Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Two if by sea


My eyes have not seen many things cooler than what you see here.

Parked out in the desert by the entrance to Slab City at the time mine eyes beheld its glory, the busboat has it’s home port in Idaho. They tried to launch in Mexico, but ran into a storm of paperwork.

The skipper’s name could be Mike. That’s what the patch said on the blue overalls he was wearing. Then again, that just might be what the patch had to say.

They were running low on water. They carried Idaho hotsprings water with them to drink, and it was getting down there. Plus, all the border hassle. And they want to get home for Christmas. So they were on their way north to regroup.

Got it on there with a crane and were hoping to get it off with the lift at San Felipe, the only boat mover in the region on that side of Baja.

Or, he said, maybe they’d just back the whole thing into the water, let the boat float and the bus sink. But he was kidding. I think.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Salvation Mountain



I had another landmark conversation. Went like this: “Slab City? You don’t want to go there…it’s full of hippies and religious wackos…unless maybe that’s what you are.”

“Sir, I don’t care for your tone,” I told him. I was talking to a couple of duck hunters in the parking lot of a wildlife area.

I saw the Salton Sea on the map after I fled that godforsaken parking lot I had been sitting in for three days…looked online and found Slab City and Salvation Mountain. It’s described as a mecca for RV people and bursting with character. So I headed there.

But it was dark. I wasn’t sure where I was going, and overshot my turn by four miles once I found a patch of earth big enough to turn this aircraft carrier around.

Pulled off next to a hunter’s check station and walked to a brightly lit camp trailer, strung with Christmas lights. It looks occupied, but isn’t. The two duck hunters drive up, father and son. Dressed in full camo with the back of their truck filled with decoys.

They warn me off of Slab City and say, “Hell, you can come sit around our campfire if you want. You wouldn’t catch me going to that Slab City, nuh-uh…that’s where that missing girl last week was missing.”

I’m not clear on the missing girl…whether she was missed from there, found there…turns out it’s both. I look it up later and find that a young woman had been hanging out at Slab City, left there, her car broke down, she got a ride back to Slab City and then heard her car had been found and she was presumed missing. She called the sheriff to de-miss-tify herself. Case closed.

I thanked the duck hunters for their kind offer, spent the night in a parking lot marked out with firehose lines, then backtracked in the morning to Niland, California, took a left and went three miles to see Salvation Mountain and Slab City.

It’s a decommissioned military base, buildings torn down leaving concrete slabs that RVers like to park on, thus the name.

Salvation Mountain is a brightly painted folk art-looking religious monument created by Leonard Knight. You may remember Leonard, his mountain and Slab City from seeing them in the movie, ‘Into the Wild.’ Chris McCandless hung out here.

Well, the duck hunters are missing out. This place is more intriguing than anywhere I’ve been in a while and it turns out people really do find salvation at Salvation Mountain.

More on that later.

Stay between the lines


Notice, if you will, what these parking lot lines are composed of.

What you see there are old fire hoses. Smaller than fire department hoses, but of a size I’ve seen used for wildland firefighting.

Reducing, Reusing and Recycling is a good thing. I’m all for it.

But nailing fire hose into asphalt instead of painting lines? I just…it seems…never mind.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Masterpiece Conversation Theater


Spent three days in a parking lot. Waiting. Looking at the road atlas. Checking email. Calling back. Waiting for calls. Trying to arrange for a new owner to feel the love of the Minnie Winnie. But the title is still in Salem, Oregon, holding me up.

It’s been ‘processed.’ They cashed my check. But it takes five business days, I’m told, to be mailed. Of course. You don’t just throw something in the mail, all willy-nilly, when it’s ready to be mailed…you naturally wait – what? C’mon, DMV, get in the game.

So I sat in a parking lot. A strategic parking lot. Right next to Yuma. Free. Close to the Mexican border with bargains on hot sauce and off-brand dental care.

Met my neighbor, one motor home over. Nice guy. Likes to walk around a lot. Especially in the middle of the night, when he can’t sleep. Says that’s been an issue in the past when they stayed at the RV park adjacent to the border crossing, what with border patrol in their guard towers wanting to shoot him at 3 am and all.

He has sudden, extreme and aggressive hand gestures that don’t usually match what they’re illustrating. He’s a retired electrician, so he’ll be telling you about a broken neutral wire, then his hands fly out, abruptly – like they’re pantomiming a plane crash or the collision of subatomic particles on a grand scale – really fierce sweeping and jutting of the hands and arms. It looks like he’s fighting angry bees.

But he’s still telling you about one time when he put an electrical connection where somebody thought he wasn’t supposed to, but it turned out he was right and he could put it there after all. But with angry bee hand gestures.

So my favorite conversation was this one. We’re standing in that parking lot I hope I never see again, where RVs and longhaul truckers have been staying.

A semi truck pulls out. My associate comments on how that guy sure is loaded down.

Then this:

“Boy, those truckers…they sure do come and go a lot.”

I wish I did have to fend off a swarm of bees right then, just to distract myself from having to reply to that. I’m all for chit-chat, but it’s give and take, mister. You can’t say “truckers come and go a lot,” and look at me for reaction. That’s more of a definition than a statement. It’s not fair.

So I say, “And they’re always carrying stuff,” which isn’t true. Sometimes they’re empty, on their way to getting full to carry more stuff and keep on coming and going.

Not long after that I caught Bula banging her head against the Winnebago because she was so bored. I agreed. We got out of there and I’m now close to Slab City, a decommissioned military facility near the Salton Sea, home to a bunch of RVers out squatting on the concrete pads left behind.

All those people coming and going.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

3,780 milliliters of Hot Castle Love


I’m set for life in the hot sauce department. Yessir, got me 3,780 milliliters of salsa picante.

I crossed the border into Algodones the other day to check out the dentist scene. There are forty-some clinics in four blocks and I have a chipped tooth I wanted to have looked at.

That first day I was just looking around, had a free exam and got some quotes, but crossed back over the border without having purchased anything.

The rest of the Americans and Canadians coming back had bags and bags of prescription medication, bottles of pure vanilla, which is a big deal here for some reason…liters of tequila, big huge souvenir sombreros and knock-off brand whatever.

The border guy looked at my passport, then asked what I was bringing back.

“Nothing,” I said.

He looked at my passport again, then asked me to step around the counter and empty my pockets.

“You went to Mexico for nothing?...what have you got in that pocket? And that one…put it all on the table…” Then he signaled to another border control officer to come over and help send me to prison.

“I have a chipped tooth,” I blurted out. “It’s in the back…it’s a molar.”

“Oh. A dental appointment. Why didn’t you say so? Welcome back. Have a nice day…Next.”

So the next time I crossed over into Algodones, it seemed in my best interest to buy something. And that’s when I found the mother of all hot sauce bottles. I haven’t tried this Castillo Amor brand, but I’m guessing it’s not very bueno.

Unless I’m mistaken, “Castillo Amor” translates as: “Castle Love,” which would also work for the title of a medieval romance novel.

It cost me four whole dollars, or 52 pesos, for this barrel of picante, and I love the fact that I now have enough hot sauce to invite several thousand people over for taco night.

The border guard took a look, said, “That is one big bottle of hot sauce,” then waved me right through.

You'll never get me to talk...OK, I'll talk


Any fool knows you try to make a good impression with a person about to stick a dental drill in your mouth. I’ve violated this basic rule twice in my life.

I used to have medical insurance, back when Oregon provided such a thing. You had to swear allegiance to the socialist party, naturally, but it was nice to have the option. Only certain dentists accepted this insurance, and I switched my plan to a new dentist who had the magazine ‘Wooden Boat’ in their waiting room. A friend suggested I’d like that better than reading copies of Good Housekeeping that were several years out, and I agreed.

But the Wooden Boat dentist dropped my plan, I got a sudden toothache and ended up in the chair of my original dentist. Just…I mean, just as he was leaning in to apply the drill, the receptionist bolted into the room, saying, ‘Stop…stop…I checked his policy and he switched to another dentist…’

Uncomfortable silence. The drill wound down and got quiet. The only sound was my saliva being sucked through the vacuum tube. Masked faces looked down at me. I tried to explain, with the tube still in my mouth, but “Wooden Boat magazine,” came out sounding like no language at all.

Bless him, this dentist, he said, ‘That’s OK, we’ve already started so we’ll sort it out later.’ And he was very gentle and it did get sorted out. I probably would have gone for a nerve if I was him, just as a lesson in loyalty.

Yesterday, I was in Algodones, Mexico. The name translates as: “where half of Canada and the U.S. go for dental work.” It’s a small border town, chock full of pharmacies and dentists. A porcelein crown runs about $800 to $1000 bucks in the states. Algodones $180 to $200.

I was just getting my teeth cleaned and a checkup, and right before we got started, the nice lady asked if I’d been down here long. “Oh, a couple of weeks. Traveling around.”

“Really? Where have you been traveling in Mexico?”

“Oh, no. Arizona.”

