White Mountain Series : Part II, The Ancient Trees

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Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest of the White Mountains, Inyo County, California

It’s a long hot drive through the Mojave desert and the Owens Valley in summer, in a truck cab, without air conditioning. The anticipation of higher altitude cool air kept us fairly focused on finding that turn off of Highway 395. A few years back I tried to drive up Highway 168 with my brother to the ancient trees, but it was November and the snow increasingly hampered our way the higher we climbed. Eventually we had to stop the car and hike. But even that was a lost cause, as we came with in a mile of the visitor center to the ancient forest and had to abandoned our attempt trying to walk through snow drifts up to our thighs. But now these years later it was summer, and I was going to have the chance to visit these trees that a botany professor had enraptured about, so many years back in college.

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Road to the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest in the White Mountains of California in November

Fairly soon after we started to drive up out of the Owens Valley, we entered the Pinyon-Juniper Woodlands. Just about anyone who has headed toward the American West, into the Rockies and beyond, has experienced these woodlands. It’s those wonderful scraggly and rather sparse conifer forests that cling to the red rock cliffs of northern New Mexico. So sparse botanists and ecologists don’t even call them forests, but woodlands. Junipers stare down into the depths of the Grand Canyon and pinyon pines grow on the slopes of just about every Nevada mountain range. It’s what you pass through if you’ve ever been on the Amtrak’s Southwest Chief, headed toward the Raton Pass. As we drove, the silver grey of the pinyon trees spotted the landscape until they finally dominated. IMG_2151_edited-1

It is amazing to learn of the sustenance indigenous people derived from this environment. Although the Owens Valley Paiute made good use of the valley floor, and it is fairly comfortable even in the winter, it seems the pinyon trees higher up the slopes often provided an abundant crop of pinenuts, that was too good to pass up. Certain years the harvest was plentiful enough that they would build winter camps above 6000 feet (1828 meters), so they could gather and be near the nut caches they accumulated. Archaeologists have found evidence of many pinyon camps in the White Mountains. They were often located near ravines, like the one we were driving up, that were dammed to catch melting snow for water needs. The camps were littered with projectile points, manos, metates, and obsidian knives and scrapers. There were roasting hearths and firepits for roasting the green cones of the pinyon. They would have lived in a wogadoni, mountain houses covered in pine boughs and bark slabs. Although other Great Basin tribes had some tough times during the year, the Owens Valley Paiute seemed to have lived fairly well. They traded the nuts they harvested, along with salt they gathered in the dry lake beds of the valley, with the Monache of the Sierra Mountains to the west. In fact, anthropologists have been revising somewhat the earlier notion that hunter/gatherer groups struggled for existence. It’s more likely they lived through long periods of relative comfort and a kind of affluence.

My friend and I drove to just about 8600 feet (2621 meters) and set up our tents at Grandview Campground. I think it is quite possibly the only campground in the White Mountains. Before the sun set we climbed a ridge and tried to find this grand view. The campground itself was plenty scenic, but it was down in a wide ravine with no actual site affording a grand view. That is, as far as we could tell.

It was turning to late afternoon and I was getting hungry. The Paiute skill of preparing and roasting in hot ash pandora moth caterpillars, harvested from the local jeffrey pine trees, has long been forgotten. So we prepared our trucked in fare, after setting up camp. As we ate, we watched what looked like rain clouds drift overhead.

IMG_2064_edited-2Although the annual precipitation of this area is only around 12 inches a year, thunderstorms in summer do break out in these mountains. My friend deliberated over setting up the rain guard on his tent. He wanted to avoid blocking off the view of the stars through the screen roof, if it was at all possible. He sometimes wrestles with his new tent. The previous time we went camping together he had just bought that tent. We had camped at a rocky site above Death Valley with its own spectacular grand view. He had been wrestling with what seemed an inordinate amount of time trying to pitch the tent. I eventually came over and realized the tent was still on the picnic table and he was apparently trying to pitch the rain guard. At the time I suppressed any urge to laugh. I didn’t want to anger him. You never know the frustration level of a man inadvertently playing twister with a convoluted piece of canvas, that was never meant to be poled and staked. As it was, when I told him, he had a good laugh. He’s become more adept at raising it, but its assembly still requires decisions.

As the dusk turned to night the sky became clear. It seems the heat from the mountains helps to form clouds from the southern tropical air flowing north. And with the diurnal effect of the cooling earth the clouds are dispersed. And all just in time for the glory of the heavens to stage a fantastic planetarium show. My friend had read somewhere that the White Mountains afforded a reliable grand view of the star studded night sky. Maybe that’s where the campground got its name. In fact these are the ideal conditions for stargazing. Not far from the campground is a radio telescope observatory. CARMA, which stands for Combined Array of Research in Millimeter-Wave Astronomy, is run by a handful of universities producing high-resolution astronomical images. It turns out at this elevation, in the dry air, they can avoid some distortion from atmospheric water vapor. So even the professionals are here, taking advantage of the stellar light.

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CARMA (Combined Array for Research in Millimeter-wave Astronomy) in the White Mountains of California [Photo taken from Wikipedia site on the astronomical instrument]

As the ground became invisible in the darkness the sky blazed with star light. You needn’t crook your neck staring straight up. Even in the sky directly above the horizon, constellations were emerging above the crags of the eastern Sierras. To the west a triangle of stars gave the illusion they were flying in formation. Orion was just above the horizon further to the south. Venus burned brightly and I located at least three red tinged stars in my search for the planet Mars. It’s hard to imagine that we’re seeing thousands of years into the past. I laid back on the picnic table to stargaze as my friend wandered into the road for a more open sky. Maybe I dozed off a little. When I opened my eyes again a rather bright object floated through the sky at a fair rate.

After I wondered a bit at what it was, whilst enjoying its beauty, my friend said, “Do you see that?”

“Yea, I think ahh…Isn’t that a satellite?”

“Nah, it’s too big. Satellites mostly follow the track of the Milky Way.”

“It’s flying as fast as a plane but I don’t see any flashing lights.”

“Yeah, I don’t hear any jets.”

We were silent for a little listening for the distant echo of jets.

“What the hell is that?”

As we talked it had already reached it’s zenith and was silently and swiftly headed toward the horizon.

“It’s a UFO to us,” I said.

We wondered a little more as we watched an array of night sky phenomena. Shooting stars streaked the sky and a few satellites followed that Milky Way path. Occasionally lightning flashed in the distance. By the time I hit the sleeping bag Orion was high in the sky. Some kind of nice inversion layer keeps the night air in those mountains warm, the heavy cold air sinking down into the Owens Valley. So I slept fairly comfy and solid that night.

It wasn’t until a couple of days after we got back from that trip that I identified the flying object through a Google search. Just around that time in the early evening the International Space Station orbits over North America. The unblinking light is the reflection of the sun off the solar panels. Apparently it was still bathed in the rays of the sun, while it floated over our dark terrain. It’s only when you take the time to journey to such places that you see these things you never anticipated. This dry, clear atmosphere and the alpine landscape has many wonders to discover.

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Bristlecone Pine still alive with photosynthesizing needles

The next morning we got up early and headed for higher altitude and the first grove of bristlecone pines. These groves are the major attraction that brings most visitors to these mountains. Bristlecone pines are not only some of the oldest individual trees on earth, but their age and tolerance to the harsh climate of this alpine region give them the most other worldly, ancient and tortured beauty of any trees you could encounter. Botanists use the term krummholz, German for twisted wood, to describe the stunted, bent growth of trees that endure alpine and subalpine conditions. There is something truly enchanting to walk amongst trees that display in their countenance more years than the Roman Coliseum, adding growth rings when Socrates was wily ridiculing Athenian politicians and were saplings even before Abraham walked out of Sumeria to find his own god in the Levant.

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Bristlecone pines growing in nutrient poor dolomite soils

The terrain above 10,000 feet (3048 meters) changes as the pinyon pines give way to a subalpine scene of sagebrush broken by patches of sparse pine. The sagebrush and its brethren shadscale, rabbitbrush and Mormon tea grow in the darker sandstone and granitic soils. But the limber and bristlecone pines make do with the nutrient poor, but bright, white, dolomite earth. In fact, they prefer it. The white dolomite doesn’t absorb as much solar energy, and although the difference might be slight, the dolomite regions aren’t as dry, and that makes all the difference to the pine seedlings. And it’s all visible to the naked eye. Because the vegetation is thin, you can see both types of soils and the plant life they support from just about anywhere you stand.  Soon we reached the Schulman grove, the large stand of bristlecone pines first made famous when Edmund Schulman and his colleagues, studying tree ring growth, discovered a tree over 4,600 years old. Even the needles of these trees live a good 45 years. There was no one about and we decided to visit the trailer standing in as a visitor center later, after our hike. The trail soon took us around a bend with the dolomite sided canyons reflecting bright under the morning’s sunrays. From a distance, the bristlecone trees looked straight and tall on the other side of the canyon, as they might tend to do in wetter climates, but on our side in amongst the trees themselves, we could see we were walking through a ghostly forest. There were plenty of trees clothed fully in pine needles, but here and there were skeletons of crooked, stunted trees that had sprouted under stars no longer visible to us. IMG_2086As we came along a ridge it was scattered with dead trees in all there agonizingly twisted glory.

It’s the resin that makes the texture of old wood so beautiful. And the resin is the result of fungal infection. IMG_2094_edited-1Resin is like our blood clotting, blocking the potential invaders from getting to the cambium and the sugars of the phloem that feed the roots and the tree’s growth. We stopped to get what I call texture shots. Macro images of caramel colored wood, like petrified pulled and stretched salt water taffy.

My friend and I are often chattering away on trail hikes in the mountains above the town where I live. But here we fell into a silence as we walked through this other worldly landscape. After a good hour and a half on the trail, hiking through a couple of different plant communities, we eventually came upon what is called the Methuselah Grove.

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It was here Dr. Schulman discovered the 4,846 year old bristlecone pine tree, which was subsequently named after the Old Testament character who lived 969 years. That tree is the real Methuselah. Reportedly still alive, the tree is unidentified to save it from vandalism. Because there is, undoubtedly, some Dick out there who wants the world to know in a couple hundred years from now, that he loves Jane. Anyway, the grove is abundant with the ancient, twisted specimens to marvel over. There was no need to know which tree is the tree.

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The varieties of shapes the branches and trunks are contorted into, are beyond the wildest dreams of all the animators Tim Burton could bring together. Here even the dead ones are partially reanimated in this demanding environment. The roots of a live tree will graft onto the roots of a dead tree and claim its soil’s water and nutrients. It is what botanists call ‘hydraulic redistribution’. Dr. Frankenstein would be impressed. Life is long here for these trees, but death does eventually come. But even in death its bones are utilized before they become fertilizer.

As we wound are way out of the grove we stopped for a power bar break against a younger, taller tree. I noticed some peculiar holes in the lower trunk. They were too big to be the result of bark beetle larvae, which bore into the tree to feed on the sugar rich phloem. And they were perfectly round holes, most likely from a dendrochronologist’s borer bit. It reminded me of a story I had heard in a botany class of a premature death, undue to the lifecycle of the ecology. Back in 1964 a graduate student was doing research on an ice age of the last few thousand years in the Snake Range of Nevada, in the vicinity of a mountain top called Wheeler Peak, an area that has now become part of Great Basin National Park. He was drilling into a tree there, using a technique dendrochronologists incorporate to pull out core samples from tree trunks without killing them, to count the rings for scientific data. He twice broke his borer’s bit in the tree. Frustrated, he decided, with the forest service’s permission, to cut down the tree for an easy ring count. The results of the felled tree was the discovery of the oldest tree on record at that time, 4,862 years. Since then, older trees have been discovered, still the unfortunate geographer Donald R. Currey is now mostly famous for killing what came to be known as Prometheus.

