January 15, 1999
Today was Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, John Wayne Day. I finally saw the WEST. Route 90 from Del Rio, Texas to Alpine, Texas is what you see in a western movie. Canyons, cactus, weathered brown mountains. Incredible vastness. The front gate of the John V. Daly Ranch said "9 miles to the ranch-house." The trucks approaching you are visible 10 miles away.
I crossed the Pecos River and then stopped in Langtry, the home of Judge Roy Bean's courtroom/bar. Since he was the owner, he often fined "criminals" $10 and a round of drinks for the jury. Then in Marathon, Texas, I found a real ice cream parlor with all of its 1950's decor intact. The strawberry ice cream soda was delicious.
Alpine, Texas, is my stop-over before descending south 90 miles to Big Bend National Park.
This New York boy is unprepared for the colors here. This part of Texas is dry. The colors are muted--olive green, pale brown, grey. The canyons, which in the spring splash with water, are empty and silent and white, the ground washed and bleached. During mid-day it's almost a black and white photograph. But in the early morning and just before sunset the warm light paints the landscape a rich gold. Spectacular.
January 16, 1999
The first I ever heard of Del Rio, Texas, was on the "Imus In The Morning" radio show. One of the characters Imus created, Rev. Billy Sol Hargus, would call in with a sermon from Del Rio. "Take your hands off the wheel and put them on the radio and pray with me!" Rev. Hargus would say.
Now that I'm in Del Rio, some of that magic is gone. It is, however, an interesting place. A short walk over the International Bridge brought me into Ciudad Acuna, Mexico. I had a mediocre Mexican lunch there (I had better Mexican food in San Antonio) and then wandered the streets looking for a good place to buy a pair of boots. Unfortunately, I was shopping during the siesta time (noon to 2 p.m.) and most of the good shoe stores were closed. I walked back to Texas.
Next, I went to the Whitehead Memorial Museum, a dull place except for the fact that the body of Judge Roy Bean is buried there. About two blocks away was the Val Verde Winery. Knowing that a Long Island climate is good for growing grapes, I wondered how a place where 100 degree temperatures are common during the summer could grow good grapes. The answer--they can't. I tasted and walked.
Then I motorcycled over to the Amistad National Recreation Area. The central feature here is a huge man-made lake created by the Amistad Dam which stretches 22 miles long from the US to Mexico and delays the waters of the Rio Grande. The water and electricity are shared by both countries. The ride over the dam was my bike's first trip out of the country.
January 17, 1999
The McDonald Observatory sits 7000 feet up in the middle of nowhere, about 17 miles from the sleepy town of Fort Davis, Texas. It boasts the largest telescope mirror in the world (433 inches) and hosts a "star party" every Saturday night.
I took the motorcycle through canyons and climbed switch-backs to get to this "party" along with about 100 other star gazers. The night turned black by 7:30 and we shared time on three telescopes looking at Venus, Saturn, and Jupiter. Then we gathered in a field for an entertaining (and neck-straining) look at the most brilliant star canopy I have ever seen. The astronomer used a powerful flashlight to point out the constellations and prominent stars. It was so clear that we could see the color differences in the stars. Some were blue, others orange.
Perhaps the most exciting part of the night was maneuvering the bike back down the mountain on those switch-backs, now in inky darkness.
January 19, 1999
I never knew the desert, except on television or in the movies. Lawrence of Arabia rode through it. Just sand and an occasional oasis.
Now I know more. Big Bend National Park takes up a big chunk of the bottom of Texas and the greatest part of it is the Chihuahuan Desert. This desert is filled with ash and rock and soil of every color. The variety of tough plant life is unbelievable. Cactus in all shades of green and pink. Rugged brush, able to live for months with no moisture. Even flowers of yellow and red, baking under the relentless sun. Butterflies and falcons share the sky. Roadrunners dash across the roads looking like serious businessmen on the way to important meetings.
The Chisos Mountains fit snugly and entirely into this huge park. They are ancient, worn, dry. They rise in multicolored splendor. Black and red and yellow. Green and silver and pure white. The park roads weave through the mountains and dive into canyons, giving the traveler an endless series of surprises.
