"The world does not reward honesty and independence, it rewards obedience and service. It’s a world of concentrated power, and those who have power are not going to reward people who question that power."-Chomsky

"The trouble with self-delusion, either in a person or a society, is that reality doesn't care what anybody believes, or what story they put out. Reality doesn't "spin." Reality does not have a self-image problem. Reality does not yield its workings to self-esteem management." -J.H. Kunstler

"You don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows."-Dylan

Sunday, January 31, 2010

1/31/10: Slab City-Sitting Down

The Sit Down & Shut Up (SDSU) idea is simple to comprehend, and maddeningly difficult to follow. It's basically relinquishing control and trusting things to work out as they should, without our interference. It's also having faith that eventually hindsight will make things apparent. For me, these moments rarely seem obvious: forest thru the trees.

I first feebly tried articulating this idea after its practice led to a "standing-down" of sorts which led, directly, to meeting my brother, Mike. In many ways, the time between September and January was an extended period of "SDSU." I could not comprehend why I was returning home in September. I just knew that everything seemed to push me there. As is usual, looking back it seems glaringly obvious! Had I thrown a ego-tantrum and insisted on pushing forward to show off or "achieve" something, the remainder of 2009 would look much different.

I wasn't sure what to expect waking up Sunday. Chris had tinkered with the idea of remaining in Slab City for another day or two to check things out and give an opportunity for things to happen. To his credit, as Sunday began he seemed content to just... relax. That's exactly what we did-- reading, writing, and occasionally chatting. All day. We had quite a nice spot in the sun; so nice in fact that we never left! I wondered to myself if that was a good idea, but had a difficult time motivating myself to get off my butt!

Toward the end of the afternoon, we were given a little nudge- in the form of another Slabber. We were planted partially concealed between some bushes- directly across the road and in front of his spot. When he finally noticed us, he wandered over, with a buddy, and asked, "What the fuck's all this?" claiming he wanted to see who was set up in front of his RV- as though he owned the entire lot!

Chris's Spidey Senses also blared and it was time to leave our little nest. There's a not-so-fine line between anticipating the good in people and playing the part of prey.

Around dusk, we went overland through the desert, deciding to pay Kevin a visit. It was well after dark by the time we arrived to the sound of his dogs and a flashlight in the face wondering who was out here wandering around! Kevin offered to introduce us the next morning to some people who may offer insight into the destinations of the seemingly never-ending string freight trains. The tracks are on the near edge of Niland; too convenient to ignore completely. Chris and I found a spot in the desert between Kevin's camper and Salvation Mountain, built a small fire, and spent the next several hours chatting beneath a bright, ringed moon. I realized for the first time just how trying the last few months had been for Chris and how much they had challenged his ideas; just as they had for me.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

1/30/10: Slab City Limits

El Jefe had taken the time to closely observe things, and I was surprised to learn that he decided the place intrigued him enough to take the day off and hang around. That's quite a big deal for him, and nice that we'd be able to hang for another day. Saturday is also Chris's Phone Day: the day he catches up with everyone. Unfortunately, this one involved unexpected complications in Denver. Needing to focus on that, he took his leave of Leonard & Salvation Mountain. The three of us congregated at the bunker to see what the rest of the day held.

Slab City Critter
Jefe and I spent the next couple of hours exploring the desert and it quickly became apparent that he was connecting some fundamental dots. I felt for him in that I sensed the same excitement- mixed with frustration and anger- I had myself experienced a few years ago and wondered if this was the first instance of life "outside the Cave" becoming real for him. Was he re-defining Plato's shadows on the wall? One of my biggest struggles was this movement from Abstraction to Action, and of course mustering the courage and trust in myself to do it. We all struggle with that. A couple hours later, Chris was off the phone and, since we had actually spent no time INSIDE Slab City other than meeting up with Chris, we embarked on a quick truck-tour before heading to town to pick up the night's food. Even after seeing its expanse from atop Salvation Mountain, I was surprised at how large Slab City's square mile really is. I was also surprised at how sparsely occupied it felt. The last 20-years has seen a significant drop in snowbird migration, for whatever reason. Now, in spots it has the feel of an actual abandoned military base with the occasional RV or camper cropping up, rather than that of an RV park. Many people have a full yard (of dirt) to play with! Slab City's also not without its entrepreneurs. On the extreme eastern end is the Slab City Library. There's also a Christian Center, although the vast majority of residents are at best agnostic- with practitioners of Paganism quite nicely represented! The proprietor of the Christian Center was referred to us as the "Tokin' Christian."

Kevin told us about the Oasis Club on Friday night, and there were two stages for live music, the smaller of which we saw Friday. The larger stage, The Range is the one featured in Into the Wild and has their show every Saturday night.

In addition, there's even someone selling solar panels on site, several handymen, and other little signs advertising services. It struck me as what capitalism might have initially looked like and was probably intended to be: services provided based on a need rather than needs created by a desire to sell the service.

