Ruminations From the Western Slope

Ruminations From the Western Slope
Colorado River near Moab, Utah

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Of Big Bellies and Ball Caps

It was a relatively sweet 600 miles from Carson City, Nevada to the Maple Grove Campground in south central Utah. Once again I steeled myself for the long haul across Highway 50 with plenty of podcasts and pain killers. At Great Basin National Park, I turned left.

Rather than suffer the interminable drive along the Sevier Dry Lake, gateway to beautiful Delta, Utah, I left Highway 50 behind in Baker and took a southwesterly tack through the tiny towns of Garrison and Milford, Utah....bucolic to the max and free from the saline sumps that pass themselves off as lakes on the more northerly route. I immediately gained an hour when I crossed the time zone at Garrison but was undaunted in my goal of reaching the campground at Maple Grove, just west of Salina.

I pulled into the campground around 5pm Mountain Daylight Time, having skirted thunder showers and dust devils along the way. I picked an isolated, shady site tucked away in the trees. The ground was damp from very recent rains and I had trouble finding any dry kindling. But above all, the forest was quiet and calm and the high cliffs of the Fishlake National Forest told me I was back on the Colorado Plateau once again and only two hundred miles from home.

I got started at dawn the following day, appropriately listening to Vince Guaraldi’s version of Softly As In a Morning Sunrise as I headed into Salina. I stopped just outside the forest boundary to photograph a group of wild turkeys and the first rays of daylight on roadside sunflowers. My immediate goal was Mom’s Cafe in downtown Salina.

I’d lunched at Mom’s many times on many journeys over the years but this was the first time I’d ever had breakfast there. And the cafe did not disappoint. Friday morning at 7am the place was bustling with activity, especially the back room where the locals obviously congregated. I was seated by myself in the front part of the building but had no trouble at all hearing the boisterous cacophony coming from the rear. And the din grew louder as more big-bellied men in ball caps entered the restaurant, joining in the rough-hewn gossip.

The cafe walls were lined with news clips touting the quality of the food and hospitality, along with autographed photos of celebrities like Ashley Judd and Willie Nelson who had apparently stopped by at one time or another while passing through Salina. The original “Mom” wasn’t around this particular morning.. But my waitress was an attractive lass who, I’m guessing, was pushing 40 and probably Mormon with three or four kids at home. She confided in me. “I went to school with most of these guys so when they give me a bad time, I just tell ’em to shut up and eat!” Then she disappeared into the backroom to join the fray.

She really knew how to play the crowd and I thought to myself, on a personal level, how I probably would not agree politically, religiously, or philosophically with any of the congregated codgers in the back room, yet I was inexorably caught up in their laughter and good feelings, and that peculiar energy and delight in getting yet another glimpse of fading, small town America.

I knew that ahead of me lay one of the most spectacularly empty stretches of Interstate in the country, the rugged mesas and canyons of the San Rafael Swell and, beyond that, home. And this fine morning at Mom’s Cafe was a great way to bring to a close a journey of heart and soul into the West of mind and memory.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

The Cabin in the Crags

I felt a pang of post-Reunion sadness when I left the Crown Plaza at the crack of dawn on Sunday, August 15. It was a bittersweet farewell to the area where I was raised and nurtured. But at the same time, I had a keen sense of excitement knowing that I was heading south to make just one more visit to Pinnacles National Monument, my first Park Service home, . My friend Eric, who was now superintendent of the park, had just accepted a transfer to the Badlands of South Dakota so this would be my last chance to visit with him and his family for awhile, and my last chance to spend a night in Bear Gulch.

Nearly forty years ago I moved into a 12’ x 16‘, one room cabin in the Bear Gulch area of the Pinnacles, a sturdy little structure built toward the end of the 1920s as part of a series of one and two-room tourist cabins, made out of wood with a solid stone facade covering the lower half. It had a stove, sink, cabinets and water heater on one side, and a small bathroom cubicle in the back. I hung a cheap Cost Plus Indian print across the middle to define a bedroom space.

I lived in Cabin #8 as it was called for two years, and it was a wonderful place to hole up after a day’s work. I often had families of raccoons as visitors but seldom any humans. When friends did visit, they slept on what little floor space was available. The winter darkness could be deep and cold. One time I nearly got flooded out when the banks of Bear Creek overflowed. But mostly I loved the unique isolation of the place.