After the approximately three hour hike, with plenty of stopping and gawking at the wonders around us, we found ourselves back at the trailer, which was standing in as a visitor center. By now the small space was crowded with people about to go on the hike. We met Francis, a volunteer who told me she had abandoned some ordinary life in populated California. She got a teacher’s license so she could live in Bishop, down in the Owens Valley, and then spend every available gap between obligations of responsibility, exploring the Eastern Sierras and the Inyo ranges to the east. She was now retired, so her obligation to herself was to enjoy the natural beauty of her surroundings. As of now, I’m sure the new visitor center is complete and Francis and her colleagues aren’t crammed in a trailer. Francis suspected arson was the cause of the razing of the previous visitor center and even the identity of the arsonist. It harked to some Timothy Treadwell ‘Grizzly Man’-like dispute you find between government agencies and fiercely independent individuals out on the edges of the wilderness. There was no dispute with us though, as we headed back to the car. We agreed that hike was one of the more fascinating natural history experiences and wilderness areas we had ever encountered. Preserving it and managing a visitor center for the public to experience the region is, to my mind, one of the more important services of government agencies.

Like a Clark’s nutcracker gathering seeds, we cached our memories of this wonderous place, and left it to providence that they would sprout later more inspiration, wonder and a deep fondness for even the most rugged and harshest, but beautiful landscapes of our planet. We had plenty of day left, so we headed toward another ancient grove some fourteen miles down the spine of the White Mountain range, seeking more wisdom of patient fortitude and perseverance from these age-old entities.

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White Mountain Road toward the Patriarch Grove and White Mountain Peak

Speaking in Jaguar Tongue

Jaguar relief at Chichén Itzá

One of the boys, Israel, kept up the lesson with “otra, otra” after each new word or phrase; two or three words would not be enough. These jaguar muchachos were keen on not letting me escape until my head had a few of their words dancing around in it. The city of Valladolid was bathed in a fiery deep orange as the Sun neared the horizon. In a Maya creation story, accounted in the Popul Vuh, the Sun is personified as Hunapu, one of the Hero Twins who relive their story through the cycle of the day. When evening comes Hunapu and his brother Xbalanque, the planet Venus, descend into the Underworld for a series of ballgames against the Gods. Through their skill and a little cunning deception they are able to defeat the Gods of Xibalbá and rise again victorious each morning.DSC01768 Earlier, I had spent the day at Chichén Itzá wandering around in a fantastical daze marveling at the complexity and artistry of the Itzá civilization. The Gods of tropical heat had been victorious over me, draining me of most of my energy on the Great Ball Court of Chichén Itzá. This night while the Hero Twins battled their opponents, I would be sound asleep. But I still had some energy left to venture around the central plaza of Valladolid in the early evening. DSC01772  DSC01766

My hotel, El Mesón del Margués, was right on the plaza and I thought I’d get a few photographs of the Cathedral of San Gervasio in the setting sun light, before finding a place to eat.DSC01972 There were perhaps five or six boys sitting up against the wrought iron fence surrounding the plaza. They were all wearing school uniforms, green pants and white polo-type shirts against their lustrous brown skin.

DSC01974As I slyly tried to snap a few photos of them they saw me and starting waving, calling their best English greeting, “’ello, ‘ello.” They must have picked me out for an American, or at least an English speaker. They came over to me, as if expressing an interest in learning some English.

¿De dónde viene usted?”, one of them asked.

“United, ah….Estados Unidos,” I replied.

Cómo se dice ‘De dónde viene’ en inglés,” another one asked me.

I said, “Se dice ‘Where are you from?”.

They repeated the phrase with a little awkward pronunciation.

I got a little excited and said, “Yo puedo enseñar un poco de inglés y pueden enseñarme español.” I was hoping for a little trade in language lessons.

They shrugged, with a couple of non-committal “”.

Then one of them stepped up, I later got his name as Israel, and said, “Bish sha k’aba.”

“Ah…what? ¿Cómo?

What he had said did not sound like Spanish to me.

Bish sha k’aba,” he repeated.

Another boy whose name was Sergio said, “Eso es ‘¿Cómo se llama?’ en nuestro idioma.”

Now I knew ‘¿Cómo se llama?’ – ‘What is your name?’

Israel spoke Spanish again, “Queremos enseñarle nuestro idioma.” He said they wanted to teach me ‘our language’. To these young Maya boys ‘our language’ certainly wasn’t Spanish.

I was constantly being reminded on my trip that the Maya of the Yucatán speak and even read and write their very much alive Mayan language. The Maya of the Northern Yucatán speak Yucatec Maya, the most widely spoken dialect, of approximately a million speakers. At many of the cultural sites descriptions are written in Spanish, English and Maya. DSC00835 - Version 2I remember my conversation with a travel guide couple I’d met in the village of Santa Elena, near the Maya site of Uxmal. They were scouting out new itineraries for their clients. While talking to them I marveled at the fact that they provided tours in English, French and Spanish. I expressed my regret that I had not learned Spanish earlier in my life and that I had a lot of catching up to do practicing my Spanish with the people of the Yucatán. Helene, the French wife of the couple, told me if I really wanted to impress and secure the kindness of the local people, I should concentrate on learning and trying to speak a few words of Maya.

So here in Valladolid I finally found some worthy tutors. The words started coming fast and luckily I had my journal on hand, which I’d planned to write in a little, while having my dinner. With my pen I started scribbling down the words they gave me, checking for proper spelling.

a person – u tu’

two people – ka tu’u

boy – paal

girl – chu paal

sun – k’in

water – ja

house – naaj

rain – kash ja

The young men emphasized the glottal stops more vigorously than I had heard others use it. The glottal stop is indicated by the diacritic apostrophe after a letter or syllable. It’s the kind of sound an English speaker makes when saying ‘uh oh’ or the the word ‘button’, as in but’ton. The double vowels are pronounced as long vowels. Sounding the rain god ‘Chaac’ is to draw out the ‘a’ with an ‘ahh’.  Soon we moved on from single words to phrases of greeting.

Buenos días – Ma lo k’im

Hello – Bish ya ni kech

And longer phrases.

Where are you from – Tu sha taa

How much does it cost – Ba uush

Let’s go to see the pyramid – Koo’osh ile e pirámide

That last word being Spanish for pyramid, as they told me they did not know of a word in Mayan for pyramid. I suppose the Maya had individual names for their temples in pyramid form, and if they had a general word for these structures the boys did not tell me.

It was starting to get a bit exhausting for me, what with the double translation from Maya to Spanish, and then to English. My head was getting plenty full and so I announced, “¡Tengo hambre muchachos!” ‘I’m hungry, boys’. Before I could assemble the rest of the words in Spanish for the phrase ‘I’ve got to find a restaurant and get something to eat.’, the boys were already translating my first statement.

I’m hungry – Wi jeen

At some point I finally got it through to them that I was famished and needed to find a place to eat. As we parted ways they expressed their happiness in meeting me and that I was ‘muy amable’. I waved goodbye and headed across the plaza.

I wasn’t able to catch the Cathedral of San Gervasio in a golden glow, mainly because it is the only cathedral in the Yucatán without the honor of facing west. A cathedral on the plaza was originally built in 1570, but that one was destroyed after ‘ungodly things occurred on its alter’, as one description I read stated. Due to struggles and violence between the Maya and the Spanish the original was leveled and the current ‘chastised’ one was built in 1702 facing north. After nightfall and my dinner, I returned to find it lit up beautifully with a crescent moon hovering between its bell towers. DSC01998

Valladolid was once a Spanish, and later, Mexican city of white incursion, into a region predominately populated by the Maya. During the Caste Wars of the mid 19th century the city fell for a period to the Maya, as they fought bitterly against the white and mestizo population after three centuries of oppression and the privatization of communal lands. Even as the white citizens fled for the safety of Mérida and Izamal in the west, the Maya would not occupy the town they conquered, for it represented the hated Yucatecos. When it was finally recaptured with little resistance it was found abandoned with no sign of Maya occupation. But now it is a city of Mayans and I felt no trace of animosity toward others that colored centuries of the past. I felt the most welcome in Valladolid, as compared to the big city of Mérida. DSC02112

It may have also been due to the length of time I stayed. It was the end of my trip and I had planned also to stay in an ecolodge near the ruins of Ek Balam. I was tired of packing up and resettling after each couple of days so I decided to skip the lodge at Ek Balam and stay in the town for my last four days. With that length of time I got to know better the hotel staff and the town. The bartender, a joven with a fair grasp of English introduced me to X’tabentún, the local liqueur. It is a very sweet liquor distilled from honey and the flowers of the morning glory plant called x’tabentún. It is reminiscent of the ancient honey-fermented Maya drink called balche. Some even suggest more potent parts of the morning glory plant were used in that ancient brew. The kind of ingredients that produce actual visions of the gods. Then there was the parking attendant who described to me the rituals he and his children perform in the milpa to the rain god Chaac. Each child had his own small shrine to the god somewhere in the corn field, or at least that’s what I understood as I strained to understand his explanation in Spanish. DSC02100

After my explorations around the town and its environs, including swimming in several cenotes (sinkholes and underground caverns filled with water), visiting the Convent of San Bernardino de Siena and taking a day trip to the ruins of Cobá, I woke up on the morning of my departure and had breakfast in the courtyard of the restaurant of my hotel. The head waiter Medardo engaged me in a little Spanish lesson. During the conversation I brought up my Mayan language tutorial with the boys in the plaza. He proudly declared he too was Mayan. As I went to leave I gave him a farewell I’d learned from the Mayan boys.

Tu la k’eng.

Medardo put his hand on his heart and gave me a warm smile. I’d like to think I scored a little extra warmth in a language that has continued on since the days of epic ballgames and jaguar kings.

A few references because you know I don’t just know this stuff off the top of my head.

The Ancient Maya by Robert J. Sharer with Loa P. Traxler
Stanford University Press, 2006, 6th Edition

The Caste War of the Yucatán by Nelson A. Reed
Stanford University Press, 2001, Rev. Edition

And Cracking the Maya Code is a great PBS Nova video on the history of deciphering the original written script of the Mayan language. This is condensed from a longer film titled Breaking the Maya Code. A fascinating film which I can highly recommend.

 

A Few Days in the Yucatán: Part I, From a Cancún Nightclub to Mérida.

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It was just a bus ride. A bus ride in my hometown on the California coast is mostly an uneventful thing, except for mountain and ocean views you occasionally get. Although I always enjoy them, I do take them for granted. The bus itself unadorned, the driver mostly somber, if polite. But here on this night in Cancún, the interior of my bus was lit up with a string of holiday lights . Some small strobe light was flashing. A rather oversized stuffed animal raccoon hung from the gear shift. Decals of dancing skeletons and other festive imagery decorated the front of the bus. An action figure raised his hands in victory as he tried to launch off from his glued place on the dashboard. A pounding dance beat emanated from speakers near the driver seat. I kept hearing the phrase “What the fuck!” in between the beats. “La gente está muy loca!” The driver had a partner who stood near the door and bounced ever so slightly to the beat. He jumped out at each stop and announced where we were going to those waiting at the stops. The number was on the bus. It wasn’t really a special route. I think it was the usual Ruta 1 or Ruta 2. The bus routes that take you up and down the zona hotelera, along the length of that built up barrier island. Most people probably had a fair idea where they were going. Still it was a nice touch. Not every bus in Cancún was like this, but it was a nice introduction to a fun evening exploring the night life of the Cancún clubs.

I was on a rendezvous with a young woman I met from Sierra León. We were going to hit one of those crazy Cancún night clubs where the audience becomes part of the show. The beats, the booze, the dancers, the billowing dry ice condensation, and the erupting confetti go on for several hours. A continuously changing stage show spills into the audience and doesn’t end until its over at some wee hour in the morning, or until you’ve had enough and exit out the backdoor.

I’m not one to do the Las Vegas thing much at all. The whole commercial aspect of everything packaged for your enjoyment, in excess, always seemed a bit base. A bit too easy and, dare I say – unintelligent. I enjoy a camping trip with an air mattress for luxury and the sights and sounds of nature the only means of entertainment. But as I get older I’ve become more enchanted with the variety of things humans do to celebrate life. Even if it’s prepackaged and over the top. To be honest, I wasn’t sure how much fun I might have in Cancún. I knew I would enjoy myself. Just the bath water warmth and clarity of the Caribbean waters is enough to make one feel splendid. The five star hotel with the water level swimming pool bar certainly would present a host of diversionesImage But I wanted to explore those parts of Mexico where Mexicans live, work and play. Actually, plenty of Mexicans play in Cancún. My new friendship with the lovely young lady from Monterrey attested to that. Like me she was visiting with her folks. They were here to celebrate their anniversary. They had been here thirty years before for their luna de miel. Back then it was a handful of resorts, a lot of sand and a brackish, crocodile-infested lagoon. The lagoon still has crocodiles, but the resorts stretch over the entire barrier island.

