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Monday, July 27, 2020

Stories in Place: Bill & Debbie

(This pandemic has put a cramp in our camp, so I thought I'd start a series of short stories from our travels. You know, those kinds of stories that go around the campfire after a day of exploring, and may get repeated more than once over the years. I hope you enjoy them as much as we enjoy telling them. Pull up a camp chair and grab a beverage. Let's Story in Place together.)

The first time it happened, it was kind of funny.

"Bill! Debbie! So nice to see you again!"

A huge safari guide trotted over and embraced me in a giant bear hug, lifting me off my feet. "What are you two doing back here? I thought you were on your way to Serengeti!"

Mark and I exchanged looks of confusion. "We just got here this afternoon."

"No! Don't be kidders. Why have you come back?"

"We were in Tarangire this morning, and drove up today. We plan to see the crater tomorrow. I think you might be thinking of someone else?"

Now the confusion was on the guide's face. He shrugged his shoulders and laughed. "Well, welcome then. How are you liking Tanzania?"

That was our second day of camping on our own in Africa. 

Our next stop in Serengeti was a picnic area at the entrance of the park. We were gathering our paperwork to check in and pay our fees when another guide pulled up next to us and smiled in that familiar way of distant friends meeting again. "Bill! I can't believe we are seeing each other again so soon!" He shook Mark's hand through the open window and smiled across to me. "And Debbie, you look well!"

Almost every stop we made, we were "recognized" and greeted warmly by the wrong names. We decided it was a lucky thing that Bill and Debbie were so highly regarded. Imagine if they had been jerks? We stopped correcting people after awhile and just went with it. Why not? How could we possibly measure up to this mysterious other couple? Would they think so highly of us if we told them our real names? Or would they shake their heads and mutter in disgust about how this Mark and Kelly would never hold a candle to Bill and Debbie. Might as well take advantage of the goodwill and jovial conversation.

When we returned to Shaw Safari headquarters at Twiga Lodge two weeks later, we told the story of being mistaken for Bill and Debbie at every turn. The owner Paul Sweet laughed and explained "Bill and Debbie went on the same circuit you did and were ahead of you by a week. You must have run into some of the same guides they did along the way." Apparently it's hard to tell white people apart, especially when we travel in pairs in yellow Land Rovers. 

Someday, we'd like to run into the real Bill & Debbie. From what we've heard, they're a real kick in the pants.

Monday, May 25, 2020

Stories in Place: The Most Fun Possible

(This pandemic has put a cramp in our camp, so I thought I'd start a series of short stories from our travels. You know, those kinds of stories that go around the campfire after a day of exploring, and may get repeated more than once over the years. I hope you enjoy them as much as we enjoy telling them. Pull up a camp chair and grab a beverage. Let's Story in Place together.)

We looked over the map of Quartz Lake State Park and saw there was a trail that ran the circumference, a perfect way to get our bearings on our first day in Alaska. We went back to the camper and threw a few water bottles into a backpack, slapped a little more Deet behind our ears and set off to the trailhead. On our way back across the campground we ran into the host as she was loading firewood into a bin.

"Hey guys! Did you just get in today?"

We told her we had crossed the state border this morning and were excited to check out the scenery. Did she have any advice about what there was to see in the park? We thought we'd take the loop trail around the lake.

"Well, that's probably the best way to see it. You might want to go the other way though, the trail comes through at the other end of the campground over there." She pointed back the way we had come. "The other day, a mama grizzly made a kill and she and her cubs are hanging out working on the dead moose over this way. The carcass is pretty much right on the trail. You can go that way if you want, just keep an eye out."

Hiking suddenly didn't seem to be such a great idea. We might not be the smartest tools in the shed, but we did know that no matter which way you walked in a circle, you would eventually be coming back to where you started. And if that involved crossing between a grizzly and her food, or worse, between her and her cubs, we might not be completing that circle at all.

You know, it's kind of hot out and that lake looks really nice. Maybe we should go swimming instead.

Back at the camper, we changed into our suits and headed to the small beach and boat ramp area. We were the only ones there save for an older woman and a kid about nine years old. The boy was splashing in the shallow swimming area that was cordoned off from the rest of the lake. We threw our towels down a respectful distance from them and waded in. It wasn't warm, but it wasn't as cold as Tahoe like we thought it might be. I slowly waded in easing past that belly mark that's so hard to acclimate, as Mark took the plunge and swam out to the roped off edge. The little boy watched us a minute then turned to his grandma.

