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County Road 57

One morning last week, I stepped out of my motel room in Taos, New Mexico, and was greeted by the sight of a flat tire on my rental car.

That set off two hours of activity in which I had to remove the flat, replace it with a pathetic mini-spare, drive to a repair shop, and wait while they made things right.

The flat and the mini-spare were front and center in my thoughts as I sat in the tire shop, pondering a day trip that was on my agenda a few days later: I planned to drive to Chaco Culture National Historical Park, located way out in the New Mexico desert, 40 miles from the nearest town, 13 miles from the nearest pavement.

Chaco Culture National Historical Park, known until recently simply as Chaco Canyon, is a remote site that was, a thousand years ago, a thriving center of Pueblo Indian culture.

Chaco was an important stop on the southern migration of the Pueblo Indians. To many of today’s pueblo-dwellers, Chaco is one of their ancestral homes and a sacred place.

Today, Chaco is home to five major pueblo ruins that have been excavated and stabilized, plus numerous other sites that remain untouched, so far.

Each of the five ruins takes the better part of an hour to see. When you factor in the long drive, visiting Chaco is, at minimum, an all-day trip. And, if you’re really into pueblo ruins, you’ll probably stay at the campground and hang around a while.

That 13-mile stretch of non-pavement I mentioned is described by the Park Service as “rough dirt road.” I found it to be a brutal washboard road peppered with rock outcrops that threatened my muffler and cattle guards that assaulted my tires.

Good thing I was driving a rental car.

Fortunately, the weather that day was sunny and dry. Any rain whatsoever makes the road impassable.

I went to Chaco Canyon briefly back in the 1960s, but frankly, I have almost no recollection of that trip. Which was a good reason to include Chaco on my itinerary in 2011.

I had prepared myself appropriately. That morning, I left my motel in Farmington and was on the road early. I had a full tank of gas and a spare gallon of water in the trunk. No food is available in the park, so in my glove compartment were two Nature Valley bars, a bag of Doritos, and a package of homemade cookies I had purchased at Taos Pueblo. I figured that would tide me over for the day.

My rental car survived the 13 miles of bad road, and by 9:00 AM, I arrived at the park.

The lady at the Visitor Center told me that a ranger-guided tour of Pueblo Bonito, the largest ruin, had just started a few minutes earlier. She suggested that I go catch up.

I wasn’t sure about that. I usually prefer to proceed at my own pace. But, by the time I arrived at the ruin (Stop Number One on the loop drive), there was the tour group, about 30 people in all, just getting started. Somewhat reluctantly, I walked up quietly and joined them.

The ranger’s narrative was interesting and informative, but the milling herd of tourists made it impossible to take photos. Literally.

The group was standing at an elevated overlook that provides a bird‘s-eye view of Pueblo Bonito down below.

“The Great Kiva you see before you in the plaza was the center of religious life for the Chacoans,” intoned the ranger.

I stood there, completely blocked out by a solid wall of tourists, many of them frankly overfed. Of the Great Kiva, I could see zip — nothing.

That did it. I drifted away from the group and for a while, took photos elsewhere. After they moved on, I went back to the overlook and gazed upon the Great Kiva in peaceful solitude, at my leisure. I got lots of cool photos.

For the next few hours, I did the drive-park-walk thing around the park. It was most enjoyable, most interesting.

I’m pleased to say that by that point in my trip, I had learned (okay, I learned it from the ranger) to distinguish the relative age of a given ruin based on the details of its construction — the materials being stone, wood, and adobe.

Basically, the more intricate and precise the handiwork, the older it is; the sloppier the workmanship, the newer it is. Sigh.

In case you’re wondering, modern-day pueblo-dwellers build with Tyvek and sheetrock, then slap a layer of adobe on the outside for appearances. Hard to blame them.

By about 3:00 PM, I had done and seen all I intended to do and see at Chaco. It was time to pack up and depart. My goal was to reach Gallup by nightfall.

The main access road to Chaco exits to the northeast. There, it meets US 550, running northwest and southeast. To get to Gallup, I needed to go — drat — southwest. Driving to Gallup via US 550 would take me 200 miles out of the way.

On the map, however, is another dirt road, County Road 57, that exits the park going southwest. I checked the park website, and it said the road is seldom maintained and “can vary from rough to impassable.” Basically, one takes CR 57 at one’s own risk.

I went back to the front desk at the Visitor Center to get a local perspective.

