Saturday, December 24, 2016

Born in the Summer of his Twenty Second Year

A week after purchasing a used Honda 350 with a Doonesbury style opened face Green Bay Packer helmet, he strapped his framed Jansport backpack to the Sissy Bar and headed south to the canyon country.  Freezing his way out of the mountains he warmed on the Main Street of Mormon Land.  After stalling at a green light he overheated, kick starting the bike frantically 100 times before remembering to take it out of gear and release the clutch.  He was still learning.

His initial test ride the week before ended ignominiously when he drove the bike carefully around the neighborhood and then back into the rear wall of the seller’s garage.  He had never ridden a motorcycle before but he’d be damned if he’d admit that to the seller, an old friend and mentor who was helping him discover the freedom of the wild, wild west.   ‘I’ll take it’ was all he could muster while writhing in pain and laughter on the floor of the garage.   The best $150 he ever spent.   

Now he streamed south in a tee shirt and shorts between rock cliffs and tight canyons, into wide open, big sky country.  Intoxicated with the scenery and the sunshine, the freedom and the speed, he felt like John Wayne riding his handsome steed into Monument or Death Valley or the romanticized moto trip TV show of his youth called Then Came Bronson.  Either way he was fulfilling his fantasy and living the dream, filling his ‘bucket list’ before they were even invented and before he was even 23.

Heading towards the Needles District of Canyonlands he took the first right turn and thirty miles later found himself on the BLM Needles District Overlook where he could look out and see his intended campsite 2000 feet below him, straight down.  Doubling back he was burning daylight and most of his remaining gasoline. 

As he approached the lower Needles turnoff he slowed cautiously and a strap from his pack caught up in his back sprocket which locked the wheel up completely and sent him into a violent skid.  With all his might he resisted flying over the handle bars and maintained control of the skidding bike until, mercifully, his backpack frame blew apart from the force, releasing all of its contents and, thankfully, the back wheel.  

Limping to a halt on the wind swept shoulder, he surveyed the situation.  His clothes and cook set, food and tent were strewn all over the highway.  He looked back to see his sleeping bag sitting in the middle of the road as a steaming eighteen wheeler ran over it and shredded it into a nylon-down parachute floating above the highway.  He had to laugh.

He cobbled together what was left of his gear and repaired the motorcycle.  He then took the correct turn towards the Needles District campground, humbled and contrite.  ‘I am not John Wayne or Bronson from the movies,’ he thought ‘or even Rojo my imaginary Indian friend,  I’m just another dufus western wannabee.’  Forgetting his near empty gas tank he rode the straight, fast road west towards the setting sun and the canyons, gaining speed and confidence as he went. 

In the failing light he failed to see the hairpin turn dropping off the edge and hit it going way to fast.  He leaned into the turn for all he was worth but at the last minute his baloney skin tires gave way and skidded out.  As the bike went down and slid down the road to the shoulder he luckily and instinctively pulled out his bottom leg and rode the gas tank down into the ditch.  No harm, no foul.  

At dusk he limped dejectedly into camp, on nothing but fumes, to rendezvous with old friends and outdoor compatriots.  He later would drain all the cook stoves in camp to get enough gas to get out, but not right away, that could wait.  ‘Buttface’ they greeted him familiarly, ‘you don’t look too good’ they said with purposeful understatement.

Within minutes he had a dented, but undaunted, can of Dinty More Stew brewing on the fire and he passed around a plastic bottle of cheap Bourbon, already exaggerating the story of his adventures, trials and tribulations.  They all howled with laughter, and he did too, like it was some adventure far in the past, not one that he was still bleeding and shaking from. 

He sat back around the fire with his friends, staring up at the silhouettes of the surrounding red rock cliffs and the already emerging, amazing stars.  He felt at home.  He was willing, almost able, scrappy and adventurous.  Once again he was bent but not broken, all the more wiser and experienced, with the eyes of one who revels in just being born.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Did you ever notice that:

When you are on a big road trip and you pass something cool, that you should have stopped for, you regret it instantly, but you don't turn back.  I initially obsess but I eventually figure that we will just have to come back that way again and remember to stop, no matter how remote it is. That is why I've been everywhere, twice.

