I’ve been a fan of Jimmy Buffet’s ever since I went to see him and his band, The Coral Reefer’s, at Harrah’s Lake Tahoe in the early 1980s. As I recall, we even had a ‘reefer’ (or three) in preparation for the concert. By we, I mean Tom Lovering, his Aussie buddy, Trevor, and me. It was a guy’s night out. Cheese Burger in Paradise and Son of a Son of a Sailor are still floating around in my mind. As is Margaritaville.
I’ve been thinking about another one of his songs from that era, Changes in Latitude, Changes in Attitude, over the past three months I’ve been taking a break from blogging. These lyrics in particular struck a chord:
Oh, yesterdays are over my shoulder, So I can’t look back for too long. There’s just too much to see waiting in front of me, and I know that I just can’t go wrong with these changes in latitudes, changes in attitudes…
I could hardly blame you for thinking, “At 78, there is a lot more over Curt’s shoulder than there is waiting in front of him.” But Peggy and I don’t view things that way. Life is an adventure to be lived— one day at a time— for as long as you can. So, when Peggy casually mentioned to me a few weeks ago that she was ready to wander again, I was right there with her. We did that in 1999/2000, taking a year off from work to travel extensively in North America for a year. And we did it again in 2008 when Peggy retired. That time it was for three years.
There is something incredibly freeing about life on the road, as many of you who read this blog know from your own travels. Each day brings something new to see, to experience and to learn. Everyday life and concerns fade into the background. While we have travelled using just about every mode of transportation possible over the years (minus the four-legged type), our North American road trips were accomplished in two different Pleasure Way vans, Xanadu and Quivera.
Our goal this time will be to do a more thorough job of exploring North America than we have in the past— traveling relatively short distances to the next interesting/beautiful location, settling in for 1-3 weeks, and exploring the surrounding country. It will require a slightly different approach. We are buying a small trailer and have already bought a new pickup to pull it. The trailer will serve as our base. The pickup will serve as our exploration vehicle. It even comes with 4-wheel drive and off-road capacity! The trailer is designed for either living in campgrounds with hookups or boondocking (living off the grid) with solar power.
As for our schedule, we have yet to decide how long we will be on the road each outing before we return to our home base. Neither have we decided where each trip will take us but we are thinking warmer when it is cold up north and cooler when it is hot down south. Both Canada and Mexico will be included in our plans depending on conditions. Our goal will also be to avoid some of the worst problems associated with global warming. Anyway, I’ll keep you posted as our plans develop. And, of course, you will be invited to travel with us as I blog along the way.
Tom wanders in and out of these posts frequently. I first met him in 1974 when I walked into Alpine West, his outdoor gear and clothing store in Sacramento. I was planning my first 100 mile Sierra Backpack Trek as a fundraiser for the American Lung Association and was seeking a sponsor. After telling me that the trip was crazy and that people would come off the hike hating me and the ALA, he immediately offered to promote the event through his store. That’s Tom. We’ve been friends ever since and have had numerous adventures together that have included backpacking, boating and Burning Man, among others. He was with me when I found Bone on a backpacking trip in 1978. In the photo below, Tom has Bone woven into his hair on an 18 day raft trip down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon he led in 2010 that included Peggy, me, and other friends.
Three years ago, he and his friend Lita were deglazing a pot that they had used for cooking blackberry jam. Tom threw in a dollop of vodka to make the job easier. Naturally he couldn’t waste the vodka. Much to his delight, the sugar-enhanced blackberries combined with a generous helping of vodka went well together. A new drink was born: Blackberry Surprise! Over the next couple of years, he and Lita made pilgrimages to the Fort Bragg area on California’s Pacific Coast each summer to pick blackberries to mix with vodka as he refined his recipe.
I told him that lots of blackberries grow where we live and invited the two of them up to join Peggy and me in making Blackberry Surprise. To seal the deal, we sent him a photo of plump blackberries a week and a half ago.
Tom called immediately. “We’ll be up tomorrow,” he told me. I hadn’t expected the photo to elicit such a fast response.
