mojave adventure

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.

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 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”.

walkabout west, part 4

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.

walkabout west, part 3

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.

walkabout west, part 2

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.

Picacho Peak, looking northwest from my sister’s home
Barrel cactus with fruit

Whimsical cactus and sculpture
A moody sun peering through a Palo Verde tree

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.

Salt River valley
Century plants and veined rock formations
Mesa in northeastern Arizona

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.

walkabout west, part 1

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.

ttitd iv

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This was my fourth year at Burning Man, my first solo trip, and my first art build. Last year at this time, Jen an I were wiped out after nine days on the playa, and the noise and chaos at the end of the week as ten thousand party peeps arrived for the weekend. This year, I left Saturday morning, feeling replete and happy. And really dusty.

This is how we have camped the last couple of times. Actually a photo from 2018, it looked pretty much the same this year, except I was packed in on all sides by other Westys (here is what it looked like in 2015). The popup shade structure is quick and easy, and the shade netting totally helps with wind, privacy and temperature. I added more solar lights this year, so home was easy to find at 3am.

The art project was Purr Pods, by Paige Tascher, one of my campmates. I worked on it with her for 3 months. Three welded steel cats, with LED lighting, illuminated eyes and hearts, and sound transducers and touch sensors. They each had separate personalities, with sounds recorded from Paige’s cat collection. Touching them elicited purring sound and vibration, plus entertaining yowls and mews. The project was a total hit, appearing in a “ten best art pieces” article. Here are some pics of the build, the truck that took them to the playa, and finally a video.

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Paige with a paper-maché form we built, Wes Skinner mounting a heart support bracket, while I zip-tie speaker wiring in place.

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Paige inspecting. She wore that shirt the whole summer while working, and there *may* be enough left for framing.
Right, All electronics packed and strapped in, ready to put on the truck.

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On their way to the playa.

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Saturday, just before the general admission opened. All ready for the week ahead!

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Here they are at night! Check out to see how they actually look and sound!

Alas, I had to miss the final build on the playa. On my way up (via our cabin in Lassen) the water pump blew in Mz Parker. I limped the final 25 miles to the cabin, started tearing the engine down to remove and replace the water pump…

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…and discovered that the water pump (right photo, black thing in the center) body extends underneath the timing belt cover (gray thing on the right). Requiring removal of the exhaust system, exhaust manifold, timing belt cover, belt and sprockets. At that point, I called a tow truck, and found a good shop down in Chico do to the surgery. So instead of arriving on Tuesday, five days early, I didn’t get there until Saturday, just before it opened.

(The three day adventure in Chico was a whole experience of it’s own — I arrived too late to rent a car, hiked most of the way across town to one of the last hotel rooms available, lived out of a small backpack for a couple of days, and finally borrowed a Westy from the shop to go back up to the cabin while they finished the work.)

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Saturday I headed east early, through Chester and Susanville, took my 66-mile dirt road shortcut from Susanville to Gerlach, and arrived midday. The Purr Pods were all set up, so all I could do was set up camp, and pull out several liters of frozen margaritas for my camp mates.

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Art work was fabulous this year. Here is the Shrine of Sympathetic Resonance, made of piano innards and full of sacred geometry. Absolutely beautiful, full of thoughtful feelings and soft sounds.

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The Folly was another wild building full of amusing surprises. It burned at midnight on Friday, and here you can see the fire tornadoes spinning off the huge blaze.

You want to know what it’s like out there in the middle of the night? Here is short video. And more photos.

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Our friend Kelly, who borrowed Jen’s bike and made it look cool.

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The Temple of Direction, an incredible mechanized Pegasus in Center Camp, another view of the Shrine of Sympathetic Resonance, and an interactive light tent that drew lots of visitors.

My eight days were a curious mixture of freedom and loneliness, pleasure and service, with a liberal sprinkling of tequila, music and laughter. It was my first burn without Jen, so most of my experiences were solitary. It always takes me a little time to settle into myself when traveling solo, even surrounded by friends and familiar faces. By my third day, emerging from the Westy at dawn, I realized that it felt like I’d been there for a year. Perhaps our nomadic selves are never far away; I’ve had this feeling on backpacking trips as well.

