Compassion is a crust of bread

Peggy, our neighbor Ellie, and I went to the Cascades yesterday where they hiked a loop trail over two little mountains (Aubrey and Heckletooth) while I finished reading Main Street. They returned exhausted, although Peggy had previously considered the hike easy, and Ellie is a martial artist who is eight years younger than Peggy. Peggy is simply in the worst shape she has ever been; as for Ellie, fitness in one sport seldom translates into fitness in another.

I hate sitting on the sidelines while Peggy does things that we used to do together. No matter that I always wanted to read more and hike less; I wanted to do it by choice. And I find it almost as hard to watch Peggy’s decline as to watch my own. I’ve seen her train vigorously for months for a single climb up a Hood or a Shasta, this despite her inability to adjust to altitude. Many times, she vomited her way to the tops of mountains that defeated people of greater ability. Now, I see her exhausted by an eight-mile hike below 4,000 feet, and I am astounded that age has come upon her so quickly.

Aging appeared so desirable when I was young. Thirteen, eighteen, and twenty-one, were occasions for pride. But then came thirty and the end of young adulthood. Forty was halfway to death. Fifty was halfway to antiquity. At 57, I can scarcely believe the things I could do five years ago that are now impossible. No diet, supplement, exercise, or attitude can erase the accumulated months and years. Yet, they passed so quickly. Age is like a runaway boxcar that is scarcely noticed when it leaves the yard, but how dizzying its speed and how sure its destruction when it drops into the darkness of the valley below.

I would be at yoga now, but I strained both shoulders two weeks ago, and they have deteriorated to the point that my hands and forearms tingle continuously. I tried to find ways to do yoga anyway, but I finally had to give it up. I thought to do a few simple stretching exercises at home, but even those made my shoulders worst. Now, sharp pains in my knee are keeping me awake at night.

My deterioration inspires me to look back at my life and wonder what it was all about; and to look ahead at my life, and wonder what it is all about. Self-pity is not admirable; yet it seems to me that the pretty pictures we paint in order to get through our lives are less than rational. Some believe in heaven, or at least in some Higher Power that put us on earth for a reason. Others believe that, just as the flap of a butterfly’s wing is said to have the power to create a typhoon, everything we do has the potential for inestimable importance. Finally, for those who lack such comforting beliefs—who can find no reason to think that life has any meaning other than the meaning we give it—there is the possibility of focusing upon more humble goals. We accumulate things, or live for our families, or donate to charity, but we know that our choices are made on the basis of an existence that is as paltry in wisdom as it is in length.

I have spent years working on a house that will someday be torn down, yet I work for what it means to me now. I exercise a body that will soon rot, yet I exercise it for the good I can get from it now. This is how I live, and sometimes it seems reasonably satisfying, and sometimes it seems empty. Sometimes, I must struggle to find a reason to get out of bed. I think that, well, when I deteriorate beyond the point that I am willing to tolerate, there is always suicide (I dwell on this daily). Then I remember Peggy, and I know I couldn’t voluntarily leave her. I also think of my dogs and, in their absence, of the dogs at the pound, and I think that, well, even if my life becomes of no value to myself, it could still be of value to them. So what if my time is short and my efforts paltry; surely a brief and paltry effort is better than no effort at all. I believe suicide can be a noble way to die, but not until the drain of my life on others exceeds the good that I can create.

Do I know that I am right about this? How could I in my brief life and with my limited knowledge? Yet, I can distinguish between consolation and despair, and if I can bring more of the former than of the latter, I will have my reward. The problem is that it is awfully hard sometimes to care about consolation. If I console an unwanted dog that is about to be euthanized (I have consoled—and destroyed—many such dogs), I will have done something, yet the dog will be no less dead, and will have no more memory of whether it lived in a castle or died in a pound. By such thoughts, good is enfeebled; and the only thing I can say in its defense is that, poor though it be, it is all I have. If a starving man is thrown a small crust of bread, will he not eat it? Even if it serves only to prolong his misery, he would be a rare man who could refuse it; and I would be less than admirable if I could withhold it.

Peggy joins S.C.U.M.

Today, I went for part (which was all I could survive) of an all day workshop at the Sikh kundalini yoga center. I knew almost nothing about kundalini, so I looked it beforehand in Wikipedia. I quote:

“Summary of Known Problems [resulting from kundalini]: Death, pseudo death, psychosis, pseudo psychosis, confusion, anxiety, panic attacks, depression, sadness, suicidal thoughts, urges to self-mutilate, homicidal urges, arrhythmia, exacerbation of prior or current mental illness, insomnia, inability to hold a job, inability to talk, inability to drive, sexual pains, temporary blindness, and headaches.”

I naturally wondered if I would survive the afternoon, but, “what the heck,” I said to myself, “it's free. Besides, what are the odds that I’ll have all these problems at once?”

