Joe's Travels -
In His Own Words
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26 May 2000 - Shakedown
29 May 2000 - Rolling Thunder
31 May 2000 - Freedom
2 June 2000 - Roy Chaney
5 June 2000 - Tony Horseman
7 June 2000 - Key West
10 June 2000 - Central Florida
11 June 2000 - The Everglades
The Next Key West
Mid June - Larry Cash
Mid June - Bobby Kilgore
Mid June - Don Anderson
On the Beach
The Streets of Laredo
The Law West of Pecos
Fort Davis and the MacDonald Observatory
Early July Carlsbad
Fort Leonard Wood
Big Horn Mountains
Joe is currently at his winter digs on the Gulf Coast of Texas. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org and you can call him at (361)749-0339. He made the reunion on Veteran's Day and you can see photos of Joe on the Veteran's Day 2000 page. Hopefully he will finish his travel tales and we'll post them as they come in.
Shakedown - 5/26/00
(I am sitting on a folding camp chair, by a folding camp table, under a folding camp canopy, in the middle of the woods, writing on a portable computer and ...)
I have been camping in NY and New England. Visited the Thousand Islands, The Adirondacks and the White mountains. Saw my first wild turkeys; still looking to see a moose and hear the cry of the loon. Dropped in on some friends I used to sail on tugboats with.
The purpose of the past two-weeks has been to try out new equipment and figure out what I don’t need. As we get older, we seem to forget just how little we really need to survive. We fill our lives with clutter, tell ourselves it is important, and in the end find out we are no better off with it than without.
While preparing for this trip, I tried to pack everything to make life on the road more comfortable. The result was half a vanload of unnecessary junk that made it nearly impossible to get to what was really important.
In Viet Nam, we learned to appreciate the basics. A drink of cool water was bliss. A couple of hours of sleep, a 1A box of C-rats, a night without mosquitoes, were all sheer ecstasy.
In the world, life is full of worries, "Will I be laid off? Will my taxes go up? Will my property values go down? Will my kids become serial killers?" In Viet Nam, all we had were problems, and problems have solutions. With worries, generally all you can do is worry.
Our main problem was staying alive and it doesn’t get any simpler than that. Keep your weapon clean, do you job, and hope for the best. Nothing else really mattered. I don’t remember anyone having deep philosophical discussions over the moral justification of the war. At night, over a three-two beer, we talked about cars, women, sports and home. Otherwise we did our jobs and kept things simple.
I have to learn it all over again.
Rolling Thunder - 5/29/00
The tour has now officially kicked off. On Saturday, May 27 I met with LT Dick Coogan in Brigantine NJ where we took some pictures and were interviewed by a local reporter. If any of you subscribe to the Brigantine Beachcomber keep an eye out for the article. (editors note: see Joe’s Main Page for the pictures.)
That night, I believe Boonie may have earned his stripes by scaring off a robbery attempt. The next morning, I reported to the Wall for Rolling Thunder.
After finding a place to park on Constitution Ave., I engaged in one of my favorite activities, talking to other vets. Parked next to me were Charlie Klingler of 545th Transportation Company and his very attractive wife Helen. The USMC Helicopter Assn. was set up in a booth behind me. Capt. Joseph Scholle, pilot HMM-363, CWO_4 Jim Casey USMC ret. And Capt. Marion Stuykechy, Author of "Bonnie Sue, A Marine Corps Helicopter Squadron in Viet Nam", all were there manning the booth.
Tim Swarbrick also had a booth, as usual. Tim is a Korean War vet, I have known for years. A talented musician and a highly unusual personality, Tim sacrificed his career to devote himself to veteran’s causes.
A group from Rolling Thunder Chapter #1 North Carolina included Larry Edwards 5th group 244th Aviation 67-69, Joseph Pena 5/52 ADA, 1/5 ADA, HHC 18th ABN Corps with duty in Grenada, Honduras, Haiti, and the Persian Gulf. Becky Pena, 2nd MI Bn, Persian Gulf and Haiti. Tom Stanley 173rd ABN, 5th Special Forces, 1st SFOD-D, Tom served two tours in VN, 65-66 and 70-71 as well as Grenada and Panama. Also met a lady, who identified herself as Lonnie "Internationally renowned Hairstylist and proud owner of a 91 Heritage Softtail".
Some of you may remember Carolyn Kay Peacock Nicof (I hope I spelled that right). Carolyn was better known as "Sugar Rush". She did two tours with the 9th ID in Special Services 67-69. Sugar Rush served at Vinh Long, Bear Cat, Vung Tau, attached to MACV Special Services, as a Dept. of the Army civilian. She is as charming today as she was thirty years ago. I also met a gorgeous young lady named Emily Garbee. Emily does more for the backseat of a HOG than either Harley or Davidson ever dreamed possible. (I hope the picture comes out, I kept fogging the lens)
This is Emily
All the vets I met were invariably, kind, generous, honest, gentle warriors, who were also deeply patriotic and fiercely proud. The Viet Nam vet with his independence, his courage, and his strong sense of honor is the quintessential American; the embodiment of every thing that is and was fine in America. I never stand so tall as when I say, "I served in Viet Nam".
Different groups - North Carolina and US Marine Corps Helicopter Association
Not sure who these people are
I don’t how many times I have heard it said, "Nothing good ever came out of the Viet Nam War." It has become a mantra for the same people who also say the war was not winnable and Ho Chi Minh was the beloved leader of all the Vietnamese. The next time you hear someone say, "Nothing good ever came out of the Viet Nam War." Look him straight in the eye and say, "I did."
Freedom - 5/31/00
After Rolling Thunder, I camped in Beltway National Park, It was only twelve miles from downtown. I wanted to catch more of the services but Boonie made such a commotion every time he saw another dog I had to give it up.
Alan Cliff of the 52nd Eng. Det. and his lady Lori were at the next campsite, having driven up from Ozona FL. Tuesday, May 30, I started South after a Quick run back up to PA to straighten out a problem with the tags on the MV Cardboard Box.
I drove back down to DC, picked up US50 east, crossed over to the Delmarva Peninsula and headed South. Following back roads as much as possible, the Wicomico river was crossed on a nifty little two-car cable ferry. The next day I connected with US17 just below Norfolk and drove through the Great Dismal Swamp into NC.
In Elizabeth City the realization hit me, The Outer Banks were only 150 mi. out of the way. So that night I made camp at Oregon inlet, just south of Kitty Hawk.
This trip has been a continuous learning process. Sometimes I am simply relearning things I had long forgotten. Other lessons are a true broadening of my horizons Freedom is a word casually tossed about. Few ever experience the sensation of true freedom. I have never considered myself to be tightly bound by the constraints of society, but often I discover I have placed limits where none existed or were required.
While the only absolute true freedom comes when they play Taps over your flag-draped coffin. I am probably at this moment as free as possible while still breathing.
When suddenly faced with a life of virtually no boundaries my first feeling was of some intimidation. Everyday, I am learning to more fully appreciate and relish the unrestricted life. I plan less and am becoming more a creature of impulse.
The flip side of the coin, is I am now completely responsible, for the outcome of my decisions. Routes of travel, choice of campsites, budgeting of resources, every decision, every action, good or bad is mine and mine alone.
Roy Chaney - 6/2/00
In South Carolina, and back on US17, I continued south. Myrtle Beach, or at least what I saw of it, was a disappointment. I was expecting a quiet elegant resort, the sort of place I would never go. What I found was more glitz than Atlantic City, strip malls, T-shirt shops, chain restaurants, and Disney wannabe attractions, the sort of place I would never go.
I camped that night Francis Marion National Forest, a place about which I have absolutely no memory.
The following morning I left to meet SSGT Roy Chaney. The Sarge is operating a country store deep in the backwoods of the Southeast Georgia low country, just above the Florida line. He has recently retired as a Georgia State corrections officer. In Roy’s own words he lost about four years trying to get it all together after leaving the army. He credits his wife for sticking by him during those hard times of constant moving changing jobs while trying to find a way to deal with his memories and experiences. A "Coming Home" quagmire most of us have been mired in.
