July 11, 2004


Mirror and There

We awoke Saturday morning and rolled out of the postcard of Monument Valley towards the town of Kayenta, about 25 miles down the road on the way to the Grand Canyon, hoping to find a mechanic along the way. The bus snorted and grunted a bit, and dragged along, as if hung over from the previous day's ordeal, but no serious smoke signals appeared from the tail pipe. Once in Kayenta, we stopped at the information center that turned out to be a Navajo trading post in disguise, with a friendly Navajo guy who knew the area well. We talked with him for a bit and asked if there was a local mechanic around, preferably one who knew something about Diesels, although, at this point, we'd probably be happy to see anyone with a wrench. He thought for a moment, as if he knew, but wasn't sure he should disclose the secret to just anyone who wanders through. After some further discussion, he connected us to the unusual bus out front and somehow that deemed us worthy, and the answer came forth.
"You should find Jerry", he said.
"Where?" I asked.
"Well, I don't know his phone number, but go down that way a few blocks and turn right at the food stamp place... he's about 3 or 4 houses down, with a red truck in front." he said.
So, we drove the bus over past the food stamp office into a small Navajo development of uniform rectangular homes that had the bland look of government issue housing, with red dirt yards and no vegetation to speak of. Low cost and easy maintenance, though. Several houses had red trucks in front of them so we drove up to the first where a large Navajo dude was chipping away at the dirt with a hoe, as if he might plant something there someday, but had nothing better to do for now. He turned out to be the guy, the only mechanic in town, in fact. He apparently made a living by hanging around at home until victims of the road like us straggled in to town, found him and pleaded our case from the other side of the fence that enclosed his lot.

Jerry didn't seem to object to being consulted, as if he had nothing better to do for a while, so he freely dispensed advice and related stories about the other 8 or so people who were ahead of us in an invisible queue that included a number of folks who were stranded out on the road within a day's drive or so. Next in line, an emergency that would apparently get taken care of this week, maybe even today, was a woman who's water pump went out on the other side of the hill (no telling which hill, or how far). She was in a hurry to get back to Kansas to see what was left of her house in which an infestation of chipmunks built a giant nest around the attic and gnawed on the wires until a fire started, burning the whole place to the ground. Judging from the tone in Jerry's voice, he would probably have to do something about it soon, maybe even today.

Our talk continued while he jabbed at the dirt and he went on to explain the problems he'd had over the years, hiring younger guys from the community. 'No work ethic in these kids today... no ambition', he said. 'One day's hard work, a little dirt and grease and that's it, they're through.' So, he worked by himself, mostly, hanging out at home until people in trouble showed up. A discussion of Diesel engines and turbo chargers followed, then we turned to the problem at hand. I mentioned that we'd gone through Mexican Hat and massively overheated while climbing the relentless hills up to Monument Valley. Jerry knew those hills well, pointing out that most people break down on the second, 10% grade, a place that he visits regularly to make roadside rescues. His conclusion was that, if we weren't still blowing clouds of smoke, which, thankfully, we weren't, then we probably just got some bad Diesel fuel somewhere, as it's a common problem in these parts. Replace the fuel filters and we should be fine. Unfortunately, Kayenta's tiny car parts, laundromat, video store didn't have the filters we needed, so we headed off to Tuba City with fingers crossed, wondering if we could make the Grand Canyon before nightfall.

* Photo by Barb

Posted by mark at 01:12 AM | Comments (0)

July 10, 2004


Camping on Mars

Little ripples caused by erosion from ancient water on Mars or tire tracks at the campground in Monument Valley? You decide.

Posted by mark at 07:17 PM | Comments (1)

July 09, 2004


Monument Valley

We headed towards the Grand Canyon today, by way of Monument Valley, but little did we know of the vicious hills around Mexican Hat, out there, waiting to give the bus a serious thrashing. We were also going through a kind of time/space warp into the Navajo Nation where you eventually sense the shift in laws, manners and attitudes of the Navajo people. This shift becomes apparent more quickly when you interact with the Navajo, say, for example, by looking for a Diesel mechanic. It helps to have a good conversation starter too, like giant tie-dyed school bus, perhaps because it brings you a little closer to the artistic sense of the Navajo, compared to driving a big white, loathing beast of a motor home, that represents much of the blander side of white America out here. After a morning spree of last minute souvenir shopping--we needed a good Moab refrigerator magnet for our growing collection that lived above the drivers seat--we rambled out of town into the midday heat, creeping towards the triple digits. Along the road into Mexican Hat, we discovered what appeared to be an Andy Goldsworthy inspired rock formation that gave the town it's name.