I told the lady at the desk I wanted to get to Gallup, and I was driving a rented Hyundai Accent. I asked whether or not she thought I should attempt CR 57.

There was a long pause. “A Hyundai Accent?” I nodded.

“Well,” she said, “I have a Toyota Corolla, and I drove that road last year. That was the only time. It wasn’t easy, but I made it.”

She looked at me meaningfully. “You probably won’t pass another vehicle out there. No cell phone service, either. If anything happens, you’ve got trouble.

“On the other hand, the weather’s good, and the road is drivable… if you take it easy.”

As she spoke, visions of flats and mini-spares swam in my head.

But, hey — how much worse than the 13-mile unpaved entrance road could CR 57 be?

As it turned out, not that much worse. True, it was one of the most remote and desolate places I’ve ever been. But, except for a couple of steep, slippery hills, a few nasty rocky patches, and the high wind and blowing sand, CR 57 was, indeed, drivable.

The distance from Chaco Canyon south to the pavement of Indian Route 9 is 20 miles. By the clock, it took me one hour and 15 minutes. I took the lady’s advice and didn’t push it.

The long drive, however, was not without drama.

At one point, deep into the drive, I topped a hill and saw a vehicle stopped in the road ahead.

It was a tow truck.

The driver was busily changing a flat tire.

His own.

I pulled over behind the truck and got out. “Good morning,” I said.

“Howdy, friend,” replied the man. He was a lean, ruddy Anglo fellow of about 50. He wore dusty jeans and a well-worn baseball cap, typical of the local residents.

He finished tightening the lug nuts on the right rear wheel, stood up, and heaved the flat tire into the bed of the truck.

“A tow truck with a flat is kind of ironic,” I said.

“Reckon it is,” he replied. “I came out here to fix a guy’s tire. He left about 10 minutes ago. I was right behind him, and then — boom.”

“How far is it to the pavement?”

“Probably five or six miles. You ain’t there quite yet.”

“Are you okay?” I asked him. “Do you need water or anything?”

“I’m fine, thanks. You doin’ all right in that little Hyundai?”

“Yeah, I’m taking it slow.”

“Well, you can rest easier now. You‘ll have a tow truck not far behind you.”

I liked that idea a lot. For the entire drive, I had been apprehensive and tightly wound. Taking CR 57 truly was a genuine risk, and the more I drove, the more that fact was hammered home. I imagined spending the night out there, waiting for the next rash tourist to come along.

I also imagined my rescuer having a flat, too.

But now, miraculously, I had a tow truck behind me. I drove on, still slow and easy, enjoying a wonderfully exhilarating sense of relief.

Ten minutes later, with a friendly wave and a toot of his horn, the tow truck passed me like a rocket.

Well, the sense of relief felt good while it lasted.

Say what you will about Hyundai Accents, but mine was a scrappy little thing. Although it only had the power of a moped, it stayed cool, climbed every hill, and slid on the loose gravel but rarely.

It also came equipped with XM Radio. Even though I was miles from civilization, I had all the news and tunes I wanted, and that was a comfort.

About 15 minutes later, while bumping along and munching Doritos, I topped another hill and saw up ahead a familiar sight: my friend the tow truck driver.

He was changing a flat tire.

His own.

I pulled up beside him and rolled down the passenger-side window. “We meet again,” I said cleverly.

The man was not in a good humor. He let fly a few curse words, aimed not at me, but at his situation. He was being severely tested that day.

“I carry three spares,” he said with a hint of menace. “Now I’m down to one.” He jerked with vigor on the tire tool to loosen the lug nuts on the offending wheel.

Although I should have remained silent, I was compelled to speak.

“Bad break for you,” I said, “But now I have a tow truck behind me again.”

He couldn’t help but smile.

“Them damn Hyundai tires are tougher than I thought,” he said.

“Knock on wood,” I replied.

He returned to his labors. “Have a safe trip,” he said.

“Good luck,” I said and drove away.

Soon after that, I reached Indian Route 9 and was back on pavement again, ahead of the tow truck. I assume he made it without having a third flat. Or a fourth.

I drove south through Crownpoint to Thoreau, picked up Interstate 40, and headed west into Gallup.

Earlier, I had noticed another shortcut on the map — an unpaved county road going west from Crownpoint straight to Gallup.

It would have shaved off 25 miles, but I decided not to take it.

On the road to Chaco.

 

View of the Great Kiva at Pueblo Bonito, unobstructed by tourists.

