Happy Holidays

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

A 700-Mile Plus Backpack Trek Down the PCT at 75… The Question Is Why?

Why would a happily married 75-year-old decide to spend three months of his life backpacking down the Pacific Crest Trail? It’s complicated…
The sheer beauty of the wilderness plus 50-years of backpacking are important factors! This is Castle Crags in Northern California. They loomed up behind me in the photo above.

“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.

It’s 4 AM and a Bear Is Standing on Top of Me…

This is it. The beginning of my book on backpacking and how I fell in love with the wilderness. I intend to blog it, one story at a time. My hope is that you will join me. There are many, many adventures: most are fun, some scary, and all challenging. If you been following me for a while, you will recognize several of the stories. I have every intention of mining my blog. I’ll keep the stories short, something you can read in a few minutes. So sit back, relax, and enjoy. Here we go...

This is Popcorn!, one of many through-hikers I met on the 700 mile backpack trip down the PCT that I went on to celebrate my 75th Birthday. She offered me some valuable advice…


On Bathing in the Woods

Getting naked is as essential to bathing in the woods as it is to bathing at home. The definition of clean, however, changes. Speed becomes critical when your bathwater comes from an ice-cold stream. A hundred mosquitoes viewing your bare body as a large neon sign blinking “Eat Here” hurries the process even more. You can almost hear the clarion call go out: “Major target located in northeast quadrant. Proceed at once to location. No invitation is necessary. BYOB. (Bring Your Own Beaks.)” A few swipes with a wet cloth and you’re done. So what if you still smell. 

“Wipe your clothes with pine needles,” Popcorn! suggested. “Then you will smell like a pine tree.” It was a morsel of through-hiker wisdom. Popcorn! was heading north on the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) in her quest to hike the 2650 miles from Mexico to Canada while I was heading south from Mt. Ashland, seeing how far I could push my 75-year-old body over the summer. She had caught up with me near the top of Red Mountain between Interstate 5 and Burney Falls in Northern California. I had just huffed up the mountain in hundred-degree heat toward the end of a long day and had to persuade my feet to move. “Okay left foot, it’s your turn.” I was taking a break while eating my late lunch of two fig bars and a handful of nuts while contemplating a nap. Old people do that.

Popcorn! had stopped to chat for a few minutes and introduced her trail-name with an exclamation point. She was a young woman with a wide smile and straight, shiny teeth that looked like they belonged in a dentist’s ad. Earbuds dangled down from her Osprey backpack shoulder strap. Tunes helped her hike the 20-30 miles per day required to finish the trail. I’d asked about swimming possibilities in Peavine Creek, where I planned to camp for the night. I was meeting my wife Peggy at Burney Falls the next day and wanted to be cleaner than trail-normal. Popcorn! had told me that the creek was shallow and covered with brush. Even getting water to drink was a challenge. That’s where the pine needle discussion had come in.

As she had prepared to hike on, I’d asked if I could take her photo for my blog: wandering-through-time-and-place.com. “Of course,” she responded, “as long as you put the exclamation point at the end of my name.” You quickly learn that through-hikers are a cast of characters and trail names are special. I’m Wanderer. After she left, I reached up and plucked a bundle of needles from the young Ponderosa pine I was using as a pillow and applied the sniff test. They had a rich piney smell. Not bad, I thought to myself, but I’d prefer red fir needles. Then I would smell like a Christmas Tree. I idly wondered if Peggy would view me as a present. Maybe, if I wrapped a ribbon around my body. I had some red parachute cord along… 

Given the challenge of bathing in the woods, I was a surprised a few weeks later when Peggy declared, “That was a good bath!” as we made our way back to camp after washing off next to James Creek in the Three Sisters Wilderness of Oregon. I had jumped north in my journey, trying to get away from the endless smoke and fires of California, and found a trail section that Peggy could hike with me. We had carried our small, folding buckets across a meadow to the meandering stream so we could fill them with water and avoid getting soap in the creek. I’d also carried a ground cloth to throw down on the grass.

The good news about the bath was that there were no mosquitoes. It was too late in the season. The bad news, as we expected, was cold water. But there was more. First, we were out in a meadow exposed to the world. Anybody hiking down the trail would see a pair of old folks as naked as the day they were born. Thrilling, I’m sure, but all the more reason to be hasty. Second, there were cute little green frogs hiding in the grass. There was a real danger of squishing one under our bare feet. And who wants to squish a cute green frog between her toes— or even an ugly one? 

Finally, there were the spiders, hundreds of them. I’ve never seen such a concentration. I spotted them scurrying away from under our tarp when I tossed it down on the grass. Apparently the instant eclipse had upset their world view. Harry Potter and Ron Weasley encountering the mass of hungry spiders in the Chamber of Secrets leapt into my mindFortunately, these guys were small and seemed more interested in running away than toward us. Peggy didn’t spot them and I chose not to tell her.  She’s not particularly fond of bugs with eight legs. Any spider that has the audacity to crawl into our home in Southern Oregon is guaranteed a short lifespan. “If they wanted to live, they’d stay outside,” she declares airily. Even though the meadow spiders were obeying her rule, I pictured her stomping across the grass committing arachnicide. 

