Ruminations From the Western Slope

Ruminations From the Western Slope
Colorado River near Moab, Utah

Saturday, August 31, 2013

Bozos On The Bus

I once read an interview with Oliver Hardy where he revealed how his comic characterizations were based on the time he spent as a young boy in Georgia, watching people in hotel lobbies.  He would just sit there for hours on end absorbing the interactions and character traits of perfect strangers. What was true back in the early part of the 20th century is just as true today, I think, as I sit in the lobby of the Adoba Eco Hotel in downtown Rapid City, South Dakota.
What I am looking at mostly are late summer tourists queuing up for the buses that will soon take them to Mt. Rushmore, the Badlands, Devils Tower and points beyond.  These folks could very well be the sons and daughters of those we made fun of forty years ago in our young Park Service days.  But the fact of the matter is that “they” is now “us” and the demographic has changed noticeably over the years. 
What I am looking at, of course, are aging baby boomers so what I am seeing is different in many ways from the fat and fifty crowd of a generation ago.   There are many more minorities getting on the bus…and interracial couples, and gays and lesbians.  The very same people we marched in the streets with in the Vietnam era.  Some of them still retain that youthful glow and glamor.  Some have become disabled.  And quite a few are still fat and fifty or older… but they represent a far broader cross section than was seen even a decade ago.
Last month at Yellowstone I accompanied a 73-year old woman to the Old Faithful Lodge where she had worked as a young lady over 50 years ago.  Her face lit up when she found the old dorm room where she had lived that one summer.  Another couple was returning to the place in the Tetons where they had spent their honeymoon.  But many others were seeing these magnificent places for the very first time. 
And even though the Firesign Theatre group claimed that “we are all bozos on this bus”, we are all still seeking a respite from our daily routines   We are all getting on the bus, finding our seats, and heading off into the past and the future at the same time, united in age and experience, looking for adventure, human interaction, perhaps romance, or perhaps a lost chunk of our youth left somewhere out there on the American road so many years ago. 

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Primal Mornings

Being an early riser has been much more of a blessing than a curse.  This is especially true when traveling.  The early risers get the empty roads, the uncrowded restaurants, the once-in-a-lifetime wildlife sightings.  We get that soft pastel light that sneaks upon us from the east, growing ever brighter until long shadows etch the landscape.  If I am driving west, I am driving into the shadow of my car.  I am the first to spot the pronghorn on the open range.  I am privileged to see the plateaus limned in smoky amber.  I can stop at a cafĂ© in Austin, Nevada and it is just myself and the waitress and the smell of fresh toast.

When I was younger and camping out with my friends, I was the first one up.  I made the coffee and drank the first cup while listening to animal sounds in the chaparral and the snoring from nearby sleeping bags.  I walked to school along quiet streets lined with apricot and pepper trees.  I once helped my friend Steve Baltzer deliver morning papers through the streets of Los Altos.  I was thirteen years old and reveling in the freedom of speeding through suburban streets on my bicycle, throwing papers at houses still asleep.  It seemed like we had the town all to ourselves, that we were co-conspirators in owning the morning.

Recently I was staying at the Old Faithful Inn in Yellowstone National Park.  I woke up restless at 530am, quickly got dressed, and headed outside where a dim dawn was just forming on the horizon.  Old Faithful Geyser, normally thronged with tourists, had two people sitting on a bench waiting for the imminent eruption. I joined them in the silence, and then the magnificent roar and rumble of steam and water.  The thermal plume climbed higher, silhouetted against a honey colored sky.  With only the three of us there to delight in the spectacle.

Later, along the Firehole River, the sun still not awake, I walked a primordial landscape of bubbling pools, steaming hot springs, and sulfurous air.  Then and there I was a man out of time, a man for all time, wandering the primal mists and mud pots of the geyser basin.  A bison bull came out of the forest to graze beside a sputtering cone.  And the first rays of sun spilled down the roof of the Old Faithful Inn.