Roy is a two-tour vet who was making a career in the army until he destroyed his right knee during a rocket attack. The Sarge has two Bronze Stars and enough other citations to make a handsome fruit saIad.
He treated me to genuine Southern hospitality grilling up a couple of excellent steaks. We sat up drinking Jack Black, Budweiser and traded war stories until about 0200. His stories were a lot better than mine. I will have to return to visit again, The Sarge gave me so much, I realized it would not be possible to do him justice in one short trip. If I am going to record these stories and do it well it will take real time.
Sergeant Chaney was my first scheduled visit. If everyone I meet is half as gracious, my tour of the USA will be a most enjoyable experience.
Roy Chaney's e-mail address:
Tony Horseman - 6/5/00
Before hitting Florida, I wanted to visit the Okeefenokee Swamp. It was impossible to miss it. Proving my ability to do the impossible, I drove down to Ocala National Forest where I spent two days and encountered my first alligator.
Boonie and I were out patrolling the nearby lake after a thunderstorm. When we almost stepped on a four-footer. I don’t know which of the three of us was more startled.
The forest was definitely worth a visit. We then continued down through the center of Fla. To Okeechobee.
Tony Horse was my second visit. Tony was also a two-tour vet. He commanded an AVLB (armored vehicle launch bridge). Since then, he has been caught in the personal fire fight that is all too familiar to vets.
I am happy to report that like SSgt Chaney. Tony has been bloodied but not beaten.
If I had any doubt about my need to come back down and do a more in depth interview, my visit with the Horseman cleared it. I could write an entire book about his experiences since leaving country alone.
Tony is living in a very comfortable log house on ten acres of ground. With him are a teen-idol good looking son and the heart stopping Hannah. In fact Tony is the only member of his family that doesn’t look like a movie star.
He is breeding horses, cattle and various other livestock. He also has a number of dogs who tried to take on Boonie but found out beneath the tail-wagging face-licking exterior beats the heart of a true warrior.
At Tony’s I encountered some friendly indigenous personnel and engaged in joint operations. I was able to learn some useful new maneuvers.
As a host, Tony was ever warm, gracious, generous and affable.
I continue on my quest with a sense that somehow this journey has taken on a greater importance than just my seeing America and visiting a few middle-aged veterans. Without trying to sound to self-inflated, I believe it is a symbol of our need to break through our self-imposed isolation and reach out to each other. My trip is a physical version of what the internet has come to mean to us, contact.
(Pictures will be posted as they arrive - to see a few B&W photos of Joe and Tony, go back to Joe's Main Page by selecting "Joe K's Tour" in the left frame).
Hamilton Anthony (Tony) Horseman's e-mail address:
Key West - 6/7/00
The first must stop on my trip was Key West. I drove as far as Key Largo and camped. The next morning I drove into the legendary hangout of Papa Hemingway, one of my personal heroes
Was it worth the four-hour drive through dozens of congested islands? Absolutely! Is it as terrific as I heard? Maybe even better!
Key West was so great, I hope to winter there this year. However without Divine intervention, the combination of high prices and a low budget make that a very, very long shot.
I do recommend however, if you have never been there, Go! Now! Fly! Drive! Walk! Crawl! Steal a car! Hijack a plane! It is not going to last. In five to ten years it will be all gone. The signs are everywhere.
We have this incredible tendency to kill the places we love best. Most are like the Grand Canyon, they are destroyed by too much attention. The silence and solitude, the romance of the untamed river have been replaced by air tours, raft tours and mule rides.
In Key West, we are setting out to remove the very thing that made it special. The flavor of this tiny island is the result of the proper mix of characters, location and money. The native residents or Conchs as they are called were gun runners, rum runners, rebels, reef wreckers, and renegades. They’re day job was fishing. Wealthy Yankees would travel to Key West to enjoy the weather and the sport fishing. The result was a place where the eccentric was commonplace and rules were meant to be severely bent, if not completely broken.
Today the island is becoming money driven. The habitation of the Conchs is being destroyed. There is one surviving trailer park. Most of the characters are living off the island or on houseboats in the marinas that will accept them and they are diminishing in number.
The day is not too far distant when you will see Disney characters dressed as smugglers and pirates and animatronic Conchs on every corner. Key West is becoming sanitized, plasticized, and shrink wrapped. Go there yesterday, if not sooner.
(Pictures will be posted as they arrive).
Central Florida - 6/10/00
Leaving the Keys, I headed for Ft. Lauderdale. On the way, I picked up a hitchhiker, a Czechoslovakian cook who was also touring the country. Boonie was not happy with him riding shotgun and made his feelings clear. I don’t think my passenger was as happy when the Russians left Prague, as he was to get out of the van.
This gave me a chance to drive through downtown Miami. It was glittery, glossy, and highly reflective, a monument to modern architecture and prosperity, another place I wouldn’t want to live.
The purpose of my Ft Lauderdale trip was to drop in on the Owner/Master of the cutter The Last Unicorn. We had met on a sailing web site and exchanging E-mail for some time. She is a very lovely and courageous, intelligent, independent woman of obvious good taste and breeding. She thinks I write well. After a couple of hour swapping stories, I left for the Everglades.
My opinion of Ft. Lauderdale, it is trying to be both New York and Key West and not doing either very well.
Going South through Florida, I drove down the center of the state. Citrus groves gave way to cattle ranches, which in turn gave way to cane fields before reaching the Everglades. This was Florida with its sleeves rolled up, red necks, callused hands, shit-kicker boots and ten-gallon hats. There were no t-shirt shops, blue-haired ladies, or geriatric shuffle-board players. There was also no pretension or attitude.
If my permanent home had to be in Florida, except for a couple of islands on the Gulf side this is where it would be.
(Pictures will be posted as they arrive).
The Everglades - 6/11/00
The Everglades were a disaster. As soon as we climbed out of the MV Cardboard Box, we were ambushed. Every type of flying biting insect imaginable was waiting for us. Boonie dove back into the van and wouldn’t come out. I ate a can of cold beans for dinner, and pitched the tent with a cloud of buzzing and humming bugs in my eyes, ears, nose and throat.
Although I hurled my body through the tent opening and pulled the zipper up as quickly as I could, at least a full company of enemy insurrectionist insects came in with me. For the next two hours I killed my six-legged tormentors. The inside of the tent looked like there had been a blood bath. Every surface was speckled with dead. The next morning it must have looked like a Keystone Cops movie, as I broke camp at top speed, pulling down the tent and just throwing everything into the truck. Boonie and I were in total retreat as we didied the hell out of there.
People delude themselves into thinking they are the dominant species. Bugs are king. No matter how much man screws the planet up. Insects continue to thrive.
The experience reminded me of the mosquitoes in Viet Nam. I think about what we had to deal with in country, mosquitoes, scorpions, centipedes, spiders, leeches, poisonous snakes, F-U lizards and rock apes, dust, monsoons, ninety-degree heat and hundred percent humidity, malaria, immersion-foot, crotch-rot, dysentery, agent orange, lack of sleep, c-rats, and foul drinking water, humping packs that weighed nearly as much as we did through places a rabbit couldn’t get through, not to mention that we had a war to fight as well.
Were we that hard or did we just not know any better. I believe, when we arrived we didn’t know any better; when we left we were that hard.
The Next Key West
In my last dispatch, I wrote about the everglades massacre. I should mention, I plan to return for a winter campaign. I did not get to see much of the area, but what I did see convinced me it was worth a long second look.
From the park, I went to Everglades City and Chokoloskee Island. They have potential to be the next Key West, small, quaint and quirky, with enough drinking establishments to keep from getting bored and sunsets not to be forgotten. As I sat sipping a Jack Black and being dazzled by one of the daily light and color shows a number of people were otherwise engaged and seemed totally oblivious to the display. I wondered if that was why I never want to settle too long in one place, is it because I am afraid that I will also become immune to the magic of that place. Probably not, but it is just as good an excuse as any.
While at Everglades City, I once again engaged in maneuvers with friendly indigenous personnel. Although the operation was not as satisfactory as my previous one, I was happy to find I am still able to keep pace with much younger counterparts.
