On Bruneau Dunes, Baboquivari Peak and White Horse Pass

Last weekend Betty and I motored down to Elmore and Owyhee Counties, Idaho, for a day of looking around at the snow (what remained), the birds, and the Columbia Basin landscape. The southwestern part of Idaho, upon initial encounters, appears to be harsh, ugly, boring and a lot of other pejorative adjectives, but in each season the sage brush plains and craggy mountains deliver up singular delights. One of our favorite times to get out into the region is the winter. Not to detract from both spring and fall, which deliver their own spectacular moments, the winter light that reaches low out of the southern sky casts a nostalgic glow on the snow and the land and the things that dwell in the harsh environment.

We stopped at Ted Trueblood Wildlife Management Area just north of Grandview and took a little saunter among the cattails and Russian olives. The song of Canada geese carried along on the breeze. We looked for owls but found none. A female belted kingfisher flew above us and stuttered its angry warnings, then flew off to kite like a kestrel over a slice of open water in an otherwise frozen pond. In the distance, the Owyhee Mountains jutted up from the flat horizon.

We traveled on to Bruneau Dunes and climbed to the spine of one of the big sandbanks. The gray sand was damp and frozen on the west side and dry and fine on the east. The ever present winds scaled over the rim of the dune and scattered a veil of sand off towards Wyoming. Down below, the small lakes were frozen with huge gaggles of Canada geese walking on the ice, cackling to each other, or who knows, maybe to us. Occasionally a dozen or so would rise with an alarmed riff of squawks and fly off to some undistinguishable destination, maybe grain stubble over towards Mountain Home or a fallow hay field along the highway to Hammett.

Canada geese at Bruneau Dunes © Ken Rodgers 2014

We traversed the spine of the dune, fighting to keep our balance as we stepped into a frozen spot that made us slip or a thawed place that acted like there was some not-so-benign intelligence down there intent on sucking us down. Down.

Often, when I talk about Idaho to folks domiciled in other locations, they think the state is all like the mighty Tetons or the photogenic Sawtooths, not a land of sage and sand. But like much of the American West, Idaho is a variety. Forested, mountainous, desert, swamp, lake and stream and river…and sand.

This makes me think of the sand in the southwest, the dunes outside of Yuma, Arizona, and the several dunes around my old home town. There was one dune in particular, on the Tohono O’odham Nation between my town, Casa Grande, and the Mexican border. Tohono O’odham means “desert people” or something close to that and is an apt description of the folks that live on the vast nation (or reservation), the second largest in the 48 states. When I was a kid growing up, we called them Papago Indians. Papago, I believe, comes from a Spanish language distortion of the Tohono O’odham word for “bean people.” I think the “beans” referred to in that moniker are probably mesquite beans which the Tohono O’odham people utilized in the form of flour, porridge, cake and drinks.

Mesquite, along with palo verde and ironwood, are the dominant trees of the Sonoran Desert and are members of the pea family. They nitrify the soil, provide beans that feed mourning dove and Gambel’s quail, desert big horn sheep, coyotes, wolves, rabbits, desert pronghorns and the indigenous people of the desert. Mesquite also makes excellent coals for cooking.

The particular dune I am writing about is positioned in what we local Anglos called White Horse Pass south of the Tohono O’odham village of Chuichu. White Horse Pass sits in among the Silver Reef Mountains and when I was a kid and a young man, it was a stop on the way further south to Arizona’s own version of the Sawtooth Mountains. We used to rattle down the dirt tracks into those rugged granitic fingers and points and teeth in search of agate to cut and polish and to make into jewelry. I relished the hunting and the finding of the raw agate and the bothering of the old core drillers who used to sleep on cots in the open air next to their well rigs as they prospected for gold and silver. Now the area is designated as part of the BLM-managed Ironwood National Monument.

Buneau Dunes, Idaho © Ken Rodgers 2014

In the old days, thirty, forty, fifty years ago, we used to go down there and spend a day rock hounding and maybe stop at the dune at White Horse Pass and climb up the dune which had been trapped by the wind against the south face of one of the Silver Bell massifs. Then we would tumble to the bottom, or we would climb up the dune and onto the top of the granite mountain and look south towards the Baboquivari Mountains and Kitt Peak National Observatory. Baboquivari Peak rears up out of the desert like a human male’s member and is what the Tohono O’odham call the “navel of the world.”

Some of the roughest country I have ever traversed on foot lies at the foot of Baboquivari Peak. Jaguars have been sighted there and in the fall, winter and spring it is a great place to visit if you want to climb rugged cap rock and hunt mule deer and quail among the spikey slopes loaded with ocotillo and prickly pear. And when I say hunt, I don’t necessarily mean with a weapon. You might have a camera, a set of binoculars, or both.

The Sonoran Desert in Arizona is part of the larger basin and range terrain that makes up much of the intermountain west where jutting, rugged mountain ranges rear off the desert floor with relatively narrow valleys in between; the Baboquivari Mountains and Picacho Peak and Newman Peak and the Sierra Estrellas and San Tan Mountains and the Vekol Mountains and the Silver Reefs and the Silver Bells and the Tucson Mountains where the movie site, Old Tucson, sits evoking memories of John Wayne shooting Christopher George in El Dorado. Moving east toward New Mexico the terrain lifts into the higher ranges, the Santa Ritas and the Santa Catalinas, the Galiuros and the Rincons, the Dragoons, the Pinaleños and the Chiricahuas.

When I was younger, besides rolling in the sand of the dunes at White Horse Pass or hunting agate in the Sawtooths, I hunted quail on the valley flats and if I was lucky to find a place where gone-by mesquite trees rotted in the ground, I’d wait until a wet spell in the weather and then take a four-wheel-drive truck and rip the roots of the dead mesquites right out of the ground with a big chain. We’d split the wood with sledge and wedge and maul and ax and load it into our pickups and haul it home to use in our homemade grills to cook lamb chops and prime rib and chicken. How I loved the sounds of those tools, the clink and clank, the chunk and later the hiss and sizzle of meat over red-orange coals.

When taking breaks from splitting into the red heart of hard mesquite, we could watch the drug runners in their Beach Barons and Cessna 172s flying low down the valleys from Mexico to deliver their loads of marijuana to the Phoenix area. Now the BLM warns you about going into the country south of White Horse Pass because of the migration of aliens out of Mexico. I suspect the folks from Mexico and El Salvador and Honduras who want to work are not the big problem, but the men who “manage” the migration; those coyotes are what should be avoided. Having lived in the desert for over thirty years, many times I ran into aliens (sans their managing coyotes) going north for work. Never once did I feel threatened.