She laughed. Shook her head. Obviously not impressed with my gringo-centric lack of basic geography. Then she increased the rpm’s on the drill and said, “Open, please.”

You could hit the U.S. with a rock from the front door of her clinic. Not even a big rock. So I didn’t think it was entirely fair that I was about to have my nerve endings Dremeled for implying that forty feet inside of Mexico was the same as Arizona.

I tried to explain, but the assistant stuck the saliva vacuum in my mouth and the drill was revved.

She was also very kind and didn’t torture me. Which is good, because I would have told her everything.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

...ssssshhhhhh....


There are two churches that made especially large deposits in my memory banks. Notre Dame, because the gargoyles were so freaky and also because, you know, it’s Notre Dame. And this one. In Sedona, Arizona. I came here with my folks years ago after we dropped my little sister and her stuff off at college in New Mexico.

Impressive, this Sedona chapel.

Back to Paris though. I got kicked out of the plaza in back of Notre Dame for taking a nap. I’d been inside, lit a candle and was taking everything in when a voice came over the loudspeakers inside.

Now, a disembodied voice in the house of the Lord automatically makes you pay attention, even if you can hear the static from what is obviously a PA system.

This voice said, and I quote: “…sssssshhhhhhh…sssssshhhhhhhh….”

It was a priest, or somebody, shushing everybody inside. And to be sure, there was some chitter chatter going on, and Notre Dame isn’t your standard tourist attraction. But the shushing went on for some time and it was, I don’t know, it wasn’t enhancing the experience.

So I went outside and sat on a bench in the sun, and it was warm and I was glad I was in Paris and next thing I know I’m being kicked in the shin by a gendarme, or whatever cops are called in France. I had nodded off in the sunbeam and miraculously hadn’t been robbed while I slept, I’m sure because of the refuge clause on church property. But I had to go.

I apologized and made a show of rubbing my eyes and making American hand gestures to make it clear that sort of nonsense wouldn’t happen again. I wasn’t done enjoying Notre Dame, and promised I wouldn’t nod off again. But I had to go. “Non,” he kept saying, pointing his nightstick at me, then the exit. I tried to reason with him using my limited French, replying, “…sssshhhhhh…ssssshhhhhhh….” but he wasn’t buying it. I was cast out from my bench in the sunbeam, gargoyles on the end of their gutters watching me leave.

Painted Rocks



I’m not the only one who confuses petroglyphs and pictographs, apparently. The state of Arizona identifies this site as Painted Rocks, which, as you can see in exhibits A and B, have been chipped into stone. Not painted.

But I’ll allow for there having been paintings here. Maybe I don’t have the full story.

It’s impressive. A jumble of boulders just covered with designs. It seems the location is way out in the middle of nowhere, but the Gila River is right handy and this spot has been a corridor for travel since way back, according to a friendly interpretive sign that told me so.

Some of the graffiti is not so old, like 1924 and some from the 1800’s. Wagon train teenagers sneaking off to do graffiti, no doubt.

If there had been additions dated since, oh, say the 1970s, or 60s, or 50s, I would feel obliged to track down the owners of the initials and have a stern talk with them. And by stern talk, I mean break their knees with a baseball bat.

I just am not OK with messing with history. You just don’t wade into a fountain over in Italy, climb up and chip a tattoo onto a marble sculpture. Or go back and dub orchestra music onto the original recordings of Lynard Skynard albums. And you don’t chip or paint or scratch on or over or nearby a picto- petro- or any other kind of glyph.

Some folks do. And I wish it would stop. Because it takes a lot of time, tracking you down and beating you with a bat. I’ve got other things to do, people. Please.

I’m so thirsty


This is marketing genius. Not only are they selling water in the desert, which is hard to beat for a location in that line of business...but they also give you free salt first. It's like complimentary pretzels in a bar, but better. I plan to invest in this company.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Alien art forms



I didn’t know extraterrestrial artwork was even a genre. But I saw two paintings in one day here in Sedona, which you see here.

I don’t need to see anymore, because I’m quite sure I have now seen the best and the worst of this field.

The “Survivor” painting wins two ribbons. One for worst painting I have ever seen, ever, for many reasons. And that’s saying a lot. Also it wins best in its class for worst alien study. I mean…really? A dramatic, poorly-foreshortened rendering of Roswell? You can just feel the anxiety captured here. The gravity of the moment put down on canvas, freeze-framing the calm before the frenzied storm of self-published books detailing their conspiracy theories.

But, hey, I like the warm hues and jaunty feel of the reclining alien cowboy. That one’s a keeper.

They’re Here



Sedona is known for its power spots and vortexes, where the earth’s magnetic fields converge to create unusually high concentrations of souvenir stands, casting visible auras of t-shirts, refrigerator magnets, bumper stickers and crappy jewelry.

Damien lives up in Flagstaff and comes down here on climbing trips. He told me where his favorite camping spot is, and how they usually have it all to themselves. Except one time, when he drove out there and saw the area jammed with vehicles. He asked someone what was going on and they answered, “Aren’t you here for the UFO landing? They’re coming tonight. Right here.”

I present to you the image of a lenticular cloud, taken yesterday over the vicinity of Sedona…and also another image, taken with a zoom lens, that may suggest otherwise.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Tour de Slo-Mo


Took Bula on a stroll this morning. Gravel road went uphill, downhill, back up, then down and we came upon an older gentleman pushing his mountain bike up the grade.

“Pretty steep,” I say.

“It’s not too bad,” is his reply and I let that go, because I respect my elders and don’t point out that rarely do bikes get pushed up hills that aren’t too bad.

We chat. He asks where the dog and I are from. I tell him. He says Oregon is beautiful. I say Arizona is beautiful and we both nod and that kind of exhausts our things to talk about.

“Well,” he says, getting back astride his bike. “I guess I’ll be pushing on.”

“Have a nice ride.”

He’s got the bike in the lowest of low gears, the one where you make 48 revolutions with the crank for every inch of forward travel. So Bula and I are walking at the same speed, even a tiny bit faster, because he’s fighting the hill that’s not too bad.

“Nice talking to you,” I say, because it’s a little awkward to be right next to someone who said they’ll be pushing on a minute ago, and they’re still right beside you.

He nods, but keeps his head down and churns the pedals.

There’s a slight squeaking from his chain, plus the sound of tires and footsteps and pawsteps on gravel. Other than that, I walk and he rides and we’re exactly side-by-side.

“Man, I’m walking really fast,” I say, to ease the situation. He shifts up a gear, but it’s too much, then shifts back.

I reduce my pace, but then I’m just walking five steps behind him and it feels like we’re in a chase scene from the tortoise and the hare.

Finally I just stop. Bula had been looking from me to the guy, then back at me with ‘what the hell?’ stitched in her eyebrows. I signaled back: ‘I don’t…know.’

Mercifully, he crested the top and got on a downslope. Otherwise we’d still be out there.

A word about the word “boondocking,” which shouldn't be a word


I have scratched the underbelly of the RVing society and encountered some things I don’t much like. The gas mileage of the Minnie Winnie, for one.

And the term “boondocking” I have a hard time with. This is when you stay in your RV somewhere that’s not an RV park, so you’re not hooked up to water, power and sewage.

But self-contained RVs have a water tank, a sewage holding tank, and the Minnie Winnie has a generator for power. You can pay twenty, thirty, forty, fifty bucks to stay in an RV park, and sure, some have swimming pools, laundry facilities and the like. I can see doing that occasionally to empty your tanks, wash your clothes, refill your water and charge your batteries. But all the time?

That’s like buying an espresso machine so you can make your own coffee, then driving it to a coffee shop and paying them to plug in your coffee maker so you can have coffee from your own machine. I just don’t get it.

Plus, most RV places I’ve seen pack you in next to other RVers and, well, I’d rather “boondock,” except I can’t stand to use that phrase in the context it’s been given.

Boondocks is a fine term. Means out in the boonies. The sticks. Hinterland. Originally “bundoc” in Tagalog, adopted by WWII GI’s who heard it used in the Philippines, where it means “mountain.”

So it’s a noun. But RV folks have turned it into a verb, where you’re boondocking, or you boondocked, or if you want to boondock, you can stay in the WalMart parking lot, or behind the Applebees restaurant.

“WalMart parking lot” and “boondock,” in any form, should never, ever, be seen or heard in the same sentence. Except the one you just read.

It’s called “freedom camping” in New Zealand, according to my source Damien Seuss, who toured around NZ for six months in “Teeny-Tiny,” the 16-foot RV his family of four stayed in.

And then there’s the movie “Boondock Saints.” It takes place in the city. I don’t understand.

Bushwacking is what I kept calling it by mistake when I began Operation Minnie Winnie. Though you can’t really get off the beaten path in an RV, so that’s not accurate either. Matter of fact, you can barely travel a washboarded dirt path in an RV, for fear your molars will rattle from your head.

