On Coffee, COVID and the Open Road

I’m just back from visiting my brother in upstate New York. It’s a lot of driving from Fort Collins, but who wants to fly these days. And normally I enjoy a good road trip, but that was in the before times. Now, just securing a cup of coffee is an ordeal. I need my caffeine, though, so it meant masking up and taking on the big, bad world. A foray into an Iowa truck stop sums things up.

It takes me a moment to locate the “Coffee Corner,” tucked away as it is behind racks of Cheetos and magazines adorned with pouty-lipped vixens in leather bathing suits who appear to be intimately involved with any number of large, shiny motorcycles. Distracted as I am by all that chrome and cleavage, I erroneously grab a cup designated only for use with the slurpee machine.

An honest mistake, considering the multitude of drink containers to choose from, all jutting bottom-first from columns of cubbyholes, none of which are labeled. I can’t return it to the dispenser, either. There must be some sort of safeguard mechanism that won’t let me push it back from where it came because, you know, I might breathe on it and then leave it for the next guy. Guess I’ll just hide it behind this case of sweet rolls that’s been here since the Reagan administration.

Ah, there are the coffee cups. Let’s see…small, medium and Lake Powell. Jesus, my kidneys would stage a work stoppage if I drank all that. A medium will be fine. Wait…how can it cost only 15 cents more for what amounts to a bathtub’s worth of joe? This is why America is the greatest country in the world. Large it is – my kidneys will just have to man-up.

Now, which of these giant dispensers actually doles out coffee? The first one looks encouraging, with several large buttons, one that advertises Dark Roast. But as I lean in a little closer I see, in ridiculously tiny letters, the word “cappuccino” just as I give it a push. Dammit! The machine starts to growl and spew foam, even as I’m jerking my hand back like I’ve touched a live wire. Thankfully, it stops after only a few spurts. I toss my soiled cup in the trash and grab another one while mumbling a string of expletives. An unmasked woman within earshot (apparently disregarding reports that the president himself contracted the hoax virus just days earlier) looks at me like I’m the crazy one.

The next machine is another dead end, offering only flavorings – French Vanilla, Hazelnut and some sort of Caramel concoction, all dripping from hoses as big around as my thumb. More like seeping, really, as either chemistry or a long-past expiration date has rendered them thicker than pancake syrup. Then again, I think I read somewhere that these ‘creams,’ while never having come within 50 yards of an actual cow, are only one molecule removed from the composition of plastic, so perhaps expiration dates don’t apply.

Finally, I come across the coffee pots, hiding down past the cream dispenser. A sea of them. One hundred percent Columbian, Breakfast Blend, Kona Supreme, Hazelnut, Donut Shop, Decaf. Two pots of each steaming away. But there’s no telling how long any of these have been simmering. I pull down my mask, pick up the Columbian and give it a dubious sniff as the clerk behind the plexiglass-shielded counter eyes me with roughly the same regard.

Either the coffee is scorched or someone used this pot for a urinal. I set it back on the burner and reach for the Hazelnut, as if it makes a difference what I pick at this point. It’s a safe bet that everything tastes like the Columbian smells. All I can do is doctor it up with my choice of bio-engineered ‘dairy’ product from the prior dispenser.

I decide to play it safe and stick with the hazelnut theme. The first dose oozes into the blackness without any discernible effect.

“Well, as Hans Gruber said in Die Hard, hit it again,” I announce with a chortle, so pleased am I with my trivial movie reference. I look around to see if anyone else is equally amused, but I am alone. The virus-tempting woman has scurried off to the register where she is speaking with the clerk in animated fashion, no doubt advising him to check the safety on the firearm stashed under the counter.

Meanwhile, back here at the cream station, the hue of the liquid in the five-gallon bucket that is my large coffee starts to change, if ever so slightly. A stir stick would come in handy right about now, but they are nowhere to be found – perhaps under lock and key to protect me from the possibility of a tragic self-impaling. Rather than use my finger, I appropriate a plastic knife from the nearby food line, stir ferociously and then take a sip – molten motor oil with a hint of…tree bark, maybe? So once more with the cream. But, of course, I put too much coffee in to begin with, and now I have to take a couple of gulps in order to make room. The clerk, meanwhile, hasn’t taken his eyes off me.

A few more shots and the contents have turned a muddy brown, and smell like the Nutella factory. That should suffice. After spending several minutes trying in vain to force a slurpee lid onto the cup, I realize my error, snap the proper lid in place and head for the register. I interrupt the clerk, who appears to be posting pictures of me on his facebook page under “Douchebag Customer of the Day,” and a buck seventy later, I’m out the door.

