Archive for the ‘Western Travel Writing’ Category

A Road of Her Own: Women’s Journeys in the West. Edited by Marlene Blessing. Fulcrum Publishing. Golden CO. 2002. 211pp.

In this eclectic grouping of western travel essays by twenty different authors, readers are introduced to both the exterior and interior journeys each writer has taken down the byways and backroads of the West. The open road—that metaphor of freedom and adventure—beckons each in a different way: from stalling on a lonely stretch of Nebraska highway, to confronting degenerative disease on a backcountry trail, to pounding out a half-marathon on city streets.41u-QGi5x2L._SX336_BO1,204,203,200_

The book begins with an essay by Brenda Peterson entitled “Detours”, which describes two women of our mother’s generation stuck never being able to travel alone or with other women (“there was always someone insisting on coming along”), who  finally get to embark on a half-continental road trip. This seventy-something mom and her sister have a bang-up time delivering a car to a daughter. It’s a giddy flight, one which inspires the author to wonder what if it had been women, rather than men, who explored and named the west. Maybe we’d now be looking at a map of “feminine geography”, perhaps bereft of old male European royalty’s names but more descriptive of the landscape itself, more as Native Americans named their landscapes. An interesting thought.

In “Buelah Land” Linda Hasselstrom’s epic journey across western Nebraska in her 1954 Chevy turns quickly from a one-woman jaunt home into a ceaseless barrage of male innuendo and incredulity as her car breaks down too close to a Hell’s Angels encampment and too far from the gas pump a condescending station attendant says she needs. (She already knows that’s the problem but what does a woman know about engines?) It’s a ruefully funny story and one I imagine many women will read, nodding their heads. (I remember all too well my various run-ins with testosterone-charged mechanics in my solo journeys.)

Perhaps the most lyric essay is Kim Barnes’ loving memoir “The Clearwater,” an Idaho river by which she makes her family home. Although a potentially fatal decision winds her and her children up at the end of a too steep washed out canyon road, the Clearwater has obviously cast its spell over her: “It has taken me time to understand the need I feel to be consumed by the river…I want to be immersed—my hands, my feet, my hips. Like all seductions, it necessitates surrender. I am learning to let go.”

There are other, equally illuminating, and well written essays; many display a love not just for the western landscape but also for the loving attention it requires to carefully construct the language adequate to embody such beauty and fearful aloneness.

Some essays were not so appealing; some I felt could use a closer editing. But overall the stories these women tell are robust and arresting and I found myself enjoying each and every trip taken.

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The Oregon Trail: A New American Journey. Rinker Buck. Simon and Schuster, New York. 2015. 450 pp.

In the summer of 2007 Rinker Buck, a journalist researching a story in the Black Hills, made a serendipitous detour to visit the Hollenberg Ranch and Pony Express station, a way stop on Oregon Trail, now restored and maintained by the Kansas State Historical Society. It was there, reading a 1850 journal entry describing this Ranch by Margaret Frink, pioneer traveller on the Trail, that Buck caught the bug; like Frink, he too decided to travel west on the Oregon Trail. From April to October, 2008 Buck lives his dream, traveling two thousand miles from St. Joe, MO to Baker City OR, in a covered wagon, pulled by a team of three mules.

the-oregon-trail-9781451659160_lgThis book describes that momentous journey, the first of its kind in over one hundred years. Buck spends that winter voraciously reading, purchases a restored wagon and a team of three Amish mules, designs and has a “trail pup” (a two wheeled covered cart which tagged along carrying supplies) constructed. At some point his brother Nicholas (to whom the book is dedicated) invites himself along accompanied by his Jack Russell terrier Olive Oyl. This turns out to be a lucky turn of events; Nick is an expert mule team driver, (true!) who also can swear a blue streak and does, in almost every sentence he utters. He also seems capable of repairing anything, which turns out to be a necessity as along the way axles and wheels break as well as many other parts of their rig. A third “companion”, the ghost of their father who had taken them on another covered wagon expedition as children through New Jersey and Pennsylvania, “joins” them at various locations as the journey unspools.

