Where Ya From?

© 2015 by Kathleen Kemsley, never previously published

 It’s the standard greeting of RVers everywhere.  But it doesn’t mean only what it says.  They can look at your license plate and know where you are from.  It’s just that they have a need to know so much more.

You can see their insatiable curiosity coming from a mile away.  As soon as you pull into a campground, they will come out of their tin castles and feign polishing a headlight or sweeping the artificial turf square in front of their doorway, so that they can cast surreptitious looks your way.  You can almost hear the numbers crunching in their heads.  Calculating: Is his rig bigger than mine?  Does he have more bells and whistles?  Is his spousal accessory younger?  Prettier?  Has she got a richer daddy than mine? It’s a regular Keeping Up With the Jones on wheels.

Next they come ambling over – usually when you’re still in the midst of raising the roof of your camper, taking chairs and tables out of the rig, placing blocks under tires to make the bed level.  The man – for some reason  it is almost always the male half of the RV couple – will walk around behind your truck, glance at the plate, and utter The Question.  Where ya from?

Where_ya_from_0001Back in the old days, we used to travel the United States and Canada in a 1964 Ford van painted school bus-yellow and sporting Alaska plates.  There were times when I fervently wished we could change them for less attention-getting plates from Iowa or something.  No one knows where anything is in Iowa.  But, we learned, everyone thought they knew all about Alaska.

“We went to Alaska – took a cruise up the Inside Passage,” was the most common way people laid claim to a knowledge of the 49th state.  Well, in my opinion the Inside Passage, which only covers the southeast coast of Alaska, looks exactly like what all the land just inland from that narrow strip is – Canada.  Alaska’s mainland is nothing like Southeast.  It’s about northern lights, seven months of winter, moose on the roads, thousands of loon-spotted lakes, rivers milky with glacial flour, and grubby bearded men living in plywood one-room cabins with a common law wife and an outstanding warrant in Nebraska.

“My uncle used to live in Fairbanks”—that was another way well-meaning RVers tried to connect with us sourdoughs tumbling out of the old yellow van.  “Didja know my cousin, Joe?  He was on the pipeline in the 1970s.” Alaska is a state of half a million people, spread over a parcel of land half the size of the entire continental United States.  At times it seemed like the Last Frontier was, indeed, a small town with long streets.  Still I could not keep track of these ghosts who had lived there thirty or forty years ago, Uncle John or cousin Richie.  How many people claim Alaska connections because they knew someone who lived there once?  And really, why would they think I care?

The other classic response to an Alaska license plate is, “I always wanted to go up there.”  What am I supposed to say to that?  The first thought out of my mouth is, “What are you waiting for?”  The Alcan Highway isn’t the wilderness-dirt-road-with-no-services-for-100-miles journey that it used to be the first time I went south on it.  Nowadays there’s plenty of gas stops, souvenirs, car repair shops, Overwatea grocery stores, and greasy spoon overpriced restaurants that call themselves “roadhouses.”  It’s not an “adventure” drive anymore.  It’s simply just a long haul.

Truthfully, I had never been over it in the summer time, which was when these Fair Weather RVers undoubtedly wanted to travel.  The best time to drive the Alcan really is in the winter, when the corduroy is smoothed over with packed snow and your headlights shine brightly on the snow-covered mountains.  When the northern lights blaze green and blue and white, shimmering like curtains in the sky.  When it’s so cold you can hear the tree trunks cracking.  When you invite your dog onto the bed of the van, and learn the true meaning of a “Three Dog Night.”

Fast forward a few years.  We exchanged the Alaska plate for an Idaho plate and began driving toWhere_ya_from_0002 Mexico during the winters.  Do you think that stopped the vultures at the RV parks from asking The Question?  No, of course not.  It didn’t even slow them down.  Only now, instead of making ridiculous remarks about Alaska, they made them about Idaho.

“Where ya from in Idaho?”  (Polite pause, only long enough for me to mumble, “Boise.”)  Immediately they jumped in with a story about how they went to college in (fill in the blank): Moscow, Coeur d’ Alene, or Rexburg.  Or, alternately, how they traveled through Idaho on their way to (fill in the blank): Yellowstone, Sturgis, or their grandmother’s house.  If they couldn’t think of some similarly tenuous connection between themselves and my home state, their last resort was to simply repeat a cliché, such as, “Lots of potatoes there.”

After weathering a particularly tiresome assault of old guys with nothing better to do than pounce on me whenever I exited the camper at an RV park near Culiacán, I struck back and composed a song.  From then on, any time anyone asked The Question, I replied by singing, to the tune of “Camptown Races.”

Where ya from in Idaho, doo dah.   Where ya from in Idaho, doo dah.

Where ya from in Idaho, it’s the land of the potato.

Where ya from in Idaho, doo dah.

As time went on, I started adding verses:

Where ya from in Alaska, doo dah.  (repeat) Where ya from in Alaska, my uncle used to live in Wasilla.

Where ya from in New York, doo dah.  (repeat) Where ya from in New York, we eat our tacos with a knife and fork.

Where ya from in Oregon, Doo dah.  (repeat) Where ya from in Oregon, we smoked some dope and we had some fun.

Where ya from in Vermont, doo dah.  (repeat) Where ya from in Vermont, same sex marriages are what we want.

Where ya from in California, doo dah.  (repeat) Where ya from in California, I’ve seen every episode of LA Law.

Where ya from in New Mexico, doo dah  (repeat) Where ya from in New Mexico, I saw Julia Roberts in Taos Pueblo.

Well needless to say, over the longs weeks of driving all over Mexico, I eventually  came up with a full set of 50 verses to this song, plus 10 more for the Canadian RV community.  And after that, the question, “Where ya from” no longer bothered me so much.  I’d just start humming the tune for “Camptown Races” and wandered off in the opposite direction, toward the nearest beach or mountain or panaderia.

Backwards Through Panama

© 2015 by Kathleen Kemsley, never previously published

In world travel, as in life, the best-made plans often fall by the wayside due to circumstances beyond our control.  Before Brian and I got on the plane for a two-week trip around Panama, I had figured out an itinerary which would take in the best of the country by bus.  We were goingIMG_0078 to ride from Panama City up to Boquete, then proceed over the mountainous spine of the country to the Caribbean coast and the islands of Bocas del Toro.

It was not until we actually landed in Panama City that we learned about an uprising in the indigenous population, which had disrupted travel on the Pan-American Highway.  In the time-honored tradition of banana republics everywhere, the local Indians were protesting a land-grab of their ancestral lands by big mining interests.  The rebels, lacking the firepower of the government-backed corporations, rolled huge boulders onto the main artery through the country.  Then they stood on the road, throwing rocks at passing trucks, until they had effectively shut down the highway.

It was a classic David-versus-Goliath drama, and we could not help but root for the underdogs.  Even though it meant that my carefully planned itinerary went out the window.  On the small-screen television in our hostel in Panama City, we watched live coverage of the insurrection.   Other travelers said the Pan-American Highway was closed indefinitely, and they had various theories about how to get around it.

IMG_0006My first plan was to wait a couple days and see if the situation resolved.  So we spent one day walking around the “old town” and the sea-front malecon, and another day riding a local bus to Miraflores Locks to view the Panama Canal.  After two days, there still was no change in the highway situation, so I called and purchased two seats on a small airplane headed to Bocas del Toro.  If we couldn’t do the trip in the planned order, we would just start at the end and go backwards.

