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Fall 2018 Part 4: Bittersweet Journey Home

Saturday, November 17th, 2018: Fall Trip 2018, Trips.

The Discoverer’s Duty

As I dove into the smog-choked Las Vegas basin, my trip entered its final phase. As usual, I’d used up much of the day checking out the last prehistoric site. My intention had been to drive through Vegas at mid-day, stock up on supplies for desert camping, and hit the road again at mid-afternoon with plenty of time to find a camp site in a familiar part of the Mojave. Instead, the sun was setting as I pulled into the Whole Foods parking lot in the upscale shopping mall and tucked my old, mud-splattered truck between the sparkling luxury SUVs and sports cars of the suburbanites.

I’d spent more than a week far from cities and industrial civilization, immersed in nature, walking through ancient campsites, surrounded by the art, the writings, and the ghosts of the Old Ones who’d lived lightly and sustainably on this beautiful desert land. Now I was suffering the usual shock of returning to civilization: the stressed-out crowds milling through a generic and completely artificial environment, competing against each other in their conspicuous consumption of the ravaged earth’s bounty. I tried to stay calm but failed.

It was dark by the time I emerged with my purchases. It’d been a long day, my crippled arm was sore from driving, and my only practical option at this point was to head for the cheap motel I knew in nearby Boulder City. My cooler still needed block ice, which is becoming increasingly harder to find, but I found it in the Boulder City Albertson’s, and as stressed as I was, while leaning over to rearrange my ice chest in the bed of the truck, I forgot to bend at the knees, and triggered my always-lurking lower back pain.

The whole trip so far had entailed a lonely struggle to keep my various sources of chronic pain at bay, while many of the routine chores of traveling – driving, reaching, turning, bending, lifting – threatened to cripple me. This is what I’d tried and failed to explain to my doctor before leaving: we never know when this kind of pain is going to be triggered by something, and when it is, if we don’t get immediate relief, we’re going to be crippled and our plans waylaid. Fortunately, I still had a dwindling stash of the emergency meds that are getting harder and harder to refill, as our Puritanical society wages war against doctors, pain sufferers, and legitimate pain relief.

Would I be able to continue with my trip, or would the pain sabotage my plans? I was really looking forward to finally camping out with friends in the familiar, welcoming environment of the Mojave Desert. But with the pain threatening me in the background, I had one more duty to fulfill before joining them.

In Part 3 I mentioned the ranching families who’d collected artifacts from their land and put them on display in the local museum. It was actually apparent from the displays that these collections were only on loan – the families still considered these relics of the people they’d displaced as their private property. Like all of my family and friends, I was raised in a society that is confident in its superiority over indigenous peoples and its right to virtually everything those natives once used or created.

As a child, I inherited a handful of arrowheads that my Dad discovered or was given by his elders back east. Everyone took for granted that anything you discovered was your property. Decades later, Katie and I went crazy when we started to find potsherds and stone tools around our desert cave. She was already beginning to collect historical artifacts and dead bushes to assemble into art back in the city. This was even better. We never gave a second thought to collecting parts of the landscape that others had left behind.

But now, more decades later, like most of my camper friends, I had a small collection of artifacts that I’d dragged around from home to home and that mostly spent their time hidden away in boxes. I had no one to leave them to, and I figured that when I died, some rushed, stressed-out acquaintance would probably end up tossing them in the trash without even looking at them. Unlike the Mormon families, I didn’t believe finding and collecting them made them my “property” – even if I’d found them on land I owned – because I don’t really believe in land ownership in our Eurocentric, legal, capitalistic sense.

There are a couple of sanctioned dispositions available for prehistoric relics in our society: transfer to science (archaeology), or repatriation to tribes. I’d kept pretty good track of where these – mostly potsherds – had come from, but after what I’d learned on this and previous trips, I’d lost faith in archaeologists, and I was really confused about what, if any, contemporary tribes had jurisdiction over the source of my collection.

My ultimate conclusion was that every generation needs the experience of discovery that I and my friends had had, the realization that people actually lived off the land and created things here that were both beautiful and functional, in this exotic place we initially treat only as a recreational playground. The best place for artifacts is where we find them, not in a private collection or even in a museum. My hope is that by returning these pieces where they came from, I can help launch someone else on the path I’ve followed, through the veil of civilized illusion to a clearer view of humans in nature.

Nuwuvi Desert

Returning those artifacts was one of the strangest experiences I’ve ever had. When we’d found them, more than 30 years ago, we were camping a quarter mile or so off a lonely dirt road, after parking our vehicle on a dirt trail under a telephone line alongside the road. Now, the road is paved, it’s the main highway through a National Preserve, and where we parked our vehicle is a big, paved parking lot with a sign proclaiming “Scenic Overlook.” Whereas we used to wait a half hour or more between passing vehicles on that road, there’s now continual high-speed traffic, and almost always tourists parked there.

A cold wind was blowing – there was a high wind advisory across the desert for the next 24 hours – and in order to pull on my jacket and load my backpack, I had to squeeze between the open doors of other vehicles and the bodies of milling tourists, in this place that had once been so remote and lonely. I could feel them staring at me as I dropped over the edge of the parking lot and headed down into the desert alone. They soon left, and others arrived, as I revisited our cave and the spots where we’d found these creations of the old Indians, always aware of the strangers’ curious eyes aimed at me from a distance. It was a bittersweet visit, but it also felt like a circle was beginning to close. Now, my only future duty here would be to remove the furnishings of our cave, and it would be ready for someone else.

Now that I was in the National Preserve, the revelations of my journey through Southern Paiute territory were constantly on my mind. Until now, I’d taken the name “Mojave Desert” for granted – I’d even defended it against the Anglicized version “Mohave” used in Arizona. But the name had taken a more sinister dimension after I discovered that my sometime friend, the Park Service archaeologist, had ensured that signage and kiosks in the National Preserve identified only the Mojave Indians as natives of this desert, completely erasing the Indians I knew to be its historical inhabitants, the Chemehuevi branch of the Southern Paiutes. He was following the archaeological consensus that the Southern Paiutes were a violent, invasive group that forced the Mojaves out of the desert a few hundred years ago. And maybe he’d made friends in the Colorado River-based Mojave tribe, and was also playing favorites. But my journeys, as well as my recent anthropological readings, had revealed a contradictory story. Now I was primed to reject the very name of my beloved desert.

The name Mojave is a Spanish corruption of “Aha Macav,” the Mojaves’ name for themselves. Nuwuvi is what the Southern Paiute call themselves, and I now feel we should call it the Nuwuvi Desert, for the peaceful people who tell us they’ve always lived there, the people whose entire prehistory reveals a consummate adaptation to challenging arid habitats.

With that in mind, I headed home to my land in the Nuwuvi Desert. As the Chemehuevi say, “kaiyani” – my mountains.

Bittersweet Homecoming

When I discovered this mountain range, it was the remote, hidden oases I was attracted to. Scattered all over the range, a few miles apart, were isolated spots where water seeped out of the rocks and filled small basins that I, my friends, and our wild animal companions could drink from. These springs and seeps were sacred places. And now, after years of severe drought, they were drying out, one by one. The fracture zones that stored rainwater within the mountains were empty, and who knew when they’d ever be replenished? Our vaunted science is brought to its knees by the Great Mysteries, but many scientists, in their ignorance of the broader context, continue to aid industry in its unsustainable capitalist exploitation of resources we’ll never fully understand. A prominent geologist, a friend of a friend, is one of the founders of the controversial water project which aims to privatize the aquifer below our land and sell it to the city of Los Angeles.

One accidental theme of this visit consisted of revisiting places within a few miles of camp that I hadn’t seen in decades. Nooks and crannies I’d explored more than 20 years ago after first acquiring this land, but had avoided since, for whatever reason. And in every place we visited, I was, as usual, awed by the resilience of life in an environment that seems so parched and challenging to us weak, enervated domestic creatures.

At one point, returning from a hike, a couple miles from camp, I stopped to get something out of my pack. I took it off, set it on the ground and got what I needed, but when I tried to lift it to put it back on, I felt the old stabbing pain again, the one that can break out a sweat, stop me in my tracks and make virtually everything painful for the next week or so. Fortunately I caught this one early enough, but I still had to be super-mindful and careful for the rest of the day. The new normal.

Outdoor Life

The high winds came and went, and returned four days later, in the cycle I remember from winters past. Wind so strong, in this landscape of mountains surrounded by vast basins, that you had to lean into it to remain standing. And everything in your campsite has to be weighted down, or it can be blown away and impaled on the nearest bush of thorns or spines.

In the still intervals we could hear the birds stationed about their wild territory, calling to each other. The moon was coming back from new, its thin crescent slice growing barely perceptibly each night, but it set early to leave the sky to the stars, the constellations, the galaxy, and the always-present meteorites and high-altitude jets. We even saw a satellite once rushing down its orbit from pole to pole.

One thing I’ve always loved is to listen to the wind moving across the basin below camp, from shrub to shrub, from miles off in the distance to yards away in the big arroyo. But my companion noted that it even sings a complex “chorus” across the boulder-strewn slope above camp.

Driving Into Winter

As I was leaving our desert mountains, a cold wave was clamping down on the Southwest. I was reluctantly returning to a New Mexico home where the nighttime temperatures were in the teens. And the time change was working against me, so I didn’t get very far the first day of driving. And all my warm clothes were dirty from camping, so I had to do laundry again, and got a late start the second day. It took three partial days to get home, wrapped in thermal layers even in the truck so that when I stepped out for gas or to take pictures, I wouldn’t freeze.

This trip of revelations had also been a sobering lesson in how challenging camping can be when you’re struggling to cope with pain and physical conditions that need to be treated daily. I’d slacked off because it wasn’t convenient or there just wasn’t time, and I needed to get back on the program and resume spending a couple hours a day at home treating my conditions, including my daily schedule of stretching and working out, that I pursue mainly as conditioning for these wilderness trips. It’s all a very lonely pursuit, now that my friends and I are scattered all over the place, and busy lives rarely allow us to meet up. We didn’t know how lucky we were when we were young, healthy, childless, and couldn’t care less about our jobs back in the city.

Tragic Legacy

What did I learn from those two-and-a-half weeks of exploring what most people assume is old familiar territory for me? Why do I keep going back to Southern Paiute territory, when my friends are flying off to Spain, Iceland, or Australia, and probably not spending any more money to visit those presumably more exotic places, when you consider my gas and lodging costs?

Something that was percolating, annoyingly, below the surface of my consciousness, is how I’ve spent my life. Yes, as an artist, a bohemian, and an outdoorsman, I’ve had an incredibly exciting life. No complaints there. But I’ve also had two separate professional careers, two separate phases of my working life, one throughout the 1980s, the other from the late 90s through the mid-teens, that chewed up huge amounts of time, energy, and natural resources, and contributed in various ways to the industrialization of our world. And ultimately to the industrialization and destruction of both natural habitat and human communities. It’s high time for me to acknowledge and deal with that, in some way.

The mid-term election in the U.S. is probably one thing that forces me to deal with my professional legacy. The software interfaces that I led the design of, not just as a worker bee, but as an acknowledged “guru,” have turned out to be a force of destruction in our world. I long ago stopped believing that they were a force for good, as some of my colleagues hoped in the beginning. But now it’s obvious that, like virtually all of our technology, they’re destroying nature, breaking up friends, families, and communities, and actually killing people, as in the case of Facebook and Myanmar. I’ve spent many years of my life, and much of my creative energy, participating in evil works, and I will carry that guilt to my grave. A guilt that nothing I can do will absolve me of.

In addition to the revelations about rock writing, the Nungwu, Southern Paiute culture, and the Nuwuvi Desert, one significant discovery was the hidden, gradual, pernicious conversion of our country’s wild lands for mechanized recreation. It hasn’t been publicized, even in conservation-oriented regional media like High Country News, which are usually more focused on urban-centric politics anyway. In remote rural places, trail networks have been widened and developed for the new quad ATVs or UTVs, and tent campsites have been razed and graded for monster RVs. And of course, in southern Nevada and eastern California, vast areas of high-quality, productive natural habitat in the desert have been destroyed and replaced with huge industrial solar plants and wind farms. Gas-powered RVs now have fuel economy in the single digits. Imagine how much natural habitat would need to be permanently destroyed to power a big electric RV in the future! That’s the world we – and our engineers and tech billionaires – are destroying for our children. I wonder how many of those engineers and entrepreneurs will eventually wake up too late to their tragic legacy, like I did.

I’ll have to think much more about the paradigm shift from rock art to rock writing, and the ubiquity of rock writing in native habitat. I still don’t understand the relationship between artistic expression and symbolic communication in my own work. Maybe I don’t need or want to understand it, just to continue to experiment with it in my future work – and I do have specific work planned and waiting to be made, when I can find the space and time to make it.

Regarding the development of roadside prehistoric sites – along existing roads – I can often lament the fact that a road was made there in the first place, especially when sites have already been severely vandalized. But the development I saw on this trip was uniformly protective and enlightening. And the vast majority of sites are still out there, hidden away, only accessible by strenuous hiking, waiting for future generations to discover and learn from. So that much is good.

In all, another bittersweet journey. Wish you could’ve joined me – we’d have much to remember and savor together.

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Fall 2018 Part 3: The Rocks Begin to Speak

Friday, November 16th, 2018: Fall Trip 2018, Trips.