 

Leaving Chaco on County Road 57.

 

CR 57, one hour later.

 

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Girl on a Mission

I’m in Oregon on vacation right now. For the last few days, I’ve been driving south along the Pacific coast, taking it easy, taking photos, eating seafood. Life is good.

For me, anyway.

Last night after supper, as the sun was getting low over the ocean, I drove to the beach near the little town of Winchester Bay. I parked, grabbed my camera, and slogged across the dunes to the beach.

The beach at that point is smooth and wide. From the dunes to the shore is at least 100 yards. Only about a dozen other people were in sight.

For a few minutes, I walked around idly, taking pictures of seabirds, people, and dogs silhouetted against the setting sun. Sundown was 30 minutes away. I doubted if I would wait, but I sat down on a log to think about it.

As I sat there, a young girl came into view. She appeared from behind  me, walking purposefully toward the surf. She looked to be somewhere in her 20s.

It was her brisk stride that got my attention. She wasn’t taking a leisurely stroll like the rest of us. She was proceeding like a girl on a mission. No one else seemed to notice, but I was fascinated.

She continued across the sand in the direction of the shore. I sat and watched.

Two yellow Labs romped past her. They took no notice of her, and she took none of them.

Soon, she arrived at the water’s edge, where the sand was wet. I thought she would stop, but she didn’t. She continued forward, into the shallow water, splashing as she went.

My God, I thought, is this a suicide? How do I respond? Do I yell or just start running? At that moment, she was at least 75 yards away.

It was not a suicide, praise be. A few yards from shore, in ankle-deep water, she stopped abruptly. She reached into a pocket and fished out something too small for me to see.

For a moment, she held the tiny object aloft and looked at it, like Hamlet gazing upon the skull of Yorick.

Then, with a mighty heave, she sailed the object into the Pacific Ocean.

Five seconds later, she was striding just as briskly back in my direction.

Wow.

I was positively aquiver with curiosity. What in the ever-loving, blue-eyed world did she cast so dramatically into the sea?

As she approached, I debated whether or not to ask.

On one hand, it was a legitimate question. On the other hand, it was none of my business. She might resent the intrusion. And I am not one to intrude.

A few moments later, she arrived back at the edge of the dunes, 20 yards away from me. She stopped, turned toward the ocean, and peered into the distance, shielding her eyes with one hand.

She stood there for several seconds, looking out to sea. Then she walked over to a nearby chunk of driftwood and sat down.

Smith, I told myself, you MUST find out what that girl threw into the ocean. If you allow this moment to pass without finding out, it will become one of the great regrets of your life.

I know — a major overstatement. But I needed to be prodded into action.

Before my native caution could kick in, I leapt to my feet and walked over to her.

She looked up as I approached. Her expression was blank.

“Excuse me,” I said meekly, “I saw you walk down to the shore a few minutes ago. You threw something into the ocean.”

I hesitated and coughed. The girl continued to look at me with a blank expression.

“I know it’s none of my business,” I said. “But I just — I was wondering what you threw into the water.”

She studied me, but didn’t answer.

“Okay,” I said finally, “I’m sorry I bothered me. I’m leaving.” I turned and began walking away.

“Hey!” she called out. I turned toward her.

Her expression never changed. “It was my wedding ring,” she said.

That was it. No further explanation.

She turned back toward the ocean. I began trudging across the sand to my car.

At the top of the dunes, I looked back. She sat there on her piece of driftwood, gazing toward the setting sun.

Maybe I shouldn’t have taken her photo, but I did.

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Go ‘Chokes! Go Pickles!

Most of the time, college sports teams name themselves something that evokes strength, virility, or athletic prowess — Lions, Knights, Bears, Vikings, Panthers, and whatnot.

But some teams go in the opposite direction…
—————

The Banana Slugs — The University of California at Santa Cruz. Adopted when students rebelled over the chancellor’s choice, “The Sea Lions.”

Sammy the Slug.

The Fighting Pickles — University of North Carolina School of the Arts in Winston-Salem.

The Fighting Blue Hens — University of Delaware, Newark.

The Dirtbags — California State University – Long Beach. Men’s baseball team only.

The Fighting Artichokes — Scottsdale Community College, Scottsdale, Arizona.

Arti the Artichoke.

The Trolls — Trinity Christian College, Palos Heights, Illinois.

The Geoducks — Evergreen State College, Olympia, Washington. Pronounced “gooey-ducks.” Refers to the world’s largest burrowing clam. Their fight song: “Siphon high, squirt it out, swivel all about, let it all hang out!”