I am blessed to be an early riser and not a slave to an alarm clock.  I get there first and I enjoy my time alone.  There is something in that pre-dawn light that is pure and deep, and full of hope for a new day, even if the later hours may disappoint.  I always have the morning.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

School Daze

     School was back in session yesterday here in the Grand Valley.  I could hear the laughter and excitement of young voices coming from the elementary school playground just a few hundred yards from my house.  It is such a pleasant sound.  A harbinger of fall.  A soothing cacophony of delighted squeals and unbridled energy.  One of life’s more welcome audio intrusions, like the sound of a far away train whistle in the dead of night or a muffled fog horn in a thick coastal dawn.   It is the sound of innocence, hope and joy.
     This is the same elementary school that my daughter attended in what seems like only a few years ago.  Yet this morning I walked her to high school for the beginning of her senior year.  She never seems to mind my company, and I am always happy to share that half mile of easy conversation and companionship.  I know that all too quickly this opportunity will pass as she moves into college mode and adulthood.  So I am intent on reveling in every minute we can spend together be it the daily school walk or curled up on the couch with her watching Mythbusters.
     My senior year seemed so bumpy in comparison.  I was uncertain of the future but knew that I did not want to participate in an “unpopular” war in southeast Asia (as if there could ever be a “popular” war….I dunno, maybe World War II if I had to pick).  I was trying to grow my hair long like the Beatles.  I was learning that marijuana was not going to make me into a drug addict.  I was concerned about losing my virginity. And I was witnessing the rise of a youth culture intent upon being heard.
     My daughter takes it all in stride.  She ignores the awful for the enlightening.  She delves into quirky science.  And she questions the absurdity of this society.  She is not an activist.  She is a learner.  An observer. She walks with me, holds my hand, and humors me in my old age.  Yet it seems like only yesterday that one of those exuberant voices rising from the elementary school playground in the late summer air was hers.  All those yesterdays that just keep piling up.

Monday, August 5, 2013


       Weird Chris picked the three of us up just north of Zuma Beach.  It was the summer of 1968 and we were hitch hiking back home to Santa Cruz.  He drove a pea green Ford van all gutted and tricked out in feathers and beads and weird psychedelic art.  His buddies Wes and Joel giggled in the back, passing the weed around as we hauled our tired asses into the vehicle.  Phil was just out of the army and traveling with an enormous duffle back and narc-short hair.  Steve had his old Vietnam field jacket and a pipe.  I had my camera and pack. We all had sleeping bags too. We were grateful for any ride.

 We had just spent several days in a big house in Palos Verdes, with a gigantic swimming pool and a hilltop view of the L.A. Basin.  Phil’s aunt had put us up or maybe put up with us as I tried to rekindle romance with Phil’s sister Nina.  She had absconded to this southern California retreat to reassess things and just get away from the bay area for awhile.  So we smoked dope and swam all day in the fetid heat and listened to the Cheap Thrills LP by Big Brother and the Holding Company.  But in a few more days we were back on the road.

        Up the coast we drove, now six strong and smoking up a storm on wheels.  Up past San Luis Obispo, through the hot San Marcos Pass and out to the coast again at Cambria.  Up Highway 1 with no planned destination other than to keep moving north.  Until the late afternoon caught up with us near a place called Willow Creek, one of the few stretches of coastal highway where a road descends to the beach.  The rest is all imposing cliffs of shale and serpentine rising like a dry wave to the crest of the Los Padres with occasional green arterials winding down through gullies and narrow canyons full of redwood and fir forest, ferns and alder trees along shiny, singing water spilling eventually into the sea.
      And Willow Creek was a fine example.  We stumbled from the van and on to the dark sand beach, but it was the creek that drew us in.  Upstream we hiked through blackberry brambles and wild hemlock, around boulders of marble and jade, staying close to the cool water.  Maybe a half mile or so before we came upon a lively cascade over a rock face by a deep pool and a boulder on which someone had painted the words “Life Is” in glowing paint.
  We took that as a good omen so went back for our bags and camping gear, and then returned to the “Life Is” rock to set up a quick camp.  I don’t remember much about that evening but I’m sure we smoked freely and that I slept well.  I slept so much better back in those days.
 And the following morning we bathed in the Life Is pool, hung out in the sun for awhile, and then piled back into the van to continue north.  Laughing on wheels and looking ahead.