High Prehistoric Tech

Five days and nights of my trip were already gone, most of them spent driving, zigzagging north across the emptiest parts of three big Western states. Four nights in widely-separated cheap motels, a hair-raising escape from an alpine blizzard, a detour to check out spectacular prehistoric rock paintings, and finally a cold night camping in a breathtaking canyon. The weather was getting still colder and windier and I was running out of clean clothes. I drove to the nearest town, farther north, where on an earlier trip I’d discovered a cheap but fairly luxurious motel with a laundry room. There I edited my photos and prepared the first couple of Dispatches. I’ve never found a decent restaurant in that town, so I’d eat in my room, from the simple stash of groceries I’d picked up at the first town I’d driven to, and leftovers from my night camping and cooking out.

It was the northernmost point I wanted to reach: the northern edge of the territory of the prehistoric Fremont people I’m trying to better understand on these trips. From here, I’d gradually make my way south and west, stopping whenever I saw something interesting, making side trips to check out rock art, hoping to find good campsites in late afternoon. I still had a week before I was due to meet my friends on our land in the Mojave.

Two days later I hit the road south. But I’d barely driven a half hour when I noticed a sign for a museum in this tiny village. It turned out to have quite a bit of thematic overlap with the much larger museum in the town to the north, but its more homespun curation raised intriguing questions that would haunt the rest of my trip. It was chock full of prehistoric artifacts donated by the ranching families who’d found them on their land.

What’s our responsibility – not the responsibility of citizens of a nation or a “civilized” culture, but the responsibility of invading ranching families who find the artifacts of the native people their society has dispossessed, stashed all over their newly-acquired ranchland?

What happened to the people archaeologists call Fremont – did they evolve into the Southern Paiutes, or were they replaced by them? On past trips I’d observed that the core Fremont lifestyle had to be eminently peaceful, and I knew from historical and anthropological accounts that the more recent Southern Paiutes were a peaceful, pedestrian people who were victimized by the warlike, equestrian Utes.

Who made the rock art in the Fremont area? The government archaeologist for the Mojave National Preserve had assured me, with photographic examples, that the only rock markings Paiutes were capable of were random scratches used to efface the work of other tribes. He’d repeatedly confirmed the archaeological consensus that Paiutes were warlike newcomers who’d spread out of eastern California across the Great Basin within the past millennium, killing off other tribes and appropriating their land.

And finally, how much more advanced are we modern people than those “primitive, superstitious savages?” With all our power, speed, and convenience, do we really live better lives?

Needle in the Haystack

Gratefully leaving the little museum, I drove a half hour farther south to a turnoff where I expected to find a rock art site. What got me interested in prehistoric rock art in the first place? Thirty-seven years ago, when I was at a turning point in my growth as a visual artist, a friend sent me a postcard of a site called “Newspaper Rock.” It was the first time I remember seeing prehistoric rock art. Dense with symbols, some representational, some abstract, it resonated with the new work I was creating. My graphical work – drawings, paintings, prints and collages – had always encompassed both “pictures” and “messages,” but I hadn’t been fully aware of that distinction. In recent years I’d expanded my pictorial work from simple rendering to narrative composition, and that had led me to the use of images as symbols.

At the same time, I was beginning to explore the Southwestern deserts, and as I kept developing and focusing my work, it evolved into compositions made of stylized natural imagery inspired by what I’d seen on camping trips. And eventually, in 1987, my girlfriend and I were shown real prehistoric rock art, outdoors, tucked away in remote corners of the Mojave Desert. We were hooked! As artists, we had heard of so-called “Land Art” by people like Robert Smithson and Michael Heizer, who used bulldozers and other heavy equipment to mimic the creations of ancient civilizations. But rock art was humble, uncivilized, intimate in scale, much better integrated into its natural environment. It seemed like it would’ve been part of the daily and seasonal life ways of the people who created and used it – people who lived lightly on the land, hunting and gathering, not building cities and temples like the inspirations of the “Land Artists” of the 70s.

During the postwar economic/science/tech boom of the 1950s, when the authorities wanted us to get out and burn gas on those fancy new highways – just like they want us to burn electricity now – AAA maps flagged prehistoric sites, including rock art. But those sites, all found in lonely places, were totally unprotected, and they were rapidly being destroyed by the vandals that are continually produced by our violent, narcissistic society. So by the time my girlfriend and I started studying rock art in the mid-80s, none of the sites were identified on commercially available maps, and on the ground, virtually none of them were marked by signs or had any sort of informative infrastructure. They were like the proverbial needle in the haystack.

Long before the internet, cell phones, or apps, we were shown rock art by friends, we picked up books at remote gift shops, we did research in libraries, we contacted experts by mail. We made our own lists and annotated paper maps. On road trip after road trip, camping and backpacking into remote canyons, we discovered work that blew our minds.

The Road Less Traveled

Stopping at museums, sidetracking for rock art, the short day was being chipped away at. I was approaching an interstate highway; if I took it west, there’d be many hours of driving through country I’d already seen, with little or no opportunity to camp, and I’d probably end up in a motel again. Alternatively, I could keep going on this rural highway, into a part of Utah I’d never seen. I spotted a grove of golden cottonwoods beside the road and pulled over to make a sandwich on the tailgate of my truck.

Mormon McMansions

I loved all the mountainous country I drove through that afternoon, but I never found a sheltered or private place to camp along the road. Every time I turned off to explore a promising dirt road, it ended almost immediately at a large, bleak parking area for RVs, in full view of the highway.

And I further confirmed some earlier observations about Mormon culture and society. I try not to be too critical of religions, because the secular alternative – capitalism – is what’s destroying our planet. But the Mormons strike me as more than a bit too materialistic and fond of ostentation. There seem to be plenty of poor Mormons, but that doesn’t stop the rich ones from throwing up a mansion next door. And their rural architecture is plain weird. From my perspective, raised on colonial, southern, and midcentury house styles, Mormon rural homes seem to have no clear historical reference point. They’re not post-modern, they’re just awkward and tacky. Mormon wealth doesn’t seem to be invested in quality, and even the oldest and simplest rural homes seem to be designed by aliens trying and failing to imitate earthlings.

As full dark fell and the temperature dropped toward freezing, I found myself in a very small town at close to 7,000′ elevation. There was a string of cheap motels, none of them appealing, so I picked one, checked in, and headed for a lit-up restaurant on the single historic block of the Main Street business district.

It was Saturday night, and Main street was empty. But the diner was packed. A distracted hostess greeted me, holding a baby by the belly, face-outward like a doll. I grinned and the kid beamed back. I was seated at the front facing the door, and while waiting to be served I realized the extremely loud music coming from behind me had to be live. I turned in my seat, glancing past tables of families and couples, to see a tiny cave-like stage at the back, reminiscent of the cage in the Blues Brothers movie, and a cute, stylish singer with short hair who’d been staring at me, waiting to catch my eye. I guessed I was the only single guy who’d shown up so far.

She flashed me a big smile. While I ordered, got served, and dug into my platter of pulled pork, she rendered a predictable series of country, folk, and pop standards, from Leonard’s “Hallelujah” to Dolly’s “Coat of Many Colors”, yelping and screeching with histrionic soul through the brittle sound system, accompanied by a full synth track. Between numbers she asked diners where they were from. All the families were local, but the couples, post-season tourists to nearby Bryce Canyon, were from Washingon state, Maine, and France. Exhausted after a long day, my ears battered by the singer’s piercing notes, I rushed through my just-okay meal. I left a generous tip, gave the singer a final optimistic thumbs up, and returned to my cheap, shabby motel room.

Native Explanations

29 degrees outside when I woke up Sunday morning. I’d taken many fall trips in the Southwest, running as late as early December, and the weather had generally been mild. My itinerary west would now carry me inexorably onto the dreaded interstate, with just one more side trip for rock art before leaving the Mormon state. I was beginning to realize it was almost impossible to both look for rock art and camp out on the same day. Looking for rock art just required too much driving, and too many hours stuck in a location where you generally weren’t allowed to camp.

But that one last site had more surprises. Not only had the local authorities provided signs to the site, they’d provided a large parking lot with a permanent restroom and shaded picnic area, paved paths to the rock art, institutional fencing around the rocks, and very detailed information panels below the art.

And they’d asked two tribes to contribute explanations: the Southern Paiutes and the Hopi. The Paiutes’ explanation was displayed as given, with no Anglo academic patronizing. Very refreshing, and something my archaeologist friends would probably never tolerate. After all, science was invented by Europeans, so we claim the ultimate authority on everything.

Prehistoric Literacy

With all the development around this site, I resigned myself to being accompanied by an evolving crowd of tourists, who mostly snapped a few pictures and hopped back in their new SUVs. But the petroglyphs were spectacular, and the message from the Southern Paiutes eye-opening. The information panels below the rock writings said that the Paiutes remember the so-called Fremont people – they know them as Nungwu. I hadn’t read this in any museum or book or on any web page – I had to come to this remote place to get the message. What more did the Paiutes know that the Anglo authorities didn’t?

The Indians made it quite clear that this is NOT ART – a paradigm shift I should’ve been prepared for. A Native American friend had given me LaVan Martineau’s book The Rocks Begin to Speak thirty years ago. Martineau, who learned from Paiutes, claimed that rock markings represented a universal sign language, a medium of communication, not an art form. But I’d either forgotten about that, or allowed my thinking to get lazy in the intervening years. Poor LaVan doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page, which makes me feel better about not having one.

That distinction between what we educated Anglos call ART, and what we both precisely and generally define as COMMUNICATION, is a very important theme for me. After developing my visual art, at an early age, from figurative representation to the composition of enigmatic “messages” made up of naturalistic symbols, I reinvented myself in mid-life as a “creative professional” in the internet industry, and found myself using symbolic compositions – flowcharts and storyboards – as my primary communications tool, to develop screen designs and facilitate collaboration in multi-disciplinary teams. And eventually, when I resumed making art, I was explicitly composing symbols inspired by nature. Both art and communication, but perhaps more on the art side, since the communication was suggestive rather than didactic.

In any event, I thought the Paiutes’ interpretation of this famous site was brilliant. It didn’t make much sense to me, but that’s to be expected. I realized more clearly than ever that to understand “rock writing,” you had to be living in and using this landscape the way the Indians did. We Anglos with our technological, alienated lifestyle couldn’t experience the habitat the way they did.

According to archaeologists and anthropologists, Indians used to claim that they hadn’t made rock art – it had been made by “spirits” in the distant past. Native “informants” claimed that they didn’t know what it meant – they even sometimes claimed it was evil. Now here they were saying that not only did they understand it, but that it represented a universal language. So much for the culturally-specific rock art “styles” identified by archaeologists, like Barrier Canyon and Great Basin Abstract Curvilinear.

I actually hope the Paiutes are bullshitting us, providing an intentionally meaningless explanation to put the honkies on the wrong track yet again. I would rather not believe they’re calling “rock art” a written language to make them seem less culturally inferior to us literate, scientific Europeans, but that’s a possibility too.

I snapped my own pictures, realizing that the only way to begin to understand this work would be to camp out here, and go about my daily chores, with the “rock messages” as my backdrop. Only then would I begin to see it more like the people who made and used it.

But the day was still young, and the next sites were hours away, and I needed to keep moving west if I wanted to meet my friends in the desert. So I got back in the little truck and drove to the nearest city, where I had lunch in a big-city-style bistro, knowing from experience that local-style food would be dismal.

I did the hours of driving, into the sunset, and eventually left the highway again to enter a vast area, the eastern corner of the Mojave desert, which I’d entered only once before as a passenger with a biologist friend. There I discovered the worst road I’ve ever driven, and drove it, stressfully and painfully, to where, after sunset, I finally found a bleak but spectacular campsite – a huge area cleared for RVs at the foot of rock formations, surrounded at a distance by other huge RVs. Because in this day and age  – as I discovered on this trip – most campsites are developed for giant RVs rather than us traditional folk who sleep on the ground.

After that city lunch, I just had a beer and snacks before hitting the sack. No sooner had I settled in than I discovered that I was directly under a low-altitude approach path for McCarran International Airport, with jets coming in every 90 seconds or so. Our society can industrialize even the remotest natural areas without even touching the ground.

Since there was no place to lay my ground cloth in this extremely remote place without potentially being run over by newcomers during the night, I emptied the truck bed and slept inside it, as I sometimes have to do when there are high winds. The eighth night of my trip, and only my second night of camping. But the night sky was my ceiling, the wheeling galaxy and constellations my constant companions through the night, and yes, as always, there were falling stars, although not as many as there were passenger jets. Little did I know what I was in for the next day…

Infinite Wonderland

In preparation for this trip, I’d copied a map off the internet that showed the next “rock writing” site to be just a few miles from my campsite. And there it was – again, with a large parking lot, informational signage, and fencing.

I followed a broad trail toward what appeared to be modest rock outcrops. I rounded a bend, and saw a house-sized boulder standing alone. I raised my field glasses, glimpsed familiar markings, and felt my heart swelling in my chest, the way it does whenever I stumble upon traces of the Old Ones. How do our bodies do this? How did the heart come to be the locus of love?

Refuge in the North

I’d never seen a place like this – a seemingly infinite wonderland of rock writing. I climbed up, and down, and around. I scanned with field glasses. I found more the farther I went. I spent hours there. No way did I see it all. I have no idea how much farther it went. There were numerous tinajas or natural water pockets, which go a long way toward explaining what native people were doing there to begin with. The brief notes I saw on the internet didn’t prepare me for this, and thank God! Fuck technology, fuck remote sensing, fuck satellites, fuck drones. The map is not the territory – the territory is far, far more interesting and enlightening. You had to be there, to hear it, to smell it, to feel it with your skin, your hands and feet.

