Tuesday, November 27, 2012

New Leg of the Journey

I no longer am living full-time in my bus. That does not mean the journey is over.

One of the benefits of minimalist living is that it strips away the value that we too often place on material goods and possessions. Often we do not even understand why we are so caught up in owning things that in end end up owning us. For anyone who has not seen it I recommend watching PBS's Scott Simon's Affluenza.

Colorado Monument 
I spent two weeks at Colorado Monument outside Grand Junction, coming down from the mountain only once for groceries and never tired of the experience – of waking up to a different dawn each day and being overwhelmed by the majesty I saw all around.

Nor did I tire of the other campers who came there.

One was a couple from Canada who brought with them a nephew and a powerful telescope and software that helped them find and zero in on planets and stars.

Another was a man fighting lung disease and breathing the clear air to get better. And he did. In just a few weeks' stay he was able to take long walks.

A third was a couple from Toronto, also in a Volkswagen, who came there "to find ourselves."  They were lost, they said, in their marriage and in the world until one day they realized they could wake up "without care or worry." And so they hit the road.

And the hodge-podge gang from Brooklyn – five guys who pooled their resources and bought a beat-up RV determined to make it to San Francisco and drink beer all the way. We laughed until it got dark at night and the stars came out.

While I was travelling many asked what I was doing to fill my days. Nothing, I replied. The days fill themselves. It is remarkable how little there is that needs to be done once you let go of the internal need for doing, as if your productivity somehow mattered to the world. It doesn't.

What you get as a life-long gift, just as happened with the couple from Toronto, is your sanity back.

A desert cactus flowers.
Viewed from the grandeur of rugged peaks where artists come to paint, the world looks a lot bigger and we experience ourselves a lot smaller.

You can spend an hour watching an ant or a flower or a bee, and no time is lost at all, and what is gained is greater love of life. And maybe a little more understanding too – though not in a way that can be put into words.

A park ranger told me there that there is no shortage of water even in the semi-desert. "We get the right amount of water for everything that lives here," she said. For the junipers and the piñon pines, and the desert bluebirds that feed of the juniper berries, and the bees that visit the flowers, there is enough. And for scurrying mice and the hawks overhead. It's there.

It struck me that there was a lot of wisdom in that observation, and it had more to it than just an explanation of thriving desert life.

The riches of this planet whether sparse or lush are what they are. There is enough for everything and everyone that lives on this planet if we understand and ask only what we really need.

Colorado mountains viewed in westering sun from Monument.
And maybe that was what was so inviting in the song sung to me by the breeze up there are night:  that you have enough when you have enough, and you don't need more. Just a place to lay your head and sing your own song until the sun comes up again tomorrow as it always will.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Chimayó — Father Roca, Short Legs and a Long Life

It has been called the Lourdes of America. Since 1810, when the first chapel was built on the site, stories abound of miraculous cures.

Today, thousands of photographs, a hundred or more canes and crutches and wheel chairs left behind and no longer needed attest to cures said to have taken place at El Santuario del Chimayó 28 miles North of Santa Fe.

El Santuario del Chimayó
The present chapel was built in 1816. The original six years earlier.

Stories of how the first chapel was built, and  the second was brought back from oblivion, are stories of little miracles in their own right.

The story of the original chapel dates to 1810 when Bernardo Abeyta saw a strange light coming from a hill above the Santa Cruz river. When he went to the site and dug he uncovered a buried crucifix.

Three times the crucifix was taken to the local village. And three times it disappeared only to be found again at the original site.

Señor Abeyta got the message. A chapel should be built there. And it was. Almost immediately word spread of the healing power of the little church, and  in 1813 Abeyta asked permission to build a bigger chapel. The chapel that now stands was completed in 1816.

For more than a hundred years the chapel remained in the private hands of the Abeyta family. By pilgrims continued to come and make offerings. But by 1929 the chapel had fallen into disrepair. To preserve the little chapel  it was purchased by preservationists and given to the  Archdiocese of Santa Cruz to preserve and protect it.