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Suffice it to say I had a grand time that week. But I believe I’m writing this for those that want to know what the rest of my trip through parts of the peninsula was like. So we leave the circus of Cancún and take the cuota across the peninsula to Mérida.

When I arrived in Mérida I was by myself and dealing with a little culture shock. I arrived with only one ten week course of beginning Spanish under my belt. I could ask for things I needed perhaps. That was about it. If the responder said anything more than “Los baños están a la derecha” my facial expression must have read, “no comprendo”. I enjoyed the city, but I was a bit in a daze. And perhaps smarting a little over the rebuffs to my romantic advances with the señorita in Cancún. I stayed at the Hotel Trinidad which is maybe three or four blocks from the Parque Principal. That is the central plaza where the Cathedral of San Ildefonso and the Yucatán’s Palacio de Gobierno are located. The Hotel Trinidad has a companion hotel two or three blocks away called the Trinidad Galería. That was the one I originally booked into online. In every nook and cranny it’s decorated with some wonderfully expressive Mexican folk art. ImageImageIt’s where my rental car slept anyway. They had a little parking space in back. I walked a couple of blocks down to the Trinidad, with it’s own pared down flair. At around 23 dólares it’s a fair deal. The bed was big. The ceiling was high. A noisy air conditioner up high near the ceiling was not tolerable to listen to. The ceiling fan provided enough relief. The room had a distinct smell of mildew. This probably can’t be helped in the hot and muggy city. The beach I had been just the day before was plenty tropical warm, but a nice breeze off the water tempered it a bit. Here in Mérida it was extra steamy and hot. I suppose that mildew is the same stuff that grows on the buildings. ImageIt leaves a wonderful tropical stain that seems to antique buildings before their time. Although plenty of buildings in Mérida are truly antique. The mildew smell was a bit strong in the hotel room, though. After laying under the fan awhile I went out to explore.

The central plaza is surrounded by most of the places I wanted to visit in Mérida. The Palacio de Gobierno is full of murals by the Yucatán artist Fernando Castro Pacheco. These are quite large depictions of Yucatán history. Lots of Mayan iconography with jaguars, maize, warriors and the inevitable clash with the Spanish.

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Mural of Fernando Castro Pacheco in the Palacio de Gobierno in Mérida.

The Museo de Arte Contemporáneo also houses a few Pacheco works and the paintings of Gabriel Ramirez Aznar. Aznar produced some abstract works. The museum didn’t take up too much of my time. When I was there, not a lot of exhibits were open. A few interesting sculptures took up residence in the courtyard. It was a very nice to walk through, though.

I wanted to visit La Casa de Montejo. This was the mansion of the original conquistador family that conquered the Yucatán. Although the first Montejo did not succeed, the son eventually subjugated the Maya. The reliefs and sculptures on the front of the mansion are probably the most intriguing part of the place. A couple of gothic looking Spanish halberdiers hold their halberds while standing on the heads of the defeated natives. The natives seem to be screaming in agony. Other woolly looking figures, various heads and a few animals abound. It’s all delightfully expressive of that conquest era.

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The mid-19th Century explorer John Lloyd Stephens speculated the stone work was carved by Mayan hands, even if the figures depicted a European gothic style. He wrote that at the time of their creation the only Spaniards on the peninsula were warriors and conquistadors. A Spaniard of such artisanal skill would not likely have been found. I myself never found any information otherwise. The mansion itself is the property of the bank Banamex. While I was in Mérida I frequented the ATM machines just inside the façade under the halberdiers. The bank has opened some of the interior for tours. The building has gone through a few changes over the centuries, so there’s not much there of the original Montejo residence. A short walk through fancy sitting rooms and a dining room gave me some sense of the opulence in which they lived.

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Of course I had to visit el Catedral de San Ildefonso. The cathedral was completed in 1598 with many of the stones from the previous Maya pyramid that stood at this site. Mérida was the Mayan city of T’ho before the Spanish came. It’s quite a large cathedral and just about every time I entered some sort of mass or ceremony was taking place. I don’t know much about Catholicism, but it does seem to be an around the clock religion. At least in these parts. Over to the side in the nave plenty of people were paying their respects to el Cristo de las Ampollas. The Christ of the Blisters was a crucifix carved from a tree that had been hit by lightening. It’s one of those odd expressions of religion that I can find a bit disconcerting. I have to guard against displaying my incredulity when visiting a place full of so many devoted worshippers. The crucifix had been in a nearby town and survived the burning of a church fairly intact, save for some damage in the form of blisters and a blackened surface. It was held as a miracle and eventually brought to Mérida. Later it was completely destroyed when the cathedral was ransacked during the Mexican Revolution of the early 20th century. A replica of the crucifix was made and is still housed in the cathedral. Apparently its power to induce reverence was also replicated. There were plenty of devotees praying to the crucifix in its blackened glory. A cloth bib was strung around the waist of the figure for modesty’s sake, a practice I observed often with many a crucifix in this part of Mexico.

Mérida has a rich assortment of sites and activities, but I was only there for a day and a half total. Luckily I was there on the weekend and the festivities in the plaza were plentiful and exuberant. I assume they do this every weekend of the year. The entire plaza is closed to traffic to make way for dancing, drinking, eating and craft vendors. It is the best time to be in the city.

On top of watching and enjoying the festivities I took a stroll down the Paseo de Montejo.Image This is the avenue full of mansions built by those that got rich on the henequen boom of the late 19th century and early 20th century. The production of the “green gold” fiber of the sisal plant made Mérida one of the richest state capitals in all of Mexico at one time. A good portion of the mansions now house corporate offices or government agencies. A few are in a state of abandoned elegance. I didn’t see any that were open for tours at the time. As a matter of fact I found the Paseo to be rather bereft of people for the most part. ImageThey must have been down in the central plaza celebrating with the rest of Mérida. The Museo Regional de Antropologia is in one of these mansions, but it was closed the day I was there. Anyway they were just finishing the brand new Museo del Mundo Maya in another part of town, so I thought I’d try and visit there to get my taste of regional anthropology. Reaching the Monumento a la Patria along the Paseo was a worthy goal. It’s a grand monument to the evolving history of the Yucatán and to Mexico.

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The Museo del Mundo Maya was a visit I had not planned for. It was just being completed when I was there and the city was providing hourly free bus rides from downtown. And there was a cheap entrance fee in honor of its opening. It was a very comfortable air conditioned bus. I waited in a two hour line to get in and fretted over whether I could get a return bus back to the center of town, but it all turned out well in the end. The museum was not completed when I visited, but they had plenty of exhibits ready for viewing. The Mayan artifacts were plentiful and rather astounding to see up close.

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There were some phenomenal examples of artistry carved out of stone, painted on pottery, carved into bone, chipped from obsidian and sculpted from jade populating the museum. ImageThe detailed and elaborate clay figurines were not something I would get a chance to see at the archeological sites. The descriptions of the exhibits were written both in English and Spanish. All in all it was well worth the long line and the wait on the bus.

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Mérida is a big city of close to a million people and I missed a few things. Being a musician I would have enjoyed visiting the Museo de la Canción Yucateca. The Yucatán has a wonderful tradition of what is called trova music. It is a Caribbean music of mostly ballads and love songs accompanied by guitar. Although I am not very familiar with the early trova musicians, I enjoy some of the contemporary nueva trova singers that mostly come from Cuba. The music of this region of Mexico is heavily influenced by the Caribbean. Although there were plenty of Mariachi type musicians, more often than not the bands on the bandstands in the plazas were backed by a lot of Caribbean type percussion instruments, like timbales and congas. The music has a festive island tempo that belies the accordion oompah and the exuberant trumpet of Mexican music I’m familiar with.

I did not need the car I arrived with while I was in Mérida. I did everything I wanted to by foot or public transportation. Bicycles are even available for rent. I could probably have reached Dzibilchaltún, the Mayan ruin just north of Mérida by public transport. I did not have the time. I think it’s best to save a few things for the next visit. Or to wonder about if I never return. In the end I was satisfied with what I did discover in that city. And with a few souvenirs one mostly can’t avoid buying, I headed south out of the big colonial capital. I was venturing on to Mexican villages, old haciendas and the ancient ruins of powerful Mayan city-states.

To be continued…

What the Camera Really Likes

I first saw her in the central plaza of Valladolid, across from the Catedral de San Gervasio. She was sitting with what I assumed was her boyfriend or husband. They were waiting to watch the opening dances of the Noche de Vaquería. The sign behind the bandstand in the street read “En Honor al Santísimo Sacramento”. I guess noches de vaquería occur frequently in the Yucatán. They happen on the weekend with dances, speeches and other festive fair. I just happen to be in town for this one. Evidently Valladolid had recently been named another Pueblo Mágico by Mexico’s Secretaría de Turismo. They were now celebrating this honor. It proves well the advice I would give anyone traveling through the Yucatán, or probably any part of Mexico. If you are going to stay in one of these wonderful colonial towns for a day or two, arrange to be there on the weekend. That is when they block the central plaza off to traffic and throw a fiesta full of traditional dancing, live music and street vendors selling crafts and food. After the traditional dances and speeches you have an opportunity to join the all inclusive dance to the Caribbean influenced music of this part of Mexico.

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Fireworks in front of the Cathedral of San Gervasio, Valladolid, Mexico.

I stood up on the plaza wall leaning against the wrought iron fence and watched a fireworks display in front of the cathedral. More stuff was fizzing, smoking and sparking close to ground level than there were rockets shooting into the air. The couple sat below me. Now I’m not an ogler of women, especially those accompanying a partner. But this one had an attractiveness that was impossible for me to resist. They were both dressed in a very chic, bohemian style. It looked especially fine on her. She wore a leopard skin scarf in her plentiful curly hair. I doubted they were from Valladolid. I heard a bit of their conversation in a foreign language. Most definitely not Spanish. Perhaps Portuguese. Maybe they were Europeans or Brazilians. They were taking in the festivities with the same sense of wonder as I was. After a while I moved on and chalked it up as like the sighting of a rare beautiful bird. There were plenty of other beautiful birds to see that night as I circled the plaza snapping shots of the festivities. As it was, I spied her a few more times that night and enjoyed the few extended glances I took.

The next night as the festivities continued I saw her alone with a bicycle. I am not the bravest photographer when it comes to taking photos of strangers. You want to be careful not to seem like a voyeur. Probably it’s best to get permission from your subject. But then you are not getting them in the innocent light of unguarded activity. On this trip I had taken loads of photos of ancient ruins and crumbling quaint Mexican buildings. Cathedrals and conventos and under ground cenotes with a sole ray of sunlight reflecting off the cavern waters. It’s all magnificent subject material, but I’m really attracted to snapping photos of people. Especially strangers going about their life in an exotic place I’ve never been to before.

Earlier that afternoon I had discovered a means of bolstering my confidence for this activity. In fact it helped me loosen up my shutter finger for all kinds of subjects. It’s called tequila and/or mezcal. With a couple of shots of this confidence bolstering medicine you begin to encounter a treasure trove of scenes worthy of a photograph. I returned to the plaza cantinas a couple more times in the late afternoon and early evening to maintain my confidence level. All at a measured pace of course. Even with the steady cam feature on my digital camera I had to manage holding the camera still enough under the influence. I feel it went fairly well. Even after the tequila tasting episode at Maruja Café under the neon “Viva México” sign.

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I had just finished a plentiful serving of some locally made helado from a street vendor. A highly recommended treat. A different flavor of ice cream than I’ve ever had before. The parque in the center of the plaza had thinned out a bit. There she was walking her bicycle casually over the plaza’s stone tiles. And thus I grabbed a few shots as she searched through her bag.

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Now this might sound like a bit of an unhealthy fixation. Maybe potentially burgeoning stalker behavior. But I feel it’s really all quite innocent. A new exciting challenge for me in the world of travel photography. And of course I’m sure it is not new to many. I suppose this idea was first planted in my head when I was just a little kid. My parents took my two brothers and I to the British Isles when I was 7 years old. This was 1975 and my parents were fairly sophisticated amateur photographers. They had SLR cameras and various lenses of the time. A weighty load around your shoulder or neck in those days. My dad took plenty of photographs of castles, cathedrals and rural country sides. But it seemed for a couple of days in London my dad was on a mission to capture a few good shots of London women. I confess he has a better eye for this kind of composition. But I’m just a beginner. And of course I learned from him that girls with bikes are good subjects.