The Evergreen State Gooey-duck.

The Student Princes — Heidelberg University, Tiffin, Ohio. Very Germanic.

The Jumbos — Tufts University, Medford/Somerville, Massachusetts. Named after P. T. Barnum’s star circus elephant. Barnum gave Tufts a lot of money.

The Lemmings — Bryant & Stratton College, Cleveland, Ohio.

The Fire Ants — University of South Carolina Sumter. Ouch.

The Fighting Okra — Delta State University, Cleveland, Mississippi. Formerly “The Statesmen.”

The Fighting Okra.

The Stanford Tree — Unofficial mascot of Stanford University in Stanford, California. The actual team name is “The Cardinal” — the color red, not the bird. That’s too abstract for the student body, so they ignore it and have adopted a redwood tree.

The Tree.

The Hustling Quakers — Earlham College, Richmond, Indiana.

The Gorloks — Webster University, Webster Groves, Missouri. Named for the intersection of Gore and Lockwood Avenues on the university campus. The Gorlok mascot you see dancing on the sideline has the paws of a cheetah, the horns of a buffalo, and the face of a St. Bernard.

The Fighting Camels — Campbell University, Buies Creek, North Carolina. The team mascot is Gaylord the Camel. The women’s teams are, of course, the Lady Camels.

The Flying Fleet — Erskine College, Due West, South Carolina. (See Comments for details.)

The Eutectics — St. Louis College of Pharmacy, St. Louis, Missouri. Eutectics is a chemistry term relating to the solidification of alloys, which I don’t understand at all. The team mascot is Morty McPestle, a werewolf in a lab coat. Morty isn’t a wimpy mascot like okra and lemmings, but he seems to belong on this list.

Morty McPestle.

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Here is some first-rate chuckle material: a selection of retractions and apologies published by various newspapers.

Naturally, most of these are from the British press, the British being peerless in the sensational allegation/solemn apology department.

The Mail on Sunday published stories claiming that TV news presenter Jon Snow had an affair with a writer called Precious Williams, and that they smoked cannabis together.

There is no truth in these allegations. We accept that, in fact, Mr. Snow never had any relationship with Miss Williams, and that the allegation of drug-taking was unfounded. We are happy to set the record straight, and we apologise for the embarrassment caused.

###

Following the portrait of Tony and Cherie Blair published on 21 April in the Independent Saturday magazine, Ms. Blair’s representatives told us that she was friendly with, but never had a relationship with, Carole Caplin of the type suggested in the article.

They want to make it clear, which we are happy to do, that Ms. Blair “has never shared a shower with Ms. Caplin, was not introduced to spirit guides or primal wrestling by Ms. Caplin (or anyone else), and did not have her diary masterminded by Ms. Caplin.”

###

We should clarify that the stir-fried morning glory recipe featured in Observer Food Monthly last week uses an edible morning glory, Ipomoea aquatica, found in Southeast Asia and also known as water spinach. This should not to be confused with the UK Ipomoea, also known as morning glory, which is poisonous.

###

An article about Lord Lambton (“Lord Louche, sex king of Chiantishire,” News Review, January 7) falsely stated that his son Ned (now Lord Durham) and daughter Catherine held a party at Lord Lambton’s villa, Cetinale, in 1997, which degenerated into such an orgy that Lord Lambton banned them from Cetinale for years.

In fact, Lord Durham does not have a sister called Catherine (that is the name of his former wife), there has not been any orgiastic party of any kind, and Lord Lambton did not ban him (or Catherine) from Cetinale at all. We apologise sincerely to Lord Durham for the hurt and embarrassment caused.

###

In an article in Monday’s newspaper, there may have been a misperception about why a Woodstock man is going to Afghanistan on a voluntary mission. Kevin DeClark is going to Afghanistan to gain life experience to become a police officer when he returns, not to shoot guns and blow things up. The Sentinel-Review apologizes for any embarrassment this may have caused.

###

In the May 25 Explainer, Michelle Tsai asserted that an eight ball is about 10 lines of cocaine. While the size of a line depends on personal preference, most users would divide an eight ball into more than 25 lines.

###

A photo caption on Saturday misspelled the name of the Pakistani capital. It is Islamabad, not Islambad.

###

The Australian incorrectly stated that Ms. Van Tienen had been found guilty by the Australian Sport Anti-Doping Authority of trafficking drugs and was banned from participating in weightlifting for two years.