The serendipity of Burning Man is always astounding — a friend of a friend camped with me in a tent, and somehow I knew when she was driving up, walking right out to greet her, even though I had never met her before and had no idea what kind of car she had. I did a lot of energy work and massage that seemed to be just what was needed, and had many amazing and deep conversations with strangers that illuminated both of us in profound ways. That’s the magic of the playa.

I love VW Bus Camp, and our pop-up village of self-sufficient iconoclasts. Unlike many camps, we have no shared infrastructure or dues (though someone did bring a very artistic shower device for all to use!) We had the Leopard Lounge set up again this year, a place of music, tequila and foot rubs. I spent time there each day, socializing, resting, doing energy work on visitors and soaking up the spontaneity.

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Here is another little video. Eric is playing Johnny Cash, Bingo handing out tequila shots, and a crew of volunteers play percussion and give foot rubs.

By Saturday, I felt complete, so I packed up camp and headed west across the desert at midday. Dusty, happy, unshaven, thoughtful and full of feeling. I will be back next year, this is too good to miss.

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westy guts, part I

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I like fixing things, especially vehicles. So perhaps it’s no surprise that we own a 1985 Volkswagen Westfalia camper, a vehicle known throughout mechanic-dom as a labor of love. “Mz. Parker”, as she is know, is not an unreliable vehicle, she’s simply a self-contained mobile living space with plumbing and electrical issues. Westfalia ownership requires as much inner journey as outer journey — and by inner journey, I mean exploring both her innards, and my own. Why do I enjoy working on her so much? For there seems to be a Law of Westy Conservation:

For every mile traveled, you shall spend either $1 or 1 minute of your time working on your Westfalia.

First, the journey into her innards. Mz Parker carried us well to Burning Man, however, several “issues” became apparent on the trip. The worst was the taillights, which…just went out. Knowing law enforcement at Burning Man, we carefully traveled only by day, and when we were forced to arrive after dark, we sneakily drove internal roads through Black Rock City to avoid the overabundance of Nevada sheriffs patrolling the outer road. They are well known for pulling you over for any slight infraction, and inspecting your vehicle with dog-sniffing exhaustive thoroughness.

There’s more. At freeway speeds, she started misfiring at full throttle, and would lose fuel pressure (thank you, extra gauges!) Plus, the left speaker went out, there is a constant buzzing in the rear speakers, the heater fan blows a fuse whenever we try to use it, and part of the dashboard illumination isn’t.

ScreenShot2018-09-27at1.32.09PM-2018-09-30-15-22.pngGiven our experience with her, it’s remarkable that the German’s ever figured out how to make reliable vehicles. Granted, this particular 33-year-old has been bastardized by several generations of prior owners. For the fuel problem, I did a full day of research, sighed at the results, then ordered a pile of parts which will arrive tomorrow (I’ll write about that adventure in Part II). Meanwhile, I’m googling wiring diagrams, and indeed, some kind soul has posted them.

The reality of the dashboard is nothing like this neat diagram, as shown in the top photo. After two hours, I have:

  • mostly disassembled the dashboard
  • performed surgery to remove 20 pounds of unneeded electronics
  • found and fixed the cause of the speaker outage
  • found the source of noise in the rear speakers, they run by the fuel pump, harder to fix
  • found and fixed a broken connection to the driving lights, disassemblling the front grill & dropping the spare tire to get under the car
  • become certain I need to replace the heater fan
  • come nowhere closer to figuring out the taillight problem

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The surgical extraction was interesting. Our Westy came with a DVD player mounted in the roof of the cabin, apparently wired into the stereo to provide four-way sound. In 1998, this was a pretty cool thing, but these days, it’s about as handy as kerosene running lights. The amount of electrical plumbing was astounding, so I decided to simplify our lives before proceeding deeper into the tangle of smoke-filled wiring. One DVD player, THREE control boxes and about ten yards of cable later, the DVDectomy is complete. By the way, we never could get the thing to work in the first place.

