Road Trip – Chapter 18

We visit Selma’s Voting Rights Museum on the Montgomery side of the bridge where in 1965, only five years before I began life in America, the police brutalized voting rights marchers. Coming upon the Klansman as I entered one of the rooms was startling but that was the only drama here. The museum’s thoughtful displays got me thinking more holistically about things I’d previously been distressed by only in isolation.

Our history is that of a white patriarchy built on genocide and slavery. There has been important legislative progress but the beliefs and behavior of our society’s first two centuries are still all too present. We must work skillfully for many more years to eradicate them entirely.  

The Constitution, established in 1789, gave the responsibility for defining who could and could not vote to the States. Most of them enfranchised only the white male property owners who formed about 6% of the population. 

Between 1792 and 1838 free black males lost the vote in several northern states. On the other hand, the abolition of property requirements gave more white males the vote between 1792 and 1856. 

In 1868, following the Civil War, citizenship was granted to everyone born or naturalized here, which is the basis for future expansions of voting rights, and in 1870 non-white men including freed male slaves were granted the vote. 

African Americans were, however, systematically disenfranchised by southern States and those actions were generally supported by the Supreme Court. Furthermore, while slaves were freed with, as Dr, King pointed out, no bootstraps by which to pull themselves out of poverty, white immigrants from Europe were given farmland for homesteads.

It was not just African Americans. In 1882 Chinese immigrants, many of whom were brought here to build the railroads, were denied citizenship. That was not repealed until 1943 by which time Japanese Americans had been incarcerated for a year. They were not released until 1946. 

Native Americans were granted citizenship and therefore the technical right to vote in 1887 but only if they dissociated from their tribe. That requirement was not lifted until 1924. I’ve written before about the systematic extermination of Native Americans. 

It was not until 1920 that women got the vote and they faced the same great practical obstacles to doing so as poor and non-white men. 

It was only in 1965 that the Voting Rights Act gave every citizen the right to vote regardless of race, economic status, education, sex or any other characteristic. 

But although “all men are created equal” is no longer just a nice phrase and its implications have been spelled out in the law, our behavior still must change. Here are some thought provoking recent remarks by Reverend Barber on white supremacy.

Our next stop is the Old Depot Museum where there’s an extraordinary range of exhibits including a dentist’s chair like the one where I developed my terror of dentistry. There’s also a replica of a seven inch rifled cannon. I had no idea there were such huge ones. 

A set of 1872 rules for teachers lists their janitorial duties first. Then comes that male teachers may take one evening a week for courting purposes or two if they attend church regularly. Women teachers who marry or engage in unseemly conduct will be dismissed. After ten hours in the classroom teachers are free to spend the rest of their day reading the Bible.

As I enter a room in back of the second floor there’s a huge bible on a lectern and I remember the day I graduated from Richard Hale’s Free Grammar School for the Deserving Sons of Impecunious Gentlefolk Founded in 1608. I turn the pages to Ecclesiastes Chapter 12.

All 600 of us were marched to the church on that day every year for our final lessons, one of which, Ecclesiastes, was read by a senior boy. who, that year, was me. “Vanity of vanities, saith the preacher, all is vanity” seemed an odd final message. Presumably, the point was in verse 12, “of making many books there is no end; and much study is a weariness of the flesh“.

The highly animated lady who runs the museum says it’s impossible for anyone not to find something interesting here. 

She tells us about her pet raccoon that she found behind the museum when it was tiny. She often brings it with her and it never chews the exhibits. It has great dignity and will not be chastised. It used to sleep at her feet. Now it curls up against her head, wraps itself in her hair and purrs. 

We camp beside a lake at Prairie Creek State Park on the way to Montgomery. Felicity lights a campfire. We watch three great egrets perch silently on the opposite bank where they will spend the night. 

Next day – A big flock of ducks flies in. They begin diving for fish and are soon joined by one of the egrets which dives, grabs a fish in its long beak without landing in the water and flies up to look for another one. Now cormorants come barreling along inches above the water. 

I’m so lucky to have a good sense of humor. My fingers were cold at breakfast time when I was cutting open my capsules to put the powder down my tube but they worked well enough. I thought: “well, I may be dying but at least I’m not getting old”.

We drive to Montgomery and visit the First White House of the Confederacy where Jefferson Davis lived for a couple of months in early 1861 after being elected President of the Provisional Confederate Congress. The Confederate government moved to Richmond, Virginia that May. 

We watch a fascinating DVD that gives what I’ve been hoping for, the origins of the Civil War from the southern point of view. 

The historians on the DVD tell us eleven states seceded individually from the Union in 1860 and 1861 in protest against tariffs raised by the Federal government from 15% to 32% which not only hurt the southern states but favored the north. They then formed a Confederacy to protect themselves against potential northern aggression.

I do some research over the next couple of days. Tax was indeed a factor but the tariffs reflect a deep economic conflict at the root of which was slavery. The Northerners, notably the Quakers, objected to slavery on moral grounds but the greater issue was political power.

Secession seemed possible because Southerners read the Declaration of Independence statement “it is the Right of the People to alter or abolish it, and to institute new Government” to mean they could reject the Federal government and form a new one for themselves. 

The rights of the states embodied in the Articles of Federation had been superseded by the Constitution. Many, particularly in the South, believed the original arrangement was better.

There was talk of “disunion” all the way up to when the Civil War began. There was a Nullification Crisis in 1832-33 when South Carolina declared Federal tariffs imposed in 1828 and 1832 were unconstitutional and unenforceable. That Crisis was ended by tweaking the tariffs but the underlying issue was not resolved. 

A national tariff policy had been established after the war of 1812 to promote manufacturing. Tariffs were imposed on imports of manufactured goods to shield domestic producers from European competition.  

Raw materials including cotton were not taxed, however. That meant the South faced overseas competition both for their exports and for purchases by Northern cotton mill owners. They also had to pay more for imported manufactured goods. 

Because iron, coal and water power were mainly in the north and cotton entirely in the south, Southern politicians saw the tariffs as favoritism. 

Tension between north and south increased in the late 1830s because many in the north thought the movements to annex Texas and make war on Mexico were fomented by slave owners wanting to dominate westward expansion.

Government in the South had in fact always been greatly influenced by wealthy slave owners and, as I’ll explain in a minute, Southern politicians whose wealth and power depended on slavery had disproportionate power in Congress.

That is the context in which the Civil War was about slavery. The Constitution did not prohibit slavery. The northern states had made it illegal while the southern states had not.

By the middle of the 19th century New England, the Northeast and the Midwest had a fast growing economy based on family farms, industry, mining, commerce and transportation, the area was rapidly urbanizing and it was attracting many European immigrants.  Seven out of eight immigrants went to the north. 

The South was dominated by plantations worked by slaves, it was chiefly rural and there was little manufacturing. Slave owners controlled politics and the economy. 

The 1803 Louisiana Purchase had gained the US control of New Orleans, gateway to the nation’s river transportation system.  It also made a vast new territory to the west available for expansion (where white immigrants were given land). It would be up to the States formed there to decide who did and did not get the vote.

Northern politicians and their sponsors were determined not to let the slave owners control that new territory. Plantation owners wanted it because cotton mono-culture exhausts the land so they wanted to keep moving west.

The Southern politicians and their sponsors were meanwhile concerned about the much faster population growth in the north, because that determined representation in the Electoral College. Political power was shifting to the north.

Southerners had been concerned about growing Northern power since 1820 when Missouri was almost denied admission as a slave state. Northerners on the other hand resented the extra seats gotten by the south because slaves were counted as 3/5 of a person. 

Slaves were counted as a fraction of a person for tax purposes. They were viewed not as people but as property. The southern states didn’t want them counted as people in addition to taxable property although they did benefit from the additional representation they represented in the Electoral College.  

In 1812, for example, the slave states had 76 out of 143 representatives but they would have had only 59 without the slaves. After the Civil War slaves were counted as whole persons, which further increased the South’s advantage, but they were systematically disenfranchised. 

Southerners objected to the homestead laws that granted free farms in the west because small farmers would likely oppose plantation slavery.  

Jefferson Davis believed the north and the south were so fundamentally different that they must be governed separately. He had no wish to attack the north. Lincoln, however, believed the nation must remain united and because that was paramount, whatever it took to restore unity must be done. The Confederacy must be stamped out. 

So much detail to sort out (there is of course far more than I’ve cited above) and so many opinions. Understanding it is like my consulting projects years ago. It’s fun, but typing and copy editing are so much less easy on a phone. 

Next day – This is different from my usual trip notes and more than long enough so I’ll be brief about today,

We drive to Cumming, Georgia to visit my cousin who I never met before and his family. We have a lovely time and accept their invitation to stay for a day or two.