The brown-green Rio Grande River marks the border of the park. On the other side of the river lies Mexico, looking exactly the same as the American side. The constant presence of U.S. Border Patrol trucks is the best hint that both sides are not the same.
I took the short boat ride across the Rio Grande to Boquillas, Mexico. A 13-year old boy did the paddling. He spends the whole day on the opposite shore, waiting for a passenger who pays $2 for the round-trip ride and is reminded that he is expected to tip as well. I walked a half mile to the village and sat with three friendly and mildly drunk Texans who had been in the Cantina for a while. I had a Corona and three tacos ($2 and delicious!) A pleasant 90 minute visit to Mexico.
I can't wait to see my next desert.
January 21, 1999
Getting a haircut in Alpine, Texas is an experience. I walked into Turner's Barber Shop, sat down and watched the three barbers trimming up the round heads of three young Mexican boys. Their waiting mothers spoke softly to each other in Spanish, and when each barber asked if mom approved of the finished job, the response was a big smile and "si."
The decor was solid Texas. Wood planks on the floor. Arrowheads placed in patterns under the glass of large picture frames. Rodeo posters. Mr. Turner himself in a string tie, a white shirt with pearl buttons, snakeskin boots.
The barbershop is the one place where the cowboy takes off his hat. Turner's shop had the appropriate place for the hat's safekeeping---a large hat rack made of 20 or so welded together horseshoes. One middle aged cowboy removed his hat and headed nervously in the direction of the next vacant barber chair. He wasn't happy that fate had sent him to the one female barber there. "Sit down, honey. You're next," she said, obviously enjoying his discomfort.
It's tough to see real people at Wal-Mart. The local barber shop is a much better place.
January 22, 1999
Much of West Texas is flat. Pecos sits about 50 miles north of the Davis Mountains, smack in the middle of all this flatness. When a wind starts here, there is nothing to slow it down. No hills. No trees. Nothing.
Today the wind started around noon under a clear sky. By three it was blowing at a constant 40 miles per hour with gusts surging up to 60 miles an hour. The sun was gone, blocked by the thick yellow dust lifted from the surrounding desert.
The weather channel warned all "high profile vehicles" to stay off the road. I can understand that because I'm sitting in my rocking RV right now. I will stay safe in the dust-shrouded campground today, listening to the roar outside.
Sent to Phil:
I thought that you would get a kick out of the golf course I played in Pecos, Texas. It's 11 holes and incredibly flat. Why 11 holes? Well, that way they can flood two holes to irrigate them. Each hole has a six inch dirt mound surrounding it. It's so flat that they can pump water into that enclosed area and the tee gets three inches of water while 400 yards away the green gets the same three inches. With two holes flooded, there are always nine holes available for play. It takes about 24 hours for the water to soak in.
The tee markers are old oil-rig drill bits painted white. The course is similar to Gull Haven and costs $5 for all-day play.
January 24, 1999
Motorcycle riders look for any excuse to ride. Lew is a fellow motorcyclist I met at "The Ranch", a campground that sits in the middle of the desert about 22 miles north of Carlsbad (home of the famous caverns.)
"How'd you like to ride to Queen, New Mexico? There's this great place that makes the biggest hamburgers you ever saw," said Lew, a retired naval officer. I thought it was a great idea (even though Lew is a Harley-Davidson man.)
The next morning we rode 20 miles to the nearest gas station to fill up. Then it was on to route 137 which meanders along the top of the Guadalupe Mountain range. The base of the mountain is all desert with clusters of oil-drilling rigs sprinkled about. The twisting road up above provided a spectacular view of the desert and the numerous canyons.
We passed through the Lincoln National Forest, unlike any forest I have ever seen. Mostly scrub pine, juniper, and joshua tree. In the middle of the forest we found The Queen Cafe and had our enormous (six inches wide) hamburgers. The cafe featured a small store in the back with items purchased from Wal-Mart, the Wal-Mart pricetag amount crossed out and 50 cents to a dollar added. The single gas pump outside dispensed regular gas only and was probably the only gas available for 50 miles in any direction.