I was the only male in a roomful of middle-aged women (the other men having presumably died or gone insane), all of whom sat comfortably on the floor with their legs in a lotus position while I propped myself torturously against the wall. We practiced exercises that seemed so fiendishly designed to destroy knees that, had I been paranoid, I would have thought the teachers knew I was coming and were out to get me. We—rather the rest of the class—sat with their knees bent so their feet were beneath their butts; they squatted with their heels touching one another; and then they returned to a lotus position. I had to stifle my laughter as I considered the absurdity of my utter ineptness at doing any of the things that everyone else could do so easily.

Not that the teachers were content with knee twisting exercises. We also stared at our noses, tightened our anal sphincters, drew energy through our navels, chanted the same four syllables interminably, touched our fingers to our thumbs in time with our chanting, and panted—all at the same time. I could soon see that kundalini yoga would indeed drive me stark raving mad, and that it wouldn’t take long either.

After three sessions, each of which was wilder than its predecessor, I left. I couldn’t believe that people actually do this stuff, yet my curiosity would have kept me there for the final hour if only I could have sat in a chair.

As I biked home, I reflected upon my inability to do a single exercise correctly as well as the absence of other men in the class, and I recalled the S.C.U.M. (Society for Cutting-Up Men) Manifesto which was written in 1967 by Valerie Solanas, the radical feminist who shot Andy Warhol. The following will give but a mild taste of her sentiments:

“The male is a biological accident: the Y (male) gene is an incomplete X (female) gene, that is, it has an incomplete set of chromosomes. In other words, the male is an incomplete female, a walking abortion…. the male is unfit even for stud service…[he] is, nonetheless, obsessed with screwing; he’ll swim through a river of snot, wade nostril-deep through a mile of vomit, if he thinks there’ll be a friendly pussy awaiting him.”

Since the part about snot and vomit was true enough, I asked Peggy--my resident nurse--whether the male Y gene really is simply an X gene with some parts missing. She said, “Picture a Y. What you’ve got is an X with only one leg right? This being undeniable, it necessarily follows that every Y that ever existed was a totally screwed-up, irredeemable mess. This is why the women in your yoga class could stand on one foot with their other limbs extended while you crashed to the floor. They were mighty towers of beauty and light; you were a three-legged dog in a hurricane.”

“Uh,” I interrupted. “I knew there were X genes and Y genes, but it never occurred to me that the genes really looked like Xs and Ys or that they had to spend their lives on their feet, as it were.”

“Well, sad to say, but now you know,” Peggy concluded. “This is knowledge that female nurses have always had, but that male doctors—even geneticists—have been protected from. Mine is, after all, a compassionate gender. That’s why we don’t start wars or beat people up like you stupid men.”

So it is that I will leave kundalini yoga to the gender that is better suited for it, and welcome to it they are. I had rather be strapped to a chair and forced to watch sitcoms from the 70s.

Extreme fighting letdown

Jay and his wife, Danette, took me to breakfast yesterday. Danette mentioned that they were going to watch a fight Sunday, caught herself, and apologized to Jay for telling me something that maybe she shouldn’t have. He told her that I already knew he was "not your usual yoga teacher,” and explained that Danette was referring to extreme fighting, and that they watch it on pay-per-view. All I know of extreme fighting is that it consists of putting two men in a cage in a combination boxing match, wrestling event, martial arts contest, and barroom brawl. The fight ends when one man is too injured to continue.

I have a problem with my yoga teacher taking pleasure in such an event, and I have a bigger problem with him watching it regularly and paying to support it. But then is it reasonable for me to care about the ethics of my yoga instructor (president, mail carrier, etc.)? So what if he enjoys violence—or kiddie porn for that matter—as long as he is a good teacher? My every relationship implies that I have weighed the good against the bad, and found in favor of the good.

I don’t know if I will find Jay’s behavior sufficiently offensive to change studios, but I suspect I will, as I have noted that I progress through six steps in regard to behavior that troubles me. First, I feel shocked. Second, I try to understand why the person might do such a thing. Third, I wonder if I am blowing the situation out of proportion. Fourth, I remind myself that no one is perfect, people interpret events differently, and what looks to me like a pattern of ethical failure might turn out to be a fleeting phase. Fifth, the problem continues to bother me. Sixth, I give up on the relationship.

Something that greatly bothers me today seldom bothers me less tomorrow. This only leaves the alternative of changing the way the other person looks at his behavior, and I rarely attempt that. In this case, I doubt that I could offer any objection to extreme fighting that Jay is unaware of, and I would anticipate alienating him by discussing it. It therefore seems preferable to break ties gracefully. If I decide to leave his studio, there are many reasons I might offer that would be less truthful, yet also less damaging. I do not believe in being truthful in the absence of any good that I imagine coming from it.


