1975 – 2023
Seth’s Memorial Page
1975 – 2023
1975 – 2023
Seth’s Memorial Page
We get up early but wait for dawn to prepare breakfast. Often its cooked outside. We arrived at the park in Blanco County a couple days ago. Blanco county is in an area of Texas known as the hill country. An area of semi-arid undulating ranch land 50 to 100 miles west of Austin. It’s been quiet here but today is Saturday morning. The campground has filled up for the weekend.
Last night a young couple had come in next to us. They set up their tent and camp like they’d done it before. I don’t know how late they stayed up but there no activity at their camp. I try to keep things quiet so as not to disturb others who like to sleep in. After all its Saturday morning. Some people sleep in. I’m packing up the camp stove. Never a silent job.
Lorraine comes out of the trailer. “What’s that noise?”
“What noise?” I listen. Sounds a bit like a dog baying in the distance. But rhythmic. And it’s getting louder.
“I think there’s some activity in that tent.” she smiles.
The young couple are making love. Oblivious and uncaring that anyone around can hear them. The words of an old pop song I hadn’t thought of in years come to mind.
“Making love in the green grass behind the stadium
With you my brown eyed girl.”
There was a time when … whether for love or lust or a potion that mixed the two … that could have been me.
The last moan dies into silence. We go about cleaning up and packing up for we are heading out today for Luckenbach.
A few minutes later I hear a staccato tick from across the way. Next time I look around the truck the hood is up on the car of another young couple tent camping across from us. The guy gets back in the driver seat. Staccato tick again. No question what this sound is. The starter’s not getting enough juice to turn the engine over.
“You want a jump?” I say walking across the road.
“I don’t know. Do you have a voltage meter? It might be the battery.”
“I do. Just a minute. I’ll get it.”
Returning with the meter he says, “It doesn’t make sense. Shelly used it this morning to drive over to the bathroom. It worked fine just 30 minutes ago.”
He puts the meter on the battery. 12.1 volts. It drops to 12 volts while we’re looking at it.
“That’s kind a low.” he says. “It should be more than 12 volts. You have jumper cables?”
“I do. Let me pull the truck over closer.”
We hook up the cables. He gets in and it starts right up.
While unhooking the cables he thanks me for the help. “I’m not shutting it off until we get home. Then I think it’s time for a new battery.”
I go back to hooking up our trailer and they wave as they pull out of the camp site and head home. It could have been worse for them. The nearest town is 14 miles away.
We finish hooking up. I glance over at the lover’s tent. There’s no one to be seen. I imagine them asleep in each other’s arms. We pull out of the camp site and head for town.
“I think I’ll get a cup of coffee when we get to town.”
“At the donut shop?”
These small Texas towns don’t attract much in the way of franchise stores. Home Town Donuts is a small cinder block building in the middle of a dirt lot at the corner of the county road and state highway. The dirt lot is helpful because any size vehicle can pull in and then get out on the intersecting road without blocking the drive through window.
I pull in from the county road. There are 3 cars sitting side by side just off the road. Doors open. A couple guys leaning against the truck of one car chatting and laughing. A girl at the open door of another car talking to someone inside.
I pull open the front door of Home Town Donuts. The hinges squeak in futile protest against the lack of maintenance. The room is big enough for a couple tables, the donut display case and a small kitchen with a drive through window.
“Good morning sir.” says the women behind the display.
I walk past 4 teenage boys at one of the tables. Two have their heads down on the table apparently asleep. One is staring at his cell phone. The other is just staring.
“Can I have a coffee?” I say setting my travel mug on the counter.
“How full you want it? … Say you were in here yesterday weren’t you?”
“Just like yesterday then?”
“Yes ma’am. That was perfect.”
I settle up and turn around. None of the boys have said a thing. They seem not to notice me.
“You have a blessed day.” the woman behind the counter calls out as I reach for the doorknob.
The hinges squeak once more and again their call is unheeded.
Out in the dirt lot the guys and gals appear to be getting ready to leave. I’m struck by the contrast with the boys inside. And the donut shop that gives them a place to sleep off last night’s indiscretions. I wonder what path brought each to this dirt lot with a donut shop in a little Texas town on a Saturday morning. A pickup truck rolls up to the drive through window kicking up a little dust.
I put it in gear and head out of the dirt lot on to the state highway toward Luckenbach.
In 1718 the political map of North America looked very different than one might think. France claimed about 30% comprised of the St. Lawrence and Mississippi Rivers drainage area. Spain claimed another 30% stretching from the Gulf coast of what is now Texas to Vancouver Island in Canada. Britain laid claim to about 30% but, with the exception of a few colonies strung along the east coast, most of its claim was the area surrounding Hudson Bay in Canada.
Much of the land was unexplored and boundaries were just guesses but each empire knew where its interests lay. Spain knew France was expanding westward from its settlements along the Mississippi River. Spain was well established at Santa Fe in Nuevo Mexico and at San Diego and San Francisco in Alta California but it had no established towns in the eastern portion of its claim. It needed to secure its claim to the colonial province in the east called Tejas. It needed Spanish speaking settlements in Tejas that were loyal to Spain. It had an ally in the Catholic Church which sought to spread its influence as well. Together they would fund an expedition to the province.
