Monday, September 11, 2017

~ I Remember 9/11 ~

"Wilderness is the lens to looks into your soul" ~ Robert Griego.  

Aldo Leopold Vista, Gila National Forest.

The La Joya Fiestas start in two days.  Normally, it's a three-day ride out to La Joya, New Mexico, camping twice along the way.  This trip will be done in two days, camping once and traveling some 1,200 miles one way.

The alarm clock rings wildly at 5:30am.  Those that know me, already know that I am a late sleeper and the alarm clock is not my favorite friend.  "OK,  friend, I am awake."  On all my trips, I try to make a connection with something or someone leaving Three Rivers, CA.  Today, I make my first stop just 300 yards from our house on La Cienega Drive.  There, walking his two dogs is Bob Yahne.  He lives at the bottom of La Cienega Drive.  As I pull up to him, his two dogs bark but quickly stop as we begin to talk. They sense the friendship in our tone.

"Hello Bob Yahne, I'm off for the Badlands of New Mexico," I say now that his dogs are quiet.  "Wow, that is something, Bob.  Wow, all the way out to New Mexico" he adds.  A few years ago, the same thing happened on my way to Sturgis only a few feet from this very spot.  "Then," I said, "I'm off for Sturgis."   "Wow, Bob, that is unbelievable.  Sturgis.  I use to live in Rapid City, South Dakota" he tells me.  "You're in for a great, great trip Bob," he adds as I ride off on another adventure.  

This morning is no different, just in a different direction. On my trips, I try hard to talk with anyone who approaches me.  Bob Yahne is a good example, just 300 yards into my trip and I make my first stop on a 1,200-mile journey, my bike wasn't even warmed up yet.  I like the name "The Badlands of New Mexico" for this adventure but fate will change that.

The quiet, easy-going roads always agree with me -- Camp Verde, Pine, Strawberry, Payson, McNary, Quemado, Pie Town, Magdalena, Socorro, and then La Joya - these are my favorite roads along Highway 260.  This high elevation route is scenic and the roads bend with the landscape.  But today this shorter trip out to La Joya will require that I ride Interstate 40 -- Flagstaff, Window Rock, Gallop, Belen, and then La Joya.  It is faster but the dull straight road seems to split the landscape without discretion.  The speed limit is fast, the posted speed is 75 mph but the traffic is much faster despite numerous cars and semi-trucks being pulled over by the state troopers.

Some bikers enjoy the straight roads where they can cruise at faster speeds and some may need to travel greater distances in shorter times.  So that's where I am now.  I seem to tire more easily and I'm getting very sleepy, so I find myself stopping more often to wake up and stretch but that helps only a bit.  As I leave Needles, California for Arizona, the temperature is just shy of 115 degrees.  At every stop, I apply suntan lotion and drink water or Gatorade.

But this trip is different.  I've been thinking about my adventures.  I hope to gain a better understanding of what these adventures really mean to me.  The title usually comes to me slowly, and this trip will be no different.

Freedom waves behind my bike ~ "I Remember 9/11."

I tell myself:  "Let's enjoy our first camp out at Middle Satellite and stop worrying about the freeway so much that weighs heavily on me."  Middle Satellite is one of my favorites.  It is about 10 miles south of Ash Fork, Arizona, and is on the Kaibab National Forest.  I pull off the highway onto a dirt road to a flat spot with trees and plenty of firewood.  A campfire is important and always my first priority.  You do not want to be gathering firewood in the dark, even with a headlamp.  There are also volcanic rocks in the area that make for a good ring to contain my campfire.  Tonight, I'll cook my Campbell's stew over the fire.  My hors-d'oeuvre's are bean dip and corn chips.  I down several Gatorade's as the hot desert zapped me pretty well in the deserts near Needles.

My transistor radio quickly picks up Window Rock operated by the Navajo Nation.  They play country-western music and even though I do not understand the Navajo talk, I listen.  My station is fading, but there is talk about remembering the people who died in New York.  I listen intently.  

Of course, today is September 11th and I pause to remember the victims from that tragic day.

On September 11, 2001, I was in my office at Ash Mountain in Sequoia National Park when I heard the news.  The very first thing that struck me was 911 is our telephone code for "emergency help."  The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) immediately closed down all American air space and we felt that personally at Sequoia National Park in California.

Our helicopter was being used to transport supplies and crews into the backcountry.  They got permission from the FAA to do so, but confusion occurred.  Our pilot thought that the "OK to fly" was good for several trips.  Wrong.  Two F-18 jets were scrambled from the Naval Air Station Lemoore just 70 miles away.  They were flying "hot" and ordered our pilot to decent and return to the heliport immediately.  The jets then slowly passed by our Park Headquarters, as if to say to the park Superintendent "We mean business."  The roar was deafening.