"Granny? Can I swim out to where that man is?"

"No Conner, I don't think he wants you hanging around him."

"But Granny, I'm sure it would be ok with him." he turned and looked at Mark. "It would be ok right?"

"I don't know, I think you should do whatever your Grandma says. I don't want you to get into trouble."  Grandma shook her head, with that 'I'm trying not to smile and give in' look.

"No, Conner, I don't want you to go out too far. I wouldn't be able to get to you if you got into trouble."

"He would save me! He can swim, didn't you see him?"

Mark swam back to where I was, trying not to lure the boy out too far and into trouble with his granny. We walked back up onto the beach and sat on our towels. Grandma told us she watches Conner for a few weeks every summer while his parents were working at the Air Force base near Fairbanks. We told her where we were from and chatted awhile. Meanwhile Conner looked back and forth between his Granny and Mark, looking impatient.

When Mark and I got up to go back in the water, Conner was ready with his pitch:

"You know Granny, when I come visit you I want to have a lot of fun and I think swimming out into the lake with this man would be really fun. I really want to have the most fun possible while I'm here. Can't I?"

This is how our motto came to be. This nine year old boy's pitch to his granny is printed on the back of our cards, on the intro to this blog, and is always in the backs of our minds no matter where we go or what we're doing. Shouldn't everyone have the most fun possible while they're here?

Conner was able to get his wish. Mark gave him pointers on how to keep afloat, and helped him touch the rope and swim back to shore. Conner was thrilled, and it made us smile. Having the most fun possible often includes making sure others are having fun too.

May you all have the most fun possible on this Memorial Day weekend. Stay safe my friends.

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Stories in Place: The Toast

(This pandemic has put a cramp in our camp, so I thought I'd start a series of short stories from our travels. You know, those kinds of stories that go around the campfire after a day of exploring, and may get repeated more than once over the years. I hope you enjoy them as much as we enjoy telling them. Pull up a camp chair and grab a beverage. Let's Story in Place together.)


Everyone has them. We probably have too many for our own good. One that started in Hawaii many years ago involves viewing the sunset from the beach every night, toasting to another day well spent. This tradition has spilled over onto our camping trips: every night we try to find the best vantage point to watch the sun as it sets, clinking glasses (or plastic cups or water bottles or whatever we have at hand) as the sun sinks below the horizon.

On the last night of a week-long camping trip last year we found ourselves at Patrick's Point State Park on the northern coast of California. The fog had been so thick the entire day it might as well have been raining. The dogs were wet, cold and shivering, and we were all of those things plus annoyed with them for being so whiny. Just as we wiped them down and shoved them in the camper so we could start dinner in peace, the fog finally started to lift. Mark poured himself a glass of wine, I grabbed my water bottle and we walked out to the edge of the nearby cliff.

The sunset was looking to be a good one, but our vantage point here wasn't the best. The cliff was facing northwest, and the sun was around the corner, too many trees were blocking our view. We consulted the map board near the trailhead and we found a spot called "Wedding Rock" that looked to be just the right place to view a sunset.

We walked down the trail that followed the meandering cliff side, weaving in and out of the trees and up and down the gullies. Mud from all the fog made it slippery, and tree roots threatened to trip us up as we walked faster and faster trying to beat the sun.

"How far was it supposed to be?"

"I don't know, I think a mile? Two?"

"We're not going to make it. We better pick up speed."

Faster and faster, we ran down the trail, Mark holding his glass in front of him carefully as he tried to compensate for the joggling pace. A little slopped over now and then and he would lick his hand. None would be going to waste. "Go go go! We're almost there!"

We could see the large rock ahead of us, the trail weaving it's way down the cliff side before a stairway cut into the stone switchbacked up the huge chunk of granite. The sun was just touching the horizon and starting to cast an orange glow. Why do we do these things? Just as we were reaching the last set of stairs, Mark caught his foot on the edge of a rock and almost took a tumble. He recovered, but most of his wine did not.