By the time Eric took over several years ago, all the cabins had been converted either to offices or storage space with the exception of Cabin #10, just up the hill from my old place (which is now the Condor Program Office). It seems that Cabin #10 had been tricked out as an overnight pad for visiting researchers or special guests. It is even smaller than Cabin #8....perhaps 10’ x 12’ at the most with the basic amenities and a bunk bed. And Eric gave me the opportunity to stay there one more time.

After dinner with the family at their ranch land home near San Benito, I made the dusky five-mile drive into the park proper. As I reached the wooded confines of Bear Gulch, I was flooded with memories of those early park service days...the steep learning curve, the federal bureaucracy, the anxieties of talking to park visitors. Later there was the quickie first marriage, the ignored induction papers, and plans to head for Canada (but that’s another story). Lots of emotional ups and downs bouncing around Bear Gulch.

But tonight it was quiet, empty and warmly welcoming. I moved into Cabin #10 with minimal gear, unpacked the sleeping bag on the lower bunk, and then spent several minutes just sitting on the stone porch watching the darkness settle into the canyon and looking down at Cabin #8, just a few yards away. What a fantastic twist of fate it was that allowed me to live and work here, and be privy to its magic. And here I was 39 years later, spending one last night.

The following morning I left it all behind and drove out to highway 25 before the sun was up. I headed north toward Hollister, stopping frequently to photograph the first light on valley oaks and golden grasses, to watch a flock of wild turkeys, and admire the migrant workers who were already at work in the fields near Paicines. At a small cafe in Tres Pinos called Flapjacks, I had breakfast and chatted with the owners Phil and Karen who proudly posed for me in front of their place. After that it was back to the road, toward the Sierra Nevada and the first leg of my long trip home.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Class Reunion, Part 4

I spent Friday night with my friends John and Nancy high on a hill in Boulder Creek amidst redwoods and douglas firs. A thick blanket of coastal fog was already beginning to dissipate as dawn arrived quietly over the Santa Cruz Mountains. Soon I was driving the winding curves of Highway 9 toward Skyline Boulevard., then over the summit and down into Saratoga. At some point along the way, the sun broke through misty madrones and tanbark oaks as dozens of Saturday cyclists pedaled past me in the opposite direction.

I ended up at the Crown Plaza Hotel in Palo Alto. If the Crown Plaza had a familiarity to it, it was because this was the former Cabana Hotel where the Beatles once spent the night after playing Candlestick Park in 1965. I could still remember standing outside its elegant walls 45 years earlier with hundreds of screaming kids, all of us hoping to catch a glimpse of the Fab Four but destined not to. They had stayed on the eighth floor back then. I was staying on the sixth.

That Saturday afternoon the “official” reunion gathering began in the backyard of another LAHS alum at a house not far from my old junior high school. The streets still lined with gnarled pepper trees. One of those perfect Los Altos summer afternoons - warm and clear with a touch of bluish haze over Black Mountain and the coastal range. More alumni keep drifting in, and once again Hawaiian shirts were the sartorial statement of the day.

The last time I consorted with so many members of my senior high school class was on Grad Night in June of 1965. Who among any of us back then could have imagined the long and rocky road that would bring us back together so many years later? I thought about my own experiences with fate and time. Set free with a diploma to embrace the social upheaval of the 1960s. Stabs at colleges here and there. Student strikes. Human Be-Ins. Hallucinogens. Hitchhiking. The crazy, unsettling, hedonistic impulses of youth. And, finally, that lucky break.....a seasonal park ranger job in my favorite spot on earth, Pinnacles National Monument.

But the rootlessness did not end there as my work took me all over the west. The canyon country of Utah. The fogbound peninsula of Point Reyes. The spiny heat of the Arizona desert. The rugged gold country between Mt. Shasta and Mt. Lassen. Throughout it all, the broken marriages. Failed romances. The joyful births of my daughters. Conflicts in the work place. A summer trip to Greece. A retirement in Western Colorado. And the one, long certain love affair with the American Southwest.

And this weird physical deterioration of my body. The arthritis. The failing eyes. The loss of stamina. But, oddly enough, amid all my fellow classmates who no doubt have gone through or are going through similar maladies, I don’t even think about any of that. I wander through the easy crowd, catching up with other peoples’ pasts, watching the interplay and, in the end, feeling a part of something that is bigger than me. From the hopes and dreams of Grad Night to a kind of serene satisfaction in having made it this far, and being able to hang out once again with old friends.

Before this trip is over, I will have one more opportunity to go back in time and space. But I will have to leave Los Altos to do it.