August 18, 2017

Home across America to Deep River. Report No. 2.

 NOTE: Sorry, my friends.  I had a dozen photos to include for you. But my nasty computer has thrown a wrench in the spokes!

M big news is that I was holed up in a motel in Santa Fe, New Mexico, for seven days. Sick! But I’ll be back on the road tomorrow. You’ll find details below.

By John Guy LaPlante

        Santa  Fe, NM—My 24th day on the road home.   I’ve done 1,286 miles, but that’s not a true measure of my travel eastward. I’ve zig-zagged so much. I use the Interstates as little as possible. Prefer the secondary roads. Far less crowded. See much more. Meet more people.

        Basically I followed I-10 into Arizona. Rolled over my first 1,000 miles just 16 miles into the state. Then  moved up to I-40.  It parallels, and sometimes overlaps, U.S. 66. It’s the legendary highway across much of  America, famous in lore, books, movies. Our first paved highway across the nation.

        Some sections of 66 are in awful disrepair. Hardly used.  But here and there it has been re-claimed and hailed and endlessly publicized by tourist-hungry communities.

        It’s my second time in Santa Fe. A disappointment. One of the oldest cities in North America. Great charm. Now it’s a small metro area. All the big-box stores are here. Countless restaurants of all kinds. Motels line all the highways. Lots of traffic and  congestion.

        Santa Fe is one of our very oldest communities, more than four centuries old.  It was the most northern outpost of the Spanish empire in America—the last stop on el camino real, the royal road.

        It wound its way all the way from Mexico City to here. Across deserts, mountains, and mesas. With a desperate shortage of water for miles and miles. Hard to imagine how those Franciscan missionaries and soldiers and ordinary folks could survive the trip. After all, it’s difficult to drive it!

        This was the colonial capital, and it still is—in fact, the state capital. They built a plaza, a square, and it is still the proud core of the city, the social core and cultural. And a church, of course, which still exists. One of the priorities was to convert the Indians, and they did that en masse.

        Today that plaza and the government buildings around it and the museums are the tiny but frenetically busy center of a city that sprawls in every direction. Government  is the big employer, of course, but far bigger is the tourist industry. Huge.

        There are at least a dozen museums here, and shops and boutiques and galleries of all kind beyond number.

        Don’t stop anybody on the sidewalks for directions or info. I found that out. They’re all tourists. As befuddled as you are.

        I was here 15 or 20 years old. The plaza still stands. But it used to be filled with Indians selling stuff and performing. I’ve visited it three times now. If there are Indians, I don’t see them. Now they’re street musicians and entertainers. Mostly just tourists looking one another over.

        THE architectural style is pueblo or Southwest or Spanish colonial—choose which term you like best. Flat-roofed buildings made of thick adobe walls—a mix of mud, straw, and water shaped as big bricks and plastered over. With exposed beams, usually timbers. With white trim, sometimes turquoise.

        It persists as the favored style. But now it’s mostly fake adobe—just surface plaster. Still, very charming and appropriate.

        The favored colors are earth tones, sometimes light, sometimes dark. There’s a whole palette of them. I took a good look at all the historic buildings. My special interest was New Mexico’s capitol.

        My best look around was on Sunday. Quiet, though still many tourists circulating around the plaza.

        I was just about all alone at the capitol. Had a whole parking lot to myself.  New Mexico is small in population, with a small tax base, so the capitol is not large. Still, quite striking. It sets up higher than the surroundings,which is nice.  A round building, inspired by the state’s official emblem, the Zia sun symbol, whatever that is. Three  floors, with two legislative chambers. Earth colored, very simple, but with the usual white trim and some elegant touches.

        It is set on a large paved rotunda, very pleasant. It is shrouded by trees, which is strange in this sparse desert land. Interesting statues surround it.  My favorite was of a woman shepherd, a sheep resting at her feet. She is looking up at the sky, with a prayer in her eyes. “Hoping for Rain.”

        Rain is life here. It is everywhere, of course,  but here it’s the huge imperative. In many public bathrooms, water is metered. A few seconds of water at a time, and that’s it. I’ve been on the road for nearly 30 days. I’ve seen dark clouds approaching twice. They just floated by. Didn’t give us a drop. Haven’t used my windshield wipers once. Everybody is conservation-focused, as you can imagine.
        I circled the building, which was closed. I returned the next day when it was open.

        The magnificent first floor is a fine art musem, to my surprise of sorts. Not only a large exhibit going on, but paintings all around, even in the corridors. All about New Mexico. So colorful and so dynamic, as is the state itself. Many abstract, but abstract that I could understand a bit, and enjoy. A wonderful  experience.  

        I visited the Santa  Fe Public Library, of course. Remarkably sophisticated in its offerings of newspapers and magazines. Spent a fine evening there.

        My favorite was the LaFarge branch, one of two. Easy parking—impossible at the main library. Very welcoming. But short funds have threatened it with some day closings. The acute shortage shows in the general maintenance.

~ ~ ~

        I’ve just left a Motel 6. I was holed up there for a whole week. The first time I don’t sleep in Chateau. I badly needed the break. Quite sick.

        I had planned to stay at a hostel in Albuquerque, which is 60 miles back. But I wasn’t well.  This was no time for a sick man to check into a hostel where folks sleep in the same room and eat together. I like hostels. Their friendliness and camaraderie.

        I  checked into Motel 6 because I’ve been so sick.  A bad cold with a  bad cough. Diarrhea. And an unusual weakness and tiredness and wooziness. I needed to stop and get better!

        I chose Motel 6 because I wanted a national brand rather than a mom and pop motel.  Motel 6 until a few mongths ago was owned by Accor, I believe. It’s a very large French outfit that operates hotel chains at every level of service and price, from high to low, in many countries. They know what they’re doing.

        Motel 6 is at the low end. Famous for its slogan, “We’ll leave the light on for you!” Very basic, but okay. No fridge, no microwave, but a wonderful bed, and spotlessly clean, ever in the corners. $41.46 per day, including $2.99 per day for wi-fi.

