The Life in My Years

An anthology of life

“Well, we’re not in the middle of nowhere, but we can see it from here.” ~ Thelma & Louise

It seemed that way sometimes, those times when we got a little bit lost and found ourselves on a long stretch of a desolate county road. It’s on those roads when you haven’t seen a passing car for miles and miles on end that you feel as if you’ve driven yourself out of civilization.

We got lost in Arizona and drove 50 miles on two rutted lanes to a shack and some outbuildings that Google tried to sell me as being the Painted Desert. It was certainly desert but the buildings were in sore need of a coat of new paint. Except for the reds and browns of distant mesas, the land had an ashen complexion.

Yet even in what seemed smack in the middle of empty, we always saw random traces of civilization, either abandoned or lonely or somewhere in between.

We passed old barns suffering the ravages of time and seasons, rain, wind and sun. Though rotting and dilapidated, they take on a character that they never possessed in the days of their newly painted youth. They aren’t unlike people in that way.

We saw rusting metal shacks, and enough hulks of old cars to put together a respectable vintage car museum.

And the single wides. Plenty of those. The nearest neighbors are coyotes and jackrabbits. Out front, in a plot of dirt that passes for a yard, as if the whole of the barren land isn’t the yard, we might see a giant satellite dish. They belong to the loners who live on the outside lines of the grid. The others, the real hermits, they’re the ones without a dish. They either left the grid or never bothered with a grid.

A rail corral might house a horse or two, maybe a cow.

I imagine if you drive down the dirt road that leads to one of these hovels, you’ll be greeted by a barking old mongrel that wears the same dust he donned when he was a pup. That’s the movie stereotype anyway.

Between the shacks and mobile homes are wide sweeps of nothing.

Cora wondered aloud how they survive. She was looking at it through suburban eyes, someone who holds her manicurist, trusted doctor and local supermarket close to heart.

On the other hand, I wonder what it would be like to live that sort of solitude. Is it peace and freedom from worldly stress or is it an empty, friendless isolation?

I made the argument that this is likely the life they choose, are perfectly happy with it and wonder how we can tolerate suburbia.

I actually wouldn’t mind giving it a try. That would be easy though, knowing that I always have suburbia to fall back on. But what’s it really like? Really, meaning that there’s no back up plan.

At times it wasn’t a case of getting lost but more a purposeful, “I wonder what’s down that road?”

In South Dakota we took a county road that went from paved to potholed to gravel. We took that road until I decided that whatever it was that we were looking for wasn’t worth the anxiety of having a breakdown in the middle of desolation.

Was it South Dakota? Maybe it was Wyoming or Montana or New Mexico. I’ve lost track of those lonely little roads.

And then there was the long stretch northbound on Highway 49 in Missouri, headed towards the crazy little women and barbecue of Kansas City.

Joseph City, AZ

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The COVID Chronicles is a series of pieces that I began at the start of the pandemic. The series is a journal of one person’s experiences and impressions in an unprecedented time. 

The Church Of The Misconception is an odd congregation. As religions go it’s rather new, having shown up at the start of 2020. To call the Church Of The Misconception a religion is being generous, as it’s more of a cult.

It isn’t hard to become a member of the Church Of The Misconception. While it isn’t a prerequisite for membership, one should be firmly rooted in the belief that science is suspect and that medical science is nefarious. Beyond that all that’s required is a baptism in snake oil and the regular partaking of the unholy sacrament of Kool Aid.

Early on, the high unholy priest of the Church Of The Misconception was Donald Trump. While Trump is still active in the Church Of The Misconception, many of his leadership duties have been taken on by some of the lesser priests in the hierarchy. You may be familiar with some of them;
Ron DeSantis, Greg Abbott, Rand Paul, Peter Navarro, Marjorie Taylor Greene and Tucker Carlson, just to name a few.

Like many religions, the Church Of The Misconception has its own set of commandments.

