A Travellerspoint blog

Getting Back on Track (with editor's note)

Editors Note:  The words below were written on the 10th of March but the expedition is currently seated in Ushuaia, Argentina, the end of all navigable roads south, the furthest from New York one can drive.  A little apartment belonging to Senora Zaprucki is my cozy lodging.  Ushuaia is cold this time of the year and I write while the wind howls outside the window.  The fall season down at 54 degrees south  is quick and strong and the wet winds come from the fiords in the west and from the south over the Beagle Channel.  
I'm resting, recovering, reflecting here.  I hope to get some little stories down on this blog in order to paint a picture to show you readers what I've been doing to be gone from home for so long.  It's been a trip.  Keep a look over the next few weeks for updates.


March 10, Santiago, Chile

Procrastination and lack of internet have left me to my current situation - over saturated with memories and stories, highs and lows, and reflections of the characters that I've met.  All untold.  More lately, often when driving a lonely road, I think about what will be potentially lost if I fail to share what I have seen.  For the moment I have the motivation and the facilities to do just what I have been meaning to do all along.

The expedition, the beast that has served me and others (soon to be mentioned), has landed in Santiago Chile.  A 28 hour drive through the Atacama Desert from the Peruvian border was enough to propel us into a new season.  It's late Summer in this part of Chile.  There's summer haze, crisping leaves on the hardwoods and that faint smell of Summer that is only easily perceived when one is suddenly immersed in it which is exactly what happened a few days ago when we left the Chilean Andes for the Atacama whose long straight neutralizing roads led us here.

I haven't seen this much sophistication since I left Corpus Christi Texas for Mexico in early December.  The same feeling of excitement birthed from change ran through my consciousness when I crossed the Reynosa border into the slummy frontier towns and their tin roofs and lawless traffic and their stiff smell of burning garbage.  The organization and cleanliness of an American city (Corpus might not be the best example of cleanliness) looks white next to the apparent chaos that is the black of a Mexican frontier town.  For this and in the name of long waited progress south on the Expedition, I experienced genuine mind sharpening excitement.  In December, I entered inside the parenthesis that I can only name as the 'tropics'.  Today, March 10th marks the closed end of the parenthesis and the limit of where all before this day I will now try to begin to account.  

Cartel violence and warning after warning from the informed and uninformed created a major rift in the expedition that had to be navigated over.  Mexico was the Atlantic and I had to traverse if I was ever to reach Europe.  Real risks were present but the sensationalism had me in its grip.  My first night south of the border I asked Antonio, a hotel assistant, what the gunshots in the distance were all about.  He put me at ease.  They were fireworks and they were for the Celebration of the Virgin of Guadeloupe.  To my other inquiry he insistent that he was vigilant and that Pale Cheeks would be untouched when I awoke in the morning.  I was embarrassed but like a naive child I needed the reassurance.

We forged on south and finding ourselves in a town called Cosomaloapan Mexico with a tank full of diesel that I had not enough pesos to pay for.  I took a hard line when they told me they didn't accept credit card. (it's not that uncommon for stations south of the border to make claims that they only take cash when they full know that they can process credit)  The attendant pointed to a small motorbike and called over a joven.  The kid, evidentially the station's utility man, motioned me onto the back seat of the little bike and we headed down the dirt road into town.   He knew all the shortcuts - over sidewalks, squeezing through fences and weaving around big trucks hauling sugar cane.  I had no choice but to go with the flow and so my general feeling was an easy one.  "This is the first of many pickles", I thought.  After swinging by the only bank in town so I could take care of business, the joven stopped for cigarettes which he insisted at my asking that they were for the other guys at the station.  We returned and I settled the bill, finding Pale Cheeks exactly as I had left her.  A feeling of triumph was in the air of the kind that one inevitably gets when he discovers he won't be uncomfortably stranded for an indefinite time.   In my good spirits I called back over the joven (who as I imagined was already taken away a little by the gringo mystic) and handed him a 12 pack of Modelo.   'Ah so you're a winner' I heard one of the uniformed attendants say to the kid as I was driving away.


another mexican town, san cristobol de las casas

 In Puebla Mexico I found myself navigating down a narrow cobblestone street packed with families and school kids gitty with the Friday afternoon.  The old stone and stucco buildings, some 16th and 17th century, squeezed me in and I felt as if I was in Italy.  Puebla was settled as a Spanish colony in 1531 and further south, Antigua, Guatamala in 1543 and Leon, Nicaragua in 1524, two other cities I would soon visit.  Soon I'd be numb to 300 year old patina'd facades but in Puebla I was impressed.  From time to time during the month after  Cheek's and I crossed out of US territory, we would stop in awe over something far out, strangely central american, something that made us check our growing distance from home.  I remember clearly Puebla Mexico bringing one of these feelings on.

