Saturday, July 30, 2011

Ground Squirrels, Deficits and Campfires

Yesterday as I sat, eyes closed, in the afternoon sun in my chair, a curious thing happened.

A ground squirrel jumped up and landed on my right arm. I opened my eyes, and there he was sitting and staring at me. Satisfied I was nothing more than part of his park surroundings, he checked out my arm with the nose twitter of curious rodents. Having determined there was nothing to eat (I was grateful for that)  he then jumped to a nearby picnic table.

Friendlier than they appear.
He discovered a knife with peanut butter on the blade and sampled that. Then he picked up a white paper disk the size of a quarter from the top of an opened squeeze jar of honey. He liked the honey. He held the disk in his front paws to his mouth and nibbled.

Then a gust of wind took the disk from his tiny paws and blew it away. My friend was nonplussed. He didn't bother  to follow it with his eyes. Instead he looked at me. It was a curious yet satisfied stare.

I was certain then that he knew nothing of deficits or debt ceilings.

Swollen with rain. [Please click]
It has been a very green morning. Two nights of rain have transformed parched grass to emerald meadow. Shoots of all kinds are pushing up through the soil. The cottonwoods and salt cedars bristle with drink.

The rain has caused the ban on campfires to be lifted, to the happiness of all.

A week ago there was much grumbling. Half the fun of camping is sitting around the fire, watching the flames and telling stories. It's not half so much fun sitting and singing songs around the ol' propane grill.


Thursday, July 28, 2011

Eight Weeks Ago Tomorrow

It will be eight weeks tomorrow that Bus Companion died. I feel a little comment is in order about who she was and why she travels with me still.

South Dakota 2010.
Miranda Smith was many things, but in all things was the common denominator love. She understood love is life's force, is life itself. She remarked of a couple camping next to us: "That woman is well satisfied." It was her measure of things, of how much and how well one is loved.

She was a farmer. An organic farmer back in the 1970s. She came by it instinctively.

"People think farming is natural," she once said.  "It's the most unnatural thing you can do." Meaning that farming stressed the natural resources of the earth.

She became an early convert to organic farming because she loved the planet and the soil. You do not poison the earth and the air and the water with toxins that kill life. Love and life to her were inseparable.

My hummingbird visitor.
Yesterday morning when I awoke there was a soft whir high in my bus. It took a while to spot the source: a hummingbird had flown in during the night and was flying around inside the upraised poptop roof.

She didn't seem frightened. She perched on the roof handle as though it were made for her. I reached up and placed my fingers on the handle within an inch of her, and she did not fly away.

She was a reminder to me of what Bus Companion always preached:  that all life is connected, all life is beautiful and all life is brief.
Today, or possibly tomorrow, I will go into town to the Fedex depot and pick up the last package of parts needed to rebuild the bus engine: a pair of cylinder heads. The engine, though, is running remarkably well except for a slight flutter at idle. Still I think this project is one I should not put off too much longer.

Summer clouds one can almost touch.
On Monday I move into a small apartment for two months, possibly longer, in Truth or Consequences. Time not only to work on the bus but to finish two books in progress and reflect on things.

In the fall I am looking forward to a drive up the California coast to the Pacific Northwest.
The clouds of New Mexico continue to amaze even after so many months, even on a Plain Jane day like yesterday. Maybe it is because at higher elevation we are closer to them than in other places, and it affects how we perceive the sunlight hitting them, or maybe it makes them look bigger and bolder. And, because they are whipped and shaped by blowing winds, they dance and transform constantly.


Monday, July 25, 2011

More Conversation With Carl

Carl returns from town. He pulls up a chair at the picnic table. I am boiling water for tea. The sky is clear. The air cool. The sun hot. "Life is a journey," he says, as if reading the tagline to my blog.

For Carl it is a journey in two parts. Part I: poverty, alcoholism, war, violence, crime, prison.

Part II: rehabilitation, hard work, illness, introspection and peace.

My opinion of Carl as I sit and talk with him is on the rise. I understand better now how he sees the world.