The flight from Panama City to Isla Colón took less than an hour, but the two places seemed worlds apart.  The Bocas del Toro islands have a mellow, relaxed Caribbean vibe.  Thus far largely undiscovered by the hip ex-pat community, the islands are connected to the mainland by ferry and to each other by water taxis for hire at the main dock in downtown Bocas.

We entertained ourselves for several days snorkeling in the islands near Isla Colón, wading andIMG_0121 bodysurfing at Red Frog Beach, bicycling to nearby golden sand beaches, and eating seafood and treats from the local panaderia.  From there we crossed to the mainland and boarded a chicken bus for the six-hour-long ride over the mountains to the Pacific side of Panama.  Grandmas and babies and dogs and young working men sat three to a seat or stood in the aisle during the slow route that stopped in every little town.

The bus dropped us at the main plaza in the town of Boquete.  Not having any advance reservations, we made our way to a nearby local hostel, where we spent a miserable night on lumpy beds listening to obnoxious bar music blaring in through a window that didn’t close. The next day I hiked around until I located a much quieter room up the street.  There we stayed comfortably ensconced for a few days.  I went on a day trip with a group of hostel kids to a hot spring, while Brian enjoyed sitting in the central plaza watching people and making friends.

IMG_0206Boquete had a hefty population of ex-pats who regularly traveled back and forth between there and Quepos, in southern Costa Rica.  We enjoyed meeting some of them and listening to their discussions about the pros and cons of living full time in Panama.  One day we rented scooters to explore some of the countryside around Volcán Barú,  Panama’s only volcano, now dormant, and rising to over 10,000 feet elevation.  For Brian, that day was the highlight of the whole trip.

Reading ahead in the Lonely Planet book, I got a jones to visit the national park at Golfo del Chiriquí on the Pacific Ocean.  The guide book advised that reservations were necessary weeks in advance to secure a spot at the only lodge within the park.  Hoping for a miracle, I e-mailed the lodge and almost immediately heard back that they had just received a cancellation.  So they offered us one “rustic room” at Boca Brava, bathroom down the hall, for $10 per person, take it or leave it!  Of course, I took it.

Departing from Boquete the next day, we rode on two different busses, a taxi, and a water taxi to make our way to the island lodge.  Once there, Brian relaxed in a hammock and talked to otherIMG_0273 travelers, while I went on a day-long snorkeling trip to a couple of the islands inside the national park.  Our rustic room turned out to consist of two mattresses on the floor and a sea breeze blowing through open windows.  Not too bad of accommodations for ten bucks.

By the time we were ready to leave Golfo del Chiriquí, almost a month had passed since the start of the Indian uprising.  Asking around, we learned that the opposing sides had recently come to an uneasy truce, and the boulders had been removed from the Pan American Highway.  So we walked out to the highway and almost immediately flagged down a plush double decker long distance bus that was on its air-conditioned way to Panama City.

IMG_0063Six hours and $30 later, we found ourselves back in civilization, with one more day to spare before our flight home.  It happened to be Mardi Gras, so we dumped our backpacks at a cheap hotel in the Casca Viejo section if the city, then spent the evening enjoying the festivities.

Returning to the hotel late in the evening, we heard multiple fire truck sirens.  We climbed up to the roof to see what was going on.  A whole block of the city was ablaze!  Though I felt sorry for people whose apartments were burning, I must say it was a spectacular show to watch from afar.  The impromptu entertainment of a raging structural fire was a great way to end our seat-of-the-pants backwards trip through Panama.

Riding the Indian Lands

© 2006 By Kathleen Kemsley, First published in Rider Magazine, July 2007 

The climate can be too hot and rainy in the summer, too cold and windy in the winter.  But motorcycling conditions in the high desert during the spring and fall months are nearly perfect.  A commitment-free week in September beckoned my husband and me to ride the Indian lands ofIndian_lands_0001 the Southwest, following a loop route that offered cultural, historical, and scenic highlights.  A little frost, a stiff crosswind, a brief rain shower, a sunburned nose – these minor inconveniences simply reminded us that we were not looking at the landscape from the inside of a car.

We began our ride in a place that bears traces of the waves of migration characterizing the Indian lands.  Following the Ancient Way Highway from Grants, New Mexico off Interstate 40, we reached El Morro National Monument in the early afternoon.  The tall sandstone cuesta offered centuries of passers-by an irresistible blank slate on which to scratch pictures, names, dates, and narratives – graffiti elevated to historical treasure.

Earliest are drawings by ancestral Puebloans (also known as Anasazi in the Navajo language).  Indian_lands_0002These ancient people lived on top of the rocks in a village called A’ts’ina.  Next, 17th century Spanish explorers such as Don Juan de Oñate and Don Diego de Vargas etched ornate inscriptions into the rock face commemorating their passage.  Finally, Army soldiers and tough American pioneers heading west in the mid-1800s added their signatures to the rock.

Open fields around the monolith flashed with a riot of wildflowers, paintbrush and globe mallow and purple asters and sunflowers, yield of heavy summer monsoon rains just past.  A small campground within a mile of the inscription rock provided our night’s lodging.  Convenient piles of free firewood, product of a juniper eradication project, took the chill off a starry evening at 7,200 feet elevation.

West of El Morro on the Ancient Way Highway lay Zuni Land.  The Zuni Indian tribe, 14,000 strong, carries on its traditional way of living in stone-and-mud pueblos.  Tribe members survive economically by selling intricately crafted jewelry and carvings and by forming fire crews to battle summer blazes for the Forest Service.  Zunis believe themselves, along with their cousins the Hopis, to be direct descendents of the Anasazi.  A Zuni guide from the Visitor Center showed us elaborate murals painted on the inside walls of a 17th century church in the center of town.  “These images depict our kachinas – spirits of the Zuni people,” she said.  “We have adopted some aspects of Christianity, but we Zuni revere many Gods.”

A dirt road south of Zuni leads to the ruins of Hawikuh, site of the first contact between Zunis and Spanish in 1539.  Explorers searching for the legendary “Seven Cities of Cibola” saw sunlight glinting off mica flakes in the windows of Zuni pueblo dwellings and mistook it for gold.  TodayIndian_lands_0003 most of Hawikuh remains buried under a heap of red dirt.  A check-in with the Zuni Visitor Center is required before touring the site; the Zunis ask that visitors respect the ancestors by leaving any found artifacts in place.

From Zuni we crossed into Arizona and headed south to St. Johns.  There we rode west through scrub-covered hills to reach Petrified Forest National Park.  Though Petrified Forest is known mostly for its fossils, park researchers have inventoried over 500 archeological sites, including Puerco Pueblo and Agate House.

Besides dwelling site ruins, the native people of the Little Colorado River region left drawings of humans and animals, as well as geometric patterns and spirals, chiseled on flat slabs of sandstone.  Archeo-astronomers discovered that the spiral petroglyphs function as calendars.  Shadows or sunlit images move across and pierce the center to mark important annual events such as solstice, equinox, and the start of the frost-free growing season.  This phenomenon occurs elsewhere in the Southwest, but Petrified Forest contains the largest known concentration of these ancient almanacs.

Indian connections aside, riding through Petrified Forest provided astonishing views of the Painted Desert, Crystal Forest, and the Teepees, interspersed with many fun twisties.  It seemed a shame to stick to the posted 35 mile-per-hour limit.  Passing slow motor homes, we leaned into the scenery and too soon emerged onto Interstate 40.