 Puebla's Plaza Central on an early evening was a stage for giggly teens, couples overly displaying affection, businessmen sharing a beer, kids and baloons, little greasy empanada stands.  A nun and her microphone were in full uniform at one corner of the plaza preaching the charms of the Virgin of Guadeloupe, beside her the only unoccupied benches.  Lights were in place illuminating the broad branches of the Plaza's hardwoods, the palm trees and the old majestic cathedral at the west end.  From my post seated outside the cafe, I was approached by an elderly woman selling icons of the Virgin and in my liberated free-as-a-bird good spirits I begged her and her cane to take a seat and take a break.   We shared a coffee together and spoke about what my spanish would allow of God and family, marriage and kids.  She shead a few tears towards the end and two thoughts crossed my mind: "she's a good woman" and "wow my spanish is better than I thought".  We both parted ways winners, she with 60 pesos and myself with a well-crafted icon, us both with a pleasant memory of good conversation. 

At the border between Mexico and Guatamala I got my first taste of two concepts of which I now know intimately-the backwards central american border crossing protocol and the Goodwill that Pale Cheeks has with male border officials (and any police officer who was once a boy).  I was lacking a vital document that the mexican side was supposed to give me when I exited the country.  "You didn't receive it because you didn't ask for it," I was told.
In Guatemala Old Cheeks did all the work.  Her hood and doors were opened and they were permitted to let have their fill of whatever they wanted to see.  But it was by no means an inspection.  They asked questions about tents and camp stoves, the winch and the snorkel.  I could have smuggled anything in.  Soon the officers just wanted to make sure I knew the way into their country.  I remember looking south past the gate at the swarming crowds carrying loads on their backs, trading, money exchanging hands, shacks and their canopies with trinkets, clothing, all encroaching into the road.  I found my way out of the clutter and onto the poorly maintained Guatemalan national roads with their potholes, randomly placed speed bumps, blind curves.  There were shacks with little rows of  coffee plants right off the road where the shoulder should have been.  "So this is what I am to expect" I thought.

Whenever stopped at military checkpoints or flagged down by traffic police or questioned at borders, I kept my secret weapon in close reach.  By using liberally the word 'adventura' I was able to immediately communicate my way out of further interrogation.  The word,  when coupled with the patina of Pale Cheeks and what I have learned to call her "Goodwill", lifted more eyebrows and got more colleague to colleague smirks than any other word in the spanish language could have.  I counted around 20 checkpoints in Mexico.  Central American Countries' biggest threat from northern borders are smuggled weapons from the US.  The military presence on every corner of road I traveled (at least gave the appearance) that the country was getting its act together.


quetzeltenango from el bolsen

Quetzeltenango, Guatemala's second largest city, made itself my home for a week.  There I studied spanish at the Proyecto Linguistica Quetzeltenango and stayed with a spanish speaking host family.  Fate gave me Gisela and Boris, mother and father to three dogs, two little white barking ones that lived inside the house and one big shepherd mix who, from what I understood, protected the apartments weakest point of entry, the roof.  But it was as if they had been real parents before.  They warned me of walking home at night, hated that I drank beer with my classmates after class, both loved and hated that I had a big appetite (like most Guatemalans they were on a tight budget), begged me to calm down when I discovered Pale Cheeks had a second radiator leak as it sat in their driveway.  Half of our meal time discussions were about their former guests - the guy who complained about not getting enough eggs in the morning (he needed more protein), the girl who ran every morning "could you believe she just went out and ran for no reason", the Australian who spoke great spanish but then suddenly left them for another host family.  The loving Gisela had her motherly flaws.  She was always overly imploring - about why I didn't cut my hair or why I was traveling alone without a wife or why I was skipping dinner - i just wanted to yell out in english "Come on Ma I'm going out with the guys give me a break!"  Boris was a shoemaker who operated out of a two story corner of the apartment.  The smell of leather and rubber cement brought me a constant reminder of the uniqueness of my lodging.  A long list of orders to fulfill at the time of my stay (it was just before Christmas) were burdening him a little and his two hired shoemakers were in daily with fresh roles of leather and bags of prefabricated soles which they brought in by bike.  Gisela packaged the final products and twice I had to navigate around stacks of shoes in the morning making my way out to class.  I was charmed when Boris told me he'd take off from his day's responsibilities to join me on a day trip to some mountain hot springs with Pale Cheeks.

I learned from my long walks to and from school that many  of the locals worked out of their homes.  I'd pass furniture makers, bakers, barbers and families selling groceries and nicknacks.   The streets were narrow, the homes one continuous jumble of concrete, old timber, and tin and so if you didn't know the neighborhood well enough you wouldn't have a clue on where to find the store to by your eggs.  If you wanted a 1/2 dozen sweet breads you might have to knock and yell "buenos dias".  Out might come a woman in a bathrobe, or a little nina sent out to make the sale.  The neighborhood appeared rough on the outside but all I found was pleasant community.  By the end of the week I was getting "buenos dias" from everyone, especially the barber a few doors down, my new pal, who I had solicited mid-week  for Gisela's sake.  


