We’re on our way to Cleveland, Mississippi a town on Highway 61 about 150 miles south of Memphis. For 8 miles outside of Cleveland is Dockery Farm and that farm is sometimes referred to a the birthplace of the Blues. The year is 1929 and Dockery like other farms is raising cotton on the share crop system. Mr. Dockery owns the land and the Black families that live there and labor in the fields to raise the cotton get to “share” the crop with him. But he does one thing different from the other farms. On Saturday night the tenant sharecroppers can use the barn for their own entertainment. Not only that they can invite the sharecroppers from other farms. Dockery Farm become a place where Black musicians can gather, perform, and exchange ideas.
One day a young man named Robert Johnson showed up. He could play harmonica but barely knew how to play guitar. He got a few lessons on guitar from Son House but left after a few weeks. A year later he returned and could outplay any man at Dockery. With techniques they’d never seen before. How did he do it in such a short time. The gossip was he had sold his soul to the devil down at the crossroads for the ability to play and sing. Robert Johnson never denied it and he hit the road with a reputation and talent. Making money on street corners and juke joints his reputation grew through the Delta and beyond. At the age of 27, while performing in Texas he was invited into a studio where he recorded 29 of his songs. Those recordings are the reason we know of him for in 1938 at the age of 27 he was dead, poisoned by his girlfriend’s jealous husband.
Those recordings drew the interest of someone else far from the Delta. Alan Lomax had begun traveling the country recording local music with a recording studio he had built in the trunk of his car. After hearing the recordings Lomax, in 1941, made plans to visit the Mississippi Delta. But for that part of the story we’ll have to head north on Highway 61 to Clarksdale. It was the at crossroads outside of Clarksdale where legend says Robert Johnson made his pact with the devil.
Before we get to Highway 61, in fact before we get to the Delta there is a stop to make in Tupelo. Off the highway and winding through a couple residential streets barely wide enough for 2 cars to pass we arrive at a moderate size parking lot. The place has changed since we were here 20 years ago. A big visitor center and museum dominate the carefully landscaped grounds and make the small two room house we are looking for look even smaller. The little house is the reason for the museum, the visitor center and the landscaped grounds for it is the birthplace of Elvis Aaron Presley.
The house was built by Elvis’ father, Vernon in 1934. He borrowed $180 for the materials and built it himself. It had neither indoor plumbing nor electricity but it was the best a laborer who moved from job to job could do. In 1935 Vernon’s wife, Gladys, had twins. One was still born and named Jessie, the other lived and was named Elvis. The family lived here for only 3 years. In 1938 Vernon forged a check changing $4 to $40. He was sent to prison for 8 months. The $180 loan came due and the house was taken to settle the loan. Gladys and Elvis moved in with relatives in Tupelo. Vernon rejoined the family at the end of his sentence.
For the next 10 years the family moved between rentals, often in the “colored” section of town, and living with relatives. There were three constants in in the young boy’s life, family, school and church. In the segregated South all were white. The family always attended Assembly of God Church and he always went to the same school. It was at church he learned to sing. Not the staid hymns from a hymnal but gospel style.
Hand clapping, foot stomping songs of praise, redemption and joy. In his ninth year he gave his first performance, singing solo in front of the congregation. The following year he got a guitar as a Christmas present. One of the church members taught him a few chords and how to play a simple country tune called “Ol’ Shep”. He took to the guitar and played most every day. After a year of practice he got to perform at the county fair.
The family was poor and jobs were not plentiful in Tupelo so in 1948, when Elvis was thirteen, the family moved to Memphis, the big city on Highway 61.
The Mississippi Delta is not the same as the Mississippi River delta. The Mississippi River delta is in southern Louisiana. The Mississippi Delta is in northwestern Mississippi.
