Nov 182013

Ruins at Two Guns, Arizona

This strange beast called nostalgia, it’s a difficult enemy to avoid. Out in the middle of the country I’m bombarded with its presence. It starts with the memories of having traveled these places before. If anything has changed, it might be the asphalt I drove over, everything else looks the same. After hours of hauling over the arid landscape and finally finding my mind empty, I turn on the radio. Big mistake, but for whatever reason, not easily rectified. I leave it on. Hit after hit from my youth drills into old memories giving life to sleeping giants that should remain dormant.

Highway 77 heading north through the Navajo Reservation in Arizona

While I was aware of these 70’s classics as a boy and  a teen, I was running away from them as a kid. Now a man of 50 I listen in to hear what I never wanted to. They conjure images of men and women in their 60’s and 70’s portrayed by their roadside  billboard portraits where I see the announcements of their imminent return on the casino circuit scattered across America. In those places are the nostalgic, those who are whittling away their time, spending their few remaining days in memories of an age perceived to have been perfect – and these songs are their faithful soundtrack. For me they are bitter reminders that some peoples lives get stuck in a time.

Alpaca's wandering the Navajo Reservation like sheep

For the foreigner and out of state traveler this is a journey into novelty. They are building new memories from new experiences. They are not sheep. I only hope the soundtrack is new too, else this adventure might blur into a continuation of the familiar, albeit with shades of the hitherto unseen.

Sunset on the Navajo Reservation in northern Arizona

The place across from me is empty. It is made emptier by the fact that I’m the only person here who is alone. A couple of conversations are happening in my tongue, German, Chinese, and Navajo are all within earshot. Caroline is missing, this road trip is solo, at least the first half anyway. Without ceremony my dinner is wolfed and only a gratuity and signature stand between me and my departure from the Twin Rocks Cafe here in Bluff, Utah; a place of great nostalgia, not because of the music though, this time it is the memory of my missing wife.

May 132013

The Arizona desert

This transition back to the place I live is anything but easy. If only it were as barren as one might perceive this desert-scape I might be able to have seen the beauty right away. Instead I came back to Phoenix and it’s not just this city I live in, it is the entire country. We have become a land of Dollar stores, pay day and title loan stores, and shops that buy gold. We are discounted, two-for-one, 10 for a dollar, and triple coupons so we can appease our poor. And these poor are everywhere. They are changing the landscape of cities across America with the blight of services that appeal to people who will likely never escape the vortex in which their lives spiral. We have built the über-underclass and are empowering them to live it up in poverty. Meanwhile our bridges fall down, our roads fall apart, our schools’ non-exceptional performance is excused due to lack of money, bad teachers, little parent involvement, dysfunctional administrators, or any other myriad of reasons. America is in a malaise and we are too close to the problem to see it clearly.

Take a trip to Europe for a contrast of just how dire things are here. I did and I’m having a hard time readjusting. Don’t get me wrong, I am able to play the part most of us assume, things are relatively good and if I don’t venture out of my comfort zone I can see how great it all is. Look out on this desert vista, there is nothing to complain about; it is perfect and serene. Peer out of your window from a gated community and all will be in place – including the poor whose world is looking more and more like one from a ghetto. “But the poor have always lived on the margin,” you say. Yes, though the poor weren’t so prolific as they are today. Look around you, the signs of the encroachment of wide spread poverty are creeping into every corner. Just why are there Dollar stores sprouting up nearly everywhere? Do so many people really have such dire needs to pawn away grannie’s gold, or did they steal some other grannie’s gold?

But the financial health of the morass is not my problem, unless it’s a symptom of a decay that like cancer is heading for stage 4, inoperative impending death. Surely I make a mountain out of a molehill. Then why did Europe look so appealing? Are they spending money they don’t have on an illusion to demonstrate that all is well? If so, it’s working. I hardly went to the wealthiest European capitals, we ventured into Strasbourg, Dresden, Kaiserslautern, Magdeburg, Lübeck, and Görlitz. And each and every time we encountered a vibrant living downtown area without empty retail space. On the contrary we found tourism alive and flourishing with gift shops, side walk cafes, and street musicians. No Dollar stores or panhandlers, okay, that was an exaggeration, there were panhandlers and a couple of discount stores, but not on the level we find in our city of Phoenix or Eureka, California or Oklahoma City. In Frankfurt I found one shop that buys gold, not a shop every eighth block.

So here I am, driving out and away from the bleakness I wallow in here in Phoenix, Arizona on the search for that which draws me into the bosom of America; its profound and overwhelming beauty.

London Bridge now in Arizona over the dammed Colorado River

A bridge to nowhere, not the metaphor I’m looking for. Here we are at London Bridge in Lake Havasu City, Arizona. “We” is Jessica Aldridge, my daughter, and me. Lake Havasu is a small desert outpost on the California-Arizona border, where drunken college students congregate on spring break and which a lot of elderly people call home due to the ‘perfect’ weather. This place represents more of everything I find wrong with my current outlook. Some wealthy patron picks up the London Bridge from the city of London, England and ships it to America where he resurrects it to cross over the nearly dead Colorado River to a small island that bakes under a relentless sun. At another time this bridge carried throngs of people to and fro on their way to making England a grand place of empire and influence. Today it is a bridge to nowhere, carrying people hungry for the idea of venturing into exotic locales, but whose budget allows them to winter over in the middle of the desert.