This book chronicles the Bucks’ adventures and the (mostly) helpful people they meet along the way. It talks about breakdowns, the weather, where they camped, eating at roadside truck stops as well as at town parks, the fine art of mule handling and the daily push to make 25 miles between sunup and sundown. In the dreamy hours spent on the wagon seat, Buck reflects on the beauty of the remaining original Trail, and figures out how to get around places where the Trail has been paved into interstate, Buck also grapples with the role in his psyche his larger-than-life father continues to play.

The Oregon Trail is also an illuminating account of the Trail’s history through the personal histories of some of the people who travelled its length. He considers a kaleidoscope of stories the Trail holds: the Mormons, the broke farmers, the women and children, the wayside ranches, the Indians, even the shysters at the Missouri jumping off points, who are there selling second grade wheels and untrained mules as well as all sorts of goods the pioneers are often forced to abandon along the way.

Part memoir, part rousing history, part how-to drive a covered wagon and mule team, Buck offers a panorama of a part of history which seems to have been mislaid in the telling of the American story. And this may be the most important insight of them all:

“The exodus across the plains in the fifteen years before the Civil War, when more than 400.000 pioneers made the trek between the frontier at the Missouri River and the Pacific coast, is still regarded by scholars as the largest single land migration in history. It virtually defined the American character—our plucky determination in the face of physical adversity, the joining of two coasts into one powerful country, our impetuous cycle of financial bubbles and busts, the endless, fractious clash of ethnic populations competing for the same jobs and space. Post Oregon Trail—with a big assist from the Civil War—America was a continental dynamo connected by railroads and the telegraph from the Atlantic to the Pacific.”

“Seeing the elephant” was the phrase often used by pioneers to describe their Trail journeys. Buck’s trip, 127 years later, shows us what that elephant looks like today.

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In the Empire of Ice: Encounters in a Changing Landscape by Gretel Ehrlich. National Geographic. Washington, DC. 2010. 319 pp.

6200574In the Empire of Ice distills Gretel Ehrlich’s experiences accumulated through multiple extended stays with the native cultures which circle the Arctic—from Siberia, through Alaska and Canada to Greenland. It presents an eloquent scientific and oh-so-human personal lament to an almost mystically alluring landscape and its adapted human culture, both of which are quickly being destroyed by global warming.

Here, living in sub-zero weather, small groups of indigenous people are still trying to follow their ancestral way: a traditional subsistence path which relies on marine mammals to supply everything from coats and house walls to vitamins and minerals generally derived from plant sources they don’t have. As marine mammals—narwhals and walrus as well as seals—migrate through the Arctic waters, natives from Siberia to Greenland traditionally use the frozen seas as their highways.

But the sea ice and the glaciers behind it are melting at increasingly alarming speeds. The Arctic provides a particularly heartbreaking example of the earth’s natural heating and cooling system gone awry, heat absorbing dark open water replacing reflective ice and snow surface. As the ice rapidly melts, traditionally nomadic hunters are forced to take more and more risks at the ice’s edge. Often they miss the migrations entirely and are reduced to participating in our place-settled, money-based economy to obtain necessary food and other staples. Now in some places dog sleds are being replaced by snowmobiles, breaking ancient bonds among humans and animals. It’s truly horrifying to read accounts of what these self-reliant, interrelated communitarian groups, (the type those few voices calling for sustainabie interconnected living yearn for) are losing, subsistence replaced by dependence as their traditional ways are literally melting away. While not minimizing the hardships, Ehrlich and her Inuit friends are obviously devoted to their old ways.

It is yet another clarion call to wake up to the truth of global warming. Will we hear This One and finally answer with bold action? I’m not optimistic but as Wendell Berry insists: “Hope is an obligation.”

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Traveling has become more complex for us as time has passed. Pets (dog and cat) along with health issues have narrowed our traveling  scope considerably, even around our two homes. Still we have great remembrances of many places, not only for the fantastic opportunities we’ve always found to see and learn, but also some of the great, cheap, pet-friendly places we’ve discovered to stay.

I’ve decided to begin 2015 with those greatest hits…prompted by staying at a real miss on our trip south this year. Let me add that ever shortening daylight hours did little to increase our most recent road trip’s pleasure. The only saving grace? We saw a lot of Christmas lights.

So with proper fanfare and a nod to the entanglements of pet-friendly I give you:

Motel 6, San Simeon, CA.