As one leaves northern Alabama and enters Mississippi heading west the hills become less steep. The land more rolling. Small farms, often with fields abandoned, dot the landscape. Tiny towns mark the intersections of state highways with US 278. Every 30 or 40 miles a town has managed to become large enough to support some big box stores and auto dealers. Then about two thirds of the way across the state the land changes quite suddenly as if God had taken a flat iron to the hills. They are gone and the land is flat. Really flat. The farm fields are huge. Hundreds of acres per field and every field is followed by another. Each ploughed or harvested depending on the crop. We have reached the Mississippi Delta. This is a long roughly triangular area of northwestern Mississippi bounded by the Mississippi and Yazoo Rivers. An area that’s been flooded by the Mississippi River for 10,000 years. Each flood leaving a perfectly flat layer of silt. It is some of the richest farmland in the country and once required thousands of slaves and later sharecroppers to tend the fields. As agriculture mechanized those people were no longer needed. Some moved north to Memphis and Chicago but many stayed as if attached to the land their forefathers toiled on. The Mississippi Delta has a strange attraction even if it has few jobs. It is often referred to as the poorest region of the poorest state.
It was here that tens of thousands of enslaved Africans toiled under there white masters. When they were freed they had nowhere to go and so they became sharecroppers, indentured to the sons and daughters of the slave holders. But with freedom they could travel and intermingle and form a culture unique in America. And one of the ways they expressed that culture was through music. A type of music that developed from Black gospel songs, field work chants and African rhythms. It would be called the Delta Blues. Having little knowledge of the accepted way to organize music they developed their own instrument tuning, chord progressions and lyric style. Instrumentation consisted of what they could afford, guitar, banjo and harmonica.
Little is known about the style prior to the 1920’s when recording studios found an audience for Black musicians. But the popular musicians came from Louisiana, Tennessee and Georgia. The Delta region remained an isolated backwater and only a few recordings exist form this area. But on those early recordings we hear a unique regional style of music called the Delta Blues.
Through the Delta, paralleling the Mississippi River runs a highway, US Highway 61. It begins near New Orleans and ends in Duluth but the portion of it from New Orleans to Memphis was used by itinerant Black musicians to travel from town to town, earning money on street corners and in juke joints and learning from and teaching one another. It was this part of US 61 that became known as the Blues Highway. It is this section of US 61 we are heading for. Before we get there we though we are going to make a brief stop in Tupelo, Mississippi.
While travelling on a side road just off Highway 61 we came across a cotton gin. I’d been wanting to photograph some cotton bales and they had plenty in the yard. We pulled into the yard. It was clear from the noises and the cars in the yard this was an operating gin. I figured I’d better go to the office and ask permission.
“Hello ma’am.” I said to the lady behind the desk. “Would it be alright if I photographed the cotton bales outside. You see I’m from New England and, well, we’ve never seen anything like this.”
“Well of course you can. But don’t get in the way. They’re working out there. “
“Come to think of it I’m not busy right now and you folks from up north always want to see this. Y’all want a tour of the gin?”
“Y’all go get your wife or whatever and get right back in here.”
Well that’s what goes on at a cotton gin. All that machinery only runs about 3 months out of the year. Carolyn was quite proud of how well they tracked the cotton from field to the cotton mill. She also pointed out several times that they pay time and a half. At peak harvest season they’ll run a 12-15 hour shift. “They can make a lot of money working here. That’s why our workers come back year after year.”
“A lot of folks have a bad impression of Mississippi. But it’s not like it was years ago. Everybody’s equal now. More folks should come here and see how it is.”
Lisa runs the farm now. Her father, Wayne, is handing the reins over to her and she’s building on the foundation he and the generations before had built. While Wayne focused on modernizing the farm with a mechanical harvester, cooler and sorting line conveyor, Lisa is emphasizing marketing and promotion using the internet, social media and her extensive network of contacts.
Once the Denise has hand harvested the berries they go into a cooler that Wayne built from a refrigerator truck body and a Walmart air conditioner. Cooling helps firm them up the berries for handling on the sorting line. Here Lisa explains about harvesting as we see the fresh pack sorting line in operation.
The sorting line allows Lisa to sell the berries to retail customers, Helen’s restaurant and a fresh pack distributor who takes them to Massachusetts and Connecticut. As Lisa said, once the berries reach peak the Wayne will get the mechanical harvester out on the barrens and begin harvesting for the processor. Each farm contracts with a processor. For Welch Farm it’s Wyman’s, a Maine based processor. These berries are harvested into colorful plastic boxes and by the road for the Wyman’s truck to pick up. These berries will be canned or frozen and shipped throughout the country. Sometime in early December the processors will get together and calculate the total harvest and set the price they’ll pay the farmers. In mid-December Lisa will get a check from Wyman’s and will find out whether the farm made or lost money for the year. Then she’ll begin planning for the next season.