        It has two floors and  more than 100 rooms. Surprising how busy it is, and this is the off-season. I consider Motel 6 the McDonald’s of the motel industry. The characters I’ve seen come through here! Worth staying here just to see that.

        Turns out there are 4 Motel 6 motels on a 10-mile stretch of this highway.

        I’ve chatted with some of the maids. All Mexicans, I think. Some know just a few words of English. What hard workers. How efficient. What nice women. Every single move of their dust rag or broom is planned.

        One told me she has just 10 minutes for an occupied room  (to make the bed and clean), just 20 minutes for a check-out. They even wax the floor. Leave the room immaculate. Take my word for it. I’m going to use some of their tricks when I get home.         

        I’ve been absolutely miserable. Incredible how many hours I’ve spent sleeping. I hate to get out of  bed! Get up just for simple meals and necessary chores. I brought in my wonderful single-burner propane stove. A delight. So easy and so fast. And my ice chest.

        So sick I went two days without starting my computer! I’m feeling better. It was smart to lay over. It’s time to hit the road again.

~ ~ ~

        Driving through the Southwest has been marvelous beyond words.  Brilliant sun. The azure blue sky, sometimes with huge cotton clouds. The vast mesas, with miles to the horizon.  The rugged, rocky mountains. 

        Puzzling why you can find a huge mountain range on one side, and on the other side, an enormous flat tabletop miles wide. ??? How nice it would be to have a geologist riding along with me and explaining these great mysteries.

        This is high desert country and I know that doesn’t  sound good. But the desert is so beautiful in its own way. The shapes and colors and shadows. The sparse but interesting vegetation. The stillness. The purity and clarity of the air,  and the brilliance of everything.

        For many days I have been traveling at altitudes of 5,000 to 7,000 feet. I have lived most of my life under 200 feet. I think this is part of my problem—high altitude illness. I mentioned it to my son-in-law David. He disagreed. “That happens at much higher altitudes.”  David is a very savvy guy but this time he may be wrong.

        I left Los Angeles on freeways five lanes wide each way, choked up with thousands of cars. Frightening.  Out here often I am alone on the road for miles on end. Yes, alone. What a contrast.  This is no place to have a flat or run out of gas, but that’s true of the LA freeways, too.

        The scenery changes at every mile.  One delight after another. It’s a constant temptation to stop and  take a picture. I understand why people love the desert and live their lives here.

        Out here roads, usually two lanes, are built straight as an arrow—yes, I mean it—for 15 or 20 miles, even more. As long as possible. Unimaginable to us in the East. On the desert, it’s the practical thing to do. It saves construction expense and driving expense. Generally in excellent condition. There’s a reason; So little traffic! They are hardly used.

        On these long, silent roads I enjoy being alone. At home I have music on all the time. Here I never turn on the radio. I’m alone with my thoughts. I revel in them. I’m fortunate that I enjoy my own company. Many people don’t. Not a second of loneliness.

       In some places, no cell phone capability. I don’t mind.

        I hesitate to use the word, but this is truly a strange spiritual retreat. I welcome it.

        Often it’s rare to encounter anybody. Twice I’ve spotted lone bicyclists, pedaling hard. No backpacks. How can they carry enough water to avoid dehydration? Seems dangerous.

~ ~ ~

        Wickenburg, AZ, is a very modern small town of just 6,000 people. I was there on April 26. It was my birthday—I was starting my 85th year. Incredible I’ve made it so long. And I was in a very big McDonald’s.

        Only because it offered wi-fi and it had a plug I could connect to. And I was frantic. I had an article important to finish and send off. And my computer was giving me a hard time. Which happens often. 

        It was very busy and I struggled a long time. A male employee was working the lobby. Keeping things neat and welcoming customers.  A hard worker and very friendly. About 60, Mexican, with a little pony tail.

        He passed me time and again. Finally he couldn’t resist. He leaned over and said, “Boy oh boy! You’re having a hard time, ain’t you?”

        “I sure am. And this is my 84th birthday! I’m going nuts!”

        “So sorry. Don’t let it spoil your day!” I thanked him and he scooted off.

        Five minutes later, he was back. “Happy Birthday, sir!” And he handed me a huge ice cream cone.

        How thoughtful! His name was Art Sanchez. He had worked as a concrete man for 2O years. “I retired to do this!  Come work at McDonald’s!” He laughed. “But I like it!

        He mentioned that I shouldn’t leave Wickenburg without seeing this and that. I shut my computer and went off and did exactly what he suggested. He saved my birthday. What a good man.

~ ~ ~

        Late that day I went to the town library. To my surprise, it was closed. I was dejected. There was a bench under a cool tree. I claimed it. Nobody around. Pretty surroundings.  Enjoyable. A car pulled up. A woman got out and made for the front door. “Sorry. The library is closed.”

        “What! This is a wonderful library. I’m on my way home to Kingman. Miles to go. But I always stop here for a break.”

        “You like libraries, too?”

        “I love libraries!”

        That started a conversation. She sat next to me in that wonderful shade and quiet for an hour. Her name was Susan.  Pretty. Amazing the depth of our conversation. Just starting in her 50s. Had a master’s and was a registered dietitian and had an important job that she liked. Divorced. Two children. The two of us, alone on a bench on a fine evening, total strangers!

        I told her about the problem with the Gamin Novi GPS system I had been given. “Let me look at it,” she said. She fiddled with it, then took it her car. Came back. “It’s working fine now.”

        “Have to go!” she said.  “Miles to go!” Off she went. I realized I’d never see her again. Felt sad.

~ ~ ~

        Leaving town, my route  took me up into the mountains. Huge heights.  Spectacular vistas. Incredible beauty.

        But curve after curve, with sheer drops at the side. Two-lanes.  Scary. We’re not used to this kind of driving. Lots of tension.

