Tuesday, April 10, 2018

A Mule Strays And A Town Is Born

   The handful of residents remaining in the town of Tumco lie namelessly beneath stone cairns a few hundred yards from the remains of the town they built. Sadly, we have no way of knowing who they were or where they came from for there are no headstones on these lonely graves at the foot of the rugged range known as the Cargo Muchacho Mountains. The mountains themselves are a forbidding string of jagged peaks rising from the desert floor in southeastern Imperial County, CA, just a few miles from the Arizona border. Their slopes are not forested like most California ranges, nor do they glisten with snow in the winter months. These are not the kind of mountains that call you to hike amongst meadows and streams and swim in icy lakes; these mountains call instead to those who wander the arid deserts and seek the differing beauty of a harsher climate. Many years ago, they called to a breed of men and women who sought to capture the riches hidden deep within the crags and valleys, ever hopeful that they would choose to dig in the very spot that would change their lives forever. As usually happens with a gold strike, some of them were successful and used their new found wealth to pave a pathway to a new and happy life; others found only a rocky grave among the nameless souls interred in this tiny cemetery in the desert that claimed them.
   The town of Tumco was originally named Ogilby, as is the county road that runs past it. The actual town is accessed by BLM route 668 and is just a brief walk from the parking area at the end of this short dirt road. We were easily able to drive to the trail head in our Geo Metro using reasonable caution in rocky areas, so most any car can make it here (please note the "reasonable caution" part.This is an unmaintained road, so SLOW is the key word here.). Be sure to take a good look at the route in, as there are numerous off-road trails in the area and it is easy to mistakenly drive onto one of those on the way out, especially if you detour to the cemetery as we did. The road in is just across from Gold Rock Ranch Rd, which does have a sign, so this ghost town is fairly easy to find. There is a signed 1.5 mile loop trail through the ruins, but on the day we visited there were no printed trail guides at the trail head. A previous visitor had placed one remaining copy of the pamphlet in a sealed plastic bag with the request to "please read and leave for the next visitor", so please honor this request; apparently the brochures are no longer being replaced. We didn't find this lone guide until after we returned from our hike and chose not to read it and spoil the fun we had guessing what each ruin may have been. We might have seen the guide if we had followed the numbered posts in the correct direction, but true to our perverse sense of order, we did the trail from end to beginning!

   Legend has it that gold was first discovered here by Americans when a mule went missing from a California bound wagon train in 1862. One of the members of the search party tracking the ornery runaway noticed an interesting rock and picked it up. Scanning the area to determine where the gold streaked rock had come from, the group discovered a quartz ledge rich in ore, and then another and another. Believe it or not, stories of rich ore strikes allegedly discovered by a burro or mule kicking up a rock or breaking off a rich ledge are not uncommon; I have heard many such tales over the years. There is also a tale of a track walker named Hedges discovering a gold nugget here in the early 1880's and beginning the American gold rush in this area (both Spanish and Mexican settlers had mined here previously, but on a very small and quiet scale). The original gold rush town established on this site was later renamed Hedges, which would seem to back up that particular story, but the truth usually lies somewhere in between. In all probability, both legends have an element truth to them. Either way, thousands of prospective millionaires flocked to the now booming town of Ogilby/Hedges. Estimates place the overall population near the three thousand mark, with dozens coming and going every day depending on how their luck was running.

   While some hardy prospectors continued digging alone, most of the mining operations were soon taken over by companies and the individuals who struggled to open up this area ended up working for a weekly paycheck, most of which went back to the company coffers by way of the company stores and saloons. Gambling and other weekend pursuits left most of the miners broke again by Monday morning and they grudgingly returned to the thousand foot deep pits and tunnels to grind away for another week.This seemingly endless supply of cheap labor kept the mines running at a furious pace and improvements were made to the operations. Most of these improvements were aimed at increasing production rather than improving safety, and the mines in the area soon gained the reputation of being some of the most dangerous in the entire southwest. Huge stamp mills were brought in and water was piped in wooden pipes from the Colorado River twelve miles away at the rate of 1000 gallons a day. Timbers for building and shoring up tunnels were shipped by rail to the timberless region and the same trains carried the tons of crushed ore out. At the height of the boom the future looked even brighter than the gold, silver and copper being mined at the rate of $1000/day.

   As with most gold strikes, the "easy" gold was soon removed and the value of the ore still being mined dropped significantly. Knowing this, the Hedges mines were eventually sold to the company run by Mr. Borden (of Borden Condensed Milk fame) and his United Mine Company took over operations. The town's name was changed to Tumco, an amalgamation of the company name. The mining operation at the newly named town soon began to fail and finally ceased altogether in 1909. Sporadic attempts to revive the mining operations have taken place over the years, but the cost of retrieving the ore was too high and each new operation ultimately ended in failure. By 1942 the area mines were closed permanently. Like so many boom towns before it, Tumco's fate was sealed; a few folks would remain for a year or two but the inevitable result would be another empty town left to fade back into the ground from which it sprang only a few years before. Although Tumco didn't officially become a ghost town until 1949, it was at that point already a mere shadow of what it had been in its heyday in 1905. The laughter of children and the raucous mirth of the saloons and bordellos was doomed to give way to the eerie whistling of wind through empty buildings and the slightly uncomfortable feeling that you are not alone on your walk through the ruins before you.