Boris and Gisella

I left gritty Quetzeltenango for touristy Antigua but not before solidifying a solid bond with fellow student, Daniel, a free thinking Aussie with wits and a natural ability for roughing it.  Over a mid week beer after class we got into talking about our host families.  He had a new family this week, his old family was awkward and a little stingy on portions and the wife over salted the food.  Ha!  I connected the dots.  Daniel was the Australian deserter.  On the points he made I could not disagree.  We had a laugh at one of the first of many commonalities we were soon to find between ourselves.  We also made an accord.   If we were to cross paths south, he'd join me and Pale Cheeks for a little adventure.




Posted by meIan3 10:00 Comments (0)

A Rambling in the American West

We left eastern Wyoming's barren lands and entered North into Montana, a state whose name alone can stir a man's blood - the rugged dry plains in the east, the Rockies, the big sky.

I filled up Pale Cheeks at Crow Agency off I-90 just off the border. There was a man in a white Ford diesel caked with mud. He had jet black hair and dark kacki skin and he was tall and broad. He had Crow blood and couldn't have been much older that 30. We compared vehicles and talked about the beauty of a good diesel and about where he got the mud. "Up in the Pryors" he said and he pointed to the range on the other side of the interstate, all land belonging to the 5th largest reservation in the states.

At the airport in Billings I picked up my first hitchhiker, my mother. "Isn't this a rugged adventure?"you say. "Where does my mother fit into this?"
I told my mother I was leaving on this expedition a month before I set off. The response I got was the response I expected. My logic was that a month of motherly prying was better than 6 months or a year of it. About 2 weeks before the departure Mom started to come around. She asked me about destinations in the US and the potential destinations points south from the Rio Grand. Among many other things, I told her I had a spot to help on a ranch in Montana herding cattle across the border into Wyoming. Mom really came around and started to show genuine interest in the expedition but I found her to be asking a lot about the cattle drive. She told me a story about a girl in the 60's, a farm in upstate NY, about a pony and about a big smile and a happy memory - and in my interpretation, even unintentionally hinted at an unfulfilled dream. The idea was born.
The ranch had openings and I told her I had booked her a spot and that she better get in horse riding shape if she was going to ride 8 hours a day for 5 days. She smirked at this crazy idea but her face revealed a hint of excitement. She would think about it and pray about it. My father agreed to forfeit the Floridian golf weekend they had planned for the same week. She was still undecided.
Then something very interesting happened, to me more supernatural than coincidental. In response to an email that was probably an over-the-top attempt at motivation on my part - my mother wrote back that she still had to ponder and pray. She signed her name "Annie Oakley". I'd heard the name before but had to look it up. I backed out of the email to go on my way to reference Google. When I did so, I noticed the name again written on my screen "Annie Oakley"-it was my Merrium Dictionary's word of the day, sitting in my inbox directly before the message from my mother. The definition:

The Word of the Day for October 4 is:

Annie Oakley \an-ee-OH-klee\ noun
: a free ticket

Did you know?
Phoebe Anne Oakley Moses (1860-1926) starred in Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show, where she astonished the crowds with feats of marksmanship such as shooting the spots out of playing cards. It wasn't long until her audience noticed that the shot-out card looked like a ticket that had been punched by a train conductor. By 1910, the name "Annie Oakley" was not only synonymous with sharp-shooting but with the ticket-playing card connection, and complimentary tickets have been "Annie Oakleys" ever since.

From the airport we found the stopover hotel complete with an elevator and a breakfast buffet and a short order cook, all secured by a reservation; something Pale Cheeks and I weren't used to but accepted with good humor. Annie had a lot to say about Pale Cheeks when they first were getting acclimated. I was made fully aware of the chance of us blowing over. I always knew if her tires touched the yellow line - Annie had a keen awareness of that. Even found out Pale Cheeks had an extra break in the form of a hand break above the passenger side visor. But Ole Cheeks got us there and we all settled in nicely together and made it to the Dryhead Ranch in one piece, over the Pryors and all.

The task at hand was driving heifers from an area of Montana just east of the Beartooth Mountains and just north of the state's southern border. By the end of the week, about 80+ head of young teenage cattle, all carrying an unborn calf, were corralled onto a smaller ranch in Lovell, Wyoming, closer to town and safe and warm for the winter. Annie and I and the other few guests were taken in as family at the ranch's home. In the evenings we shared in home cooked meals. In the mornings we went to work. Tasty feed laid out inside a gated area brought the horses charging in every morning from the surrounding acreage of canyons and prairies. We saddled them up and brushed the sticky-burs from their manes and tails. Tamed to various degrees by the cowboys, you still got the feeling that they were wild and happy, leading a healthy life out on the range.