Soon we will be down in that Sonoran Desert country screening our film and photographing saguaro cacti and adobe walls and looking at the Silver Reefs and Baboquivari. It will be fun to compare and contrast the sands from White Horse Pass with the sands of Bruneau Dunes.

On the Snake and Other Rivers

On Christmas Day, Betty and I ventured south of Boise down to the Snake River Canyon for photography and a look at the wigeons and goldeneyes, the sheep grazing in the snow covered sage, and the river.

The Snake is a long river that starts in Idaho with major contributions to its flow rising in Wyoming, Nevada and Oregon. By taming the Snake, engineers in the early 20th Century set the table for an agricultural explosion on the Snake River Plain, a region of harsh winters and summers and little precipitation.

Snake River Plain Copyright Ken Rodgers 2013

Where I live, the Snake offers, among other things, recreation, wildlife habitat, electrical power, irrigation water and photographic opportunities. Idaho’s famous spuds rely on the waters of the Snake.

I think we often take rivers for granted. I know I do, assuming that they are there to offer up the varieties of satisfaction I require at any particular moment. Need a cold drink of water further chilled by chunks of ice? Check. Need to turn on the lights in the backyard so I can cipher what is making all that racket? Check. Need a photo op? A sturgeon? A view of some flashy male wood ducks? Check. Check. Check. Need a fresh spud?

Here in Boise we have the Boise River running right through downtown, and the Snake, the Jarbidge, the Bruneau, the Owyhee, the Malheur and the Payette aren’t far away. Most of the time I don’t even think about them unless there is something I want to do along a riverbank or I start fearing that they may flood.

When I was a kid on southern Arizona we lived in the middle of what had been at one time the Santa Cruz River which flowed from the mountains on the US-Mexican border and then hung a left turn at Tucson and headed west-northwest for the Gila River. My grandmother told me that when she was young, around 1900, the Santa Cruz carried steamboats from the Phoenix area to Tucson, that there were critters in the river, fish and otters and such. By the time I was born, there was nothing left of the Santa Cruz but sandy places in the dirt roads that ran out through the country. Here and there a bridge went over a low spot which had at some point been part of a river conduit. There was a Santa Cruz County and a Santa Cruz high school and names of old Santa Cruz River channels on maps, but until the wild rains occasionally showed, the Santa Cruz River was only a rumor.

Boise River Copyright Ken Rodgers 2013

In the summer of 1964 it got up with a fury that was startling. Three of my friends and I went out driving to look at all the WATER in that desert and alas got stuck in the mighty flow of the Santa Cruz. We could see Francisco Grande, where the major league San Francisco Giants practiced some spring training. One friend and I decided to walk over there and call some friends to come pull us out. What, under normal circumstances, would have been a short evening walk turned out to be an ordeal: bobbing over our heads down surprising channels, dirty water in our mouths, our eyes, our noses, having to use greasewood to pull ourselves across places that wanted to pummel us downstream. Besides the threat of shattered bones or drowning, we didn’t even think about all the critters displaced by the flood: raccoons, skunks, coyotes, badgers, all with the capability of clawing and gnawing had we been unfortunate enough to encounter them. And I don’t even want to think, these some forty-nine years later, about the snakes; side winders and diamond backs and tiger rattlers and Mojave rattlers and coral snakes abused by the assault of muddy waters in their dens and that had to climb up into the foliage that we used to help us navigate the entire maelstrom. Ouch!

Not far from my hometown were the San Pedro, the Salt, the Verde, the Hassayampa, the Agua Fria and the Gila which are all dammed and don’t allow much flow. But in the ferocious times, like the storms of September 1984, they can roar ten miles wide and destroy everything in their paths. Back then, the rivers cut the state of Arizona into blocks where it often took a plane or helicopter ride to get from one place to another. Roads were pretty useless.

When I domiciled in Vietnam, there were big rivers everywhere. Right after I arrived, a Seabee drowned on the Song Vu Ghia in Quang Nam Province, and they helicoptered Second Platoon of Bravo Company, 1/26, out to a sand bar in that river. We landed in a hail of sand and rifle fire, the snap of AK-47 rounds pinging our ears and white sand dancing at our feet. We got on line and assaulted a paltry row of trees, but alas, the enemy had evaporated right before our eyes. We saw nothing of the drowned Seabee.

Later, at Khe Sanh, we crossed the Song Rao Quan in the summer of 1967. I was the first to cross to the south bank on a patrol Second Platoon ran in support of First Platoon which were ambushed on Route Nine which runs parallel to the river. We spent a soggy night on a hill further south of the river. I remember that my fingers looked like the wrinkled digits of fishermen as we set in, waiting for an attack that never came. The only thing that came was the incessant rain. The next day we headed back to Route Nine. But instead of a shin-deep, quiet flow, the river was hissing in anger. But we were Marines with a mission, so we crossed the river. A Jarhead swam across with the end of a thick rope. He secured the rope to a big tree and we began to hazard the battering of the water.

One of our radiomen lost his footing and his hold on the rope and went floating towards Quang Tri, twenty-five or thirty miles downstream. His feet were in the air, and he pedaled, as if on a bike, as if that might save him. He reminded me of a beetle when you turn it over on its back. The furious kicking of the legs. As if that would save it from death. Someone went downstream and waded into the river and brought him across. That happened three or four times to different Marines. Some of us could not swim at all. Some of us swam well. We all made it and climbed up onto the road and then up a hill. I walked point, sure that the enemy had set in on the high ground we’d occupied before we went south across the river. But they had not. No booby traps, no sign.

Snake River Copyright Ken Rodgers 2013

When Betty and I lived in New Mexico, we homesteaded near the Rio Peñasco which in many places you could step across. But why not, New Mexico is a dry land with scant rivers. I heard tell that the Mescalero Apaches spoke of a time when the only place to get a drink of water was the Rio Grande or the Rio Pecos. The space in between is a mighty distance. You would die of thirst if you had to traverse the desert and the mountains and the plains between without a taste of water.