Twenty-nine years of marriage entitles one to certain rights. There are always times when it's best to sympathize and express concern and sympathy. And then there are those other times, hard earned through years of sacrifice for the sake of harmony.

I started giggling, feeling sort of superior for having brought my water bottle with an actual lid. I tried to hold it back, but I was not winning the battle. I could hardly breathe from trying to climb all those stairs while laughing so hard my eyes were watering and blurring my vision. Mark took it pretty well. He glared a little and beat me to the top, just as the sun sunk below the ocean edge. I staggered to the rock wall once I caught up and looked in awe. It really was beautiful.

With what little was left in the glass, we toasted another successful trip, and another beautiful sunset. All was right in the world, and that half glass of remaining wine was sipped as we admired the fading colors from our perch on Wedding Rock. We lingered a while enjoying the scenery then started down the stairs.

"Did you bring a flashlight?"

"I thought you did."

Sunday, May 17, 2020

Stories in Place: A Room With No View

(This pandemic has put a cramp in our camp, so I thought I'd start a series of short stories from our travels. You know, those kinds of stories that go around the campfire after a day of exploring, and may get repeated more than once over the years. I hope you enjoy them as much as we enjoy telling them. Pull up a camp chair and grab a beverage. Let's Story in Place together.)

We pulled into the parking lot at the end of the Dalton Highway, 500 miles and two days after leaving Fairbanks. We had passed a forest fire, crossed over the Arctic Circle, avoided flying gravel from passing oil field trucks, survived hoards of thirsty mosquitoes and managed to get to Deadhorse with all tires intact and gas to spare. Success!

We had read that this particular parking lot was a good place (re: only place) to camp in this oil town on Prudhoe Bay. It wasn't pretty; a bare gravel lot surrounded by those temporary buildings that can be hauled in on the back of trucks, low flat roofed and looking as beat as we felt after 300+ miles of gravel washboard road. We'd seen worse.

We walked around and checked out the facilities. There were none. Hmmmm. Having camped in middle-of-nowhere places before, it had never been a problem. We don't have "facilities" in our camper, but we are equipped with hand trowels and TP kit that do quite nicely in those cases. Problem was, we'd never had to deal with camping in the middle of a populated area without a tree or bush within 100 miles. Not to mention the 24 hour daylight wiping out any chance for cover-of-darkness activity. This was going to take a little finesse.

We walked over to what served as a bulletin board for the area: a small piece of plywood nailed to the side of a building. A cartoon polar bear was posted with a warning:

Large female polar bear with cub has been raiding campers in this area! 
Please secure all food and do not leave dishes, garbage or any scented item in an accessible area. Please heed this warning, polar bears have been known to kill humans.

"I'm not really feeling this Mark." 

Our camper has soft sides once it's popped up, easily reached by a standing adult polar bear and easily breached by those 12" polar bear claws. We could theoretically pull out the bench seat and sleep on that, avoiding popping the top and exposing ourselves as prey. It would be tight but would avoid those paw swipes that would haunt our dreams all night. 

It just so happened we had researched a place we could stay once we made it here, a place with actual walls and beds: The Arctic Caribou Inn. Sounds rustic and quaint, doesn't it? We thought so. And we just happened to be a few steps from the entrance, so we decided to check it out.

The double door entrance was deeply recessed between two buildings, the better to shelter it from what I imagine is the relentless cold wind. The front office was a half wall with a plexiglass window running from countertop to ceiling. The guy reclining in the desk chair looked up and smiled. 

"Do you have any rooms for tonight? We just came in from Fairbanks and thought we'd check." The desk clerk laughed "Oh yeah, the place is pretty empty at the moment. How many nights?" 
We signed up for one night, and after making arrangements for a tour of the oil fields later that day, paid for one of the most expensive (to that date) hotel rooms we'd ever rented: $120.00. This was in 2004, and we very rarely stayed in hotels (why, when you can camp?).

So, for $120.00 we got: two twin beds, one of which is roughly level with the floor, that was also roughly level. Brown indoor/outdoor carpet blanketing a small room, large enough for the aforementioned beds and two small dressers. The bathroom had a small enough step up from room level that it caused you to miss the fact that it was there and trip headlong into the shower. The shower itself was just large enough to close the door behind you once you entered, but god help you if you dropped the soap.

