Wednesday, April 28, 2010

THEN THERE WAS MARIA

“Way out here they got a name for rain and wind and fire., The rain is Tess, the fire’s Joe and they call the wind Maria"
                                                                                                                                                                     from "Paint Your Wagon"


As we breezed through the cool desert the first four days, there was a wonderful view of what the place can look like when it has been watered more often than it is supposed to be in one winter and how pleasant it is with a light breeze wafting through the Saguaro and the other brands of Cacti I see but cannot name. All look as if they had an extended blooming season this year as the “blossoms” are just now brown and beginning to fall.

I see by the log of previous trips, am a bit earlier than last year. That may be why there are so many people still here and the weather so pleasant. Arizona, the land of the abandoned Rest Area and State Parks, was one long Interstate highway and a talking book. The only break from the unrelenting views of mesquite and cacti was a short visit at lunch to Dateland, a town I have written of before. Patton’s Army trained there and it still serves as a base for some Marine “desert activities” about which little is known, since they come and go by helicopter. The delightful date palm trees and the trinity of a store, restaurant, and gas station remain at the exit ramp. It has unfortunately been rebuilt, and not in a good way. The restaurant where one gave your order to a middle aged waitress with the leather skin of a desert native as late as last year is gone, as is the separate gift shop and the gas station across the road. In place of this walk back into history, one now finds a combined building housing all three functions and the food available is a Quiznos sandwich shop, run by young women in a hurry to move you from the “order” window to the “pay here” window. The date shakes are sold in the same fast food fashion near the door. The gift shop now specializes in double entendre T-shirt, hats, and other such paraphernalia one would not have found in the old place. This is progress of course, but sad to see still, since there was a quaintness to the old places, remembered so fondly by the World War II soldiers that trained there and who considered the day pretty exciting if they got to sit on the porch at the store and count the cars on the 4:30 PM train. The only thing that remains the same is that the place still has no name and the RV park spaces are sold in the gift shop. The town itself is about a half mile from the highway to the north. There have been a few desultory attempts to make Dateland a place to winter for the snow birds, but its remoteness, while charming in its way, lacks the amenities of Casa Grande and Yuma for those who do such things. So it is remembered now a just another possible fuel stop as one rushes down I-8 to join I- 10.

The pleasant first night at Picacho Peak State park, a stop some 430 miles from home is longer than I like to drive the van in one day. It is the place I stay most often however because it means in the morning I will leave the state behind and soon climb into New Mexico’s mountains and be greeted by green things that do not have spines as foliage.

Unless Arizona can figure out how finance its future, it will close this park in June, so it may well be my last visit. Most of the state parks in the northern part of the state are already closed. There is talk of having the Indian tribes take them over, or lease them in some way. It may work out but, like Dateland, it is not likely to be a transparent change, and these pleasant rural places will become commercial and that offends some sensibility of mine. But, while they are at it, I surely hope they can get someone interested in running the rest stops. The desert is a flat place, cars pulled to the side of the road are suspicious, and very little suitable foliage. Spontaneous voiding of bodily fluids along a roadside can be a chancy thing. For now, be prepared if you plan a long drive there.

By the next night Rockhound State Park near Deming was home. It was my first visit there and it is indeed populated by people who seem to be fascinated by rocks. When they aren’t climbing to the top of the peaks nearby on well worn paths, they are collecting samples. It was nearly full, and when I expressed my surprise that it would be this time of year to one of the maintenance crew, he assured me it usually was until July and not as overnight guests but there for a week or more. There was much walking up and down hills capped by a sunset run up to the top and back by what looked like a local football team who then clambered back into three cars and left us. I was camped at the top of the hill in the campground and could see Deming in the distance and the Interstate as well. It was a pleasant evening to be out as it had the night before.

In the morning the wind came early, before first light. There was a slight rocking and some things blowing about but it was a breeze, nothing more until the second hour on the road when I found that either the wind was blowing hard in gusts, or my wheels were rushing in and out of alignment. I left the Interstate about then for what I hope will be the next 1,000 or more miles and was climbing the mountain near Alamogordo to a height of 8,250 feet give or take a foot or so and found it most disconcerting. It gathered force as it will in the mountains and when I reached Artesia on the other side and turned south it was a gale so far as this city boy was concerned. NOAA weather began issuing warnings about blowing dust and even more ominous threats for the mountain passes. I reached Lake Brantley just north of Carlsbad and spent the evening trying to decide if it was really as cold as I thought it was or whether it was just a combination of the wind and 5 per cent humidity. Scrubbing the windshield before sunset became a laughing matter as the water dried as fast as I could apply it. After scraping the true adult bodies off the driver’s side I gave up and found other pursuits.