        All alone on the road again.  All of a sudden, a sports car shot by me. Then another. And another. At 80 miles an hour, it seemed. Eight in all. I couldn’t believe it. Seemed so dangerous. Youths!

        Fifteen minutes later, rounding a curve, I saw a state cop had pulled two of them over. Was writing them up. Good!

        Twenty minutes later, I came upon all of the others, parked at a look-out. Standing around and talking to one another. I stopped. “One car was pulled over by the police back a ways,” I said to a youth standing nearby. “He’s in trouble.”

        “Yeah. We know. We didn’t mean any harm.”

        We talked. They were from near Phoenix, several hundred miles away. Came up here to enjoy the mountains in this dashing way.  All in their mid-20s. Surprising they could afford these pricy cars.

        I liked him.  Said he detailed cars and planes for a living. I asked him to do me a favor, to adjust a thing in my van that was beyond me. He jumped to it. Wished me well. I wished him well and went on.

        I was sorry about their problem.  But these curves and drops can be deadly.

~ ~ ~

        I came to Prescott, AZ.  Elevation, 5,400 feet. Population, 40,000, so important in this sparse state. Very attractive. Beautiful day. It was a Saturday.  The downtown was closed off. Curious, I sneaked in and parked. There was a huge mountain-bike race going on. Hundreds of racers in different categories. Thousands of people. A huge annual event.

        This was the amateur day. A 50-mile race up and down the mountains around town, a 25-miler, and a 15-miler. I made my way  through the crowd to the start / finish line nearby. Riders were pulling in, giving their utmost in a final spurt.

        I spoke to a rider on the sidewalk, by his bike. Tall and lean. About 30. Swigging water and watching the results.

        “How did you do?”

        “Pretty well.”

        “What does that mean?”

         “I finished the 50 in less than six hours. Came in about half way in my category. Delighted with that. I do it every year.”

        He told me he was a psychologist. “I love it. Tonight we’ll party. Back to work Monday!” Wouldn’t give me his name but let me take his picture.
        Tomorrow, Sunday, the professionals would run. Many from all the country. With purses totaling $40,000.

        I went on my way. A strikingly beautiful town, Prescott, in a spectacular setting. Never suspected it could be so exciting.

~ ~ ~

        I had a nice visit at the Petrified Forest National Park before leaving Arizona. It’s a harsh place. Huge. 

        Once a great plain with abundant water. Many streams. Much vegetation. Small dinosaurs, ancient animals of all kinds. Great changes took place, beyond my understanding.

        The water dried up. Through great pressure, many, many trees became petrified—turned as hard as stone. There’s an abundance of it. Big chunks and little stones.

        There are strange mounds, and hills, and buttes, and cones.  All made up of layers of different layers of material, in different colors. Geologists can tell you exactly what each layer is. What smart people.

        Few tourists there. An excellent introductory movie at the visitor center. Every park does a great job.

        A woman stranger checked me at the gate.  “Bringing in any petrified wood or fossils of any kind?”

        “No”

        “Remember it’s an offense to take anything out.”

        I spent a couple of hours in there, following the long loop.  Stopped at this overlook here and there. Read the helpful displays at each stop. Striking earth formations all around. Maybe the moon is like this. Incredible. Took photos. None did justice. Just couldn’t catch the subtle changes of color.

        When I finally drove out, she asked me the same question.

        “No. Nothing.”

        A joke really.  I could have scooped stuff up. She’d never know.

        Later, on the lonely highway, I saw the same kind of geology on both sides. I’m sure I would have found petrified wood if I stopped and went looking.

~ ~ ~

        I pulled off the highway in one tiny town only because I would cross a bridge over the railroad tracks. And I wanted to take a photo of those long tracks stretching to the horizon. Hopefully with a long, long train approaching.

        Nobody around.  Nobody. Suddenly I spotted  a woman sitting on the ground by the highway next to a bike. Was she in trouble? I made a U-turn and walked over slowly. A black woman. Nicely dressed in a long-legged and long-sleeved sports outfit. Bandana around her head, plus a hat. Sunglasses.

        “Can I help you?”

        “No, I’m okay. Just taking a break.”

        “Are you going far?”

        “Just a ways.”

        “Have you come far?”

        “Just a ways.”

        “Do you have enough water?  I don’t see any. Easy out in this blazing sun to get dehydrated.”
        “I’m all set.” She sucked on a tube coming up from under her jacket. She had a reservoir down there of some kind.

        “My name is John. What’s your name?”

        She hesitated. Finally, “Dionne. I’d really like to be left alone, sir. If you don’t mind.”

        “I understand. Of course.  May I take your picture? You’re doing such a remarkable thing.”

        “No.”

        I wished her luck. Continued on my way. Sorry I asked her for permission. If I hadn’t, I would have felt it okay to take one of her from my van.

        I really was concerned about her. Alone here in this baking no-man’s land.

        I did take a picture of those long, long tracks. No train came along. I had double bad luck here.

        ~ ~ ~

        In New Mexico I stopped at a Visitor Center on the highway. It was 6 p.m. Closed. Shucks.  Just one person there. A young man, neatly dressed.  He had a sort of big baby carriage. A big sign on it said, “Walking Across America.”

        He was sitting with his back against the wall near the entrance. Playing with his smart phone. He had a laptop computer and he had found a plug and was charging it.

        I spent 20 minutes with him. From Pittsburg. Age 26. Good-looking and friendly. He told me there are 199 countries in the world. And peace among all is so important. To mark that fact, he was walking across the country—199 days in all. This was day 139.  He pushed his carriage along—it was stacked with his essentials. No backpack. Averaged 17 miles a day. It took six or seven hours. Was having a great time.

        “People are very friendly. Keep giving me bottles of water!”

        He showed me one. Some people buy him a meal, or take him home for a night. He tries to sleep at police stations or fire stations. But can camp out. Has everything needed.