Indian_landsFifty miles west of Petrified Forest we reached the ruins of Homolovi, four distinct villages populated along the Little Colorado River during the 13th and 14th centuries.  Native oral tradition recounts that Hopi Indian ancestors came from this part of Arizona.  Archeological work on the ruins, supported by the Hopi tribe, is ongoing.

Few people ever exit the Interstate long enough to visit Homolovi State Park; even fewer actually spend the night there.  But we found the campground comfortable (if a bit windy) and the showers blessedly hot.  A walk through the ruins of one village presented us the opportunity to finger 800 year old black-on-white, gray corrugated, and black-on-red pottery fragments.  Taking a shard home crossed my mind, of course – who doesn’t consider pocketing a souvenir?  But in the end I left them where they lay, because on my living room mantel, these ancient relics would lose their context.

We rode north of Homolovi to reach the Hopi Cultural Center on Second Mesa.  A three dollar entry fee allowed us to view the museum’s historical photographs of life on the Hopi mesas a hundred years ago.  Ancient, lined faces of Hopi elders and camera-shy children peeking from behind their mothers’ skirts provided a window into an exotic, bygone world.

Today Hopis continue to weave, carve, dance, make jewelry, and celebrate the celestial seasons much as their ancestors did.  But the Hopis also have a foot firmly planted in the modern world.  A patriotic people, a high percentage of young Hopi warriors volunteer for the armed services.  The first American woman killed in Iraq, back in 2003, was Hopi.

East of the Hopi mesas the road led to Hubbell Trading Post National Historical Site.  A remnant of many such outposts established a century ago, the Hubbell Trading Post still buys rugs, jewelry, and baskets made by local Navajo Indians.  In browsing through several rooms of the store, I learned that my taste was champagne: the Ganado Red rug I picked as a favorite carried a price tag of $2900.

We listened to a talk given by the museum curator later that day about his experiences living among the Navajo.  He recounted attempts to speak the difficult Navajo language and participate in traditional dances.  I admired his willingness to let go of his own viewpoint – that of a single white man from Michigan – and share perceptions gathered by close observation of Navajo Indian_lands_0004customs (limp-wristed hand shaking), taboos (pointing with the index finger), and etiquette (never interrupting a speaker).

Thirty miles up the road from Hubbell, Canyon de Chelly National Monument preserves a canyon inhabited by Navajos who farm the rich bottomlands.  We rode both the north and south rims of the canyon, pausing often to take in startling views of slickrock domes, slot canyons, and cliff dwellings tucked into caves along Chinle Wash.  Visitors are allowed foot access into the canyon on White House Trail, but traveling anywhere else within the monument requires a Navajo guide.  Half-day tours by foot, horseback or jeep cost $50 to $130 per person.  Unfortunately, dual-sport motorcycle trips into the chasm were not offered as an option.  Too bad, because the rutted dirt roads on the canyon bottom just begged to be navigated by my BMW F650.

Ah, well.  The brick red soil of Navajo Land reflected pink on the underside of puffy cumulous clouds.  Sheep, goats, horses, cattle, even a donkey grazed along unfenced roadside fields.  We stopped at Amigos Restaurant in Kayenta to fulfill the time-honored tradition of consuming a Navajo taco – in this case, a humongous round of fry bread topped with mountains of beans, chili, and cheese.Storm clouds gathered as we approached Monument Valley.  A brief stop at Goulding’s Lodge brought back memories of watching John Wayne movies on Saturday Indian_lands_0005afternoon: many of those classic westerns were filmed in the canyons behind Goulding’s.  With rain looming ahead, and arroyos flash-flooding beside the highway, we sailed through the valley.  We reached cover at a campground in Bluff, Utah just moments before the clouds delivered their promised deluge.  A male rain, the Navajos call it, intense and violent.  The gentle sustaining rains that characterize the winter months they designate female.

The Indian lands route led us past Four Corners and up to Aztec, a national monument named by someone who mistook the pueblo for ruins found deep in Mexico.  On the contrary, Aztec looks nothing like the Pyramid of the Sun.  But its three-story dwellings, giant round kivas, and T-shaped doorways bear remarkable similarity to both Mesa Verde to the north and Chaco to the south.

We inquired about the road to Chaco.  A flash flood had run across the road, but the ranger said the water was receding, so we decided to chance it.  The last fifteen miles of wet dirt into Chaco were recently graded and fairly smooth.  At Escavada Wash, water twelve inches deep rushed across an arroyo bottomed by concrete.  I plunged ahead; what’s a dual sport bike for?  My lowerIndian_lands_0006 legs and boots took a drenching in the muddy bath, as did my husband’s Gold Wing and sidecar, but we successfully completed the crossing and proceeded into the park.

Chaco is the granddaddy of ancestral Puebloan ruins.  Consensus among contemporary archeologists is that Chaco was a rendezvous place for residents from throughout the Southwest.  The wind whistled past crumbling walls of Pueblo Bonita’s great houses and kivas.  Remnants of ancient voices floated through empty rooms.  Obviously a huge effort went into building this sandstone city.  What drew hundreds – perhaps thousands – of Native Americans to traipse to this remote site?

But then I thought about modern motorcycle rallies – Sturgis, Daytona Bike Week, Laconia.  Perhaps human nature hasn’t changed so much after all.  We still gather in large numbers to party, play games, tell stories, meet people, flirt, dance, feast, drink, buy and sell trinkets, argue, Indian_lands_0007and philosophize.  Perhaps Chaco was nothing more than the Sturgis of the Anasazi world.

Thinking of it in those terms humanized the place for me.  Picturing the ancient inhabitants of the desert playing “bite the weenie,” kicking stone tires, and collecting Poker Run cards in the sandstone plazas kept me chuckling all the way out twenty miles of washboard dirt road.  Eventually we reached pavement, gas stations, ice cream, and yet another winding road which led back to Interstate 40 and Grants, where our Indian lands ride had begun.

Back Roads of Guatemala

Back Roads of Guatemala

 © 2015 By Kathleen Kemsley, from journals kept in 2007

On the back side of Guatemala, coming from Belize, the state of Petén is known as the “last frontier”.  Until the end of the Guatemalan civil war, the road wasn’t even paved.  The journey to Tikal was then a grueling 20+ hour ride by chicken bus from Guatemala City.  At one time in the past, the Germans offered to pave the road if Guatemala would promise to preserve the rain forest, which was at that time pristine.  But the deal fell through.  Later on, someone elseGuat_0001 (Weyerhauser?) paid to pave the road from Santa Elena to Rio Bravo, while clear cutting most of the forest.  Now there are evergreen seedlings interspersed with cornfields.  Hillsides are still green-green, but the wild tangle of forest is gone.

We soon made our way to Finca Ixobel, a hidden gem of a low-key retreat.  Staffed by young travelers working to pay for their stay, the ranch has a system where you run a tab for food and drink, for horseback riding or caving trips, for internet use.  There was an international flavor to the place, with Spanish being the primary spoken language and Q’eqchi coming from the kitchen.  American rock music blared, someone shouted in German during a game of ping pong, and novels in French, German, Italian, Portugese and Spanish were available to trade in.

