Vietnam Veterans Memorial State Park Angel Fire, New Mexico

Viet Mem

Greed plowed cities desolate. Lusts ran snorting through the streets. Pride reared up to desecrate shrines and there were no retreats, so man learned to shed the tears with which to measure out his years.

 ~ David Westphall

Like with so many of the memorable, interesting or touching experiences in our lives, we stumbled accidentally upon the Vietnam Veterans Memorial State Park in Angel Fire, New Mexico.  Up with the dawn, we were looking for breakfast when we spied a white wing of a building catching the early morning light on top of a hill rising out of the flat valley floor.  We somehow missed reading the sign at the bottom of the drive and only realized it was a war memorial after we’d dismounted and approached the entrance.  It was a simple opening – no gate – cut in a low whitewashed adobe wall overhung with flowering branches.  Even standing in the parking lot, a sweet solemn peace flowed out from the garden, surrounding us and calling us in.  John’s hand squeezed tighter around mine.  He took a big breath and led me through the entrance.

It doesn’t matter how often we enter such sites, and we’ve visited many over the years, they always wrench our hearts.  John bears the brunt of these encounters. I stand witness.  Some things we share – the times, our youth, the grief of parting, the fear of losing each other forever – but my knowledge of war comes second-hand, from reports, accounts, anecdotes, film and of course living with its fallout in the after years.  It is John who walks into these memorials knowing the wounds will reopen; the memories will surface, the chronic dull ache of grief and regret will  sharpen into focus and surge forward with all the primal intensity those original experiences engendered.  And yet, re-opening those wounds also brings healing and the solace of tears.  There is something about remembrance, which comforts and restores.  Our souls are nourished and refurbished by these repositories of memory.  They reassure us that yes, it really happened, and yes, it was as terrible and fruitless and horrifying as we remember, and yes, we were changed by these events forever.

Netherlands War Cemetery
Netherlands War Cemetery

I remember another trip, another memorial we stumbled upon, on another deserted road, early one morning.  We were visiting Holland, driving around on back roads from town to town, exploring as we went. The Netherlands American Cemetery lies just outside the village of Margarten, ten kilometers (six miles) east of Maastricht.  It is the final resting place of 8,301 American soldiers who died nearby during WWII.  Both of our fathers returned from that war; both were decorated and wounded and both made a career of the army. So we stopped and walked the curved white rows of gravestones carved with crosses and six-pointed stars and even an occasional turban. And we wept and mourned and gazed in the reflecting pool and thought about how we came to stand where we did, surviving the exigencies of two wars to bear our own children.

The memorial in Angel Fire was built in memory of a dead child. David Westphall was killed in an ambush at Con Thien, Vietnam May 22, 1968 three months before our son was born.  ???????????????????????????????His parents had acquired the property where the memorial now stands with the intention of building a resort.  Instead they created a chapel in honor of their son and his fallen comrades. Doc Westphall did most of the work himself, selling off bits of the ranch to finance the building and gardens. In 1994 he visited the site of David’s ambush and sprinkled soil from the chapel grounds upon it. He brought back a handful of Vietnamese earth to scatter on the gardens.  In a mystical bit of synchronicity Con Thien translates as “hill of angels.” Doc and his wife are both buried here in the place they felt the closest to their boy.

Sunplus
(Our interior shot didn’t turn out so we snagged this)

The chapel rises up to a slender peak on two smooth buttresses that look like white wings.  It is simple and elegant inside, full of poignant symbolism. A step tier of upholstered benches face a tall three branched candlestick that incorporates the shape of a cross. It stands in the narrowest corner of the chapel where the walls come together to form the prow of the building. Scattered along the benches are boxes of Kleenex.  That homely sensitive touch made us laugh through our tears as we blew our noses.  We were happily surprised to find the chapel unlocked at 6:30 in the morning. As it turns out, it is never locked.  The morning after the dedication Doc Westphall found a note scrawled on a scrap of wood leaning against the locked door. It said, “Why did you lock the door when I needed to come in?” The chapel has remained unlocked ever since.

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“Dear Mom and Dad” by Doug Scott

The pasture in which the chapel stands has become a garden. Shaded paths, lined with bricks that bear the same names as The Wall in Washington D.C., curve past flower beds to the small grave site, benches overlooking the valley, a statue of a soldier writing a letter home and a retired Huey helicopter.  The statue is especially moving because the chapel contains excerpts of David’s letters home.

Angel Fire is the only state park dedicated exclusively as a war memorial to Vietnam veterans. It was the first Vietnam War memorial to be built.  Today it also holds an amphitheater, which hosts concerts and special events.

???????????????????????????????It took a long time for this country to follow Doc Westphall’s example in honoring the Viet Vets.  Even after The Wall was finally erected and visited by millions, my Dad, Lt. Col. Henry G. Phillips, lost a hard-fought battle with the The Ninth Infantry Division Association to allow Vietnam vets to join the association.  The discrimination against returning soldiers casts a long shadow to this day.  It makes sites like Angel Fire’s all the more remarkable and treasured.

We left the chapel and its beautiful grounds deeply moved by the kind and generous spirit of this place.  Some guardian angel watches here, I think, whispering messages to each soul, dripping balm into old wounds, singing of life to be lived with gratitude and thanksgiving.

