East of Brawley, west of the moon

Started in 1934 as one of the state's original highways.

Started in 1934 as one of the state’s original highways.

The best highways in America have one thing in common.  They are off the Interstate super highways.

Going off-trail, a hiking phrase, is also the purest form of motor traveling.  It is not for everyone.  You have to invent your rest stops.  Two-lane roads can jangle nerves.  Particularly when you find yourself driving behind a Model T on a long stretch of double-yellows.  Passing skills are required.

Yet, coming back to Phoenix recently from the West Coast, we took a chance.

Buena Vista Lagoon in Oceanside is a far cry from distant Brawley.

Buena Vista Lagoon in Oceanside is a far cry from distant Brawley.

We decided to forego our usual route, Interstate 10.  The 10 is the quickest, busiest and most mind-numbing way to get to L.A from our house.  Crossing the drab Mohave Desert, the route is without eye appeal.  Instead, we took lonesome California 78.

On my road atlas, 78 is a twisting red line, 215.4 miles in length.  It comes out of Oceanside on the west with its lagoon by the Pacific and ends on the east near Blythe, a city on the Colorado River and Arizona border, the last real city going west across the moonscape that is the Mohave.  Only the first 17.6 miles on the west is freeway, passing through eye-sore suburbs like Vista, San Marcos and Escondido.  The rest is 2-lane.

I had traveled some of this route before.  But never 78 east of Brawley.  From there, 78 looked to be a no man’s land.

A fine restaurant in Brawley.

A fine restaurant in Brawley.

The city of Brawley, population about 25,000, sets 112 feet below sea level and just south of the isolated and eerie Salton Sea.  Its citizens are largely of Hispanic blood.  Perhaps the most interesting demographic is that more than one-third of the population hales from Pacific Islands.  Maybe that reflects the local economy that is agricultural and stock-raising.  One of Brawley’s most notable products is Sergio Romo, the standout relief pitcher for the world champion San Francisco Giants.  The founders showed pluck and ingenuity. When landowner J. H. Braley refused to lend his name to the town in 1902, a “w” was inserted.

Before taking off on our little adventure to the east, we stopped for lunch at the surprising Aspen in the Desert restaurant.  It is an attractive place amid a sea of blandness in the north part of town and serves not only good food, but ample portions.  The waitress, Cynthia, tried to explain the name’s incongruity to the landscape.  “It was a naming contest on the radio,” she said and shrugged. Our growling stomachs once more at ease, we jumped back on 78.

Imperial Sand Dunes rec area.

Imperial Sand Dunes rec area.

As the miles began to pile up, I felt twinge of disappointment.  The land was covered with irrigated green crops.  The Imperial Valley here is one of the nation’s great producers of fruits and vegetables  Fine, but I wanted to go natural, to see the land as it once was.  It wasn’t until we were 18 miles out, passing the last of the canals, that we saw the welcome signs of the desert.  Creosote and sand.

Suddenly, emerging far ahead, was a long stretch of man-made structures.  At first, looking on the map, I thought it was the teeny village of Glamis, pronounced Glah-mees.   And it was Glamis but not the Glamis I thought it was.

Glamis has no permanent structures other than two stores, I later read.  What I had seen in the distance was hundreds of trailers parked amid sand dunes.  The two stores exist only to service the hundreds of thousands of visitors who annually visit the Algodones Dunes and Imperial San Dunes Recreational Area.

These magnificent dunes, shaped so precisely by wind as to form cutting edges, run roughly 40 miles in length by five miles width.  California 78 cuts through the middle of the dunes.  If they are like White Sands, in New Mexico, then they are traveling in the direction of the prevailing wind.

If you don’t have a dune buggy or an ATV in these parts, you are no doubt eyed suspiciously.  But there are also rare plants and wildlife.  You pay to play here:  $150 for the season and $50 for a 7-day permit.  The federal Bureau of Land Management estimates 1.4 million visitors drop in each year.

