Endless Horizons – Another False Start on Our Quest to Break Free

Racing like a crazed mule in my old, heavily-loaded Jeep Wrangler, I just barely made it to the Devil’s Tower entry gate for a sweet few minutes as the sun set and lit up it’s dramatic face.   An otherworldly apparition rising out of the surrounding plains and forests, I had first learned of this cool, geological feature from Spielberg’s movie, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, having watched it with good friends in 1977 at a US Air Force theater just outside of Madrid, Spain.   Now, halfway around the world, I’d finally get to see the actual site 32 years later.

As I drove up the winding forest road to the base of this unusual tower, I caught a female ranger locking up at the gift shop, smiling and waving at me as she got into her USFS-issued pickup truck and drove away.   Her friendly gesture was an warm invitation to stay a spell even though it was after six.  She’d likely radio over to the entry gate and have them look for me on the way out; I was the only one there that November day.

I had been hired to run the cash office in a subterranean, windowless room at a ski resort on Mt. Hood and the low-paying, seasonal job promised us a foothold in our quest to relocate out West… at all costs, we were so desperate to leave the pressure-filled, DC area.  It paid an absolutely tiny fraction of what my wife made at her international organization, but we knew we could make it work by selling stuff and simplifying.

With the Jeep loaded to capacity, I plotted out my route across the US from Maryland to Oregon and scoped out some interesting stops along the way; the US map filled with pointy sticky notes.   Looking back now, eight years later, I have to laugh a bit at my insanity and impulsivity; but, I’ve also learned in life that the prize (in whatever form it takes) goes to He-Who-Sees-GrandVision and dares to take a risk and chance failure… and fail miserably I did.   I was not prepared to move so quickly with cash and receipts in that abysmal room, locked behind the plexiglass window with holes for 10 hours a day, while the world above was skiing freely on one of my favorite resorts; Mt. Hood!

The cruelty was unbearable.  Were the adventure Gods having a good laugh at my expense, I wondered?  Nasty Gods.

But not all was lost.   Some of the sights along the way were amazing.   The stop to the place where Custer made his last stand was profoundly haunting.   Just a quick pull off from Interstate 90, the approach to the rolling hills now dotted with headstones from Natives and US Army forced one to pause and to reflect.

Later that day, on my endless drive across Wyoming, later sitting on the bench watching the sun fade on Devil’s Tower proved to be another almost religious moment.  The last of the day’s Fall rays rose up until only an afterglow of dusk remained.   Not another person around.  Wish I had had a fancy iPhone to run a time lapse video.

The following day, as I wound my way up into the western Montana roads approaching the Idaho border, the stop at the National Bison Range had me laughing when the polite ranger with the pained expression quietly informed me that they had all migrated over the mountain pass for the year the week before.

No less impressive, a couple of days prior, was my detour to South Dakota’s Badlands, a place I could clearly recall seeing in some of the old Western movies I had watched growing up; and, of course, Mount Rushmore was quite impressive… though admittedly, not a defacing project I would condone in this day and age.   The Black Hills are a wonder to behold as they seemingly rise up to meet the traveller from an endless sea of  rolling grasslands; a type of oasis.

When I return with my wife, we’ll have to find the Crazy Horse project in the area; a similar monument that looks to be equally if not more impressive.

Well, so life teaches us to get out of our comfort zones, not overthink, and to learn from failure.   The drive back home to Maryland had a very different feeling to it…    for I had some “splainin'” to do.   We’d have a few more, non-life-threatening, false starts after this debacle and as I look back, the anguish and heartbreak at the delays were all worth it.

“If you are not failin’, your not really tryin'”.

Stepping Into a Dream: The Wonders of Petra (Jordan)

A smiling Bedouin approached me and said, “Here.  Please take my card.   It has my website on it.   I am here if you have any questions at all.”   Impeccable english.   Within seconds, I was blown away by the archaeological treasures before me and now, this interesting chap.  I looked over to his camel and visualized riding off over the sand dunes never to be captured by the modern world again.

We’d been tipped off by the locals to get here as the gates opened if we desired a tranquil experience.   The Red Sea was not far away and swarms of air conditioned, modern tour busses would soon load their pink-skinned cargo straight off of their plush cruise liners and they’d be upon us like locusts!   Best to make haste slowly.  No time to waste!

The drive from Amman was itself an interesting trek across the Jordanian desert.   Before the sun rises, then as it peeks above the horizon, the magical lights bring the quiet sands to life.   Our driver asked what radio station we’d like and as we always do, we replied that we’d be very happy with his local station.   Why on earth would we want to listen to something “western” when we are here?  Please.

As we approached, descending to the site, our spirits soared.   We could see the almost empty parking lot and my wife and I were glad that we’d risen at four in the morning to be the first ones here.   Sweet tranquility.

So much to take in, so little time.   Grateful, however, that at least we had this chance.