We decide to head straight for home from here.  We could do it in one long day by car but we’ll take it easy and give ourselves a couple or three days to complete the trip. We get Henry winterized because it’s well below freezing at night now. We’ll spend the night in hotels from here on.

So we did. Now it’s mid-December and our 100+ day, 10,000+ mile journey round part of the world is at an end. Here’s an appropriate anthem: We’re at the end of the line and “it’s alright riding around in the breeze, even though I’m old and gray I still have something to say — I’m happy to be alive.”

Road Trip – Chapter 17

My boss wants me to brief everyone. The hall is packed and it’s past time I started but I can’t find my transparencies — it’s still the era of overhead projectors. I root through my mountain of paper and find them at last in an envelope. The first one is a page of some document with a typeface too small to read. None  of the foils has anything to do with my project. I’m no longer sure what it aims to deliver, anyway, much less its status, so I wake up.

I’ve had variants of that dream before. I don’t know what sets it playing. The emotional state that goes with it stayed with me in attenuated form all morning.  It’s hard to wake fully from some nightmares. 

No surprise. It’s almost impossible to free ourselves from waking nightmares, too, the stories that play in our mind about who we are and how things are, the stories that shape how we respond to life’s events.

We head off on Route 10, round the Gulf side of Lake Pontchartrain, bypassing New Orleans because I can’t eat or drink now so it’s best just to remember our visit years ago, and then we’re in Mississippi where we turn onto coastal Route 90. 

The sand is so white. All along the coast are plantation style mansions. One is where Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederacy, lived. It was almost destroyed by a hurricane but it has been restored. It’s late afternoon so we keep going and camp at Shepard State Park, past Biloxi and almost to Pascagoula.

Next day – It rained last night, our first rain since Washington state. I slept deeply and long, soothed by rain on Henry’s roof and with clear nostrils because Felicity found and cleaned the BIPAP air filter. Thank you!

We head northeast toward Selma, Alabama, mostly on back roads. The first part of Alabama is wet, with some marginal farming amid scrubby woodland. We pass a church sign telling us: “Fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom”

When the ground is a bit higher and dryer there are a few more houses and they are not trailer homes. A church here says: “Come as you are. You can change inside”

As we go on, the land is almost entirely forest, almost none of it managed. POTUS would say it’s badly in need of raking but the trees are so close together it would be almost impossible for even a coyote to get between them. A couple of areas have been logged but not replanted. A church here has a message from the Lord: “I’m coming soon and I’m making a list”.

Past Mobile there is more and more scraggly forest with some sections where pine trees are planted in lines.  After quite a while, though, we pass a gigantic cellulose products plant so there must be a lot more managed forests away from the road where we can’t see them. 

Felicity goes into a Post Office and convenience store at a crossroads to see if they sell camp firewood. The lady at the counter is primly dressed and seems suspicious. She says they don’t. I ask Felicity to go back to see if they have baby aspirin. She is answered by a different primly dressed woman who simply says: “no”.

This feels very different from where we were in Louisiana. 

We drive on and arrive at Roland Cooper State Park on the Alabama River shortly before dark. Selma is only 28 miles away. 

Next day – I waken to the blast of gunfire. Seems odd that hunting would be allowed in these parts on Sunday. I sleep again. 

The result of a shower is very pleasant but showering itself was exhausting. I need all the breath I can get and I breathe less under the spray of water. A few minutes of slightly reduced air flow is utterly debilitating. I have to sit down for a few minutes on the short walk back to the camper. 

It’s great when I’ve recovered, though. They say in Maine that any day above ground is a good day. True enough but we can acknowledge that some days’ circumstances make that easier to recognize. Today is glorious, a deep blue cloudless sky and strong sun on the yellow, gold and dark green leaves. 

We drive into Selma and find everything closed, even the Visitor Center. By everything I mean all the shops on Main Street, too. A few very elegantly dressed black folks are still chatting after church.

We saw some cotton fields yesterday. We’re now in the land identified in the 1820s and 1830s as good for short-staple cotton which had become possible to process profitably after the cotton gin was patented in 1794. 

Like sugar cane plantations established in Louisiana a generation earlier and cotton and tobacco grown east of here starting when the British colonists first arrived, these cotton fields, too, were worked by enslaved Africans. 

Slavery was legal in all thirteen colonies in 1776. Congress prohibited importation of slaves after 1808 but smuggling continued and the domestic slave trade flourished, driven by plantation owners. There were four million slaves in the South before liberation and a third of all Southern families owned slaves.

In Selma tomorrow we will learn more. 

When the campground at a nearby State Park turns out to be closed for the winter Felicity finds us a private one. It’s quite small. I hope there is wifi because cellular bandwidth has been limited or non-existent in most of Alabama so far. “No, we’re country folk. We don’t have nothing like that” the lady says. “If ya turn up the antenna on ya roof y’ll get all kind a stuff” her husband assures us. 

Road Trip – Chapter 16

The Palmetto Island State Park is terrific both in size and beauty. It’s a diverse forest with, next to our campsite, what looks like the most enormous rhododendron tree I’ve ever seen (it’s a magnolia). At the base are palmettos. 

We drive to Abbeville because the Park Ranger recommends a restaurant there. We check out a cultural center dedicated to the Acadians (Cajuns), French speaking catholics who came here after being kicked out of Nova Scotia by the British. 

There are many flyers for tourist attractions. One that strikes my eye is about a wilderness tour on a small boat. Felicity eagerly books us for tomorrow afternoon. 

The wilderness is a couple of hours from here but there’s a creole restaurant ten minutes away that was even more highly recommended and which sells frozen food, too, so I persuade Felicity to check it out. That’s not hard to do 🙂

The store is a colorful old timey place with a very friendly owner. Felicity makes several tantalizing purchases including turtle gumbo. 
We drive back through Abbeville. Many of the fields on the far side are wet. They’ve all been harvested so we can’t tell what they were growing. Then we pass one with Ricetek placards on the fence. Ah, rice. 

Further on, the fields are thickly covered with a green plant that grows as high as corn but has no seed heads. It must be sugar cane. Felicity asks Google and learns that a great amount of it is grown around here. 

I’ve been looking for several days for an oil change place because we’ve gone almost 4,000 miles since the one when the speedometer was installed. Now I see one and they can do it right away. 

When we settle the bill the owner chats with us”

“How long have you been in this area?” 
“A couple of days in Louisiana so far; we like it a lot, never been here before.”
“How long will you stay?”
“Probably only a couple more days because we need to get home.”
“Where did you eat last night?”
“Martin can’t swallow so we eat in the camper but I did have lunch out today.”
“Have you tried boudin?”
“What’s that?”
“Well, if I tell you maybe you won’t try it.”
“Is it sausage?”
“It is, they make it from what’s left after a pig is butchered.”

I look enthusiastic and the owner looks very happy about that. He smiles broadly and tells me the best boudin comes from Richard’s Meat Market. It’s in the opposite direction, where we came from in fact, but only ten minutes away. We go, of course, and Felicity indulges me.

It’s just dark when we reach the campsite. Felicity immediately purees one of the sausages for me.  I won’t regret this no matter what my stomach makes of it. 

This place doesn’t seem to have a name. It’s not far from White Castle, which is the name of my very first meal in the USA. I loved it! I love boudin, too. 

Next day – No ill effects from the boudin and the excellent taste is still with me. I’ll have an early lunch today because our wilderness tour starts at 2:30 and I’ll need all my plumbing to be stable.

My all-liquid diet differs from the usual in several ways. One is I never have “I’m hungry” sensations. I wake up knowing but not feeling it’s time to eat. No problem because I can follow routines whose purpose makes sense. Another difference is I have to be careful not to trigger acid reflux by bending. Liquid contents of the stomach can come up my throat much more easily than our usual viscous mix. It’s all just circumstances to manage as much as anything can be managed.

This campsite is utterly different from the State Park one, a concrete slab with sites side by side facing a road. Our host is very friendly and helpful, though. All our interactions in Louisiana have been. We’ve been feeling very positive about our time here, not quite knowing why. We’re sensitive to geography and usually shun flat lands. Maybe the beautiful live oaks account for the difference. 

But I think the big factor is, the people we’ve met all seemed happy. I wonder why. It can’t just be the boudin. 

We drive down to the general store where we’ll meet our tour guide. We’re very early because we worried we might get lost but it’s a five minute straight shot. Felicity chats with the woman behind the counter. She’s from Vietnam. This is a pretty isolated community but I guess anywhere in America would be strange. 

Then we chat with three guys hanging out in front of the store. Two are fishermen, happy that this is the start of crawfish season. The other is a plumber. 

