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.
Day two is chilly, and I am hiding in my snug sleeping bag as dawn breaks. Finally my desire for coffee and a hot soak gets the better of me, and I emerge into the frosty air and fire up the stove. I will say all the smoke makes for pretty sunrises. Even better, my strategy of planting the intake hose underwater in the hot tub paid off, as the temperature is perfect.
Yes, I’m traveling with a digital thermometer.
Breaking camp early, I’m on to Highway 6 down the Long Valley Caldera, site of perhaps the largest volcanic eruption in North America. 7600 centuries ago, the explosion covered the continent in ash as far as the Mississippi River. I head east on 266 up through the mountains past the ancient bristlecone pine forest. Again, no traffic on a road that is occasionally only one lane. I see six cars and trucks in a hundred miles. This is starting to feel like an adventure. Finally!
Today, the desert feels suddenly familiar, as though I never left. The vast stretches along the Nevada border are relaxing and scenic, and the lack of traffic brings a secret feeling of delight and exploration. I stop to check out the ruins of a mining town called Palmetto, then reach US 95 and take it straight down through Las Vegas into Arizona, through Kingman and south to Phoenix. As expected, Arizona is hot, 98 to 104°F most of the afternoon. The X5 is eerily quiet, comfortable and cool. As I expected, the tiny town of Wickenberg is a riot of Trump signs (including one of these!), no one wears masks even though COVID is rampaging through Arizona at the moment. I amuse myself while gassing up by searching for Wickenberg on the inter tubes, and of course, I find The Patriots of Wickenberg first thing. Sigh. As I approach Phoenix, iconic saguaro cacti start appearing, and I’m entering the Sonoran desert of my childhood.
After dining out and a quiet night in a hotel, I’m heading down towards Tucson, to visit my sister at her little paradise out in the middle of the desert. When I was a kid, the only thing out here were Strategic Air Command ICBM bases, with nuclear warheads poised to rain destruction anywhere on the planet. Now decommissioned, there are houses and ranches scattered across this especially-lush and mostly-untouched landscape. I’ll let the photos speak for themselves.
This is the southernmost point of my loop around the west, and I feel happy and nostalgic when I take my leave the next day, crossing parts of central Arizona I haven’t seen since I was a young man. Local roads and US Highway 60 take me northeast, through the Globe, the Salt River valley, and Show Low, another hotbed of Trump signs. There was actually a state-sponsored sign outside of town headlined “Stop the spread of COVID”, then listing four steps you can take with no mention of wearing a mask. It did say to “Cover your mouth when you cough or sneeze”. Yeah, like that will help. No wonder Arizona has one of the highest infection rates in the world right now.
Regardless, the country is beautiful, and my senses are delighted. So is my mind — I was a geophysics major in college.
Emerging into mesa country, I followed US 191 and Highway 61 into New Mexico and Zuni indian lands. 191 is one of my favorite highways, as further south it twists through spectacular canyons and the copper mining town of Morenci on the eastern side of Arizona. It used to be called US 666, until some Christian group raised a ruckus about it, and a hapless government official caved and renamed it.
Now I’m within striking range of my next destination, Santa Fe. The empty road weaves across mesas, around outcrops, through reservation land, and past spectacular cliffs and arches.
Arriving at sunset at our dear friend Shannon’s house, my day of sensory delights is capped by New Mexico’s signature riot of color in the sky. I’m saturated, feeling like my eyeballs need to re-integrate with the rest of my body. It’s completely peaceful and quiet, though I’m only a few blocks away from the central plaza in town. I could live here.
Sheltering in place for 6 months has been good, but it’s time for an exploration. I’m learning that this is a good and necessary part of my soul, both the comfort and security of my home with Jen, and traveling out into the world. We usually do it together…aaaand we (or certainly I) need some time apart. So I’ve concocted a trip, to visit friends and family, in a big circular loop down through the desert to Arizona and New Mexico, and then north to Idaho. I’ve set aside two weeks, and am now spending my first night sitting at a campsite all by myself, with a hot tub, at 6000 feet.
My vehicle this time is a 2013 BMW X5, newly acquired after selling my Mini Cooper and our Jeep Cherokee. The X5 is the most luxurious thing I’ve ever owned, a modern, quiet and capable piece of German engineering, 5000 pounds and 300 horsepower, with leather seats and more convenient widgets than I can comprehend. She is black with tinted windows, a somewhat Darth Vader-like vehicle with tons of room. A friend suggested the name “Obsidian”, which just works. She calls one to competence, just like the mineral, and every meaning and association with the short name “Obi” works for me. I have a trusty companion on this adventure. Jen snapped this photo just before I started today, firewood, camping gear, water, computer…and my favorite hat, jeans, comfy cotton. I will be adventuring in Trump Country, my friends, and I need an anonymous western presence. And…this is pretty essentially me, I’ve always dressed this way, old habits from my Arizona upbringing.
