Picking Poison

If you have me over for dinner and ask what I’d like to drink, I’m probably going to disappoint you. My go-to “adult beverages” are wine and, well… wine.  Nothing mixed.  Nothing with a lot of proof on the bottle.  A margarita with Mexican and a beer after a long day in the sun, but otherwise it’s pretty much a glass of Chardonnay or a full-bodied Cabernet. Not much creativity in picking my poison, it seems. Yet that’s not quite true.  Out on my property I’m faced with poison just about every day, as I fight a persistent onslaught of noxious weeds.

Dalmatian toadflax

Noxious weeds make their appearance around here every spring – without fail – just when I’m fooled into thinking this, this is the year they’ll cut me a break and infiltrate someone else’s property instead.  I’ll walk out one morning and seemingly overnight the uninviteds have taken prominent positions among the prairie grass.  Knapweed.  Toadflax.  Mullein.  And the worst of this noxious bunch: thistle.

Weeds annoy most anyone, but noxious weeds deserve a place in Hollywood’s scariest horror flick.  These bad boys earn descriptors like “aggressive invader”, “detrimental to native plants”, and “poisonous to livestock”.  Noxious weeds fall into a family of growees known as “alien plants”, which means they don’t belong here in Colorado.  Nor anywhere else on Earth if you ask me.  Name one redeeming aspect of these pernicious inhabitants.  I can’t, except perhaps I get a solid workout while I struggle to keep them at bay.

Thistle

Operative phrase there, keep them at bay.  Not kill them.  Most noxious weeds establish an underground root system as strong as chain link fence.  Many are impervious to the most aggressive chemical warfare.  Try yanking out the whole plant and you’ll burn through a bank’s worth of sweat equity.  Better to use something gas-powered instead.  Or a flame thrower.

Knapweed

Yes, Colorado has its Rocky Mountains and seasons of snow, but most of the Centennial State is high and dry desert.  We’re constantly challenged by drought, and in those conditions noxious weeds thrive.  Our county even has a “Noxious Weeds Division”, of the Environmental Division of the Community Services Department.  Send them an email and they’ll tell you everything you need to know about noxious weeds.  Most disturbingly, how they’re here… to… stay.

Let’s get to know these persistent plants a little better:

  • Diffuse knapweed – Picture a tumbleweed.  Large, round, and spiny.  Not very nice to look at.  You can knock off knapweed by severing the single taproot, but, its seeds can still develop on the cut plant.  Time for a bonfire.
  • Dalmatian toadflax – Showy, yellow, snapdragon-like flowers.  One plant can produce a half-million seeds.  The best way to control this bugger is… with bugs.  Can anyone spare some root-boring moths or stem-boring weevils?
  • Common mullein – Starts as an innocent, flat, green “rosette”, then bursts into a ramrod straight stalk, several feet tall.  Mercifully, mullein has a shallow root.  Meanwhile, people think you’re growing corn in your pasture.
  • Canada thistle – Small purple flowers bunched on tall, dark green stalks, replete with thorns and other self-defense mechanisms.  Hand-pulling this freakshow of nature stimulates its growth.  If you ask me, Canada thistle is better named “Satan’s Rosebush”.
I prefer this kind of dalmatian

How do I know the exact species of my noxious weeds?  Because my county’s Noxious Weeds Division tells me… when they send letters threatening to charge for maintenance if I don’t do it myself.  My advice: it’s best to obey the Noxious Weeds Division.

Mullein

Now for some noxious weed trivia:

  • Worldwide damage caused by noxious weeds: $1.4 trillion USD.
  • Russian thistle lives longer than humans.
  • Giant hogweed (which causes a nasty, blistering skin rash) earns a spot in the Guinness Book as “world’s largest weed”.  Its umbrella-like blooms can hover more than eighteen feet, on stalks three or more inches around.  “Giant” indeed.
  • Lastly… (and my personal favorite), before the chemical embalming process, tansy ragwort was used to line coffins because of its ability to repel vermin.  Hey!  Another redeeming aspect of noxious weeds.

I have a fond weed memory (believe it or not).  When I was a kid, I stayed at my uncle’s house for several days alongside a cousin about the same age.  Somehow my uncle had us weeding his front yard (work in exchange for food?).  Those straight-and-tall weeds looked like a vast army of soldiers.  So that’s how my cousin and I took to the job.  We split the yard down the middle, declared ourselves generals, and started taking down the soldiers one by one.  When the dust cleared and the “bodies” were removed, the battlefield was admirably clean.  We declared victory and went inside for a much-needed shower.

I’ve just returned from another battle with my noxious weeds.  I lopped off dozens of mullein tops with my pruning shears, to shut down their seed spread.  It’s exhausting work and I’m done picking poison for the day.  I could use a drink.  Nothing mixed, of course.  A beer will do just fine.

Some content sourced from the Noxious Weeds and Control Methods guidelines document, State of Colorado, El Paso County, Community Services Department, Environmental Division.

Arid (and) Extra Dry

Most of us reacted to eighteen months in the unwelcome company of COVID-19 the same. We reflected on our time with Mr. Virus and wondered, “What would we have done more of?” More get-togethers? More travel? More dinners out?  Yes, yes, and yes.  But instead, we hunkered down and waited for things to get better. Our routines became more… routine.  Everything faded to black and white.  Clocks came to a standstill. It’s the same feeling I had, coincidentally, enduring a drive from Colorado to California earlier this month.

