In August, we got a rather unexpected notice from the Ross Valley Fire Department. They were coming to do fire mitigation up the hill behind our house. As it turns out, we are right on the town boundary with open space all around us, and the fire department got funding to reduce burnable material in the forests around the edge of Fairfax. This will make it easier to protect the town if a wildfire comes sweeping through our area. We were, of course, delighted — I’ve been pulling scotch broom up that hill ever since we finished the house in 2008, and it’s been a tough battle. Any help is appreciated!
Sure enough, tree crews and laborers showed up in September, and worked for a week to pull broom, limb trees, and make piles of burnable branches. They hauled truckload after truckload of material down the hill.
Yesterday was burn day, and several dozen firefighters arrived bright and early. They ran a 2-inch fire hose at the end of the street, extending about a quarter mile behind all our houses past about thirty burn piles. Near each pile, a T-connection added a smaller hose for controlling the burn.
And then it was time to light everything.
An hour later it’s all over, the piles are done smoldering and hoses are getting rolled up. The results are impressive. All this work pushed the edge of the big scotch broom plants further up the hill, making more of the forest visible. Tons of downed wood are gone, branches have been thinned out, and my fire suppression job each summer just got much easier. We’ve got some big charred spots on the hillside, which will go away over time. And the field across the street has pile after pile of chipped material, which is gradually getting spread all around the field. My hat is off to our fire department!
After a three-year hiatus, Burning Man happened again this year. I eagerly prepared early, not knowing if I would get a ticket, or what I would experience. I have learned that clear resolve and intention makes things happen, so I’ve been acting for months on the assumption I would get there. To be sure, I did. I had 12 days on the playa, experienced joy and exhaustion, clarity, inebriation, dawn, heat, dust, learning and teaching, responsibility, delight, connection, isolation. It was all things hoped for, and many that could not be anticipated.
Most of all, ‘That Thing In The Desert’ is not a destination, but a journey. I had the intention to become a Black Rock Ranger this time, and one of my friends needed a hexayurt delivered to our camp before the event formally started. A month ago, a sage friends shared that one of my guides was telling me to “look upon this journey as a “vision quest”, and to make sure that “my masculine and feminine were in balance”. And so the journey took form.
If you haven’t been to Black Rock City, then it’s hard to understand what Rangers are: experienced, compassionate and trained burners with radios and access to resources. They are first responders to everything: pointing out the nearest porta-potties, calling medical aid, dealing with consent violations, drug ODs, whatever. In a sense, the journey began here, because in the spring I attended online and in-person classes.
I also got the idea to bring cloth patches to my friends in VW Bus Camp this year, and worked on the design early this summer. From a past camp project, a motto came into being, “There is great pleasure camping with tequila”. I did the drawing, and my partner Jen did the color scheme and contributed the agave plant.
I ended up getting 200 of them made, in two sizes, and handed them out everywhere. They were popular, and I still have some left, so please let me know if you want one!
The third prelude was the VW Hexayurt adventure. One of our camp members needed a place to stay, and one of our other members had a hexayurt shaped like a VW bus, build some years ago. I volunteered to transport it from Nevada City, CA to our camp. About 15 pieces of foam insulation, cut to fit together with tape, plus a home-made swamp cooler in a Rubbermaid container. It made a neat 100-lb stack on the roof rack, including a piece of plywood and some lumber to protect the panels. This will be the shelter for our campmate Heather Winfrey and her husband Jerald, who are traveling without bus this year. Heather has been dealing with a very serious cancer for the last few months, and they need every luxury we can afford them.
I set off from home on Tuesday, August 23rd, with a stop at an Oak Dance fire ritual with friends in the east bay. Though I wasn’t expecting it, the ritual reoriented me, I knew I was on a vision quest. From the moment I left the fire, my trip took on a curious, spacious, serendipitous feel, a quiet and deep heart space, and I realized how much I needed a solitary journey. After spending the night at a friend’s place in Sacramento, I stopped in Nevada City to load up the hexayurt, as you see in the photos. That night I was up at the cabin in Lassen, pulling out all the paraphernalia that would make camp comfortable on the playa…shade pop-up, solar lights, 7-gallon jugs of water, tarps, window insulation, bicycles, c/hairs, rebar anchors, ratchet straps. It’s now a pretty tidy and organized pile, with the tarps, shade net, anchors and hammer in a big duffle bag on the roof (so I can get them on arrival) and other gear in two big bins. I take a leisurely full day to pack, then head east through Susanville and across the desert early Friday.
It’s four hours from my cabin to BRC. The gate takes a couple of hours, and then I’m in!