Ms Van Tienen has never been charged or convicted of drug offences, has never been banned from the sport, nor has she ever been involved in a drug ring. The Australian apologises unreservedly for any hurt or embarrassment caused to Ms. Van Tienen by the publication.

###

ON April 3 we published an article entitled “The hangers-on who are dragging Prince Harry into the gutter,” which was accompanied by a photograph of a young woman we identified as Annabel Ritchie.

We now accept that the young woman photographed was not Annabel Ritchie. We also accept that Annabel Ritchie is not part of any so-called “hangers-on.” We apologise unreservedly to Annabel Ritchie for what we published about her.

###

In an article about Tom Sykes, a freelance journalist, we mistakenly included a photograph of Tom Sykes, a digital TV consultant and his family. We wish to make it clear that the latter is not a recovering alcoholic or drug addict, and we apologise for the error.

###

A front-page article yesterday about the role played by Barack Obama’s wife, Michelle, in his presidential campaign rendered incorrectly a word in a quotation from Valerie Jarrett, a friend of the Obamas who commented on their decision that he would run.

Ms. Jarrett said in a telephone interview, “Barack and Michelle thought long and hard about this decision before they made it” — not that they “fought” long and hard.

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The Prince of Seborga

Obituary from The New York Times, December 12, 2009…

——————

Giorgio Carbone, Elected Prince of Seborga, Dies at 73

Nestled near the beaches of the Italian Riviera and the snow-capped Alps sits the tiny principality of Seborga, a place that floats on legends. Over the centuries, plagues and earthquakes have struck the region and missed Seborga, or so the stories say. Some insist that knights took the Holy Grail there.

But the true miracle of Seborga may have been the 46-year reign of Prince Giorgio I, the constitutionally elected royal ruler of its five square miles and 2,000 people, about 350 of whom are enfranchised citizens.

Prince Giorgio, a bewhiskered grower of mimosa flowers from a family of mimosa growers, was seized by a glorious vision: that Seborga was not part of the surrounding Italian nation. It was an ancient principality, cruelly robbed of its sovereignty.

After convincing his Seborgan neighbors of their true significance, Giorgio Carbone was elected prince in 1963. He gracefully accepted the informal title of “His Tremendousness” and was elected prince for life in 1995 by a vote of 304 to 4. Voters then ratified Seborga’s independence, which, by the prince’s interpretation, it already had.

Prince Giorgio established a palace, wrote a Constitution, and set up a cabinet and a parliament. He chose a coat of arms, minted money (with his picture), issued stamps (with his picture) and license plates, selected a national anthem, and mobilized a standing army, consisting of Lt. Antonello Lacala. He adopted a motto: Sub umbra sede (“Sit in the shade”).

But the principality’s future has suddenly turned cloudy. Prince Giorgio I died at his home in Seborga on Nov. 25 after suffering from Lou Gehrig’s disease, the principality announced. He was 73. Succession plans are uncertain.

More than 20 countries have recognized independent Seborga, in one fashion or another. Except Italy. The Seborghini pay taxes to Italy and vote in its elections. Some Italians mutter that Prince Giorgio’s true goal was to create a tourist attraction at a time when the flower industry was migrating to the Netherlands.

Tourism indeed rose, but Prince Giorgio ridiculed the Italian government’s claim that it was his motive. “The government are imbeciles!” he told The Daily Telegraph of London in 1999. “Tourists? Pshaw!”

Doubters perhaps did not grasp the history that the prince had so painstakingly reconstructed. In the year 954, local counts ceded Seborga to Roman Catholic monks, and in 1079 Pope Gregory VII and Emperor Henry IV elevated it to the rank of an imperial principality of the Holy Roman Empire.

In 1729, the Savoy dynasty bought Seborga, but did not register the transaction, a failure that invalidated the sale, Prince Giorgio contended. The error was compounded when Seborga was not mentioned by the Congress of Vienna in 1815, nor in the act of unification of Italy in 1861, nor in the formation of the Italian republic in 1946.

“Even Mussolini did not consider Seborga to be part of Italy,” the prince said in a 1996 interview with The Globe and Mail, the Toronto newspaper. He did not explain.

How Mr. Carbone came to see himself as royalty is fuzzy, but the process had clearly started when he took up a horse and carriage. And really, who was he to protest when the Seborghini hailed him as prince, after he had so lucidly persuaded them that they lived in a principality?