By the time I reach the car, though, the cream has made that molecular leap – the coffee tastes like boiled window cleaner, albeit with a slightly nutty aftertaste. Or maybe it’s the smell of my hand sanitizer every time I bring the cup to my lips. Either way, I’m not risking another trip inside, so I hit the road, sipping sparingly at my pail of toxic swill for the next hundred miles before pouring it out in a rest area parking lot. I didn’t stick around to see if it ate through the pavement.

In Search of Roads Less Traveled

packed 14er

A typical day on Quandary Peak – image credit: alexmderr.com

This should have been my summer of the 14ers. Between my involuntary work stoppage and the pandemic, it was the perfect chance to socially distance by climbing, or ‘bagging’ as the cool kids call it, as many of the high peaks as possible. Except I don’t do that anymore.

It’s kind of a Colorado thing. Probably the most ‘Colorado’ thing there is, come to think of it. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, the state has 58 places that measure at or above fourteen-thousand feet in elevation. But someone decided that, in those few cases where two peaks are within close proximity to one another, there has to be at least a 300 foot drop between the two high points for each to qualify as a 14er. Sounds incredibly arbitrary to me, but because of that ‘rule,’ four peaks have been demoted…sort of like Pluto getting booted out of the solar system.

Either way you slice it, my adopted state has more of them than any other. And we bipeds being what we are, many among us make a quest of climbing them all. Some do it at their leisure, others race to see how many they can bag in a single day, or who can climb them all in the shortest span, or who can be the youngest (or the oldest, or the first in flip-flops, or walking backwards) to complete the circuit. So yeah, it’s a thing. Although it wouldn’t be if we, like the rest of the world, adhered to the metric system. Climbing the 4267ers probably wouldn’t have the same allure.

My partner in crime has been my brother-in-law, whom I have known since high school. He lives in Colorado Springs, where 14,115 foot Pikes Peak casts its shadow over the entire city. Having bested that iconic mountain some time back, Tom has been prodding me to join him since I moved to Colorado a decade ago. When I agreed, he got me started with a couple of popular (and by that I mean easily accessible from Denver and thereby crawling with newbies) peaks standing side-by-side, Grays and Torreys.

Then we did another pair a year or two later…Mounts Bierstadt and Evans. These are also within spitting distance of Denver and considered pretty tame when tackled individually – hell, you can drive all the way to the top of Evans. But as a package deal they offer more of a challenge, which appealed to us as old guys trying to prove we’re not ready for the rocking chair just yet (that’s a thing, too). Our asses were thoroughly kicked by the end of the day, but mission accomplished.

And last year we geared up for a quick strike on a group of three (or four if you disregard the silly 300 foot rule) all conveniently bunched together near the town of Fairplay, but Tom developed a mysterious pulmonary issue and we cut things short after only one. Truth be told, I was ready to bail even if Tom hadn’t.

conga line

That day on Mt. Democrat, the hike up was more of a procession. In a facebook post I think I referred to it as a ‘conga line,’ and I stand by that description. About halfway there I decided this wasn’t enjoyable. At the top, I never did get a clean picture of just myself on the mountain, as a group of folks decided it was the perfect spot to lounge while they smoked a bowl. And when we got back down, I decided I would leave the 14ers to the madding crowd.

The typical routine is to step to the highest point (if and when that piece of real estate is vacated by everyone else milling about), take the briefest of looks around at the panoramic grandeur, produce a cardboard sign identifying the mountain and its elevation, snap the requisite selfie, take a celebratory hit of whatever beverage or herb was packed in for the occasion, and march off to the next conquest. Because, gotta keep Instagram fed.

In 2018, officials estimated that more than 350,000 people went 14er-ing in Colorado, and in July of that year Mt. Bierstadt recorded an astounding 1,023 hikers IN ONE DAY. And keep in mind, this was pre-pandemic – by all accounts the 14ers are now even more overrun with people escaping quarantine. Like so many other popular destinations, we are killing them with sheer volume. I might argue that the great outdoors is full.

John Muir said, “Climb the mountains and get their good tidings.” Anymore, it looks as if Muir’s disciples are cavalierly trampling those good tidings underfoot.

Getting There is Half the Fun

fairplay

Image credit: flickr.com

A trip to my mother-in-law’s place is always a little dicey, at least during the winter months. It’s a three-hour trek on a perfect day – an hour of freeway driving down to and around Denver, then an hour of winding mountain road to the top of 10,000 foot Kenosha Pass, and then another hour across the beautiful desolation of South Park, a thousand square-miles of high, flat grassland tucked amongst the peaks.