As all you pet owners know, Motel 6s are the only “absolutely always take pets with no fee” on the road. Except in North Carolina which at the time we visited had a state law refusing pets in ANY motel, the only state we’ve had to drive completely across to find pet friendly lodgings. (FYI, North Carolina is a truly wide state east to west.)

It’s true Motel 6s have a certain (mostly deserved) reputation. Tom Bodett may leave the light on for you but at best the amenities range from OK, to a little scary with lumpy beds pushed up against the walls, to Yes, Harold, that is Anthony Perkins at the front desk. One May we arrived at the Motel 6 in Twenty Nine Palms CA (think Mojave Desert) just as they were completing steam cleaning the room’s carpet. Clean is always good. Still having to keep the heat on to dry the rug after a day spent cooking in the car was a little tough.

So it was a happy surprise to find the San Simeon Motel 6. The closest hotel to the Hearst Castle, it’s obviously been repurposed to a Motel 6 from a grander motel in the past. It’s got a real lobby, rooms with a view of the ocean which is just across the dunes, and a pretty darn good restaurant. The rooms are huge by Motel 6 standards and the staff very friendly.

Can you believe it? A Four Star Motel 6!

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Gorse Removal in BSNA courtesy of oregonlive

Gorse Removal in BSNA
courtesy of oregonlive

Bandon Biota/State Park Land Swap: Well, it happened. The State Parks Commission in their April meeting said Yes, 4 to 2. Grant County, which had said they really didn’t want a park in their territory, led to a suspension of land acquisition originally slated to be part of the greater deal and those monies ($2.4 million) will be set aside for “future acquisition” of park lands. The 2 Nays weren’t comfortable setting aside such a large amount of money without specified acquisition lands. Now it’s up to the Bureau of Land Management (the original “owner”) to agree to changes in the original land exchange to the state regarding public use of the area forever. I imagine they’ll say yes.

In summary the vote agrees that Bandon Biota (the golf course developer) will:

  • Convey two properties to in the Bandon area into the state park system totaling 208 acres.
  • Contribute $300,000 to help combat an invasive plant (gorse) on nearby state park properties.
  • Pay $2.5 million into an escrow account to fund future acquisition of state park property.
  • Offer access to property to move the Oregon Coast Trail north of Bandon off a county road.
  • Contribute $450,000 as match for a federal grant to acquire 11 acres of coast property in Lincoln County known as Whale Cove (this contribution was made before the commission acted and was not contingent on commission approval of the larger exchange).

Wand to know more? See: http://www.oregon.gov/oprd/pages/commission-bandon.aspx

Future Pacific Gales Clubhouse Site courtesy of Alysha Beck

Future Pacific Gales Clubhouse Site
courtesy of Alysha Beck

Pacific Gales: Yet another golf course proposal, this time at the end of Knapp Road just north of Port Orford. After the Curry County Land Use Commission approved a conditional (not exclusive farming) land use for the proposed area, the Oregon Coastal Alliance appealed the decision to the Land Use Board of Appeals. The proposal was withdrawn and re-worked to address the appeals’ concerns, and was put before the Planning Commission on Thursday, Sept. 11. No decisions were made at that meeting and more meetings on the revised proposal are in the offing.

The developers remain confident, feeling they have broad community support. To quote Jim Haley, managing partner of the development company, ““I’ve been messing around this place a long time,” he said.  “I’m not quitting. I’m going to win.”

Here’s what was re-submitted to the Planning Commission:

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The Cape Blanco First Annual Country Music Festival

Langlois Market Prepares

Langlois Market Prepares

I took a little trip up Cape Blanco Road just before it  began (mid-August) to see first hand what this music festival had in mind. They claimed 15.000 people were going to be involved. I saw the beginnings of the stage construction and a bunch of little red flags to show the rows marked out for RVs in the sheep pastures. Really, not much else.

You know you're there when you see this

You Know You’re There When You See This

As one who was around for Woodstock, I expected the worst. The Whole of Curry County (that’s including Brookings and Gold Beach) is only 22,000+. So, the organizers expected to add about 75% extra to our area for three days. I could only think: sanitation (not enough), water (ditto), beers (too many) and brawls (ditto), ground fires for warming up (It was Cold) going crazy, igniting across the gorse. Another Port Orford/Bandon disaster. As in burning to the ground.