The next day for me is not always a planned endeavor as many of you know, but this day I was in Carlsbad to see the Caverns. The wind was down early so I went off to climb the mountain in which the caverns are located south of town. They are remarkable, and there formation is mind boggling. They are also cool and there is never a wind. The rocks and pools are extraordinary and on a warm day like today the nearly constant temperature and real humidity was a welcome change and worth the trip. On the way out, a Ranger I spoke to upped the ante on the coming wind, suggested I get off the mountain by three and that gust of 60 to 70 knots were expected by midnight in the Guadalupe Mountains. Heading back north seemed the best idea, so this comes to you form Brantley Lake. There are fewer here tonight, most overnighters who have sought a stationary place until the wind figures it out. Two 17 foot "Scamp" trailers came in as dark came on. They are, besides small, made mostly of fiberglass which makes them delightful to pull with the family mini-van, but the story one of the driver’s told me was all I needed to know about the aerodynamics.

We will huddle here then, perhaps only tonight, but if the wind is bad, again tomorrow and then push north through Portales and on to Logan and into Kansas where wind is a way of life, but perhaps it may be gentler. Even in good weather it is a long warm and very straight ride through to I-40. Logan is just above there on U.S. 54 which angles like the hypotenuse of a triangle across a slice of both Texas and Oklahoma, emerging in Liberal. By then it will be the weekend and time to take a break. Somewhere.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

HERE WE GO AGAIN

It is is spring. It is late coming to us this year, no doubt the price we pay for having the mildest February anyone can remember in a long time. It is time to load the essentials and be off again.


This year is different. As it was the year I went up the Mississippi River, there are no family stops planned on this trip, so the itinerary does not include a reprise of last year’s dash across the continent in the rain. Those of you who read faithfully will recall that I spent a mere week driving to the Right Coast last year and then spent most of the spring and early summer trying to find warmth and a dry place to be with only some success. I am hoping for better weather.


Most of my trips have a theme, although I confess this one has several. There are two Presidential Museums on my list, Gerald Ford and Herbert Hoover. The former has a museum in his old congressional district since he is remembered by the people of Michigan more as their congressman of many years than the three or so he spent at the White House. His official papers are housed at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. The Museum is in Grand Rapids. The Hoover home near Davenport Iowa is said to be quite lovely. I am hoping by the time I get there summer will have come to the mid-West this year.


To begin, La Coachasita and I will need to march across the desert as always, but if the weather isn’t too hot, we will linger a while in the “other Carlsbad” where the caverns are in New Mexico. To avoid whatever it is they are trying to do with all the soldiers and guns in Juarez/ El Paso, we will head north and travel a good U.S. route through Clovis and Tucumcari on up into southern Kansas and then go east as far as Vicksburg. The last time I was at the Civil War battlefield there it was pouring rain, and I accompanied three Brits who had a vague notion of what this “colonial war they had” was about. I hope for more pleasant weather and a little less tour guide duty this time. After that, the plan says we will cross Tennessee making use of their excellent state parks along the way and end up at the Great Smoky Mountain National Park just east of Pigeon Forge, Gatlinburg, and Dollywood, the later named for Dolly Parton a native of those parts and a founder of this historical theme and recreation area. It is “Quite Something” I am told by those who have visited. I took a miss last time and will likely this time, preferring to head into the park to the Dome and Cadys Cove and other places remembered for their serene and bucolic beauty. I have not been there for about eight years and I have always wanted to go back. If we get that far we will drop into Georgia after stopping at the Biltmore Mansion and make an about face well north of Atlanta and go north. It will be May buy then and we will find the big River and follow it up as far as Illinois. A side trip to Michigan will get us to the Ford Museum and then rejoin the River near Galena, go on to Davenport and then up to the land of thousands of small towns which, as you know, continue to fascinate me. Lake Bemidji or Itasca, the headwaters of the Mississippi would be the apex if I get that far north. It will be a weather driven decision. Then we will turn west in a descending route through South Dakota, Colorado, Utah and home by the fourth of July.


The trip is much anticipated this year. Its lack of structure is appealing. The book is finished and getting what publicity it can. I feel the need to unplug from the world of zaniness that has overtaken us all. To add to my enjoyment, I have finally entered the digital age of photography sufficiently I hope to share on these pages what we see along the way.