Welch Farm survives because of the hard work and ingenuity of the Hanscom family. If you want to see Maine as is was 50 years ago this place may be for you. It is well beyond the well worn tourist destinations of southern and mid-coast Maine. Lisa rents primitive cabins and dry camping RV spots on the farm to diversify her income. You can reach her at:
“Ya know I love farmin’. Wouldn’t do anything else.” Wayne says, “but sometimes it’s hard.”
Years ago I was workin’ two jobs and the farm just to keep things going. Was workin’ fah Cherryfield full time and doin’ odd jobs for folks on the weekends. I didn’t have time for anything and my second wife was handlin’ all the money.
Anyway, one day I stopped in Helen’s for a cup of coffee and Bob come up to me and says ‘Wayne, I been lookin’ all over fah yah.’ Well I hadn’t seen Bob in while but I had no idea why he should be lookin fah me. ‘What’s up I said?’
‘I was down at the court house last week and they said there’s a lien on yah farm. The government put a lien on yah farm.’
‘Well that ain’t right. I pay my taxes every year. Send ‘em a check just like I’m sposed to.’
Well I started lookin’ into it and turned my second wife she had spendin’ problem. She was puttin’ the money into another account and those checks I was sendin’ were from the account with no money in it. And she’d make sure and collect the mail so I’d never see the demand letters. Well I don’t have to tell ya things got sorted out real quick.
But when the dust settled I owed a lot o’ money. More than I was ever goin’ ta make. I got to thinking, Cutler Point. It’s on the bay. I ain’t even been down there in 15 years or so. I’ll sell Cutler Point.
So I advertise it. 4 acres on the watah. Set a top price on it ‘cause I wanted to be selective in who my neighbah was gonna be.
One day this fella from New Jersey calls. He flew into Portland on business and would like to take a look at it. So I tell him to come on over. He shows up in this shiny black BMW. Well there weren’t no road out to the point. Just a cart path and then a trail. I told him I was gonna build a road.
Well he liked it and made me an offer. I said “No.” He made another offer and I said “No.” He said “Well what will you take for it?” and I said, ”Just what I’m askin.” He finally agreed to it and said “OK, I’ll give you half now and other half when the road’s built.” And he wrote out a check right there on the hood of that BMW. Before he left he mentioned he had a couple of days business to attend to in Augusta before he headed back to Portland to catch a flight home.
Well as soon as his taillights disappeared around the bend I hopped in my pickup and drove down to the bank in Machias and said, “Carol, can you make sure this check’s good before depositin’ in my account?” Then I run over to Bill’s place and said, “Bill, what you got goin’ on today.” And he allowed as how things were slow. I said, “Bill, get all yer equipment together. We’re gonna build us a road tomorra.”
The next day Bill brought over a backhoe, a dozer and a dump. We worked our butts off that next day but we got it done except for a little clean up.
The following day I called the fella. “You still in Augusta?” He said he was but he was headed down to Portland the next day.
“Well you just might want ta swing by the farm on yer way to Portland cause I got that road done and I’m ready fah the next payment.”
The next day he come by and he could drive that BMW all they down to the point. He gave me another check and we shook hands and I said to him “You mind if I give you a bit of advice?”
“And what would that be?”
“If yah comin’ up here to negotiate business yah might do better if you rent a Ford Escort at the airport rather than a BMW.” Well his face turned red. I think he was kinda mad.
That was fifteen years ago. He built a house on the point. Still comes up here. He’s a good neighbah.
A white pickup truck drives past our camp and turns, then turns again and comes to a stop on the opposite side of the blueberry barren. Out steps a woman. She lights a cigarette, walks to the back and opens the tailgate. She looks over the barren for a minute or two as she smokes the cigarette. Then turns, puts it out on the tailgate grabs a wooden box and her blueberry rake and walks into the berry plants 10 or 15 paces. There she drops the box and bends over and begins her day raking blueberries.
