An escape into Arizona’s thin air

The San Franciscos as seen from U.S. 180 that leads to Grand Canyon.

The San Franciscos as seen from U.S. 180 that leads to Grand Canyon.

After a long string of days with triple digit temps in Phoenix, we needed a break.  While many Arizonans flee to San Diego’s Mission Beach and other cool California destinations, just as many or more head for the state’s moderate climes around Flagstaff, along the Mogollon Rim and in the White Mountains.  We chose Flag.  It’s closer and higher with more to do. But, yes, less of a backwoods adventure.

Many believe Arizona is nothing more than a flat desert with cactus.  But they are wrong.  Flagstaff rests at almost 7,000 feet elevation.  The forested San Francisco Peaks on the north side of town offer a beautiful backdrop.  They include Humphreys Peak, at 12,463, the state’s highest point.

Towering aspen offer a foliage treat in October.

Towering aspen offer a foliage treat in October.

Our trip was a bit of an extravagance.  Even the one night was costly.  The city’s lodging places are in high demand year round.  This is particularly true with the nicer motels that have free wi-fi, pools and exercise rooms.  In the summer there is hiking, backpacking and climbing, and in the winter skiing at Snow Bowl and snow-shoeing among the flatlands areas of Ponderosa pine.  We took a room on the third floor of the large Courtyard Marriott near the point where two Interstates, 40 and 17, cross.  Price, $140.  Gulp.

We arrived late on a Sunday evening.  Finding a place to stay on the weekends can be difficult, but for a Sunday to Monday visit, no problem.  Most of the Phoenix visitors had fled back down “the hill” — a two-hour drive and a drop in elevation of almost 6,000 feet.

One of many wildflower varieties in Thorpe Park.

One of many wildflower varieties in Thorpe Park.

On our first evening we looked for something easy to hike.  Nebra has a strained calf and did not want to do elevation.  And I was not up to par either, perhaps feeling the effects of the higher elevation.  We discovered Thorpe Park on Flag’s west side, and set out on our jaunt from a paved parking lot near some busy tennis courts.

The trail was actually a dirt road that sliced into a pine forest between a 18 holes of a disc-golf course, the biggest danger we ran into.  Walking along, suddenly a blue object skittered across the trail in front of us.  No reason for alarm.  Just a frisbee that over-shot a disc-golf basket.  Onward we went.

Mexican Hat also seen in Thorpe Park.

Mexican Hat also seen in Thorpe Park.

It soon became obvious that wildflower season was in full-blown stage.  On our walk of a mile an a half we came by at least 20 different varieties.  Reds, yellows, whites, blues, purples, you name it, all the colors were there.  Very nice visual outing.

The next day we drove into the real mountains and found by accident a trail that was recently mentioned in The Arizona Republic.  The Viet Springs Trail aka the Lamar Haines Loop meanders through a forest of Ponderosa, aspen and a smattering of fir at 8,600 feet el.  It was a flattish trail amid high grass, only 300 feet in elevation gain, with temps in the 70s.  Although the path is said to pass two old cabins, we saw neither, just an old dam at what is known as the Lower Pond and a plaque of Lamar Haines, a local conservationist.  We found the trail busy.  There were a dozen hikers or more, mostly with children, some with dogs.  And again, co-star of the day along with the towering, white barked aspen, the patches of wildflowers.

Wildflower FieldSuch a gorgeous place, although the San Franciscos are dry like the rest of the West.  The Lower Pond had no water at all backed up behind an ancient rock dam.

After a late-lunch on the patio at the humming Lumberyard Brewery on the edge of the large campus of Northern Arizona University, it was downhill again into the hell of Phoenix summer.

But after only a day in the thin air, our return to the lowlands somehow did not seem so bad.

My traffic stop

Years ago I was stopped by a Phoenix policeman in the middle of the day.  I steered my 10-year-old Datsun to the curb.  The officer was young, possibly Hispanic.  He acted nervous.  His hand hovered too close to his holster for comfort.  I worried he might do something rash.

The officer explained why I was stopped.  He said I made a left turn too close to an oncoming car.  What a crock!  I thought.  But I did not complain.  I was courteous and tried to act calm.  I produced the documents required by Arizona law:  Driver’s license, proof of insurance and car title.  I wanted to make sure the situation did not escalate.  And it didn’t.  I got off with only a warning.  And I was alive and unwounded.

I wish more blacks would learn to obey police officers, even when it’s thought they have been racially profiled.  You never know what kind of cop you’re talking with until things get out of hand.  By then, it may be too late.

If I’m a leader of Black Lives Matter, I urge my followers to obey the police at all cost.  Your pride, your ego is not worth a casket.  I would educate them.  I would tell them the documents they need to have on their person or in the vehicle.  I would try to save their lives, not use their dead bodies to further my political aims.

