Saturday, September 24, 2011

Three Men and Their Trades

An 8-foot stack of sun-bleached
bones outside Charlie's antler emporium.
I heard him before I saw him, muttering softly to himself or perhaps singing. There was no moon but enough ambient light to make out the figure of a man wearing a hat and a beard and carrying and tall and loaded backpack frame. He passed by me and walked about 50 yards, then turned around and came back. I was curious who this person was and so I waited. Obligingly on his approach he introduced himself as Freddie and set down his heavily loaded backpack frame.

He also set down a large blue and white checked cloth neatly folded and tied at the corners which he untied to display the contents: a small bundle of dry mesquite wood, some rice, beans, onions and chunks of meat.

"All I need is a pot to cook 'em in," he said.

"Where are you from?" I asked. "And did you walk?"

"Redding. Redding, California. Walked most of the way," he said. "Hitched a few trains too."

The odd thing about Freddie was that he was neat and clean. Not at all the stereotypical hobo. His hair was cut, his beard trimmed. He looked about 45. His backpack frame and its contents all clean if not spanking new. No smell of sweat, drink or cigarettes.

"What are you doing?" I asked. "Camping by the river." he replied.  He surveyed his stash of food and wood lying on the ground. "Just need a pot to cook in," he repeated. "I'll bring it back," he said imploringly. "I'll find some wire and ball it up and scrub it clean."

It was, I decided, worth the gamble. I brought out my old Coleman cooking pot and lid and offered it to him. He accepted. "I'll bring it back," he promised.

"What are the odds he'll bring it back?" I asked my friend standing next to me. "About one in three against," she said.

I watched him disappear into the night. It was the last time I saw my pot.

The trouble with being on the road and owning and living in a VW bus is that no one works on them any more. Well, hardly anyone. In Las Cruces, NM, there is Tunie. He was recommended by a garage in Truth or Consequences as about the only one left within a hundred miles who works on aircooleds.

I'd beat the bus up pretty bad in the summer, driving it hard in hundred degree temps on mountain roads. I figured new heads at least for openers, but never got around to starting the project, and now fall is coming and I need something reliable and was willing to pay if only I could find someone to do it.

It was about 70 miles straight down from TorC to exit 9 on I-25 and then a three or four mile jag down some back roads Tuesday to get to Tunie's, a soft-spoken man well into his  years, from Mexico, with some 42 years of VW wrench turning under his belt. His house, he said, was the pink one at 145 San Ysidora Road.

I didn't need a mailbox or house color to find it. Tunie's was the dwelling with a dozen dead and dying VWs in various stages of decay in the front. I had made an appointment. Tunie was expecting me.

He ambled out, a big man, walking slow. His eyes twinkled. "Nice bus," he said. I thanked him.

He nodded. After some talk I left things in his care. Three days, he said, to  pull the engine, rebuild the top end, test it, tune it and get it back to me.  That was Tuesday.

Thursday came and Tunie called. He had an eye infection and couldn't work, a patch on one eye. I took him at his word. On Saturday I dropped by.  There was my engine now disassembled, and Tunie, eye-patch removed, going over each part and examining it with loving care. We fell into talking VW. "Take your time," I told him, my faith in the soft-spoken man growing.  "Whatever it needs do it. I want to be able to drive to the Pacific Northwest this fall. And across country." His eyes twinkled. 'When I am finished you will be able to drive anywhere without  worry for years."

That's what I wanted to hear. Keep wrenching, Tunie. You are part of a dying breed.

I met Charlie an hour our so outside of Yellowstone National Park  in Montana on the way to Cody. It wasn't hard to meet Charlie. An eight-foot stack of sun-bleached skulls and antlers in front of his barn/workshop announces his presence just off the highway.

Charlie in his youth had been a roustabout in the oil fields of Montana until the fields shut down. With  a home and family to support, he looked for a way to make a living, selling arrowheads and souvenirs to tourists heading to and coming from nearby Yellowstone. It was slim pickings at first. So Charlie enlarged the menu, adding furs, knick-knacks, stuffed animals, mounted heads.

But the breakthrough came when Charlies discovered some folks just like antlers. And there were plenty of them around for the taking. Elk and moose and deer shed their antlers annually. Soon Charlie had more antlers than he could use. What to do with them all?

Charlie's antler chandelier. 
It was then that he got creative. He decided to use elk and moose and deer antlers the way other craftsmen might use driftwood—to fashion displays, make artifacts, using the natural curves and curls of his materials to create designs. And business began to take off.

