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Saturday, October 14, 2017

From the Ashes

A howling wind beat against the windows of our bedroom, keeping us awake as the branches of our apricot tree snapped on the glass. A loud noise startled us, and Mark got up to check to make sure nothing important had blown over. Just the neighbor's umbrella, go back to sleep.

The first siren went by around 1:00 am or so. Not unusual, we live just a few blocks from one of the largest intersections in town. They rarely register anymore, and our dogs don't even bother to howl at them; even they know they'd go hoarse in a matter of a few hours on the busiest weekends. But soon it was followed by another, then another, until it was a chorus of sirens wailing from all over the city.

Mark's iPhone made that choo-choo sound he set as his text alert, which always puts him in a foul mood. It always means a call from work and it's always some sort of problem.

"Huh. My co-worker says he tried to get to work and they wouldn't let him up the street." Mark scratched his head, then rubbed his beard. He does that a lot when he's frustrated and grumpy.

The train noise sounded again. This time someone who was at work. "He says they're being told to leave, there's a fire coming. He's asking if it's ok to leave." Then his phone rang. Funny how no one actually calls anymore, texting seems to be the preferred method of communication. Except in an emergency.

After he hung up, Mark was wide awake. A deputy had come by the building and told everyone to evacuate, that a fire was coming down the hillside and crews couldn't get there fast enough to stop it. We both put on shorts and ran outside into the warm wind. It was 1:30am.

Looking north from the middle of our street, you could see an ominous orange glow. Smoke was blocking out the stars, and loud booming noises would occasionally sound out making the hair on the back of my neck stand up. This wasn't good.

The sirens continued to scream by on the main street behind our house. They seemed to be going in all directions. Our neighbors started coming outside and standing in the street with us. Everyone was disheveled, wide awake but not ready to believe what was happening.

"It's getting closer."

"How close do you think it is?"

"Should we get ready to leave?"

We went back inside and looked for news. At 2 in the morning, even the most die-hard newscaster is asleep. Nothing was being broadcast, no text alerts, no phone calls. It happened too quickly, and too early in the morning.

Around 5am Mark couldn't stand it anymore, and took a drive down the street. He was stopped about a mile away at the edge of our neighborhood by a road block. He didn't have to ask why; there were flames shooting up from the trees on the not-so-distant hill.

He came home and reported this to the neighbors who were still milling around with the collars of their shirts pulled up over their mouths. The smoke was getting thicker and ash was starting to fall around us. No one had come by to evacuate us, but the decision was made to be ready anyway, things were happening way too fast. Besides, standing around listening to the more frequent and louder booms was spooking us. (These sounds turned out to be propane tanks, transformers and trees, bursting into flames.)

For all my talk of paring down and shedding material things in my life, I wasn't quite prepared to make these decisions at dawn on a Monday morning. In fact, no one should be asked to make any important decision at dawn on a Monday morning, other than whether to hit the snooze button one more time or give up and haul out of bed.

In the end, we packed a few days worth of clothing and I swept the top of the desk into a backpack along with our laptop and backup hard drive and our wedding album. Our passports got stuck in a front pocket and a few bits of jewelry as well. I hoped that at least one of each of our account numbers were included in the stacks of bill stubs I so stubbornly hold onto. For once in my life my messiness might pay off.

We grabbed the dog's food and their bowls and water dish, our sleeping bags and pillows, camera equipment (that was thankfully all in one place having just come back from a trip) and our sundries bag we always take with us when we camp. Our camper always has food, water, blankets, stove, and cooking utensils inside so we'd be fine wherever we ended up. I also filled a bag with canned food, sport drinks and that boxed milk that doesn't spoil.

We didn't have to go. They stopped the fire just about one and a half miles from our house.

For the last four days, we've been on high alert. The fire we saw was the most widespread of the multiple fires that were whipped up by the 60-80 mile per hour gusts that night. They're still going on, and every shift of the wind, every siren that goes by, every text message from the Nixle alert system I signed up for, makes my heart skip a beat.

The toll is still climbing, and the fires continue to burn. An estimated 2000 homes have burned so far, 21 people are confirmed dead, and there are many hundreds missing. We personally know at least 15 families who have lost their homes. One of my co-workers is on the missing list.

I think we have survivors guilt. We didn't lose our home or get evacuated, unlike 50,000 others in our area. We never lost power either, and our natural gas wasn't cut off like many of the neighborhoods nearby. We still have our own bed to sleep in, our own shower to wash the smoke smell out of our hair. Our dogs have a backyard to run around in and we still have drivable cars. Mark's work made it through the fire, although the damage was enough to put them out of commission for at least a few weeks. My work was farther away, escaping the damage but without power for the first few days of the week. I spent my nervous energy baking cookies and making enough meatballs to feed us for four months, stacking containers filled to the brim in the freezer.