“Um, Tom,” I replied, “we are having dinner out with our friends Don and Nan.”
“What time will you get home,” he asked. “Eight-ish” I replied. “Great, we’ll see you then.” I could hear Lita in the background suggesting you don’t call someone and show up the next day. Ha. Tom and Lita drove up the 320 miles from Sacramento in their Pleasureway van and were waiting at our house when we got back from dinner.
Tom immediately broke out a battery operated blender with the power of a professional Vitamix that he had invented and whipped us up a generous helping of Blackberry Surprise. We all went to bed happy.
NOTE: This is one of the occasional blogs I am posting this summer as I take a break.
While the Pond and the Woods provided an innocent and often educational escape for me, much of my outdoor time was spent getting into mischief, especially in my younger years when I roamed around Diamond and the surrounding countryside with my brother and our friends. What I remember most about these great adventures was that we were skating on the thin edge of trouble.
Gradually, we developed a reputation. I am convinced that a whole generation of little kids in Diamond blamed their misbehavior on us. “I didn’t do it Mama, the Mekemson kids did.” And Mama probably believed them. The mother of my life-long friend, Bob Bray, did. She refused to let him play with me. I was a bad influence, guaranteed to lead her son straight into the arms of the law.
Most of our mischief was relatively harmless. For example, Jimmy Pagonni lived across the street and had a zero-tolerance policy for us. We lusted after his cherries. He transformed them into wine and every drop was precious. He turned his dogs loose on us if we came anywhere near his orchard. Naturally his insistence on keeping us out only guaranteed our presence. Raids were carefully planned.
We would invite two or three friends over and make a party out of it. The cover was sleeping out in the backyard, but sleep was secondary. Somewhere around one o’clock in the morning we would slip out of our yard, cross a very lonely Highway 49, climb over Jimmy’s rickety gate, and disappear up into the trees. It was all very hush-hush and cherries have never tasted more delicious. We would stuff our stomachs and then fill up bags for take-out. It was pure greed.
Jimmy’s dogs never caught us before we were able to scramble over the gate but they did catch my cocker spaniel, Tickle, once, and almost killed him. Tickle had been out on the town visiting a lady friend and took a shortcut across Pagonni’s property. We were infuriated. Marshall retaliated by shooting Jimmy’s bull in the balls with a BB gun. (If not fair to the bull, it was at least alliteration.) Jimmy never knew Marshall committed the heinous act but I am sure he had his suspicions.
Even more serious, an older Marshall (eighth grade I think) stole a jug of Jimmy’s wine. He stored the fermented cherry juice in an old Gold Rush era building that may have served as a jail in its youth. It was located right in the middle of his well-guarded cherry orchard and featured a stout locked door and one barred window. I am sure Jimmy considered it impregnable but he failed to consider just how skinny my brother was. With help from his friend Art, Marshall managed to slip through the bars one night and pinch a gallon of Italian Red.
He and Art then headed for our treehouse in the Graveyard to do some serious imbibing. Considering that a gallon of Jimmy’s Italian Red would have knocked out two grown men, it almost killed Marshall, not to mention encouraging strange behavior. He described how Mrs. Ross, my 4th and 5th grade teacher, came upon Art and him madly peddling their bikes. This wouldn’t have been strange except they were lying on their backs holding the bikes above them in the air!
I remember him slipping in the back door and trying to get to our bedroom before Mother and Pop noticed. It didn’t work. In addition to stumbling and mumbling and heaving, he smelled like a three-week gutter drunk. He was one sick kid. Both parents hurried to the bedroom out of concern and I moved back outside to sleep in the cool, but fresh fall air. It was one of those crimes that incorporates its own punishment.
The question in next Monday’s post from my blogged book It’s 4 AM and a Bear Is Standing on Top of Me, is who shot Pavy’s pig? The sheriff wanted to know.
WEDNESDAY’S POST from my Peace Corps Memoirs: As I came close to graduating from Berkeley, I had a choice of how to serve my country: Either join the Peace Corps or be shipped out to fight in a Southeast Asian War.