   On the day Joe and I visited Tumco, it was slightly overcast and nearing sunset. We had planned for some time to make the short trip north from our camp to the town site, but this visit had actually been a spontaneous decision on our part. It was late in the day and we were actually intending only to see if the road was o.k. for our tiny little car (which gets an awesome 60+ MPG, which is exactly why we bought it...) was able to make the drive in. It was, and we just sort of kept right on going when we neared the town site.

   We wandered around among the ruins of this once thriving town for perhaps two hours and not once did it fail to hold our interest. There are several dump piles full of rusty cans and broken crockery, some with fancy patterns and some plain white. I couldn't help but wonder how fancy patterned china made its way to this dusty spot in what was at the time truly the middle of nowhere. Was this from a fancy bordello or restaurant trying to be upscale, or was it the one piece of civilization some poor pioneer woman clung to while trying to maintain some sense of propriety in a wide open boom town? Was it casually thrown out by a harried chef or was it wept over by a hardy woman who would somehow find a way to go on without this treasured heirloom? Did she indeed go on, or does she lie in one of those unmarked graves at the edge of town?

   Many of the decaying ruins were probably houses or shops of some kind, but not much has survived in this harsh environment. There are some foundations surrounding what was originally a basement or perhaps a root cellar. One such ruin still has what was clearly an entry way and what appears to have been some kind of a chute, perhaps used for coal since firewood in this area is sparse when available at all. Other remains are barely visible in the form of an imprint from stone foundations no longer in place. Only one stacked stone structure has an upright wall remaining, and it stands like a lone sentinel on a slope slightly above where the rest of the town once flourished. There is a certain sense of defiance eminating from this relic of a bygone era, almost a sense of pride; it still stands despite all that time and nature have done to bring it down. When I think of all the sandstorms, high winds and summer monsoon rains it has withstood in the last hundred years, I'm a little bit proud of that sturdy stone and mud wall myself!

   If you look carefully you will find portions of a
car door (riddled with bullet holes), a dryer from the 1940's, and numerous coils, springs and whatchamacallits used in mining and daily life throughout the years when this place hummed with life and opportunity. There is something that looks like it supported a bridge or pipeline at the edge of a large wash running between the mine and the town. What appeared to be the actual mine area is visible on the mountain on the other side of the wash, but time constraints prevented us from exploring that far on this trip.

   If you are looking for a manicured and restored ghost town, then Tumco may not be for you. Although it is in the care of the BLM (Bureau of Land Management) and several areas, including the cemetery and large dump area, are cordoned off to protect both visitors and ruins, this is an area where the natural processes of decay have been allowed to continue. The cyanide tanks remain on the hillside above the town and there are possibly still shafts open in the area, so keep a close eye on curous children. For that matter, keep a close eye on curious adults as well. There is much to be seen and learned here and we didn't have enough time on this visit to get to it all but that is o.k., because it gives us a good reason to return again, perhaps next winter if we come this way.

   Although this whole area is fascinating, I think what I will remember the most is the overpowering feeling of loneliness I felt when visiting that nameless graveyard just outside the town site. There were dozens of people (including several children) buried there without any kind of a headstone. I find it hard to believe that there never were any, but nothing remains of them today. There is evidence that at least one other person has felt the same way I did, for small bunches of plastic flowers have been carefully placed on each of the stone cairns, presumably to show the strangers buried there that someone still cares about them. As I spent a quiet moment silently paying tribute to these nameless souls, I'm pretty sure I felt a softly whispered "Thank You" wrap around me on the cool night wind. Rest in peace, Those-who-came-before.

   Until next time Friends and Fellow Travelers on the Wind, Best Wishes from Joe and I!       

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Sunday, March 25, 2018

The Pyramid At The Center Of The World (And The Dragon That Gave Birth To It)

   Just west of Yuma, nestled alongside Interstate 8 at Sidewinder Rd. lies the town that the dragon built. Not literally, of course; the town was actually conceived and created by French emigre Jacques-Andre Istel. Bear with me and I promise I'll tell you about the dragon.

   Widely known among parachutists as the "Father of American Skydiving" for popularizing sport parachuting in the U.S. Istel opened the first parachuting school in the country and led the American team to the World Championship of Parachuting in 1956 (a mere five years after first trying the sport himself). As a young man he toured college campuses to speak to students about the excitement of this up-and-coming sport. In a 1957 article in Time Magazine, Istel described the feeling of the sport he loved: "You just let go of the plane and suddenly you've changed elements. You start to drop but you don't feel anything - only a marvelous sense of control. It's like being immersed in light water. Then you bring your right arm up and you make a turn, just as simple as that. It's an incredible sensation."
Having emigrated from his native Paris as a child in 1940 (just ahead of the German invasion) young Jacques-Andre entered school speaking almost no English and graduated five years later as Salutatorian of his class. He continued his education by studying economics at Princeton University. After college Istel achieved the rank of Lt. Colonel in the Marine Corps during the Korean War. It was during this time that he first saw and fell in love with the vast open spaces of the southeastern California desert. After completing his military service, he and a partner founded Parachutes, Inc, a company that designed  parachutes. The company soon branched out to open the first parachuting schools in the country. In 1957 he and his company trained the U.S. Army in free fall parachuting, a tactic previously considered too dangerous to have any practical application. His military students became the core of the world famous U.S. Army Golden Knights parachute team. Istel is an honorary member of both the U.S. Army Golden Knights and U.S. Navy Chuting Stars parachute teams in honor of his vast contributions to the development of the sport of parachuting. Jacques-Andre Istel retired from jumping and sold his company in 1972. His 1957 low porosity cloth parachute, acknowledged as the first sport parachute, resides at the Smithsonian Institution.