My advice: choose “East” while you still can

Maybe you’ve made the trek: Denver to San Diego via Interstate 70 and then Interstate 15.  Sounds so clean and easy, doesn’t it?  Two highways.  Plenty of lanes.  Rocky Mountains on one end and Pacific Ocean on the other.  Yeah, well, it’s all the mind-numbing in-between stuff that makes you want to burst through your sunroof and flag down a helicopter heading west.  There’s a whole lot of nothing in the desert.

The problem with this drive (which was not a flight because my wife & I wanted to bring our bikes) is the beautiful part comes first.  From Denver, it’s four hours of majestic snow-capped mountains, rushing rivers, red rock canyons, and breathless (literally) summits as you cruise on over to Grand Junction.  There’s good reason America the Beautiful was penned in the Rockies.

Cruise control suggested here

But don’t get comfortable.  Once you reach Grand Junction (which isn’t so grand), beauty takes a big break.  Pretend you’re a marble inside a rolled-up blanket.  Then someone flips that blanket out and off you go, rolling across the flattest, most desolate desert floor you’ve ever seen.  The mountains reduce to buttes reduce to sand dunes reduce to nothing.  The highway morphs from all sorts of curvy to ruler-straight. Your cell phone signal goes MIA.  You suddenly feel parched.  And you wonder, why-oh-why does the dusty sign say “Welcome to Utah” when there’s nothing welcoming about it at all?

So it goes in middle-eastern Utah.  Every exit is anonymously labeled “Ranch Road” (and why would you want to exit anyway?)  The highway signs counting down the mileage to Interstate 15 march endlessly.  When you finally do arrive at I-15 (your single steering wheel turn the entire journey), you bring out the balloons and the confetti and do a happy dance.  YOU MADE IT ACROSS THE MOON!  Well, sort of.  Now you’re just in central Utah.

I-15 wanders south a couple hours to St. George.  It’s probably a perfectly nice place to live, but St. George reminds me of the Middle East.  Squarish stucco/stone buildings, mostly white.  Not many people on the streets.  The temperatures quietly ascended to triple digits when you weren’t looking.  You realize you’re starting to sunburn through the car windows.

Proceed with caution (and water)

But then you make it to Arizona (briefly).  The landscape changes, suddenly and dramatically, as if Arizona declares, “Take that, Utah!  We’re a much prettier state!”  You descend through curve after highway curve of a twisting, narrow canyon, rich with layers of red rock. It’s the entrance to the promised land!  Alas, Arizona then gives way to Nevada, and here my friends, are the proverbial gates of Hell.  Welcome to the arid, endless, scrub-oak-laden vastness of the Mojave Desert, where everything is decidedly dead except for a brief glittery oasis known as Las Vegas.  The Mojave looks like it wants to swallow you whole and spit you out (except spit requires water so you’d probably just be gone forever).

Hang on to those dashboard gauges for dear life, friends, because it’s a full four hours in the Mojave broiler before your car gasps past the “Welcome to California” sign.  In those hours you’ll call your kids (one last time?), declare your final wishes, and wonder why you didn’t visit your parents more often.  Anything you see in motion off the highway is probably a mirage.  If you do make it to California, you’ll pull over and kiss the ground sand before wondering, “Hey, how come California looks exactly like Nevada?  Then Google Maps smirks the bad news.  You’re nowhere near the end of the Mojave Desert.

Baker. Barstow. Victorville. Hesperia.  You’ll pass through each of these towns and wonder, a) Why does anybody live here? and b) Is this the land that time forgot?  But finally, mercifully, you’ll descend the mighty Cajon Pass (the outside temperature descending alongside you), burst forth onto the freeway spaghetti of the LA Basin, and declare, “Los Angeles.  Thank the Good Lord.  I must be close now”.

You’re never alone on the Cajon

Except you’re not.  The Basin is dozens of cities, hundreds of miles, and millions of cars collectively called “Los Angeles”.  Hunker down, good buddy.  The Pacific is still hours away.

Here’s the short of it.  My wife & I made it to San Diego.  The car didn’t die in the middle of the Mojave.  Neither did we (though I left a piece of my soul behind).  We even rode the bikes a few times.  But I can’t account for those nineteen hours behind the wheel.  It’s like Monday morning became Tuesday night in a single blink.  Just like 2019 became 2021 without much in between.

What goes down must come back up.  The time has come to do the death drive in reverse.  Ugh.  Maybe we’ll leave the bikes in San Diego and catch a flight instead.

Behind the Wheels

Every summer when my wife and I head to the West Coast for a little sunshine and sand, the only intentional exercise we get is a walk on the beach or a dip in the ocean. So this year we decided our vacation equation needed to get behind the wheels. We skipped the flight, racked the bikes onto the back of the SUV, and drove 1,100 Utah/Arizona/Nevada desert miles to bridge the gap between Colorado and California. Now the Pacific Coast sun shines above, the Pacific Ocean waves crash below, and the bikes… well, the bikes just beckon to be ridden every day.

It’s already happened, as I suspected it would.  When we took our first pedal tour around this little seaside town, I saw him for a few fleeting moments.  He was a younger, thinner, blonder version of me.  He was seated confidently behind the drop handlebars of a white Nishiki Regal ten-speed, focused solely on the road in front of him.  He was dressed in Converse tennis shoes, ballcap in place of a bike helmet, white socks halfway to the knees.  When this kid wasn’t body surfing, playing basketball, or working the evening shift at McDonald’s, he was logging mile after mile on his bicycle, in search of driver’s license freedoms, even if he wasn’t old enough to have one.