Each for his own memorial earned praise that will never die                                                                        and with it the grandest of all sepulchers,                                                                                                       not that in which mortal bones are laid                                                                                                            but a home in the minds of men.       ~The memorial plinth, Netherlands War Cemetery

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Some Towns Are Hard To Drown

In a previous post, I mentioned the ghost farms we passed on our recent trip from Texas through northern New Mexico, southern Colorado, and corners of Kansas and Oklahoma.  Everywhere we went the signs of drought were evident in sere fields, vast stands of dead aspen, the smoky haze from forest fires and dozens of dried up streams, desiccated rivers and shrunken lakes.

Deserted buildings and towns are nothing new to the west.  Weird memento mori, they fascinate and repel at the same time, enhancing our appreciation of being alive and kicking by reminding us how transient and fragile existence reaghost-town-4lly is.  Bodie, California, the spookiest ghost town we ever visited, really brought this home.   An actual town, rather than just one street a block or two long, it sprawls across the landscape with about 110 structures still lining its streets and alleyways.  The houses are filled with the detritus of people’s lives – rickety kitchen tables, faded dusty jackets still hanging on a hook, empty bottles and cracked dishes, forgotten toys …bodie_4_bg_090604

Bodie, now a state park, lies 13 miles (10 miles of pavement, 3 miles of dirt) east of Highway 395 on Bodie Road (Hwy 270), seven miles south of Bridgeport, California.  Some of you may remember that Bridgeport used to host an annual motorcycle rally, one of the old-fashioned kind where the town seemed to genuinely welcome bikers and let us take over the whole place.  I remember wall to wall bikes parked down the middle of Main Street in a double row, but can’t find a single picture on the web.  The only memory left of those days is a commemorative pin for sale on eBay.  Another kind of ghost, I guess.

Drowned ghost towns make up an interesting sub-species of the spectral village.  Most of these towns have been submerged by the building of dams, but some drowned in floods or rising seas.  Local legends sometimes claim to hear the sound church bells still tolling in the depths.  Lately, as the world warms and droughts intensify, the steeples occasionally rise up again, eerily resurrected as water tables sink.   drowned church bell tower emerging

Sapinero, a small hamlet in rural Colorado, now drowned, still sleeps quietly cradled beneath the choppy waters of Blue Mesa Reservoir, the largest lake in ColoLake City Train in the Lake Fork Canyonrado.  The Denver & Rio Grande Railway once ran a spur from Sapinero to Cimarron part-way through the fabulously scenic Black Canyon of the Gunnison River.  At one time Sapinero boasted a post office, a railroad station, two hotels, a church dry-goods store and saloons, but by the time the lake gobbled it up only about 88 people remained and the businesses were long gone.  However, some people love their towns, no matter how small, and fight tenaciously to preserve them.  I heard about one such resident when we stopped at the Sapinero Village Store looking for lunch and gas.

We found neither, instead we found Jeri Tharpe and her partner running a spotless, well-stocked convenience store and adjoining tavern, wrested with hard work and savings from the bones of the old Sapinero Trading Post.  One of the original townspeople had moved it, along with several other buildings, to high ground when the lake waters began to rise. ???????????????????????????????

Then
Then
Now
Now

Jeri and I hit it off.  She is an artist herself and painted the steam locomotive hanging over the bar in Murph’s Place.  She’s also a history buff and loves to read.  We covered a lot of common ground.  In fact, I sent John out to the bike to grab my last copy of my novel Magdalene A.D. to give to my new friend.  I would have fetched it myself but we were too deep in conversation.  I asked her to put it on the book swap shelf when she finished it.  I’m happy to report that she wrote me a few weeks later with a rave review!  She said she’d have to buy another copy for the shelf – she’s keeping hers.

th (1)Jeri is another of those remarkable people we sometimes encounter on road trips; people with tool belts full of diverse skills and talents, the kind willing to try something new and change their lives.  I call them the “If folk” after Rudyard Kipling’s famous poem. 

Oh, that I might live multiple lives, simultaneously, in a dozen places and form deeper friendships with the kindred souls we chance upon in our travels.  I always feel particularly lucky and honored when I come across one.  I’m very pleased to have met Jeri and I treasure our brief encounter.

Love That Road

Since we returned from New Mexico and Colorado, my husband John has been off adventuring in airplanes so the BMW is stabled temporarily.  But there’s still lots to say about our last road trip.  Today, I was thinking how individualistic a road can be.  Some seem to have personalities and quirks of characters.  There are roads I fall in love with; no matter how often I take them I always enjoy every inch. Some are dull as ditchwater. Some I actively dislike and there are a couple which I swear are downright hostile.

By the time we left Ophir Pass Road ( see  previous post, July 22 ) we were ready for a little refreshment, but there’s something about spending time on narrow dirt roads in the back of beyond that makes us reluctant to rejoin society.  Telluride, with its holiday crowds and self-conscious charm, seemed a little too much.  We eschewed it and pushed on.  It’s hard to find a town in Colorado without a coffee shop of some kind.  Ridgeway was no exception.  The Cimarron Bookstore and Coffeehouse caught our eye.

I haven’t mentioned yet that I’m an inveterate book-a-holic.  There have been times in our marriage when John has banned me from bookstores!  I have to admit Kindle makes traveling easier, though there’s nothing like turning real pages. Not only do I read books, I write them and was carrying a dwindling store of Magdalene A.D., my most recent novel, with us to try to foist it on independent bookstores.