On a recent slow road trip up the west coast my wife and I came sailing into Big Sur in our big old pickup truck and passed a library-museum-book store-hipster coffee house celebrating Jack Kerouac and Henry Miller, some of the main reasons we love Big Sur. Maybe we didn't stop because we saw this place on a blind curve and didn't have time to process it or slow, or we had stopped several times before this.  

We had just stopped for several hours at the cool Russian Fort Ross from 1812 where the Russians settled the central coast to grow food for their Alaska outposts.  They had more cannons than the Spanish-Mexicans, so they were invited to stay as long as they liked.  Walking around the old fort, with a precocious 12 year old girl in costume dress for a guide, transported us back to a slower more deliberate time.

We had been stopping everywhere that day, me being the new me, with our time having the new tempo of the retired leisure lower class. In fact, he road was so tight and curvy that, after several days,  my left arm hurt so much from driving that I was forced to steer with my inferior right arm, forgoing shifting, climate and radio controls.  We had seen elephant seals fighting for mates, whales and dolphins, otters and osprey as well as ocean overlooks and the classic coastal bridge views.  We often stopped for a pic-nic and a hike, a smoke and a snooze.  

We were only making 100-200 miles a day, hardly enough for a gas stop every few days but enough to make us tired and the dog sick. It was a great tempo in the large and lumbering pickup truck, as opposed to our last trip up this coast in our Mini Cooper.  That trip was fast and furious and fun in a different way, with no stops or much scenery.  Sometimes it's the trip, sometimes it's the destination, sometimes it's the scenery. 

So for some reason we blew by the writer’s museum in Big Sur and had a pastry and coffee in this groovy cafĂ©.  We found out the camping and hiking in the Redwoods and on the beaches were still closed due to the big fire that summer.   So we headed down to Carmel, Pebble Beach and Monterey where we had a rude reintroduction to civilization and traffic after having hunkered down on the forgotten California central coast for past month.  

After a nice B&B and a tour of the Monterey peninsula and the incredible aquarium we were content again with where we were and where we were going but in the back of my mind I kept thinking of the writer’s museum we missed.  Shoulda, woulda, coulda - my optimizational obsession, my engineers curse kicked in like it always does.  So we will have to go back again, next time.  

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Water Bison

In 1803, our third President, Thomas Jefferson, bought nearly 1 million square miles of land in the Western United States from the struggling French leader Napoleon for the amazingly cheap price of 3 cents per acre.  (An Acre is roughly the size of a football field.)  A good deal.

The next year Jefferson, who also wrote the Declaration of Independence and had a cool round house in Virginia, sent his friends, Captains Lewis and Clark, out to explore these new lands with a bunch of soldiers, a black slave, a young Indian woman named Sacajawea, and a few small boats.  They pulled these boats all the way up the Missouri River, thousands of miles, to the Continental Divide and then rode down the western slope rivers to the Columbia River and the Pacific Ocean.  Amazing.

They found many astounding things in the west like the Great Plains, the Rocky Mountains, Grizzly Bears and lots of Mosquitos but the most amazing thing they found were the ‘Buffaloe’  – as they called them, almost 100 million Buffalo.  With giant herds, as large as some eastern states, that would take several days to pass by, these giant prehistoric animals stretched out as far as the eye could see. 

These weren’t Buffalo, but actually American Bison (Bison Bison, so good they named it twice, officially in Latin).  Buffalo didn’t live in North America, they lived in Africa as the fierce Water Buffalo.  Lewis and Clark didn’t know that but we still call them Buffalo today, and they don’t seem to mind.  All Lewis and Clark knew was that the Bison had lots of meat that tasted good and supplied their soldiers with nutrition and blankets, clothes and tents for much of their epic trip. 