My fleeting companion is the “me” of forty-five years ago.  In most respects it’s a long period of time.  In others we could be talking about last week.  Bicycling was serious thread in the fabric of my childhood.  It was a way to leave the familiar behind, to pursue esoteric wonders beyond the streets I grew up on.  Bicycling asked the questions, “Where would you like to go?” “Why?”  “And how far?”  At fifteen years old, the answers were limitless.

The Schwinn “Lemon Peeler”

My love of cycling began at a young age (and continues today in weekly spin classes at the gym).  I still remember the very first hand-me-down bike my brothers and I shared – a small blue two-wheeler with no gears, the kind you had to pedal backward to brake.  From there I graduated to a glam Schwinn Lemon Peeler Sting Ray, the all-yellow beauty with the fenders above fat tires, sporting the signature banana seat.

But my Nishiki Regal ten-speed brought bicycling to a whole new level.  I bought it myself: months of hard-earned allowance and odd-jobs cash plunked down for the biggest purchase of my young life.  The Nishiki granted me access to the more sophisticated language of bicycling; terms like “chain stay”, “saddle”, and “derailleur”, even if I couldn’t afford the Raleigh or Motobecane imports more deserving of those words.

Also, the Nishiki meant bike maintenance became a labor of love instead of a chore; a bonding afternoon with friends.  The shade of my dad’s carport colored our “workshop”, where we dismantled, fine-tuned, and reassembled over and over; my friends and I exchanging tools and advice for each other’s spare parts.  I still remember the final touch when the Nishiki was all back together: the pristine white finishing tape wrapped carefully around those drop handlebars, signifying it was finally time to ride.

I was never far behind…

One story of me and my Nishiki will always stand out.  It was all about beating the school bus home.  When the bell rang after my final class, I’d sprint to the rack, jump on my bike, and launch into the six-mile trek back to my house.  The bus meanwhile, needed several minutes to load its passengers, not to mention dozens of stops before it would’ve dropped me.  It was always a neck-and-neck battle as I’d pass the bus and then it’d pass me.  Most times I’d lose the race by mere seconds, easing up on the pedals in exhausted frustration.  But every now and then I’d get the victory.  Did some of my friends deliberately take their time exiting the bus, knowing I was in hot pursuit?  Maybe.

In 1979, a few months after I turned seventeen, a wonderful little film called Breaking Away won the Academy Award for Best Picture.  The movie centered around four friends, bicycling, and Bloomington, Indiana’s “Little 500” bike race, but it was mostly about coming of age.  Learning life’s lessons while putting the miles on the pedals.

Little wonder Breaking Away‘s lead character was named Dave.

[Note: If anything about this post resonates with you, be sure to read Steve Rushin’s Sting-Ray Afternoons.  The author’s childhood is set in Minnesota, but the growing-up memories are remarkably similar to my own.  Even the kid on the cover looks a little like me.  Steve and I could’ve been brothers.]

Some content sourced from Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.

As the Wind Blows

Pagosa Springs, a small town in Colorado’s San Juan Mountains, lies 7,100′ above sea level. It is locally known for its therapeutic hot springs. Pagosa also boasts a 35-year business called Rocky Mountain Balloon Adventures, which takes you an additional 3,000′ above sea level for “360° views of the beautiful valley [of Pagosa] below”. Maybe you’ll climb aboard their basket and go for a float someday.  If you do, my apologies for not joining you.  I’d rather spend my time in the terra firma of Pagosa’s hot springs than the “terror for-sure-a” of a balloon ride above.

Getting high, above Pagosa Springs

Logic says my fear of heights denies me the thrill of soaring up, up, and away.  Not true.  It’s more about the “gone with the wind” part (sorry for that, Scarlett).  Once the balloon reaches cruising altitude, the pilot extinguishes the fire and Mother Nature silently takes over.  Then your high-rise ride gets a little dicey unpredictable.  It’s the whole not-knowing-where-you’re-gonna-end-up moment that gets me.

Possible outcomes as follows.  You descend gracefully into a farmer’s field with the “chase vehicle” just minutes away.  You zip hundreds of feet up and then hundreds more down, depending on which fickle air stream you encounter.  Or, you float all the way to nearby New Mexico on the strong winds we have here in Colorado.  All while literally hanging by threads.

Albuquerque’s big balloon bash

Speaking of New Mexico, it wouldn’t be the worst destination for one of Pagosa’s rogue hot air balloons.  After all, the International Balloon Fiesta – the largest gathering of balloonists in the country – takes place every October in Albuquerque.  At least you’d have professionals on the ground eager to reel you in.  Also in Pagosa’s favor: small town = few power lines.  Hot air ballooning and power lines do not mix.  See here for what happens when they do (coincidentally, just weeks ago in Albuquerque).

Despite the occasional crash landing, ballooning fatalities are rare.  In fact, hot air ballooning has been designated “safest air sport in aviation” according to years of statistics, and a Swiss aeronautics organization whose name I can’t pronounce.  So maybe it’s not so bad if you never have a neatly paved runway to greet your touchdown.  Heck, Pagosa locals love it when a hot air balloon ends up in their backyard.  They come running out of their houses to greet you with coffee and cinnamon rolls.  Breakfast?  Hmmm.  Maybe I can do this ballooning thing after all.