Thou absolutely should lie and spread patent bullshit.
Thou should worship false idols.
Thou really doesn’t have to give a damn about thy neighbor because thou hast rights – dammit.
If thou givest a virus to thy father, thy mother or thy children, oops, my bad.
Thy freedom is more important than thy social responsibility.
What, me worry?

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Two routes lead from Sheridan, Wyoming to Red Lodge, Montana.

The quicker is to take 90 north into Montana, till you get to Hardin. At Hardin, you make a hard left and head into Billings, born as a railroad town in 1882, and grown up to be the state’s largest city. From Billings you slide southwest on the map into Red Lodge.

That first section through Hardin roughly follows the course of the Little Bighorn, a river that would be just another inconspicuous watercourse had it not been for a famous battle that occurred along its bank, about 71 miles north of Sheridan.

The clash between five companies of the U.S. 7th Cavalry, led by Lieutenant-Colonel, George Armstrong Custer, and a superior force of Lakota, Northern Cheyenne, and Arapaho, is one of the most famous battles in American History. At the end of an estimated two hour long battle, Custer and his entire command were killed. Custer’s body was found on a hillock that was christened, Last Stand Hill. A monument to the 7th Cavalry sits atop the hill.

My original idea, before we left home, was to take this route and stop at the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument. I’ve a long standing interest in military history and the Little Bighorn had been one of those bucket list places.

Having read two books on the battle itself, along with Custer’s own memoir, My Life on the Plains, I’d already known Custer to be one of the most notorious characters in the long running drama of the Indian Wars.

Custer is a study in conflict. He attended West Point where he gained a reputation for being an insubordinate troublemaker who would eventually graduate 34th in a class of 34. Custer was a braggadocios, egotist; a self-promoter who was known for designing his own flamboyant uniforms.

In 1868, after having served a ten month punishment for desertion and mistreatment of soldiers, Custer revived his military career by leading an early morning attack on a band of peaceful Cheyenne near the Washita River in Oklahoma that resulted in the slaughter of 103 Cheyenne, including a number of women and children.

Ever since the famous battle at the Little Bighorn in 1876, Custer has been alternately cast as either a racist incompetent, whose hubris led to the massacre of 268 U.S. Troopers, or a man miscast by history. Custer’s reputation has pin balled between misunderstood hero, narcissistic villain, and tactical blunderer.

The night before we left Custer, South Dakota for Sheridan, I’d decided to take the other route to Red Lodge.

The time that we spent in South Dakota had me weary of paeans to Custer and the U.S. Cavalry; the names of places, streets, towns, schools and monuments that commemorate Custer, his officers and a genocidal war.

That two towns along 90, near the battlefield and located on the Crow Reservation are named Garryowen after the title of the 7th Cavalry’s regimental song, and Benteen after one of Custer’s officers seems to add chauvinist insult to injury.

The other route to Red Lodge heads west until the town of Greybull, Wyoming and then swings northwest towards Red Lodge. This route takes in a section of the Bighorn Scenic Byway.

At the Wyoming-Montana state line we planned to take a short detour into the Pryor Wild Horse Range, a place that I’d wanted to visit six years ago but had to cancel due to bad weather.

Done with touring The King Saddlery on Main Street I stop to fill the tank before we leave Sheridan.

There’s plenty of gas in the tank but ever since the Mojave Desert a few thousand miles ago I’ve been in the habit of not letting the tank get below halfway. This from someone who often runs the tank down to fumes back home in the San Francisco Bay Area.

The price of gas is starting to creep back up here in Wyoming. When we left the Bay Area gas was over $3.00 a gallon. One of the things we enjoyed about Texas was gas at $2.55. Here in Sheridan it’s $2.75, and I imagine the locals consider that to be a highway robbery instigated by Joe Biden.

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Fashionably late.  Again.

I’ve managed to lag behind in the photo challenges so why should this week be any different?

The subject for LAST Saturday’s Lens Artist Challenge is Getting Away. What an appropriate title for 2021.