But now I had another big decision to make. Damn it, that’s the problem with an unplanned trip! You start out thinking it’s going to be free and easy, just following your nose across the landscape, going wherever you want, but no! You have to find a place to sleep every night, and as the day goes on, the pressure mounts! And I still had to factor in a shopping stop in Las Vegas before I met my friends in the desert! Vegas, where the traffic would be a nightmare, coming from the north and slogging through the entire length of the city’s knotted freeway system. No way to avoid the stress of going directly from peaceful nature to mechanical mayhem, thousands of other stressed-out humans fighting each other like rats for space in the maze.

I didn’t have the heart for that yet, and I still had a few days left. So I decided to drive far out of my way, to the north again, to a little town in a canyon where I’d stayed several times before. It was a beautiful refuge where I could do laundry again, and edit my growing galleries of photos. And yes, there were more rock writings up there, sites I hadn’t visited yet.

The “mid-term” election occurred on my second day in the little town. A media event held elsewhere and broadcast in from the outside world – an event in which we function as mere statistics, pretending that we’re somehow “participating” in a “democracy.” I’d voted before leaving home, and the results were available when I woke up to do my laundry before hitting the road again. Everyone I voted for had won, but this “historic” event that others had worked so passionately for was of no real interest to me, since I dream of the collapse of the state that has caused so much harm from its beginning.

I packed up and drove back down the road, where I found another prehistoric site that added to the already profound revelations of this trip. It would be the last until next time around…

Honest Vegas

Going beyond even what I’d found at previous sites, this county publishes both online and paper brochures guiding visitors to and through its prominent rock art sites. I had one of these with me, but like my Grandpa, I reflexively avoid the instructions, and I regretted it halfway into my visit. In this case, the county’s wonderful brochure took the place of an all-day campout at the site – it enabled me to see, at a glance, the deep context around the rock writings: the ash deposits from old campfires, the scatter of stone tool-making flakes, evidence of both prehistoric residential and work areas. I would’ve found all that myself during a longer stay, but not during a short picture-taking visit.

Unlike the previous site, this was right off the highway. But like the previous site, it seemed endless – a maze of boulders down in a canyon, with panels near the head, but an unknown number hidden below, waiting for more time to be discovered. Frankly, during my early rock art explorations I never imagined sites so vast, rock writing so ubiquitous across the Native landscape, even as backdrops for everyday living. And this is just what’s accessible by vehicle. When you think about all the mountains and canyons that can only be reached on foot, it boggles the mind. These people created a pervasive mediascape that rivals ours – our smart phone screens, computer screens, TVs, movies, newpapers and magazines, billboards, bus ads, and graffiti – but unlike ours, theirs was made to be a permanent part of their habitat, to communicate between generations, and thus was strictly curated by tradition and by the community. And as a result of that and the way they lived, it’s more organic than ours could ever be.

When I first arrived, I took a wrong turn – again, the map is not the territory, and the brochure misled me – and spent an hour or so clambering down a tributary gulch that had a smattering of rock writings but wasn’t the main site. A Jeepful of Canadians followed me, and continued down the “wrong way” as I returned to find the official trailhead. Later, I heard and spotted them down there wandering through the maze, and we waved at each other.

It was now the moment of truth – or falsehood? Maya, the Veil of Illusion. I needed to get to Vegas to do my shopping for the desert meetup. And yes, the drive and traffic were as bad as expected, as bad as always, even though I beat “rush hour” by at least an hour. Our society, and what it has done to this planet, is obscene. Literally and completely obscene. And I’m not talking about separating immigrant families at the border, or appointing a sexual predator to the Supreme Court. Those are bad, but the nation’s current leadership is not the fundamental problem – that’s yet another reason why the recent election didn’t interest me. Our way of life, our way of using nature and each other, are catastrophic, apocalyptic – and Las Vegas is the epitome of all of that. In that sense, at least it’s honest.

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Fall 2018 Part 2: Deep Time Traveling

Friday, November 2nd, 2018: Fall Trip 2018, Southeast Utah, Trips.

 

After my adventure in the blizzard, I was kind of shaken up, and more than a little frustrated. My fall camping trip had started out with a big dose of stressful driving, and no camping. But there were supposed to be a few more prehistoric rock art sites that I hadn’t seen yet, in pretty wild country, far to the north. I hoped there’d be plenty of camping up there. I could even return to a site I’d used a couple of years ago, in the same general area.

First, and it would be a long drive, I’d check out one famous site at the eastern edge of the territory of the people they call the Fremont, the ancient culture I’ve recently become obsessed with. It was supposed to feature the famous “Barrier Canyon” style of painting, the most beautiful and mysterious style of prehistoric art in North America. It was just a few miles off the interstate, so not a place to camp, but it’d be an easy in-and-out from which I could proceed on back to the truly wild country.

As it turned out, the art was amazing, but the easy access meant there had been severe, tragic vandalism by Americans, both historic and modern. No different than the bullies I’d grown up with back east, kids who’d never been taught to respect beauty, kids so insecure they could only respond to mystery with violence.

Heading west on the interstate, I saw stacks of bundled firewood outside a gas station and, learning my lesson about fall camping in the high country, picked up a couple bundles. It was poor quality and way overpriced, but it was something.

I kept checking my maps, and determined that all the rock art sites near the interstate were on “high clearance only” roads. It was already mid-afternoon and I was still a couple hours away from the next accessible sites, and I didn’t want to be looking for a campsite after sunset. So I left the interstate and drove north up a long gravel road through sagebrush-and-mesa country toward where I’d camped two years ago.

I crossed the old bridge over the San Rafael River, there at the massive sandstone wall, and entered the big canyon with an hour or more of daylight to spare. My old campsite turned out to be taken by another solo man in a compact truck with funky camper shell, but I found an even better one, hidden in a grove of pinyon and juniper out of sight of the road. I suited up for a freezing night, got a fire going, and cracked a IPA. I set up camp at a leisurely pace, and cooked a fairly ambitious plate of food. Only one other vehicle passed, and then it was full dark down there in the big canyon.

Camping is a lot less fun with chronic pain. I’m still trying to sort that out. I can be athletic as ever, to a point, but then something happens and I’m a cripple for a while. My night in the canyon started out pretty uncomfortable, but I eventually found a position my body didn’t hate too much. Thin clouds kept drifting over, then clearing off. Cygnus was in view early, her wings spanning the dusty trail of the galaxy, then later Casseiopeia, Pegasus, and finally Orion and the Moon herself. Somewhere in there I managed to get a decent night’s sleep.

Campsites in this canyon all seem to be sunset camps, benefiting from late afternoon light but sunk in the shade of those thousand-foot walls for most of the morning. Bedding doesn’t air out, and your ground cloth is caked with red clay mud until late morning when you can finally lay it out in the sun. I had no plan for the day, but it’d been over a week since I’d been able to hike. So after everything was dry, I packed the truck, loaded my pack with warm clothes, water, and snacks, and crossed the dry creekbed to hike up into a shallow side canyon. I knew it’d likely be a short, steep hike unless I could find a way up the rimrock to the plateau on top. But at least I’d get a workout.

Of course, with my slow-healing injured foot, I’m not even really supposed to be hiking off-trail. But the only “trail” in this canyon is the 4wd road up the major side canyon, probably a 6-mile branch, and that was a ranch road, through an area that might be heavily grazed. I wanted more of a wilderness experience. When I made it up into my side canyon, I spotted a possible route to the top, and started climbing.

It was such a beautiful day, and such a beautiful place, I threw caution to the wind. I ignored my injured foot and scrambled up slopes of clay and loose sandstone that would’ve been dangerous even when I was in my best shape. I did some technical rock-climbing moves that, if unsuccessful, could’ve killed me. And of course, the most dangerous climb on these slopes is the down climb. But I made it halfway up the thousand-foot cliff, got to see an eagle and some crazy lichen, and returned safely to the valley floor by early afternoon.

Back at the truck, I debated staying another night in this idyllic place. But the weather made my mind up for me. Storm precursor clouds were blowing over, and a strong wind was moving down the canyon. I realized it’d been totally still since I’d arrived, but no more.

I drove on up the canyon and spotted a sign for another rock art site that I’d missed previously. When I opened the door to get out, the wind almost tore it off. It was gusting well over 50 mph. But the prehistoric art made it well worth the stop, and I encountered a big flock of some of the coolest birds I’ve ever seen.

There I was, in the middle of a vast wild area, with storm clouds filling the sky, a howling wind, and little more than two hours till sunset. I was near the head of the canyon, about to emerge onto the rolling plateau where there was little cover. I decided to drive to town, more than an hour away, and spend some time researching my next move.

But along the way, I got distracted by some intriguing signs. And I discovered one of the most amazing, and little-known, canyons in North America – the “Little Grand Canyon” of the San Rafael River.

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Fall 2018 Part 1: Impassable When Wet

Friday, November 2nd, 2018: Fall Trip 2018, Southeast Utah.

For this year’s fall camping trip, I had a vague plan to revisit Southern Paiute territory in a counter-sunwise direction, from northeast to southwest, from southeastern Utah (the Colorado Plateau), through southern Nevada, to southeastern California (the Mojave Desert). In Utah and Nevada, I hoped to seek out places and prehistoric rock art sites more remote and obscure than the ones I’d previously found.

I took a few dozen maps that I’d collected on previous trips, showing varying degrees of detail, but I had no preconceived schedule or itinerary. I wanted to make each day’s plan on the spot, based on the weather and the way things looked at that time and place. I was starting by heading north, from late October into early November, so I was prepared for cold. But my trip would later take me south to the Mojave, so I had to bring shorts and a lightweight sleeping bag. A wide variety of gear! And for the first part of the trip I’d be in very sparsely populated country with virtually no place to buy groceries, so what I took with me from home had to last a week or more.

It took me two days of driving just to get to the start of the trip. I was still recovering from my latest episode of severe lower back pain, but I had a good lumbar pad that made it possible to endure the long drives in my little old hard-sprung truck. Something I hadn’t got used to yet, or found a remedy for, was the crippling pain in my upper right arm that I’d had since last winter. That made it really difficult to shift gears. But I was excited to be on the road again, headed to some of my favorite wild country. The sky was clear for the first two days, but on the third morning, a storm front started moving over from the west.

I’d gotten it into my head to try to explore a vast, high, forested ridge of red sandstone that I had passed below and admired from a distance for decades. My previous focus had always been the canyons in the mesa below the ridge, rich with cliff ruins and rock art. But recently, the entire area had been designated a national monument, and it had been named after a pair of distinctive peaks near the south end of the ridge.

As I drove toward the ridge from thirty miles away in the east, I could see those peaks under the low mass of clouds that was spreading from the west. Rain was forecast with this storm, and temperatures were in the forties. I knew that throughout this area, unpaved roads were posted with prominent signs warning “Impassable When Wet,” and the road I planned to take up the ridge was one of those roads. But my maps showed that it was also a “backcountry byway” which was presumably maintained for tourism by car. Oh well, I thought, if I get caught in the rain, I’ll just have to pull over and make camp. Sure, I never bring a tent – I’ve camped in the rain many times by wrapping a waterproof poncho or tarp around my sleeping bag, like a cocoon. But if that didn’t work, I could always spend the night sitting up in my truck seat. No worries.

When I found the road and left the pavement behind, it started out pretty good. They’d laid down a thick layer of gravel and it was a wide road. But when it began to climb the side of the ridge in steep, twisting switchbacks, it turned to red clay – the fine powder eroded from sandstone over eons – and got narrow, with a sheer dropoff on one side and a deep, narrow ditch on the other.

I drove up about a thousand feet, with spectacular views all the way, then topped on a rolling ledge forested with pinyon and juniper, with pulloffs to undeveloped campsites on each side. There was standing water in the roadside ditches – it must’ve rained last week – but the clay road itself was dry and hard as rock. I could see the twin peaks up ahead, and after a few miles, the road began climbing again, to a notch between them. Passing through it, I looked down across the ridge proper, a high, rolling plateau of alternating sagebrush meadows and mixed pine and fir forest that stretched dozens of miles to the horizon. The peaks were roughly 9,000′ elevation and the ridgetop plateau was roughly 8,500′.

Up here, there were patches of snow beside the road, and more snow on the northeast side of the peaks. And as I drove down onto the plateau, I passed large pools of muddy water in low places, and shady patches of road that were still flooded and muddy. It must’ve really rained last week.

But the cloud cover overhead kept breaking up and revealing blue sky, and by and large the road was still hard as rock. I figured the temperature was in the 30s up here, and the road must be frozen from hard freezing overnight. I wasn’t worried. Even if it rained, surely the road would stay hard.

I passed turnoffs for side roads to trailheads. Off to my left, in the north, I knew there was a huge wilderness area encompassing a canyon system that I’d tried to reach from its mouth, far to the northwest, years ago. It really intrigued me. The maps showed a trailhead located on this very road, about 20 miles northeast, and I hoped to camp there and hike a few miles down into the wilderness.

I passed grazing cattle, corrals, and stock ponds. I passed a couple of big utility trucks, but I didn’t see any other campers. I came to an overlook where I got a glimpse of impressive canyons and distant tall mountains, far in the east.

Then the road branched off and turned north, and snow began falling. Of course! At this elevation it wouldn’t rain, it would snow. As long as it didn’t accumulate more than a few inches, I was sure I’d be fine. It was cold enough that it’d be dry snow, no problem for my rear-wheel-drive truck with poor weight distribution. I could always let some air out of my tires for better traction. And the road was already frozen solid so no problem with getting bogged down in mud. I might have to camp out in the snow, but I’d done that just a few years ago and had a great time.