Arriving midday on Friday, it’s not very crowded. I screw a big tarp down to the playa, park the van on one half, erect and strap down the pop-up, insulate the windows, and throw netting over the whole thing to add shade. Add bamboo mats, a carpet, table and chairs, and it’s feeling like home. By evening, it’s margarita time.
The hexayurt got unloaded first, of course. On Saturday, a group of us got together to assemble it, complete with a battery-operated swamp cooler. It was all ready to go by the time that Heather and Jerald arrived.
This turned out to be a very dusty year, and we have lots of wind and limited visibility nearly every afternoon, sometimes at night too. Cleaning is a major daily chore.
More than anything, I’m here for the art. The playa always offers a rich display of creativity.
The fourth theme for this burn was Rangering. I joined the Black Rock Rangers this year, going through online and in-person training earlier in the year. My second day on the playa, I did a ten-hour shift to complete training. Rangers are basically just burners with radios and extra awareness. It’s a little like being an off-duty cop, EMT and therapist all in one.
I really enjoyed Rangering. The alpha training shift was very tiring, and the real scenarios we used for practice were intense, some of them very scary. My regular six-hour shift was moderately busy, we had to deal with a couple of folks in melt-down situations, but mostly we were just answering questions and being helpful. The Rangers I met are good people, exceptionally capable, humorous and dedicated. The stuff that happens at Burning Man is like any city of 80,000 people…raised by an order of magnitude. For example, there is an 80-bed hospital, and at one point all the beds were full. This year we saw a LOT of e-bikes and motorized scooters, some traveling at 30 mph (totally illegal, all vehicles are limited to 5 mph). Of course there were collisions and broken bones, though I did not hear of anyone dying in a traffic accident.
After 11 full days, it’s time to go. Cleaning and packing takes a while, my guests were gone before the Man burned Saturday night, which was smart thinking on their part. Departure from the event is tricky, as there are huge bursts of traffic throughout Labor Day weekend. I left on Monday afternoon, which was a huge mistake. It took ten hours for me to get to the highway, a bit after midnight. I should have spent the night, hung out with the few folks still in camp, and left in the morning. I would have gotten home just as fast.
This was such a solitary trip, even with all my cheerful and engaging camp mates. It is oddly humbling to feel so completely at home in such an extreme place. I had a lot of good, thoughtful solo time. I met people, coached and massaged people, served tequila, smoked and drank, talked VW’s and life endlessly, and wish I’d explored more. I perhaps saw half the artwork, watched the burns from a distance, did not go out into the psychedelic colorful craziness of the middle of the night, did not go to any of the dance camps, fall in love, or get seriously drunk. Something deep has been moving inside me this year, and my time in the desert feels rich in only the way deep stillness brings. Wendell Barry wrote:
And the world cannot be discovered by a journey of miles, no matter how long, but only by a spiritual journey, a journey of one inch, very arduous and humbling and joyful, by which we arrive at the ground at our feet, and learn to be at home.
Geek, TravelComments Off on defecting from bimmer world
I’ve been an unabashed fan of BMWs for more than 40 years, however the last two years of owning an E70 X5 have cured me of much enthusiasm. While the black SUV has been supremely comfortable, it has proven to be an expensive investment for every day driving. In 20,000 miles of ownership, I’ve replaced the tailgate latch ($1500), front axle half-shaft ($1500), rear brakes ($1000), battery ($440), emergency brake switch, outside air temperature sensor…some of this is normal maintenance for sure, but the cost of standard items like brakes and battery is really painful. Things are failing that should never be a problem in the first 60,000 miles of a vehicle’s life.
So I sold her to another enthusiast, and never intend to buy a BMW newer than about 2007 ever again. Jen’s 2007 328xi has been a trooper, quick, reliable and comfortable with more than 200K miles, and my 1997 528i has been the same. The older cars are fairly easy to work on, parts are not expensive, and most of all, they just work. Every time I was in my mechanic’s shop for X5 work, I heard another story about X5 issues as he talked to customers on the phone. Control module failures, astronomical costs for things wearing out or breaking early (Ignition coils at 70K miles, catalytic converter at 120K miles!?!) I got the message.
I need a pickup truck again, as I prepare for work on the cabin up near Lassen. My last truck (Roy, a dear 1994 Ford that always felt like a pile of parts heading in the same direction) has been gone for many years, and the state of the art has definitely moved forward. Having owned a 2001 Honda CRV once upon a time, I’m drawn to another Honda, and after a lot of research, I find a low-miles 2017 Ridgeline for sale in southern California.
This truck is a revelation. It has all the comfort and features of the X5, all-wheel drive with more cargo space and better mileage. It has plenty of power yet runs on regular gas, which will save me hundreds of dollars a year. It’s fully integrated with my iPhone. It’s a Honda, I expect superb reliability.