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London 1975

 

She could only have worn those shoes in 1970s London.

She could have only worn those shoes in 1970s London.

 

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A shot of the photographer of the London photos.

 

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In Mexico I got photographs of women taking photographs,…

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…climbing pyramids….

 Dancing in Valladolid, Mexico.

…and even dancing.

It looks like she’s doing the white man’s overbite.

 

 

This one from those London days tells a funny story. He sure isn’t looking at his smartphone. And well, it’s 1970s London so they are in fact waiting to use a phone in a booth. Ahh…the good old days when you didn’t have electronic devices to divert you from what is really important.

 

And then there’s the classic behind photo. Those can be tricky and seem a bit more voyeuristic if you don’t get it right. It is obvious that the focus of the photographer and anyone else looking at the photo can only be one thing. But when it is done right, it is lovely.

What a beautiful pair of bell bottoms.

White Mountain Series : Part I, Hot Dogs

Lone Pine was our first real stop. Not counting the stop for ice cold water at Brady’s Mini Mart. If you’ve headed north on the 14 up through the Owens Valley you’ve probably stopped at the Mini Mart. It’s well past the town of Mojave where you are by now thinking you should have stopped, as all seems to be utter desolation as far as one can see. Even with its tenacious forms of hardscrabble life and its barren beauty, the Mojave looks to be the kind of place Hades’ officials send their worst offenders. If you have no air conditioning the hot, suffocating heat forces you to pull off at the Mini Mart for something cold. If you had brought water, it now has the consistency of a non-nutritive warm soup. Old man Brady, if that’s who he was, seemed a bit startled to see us, as he came forth from his back office. He was rather non-committal to communicate. On top of the weak assortment of travel and camping sundries, there were plenty of odd things; cheap medieval dagger knock offs, a coin bank in the shape of President Obama’s head that declared “Change”. I endured the potent stench of the bathroom and met my friend out in the blistering heat. Come to find out Old Man Brady had spoken a word or two to my friend, after all. We soon continued on over the alluvial fans and sediment bajadas covered in sagebrush and saltbush.

Now here in Lone Pine we had a quaint little town. Maybe it once did have a general store and one lone pine. But now it was flush with a bit of life. Lone Pine is the staging area for all those trekkers prepping to do the Mount Whitney Trail. There were a few hostels and hotels doing a brisk bit of business. If you are thinking of selling anything here, it’s probably as a vendor of camping and sporting goods. It seems one out of every four of my friends and acquaintances out in the West have done that trail. It is some sort of right of passage if you live out here. I’ll admit hiking to the highest point in the lower 48 does seem enticing. And the locals know what to provide. It did seem every other store sold sporting goods or camping gear.

We headed to the local market to grab ice and any last-stop fresh produce for the wilderness. After my purchases I was forced out of the air-conditioned womb of the market and into the baking glare of arid, valley heat. It must have been 103 F. As I waited for my friend to exit the store I watched this woman in a bent, straw woven hat riding a bicycle with a basket full of groceries. The foodstuffs tempting to spill the whole balancing act. The woman had a smallish dog on a leash, which she practically dragged along behind her on the hot asphalt of the road.

“Come on, Tino! We have to get across the road”, she yelled. Pour Tino worked his little legs desperately to keep up.

I felt bad for the little dog. This seemed a bit unnecessary. Why not just leave him home for your errands. The asphalt really did feel like a griddle. Sometimes life makes you feel like that. Like modern living is dragging you along on a leash. Dragging you on to the next assignment and to consuming the next bit of production. I need quite a few more empty days then I get. I need days I can ponder. And days I can pursue other interests at a leisurely pace. But I try to make do with what I get. And these mountain trips are an escape from the leashes of daily stress. An escape into landscapes that make you forget, for a short while, that leashes ever existed.

We did not succeed in finding any sunscreen lotion at the market, an article forgotten earlier when leaving home, so we stopped in one of the dozen sporting good stores along the main thorough fare. We entered a little shop with an Old West clapboard front. A lot of Lone Pine looks like this. Once we selected our product we talked to the proprietor as we made the purchase. He was an old chap crafting flies, which he sold from a panel just behind him. This guy was no Old Man Brady. He chatted on about the good fishing. The rainbow and brown trout and the lakes they’re best stocked in.

“You boys fishin’ up in the Sierras?” he asked.

“Well, actually we’re just looking for some good trail hikes in the White Mountains,” my friend answered.

“White Mountains? Ah that’s a good 10,000 or so feet. Not really any lakes up that way.”

“Yeah, were just going to do some hiking and see the old trees,” I said.

“It’ll be cool enough for ya up there.”

“Yeah, you have a scorching town here in August,” I replied. “I figure this time of year the only places to visit in southern California are either down by the beach or up at higher altitude.”

After nodding in agreement he asked. “Where you boys from?”

“Santa Barbara,” my friend replied.

“Santa Barbara hunh? I know it. My daughter lives there. I’m going to visit her soon for her birthday. We celebrate for a whole week. Won’t be able to stay in any of those expensive hotels though. I’ll have to find something in Ventura at a more reasonable rate. If it was just me…er just me and Peanut. Peanut’s my little Chihuahua buddy. We could just sleep in the car. But my wife’ll need some comfort. You know the ladies. They need a cushy mattress and such.”

Once the old guy got chatting he wasn’t going to let us get away too easy. The bag of ice I cradled in my arms began to numb my forearms. I never did get the old guy’s name. We’ll just call him Keeper of Peanut, for what’s left of his story.

I had to sympathize with Keeper of Peanut. Most of the women I’ve dated recently are not too keen on camping. As it was, my buddy and I were going to be dirt bags for a week. It’s an affectionate term that those who enjoy camping in the rough call themselves. No showers, only pit toilets, long hikes in beautiful, but inhospitable country and a tent for shelter. A thin roll up air mattress is as cushy as it gets. Where to find a girlfriend who enjoys being a dirt bag one weekend, then wants to get a bit dolled up for the next weekend? They may be out there, but I’ve yet to find them. Of course, I’m sure there are plenty of women who enjoy a bit of dirt bagism. And there are plenty of men who scoff at the idea of sleeping in a lousy tent, or even a decent tent. Keeper of Peanut was not one of them.

“It’s usually just me and Peanut up in the Sierra lakes,” he went on. “My wife waits for my catch down here in the valley, in comfort. And boy, Peanut’s a trooper. He’s got the moxie to stand up to anything. I’ve seen him growl at a bear. You’d think he thought he was a Rottweiler. And a damn brave one at that.”

I can sometimes cringe and fade on people when they start telling little dog stories. But when you’re on the road little dog stories are tolerable. Soon you will be back on the highway. If one of the town folk want to make you feel less like a stranger, it’s welcome. Whatever story they want to tell.

We had to say goodbye to Keeper of Peanut and go back out into the oven hot air and the glaring light of midday Lone Pine. We got back to the truck a couple of blocks down from the grocery store. I loaded up my cooler with the ice. As we opened the cab doors I saw Madame Leashes ride around the block. She was glancing every which way and calling out, “Tino! Tino!” But there was no dog. It had escaped the leash and the forced run on the griddle hot blacktop. We had a good laugh!

“I bet he’s hiding out in the cool dust under a bush somewhere,” my friend said.

This was a favorable omen. Soon we’d be hitting the high road. Rising up out of this hot valley. Rising above the busy valley of our ordinary lives. Escaping our own Madame Leashes.

O’er the Hills and Far Away.

Sketches of Indigenous Hieroglyphs

I’ve drawn a few sinister duck glyphs, maybe a jaguar head or two. Some of the glyphs are a combination of an animal head and the emerging face of a human coming forth from it. I keep going back to the profile of the sinister duck. For some reason I can get my calligraphy pen to follow the curve of the beak fairly close. It’s the eye that is always the tricky part. It has to be large enough to reveal a face that is peering. A look one is not accustomed to seeing in a duck and thus gives it a sinister glare. Of course it is most likely the image of a predatory bird of some sort. What with a wicked beak like that. But I like to think of it as a sinister duck. One of the glyphs has an image of an angry mouse. As if Jerry has had enough of Tom’s predatory shenanigans and is devising a fate beyond the resurrection of the animator’s pen. These are just little exercises in ancient script, copying hieroglyphs from a land I will soon visit. It’s all part of my mental and spiritual preparation for my future journey.

Almost all country has evidence of ancient people. Years ago I walked a dune transact down in the lower eastern corner of California with a small group of biologist who were doing research in the area. On the western side of the dunes I saw all these bits of pottery that were scattered over the sand.

“Oh that’s just bits of archaeology from the Cahuilla people that lived along the shore of the ancient lake that produced these sands,” the biologist said matter of factly. I was astounded. I always thought archaeological evidence like that had to be uncovered with brushes and delicate tools carefully knocking away the dirt from the living history.

“The dunes move about and cover it up. It stays pretty well preserved in the dry sand and eventually is exposed in the constantly moving dunes,” she went on.

Even back in the Midwest where I come from you can see evidence of pre-Columbian peoples and history. The evidence is not always obvious and you have to know what you are looking for. Still places like the Serpent Mound and Mound City in Ohio or Cahokia in Illinois are big and obvious in the open air. For me the Serpent Mound is an especially spiritual place. I was there once on a cold, snowless January day early in the morning and not a soul around to distract my contemplation of what it all meant. It’s at the top of a hill that overlooks the surrounding farmlands. But the place I will be going to soon, has the kind of ancient history writ bold on the landscape. The kind of ruins you only see in a few places on the planet. The so-called wonders of the world. I’ve got stacks of books about the people and the land. And even longer lists of titles I probably won’t get to before I go.

A couple years ago around Christmas I surprised my folks with a couple of nights stay on Santa Catalina Island. They knew I was taking them somewhere but I didn’t let on until we were pulling into the parking structure in Long Beach and all the signs directed potential passengers to the dock for the Catalina Express. They were delighted, but then on the passage across the channel as my dad sipped his complimentary scotch, he asked where we were staying in Avalon.

“It’s a surprise,” I said.

“Oh come on! Half the fun of going to a place is the anticipation of the places you will stay and see,” he exclaimed.

Preparing for a journey to an exotic place is even more so. There’s the reading of the guidebooks of course. I lean toward the Rough Guide and Lonely Planet type books where they bring up tips on hitchhiking. Not that I’m going to do that, but these books are more geared to the adventurous type. I like to include myself with travelers who tolerate a little discomfort along with the serendipitous surprise of discovery. There’s the attempt at learning the language. And there’s not only the lingua franca of the country but the indigenous language that is also spoken. There are the reservations you need to make. The itinerary of what you need to see and what you can skip. There’s the whole question of whether you should limit your excursions to a smaller area and take more time to really experience where you are. Or whether you should extend your road trips to include those must see sites, towns and cities that you may never have a chance to see again. There’s the food, and the issue of drinkable water. There are the diseases to watch out for and the awareness of theft. What do you wear so as not to be an obvious tourist? Do you bring fancy gear like a camera, which might be worth as much as many people in the country you will visit make in a year. The list goes on. Probably the planning will occur up to the last minute. I know the reading will.

The lure of the place and my journey has even captured the imagination of my music muse. I’m now writing a song about the place and I’ve never even been there. I guess it is also a song about preparing to go. Of a longing to visit another place entirely. When I can find away to record these numbers simply without all the rigamarole of recording gear and many layered recording software, I’d like to present them here and thus fully round out what it means to be a song traveler.

I just got back from a domestic journey. It was a wilderness jaunt that I may explore in my next blog entry. I live in the western United States and wilderness is only a few minutes away from where I live. Just to be in such landscapes is a marvel in itself.

So what do you do to prepare for an exotic journey? What does it do creatively for you? What do you read and think about? I’m finding increasingly as I get older that I find more satisfaction in a journey then I do in acquiring things. I’ll take a stack of books on a wondrous place and use my savings to spend a modest length of time in that place, over a giant flat screen TV and home entertainment system, todas las veces.

A Jungle of Interests.

