Camping in Wonderland, Part IV

     There were many camping trips in which I engaged following my release from the Army.  I have already written of one of those trips; the trip to Minaret Lake with my oldest friend Wes.  That trip came early in my new civilian life and was among the best of my life.  One year later Wes and I decided to hike out of Yosemite, up the north wall of that amazing canyon and onto the more or less level high ground which our hiking guide book said that we would find up there.  We attacked the trail in mid-morning but by noon we seemed to be nowhere near reaching the top of that twisting, tortured, switch-backed trail.  Wes and I decided that life is too short to waste on such energetic endeavors, so we returned to the valley floor.  

     Resting in the shade by my car, Wes and I scanned the book in search of another place to camp.  We didn’t want to stay in the valley with the million-plus other tourists and vacationers, but we didn’t want to drive somewhere else either.  Wes noticed that there was a trail which extended up the east end of the canyon, beyond the general tourist area, where it began to climb up into the Sierra Nevada mountains.  That path followed the Merced River to the string of falls and small lakes that could be found up there.  That path appeared to be a road commonly taken and we were interested in a road less travelled.  Looking at our map we noticed that if we veered north from where the shuttle bus ended it’s route into the eastern end of the canyon, around the misnamed pond of Mirror Lake, there began a sort of path which followed a creek the name of which I forget which flowed out of a smaller canyon which climbed back up into the mountains too..

     This was no formal trail, but others had been this way and a sort of path could be seen among the rocks and trees which lined the creek.  I don’t know how long we walked; it didn’t seem like a very long time but these things become cloudy when a person is disconnected from their clock and enjoying nature.  It couldn’t have been more than an hour or two because we reached a good place to camp with a good deal of the day left before us.  Our camp was by a pool at the base of a ten or fifteen foot waterfall, beneath a tree which had dropped a thick bed of leaves over the years, which gave us a soft place to pitch our tents.

     This spot was enchanting.  The falls was beautiful and the valley secluded.  Few other hikers came by that day or the next.  Water birds called ‘dippers’, or ‘water ouzels’, would fly into the creek and walk along the bottom eating insect larvae, tadpoles or small fish if they could find them.  We marveled at those birds.  The only negatives to this campsite were the squirrels which quickly gnawed through Wes’ pack to get at the food items within before he could hang the pack by a rope from a tree limb, and the white noise from the waterfall.

     The white noise was an interesting phenomenon.  I paid little attention to it during the daytime but at night, after we had sipped a bit of our backpacking staple of cheap bourbon whiskey, and smoked a joint or two, the strangest sounds could be heard emanating from the noise made by the constant splash of water falling ten to fifteen feet into a pool.  As I lay in my tent I could hear everything from people talking to ten speed bicycles clicking to police sirens, and all of this several miles from any possible police sirens or ten speed bikes.Like everything else in life one gets used to it, but it did detract from a good night’s sleep.  Wes and I hung around that camp another day fishing (with better luck than we experienced at Minaret Lake), reading and relaxing, and then returned to my car and from there to San Diego.

     That was not my last foray into that part of Yosemite however.  One year later my best traveling partner, Joe Medina, and I were driving around Northern California visiting friends and camping out here and there and I mentioned the place where Wes and I had camped earlier.  That sounded good to Joe and so we pointed his Volkswagon bus towards Yosemite National Park.  We parked the bus near the visitor’s center and stocked up on food at the little store that is maintained there.  A short shuttle ride later we were standing in front of Mirror Lake and ready to walk eastward into the wild canyon at the rear of the park.

     The trail was a little busier than it had been when Wes and I had camped there the year before, but it was still very quiet  as we walked further from the tourist area.  We reached the waterfall where Wes and I had pitched our tents before but the day was still young, so we decided to push on.  Climbing the steep bank over which the creek was falling was not too difficult a project and upon reaching the small plateau which gradually narrowed and rose as one walked further east we recognized instantly a perfect campsite.  Two logs lay perfectly situated on the ground to provide seats in front of a fire.  We brought stones together to make a fire pit in front of those logs and pitched our tents on the soft soil nearby.  The bank over which the creek fell was just enough of a barrier to traffic that only a few hardy hikers passed by our camp, and they mostly just waved and walked on.

     Our area seemed to have hardly been camped in at all and so there was no shortage of dry firewood littering the floor of the forest.  We had small gas stoves to cook on, but a fire in the morning to brew coffee over and a fire at night before going to bed is something which makes a camp a camp.  We were as comfortable as could be, and even being twenty two year olds and restless as that breed tends to be, we were very content to explore around our camp a little but mostly sit on those logs and talk about things that I couldn’t possibly remember today and probably wouldn’t interest me now anyway.  They were interesting and speaking was effortless then however, and we spent the rest of that day and most of the next doing just that.

     There were however three occurrences which added a little spice to the trip.  Early the next morning I was forced out of my tent by the need to take care of some urgent business.  Even in such an idyllic setting of nature one still must answer when nature calls.  Taking the toilet paper and a collapsable shovel I looked around until I found a small log lying on the ground which looked as if it would serve for latrine duty.  I dropped my drawers and positioned myself comfortably on the log, and proceeded to add another log to the forest floor.  About midway through this process I heard a ‘snap’, and my attention went into high alert.

     My first thought was that Joe might be sneaking up on me with his camera.  We were young males and that kind of humor was (and remains) common to that set.  My second thought was a bit more dire.  Bears frequent the vicinity of Yosemite, usually on the valley floor where there are trash cans, picnic baskets and coolers to pillage in search of the crap that we humans usually like to eat.  But the bears have to come from somewhere, and eventually return there when the garbage is gone, so I wondered if I had chosen to take my ease on some sort of bear highway.

     That is a thought that will pinch things off in a hurry but I knew that it would be foolish to move an inch, so I just sat there bare to the world, waiting to see if a bear would come along to ruin my day.  In a minute or two I heard soft rustlings in the leafy carpet of the forest floor and a large brown shape loomed from behind a boulder.  “This is it”, I thought, “Smokey’s revenge”.  The shape did not have the rounded bulk of a bear however, and as my panicked vision cleared I could see that my visitor was a deer.  I don’t remember if there were antlers, so I couldn’t say if it was a buck or a doe.  All I cared about was the fact that it didn’t have claws and teeth and a very bad attitude.  The deer and I stood and sat motionless for a moment, staring into each other’s eyes at very close range.  Slowly the deer ambled off towards the remote east end of the canyon.  I quickly finished the business at hand and returned to the safety of our camp where Joe and his camera were still snuggled comfortably in his tent.

     Later that morning a couple of parties of hikers came past our camp.  The first was a middle aged man and woman who simply waved and walked on.  That is usually how I liked it when I camped in the wilderness; I didn’t go to the woods to hang out with people.  The second party was different though.  Two guys, roughly our age, with German flags sewn onto their backpacks.  This told us clearly that these were two guys who would bring interesting stories into our camp.

     Pius and Rene were indeed from Germany; from Munich, or “Muenchen” to be exact, and with the customary German fondness for precision they insisted on being exact.  We offered them coffee and rolled a couple of joints, and within an hour’s time we were fast friends.  Pius and Rene were students traveling abroad during the summer, and this was a time in America when more people would still hitchhike from coast to coast with little fear.  It was far from a perfect time, but two white guys with short hair and no beards had a good chance of traveling in America by the seat of their pants in relative safety.  We spent a couple of hours with our two new friends, learning about them and their home as they learned about us and ours.  The time came for Pius and Rene to move on, and we exchanged addresses.  Oddly enough we were visited by Pius and Rene later that month at the house I shared with three other friends.  I have not made it to Germany yet to repay that visit.