The heater fan replacement will require me to completely disassemble the dashboard, and remove the heater box. There is a great YouTube video by a professional mechanic, where he does the entire removal in 40 minutes. It’s gonna take me longer. This is a Serious Operation, so I’m putting it off for the moment…and ordering a replacement fan.

 

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Having no other option for the tail light problem, I did what I probably should have done first, and took the tail lights apart. Eureka! I mean, Ick! Cracks in the lens let in water, there is a ton of corrosion in the light sockets, and sure enough, both tail lights had bad connections. One of them was so rusted into place I had to remove the bulb in pieces with penetrating oil and pliers, just to find the socket was irreparable. Off to Ebay, to buy a used replacement. In fact, I’m getting all new parts and bulbs. And super-bright LED backup bulbs, which should make it a lot easier to back into a camp site. And LED headlights. The technology has come a long way since 1985. Of course, so have I 🙂

Or have I? Ah, the other inner journey…why do i think this is fun and fulfilling? There is a clue in how I feel about different vehicles. When I was young and limitlessly enthusiastic, I owned Austin Healy Sprites, and did everything for them — frequent carburetor adjustment, electrical repairs, an engine rebuild — with joy and abandon. These tiny sports cars represented fun and freedom, and I gleefully went on trips all over California with a backpack full of camping gear stuffed behind the seats (and 50 lbs of tools and parts in the trunk!) Working on other cars isn’t the same, they are transportation with character, not quite the same projection screen as my early adventure-mobiles. To be honest, our 2001 Jeep Cherokee is a pleasure to maintain, as it is a tough, solid, go-anywhere truck, both comfortable and reliable. But the Westy (and my motorcycles) get most of my attention, and now I know why.

A Westfalia is one of the smallest self-contained living spaces in existence, and it’s mobile. I have friends from our Burning Man camp who travel for weeks and months and even years in their Westy, in some mystical symbiotic relationship. I love being able to take off in Mz. Parker, with Jen or solo, ready to eat and sleep in comfort pretty much anywhere we end up. The thrills of variety and exploration truly nourish my soul.

Motorcycles do it too, as I went on many long trips on my BMWs, with full camping gear, all over the US in my 30’s and 40’s. Since damaging my wrist by logging far too much time on computers, I haven’t been able to spend long days in the saddle like I used to. However, I can now see travel and adventure are a theme in my life, and I’ve always found ways to explore new places.

Mz. Parker is the latest vehicle for exploration. So it’s not all about “fixing things” for me. It’s about enabling the journey. I love working on vehicles I have adventures in. Good to know. I have some vehicles to get rid of. Why not just focus on what I love?

60 autumns

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I’ve recently turned 60, no longer working for companies, and getting used to all this freedom to do exactly what I want. It’s a little disconcerting how often I look for ‘what I should be doing’. What do I truly enjoy, what feels fulfilling? And why did I wait so many years before seriously asking myself these questions?

I actually quit working two years ago, but it’s taken time for me to fully realize that I’m free at all times to do what I wish. There was never a ‘decision to retire’, it just sort of crept in, a more body-based and receptive process. My mind may be wrestling with all this freedom, but my heart and body revel in it. Once upon a time, I believed (like most in our culture) that my intelligence, consciousness and awareness are mental, however I now realize that my mind is just a part of who I am, and it often gets in the way of true awareness and fulfillment.

My professional ego — the part of me that identifies as a software architect — is dissolving, leaving enormous room for new things. I don’t miss the grueling software projects, the countless meetings, the long hours, or having to read continuously to keep up with technologies. Now I get to read what I want, do what I want, learn what I want. My curiosity has become my guide, allowing me to study energy work, plant medicines, and corners of natural sciences I’ve neglected for decades. Jen and I helped build our camp at Burning Man this year, and early arrival gave us much more time to visit our friends and neighboring camps — without being on a tight schedule defined by vacation days. We also got to spend 9 days on the Playa, in our very cozy and cool campsite.

