A Traveler and his Cat exploring America.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Dec. 13 - 14

“Everyday was creative, because when you don’t have it handed out to you, you make your own.” – Elizabeth Payne McGhee, Allensworth resident.

We drove into the Central Valley and stayed to the little farm roads avoiding the interstate and major highway as much as possible. Many years ago in doing this, I discovered Allensworth State Park and thought a stop by to see it again would be nice.
Col. Allen Allensworth was born a slave and escaped from servitude in 1862 when he was 12 years old. He went north and joined the Union Army, which he eventually made a career out of achieving the highest ranking of any black at that time when he retired at the turn of the century. He came to California with his wife Josephine and had a dream to build a community, a colony as he called it, for other African Americans to help themselves create better lives. In 1908, in Tulare County, he found the Promised Land and put his plan to work. The little colony of Allensworth prospered for a short time but eventually faded away due to Allensworth’s untimely accidental death (he was struck down by a motorcyclist), declining water tables and the realignment of the railroad to a different town nearby. A couple dozen of the original homes remain, lovingly restored complete with furniture and artifacts from that time period. It is well worth a visit.
I was amazed to find a campground here for I did not remember one the 15 or so years ago when I was here last. I was even further amazed to find this campground had showers, but the amazement didn’t end there. The showers were FREE! One did not need a fistful of quarters in order to take a bath. I needed to tell the ranger girl in Arizona about this State Park.
Later that afternoon I noticed on the electronic read-out panel for all systems on board the Little BOX that the LP (propane) was down to its last indicator light – red - meaning “You better do something about this soon.” I went outside to check the gauge on the tank. The needle was resting on “E”. The refrigerator/freezer is powered by propane. I thought about this and figured if at sometime before morning the “check” light on the frig begins to flash, I could just as easily open the door for the air temperature is colder than your refrigerator is at home. Then I thought that might not be a good idea. I didn’t want my bag of salad to freeze, so I decided to leave the door shut if the propane fizzles out.
The next morning all systems were going strong. I looked outside the window and could see all of twenty feet. There was fog so thick you could chip away at it with an axe. Of the twenty feet I could see, the ground was a blanket of frost. Inside the temperature read 35 degrees and I had a pussycat that had no interest to come out from under the covers. Then I lay back in bed and thought about the residents of Allensworth 100 years ago.
We left camp at 9am and continued on the farm roads heading north. It was a bit of a challenge as I was armed only with a California road map. I plan to set up a little cardboard file cabinet in the Little BOX and keep all my maps in it for the future. We drove around the town of Hanford in search of a place that sold propane. Here for the first time I see Christmas decorations in all their glory. It is a nice feeling to not have been exposed to all of this for the 5 weeks previously. This has been the most nonsense Christmas season for me, ever. Like the song, Twelve Days Before Christmas, is just about right.
Finally by chance I located a mini-mart that sold propane. The proprietor was straight out of Afghanistan with his full rich thick black beard and mustache. I liked this guy. He was bundled up against the cold more so than I am wearing a heavy-duty army coat that further enhanced his image to me of a Mujaheddin rebel fighter. In spite of the red light and the needle being on “E” the tank took only 11.5 gallons. I had 2.5 gallons left in it.
We pulled off Hwy 99 early in the day to check out a sign denoting a State Park, with camping. It looked to be a small State Park by the map, but worth the 5-mile drive to check out. No one was there except the old ranger guy. They had showers (I should arrive home clean and fresh) and the ranger guy points out one spot that has electricity at no extra cost! How cool is that? We were in five star luxury with all the lights burning, the radio playing and unlimited time on the laptop to catch up on all my notes. There is no Internet connection but the laptop I feel pulls a lot of juice from the batteries in the RV so I need to be cautious otherwise, but not now!
I took a little walk around the campground and discovered a river slowly flowing by. It is the Merced River. I sat there on the banks for a long time thinking how this water had cascaded over Nevada and Vernal Falls then flowed through Yosemite Valley several days earlier.
Since I am only 3 hours from home I hung around for a while, tidied up the ship, and even broke out my new mini vacuum cleaner that I haven’t used yet. Hey, why not do cleaning and stuff in a nice setting rather than at home in the neighborhood ?

This afternoon I will be home but this is not the end. It is just the beginning. Distant roads are calling me.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

No use being stupid if you can’t use it.