The sadness runs deep. I feel horrible for those that lost their homes, the pets that died in the fire because they were scared and didn't come when called. The fires burned so hot, it was unsafe until now to go in and look for the missing. I'm afraid of what they will find.

During the peak of the fires, I was too scared to think much about what was happening, beyond what I needed to do to get away if it got too close. The next morning though, after the most significant danger seemed to pass, I walked outside to check on the house and yard. The smoke was hanging in the air, and a light rain of ash was falling, mimicking the silent, slow falling of snowflakes. Bits of ash were piled up on our front steps, and among them were skeletal leaves, perfectly formed until you touched them and they dissolved into grey dust. Bits of burnt paper and fabric and wood fell on the walkway, all formerly someones books and clothes and home. I tried not to cry.

It's written that the mythical Phoenix rose from the ashes, symbolizing the renewal of life. I'm not a religious person, nor am I much of a believer in mystical or spiritual interpretations of events. I think though, that if any place has a fighting chance to rise again, it's here, my hometown.

We certainly have enough ashes to make a good start.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017


I've been thinking a lot about the concept of home lately.

I never thought I'd be old enough to think about retiring, but here I am, almost there. I can't stop thinking about it: How much money will we need? How much longer do we have to work to be able to afford doing what we like to do? How much longer will our bodies allow us to do it? If we decide to sell everything and live on the road full time, where will we go eventually, when we can no longer travel (or want to)?

What will home look like in the future?

This whole concept came to me in a strange swirl of fond memories and bittersweet moments a few weeks ago as I tore apart my childhood home.

Before you start thinking I drove a wrecking ball through a suburban "mid-century modern" tract home like some sick reenactment of a HGTV reality series, it actually was more in line with taking a screwdriver to my old dollhouse. That's right, I still had the dollhouse from when I turned 5.

The walls came down, but not without a fight.
As I took each screw out of the pressboard walls, I couldn't help but think about how my Dad put it together, with those very same screws, carefully lining up the bedrooms, kitchen, bathroom and living room, topping it off with a metal chimney on a shingle-painted roof.

Dad (who's now been gone fourteen years) could build anything, and when he did, he did it to last. That pressboard and paper house, with it's metal chimney, stood for almost 50 years in one room or another everywhere I have lived. It was shoved in the attic for a few years while I was in college, but the minute I had my own place Mom delivered my old toys, the decision to keep or discard off her conscience. I got rid of a lot of old things, but could never quite give up the dollhouse.

Hemingway over the mantel? I never noticed until today.

It's kind of funny because I never played with it much, except to arrange and rearrange the furniture. I never liked dolls, but I was fascinated with putting things together and putting things in their place. That would be laughable now, especially to Mark, if you saw the clutter hanging out in our house, but at the time it seemed very important that everything was in the right spot. I'd get that house all set up, look at it for a minute, then take all the furniture out, disassembling the molded bed from the plastic headboard, the dining room table from it's legs, and tuck it all away in the storage box. I'd even wipe the rooms clean if there was a little dust.

Maybe my obsession with order in the make believe world has finally spilled into my real one. I love the house Mark and I live in now but I'm starting to be driven nuts by the extra stuff laying around. The older I get the more I appreciate empty space, and that is what eventually drove me to lay waste to my old dollhouse. Because seriously, am I going to dust furniture in a miniature house when I barely have time to dust the real stuff?

Our plan, once we are financially ready, is to take off on a year's tour of the US, working out any kinks with our vehicle while we make our way around the states. After that, drive down to South America. From there we'll go as far as we can make it/afford it. In order to do that we'll have to rent the house out or sell it; either way stuff will have to go.

Some friends of ours are actually doing this right now. They quit their jobs, put their house up for sale, put a few necessary things in storage and are currently outfitting their vehicle for a round the world trip. I'm a little nervous for them, but mostly envious.

For now, we have to be satisfied with our four weeks of vacation and any mini weekend trips we can squeeze in around the edges. Every trip we take makes it that much harder to come home. The more time we spend in the camper makes it feel more like home than home is.