I may not be a balloon flyboy but that doesn’t mean I’d rain on a parade of those big colorful inflatables.  After all, hot air balloons first appeared to me in favorite childhood stories, like L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, William Pène du Bois’s The Twenty-One Balloons, or Albert Lamorisse’s priceless (and wordless) The Red Balloon.  They show up as flying animals every Thanksgiving Day at the Macy’s parade in New York City.  As well, right here in my hometown we have an impressive showing of hot-air balloons every Labor Day weekend, including a “balloon glow” in the evenings.  Now that I think about it, there’s probably more ballooning going on in this part of the country than anywhere else.

Colorado Springs’ beautiful balloon glow

It’s not as if hot air ballooning is some new-fangled sport (hoverboarding, anyone?)  The first untethered hot-air balloon flight took place back in the eighteenth century.  Hundreds of commercial operators offer hot-air balloon rides in the United States, and hundreds more are private owners.  Add a little perspective and 3000′ above Pagosa Springs is nothing.  The world record for the flight height of a hot-air balloon is 64,980′ (like a Mt. Everest on top of a Mt. Everest).

Up, up, and seriously away

Strict definitions aside, the altitude record for hot air ballooning is about to topple, in a big way.  A company called Space Perspective is now taking reservations for its giant hot air balloon, launching in early 2024.  You, seven other passengers, and your pilot astronaut will take a six-hour ride in a pressurized capsule under a giant balloon… to the edge of the Earth’s atmosphere.  A seat on “Spaceship Neptune” costs $125,000.  Operators are standing by to take your payment…. for 2025, that is.  The 300 seats offered in 2024 are long gone.

Maybe 3000′ above Pagosa Springs doesn’t sound so bad after all.

Some content sourced from the CNN Travel article, “On sale: $125,000 balloon trips to the edge of space”, and Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.

A Million Little Leaks

Several years ago, I worked out with a personal trainer in a bunch of one-hour sessions at my gym.  She was all about proper lifting and careful stretching – and nasty core exercises I’ve patently avoided to this day.  But she did give me one time-proven piece of advice: after working out, go relax 10-15 minutes in the dry sauna. You’ve already revved up your metabolism with the workout, so the sauna helps extract toxins from the body. Yes, and the sauna also helps imitate the heat and humidity of South Carolina in the summertime.

My wife & I are heading to the Palmetto State for a long-overdue getaway at the end of May.  We’ll be spending a few days in the western counties before catching up with our daughter and her boyfriend in coastal Charleston.  We’ve taken this trip before.  The difference?  Last time we were there in early April when the heat and humidity sort of caressed your cheek with a soft kiss.  This time we’ll be there to kick off summer and it’ll feel like standing under a hot shower.  Outdoors.  Fully dressed.

I’ve always been a sweater (no, I don’t mean the extra layer you pull over your head in the winter months).  After a long jog, my t-shirt and shorts are so wet they could double as sponges.  My hair falls wet-stringy straight down my forehead and the perspiration runs in rivers here and streams there.  Yep, I’m one handsome dude.  But where most people say ick, I recognize sweating for the healthy cooling/cleansing process it is. A sign my metabolism is alive and kicking.  Turn on the faucets, baby.

Speaking of moisture, isn’t moist one of the most atrocious-sounding words in the English language?  I’ve never made peace with those five letters and I know I haven’t used moist in a sentence in years (no matter how good my baked goods taste).  The English language has such beautiful words, like chimes and delicacy and silhouette.  Why disrupt the sweet-sounding party with a word like moist?

Photo courtesy of Warner Bros.

I’m not gonna pretend a good sweat is ever comfortable (maybe it’s because I feel moist) but I’ve certainly gotten used to the sensation over the years.  And now that I live in Colorado?  Zero humidity.  Well, okay, there’s a little humidity here at 7,500 feet above sea level.  But most of the time it’s so dry, the needle on your tank seems to be perpetually on “E”.  This pathetic little voice deep inside your body pleads for, “water… water…” (think Tin Man asking for his oil can – that kind of voice).

A dry sauna room (aka a “hot box”)

Let’s go back to my dry sauna sessions.  Since you’re already asking the question, I don’t mean “wet sauna” (where steam is introduced into a room as tiled as a Chinese kitchen). I’m talking about that other room, with nothing but wooden benches and a nasty little blast furnace in the corner (wood-burning, electric, hot rocks – whatever heats like hell).  You sit there draped in a small towel in 200º F and for a few minutes, all is quiet and comfortable.  But then, almost imperceptibly, your skin develops a sheen.  You begin to glisten.  Suddenly droplets of perspiration pop out all over the place and it’s “open the floodgates, Poseidon”.  A million little leaks.

I won’t speak for the ladies’ locker room (that mysterious country club adjacent to our locker room), but sometimes the men’s dry sauna can get a little awkward.  When you approach the glass door, it’s so steamed you can’t tell how many guys are already in there.  Once you enter, choose a place on the bench without hesitation or you’ll be judged.  Good chance you’ll end up next to a heavy breather, which in some schools of thought is therapeutic.  Other times you’ll end up next to someone with headphones, which somehow don’t block the four-letter words of his rap music.  One time I was subjected to the wellness preachings of a huge Samoan-looking guy, where I thought it best not to argue with his musings.  All of which is to say, you never really know what you’re gonna get with the dry sauna.  It’s an intimate little sweatbox filled with semi-naked strangers.  Good times, huh?