"I guess I created this industry," he says. "It's kind of a recycling these things one last go."

Growing antlers each year is a nutritional drain on large cervids such as elk, moose and deer. They grow rapidly and require lots of food intake.

Charlie rubs his chin philosophically. "It's a shame to see all that natural effort go to waste."

Out in front the stack of bleached bones, skulls and antlers testifies to nature's bounty. "And they can be pretty and useful too."

About Antlers—Antlers serve many functions, from fighting to adornment. Reindeer in the north use antlers to clear ice and snow when foraging for food. But perhaps none is more unusual than that of the moose. Studies show a moose without a rack does not hear as well as its horned brethren. The antlers serve the moose, among other things, scientists believe, as a giant parabolic sound reflector.


Sunday, September 18, 2011

Yellowstone — Part Two: Bison and Beyond

Thursday we found the bison. More precisely they found us. The herd was migrating and crossing the road where we stopped. They all but ignored us, showing no fear or wariness, and walking past people and vehicles as they might a rocks and trees.

Bison never seem to hurry. (Click on all photos to enlarge.)
Strangely, they make little noise even on hard pavement, as though their hooves were of softer material than those of cows and horses; but it may be due to the ever-so-slow and deliberate way they move.

Bison never seem to hurry. Up a hill, down a hill, always the same leisurely pace.

A young bull munches.
The thick mane on the nape of the neck is both wiry, and thick and soft, at the same time. The coat is shaggy. Bison are designed to make it through the long winters when snow covers the ground and temperatures regularly drop to zero and below.

Below, the herd fattens on the still green and lush grass of late summer.

Friday, we returned to the same meadow. The bison had moved on. In their stead a pair of coyotes ran through the  thick, tall grass before skirting the river and scampering up a hill.

A coyote trots through tall grass. 

A pair of coyotes check out the river's edge.
But mostly we spent the last day enjoying the views—some shown below—before packing up and heading south to warmer climes and sunshine of New Mexico.

Pines, river and sky.

Yellowstone Mountainscape.

Yellowstone's 'Grand Canyon' viewed from top.

Vapors rise from a rolling river.

Yellow pine needles.
Go take a hike.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Yellowstone — Part One: Elk, Goats and Geyser

Yellowstone in mid-September lies like a great brown and green blanket in folds over the northwest corner of Wyoming patiently waiting winter while yet basking in the warmth of late summer sun.

Elk graze in street median in Mammoth
Elk meander into towns and parks and graze on grass and chew the shrubbery. The bison migrate in herds to lower pasture. Aspens quake in the the breeze. Tall pines sway back and forth in the winds that come up suddenly and just as suddenly cease and the air becomes silent. Rivers flow. Coyotes sing coyote songs in the night. Pronghorn sheep, antelopes and mountain goats clamber.

Even the earth is alive. There is Old Faithful, to be sure. But there are 300 more geysers and hot springs all over. Steam rises. The earth bubbles in transformation, and petrified trees testify to the long ago.

The faithful watch Old faithful in action.
It is as if part of the North American continent remains unchanged and untouched by man except where crossed by roads and dotted by village and campground.

The invasive species here is the populace in its cars and tents, RVs, trailers, tour buses, vans. We are the outsiders come to see but not disturb.

Yellowstone, signed into law as an act to preserve the land for public use in 1872 by President Ulysses S. Grant, became the world's first National Park. And the idea that a large part of the natural world should be preserved for future generations was born.

The park is is 3,468.4 square miles, most of it in Wyoming and some small areas in Montana and Idaho.

It is home to the world's largest bison herd, to brown and black bears and grizzlies, to coyotes, to wolves. There were approximately 100 wolves in the park at the end of 2010 depending primarily on elk for food.

Mountain goats clamber down an almost vertical precipice. 
Ironically, this vast expanse of land that has seen human habitation for 11,000 years excluded Indians from the start. A treat allowing hunting privileges for some Native Americans was never ratified by Congress.

The automobile opened the park to touring. Between 1933 and 1941 the Civilian Conservation Corps constructed many of the campsites and villages that make Yellowstone so accessible.

Usually, touring tapers off after Labor Day. Not this year. The campgrounds are full. Hotels and RV parks outside the park are booming. The combination of a milder autumn and weaker dollar that encourages many to stay at home may be responsible. Who can say.

