Fire Cloud...
An irregular marking on the exterior of Native American pottery: usually resulting from burning fuel coming in direct contact with the vessel during firing

Sunday, 30 April 2006

Fear and Loathing in Wendover

Wendover, Nevada - 30 April, 2006

We drive 300 miles north in Nevada though some of the most lonely country in America. Wendover is a tiny town on the Nevada/Utah border on the edge of the Great Salt Lake.

My brother works here as a dealer. He used to be a pit boss peering down though security cameras at the action. He is sensitive, like me, and I imagine he tired of breaking fingers and burying dishonest dealers in the desert.

Mrs Phred and I are immediately pulled over by a Wendover policeman who informs us that Nevada has a helmet law. He calls in my license and registration and lets me go with a warning. He seems faintly amused by meeting grandpa and grandma on a cycle with Florida plates.

My brother works the graveyard shift, so I get up at 4 AM and wander though all the casinos looking for him. A Nevada casino at this time of day is populated by very strange people. You have to study the vacant stare of the slot users with neon glare reflecting from their faces. All the slots take bills now, but they have programmed in the sound of coins dropping.

Most customers here are Mormons from Utah who drive 110 miles over the salt lake to play. We go to the Bonneville Salt Flats in the afternoon and visit the old B-29 base where Paul Tibbits trained with the Enola Gay. There is an abandoned rail line called the Tokyo Trolley where they ran mock-ups of tanks and trucks for target practice.

Saturday, 29 April 2006

Our Special Today

Lake Mead, Nevada - 29 April, 2006

We've spent the last week on the shores of Lake Mead in the Nevada desert 30 miles southeast of Las Vegas.

An evening in Vegas is surreal. The sidewalks are lined with hustlers who hand out pictures of scantily-clad women offering $35 'specials', apparently 'massages'.

There is the Eiffel tower, live volcanoes, Venetian gondolas and other wonders.

I learn to play doubles in tennis and discover that there is an intact B-29 on the bottom of Lake Mead. We rent a powerboat and drive it twelve miles up the Colorado river to the foot of the Hoover dam. The scenery along the river includes mountain goats.

The next door neighbour is an iron worker named Clay who drives in to Vegas every day to work on a new 82-story casino. He appears to possibly be a meth freak and talks rapidly, changing the subject frequently. He says that his casino will be the tallest building west of the Mississippi. He walks on the high steel girders.

Friday, 21 April 2006

On the Rim

Grand Canyon, Arizona – 21 April 2006

Our campground here on the South Rim is old and spacious, full of mature pines. Yesterday we walked the Rim Trail. This trail follows the edge of the canyon for nearly twenty miles. You can peer down over a mile and 1.8 billion years into the past though layers of multi-hued sedimentary rock formed in ancient ocean beds.

It's an easy walk, nearly level. We covered about eight miles along the rim, away from the crowds. In places the trail is a ledge, three feet wide, covered in loose rocks. Your first bounce, if you lost your footing, would be 500 feet below. A mountain goat and her offspring brushed past me and bounded down the cliff. I wasn't ready for the close encounter, but took a few long-range photos.

There are places here where tour buses disgorge passengers speaking many languages. These popular spots on the rim are not my favorite places. The average stay in the park is four hours. Many get off the bus, walk through the crowds to the rim, and snap some pictures and leave.

Today we took a more ambitious hike down the South Kaibab Trail. The trail descends steeply from 'Ooh Aah' point, dropping 800 feet in 1.8 miles. There are several trails like this here in the park. The trail eventually leads to the Colorado River over a mile below. We passed several mule trains hauling campers to the top who had spent the night camped on the river below. I took a paperback called Skeleton Man by Tony Hillerman to read before starting back. Strangely, it was set in the Grand Canyon.

The North Rim, fifteen miles distant, is much less popular because it is harder to get there. It's an additional 250 mile drive. We talked to a camper last night who walked the 28 miles from the North Rim, over the Phantom Ranch suspension bridge on the Colorado River and up the 'Bright Angel' trail to the South Rim. He did the hike in three days.

Saturday, 15 April 2006

Saguaro by Moonlight

Saguaro National Park (East) – 15 April, 2006

We are camped in saguaro cactus country in the vast Sonoran Desert, about 20 miles west of Tucson. The saguaros are giants, reaching 30 or 40 feet over their 200-year lifespan.

This area has a lot to see. The Davis-Montham air base is in Tucson. The Air Force mothballs obsolete airplanes there because of the desert climate. The Pima Air Museum is next to the airbase. Pima is the largest museum of its type in the world. We plan to hit it on the way out in the morning.