In 1718 a group of Franciscan friars and monks, explorers and soldiers left Mexico City to bring Christianity and Spanish culture to the indigenous peoples of Tejas. In this way they serve both the will of God and that of the King. After nearly a year’s journey they arrived at a river surrounded by fertile soil and inhabited by bands of nomadic hunter gather Indians. It is here they establish Mission San Antonio de Valero. Other Franciscans followed and over the next 20 years four more missions were established along the San Antonio River. The Indians are interested. They are nomadic hunter gatherers dependent on the weather and the migration of animals for survival. The friars offer them a new way to survive and a new god. Not all, but enough Indians join the missions.
The friars teach them farming along with Christianity. They show them how to store grain, develop irrigation, fashion metal into tools and herd animals. In exchange the Indians build the church and the other buildings of the mission. Each mission is first and foremost a religious center but it is also a center of commercial activity and a defensive fortification.
Surrounding the church is a plaza in which are workshops, communal ovens and open-air looms. Around the plaza are the houses for the Indigenous and Spanish members of the mission. Built with adjoining walls, row house style, their back wall forms the outer defensive wall against marauding Apache bands. Outside the wall are irrigated farm fields that support the mission community. Missions San Juan, Concepción, San José and Espada took shape along the river over the following decades all following the same plan. Here is the interior of Mission San José as it appeared at its completion in 1782.
It worked. The Indians adopted Spanish ways and the Spanish learned from the Indians how to live away from the mission in the vast landscape of Tejas.
In the process of herding animals on the open range both Spanish and Indian learned to become the first vaqueros (cowboys). They interbred and by 1800 many people traced their heritage to both Spanish and Indian.
The province of Tejas was clearly Spanish now secured by permanent Spanish speaking settlements. But times were changing. Spain had acquired Louisiana from France. The French threat was reduced. The Indians had been converted. The town of San Antonio now surrounded its namesake mission. The missions were no longer needed.
A few trappers and traders were arriving from the newly independent America. They were curious about the Spanish province west of the Mississippi. They misunderstood the Spanish name and labelled it on their maps as Texas.
Mission San Antonio de Valero was the first to be closed. It was secularized 1793 and by 1800 completely abandoned. The other missions would follow in the subsequent decades. The fields continued to be farmed and mass was held in some of the churches and but they were no longer missions, just parish churches.
There were changes further afield as well. In 1802 in Mexico City there was talk of revolution. Independence from Spain like the America. To protect against revolt in the north, Spain sent a company of soldiers to Tejas from the city of Alamo del Parras in Coahuila. They occupied the abandoned Mission San Antonio. The locals called them the Alamo Company. The revolution did not materialize and the Alamo Company left a couple years later taking everything with them but the name. Thereafter the abandoned Mission San Antonio de Valero would be called the Alamo.
Thirty two years later, following the defeat of Texian and Tejano independence fighters there by the Mexican Army, the abandoned mission’s name would be known throughout America.
The Alamo is preserved by the State of Texas. Missions San Juan, Concepción, San José and Espada are preserved by the National Park Service. Mission San José and Mission Concepción continue to be active Catholic parishes.
Texian, an Anglo-American resident of Texas prior to it joining the United States.
Tejano, a Spanish speaking resident of Texas prior to it joining the United States.
Texan, any resident of Texas after it joined the United States. Tejano is still used to refer to Spanish culture in Texas especially music.
“No natural objects, stones, minerals, plants. No meat, fruit or vegetables.” The ranger says. In the corner silently stands a customs and immigration officer in his black uniform, side arm and black covid mask. He could be mistaken for a manikin. He is waiting for the Mexicans to unload the pickup truck outside. They are struggling to release a binding strap securing the cart they will use to bring their pick up truck load of stuffed black plastic bags to the river.
“Enjoy your day.” says the Ranger.
We head out the door for the quarter mile walk to the river. It is a pleasant morning. The sun has taken the chill from the morning air. The little border crossing is the most active site in the park other than the main visitor center. As we walk down to the river edge the row boat is departing the Mexican side with two passengers, a large cooler, several other items and a dog.
As the boat approaches we hear the voices of Mexicans coming down the trail with a cart full of stuffed black plastic bags. Apparently their efforts to free the cart were successful and the black plastic bags met with customs approval.
The two passengers, their stuff and the dog are out of the boat and the oarsman is motioning us to step in. It’s a 30 second trip across the 50 foot wide river boundary. As soon as we are out, he heads back to begin ferrying the black plastic bags over.
A man on the bank steps forward.
“Dos? Ten dollar” he says.
“Both ways?” I respond.
I exchange $10 for 2 blue tickets which I stuff in my pocket. No one will look at them again until they fall on the ground 2 days later while I’m searching for keys.
As we begin to walk up the bank another man steps forward.
“Buenas dias.” I respond.
“Truck or donkey?”
Lorraine had already cued me that the donkey was a no go.
“Come” and he leads us up the bank to where three trucks are parked.
“José. Vayas, sí?” he calls out.
José stands up from where he’s been seated in the shade. He’s older man with tired eyes.
“Sí.” he responds and ambles toward the truck.
The truck is a black Ford pickup. One can tell it is black because someone has brushed against it and cleared the dust from a spot on the side.
As José gets in the drivers side the first man opens the passenger doors, one of which swings forward and the other to the back, signaling us to come. As soon as he does he realizes that there is not enough room to squeeze between the open door and the adjacent truck without brushing against it and removing some its dust. He tells José to back up as he closes the doors. He looks at us and motions us back although I don’t think we are in the line with the truck. We take a step back. He trots toward us between the two trucks saying “Back, back.” Four paces back he is satisfied. Apparently José needs plenty of room. With the truck moved he opens the doors again and motions us in with a smile.