“Dry camping” is an alternative phrase I’ve heard. Which is pretty dry, but makes more sense than boondocking.

OK, I’m done. That’s been bothering me for some time. You can go back to what you were doing now.

And that photo up there was taken while I was out dry camping/bushwhacking/parked far from the nearest spigot, electric hookup, sewer dump, swimming pool and/or laundry room. Beautiful, isn’t it.

Friday, December 4, 2009

En-Spired



Got up to Flagstaff and went to visit Damien Seuss, formerly of Wallowa County. He was wearing an Ember’s Brew Pub hat, so I guess he retains some WC residency status.

Cypress had a school concert that night, so I stayed at the house with Banyon, who’s four. We played with some Legos, watched Lion King and read Dr. Seuss. Which presents an interesting question. Cypress and Banyon have the last name of Seuss. So if they were to go to medical school, I’m not sure if they’d have a thriving medical practice, or potential patients would be suspect of being treated by a real Dr. Seuss, for fear of getting their diagnosis in rhymed verse. Hard to say.

Damien took me up Morning Glory Spire outside of Sedona the next day. Breathtaking. I don’t mean the scenery, I mean climbing the thing took my breath.

But the scenery was a little bit out of this world.

Maxi Winnie


I did manage to escape from the Verde Valley Motorplex by adding the lift kit to the Winnebago that you see here, with 56” Super Swampers, then just driving cross country over mountain ranges, across rivers…I am now unstoppable.

OK, so I tracked down someone with a key and got a little bit scolded, but they did open the gate.

That is a rather impressive photoshop job on the Minnie Winnie, though. Shadows and everything. That’s the work of a visionary graphic artist friend back in Wallowa County. It’s a good look.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

But You Can Never Leave


Burro traffic is what Sedona had in mind when they designed their streets. Not large burros, either. Squeezing a 29-foot motor home through that town is one constant scraping noise as your Winnebago mirrors snap off and you pull down storefronts on either side.

“No outlet” and “Dead End” signs were coming at me on all sides while I looked for escape routes. Turned into the parking lot for a museum, thinking museum parking lots would be, you know, big. But not this one. I believe it was a museum for pygmy-burro drawn carriages. I had to unhook the Toyota then pull forward, pull back many times before pointing the snout of the Minnie Winnie back at the exit.

Yegods. Almost got bottlenecked again in the designated RV parking zone, which…what the hell, Sedona? Does the harmonic convergence and crystal powers magically shrink things to fit on your streets and in parking spots? Why doesn’t this Harry Potter magic work on my RV? Why?

I got pointed out of there and kept going. Ended up outside of Cottonwood, where Al had told me about a big spot off the side of the highway where lots of RVs stay for free.

Found it. Pulled in. Parked. Unhooked the Toyota and went to town. Came back and the gate was locked. RV on one side, me on the other. Squeezed through the fence, hiked my groceries in to the Minnie Winnie and been calling around all morning to find someone with a key to this place.

I learned a lot yesterday. I don’t know what, but it was a lot of it.

Clearance Sale on Old Dead Stuff


Elk hide. Rattlesnake skin. Taxidermied deer head. Dried cactus. Pretty rocks. All for sale at Brand New Dead Things. Plus some knick-knackery and maybe even a windchime.

Very nice proprietress. I asked about the name and she said something along the lines of, “We all come from the same [something…elements, maybe?]….rocks, trees, humans…” and so essentially we’re all brand new dead things.

I was with her at first, and kept nodding even after I’d veered off from following the connection of…well, I don’t know. Go ask her yourself. It’s in Yarnell, Arizona.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Watch out for these things


Cactuses are pokey. Little safety tip there.

I walked out to water the desert one night, relieve myself of some lemonade if you know what I’m saying. I was camped way out somewhere south of hither, east of yon, but I thought to myself, well, I’ll walk out a little further. Don’t want to start a flash flood so close to the Minnie Winnie.

It was dark. And I walked into a cactus. A low-lying variety I would later have identified as "cholla." Pronounced "choy-yuh."

Piercing your shin with a cholla is pronounced "son-of-a-[gun]…what in the [for goodness sakes]…"

The spines, I guess they’re called, have some manner of barb to their design, because they don’t pull out that easy. The skin on my leg pulled up a good half-inch before the little [buggers] let go.

Bula got into a patch and learned her lesson. Tried to bite the cholla bulb off her foot and got a snootful of barbs for her trouble. I’ve brushed prickly pear and wished I hadn’t.

The worst I’ve heard is Jesse’s uncle, who was out four-bying in a Landcruiser with the windshield down, and the rig drove over some cholla, which flew up and attached itself to his face…I don't know how that was pronounced, but I bet it was worth hearing.

Young artist has mastered the pigeon portrait



I’ve been seeing some top-notch artwork on this galavant through the southwestern zone.

The riders painting is hung in the museum in Wickenburg. The pigeon painting is currently on display in the living room at the home of Jesse Rens, propped against a lamp. His daughter Savannah created that. And aside from her brush mastery, she is a formidable kickball player. I can vouch for that.

Jesse, Brennan and Savannah let me park the Minnie Winnie at their place and showed me around Prescott.

Things to do in Prescott include: go to Jesse’s parents for Thanksgiving dinner. Go there again for Thanksgiving leftovers. Go there yet again for enchilada soup, which is my new favorite food, edging out caeser salads.

All we need is Love, backwards…and Revolution, together, somehow


The youth of Yarnell, Arizona seem to be more politically active than most youth, based on this sign here they put on the side of their youth center. They also don’t give up easily, as this picture was taken a couple days ago, which is a good long while since the election. But they’re still pulling for him. Hang in there kids.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

What are you talking about, this badge doesn't smell


Well, I got a new hat. And bandoleer. My old one was, I don’t know, it was getting kind of stretchy. Bullets were falling out once in while and this one here was on sale at Macy’s and I just thought, you know what? I’m going to do it. What the heck. I’m going to buy myself a new bandoleer – and then I shot the shit out of the ceiling in there, celebrating my impulse purchase with, you know, squeezing off a few rounds and security did not like that. Not one bit. But we smoothed it out and I do like this new ‘brero.

...and then a right on Harsh Reality


Even when there’s accidents on the Carefree Highway, nobody cares. Police show up, fenders are smashed, radiators boiling over, cars demolished, thousands in damages and the officer looks at both drivers, they look at each other and they all just start laughing.

“Ah, what the hell, we’re on the Carefree Highway.” The cop tears up the ticket and accident report he was starting to fill out, casts the fragments to the wind and then they all just run off out in the desert, playing a game of tag.

I’ve seen it a million times. But only on this road.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Crispy Chicken Bombing Range


That there is what my campaign headquarters looks like on the inside.

Which I never did get to show Hector. He was my first prospective buyer for the Minnie. I had just … I mean, just, put for sale signs in the windows, then walked across the street to the Verizon store to straighten out my far-talking magic box.

If Alexander Graham Bell had been shown a Blackberry, and had it explained to him how he could add a line, friends and family, phone is free after additional mail-in rebate with a two-year contract, upgrade nights and weekends, off-peak minutes, blahty blahty blah … The first phone call ever might have gone like this:

“Mr. Watson … smash it, destroy it … we’ve created a monster … and I forgot to put you on my friends and family list, Watson, so this call is costing me a fortune … text me back, lol.”

So I’m in the middle of trading phones and mine rings. “Hello? How much you take for the RV? I’m standing right here, are you inside sleeping? I got cash.”

I’ll be a few minutes, I say. I’m across the street.

He calls back. “Hey, it’s Hector. You coming? And what about this truck? You selling that? Because I’m standing right here and want to see inside … you know what, don’t worry about it. Bye.”

That kind of got me worried about it. Bula the wonder dog was inside and things just did not sound above-board.

Signed a bunch of agreements in a hurry to get out of Verizon – I think I’m now an organ donor on nights and weekends, as long as you’re a Verizon customer – rushed over there, but no Hector.

I called him again. “O, hey. My uncle, he’s the one who wants the motor home, but we ate at [anonymous restaurant] and he had a real bad reaction … first, he…”

“Uh, Hector,” I cut in. “I don’t think I want to.…”

“…first he was just vomiting, O man, all down the car, we had to peel out of that parking lot…and now he’s been in the bathroom for like 20 minutes and from the sounds of it, he…”

“Hector, please. I don’t need to…”

“…seeeeerious diarrhea. O man. Sounded like a bombing range in there…Hold on. I’ll listen at the door to see if he – Ohp, he’s still at it….”

We did not come to an agreement for the purchase of the Minnie Winnie, Hector and I. But I wish his uncle all the best. Also, I’ve developed something of a standoffish attitude toward crispy chicken sandwiches with special sauce.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Gila Bend, AZ


Was heading south to visit Don Lawyer, my buddy Jude’s father. Last time I visited D. Lawyer was at his place up in northern California in the redwoodsy country.