Here are a few Saguaro National Park pictures. There are some interesting saguaro moonlight silhouettes and also confused coyote hunting in a parking lot.

Kitt Peak Observatory is the largest collection of optical, infra-red, radio and solar telescopes in the world. It's in the dry desert air on a 7,000 foot peak 50 miles from light sources. One scope is four meters in diameter, but there are larger ones elsewhere. We took a tour and snapped a few Kitt Peak pictures.

The Desert Museum, just south of the park, is worth a visit. There are desert animals, minerals and flora on display. We arrived early and were lucky to watch the rattlesnakes swallowing white mice.

Wednesday, 12 April 2006

Can You Get Bird Flu From Tacos?

Nogales, Mexico – 12 April, 2006

We stop at the Nogales, Arizona visitor center to get information about entering Nogales, Mexico. I push the button to restart the engine and the motorcycle is dead. The tools and battery are under the seat and it takes a 10mm wrench to remove the seat. They don't include kick-starters on these things anymore. I push-start the bike and the engine fires easily.

We drive to the border and park and walk over the border though a turnstile. There in no line and no official greeters going in. However, there is a line of people extending ten blocks waiting in the hot Mexican sun to cross back to the US. We suspect we've made a mistake.

People come here for prescription drugs and inexpensive medical and dental work. The lady at the visitor center tells us her aunt had all her teeth pulled and a complete set of replacement implants done for $2,000. That would probably run $30,000 across the border. The streets are packed with small shops offering belts, jewelry, boots, motorcycle saddlebags and other objects. Every shopkeeper implores us to enter.

Agents hand out cards for surgical face lifts. I need one, but we're on a schedule.
I buy a hand-crafted belt adorned with hand-painted panthers, sunrises, eagles and rattlesnakes and we order chicken tacos for lunch. Mrs Phred worries about getting bird flu from the chicken. I tell her not to worry because bird flu is eliminated if the flesh is well cooked. She shows me that it's pink. I eat all three of mine and one of hers.

We wait in line an hour to re-cross the border and Mrs Phred wonders about bird flu symptoms and says her legs feel weak and she has shortness of breath. A Mexican lady with four children in tow touches Mrs Phred's bicep and admires her muscle tone. One man gets pulled out of line for additional processing in a back room, but they average about three seconds for interviewing each person crossing on foot.

Back in the US, I push-start the cycle again and we drive to our campsite. Back at the Lake Patagonia State Park camp, I put a voltmeter on the battery and it tests right at 12.4 volts. I tighten the connections on the battery and the engine starts right up. I put the little tool kit back in the handlebar saddlebags instead of under the seat.

Tuesday, 11 April 2006

Big-Nose Kate

Tombstone, Arizona – 11 April, 2006

We started the morning at Karstner Caverns. These were discovered by cavers Mark and Gary in 1974. They kept the discovery secret for fourteen years until they could work out a deal with the Arizona State Legislature in 1988 to make the cave a highly protected state park. The State spent eleven years developing the caves and then opened them as a new state park in 1999.

You enter the caves through a series of four stainless steel airlocks. Between the second and third doors you are misted heavily to reduce the amount of lint you leave in the cave. Computers monitor cave humidity and ground and air temperature to ensure that the environment maintains the same baseline that was established during the pre-construction period.

The cave lights are turned on and off as each group moves though the cave. 24 groups of 20 people are allowed in the caves daily. The cave is closed from 15 April to 15 October to avoid disturbing the migrating bats. Misting devices have been set up at strategic locations to maintain the cave humidity at 99 percent. No pictures are allowed.

The cave itself is incredible and unspoiled. We've seen Luray, Carlsbad and Mammoth and some grottos in Italy and this one is world-class. Delicate soda straws over 20 feet in length grow 1/64 of an inch a year. One formation called Kubla Khan and raises five stories.

In the afternoon, we drove the motorcycle 30 miles to Tombstone. It's a highly commercialized little town. The Tombstone County Courthouse museum and state park was worth an hour. I had forgotten that Doc Holiday's girlfriend was named Big-Nose Kate. The shoot-out at the OK Corral was a brutal 30-second affair that left three dead and three wounded. Doc used a sawed-off shotgun and he and the three Ear brothers killed three cowboys. Ike Clanton begged for his life and ran away. Later, he took $1,000 to kill Wyatt and immediately left for California

Monday, 10 April 2006

Buffalo Soldiers

Fort Seldon, New Mexico – 10 April, 2006

In the afternoon we drive the bike 13 miles north on a deserted highway to historic Fort Seldon. The highway along the Rio Grande is lined with Pecan groves nourished by the river water. The trees are perfectly aligned like soldiers on parade so that an exact alignment appears each time the observer shifts position 45 degrees. The houses offer spectacular modern examples of southwestern adobe architecture.