Felicity has many questions about sugar cane harvesting, crawfish and other local topics. They’re happy to explain. They’re happy period. The younger fisherman says it’s a good living, this is the most productive place in America for crawfish. You can get 10 lbs a day in a trap and you can pull 200 traps a day, so a metric tonne. Farmers also catch crawfish in traps on the irrigated rice fields. The season lasts about five months and it’s just starting now so prices are high. He gets $3.50/lb now. That will drop to $1.50. 

Our friendly and knowledgeable tour guide studied wetland environments at LSU. Felicity tells him we hope to see an alligator. It’s probably too cold for adults but there might be a younger one. 

We see great blue herons, great egrets, bald eagles and anhinga. Then he spots an alligator, two to three feet long, floating almost submerged, motionless. It’s farm raised, he says. You can tell because it has a notch cut in its tail. They’re raised from eggs that wouldn’t have hatched in the wild. 
There are also squirrels, raccoons, deer, bears, armadillos and nutria. The nutria were imported for their fur, a cheaper alternative to mink.

Armadillos can’t swim but they can hold their breath for many minutes. They cross rivers by walking across the bottom. All these creatures have to deal somehow with the flooding and drying of their habitat. 

There are big concrete platforms left from when an oil and gas business went bust and several abandoned gas pipeline junction platforms. There’s also an area of dead trees, poisoned by waste dumped by an oil driller. Much of this area is privately owned but there are stronger environmental protections now. 

This is part of the Atchafalya Swamp, a huge area that’s part of what used to be a far larger one before the Mississippi was channeled by levies. The water here all comes from that great river and it rises and falls ten feet or more seasonally. The current is fast in the main channels and the water is very muddy. 

A century or so ago this whole area was logged. The loggers came in when the water was low, cut the roots around the trees and left them to die so the sap would dry. They came back a year or two later to fell them when they were dry enough to float. 

Before the logging this was a climax forest with a 150 foot high canopy. Most of the trees are bald cypress. They’re adapted to life with roots under water. How they get oxygen is an as yet unsolved mystery. A popular theory was recently disproved. 

The main channels are wide and around seven feet deep right now. We barrel along at high speed, stopping to watch birds and make side trips into bayous where the water is still. It’s a terrific experience. Our guide enjoys it as much as we do. 

I tell him everyone we’ve met in Louisiana has been friendly and seemed happy. I ask if we’ve just been lucky. He says there are nice people everywhere. Felicity asks follow-up questions and he says he doesn’t know if there’s anything unusual about folks here but it is thinly populated so maybe it’s easier to feel good.

Thinking about it later I suspect the people we’ve met have all been living pretty much the same way all their life. They know what to expect from day to day and year to year. Much less stress than urban life now. 

Next day – I wake fighting for breath. My nostrils are blocked. I rip off the BIPAP and slowly recover. Next time I wake, my nostrils are partly clear but I want more air in my lungs so I put the BIPAP on again. I wake fighting for breath again. Next time I wake it’s from a nightmare in which we’d bought a huge house in far worse condition than our current home was and a crew of casual workers were not actually doing any work. When I castigated one they all quit and that’s when I noticed they’d stolen a collection of gold coins.

“Powerful stuff, that boudin” says Felicity but I reckon the heating system filter needs changing. “The one in your BiPap, too” says Felicity. The nightmare comes from T. C. Boyles’ excellent novel about Frank Lloyd Wright’s women and the fires that destroyed his home. 

Today we’ll visit plantations. The first is Oak Alley Plantation where a man from a wealthy French family established a sugar cane operation. His wife’s family had fled from Haiti when the slaves revolted against French rule in 1791. Other members of his family included a governor of Louisiana as well as many other politicians and bankers. 

Plantation owners were active in politics because it was important to maintain favorable conditions, including prices, for their crop. “Twas ever thus” as Mr Natural pointed out.

A docent gives us a good overview of the life of domestic and field slaves. Very hard. A second one tells us some family history in the main house and seems relieved when he completes his spiel with very few questions.

Next we visit Laura Plantation, an entirely different evperience. Our guide here is very enthusiastic and enormously knowledgeable. He grew up just a few miles from here and went to college in New Orleans. He loves the smell of the smoke when they burn the cane trimmings after the harvest. If they’d make a candle with that scent, he says, he’d buy their entire inventory.

The plantations all front the Mississippi so they could ship their sugar to New Orleans and the owners could party there. They are long narrow strips that extend far back. Timber was harvested beyond the cane. On some plantations the harvested cane was hauled to the sugar mill by mules over rail tracks.

Harvesting went from the beginning of September to the end of the year and was pretty much a 24/7 operation. The plants harvested first would regrow to a couple of feet high or more by the first frost. An early frost would be a financial disaster. 

This plantation made especially enormous profits in the three years following the Civil War. How? The slaves were freed. They could go anywhere they wanted for a better life. Why didn’t they leave?  

Slaves were not allowed to learn to read and write. They were barred from any education at all. And they had no money to make moving possible. Their wages were very low and were in the form of scrip to be used at the plantation store where they were caught in a cycle of debt. A few men went to fight for the North. When the war ended they had nowhere to go but back. Many of the slave houses here were occupied until the 1970s.

Our first guide at Oak Alley knew a lot because she’d read widely. Our guide here knows far more and there’s nothing academic about it for him. He’s a wiry young white guy whose forbears must have lived not so differently from the slaves. He’s not outraged, just deeply interested in how this society worked and, I’m sure, how it works today. He keeps his opinions about it to himself.

Road Trip – Chapter 15

We start toward Corpus Christi along Route 90 through vast plains of tumbleweed that has not yet tumbled.

It’s Thanksgiving tomorrow so Felicity has been working hard to book campsites. The ones in State Parks are best for people like us who enjoy nature but it’s not easy to book them. She found a good site for tomorrow that is full today and eventually a private one near it with a space today. The one we were aiming for in Corpus Christi is closed for repairs following a hurricane. She’ll find an alternative when we’re closer. 

The future tumbleweed is soon replaced by brush, some of it 10-12 feet high. There are a very few grass-covered fields. Most of the fencing looks sturdy so I assume there are more cattle than we can see. It’s only occasionally that one or two can be glimpsed among bushes next to the road. 

Entrances to the ranches are far apart, so they really are big. I wonder about their economics. How much income can you generate from a few cows scrounging scraps of brown grass from between densely packed bushes? These don’t look like commercial businesses. 

A couple of hours from Seminole there are a few large irrigated fields. Why here?  Why not in other parts of this huge plain?  Three hours out we start to see oil pumpjacks. 

It’s been overcast all day and I had to use the wipers a few times to clear tiny droplets from the windshield. We didn’t really get moving until after lunch because the supermarket stop was long but it’s only a four hour drive so we’re at tonight’s campsite before dark. 

Next day – Felicity cooks egg, bacon and portobello mushrooms. I could feel sorry for myself because I can’t partake but how silly that would be. Instead, I can enjoy her pleasure and relish the aroma. What a blessing to be alive. And now the sun has come out!

The morning is taken up by breakfast and a shower. It feels good. Then we move to the Choke Canyon State Park campsite where I read more of the Indigenous People’s History, a detailed account of genocide carried out by Federal and State governments and settlers alike. How did they justify it? They said the Indians are savages. But why is it okay to kill savages?  

It was legitimized by the Doctrine of Discovery giving European nations title to any land they “discovered”. That started with a 1455 papal bull authorizing the Portuguese monarchy to seize West Africa. Two years after Columbus “discovered” America, the Spanish monarchy sponsored a 1494 papal bull that divided all non-Christian lands between Portugal and Spain. Other European monarchs relied on the Doctrine of Discovery to build their colonial empires and in 1792 Secretary of State Jefferson claimed it also for the infant USA. 

Those beliefs that our predecessors brought from Europe live on in our sense of entitlement today. That’s why we imagine it’s OK for us to be conducting what we call counter-terror activities in 76 countries, close to 40% of all the world’s nations, directly contributing to the deaths of 500,000 people since 2001.

Our karma is far from unique. It’s just that we have more money than anyone else right now and, therefore, our leaders have more scope for greed, indifference and hatred. I’ll continue to do all I can to motivate the opposite behavior. 

We go for a walk round the campsite. My legs feel quite weak today. Balance is not a problem, I’d just feel better sitting down. After a rest I read more of Ralph Peter’s “Flames of Heaven”. His protagonists are vividly human, more so than most of us but completely convincing. He’s not a very likable man but he sure can write. 

Felicity has a fine feast of cheeses, guacamole that she says is the best she has ever made, tamales and black refried beans. We share some Prosecco. 

Next day – I slept well. My nostrils didn’t get plugged for the first time in several days. The air is not so dry here by the lake. Also, we didn’t need the central heating so it wasn’t blowing dust around.  

We start south and soon pass the Brush Country Cowboy Church. In fact, the brush has almost all been eradicated. We’re driving through grassland. 