   Istel used funds acquired from his successful company to purchase thousands of acres of the lonely desert country he had fallen in love with years before. The land he chose stretched from I-8 to the Chocolate Mountains. At the time of purchase he had absolutely no idea what he would do with the vast section of arid desert he now owned, but admitted to his wife that it would have to be "entertaining".

   In 1985 Istel published a childrens book called "Coe: The Good Dragon At The Center Of The World". The book was a hit with both children and parents, being described by French critic Professor Claude Tannery as "the American
Babar". The ever creative Jacques-Andre had finally found his inspiration. He used the popularity of his newly published book to convince Imperial County, CA to legally recognize a spot on his property (the part conveniently located near the busy Interstate 8) as the Official Center of the World. The Institut Geographique National in France officially recognizes this spot as well. After that coup he incorporated the area and legally established the town of Felicity, named after his wife Felicia Lee. Soon after, Istel was unanimously voted Mayor of the town of two residents by a vote of 3-0. Wait...how is that possible you ask? Quite simple, according to Istel; a justice of the peace and chairman of the Board of Supervisors of Imperial County recognized a one-time-only vote by the invisible dragon character from Istel's book! And you thought politicians had no sense of humor... (I am actually thinking of trying that in our home-base town of Santa Cruz: "I'm sorry, City Council, the invisible dragons have voted you out". I'll let you know how it goes.)

   The newly elected Mayor of Felicity ( a word meaning "happiness, culture") placed a bronze disc with a dot in the center on the spot officially recognized as THE Center and housed it in a polished pink granite pyramid soaring to a height of 21  feet. The pyramid was a tongue-in-cheek suggestion by wife Felicia, who joked "it's in the desert, why not a pyramid?". The idea amused Istel, and a pyramid it became. The tradition is for visitors to stand with their foot on the dot and make a wish. For an additional $2.00 per person (in addition to the nominal $3.00 donation for the tour and informational video screening) the staff will present you with an official certificate declaring the exact moment, down to the second, that you stood at the Center of the World. If you are lucky you may be shown around by Jacques-Andre himself, as he is often on the premises. Sadly, we were not that lucky, although the young lady who showed us around the pyramid was friendly and efficient as she moved smoothly between the groups of visitors arriving just a few minutes apart. We happily forked over the extra four bucks, and later Joe noticed that my certificate was number 77777. With a lucky number like that, how could my wish not come true?

   The true pride and joy of this small desert oasis is the Museum of History in Granite, part of The World Commemorative Center at Felicity. These massive panels of Missouri Red Granite, each weighing 447 pounds and measuring 2" thick, are placed over a triangular base constructed of 1960 cubic feet of concrete poured over a framework of 5945 pounds of knitted steel. The steel frame is embedded in a three foot deep trench for stability in the oft
occurring strong desert winds. (As I type this, we are currently experiencing a dust storm which has reduced our ability to see the nearby mountains. It's not the worst we've seen this winter, but it is not fun if you have to go outside even briefly.) Each 100 foot long monument is made up of 60 stone panels (30 on each side) and two 351 pound end caps of matching red granite, polished to a glossy sheen. Each panel has text and/or artwork deeply engraved by artisans using a diamond stylus, with the idea being that they will last for at least 4000 years and will provide "...highlights of the collective memory of humanity" for future generations. The monuments currently completed are as varied as the history of our planet. Each monument (each side, anyway) is dedicated to something, someone or somewhere that Istel feels is important to the history of mankind. There is one honoring Korean War Veterans (a subject close to it's creator's heart). A prominent one in the main aisle celebrates the history of both California and Arizona, with each state having its own side. The History of Humanity is part of a starburst of monuments radiating out from a central pyramidal "Rosetta Stone" (in matching red granite) having the same words inscribed in a different language on each of its six sides. One monument is dedicated to the French Foreign Legion, another nod to the land of Jacques-Andre's birth. I confess to skimming over the individual texts in favor of getting the general feel of the whole, as it would take the better part of an entire day to fully read each individual tablet. We arrived late in the day and unprepared for the sheer volume of information available; maybe next time we will make a more complete tour.

   All of these symmetrically placed monuments subtly lead you toward the most noticeable of the local landmarks: the Church On The Hill. Patterned after one Istel admired in Brittany, the blindingly white church with bright blue doors sits atop the Hill of Prayer. Mayor Istel felt that a church should stand upon the highest piece of ground in the town it serves. Since his town was as flat as roadkill, he elected to make his own hill. He had 150,000 tons of dirt trucked in for the purpose and engineered the mount to meet earthquake zone 4 standards. Although non-denominational, the church was blessed by representatives of both the Catholic and Protestant churches. In 2008 it was dedicated to St. Felicity. The simple yet elegant traditional chapel is clearly
visible from Interstate 8 and for miles in any direction.

   On the day we visited the sun was shining and the church stood out boldly against a clear sky of azure blue washed with a few lacy clouds.( By the time we were ready to leave, the sky had darkened and become completely overcast. It was interesting to watch the red granite change color in the changing light.) Although the chapel appears pure white from below, on closer inspection it is actually an off-white or light sand color. The cement stairs leading up to it and the central handrail were perfectly aligned with the vivid chapel doors at the top and the central row of polished stone monuments below. One of the most striking aspects of the Center of the World and it's landmarks is a strong sense of symmetry and order. The architecture displays simplicity and clean lines in every structure. The overall design is closely coordinated by the Felicity Historical Society. When the California Highway Patrol elected to establish it's new regional headquarters in Felicity they agreed to meet the requirements of the Historical Society, which resulted in their receiving a nomination for an architectural award.