NEXT POSTS: Thursday— The loneliest road in America. Highway 50 as it makes its way across the desolate Nevada Desert. Next Tuesday— my book introduction continues as I answer the question why I decided to take on the challenge of hiking down the PCT at 75, much of it by myself.

Change Is in the Air… And I Am Changing with It

Upper Applegate near our home this week.

I’m sitting in my writing chair, listening to John Coltrane, and watching a flock of Western tanagers invade our birdbath. It isn’t that they want a bath; they’re thirsty. And the birdbath is the local watering hole. Just about everyone who is anyone in the animal kingdom around here drinks out of it.

The tanagers filled the bird bath. This went on for several minutes as the whole flock stopped by for a drink with 15-20 birds at a time.
Robins too, joined the party at the water cooler. They have been migrating through. Maybe they are discussing the best place to find juicy worms.
Our Stellar jays prefer to drink alone.
As do the flickers, but this little tanager didn’t let it stop him. The flicker appears to be a little miffed about the situation.

Change is in the air. Birds of feather are flocking together. Fall colors are lighting up our property and the surrounding countryside. And the bucks are amorous. Not so much the does. Yet. They leap out of the way whenever a buck sneaks up behind them. The does still remember what happened last year. All those promises about sticking around and helping raise the kids. Right. And even if they don’t remember, they think that the bucks should work for what they want, prove their worthiness, and wait until the mood strikes. “Foreplay, sweetie. Foreplay.”

A doe, in the background, took advantage of the buck’s drinking to quietly slip past.
If you want an example of what lengths does will go to to avoid the bucks, this is it. I looked up at our pump house a couple of days ago and there was a doe on the roof. Squirrels are always up there doing their squirrelly things. And the male flickers consider it an important dating site. They pound on the vent. He who pounds loudest wins fair lady’s love. But this was a first for a deer. The buck wisely chose not to follow and the doe remained on top, happily grazing on acorns.

Politically, who knows what the heck is happening. But things will resolve themselves, for better or for worse— depending on which side of America’s Great Political Divide you find yourself.  The presidential race is being decided as I type this.

All this change going on has inspired me to modify my blog. With over 10 years and 1000 posts behind me, it’s time. I started Wandering through Time and Place as a creative way to promote books. But I got caught up in blogging for its own sake. It’s fun; it’s addictive. And I really like the people I’ve met along the way. It has also provided an opportunity to play with photography and go on adventures. What’s not to love about that? No regrets. 

But it certainly hasn’t helped the book-writing process. In fact, between all the things involved in living from day to day, going on adventures, and knocking out posts, there hasn’t been a lot of time for my original goal. Plus, there’s another thing.

Early on, I defined my blog in the travel/adventure category. It fit with what I wanted to accomplish. Unfortunately, in “being true to my blog,” I cut out an important part of who I am.  Between my experiences at Berkeley in the 60s, serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer in West Africa, and working as an environmental and public health advocate for most of my professional life, I developed clear ideas about the direction of the nation and the world. For the most part, I have kept them out of the blog. It’s been really hard. Sometimes I slip.

So, here’s what I am going to do. 

I am currently working on two books: A revision of The Bush Devil Ate Sam (my Peace Corps memoir) and A Bear Is Standing on Me (a memoir on my 50 years of wilderness adventures). Like I did with my original Peace Corps book, I am going to blog them, one Tuesday at a time, alternating between the Bush Devil and the Bear. This will provide some much-needed focus for me, while hopefully providing you with a bit of entertainment. I’ll keep Thursdays for my travel blog. 

Occasionally, I will do an opinion piece about current affairs and the future. These will always be on Sundays.  This way you will know what to expect and can avoid them if you so desire. Or, join the discussion. No trolls, however. On the recent post I did on the Phoenix/Talent fire and global warming, one person commented more or less, “You don’t know what the S**T you are talking about. So shut the F**k up.” Not nice. I hit the delete button— with pleasure. Intelligent, rational discussion will always be welcome.

And now for some fall colors seen in our ‘neck of the woods’ this week. I’ll start with views around our property. The colors really are glorious. I feel like I am in Vermont.

The white oaks in our front yard have turned a burnished orange.
While our big leaf maples have turned a brilliant yellow.
Another example.
Peggy and I found this white oak while on a hike behind our house in the national forest.
This was the view looking south from the oak tree toward California and the Red Buttes.

Our 30 mile drive into Jacksonville and Medford has also been spectacular. It’s worth the trip for the fall colors alone. Count me in as a leaf-peeper. The photo at the top of this post demonstrates why. Here are some more photos from along the way.