Father Casimiro Roca at 94.
That same year, 1929 a small, 11-year-old boy in Mura, Spain, asked his parents to let him enter the seminary. The family was poor butthe seminarians agreed to let him study with paying. The boy was Casimiro Roca. Times were hard.  His two brothers were killed during the Spanish civil war and Casimiro Roca fled to Italy where he completed his studies and took his vows in 1945.

"It was," he recalls, "the happiest day of my life to become a priest."

Meanwhile across the ocean in America, the Archdiocese of Santa Cruz in New Mexico was trying to figure out what to do with the rundown little chapel now in its charge — wellspring of so many legends and tales of healing, now fallen into disrepair.

But somewhere the wheels of divine providence were busy turning. Following a traumatic illness in 1950, Fr. Casimiro Roca decided to come to America to get a new start. In 1954, the archdiocese sent him to go to Chimayó to revive the little parish. There, he says, he fell in love with the people and the mountain. Several times he left but always come back. In 1984 he returned for keeps.

Courtyard conversation.
Over the more than 60 years that he has shepherded the small parish much has been done.

"We bought land. We planted trees. We buttressed the walls. We patched. We repaired," he recalls.

And he got a few breaks. In 1970 El Santuario del Chamiyó was designated a National Historic Landmark. Soon the trickle of pilgrims coming each year became a flood.  coming. Today,  more than a quarter million visitors come to Chamiyó each year &mash; as many as 30,000 during Holy Week alone. Some walk the 90 miles from Albuquerque.

Father Roca at 94 says he keeps busy but is slowing down. There is  pride mixed with annoyance as he recounts the years of hard work. "I did all this," he says with a sweeping gesture. "Now I am tired."

But the church, he says, will not let him retire. He talks about going back to Spain.

It is probably in the church's interest — as well as the chapel's — that he stays on. He has become a legend ass much as the sanctuary itself.

Wildflowers outside the  sanctuary at Chimayó, New Mexico.
He speaks castilian Spanish and comports himself with the dignity befitting a man of God.

He says he thinks his place was destined to be here and wonders how much longer the Church, or God, will keep him.

He has no regrets, he says. "None. And I thank God for that. I have my way of life here."

We say good-bye and head back to our bus in the chapel parking lot and pass wildflowers along the way. The short priest — all four feet, ten inches of him — seems as native to the soil as the desert flowers we see thriving around us.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012


It was a few minutes before 5 o'clock when we turned off New Mexico 68 that runs from Espanola to Taos, and down a winding road paralleling the Rio Grande, through the Orilla Verde federal recreation area where the Bureau of Land Management maintains seven campgrounds in the mountain-flanked gorge.

A 1968 VW — red fading to rust.
In summer the campgrounds are crowded with white water rafters. In September when we were   there they weren't.

An hour before we had been sitting in sunshine at a picnic table munching burritos  Now the sky had darkened, the wind had picked up, foreshadowing rain..

We chose the second campground, Rio Bravo, and pulled in. There were only about a half dozen or so others there — a few tent campers, an RV or two, and down by the river a beat up VW, red fading to rust, draped with plastic. It looked abandoned. It wasn't.

When the rain stopped and late afternoon sun came out, bathing the camp in golden light, so did Barbara, a woman in her early 60s who has been living in  her car for more than twenty years. Out of respect for her privacy I am not showing her picture.

The Rio Grande as it passes the Rio Bravo campground south of Taos.
All her possessions are stuffed in plastic bags inside the car where she sleeps nights curled up on the front seat.

The Rio Bravo campsite where we were, and other campsites as well, has toilet facilities and heated showers.

As she unfolded and stretched getting out of her car, she smiled at her new neighbors. We talked. There was no bitterness or self pity in her conversation, or any trace of self-consciousness.  Her dignity was intact. Life, she said, looking at the clearing sky, was good, although she said she had heath problems.