Finca Ixobel had unwittingly become involved in the Guatemalan civil war, in a story which ended badly.  Once upon a time, in the idealistic 1970s, a young couple from the United States bought 1400 acres of land in the rural jungle of Guatemala.  The “back-to-the-land movement” was in full swing and Carole and Michael DeVine wanted to live it in Petén.  The couple raised two adopted Mayan children, kept chickens and pigs and goats, grew vegetables, baked bread, and built a cabin.  When adventurous travelers stopped by, they began serving simple home-cooked meals and providing places to camp.  This hospitality eventually morphed into an Eco-tourism business which still exists to this day.

On their little slice of paradise, the DeVines made uneasy peace with the occupying Guatemalan army and tried to ignore drug smugglers and leftist rebels operating near their ranch.  But in 1991, the unthinkable happened.  Michael DeVine was kidnapped and murdered on the road from town to his home.  His wife and kids demanded answers but got none.  Five years later, it Guat_0005was revealed that the man who had commanded the nearby Guatemalan Army post and had ordered DeVine’s murder was actually a paid informant for the U.S. CIA.  But nobody was ever arrested or tried for DeVine’s murder.

After several peaceful days of rest, we left Finca Ixobel with its fresh baked bread and sad history and continued on deeper into the wilderness.  Evidence of the Guatemalan civil war, which ran from the 1960s through 1996, was everywhere.  We saw it in the lack of males of a certain age.  Some 200,000 Guatemalans rebels, most of rural, Mayan heritage, were killed during the years of the war.  We saw it in the eyes of the women, who trudged uphill carrying huge baskets and water jugs on their heads, but wouldn’t meet our eyes.  They had that vacant thousand-yard stare, the same one guys had after a tour in Vietnam.  We also saw it in the coffee plantations, places optimistically begun as co-ops during the war, but now surviving only as subsidiaries of the Nestlé or Kraft companies, after the Guatemalan economy tanked.

Guat_0002In our camper we followed a road into a cloud forest.  The paved road disappeared after about twenty miles.  In its place was a narrow, bumpy, one lane road.  Eventually, hidden in the highlands, we located a place someone at Finca Ixobel had told us about.  Gruta de Lanquin is an extensive limestone cave.  Beneath it, the Rio Lanquin comes rushing out beneath the cave in a burst of whitewater.

Unlike the national park caves in the United States, this one provided no escorts for  explorers; it was strictly “enter at your own risk.”  Inside the cave, lights for the first half mile illuminated paths, steps, and metal or wood catwalks.  Signs gave descriptive names of the formations: The Eagle, The Monkey, The Tower, The Sheep, The Femur, and The Cobra.  Cave walls were mucky and slimy.  It was impossible to climb without holding onto the limestone – a spelunking purist would have been shocked.  The air inside the cave was substantially warmer than the air outside, and stuffy.  It felt like all available oxygen had been used by the ten or so people who had signed the register earlier that day.

When it got dark, we parked by the river to camp for the night.  The current was very strong, the water cold and none too clean.  A seven year old boy came up to speak Spanish with us.  Brian thought he was telling us how some people camped there and got choked or robbed.  Then he asked us if we had a gun.  Once the kid left with his uncle, we both felt very nervous.

We climbed back into the camper and locked the door.  Before long we heard another vehicle approaching.  Overcoming our quaking fear of being alone in the Guatemalan wilderness without a gun, we peeked out the door.  Much to our relief, the vehicle was a VW bus with California plates.  Whew!

The people, Mark and Nancy, were newlyweds who worked in the medical profession.   Their two big dogs were friendly, but we definitely felt better with a couple of canine alarm dogs nearby.  They invited us to come sit in their van for a couple hours, to talk and drink herbal tea.  Back in my own camper later, I slept soundly that moonless night.  And of course, no banditos ever came anywhere near our riverside camp spot.

The next day we drove another eight miles farther on a road so steep and narrow that we had toGuat_0003 use the 4wd low gear for the first time.  It took 45 minutes to reach Semuc Champey, an utter paradise of a place where the thundering Rio Cahabón passes underneath a limestone terrace.  On top were several large turquoise pools, reminiscent of Havasupai, begging to be swum in.  Gentle waterfalls tinkled and fish swam fearlessly around my feet.

We left before noon and got back on the bad road to Cobán.  There we ran into supreme difficulties trying to get more money.  None of the ATMs worked, due to the collapse of most of the Guatemalan banks three weeks earlier.  Apparently the post-civil war economy was still in shambles.  The problem (as we understood it with our kindergarten-level Spanish) was that the country had ordered all new bills to be printed in France, then taken the old currency out of circulation.  But something went wrong with delivery of the new bills to Guatemala.  So, there was no money to be had.

Belatedly, I wished I had followed Brian’s suggestion to take some travelers cheques on the trip.  At the time, I had prevailed in that argument: “No one uses those anymore!”  Of course, in Cobán, he could not resist saying “I told you so.”  But that didn’t help us get quetzales.  Eventually I had to run a charge against my Visa card to get some cash, a most expensive undertaking.  I looked daggers at Brian when he opened his mouth to gloat; he took the better part of valor and said nothing further.

Camp that night was a visually peaceful but noisy little place called “Holanda” that offered a restaurant, pool, lake, and cabins.  Right next door was the source of the noise: a farm yard with chickens clucking, cows mooing, white geese honking, and a dog barking late into the night.Guat_0004

We tried a “short cut” to get down out of the mountains, which turned out to be a, shall we say, scenic route.  After Salamá, the road narrowed to one lane, the outside lane having literally fallen off the cliff.  At Rabinál we walked through the market and purchased some tomatoes, avocado, peanuts and oranges.  The road out of there was marked as all-weather gravel on the 25 year old map I had.  Naively I thought it must be paved by now.  But no!  I hadn’t factored in the effects of 35 years of civil war on the country’s infrastructure.  The track we had chosen ran for 50 miles, all of it narrow, bumpy, and steep.

The route went over the top of the Sierra de Chuacus, nearly 7000 feet in elevation.  Just past the summit, a little stream tumbled down an almost vertical hillside.  Pine and tropical deciduous trees vied for space on the steep slope.  We headed downhill through several small villages, populated by very traditional-looking women wearing colorful embroidered blouses and ankle-length skirts, their long black hair in pony tails.  We crossed the Rio Motagua, then around a hairpin curve we suddenly were deposited – boom! – into 21st century San Juan, just 15 miles from Guatemala City.

Talk about culture shock!  From one-lane dirt roads to eight lane chaos.  Busses belched black exhaust, traffic crawled along at a snail’s pace, everyone honked and cut in front of each other.  Brian exhibited a mastery of driving skills to negotiate through Guatemala’s largest city.  At last I spied a directional sign and yelled for him to turn right.  And like magic, we were swept out of the city and on to touristy Antigua, leaving the wild highlands behind.

Canoeing The Kenai

© 1995 by Kathleen Kemsley, first published in Alaska Outdoors Magazine 

At ten o’clock in the evening, the sky is bright with sunset streaks of orange and pink.  Gavia Lake is flat calm, and no breeze ripples the leaves of mature birch trees crowding the lake’s shore. Canoe_Kenai_0007

But the placid wilderness scene is far from quiet.  Two loons call to each other across the water, their haunting voices recalling the ancient music of prehistoric times.  Rainbow trout rise, breaking the surface of the lake to leap for insect meals.  On the far side of the water, a young moose emerges from a spruce grove to venture into knee-deep water, in search of succulent plants growing on the lake bottom.