FRIDAY’S TRAVEL BLOG: We are going for a walk in the woods— on a trail I built. There are wild flowers to admire, a gold mining operation from the 20s and 30s that suggests that there may be gold under our house, poison oak, and a buck doing strange things.
In my last blog-a-book post from my outdoor adventure book, It’s 4 AM and a Bear Is Standing on Top of Me, I wrote about the Pond, which was a major influence in my childhood leading me to a lifelong love of the outdoors and wilderness. Today, I will introduce another one, the Woods.
The Woods also earned a capital letter. To get there you walked out the back door, down the alley past the Graveyard and through a pasture Jimmy Pagonni rented for his cattle. Tackling the pasture involved crawling through a rusty barbed wire fence, avoiding fresh cow pies, climbing a hill and jumping an irrigation ditch. The journey was fraught with danger. Hungry barbed wire consumed several of my shirts and occasionally went for my back.
Torn clothing and bleeding scratches were a minor irritation in comparison to stepping in fresh cow poop though. A thousand-pound, grass-eating machine produces acres of the stuff. Deep piles sneak up your foot and slosh over into your shoes. Toes hate this. Even more treacherous are the little piles that hide out in the grass. A well-placed patty can send you sliding faster than black ice. The real danger here is ending up with your butt in the pile. I did that, once. Happily, no one was around to witness my misfortune, or hear my language, except Tickle the dog. I swore him to secrecy.
For all of its hazards, the total hike to the Woods took about 15 minutes. Digger pines with drunken windmill limbs guarded the borders while gnarly manzanita and spiked chaparral dared the casual visitor to venture off the trail. Poison oak proved more subtle but effective in discouraging exploration.
I could count on raucous California jays to announce my presence, especially if I was stalking a band of notorious outlaws. Ground squirrels were also quick to whistle their displeasure. Less talkative jackrabbits merely ambled off upon spotting me, put on a little speed for a hyper Cocker, and became bounding blurs in the presence of a hungry greyhound. Flickers, California quail and acorn woodpeckers held discussions in distinctive voices I soon learned to recognize.
From the beginning, I felt at home in the Woods, like I belonged. I quickly learned that its hidden recesses contained a multitude of secrets. I was eager to learn what they had to teach me, but the process seemed glacial. It required patience and I hardly knew how to spell the word. I did know how to sit quietly, however. This was a skill I had picked up from the hours I spent with my nose buried in books. The woodland creatures prefer their people noisy. A Curt stomping down the trail, snapping dead twigs, and talking to himself was easy to avoid while a Curt being quiet might surprise them.
One gray squirrel was particularly loud in his objections. He lived in the top branches of a digger pine beside the trail and maintained an observation post on an overhanging limb. When he heard me coming, he would adopt his ‘you can’t see me gray squirrel playing statue pose.’ But I knew where to look. I would find a comfortable seat and stare at him. It drove him crazy. Soon he would start to thump the limb madly with his foot and chirr loudly. He had pine nuts to gather, a stick home to remodel, and a bright-eyed, bushy-tailed lady to woo. I was blocking progress. Eventually, if I didn’t move, his irritation would bring him scrambling down the trunk for a much more up-close and personal scolding.
After about 15 minutes of continuous haranguing, he’d decide I was a harmless, if obnoxious aberration and go about his business. That’s when I begin to learn valuable secrets, like where he hid his pine nuts. It was also a sign for the rest of the wildlife to come out of hiding. A western fence lizard might work its way to the top of the dead log next to me and start doing push-ups. Why, I couldn’t imagine. Or perhaps a thrush would begin to scratch up the leaves under the manzanita in search of creepy tidbits. The first time I heard one, it sounded like a very large animal interested in little boy flesh. Occasionally there were special treats: A band of teenage gray squirrels playing tag and demonstrating their incredible acrobatics; a doe leading its shy, speckled fawn out to drink in the small stream that graced the Wood’s meadow; and a coyote sneaking up on a ground squirrel hole with an intensity I could almost feel.