After lunch we continued on to Dog Canyon, the most dramatic of the entire Guadalupe range. A thrilling switchback-filled road took us down at least 2500 feet to a valley that ended with a National Park campground.
It was the best hamburger trip that I have ever taken.
February 1, 1999
Immediately off route 70 on the way to Las Cruses, New Mexico, lies a different world. There are explanations a geologist can supply for the magic here, but I would rather not know how a magician performs his tricks.
The sand at White Sands National Monument is so white that it hurts the eyes. The constant winds mold it into mounds and ripples and towering dunes. To this New York boy it looks like a snowscape but the 70 degree temperatures and the barefoot hikers contradict that impression.
The plant life here is the toughest in the world, able to grow fast enough to keep pace with land that moves each day. Some have roots that travel as far as 50 feet down through the sand dunes to the meager subterranean water supplies.
I missed the best night, the night of the full moon at White Sands when a special night hike is offered. The brilliant moon reflects off the sand yielding day-like brightness. It must be something!
February 3, 1999
Columbus, New Mexico and Palomos, Mexico are two border towns linked by history. In 1916 Pancho Villa marched his troops from Palomos into Columbus for the last land invasion of the US by foreign forces.
Today Columbus is the home of Pancho Villa State Park, where one can learn a little about the invasion and a great deal about cactus. The park has over 30 varieties of cactus in its garden, some with bright orange and yellow flowers, most with an imposing array of protective barbs.
Crossing the border into Palomos, I get the instant flavor of Mexico. Broken sidewalks, groups of unemployed young men, dentist's offices and pharmacies offering their services and goods at one-third the going prices north of the border.
The Pink Restaurant looks clean, so I enter. To get to the dining room I am forced to pass through a gauntlet of cheap pottery and trinkets, Mexican blankets, and bottles of liquor. The dining room itself, though, is charming. Excellent Mexican paintings and pieces of sculpture. A wall decorated with mirrors, each with a different frame, some brightly painted, others hammered out of brass or silver.
Two musicians approach my table and begin playing. The guitarist has a fat, round face. The accordion player is square-jawed and handsome and displays his gold front teeth as he sings. Neither is over five feet tall and neither looks at me during the entire song. When they finish I hand round-face a tip. Only then does he look at me and say "gracias."
Crossing back over the border, the young female US Border Patrol officer asks what I have in the brown bag I am carrying. "Aspirin," I tell her. She waves me through without looking in the bag. I am, apparently, harmless. A part of me is disappointed.
February 6, 1999
The U.S. Border Patrol uses many tools in its effort to keep Mexicans from crossing the border illegally. There are hundreds of the white and green Ford Explorers patrolling the roads north of the Rio Grande. There are small, unmanned blimps and tall steel poles, all equipped with TV cameras. There are fences. A person trying to enter the U.S. in El Paso would have to cross four razor-ribbon topped fences and swim the Rio Grande.
Everyone driving through Texas and New Mexico on Interstate 10 must pull over at the Border Patrol siding for a quick check, a longer check if the agent detects anyone who fits "the profile." A person fitting that "profile" will also be stopped at the bridges and other crossings into the United States. Unfortunately, I don't fit the profile.
How can a guy find out what Border Patrol techniques are really like when they consider him harmless? Would I need a disguise to find out what getting frisked is like? I have crossed over into Mexico three times and I've never even been asked to show my driver's license. My camera case has never been searched for drugs. The Border Patrol has been disgustingly sweet and courteous.
There is something romantic about being considered dangerous. And there is something demeaning about being
considered no threat at all.
February 7, 1999
I had never been to a gun show but Bill Clinton complained about them last week. What better excuse for attending the El Paso Gun Show?
I parked the motorcycle, paid my admission, and entered a gymnasium-sized room filled with enough fire-power to start a revolution. Rifles, pistols, shotguns, ammunition, all being handled lovingly by the men in attendance.
