?' If you wanted to be scientific about it, you could easily correlate how late that question arrives with the interesting-ness of the person. I am used to it being the second thing out of their mouths, and I have been known to literally groan out-loud when it happens.

But maybe you are going to tell me that this kind of thing happens to you all the time, and the fact that it has never happened to me is my own fault. Indeed, it is easy to misjudge people. Perhaps I don't ask people who look sufficiently available, are the right age, or are displaying the right body language. Perhaps they take one look at me and say, "How could such an over-opinionated know-it-all who can't keep his trap shut have such a nice dog?"

But there is another explanation: the art of conversation is no longer valued much in our society. Nor do we agree on formal rules that make conversation easier. The notion of "good breeding" or "gentlemanly" behavior has disappeared. Nor does the average blockhead know about much, or care about much, other than their job, television shows, celebrity gossip, daily chores and drudgery, Facebook trivia, etc.

This fellow was so facile. He quickly divined our common denominator: that we both drive old Ford Econoline vans. After I boasted that mine would soon hit 250,000 miles, he mentioned that his had 480,000 miles on the original engine and transmission. We then went on to methods of extending the life of a vehicle, the characteristics of a good mechanic, and his plans for converting his van for extended stays in the Arizona desert in winter.

But it wasn't in the list of topics that the magic lay. It was something more ineffable, at least at first. I think it was the back-and-forth between concrete (and well selected) details and generalities. We leaned one direction or the other at any given time, but then we flipped in the opposite direction. Perhaps this is almost a definition of intellectually healthy thinking.

Somebody who is addicted to easy theories might wait for two honest data points, draw a straight line between them, and then induce a universal law. I see no reason to be so cautious. After all I might not live to my next interesting conversation with a stranger.

So then, here is my grand and mighty conclusion based on one data point: he was an artist. Perhaps they get in the habit of dancing between concrete illustrations and general ideas, and then carry that habit into other parts of their lives.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Sometimes, Only a Pretty Girl Will Do

Early summer seems to be the time of year to notice butterflies on my mountain bike rides. So often, they seem to tag along, as if they are requesting membership in our bicycle club. It is physically challenging to focus on them as they flutter along, a step or two from the bike, and at the same speed as the bike. Whenever my eyes manage to freeze them in motion, they seem transformed, somehow.

The other day a large yellow butterfly fluttered in from the side, perpendicular to the direction of the bike and my dog. In fact, the butterfly collided with the head of my dog. But she didn't react snappishly, as she would to a normal insect nuisance, such as a fly or a sweat bee. She playfully -- and yet, gently--pushed the butterfly away from her head, and La Mariposa flew off, uninjured.

What is it with dogs and butterflies?

A strange rapport between dog and butterfly
Seen close up, they seem cartoonish and Disney-like.
We are having great luck in northern New Mexico, right now, finding high, semi-flat land to dispersed-camp on and mountain bike on. The other day I stopped in the middle of a thinned pondersosa forest just to let it soak in: 8000 feet, cool, open enough to see sky and mountains in the background, and smooth and flat enough to enjoy pedalling in a variety of gears. It has taken me so long to liberate myself from the childishness of tourist-thinking, but the rewards are certainly there. 

Yesterday we did a long climb up a forest service road: smooth, relentlessly upward, and without a single motor vehicle on the road. There was a nice view at the turnaround spot. My dog and I needed a cool rest and a drink of water. Perhaps she was feeling appreciative and sentimental about nature. At any rate she surprised me by walking over to some delicious shade and laying down in a bed of wildflowers. Did she make the flowers and shade more beautiful, or did they add to her?

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Hitting a Home Run in the Book Department

Bertrand Russell, in his eighties, was killing time in an airport, reading a novel that pleased him. He told somebody, "I've dedicated the first 80 years of my life to philosophy. The next eighty go to fiction." He lived to 98. With that inspiration, it is certainly worth tooting my horn over a rare success in the book department, especially because it resulted from deliberate flexibility.

A reader's life has not been wasted if they end up with a good understanding of the Great War and the French Revolution. Although I've yet to find a book on the Great War that really blew me away, I have bumbled onto a great book on the French Revolution. Once, when reading a Tolstoy novel, one of his characters was said to be reading Taine, a popular French writer of that era. I had never heard of him, nor have many modern readers, I suppose. What a shame.

Actually he wrote a series of seven books about the ancien regime, the Revolution proper, and then the Napoleonic sequel.  His perspective is very anti-Jacobin, therefore the book might be hard to like for many "leftists" of today. (And when did 'left' and 'right' become political labels?) That is too bad, because there is much in his books that transcends the left/right split that can get tiresome and predictable.

Taine is at his best when he is attacking the prevailing mindset of intellectuals and dilettantes of the late 1700s, most of whom were slaves of Jean Jacques Rousseau. I am reluctant to regurgitate his conclusions. It is too much like giving away spoilers in a movie review. 

A better analogy: I dislike giving out GPS coordinates of dispersed camping sites. I would rather encourage people to check out a certain general area, and let them discover things for themselves. That is where the excitement is.

For what it is worth, these are the most important history books that I have ever read.

Monday, June 8, 2015

The Second-best Sensual Pleasure Outdoors

Sometimes you just have to slow down and soak it up.  My campsite was broadside to the west wind, coming off a large sagebrush flat near Cuba, NM. It was the hottest time indoors, 4 o'clock. But soon the shade from one large ponderosa pine would cool off my trailer. This was proof of how few trees a summer camper really needs.