        He didn’t ask me for money. Never asks for money.  “I’m using the money I saved up for graduate school!”

        He said he intended to go to grad school and study international relations.”I’ve been thinking of this a long while.”

        I said to him, “You’re walk is worth a Ph.D. by itself. Any day of the week. You’re learning so much. But do get that degree! It’s the finest investment in yourself you can make.”

        He thanked me.

        He had spent a year in Colombia. His parents were Colombian.  He had dual citizenship. “So much poverty down there. That was a real eye-opener.”

        Had only one bad moment on his walk so far. A small- town cop had stopped him. “Said what I was doing was against the law. He was crazy!  Finally he gave me a break and let me go on.”

        I told him I was crossing America, too, but going the other way. I pointed to my van. Told him it was really a little camper.

        I took a picture of him and he took one of me. We exchanged personal info. But damn, I lost the card I had jotted all that on. I could kick myself. He was so impressive. I’m sure he’ll make it to San Diego.

~ ~ ~

        I wanted to see Albuquerque. Had been here before and knew it was attractive. But I was sick. That nixed many things.

        As usual, I found a branch library. Had work to do. Closed. Disappointing. What to do? I knew the big, proud University of New Mexico was nearby. Many beautiful buildings, many in the native pueblo style.

        I made its way to its major library, the Zimmerman. Open. A welcoming place. Numerous students. 

        I found my way to a nice corner, plugged in, went to work. Spent a lot of time. Everybody around me was very young. They all had computers. And cell phones. Amazing.

        Suddenly a lanky boy was standing by my side. Leaned over. “I’m sorry, sir. It’s 10 p.m.. Visitors have to leave.”

        I was dumbfounded. Didn’t realize it was so late. Started to explain….

        The boy stood back and smiled. “It’s all right, sir! You can stay. Do what you have to do.” Went back to his computer.

        I did stay. Leaving, a the front door  a security guard smiled at me. She was aware of me in there. “Have a nice evening, sir!”

~ ~ ~

        Just outside Albuquerque was a museum I was eager to see, The National Museum of Nuclear Science & History. The Nuclear Museum, for short.  I found it.

        At first glance, it looked like a very big pre-fab industrial building. Nothing imposing. Not a national federal museum. A private museum, it seems, but chartered by Congress as our repository for this type of material. In existence since 1969 with different names, but new in this location since 2009.

        In a big yard were 18 or so well-known rockets and missiles and related aircraft, including an Atomic Cannon and B-52 and Titan 2 Rocket and Minuteman Missile.

        This was a weekday morning—only 8 or 10 cars in the lot. What an amazing place.

        Loaded with interesting and info-loaded exhibits.  Going back centuries from the first concept of an atom and the possibility of fracturing it. Right on through the dawn of the Nuclear Age which saw the development of  the atomic bomb and the incredibly more potent bombs that we now have. On to the peaceful use of nuclear energy for power generation and many other uses, including nuclear medicine.

        I paused for a long time in front of Fat Man and Little Boy, which were dropped with such history-making repercussions on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Enormous! As big as a big car. I didn’t realize they were different kinds of atomic bombs.

        Much more in there than I expected.  The other visitors were lingering a long time at each exhibit.  Geeks, I suspect—experts who had come here because they knew it was so rich with stuff.  I didn’t have the full day.  Besides, some of it—a lot—was much too deep for me. I walked out happy to have driven out of my way to find it.

~ ~ ~

        I-25 is a superfast highway connecting Albuquerque

 and Santa Fe. Instead I chose State Road 14.  AAA calls it a scenic road, and it is. I’m surprised to find myself alone on the road again. Incredible vistas.

        Half way I came to the hamlet called Madrid, population 300. Why it’s called Madrid, no idea. At its center an old, weathered,  two-story general store. In the background,  a cluster of small and basic houses, some no more than shanties.

         Up there on the porch of the store, a tall, lean, long-bearded man. Rough clothing. Rough hands. I walked up to him and said Hi.  He was smoking the last of a cigarette. A cigarette he had rolled himself. “Howdy,” he said, and smiled. He had good teeth but stained.

        “How do people make a living here?” I asked.

         He knocked the ash off his butt. “It ain’t easy.”

        “This is home for you?”

        “Yep. Madrid don’t look like much. But it has its advantages,” he told me, and puffed hard on his butt and walked off.

        The porch had shelves and shelves of used books for sale. I doubted how many got sold.

        Inside, big old rooms with high ceilings. A small assortment of groceries and necessities for sale. High prices. A pleasant, forty-ish woman  with huge earrings sat on  a battered chair behind the counter.

        I didn’t need anything but wanted to buy something. Chose an ice cream bar. Took a bite. A poor choice. Not good.

        “You serve this whole town, Ma’m?”

        “Yes, sir. Nothing else in any direction for 25 miles.”

        Several men came in to buy things.  All  locals. All in worn and tired jeans and shirts and hats. Men used to hard manual work. All had beards, ragged and scraggly, and pony tails.  This seemed the culture here.

        Another fellow came in, dressed that way, but clean-shaven. He chatted with the gal. They knew one another. Traded jokes. Then he took out two quarters and held up his index finger. She gave him a single cigarette. She took the coins and gave no change.

        I was astonished. “Fifty cents for one cigarette!” I said to him.

        “Yep. But good tobacco. Organic!”  He parked it above one ear, smiled, and strode out. I wondered when he’d smoke it. After dinner?  Before going to bed?  One cigarette a day?

        I understood why Mark out on the porch was rolling his own.

        I haven’t smoked in years. Had no idea cigarettes were so expensive.         It reminded me of my  dear Aunt Bernadette. When I was a boy, she ran a corner variety store. Sold cigarettes.  Wings, Camels, Chesterfields, they all sold for 14 cents for a pack of 20.

        She had a small can with a tight lid. She’d fill it with 20 cigarettes. She’d sell them for a penny apiece. A nice profit of six cents! She sold many that way.