“Hola” I say to José .
“Hola. Como estas?”
“Bien” I reply.
José reaches to put the truck in gear but not with his right hand. With his left he reaches over the steering wheel and pushes it down into gear. He makes the turn to pull away using his left arm only steadying the steering wheel with his thigh as he adjusts his hand position on the wheel. José cannot use his right arm. No wonder we needed to stand well away as he backed up.
The windshield is cracked, the dash is covered with a dusty grey carpet and the muffler is no longer attached but the small cross hanging from the rosary beads on the mirror gives me confidence as it swings to and fro. In addition to any divine intervention it may bring it indicates this is José’s truck. He knows it and it knows him.
As we slowly drive up the dry wash, the truck rocking back and forth on the uneven ground I try to strike up a conversation.
“Boquillas is a nice town.”
José responds with something in Spanish.
Perhaps another tact.
“You live here?”
Another Spanish response that I can’t understand. Try again in Spanish.
José only speaks Spanish. Let’s see. I can count to twenty, use the to be verb in the present tense and bring to mind maybe twenty to thirty nouns in Spanish. It’s enough to get by in the market. It’s not enough for a conversation. The remainder of the trip passes in silence.
The truck rumbles up the last hill out of the dry wash and into the village. Passing a few houses with brightly colored wares displayed on the street he turns the corner and stops in front of José Falcone’s restaurant. He immediately turns to me.
“Un momento.” He’s holding his index finger in the air. His eyes, no longer tired, are focused and serious. “Un momento.” He drops the index finger and reaches for the door handle but does not take his eyes off me. “Un momento.” he says one more time as he slides out of the seat and onto the dusty street. I nod. As he walks around the truck I think that perhaps the passenger door handle does not work from the inside or perhaps he just wants to show his superior service by opening the door for us. I suspect the former is more likely. He opens the passenger doors and smiles.
“How much? Cuanto dinero?”
“Cinco?” I reply thinking five dollars was too low or perhaps he would just leave us here to walk back to the crossing.
“Cinco por uno. Dos es diez.”
“You’ll be here? Estas aquí?”
“Sí” he points to a chair in the shade of the restaurant patio.
“A deal. Bueno, gracias.” I hand him a ten dollar bill.
He walks into the shade of the patio greeting the waiter.
We turn to walk up the street to see the wares displayed in front of the houses. I turn back.
“José. One hour. Un hora.” Now it is me holding my index finger in the air. “Un hora.” He nods from the shade of the patio. We stroll out into the street. A dog sniffs my boot and trots off. We are the only touristas in site.
For the vendors this is their livelihood. They are all women. The men guide the horses and donkeys, drive the trucks and help with loading the goods coming across on the little row boat. The women make the wire and beaded trinkets and do the embroidery. As we pass each house a woman will come out. “Hola, You like?” she’ll say pointing to one of her offerings like an embroidery. If you respond with disinterest she’ll pick up another item like a beaded wire Christmas tree. “Christmas tree. You like tree? For your granddaughter? Is beautiful.”
Lorraine is put off by the aggressive selling but I point out it just the way they do things here. Just tell them what you want or tell them no. And all the better if you can get them to reduce the price. She soon gets the hang of it. Both Lorraine and the women of Boquillas did well that morning.
When we return José is sitting in the shade of the patio, sipping a Coke and chatting with friends. I point to the back of patio, he nods and we walk past the man with a guitar who is singing for the guests at the 2 occupied tables. The restaurant patio overlooks the Rio Grande or Rio Bravo as the river is named in Mexico. It is a bright sunny day and the blue water is a reflection of the blue sky. By the time we finish lunch we are the only guests on the patio but the man with the guitar plays on. I drop two dollars in the can he has placed on a table and head into the office to pay the tab. When I return Lorraine is surrounded by three young girls offering their wares. Apparently a transaction is taking place. It will be the last for José is on his feet and walking toward the truck.
He opens the truck doors for us and carefully closes them once we are seated. With José back in the driver’s seat the engine rumbles to life. He backs up a few feet and then manages to execute a U turn in the middle of the main street with one arm. We are on our way back to the river but not fast. A woman steps out into the street. He stops. She has something to tell him. I can’t make out what the conversation is about, but she says a lot and José says a little. Then we are back underway bouncing slowly along the dry wash toward the river.
In the distance I can see more people coming from the river. Five tourists on donkeys are spread across the road ahead. An American family. I can see but not hear the guide, who walks along side, giving commands to the donkeys, his small crop urging the reluctant one to the side. Boquillas is a town of a few hundred people. Everyone knows everyone and surely every vehicle is known. José changes neither course nor speed. The middle of the road is his and the donkeys with their American tourists best be single file and to the side when he passes.
As we pass the I can see the family clearly. The young boy in front, Dad in the rear with Mom and the two girls between. They are clearly middle class Americans. No doubt from a suburb somewhere. Perhaps on their first big trip. The boy holds the reins and looks confidently ahead. The girls, who appear younger, hang on to the saddle horn as the donkeys amble along. It is apparent they have never done anything like this before.