We arrive at the fort as the historical re-enactment is breaking up. We meet an enactor called Rome Clay. He gives us a 15 minute run-down on Fort Seldon. The fort was staffed by black 'buffalo soldiers' after the civil war. These had a valiant civil war record and escorted travellers though Mescalero Apache territory for a number of years.

Rome Clay tells us that the small town of Mesilla was the capital of both Arizona and New Mexico in 1865. The 37 star flag on display at the fort dates from 1866. New Mexico and Arizona became states in 1912 (number 47 and 48).

The once mighty American adobe fortress is melting in the rain. These Fort Seldon pictures show that only small stubs remain. General McArthur spent his childhood years here learning to ride and shoot. He is the blonde on the right.

Sunday, 9 April 2006

Billy the Kid Hair Salon

Las Cruces, New Mexico – 9 April, 2006

We spend three days in Las Cruces. It is at an altitude of 4,000 feet and is near the Mexican border. The Rio Grande River is just south of town and the rugged Organ Mountains are visible to the north. Las Cruces has a population of 75,000 and housing prices seem very reasonable. Rainfall averages eight inches a year. There are two city parks with municipal tennis courts

I take Mrs Phred to the Billy the Kid Hair Salon for maintenance. We also run the cycle and RV though a car wash to get rid of accumulated road dust, do laundry and check tyre pressures and fluids. The motorcycle front tyre is showing sidewall cracks from age. We both like the feel of this place and the people we meet here.

The Howling Coyote Open Mic provides a forum for poets and musicians to perform on Friday night. The Fine Art Museum has a fine display of amateur astronomy photography. We go to the town mall weekly craft bazaar and buy used paperbacks and a jar of mesquite honey.

The small town of Mesilla a few miles away has an historic movie theatre called The Fountain. The theatre walls are covered with large murals. The building has large cracks and you can see that straw was used to strengthen the mortar in the walls.

Billy the Kid was sentenced to death here in Mesilla. We see a very good but disturbing French movie with subtitles called 'Cache' (the hidden) and drink some local wine called 'Plum Loco'. There is a Catholic church in the Mesilla town square. It has a large memorial for fallen servicemen and those who also served. All the names on the monument are Hispanic. A policeman drives slowly past the church as we read the names and makes the sign of the cross in his cruiser.

Friday, 7 April 2006

How many cactus pictures do you plan to take?

Guadalupe Mountains National Park, Texas – 7 April, 2006

We left the Big Bend Park two days ago and drove though the mountains on the border along the Rio Grande River to the small border town of Presidio. It had lots of unpaved dusty streets. We see herds of brown and white antelope as we drive. We turn north and end up camped in the Guadalupe Mountains National Park on the Texas/New Mexico border.

A lady with a German accent glares at me and asks if I plan to use my generator. She has been parked in Big Bend next to a man who ran his all day so he could watch TV in air-conditioned comfort. Apparently he felt it was too hot to venture outside. I ask her if her dogs bark and promise not to crank it up. She softens a little and tells me about an Arizona State Park where she has been a Ranger that has much better caverns than Carlsbad.

We took a two hour hike yesterday morning here in the Guadalupe Park. Mrs Phred catches me taking another picture of a cactus and questions my judgment. There aren't many animals or water sources here. The hike to the Guadalupe peak had a 3,000 foot elevation gain. (I'm not ready for one like that yet).

In the afternoon we drive 50 miles north to see Carlsbad Caverns again. The last time we saw them was 1982 on a long camping trip in a van with our twelve year old son and one of his friends. Both of them are lawyers now with children of their own. There are only 300,000 Mexican Free-tail bats left in the cave. A paltry number after seeing the Austin Bridge. I use a tripod for the long exposures in the darkened caverns.

Wednesday, 5 April 2006

West Texas Dumpster Diving

Terlingua, Texas – 5 April, 2006

It's 5 AM and the Milky Way is a big and bright band extending though the Navigator's triangle (Deneb, Vega and Altair) and into Sagittarius the Teapot in the South. Venus is beginning to rise in the east.

We drove 100 miles further South to explore the western side of the Big Bend National Park. We stopped at a rest area for lunch... it was a nice clean rest area and I saw a fairly clean 55 gallon trash can with a nice new liner and so I peeked inside to see what people had left and saw this little Big Bend Gazette under several beer cans and it was open to a cartoon of George Bush and he was saying I only am accepting questions from reporters who believe in the Easter Bunny and so I fished it out. Wouldn't you?