My yoga studio is four months old and is run by Jay, a former track coach from Colorado. He is forty, and his big muscles, shaved head, and in-your-face stare make him look more like a belligerent cop than a yoga instructor. Indeed, he took up yoga to deal with his aggression. Still, I trust him. I park my bike in his office, borrow his books, take his coffee grounds home for compost, have offered to help enlarge his studio, and play outrageous pranks on him.

For example, when I fell on my neck during a handstand that he encouraged me to try, I walked stiffly into class the next day with an ace bandage around my throat with (used) paint paddles poking out. While Jay freaked, I told him morosely that I had been unable to turn my head since class and had suffered a continuous nosebleed. He insisted that I see a doctor immediately. “Doctor?” I asked distractedly. “I don’t think I need one of those. I’m feeling a lot better with just vodka and codeine.” He never did get it, so I finally had to tell him that I was pulling his leg.

Jay pays other teachers to work in his studio, but he conducts most of the classes. The average class consists of one to four. This is good for me because I receive a lot of personalized attention, but no so good for him. He is hoping things will pick up now that summer is over, and I am hoping he can afford to wait.

I pay $60 a month for unlimited sessions, and go nine hours a week. I drop any and everything when it’s time for class because I see yoga as my best shot at strengthening my knee. Otherwise, I will have to forego my remodeling projects, and even housework is difficult when my arthritis is at its worst. After two months of yoga, I can do things that I would not have thought possible.
Before my knee problems, I never considered yoga. It doesn’t involve pumping iron, breathing hard, or sweating profusely: any of the things that I associate with getting in shape. Yet, I had the thought in class today that yoga is so demanding that it could be used as torture. All that would be necessary would be to put the victim into one of scores of postures, and make him stay there for ten minutes. My muscles often tremble before a count of ten, and a count of 100 would be impossible.

Yoga appeals to me for many reasons. It is artistic in a way that jogging, swimming, or lifting weights is not. It is also ancient (The Yoga Sutras are 4,000 years old but contain knowledge that was old even then). It can be done almost anywhere with no equipment. Finally, it develops strength, balance, flexibility, and spirituality, all at the same time. I am made to do hard things, but, paradoxically, the only way I can do them is to relax.

Jay gave me a t-shirt today on which is a triangle, the points of which represent mind, body, and spirit. A month ago, I was the only one in my Wicca class who took the position that straight lines are no less magical than curves. I argued that snowflakes, honeycombs, and basalt columns are objects of unparalleled beauty and mystery, yet all are angular. I also mentioned my love of triangles. To be presented with a representation of a triangle today touched me. I cannot say that it proves anything about the track I am on, yet I could not reasonably hope for a track that would serve me better—not that this keeps me from looking.

I am especially curious about Qigong and Tai Chi. The former is nearly as old as Yoga and is a part of Chinese medicine. The latter is less than 200 years old, and is both a soft martial art (the muscles remain relaxed) and a form of meditation and exercise. I am drawn to Qigong because of Tai Chi’s relative newness and its use as a martial art. I am drawn to Tai Chi because, unlike Yoga and Qigong, its movements flow from one into another, and this gives it a greater aesthetic appeal.

Your guide to becoming a conservative talk radio host

Conservative talk radio is like professional wrestling: it is about sensationalism not substance. To this end:

Aim to reach the segment of the population that has never heard the term "logical fallacy" and would think it was a liberal plot if they had.

Never made a point that is too complicated to put on a bumper sticker.

Accuse anyone who disagrees with you of attempting to deny your Constitutional right to free speech.

Play and replay sound bites of the most radical statements ever made by any member of a group that you oppose on any subject. Play the braying of a donkey or the crying of a baby in the background.

Describe yourself as world famous or internationally recognized.

Proclaim yourself as the only credible source of information about what’s really going on.

Accuse the media elite of trying to silence you.

Say you can’t accede to pleas that you run for president because you have more power in your present job.

Take personal credit for changes in government policy that agree with your political position.

Regularly repeat such assurances as I’m looking out for you, or I’m your source for fair and balanced information.

Constantly assure your listeners that they constitute an unusually diverse and intelligent audience.

Never debate a rational caller/guest. Talk over him; call him a Kool-Aid drinker, a Looney-Tune, or a nobody; ask him why, if he’s so smart, he doesn’t have his own talk show; say that he is just the kind of America-hater that you are trying to warn people against before it’s too late.

Demand that members of groups you oppose disprove widespread allegations of nudism, atheism, socialism, drug abuse, secular humanism, Communist influence, etc. within their ranks. Ask callers/interviewees if they are personally involved in such activities. Ask why they hate American or Christianity, or if it is true that they are close friends with Jane Fonda.

Refer to the caller/guest as a member of the liberal elite or the leftist fringe. Ask why they won’t come down out of their Ivory Tower and talk to real people about real issues.

Ask atheists why they hate God. Offer to buy vegetarians a steak dinner. Ask animal rights advocates why they love snakes more than children. Ask environmentalists which trees make the best huggers, and why they prefer the starvation of rural families to the harvesting of a renewable resource.