You know what? Nothing of note occurred in Port Orford (we are about six miles south). I guess more folks got drinking water and beer at Ray’s but honestly, there was no noticeable increase in traffic on 101, even if Ray’s aisles were blocked in with cases of brew. Other than that? Well some vendors told me it wasn’t perfect, and I can imagine the gale force winds were a surprise for many. But, for us townies it was as a passing breeze. I’m still not really convinced that there were 15,000 folks around that weekend. But that’s just me.

At the Port Orford Ray's Supermarket

At the Port Orford Ray’s Supermarket

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Over the last month since we’ve returned to Port Orford, I’ve asked folks “so what’s new?” Although I heard many tales  not one person mentioned dredging. (See: https://wanderwest.wordpress.com/2014/07/02/plus-ca-la-change/)

In fact, according to new Port Manager Steve Courtier, a small dredging project was undertaken in May followed by the full scale dredging taking place right now—the result of the September 2013 agreement between the state and the Corps summarized at: https://wanderwest.wordpress.com/2013/09/18/looks-like-were-going-to-see-the-port-put-back-in-port-orford/

First Day Dredging

First Day Dredging

This apparent lack of interest in such an important Port Orford happening seems baffling. Remember the 2012 “Put the Port Back in Port Orford!” campaign calling attention to its ongoing shoaling problem? People with buckets, wheelbarrows and shovels, hit the beach at low tide and “dug out” a mock channel. Fishermen talked of using their boats’ propellers to churn away sediment. Grim predictions of the port’s demise were heard around town.

But now in August, 2014 a Corps-contracted dredge has arrived. It began scooping spoils mid-afternoon on Sunday July 27th, after leaving its previous mid-July job at the mouth of the Rogue. HME Construction’s dredge is working round the clock and is expected to complete the dredging ahead of schedule! So, we’re getting the dredging, 40,000 cubic yards of spoils removed in record time. And, according Courtier, the Port’s also gotten a grant and is in the process of purchasing a pump, pipes and generator which will be shared with Brookings and others for remedial dredging work. It also appears the Corps has re-committed to dredging Oregon’s small ports into the future. It sounds like a win-win-win for Port Orford to me.

So where’s the town-wide celebration I would have expected? Maybe last Saturday’s Blessing of the Fleet extended to HME’s dredge. At any rate, it looks like the Port really has been put back in Port Orford. And hooray for that!

August 5, 2014

August 5, 2014

August 5, 2014

August 5 2014

August 5 2014

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Walking from the parking lot to the terminal, the usual roar of the jets captures the senses. But entering the modestly sized Tucson airport terminal building, the mood changes. The architecture—clean lines, iodized metal surfaces, cylindrical in theme and minimalist in appearance—announces an airport small enough to find one’s bearings, and appealing to the the harried air traveler on a hot desert day. The simplicity of locating check in, boarding gates, the whole sense of a reasonably human-scaled enterprise contrasts so nicely with those massive, impersonal and rather terrifying places like Phoenix Sky Harbor to say nothing of LAX or O’Hare.

We were there to send our daughter and baby grandson off to the challenges of LAX, sitting in a sort of waiting alcove near Southwest Airlines ticketing, while I strolled about and happened to look up. In fact I was the only one there who happened to look up, catching from the corner of my eye glimpses of what? Aladdin? Ali Baba? Scherazade? Wait—flying carpets? Yes, flying carpets, curling with the breezes, magically translucent colors of many colors, many shapes, going this way and that, up and down, across and back. Ah, is this airport art subliminally suggesting to my primal brain the freedom of magic carpet conveyance? If so, it worked. As I say, no one else there seemed to notice the floating world above, even when I was moving tables and chairs, kneeling and and pointing my camera ceiling-ward.

It’s possible I imagined it all. But no. No amount of photoshopping could create the scene. And I don’t use Photoshop anyhow.

I don’t know the name of the artist who created this public art, but I do know these translucent pieces of magic carpet art cast a spell. Maybe, just maybe, in a thousand and one desert nights anything can happen. SRE (all photos © S R Euston)IMG_2451 - Version 2


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Mapping Wonderlands: Illustrated Cartography of Arizona 1912 – 1962 by Dori Griffin, U of AZ Press,. 2013. 218 pp.