The Gazette had an article about bird flu. Seems that avian flu was originally non-fatal to the wild bird population in which it originated. Then it was transmitted to domestic fowl, mutated into something lethal and was passed back to the wild birds.

People who are involved in cock-fighting and those who clean chicken coops are at the highest risk. Also, people who belong to the sub-group that drinks duck blood are at high risk. Two of these have died.

As long as you cook your chicken with no pink parts and don't eat runny eggs you should be safe from the poultry vector. A nasopharyngeal swab (though the nose to the back of the throat) will be used to test humans for bird flu.

Life is like a 55 gallon trash barrel: you never know what you're going to get. In the late afternoon we took the motorcycle for a scenic drive in the park. It was 42 miles down to the Rio Grande and a huge cliff at the Mexican border and 42 back.

Monday, 3 April 2006

West of the Pecos

Marathon, Texas - 3 April, 2006

I meet Earl and Dick in the Marathon Campground. Earl is 79 and has ridden his bicycle from Nebraska. He plans to go east to San Antonio and ride back to Nebraska. They claim to have done 10,000 miles in two years.

Earl is fit, tanned and slim. He has ridden 30,000 miles since 1993 in the US, New Zealand and Europe. Earl and Dick (age 63) have an American Cancer Society '2006 Cancer Survivors Ride' flag on their bikes.

They are raising money for the all volunteer Iron County Unit, Michigan Unit of the American Cancer Society.

Earl and Dick set up tents near the pond and hope to see some coyotes and birds tonight. Earl says he has tow ropes and jokingly asks for a tow on our motorcycle.

Sunday, 2 April 2006

Victory or Death!

San Antonio, Texas – 2 April, 2006

Back around 1812 the Mexican government was encouraging foreigners to move in to the Texas area and offering them land at 12.5 cents an acre. This was cheap even then. They only had to agree to become Mexican citizens and Roman Catholics.

The vicious and evil General/President Santa Anna didn't like how things were shaping up demographic-wise and he reneged on that deal in the 1830s telling the Texan foreign settlers to vamoose.

The Texicans didn't like that one bit and they made a stand at the Alamo. 'Victory or death!' cried the Texans. There were about 150 Texans and several thousand Mexican soldiers at the Alamo. Santa Anna's surrender offer was rejected by the Texans so Santa Anna had his buglers play an eerie song that meant 'Take no prisoners!'.

After twelve days of cannon bombardment the Mexicans took the Alamo on the 4th assault and killed all the Texans, including Davie Crocket and Sam Bowie.

About 400 Texans later surrendered at Goliad under a promise of humane treatment, but Santa Anna changed his mind about that and had them all shot by firing squads.

At this point, the Texans were really good and pissed off. Three hundred of them caught 1400 Mexican soldiers taking a siesta on the banks of the San Jacinto River and killed 700 and captured the rest. 'Remember the Alamo! Remember Goliad!', they shouted, as they rained hot lead down on the sleeping troops. Nine Texans were also killed during this battle.

Later the Texans captured Genera Santa Anna and that was the ballgame. I'm not sure whether or not the Texans according him Geneva Convention protections. The fat guy with the microphone glossed that over.

The Republic of Texas was a sovereign nation for about twelve years until they voted to become a state. After a few years Texas went with the Confederacy and was admitted back into the Union after the Civil War.

Saturday, 1 April 2006

A Man for All Reasons

San Antonio, Texas – 1 April, 2006

San Antonio is the basic training centre for the Air Force. Downtown hasn't changed much since Mrs Phred and I left in a green British TR4-A in March, 1966. We see a grim-faced Air Force 2nd Lieutenant in dress blue uniform holding a well-dressed young woman by the hand and heading into the courthouse in the town square. They look very young. We decide they are going for a marriage licence and hope they make a good life together and come back in 2046.

The River wanders around downtown in a confusing way. The River Walk district is packed with bars offering umbrella shaded seating. We have a glass of sauvignon blanc and meet two Chicago liberals. They tell us that the current Mayor Daley is as much an embarrassment to Democrats as Bush is to Republicans and tell us stories.

Two Texas Republicans at the next table join in the conversation. One offers us his card. It reads:

Gary Fisher, PhD- 'A Man for all Reasons'
- Uprisings Quelled
- Bridges Destroyed
- Revolutions Started
- Foreign Debts collected
- Coffins Filled
- Bagpipes Tuned
- Saloons Emptied
- Earthquakes Arranged