Put the caller/guest on hold, change the subject, go to a break, or replay an irrelevant sound bite when you feel cornered.

Say that anyone who won’t come on your show is obviously a coward.

Remember that a lie will gain credibility if it’s repeated often enough, for example, “Fair and Balanced.”

How we camp

We sleep in the van at the end of abandoned logging roads. We find these roads on topo maps, our ideal spot being one from which the earth drops away steeply on three sides. Because the roads we choose are abandoned but passable, the forest will have been cut recently enough that we have a view. We also like to camp in remote quarries because they consist of large open areas cut from steep hillsides, and because I enjoy studying the rocks. The problem with quarries is that other people use them for camping and target practice. This means there is a chance of the dogs finding something to roll in.

We carry water in one-gallon juice jugs. We like Langer’s jugs because they are rectangularish and take up less space than the same number of round jugs. Four gallons a day is adequate, and we can conveniently pack twelve.

We take food from the freezer for our suppers. This reduces the amount of ice we need. I drink water, coffee, and Tang. Peggy drinks water and milk. If I forgot to pack the coffee, I would have to go looking for some. Peggy is the same way about milk. Among our other staples are homemade crackers and biscuits (made by me) and cookies (made by Peggy).

Peggy is the camp cook, and I am the cleaner, straightener, and organizer. We work together to make the bed and wash the dishes. For years, we heated soapy water on a Coleman stove for the dishes. I never saw much reason for this, so we finally went to pouring cold soapless water over them and using our fingers as a dishcloth.

I wouldn’t bother to heat our meals if Peggy weren’t adamant. I don’t even heat mine at home where it is a lot more convenient. If I’m really cold, hot food is nice, but then if I’m really cold, it’s an more annoying to stand outside and heat it.

Our bed is a four-inch foam mattress that lays atop a homemade plywood box that we use for storage (we took two rows of seats out of the van to make room for it). The box has a large lid at either end, which means that the mattress lifts up when one of the lids is raised. For this reason, we try to keep things that we are likely to want while we’re in bed where we can get to them. Otherwise, we have to either both get out of bed, or one of us has to move to the head of the bed while the other gets out and raises the lid.

For lighting, we use two hanging lanterns that run off D-cell batteries. We like to read in bed. I take along natural history books and whatever else I’m reading at the time, and Peggy takes a mystery novel or an adventure story.

We carry a .38 special and a can of bear-strength pepper spray. The .38 is the one thing that we don’t leave in the van even for a five-minute walk. Bonnie is so afraid of fireworks that if I ever had to fire the .38, I doubt that we would ever see her again. This worries me, but it would worry me more to visit isolated places without something that will shoot farther and hit harder than pepper spray.

I used to take a .357 magnum, but it was too big and heavy to carry in my pocket. The .38 is a little heavy too, but, on those rare instances when someone approaches our camp, I can slip it discreetly into my jacket pocket with my finger on the trigger.

A couple and their dog were murdered in the woods sixty miles from Eugene last summer for no apparent reason. Their killer has not been found. The murder scared Peggy but had little impact on me. I believe that random murders happen all the time, but that we only hear of them when they’re close to home. I am also consoled by the thought that we camp in such remote areas that no one is likely to find us. We’ve even been known to block our road with limbs.

I read that a person’s states of alertness to danger can be compared to the colors of a redlight. If you live under condition red too much, you get sick from the strain; but if you stay under condition green, you make yourself an easy target. I try to practice condition yellow, which is a state of relaxed watchfulness, but I never get really good at it.

Dogs are better in this regard. I envy their ability to go from limp mellowness to bare-toothed aggression in the space of a heartbeat. Human beings are more emotionally complicated, and this works against us. It’s as if we have thirty speeds, and we have to go through each of them to move up or down; whereas dogs only have three speeds, and those speeds correspond to our numbers one, fifteen, and thirty. Having a dog is like having a guardian angel. If I had to choose between losing my dogs and losing my human friends, I would keep the dogs. This is a not a statement about how little I value my friends, but how much I value my dogs.

Bonnie and Baxter are good about staying near us. We can put them out and take a nap, and not worry about them wandering off, although, after having saved Baxter from predators twice, I worry about what might wander off with him. Bonnie is only eight pounds heavier but a lot more formidable.

I’ve been surprised by how close to people predators will come to kill a dog. I used to only worry about mountain lions; now I can’t even relax around hawks and bobcats. If they are willing to approach a dog that is fifty feet from its master; I would expect a mountain lion to be much bolder. Other than people, mountain lions are the only thing in the woods that scare me. Attacks are rare, but they have brought down adult male cyclists, and their population has been on the increase since hunting them with dogs was outlawed.