Now I’ve left the army of people driving black SUVs, and joined the endless ranks of white pickup truck owners. It’s a different kind of anonymity on the road. But I can throw a pile of firewood in the back without worrying about it, it’s easy to see why the USA is full of pickup trucks.
By the way, it’s time for our annual fire-safety land clearing in the neighborhood, and the goat herd is back, happily munching away at everything they can reach. The photo of the truck captures some of the charm of living in a temporary barnyard.
The last two weeks have been rather nerve-wracking, as the enormous Dixie Fire has moved north and west towards my cabin in Mill Creek. When we got the evacuation warning, Jen and I headed up there, packed valuables and furniture, and brought it all home. This spurred a monumental burst of home and storage reorganization, but I digress…
The fire grew relentlessly north towards Chester, twenty five miles east of us. Fire crews managed to protect the town, however the fire jumped Highway 36 and proceeded north into Lassen National Park, and west towards Highway 32. We watched as the burn expanded from 100,000 to 500,000 acres, generating pyro cumulus clouds big enough to cause lightening.
A lightening storm struck Morgan summit about a week ago, less than four miles north of the cabin, and started a secondary fire that expanded toward the cabin.
Fire crews were able to hold fire lines at Highways 89 and 36, so the north flank never got less than two miles away, however winds out of the northeast pushed the main fire towards Mill Creek. Satellite maps show hot spots a quarter of a mile away from the cabins two days ago.
The video up above was recorded that night from Mill Creek. Fire crews from the San Jose Fire Department (and others) were in our community, while northeastern winds pushed the fire across the Mill Creek plateau, across the river and above us. The fire wrapped around the south side of the cabins, and we were burning on three sides. However, the crews up on the plateau have been able to keep the fire from entering the Mill Creek canyon, which is full of old growth timber and becomes inaccessible to the west of the community.
This morning, it appears that miracle has occurred — the wind is shifting around to the southwest, and pushing the fire back on itself. The activity and the heat have dropped dramatically, as shown in these four daily heat maps
I think we’ve made it. I am endlessly grateful to the fire crews and all their hard work. And deeply grateful to all my friends and energy workers who have brought prayers, intentions and respectful relationship to all the elements in play here. The land, wind and fire spirits have blessed us, allowing our community to live on in this beautiful place, with our local forest of big trees, the creek and the fish, the deer and bear, squirrels and chipmunks, Stellar’s jays and crows.
Yet the fire burns on, and will take weeks (or months) to fully contain. As of today, it has grown to over 700,000 acres, destroyed 1225 structures, and is only 35% contained…after burning for 37 days. We aren’t even into the worst part of the fire season yet, rains are still two months away. The Lassen area is forever changed by it, at least, for my lifetime.
Our Westfalia engine replacement was completed on May 21st, so I flew down to southern Cal, got to Victorville, and drove Mojave home with her new heart. And therein lies a story of serendipity and further adventure.
To start with, I missed my flight to Ontario because of a gate change that got screwed up. They kindly rebooked me onto a flight to Palm Springs, a 2-hour drive from Victorville, sigh. Then a miracle occurred…the flight could not land in Palm Springs because of high winds, and after three attempts, headed over to in Ontario. Honestly pilot, it’s not my fault!
Looking for a Lyft to Victorville, I was expecting a long wait for the 45-minute trip out into the desert. To my surprise and delight, a driver showed up in 5 minutes. Just so happens, she lives out next to Victorville, and was delighted to get a paying fare on her way home for the day. So I arrived at the shop around 11am, not much later than I had hoped when I drove to the airport before sunrise.
Mojave (the new name for our Westy) was complete and ready to go, and after a post-mortem discussion of the dead engine, paying my bill, and collecting a large bin of extra parts, I grabbed a big lunch and hit the road mid-afternoon. There are a couple of issues that I didn’t have time to resolve: the exhaust on the replacement engine had a crack (making us sound like a large truck) and the exhaust manifold on the new engine was sticking down way too far, scraping on the ground if I go over a bump.
By early evening, I’m over Tehachapi pass, through Bakersfield, and gassed up in Shafter. After droning up I-5 and I-580, I am crossing the Richmond Bridge into San Rafael, almost home, when the engine starts misfiring. Shit! What could be wrong? Stumbling along, I make it off the bridge and pull onto the frontage road, where the engine dies. Then I notice the gas tank is empty. We used to get a reliable 320+ miles out of a full tank of gas, however blasting up I-5 at 80 mph with the new engine, we are bone dry after 284 miles. It’s a relief that nothing is broken 🙂 I’m only 9 miles from home, so I call and wake Jen, who cheerfully and kindly drives over with our spare gas container. I finally arrive home just before midnight, tired and happy.