This is one of those pads of paper for people to test calligraphy pens on at an arts supply store. Randomness has a kind of self-expression.

I once read an article about a plant biologist who had an obsession with corn. Not only was he fascinated and knowledgeable about maize from a scientific perspective, but his house was filled with corn motifs of every kind. He had clothing and hats made out of corn husks and corn imagery filled his house like some Mesoamerican shrine to the Aztec corn god Centeotl. It is admirable to be that obsessed about something. You are almost definitely guaranteed to have a career wrapped around that obsession. When an obsession is sustained you are most apt to put in far more time beyond that magic 10,000 hours mark, in order to master that knowledge or skill.

I once read in the magazine American Songwriter a bio on a singer-songwriter who wrote songs while she was studying sculpting in college. One of her instructors told her at some point she would have to focus on one art form if she was going to truly achieve some mastery of that form. She realized songwriting was her real love and dove head first into making music. The magazine was publishing a lengthy article about her, so she had acquired enough mastery to gain recognition. And yet I would have a tough time taking that instructor’s advice. I have a kind of intellectual ADD. I can get enthused about a particular subject and inch my way through 4 or 5 books on that subject. I’m even willing to read some fairly dry stuff to get a deeper understanding. But invariably I tire of the subject and must pick up something else. It’s true that I have a circle of interests, and will often fold back on a subject I was enthused about in the past. But I can’t stay for too long on any one subject. And I can’t just read and read, and then write for too long. I need to go on my little Orpheus trips with my songs and my guitar. I often fight the urge to take up ink wash painting and Chinese calligraphy or learn some endangered indigenous language to keep it alive. I am guilty of dabbling. Of stretching myself far too thin to ever achieve a degree of perfection with anything. To be superficial and amateurish.

Those two words, superficial and amateurish, are both used to define the word dilettante in The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language.  Google’s definition comes up as: A person who claims an area of interest, such as the arts, without real commitment or knowledge. That’s a rather condescending definition of the word. I would claim that most people are dilettantes. We are so bombarded with information and entertainment that distraction becomes a way of life. When a certain subject or topic begins to require more digging and harder work for a deeper understanding, we easily loose interest. There’s a whole host of other interesting diversions at the click of a mouse. So why struggle with the finer details that any skill set or knowledge base requires for a truly deeper understanding. And that deeper understanding requires time that really can’t be measured. Does anybody clock 10,000 hours and then say, “There! Now I have mastered it”? Humans are so used to quantifying and measuring in order to value time spent. The time spent truly mastering something eludes that kind of valuation. It is so easy to dabble instead.

In a talk to science students the astrophysicist Neil de Grasse Tyson talked about his early years in graduate school. He was a champion wrestler, rower and won awards dancing. Jazz, ballet, Latin ballroom; a handful of styles. But his superiors preferred he focus on astrophysics and frowned on too many distractions. Once he got more serious he felt he had to drop a Master program at the University of Texas, and start fresh at Columbia. He felt his professors at the U of T no longer trusted his potential to be a successful astrophysicist. So Tyson understands. He struggled with a carnival of interests, like the rest of us do.

But is it so bad to butter up both sides of the bread. That is, to spread it thin. Have a wide variety of interests. Be an indiscriminate explorer of the phenomenological world. This word dilettante has some other definitions from that same dictionary. The second definition was:

– A lover of the fine arts; a connoisseur…[Italian, lover of the arts, from present participle of dilettare, to delight, from Latin dēlectāre.

Now that’s nice. Who doesn’t like to delight? If I’m a bit too dilettantish for my own good, big deal. I’ll have to make something out of it. I could even say it is, well…a delightful way to live. Probably it is the best thing for a writer. Authors are always giving advice to new writers that they should read anything and everything. Let your nose follow you to what you want to know more about.  But don’t limit it. And don’t limit your expression to anyone medium.

I was talking to the Arts Librarian of our local university library and she was telling me the cataloging of art exhibition catalogs runs into confusion when it comes to the issue of artists like Picasso or Michelangelo. Librarians aren’t certain they should be under paintings, sculpture, architecture or whatever other medium the artist chooses to dabble in. Or whether the artist should be given their own individual cataloging status. These renaissance men dove into different mediums with little concern they might be spreading themselves too thin. And in doing so made a lasting contribution in many expressive forms.

I once went to a talk with Steve Earle. On top of great songwriting and performing, that busy man has published a collection of short stories and a novel. He was telling us he was writing plays now, as his wife and him were living in an apartment in New York City. The talk was rather impromptu; Earle wanted to meet a few students on the campus while he was in town playing a show. There were maybe 10 of us in a little campus theater, probably more staff and faculty then students. We all got to ask him a question or two. I remember him answering to a question on whether he thought he might be juggling too many mediums. It might have even been me that asked it. Earle said he had recently been talking to an artist that inspired him, and the artist had asked Earle if he engaged in any visual forms. And if not, why not? Earle confessed to us he had now started painting.

The list of contemporary artists that delve or have delved into other art forms can go on. There’s Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, Kinky Freidman, Shel Silverstein, Tom Waits, Patti Smith. Too numerous to count them all here. Paul Bowles, the writer known for his novels and short stories, was also a prolific music composer in his early years. You can hear his music as a soundtrack to this short film about his switch from a music career to living and writing in Morocco.

There has to be a way of assembling an artistic story out of a mosaic of different interests or ideas. Bowles explains his attempt to do so in a couple of sentences in his preface to his collection of stories A Hundred Camels in the Courtyard.

“In 1960, I began to experiment with the idea of constructing stories whose subject matter would consist of disparate elements and unrelated characters taken directly from life and filled together as in a mosaic. The problem was to create a story line which would make each arbitrarily chosen episode compatible with the others, to make each one lead to the next with a semblance of naturalness.”

That idea intrigues me. Where to connect the dots of my swirl of interests and compose works of art from it? Sculpt it into a presentation. So excuse me if my blog tends to diverge at times. I’m just trying to create a mosaic out of the wide range of interests I inhabit. Now I think I will start learning Mayan and pick up some ink wash brushes at the art store.

And by the way. Happy 4th of July.

Chop Wood, Compose Your Masterpiece, Carry Water.

When do we get the time to be creative? When is the right time to be creative? Will we get enough time to be creative? These are the questions I ask myself these days. Or I should say the questions I sometimes fret over. Often times I’m busy taking care of the business of living: cleaning around the house, working the landscape, shopping for food, balancing the checkbook, preparing food for the next day, getting some exercise in, and of course working the ubiquitous 40 hours. When do I get the time to work on my artistic endeavors? My endeavors usually need a lot of, oh, how should I say…stewing time. For instance I feel a well written story needs a lot of background research. A lot of reading, note taking, reflecting, assembly in the mind first, as to how it could come together. I’m also an inveterate song writer, and again conception, editing, perfection of performance, re-editing and recording (not to mention the steep learning curve of a good recording software) takes a long time with so many details behind the scenes. A so called “spare” hour here or hour and a half there tends to anchor the projects in perpetual drag and can threaten to kill the enthusiasm. The writing can be managed a little bit better in this way, but music tends to require larger windows of time to make real, tangible progress. And of course one needs time for recreation and the chance to be a simple observer in a host of different experiences. How often do you hear music artists exclaim they need to get off the road or out of the recording studio, so they can live a little and thus have new experiences for writing fresh material?

I once had a film studies friend who hated to do the dishes or other chores, because it got in the way of script writing. He’d do them reluctantly and then quickly, haphazardly. This friend also happened to be my roommate, but as I recall he kept the communal areas fairly tidy of his stuff. But it reminded me of what Charles Bukowski once wrote, “Show me a man who lives alone and has a perpetually clean kitchen, and eight times out of nine I’ll show you a man with detestable spiritual qualities.” We might also assume he believed a writer with a clean house is not a writer at all. I’ve been fairly guilty of sharing in Bukowski and my friend’s aversion to doing the chores. I like to think I’m engaging in wabi sabi, the Japanese word expressing the beauty of incompleteness and decay within any object, which reminds us of the transience of all things. But I’m fairly certain it is just a sign of inattentiveness on my part. And is not just time and the elements aging my living space. Maybe as a result of my sitting practice or in just getting older, I’ve been decreasing the laziness that Bukowski’s sentiment can turn into. Even if I agree with Bukowski, that still doesn’t solve the problem that some mundanity will have to blot out a good portion of “spiritual” or creative time.

The poet Witter Bynner once wrote a book about his time spent with the writer D.H. Lawrence, when he accompanied Lawrence and his wife down to Mexico. Lawrence was writing The Plumed Serpent at the time, but Bynner said he never really saw him writing, sitting hard at the desk. He was always up about doing things. Still when Bynner saw him doing mundane things like washing the dishes or engaging in other activities, he did them very attentively and carefully. We can assume Lawrence would be attentive to absorbing Mexico. It was his first time in the country he was writing a book about. And that attentiveness would carry over to all the things he did in that time. Bynner’s book was called Journey with Genius. Perhaps this is how Lawrence was all the time. Perhaps this was a trait of his genius, or was symbiotic to it.

It’s all that time away from the canvas, the pen and paper, the musical instrument, where grace needs to be recognized. Just for the sake of recognition. Not because you want to perfect whacking the weeds, or using the laundromat. Take one of my weekend days, Sunday, for instance. Take this last Sunday. The day I started writing this little essay. I had first to wash my clothes in the morning. I don’t own a car. So the whole project involves a laundry basket balanced on a kid’s scooter, in order to get 3 blocks down to the laundromat.

I’ll admit there’s a wee bit of magic rolling my basket down the street. Probably the kind of magic they might appreciate more in Haiti or Ghana. Anyway, it presents plenty of opportunities to practice grace. And of course washing cloths in machines gives you plenty of down time while you wait. Bring a book and here I can engage in a little scholarly dabbling. Feed the imagination engine by gathering from other writers.

Besides what are artful endeavors but a series of small, mechanical movements done over and over. Like tiny chores. Repeat motions done endlessly, if we ever want to get truly better at them. We decide we have to do those extra gracefully, as they will be part of a story we are presenting. No matter if it’s a song, a painting or a dance. Each little stroke of the paint brush or pluck of the finger is building to tell the story. But we know doing the laundry is also part of a story. Why should it be done any less gracefully? For it’s our very own story. Of course it helps to have an iPod playing Albeniz’ Sevilla performed by John Williams, while folding cloths.

Now most of us are not in the empty space of no thought, paying attention to every breath, while we dust the furniture. Thoughts will drift in and out as we go about are day doing our duties. If we’re not upset or obsessed about something, then those thoughts can be rather pleasant or at least innocuous. Creative thinking often needs a light touch, at least with the very birth of new ideas. It’s times like these when creative gems can bubble up from the well of subconscious memories in between the stream of thoughts. That is if the chore we are doing is not too demanding. I remember the theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking once wrote that with his neurologically degenerative disease, he has a long time to think about the cosmos while he is preparing for bed. It seems we can’t really, nor should we want to separate the brilliant thoughts from the mundane activities of our lives.

In a collection of vignettes about the life of the Japanese Zen priest Shunryu Suzuki, one of the early progenitors of Zen Buddhism to the West, there is a conversation recalled between an American student and Suzuki himself. The young man asked what a Zen student should do in his spare time. Suzuki looked puzzled at hearing the phrase “spare time”. After repeating it to himself and thinking about it for a few moments he began to laugh heartedly. The idea that there is a certain time in ones daily life that is extra, that is to be paid more or less attention to, that is either more valuable because it is time doing something you really want to do, or less valuable because it is a diversion or a period of less focused effort, was completely foreign to Suzuki. In Zen Buddhism there is no time that is not important and no activity that should be done with less care and attention.

In Robert Heinlein’s science-fiction book The Moon is a Harsh Mistress the master computer that controls the life support systems of the colonists on the moon (Luna), as well as just about everything else, becomes self-aware. The main hero of the book, Mannie, employs the help of Mike the computer, to over throw the colonial government on Luna and gain independence from Earth. Mannie understands that to the newly self aware Mike, learning the skill in telling a good joke is as important as planning out the details of the revolution.