As we pondered the question of how nature built these things, without cranes or helicopters, the town went by in an eye blink, unnoticed amongst the sagebrush, and we were once again climbing, shifting gears and axles, the bus not at all happy with any selection until I finally jammed it into 2nd. Top speed in 2nd gear is about 25 mph, so slowly up we groaned, with no options other than parking in the middle of the road or driving off into the desert, where the bus would probably not go 10 yards before it got in axle-deep and became a more permanent part of the roadside, if it didn't roll down the embankment to join the tumbleweeds that were stuck there, unhappy and unable to freely ramble about. With no where to go but up, we drove the struggling bus to it's very limits, up 3 steep grades in succession, including some at 10% for maybe 2 or 3 miles. By now the bus was seriously over heating, with the temperature gauge pegged and started blowing clouds of white smoke, typical of a blown head gasket, which suddenly turned to scary black smoke as we crawled over the top and the grand vista of Monument Valley appeared before us. We finally found a place to pull over and the bus promptly died.

Somehow, it seemed an inevitable part of a long journey in an old bus. Broken down in a vast picturesque desert, no sign of civilization for miles, we sat in the bus and cooked in the blazing midday heat. Buzzards would surely appear overhead anytime now. The parents worried, wondering if it was possible to get AAA out here any time soon, if at all. The kids got their mitts and ball out and took advantage of the vast sandlot to play catch... no worries. The bus needed to sit and cool, so nothing to do but have lunch, contemplate the situation some more and wonder whether we should drink water or wine. We had lots of water, which was fortunate, since the cooling system needed more than 5 gallons of it and we were sweating constantly, although somewhat imperceptibly in the dry desert heat. An hour later, to our relief, the engine fired right up, although it didn't sound all that healthy and white smoke occasionally puffed from the back as we limped into Monument Valley, where we decided to relax and camp for the night and figure out what to do next. A friendly Navajo guide at the camp suggested that we start talking to the Navajo people in the area and ask around for a mechanic. Lots of them know how to fix cars and trucks, he said, otherwise they would often be stuck out on the desert for days. Oh, great.

Posted by mark at 06:19 PM | Comments (1)

July 08, 2004


Eat a Peach

Moab is overflowing with rafting companies that take advantage of the wild and scenic Green and Colorado rivers, well above the dams that slow the river's progress further downstream, eventually turning into Lake Powell. The bigger companies stuff school busses full of rafters and pull trailers piled high with rafts, eventually turning into an unwieldy flotilla on the river. We went with a tiny little company, Red River (the old name of the Colorado River), and got that extra personal touch, starting by speaking with the actual river guides when you call them on the phone... a good sign that we picked the right place. They keep it simple by running a couple of small paddle rafts and kayaks and everyone gets a workout, a good way to deal with all the raw teenage energy we bring along.

After several years of serious drought in these parts, the river is running very low, so the rapids are pretty mild, probably class 2 at most, along the run known as the Daily or Fishing Towers, which is the starting point. In class 2 rapids no one falls out of the rafts unless they jump or get pushed. Further down river (beyond our route today) after the confluence of the Green and Colorado Rivers, is a wilder stretch known as Cataract Canyon where much more serious class 4 and 5 rapids flow. We'll have to do that another time since once you get in, you're on a 3 day trip. For now, it's good to gain some experience on more forgiving rapids and build some respect for the forces of fast flowing river water. The smaller rapids were still fun and the cool river water was a welcome relief from the near 100 degree heat. The towering walls of the river canyon and surrounding mesas and buttes provided nothing less than a spectacular setting.

Our guides, Theresa and David, took us on a special little side trip to an old peach orchard along the river, access to which Red River exclusively has permission. After a couple of hours of paddling and running rapids, we beached the rafts and scrambled up the river bank to the old orchard. The trees were full of sweet, ripe peaches that literally bursted with juice, running down chin and hands as we each gorged ourselves on a half dozen peaches or more. What a treat!

Posted by mark at 12:43 PM | Comments (0)

July 07, 2004


Moab Slick Rock

Heading into the town of Moab is like pulling into a giant drive-through REI with all of the adventures right outside the door. The town is chock full of adventure companies offering multiple flavors of river rafting, bike riding, Jeep and Humvee tours, helicopter rides, rock climbing, sky diving, camping... if it's an outdoor adventure, you can do it here. However, it was uranium that first put Moab on the map in the 1950's when a guy named Charlie Steen discovered it there, and made millions by selling the ore to the government. He went nuts with his riches and built an impressive cliff-side house at the edge of town, where he used to throw parties for the residents, many of whom worked in his mining business. He was also known to fly planes equipped with antennae over the house at night to get better television reception and take off to nearby states for lunch on a whim. Apparently he blew his millions and now lives quietly somewhere in Colorado.