It all again made me picture what I imagine the old west to have been. Regulation? Ha! If you provided a shitty service or product, people talked and you ceased to do business. The only advertising was word-of-mouth and the occasional hand-painted sign. The only brand name signage was used to build something, or as firewood! All of this pushed me just an inch further upon a path I've been slowly slipping onto for awhile: that mankind was never meant to live in a SuperSociety. That we, and the planet, are better served organized into smaller groups; free of centralized control. It's an idea I've not tried to develop and of course raises as many questions as it answers, but it's interesting to think about. I can say for sure that nothing I saw during my stay at The Slabs discouraged the idea! Slab City was not Survival-of-the-Fittest/ Anarchist Hell. Far from it. There was one unspoken, implied law: Don't fuck with people. Justice will be swift and brutal. It reminded me of hockey in a strange way!

After our little tour, El Jefe, Chris, and I decided to get food, I thought, in Niland. Twenty-miles later, Jefe was pulling into Brawley, the largest town in the area, near the southern shores of the Salton Sea, and on the main east/ west route not named I-8 or I-10. Jefe, being a Supermarketeer, found the local Von's store where we loaded up on food and beer for the night. To Jefe's beer-snob chagrin, I decided on PBR as a tribute to Eric, who I thought would really enjoy Slab City!

Back at the Slabs, the idea was to return to the bunker, build a fire, and replay Friday night. Being shortly after sunset on Saturday, I suggested that we first head up to The Range to see if the music and crowd was better than the night before at the smaller stage. When we got there, Chris immediately vanished into his phone so Jefe and I sat on the recycled couch chatting and watching/ meeting people, including the guy who claimed to have started The Range, Builder Bill. According to Bill, he had started The Range just 7-years ago. Chris McCandless and his underage temptress apparently did NOT wow the crowd with their organic musical talent; at least not from this here stage. Foiled again! Is there NO honesty left in Hollywood?!?

 Despite that, this was a much better collection of people and talent than we had seen the night before, although we scarcely gave the other place a fair chance. Bill explained that the other stage was started by a pissed off former partner who thought Bill was a racist and shortchanged him on tips. Ahh, drama! Melissa made an appearance, the last I would see of her, as did someone we first heard about from her: the man who had recently set the world record for some kind of hike. It was still in progress and he'd stopped off at Slab City to take a break. Melissa referred to him as, "The Under Armor Guy" because of the fact he was sponsored. Although we didn't chat, we spotted him, and his fancy Under Armor sweatshirt.

I also saw for the first time what first struck me as a disturbing, warped, hippie-creature of epic proportion. It was dreadlocked and wearing a dress- although I'm certain it would have defined it a "kilt," or some other culturally enriched garment. I later found that he called himself "Moth", lived in a concrete water tower, and had supposedly been on MTV at one time or another, no doubt perpetrating random acts of douchebaggery to entertain and scar innocent, unsuspecting youth. I remain skeptical of the claim, but if you can tell me who he was, please do. From then on, the thought of having his special brand of nonsense spewed my way greatly outweighed moderate curiosity.

Also making her debut at The Range that night was an anorexic woman I would describe as "Slab City cute." She was selling beers out of a cooler and would resurface with a flourish a couple days later.

As 11:00 rolled around, El Jefe was itching to get back to Phoenix. He had to work Sunday, but obviously had enjoyed his time in the desert. He was jokingly elaborating on how he could just... stay... and was saying it with regularity and less "humor" in his voice each time! I couldn't quite get it across, but I felt both happy and pity for him. Happy that he was asking questions and looking at life through his own eyes rather than relying on the Institutional Filter. The pity came from the familiarity of what's coming: either submission or a fierce battle with ego and fear. Rather than head back out into the desert, I suggested that Chris and I actually set up camp INSIDE Slab City where we may be able to meet more Slabbers and get a better idea of the place. We retrieved our pallets from the bunker, found a spot, built a fire and that was that. Jefe took his leave from there, and Chris and I spent the next couple hours chatting.

Chris had Sunday circled as his departure day. He seemed quietly frantic to resume course to his new destination, San Antonio to see friends, despite adamantly professing (again) to be in "no hurry." Sound familiar? It did to me. Feeling like a broken record cruelly animated for the sole purpose of kicking a dead horse, I suggested just sitting down for a moment to see what happened here. During the 2+ days he'd spent at this spot, tonight was the only real time he had actually spent IN Slab City. He'd allowed the first two days, in my mind, to be hijacked by Leonard's agenda. "What else was here?" I asked.

One of my points of this jaunt had been to see where both he and I were these days, and by now I had spent nearly 24-hours having a silent, goodhearted laugh at Chris's expense. He had written just a week or two earlier how he believed in the Sit Down & Shut Up/ Side Car Analogy ideas; even (wrongly, in my recollection) staking claim that the Side Car as his creation- not that I'm keeping track, of course! Now, here was the familiar character... still unable to relax and unable to resist lunging for the metaphorical handlebar... from that very sidecar.

In the interest of fairness, letting go is difficult, as I've experienced and pointed out a hundred times. But, at some point I believe it must cease to be explained away. Like everything else it either becomes a priority and efforted into practice, or classified as "intellectual fluff" solely conceptualized and presented to impress the intellectual himself: mental masturbation.  

Abstraction to Action.

A recurring theme for this weekend, and the immediate future. We talked about most of this around the campfire that Saturday night, and it was a nice conversation. Yet, at this point, I was wondering as to Chris's role in this little desert-excursion beyond more than a quaint get together...