Middle Satellite Camp, south of Ash Fork, Arizona.

The reception returns and the Navajo chants are amazing and a perfect companion for me, as well as the coyote, heard in the distance.  My fire is comforting and the night sky has me looking up, from the comforts of my hammock.  The stars are bright and my first task is to find the Big Dipper, then the North Star, and the stars that we fondly call the "circle of eight."  I call this camp Middle Satellite, but tonight I do not see one satellite.  There is one shooting star that crosses the entire sky and that is my reward but I pass it on to the victims of 9/11 as my eyes close and sleep takes over.

I need to wake early, so I set my cell phone's alarm for 6:30am.  When the alarm does sound, I try to move quickly but I stumble.  Putting your gear back into its respective spot is always a challenge.  Just ask any biker.  What packed perfectly in the garage is now in new spots and stubborn when trying to repack your saddlebags.  It is sometimes best to adapt and improvise, though deep down you know your gear is going in the wrong places.  Thank goodness for bungee cords.  I skip heating water for coffee and continue packing.  In reality, I need coffee to get me going but the local cafe is just 10 miles away I tell myself.  Nowadays on these trips, I try to have a solid breakfast, skip lunch, and have a hardy campfire dinner.

At the local cafe, a regular asks,  "Which way are you headed?"  I wish it was on the slow roads, but I answer abruptly, "Highway 40, need to get to New Mexico quickly." "Oh" is all he said.  Breakfast is hearty.......eggs over easy, hash browns, corn beef hash, biscuits, and coffee.  The local talk is hard to turn off and one local brings by the pot of coffee as the waitress is busy. "Thanks, partner" and he goes about his business talking about local issues with other customers who listen.  Years ago, there was a guy who talked constantly.....we called him 'Gabby Hayes.'  Today is mild compared to his talk.  I do believe he could "talk paint off a wall."

Just thirty miles down the road and I'm already tired.  The semi-trucks are doing 80 miles an hour and either you keep up with them or they run over you.  Think about something, I tell myself, to distract you from this fast traffic.

Just then, a car passes me.  The passengers have their arms out the window, the wind is moving their arms up and down.  We've all done it.  Such a sense of freedom, kind of like flying only from the safety of your car.  Their hands are going up and down with the slightest movement of their wrist.

The car is now next to me and the passengers are hollering at me.  It is impossible to hear what they are saying.  The girl in the front passenger seat is screaming but I can not make out a single word. Then the guy in the back seat sticks out his head and screams something and points towards me.   It sounds like "You're Awe."  "Your flag is Awe."  More screams, "You're awesome" or was it "Your bike is awesome."  I point to my ear and shake my finger...."Can't hear you."  They speed off but clearly wanted to tell me something.  I think finally that it was, "Your bike and flag are awesome."  

At 75 miles per hour, it is very hard to talk with anyone, other than yourself.  I tell myself, now that was a nice distraction to these tiring miles.

In the comfort of their car, they do not see the 180-degree views that you have on a bike.  They do not really feel the wind in their face.  They do not see the white lines passing six inches off the ground, mile after mile, and at times the white lines appear to be moving in slow motion.  They do not smell the desert plants after the rain.  Strip away the windshield, remove the roof and doors, remove two wheels, and then the floorboard and maybe, just maybe they can feel what we do.  And oh yes, try to talk with someone at 75 miles per hour, and maybe you will get the point.  

My friend Eliacin from Peru once told me about bikers saying that seems to fit the occasion ~ "Four wheels move the body, two wheels move the soul."

Window Rock is 30 miles ahead and I remember what happened near here a few years ago.  I was on a solo ride from Window Rock, Arizona to Shiprock, New Mexico.

There, along the side of the road, is a young girl frantically waving her arms.  She looks young, maybe 18 years old or so.  She is a Navajo. I pass her but her arms continue to plead for help.  How can I just continue?  I tell myself what if it were my daughter Lori who was stranded on the side of this isolated road.  I turn around and can clearly see that she has a flat tire.  Actually, the tire is torn to shreds.

"Thank you so much for stopping.  No one would stop to help me, my mother is going to kill me, I was supposed to have the car back hours ago," she rattles quickly.  "Ok, I understand that you need help," I say hoping to quiet her down.  "Do you have a spare tire?"  "Yes, but I do not know how to change it," she says, now almost in tears.