     My last outstanding remembrance of that camping trip came later in the afternoon.  It was a warm day but not uncomfortably so, and there was a nice breeze blowing which cooled things down to a very acceptable level.  I had a can of deviled ham and some crackers and prepared to enjoy them while sitting on the bank over which flowed the creek into the falls.  From that vantage point the view was stunning.  Not a single evidence of human activity could be seen from that spot, and the whole of the Yosemite Valley opened up before me.  The sheer walls of naked rock stood in their frozen permanence while the carpet of tree tops in the valley below swayed and rippled like tall grass in the wind. 

     Like every other stoned slacker of my age in those days I had read Carlos Castaneda’s books about a Yaqui sorcerer in Mexico with whom he allegedly spent time doing a research project.  The first of the books which emerged from this project was entitled “A Separate Reality”.  Many are doubtful of the academic seriousness of his books or even the existence of the focus of those books, Don Juan.  Nevertheless those books were read voraciously by those of us who were comfortable living in our own separate realities, and I sat there trying to see the entire valley as a living, breathing organism.  That effort failed miserably but the beauty of the simple, three dimensional here-and-now valley was deeply impressed into my memory.  I finally picked my stoned self up and retreated to our camp, where our campfire coffee and reconstituted freeze dried food and another snort or two of whiskey completed our evening.

     We broke camp the next morning and retraced our path to Mirror Lake in time to catch the shuttle to the visitor center and have a late breakfast there.  We left Yosemite to continue our rounds of visiting friends in the north and I have never returned to Yosemite since.  In a way I don’t have to.  The diving birds, the waterfall, the deer, the breathtaking views of the valley, Pius and Rene; all remain in my mind as if it was yesterday instead of forty years ago.  Part of the pleasure of retelling this story lies in the fact that I get to relive it  That is a blessing indeed. 

 

Camping in Wonderland, Part III

     Wes and I recovered quickly from our arduous climb to Minaret Lake, and after a short while of sitting under the lone tree that was close to our camp we decided to get busy.  We were both hungry so we lit a fire in the rock fire pit that we had built. The nearby stream seemed to contain clean snowmelt off of the white stuff which crowned the nearby peaks and so we scooped up a couple of pans full with which to cook up some of our freeze dried dinners.  It was probably beef stroganoff for me, and as I recall the finished product did roughly resemble beef stroganoff.  I certainly remember that it tasted wonderful, but then sitting in paradise at 9.800 feet eating food cooked over an open fire, I could have eaten the sole of one of my K-Mart boots and liked it just as much.

     Wes suggested that we explore the valley in which we were camped and so after cleaning up our mess we began to poke around the area.  One of the first things that we noticed was that even at 9.800 feet mosquitos lived near water.  And they were big suckers, too.  While not as numerous as I’ve seen elsewhere, these guys were on steroids.  As we walked along the lake shore the little vampires rose up and attacked like kamakazis.  They would bite anywhere, including through denim jeans. I had completely failed to take mosquitos into account and was therefore defenseless.  Wes had a small amount of a commercial insect repellant in his kit but it was nearly gone.  I could see that Wes’ repellant wouldn’t last long even if he was the only one using it, and it didn’t seem right that he should suffer more because I neglected a pretty basic tenet of camping.  I declined his offer to share and continued slapping at the little monsters, leaving bloody splotches on my arms, face, and jeans.  

     At one point we jumped over a small stream and mounted one of the rounded rocks near where the trail rose up out of the valley below.  Lying on the ground on the other side of the boulder was the remains of a camp which did not appear to be more than a week old.  We could see where the tent pegs had been driven into the ground, where the campfire had been, and where the garbage still was.  Up next to the rock were two large black plastic bags with all manner of cans and paper products and uneaten meals and, most amazing of all, empty bottles of one of the cheapest and nastiest pop wines on the market at that time.

     Wes and I stood there looking at the mess with disgust and astonishment, and did not hear the sound of the horse’s hooves until the beast hove into view over the same rise that we had surmounted earlier that day.  Seated atop that horse was a forest ranger who was making his rounds.  I believe that the ranger saw us before we saw him because he never once gave us the impression that he connected us with that pile of trash.  I’m certain that he could read the disgust on our faces as plain as day.  

     “Good afternoon boys.  How is your day going?” he asked.

     “We were doing fine until we saw this mess” was my reply.  “What I want to know, beyond why somebody would leave this crap in a place like this is how they got it here at all.”  When every box, can and bottle in that pile war full it would have amounted to a lot of weight.

     “They probably got it here the same way that I got here.  Usually a party of hikers will be met by someone with a pack horse who will bring their supplies in here.  It doesn’t happen a lot and usually they clean up after themselves, but this is not the first pile of shit that we’ve had to haul off of the mountain.  Someone will be back later to pack that stuff out of here.”   I couldn’t help but wonder how somebody with the resources to have access to a pack horse would stoop to drinking that increadibly nasty wine, but they were clearly bottom-feeders so I left it alone.

     “What kind of camp have you set up?” the ranger continued.  We showed him our camp in the distance and described our equipment and plan, which was limited to exploring, relaxing, fishing, and maybe a little reading.  Wes and I were both avid readers.  

     “The only thing bothering me is that I forgot mosquito repellant” I commented in an off-hand way.  The ranger scowled and said “They’ll eat you alive.”  He reached into his saddle pack and retrieved an olive drab can with a spray nozzle on the top.  “This will keep the little bastards off of you” he said as he tossed the can to me.  The can was classic government issue.  As I wrote earlier it was olive drab, with some code of letters and numbers denoting what item number it was in some catalogue somewhere, and written across the can was INSECT REPELLANT in black letters which blended into the deep green of the can.  I gladly accepted and sprayed myself down, and as I handed it back the ranger smiled and said “Keep it.  I’ve got plenty.”  I don’t know what was in that insect repellant but I am certain that it had a plutonium base.  The mosquitos never bothered me again on that trip.

     The ranger told us that someone would probably be back the next day to clean up the mess and waved goodbye.  We returned the wave and continued with our exploration of the valley, which was in fact more like a shelf.  We jumped over creeks, waded gingerly through marshy ground, and eventually came back to our camp.  The day was creeping into evening, and shadows from the cliff behind us began to advance across the valley floor.  Wes began to fiddle with his very light weight, collapsable fishing rod and other gear while I laid back against the tree with a book.  We could cook dinner in the shadows of evening but it would be hard to read or do much else, and that is pretty much how we spent the rest of that day.

     After cooking and cleaning up, night fell upon us like an onrushing train.  Wes and I pulled out our half-pints of cheap bourbon whiskey that we had brought and drank a swallow or two before turning in.  I shed my shirt and jeans and crawled into my mummy bag.  Even in mid summer the nights can be pretty cool at 9,800 feet, especially with a wind blowing off of the showpack even higher up.  I felt perfectly comfortable lying in my bag on a thin foam pad in my little tent.  The darkness was as nearly pitch black as it could be, especially as I was cut off from the starlight in my tent, and there were almost no sounds apart from the occasional rustling of the grasses by a light wind.  I lay there awake for a short while, alternately nervous in the unfamiliarity of near total dark and near total silence, and utterly relaxed in those same phenomena.  I was reflecting on that duality and the next thing of which I was aware was the light of a new day penetrating the nylon of my tent.

     After leaving my mummy bag and dressing quickly in the chill of the morning I emerged from my tent and immediately got a fire going.  I knew that Wes wouldn’t be far behind me and coffee would be needed on an emergency basis.  I took a nip of bourbon to get the blood moving and then went to get a couple of pans of water from the nearby creek.  By the time I returned Wes was sitting on a rock close to the fire pulling supplies out of the pack which we had hoisted into the tree the evening before.  In no time at all we had breakfast and coffee prepared and ate one of the finest meals ever cooked.