Teeming with wildlife and promising a unique wilderness experience, the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge canoe systems are a recreational paddler’s paradise located just a short drive from civilization.  Very little specialized equipment is needed for an excursion into the region: a canoe and a sense of adventure are the minimum requirements.

Both of the refuge canoe systems are located in the flatlands north of Sterling.  Swan Lake system, a series of 30 lakes connected by waterways and short portages, is the more popular of the two canoe trails.  The remote Swanson River canoe route consists of better than 40 lakes, and contains a killer portage one mile in length.  The reward for choosing that course is an array of first-rate campsites on the shores of pristine lakes, deep in the Kenai backcountry.

The two canoe systems were designated as wilderness areas in 1980.  At the same time, both Canoe_Kenai_0002routes were granted status as National Recreational Trails.  Management by the Fish and Wildlife Service is aimed toward providing recreational users with an opportunity to observe the Kenai Peninsula’s wildlife species in their native environment.

A trip to one of the canoe systems can be as short as one afternoon, or as long as a week.  Campsites located on the lake shores include established fire pits and excellent places to pitch a tent.  Registration is mandatory at canoe system entrances if a group plans to stay overnight.

Equipment to take along on a canoe trip is minimal.  Food, a portable cooking stove, rain gear, and extra clothes are the basic supplies.  Refuge regulations require a life jacket be carried for each participant, and an extra paddle should be carried.

Waterproof footwear is essential.  Tennis shoes or hiking boots are useless on lake shores andCanoe_Kenai_0001 soggy portages.  Although the land routes connecting the lakes are maintained by a trail crew, they tend to turn to mucky bogs after a rain.  Rubber knee boots, or better, hip boots, are the only foot gear to wear on the trail.  Be sure the boots fit well, as they will be worn for long periods of time, and blisters can render even the shortest portage distressingly painful.

Another indispensable item to carry during a trip into the lakes is insect repellent.  Mosquitoes are thickest in June, but they linger until autumn leaves turn yellow.

If the proximity of bugs is irritating, try to keep in mind that they provide food for a large population of rainbow trout in the lakes, which suggests another vital piece of equipment to carry: a lightweight fishing rod.  A fishing license is necessary for both residents and nonresidents above age 16.

More than 30 species of wildlife reside within the two canoe systems.  Moose are common alongCanoe_Kenai_0006 shores.  Paddle close to islands, too, in early June, to see moose with baby calves.  Seeking refuge from black bears, moose stay on islands until their young are strong enough to move to the mainland.  Don’t approach moose too closely.  They’re protective of their young and can be dangerous when they feel threatened.

Black bears are fairly widespread in the northern lakes region.  Precautions should be taken to avoid an unwelcome guest in a campsite.  Hang food from a tree some distance from your tent, wash all dinner dishes thoroughly, and bury scraps of food.  If a bear is spotted, canoeists should make noise to let their presence be known.  If necessary, an escape can be made via canoe onto a lake.  Bears belong in the backcountry, as do moose and eagles; these animals must be treated with respect.

Other wild animals living in the canoe systems include mink, otter, beaver, and muskrat.  Beaver dams, common on the lakes, assist in maintaining lake water levels.  The presence of beaver indicates that lake water should be boiled or treated before drinking.  Giardia, or Beaver Fever, can make life miserable for weeks if infected water is consumed.

Canoe_Kenai_0004Bird life around the lakes is varied and fascinating.  Almost every lake supports a pair of nesting loons.  The young hatch in early summer.  For several weeks, chicks can be seen riding on their parents’ backs before they learn how to dive and swim.  Curious about people, loons will sometimes swim quite near a canoe to get a closer look.

Several pairs of trumpeter swans nest on the canoe trail lakes.  These uncommon white birds move with a grace and beauty that’s a delight to watch.  Bring along a pair of binoculars to observe nesting birds and wildlife without disrupting their domain.

Summer weather on the northern lakes can best be described as variable.  Sunny, windless daysCanoe_Kenai_0003 feel downright hot.  More frequently, days are mild and cloudy, with temperatures in the 50 to 70 degree range.  Nights can be cool, sometimes dipping into the upper 30s.

No description of the canoe system would be complete without a mention of the possibility of rain.  Summer storms move in quickly, transforming a lake from mirror smooth to dangerously choppy within just a few minutes.  If the wind picks up, or clouds approach from the southwest, boaters should stay close to shore and prepare to camp nearby.

On the positive side, an inverted canoe makes a great shelter from the rain!   An awkward form of transportation, portaging is an unpleasant surprise to the uninitiated.  The canoe, fitted with pads on the middle strut, is balanced upside down on the shoulders.  Most of the portages are Canoe_Kenai_0005short enough that the carry of the canoe is not too difficult.  Canoe rests have been built for the longer portages; the wooden pole structures are a godsend to any weary portager who has just carried a 60 pound canoe to the top of a steep hill.

The northern portion of the Kenai Peninsula contains more than a thousand lakes spread across its unpopulated flatlands.  As designated wilderness areas, the lakes are accessible to entry only under the power of paddle and foot.  Traveling by canoe can be hard work, but the payoff is handsome.  The sound of a loon calling its mate, a moment of contact with the soft, brown eyes of a moose calf, or the chance sighting of a bald eagle in the nest are some of the rewards earned on a canoe trip in the refuge.  The rewards are worth every paddle stroke, every step through a boggy swamp portage, and every mosquito swat.

Book Review: The Perfect Vehicle, by Melissa Holbrook Pierson

© 1997 by Kathleen Kemsley, first published in Women On Wheels Magazine, January 1998.   

The Perfect Vehicle (W.W. Norton & Company, 1997, $24.00) is a book about motorcycling that defies categorization.  It is not a travel book, like Ted Simon’s classic Jupiter’s Travels, although it does contain descriptions of the author’s rides on the Blue Ridge Parkway, the New Jersey Turnpike, and in several European countries.  And while the book covers the history of motorcycle racing and women who ride, it is not a historical document of the Hear Me Roar breed.  Perhaps the closest comparison to this book is Robert Pirsig’s part-philosophy, part-travelogue classic, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.  But The Perfect Vehicle resists fitting neatly into any particular genre of motorcycling books; it must be read to be understood.

The author, a Brooklyn woman who is married to a non-riding man, owns a white Moto-Guzzi Lario.  Like most Moto-Guzzi owners, she is completely in love with the somewhat quirky Italian model, although her comments about other motorcycle brands are surprisingly complimentary.  She got started on Moto-Guzzis the way many of us women were attracted to our first motorcycle: her boyfriend rode one.

Out of necessity, Pierson makes friends with men who can work on the Guzzi, which breaks down frequently.  Eventually, she learns how to do most of the repairs herself.

Pierson rides for the first several years with groups of men or with a boyfriend.  Finally, after what seemed to me to take way too long, she signs up for a women-only riding class and discovers the sisterhood among women who ride.  She also gradually gets up the courage to ride solo, relishing the alone time on her bike, where there may be “people all around, in a car in the next lane not five feet away, but they can’t get you…You are spared the burden of words.”  Her reflections about the combination of giddy freedom and abject fear inspired by these solo rides struck a chord with me.