I'm glad Dad built that dollhouse for me. It was well built and held up nicely for almost 50 years. I figure if I can keep my joints that solid and my screws in place as well as that little dollhouse, our retirement will last for a good long stretch. I'm ready to make a home of the road.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

The Arizona Strip: Snap Point

What's bumpy, two feet shy of the width of an F250 and goes screeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee? The road in to Snap Point, that's what. If you'd like to go, just look for the traces of Island Blue paint coating the branches along the game trail that passes for a road to Snap Point.

The Mog trundles it's way through the pines to the turnoff towards Snap Point.

We left Twin Point after a lazy morning wandering around trying not to fall off the edge of the canyon. The foliage is pretty dense there, and sometimes you don't know you're on the cliffside until you step through the branches (you develop of sense of space pretty quickly once you do that a few times).  Paying more attention to the breeze, and the wind noise helps; it's always more breezy and the tone changes when you stand next to a giant void.

We got some good photos and congratulated each other on having the place to ourselves. It was a long drive, but having your own private parking space on the edge of the Grand Canyon is priceless.

We packed up and compared notes on our maps and GPS units before we set off. Snap Point is marked on the BLM Arizona Strip maps, but there is no official road drawn there. We knew there was one, because you could make out the trace outlines on Google Earth, it was a matter of turning down the right path once we got close. Craig and Rasa, our trusty rally driver friends, would lead the way while looking for the GPS waypoint they had marked on their map.

A snapdragon-like flower that grew in abundance on the mesas above the North Rim.

We chose Snap Point because it looked like a great place to camp, and because of it's proximity to a plane crash that Craig was interested in finding. In 1972, an F111A was doing a training exercise over the Grand Canyon when things went sideways. Mistakes were made, and the student and trainer pilots had to eject. This particular plane was set up so ejection isn't the typical seat that pops out of the plane you see in the movies, but the entire cockpit module. They were able to safely separate from the rest of the plane, and as the body went down into the canyon and slammed into one of the walls, the cockpit parachuted "gently" (as gently as something like that can go) down onto a small plateau jutting out about a quarter of the way down into the canyon. From this precarious perch, they teetered and slid a few hundred feet more until the capsule settled on it's roof. They were injured, but were able to get out of the thing and were rescued, a happy ending that, unfortunately, doesn't come often with these crashes. This would be enough to end my career as a pilot and possibly a passenger, but I doubt that kept these two from flying again.

The F111A (photo credit:
Anyway, as we approached the turn off, things were looking pretty good. Nice dense forest cover of juniper, sage and cactus, all blooming in the May sun. Picture perfect. Then we turned onto the road.

I don't think the road was very well traveled by the looks of things. And all the extra rain Arizona had received over the winter was really putting a boost into the foliage growth. The farther we went, the closer the bushes and trees got to the truck, until the occasional low hanging tree branch bumping along the camper turned into a continuous screeeeeeeeee of brush scratching it's way down our flanks. This was only interrupted by the smacking of larger tree branches as they smashed into the camper rails. Mark's intermittent expletive squeezed out through gritted teeth soon became one long string of profanity. Honestly, I'm pretty impressed that he was able put together such a creative array of vulgarity and drive with such skill at the same time. And they say men can't multi-task.

Our glamorous camp on Snap Point

After three long, paint altering miles, we finally arrived at our camp spot. To look at it, you wouldn't be impressed. It was a clearing in the juniper just big enough to fit all three vehicles with a giant fire ring in the middle in which someone had left a big wooden pallet. It was all slightly wet from the recent rains, and there was no view to speak of. Not the Grand Canyon Awesome that we had quickly become accustomed to. After the painful experience we had just been through though, none of us wanted to face that road again so we settled in and made camp. An afternoon thunderstorm blew over and pelted us with a cold rain and hail, making the soft dirt turn to a sticky mud. It was hard to convince ourselves that this place was worth it.

The rain falls mainly on the plain. And sometimes turns to hail. And occasionally turns to snow.

Rasa and Craig had gone ahead to scout the way down to the mesa top below, trying to find the closest place to launch the plane wreck expedition the next day. Soon they joined us, having added their silver to our blue on the road bushes. We all walked up the road just a few more feet (watching the skies for any errant lightning bolts) and, ahhhhhhh, there it was. Another gorgeous perch, this one overlooking a large mesa below our mesa top, the bright red soil and rock of the cliff sides interlaced with white and yellow-tinged stripes. Parts of the cliff face had been eroded into giant hoodoos reminiscent of Bryce Canyon.

The hoodoo-like formations of Snap Point

The mesa top below us was green with recent growth from the rains. The low sun angled itself under the clouds that afternoon and made everything glow richly. We all dragged our camp chairs to the edge to enjoy the best kind of show there is.