There must be quite a bit of oil from the pumpjacks around here. There are some large oil processing plants.  A little further on we’re in a region of very large plowed crop fields. No need for irrigation here. The air is even starting to feel humid. 

Now we’re in the midst of used car lots and  huge stores. It’s Black Friday so the roads are filled with people eager to shop. Back in the small towns with BBQ, taco and suchlike restaurants and bait/ammo/beer stores, towns where every guy must have a bigass pickup truck, I felt like a foreigner. Here I’m utterly out of place, an alien. 

Now we’re over the bridge and onto Padre Island. A little further on we’re away from civilization in the National Park. The almost flat dunes shimmer, long grass blowing in the wind. The campsite next to the beach is already almost full just after midday but we find a good spot, open the windows and let the breeze have its way with us. 

If I can still walk next summer I’d like to visit Utah and Northern New Mexico. 

Next Day – I slept well and long. The humidity is very helpful. My nose feels clear.  We’ll have a day of rest today. Felicity will paint and I will read. We’ll both enjoy the sun, the clean air and the masses of yellow flowers. 

A man starts walking down the road, a dog begins to follow. A woman calls, the dog stops, the man turns and speaks, the woman calls again, and the dog turns toward her. It scratches itself then trots back to her. We aren’t surprised when dogs understand us. 

We also aren’t surprised that we can walk. The woman’s walk is more fluid than the man’s but how amazing it is that either of them can walk at all. We only fail to be astonished because we keep seeing it happening. 

Being unable to speak is inconvenient and I can no longer enjoy the variety and tastiness of foods but I do notice and reflect more now. That’s the purpose of silent spiritual retreats. This is different from a retreat in that everyone else is doing what people normally do but the experience Is  fundamentally similar for me. I’m not so distracted by my own participation in what goes on. 

David commented: You say: “Being unable to speak is inconvenient … but I do notice and reflect more now”. It seems to me that “notice” and “reflect” are quite different, and “participation in what goes on” can be a form of noticing; it doesn’t require contributing verbally or otherwise. Reflecting seems after the fact/experience. Do you find that not being distracted by planning what to say gives you space to more closely/intensely feel/experience/perceive what’s around you and happening in the moment? Do you have more to reflect on later?

I replied:  Yes, I do notice more. As you say, I’m not so preoccupied with thinking about how to interact with others so I have more opportunity for awareness. I’ve mentioned the Zen abbot who inspired me. On a Zen retreat you get a brief one-on-one opportunity to ask the teacher a question. When I sat before him his eyes were very wide open. He seemed hyper alert, his entire focus on what I would say and how I would say it, none of his ego present. His attention was entirely on me. And his answer was utterly convincing. I also have the opportunity to begin reflecting right away on what I noticed, either “outside” or “inside” my head. I was going to say I’m less aware while I’m reflecting but that’s not accurate. I’m more relaxed about reflecting because I have more time to do it and that means I can turn away from it immediately I detect some interesting new input. 

Next day – We bypass Corpus Christi and head east along Route 35 beside the Gulf. The land here is densely covered with live oaks. Then comes swamp land that goes on and on and on until it’s followed by cropland that does the same. There’s a lot of standing water.

It feels as though a few more years of global warming to make the polar ice caps keep melting will result in this whole area becoming seabed. The ocean won’t have to rise far. Increasingly savage storms will do the rest. 

As we get further inland we pass through a mix of cropland and cattle pasture. Both look healthier than the land closer to the Gulf but there’s still quite a lot of standing water. It’s very flat. “Why would anyone choose to live here?” Felicity asks. 

We stop at a supermarket for drinking water, beer, Ensure and other stuff. I brought plenty of formula but we’ve been on the road a long time and now there’s only 17 days worth left so I need to supplement it. 

The drive round the outskirts of Houston is much the same as driving round any city. So many car lots. It doesn’t feel surprising that there are all these restaurants, everyone has to eat, or all the stores, but who buys all these cars? 

We stop at a campsite at Anahuac on the Galveston Bay. There’s a sign warning campers not to let their dogs go swimming because there are alligators but it doesn’t say anything about children. I hope we can see an alligator in the morning. 

Next day – No alligator with intact sensory apparatus will come out this morning. The wind is still powerfully cold. Last night it lifted the hatches and made them howl as the camper shook from side to side. 

There are so many pelicans here along with egrets, white and blue herons, and cormorants. 

The land through which we pass on Routes 65 and 73 is almost all cattle pasture. Every so often we pass a gas processing plant. As we approach Port Arthur there are huge steaming refineries. Then we turn onto Route 82 to continue along the coast into Louisiana. 

The only structure for quite a while is a medical waste facility miles from anywhere and suspiciously close to a river. The land here is a mixture of cattle pastures and swamp, all very flat. Presumably it’s wetter than usual; the cattle on some pastures are squelching through standing water. 

In some places the road is right on the oceanside. In the distance out to sea are oil rigs. Most of the time the road is just a little inland. Now we begin to see houses. Most are on stilts and those that aren’t are on artificial islands. Here’s a church on stilts. Now there’s a school on them. Quite a few of the houses are trailer homes. 

We pass through a small town. The only building beside the road that isn’t on stilts is the library, which is quite small. 

There are many herons, both gray and white. Suddenly, Felicity exclaims! She’s seen a pink flamingo. I stop and back up. It doesn’t look pink to me but I’m red green colorblind. She consults her bird book. It can’t be a pink flamingo after all because they don’t come here. It’s a roseate spoonbill. 

We drive on to the ferry at Cameron. Very cool. Felicity takes pictures of shrimp boats.

Quite a way further on an almost black wild pig on the opposite verge begins to run. I stop as quickly as I can from 50 mph but even so I outrun him. He scampers across the road behind us and disappears in the rushes. 

It’s dark by the time we camp at Palmetto Island State Park, Louisiana after another great day.

Road Trip – Chapter 14

We head south on Route 90 then Route 67 to Presidio on the Mexican border. The land opens out more and more and becomes grass land. This is not grass as we who live where it rains think of grass, though. It’s brown and grows maybe a foot high in wispy patches. 

There are a few cattle so it’s possible For them to live here but no cow would choose to do so. I take that back. Cows in a concentration camp would relish this freedom. 

Presidio was a bustling small town when Felicity was here a decade or so ago. There was a lot of toing and froing with the small town on the other side of the river. It seemed more like one town then than two.

We’re here in part because Felicity wanted to go back to the restaurant where she enjoyed tacos and the company last time. It’s different now. 

She sits at a table behind two Mexican women who get up and go for salad. An Anglo man comes in and sits at their table with his back to Felicity. “Excuse me. Excuse me” she says but he seems not to hear. The women come back. He seems not to notice. They pick up their glasses and move to a different table as he stares at his cellphone. The waitress moves the rest of their stuff to the women’s new table. He orders waffles. 

We drive southeast alongside the Rio Grande through a jumble of mountains heavily eroded by humongous floods. Gravel plains are covered with creosote bushes all the way to Terlingua Ghost Town where a bar on a boardwalk faces a dirt parking lot full of assorted vehicles. On the boardwalk are chairs, a man with a guitar and a bunch of folks ready for a good time. It’s Saturday night. 

Just down the road is BJ’s ramshackle Campground. It seems to be the permanent abode of most others here. 

Beside the road into Terlingua are some magnificent Texas Longhorns.

Next day – We drive into Big Bend Park, a huge, beautiful array of many kinds of mountains. Different colors, different shapes rising from some flat and mostly undulating gravel plains with washes at the low points. There’s not much vegetation apart from creosote bushes. It would be fine hiking country. 

The two campsites near the Visitor Center are full. Signs say the others are, too, but the Ranger says that was last night. There could be space now. We drive 35 miles to Castolon and find a good spot under cottonwood trees. 

We have lunch then sit in the sun.  I want to know who did what to whom in the novel I’m reading but it doesn’t grip me. 

I have a coughing fit. Haven’t had one for a few days. I read more then have a fit starting with an explosion of saliva that lands on the book. I feel annoyed but don’t tell myself a story about it. Feelings are a spontaneous response to stimuli. Emotions come later and are stories about feelings we’ve had before. 

Maybe I’m reacting to the dust out here. I go inside, lie down and do nothing for a while. I have unusually low energy today. 

Felicity goes for a walk round the campsite. An Englishman with a VW camper has installed a flat plate on the roof as a platform for his tent. He has a ladder to get up there and tells Felicity no bear has ever climbed it. English men do some very odd things. 

Next day – Felicity goes for a walk to the Rio Grande while I allow my formula to settle. 

We drive to the Santa Elena Canyon, a spectacular cleft in the mountain through which the Rio Grande flows. The canyon walls are vertical. It doesn’t look as if erosion could have been the cause but I don’t know what geological event would have this result either. 