Nik and I went out on a bike shop reconnaissance mission early the next morning, looking for a good used bike to buy, since we were one short. A town of this size might typically have one little bike shop, but Moab has at least 4 great shops and lots of the motels and adventure companies advertise that they also have bike shops on the premises, an indication of how big the bike business is here. Poison Spider Bike Shop caught our fancy, had a couple of great bikes and the guys there were pretty cool, so we went with them.

Riding the Moab slick rock - The famous Slick Rock, Poison Spider and Porcupine Rim trails are like double black diamond runs, highly technical and kinda scary, so we hoped to start with something less demanding and death defying. The mechanic at Poison Spider told us to check out Bartlett Wash, about 15 miles north of town, for some fun, family oriented riding in something akin to a natural skateboard park. We were informed that others had driven busses out to the wash and bravely headed out with no way to turn back until we got to the end. The bus rambled down the 5 miles of narrow rugged jeep trail, over hill and dale, bogged down in a couple of sandy stretches that caused momentary panic and dragged the back end a few times, putting a nice curve on the bottom of the aluminum ladder that led up to the deck, but I managed, in a full sweat, to keep the momentum and plow through to a shady spot near the end of the road. Whew!

We got the bikes down, filled our CamelBaks with precious water and headed out onto the shadeless, oven-like slick rock. Getting up on the rock was a bit tough, since we had to drag our bikes up a very steep rock wall about 20 or 30 feet high, but once up there, we rolled around and got the feel for the unique sandpaper covered rock. It was tough for little Zoe, though, who quickly ran out of water and pooped out in the 90+ degree heat, but that was probably a good thing since we didn't really want to be out there much longer than a couple of hours, especially with the buzzards flying overhead. Towards the end of the ride, Jereme had to show me how to drop off a ledge into a bowl, since clearly I was riding much to conservatively to have fun. Ironically, Jereme took the drop too slowly, tried to put his foot down mid-drop and fell on it, straining his ankle severely enough that he could barely get back to the bus. A trip to the local hospital revealed that it had only been strained, nothing torn or broken. He could probably still go rafting tomorrow. Although the hospital was small and quiet when we arrived late in the day, we were informed that we missed the 'rush hour'. Adventurers like us apparently keep this place very busy.

Word of mouth - There are tons of books, brochures and maps covering what to do in and around Moab, and you can hire a guide to take you just about anywhere, but word of mouth is still the best bet, especially from the locals. Billy at Poison Spider told us to call Red River Rafting company for a Colorado River rafting trip that we planned for the next day and Theresa at Red River recommended the nice little Portal campground nearby, which had a wonderful swimming hole and gave us a 15% discount for getting the recommendation. The next day our river guide, David, recommended an excellent pasta & pizza restaurant in town and everyone was happy. If you venture out here, ask the locals where to go and you're sure to have fun.

Posted by mark at 06:53 PM | Comments (1)

July 06, 2004


Four Corners

Off to Four Corners today, which was Zoe's choice spot to visit for the trip. Given that the boundaries making the corners were conceived by humans, you'd think that they could have made this spot a little closer to civilization, but we humans must like something about keeping those boundary lines straight, so it's way out in the middle of friggin' nowhere, not to mention that it's over 100 degrees and under zero humidity (except for those sno-cones.) The only other notable thing out this way is Ship Rock, a strange monolithic and kinda ugly rock that juts up from the earth, spiking some 2000 feet above the 5000 foot plateau on which it's mysteriously lost, plowing through the desert heat. From the drivers seat, if you can get into the right frame of mind, it can be a rather meditative experience, with the road rolling endlessly out across the high desert, trenched with little canyons here and there, under an impressively blue sky and cottony white clouds that look so good they almost seem fake. This is truly Indian country, the Navajo Nation, which is obvious from the road signs--'Buckle Up--It's the Navajo Law'--as well as the roadside stalls selling jewelry and pottery, and the bleak home sites scattered across the plateau, clustered in small groups of run-down mobile homes, surrounded by an assortment of new and aging cars and trucks amongst the sagebrush.