The misguided, strange, and occasionally truly mean comments the sight of a woman on her own motorcycle inspires is fodder for many of the anecdotes Pierson relates throughout the book.  She describes one incident where a couple of men approach Pierson’s male riding partner, John, and ask him how he likes the Lario, completely ignoring her even though he tells them that is her bike, not his.  “Amusing as these episodes were, they and others like them have nonetheless prompted a more sober realization: Apparently the sight of a woman on a motorcycle so profoundly disturbs the way things are that even the eyes are not to be trusted.  In turn, I have to shake myself and ask what year this is.”

To her credit, Pierson does not shy away from examining the dangers of riding motorcycles.  Though she has never herself been in a serious accident, the fear of an accident or a mechanical breakdown is never far from the forefront of her mind.  “Danger is really the wind that passes on either side of a motorcycle,” she writes.  “You may go for long periods of time without feeling it, hours and days and weeks of nothing but routine and happy riding, then it chooses one minute to remind you not to forget it’s there… Sometimes motorcyclists themselves try to deny it, as they do when they wear shorts or bare heads, as if a specially assigned guardian angel drew an impenetrable shield around them.  Or they claim never to have felt fear, only joy; they can certainly get testy, some of them, if you mention the word, as if saying it brings it on.  But somewhere, they all know it.  And they know it is in part why they do it; the mastery of danger, or the feeling of it.”:  As someone who has experienced the pain and terror of a serious motorcycle wreck, and yet couldn’t wait to get back on the bike and ride again, I appreciated Pierson’s unflinching examination of the fears that go hand-in-hand with the joys for riding a motorcycle.

The Perfect Vehicle would have perhaps benefitted from an index,Perfect_Veh or at least from chapter titles which summarized the subject of each.  The book jumps around, describing the visual and mechanical appeal of a Moto-Guzzi on one page and leaping into the details of a group ride in Belgium on the next.  But then, if I had known precisely where to turn to read about the history of women riding long-distance, I might have skipped over some of the most lyrical and interesting passages in the book.

Unlike several other motorcycling books, such as The Investment Biker by Jim Rogers, Pierson includes the personal, and sometimes embarrassing, details of her life.  I did not have to wonder, for example, why her relationship with Franz, a Moto-Guzzi shop owner, broke up.  She writes of her own inner landscape, complete with inconsistencies and irrational fears, as easily as she chronicles the history of the Moto-Guzzi Company.  This willingness to open her heart for examination by everyone who reads her book is admirable.  With Jim Rogers, we never get a clue what kind of mood he was in when he crossed Siberia.  With Melissa Pierson, the moods she describes provide the window into understanding why she loves to ride.

Colorado’s Hidden Canyonlands

(c) 2012 By Kathleen Kemsley, first published in Rider Magazine, June 2012

Colorado is best known for its lofty peaks, and rightly so.  Fourteeners, peaks reaching at least 14,000 feet elevation, number 53 in this not-flat state.  A lesser known side of Colorado is its canyons.  On the west slope of the Rocky Mountain Range, sliding toward Utah, are several remarkable canyons.  I set out on a sunny August day to explore these hidden chasms carved into red and black rocks.

To get to the Colorado canyon country, I coasted downhill from Red Mountain Pass on the Million Dollar Highway.  The first rough grey canyon burst out of the rugged mountains near Ouray.  The Uncompaghre River tore through ancient Precambrian bedrock and flowed north toward the Gunnison River.  I followed the river’s rushing route through Montrose, then turned east for eleven curving miles up into Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park.

The approach did not prepare me for the Black Canyon.  Pulling in to a turnout inside the park, IIMG_0006 stepped to the railing, looked down and gasped involuntarily.  Sheer cliffs dropped vertically for 2700 feet.  I wondered if U2 had been at the Black Canyon when they wrote their lyrics: “Hello hello, I’m at a place called Vertigo.”  I literally had to grab onto the handrail to keep from pitching forward.

After following a pleasant winding park road out to its end, I rode down the East Portal Road, five miles long at a 16% grade, which led to the bottom of the Black Canyon.  Down at the canyon’s floor, the Gunnison River described a paradise of still water running deep below the dam.  A tiny campground beckoned, but it was too early in the day to camp.  Besides, I had learned at the Visitor Center that poison ivy grew lushly along the river, which spelled trouble in paradise for me.  The BMW agreeably powered me back up the grade to the canyon rim and I resumed my journey north.

Broad agricultural valleys and small towns dotted the route from Montrose through Olathe andIMG_0064 Delta to Grand Junction.  There I crossed the Colorado River and rode up into Colorado National Monument, a preserve of red sandstone and shale eroded into graceful formations.  The road through the monument was twenty miles of nonstop twisties, with another dazzling view around every corner.  Arriving at the campground an hour before sunset, I paused while setting up the tent to watch virga slanting over the Book Cliffs, and canyon rocks flaming red in the sunset.

The next morning I backtracked through Grand Junction to reach the Unaweep-Tabegauche Scenic Byway.  This sliver of blacktop runs for 90 miles over remote Uncompahgre Divide.  Two creeks named simply East and West drain the region.  Near West Creek, in the middle of nowhere, I stopped to look at a ruined structure in the shadow of towering canyon walls.  “Driggs Mansion” was part of an early 1900s effort to homestead and irrigate the isolated parcel.  The long-abandoned stone building waits patiently for the elements to slowly reclaim it.

Without warning around a curve in the road, a fancy resort appeared.  The Gateway Canyon Resort boasted luxury lodging, fine dining, adventure tours, a spa, a car museum, mountain bike and hiking trails, and special events such as music festivals and artists’ retreats.  Briefly I considered venturing onto its manicured grounds, but in my grubby riding clothes and twelve year old motorcycle, I felt out of place. From a distance, it appeared that its location, along the bank of the Dolores River overlooking the Uncompahgre Plateau, was first class.

After Gateway, the scenic byway ran southeast alongside the twisting, turning course of the IMG_0089Dolores River through increasingly stunning red rock canyons.  The only traffic on the road was other motorcyclists; I waved at a dozen of them while swooping through long delicious curves.

I stopped again at a remarkable historical site farther down the Dolores River canyon.  Peering over the edge of the canyon, I spotted the wooden framework affixed to the smooth red canyon wall with no visible means of support.

Exactly how did this gravity-defying flume get there?  Little is known about the specifics, but the flume was built as part of a failed attempt to turn a profit placer mining along the Dolores River.  Sections of the skillfully designed flume still cling to the rock to this day, mute testimony to the ingenuity of humans on the trail of gold.

IMG_0103At the end of the Scenic Byway, I turned west, to check out one more of western Colorado’s canyons.  Paradox Valley lay about 25 miles of seldom-used blacktop west of Naturita.  I had to know: what is the Paradox?

Turned out the answer was geological.  Instead of running from one end of the valley to the other, the Dolores River bisected the valley and exited to the west into the rugged La Sal mountains.  There was a logical explanation which involved ancient anticlines, uplift and erosion.  Still, it was an Escher-worthy jarring visual, to see the river’s path cross-cut across the valley.

I left the Paradox Valley the same way the Dolores River did, and rode through a fierce rainstorm over the mountains into Utah.  For the next couple days I rode the red rock country of Arches and Canyonlands.  But as I departed those famous parks with their crowds, I found myself longing to return to the remote, beautiful and less known western slope of the Rocky Mountains, Colorado’s hidden canyonlands.