Jake and Sky were the cowboys responsible for herding the cattle the 40 miles to the corral in Wyoming. Jake and Sky were also responsible for herding the 7 want to be cowboys (and girl) to the corral in Wyoming. But the cowboys made it easy, and even suceeded in making us feel like they almost really did need our help. They had such a nonchalance about them - there was no "here's the plan", or "snack time is in 10 min" or "anyone need a break?" Instead it was - "saddle up!" and "Let's go we're burning daylight here!"
The first day we rode down a canyon that followed a creek, flushing heifers out from the thick brush and into a gated hold back at the ranch. The second day Jake gave orders to myself and another guest. We were to "go up over that there hill and bring back any heifers you find. Don't bring back no bulls or cows." No detailed instructions, no "be careful of x or y". Was this how they break you in in the West? It was the "they're smart enough let them figure it out" method.

Jake was a wild one. I wondered how hard he tried to emulate everything about a classic 19th century cowboy because, in a way, he was to me very much what I thought a 19th century cowboy to be like. He wore a thick long bushy orange mustache and had a general scruff about him. He had a passion for all things broken in; the longer he had it the greater the worth, regardless of holes and rips. Both cowboys had a thing for their bandanas; not ordinary bandanas but silk ones from France - pastel colored bandanas with swirly patterns. Jake's hat rarely came off his head. He told me a story about breaking in his boots as if he was talking about raising a child. Wool sweaters were one of his passions, a passion that I share. The more bulky, the more ugly, the more ichy, the better. If Annie and I learned one thing, we learned that being a cowboy could still be about the grit and the romance of the old days.


Hansen Flats

The corral gate in Lovell was shut after the last heifer creeped over the threshold exhausted. The three day drive took us through red canyons and high grasses, alongside barbed wire and over prairies shadowed by snow capped mountains. The weather was dry for the most part, barring some flurries one evening. The Montana fall is a cool one and the winds coming off of the Rockies can chill. I thought I saw Annie riding her gelding along the Hansen Flats (a bare plateau of grass beside a stout mountain range) one chilly morning. It certainly wasn't Mom.

Annie and I and Pale Cheeks pulled out of the ranch with our 6 days of hard earned ranch experience. We left a trail of red dust as we drove the 20 miles of dirt road back into cell service range and the real world. Before the dust settled over our week-long experience we came to a conclusion: how simple life seems to be without 21st century distractions, and not just the gizmos of the 21st century but more the convoluted human theory in magazines, the internet, the media. If more people could just get themselves out into the wilds, we thought. In a way we have lost touch with the primary source - our own eyes on raw earth.

When we hit pavement we pointed towards the wildlife-rich Yellowstone National Park. Annie wanted to see Old Faithful and we decided to risk the longer drive in hopes that we'd catch her. The risk was rewarded by a glimpse of the 150ft geyser exploding in front of our eyes. I'd waited for it to blow without luck in the past - Annie was just plain old good luck.
From the park we headed North, racing against the sunset through Montana's Paradise Valley, wedged between two mountain ranges - the Gallatin to the West and the Absoraka to the East. Annie and I ate our farewell dinner at Ted's Steak House, a Bozeman classic. I'd seen from time to time the Annie side of my mother - but never in such a large refreshing dose. I guess there is a time to be Mom and a time to be Annie. Pulling away from Bozeman Airport, I watched Annie fade away in the rear view mirror. The chapter was closed.
Pale Cheeks and I headed back down Paradise Valley, crossing the world class fly fishing Yellowstone river we buried ourselves in the vast Wilderness area north of Yellowstone. With us were keys to an old forest service cabin that we scooped up earlier from the Livingston Park Station. What ensued were mountain hikes, splitting firewood, reading beside the black wood stove, keeping field mice away from the food, washing dishes in the river out back, questioning the odd noises from the dark woods outside, sipping scotch and green tea...and plenty of time to think about the months ahead.

It could be said that Montana was a noteworthy waypoint on the expedition map. From here we pointed our course South. Barring a few marginal fluctuations, the latitude recorded every day in the log book would descend out of the 45's winter shrinking towards 0's eternal Summer.
Pale Cheeks and I drove out of the lush forested Montana-Wyoming-Idaho corner, past the majestic Grand Tetons, away from the raging rivers and pine-smelling mountain sides and into the dry valley of northeast Utah. From Salt Lake we headed East along I-80 to Park City. A reservation at the High West Saloon made way to homemade whiskey and and a cheerful reunion.