1/30/10: Slab City-Leonard & Salvation Mountain

Salvation Mountain

One of the first things to learn about "The Slabs" is its primitive clock. With no electricity beyond an occasional car-battery contraption or gas generator, there's little to do past sunset other than sit around a fire drinking beer. While I personally approve of such enriching activities, beer costs money- meaning people are usually in bed EARLY. In fact, Kevin claimed to be in bed often as early as 6 or 7, and up with the sun.

The Bunker

Adam, Melissa, and Jefe awoke early Saturday morning for a trip to the nearby hot springs. Even this is fascinating at Slab City. It apparently flows, preventing the water from stagnating and allowing the springs to be used as a 105-degree natural, communal bath tub! Other than paying $8 to rent a room in Niland for 30-minutes, or hopping in the nearby canal, this is the only way those not living in an RV can bathe. Jefe assumed that everyone jumped in the hot springs wearing their boxers. Jefe assumed wrong. Jefe was ambushed by a full frontal-nudity assault! It remains unclear as to whether he returned fire.

Chris and I awoke shortly after they returned. Adam & Melissa had since made their way to Salvation Mountain to begin toiling with Leonard and Chris wasn't far behind. Jefe and I took our time before walking over ourselves to see this obnoxious-religious-display yet world-famous piece of Americana. I had no intention whatsoever of volunteering my time to restore Leonard's art, yet couldn't articulate why. Something about all the volunteers just rubbed me the wrong way. Dedicating a couple hours out of one day to help out a decrepit old Slabber seemed like a decent thing to do, but there was something commercial about it; it smelled like the Red Cross to me. It wouldn't gel for a few more days; this was 2010's first "forest through the trees." Aww.

After finding Chris pushing a broom, we took our own separate little impromptu tours. I feel safe in saying that Jefe is not quite a Christian man. His visible reaction to this tribute to "God's Love" swung regularly between amazement and amusement! He had a mostly-silent permagrin on his face, and not due to receiving the Holy Spirit. I met Leonard briefly, and was rather surprised to get the same, "people just been loving me from all over the world" line we all heard in the movie. This struck me as a talking point, and rather than engage him personally I subconsciously chose to just watch him interact with the people around us.

I eventually saw what Leonard refers to as the "Into the Wild Room." This struck me as odd, disconnected, and quite a bit "Carthage." At the same time Sean Penn was filming his movie, filmmaker Ron LaMothe was shooting his Chris McCandless documentary, Call of the Wild. LaMothe took a much different approach, challenging many aspects and claims put forth in the book/ movie. One of the scenes in LaMothe's 2007 documentary (presumably before Penn's crew arrived) shows Leonard Knight having no personal recollection of Chris McCandless referring to him (11-years after the book was released) as, "that kid who went to Alaska and died in a van." Through the use of outtake footage, Penn's movie makes it appear as though Leonard had some sort of bonding experience with McCandless. Obviously, he didn't. Or, at least not enough of an impression to even remember him 14-years later.

What does this matter? It wouldn't in a world where horse-blind idealists were interested in critical thought. However, Leonard Knight- while appearing to be a half-crazed, uneducated, possibly learning impaired backwoods rube- has profited nicely from this inferred relationship. Like Alaska and the "Magic Bus," the story has sent flocks of McCandless Cultists into the Mojave Desert with Leonard as a primary attraction. Parched by a thirst for idealism, but drowning in Hollywood glitz, they gush at the old man as, someone who actually KNEW McCandless and is accessible.

But, not actually REMEMBERING McCandless, the idea that Leonard would build an "Into the Wild Room" into this project- his legacy; his ART- supposedly inspired by a vision from God, is baffling considering he likely never met the kid. Baffling that is... until you see the flow of traffic into the place! It's a bonafide tourist attraction with Largest Ball of Twine status! And, half of the attraction is Leonard himself! Because of his homeless, pauper image people steadily bring him food, water... and money. In fact, I personally saw all of these given, repeatedly, in the short hour I was there!

The most memorable was a group of college-aged girls who looked upon Leonard with an awe typically reserved for rock stars. They said their hellos and immediately announced that they had brought him a load of canned food... enough so it would be more efficient to move the car, rather than carry it! I envisioned a dorm room viewing of Into the Wild followed by, "He actually knew Chris, and what he's doing is amaaaaaazing! We should take him Spam!" I saw several people pony up hard cash, and have since discovered that there's even a website saying, "Donations are accepted only if it comes from the heart." I'm going to add that line to my PayPal link. God Bless!

Someone later implied how much he suspects Leonard makes from the Mountain when he pointed out that he's been targeted by thieves over and over again, and that he's having to watch one person in particular even now. Thieves talk. Another Slabber made an interesting point when he implied that Leonard rakes in hundreds of dollars per day: if he's such a man of God, why no ministry or charitable foundation with the money? Why not do SOMETHING with it? To be fair, there was a not-so-subtle tone of jealousy in his voice but the common thread remains: Leonard is NOT hurting for money. That was driven home even as we left that day and a volunteer implored us to take water or food saying, "we have more than we know what to do with." I thought of that particular woman on my way out of the Slabs for good... hitching a ride in a van full of kids going to Niland to sign up for "government cheese."