     After putting our camp in order we prepared for our first adventure of the day.  Behind us rose the 800 foot cliff which I previously described and at that height, nestled in a bowl created by the confluence of the cliff and the Minarets, lay Cecil Lake at 10,400 feet.  The book that we brought with us said that there was a steep trail which led over the top of the ridge and sure enough, we found that trail.  Steep, however, was an understatement.  The climb was as close to vertical as one could get without going hand-over-hand, and near the top that’s just what we did.

     The payoff, however, was worth every exertion.  Cecil Lake lay cradled in its stony crib with little more than rock, ice, snow, and water making up the scene.  The starkness of the environment had a severe beauty and Wes and I simply sat for a while admiring it.  Broken rock had tumbled down the steep sides of this natural bowl with little growth of any kind poking up from between the jagged stones.  The lake had a fifteen to twenty foot ring of ice extending from the shore towards the center of the lake, with the ice-free bulk of that center even more blue than Minaret Lake below.  The picture was stunningly beautiful.  Rising from our rocky perch we carefully crossed over to the other side of the bowl, disturbing marmots who somehow lived in that sterile-looking place.  Climbing the bank on the other side we gained the rim to look out over a vast scape of mountain peaks, most of them at a lower altitude than we were, which stretched west across the Sierras towards Yosemite and beyond that the great central valley of California.

     After taking in the view for a good long while we retraced our steps and returned to camp.  We had taken a couple of hours to climb the cliff and return and we wanted to try our luck with fishing in Minaret Lake.  Our gear was as simple as we could make it, but we had enough to try bait, lure, and fly.  Unfortunately, none of them seemed at all tempting to the fish.  We would switch baits, we would move to other spots, we pulled in our lines and then returned in the evening, and nothing worked.  I suppose it’s possible that there weren’t any fish in that lake at all.  I don’t see how they could have gotten there in the first place, but as I have heard elsewhere, “Life finds a way.”  We finally threw in the towel and broke down our rods and stashed our gear away.

     The trout dinner which we had expected had to be substituted with more of the freeze-dried food that we had packed in with us, and we were eating that at a faster rate than we expected.  The exertion of the climbs on both days, the general exhilaration of being so far into mostly unspoiled nature, and the fact that we were two twenty-one year old men with serious appetites, combined to make us literally chew our way through our supplies a lot more quickly than we had intended.  Taking stock, we saw that we had enough for one more day, but we would have nothing for breakfast the morning after that.  Our path back may have led downhill but it was still eight miles, and neither of us relished that long of a walk on an empty stomach.  In the end we decided that we would have a good breakfast the next morning and break camp.  I was beginning to fear that my mosquito repellant was running low anyway (it wasn’t really.  It lasted for two more camping trips).

     The next morning we made up the coffee and a larger than average breakfast, and lounged in our camp until the sun was well up.  Wes and I took our sweet time folding up our tents and rolling up our sleeping bags, and when we were packed and ready shouldered our packs and bid goodbye to Minaret Lake with as much melancholy as it was possible for two young men with their lives ahead of them to muster, and then we set out on the trail back to Devil’s Postpile.

     My car was untouched and waiting as we trudged into the parking lot.  Wes and I quickly stowed our packs in the trunk and fired that Mercury up.  In very little time we were on the road, and pulled into a restaurant in Bishop ready for a real meal.  I’m certain that we smelled like a garbage dump when we walked into that squat & gobble cafe but that didn’t bother us at all.  If it bothered anyone else they didn’t share their displeasure with us.  It was about two in the afternoon and since it was between lunch and dinner we decided to eat both.  I am sure that I put five pounds of food down the hatch and Wes might have eaten more.  All that remained was about nine or ten hours of driving and we would be home, clean and fed again and lying in our own comfortable beds in our own homes, with refrigerators full and the noise of the city around us, a million miles away it seemed from the pristine beauty of that jewel of the wilderness, Minaret Lake.

     

Camping in Wonderland, Part II

     My love of camping was born and nurtured within my family when I was a child.  Equipped with a mix of commercial, military surplus and homemade gear we would set up camp mostly at a public campground in the Laguna Mountains east of San Diego.  We came to know every inch of that campground as if it was our own back yard, and even with that familiarity we still loved every hike, every dip in the river, every slide on the wet rocks by the falls, every day and every night that we spent there.

     When I graduated from high school in 1966 my President had plans concerning my immediate future, and within two months of my graduation I was a soldier in the U.S. Army and doing more camping out than I liked.  In California, in Texas, and in Vietnam I enjoyed multiple opportunities to live close to nature, all the while dreaming of getting back into nature without a drill instructor or a first sergeant yelling in my face or an enemy soldier shooting at me.  That opportunity arrived in late 1969 after I had finished my tour of duty and was discharged from the Army, a free man once again.

     Shortly after my return to San Diego my oldest friend, Wes, proposed that we backpack into the Sierra Nevada Mountains to a place called Minaret Lake.  Wes showed me a book which contained many hikes in that area and they all were appealing.  The hike to Minaret Lake drew us to it mostly because the trailhead began at Devil’s Postpile, a busy area where it would probably be most safe to park a car for several days, and because the eight mile walk with a gain of over two thousand feet of elevation made us confident that we would encounter nobody who wasn’t out there for the same reason that we were.

     Preparations began for our trip, and for me they began at zero.  I had almost no backpacking gear and what little I did have was left over from a short and unsuccessful experience with the boy scouts.  We were all a bunch of misfits in my neighborhood and did not comport well with the boy scout mold at all.  With some of the money with which the Army sent me on my way I purchased a lightweight backpack, an Army surplus mummy bag for sleeping, a one man tent and other accoutrement.  We planned to spend five days at our camp, and so freeze dried and other dry and instant food products would also have to be carried in.  When we were ready my pack didn’t feel very much lighter than a full pack in the Army did.

     I arose early and drove to Wes’ house, where we added his gear to mine and began the day long drive to Devil’s Postpile.  Our route took us east of Los Angeles and out across the Mojave Desert.  I have always loved the desert and this was a very enjoyable part of the trip for me.  Speeding on northward we entered the Owens Valley, a dry valley now that most of its water has been siphoned off to supply that precious resource to Los Angeles and environs.  The locals are still quite irritated about that.  We drove through Lone Pine and Bishop, where we stopped to get a meal and a few other last-minute items, and then finished our drive in the parking lot at the Postpile.  We parked close to the ranger station, hoping for more security for my car.

     We slept in the car that evening; the big bench seats front and back that were common in cars of that vintage made pretty good beds, even for a couple of six-footers who had to fold themselves up a little in order to fit.  At first light the next morning we crawled off of our car seats, walked around a bit to work the kinks out of our cramped muscles, secured our packs onto our backs and set out on the trail which led to Minaret Lake.

     The trail was mostly broad and easy to follow, and Wes and I chatted as we walked along through the conifers.  It was easy to talk even though we started at about 7,500 feet above sea level, as we were young and in pretty good physical shape.  The gain in elevation for the whole trip was about 2,300 feet but the grade was easy at first.  Soon however we broke out of the thick conifer forest and began to pass through more sparse growth.  At one point, as we neared a broad valley where the creek which we were paralleling broadened out into a marshy area with no definite banks or borders, Wes and I somehow lost the trail and began following what looked like it might be a trail which led south of the valley and up a rocky and pine covered hillside.  After twenty or thirty minutes of struggling up that false track we realized that we were way off course and returned to the valley floor.  There we promptly regained our trail and continued across the cattail-covered valley to begin climbing again on the other side.