When Betty and I lived in Sonoma County, it was the Russian which was a docile rio until the winter rains lifted it over its banks, ruining houses and farms and vineyards. And it was the same with the nearby Eel and Gualala and Napa and Petaluma Rivers as they belched their muddy waters into the Pacific Ocean or San Pablo Bay.

And here we are now in southwestern Idaho, a parched land with lots of rivers. We often take them for granted.

On Christmas Past and Christmas Present

Betty and I are getting ready to celebrate Christmas here in Idaho. These last few years, Christmas has been muted, so to speak, vis a vis earlier years with lots of flashy glass ornaments of flutes and lutes and little angels, gifts wrapped like works of art and family get-togethers where we had to pull out and deploy both leaves for the kitchen table.

These years it’s usually a trip to the movies on Christmas Eve, sourdough pancakes with some of our Idaho friends on Christmas morning, and then a trip out in the ice and cold to photograph the magic of snow hanging off sage and the wild patterns of ice on the rivers. The light this time of year reminds me of the rays of light in Renaissance paintings, a rich hue that adds layers of meaning to what we can hear in our mind’s ears.

As always, pondering the future sends me searching the past for images of other Christmases: chasing quail through the old flood plains of the Feather River or riding my new three-speed Huffy along the streets of my old home town, my arms and legs festered with boils, but the joy of the new bike so illuminating, the pain of seeping sores could not compare.

Ken Rodgers, photo courtesy of Kevin Martini-Fuller

Every year I remember the Christmas I spent in Vietnam. It was 1967 and I was about as far from an American Christmas as you could get, not just geographically but ideologically, too. We were stuck out on Hill 881 South just a few miles east of Laos and a few miles south of the Demilitarized Zone. We were surrounded by hills and rough country, creeks and streams, jungle, and though they had not shown their faces much, the North Vietnamese Army.

Christmas Day began with a Red Alert that had us all in the trenches long before the rise of the sun. It was wet and so foggy we couldn’t see five feet in any direction. If enemy sappers had been in our wire, working their way toward our positions, we would have heard them long before we saw them. Private Foster, as he did every night or morning, depending on when he stood his watch, refused to get out of the rack and take his position on the line and when ordered to do so, threatened to whip me, the squad leader, the platoon sergeant and Lieutenant Dillon.

In the morning, I broke out several packages from home and opened them like I would have done on any Christmas. My mother made lots of fudge and hand-dipped bon bons and chocolate chip cookies and Christmas sugar cookies that looked like red stars and blue bells and green Christmas trees. She sent candles and socks which I shared with the men in my fire team, since we were always in need of candles and socks. There were tins of sardines and oysters which we opened and enjoyed along with our chicken noodle soup or ham and lima beans or beefsteak with potatoes.

As soon as the fog began to burn off, I led a fire team-sized patrol down the trail on the southwest side of the hill all the way to the bottom beside the stream that bubbled along from north to south. There were five of us…my fire team of three other Marines and the platoon right guide and me. We worked our way north along the steep western shoulder of the hill. Despite the grim and gory nature of the war in Vietnam, to have been with the five of us in the Annamite Mountains on December 25, 1967, would have been to experience the vibrant greens of a land with signature peaks that looked like the Alps without the snow, and long vistas of elephant grass waving in the winter breezes. The triple-canopy jungle sported huge trees and vines and fresh water frolicking down the steep flanks of the ridges and hills and mountains.

I remember that day, the sun suddenly warm and cheery as we patrolled along the trail, looking for sign of the enemy, boot prints in the red mud or rounds for an AK-47—the weapon of choice for the North Vietnamese Army—or 61 MM mortar rounds. We also kept our eyes open for cobras and bamboo vipers and other denizens that might harm us and hoping beyond hope, we watched for tigers and elephants. There is an old saying about men who have been in combat, that they “Looked the tiger in the eye and rode the elephant.” On Christmas morning of 1967, we did not want to see that metaphor come to pass, we were just hoping for the real thing. But alas, we only saw the verdant hillsides and heard the tinkle of the creek and enjoyed a momentary basking in the rare warmth of a meager sun.

I spent about four months out my thirteen-month tour tromping the wilds around Hill 881 South and I knew the trail and the creek and the hillsides, where the streams rocketed down through the wooded depressions that fed the creek below. It was a land of many greens, and the amber light of winter and the amber color of the jungle grass.

Presently we climbed back up the northwest end of the hill and entered the perimeter at the north gate. Not long after, choppers came from Khe Sanh Combat Base and brought Christmas Dinner.

In Vietnam, as I recall, we had A-rats, B-rats and C-rats, and I am not talking four-legged rats although we lived in close proximity to some of the most audacious rats you can imagine. A-rats was chow you got hot-cooked in the chow hall, B-rats was chow that was cooked at the chow hall and hauled out into the field in cans that kept the food warm, and C-rats was what came in small, individual-sized cans and boxes, chow for the Marine in the field and something we ate three times every day if we were lucky.

Christmas dinner of 1967 was B-rats and I can’t recall if it was ham or turkey or both, and if it was yams or mashed potatoes or both, and if it was hot rolls or just bread, and if it was corn or green beans or none of the above. Maybe there was pie—I suspect there was—and maybe ice cream that was mostly melted by the time we ate it. None of that mattered; what mattered was that for just a moment we were different, we were just men, sharing time together on a holiday that most of us knew well.

Endless Autumn

I was reared in the deserts of southern Arizona and the fall of the year was like most of the year. Dry and dusty. And it could be hot, too. So when I heard people gasp and praise the colors of New England or the vast aspen groves of the Wasatch chain, it did little to stir my innards. I looked at photos and yes, the reds and oranges, yellows and golds, russets all were pretty but little did I understand how those colors in real life could rivet your eyes to the serrated edges of leaves, the black of ash tree branches hiding behind the bright gold of the leaves, the shimmer of the blood red aspen leaves ringing high New Mexican meadows.

Garden Valley, Idaho Photo Courtesy of Ken Rodgers

And yes, I did live in New Mexico and there I became aware of the acres and acres of aspen that grew in the cold spots of the Sacramento Mountains. Some years the autumn reds and golds blazed, and some years not. Some Septembers the rains came in phalanxes of black and gray and tormented the leaf peepers from the desert climes of Texas and the Rio Grande Valley of New Mexico. Those years the leaves immediately went from green to a wan yellow pocked with dark spots and quickly to dull black. A wet mess that instead of drifting in a brisk breeze like flags on top of an alpine bed and breakfast, fell splat in damp blankets that pasted the ground beneath the trees.