"Being an adolescent is not taking responsibility for yourself and your actions," he says. Too many people remain adolescents all their lives, expecting someone or something to take care of them. When this doesn't happen they lash out at the world, become angry, depressed, Carl believes.

We talk and talk. We are interrupted by a beautiful dove perched on a trickling water faucet tipping her beak into the droplets to drink. "Isn't she beautiful," exclaims Carl, who once has a wolf as a pet.

The dove flies off. Back to the real world. Carl shakes his head.

"I tell young people, 'don't even try to be wise before you are 30'," he says. "You can't do it."

Carl's early years were tough. He served time in a federal penitentiary off the coast of Washington after coming back from Korea with post traumatic stress disorder for stealing weapons from an Army depot. He gave himself up. Later he served time in Virginia, for car theft and robbery.

In prison, he says, he learned a lesson. "You're not a criminal," a mob hit man told him while at McNeil Island. "You don't have a criminal mind. You don't think like a criminal. That's why you can't make it here. I am a criminal. I kill people.".

Carl received an amplification of that message from a sentencing judge who called him to the bench. "You're not a criminal," the judge told him. "You are an alcoholic. Get help."

The rage that fueled an
early rebellion is gone.
Released from prison in Virginia after 28 months he went to Minnesota to a mission. He gave up drinking. Signed on with AA. Got work. And, he says,  sought personal help from the Creator.

"I became humble. I asked for guidance. I had to acknowledge to myself that, on my own, I could not make my life work."

Spent was the rage that fueled his early rebellion. In its replacement came hard work. Businesses, construction, painting, contracting, driving semis. Marriages and divorces.

Peace took a little longer. Now he says he owns it. "Now I know who I am," he confides. "I neither ask for approval or give any."

He lives in his van. Mornings he wakes  to bird song and gleams of sun on the lake below. He says he is not finished with his work here.

"I have made some amends. I probably have more to go."

Seeing the world through post adolescent eyes he finds it beautiful and he is grateful to be part of it.

"You get knocked about a bit. You grow up. Say, have you seen Oregon?" he asks, changing the subject. "You should drive up the coast. It is wonderful."
My good friend Sue, whose eminently readable and beautifully illustrated blog you should read, came for breakfast Sunday morning -- eggs, bacon, toast, tea, juice, oatmeal and more, prepared al fresco and served in outdoor elegance on a park picnic table. Who says one doesn't dine well well on the go?

I should have taken a photograph of the set table but didn't. A picture of the predawn sun's glimmer on the lake just hours before will have to do.

Rising sun above Elephant Butte Lake. [Please click photo]

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Carl, Clouds, and Monsoon Rain

Dark clouds mass quickly behind a sunlit tree
Friday evening, and the park is filling up, and Carl stops to say goodbye. "I don't like crowds," he admits. "A bunch of young people just moved in next to me, so I'm leaving. Heading out for ...Walmart, maybe."

Carl drives a weathered blue Ford Econoline van with high top roof.

He's says he is part Apache and at peace with the universe. "I follow the ways of the Creator," he says without elaboration. Except that he meditates and eats mostly fruit and fish.

The van is as filled with things as is seemingly his mind.  A stack of books rides shotgun beside him in a pile. History, mostly, he says. Carl is compact, has a beard that's fading to white. He says he has experienced death twice and returned.

Both times "my Spirit Guide called me back, said I wasn't ready."

Now, he has no fear of dying. He says it is beautiful on the other side.

There is kindness in Carl. He has had he his share of marriages, kids, jobs. "I used to chase the buck. Then I had my third heart attack."

You could easily mistake him for a loaner, escaping crowds and living a loner's life in his van. But he is not. He has been among many things a counselor helping others with additions. It is not people he is removing himself from much of the time but the imprinted of mass culture. "If you want to know your own thoughts you have to spend some time alone."

The real world, he insists, is more spiritual. We are, he says, all members of spirit tribes. "You go down that tunnel, cross to the other side, and your fellow spirit tribe members will be there to greet you."

Afterward the promise
He drives off as the weekend boating traffic builds.

The lakeside campground will be filled with merrymakers. Carl won't be one of them. He'll be reading and thinking somewhere else less crowded.