Dec. 12
The plan was to go to Red Rock Canyon State Park 20 miles north of Mojave. This is a beautiful little park full of cacti, Joshua trees and marvelous geological formations created millions of years ago out of…yes…red rock. This park we have used for many years as a stopping off spot on the way to or coming back from other desert locations in the south.
When we arrived I was pleasantly surprised that we had the entire place all to ourselves, not that that I suspected a great many campers there at this time of the year. That night I discovered why…we practically froze to death! No wonder no one was here. Even the reptiles have more common sense than I do. They’re all snug in their holes in the ground hibernating till winter passes. I went to bed with long underwear, sweat pants, two pairs of socks and knit cap on my head and still was cold. It was cold enough that Sinbad burrowed under the covers to sleep curled up against my stomach all night. Who was warming who? I do not know but my belly was the warmest part of my body. In the morning, it was 30 degrees outside and a blistering 2 degrees warmer inside.
The sun had not yet cleared the horizon when duty called. I added to what I slept in a hooded sweatshirt, flannel lined Levis, heavy woolen mittens and my NASA spaceman socks and walked over to the open-air pit toilets. Take my word for this, you don’t even have to put it to a test, an ass gasket provides no insulation what-so-ever against a 30 degree toilet seat. None. Zip. Nada. On the march back to the Little BOX I envisioned a fortune could be made by inventing insulated ass gaskets. Now of course this would necessitate a consumer base market for this product in order to make all the research and devolvement feasible, even before I went into production. A bit more thought on this and a look around the empty campground and I came to the conclusion that there are not enough dumb campers as myself out there to warrant any further thought on the subject.
Back in the RV Sinbad showed not interest in wanting to go outside as he is usually waiting at the door. Yes, my cat is smarter than I am at times. I did go for a little walk-about just to let my nose run though. I did the dishes (although it mattered to only a cup and a spoon, but any excuse to have my hands in warm water was reason enough), squared things away and drove out a day earlier than planned. Thirty minutes later at Mojave, I was finally comfortably warm.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

The longer a traveler stays in one place, the more reasons he finds for not moving on.