   There are a number of other local landmarks worthy of mention here as well, primarily because of their unique nature. Clearly visible from the interstate in both directions is a 25 foot high spiral staircase with a patina worthy of a museum display. It stands alone within a fenced enclosure, going absolutely nowhere. Having grown up just a few miles from the legendary Winchester Mystery House, I am fairly comfortable with stairways leading nowhere. Curiosity, however, is not to be denied and so I approached the stairs with their flaking paint and detected a small plaque just within the fence line. Typical of the French flavor of things here in Felicity, the stairs are part of the original stairway in Paris' Eiffel Tower. It seems that the French government determined in the early 1980's that the massive weight of the stairs, built using 1800's technology, was causing the tower to sway in an unsafe manner. In 1983 the top 500 feet of stairway
was removed from the iconic landmark and replaced with a lighter weight version. The portion removed was cut into sections, twenty of which were numbered and auctioned off. This is section 12, acquired by Istel in an auction in 1989. While the stairway to nowhere serves no practical purpose except to attract the attention of passing motorists (remember how effective the "muffler men" and hot-dog-in-a-bun shaped eateries of the fifties and sixties were at attracting business in off the highways?), it is typical of the subtle reminders of his beloved homeland Istel has casually sprinkled around his new home. Articles from French newspapers hang in frames on the walls of the theater and some of the text on appropriate monuments is in both French and English, with French at the top!

   If you feel compelled to become part of this amazing piece of future history, you can purchase a square stone plaque of approximately one square foot to be placed for posterity in the center of the cement Maze of Honor. Many of these plaques already grace the curving interior walls of this circular interactive monument with its cool grey walls. All are made from a photograph and the subjects of tribute run the gamut from fallen soldiers to beloved pets to a man who passed his big-rig driving
test at age 86. You can memorialize anyone or any event you choose for $300.00; one contributor even dedicated one to their pet boa constrictor!

   Their is an official U.S. Post Office at Felicity, but it accepts only outgoing mail. On the day it was dedicated (Dec.5, 1987), the town with only two residents posted over 2300 letters! The diminutive but popular post office shares a space with a small and eclectic gift shop selling postcards, souvenirs, Paris related items, and childrens books and toys. After all, who wouldn't want to mail a postcard from the post office at the Center of the World (do you see what they did there?). Directly across from the post office is a small restaurant with very limited hours. It was closed when we were there.

   Another fascinating landmark located out front, right next to the only green lawn within miles and miles, is a 15 foot circular sundial who's gnomon (the part that casts a shadow on the clock face) is a three dimensional representation of Michelangelo's "Arm of God" from the Sistine Chapel ceiling, cast in bronze. The clock face consists of crushed white rocks with bronze roman numerals surrounding them. The arm, mounted to a base of local rock, points directly to the Church on the Hill, once again subtly guiding our steps. The sundial is precisely accurate only once a year, and that moment
occurs at noon on Christmas Day.

   Jacques-Andre Istel, as much a romantic as his history would suggest, not only named an entire town he created after his beloved wife Felicia, in 1987 he hired a century old French company to create a fragrance for her, which he also named "Felicity". If you visit the town website, there is a number there to inquire about the fragrance. He was fulfilling a promise he made to his uncle while still a child; not only would he honor and respect all women, he would name something after the one he chose to share his life with. It is obvious that the young boy who was forced to flee his native land and adopt a new country as his own has never lost his French appreciation for romance and adventure. He learned to fly on wings of thin fabric, found the love of his life, and created a legacy for the ages designed to live far longer than any of us will. One monument is still mostly blank except for the first panel,
on which Jacques-Andre Istel has inscribed the following:

                            "Unless we destroy ourselves, or succumb to a cosmic accident,
                                       our destiny should be set on a path to the stars".

   Directly below that is a large question mark, and below that is a quote from Istel himself, reading:                           
                           "May distant descendants, perhaps far from earth, view our collective
                                            history with understanding and affection."

                            Let us hope he is right! Bien amicalement. Bon Voyage, My Friends!   

If you want to visit The Center of the World, be aware that tours are only offered December-March, when outside temperatures are within a reasonable range.

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Tuesday, March 20, 2018

A Crazy Week Of Adventure Begins: Kermit Comes Home

   This past week has been just a little bit insane. We have encountered rain, high winds, city traffic, lonely roads, a wonderful lady who drove race cars when she was young, a tiny car named Kermit, a morning surprise, a lone roadrunner, a dog who loves four-wheeling, and ten thousand people we will never meet.

We began this week of craziness by finally finding a car on the C-List that would be perfect for a "toad" to tow behind Flipper (our motorhome, for those of you who have not yet met her). It was a
Geo Metro and it was located near Las Vegas, NV. Sadly, we were not located near Las Vegas, NV.
So, on Tuesday we set out on our way north. All went fairly smoothly at first, with clear skies and clear sailing as we left Yuma and headed up AZ 95 toward Parker, AZ where we would cross the Colorado to catch US 95 the rest of the way to LV. As we went farther north, we began to see clouds ahead. They were puffy and white at first. They didn't stay that way. The closer we got to
Nevada, the angrier looking the clouds became. There was some wind as well but nothing unmanageable, even in a tall vehicle like we were driving. Still, we figured we would beat 
the storm to our destination. Then the orange construction cones appeared and our chance of beating the rain disappeared. We just caught the edge of the real rain, so we received just enough to turn Flipper into one fully mud-spotted and slightly disreputable looking Dolphin. After wallowing through Las Vegas traffic for 40 minutes, we finally arrived at our destination...just a few minutes after the banks closed for the day! We looked at the car and met the owner, a lovely lady who had named it Kermit (because it was a teal green color, of course). We had planned to stay the night in the Thousand Trails park in Vegas until our hostess invited us to park overnight in front of her house; we took her up on her kind offer. She invited us to come in and visit after dinner, and we spent a wonderful couple of hours getting to know each other. It was much more fun than spending the evening squeezed in between other rigs with all our shades down, and being outside of Vegas proper, it was also fairly quiet at night.