The dogs sleep on the front seats at night. When we’re driving, Baxter generally sits on the bed and observes the scenery while Bonnie rests on the floor between our seats. Unless she rolls in something, Bonnie stays clean and has a pleasant musky smell. After a day in the woods, Baxter’s curly fur is so full of dirt, twigs, and plant seeds, that he looks and smells like he has been in the woods for months.

I bathe daily with alcohol. As I tell Peggy, “I’m not just clean, I’m sterilized.” She doesn’t find alcohol baths as satisfying, so she uses water sometimes and alcohol sometimes. After three days, she shampoos her hair while I pour cold water over her head. Since I use alcohol on my hair too, I don’t have this problem.

Peggy and I go to places that other people take little interest in. This puts us at less risk of having our van burglarized while we are on a trail, and it reduces problems with the dogs going ballistic when they encounter another person or dog, but the main reason is that we enjoy the wilderness more when we have it to ourselves. Since most people prefer to be around water or near timberline, finding solitude is easy. Ironically, we can get away from people better by staying closer to home. The Cascade crest is seventy road miles from Eugene, while the deep woods of the Middle Fork Ranger District begin at forty. I suspect that most people who drive to the Cascade crest haven’t even heard of the Middle Fork District.

We are also better able to find solitude than most people because we use better maps. The forest service will sell you a topographic district map that shows every last road, but for some reason they won’t display such maps so that you know they exist. The map that they do display is for an entire national forest and is inadequate for our purposes because it only shows a third of the roads and has no elevation lines.

We sometimes use geographic survey maps that depict an area of about 42 square miles, but they are more appropriate for backpackers. We would need to know an awful lot about a small area to require something that detailed, but they are fun to look at in bed on wintry nights. I had never seen a topographic map before moving here from Mississippi, and have since wondered what one for the Mississippi Delta would look like.

We carry short-legged lawn chairs for relaxing around camp. We also carry a toilet seat on legs. We squatted for years, but my knee will no longer bend properly, and Peggy never took to squatting anyway. I initially thought that using a potty was sissified, but I would no longer be without one.

We use a roll-up table for cooking. This was Peggy’s idea, but she is so delighted with her table that I am happy we have it. Yet, when the hour is late, and I’m tired, I sometimes wonder why, if we must cook, we can’t just set the stove on the floor of the van. I have to remind myself that luxuries are essential; it’s just that we require different luxuries, and that she requires a few more than I. Not that I’m counting—heavens no.

Now that I can no longer hike, we might have to take different kinds of trips. This is why our recent vacation put us in contact with so many people. If we had made it purely a backcountry adventure, I would have spent most of my time near the van while Peggy was out hiking with the dogs. By adding a historic/social element, we were able do more together. My love of hiking makes my knee problem more traumatic. We’ve only gone out about four times this season, whereas we usually go at least twice a month.

Desert Wonders

I forgot to address the Indian history of the Fort Rock area. Seventy 9,000-year-old sagebrush sandals were found in a cave there in 1938. More recently, human excrement (see photo) was carbon dated to 14,300 years. I don’t know what was done with the, uh, poop, after it was dated. I would like to see and smell it sometime so I will have something to talk about if I’m ever invited to a dinner party.

Big Hole (a three mile wide volcanic pit), Hole in the Ground (a one mile wide volcanic pit), Paulina Peak (the biggest volcano in Oregon at its base), Mt. Mazama (now Crater Lake), and Fort Rock itself (a tuff ring), all blew (by one estimate) during human habitation of the area. This leads me to speculate that the…uh, feces could have been an outcome of one of those explosions.
The earliest known Indians in the area were co-inhabitors with camels, flamingos, wooly mammoths, large bison, and small horses. The climate was warm and wet, and what is now the Great Basin Desert was mostly covered by enormous lakes. Today, rivers flow into the Great Basin only to disappear.

I have seen all three of this country’s deserts, and I like the Great Basin best. It’s as pretty but not as hot. Also, there are few thorny plants, and no testy scorpions or murderous lizards. There are rattlers, but I’ve never seen one. Actually, I haven’t seen a poisonous snake in the eighteen years I’ve been in Oregon.

The truth about Fort Rock

Only one of the Fort Rock homesteaders is alive for the annual reunion this year. Her name is Vivian Stratton, and she was nine when her family moved to the valley in 1913. Almost overnight, sixteen towns appeared, and the number of homesteaders exceeded 2,500. Many were from back East, some from Europe. All were drawn by the promise of free land in an area with rich soil, plenty of water, and a soon to be built railroad. They read of rich black loam that would grow sixty bushels of wheat per acre along with,

“…all varieties of fruit such as apples, pears, plums, cherries, and all other kinds of berries,” of, “…good fields of grain waving to and fro…good level land…many miles of lanes with well-tilled fields on either side, good houses and barns…”

The truth was that the Fort Rock Valley averages eight inches of rain and 345 days of frost annually—and it still doesn’t have a railroad. It doesn’t even have rivers for irrigation. Realtors made money showing the land to homesteaders, lawyers made money filing their claims, railroads made money moving them, teamsters made money transporting their belongings from the railhead, and merchants made money selling them supplies; all while local ranchers watched and laughed.