Now it’s a few weeks later, and I’ve gotten the exhaust system fixed. Johnny Franklin Muffler in San Rafael is a solid business that’s been around since I was in high school. They cut off the part of the manifold that was sticking down, removed the rest of the system, and fabricated a free-flow system that makes her sound like a sports car. The deep, throaty exhaust is quite alien for a vehicle like a Vanagon, but Jen and I both enjoy her new character. Plus I swear there is more power!
It seems that our longer trips with our Westy camper are fated to become Adventures, and we’ve had a rather entertaining two weeks on the latest Adventure. Jen was traveling to Santa Fe, NM for a retreat, when Mz. Parker’s engine abruptly shut down on Highway 58 east of Mojave. The proverbial “middle of nowhere”. She shared a couple of photos with me, and when I saw the crank pulley resting on the muffler like this, with the serpentine belt hanging, I knew this was more than a simple roadside fix. In between us, we found a VW-enabled shop 50 miles away in Victorville, and she got a tow.
Jen was able to rent an SUV, and continue on her journey. Meanwhile, I’ve got to figure out what to do. Astute readers may remember that I nearly got stranded on my way to Burning Man in 2019, when her water pump broke. That ended up taking a week in a shop in Chico, for a new timing belt & water pump. I’m a good mechanic, but these kinds of failures are not easy to fix, especially when I’m 500 miles away.
Jen could not restart the engine at all, though it turned over ok. Any engine geeks out there are probably groaning like I was…the broken pulley and loss of water pump and alternator should not keep the engine from starting. Something Bad Has Happened, and my best guess is the (recently replaced) timing belt has broken, causing the pistons and valves in the engine to collide violently. We call this a “grenaded” engine, because the inside is filled with broken metal bits, like a detonated hand grenade. Perhaps the sudden stoppage of moving parts put stress on the crank pulley, and caused the bolt to snap. I’ll find out when the engine is removed.
This is a 2004 Jetta engine conversion, with parts from South Africa that have been unobtainable for more than a dozen years. Hardly anyone knows how to work on them. So I start shopping for a $12-17K Subaru engine conversion, when a miracle occurs. I call a Westy shop in San Diego that JUST HAPPENS to have a used replacement engine for our baby. 65K miles, reconditioned, at a cost that is a small fraction of the Subaru upgrade. Probably the only one in the continent. Serendipity saves the day! So I drive 8-1/2 hours south last Thursday, pick up the motor, deliver it to Victorville on Friday, and meet Jen as she returns from her Santa Fe trip.
After a delightful evening visiting friends from half a lifetime ago in San Diego (and discovering the amazing renovation of the downtown area!) the engine and I land in Victorville, Jen and I reconnect, and head down to Desert Hot Springs for a much-needed weekend getaway at our favorite resort. We are restored by the sacred combination of tequila and hot mineral water.
Now home after a 1200-mile trip, we await the transplant operation. It’s going to take two weeks, as the shop (and every shop in southern CA) is slammed with more work than they can handle. Sometime later this month, one of us will figure a way to get to Victorville and bring our baby home. Meanwhile, with a new heart going in, we feel it’s time to rename her…Mz. Parker no longer seems to fit. We are thinking of calling her “Mojave”.
Watching and feeling my friends freak out on various social media platforms is hard. And I can feel the angst, anger, judgement and fear erupting everywhere in the country, even across the world. Nearly every publication I’ve looked at is calling for Trump’s removal via the 25th Amendment, impeachment, whatever means necessary before he declares martial law and tries an even more violent way to invalidate the election and hold on to power. These responses are very reasonable, even logical. Almost lost in the noise, we also had the deadliest day ever in our COVID-19 epidemic (3915 deaths on Jan 6th), a direct result of our president’s ineffective response to the pandemic.
I’m watching these horrible events unfold within our structure as a country. We have our Constitution, a remarkable legal document that has withstood nearly 240 years of tests. Remember that the Constitution is not only a legal structure, it has centuries of ritual behind it. The document was not only written by men who were mostly Masons (with their own rituals), our public servants in Congress and the president are required to swear to uphold it. We are watching the breaking of oaths and vows unfold in real time. I believe that all of Trump’s presidency has brought us to a deep test of faith. And apparently the Constitution is doing it’s job beautifully.
Trump was legally elected according to the principles of the Constitution. Whether we like it or not, the voters and the electoral college combined to put him in office. A major reason this happened was because Democratic voters and the Democratic national party got overconfident, and tons of people skipped voting because they didn’t think they needed to. We as a nation are accountable for our situation.