   In the morning we bought the car, picked up some tag lights and safety cables and headed back towards Yuma. We left feeling that we had gained two new friends, one an elegant lady with an interesting history and the other a small green frog with a wide open future. We were trying to beat the 40-60 MPH winds predicted for the afternoon; we made it as far as Cal-Nev-Ari (pronounced Cal-Nev-Air) before the wind gusts made it far too dangerous to be driving a target as big as ours. We pulled off at the Cal-Nev-Ari Casino and they were kind enough to let us stay until the winds died down a bit.

   The town of Cal-Nev-Ari is a tiny little community of about 350 residents nestled on both sides of US 95 in the Nevada desert. It was conceived in 1965 by Slim and Nancy Kidwell as a town for pilots like themselves, with an air strip, backyard hangars and a fly-in casino. The town consists of a landing strip, casino/bar/restaurant, convenience store, small motel, mobile home park, RV park, and a post office with a zip code. It was founded on what was an abandoned military airstrip. By taking advantage of The Pittman Act, the Kidwells were able to realize their dream of establishing a town here merely by proving that they could be self-sufficient. The couple planted a field of barley and began hauling water 30 miles by truck from the Colorado River. They dug a well, the barley grew, and the BLM granted them a land patent; a town was born. One of the big draws is the fly-in casino. The day we were there all the patrons had arrived by car, but on a busy weekend as many as four or five small planes may be parked at the edge of the runway out back of the small, smoke filled casino. The entire town was for sale as recently as 2016, for the bargain price of $6,000,000; it is currently off the market.

   We stayed until just about dusk, when the wind intensity dropped a bit and we were able to make a run for it. Joe was hoping to make it all the way "home" to the Yuma area, but it was just too far after having had to wrestle the wheel all day to keep Flipper between the lines. We made the decision to stop for the night when we reached Quartzsite, AZ ("the Q"). We missed the turn in the dark and ended up heading southeast on the 72. While this incredibly bumpy road would eventually take us to I-10, I remembered that it also connected to the eastern end of Plomosa Rd. at Bouse, AZ. We had previously camped along the western end near Quartzsite and really enjoyed it. After all, how hard could it be for two exhausted people and three sleepy cats to get there on a completely unfamiliar road in total darkness at 11:00 at night? And so we boldly turned off into the darkness on a fairly decent, if somewhat narrow and winding road that soon began climbing upward. We couldn't see anything beyond the range of our headlights, but it felt as if there was a void off to our left as we continued our gentle climb. We spotted a couple of BLM boondocking area markers just as we passed them by, but we no longer have the ability to back up with Kermit on a tow bar behind us (this also adds a new element of fun to entering gas stations; just ask all the folks stuck behind us in Vegas after someone blocked us as we were pulling up to the pump!). Finally we saw one in time and grabbed the first big spot we saw on
the right side of the road. Joe went out with a flashlight and announced that he could see a saguaro cactus, but nothing beyond that. We were still fairly certain that there was a major drop off on the left side of Plomosa Rd, and we weren't at all anxious to find out whether or not we were correct!

   On Thursday morning I was awakened far too early by the sound of raindrops on the roof. Imagine my delight to discover that we were camped in the middle of a beautiful forest of majestic saguaro cacti! I like all types of cactus, but saguaros feel like home to me. I didn't grow up around them, but I have loved them since I was little; they are a symbol of the freedom of the desert to me. I grabbed my camera and went out into the spring shower to discover that we were indeed up above the distant valley floor, but there wasn't a cliff anywhere in sight. In truth, there was more camping area to the left of the road than the side we were on. It's funny how different things feel at night, especially in unfamiliar territory. We were in the foothills on the eastern side of the Plomosa Mountains, surrounded by saguaros and palo verde trees.

   We looked up the weather for the coming day and discovered that it was going to be windy again to the south of us, so we decided to just stay where we were for another night and enjoy our sonoran desert surroundings. Our new plan was to hit I-10 Friday morning and head in to Blythe, CA to smog and register our new family member and then head back east and catch AZ 95s at "The Q" for the final part of our journey back to Yuma. On the way west, we saw the eastbound lanes were closed by a big rig that had burned to the ground. Traffic was backed up for miles, and it wasn't going to improve any time soon. In Blythe, the registration process went surprisingly smoothly, but we were forced to take CA 78 south because of the accident on I-10. We don't really like 78; it is narrow, rough, and gravelly. The scenery is beautiful, but people drive way too fast for safety and there are very few pullouts or passing lanes. It was on this road that we had our windshield cracked by a flying rock thrown up by an oncoming RV when we first arrived in the Yuma area, so we may be a bit prejudiced. Be that as it may, we didn't have much choice so off we went. The highlight of this portion of the journey was finally seeing a roadrunner just a few miles from our campsite. He was, well...running across the road! I have to admit, the artists really did get the motion of the true roadrunner correct when they created their cartoon roadrunner; the color and sound, not so much!
   It was really a relief to finally arrive back at our boondocking site. It sometimes surprises me how much it feels like coming home, complete with familiar sights and sounds and really awesome neighbors to greet us and welcome us back. It may not be a stick-and-bricks, but what more could you really ask for?

