Of Fools and Gold

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Image credit: abebooks.com

It all started with a book, Coronado’s Children, that recounted (alleged) tales of forgotten treasures in the wilds of west Texas. I first came across it at an early age – maybe eight or nine. And I was immediately hooked, poring over old road maps, drawing anally-precise little Xs on the most likely locations of the concealed bullion and mislaid bags of stolen bank loot. From the sound of it, these riches were stashed in every hollow tree stump and under every rock pile in the region. So I began to scrimp and save, buying a cheap metal detector a few years later. Mail order, no less. I may have wet myself when it finally arrived; bright red control box and coil, a pair of adjustable dials to fine-tune for precise depths and metals (coins, nuggets, ingots), the detection meter with its bouncing needle – it was like a Geiger counter on steroids. I hurriedly popped a nine volt battery in and ran to the backyard.

But my glittering dream soon lost its luster, as every beep issued by my new toy turned out to be a bottle cap or rusty nail rather than the lost gold of the Incas as I envisioned. And I cursed the gods who saw fit to strand me in Michigan, a place seldom frequented by pirates or stagecoach robbers looking to hide their ill-gotten fortunes. I was convinced that if I could just get myself, my map and my electronic marvel to El Paso, then, like Ginger Rogers, I’d be singing “We’re In the Money.”

The metal detector is long since gone, and my one trip to west Texas was little more than a drive-through, though it did make me realize that there would be ample hiding places for a cache of cash in those miles of deserted, scrub-covered hills.

And now, along comes Forrest Fenn. A self-proclaimed collector and adventurer, he (allegedly) squirreled away a box of gold, gems and other trinkets somewhere amongst the rugged spires of the American west. And to help narrow the search, he’s woven a handful of cryptic clues to its whereabouts into several stanzas of mangled verse published in a book called The Thrill of the Hunt.

Nonsensical rhyme aside, this is the sort of thing I have waited for since those days in suburban Detroit, slowly sweeping that metal detector to and fro, waiting for a telltale chirp in the headphones that would send me to my knees, garden trowel at the ready, giddy with anticipation over the bonanza I was about to unearth.

It would appear I am not alone. The story has been featured by The Today Show, Newsweek and NPR among others, sending hoards of modern-day children of Coronado into the hills looking for the prize, as many as 65,000 by one estimation. Fenn claims he did this to get people off the couch and outdoors again, so on that point he appears to have nailed it. But now the body count is starting to climb. A 54-year old from Colorado, by all accounts a ‘regular’ on the trail of Fenn’s treasure, disappeared in January of last year while poking around in the hills near Santa Fe, New Mexico. His remains were found several months later near the banks of the Rio Grande. And just a few days ago, another treasure-seeker’s corpse was plucked from the same river. A friendly reminder – Indiana Jones is a fictional character.

I doubt any of this is what Fenn, now in his eighties, ever expected. And before he decides to call off the hunt to avoid legal repercussions – by simply revealing the location of the gold, one would assume – I’ve decided to go have a look for myself. In fact, I already did.

It’s something I’ve considered ever since first catching wind of it a few years ago. Still, after scrutinizing terrain on Google Earth (stretching from northern New Mexico to the Canadian border) and convincing myself of possible locations, I didn’t head out with shovel in hand because, well, it’s not what grownups do. “I’m on a treasure hunt,” seems a foolish response when people ask what I’m up to these days. Especially considering my time might be better spent looking for a job.

Yet all the while, that excited kid digging for Spanish doubloons in the backyard has been asking, “What the hell are you waiting for?” Then my wife flew back to Michigan to be with family for the Memorial Day weekend, and suddenly I had several days all to myself. A quick calculation revealed that the odds of locating Fenn’s chest in roughly 300,000 square miles of wilderness were still slightly better than – at my age – finding employment, and my ‘search zone’ was only four hours from DIA, so…

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Wheeler Peak, New Mexico’s tallest

Okay, now I’ve come clean. Yes, that was the reason for my brief trip to New Mexico a few weeks back. But rather than singing like Ginger Rogers, my efforts prompted more of a Yukon-Cornelius-after-licking-his-pickaxe reaction – nothin’! Nothin’, that is, except for some pleasant hiking in the shadow of Wheeler Peak, a star-filled night and a camp meal fit for a king.