Of course, there's a flip side to this story. I later learned that Imperial County AND the State of California both wanted to kick all the squatters off of the Slabs years ago. What prevented that from happening was 1.) Slabber's injecting money into Niland's quadriplegic, methhead-deathbed economy and, 2) the money Salvation Mountain tourists bring to Niland. I had assumed Niland viewed Slab City as a boyle on the community's ass. To the contrary. Slab City's residents spending money in town is literally the only thing keeping it afloat. The old military base still generates money!

I honestly don't know what to think of Leonard Knight or Salvation Mountain other than it's an impressive piece of art built by an impressively tenacious individual. I do respect the fact that he's invented a way of life for himself, and that obviously sprang from a vision that he likely couldn't himself explain.

These days, by most accounts the behind the scenes Leonard is ornery, cantankerous and, as one close associate put it, "just an asshole." This is a far cry from the gregarious, happy image presented for public consumption. It reminds me of dealing with the multiple personalities of media divas! I would have liked to have met Leonard 25-years ago before pop-culture and the folk art scene got wind of him. It occurs to me that the Bible's "Camel Verse" may indeed apply to more than just monetary wealth; perhaps it's yet another indictment of success and the ego as well?

Meeting Leonard did reinforce the idea that personal "greatness" is a concocted Crock o' Shit. I don't believe anyone is any "greater" than anyone else. The difference may lie in the willingness to get off one's ass and follow a vision, and not be crippled by fear. Maybe in that sense Leonard deserves their money; perhaps they pay him (and others like him) to compensate for what they're too afraid or too lazy to do themselves?

El Jefe Diablo Blasphemer?

I won't bother with more religious/ commercial connotations, although I did see a 1993 LA Times article referring to Leonard as John the Baptist in the Desert! Do you suppose that generated some money? If there's one thing I've learned from other hitchers and the few panhandlers I've chosen to engage, "God on Cardboard" is the money-magnet waved over the wallet of the self-professed self-righteous.

BONUS PRICELESS ADVICE! NEVER give ANYTHING to ANYONE invoking the words "God Bless", "Blessings", or "Homeless Vet!" They're buzz phrases, like politicians exploiting child safety or advertisers shouting "Two Day Event" or "Breaking News."

Friday, January 29, 2010

1/29/10: Slab City, CA

El Jefe and I finally hit the road for California's Imperial Valley in the early afternoon. Five-hours later, after leaving Quartzsite, the Colorado River, Blythe, and 20-foot cacti behind, we were treated to a stunning I-10 descent into the Imperial Valley and Indio/ Coachella, before hugging the eastern shore of the Salton Sea to the scuttled settlement of Niland... home to Slab City.

The Imperial Valley from Above

The Salton Sea

Slab City is difficult to describe to someone with no frame of reference. It's nearly impossible to explain to the institutionalized. It was futile for me to tell Jefe what to expect, since I wasn't exactly sure myself beyond common basics. Slabbers often describe it as the "last free place in Amerika." They leave the term "free" intentionally ambiguous, but I quickly learned that it's "free" in both rent and state-of-mind. It's the real, unfiltered and raw freedom of The Jungle: with a definite sense of self-responsibility/ determination. The Zoo's caretakers are absent; there's no one to tend to you, your shit, or anything. There's no one to pay to do it, either. There are no utilities. No running water. No sanitation. No amenities of any kind... unless you consider empty concrete WWII-era training-bunkers an "amenity." In the Mojave they're a luxury; ones to be arranged for and reserved!

Coming in, I knew that primarily RVers occupy this abandoned Navy base in the winter months, biding time until the weather up north becomes tolerable... and the desert turns into a 120-degree summer furnace. I also expected a large degree of old-west lawlessness and was prepared to find everything from Rainbow types to fugitives on the run. The opportunity to see this mix of half-million dollar RV's & Mickey & Mallory Knox greatly appealed to me! I was curious to see if a collection of people could coexist in an unregulated, unmonitored environment. Or, whether the "regulated monitoring"/ expectations & separateness would prove to be the source of the any "expected clash." Was the common thread here something other than collecting wealth? Was wealth even a factor at the "Last free place in Amerika?" How, or would people organize themselves? What would this relatively primal, organic community look like?

I received a text from Chris late Thursday afternoon saying he had already arrived, met some people, and was helping Leonard Knight repair Salvation Mountain which was damaged in the storms of the week before. Leonard's at least in his late 70's, has been a Slabber since 1984, and become a kind of face of Slab City because of his now-famous tribute to "God's Love" standing as the unofficial gateway. He and his "Mountain" have been in various documentaries, and Chris and I were introduced to him the same as most folks over the past few years: Into the Wild. Since Jefe and I arrived later than expected, we'd have to wait until Saturday to meet Leonard and see his folk art icon.

Jefe and I met Chris at a small music stage, and after people watching while politely enduring some really bad music, Chris guided Jefe's truck out in to the desert and a bunkers occupied by Adam & Melissa. This would be Friday's camp. Chris had met them at Salvation Mountain and if memory serves, they recruited him to help clean/ repair while he was there. In typical Chris fashion, he now obviously felt an odd sense of obligation to Leonard although to my knowledge Salvation Mountain, particularly its disrepair, had nothing to do with his visit to The Slabs. After having just written my diatribe on the Red Cross, this reeked of...something!