Then to Chisos Basin, a stiff climb through trees, the only forest we’ve seen anywhere around here, then an equally steep descent into the bowl. Bears and mountain lions live here but we don’t see any. The views are spectacular. Neither of us has enough energy to go for a hike. 

So we exit Big Bend and drive 70 miles north to Marathon where we camp for the night.  We decide we’ll start for Corpus Christi tomorrow. I seem to remember my dad stopped there when they left the farm. I reread the autobiography he wrote after my mom died.

They did stop there and it’s the scene of one of the seemingly infinite disappointments he remembered so vividly. He and his dad went fishing and got a good haul then moved to a different spot leaving their catch in a net at the harbor wall. An alligator garfish came and my dad could not get back to the net before the garfish ate them all. 

It’s interesting to reread the account now. He closes with his feelings about losing my mom. It is the ultimate disappointment. They finally got their little shop in the West Country of England then, within months, she died. He says nothing about mom’s hopes or fears, or any other of her feelings. Did he ever ask about them? It’s unlikely. 

Next day – We drive east on Route 90 through range land where a very few cattle are visible. The ranches must be very large. Suddenly, I remember how my dad used to enjoy singing:

Home, home on the range
Where the deer and the antelope play
Where never is heard
A discouraging word
And the skies are not cloudy all day.

He had a good voice. I tried to sing it several times but it always sounded bad. 

Windmills are dotted about, few of them working. A village we pass through advertises a hunters’ feast to be held early next month. 

The mountains are gone now. The land is flat all the way to the distant horizon in every direction. Gradually the scanty grass is replaced by low growing creosote shrubs. We pass a Border Patrol pickup dragging truck tires to smooth the dirt track alongside the highway. 

Felicity notices on the map that we’ll reach Seminole Canyon State Park around lunch time and there are pictoglyphs. We stop. There’s a 90 minute guided tour at 3. There’s also a campsite with one space left. It would be quite late before we get to the one we were aiming for if we don’t start until after 4:30 so we’ll stay here tonight. 

I haven’t listened to Zen and MM for quite a while. I do that while Felicity goes on the tour but it doesn’t grip me so I start reading “An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States”

I imagined the indigenous people of North America to be hunter gatherers in transient small communities. That’s what we’re meant to think. But the population of what is now the US and Mexico at the end of the 15th century was around 40 million while the entire population of Europe to the Ural Mountains was around 50 million. 

A city-state in the Mississippi Valley in the 12th century was home to tens of thousands. That’s more than London then.  Those communities had correspondingly sophisticated systems of government. 

The irrigation system at Casa Grande, for example, where we visited had over 800 miles of trunk canals, the largest of them 20 miles long. They were up to 85 feet across and 20 feet deep. Many were lined with clay to prevent leaking. One of those canal systems alone carried enough water to irrigate ten thousand acres. 

Native American society was far from primitive. But invaders with superior weapons established a new origin myth. 

Road Trip – Chapter 13

We head south toward the Tucson Desert Museum. It’s odd to see crop-bearing fields on one side of the highway and sand with a very few stubby mesquite shrubs on the other. Many fields are growing cotton. 

It’s a short side trip so we visit Casa Grande, a four story building made around 1,350 by native Americans  I wonder if anyone would have stayed here if they came from elsewhere? I do some research. 

Humans arrived here around 11,000 years ago when the climate was more temperate. Trees and plants began retreating north a couple of thousand years later and it was another 4,500 years before today’s plant and animal life was established.

So the folks who lived here had many thousands of years to adjust how they lived as the climate changed. They began living in communities around 300, established increasingly ambitious irrigation systems, and the population of the Casa Grande compound was around 2,000 by the time the great four story building was constructed.  

The compound was abandoned only a century later, most likely because massive flooding destroyed the irrigation system. Native Americans who live here now also have a legend that the community was destroyed by war. 

The purpose of the Casa Grande is not known but it has openings in the walls placed so the sun is visible through both holes at the equinoxes. Perhaps it was used by spirit leaders not just to keep track of time in that way but also to predict when the rains would come and when crops should be planted. 

Felicity guesses they got it wrong too many times and were killed, then fighting broke out among the desperately hungry people, survivors of whom returned to the way their remote ancestors had lived. 

From there we travel on to the Desert Museum and camp nearby. 

Next day – Felicity tells me I was grinding my teeth so hard last night that the noise woke her up. Now she’s more awake she realizes it was mesquite branches blowing against Henry’s walls. 

In my dream I was listening to Vera Lynn singing We’ll meet again, don’t know where, don’t know when but I know we’ll meet again some sunny day”.

I had a new appreciation for why British soldiers and those they left behind in WW2 loved that song. I did not feel sad. I was happy for everyone who found solace in her song. 

Is my mind hoping for rebirth? I know we have no intrinsic self that could be reborn and I’m happy that every action we take shapes the future of everything, but my mental roommate Mr Ego may not have accepted those truths yet. 

We walk around the desert museum for a couple of hours. I realize now, of course you’d stay if you were born here into the time tested way of life. Also, if you did go exploring you’d find the land all around was pretty much the same. 

The mountain lion is so elegant but its home is so small compared to what a lion is used to. The wolves look bored and the deer seems to have lost the will to live. The javelinas have a much larger territory, though, and they look happy. The desert plants don’t appear to need territory in the way mobile brings do. They come in such diverse forms. How amazing life is!

There are so many places we’re tempted to visit but we do want to be home before Christmas so after lunch we just barrel along the highway to Lordsberg New Mexico. We’re soon away from saguaro cacti and climbing through terrain covered by rounded light brown boulders balanced perilously on others. 

The land flattens, the mountain ranges are further from the road. The cacti are low growing, agave, cholla and others. Then mesquite and what look to be more and more creosote bushes. They smell so fine!

The road goes on and on. We pass a few tracts of pecans. Nothing humans en masse want can grow here without irrigation. How long before that collapses as it did at Casa Grande and what will we do then?  This is why we have science fiction. 

As we get close to today’s destination, road signs warn us about dust storms. If we get in one we must pull over and stop, turn off our lights, stay off the brake pedal, remain buckled, and wait. We’re on a very flat and very large stretch of sand with surprisingly large areas of standing water. The grass growing thinly around the water is brown. 

And now we’re at the KOA. This one is a bare parking lot, very different from last night’s where all the sites were nestled among desert plants and trees. The man who checks us in puts us next to another camper because he knows people like to be close to each other. 

Next day – There are so many places to see in New Mexico but most of them are too cold now and also, we want to be home before Christmas. We’ll head for the Gulf of Mexico and explore the coast. 

We turn off the highway onto a minor road that takes us to the Mexican border through the same sandy, mesquite sprinkled desert. We turn east close to the border and run parallel along it. 

Verizon claims we’re in Mexico and texts us we’ll be charged $5/day extra to use our cellphones now we’re no longer in the US. 

There’s hardly any traffic on this road, just Border Patrol pickups driving along the dirt track beside the road with dust clouds billowing high in the air behind them. Perhaps they don’t want to catch anyone trying to cross the border. 

We pass an encampment surrounded by a high fence. Many, many Border Patrol pickups parked outside the block house. 

Felicity fancies a taco for lunch so we stop in Columbus, a small village with several restaurants. We find one that looks promising. Felicity goes in, I have my formula in the rv and then go across the street to the library where they’re having a sale. I finished the very good Frank Lloyd Wright biography last night. Felicity returns from where it turned out they only sold hamburgers tricked out in many ways. 

Driving through El Paso is quite hairy then we barrel along the highway through the usual desert. Despite seeing it from the air many times I really had no sense of just how much of the US southwest is desert before we did this trip. Roadside signs far from anywhere offer 20 acres for $16,500, zero cash down, zero interest and $165/month. 

Not far short of our destination, Van Horn Texas, we stop at the Inspection Station. “Both of you US citizens?” I give a thumbs up. Felicity says “yes”. The man says “have a nice day” and we’re back on the road. 

Felicity reads that one of its founders said “Van Horn is so healthy we had to shoot a man to start a cemetery” and that he was shot a year later. 

I didn’t feel tired today and I had good energy. 

Road Trip – Chapter 12

I never met a mountain I didn’t like. Maybe it started with the picture of Switzerland on my bedroom wall when I was a kid. It was the only thing, apart from her traveller’s trunk, that my mom kept from before she married my dad.

She was working in Italy as nanny for a marquesa whose husband was a diplomat. She had to leave when he was assigned to Berlin. Marjorie, her friend from the orphanage where they grew up, visited her. I wonder which of them had the idea of going to Switzerland. It could have been my mom or the marquesa may have suggested it. 

Or maybe it was Marjorie. She became a teacher then headmistress and always went traveling in the long vacations. Africa was her favorite by the time I was grown up. “Saw a camel” she wrote from Egypt. 