I’ve lived almost all of my life in the west and I’ve seen the best the west has to offer in terms of fall color, so when people say that Ruidoso or Taos or Heber City or Squaw Valley rival the colors of New England I am here to tell you that generally speaking, those folks are hyping real estate or some other reason to get you to come to their country. The hills of Maine and Vermont and New Hampshire are without a doubt one of the most outstanding places to be when the maples show their flashy—yes, I think I can say—their brazen petticoats of autumn. When I say outstanding, I mean in the world, the planet, the universe as we know it from our tiny point of view.

Aspen, Wood River Valley, Idaho Photo Courtesy of Ken Rodgers

But…but, there is often a but…this year, 2013 in the western United States, from my vantage point, has to be one of the most amazing years for color that I’ve ever seen…maybe the most amazing, and this includes the autumns of New England.

Betty and I were in Garden Valley, Idaho, for the initial turn of the aspen, and then in the Wood River Valley, and the Stanley Basin of Idaho. And the colors rose up off the leaves and glared at me as if I was being inspected by the trees and I must say, it made me feel small, made me feel wanting, and that feeling was followed by an exhilaration that was mindful of balloons rising in the fall of the year over Albuquerque.

By way of a caveat, I will say that one of the things that made the 2013 colors of autumn in Idaho so outstanding was the contrast between the blaze of tints and the harsh sage brush and cheat grass land surrounding the rivers and creeks and seeps that snake down the mountains, hills and valleys of Idaho. And it wasn’t just aspen and cottonwoods and maples and ash trees that seemed to glow in the brisk, sunny light, it was the riparian willows turned to red and gold as they defined where water runs in this arid land.

Salmon River Country, Stanley Basin, Idaho Photo Courtesy of Ken Rodgers

But of course, the colors of autumn are ephemeral and leave us too soon, and leave us, too, with the sad knowledge that winter lurks in the near future.

But as Idaho’s autumn tints began to dim, Betty and I went south and found the colors just starting to show in Nevada, like huge surprises, the cottonwoods on the Truckee River as it meandered off the Sierra Nevada into the sinkholes of Central Nevada, and up and up over the top at Donner and down into the Sacramento River Valley, the colors less aggressive, still with a benign green that promised an autumn to arrive real soon, in the week, the weeks coming…and just for a moment I hoped for an endless autumn.

Donner Lake, Sierra Nevada, California Photo Courtesy of Ken Rodgers

But there are no endless autumns. Autumn to me parallels the period of my life that I now inhabit. An autumn where the colors are so vibrant they leave me searching for the meaning of beauty, where the days are brisk and drive energy into tired bones. And the sadness that comes as you understand that what is to come will be more like the rubbed-raw blast of winter.

The Ungovernable

“We have to face the fact that either all of us are going to die together or we are going to learn to live together and if we are to live together we have to talk.” …Eleanor Roosevelt

Somewhere in one of my texts for a university political science class, I read that the first rule of political science is: The world is ungovernable. And one of the few ways humanity can overcome this ungovernability is to encounter some kind of genuine outside threat that will force us—a family, a community, a nation, a species—to cooperate.

Bull Elk, © Ken Rodgers 2012

You may find the association unusual but I thought of this “rule” last Friday evening as Betty and I and some other folks stood outside in the cool night in Garden Valley, Idaho, and listened to elk bugle. We were staying, along with communications and internet guru Stephanie Worrell, with friends Ken McKay and Elaine Ambrose the night before Elaine’s fifth annual Write by the River retreat.

Not only were competing males, or bulls, bugling across the meadows—the distinctive sound caught in the nooks and headers of the pine-covered ridges—but we also heard chirps, mews, squeals, whines, barks and bleats. The language of an elk herd. One bull, the male who seemed to be closest to the herd, sounded like he possessed the best bugle with the most music and oooomph at the end, and I speculate that he was the leader of the harem and also the herd.

With a flashlight, you could barely see a few of the elk, mostly an outline of their large-deer bodies and the beam of the flashlight reflected in their eyes. We guessed there were sixty or seventy out there.

All the bugling and chirps and mews were a serenade that rose into the night. A serenade by an elk symphony with different and individuated voices singing at us. Something about the music touched me. I don’t know what it was. A similar feeling as when I perch on a mountain top and see the Milky Way strung out over me like an artistic morph of a time lapse photo of LA freeways. Or the music from the singing of a thousand toads and frogs awakened by the late summer rains that wash the dust from a desert sky. Or the liquid gold notes from competing meadowlarks as their mating cries skip along the tops of sagebrush at dawn. A feeling that clutches me in the gut and squeezes out an emotion so primitive it’s hard for me to articulate…an emotion born of eons of familiarity between the molecules that now inhabit me and make me the twin, the cousin, the relative of all the things that ever were and will become.

Later, we heard the crash and crack of antlers as the bull elk battled over who would govern the harem of cows and as a reward, and a duty, breed the females and perpetuate the line. And that was part of the symphony, too, the conflict within a species to make sure the top bull passes on the best traits to ensure the survival of the species. A chaotic mix of cooperation, begetting, and battle carried across the breezeless nighttime meadows of the Idaho mountains.

It also occurred to me as I stood there and listened to elk music that even in the face of the chaos of breeding, the music was something that anyone could hear for miles…any friend, any enemy. Besides the goofy preening and posturing that I knew the males were doing as they bugled, they still managed to stay focused on what dangers might be around—men, cougars, bear, wolves, coyotes, all which live in the general vicinity. And just as important as breeding and begetting is survival in the moment, for both the elk and us, and for that matter everything else that lives on Earth.

Ken Rodgers, photo courtesy of Kevin Martini-Fuller

All this takes me back to the poli-sci business of being ungovernable that begins this blog. The thing that keeps these elk together and working as a herd is the fact that something might eat them or their young. They have their conflicts, but the need to keep the herd together and protected is crowned over all other behavior.

And that makes me wonder about us, in this country, right now, and all the rancor and division that comes with, I suppose, democracy in action. But it seems to me that the bile only gets worse, and from both sides; epithets like “liar,” “idiot,” and other names for those who don’t agree with what we want and think. I wonder if we might end up eating ourselves, metaphorically speaking, instead of being eaten (Read: destroyed) by outside enemies. To quote the cartoon character Pogo, “We have met the enemy and he is us.” It seems to me we need to see our problems as something bigger, something approaching a national survival crisis, so we can come together once again and be “governable.” Like the elk herd that performed for us in Garden Valley, Idaho.