I also began to play at stalking animals. Sometime during the time period between childhood and becoming a teenager, I read James Fennimore Cooper and began to think I was a reincarnation of Natty Bumppo. Looking back, I can’t say I was particularly skilled, but no one could have told me so at the time. At least I learned to avoid dry twigs, walk slowly, and stop frequently. Occasionally, I even managed to sneak up on some unsuspecting woodland creature.
If the birds and the animals weren’t present, they left signs for me. There was always the helter-skelter pack rat nest to explore. Tickle liked to tear them apart, quickly sending twigs flying in all directions. There were also numerous tracks to figure out. Was it a dog or coyote that had stopped for a drink out of the stream the night before? Tickle knew instantly, but I had to piece it together. A sinuous trail left by a slithery serpent was guaranteed to catch my attention. This was rattlesnake country. Who’d been eating whom or what was another question? The dismantled pinecone was easy to figure out but who considered the bark on a young white fir a delicacy? And what about the quail feathers scattered haphazardly beside the trail?
Scat, I learned, was the tracker’s word for shit. It offered a multitude of clues for what animals had been ambling down the trail and what they had been eating. There were deer droppings and rabbit droppings and mouse droppings descending in size. Coyotes and foxes left their distinctive dog-like scat but the presence of fur and berries suggested that something other than dog food had been on the menu. Some scat was particularly fascinating, at least to me. Burped up owl pellets provided a treasure chest of bones— little feet, little legs and little skulls that grinned back with the vacant stare of slow mice.
While Tarzan hung out in the Graveyard and pirates infested the Pond, mountain men, cowboys, Indians, Robin Hood and various bad guys roamed the Woods. Each bush hid a potential enemy that I would indubitably vanquish. I had the fastest two fingers in the West and I could split a pine nut with an imaginary arrow at 50 yards. I never lost. How could I? It was my fantasy. But daydreams were only a part of the picture. I fell in love with wandering in the Woods and playing on the Pond. There was an encyclopedia of knowledge available and a multitude of lessons about life. Learning wasn’t a conscious effort, though; it was more like absorption. The world shifted for me when I entered the Woods and time slowed down. A spider with an egg sack was worth ten minutes, a gopher pushing dirt out of its hole an hour, and a deer with a fawn a lifetime.
NEXT MONDAY’S POST: Not surprisingly, my classmates start calling me Nature Boy. It was a title I wore proudly.
My friend and blogging buddy, Crystal Trulove at Conscious Engagement posted this blog today that feature a quilt made by her daughter and friend and a dragon quilt made by Peggy specifically for Crystal. Quilting helped lots of folks get through the pandemic. Scroll down to see a pair of beautiful quilts made in two, very different ways.
This post also speaks to the close friendships that are developed through blogging. Crystal came down from her home north of Portland, Oregon and stayed with us while we all enjoyed the Shakespeare Festival in Ashland. She also carried Bone back with her to meet her Cherokee Tribe in Oklahoma. And she has been working with our son Tony in defining what medical benefits he is eligible for from injuries received while serving as a Marine and Coast Guard pilot, a specialty of hers.. –Curt
Today’s post is about two quilts. Maybe three if you count the amazing quilting on BOTH sides of one of them. Ok, we’ll make that 2 1/2 quilts.
The end of March, my kiddo Tara, and their partner, Brynnen, came to visit for a real visit. This time no masks and we were indoors together and even hugged. It was blissful. Tara wanted to see me, but also wanted to work on a quilt. This is a new kind of project for T. Their very first quilt ever is not quite done, but will be finished soon because Tara was picking up some fabric for that quilt that I had at my house. In the meantime, they had started this new quilt. So the one you see here…
I watched the presentation of colors today at President Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris’s inauguration. I listened as Lady Gaga sang an incredible version of the Star-Spangled Banner. I noted the flags from our history that dated back to our very beginnings. I looked out on the 200,000 flags flying on the National Mall and the flags flying in the breeze on virtually every building.
And while I am not by nature a flag waver, I was proud, prouder than I have ever been of the flag.