That three hours doesn’t account for accident or construction cock-ups on the interstate, getting caught behind slow-moving trucks on the two-lane stretches or, this time of year, snow. The mountain passes are routinely shut down when blizzards roll through, and the relentless winds in South Park can whip even the slightest amount of powdery precip into whiteout conditions pretty quickly. We’ve had many a white-knuckle trip, and even been shut down completely due to the weather.

But this time, everything was going great. It was a mild, sunny day, with highs expected to hit sixty degrees, and we blew through Denver without me ever having to take my foot off the gas (which never happens). Should have known better. There in the vastness of South Park the car started to puke, sputtering and coughing, barely able to maintain school-zone speeds, to the delight of those behind us.

We limped into Fairplay, with 700 residents the largest metroplex in a fifty-mile radius. For some context, the main attraction in Fairplay is the gold-rush era mine tailings piled on the outskirts of town. Fairplay is where old pickup trucks and construction equipment go to die, rusting in forlorn splendor in back yards and vacant lots. It was here we coasted to a stop at the local Sinclair station.

This being a Saturday, the lone auto repair facility was closed, of course. Now the dilemma – logistically, it made more sense to try and get the car to Buena Vista, our original destination, where there were not only more mechanics available, but also a vehicle we could borrow from the MIL for the ride home. I have road service. How much could it be for a 35-mile tow?

Well, $345 to be precise, with only a hundred of that covered by my insurance policy. Was I okay with eating the balance, the Allstate customer service rep in Bangladesh wanted to know. No, but I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life at the Sinclair station in Fairplay, either – the bathrooms lack a certain hygienic quality, and I’m not sure how long one’s colon could hold out when confronted with a diet of only Doritos and those hot dogs forever spinning on that heated roller thing.

One of these days I’ll learn that sarcasm doesn’t translate well with those for whom English is not their first language.

Also, the Allstate app I used to summon a tow truck kept referring to the driver as my ‘rescuer,’ as if I was dangling from the seat belt in my overturned vehicle while bleeding from a head wound, or slowly sinking into an icy lake. Good thing neither of those scenarios were in play, as the nearest rescuer still took three hours to arrive on scene.

But all’s well that ends well. We had no problems with the loaner on the drive home. And only a week earlier we sold some used furniture for $250, so I guess it’s a case of ‘Easy come, easy go.’ Hell, I’m actually five bucks to the good. At least until the repair bill rolls in.

Anyone want to buy a couch?

Moving Forward, Looking Back

goodbye beetle

Image credit: Volkswagen/Johannes Leonardo

It looks like I will start the new year, the new decade, with a goodbye. Not to a bad habit or a few extra pounds, but rather a transportation icon. The German automaker Volkswagen ended production on the Beetle recently, and is giving its venerable classic a loving send-off with a new commercial – perhaps you saw it on New Year’s Eve. So I thought it might be time to dust off my tribute to that bulbous symbol of the sixties (no, you’re not having a drug flashback – some of this appeared in my Cherished Blogfest post from 2015).

♦ ♦ ♦

The “new” Beetle was first released in 1998 to much anticipation and little acclaim, with a redesign in 2011 that still didn’t capture the humble mystique of the originals. Which might explain why the company finally threw in the towel a few months ago. As for the old-school bugs, they’ve been gone for nearly two decades now. Volkswagen pulled the plug on the best-selling car ever when it closed the last remaining factory in Mexico back in 2003. I still haven’t decided if it was the end of an era, or just the end of an error.

You see, I’m a recovering vintage vee-dub addict. If you don’t count my toy car collection, I have been clean now for more than 25 years. That means no VW association newsletters, no parts catalogs, no fall color tour auto rallies. Conversely, it’s also meant no pools of oil collecting on the garage floor, no bloody knuckles and no spontaneous cursing jags.

As near as I can figure, this all goes back to my first sexual encounter, which took place in the backseat of a yellow Volkswagen squareback sedan. Parked in one of the scenic turnouts along Trail Ridge Road high in Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park, it was a magical convergence of nature, libido and machine. The moonlight reflecting off the snow-capped peaks, the lights of Estes Park twinkling below and the bold yet unassuming lines of the minimalist interior combined to leave an indelible imprint on my psyche. The scenario may also have involved a woman, but that seems almost inconsequential now.