Mile after mile, I twisted and turned, up and down through tall trees, past the occasional small, overgrazed meadow. Snow fell heavier, but it wasn’t sticking. I reached a major trailhead with a big parking area and lots of informational kiosks, but it was a 4wd trail. The forest got heavier, and I continued for another 10 miles or so. I was inside the cloud now and couldn’t see more than a few dozen feet from side to side. Finally I drove down a steep grade, and at the low point there was a small sign: “The Notch”. I couldn’t see anything, but apparently it was a narrow pass with steep dropoffs on each side. And there was the trailhead I’d been looking for.

I parked and suited up in my winter gear. Snow was falling heavily but still wasn’t sticking on the road. I watched for a while to see if the flakes were melting as they touched the clay. Yes, they were. My theory of a frozen road turned out to be wrong. My heart started racing, just a little bit.

I love snow, so I was excited, regardless of what was to come. I started hiking down the trail into the head of the famous canyon. I made it a few hundred yards before I realized that the snow was rapidly turning into a blizzard and accumulating on the trees and the ground. I climbed back to the road, which had developed a half-inch layer of white. I knew I was in trouble, here, 30 miles off the paved highway and 70 miles from the nearest town, with no cell coverage if I needed help. Part of me had known from the beginning this was a bad idea.

Although I’d never driven these powder-clay roads when they were wet, I’d read accounts of what happened to them, and seen the aftermath. They instantly turned to a sticky bog with the consistency of mashed potatoes that accumulated on your tires, turning them into giant mud donuts, until even high-clearance 4wd vehicles bogged down all the way to their engine blocks. When the clay dried you’d be fossilized in the road itself like a woolly mammoth in the Tar Pits. 4wd trucks that were foolish enough to drive these roads before the clay completely dried, created ruts a foot or more deep that were nearly impossible for others to navigate afterwards.

But now, the snow was only a half inch deep, and the clay surface was still hard. I drove carefully up the grade into the forest, my heart in my throat. As long as I kept rolling and stayed in first gear, I seemed to be okay. But the snow was falling heavier and I had 30 miles of this to go. I really didn’t think I could make it.

I soon found the limits of my traction. Even at low speed, in first gear, there were places where I just lost control and started sliding toward the deep, flooded ditch at the side of the road. One tire in that ditch and I’d be immobilized. But the tires always caught just before the ditch, and I continued my agonizingly slow progress across the high plateau.

What I feared was the climb up the grade to the notch between the namesake peaks. I was sure I’d lose traction there, but even if I made it over, there was the steep grade down the other side, without guard rails and a sheer drop of 500′ or more, instead of just a ditch, when I started to slide.

Mile after mile through the blizzard, losing traction again and again, sliding toward the flooded ditch, only to regain my grip and progress a few more miles. Finally I felt I was on the final short down slope to the big meadow just before the climb to the notch. I very carefully slowed to a stop on that down slope, figuring I would scout on foot for a place to pull over and camp in the snow if I lost traction and couldn’t climb the grade ahead. But as soon as I stepped out of the truck, my feet slipped out from under me. The road, under the 2 inches of snow that had now accumulated, was a completely frictionless surface. By sticking to rougher ground at the edge, I was just barely able to walk a dozen yards down to the meadow. I had no idea how I’d been able to drive this far on this road in these conditions! I could barely even walk it!

Through the cloud off the side of the road, I suddenly saw a bull elk with a huge rack, making his way through the high sagebrush. He turned and saw me, and then I saw the others, a herd of cow elk following him. They began walking uphill toward the notch. Behind them, there was a side trail, of sorts, leaving the main road for a short distance just above the meadow. It was rough and there was no place to camp. I walked off the road, under the big trees, and felt the dead branches near the ground where the snow hadn’t yet reached. They were all drenched. There’d be no dry firewood anywhere on this ridge. It was clear that if I pulled off there, I’d be stuck in the cab of my truck, without fire, maybe for days, until somebody showed up to rescue me. So I carefully made my way back to the truck, determined to try driving up the grade. Just keep trying.

Somehow, I made it to the notch between the peaks. And down the grade on the other side, which wasn’t as bad as I remembered, to the long ledge with all the primitive campsites. Hey, it wasn’t snowing so bad down here, and it hadn’t started accumulating on the road yet. I started looking at those campsites and thinking I might just stop.

Then, at a low point in the clay road, with deep flooded ditches on both sides, I suddenly lost traction again. I let my foot off the gas, kept the clutch engaged, and let the engine idle just apply some gentle rotation to the rear tires. They spun freely in the wet clay, and me and the truck drifted, oh so slowly, toward the nearest ditch, which was at least two feet deep.

I gently maneuvered the steering wheel, trying to use the front tires as rudders, but with virtually no effect. My truck was like a hockey puck. Just drifting to the edge of that ditch, agonizingly slow, then hovering, then drifting a little ways back toward the crown of the road.

This went on forever! Literally, for between 5 and 10 minutes, the truck rotating, drifting to one side or the other, the wheels slowly spinning, the hideous gaping maw of that deep muddy ditch getting inches nearer or inches farther away, with me seemingly helpless to influence my fate.

Then finally, I felt something change. The wheels were again in line with the road, and I had a measure of control over steering and speed. I gave up on those campsites. I realized I had the thousand feet of really steep grade, with its nightmarish dropoffs, still ahead of me.

Before I got there, the road actually became dry. And I pulled off into the trees just before the down grade, and found what would normally, in benign conditions, be an amazing campsite, with unbelievable views out across the endless mesa. But there was no dry firewood here either, and I had no idea how long the storm would continue. I could still easily get stuck up here if it kept snowing overnight. So I left the ridge behind, amazed that I’d been able to get out. To return again in warmer, drier weather.

This is a vast area, and the storm had only been forecast to cover the southern part of it. My next logical destination lay to the northwest. It was still just mid-afternoon, and I thought if I kept driving I might get to a dry area where it’d be possible to camp.

And I did eventually emerge out from under the storm, but there was still standing water everywhere from last week’s big downpour. I’d never seen anything like it. Mile after mile, I pulled over again and again, but couldn’t find a usable road or a dry campsite. It was bitterly cold and my arm was really aching. The sun went down, and after dark, I arrived in the only tiny hamlet in the middle of this huge landscape, where I spent the night indoors, in a fairly dismal but not nearly cheap enough motel room.

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Wisdom vs. Happiness: A Eulogy for James Sayre

Wednesday, October 10th, 2018: Elders & Mentors.

House in Rockridge

In summer 2011, I had my last phone conversation with my old friend James. He was ten years older than me, and had had a profound influence on me when we first met, more than thirty years earlier, so that I came to consider him part of my small circle of honored elders and mentors.

In the early 2000s, James had moved into the dilapidated house in Oakland’s Rockridge district where his younger brother had committed suicide, and within a few years James had contracted diabetes. The interior of his house had become a dusty maze of clutter, combining odds and ends he’d picked up at yard sales with stacked boxes of the books he’d self-published but couldn’t sell. There was only a narrow path between the clutter allowing movement between rooms. When I visited, we sat in a tiny cleared space in front of the fireplace, as James broke up pieces of old furniture to burn, to take the edge off the chill, since he was no longer using the house’s heating system.

In keeping with his lifelong practice of “voluntary simplicity,” James refused to fix things when they broke. The kitchen sink leaked, so he’d taken to washing dishes in the bathtub. His focus was on the small yard outside, the tiny patch in front and the larger, fenced area in back. There, he cultivated a profusion of exotic vegetation, including his beloved Australian eucalyptus, a jungle that was gradually engulfing the house and hiding it from the street. Some of it was edible – he had a rapidly expanding blackberry patch.

The mainstay of James’s diet had always been the heavy unleavened bread, full of nuts and dried fruit, that he had baked as long as I’d known him. On his weekly forays to libraries and yard sales by bike and public transit, he carried chunks of this bread in his pockets, so that he was always snacking for sustained energy instead of concentrating his intake at regular meals. Self-reliance and thrift were a family tradition, part of James’s DNA.

We’d both maintained regular contact over the years, through frequent emails, regular calls, and sporadic visits. I moved to New Mexico in 2006, and on my first visit back to the Bay Area, I called to arrange a visit.

When I showed up at James’s house, his parents’ old Buick was in the driveway, but there was no response to my knocks and shouts at the door. I kept trying for a half hour, then left. And shortly after I drove off, my cell phone rang. James apologized, saying that he no longer felt able to allow people into his house. He seemed embarrassed, but otherwise in good spirits.

We continued emailing and talking regularly, and James seemed a little more down, a little more discouraged, each time. His family were all dead, and he’d gradually lost touch with all his other friends – he got in an argument with the last of them, a former Stanford classmate who was a computer consultant in Berkeley, and stopped communicating. I was the last friend standing. By 2011, he admitted he was running out of the last of the money he’d inherited from his parents, and he didn’t know what he was going to do to survive. And after that last call in the summer, he stopped responding to my calls and emails. His web site went offline, and when I called a second or third time, his land line had been disconnected.

I called a friend who lived nearby and asked her to check out James’s house. She reported that there were young people living there now, so I really freaked out. I sent a letter to his address requesting information, but shortly afterward, I called his number again, and got his answering machine. And his web site was back online.

I continued to send email inquiries and leave occasional phone messages, and I downloaded his web site to my hard drive in case it went offline again. But I never heard from James after that.

I visited the Bay Area several times, always stopping at his house, pounding on the door and yelling his name. My neighborhood friend had apparently gone to the wrong address – James’s house never changed, always hidden behind a screen of vegetation, always silent, with the old Buick parked in the driveway. I was of two minds about harassing someone who’d chosen to be a recluse. Should I respect his decision and leave him alone? But I always left a note saying I missed him.

Every six months or so I did a Google search on his name and location. He continued with his practice of writing letters to the editors of the Berkeley Planet and San Francisco Chronicle, fighting capitalism, imperialism, and corruption, through 2012, but after that there was nothing. Finally, before visiting the Bay Area in 2018, I did an online tax search in county records and found that someone had paid a big supplemental tax at his address, indicating improvements to the property, which I knew James would’ve never done. A friend did a real estate search and found that his house had indeed been partially renovated, and it was listed for sale at $1.2 million.

We drove over, and a neighbor informed me that James had died a year earlier from complications of diabetes. I took BART to the Berkeley Court House and waited an hour to request probate records that ultimately put me in touch with James’s nephew, the son of his younger sister who had died much earlier.

Voluntary Simplicity

I met James because Pake, my best friend in grad school at Stanford, had met him earlier, and had stored his belongings in the attic of James’s group house while we were tramping through Mexico and Guatemala after finishing our studies. James let me store my stuff there, too, and when I returned months later, let me camp out in his attic. I came up with the idea of building a new room, an extension on the back of the house, and James thought it was a great idea. He showed me where to steal used lumber, late at night, from the site of a building that was being demolished a few blocks away.

James and I had both studied engineering at the graduate level at Stanford, but ten years before me, he’d dropped out to help organize anti-war and environmental movements. Like many in our society, James was addicted to politics, but he was also suspicious of those who seek or hold power, and was more comfortable with local, grass-roots, communal efforts. Politics on higher levels was a game to him, a spectator sport just as entertaining as baseball. He had an old black-and-white TV in his room and we roommates could hear him yelling behind his closed door, throughout the day and night, but we never knew if it was sports or politics that were setting him off. Whatever – he nudged me out of my long academic isolation, just as our world really seemed to be going crazy.

Within a few weeks after I moved in and finished building my room, there was the People’s Temple mass suicide, followed immediately by the Moscone/Milk assassination, and then the Three Mile Island nuclear meltdown. James enlightened me about the shameful hidden history of our society that we’d never been taught in school, what Howard Zinn would summarize in his People’s History of the United States a few years later. The brutality of capitalism that made people poor and drove them into cults like the People’s Temple. The brutality of imperialism that had caused generations of suffering in Central America, with death squads, revolution, and civil war in our own time. James and I went to what Ralph Nader called the largest-ever anti-nuclear protest, in San Francisco’s Civic Center. My art and music changed to reflect the current events, and the history behind them, that James was educating me about.

James was a tall, dashing, long-haired hippie who looked like a swashbuckler out of Elizabethan times, but he introduced me and my friends to punk music and changed the course of my life. I’d grown up in a small, conservative farming community in the Midwest, and until I finished grad school, I remained uptight and inhibited, isolated from and oblivious to much of what was going on the world. James became my first guide to this new world. I remember when I first heard the Modern Lovers and the Ramones playing behind the door of his room, and got a history lesson on the Velvet Underground and Iggy Pop. The Sex Pistols followed shortly afterward, and there was no turning back.

Stealing lumber in our affluent suburb was only part of James’s larger program of sticking it to the Man, exploiting the loopholes of capitalism, and living simply and cheaply. He got me started dumpster diving for food at the upscale supermarket a couple blocks from our house, and within weeks I was getting most of my sustenance for free. There were now five of us living at the group house and rent was super cheap. James taught me and my friends his Book-of-the-Month Club scam. Using a transparently false name like Bill Melater, he’d join the club and receive a box full of free books and records “on approval” which he would immediately sell at local used bookstores, raising $100-$200. The club would then send invoices for a few months before giving up, and James would start over again under a new phony name. With a cheap enough lifestyle, you could live like this indefinitely.

Inspired by the news, the history, and the punk music James had turned me onto, I joined the post-punk arts underground. I rented a loft in San Francisco that my roommates and I – a group house inspired by James’s – turned into an underground arts center. James collected admission at my experimental band’s first show, and he was a frequent visitor at our loft throughout the 1980s as he came and went between his travels across the world.