South Carolina’s “Holy City”

When I’m in Charleston I won’t miss the dry sauna because Mom Nature will provide her own version round-the-clock.  The heat and humidity will promote enough of my perspiration to – as the family says – “make my face rain”.  I’m like one of those mysterious underground springs, where the water keeps bubbling up from the ground and you wonder if it’s ever gonna stop.  Every gonna stop?  Not with my metabolism.  For sheer entertainment value, if you’re in Charleston later this month, keep an eye out for me.  I’m the one with the million little leaks.

My Dandy-Lion Pine Tree

Angel Oak – Johns Island, South Carolina

Just outside Charleston, S.C., you’ll come across a mystical tree called the Angel Oak. It’s a massive growth with dozens of meandering branches, some almost 200 feet long, others big enough to stand on. The Angel Oak has survived for centuries despite hurricanes and ever-encroaching urban development. It’s named after the settlers of a nearby plantation but you’d swear it has more to do with a supernatural being. When you stand within the calm and quiet of the Angel Oak’s wing-like branches, you can feel the embrace of a higher power.  You might as well be in church.

I have a similar tree in my front pasture, here in Colorado.  It’s a singular, lonely, rather sad-looking pine, about seven feet tall, standing sentry beside a swale running through the property.  My pine has very few branches, and on those, very little growth.  I could accurately describe the profile of this tree as a Tootsie Pop, or perhaps one of those ball-and-stick trees you see on architectural renderings.  I prefer a more organic comparison instead.  My tree reminds me of a dandelion, only with a very sturdy stem.  I’m tempted to puff up and blow on his modest ball of pine needles, but he looks so feeble I’m afraid they’ll actually take flight.

My pine tree is as cryptic as the Angel Oak is mystical.  There’s so much I can’t explain about him.  He was standing out there fifteen years ago when we moved to this property.  For all I know he was out there fifteen hundred years ago.  Despite our high-desert drought, winter blizzards, gusty winds, and other fill-in-the-blank weather events, my pine tree stands resolutely and takes it all without bending.  Never seems to grow, wither, or even lose those few pine needles.  In fact, he seems to be waiting for something – or maybe someone.  It’s a day-in-day-out mystery.

A tree, a horse, and an endless forest beyond

Five hundred yards to the east of my lone pine, we have a dense forest of trees that goes on for miles.  These pines stand so close together it’s a wonder they get enough sunlight to grow.  These tall timbers strike me as an army, standing silently at attention, ready to march forward with the given command.  Perhaps my pine is their evergreen general, ready to declare “CHARGE!!!” against some unseen foe to the west.

I don’t have to turn the clock back fifteen hundred years to come up with a logical explanation for my solitary tree.  Maybe just two hundred years ago, when there would already be no pasture, no horses, and not much of anything in any direction.  Settlers here and there at best, or pioneers in search of the promised land.  Perhaps one of these travelers lost a child at too young of an age.  Perhaps a tree was planted in memory of that child.  An angel-like pine carrying on in the sometimes harshest of conditions.

If I had any measure of courage, I’d get up in the wee hours of the night – no guiding light except for the inky blanket of stars overhead – and slowly, silently approach my pine tree.  In those bewitching hours, with the howls of coyotes in the distance and the soft rustle of grass beneath my feet, I might witness a presence from beyond.  Perhaps a subtle glow surrounding his branches, suggesting an endless lifeforce within his roots.  Or even better, the nightgown-clad ghost of a little girl sitting against his trunk, bare knees pulled to her chest.

I know my little tree is no Angel Oak.  In a forest of Ponderosa and Douglas Fir, my pine would be first choice for a Charlie Brown Christmas.  Yet there he is, steadfast and strong, the king of the jungle pasture, the unchallenged ruler of his domain.  He must have the heart of a lion and a confident aura to match.  I hope someday he’ll reveal his purpose, but in the meantime one thing seems to be certain.  My dandy-lion pine will still be standing when I am not.

Some content sourced from Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.

Dots ‘n’ Dashes

Back in my days in the Boy Scouts, they had a merit badge called “Signaling”. To earn the badge you had to build a basic communication device (buzzer, blinker) and demonstrate a knowledge of Semaphore – visual signaling by flags – and Morse – audible signaling by “dots” and “dashes”. Today most people wouldn’t have a clue about Semaphore, and their only familiarity with Morse might be from the frantic telegraph typing in the movie Titanic.  Dots ‘n’ dashes have stepped down, more associated with the mundane pavement markings of the streets we drive.  Well hey, at least they’re still signaling devices.

“Dashing through the… street…”

Let’s talk about street dashes first.  The highway to our rural neighborhood was recently restriped, mostly dashes but occasionally a solid for safety’s sake.  Some lanes were shifted, and they just covered up the old stripes with blackish paint similar to the asphalt below.  But my car was not fooled, no sir.  It still sees the old striping.  Anytime I pass over those areas my car’s “lane-keeping assist” emits an audible warning and tries to bump me back onto the road, when in fact I’m just passing over covered-up stripes.  That’s annoying.  Either car tech needs to improve or road striping needs to come up with a better cover.  Until one or the other happens I’m all over the road.