     By this time Wes and I had ceased to talk much.  The trail was beginning to climb more sharply now and although we were eating trail mix and hard candy our energy was being sapped by the grade and the altitude.  All along from the beginning of the hike I had enjoyed the view of the majestic mountains, with jagged splinters of rock which jutted a thousand feet into the sky after which Minaret Lake was named, and Minaret Creek which bubbled and splashed down the mountainside nearly always within our view.  As we began the final few miles towards our destination I began to focus more on simply getting up the next hill, breathing, and putting one foot in front of the other.

     At length we came to the last half-mile or so of our hike, which also happened to be the most steep.  We dug into that climb with determination in order to put this ordeal behind us.  I remember counting cadence in my mind as I walked; one-two-three-FOUR, one-two-three-FOUR.  My feet kept moving, rising and falling with my mental calling of the numbers.  The effect was hypnotic and soon my feet and the count were all that existed.  This went on for what seemed like an hour but in fact was much less than that, and soon the trail began to flatten out and I marched over the last rise to catch my first glimpse of the breathtaking jewel that is Minaret Lake.

     The lake lies in an upland valley at the base of a mountain range which includes several rocky spires which rise up sharply into the clear sky of the Sierras.  Somebody many years ago thought that they resembled the tall, thin buildings which tower over Muslim cities and towns from which mosque officials call the faithful to prayer.  I confess that I did not see that resemblance at all, but the other guy saw these mountains first so he got to name them.  The lake itself is the bluest blue imaginable, taking up much of it’s valley.  Grasses cover the dry portions of the valley with occasional evergreens stretching skyward, and softly rounded boulders seemed to have shouldered their way through the soil to show above ground a tiny glimpse of their true bulk, much like an iceberg shows itself in arctic waters.  It is quite possibly the most beautiful place that I have ever seen.

     But that is not what I thought when I first saw it.  The exertion, the altitude, and perhaps a little dehydration combined to force me to sit down on the first rock I could find and try not to throw up.  Wes was similarly affected, but recovered a bit more quickly than me, so he shortly went off to scout for a good campsite while I continued to convalesce.  From my boulder I looked back at the terrain across which we had traversed on our assent to the lake.  I could clearly see the gain in elevation that we had recently made, which made me feel better about not feeling so good as I sat on my rock in the sun.  

     The ground sloped steadily to the east while mountains of bald, rounded rock rose up to the north and northeast.  It is said that those mountains were smoothed off by the action of glaciers during the last ice age.  I suppose that is true, but I don’t know; I wasn’t there then.  Regardless of how they were formed their massive solidity communicated strength and permanence, but their soft roundedness also suggested welcome, although I am certain that there was danger enough for the foolhardy in those peaks.  At least, that’s what it said to me.

     To the west rose up a cliff which was probably 800 feet high.  This rock feature traveled from southwest to northwest and provided a back wall for the valley of the lake.  the cliff was steep but not sheer, and Wes and I would soon be scaling it, but more on that later.  The southern boundary of our valley was the massive body of the Minarets, into which the previously mentioned cliffs merged.  The totality of this panoramic view was breathtaking and I could hardly believe that I was in this place, although the shakiness in my knees served to remind me that it was quite true.

     After catching my breath and regaining some strength I rose up from my rock and shouldered my pack.  I could see where Wes was pitching his tent and angled around a bay of the lake to gain that spot.  A good spot it was, between the lake and a stream flowing into it, on good dry ground and close to but not under a lone tree.  I pitched my tent beside Wes’ and we made a fire pit out of stones and a wire grate which we brought for that purpose.  Our food was placed in a bag which we hoisted into the tree.  I don’t know if bears hang out at 9,800 feet, but Wes and I had not interest in being surprised.

     With the hike over and camp made we sat with our backs against the tree.   Wes was facing the Minarets and I the rounded mountains to the north.  We didn’t speak much at first, as we were struck with the power and beauty of the place. I can remember reflecting on how only a couple of months before this moment I was squatting under a metal roof on the tarmac of Bien Hoa Air Force Base hoping to not catch a last minute bullet or rocket before flying home after two surreal years in Vietnam.  The regimented life of a soldier, the threat of death at any moment from a bullet going so fast that you don’t hear it, the alcohol and drugs that I used to self-medicate against the stress of Vietnam and the strangeness of returning home to a country which seemed to either scorn me or be embarrassed by me, and mostly preferred to pretend as if I wasn’t there at all.

     All of that baggage seemed to slough off of me as I sat in the tranquil cleanness of that vast mountain landscape.  The lake, the rocks, the streams, the mountains; none of them cared where I had been or what I had done.  They did not care that I was there, but neither did they reject me.  I was there as my own agent, as much a part of that scene as a fish in the lake or squirrel in the tree or marmot in the rocky cliff above us.  I was welcome to come and take my chances like every other living thing there, with the prize being a peace that I had not felt in years or perhaps at any time in my life.  I thought to myself “Not a bad way to start a trip”.

Camping in Wonderland, Part I

     Since the time when I was a young boy I have loved camping, and that is probably because my camping experience got off to a wonderful start.  Summer or winter my father would load up our family car and we would drive the forty six miles to the campground of Green Valley Falls in the Cuyamaca Rancho State Park, where he would pay for a space and park where our home would be for a day and a night, or perhaps several days and nights.  The road in those days was U.S. Highway 80, a winding two lane road which climbed into the Laguna Mountains and eventually wound and twisted down the east side of those mountains through canyons and around boulders the size of a house, down to the floor of the desert which stretched all the way to central Texas. 

     After forty miles or so California Route 79 branched off of the highway and led north towards the old mining town of Julian.  This road was more narrow and more serpentine even than was Highway 80, and I was almost certain to get carsick on this stretch of road if I hadn’t already.  We would pass by Descanso Junction, which was only a small country store, and shortly cross over the boundary of the State Park.  By the time we pulled into the parking space next to our camp site it felt like we had been driving for hours, and depending upon the traffic in which it was almost impossible to pass slower vehicles, we might have actually been driving for nearly two hours.

     Unloading the car and setting up the camp was an ordeal for two boys who wanted nothing more than to break away and go create our own fantasy world down by, and in the summer in the middle of, the Sweetwater River, which could hardly be called even a creek by a generous description.  Mom would begin stocking our canned and packaged food into a wooden pantry provided at every campsite.  Brad, my brother, would carry boxes of grocery items to Mom and she would arrange what was to be her kitchen.  Dad would haul out the big, heavy canvas umbrella tent that he ‘requisitioned’ from the Navy.  He and I would lay the tent out in a big square and fasten the corners to the ground with big, steel railroad spikes.  I have no idea where the spikes came from.  After securing the corners I would enter the tent and hold it up as high as I could while Dad brought in a two inch thick wooden pole which was the center support.  Four steel arms radiated from this pole and were slipped into metal-ringed eyelets in the four corners of the roof of the tent.  When fully extended theses arms held the corners taut while the six foot wooden pole held the center of the tent up.  Four more spikes, one in the middle of each side of the tent, were pounded into the ground and our home away from home was ready for occupation.

     The remaining details of setting up our camp were trifling and our father soon cut us boys loose to go play, accompanied by a menacing order to ‘Stay out of that river and don’t get wet.”  Of course he knew that we would make a beeline into that river so straight that it would astound even an ancient Greek geometrician.  We would play in that water and around the beaver dams and on the slippery rocks near the falls which tumbled down a dangerous height over smooth boulders under jagged rock promontories.  Mom was certain that we would get killed playing in that creek.  Dad probably thought that it was a possibility, but that the odds were low enough that the glory of the freedom we enjoyed outweighed the risk.