Sixty two years ago the I stood alongside a dusty road in the hot desert sun. The car was stuck in the soft sand where the gravel road crossed a desert a wash. Mom tried to keep us in the shade of a scrawny desert bush while Dad dug with an Army surplus folding shovel. A pickup truck crested the top of the wash and rattled its way to a stop just ahead of the car. Two men in the cab, three women in the back. The women were dressed in long black dresses and colorful blouses. The men in jeans and western shirts. They were Indians. Navajo Indians. Words were spoken but not in English. The women got out of the back of the truck trying not to giggle at the white people so out of their element. One man helped my Mom into the back of the truck then picked up my brother and I and placed us next to her while the other man was busy attaching a chain to the car. Ready to go the truck clunked into gear and began to slowly pull the car, my Dad clearly visible at the steering wheel, out of the sand and up the other side of the wash. The Navajo women had already walked up the slope. I don’t recall the details of what happened once we reached the top of the wash. I just recall standing up in the backseat to peer out the windshield watching the truck with the Navajos disappear in a cloud of dust that grew ever more distant even though we were back underway.
Will one of these kids have such an experience here I wonder. Will they discover the mystery of a different culture or the magic of the desert and its inhabitants? Will they remember decades hence?
The truck rattles to a stop by the river.
“Un momento.” José says. “Un momento.”
Ajo, Arizona (pronounced Ah – ho) is a mining town. The Tohono O’odham mined for pigments to make paint and pottery it long before Europeans arrived. In 1700’s the Spanish arrived looking for gold but found only silver so they mined it for silver. In the 1800’s the Americans arrived looking for silver but only found copper so they mined it for copper. Ajo was 50 miles from the nearest railroad in Gila Bend. The transportation was just too difficult and several copper mines failed. Ajo languished until John Greenway Campbell arrived in 1917 with a Yale education, financial backing and a new way to extract the copper from the ore. Campbell built a railroad to Ajo to bring equipment in and haul out processed ore. The New Cornelia Mine was on its way to become the largest mine open pit mine in the U. S. and Ajo would prosper.
But prosperity came at price. The mine owned everything and controlled everything. At its peak in the 1950’s and early 1960’s the mine would employ 3,000 men. One of them was Bob Hightower.
To see the mine you drive part way up the mountain Ajo sits at the foot of. You can only drive part ay up because most of the mountain is no longer there. It is spread across the desert in a huge tailings pile. The top is flat with a fence to keep you away from a mile wide funnel shaped hole. Off in the distance a little building sets by the fence. It’s the only building in the otherwise lifeless landscape.
We park next to the building and an older woman comes out to greet us. She gives us a few facts about the mine.
“You’ll probably want to come in and meet my husband.” She offers.
We walk through the door and she points to the gentleman seated at the desk.
“This is my husband, Bob Hightower.” Bob begins to talk. It only takes a couple minutes to figure out that I need to record this. Bob is discussing the Mexican employees when the I get the camera rolling.
Next year we hope to return to Ajo to find out how the town has fared.
Big Bend National Park is a place you have to want to go to. It is not on the way to anywhere. When we leave Marathon the next building we will see is the park headquarters is 70 miles away. The campground is 25 miles beyond that. Here we are pulling into Marathon, TX.
The scale of the land is as big as the distances. The park is located at the big bend in the Rio Grande River. Here the Chisos Mountains in the U. S. and the Sierra del Carmen in Mexico force the Rio Grande to change direction from flowing southeast to flowing northeast. It is here the west is preserved as it was, vast and empty.
The park is the size of Rhode Island. It has four paved roads, two gas stations and a lodge. Bring everything you need for it is 120 miles to a grocery store, 150 to a Walmart. There is no TV. Cell service can be had by driving 10 miles on an unimproved dirt road to a rise to catch a distant signal. At night the signals from AM radio stations hundreds of miles away strengthen and recede as they bounce off the ionosphere on to the empty land below. But no one is listening. The few that want the night life have left before sundown to Marathon 95 miles to the north or Terlingua to 70 miles the west for each has a bar and maybe music if someone has decided to play that night. Those that remain wait for the dying rays of the sun to disappear and then as the last reflected light in the western sky dims the stars begin to appear on a vast dome of black stretching from horizon to horizon. At first one by one, then by the hundreds and finally thousands of stars begin their silent, stately march across the dome punctuated by an occasionally by the brief streak of a shooting star trying to reach earth. These are the darkest skies in the lower 48 states. The night sky as it was before Edison blurred the distinction between day and night
We have been here before and hope to come back again. The solitude and silence is refreshing. Where we stay along the Rio Grande, America and Mexico meet in a casual way much as the border was 100 years ago. The border with Mexico is over 1500 miles long. U. S. Border Patrol divides it into seven sections. The Rio Grande section that includes Big Bend is the longest of the seven. It is also the one with the least border incidents. This in part because of its remoteness. It is not easy to get to the border from either side and once you arrive, there is nowhere to go on the other side. Crossings, though illegal, are casual. The purpose is to sell something or buy something. Sell some crafts and buy some candy bars.
The next day I head out to Boquillas Canyon where I met Jesús last year. I did not expect much. The pandemic has closed the border to crossing here. Without the tourists there were probably few people in the town of Boquillas. I wanted to see the canyon anyway. I had never walked all the way to the end of the sand bar.
Note that this video was published on Facebook so this for those who did not see it there
Ashby, Texas is a little hard to find. It’s not on the map. It used to be but not anymore. My research had revealed that the town of Ashby used to be the opposite side of the Tres Palacios River from the town of Palacios. When we found ourselves camping near Palacios I decided to do a little more Google research and got the gps coordinates of Ashby Road. Here is what we found at the end of that road.