Durango Zone 2012 Fire Summary

By Kathleen Kemsley, Published by San Juan National Forest, December 2012

The 2012 fire season in Durango Zone was the busiest in ten years.  A less than average snowpack in the San Juan Mountains melted off some six weeks early in the spring, so conditions started out dry.  The first fire of the year, East Fork, burned 25 acres in early April at an elevation of 8500 feet on the Pagosa District.  This was a precursor of the extreme fire season to come.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAA lightning storm moved through the Durango region on May 12, quite unusual for that time of year.  Seven fires popped up in the zone, including one near Little Sand Creek north of Pagosa Springs.  The Little Sand fire was reported to be burning in an inaccessible area of the Piedra drainage in heavy dead and down timber.  Wildfire Decision Support System (WFDSS) analysis led to a decision by resource managers to monitor and manage the fire rather than fully suppressing it.  After a week, it was still only ten acres in size.  Then on May 22 it began to move and grow.  Before the summer was over, Little Sand hosted a Type 2 team, two Type 3 teams, and a National Incident Management (NIMO) team.  It reached a size of 24,133 acres, making it the largest fire on the San Juan National Forest since 2002.

June was a month of record dryness.  Both the Burning Index and the Energy Release Component stayed above the 97th percentile across the zone.  Fire LittleSand2restrictions were put in place.  A human-caused fire on June 22 began on BLM land and quickly moved onto private land in Montezuma County.  The Weber fire grew over 700 acres on the first day.  Over 100 homes were immediately threatened and evacuations began.  A Type 2 team was ordered.  Rapid response from aircraft, crews, and engines kept structure losses to one outbuilding, but the fire burned 10,100 acres just north of Mancos before it was controlled a month later.  The next day, the State Line fire started near Bondad Hill on La Plata County and Southern Ute land.  The Type 3 team deployed to that fire and held it to 350 acres, again narrowly avoiding destruction of several nearby residences.

Lightning ignited numerous new fires in late June.  Quick response by resourcesAirpark1 diverted from Little Sand and Weber kept these fires from growing to hundreds of acres.  Finally, some rain arrived along with the lightning to slow down the spread of fires.  However, precipitation was spotty, as evidenced by the Air Park fire on Southern Ute lands which took everyone by surprise in late July.  This lightning fire near Nighthorse Reservoir burned in an area that had been missed by the summer rains.  It quickly spread to 500 acres, threatening 150 residences and 20 oil and gas wells.

August lightning ignited several extended attack fires from 5 to 40 acres in the Ute Burns1-2012-08-19_Mountain region, as well as one more large fire, Burns, which charred 170 acres on Archuleta County.  Finally the intermittent monsoon rains dampened enough of the zone to slow ignitions, and many of the zone resources headed north to Idaho, Montana, and northern California to assist on project fires up there.

By mid-August, Durango Dispatch had been in service 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, for nearly three months straight.  Both Expanded Dispatch and Buying Teams operated continuously out of the Sonoran Rooms of the Public Lands Center.  Between the Initial Attack operation and Expanded Dispatch, some 50 dispatchers came in from all over the country to help staff and support the ongoing fire activity.  It was not until early September that all the excess dispatch personnel were demobilized.  Things appeared to calm down, but that was not the end of the story.  The 2012 fire season still had one more big trick up its sleeve.

On October 12, the zone received over 9,000 lightning strikes, again an anomaly for that time of year.  Between October 5 and November 4, a total of 40 fires Goblin1were reported in the zone.  Four of the fall fires went large.   The biggest of these topped 1400 acres.  Expanded Dispatch and the Buying Team re-convened; local Type 3 teams were deployed to both Vallecito and Roatcap.  Extended attack also lasted for several days on the lightning-caused Little East and Cinnamon Bear fires, as well as the railroad-caused Goblin.  The zone ordered engines, crews, helicopters and air tankers to suppress these fires.  No one in Durango can remember ever fighting fires to that extent or magnitude, so late in the year.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABalmy temperatures marked the entire month of November, and there was zero snow pack in the mountains below 9,000 feet at Thanksgiving.  As of mid-December, two large fires on the San Juan still smoldered, not having received enough precipitation to be called out.

Overall 2012 was a successful year for one so busy.  New Division Supervisors, Task Force Leaders, Type 3 Incident Commanders, and Initial Attack Dispatchers became qualified, while other firefighters opened task books toLittleSand3 begin working on higher qualifications.  The Durango Zone partner agencies hosted over 100 engines and 25 crews from as far away as Alaska, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania.   At one point in late June, five air attack ships, four single engine air tankers, and ten helicopters were simultaneously working fires in the zone.  For all this activity, only a handful of minor incidents were reported.  It is commendable that everyone kept safety in the forefront during a year that was extremely busy not only here but everywhere in the Rocky Mountain geographic area.

Spirit Coyote

© 2015 By Kathleen Kemsley, never previously published

My friend Margi and I decided to take a winter vacation in Yellowstone this year.  Always in the past I had traveled to tropical climates for vacations in January.  But these trips had been withIMG_0013 my husband, Brian, who passed away last fall.  So I wanted to do something completely different, start a new tradition, break the mold.

I met Margi in Alaska in 1985, and we have remained close all these years.  She’s the kind of friend I might not see for a year or more, and then we sit down at her kitchen table and talk like we had just seen each other yesterday.  She now lives in Helena, Montana, so I traveled there on a cold January day to begin the excursion to the park.

The ground was bare of snow south of Livingston.  We saw plenty of big mammals – elk and bison – near the north entrance to Yellowstone.  The creatures looked well-fed for the time of year.  There appeared to be plenty of grass and shrubs for them to munch on near the IMG_0035Yellowstone River.

We stopped to buy “supplies” in Gardiner.  Translation: chocolate.  Some $27 later we had M&Ms, hand-dipped chocolates, truffles, mint buttons, jelly bellies, almond bark, and caramel turtles enough to hold us for a few days as we ventured into the heart of the Yellowstone wilderness.

We spent the first night at the grand old Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel.  In the dining room, I blurted out to our young waiter that I had worked there, doing the same job he was doing, back in 1977 and 1978.  He looked vaguely confused; those years were most likely before he was born.  But I had to tell him, because someone told the same thing to me when I was a waitress.  This old gal said she had worked there in the early 1950s.  And on back the history goes, back to 1938 or so when the place was built.  I liked the continuity.

IMG_0020Our snow coach departed early the next morning for Old Faithful.  The trek took more than five hours, due to planned stops to photograph geysers and waterfalls, along with unplanned stops whenever we saw wildlife (red foxes, bison, and a bald eagle).  We also stopped just before Madison to help pull out a snow mobiler who had run off the road and was precariously balanced on a steep cliff with rushing water and rocks below.

Happy to find deep snow at Old Faithful, we settled into our “rustic cabin” behind the Snow Lodge, then rented some Yaak Trax footgear to fit over our boots.  We tramped all over the Upper Geyser Basin on iced-over boardwalks, pausing to watch gurgling mud pots and bubbling fountains of hot water lined with brightly colored algae.

At one point, I might have put some of my husband’s ashes in a certain hot-spring-fed waterwayIMG_0111 when no one was looking.  Or I might not have.  At any rate, nobody except Margi saw anything, and I trust her to keep mum.  We agreed that Brian would have enjoyed the idea of floating in the current of a warm river on an eight-degree day.

