Can you smell the smoke? It’s mesquite. There is a campfire at my right elbow. A breeze blows the heat my way as well as a fine shower of ashes. Above me, through the still-bare limbs of a Mexican Blue Oak, the desert stars throb with a spectacular energy. Towering over me, a mile above, are the stark black cliffs and peaks of Baboquivari. Until a few minutes ago they still held an eerie glow from the distant sunset.
Have you ever felt excitement and peace all at once? I am here, finally, after dreaming of it for five years; and I’ll be back! This is a sacred place to the local Tohono O’odham indigenous people whose history here goes back at least 12,000 years. Other native nations in the American Southwest have successfully declared themselves sovereign states, complete with their own passports which you are required to have to enter their land.
The Tohono embrace you as a visitor to their hallowed mountain. Shinto priests have come from Japan to meditate here. I understand that, I can feel why. The resident guide/caretaker, James, welcomed me and issued me with a free permit as well as telling me where to hike to find some secret places. I will rest here for a day or two. I would stay longer if there were good company to share this with. On my bucket list, coming here was very near the top. I have been summoned since I first saw this place five years ago from the lookout on Kitt Peak. It will take more than one blog to complete this essay.
“A mind that is stretched by a new experience can never go back to its old dimensions.” …Oliver Wendell Holmes
I’ve been home a week now. If I thought things were a blur before…Wow! The memories swirl.
So much in such a short time; nearly 12,000 kilometres in five weeks. I feel like a big sponge, it’ll take a while to wring out. I’ve also managed to fall asleep while editing my photos and…well, there some incredible shots that you’ll never see. My banana fingers managed to keep on deleting after I nodded off. All the king’s techies can’t find Fred’s files again. BUGGA! You’ll have to take my word for it, there really were some amazing shots of Northern California and the South Oregon Coast.
Once out of the saddle I’ve taken my boots and socks off. Thus able to do the math I’m realizing how desperately financially broke I am for the moment. The good old truck, like a loyal pony, is dropping apart one piece at a time now that it’s home. So am I. The initial prognosis for my ankle is surgery. Of course the process requires that I help every medical specialist possible extract a Porsche payment from the system before the first diagnosis is firmly confirmed and a date for the grim day is set, and probably postponed, for some time far down the road. The weather here at home is cold and snowy and utterly miserable. In the last week a friend died tragically under very mysterious circumstances. I MISS MEXICO!
Old ‘Seafire’ is happily afloat and looking good. The recent snow has scrubbed her clean. She’s cold and damp inside but there are no apparent leaks and the old girl is tugging at her lines, wanting to get off the dock. I am now more confused than ever. I love this boat and all the dreams and assurances she provides me. She has been my home for a few years now. ‘Seafire’ is the cumulation of all the other boats I’ve owned and put so much of my life into. However, the epiphanies I sought and found are telling me things entirely unexpected.
For half of my life I have had myself convinced that I could not live away from the sea and that a man without a boat is a prisoner. If I did not own a boat, I felt like a worm. I am suddenly realizing that several hundred miles inland I survived healthily and happily. In fact, in the dry desert air, I found I could breath better than I have in years.
I actually found the same feeling of fulfilment in the vastness and mystery of the desert that I do at sea.
I have realized how much I have denied myself by accepting a barrier that kept me from travelling inland of the shore and accepting the richness of this planet which is available everywhere to perceptive people. I am also realizing the profundity of my own words when I condemn materialism.
Have I owned several boats or have they owned me? Why are my sailing friends with the most sea time also the folks who’ve never owned a damned boat in their lives?
The devastation of the ongoing recession in the US is clear. I saw people of my age, begging on the street corners. They carry home-made cardboard signs saying things such as, “We’ve lost every thing. Any help gratefully accepted.” How close we all live to the edge! I know the clear-eyed dignity of Mexican peasants and their children and realize that despite my awareness and all my words, I am as hard-wired for our superficial, consumer culture as anyone. I truly wonder who are the truly rich people. Is it those who know how little they need? In Mexico, the roadside crosses of the poor and those better off all mark people’s passing who are all equally dead.