I think my own relish for travel originated in curiosity stimulated by tales of adventure and was amplified later by wanting to get away from what felt like incarceration in the small town to which we moved from farming country when I was eleven. 

It’s very windy this morning. It’s been so all night, the rv shaking in the gusts. I slept very well after Felicity recommended Nyquil as I struggled to breathe. My nostrils were blocked so hard I doubt I could have freed them even if I could still blow my nose. Thank you, dear Felicity!

We drive south past signs warning of flash floods along miles of flat desert sprinkled in some parts by mesquite, more liberally in others by sage brush, occasionally by both and sometimes by nothing. 

Mountainous hills rear up on the plain. The mountain ranges are far to the east and west. Some are sharply defined in the strong sun, others rounded. The wind is still strong and gusty. We had to stop early on because the front roof hatch was blowing open. I removed the screen and Felicity tied the hatch down tight. The winding mechanism is worn. I wonder if I could replace only that. 

We stop at Baker Market for gas, a few supplies and firewood. Felicity gets me a face mask that we hope will keep the air flowing into my throat moist. A man tells her he comes through here every week making deliveries and always eats at the Mexican restaurant next door. It’s the best restaurant for miles around. So she gets a couple of tacos to go. They’re only $1.99 each and are excellent.  I add an extra helping of curry powder to my formula. 

Now we chug east up, up, up to a Joshua Tree forest at 4,000 feet, continue over the pass a few hundred feet higher then make the long descent to Searchlight where we turn south again. I’m feeling good. The mask is helping and I got 11 hours of good sleep last night after several poor nights. So we’ll go on for another hour or so to Needles and camp there tonight. 

We wanted to go to Santa Fe but it’s too late in the year. Nighttime temperatures are too low. We’d be ok in Henry’s centrally heated cabin but his water systems would freeze. 

Next day – I’ll try growing a short beard. It’s difficult to shave because the skin is so floppy.  I might look better, too. 

The GPS first routes us along a dirt road to a very low underpass below the railroad, then through town to an 8′ one, and then Felicity seizes the map and gets us out of Needles at last. 

We drive south then southeast through higher and wider desert. There are occasional wispy trees up here among the sprinkling of low growing mesquite. Every so often a tract of land is for sale. Who would want it, and for what?

I feel a bit crabby this morning. The mask may be helping because I’m not coughing but air blows up under it into my right eye which already feels irritated. I have my usual choice of biting the inside of my mouth or letting it fall open and dribbling but I’m conscious that neither option feels good. That doesn’t usually bother me. Perhaps not practicing every day is finally catching up with me. 

Mark noted that I mention my symptoms from time to time in these emails but I don’t say how I feel about them. That’s because I almost always just notice them and don’t feel judgmental.  They’re just changes. This morning is an exception. 

We pull over onto a wide area of the hard shoulder for lunch. We’re driving across wider and wider sandy desert. There are mountain ranges in the distance but almost no variation in the land around us. 

We drive on and turn east toward Phoenix on Highway 10. We pass a couple more cattle concentration camps. The low roofs that keep the sun off have big fans just under them which must mean it’s not always as windy as it is again today. It seems utterly perverse to keep cattle in this climate. I wonder why it makes sense. 

My right eye is quite painful. There’s a walk-in health place close to where we camp so we’ll go there tomorrow. 

Next day – My eye doesn’t hurt this morning so it would be premature to get it looked at. We’ll keep track of it today. 

I feel better overall. I woke twice during the night with nostrils completely blocked and had to remove the BIPAP for a while. Maybe it’s the very dry air. I slept long nonetheless after replacing the BIPAP when my nose cleared enough. I felt tired throughout my body when it was time to get up and yet I felt like getting up. 

Now I’ve had breakfast and rested to let it settle I feel good. Perhaps having coffee in my formula this morning but not yesterday is a factor. Whatever the causes I’m enjoying the sun and feeling blessed to be alive. 

We decide to go for some culture today. We’ll visit Frank Lloyd Wright’s home north of Phoenix. Felicity books a 3 pm tour so we’ll have time for lunch when we arrive. 

I tried wearing sunglasses instead of my spectacles this morning because I’m suspicious about the right lens. My distance vision is fine so driving is no problem. My eyes do feel more relaxed. 

A practical issue for ALS patients and their care givers is that new health problems could be unrelated or result from the progression of ALS. I assume new symptoms are unrelated unless the opposite seems obvious. That’s easy for me because I always did think I would recover from illness without needing to take action. I got away with it because Felicity is better educated about the body and she overrode my unwise optimism when necessary. 

Taliesen West is utterly different from Falling Water. That felt conceptual and cold, not a comforting home. This is space that results from living here by someone who really knew his craft. 

The entrances and connecting passages encourage you to pass quickly through to living spaces with ceilings that are not too high, carpeted floors and walls off which sound does not echo. They are spaces where you’d be content to be alone or be happy with others. Many people could be in the larger spaces with no need to talk loudly to be heard. 

The house does not feel separate from its surroundings. It arises from them unobtrusively. I love this place. 

A Tibetan Buddhist long trumpet stands next to the piano in one room. Our excellent guide who knows so much about Wright is happy to know what it is when I ask if he had other things from Tibet. She tells us about the Buddha he brought with him every time he moved between his northern and southern homes.

I ask which biography of him she recommends. Ada Huxtable’s is her favorite. I buy a copy. 

We drive on to camp at Apache Junction east of Phoenix. Tortilla Flat is not far from here. I’ll have to reread Steinbeck.

Road Trip – Chapter 11

I was unusually tired yesterday afternoon. Some combination of two walks at higher than usual altitude and further weakening of my diaphragm I assume. I’ve recently started looking downward as I walk, not just to avoid tripping. My head feels heavier. It requires effort to hold it vertical. 

The pass over the Sierras on the way to Death Valley crests at almost 10,000 feet. Felicity is worried the altitude could be too much for me. I, of course, imagine I’d be okay but I don’t want to worry her. She says we’ll go south around the foothills.

We head toward Fresno through the forest, some of it burned, and stop at the tunnel to view all the famous peaks. The native Americans who lived here used to burn the valley bottom regularly. It’s a winding road up then down so I have to concentrate on the road ahead. We stop periodically so I can enjoy the remarkable views. 

The forest is very beautiful; redwoods, pines and deciduous trees, a few still with green leaves, most bright yellow or gold. 

We stop for lunch a little earlier than usual near a gently flowing river. As I walk down to join Felicity my leg muscles feel weak. They might not support me if I stumble.

Also I have a little discomfort in my belly. Too much coffee with breakfast? Not good to have a beer every night? Too much sausage spice in my formula? The curry powder? So I add only water to my lunchtime formula. 

We descend from the forested mountains to a jumble of rounded hills dotted with granite boulders and California oaks. There are ranches when the valley widens. 

Gradually the land flattens. The ranches grow much larger. Then comes irrigated crop land and tracts of grapes, fruit and nut and olive trees. 

Now we’re bowling south along a highway past the occasional concentration camp for cattle. There’s a referendum on California’s ballot that would require more humane treatment of farm animals. Cattle would get 43 square feet of space each. That’s 6 feet by 7, a bit bigger than a cow, it’s true, but…

The last part of today’s drive when we turn east is along an exceptionally narrow and winding road along a canyon. One side of the road is a jumble of granite, much of it vertical and some of it hanging over the road. The other side is in many places a vertical drop. The important difference between this and a road in Nepal’s mountains is the good road surface. It’s growing dark fast, though. There would be fine views in daylight if I wasn’t driving. 

We arrive at Kern KOA. I feel good but a little tired. “Shall we stay here tomorrow?” Felicity asks. “We could potter around. Or we could go on…  Let’s decide in the morning.”

Next day – we’ll go on to Death Valley where my friend John who grew up in wintry Chicago always said he would go to live one day. He did move at last to Tucson. 

We drive east a little over sand plains with Joshua Trees then north alongside the heavily eroded Sierra mountains. This is desert country. A vast area to our right has been set aside as a restricted area for our military to practice with new weapons. 

We turn east again at a tiny settlement where there’s the store selling jerky that has been advertised on billboards for the last thirty miles. Beef cattle who will become jerky are sheltering in the shade of three large and lonely trees.

The plain we’re on now is increasingly bare. Sand is piled against the edge of the hard shoulder, blown by winds like the one buffeting us today. There are road signs warning of gusty winds. It seems that enough windmills and solar panels deployed here could power our entire nation and more.

Now we must cross the Panamint Mountains. A sign warns drivers to turn off the air conditioning for the next ten miles to avoid overheating. Ours is not on, anyway. The climb of close to 5,000 feet is steep. Henry’s temperature gauge barely moves even though he can’t manage more than 25 mph on the steepest climbs. 