Trump has rallied the liberal vote like nothing since the Great Depression. Voter turnout in 2018 and 2020 has been off the charts, the highest since 1900. Voters have shifted Congress and their state governments in more liberal directions. Just as the Constitution intended, our government represents the will of the voters.
This election has given us a Democrat-majority government for the first time since Obama became president. (Edit – Originally I stated “since 1977-1979”. I had forgotten that both Congressional houses were Democratic in 2008-2009) The rally of Democratic voters in response to Trump has succeeded in isolating the Republican party as a minority, and in fact, the Republican party is in the process of splitting in two.
It’s a test of faith to rely on the Constitution. I’ve honestly struggled with this for all four years of Trump’s presidency. However I keep coming back to it, putting my heart and soul and prayers into support it, watching it do it’s job. We can rest into this moment, reassured that the structure that created our nation will hold us through this transition, and we will come out better and stronger for it. And don’t forget, our demographics as a nation are becoming more multicultural and liberal. As liberals, we have time on our side. The once-white majority is crumbling. Perhaps we are on the verge of joining the rest of the civilized world, creating a government that supports all of us, with decent minimum wages and public health care and a tax system that restores the middle class and reduces poverty.
I’ve had a frustrating and enlightening week, tending to the heart of my home. After a year that most of us agree is the worst in memory, we come into the holiday season with several remarkable astronomical and astrological events. This month, we’ve had a solar eclipse, a lunar eclipse, and a once-every-800-year spectacle, the incredible conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn.
My friends and I often discuss what might be happening, after sheltering-in-place since mid-March, more than 300,000 pandemic deaths in the US alone…plus amazingly idiotic behavior by our president, Republican senators, a wide variety of elected officials…and record-breaking wildfires.
What’s happening is the boiler stopped working. Down in the guts of my house there lies a marvelous piece of engineering, a Munchkin high-efficiency water boiler that not only provides hot water, but radiant floor heating. It is the key piece of infrastructure technology; there is no furnace, no ducting, no air conditioning. It ran reliably for for the first ten years, then starting to misbehave about two years ago. Last winter, I paid a very good plumbing company $$$$ to come service the thing, and along the way, the plumber was kind enough to discuss the design of the unit, tell me about likely failure points, and how to deal with them. That was a Prescient Conversation. All was fine until a few weeks ago — I think it was the same day as the solar eclipse — the house was cold when we woke up.
I crawled down into the Munchkin room, removed the cover from the boiler, and sure enough, there is a flashing error code on the display. I reset the error, and after some hesitation, the boiler fired up. We Are Saved!
Umm, not quite. Over the next two weeks, it starts failing more frequently, as Jupiter and Saturn approach conjunction. I think there are eight separate days when I have to go reset it. Last Friday, 3 days before the planets get their closest, the boiler would not reset and the error persisted. As if it has a sense of humor, the error is F09, which I believe means “you are fucked for the ninth time”
If you aren’t a geek, please skip this paragraph. The boiler blows air and meters gas very precisely, using a ’swirl plate’ to make the air turbulent, creating a hot and efficient flame. The flame is measured using a ‘flame rectification probe’, which uses the plasma of the flame to turn a small AC current into a tiny DC current for the controller. If the flame is not just right, the 1-microamp current is not the correct value, and the controller shuts down the burner. After cycling four separate times, blowing the chamber clear of gas and exhaust and reigniting, it throws one of several error codes.
So I cheerfully read the 80-page Installation, Programming and Diagnosis Guide, watch several YouTube videos (thank you, Craig Smith!) then start replacing parts that might throw the mixture off and cause the failure. There is no way to really test anything, of course. The first part to get my attention is the controller, $330 of electronics now available in a new, improved version that ‘senses the flame more accurately’. That seems logical, the plumber had told me that nearly every one of these manufactured-in-2008-boilers he’s worked on has needed a new controller.
I require the serial number and manufacturing date to get a new controller programmed, and I secure this photo of an invisible part of the housing after considerable contortion and cobweb yoga. Note that our boiler was born on February 21, 2008, on the Aquarius/Pisces cusp. Our Jupiter/Saturn conjunction is in Aquarius. Coincidence? I think not!
One of our local plumbing supply houses has a controller upgrade kit up in Santa Rosa, so I gleefully leave my cold house to drive two hours and pick it up. When I get home, the house is warm again. WTF?
It turns out that the controller is smart enough to re-try the startup sequence once an hour, and while I was gone, the box-I-thought-was-dying asserted a last gasp of life. Jen and I enjoyed an evening of dinner and vino, and I warily went to sleep with my fingers crossed.