The Captains also noticed that the Native Americans that lived out west, and had for a very long time, depended on the Bison, or Tatanka as they called them, for food and shelter, clothing and hats, jewelry and tools.  They used every part of Tatanka and wasted none of it.  In fact they depended on the Tatanka for so much that it was a sacred animal that they worshiped and revered above all other animals, since their lives were so intimately intertwined.   They lived in harmony with the Bison and followed the great herds for all that they supplied.  Their lives were in balance with the great herds.

The Bison were perfectly suited to live on the Great Plains with thick hair and hides that could withstand temperatures from 120 above to 50 below zero.  They could move snow with their giant heads and forage grass all year long and sustain their big strong bodies everywhere they roamed.  They ate and then fertilized and aerated the grasses of the Great Plains and they could protect themselves and their offspring from wolves and bears and any other predator, except for one, man.

As white settlers followed Lewis and Clark out west, they discovered these seemingly endless herds and began to hunt them for food and for fun, for their horns and their tongues.  They hunted them almost to extinction to help them control the Native Americans by eliminating their main food source and natural resource.  Soon almost all the bison were gone.  I say almost, and it is a good thing, because extinction is forever.

The settlers still needed to eat when the bison were gone, so they imported fancy cows from Europe but realized they were ill suited to the weather and the feed of the Great Plains.  They could not forage in the snow and had to be fed in the winter.  In one great blizzard of 1898, half of them died from the wind and the snow and the cold.  But the Bison were gone and the white men were hungry so they kept importing and growing and feeding their fancy cows. 

The farmers had to grow hay and alfalfa and grass in the summer for the cows to eat in the winter.  They would let the cows roam the open plains and the mountains in the summer and then bring them back to the farm to protect and feed them in the winter. Then the farmers realized that the Great Plains west of St Louis did not get enough rain to grow grass naturally so they had to dig canals from the rivers to irrigate their fields so they could grow feed for their cows.  They diverted and plumbed the rivers to flow to their fields for feed and dried up many rivers doing it, killing the fish and the riparian plants and animals that depend on the rivers to live.  Things were starting to get out of whack.

This continued this for almost 100 years with great herds of cows filling up and dominating the lands and the rivers of the western United States.  Then in the after World War II things got worse.  Men had perfected how to build dams on rivers to save the snow melt and natural flow to use in the summer.  They also learned how to put pumps into underground water wells and pump water up from deep within the earth.  This made it easier for them to grow even more grass and feed even more cows but this heavy production took its toll on the Great Plains. 

When you fly over the Great Plains today you can see giant circles and squares of green crops with sprinklers watering the crops and a well in the middle pumping water from a dam or a river or from an underground river.  These underground rivers are called aquifers.  These aquifers are like big sponges that are filled up with water from rain and snow or from lakes and rivers, some that flowed millions of years ago. 

One of the biggest aquifers is named the Ogallala Aquifer named after the town in Nebraska, that was named after the Ogallala Sioux Indians.  This aquifer stretches from The Dakotas to Texas and from Colorado to Iowa.  It is huge and holds enough water to cover 2 billion acres  (or football fields – remember) with a foot of water.  But it is not endless.

The water in this aquifer was put there 5 million years ago from runoff from an ancestral mountain range, before the Rocky Mountains.  This aquifer now supplies a lot of water to a lot of farms and cities.  They are pulling water out of it faster and faster to the point that it is dropping like a rock and may someday dry up.  That might be in 5 years or it might be in 50 years, depending on how much is there and how much we take out, but if it dries up it could take 6000 years to replenish. Unfortunately when the big sponge dries out it compresses and collapses and then loses its ability to hold water so it might not ever refill.  That would be catastrophic to the animals and people who live on the Great Plains.

So if and when the Ogallala aquifer dries up and there is no water to pump to grow grass to feed cows, the cows will have to go away.  Then, the only animal perfectly suitable to the Great Plains, who is totally in harmony with the environment and the water, will move back in to take their place: the American Bison.  The Bison will rise again triumphantly and return to the Great Plains where they belong.  The Water Bison that is.