Railroad Depots and Wool Bags

This winter, Betty and I expect to travel to southwest Texas to attend the 28th annual Texas Cowboy Poetry Gathering in the town of Alpine. While there with our friends Mary and Roger Engle, we intend to explore the area: Big Bend National Park, the ghost town in Terlingua, the Marfa lights, the old train depot in Sanderson and a lot of other spots. We’ve wanted to check the area out for nigh onto three decades and hopefully 2014 is going to be the year.

When I was a kid in southern Arizona, I spent some time herding sheep with a local Basque family. A lot of the sheep we herded came from the Big Bend country, so the names of the places Betty and I want to visit are lodged in my memory along with bleating ewes, coyotes skulking around a herd of mixed-breed Suffolk and Columbian lambs, traps, strychnine, fence, sheep trucks. And there’s the Southern Pacific Depot at Sanderson, Texas, constructed in the early 1880s which is now deserted. I want to see it before it gets torn down.

Southern Pacific Station in Sanderson, TX, circa 1903. Photo by Robert Prosser

Thinking about the depot at Sanderson makes me think about the depot in my hometown, Casa Grande, Arizona. The last time I visited there, the depot was no more, having burned down in 2009. Even though it’s named on some of the rolls of buildings on the National Register of Historic Places, it is no more.

That depot was the center of attention in my small town when I was a kid. We used to walk down Main Street and watch the cattle and sheep come down the ramps onto the asphalt paralleling the tracks, cowboys and drovers running around, or riding cayuses around, trying to keep the herds from straying off among the bail bondsman, the shoe stores and the pharmacy and the bars. That was before the railroad went way south, to employ an often overused metaphor. But railroads did head south, they dried up, and left the passenger/freight business to trucks and things like that. And I hate that because I loved the sounds of the trains, that metal-on-metal percussion of the wheels on the tracks, how it boogied over the tops of the gum trees that lined the streets of our old town.

But before the railroad died—oh, I know, it didn’t die, it just contracted into a long distance hauler, leaving all the old time short haul and passenger jobs for someone else, like bus lines, airlines, SUVs, hybrids, truckers, etc. But before it died, I got to go down to the old Southern Pacific Depot a few times with the Basque sheepherders and load wool bags onto boxcars. When I say Basque sheepherders, I’m not just talking about the ones I grew up with and went to school with, but also with men who came from Spain. Big-shouldered, thick-wristed men with biceps so muscled they looked like blocks, men who spoke no English. Men so strong…well, I have to show you…

Ken Rodgers, photo courtesy of Kevin Martini-Fuller

Men with names like GRAN, meaning big, insinuating strength, and how strong he was and so were Benjamin (the way we said it, his name sounded something like Ben-hah-meen) and Marcelino and Augustine. The wool bags weighed four or five-hundred pounds and had girth enough for three men or more to get their arms around, and they were tall, ten feet or so, and unwieldy. The wool buyers wanted the wool bags at the mill, wherever that was, but we didn’t care about that. We cared about loading.

Loading and cramming the sacks into the boxcars. Sweat in our eyes and our tired muscles shouting at us…give us more, we want more work and as crazy as that sounds, we did. We wanted to be part of all these strong men, doing this ancient thing, loading wool bags, something not done with a forklift or a squeeze, but something done by the arms and backs of man.

And somehow we did it, and often it became a test of strength. The competitive nature of these Basque herders was amazing; they competed at everything. Building fence, tearing down fence, loading bobtail trucks with bulky loads of page wire, loading posts, jumping flat-footed onto a honky-tonk’s bar, shooting snooker. To them, work, and maybe life, had a bit of the game to it. They parlayed often difficult and necessary tasks into something to be anticipated, something to be enjoyed, and the joy wasn’t about winning, it was about the doing of it.

Who was the strongest and who might actually pick up a wool bag by himself…Gran could do it, and so could Augustine. And sometimes it wasn’t about one single mountain of a man bending down and shoving the bag up against the side of the box car then leveraging the bulk onto his shoulder and then dropping into a crouch and then up, somehow balancing all that weight as he thrust the wool bag into the open door of the boxcar. Sometimes it was about all of us, and the last man, the smaller man, the weaker man, getting his outstretched arms into just the right place to help get the bag inside, to make it all a little easier. And that collective sense that together we did something worthwhile, even though we didn’t speak the same language and came from different societies and most probably didn’t agree on politics, religion, marriage…that collective sense really mattered to me, and to them too, I believe.

Yes, in March, maybe we’ll go over to Sanderson and check out the old depot before it burns down or they knock it down in favor of something more…modern.

Banned

The paint peeled and the old bricks disintegrated and the wood splintered and the heat cooked the patched pavement.

This was Hannibal, Missouri.

Betty and I ventured there on our recent jaunt from Boise to Nashville, Tennessee. Going to Hannibal is something I’ve desired since I was a kid and read some of Mark Twain’s stories. All about whitewashing fences and rafts on the Mississippi, piloting down the river, sounding the channels to fathom the depth. All of this has been imprinted on my mind for decades. But much to my chagrin, downtown Hannibal where Mark Twain (or Samuel Clemens as he was really named) spent his boyhood looked battered, neglected, forgotten.

Some of the buildings where Twain lived as a youngster cannot be entered because they are too dangerous for visits. Outside of downtown, the structures and the lives of the residents may be dandy, but the old town where Mark Twain played and snookered his compadres à la Tom Sawyer is like an old man on his death bed.

And I must say that surprised me. Hannibal, the surrounding locale, and a lot of eastern Missouri play off Twain’s fame to draw interest and tourists. There are schools named after the man, and a national forest and a Missouri State park. The list of Twain namesakes is somewhat exhaustive, not to mention all the hotels, motels, restaurants, insurance agencies, and other businesses that have chosen to use Twain’s moniker for…for…for what? Does that name give a business some kind of cred, some familiarity, some notion of stability and honesty and strength? I don’t know the answer to that, but it seems strange to me that a region that plays on a famous man’s name might not recognize that they have some interest in keeping in good condition the actual environs where young Twain romped.