Last year we went to the Rubber Tramp Rendezvous (RTR) gathering. It was huge. This year the RTR exploded and pieces of it ended up all over the desert. We ended up at Camp Hobotech, an informal camp organized by Tom (Hobotech) and Stan (Sasnak). Neither Tom nor Stan have anything to do with the RTR but it was a good excuse for a nomad gathering in the desert. Both Tom and Stan are nomad You Tubers. Search Hobotech or Sasnak on You Tube to see them in action. Like any good American west camp it begins with a circle of wagons (campers) around a camp fire and expands as more campers come in.
This is not about the camp itself but about some of the talented and eclectic people Camp Hobotech attracted.
“I’ll be with ya in second. I just gotta get this banner up here.” He says unfurling a U. S. Marines banner. “Ya ever seen these?” he says holding up a small piece of plastic with a hook. “Ya just run your paracord through here and pull it tight and it cam locks in place. Just like that. Now what can I do fer ya?”
Gene turns out to be master of every gadget known to mankind as well as a master of the art of minimal cooking.
“There’s no sense in cooking one meal at a time. Now I bought some bread at Walmart a few days ago. Looks like it’ll be turnin’ green any time now so I cooked up a pound a bacon and made me a nice BLT. That’s what I’m eatin’ now. Then I’m gonna take that bread and made three peanut butter and bacon sandwiches. That’ll about finish off the bead. I’ll wrap ‘em up and put ‘em in the freezer. That’ll keep ‘em good til I get round to eatin’ ‘em. I’ll freeze the rest o’ the bacon separate. When I get up I throw an egg in the pan with strip o’ that frozen bacon on top. By the time the egg’s done that bacon will be defrosted and ready to eat. Wan’a see a picture o’ your rig I took last night?”
“I’ve been interested in taking pictures o’ stars and it just worked out with your rig in the foreground. Now the way ya do it is … Well let get my camera and show ya. Ya see here’s the picture. Now what ya do is set the focus to infinity and the iso to …”
He goes through the settings.
“Ya got a camera and a tripod?”
“Come by after dark. I’ll show ya on yours”
Gene has a house in Pennsylvania that he returns to every two years for his Veteran’s Administration doctor’s appointment. He’s scheduled to return to it in 2021.
The man sitting next to me at the campfire ring isn’t saying anything and no one is talking to him. Unusual in such a friendly group.
I lean over, “Hi. I’m Alan.”
“I’m in the Casita up the way. What do you have for a rig?”
“Oh, I’m in a Road Trek (a modified van) over there. Four wheel drive. Don’t see them very often.”
“Where are you from?”
“Venice Beach California. You know the place with all the weirdos along the beach. Well, I graduated Venice High with some of them.” he smiles.
“I’ll betcha see some movie stars there don’t ya?” pipes in Roy sitting on the other side of me.
“Well not really. You might of heard of Harry Perry. He’s been there since I was a kid. He’s been in some movies and TV shows. He sings and skates for money from the tourists.”
“Naw. I mean real movie stars. The ones ya read about in the paper … the internet now.”
“I’ve met quite a few over the years. They’re not like you read about. Most of them are pretty ordinary people. Just like you and I. No smarter nor better. You have to keep in mind everything you see written about them is written by somebody else who is trying to make money off their name. If you met them on the street in regular dress and sun glasses you probably wouldn’t give them a second thought.”
“Ya mean you actually know movie stars?”
“Quite a few. But I’m just there to do a job so I’m not in their social circle or anything like that.”
“Well shoot. Can ya name any?”
“Probably the one I knew best was Arnold Schwarzeneggar but it was during his time as governor. He’s a very intelligent guy. Nice guy. Treated me and everyone I saw him interact with well. Not that he wasn’t demanding but he always treated us with respect. He not the crude tough guy he’s portrayed in the media. He was a good family man too. Always kept in touch with his kids. Yeah, I worked for him for maybe three years.”
Alright curiosity is getting the best of me. What does this guy do? Personal trainer? Body guard?
“You mind me asking what you do?” I say.
“Oh, I was a commercial pilot. I flew their private jets.”
Jerry and his wife don’t own a house but they do have a bus size motorhome parked in Wyoming. “I haven’t seen it in two years. We like traveling in the Road Trek so much we kind of forget about it.”
“Now the most important the most important thing on a tire other than the size is the date code.” Possum explains to the man standing nearby. “I managed a fleet of trucks for a utility. We always checked the date code. That told us how old the tire is when we bought it. Ya see a tire can be settin’ on the shelf two, three, four years before it ends up on your vehicle.”
“So where do you find the date code?” the man asks.
“Well it’s right here on the side wall. Four digits. Well it’s here somewhere. You get down there and look on the bottom.”
“Nope, don’t see it.”
“Well they musta changed it. That’s the government for ya. There always messin’ with stuff. You take this vehicle for example. There’s nothin’ wrong with it but I gotta spend 50 bucks every year to get it inspected. For what? Vehicle failure is involved in less than 1% of accidents. I gotta spend 50 bucks for some mechanic to tell me there’s nothing wrong with my vehicle, which I already knew, to prevent somethin’ that ain’t likely to happen anyway. That’s how the government works. Ya know what I mean?”
Possum maintains his New York residency. He never did say if he still had a house there.
“A drone just crashed in a bush outside the trailer.” Lorraine says.
I go outside and a man is retrieving a drone from the bush.
“I just got it. Someone gave it to me. First flight went good. The second one isn’t goin’ so well.”
He sets on the ground. “I’m going to try her again.” The drone begins to rise and hesitates six feet above the ground.