I took this photo at the Ruch Library.
These trees are along the highway as we drive into Medford.
I’ll conclude with this ‘wilderness’ beauty. I took it in the Safeway parking lot in Medford.

NEXT POSTS: On Tuesday… Kick off for blogging “It’s 4 AM and a Bear Is Standing on Top of Me. On Thursday… The Loneliest Road in America: Highway 50 across Nevada.

The Incredible Journeys of Bone… 43-Years of Wandering and Still Traveling

Every couple of years I update Bone’s travel history because he continues to wander the world. This time, I’ve added his 750 mile trek down the Pacific Crest Trail. As you read this post, he is preparing for another 7,000 mile journey in Quivera the RV to some of the remote corners of the contiguous United States in honor of Peggy’s 70th Birthday. He’ll be wearing his face mask and reporting along the way!

Bone has travelled twice to the base of Mt. Everest.

Sometime in the 1900s Bone started his life as part of a horse wandering through the Sierra Nevada Mountains. The horse was allegedly eaten by a bear. Bone ended up in a high mountain meadow practicing Zen and being nibbled on by a miscreant rodent.

1977: He was ‘discovered’ by two lost backpackers (Curt Mekemson and Tom Lovering) on the Tahoe Yosemite Trail south of Lake Tahoe and launched his career of wandering the world.

Normally, Bone likes to hang out in Curt and Peggy’ library in Oregon. His favorite section is travel.
He also has a fondness for George, the Bush Devil, who is on the cover of Curt’s book, “The Bush Devil Ate Sam.” Here, the two of them share a laugh.

1980-81: Bone commenced his first World Tour with Tom.  He visited Asia including Japan, Hong Kong, Bombay, Delhi and Katmandu where he trekked to the base of Mt. Everest. He then wandered on to spend spring and summer in Europe stopping off in Greece, Spain, Portugal, France, Italy, Austria, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Germany, Belgium, England and Ireland. Getting cold, Bone headed south and hitched a ride in the back of a truck through Algeria, Niger, Chad, Nigeria, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Zaire, Sudan, Kenya (where he crossed the Equator), Tanzania, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Botswana and South Africa. He signed on with Tom as crew of a sailboat in Cape Town and headed north to Mallorca, stopping off on the islands of St. Helena, Ascension, Cape Verde and Madeira. Back in Europe he explored his possible Viking roots in Sweden, Norway and Finland.

1983-86: Bone assumed Cheechako status and moved to Alaska with Curt where he was stalked by a grizzly bear on the Kenai Peninsula, explored Prince William Sound by kayak, learned to winter camp in 30 degree below zero weather while listening to wolves howl, backpacked in the Brooks Range north of the Arctic Circle, and discussed the finer points of eating salmon with Great Brown Bears in Katmai National Park. He escaped briefly to the warmer climate of Hawaii and participated in the New Orleans Mardi Gras.

One look at this fellow and Bone decided that he wanted to be elsewhere.
Alaska Brown Bear playing with moose bone.
The big guy was playing with a distant cousin of his.

1986: He backpacked the Western US for five months with Curt exploring the Grand Canyon, the Gila Wilderness of New Mexico, the Rockies, and the Wind River Mountains of Wyoming before returning to his beloved Sierras.

1989: Bone joined Curt on a six month 10,000-mile solo bike tour around North America visiting 18 states and 4 Canadian provinces. He ended his journey by meeting Peggy in Sacramento.

1990: The International Society of the BONE was formed at Senior Frogs in Mazatlan, Mexico, where Bone spent the afternoon being pickled in a pitcher of margaritas and being kissed by lovely senoritas.

1991-97: Various members of International Society accompanied Bone on numerous adventures. Highlights included a White House Press Conference with Bill Clinton, being blessed by the Pope in St. Peter’s Square, visiting with Michelangelo’s David, going deep-sea diving in the South Pacific and Caribbean, doing a Jane Austin tour of England, and exploring the Yucatan Peninsula. A group adopted him as a good luck charm and took him back to visit the base of Mt. Everest one year and to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro another.

Bone loves high places. Here he is on top of Mt. Kilimanjaro in East Africa. (He’s with MJ, fourth from right, standing.)
Bone went diving in the Pacific in 1997 with Jose and Barbara Kirchner, visiting a Japanese ship sunk during World War II and receiving his diving certificate.

1998-99: Bone embarked on 40,000-mile journey in the van, Xanadu, through the US, Canada and Mexico with Peggy and Curt, visiting over 30 National Parks, driving the Alaska and Baja Highways, checking out Smokey the Bear’s and Calamity Jane’s graves, kayaking in the Sea of Cortez, leaf peeping in Vermont, jetting to the Bahamas, pursuing flying saucers in Roswell, New Mexico, and completing his visits to all 50 states.

Bone was quite impressed with the size of his ancient relatives. Here he rests on dinosaur toes at the Dinosaur National Monument Visitor Center.