From the beginning, even before I moved into James’s group house, I was the beneficiary of his torrents of correspondence. I have more letters and packets of clippings from James than from anyone else, including my family. For more than thirty years, James sent me postcards and letters continually, sometimes several times a week, from wherever in the world he happened to be, always signing them “Love, James.” He was interested in almost everything, and everywhere he went, he protested against corruption, capitalism, and imperialism. He collected folk and ethnic music and dubbed it from vinyl to cassette – I have James’s compilations of Tahitian music, Australian country and western, etc. etc.

To support my creative work, I’d landed a very flexible job with an engineering firm, and in the mid-80s when James needed more funds for travel, I hired him as a clerical assistant. There really wasn’t much for him to do, but he did it conscientiously and it allowed me to take more time off for my band. Later, as the digital and dotcom industries took off, he found work as a tech writer in Silicon Valley.

In the 1990s, his younger sister and brother died, and James met a new girlfriend who encouraged him to write and publish. His first book, on bird names, was well-received, so he wrote and published a second, on herbs, that resulted in neither reviews nor sales. That experience, and James’s frequent letters to the editors of local newspapers, inspired me to share my own writing for free, to sidestep the competitive, hierarchical culture of capitalism and consumerism and stop dreaming of stardom in the market economy.

A lifestyle of self-reliance and voluntary simplicity meant that James, by dropping out and setting an example wherever he went, did more for society and the environment than many people who seek to “make a difference” through the use of money and power, or by otherwise working within a system that is fundamentally unjust. He certainly did more, by consuming less, than people who buy electric cars and fantasize that they’re “saving the planet” through increased consumption of electricity and the energy and unaccountable raw materials that go into advanced technology.

By thinking beyond the cliches of liberalism and patriotism, by opposing war and imperialism and speaking truth to power, James reinforced the lessons I’d gotten from earlier mentors, like the radical pastor who’d encouraged me to question authority and think critically, and the radical college professor who encouraged me to challenge the fundamental assumptions of our society and culture. Unlike many of my well-educated friends, James never stopped thinking critically and questioning authority, and to the end, he resisted the capitalist consumer lifestyle and addiction to technology that they all ultimately accepted.

Wisdom vs. Happiness

A few years ago I was visiting an old friend when he said he needed to have a heart-to-heart talk with me. He sat me down and told me that there must be a flaw in my criticisms of our society, because my conclusions had brought me nothing but loneliness and unhappiness, and my life had become a miserable failure.

I try to avoid knee-jerk reactions and remain open to my friends’ feedback, so instead of responding directly, I continued to reflect on what he’d said. None of my other friends had said anything like this – most of us had lively discussions, learning from each other and agreeing on many points. I eventually concluded that my friend’s “heart-to-heart” said more about him than about me.

But there was a belief nested within his message that seems widely held and is worth examining: that true wisdom, true enlightenment, bring serenity. And the converse, that the lonely, unhappy person has failed to find the wisdom that would enable him or her to be content.

Beyond this, there’s the unspoken assumption that individual happiness is the goal of life, and the acquisition of wisdom is just the means to that end.

All of these fundamental beliefs can be traced back to Aristotle, the ancient Greek philosopher I studied in my freshman year of college. Some people now replace “happiness” with “well-being,” but in our individualistic society, the emphasis is always on the individual.

There are actually people who live such cloistered lives that they believe true enlightenment can protect us from suffering. As if the desperately poor, the sufferer of chronic pain, the tortured prisoner, the victim of rape or other violence, can be happy and serene in the moment if they’ve achieved true wisdom.

I thought of all this as I contemplated James’s final years. We have no way of knowing how he experienced them, but what impact did his withdrawal have on his friends and neighbors?

I remember dilapidated, “haunted” houses from my childhood, old widows and widowers who were recluses, and eccentric outsiders and outcasts who came and went in the background. People who would now be considered dysfunctional or mentally ill in one way or another. Was it that they’d turned their backs on the community, or that the community had let them down in some way?

In any event, we could say these dysfunctional recluses were setting a negative example. Don’t let yourself end up like them, lonely and miserable! But there would be a lingering curiosity, especially as we all age and develop more and more doubts about our own paths through the rat race. Withdrawing from the world could have its attractions. I have a reclusive older neighbor who admits he’s happy by himself – not miserably lonely as you might expect.

Peaceful societies like the Amish and the Ifaluk place their emphasis on the well-being of the community rather than the individual. If the community is not thriving, how can an individual member be happy? If the individual’s environment is full of dysfunction and suffering, how can wisdom bring him or her happiness? Many of my urban friends move daily through streets reeking of piss and teeming with diseased homeless people, breathing polluted air, their ears assaulted by mechanical noise. Can they tune all of this out by meditating? Should they?

Following James’s example, I eventually decided that happiness should not be my primary goal. As an artist, I need to see things as they are, no matter how ugly or frightening. I want to understand what’s happening, no matter how discouraging. What I see and understand will not make me happy. Enlightenment will not bring serenity, and if you keep saying things that make people uncomfortable, you may end up alone. So be it.

James Sayre Memorial web site

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Summer Solstice 2018: From Flowers to Flames

Saturday, June 23rd, 2018: Solstices, Summer 2018, Trips.

I was heading home, but it was still morning, and I didn’t want to leave the mountains yet. I scanned my trail guide and found a trail that was kind of on my way, but also deeper into the mountains. And even the rather dryly worded Forest Service guide suggested it might be special.

But when I got there shortly before noon on this Friday, there were already four other vehicles at the trailhead, one of them parked so as to block half the parking area.

The trail followed a stream, the West Fork of the Black River, out of the high alpine meadows into its canyon, between steep slopes alternately forested and scarred by fires. Above the stream and the trail there was an old “railroad grade” – presumably the bed of a narrow-gauge track built to haul logs out of the forest in the 19th century. Now, this valley was a site for wildlife habitat restoration – the reintroduction of the endangered native Apache trout. As I walked through this lush protected area, I tried to imagine the scene more than a hundred years earlier, when crews of dozens of workers with heavy machinery were blasting and gouging away at the hillside above.

Despite the burn scars, the valley was a paradise of flowing water, lush vegetation, endless wildflowers, butterflies, and broken volcanic rock. My passing flushed two herons in a row out of the streamside vegetation. The first hikers I came upon were an elderly pair of naturalists poking their way through the thick riparian vegetation, wearing unfashionable khakis and those huge funny-looking hats they sell at REI. I later discovered they were the ones who’d blocked the parking area with their new SUV.

Then I came to the restoration area, where workers had built two small dams in a row to block invasive trout from swimming upstream. I passed three college students, two boys and a girl, returning up the trail, glowing with good cheer. I was feeling pretty good, too. On this trip, I’d been able to hike more than at any time in the past year. Hiking is my way of learning about nature, but it’s also my stress relief. Up until this trip, I’d been hit by one source of chronic pain after another, and I felt like I was losing control. Each time I began to recover from one disability, another would appear. This trip had been like a moment of grace in a long ordeal.

I came to a seep where water flowed out of the hillside and into the stream, and crossing it I glimpsed a tiny, fast-moving snake, smaller than a nightcrawler. I came upon recent trash left by other hikers, and stuffed it in my pocket. Then I came to a campsite in a grove on the bank of the stream.

It immediately seemed strange. This was the third time in the past two years I’d encountered backpackers camping next to a trail and within less than a mile of a trailhead – things nobody in my generation would’ve done. All these new-style backpackers are in their 20s. I wondered where they’d learned to backpack like this.

Four men, they were sitting in camp chairs carrying on an animated conversation, with a tent and two hammocks set up behind them, literally on the bank of the stream. Since I was passing so close I waved, but they ignored me. It was less than a mile from the trailhead, but I’d only intended to scout the trail and file it away for future reference, so I only continued a few hundred yards farther to a point where the floodplain opened out, then climbed up to the railroad grade to backtrack. On the way back, I encountered three more young people, high school aged, sitting in the shade of a fir tree eating sandwiches. An area both beautiful and popular.

When I got back to the truck, I checked the Forest Service trail guide. Sure enough, they tell people to camp out of sight of trails, and at least 200 yards from streams and bodies of water, to protect habitat and wildlife. I passed a small herd of elk out in the open meadows on the way to the paved road. I had to drive through a heavily used recreation area surrounding a big reservoir, and coming upon the RV dump site, I was faced with the deepest butt crack I’ve ever seen on a man wearing pants, on the backside of the maintenance guy bending over in his truck beside the road. Oh, the horrors.

I drove east through the rugged mountains with their swath of alpine forest along the highway that had been protected from the massive wildfire in 2011. A convoy of fat, leather-jacketed bikers suddenly thundered past on choppers with deafening pipes, their women holding on tight behind. I already knew that tough guys can’t prove their toughness without machines that go fast and make a lot of noise. I didn’t know they needed to prove that in the middle of an alpine forest, but we all have our insecurities.

When I regained a signal on my phone, I called the Forest Service office and reported the outlaw campers. After all, these selfish jerks were setting a bad example for all the other young people using this popular trail. Basically, what they’d done was carried their packs less than a mile from the trailhead, picked the most beautiful spot on the bank of the stream next to the trail, set up their gear and started partying, all before noon. They might’ve even arrived the previous afternoon, which would make it even worse. Apparently they intended to just sit there for the whole weekend, with everyone else walking past them. I call this new trend “slackpacking.”

In the meadow upstream from Luna Lake, a reservoir outside Alpine, I spotted between 50 and 100 elk grazing, the biggest herd I’d ever seen. Then, after crossing into New Mexico, coming down the grade between Luna and Reserve, I saw smoke rising from a wildfire somewhere up ahead.

South of Reserve, twisting and turning downhill through the forest, I caught glimpses of a helicopter spiraling above the column of smoke. Then I came to a stop behind a couple of other waiting vehicles. It was at the dirt-road turnoff for Pueblo Park recreation area, before the climb to Saliz Pass, where there’s an old burn scar. About a quarter mile ahead of us, white smoke was climbing steep forested slopes toward the west. There were some official vehicles milling around, and some utility trucks passed us, heading toward the smoke. We waited, and more vehicles arrived and lined up behind us.

I could see the fire growing up the slope. Suddenly a tower of black smoke rose up amidst the white – the fire had reached a vehicle, a cabin, or somebody’s fuel stash. A whole tree – maybe killed by bark beetles – turned into a bright red torch at the upper edge of the fire.

Then one of the official vehicles pulled out and led us in a convoy up the road toward the fire. This is the narrowest, twistiest part of the road, and we were driving close together, so it was hard to shoot any pictures without running off the road or hitting the vehicle in front of me. I glimpsed the silver flash of a small plane circling overhead. Suddenly we came upon a long line of pea-green trucks labeled as “Globe Hotshots,” “Payson Hotshots,” and others from locations in both New Mexico and Arizona, and then we were in the fire. Young men in bulky yellow suits worked alongside the road, amid ashes, smoke, glowing embers, and bursts of flame. Fire trucks hunkered on side trails behind old-growth ponderosa pines.

Out my side window, I caught glimpses of active burning, in a dense cloud of smoke up the steep western slope right above us. The forest up there was shrouded in billowing smoke. We passed the shaded gate of the Apache Plume Ranch, up in the middle of the burn area. The area around the gate had been protected from the flames, but I didn’t know what lay behind it in the steep forest – maybe whatever had caused that tower of black smoke.

Then we came out of it all, and we all continued in a convoy toward Glenwood, spread out at safe distances except for the jerk in the big old Buick that tailgated me all the way to town. Two college girls had died in a head-on collision on this dangerous stretch of road just a few months ago.

The gibbous moon was rising over the tall Mogollon Mountains east of us. The same moon was waiting over my house when I finally got home, at the end of another very long day. And as I drove over the final grade into Silver City, the next tune came up in the random shuffle in my truck, and Coltrane’s “Lush Life” was playing as I arrived home.

I normally honor the solstice by taking stock of my life and giving thanks for the lessons and benefits that have come to me in the past half-year. This time, I started the trip in pain and under considerable stress, and ended with an adventure. I can’t seem to avoid adventure – it’s the inevitable result of exploring the world, putting yourself out there to learn new things. As time goes by, and we civilized humans keep consuming the natural world, there’s less and less of it to explore and discover. Kids grow up in the city, lacking the freedom and immersion in nature that I used to take for granted. We raise generations of timid slackpackers. Forgetting what came before, many believe this to be progress.

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Summer Solstice 2018: Return to the Cloud Forest

Thursday, June 21st, 2018: Solstices, Summer 2018, Trips.

Woot! Longest hike since my foot injury, over a year ago – 6 miles round trip, with about 800′ elevation gain.

First time I visited this magical place was during monsoon season, three months before my hip surgery in 2015. See the dispatch from that trip for the difference between wet and dry. Back then, despite my disability, I made it almost all the way to the top, twice as far and twice as high, using a walking stick.

This time, it was a hard slog climbing to 10,000′. It really hit home how much heart and lung capacity I’ve lost to my disabilities. Despite it being a Thursday, and very dry, I ran into a lot more people on the trail this time – two other groups of 3 or 4 each, all in their 20s. I also saw the smoke plume from a new wildfire, about 40 miles to the east, continuing on the theme of yesterday’s dispatch.

One young man who said he’d hiked this trail about 8 times saw his buddy holding up his phone to take a picture. “Dude, you can’t capture this with a camera!” I laughed. “That’s totally right!” We all need to spend more time in places like this, with infinite views, to stretch our eye muscles. I’ve been doing that for decades in the Mojave Desert, to counteract the damage done by living in the city and staring at screens. It works. You can actually see the curvature of the earth from this trail, but you can’t capture it with a camera.

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Summer Solstice 2018: Into the Burn

Wednesday, June 20th, 2018: Solstices, Summer 2018, Trips.