Adam & Melissa were from the LA area, and interesting characters; Adam and I even shared a C-grade celebrity acquaintance who switched to TV/ film after we worked in radio together. We were joined around the cozy fire by Kevin: one of the more interesting characters I've met to date and one who would recur throughout my stay. Kevin lived south of Gallup, New Mexico and was at The Slabs to essentially use his role within Social Service's to provide a buffer from the state, and to help Leonard- who by most accounts was moving deeper into the Southern Hemisphere of Sanity- after starting only near the Tropic of Capricorn! As Kevin described it, they were providing team "assisted living" to Leonard so he could stay and continue working on his Mountain. There were several people who appeared to play a role, with Kevin acting as Leonard's "right hand" until Leonard "got sick of him" after 3-months... which happened like clockwork. Kevin now operated behind the scenes helping whoever was now awaiting their own 3-month termination!

Kevin is one of those interesting road dogs that you meet every so often, but are all too rare. He reminded me a great deal of Don Dufner and Alex Sardine in that he has a McGuyveresque quality about him; he could seemingly make and DO anything! At first I found him annoying because he seemed to think himself as The Perpetual Authority. The problem with my initial assessment was... that... he... apparently... is! He had insight on sailing etc. and was a historian on the Salton Sea area, which is a fascinating story in and of itself even separate of The Slabs.

Jefe was interesting to watch as well. He was battling conflicting ideas surrounding the now-familiar-to-the-reader conflict between safety/ security & freedom. He seemed to enjoy sitting out in the desert's dirt, and I believe began to see and understand that... yes, people DO actually do this in varying degrees. As we went to bed, there was some question as to whether he would stay another day, or head back to the comforts of civilization.

The brightest full moon of the year illuminated the desert floor as El Jefe sacked out in the truck while Chris and I continued to re-acquaint after not seeing each other since 9/19; four-plus months had passed since Port Townsend. While interesting changes had taken place with each of us, some things will never change...

Flash-free Moon Shadows

Thursday, January 28, 2010

1/28/10: Phoenix, AZ-El Jefe

El Jefe liked the idea of a road trip out of Phoenix and agreed to take me to either Indio/Coachella, California or all the way to Slab City itself which is adjacent to the Salton Sea (the huge body of water in S. California that you can see on the map-and from space). The plan for Thursday: hang out after he got out of work. Friday morning: west along I-10 into California.

Jefe and I have an interesting history spanning all the way back to high school. He is one of the VERY few I have remained in regular, albeit intermittent, contact with since. It was on a drive from Des Moines to Phoenix to pay a visit to him in '98 that I acquired my  New Mexico Obsession. I had last seen him in July '05 after driving down from Denver. We had kept in only occasional contact until November, when we began to have regular conversations with scents of déjà vu: Jefe was asking himself very familiar questions. It was always a likely stop on any visit to the California desert, but regaining some of my Spidey Senses I realized that is all seemed to be pointing to Slab City via the Valley of the Sun for whatever reason. It was time to re-visit Phoenix.

There's something amusing about old, antiquated roles when I find myself reunited with old friends! It happened in Michigan last summer and on my '05 visit to Phoenix. This Thursday night was no different. In fact, we wound up at the same bar: The Dubliner. Several beers, vodka belts (a nod to Dennis), and impassioned, incomprehensible conversations later, I finally got to sleep (passed out?) around 5am...

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

1/27/10: 2010 Launch-Viva El Perro Sucio!

The ONLY reason Greyhound is still in business is because it's a monopoly. Every year, they find new and astounding ways to baffle me with what I believed to be futility. I've since realized that it's not "futility"; they just don't fucking care. They don't have to! Why has this company been granted National Bus Line status? More on this latest vulgar display to come...

To catch you up: The remainder of January was spent sporadically chatting with Chris and adjusting my "schedule of intentions" around a string of Pacific storms. Chris had made his way from Denver to Los Angeles to see family making this a prime opportunity to consolidate a few different ideas:

1) Getting together with him to see where we each were nearly a year after boarding the Veggie Bus
2) This is the prime time to pay a visit to Slab City-in the California desert
3) Seeing an old high school friend of mine friend who now lives in Phoenix

When Chris made his abrupt decision on when to go to LA, early in January, I figured it would be worth accelerating my "plans"  (ha!) by a couple weeks in order to accommodate the opportunity. Originally, it appeared as though 1/17 would be the [first?] 2010 departure date...until the storms began battering southern California & Arizona. Chris was buried with family beneath 5 FEET of snow in a cabin near Big Bear while the California and Arizona desert experienced flooding of biblical proportions; at least it seemed that way to them.

With the storms, Chris repeatedly delayed his departure east, which in turn allowed me to creep further toward, and then to, my original date: 1/27. In the end, it worked out perfectly. It would be 1/27 after all, and I was quite glad after seeing news footage that I was NOT in the desert during these storms. In fact, we would all see the effects of these storms first-hand later on.

After coordinating with El Jefe in Phoenix, and having a nice last week in Santa Fe, on January 27, I found myself on the way to Albuquerque to catch the 11:15pm bus for Glendale, AZ. My girlfriend and I had a nice conversation on the way, and it repeatedly struck me that leaving for Phoenix felt similar to departing for Devils Tower last August. We said our goodbyes, and I found myself on that metaphorical "on-ramp" again.