My first stop was the bookseller. Interested in a pamphlet on making a silencer? It was there. How about becoming a sniper? Or organizing a militia group? Or making a bomb with ordinary ingredients found around the house? There was literature available on all those subjects.
Next I went to a private pistol dealer. Since he was not a commercial dealer, he was not obligated to check the background of those purchasing his guns. I fondled a Walther PPK (the pistol carried by James Bond) and could have bought it for $280 cash, no questions asked.
I must admit that most of the customers looked like law-abiding folk, but who can be sure? I never knew it was so easy to buy a gun. Scary.
February 25, 1999
El Paso, Texas and Juarez, Mexico are separated by the Rio Grande River and barbed-wire fences but they are only a few hundred feet apart. They are linked by three bridges and an intertwining economy.
El Paso has most of the modern businesses that are found in every American city. Large glass-covered office buildings, museums, multiplex theaters, shopping centers. It is also the center of U.S. cowboy boot manufacturing. Interstate 10, which passes through the city, has Tony Lama and Justin boot outlets every five miles (I bought a pair of Justins for riding the motorcycle. Paid one-half of the New York price!)
Seventy-five percent of the population of El Paso is Mexican-American. These friendly, energetic people run the city and are helped by Mexicans from Juarez who cross the bridges to work every day, most for minimum wage. But the U.S. minimum wage is generous compared to the Mexican minimum--45 cents an hour! The skilled Mexican workers who assemble computers in Mexico get 95 cents an hour.
A trip over the bridge to the city of Juarez is like traveling back in time, to the U.S. in 1950. With few exceptions, the buildings are in poor repair. A new Holiday Inn looks lost in a neighborhood of old buildings. The bus system is comprised of retired American school busses decorated with various degrees of skill and lots of colorful paint by the owners who are licensed by the city. The city does maintain the beautiful old missions and many Mexican worshippers share the quiet of the missions with tourists and their guides.
The police travel the streets with the flashing emergency lights on top of their cars in constant action. The tour driver explains the reason. Anyone who pulls over, usually an unknowing American from a northern state, is given a choice of a speeding ticket or a $20 "gratuity," payable in cash to the officer. The tour driver recommends ignoring the police lights but to pull over if the policeman sounds his siren.
One street contained the wedding center of Juarez. Fifty or so shops sell hand-made wedding gowns for less than half the price of American stores. The tailors are well-known for producing beautiful and well-made dresses and attract brides come from many southwestern states.
Most of the stores, though, sell tourist junk. I found some silver and pottery that was worthwhile but most was not. One shop offered to sell me a Rolex watch for $20. The owner admitted it was not a real Rolex. Such honesty!
February 27, 1999
Silver City, New Mexico, where I began my journey, has very little silver left. Most of it was removed by enterprising miners in the beginning of the 20th century. But there is still plenty of copper and the turquoise-green tint of it stains the mountains I passed on my way to the Gila Cliff Dwellings. Early on the ride I parked the motorcycle at the Chino Copper Mine overlook to gaze into the massive green canyon created by huge excavating machines.
The route took me through a different New Mexico. I had become used to the flat, dry desert. Now, at over a mile in altitude, the terrain has changed. There are trees and grass and rolling hills and running water.
I followed the Mimbres River north through the Mimbres Mountain range. The road twists for 40 miles through ranches and very small towns. I passed one single-gas-pump general store, the only place to get fuel or groceries for miles.
The road met Rt. 15 in the Gila Wilderness Area. It's the spectacular route that leads directly to the Cliff Dwellings. I stopped at a roadside overlook and met two motorcycling couples from Seattle. We shared the awesome view from 7,500 feet into the valley below, then continued on to the Cliffs.
The Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument gives the visitor a glimpse of the life of the Mogollon people in the late 1200's. They turned seven natural shallow caves into homes. Using logs and stones, they built rooms in the caves for living and storage.