Dec. 6 – 11
The dogs of Slab City won the war. To be honest, we didn’t put up much of a battle. Waving the white flag, we left for quieter surroundings leaving Slab City to the squatters, the near-to-do-wells, the Loners on Wheels (yes there is a group of singles travelers by this name) and the rich in their multi-thousand dollar rigs – why they choose Slab Slum City is a mystery. Don’t get me wrong, I like it there for its diversity if nothing else; if it just wasn’t for the damn constant dog barking.
We found what we were looking for back at Yaqui Wash in Anza Borrego, again having it all to ourselves. The evening brought on a few showers but the next day was pleasant giving me an opportunity to hike the hills in the distance. Here it seemed no one had been before and I walked through totally undisturbed cactus gardens filled with cholla, beavertail, ocotillo, barrel cactus and hundreds of little fishhook cacti nestled in among the rocks.
The next day I hiked the sandy wash down to Tamarisk Grove campground, which was vacant. Across the road was the equally vacant state park employee’s residence, a neglected state park green cinder-block building. The grounds were littered with palm fronds and other windblown debris. I walked around in back and imagined what it would take to clean things up and call this my home.
We continued on to the little community of Borrego Springs centered within Anza Borrego. I spent the day just hanging out, watching Borrego life come and go. I wandered in and out most of the stores, shops and even real estate offices. Yes, I could live here. This is a town I can find nothing to poke fun at so we moved on out to where we camped a month ago. Some have gone with more replacing them but amazingly, the Idaho woman with her Gestapo German Shepherd was still here but had relocated further from the highway. I see now she is younger than what I thought before; an attractive blonde. What is she doing here for so long out in the wilderness by herself? There must be a story there. Is she running away from something or someone, looking for a new place to start a new life? Or maybe it’s no more than what I am doing myself, just seeking a warmer environment for the winter. I wasn’t about to face Rin-Tin-Tin to find out.
It rained that night and the next morning I thought I would be spending the day cooped up, but by noon the sky cleared up somewhat, and I said “hike time”. I bundled up in layers, even with a knit cap on my head and started across the desert to a distant dry lake. By half way there was down to being shirtless, no hat and wished I had not had on my flannel-lined levis and spaceman socks. The shoreline of the lake had a cracked mud surface producing amazing geometrical shapes and patterns. Large folds of thin mud curled back upon itself like paint peeling from a wall. The dried mud was copper colored with flakes of glitter-like mica. And naturally, I left my camera back at camp.
For my last two days here, I thought I would through caution (and a $20 bill per night) to the wind and stay in the state park campground. It is just a few minutes out of town up the alluvial plain towards the base of the mountains. We backed in to the most remote spot the campground offered at the mouth a canyon wash. Most campers are down below in the developed area with hook-ups. There were only a fellow from Oregon and us in the undeveloped area. Being at the base of the mountains I noticed in not too many hours we would be in shade, so after a quick lunch I gathered my gear and started up the canyon to another palm oasis. For all of the times I have been to this park I’ve never taken the time to hike this short trail which is the mostly frequented due to it’s proximity to the campground and visitor center. Now here in December I have it all to myself, well almost. I met a little old lady coming down from the oasis who confirmed my thoughts when I shouted to her on the other side of the wash – I was on the wrong side and had missed the trail somewhere back a ways. The nearer I got to the oasis the more water there was running in the stream. The sound of rushing water intensified echoing within the canyon, although the quantity of water was not that great. It only took a few boulder hops to cross at any point.
The palm oasis was nothing like the one’s I had seen before. They were many more trees, densely packed, full and lush. I read where Hooded Orioles weave nests from the palm fibers hanging them high up in the trees. A species of bat, only two inches long, call these trees home sleeping in among the hanging palm fronds, coming out every evening to feed on insects. Many animals from all around rely upon this yearlong constant supply of water, including the Peninsular Bighorn Sheep for which this park is named. Most interesting though was the Palm Beetle, a two-inch long insect that lays its eggs in the bark of the palm. Its grub is orange in color and burrows holes into the palm that creates little homes for other small creatures. This explained why I had been seeing these perfect 5/8ths inch diameter holes in all the downed palms. “Why would someone bring out there Black & Decker drill and vandalize these trees?”
It was only 3pm but it was cool in the shadows of the mountains and I kept thinking a cup of tea would be nice but I didn’t want to leave this wonderful spot. I could not stop looking back again and again for just one more look as I began my hike out of the canyon, feeling some sort of sadness as if I would never see this wonderful oasis again.
The next morning I awoke to a thick canopy of clouds, which began to cast down sprinkles as the sun rose. By all appearances, this would last the day and may even turn into showers, thus putting a crimp into my plans for the day – more hiking and some bicycling too. However, days like this make for good traveling and we have some miles to lay down for the long trip home, thus we broke camp and sadly left Anza Borrego Desert State Park.

(to Ellie, “we” is just myself and my faithful little buddy Sinbad who at times is simply filthy as he loves to roll in the desert dirt. This last camp near the mouth of the canyon, the dirt was full of “fools gold”. Sinbad literally sparkled in the sun.)