2000-02: Bone journeys up the Amazon, returns to Europe, cruises to Belize, Cancun and the Cayman’s, and goes to New Zealand where a misguided customs agent tries to arrest and jail him as animal matter.

Bone, who likes strange things, insisted on having his photo taken with a mudstone concretion in New Zealand.

2003: Bone undertakes a 360-mile backpack trip in celebration of his discovery and Curt’s 60th birthday. They begin at Squaw Valley near Lake Tahoe and end by climbing Mt. Whitney. Various friends join them along the way.

Bone got a little high when he helped Curt celebrate his 60th birthday,  which isn’t surprising considering  he is a California bone.

2004: Bone visits Hemingway’s grave in Idaho, goes horseback riding with Australians and Bahamians in Montana, and makes his first pilgrimage to Burning Man in Nevada, a very Bone like type of place. He also jets off to Costa Rica.

Bone has a love for anything ancient. Here, he perches on a Mayan sculpture in Costa Rica.

2005-2007: Bone returns to Burning Man twice and revisits Europe twice including special stopovers in Portugal, France, Holland, Germany, and Belgium. He also revisits Mexico.

2008 – 2011: Bone commences another exploration of North America. This time he travels in the van, Quivera, along with Curt, Peggy, and Eeyore the Jackass. His journey takes him over 75,000 miles of American Roads. Along the way, he barely escapes the hangman’s noose in Tombstone, Arizona. In May of 2010 he helps Curt initiate his blog, and rafts 280 miles down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon.

Bone barely escaped the hangman’s noose after being a Bad Bone in Tombstone, Arizona.
Bone, wearing his PFD, scouts a major rapid on the Colorado River before rafting though it.

2012-2017: Bone goes into semi-retirement in Southern Oregon. Please note the semi, however. He continues the exploration of the West Coast ranging from Big Sur to Vancouver Island, where he kayaks for a week in search of Killer Whales. He wanders through England and Scotland helping Curt find his roots and spends a week traveling by Canal Boat. Later, he returns to Europe again, traveling through the Mediterranean visiting Turkey, Santorini and other Greek Islands, Dubrovnik, Venice, Rome, Pompeii, Florence, and Barcelona. He returns to Burning Man several times.  On one trip, he is married to the lovely Bonetta, who he met while exploring a swamp in Florida. Rumor has it that it was a shotgun wedding. This past year he traveled with Peggy and me on our 10,000 mile trip around North America retracing my bike route. He made a very special trip with fellow blogger Crystal Truelove to visit with Native Americans of the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma.

Burning Man is one of Bone’s all-time favorite activities.
Bone and Big Nose Bonetta are married in a temple at Burning Man in 2013. Bone’s kilt was made for him by an 80-plus year old woman from Kansas. Bonetta is wearing a designer wedding dress with very expensive plastic jewelry to match.
Bone got a wee bit jealous when I snuggled up to this mammoth of a bone when Peggy and I were re-visiting by van my 1999 10,000-mile bike trip last year.

2018: Bone joins Curtis in celebrating Curt’s 75th Birthday by backpacking 750 miles in Oregon and California. Highlights include the Rogue River Trail, Three Sisters Wilderness and the Siskiyou Mountains in Oregon. In California, Curt and Bone more or less follow the Pacific Crest Trail through the Klamath Mountains, Marble Mountains, Trinity Alps, Cascade Mountains and Sierra Nevada Mountains— taking  detours whenever the mood strikes, including revisiting where Tom and Curt found him in 1977! Along the way, Bone meets and chats with numerous through-hikers on the Pacific Crest Trail who are hiking from Mexico to Canada. He also spends a lot of time dodging horrendous forest fires. Peggy joins Curt and Bone  for three sections of the journey and provides welcome backup for the rest of the journey. 

Bone had a privileged position on the front of Curt’s Backpack during the 750 mile journey down the Pacific Crest Trail.
Bone met many through-hikers making their way from Mexico to Canada including a hiker whose trail name was Bone! Here we have Bone and Bone.
Bone and Curt take a break from the PCT to meet with Tom Lovering at the 10th and R Street Fox and Goose Restaurant in Sacramento. Tom owned the Alpine West backpacking and outdoor specialty store in the 10th and R Building in 1977 when he and Curt discovered Bone.
As we arrived at Bone’s home south of Lake Tahoe, he entertained Peggy with tales from his childhood.

2019-2020: He joins Curt for a trip down California’s beautiful Highway 395 among the Eastern Sierras and visits the Alabama Hills where cowboy movies of yore were made with the likes of John Wayne, Hopalong Cassidy,  the Lone Ranger and a host of others— voices from the past that have echoed down through time. “Hi-yo Silver away.” Planned trips for 2020 including a journey through the Panama Canal and up the Rhine River have been cancelled because of the Coronavirus, but don’t count Bone out. He is madly planning another trip across the US where he will home-shelter in Quivera the RV. 