To tell the truth, I was so hot and dusty and thirsty by the time we got to Ridgeway all I could thing about shedding several layers of clothing and slurping down an iced coffee on the patio.  I closed my eyes and tipped my face to the sun and let my thoughts melt.  I might have dozed for a minute, but suddenly, I felt someone gazing at me. I recognized  the feeling.  A dog or small child was staring fixedly at my face; willing me to wake up with all the intensity of its little heart, but too well-trained to bark or lick.IMG_1299

It was a little boy.  As soon as my eyes flickered open he started asking polite questions about the plant on our table.  Did I like it?  What kind of plant was it?  Having eavesdropped in my semi-trance I knew what he was after.

“Would you like to take our plant to your table?”  He nodded eagerly.

Turned out his sister had already confiscated the sprig of IMG_1301rosemary adorning their space.  Peace restored, John settled into a conversation with the dad about the bike.  I shook myself out and clumped across the street in boots and chaps to peruse one of the prettiest, most luscious farmers’ markets I’ve ever shopped.  It takes place in the city park on Fridays under the thick green canopies of a grove of cottonwoods.  I’ve never seen such gorgeous vegetables, not to mention pies, cookies, muffins and breads.  I could have bought organic beef, lamb, bison and even yak!   Soaps, lotions, jellies and jams rounded out the offerings.  Its times like this when I bemoan our minimal form of transportation.  I restricted myself to a small package of the best biscotti ever and rejoined John.

 Not too much further down the road we joined our beloved Hwy 50.   Highway 50 starts in Sacramento with a road sign that says,” Ocean City, MD  3073 Miles.” HWY 50 sign  The highway used to go all the way to San Francisco, but US 80 gobbled up that stretch when the Interstate Highway system was built.  In those days, Hwy 50 formed a major east-west thoroughfare and I spent lots of hours on it as a kid.  More recently, during the twenty years US50LoneliestRoadInAmericawe lived in California we’ve take “The Loneliest Road in America” across the huge, high, desert valleys of Nevada many times, heading east towards Colorado or Utah.  There’s nothing like those vast stretches of land, empty of Us_route_50_nevadahumans, with vegetation so sparse the bone of the Earth stand out clearly in elegant majesty and beauty.   Surrounded by them, my mind must stretch to take in a vast palpable presence.  At the same time, the endless vistas take me out of myself – away from ego-driven monkey mind.  Perspective returns.  Humbled, down-sized, mind at rest, I feel such a poignant belongingness I think my heart will break with joy.   I owe this road a lot.  It took me places where I could learn from the Earth how beautiful and nourishing solitude and emptiness can be.

Hwy 50 ends in Ocean City, Maryland.  It travels through the Virginia suburbs surrounding Washington D.C.,  where I first met John so many years ago.  We took Hwy fifty into DC to go dancing, watch avant-garde movies, climb the steps of the Washington Memorial, or picnic by the C&O canal.  When he came back from Nam, we left our baby with his grandmother and took Hwy. 50 to the beach for a snowy weekend by ourselves to reconnect.   We have a lot of history with this road.  Finding it in Colorado, heading in the right direction, we couldn’t help but rejoin our old friend.

Strangers, Well Met

One of the joys of road trips is stopping – stopping for a closer look, to gaze in wonder, to warm up or cool down, to stretch, pee, take a break or check the map against the GPS. On the morning we left Santa Fe the sun had just begun to light the sky as we crossed the valley and began the climb up Hwy 64 toward the Brazos pass.

The road is known for its aspens but there won’t be any visitors this fall, almost every tree, acres and acres of them are dead.  Scientists call this SAD (Sudden Aspen Decline) They think its related to  severe extensive drought, in other words to the changing climate .  It’s interesting that human SAD-ness is also a weather based ailment.  Sad is the appropriate word.  It hurts my heart to see these ghost forests.  I’m reminded once again how closely linked we are in body and spirit to our mother Earth.

???????????????????????????????IMG_1130By the time we reached the tiny town of Tierra Amirilla I was ready to stop for hot coffee  and shake of the chill in my heart and bones.   Our stops often include chats.  After several hours of companionable solitude, it’s fun to socialize for a while, respond to questions about ourselves or the bike, and quiz the locals about their lives and environs.  We always meet a few memorable people.

  That morning, we were lucky enough to meet Paul Namkung who owns the Three Ravens Paul threeravenscoffeehouse-porch2Coffee shop in Tierra Amarilla, New Mexico.  Besides restoring buildings, running the café, and harvesting his luscious raised beds of vegetables, Paul makes drums, all kinds of drums from small frame drums covered in rawhide to the traditional Taiko drums of Japan.  He’s famous for his cajon drums – square boxes of finely finished wood the drummer sits on to play.  Turns out he sold one to musician and song writer Saul Rayo,about-saul-1 a friend of mine from Nevada City, California.

This world is so huge and so small at the same time. Sometimes it makes me dizzy thinking about how time and space continually expand and contract.  That morning, our delight in discovering Paul’s enchanting environment stopped all the clocks for us.  We sat on his porch, beside a green oasis of wild flowers and grasses for much longer than we’d intended, drinking great coffee, munching down the best cinnamon rolls I’ve ever eaten anywhere, and swapping stories and ideas in one of those long rambling conversations that covers the globe then bring you home again.

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We all have favorite character traits we look for when assessing a new acquaintance for compatibility and friendship.  I look for eclectic curiosity.  Eclectic curiosity implies a willingness to engage with the world and to take it on its own terms.  Paul sparkles with it.  Three Ravens is an example.  Once a condemned two-story century old adobe, it has now been lovingly and accurately restored to hold Paul’s studio, coffee shop and domicile.  The L-shaped structure, originally built by Jose Martinez in 1885, is said to have housed a publishing company, a Catholic school, the post office, and a bar not to mention intermittent generations of local families.  It was condemned by the time he found it, and no one believed him when he said he was going to restore the place.  But working with New Mexico state historian as a reference, he did just that.  Paul believes life is all about community and because he puts his time, sweat, money and energy where his mouth is, the community has embraced him.  If tourists wander in to this inviting environment they are welcomed warmly, but the Three Ravens is first and foremost a local hangout.

