Tom Childers

Nov 092023
 

We first met in early December 2004. He and his brother were 2-month-old kittens at the Marin Humane Society. I was separated from my first wife, living alone in a 2-bedroom house in Terra Linda and trying to make it feel like home. Nancy Jones was moving in with me, and we spontaneously visited the humane society and took matching black kittens home. Being the nerd that I am, I named them Edwin P. Hubble and Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, two famous astronomers. As an aside, Chandrasekhar was famous for theoretical physics work with black holes, and another famous astronomer named Schwartzchild computed the event horizon radius for black holes. So Jen and I have ironically nicknamed him “Schwartzchild” in honor of his solid black presence πŸ™‚

Hubble and Chandra quickly endeared themselves, destroying Christmas ornaments, climbing the Christmas tree, curtains, screen doors… They were companions through divorce, creation of new relationship, remarriage, buying land and building a house. We moved to Novato, then San Rafael while the house was under construction, then moved here in 2008. In 2011, we lost Chandra to kidney disease, my mother’s 14-year-old German Shepherd to cancer, and then Nancy to leukemia complications. When all the dust settled, my household went from five down to just the two of us.

My house has always had Hubble in it. Hubble was in the space as Jen and I created our relationship, and when she moved in with me seven years ago. His quirky presence and siamese-like voice have been in my life through so much change and evolution that I hardly remember who I was before he moved in.

Two years ago, he was losing weight and drinking a ton of water. Our vet confirmed my fears, he had some kind of abdominal cancer, and only 15% of his kidney function. So we shifted his diet a bit, and started giving him a dropper of CBD each day. It worked so well that he became a stoner cat, plaintively meowing for the CBD and licking it straight from the dropper. He’s gradually wanted more and more of it, so the daily ritual became every four hours, then three, and finally two. We went from cat-strength to dog-strength, until he was finally consuming about 25mg of CBD a day. His weight stabilized, and our miracle cure seemed to keep him happy and comfortable, even though he became less steady on his feet, and began looking rather gaunt. I knew I was going to need to put him to sleep sooner or later, and I asked him to let us know when he was ready to go. And I told him every day that I loved him.

Alas, his failing health became more evident a couple of months ago, and I could feel the end coming soon. This photo was taken by a friend in early September. This is a cat in pain.

It all became clear Saturday night, when he started throwing up and yowling at 2am. More CBD helped, he settled down for a couple of hours, and it all happened again at 4:30. I contacted my vet on Sunday via email, and we confirmed a time for her to come on Monday. Sunday night was a repeat of Saturday, and there was no doubt in our minds that it was time to let him go.

The end was lovely and gentle, as Dr. Rose gave him progressive medication, I held him in my lap, and Jen bore witness.

Now I am getting used to life without him. It’s strange, and strangely quiet. His spirit visits on occasion; I awoke Tuesday morning feeling him sprawled on top of me, purring away. When Jen is gone, and I’m alone in the house, it feels quite different. We all miss him, not only Jen and I, but the house and the land as well. One of the longest relationships of my life is coming to an end.

Sep 092023
 

This is kind of a eulogy.

One of my favorite parts of Burning Man has always been a little camp-within-our-camp, created by a manic bunch of guys from southern California. VW Bus Camp doesn’t have much shared infrastructure, but many of us will get early-access permits just so we can help build the Leopard Lounge. This has been going on for about ten years.

So, this trailer shows up on Saturday before the event opens, and in about four hours, a dozen volunteers carpet a big chunk of playa, put up a dozen pop-up shade structures, pound rebar into the ground and strap it all down. Then rolls of bamboo partitions are zip-tied to make walls, plastic palm trees are rolled out, the bar is assembled, lounge chairs and couches spread out, and sound equipment set up. The result is a fabulous pop-up place with live music, tequila shots, foot rubs and rooms for massage and energy work. We all donate tequila, foot massages, bartending, and musical skills to make it happen.

Here is a little snippet from 2019, a chill afternoon on a hot dusty day. Eric drives the live music, usually from keyboards, while Bingo and Sean tend bar and a bunch of folks are getting foot care.

Click to watch the show, and please forgive my crappy video skills!

This year was special, as we had some fabulous musicians drop in on Friday. A fellow from Ecuador named Louder picked up the guitar, and a classical pianist named Pink Tea started singing and playing keyboards and drums. One of our camp mates sang, drummed, and pulled out his box of harmonicas. Another added scatty backup vocals. The place was in full swing when the rain started, and the show ripped on into the evening as the playa got muddy and folks sheltered in place. The guitar had to stop around 6pm when the ground got so wet that players were getting shocked.

Here are links to movies I shot. It was one of my best afternoons ever on the playa. (Right-click to download).