He tells me he'll be back.


Last night it rained again. This is monsoon season in New Mexico, in July, when masses of clouds build suddenly and rain comes quickly in hard pelting drops, often as not blown sideways by gust winds, creature of  the mountain and desert terrain. In hours a porous desert sand soaks it in. You would be hard pressed to know it rained except that all at once everything is greener.


Thursday, July 21, 2011

Elephant Butte

Elephant Butte State Park lies adjacent to the largest lake in New Mexico, Elephant Butte lake, and is the prime boating area for this land locked state. A marina stretches finger-like into the water. Boat ramps lead down to the water. Soft sand beaches are there for the bather and swimmer.

A floating marina stretches fingers into the lake
Dawn shoreline campers await sunrise

A few campsites stretch along the road bordering the lake. More are further inland. Hardier campers with four wheel drive vehicles may risk the soft sand to set up shelter along the beach.

It is one of three, and the largest, of the New Mexico state parks in the lake area created by the damming of Rio Grande river.

As in Caballo, birds abound. There is fishing. Most of all, though, there is boating. The park is on the western shore of the lake. The sun rises cross it bathing the water in early glow.

The photo of cactus was not taken at Elephant Butte but earlier on the way. The expression of harsh ruggedness and simple beauty under white cotton ball clouds merits inclusion.

I am camped on a hill top. I can see the sun reflecting fiery silver in the lake as I write.

It is a beautiful sight.


Monday, July 18, 2011

OK So Maybe I Didn't Cook the Engine After All ...

Then again maybe I did. Too soon to tell. But there are encouraging signs.

Three days ago I put in new points. Suddenly she is running on all four cylinders again, and sounding a lot letter. Today I found my timing light -- hard to lose something in a space small as a bus but I did -- and set the timing. Still sounds a little loud but much, much better.  I'll know more after a few more road tests. Meanwhile $800 worth of parts to rebuild the engine are starting to come in this week. Hopefully, I won't need them. Not just yet anyway.

The weather continues hot here at Caballo Lake State Park. And the dawns and sunsets just as beautiful. Cows wandered into the park last night and grazed placidly among the tents and RVs.

Just another breath take away dawn at Caballo
Besides cows we have skunks. None has sprayed so far, yet they are odiferous in the approach and repellant even from afar.

Yet they are beautiful. They move like ghost critters in the moonlight bathed silver above and black beneath. They walk without hurry looking for scraps.

And rattlesnakes. Our camp host, Jack, killed and skinned a small one yesterday and mounted the skin on a board. The snake had tried to bite a ranger's leg. It only got a mouthful of cloth for its effort.

But the night time shadow cows are the more interesting. No one seems to know where they come from. They walk down the river and emerge among us in moonlight. By morning they are gone.

Jack, by the way, and his wife, originally from Tennessee, have been full-timing it for five years and love Caballo with its thirsty salt cedar trees, rustling cottonwoods and wild birds as much as I do.

Tomorrow I look at an apartment in Truth or Consequences. It's up for rent for a few months.  It may be just the place to settle in for a while and do some serious writing before pressing on in the fall. Or it may be time for a longer sojourn. The bus has 41 years on its chassis. And I am older than my bus by three decades. We all wear out eventually.

Another dawn in a different hue
Besides it's a nice neighborhood.  And there is a movie theatre with $2 popcorn in walking distance.

Life is good sometimes.


Saturday, July 16, 2011

The art of Laundry in a VW Bus

A clothes line is your out doors dryer
Laundry in a VW Bus-- or any small van or RV -- can be a simple pleasure and joy.  Or it can be a chore that takes part of the fun away from camping and life on the open road.

Depending on where you are makes a difference. Some RV parks have laundromats. State parks and National Parks do not.

But there are reasons for avoiding the laundromat route when possible. Doing so means having a new and different attitude toward washing clothes. In a house with a washing machine and dryer, it makes sense to let laundry pile up and do it once a week or so. Your bus doesn't have a washing machine and dryer. Instead, if you have outfitted it correctly, it has a bucket, a clothes line, some clothes pins and a small scrub brush. 