Barring my own reality series on the Discovery Channel, I don’t plan to make a habit of this – there are too many other things still to accomplish. But should the opportunity arise every so often, I just might mosey into the mountains for a few days, sleep on the ground, revel in a cup of hot coffee as the sun comes up, and take in the scenery. And if I find that other treasure I’ve been dreaming of all these years, well, that will be like icing on the cake.

I’d Rather be Jousting

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Image credit: carolina.renfestinfo.com

Ah, summer is here. I know this not because the air conditioning is wreaking havoc with my electric bill or because my lawn is already charring around the edges, but rather due to the arrival of the season’s true harbinger. The Renaissance Festival has opened for business.

Time to renew old friendships with overly-expressive sorts dressed in peasant garb and brandishing swords and turkey drumsticks with equal abandon. Time to shell out twenty bucks a head to tromp around in the mud (at least you hope it’s mud) while these wanna-be actors – who last starred in their high school’s production of The Music Man – try to lure you into some medieval feat of strength by calling you things like “knave” and “wench” in a variety of mangled British accents that only Kevin Costner could love. But be sure and wait for the hottest, most humid day imaginable so the sweat will be dripping off both you and those whose job it is to transport you back to jolly old England in the age of non-existent sanitary facilities, not to mention that pesky Black Death. This way the experience will be enhanced when, by mid-afternoon, the scent of horse droppings, overwhelmed antiperspirant and festering mead will hang like an acrid pall over waft blithely throughout the proceedings.

A jester blocks your path, juggling bowling pins (as I recall, bowling was invented by the Visigoths, who brought it to England during the first Bronze Age, using the heads of their vanquished enemies as the ball) from behind a blindfold while admonishing anyone within earshot to clear a path lest they risk being struck by an errant toss. All are happy to comply. Close behind are the troubadours, strumming on lutes and singing songs that seem to bring them great joy (an assumption based on the fact that, though not a single word is discernible, they stop and laugh raucously after every few stanzas). An offer to join in on the merriment is dismissed with the wave of your half-eaten turkey leg.

(I’m neither an historian or dietician, but I find it astounding that humanity survived the period considering the only foodstuff available to the general populace appears to have been turkey drumsticks. In a related note, I’m equally surprised that turkeys survived, considering the extreme demand for their haunches.)

After a few hours of “authentically costumed” frivolity it’s time to find a bathroom. Thankfully, the organizers have not insisted on historical accuracy in this arena, but even so you nearly soil yourself before realizing that all the porta-johns have been cleverly disguised – in some cases as turrets, in others, trees, replete with arched doors through which you would expect the Keebler elf to walk. Of course the ‘tree’ you choose is occupied, and once you finally gain entry it looks as though the fair maiden who went before you used the last of the leaves. Such is the lot of those who stray too far from the castle.

Many attendees slip and slide through the muck with a look of bewildered disappointment on their faces as they come to realize that this is not so much Game of Thrones as it is Robin Hood: Men In Tights. Sadly, there will be no heads crushed like grapes or eviscerations by long blade, just irritatingly jovial fire-breathers, jugglers and jousters.

And, of course, an Artisan’s marketplace, where one can purchase an original 14th century WWE belt buckle, ye olde Chinese Finger Traps and walking staffs carved by King Henry the Eighth himself.

So once more, summer is awakened by the heralding trumpets of the Renaissance Festival. Like the swallows returning to Capistrano or the Lions falling short of the Super Bowl, this yearly ritual remains as timeless and steadfast as ever. Hurry in before they’re all out of turkey legs.

The Road to Ruin (and other Destinations)

“That’s the place to get to – nowhere. One wants to wander away from the world’s somewheres, into our own nowhere.” D.H. Lawrence

It was always my intention to devote a certain amount of this blog to travel pieces. Not necessarily make it a ‘travel blog’ but at least share more posts about being on the road because, well, it’s one of my favorite places (despite the title). For me, it’s hard to beat an open stretch of pavement leading to unknown places and my ipod shuffling through my playlist while I swig bad gas station coffee and beat mercilessly on the air drums/dashboard. But, as is most often the case, life has little regard for the best laid plans of mice and men. Still, there’s no time like the present to try and make amends.