        I said goodbye to the friendly woman and went on my way. She gave me a nice smile.  “Happy travels!”

~ ~ ~

        All my night accommodations  have been free.  Most often I “camp” at a Walmart.  Out here they are nearly 24-hour Super Walmarts, meaning they also have a food supermarket.  They welcome RVs. Many pull in every  evening.

        One big advantage of my van, as I’ve said, is that  it passes as just a van. Not a tiny camper.  Its tinted  windows make it hard to see in.  I can do my thing inside and nobody has a clue.

        Walmart is my first choice.  The lots are patrolled. Very safe. The giant stores supply just about anything needed.  I enjoy walking up and down  the aisles just for the  exercise. The toilets are kept clean.

        At one I passed by a key-making kiosk. I decided on another key for my van. Five minutes and a mere $1,47!  No wonder Walmart is so popular. I’ve chatted with many employees.  I’ve never met one who seems disgruntled.

        In one town I stayed at a Kmart. In fact, for two nights. I’ve also  stayed at a Taco Bell and a McDonald’s,  and one night at a big glossy Indian casino. It offered RVers one free night in its hotel—anything to get people in and gamble. I much preferred my van.

         In the morning I walked in and looked around.  It was 9 a.m. and already many men and women were sitting at the slots and feeding them coins. Coin after coin.  Mostly senior citizens. I studied them. And felt a great pity for them. Such a sad sight. Well, to me, anyway.

~ ~ ~

        This is Indian country.  There are Indian reservations everywhere. Navaho. Apache. Hopi. Zuni.  I knew of the others but never heard of the Zuni.

        I drove many miles out of my way to get to a town called Zuni Pueblo. Heard it was a popular place to see native jewelry and textiles and handicrafts. Found it small, poor, forlorn.  Very few people out and about. There was a market called Giant and walked in. Did not live up to its name. Very poor selections. Surprisingly high prices. Bought a copy of Navaho Times, a daily newspaper.

        At the cash-out I pointed to the paper and asked, “Are the Zuni part of the Navaho?”

          The woman shook her head vigorously. “No! No!”  It was clear she hated the idea of having anything to do with the Navahos.

        “Then why this?” I pointed to the newspaper.

          “They send it to us with all the other papers. We have to take it.”

        Outside, in many backyards, I had noticed many very  big earthen ovens.

        I asked a young man, a Zuni, what they were for.     

        “For baking bread.. Chicken. Beans. Anything.  My grandma still uses hers on big holidays. No, we don’t use one.” He laughed. “We have a microwave.”

        The reservations are a sad sight for the most part.  We uprooted whole tribes and shoved them onto the worst and most desolate acreage in the country.  Impossible to grow anything there. Impossible to make a living.  And got them onto booze. A horrible story of humiliation, brutalization, degradation. A national shame and disgrace.

         Some reservations have discovered rich mineral and petroleum deposits, thank goodness.

        On the whole, I believe the Indians have been treated even worse than the blacks.  My opinion.

        Some Indians are doing better.  Getting educated. Starting businesses and getting into the professions. Even politics.  I read the daily Navaho Times. Impressive.

        On the other hand, many Indians are in desperate straits, despite federal programs and hand-outs.  I often  stop and ask directions of people on the sidewalk. No longer will I stop to ask an Indian.  Invariably, they ask for money.  “Just one dollar, Mister? Just one dollar?”  It’s pathetic.

        One day as I was parked, a middle-aged Indian approached me. I opened the window. “Me Indian. Me hungry!”

        I took out my wallet. He smiled. And said, “And me thirsty!”

          I was shocked. Took a closer look. He was half drunk. I told him, “I’d give you money for food. But not for booze!” I closed the window. And  started the engine.

        He was crestfallen. “Mister, I was being honest!”

         Maybe in that upbringing, I’d be behaving the same way. That but for the grace of God would be I. If you believe that.

~ ~ ~

        I’ve seen many wonderful things. I learned long ago that you don’t have to travel many miles out of your way to have a great time. Less-publicized sites can be terrific.

        I was cruising on I-40 through small Williams, which  calls itself the Gateway to the Grand Canyon.  Its South Rim, which is its major viewing point, was just 60 miles north. I cruised right by.  I’ve been to the Canyon twice, North Rim and South Rim.  Once I viewed it from a small helicopter. Fabulous. I had something else in mind.

        I stopped by little-visited Walnut Canyon National Monument a bit farther east. Turned south into it just a couple of miles. Alone on the road. Nobody ahead of me at the ranger station.  Admission charge. The ranger asked if I had a National Parks Pass. Yes, but I had misplaced it. True story. He noticed my Handicap Placard.

        “No problem, sir. Go on to our Information Center. They’ll give you an Access Pass. It’s the same thing for people like you. It’s god at all national parks and monuments. And it’s free.”

        How about that?

        Walnut Canyon is a ragged hole in  the  ground, 400 or 500 feet deep. The rocky rim is made of soft stone.  Eons ago water created many shallow caves. For a time an ancient people lived in them, bricking up the front.  Some 300 caves were used this way. They were in plain view. Those folks  must have been part mountain goat.

        The community lasted a couple of centuries. Somehow they found everything they needed to survive.  Why they chose this gorge is not clear. Neither is why they abandoned it.  A spectacular sight. The marvel of it. The mystery of it. But there were not 25 visitors there.

        The staff consisted of only three rangers.  The boss was a woman. It pleased me to hear that.

        They had a few  paid interns to assist them.  There I met Erin Cox, 23, in uniform behind the counter.  She was a graduate of  well-regarded Virginia Polytechnic Institute.   Had majored in wildlife science. I never knew there was such a thing.   Had heard of this opportunity way out here and here she was. She lived on the grounds. I suspect she’ll become  a ranger herself. She was helpful and charming.

        I had a grand visit.

~ ~ ~

        I stayed overnight in tiny Wilcox, Az.  It became into existence as a great railroad center. That was when it took 11 people to operate a train.  Enormous improvements in that technology.  Then nine.  Then six. Then three. Now it takes only two.