Bone and his traveling companion Eeyore are excited and ready for their 2020 RV trip around the US.

When Getting Lost Is a Treat: Venice… Armchair Travel

This is number four in my armchair series on Venice where Peggy and I visited in 2013. Again, I have pulled it from my archived posts to revisit in the time of Covid 19. Enjoy.

Walking through Venice allowed us to enjoy what was unique about the city, such as this lamp.
Walking through Venice allowed us to enjoy what was unique about the city, such as this lamp.

I have always felt the best way to learn about a city is to walk its streets. Fortunately, I was traveling in Europe with companions who also loved to walk. For the most part, we skipped the tours. It isn’t that the tours are bad, you can learn a lot from them, but they are regimented and often expensive. There is no wandering off on your own, or taking longer to enjoy a particular site than the tour leader allows.

Venice is a great walking city— if you don’t mind getting lost. Streets have a tendency to take you somewhere you weren’t planning to go and come to abrupt ends. Street signs are rare. What the city does do, however, is post signs that will eventually lead to major monuments. And of course, you are on a relatively small island. How lost can you get? Besides, it isn’t like getting lost in the Alaskan wilderness. I was always very careful not to.

A good map is an important tool when walking off the beaten path (or main tourist routes). We didn't always agree on where we were or the proper route to take, however... and we all considered ourselves something of experts in map reading.
A good map is an important tool when walking off the beaten path (or main tourist routes). We didn’t always agree on where we were or the proper route to take, however. And we all considered ourselves experts in map reading. Our companions caught many photos of us studying and ‘discussing’ maps. Where’s the GPS phone ap when you need it?  (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)

Common sense is important.  Wandering down dark, lonely alleys can be risky at times, regardless of where you are. But in restricting your journey to major streets and walkways, you limit your opportunities to have adventures and develop a true sense of the communities you are visiting.

It is important to look around and notice the small as well as the large, the seemingly insignificant as well as what is featured in the guidebooks. Photography helps once you get beyond ‘we were there snap shots’ and allows your mind to feast on the wonderful variety that any area offers. It teaches you to see new things and to seek out what is unique. Following are various locations and objects that Peggy and I found of interest.

This photo provides a good example of our wandering off the main tourist routes of Venice without a clue where we were.
Of course, you can always stop and ask for directions…
I don't remember where I came upon this friendly looking, gargoyle-type of lion, but he was definitely worth a photo.
I don’t remember where I came upon this friendly looking, gargoyle-type of lion in Venice, but it was definitely worth a photo. It seems to have something to say. Now as I look at it again, it appears to have wings, which means it represents Venice’s patron saint, St. Mark. Look around, and you will find these fellows everywhere. If you ever find yourself in Venice with kids, you could probably keep them busy by challenging them to see how many they could find.
Venice street scene showing colorful buildings and flower boxes.
I felt this photo captured the colorful buildings and flower boxes of Venice streets. Also note the green pharmacy sign and green pharmacy lamp on the lower left.
Window flower boxes are common in Venice, Italy.
One thing you find much more of in Europe than in the US are flower boxes. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)
Peggy caught this photo of a large flower box. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)
Here’s my photo of another large flower box— without flowers. But the green was as dramatic with its striped orange backdrop.
The Hotel Iris is definitely not one of your more swank hotels in Venice... and it knows it. I looked it up online and its website headline proclaimed: Hotel Iris: A Cheap hotel in Venice. Cheap was capitalized by the hotel. I consider that truth in advertising. In the US it would be "affordable lodging."
The Hotel Iris is definitely not one of the more swank hotels in Venice— and it knows it. I looked it up online and its website headline proclaimed: Hotel Iris: A Cheap hotel in Venice. Cheap was capitalized by the hotel. I consider that truth in advertising. In the US it would be “affordable lodging.”
Starry roman numeral 24 hour clock found off of St. Marks Square in Venice Italy.
One of the advantages of a telephoto lens is it allows you to capture details you can’t normally see. I doubt we would have spotted the wild hour hand of this starred 24 hour Roman numeral clock found off of St. Mark’s Square. There’s another winged lion in the center, BTW. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)
I am always intrigued by what I consider as invitations, such as this stairwell in Venice. It’s saying “Come and climb up. See what’s up here.” Unfortunately, the locked iron fence said something else.
Iron gate in Venice.
Speaking of iron fences in Venice, was this one saying “Take my picture.” or “Don’t even think about climbing over!”? That’s it for today. Next up, we go window shopping in Venice and discover the long-nosed face masks that Venetian’s wore during the plague of the 1600s.

An Easter Tale… Well Not Quite; Hmmm, Not Even Close?

rasputin B&W copy
Rasputin the Cat hosting rhinoceros beetles in Liberia, Africa circa 1966.