The winding descent into Death Valley is exhilarating. I change down to second gear and enjoy glimpses of the mountains from the straight sections of road. And we arrive at Stovepipe Wells campsite. 

Next day – We both want only a short drive today and to see more of Death Valley so we’ll go on to the campsite at Furnace Creek. 

We stop at Salt Creek Trail where to my great surprise there is a stream. It’s tiny for sure but allegedly it is home to pupfish whose ancestors have been here for thousands of years. Long ago there was a five hundred to six hundred foot deep lake here that was a hundred miles long. Camels and other large animals were plentiful. There’s very little water now and it’s very salty. 

There’s a boardwalk alongside the first part of the stream. We walk slowly around it and meet a man who grumpily tells us he has not seen a single pupfish. “I was here six years ago and I didn’t see one then either. I think it’s a hoax”.  The colors and shapes of the hills are very beautiful. 

Next we stop at a long abandoned borax mine. There’s not much of it left and it was only operated for five years. The owner somehow enticed enough Chinese workers here and had the borax shipped out on wagons hauled by teams of twenty mules. It must have been brutal work in this heat.  

Furnace Creek is a low key resort with palm trees. Next to it is a village of Shoshone Indians who work with the National Park Service folks at the Visitor Center so the museum includes information and exhibits about them. The two were in dispute for many years because the Park Service folks wanted no impact on the land by humans while the Native Americans wanted to live as they always had. Eventually the Park Service decided what those who live here wanted to do is historically authentic. 

Felicity makes a camp fire and I sit with her for a while. I’m wearing shorts today for the first time in quite a while. When I lift one leg and balance it on the other I notice the shrunken calf muscle. The skin sack is the same size as before but it now contains only a small muscle that hangs down leaving an empty space between it and the bone. 

Since I’m reporting symptoms I’ll mention also that I’ve had great trouble with blocked nostrils the last couple of days. Not much coughing except toward the end of yesterday’s relatively long drive. The belly discomfort went away quickly. I’ve been tending to feel tired and not cheerful but I can change my mood now I’ve noticed that.

Next day – Felicity climbs the hill overlooking the campsite after breakfast. I feel a little sad I can’t do that any more but at least I can still walk. 

We start the short drive south through the desert toward Tecopa. The valley floor here is sprinkled with mesquite. 

There’s a turn onto a single lane Artists Canyon road. Will we take it?  Of course we will and it’s spectacular. The heavily eroded mountains are made up of yellow, white, dark and light brown, black, red and even blue rocks with every variety of texture.

Further on we come to Badwater named so by a prospector because his mule would not drink the salty water. Enormous numbers of visitors have trodden a wide path out onto the salt flats. We start the long walk but Felicity thinks it would be better not to push myself. I think about it and realize it will be very little different further out. So we go back to the RV and have lunch. 

The ground further on is extremely dry. Nothing grows here at all. Then the road right angles east and we start to climb. The colors of the mountainsides remind me of Upper Mustang in Nepal but their rounded shape is very different. 

We cross the pass, make the descent then motor south to Tecopa. We never imagined ourselves in RV parks and would have looked down on people in such places when we were young tent dwellers but we no longer need such prejudices. 

There is a hot spring here.  I can’t immerse myself fully now because of the feeding tube in my stomach wall but it’s great to sit in the hot water to just below that level. 

Road Trip – Chapter 10

It’s November 3rd. We got back on the road this afternoon after a lovely long visit with Doma, David and Ilana followed by too-short ones with NCSS friends from long ago. It was great to catch up with them after so long. It felt as if I’d last seen them quite recently and Felicity, who barely remembered them, enjoyed what felt like meeting great new friends.  

Henry’s transmission is restored to full health. Google enabled me to diagnose the problem that remained after the transmission guys fixed what they could and I had the part shipped to David’s house. It was the speedometer circuit board that signals the transmission at what speed to change gear. Finding someone to do the replacement was hard. 

David eventually found a friendly truck repair shop many miles away. We drove there and persuaded them to look the next day. But their priority, of course, is to get commercial trucks back on the road. We were fine with that but day after day passed. At last we went back, I looked as sick as I could, and Felicity told them it’s urgent for me to get back to my doctors. 

They had the rv fixed the next day. Not only that, they thoroughly cleaned the outside. They were very sweet. Now Henry changes gear just when he should and very smoothly. If only it was this easy to replace his cracked manifolds. 

We stop for propane on the way to Marina on the Monterey Peninsula where we’ll camp tonight. Felicity likes the look of a Mexican road food stand so we stop for lunch. On the opposite side of the road two men on horses wait for food to be brought to them from the store. 

We’ve arrived at Marina. Felicity went for a walk on the beach. I’ll go in the morning. There my be sea otters. 

Next day – We go to Monterey Bay Aquarium and learn that it wasn’t just over-fishing that ended sardine canning here. The ocean cools and warms cyclically, suiting sardines for 25 years then anchovies. Sardines are back in the bay now and the fishing is regulated. 

The elegance of the bat wing rays in the floor to ceiling tanks is especially captivating and I’m entranced, too, by the bigger fish. They’re moving gracefully in three dimensions almost without effort. It’s joyful, too, that so many small kids are screaming with excitement. 

We saw no otters in the sea but three that were rescued are in the aquarium. They swim swiftly on their back then flex and dive instantaneously. So elegant!  We wait for feeding time. Food is thrown to them in plastic balls which they set on their breast and ransack as they swim. 

Next day – We can’t go further west so it’s time to head toward home. We’ll make for Yosemite today. 

There’s a low growing plant stabilizing the sand dunes that the guide books condemn as invasive. A little further inland we see what really is the invasive species.  The hillsides are covered with glistening plastic protecting what, strawberries perhaps? Homo sapiens has changed this area beyond recognition, specifically those from Europe. Not too long ago this was Mexico and now the Mexican laborers without whom the rest of us would starve are called immigrants and are hated and feared as invaders. 

I like the rolling hills covered with brown grass and sprinkled with dark green California oak trees. They do feel a bit alien but I reckon I could quite easily have gotten used to them, especially if I had a horse. 

West of those hills we’re rolling across flat land toward the mountains. I love all this sunshine, and the mountains. 

And now west of the mountains it’s entirely flat. The fields are vast. There are huge bales of cotton wrapped in yellow plastic. A few fields are iridescent green. Lettuce, perhaps. Most of them are bare. As we travel further there are enormous tracts of irrigated fruit and nut trees. 

Everything is irrigated. This feels more like mining than farming. We’re forcibly extracting food from the environment. 

Further still huge flocks of milk cattle are packed under low roofs to protect them from the sun. The cruelty with which we raise meat, milk and eggs is very distressing. If I could still eat meat of course I would because I enjoyed the taste and texture, so it’s good I can’t. 

We stop by the roadside for lunch. I’ve realized it’s good to add an equal amount of water to my lunchtime formula. Helps to keep me hydrated. The idea dawned on me after I’d been adding coffee to my breakfast for a while. 

After lunch we ascend a scenic canyon. It’s barely 3 when we reach the campsite but the sun has already gone from this narrow valley. I’ll enjoy the scenery more in the morning.

Next day – We drive up the canyon and stop beside the river. There’s very little water now but it must be spectacular in flood. The bed of the river is entirely filled with gigantic round boulders. The canyon walls are vertical, many of them hundreds of feet high. 

This road was made in the twenties. People used to come by train to the nearest town then travel in on the dirt track by horse drawn wagon. Rich people took long vacations back then.

Further on we stop and walk through the trees to a meadow of tall dry grass. This must be the most beautiful time of year. Shimmering yellow leaves dance on the breeze to the ground. Felicity says she must return to paint and stay here for many weeks. 

We continue, stopping often for photographs. While my lunch settles Felicity goes for a walk through the trees to the river. “A small bear just walked down to drink!” she texts. 

Of course I immediately set off to find her. The bear finished drinking and has gone back up the bank and been joined by another. They’re quite young. The mother must be close by but there’s no sign of her. 

One of them climbs a tree covered by a vine on which there must be berries. Then it rejoins the other one and they tussle like small boys. They aren’t at all interested in us. 

When we get back to the RV I realize I locked my keys inside and Felicity didn’t take hers because I was in the RV. I always take my keys, except this time because I was in a hurry to see the bear. What to do?  

One of the side windows is open. Felicity borrows a screwdriver and pries the screen back. I climb a little way in, Felicity pushes on my feet, I pull with my arms and tumble exhausted to the floor. My diaphragm must be getting weaker. But who cares when there’s a chance to see bears?

There’s no cellphone service here so I can’t see how the election is going. I voted out of revulsion against Trump and the Republican program but disgust is not enough. The Democrats must have a compelling alternative platform. 