I am among the growing numbers who ask questions and I do really want to end my days outside of the sheep pens most of us willingly inhabit. I remember George Carlin’s last time on stage and his parting words, “Folks, it’s all bullshit!” I met folks who have been freed of their life in a rut, their possessions and all the entrapment of contemporary North American life. They now live as happy wanderers and have learned to see each day for the glorious experience it can be. Repeatedly, I heard from each that one of their joys is realizing how little material stuff they actually need. Collectively they all seem to be enjoying a liberation and freedom previously unimagined. The lies which ran their lives are shattered.
I am NOT turning my back on my affinity for the sea, nor my sailing dreams. I AM realizing how wonderful it is to have my head out of that place where the sun never shines. It is wonderful to feel the affirmation of wind in my hair and the sun on my face as well of the cool darkness of deep water. I have some decisions to make and hope to find a balance to my life that I have been denying myself and those who try to love me. The journey continues. To have written and published the last two paragraphs, I hope, is a testament of progress which I claimed to seek when I first began writing this blog. Life is a journey, grow or die.
Once I’d crossed the border from Nogales, Mexico into Nogales, Arizona I collapsed for the night in the regional Walmart parking lot. Despite my aversion to the McWally world it is nice to have a safe, level place where you are welcome to park your trailer for the night and use the clean washrooms whenever you want. Dare I lament the absence of shower facilities? I mean really! Some people do appear to live in these edifices of tacky acquisition.
The next morning dawned on Valentine’s Day and I was amazed at the masses of Spanish-speaking people thronging into the place before six in the chilly morning to scoop up every card, chocolate, flower and stuffed toy.
I beat a hasty retreat into the desert. I turned Westward onto Route 289 which led me into the Coronado National Forest. The trees are twenty feet tall and a hundred feet apart. Some of the cacti are as tall. How many trees within sight of each other make a forest? As the sun rose at my back I travelled a meandering dirt track that led me through one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been. Rocky cliffs, caves and steep gulches form a maze that begs to be explored on horseback. I expected to meet a stage coach on every switch-back. If John Wayne or Gary Cooper stood beside a dead horse, hitch-hiking with only their saddle, I would have calmly asked then if they’d like me to brew up some coffee. I passed an abandoned mine town named Ruby and again marvelled at how the human race was able to map this country, develop it so rapidly and find rich mineral deposits so readily.
For hours I could see the telescopes on distant Kitt Peak and it seemed to take all day to drive a distant radius around Baboquivan Peak, a towering granite pinnacle which must have held great significance to the indigenous people. I stopped in tiny but lovely Arivaca, once a U.S Cavalry camp, now home to the tiny Casino Rurál and the lovely Cantina Gitana. I drove on through the Altar Valley and the massive Tohono O’Odham Indian Reserve.
This is all in the northern portion of the Sonora Desert. Once at the end of the twelve-mile drive up Kitt Peak, which rises a mile above the surrounding desert and yet still looks up at 7,738′ Baboquivan, you begin to understand the meaning of vast. You can see forever…well at least half-way to Nevada!
I can only wonder at the original inhabitants and their wonder at the abstract concept we white-faced creatures held of defining and dividing eternity.
Fortunately it appears that here, the native population truly holds a controlling interest in how the land is husbanded. I am told that only 25% of Arizona is held as deeded land. Much of the remaining area is Indian Reserve and State or National Park.
Sadly the paranoia of The US Homeland Security is at a fever pitch. They are everywhere, easily working their mandate up to a hundred miles north of the Mexican border with trucks, ATVs, horses, helicopters, drones, blimps and random checkpoints. They seem to operate carte blanche with an unlimited budget. At various check-points, many miles inside the border, huge tents cover both lanes of the road.
The guards, armed just like their Mexican counterparts are friendly and conversational. Hell, it’s lonely out there. I ask them if they ever actually catch any illegal immigrants. Their grinning, guffawing response assures me that indeed they do and that I, “Wouldn’t believe some of the drugs they try to bring in.” They really seem to enjoy their work.