It was worth it after all.

Once the weather cleared it was vibrant from the soaking it received.

The next day we rode along with Craig and Rasa down to our hiking launch spot. We passed an old ranch cabin they had seen the day before and I hopped out to take photos and peek inside. One step out of the truck and...rattlesnake! A big fat rattler was sunning himself right on the "porch" of the cabin.  He crawled under the pallet that served as the front step after flicking his tongue at us. No one felt the need to go inside after that so we settled for outdoor shots, keeping our feet well away from the base of the cabin.

The rattlesnake that greeted us at the door of the cabin.
Mark pointing where Mr. Snake went (lurking just beneath the slats of the pallet)
The cabin was decorated appropriately
The road was paved with wildflowers. Luckily, our high clearance vehicles left them intact for others to enjoy.
Deer on the road. Hope they didn't see the decorations on the cabin...
The view back up toward our campsite on the upper mesa.

We hiked across beautiful cactus gardens and artfully arranged rocks (why can't I do this as well in my own yard? It's hard to beat Mother Nature's sense of style) right to the edge of the canyon. We looked down and realized this was a much longer and more technical hike than we were prepared for. In addition, huge clouds were gathering on the horizon, threatening to turn this trip into another rescue mission. Craig and Mark analyzed the possible routes down to the site, then wisely decided this would have to be saved for another day with an earlier start. By the time we made it back to the truck the clouds had moved overhead and you could see the diagonal streaks in the sky over the mesa indicating distant rain. Good call guys.

Nature's composition, Craig and Mark in the background mulling their options. Note the clouds in the distance.

Back at camp, the rain started looking funny, kind of floaty, was this...snow? We all gathered in the Mog for cocktails waiting for the squall to be over. Two hours and several beers later, the snow stopped falling and we all trekked through the mud to the overlook. Still beautiful. Damned cold, but beautiful all the same.
All layers were needed for this chilly spot on the rim.

These are the things I've learned after traveling in the backcountry of Arizona:
  • You can't plan for the weather, but you can and should pack for anything from excessive heat to snow.
  • You can't control the roads, but you can decide for yourself what you're willing to drive over and through.
  • You can't guarantee a good time, but surround yourself with the right people and things will turn out fine.
Thanks guys. We had a hell of a trip.

Saturday, July 1, 2017

The Arizona Strip: Twin Point and the Mt. Trumbull Schoolhouse

The view from Twin Point, Grand Canyon National Park

The Tacoma flew by in a spray of gravel, leaving us quite literally in the dust. Trying to follow the Flying Taco was proving to be a challenge; after five minutes we couldn't even locate the dust cloud that might indicate which direction they took on these web-like roads. We tried the radio; no dice, too far away already. In the end we had to resort to methods that had less to do with electronic gadgetry and more to do with good old fashioned tracking: fresh tire tracks, splashed mud puddles, and a bit of gut instinct were guiding us now.

We were on our way to Twin Point via a little used series of farm roads, taking a "short cut" Craig, driver of said Flying Taco, had mapped on his GPS. While it wasn't imperative we take the exact same route, it was important we didn't stray too far off the path; we only had enough gas to get us 300 miles, and we were only two days into a five day trip. With no cell coverage and out of radio range, if we got stranded it might take a while for someone to stumble across us. But I'm sure Craig might notice we weren't behind him and circle back for us. At some point.

Ron and Mark look down at the valley below from Mt. Trumbull Road.

We had pulled away from the Nampaweap Rock Art site that morning with our friend Ron and driven the scenic road over Mount Trumbull. Following County Road 5, we passed an old sawmill site, a few ranches, some hiking trailheads, and finally made our way down a slightly terrifying road to the valley below, ending up at the old Mt. Trumbull Schoolhouse. There we had some lunch and waited for the rest of our party to show up, playing on the swings and teeter totters, ringing the school bell, and poking around the old farm equipment that is displayed there.

Click the photo for more info.

Mt. Trumbull school served the homesteader kids that grew up in this remote corner of Arizona. Remarkably, almost everyone who settled in this area was one big extended family. The roster posted in the school was a mile long list of Bundys (this area is known as Bundyville). Given the location, and the fact that they were cattle ranchers, we couldn't help but wonder if a certain Cliven Bundy was any relation to these folks. We didn't see his name on the wall, but it's possible he's from a different Bundy branch of that particular tree.