Road Trip – Chapter 9

The man at the Visitor Center says you can see Japan’s north island from the top of the lighthouse on a clear day. This is not one, though, and the lighthouse is closed so the lady shows us on a map how to get to the harbor, a beach and a campsite among redwoods. 

First stop the lighthouse. But on the way back to the RV there’s a small farmers’ market with a single stall of veggies, two with jewelry and stuff made of rope and wood, a taco vendor who I would patronize if I could and a BBQ one where I would get lunch to go. Felicity selects a cinnamon Danish and coffee from the baked goods man. 

The lighthouse is a three floor building on an island just offshore that can be accessed at low tide. It’s shrouded in mist right now. The fog horn is not there but out on a jetty. On a bluff facing the island Bigfoot is making for a house, not with good intent. 

There are many working fishing boats in the harbor.  Why is every one of them spotlessly clean?

At the beach Felicity is elated by the big waves.  She read about sneaker waves, big ones that come much farther inshore than you expect and sweep you back with them. There’s a sign warning that if you feel an earthquake tremor you should immediately go to high ground, which explains road signs that we’re in a tsunami area.  Plenty of earthquakes in this part of the world. 

We drive to a place where Felicity can take a coastal hike. I feel it’s better that I conserve my energy so I stay in the rv, do some Buddhist practice then listen to more of Zen And. 

Now we go further and are soon in a forest of giant redwoods. There’s no way to prepare for the experience. They’re gigantic and have been alive so long. They know how things were before Columbus. They stay still with no urge to speak of what they’ve seen. 

Our campsite is very peaceful. No cellphone service so we’re off the grid. As Felicity prepares to go for a walk a gray fox trots past.

When Felicity returns she sits outside with a glass of white wine. It’s a little chilly so I sit inside and, since it’s still afternoon not yet dinner time I have a Deschutes Obsidian Stout. Very tasty. I know because I put my finger in the syringe then run it around my tongue. I can’t lick my finger now because my tongue muscles have atrophied. 

I drink slowly while continuing to listen to Zen And. He’s talking about Phaedrus’ puzzlement over quality. I see it as our measure of how close things are to their ideal version. Quality is mysterious only in that the scale has no numerical markings. 

Our sense of the ideal is shared to a great extent and it changes as cultures evolve. We usually don’t have words to describe our ideal forms adequately but we know when we see, hear or otherwise feel them. 

The beer finished, I turn off the audio book and lie down to contemplate further. When Felicity comes in I’m fast asleep. She has dinner while I sleep on. At last I surface, partly. “Did you have dinner?” Thumb down. “You need to eat.” I get out my sleeping bag. “Please eat something.” I lie down and am unconscious again. 

Next day – Felicity was worried that I’m about to need a wheelchair. I resolve to go back to having a beer only when it’s almost time to sleep. 

We drive to the Big Tree trail after breakfast. The one in question is not necessarily the biggest but it is close to the road. It’s almost 300 feet tall despite its top having broken off and it was already tall when Muhammad was born. It’s estimated to be 1,500 years old. 

We walk the easy circuit through the giant trees. It’s remarkably close to silent here, just the call of a few birds.  The redwoods grow like very tightly bonded families, younger ones snuggled against the central one.  

The first part of our journey onwards is over flat, low fertility land bordered on one side by ocean and on the other by scrubby hills. The second part is through hills densely covered with magnificent evergreens and with a few open areas of light brown grass. I wonder why they exist?

We set up at Leggett around 5:30 in a campsite among redwoods. Felicity learns that it’s owned by an 82 year old English woman who bought it twenty years ago. Her staff tried to get her to take a week’s vacation this summer but she said she’d go crazy if she didn’t stay busy. 

Felicity lights a camp fire and I sit with her for quite a while. “Shall I get you a beer?” Thumb down. I don’t want to go to sleep again before eating and I don’t want to sit outside with a bare belly, anyway. The fire isn’t that hot. 

Sitting by a camp fire without a beer or snacks is disappointing because I have a concept of how it should be. We must do this more often so I can work on shedding the concept and enjoying the experience just as it is. 

Next day – It’s a fine sunny day. We’ll take a leisurely drive to Mendocino. 

I’ve been measuring my muscle strength for four months now so it’s worth looking at the changes. The results vary from day to day so I’ll eyeball the averages. That will be okay because I just want to see trends. 

Hmmm. My legs are losing strength rapidly. 

R quads mid-Jun 85% mid-Oct 50%
L quads 80% -> 60%
R hamstring 80% -> 50%
L hamstring 80% -> 50%
R calves 85% -> 65%
L calves 70% -> 65%

My forearms have lost a lot of strength and my shoulders are also much weaker. Not so much change in the rest of my upper body. 

R shoulder 65% -> 50%
L shoulder 60% -> 42%
R chest 45% -> 50%
L chest 40% -> 30%
R biceps 50% -> 43%
L biceps 45% > 43%
R forearm 70% -> 40%
L forearm 60% -> 35%
R triceps 60% -> 55%
L triceps 60% -> 60%

My abs are weaker but the rest of my core seems to be doing reasonably well. 

R Abs 60% -> 45%
L Abs 60% -> 40%
R upper back 55% -> 50%
L upper back 50% -> 35%
R lower back 80% -> 80%
L lower back 65% -> 69%
R glutes 90% -> 90%
L glutes 85% -> 80%

I wonder to what extent my legs are weakening because their motor neurons are dying and to what extent because they’re getting so little exercise?

It’s not far to Mendocino. We stop at several overlooks and a beach. A dog here is very skilled at catching the Frisbee his people throw for him (but I only have video of that). 

A mile or so south of Mendocino there’s a state park just across the road from the beach. This is the place for us for tonight. There’s no cellphone service, though, and while I’m content not to know the “news” I do miss virtual contact with my family and friends. 

Felicity says my affinity for the redwoods is because neither of us can talk. I still sometimes talk in my dreams though. Do the redwoods? My instinct is they’ve always chosen silence. 

Breakfast time. I grind up my nine Tibetan pills. Later I will take three Western supplements and later still my anti-drooling meds, the Western ALS medicine, the anti-depressant and baby aspirin.  Tibetan and Western medicine are sciences in that both are based on experiment and observation. They both have imperfect theories, however, about how the body works. The Tibetan channels, winds and so forth don’t make sense to most Westerners but it’s also the case that while they are effective, Western medicine’s theory about how anti-depressants work is wrong. 

Felicity takes her painting gear to the beach. I drive around Mendocino and out to the headland where there’s a fine view and cellular access. A pair of divers ask to “leverage my cellphone” and call someone to pick them up. Then three dudes who would have fit here perfectly in the ’60s yell to ask if I can jump start their car. I drive over and they’re soon back on the road. 

Mendocino Headlands State Park

Now I check out the used bookstore. It’s not as if I need more books but I get five, anyway. There’s a great bonus, too; I get a dog fix. He’s shy but he relaxes and is very happy to have his ears whirdled. 

The coastal road south is even more winding than I remember but it’s not all along the cliff face. I guess I remember it that way because of the one very sharp turn I took too fast in 1970 on what I hadn’t noticed was a wet mud slick. The car slid straight toward a plunge into the ocean before the tires bit. I can still see and feel it happening. 

The campsite we’re aiming for is full but the exuberant Ranger, who must be resting between theatrical gigs, says there’s a spot left in the overflow area. Felicity buys firewood and ignites a smoke storm that envelopes our neighbors downwind until one of them comes and sprays her smoldering logs with lighter fluid. 

Our upwind neighbors are a very friendly woman who, with her sister, has an event catering business. She lives in town but comes here because she loves camping. She’s here with her mom, her mom’s female partner and two tiny dogs. The mom gives Felicity a bowl of shrimps cooked in garlic butter. One of the dogs wants to share. 

I stay in the rv because it’s cold and I’m coughing. Wood smoke would not be helpful. Our female neighbors wave to me with big smiles. I read more about logging in the northwest then switch to an excellent Henning Mankell mystery. 

Next day – There’s a farmer’s market in Bodega so we stop to see what they have and get small gifts for people we will stay with as we continue our trip, I buy a California Delta Blues cd from the performer and Felicity enjoys an ice cream. 

The hills further south are mostly cattle pastures. And it’s sunny again!  Mist is romantic but the sun feels so much better. We drive on and are soon with Doma and our dear friends in El Cerrito. How great to be with them again!  

From the balcony, looking out over Oakland, we see a big fire that’s unrelated to the devastating forest fires north of here.

Next few days – We’re having a lovely time catching up. This could, of course, be the last time I can be with Doma, David and Ilana but it doesn’t feel that way and there’s no value in fearing that it may be so. 

David found a truck repair shop where they’re willing to install and calibrate the re-manufactured speedometer module that I had shipped here and we took the rv there this morning.  I’ll report its health after we’re back on the road.