     Upon returning to our camp, usually after Dad came looking for us, we could smell the dinner which Mom was cooking on the stone camp stove which was part of the campsite, or on the Coleman stove which Dad had surprisingly bought legitimately at a store, or on the contraption which Dad had cobbled together out of bits of scrap metal which he called his ‘charcoal broiler’.  Dad was a welder in the Navy and came up with all manner of wondrous inventions which we used around the house.  Food always tastes better when it is cooked and eaten outside, and these meals were unforgettable.  After dinner we would clean up and frequently walk down to where a ring of logs were secured to the ground in a semicircle which was centered on a fire pit.  We would sit on those logs in the evening as it began to get dark and a ranger would light a large fire and give a nature talk that would address the fauna and flora and geology and history of the State Park.  Afterwards we returned to our campsite to bed down for the night; Mom and Dad in the big brown tent while Brad and I would curl up on wood and canvas cots, also courtesy of the U.S. Navy, and under thick olive drab Navy blankets.  Those were some of the finest nights’ sleep that I can remember.

     Whether we camped in summer or winter, the first hours of the day were my favorites.  I was a controlled pyromaniac as a child, never causing damage but always fascinated with being around fire.  Like a moth I was drawn to flames.  Every summer there would be fires in the brush choked canyons of San Diego and when one would be close to my house I would quickly mount my bicycle and follow the sound of the sirens until I reached the site of the blaze.  In later years I would even descend into the canyons to help drag the firemen’s hoses, but that is a different story.

     Dad recognized my enjoyment of a good blaze and harnessed it constructively.  I was put in charge of getting the fire started in the big stone and iron camp stove upon which Mom would cook most of our meals.  At night before we went to bed Dad would give me one match and tell me to use it wisely.  The next morning I would use that one match and have a good bed of coals over which Mom would cook; that is, if I used that match well as Dad advised.  It was a game between Dad and me but it was also a point of pride.

     Summer presented no obstacle to producing a good breakfast fire, but winter was another matter entirely.  If we cooked our first evening meal on the Coleman stove and/or the charcoal broiler there was a better than even chance that the camp stove was caked in snow and ice.  This would require that I use a hatchet to hack enough ice away from the ten inch square steel door which dropped open to expose the fire chamber of the stove.  After that I would remove as much ice as I could from the steel grate which was set in the stone above the fire chamber so that the melting ice would not extinguish my precious fire.  I could never get it all, but usually I scraped enough away to give my one match a fighting chance.

     Then came the all-important preparation of the fuel.  With increasingly freezing fingers I would use a large knife to shave slivers of wood from assorted sticks and other small bits of lumber which Dad brought to fuel our cooking fires.  First came the tiny slivers which would catch fire quickly and then even larger shavings until I could add small sticks and would then be on my way.  By the time I was ready to strike my one match my fingers would be numb and body shaking from the cold, and with the scratch of that one match across the abrasive surface of a match box or paper match book, depending upon which type of match Dad had given to me, the bright flare of the initial ignition followed by the small, pure flame of the burning match lit my hope for a continued status of master fire starter just as surely as it ignited the layered pile of kindling which I had so carefully arranged in the fire chamber.

     Nearly always the fire caught on quickly, beginning in the very fine shavings and then growing as larger splinters ignited.  I would keep my hands close to the fire, shifting my kindling and adding more and larger pieces while enjoying the warmth which my aching fingers craved.  As the fire grew to a point where the remaining ice on the grill overhead began to melt I would brush it over the side with hatchet and hands, which further froze my frigid digits, but with this last maneuver the fire was free to grow and pour warmth and cheer out of the stove and return my hands to a pain-free state in a very short time.

     All of this scraping and chopping and carrying on produced a good deal of noise and my parents, being light sleepers, would awaken in the tent and wait until the sounds died down, which indicated that I was sitting smugly in front of a roaring fire.  Mom would then arise and emerge from the tent to get the coffee started and begin breakfast.  Dad came out shortly after Mom, inspected the fire, and gave me a pat on the back and an ‘attaboy’.  That meant everything in the world to me.

     One thing which I took for granted in those times was the honesty of the other campers.  We would go on family hikes and leave our stove and icebox and sleeping gear and everything else right where they sat or lay and be gone for hours at a time.  Always, things were exactly where we had left them when we returned.  Brad and I would go straight to the icebox fter a long, hot hike and retrieve a twelve ounce glass bottle of Coca Cola.  The icebox was another metal contraption cobbled together by my father in the repair shop where he worked in the Navy, and we would fill it with ice and bacon and eggs and Cokes and everything else which we wanted to keep cold.  Brad and I got to drink two Cokes per day each and in the warm summertimes it was a treat indeed.  I cannot now imagine expecting such a level of trust in other campers in most public campgrounds.

     Finally the time would come to break camp and return to the city.  Dad would extract the wooden pole from the big tent and after loosening and withdrawing the steel spikes, we would fold up the tent and stuff it into the deep trunk of the car.  Icebox and Coleman stove and lantern and any remaining food and empty Coke bottles, which we could return for three cents each, filled out the trunk and the space between Brad and I in the back seat.  All of the trash went into cans chained to wood posts near the campsite and we left the space as clean as we found it, and sometimes cleaner.

     Many other features of my camping trips I have described elsewhere already; the hiking, the precautions against stumbling onto a rattlesnake, the climbing of trees and sliding on our fannies across wet, slippery rocks near the waterfall area.  When I was a little bit older I would fish for trout which were stocked in the tiny ‘river’ and on one trip met a couple of girls from the Los Angeles area with whom I connected and wrote letters to and visited for several years to come.  That campground will always be a magical place in my memories of childhood.  I don’t know if places as wonderful as that exist in our country anymore, and in truth I don’t really know if that place even then was as wonderful as it remains in my mind.  What I can confidently say is that Green Valley Falls campground in the 1950’s was as close to heaven on earth as this writer has experienced in six decades of life.

A Few Reflections On Prayer

“I will be praying for you.” How many times did I read or hear that since I suffered a heart attack last month? In fact, how many times have I said those very words in response to difficult and even traumatic things which have happened to friends since I left the hospital after my open heart surgery? The answer to both is ‘a lot’, and add to that the times that I have prayed for the dissipation of the light headedness which has plagued me since my surgery and the very low blood pressure which sent me back to the hospital for a night, and the constipation right after my return home which had me wracked with pain for over seven hours. And to all of this add praying for peace in Gaza, peace in Iraq, peace in Ukraine, a return of the stolen girls of Nigeria, etc. And yet, my light headedness and health issues affecting close friends and all of that other nightmare stuff that I mentioned goes on and on. It’s enough to make a guy wonder “Why am I doing all of this praying? It just doesn’t seem to work.”

Let me say from the beginning that I am not a theologian. I am only a Christian believer who has prayed for years for things and received either no answer or an answer of ‘No’. And this has led me to think a little bit about prayer and why I should bother to pray at all. I have arrived at some conclusions, or at least have seen some conclusions beginning to coalesce, and I propose to share those now with any who will read them, and look forward to the thoughts of any who might be inclined to share them with me.

Let me begin with what I think I have discovered about what prayer is not. Prayer is not a magic formula, or a set of sacred words or phrases which, when spoken in the right order or the right cadence or in the right (probably King James English) language, will be the starter button which jump starts God into action. That picture reminds me of the image on Dennis Nedry’s computer screen in the film “Jurassic Park” in which, as Chief Programmer Ray Arnold tries to override Nedry’s sabotage of the park’s computer systems, says “Uh uh uh, you didn’t say the magic word”. The picture of a Dennis Nedry-like God withholding His blessings until the desperate petitioner stumbles upon the “magic prayer” is idiotic to me, and I would not respect or worship such a God.