The best laid plans…I was going to take California Highway 4 to 120, then head east across the mountains to Benton Hot Springs. The first part and the end of the day all worked out fine, but I missed the turnoff to 120, and crossed the Sierras on Highway 4. Not a problem, it just means I’ll arrive close to sunset. This is a remarkable cross section of the state: one travels through the delta over levies and bridges, seeing boats on waterways and small institutions offering food, drinks and live bait, interspersed with almond orchards and a few small towns. Then there is a confusing series of onramps, multilane highways and off-ramps that pop you over and through Stockton, back onto twisty two-lane roads east across the valley. More orchards, rolling brown hills with cattle, then Highway 4 takes you into the Sierras. I don’t think I’ve driven it all the way through before. The road is narrow, like 1-1/2 lanes, as it goes through towering Ponderosa pine up and up, into granite reality. There was little traffic, and Doc Watson on the stereo couldn’t alleviate my awareness of quiet and sadness in the land. This year has been tough on all of us, and the loss of Ruth Bader Gisburg and the coming election create a lot of fear and anxiety in almost all of the people I know and love.
Past forest fires have left a lot of scars, and current fires fill the air with haze. I drove through 50 miles of burnt forest. Ebbets and Monitor passes are over 8000 feet high, with stunted trees transitioning to high desert. The usual vast vista was barely visible through the smoke. With no cell coverage, I was relying on the compass (in the rear view mirror, how cool is that?) to assure me I was heading east. Dropping down to US 395, I cruised south from Topaz through Bridgeport, finally reaching Lee Vining and the barely-visible Mono Lake, to rejoin Highway 120 and head east. As I drive south, the smoke gets heavier until the Sierras themselves are hard to see, and the setting sun illuminates dark drifting clouds of smoke everywhere.
I turn east on Highway 120, where the smoke and the smell of burnt forest gets heavier. Finally after cresting a ridge, the air starts to clear as it gets darker after sunset. The last dozen miles to my camp site are a relief, as I can see the landscape again, and breathe normally.
Now I’m nestled into Benton Hot Springs for the night, a new place for me. It’s beautifully quiet, with widely separated campsites mostly populated by couples. I hear a child laughing in the distance, and an infant crying for a bit, while folk talk and laugh and splash in the hot tubs a hundred yards away. Conditions are so dry I can’t use the fire pit, so I dive in to my excessive camping supplies, silently eat dinner and fix a margarita, thoughtful.
So far the trip has been a journey down and in. The air is dry and clear, and the tub is warm enough to use, but not hot. I move the sprinkler that delivers hot water so it’s under the surface, for maximum heating. Crickets provide background music, while a blood-red crescent moon descends over the mountains I can no longer see in the darkness. It feels both good and a little sad to come to extreme stillness after a half day of driving. When I was younger, these adventures always felt exciting at the beginning, with scarcely a thought of what I was leaving behind. Now, I find myself feeling both the separation from home and the pleasure of solitude. One of the benefits of getting older, I guess — we can experience several feelings at the same time. I wonder what lies ahead.
There is an incredible shift happening in our culture, our relationship with the world, and each of us individually. Just on the face of it, this graph from the CDC shows that, in three months, 1 in 170 people in the USA have become infected. The infection rate is still running 25,000 new cases each day, and even starting to trend up again, while states and cities are relaxing the social distancing rules. There will be thousands of new cases each day for many months, and probably a huge second wave in the fall. We are in this for the long-haul, my friends.
This pandemic has killed more US citizens than the Vietnam war and the Korean War put together, soon more than we lost in World War I. By the end of the year, it will almost certainly be a quarter of a million. World wide, cases are still climbing rapidly.
“American exceptionalism” is on its way out the door, dissolving faster than snow in on hot plate. Far from exhibiting global leadership, we have become the location of the biggest devastation from this virus, we have one of the highest infection rates in the world, we have shown the poorest response by encouraging businesses and states to open back up even as the mortality rate is climbing, we are the butt of international jokes, and other countries are sending us aid (thank you!) Of course, our global influence was waning before the virus hit, thanks to the idiot we elected to the presidency, but I digress.
This is a collective ego death. Whoever we thought we were as Americans was mortally wounded by 9/11, and the virus is finishing the job. We have been the biggest consumer of global resources, and now we are the biggest recipients of this pandemic. I can only hope that we emerge from this with more collective humility.
Nearly all of us seem to be reexamining something fundamental about how we live and what we do. If we weren’t already working from home before COVID-19, we are now — and mostly liking it. In my tech-centric circles, we’ve been doing this for years, but now I’m hearing from friends in other careers who are seriously making changes. People who work in schools, or commute to non-profits are giving up their positions or changing their agreements to support work from home.
No one wants to expose themselves or their loved ones to the virus, so airlines, public transit, bars and restaurants, hotels, the cruise industry and international travel will take a long time to recover. No one wants to spend their day in a high-rise with a shared ventilation system, or get on a plane, or go to a movie theater.
Kids are schooling from home, forcing us to spend more time parenting and examining our family values. I have no doubt this is causing a ton of stress, both for kids with less social life, and parents working from home who have to manage their kids full time.
It’s almost like when I was a kid, before cell phones and computers. Games and jigsaw puzzles and books are super popular, kids playing ball in the street, everyone experimenting with baking, arts & crafts, gardening and growing vegetables.
The space we’re creating between each other is allowing us to introspect, and make new choices. With less crowding, less commuting and more time to feel ourselves, we can sort through our obligations and expectations and concepts of who we are, and find what is most meaningful. My partner and I are having some of the deepest conversations of our relationship. I’m
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that we are seeing such an outpouring of political protest right now. Stuck at home and many without jobs, people are looking to find something to make this time meaningful and important. Pushing for political change is one way to do that.
And I’m anticipating an explosion of creativity, new business models, and a new relationships with government and each other that must be coming. Even as our economy and our livelihood collapses and shifts. I can only pray that we can navigate this time without either global or civil war.