Saturday morning all seems to be working, but by afternoon, my nemesis is flashing F09 again. Ok, I gather my tools and crawl back into the operating theater. The new controller and display are not hard to install, and with a silent prayer, I turn the little metal monster back on. Now it flashes an F10 error code. Fucked for the tenth time.
After several attempts, the boiler lights, and we have another warm night. In fact, two warm nights. And then Monday, the day of the conjunction, dawns bright and cold and chilly in the house. Back to the plumbing supply store to pick up two other parts that might cause the failure, a new flame rectification probe and a new swirl plate. They are inexpensive parts likely to fail some day, so it seems prudent to go ahead and buy them. I try the easy fix first. The new flame probe is simple to install, but damn, it takes several attempts to get the boiler working again.
Not for long, of course…today it F10’d again. So I bring in all my tools and a vacuum cleaner, and dive into the guts up to my elbows to replace the swirl plate. This requires removal of the burner, so I might as well give the burner chamber it’s periodic cleaning, even though it was serviced just a year ago. There is little soot, nothing that should cause a problem. Also, the swirl plate is in apparent perfect condition, so there is no reason to expect the new one to make any difference. After an hour of labor, I get the beast all back together, double check that all connections are plugged in, turn on the gas, and flip the switch.
It works. Perfectly. It even fires up with a soft, almost inaudible thump, a sign that the mixture is perfect.
So I fixed it, but I have no idea how. Therefore, I consider this to be A Miracle. I’ve performed a miracle! Or perhaps it’s just working now that we are a day past the conjunction? Or it just wanted a little love and attention? I don’t know and I don’t care, I’m happy, I’ve avoided paying a bunch of money to the plumber, and I’ve earned my glass of wine this evening.
I wrap this little tale of mystery up with a beautiful amateur astronomy shot of the planets in conjunction. We will never see this again, and neither will our decendants for many generations. Of all the strange things befalling us this year, the beauty of the planets dancing so close together inspires hope in me for the new year. And my trust in the Munchkin has been restored.
Ah, Mormon country. I’ve been at at my stepsister’s home in Idaho Falls, Idaho, for a couple of days catching up and visiting her and her family. This is the northernmost point of my journey. Camille and Michael are a quirky and liberal couple, in a low-key but generally-conservative town. They tell me more west coast folks are moving into the area, so it’s not as redneck as it was 35 years ago when I first visited. In any case, I have to share a local story, and explain the photos above.
Down the street from their house is a park, and a Mormon church. In the park is a twin 40mm Bofors anti-aircraft cannon from World War II. Back in the 1980’s, it was apparently fully operational, and kids could climb on it, crank the wheels and aim it. Perhaps you can guess where this is going. Some kids managed to pour gunpowder down a cannon barrel, along with some big rocks, aim it directly at the church steeple, and fire it. If you look closely at the last photo, you will see masonry repair on the center of the steeple. The town promptly disabled all the cranks, leaving it pointed directly at the church steeple for all eternity. I wonder how the church-goers feel about that? Another legend of the wild west is born.
For two days, we hung out and talked and listened and talked some more. I love these people, and hadn’t seen them in 3 years, since Jen and I traveled up to visit for the solar eclipse of 2017. But I need to return home on October 7th, and so I took off westward on the morning of the 5th to blitz back to California. I drove straight west across vast lava fields, through Craters of the Moon National Monument and past old wagon trails from the mid-1800’s. Crossing the Snake River, I sped across eastern Oregon, through Burns to US 395, then down past Lakeport and Goose Lake towards Lassen.
Now I’m approaching my home turf. I arrive in Susanville just after dark, and complete my 800-mile day by driving west on Highway 36 through Chester to Mill Creek, and my cabin up in the mountains. 14 hours on the road. I’m tired and happy, this has been the long day I knew I would need do in order to get home when promised. After dinner and a couple of margaritas, I’m in my own comfy bed for the night. I have a full day to relax at the cabin tomorrow.
I need to shut the cabin down for the winter, as freezing temperatures are approaching and, at 4900 feet in elevation, the cabin is going to get some feet of snow soon. The squirrels built a nest in storage space upstairs, and I take several hours cleaning it out, throwing away junk I will never use…old faucets and paint, broken children’s toys, ratty blankets. Finally on my last morning, I drain the water heater, pack the perishables from the refrigerator into my insulated bag, drain the plumbing, and lock up. My four-hour drive home is familiar and uneventful, and I’m happy to see Jen after all my private space and time.
Here is the full trip map. 3800 miles, 17 days, no road kills, no mechanical problems or issues of any kind. Obsidian the X5 is a wonderful, spacious and comfortable traveling companion.