Another image of God which does not make sense to me is of a cosmic sugar daddy. We sometimes feel like we should just be able to pray and get our prayers answered in a prompt and satisfying manner. Whether I’m praying for peace in the Middle East or an end to the ringing in my ears (tinnitus) that has plagued me for the last quarter century or just that my favorite baseball team would finally win the World Series, if I pray fervently, just sort of believe that it will happen, and then finish it off with “In Jesus’ name, amen”, shouldn’t I see my prayer positively answered? It’s God we’re talking about after all. God can do anything, and it’s no skin off of God’s nose if he quiets my head sounds or lets the Padres win one.

The third thing that I believe prayer isn’t is in vain. I don’t believe that God is resting on His or Her (come on now, do we really believe that God is gendered? Aren’t men and women both created in God’s image? She said so after all, didn’t He?) laurels in some galaxy on the other side of the universe. I do not believe that our prayers go out from us and into a vacuum, noticed by nobody, acknowledged by nobody and having an effect on nobody. An atheist would dispute with me on this but I see overwhelming evidence of God and His presence in every aspect of creation. Even if the Devil might have created one or two things, like mosquitos, God created bats to eat them. OK, that was a poor joke. God has created everything, and everything works together perfectly on this ball of rock spinning through the universe unless we humans gum things up, and the God who is so evidently real and present promises to fix up even that in the end.

So OK, God’s not a game playing Dennis Nedry, a cosmic sugar daddy or an absentee landlord. Well then, what is He? How does God interact with His creation down here? God seemed to expend a lot of effort showing us through a sacred text that took almost two thousand years to write, which was written in at least three languages by kings and exiles and fig pickers and tax collectors, that He is involved with us, invites us to speak with Him through prayer, and promises to answer. why is it then that when I pray for some things they don’t turn out the way I prayed for?

Heck, I don’t know. What? You’re disappointed with me? I told you earlier that I am not a theologian. I’m not a prophet either, although some of the real prophets probably didn’t know the answer to my question any more than I do. So why am I writing this nonsense?

Well, I don’t believe that it is nonsense. God has not informed me as to why my tinnitus won’t go away or why two relatively young cats died on me even though I prayed for their health, but one thing God has shown me very clearly; God has experienced every pain that I have. He knows exactly what I am going through. It would be God’s wish that people didn’t get heart attacks or that cat’s wouldn’t sicken and die, or that His creation wouldn’t butcher each other over wildly inaccurate versions of He Himself which were created by us ourselves. God knows my pain and promises to walk through it with me, and when He says “It’s alright, I know just what you’re feeling and I’ll be beside you” I can believe it because the truth of it is obvious, to me at least. God knows what it’s like to see his children rebel and become heartless murderers (I haven’t had to endure that one!). He knows what it’s like to be lied to, betrayed, rejected, cursed, spit upon, beaten, tortured and finally murdered. And God knows what it is like to lose a son, or a daughter for that matter. Just as a six year old girl was recently abducted and killed a couple of hours’ drive north of where I live, God’s son was abducted and killed, and He was even more innocent that that poor little girl. No, God’s not a stranger to anything that any of us could go through, so when He says “Talk to me. I’m listening and I understand,” I can trust that message to be true.

So, does this mean that doodoo should no longer happen on the face of the Earth because God understands it and doesn’t want it? Obviously not. Then does this mean that prayer is useless and not worth the effort since god will do what god wants to do regardless of my prayers? Again, not at all. Sometimes, when we least expect it, prayers are answered just the way that we would like. The patient in a coma recovers, the hiker lost in a snowstorm is found alive, the Padres get to the World Series. They don’t win, but that would be more in the ‘miracle’ category than just answered prayer.

I have found that prayer accomplishes exactly what God promised it would. Prayer connects me with God, and when I tell Him all that I’m feeling, even when I’m simply feeling pissed off about my circumstances, I can sometimes sense what He is feeling. It is in those times that I understand best that the sacrifice of His son Jesus was the answer to all of my prayers. The heavy lifting has been done and the battle is won. Now God is going to walk with me step by step through the last tough times so that I can reach the end where I want to be; with Him where there is no pain or disappointment or tears. I have discovered that that is enough for me.

Do You Know The Way To Veracruz: Part III

Wes and I stood outside the gate to the port of Veracruz for a short while and finally realized that taxis don’t usually come there unless to bring a fare. I returned to the big building to ask if there was a bus or some other form of transportation which would be able to return us to the city. After a difficult exercise in overcoming a language barrier I learned that buses came and went at shift change but not during the day. The man at the counter told me that we could get a taxi at the old stone fort which was about a mile down the road. I remembered seeing that fort on the way to the port and thought then that it looked like it would be an interesting place to visit. Now it looked like we would indeed be visiting it,

We began to walk down the road towards the city, jumping into a ditch from time to time to avoid the trucks carrying cargo to and from the port. Wes and I both picked up medium-sized rocks to launch at dogs if they should menace. The line between a Mexican stray and a Mexican pet can be a little blurry, and although Wes and I both like dogs we didn’t necessarily feel like being bitten by one. Or ten. The precaution was unnecessary and soon we were walking into a broad area in front of the fort which contained parking for cars, a taxi loading and unloading area, and several outdoor concessions which included one business selling tacos, carnitas, and more to the point, beer.

We ordered our food and beers and took up a couple of seats at a long table under a large canvas tent-like top. Soon the food and beer were in front of us and we wolfed it down in a few minutes. We had not really noticed how hungry we were. While we sat at our table we had time to get a good look at the stone fort, or ‘Fortaleza’. The polygonal building is massive, made out of huge carved stone blocks and standing a good twenty or thirty feet high. Wes and I decided at that table that we would spend a day enjoying Veracruz and then return home. We wanted to purchase our airline tickets – we had experienced all of the Mexican buses that we cared for – that day so that we would be certain to be able to get home. That would turn out to be a rare bit of good sense on our part.

But first we wanted to get a look at the Fortaleza. We bought our tickets and began a walking tour of the building, and it is huge and extensive. We walked in hallways built within the massive walls; in some places five or six feet thick. The fort was begun by Hernan Cortez at the beginning of the conquest of Mexico and it was the last Spanish foothold when Mexico rebelled and expelled the Spanish in 1825. The walls were lined with maps, drawings photographs, and historical notes in both Spanish and English. Wes and I were fascinated and stayed there longer than we had planned. At one point we did feel a little nervous however. One display of photos with their historical explanations concerned the capture of the city in 1914 by U.S. Marines and Navy personnel as part of a complicated affair involving German arms shipments to the Mexican government in the midst of a revolution. On the wall were several photos of Mexican soldiers and civilians defending their city as the battle waxed and waned through the streets and from behind buildings. Wes and I began to feel a bit uncomfortable as we stood with a group of Mexicans looking at the exhibit. We wondered just how gringo we looked.

At length we had seen enough of the fort and flagged a taxi to take us to the airport, where we purchased two of the last five tickets available on that flight for the return trip to Ciudad Juarez the next afternoon, and then returned to our hotel to settle up there as well. We then counted and pooled our money and set out to enjoy what had turned into being a vacation as well as an adventure.