        And now the chief engineer  may well be a woman.  And the rail companies and the union are tussling are tussling about reducing to just one.   Poor Winslow has suffered greatly as a result. Now I understand the main industry is a prison nearby.

~ ~ ~

        I’ve got to talk about the trains for a minute. Along many stretches my route has paralleled the tracks.  This is one of the transcontinental routes. I have seen train after train.  They go by so frequently in both directions.         Enormously long. Sometimes nearly two miles long.  One time I watched  138 cars go buy. It was pulled by three diesel-electric engines. With two more pushing at the end. All controlled by just two people in the front cab.

        Each car contained those big steel cargo boxes that cross the oceans on huge freighters. They were double-stacked.  They were headed east. For sure they  had been loaded in China or Japan or South Korea or Taiwan or places like that.  They were bringing us all the vast variety of goods we use day in and day out. So I estimated 276 steel boxes in all.

        My experience on the Interstates is that there are as many 18-wheel trailer trucks as there are other vehicles. This train was the equivalent of 276 trucks doing the same thing.  And of 276 truck drivers.  Imagine that.

        All these boxes have to go back, of course.  How many are full, I don’t know. But it’s a two-way business. We import huge amounts. But we also export huge amounts to those countries. Far more than we think.

        Some of the trains carry coal and other natural materials.  And there are many tank cars.  Also many vehicle cars, designed to keep cars nice and shiny.  I saw only one passenger train—a silver beauty with dome windows to permit good viewing of the spectacular scenery. A mere 12 cars. The kind advertised in National Geographic and Smithsonian.

        In Winslow a man told me a train passed every 15 minutes in each direction, day and night.  Sometimes a train would have two engines in the middle as well. I found it all fascinating.

~ ~ ~

        In Winslow I heard  about the Old Trails Museum and sought it out.  It  was just a hundred feet off the main street in a former bank. Free admission! Yes, free in this day and age.  What a delightful place.

        It was stuffed, very neatly in nice displays, with all kinds of things about Winslow.  For instance, the local airport.   It was one of many stops on  Charles Lindberg’s pioneer airline to get  passengers  between our two coasts in a mere 40 hours.

        And I heard about a remarkable man and wife team. Joseph  Rodriguez  was an artist and Vada Carlson was a newspaper woman and prolific book author.  What a talented couple. He  did superb watercolor paintings. The kinds I enjoy, that tell a story.  Several on display. And I saw some of her books. A fine writer. Also an accomplished poet. They collaborated on some projects. Isn’t that wonderful?

        We tend to think of fine writers and artists living and working in major cities. Well, I’ve found small towns are loaded with great talent.

        The museum was staffed by volunteers, two at a time, a  morning shift and an afternoon shift.  The two that I met were friendly and incredibly welcoming and eager to be  helpful.  They were sisters. From Vermont. Both widows.

        The older one was Barbara.  She had come 50 years ago with her husband. “It was a wild idea we had to go West!  The younger one was Vel. She had come after the death of her husband, a school administrator. So accomplished that a school was named for him.

        Vel came to be with her sister. Vel had been  a teacher and administrator, too. Now she was president  of this and chairman  of that in Winslow. The two insisted Winslow was wonderful!

     I could have stayed in that small and fine Old Trails Museum a full day.

~ ~ ~

        I had an unusual experience in Flagstaff, a nice, small city. While shaving, I noticed a sore on the bridge of my nose. My daughter Monique had pointed out a couple of  months earlier. “You should have that checked, Dad.” I didn’t bother.

        I took off my glasses for a closer look.  I didn’t like what I saw. I decided I should see a dermatologist. Today. How to do that?

        I could go to Emergency at the local hospital and they’d refer me to one. That would wind up with enormous charges to  my Medicare and Blue Cross / Blue Shield policies. I could go to a doc-in-the-box office. I was sure there was one here. Same thing probably. I decided to go the local library.

        A beautiful library, modern and big. I went to a librarian and explained my problem. Librarians are helpful by nature. “Of course!” she said.  She referred me to Northern Arizona Dermatology Center, less than 10 minutes away. “They’re very good.” She gave me a map and drew arrows showing me how to go.

        I thought of calling. Then I decided I’d stand a better chance if I stopped by cold.

        Handsome building. Five dermatologists. I went to the receptionist and explained my need.  “We usually don’t do walk-ins,” she  said

        “I have good insurance.  Will you please try? Please?”

         She came back in three  minutes.  “Dr. Holguin will see you. Please take a seat.” She gave me the usual paperwork to fill out.

        Dr. Holguin was a she—Therese A. Holguin. I was summoned in 20 minutes. She came in with a smile, a tall, slim woman in a white coat.  Fifty-ish. Beautiful jewelry. She sat for a minute, then looked at my sore.

        “Well!” she said. “I’ll have to do a biopsy. Have to play safe. If it’s cancerous, it will be a small matter. Nothing to worry about.”

        While she was at it, I had her look at a rash I had on my belly and left leg. “I’ll give you medicine for that.”

         Ten minutes and she was done. She told me I’d get the results in two weeks or so. In an email.  And  she gave me two sample medicines, one for the incision and the other for my rashes. Wouldn’t have to run to a pharmacy.

        I went right back to the library and looked up that librarian. She was still there. Her name was Mimi. I gave her a full report. She beamed with pleasure. “You have made my day, sir!” she told me. “No. You have made my day!”

~ ~ ~

        In Flagstaff, in a small shopping center, I was looking for someone to give me directions. I saw an Indian woman walking out of a laundromat with a huge basket of  wash.

        She put down her basket and gave me explicit directions. Unusual for someone to be that explicit.  She had an old pick-up truck and she kept looking at it. There were two cute little tots in it, peering at us through the rear window. Her grandkids.