A herd the size of the original American Bison herd could produce enough meat to supply every man, woman and child in the United States today with a quarter pound Bison burger, every day, forever, and still maintain the great herd.  This Bison herd was a perfectly sustainable food source that we squandered once but can resurrect and recover again. 

Many of our natural resources are jeopardized like this; Bison and water, trees and grass, land and lakes, rivers and streams, coal and oil, air and climate.  They are underestimated and underappreciated and are squandered before we know what we are doing or what we had.   The American Bison is a symbol of our American bounty, our need and our greed and our short sighted solutions with respect to the natural world.  At the same time the Bison is a symbol of a sustainable future solution, where we live within our ways and means, the natural supply and demand and the limits of our resources where we actually Need Less.   Sometimes you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.  

Friday, December 9, 2016

The Farm

There was a woods behind my house, when I was growing up on Long Island, that was full of mystery and adventure, nature and wildlife.  The Woods, prosaically named by my older brother, was really just a clump of ten or twelve trees at the back of a school yard that had recently replaced a potato field in the post war suburban sprawl.  Next to The Woods was the remnants of the potato farm that included a barn, a chicken coop with a crowing rooster, a sad swayback old pony, some out buildings and some broken down farm machinery.  We called this The Farm.  It even had a little farm stand on the highway where my mom would send us running, unaccompanied, for some corn, a tomato, a loaf of bread or a gallon of milk. 

The Farm was surrounded by tiny little houses, built in the Levittown assembly line style to house the returning veterans from World War II and Korea who were escaping dirty Brooklyn and hot Queens. Ten thousand GI Bill dollars, mortgaged over 30 years at 2%, would get you a 1/8 acre lot with a 3 bedroom, 1000 square foot house with one bathroom, an unfinished basement and a garage, all for 37 dollars a month.  For open space every home was allocated a front yard and a back yard that we thought was the field of dreams and behind it all was The Woods and The Farm.  It still had a rural feeling to it if you squinted real hard or was a wide eyed kid.

As a young boy, your world is severely limited, simple and easy.  I had no conception about the rest of the world around us.  When we dug a hole we imagined we could dig to China and when we lay on our back and looked at the clouds or stars we imagined that they were the same ones the kids in Africa were looking at.  

I could not imagine the megalopolis, chaos and confusion that surrounded me, the humming Parkways and packed trains full of workers commuting to The City, or the planes overhead bringing people from all over the world to the nearby Idlewild airport, named after a local golf course developer, before it was renamed after an assassinated president, JFK.

The Farm consisted of old cluster of farm buildings with a few stubborn and deluded acres of remnant farming.  The only inhabitant was an Aqualung type of old man named Mandread, who hobbled around maintaining the farm and the old equipment.  He lived in a windowless tar-paper shack next to the barn all year round, I imagined.  He skulked around the farm like a ghost’s silhouette and never said much but growled or grumbled at me if I came too close.  He wore a red plaid, Elmer Fud type hat with a brim and ear flaps, a red checkered flannel hunting shirt and coveralls like Mr. Green Jeans did on Captain Kangaroo’s TV show.  But he was no friendly Mr. Green Jeans. He was a spooky, dirty old dude and we gave him a wide berth. 

One day the old guy was nowhere to be found so I started snooping around and checked out the barn, the chicken coop and eventually, with much trepidation, the tar-paper shack.  The door was only a big, dirty, heavy horse blanket and I carefully pushed it aside and crept into the dark room.  There was a small wood stove in the corner that was smoking even though it was early summer.  There was a bed and a dresser in the other corners and a small table with one chair in the middle.  There was garbage and old food wrappers everywhere with beer cans and whiskey bottles thrown in the corner.

What was astonishing to me was that the interior of the shack was completely wallpapered with pictures of naked women.  Not porno stuff, since it was the sixties, but tasteful, above the waist shots of buxom women with straight backs and perfect hair, smiling and looking slightly off camera.  I was transfixed as I walked around the shack, gape mouthed, admiring the artwork. 