On the day before the solstice, I wanted to try a short hike on a new trail. But all of the nearby trails were closed due to extreme fire danger, so I drove east to the South Fork of the Little Colorado, an area I’d never visited. The trail started in the shade of a beautiful forest beside a tumbling stream, but as I hiked beyond the human infrastructure that fire crews defended aggressively, I emerged into the heart of the most intensely-burned zone of the 2011 Wallow Fire. It continues the theme of wildfire and habitat destruction from my previous post, but this was my first hike through this kind of devastation, and I was shocked at how little the habitat had recovered in seven years.

The Wallow Fire was the biggest wildfire in the history of the Southwest. It consumed 538,000 acres, or 840 square miles, of the best wildlife habitat in our region – an area more than twice as big as the county I grew up in back east.

It’s hard to believe it’s been 7 years – I can still remember the smoke plume and the choking pall that lay over us when the wind blew out of the northwest. The White Mountains of Arizona have been my favorite local getaway since I moved to New Mexico, and it broke my heart to know they were burning.

The fire was started by two campers who let their campfire get out of control. But that was just the proximal cause. Like all our really destructive wildfires, it was really caused by Western Civilization – European culture – and its Biblical mandate of man’s dominion over nature, inherited by “secular humanism” during the 18th century “Age of Enlightenment.” The machinery first invented during the Enlightenment has enabled us to replace most of the best habitat in North America with cities, reservoirs, industrial farms, and energy infrastructure, ultimately leading to global climate change. And that European drive to engineer our environment was behind the Forest Service’s policy of wildfire suppression, which resulted in disastrous buildups of forest fuel.

As I walked up the stark, sunny canyon past the skeletons of torched pines, it was easy to visualize the cool, shady forest that had been here seven years earlier. I tried to imagine what it would’ve been like in the midst of the inferno, with walls of flame pouring down toward the stream from the ridges above where the heat was most intense. Imagine being thrust into a furnace!

Wild animals, unlike civilized humans and their domesticated commensals, are resilient. They live lightly on the ground, adapting and migrating when necessary. Catastrophic change is a driver of evolution as well as of extinction. Many species are still hanging on here, but in the canyon I hiked – formerly a lush refuge of high water table, low temperatures and high humidity – they’re struggling in a much dryer environment with much fewer cool, wet refuges and much higher average temperatures, now that we’ve killed the great trees and their protective canopy.

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Consuming the Final Frontier

Wednesday, May 30th, 2018: Trips.

Space vs. Earth

Some advocates of space exploration and colonization are also concerned about the damage caused by humans here on earth. Some of them believe we can give the earth a break by moving our civilization elsewhere. Others believe it’s too late to fix the earth’s problems, but now that we know better, we can move to another planet that’s in better shape, and start over, avoiding the mistakes of our ancestors.

Still other space nuts don’t care – they just want to hang out with all the cool aliens they’ve seen in Star Wars movies. Terrestrial life is passé – they’ve been there/done that on TV nature shows.

People who lack passion for either space or the earth may say “Why can’t we have both?” The answer is easy for the few of us who know where our resources come from. It takes big, energy-guzzling machines made on earth to study or explore space, and machines are non-renewable – every machine humans make comes out of a hole in the ground that used to be wildlife habitat. Space isn’t harmed by studying the earth, but the earth suffers when you study space.

Meanwhile, while living their lives as consumers, in cities far away from the ecological impacts of their consumer lifestyles, each generation of humans unknowingly destroys more of the earth. So-called “renewable energy” is a lie – solar and wind power equipment comes from nonrenewable mines, destroying nonrenewable habitat, and is manufactured and transported using fossil fuels. Wind farms and solar plants destroy habitat and harm and displace wildlife. Even if climate change were somehow stopped, or even reversed, the endless demand for consumer resources results in relentless industrial sprawl and conversion of wildlife habitat to toxic wasteland.

The next generation has no idea of what the earth was like for previous generations. If they experience rural environments at all, they view these now-degraded places as “nature,” just as city dwellers view their pocket parks full of imported vegetation as “nature.” In their ignorance of ecology, it looks fine to them – it has pretty flowers, and places to let their pets run off-leash – why should they worry about the loss of a few square miles halfway across the globe?

Sky Island on Fire

Returning home from a distant city, I decided on a whim to take a back road. The back road took me past a mountain range I’d flown over many times and had always been curious about. I knew there was a road to the top of it, where an astronomical observatory was maintained. In my homeward momentum, I drove past the turnoff, but a few miles farther, without making a conscious decision, I pulled over and checked my map. How far would it be? There were no services up there at all, but I had plenty of gas, a water bottle that was almost full, and a partial bag of trail mix.

This is the penultimate Southwestern “sky island” – an isolated mountain range that rises 7,000′ above the surrounding desert, allowing you to travel from the arid scrublands of Sonora to the alpine forests of the Canadian Rockies in just a dozen miles. It shelters species that have been isolated from their kin in other mountains since the last Ice Age, so that for those of us who love the earth, it’s a true frontier, a place with hidden wonders waiting to be discovered. But unlike most of these ranges, it has a paved road that goes nearly to the top.

A road that passes a Federal prison, at the northern foot of the mountains. A road that turned out to be perhaps the most dangerous paved road I’ve ever traveled. Narrow, and with more hairpins than any other I’ve seen. And you know those white lines they paint along the edge of the pavement? On this road, in many, many places, if you happen to cross that white line on the edge, your vehicle either disappears into a seemingly bottomless hole, or it falls hundreds of vertical feet down the side of the mountain. No shoulder and no guard rail, and in some places even that white line is crumbling.

The road’s so dangerous because this is one of the steepest mountain ranges I’ve ever been in. Even at the top, there are no large meadows or internal valleys. The paved road ends at 9,000′ elevation and turns to steep, twisting, washboarded dirt, and I followed it to its end. The entire mountain consists of precipitous slopes, with just a handful of small patches of grass on less steep slopes that are generously termed “flats.”

When I crested the first ridge it was all I could do to keep my truck on the road, because the views from this mountain range are mind-boggling in all directions. I could see the outline of the state prison way down there at the southern foot of the mountains, mirroring the federal prison on the north. But I was also surprised to enter a fresh burn area. At first I figured it to be a couple years old, but then I came to stands of slender fir, their blackened, drooping branches still holding charred needles. Later I passed slopes that were mostly clear except for big trunks white as bone, killed by a much older fire. The whole top of the mountain had burned in patches, at different times, and now, in springtime, the slopes were blanketed by virulently green ferns.

It was the day after Memorial Day. That’s one reason why I’d come up here – I figured all the vacationers would be gone by now. I had the mountain mostly to myself. I got to the small reservoir near the end of the dirt road, and the only people in the large campground there were a young couple taking a romantic stroll. Even the Forest Service information center was closed, but I did meet three kids playing blissfully in the forest outside the compound of staff housing. A tiny minority of children in our “advanced” society still get to experience a degraded form of what all our ancestors once enjoyed.

On the slopes above the road loomed rock outcrops and pinnacles, and throughout the shadowy forest rose the primeval shapes of lichen-encrusted boulders. Ribbons of water tumbled down from the peaks. Birds were everywhere, wildflowers were rampant. This magical range, isolated in the desert, is known to host the densest population of black bears in North America.

On the slopes that had been fully incinerated by the recent fire, it was easy to see why it happened: all the trees were spindly and had grown close together, a sign of generations of fire suppression by “experts” who were as ignorant of ecology as our city-dwelling consumers. This whole beautiful, damaged mountain range with deep-space telescopes on top, and mirrored prisons and a burning riverbed at its feet, was like a textbook case study of the cascading failures of Anglo-European society and its institutions.

Science vs. Nature

I only spent a few hours up there, so I’m by no means an expert. But I’ll try to summarize the story as it’s recorded by Forest Service ecologists and local historians.

For generations, white Americans stocked unsustainable herds of cattle on these slopes, overgrazing the forage and destabilizing the soil. They logged the old-growth timber while suppressing fires, encouraging dense stands of smaller-diameter trees. To get to the forage and timber, the road was built, and scientists – astrophysicists like media darling Neil deGrasse Tyson – began to covet that peak high in the desert sky as a site for the “world’s most advanced telescope,” to look deep into time and space to the beginnings of the universe itself. While Native Americans hold peaks sacred, white people see them as jumping-off points for their ambition to “conquer the cosmos.”

But environmentalists – that dying breed of obsolete earth-lovers – pointed out that the peak sheltered an endangered subspecies of squirrel, and a battle between scientists began. It became evident that astrophysicists are not conservationists. Different kinds of scientists have different values.

To most science buffs, this is inconceivable. At a time when science is under siege by right-wing fundamentalists and climate-change-deniers, scientists should close ranks! Science is science, and all science is good (except maybe those guys who work for Monsanto, and the oil companies, and pharma, plastics, the arms industry, those scientists who get paid lots of money to do nasty stuff that we don’t want to think of when we’re Marching for Science). Earth and space can live together in harmony – right?

Unsurprisingly, the astrophysicists – who by the nature of their empire-expanding work always have money and power on their side – won. A compromise was reached, because one thing you can never stop is “development” – i.e. replacing natural habitat with roads and buildings – and the astronomical observatory rose on the peak, with a few provisions to protect the squirrels.

It was then that the first fire hit, in 2004. Firefighters, being humans themselves, were naturally keen to protect the observatory, but not so much the habitat of the squirrels.

And last year, the second fire hit, spreading all over the mountaintop, decimating the squirrels. They are now expected to die out completely.

Consuming the Final Frontier

Squirrels are cute, and they’re also famous for burying nuts in the ground, to eat later. A little critical thinking might suggest that some of those nuts might germinate and grow into trees that would produce even more nuts. Like, the trees and the squirrels are working together in some kind of partnership. One will not survive without the other. That’s ecology – holistic thinking. Not so common in astrophysics, which like most science is reductive and mechanistic, treating nature as a machine which can be understood and controlled by breaking it down into its component parts.

The conifer forests at the top of these mountains, and the squirrels that are going extinct there, evolved together, along with thousands of other species – more than our science can ever identify and understand. But billionaires and popular media say we have to go to outer space to discover something new.

Meanwhile the sky islands – a unique frontier, one of a kind, that few people have ever experienced – are dying. The Forest Service, which as part of the federal government is one of our most conservative institutions, says that these high-elevation enclaves in the desert will be completely gone by the end of this century, due to climate change. Entire, incredibly rich and vibrant communities of sophisticated beings with their own priceless knowledge and wisdom, wiped off the face of the earth by our greed and ignorance.

Since conservative predictions are routinely being exceeded by reality, it’s likely that the magical sky islands will be gone in only a few decades. The scorched forests you see in my photos will not regenerate, nor will their squirrels return. It’s probably best not to take your kids out into nature. It will only depress them in the long run, and make them angry at the society that consumed their final frontier.

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Winter Trip 2017-2018

Tuesday, January 9th, 2018: Mojave Desert, Trips.

Prologue

I’d been in chronic pain for 3 years. Hiking was my stress relief, but I’d lost the ability to hike. I’d spent the past three months forcing myself to stick to a rigorous 3-hour-per-day home therapy regimen which hadn’t yet seemed to make much difference, and I’d attended 6 weeks of physical therapy that didn’t do me any good at all. I was so frustrated that I’d succumbed to several uncontrollable outbursts of anger in public, and felt on the edge of some sort of breakdown.

The winter solstice was approaching, and right after it, my annual holiday visit with family back east. After 25 years of faithful personal solstice observations, I’d had to ignore the winter solstice completely for the past few years while dealing with my physical problems and meeting my family obligations. The solstice observation was an important part of my identity, a way to connect with natural cycles and take stock of my life and the changes of the past year, and I really needed to resume this long-standing practice, especially now that my sanity, or at least my emotional stability, was in question.

The solstice observation is something I need to do in nature, in a place where I can observe the sunrise and sunset – preferably from an elevated place, like a peak. My preferable location is in my desert, in my mountains, either on our land or at the sacred Native American site nearby. So despite the fact that long-distance hiking is the main thing I do out there, and in my present condition I wouldn’t be able to hike more than two miles, I decided to drive out there for the solstice, camp for a few days, then drive to Las Vegas and fly back east for the family holidays.

On my return after the holidays, I could spend more time in the desert, or just drive back home. I’d prearranged to meet a friend in the mountains, but he had to cancel, and my itinerary was now completely up for grabs, except for the flights I’d booked from and to Vegas. I love not having plans, and being able to do just what I feel like doing from day to day, ready to take any back road and camp anywhere at any time. The weather forecast for the Southwest continued to be warmer than usual, and dry. At worst I could expect nights in the high 30s and a day or two of high winds which might force me to seek shelter in town.

Sunday

I have a tendency to rush the packing process and get stressed out, so I forced myself to pack slowly over a two day period. But on Sunday, my day of departure, I woke to a snowstorm, and two inches had accumulated by afternoon. Even an inch of snow on the roads will disable my 2wd pickup. Up to the minute I left, I was unsure if I could get away, but when the storm cleared up in the afternoon and snow melted off the roads, I loaded my remaining bags in the truck and headed north.

Despite my efforts to stay relaxed before leaving, I was so wound up and distracted on the lonely drive north through the mountains, I momentarily lost control of the truck at one point, on an icy stretch through a high pass, and barely avoided hurtling off into a ravine. And then when I encountered traffic in the little mountain towns, I overreacted when other drivers displayed little rudenesses like cutting in front or failing to use their turn signals, and I had to struggle to avoid road rage – a typical sign that stress has taken over and you’ve lost control of your feelings and your behavior. I was really afraid that I was on the verge of losing it, and that something terrible would happen on this trip – especially with my family, because we regularly have traumatic conflict during our visits. In the meantime, I made a little sign saying “DON’T REACT!” and stuck it next to my speedometer.