Many of the homesteaders suspected the worst, but by then they were thousands of miles from home and lacked the money to return. Louise Godon, the fourteen-year-old daughter of a French father and an Irish mother wrote of her mother Bridget’s reaction.

“At the sight of it all, Mother burst into tears. My how the tears flowed! Mom remembered back to her lovely home in Philadelphia—the maple-lined streets, the neat lawns, front and back, of the solidly built house. She remembered her collection of fine china, glassware, and silverware, which we had sold—in fact, nearly given away—just for this God-forsaken land. And she cried some more.”

Crop after crop was blown away, and what the winds missed, the rabbits took. If a family moved before five years passed, or if they failed to make certain improvements, their land was forfeited, so fathers looked for work in other places—often in other states—while wives and children hung on, hoping that next year would be better. As it turned out, the weather had been milder than average early on, and took a turn for the worse in the 1920s. As quickly as they had come, the homesteaders moved away, leaving the laughing ranchers to pay their taxes and swallow up their acreage. Of the many towns, only Fort Rock remains, and it with a population of 25.

Ironically, Bridget Godon was one of the handful who stuck it out. When her husband died of a stroke at age 54, she and her five daughters stayed on to raise cattle, work the land, and earn money in every other honest way they could. When they lost their savings in the bank failure of 1927, they started saving again. They grew wealthier, and when other homesteaders left, they took title to still more land. From 320 acres, their holdings grew to over 5,000. One of the daughters, Alice, was mechanically gifted, so she repaired the machinery and learned to drive. The matriarch, Bridget, died at age 93.

No landscape touches me so deeply as the desert. I look upon it with unrelenting wonder that anyplace can be so beautiful. Like Bridget Godon, I cry and cry but for a different reason.

I suggested to Peggy that we buy a cabin in the desert for vacationing, but she wouldn’t consider it. She admits that the desert is pretty, but she objects to the wind and the dust, to the winters that are too cold and the summers that are too hot. She complains that there is no shade, and she laments the skin-cracking aridity and the extreme isolation. In all of this, she is right, yet for me the desert’s beauty outweighs them all. The stark nakedness of the air, the sky that never ends, the clarity of mountains a hundred miles distant, the smell of dust mixed with juniper and sage after a storm…other landscapes are trivialized by comparison.

I know that the forest and seashore are equally a part of nature, and that they are equally beautiful in their own way, yet they do not cause me to kneel in awe. When I come home from the desert, I feel as if I have come home from a dreamscape. I know it exists, and that I saw it, yet it seems unreal. But then I loved deserts long before I ever saw one. When I finally did visit the Southwest, it was one of the few times when my expectation was inferior to reality.

It might seem ironic then that I feel happier now that I am home. I can best compare the two environments to being tickled. When I was a boy, my cousins would tickle me until I couldn’t breathe. The desert is that way. I try to cope, but the feelings keep growing even while I keep diminishing.

When I first took LSD, the woman who gave it to me warned that it would take over my mind, and that if I tried to resist, it would turn my energy against me. Likewise, it is in the desert that I touch the infinite, and the infinite takes possession. I see my nothingness, and I struggle to find that person who I call myself, that person who normally looms larger in my awareness than the rest of the world together; but all that I have to throw against the power of the desert is exactly equal to nothing. I am less than an ant before a twenty-ton truck. I am not only run over by the desert; the desert is oblivious to what it has done. It holds the truth of my insignificance hard against my face, and in doing this it comforts me. It says to me that I am worth so little that there is really no reason for me to fret about anything.

Less than two days before she died, Bridget Godon’s daughters took her to a hospital in Bend. It was the first time she had ever been to a doctor much less to a hospital. She begged to be taken back to the desert—not to her ranch or to Fort Rock, but to the desert. The nurse winked at her daughters, and her daughters told Bridget that they would be back the next day. I don’t know that the desert would have saved her, yet where better to die than in the arms of God, even if God is a being that takes not the least observance of our existence, especially if God is a being that takes not the least observance of our existence? The whole of the human race could devote itself entirely to the worship of the desert’s tiniest pebble, and neither pebble nor desert would care. In this I find my religion.

High Desert vacation

Wednesday, September 7, 2006,
the start of our vacation

We camped in the High Desert on the rim of a mile wide crater called Hole in the Ground on this, the first night of our vacation. Earlier today, a man who was old enough to know better tried to drive a one ton, extended cab Dodge into the crater on a narrow ATV road that looked like a washboard with the ridges four foot higher than the valleys. He got 500 feet before the downhill side of the road collapsed, leaving his truck stuck and in danger of rolling over. He walked to a ranch house, and the retired rancher and his wife used a tractor, an ATV, and three come-alongs to keep the Ram from flipping down the hill while they pulled it out. The job was dangerous, and the wife rolled her ATV, injuring her ribs. The rancher is losing his vision and had to be verbally guided. They refused payment.