Suddenly the pile of old rags on the cot in the corner stirred and rumbled and Mandread rolled over and gazed at me with his one glazed over, evil whale eye.  'What the fuck are you doing in here' he garbled gruffly. I nearly shat my pants as I stumbled backwards falling to the ground clutching at the horse blanket door, unwilling to stay but unable to run.   I sat there almost crying but couldn't muster even a feeble response.  Mandread rolled over and put his feet to the floor where they found his old rope soled shoes and slipped them on silently.   With some effort he got to his feet and shuffled over to me.  My eyes were as big as saucers as he raised his dirty scabbed and gnarled hand over me menacingly and then just rubbed my shaved head as he smiled a toothless grin.  My own private Boo Radley. 

'You are that crazy kid that runs around here throwing sticks, singing that Indian song and peeing in my corn field', he said sitting back down on his dirty bed, carefully rolling a cigarette with one hand.  He reached under his pillow for a small pint bottle half full of what looked like gasoline and he took a hit.   'You think I'm weird, don’t you.  You think I'm a monster', he began.  ‘I see you throwing rocks at my cats and chasing my chickens around my farm’ he said while slowly shaking his head and regurgitating the whiskey, ‘but I am just an old man and this is my house, this is my farm.’ 

 ‘This is the only home  I have ever know’ he continued slowly, almost swallowing his words,  ‘I have lived here for more than 80 years, before the turn of the century, before airplanes, trains cars, phones or electricity and before the likes of you and your dinky ugly houses that have taken my land and my livelihood.'  He spat on the dirt floor and whipped his bloody chapped lips with his hand leaving a blood mustache smudge across his face.  'My family and friends, my livelihood are all gone’ he almost moaned, ‘this place used to be my paradise, a garden of Eden, before it was invaded by all this development and progress’.  ‘Now it is shit ' he told me sadly with a tear in his one good eye, ‘but I am not leaving, I am too damn old and too stubborn and besides, I have nowhere else to go in this world.’

I flinched at the profanity but gained courage from his humanity.  'I am Matthew and I am sorry for what has happened to you and your farm but I am a friend to everyone and everything in The Woods.  I love your farm for the smell of the dirt, the color of the crops and the fun of running blindly thru your corn rows.   It is the only open land around in this concrete neighborhood it is the only thing that is real.  I will be your friend and will help you keep this place beautiful and green so the kids around here will know what it is like and won’t go crazy'.   

He smiled and shook my hand, thanked me and after a lot of chit-chat and sharing of some disgusting chewing tobacco, he let me help him feed the pony, collect some wood and clean the eggs out of the chicken coop.  When the sun went down and my mother called me across the open yards, we parted with an understanding of the old and the new. 

I grew up a little that day realizing that there are small powerless people who suffer big consequences in this world and we can do nothing about the cruel passage of time.  I went back to visit him a few times but mostly we just waved at each other knowingly across The Woods and The Farm fields.  We weren’t great buddies but we understood and shared this bucolic corner of the world knowingly. 

Then one spring I saw an ambulance at the farm and then I never saw him again.  My personal Puff the Magic Dragon was gone  Eventually they tore down the farm and built another Waldbaums grocery store, a Greenstamp return center and a Phantastic Phill’s Pizzeria. The Bastards.  They took The Farm, The Woods and the heart and soul of my youth.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016


“Rojo the Indian boy
Loves all the animals in The Woods...”

Like most kids, I had an alter ego when I was young.  His name was Rojo and he was an Indian boy.   He ran thru The Woods, singing that song, loving nature and relishing the freedom of being an Indian and young boy in Massapequa, Long Island, a suburban Indian village, near the shopping mall. The Woods was only a few trees in a small field behind a school yard, that replaced the old potato fiends, but it was Rojo’s world. 