Leaving Sunday afternoon, I knew I’d have to stop for the night somewhere east of Flagstaff, where I was planning to shop for the camping trip. But from past experience I was not looking forward to the lodging and dining options in the towns along the way. With that in mind, I’d done a little research online, and found a restaurant on the far side of Holbrook that seemed to be a local favorite. After arriving and checking into a cheap motel, I found the restaurant, a “gourmet Italian” place that turned out to be staffed by friendly Navajos and had a small wine list featuring cheap California wines I’d never heard of. I ordered spaghetti and meat balls, which seemed to be the safest bet, and a glass of cheap pinot noir that turned out to be surprisingly good. Finally, a decent place to eat in Holbrook!

Monday

Shopping in hectic, upscale Flagstaff on Monday was stressful as usual. In search of a new liquor store, I got trapped in a series of detours through a downtown construction zone, with the resulting traffic jams, finally giving up on my search and making my way through congestion and urban sprawl to the westbound interstate. I’m always relieved to put Flagstaff behind me, but there seemed no relief in sight for my stressed-out, distracted condition.

The high-desert miles flew past. I stopped in Kingman as usual for dinner at El Palacio, then ended my day with a drive west to Needles, where I arrived after dark and stayed in one of the least-bad chain motels next to the interstate. The slowly dying town of Needles has dozens of cheap motels, none of them particularly good, and one ridiculously overpriced Best Western that I’ve never been willing to try.

Tuesday

Throughout the drive west I’d been trying to decide where to camp first in the desert, and where to spend the solstice. Now I had to decide. I wasn’t really excited about any of my options, primarily because I’d had so much trouble with my truck on recent trips, destroying tires on remote back roads. I had a feeling it was really dry out here, resulting in poor traction in the sand, and increased potential to get stuck many miles from help. I had provisions for increasing my traction and getting unstuck, but the possibility was still adding to my stress. As usual, I’d be completely alone out there, 20 miles or more from maintained roads and other humans.

I’d also been losing interest in my property as a destination, as my passion to learn about native prehistory rekindled. There are native sites near my land, but I’ve explored them thoroughly already, and in any event they require more hiking than I’m capable of now. And as a biologist friend points out, our land is trashed with unsightly mining and ranching ruins.

Nevertheless, out of all my options, our land was the only place I was relatively confident of being able to drive to and from without getting hopelessly stuck, so that’s where I headed on Tuesday morning.

The first surprise I encountered was in the ghost town a few miles off the highway that used to be the gateway to our side of the mountains. Last spring I’d discovered new, distinctive graffiti on the ruined buildings there, and the artist had been back since with at least one friend, adding art all over the abandoned, wrecked tungsten mill. I haven’t been able to locate the artist online, but I wonder where they’ll take it from here, since they’ve covered almost all the available surfaces at this point.

The first half of the road to our land leads to a natural gas pipeline, where there used to be a pumping station that was dismantled and removed a few years ago. And as usual, I’d forgotten that since the gas company no longer needs to maintain this part of the road, and it runs up an alluvial fan, crossing hundreds of natural drainage channels, it’s deeply eroded and a very slow road to drive. Whereas we used to be able to drive it at 50mph, now you have to stick to less than 15mph, the same speed that’s required on the abandoned mine road beyond. Hence, what used to be a 45 minute drive from the highway now takes about two hours.

When I got to the turnoff to our land I could really see how deep the drought has become out here. There was one deep, apparently recent, set of tire tracks, coming up from the south, which I attributed to the son of the local rancher who occupies himself by driving back into all the drainages around the range, crossing wilderness boundaries, and our property, to inspect the springs and wells, despite the fact that they’re no longer used by his family. His tires had thrown up tall banks of deep, dry sand, that I had to plow through with my little low-clearance truck. But as usual, I’d lowered my tire pressure before entering the mine road, and was able to back up, build up some speed, and bounce through.

It was a mild afternoon, clear, with temps in the upper 60s, when I arrived in camp. I’d opened and started on a new IPA from Flagstaff upon entering the mountains, and after parking, I immediately started hiking toward the shade house back in the side canyon, but only made it 2/3 of the way before I had to turn back to keep from straining my injured foot. I found that the rancher had indeed driven all the way into the gulch, and I found a single set of footprints leading up to the shade house, which were suspiciously exactly my size and shape. The rancher is much bigger than me, and in any event only leaves his truck to open and close gates. Could my footprints from last spring still be here, uneroded by wind or rain?

The day was short this near the solstice, and the sun was setting as I returned to camp. I realized that it had been many years since I’d camped in the desert in the winter time. Firewood is scarce and precious out here, and my desert shopping list includes firewood, but being out of practice, I’d ignored it. My friends all bring firewood when they come out here, and there was still some around camp that I could take guilty advantage of. As I wandered around gathering up a few pieces, I noticed bees following me, and one landed on the back of my hand at one point. But as the sun went down the temperature dropped quickly and they disappeared. I lit a small campfire for warmth, and by the light of my old kerosene barn lantern, chopped garlic and serrano chiles, which I added to a mess of bacon ends I’d picked up cheap back home at the Co-op and browned them all in my cast iron skillet. I warmed a can of black beans to mix the seasoned bacon in. I had a second beer with dinner, unusual for me, but I was still so stressed out, I seemed to need it to unwind. It was a simple but delicious dinner, with plenty of leftovers for the next night.

It got cold that night, and I was so wound up with stress and tension that I couldn’t sleep, tossing and turning there on the ground in my too-warm down bag and watching the progress of the constellations and the Milky Way. Orion rose in the east soon after sunset. Cygnus was setting in the west, and Cassiopeia was directly overhead, with the Milky Way connecting them all in a dusty trail from horizon to horizon. I’d brought my field glasses to bed, and spent some time resolving the Pleiades and trying – but failing – to locate the fuzzy spot of the Andromeda Galaxy near the trapezoid of Pegasus.

Wednesday

When the sun did rise, I watched and waited for its light to creep down the peak behind camp and touch my sleeping bag before getting up and struggling, stiff and sore, into my thermal pants, sweater and jacket. With cold hands, I filled and lit a burner under my little enamel coffeepot, dumped granola into a bowl and sprinkled pomegranates from my bush back home over it, and began grinding coffee beans.

After breakfast I decided to hike out into the central basin, across the rolling ground of the bajada, toward a giant boulder pile on the other side where I knew there was a good resting place with shade. I didn’t think I could make it with my injured foot, but at least it was something to do with my time. That’s the problem out here for us civilized people. There’s nothing to do but hike, especially if you’re alone with no one to talk to.

While I was loading my pack, I heard a screech, and looked up to see two redtail hawks wheeling over the peak behind camp, one following the other. I quickly realized they were male and female, courting. I’d never seen this up close before, and they stayed nearby for a half hour. The male was distinctly smaller than the female, something I’d never been able to observe before, and another joined them for a little while but was driven away by the first male. Unfortunately, I was still so stressed out that I couldn’t figure out to get my camera to focus on them, and although I tried to take a video of them, I later discovered the camera had been set on low resolution. I’d been so distracted I hadn’t even thought to check.

Leaving the hawks to their love affair, I started walking out across the bajada, down into gullies, up onto rises, and around shrubs and cacti, and made it about 2/3 of the way to the boulder pile before my foot began to get tender and I knew it was time to turn back. So frustrating! Despite the drought, there were both annuals and perennials blooming, phainopeplas were active everywhere, and I encountered hummingbirds near camp, but couldn’t get my camera to focus on them.

By the time I arrived back in camp, my foot was really sore, which freaked me out, because I’d worked so hard for the past few months to eliminate all swelling and tenderness and encourage healing, and I was afraid I’d reversed those months of progress in just a couple of hours. I’d brought a cold pack in my ice chest, and I immediately sat down and set my foot on it. As I sat there, a bee started circling me, buzzing loudly and acting aggressive. I needed to use my bone stimulator device, and as I retrieved it from the truck I noticed more bees buzzing around the area. A couple more followed me back to the chair and started exploring the sweaty boots I’d taken off and set beside the chair. By the time the bone stimulator was finished, there was a swarm of bees around my closed water jug, on the tailgate of the truck. The spout is watertight and had been sitting there long enough to evaporate any spillage, but there must’ve been a trace amount of vapor they could detect – or had they become familiar with water jugs in general? After being chased out of camp by bees last spring, I was spooked and paranoid. More bees were arriving by the minute. Soon they would fill the campsite.

Trying to avoid any rapid or threatening movements, I gathered up my gear and loaded it into the truck and the truck bed, staying as far away from the swarm around the water jug as I could. Then I got in and started driving away, moving slowly so the water jug wouldn’t tip off the open tailgate. I drove like that halfway out of the mountains, then stopped to see if the bees had followed. They hadn’t, so I was able to close the tailgate and get everything better organized. Bees had chased me out of the mountains the last two times I’d tried to camp in this range! I’d been told by the BLM that all the bees out here were Africanized by now, and during a volunteer effort years ago, I’d been taught by rangers that they were extremely dangerous and could easily kill you if they caught you in a swarm. I’d started this trip dangerously stressed out, and now I was afraid I’d permanently lost my sacred place on earth to lethal Africanized bees.

Alone and feeling vulnerable, I kept driving out of the mountains, until I reached the main track, where at first I turned right toward the highway as if I were heading to town. But then I had second thoughts. I can’t even remember what I had in mind, but I backed up into our side road, then turned left into the deep ruts left by the rancher’s truck and immediately got stuck, half-burying the rear tires in the sand.

Of course this is the eventuality I’ve learned to plan for. I had scrap plywood in the pickup bed and a camp shovel. I dug out behind the tires for a yard or so, then muscled a piece of plywood under each of them. And backed right out onto more solid ground, and turned around to head out of the mountains as originally planned.

As soon as I got a phone signal, I called my co-owner to report on the bee situation. Unfortunately, he reacted, as he often does, by questioning my experience, insisting in a patronizing manner that I’d encountered wasps or hornets instead of bees, and repeating the insistence later in an email. After all, the thing whose buzzing around my face had awakened me on my first morning in the mountains, thirty years ago, had probably been a wasp or hornet, not a native solitary bee looking for its burrow as I’d observed at the time. The damaged hive with dripping combs that I discovered at the Native American shrine the following year hadn’t been a bee hive but a nest of hornets, just like the hives I discovered in early years on our land and at other springs and seeps around the range, and have revisited over the decades. All the bees I’ve found year after year rolling in cactus flowers in the springtime, their legs heavy with pollen, were no doubt wasps, and the young grad students I got to know in recent years at the ecological preserve were most likely studying hornets, not bees as they claimed, in the microhabitat of larrea. To have my experience questioned this way is something I’ve come to expect of my harried, citybound partner – to compensate for his own insecurities, he habitually attempts to undermine the confidence of others – but it was coming at the worst possible time.

Depressed, I refilled my tires with a 12 volt pump in the ghost town, and drove back across the desert to Needles, where I wanted to check with the BLM. There was nobody onsite who could advise me about bees, but the clerk at the counter referred me to Mystic Maze Honey, a quaint operation just down the road, where I found an old beekeeper who dismissed the whole Africanized bee phenomenon. He said he’d never run into aggressive bees in the desert, but he confirmed what I’d read about bee foraging: bees in the desert don’t normally venture more than about two miles from the hive, and he’s seen bees die of thirst five miles from a hive. In our mountains, during this severe drought, the drying up of historically perennial water sources now means that hives are likely to be isolated from each other, and knowing where the water is means knowing where the bees will be. I suspected that his business agenda might bias his observations, but I did feel better to hear that the BLM’s warnings about lethal behavior might be exaggerated.

What to do now? Tomorrow would be the Winter Solstice, the goal of my entire trip. But the day was already late, and I didn’t know where I could safely camp at this point. Whatever plan I had was in shambles. Still depressed, I checked into one of the cheaper and less comfortable motels of Needles to punish myself for my failure. At least I had last night’s leftovers to warm up for dinner on my camp stove in the room, to compensate for Needles’ lack of a decent restaurant.

Thursday: Winter Solstice

On the morning of the solstice, I thought what the hell – before giving up on the desert completely, I would try the other side of the mountains, the sacred Native American site, which I doubted that I could even reach with my truck in this severe drought. At least I could console myself that I’d tried.

After the 25-mile drive down the rolling, bumpy, deeply eroded dirt-and-sand powerline road, there are two ways to access the sacred site: a shorter uphill track through sand, and a longer, slightly less uphill drive that’s only partly through sand. The shorter road twists and doesn’t allow me to get up enough speed to carry me safely through the sand, so I thought I would try the other. And after letting air out of my tires yet again, I was able to make it, by speeding through the sandy part, bouncing and sliding around bends, surprising a roadrunner, until I finally reached the high end of the alluvial fan at the foot of the mountains, and more solid ground. I knew there was a campsite there, the only good campsite on this side of the mountains, which had already been occupied on my previous visit. Maybe I’d get lucky and have an actual campsite for solstice night. But on the other hand, I also knew this campsite was directly below a major spring that had a long-established hive of Africanized bees. This would be a further test of the new reality in my mountains.

There was yet another challenge on this solstice: wind. A high wind advisory had been in the forecast for today, supposedly dropping by mid-afternoon. It’d been windy all the way out from Needles, and temperatures had dropped twenty degrees since yesterday. After parking outside the gate of the sacred site, I had to put on all my thermals, my shell, knit cap, and snow gloves to keep warm outside in the wind. I knew two of my best friends, old desert rats, had been driven out of the desert previously in conditions like this, but I was hoping the wind would die down soon.