On the advice of locals I next visited Cedar Key, as a possible replacement for Key West. While the town had charm, it seemed to take itself far too seriously and held too high an opinion of its own importance.
My next stop was Apilachicola, offshore from Florida’s panhandle. It was another location deserving a closer look. It had a harbor full of shrimp and oyster boats and a laid back attitude. Onshore the coastline was dotted with small towns each with its own offerings.
I am determined to someday find the next Key West, no matter how many Lush Islands I have to visit, no matter how many taverns I have to explore, No matter how many local ladies I have to entertain, I will prevail, enduring any hardship and danger.
This could be man’s greatest quest since the search for the Holy Grail.
Pitching my tent in the Apilachicola National Forest, I met a new adversary. Flies about two inches long with bright blue heads. If Vincent Price and Jeff Goldbloom were turned into flies and decided to have children together this is what they might look like.
They strafed me constantly with a sound like an F-16. Since they never actually attacked, I began calling them Clinton Flies, all buzz and no bite.
On close inspection I could discern what I believe were USAF markings. It is possible they are Big Bill’s new secret weapon. After all the flack he has taken lately over bombing pharmaceutical factories to draw attention from his sexual dalliances, he has decided to create a weapon more in keeping with his personality.
Instead of really killing any one he would just annoy the hell out of them. The Chinese communists would love the idea, and anything that makes the Chinese happy is OK with the CIC (This used to mean Commander-in-Chief, but now it has been changed to Clown-in-Charge).
The following morning, I enjoyed a new experience, bathing with alligators. The current drought has apparently diminished their normal shyness. While I was washing in the lake, I could see half a dozen of them swimming towards me. A leisurely bath was out of the question.
The Bienville National Forest lies between Jackson and Meridian Mississippi. Unfortunately it is another one of those places which has somehow slipped completely from my memory. I hope when I get my pictures developed there will be something to give me a mental jumpstart.
Perhaps Bienville was so forgettable because both Taladega and Kitachie, my next stop, were each in its own way, so memorable. Or perhaps it was because I was so excited about crossing the Mississippi River. Taking US84 across at Natchez, I was having problems getting pictures because of a huge earthwork that blocked my view.
It was astounding to realize the earthwork was actually a levee to prevent flooding. I could not conceive of the river rising to a level to make such a massive structure necessary, and I can conceive of quite a lot. I had crossed the Mississippi; I was now in the West
I chose a campground called Cloud Crossing. With a name like that I had to stop. To get there, you must first drive to the town of Winfield La., then proceed East along a back road to a bump called Calvin. In Calvin you ask the men on the front porch how to get to the campsite. They will direct you up a smaller road, which leads to an even smaller one. Then you turn off on a country lane until the fork up a dirt track.
The camp was in the middle of the Saline Bayou, a marvelously spooky place.
Blackwater, mangrove and cypress draped in Spanish moss, it was a place made for bad dreams and over active imaginations. While the place showed plenty of daytime activity: winding trails, rope swings over swimming holes and well-used fishing spots: it was deserted at night, perhaps the locals know something I don’t.
Boonie kept watch and I slept great, no creature from the black Lagoon, no Swamp Thing, not even Adrienne Barbeau (Which I wouldn’t have minded too much).
The next morning I crossed the Sabine River into Shreveport. Driving down one of the main drags, I was impressed by the downtown area, particularly the incredible murals. One thing seemed to be missing though, parks, little cool green oases for the office workers to sit and enjoy an outdoor lunch break, or for shoppers to rest, or middle aged men to girl watch.
I didn’t drive around so there might be just the kind of places I am thinking of on other streets.
Having blown my budget in Key West, I was forced to shorten my trips and increase my layovers to save gas. At this stage of my life, I have yet to develop any self-discipline or regard for the future. With any luck I won’t. Running short of funds has left me with conflicting emotions: I am looking forward to the end of the month and the replenishment of cash, I am also dreading the end of the month because it means I am that much closer to the end of my journey.
In western Alabama, I bivouacked at Talladega National Forest. My campsite was located on the tip a of a small peninsula in a fair-sized mountain lake. I had it completely to myself for two days. My only human companionship being the occasional fisherman who dropped by for a chat, and the two ladies who kept the campsites tidy.
Whatever happened to "taciturn Southerners"? The Alabamans I met were the most talkative people I had ever seen. One old fisherman bent my ear for at least two hours and a man and his wife stopped me as I was driving into the park to ask a question and held me captive for at least thirty minutes telling me of his previous camping experiences. I finally made polite excuses and escaped or I might still be there. That entire conversation took place while talking through our truck windows.
All the people I meet continue to be friendly. Alabamans might just be the friendliest.
I had a new experience at the park, taking my morning bath with water moccasins. Communing with nature has taken on a whole new aspect for me.
My next stop was Larry Cash in Smiths Ala.; this was my first time in Alabama, and the first new state I was visiting since starting my trip. Larry was in headquarters platoon of B Co. We were in country at the same time 67-68, and in fact were both at fire base Yaeger. Larry was also a good friend of the first kid killed in my squad, Danny Kee. This made my visit especially poignant.
Larry tried to make a career of the army but was given a medical discharge for PTSD. He lives with his extended family, including his wife, son Jimmy, his daughter-in-law and two beautiful granddaughters. Larry’s wife is a police sergeant.
I spent two days at Larry’s camping nearby in the Lakeview campground. The first night he treated me to dinner at a local café. The next night I was to meet with Larry, his daughter Aretha and his best friend for dinner in Columbus Ga.
To make certain I wasn’t going to be late, and since I don’t wear a watch, I went to a local store near the campground to check the time and set my alarm clock. The store I went to was about two miles west of the camp, about one mile west of the camp the time zone changes from Eastern to Central. I showed up for diner exactly one hour late, a classic example of "shit happens".
As I plan to revisit many of these guys after the tour is over, hopefully we can have that dinner yet.
A brief commercial announcement: If you happen to be in that area I do recommend the Lakeview Camp ground. The owner is an Air Force vet and working hard to get the place going. When finished it will have three lakes for fishing and swimming and they are bending over backwards to make there guests happy.
Bobby Kilgore lives near the town of Hallsville Texas, just a few mile west of Shreveport. Like many vets Bobby has a few acres out in the woods where he can live his life own his own terms. Is it just a general distrust for authority, a streak of non-conformity, a longing for solitude, or a common desire for personal independence that makes so many vets seek out isolated spots to set their anchors?
Each of the above, in all likelihood, is a contributor, but the longing for personal freedom is probably the strongest reason. We have all seen the quote, "To those who have fought for it, Freedom has a flavor the protected can never know." It is generally attributed to Westmoreland but I think it originated with Shakespeare. That would no be surprising, it seems that anything worth saying The Bard said it best.
Back to the point: To those who fought for Freedom there is a loathing to give up even the smallest bit of it. To move into the land of lawn care and garden clubs is as abhorrent as watching a Jane Fonda movie. Living under the prying eyes of bored and boring neighbors is like being a POW in the American suburbs.
They will live where whether they decide to cut the grass is based on whether or not they feel like it and not on the orders of the lawn nazis. This is a desire as old as America itself. When people left everything they knew to cross the Atlantic and settle in a strange new land, it was so they could live their lives in freedom. When the first pioneers crossed the Allegheny Mountains, it was because the East had become too civilized and too regulated.
Veteran’s have often been accused of hiding out in the woods. But, who is hiding out; the man refuses to compromise and insists on playing by rules of his own making, or those who seek solace by cloaking themselves in the camouflage of faceless conformity.
Perhaps that is why I have never been able to settle comfortably in one place. I have not had a place to live my life as I chose to without falling under the watchful eyes of my neighbors.
Bobby was with the 15th when they first arrived in Viet Nam. He went over by ship and participated in the earliest jungle clearing that became Bearcat. He lives with his wife and two dogs. Boonie developed a fifty/fifty relationship with Bobby’s dog Peanuts, Fifty percent of the time they got along and fifty percent of the time they didn’t. They looked like they were going to team up and try to take down a Bobcat that has been stalking Bobby’s back yard, I don’t know who withdrew first but after a lot of snarling and barking. Nothing happened.