This is not to say that the general Mississippi River area is not a magical place with all the water and the green and the history and the red headed wood peckers and the kettles of turkey vultures and the endless railroad tracks, the bridges over the river and the old river towns with their what I imagine to be hankerings for river boats steaming along, gamblers and cotton brokers lining the deck railings waving their wide Panama hats at the folks packed on the levees and the docks waiting for the mail, the lover, the banjo and tambourine bands.

But all the quaint and soiled elegance of a bygone age doesn’t, for me, overcome my fear…is it fear?…that Twain and all he stands for…history, humor, great literature, satire and sarcasm and more…will soon be forgotten.

Red Headed Wood Pecker © Ken Rodgers 2013

All the meandering on toward Nashville and the stimuli, visual and otherwise…memory and literary…lead me to further cogitate about Twain, Hannibal, Twain’s history and his books.

Over the last century and more, this country has had an interesting relationship with Twain. We made him a rich man and his books, especially The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, have been considered to be masterpieces of creative writing. Yet in our history that particular book was banned in 1885 for being “trash and only suitable for the slums.” It has been banned at certain locations at certain times (and still is) in this country since then because it is “oppressive” and keeps alive “racism.” The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn does employ some provocative scenes and language, most notably the “n” word that totes so much freight in our society.

And certainly that word, for African Americans and for a lot of other folks, is anathema and should never be uttered and probably never thought. I certainly understand how the use of that pejorative causes folks to cringe. It can make me cringe. But banning a book with all the virtues that the story of Huck Finn brings the reader is something I rue. Yes, we could alter the diction to eliminate the “n” word, but do we have the authority, morally and intellectually speaking, to make that decision? When Samuel Clemens wrote The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, the use of that nefarious word was quite common. The text of the book is what it is. In the portrayal of the story’s main African American, Jim, Twain does not appear to want to denigrate Jim’s character, but portrays him instead as wise and good, and in this way the paradox of good character and vicious word creates a contrast that to my thinking helps illuminate the character of Jim.

Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens)

Of course, I am one who reads books about how things are, or were, and not books about how things ought to be. And yes, like so many words such as Nazi and Hitler and Communist, the “n” word comes at us like an overloaded freight train out of control. The past, slavery, lynchings, get to the back of the bus, freedom riders, Martin Luther King, the Civil War, Nat Turner…the list is extensive, exhaustive, and all of it comes click-clacking down the track at us when that word is written and spoken. Words often carry a load of context that can create a brouhaha much bigger than the simple letters and sounds that are used to create that utterance.

My father was a man who used the “n” word more than once. I can recall my mother scolding him for saying it in front of my sister and me. He came from a family with southern roots that I am sure was involved in some association with slavery. Yet my father worked with black men back before civil rights was much of a reality and I remember him always speaking with respect to those men, not demeaning. When he hired men for his own company, race had little to do with his decision. He was more interested in results than color or in a person’s religion or ethnic background or sexual orientation, for that matter. His best friend was a black man. So it seems to me that words, even though they carry freight, are not always the measure of a man who uses them. Sometimes I think we forget that…that humans are complicated, good and bad, and we need to be careful not to forget that most of us are 90% good and only 10% bad.

But I don’t want to come off as an apologist for racists, racism, apartheid or any other nefarious activities or attitudes directed at specific segments of humanity, because judging folks and groups of folks based on color, creed, religion, sex undermines the fact that we are what we do, not necessarily what we believe, think or look like. I’ve seen racism in Malaysia and Mexico and France and Italy. I’ve seen it in Arizona and Washington, DC, and Texas, New Mexico, California and Idaho. Racism is something that won’t go away. Prejudice is as ancient as the human race. And I hate to say this, but in my life I’ve had moments when prejudicial thoughts and comments have spurted into my mind or blurted out of my mouth and I suspect most folks would have to admit likewise if they were honest.

For me, in terms of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, the “n” word is just a word, and one that we might consider putting in its place, in its time, as we read the bigger message of Twain’s story. And I’d like to see the folks in Hannibal, in Missouri, in the US, fix up the structures that are all that is physically left to speak to us about Twain and his youth on the Big Muddy. Somehow I can’t get the desolation of the old downtown Hannibal out of my head. The cracks and busted pavement, the peeled paint, for me, all work as a metaphor, for the abrasive affair we have with race in this country. Busted and cracked. And never-ending.

On Babies, Death and Jamey Genna

Throw the baby away? Can we imagine that? I’m not talking abortion, I’m talking about a mother who throws her baby away…into a garbage dump. Is that person a murderer? These are the thoughts that rocketed through my head after reading Pushcart Prize nominee, Jamey Genna’s short story “The Wind Chill Factor Kicked In.” The prose in this short-short story is tight and searing:

Then, one day during the search, the deputy found a strange note—it was scribbled on an envelope.

The baby is here, it said, or it said, look here for the baby.

That’s what they said it said. The winter was a long one, mild in December, but during January—the wind chill factor kicked in.

Look for the baby here it said.

Jamey Genna writes literary fiction. She writes short essays and poetry. Her recent book, Stories I Heard When I Went Home For My Grandmother’s Funeral, is a compilation of fiction. The stories, twenty-one in all, are gritty, realistic pieces, the kind of fiction Jamey would call Dirty Realism, which is a name for a sub-genre that focuses on the tougher side of life in spare, lean language.

Some of the best stories in this collection are very short and fit the description of Dirty Realism at its best. The language is often mean, hard and lean. And it is also quirky. When you first pick up a story by Genna, you question the word choice, the syntax, but you soon get it…this is the voice of a narrator who speaks to us in a quirky vernacular that may be a result of family influences, regional dialect…but who cares. The voice mirrors the subject matter of the stories; family, lovers, husbands, all revealed as if caught beneath the glare of a police interrogation lamp. We see the shadows and nicks, the wrinkles caused by sadness, and yes by laughter. The characters in this collection are complex…they do good things and they do bad things. They covet, they cheat, they love, they admire.

The folks in these stories really talk to me. They are like the women and men I’ve known in my life. That’s why I prefer to read literary fiction. Unlike popular fiction where the plot generally drives the narrative, the characters in literary fiction—in Genna’s tales—are unpredictable, like many of us. And that unpredictability creates plots that keep us on edge because we don’t know what these people are going to do.