???????????????????????????????I met Mr. Gabriel over coffee.  He comes by every day to sit on the porch, drink his coffee and watch life go by.  Mr. G. has traveled far and wide in his very long lifetime.  Now he lives in the house he was born in, honored and revered by several generations of nieces and nephews.  His old-fashioned civility and willingness to share his memories entranced me.  We conversed at length while John got a tour of the drums.

It was hard to leave the pleasant café and good company, the view of the fertile valley and the silhouetted mountains rising beyond it.  Eventually however, we pulled on our leather jackets, snapped our helmets shut and waved good-bye.  Someday,  we’ll visit them again, I hope.

ThreeRavensCoffeeHouse-Logo15 SR 531
Tierra Amarilla, New Mexico 87575
Hours:
Monday – Friday, 7:00AM – 4:00PM
Saturday, 9:00AM – 4:00PM

Ophir Pass Road

We just returned from an awesome trip on our BMW R1200GS touring parts of northern New Mexico and southern Colorado.   There are so many things to mention I hardly know where to start.  The trip will probably account for the next several postings in no particular order…

The most thrilling thing we did was take the road across Ophir Pass in Colorado.  We heard about this top-of-the-world from a stranger on the street in Telluride, one of those middle-aged men who gaze longingly at our machine when it’s parked somewhere public.  One of those guys who “used to ride” before becoming bogged down with family; at least that’s always the excuse – having ridden together for four and a half decades of marriage we know that one doesn’t fly!

Our new friend assured us that he’d been over the pass several times in a 4-wheeler and it was a “piece of cake.”  He assured us we’d have no trouble.  In our experience these are words to beware of.  Contrariwise when someone describes the road as “really rough” it usually means we can relax. Go figure.

The "Cakewalk" Stretch of Ophir Road
The “Cakewalk” Stretch of Ophir Road

Ophir, once a ghost mining town has now been replaced by a handful of  modern houses, but the once thriving boom town, left us an interesting legacy.  Ophir Pass Road,  originally established as a wagon road connecting the local mines, still serves as a gorgeously scenic shortcut between Silverton and Telluride.

Once outside of Ophir, the well-graded and oiled two-lane road turns into a dirt lane that narrows even further as it begins the steep climb through loose rock debris to the top of the pass.  However, we started at the other end, right outside of Silverton, CO.  It’s a good thing too, because the road wasn’t quite the cake that well-meaning stranger promised us.

We did fine up to the summit, enjoying the contrasting greens of meadow and forest and the glorious sweep of the surrounding mountains.  A colony of fat brown marmots scurried away at our approach as we roared blithely over the top.  It’s a good thing we slowed to consider a photo because it allowed us to stop cold at the yawning edge of a huge pothole, a good eighteen inches deep and lined with loose rock.  Just beyond was another hole, not as large, extending out from the cliff side.  A narrow serpentine strip of dirt wriggled between them.  On one side was the mountain, on the other air.

Unhappily for us, when John shifted his weight, a rock slipped out from beneath his boot and over we went, in slow motion just like Benny Hill, right onto the verge. Picking up 700 lbs. of bike at 11,500 ft. is no picnic.  It’s our third tumble of this kind in as many weeks so we’ve had some practice and are becoming rather adept!  Third time’s the charm I hope.  We’ve ridden for years without incident, so perhaps we’re overdue and I give grateful thanks the gods and goddesses of the road for playing so gently with us.

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Taking Stock

After righting the bike and a short rest to catch our breath we decided to walk the bike around the pothole.  With great skill and cunning and a very judicious use of throttle, John managed to walk the bike through the maze of tumbled rock.  I stumbled along on the opposite side, trying to help balance it without falling into the pit.

A Moment of Meditation to Catch My Breath
A Moment of Meditation to Catch My Breath

I’m very very glad we approached this road of from the Silverton rather than Ophir side because we had gravity on our side while trying to guide the bike through that problematic patch on the road.  I don’t think a regular dirt bike with one rider would have had any trouble, but fully loaded with two people we probably weighed close to a thousand pounds.

The rest of the road was straight down, across loose scree.  Two pale narrow tire tracks hard-packed with the weight of passing vehicles provided a barely viable surface for our own tires to cling to on the steep descent.   Years of riding together allow us ride in sync even through technical terrain.  That harmony stood us in good stead as I clamped my knees tight around my husband’s hips, gave myself over to the movement of the bike, and tried to appreciate the spectacular scenery, determined not to picture us thrown over the edge as we darted and dodged down that shelf.  I’m rarely nervous on these off-pavement adventures, but I did indulge in an imaginary rant at the fellow who recommended that slope. Of course, once we were down safe, I was thrilled we’d done it.  Kind of like riding a roller coaster – scares the bejesus out of you, but then you want to do it again!

ophir_pass_map

The road begins about 5 miles south of Red Mountain Pass and approximately the same distance north of Silverton on US 550.  A sign on the west side of 550 marks the location of the start of Ophir Pass Road.  The trip west is a rather gradual grade and there is room almost everywhere for two vehicles to pass.  The trail winds through forested land in the Middle Mineral Creek area until it reaches the tree line and continues to the rocky summit at 11, 789 feet.  The road descending into the valley is a long shelf road on talus. There is one switchback shortly below the summit, followed by a continuous run down the side of the slope.