These non-electric appliances take up almost no space. Choose a bucket small enough to stow easily. When you are not doing laundry use it for additional storage. 

A simple bucket is your washing machine.
The bucket I use in an old Fresh Step kitty litter bucket that I picked up at a thrift store for $1.50. It has a nice handle and the rectangular shape lends itself well to nesting a slightly smaller rectangular box inside that can be readily pulled out.

A small brush is shown attached to the bucket. This is important for getting out ground in dirt, especially the knees of blue jeans, for example, and stains.

Most of the time I do not use soap or detergent. Letting clothes soak for an hour or two, occasionally reaching in and moving them around, will get them remarkably clean in just water alone. The water should be at least 65 degrees.  Stains can be attacked with direct soap contact, stain  remover and your brush.

Another advantage to not using detergent is that you do not need a separate rinse. After the clothes have soaked for and hour or two they can be wrung out and hung up the dry.

The secret that makes this system work is doing it every day or every other day. Besides being easy to do it also means the clothes you want to wear are always at the ready. Not stuck away in the dirty clothes bag. And it means not being stuck lugging around a continually expanding dirty laundry bag.

Once your clothes are dry fold them up and put them away.  A breeze also helps permanent press clothing regain shape. Sunshine and fresh air make everything smell good. Plus soaked and air-dried clothes look better longer than clothing beaten up in a mechanical washer and hot air dryer. One caveat:  Be careful of birds.

Things like sheets and pillow cases may be washed once a week. You can keep them fresh by airing them daily on the same clothes line without washing.

Once you establish your daily washing routine you will wonder why you ever did it any other way before.


Thursday, July 14, 2011

Sunset on Percha Flats

Yesterday was good day, and so too the day before. At the end of yesterday I hiked an area called Percha Flats, where primitive camping is allowed, to watch the transformation of the sky and mountains as the sun set. I was not disappointed.

Life in a Volkswagen Bus has its pleasures, none greater than seeing the world and meeting new people in it. Two of the finest I've met in a while are fellow bloggers, Sue Sorenson and Brian Kemsley. (Links to their blogs.)

It was a hot Tuesday.  We sat and drank ice water and discussed the affairs of the world, and in particular of Truth or Consequences, the little town that used to be known as Hot Springs, New Mexico. It is a town of human scale and human proportion. And above all, human. There is good affordable food at restaurants, and one can walk the downtown in 10 minutes.

Beneath the town hot artesian water flows. It is a town that time forgot a long time ago and is only now beginning to rubs its eyes and remember the spas, streets, alleys and sleepy stores -- some closed for the summer.

There are no chain stores in downtown TorC.  And only a few at the north end.

Back to Percha Flats at sunet.

I walked up an old asphalt road to the entrance, and then down a gravel road to the sprawling flats below that lie along the south tip of Caballo Lake. There were a dozen or so RVs grouped together near the water. Dinners cooking on outdoor grills. Kids and dogs splashing in the water. But my attention was on the sky and the too-big-to-be-hills, too-small-to-be-mountains that rise above the lake to the east.

The entrance to Percha Flats.  For $8 you can camp there.

Soon the sky began to darken.

As I watched and waited a breeze of 20 to 30 mph blew in steadily from the east. It brought a flotilla of clouds and damped down the sunlight. Suddenly a large rainbow sliced through the sky in clouds to the south above the still-glowing sunlit flats across a shallow inlet.

Then storm clouds rode in like Valkyries atop the hills.

But only a while.

The furies spent, they disappeared, leaving a clearing sky.

All grew still. The shoreline bathed in gold.

And toward California all is quiet on the western front.


Saturday, July 9, 2011

How Do You Cook in a VW Bus?

How do you cook in a VW bus? Early buses argued that you didn't. Early buses are designed so the cook stands outside using a portable stove placed on a fold-up folding table attached just above the spice rack.

A later Vanagon interior with cooking
accessories inside along the wall.
Things changed in 1976 with the redesign of the interior. Now, instead of cooking standing outside, cooking was brought inside with kitchen accessories including fridge, sink, stove and cabinetry placed along the interior wall behind the driver's seat.