Chris is an old roommate and an old pal from Huntington, now a resident in Park City where I stayed a week waiting for a replacement radiator and tuning old Pale Cheeks. Between Chris and his new friends in Park City, there was no shortage of hospitality. I had access to Jacob's garage and use of Andre's shop tools. Season, Chris' roommate, cooked often and offered much - some of the most simple and healthy dishes on the trip so far. Jacob, Chris, and Mike took me pheasent hunting with Jake's two short-haired German Pointers. The two pups froze with a front paw tucked and nose targeted over any thick brush that concealed the birds. They waited until we arrived with a shotgun. Thus followed feathers and the smell of gunpowder. Much later followed pheasant Brest in an apple and pomegranate purée.
Ironically enough, I left Park City, the host of the 2002 Olympic Winter Games, two days before the official opening of the ski season.


pheasant hunting with the boys

In Las Vegas I picked up my next two travelers. With the help of today's technology, Pale Cheeks and I narrowed down their location and spotted them sidewalk bound on The Strip. We pulled out of the chaos into a tranquil employee parking lot. Picture the backside of a theatre set. I exchanged handshakes and gitty smirks with my brother Andrew and cousin-could-be-brother Jamie. A new chapter had begun.
Cheeks and I had been on the road since the crack of dawn. We left Utah's Rockies with snow on the road. There was no shortage of wind descending south out of the state's wide barren dry valley. Between Cedar City and St. George we rolled down a windy pass of red rock. On the Arizona side, as if someone flipped a switch, there was sun, heat, and palm trees.

The Arizona-Nevada border was different. My eyes were used to the big doses of the long vistas of the west. The two new Expedition members could tell the effect that Vegas' clutter had on me. They teased, saying that Vegas was James' Kryptonite.
We didn't stay long. After the NY Jets' loss the following evening, we left the Venetian's sports book and headed east out into the night.


long hike down the canyon

Stuffed with more gear and her new three man crew, Pale Cheeks arrived at the Grand Canyon. We hiked 2000 feet down into the canyon via the South Kaibab trail and stopped at Skeleton Point, just far enough to see the Colorado river another 3000 feet below. That evening we rendezvous'd with 2 more cousins at a riverside camp in Sedona Arizona. Nick brought along his topless rig, a long wheel base Wrangler he calls Lady Mariana. Pete brought two delicious locally baked pies that he insisted were the best in Arizona. We lived large that night under the stars - cold beers, giant burgers, baked beans, crisp fire, and pie. We parted ways after our 12 hours together.

the red rocks of sedona

Pale Cheeks found a shortcut to HWY 15 via a rocky trail up the red rocks overlooking Sedona. The towering rocks glowed a burnt orange by the morning sun and we all had that life is good feeling that is particular to a morning following a sound sleep. As we ascended out of the canyon we encountered cattle grazing, and further mud and remains of snow on the east side of the pass. The weather warmed again as we headed east toward the concisely named Meteor Crater National Park. The 500ft deep, 4000ft wide creater was created by 50,000 year old meteor strike. Further east we visited the Petrified Forest National Park and further in southeast New Mexico, the Carlsbad Caverns via elevator access 4000ft down dropping us into, "The Big Room" of stalactites and stalagmites. Driving the narrow valley up to the park, you'd never realize the elaborate network of caverns inside the canyon walls to your left and right.

a big hole

There came an end. We raised our glasses of "dressed" Dos Equis at Recess Sports Bar in Corpus Christi, Texas. Our Cousin Billy is a local in town and thought it a proper place to end the journey and start a new one. We smiled at the triumph of the ground we covered (the expedition log recorded 1,714 miles) the vistas we took in, and the characters we met. In silently recalling the memories of the last week in that first sip of beer, I doubt any of us three omitted our adventure at Turkey Creek. When the dust settles and all are happily accounted for, it is the tough tasks overcome that give a team the richest memories. Memories of triumph. And now I must tell you the story of Turkey Creek.

Andrew had researched Hot Springs on our rough route through America's southwest and had decided that the elusive Turkey Creek in the Gila wilderness of New Mexico offered a challenging hike with just enough potential for adventure. This was not your typical hot springs - no parking lots or picnic tables. He made clear the fact that it was hard to get to. The literature warned the reader about remote wilderness, poorly marked trails, bad cartography and river crossings. We cross referenced our hard sources and found that everyone who had been there had a different explanation on how to find the Springs. We dismissed the nonsense and figured it would be easy enough - the first underestimation.

the road to nowhere or otherwise known as the road to turkey creek

We arrived in the Gila at night and searched for Turkey Creek Rd. We doubted our every move. It sounded nothing like the directions. The road we had thought might lead us to Turkey Creek became steep and rocky. There were switch backs. Why were we climbing a mountain when we were looking for a creek? There was no water in sight. We argued as we blead our fatigue after the long day of driving. It was dark and we were lost and when those two ingredients are combined it can be eerie, even spooky, even for strong brave young men like ourselves. With crossed fingers and a flaky consensus we forged on the narrowing dirt road in the pitch black. It descended into a dry creek bed only to ascend up another ridge. Nerves were on high alert and we decided to abandon the hour long investment down the deep trail and sideline the search, with our tight schedule, probably indefinitely. We looked for a safe place for Pale Cheeks to turn around without sliding of into the black below. I got out to inspect and immediately the sound registered in my head - there was a big river below in the black. We agreed to further invest our resources. We descended in elevation and came to a flat sandy trail and a skunk. Pale Cheeks shined her lights on him as he slowly trotted along and we took it as a sign that we were on the right track. Just ahead was the end of the road and a perfect location to set up camp and fire-roast a moral building hotdog before bed. Right beside camp was a "substantial" creek and so our heads hit the pillows with hopefulness, uncertainty, and exhaustion.