I camped out in Bobby's yard, he offered me the use of his spare bedroom but I am not ready to sleep indoors just yet. Bobby and some other vets he has gotten in touch with are planning a get together in Missouri. This is an idea that I have had, we shouldn’t just wait for the reunion to get together. There is no reason why we can’t meet just to go to a ball game or to fishing or camping together. The more we see of each other, I believe the stronger we become.
To see Don Anderson, I drove down US59 into the oozing swamp of Houston traffic. It consisted of cars cutting each other off, horns blowing, and brakes screeching all at a top speed of ten miles an hour.
I camped at the Stephen Austin State park in San Felipe. This is the town where Austin handed out the land grants to American settlers. It was the first Anglo settlement in Texas. While retreating from Santa Ana’s army the Texans burned the town and destroyed all their belongings to keep them from the Mexican army. Today nothing of the original settlement remains. A reproduction of Austin’s log cabin has been built, but it seems as though one of the most important places in Texas history is being ignored.
Don and I sat around my campsite and told a few stories. He came loaded with gifts, a 15th combat engineer association hat, plenty of beer and a cigar for me. He even brought a bag of dog treats for Boonie. Don works for one of the world’s top engineering companies. After VN he returned to college to finish his education. He has been happily married to the same girl since shortly after he returned home.
Don agrees with the idea of get-togethers and has been working on the same project with vets in his area. I thanked him for his efforts with the 15th website and the association. I know how much it has meant to me and I am sure there are many others who feel the same.
The campground was full of wildlife. There were deer that were so tame you could almost walk up and feed them. They drove Boonie out of his puppy mind. Shortly after dark, a raccoon walked into the campsite. I shone my flashlight directly on him and he simply ignored me. He went right for the dog treats Don had brought. Don jumped up to try and stop him at the same moment Boonie woke up and spotted the critter.
I had the dog on a wire leader, which caught Don behind the legs and took his feet out from under him. It looked as if he had sprained his ankle, so unfortunately what had been and very enjoyable evening ended on a rather sour note.
(Web Master Note: Don’s ankle was broken. Joe was not aware of this until I met with him on 7/14/00)
By now my finances were growing ever more meager. I laid over at San Felipe a couple of days to save on fuel, then headed west to Palmetto State Park, sixty mi. east of San Antonio. At Palmetto I found myself surrounded by Several large Mexican-American families, While I enjoyed their noisy friendliness, and watching the good-natured jokes they seemed to be constantly playing on each other, it wasn’t long before I began to miss the solitude and privacy of my other much more isolated campsites.
Early Sunday morning, I drove into San Antonio. The Alamo hadn’t opened yet, so it gave me the opportunity to stroll the river walk. With miles of outdoor cafes and an endless flow of strollers, there can be no finer place in the world for sitting in the shade and sipping a ice cold mint julep while watching half the prettiest girls in Texas strut their stuff.
It almost made me rethink Baltimore as
my favorite downtown. The drawback is, it is a bit too perfect, like main street
at Disney World.
On the Beach
I believe both Bobby Kilgore and Don Anderson had advised me to visit Port Aransas in my search for the new Key West. They were right. With just enough gas to get me there and just enough money to pay for a campsite and buy ice to keep my beer cold, I was forced to live on the beach at Port Aransas.
There may be better places to be marooned, but I don’t know of any. My day consisted of occasional swims in the bathtub warm Gulf followed by extended periods of sitting in the shade reading. Whenever I needed to cool off, there was a rinse shower located about thirty feet from my tent.
Occasional strolls on the beach to listen to the sounds of the surf accompanying the syncopated rhythms of attractive young women jouncing along in very well filled bikinis
I explored the town and discovered with a year-round population of 2300, it had 12 hardcore drinking establishments and another dozen places to wash down your liquor with food. If that wasn’t enough across the channel on the free ferry in Aransas Pass there were even more.
In Port Aransas, I am considered to be an over-achiever. A local told me, if you have an appointment for a job interview at eight, and show up by four and you haven’t been drinking too much; you will probably be hired because you are reliable and sober.
I was so impressed, I decided to winter there. I have booked a small bungalow at the Buccaneer. It is four hours from San Antonio, three hours from Mexico, twenty miles from Corpus Christi, five hundred yards from the beach and two doors down from a sweet jazz bar run by a tall, slender blond.
Anyone in the neighborhood is welcome to stop by.
The Streets of Laredo
After a most reluctant departure from Port Aransas, my next port-of-call was the streets of Laredo. The campsite was Lake Casa Blanca.
Since my route would now take me into the desert, I decided to replace the starter on the Cardboard Box. So, I spent Sunday morning wandering the streets of Laredo looking for a mechanic.
From Laredo I followed the Rio Grande as closely as I could to Del Rio. The country was mostly featureless: flat and brown. The campsite at Del Rio was perched on the knife ridge of a peninsula overlooking Amistad Reservoir. Stretching upstream more than seventy miles, it is supposed to be one of the world’s largest.
The slopes of the ridge were layered over with broken shards of limestone and cactus. A lack of topsoil meant no runoff and left the water crystal clear. With the white limestone bottom and the reflection of the cloudless sky the water seemed almost iridescent blue. It was also the sweetest water I ever tasted.
From Del Rio, I ventured out into the West Texas desert. I had always imagined the Deserts of the Southwest to be as I had seen them in cowboy pictures; expanses of blinding white sand only broken by giant cactus. It was hard to understand how anyone could be attracted to such desolation.
I suppose such places do exist, but this is not what I saw. The desert was harsh and forbidding, but it also had great beauty and many textures. The terrain would change suddenly from short steep hills to ravines crevices and canyons and then to soft rolling hills. It seems as if much of the area had one been the subject of tremendous geological violence.
The foliage would range from sparse grass to scrub brush no more than three feet high to mesquite forests with trees about twenty feet in height. Everything seemed to be washed with a pale lavender tint, from the purple sage which were in full bloom.
General Sheridan once said, "If I owned both Hell and Texas, I would live in Hell and rent out Texas".
The Law West of Pecos
On the road west from Del Rio, I suddenly came upon a sign "Scenic Overlook". Since everything had been relatively flat for as long as I could remember, I thought, "Overlook What?" Out of curiosity I took the bait. Up a short drive I went when suddenly the whole world opened up. I came upon the Pecos River Gorge. A chasm about four hundred feet deep lay in front of me. The highway bridge across the gap was 367 feet above the river, the highest bridge in Texas.
More than a hundred and twenty-five years ago a railroad bridge was built across this chasm. At the time it was considered to be one of the modern wonders of the world.
Today the bridge is all but forgotten, but a man whose fame and fortune were built around that grand structure, Judge Roy Bean "The Law West of the Pecos".
Just a few miles past the Gorge lies the town of Langtry. Roy Bean claimed he named it after his idol, Lilly Langtry, others say it was actually named after a railroad executive. Judge Bean, a duly elected Justice of the Peace, owned the Jersey Lilly a bar and billiard room named after Miss Langtry. His clientele was made up of the railroad workers as well as the local cowboys.
The "Jersey Lilly" is still standing as is the "The Town hall, Opera House and Seat of Justice" which was Judge Bean’s name for his two room domicile. They are now surrounded by a cactus garden and a semi-ghost town.
I continued along the Rio Grande to Big Bend National Park. I had no great expectations about Big Bend. Expecting to see only sand and sagebrush, I planned to camp one night and continue on. Driving up to a place called Chisos Basin, the road was narrow and winding with eight thousand foot red sandstone mountains, dominating the surrounding landscape of mesas, buttes, painted escarpments and lesser mountains.
From the bed of the Rio Grande to the top of the Chisos, it was an ever-changing vista. The road led me into a small valley at five thousand feet. A ring of red mountains closed it off from the rest of the world, with the exception of a narrow v-shaped slot, called the window, at the western end. The Basin was no more than a couple of square miles of rolling terrain.