The bus boarded late and was 30-minutes behind to begin with. I was exhausted and fell asleep before the bus had even left the city sprawl.

Imagine my surprise when I woke up a few minutes later to see the bus back at the Albuquerque terminal! Just sitting there. No explanation. Nothing. Just baggage handlers acting like mechanics and checking something on the bus. After 30-45 minutes, the driver finally shared with us that the bus was getting no heat and that we may need to switch buses if it couldn't be fixed. Story: meet theme.

An hour later, we were still on that same bus. Still not moving. Still with no idea of what was going on. The bus was scheduled to arrive in Glendale, AZ at 7:45am, and El Jefe didn't work until 1:30 which gave a 5:45 window on an 8-hour ride, so I felt safe. Others, however, were not so lucky and quite pissed off that they were going to miss their connectors...and were not being told details.

At 2am we were finally herded like cattle aboard another bus and again on I-40 toward Flagstaff. I chose to remain awake this time to observe the ruckus if we were delayed again! Now over two-hours behind, and likely arriving at 9:45 rather than 7:45, I figured Jefe could sleep in a bit so (selfishly) this wasn't a complete clusterfuck.

I awoke periodically through the night to the sight of slick roads due to a moderate snowstorm in Arizona. At 6:45, I discovered to my utter dismay that we were still an hour EAST of Flagstaff! I called Jefe to let him know, and resigned myself to fate. A couple hours late isn't so bad as long as nothing else happened.

As long as "nothing else happened?" Ha! This is El Perrito Sucio!

The driver emphatically told everyone that we would be in Flagstaff NO LONGER than 5-minutes. Forty-five minutes later the driver had vanished and the passengers were something a bit south of restless. To complicate matters, Flagstaff had received the same 5-FEET of snow as Big Bear thus the terminal was closed out of fears the roof may collapse from the snow's weight!

An hour after arriving, a woman intending to board in Flagstaff instantly became the target of wrath when some especially abrasive passengers assumed we were being held up by HER for some reason. Despite her gladly joining the chorus of frustration, and even laying on the bus's horn to hurry things up, she was understandably upset by how other passengers treated her and decided to find other means by which to travel.

Shortly after she left, the bus driver returned to admonish the mob insisting she had nothing to do with the delay. When he didn't respond to my query, "Then, what the fuck IS the delay?", I politely offered that perhaps the loss of her patronage was then HIS fault, not the fault of passengers who had been abandoned then ignored for FOUR hours on this supposed 8-hour ride.

Did he think we'd go Hymn Time Country Style? Reenact episodes of Gilligan's Island? It was closer to Mutiny on the Bounty.

Near 9:00 (two hours after this "5-minute" stop began), I became concerned. If this went on much longer, I was in real danger of missing my ride. Thankfully, the driver came out to confirm another rumor: that he was awaiting a fax from Greyhound; one clearing him to continue on to Phoenix, presumably due to driver time-limitations. A few minutes later, the fax had come and we were mercifully on our way south mocking the bus driver, and organizing to be sure that no one on that bus paid for the ride.
Somewhere near Sedona
Despite my concerns, things worked out fine. The bus arrived in Glendale with enough time for Jefe to pick me up AND get to work, leaving me at his house to contemplate what came next...

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Haiti & Lessons from Katrina

"Some Much Needed Reality: Haiti's been a shithole for a century. People dying everyday. Crime that made looting-for-survival look tame. All of the sudden millions of you "care" because you see pictures and CNN tells you to; showing you "care" by sending a txt/ writing a check? Before spouting how much you "care," show me what you were doing 2-weeks ago, or just write your $10 check and shut the fuck up." -TWW, 1/23/10

It doesn't happen often, but occasionally I can't say it any better (or more succinctly) than I already have. Inundated with pleas to "Help Haiti," I've spent the last few days waiting out a string of Pacific storms, preparing to leave, and buried in old notebooks looking to add highlights to the beginnings of this Odyssey. Coincidentally, a large part of the backstory revolves around August & September, 2005: Hurricane Katrina, and volunteering in Mississippi and New Orleans during the aftermath.

Part of that "experience" was futilely trying to navigate the corporate charities and the "faith based" organizations who first wanted to know "how I was with Jesus", which I'm sure Our Redeemer greatly appreciated. For a full month in 2005, I tried the proper channels in Denver making it crystal clear that I was available for whatever they needed-- as long as they needed it. Unless I was a doctor, they just wanted my money. I pointed out, repeatedly, that I KNEW there had to be SOMETHING I could do-- even if it was just hauling debris. They assured me that the best way I could "help" was to send money-- at roughly the same time I was being told "Brownie" was "dooin' a helluva job." With that, I connected a few dots and remembered the accusations shortly after 9/11: that donations were embezzled or diverted in directions that, had the public known, would have caused millions of people (including me) to think twice about donating after September 11th. Since then, I refuse to give them a nickel. Disaster relief has taken on the putrid odor of reality TV mating with big business. What I personally saw on the ground in Mississippi and New Orleans confirmed it.