He was talking to us, and without pausing or seeming to think about it, reached over for the neck of the stand-up bass that was leaning in the corner, then started thumping out a bass groove to the conversation we were having. It was great. Every discussion should have a soundtrack. And his cabin was great. Old records. Guitar. Harmonica. Very musical, D. Lawyer. And a helluva artist. Surfer. Full of stories. Great guy.

I remember him cooking a meal for Jude and I, chopping garlic cloves in half, not dicing them up tiny-style like normal. “That’s what’s wrong with Americans,” I recall him saying, “they’re afraid of garlic.”

I don’t know if that means we’re vampires, or what. But I do enjoy me some garlic, so I was all systems go to visit him in Ajo, Arizona…which, unless my Spanish has fallen off more than I think…Ajo means garlic in espanol, and him moving there now makes perfect sense.

But it was not to be. I got detoured north for aggravating reasons that involve Verizon and the worthless Crackberry phone they’d sold me and I needed to get that sorted out, so I had to take a left instead of south to Ajo.

While in Gila Bend, I saw this mural. Creative, and well done, but what is that guy doing with his hand? I mean, it looks like he’s got an imaginary pet on a leash, or it’s a Michael Jackson dance move, or?....I simply don't know.

Children of Light


Left Yuma, climbed a big steep hill, then stopped and found the tailgate on my pickup had been down, with all my tools still in there, somehow.

Agua Caliente Hot Springs on the map looked perfect, off the highway and looking oasis-like. Drove out there and it wasn’t so perfect or oasis-y. Spring had dried up. Old resort abandoned. Tumbleweeds. Lonesome flute music playing in the background…well, maybe not all that, but might as well have been.

They’re not big on road signs out there. I wasn’t entirely sure how to get out of there, as my map situation had some deficiencies….but Rooper called right then and I had him look up directions on his computer back in Oregon.

Before turning around, I beheld this sign for the ‘Children of Light.’ Sure, it has a rainbow, but it still creeped me out. I looked it up later and I’m told they’re a religious sect from Canada. So I was correct in being creeped out. No. But I wasn’t going down there and drinking any Kool-Aid, that was for damn sure.

I Don't Know, I Don't Know If I'll Have Time...


special bulletin to Morgan Jenkins, somewhere hunkered down watching birds in Virginia:

Mojo...I went to a Bed, Bath & Beyond. Really. Mostly just for an experiment. But don't do it, man. I'm telling you. There are things in there that are confusing. I don't know what they are. Many of them are frilly. Stay away.

But the sunset in the parking lot was quite nice.

R.C. and the Towmasters


I only have one Towmaster, but Towmaster*s* plural makes it sound like a pretty great band name, with maybe some horns and Jimmy Lloyd Rea playing bass. So I’m going with that.

R.C. is the guy who finally helped me get the tow bar affixed to my truck. Up to then, dealing in the underworld of tow bars was a dark chapter in our hero’s life and I’d rather not dwell on it. I’m all cried out. It hurts when your tear ducts have the dry heaves.

But I will say that Herb, out past the Yuma Proving Grounds, did me right by turning over his Towmaster for $150. It’s the scoundrel who assured me “O yeah, it’ll bolt right on there,” to whom I’ve sworn vengeance. You will pay, sir. You will pay.

R.C. runs the machine shop behind the NAPA store on 10th in Yuma. He owns 51 vehicles, from drag racers and classic wagons to Power Wagons, Mustangs and I can’t remember what else . . . he also has 5 dogs. And a Blackberry phone.

Getting a new phone was also a dreary passage in my life and I don’t want to talk about it. Except to mention I was sold a Blackberry phone, allegedly the best way to hook my laptop up to the internet on the road.

I don’t like to be caught making assumptions of people, but I didn’t expect R.C. to be a member of Crackberry Nation. But this new Blackberry in my pocket starts ringing – it’s Mike Baird calling to report on his elk hunt in Hells Canyon – and I figure I’ll call him back when I finish up with R.C. here, but I can’t figure out how to turn the ringer off.

R.C. says, O, you’ve got a Blackberry, then pushes the button I’m looking for and gets the exact same Blackberry out of his pocket, explaining features and showing how to run the thing better than the Verizon folks did back in the store.

Then he explains a vehicle he built that has a Ford chassis, Chevy engine, Dodge transmission, or some combination thereof. I think the windshield wipers are off the space shuttle. I don’t know. But we might want to hire R.C. to fix the economy. There seems no limit to this guy’s capacity for making things work.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Operation Minnie Winnie: Now Arriving in Yuma


$175 dollars in gas to get from the Wallowa Mountains to Yuma, Arizona.

I find Al and Jennifer Bell in the overflow lot at La Mesa RV on Gila Ridge Road. Their new motorhome is parked next to the Minnie Winnie and Jennifer is busy making trips down the steps of the Minnie and up the steps into the new Allegro, moving.

We do some hugs, though I fear I may knock them over as I haven’t showered since leaving home.

Sure enough, I knock them over. Found smelling salts and revived them, then Al showed me around the Minnie Winnie.

I started having questions. You’ve got one battery system for the engine, and one for the living quarters. You can connect the two, or bypass or . . . then the generator plugs into this, which will power that, unless . . .

After explaining it several times, Al says, ‘it’s all in the manual.’

I ask to see this manual. Al does some yoga stretches to loosen up his back, then hoists down from a storage bin a gigantic accordian briefcase.

It looks like a government document, just by it’s sheer size. I’ll have to hire a research assistant to ever find information in there. I ask Al to please put it out of sight. It’s intimidating. He declines, pointing out that it’s my owners manual now. So I borrow his pallet jack and put the thing away.

Al and Jennifer are anxious to get on the road in their new coach . . . ‘coach’ means RV, I think. I’ll have to start a list of this new vocabulary.

The guys at La Mesa RV have kindly agreed to let me stay for a day or two until I get things sorted out, so I begin with looking for a tow bar for my pickup. I think that shouldn’t be too difficult. And I am wrong.

License and Premonition, Please


Drove by a great sign in Vegas stapled to a telephone pole advertising the services of a ‘licensed psychic,’ with a made-up name like Shandar or something.

I really, really want to visit the facility where they issue licenses to psychics. Is it like the DMV? Probably not. You wouldn’t have to take a number because you would just know when it’s your turn.

The above photo is a mockup, to scale, of what the secret licensing facility for psychics is believed to look like, with radar dish absorbing registered mental waves and storage silo for unlicensed predictions.

Road coffee


My mother taught me many things. Like how to swordfight, hotwire cars and track deer at night using only my sense of taste . . . wait, no. That wasn’t Mom. That was someone else entirely.

She did point out the following irony to me years ago, and she’s absolutely right --

You’re on the road. You need to use a restroom because you’ve been drinking coffee while traveling. You feel obliged to purchase something from wherever you’ve just used their restroom, and oftentimes you get a cup of coffee to go because it’s cheap, you like coffee and it doesn’t matter because you just went to the bathroom.

However many miles later, that cup of coffee you got to go is making you have to go. And you feel like you should buy something, since you just used their toilet.

It’s the snake swallowing it’s tail. A perpetual motion machine of gas station coffee you keep drinking for all the wrong reasons, and keep drinking more of to get rid of the last time you shouldn’t have had more of it.

That is one great advantage of an RV, having a bathroom ten feet away at all times. And a coffee pot.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Operation Minnie Winnie: Day Two. Leaving La Viva Las Vegas


Sleepy 100 miles north of Vegas. The dog and I pull off at the gas station in Ash Springs, I think it is. She's been driving so it's my turn.

We get out and Bula the wonder dog frowns at the ‘No dogs on grass’ sign. I also frown. No dogs on grass? Is that what it’s devolved to? I think that’s one of the signs in the Book of Revelations. I must remember to repent.

It occurs to me we should stay in Vegas that night. The World Series of Poker is going on, and it'd be cool to take a peek at a final table.

It’ll be 8 pm when I get there. Been on the road since 8 am. Get some dinner, play poker for a little while. Get some pocket aces. Win a gigantic pot. Pay for my gas and the RV that way. This plan sounds better and better.

I never was a huge fan of Vegas. My first impression was after coming over the dam. I stopped to look at Hoover or Boulder or whatever they're calling it these days. Signs explained how the project was a necessity for growing crops and whatnot. Then I followed the big extension cord into the neon of Las Vegas with massive geysering fountains, mondo swimming pools and acres of pulsing, blinking, maddening lights and I thought . . . waaaait a minute . . . theeese aren’t crops.

If I had to live in Vegas, I’d go into the fake rock industry. I’ve never seen so many faux rocks outside of Disneyland. It just seems like . . . Disneyland. But with buffets. And a lot of activities you don't see in a Disney film.

That was years ago. Then Jeff Parrish corrupted me and taught me how to play Texas Holdem. I soon won a tidy sum with a full house, queens over eights, I believe it was, and that instantly made me enamored of the game. And I now notice that has changed my attitude toward Vegas.

Drove over the hill and there she was. That blob of electric light I remembered. Hence the blurry photo here.