On the eastern end of the valley was a massive monolith called Casa Grande. It was not the highest elevation, but it broad flat top, made it seem much larger than its neighbors. It also stood a bit apart from the other peaks and seemed more imposing. About a thousand feet down its sloping sides were sloping shoulders of rubble, caused by the red sandstone swelling with absorbed water during infrequent rains and then breaking away.
This small valley had such incredible beauty, my first thought was, "I could spend the rest of my life here". It is easy to understand why the Indians gave great spiritual significance to places like this. If I were God, this is where I would want to live. .
It was July 3, and I was thinking I wouldn’t be seeing any fireworks this year. About an hour before sunset dense white clouds began to surround Casa Grande. They lay over its shoulders like a soft shawl. At the same time an enormous thunderhead grew over the top of the mountain.
Flashes of lightning lit up the valley and the thunder would roll on in slowly fading echoes lasting for the better part of a minute. I had a seat, front row, center for heaven’s sound and light show.
When the storm had passed, I took Boonie for a walk up the road. After a long uphill walk, I look out toward the window and saw a brilliant red sunset over the desert floor beyond. When I turned to look up at the mountains, they were glowing as if internally lit. I thought if I never see another fireworks display in my life, it wouldn’t matter.
The next morning a pack of Peccaries or Javalinas, as they are sometimes called, invaded our campsite. Javalinas are a kind of small wild pig. Maybe seventy or eighty pounds they travel in packs and can be dangerous if provoked. They apparently have no fear of either man or dog. Boonie was frothing at the mouth, and they completely ignored him. The rangers told me a few days previous, someone had left his dog alone and it tried to take on some Javalinas. They injured the dog up so badly, it had to be put down.
Big Bend is as probably as close to the middle of nowhere as you can get without a guide. Outside of the western end are three tiny towns with a combined population of two hundred: Terlingua, Terlingua Ghost town and Study Butte. I drove into them on the morning of the fourth, just in time for their combined Independence Day Parade.
It consisted of four men on horseback and eight pickup trucks. The entire population of the towns was out to greet them. The whole spectacle was so god natured, it seemed sacrilegious, or at least un-American not to pull over, get out and wave as well.
My cash growing a little lean, I went to the only ATM machine within one hundred miles to draw some funds. The machine refused to give me any money. With only seven dollars in my pocket and no gas in the truck, I had one of my happiest and most unexpected encounters. I went to the park rangers to explain my situation, and one of the rangers said although it was against park regulations he would cash a check for forty dollars. When I got back to the Cardboard Box, a woman came up to me. She had overheard my conversation with the rangers and also offered to cash a check for another fifty if I needed it
I turned down her kind offer, and thought that was one of the nicest things I had ever heard of.
The next morning I returned to Terlingua and after a few false starts, persuaded the ATM to give me some of my own money. If The TV show Northern Exposure were relocated to the desert, You would have Terlingua Texas. Everyone seems to have come there from somewhere else. People who refused to walk in lockstep with the rest of the world and found the room to be themselves in the otherwise unoccupied corner of the planet.
Terlingua does have one connection with the outside world besides Big Bend. It is the home of the International Chili Cook-off. Every year around Halloween, the desert fills with the tents and campers of chili chefs and aficionados from around the earth for possibly the largest one dish cookout in the world.
The road west from Terlingua closely paralleled the Rio Grande River. It wound through gorges and desert, stark and beautiful. When I arrived at Presidio, where I would turn north, the temperature was one hundred and six. From Presidio, I followed US67 to Marfa.
Marfa Texas is home of the Mystery lights. For more than a century, unexplained lights have been appearing over the desert East of Marfa. Swamp gas, St Elmo’s fire, and decrease in intensity. If I didn’t know what to look for, I would have easily ignored them. Seeing them, I was very impressed.
The fact that they have been appearing for more than a hundred years, makes a hoax unlikely. Their height above the ground, also adds to the mystery. The MacDonald Observatory is just up the road and they have not been able to determine the source of the lights.
I hope no one is ever able to explain them. The world can use all the mystery it can get.
Fort Davis and the MacDonald Observatory
I had received word; I had to return east for a deposition. It was for a four-year old lawsuit. I had taken a fall when I was truck driving for my groceries.
I decided to head north into New Mexico, catch Carlsbad Caverns, and Roswell before swinging east. I would take in as much as I could on the way back, although I would be doing it on the run.
Boonie was becoming a problem. He seemed to be reverting to his more aggressive ways. If I can’t gentle him he will have to go back. I can’t take the chance of him biting some kid who wanders into my campsite.
North of Marfa lies Ft. Davis and the Mac Donald observatory. If you ever listen to an NPR station you have probably heard of it. It is the home of the Star Watch programs. The campground at FT. Davis State Park was like most Texas state parks clean and well maintained.
I hat to set up camp in the dark for the first time. I guess, I’d had enough practice in the daylight by now; everything went fairly smooth.
The next morning we drove up to the observatory. If you are an astronomy fan it was definitely worth the trip. If you aren’t, it was still worth it for the view.
The country north of Ft. Davis was at first, hilly and fairly lush. I would find cattle in the road and grazing at rest areas. It was soothing and friendly after the harsh alien desert landscape.
As I drew closer to the Guadeloupe Mountains, the land became more parched. Short hills separated by deep gully defined the terrain. At the bottom of every arroyo was a flash flood warning and depth marker.
I could see huge thunderstorms in the mountains and believed a flash flood would be inevitable. I drove slowly. At the top of each rise, I looked in each direction for signs of a torrent. The flood never appeared.
Upon reaching Guadeloupe National Park, I was treated to a first class downpour. I was forced to break out the anorak. It was something I never expected to be wearing in the middle of the desert.
TheGuadeloupe's are giant fossil reefs, formed millions of years ago when this area was a seabed. Most modern reefs are the result of coral formations. These were from sponges and algae. Today they are great limestone cliffs rising thousands of feet from the desert floor.
Guadeloupe is a small national park and not very accessible. If not for the proximity of Carlsbad it would probably have few visitors.
I left early the next morning for Carlsbad. The road took me north across the New Mexico line. Carlsbad National Park. There was a small village outside the park, which made its living from the tourists. As is beginning to seem normal, if not mandatory it was populated with eccentrics who were engaged in personal love affairs with the desert.
Carlsbad is a fairly small park with no camping facilities. The caverns are the attraction and they are quite an attraction. 800 feet below the surface the main cavern cover 150 acres and it is a one and a half mile walk to circumnavigate it.
North of Carlsbad, lay the town of Roswell, home of aliens, conspiracy
theories and other assorted weirdness. My expectations were of a dusty little
desert town, packed with arcades and t-shirt shops dedicated to promoting close
encounters of any kind while fleecing the tourists, New Mexico was traditionally
full of sheepherders and the first thing a shepherd learns is shearing.
What I found was a bustling community of about thirty thousand, busily
going about the business of doing business. While the references to
extra-terrestrial visitations could be easily found. They were mostly
tongue-in-cheek, such as: the Alien figure outside an oil change shop. He was
giving Mr. Spock’s famous split finger greeting with a sign “Lube long and
My camp was located in a state park about twenty miles east of town. The
park surrounded a group of deep lakes formed by sinkholes in the limestone. The
lakes seemed provide little nourishment to the desert. Other than the dense
mosquitoes, there was no sign of much impact by the abundant water on its
environment. The area was as brown as the rest of the terrain.
In the morning I was walking Boonie off the leash. He suddenly took off
with a growl. I saw Peppy LePew go flying through the air. The dog nailed one of
those black cats with the white stripes. It was then I realized boonie was a
Polish terrier. He would catch the polecat time after time. Each hit would get
him rewarded with a face full of spray. The skunk must have gotten him at least
half a dozen times. Boonie would not quit. Only a Polack could be that
hardheaded and that stubborn.
I washed him down as best I could, but he smelled like he wanted to be
Unfortunately the opposite was true. We
rode with the windows down, because the air-conditioner would only have recycled
the odor through the van. I kept the windows down as we drove in plus one
hundred degree heat. Boonie kept truing to snuggle up to me acting very
I was finally able to locate some tomato juice and gave the dog his third and fourth baths of the day. The juice helped greatly, but Boonie was still not an animal you wanted to get affectionate with.