And so I think it is all really just grist for the mill. Trying to separate out creativity from the work-a-day efforts is mistaken. Skillful dishwashing goes hand in hand with skillful calligraphy. Deciding to do one thing quickly and sloppily and another thing with loving attention is perhaps the problem in the first place. Attention to the task itself, no matter what the task, will improve the skill you have with all the tasks, whether they be artful or not. And in this way the time you do get with your creative endeavors burns that much more brightly. I love the Zen story of the monk who searched ardently for enlightenment for many years without success. Then one day at the market he over heard a conversation between a customer and the butcher.

“I am having a special celebration and want only your best cuts”, demanded the customer.

The butcher exclaimed, “What do you mean only my best cuts? All my cuts are the best.”

At that moment the monk was realized.

Laundry Domingo

I believe I have delusions of grandeur for my writing.  I plan something for my blog.  Something simple without too much architecture or planning required.  Shouldn’t have to check out any books to peruse or chapters to examine.  Just a brief but reading worthy vignette of some sort.  Fiction, non-fiction – it doesn’t really matter.  Make it a little of both.  But alas the idea sprouts brontosaurus size legs and wants to wander my interior landscape, constantly mawing the bits of green interest that hangs everywhere inside my mind.  Pretty soon it’s a short story, then a novelette.  Then as I expand it out I think I could reach a novella.  There’s not much plot there, so a novel seems totally out of reach for the project.  But still it started as a possible blog entry.  I think maybe the idea covered too much ground.  Too many days and the entirety of a whole relationship.  You’re probably thinking to yourself, well hell, you could make the entirety of a whole relationship into a novel.  What were you thinking?  Well for tonight big projects will have to be laid aside and worked on later, when I feel like carving at a bit of glacier.  Right now I’m going to write a vignette about Sunday afternoon at the laundry.

It’s early autumn here.  That is if you consider late September autumn.  I do.  There are signs and smells in the air that tell you the oval orbit continues.  They’re subtle but they’re their.  And the breezes are cooler.  That’s good because one whole side of this laundromat is all windows facing south.  I tend to enjoy sitting close to the door up against the windows while my cloths spin.  In the middle of summer you have to move away from there.  The solar rays are too hot.  But in September they’re a light glow on the skin.  And I sit with my guitar, just a little concert size thing.  I will be polite and not call it my banger guitar, but it is something I’m willing to toss around at the laundromat.  I can sometimes catch those gentle sunrays off the pick guard and throw light phantoms up onto the wall as I play.  I’m just playing a solemn Josh Ritter song I learned lately.  A bit of melancholy, somebody dies, something about ‘God being a drunkard for pain’, while watching over this world.  Anyway with all the dryers turning and a few washing machines that rattle with the unevenness of their loads during the spin cycle, most people can’t hear me inside the laundromat.  I can barely hear myself.  But for me my songs become a bit internalized and I don’t need much projection to get me in to that magic space where I’m listening.  But also I find when I play my guitar in the laundromat I can look about.  I can do a bit more staring at people.  I am an innocent bystander who is obviously busy playing his guitar.  Nothing to fear from the guitar player.  Even if he is taking a once over on the pretty Latina that’s decided to wear her miniskirt on laundry day.  How does the line go?  ‘Don’t shoot me, I’m just the piano player.’

Even while I navigate through a song I’m enjoying the sites.  But I do wonder where else was she planning on going today.  Actually the girl isn’t wearing quite a miniskirt.  It’s really a dress.  But it ends up the thighs a bit.  It’s a rather fancy dress with a deep lavender color overlaid with some black lace.  She has pretty shoes but no stockings.  Strong legs with some muscle, but still feminine lovely.  And she’s even made up a bit, some mascara, a touch of lipstick.  Large lovely brown cheeks and that beautiful raven Latina hair.  Definitely some curl to it.  Her boyfriend is here.  They’re not just doing some spare cloths.  They look to be washing a household worth, though they are pretty young.  Maybe a couple’s household worth of cloths.  He’s even dressed up a bit.  The kind of dress up for a young urban youth.  He’s wearing jeans of course, but they’re obviously stylish.  They’ve got some big letters in fancy font emblazoned on the rear pocket.  He wears a t-shirt with a peculiar pattern on the front.  Like something somebody might have tattooed on their backside or if they were a particularly talented tagger, they could drop that on a wall with some spray paint cans.  He has a gold chain or two around his neck and a thin beard trimmed especially fine around his jaw.  In between verses of the song that I sing I watch the girl bend down lady like to pull cloths out of a low level dryer.  Occasionally I can see the dress rise up a bit with her movements, but she is adept at keeping things as modest as she can, even if the dress is a little passed the border of modest.  But I’m not complaining.  I’m just the guitar player.  Actually I’m glad she decided to dress up for laundry day.  Probably she dressed up for church and did not change out to do laundry in the afternoon.  It doesn’t really matter though to my eyes.  I’m increasingly spotting and enjoying the well dressed woman.  And the magic of this Latina girl is full enough to erase any worries or preoccupations with the minutia of my life.  These days I’m much less preoccupied with thoughts then I use to be.  I can even get absorbed into an olive tree if that’s all that is in front of me.  But a pretty young woman is all the better.  I don’t think a well dressed pretty woman knows how tension releasing and pleasing she can be just there in front of a guy.  I ride the bus and some days have to put down the book I’m reading and watch the beautiful people get on board.  If I’m especially well positioned I can practically stare, or better put, closely observe the beauty of a woman sitting up near the front of the bus, while not displaying any rudeness at watching.

A character in the song I’m singing is named Romero.  That’s a nice Spanish name.  Maybe that’s the boyfriend’s name.  The name makes me think back to that one young Mexican guy I use to see every few weeks get on a bus line I use to take.  He was a young man and dressed in that Mexican cowboy style, like a vaquero all duded up in his finest to walk the plaza on a Saturday night.  He wore a wide brimmed felt black hat and brightly patterned cowboy boots.  A big shiny buckle all polished up and a western style shirt.  Mostly you only see older Mexican men wearing such cloths, and not so sharp.  The cowboy hats are usually white as are the shirts, which sometimes struggle to keep the frijoles stuffed belly completely buttoned up.  The older Latino, the one with a wife and family has had his share of carne asada and tortillas enough to power a Mexican festival.  But this young man was slender and rather beautiful.  His skin was immaculate in its dark caramel colored sheen.  I’m as heterosexual as they come, but I can spot a beautiful man.  At least one as striking as this young man.  If I was a Latina, or any woman for that matter, I’d be awfully curious about him.  Where was he headed dressed up like that?  I like to think his name is Romero.  And I’m sure he wasn’t going to meet the fate of the melancholy character in the song I’m singing.  He was too finely prepped to charm the world, or some young muchacha at his final destination.

It’s these sights that make living in a border state so enjoyable.  And I’m not talking a border state like Minnesota, Washington or New York.  It’s a border state where your visit to the laundromat or your ride on the bus is a swirl of a different culture.  Beyond all the arguments about immigration, it’s a feast for the eyes to see a different culture living along side you.  I have a friend at work that goes to a lot of conferences in different states.  When he meets other colleagues and they find out he’s from California they sometimes inquire, “How are you dealing with the Mexican problem?”

“The Mexican problem?  I don’t really have a problem.  If you have a problem with Mexican maybe you should try a little Beano before you eat a meal.  It might help with the gas or whatever problem your having with Mexican food.  Anyway we get some truly authentic Mexican food, so it’s made especially well.  Very digestible.”

Of course foods not what they’re referring to.  But I’m not sure what they imagine it’s like living in Southern California or Arizona.  As if someone speaking Spanish in the bus seat in front of you or opening a restaurant that only has the menu in Spanish, is a problem.  The food certainly is not a problem.  It’s a celebration.

As I fold up my laundry and roll my laundry basket back toward my house I pass the taqueria directly in front of the laundromat.  I decide to close out the day with a meal from that taqueria.  There are plenty of good Mexican places along Milpas Street, but Taqueria El Buen Gusto, is only a hop, skip and a jump from my house.  Carne el pastor is a good meal to close out the weekend.  I’d have a tough time joining one of those religions that outlaws pork.  And Mexicans know how to spice it up just right, in all its fatty tenderness.  That and some frijoles with bowls and bowls of fresh salsa and pico de gayo.  Steamy corn tortillas to use as an edible spoon.

I missed the Mexican Independence Day celebrations on Friday.  Most Anglos and other ethnicities pay little attention to that day around here.  Still I walked by the Sunken Gardens on Friday on the way to a previous engagement and saw the celebration there.  A female singer belted out a song about Mexico.  Even as I went off on my other concerns this weekend, Mexico wants to remind me how close and how beautiful she is, on this laundromat Sunday.

California Spirits Up Toward the Sierras

The hills along Highway 46 are a straw brown in late September, speckled with the tough green of the live oak.  These days the vineyards have expanded eastward from Paso Robles, claiming more wine out of what was once cattle ranch country.  It’s the kind of beauty easterners don’t always understand.  They marvel at the grapevines, but look puzzled at the seemingly dead grass of the rolling hills.  The height of summer back beyond the coast in central California can have the same effect on plant life as the winters back east.  Early morning and evenings are pleasant, but midday is the time to retreat to deep shade or air conditioning.  Native grasses go dormant and turn brown, without the luxury of snow to entomb the pallor of seasonal death.

My friend Dow and I have been on this highway before.  Central coast people take it to reach the Central Valley and Highway 5, which pretty much commands the breadth of California, via the valley, up past Redding and into Oregon.  I’ve taken a few road trips with Dow.  He is a good friend, kind of an older brother to me.  But without the admonishing advice that usually accompanies big brothers.  Dow had lost his father recently and part of his inheritance was a cabin on Lake Huntington in the Sierra Nevadas.  Although others had been partners in the cabin it was up to Dow to close it for the winter season.  He asked me if I wanted to go, do a little hiking, swim in the lake and just be in amongst the Lodgepole and Jeffrey Pine, and the granite domes that peel off layers of stone like great expanding onions in that invisible space called geologic time.  There are not too many Californians who will pass up a chance to spend a few days in the Sierras.  California road trips tend to blend the traveler’s personal reflections into the greater body of historical spirits the landscape holds, in ways staying at home does not do.  They are great memorials, if that is the experience you need.

Memorials are for those that have passed.  For anyone who knows a little California history the Sierras are full of passed spirits.  The ghosts of indians, of settlers stuck on the passes, gold miners, loggers, loners and anyone who required a dose of bitter season in a rugged landscape.  Even before a road trip reaches the Sierras, ghosts will make themselves known.

Highway 46 has ghosts.  In the Diablo Mountains on the eastern side of the Cholame Valley there were many legends of old massacres passed amongst the mestizos during Mexican rule.  Another phantom has been sighted in more recent times, what locals have called the Ghost Driver of Polonia Pass.  The story was, like some demon speed racer, it terrorized anyone unlucky enough to be on that part of the highway at odd hours of the day or night.  As it was, us simple road pilgrims were going to veer off on Highway 41 going northeast before we ever got to Polonia Pass.  Of course, if you don’t know the infamy of Highway 46, this apparition is one of many attributed to the ghost of James Dean.  He met his tragic end right at the intersection of Highway 41 and 466, what is now called the 46.  The actual sight is somewhere in the farm fields since they re-positioned the intersection.  This place is called Cholame (the last syllable pronounced like lamb), which is a Chumash word meaning “beautiful one”.  The long shadows of the hills just before dusk, gives the area a mysteries beauty that must have attracted the Yokuts to build their burial mounds that used to exist along the 466 before they were plowed under.  We were passing the intersection at dusk, the time when vehicles float by and perceptions of distance become distorted.  We were incidentally following the route the other driver in the accident, Mr. Turnupseed, was taking in his 1950 Ford Tudor.  We were casually passing through at a moderate speed, as both of us, being half way between birth and death, were long past the urge of speeding youth.

Of all my friends Dow is most similar to James Dean.  I’ve heard a few amongst our mutual friends comment that Dow is the more bohemian, free living one amongst us.  They both lost loved ones before their time, had difficulties in their relationships with their fathers and engaged in the arts for their self-expression.  James Dean’s loss came early in life.  His mother died while the family lived in California when he was only nine.  His father sent him alone back to Indiana to live with his aunt and uncle.  It must have been a lonely and frightening trip on the train for a nine year old with his mother’s coffin in the baggage car.  After growing up in Indiana he finally moved back to Santa Monica and lived with his father for a short time.  His father was not to keen on Jimmy’s interests in drama and theater.  He begrudgingly did help pay for his son’s tuition for a drama degree, so the relationship was not completely at odds.