Drove through the strip to get my bearings. Turned around, and an hour later I was still driving around, after getting rejected by some mystery street that put me on my way out of town. I heard on the radio the World Series of Poker had wrapped up at 3 am.

Didn’t care for the cut of the jib on the first hotel manager I talked to. Nor did he think much of mine, because we had words. I don’t even know what about. He just got pissed, so I did too. And left.

It may have been a bad sign that you had to do business through a bulletproof glass window, instead of walking into the lobby.

Next place, I pulled up to park, preparing to go walk to the bulletproof glass window lobby, and the curtains open in the room directly in front of my headlights. A woman in lingerie peeks out, then closes the curtain. Uhh...what the what? says I.

Then she opens the curtain again and holds up a handful of cash to show whoever’s in the car next to me behind the dark tinted windows. At this point I eased the Toyota into reverse and decided this neighborhood was not for me.

Got directions out of town from a very, very short man working the cash register at a convenience store. I bought some coffee because it felt like I had to buy something, drove south and slept off the freeway in the back of my truck next to a sign that said: Heart of the Mojave Desert.

And that was my big night in Vegas.

Operation Minnie Winnie: Night One, Boise, ID. Kesey is Cheesed.


(confidential to the state of Idaho: If I was you, I’d name a town ‘Girlsie.’ Then you could use those paper doll cutout pictures of men and women for some of your road signs. Brilliant, I know.)

Stayed the night at Fargo and Cathy Kesey’s in Boise. Their boy, Mac, has this for his full name: Cormac Harrison Jess Kesey. Jess is a family name, recalling the Kesey who trapped golden bears in California for a living back when.

Cormac, Harrison and Kesey could double as a reading list, and that seems to have soaked in with this kid. He’s reading at a fifth-grade level while still in first grade. He’s a machine. Doesn’t seem to sound things out, just looks at a word he’s not familiar with and makes the connection.

Cathy said go ahead and test him, so we picked random labels that were handy on the kitchen table and asked Mac what they said. I pointed to ‘fiesta’ on a salsa jar. He pronounced it right, then asked what that meant. He was a little unsure about ‘vinaigrette’ on the salad dressing label, but I just now had to look up the spelling on that myself, so I won’t hold that against you, Mac.

His dad, Fargo, is writing a story I’m looking forward to seeing in print. Goes like this – he grows weary of hearing “We’re going to end up like Canada,” during conversations about health care reform here in the U.S. In part, he suspects these people don’t know anything about Canadian health care, aside from hearing rumors that it has fangs, eyes like a serpent and steals children in the night. I think Fox did a story on that.

So he goes home and calls people in Canada to ask what they think about their health care situation. Talks to a lumberyard worker, a teacher and the owner of a bed and breakfast. Then calls around to a lumberyard worker, teacher and B&B owner in Boise to compare and contrast what they think about their health care.

It’s good stuff. The title is ‘Cheesed,’ from a comment made by one of the Canadians who is ‘cheesed off’ about . . . well, I’ll put up a link when it gets in print.

Fargo made me some sandwiches in the morning, a bag of Cheez-Its and I hit the road, facing 15 more hours or so of driving until my date with destiny in the form of a 1998 Class C Minnie Winnie in Yuma. I was beginning to be vinaigretted off at myself for not just getting a plane ticket.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Operation Minnie Winnie


So I bought a motorhome.

Sure, I'd had a few beers when the idea came to me. But the next day I had coffee and it still seemed like a good plan. Then I even had some water and it continued to seem like a sound proposition.

I’d learned of an RV being traded in for a sum I considered to be an outrage. So I called up and offered my friends the same outrage. They said OK. But I had to come fetch the thing down in Yuma, Arizona. Pronto.

It turns out depositing cash in someone else’s bank account takes some doing. I had to provide photo ID. Then I was asked to furnish my social security number…uh, this is cash, I mentioned. You'd better ask ol’ Ben Franklin there about his identity, not mine.

My sisters both worked at banks in the long-ago, so I’m aware of reporting procedures for large amounts of C-notes, keeping an eye out for highwaymen and the like. But this wasn’t all that much money, really. It’s not like I was asking to make a deposit in the form of kilos or fenced jewelry. Still, they wanted that SSN and they got it.

Drove home from the bank, winterized my house in four minutes, threw the dog in the truck along with a toothbrush and a sleeping bag, then hit the road.

For the next two days I would try to pass those goddamned RVers going too slow on the freeway, listening to radio commentators poke the corpse that is our national economy. ‘Disappointing indicators’ this, and ‘unemployment crisis’ that. I kept waiting for a report on how the used-RV sector was a bright spot. How that’s where the smart money was being invested. But no.

And that’s how me and a 29-foot Winnebago known as a “Minnie Winnie” started our life together. I’ve got some time, now that I’ve retired early and joined the RV circuit. So I’ll be checking in with updates as Operation Minnie Winnie progresses.

Because if NPR won’t report on second-hand motorhomes as a wise investment strategy, well then, by God, I will.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Chieftain column, July

And Furthermore
Jon Rombach

Rodeo week. Good times. I especially like being in the parade. Driving real slow. Taking your time … between Enterprise and Joseph. On the highway. Going 35. Sometimes even 40 miles per hour. It did give me a chance to read the bumper stickers from all the places those RV’s had been to. How they ever covered that much ground at the speed they drive is a mystery.

I bought some candy to throw out the window on my way to work, because, hey, if you’re driving at parade speed anyway, might as well. But I understand driving slow if it’s the first time you’ve been to Wallowa County. You want to savor what you’re seeing. After all, it’s not everywhere you get to see that many rail cars all in one place. Take a few snapshots.

I do like rodeo week. It reminds me of when I worked on a ranch in Colorado. This particular ranch raised dudes. I was a maintenance guy, so most of my time was spent fixing furnaces and leaky faucets in the cabins. But my buddies and I did go to a lot of rodeos. Every week we would head down to town and try to cash the same paycheck we’d tried to cash on previous visits. Once in a while the bank teller would surprise us by finding money in the payroll account, but mostly those checks were pretty bouncy. Because of this money shortage, we had to economize on our days off. And the rodeo in Snowmass was good for that.

It’s thirsty business, watching a rodeo. And somehow there’s a law of the universe that says big crowds at a large venue must be served warmish and not-very-good beer from plastic cups for exceedingly high prices. I don’t care for that law. Not one bit. I don’t know anyone who does. I take that back. I’m guessing beer vendors don’t mind it. So we were in a tight spot. The vendors weren’t interested in us signing over our worthless paychecks and suggested we visit the bank. We said that was a good idea, as we would need a loan if we wanted to buy any of their food items, which were also priced quite dear.

Market forces were at work here, so we found a market. A super one. And discovered we could purchase certain items on much more reasonable terms. Now I’m no scofflaw. I was raised on Perry Mason reruns, CHiPs and Magnum P.I. Fine programs that instill a healthy regard for following rules. So we compromised. And watched from the far side of the arena, technically not in the area where we were doing anything wrong.

The ticket lady thought otherwise. After we’d been coming to the weekly rodeo for some time, our group from the dude ranch was walking by the front booth one day, heading for our usual spot over behind the fence when the woman in the ticket office leaned out and said, “Hold up.”

We all stopped. Clanging noises came from our pockets. There followed a little hush. And then I saw my favorite rodeo performance ever. Fargo Kesey is a pal of mine. Great guy. Scar down his face from being thrown through the window of a saloon in Wyoming for no particular reason. That has nothing at all to do with this standoff with the ticket lady in Snowmass, but you have to admit it’s an interesting detail.

So Fargo says to let him handle this. We all took a seat on the fence to watch, pockets clanking. Ticket lady says we can’t be bringing in drinks from outside. Fargo compliments her on her hair. Asks how her family is. We learned a lot about selling tickets to rodeos and what it was like being in that booth. She allowed we seemed like nice guys, but circled back around to her point and insisted we only drink expensive beverages from plastic cups.

Fargo mentioned several viewpoints he thought she might be overlooking. It was all very interesting and went on for some time, and ended with him denying any knowledge of what she was talking about, throwing his hands up to emphasize his point. The cans concealed in his armpits crashed down through his shirt just then, landed on the gravel, got punctured and sprayed beer all over the front of the ticket booth. It was spectacular. I was thinking it might be time to go, but Fargo asked if she’d like a beer.

She thought for a little bit and said she most definitely would. Fargo pulled one from the top of his boot. She took a swig, thought for a little bit and then pulled off some tickets from her roll, gave them to us for free and told us to have a good time at the rodeo. We surely did.

Chieftain column, August 24

And Furthermore
Jon Rombach

“How’d you get to Wallowa County?” is a question I love hearing the answer to. Even the common responses that begin with knowing so-and-so, who had a house out here, and next thing you know … generally pack along a jewel of a side-story that doesn’t disappoint.