“Go up. Go up.” He yells at it.
It rises to eight feet and begins to veer off.
“Not over there you son of a bitch. Oh, that was close. Almost hit that guy’s rig. I’m hittin’ the stop button and it won’t stop.” He keeps hitting a button on the control panel. On the fifth try the drone stops and unceremoniously crashes four feet in front of us.
“I think the battery’s low. I’m Gus by the way but you probably already guessed that.”
“I’m Alan. I understand you make videos on You Tube.”
“Yeah, I started about a year ago. I’ve got maybe a hundred up there now. I used to be a professional photographer. Photographed beautiful women on the beach. Stuff like that. The hardest part was getting them to act natural. You know. They all had poses worked out but I wanted them to look un-posed. I had to work with them to get them to relax, try different camera angles, different backgrounds.”
The same thing with video out here. Now I wanted to do a video about the desert around here. Like this bush.” He says pointing to a bush in front of us.
“Now there’s only three freeking types of bushes out here and most of ‘em look barely alive but I’ve got to make this look interesting if anybody’s going to watch it so maybe I start way down here.” He bends over holding his camera a foot from the ground. “And point it so the sunlight is coming through the bush making it a silhouette. Then I move the camera around here so now you start to see the leaves and shadows and then pull it back a bit so it shows more bushes in the background and gives it some context. Twelve seconds of video maybe. That’s all it took but now the viewer understands something about this bush and where it is. Do that, well not exactly that, but that kind of thought process a few more times in different places and you’ve got a pretty good video of the desert. Something people will want to watch”
“That’s great. I never thought of it like that. You really
think it through before you start shooting.”
“I’ve got to or I end up with a video that’s boring and nobody will watch.”
“You mind if I take a picture of you?”
“Not at all but you’re not going to do it here. The sun will show every wrinkle and crevasse in my face. We’ll go around to the shaded side of the bus and I’ll look ten years younger in your photo.”
Gus doesn’t own a house but maintains his residency in British Columbia for the Canadian health insurance.
“You come over and see my van. It’s just a minivan but it’s got everything I need.” Gigi says at the campfire one evening.
“Where is it?”
“Right over there.” She says motioning to the northeast. That’s about as good as directions get in the desert.
The next day I wander over to the northeast and spot a silver Honda minivan parked between two dry washes.
She’s sitting in a folding chair outside the van.
“Oh. Hi there. Who’s your friend?”
“That’s Jack. He travels with us.”
“Come here Jack. Oh, what a nice dog.”
“Well this is my home.” she continues. “My home on wheels that is. I still have a house.”
“Where’s your house?”
“In Laredo. I keep up with the utilities and the taxes but I don’t spend much time there.”
“You prefer to be on the road?”
“I lived in there for thirty years but then my husband died. He had been sick. And six moths later my mother passed. And then my sister. In three years I lost nine family members. And the kids, they moved out to California. I found myself just sitting around the house. Then one day my grandson asked if I could help him move to Michigan. He didn’t have much stuff so it would all fit in my minivan. On the way back I wanted to save money so I bought a sleeping bag and started sleeping in the van. That’s when I learned I could do this.”
“Then I heard about Bob Wells and RTR. I went to my first RTR three years ago and everyone was so nice and I had a wonderful time. So I took all the seats out of the van and bought a small sofa. That’s my bed and a little while ago I found a used rv refrigerator so I don’t need a cooler any more. I’ve got all my clothes in these plastic bins and I just travel around. People are so friendly everywhere you go.”
“I go back to Laredo a couple times a year but I don’t stay. I’m pretty sure I’m going to sell the house and be on the road full time.”
That’s a sample of the people at Camp Hobotech. People that prefer the uncertainty and chance encounter of the road to the security of a house. Camp Hobotech will last eight days. We left after six days for Cottonwood AZ. By the time we left Gene, Jerry, Possum and Gus had left. Some will go off to Parker , AZ to watch the off road races next week. Some to Ehrenburg, CA for dispersed camping along the Colorado River and some to see friends or to places only they know. Others came in to replace them. The evening we arrived in Cottonwood we watched Tom’s (Hobotech) live You Tube feed from Camp Hobotech on the phone. That’s how we keep in touch. That’s what makes a community of wanderers possible.
Slab City, California is an abandoned military base in the desert adjacent California’s Imperial Valley. One side is bounded by the Imperial Canal bringing water from the Colorado River to the valley to turn the desert green with crops. Beyond the canal is a military proving ground. On the other side, 2 miles away, are the railroad tracks on which 100 car trains haul the containers arriving by ship in San Diego further east. Between the two is land owned by California but ignored for more than 70 years. It is here that a settlement, has grown up of those who cannot or will not live in society and of retirees who cannot afford the cost of a rv park. The retirees migrate with the seasons, the slabbers never leave. Slab City has no government, no law, no water, no electricity. When the wind comes up trash blows through the streets. That which is not caught in the creosote bushes blows out into the desert. Along with the trash a slight odor of sewage is carried off as well. Slab City is known as the last free place in America.
Last year I met Doneata in Slab City. Now we are camped close to where we were last year. In the Lows. The Lows are a part of the slabs claimed by seasonal residents. Snowbirds. Year round Slabbers live near the irrigation canal. Maybe Doneata’s here and maybe she’s in the same location and maybe I can find that location.