"OK, I'll help you but I want you to remember what I do, should this ever happen again.  First, place your gear in park and set the emergency brake.  Now, we need to loosen the lug nuts and break them loose if necessary.  Set the lug wrench bar like this, and stand on it if you need to."  She watches as I "break the lug nuts" loose.  I save the last one for her.  "Ok, you do the last one."  "Me..." she meekly replies.  She stands on the bar timidly and bounces, the lug nut slowly squeaks loose.  She smiles, "I did it."

The car went up easily with the jack and she placed the spare tire and lowered her car all by herself. "Now, tighten each nut, alternating the pattern, and remove the jack."  Perfect.  The spare tire was securely in place and she learned how to do it.  "Thank you," she said.  "You are a good man."  In my mirror, I could see her speeding home to face her consequences.  Hopefully, her mother would understand and accept her story.  

What is the saying? "Give a man a fish and you feed him for one day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime."

My goal is La Joya Fiestas that usually begin around 6 pm. I decide that I have a little time to see my first cousin, Tudie Romero in Belen.  He is happy to see me and tells me that he hopes to get his new leg (prosthesis) in two weeks.  He knows that I'm here for the fiestas and says that he might come on Sunday.

Buck ~  La Joya, New Mexico.

La Joya greets me and I quickly unload my gear at Jewels Camp which is directly behind my mom and dad's adobe house.  Buck is nearby so I wander over to talk with him.  He looks weak and I ask him, "Buck, are you not eating?"  His ears move but he does not say much.  Buck has been a companion of mine for many years.  In his younger days, our neighbor Marcello Abeyta says, "They call him Buck for a reason."  I make my usual rounds to the cemetery to pay my respects and find the headstone for Luz [Griego] Romero.

She was my dad's sister and the oldest of eight children to Pablo and Alejandra Griego.  Luz and Epifano had three children and Jose Maria Romero was one of them.  Jose Maria Romero was my brother, Leo's godfather, and lived in Belen with his wife Jennie.  I make a mental note to send this new information to him.

Ernie Griego, Fiestas ~ La Joya, New Mexico.

Mexican music is starting and that's my signal to walk over to the church.  I'll soon load up on green chili, beans, and sopapillasCouples are dancing, and one of the dancers is my first cousin Ernie Griego.  He is 88 years old and loves to dance.  He is dancing with a very young girl who is his granddaughter.

"Hello Robert, you came to the fiestas!"  He tells me that he is the oldest surviving Griego.  I put my arm around him to convey that I know that.  In the blink of an eye, he is back on the dance floor.  "Sure doesn't move like he's 88 years old," I tell myself.

I also see a few locals here as well who I've known over the years.  The fiestas, traditionally, have been a time to stop working in the fields, to give thanks to God for the bountiful crops, to dance, to socialize, to eat, and to listen to lively Mexican music.  Today, the bands play a nice mix of Mexican and country/western music. 

Robert and Elva Esquibel ~ La Joya's historic dance hall.

In the morning, my sister Elva and her husband Robert Esquibel stop by Jewel Camp on their way to church.  We take pictures in front of the historic dance hall, a perfect frame for them.  Shortly afterward, Gilbert, Ruben, and James travel with me for huevos rancheros and hot red chili at Sophia's Kitchen in Socorro.

Just as we walk into the restaurant, three cowboys with guitars enter.  As our breakfast is being served, the lead singer begins playing some great country-western music.  I raise my head when I hear the beat coming on of a Johnny Cash song.  His name is Doug Figgs from Lemitar, New Mexico, and he a singer/songwriter and adds the perfect mix to our breakfast.  I grab his card,, and hope to hear more of his music on my next visit to New Mexico.

He continues on with another Johnny Cash is good.

After breakfast, we ride towards San Antonio and look over the Buckhorn Tavern.  Sunset Magazine recently voted them the best hamburger place in America, calling their green chili hamburgers as "big as a big rigs hub cap."

Robert Griego, Buckhorn Tavern, San Antonio, New Mexico.

I have always wanted to go to Capitan and Lincoln, New Mexico.  This was a favorite hangout of Billy the Kid.  The historical town of Lincoln, New Mexico is the place where he broke out of courthouse and jail in 1881.

I roam the streets of Lincoln but do not see him.  I do see several apple trees that are loaded with fruit, so I pick two ripe apples for the road ahead.

Bikers out to find Billy the Kid in the Badlands of New Mexico.