My particular obsession focused on the vans, having owned a total of four, although my short-lived “playboy” phase included a Beetle convertible and a Karmann Ghia convertible. That last one was never officially road-worthy (I suppose none of them were, really) seeing as how, at the time of purchase, many of its internal organs were sitting in a jumbled pile where the back seat should have been. But this is standard practice when it comes to bartering in these relics of the Third Reich. That the vehicle can’t move under its own power is rarely a hindrance to closing the deal.

“Project cars,” like the cryogenically frozen, exist in a kind of limbo, waiting for the day when someone will find the means necessary to resurrect them. Until that time they simply go from one owner to the next, leprous members of the automotive undead kept hidden under a blue tarp at the back of the garage or out in the barn, along with an ever-growing collection of uninstalled parts. Some even come with their own tow bar.

Just a short step above that is what the die-hards refer to, with great optimism, as the “daily driver.” Typically the term is held to a pretty loose interpretation. So long as the car can be started (pushing is allowed), attain a speed that keeps you from being run over by traffic coming up from behind (a stiff tailwind is the vintage Volkswagen driver’s best friend), and then brought to a stop, the basic criteria have been met. Things like functional heat, windshield wipers and turn signals are looked on as fortunate happenstance.

My initiation came behind the wheel of a two-tone microbus – the quintessential “hippie” van – hand painted by its previous owner. To the man’s credit, he did use an exterior latex and a short-napped roller. One of my early attempts to tune up the engine resulted in a minor fuel leak. The ensuing fireball was quickly extinguished and my eyebrows grew back in only a few months, but the vehicle was known from that time forward as “The Hindenburg.”

The interior was designed to accommodate the outdoorsman but could just as easily provide haven for the recently evicted, a trait that endeared the Westphalia campers to countless under-achievers like myself in the post-Haight Ashbury era. Along with a fold-out bed there was a galley area neatly fitted with a stove, sink and small refrigerator, as well as several cubbyholes for stashing gear (or drugs, of course), all shoe-horned into a space no bigger than a phone booth. Add an engine in back that produced roughly the same horsepower as a ceiling fan, and the package was complete.

These vintage models – defined as anything Before Radiators – are not for the timid. Handling and maneuverability are on par with your basic soap-box derby entry, and often times the road is visible beneath your feet due to a tendency of the floors to rot away like vampire flesh caught in a shaft of sunlight. Every trip requires a stockpile of spare parts, along with the ability to install them at a moment’s notice.

And, yes, it pays to keep things such as chewing gum, panty hose and a bag of marbles on hand for when you have to pull a “MacGyver,” like the day you look in the rearview mirror and see sundry pieces of smoldering metal strewn across the road as you’re coasting to a stop somewhere between Barstow and Needles. It’s been said that, to fully appreciate the air-cooled driving experience, one must develop a Zen-like acceptance of breakdowns as part of the journey. That and a knack for reaching your “happy place” while your flesh is being seared by red hot engine parts. Peace, love and pass the metric tools, dude.

Thanks to therapy and an intervention where friends forced me to watch Little Miss Sunshine for 3 days straight, all that remains of my addiction is that old oil stain on the garage floor. I can now say with certainty that I am happy to be driving a vehicle that doesn’t require scraping the inside of the windshield during the winter months. But sanity, like sobriety, can be a tenuous thing. If my eyes start to glaze over the next time I pass an old Beetle broken down on the side of the road, just punch me as hard as you can while shouting “Slug Bug” at the top of your lungs. That usually does the trick.

My Walkin’ Shoes

boots

Any time I take the RV in for service, most recently to get it winterized, I play a little game of vehicle shuffling. The shop is only about a mile from where I store it, so rather than inconvenience someone and have them drive me over, then follow me in the RV to or from the shop, I just do it myself. This involves driving to the storage yard where I leave my vehicle, then drive the RV to the shop. After dropping it with the mechanic, I walk back to the storage yard, get back in my vehicle and drive home. When it’s time to pick up the RV, I drive to the shop and then proceed to do the opposite.

And I’m always surprised by the reactions I get from my wife and others when I wave off their kind offers of ride assistance, telling them I don’t mind hoofing it. At least not when the weather cooperates, as it did this day – sunny and fifty degrees. Perfect walking conditions. Yet everyone seems a bit taken aback, as if such a notion is quite unheard of.