Later on, we sat near the Giant Geyser and talked for a long time about Brian.  Margi knew him well, but she didn’t know what the last few months of his life had been like.  Seeing him through the end stages of terminal illness, including hospice and enough morphine to kill a horse, had been traumatic for me.  I admitted my resentments and talked about my fears.  I also talked about the happy times and the funny things that interspersed with the difficult days of watching the cancer do him in.  As we talked, a small, unnamed geyser bubbled and spurted gently nearby.

Finally, I finished telling what I needed to tell.  As we sat in companionable silence, some IMG_0107movement caught the corner of my eye.  Looking over toward Grand Geyser, I spotted a well-fed, healthy looking coyote.  Without a shred of shyness or fear, he loped directly toward us until he was less than 30 feet away.  For a moment he stopped and looked directly into my eyes.  Reflected back I saw the self-confidence of a creature living in the present.

Purposefully, the coyote moved off toward the Firehole River.  He appeared to be on a mission.  But as he disappeared, he left me with a feeling that Brian’s spirit had also been nearby.  Brian had always felt an affinity with coyotes; he had for many years worn a silver coyote pin on his hat.

I looked at Margi and she smiled, confirming what I had seen.  “That was Brian’s spirit coyote,” she said.  “We can’t know where Brian went when he left his body.  But the coyote came to give you the message that, wherever he is, he’s OK.”

IMG_0048Oh Yellowstone, I thought as I watched Old Faithful Geyser erupt in the distance, you are my favorite place in the whole world.  And you haven’t disappointed me.  You produced Brian’s Spirit Coyote in the snowbound, magical world of the Upper Geyser Basin.  And you helped, more than anything else has helped, to settle me, and to begin the process of acceptance.  You let me know that Brian has successfully moved on to a better place.

Wisdom, Opportunity, Treasure

(c) 2011 By Kathleen Kemsley, first published in Rider Magazine, July 2011

Three wishes I made, three places I sought on a warm and breezy summer day in western IMG_0236Montana.  Riding south through the Bitterroot Valley, my red BMW glided past Hamilton and Darby, picturesque towns along the river. But I scarcely slowed down, focused as I was on Wisdom, the first destination of this ambitious loop ride.

Near the Idaho state line, I turned left to ride over a pass named after the great Nez Perce warrior, Chief Joseph, and coasted downhill on Highway 43 toward Wisdom.  Presently, I pulled in to the Big Hole National Battlefield.  Through displays at the Visitor Center and along a self-guided trail near the actual battlefield, I absorbed the story of a group of 850 Nez Perce Indians who eluded white soldiers in 1877, fleeing from eastern Oregon across Idaho and the Bitterroot mountains to this location along the Big Hole River.  Believing they were far ahead of their pursuers, the group paused to rest here.  But unknown to the Indians, a second military group had joined the chase.

IMG_0223The soldiers attacked before dawn.  The Nez Perce fought fiercely, and many were killed on both sides.  The diminished Nez Perce group eventually escaped the area and continued their retreat, through Yellowstone and north toward the Canadian border.  There, finally, Chief Joseph uttered those now-famous words of surrender: “I am tired of fighting… My heart is sick and sad.  From where the sun now stands, I will fight no more forever.”

Ten miles in a straight line from the Big Hole National Battlefield, I reached Wisdom, Montana.  The town (and the river that flows past it) was reportedly named by Lewis and Clark for one of the virtues of President Thomas Jefferson.  Wisdom River was later renamed Big Hole River, but the town kept its original name.  It was a typical rural Montana burg, big on scenery, big on sky, but short on services.  A bar, a gas station, and a trading post: that’s about all there was to Wisdom.

I turned north and followed the river through some breathtakingly beautiful country.  The Big IMG_0234Hole River is said to be one of the top blue-ribbon trout streams in America.  Though I saw no fish jumping, I stopped along the way to look at an osprey in the nest with two half-grown chicks, and a badger waddling from the river’s edge to a brushy bank.  Plenty of sweeping curves, as the road followed the gentle undulations of the Big Hole, made this leg of the ride pure pleasure.

I veered away from the Big Hole River at Highway 274, in pursuit of my second wish: Opportunity.  The route snaking over a pass between Grassy and Sugarloaf mountains was paved, but barely.  I slowed my speed by half, the better to see and avoid cavernous potholes in the asphalt.

IMG_0248Presently I reached a landmark famously visible for miles around: the Anaconda Smelter Stack, largest freestanding masonry structure in the world.  Built in 1883, the nonferrous copper smelter processed ore from the mines in nearby Butte for nearly a century.  The “company town” of Anaconda grew up around it, but a smaller town nearby pulled me down the road a few miles farther.

Opportunity, Montana was founded in 1910 by one of the Anaconda Copper Company bigwigs, to allow employees to raise families in a rural setting.  Each home came with a ten-acre plot; a streetcar provided transportation into town for the handful of people who moved out there.

I turned off the main highway and rode through Opportunity, trying to grasp it.  A volunteer fire department building and a tiny community center seemed deserted, and I was not able to locate any businesses, or even a post office.  As I wound around its several unnamed streets, I got the distinct impression that very few people ever have reason to venture into Opportunity.

Now I was ready to go after my third wish: Treasure.  Montana’s nickname is the Treasure State, and I knew right where to find some. IMG_0254

The road out of Anaconda climbed up into the Pintlar Mountains past Lake George, a reservoir that provides summer boating and winter ice fishing for local residents.  After a steep drop down some switchbacks at the head of the dam, the road flattened out and funneled me into Philipsburg.

This town began its life as a mining town in the 1870s.  The treasures sought back then included silver, gold, copper, and manganese.  Today, along its main street, colorful flags wave and flower baskets hang from doorways of beautifully restored buildings.  The shops offer gifts, second-hand clothes, and artwork, but I always make a beeline for the Sapphire Gallery first.  Inside, the family-owned business offers a stunning variety of sapphires mined from nearby Rock Creek.  The glittering stones come in every shade of the rainbow; I personally am partial to the yellow ones.

IMG_0270This time I lingered over a two-stone necklace of sapphires like sun drops set beautifully in gold.  Reluctantly I passed on purchasing it, as my bank account wasn’t quite up to the task.  Next, I moved down Main Street to the Sweet Palace, where they make taffy and fudge and hand-dipped truffles.  Hard candy, imported from all over the world, is displayed in glass jars on shelves that reach to the ceiling.  Soon, my pockets were stuffed with sour lemon drops.  This too was a treasure; along with sapphires and 19th century charm, Philipsburg provided tasty treats to savor on my ride home.

Backtracking a few miles, I headed west to complete the loop ride over Skalkaho Pass.  Breezy winds blew out of the west, and a few cumulus clouds built up to the south.  But it was refreshingly cool up high, green and lush and infused with the sweet smell of ponderosa pine and a laughing rushing creek alongside the road.  IMG_0274

Finally, a surprise, a delight awaited me.  Around a corner on the hard-packed dirt road, with no warning, Skalkaho Falls appeared.  The thundering waterfall plunged several hundred feet down from origins high in the Sapphire Mountains.  I parked on the road’s shoulder and enjoyed the spray of cool mist from the roaring cascade.

Descending to the valley floor, the temperature sizzled close to three digits.  As I rode home northward through the Bitterroot Valley, it came to me that I had been granted all of my wishes, for wisdom, opportunity and treasure.  The bonus gift of Skalkaho Falls created a lovely coda to this scenic and interesting 300 mile ride through the mountains and historical towns of western Montana.