There are still endless possibilities out there, still so many small towns to savor and so little time. I hope I will find some that are as charming, amusing, and pleasant the many that have gone before. At ten years of age now, my faithful road warrior seems as anxious as I am to be off. I am watching her oil and other dietary intake more closely now as the odometer spins past 110,000 miles. Jack, the RV Genius, has pronounced her fit for duty, probably more so than I, so we will once more drive into the sunrise on a Sunday morning in search of the never seen and the things we need to see again. 

I'd be pleased if you come along.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

THERE IS NO CRYING IN BASEBALL

The end is near. The teams that will play Major League professional baseball are beginning their trips home. Most will stop in cities along the way to play one or two more exhibition games and then on Monday, the season begins and the games will all count. The long road through 161 games, and with luck, the Division and League Championships as well as the World Series has begun. For two teams that no one yet can name, it will not end until one dark early November night.

This is an odd time for a few remaining players. They are making their way north, east, and west with the Major League club without the certain knowledge that they will still be a member of the coveted 25-man roster on Monday morning. Those difficult conversations in the Manager’s office will take place for some as late a Sunday night. For others it will come sooner, and for most it has already occurred as they “broke camp” in the quaint language of the sport. Some will be “released,” a charming way to remind them they are of no further use while others will be re-assigned to minor league clubs to await the opening of their season of continued hope.

For these “last cuts” it is a difficult time. They have families, possessions, households, and responsibilities to attend. It is for them perhaps that one recalls the famous line of Tom Hanks’ character, the habitually inebriated manger in the movie, “A League of Their Own,” which chronicled the famous women’s league started by some team owners in the Midwest during World War II to fill the entertainment void by the loss of so many players to the military. If there is indeed no crying in baseball, this is a time of year when it is tested.

Returning from my trip this week to the final week of games in Arizona, I reflected on how difficult it must be for these “may be” players, as in, “he may be on the Opening Day Roster,” which is the way their managers were describing them to the press. They have wives, they have children that need to be enrolled in schools, and the hundreds other things in life that must be taken care of by all of us. Yet these men who have chosen this nomadic profession are not yet sure in some cases what state they will be living in next week, or what their salaries will be. It seems a hard life, no matter their talents.

While on this last trip, I saw a young man, Wyatt Toregas, catching for the Cleveland Indians. He had a good day, two hits out of three attempts and he scored a run. He played defense well, so far as I could see. He was, I learned, one of those “may be” players and had not yet been told where he would open the season. In fact to complicate the other facets of his life even more, there were said to be two options for Mr.Toregas being quoted in the press. He was either going to be the starting catcher for the Cleveland Indians on Monday or, improbably, the back-up catcher to the young rising star on their minor league AAA team in Columbus. Those were his choices. He either played his way into the majors, or tutored the youth who one day would replace the man who replaced him. He would be one of the 8 players standing proudly in a major league uniform along the third base line after being introduced to the crowd on Opening Day of the season. If not, he was going to be teaching a younger man in Columbus the fine art of handling a pitching staff with minimal playing time. In the world that I work in that is like being fired and being asked to train the man’s son who replaced you who will then replace him, perhaps as soon as next year. Worse, he already knew this. It is very hard to remain calm and play well enough in the spring to "win" a job as a Major League everyday player. Imagine the added pressure of knowing that if you did well, but just not well enough, you would be leaving the team and the salary behind to labor as a part-time player on a minor league team. What, I wondered, were the conversations like he had with his family? How do you plan to live in either Cleveland or Columbus at the same time? Was the pressure worth it? Was the salary differential, not to mention the pride involved, a reasonable price to pay to continue to play the game of his childhood?

Mercifully, the wait for Wyatt Toregas is over. On Thursday night he heard the words that all players dread, “‘Skip wants to see you in his office.” Manny Acta, a kind and knowledgeable baseball manager, this year’s guidance for a woeful Cleveland Indian franchise told Wyatt he was being assigned to Columbus, so his wait is over. To be fair, it should be noted that he has never played a full season in the major leagues and is in his late twenties. He has time, but not much in this age concious sport. He is a college graduate and has been playing professionally since 2004. There is nothing left to do now but decide whether to report or not, to continue to pursue his dream or find a different vocation. Getting on with it might make him happier in the long term, but I am sure that he believes he is good enough or he would have never been given this option. Up there in “the Show” more than baseballs take funny bounces. People get injured, go into hitting slumps and in a month, two, or even three a chance to play may come. I do not have to wonder which option I would have chosen. I am also sure that somewhere in Columbus right now, there is a woman looking for a place to live and a school good enough for children named Toregas.