Travelling On Our Stomachs

            “An army marches on its stomach

~Napoleon Bonaparte

Sometimes, driving along the back roads of America we ask ourselves, “What if they gave a country and nobody came?”   Get off the interstates and traffic disappears, leaving us alone with every kind of scenery from bristle cone pines to bayous, gorges and grasslands.   Occasionally, we pass a dusty pick-up truck or a piece of farm machinery trundling along; taking up the middle of the road, but happy to pull over and wave us by.  The most traffic we ever see is in small towns, parked around some unprepossessing little place called Sue’s Diner or Mom’s or The Kettle.   That’s our sign for the best eats in town.

We love these little places – the décor is always a surprise.  Some places are so dingy carpets, paint, tables and chairs fade together into a dusty blur. The artificial flowered wreath someone hung when the store opened decades ago, still droops from rickety lattice-work tacked to the fake knotty pine paneling and the only thing that’s changed on the menu is the price which has been scratched out with a black pen a couple of times over the years.  Other places are spick and span with cute little café curtains and lots of plaques with sweet sentiments.  The bathrooms have adorable pictures of baby animals glued to the doors – puppies for men; kittens for ladies.

My favorites are themed – usually to the regional occupation; sawmills in lumber towns, farm implements in corn, wheat and cotton country; crab pots around Chesapeake Bay. Regional Western themes are a perennial favorite, no matter what part of the country we’re in, but you get more authenticity in real cowboy country.  I can still hear John’s astonished whistle when he realized the pistols and Remington rifles hung high above our heads near an old pressed tin ceiling were the real McCoy.

Sometimes the walls hold someone’s personal collection of memorabilia.  I always wonder whose?  The restaurant owner’s?   His grandmother’s?  Her  uncle’s?  Last week, we stopped in a cinderblock box painted pink, full of signed Elvis album covers, head shots and movie posters.   A diner near home holds a collection of different kinds of barbed wire all carefully mounted on wooden parts cut into the shape of Texas.  Each strand is carefully labeled and dated in beautifully formed letters – the kind of script they used to teach in school before the advent of typewriters.

It’s best in these places to stick to a local specialty.  Eat catfish in Arkansas, brisket in Texas, chowder in Massachusetts and cheese steaks sandwiches around Philadelphia.  Don’t expect too much in the way of salad bars. They exist, but they’re usually pretty basic – iceberg lettuce, cucumbers, olives, pale tomatoes, canned corn, cottage cheese and chopped celery are the staples. Occasionally there’s an innovative selection of all kinds of prepared salads like ambrosia,  Jell-O mold, succotash and three-bean.  Try to avoid the pie.  They sometimes look spectacular, but don’t let the mounds of cool whip suck you in.  I always check out the pies first.  If I find one with a real crust (never squashed down flat by the tines of a fork) and lots of fruit with only a bare dollop of  richly-hued goo to hold it together, I skip the main meal altogether and go for desert a lá mode!

Sometimes we’re stuck with a place that’s just plain unappetizing.   In a pinch I usually fall back on breakfast.  It’s America’s best all-around meal and most small independently owned hang-outs serve it all day.  Trust that the eggs will be turned easy and the hash browns fried crisp and golden .   A bad breakfast is rare indeed.

For me,  the best thing about these places is the opportunity to eavesdrop on the lives of the locals.  I always start by reading the bulletin board or posted signs on the way in.  Both at lunch and breakfast there’s almost always a table of local farmers or small business men sitting together.  You can tell from the body language and tone of voice that they do this often and are friends of long-standing.  Often the talk is of weather or crops, local issues and national news items.  Folks are generally in agreement and any arguments seem like long-standing ones in which the antagonists bait each other for the enjoyment of their compatriots.  Sometimes we hear surprising things – like the good ole boy with the down-home drawl who went to Africa to advise a new business venture on the advisability of harvesting the trees on a property in Niger.  And sometimes we witness a moment of such poignancy it becomes  a part of our personal mythos.  I’ll never forget a frail old couple, looking like two wizened apple dolls, sitting at the next table, who reached across to clasp each other’s hands and say grace.  Obviously, it’s a life-long habit, probably from the first day of marriage.  Now, decades later, they continue to repeat this sweet private ritual wherever they find themselves.

On a road trip, eating becomes more than the simple satisfaction of appetite.  It’s R&R – a chance to stretch out the kinks, rest your tired buns, relax from the necessity to pay attention every minute.   The motorcycle allows an unusual intimacy with the landscape, but at the same time it isolates its riders in a bubble of moving air – or at least that’s what it feels like to me.  It creates an odd sort of paradox that takes me out of space and time while creating an awareness of connection to the landscape that feels incredibly sensuous.  Rest stops allow a return to ordinary life; they slow us down, feed the part of us that needs a small shot of socialization to counteract the immensity right outside the door, at the edge of town where the unknown beckons us forever on.

Scrapes & Bruises

Hey riders, I’m bandaged today and it’s my own damn fault.  I know better than to ride without my jacket.  But it was hot and sticky and you know how it is – there isn’t any better feeling than riding unencumbered by gear.  Too bad shit happens.