The dunes serve as film locations once in while.  “Return of the Jedi” and “Stargate” were some of the recent ones.

Up the road about 12 miles on the left is the New Gold company’s small Mesquite Mine.  It extracts gold from ore via a chemical process called heap-leaching. The place looked dead but it was getting late in the afternoon.

78 meets the Chocolate Mountains.

78 meets the Chocolate Mountains.

Ahead lay some delectable-looking mountains.  A soft brown.  They reminded me of chocolate.  And, indeed, that was their name.  The Chocolate Mountains.

Six miles later we ran into an immigration check-point.  All cars must stop.  Illegal immigrants are a big concern in the Southwest.  A male sentry, smartly dressed in green-starched uniform, halted us.  We were the only car in line, though to our right, a van with some young people had been pulled off for extra inspection.  Since leaving the sand dunes, traffic had dropped off dramatically.

The sentry put up his hand casually, to stop us.

“Are you U.S. citizens?” he inquired, giving us a quick once-over.

“Yes,” said MJ who was driving and closest to the sentry.

“Have a good day,” he said and waved us through.

To be held and searched and humiliated like a few years ago trying to cross into Canada, well, this stop made for a much better day.

Two more “towns” showed on the map.  Palo Verde and Ripley, both less than 16 miles from humming Interstate 10 west of Blythe.  The smooth-arcing road turned into numerous sharp corners as we neared these places, all intersecting farm roads.  Lots of cotton grown here, not far from the banks of the Colorado.

In whole, 78 was an interesting experience.  I would like to go back over it some day, particularly to the Imperial Sand Dunes in wildflower season or hiking in the desolate Chocolate Mountains.

We should do this more often, little adventures along the backroads of America.


The case against Brown and Garner

I am a black man walking down the street.  Maybe I have helped break up a fight.  Maybe I have stolen some cigars from a store.  I don’t deserve to die.  But I do need to be smart.  When a police officer approaches to question me, I don’t know if he is a racist.  I don’t know if he is a zealot and fearful of me.  I need to lose my ego.  My life could be at stake.  I need to play it smart.

While I strongly agree that reform is needed for our grand jury system when it comes to investigating law enforcement officers, I also believe the two black men, Michael Brown and Eric Garner, bear large responsibility for their own deaths.

Their unwarranted killings by police and the failure to indict any of the involved officers have sparked civil rights protests throughout the country.

It is true, I was not there in Ferguson the day Michael Brown was shot numerous times and killed by a policeman who had stopped to question him.  But I did see the video of a belligerent Brown moments before, stealing cigars in a store and bullying the much smaller clerk by walking toward him.

The store video makes it easy for me to believe Brown had not changed his attitude, that he accosted the officer in his patrol car and eventually, using his large size and old bullying tactics of walking toward his “enemy,” spurred the final confrontation.  This time he met the hail of bullets that killed him.  A predictable outcome perhaps, not that it was just.

Garner’s case is a sad one.

The video of his confrontation on a New York sidewalk shows he merely resisted talking to police when questioned about his involvement in a fight.  Again, here was a large black man rejecting the authority of the police.  “Why don’t you just leave me alone,” he is heard saying before several officers wrestled him to the ground and one applied the choke-hold that would kill him as he said, “I can’t breathe.”

Did Garner deserve to die?  Of course not.  But . . . .

I am the black parent of a teen-age son.  Or a friend.  I care for him and do not want to see him dead.  I am hip.  I know there are many in America who carry racial hatred in their hearts.  I do not trust the legal system.  I know some policemen are bad and capable of all sorts of malice.  Yet at the same time I expect my son, my friend, to stand up to the rotten system, to confront and refuse to cooperate with police, to show his manhood by defiance.

But, wait, upon reflection, am I not asking my son, my friend, to risk his life, to be a dead martyr for a cause that could be fought at the ballot-box or in so many other safer ways?  Maybe I should change my tactics .  Maybe even my attitude.