We drove to nearby Fort Rock, a 325-foot high volcanic ring that resembles a fort from a Tolkien novel. The town of the same name (population 25) has a museum that consists mostly of homestead era buildings from the surrounding area. It was closed until the next day, so we returned to the rancher’s house and camped in his yard. This gave us the benefit of a picnic table and a hired man’s cabin if we wanted to sleep indoors but, most of all, it allowed us the pleasure of the couple’s company.

They told us to enjoy their ranch while we could because they were selling out and moving to Prineville. The man had recently returned from the blind school at Portland, where three different black men had tried to mug him on the city’s streets. Prior to Portland, he had rarely seen a black person.He used a knife to discourage the first mugger, but carried a pistol for the others. As we visited, a herd of antelope grazed nearby. I asked how long he had lived there, and how he liked it. He said 27 years, and that he had liked it very well because he had never had an argument with a neighbor (there being none) or seen a government inspector.

I told him about my knee problems, and he said he has one knee that is “bone against bone,” but it didn’t seem to concern him much. Maybe it’s easier to put other things in perspective when you’re going blind.

I mentioned that it had been awfully cold the night before on the 5,000 foot high rim, to which the wife responded that the temperature at the ranch house (300 feet lower) had dropped to 18°.


Last night was little warmer, but Peggy would have taken the dogs to bed with us to keep Baxter warm had I not objected on account of the dirt.

When I awakened, the rancher was loading a homemade mortar and howitzer into his truck. His hobby is shooting artillery in accuracy contests (hell of a hobby for a blind man). I helped, and was amazed by how strong he was compared to me. I consoled myself with the thought that I had just woke up. It proved to be a meaningful consolation as I was later able to drag one of the guns by myself.

We spent hours touring the Fort Rock museum and visiting with the locals. A woman invited Peggy to her home to see needlework while I chatted with the men. I joined the museum foundation, and we bought two books about the history of the area. The most famous resident was Rueb Long, an author I have adored for The Oregon Desert, a book he co-authored with another rancher. Reub spent his summers at the hired man’s cabin next to which we had camped the night before—I felt as if I had slept on holy ground.

The temperature moved into the nineties as we drove south over Picture Rock Pass—where we stopped to admire a few of the dozens of pictographs that are spread through the sagebrush—and into Summer Lake Valley. Peggy wanted a motel for the night, so we paid $70 at the Summer Lake Inn. That evening, we set out for a walk, but the mosquitoes prevented it. We didn’t see or hear a one of them until we had gone a quarter mile, at which time they descended upon us by the hundreds and pursued us all the way back to our room. We smashed scores of them against the ceiling and walls, creating additional bloody spots to go with the ones that were already there.


We had planned to go deeper into the Great Basin Desert, but the weather was getting hot, so we headed into the mountains and didn’t stop until we were at 7,200-feet. Even there, it was warm. We camped on a ridge overlooking our previous night’s lodging. Charles Fremont and Kit Carson had looked off the same ridge on December 18, 1843. For days, they had labored in fierce winds and deep snows, and were facing the possibility of starvation. The lake and valley below looked like paradise to them. Hence the names Summer Lake and Winter Ridge.

It was bow season, and we spoke with a few hunters. I detest the cruelty of hunting (and ranching for that matter), yet hunters have often been among the most generous and kindly people I’ve known. This is one of those ironies of humanity that I have never understood. My response has been to try and focus upon the good in people, and the good is easier to find in many hunters than it is in regular people.

Our ranch hosts were hunters (as evidenced by their guns, bows, and animal heads), and if they had invited us to supper and set a plate of beef or elk in front of me, I would have eaten it. This would not be easy after 23 years as a vegetarian, but I have thought about such a scenario many times over the years, and have concluded that I had rather eat meat than cause offense if I were the guest of a man who made his living raising cattle.


Peggy and I climbed Dead Indian Mountain (7,066’) this morning. In the afternoon, she climbed Foster Butte (6,778’) with the dogs. There was no trail and, the rocks all looking pretty much the same, she marked part of her route with survey ribbons. She was as proud of summiting Foster as she was of many more formidable mountains simply because she did it alone on unmarked terrain.

I can’t say that I was entirely sanguine about her efforts, so when she had not returned by 6:00, I packed two quarts of water and two flashlights, and set out after her. I worried about my knee, but I couldn’t bear to wait any longer. Fortunately, she appeared from the other side of the mountain before I had gone a quarter of a mile. She explained that there had been false summits, and that she had spent a lot of time route finding.