We threw our bags on one of the beds, and they promptly rolled off to the floor. Wedging them on the bed again,  we sat down and realized there was a serious sag on one side. Some negotiation was going to be necessary to decide who was going to be sleeping in that one. We flipped on the small TV on top of the dresser, a wonder after 3 weeks on the road with nothing but the radio to keep us company. The satellite service picked up a few channels clearly, and a whole lot of static on the rest of the dial. The view from the one small window looked out at another room ten feet across a small alley.

We walked down the corridor to get our bearings, and take in the amenities. A narrow hallway connected the portable units with that brown indoor/outdoor carpet tying everything together. The carpet was ripped in spots, but repaired neatly with duct tape. There was a leak in the ceiling in the middle of the hall, which dripped with cheery regularity into a 5 gallon bucket. A common room had an ancient coffeepot and those tube like cereal dispensers lined up on the counter. They offered meals three times a day with a set menu, which was posted on a coffee stained flyer on the door.

Another couple walked out of their room as we passed by. Tight smiles and shrugged shoulders were exchanged, as we silently acknowledged our shared situation. Really though, we weren't going to be picky about it. This was the only place within 600 miles that didn't include grizzly and polar bear room service. And it was an Inn after all. Quaint, in an oilfield worker barracks kind of way.

That night, after a tour of the oil fields that (in part) made our 9,000 mile road trip possible, we found ourselves sitting on the edge of a twin bed eating PBJs and Fritos with a chocolate milk chaser, watching Seinfeld reruns in a room on the edge of the Arctic Ocean. Dinner never tasted so good.

Thursday, May 14, 2020

Stories in Place: A Rat Tale

(This pandemic has put a cramp in our camp, so I thought I'd start a series of short stories from our travels. You know, those kinds of stories that go around the campfire after a day of exploring, and may get repeated more than once over the years. I hope you enjoy them as much as we enjoy telling them. Pull up a camp chair and grab a beverage. Let's Story in Place together.)

We had just pulled in to the campground in Mojave National Preserve, tired from the 10 hour drive that began at five o'clock that morning. Mark popped the camper up as I set out our chairs and brought out the traditional pre-dinner drinks and snacks. It was a lovely afternoon, the sunset casting that desert glow on the surrounding mountains. I took out the camera and tried my best to capture the uncaptureable - that magic light you can only see in the desert with your own eyeballs.

As we settled into the chairs and congratulated ourselves on the beautiful weather, we saw something moving across the road. Rabbit we figured, there are hundreds of them around here. Nope, too small. What is that? It hesitated in the sage brush a moment, then suddenly dashed across the road. Rat! And a big one. It made a beeline toward us, and while we sat dumbstruck with our mouths hanging open it suddenly hooked left, scrambling up the front tire and out of sight under the truck.

What the hell?

We've had trouble with kangaroo rats in the desert before; once one was able to break into our storage bin in the camper and nibble into the bottom of our spare bag of pretzels (always have a spare bag of pretzels!) but they usually have the decency to attack in the middle of the night, when we are blissfully unaware. This one was outright brazen.

Mark popped the hood to see if he could find it in the engine compartment, where it appeared to be headed. I went into the back of the camper to make sure the turnbuckle hatches were closed, the perfect little doorways for unwanted visitors. All was buttoned up.

There it was! Sitting on the frame rail under the engine, it's little black eyeball staring straight into Mark's outraged gray ones. Mark pounded on the fender, shouted, and pushed on the truck, rocking it on the axles. Rat held on, in defiance. Ok fine, Mark started the engine, revving it louder and louder, hoping to either blast it out with noise or the heat. Rat scrambled down the rail and held on under the truck bed. If our ears could pick up that particular octave I think we would have heard tiny squeaking laughter.

That's it! Mark slammed the hood closed, climbed in the truck and started driving around the campground loop. "He'll either jump or get squished! I don't care which but he's not going to chew the wires up tonight!" I stood in the campsite and watched as the truck, with camper popped up and waste container dragging at it's side, disappear over the hill, then reappear 5 minutes later as he made his way around the big loop, taking a second lap for good measure.

When he returned we inspected all the areas we could think a rat might be, and it was nowhere to be found. "I got him!" Mark declared, not all that confidently (rats have a way of making one feel a bit uneasy). Guess it's time to cook dinner.