We were coming back from a slow easy circuit – Sunday driving à la motorcycle on quiet back roads, loafing along at the end of a cool spell with a lot of rain.  We’d picked Lantana Resort for a late lunch stop, but unbeknownst to us they’d closed the restaurant since our last visit.  We’re particularly fond of Lantana because it’s so utterly serene and welcoming.  John took me there when I first joined him in Texas.  We’d been apart for way too long and uninterrupted quiet time in which to laze in bed, talk and get reacquainted suited us perfectly.  The gazebo overlooking Ray Roberts Lake quickly became our favorite hang-out.  It looks like a Victorian bandstand and contains only one thing, a wicker swing, nicely padded and big enough for two to lounge on comfortably.  The swing doesn’t squeak and the only sounds are the wind in the trees, birdsong and the steady lap, lap, lap of lake water kissing the shore.

Lantana gazebo

Lantana’s hospitality remains undiminished.  The friendly receptionist took us back to the kitchen, poured big glasses of ice water complete with slices of lemon, and invited us to use the gazebo as long as we liked.  I think that swing is really some magic kind of device to stop time.  If John’s stomach hadn’t growled we might still be there, rocking, murmuring and repeating silly jokes no one else in the world would understand.

The ride back home took us through patchwork countryside of variegated greens.  Right now, the hayfields are dotted with golden rolls of baled hay.  They mirrored the blue skyfield with its occasional puffs of small fluffy white clouds.  Our cool rainy spring has blanketed the uncut pastures with wildflowers.  With summer approaching fast, they are beginning to fade, but color still shimmers faintly above the green.

I love the subtlety of this north Texas landscape.  Zooming by in a car on a highway at 60 mph plus, one might not notice, in fact it might look as if nothing happened for miles.  Drifting along at 35 or 40, you begin to notice how the change in elevation of even a few feet can offer a panoramic view of tree-bordered meadows one minute and the next plunges you into densely forested thicket.

Another variation depends on the width of the road.  Four lane highways separate us from the land, allowing us to pass through as observers rather than participants, but when the road narrows everything becomes more intimate and immediate.  Slowing down allows the feathery petals of thistle to emerge from a blur of red or purple.  Every note of birdsong is suddenly distinct.  The rabbit, frozen in place, half-hidden in the grass, becomes visible.  We turned our BMW R1200GS enduro motorcycle down that tiny gravel road, deviating from our route, because we couldn’t resist its promise of a close look at the cluster of oddly marked cows huddled under an oak in the corner of the farmer’s distant field.

All would have been well if that patch of black mud striated with the ruts hadn’t been quite so sticky and slick.  Sounds like an oxymoron but it made morons out of us.  The bike just slid out from under us.  John ended up with a walloping bruise from the handlebars and I scraped a silver dollar sized patch of skin off my arm.  Happily our combined brute strength and a little elementary physics allowed us to raise the bike easily.  The damage was minimal thanks to that same thick shock absorbing mud.  What’s that old saying?  “Barn burned down / now I can see the moon.”

John dumped a bottle of water over my cut and rigged a pressure bandage out of some leftover napkins and plastic cable ties.  With our glass half-full, I was all for continuing to detour, but John headed for the nearest pharmacy for antibiotic impregnated gauze, antibiotic cream and self-sticking tape.  Miracles of modern medicine!

As I waited for the first-aid supplies to arrive, I noticed a guy with a portable smoker in the corner of the parking lot.  It was late in the afternoon and the poor man looked as barbecued as his product from the June Texas sun.  He happily sold us what he had left, chopping up brisket and pork together into a glistening delicious smelling heap.  We were beginning to stiffen up and ache, so we grabbed our meat and zoomed home on the highway to hot baths, savory sandwiches and bed.

I know better than to ride without my jacket, and John says he should have walked the bike through that slick patch of goo, but all-in-all we’re pleased we managed to extricate ourselves from our own mess, happy we made it home to ride another day and ever so grateful for our helmets.

Snippets in No Particular Order

Dana Bowman

I told you we went to a memorial service for Vietnam vets at the National Vietnam War Museum in Mineral Wells, TX.  One of the highlights was a parachute jump by Sgt. 1st Class Dana Bowman (Ret.), a former Green Beret and Golden Knight.  Dana is a double amputee who now jumps, skis, scuba dives and drives.  He is a motivational speaker and a walking example of freedom of choice.  As Victor E. Frankl says in his powerful book Man’s Search for Meaning, “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”  Dana Bowman jumps with the Stars and Stripes attached to his prosthetic foot, but his life is every bit as symbolic of what it means to be American as our flag is.

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 Yard Art

Driving down the road we came across this enormous statue of Jesus surrounded by a bevy of angels whose wings seem upheld by a celestial wind.

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Tucked around the corner by the garage, that same wind plays havoc with Mary’s (Marilyn’s) skirts.   What’s the message here?

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Hot Dog

I have to say this sculpture was much more to my liking.  I doubt I’ve ever seen a bronze hot dog before.  It’s placed right next to a fire circle in a hidden corner of Clark Gardens.  I don’t know if the red wagon full of kindling is part of a permanent display, but it certainly added to the ambience.

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The other piece we liked was Max Clark and his dog.  This  sits on top of a lovely terraced hill encircled by a ramp.  The artist left us in no doubt of their mutual friendship and regard.

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Grist for the Mill

This is the Grist Mill in War Eagle, AR.  No one knows how War Eagle Creek got its name, though there is a very sad and romantic Osage love story connected with it.  How ere it be, the creek is listed by name in the Louisiana Purchase.