A one-mile walk to the cliff dwellings provided a good view from below. Then it was a climb up the cliff on rugged ground, stairs, and one ladder. Inside the dwellings were the remains of rooms and fire pits. The ceiling of the cave is still stained black from fires used for warmth and cooking 700 years ago.
One the ride back I decided to take Rt. 15 all the way to Silver City. I stopped to read an interesting sign: "This road is very narrow. It has extremely sharp turns and steep stretches. No vehicle over 20 ft. should attempt this route." Sounded perfect for motorcycles!
What a road! It never went straight. Sharp turns led to "hairpin" turns. Every turn occurred on a steep climb or a steep plunge. No guard rails protected the rider from sheer drops off cliffs hundreds of feet above the valley. No signs warning of turns. No lines on the road. It was better than any roller coaster I ever rode.
Exhausted, I arrived at the end of Rt. 15 and headed back home (the RV has become home for me, but that's another story.)
March 3, 1999
Soon after arriving in Benson, Arizona, I took an exploratory walk around the campground and got into a conversation with a fellow motorcycle owner. He invited me to go on a ride with him and the local Goldwing Motorcycle Club. I was in Arizona for less than 24 hours and found myself with nine other friendly bikers on a journey to the bottom of this warm state.
Passing through Nogales, I witnessed my first illegal immigrant bust. A border patrolman, his pistol pointed at the sky, had six Mexicans under guard. Two of the captives were children.
Ten miles down the road we stopped for lunch and then traveled a twisty road to the tiny community of Arivaca. The road was part of the "open range" here and cows can be found waiting dumbly in the middle of a sharp turn. Luckily, the three cows we saw stayed at the edge of the road.
Arivaca is an artist's community. The furniture made there is world famous. The craftsmen use local mesquite wood which is very hard, very heavy, and extremely beautiful. The road ended in Arivaca, so it was there we turned around and headed home. The motorcycle has turned out to be a magnet for attracting some very friendly and interesting people. Many have become friends that I will see again.
March 7, 1999
All the campgrounds near Phoenix were full so I had to headed for the suburbs. I ended up at Westworld in Scottsdale, a rodeo and horse show complex that has a facilities for campers. It was one of those lucky circumstances that life throws at us once in a while. It gave me a chance to walk over and watch a Team Roping Competition, something I had only seen on television.
I was curious about what I was seeing, so I walked over to a cowboy about my age and started asking questions. Jim has a ranch north of El Paso, Texas, and became a rancher after going to college for engineering and realizing that an "inside" job was not for him.
Each two-person team, Jim explained, consists of the "header", who ropes the steer's head, and the "healer", who ropes the two hind legs. When that is completed, the "flagger", a kind of referee, drops his flag and the time is announced. Each team gets four chances and the times are added together to determine the winner.
The teams are made up of all kinds of combinations: two brothers, a husband and wife, a brother and sister, a father and son. The women are just as talented as the men. Age is no barrier either. One cowboy who wore a back-brace was about 70 years old.
Each team pays a $300 entry fee and the winners get $5600 and a trophy saddle. Many of the riders were using such saddles won at previous competitions.
The best place to watch was in the seats right behind the aromatic enclosure where the competitors waited for their 15 seconds in the arena. No talking. Horses nervously stutter-stepping. Ropers adjusting and readjusting their ropes, their gloves, their saddle positions. Faces serious and tense. It was a long wait for a short burst of action.
March 9, 1999
They are still in love, Bud and his wife Mel. Their greatest joy is motorcycling through the back country of Arizona on their red Goldwing. It was an honor when they offered to take me along on a ride through the Chiricahua National Monument, one of the state's spectacular spots. It's famous for the way erosion has created pillars of stone, many with boulders as big as small houses perched on top of rocks one-fifth their size. Miracles of improbable balance set in deep canyons and on the shoulders of rising mountains.
The ride covered 200 miles that day, impressive for Bud and Mel who completed the distance with joy and energy. Impressive because they are both 75.
March 9, 1999
The art of motorcycle pinstriping is practiced by many in Arizona. I went to Butchr's after Grumpy's Motorcycling Service recommended his work. I had been waiting to get to Arizona to have one of these artists change the plain green surface of my bike into a masterpiece.