I started off on a hike to revisit some rock art in a side basin, a half mile away. It was farther than I thought, and I turned back after reaching the first rock art panel. Then I cut across a deep ravine to the sacred site. I made my obligatory visit, but neither my mind nor my heart was really there. I was just cold, frustrated, and depressed. I ate a sandwich and walked back to the former campsite of the caretaker, an old desert friend, but it was stripped and lonely, so I returned to the truck to head over to the public campsite.

The campsite, east-facing, was already in shade, and bitterly cold in the still-strong wind. At least I wouldn’t have to worry about bees – they couldn’t leave the hive in this weather. But I realized that after remembering about the need for firewood the day before yesterday, I still hadn’t picked up any in town. This being a popular campsite, I certainly didn’t want to collect wood in the vicinity, but without firewood, there was no way I could camp here in this wind and cold. My solstice was just thoroughly doomed, so I decided to drive to Boulder City, outside Las Vegas, to get another motel room and wait for my flight back east.

Friday – Saturday

My time in Boulder City was spent reading in the motel room. The important thing about the Winter Solstice is the night and morning after – the longest night of the year, and the first sunrise, marking the turning from its southward swing back toward the north, with days growing longer again and life renewing. I spent that night and that morning in my room, meaninglessly, alone and disappointed.

I emailed my desert friends about the bees, and heard back from a scientist who said a friend of hers had been chased out of the desert by bees that were desperate for water in a dry year. I began to suspect the drought, and the bees’ desperate thirst, was the problem, not “Africanization.” I realized that some hives were probably dying out completely as their water source dried up, and I remembered having seen something like that happen long ago, without really understanding it. In humid climates, we think of bees as drinking nectar and collecting pollen from flowers, not relying on water sources.

My flight was scheduled for 5:45am Sunday, in the darkness before dawn, so I had reserved a room nearest to the airport, in a Best Western situated in an industrial no-man’s-land next to the economy parking lot, for Saturday night. I did laundry in Boulder City, then drove over the pass into Las Vegas and parked in the economy lot. I left all my camping gear in the truck, with my ice chest, water jugs, and gas can outside in the bed, and caught a shuttle to the terminal with my travel bags. There, I called the hotel shuttle, and learned that it would start running in the morning at 5:30, too late to catch my flight.

But on the ride to the hotel, the shuttle driver showed me how I could walk from the hotel to the terminal in the morning – a little less than a mile through the industrial wasteland.

I’d cooked a meal in the Boulder City motel, with leftovers planned for Saturday night, but I’d forgotten and left them in the ice chest, in my truck, so there I was stuck in an industrial wasteland with nothing to eat. I walked out of the hotel, and found a bizarre cavernous liquor store hidden behind a postal distribution yard, completely isolated from the street and any other retail, so at least I could get a good can of beer. But my only food option was an Arco station, where I ended up getting one of those frozen microwave burritos. Everywhere I went, even around the airport, hung the smell of cigarettes. Vegas, last bastion of the Old West.

Sunday: Christmas Eve

When leaving the parking lot on Saturday evening, I’d noticed big signs at the exit warning patrons not to leave anything visible in their vehicles, so in my already stressed-out condition, I began to worry about theft. I’d taken pictures of all my stuff on Saturday, just in case, and realized that some of my gear, like the old Swiss Army surplus backpack, was irreplaceable, and the rest of it, although acquired cheaply long ago, could be very expensive to replace. The economy lot was open to anyone from outside the airport and virtually unsupervised. So on Sunday morning, I got up before 3am, walked over to the lot, and transferred my truck to the parking garage next to the terminal. I’d end up paying about $60 more, but the peace of mind would be worth it. And then I checked in, and boarded my flight.

Christmas – New Year’s

I always look forward to seeing my mother in Indianapolis, but I dread sharing a cramped house with my morbidly obese, emotionally volatile brother, trying to occupy the long days with no space or privacy, and trying to sleep in the overheated bedroom. And this visit would be worse than usual because of my own limited mobility – I wouldn’t be able to get out and relieve my stress with long walks.

But it turned out even worse than expected. After arriving on Christmas eve, sharing dinner and Christmas breakfast at restaurants with my little family, I came down with my dreaded winter respiratory infection on Christmas night, and knew I would be miserable for the rest of my visit.

It was as bad as ever, and on the second day, my mom took me to an urgent care facility, where I was prescribed an antibiotic (to treat the sinus infection that always follows the virus) and some codeine cough syrup, which turned out to be most essential after I returned to the desert more than a week later.

While I was sick, the usual traumatic conflicts arose, with both brother and mother, and afterward, as I reflected on what really happened, I realized they all happened because of my stressed-out condition. I had been lying upstairs in bed, sick, moping about how everyone made life hard on me, but I had brought my own problems from out west.

When I visited them at Thanksgiving, my mom had seen a Monopoly game in a store and wanted to get it. It hit me that she saw it as the perfect family activity to keep us engaged and prevent us getting on each others’ nerves. It was her brilliant idea. So I had ordered Monopoly for her as a Christmas gift, and we played a few games while I was there. And it really helped.

Eventually, I got well enough to get dressed and leave the house, just as temperatures in Indianapolis dropped below zero. We fell to eating TV dinners because it was so hazardous to go out. I received another email rejection of my book project from the last of the literary agents I’d submitted to; people just weren’t interested in a story about artists in the 80s.

Wednesday after New Year’s

Since I was flying nonstop into Vegas instead of trying to make connections through to Silver City, I’d been able to reserve an afternoon flight and didn’t have to get up hours before dawn as usual the day of my departure from Indianapolis. But in the airport, I was shocked and saddened to see dogs everywhere, from the ticket counter to security and even the gates. It seemed that about ten percent of travelers were traveling with pets. We’re not content with our own escalating consumption, we have to increase the human ecological footprint even more with domesticated animals. Originally developed for hunting, herding, and pest control, the current ecological role of pets is destructive – as consumers of resources, producers of waste, and predators on wildlife – and their dysfunctional social roles range from living toys to surrogate children. Few of their owners can be bothered to train them or give them adequate exercise, many of them end up neurotic or obese, and more and more of them end up abandoned on the streets, abused and feral. Bred for an unhealthy master/slave relationship with humans, they are now replacing the wild animals we never see anymore and are driving to extinction. This is not the kind of world I look forward to living in.

The afternoon flight got me into Vegas in the dark of early evening, and I drove back to Boulder City and another motel room.

Thursday

I might’ve been back in the desert, but I was by no means free. My truck was overdue for an oil change, so after breakfast I located a nearby shop, which agreed to take me in a half hour. I quickly packed and drove over. And in the waiting room, they had a museum of film cameras.

I drove from the auto shop past Boulder City and south across the Hoover Dam into Arizona, ostensibly heading home, but once across the dam I realized I wasn’t ready to leave the desert. My trip had been a disaster, and I had unfinished business. I pulled off the highway and unpacked my maps to refresh my memory of options.

The stark, colorful mountains and canyons around the dam have always intrigued me, but I’ve always passed through there intent on getting somewhere else. To the south, between Boulder City and Kingman, there was a mountain range I’d often wondered about. And the map showed a dirt road that climbed to the top, where there appeared to be campgrounds.

I had no interest in campgrounds – my experience is that they tend to be occupied by giant RVs running noisy gas generators to power their owners’ massive stereos that blast all over the landscape. But that road might be a novel way to see a new desert mountain range up close.

It turned out to be easy to find; there was a sign along the highway listing the campgrounds and distances. And it was a well-maintained dirt road, although as it rose toward the ridge top it became much too steep for RVs. That was a good sign.

What I found was a surprise in many ways. It was a true sky island, with an unusual road running along the ridge at 6,000′, with views to both sides for a hundred miles over the desert. And the vegetation was characteristic of much farther south, with desert chaparral (scrub oak and manzanita) covering the upper slopes, between stands of pinyon and juniper, with frequent boulders and outcrops of metamorphic and igneous rock. My botanist friend tells me it represents the northern limit of the characteristic vegetation of the Mogollon Rim. It was beautiful, and according to the guest books I saw, seldom visited despite its closeness to cities.

Signs indicated a peak trail at the end of the road, past the campgrounds, so I kept going. The campgrounds appeared beautifully sited, and the trailhead was like the portal to wonderland, leading down into an intimate grove like a tunnel. Most of the trail ran on the east side of the ridge, and I was able to hike 2/3 of the 2-1/2 mile distance, with an elevation gain of about 700 feet, before I had to start thinking about my foot. On the way, I kept watching a plateau on an outlying ridge several miles to the east, a hanging valley with meadows and surrounding forest that was hidden from the desert below. I wanted to go over there and check it out!

It was still only early afternoon when I returned to the truck, but I was so excited by my discovery of this place, there was no way I could leave. I decided to check out the campgrounds.

The first was called Windy Point, on a point of ridge to the west. You really felt like you were on an elevated platform thousands of feet above the desert, but the boulder-strewn point was covered with sheltering groves of pinyon and juniper, and as I drove around the loop, I could see that each campsite was well sheltered. There were two small vehicles parked at the back, and although none of the campsites appeared to be claimed, I saw some retiree types wandering about. I had passed a site at the entrance that appeared to be the most private, so I returned to that and parked. The site had been designed so that the parking space at front was isolated from the actual camping area at back by rocks and trees, and I realized that the whole campground had been designed strictly for tent camping.

When I walked out to register and pay my fee at the kiosk, I encountered the retirees. Two older men and a women, they addressed me as “youngster,” and explained that they didn’t have the money to pay the $8 overnight fee. Later, unloading my truck, I waved to them as they drove off in their ATVs. They were apparently the people staying in the big RV I’d passed down in the foothills, before the road got steep. I had the entire top of the mountain range to myself.

I explored around camp, read, warmed up a can of beans (since I hadn’t planned on camping, that and granola for breakfast was all I had with me), and after sunset I took my flashlight and walked around, exploring the other campsites. It turned out they were all very isolated from each other and private, and most had even more separation between parking and camping than mine, with beautifully laid out paths up or down through the groves to intimate dining and sleeping areas on different levels. It was the most beautiful campground I’d ever seen – and it was administered by BLM.

It was cold that night, but not windy like I’d feared, and when I got up to pee long after midnight, it was completely still and even seemed warmer than when I’d gone to bed. I had a wonderful night’s sleep, and enjoyed waking occasionally to watch the constellations change overhead, from my cozy pallet on top of the mountains.

Friday – Saturday

I had a leisurely breakfast and took my time packing in the morning, since my sleeping bag was damp with dew and had to wait for the sun to dry it. Spotted towhees, cousins of my friends from back home, foraged energetically around me in the understory. Then I drove back, stopping to explore the other, much smaller, campground, wedged into a narrow gap at a high point on the ridge.

Leaving the mountains, I stopped at El Palacio in Kingman for lunch, then located the BLM field office, hoping to get better maps of the mountains I’d discovered. In the lobby was a live exhibit of venomous desert reptiles, including a Mojave green rattlesnake that looked just like the snake I’d encountered on a field trip with wildlife biologists more than a decade ago. I’d asked the others if it was a Mojave green, and the oldest snapped “Of course not! That’s just a common mitchellii!” That’ll teach me to depend on a bighorn sheep specialist for reptile identification.

Nobody appeared at the BLM counter, so I rang the bell, and a man came out who was apparently very lonely, because he wouldn’t stop talking. I told him I’d camped in the mountains last night, and he asked me about the condition of the road and campgrounds, and where I was going next, and went on to advise me about restaurants in Flagstaff, where I wasn’t even intending to stop. I kept trying to get away and he kept coming up with new questions and advice. Finally I just said goodbye and pushed my way out the door, waving, as he kept talking behind me.

I drove straight across northern Arizona, passing Flagstaff, but making a mistake at Holbrook, where I drove south through Show Low and Pinetop/Lakeside instead of east toward St. Johns. I was hoping to spend the night in the White Mountains, but that corridor is choked with nasty traffic and from Show Low on, it’s one continuous strip mall until you reach the Apache Reservation at the end. I’d been thinking of staying in a motel along there, but ended up continuing to the isolated resort village of Greer, my familiar weekend getaway destination. The backroad to the White Mountains campgrounds was closed for the winter, so I ended up unwinding in the motel there for two nights, savoring my memories of the desert.

Sunday

On Sunday morning, as I was leaving Greer, the road dipped through a ravine, and over my shoulder, I glimpsed stone cliffs that reminded me of the Arizona Game and Fish presentation I’d seen last summer. The rangers had talked about their recent reintroduction of Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep to this gently rolling plateau, and how the sheep gravitated to the ravines because their rocky cliffs provided the only available “escape terrain” to get away from predators.

Just after having that memory, I saw something out of the corner of my eye – animals grazing at the top of the cliff, hundreds of yards away. At first I assumed they were cattle, but then as I continued up the road, had second thoughts. So I turned around, went back, and found a place to pull over and take pictures across the ravine – unfortunately with a telephone line in the way. I’m used to seeing bighorn in the steep, sparsely vegetated rocky terrain of the desert, so it always surprises me to see them in forested country like this.

Epilogue

Will Max regain the use of his injured foot and overcome his chronic pain?

Will he find other ways to reduce his stress, and find peace with his family?

Will he ever get a better vehicle for exploring the desert?

Will bees and their hives survive in the desert despite worsening drought, and will Max and his friends find a way to coexist with them?

Who are the ghost town graffiti artists, and what will they do next?

Stay tuned…

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