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


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


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.