We opened the camper door and found everything that had been on the counter and bench seat had crashed to the floor. Our cups, the veggies, a can of beans and tortillas we had taken out for dinner, our sunglasses, an empty can of coke. Lying right in the middle of the pile, our camera that I had thrown on the counter when I was checking the turnbuckle doors. Shit.

If there is luck to be had, it was in the way the camera fell. It landed on the edge of the lens, and the outer most layer was the polarizer filter. The rim was bent and the filter was cracked, a bummer, but it had saved the actual lens and camera from further damage. It was pricey, but nothing close to a brand new Canon EOS 7D with a wide angle lens.

Much to our relief we were able to pick up a new polarizer filter in Moab and get some spectacular shots in Canyonlands later on in the trip. The truck kept running like a champ throughout so we assumed the rat found another more amenable vehicle to hijack. That or it jumped ship in Utah before it snacked on wire insulation.

Because I know you were wondering, our backup pretzels were safe, untouched by rat lips. We shared them with our buddies as we told this story around the campfire, a satisfying end to a trip that could have taken a considerable turn for the worse.

Wednesday, April 15, 2020

Don't Fence Me In

Give me land, lots of land and the starry skies above
Don't fence me in
Let me ride through the wide open country that I love
Don't fence me in
Let me be by myself in the evenin' breeze
And listen to the murmur of the cottonwood trees
Send me off forever but I ask you please
Don't fence me in
-Cole Porter and Robert Fletcher

I find it highly ironic that in the middle of a pandemic, instructed to stay at least 6 feet away from other people, I find myself feeling trapped. My first instinct when this thing started was to get in the truck and take off to the desert. Anywhere away from the city, from the six-feet-still-feels-too-close and the eerily quiet streets and the grocery stores packed with spaced out patrons and the pharmacies with empty shelves and the hospitals with white tents erected in parking lots in anticipation of a surge of patients.

My mood has bounced between, "hey this is ok, better than being sick!" to "i hate this, i hate this, i hate this."  I've self-medicated with chocolate to the point my adventure pants are starting to tighten, and those are the stretchy ones. I pace the house from one room to the next, seeing projects I could start but never quite get settled enough to begin. I thought it would help to have a list going. So far, I've only managed to check off "find yeast online to buy" and "change toothbrush." At least my dental hygiene won't suffer from all the chocolate I'm eating.

I am now working from home, having been part of the third wave of workers to be outfitted with all the necessary equipment to work remotely. I have a pretty sweet work station set up, complete with dual monitors and headset. All the conveniences of work with none of the free snacks. Damn office mates keep interrupting my meetings with their snoring, not to mention the pile of fur that accumulates under my chair from all the extra scratching they insist upon.

My coping mechanism has been to allow myself a really deeply satisfying wallow in pity about once a week. I just let myself go there, morose self-pity, full on oh-woe-is-me-this-sucks-and-it's-not-getting-better depths of despair. The lower I go and the whinier I get starts to strike me funny, then I come back to the "hey, it's better than getting sick!" stage.

Easter Sunday was a weird experience. I'm not religious and have never associated it with much more than a chance to eat a nice dinner with family and consume a terrifying amount of chocolate eggs, but that chance was not available this year. We did have an hour Zoom session with most of Mark's family, which was fun but not the same. My favorite chocolate house of worship has closed for the duration: Sees Candies, the makers of the best chocolate Easter eggs in the world, has ceased production until it's safe for their workers to come back. In place of exercise that day, we went for a neighborhood walk with the goal of passing by all the churches we could find within our area. We hit 10 on our three mile walk, all closed for business. Even Jesus was depressed, and it takes a lot to get that guy down.

I realize how lucky Mark and I are to still be employed, housed, and (over)fed. So far, all our relatives are well and we are healthy and live in a nice walkable neighborhood with many helpful and friendly neighbors we could rely on in a pinch. But if freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose never meant anything before, it surely does now. If we take off to the desert now we risk not being here if something happens to our folks. We risk possibly spreading the virus to others through gas pumps and quick grocery stops along the way. We risk tracking something home from a far away place and spreading it to our community which has, so far, been spared the worst of it.