Eastward - Shenandoah
In North Carolina, I found a site on top of a mountain near the southern
end of the Blue Ridge Parkway, The air was cooler and sleep came more easily.
The next morning,
I backtracked twenty-five miles to take the Parkway only to find it fogged in,
The drive was done at speeds averaging fifteen miles an hour. It was a journey
through a world of hints and suggestions of what lay hidden behind the
gray-white curtains of mist. Sudden
breaks would offer glimpses of blue-green forests and lush valleys.
The road was narrow. It dipped, rose, and curved back on
itself. My fellow travelers were little old men with blue-haired wives driving
huge Winnebago’s very slowly. The quick peeks at through the clouds made the
becomes The Skyline Drive of The Shenandoah National Park as you go North. This
is a fee area. Although I am exempt because of my golden access passport, I
still felt the Parkway was a much better ride at any price.
I picked a site
at the North end of the Park to camp. It was typical of the national parks I had
seen; well groomed, scenic, and convenient to a store. It had an extra
attraction I had not seen before.
gathering firewood, I returned to my camp to find two brown bears about to pay a
visit. They were probably very young and not long separated from their mother.
Bears are solitary creatures and they were still together.
For the next two weeks, I was caught in a kind of limbo. After rushing
back east, I found that nothing had been scheduled. I was forced to hang around
waiting for a bunch of attorneys to get together.
I visited my family; spent time with my daughter, unloaded some gear and
tried to find a home for Boonie. He could not be trusted. At these campsites too
many people simply did not watch their kids. If one wandered over to play with
the doggie and looked a little too aggressive, Boonie might take his face off.
It was a lot easier to adopt the dog than to give him up. I tried to find
some one to take him rather than a shelter. I had no luck.
This was the worst period of the trip. The hectic pace and brusque
manners of the East unnerved me. I had grown accustomed to life at a more
The uncertain waiting was also playing on my nerves. The fact that the
lawsuit, which had been hanging on for four years, seemed to be coming to a
resolution helped alleviate some of my edginess. I still longed to be back in
While waiting, I decided to visit the New England States. Nathaniel
Greene national Forest and the White Mountains were beautiful. I drove up Mt
Washington in New Hampshire.
An eight-mile drive up a narrow winding two-lane road with no guard rails
and a five thousand foot vertical climb took me to the top. The drive was
fantastic and reasonably scary. This was an incredible sight, with hundred mile
views and a change in climate from mid-summer at the bottom to near winter at
I also visited Acadia National Park on the Maine coast. It was located on
a rugged island with deep bays great views and what seemed like more people than
This entire tour through the Northeast was tainted with never ending
traffic jams. Back-ups as long as thirty miles. My fuel economy dropped to about
I turned Boonie in to a shelter near Acadia. I had to use a bit of
creativity to convince the shelter to take him. Without his company, I was
really in a blue funk.
Fort Leonard Wood
The release to continue the trip finally came. I decided to visit the,
northern states before returning to the southwest. Going out via US30 I crossed
the Mississippi at St Louis. It occurred to me, since I was so close, to drop in
on Ft Leonard Wood. Calling ahead to explain who I was and what I was doing,
they gave me the VIP treatment.
A master Sergeant from the public information office escorted me around
The small cafes filled with working girls whose offices were in the
trailers out back are gone. The access road into the base is now a strip of fast
food restaurants, chain motels and shopping malls. I am not sure if that is an
The base has been expanded. Marine engineers and navy SEABEES now train
at Leonard Wood. It has also become the home to the MPs and transportation
The base has the
look of a prosperous suburban town. It has gas stations, fast food restaurants
and a multiplex theater, a new bus station, office complexes and traffic circles
with signal lights. The old airstrip looked the same.
The old wooden
barracks are also history. About a half-dozen or so are set up as a museum.
Today’s soldiers live two to a room and those are being replaced by a kind of
two-bedroom studio apartment. Each soldier has his own room and two share a
kitchenette, living room and bath.
A modern trooper keeps the same bunk all through training. Basic and AIT
are done at the same base.
The training has changed as well. Modern
engineer equipment includes remote operated vehicles allowing the soldier to
keep out of harm’s way and reduce casualties. Multi purpose chassis, on which
different equipment can be mounted, increase versatility.
Combat Engineers are now trained to drive trucks both dumps and lowboys.
They are also trained to operate heavy equipment up to a D7 dozer. This was a
logical improvement. In Viet Nam a truck driver could become squad leader
because he was most senior even though he had no engineer training. Conversely
if an equipment operator was lost the piece of equipment was effectively lost
until the operator was replaced.
Another change in the training, there was no cursing. I didn’t hear a
single instructor expressing amazement at the extent of a trainee’s lack of
intelligence. No one was dressed down or shouted at. My guide explained to me,
“This was the kinder-gentler army.”
Without a draft, and with a booming economy, they could not keep anyone
if they did things the way we remember.
There is also no KP, police call or the barracks inspections we were so
fond of. Today’s soldier may never know the feeling of breaking starch.
Spit-shining combat boots or spending the weekend polishing brass.
A major difference was girls. They were everywhere. If they had that many
women when I was a troop, I might have been a thirty-year man.
A visit to the engineer museum was a special treat. The entire history of
military engineering was touched on. Under the category of, “I never knew
that.” Was Robert E. Lee Was an Engineer. Thirty-one Civil War generals were
engineers. West Point was built to be a school to train engineer officers
Fort Riley seemed a logical next stop after Leonard Wood. My first
impression of Riley left m awestruck.
Of course, Fort Riley was the home and training site for the 9th
Infantry Division in 1966, prior to its leaving for Vietnam.
I had never been on a base which was the permanent home of a major unit.
All my experience had been on training bases,
These bases had a
temporary look. Wooden barracks from the World War II era, which had tripled
their expected life span. Troops all waiting to be transferred somewhere else.
At Riley, I found
these marvelous stone building. There were winding tree-lined streets and
gardens. Mostly, there were the traditions and history of both the Big Red One
and the US Calvary, which seemed to permeate every stone.
Rock Creek Station
Rock Creek Station State Park was just a point on the map. Located in
Southeast Nebraska, it was a convenient stopover. It turned out to be a
The state parks in Nebraska are the cleanest and best maintained I have
ever seen. The restrooms and showers look as if they belong in someone’s home.
Trails are well kept and clearly marked.
The real prize at Rock Creek Station was its history. Sited near the
beginning of the principal trails west, the ruts from the wheels of Oregon bound
wagons still scar the ground.
Rock Creek Station was a forerunner to the modern truck stop; it also had
a toll bridge across the creek.
Its real place in history is that it was the locale of Wild Bill
Hickock’s first gunfight and where his legend began. At Rock Creek I tried to
imagine what the Migrants felt, setting off on a two thousand-mile journey
across the wilderness.
I could sense their uncertainty, wondering whether they were making a
wise choice. I could feel their hope and their resolve.
Standing and looking at the century-old marks of their wheels, it was as
if I had bonded with those who went before me.
I hadn’t found my home but I believed I was getting closer.
Nebraska was a complete surprise. I had expected flatlands and fields of
grain. What I found were the Sandhills and cattle. The Sandhills are hills
sometimes exceeding several hundred feet in height. They are steep and run close
together like waves approaching the shore.
Many are heavily wooded. The soft sand made a formidable barrier to early
explorers, climbing was difficult and weaving between them was like navigating a
I spent one night in King’s Canyon. This was found by traveling about
twenty-miles on dirt roads. My only company was a small herd of cows and some
It was my first night in the backcountry without Boonie. I was a bit on
edge for a while and after about a dozen perimeter checks, I finally settled
The next night, I camped at Ft. Robinson State Park. It was another
historical location and another beautiful example of what a park can look like.
Crossing into Wyoming, I caught my first glimpse of the Rocky Mountains,
more than one hundred-fifty miles away. I was so excited, I began bouncing up
and down in my seat.