Since the Middle Ages, Seborga’s sovereign had been elected, so the princely plebiscite that elevated Mr. Carbone was a return to tradition. He took to the throne with panache, wearing sash, sword and large rosette medallions as he held court at the Bianca Azzura bar. He traveled in a flag-bedecked Mercedes-Benz that was briefly impounded by the Italian police because of its Seborgan plates.

Prince Giorgio’s dedication was so total that he forsook marriage, telling People magazine in 1993 that he loved his female subjects equally. He left no immediate survivors.

Early in his reign, the prince, a heavy smoker, passed a law to encourage smoking. His uneasy relationship with the elected mayor of Seborga improved as the mayor counted the tourists the prince attracted, and the prince realized that the mayor did the boring work.

Prince Giorgio sent many letters with the principality’s stamps to officials in Rome, and he gloated that none bounced back marked “Return to sender,” The Riviera Times reported. Not that any were answered.

In 2005, he made a rare television appearance on the BBC program “How to Start Your Own Country.” His only political challenge came in 2006, when Princess Yasmine von Hohenstaufen Anjou Plantagenet mysteriously materialized to claim the throne with the intention of returning it to Italy. The Seborghini responded with indifference, and that was that.

Prince Giorgio accepted no salary, although it is not clear he was offered one. He daily availed himself of ham and cheese from the village shop, a royal perquisite.

——————

The story of Giorgio Carbone is delightful in its own right — to grow flowers for a living, to proclaim one’s hometown an independent nation, to be declared royalty by your neighbors.

But credit the Italian government for allowing it to happen. Giorgio received no warnings, no threats, no cease-and-desist orders. No soldiers marched on Seborga. For 46 years, he and his town were left alone.

We all have fantasies. How refreshing when the world steps back and allows us to enjoy them.

The late Giorgio Carbone, Prince of Seborga.

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Scratching the Itch

My first trip to Grand Canyon was in 1994, 15 years ago. I may have mentioned that I was quite taken with the place and  have been a regular visitor ever since.

Over the years, I’ve squeezed in trips to Yosemite, Yellowstone, Bryce, Zion, Arches and other parks, but Grand Canyon has been my Numero Uno vacation destination.

I can’t explain the appeal, exactly. Millions of people visit Grand Canyon, stay for half a day, one day, two days, and are never compelled to return. Why did the Canyon bug bite me?

The closest I can get to an answer is this: every time I go to Grand Canyon and take in whatever panorama is before me, I am overwhelmed. It’s like a religious experience.

No, I don’t hear choirs or anything. But whether I’m hiking, rafting, walking, or gawking, there’s something about Grand Canyon that is both supremely gratifying and deeply humbling. I don’t get that feeling anywhere else.

Normal people don’t understand the appeal. They see a long, deep canyon in the middle of nowhere — impressive, yes, but nothing more.

Pretty regularly, friends and relatives politely inquire why I keep going back to see the same hole in the ground again and again.

I don’t lay the religious experience thing on them. I just reply that Grand Canyon is so big and so multi-faceted that no single human in a single human lifetime could possibly experience all of it.

I tell them I’ll probably keep booking trips until (a) I get tired of it or (b) I’m too old and decrepit to continue.

Coincidentally, I departed the South Rim of Grand Canyon just this morning.

I spent two delightful days there taking photos, walking great distances, observing the menagerie of foreign tourists, taking photos, shopping for souvenirs, dining lavishly, and taking photos.

I also paid a visit to the mule barn and, when no one was looking, harvested several samples of dried mule dropping. These trail souvenirs will be lovingly boxed and given as special gifts to a few select persons on my Christmas list.

But I digress.

When you add up all the river trips and hikes I’ve done in Grand Canyon, I’ve been to the place 20 times. Not bad for a dude who lives in Georgia.

In all candor, I assumed that, except to a few friends and family members, nobody knew that I’ve been here 20 times.

Au contraire, mes amis.

Xanterra Parks & Resorts, the mammoth corporate entity that handles the Grand Canyon visitor services — they know.

I found that out yesterday afternoon when I checked in at the Bright Angel Lodge front desk.

“Last name?” said the clerk.

“Smith.”

“First name?”

“Walter.”

After a long pause, she looked up from the computer screen and said, “Well, you’re quite the frequent visitor, Mr. Smith. How many times have you visited Grand Canyon?”

“Well actually, this is my –”

“No, Don’t tell me — I’ll look it up.”