We began the rest of our stay in Veracruz by walking to a rum shack on the waterfront which we had seen the day before from the trolley. Seated outside we began drinking rum and cokes, but the drinks became progressively more rum and less coke. I was twenty eight years old at the time and for the last ten years had lived anything but a temperate and sober life, so I could soak up a good deal of rum and remain functional. Next to us was a Mexican boy of about ten years of age who was selling coconuts. When a customer came along he would neatly lop the top end of the coconut off with a machete and send them on their way refreshed with the milk of the coconut. I purchased a coconut and asked if I could try to knock the top off myself. The kid agreed and I whacked away with the machete but failed miserably to even dent the shell. I returned nut and machete to the boy and he took off the top with one clean, effortless swing. Wes told me he was certain that I would cut my hand off and under the circumstances it was probably a miracle that I didn’t. I poured my rum into the coconut and drank the mixture of milk and rum with a straw. Soon after that Wes and I wobbled out of the rum shack in search of someplace to eat dinner.

We found a restaurant not too far away which featured foods from all over Mexico. There is much more to Mexican food than tacos and enchiladas. I don’t remember what Wes ate, but I had red snapper in a local red sauce with all the trimmings. While we ate we enjoyed a mariachi band which would circle the room, playing for anyone who would pay. My weak grasp of the Spanish language precluded my following their lyrics fully, but it sounded as if they were sort of a comedy act as well as singers. They seemed to be making fun of their patrons, but in a good natured way. Sort of like a celebrity roast, but less nasty. The patrons were laughing uproariously at some of the lines, and the singers worked hard to keep a straight face during their performance. After finishing our meal we walked for a while on the downtown sidewalks and then returned to the hotel bar where we sat nursing drinks for another hour or two before retiring for the evening.

The next morning we awoke early and hung over. It was a Sunday and most places where one might get a breakfast were closed, including the restaurant at our hotel. We exited the building and walked towards the center of old Veracruz, but still found nothing but closed businesses. Upon entering the large plaza in front of the old cathedral we lapsed into tourist mode, examining buildings and fountains and grassy miniparks with bleary eyes. As we walked through the plaza we saw a sight which caused hope to surge through our addled brains; a cantina boasted a sigh which said ‘Abierto’, or ‘open’.

A little hair of the dog which bit us seemed like good medicine so we veered to the right and made for the cantina. As we approached it our spirits soared even higher, for another sign announced free tacos for paying customers. This piece of luck cheered us greatly and we sat down at an outside table and ordered beer and tacos. Our order came straightaway and we dug into the rolled tacos with gusto, washing mouths full down with the cold Mexican beer.

After a short while of eating with abandon I happened to look over at Wes. He had been looking pretty green since he had crawled out of his bed that morning and now he looked a little greener. “What’s wrong, Man?” I asked around a large mouthful of half-chewed taco. “Do you know what we’re eating?” he asked, putting down his half-eaten meal. “No, and I don’t really care. It’s pretty good whatever it is. You should have seen some of the things I ate in Vietnam” I told him, although I really had no idea what I had eaten at some places in Vietnam. It could have been just about anything. Wes unrolled his half-eaten taco and showed me the white, honeycombed substance within. “It’s tripe.” I looked at the filling of the taco and sure enough, it was tripe, or ‘menudo’, the lining of a cow’s stomach. That is a very cheap bit of meat, which is why it could be given away for free. “I don’t care” I said with my best machismo, and finished my taco. I couldn’t quite bring myself to eat another one however.

A young Mexican lad was watching this drama from a short distance away from our table. I have no doubt that he’d seen this all play out before and knew the probable outcome of two gringos eating menudo tacos. After a few moments of seeing our hands remaining wrapped around our beers and not venturing close to the tacos he approached our table and asked in pretty good English “Are you going to eat those?” “No”, we answered in unison. “They’re all yours” said Wes, and the kid gathered up the tacos to go and eat them somewhere else, happy to have a free breakfast. This left Wes and I with our original problem; where could we get something to eat?

Just about as we were finishing our beers the answer to our dilemma came walking across the plaza. An old man carrying a basket of shrimp was approaching our table and we called him over. The shrimp that he was carrying was fresh, caught and cooked in some manner that very morning. The little sea bugs were still in their shells but were ready to eat. We bought a half-kilo of them and ordered two more beers, and for the next half hour popped those shrimps out of their shells like peanuts and feasted on them. Slowly a pile of empty shells grew on our table as we plowed through our stash of still-warm shrimp.

That breakfast held us over for the rest of the morning, and we did not eat again until we arrived at the airport as the sun was beginning to set in the afternoon, We counted up our money and found that after our taxi ride to the airport and dinner at a restaurant there, we had just about ten dollars left. Our taxi from the Ciudad Juarez airport to the bridge over the Rio Grande took all but about two fifty of that and the El Paso bus to the gates of Fort Bliss, where an old friend from our neighborhood was stationed, just about cleaned us out. A call from our friend Benny’s quarters to my brother resulted in two bus tickets back to Albuquerque where we would strap on our tool belts and begin making some money again in construction, but that is a story which must be told at some other time.

Do You Know The way To Veracruz: Part II

The airport in Veracruz, like many airports in the world, is well away from the city itself. This makes sense as most airplane accidents happen on takeoff and landing, and having large machines loaded with aviation fuel fall out of the sky onto populated areas is a very bad idea, as the city of San Diego learned in 1978. Wes and I recovered our backpacks and boarded a taxi to run us into the city. We told the driver that we wanted a clean hotel but not resort grade, and he took us to a hotel right on the waterfront that matched all of our requirements. We checked into our room and then stepped out to get a good look at Veracruz. Wes and I both fell in love with what we saw.

Veracruz is a very old city. It began its existence when Hernan Cortez landed there and began the Spanish conquest of Mexico. But Veracruz is a new city too. Being one of only two major ports on Mexico’s east coast and being the closest port to Mexico City, the commerce taking place in that city insures that a very modern infrastructure of banking, communication, transportation and the like is available to service those commercial needs. Veracruz is also a major port of call for the cruise ships which ply the Caribbean Sea and Gulf of Mexico. When those ships are in port, passenger loads of from two to six thousand will be available to debark from the ship and sample the food, drink and souvenir offerings in the city. Much work went into making the city as clean and attractive as possible so as to not scare off the tourists before they dropped impressive amounts of cash into the pockets of businesspeople large and small.

Wes and I noticed a set of very narrow steel tracks running down the middle of one street near our hotel and asked a vendor of fresh fruit juices if it was a working trolley. This was a somewhat difficult task as that level of communications tested my language skills, but the vendor’s limited English and my limited Spanish sufficed to get the job done, and we learned that indeed the trolley ran every day and if we would wait there a few minutes we could board it on its next pass through the neighborhood, I purchased my usual favorite drink, a pineapple/mango concoction which the vendor whipped up on the spot, and Wes got something for himself. We then sat on the curb to enjoy our drinks and wait for the trolley.

Before we finished our drinks we heard the ‘clang, clang’ of the bell as the trolley approached our position. It was still around a corner so we couldn’t see it, but we arose from our curbside seats so that we would be ready to jump on when it passed by. At last the trolley hove into view and I watched its approach with admiration and anticipation. The trolley looked like something out of a Disney movie. It was spindly but not fragile. Low side rails and thin roof supports left a great deal of open space so that the traveller did not feel enclosed at all. The body of the trolley was fairly light in weight which matched the small, thin steel rails set into the asphalt and cobblestones of the streets upon which the trolley ran. It was painted in the red, white and green colors of the Mexican flag with golden pom poms dangling from the edge of the roof all the way around. The operator saw us waiting and slowed the trolley down so that we could jump aboard. We noticed later that he would stop for an elderly tourist, a senora getting on or off with little children and/or packages from shopping, or a young senorita under any circumstances. The rest of us had to time our step to board the still-moving trolley.