One of my favorites in Genna’s collection, a story I first read almost fifteen years ago, is “The Light in the Alley.” This story captures the death of an infant in a large family. The parents fumble and stumble around as they try to cope with the loss of this precious child. But the story is much more complicated than just a rendition of an infant’s demise. It exposes the family’s…how should I say this? complicity? inadvertent participation? involvement? in this child’s death. And despite the narrative’s complications, these people are truly stunned by the loss, their sadness indicative of a spiritual evisceration.

Another of my favorites, a very short-short story titled “Dry and Yellow,” shows us a young woman spending some time with an ex-husband, Lee, and his mother. The prose is hard and tough and poignant. An excerpt:

I hadn’t divorced just Lee, I’d left her behind, too and hadn’t wanted to maintain a relationship because of Lee’s new wife. And because it hurt to see his new life sitting on his mother’s mantle. What I mean to say is that his mother must’ve loved me too, and she didn’t get any explanation. Just like my mom saying, “I loved him. But you don’t suppose he’d ever stop by or call if he was in town.” And I said, “No, mom, I don’t suppose he would.”

Most of the pieces in this compilation have been published in periodicals and magazines, both print and online. And if you like stories with flawed characters who have tough rows to hoe and whose choices may not be in their own best interest, then I recommend Genna’s book.

You can find Stories I Heard When I Went Home For My Grandmother’s Funeral on Amazon at here.

On Sheep, Blogging and Hog Leg .44s

The beginning of this October, I am to participate in a writers’ retreat about blogging with some fine fellow bloggers, and I suspect there will be a bevy of useful tips and advice for writers of all levels.

My experience as a blogger is: I know how to get my blog up on my site and add pictures and videos and other graphics. I know how to write, or it seems I should, since I have been blogging fairly steadily since 2010. I manage two blogs and have written as a guest at a number of other folks’ sites. I read other people’s work, too, so I have a notion of how my creations stack up.

As of late, I have not been blogging. I don’t want to spend a whole lot of time analyzing why I am not blogging with any regularity, but let it suffice that if I am going to present at the retreat, I best get my rear end in gear and compose.

When I am on a roll, I generally blog on a weekly schedule, and the subject matter veers from book reviews to memoir to philosophizing to film reviews to travel blogs. The array cuts a fairly wide swath through types of blogs and thought processes and I suspect that occurs because after four years I’ve begun to frantically ask myself, “What am I going to blog about?” I think about this, I think about that, I grab a book off the shelf that I recently read, I think about a film I watched. Lately the only emotion that has been evoked by any of those actions is a big “HO HUM.” So, what’s the solution?

I am a thrill freak in some regards. I suppose it comes about as a result of my time in Vietnam when adrenaline rushes were what helped keep me alive. Nothing boring about getting shot at. After forty-five years, I still crave that thrill.

I have learned that you can capture, or re-capture, that thrill in writing. Danger is not the only stimulus that can give the writer a thrill. Any kind of thrill might be the impetus to get you banging away at the keyboard. For our purposes today, danger will be the fuse that lights the dynamite. The excitement comes at you as you begin to remember something that was dangerous, or had the capability of becoming dangerous. Once you let your imagination meet your memory, events can be relived, so to speak, and you are there, running from the snap-whine of a sniper’s rifle fire or digging your fingers and toes into the bottom of a trench even as incoming artillery rattles everything around you. You can be vicariously thrilled writing about memories. You can turn memory into action-charged prose (or poetry if you choose).

My mind is searching over my history to find some moments when I was scared and thrilled at the same moment. Sitting here writing this, I’m back at Thanksgiving of 1971. I was employed as a sheep herder/fence builder/truck driver in southern Arizona. The day before, we had moved a band of sheep into an alfalfa field lying leeward of the Sierra Estrella. We pounded metal posts into hard white calíche and fenced-off eighty acres, then moved the sheep in. I dropped two big water troughs inside the wire enclosure and filled them up out of the water truck I was driving. The foreman who supervised me leaned against his pickup and smoked a Marlboro.

Across the field was the farmer’s headquarters: a house, a shop, several Quonset huts, a set of corrals, an old chute that hadn’t been used in a long time. Looking over there I noticed what looked like a bunch of dogs. Now, most town folk, animal lovers and non-sheepherding folk don’t understand how a sheep man feels about dogs. As my old friend Bob Moser used to say, “One dog’s a pretty good dog, two dogs is half a dog, and three dogs is no dog at all.” Packed up, dogs can and often do kill sheep, or worse, they maim them. Don’t get me wrong, I love dogs and most dogs seem to like me. But there is something about ancient predator/predatee relationships that often make a bad mix with sheep and dogs, especially sheep that are not protected by a herder or paradoxically, guard dogs. And of course, the dangerous dogs are the ones that are not managed by their owners and that gang up in packs. So, seeing four or five dogs darting around between those Quonset huts made both the foreman and me more than a little nervous.

As if on cue, the farmer got in a flatbed truck and drove out of his headquarters, down the dirt road that ran along our new fence, and pulled up. Dust boiled all around. Immediately upon stopping, the sound of barking and yapping dogs filled the air. As the dust calmed down, I could see five Blue Queensland Heelers prancing around the back of that flatbed. Their ears were up and so were their snouts. It was a primal moment, watching those dogs strut their business—the business of herding animals. Heelers are herders by trade. The sheep all balled up and ran into one of the opposite corners of that large field. They obviously had notions of their own about what those dogs’ intentions might be. I heard bleating complaints out of the ewes as they scampered around and moved their lambs as far from those Queensland Heelers as possible.

The farmer got out of his truck and walked over. He wore a smile on his red face and sported a scraggly mustache. He stuck out his big wrinkled hand and introduced himself real friendly like. He and the foreman talked for a while about alfalfa and sheep and the weather and water and then he said, “Do not put any poison out.” I did not blame him for saying this since he had five fancy dogs in the primes of their lives and also because sheepherders, us included, had a reputation for trapping, shooting and poisoning dogs and other predators. And our reputation was well earned because we did all those things. Remember what I told you. Dogs kill sheep.