These days maybe it is. In A Walk in the Woods, Bill Bryson’s hilarious chronicle of his middle-aged attempt to hike the Appalachian Trail, he bemoans a society that has forgotten how to use its feet to get from one place to another. He points to statistics that claim the typical American walks an average of merely 350 yards a day. And that was 20 years ago – I can only imagine the number has decreased substantially in the last two decades. When he writes of an ill-advised saunter through the town of Waynesboro, Virginia during a brief respite from the trail, it highlights just how unwalkable some metropolitan areas can be.

prairie dog

In fact, my little jaunt is not the most tranquil (or scenic) of routes – through an industrial park and across a busy divided thoroughfare, then along a section of railroad track (where a gang of insolent prairie dogs blows me shit en masse for having the temerity to trespass in their ‘hood) and beside another stretch of bustling roadway. But I’m outdoors, under an azure Colorado sky (most days), with the not-so-distant mountains popping out from behind trees or buildings every so often. Besides, it’s only a mile. 15 minutes at a brisk march, 20 minutes at a more leisurely pace. I’m done before my blocked arteries even know what happened.

longs

Walking has always had plenty of advocates – Thoreau and Muir went on at quotable length about it, and more recently, Rebecca Solnit’s Wanderlust; A History of Walking delved into cultural aspects of the activity, and its relationship with thought and philosophy. Still, it carries a reputation as being the mode of transportation of last resort. What those who can’t afford a car, or even a bus ticket, are reduced to. An unfortunate and undeserved stigma.

The person who set me on the path, Colin Fletcher, had a life-long love affair with travel by foot. A wayward Welshman, he was hiking before it was a thing. Some sixty years ago he took a six-month trek along the length of California (long before the Pacific Crest Trail came into existence), and he was the first individual known to have hiked through the Grand Canyon – not across it, from rim to rim, but from one end to the other. This was a man for whom the deliberate pace of his own gait was simple perfection. He walked in the wilderness for the sheer joy of it. Many consider him the father of the backpacking movement.

His books about those adventures – The Thousand-Mile Summer and The Man Who Walked Through Time – along with his backpacking guide, The Complete Walker, sent this soft, suburban teen off into the natural world. app trailDuring the summer between my junior and senior years in high school, all of 16, I solo hiked about half the Appalachian Trail. At times spiritual, monotonous, picturesque and lonely, it was the most difficult but rewarding thing I had ever done. Despite the inherent hygiene challenges, I was hooked, and never looked back. My boots have taken me over alpine tundra, through deciduous forests, even on a pilgrimage to the bottom of the Grand Canyon.

There is something elemental in walking. Being the original method of getting from point A to point B for we hominids, it has a rhythm that is both innate and comforting. Don’t get me wrong – I enjoy a good bike ride or internal-combustion powered road trip as well. But for me, putting one foot in front of the other is my wheelhouse, even now. It has a way of uncluttering my brain that no other physical activity can come close to. Perhaps best of all, no permits, paperwork, insurance or licenses required. And my phone is techona non grata as well.

To be sure, there are more scenic paths to tread than my RV shuttle route, even in an urban setting. Fort Collins has any number of nature areas and river walks, and when I’m yearning for something a little more strenuous, there are trails aplenty up in the high country just west of town. Because Tolkien was right – not all who wander are lost. Old and slow, some of us, but not lost.

In case you weren’t aware, Sunday is National ‘Take a Hike Day,’ so lace ’em up and go for a stroll. It turns out the world is a much bigger and far more interesting place when experienced at the speed of one’s feet.

 

 

 

Road Maps and Rubber Tomahawks

vacation

“Vacation is when you go somewhere…and you don’t ever come back.”

Despite what Forrest Gump’s mom might tell you, most people do return from vacation. In fact, we just rolled back into town after a week in southern Utah. Mainly because all our stuff is here. Even though we now have an RV that could comfortably accommodate us for an indefinite period of time (it’s the backup plan should we both lose our jobs and no longer be able to make the mortgage payment, or the zombie apocalypse comes to pass), we haven’t yet figured out how to squeeze a life’s worth of crap into it. I’m talking about the really important things: my Hot Wheels collection; a 60” flat-screen TV; the tin goat that stands guard in the front flower bed and its counterpart, the Heckle and Jeckle water fountain that lives on the patio; the various mid-mod lamps and vases that adorn every flat surface in our house (quid pro quo for the Hot Wheels); the washer and dryer. I’m coming to realize that, in the recreational vehicle world, size matters.birdbath

(If you hear the sound of ‘Taps’ being played gently, it’s for the person I once was, that hippie who drove, and loved, many a Volkswagen camper van.)