Here’s an even better story about dashes.  Long ago, my parents were driving my brothers and me back from my grandparents’ house.  We were cruising along a paved winding road late at night when all of a sudden my dad gets to wondering about those highway dashes.  He starts to guess – if you measured one, how long would a dash be?  Talk about useless information, right?  But then, right in the middle of a darkened highway, no cars in the rear-view mirror, my father stops the car, gets out, and starts measuring a dash, foot-in-front-of-foot like he’s taking a sobriety test.  Then he gets back into the car and announces proudly, “six feet”.  Think about that the next time you pass those stripes at forty miles an hour.  (But please, don’t get out and actually measure one).

California highways are usually dotted, not dashed.

Now let’s talk about street dots.  You know, those round, non-reflective raised pavement markers used to designate lanes and borders and such?  They’re actually called Botts’ dots.  It’s a name I’ve known since childhood because I grew up in California where they were invented.  California has over 25 million of the little guys marking its endless streets.  And if you must know, Botts’ dots were named for their inventor, Elbert Dysart Botts (and how’s that for a mouthful?)

Kinda cute, right?

Botts’ dots might’ve never been a thing were it not for their total makeover.  At first they were glass discs attached to the road with nails. (How’d you like to have that job?  Whack, whack, whack!).  But then they started popping loose, and people got flat tires from the nails and the broken glass.  So Botts (or a coworker) devised a hard plastic to replace the glass and an asphalt-friendly epoxy to replace the nails.  Now the dots – and the speeding cars above them – stay where they’re supposed to.

But now Botts’ dots have a whole new challenge.  We face a future with self-driving cars.  Turns out, Botts’ dots mess with that technology.  The car may or may not recognize a dot as the border of a lane.  That’s not good when you put your steering wheel in the hands of a robo-chauffeur.  But can you imagine the task of removing 25 million Botts’ dots?  That’s worse than hammering them in one by one!

Botts’ dots may go the way of the telegraph.

Over here in rural Colorado, I got pretty excited about the prospect of California surrendering all of its Botts’ dots.  We can use ’em.  You see, out here we have mostly two-lane highways divided by dashes, or occasionally solid lines instead of the dashes (don’t pass!), or very occasionally the luxury of a defined left-turn lane.  But “dash-it-all” when it snows.  You not only lose the striping, you lose the road.  At least a Bott’s dot would make noise and give you a jolt to let you know you’re not about to cruise into somebody’s cow pasture.

Alas, my dream of millions of Botts’ dots flying over the Rocky Mountains died before it was born.  Turns out the asphalt epoxy of a Botts’ dot cannot compete with the combined weight and speed of a snowplow.  The dots’d go flying every which way from the snowplow blade, like hundreds of tiny shuffleboard discs.  Ping! Ping! Ping!

Signaling merit badge was retired by the Boy Scouts in 1992 (yet another reminder of my advancing age).  Looks like the Botts’ dot is headed for a similar scrap heap, at least if self-driving cars become more mainstream.  Meanwhile, you’ll find me out in my neighborhood navigating the painted dashes.  Even if I do prefer the dots.

Some content sourced from Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.

The Ghost of Saint Francis

“Saint Francis” (Digital Art by Randy Wollenmann)

I’ve long been a fan of the Google Calendar app, even after switching my mobile from Android to Apple. Google Calendar allows the option to add “Christian Holidays” so I promptly checked the box. We’re talking Christmas and Easter of course, but how about the Feast Day of Saint Francis (last Sunday), Saint David (3/1), and Saint Patrick (3/17)? Saint Patrick sure, but why also Francis and David? There are hundreds of saints yet Google chose just three. My curiosity was piqued.

So begins my beyond-the-grave story, perfect with Halloween on the horizon. Google’s choice of saint days got me wondering if there’s a spectral connection between me (David) and Francis. So I dove into the details. Now all I can say is, be careful what you wonder about.

Basilica of St. Francis, Assisi, Italy

The quick history of Francis. He’s the patron saint of animals. He was an Italian living in the 1200s from the central hill town of Assisi. Francis grew up wealthy but abandoned his riches to serve the Church and the poor. But it’s the animals that make him so popular among today’s saints. He (supposedly) communicated with wolves. He often preached to flocks of birds. He built the very first Christmas crèche, including live animals alongside the manger.

Now then, my Francis ghost story. Let’s cover this spookiness from present to past. I’ve discovered a pattern of events that has me convinced Saint Francis is trying to reach out. As a matter of fact, he’s been in touch every ten years back to when I was a baby. If you agree you can see why I’m expecting another “call” in 2023.

  • 2013: I’ve told you Francis is the patron saint of animals but guess what? He’s also the patron saint of avoiding fires. In June 2013, my family and I evacuated our Colorado house for a week (horses and dogs in tow) to escape one of the worst fires in our state’s history. When we returned, our house was not only intact but had no smoke damage. Meanwhile, over 500 properties within a five-mile radius were completely destroyed.

  • (Also in) 2013: Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina was elected Pope. He promptly changed his name to Francis. There have been 266 Popes in history, but Cardinal Bergoglio is the very first to select the name “Francis”.