A memento of ashes

The controversial ash tray.

The controversial ash tray.

As our neighbors of 11 years, Tom and Lee, left their old house this morning to return to Ohio, Nebra overheard a spat.  Lee had thrown away Tom’s favorite ash tray.

“It was filthy,” Lee was quoted by Nebra as saying.  Tom was sore but left the incident where it stood.  I think both of them were tense over the sadness of having to leave this place.

Later, Nebra told me, she returned to the alley and rescued the ash tray from the garbage bin.  The intention is to eventually mail it to Tom in Toledo.

The ash tray now rests on a folding table by our garage, ashes and all.  One lonely cigarette butt, burnt on the tip, languishes in the middle.

I intend to tell Nebra to hold off on cleaning it.  I think she should send it to Tom as is, with the evidence of hundreds of Arizona-smoked cigarettes scorched on the bottom, a memento to a stage of his life now gone.  But, whatever.  The rescue was successful.

“It’s the best thing I did today,” Nebra said, beaming.

The good-bye truck

The Good-Bye truck.  Ready for departure.

The Good-Bye truck. Ready for departure.

It is dark, and in a few hours our neighbors of the last 11 years will be gone.

The rented good-bye truck in front of their house is crammed full of belongings and ready for the long haul to, of all places, Toledo.  Not Spain.  Ohio.  And doing it, for all practical purposes, in the middle of another cruel winter there — while it has been a gorgeously warm autumn here.

No one moves to Toledo from Arizona.  Do they?  Arizona will never be home to me.  But northern Ohio?  Near war-zone Detroit and toxic Lake Erie?

While I understand that the most constant aspect on this planet is change, it does not make their departure easier to swallow.

Tom and Lee were pillars on Lynwood Street here in Phoenix.

Lee, a short perky blonde, for a while worked as a commercial painter, After being layed off,  she did odd jobs.  She house-sat and walked dogs and probably did a lot of other stuff I know nothing about.  She had a biting sense of humor that did not always set well.

Tom, more than a few years older, was retired only in the sense he no longer answered to an employer.  He was a skilled tradesman.  He could do plumbing, air conditioning, carpentry, you name it.  His garage was loaded with tools.  And he was always busy fixing up his house, turning it from somewhat of a wreck into a little palace with a swimming pool in back.  He loved to work and he loved his house.

Lee often called her husband “grumpy.”  I thought he was a loveable bulldog kind of guy.  A curmudgeon.

Anytime a neighbor sneezed, at least one of them knew about it.  They were dug into the fabric of Lynwood like no others.

Together, Lee and Tom watched over Luis, an elderly Hispanic man who lived next door.  I know Tom mowed his yard and along with another neighbor fixed up Luis’s garage.   Most important, they befriended him.

My favorite memory is passing their house on my many treks down to the corner coffee shop.  They would be seated on the tiny front porch, doors open to where you could see the backyard, talking and watching their two small dogs, Charlie and Rosey, frisk about in the front yard.  I would stop to chat briefly.  I am not a big talker.  I hoped they did not take it wrong.

I don’t know why, really, that several months ago Tom and Lee suddenly decided to move back to Ohio where they came from.  I never heard a word about them pining to go back.  It was something about her elderly father, his eye surgery, vintage vehicles and the need to take care of him.   It was never clear why they couldn’t find a nice place for him in sunny Phoenix.  Not my business of course.  Family matters are often byzantine anyway.

One thing was apparent.  Tom did not want to move.  It was Lee’s idea, and from what I heard, she herself was not too happy about the prospect.  I hope this move doesn’t kill Tom.  He’s in his 70s.  I suggested he could always move back to Arizona.

“No,” he said, “this is my last cross-country move.”

Nebra bought going-away gifts.  An Arizona Christmas tree decoration and an Arizona Highways calendar.

Out here in Phoenix you get used to people moving in, not moving out.