It’s that time of the year when chickens lay brightly colored eggs and bunny rabbits hide them for children to find. It’s an Easter tradition that is even more important this year when children (and their parents) can use a little old-fashioned fun. By rights, I should have a chicken, egg, and bunny story to tell. But I don’t. I do, however, have a cat and rooster story. It will have to do. Join me as I travel back in time to when I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in West Africa and Rasputin the Cat and the Cockle Doodle Rooster hatched a plot to wake me up early every morning. (I adapted this story from my book, “The Bush Devil Ate Sam.”)

Jo Ann, my first wife, and I raised Rasputin from a kitten. He had grown into one fine cat, or sweet meat as my students said. They’d tease me by coming by and pinching him to see how fat he had become. Then they would stand around discussing whether he was ready for the stew pot.

Rasputin’s primary entertainment was stalking dogs. You knew when he was at work because the neighborhood dogs carefully avoided the tall clumps of grass where he liked to hide. He was particularly obnoxious when it was windy. He would hide up-wind and make it more difficult for the dogs to sniff him out. I felt for the poor dog that came too close.

A streak of yellow and a yip of surprise proclaimed his attack. What made his behavior particularly strange was that he came at the dogs on his two hind legs, walking upright. This allowed both front legs to be used as slashing weapons. It was the wise dog that steered clear.

His other form of entertainment was more cat like. He liked the girls. Each night he would ask to go out around 10 and we wouldn’t seen him until the next morning. I was fine with this. Who was I to get in the way of true love? I was less tolerant of his returning around 5:30 and insisting that I let him in. He did this by practicing his operatic meows under our bedroom window.

Since no amount of suggesting that he should change his behavior discouraged him, I jumped out of bed one morning and chased him across the yard. This got Jo Ann excited. Our cat was going “to run away and never come back.” She may have also been concerned about the neighbor’s reaction to my charging out of the house naked. That type of thing bothered her. I promised to repent and assured her that the cat would be back in time for dinner. He was.

There were occasions when Rasputin’s tomcatting kept him out beyond his normal 5:30 appearance. I’m convinced that he made a deal with the rooster next door to wake us in his absence. I didn’t make this correlation until the rooster crowed directly under our window one morning at 5:30. Even then I thought it was just a coincidence until the rooster repeated himself the next day.

It wasn’t just the crowing that irritated me; it was the nature of the crow. American and European roosters go cock-a-doodle-do. Even urban children know this because that’s how it is spelled out in books. Liberian roosters go cock-a-doodle— and stop. You are constantly waiting for the other ‘do’ to drop.

“This crowing under our window,” I thought to myself, “has to be nipped in the bud.”

That evening I filled a bucket with water and put it next to my bed. Sure enough, at 5:30 the next morning there he was: “COCK-A-DOODLE!”  I jumped up, grabbed my bucket, and threw the water out the window on the unsuspecting fowl. “Squawk!” I heard as one very wet and irritated rooster headed home as fast as his little rooster legs could carry him.

“Chicken,” I yelled out after his departing body. “And that,” I said to Jo Ann, “should be the end of this particular problem.”

I was inspired though. Cats don’t think much of getting wet either. What if I kept a bucket of water next to the bed and dumped it on Rasputin the next time he woke us up at 5:30. Jo couldn’t even blame me for running outside naked. With warm thoughts of having solved two problems with one bucket, I went to bed that night loaded for cat, so to speak.

“COCK-A-DOODLE” roared the rooster outside our window promptly at 5:30.

“Damn,” I thought, “that boy is one slow learner.”

I fell out of bed, grabbed the bucket and dashed for the window. There was no rooster there. I looked up and spotted him about 20 feet away running full tilt. He had slipped up on us, crowed and taken off! My opinion of the rooster took a paradigm leap. Here was one worthy opponent. The question was how to respond.

It took me a couple of days of devious thinking to arrive at a solution. What would happen if I recorded the rooster on a tape recorder and then played it back? I had a small tape recorder that I used for exchanging letters with my dad so I set myself the task of capturing the rooster’s fowl language. Since he had an extensive harem he liked to crow about, it wasn’t long before I had a dozen or so cock-a-doodles on tape. I rewound the recorder, cranked up the volume and set it up next to our front screen door.

The results were hilarious. Within seconds the rooster was on our porch, jumping up and down and screaming ‘cock-a-doodle.’ There was a rooster inside of our house that had invaded his territory and he was going to tear him apart, feather-by-feather. Laughing I picked up the recorder, rewound it, carried to the back screen door, and hit the play button.

“Cock-a-doodle, cock-a-doodle, cock-a-doodle,” I could hear the rooster as he roared around to the back of house to get at his implacable foe. Back and forth I went, front to back, back to front. And around and around the house the rooster went, flinging out his challenges.

Finally, having laughed myself to exhaustion, I took pity on my feathered friend and shut the recorder off.  This just about concludes the rooster story, but not quite.