  • 2003: The Front Range of the Colorado Rockies experienced one of the worst blizzards in our state’s history. In a matter of hours a single storm dropped over thirty inches of snow, with drifts of five feet or more. My family and I were snow-locked in our house for over a week. 100,000 residents lost power while 4,000 travelers were stuck at the international airport in Denver. Saint Francis is also the patron saint of the environment. Was he making his presence felt with unprecedented weather?
    Assisi’s sister city

  • 1993: My family and I moved from San Francisco to Colorado. San Francisco (named for Francis) is the sister city of his birth town of Assisi. But here’s where I really paused. Francis is also the patron saint of… Colorado. And how many other U.S. states chose Francis as their patron saint? Zero.

  • 1983: I’m in my junior year in college, studying abroad in Italy. The patron saint of Italy is… Francis, of course. I also traveled to Assisi while I was there, including a visit to the church where Francis is buried. This is the only time I’ve ever been to Italy.

  • 1973: Acclaimed biographer Ira Peck writes, The Life and Words of St. Francis of Assisi. It’s a short read, with easy language intended for middle-schoolers. Where was I in 1973? Starting my first year of middle school.

  • 1963: On March 21st, the Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary closed for good after thirty years. Alcatraz is the famous island prison in the San Francisco Bay. What does Alcatraz have to do with my ghost?  Back in 1202, a young Francis was thrown in prison for a year, captured while serving a military effort. His spiritual conversion from wealthy patron to humble priest, it is said, took place during this time in prison.

Our Saint Francis statue

And there you have it. Every ten years – starting the year after I was born – Saint Francis seems to have reached out to me. Oh, one more thing.  My wife and I have a statue of Saint Francis in our garden. “Of course you do”, says Francis.  He’s been standing quietly there for years, facing the house, just keeping his eye on us.

Francis will reach out to me again in 2023, I’m sure of it now. He’ll find another way to make his presence felt. When I read up on him I noted he’s also the patron saint against dying alone and the patron saint of needleworkers. Against dying alone? Am I destined to perish alongside several others in 2023? That’s not very nice of you, Francis.  I’d better take up knitting.

Some content sourced from Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.

Late Night Racquet Sports

My newsfeed nets a lot of headlines, but I almost missed the one about the Saharan sandstorm last week, blowing its way across the southern United States. Our son lives in Austin and said you can’t miss it: eerie dusty brownish fog center-stage in an otherwise hot and humid Texas day. (The silver lining: the sunsets are spectacular.)  I can’t spin a sandstorm positive.  Instead, I picture every granule as a moth and every moth descending on my house like Japanese Zeroes, somehow finding entry and making my life a living hell.

They’re at it again, Mr. & Mrs. Miller and their countless compadres. The million (billion?) miller moth march made its way across the Midwest (today’s letter is “M”), destined for an oasis called Colorado and a house called mine. The little winged beasties arrived unannounced and in droves (awful word: drove). One night I noticed one or two of the millers performing their spastic dance around the outside lights and I thought, “Oh no… scouts“.  The next night one of them sounded a tiny bugle at dusk and the swarming commenced.  I’m convinced miller moths have air traffic controllers, letting them know “Roger that Moth 259 – you’re cleared for landing on any ceiling or wall in Dave’s house”.

Light is a moth’s drug of choice

From the minimal research I’ve conducted (like, I don’t want to know moths have 8,000 eyes or whatever), the high country of the Rocky Mountains is a miller moth’s summer resort.  Picture Colorado as their Motel 6 for the night (just don’t “leave the light on”), feeding on backyard flowers and storing up oxygen for the next day’s flight to altitude.  They seem to be headed towards Utah in particular.  Maybe the flowers are better over there.  Maybe moths are Mormon and the Utah state line feels like the pearly gates of heaven.  Here’s what I say: if Utah really is “The Beehive State”, train those yellow-jacketed armies to take down the miller moths as soon as they arrive.  The massacre would be an event worth pay-per-view prices.

I thought I’d developed a sound battle plan for Mr. & Mrs. Miller this year.  Turn out ALL the lights and live in hermit darkness for several nights (like Halloween, when you don’t want any trick-or-treaters at your door).  Then maybe they’d fly over to my neighbor’s place instead.  Wrong.  They see your glowing phones.  They see the little LED’s you can’t cover up on your electronic devices.  They just park in the dark in discreet places around the house, waiting for you to wake up the next morning so they can announce, “WE’RE HERE!!!”

There was no avoiding battle with this year’s crop of “Army cutworms” (an image even worse than “miller moth”).  At first I was a mercenary, developing a cupping technique with my hands where I could catch-and-release (moths are the devil’s mess if you squash ’em).  But I rapidly tired of saving their little one-inch lives one at a time.  Try getting ready for bed at night brushing your teeth while a half-dozen bombers circle your head.  Or reaching for the water glass only to find a miller has staged a glorious dramatic death at the bottom.

Armed with a fly swatter, I thought to myself time for a little badminton (actually, I just thought “kill”). But here’s the reality: moths have half a brain, wings, ears (or at least a sense of hearing), and endless energy.  They know you’re coming almost before you do.  They hover close to the ceiling, frustratingly out of reach just beckoning you to climb to unsafe heights.

Our bathtub’s too small to accommodate a ladder so I was forced to balance precariously on the porcelain edge while swinging the swatter skyward.  The best analogy I can give you is this: picture King Kong on the top of the Empire State Building, gripping with his feet and flailing with his arms, only in men’s pajamas.  Little buzzing machines dart about him.  He knocks down one or two (with an instant and satisfying plummet back to earth), but most of the time he just swings at the air while trying not to die in a bathtub.  It’s part-cardio, part-yoga (only you’re more stressed when you’re done).