So I will sit in my work chair, mute my headset when the snoring commences, wallow in self-pity occasionally and ride this out with the rest of you. Freedom can wait, and I know we can do this.

I just don't wanna.

Land, lots of land, nary a fence in sight.
Alabama Hills, Eastern Sierras CA

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Strange Days Indeed

Nobody told me there'd be days like these
Nobody told me there'd be days like these
Strange days indeed...
-John Lennon

I'm beginning to regret my decision to re-read Stephen King's The Stand. I started reading it when I first learned about the Coronavirus outbreak in China and it's more than a little creepy that its progression is following the storyline of the book so closely.

No, this virus is not killing 99.4% of the population, but the societal parallels are absolutely haunting. It starts in a small region and quickly skips across the country, carried by highway patrolmen, traveling salesmen, and vacationing families. In the book it's spread worldwide by airline passengers and some nefarious doings by the CIA, but who needs them nowadays, with the relatively cheap travel offered around the world? Cruise ships anyone?

At first, people are sympathetic and helpful. Gradually, they start getting paranoid and defensive, blocking off towns from outsiders to try to stem the spread. Hoarding and looting ensues and fights break out over loaves of bread. Stephen King didn't mention anything about toilet paper, but I guess even he couldn't have imagined that little tidbit.

I'm still working and I can't figure out if that makes me lucky or not. On the one hand, I'm still getting a paycheck and I'm not stuck at home all day with only food and TV to keep me occupied. On the other, I'm being exposed to 50 people each day who go home and are exposed to their families and possibly tracking things in to work with them every morning. We have some really good safety measures in place—they take our temperature before we enter the building, someone sanitizes all shared surfaces three times a day and we are all keeping the required 6' away from one another and washing the skin off our hands—but there's always that creepy feeling in the back of my mind. We're all hypersensitive to any sign of illness. A sip of tea went down the wrong pipe the other morning and I held the cough in all day long not wanting to get that look from my co-workers. I was so relieved to get in the car that afternoon, my own cootie cocoon where coughing is allowed.

My company makes parts that are used in medical testing devices, the optical filters we make are used to detect viruses. We are literally working on the Coronavirus problem, so we are considered an "Essential Business". I even have a letter in my glove box to prove it, in case they start cracking down on people moving around when they should be home social distancing. I would love to say I designed these life-saving parts myself but lo, I am but a lowly customer service person. I think I'm going to keep that letter even after this is over, just to make myself feel more important.

Mark is working from home for the foreseeable future. There's only so many production meetings one can have when there's no production going on, but managers find a way to keep busy. There's going to be some heavy-duty planning when it's announced that things will open up again. When he's not checking emails and holding virtual meetings, the house has arranged to keep him busy. So far, the washing machine has popped a hose, the kitchen sink sprung a leak, and our home computer died. He's a handy guy, so he fixed the first two and arranged for repair of the last. And he was so looking forward to TV and snacks...

It's highly ironic that our typical vacations would be much safer than staying home, but we are barred from leaving. Camping out in the middle of the desert is pretty much guaranteed virus free. Our camper has come in handy though, even here at home. We store extra food, water and even the ever more valuable toilet paper and sanitizing wipes in there. All that teasing about the zombie apocalypse vehicle was worth it in the end, eh?

I've learned a lot from this experience, but I'm not sure what to do with this knowledge.

Hand sanitizer tastes terrible: the first time you pick up a snack without letting the hand sanitizer completely dry will be your last.

My almost 80 year old mother has a better grasp of emojis than I do: she texted me a Coronavirus symbol before I even knew such a thing existed.

There are two types of people in this world: Those that can joke about the new reality, and those that slip into panic mode immediately and consequently really REALLY don't enjoy the other type of people. You might be able to guess what category I fall into. Sorry Jeremy.

I hope you are all safely holed up somewhere, or doing the best you can to limit your exposure. In this day and age of internet connectivity, there are ways to stay in touch without touching so we're all lucky that way. I'm hoping this thing will be contained as soon as possible, and things can get back to somewhat normal for everyones sake.

In the meantime, I'll be cruising back and forth to work in my cootie cocoon, coughing when I feel like it and waving my Very Important Person Letter for everyone to see. Not to worry though, my tongue has been thoroughly sanitized.