We were stuck in 2020. Cabin fever, depression and not a small amount of despair.

In the late summer of 2020, my wife and I dipped our toes in the getaway waters by traveling down the California coast to Morro Bay.

The indoors were still shuttered but outdoors it was beautiful, bracing, welcoming and healthy. Healthy for body, mind and spirit.
Below, images of Morro Bay and environs.                     

I’m checking out an otter who’s checking me out in return. Morro Bay Harbor.

 

Mornings were foggy and brisk. Morro Bay Harbor

 

A wave explodes in a 1/10th of a second exposure.

Our short period of getting away gave us a welcome feeling of harmony.

The little town of Harmony, just up the coast from Morro Bay

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Early in 2020, when rumors of the coronavirus became reality I began a series of posts that I called The COVID Chronicles, a journal of my own personal experiences and feelings in the midst of a global pandemic. I thought I was done with the series.

“You ready to put your mask back on?” he hollered.

“Yep,” I answered tersely.

He’s one of the maintenance guys who works at a local apartment building. I see him almost every day when Lexi and I pass by the building during our morning run. It’s always been no more than a wave and a, “Hello, have a good day.”

This one particular day was different. I paused during the run and he took a break from his work. We talked.

We agreed that we weren’t happy about having to pull the masks back out of the dresser drawer, or wherever one keeps masks. It isn’t so much the masks themselves, it’s having to do it because of the rising cases.

I told him that back in May, Cora and I had travelled through 16 states and in some places, in some states we hardly saw any masks. Told him about Amarillo, Texas, where it was a maskless free for all.

“I’ll bet they start wearing masks again,” he said.

“Nope. Not in Texas. Not in South Dakota. It’s a different world out there.”

He was stunned. I guess he doesn’t watch the news much. Doesn’t realize that Texas Governor Greg Abbott has not qualms about plays political roulette with the lives of the people under his watch. Has no moral compass, no heart, no common decency.

We talked about the rise in COVID cases, mostly among the unvaccinated.

He told me that he’d been late to the vaccination party. I guess the hesitation wore off or the fear creeped in but he finally got his pokes.

It was the only time we’d stopped and talked and we agreed, we’re sad, we’re baffled and maybe most of all, we’re pissed off that we’re turning back the clock.

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“Black and white is mix of toughest simplicity and easiest complexity.” ~ Vikrmn, Corpkshetra

I’m a late arrival to this party, the black and white photo challenge, hosted by Anne Sandler. Better late than never?

“There are some locations I go to and they scream black and white to me because of the ambiance. For me, great black and white images fall into two categories: very dramatic with stormy skies and bold compositions and at the other end of the spectrum a calm and minimalist composition.” ~ Helen Rushton

Who could disagree with Ms. Rushton that some locations scream black and white?

Graveyards for instance? Not cemeteries – graveyards. There’s a difference.

The image below was shot on a sunny afternoon. It was washed out, bland. Editing to black and white the photo is suddenly transformed into a spooky moonlit, nighttime scene.

Silver Terrace Cemetery, Virginia City, Nevada

Silver Terrace Cemetery, Virginia City, Nevada

Silver Terrace Cemetery, Virginia City, Nevada

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Monday, June 7, 2021
Day twenty-two.

It’s another of those gotta get out early days, and this time we’ve actually managed to get out early. It’s not a matter of beating the mid-afternoon heat but of finding parking. This day’s plan includes a stop at Devil’s Tower along the way to Sheridan, and the National Park Service website warns that the first come, first served parking at Devil’s Tower is very limited.

On the way out of South Dakota, we continue through the green, green mix of forest and ranch land.

When you cross the state line entering Wyoming from South Dakota, you leave Black Hills National Forest behind and enter Thunder Basin National Grassland. Two lane Highway 16 cuts through an arid land that’s roughly carpeted with tall grass and scrub. In the distance mesas and rolling hills add some relief to this craggy table.