I wish I could share something brilliant and conclusive after this trip, but I’m mostly left with a series of impressions and feelings. People are definitely dealing with the virus in very different ways across the different states. Idaho, Wyoming, and Montana are all having serious outbreaks, yet many people still wander around without masks and public opinion is deeply split, almost entirely along political lines. I am puzzled (and a little amused) that medical decisions and political beliefs seem tied together. It’s interesting that the current flavor of American conservatism shows up in both ways. And I was surprised to feel unsafe in some of the places I visited — I fear the Trump supporters, I don’t understand their thinking, and I don’t trust them to behave in compassionate and neighborly ways.
The land looked familiar (from prior trips) yet felt very different to me this time. I’m sure that says more about me than about the land. My last few years of training in energy work have deeply shifted my perception of the world around me, and it was a pleasure to feel the sacredness of places, like Yellowstone and the Tetons, Shiprock, Santa Fe, the Sonoran desert. It was also a bit horrifying to feel places that have been spoiled, altered and/or paved over. I’m getting more used to living in a world of feeling, with much less thought distracting my attention. This is a good thing.
Santa Fe is the easternmost spot on my journey, and from here, I’m heading north and west. Shannon wanted to visit her family ancestral lands near Shiprock, NM, and I was only too happy to tag along. So we packed up and set off in our SUVs, up through Abiquiu, the area where Georgia O’Keeffe created some of her most remarkable art work. Abiquiu is a very small town, and it looks a little dilapidated these days. Still photogenic, though.
I wonder what the Piñon Saloon was like in it’s heyday? Such is my sense of humor, I found the sign on this church’s cross quite amusing. We stopped at Lake Abiquiu for lunch, a spot where Shannon’s family would frequently travel to let the kids loose on a Sunday. The lake is very low, it’s clear the land is experiencing a severe water shortage.
New Mexico Highways 96 and 44 and US 64 wend up into the northwest corner of the state, through Farmington, where Shannon’s grandparents lived. Shiprock is a bit further west, and as we approach the town, an iconic rock peak emerges from the desert.
This looks strangely familiar, even though I’m not aware of driving through this area before. Then it hits me, my family drove to Shiprock when I was 4 years old. It’s an odd story — my father worked for the US Geological Survey, and was assigned to Lee’s Ferry, Arizona in the fall of 1962 to monitor sediment flows in the Colorado River after Glen Canyon Dam was completed. We stayed in a tiny adobe hut there for six weeks, a 2 hour drive from the nearest trading post in the Navajo reservation. One weekend, my dad wanted to drive further on out to see Shiprock, so we not only picked up groceries, we went east perhaps an extra hundred miles. I now remember seeing the strange rock formation, and the surprising dejá-vu experience is rather eerie. Shannon and I drive out across the desert several miles to reach the base of the rock itself.
Shortly after we cross the state line, the open arid desert gives way to more mountains and trees. Why is it that the feeling of the land changes so abruptly when we cross a state line? I’ve seen this over and over in my travels, how the same landscape both feels different and changes quickly. We arrive in Durango in time for dinner, where we meet a mutual friend, and then part company after almost a week together. I find a nice little private motel on the north side of town, and tuck in for the night.
This is the first time I’ve had a chance to explore Durango, so the next morning I’m out walking the downtown area, shopping and tasting some local wines. I chat with the vintner about my desire to head north, and he makes several great suggestions. By early afternoon, I’ve wandered up US 550 through spectacular mountains and aspen forests changing color, into the town of Ouray.
Now THIS is a fun place, quirky, friendly and charming, I find a fine lunch in a saloon with the coolest bar chairs I’ve ever seen, then pick up a few items at the local hardware store. Again, the proprietor is only too happy to fill my ear with suggestions about places to drive and explore, as I’m planning to camp tonight. I just happen to park in front of one of the most interesting buildings I’ve seen. Who is the Ouray Alchemist (note the name in the stonework over the shop)? Did he build this building? And does he live in the space above his shop? The mysteries are unsolved, I have no way to find out as the shop is closed.
I’ve never been to Telluride, home of bluegrass and jazz festivals, and this is a perfect opportunity. Driving up to Ridgway and west through Placerville, I find the one-way-in-and-out road and drive in. As it turns out, Telluride is a lot like Aspen, it’s an expensive commercial oasis full of people from other places. I ask around, and learn that everyone in the shops has come from somewhere else. I also learn that nearly the entire town is owned by one corporation, explaining the feeling of the place. I don’t dawdle, I head back out toward the real parts of Colorado. About 20 miles west of town, before I hit the highway, I turn up one of the forest roads and find a cute little quiet campground while it’s still light. I can even have a campfire. This is Perfect. (FYI, turn south on 57P Road a few miles to the Fall Creek Recreation Site!)