I'm also looking for a possible camping spot.  I see one and turn onto a dirt road going up the hill only to stop when I see a "no trespassing" sign.  It is a narrow dirt road with steep gutters or shoulders.  As I try to make a u-turn, my front wheel begins to slide into the soft shoulder.  I stop and realize that I'm between "a rock and a hard spot."  My bike loaded weighs 1,000 pounds.  I can't push it back uphill and forward looks dangerous.  I slowly inch forward.  My front tires dip further towards the soft shoulder.  It is now or never and I accelerate and my rear tire spins wildly.  Finally, the front tire grips firm ground, and my back tires fly spitting dirt and rocks this way and that.  I just make it out.  I am tired and closely came to spending the night on this dirt road until some rancher came by to pull me out.

After nearly getting stuck, I decided to head back to Jewels Camp where I know the ground is solid and level.  Gilbert, Ruben, and James are returning home but I do not know exactly their route.  I decide in the morning to ride Highway 60 west towards Magdalena, Datil, Aragon, Apache Creek, and Reserve.  This route is one of the most scenic in New Mexico, and one of my favorites.   In Reserve pumping gas, I meet a lady who is riding a motorcycle.  She tells me that she has a few miles on her bike.  "How many?" I ask.  She simply says "85,000 miles."  Impressive lady rider.

She asks about the road ahead and I tell her what I know from an earlier ride.  "There will be vast landscape, downhill curves towards the desert, and likely it will be hot," I tell her.  She is off quickly and I take my time in Reserve, New Mexico.  There are elk hunters all around, all eager to see elk.  I do not see one elk on this trip.

"Ever seen the movie Top Gun with Tom Cruise?"  

On Highway 60, there are some vast stretches of open range and it is not uncommon to not see another car for 50 miles.  On one ride, between Datil and Magdalena, I had some unique visitors.  I was riding slowly on this route when I heard a tremendous roar behind me.  It sounded like a freight train but there were no trains nor anyone behind me.  I thought perhaps that something had vibrated off my bike and I was a bit concerned.  Just then, the same sound came up behind me and this time I looked up.  There was a jet in a vertical accent, twisting slowly with each mile upwards.   The two jets were on some sort of training, and my guess is that one pilot said to the other.  "See the motorcycle up ahead, let's go vertical on that mark."  Once I knew where the sound came from, I was thrilled.  I could hear Maverick saying to Goose, "He's going vertical and so am I."

Love Top Gun; I had to stop and take this picture with a big smile on my face.

"A Top Gun moment" ~ Highway 60, somewhere out in New Mexico.

With Top Gun playing in my head, the landscape around me is immense.  It looks wild and peaceful.  I am in awe.  There is a rest stop up ahead that I've seen before.  It is the Aldo Leopold Vista on the Gila National Forest.  It is quiet here.  There are no other people at this roadside vista that honors a brave man.  He is wilderness.  He defined wilderness.  His actions allowed us to experience the wilderness.  The Aldo Leopold Vista offers vast panoramic views of the Mogollon Mountains and the Gila Wilderness to the east, the San Francisco River Valley and bluffs to the north and the high plains of Mule Creek and Arizona to the west and southwest.

I remember on a trip to Denali National Park in Alaska with our grandkids, Evan and Kai, when the park ranger asked, "What is wilderness?"  We all had our interpretations and now I think about her words a bit more.  "What is wilderness, Robert."  I see it, but what is it.  I'm a bit confused with my own challenge to myself, but I know it to be important.  We'll see.

Aldo Leopold understood "...That ethics direct individuals to cooperate with each other for the mutual benefit of all. One of his philosophical achievements was the idea that this ‘community should be enlarged to include non-human elements such as soils, waters, plants, and animals, “or collectively: the land.”  “That the land is a community is the basic concept of ecology, but that the land is to be loved and respected is an extension of ethics....”

I will think more about his words of ethics and my own relationships with nature in the rides and adventures ahead.  I promise.

Up ahead are a small group of houses and the road sign that reads Horse Springs.  On this trip, I have seen many signs with the words Springs included   -- Peach Springs, Mountain Springs, Buck Springs, Deer Springs, Warner Springs, Hot Springs, Hidden Springs, and a few more that I can't remember.  I think I like Horse Springs the best.  It is in the middle of New Mexico and just this side of  'nowhere.'

A real "one-horse" town.

I drop into the desert towards Safford, Arizona and the temperatures increase with each mile downward.  I hope to reach Benson, Arizona where my friend, Fred Comaduran lives.  Unfortunately, he is not home but I take a picture of my bike in front of his house which has the American Flag high on a pole with another flag below it that reads, "Seabees."  I know the Comadurans' are a proud military family.  I'll ask Fred more about that on another visit.