For several seconds, she focused intently on the screen.

“My goodness!” she said finally. “This is your 20th visit with us!”

When she informed me that the Xanterra computers had that information, I instantly thought about all of the malevolent corporate entities conjured up by Hollywood.

You know — Umbrella Corporation, Cyberdyne, Tyrell, Weyland-Yutani. You would expect those guys* to be keeping an evil corporate eye on you.

Chances are, Xanterra isn’t evil. And I have nothing against them. They’ve never messed up a reservation or given me a hard time. Plus, their computers seem to keep very accurate records.

But it spooked me a little bit to know that someone — anyone — has kept tabs on me for the last 15 years like that.

“Wow,” I said to the clerk. “I had no idea you guys were keeping track of me like that.”

She laughed heartily and said, “Me, either!”

When I arrived at South Rim yesterday, I ate dinner at the Arizona Room, which is a steak house overlooking the rim. I mention it because of the woman who served me. When she seated me, she said I looked familiar; had I been to the canyon before?

I told her I was a regular visitor, to the tune of 20 trips.

“Well,“ she said, “I’ve worked here for 30 years, so the odds are, I’ve served you before. No wonder you look familiar.”

In other words, after 20 trips to this place, someone here finally remembered me.

And that brings up a point that had not occurred to me until now.

It’s true that most people can’t relate to this Grand Canyon thing that has taken hold of me.

But when I visit the place, I know I’ll be in the company of others who’ve also been infected with the Canyon virus.

When I go to Grand Canyon country, I can I.D. the real Canyon people — the kindred spirits — immediately. It’s sort of like gay-dar.

Never mind that there are a thousand tourists for every true believer. I can spot my people every time. On most trips, I’ll cross paths and chat with 10, maybe 20 people about past hikes, raft trips, and future destinations. Very gratifying, indeed.

This morning, with no small amount of sadness, I checked out of the Bright Angel Lodge and paid my tab. As the clerk was adding up the charges, he said pleasantly, “So, was this your first trip to see us, Mr. Smith?”

His name tag read Tony — Nebraska. I told Tony I was a regular. I’d been to Grand Canyon quite a few times.

Then, as an afterthought, I said, “I thought the only people who knew that were family members. But I’m told that Xanterra knows it, too.”

Tony cackled and said, “Oh, you must be the fella from Georgia who’s been here 20 times!”

The front desk at Bright Angel Lodge, a unit of Xanterra Corporation.

* Those guys are the thoroughly despicable companies featured in the Resident Evil, Terminator, Blade Runner, and Alien movies. But you probably knew that.

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Amy and Mel

I’m on a road trip right now, driving from Georgia to California and back. I’m spending Thanksgiving with my son Britt and his family.

Cross-country trips are always an adventure, and they invariably yield an interesting story or two. When I left home, I wondered how long it would take to encounter something blogworthy.

Not long. By the morning of the second day, I was making notes for a post. By midday, I had what I thought was an embarrassment of material.

But you can judge for yourself.

————

Amy

Weatherford, Texas, 7:00 AM.

The evening before, I had checked into a motel in Weatherford and, after a quick supper, crashed for the night. I deserved it. It had been a 600-mile day. I slept well.

Having retired early, I was up at 5:00 AM, anxious to roll. I was sick of Texas already. I wanted to get moving, maybe cross into New Mexico by nightfall.

I showered, packed, loaded the car, and went to the office to check out and partake of the complimentary breakfast, whatever it was.

To my chagrin, the lobby was jammed with Rvers. They were the loud, silver-haired kind, apparently traveling in a pack. They were like a chattering flock of magpies and probably had picked the breakfast bar clean anyway. I spared myself the aggravation and departed.

As I pulled out of the motel parking lot, I spotted a homey-looking diner across the street. Perfect. I pulled into the parking lot and went inside.

The diner was a classic place, pretty much as I had pictured it. Only a half dozen customers were present, most of them truck drivers. I figured I would get a fast, tasty breakfast with lots of hot coffee, and I did.

My waitress caught my attention immediately. She was a melancholy girl of about 20, very sad and distant. Clearly, her burdens were great. She struck me as painfully tired and vulnerable.

In spite of the state she was in, she carried out her duties professionally. She was polite and attentive and took good care of me.

As I ate, she puttered behind the counter, busying herself with unseen tasks.

Moments later, the busboy passed my table, stopped his cart next to the waitress, and began to chat her up.