It’s not an unattractive land but any appeal that it might have is largely spoiled by the appearance of oil wells. They appear as giant, malevolent steel birds pecking unceasingly, boring deep wounds in our Earth’s skin. The thought occurs to me that I have no righteous standing. By the very act of being here, driving past these unsightly rigs, putting thousands of miles behind me with thousands more to go, I’m simply whetting the appetite of these monstrosities.

We pass through Newcastle, a decent sized town that’s described by the Black Hills and Badlands Website as an area of “Cattle ranches, oil wells and coal mines, a perfect mingling of industry and agriculture, blend with the area’s past.” Is this meant to be appealing to the tourist?

We pass through little Osage, so little that it’s a mere flicker on the map, a moment’s drive-by.

Fifteen minutes later we arrive at Upton, Wyoming, which claims the title of “The Best Town on Earth.”

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When we started out, we hadn’t included a ghost tour in our plans. Thing is, when you cover 8000 miles over sixteen states, the diverse American story is bound to offer up a collection of spectres.

The ghosts that we encountered weren’t those mischievous, annoying spirits who move the furniture about while you’re out of the house, or scare the hell out of you with unholy middle of the night shrieks. We didn’t come upon the tormented souls of long dead soldiers who, it’s been alleged, float among the trenches of the battlegrounds of old.

The ghosts we discovered are the shadows of hopes dashed, dreams unfulfilled, plans turned sour and the simple, inexorable erosion of time. They’re still out there, those ghosts, scattered about the country.

Unlike the goblins that secret themselves below floorboards and in the cracks of an old house, these ghosts are easily spotted but like any self respecting spook they can take many forms. They’re the crumbling concrete, rotting wood and rusting metal of places that were once alive with purpose but now wait for an exorcism by human hands or the beating of nature.

Goffs, California.
There’s a time change thirty miles or so east of Goffs, California, at the Arizona border where the clock advances by one hour.

At Goffs though, the clock stopped advancing for good in 1931, when a bypass of Route 66 abandoned the town and left it to its own fading resources.

Once upon a time, Goffs was a railroad town, housing workers for the AT and Santa Fe Railroad. Today the long freights still pass through Goffs along with a few ghost hunters who come to view the remnants of the town and the renovated old schoolhouse.  Nobody stays anymore.

 

For more on Goffs follow the link to Route 66 California: Bottle Trees and Ghost Towns

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June 4th, 2021. The Black Hills, South Dakota.
After an interesting, if somewhat disappointing, stop at Wall Drug, we’re headed to our cabin located somewhere between Hill City and Custer.

Our route has taken us through relatively large, Rapid City, slowing us down on a sweltering afternoon when all we want to do is get to our destination and relax.

From Rapid City to Hill City, it’s 27 long, very long, miles. At least it seems that way. Cora and I joke that South Dakota miles are longer than regular miles.

At the end of the 27 South Dakota miles we arrive in Hill City. Driving through town I’m looking for a grocery store because if we want to eat we’re going to need something to cook. This is our first VRBO stop of the trip. My plan is to drop Cora off and then go out foraging.

We take Highway 385 south out of Hill City and watch for the road listed in the VRBO directions. There it is.  And it’s a dirt road. Ugh. I know what Cora’s thinking,
“This American has booked us into a faraway cabin in the woods that we have to get to by driving down a long dirt road.”

Cora is not a dirt road fan and has been known to take a dim view of faraway cabins in the woods. The one, years ago outside of Gardiner, Montana, had Wi-Fi that was so spotty she spent the first half hour walking around the cabin and the property, looking for reception on her phone. All to no avail. I’m expecting an ass chewing from the wife.

The cabin is about five miles down the dirt road and we’re tired, dog tired, so we’re measuring this initial trip through the dust, in South Dakota miles, because it seems so damned long. During subsequent trips down the dirt road when we aren’t so exhausted we’re comfortable enough to measure the distance in regular miles.