Monday (Labor Day)

Peggy climbed Hager Mountain (7,195’), a prominent landmark that overlooks a hundred miles of desert, today. There was both a trail and a road to a fire lookout, but we had no good maps for the area, and I worried that the trail would give out or fork, so I asked her to take the road. It was a steep five-miles on a hot day, and she returned with blisters on both feet and dogs that were limping on burned pads. I felt bad that I had encouraged her to take the road, but at least I had not been worried. Instead, I had identified the few plants that I didn't recognize and read more about the Fort Rock homesteaders. Peggy and I had read one book aloud, and now I had finished most of another.

We hated to come down out of the mountains into the heat, but we needed water and a laundromat. Worse yet, Peggy was out of milk to go with her cookies. We drove to Silver Lake (the lake is now dry). It was the site of a Christmas Day fire in 1894 that killed a third of the 143 inhabitants. We paid $3 each for a shower at the town’s trailer park, which averaged out to be a bargain since Peggy took her usual thirty minute shower, while I was out in eight. As in most of the desert towns, there was a lot of property for sale.

We camped in a quarry from which we could see all three of the mountains Peggy had climbed. The moon was brilliant, and the scene lacked nothing to make it more beautiful.


We awoke to the distant smoke of forest fires, and could no longer see the mountains. As I made my coffee, I watched a large hawk circle lower and lower over Baxter who stood half asleep in the sun, probably wondering what the hell kind of a vacation it is when a dog is nearly frozen at night only to have his feet burned to stubs in the daytime. I knew I should yell at the hawk, but curiosity got the better of me.

Clearly, a 23-pound dog was too big for even a large hawk to carry, but I wondered if the hawk might plan to eat part of him on site and carry the rest off for later. The hawk finally landed fifteen feet to the rear of a still oblivious Baxter. It tilted its head this way and that, obviously in deep concentration about the advisability of attacking something that was so large yet so seemingly vulnerable. When it started hopping toward Baxter, I scared it away. As with the bobcat two years ago, Baxter never knew how close to death he had come.

We returned to the Fort Rock Cemetery (it and the rock of the same name being a mile north of the town of Fort Rock). Peggy continued on to the rock—blowing kisses as she walked—while I looked at grave markers and read about the deceased from my history books. She said she would only be gone a few minutes. She later yelled and waved at me from high on the rock, and I wondered if she was actually going to the top despite the fact that her feet were so blistered that she could only wear sandals. I remembered what she had said about “a few minutes” and returned to my history books comforted.

An hour later, an old man on a bicycle came by. I told him of my worry about Peggy, who was still on the rock, and he consoled me with stories of people who had been killed by falling. I wondered how much longer I should wait before going for help as the area was too big and too rough for me to necessarily find her if I searched all day. There was also the thought that, the sooner she got help, the better her chances of survival—assuming she was not already dead. I was contemplating selling our house and moving to a one room shack where I could pass the rest of my days within sight of Fort Rock when she returned, very pleased with herself for having summited.

That afternoon, we drove to Bend and visited Pilot Butte Cemetery to see the graves of still more of the people we had been reading about. Afterwards, we gassed up and headed back across the Cascades.

Peggy had her heart set on camping near McKenzie Pass, but the actual flames of a forest fire were visible, and the air was wretched with smoke. To my relief, she agreed to continue on a few miles down the west side. I was even a little concerned about this since a change in the wind could point the fire in our direction.

For the first time in decades, we stayed at an official campsite. No one else was there, and no fee signs were posted, so it seemed like a good idea until 2:30 a.m. when we were awakened by chewing sounds under the van. I beat on the floor, and the noise stopped, but only for a few minutes. When it started back, I got out and looked in vain for the source. As soon as I lay back down the noise resumed. We had already met one woman on the trip whose new truck had suffered $13,000 in damages from gnawing rodents, so we left. Ten miles later we pulled over and passed the rest of the night peacefully.


We hiked along the McKenzie River for a couple of miles and then drove home. We couldn’t have traveled more than 600 miles on our trip and probably less than that.

I turned on the radio and heard the news for the first time in a week (the only newspaper I had read was a 1915 edition of the Fort Rock Times, which reported one case of gangrene, two cases of smallpox, and the clubbing of 3,540 rabbits). The announcer said, “President Bush claimed during a speech today that progress is being made in Iraq, even while House and Senate Democrats called for the replacement of Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld due to his mishandling of the war.” “I haven’t missed a thing,” I thought, but then learned of the death of Steve Irwin.


Two neighbors died while we were away. One was in his fifties, and succumbed to prostate cancer, the other in his eighties and a victim of diabetes. The younger man was a lawyer, and I hardly knew him, so I minded his death less than that of the older man whom I regarded highly.

Our cell phone—which we bought in case Peggy’s family or the neighbor who was watching our house needed to get in touch—died the first day out, so I returned it today. I was glad for the excuse. I don’t really want to know what’s happening when I’m away. I mentioned this to Peggy, but she kept her thoughts to herself as she often does.