Vacation used to be nothing more than a break from the neighbor kids, two weeks out of the summer that you were forced to spend in the car with your family, visiting places about which you didn’t give the slightest shit. On the plus side, these trips offered the irresistible lure of road maps and rubber tomahawks. Nowadays it might be recalcitrant backup battery solenoids and impromptu grey water discharges. Progress.

Back when station wagons roamed the earth, there was also that sense of being out of touch, of wondering how the Tigers fared in that four-game home stand while you were staring blankly at Sacagawea’s grave. Of having to get caught up on all the world events when you walked in the door after days without reading a paper or watching a newscast. Now Big Brother’s omniscient tracking device in my pocket assails me with every detail of every story from every corner of the globe, no matter where I might be, no matter whether I want it or not. Again, progress.

So yes, we’re back from vacation. We’ve unloaded all the food we loaded up a week ago but didn’t eat (despite having a complete kitchen at our disposal) because, well, who wants to cook when you’re on vacation? And unclogged a week’s worth of junk fliers and invitations to ‘investment opportunity luncheons’ from the mailbox. And the laundry is going. I’ll wait until tomorrow to cut the knee-high grass that now sways lazily in the yard. All that’s left to do is scrape the bug viscera off the front of the camper before taking it to my RV guy to have the latest equipment malfunctions addressed (to the tune of a hundred bucks an hour for labor and whatever the hell the suppliers feel like charging for the parts) and then tucking it away for the winter in the pricey storage lot in town.

On the plus side, I found a great rubber tomahawk in this little gift shop in Moab.

On the Road Again

I have always been something of a nomad, as the title of my blog might suggest. For all the turmoil his alcoholism inflicted on the family, my stepfather did manage to instill in me a love of travel and the out-of-doors at an early age. A German immigrant, he fancied himself a modern-day French voyageur, and was determined to live that lifestyle on what few vacation days he earned while working at a small tool and die shop on the outskirts of Detroit. So we bought a canoe and traveled north to the boreal forests of Ontario most summers, to paddle and camp on the shores of cold, sparkling lakes. Maybe I remember these outings more fondly because, oddly, he never drank on vacation, but they seemed almost idyllic.

At the time, we owned a van that had a large metal box between the front seats, under which lived the engine. Being as these were the days before car restraints became all the rage, I would crawl down onto the floor and cozy up at the back of that box, where it was always warm from the heat of internal combustion, and the hum of the engine only inches away was like a lullaby. It may have been the best sleep I’ve ever attained in my life.

Books by Colin Fletcher, a footloose Welshman who hiked long before hiking was a thing, watered the seed that had been planted in the Canadian woods. The summer between my junior and senior years in high school was spent on the Appalachian Trail, and after graduation I opted to see where my thumb could take me. With everything I owned stuffed in a backpack, I visited places like the Boundary Waters, Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon. And I found that, like those trips curled up behind the engine compartment, I enjoyed the going as much as the destination, though for other reasons – the greasy spoons, the peculiar roadside attractions, the vast sweep of prairie and sky. Eventually, I scraped together enough cash to buy a Volkswagen van and truly live the dream.

microbus

In all, I owned a string of four VW campers before the madness passed. The interior was designed to accommodate the outdoorsman but could just as easily provide haven for the recently evicted, a trait that endeared the Westfalias to countless under-achievers like myself in the post-Haight Ashbury era. Along with a fold-out bed there was a galley area neatly fitted with a stove, sink and small refrigerator, as well as several cubbyholes for stashing gear (or drugs, as the case may be), all shoe-horned into a space no bigger than a phone booth. Two featured the iconic pop-top, allowing the tenant to actually stand upright inside the vehicle, which meant no slithering around on one’s back attempting to pull on a pair of pants from a prone position or cooking while bent ninety degrees at the waist. And of course, they all featured an engine in back that produced roughly the same horsepower as a ceiling fan.

Though I crisscrossed the country in them on several occasions, they were loud, completely lacking of any climate control, and not a particularly smooth ride. Nor were they the most reliable of steeds. They had at various times left me stranded on top of Palomar Mountain without brakes, on the side of the freeway without a gas pedal and in the dark without headlights. Spare parts – lots of them – were essential, along with the ability to install them under the most trying of conditions. To fully appreciate the air-cooled driving experience, it was necessary to develop a Zen-like acceptance of breakdowns as part of the journey. That and a knack for reaching your “happy place” while your flesh was being seared by red-hot engine parts.