Blueberries are harvested two ways, raking by hand and by machine. The hand raked go to fresh pack, the machine harvested go to the processor. Fresh pack are the berries sold fresh at the side of the road and to Helen’s. They’re sorted to be the best. Everything else goes to Wyman’s Berry Co. to be canned, frozen, pureed and sold to distributors. The woman in the field is Denise, Welch Farm’s top fresh pack raker. She started raking at age 6. She’ll rake about 6 hours a day most every day in August that it’s not raining.
Here she tells us a bit about raking blueberries.
She is paid $1.75 for each wooden box she harvests. During the rest of the year she works in food service at the local college. She and her husband would like to move to South Carolina someday “because it’s warm in the winter but I’ll still come back in August to rake. It’s my favorite thing to do.”
[Fordson was a tractor designed by Ford Motor Co. in 1917. Due to WWI it did not go into full production until 1919. Although rated one of the worst tractors on the market at the time by the Univ. of Nebraska the Fordson became the best selling tractor in the U.S. due to its low price, $750, and simple design. For many farmers this was the tractor that replaced the horse.]
“My grandfather bought it new in 1919.”
A forward looking man.” I replied.
“Yes he was. But the fact is he never got the hang of drivin’ it. He kept runnin’ into things. He preferred his oxen and horses. One day he went out to start it. No starter on them. Had to hand crank it. I guess he forgot to retard the timing or somethin’ cause when it fired that hand crank came back around and flung him clean into the hay loft. Well he climbed out of the hay, got down and walked out of the barn past where one o’ the hands was standin’. My Granddad turned to him and said, ‘Fred get a pitchfork and bury that damn tractor with the hay. I don’t want to ever see it again.’ As far as I know that was the last time it was used.”
Welch Farm in Roque Bluffs, Maine is a family owned wild blueberry farm on the northern coast of Maine. Wild blueberries grow well in the thin acidic soil of northern Maine. The plant grows 8-12″ tall and produces a small incredibly tasty berry every other year. It is here that we will stay just as the harvest is starting in earnest.
“No one here.” Lorraine says as we stand in front of the barn. The radiator clinks as it begins to cool down. A low clucking sound comes from the chicken coup. Otherwise silence. I walk around the back of the barn. There’s some people on a hill in the blueberry barrens that are silouhetted against the sky. I watch for a minute. No, it’s not them. These silhouettes amble along, stopping here and there. There is no purpose to their steps. No drive. I walk back to the front of the barn.
“They’ll be along.” I say. “I’ll call Mike while we wait.”
I’m just wrapping up the call when Lorraine says, “Here hey are.” as the dusty blue Toyota pulls into the drive.
“Gotta go. The farmers are here. Talk later.” And press end call.
Wayne and his daughter Lisa get out of the car.
“Sorry folks but we had ta run in ta Machias to grab propane for one o’ the cabins.” Says Wayne
“No problem.” I say
“Lisa’s got a spot for ya up there on the barrens and ya can get up there soon as I move this truck and tractah. Been workin’ on getting’ new tines on it. Lisa ‘ill show ya where while I move this stuff.”
“You been here before right?” Lisa asks.
“Yeah last year.”
“You know where the gravel pit is?”
“Follow me.” She says.
We were gonna have this set up for RV’s this year but we haven’t got to it yet. I just gotta stop doin’ all these things. I mean outside things. Focus on the farm. I was Selectman. Git rid of that but I’m still Assessor. President of the Historical Society, tutor in digital education and drive school bus. Of course there hasn’t been much of that lately. Still I gotta stop doin’ some these things.”
“What are they doing about school here in the Fall?” I ask.
“They haven’t decided for sure but they’re thinking of going back to regular school. Washington County’s done real well the COVID. Just 15 cases and only six active … or three. Sometimes they say six and sometimes three. I think it depends on if they count the ones they sent down to Portland. They’re talkin’about openin’ the schools in September.”
“Anyway, anywhere along in here. You come up the dirt road till you get to the gravel pit there and anywhere along this mowed road is good. We won’t be usin’ it to get out here.”
“You harvesting now?”
“Oh, yeah. We’ll have someone out here rakin’ tomorrow.”