I hardly ever sit outside in a chair, therefore I was paying Mother Nature a genuine honor to move a chair into the shade of that lone ponderosa, and do absolutely nothing. Normally it is more comfortable and useful to be inside my little igloo on wheels. Usually people don't use 'windy' as a compliment, but they should: not only does it cool you, but it keeps the bugs off.

But this afternoon I just sat there, indolently and contentedly, in the shade of that lone ponderosa, and took a wind-bath in la brisa fresca from the west. Since I dislike heat, and this was the hottest day since February in Yuma, it was easy to appreciate the cool breeze almost to the point of sighing. I was, as a poet once said, 'feeding on the shadow of perfection.' 

Now I know what you are thinking: somebody was playing with his Picasa or Photoshop and saturated the crap out of this sunset. But I didn't. I cheerfully set aside my prejudice against sunset postcards in order to honor this view that I got from the same campsite described in the post.

I confess to being skin-oriented (dermo-centric?) in my appreciation of nature, unlike most people, and all tourists, who are opto-centric.  But warmth causes a neglected sense to flare up: the world smells more interesting in warm weather. This can bring on waves of nostalgia for boyhood on my grandparents' farm, not unlike what Henry Adams experienced at the old president's farmhouse in Quincy, MA:

Winter and summer, cold and heat, town and country, force and freedom, marked two modes of life and thought, balanced like lobes of the brain. Town was winter confinement, school, rule, discipline; straight, gloomy streets, piled with six feet of snow in the middle; frosts that made the snow sing under wheels or runners; thaws when the streets became dangerous to cross; society of uncles, aunts, and cousins who expected children to behave themselves, and who were not always gratified; above all else, winter represented the desire to escape and go free. Town was restraint, law, unity. Country, only seven miles away, was liberty, diversity, outlawry, the endless delight of mere sense impressions given by nature for nothing, and breathed by boys without knowing it.

Boys are wild animals, rich in the treasures of sense, but the New England boy had a wider range of emotions than boys of more equable climates. He felt his nature crudely, as it was meant. To the boy Henry Adams, summer was drunken. Among senses, smell was the strongest -- smell of hot pine-woods and sweet-fern in the scorching summer noon; of new-mown hay; of ploughed earth; of box hedges; of peaches, lilacs, syringas; of stables, barns, cow-yards; of salt water and low tide on the marshes; nothing came amiss.
There he goes again, some incorrigible reader says, quoting mouldy ol' books that have nothing to do with the Here and the Now. But the quote above is not so far afield. One of the episodes that Henry Adams experienced on his presidential grandfather's farmhouse was a boyish temper tantrum, when he was forced to go to school. The old president came downstairs, grabbed little Henry by the hand, and silently led him a mile to the schoolhouse. 

Looking back on it from age 70, Henry Adams thought the silence of the old president was perhaps caused by his preoccupation with the conquest of northern Mexico by President Polk (from a slave-state.) It was that very conquest -- nasty as it was at the time -- that was responsible for me lying in the shade in New Mexico on that warm day.

Perhaps the real value of the word "classic" lies in some things being so fine that they should be immortal. Since my own carcass and memory are not long for this world, I want to believe that something transcends these limitations. I am glad to have experienced those 'ancestral acres' and the nostalgia for them, especially since it is dying as a part of our culture. Perhaps it has been preserved for all time by Henry Adams's quote above.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Combining Vehicle Camping with the Great Divide Route

Every year at this time of the year I look forward to reading the travel blogs by people mountain biking the Great Divide Route (GDR). (Do not confuse this with backpacking the Continental Divide Trail.) The GDR is a selection of dirt national forest and BLM roads, and occasionally paved highways, that stays close to the continental divide. The northern terminus is Banff park in Alberta, whereas the southern terminus is the New Mexican/Mexican border at Antelope Wells.

Yes I know, some readers think I dislike travel blogs. But there are some that really do involve adventure. It is a great thing to find them and read them. For instance, if you read the blog of this group getting ready to mountain bike the GDR, you will probably be infected with their anticipation.

An opportunity is being missed here. A person might love the scenery and mountain biking, but dislike the tent camping and the need to find water, biking too many miles per day, biking during monsoonal afternoon hail storms at 10,000 feet, etc. You might love sharing a campfire at night with other people, having somebody in a supportive group to pull your vehicle through a sandy spot, etc.

There are many things to enjoy about an adventure like this if you could just eliminate tent camping. I love coming into my RV at night. The same could be said of camping out of a CUV, pickup truck with a cap, or full-sized van. Vehicles would not need to be outlandish and extreme four-wheel-drive rigs. But they couldn't be suburban houses-on-wheels either: Class A motorhomes, Class C motorhomes with 15 feet of butt hanging out the back, or 30 foot long travel trailers.

It is easy to combine mountain biking and "vehicle camping" by playing leap frog with the mountain bikes: you ride off in the morning, checking out the dirt road. When you've had enough, you ride back to your vehicle, and then drive your vehicle to some spot you found on the morning's bike ride.

It takes the right personality to get a group like this going, and I doubt that I have it. But it is worth talking it up, nevertheless. One of these days, somebody who is right for the job might get the idea and act on it.