I didn’t come up with the idea of collecting the greatest hits of How’d You Get To Wallowa County? into book form, but I just might steal that notion if I don’t see Volume I pretty soon on a shelf at The Bookloft.

I heard a variation last week from someone who crashed and totaled their car on their way into the county, and her tale was a lovely response to, “How’d you get out?”

Shannon is a dance instructor in Los Angeles who moonlights as a river guide in the summertime. She was on her way home from Idaho at the end of her first river season, and planned a detour to check out these Wallowa Mountains she kept hearing about. A tire got onto gravel along the shoulder of the North Highway and that ended badly with gymnastic maneuvers a car is just not designed for. She made friends in the ambulance on her way to the hospital. Made more friends when she got to the hospital. Got her clearance as being shaken up but not broken, and the front desk helped her find a hotel for the night.

Her gear was still in her car and by the time she was released from the hospital, business hours were long since over. She made another friend when the tow truck driver happily agreed to return to work off the clock so she could get into her crumpled car and collect her bags. “That kind of thing doesn’t happen in Los Angeles,” she explains. I believe her.

So there you are. Wrecked car. No bus station. No car rental agency. No commercial flights. “Where are you again?” is about as far as she got on the phone with her insurance agent. Someone suggested she call the radio station and run an announcement looking for a ride to La Grande. That also doesn’t happen in Los Angeles, she pointed out. I believed her.

I mentioned that she might have gotten a ride on the Stage. “The Stage?” Well, it’s really a van, but it goes back and forth to Union County. She was glad to hear that, because now her initial stay in Wallowa County reminded her of a Northern Exposure episode and a John Wayne movie.

Shannon eventually did find a way out of Wallowa County. And she found her way back, hiring on for a few river trips with Winding Waters River Expeditions. We got back from a float trip and had the night off, so Shannon was telling me her version of how she got to the county while she sent messages to her old friends the tow truck driver and folks at the hospital, inviting them for a thank-you beer at Terminal Gravity.

After talking about how hard it was to figure out a way out of this place, she mentioned she’d been trying to figure out lately if she might reverse that and see about moving here.

So there’s your side story. Car crash and inconvenience turns into unexpected friends and a genuine attachment to a remote mountain valley with no rental cars you wouldn’t mind moving to.

How’d you get to Wallowa County? I’m collecting answers to that. Send me yours at jonrombach@gmail.com.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Message in a Bottle

One of the guys on the weed spraying crew I was floating with on the Grande Ronde last week found a message in a bottle. An honest-to-God rolled up piece of paper stuck in a bottle, then flung in the river.

I don't care who you are, it's hard not to be interested in what's on that scroll of paper somebody took the time and trouble to send into the world by tossing it on the water.

But first, a word on weed spraying via raft. The idea is to get where you can't otherwise. We target riverbanks where no vehicle or ATV will get you, unless you're talking helicopter. So we float down, hit the bank and the weed warriors take off wearing their backpack sprayers, on the hunt for leafy spurge, dalmation toadflax, knapweed, and some others I can't recall the names of. All on the Most Wanted list for noxious weeds. They had a spare backpack one day, so I helped out as best I could, though I was most tempted to spray the obnoxious weeds I'm familiar with, rather than the noxious ones I don't have quite the history with. The weeds that raise my ire are poison ivy, those beggar's lice plants with the velcro nubs designed in Hell, and stinging nettles.

After a couple days on the river with the spray crew, it dawned on me that they look just like the Ghostbusters. Four guys carrying backpacks with hoses and wands, heading out to do battle with a nuisance that isn't supposed to be there. These guys earn their money. Aside from being around the chemicals, there are rattlesnakes out in force, plenty of ticks, poison ivy and sundry other small nuisances. They seemed to feel sorry for me when they'd come back to the boat and I would be sitting in the shade, sipping lemonade and reading a good book. I can see where they'd think I might be bored, and they nicely offered to see about getting another sprayer so I'd have something to do to pass the time. Awfully nice of them. And then they'd compare notes on how many rattlesnakes had almost bit them, how many ticks they'd found trying to burrow into their skin, and I'd glance at my icy cold bottle of lemonade and adjust my chair in the shade and try to nicely explain that I appreciated their concern for my boredom, but not to worry themselves. Somehow I'd manage.

I did pry myself out of the shade now and then to hike down the river and scout for landing spots. I found a fair amount of flotsam on those walks. Or jetsom. I can never remember which is which. Let's just call it trash. An inner tube, styrofoam blocks, a lady's compact with makeup and a mirror in it. Some plastic toys. And lots of footwear. For some reason lots of shoes in the river, washed up on the bank. A flipflop. A little girl's plastic sandal. The rubber sole to a boot. Some others. But nothing like the message in a bottle.

I'm looking at it right here. It's a clear plastic bottle, blue screw-on cap. Inside is an orange piece of paper, half of it faded, making some of the writing illegible. It was written by a young girl. Her name's at the top but I'm going with the confidentiality clause for messages in bottles. It reads like this:

My 4 Wishes

1. World Peace.

2. (Something-something) best friend forever.

3. My cat (something-something).

4. (Something-something-something).

So really I can only make out the first wish, and it's a good one, young lady.

I had plenty of time to think this over, sitting there in the raft while the other guys were off spraying. And I thought, good for her, wishing for world peace. Too bad that's not in the cards.

Before I left for that river trip, I was reading the news filled with North Korea rattling nuclear sabers, Iran and Iraq and the Holocaust museum shooting and a shocking list of unmentionable doings in Portland in the past week. It was anything but peaceful and a quick look at the headlines now, or any time, really, would seem to suggest that, no, we can't all get along.

But why not. That's rhetorical, because you and I both know why not. Politics. Money. Religious differences. Racial differences. Ad hominum infinitum et cetera carborundum and so on.

But still. Why not.

I don't want to be the one to explain to a youngster why leading off her list of wishes with world peace is silly, since it ain't never going to happen. And that's when I came up with an idea that might get us to the point where it's not so silly.

It's one of those notions that makes me think I must have heard it before, it seems so obvious. So I'm putting a disclaimer on it right now: I may have seen this on a bumper sticker, or heard it in song lyrics. Quite possible. Matter of fact, I hope it's not original, but I can't trace it if so.

Here's my proposal. Before any war is declared, we have to clear it first with a bunch of kids. The presidents, congresses, generals and prime ministers of the world draw up their invasion plans, but in order for any conflict to get the green light, the situation has to first be presented to a kindergarten class in their country, and if you can convince that group of kids that the alleged bad guy deserves a "time out," then OK. Otherwise, work out your differences.

It's naive, I know. But like I said, I had a lot of time to think down there on the river and these are the kind of things you end up with. I'm not really kidding, though. Years ago I worked as a substitute teacher in a kindergarten class in a very rough neighborhood, and those kids were still full of innocence and a good, solid sense of right and wrong. Maybe our world leaders need a schedule that includes more snack time with juice and crackers, followed by a nap.

So there's my plan for world peace. Kids as mediators. An advisory board of kindergartners. I've heard of youth leadership conferences and the like, with young adults getting involved. But it may be time for the United Nations to include and consult younger kids to help sort out our differences. If we're going to get along, that may be our best shot.

Then that wish on the message in the bottle might not be so far-fetched.

That's the kind of thinking you get with a whole afternoon of sitting on a riverbank. Maybe I should ask for a weed sprayer so I don't have that much time on my hands.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Better Fishing The Metric Way

I used to be a mediocre fisherman. Well, those days are over. Last week I witnessed a brilliant technique that improves your fishing success instantly, dramatically and easily. It’s so simple. No fooling around with learning new casting methods or studying fish behavior and boring feeding patterns. The secret shortcut to better fishing is … are you ready? The metric system. And I must say, it’s good to finally find a use for that thing.

I discovered the wonderful world of metric fishing thanks to the Enterprise High School class of 2009. I was along on their senior trip through Hells Canyon last week, rowing one of the cargo rafts. We had some big water, since Idaho Power was leaving the gates cracked pretty wide back at the dam.

We camped the second night at Salt Creek after a full day of running the big rapids. River guide Sam Macke baited the sturgeon rig with a trout and dropped that offering out in the eddy. Mike Baird grilled burgers and tubesteaks for dinner and we were having a grand time when the tip of the sturgeon rod started bouncing, then line pulled from the spool. Fish on.

I went down to look when they landed the sturgeon. A nice one. I eyeballed the length and figured we were looking at a six-footer here. If you haven’t seen a sturgeon up close, imagine a swimming dinosaur with armored plates down the spine. They’re odd creatures, for sure.

There were two exchange students among the graduating seniors, Giacomo from Italy and Esteban from Ecuador. We walked back up to camp after the sturgeon was released and I was standing there for a discussion on how big the fish was. “Two meters,” is what I heard Giacomo say. Esteban was consulted and agreed. Two meters. According to the conversion table I just consulted on the inside flap of an old Pee-Chee folder, that works out to just over six and a half feet.