As we walk back Lisa explains that the two cabins they built last year to rent out to summer guests have been booked all of July and most of August. They lost June because of the COVID but are pleased with the results otherwise.
As we round the corner to the front of the barn where Lorraine and Wayne are talking she saying “We just had to diversify. Can’t make it on just blueberries anymore.”
Wayne turns “And we got some of the finest blueberries in Maine.”
“That’s right.” Lisa says. “I won’t skimp on quality. No sir. And that’s only because I’m lazy. I don’t want to open a box of frozen blueberries in January and have to pick through ‘em again before I can make a pie.”
Wayne says, “You seen those ladies on the sorter conveyor last year. Did you notice how much o’ the white conveyor you could see? That’s so there’s lots o’ space for them to pick out the leaves, sticks and bad ones. And that lady at the end, she’s got the control o’ how fast it runs. She sees any bad ones comin’ through she slows it down so the pickers got time to do their job. Other places that conveyor’s solid blue with berries and it don’t slow down. It’s all about the volume so the quality goes down.”
“That’s the only way I’ll do it.” Says Lisa. “Top quality product. That’s our reputation.”
Wayne chimes in, “I go down to the dike, just past Helen’s Restaurant in Machias and sell our berries by the side of the road. I got a sign that says Pie Ready Blueberries. Now this was some years ago. Along come the owner o’ Helen’s and he said ‘Wayne, I gotta pay a woman to sort every box of blueberries that comes in before we can put ’em in our pies. Can you do somethin’ to help me out?’ and I says ‘Well here’s what I’ll do. You try my berries for one week. If you don’t think they’re better you pay me just what you’re payin’ those other folks and we’re done. If you like ‘em you pay my price.’ Helen’s been buyin’ our blueberries since that day and that woman doin’ the sortin’. I think she ended up bein’ a waitress.”
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?” “Sure.”
“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?” “Yeah” “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 Jerry.” “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.
Gus in a Bus
“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
“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. “I’m Flux.”
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?” “From Massachusetts.” “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.” “Sounds good.” “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. “Yes” “Been there before?” “Yeah” “You know the routine, no plants no rocks …” “Yep” “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. “Yes.” 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?” “Si” “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?” “Sure.” 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. “Seventy.” “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) “Maybe” “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.” “Gracias amigo.” “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.
This part 2. If you haven’t read it yet here is part 1.
The following day the wind has subsided but it is cold. Below freezing. Perhaps Jesús will be there today. There is no schedule here so perhaps he won’t be there or wait until afternoon when the sun warms up the land. I drive over to the trail head. It’s a popular trail but when I arrive I’m the only one there. Maybe it’s the cold. The desert is silent. I grab my little pack filled with what nut bars and sweets we had and head up over the rock outcrop.
Around the corner in the trail and there is the opening. Jesús is not there. I look across the river. His canoe is not to be seen. Disappointing.
Perhaps the cold, or something came up. No reason he should come because of me. At least I can go on to see into the canyon.
Then from across the river “Amigo. You come.” Jesús has appeared from nowhere on the opposite bank. I wave. “Un momento.” (one minute) he shouts and he disappears behind a rock and comes back out dragging his canoe.
Jesús secures his canoe. He is wearing a pull over knit cap beneath his cowboy hat. A pair of gloves is in his back pocket.
“There was no one in the parking lot.” I say. He hesitates a few seconds, “No parking.” “No.” “Es frio.” (It’s cold) “Si”
He goes about setting up first putting out a small stone with the word “Boquillas” painted on it by the trail then carefully bending each wire sculpture so it will stand in the sand. He lays out his walking sticks explaining his nephew makes them. “Painted walking stick $10.” Then he motions with hands as if working the wood. “Carved?” “Si. $15.” I pull the plastic bag of nut bars and candy out of my backpack and hand it to him. “For you.” “Si, por los niños. Gracias.” and he puts them in his canoe.
I had planned to go to Boquillas. It’s part of the Big Bend experience. Perhaps I could meet Jesús there. It’s a good time to ask him. The sun is taking the edge off the chill. He takes off the knit cap and places it and the gloves in a plastic bag.
I put my newly purchased paisano y ocotillo wire sculpture in my pack, say adios to Jesús and head back along the trail.