My first night in the “Cowboy State” was spent in the Laramie Mts. of
Medicine Bow National Forest. At nine thousand feet my campsite was the highest
I had ever been without eating bad food or sitting in a cramped seat.
It dropped into the forties that night my first taste of high altitude
camping. I also found myself running short of wind at the least exertion. There
were signs warning of mountain lions. I had made it. I was in the Rockies.
The next day, I took a short
hike to acclimatize myself to the altitude. I also moved camp to a lower height.
Exploring the area, I found a marvelous little log chapel in the valley. It had
no electricity and used oil lamps for light and a wood stove for heat.
The pews and were carved from logs as well.
Behind the altar was a picture window with a view of the mountains.
The Laramie Mountains were only a
preview of things to come. I went northwest to US16 and the Bighorn Mts. Buffalo
WY is the gateway to the Bighorns.
If you were to imagine the perfect, small, western mountain town, Buffalo
would come pretty close. I was lucky enough to catch their annual county fair
parade. It was hokey, amateurish altogether wonderful.
The town has a fantastic western museum, with dioramas of Indian fights
and range war battles. There are also displays of the history of the oil
industry a railroad display and a complete 1930’s, one-room schoolhouse.
Hotel and Saloon is exactly as it was a century ago, including twenty-three
bullet holes in the ceiling. It was a hangout for Teddy Roosevelt,
Owen Wister, author of “The Virginian” was also a patron. It is believed the street in front of The Occidental was the setting for the climatic gunfight. It was the first showdown in Western Literature.
Suspended between the Big Horn and
Wind River Mountain Ranges, is a valley of high desert and semi-arid prairie.
Contrasted against the spectacular beauty of the mountains, the valley has a
neglected and unwanted look. It
is like the stepchild in a family of beautiful siblings. The valley is not
without is scenic merits, but it is an awful beauty, like the surface of another
The valley is anchored by the town of
Thermopolis. The town is built of the edge of what are claimed to be the
world’s largest mineral hot springs. The springs were given to the government
by Indians under the condition
that a portion of them are always kept open to the public at no cost.
The state established a park around
the springs. It consists of hundreds of acres of steep rolling hills occupied by
a scattered buffalo herd. The part immediately around the springs looks like
Disney meets Dante.
shade trees and cool lawns are sustained by never ending sprinklers. Several
water-park franchises and theme hotels lie within the park boundaries.
The springs consist of pools,
fountains and multi-colored terraces. The Terraces are mineral deposits. The
colors come from algae, which live on the minerals, different minerals;
different algae; different colors. As the deposits dry out the algae dies and
the terraces turn white.
The air is redolent with the vapors
from the springs. The smells are at the same time, strange and strangely
I needed a mailing address for a few
days, and this meant I had to stay in Thermopolis. I took the time to do a
Just outside the town lies a towering
dome-shaped hill called Round Top mountain. There is a rough trail to the crest.
One morning I climbed to the top.
looked off toward the Wind River mountains in the West, but smoke from the
forest fires limited the view to no more than a couple of miles.
I walked around the crest of the hill, on a ledge below me, I saw a long dark
tail disappear behind a rock. The only creature with that type of tail up here
would be a mountain lion.
I peeked over the edge and could see
signs of a den directly below me. The dirt had been kicked out by some animal
digging into the side of the hill. I lay down and tried to do a Marty Stouffer.
I hoped to get a picture of the cat. After laying there for a while I realized,
cougars are nocturnal, and laying in 104 degree temperature for twelve hours, by
the time the sun went down, I would be a bacon strip.
The den was in a concave face of the
mountain. I then tried to go the outermost point on either side to see if I
could look into the cat’s den. This was also unsuccessful.
My next trick was to skip stones into
the mouth of the opening and try to flush him out. This didn’t work either.
I then decided to climb down and just
look in and take a picture. About half-way down the thought hit me, "I was
about to give a whole new meaning to the term Dumb Polack". The lion was
probably driven down from the higher altitudes by the fires really would not
likely be in the mood for company.
My sole weaponry consisted of a Swiss
Army Knife and a piss-poor-attitude. I decided to leave the wild-life
photography to National Geographic.
The next day I drove out to visit a
dam that doesn’t hold water. It had been built on a porous sub-base. The route
to the mostly dry reservoir was through ranch country over about twenty miles of
On the way back to town I ran into a
cattle drive. The road ran between farm fences. It was filled with cows for
about three miles. A couple of men on horses were driving them from the rear.
They waved me on, so I got to drive through hundreds of mooing, crapping cows
steers and calves.
Cows are pretty funny. Some would
express their indignation by putting everything into giving me a full-body moo.
Others would stand and challenge me until I got close. Then they would break
into a panic.
After getting my mail I headed South
out of town. I decided to pass on the Teton and Yellowstone Mountains. The smoke
was so bad, it didn’t seem to worth-while to visit them when I wouldn’t be
able to see anything.
I drove through the Wind-River canyon.
It was a spectacular gorge with cliffs that towered hundreds of feet on either
side and a wild river running through it. The west side of the canyon had been
completely burned. In some places flames were still active. In many other smoke
rose from smoldering ashes.
I know many people will think I am
crazy. If you read the first stories, you will remember I already established
that fact. What I am about to tell you may reinforce it.
As this journey progressed, I began to
feel a connection with the land. I first noticed it in the Talledega Forest of
Alabama. The presence of the Civil War seemed to be all around me. Ghostly
soldiers moving silently through the trees impressed themselves on my mind.
At the time, I wrote it off to the
power of suggestion. Seeing the names of battlefields and Civil War locales, I
believed triggered the images.
The feelings became stronger the more
I wandered through this incredible country. In Nebraska, at the beginning of the
Oregon Trail, I could feel the doubts and fear that must have dominated settlers
feelings as they began a journey of two thousand miles of certain hardship.
Facing deserts, mountains, river
crossings and hostile Indians that farm back in Ohio probably didn’t look so
bad. It has been estimated, if the graves of those who did not make it were
spread evenly there would be one every fifty feet along the Oregon
As I passed into Wyoming, I felt as if
there was an imprint on the land of all the things, which passed there, good or
bad. The land seemed to communicate with me not in words or details of events
but in emotions. I felt the spirit of the land and it made an tremendous impact
I have come to understand, we as Americans, have been shaped by the land as much as we have shaped the land. I feel anyone who visits the West and only comes away with images of pretty scenery hasn’t seen it at all. Unless you feel an spiritual bonding with the West, then you missed it completely.
I camped alongside the South Fork Creek
at Nine Thousand Feet, The next day, I came across a place called Crazy Woman
Canyon. Anyone familiar with the story of Jeremiah Johnson might recognize the
Crazy Woman was a white settler whose family had been massacred and went mad. To
the Indians this was big medicine and she was left
Crazy Woman was a white settler whose family had been massacred and went mad. To
the Indians this was big medicine and she was left
Johnson, aka, Liver Eating Johnson, For
his habit of ingesting that particular organ after killing his foe (I wonder why
they left that out of the Robert Redford movie) was engaged in a private war
with the Crow Indians and took refuge with Crazy Woman.
Her grave is in the canyon as well as
remnants of her cabin. The site is unmarked because souvenir hunters kept
pilfering from the site. I asked the locals if this was the same Crazy Woman and
they loved telling the story.
The canyon is a narrow cut between the
mountains. It is several hundred feet deep and at times not much more than fifty
feet wide at the top. I kept fighting bouts of claustrophobia as I descended
I crossed the continental divide for
the first time in the Bighorns. The MV Cardboard Box handled the nine thousand
foot pass without a whimper. I on the other hand ran out of breath tying my
I was in the Rocky Mountains of my
dreams, snow covered peaks, bottomless gorges and deep blue skies.
Man is the only creature who builds
zoos and places himself in the cages. As we become more civilized we build cages
within cages. Stepping onto a mountain wilderness trail, I step out of the cage
and into the food chain.
I find myself becoming more alert and
aware of my surroundings. Every noise, every smell, every movement in the bush
becomes significant. I realize there is no place for stupidity or carelessness.