I may have made Rojo up or I may have seen him on a black and white TV but I ran around the only woods near my house, jumping over logs and streams, clubbing trees in vicious battles or throwing sticks at imaginary enemies, saving the day for my family and tribe.

One day Rojo threw a big stick at a small bird on the ground and killed it.  He spent the rest of the day crying and burying the bird and resolved then to be a friend of all the animals in the Woods.  When he went home for his nap his mom asked him what he was crying about he just shook his head silently.  He thought she wouldn't understand.

Late one night after bringing home, in a bucket, a few fish Rojo had caught in a pond, he went out to inspect his fish friends and one was belly up and the other did not look so good. He woke his mom up and got her to drive him and his fish back to the pond to set them free, no questions asked.  She understood.  She was Rojo's mom.  

Rojo also had an imaginary, invincible companion dog - Woody. There were dog prints ensconced in our driveway, placed by a stray dog when the concrete was freshly poured and he saw them as proof that Woody was there, he was real and he was invisible. They jumped the fence behind the house together every day and ran wildly, nilly-willy thru the Woods with no shirt on, in his PF Flyer moccasins.

One day Rojo woke up and there was an elephant tied to a tree in The Woods.  When he and Woody jumped the fence to investigate there were horses and goats, lambs and livestock milling around among tents and machinery, rides and games, concession stands and a food court.  The circus had come to town.  Rojo was willing to share The Woods for a week with all these animals and people but he was glad when they left and he had his sanctuary back.

This clump of trees was big enough for Rojo, for a time, and since he was not allowed to cross the street yet, the Woods was his home. He would spend hours laying in the grass with Woody under Eisenhower skies, by a Kerouac stream, looking up at the clouds and making animals out of the patterns or wondering if the kids in China were looking at the same clouds. In the spring he frolicked in the mud under the budding lime green leaves.  In the fall Rojo would play in big piles of colored leaves and in the grey winter wind he would track animals and build a snow fort for protection, warmth and napping.

Then one day, several big yellow machines that looked like dinosaurs came and started digging up The Woods.  They knocked down the trees and dug a big hole.  Then they filled the hole with foundations and big sprawling concrete buildings.  They paved the parking lot and put up a big neon sign and christened the new strip mall Massapequa Park.  Rojo wept wordlessly and retreated into himself.

Every day my mom would tie my shoes and ask me what I was going to do on such a glorious, sunny day. Play, I would say. Then one day my mom taught me to tie my own shoes, easy as pie but the tide had somehow shifted.  Then my dad taught me how to cross the street (look both ways, twice) and my world expanded beyond my backyard and The Woods.   Rojo was forgotten.

Eventually all the fields went away, all the lots were filled in with more sprawl and progress, all The Woods were razed for something new and necessary.  All the roads got bigger and busier. All the people got busy and bustled around like ants.  I did too.  

Soon I was going to school, riding a bike, making new friends.  In fifth grade I got a job delivering newspapers, by seventh grade I discovered girls.  Soon I was going to prep school in the city in a jacket and tie.  Then it was designer colleges far from home and then a huge road trip out west to start my own life with a job, a trophy home and a family of my own. 

One day I was hiking in the snow in the woods near my new home and I just started, inexplicitly, running, delicately,  dynamically, effortlessly, joyfully, up and down and all around.   I jumped over logs and rocks and threw sticks at big trees and rocks.  I was energized by nature, the sunshine, the wind, the snow, the cold climate and my surroundings, my freedom and just the fun of being young and healthy and alive. I was feeling my inner Rojo again and I loved it. I found myself doing it more and more often to keep my life in balance, for my sanity and for my own real sense of self.  

I consequently structured my life to maximize my inner Rojo; to ski and ride and hike outside in the hills as much as possible, to simplify my needs and desires and find pleasure in just getting out and about, to treat people and animals with kindness and to revel in nature, preserving and protecting it. I still spend a lot of time in my back yard; the woods of the West, the slopes of the Rocky Mountains and the deserts of the Colorado Plateau, channeling my inner Rojo.