The Rio Grande river forms the southwest border of Texas. About midway along this border the river makes a big S curve. This is the big bend and it is here that Big Bend National is located. The park is defined by the Chisos Mountains in the center, Santa Elana Canyon to the west and Boquillas (bo-key-yas) Canyon to the east. Boquillas canyon is where the Rio Grande cuts through a massive rock uplift called Madera del Carmen and the canyon’s proper name is Boquillas del Carmen, in English the Lips of Carmen. The small Mexican village about 4 miles from the mouth of the canyon is also named Boquillas del Carmen. Both are referred to simply as Boquillas.
The trail to Boquillas Canyon in Big Bend is only a mile long but one must go over a large rock outcrop to reach the Rio Grande river plain and the entrance to the canyon. There is no other way in. The canyon’s 1,000 foot vertical walls prevent access anywhere else. The last time I tried the temperature was 100. With no shade from the desert sun on the rock outcrop I did not make it. Today it is 65 degrees and, although the sun makes it feel warmer, it should be an easy hike.
The canyon’s 1,000 foot vertical walls prevent access anywhere else. The last time I tried the temperature was 100. With no shade from the desert sun on the rock outcrop I did not make it. Today it is 65 degrees and, although the sun makes it feel warmer, it should be an easy hike.
The top of the rock outcrop, if one steps off the trail and goes to very promontory of the rock, there is a splendid view of the Rio Grande. A few miles up river the buildings of the Mexican village of Boquillas glimmer in the desert sunlight and at my feet the figurines made of twisted copper wire glisten. A plastic bottle is tucked in the rocks. “art and craft, made to by books for Boquillas school, $10”. Maybe it’s for the school and maybe not. Boquillas derives much of its livelihood from tourist from Big Bend National Park. The U. S. has a border crossing across from Boquillas. Open eight hours a day, five days week it allows Park visitors to legally travel to and from Boquillas. Slightly less legal is a tradition for Boquillas’ children and some adults to make crafts and place them along the park’s trails with a donation bottle in hope Americans will buy them. I put a dollar in the bottle and begin trekking down the far side of the rock outcrop. The sun is beginning to make it feel hotter.
Reaching the bottom one steps from high desert to a lush river bank with trees, tall grasses and reeds. They provide refreshing protection from the sun. The ground is level the walking easy. I’ll go on a bit further. I’m almost there anyway as I look up at the giant walls.
Looking back down at the trail I see a man in a cowboy hat. Not on the trail but close to the river bank. And then song echoes off the canyon walls … “Yo soy ranchero, En mi rancho yo vivo”
As I approach he sees my camera. “For you my friend I let you take picture.”
“You want to buy? Walking stick. Necklace.” He says pointing to the items laid out on a blanket on the sand. “No señor, I don’t need any more things but your song is muy bueno (very good). Here is five dollars for your song.” He smiles and puts it in his pocket.
“My name is Alan.” extending my hand. “Jesús. Me llamo Jesús.” (My name is Jesús (hey-soos)) “You come here from Boquillas?” “Si, five miles y five miles back to mi casa. (my house) Each dia. (day)” “You’ll be back mañana? (tomorrow)” “Si, pero mañana es frio. (Yes, but tomorrow is cold) I come if not wind. If wind not come.” He points to the river he must cross. “Wind. No good. You back mañana?” “If I can. Si. I’ll come back.” “You have bars? Nut bars? Trail mix?” “No. No I don’t have anything with me not even water.” “Mañana you bring? Por los niños. (For the children) I have many children.” “I’ll try to come back. Who knows what tomorrow brings.” “Es Navidad. Por los niños Navidad.” (It’s Christmas. For the chidren’s Christmas.) “I’ll see what I can do.” “The parking. No Ranger?” “No.” “Border Patrol?” “No. But yesterday they were further up the road.” “The picture. No show Ranger. The Ranger no like me aqui. (here)” “No, I won’t show the Ranger.” “Bueno.” “I have to get back. My wife is waiting.” “Si. You come mañana.” “Si. If I can.” “Adios amigo.” “Adios.”
That evening the wind picks up. By dawn the following day it’s gusting to 40 mph. Jesús won’t be crossing the river today.