Artists tend to immerse themselves in a few different mediums.  My friend Dow’s art forms lean toward music and the visual, but it’s apparent he too could have become an actor.  He will casually mimic characters accents from movies with a startlingly good impression.  But being a reckless rebel is not a similarity they share.  Even James Dean’s reputation is layered with considerate proportions of myth.  Although he was famously difficult to work with, there were times in his formative New York City years when he was harshly criticized by acting coaches, swallowed his pride and continued learning the craft from these mentors.

That reckless speed racer character may reflect more of something from my youth.  Passing through Cholame on a road trip we had a view of this place, with its phantom moment in time, looking down through the eyes of a more mature age.  When your slowly clocking your way through your forties, the idea of racing down a straight stretch of San Luis Obispo back country road in a silver Porsche Spyder with a racing number on the side, to see how fast she will go, sounds ridiculous.  Even Paul Newman, who they say still hit the track in his eighties, probably didn’t try topping them out on Connecticut highways.  But when I was at the age Dean died, I was racing around in a turbo charged red Dodge pushing the envelope at inappropriate times.  Fairmont, Indiana, where Dean grew up, is not too different from the town I was raised in.  The town is right off highway 69 between Detroit and Indianapolis, two auto meccas of America.  It’s out in these cornfield towns with great stretches of straight flat highway that car culture thrived.  Where I grew up, a little town right outside Detroit, at least one parent worked in the auto industry and it seemed every young boys dream was to own a supped up Mustang or Trans Am.  My fascination with cars and fast driving eventually waned, but not before having a few chances to endanger my own life.

During the time of Dean’s accident a family had reported their Pontiac was run off the road on the 46 before Polonia Pass.  Dean and his passenger, his mechanic Rolf, were passing another car and had miscalculated the distance of an oncoming car.  At the moment of possible impact enough swerving occurred so that at one moment there were 3 cars abreast of each other on the same spot of highway.  One of the daughters in the family claims to have looked out the window of the Pontiac at the same moment and saw both passengers of the topless Porsche in dark sunglasses grinning from ear to ear.  Though this story may have a touch of the apocryphal myth to it, I can remember a similar bit of recklessness in my youth.  I recall an afternoon in Michigan driving down a long flat stretch of road along side the Pebble Creek Golf Course and a fallow cornfield.  With my turbo I was into passing drivers I deemed too slow.  I veered into the opposing lane and saw the oncoming car in the left lane was a distant speck.  I stepped on the gas, began to pass and suddenly I see an oncoming car 50 yards in front of me.  Somehow miraculously the oncoming car swerved enough so that at one moment 3 cars were abreast on the same spot of two-lane highway.  No accident occurred, so I continued on down the road.  Like most sport car owners I enjoyed speeding through dangerous curves.  And the only part I can still remember from Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road” was the bit of driving advise Dean Moriarty gives to Sal Paradise about how a skilled driver calculates the proper speed before hitting a curve, but never touches the brake when going through it.   I suppose what saved my life and many a daredevil driver was the luck to walk away from a few accidents relatively unscathed.  After a couple wrecks where I saw there could have been the potential for fatalities, I became much more cautious.  This is in fact what James Dean’s Uncle Marcus, who raised him in Indiana, said never occurred to Jimmy.  When Dean was racing around on his motorcycle at 15 he never once took a spill.

We veered off the 46 in the settling dusk and moved out of the San Andres Fault Zone.  A rift valley some proponents of the paranormal consider a kind of Bermuda Triangle of California.  That intersection just past Cholame sits right on top of it.  We never did see the Ghost Driver of Polonia Pass.  Perhaps we were a week premature.  On the anniversary of his death, September 30th,  a road rally occurs and the faithful make the trip he took from San Fernando, over the Grapevine, past Bakersfield and then heading west on the 46.  They stop at all the stops he made.  Most of them don’t exist as they once were; a gas station that’s now a flower shop, a barren field where once was Tip’s Diner at Castiac Junction.  Blackwell’s Corner where he made his last stop on the corner of the 46 and the 33 is still there.  It is a different building, but you can still buy an apple, like Dean did.  For these pilgrims it’s a kind of Via Dolorosa of their rebel messiah.  They stop and pay reverence to all the Stations of the Spyder.  We were searching other spirits further east up in the mountains, so had to bid adieu to phantoms of Hollywood dream wrecks.

Except for some confused navigation in Fresno the Central Valley crossing was uneventful.  It was only after we passed Prather, a tiny Sierra foothill town, that the night ghosts of my friend Dow’s memories started to flicker.  He spoke of hitting a cow somewhere past Shaver Lake on the windy roads toward Huntington Lake.  The car had been immobilized and him and a friend had to walk in the dark of night along the mountain road.  Without the moonlight or any city’s light pollution, the planetarium of stars swathing the highland skies is vivid and full, but the immediate space in front of you is pitch as a coalmine.  If you leave it alone it is just fine, but if you fill it full of your imagination it can ripen with the potential of fear.   Beside the wild animals that roam the night, the ghosts of white man’s past are not so thick back in the Sierras.  Occasional cabin fever blossoming into murder or a hunting expedition accident resulting in supposed involuntary manslaughter, these are terrible things, but nothing engaging the supernatural.  It is before the white man’s time, somewhere between the Foothill Pine and the subalpine, Mountain Hemlock that the shaman of the indigenous people exercised their power.  This is when the supernatural ruled the landscape and the shaman allied with the spirit world.  To be sure, the shaman was mostly an agent for healing.  But from time to time malevolent souls would acquire the supernatural experiences to assume shamanistic power.  Even well meaning shamans could find themselves in danger when cures did not take.  When family members died shamans were sometimes blamed.  Another shaman would be employed to exact revenge and the forest would be thick with intrigue and even horror.  These are stories that would rival a Stephen King novel.  I read one book on shamanism amongst the natives of California and one story stayed vivid in my mind of a Sierra shaman who through the employ of a disputing family kidnapped the twin daughters of the opposing family, killed and gutted them, then stuffed their bodies with dry grass to be used as a kind of macabre totem.  Later on during our stay the walking we did at night around the cabin held little fear, but I remember as a kid those scary stories around the campfire often started with stranded motorists walking a deserted road at night.  Like my friend Dow’s experience they would start innocently.  But then the footsteps of the friend walking behind would suddenly disappear.  The evil that would entail was only limited to the story tellers imagination, as well as the listeners suspension of disbelief.  The Sierras are a great place to set such tales.

We arrived at the cabin and after watching Dow clean up the rotted dead rat in front of the refrigerator, I was ready to find a bed pretty quick.  I was quite surprised at how cold it already was in September at 7,500 feet and with no central heating, getting underneath a quilt is really the only way to get warm.  The next morning I had to find a sunny patch that broke through the pines in order to warm up.  Like a lizard I lay for awhile warming my seemingly cold blooded body and viewed the mountain forest all around.  Dow sat on the deck of the cabin and played a John Fahey type finger picked blues on his guitar.  I think it was Sam McGee’s “Knoxville Blues”, a tune I saw him showcase recently at a music festival.  I became absorbed in the music and the scenery.

The Sierras are a marvelous wonder, everything from the grey granite batholiths and domes on the horizon, to the chartreuse-colored lichen that cling to the Lodgepole Pines surrounding the lake.  Out in the wilderness nature presents itself extra large and this Wolf Lichen, as it is called, sprung vibrantly from the bark of the trees.  The chipmunks bounced in the branches and competed with the sound of Dow’s guitar.  They were a chatty bunch, probably some of the loudest racket producing rodents I’ve ever known.  Later when we walked down to the lake Dow stopped at all the little piles of shredded pine cones the chipmunks left and announced another Shinto shrine, as he called them.  We wound down through the bracken fern and climbed a gathering of great granite slabs and boulders on and in the water’s edge.

Mountain lakes are much different then the lakes I’m accustom to in the Midwest.  Back there the lakes are sprawling water wonderlands spreading out across the landscape with so many coves and cattail covered inlets.  Sierra mountain lakes instead are usually narrow, long lakes that fill canyons and steep walled valleys, often with a dam or two at one end.  They are dark blue lakes with a surface that shimmers in the sunlight in contrast to the dark green of the pine that climbs the mountainside.  I could imagine the holiday barge that use to float in the lake in the 1920s to entertain the Huntington Lake Lodge visitors, when the railroad track and later the roads were blasted into the mountain side.  Rowboats pulled it about and it offered a dance floor for the visitors.  We had happily arrived at the lake late in the season, and the skidoos and water skiers that Dow so distained had ceased.  Although we would miss the sound of a dance band fiddle off the lake surface, we didn’t have to listen to roaring motor boats.  Besides I had brought my Native American flute and was hoping to create a call and response to my flute’s echoes off the lake surface myself.  Dow proceeded to splash about in the frigid waters, he has a streak of polar bear DNA in his genes.  I, on the other hand could only wade about a bit, then return to the rocks on the shore, absorb the solar energy and find this kokopelli muse of mine.

I had purchased the flute just the past April at our towns Earth Day festival, but had yet to delve into its tonal qualities.  Or even my ability to play such an instrument.  The great thing about a Native American flute is its modal quality that lends itself to the improvisational nature of musical sound.  There is no strict form of notation or rhythm to follow and the playing of it requires a deep listening, of not only the sounds you are making, but also the sounds of the environment around the player.  It is an instrument made out of the natural world itself.  Mine had been made of mahogany, but the Native Californians fashioned the instrument out of the world around them.  The Chumash of the coast where I live made flutes out of elderberry wood.  Other tribes used tule reeds and the bones of animals like pelicans and deer.  The music played was not just a source of entertainment.  It came from a deeper part of the consciousness and were songs to protect the player or singer from evil spirits, darkness and times of turmoil.  For shamans they were sources of power and music was used to bring together rival tribes into ceremonial events.  Almost everyone learned there own individual song and played or sang it in times of need, as well as in times of good spirit.  I soon discovered a song or two I could harmonize off the lake myself.

Perhaps what I was playing was a mourning song.  I couldn’t help but wonder what memories my friend Dow was reflecting on, here at the lake.  At the funeral memorial for his father, only a few weeks before, Dow’s friend Jon gave a lighthearted eulogy about Dow’s father teaching him to water ski at this very lake.  Dow’s father had required a commitment from Jon that if he was going to do this thing, learn how to water ski, he was going to have to stick with it until he was up on the skis flying about the lake.  There was going to be no backing down.  Although I did not know Dow’s father, I get the sense a facet of his character was this determined, unflinching striver.  Jon seems to have succeeded, even if he had to endure a host of purple water ski bruises on his inner thighs.  I’m sure the lake was filled with many memories of his father.  As it was the Monache, the tribe that lived in this area of the Sierras, often held a mourning ceremony at this time of year.  The widows of the deceased singed their hair short and walked around disheveled until this ceremony could release them from this state.  It was usually held in autumn, as the harvesting of the land provided plenty of food for the gatherers.  I would have been one of the singers and accompanying weepers, often hired from surrounding tribes who performed in this way.  Even though it was a mourning ceremony, the gathering included the distribution of gifts, shaman’s contests to demonstrate their power and the burning of effigies of the deceased to release the mourners from their grief.  At some point Dow left for the cabin as I began to get a true handle on the tones of my instrument.  The lake echoed the calls of my flute and I found myself discovering jazzy rifts that veered from a mournful cry.  I would find out later that this lake has had others mourn at its shores.