   Stay tuned for part 2 of the wild and crazy week! Until then, take care My Friends!     

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Valley Of Names: The Crazy Week Of Adventure Continues

   Although the first part of last week was really crazy and hectic, the weekend was just amazing and full of adventure. Saturday was mellow and we just hung out and rested, spent a little time futzing around with Kermit and went in to Yuma for groceries. Sunday, however, was a different story. We were invited to join our friends Bob and Tina, Jim and Barbara (and their dog Abby), and Phil and Karen for an off-road trip to the Valley Of Names. This valley, located near Winterhaven, CA is an amazing place full of history and mystery. The aforementioned area is a large valley of rolling dune-like hills and washes covered in large and small rocks of mostly dark coloring. No one knows who first began the tradition of using these rocks to spell out their name across the sand colored hills, but we know it started some time before the Second World War. General Patton had a secret training camp near Bouse, AZ and apparently used the area near what is now Winterhaven as well. He referred to the
valley we visited as Graffiti Mesa back in the 1940's.
   By the 1960's the tradition had become a rite of passage for local off-roaders, and by the '70's it had been embraced by the Snowbirds and winter visitors as well. The local high school kids
discovered it in the '80's and there was no turning back. The area of valley floor covered in names and other mysterious messages swelled from the original four acres to roughly 1200 acres. It is visible from sattelites in space and you can find it on Google Earth. Tours are available by both jeep and airplane, and while I'm sure the view from above is spectacular I really don't think you can top the excitement of getting there by the off-road trails provided by the BLM (Bureau of Land Management). Some trails in the region are easier and could be done by a reasonably good driver in a high clearance vehicle, while others are more challenging and require a dune buggy or four wheel drive rig. Maps are available from the BLM office in Yuma, or you can go as part of an organized group or on a paid tour. Remember, it is always a good idea to travel the back country with at least one other vehicle; not all areas have cell service and you could be stuck for a long time before someone else comes along if you miscalculate or break down! Pay attention to the trail markers so you have an idea where you are should you need to call for help, and be aware that weather conditions can temporarily or permanently close trails. Maps may not be up to date and completely accurate, as Mother Nature has a mind of her own and a somewhat wicked sense of humor!
   We enjoyed touring the Valley of Names, stopping often to read and photograph the messages and memorials dedicated to friends and loved ones. Whatever the compulsion is to leave a lasting mark here on the valley floor, it is apparently quite widespread. It is astonishing how much planning and desert sweat equity has gone into some of these mysterious glyphs. Most of the easily attainable rocks have long since been used up by the more than 10,000 works of art already in place. For any who wish to add their own message, it is necessary now to bring your own rocks (please do not raid someone else's creation to make your own; Karma will get you!). Some artists use alternate materials, like colored golf balls or painted rocks; others add special touches like a vase of plastic flowers to their memorials. Some have dates included, but many do not and the year of their creation will remain forever a mystery. The sheer number of names in this valley is somewhat overwhelming; they stretch out almost as far as the eye can see. Some of the more intrepid artists trek long distances away from the road to make their mark on history. Some have a stick planted vertically so their creator can find it again; others have solar lights to illuminate the surrounding darkness, perhaps to bring a touch of civilization to this lonely place in the desert
   With Bob and Tina's help, we were able to find the Xscapers logo built here by  the group a couple of months ago (hint: look for the nearby Led Zeppelin name). Every few years, according to one tour guide, some of the locals who appreciate the magic of this place come together to clean up the plastic bags and debris that inevitably make their way to this place. They also carefully replace any rocks that have been kicked or otherwise removed from the artwork left upon this gravelly canvas. Although it is located in a secluded place at the base of Imperial Valley's rugged Cargo Muchacho Mountains, I'm not sure anyone could ever truly feel alone here. There is just too much company amongst the sand and rocks where thousands of strangers have left a little piece of themselves behind to create a silent community in the desert.

   Having enjoyed a brief overview of the Valley Of Names, where curiosity could easily keep you wandering for hours (or possibly days), we headed out to find a different route back home through the mountains. As I mentioned
previously, maps can be deceiving; the road shown on ours as going through to our destination was in fact a dead end. It probably was as indicated previously, but mining debris and rock slides are a commom hazard amid these jagged peaks. Roads and trails commonly dwindle down to nothing and trail markers are often on the ground or missing altogether where trails meet.  While there is currently no mining activity here, the remains of a large number of mines can be seen along the rocky slopes. Some have ruins of sluices and other mysterious wooden structures; others are merely openings in the hillside. We came across one while exploring trails leading out that still had some structures standing, but after walking partway up the road snaking up to it we decided against trying it with our vehicles, as the track quickly turned into something that looked more like a rock slide than a road. Even with Jim and Barbara leading the way in their dune buggy this trail was just not going to be possible for our vehicles. The fact that it ended in a blind ridge was an additional hazard as it would require walking a long way uphill to scout it out before even attempting it. Getting a vehicle to the top of a ridge and finding a sheer drop on the other side means you have to back down a track that was a challenge to get up going forward and was definately in our plans! So, once again we turned our little three vehicle entourage around and tried another trail.