I recently took a brief trip to New Mexico, just ahead of the Memorial Day crowds. I’m happy to report that the Land of Enchantment, once I got off the freeway and headed into the hills, lived up to its billing. But here’s the thing – while pictures of sweeping vistas and snow-capped peaks are wonderful, for some reason my eye has also been drawn to less awe-inspiring scenes. Roadside oddities, mostly. In particular, our failures as a species. When those best laid plans go awry. When dreams both big and small end in quiet desolation. Maybe it comes from growing up around Detroit, a city that never really got back on its feet after the riots of ‘67 and fell into such disrepair that it became the poster-child for the term ‘ruin-porn.’ Or maybe it’s that I see some stoic elegance amidst the destruction. Then again, maybe I’m compensating for my own perceived failures (too heavy?) or maybe it’s just a train-wreck mentality. Take your pick.

Along with these random remnants of humanity is the simply weird – plenty of that around, too. I’m sure they all have their stories, so I like to think that I’m picking up where Charles Kuralt left off (sans mistress, of course).

Questa is a blip of a burg in northern New Mexico that wears ‘rough around the edges’ as though it were a badge. And like an emissary, this sits just north of town, welcoming intrepid travelers.

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Looks like I’ll have to hold it a little longer

I had a job a few years ago that involved a great deal of travel in Wyoming and western Nebraska. At first blush it appeared to be a perfect fit, considering my love of driving and the opportunity to explore new places. Of course, the actual work consisted of stocking shelves in grocery stores, overnight, so that was a bit of a trade-off. Still, it gave me the chance to poke around in some of the loneliest places in the lower 48.

There’s an old Jimmy Buffett song called Son of a Son of a Sailor wherein he sings “…I’m just glad I don’t live in a trailer.” Well, this guy outside of Ogallala appears to live in half a trailer, but at least he has his priorities in order.

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Home is anywhere you can pick up 500 channels

And as long as we’re talkin’ trailers, this former mobile home in Ethete, Wyoming (which appeared to have more canine residents than human ones) gives new meaning to ‘open concept.’

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Realtors will tell you ‘location’ is everything, but walls would be nice, too

Welcome to what Rand McNally refers to, with great optimism, as the ‘town’ of Angora, Nebraska. There’s not so much as a driveway or parking lot to be seen, giving the impression that someone simply dropped this building in the tall grass and walked away.

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A harbinger of retail’s woes

When people talk about ‘God-forsaken’ places, much of Wyoming comes to mind. And I imagine it can be tough to keep your faith out in these no-man’s-lands, where evidence of a higher power (or anything else, for that matter) might prove hard to come by. Yet still we seek guidance. It looks as if the Vatican hasn’t done right by this diocese in Jeffrey City…could use a little more stained glass, if you ask me.

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Maybe the Pope will stop by on the NEXT world tour

And I think perhaps God has forsaken this edifice at the foot of the Wind River Range.

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A realtor would also tell you “All it needs is a coat of paint”

Then there’s just plain WTFery. Some guy decided that the fringe of civilization north of Alliance, Nebraska was the perfect spot for a post-industrial Stonehenge ‘reboot,’ so he planted a ring of vehicles in the prairie and, yes, he calls it Carhenge. In very un-American fashion, admission is free.

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Ours is not to reason why…

And here’s another high plains artist, working in a unique medium…

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Again, your guess is as good as mine

Until next time.

The Hounds of Silence

the queen

From the website vetstreet.com: “The Jack Russell Terrier is almost certainly not the breed for you.”

Cowards.

It used to be that Riley, our dog, felt the need to engage in battle with the various noise-making machines around the house – mainly the vacuum and lawn mower. She would dart about, lunging and barking at the offensive contraptions, doing whatever was necessary to defend her peeps and her domain. There was no use admonishing her. She’s a Jack Russell – it’s what she does. The doorbell was another trigger, sending her into histrionics whenever some unsuspecting rube was foolish enough to give it a poke. In a related note, we always scrambled for the remote to mute the TV if we happened to be watching House Hunters because, well, how was she to know that the doorbell sound effect at the beginning of the show wasn’t actually a serial killer on our porch looking to gain entry and make worms meat of us all.