I've got time and I find myself looking at a mural in downtown Benson.  "A guy passing by simply says, if you like this one, go down the road and check out the Muriel painted, by a painter, walking away."  A bit confused, I ride over to the wall that he described.

Quarles Art Gallery ~ Benson, Arizona.

It is a beautiful mural.  Inside the gallery, the artwork is outstanding.  The nature scenes are unique and the painting of people is timeless.  I spend a good hour looking at the artwork and talking with the painter, Doug.  I briefly tell him about my bike ride and that I love his artwork.  Soon, we are talking about Africa.  "I worked for the Department of Wildlife and National Park as a United Nations Volunteer and Peace Corps Volunteer."  "I saw many animals in the wild, most in the Okavango Delta and Chobe National Park," I tell him.  "Always wanted to go there, but 9/11 stopped that cold" he replies.  "9/11" I repeat."  "Yes, he says."

Grizzly Bears by Doug Quarles.

Privately, my thoughts are going to the title of my journal that is taking on a life.  I think back to Middle Satellite Camp and remember that I left on this adventure on Friday, September 11th.  Back to reality.  "Perhaps I can provide you with pictures of wild animals that you would have seen in Botswana, Africa," I say.  I tell him about the time a hippo charged me in Savuti Channel, just outside of Chobe National Park.  I remember the charge of this hippo to this day.  They say that hippos kill more people in Africa than any other animal.

I take a few pictures with his approval and make a mental note to stop by Quarles Art Gallery at in the future.  I hope to bring Denise here one day to pick out a painting for our house.

His art studio is amazing, and all this just because some guy saw me looking at a mural in Benson, Arizona.

Indian Motorcycles ~ Tucson, Arizona.

Just as I'm ready to leave, a lady sees me and asks "Did you just come back from Sturgis?"  I'm wearing one of my favorite Sturgis t-shirts so we talk.  It seems her husband rode up there this year on an Indian motorcycle and loves the bike.  "We bought it at the Indian Dealership in Tucson."  I wasn't planning to go there but Tucson is on my route and I have the time to check out some new bikes, or so goes my rationale.  The Indian bikes are beautiful and the sales guy, Michael, is very knowledgeable about all bikes and takes his time introducing the Indians to me.  I came "that close" to getting one right there in Tucson.

My route from Tucson is undefined and I stop for gas at Casa Grande, where Highway 10 and 8 meet.  Going north would be faster but Highway 8 takes me into San Diego where I could visit Lori, Teo, Evan, and Malia as well as Keith and Kai.  Time is on my side so it's west towards San Diego.  This portion of the ride is hot as I push on to Gila Bend and Yuma, Arizona.  This ride has been dry and the 30-second rainstorm gets me wet and serves as my air conditioning, if only for a brief time.

After leaving Yuma, Arizona on Highway 8, an 18 wheel semi-truck passes me in the fast lane.  My bike is going 70 mph and the big truck is likely doing 80 mph and this scene unfolds before my eyes.

A dark bird is flying into the air after coming out from the wheels of the big rig.  The wings are extended and the wind turbulence has it upside down.  It hits the ground and quickly begins to run in front of me.  It is a roadrunner!  I knew they were fast but I just witnessed this bird, running between those 18 wheels at 80 mph, get tossed into the air, and hit the ground running.  

Impressive road runner!

Lori and Malia Jimenez ~ kindergarden.

I love my layover in San Diego and spending time with our grandkids and Lori, Teo, and Keith.  I make a quick stop in Barstow and have dinner with my brother Leo, Irma, and their son David who just happens to be visiting too.  After a great dinner, I'm off for Walker Pass near Lake Isabella where I plan to camp.  Before I leave, I tell Leo about Luz Griego and he appreciates the family history.

The Walker Pass campground is undergoing some work, and the only three sites available that I can see are taken.  It is well after dark and I push on towards Lake Isabella where I know there are plenty of campsites.  But just before Lake Isabella, on my right, I see a sign that reads Chimney Peak Recreation Area where primitive camping is permitted.  A welcome sign for sure.

It is late, almost 9:30pm when I set up camp on a flat piece of dirt in the dark.  The stars are incredible, and in the morning, so is the landscape.

"When I woke, this was such a beautiful sight, I had never camped here before."

I arrive home in Three Rivers the next day, after eight days on the trail and 2,673 miles.

On this trip, I hoped to connect with nature at a root level.  Perhaps, the Denali Park Ranger's challenge to define Wilderness is the answer.

My definition:  "Wilderness is the lens to look into your soul.


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