Tom said he hoped to make Albuquerque by the end of today, adding he was not going to “bust my ass” getting back up to Toledo.

I think the reason I feel so bad about their leaving is this.  If they were joyous about moving north, or even semi happy, I’d be all for it.  But to see them, or anyone else for that matter, make a move reluctantly, particularly when it’s late in life, well, it’s hard to witness.

It’s like watching someone cast a death sentence on their lives.  Like strangling a dream.

At the beach

Carlsbad beach looking north.

Carlsbad beach looking north.

I did not take my wet suit to California.  I had no intention of swimming.  The Pacific is too cold.  The closest I got last week was wading the surf at low tide on the beach at Carlsbad.

But as any beach lover knows it is not so much the water that attracts.  Sometimes it’s just sunning or getting a tan.  Others like to sleep on the beach with the roar of the surf putting them deep into nada land.

For me, it is strolling in the wet sand with someone.  Talking, thinking, laughing, seeing.  There’s something about being at the beach that brings out the best in me.  I feel more communal, more at peace with this strange world I have been thrust into.

Snooping on the beach?

Snooping on the beach?

The beach also spurs my creative side.   Like I see stuff in the sand I never noticed before.  I think of things to talk about I never talked about before.  If I decide to write my big book someday I would try it first at some beach.  Yes, it has dawned on me that I just might just stroll the beaches and never put down a single word at all.

Language of the gods.

Language of the gods.

I don’t know where the beach at Carlsbad ranks in the world for my kind of enjoyment but it’s up there, high.  Maybe not as high as the little strip of sand in the cove near Turtle Bay on North Shore, Oahu.  But certainly high as far as high-traffic beaches go.

Nebra and I walked the beach one day to the north, up to Oceanside and back.  Then the next day, we strolled south a half mile to a pile of black rocks at the Agua Hedionda Lagoon.

All eyes to the sea.

All eyes to the sea.

On our walks, I saw a new bird for my life list.  It’s just that I’m not sure if it was a Whimbrel or a Bristle-Thighed Curlew.  They look a lot alike.  It was a stilt, had those long legs and an even longer beak that curved downward.

I marveled at the patterns in the dark wet sand left by kelp and rolling stones.  And of the way kelp was tossed by the waves and left to lay.

Whimbrel or Curlew I know not.

Whimbrel or Curlew I know not.

We passed a flock of gulls and terns standing like sentinels on the beach, their eyes cast intently out to sea.  As if waiting on something.  It was low tide.  I like to imagine these birds know the precise moment when the tide starts to come in and at that moment find optimal feeding in the ocean.  A small boy ran through them and they scattered for a few moments before returning to that same spot.  Maybe each bird to the exact same spot it commanded before.

A mechanized parasailer passed overhead with a bright sail.  I did not hear the motor until the wind was just right. I thought whoever it was looked ridiculous in that little seat high in the sky.

Make mine medium-well.

Make mine medium-well.

There was man asleep higher up on dry sand.  I shot a photo of him, thinking I am invading his privacy.  That’s why I would never make a good news photographer.

Several children inched close to the water to build “sand castles” for the first time.  I knew it was their first castles because they did not seem to know the ocean would soon wash them away.

Kelp designs can be fascinating.

Kelp designs can be fascinating.

I don’t know why but the most exhilarating sight I saw all day was a formation of seven pelicans flying just above.  They were heading south in a “V”.  The pelican is a strange-looking bird.  Some may even say it is ugly.  But when they are flying, particularly in formation, it a a sight to see.  Like the Blue Angels on the Fourth of July.

I wonder what would happen to the formation if one bird was missing.  Perhaps injured or killed.  Would the spot be filled by another?  Or would the formation have an empty slot?

Do we have to go back to Arizona?

Do we have to go back to Arizona?

“Next pelican up,” I said to Nebra.  We laughed and walked on but we would say that phrase again and again until we left for our red-state home in Arizona.

See, you can enjoy the beach without really even touching the water.