I take a road. It’s straight. Look for landmarks I remind myself. The creosote bush can be eye level or higher. It’s easy to get lost. The Lows are marked by two tall flag poles, one flying the American flag the other the Canadian flag. Further on toward the canal a building called the Oasis flies a single American flag. If lost follow the flags. I walk on but the road is blocked ahead. Too far south I guess and head one block north and continue toward the irrigation canal. The canal that provides water to the farms below is fenced with chain link and barbed wire. There is no water for Slab City.
The road is lined with creosote bush and mesquite interspersed with burned out trailers, rusting cars and impromptu made camps constructed of old trailers, pallets and tarps. Used tires or salvaged fencing mark the bound between the camps and the road. Occasionally a dog barks but mostly it is quiet. There are few running cars here. Everyone walks. Anyone outside ignores the stranger walking down the street. It appears dystopian. It is dystopian I reach the trailers and camps that back up to the irrigation canal fence. This is not the road Doneata’s trailer was on. I’ll head another block north and head back to our trailer on the parallel road.
Less than a block up the road a man sits at a table eating next to a grey painted school bus. The bus is surrounded by piles of metal and wood. The man looks up.
“Quite a project you got going here.” I say looking at a bent metal frame that appears to be part of a geodesic dome.
“I got lots of projects. That might be my roof. I’m getting’ ready for summer. Gotta plan one season ahead ya know. I mean here it’s January and winter’s over. Gone. Done. I gotta a plan for summer. I’m gonna build a house … well a room underground. Stay cool ya know. I’m collectin’ all this stuff so I can see what I got to work with. Like those refrigerators. I’ll pull the insulation out and use it on the roof. Then I get a 12 volt compressor and hook it to the cooling part. That’s what will line the walls. When I’m done I’ll be able to make ice in my room. Here. In the slabs. Make ice in the summer.” He laughs at the thought. Temperarures here will approach 120 in July.
“The Indians in Arizona used to do just that.” I responded. “They dug a hole in the ground and built a low wall with a roof for a house. They’re called pit houses.”
“Yeah, the Vikings did it too but to keep warm. Same thing. Keep warm or cool go underground.”
“My name’s Alan.” I said reaching for his hand.
A car rolls to a stop behind us. Two young men and a woman get out.
“Bonjour mon ami Ryan.” The young man says to Flux.
Flux’ eyes light up. “Bonjour, bonjour …” and the four are conversing in French. Perhaps I better leave. After all I don’t know anyone here and suddenly I don’t know the language either.
As I back off one of the young men comes up and says with a slight accent, “We are from Quebec and you?”
“Oh yes. We are almost neighbors then. I like the United States especially Texas. They say bad thigs about Texas but nice countryside, people are friendly, the food is good and you can shoot guns.”
“You live in Quebec City?”
“No. I spent the winter in Squamish (British Columbia). I worked a Walmart. Nights. During the day I’d ski. I just lived out of my school bus in the Walmart parking lot. I will go back next winter maybe.”
Meanwhile Flux is advising his friend to camp anywhere to the west except near the skate park.
“I had big trouble there. Lost 90% of my stuff. That’s another story. Just don’t camp near the skate park and you’ll be OK.”
The Quebecois bid adieu and head off down the road.
An old woman walks across the road. “Your eggs.” she shouts.
“I only wanted two.” he says.
“All or nothing.” she scolds.
He takes the eggs and she walks back to a dilapidated trailer across the road without another word.
“I used to live in Quebec. When I was 16. I didn’t know a word of French but I tried and I learned. As soon as I started learnin’ the Quebecois were so friendly. They took me in. Quebec City is so small. I know everyone there or their brother or parents.”
“Now I can’t go to Canada anymore. Since 9/11 everything changed. I had a fiancée and a business there. Everything was good. I met some Americans. They were part of the 2030 gang. I thought they were OK but then we were out one night. They were at a bar. I was down the street There was a fight. Bad fight. Knives, baseball bats wrapped in barb wire. I wasn’t part of it but I was arrested and deported. They said I could come back but after 9/11 everything changed. I was class 3 and couldn’t go back. My fiancée we kept together by mail and phone for about 20 years but 4 years ago … well it was just never going to work. I lost a big piece of my heart then.”
“So now I’m here. After years of being on the road the road comes to me. Like those people from Quebec. That’s what the slabs are. Thing just come here and we use them. Everything I have is recycled from other camps. It looks like a pile of stuff but I’ve organized it so I know where everything is. Then I look at what I’ve got and I know what I can build. You wait around here long enough and things will start to come to you.”
I say farewell, turn and nearly walk into the wire fence.
Flux laughs, “I put old clothes on the fence so people can see it. I haven’t got to that section.”
I work my way around the tires that mark the end of the fence head out. Sure enough, tattered clothes hang from the fence. I turn back to the road and there it is. Doneata’s trailer. The TV’s with the words ‘We All Have Broken Dreams’.
As I walk by the trailer a woman wrapped in pink, back turned, appears from nowhere and disappears around the corner of the trailer. I peer around the corner. She’s nowhere to be seen. I step back onto the road. The low winter sun shines straight down the road making it difficult to see. Was it my imagination? I turn back toward the sun and resume walking down the road. “If you wait around here long enough things will start to come to you.” Flux had said.
I met Flux once again a couple days later. He was quite pleased. He was baking corn bread between two iron frying pans over a wood fire built in an old truck tire rim. He had corn meal and eggs.
“But then a dog or somethin’ ran off with my eggs. My friend had some Bisquick so I mixed that with the corn meal. Now I’m baking it.”