Two weeks ago, my vision was totally different. I watched as an American Flag was used to beat a policeman whose only crime was protecting our Nation’s Capital from a band of thugs whose goal was an assault on our very democracy. I watched as they claimed they were patriots, wrapped themselves in flags, waved them from the ramparts, and carried them as they ran through the capitol corridors breaking windows, spray painting walls, and threatening the lives of Republican Vice President Mike Pence and the Democratic Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi.
That vision has now been wiped out of my mind.
May we now move forward to solve the very real problems this nation faces— from the raging pandemic that has killed 400,000 Americans to the racism that continues to haunt our lives, from the environmental degradation that has led to global warming to severe economic depression that has destroyed thousands of businesses and thrown hundreds of thousands of people out of work, from denying citizens the right to vote to governing with mistruths and conspiracy theories.
And finally, may we return to our role as a positive, responsible partner in addressing the problems of the broader world.
Oregonians are known for flocking to the coast when winter storms rile up the Pacific Ocean and send huge waves crashing ashore. Local media can be depended on to report the when and where. Peggy and I escaped to one of the best locations on the coast a few weeks ago, Cape Arago near Coos Bay. Both of us were kept busy with our cameras.
On Tuesday’s Blog-a-Book: The next chapter in the Sierra Trek. Sixteen miles without water and a Trekker is lost… or goes awol. And a humongous rattlesnake presents a unique challenge.
On Thursday’s Travel Blog: We visit the very strange but beautiful Sunset Bay.
It’s time to make New Year’s resolutions! Assuming Covid-19 is brought under control, Peggy and I highly recommend that you resolve to spend time in the Southwestern US and visit the National Parks. Here are a few final photos that Peggy and I took this past year and included in our family calendars.
HAPPY NEW YEAR TO YOU AND YOUR FAMILIES. –Curt and Peggy
NEXT: Blog a Book Tuesday. Orvis comes to the rescue and forever earns my gratitude. We have an 18-mile day with only one water stop. A Trekker loses himself. One of our 11 year olds kicks dirt on a timber rattlesnake bigger than he is. Charlie saves me from being hung.
It’s the season. Peggy and I wish you the very best this holiday. Given how crazy this year has been, we decided a little humor is in order. So I reached back into the past. Several years ago, I developed a series of cards for special occasions. Meet the Corral Chorale Choir:
Christmas Eve Post: National Parks of the Southwest
“Why?” G, a blogging friend from Florida, asked when I posted my plans to spend the summer backpacking down the PCT. Why would I subject myself to ice cold baths and human-snacking insects? Why would I want to spend 7-9 hours a day hiking over difficult terrain in 100-degree weather while dodging fires, breathing smoke, and carrying a 30 to 35-pound pack? Why would I subject my body to the common ailments of through-hikers: exhaustion, near-starvation, freezing nights, blistered feet, trashed toenails, sprained ankles, shin splints, twisted knees, cranky hips, sore shoulders, bug bites, sun burn and poison oak, not to mention possible encounters with large furry animals sporting big teeth.
My guess is that G thought 75-year-old men should limit their exercise program to hiking up and down the stairs on a cruise ship or possibly hiking from the TV to the bathroom during a football commercial. Puttering in a garden is also okay; as is fishing off the end of a pier. Going for short hikes is to be encouraged. It helps keep you healthy. But backpacking several hundred miles through rugged wilderness— much of it by yourself? That’s crazy.
Perhaps. But I had been backpacking since 1969, when the PCT was a barely-hatched one-year old, or since 1954 if you counted Boy Scouts. I had started exploring the jungle-like graveyard next to our home at five, and completed my first solo, mile-long hike in the wee hours of the morning when I was seven. While other boys my age had spent their summers playing sports and hoping to dazzle coaches, parents and friends, I had wandered farther and farther afield with nothing but my dogs for company. High school and college had seen a hiatus as studies, work and girls took precedence. But I returned to my wandering ways as a Peace Corps Volunteer, exploring the jungles surrounding my home in West Africa and carrying a compass so I could map them out. And avoid getting lost.