I left after that and returned the next morning to check on the sheep. The sky wore a flat gray mantle and a cold wind whipped off the Sierra Estrella as I pulled off the highway onto the dirt road that ran along our page wire fence. I stopped and climbed over the fence. I heard a vehicle start up. I checked the water troughs and they had plenty of water. I pulled my old Levi jacket closed to keep out the chill. I heard a vehicle coming. I looked up and saw that flatbed truck turn onto the dirt road. I watched the truck for a moment, noticed the rooster’s tail of dust that reared up behind. I thought, seems like he’s coming a little too fast. It was kind of like radar going off inside my mind. I shook my head and told myself I was not at Khe Sanh and looked around to see if there was any sign of dead sheep since we did not put out any poison. I heard the truck behind me as the driver laid on the brakes. The tires bit into the gravel on the road. I heard the door slam and the farmer (whose voice I recognized) yell something at me.

I turned and immediately noticed he was toting a hog leg; looked like a .44. It had a chrome barrel and a black grip. I had an old World War I Mauser bolt action rifle in the truck that I had never shot, and besides I didn’t think I had time to get to it so we could have a standoff. I looked around for some place to disappear as his boots scuffed the ground and he mumbled stuff I couldn’t understand. The only place to hide was behind one of the water troughs but that would be ridiculous since he’d seen me and would just come shoot me if that’s what he wanted.

I felt as if I was lost out there with those troughs and those sheep and that farmer climbing over the fence. He did so awkwardly because he had that damned pistol and because he wanted to make sure, I’m sure, that he didn’t take his eyes off of me. I noticed there were no dogs on the back of the truck. The sheep bleated and moved around as if there was nothing wrong. But something was wrong. No dogs strutted on the back of the flatbed.

He stomped up to me and his face was three times redder than yesterday and his eyes were worn out. I’d of said he’d been crying but he was carrying that hog leg. He yelled, “Out, out.” I said, “What do you mean?” He blurted, “Get them sheep out of here, now.” I know I looked incredulous. He yelled, “Now!” I shrugged and turned the palms of my hands up. “Where? It’s Thanksgiving and I don’t…” He stuck the end of that hog leg in my face. It was close enough that it reminded me of the round eye of a dead ewe. I threw my arms up. “Whoa,” I shouted, “whoa. You need to settle down.” All this while figuring out how I would disarm him, or escape him or…or…or… He got his face close to mine and stuck that hog leg in my gut. I could smell coffee and garlic and the faint whiff of whiskey. He hissed, “I told you no poison.” I replied, “I didn’t put any poison out.” The gun jabbed further into my too-soft stomach flesh. “Get ’em out.” He didn’t seem to be in any mood to discuss the matter, so I lifted up the fence and after much chasing, haranguing, running and sweating as I cussed my foreman for putting out strychnine, I got that band of sheep out on the road pointed in a totally different direction than the business end of that hog leg .44. Getting them somewhere safe, somewhere they were wanted, and with water and feed was a totally separate adventure. Subject matter for another blog.

My wife pointed out how the voice and energy in this piece changed as soon as my memory dropped back to Thanksgiving, 1971. That anecdotal evidence jives with my notion of how memory and thrill might be a way to drive writing one’s blogs.

On Film Versus Digital

Betty and I are off venturing in the foothills of Northern California on the beginning of another screening tour. One of the things we like best about traveling like this is how we get to see so much of the US that we might not be able to visit otherwise. We get to meet people we probably would never have met. We get to shoot video and take photographs. We get to SEE.

The last few days we’ve conducted a prolonged and detailed discussion about film and video and photography, something we seem to do a lot. Each of us is toting around multiple cameras and we have been taking in and recording what we have discovered. Beside our screenings, paramount on the agenda have been a couple of days shooting photos in the Mono Lake Basin and Yosemite country. We are old travelers in this part of the world but remain amazed and hypnotized by nature’s variety. Tufa tubes like soft, crumbling teeth, and new aspen leaves the color of Bearss limes, snowy peaks far above the tree line, ice on the high meadow tarns, spots of dirty snow (it’s a dry year here and the portents are for FIRE).

Tufa at Mono Lake in Sketch Mode on Samsung, Camera 360. Copyriught Ken Rodgers, 2013

On Wednesday, Mono Lake wore a variety of hues, some like high mountain lakes in Idaho, some reminding me of the Mediterranean off the southwest coast of Majorca in the channel between Isla Dragonera and the fishing village of Sant Elm. Besides dental imagery, the tufa formations reminded me of hoodoos in the south of Utah and as Betty says, the ancient remains of Roman villas on the west coast of Italy.

In Yosemite, the moisture content is dangerously low and the threat of fire will hang over the Sierra until major rain/snow shows up and drops heavy doses of relief. Despite the lack of snow, the meadows are the color of fresh mornings and the waterfalls thunder and thump, throwing echoes into the walls of the canyons.

Some of the conflict between film photography and digital photography just got resolved around our outfit. We used to shoot film. Then we put our old Pentax K1000 film cameras away with all the lenses and the accoutrements of a past artistic age and moved on to digital cameras which we have to upgrade. Upgrade. Upgrade because the ones we own right now just…they just don’t….they just can’t…we don’t like….

We got our K1000s reworked, renewed; bought some film…yes it still exists…and we’ve been taking photos of the country with our new old cameras. Black and white film is our milieu and that means it is about form and shape and shades of gray. It’s also about planning the shot, thinking of aperture and shutter speed and light, things that you think of too with digital, but film is finite in a number of ways—how many shots on a roll, how much they cost—not like digital where you just throw away what you don’t like at no apparent cost, although I suspect that with the act of shooting a photo there is a cost in time and effort and something more that cannot be regained, something about artistic moments lost and never again showing up. Because each moment, each shadow, each glint of light on a distant piece of quartz, the osprey pair on the tufa formations, the coyote at Glacier Point, the mule deer in Yosemite Valley, all these things in composite will not occur again, just the same way, in our short lives. Too, with film there is something very satisfying about the sound of the film advancing and the click the shutter makes when you take that photo. Digital doesn’t do that although they try to make the cameras so that they might sound that way. But it is not the same.

Half Dome shot with Samsung cell phone, Camera 360, Picsart, Snapseed and Aviary apps. Copyright Ken Rodgers 2013.

We still shoot digital too, and especially if the scene, like Half Dome over the rush of Merced River rapids, is about the vibrant colors of May in the mountains, yellows and greens and blues, not black and white and gray. We use our cell phones too and shoot both still and video. Hopefully we will look at what we have created as not just shooting photos for the act of shooting photos, but shooting photos for the aesthetic. For what it means, whether black and white or red and blue, or digital or film or….