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There’s been a grist mill here since 1938.  The present incarnation, the fourth, with its 18 foot undershot well is one about 60 working mills in the United States run by river/stream, wind or tidal power.  It grinds stone buhr whole wheat flour, cornmeal, rye flour, buckwheat flour, grits, cereals, and whole grain mixes.

There’s a gift shop on the second flour and the Bean Palace café on the third flour makes a damn fine biscuit and the best pecan cobbler ever.  Arkansas is full of wonderful back Inside the Millroads that twist and turn, double back and shoot forward.  We took War Eagle Road across the bridge and just followed the GPS on our way to Oark, AR.

 

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There was a kind of weird moment at the memorial ceremony on June 1.  The museum decided to honor the speakers with commemorative plaques.  They chose to replicate the touching and beautifully rendered “Soldier’s Cross” from the Memorial Garden to decorate the plaque.  I think it was a kind of shock to the recipients to see that headstone with their names engraved beneath it.  To top it all off the presenter cheerfully said, “I’ll get  you the box later!”

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Oark, AR

Charles, a fellow aficionado of the road we met over breakfast at the Hateful Hussy (see previous post, Riding the Talimena May 31, 2013), turned us on to Oark, AR.  Oark lays claim to the oldest continually running store in Arkansas (1890).  It continues in business because it happens to be set in a network of fabulous paved and unpaved roads – the kind bikers like best. ???????????????????????????????

Our amazing BMW R1200 GS will go anywhere so we elected to try both.  Back-of-beyond dirt roads never fail to thrill us.  Hiking gets one deeper and further into the wilderness, but for almost instant access to remote forests and mountain tops there’s nothing like a country road with grass growing up between the ruts.  If your bike doesn’t take too easily to dirt and gravel try paved Hwy 103.  It begins a mile from the store, leaving 215 to corkscrew downhill to Clarksville.  Besides their killer location, the Oark General Store has great burgers and pie and even better company.  The parking lot is always full of bikers swapping stories and road tips.

A Day to Remember

We woke early this morning and left the house soon after sunrise for the two-hour run to Mineral Wells for a ceremony unveiling fourteen roadside flowersnew names to be added to the replica wall at the National Vietnam War Museum. Our route took us on back roads through gently rolling farmland where you can drive ten miles or so without passing another vehicle.  I do love it when there’s only us and the countryside.  The wildflowers are still lush along the roadsides – yellow, white, purple, pink, red  and blue set off by an infinite variety of greens.

The National Vietnam War Museum is an amazing organization – one of those grassroot co-operative efforts that epitomize some of our best national characteristics.  It grew out a mutual vision by the founders to pay honor and remembrance to Vietnam veterans.  Incorporated in 1999, a large group of volunteers have combined money time and expertise to change 12 acres of pasture into a touching and beautiful memorial park containing a half size replica of the Vietnam Memorial Wall in Washington D.C

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My husband is a Vietnam War veteran.  We married shortly before his deployment overseas to fly Cobras helicopter gunships. Our views on that war were very different at the time.  He chose to fight, I chose to protest.  I knew attending the ceremony would bring back many turbulent emotions.

Having been raised in a military family I have no problem understanding and empathizing with  the whole military mystic at a gut level.   I clearly remember the beautiful young men the way they were.  Thirty-seven of my husband’s classmates have their names inscribed on that wall.  The tears I shed this morning, that come to my eyes as I write this, are born of grief, love, respect and rage.

The place is meaningful, the memory and intent are meaningful; the salutes , the flags, the trumpet playing taps – all those symbols that embody the whole complex of emotions are full on meaning and need no words.

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It is the words I have a problem with.  Three men got up to speak.  They spoke in platitudes and jingoistic generalities.  Over and over they said  “we wouldn’t be sitting her now if you hadn’t fought this war for us.”  Well, that’s true of course – everyone would be home including the 58,282 men and women on the wall.  But that isn’t what they meant.  They meant that if we hadn’t fought in Vietnam the United States would have disintegrated and collapsed, our freedoms gone and our way of life destroyed. This simply isn’t true.

They talked a lot about how the men came home to a culture that rejected them.  While this was true for some,  my man came home to enough love, compassion, understanding, support and forgiveness to keep him sane – and this from someone who saw clearly from the get-go what a useless, destructive, ill-thought-out, immoral  enterprise my country had engaged by going to war  in Vietnam.

I don’t believe it honors the dead or their experience to plaster over the complicated truths inherent in the stories of their own lives.  Men go to war for many reasons, most of them personal.  Other men finance and promote wars for personal financial gain.  In war due to politics, profiteering and prevarication lots of people die unnecessarily for reasons that are both unnecessary and unjust.

One of the speakers said one way we could “continue to serve” is by raising our children to want to go to war. Someone speaking earlier had  mentioned the Constitution.  Our Bill of Rights guarantees citizens the right to choose.  That’s what it’s all about.  We raised our children to think.  We taught them how to gather information.  We taught them to listen and discern.  We taught them that they have choices and that choices have consequences.  We tried very hard not to force our own choices upon them. In my mind we were raising the best citizens possible.

The heroism, courage and compassion generated by the camaraderie, loyalty and service ethic of wartime are real. So too, are the horrors of My Lai and Abu Ghraib.  Did you know that women stationed in Afghanistan are warned by big signs posted all over their camps not to walk alone because the danger of rape by their fellow soldiers is so ubiquitous?

Can you tell we had an interesting conversation over lunch?