The Cincinnati shooting

No sooner had I finished yesterday’s post, “Black lives that don’t matter,” another incident of a policeman shooting an unarmed black man was at the top of the news.  And again, a black man, who apparently was not cooperating fully with police, needlessly ended up dead.

Ray Tensing, a campus police officer for the University of Cincinnati, was indicted on a murder charge for the shooting of Samuel Dubose during what a university official described as a “petty, chicken crap” traffic stop.  Mr. Dubose had not displayed a front license plate, though he produced one from his glove box.

The incident was captured on a video camera worn by the officer.

When stopped everything goes along smoothly at first for Mr. Dubose, although he does seem confused about where his driver’s license might be.  The officer asks about a bottle on the car floor.  Dubose hands him the bottle, which is described as gin.  After placing the bottle atop the car, things begin to escalate quickly.  According to the New York Times:

“Officer Tensing starts to open the driver’s door and tells Mr. Dubose to remove his seatbelt.  Mr. Dubose pulls the door closed again and restarts his car.”

 The shooting takes place seconds later.

Had he done what the officer asked, Dubose would likely be alive today.  Isn’t that what’s important?  To live.

Outside the Hamilton County Courthouse in Cincinnati, peaceful protestors chanted, “Black lives matter.  I am Sam Dubose.”

Again, I agree.  Black lives matter.  But why do black civil rights leaders avoid confronting the truth.  If organizations like Black Lives Matter truly believe their words, they would protect their constituents by preaching compliance, not resistance, when facing police.  Just as the Rev. Martin Luther King would have back in 1960s.

But the senseless Black Lives Matter movement needs martyrs.  And it got another one with Samuel Dubose.

Black lives that don’t matter

I believe black lives matter.  I also believe that to the Black Lives Matter movement, those black lives don’t matter.  What the BLM wants are dead black bodies.  What the movement requires are martyrs to keep its agenda rolling and the newly-found power of its leaders intact.

In thinking about the recent tragedy of Sandra Bland in Waller County, Texas, I see a pattern going back to the Ferguson incident with Michael Brown and continuing with the deaths of Eric Garner and Walter Scott.  What did they have in common beside being black and dying after controversial encounters with law enforcement?  Here’s what.  They resisted.  They failed to obey white policemen.  And now they are dead.  Obeying police, no matter how wrong the police are.  That’s a part of the story that is lost on the media.

In the Bland case, just forget for a moment that she was found dead in her jail cell, apparently a victim of suicide by hanging.  Just forget about the silly driving violation for which she was stopped.  And forget about the disgusting and aggressive behavior of the police officer who stopped her.  These are separate issues.

The bottom line is this.  Ms. Bland would likely be alive today if she had cooperated with the officer when he asked her to put out her cigarette.  She was smart.  She knew blacks always lose when they confront police.  She knew the law was being twisted, likely because her skin was not white.  And, as it turned out, she was dead right.

I first became leery of this unfortunate evolution in civil rights protesting with the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.  He was shot while resisting a police officer.  Remember the lie that was told?  “Hands up. Don’t shoot.” I don’t believe for a moment Brown’s hands were anything more than fists of hatred.  As black deaths mounted in this and other celebrated cases the Black Lives Matter movement gathered steam.

BLM couldn’t have picked a worse example than Brown to push its agenda.

Not long before he was shot and killed, a video camera in a convenience store caught Brown stealing cigarillos. When confronted by the store’s clerk, Brown, a huge man, spun around and walked menacingly toward him.  Brown was clearly someone with an attitude.  When stopped by a policeman, Brown physically accosted the officer who was in his police car.  Whatever the principle involved, Brown would probably be alive today if he had chosen to cooperate and take his medicine.

The same holds true with Garner in New York and Scott in South Carolina.  In Scott’s case, he was shot down in cold-blood while fleeing on foot.  Fleeing, to my mind, is stupid.

If black lives matter, I would hope BLM would be preaching a message to its constituents.  Go out into the communities and beseech them:  Obey the police when stopped no matter how racist you think the system is.  Swallow your pride, eat your anger and live.  That’s the message I would be sending.

None of the victims deserved to die for any “crime” they committed in these incidents.

But what matters to the BLM, it seems, is to ring up a steady river of black deaths to keep its agenda at the top of the news.  To preach peaceful resistance these days is anathema to the cause.

I have this vision of the 1960s civil rights movement in The South under the nonviolent philosophy of the Rev. Martin Luther King.  I remember news reels showing black protesters.  They were arrested and carried over to police vans.  None that I recall resisted.  They simply allowed themselves to be sent to jail.