However, in the last year or so, she has gone deaf as a post. At first we were concerned and more than a little saddened. But since she remains otherwise healthy and active (as active as a 15-year old pooch can be, anyway) and in no pain, we’ve decided that her silent world is not so bad. Indeed, it has proven a blessing in many ways, including a distinct lack of doorbell insanity. And prior to this, thunderstorms and fireworks were a source of grief for everyone, as she would go into a panting, zombie-like panic and either crawl under the bed to shred the lining of the box spring or cower in the laundry room, where she would try to claw her way into the dryer until long after the bangs and booms had faded away. Now, storms rumble through and the 4th of July passes without so much as a twitch. Still, every new development brings its own unique challenges.

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So I’m wondering if the folks at Black and Decker make cow-catchers for their lawn mowers.

A Slow Burn in the Wild West

I’d like to think I passed the writing gene along, but he’s so much better at it than me…

From Damon to Dugan

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is far from what you might expect out of a western. I’d argue the only thing “western” about the film is the setting, as the story itself plays more akin to a Shakespearean drama. What writer/director Andrew Dominik has crafted for us is an intimate and harshly melancholy character study of the twilight years of the mythological Jesse James. While you might think that Brad Pitt’s Jesse James would be the centerpiece of this escapade, you’d be mistaken. This is as much Casey Affleck’s show as it is Brad’s. The film refrains from simply giving us a “Greatest Hits” highlight reel of Jesse James, and prefers to focus on the somewhat mystifying relationship between Jesse and his infamous assailant Robert Ford.

assassination-of-jesse-james-by-the-coward-robert-ford(Photo courtesy of alchetron.com)

It’s difficult to put into words all the things that the film gets right. What’s…

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Smile For the Camera

I recently took a picture of my driver’s license as part of an ill-fated attempt to register myself on airbnb. I wound up canceling the application, but the picture is a testament to my photogenically-challenged status. Granted, the zombies operating the camera at the DMV seem to have an innate ability to snap us at our worst, but in my case the fault isn’t entirely theirs.

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To their credit, they did perfectly capture my sunken-eyed ‘just coming off a three-day crack bender’ face. But while not all my mug shots are quite so striking, it’s a given that, as a subject, I am incapable of taking a good picture. Usually I’m just caught in mid-gesture, with a weird look on my face, like I’m about to say something.

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Even as a kid I was always squinting and grimacing uncomfortably in family photos.

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Some Native Americans held the belief that when you took their picture, you were taking a piece of their soul. I can relate. So I’ve always done my best to try and avoid cameras.

Then Newsweek Magazine came knocking. A few years ago the publication decided to print one of my articles. This was huge. Until that point my writing efforts had been met with little interest – a few columns printed in a local paper and hardly anything more. Now one of the biggest periodicals in the country (with claims of 19 million readers) was going to publish my stuff. Sweet! I did a little dance right there in front of the computer as I read the email.

After changing my underwear I called the editor, who told me they would be running my essay some time in the next four to five weeks, just as soon as they could schedule a photo shoot.

Pictures? Of me?

“We like to include a portrait of the author with the column,” she explained.

Damn. But there was no point in arguing. It was Newsweek, after all.

“And we need to think about props, too. Something that ties in with the piece.”

This was turning uglier by the minute. “The piece” dealt with my conflicted feelings over ethnic diversity, manifested through a new tattoo that called out my Scottish ancestry.

“Do you have a kilt, or maybe some bagpipes?”

“Afraid not,” I answered (while briefly imagining my face superimposed on Fat Bastard’s body). That was the point of the article – that I rarely even acknowledge my heritage, much less make a show of it. And then I caved. “I might be able to get my hands on a Scottish flag, though.” One was stored in a box somewhere, thanks to my late aunt. As the clan matriarch and repository of our amassed history, she was my complete opposite. The woman reveled in the thought that we had descended from proud Celtic stock, all bearing a striking resemblance to Mel Gibson, only taller. Despite being separated by an ocean and several centuries of haphazard cross-breeding, we were still noble moor dwellers and God help the half-wit who didn’t know better or the family member who strayed from the fold. Anyone foolhardy enough to hand her a green hat or four-leaf clover to wear on St. Patrick’s Day might very well draw back a bloody stump.