Alas, an era of our camp is ending, as Eric decided that this was the last appearance of the Leopard Lounge. Perhaps it was the double rainbow that appeared at sunset, I heard Eric say that there was one the first year that they brought the Lounge to the playa. Perhaps it was the reality of dealing with so much mud. Regardless, as the lounge was disassembled the next day, the crew gave away carpets and fake plants. Bamboo partitions were torn apart, and soon hundreds of people in our part of Black Rock City were making their way through muddy streets with bamboo walking sticks. We’re starting to talk about what we might do next year, perhaps creating a bar.

So, I’ll miss you Leopard Lounge, and the magic you made. Eric, Art, Mike, Mark, Solo and the others, thank you for bringing this to our camp for so many years. Bingo, Sean, Tater, Sherrie, Dave, Martyna, Busboy Bob, Donna Lee, Dawn & Teco, Shannon, JC and everyone else who helped make this happen…I so appreciate how you all showed up.

I’m really gonna miss the lounge.

Sep 072023
 

Welcome home.

That’s what the greeters say when you finally get to the gate, and it feels true. For the sixth time, I was back to That Thing In The Desert. Again our trusty Westy, Mojave, has carried us without problems from home to Lassen (where we store our Burning Man gear), and then across the Nevada desert on dirt highways to arrive early on Friday. Jen came along for the first time since 2018, her seventh burn, and we cheerfully and easily set up our camp, complete with so much aluminet that someone referred to our camp as “The Tiara”. We were tucked in right at 4 & E, across the street from the Alternate Energy Zone tower. Here we are the first night, celebrating with vino.

Arriving early let us enjoy a quiet Black Rock City, even as traffic picked up on Saturday, with camp construction noises all around. The Leopard Lounge showed up midday, nearly everyone pitched in for set up, and was rolling with live music and tequila by evening. Our camp filled over the next two days, as dozens of VW buses came in. A core group brought shade structure pieces, and assembled Rosie’s Retreat, a large common space where we had events all week And we had a somewhat international crew this year, with a neighbors from Poland, Oz, Sierra Leon, and a couple from Beijing. (Zhen generously shared some of his photos with me, which are mixed in below).

Clearly, Jen is having a good time, and so am I! The activities at Rosie’s Retreat include some great presentations on olive oil and wine, Bus Camp history, plant enthogenics, Mother’s High Tea, and the annual tie-dye event, which was very well attended.

And then of course, there is the artwork on the playa, my favorite part.

This was my second year as a Ranger, and I ended up doing four shifts. The high point was helping two folks in the Ranger Sanctuary (a protected quiet place) re-locate to new camps. And helping a nearby camp handle a medical emergency when someone got very dehydrated.

Of course, everything changed on Friday afternoon, as rain started to fall and the playa mud got too deep for walking. The Leopard Lounge had an exceptional afternoon with a variety of guest performers, until the damp made it impossible to play. We sacked out early, and awoke Saturday to a muddy wonderland. Our plans for a Saturday departure were trashed, the gates were closed and it was impossible to move except by walking barefoot, or with plastic bags or socks on your feet. Anything else accumulated so much mud (boots, bikes, etc.) that you became stuck in place.

Life in Bus Camp continued in a pretty normal way through the muddy weekend, with two exceptions. First, we ran out of tequila (although someone came by and gifted us a bottle on Monday πŸ™‚ The second was more serious — the mud made it impossible to service the porta potties, and we all had to adapt. Fortunately, someone in the neighborhood put signs on the porta potties telling people to pee in bottles, so the porta potties wouldn’t get filled up…and that worked perfectly. Our part of the city never had a problem. And we had ample empty water bottles (and a 5-gallon bucket for emergencies, which we never needed).

One of the other Rangers in camp had a radio, so I called in and went on duty. The AEZ tower next door became an info hub, as they had free wifi, so I hung out around there. Dozens of folks came by asking about the weather, exodus, the Man burn, and I shared what I knew from other Rangers.

As the mud started to dry, walking became easier. Sunday morning we got out to see more artwork, and and found some of it was already being disassembled. But the skies were spectacular.

Then of course it rained again, but lightly. We could see how quickly everything was drying out, and Monday afternoon we packed up our camp in preparation for departure. The exodus was in full swing, we saw plenty of folks leaving. At about 12:40, planes started landing at the airport, so clearly the runway had become usable again. And there was a steady flow of aircraft all afternoon as some of the wealthier attendees got out of dodge.

We stayed for the Man burn Monday night. Rather than join the madness, we found a nice spot on the playa a half-mile away, next to a parked vehicle. We hung out for an hour, watching the fireworks and activities until finally the Man became a huge fireball. Spectacular, as always.