Let’s visit the Army cutworm’s half-brain again. I believe moths are designed by Mom Nature to taunt their predators.  One of mine made it into the refrigerator and probably enjoyed a helping of leftovers.  Another survived a tumble of laundry dryer clothes and still came out intact (though it was hard to tell if he was dizzy or just flitting as normal).  Yet another spent the night in the soaking water of our dirty dishes, popped up the next morning when I approached the sink, and said, “Have a nice day!” as he darted away. Trust me; these mini-monsters don’t die easy.  Even a spirited swipe of the racquet (er, swatter) – picture enough force to explode a shuttlecock – doesn’t always kill a moth.  Bless their pitter-patter hearts – they sometimes need three or four good whacks before raising the white flag.

Enough about Mr. & Mrs. Miller, right?  To swat this topic once and for all, most of you know the movie monster Godzilla but what about his nemesis Mothra?  Back in the 1960’s, (sick) Japanese filmmakers created a “good-girl” winged creature; an awkward-looking mega-insect who defies the laws of physics by flying.  Mothra’s just what you picture in my worst nightmares: a moth the size of a jumbo jet.  She was labeled “the protector of island culture, the Earth, and Japan” and revered among the Japanese film-going public (especially women).  Mothra sold a lot of movie tickets.

Mothra

So, the Japanese think a moth is damn near a heroine, eh?  Well then, they should come to Colorado next summer for a visit.  I’ll leave the light on for ’em.

Some content sourced from Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.

Hex Marks the Spot

In the opening scenes of the 1981 classic, “Raiders of the Lost Ark”, intrepid explorer Indiana Jones navigates a deep jungle, a river, the betrayal of his fellow adventurers, and the lethal booby-traps inside a mountainside cave to capture a priceless statue of gold.  Indy’s return to civilization includes more death-defying maneuvers, yet he still completes the entire escapade in the first ten minutes of the film.  That’s far less time than it took another thrill-seeker to find the real-life hidden treasure of Forrest Fenn.

Perhaps you’re not familiar with Forrest Fenn.  Hardly anybody would be, were it not for Fenn’s decision back in 1988 to set aside $2 million of his amassed fortune as a reward for an ambitious treasure hunt through the vast Rocky Mountains.  Gold nuggets, rare coins, jewelry, and gemstones; all piled up together inside a twelfth-century bronze box and cached in a region of over 500,000 square miles.  Treasure hunt indeed… but no treasure map!  Instead, Fenn documented clues in the stories and poems contained in his self-published book, The Thrill of the Chase: A Memoir.

Remarkably, Fenn’s treasure appears to have been claimed.  The whole story found its way back into national headlines just ten days ago, when Fenn himself declared, “I do not know the person who found it but… the search is over.  Look for more information and photos in the coming days.”  Conveniently, the one snap of the treasure chest in its hidden location does not indicate when it was taken.  Just as convenient, the finder has yet to be identified; only labeled “anonymous searcher from the East Coast”.

Forrest Fenn

Forgive my skepticism, but I’d say Forrest just raised the first red flag on this whole adventure.  It sounds good on paper but the more I read the more I sense fairy tale instead of actual tale.  To repeat, Mr. or Mrs. East Coast has yet to come forward.  The single photo of the treasure could’ve been taken by Fenn himself.  Do the homework and you’ll soon start to wonder, does the treasure really exist?  For that matter, does Forrest Fenn himself exist?  Even his name sounds make-believe.

Body-double aside, Fenn appears to be very much alive, but the case can be made for calling the man eccentric.  Consider, Fenn’s initial intent for the treasure was kind of an “X marks the spot” for his final resting place.  In 1988, diagnosed with cancer (likely terminal) Fenn was motivated to set up the treasure hunt before his demise.  But somewhere in the next 22 years, Fenn recovered from his illness and then penned the memoir, complete with treasure-hunt clues.  This sequence of events alone is suspect.  What was Fenn’s original intent: secret burial in the Rockies and whoever stumbled upon his grave (and thought to dig it up) wins the prize?

courtesy of oldsantafetradingcompany.com

Undeterred, thousands pursued Fenn’s treasure after the memoir was published.  Five died in the search.  Of those five, only one cause of death was confirmed – a fall down a steep slope in Yellowstone National Park.  The bodies of the other four, at first identified as “missing persons”, were found later (at different times and places) along the supposed route to Fenn’s treasure. No cause of death determined with any of them.  Add to that a dozen or more arrests, detainments, citations, and lawsuits with other hunters and you start to get a real mess on your hands.  Sounds more like a “hex marks the spot” doesn’t it? Fenn considered the request of authorities to suspend the hunt, but public opinion swayed him to keep things going.

Ten days ago, Fenn acknowledged the (apparent) hunt winner and he/she possesses the (supposed) treasure.  No doubt this isn’t the last of the eccentric tale of Forrest Fenn.  I hope we tune into the news one of these nights and see our latest Indiana Jones, posing in front of the heaping bronze chest like a lottery winner with a giant check (please also, with fedora and bullwhip).  I hope Forrest Fenn is posing right there alongside him/her, and prepared to detail this crazy adventure from start to finish.  Then we’ll know whether the inevitable production from Hollywood will be fact or fiction.

Some content sourced from the Fenn’s Treasure website, Westword, and  Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.