“That would work. I’m going to pass your name on to our photo editor, who will contact you shortly to set something up.”

Several more phone calls and emails ensue before I’m on my way to meet Fabrizio, the photographer who will be doing the shoot. It was his idea to hold it in a tattoo parlor as a way to further set the mood. He also reassures me that it shouldn’t take more than a few hours to capture what he’s looking for. Christ, it’s just the family badge on my upper arm – I could have snapped a picture of it with the camera on my phone and been done with it. I’m having second thoughts about all of this, especially that flag.

After some discreet inquiries, we are cleared to shoot a few photos around a “tat” in progress. It seems other people want to be in this picture more than I do. So the three of us (did I mention Fabrizio’s assistant?) squeeze into a tiny booth where a young woman is having something etched on her shoulder blade. In order to get everything in the shot, I’m instructed to stand uncomfortably close to her. Fabrizio is also telling me to shift my weight around, try some different emotional looks, do whatever comes “natural.” At that particular moment the most “natural” thing I can think of is to run screaming from the building.

“Let’s try a few with the flag, now.”

Double damn – I was hoping he’d forgotten about it.

Now, this isn’t one of those tiny flags stapled to a wooden stick, like the kind kids wave around at a Fourth of July parade. This is a thing of substance, the size of a beach towel – what soccer hooligans drape themselves in as they’re squaring off with police in the stands at the World Cup finals. And to clarify, it’s not the “official” Scottish flag, a white X (the cross of St. Andrew) on a blue background, but rather what’s known as the Lion Rampant, the banner of the royal monarchy. Bright yellow and red, it has much more visual impact, in a garish sort of way.

Before long I’m draped with it, the assistant throwing it around my neck and carefully arranging the folds of material across my chest. Bunched up the way it is, though, it simply looks like a gaily colored scarf, a really big one. The shot is a test of all my new-found modeling skills, as I try desperately to conjure up a facial expression that conveys something other than ‘Kill Me Now.’ But, of course, things could always be worse.

“What if you took your shirt off and then we go with the flag?”

There’s a momentary silence while everyone in the room considers that scenario.

19 million readers. And me needing a wax.

“I don’t see any reason to drag my nipples into this,” I parry.

Fabrizio accepts defeat with a terse sniff and moves on, having me try several nuanced versions of the classic bicep-flexing “muscleman” pose. I’m pretty sure the tattooist, who looks like he should be rearranging someone’s features with a crowbar on Sons of Anarchy, chuckled audibly at that point. Finally, mercifully, the artist in Fabrizio can sense the energy in the room evaporating, so we head to the lobby for another excruciating session of stilted posing in front of the “samples” rack, sans flag and extras. After two hours of torture, this was deemed the best of the bunch…

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courtesy Fabrizio Costantini

I don’t think Annie Leibovitz has anything to worry about. And yes, I’m still looking for my soul.

Much of this first appeared under the title “Why I’ll Never be America’s Next Top Model.”

While My Wallet Gently Weeps

money pit

Image credit: Universal Pictures

So I’ve been crunching the numbers and I think I’m finally getting a handle on why the budget for the home renovation project has come off the rails…

Bathroom lighting:  $175

Basement heating:  $400

Basement doors:  $150

Miscellaneous door knobs:  $120

Exterior lighting:  $165

Kitchen update:  $750

Laminate flooring /stair treads/pad:  $980

Interior doors:  $750

Garage firedoor:  $290

Front storm door:  $280

Closet doors:  $410

Trim/molding/transitions:  $550

Floor registers:  $45

Paint:  $375

Painting (labor, front room, stairs, landing):  $575

Toilets:  $430

Gas Fireplace:  $3800

Fireplace stone/adhesive:  $225

Patio Door:  $850

Master bath tile/adhesive/grout:  $140

Upstairs carpet:  $3000

Tools:  $295 (tile cutter, miter saw blade, finish nailer)

Tool rental:  $40

Gas (17 gozillion trips to Lowe’s and Home Depot):  $37,950