The crossroads sign, pointing the way to Bundys
Roy & Doretta's Place
The school sits at the crossroads of County Rd. 5, 257 and BLM 1018

Mount Trumbull Schoolhouse was built in 1918, educating all the little Bundys until it closed in 1966 for lack of students. It stood empty for years until July of 2000, when vandals burned it to the ground. It had become such an institution (sorry) in the area, that the Bundy decendents got together with the BLM and other interested parties and started a fundraiser to rebuild it. The schoolhouse is open once again to visitors, still stocked with a few desks, old schoolbooks, some photos from it's glory days, and a nice relief map of the surrounding area set up on a table in the middle. It's a testament to trust in our fellow man that it sits open to the public 24 hrs a day with no attendant, the only protection a sign on the front asking that you leave it as you found it for all to enjoy. Take that, you vandals!

The old school bell still works
An old farm truck sits in the school yard.
Mark tries his best with his unruly class of overlanders.
The swings still work too.
Clouds float by as reflected in the school windows.
A nice covered picnic area, as seen through the back window of the old truck.
(Thanks for the shade cover Eagle Scout Bundy!)
Pointing back the way we came in.

From here, our friend Ron opted to take a more roundabout route to Twin Point, longer in distance, but easier on his vehicle. He wasn't worried about fuel consumption; his diesel Touareg had a much better range than our gas guzzling V10. We and Craig and Rasa (in the Flying Taco), Ryan and LeeWhay (in their Unimog) were taking this "shortcut" to save on fuel, and to add to the four wheeling factor of the trip. And, as it happened, to our skills as trackers.

Over cattle pastures, through multiple farm gates (always close them behind you, we don't want to piss off the ranchers), and over the rocky hills and small streams of Poverty Mountain. We ended up at the confluence of County Roads 103 and 1018, where our friend Ron was waiting for us patiently, having gotten there a good half hour before us.

Short doesn't always mean quicker.

Ron studies the map and learns about the flora and fauna while patiently waiting for all of us to catch up.

A yucca in bloom

From this point the road was clearly marked so it wasn't important that we keep in contact. The Flying Taco took flight and the rest of us trundled along behind, fully expecting not to catch up with them until we arrived at our campsite for the night. This is why we were all surprised to see Craig and Rasa stopped on the side of the road not far from the turnoff from County Road 103. They were out of the vehicle staring at the driver side rear tire. It could only mean one thing: flat tire.

There are inherent risks to rally driving on these remote roads: sharp rocks, overgrown bushes, fallen tree branches. Not sure which it was, but something put a good slice in the sidewall of their tire. What's a proper Overlanding adventurer to do? Why fix it right there on the side of the road, that's what.

Craig, with a bit of support from the crew, patched the tire without taking it off the truck, using four large plugs and a whole lot of adhesive. It wasn't pretty, but once it was re-inflated and carefully inspected for hissing noises (in the time honored scientific way: ear to the tire) he was back on the road, flying over the bumps and skidding around the corners with abandon.

Hmmm. Looks like it might be flat.
Craig preps the tire and gets the plugs out. How many do you think it'll need?
Mark assists Craig, holding the plugs that are already in place to make sure placing the next one doesn't poke the others into the hole.

The supervisors were there to make helpful comments and lend support only.
They did a fine job.
Looks like four should do it. Let's air it up and see.
Onboard compressors are a beautiful thing.
At this point, the park staff has given up on noting the mileage. If you have to ask, you shouldn't be here.
(FYI, from this point it was about 12 miles to Twin Point)

We arrived at Twin Point overlook just in time for sunset. The road in was pretty easy, with the exception of the narrow, scratchy foliage that crowded the edges, and a few hard turns that required a little "Austin Powers" maneuvers to negotiate for the two larger vehicles in the group. We've gotten so many "desert pinstripes" over the years we weren't too worried about a few scratches, but we're always careful to avoid any dings in the body of the truck.

The first thing to greet us at the campsite was this friendly guy.
The view was what you'd expect from a campsite on the edge of the Grand Canyon at sunset. Absolutely gorgeous.

It would be tiring if it wasn't so gosh darn beautiful.

How ridiculously perfect is this day? Even the juniper were blooming.

Don't get too close to the edge; these rocks were pretty loose.
The view across the canyon.

Little cactus garden

Everything seemed to be in bloom up there

Yucca plants everywhere

The view from our campsite at Twin Point.

We lingered over breakfast in the sun, admiring our perch above the canyon and generally hanging our mouths open in awe. It was hard to tear ourselves away, but we were on a mission today: Get to Snap Point and find an airplane wreck in the canyon below.