Long hills dominated the day, but we've been traveling on back roads in some parts to avoid the shock of looking in the review mirror and discovering that we're leading an odd parade across the desert, with a long line of cars and trucks behind. I pull over occasionally, but there are usually long stretches on which they can pass and it's more fun to watch them go by, one by one to see the different expressions on their faces. A few days ago, I dearly wanted a turbo, but now I see that this is merely a device that allows us to keep up with the frantic pace of the rest of the world. Once on the deserted back roads of the Southwest, on which another car may not appear for 20 or 30 minutes at a time, it doesn't seem to bother me as much that we're only able to go 25 miles an hour in second gear up some of these grades. Aside from the speed itself, there's the constant attention to the engine and gears, listening to the tone, watching the tachometer, and sometimes going through 3 or 4 gears, including tenuous rear axle shifts that lag several seconds too long, allowing the bus to slow too much for the intended gear, inducing a frantic last-second shift to another, even lower gear. Frustrating in traffic, but out here, you get time to slow down, listen, think and develop your technique. Just you and the hill out here. Then there are times when things look deceptively flat, but the bus is groaning, pleading for a lower gear and I finally figure that we must be going up despite what my eyes are telling me.

When talking to locals and other travellers about various routes, hither and yon, I often ask them how hilly it is or how steep... funny thing is, they don't have a clue. And since they don't know, they feel compelled to provide some kind of answer, like 'there are a lot of curves' as if curves are the same as hills, and it must be as hard to turn the bus as it is to go up. The bus actually a good indicator of hills, steepness and terrain and when there's no other traffic around to distract and drain my attention, I realize that it gives me a very real sense of the geography and I think about the incredible effort it must have taken to build roads in these parts. Large engines and turbo chargers flatten everything in sight and their drivers and passengers unwittingly lose the feel of the land. We call it the zen of bus driving... to help keep our sanity until we get a turbo.

Posted by mark at 03:46 PM | Comments (2)

July 05, 2004



Roadside fuel filter change. What a pain. Locals warned us about bad gas in these parts.

* Photo by Jereme

Posted by mark at 11:21 PM | Comments (1)

July 04, 2004


Cadillac Ranch

Along the road in Texas
* Texas smells different--Driving I-40 into Texas late at night, it was nearly impossible to tell that the long boring stretches of western Oklahoma prarie/desert (steppe?) had become long boring stretches of eastern Texas panhandle. Of course it was dark, and the bus droned on with the same flatness and straightness of road. However, Texas smelled different for some odd reason, a funny sweet smell of sage, cattle, tumbleweed and a hint of crude. After some time, the droning turned to groaning as the bus struggled with the wind or maybe clogged fuel filters. Hours later, upon entering New Mexico, we somehow arrived at an elevation of 5000 feet. We must have been climbing the whole way through Texas and didn't even know.
* Largest cross in the Western Hemisphere--Sunday morning, somewhere just east of Amarillo, an enormous white cross appeared on the horizon that could be seen for miles. Gotta see it to believe, a billboard said. The largest Jewish star in the Western hemisphere was nowhere to be seen.

(if you weren't up late last night, go see the July 3rd posting, too)

Posted by mark at 08:19 AM | Comments (2)

July 03, 2004


Rock Cafe

You may be wondering why it's July 8th where you are and only July 3rd where we are. We'll, we're finally in the vacation time zone where people do things at a much more reasonable pace, like connecting to the internet once or twice a week instead of the usual 24 x 7. The withdrawal was horrible, but now that we've entered the zone, we're usually out and about. When we get back, we eat, maybe read a little and go to bed. Such a simple formula... why can't we do that at home?

Along the road in Oklahoma
* Route 66--Route 66 is a big deal here in Oklahoma. Unlike Missouri, a state that seems to care less and maybe forgotten about the fabled route, Oklahoma touts it's many Route 66 attractions, including an assortment of restored filling stations, old cafes and other oddities like the Blue Whale and the Round Barn. The tourism bureau here had a zillion brochures and was staffed by folks who knew the answer to everything about having fun in Oklahoma... a good thing for us, since coming from a state that's over saturated with recreational activity we have difficulty imagining Oklahoma as a serious destination for adventure.

* The Blue Whale--We decided to check out a couple of the favorites. First the Blue Whale. This is basically one of the first original water parks, where you could walk into the giant open mouth and slide into a swimming hole that had been used by locals and visitors passing through on Route 66 over the years. The whale has been recently restored, but swimming is forbidden. It looked a little too swampy anyway, but the heat did tempt us to accidentally fall in.