   Having spent several hours happily exploring alternate routes, we were finally forced to admit the best choice was to partially retrace our original course until it intersected with Power Line Rd, a less interesting but more reliable way out. It was really amazing how well the three very different vehicles (a vw dune buggy, a Suzuki Samurai and a trail rated Jeep Cherokee) all handled the terrain equally well in different ways. Joe and I rode in air conditioned luxury with Bob and Tina in their Jeep, while Jim and Barbara led the way in their cool Barris dune buggy and Phil and Karen followed in their Samurai, a legendary on and off-road workhorse. While the Jeep's longer wheelbase and wider profile might be an issue on some trails it handled these without a problem, and much of the time it wasn't even in 4WD! Whenever the trail looked a bit dicey, the dune buggy was our go-to vehicle because of it's light weight and versatility. The Suzuki we knew could go almost anywhere, and it did.

   It has been a very long time since the summer I spent off-roading around southeastern Utah with my Uncle Fran (who wrote and illustrated dozens of off-road guides to the Colorado Plateau country from his home base in Moab) and this was a welcome change of pace from travelling in a motorhome. While Joe and I were initially looking for a dune buggy or baja bug to tow behind Flipper, we finally chose the Geo Metro because of it's spectacular gas mileage (and because the buggies and bajas we looked at never seemed to have a title; come on people, put the title somewhere you can find it again!). While we are enjoying having the option of zipping around in "Kermie" instead of driving the motorhome everywhere we go, we will still keep our eyes open for something that can function as well off-road as on. Our dream combo would be an MCI bus with an interior
designed specifically for us towing something like a Myers Manx dune buggy. With a rooftop deck and 3000+ watts of solar... and a scooter on front and back...and a full sized bathroom...and a king bed...oh, and a gourmet kitchen...and a gourmet chef to run it... Yeah, O.K., so I'll just keep dreaming, but all my dreams from now on are going to include some kind of a vehicle that can take us on off-road adventures like this one. There is so much of this incredible country of ours that just can't be seen from paved roads, and I don't want to miss any of it. I love being able to view new horizons with a childlike sense of wonder and adventure, always eagerly anticipating
 what is just beyond the next turn, around the corner,
 or over the next ridge. Until we meet again, keep on
 searching out your own adventures, My Friends!   

   A big "Thank you" to Bob, Tina, Jim, Barbara, Phil, Karen and Abby (woof woof!) for inviting us to share this adventure with you. Good friends and good times are everything you need in life!

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Wednesday, March 7, 2018

A mighty conflict is taking place

    Here in the far southeastern California desert a mighty conflict is taking place as spring struggles to steal the landscape back from winter's cold grasp .Days here at this time of year can be warm and sunny or cold and windy, but at the end of day the temperature inevitably drops faster than the setting sun. Sometimes the azure blue sky hosts a selection of pillowy-soft clouds; occasionally they darken and treat us to a brief rain shower, sometimes warm but more often not. When it rained last week the wind blew so hard that only the side of the coach facing into the storm, the roof, and part of the windshield received any moisture at all. I took advantage of the raindrops we did get to wash the windows on that side of our motorhome. In this arid desert region one quickly learns not to squander the gifts nature blesses you with.

    While the shower was brief and light where we are, other nearby areas were granted a more significant amount of moisture and I am excited by the knowlege that somewhere deep within the beating heart of the desert country the beginnings of a blazingly beautiful spring bloom is taking place. I can see it in the lone red-orange ocotillo flowers hesitantly appearing here and there atop tall spiny stalks, but mostly I can feel it in the energy of the very earth and sky above and below me. There is an electricity in the air, an expectation of the magical transformation just around the corner. Spring becomes a lightning rod for all the energy of the vast universe, and it is channeled into those first brilliant red blossoms. A promise has been made and accepted; life and color will return to this harsh and dusty land. Wildflowers in every color of the rainbow will carpet the valleys and slopes, and the fierce cacti will once again don their Sunday best in a brief but spectacular display of flame-bright color. The soft spring rains will come and the water holes will fill again. For a few short weeks, color will wash the southwest like an artist's canvas; scarlet and crimson, gold and lilac...all the colors of a blazing sunset will fall to earth in one unbelievable shower of life.

    As always in the desert, there is a high price to be paid for the unparalleled beauty of this annual re-awakening, for spring is followed quickly by summer. The bright hues of spring rapidly succumb to the earth-shattering heat of summer. The desert once again adopts a mantle of dusty sage and hazy purple, and the silvery-grey horizon becomes obscured by a shimmering curtain of heat as far as the eye can see.

   Desert dwellers, both human and animal, have learned to appreciate the short respite spring provides us here. Snakes and lizards reappear after the cooler temperatures of winter have gone, as do the scorpions and less hardy insects. Birds sing cheerily while perched among the thorns of cacti of various sizes and shapes. Hummingbirds search eagerly among the brilliant blooms of trees and wildflowers, darting about in a quest for their favorite nectars. They are easily distracted by bright colors and often hover around our red Honda Helix scooter!

   The mild temperatures attract tens of thousands of RVers (some put the numbers upwards of 500,000 throughout the California and Arizona desert country) for the winter season. Like others wintering here, our primarily outdoor lifestyle meshes well with the cycle of life in this region. The mild sunny days allow for hiking, cycling, and exploring off-road trails with 4X4 vehicles (which most folks here tow or carry in a toy hauler behind them). These adventures, followed by crisp, clear nights gathered around a campfire bring people back year after year. Friendships are formed and renewed, travel plans are made, and mobile neighborhoods develop. In the late winter, we are joined by photographers and myriad artists eager to capture the brief glory of spring in the desert.