        Her name was Lynn Jimmy. Navaho. Served in the Army eight years and injured a femur and got a discharge.  Now she was a student at Northern Arizona for five years and was about to graduate finally. With a degree in construction management.

        “Your  name is Lynn,”  I said. “That isn’t a Navaho name.”

        “I have a Navaho name but the Army won’t accept a name like that.”

        “How come?”

        “They want a name on a birth certificate. Lynn is what my Mom put down. I’m not sure why. My dad chickened out on us. I never got to know him.”

        I got a wonderful impression of Lynn.   It was a pleasure to meet her. I hope her  degree will give her the rewards she deserves.

        She took me to the truck and introduced me to her grandkids, Sabrina and Ariel. Out of sight in the front was her daughter, Corrie. Beautiful. Very shy.

        I took a picture. Corrie declined to be in it. Turned out to be a fine photo. I’ll cherish it.

~ ~ ~

        One morning at a Walmart I spotted a great, big, beautiful Winnebago RV parked idea. I got an idea. I drove over and  parked next to it.  Got out with my camera to take a picture of the two vehicles side by side. I wasn’t satisfied.  Moved my van a few feet forward.

        Got out with my camera. Looked up at the Winnie. No signs of life. I snapped my picture.  My idea was simple. I’d send it out with a caption saying, “Which one is having the more fun?”

        I drove closer to the Walmart.  Parked and made my breakfast. Entered the store to use the men’s room and do some shopping.

        On the way out, a tall, well-dressed older man approached and said, “Did you have fun taking that picture?”

        He was the owner of that beautiful Winnie.  I explained and he chuckled with appreciation.

        “My wife and I couldn’t figure out what the heck you were up to!”

        Steve had retired three years ago after a career as a realtor and real estate appraiser at a town in Ohio. His wife Janet had worked with him. “I did the inside stuff and she did the inside stuff.” They were full-time RVers now.  They had a home but leased it out.

        He had deliberately retired at 66 rather than 65—felt the extra amount in his social security check would be well worth it.

        They had bought the Winnie when it was three years old.  Its original price was more than $300,000. He said they had paid less than half that for it.

        They took trips here and there. They liked staying overnight at Walmarts just as I did.  They’d head for the warm coasts of Texas in the winter. 

        “We put up at nice RV resorts there.  I manage to get a job and do general maintenance.  I like tht. Janet gets a part-time job  in the office.  It’s very nice.”

        “Have you been to Connecticut yet??

        He  chuckled again. “Not yet!”

        “Do come. It’s the best of the 50 states. Take my word for it.”

          We  both laughed. Shook hands and wished one another good luck. We were both better off for our encounter.

~ ~ ~

        One thing I set out to do on this trip was stop at small libraries, not large ones, and survey how they are coping with the massive changes they confront. How they can better serve people and best adapt to the incredible developments of technology.

        I set out strong.   I got interviews with the head librarians. They were all cordial and cooperative.

        They were all very different in the populations they served. They were all surprisingly modern and attractive. All offered the standard services: books and periodicals for adults and children, audiobooks, CDs and DVDs of music, music, and other media, audiobooks,  free online computers. and services for the homebound.

        When I asked what their annual report showed, the invariable answer was as follows. The free computers were the most popular service. Next were movies and music CDs. Children’s books were up. Periodicals remained the same. The circulation of books was iffy.  Up a little, maybe down a little.  

        At each I reported the same striking fact. The biggest retailer of books in the U.S. is Amazon.com.  Last year for the first time they sold more electronic books than print books.  And ebooks were a relatively new thing. What did this foreshadow?

        To me it shows that the printed book that we all love is in great trouble.  If this trend continues, before many years the library will be a computer. A computer loaded with ebooks. Books as we know them will be a thing of the past.

        They all pooh-poohed the idea.  “For a hundred years we’ve gone through one change after another. The phonograph. Radio The silent movies. The talking movies. Color movies. Television. The Internet and all its offerings.  And all the latest—the Ipad and other tablets, the Ipod and such, the smart phones, on and on. We’ve adapted and gotten better.”

        Maybe so.  “How are you adapting?”

        “We’re making our libraries more inviting. Offer simple courses on this and that. Have more extensive hours. Offer research help.  Offer inter-library loans. Give special help at income tax time.  Sponsor talks by authors and others. Hold story hours and movie nights. Let various clubs hold their meetings here.  On and on. We’ll be okay.”

        I hope so.  I believe the public library of the future will be unrecognizable.  It will be a community center, offering ebooks and emedia of all kinds. There will be no shelves lined with books. These libraries will be modeled on our fine senior centers, but for people of all ages, and offering multiple services. And they will continue to be free. And surely they will offer services I cannot imagine.

        After five such interviews, all wonderfully interesting, I had to abandon the project. Otherwise I wouldn’t make it home until Christmas.

        In one small town, Mecca, on the eastern edge of California, one thing at the library caught my eye.  Mecca—a strange name, I think–is mostly Mexican, I believe. Very nice, modern library. School children monopolized the computers. Little kids, even. One granddad with callused hands had his little granddaughter at one of the computers. He was very proud of her.

        And he was reading a book. But it was a “graphic novel.” What we used to call a comic book, but designed as a book for folks with poor reading skills. All because of a lack of opportunity, of course. I’m glad his granddaughter is getting these opportunities.

~ ~ ~

        In Blythe, on the eastern edge of California, the librarian told me to make sure to go to Parker, just on the other side in Arizona. Parker is on the Colorado River, which divides the two states.  It’s on the Colorado Indian Tribes Reservation. That’s its name. I’d find a very impressive library there serving the Indian community.

        It was a long, lonely ride but I got there.  I found the library. Strikingly beautiful pueblo style building. A great Joshua tree by the front door. Very fine services. But this was the town library. 

        The Indian library was two miles away. I got a librarian to call to call ahead and tell about me. The librarian there had big doubts.  Said she would not be able to give me info. I would not be allowed to take pictures. I couldn’t believe it. I canceled my visit.