The Gardner River snakes through the upper reaches of the park in Montana.
So far the adventure has been well worth it. There is a sense of peace in this land where humans and their needs and wants and machines co-exist in peace with the elk, deer, bear, squirrel, rabbit and all. Two mornings ago an elk cow wandered through our pine forest campground and stared placidly at all about her before leaving without hurry.  A bison walked down the paved road as though the road belonged to him.

"In a sense it does," said a ranger. "These creatures have been coming here and following these same migratory routes for centuries. We are the Johnny-Come-Latelies. For the most part they ignore us."

A late summer thistle in Yellowstone.
The days have been warm with highs in the 70s.  The nights cool with temperatures in the mid 30s.  Sometimes by mid September there is snow. Not this year. This year there is a sense of lingering summer. The full moon two nights ago rose above the mountain peaks and bathed the land below in a pale white light.

A harbinger perhaps of the white winter quilt soon to follow this late summer blanket browns and greens.


Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Off to Yellowstone at Summer's End

Yellowstone bisons.
It may be a while before the next post. We are off to Yellowstone for a few weeks of camping and hiking at summer's end, as the seasons change. It isn't clear if Internet access will be available or how much time there will be for blogging. But it should be a great adventure. One worth sharing with you soon.

Old Faithful.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Eating Chiles in Hatch

Hatch Chile Festival 2011.
Hatch, NM, is the chile capital of the world.

Every Labor day weekend for the past 40 years, thousands of visitors descend on the usually sleepy town to celebrate chiles. New Mexico green chiles.

This year was no exception. To understand what this fuss is all about it helps to understand something about chiles. Chiles are the fourth great food group from the New World—behind potatoes, tomatoes and corn—to make its mark on global cuisine.

Chiles are rich in vitamins. A good green New Mexico chile has six times as much vitamin C as an orange. For more information about chiles see Chile Facts. They are also flavorful

But what really makes a chile a chile—and why Columbus called them peppers—is a chemical called capsaichin. Capsaichinoids do two things. They fool receptors in the mouth, nose and throat into thinking you have just eaten something fiery hot. The body responds by elevating the heart rate and dousing itself with water, which is why some people break out in a sweat. Capsaichinoids also release endorphins, giving a sense of well-being.

Dried chiles festoon the town.
Not all chiles are created equal. The common garden variety bell pepper is a chile with virtually no capsaichinoids. The succulent green New Mexico variety grown and celebrated here is a mild chile with just enough punch to please the palate, making it ideal for eating, sauces and flavoring foods.The green chile cheeseburger is a New Mexico staple.

At the upper end of the heat range are piquins, cayennes, tabascos and rocotos. And at the top end there are some so hot you don't want to touch them.

By universal consensus the best of the succulent New Mexico chiles are  grown in the fertile valley of the Rio Grande in and around Hatch. Visitors come to the festival from around the world. The BBC sent a camera crew to film the event.

During the festival chiles are roasted along sidewalks, suffusing the air with a savory piquant scent. Bunches of bright red and yellow chiles hang from store fronts, posts, beams and rooftops like holiday decorations. Vendors sell raw chiles, roasted chiles, foods prepared with chiles, chile sauces and chile souvenirs.

For two glorious days the whole town of Hatch chiles out.
Carried in 40 pound sacks.

A few miles outside of town is the festival itself—a giant county fair dedicated to honoring the genus Capiscum. It sprawls over several acres of open field. Admission is $10 the car.

We are just in time for the chile eating contest. Green chiles are piled high on paper plates. All the chiles must be eaten except the stems. It takes about three minutes for the winner to pack in two pounds of greens washed down with water.

Mostly there is music, vendors and a carnival feel. Besides chiles, vendors sell slices of fruits and melons sprinkled with chile powder. The combination is surprisingly good.
Music is part of the festival.

There are also souvenirs from Mexico, Ecuador and beyond. The festival is known to draw as many as 30,000 visitors, though this year there were fewer.  It has been going on for 40 years.

There is international interest. Indians may have discovered the chile more than 6000 years ago, but the discovery has gone global.

Today Thailand consumes more chiles per capita than any other country in the world. Chiles are grown and eaten around the globe.

But the best chiles—the best succulent green New Mexico chiles—are produced right here in fertile, sun-drenched Dona Ana county, New Mexico. Worth a drive.

Dried chiles—beautiful to behold.