    Most of us will follow the spring north, individually and in groups, staying just ahead of the hot weather. This can be accomplished by either going further and further north, or by going up in altitude; both option allow for many choices within the southwestern portion of the U.S. Some travelers will return to an established home somewhere the snow has just melted; most will continue full-timing year 'round. Once you have enjoyed the uninhibited freedom of a nomadic lifestyle it is hard to return to a stationery existence. After all, what other lifestyle allows you to prolong the beauty and magic of spring halfway through summer?

  Come join us and experience the magic, My Friends!      -Lynn
***Stay tuned for more adventures and meanderings of the mind. We were finally able to fix the "glitch" in the system so that you can subscribe to our blog; thanks for your patience!***

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Free-spirits enjoying a full time RV lifestyle

   If you are considering joining the community of free-spirits enjoying a full time RV lifestyle but are concerned about the lack of access to a gym or exercise facility, let me put your fears to rest. Nearly every facet of living in a 280 square foot recreational vehicle (some are larger; many are smaller) could, and probably should, be considered an ongoing exercise routine. Some of those things, like hiking or cycling, are obvious but many others are more subtle.

For instance, every time I need something from the exterior basement cargo bays I am forced to adopt a system of squats and crunches that would make any fitness guru proud. While trying to avoid kneeling in  a veritable forest of tiny "ankle-biter" cacti, I carefully squat to unlock and unlatch the two handles on each hatch. Then, (being on the wrong side of 50 years old) I try to avoid having to stand back up again by attempting to lean back far enough to allow the top-hinged cargo door to open upward in front of me. This usually results in a back-flip that would struggle to score a two at any Olympic competition. After retrieving the item I am after I do a quick manuever to avoid the locking mechanisms protruding from the underside of the door while duck-walking backwards to safety, with the predictable result that I hit my head anyhow. For those of you who attended school in the 50's and 60's, this operation counts as your "duck-and-cover" practice for the week. After this fiasco, there is the routine of re-entering the RV with your hard won prize (while possibly experiencing a slight double vision issue from the bump rising on the top of your head). For those of you who have never experienced the joy of using RV stairs, be aware that they move. So does the entire rig. Seldom at the same rate. Entry with your hands full can replace both the balance beam and the vaulting horse, with perhaps a bit of the rings thrown in.

 Now, if yoga is your thing...I give you the RV shower! There has never yet been born a humanoid who fits conveniently into a motorhome or trailer shower. Some rigs have better units than others; none have one designed to be used by a carbon-based life form currently in existence on this planet. Although the shower on our Dolphin motorhome is light years ahead of the one on our previous GMC Classic coach, it is still almost impossible to open the door outward while actually standing in the small bathroom. Should you elect to expand you horizons by opening the bathroom door (which does conveniently make the bedroom and bath into a master suite, loosely speaking), you will undoubtedly allow access to one or more of the cats; cats and water do not play well together, especially in a confined space when you are ready to step into the shower! After you step into the minuscule stall is when your yoga skills really come into play. It's not a bad idea to brush up on your Tai Chi skills as well.

   The oriental art of movement combined with just a touch of ballet will likely get you through the preparation of a simple meal onboard your travelling home. If, like us, you and your travel mate both enjoy cooking and you have indoor pets, it might be a good idea to include a bit of meditation and some deep breathing exercises to keep your blood pressure under control during the dinner process. While it may look more like you are landing a jet plane or signalling to aliens, it is very possible to eat well while living in an RV full-time; many out here are gourmet chefs. In fact, most full-timers will tell you they eat healthier out here than they did in their stick-and-bricks home.

   For some real fun, on travel days there is the dreaded motorhome gas station window wash. This particular exercise consists of an absurd combination of jumping jacks interspersed with a selection of modern dance moves while holding a drum major's baton and is usually capped by something resembling a badly executed flying dismount...while wearing flip-flops and a baseball cap. While this rarely results in clean windows, it does seem to amuse the folks in the little four-wheelers and so is considered a worthwhile effort by most.

   There are myriad other opportunities to replace visits to the gym, like the push-ups employed while peering under the coach to make sure the jack are up before moving (and the sprints used to get within rear view mirror range when they aren't), or the ladder climbing you do to clean the solar panels. In our case there is also the removing and reloading of our bumper-mounted scooter, which has turned out to be a team sport (which is why we are selling it); a big "thank you" going out to Jim and Sasha for their help with this!
There is no doubt that living full-time in an RV of any kind is challenging, but those of us who it do agree that the rewards FAR outweigh the challenges. The sense of freedom offsets the frustration of pouring kitty litter in a 30MPH wind; the spectacular scenery you can change at will trumps the difficulty of a small kitchen; the ability to follow your perfect temperature ("chasing 70"); the opportunity to see other parts of this vast continent and choose the piece you eventually claim as your own...these make up for any and all of the small inconveniences involved in our nomadic lifestyle. I wouldn't trade it for all the gym memberships and dance classes in the world. I can't emphasize enough that if we can do this, you can too! Start planning and dreaming and researching now; don't wait another day. Call it your daily exercise!

                                        See you all out there soon. Peace!    -Lynn

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A Mule Strays And A Town Is Born

   The handful of residents remaining in the town of Tumco lie namelessly beneath stone cairns a few hundred yards from the remains of the...

Utah's Escalante