I'll provide links in the archives (Aug- Oct '05) as I get things transcribed, but there are 2 slogans I remember hearing repeatedly while there. "Fuck FEMA!" And, "Fuck the Red Cross!" In my week+, I saw exactly one Red Cross vehicle. It was two-days late. Short on supplies. The driver explained that they were understaffed. About then I heard the Denver Red Cross operator saying, "the best way to help is to send money!" Not, "can you drive a truck?" I found it telling that, despite the propaganda NO ONE on the ground had ANYTHING good to say about the Red Cross. In fact, they usually said "FEMA/ Red Cross" in the same breath. FEMA has been vilified since, but the Red Cross PR machine couldn't allow that to happen. I'd be willing to bet that few if any of my cohorts have donated to the Red Cross since Katrina. I'd invite you to do a little research. Google "Red Cross September 11 Scandal" and "Red Cross Scandal."

In typical fashion, in 2005 I ultimately told the corporate charities to go fuck themselves; a Red Cross operator I finally told literally. Then I hopped in my Jeep, drove the 1,000+ miles, and arrived on the Gulf Coast unannounced knowing I'd find someone who could use help. Through a disconnected tip, I found a Louisiana Humane Society setup, was eagerly welcomed and spent the week+ there-- which included a couple trips into New Orleans to try to gather displaced pets. What I saw both at the camp, and particularly in the city, shaped many of my core-beliefs-- as you can imagine. One of which is how to "be of help." Or, to invoke Andre, "be of maximum assistance." Writing a check, like flying a flag after 9/11, is literally the very least we can do. Unless you're adopting a family and mailing them to Finland, money donations are little more than a token gesture; something to make yourself feel warm and cuddly. "I am one with Haiti. Wait! Leno's back? But... I'M WITH COCO!" Worse, your money is likely to be gobbled up by the corporate structure and red tape of a bureaucratic machine like the Red Cross... even one clean of corruption.

I'm unsure when the Red Cross became The Official Charity of The United States of America, but since 9/11 it's come to resemble more of a saturation-style marketing machine. Every politician, every pundit, every Hollywood douchebag urging you to "give to the Red Cross!" as if there is NOTHING else you need to do. As if your $10 check will "save the children", and you can happily resume your lives completely inconvenienced and completely convinced that you "care" as you show the world via your Facebook status that you're a humanitarian!

If you truly "care" about the people there, you'll likely find a way to provide some sort of tangible assistance. If you can, you'll find something that just might, possibly, disrupt your comfortable routine. You'll get off your ass and get dirty; do something more than spend money to get drunk over at The Skank's Den because "proceeds go to Haiti relief!" If you choose to do so, fine. But keep in mind that you're not doing something particularly humanitarian. Most likely, you're doing what CNN is telling you to do during what's again become wall-to-wall disaster porn, and you're doing it on-cue. Anderson Cooper and Wolf Blitzer have become our purveyors of conscience. Unless you were involved in Haiti 3-weeks or 3-years ago, just write your check, pat yourself on the back quietly, and go about your business.

Bragging about it is, to me, enraging; a slap in the face to the people I saw sleeping in tents at a Winn Dixie parking lot. People who would periodically have to not only CHASE their tents, which the wind blew away from time-to-time because it's impossible to stake a tent on concrete, but also had their main shelter roped down to concrete wheel-stops-- which were also unstable due to the wind! These people worked non-stop in primitive, ridiculous conditions because there wasn't enough staff. They needed help, not money. Volunteers going door-to-door performing body-checks. They needed help, not canned peas. People pulling survivors off roofs and out of the rubble. They needed people willing to miss this week's episode of 24. Folks passing out bottled water because there was/ is no safe water to drink. They need MORE water, not help with Gail McGovern's $500,000 annual salary or $65,000 signing bonus.

Winn Dixie, New Orleans

Remembering the conversation with Howard in August, I decided to try once again to find channels through which to personally get to Haiti. After running into the same systemic static, I decided to save the frustration and continue on as planned. If like me you can't/ choose not to get involved directly, at least investigate other avenues beyond the mega corporate-charities. If you're going to give money, give it locally... for example a secular organization sending volunteers from your area. Or, at least give to an organization that comes with a referral from someone other than Nancy Pelosi! You can also buy non-perishables, sanitary supplies, etc. yourself and give them directly to donation stations. The actual items have a much higher likelihood of arriving intact than money given to buy them! And of course, if you know of a group with an extra seat on the plane, let me know...

Attempted (and failed) rescue. The Dog would NOT leave its house.
Note the water lines on the van...

Sunday, January 3, 2010

2010: The Beginning

With most of the rest of the world, 2010 began quietly for us in Boise. Benefiting from her nearly 12-hours of sleep, Lynette was up and off to the Dilliards sale by 7am while the rest us were still snug in our beds...with Rum Runners and Champagne preparing to beat on our heads. I say "our" clearly knowing that I was likely the sole sufferer not named Mike or Lynette. I need the illusion-of-companionship at times. That being said, Laina too was unable to function due to a massive hangover. I can't even fathom how she drinks like she does. Perhaps a meeting is in order?

I feel better.

In place of venturing out, Lynette napped then decided to take down Christmas decorations; another one of those moments where I feel like a lost child at the mall or Neverland Ranch. (Too soon?) Since I was 11 or 12, I've had a tree exactly once; at the request of my ex-girlfriend, I believe in 1998! I seem to remember she was introduced to the fact that I was Cheer Challenged; saying something about "damaged goods." This from the woman who literally hid inside our apartment on Y2K. True story. I'd pay serious money to peek in her windows on 12.21.12! This decade began much better than the millennium, but I digress...