Fortunately, Clark Gardens lay just a few miles away on the route home.   Here lay another great example of American ingenuity and enterprise.  Max Clark and his wife Billie grew their telecommunicationrock saw construction company from the ground up.  Along the way  Max modified and improved the rock saw used to grind through the stony Texas earth and lay underground cables.  Lots of the money they made went into their garden, which grew  and grew, finally becoming a public non-profit foundation open to the public.

The gardens welcomed us in with shady forest walks, formal rose gardens, ponds full of ducks, geese, swans, turtles, and a magnificent blue heron that skimmed by our noses practically at eye-level to land beside the water.  The gardens are full of surprises.  We found a secret garden, a chapel, two romantic pavilions, charming statuary and the very best train set I’ve ever seen.

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Parked inside the depot are model train sets representing  several eras including one carrying flatbeds full of Vietnam era helicopters.  Outside the building is an intricate set of tracks circling through lush gardens set alongside a winding stream.  Various railroad bridges cross and recross the water  supporting a track that runs up, down and around a landscape studded with tiny replica towns and farms.  A serpentine walkway allows visitors and to watch the trains doing their rounds from both above and below track level.  You really can’t help but grin. I was enchanted.

???????????????????????????????We spent a couple of hours in the gardens, sitting, strolling, leaning over bridges, holding hands and letting the ruffled feathers of our minds smooth back in place.  On the way home we rode in perfect harmony.  The bike felt it, I think, purring along at a happy steady clip, taking each curve with the same grace as the heron.

It was a day rich in shared history, the poignancy of lost youth, raw feeling, and natural beauty – a day to remember.

Riding the Talimena

Two years into Texas, we’re beginning to settle in to the rhythm of this landscape – it’s size, the way it stretches out forever, its big sky that changes configuration every ten minutes or so, the wind… We’ve grown enamored of the small farm-to-market roads delineating, field and pastures full of cows, horses, goats, donkeys, bison, antelope and an occasional zebra!  However, having spent the last two decades on the flanks of the Sierras in California, I do get homesick for mountains. That’s when we head for Arkansas.

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We’d planned to go to Crystal Bridges, that amazing new museum of American art in Bentonville, AK.   But John came home Friday afternoon with tales about the Talimena Trail.  Apparently it was modeled on the venerable Blue Ridge Parkway in Virginia.  John’s family is from the D.C. area and we’ve driven the Blue Ridge for years in every kind of weather and season.  It’s one of our favorite top-of-the-world roads, winding along ridgelines high above the Shenandoah Valley with spectacular views on both sides.  The Talimena wasn’t far out of our way so we revised the route to take it in.  After riding it, we decided to ride it again, in the other direction, on our way home.

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Under the National Scenic Byways (NSB) Program the U.S. Secretary of Transportation recognizes certain roads as National Scenic Byways or All-American Roads based on their archaeological, cultural, historic, natural, recreational, and scenic qualities. We have 150 designated Byways in 46 states.  This fantastic, highly co-operative program involves the National Forest Service as well as state transportation, highway and park organizations.  The intention is simply to create a road whose main purpose is to drive through beauty.

The Talimena meets that qualification hands down; its panoramic views are outstandingly beautiful.  The two-lane road features hiking trails beginning at various points along its stretch and 22 scenic vista pull-outs.

Where western mountains are young, sharp, craggy and immediate, young heirs to a violent past that still simmers and shakes below the surface, the more ancient Ozarks, Smokies, Appalachians, Poconos, et al are folded into overlapping ridgelines that fade into misty blue vistas, alluring and seductive as an odalisque.  Designated a National Scenic Byway by the America’s Byway Program in 2005, the route travels for 54 miles within the Ouachita National Forest, along the highest peaks of the Winding Stair Mountains, including the second tallest peak in Arkansas, Rich Mountain. Some of the forests along these ridges were never logged and are old growth in other places thousands of acres were clear-cut and then sold to the Forest Service as useless for $1.25 an acre.  Lucky for us, the foresters had faith in Earth’s recuperative powers and today we see pristine forest spreading its green canopy over thousands of acres of protected land.???????????????????????????????

On the Talimena you won’t see a single dwelling except for a couple of welcome bathrooms.  Informative signs on the overlooks offer tantalizing bits of history and name the surrounding mountains. Bird and wind song are the only sounds.  The road bends round perfectly banked curves, rises, falls and snakes across the peaks, sometimes in 13% hill grades.  In some places you can see the road winding in a pale ribbon around the next peak.

Saturday morning we entered the Oklahoma end about 8:30 AM and aside from four cars didn’t see another soul until we passed a couple of motorcycles coming from Mena, AK.  Monday, on our way home we almost bagged the whole thing because cloud enveloped the entire mountain top, it looked wet and we didn’t have chaps or rain suits on board.  Figuring we could always turn around we rode up into the clouds, entering a world of ???????????????????????????????

swirling mist and half-seen forms. We coasted on the downslopes, so enchanted by the surreal ambiance we didn’t want our engine noise disturbing whatever otherworldly creatures might lurk nearby.

About halfway through, the fog dissipated leaving a blue sky behind.  Sunshine poured down for the first time in days as we soared like eagles along the thin edge of the ridge high above and far away from the commercial world of strip malls and chain stores. We’ll be back again. I want to see this road in every season. I’ve included a great video from You Tube that takes you down this road in the fall.  I can’t wait to go back when the leaves change color.

P.S. If you’re hungry on the Oklahoma end try The Hateful Hussy Diner in Talimena.  The food OK, the price was right, t???????????????????????????????he ambience was great and the hussies weren’t at all hateful!  Wish I’d seen the mugs for sale!