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

We do not take a trip, a trip takes us.
Dec. 2 – 5
We motored north to Parker, crossed over the Colorado River to Vidal Junction then turned south to the very same latitude we were at that morning. 100 miles out of the way for no more than the sheer pleasure of the drive though the desert on a two-lane road. Wonderful. The signs welcoming us to California were not necessary. The condition of the roads were enough notification we were back. Reaching the town of Blythe (which was only 20 miles from Quartzsite had we drove directly west) I decided to drive through town for the adventure. Now here is a place that owning a lumber company or even a hardware store would be a lucrative enterprise. I have never seen a community with so many businesses and stores boarded up with plywood. If there is a town more dismal and depressive than Blythe, I am not interested in seeing it. Six months residence there would justify suicide.
The intent was on finding something along the west side of the river to camp but the only place spotted was the Cibola National Wildlife Refuge, a pleasant and tranquil spot along a backwater of the river. Unfortunately, I was down to my last $100 bill and had no change for the $10 fee, yet it was still early in the day so we pressed on to ultimately Slab City out of Niland. We have been here many times in the past and each time I forget about the dogs. Their barking is incessant. At times, the frenzy of barking would rival the start of the Iditarod dog sled race. I wonder how the people stand it. The new RV is wonderfully sound proofed compared to the old BOX and with the music turned on low, the barking ceased to be a problem. That was until the next morning when I wanted to be outdoors for my morning sunrise worship service. “This is one of the reasons I left home” I‘m thinking to myself. I eventually realized the problem area is the squatters who live here full time, or so I hoped. So, before breakfast, we moved off to the outskirts of the “city” and found conditions much improved. We settled in near the pet cemetery. Yes, people who reside here, for either long term or short, sometimes their beloved best friend passes on and there is a nice place set aside for their final resting place. There are several dozen graves nicely laid out with rocks and tombstones crafted out of wood or stone. I can feel the heartache at each and every grave.
The next day I walked over the hill and down to Salvation Mountain and visit with Leonard Knight, the creator of this monument. In 1983 he crashed landed here in a hot air balloon. “I only intended on staying a week,” he says. 24years and 100,000 gallons of paint later at the age of 76, he is still at it. I find him sitting on his sofa out in the brilliant desert sunshine visiting with a shriveled up old geezer who has stopped by, a local no doubt. He brings me up to date on progress, the increased amount of visitors he’s had since the Paramount pictures release of “In the Wild”. It seems a movie crew came out to do a bit on him for the movie. I’ve not seen the movie yet (I’ve read the book) and don’t quite understand the connection between the two. He said he had upwards to 200 visitors a day around the Thanksgiving Day weekend due to this recent exposure. I don’t doubt it. He’s been featured on National Geographic, the Travel Channel and several independent films. In a previous visit with Leonard, I first noticed how he would drop whatever he was doing to go over and greet anyone who stopped by. This would be followed with a personal guided tour, which could very well be interrupted be another set of visitors stopping. In between tours I asked Leonard, “When are you able to get any work done with so many visitors?” He said it is a problem, The man is so conscious about it that if he feels that someone has stopped and he hasn’t greeted them, he’ll hop on his scooter and rush over apologizing for not having done so. What follows is an excerpt from my journal about my day with Leonard Knight, the last time I was here.

When I find Leonard he is rearranging ladders for some project he is about to begin. I ask if he needed any help with anything as I thought it would be a fun way to spend the day. He is elated saying if I wouldn’t mind doing some painting on flowers. I say “Sure, just let me go back and get some water and check on my cat.” On the walk back I begin to wonder what I had got myself in to. Then I reason it’ll be a good experience and provide a memory not to be forgotten. I had no idea how true that would prove to be.
I return to find Leonard struggling with the same ladders. “Hi Leonard, I’m back to paint some flowers.”
“Oh praise the Lord, I’ve got about 75 years of work left to do,” he exclaims. “I tell you what; you don’t mind painting do you?” I lie and nod my head no. “What I think I will do is have you paint the waterfall here,” and we walk over to where he has over a 100 buckets of paint spread out on the ground. He picks up a can of deep blue. “This is blue, isn’t it?” I say it is and ask if he is colorblind. “No,” he relies. “Just sometimes blue looks like turquoise.” He wears no sunglasses or eye protection of any sort and in the desert sun, these brilliant colors are blinding. I have not seen him wear a hat either and call him on that. “Usually I do.” So Leonard gets me started on re-painting the 10 foot wide, 20 foot tall stair-stepped waterfall of alternating vertical stripes of blue and white. I learn that the hay bales underneath are plastered with a thick coat of adobe. Then after at least six coats of paint is applied, the surface is then durable enough to withstand the heat of the summer and the infrequent rains of the winter. He leaves me with a jar of glitter that I am to sprinkle over the wet paint occasionally. He says he will come back in 20 minutes or so and check on me and maybe I could help him with another job. The 20 minutes stretches on, what with Leonard giving tours and all, and I am getting into my task. I was getting a deep appreciation for what this man has done.
Some time later, he comes by saying in 10 minutes or so I could help him with something else. I say sure, “I’d just like to finish this…” then thought better, that we should do it now while no one was here. He thinks that is a good idea.
I follow him over to where he has been mixing up adobe in a wheelbarrow. There are four 5-gallon plastic buckets in which he tosses a shovel full of adobe into each and asks me, “Is that too heavy?” Come on Leonard. I tell him to throw in another shovel-full into each one. Fortunately, I decide to see what I was in for before asking for more adobe. We are to climb to the top of the museum, over two stories tall, clambering up loose unsecured hay bales. Up we go, hay bales rocking, feet slipping on slick straw, lifting buckets of adobe up one by one. “How on earth did he ever get these hay bales up here?” I wonder in-between breaths. Once at the top he then asks if I have ever worked with adobe before. I shake my head for I didn’t have it in me to say “no” and wheeze at the same time. He shows me what to do and scrambles back down for some more visitors have arrived.
This is dirty work but I am getting into it. Adobe is my medium and the view up here is fantastic. I empty and spread the four buckets and carefully climb back down for more adobe. While at the bottom, I think about getting some pictures so I wash off my hands in his 50-gallon barrel of mocha colored water. I discover why my hand is sore; I’ve got a piece of straw jammed well into it. I’m sure the nearest first-aid and disinfectant is a half a mile away in the BOX. Then I remember something about the Indians using adobe to patch up arrows wounds and figure I’ll live. I empty out the wheelbarrow and start back up the mountain of hay bales. Half way up and I am whipped. Each time I look up I don’t remember it being that far before. I spread the last of the adobe out on the crown of his creation, etch my name into the wet mud and then, with trembling legs and weak knees, I climb down for the last time. I watch one of the plastic buckets roll and tumble all the way to the earth. I think about that could very easily be me. At the bottom, I am relieved that I didn’t break my neck and will live to tell about this. Leonard is so happy. “I’ve wanted to do this for 2 months.” It was then I learn he plans on bringing up more hay bales in the future so he can start down the backside. I cannot even imagine. Then off he goes to greet new arrivals and conduct another tour. I am spent. I clean up the best I can then sneak back over to finish the painting on the waterfall. When I am done, Leonard wants to pay me $10 an hour for the help. I say that I should pay him just for the privilege.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