In the end, these protestors not only lived but changed the world at least in some small way.  The BLM seems to have lost Dr. King’s message.  Maybe they no longer see it as a viable alternative to the rampant racism that has emerged after the election of President Obama in 2008.

Still, I say, live to fight another day, in another way.  But live.  Life matters.

The “hero” mania

The word “hero” confuses me.  It has for a long time.  In America, “hero” is conferred so often it has become all but meaningless.   If, say, an American does a Boy Scout-good deed, the media laud him as a hero.

This hero mania, I believe is purely American.  I don’t think this neurosis is prevalent in other advanced countries, particularly the ones more sophisticated than ours like in western Europe and Scandanavia.

The trigger point arrived recently.

Donald Trump, the GOP presidential candidate, questioned whether Arizona Senator John McCain, a fellow Republican, was a war hero only because of being a former POW.

“He’s not a war hero,” Trump said, before later backtracking. “He was a hero because he was captured.  I like people who weren’t captured.”

In retreat, Trump said, “If somebody is a prisoner, I consider him a war hero”  So now Trump can have it both ways.

The trouble with “hero” is that there is no precise definition.  We can make a “hero” out of anyone we choose.  Dad gave a dime to a poor man.  Ah, a hero.

I have no statistics to prove it, but I believe this hero sickness started with 9/11.   Americans suddenly realized on that tragic date they were no longer safe on home soil.  Not only is that a fearful thought but it has led to serious doubts about who we are as a country.  No matter how great we say our country is, an inferiority complex resides deep inside us.  And that’s the basis, I think for the “hero” mania that absorbs us now.

By finding “heroes” on every corner, Americans feel better about themselves.  It is a myth of course, and we will have to deal with reality somewhere down the line.

Deal with reality or die as a country.

‘Mockingbird’ town

Monroeville street banner.

Monroeville street banner.

Outside of connecting with my family history at Pine Level, there was nothing more appealing on our Alabama trip than a visit to Harper Lee’s hometown in Monroeville.

Lee’s story had gripped me for a long time.  In 1960, at the age of 34, her bestselling novel “To Kill a Mockingbird” was published and won the Pulitzer Prize.  It has become an American classic.  What engaged me was the fact she stopped writing.  One book and that was it.  Her controversial and yet to be published “Go Set a Watchman” pre-dated ‘Mockingbird.’  In fact she has often called ‘Watchman’ the parent of ‘Mockingbird” and saw no reason to have it put into print.

Nothing like a whiff of fragrance from the spirea.

Nothing like a whiff of fragrance from the spirea.

Now, here it was, 55 years after ‘Mockingbird,’ and she was still alive, at age 89, residing in a care facility in Monroeville with the ‘Watchman’ controversy surrounding her.  The new-old novel apparently was discovered by Lee’s attorney, sent to a literary agent with the author’s approval and is set to be published on or about July 15 by HarperCollins in the U.S.  It will also be published in Great Britain.  Many of Lee’s friends in Monroeville question whether she is mentally competent to OK a book that for more than a half century she has chosen not to publish.  Many think it is an attempt by others to enrich themselves and to bring new fame and tourist business to her hometown.

Also, at least in my mind, was the question of her authorship of  “Mockingbird.”  Her late cousin and celebrated author of “In Cold Blood” and “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” has long been linked to at least having an editing role in ‘Mockingbird.’  As a young boy, Capote, spent summers in Monroeville, living next door to the Lee family, and becoming close friends with Harper.  In fact, years later Lee accompanied Capote on his reporting trip to Kansas for “In Cold Blood.’

All this stirred my interest, although there was one apparent setback to our visit.

Crowd awaits start of the play.

Crowd awaits start of the play.

Since 1990, local amateurs have been putting on a two-act play of “To Kill a Mockingbird” at the old Monroe County courthouse in town.  To see the play in Lee’s hometown while she was still alive and nearby was the big attraction.  Trouble was the play, which runs several weekends each spring, was sold out.  Every performance.  I knew that as we left Sikes and Kohn’s Country Mall in Pine Level and steered south for the 120-mile drive to Monroeville.  At least, I thought we could do the “Mockingbird” walking tour and check out the museum in the old courthouse.

Despite storm clouds moving in from the southwest, the drive proved enjoyable.  Alabama seems to me nothing more than a zillion small towns, most of them interesting.  But I saw none as nice as Luverne, between Troy and I-65 at Greenville.  Luverne bills itself as “The Friendliest Little Town in The South.”  Some of my distant kin live here to this day.  In my notebook, I jotted “very pretty place.”

Then there was tiny Rutledge where on the west side I saw a Confederate flag flying high.  It was the only one I would see during the entire trip.

The traveling was greatly enhanced by the fragrance of spirea blooms along the roadside.  Growing an estimated 15 feet high in places, the sweet scent of these abundant bushes and their cascading white flowers permeated the Yaris as we drove along.  Getting off 65 at Greenville, we stopped to take a closer look and a whiff of this intoxicating flower.