Married life brought an upgrade, whether I wanted it or not. My wife quickly tired of the German-engineered “dream,” and before long we had moved on to a pop-up camper. Adequate for two growing boys, but once they no longer wanted to camp with their parents (which occurred as soon as the older one discovered girls in early high school, whereupon the younger one realized in short order that being alone in a camper with mom and dad was more quality time than he bargained for), even that seemed to be too much work – cranking it up, pulling out beds, lashing down canvas, assembling poles, arranging cushions, then doing it all again in reverse. Who could be bothered with that? Renewing the circle of life, we sold it to a young couple and put our wanderlust on hold. Retirement loomed, and there were nickels to squeeze.

Or so we thought. Falling under the heading of ‘Never underestimate the power of a wild hair,’ we recently decided to get back in the game.

0708171434a

Modest by old white people recreational vehicle standards to be sure (as a stay in any RV park will make evident), but an abundantly adequate mobile habitat just the same. I doubt Kerouac would approve, but then again he died of cirrhosis of the liver in a nondescript ranch in Florida at the age of 47, so…

And while newer technology may provide the illusion of comfort, in truth there are simply more things to go wrong. I haven’t lost the brakes yet, but other challenges abound. Still, they are but minor glitches – not only am I already something of a Zen Master, but I’m also able to afford road service these days. To borrow from John Muir, “The road is calling, and I must go.”

The Year of Living Distractedly

I’ve been away a while. Not away from home, but away from my blog, away from writing. It’s been just about a year since my last post. The intervening time hasn’t been particularly difficult, with the exception of perhaps a few weeks immediately after the death of our dog. Beyond that, this most recent lap around the sun has been, in fact, a rather uninspiring one. And perhaps that is the problem.

Don’t get me wrong – there’s been plenty of drama, most notably the feces-fest swirling in our nation’s capital. It has dominated the daily news cycle, to the point where everything else is becoming drowned out by the constant noise. An unpresidented onslaught of mayhem, a perpetual train wreck from which we can not look away. But I feel all the political ballyhoo has served as a monumental distraction that has kept me from living my life as I should, hampered my ability to find joy in not only the little things that used to catch my eye and make me smile, but the bigger things as well. Like writing.

So look away I must.

In retrospect, the holidays last year seemed to slip by on autopilot. An unmemorable winter came and went, and spring did little to boost my spirits. This summer showed more promise, as we explored old vacation haunts in a modest RV purchased with an eye toward retirement. tetons

But even so, there was always an update to check on as soon as we could get a phone signal, the latest breaking news out of Washington DC to digest. Embarrassments abroad, outrages on the domestic front. And I found that lurching from one ‘WTF’ story to the next becomes exhausting.

Mercifully, life goes on. After the pain of putting down our little Jack Russell last fall, I vowed never to harbor another animal, and thereby avoid such grief ever again. That sentiment lasted only a few months, and by November we had adopted another canine waif, rescued from what sounded like an animal hoarder in Texas. toby in sunThough painfully shy (or, more accurately, scared to death) at first, he has slowly come to realize that no one is going to steal his food or his toys, and those dogs he hears barking on the other side of the backyard fence hold no sway over him. Whether he realizes that he is pulling a curmudgeon back from a dark and lonely place is hard to know.

And a minor programming note: I did manage to find work – nothing that utilizes my finely honed skill-set or vast reservoir of previous experience, but at least a paycheck, paltry though it might be (and I will leave the debate over ageism in the workforce for another day). I am now part of the bloated and byzantine healthcare system – a medical courier to be precise, picking up vials full of bodily fluids at point A and delivering them to point B. You’ll be happy to know that I haven’t run anyone over or careened my vehicle into a lamp pole as of yet, nor have I contracted any deadly pathogens along the way. Still, I can’t say that I would recommend the work – it’s actually quite mindless, though one ‘silver lining’ is the chance it has given me to reconnect with NPR. And the next time you choke on a staggeringly high medical bill, feel free to curse me and my $11 an hour job.

Enough then of being distracted by this clown show masquerading as a government. Though I had doubts initially, it looks as if the rule of law will prevail after all and the republic will survive, albeit by the skin of its teeth. And while I feel a certain obligation to stay engaged in politics, it’s obvious that there is also a need for balance, especially now. Time to return to those things that bring me joy. Let Rome burn. We can always rebuild.

Totality and the Aftermath

glendo3

“…everything under the sun is in tune, but the sun is eclipsed by the moon.” Pink Floyd

The problem with living only a few hours from a total eclipse is that you feel obligated to go see the damned thing. The media trumpet the event like it will rival the parting of the Red Sea, never to return in our lifetimes (or at least for the next seven years), so for it all to be going down just 150 miles north puts a lot of undue pressure on a person.