We paid our peso or two and found seats near the rear of the carriage. The trolley chugged at one or two miles per hour and we relaxed as we passed through shopping areas and residential neighborhoods, past piers where the cruise liners tied up and along the sea wall, called the ‘malecon’ (pronounced MALL-A-CONE with a long ‘A’), where everyone gathered on the summer evenings to walk along the waterfront, enjoying the cool ocean breezes and beautiful view of the sparkling Caribbean stretching out to infinity in the east. At several points along the way we jumped off to poke our noses into shops or collections of stalls and booths selling just about anything that one can imagine. We bought a couple of the tiny (by American standards) street tacos and some fruit on a stick, and hopped back onto the trolley when it made its next pass through the neighborhood. The operator of the trolley waved off our pesos as we reached to pay again, recognizing us from our first ride. We proceeded in this manner all the way around the loop which brought us back to the point where we had begun our trolley ride.

The rest of the afternoon was spent walking the streets of Veracruz and along the waterfront. We could not see the commercial seaport very well, although the derricks and cranes on the horizon showed us where it was. We would go there the next morning first thing. We decided to have dinner at the hotel, which wasn’t great but wasn’t bad either, and visited the hotel bar for an hour or two afterwards. After that the culmination of twenty four hours on a bus and the better part of a day flying to and exploring Veracruz caught up with us both and we turned in early to get rested up for the next day, since we had no idea what that day would bring.

Morning came and we were out of our beds and dressed in a flash. This day could possibly be the craziest day of our lives and we could hardly wait to begin it. After breakfast at the hotel we caught a taxi to the port, and soon we were standing in front the broad gate which opened into the Port of Veracruz. Wes and I had no idea where we should start asking about work on a freighter so we gambled that you just went up to a freighter, found the captain, and asked. Probably I let myself be influenced by reading Moby Dick and too many Jack London novels. None of the freighters in port had a captain with a large beard, a jagged scar, and an artificial leg carved out of whalebone standing on the fo’c’sle looking to hire rookie seamen for one three hundred and sixtieth part each of the profits of the voyage. In fact, we never laid eyes on a captain of anything that day.

The big, hulking freighters were tied up at the docks, and the gangways were down connecting dock to deck. There were no guards or any other official-looking people regulating who went up the gangway onto the ship but we were reluctant to just walk onto the ship in search of its captain. Dock workers were loading and unloading cargo but we weren’t allowed to interfere with them, so we located a large building and went inside to look for a harbormaster or whoever ran the place. Inside we found a small counter with nobody present behind which were doors which led into the interior of the building. To the left was a row of rather worn chairs in front of a dirty window. Wes and I went to the chairs and I moved one around a little which caused the metal legs to squeak on the floor. I reasoned that the noise might alert somebody to our presence. I don’t know if my stratagem worked or not, but soon a man appeared in the doorway and moved over to the counter. He looked surprised to see us.

“Buenos dias, Como estan?” “Buenos dias. Habla usted Ingles?” “No, no lo hablo.” The man did not speak English, and so this deal would have to be done in Spanish, which ensured that it would take a lot of time to get it right. At first the man had no idea what I was trying to communicate, and then he thought that we were merchant seamen looking for a particular ship. Finally I made it clear that we were two young American men with absolutely no experience at all with working on ships who wanted to sail somewhere. He never really did get the part about Saudi Arabia and the oil fields. Once he understood the main point however he motioned for us to wait and disappeared through the doorway, returning shortly with another man in tow. This person was dressed a little better and in general looked a bit higher on the food chain. I felt like I was buying a new car.

“So, Guillermo say to me you want work en un barco, uh, on ship, but you no work before?” “Yes” I said, and in the best Spanish I could muster continued to say “we work hard. Building houses. We know hard work, but never on ship.” At least I think that’s what I said, although I could have said “My mother’s tool belt shot fifteen birds” as far as I knew at the time. Eventually we both felt like we had the conversation right and he told us that the chances were not good, but to wait. Both of the men retreated into the interior of the building, probably to have a good laugh at our expense, and reemerged shortly to let us know that we wouldn’t be shipping out from their port.

It had not occurred to Wes and I that we would fail to find work on a ship in Veracruz and now we had to regroup. As I wrote earlier, I must have filled my head with romantic notions of ships always being shorthanded and having to shanghai sailors to fill their duty rosters. The reality appeared to be that there were plenty of capable sailors available and the rosters were all full. Wes and I thanked the men for their time and assistance and returned to the dusty yard outside of the building.

At that point we had no idea what to do next. The only reason for coming to Veracruz was to get on a freighter and forget the unpleasant world that was behind us, and that plan now looked like it was going nowhere. I looked back at the ships tied up along the dock with their gangways wide open and unguarded and said “Come on Wes, Let’s go and see for ourselves.” “No, man” Wes responded. “We don’t know the rules here. You know how you are always saying ‘remember where you are?’ Well then, remember where you are.” “I know man, but I just traveled a couple thousand miles, and a bunch of that on a Mexican bus, to do this and I don’t want to bag the whole thing without one more try” I handed my money belt and a pocket knife to Wes, retaining a small amount of money in my wallet. If I got into a bind I could try to buy my way out of trouble with the smaller amount of money which I kept on me. I would make the case that it was all I had. Failing that, Wes could come to my rescue with the bulk of my money. “Wait here” I said, and began to walk up the gangway.

The clatter of my shoes on the metal stairs seemed as loud as a snare drum to me but did not seem to draw anyone’s attention. I reached the deck and saw nobody in the passageway which ran along the side of the ship. I began to walk toward the bow of the ship, looking in the metal doorways as I passed them with the hope of seeing somebody to ask about the whereabouts of the captain. There was nobody in sight as I emerged into the open area of the front part of the ship. I don’t know nautical terms, and so you must be patient with me, dear reader.

As I looked around I saw a man bent over something on the next deck above me. I considered calling to him but then decided that a personal touch was needed, so I sent to the metal stairway which led upwards to that deck. When I got there the sailor began to straighten up as I walked towards him. It seemed like he had removed something from his shoe. “Excuse me” I said. “Can I ask you a question?” The man jumped a little, surprised by my presence. He was a brown person of slight build, who gave me the impression that he might hail from somewhere in Southeast Asia. He also didn’t speak a word of English or Spanish. He did seem to understand ‘KAP EE TAN” however and held up a hand for me to wait. The sailor disappeared and five or ten minutes and later returned with a ship’s officer of undetermined rank or ethnic origin who was more familiar with English. “Are you the captain?” I asked. He answered in the negative and I continued. “I know that you are busy, but I wanted to ask if you needed any hands to work on your ship for the next cruise.” It took the officer a moment and some clarification but eventually he understood my question. “No, we have all of the hands that we need. We don’t hire people right off the deck anyway; we usually go through the harbormaster shoreside and only use skilled hands.” “Is it that way with the other ships?” I asked, and he nodded in the affirmative. “I think so. We can all find skilled hands when we need them, and as far as I know we all do it pretty much the same way.”

I hung my head for a moment, trying to think of any other angle I could pursue and also letting my disappointment show, just in case the officer took pity on me. Neither approach bore fruit. I thanked the officer and returned down the stairs and down the gangway to a waiting Wes. “No luck” I told him. “It looks like this is as far as we go.” Wes handed back my knife and money belt and we began to walk back toward the gate through which we had so recently and eagerly entered the port. The old plan was now finished, and the next order of business was to make a new one. We decided to find a place to have a little lunch and a couple of beers and figure out what we should do next.