a morning accord: we will reach the springs

In the light of morning we could see our surroundings. We were in forested canyon. There were Ponderosa Pines and prickly scrub growing in the rocky terrain. Along the wide creek bank we're white barked Cottonwoods with orange leaves. We spotted an obvious point for a river crossing, right in slride with Andrew's book. Maybe we were on the right track?
While packing up camp we heard a car on the dirt track. Two young forest service workers were slumpt in their light pick-up reviewing their mission for the day. My first thought was "credible information", my second was "Columbus never had help finding the Americas". It didn't matter anyway. They had heard of Turkey Creek but didn't know where it was. We referenced their Gila wilderness Topographic map. Turkey Creek was faintly referenced. It exists! We also confirmed we were in fact camping on the Gila river. Once we find Turkey Creek, finding the hot springs will be a piece of cake. This was our second underestimation.

pale cheek's view of the gila river

Pale Cheeks boldly crossed the snaking Gila River 5 times, each time with more confidence and lighter nerves. The tool was a perfect fit for the job. We were now on the opposite side of the river. Two canyons split to the north, the one to the right had a prominent flow of water. Andrew ran ahead of the rig to inspect. He returned with confidence. For that moment, like a Columbus, he claimed Turkey Creek as our own. The trail followed the creek up, Pale Cheeks at times rolling over basketball-sized river rock. A diversion off trail led us to a lake of them. With the word "flip" on our tongues and all Cheek's cards on the table, we overcame. Shortly after we passed and old windmill that was referenced in the book. The trail narrowed and we secured the rig and proceeded on foot with a light pack and smiling faces. Before long we'd be southing our nerves in the warm waters of the springs. A half hour hike brought us to a sign explaining potential dangers of the spring. Two hours later after coming to realize this third underestimation, we would remember this sign and scratch our heads. Was the spring further ahead? Had we walked right passed it?
One of the websites had mentioned ascending a ridge up the side of Skeleton canyon. I was convinced and went on a recon up the ridge but it only pulled further away from the creek. I remember looking below into the canyon and the greenery that fed off of the river below. Above, nothing but orange rock; far beyond, the stretching Gila Wilderness. I returned to the team with empty news. We had so much invested in the search. The fibers that held us together as a team were weakening and we spoke about turning around for good.
We decided to hold onto the towel. Further up the creek we came to a rock wall blocking our way. Jamie attempted the only way around - a steep craggily hump that showed promises of sneaking around the wall. Andrew and i heard large stones kick loose and thought the worst. Jamie was alive but our chance at finding the lost springs seemed dead. We descended the hopeless pass. Back on the sandy bank I noticed a shadow at the foot of the extreme left side of the wall. The somber defiance in the air lifted with the hope of a passage. We saw light through the narrow cave and after throwing a few stones to flush the potential snakes, we crawled through, another conquered obsticale.
With spirits souring we made our last push over boulders and downed trees. Andrew claimed the water was getting warmer while I thought his fatigue was playing tricks. Soon we were all convinced. The water was Luke warm - there was no doubting it. Our step, despite our bodies being physically drained, was lightened. And then we heard a holler - A clean genuine yelp that could have only meant two things to our battered wits - a rattlesnake bite or steaming water. It was the latter. Jamie had his hand in the water and he wore a smile that said "well what do you say to that boys?".
Water tastes better after a long run. A desert is sweeter if consumed after eating hearty green vegetables. David Livingston, who spent years in African jungles in search of the source of the Nile said: "one cannot appreciate the true charm of repose unless he has undergone extreme exertion." With 5 hours of work behind us, four of which were unanticipated, we soaked like Greek Gods in nature's spring. We had full appreciation for the true charm that our perseverance had won for us.

Posted by meIan3 12:20 Comments (0)

Blowing Across the Plains

Reading Steinbeck's words our first week on the road gave The Cruiser and I the reassurance we needed.  It's a fact that on a the open road there can be a general mission but the direction, the means, the day in day out cannot be closely controlled.  Pale Cheeks has a rudder and we are at the mercy of the winds.  In this way, we began our voyage South.  
To Alexandria VA and a close pal's homestead, to my Aunt Ginger's elementary school in Maryland, the Clemson University circuit - a football game, reuniting with college buds, their girl friends, their wives and even their kids.  You find good southern spirit in Clemson in general.  Tigers Football was having an exceptional year and so the spirit was in full force.