“Yeah, I’ll eat it tonight.” He pulls out a small pipe and a baggie.
“I found my weed. Yeah, I hid it in the bus six months ago and forgot where I put it.” He pulls a lump of hash out of the baggie and bites off a piece to put in the pipe. “Found it this mornin’ when I was lookin’ for somethin’ else.”
“Well that was good luck.”
“Yeah, If you wait long enough things will to come to you.”
“You know the way to East Jesus?”
“Yeah, turn at the end of the road and stay by the canal.”
I thanked him and headed off to find East Jesus.
Now when someone tells me they’re a Libertarian I smile and nod and think of Slab City. A place most of them would never dream of going to much less living in. And it’s probably all for the better as they would try to apply their theories to it and in doing so would destroy the very thing they espouse. Slab City is best left to Doneata , Flux and their kind as the Last Free Place in America.
On Friday morning I drive to the border crossing. A couple small buildings with a gate between them. The road stops at the gate. Men are gathered around a pickup truck which is backed up to the gate. I go through the door in the building on the right that says “enter here”. Some official immigration documents on the wall, a counter with some warnings long ago taped to it, and a door out the back of the building.
“Hello.” I call out. Silence except for the muffled voices of the men outside.
I go out the back door. The pickup truck is being unloaded. It is full. Boxes are set on the ground, two men in uniform search them and push them aside. One of them stands up.
“Going to Boquillas?” The lettering on his uniform says U. S. Park Ranger.
“Been there before?”
“You know the routine, no plants no rocks …”
“Enjoy you trip.” He smiles and goes back searching boxes.
A man, his cart loaded, heads down the trail. Another, with an empty cart, is coming up the trail. I follow the man with the loaded cart. It’s a bit over a quarter mile to the river. On the way we pass another man with an empty cart heading toward the truck.
Arriving at the river the contents of the cart are handed to two men in an already overloaded row boat. They struggle to push the boat from the shallow water of the bank into the current. Once in the current, one rows against the current while the other leans against the refrigerator standing on the bow. It resembles miniature container ship.
“You cross señor?” says the man next to the second boat.
He motions to the row boat. “Come, aqui.”
He pushes off and begins rowing hard against the current. Arriving on the Mexican side he says, “Pay him.” Pointing to a man standing on the bank.
I hand the man $5.
“Is Felipe aqui?”
The young man next to him says, “I am Felipe. You see Jesús?”
“You see Boquillas? Trucké or donkey?”
“Uh, trucké. Definitely truck.”
“OK. We go to Jesús’ house first.”
“We drive Jesús out to river. OK? You want to see the crystal cave?”
We take the road out of town and then turn into an arroyo. A mile on we turn out of the arroyo on to two ruts through the mesquite. Through washes and around boulders getting closer to the canyon entrance. Then Felipe stops and shuts off the truck.
“From here we walk. One mile maybe.”
The three of us get out of the truck and begin to hike up out of the mesquite into the desert, the canyon looming ahead.
“How old you?” Jesús asks as we walk along.
“Me sixty seven. Three years, seventy.”
“You’re getting around good.”
“My leg. Not good.”
“You don’t have your knee brace.”
“Forget. Es en mi casa. (It’s at my house)”
“That’s not good.”
“Is OK. … OK.”
Soon the trail splits. Jesús heads left toward the river. We go right toward the canyon wall.
Before he disappears he calls out.
“Mi amigo, you come? Today. Tarde? (afternoon)
“Bring Coca-Cola echeeps”
I look at Felipe not understanding.
“Coca-Cola and chips.” he says.
“OK” I shout back.
Jesús turns and disappears into the mesquite trees in the valley.
Crystal cave is a shallow cave that is completely lined with crystals. Felipe explains that many of the longer crystals have been broken off over the years but it is still a solid mass of crystals. As we head back we can hear Jésus dragging his canoe toward the water below.
“He cannot see more than this.” Felipe says extending his arm full length. “That is why he has binocular. To help see people coming.”
“He still comes out here every day?”
“Si, it is his job.”
We get back to his truck and ride back to Boquillas stopping at his wife’s open air shop where I purchase an embroidered tortilla cover and little wire and bead Christmas tree. We get back in the truck and head toward the river.
“You want to see ojo caliente (hot springs)?” Felipe asks.
“No, not today. I’ll go back. You are an excellent guide. I will come back and ask for you. You have more tourists this afternoon?”
“No, I am not on the list. Tomorrow. Tomorrow I’m on list. Tourist is only job in Boquillas. We each take turn.”
I head back to the border station and clear immigration. I climb into my truck and off the camp store to buy Coca Cola and chips and then off to the trail head. A mile in there is Jesús.
“Greeting my friend.” he says.
“I brought you Coca Cola and chips.”
“How much you sell today?”
“Nada. (nothing)” he says looking down.
“That’s not good.”
“No. Maybe mañana.”
He looks up. “I sing you song.” and he begins singing.
I turn. Two tourists are approaching. They’re looking but not turning off the trail. I walk over to them.
“This is Jesús.” I say pointing to the man by the river. “He sings for you and has some trinkets for sale. Go look.”
I head on up the trail leaving Jesús to his business. Before I disappear into the river cane and mesquite I turn. The woman is looking at his wares. Jesús is opening a plastic bag to show her more. It is his job.
I turn back to the trail. The mesquite and cane provide welcome shade from the afternoon sun.
We had a request for a map of where this took place so here it is. it’s 4 to 5 miles across the map.