I’ve never much enjoyed this drive along the river, even before my encounter with the Colorado in the Grand Canyon I have felt this strip of earth is a kind of no man’s land. The towns along this corridor eke out their existence upon travelers refilling their gas tanks and stomachs and once in a while, the strange desire of someone who wants to get away from it all by putting themselves in a place of such desolation that it begs at my curiosity how they got to that point in life. Roots here must surely be like the cactus that dot the landscape, shallow and spread out to grab all they can in the off chance a refreshing shower passes by. And then like the cactus, they will have been here and left, no one ever having noticed.

Driving into the Mojave Desert in California

Continuing on a theme we drive north west as we enter the Mojave Desert. The theme being that we are heading into oblivion. Death Valley to be precise. It is here where the first reminders of what I love about America start to be rekindled. There is space aplenty in the American southwest. Nothing and nearly no one is out here. No services for 57 miles, to a European that is more than 90 kilometers, might as well be infinity. This road is the worse for wear. Back about 15 years ago when Caroline and I first drove it we weren’t sure if we were on asphalt or compacted dirt, if it weren’t for the lack of dust we’d know it was dirt. It must be a low priority to the California transportation authorities to care for this section of highway, no wonder, we are the only two people on it today.

I test driving at 100 mph on the left lane, it’s as bad as the right. At 110 mph under a 100-degree sun the road still goes on forever into the invisible. A train track parallels part of the road. From time to time a forlorn abandoned bunch of train cars sit roadside awaiting the care of a graffiti artist to show them some love. While we are fresh out of spray paint, my daughter does have a good supply of energy and feels the need to crawl upon those trains to reenact her version of the Titanic.

Back on the road driving at a more pedestrian 70 mph we glide over the astro-earth, crispy thin asphalt that simulates driving right over the desert floor. The hum of tires is our soundtrack as is befitting the void of life we slice through out here in the Mojave. Sure there is life out here, just ask any biologist, but when one careens westward over the surface of earth, squinting to stop from blinding oneself in the afternoon sun, it is difficult to see much of anything besides the narrow strip of road nearly shut eyes can glean from their meager focus.

The sun about to set over the Mojave Desert and Death Valley in California

And then it happens, glare descends upon the day. No amount of squinty eyed head twisting avoidance can ignore that the sun has set out to blind me. We are in the clutches of those moments when driving becomes a kind of Russian roulette in which hope carries me into thinking that maybe we are on the right side of the highway. What does it matter, it wasn’t long ago that I was intentionally driving on the opposite side? Well that was for my entertainment when I was bored and because I could. After all it’s one thing to be speeding on an American road at over 100 mph, it’s yet another to do so on the wrong side of the road. If I could have hovered simultaneously I would have done that too. But now I could be driving smack dab into another car that is driving under the stealth cover of road glare. Danger makes me more aware.

Things must be getting better, I can see some humor on the horizon. Not quite the golden dawn, but a golden sunset is often enough to wash away the grime of pessimism. How can I not revel in this display of warmth and depth. Right now nothing else exists between me and the sun but an endless landscape of possibility.

Sep 192012

After two years of soul searching hard work, I am happy to announce the availability of my first book: Stay In The Magic – A Voyage Into The Beauty Of The Grand Canyon. Starting in October 2010, Caroline and I embarked on an 18-day rafting trip down the Colorado River, following that journey into the amazing, I started to write a blog entry. Well, that blog entry never came about, it was getting far too long to post here. Instead, it became this book.

Stay In The Magic is printed in full color with over 300 photos I shot during those 18 days on the river, it is 8.5″x11″ in size and 306 pages long.

The book is available at Amazon by clicking this link:

You may also order it directly from me for $29.95 plus shipping – a 25% savings!

Jul 202011

Cow Springs Trading Post with an old Standard Oil Products sign still standing in front of this now disappearing relic on the Navajo Reservation in north-east Arizona

Not much left of the old Cow Springs Trading Post and gas station here on Highway 160 between Tuba City and Kayenta, Arizona. The condition of things makes one wonder how long has it been closed. Standard Oil was John D. Rockefeller’s company that was founded in 1870, it was broken up with a ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1911. So, it’s possible that this sign has stood here for more than 100 years by now. Though, I’m probably way off with this summation as Route 66 was still years away from being built and Ford’s Model-T was just barely a few years into production. Add to this that the breakup of Standard Oil resulted in 34 baby Standards, maybe the sign is only a mere 75’ish years old.