Capote house's ruins.

Capote house’s ruins.

It was mid-afternoon when we finally reached Monroeville.  Plenty of time to look around.  And maybe, just maybe, we could luck in to a pair of tickets to the play.  A woman at the museum I’d talked to by phone was not encouraging.

We had turned back north on 21 highway after seeing the sign to Monroeville, “The Literary Capital of Alabama.”  Two writers, Lee and Capote, have made that boast plausible.

Coming into town from the south, the “new Monroeville” emerged.  Sparkling signs dotted Alabama Avenue. Wal-Mart, Sonic, Shell gas for $2.29, the Monroeville Inn, McDonald’s, Burger King, you name it.  The main town was quite different.

The old courthouse rests in a town square with store fronts on all sides, some empty and gathering dust.  It appeared to be a poor town in decline.  I thought, if it were not for “Mockingbird” and Harper Lee, this town would have dried up and blown away years ago.

The museum covers two floors in the courthouse.  Separate rooms are devoted to Lee and Capote.  On the west side is the court room itself, clean and sparkling as if it were awaiting the next trial.  It became the model for the Hollywood set in the “Mockingbird” film of 1962 that starred Gregory Peck as the defense attorney, Atticus Finch.  The film won three Academy Awards including a “Best Actor” for Peck.

We picked up a map of the walking tour and set out south along Alabama Avenue.  The map shows 33 points of interest.  Only two caught my eye, Nos. 14 and 15.  They are the sites of the houses where Lee and Capote once lived side by side.  Both houses are long gone.  The ruins of a foundation and rock wall are all that remain of the Capote place, that and a metal plaque in front with bio notes and brief history of the house.  Lee’s old home, just to the south, has been replaced by Mel’s Dairy Dream, a confectionary that dispenses tasty strawberry shakes, etc.  The sites are just two blocks south of the courthouse.

Act 2, inside the courthouse.

Act 2, inside the courthouse.

While I napped in the car, Nebra poked around the area.  I awoke to an excited rap on the window.  Nebra had run across two tickets for the play at the regular price of $50 each.  The play would start in about an hour, at 7 p.m.  Sprinkles of rain had started.  We walked over to The Courthouse Cafe and had a pleasing supper.

The two-act play began on time.  It lasted 2 1/2 hours.  Act One is performed outside at the west end of the old courthouse.  When it is over, everyone gets up and walks around to the  courthouse entrance and into the courtroom  where the trial of the black man, Tom Robinson, is held.  At the end, audience and cast intermingle.  It was a powerful moment, the troupe’s director describing how much the play meant to everyone and the town.

As in so much of my life, good fortune had visited again.  That we were able to get tickets to the play at the last minute, that the rain clouds had stayed away, well, it was a memorable evening.

Now, it was on to a motel in Greenville for the night.  The next day we hoped to travel to Selma for some of the most important history in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.

So much to do, so little time.


Sikes and Kohn’s Country Mall

About 50 cars parked  here during noon hour.

About 50 cars parked here during noon hour.

It is 12:20 p.m. on a Friday and the parking lot in front of Sikes & Kohn’s Country Mall  is lined with 50 cars or more.  The large, plain building looks more warehouse than mart.  And “mall”?  It’s one big store in the Alabama boondocks.

“You come here for the discounts and brands not the atmosphere,” a poster on Yelp writes.

Inside, big and impressive.

Inside, big and impressive.

On the mall’s north side is a water tower.  It says “Pine Level, AL.”  That’s 26 miles south of Exit 9 at the nearest big city, Montgomery.  The water tower and the mall.  That’s it.

On the mall’s east side is lightly-traveled U.S. 231.  The road takes you to Troy 15 miles to the south.  Along the roadsides it is trees and more trees.

Spit cups not allowed.

Spit cups not allowed.

The store has been around since 1970, I read.  “Blue Jeans USA,” proclaims a sign above the front door.  It is the area’s answer to the modern outlet malls.  Other signs along the road list the brands of men’s and women’s clothing, hats, shoes, sun glasses, gear, etc.  Columbia, Cole Haan, Ray Ban, Oakley, Levi’s, Ariat, Justin, Allen Edmonds, Guy Harvey, North Face, Teva, Kavu.

Nothing elegant.  Sign has seen better days.

Nothing elegant. Sign has seen better days.

Nebra wandered through the large store for a while and decided against shopping.  Time was short.  We had a destination to reach by mid-afternoon. Still, Nebra the shopper, said there were many good deals.

An unusual store in an unusual location.  I am beginning to see we made a mistake in our travel plans.  No way to do it all justice in only five full days.