A true traveler has no fixed plans and is not intent upon arrival.
Dec. 1 - 2
For a place I much maligned, we spent more time around Quartzsite than anywhere else up to this point. Besides mini-marts at a couple service stations, there are only two small grocery stores. One, the Road Runner, plays a running loop of great political speeches of the 20th century as atmosphere for their shoppers. “Ask not what you can do for your country…” well, it was better than Christmas music. I renamed it the “Brown Meat Store” after viewing the selections available in the meat display case. I bought a t-bone at a “reduced for quick sale” price. The other grocery (the name escapes me) was so cold inside that I doubt their meat display case was even plugged in. In fact, the handwritten sign on the glass front said to walk around back and serve yourself. I tried not to think of the hands that fondled the meat. This store too doubled as a hardware store. Picture walking into ACE Hardware (and I swear, the display racks for nuts and bolts, plastic fittings, plumbing needs, etc., are identical to those in ACE) and picking up a loaf of bread next to paint brushes and rollers. Unlike the first store, his magazine rack had a wide array of this month’s nudie magazines to select from, all positioned at eye level and lower. It’s okay, there are no children in Quartzsite; they were banned long ago.

My undoing was the day I stopped at the post office to mail some post cards. I got back into the Little Box to leave, sat there looking out the windshield at this tent structure across the street with a sign WYO DISCOUNT GROCERY. Having nothing else pressing for the day, I thought I would check it out. The place was chocker-block full of grocery items most all at $1 or less. There were bins full of dented canned foods at 25 cents each. Now they had me. Happier than a rejected hog at a meat packing plant, I went shopping. Minute Maid orange juice in the 10 pack cartons, $1.49, lemonade 10 pack for $1.00. Large boxes of crackers of all varieties, $1 or less. They had Biscotti sticks, the brand you get from Costco, in boxes for $1.00. Then there were the gourmet items: Mezzetta Napa Valley Bistro Gourmet Mediterranean olives, $1.49. Garlic and jalapeƱo double stuffed green olives, $2.49. And for you Starbucks lovers, bags of coffee, $4.00. With these items and more, plus an armload full of dented Chef Boyardee cans, I was a happy shopper. I would have purchased more but had already hit a grocery store a few days earlier and groaned at the fact that I paid over twice as much for a box Barilla spaghetti than I could have bought here. Then across the street was another Dented Can Store! I went in there too just to marvel at the prices. Perhaps I could come to like Quartzsite after all, a thought that somewhat frightened me, so I felt we best move on before I found myself walking into some real estate offices.

Just a side note before we move on. The Hi Jolly BLM camp area I stayed at the most is 3 miles north of town. Four days in a row as I drove into town I saw the very same hitchhiker in the very same spot, standing there dejectedly with all his world possessions by his side in two bags. Four days! This is not knowing if he even had logged in some days there before I moved up to the north end. Lastly, I removed Quartzsite from my dead zone list. I found Internet hook-up at the Spilt Rail RV Park nearby. Thanks Mr. Cooper, whoever you are.