* Rock Cafe--The highlight of the day was Rock Cafe in Stroud. This is the kind of roadside cafe of dreams. We drove up as the sun was casting long shadows and the small, finely crafted stone building glowed as if lit up for a movie shoot. A single bus sized parking space awaited us, right in front. Arriving at such a cool cafe on the Cool Bus, was a big hit with our waitress, Tiffani, who loved the bus and treated us like old friends. (Seems like half the people we meet along our route would love to be on a trip on the Cool Bus, many instantly confessing to be old hippies or having owned a VW bus years ago, which qualifies them as fellow bus owners... the other half wonder if any redneck cops have pulled us over yet.) Inside the small, well-worn cafe only a couple of people occupied what appeared to be their own personal seats at the counter. A second counter off to the side was waiting just for us. A round of creme sodas and 'Root 66 Beers' took the edge off the warm humid day, then we dived into bacon cheese burgers and boiled shrimp and crawfish without coming up for air.

* The art of shifting--Oklahoma is a little hillier than I thought it would be, big long, rolling hills, and anything that even smells like a hill, slows our bus to a crawl. I'm finally getting the hang of shifting a split-axle, which is not much different than a 10 speed bicycle, except that we have 2 gears in the back and 5 up front. The trick is to figure out where the 'good' gears are, since some overlap occurs, just like on a bike. For example, there's no point in shifting to the low axle in 5th gear, since it's just about the same as 4th with the high axle. So, down shifting from 5th on an up hill, it's best to go to 4th, then, if needed, shift to the low axle in 4th, and, if things really start dragging, do the fancy double shift to 3rd and the high axle at the same time. The axle is shifted by pushing or pulling a red button on the shift lever, that's mounted just below the shift knob. On this bus, the axle is vacuum actuated, so there's a second or two lag before the axle actually shifts. Push the clutch, pull the knob, count 'one thousand, two thousand, then release the clutch and hope the axle has shifted. Sometimes it doesn't and you end up between gears. It feels like your chain just came off, with the added excitement of a couple of flying semi's coming up behind you.

Posted by mark at 09:22 PM | Comments (0)

July 02, 2004


Missouri Smoke Stacks

Along the road in Missouri:
* Fireworks Galore--Fireworks up to near sub-atomic bomb size seem to be available everywhere around here, in huge tent sales all along the road. Zak was just dying to get some fireworks so we finally stopped at something like a factory outlet that looked pretty good. Two employees were taking a smoke break outside, right in front of 2 large 'No Smoking Inside' signs, as customers walked out with arm-loads of rockets, mortars and other explosives, making me a little nervous about the whole thing. I was thinking about getting some firecrackers and maybe a few other lightweight fireworks like bottle rockets and things that don't seem too harmful if they go in the wrong direction. The kids gleefully ran into the store looking for the largest, most powerful explosives available to amateur pyros. After a few minutes of looking around, the power failed and all the lights went out. Great... hope no one even THINKS of lighting a match. Maybe there's a good reason to go to one of the outdoor tent sales instead. We finally left with a fairly serious arsenal and, of course, some very happy kids.
* Knife Country--Knife City, Knife Emporium, Knife Central and Chicago Cutlery billboards dot the country side along the highway. The eastern half of Missouri along route 44 appears to have some kind of strange infatuation with knives... not sure what that's all about, but be careful if you ever hang around there.
* The Wallgate CMEA45 Automatic Hand Washer/Dryer--"The no-move, no-touch hand washing experience". At rest stops across Missouri. Pretty slick devices. You hold out your hands, soap sprays, then water and finally, warm air blows. Like a car wash for your hands. But forget about washing your face or brushing your teeth or anything else that you normally do with a good old fashioned sink. Gotta go out back and do that with a hose and a towel, I guess. Technological achievement doesn't come without a few sacrifices.
* Billboard for Turbo chargers for Diesels. God, I wish we had a turbo! The semi's just blow by us, especially on the uphills, where this bus is slower than a giant tie-dyed banana slug. Those trucks must have 400 or 500 horsepower, with turbo-charged Diesel engines that sound like jet turbines and carry tons of cargo and machinery and whatnot up hills faster than we go down. Next time, we're gonna get a turbo.

* Photo by Barb

Posted by mark at 09:11 AM | Comments (2)

July 01, 2004


Happy Birthday Zakary!

Zakary is 13 today! This fine jump from the back of our houseboat last weekend, would surely have earned a gold medal in the Mississippi River Olympic sky jumping event. Zak, was in full Tom Sawyer, Mississippi river, sky jumping form that day and even did a full forward flip from the roof at one point. Zak is an amazing kid, in the river and out. He's a hard working, mostly A student at Portola Middle School in El Cerrito, California. In his 3rd year of little league, he can play any position well, infield and out and has even spent a few innings on the mound. Zak's spirit is the most amazing thing about him... he's always entertaining, joking and having fun. He'll talk with anyone about anything any time. Happy Birthday Zakary!!

Love, Dad.

Posted by mark at 06:03 PM | Comments (3)