One Friday evening, Jo and I had been celebrating the end of another week of teaching with gin and tonics until the wee hours when we decided to see how the rooster would respond to his nemesis at one o’clock in the morning. Considering our 5:30 am wakeup calls, we felt there was a certain amount of justice in the experiment. I set it up the recorder and played a “Cock-a-doodle.”

“COCK-A-DOODLE?!” was the immediate response. No challenge was to go unanswered. “Cock-a-doodle” we heard as roosters from the Superintendent’s compound checked in. “Cock-a-doodle, cock-a-doodle” we heard in the distance as town roosters rose to the challenge. Soon every rooster in Gbarnga was awake, and probably every resident.

We decided to keep our early morning rooster-arousing episode to ourselves.

Hope you enjoyed the tale. There are several more about Rasputin in the book. A very Happy Easter to each of you from Peggy and me. Be safe and stay healthy!

Playing Hooky and Enjoying a Winter Wonderland

We woke up this morning without power and several inches of fresh snow. It was the most we’ve seen at our house in 3 years.

I’ve been playing hooky from my blog. Or you might say I was ‘derailed.’ Peggy and I climbed on Amtrak in Mid-December as part of a 5000 mile train trip across America and back. I’ll cover the adventure in my next post.

We went back east to visit with our son and his family in Florida to enjoy Christmas and then went north to visit with our daughter and her family in Virginia to celebrate the new year. All of that would have been ample distraction to pull me away from blogging. A nasty cold I picked up in Florida was the main culprit however. It was one of those bugs that keeps you awake all night coughing your lungs out. (Remember when Calvin of Calvin and Hobbs sneezed his brains out? That’s how I felt.) I had enough energy to enjoy our kids and grandkids and take the train home. That was it.

I thought it would be fun to feature some photos from today when Peggy and I woke up to several inches of gorgeous snow for my return to blogging. As always, it called for a walk in the woods.

Walking outside, we were greeted by our rooster who seemed quite proud of his extended comb. The bright snow created a problem for photography.
A teenage deer was waiting impatiently on our door step and insisted we feed her an apple before moving on. Her favorite foods, other than apples, had been buried under the snow.
Our next chore was to clear a tree trunk that had fallen across our road. It was one of several that had dropped on our property from the weight of the snow. Fortunately, the rest of them chose to fall in the forest. Grin. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)
Peggy steps over a log and demonstrates what it felt like to walk through the eight inches of fresh snow. I think she is suggesting two feet! Falling snow gave her a white nose.
Part of the fun of a snow hike is seeing all on the animal tracks that normally aren’t visible. These were left behind by the deer herd that roams our neighborhood.
But mainly, the pleasure is in enjoying the beauty and silence. A robin sitting on top of one of our white oaks decorates this picture. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)
The back of our property abuts Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest where we headed for our hike.
A manzanita bush covered in snow…
And this one was buried in snow, speaking to how much had fallen.
The trunk of a white oak showed off both white snow and green moss, making a nice contrast.
And a madrone provided a brown contrast with its iconic bare bark.
And finally, one of my traditional snow photos from our deck on the Upper Applegate River looking south toward California. Our rosebush has a topknot.

NEXT POST: Clickety-Clack— a 5000 mile train trip across America and back.

The Magnificent Tufa Towers of Mono Lake… The Highway 395 Series

It’s hard to believe that springs bubbling up beneath the surface of Mono Lake were able to create sculptures like the tufa towers you find at Mono Lake.

You’re stuck if you are a raindrop falling into Mono Lake— or anywhere else in the Great Basin. There are no convenient rivers to whisk you away to the sea. Evaporation is your only escape. Water tends to become a little grouchy under these conditions, or make that salty. In fact, Mono Lake is 2.5 times as salty as the ocean, and 100 times as alkaline. The good news here is it is really hard to drown. You can float to your heart’s content. Even sea gulls have a hard time keeping their feet in the water to paddle. The bad news is a minor cut or scrape will send you screaming for the shore.

There is magic in the water, however. Springs flowing underground from the surrounding mountains are rich in dissolved calcium. When they bubble up into the lake, the calcium bonds with the carbonates in the lake and together they make rocks, or what are known as tufa towers. In the past, when the lake was full, these towers hid out under the surface and happily continued to grow.  There were few or no tufa towers to see. Mark Twain camped out on the lake in the 1860s when he was searching for a lost gold mine and noted in Roughing It,“This solemn, silent, sailess sea­­— this lonely tenant of the loneliest spot on the earth—is little graced with the picturesque.”