          Our in the yard I ran into an older gent who looked like a prospector. Muscular, Gray hair. Beard. Worn work clothes.  Scuffed boots. With a Jeep. He was parked next to me. I said hello.

        He was not a prospector.   The details came out very slowly, one by one.

        He was an academic of sorts. Age 69. Had been on the road like me since last August.  Had a Ph.D. from MIT in math. Plus a post-doc fellowship.

        Was camped at a campsite up the river.  We chatted for 30 minutes. I had a grand time.  He invited to come and spend the evening with him at his camp. “Ill go if I can,” I said. We left it at that.

          He gave me his full name, an Irish name. His first name is Mike. I’ll simply call him that.

        Well, I made it there. Six miles or more.  It was nearly there. A wilderness campground  operated by the Department of the Interior.  Just a few campers there. He was set up by the river. $5 per night. $2.50 with a pass.

        What a set-up he had.  Next to his Jeep was a beautiful, small hard-top trailer, teardrop shape. Made by the Amish. In it was a full-size bed and a galley with two-burner gas stove. And a toilet. On the roof he had installed solar panels to give him hot water for his galley and for a shower he had rigged outside.

          Next to it he had a large screened-in canopy to relax in. In one corner were four big crates loaded with books. “My travel library,” he said. A one-man kayak and a 2-man kayak. And a mountain bike.

        He told me he had been working on a famous math problem for 40 years. It had puzzled mathematicians for decades. He was close to solving it.It would revolutionize mathematics. He gave me its name.

        I wrote it down. My son Mark is an economist and that necessitates mathematics. I wanted to tell Mark about it. I did do that  but then I lost my note with the name. I wanted to show it to you. You might know something about it.  

        He introduced me to his neighbors. A man and his wife in a big RV. From Spokane, WA.  He was a retired Army lieutenant colonel in Infantry, with 20 years of  service, including hard time in Vietnam. Left. Had enough.

        Became a certified financial planner.  Said they came here and camped for 10 weeks by the quiet Colorado every winter.

        It was dark now. Very pleasant sitting out here and talking. I heard a wild animal cry.  A wild mustang!  “Relax,” Mike told me. “They’re not a problem. There are many of them here.”

        Mike invited me to spend the night, but I had to decline. I made my way out in the dark.  What a wonderful evening.

        Later my son Mark told me he had gone online and checked the math problem Mike was working on. He described it to me. Something about algorithms and how important they are.  But I couldn’t understand it.

        I believed Mike. I believe him today, I’d love to see him again. When he’s a math celebrity.

~ ~ ~

        I have much more to tell you. Things I’ve experienced and people I’ve met. No time.  This isn’t an easy trip but worth the effort.

        The hardest part has been the blazing hot afternoons (I do have ac, but still).  And the bitterly cold nights in my van, close to freezing.  Double blankets. I’ve been layering up, of course.  Wearing a heavy cap, heavy socks, another pair as mittens. Honest.  One morning I woke up. One thing on my mind. I need longjohns!

        I ran into Walmart. No longjohns.  Wrong season. Disappointment. Later I saw a Goodwill coming up. I  went in and found one pair.  Double-knitted. Excellent. A bit too large, but who cares? Looked brand-new. $1.49. I love them. Just for nights, of course. Afternoons, I’m in shorts. Hard to believe.

        I think those weather extremes have been part of my problem. And these high elevations, as I’ve mentioned.

        I’m going to take it easy. The whole idea is to enjoy the trip. Not just rush home. I’ll take slow roads wherever I can.

        The way it’s going, I’m not sure when I’ll get to Deep River. The Fourth of July? Labor Day?  Thanksgiving? Maybe Christmas. Just joking!

        I hope the road will be good. And the temperatures will ease up. And my good luck will hold true.

        Adios!

Comments

  1. jim davis says:

    dear John, great descriptions. believe you had altitude sickness plus maybe too much sun. the former happens to me at about 7,000. am forwarding to my brother and a few friends. jim

  2. Andrew Katsanis says:

    John, The problem with your emails is that once you read the first sentence you cannot stop reading until you have read every word even if it were 100 pages long. Both Sara and I enjoyed all the human interest stories. Each one was better than the last one. We did not like to hear about your being sick for a week. Sara wanted to bring you some chicken soup. You can develop a story anywhere, anytime, with whoever you happen to see.We will continue to pray for you until we hear that you are entering Deep River, Ct

  3. Joan Perrone says:

    Hi John,

    What an experience you are having!!! I’m sorry that you have been ill, and hope that you are well enough to be going it alone again.

    When you talk of Santa Fe, it brings back memories of my trip there…museums, lots of art, Indians in the square selling their goods. Also going from Sedona to Prescott and driving on those treacherous mountain roads with no guard rails for protection. Also visited Petrified Forest and Painted Dessert…using our Senior Passport, of course.

    What wonderful characters you are meeting….you are having a ball!!! :)

    Can’t wait for your next episode.

    Joan

  4. bob johnson says:

    Hello John,
    Great experience coming across America & glad you are feeling better now.
    No doubt, you have looked up Valley News Now.Com and saw the photo of me in the
    red sweater in front row. I don’t know where all the gray hair came from It must have been the
    lightning . Its a beautiful town hall now and the show was wonderful that they put on that night.

    What are you paying for gas going through each state?. Ct. is $3.69 & $3.79.

    Regards,
    Bob

  5. Nancy Simonds says:

    Hello John,

    Not sure what I’d do if you stopped sending your news. It’s always a pleasure to hear about what’re you doing and who you’ve met; such interesting characters. Not happy about you getting sick, though – so no more of that nonsense!!

    I visited Sante Fe once. Met a handsome dude. Can’t tell you what else happened!! I’ll leave that to your very vivid imagination.

    Drive safely. Watch out for all those women. And come home to tell us more about your adventures.

    Kind regards,
    ~ Nancy

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