A billboard on the Navajo Reservation in Arizona telling us that uranium workers are eligble for in home nursing at no expense to the person hurt by uranium poisoning

Still on the road out of Arizona traveling through the Navajo Reservation. Just outside of Kayenta we passed and then turned around to grab a photo of this billboard. Ya’at’eeh is the Navajo greeting of Hello, but that’s not the most interesting part of the sign. The billboard reads, "Uranium Workers – In Home Nursing At No Expense To You." I’d like to say that makes me feel good that people who have dug out the 3.9 million tons of uranium ore and subsequently showed signs of uranium poisoning and increased cancers, are now being taken care of. But, it wasn’t until year 2000 that folks on the Rez were told of the dangers and then it would be another 11 years before cleanup efforts began. I guess the whole "out-of-sight, out-of-mind" thing works great for those of us who benefited from the nuclear energy and weaponry that gave us convenience and security at the expense of a bunch of Indians who now get some in-home care to deal with their misfortune. But I shouldn’t let this sad story get in the way of enjoying a road trip, time to speed back on down the highway.

El Capitan rock out in the center of the photo. This rock is north of Kayenta on the way to Monument Valley on the Arizona / Utah border

Off in the distance is El Capitan. As one drives north out of Kayenta on the way to Monument Valley, this towering rock is one of the first truly large monuments seen before entering Monument Valley. The small spire on the left of the photo is Owl Rock. We are heading towards Teec Nos Pos, the last town on the way out of Arizona before passing through Four Corners and entering New Mexico. We’ll only drive 1 mile through New Mexico before the road enters Colorado. After that, we’ll soon be on the Ute Reservation. You know you are in Ute country when you see a mountain range that looks like a face in profile laying on it’s back – the Sleeping Ute.

Wildflowers north of Vallecito Reservoir about 30 miles north east of Durango, Colorado

No denying that we are no longer in the desert. We are in the mountain meadows of the Durango, Colorado area. Caroline and I have driven the 478 miles (770km) into the San Juan mountain range for Caroline to attend a work shop over at the Fort Lewis College campus in Durango. We have stayed in Durango plenty of times, taken the train to Silverton our fair share of times too, this visit I decided that we should stay out on a lake, away from the metropolis of the little mountain town down the hill.

The view of Vallecito Reservoir from out cabin on the boat dock at the 5 Branches Camper Park

We are checked in and admiring the view of Vallecito Reservoir from our cabin. The specific location of our small cabin is on the boat dock at Five Branches Camper Park north of Bayfield, Colorado. We’ll be staying five nights and with any luck we might find ourselves one of these days out on a kayak exploring the lake. For now, we are thrilled with our location and the tremendous view.

Caroline Wise pulling down our Murphy Bed at Five Branches Camper Park on Vallecito Reservoir in Bayfield, Colorado

A monumental day for Caroline, she is pulling down the Murphy Bed, the first time she has ever slept in one. I would have to characterize her as being "tickled" that she gets to pull our bed out of the wall. Pushing it back up proved funny, she got stuck under the weight of it without the ability to put it back down or push it far enough up – so she yelled for me. The cabin is only $65 a night, but you had better reserve early as this cabin and the park in general fills up early for the short season they are open.

Dinner on the dock at Five Branches Camper Park on Vallecito Reservoir in Bayfield, Colorado

There is a private corner of the dock that features a BBQ grill and a table with a couple of chairs. The entire dock is closed off after 5:00 p.m. to ensure our privacy. After a lengthy delay in getting some faulty briquettes burning, we finally had a hot grill that let me put Caroline’s veggie burgers on next to my hunk of cow flesh and a couple of ears of corn. After arriving at the cabin, I had put some potatoes on to boil for making potato salad – no, I do not go the lazy way of buying off-the-grocery-shelf tater salad. Our dinner was all-smiles with a gorgeous backdrop to the day; it was yummy too.

Sunset over Vallecito Reservoir at Five Branches Camper Park in Bayfield, Colorado

The day finished its performance before turning over the lake to evening with a small bit of color floating on the lake. We sat waterside on the dock with some of the most polite mosquitoes we have encountered, but only for about 20 minutes before they decided manners would only be extended so far. Then we were fair game. Sorry guys, but we’ll have to disappoint you and run for the indoors away from your greedy little proboscides.

Apr 192011

At the confluence of the Paria and Colorado Rivers near Lee's Ferry in the Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona

You are looking at the confluence of the Colorado and Paria River near Lee’s Ferry in the Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona. The muddy water in the foreground is the Paria, while the dark green water in the background is the Colorado. The Colorado is stripped of color because it is leaving Lake Powell via the Glen Canyon Dam 15 miles upstream after the sediment has had the chance to settle. Last October 22nd, Caroline and I sat in the dory called the Sam McGee rowed by Jeffe Aronson and went over these very waters. I can tell you that it’s way cooler being out on the river than standing here on the shore knowing you will have to drive away.

Yesterday I came up to Fredonia, AZ to deliver a proof reader copy of my book, today finds me at Lee’s Ferry to watch the crew setup. If you click the picture above to see the larger image it is linked to, you might see in the background just to the left of the big cliff structure behind the river, a white spot, that is the truck that brought all the gear and food. In a couple of hours, Bruce and his group would push off from that shore for another great journey down the Colorado. Me? I was going home after I shot this panorama.