The thing is, I’ve not been witness to many of humankind’s bigger moments. I was a zygote during Woodstock (okay, I was 12), and the one time I showed up for a shuttle launch it got scrubbed. I have no stories about shooting up backstage with the Rolling Stones or pulling Hemingway from the path of rampaging cattle on the streets of Pamplona. There was that time Richard Nixon came to give a speech at my high school in the days before Watergate. As a member of the band I sat in the stands behind the podium and carry with me many fond memories of the back of the president’s head. So #Eclipse2017 seemed like a perfect ‘bucketlist’ opportunity.

Still, while I’m probably more astronomically nerdish than most, there’s a lot to consider. How bad will traffic be? Can I find a place to park? Will I get my money back if it’s cloudy? What if I can’t hold my breath long enough in the porta-potties? Will I go blind because I waited so long I had to buy knockoff glasses from that guy on craigslist? Will the werewolves speak English?

glendo1

All is forgotten, though, once the moon eases fully across the face of the sun, and totality is upon us. An eerie darkness falls on the low hills of eastern Wyoming as a cheer goes up from the crowd of nearly one hundred-thousand gathered at the airport in Glendo – a tiny farm town (population 204 on a normal day) in the bullseye of the big event. The ridiculous cardboard viewing glasses are tossed aside and all bask in the wonder of the black orb overhead, ringed by the dancing strands of the solar corona. Stars are suddenly visible in the half-night. This is what we came for.

But it’s over in two and a half minutes. And as soon as the first rays of sunshine peek from behind the moon’s trailing edge, the rush for the exits is on. Actually, exit. There is only one. Gridlock is immediate and all-encompassing as the parking lot goes from zero to Thunderdome in a matter of seconds. Thousands of cars that had moments earlier been parked in neat double rows now jockey for position as they funnel down to a single line, to be then funneled onto to a single road that is the only outlet for two other massive fields similarly choked with vehicles as well as those spilling from the nearby state park viewing areas. A scenario that is being repeated across the state, with the ultimate goal of funneling nearly a million people onto the single freeway where southbound traffic is already stacked up as far as the eye can see.

We decide on the ‘play it cool’ approach and avoid the mayhem, having some lunch while what we assume will be the worst of it subsides. Our first tactical error, as “the worst of it” will actually continue, statewide, for most of the day.

After about an hour, we pack up and head into the fray, inching along with everyone else toward the main road that will take us back into town and out to the freeway entrance ramp maybe a mile away. But what’s this? When we finally get to the road, someone is standing in the intersection waving all the vehicles in the opposite direction – not south into town (which is, of course, at a standstill), but north to points unknown. Like sheep, we comply. Tactical error number two. After two-and-a-half hours we have gone 14 miles in the wrong direction and now face the unappealing choice of getting back on the freeway to inch our way 14 miles back to where we came (and then beyond) or take our chances in the wilds of eastern Wyoming.

We choose the wilds – tactical error number three.

It turns out paved roads are something of a novelty across the high prairie of the Equality State. And we are not the only ones who have smartphones and are desperate for an alternate route out of this post-eclipse hell.

There are 83 miles of absolutely nothing between the towns of Torrington and Cheyenne. And one road. Have you ever seen an 83 mile long conga line? Moving at 10 miles an hour? Nuff said.

So here are a few tips for those planning to catch the 2024 eclipse. Do some breathing exercises beforehand to condition yourself for the porta-potties, bring plenty of treats for the werewolves, and pray that flying cars finally arrive.

glendo2

Oh, and get a new cellphone, ’cause a Galaxy s3 just ain’t up to the task.

Of Fools and Gold

coronado

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 Chase.

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, listening 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 countryside 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. Then another treasure-seeker’s corpse was plucked from the same river earlier this summer, and just recently a third turned up floating in the Arkansas River. Yes, they were all adults and yes, they died in pursuit of something they loved, but I also think it’s worth noting that Indiana Jones didn’t do his own stunts.

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.

Hell, for all I know it may already be gone. People have been combing the west since 2010, when Fenn first published his book and poem. There is certainly a chance that someone may have come across it and just slipped quietly away. Fenn estimates its value at somewhere between one million and two million dollars, so bragging about having unearthed that sort of windfall might not be advisable. I imagine it wouldn’t take long for the taxman (followed closely by a bevy of coattail relations and salivating conmen) to beat a path to your door once your ‘look what I found’ selfie hit social media.

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…

wheeler1

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 now and then, I might just 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.