Later in the day we visited the lakes general store, the only one customer serving establishment that seemed to be around.  It even had a produce section, a table with a few wilted greens and some potatoes.  The shoppers, all of two men with beards, looked to be ready for hunting season.  Or maybe they were permanent residents, uncomfortable with the seemingly placid life of Californians closer to sea level.  We did see a few cabins that had been weatherized for year around stay.  On our way out of the store there was a sign nailed to a tree announcing the showing of a film about a plane crash in the lake.  I don’t recall where the film was being shown; it’s not like Huntington Lake has a cinema, or even a place that can handle more then 20 people in one space.  Maybe it would be shown outside up against a large granite boulder for a screen.  Dow had mentioned something about a plane crash in the lake.  It was supposedly a World War II era bomber of some sort.  As we drove around the lake Dow joked it was probably a story blown out of proportion.  Later you might find out it wasn’t a bomber but a smaller military plane or maybe just a Cessna.  I did find out later it truly was a B-24 bomber and six men had died.  She was called the “Exterminator” and was out searching for a previously lost plane and crew.  The Sierras are littered with plane crash sites, with many occurring during World War II.  Many a flight training crew flew a triangular area over Arizona, Nevada and the Sierras of California.  It was on December 6, 1943 that the plane went down on the lake.  Two men were able to parachute to safety but the other six crew members, including Captain William H. Darden, went down in the lake.  It was only in 1955 when the lake was partially drained for dam maintenance that the plane was discovered.  All of the bodies had been perfectly preserved in the frigid waters.  Cold waters I can attest to.  Dow had told me one year his friend Jon had proclaimed he would swim across the lake.  As Dow rowed a boat alongside Jon’s trans lake crossing, he peered down in the murky depths with apprehension.  If I had attempted such a feat, the knowledge that I may be swimming above a watery gravesite would have made for me, a much more terrifying swim.  Though parts of the plane have been recovered much of it is still down there.  There is even a man still convinced he can raise it, ala Clive Cussler, and restore what’s left for a Fresno air museum.  Others believe it should stay where it is, the lake itself a memorial to lost soldiers.  To this day the last survivor still alive that was able to bailout, George Barulic, periodically comes to the lake to pray.

That evening in the cabin I perused an illustrated book about the different geared locomotives that hauled equipment and materials up to the area during the dam construction era.  These were odd looking locomotives I’d never seen before, huge mechanical insect-like things with names like Shays and Climaxes.  With their heavy loads and the steepness of the grade they sometimes were dragged to a speed of 5 or 6 miles an hour.  The hundreds of curves in the rail line limited car size to only 36 feet long.  The San Joaquin and Eastern Railroad Company started building the 56 miles of rail line up to this part of the mountains beginning in 1912.  The railroad company was a subsidiary of the Pacific Light and Power Company, which later would become Southern California Edison.  And the principal owner of stock for the power company was a man named Henry E. Huntington.  As is usually the case the richest men have their names tagged to the structures and altered landscapes they fund, and thus goes with the lake.  The dam at this lake was only one in a series of dams in this part of the Sierras.  All intended to provide electricity for the expanding metropolis of Los Angeles.  Like the harvesting of water from the Owens Valley, L.A.’s tentacles reached far and wide in search of resources to provide its growth.  Surprisingly enough when the electricity was first being generated from this area 78% of it powered the 355 miles of LA Railway, owned of course by Mr. Huntington, and 868 miles of inter urban electric lines.  At one time L.A. had one of the highest used mass transit systems in the nation.  When the rail line was first being built in the mountains the working conditions wouldn’t have been unlike that of a John Henry tale.  Two men teams worked the jack drills to place the dynamite and blast out more rock.  One man held the drill and the other swung the sledgehammer.  When the rail line finally reached Big Creek, the area where the lake is now, the dynamiting continued for the dam’s construction.  Along with the sound of train whistles, explosions echoed through the valley at all hours of the day and night.  By this time holiday goers were already arriving by “bleacher” train car to the newly built Huntington Lake Lodge and along with them the forests were filled with “Sivil Injuneers” and construction stiffs carrying their bindles to sleep on.

The shores around the lake are less populated these days, and were even more so during the late season we were there.  Dow and I took a walk down to the lake after it was dark and the moonless sky displayed the heavenly firmament that is always present when the cities are so far away.  Standing out on the floating docks I swore I saw flickering light on the opposite shore.  It could have been someone night fishing, though Dow told me it is illegal to fish after dark on this lake.  Rational explanation would dictate it was some person, though as far as I knew that part of the shore was uninhabited of any cabins or living areas.  The darkness of the Sierra forests at night can play tricks on the mind.  It wouldn’t be a stretch to imagine the phantom of a long past shaman in search of his tutelary spirit.  To the Monache, the owl was the true mythological shaman and the totemic sponsor of all shamans.  Although most people of the tribe had one or two supernatural experiences in their lives, it was the “acquiring” of many of these experiences that separated a shaman from the rest.  They stressed their body and minds through fasts, the use of emetics and hallucinogenic plant sources.  Most people found these methods too troublesome and let others become shamans.

Shamans were not the only ones with totemic spirits.  All the people of the tribe belonged to a moiety.  The bird moieties were more common.  One might belong to the eagle, roadrunner or dove lineage.  There were intertribal assemblies for ceremonies honoring the different moieties, in which a captive eagle or vulture would be danced over.  I like to think I would have been a member of the eagle lineage, but it is more likely my totem spirit is the bear.  Dow’s lineage may very well be the same.  I have come upon a bear while in the wild more often then any other large wild animal I’ve experienced in the wilderness, with the exception of deer.  It was only a few years before Dow and I took a trip into the northern Sierras.  We had just finished a swim in another mountain lake and were driving down into Oroville when we struck a bear.  Although we were not going fast and the bear bounced a bit off the bumper and fled into the forest, I do worry we injured it at the wrong time.  It would need to recuperate during the critical season moving into autumn, when it needs to feed heartily for the winter season’s hibernation.  Perhaps this occurred because we did not perform the bear dance before we had left.  According to the Monache the people of the bear lineage must perform the dance before the bears holed up for the winter.  It was to be held in September or October and if missed the people of the bear totem might get sick and die.  They were not allowed to eat of the new acorn crop until this ritual was performed.  I would be happy to learn the bear dance if someone could show me a few authentic steps.

One ritual that I’m glad I did not need to experience was the jimsonweed ceremony, that all adolescent boys and girls of the tribe were required to endure.  It was a 6 day ordeal involving the consumption of the Datura plant with all its hallucinogenic properties.  From the recorded experiences that I’ve read, of more latter day imbibers, Datura is a very intense and harsh psychoactive plant – and potentially lethal.  We headed back to the cabin and the only ritual I supposed I performed that night was to tinkle a bit on the keyboards of the piano sitting next to the fireplace.  I can’t help but think on remembering that night, that the flickering light across the lake could have very well been the ghost’s of some lost airmen.  Training flight boys looking for their plane and still anxious to finally get at those Germans and Japanese, for the war effort.

The next day we walked around the lake, sometimes losing the trail, but staying close to the water.   The large granite boulders lay everywhere, like some old abandoned cemetery for giants – the gravestones fallen over and half buried.  In amongst the Lodgepole and Jeffrey pine, the great Pacific Ponderosa pine displayed its mighty dragon skin.  Its bark like the armor of some mythical reptilian beast.  An occasionally we would come upon the old man of the forest, the Incense Cedar.  Of all the trees up here, the cedar belongs most in a fairy tale forest.  With the draping moss and the broken branches, it would be the one to most likely open an eye, move a branch and gobble an orc.  Dow asked me if I knew the name of a common scrub with spiny fruit that grew abundantly.  I couldn’t say for sure, but the word chinquapin kept popping in my head.  These plant names from my botanical enthusiast days still want to sprout up in my mind, when I’m staring at particular plants.  It turns out on checking a plant guide later it was the Bush Chinquapin.  That spiny husk disguising a sweet edible nut the Monache ate.  The Monache made use of most of the plants in this area.  The Manzanita berry yielded a beverage and pinenuts were plentiful.  Of course acorns were a staple, though usually gathered at lower altitudes or acquired through barter with the Yokuts in the Sierra foothills, where the oaks grow.

This area is littered with arrow head points made of obsidian. The obsidian, a type of volcanic glass, was used in so many different ways and can be considered the resource for making the principle sharp edged tool used in all forms of domestic life.  Of course it is a superior hunting tool and tipped many an arrow. The obsidian was gathered by the Northern Paiute of the Owens Valley and from places further east by other tribes.  It was then traded through the Monache into the Central Valley and can be found as far as the coast.  Seashells traveling by trade the other way can be also found in the Great Basin region of the country.  It seems the Monache were a kind of exporter/importer for goods traveling between the coastal and Central Valley tribes and the continents interior tribes.

As we hiked we stopped at a few places along the shoreline.  The granite boulders litter the landscape even into the water’s edge.  We sat amongst the boulders with a few tortured pines growing from cracks in the granite.  They looked like oversized bonsai of the style called fukinagashi – windswept, or ishitsuki – clinging to rock.  There are two pine covered islands in the lake and we could see the one nearest the edge of one of the dams.  Dow said when he was growing up this island had a more mystical aura to it.  From our view it seemed to be sitting on the edge of the world, as the lake seems to end abruptly, not much further past the island, with no seeming land meets water’s edge beyond it.

We eventually reached that dam and found a few people fishing off the edge of it.  The backside is covered with earth and boulders to help protect the concrete from erosion.  A wonderful blue delphinium was blossoming in the backfill.  We toured the end of the lake where the four dams are located.  The largest dam has an impressive intake tower jutting out of the water a few feet from the water’s edge.  Below that tower is the intake tunnel with a diameter of 9 feet.  The tower is probably obsolete anymore as intake is controlled remotely.  Still it had an omniscient and even foreboding presence.  Like it controlled the point at where the lakes very existence is determined.  Before the dams were constructed this area was used by sheep herders in the 1870s.  It had the name Big Creek Flats.  The dam project was the brainstorm of a pioneering civil engineer named John S. Eastwood.  He was not suited for office bureaucracy and spent much of his time in the field.  He combed this part of the Sierras and knew it very well.  The dam project included several dams at various altitudes and drains a 450 square mile watershed.  The water falls 6000 feet through the dam system and at the time of completion was the longest distance between reservoirs and turbines and had the largest generators of its kind.  The project was truly massive at the time.  There are two more lakes, Florence and Edison, at higher altitudes that were also formed by dams built during the same period.  Florence covers a place once called Jack Ass Meadows.  In order to create a tunnel for the water to flow from Florence to Huntington Lake they had to blast out 6 ½ miles of rock and earth below Kaiser Pass.  It was so long a dining car rode down into the tunnel to feed the workers at lunchtime.  The Florence encampment behaved like a small town.  A hog farm was managed to take care of all the organic garbage.  A total of 12,750,000 pounds of ham and bacon was consumed at that encampment.  The work at the Florence dam went on through the winter.  An Alaskan dog team transported goods from Lake Huntington up to the Florence dam project.  As it is, somewhere along the road heading up to Lake Florence is a gravesite for the much loved lead dog, whose name was of course, Babe.  I wonder if the musher’s name was Paul.  Though these mountains are quiet now, the spirits of industry can also be felt lingering along the lakeside and back into the canyons.

The next day was the last day of our mountain sojourn and Dow began in earnest to close the cabin for winter.  We both share an interest in Zen Buddhism, so he tried employing my help in the duties with the exclamation, “We must clean the zendo”.  It is a tradition, in Zen monasteries everywhere, to clean the meditation hall in a more or less ritual way.  I was most happy to comply and as we scrubbed, shut down plumbing, water pipes and shuttered windows and doors, I silently began my farewells to the host of silent spirits, and sometimes loud animals, that had been making my acquaintance here.  The Sierras have a streak of history through my friend’s childhood.  As far as I know this cabin has been in Dow’s family for quite sometime and he has many childhood memories of this place.  Although this part of the Sierras aren’t as famous as Yosemite or the Sequoia region and maybe there aren’t as many ghosts wandering around as there might be at Donner’s Pass or the goldfields, it is a place rich with spirit and beauty.   As for me, I am an immigrant to California and only read about what came before, so that I might glimpse a few shadows of deeper meaning in the places I visit here.  But then again, so were most of the gold seekers, pioneers looking for new land, service men who trained here for war, acting students with ambitions of Hollywood stardom and the dam engineers and concrete pourers of the hydroelectric projects.  Even the ancestors of the Monache must have migrated to this part of the continent at one time or another.  In the end we never know where we might leave a few phantoms of our presence.  The Sierras and her roads up to them, is just as good a place as any.

As we drove down toward the Central Valley my friend Dow winced.  He suddenly remembered he’d forgotten to set the rat traps.  In the eyes of the other cabin owners he might look to be a bit careless.  I think he was just trying to keep the ghost rat population of the Sierra cabins down, or at least postpone it.  Even if that meant an increase in the real rat population.  The rats would get a reprise and Dow’s karma would be minus a few tiny ghosts.