The photos taken from Kitt Peak are wholly incapable of portraying the feeling of human smallness beneath the deep blue sky. The huge granite summit is dotted with several massive telescopes. It is a place where man tries to find his way home somewhere among the countless billions of stars all around us. Arizona is presently in a drought and there was deep concern about the peril of fire on the peak. To my wonder I noticed massive bald cliffs, thousands of feet above the valley floor, that glistened with the wetness of spring water still rising from deep within. It is a sad thing to find a tangibly spiritual place and have to move on. My funds were limited and I had a speaking engagement a few days away.
I stopped for the night back in the Belly Acres RV Park in Ajo Arizona where there’s a pistol-packing granny doing a splendid job of keep all things organized. As she did on the previous visit, I was warned about wild pigs, or ‘Javelinas, which’ frequent the camp at night and boldly scrounge for scraps. The end of the next day saw me in Earp, California on the banks of the Colorado River which is the border between Parker, Arizona and the final Western state. It is where old Wyatt himself is planted.
The next day saw me driving in hours-long straight lines through undulating desert which becomes known as the Mohave. It finally runs up against the Sierra Nevada Mountains where I turned north and paralleled the Western edge of Death Valley. It is stunningly beautiful, even in the dull winter tones of mid-February. This is country photographed by people like Ansel Adams and it is easy to understand how one could take an entire year trying to capture the amazing light playing on a few rocks or stunted trees. The desert here affords great solitude and peace. The quiet is palpable. The views are infinite. Mirages in the distance make perfect sense. Nights under the desert sky must be overwhelming. Mono Lake is the final jewel of the desert before it climbs into the mountains and the world changes its beauty.
Sadly there are others who see the desert differently. Areas for off-road recreational vehicles are provided restrictively so that the entire desert is not decimated but it still seems horrible to come upon an area where hundreds of motorcycles, ATVs, dune buggies and other roaring contraptions turn the desert into an apocalypse of noise and dusty mayhem. A ranch I passed has set itself up for this obnoxious activity and provides a huge tavern for the thirsty to come and tank up. Toddlers clad in body armour zip around with everyone else in this mad mindlessness. I can’t condemn something I don’t understand but it seems to me that horses and burros make a lot more sense. When the chips are down, it’s damned tough to eat a jeep.
I visited the quaint old mining town of Randsburg. It is an intact but mined-out frontier town where things seem to be much as abandoned. A handful of folks still live there and eck out a living from the tourists and more swarms of off-road warriors.
This entire desert seems to be pock-marked with abandoned mines, and the odd monstrous mess of open pit copper mines, some still working. The wealth of a few has permanently scarred the countryside. I wonder at all those who worked this dry, hard country spending and giving their lives for another man’s greed. I suppose some things never change.
Eventually, on the next day at dusk, I fetched up in South Lake Tahoe. Maybe I was exhausted, but this place is one of the most vulgar locations I have found. This beautiful huge mountain lake is rimmed with a throbbing strip mall of crass commercialism and dotted with towering casinos. Everything seemed cheap and tacky. The road westward was snow-lined, steep and winding. The rushing traffic was heavy but I drove on until I was able to park at a fairgrounds in Auburn, a suburb of Sacramento. It was a long day.
Eager to make my way to Astoria, I drove off the next morning determined to be on the beach in Oregon that night. I did not know that the photos I was taking would soon be lost.
Through the fruit and nut orchards I went, picking and eating oranges, trying to capture some of the abundance with my camera. I followed the Sacramento River northward for miles as the countryside slowly changed. I ruefully recall one photo taken in a popular waterfowl hunting area. An entire store side was painted with the message, “We Pluck Your Ducks.”
I turned west at Redding, stopping to copiously photograph the beautiful old mining town of Shasta. There was no one around, the light was soft and pure. I took some amazing pictures. They are indelibly printed on the hard-drive in the back of my skull. Westward in the thickening rain I drove the spectacular highway along the Trinity River until finally I found the ocean again at Fields Landing. Home, driving through huge thick timber, horizontal rain and crashing surf. `I wondered about the sunset down in Jalisco as I crawled into my cold, damp sheets in Bandon, Oregon. My little trailer rocked in the buffeting wind. Home! Yeah right.