Now jump forward to several days later at my house in Enterprise. Sam, the guy who caught the sturgeon, was explaining to some friends how the senior float trip went. Great, by all accounts, except for some holdups as the kids and chaperones were on their way back to the dam after waving goodbye to the Winding Waters River Expeditions crew at the Pittsburgh Landing boat ramp. The group was riding back upriver in a chartered jetboat, but a mechanical problem caused a delay and another jetboat company was called to bring another boat.

The second jetboat had something go haywire, so a third boat was called in from the bullpen. Highly unusual, and this third jetboat was considerably smaller, requiring two trips to shuttle everyone and their gear back to the dam.

The second wave of students and chaperones got on the road for home a long while since eating lunch, so I’m told that they pulled in at the Hells Canyon Inn in Oxbow, which was closed. After knocking on the door and explaining the situation, the owners fed these weary travelers and then refused payment, saying the kids had been through a long day and dinner was on the house.

So there we are out in front of my house and Sam begins to describe the sturgeon he caught, and I distinctly hear him say, “nine-footer.” I politely inquired what topic he had shifted to so abruptly, since it obviously wasn’t that sturgeon anymore. He asked how big I thought it was. With truth shining in my eyes, I replied, “six.”

“No,” Sam disagreed. And I should mention here that truth was also shining in his eyes. I can vouch for Sam as one of the most truthy persons I know. “Those exchange students,” Sam explained, “said it was three meters. Nine feet.”

And that’s when I realized the exponential beauty of fishing with the metric system. By altering just one digit, you gain so much more. By slightly bumping two into three, the same fish grows by three feet in that same instant. Marvelous. All fish have a tendency to grow by inches between the catching of them and the telling about it, but using meters just streamlines the process and I finally see how terribly useful this metric system can be. Until now it just cluttered up my toolbox with sockets I never used.

I remember when I could only cast my flyrod about forty feet. Now I’m casting flies upward of a tenth of a furlong, or well over a decameter. I don’t even know how far that is in cubits. There’s no end to the utility of this system. A two-pound fish that took a little while to land sounds infinitely better weighed in bushels and landed in something under a fortnight. Not to mention my new flyrod, which I couldn’t afford until seeing how cheap it is in shekels.

A modest proposal for more railroad storage

You can blame me if you’re not pleased about Wallowa County becoming a storage unit for train cars. Pretty sure I brought that on, not the commissioners or train committee. Last month I drove past miles and miles of parked rail cars in Idaho on my way to a rafting trip on the Salmon River. There were the miles of parked lumber cars, then an occasional gap for a driveway and you could just glimpse a house behind the wall of railroad fencing. And I thought, ‘Those poor sons-of-guns, that must be miserable, looking at that instead of the view they used to have. Glad it’s not me.’

So as soon as I got off that river trip, I opened the newspaper to read how Wallowa County would soon be storing train cars in just the same fashion. For all I know, the exact same cars in front of that house in Idaho I felt sorry for will soon be resting in front of my house. I tempted fate and lost.

I admit I’m not excited about the whole deal. And I’ve been told that I should buck up. It’s good for the county and just a temporary inconvenience. Well, allrighty. I propose that we embrace this economic community spirit by expanding our new industry of storing train equipment and also store those portable container cars in the front yards of every home in Wallowa County. I saw yards full of container cars stacked in towers last time I was in Portland and it looked like they were running out of space. So let’s get a contract to haul three or four thousand out here, put them on truck trailers and park them in front of every Wallowa County home until this economy picks up enough that the railroads need their cars and containers back. Not excited about a container sitting in front of your house? O, come on. Buck up. It brings revenue into the county and provides wages for the workers who will be backing the trailer up and dropping the container in front of your place. It’s only temporary, after all. Three years isn’t so long.

I hold no grudge against the signers of this rail car storage agreement. It’s kind of refreshing, actually, to hear the train is making some money to pay for itself. But I do sincerely want to see a container car parked in front of anyone’s house that says those living in sight of the tracks shouldn’t complain. Look into that, will you please, commissioners? I think it’s an exciting opportunity.

I might just build a spur line around my property and contract on my own to store cars. It would save me the trouble of putting a fence around my place and bring in some revenue. Might violate a fencing ordinance, but if the railroad can do it, I don’t see why I couldn’t. Rombach Railyard. Has a certain ring to it.

Last summer my family was out here visiting and we talked about how it’s tough to scrape by in this place, but, man, is it beautiful and you can see why a person would want to live here. You can’t eat the view, et cetera. But, still, just look at those mountains. I explained how I’ve thought of moving elsewhere for work, but I just never get tired of coming home and looking at that view.

The rail cars aren’t backed up to my place yet, but I’m just outside Enterprise city limits and keep watching the empty cars roll by, heading toward Joseph and waiting for them to stop. And I think when they do that maybe I will get tired of looking at that view.

If you buy a house next to an airport, you expect planes to be flying in and out. What you don’t plan on is the airport storing a blimp in front of your place that will sit there for three years.

I used to think if I sold my place, the listing would have the standard real estate language of ‘Stunning mountain views!’ or ‘Little Switzerland from your front porch!’ Now, I don’t know. Maybe, ‘Infrastructure Right In Front Of You!’ or ‘Open Your Own Hobo Bed and Breakfast!’

Maybe we can dedicate some of this rail storage money to commissioning local artists to paint landscape murals onto the cars so it looks like what it used to. We can always paint them back to their original color when it comes time for the cars to roll back out. Might be inconvenient, but think of the good it will do for the local artist economy.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

The Good Steak Diet

Two sisters are Vaudeville contortionists. My grandfather is the brother of these two sisters . . . this is not a riddle. It’s the family history on my Mom’s side.
So the two Hubbard sisters met the two Pingle brothers and there were two weddings. Then everybody eventually moved from Los Angeles up to a remote ranch in southern Oregon, near Butte Falls.

My mom was seven during this move from L.A. to a ranch in the boonies. I remember when I worked on a haying crew one summer in high school and tried to explain to my mom just how hard this line of work was. She nodded and said she sure was proud of me for being so tough. Years later, my Auntie Ella showed me a photo of my mother working on the haying crew at the Mill-Mar Ranch. Mom was eight years old in the picture, and the haying was being done with a team of horses. I, uh, try not to complain to Mom anymore about much of anything.

Mill-Mar was a dude ranch originally, then later shifted to a working cattle operation. Mom told me a clear memory of hers when they first arrived at the ranch was her dad and uncle cutting and peeling logs to build new bed frames. I was out at the ranch some years ago, visiting my Uncle Morley and Aunt Julia, and asked if any of those log beds were still around. There were a few still in the barn, Morley said. So my mom got a log bed frame for Christmas that year and, if I remember right, her eyes got a little leaky.

Morley fed me a steak for dinner during that visit. He was probably in his late-eighties or early-nineties then. He told me his good health and longevity had a lot to do with eating a good steak nearly every night. I went back to visit several years later and he fed me another good steak. I’m now inclined to think of red meat as a health food, because although Morley Pingle just passed on, he was 99 years old.

I’ve known other rancher folk who didn’t seem to pay attention to the usual rules of being healthy, but still ended up that way. One robust old-timer in Wyoming outlined his health plan to me, which involved large quantities of beef, a daily shot of whiskey and pinches of Copenhagen, which he was sure possessed medicinal properties. I know he was wrong, but you try telling that to somebody who can still beat you at arm-wrestling when other people their age are in a nursing home.

I suspect the real common denominator among these folks who seem to get around the regular laws of aging is hard work and plenty of it. It’s too bad. I like the idea of a medium-rare steak with grilled onions every night. I’m less crazy about the notion of bucking hay bales or whatever else it takes to work that meal off every day.

Otherwise I’d be writing a best-selling fountain of youth cookbook and fitness program that’s mainly just a collection of recipes on how to prepare a good steak. I might do it anyway. I’ve heard of some diet plans out there that don’t make nearly as much sense as eating a good steak every night. And I don’t remember those diets having a spokesman that lived to be 99.

My Aunt Ella is 94 and not too long ago I watched her prove that she can still stand on her hands. She and her sister Julia, Morley’s wife of 70 years, trained from an early age for their work as contortionists. Ella is rightfully proud of still being able to stand on her hands, but don’t bet her any money. Rather than raising her feet in the air while balancing on her hands, she bends down and places her hands beneath her feet. Technically, that’s standing on your hands. And I know some folks half her age who couldn’t pull that off.

So watch the bookstore for my upcoming book revealing the secrets to long life and flexibility through cattle ranching and Vaudeville contortionism. In the meantime, Vaya con Dios, Uncle Morley.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Seaweed Otters and Rocket Lawnchairs

Charlie Kissinger, guru of our local Ferguson Ridge ski area, has outdone himself this year. He and the legions of Fergi volunteers once again managed to run that ski hill so it feels like you’re playing in your own backyard with a bunch of friends over.