The October 1st morning is freezing cold, though I was completely snug in my sleeping bag and blankets. Both tent and ground are crunchy with frost, and I make coffee quickly. It takes me about ten minutes to pack up, and I am on the road back towards Ridgway and points north. In Olathe, a sign points up a hill toward a winery, and I cannot resist. Wine tasting in the morning could turn into a very bad habit for me, but what the hell, I’m on vacation. Much to my surprise, this small farm makes quite an excellent sauvignon blanc, and a very pleasing rosé, so I buy a few bottles.
Driving on through Montrose. I don’t know what I expected, perhaps the French-is name suggested something exotic, but I’m not particularly impressed. Montrose is a plain little town, with no discernible character. Perhaps I didn’t explore enough (though I did buy a really nice kitchen knife as a gift for my stepsister!) In any case, I head on towards Grand Junction and the Colorado River. The country is getting drier as I drive north, less mountainous and more like the high Rockies in Wyoming. Grand Junction is basically a gigantic train depot with an interstate running through it, so I don’t stop, and take a short eastward zag on I-70 to Rifle. Along the way, I spot a motorcyclist at the side of the road, and stop to lend a hand. He fortunately had just enough cell coverage to call a shop in Grand Junction, so I keep him company until a van arrived to pick him and his bike up. I love to see folks doing long trips on a bike, and he was in the middle of an excursion from the midwest out to the west coast and back.
From Rifle, I choose the back roads up to Rock Spring, Wyoming. This is my nicest afternoon of driving on the whole trip so far. First of all, in the plains near Rio Blanco, I see road signs marking the beginning and end of the Big Sandy National Forest…100 yards apart, bracketing the only tree in sight. Someone has a sense of humor! At Meeker, the highway becomes a dirt road up through the tiny spots of Price Creek, Maybell, and Sunbeam. For well over a hundred miles, I see almost no one, perhaps two pickup trucks, no houses, ranches or trees. But I get spectacular views, lovely mountains, and spot both antelope and grouse near the road. The dirt highway crosses into Wyoming, and after 30 more miles, I see my first signs of civilization since noon.
Just before sunset I drive past a petroleum processing plant, over one last hill, and into Rock Creek. Now this town is spooky. It feels both corporate and Mormon at the same time. The profusion of Trump signs and the complete lack of any visible humans gives no desire to stop, even though the older center of town looks interesting. I drive right through out to I-80, where I find a chain hotel for the night. Much to my surprise, the hotel has a really good Mexican restaurant, full of local Latino families. This feels like home, washing away the weird vibe of the town itself, and I feast on excellent spicy enchiladas.
US 187 goes up towards Jackson, one of my favorite places to visit. The next day I’m out early, and by mid-morning I’m seeing the Grand Tetons in the distance.
As I get closer, I’m feeling the spirit and power of the land more and more, and I’m remembering how special the entire area around Yellowstone park is. Perhaps it’s the geologic hot spot underneath, I don’t know, but the felt sense of the land delights me to my core. When I arrive near the mountains, I see mile after mile of burned forest, and after a few construction delays, land in Jackson for lunch.
Jackson Hole is a hoot. It has a touristy vacation-y vibe, yet the locals are friendly, easy going and fun. There is a mixture of long time residents and visitors, and a sense of humor about it. I wander into a place called the The Local Restaurant and Bar, find a superb lunch, discover a new whiskey, and hang out chatting up the bartender and (indeed) some locals. Before I get too intoxicated, I head back to the trusty X5, and drive over the hills westward to Victor, Idaho for another hotel evening.
If there is one thing I’m learning, it’s that I have to be careful making sweeping generalizations about towns, states or cultures. Small towns everywhere have lots of Trump signs — except Santa Fe, Durango, Ouray, Jackson and Victor. Every place along an interstate is careful about wearing masks, and though I hate the roadside culture next to our superhighways, I also find it safe and reassuring when I’m in Trump country. Places that attract tourists, like Santa Fe and Jackson, require everyone to wear masks everywhere.
I’m also learning that my black SUV is pretty anonymous. I was expecting some crap somewhere about driving a BMW from California, but there has been nary a peep. Until I bought the X5, I hadn’t really noticed how many black SUVs are on the road, and now I feel like a pine cone in a pine forest. I’m enjoying my invisibility.
It has been a beautiful five days of driving, since I left Santa Fe. Southwestern Colorado and the Jackson Hole area are liberal, pretty, warm and friendly. I could live here too.