Obviously, the tufa towers weren’t there to greet him. We can thank Los Angeles’s formidable Department of Power and Water for their presence. Back about 1913, DPW had the challenge of supplying more water to the ever-thirsty Los Angeles with its desert environment and burgeoning population. It decided that there was plenty of water up in Owens Valley along the eastern side of Sierras. DPW didn’t bother to ask the local residents, farmers and ranchers whether they wanted their water to go to LA. It didn’t have to. It had the power to grab what it wanted. Things got nasty. Water wars in the West aren’t pretty. “Greed of City Ruins the Owens Valley” the headlines in the Inyo Register screamed. And it wasn’t far from wrong. Every stream of consequence flowing into the valley was tapped to meet LA’s water needs. What lakes that existed started drying up, including Mono Lake. Starting in 1941, DPW began taking water from the lake’s major tributaries, dropping the lake some 40 feet.

Building the pipeline that the LA DPW used to transport water from Owens Valley to LA.
Another perspective on the size of the pipeline.
Yes, this is me standing in a segment of the pipeline. And no, I wasn’t around when the pipeline was being built.

Environmentalists mounted a major effort starting in the 70s to save the lake. Fish can’t survive in the highly saline/alkaline water, but some four trillion brine shrimp, innumerable small alkali flies, and algae find the conditions perfect. The shrimp and flies, in turn, serve as a major food source for the two million birds that stop off to dine in the lake. The lowering water levels threatened to kill off the algae, shrimp and flies. The birds were in danger of losing their handy fast food restaurant. In 1994, The California Department of Water Resources stepped in to resolve the issue by requiring DPW to reduce the amount of water it was taking from the lake’s streams and repair some of the damage it had done to the riparian habitats along the streams. While the lake won’t return to the levels that existed when Mark Twain visited, the ecosystem is now being protected. Birds will be able to continue to stuff themselves while visitors can continue to enjoy the unique beauty of the tufa towers.

This handsome fellow is a male brine shrimp featured on a signboard at Mono Lake. Length would be about thumbnail size.
This provides an idea of how many alkali flies live around the lake.
I took this close up as further proof. The flies spend much of their life under water as eggs and pupae. When the adults dive under the water to feed and lay eggs, they travel with a bubble of water. Think scuba diver. Local Native Americans considered the fly eggs to be a delicacy.
While I missed the height of bird migration, large flocks were still flying in formation and feeding on the water’s surface.
Wilson’s Phalarope stop off at Mono Lake in the midst of a long journey. Mom arrives first in June, leaving Pop at home to finish raising the babies. Pop and kids start arriving later in June and through July raising the total population to around 100,000. The birds are around for 4-6 weeks while they molt and pig out on brine shrimp and alkali flies, doubling in weight. The extra weight is critical for the next segment of their journey: a 3,000-mile nonstop flight to Ecuador.

It was late in the afternoon when I visited the south end of the lake where the most impressive tufa towers are found so I was able to photograph the towers at sunset. The warm tones added to the beauty. I took lots of pictures. (Grin) To get here look for the signs that direct you to the South Tufa Towers south of Lee Vining off of Highway 395.

To provide perspective, these are the tufa towers on Mono Lake with the Sierra Nevada mountains in the background. Even without the towers I have a hard time imagining why Twain found the area “little graced with the picturesque.”
I divided my photos of the tufa towers into three categories for organization. First up was individual sculptures as shown below.
Next, are groupings of the tufa towers.
I will finish this series with several photos that place the tufa towers in their broader environment but first I wanted to show this picture I took from the north end of the lake looking south. This would have been more like how Mark Twain saw the lake.
I was enamored with this side channel in different light.
And took photos from both directions. Here, I caught a sea gull landing.
A final view as the sun slipped behind the Sierra Nevada Mountains.

NEXT POST: The ghost town of Bodie

When Death Camps on Your Doorstep

I got the call from my brother Marshall in mid-March. He had house-sat for us while Peggy and I were off backpacking last summer. Then, as he has been doing for 17-years, he hit the road, heading for Arizona where he would winter. He’d come West the year before, ending his 15-years of migrating back and forth between North Carolina and Florida, as regularly as the birds. Oregon would be his new residence. Four years ago, he had fought tongue cancer in Florida, free-camping while he had extensive treatments. It was his way. I had flown in to spend some time with him. He had won that battle, a temporary reprieve that allowed him to continue to wander, which is what he loves to do.

The phone call was serious. His cancer was back. He wasn’t going to fight it. At 78, he was coming home to die. His wandering days were over. A couple of days ago I found him talking to his RV. “I know, big fellow, you want to be on the road as much as I do, but we can’t.” 

For the past two months, Peggy and I have been caring for Marshall. He is living in our back yard in his RV. It’s where he wants to die. Marshall has hospice care now and the team is excellent, providing support for us as well as him. They are warm, caring people. None of this easy. It’s incredibly tough watching someone you care for waste away and die. It may be days, or weeks, but probably not months. Each morning when I go out to visit, I wonder.

I’ve decided to check out of my blog for now, for at least a couple of months. I need the time for Marsh, and Peggy, and me. I’ll be back. My blog and my blogging friends are part of my family. Until next time, take care my friends.