Butchr talked while his steady hand drew teal colored lines and scroll work on my bike. His face pinched up as his eyes followed along, six-inches from his moving hand. He cursed the drivers in the Phoenix area. I had seen five accidents since arriving in the area and he agreed that Phoenix drivers were crazy. He showed me the gun that he keeps in his truck, his way of dealing with the most difficult drivers.
Butchr stopped his pinstriping briefly to show off his restored 1956 Chevy station wagon. Beautiful. And his custom Harley-Davidson. Magnificent. A man with lots of toys. On the wall of his garage he displayed his collection of antique condom and sanitary napkin dispensers.
He finished and warned me to avoid washing the bike for at least a week, then sent me off on a ride through hills covered with tall saguaro cactus plants so that the wind would dry the paint.
March 10, 1999
I haven't been playing much golf so I figured I could afford to spend the bucks (172 of them!) to play the T.P.C. in Scottsdale. It was a beautiful day. Sunny, 75 degrees, no wind. No excuses. My play was the only ugly thing on the course.
It's one of the new stadium courses with lots of huge mounds on the sides of the fairways suitable for spectators to watch the Phoenix Open. The greens were very slick. The bunkers were numerous and some were very deep. Between the lush fairways, the desert, with sand, rocks and cactus, made for an interesting "rough." Six of the holes had water hazards. I did stay out of those.
I played with two young bankers who probably wrote off the cost of their rounds as business expenses. But I can't complain. They had to go back to work the next day.
March 15, 1999
I saw lots of motorcycles heading north from Congress, Arizona on Rt. 89 so I figured there must be something special that way. There is. The road to Prescott passes over two mountain ranges, through several unspoiled towns, then between the tall pines of the Prescott National Forest.
The road spills out into a town square dominated by a huge county office building surrounded by shops and small restaurants. I parked the bike so I could get a closer look. The Provence Espresso Bar drew me in with music. I ordered a coffee and a raspberry-lemon muffin and sat down to listen to Steve Goodbar (guitar) and his partner Warren (bass) play their western-folk mix. A wonderful breakfast combo.
Prescott has a refreshingly genuine oldness about it. Buildings from the 19th century beckon without the touristy gimmicks found in other towns. Artist co-ops display good painting, excellent photography, fine silver and pottery. Grama's Bakery sells the best Napoleons I have sampled since I left New York. At 5200 feet, many Prescott businesses are called "Mile High"--the Mile High Auto Service, Mile High Internet, etc.
I'll be happy to stop in Prescott again on the way up to the Grand Canyon.
March 26, 1999
I hurried to Wal-mart to get my eight rolls of film developed. I was certain that I had captured the magnificence of the Grand Canyon with my Nikon. I always considered myself a cut above the average photographer and I wasn't even close! Pictures, I discovered, cannot accurately reproduce the Canyon's awesomeness.
Those who have visited the Canyon know the feelings that come with the first glimpse over the edge. The jaw drops open. "Oh, my God!" is the usual verbal reaction. The vastness of this opening in the earth inspires a mixture of reverence and fear. I decided to take the Bright Angel Trail the next morning to become a participant, not just an observer, in the Canyon experience.
The trail descends 3060 feet and covers four and a half miles to a rest area called Indian Garden. Downhill the trip is easy and exhilarating. It takes less than two hours. I became concerned when I arrived at Indian Garden and saw that the other hikers were mostly 20-year old college students on spring break.
The first mile and half back was difficult but manageable. Then my Long Island lungs found it hard to squeeze any oxygen out of the 6000 ft. air. The next three miles were covered slowly in segments of 200 yards and a five minute rest all the way to the top. The last half mile was a nightmare. The following day I felt the same way I did after running the New York City Marathon. Totally drained.
Next time I visit the Canyon, I will book myself into one of the mule caravans that go all the way to the Colorado River at the bottom. I'll let the mule do the climbing back to the rim of the canyon.
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