It was a one-sided conversation. The waitress continued wiping down the counter and studiously ignored him.

The busboy was a muscular, tattooed fellow in his late 30s or early 40s. He wore a tight-fitting knit cap (a tuque, a la The Edge from U2) and thick glasses with heavy rims. He was a somewhat rough-looking sort.

My table was about 20 feet away, and I couldn’t quite hear what he was saying. All I could hear was a deep mutter as he spoke quietly to her.

The waitress never looked at him or responded. She kept her eyes down and continued working. The man kept speaking to her.

I studied her a little closer. She was of average height and weight, not quite pretty, not quite homely. Her hair was medium length, brown and straight. It looked as if she had stepped from the shower, combed it flat, and left it to dry that way. She was painfully sad. I couldn’t imagine her smiling.

The busboy continued to drone on in a low voice. It was clear he wasn’t giving up or going away.

Finally, without looking up, the girl said, quietly, with feeling, “No. I can’t.”

Even though she spoke softly, I heard her clearly. It was a bit of a surprise.

The tempo of the man’s muttering increased. I couldn’t make out what he said, but his meaning was clear: Why not?

“I can’t,” she repeated. “You know I can’t.”

The man droned on.

“No, I won’t,” she said, eyes averted.

There was a brief silence. She looked up at him at last.

“How can you ask me that?“ she said. “How can you ask me that after what you did?”

The man stopped speaking. He turned without a word and disappeared into the kitchen with his cart. The waitress continued wiping the counter.

I don’t know what the man’s transgressions were, and I don’t care to know. But clearly, they were awful. I wanted to cry.

By then, I had finished breakfast. She brought the coffee pot, warmed up my cup, and asked if I were ready for the check. I said I was.

The bill was a little over $8.00. At the top, next to “Your server is ____,“ she had written “Amy.“

I placed $20.00 on the table and left.

————

Mel

Big Spring, Texas, 1:30 PM.

By lunchtime, exhausted from listening to the news on Sirius all morning, I stopped in Big Spring for a lunch and fuel stop.

Next door to the gas station was another of those anonymous small-town cafés, the kind I much prefer to a MacDonald’s or a Wendy’s.

Like my breakfast stop in Weatherford, this place was small and well-worn. It featured one waitress and a meat-and-two menu. Only four or five other customers were present. I found a table and sat down.

The waitress appeared. She was tough and brassy, fully capable of whipping anyone in the place. “What are ya drinking, sugar?” she asked.

“Iced tea, please, unsweet.”

She disappeared into the kitchen, and I scanned the menu. I had a choice of meat loaf or chicken-fried steak. The veggie selection looked good.

When she returned, I posed the question: did I want the meat loaf or the steak?

“The meat loaf,” she said. “Sometimes the steak is tough.” I ordered meat loaf, black-eyed peas, buttered jalapeno potatoes, and cornbread.

A lone cowboy came in and sat down at a nearby table. “Hey there, Mel,” he said to the waitress.

“Hey, Bill.”

“Things aren’t too busy in here,” he said. “Why don’t you and me get out of here — go to my place for a couple of hours.”

“You don’t want to do that,” she said. “I’d hurt you. And I don’t mean your feelings.”

“Okay, baby, but the offer stands.”

The telephone rang. Mel answered it.

“Oh, hey. Did you go to the grocery store? Good. You what? God dammit, you dumb-ass! I told you we need to cut back! I don’t care! I told you what to get! You are such a dumb-ass! I gotta go — I‘m busy!”

She hung up in disgust. “Dumb-ass,” she spat.

A few more minutes passed. My tea glass was half empty, and Mel topped it off. She set the pitcher on the counter and went to the swinging doors that led into the kitchen.

She pushed the door open and yelled, “Hey, what’s the hold-up in there! Get a move on! My little man wants his lunch!”

A muffled, but equally sharp reply came from the kitchen. Mel walked back to the counter, picked up the tea pitcher and a coffeepot, and made the rounds of her customers.

Soon afterward, someone yelled “Order up,” and Mel brought my lunch.

The meat loaf was pretty darn good. The buttered jalapeno potatoes were even better.

————–

Later, back on the road, I turned off the radio and rode across west Texas in silence. I thought about the contrast between the two women.

At that moment, if I’d had a wish, I would have returned to Weatherford, collected Amy and everything she owned, and driven her to Big Spring. I would have taken her to Mel’s café and left her there.

Mel would watch out for her, by God.

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