I knew Charlie was resourceful, but was impressed to find out that he somehow contacted my sister and convinced her to schedule our Rombach family get-together this weekend. Which is also Fergifest weekend. This man will clearly stop at nothing to keep me from entering the annual lawnchair race. Two years ago he managed to get me a teaching job out of town during Fergifest so he wouldn’t have to race me. And now this. Well played, sir.

So I’m going to miss it, but get yourself up there this Saturday, April 4, for ski golfing, downhill races, potluck goodness, the bonfire at the lodge, music, dancing . . . and that most glorious of sporting events: the racing of lawnchairs on skis. I don’t have time to train an alternate pilot for my new generation of lawnchair racer. It took me months to build up tolerance in the G-force simulator. Plus the two weeks I spent at the Bonneville Salt Flats to work out the kinks on the new rocket propulsion system for my chair.

I will admit that in the past, when I have made it to the race, there were certain difficulties that resulted in me dragging my chair to the finish long after the champion was crowned. But I have bad news for you, Kissinger, and Blane Hayes, and all the rest of you lawnchair racers that manage to win or even just finish the race … this rocket fuel of mine will keep until next year, so I’ll wish you good luck now for both 2009 and 2010.

I’ll still need my competitive spirit this weekend, as the Rombachs have extremely fierce cribbage tournaments when we convene and the loser has to cut off a finger. Well, not the whole finger, but a joint anyway. Still, it makes you want to concentrate.

I will be building sand castles on the Oregon Coast with my nephews and nieces. Kites will be flown, clams will be chowdered, shrimps cocktailed and crabs louied. I can’t wait to be there to see my mom introduce her grandchildren to the exciting world of marine creatures. When my sisters and I were youngsters on a trip to the beach, Mom pointed out bobbing heads in the water and said, “Look, kids, otters.” A crowd soon gathered along the boardwalk as we pointed out the playful critters frolicking in the surf and dozens of pictures were being taken until some guy walked by and said, “Those aren’t otters, that’s seaweed bobbing around in the water.” Sure enough. But it was playful seaweed.

The forecast is for rough weather on the coast this week, which I’m looking forward to. I used to live on a sailboat, and the anxiety of having your home on the ocean during rough conditions is not a fond memory. It’s tough to sleep with the rigging slapping the mast in howling winds while your kitchen and bookshelves are dumping themselves onto the floor each time the boat rolls. Now I dearly love watching monster swells pound a coastline as I sip coffee behind the windows of a warm beachfront diner, delighted I no longer own a boat. When the weather is nice and I’m near the ocean, however, I scan the classified ads looking to buy another boat. What I need is a timeshare arrangement with a foul weather sailor who assumes ownership as soon as the barometer drops. They can also have the boat every year during Fergifest weekend, whatever the weather is doing. Because I’ll be in my lawnchair racer, ready for the race to start.

Razor Burn and Brimstone

I’ve been accused recently of not being civic-minded for my refusal to join the beard growing contest. It’s not that I don’t want to celebrate the 120th anniversary of Enterprise being Enterprise. Or 150 years of Oregon statehood. Or the Wallowa County Courthouse turning 100. Those are nice, round numbers and I think letting facial hair run free around the county is a fine way to commemorate the olden days.

Beard growing and I simply do not get along. In a frightening way. Years ago I was living with a family in Costa Rica while I went to school down there. And I thought, hey, why not give the razor a rest. No particular reason, just seemed a good time to sprout whiskers. A month later things were looking patchy. I seem to have a medical condition where the beard follicles down the middle of my chin have migrated over to either side. That leaves a bare stripe down the center, while the corners of my chin compensate and grow these bushy . . . tufts, I guess you would call them.

The mother of the family I was staying with understood english well enough, but didn’t like to speak it. And I could comprende what she was saying in spanish, but made a terrible mess when I tried to put a sentence together in spanish. So we had nice conversations each morning in our two languages. She would say, “Quieres huevos?” I would answer, “That would be great. Thank you.” Then she would say, “De nada.”

She had been following the progress of my facial hair with some interest, assuring me that I looked muy guapo. But there came a morning when she seemed concerned as we ate our huevos and bacon beneath the framed picture of Jesus above the kitchen table. She pointed at my struggling beard with the two pointy patches on either side and informed me that I had una barba de diablo. A beard of the devil. Then she crossed herself quickly and glanced up at the portrait of Jesus.

Well, friends, that was the end of my beard growing days. I put down my fork, wiped my chin with my napkin in case there were any stray fragments of egg or brimstone on there, then marched upstairs to rid myself of that pointy monstrosity. So you’ll have to forgive me if I don’t join in the local beard growing contest. I can handle the itching and scratching of growing a beard. It’s the being driven out of a community under a hail of rocks that I’d rather avoid.

For the record, I consider myself a pretty nice guy and am quite sure the prince of darkness does not manifest himself in my patchy chin hair. It’s an unfortunate resemblance, is all. Which is a shame. Because shaving is one of my least favorite activities.

For one thing, is it asking too much for the razor industry to standardize their replacement cartridges? There are razors called Mach 3 Turbo, Quattro Power, Tracer, Fusion, Xtreme . . . it sounds like a catalog of military ordinance rather than grooming products. I can never remember if I need to buy the Schick or Gillette and if it’s Turbo or Quad Cam and if it was three blades or four . . . do I get the surface-to-air heat seeking five blade cartridge with the soothing aloe strip? Or is it the fully automatic titanium self-cooling strafing howitzer model that pivots to reach those difficult spots?

They all look the same, so you guess. Next morning you find that you guessed wrong and there you are trying to shave by holding onto the sides of the little cartridge with your fingertips because none of the two dozen razor handles you own will fit the new blades.

I gave up on fancy razors long ago. Pitched the lot and went back to the cheap yellow single-blade models. It’s easy to remember which kind you need to buy, but the downside is that you get what you pay for. After shaving with economy razors, I come out of the bathroom looking like I’ve just lost a fight with a lynx.

So best of luck to the beard growers. I look forward to seeing the champions for the categories of longest beard, wildest or bushiest and best groomed. They’ll be announced at the celebration on July 11. I might still participate if I can talk them into adding a category for most pieces of toilet paper stuck to self-inflicted wounds from a cheap yellow razor.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Making a Withdrawal from my Daylight Savings Account

We just got more daylight by changing the clocks. Which is good. But not really. The daylight was there, but our clocks weren’t. Every year when we go through this nonsense, and then back again, it looks to me like millions of otherwise intelligent people are agreeing to pretend we didn’t all just move our millions of little hands on our clocks and then say, “There. It’s five-o’-clock . . . again.”

I’ve never liked this daylight savings business. That’s not to say I don’t love daylight. Long summer days on the river are the best part of the year in my book.

But, really? Moving time back and forth? I’ve seen time travel movies. I know what happens when you go back in time or jump to the future. Every time we do this daylight savings ritual, I’m terrified we’re going to upset the earth-time continuum and throw the course of history off track.

We’re told this time jockeying benefits agricultural folks. I asked my rancher buddy if it made any difference to him what the clock said in regard to when he left the house or came in at night. He scowled, exhaled loudly, spat and walked off without answering. I’m going to take that as a “no.” Then again, that’s his response to many of my questions, so it’s hard to say.

It pains me to hear the rumor that Ben Franklin is responsible for thinking up daylight savings. I’m otherwise a fan of Ben’s work. He invented the kite, the lightning bolt, and perhaps his greatest gift to humanity -- the skullet, which is that fashionable hairstyle of going bald up top but still rocking the mullet in back.

There’s a Benjamin Franklin quote framed above the bar at our local brew pub, Terminal Gravity, which says, “Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy.” I wonder if Franklin didn’t come up with that saying right before the idea for daylight savings time. That would explain a lot.

I was talking to my little sister Jessica the other day about my dislike of daylight savings. She agreed and said, “there should also be thirteen months.” I didn’t follow her on this, but she explained: Fifty-two weeks in a year. Thirteen goes into fifty-two a nice, even, four times. If we had thirteen months there wouldn’t be any of this twenty-nine days in this month, thirty-one in another. No more counting on your knuckles to see which month has how many days. I guess leap year might give us some trouble, but we could move our clocks ahead one day and then change them back to avoid any difficulty.

I’ve named the new month “Jessember,” in honor of my little sis. I may need to put a sundial and a replica of Stonehenge in my yard and start doing my scheduling that way. Otherwise all the stress of adjusting times and calendars is going to send me into baldness and one of those Ben Franklin mullets.

Better yet, I’ll just go rafting. River Time is my kind of time. You get there when you get there and instead of minutes or hours, it’s stretches of river and number of days.

The world might have been a lot different if Ben Franklin had got in some leisurely rafting trips. Put some sunscreen on his skullet, kicked back on the banks of the Salmon River in a lawnchair and said to himself, “You know, I think this country should adopt a time change to river time. It won’t help the agricultural folks any, but they don’t pay attention to what the clock says anyway . . . let’s make another batch of riveritas.”