Cheryl Strayed’s journey on the PCT in Wild and Bill Bryson’s hike along the Appalachian Trail in A Walk in the Woods had inspired me to think about undertaking my own long-distant trek. They were admittedly a tad younger when they started their adventures— at 26 and 45 their combined age was less than mine— but I had tons more of experience. I had celebrated my 60th birthday by backpacking 360-miles from Lake Tahoe to Mt. Whitney. Certainly, I could do twice that to celebrate my 75th.
I’d chuckled when I read Bryson’s chapter on a bear he may or may not have seen in the night, and how he had gone scrambling for his pocket knife. Scary yes— big creatures that think of you as a menu item usually are, especially on a dark night— but I have had dozens of encounters with bears. Once, I woke up at four in the morning with one standing on top of me, sniffing my breath. Now, that’s scary! Another time I was stalked by a grizzly in Alaska. And then there was the time I had a discussion with one of the great brown bears of Katmai over why he shouldn’t eat me. A ranger had told me that if I encountered a bear out on the trail, I should “speak to it in a calm voice and back away.” But what do you say to a thousand pounds of bulging muscles with four-inch long claws? Read on.
Unlike Strayed, I knew that seemingly insignificant ounces add up to bone crushing pounds when carried on your back. I’d led hundred-mile backpack trips for 30 years in California and Alaska. Preparing first-time trekkers to go was one of the most important things I did. Now, picture backpacking over 1,100 miles with zero preparation, which Strayed did. While I had greatly admired her fortitude in hiking on the PCT through California and Oregon, I’d cringed at her lack of readiness. But I readily admit that it made a good story and served as an inspiration for thousands of women, and probably men as well.
By now, I am sure that you realize that I love backpacking. I love it for what it does for my mind and my body. It’s amazing how fast the worries of the world fade away when you are hiking up a mountain. And it’s fun to see what a week of backpacking does for your body. But what I like most is that backpacking gets me out into the woods. Time slows down. There is great beauty, and peace, and healing, and maybe even a touch of salvation. As John Muir noted, “The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness.”
This book concludes with my trip down the PCT at 75. I’d started with a goal of backpacking at least 500 miles and possibly as many as a thousand. Between giving my lungs fire-free breaks and providing more time for rest and recovery between trail sections, I split the difference, not bad for seven decades. And I was lucky to have total support from my wife, Peggy. Not only did she join me for three sections of the trip, she was waiting for me at the end of the other sections with a warm smile, a tight hug, and a cold beer. And she had camped out for the week by herself so she would be there to greet me and provide other backup if needed. If that’s not love, I don’t know what is.
The PCT trip is just a small part of my backpacking story, however. One can have a lot of adventures in 50 years of wandering in the wilderness and I plan to incorporate several into this tale, including the bear stories mentioned above. I also want to talk about the beginning, how I fell in love with the woods and outdoors as a young boy. That always gets a bit iffy in terms of memory. But getting kicked out of the first grade at five for a year was an important factor in that it encouraged me to explore the jungle-like graveyard next to our home. Choosing to sleep outside in the summer, even if it meant sleeping on the ground, was another. Such things tend to stick in your head. At least they do mine.
While my emphasis will focus on the adventures, I also wish to encourage my readers to think of the wilderness as one of our most precious heritages, taking us back to our very beginnings as humans. When we lose our connection with the outdoors, we lose a bit of our humanity. We owe it to ourselves to reconnect or maintain our connection, even if it is simply going for a walk in the town park and listening to the birds sing. And we owe it to our children, grandchildren, and future generations to protect the world’s remaining wilderness areas.
So, let’s get started as I tackle the insane task of leading a group of 61 people aged 11 to 70 on a 9 day, 100-mile backpack trip across the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range. The event kicked off my part-time career of leading long-distance backpacking treks and guaranteed that backpacking would always be a part of my life.
That I survived the experience and had any kind of a career at all was close to a miracle…
NEXT POST: On Thursday, Peggy and I continue our exploration of America’s backroads as we follow “The Loneliest Road in America,” Highway 50 through Nevada and into Utah.