From South Carolina we cruised across Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi, and Oklahoma.   In Burminham I had a run in with a few drunks, one in a bar and the other at Flying J truck stop.  Apparently having any old diesel doesn't allow you to camp where the trucks are.  Clarksdale Mississippi, the blues capital of the states, was a ghost town.  A guy by the name of Winston really wanted me to enjoy his movie theater, for free he insisted.  I agreed with him that the theater had charm, but where were the people?  The Blues?  On to Oklahoma, the land of fierce winds and gridded backroads.  I have never in my life seen more wind-bent signs, or any wind bent signs for that matter. The locals are a product of their environment.  The wind and storms and not so infrequent tornados make for a tough people.  I found out their grit first hand.
Clarksdale's only musicians I could see

Two tried and true ways to stir up a good conversation with a local- Two broad avenues have revealed themselves to me:  Directions and Weather.  The former is more known but maybe not in the sense that I harness it (there are some very rare instances when I actually need directions).  In a diner, a gas station, a hardware store.  I ask one guy and he gets a huge laugh at the route I'm showing him on my map.  Do I really think that's going to save me time?  He could show me one way that would cut off 12 minutes but I'd never make the trick turn and my map isn't even good anyway.   At other times, direction giving is a group effort.  Larry is called over from his eggs and ham or the young lad who is heading in that direction can pilot me to HWY 78.  

And now for weather, known intimately by the local, a major ingredient in a locals pride for their land.  I had scheduled a full day of driving in order to get to the Rockies and set myself up for arrival at a Landcruiser specialist in Colorado.  We entered Oklahoma in the morning along with the one lane farm roads and  dairy farms and warehouses of pigs and silos and those bent over road signs.  The headwind was taking a toll on the Cruiser, the threatening temp gauge was showing the first signs of her first faulty radiator.  The crosswinds were taking a toll on the pilot.  Without the doors, I was left open to the 40 deg farm air, the thickness of it exiting a bout of sneezing and watery eyes that lasted well into Colorodo.
At this point the sun was a purple glow barely showing the horizon over the great plains.  I stopped into a gas station in hopes of finding a wool hat.  It was flurrying a bit and a big bearded man was filling up his pick-up truck, a tan Carnhert jacket and blue jeans were all that stood in front of him and nature's cutting gust.  He looked like a wise old sage.  I was a little intimidated.  With the confidence squeezed out of my opening weather-themed line I proceeded.
myself:  Does it always blow like this?
man:  Well, this really isn't that bad.  It's only October.
myself: Yeah but the wind, this isn't exactly normal for around here is it?
man:  Nope, it's pretty normal I'd say. This here isn't nothing really.  If you want wind you should go over to " " (he cites some other county)
myself:  Yeah, is that right?  I'm getting pretty beat up in that thing.  (I  point over to the Cruiser and the fact that it doesn't have doors)

The man wasn't all that shocked at the ruggedness of the cruiser or the fact that it was open to the elements.  He noted that it was unique but his eyes went back over to his pickup and the horizon.  I got the feeling that all he knew  was the great plains and their weather, the farm, the grazing, the harvesting and the mechanics of equipment that helps him make a living.  His air of wisdom and grit and simplicity were admirable.  And so from an innocent topic of conversation, I was awarded with a snapshot of a what appeared to be a simple life with the plains.

The Cruiser crested the Sangre De Cristo Mountains and the Great Sand Dunes of Colorodo were waiting on the other side.  The 750 foot dunes over a thousand miles from an ocean had been something I had always wanted to see.  This time, quite literarly, the wind blew us there.  Salida is less than two hours to the north and so the sand was just barely off our path.  There was a small tourist office in remnants of the old Fort Garland, established in 1858 to protect the settlers in the San Luis Valley from the Indians in New Mexico.  Three old men in, likely old pales of the town, teased me about me wanting to go to the hippy clothing optional hot springs "up in the foothills."  I had not wanted that at all but instead was looking for the clothing mandatory hotsprings and campground in the valley right off the side of the the state hwy.  They spent 5 minutes telling me 30 seconds worth of directions.  I joked that I better not see their weary selves at the latter hot springs.  The friendly jab hit their funny bones and exited an uproar of laughter and I left.