The cabin is small – very small. Tiny to some maybe, perfect for me. It has a nice porch with a couple of chairs. You walk immediately into a kitchen area with a counter for eating. There’s a seating area with a chair, a couch, a side table and a small TV, and in the far back (not too far, the place is small) is the bed. It’s one long, not too long, not too short, room. It’s perfectly fine. We’re not here to do gymnastics, we’re here to eat, sleep, relax and be cozy.

After getting Cora settled I go to town. Custer is closer than Hill City and it’s in Custer that I find a good sized supermarket, Lynn’s Dakotamart, that has everything we need including the grapefruit which Cora has asked for. At $2.49 each, Lynn should be offering a Black Hills Gold bracelet with the purchase of every grapefruit.

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That’s the way it is with vacation trips isn’t it? Seems like eons ago – if you even remember it at all. Seems as if the national park t-shirt with the wolf on it and the Mount Rushmore refrigerator magnet are the only hard evidence that you actually went somewhere.

Going back to work dims the memory all the more and all the more quickly.

So that’s why I’m thankful that I’m retired. I can better savor the experience when I get back and I don’t have to suffer the pre-vacation office bullshit.

There’s no more of the insulting, “Well, if you must,” treatment from your boss when you put in for the two weeks off. That would be the selfsame boss who just the week prior encouraged “team members” to take some time off to “recharge the batteries.”

I’ve retired from having to compose the out of office message to keep coworkers, and especially management, at bay, “I’ll be out of the office for two weeks. Since I’ll be staying in Chicago where there is no internet and only limited phone service, I will respond to your message upon my return.”

I’m spared the onerous return to office rituals of sorting through a thousand emails and suffering the inquisition over whatever thing went sideways while I was gone.

This isn’t to say that I’m not going through a post vacation malaise; a what’s on the itinerary tomorrow, followed by the depressing realization that the only itinerary is getting out the green that developed in the pool, and digging up the plants that perished, while we were gone. Is that all there is?

Maybe part of that malaise comes from the fatigue of the last leg, the worst section of the entire trip. My daughter offered that the last day is always the worst because there’s nothing new to look forward to. What’s immediately in front is what you left to get away from.

That’s probably true for me but not for Cora. She was ready to return home. She wanted to sleep in her own bed again. Me? Give me ten milligrams of melatonin and a bed of nails and I’m good.  Slept like a baby. Where to next?

I will admit that when I travel I miss my coffee maker and my shower. We stayed at eighteen different places and it seemed that at each one I had to learn how to use a coffee maker. And as for the shower, I never could get the water temperature and pressure to my liking. Hell, in one place the hot and cold were reversed. I thought that I would have to take a cold shower until I tried the, “I wonder what’ll happen if…” bit.

But there were times, even towards the end, that I was plotting a way to extend the trip. Cora wouldn’t have had anything to do with that notion. She would have hitchhiked home if necessary. And then shopped a good attorney while I was still away.

Travel writing.  Straight from the start I realized that I have a lot of learning to do when it comes to being a travel writer. I started out with the notion that I could write as I go. I brought along all the tools; a journal, plenty of pens and pencils, a voice recorder and of course my laptop.

But the write as I go plan was trashed on day one.

The whole trip was almost trashed from the start as I was ready to turn us back around for home on day two. At the end of day one I was spent. In marathoner’s terms, I’d hit the wall. That first day was, on paper anyway, a drive from home to Porterville, California, a distance of 257 miles. That 257 miles is point to point and during the planning, I didn’t take into account the side trip to Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks and the scenic drive that added another 100 miles or more.

I was suddenly slapped by the realization that all of the mileage and drive times had been based on motel to motel calculations.  If I adhered to the point to point itinerary we would miss the planned and off the cuff side trips. I would’ve stripped the meat from the bone. It was a mistake that couldn’t be undone without undoing the trip.

At the end of that first day the rest of the trip was the furthest thing from my mind. I was exhausted and stressed and told Cora that I’d have to see how I felt in the morning. Maybe I’d bitten off far more than I could chew.

So what about that first day?

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