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What could we call this stage of our lives? Some of us find this internal freedom much younger than I. Retirement is an outdated concept. Our culture has no modern model for maturity, or we are just starting to create one.

I am not bored. Oh, no! Projects surface regularly. For example, since 1993, I’ve been one of the administrators of ibmwr.org, an amazing repository of BMW motorcycle knowledge. The email lists support thousands of BMW bike fans all over the world, there are 200 tech articles — and I don’t know how many trip reports — scattered on this site. It’s a nexus of BMW motorcycle geekdom. The original site was pure HTML, a monument to the early days of the internet, and an incredible maintenance headache. I recently spent six weeks rebuilding it in WordPress. I took on the project almost by reflex, and somewhere along the way, realized that I loved creating the new site. Compared to what I did for a living, the work was dead easy. My pleasure is in the results and the service to a huge community, not the mental process and problem solving along the way. What a deep shift.

Really, I feel like I’ve returned to my early 20’s, when I had far less sense of who I am. I’m planning more travel, and I’m enjoying taking care of our home and it’s half-acre of oak forest, the cabin near Lassen National Park (where I’ve been hanging out for a few days), and our various vehicles. I remember the thrill of rebuilding my first engine, and now cheerfully refurbish the fuel and electrical systems on our 1985 Westfalia camper. My enthusiasm for all things mechanical is returning. Plus it makes more sense for me to do vehicle maintenance than pay someone else to do it 🙂 This photo from a road trip in my youth really captures how I feel.

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The best part is, I rarely need to hurry. And I have much more time to notice the small things that make life so rich. Stacking an oak wood pile at Lassen, I notice the glistening beauty of sap on a nearby tree.

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This expansion takes many forms, including casual exploration in the moment. A huge resounding BOOM shatters the quiet. Our neighbor’s small cabin carries hidden drama. Check out the tree behind the cabin, a massive sugar pine. Now notice the foot-long pine cones in the second photo. Can you imagine being inside this cabin when one hits the metal roof? I nearly jumped out of my skin, though I was a hundred yards away. A second look at the roof, and I see a hundred big dents. Glad I don’t live there!

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After all my wood pile work, there is a ton of bark and slash to burn off in the campfire circle. And I smile at the irony of:

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My days have a richness I have seldom experienced before. There are more new places, and more time in nature ahead, I can feel it. I wish our language had a word for this transformation.

reboot

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I’m just home from a ten-day retreat, trying to comprehend fundamental changes in my being. The short story is: I’m eight pounds lighter, my taste in food has changed, I eat differently now, my sense of smell has gotten better, I’m sleeping solidly and I’m fully rested after seven hours. I’m really liking my new life. I’ve been rebooted.

How this happened…I blame my friend Karla, who has been an incredible body worker and source of kindness in my life for many years. Karla’s dream has been to create a retreat center, and not only support our mutual buddhist practices, but create a place where people can make fundamental healthy changes in their lives. Over the last two years, she has created the Alive Retreats experience, and held her first retreat starting April 30th at the Leonard Lake Retreat Center, near Ukiah, California. We’ve just emerged back into our normal outer lives, realizing that the impact of the ten days runs very deep indeed.

Basically, we ate a lot of green food, most of it raw, all vegetarian and alkalizing. At first, I was less than enthusiastic, but my trust (and Jen’s enthusiasm) carried me along. After a couple of days, I realized that I liked most of what I was eating, and I was discovering a whole new world of delicious salads and dressings that did not contain vinegar or oil. No caffeine, no dairy, no sugar, little fruit, no bread or flour…it was much easier than I expected. Energy Soup is now a staple in my diet — really one of my favorite things to eat! — and is quite easy to make. Just throw the following stuff into a blender:

  1. 1 carrot, washed, not peeled
  2. 1 avocado, minus the pit and skin
  3. 1 tbsp miso
  4. ¼ onion or 1 green onion
  5. 1 clove garlic
  6. ½ cup fresh parsley
  7. ¼ cup lentil spouts or pea shoots
  8. 1 cup fresh basil leaves
  9. 1 wedge meyer lemon, including the skin
  10. 2 tbsp dulce or other seaweed
  11. 1 tbsp of flax oil
  12. Additional herbs and spices of choice, oregano, basil, cilantro, etc.
  13. 1 to 2 cups water, sufficient to blend
  14. Serve with a sprinkling of sunflower and/or pumpkin seeds

We also learned how to prepare most of the food we were having. Many things, like salad dressings and soups, come right out of a blender. We learned how to sprout seeds and beans, ferment vegetables (for those of you who like sauerkraut, it’s a cinch), make juices and teas. Hummus and raw seed crackers were big favorites, along with the afternoon juice breaks and banana ice cream one night.

The location was a stunning place in the redwoods, with a big freshwater lake, canoes and kayaks, miles of trails, well-maintained houses, and a wood-fired sauna. In early May, we had some rare orchids and many wildflowers, plus beautiful weather. Here are some photos…the lake, a calypso orchid, and Jen holding up some trees.

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The sacred learning is this: I used to eat until I felt full, now I eat until I feet nourished. This is a really big deal, as my whole relationship with my body has changed. I don’t think I had any idea what it felt like to be well-nourished. Now my body has a new voice, I am unlearning a lifetime of eating habits and working my way down to a more healthy weight. I’m excited to finally have a way to do this!

There are two more retreats planned this year, a five-day experience this summer and another ten-day one in the fall. If you are ready for a change, I highly recommend it!

chöd

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A short section of the trail to Machik Labdrön’s cave

The very first teaching of Buddhism is that misery is caused by attachment. No wonder that so much of the dharma and practices look at attachment, and no attachment is stronger than the one to our body.

To really feel this, let me explain the somewhat-confusing picture you are seeing. This is a rock about a foot wide, several feet in front of me. The trees and houses to the left of the rock are about a half-kilometer away, 800 feet below. For scale, you can see the tip of my boot at the bottom of the photo. I am on a trail in the Haa Valley of Bhutan, on the side of a cliff. My right shoulder is against the cliff, my hand in a crevice. The trail goes over the rock, and continues past tiny herbs and a small bush in the upper right about six feet away.

If you can sink in to the sensation of standing against this sheer rock face on a trail about a foot wide, then you are probably experiencing attachment to your body. I was, quite frankly, terrified as I carefully placed my feet and hands, yet not paralyzed. I was able feel both the fear and my body, yet move calmly on the wet, muddy trail. This is Meditation Boot Camp, no hemming-and-hawing, no choice; one must bring body and mind smoothly together to traverse nearly a kilometer of cliff.

Hold that feeling. Death inches away, calm, trusting.

Chöd is a profound Tibetan Buddhist practice, where one offers up one’s own body (and all other demons and ‘neuroses’) joyously. A Google search will turn up plenty of information, starting with this Wikipedia article. A few days ago, I had the pleasure of sitting in a Chöd ceremony here in Bhutan. If you have a Facebook account, you can see a video of part of it here, and get a sense of the beautiful ritual that brings the experience to life.

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The practice of Chöd was transmitted to an enlightened and revered 11th-century woman named Machik Labdrön, and so my story comes home. The trail I’m on leads from Juney Druk, a cave she stayed in, to Katsho Goemba, a nearby monastery. Having experienced Chöd practice before, imagining I know something about attachment to my body, I am shocked into new awareness on this trail Machik must have traversed many times.

Our 11-year-old guide, a monk from the monastery, apparently runs this trail frequently, nimble and carefree as a mountain goat. He laughs and smiles, points out sections that are especially dangerous and delicious little orange berries we can pluck as we go, and patiently sits and waits as we carefully make our way. I believe he is the most advanced Chöd practitioner I have ever met, knowing something in his young body that I can scarcely remember. What would it feel like to be as unattached as he? Was I really once like that? I have so much to unlearn, to unattach from.