16158084Mapping Wonderlands is an in-depth examination of how Arizona’s tourist industry was developed during its first fifty years of statehood. Griffin’s source material is “ephemera”— images that include post card maps, illustrated cartographs (visually more evocative and narrative geographic representations than basic navigational maps used to get from point A to point B) and chambers of commerce “come to our town” maps. While first encouraged by boosters with their early “Good Roads” program and later by Arizona’s Highway Department with their now iconic Arizona Highways magazine, these illustrated maps suggested a highly developed road system passing through a well-watered landscape of lush valleys, majestic mountains and mysterious historic sites.

Needless to say, these maps presented a highly romanticized view of Arizona. Ancient and modern Native Americans were often depicted sitting before looms in Navajoland (the current reservation which encompasses about 25,000 square miles in the northeast). The Spanish “Entrada” of the late 1600s and its subsequent influence on the state’s identity was represented alternatively by conquistadors, vaqueros, missionaries and sombrero-clad Mexicans on burros. 1800s Arizona miners, cowboys, artists, ranchers and business tycoons were added to Native American and Hispanics who called the territory home. Still, in most of these cartographs all of that linear history is collapsed into a single monolithic timeless whole.

Looking at these cartographs, all 66 of them presented in the book, gives the reader a glimpse into the remarkable manipulative power maps carry to invoke a vague sense of accuracy about landscape and culture which often has little “on the ground” truth. In one map for example, strong double lines, suggesting a four lane superhighway, in fact represent “roads under construction”, as noted in the fine print below. Cartoonish imagery evokes a land full of playful opportunity, much of it water-based, in fact a rare situation save man-made hotel pools and dam-created lakes. Time is flattened into a history without time: Conquistadors march alongside cowboys and grubstakers on their horses and businessmen in their motorcars, while Indians using a paint brush create “the Painted Desert.” A cowboy-hatted saguaro beckons with spiny arms to “visit the land of the sun!”

The Arizona imagists who made these cartographs (which often included vignette illustrations of both natural wonders and the built environment) wrestled with a big problem: Was Arizona a crowded landscape, safe and recognizable for tourists looking for a memorable “grand tour”, or the last of the “Wild West” available for adventurers looking for thrills? Was it filled with waving fields of grain and cotton, or thorny desert cactus? Was it friendly and accessible, or uncharted territory? Of course the truth is some of each but the desire to convey a tourist wonderland with something for everyone won out over some less cheerful Arizona facts: Never leave home without water; watch out for snakes; cactus spines really hurt!

The main point of the book, it seems to me, is that these map-makers, by their choices of what to present on their “maps” sent a wide variety of subliminal messages that played with reality to promote tourism. Unfortunately the book’s illustrations are not in color or clearly reproduced and the writing seems unnecessarily academic. That’s too bad, considering the subject is a fascinating one of overarching sociological as well as academic interest—how visual representations we call “maps” can and do manipulate our understanding of landscape and territory. This is a particularly challenging issue to contemplate as we come to rely more on virtual maps, viewed on computer screens, which provide detailed distance directions but little information about the world we’re passing through beyond isolated and isolating factoids like where to buy a pizza or gas.

Sure these earlier “maps” may have stretched the truth as did earlier maps with Terra Incongnito and oceans teeming with dragons and serpents lurking at their edges. Somehow though they seem so much more informative and colorful, not only about geography and territory but about the cultures that developed them. Our modern technological “just the facts maam” computer voice on the dashboard screen intoning, “In 1.6 miles turn left” portrays a colorless, homogonezied  version of our world.

But then, perhaps it’s appropriate for navigating the territory we have created.

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Today we took a quick trip to Madera Canyon’s Santa Rita Lodging birding area—a group of covered roadside benches just perfect for relaxed birdwatching. Adjacent to a small grassy field holding about fifteen nearby numbered bird feeders all in a row and designed to attract different birds—we less adventurous (or time-pressed) birders can come up with some great quick spots. Although Madera Creek isn’t running (we’ve had about 20% of normal rainfall) and both the oaks and sycamores look pretty peaked, this is a time for migration through and coming home for many bird species. In less than an hour we saw flocks of lesser goldfinches, broad billed and black chinned hummingbirds, wild turkeys, a black headed grosbeak and, probably most spectacularly, a lazuli bunting. Not bad for some essentially drive-by birdwatching.

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