We arose Tuesday at 5am to load up the van, and headed out at sunrise. Our exodus was easy, as it took 2 hours to reach the gate. The drive back to Lassen was uneventful. Even cleanup was relatively easy, as we had far less dust than other years. We did have a very muddy carpet, and won’t be bringing that to the playa again. And our new shade canopy was a resounding success, making set up and tear down a lot easier.

So, it was the wettest year ever. I feel happy I got to participate. It was the last year of the Leopard Lounge, and our camp will feel different next year without it. As always, I wonder what I missed — there is too much going on to catch more than a tiny fraction. But I loved the art work, being a Ranger, and making our camp delightful regardless of the weather. Every time we come here we get better at it.

Next time, we’ll bring extra tequila!

fire break

 Landscaping  Comments Off on fire break
Nov 222022
 

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 β€” 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.

Piles of branches and scotch broom across the street, ready for the chipper

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.

About ten piles burning behind the houses to the north of us
…and a few more behind our neighbor to the south.
A little movie panorama of the action

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!

ttitd v

 Burning Man, Geek, Reflection, Travel  Comments Off on ttitd v
Sep 252022
 
First view of Black Rock City this year. Foreshadowing…

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.

Ranger HQ, 6:15 & Esplanade, looking out on the inner playa on Sunday morning. Lots of kilts. Rangers are easy to recognize by their hats, and the pervasive use of khaki, which is the color of the dust. And they carry radios.

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.

The hexayurt formed a neat stack on the roof rack
Front of the yurt, a VW bus likeness
All packed with the yurt and all my gear in Lassen, ready to head for the playa

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.

Fully loaded, not yet dusty

It’s four hours from my cabin to BRC. The gate takes a couple of hours, and then I’m in!

Nevada has highway signs on their dirt roads
Big dust plume in the mirror
Heading north past another dry lake southwest of Gerlach
First sight of dusty Black Rock City

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.

BRC outskits on Friday
…so my place is expanded with tents, bikes and parked cars
Setup complete. This year, I have guests camping with me…
Hooray for shade on a hot afternoon πŸ™‚

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.

Ranger HQ early Sunday morning
May be an image of one or more people, people standing and outdoors
A bunch of Rangers going on duty. Photo by Stephanie Gale
Going on shift, complete with radio. Still haven’t figured out where to hang this thing.
My Ranger shift buddy, engaging with the artwork. We always travel in pairs.

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.

Annie (a camp mate) cleaning the dust off her VW before an early departure. Electric leaf blower, what a great idea!
Tuesday sunrise, after sleeping a few hours on all the stuff inside the Westy
Dust devil as people leave and open space reappears
Monday afternoon exodus
Driving back to California on 120 miles of dirt roads, with a stop on the Nobles Emigrant trail to check out a cave

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.

defecting from bimmer world

 Geek, Travel  Comments Off on defecting from bimmer world
Jul 052022
 
Does Honda take design cues from nature?

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.

Aug 202021
 
Fire crews and activity around Mill Creek a day and a half ago

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…

X5, station wagon and trailer fully loaded

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.

Dixie fire pyro cumulus clouds from Winters, CA, 150 miles away

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 β€” 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

August 17th, everything north of us is burning
August 18th, the fire is moving south towards us
August 19th, fire moves south and west on the plateau, just across the creek from the cabins
This morning, the wind shifts and the nearby fire is burning itself out

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.

mojave returns

 Uncategorized  Comments Off on mojave returns
Jul 082021
 
Rebuilt high-compression, 2-liter motor from South Africa

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 πŸ™‚ 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!

Exhaust system with the cracked and protruding parts cut out
Skillful fabrication of the free-flow system
May 112021
 

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. 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.

Broken crank pulley bolt. But why did it break?

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.

Loading up in San Diego
Ready for transport!
Unloading in Victorville

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 out 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 now calling her “Mojave”.

Jan 072021
 
It’s not every day that one wakes up to newspaper titles like this (the Washington Post, Jan 7, 2021): 
Schumer calls for Trump to be removed or impeached after pro-Trump mob storms U.S. Capitol

A visual reconstruction of how pro-Trump insurrectionists broke into the U.S. Capitol

Congress affirms Biden’s presidential win following riot

U.S. records its deadliest day of the pandemic while eyes fixed on Washington

Trump caused the assault on the Capitol. He must be removed.

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.

However.

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.

The rats are fleeing the ship. Trump’s administration is losing cabinet members and senior staff at an epic rate. Even the National Association of Manufacturers (a very conservative group representing 14,000 companies) is calling for the removal of the president under the 25th Amendment.

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.

My heart is full of hope today.