the great sand dunes

The Sangre De Cristo Mountains marked a major waypoint of the expedition - the first of many mountain passes and the changing terrain that goes with it.  Sitting and breathing heavy from the trudge up the dunes, perched on the 750 foot mark I could see the shadow on the valley floor grow.  It was quiet and I might have been the only one in the park.  On the way out on an obscure sand trail we saw a giant buck.  The valley air was crisp as were the stars.  We were in the American West.
In Salida, the cruiser became Pale Cheeks and her drive train and breaks were overhauled, gaining more ground towards the phrase "a wolf with sheep's clothing."  The town proved to be a good locale to meet some characters. Intensely mechanically inclined guys  in the yard, an artistic metal fabricator with a live-in shop, a Big Foot conissour  adamant about the fact that the beast is real and quite local.  A hostel in the cosy hip riverside town housed a few travelers but one was exceptional.  Dejan Zafirov was riding his bike across America - fairly common.  Dejan was from Macedonia - very unique.  We walked a few blocks to a corner bar with a 25 cent beer special and the exceptional came out.   Dejan is missing a leg and has nerve damage in the other.  He is riding his bike accross the continents to raise awareness to the underrespected disabled in his country.  He wants to give the young handicapped courage and hope.  See his rough cite: www.gaia.mk. 
Dejan and his ride

From Salida we drove up along the east side of the Rockies through the orange emptiness of Wyoming in Montana, the past weeks blown around on the road imprinted on the memory.

1st buck in the rockies

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Pale Cheeks

A journey is a person in itself; no two are alike. And all plans, safeguards, policing, and coercion are fruitless. We find that after years of struggle that we do not take a trip; a trip takes us.

-John Steinbeck

Writing from a town called Quetzeltanango.  It's in Guatemala and I had no idea it existed as the second largest city in Guatemala until a few weeks ago when I booked a language class and 7 days stay at a locals's place (meals included).

Before I take you south of the Rio Grand, I'd like to hit on some of the adventures that Pale Cheeks and I have encountered in my homeland, The United States of America.

Before this past October's Colorodo, she was "The Cruiser", a 30 year old beast of a diesel, born in Japan in '81, then shipped off to Canada, most likely British Columbia where she was hauled eastward across the country to Quebec.  Her original owner used her as a farm hand, her low gear ratio could and still can march through just about anything.  A guy about my age right now was the last owner. He left her to his mother to sell while he went off to live in Paris.  I'm sure he never knew that a 23 year old kid from NY was going to cross the border and deal with customs to buy her.  I'm sure he never imagined how much tiger she still had left in her tank.  I'm sure he never knew she'd make it to the Arctic Ocean in 2006 (ref. http://crosscountry-2006.blogspot.com, Billy Wagner and Charles Kunken) or make an attempt at crossing borders south of the Rio Grande.  
May 2006 she lost her doors in an accident on the California Coast.  October 2011, at a Landcruiser junkyard in Salida, California she got her wings back.  The doors were white and she was named "Pale Cheeks".
I know it may seem that we are harping too long on Pale Cheeks but it must be remembered that she is the one primarily responsible for helping this expedition come to fruition and so attention must be given to her.  
Her shell is weathered like a broken-in baseball glove. A friend of mine once said she had a nice patina. She gives of an air of romance, evidenced by the heads that she turns along roads of all sorts.  

At her nose is a bull bar of welded steel connected directly to her chasis.  A winch, rated for the jungles of Africa, is bolted into the assembly noted above.   Under the hood you'll find a 4 cylinder diesel -that's all, and that is why she is so strong.  Her beating heart is simple - not fast, not even high on horsepower.  She is built to work, not show off.

But her drivetrain has a few bells and whistles.  Landcruisers are renowned for their stout axels and low 4wd gear ratios.  In Salida she was outfitted with pnuematically controlled locking differentials which were added to improve our chances of passing the impassible if the situation ever arose.

It is true though that one must take the good with the bad. Pale Cheeks is no exception. For one, her doors don't like to shut and once in a while will pop open on their own, almost always at the most inopportune times, i.e. rounding a turn.  Occasionally, her parking break will stick.   A few love taps under her rear fixes this problem.   Don't count on getting an accurate read on her temp and fuel gauges at one quick glance.  The gauges need to be studied over hours of travel to determine their true measure as they are in constant fluctuation.  If you want to roll the drivers side window down below half way, you need to have a shim ready - I like to use a bolt.  If you don't create a little friction by using the shim, the pitch of the squeeking can debilitate the driver. The 18 gallon auxillary tank at her rear has a quirk too. In order to be filled, Pale Cheeks has to be on a left to right horizontal incline. Since this isn't typically found around the pumps at a station, a wood chock is used as a jack under the rear fill-side tire. As it turns out this is a nussence for attendants in the States. The common reaction might lead one to believe a misdimeanor is being commited.  (It will be noted down the road that those South of the border find it the most boringly normal fix that could done to help fill up a car). There are more, but the point is made.  If you want all the good then you have to take the bad and if possible take it with a smile. You don't find charm in a new Chevy Volt. It is something that is earned, like old wine sitting patiently in a hard oak cask.

So, with the perfect tool for the job, I set off from Huntington, NY on the 2nd of October of this year to points known and unknown.   UploadedFile2.jpg
"The Cruiser" before her wings. middle of nowhere, OK

Posted by meIan3 12:30 Comments (0)

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