To be fair, it goes far beyond decorations and cards. As with my birthday, I don't "do" gifts. It's one of the things Laina, and everyone I've dated just LOVES... especially on V.D. (Valentine's Day). Like nearly everything, it's the principle of the thing. I won't jump-on-cue to show I care, especially when the "cue" is coming from retailers complete with reminders that it's "my duty" to "support the economy." Umm..."fuck you." I won't have my affections evaluated by a grand total of receipts, and I'm quite sure that EVERY kiss beginning with Kay ends with emotional Herpes. Remember that next month.

Beyond bribery and a taught sense of entitlement, there's an element of hypocrisy to the "holiday season." Poor people need help in March, too. Hungry families need to eat more often than just Thanksgiving and Christmas. People still appreciate politeness and kindness in September. Except on my birthday. Your estranged mother may still want to hear from you in October. It's a Wonderful Life still plays on Memorial day, right George? Wait... do angels hibernate? It's the questions that drive us...

Sparing you a full-on rant (one I intended to write last month. Am I not merciful?), allow me to offer that self-interest driven, marketing-induced charity is NOT charity. It's a business agreement with December's deity du jour.  

Your deity knows better.

You may be better off acting like the selfish prick you really are than pretending to be righteous. At least then... you're an honest prick! Suffice it to say I don't agree with the Francis Xavier Cross Philosophy...

With all this considered, there was yet another of these "strange," out-of-character moments as I watched Lynette & Laina pack ornaments. The notion of a "family tradition" set in as I gazed at Ben & Brads early childhood ornaments. Stability. Something to count on and look forward to every year. Something I literally have NO concept of. It was as though I finally learned something taught in 2nd grade; something that illuminated another barren wing of my psyche. All this from the most mundane of things. That theme holds, even in my metaphorical cave...

This is when I realized just how well Laina was taking to everyone. This was a familiar element to her, granted, but it went beyond that. I was oblivious to the fact that she was observing me, too. Being self-absorbed, the obvious had never occurred to me: this was the first time she had ever seen me in a family setting of my own. She'd met my mother and sister of course, but at best only on my shotgun 2-hour "in & outs." I discovered later that watching me interact with my sisters, Dave, and my nieces and nephews gave her a fresh, positive perspective. For a guy who prides himself on his observant nature, I screwed the pooch* on this one.

* No pooches were screwed making this blog...

Saturday came much too soon. We had another day-long drive and Laina worked Monday. Ben & Brad had gone to their dad's on Friday, so the seven of us left were off on Todd's Great Journal-Insert Hunt and a late lunch before Laina and I hit the road around 5pm. It was hard to leave. Casa Fogg holds many memories in 4-months and, as I wrote in September, this was another of those experiences that help people pass from simple siblings to being brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews, uncles...and Dave.

I kid the lawyer. It's reflex; I'm programmed to detest lawyers & politicians. Dave's an anomaly.

** FUN FACT: The first shirt I wore when I met Lynette & Dave in August read: "The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers!" Lynette's response, "I can't believe you're actually going to wear that shirt in this house." After an emphatic, "Oh, FUCK!" I turned about 40-shades of red and borrowed the "Michigan" shirt you see in the pics...

During lunch, it dawned on me that Lynette, Shelly, and I had spent next to NO time talking about Ward & The Hens. I pointed out, more to myself than aloud, that I saw this as significant. It showed that there was more focus on the future, rather than just bitching about the past. I was relieved that the three of us could relate beyond simple idle gossip and dime-store Drama.


Amanda & Lynette

Part of that future continued to be speculation about "Rallying 'Round the 'Black Sheep'" in Boise. Shelly seems to have gone from considering a relocation, to determined to get it doneLaina and I had talked about it a bit more over the couple of days there, but it always came back to the same thing: "When am I going to be done with this?" Any talk of relocating from Santa Fe begins and ends with that question; one of those which has no answer... much like, "How can an attorney sleep at night?"

I kid the lawyer.

Laina finally distracted me enough with coffee & fudge to get us moving, and after hugs, handshakes, and a quick REI exchange-stop, we were on our way back. The weather cooperated nicely to Salt Lake City. Rather than returning the way we came, at the last moment Laina inexplicably decided to take I-80 thru Wyoming and Denver! Why? I have no idea. It was as though a confused, misguided navigator had influenced her to take that exit. I'll spare further analysis and move on, but whatever the reason, after we had gotten thru the staggeringly gorgeous Wasatch mountains east of the city, a familiar theme resumed. Snow. Again. It would appear that the ghost of Joseph Smith was holding a grudge and that he was really bored... because it would only snow when I drove!

A nice part of Wyoming was stopping in Rawlins, revisiting the truckstop where Doug had dropped me off and I'd met Cesar in 2008. Next was the Laramie-Cheyenne snowstorm...which stopped as soon as Laina started driving! Despite having 75mph speed limits and one-way traffic the whole way, because of the snow it still took us 24-hours to get home. We were both exhausted, and Laina was getting sick. She did call in to work after all!

Rawlins, WY Revisited