There are many Barbara's out there today who have chosen the freedom of the road rather than the supervision of a shelter, and the unfiltered grandeur of a river gorge instead of the concrete confines of the city.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Sorghum Molasses — The North Carolina Way

James Isaacs was hoping to get 15 gallons of sorghum molasses this year. Instead he got just 7.5. He can't be sure of the culprit but he suspects the DEA.

Frank Hopkins feeds cane-like stalks of sorghum into the press.
This year when he went to inspect his two-acre field he found half of his crop had been blown down and was broken, much of it dead.

The damage was  in different places — not uniform like storm damage.

Isaacs looked skyward.

"About the only thing that I can think of that could do this sort of thing," he said, "are helicopters.

Other than that, though, Saturday morning turned out to be a great day to make molasses in Rockingham County.

Dawn came gray and cloudy, just as a trailer loaded down with the cut sorghum was drawn up near an old tractor powered cane press, the engine turned on, and 81-year-old Frank Hopkins took his seat to begin a seven-hour stint of feeding in stalks one at a time.

As the press did its relentless work the juice flowed, first into a bucket, and then down a pipe and into a large vat above a wood burning fire where it was constantly stirred and skimmed as it thickened.
Steam rises from the vat of molasses. Care must be taken to prevent
the thickening syrup from scorching so it is constantly being stirred

Steam rose into the cool air. Gradually 75 gallons of sorghum juice boiled down to a creamy smooth brown syrup.

Sorghum molasses — especially the
slow-cooked kind like Isaacs and his partner, Jimmy Jones, were making — is subtler in flavor than the sugar cane molasses found in stores. It is also lighter in flavor and more suited for pouring on pancake and waffles — and is especially good on fresh-baked  hot-buttered biscuits.

And like wine it gradually changes as it ages, developing a more complex taste and is said to reach its peak only after about three to four years.

While it's cooking, judging when the syrup is ready to be pulled and canned is tricky. Too soon and it will have a "green" taste and will never fully ripen in the jar. Cooked too long and it can lose the subtle flavor that distinguishes it from its more robust cousin, sugar cane molasses, or scorch if the fire is too hot.

For some reason this year Isaacs' batch is taking a long time to cook.

A curious bystander watches.
"Last time we were done by three o'clock," he says. Now it is almost five and the light is fading from the sky.

There are reasons for the inconsistencies. Everything from how much rain fell during the year, to how much sun, to when it was harvested go into making each batch unique.

But finally, after much sampling it is pronounced ready.

From the cooking vat  it is drawn off into a larger container with a spigot, and from there canned sterilized pint, half-pint and quart jars. Samples are passed around.

"Good," is the verdict. "Worth waiting for," is another.

Isaacs smiles. Next year, he says, if the Feds don't terrorize his crop again maybe there will be more.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Blows of the Hurricane

Today the sun shone brilliantly in a clear sky, warming the bus and making it comfortable to write. But I am not comfortable. It has been a week now since Sandy battered the Northeast causing untold destruction. Each day as millions continue without power, and many without heat, it seems the world has been turned upside down. This is the kind of devastation you only expect in war, and even then rarely so much all at once.

The question is not will the Northeast recover? Cities, towns and neighborhoods always recover — eventually.

The question is will life ever be the same again? And  for many the answer is likely no.

I drove through New Orleans a year and a half ago, more than five years after hurricane Katrina walloped the Big Easy, and was shocked to see how many buildings remained empty and boarded up, and how many neighborhoods remained nonfunctioning.

Now the Big Apple, like the Big Easy, has been pounded and knocked to the canvas; and many, many small towns and communities, like trees in the storm, have been torn up by their roots.

As I write  a sparrow flies inside and seems not to notice as I type. He flits from perch to perch before flying out.

I am reminded months before how a damselfly flew inside and stayed the whole of the day. When I reached out to her she landed on my finger.

There is a connection we all have, each to the other, even to sparrows and insects.

To paraphrase the poet, ask not on whom the blows of the hurricane fall. They rain down on all of us.