There is something to be said for each school of thought. Having a complete kitchen inside, though a small one, makes it easy to get up, start the coffee, fry the eggs and bacon, and get on with the day just like at home. The same goes for dinner.

But some will argue, do you really wish to cook inside vehicle at all?  Maybe. Maybe not. How much grease do you want floating around?

The outdoor approach as shown in this 1972 brochure has the sink, folding table, spice rack, water supply and refrigerator/ice box at the door. Just visible inside is the fold-up table on the back wall. The interior table can be set while the chef prepares the meal standing outside.

The refrigerator door is hinged to be accessible from the outside. A portable stove, of course, has many advantages. It can be used on the fold-up table shown in the brochure. It can also be placed on a picnic table at some distance. Often this makes the most sense.

Almost all early buses had an icebox and not a refrigerator. A few had refrigerators that were sometimes loud and noisy and run on propane or 12 volt.

A 12-volt 1.5 cubic Norcold refrigerator
 replaces the original  icebox.
In my bus the original ice box has been replaced by a Norcold 12-volt unit of almost the exact same size. In it powered by an auxiliary battery which in turn is charged by a solar panel

There are pros and cons to both indoor and outdoor approaches. Cooking outside in cold, wet and windy weather is no fun, and sometimes impossible. On the other hand thinking of the entire outdoors as an extension of your kitchen is a good way to not feel all cramped up in a vehicle that at 14-feet in length is shorter than a Toyota Camry.

Either way the most important thing is to plan meals in advance making sure you have all the ingredients, cookware, etc. needed.  For those who live in a bus it is important to plan good, hearty and well-balanced meals. It makes travel and living in a bus all that much more enjoyable. It takes time, effort and sometimes a bit of ingenuity. But well worth it.

Boeuf bourguignon anyone?  Next: laundry and housekeeping.


Thursday, July 7, 2011

A Magical Dawn

Dawn came with great clarity and magical purpose this morning. The bright summer sun topped the hills to the east across the Rio Grande, poured light on the river and trees and sleeping campers below, and  chased away the dark sheep clouds that had wondered in during the night. Within minutes all was light.

Dawn came with magical purpose, chasing away the black sheep clouds.
It is a magical semi-desert kingdom.

Vegetation along the river consists mostly of Cottonwoods and Salt Cedars. Salt Cedars are squat, gnarly trees originally from eastern Europe and long held here in low esteem because of their prodigious thirst, drinking what water there is and crowding out other trees. But now some are having second thoughts and questioning whether their reputation as water drunks is merited.

These trees, though, are a delight to the senses. Their tough, twisted trunks and branches, and gnarly bark and delicate foliage give them a saintly, rugged air -- Zen masters in arboral guise. Their squat lowness  to the ground makes them accessible to climbing and to just walking up to one and saying 'hello.'

The Salt Cedar's low, squat posture makes them accessible.
The Rio Grande has its source in the mountains of south Colorado and flows through New Mexico via Taos, Albuquerque and Las Cruces just above El Paso. In Texas it demarcates the border between that state and three Mexican states before finishing its 1800-mile journey in the Gulf of Mexico.

Here, where I am camping, it is held in check to feed two large lakes -- Elephant Butte 20 miles to the north, and Caballo Lake, created in the 1930s when a lake 96-foot hig dam was built during the Depression, where I am.

But there is still plenty of water. During most of the year water leaves the lake by dam spillway. I can hear it cascading in the distance.  The river here is narrow and swift. It flows about 15 miles an hour. To swim in it would be an exercise of winding up a mile down stream in short order. Yet the waters are cool and refreshing, and in the heat of the day I do wade in and sit among the heavy bottom stones that anchor the river bed and let the cool water wash over me.

The Rio Grande south of Caballo Lake Dam. In the distance the spillway.


Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Back at Caballo — Bus Problems

Caballo Lake State Park picnic site
I am back in Caballo Lake State Park, about 20 miles south of Truth or Consequences. I arrived last Friday after a 300 mile drive from Taos in hot weather -- too hot! I pushed the bus too hard and on a long uphill grade she overheated and suffered some damage. I limped the last few miles on two cylinders. The good news is I found a mechanic in Las Cruces, about 60 miles away, who can do the repairs. The bad news is that it will be about two weeks for parts and until he can clear his schedule to accommodate me. The good news is that he seems like an honest and nice guy. The bad news is I have plenty of time on my hands. The good news is that I am writing again -- thus the blog is back up (Sorry, I won't take it down again.) The bad news is that it is extremely hot -- upper 90s and brutal sun. This is taking a toll on my solar electric system. Solar panels are less efficient in high heat and my refrigerator wants to run more. The combo means each day my battery reserves are down a bit more.

I arrived here on Friday, just before the July 4th weekend. The park filled up quickly -- though the camp host told me not as much as last year. Still it was party atmosphere -- music, food, drinks. A festive mood. I like that. Life is joy and celebration! Now the party is over and I am pretty much alone except for neighbors in an adjacent site. They play music all day long -- an odd mix of everything from early 1950s oldies to Mexican to Eric Clapton and Disco. It is cheerful music, though, and I will miss it and them when they leave.

Pesky little flies, about half the size of house flies, have invaded my small home on wheels. They are very quick and hard to swat. I marvel at their energy. They are so tiny. What makes their metabolisms so efficient? What do they eat? My admiration is somewhat diminished  by how annoying they are. They like to buzz my nose.

I have discovered that if I did not want the bathroom facilities of a state park I could camp lakeside for free. Much of the land is BLM land. I have walked it and have seen nice rigs and setups at the shore. For now I like the ease and comfort of the park, one of the nicest anywhere. New Mexico has great rates. $14 gets you a full hookup. $10 gets you a site with table and water access. For $225 an out of stater like myself can by a pass good for one year good for camping in any of the state's many parks. I may just opt for this.

My posts may be less frequent for a while as I siesta in the sun and wait on repairs. But on the road or stationary the journey continues.


Friday, July 1, 2011

Taos Day Last — On The Road Again

Dawn's Early Light -- 1 July 2011
The Los Alamos fires continue to burn. I could see them last night from my bus, faint, sparkling incendiaries in the distance. The laboratory and city of Los Alamos appear safe but other areas, including sacred native lands, are threatened. This link is worth the follow if it is still up.

Morning dawned crisp and clear. I am packed and soon will be heading south to Truth or Consequences. But first a few words about my host and friend, Shelley, and her house, Casa Tolteca.

A few years ago Shelley was walking a beach in California. She saw a discarded ski lift pass. She picked it up. It spoke to her. In big bold letters across the top it said  Taos.  She had not thought of Taos before. She did now.

An array of solar panels supplies power at Casa Tolteca
She contacted a real estate agent, sold her house in California, and bought a new one here on a mountainside 14 miles above Taos with a formidable western view. Today that lift pass sits framed on a bookshelf, a reminder of what got her here.

What is wonderful about her house, aside from the comfort of the house itself, is the technology that makes it work. An array of solar panels furnishes all the electricity. And plenty of it. Water is funneled from the roof when it rains and stored underground. It is pumped through a series of filtration steps to a holding tank in the house as needed. Cell phones and satellite provide communication and Internet access.

None of this would have been possible a generation or two ago. Today it is. The world has opened to ways of living out of the mainstream without the privation of Thoreau's cabin. The American dream of change and renewal is alive and well.

Last night she and I had a farewell dinner. We talked. In the city you wear opinions like armor and wield them like weapons. In the desert the desert laughs at opinion.. The cycle of life teaches acceptance and contentment.

And there is urban energy nearby as well.

Fourteen miles away  the city of Taos has its seasons. Cool spring and mild, summer. Brisk fall and winter skiing. Tourism. Bustle. Music. Plays. Concerts. Restaurants. Parks. Museums. Shopping -- including Cid's, class act organic grocery store.

Had Shelley not found the ski pass dated 2-15-06 on the beach and paid heed its whispered advice she would not be here today. And I would not have had the chance to see the sun rise over the the Sangre de Cristo mountains and set behind Brazos mountains in the west. Nor have met such a friend as Shelley

Time now to push south.    JNR