I feel as I haven’t felt since I left the bush thirty years ago.
I feel at home.
The campsite was fairly crowded. One
day in order to take a shower, I opened the van rear doors and spread a tarp
around the back for privacy. I have a solar shower for hot water (which works
pretty well if the sun is shining).
Just as I had soaped down the wind
picked up and took the tarp away. I was standing in the middle of the camp
wearing nothing but soapsuds and a smile.
Across the road was the South Fork Inn.
Excellent idea locating a watering hole next to the camp. The owners were away
camping, and their not quite twelve going on forty year-old daughter Crystal was
to be in charge. At least she seemed to be making all the tough decisions.
Crystal had the business skills to make
Donald Trump look like Donald Chump. Then suddenly she would breakout with one
of those breathless run-on sentences that only little girls are capable of.
A group of bikers on the way to Sturgis
dropped in for lunch. Crystal told them when she grew up she was going to be
rich and she and her best friend would buy Harleys and ride around the world.
The bikers were so delighted, they
tipped her twenty dollars for the Harley fund.
She was ably assisted by her younger
sister Kelli. I didn’t have the opportunity to talk to her very much. She had
the pomp and dignity of a younger sister.
Ally (I hope that is the right
spelling) was a sixteen year-old artist and future heart-breaker. She had the
cheekbones of a super-model and punctuated her conversation with a suppressed
Grandpa and Grandma had come in from
Michigan to help out. Grandma baked
some of the finest breakfast pastries I had ever tasted and grandpa waited
tables or did whatever else he could to help out. The first time I stopped in he
gave me a cup of the cold coffee, but he was such a neat guy and was trying so
hard, I didn’t have the heart to tell him.
There were a couple of cooks who also
welcomed everyone in and made them feel at home.
The first time I walked in the door, I
was hit with a forty mega-watt smile that made me weak in the knees, light in
the head and tight in the chest. Either I was having a cardiac arrest or I was
I have only been smitten twice before
in my life. The first time was a ex-model-airline stewardess from Des Plaines
Ill. The second was the day my daughter was born.
The perpetrator this time was Ally’s
mom Jackie who also worked at the Inn. Besides the killer-good looks she has
personality and a dear sweet Jesus figure that made every guy, including me, who
walked through the door fall instantly in love.
I stayed longer than I had planned, but
I knew if I didn’t leave then, I wasn’t leaving. Of all the places I have
been and all the people I have met, The Big Horn Mountains and the folks at the
South Fork Inn have been the toughest to say goodbye to.
It was now the middle of August, and time for me to return east for my
daughter’s birthday. I headed Southeast to a place where the continental
divide splits. Between the divides lies a mostly road less area called the red
desert. The only paved road passes through on the eastern end.
I reached the desert in late afternoon.
The setting sun intensified the color of the desert. My next campsite was along
the bank of the North Platte River. It was dark when I arrived, but I have
become quite adept at making camp under any conditions.
In the middle of the night, a coyote
serenade wakened me. It took a few minutes to realize what I was listening to.
The sound was very soothing, like ballads done in six-part harmony.
In the morning I met a fellow camper,
master of a Caribbean windjammer. He
told of free showers and a hot springs pool in the nearby tow of Saratoga
Springs. I waited till after nine, thinking everyone would be at work and I
would have the pool to myself.
It seemed as if half the town was
taking in the waters. In Wyoming they have their priorities straight. I stopped
outside a local real estate office to look at the listings they had posted in
An elderly gentleman came out and
invited me inside. He offered me a cup of coffee and a seat. The conversation
went something like this.
RE salesman: "Thinking about
moving to Wyoming?"
Me: "I’m considering it."
"Where you from boy?"
"Well boy, we get lots of people
from Philadelphia and New York, move tot Wyoming. They like it here because of
the way it is. Pretty soon, they try to make it just like Philadelphia and New
York. It don’t work. You see, say you want a porch built. You call a
contractor and say next month. He tells you next month is hunting season, You
say how about the month after. He says that’s fishing season. You see boy, in
Wyoming, we do things according to the seasons."
That pretty much summed up Wyoming. The
people are without pretense or attitude. I saw a bumper sticker that said
"We don’t give a F**K how you did it where you come from"
The Snowy Mountains in Southern Wyoming
are the most rugged I have seen so far. I drove up to a pass at 10,000 feet. The
van still ran like a charm.
There was a trail to the highest peak.
It was almost thirteen thousand feet. I managed to make it to over twelve
thousand when the weather turned very iffy and I decided to turn back. I met an
elderly couple who were returning from the top.
I was gasping for breath and in severe
pain from climbing halfway up. They acted as if they were retuning from a walk
around the block. Everybody in the state seemed to be in better shape than me.
That night I camped at over ten
thousand feet alongside Turtle Rock. Turtle Rock was some of the oldest rock on
earth. It was formed from magma at the earth’s core which had been thrust
upward during some ancient upheaval, billions of years ago.
The softer soil, which had covered it,
eroded away exposing the core. I set my tent in the lee of some outcroppings,
hoping for protection from the constant wind.
That night the temperature dropped
below freezing and the wind turned around. I caught the brunt of it. By morning
my tent was covered with a layer of snow and hail.
I discovered the difference between a
three-season and four-season tent. A three-season tent can’t support a snow
load. I was reaching the limits of my equipment.
Devil's Tower National Monument is in
the northeast of Wyoming. From the Big Snowy range of the Rocky Mountains, I
drove almost due north. The road took me through the high plains of eastern
Wyoming. It was a lonely and of endless sky.
During my travels through this state I
was always amazed by the amount of traffic I encountered on the highways. It was
not Jersey Turnpike heavy, but it seemed very busy for a state with only four
people per square mile. Looking at a map I came it came to me.
are hardly any paved roads. Most byways are gravel covered farm roads. Drivers
find the nearest stretch of asphalt and ride that as far as they can. The
highways are the only routes that won't pound both drivers and vehicles to an
Half-way to the Devil's Tower, there
was an ugly, mustard-yellow, building with a large sign "Truck Stop".
There were no fuel islands, just a couple of cars futilely trying to rust away
in the dry atmosphere. A double-wide trailer, gaped open along the roof line and
sported a "for sale" sign.
I went inside and heard some of the
sweetest blues west of Chicago. The store was attended by the lean, leathery
owner. His hawkish features gave him the look of a blue-eyed Indian.
The real surprise was the decor. The
room was filled with nautical artifacts including hatch-top tables. We were a
thousand mile from the nearest ocean.
I asked about the music. The owner told
me he grew up around the corner from Stevie Ray Vaughn. Unfortunately, I
couldn't stay long enough to get the rest of his story.
For weeks, the roads had been full of
motorcycles. Pilgrims on the annual trek to the holy city of Sturgis, South
This year was it was exceptionally
crowded. They say because the RUBBIES (Rich Urban Bikers) all wanted to be there
for the millennium year. With reports of gridlock and thirty-mile traffic jams,
I decided to pass on trying to make Stugis for the rally. I would
a few days later.
The bikes at Devil's monument numbered
in the thousands. Many bikers also give Sturgis a wide berth to enjoy the
festivities at neighboring towns. The Sturgis rally now seems to encompass an
area of about two-hundred thousand square miles.
The tower rises out of the prairie, a
solitary sentinel guarding the western approach to the Black Hills, less than a
hundred miles away. Compared to the dust and tall grass of the plains, the land
around the monument seems lush and green.
I arrived in time to secure the last
available campsite. A mother and daughter camping together asked if they could
share the site. Later I found a family packed in a van in the parking lot. I
invited them to share the site. By morning, I must have had twenty people in the
camp with me.
I rose at first light to hike around
the base of the tower. My only company was a mule deer at the trail head. I
walked through a prairie dog town. The morning stillness was broken by their
There are actually two trails around
the tower. The first is an inner ring, circumnavigating the base. It is flat and
wheelchair accessible. I had walked it the previous afternoon.
The outer trail I was walking that
morning was longer and far more rugged. Watching the sunrise that morning, I
once again realized how lucky I was to be here.