The walk from the exposed desert and immediately into the narrow gorge was wonderful.  Looking up, all I could see was a strip of blue sky.  It reminded me of an earlier adventure in southern Utah when I had waded up a chilly creek in Zion National Park (the Narrows).  Shortly into the gorge, the wall carvings began to appear, some sadly worn at about the four to five foot height due to careless tourists touching them.  Same damage as I had noted while in the ancient stacked pyramids in Egypt years prior.

If only we could select the humans that would respect these magnificent places…

Once through the gorge, the famous Treasury Building came into view and to my astonishment, about 300 other structures as well, all carved into the beautiful, red sandstone; a stone so curious with all of its various, curved striations.

So deep into the canyons were we that the sun only began to strike us as we hiked up the steep paths to the upper plateaus.

I could write an entire book on this morning’s experience, but this entry shall have to serve as a tease and an invitation for you who read it to go visit this wonderful site.

By the later morning, as we made haste to leave before the masses arrived, we found we were too late!   Nooooooo… a primal “geschrei” arose within us!    Through the narrow gorge, they all came streaming out, each grouping led by an underpaid tour guide with colored umbrella.   Within seconds, we were overrun and the once quiet place was abuzz with rude tourists bouncing off of each other each in desperation for the much needed photo.

I could barely breathe as my wife and I waded upstream through the gorge and to our amused driver waiting at the edge of chaos.

Well…, it was a magnificent experience, one that I would highly recommend.   If I had the Bedouin’s business card, I would surely post his contact information for you so that he might guide you for a quiet and contemplative experience of your own.

Erasing History – The Yom Kippur War

When you are a 15-year-old kid (1975) and desperate to record your ‘fine’ rock and roll music, you hunt through your dad’s stuff, find a cassette tape (remember those?) and of course, tape over the existing recording…   except that, what was on that tape was far more interesting than the horrid, out-of-tune rendition of Honky Tonk Woman that followed.

34 years later, as my driver followed the Jordan Valley Highway south to drop me off for the tour of Jesus’ baptismal site, I thought back to that fateful day when I wiped out some interesting history on tape.

I wasn’t close to the old boy, but I can’t deny that he had a great go at life.   As a US diplomat stationed in Ankara (Turkey), he’d be called on to handle various assignments; one of which was to assist Henry Kissinger in his shuttle diplomacy during the early 1970s.  On one such assignment, during the Yom Kippur War, he found himself shuttling between Syria and Israel, the details of which I found in his journals and I’d rather not share.  But the tape he brought back of his time with the Israeli Army was surely fascinating.

While that conflict raged on, he found himself inside a mountain bunker with the US and Israeli military officers and NCOs while the Syrians were hurling artillery and vectoring closer to their hardened site.   And as the incoming barrage intensified, one could clearly hear the tenor of voices, the back and forth over the radio, and most of all the increasingly terrified voice of the civilians inside; my dad, included, though I could tell he was working hard to be brave.

I can still see, in my mind’s eye, the day my dad came into my room and asked, “have you seen my cassette?” and of course, seeing it on my desk, his heart sinking as he realized that I had taped over a good portion of his prized piece of history.  To his credit, he never lost his cool.  He just laughed, walked out, and closed the door behind him.

Cresting the rolling mountains overlooking the Dead Sea, passing Jordanian military check posts every few kilometers, I thought back to those earlier years and wondered what the old boy really did see in the desert so long ago.

My driver dropped me off under what looked like a crude, Bedouin tent with the deuce and a half parked next to it (military truck w/canvas top).   There were a few other tourists assembled and we all hopped into the back of the truck for our visit to The Jordan River Baptismal Site of Jesus Christ.   It was a fascinating walk to the famous river, the Israeli flag snapping in the wind across the way under the unrelenting high sun.   Surreal, in a way.

Sitting on a rock by the site, random thoughts coursed through my mind that afternoon.   If only my devoutly Catholic grandmother and great-grandmother could have joined me on this pilgrimage; though, I swore I felt their presence…

An Unexpected Detour to the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site – South Dakota (Nov’09)

Journey enough, and you’ll likely come upon the occasional surprise along the way.   The cross-country odyssey I had embarked on, across Rt. 90 on my way to Mt. Hood, Oregon featured numerous stops along the way such as Devil’s Tower, the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument and other treasures.   What I had not anticipated was a place commemorating the technology that could be used to annihilate the human race.

Bouncing along in my fully-loaded Jeep Wrangler, I spied the signs for it a few miles before the turnoff and it had me trying to visualize what the ranchers in this remote area would have seen had we ever launched our missiles…

A peaceful landscape of undulating and rolling grassy fields would have suddenly come alive as a thousand missiles rose from their bunkers; an absolutely frightful site, as they would then await the incoming counterstrike from the then-USSR.   Simply surreal.

Looked like I had just a few minutes before the place closed.   I knew I’d not be able to get a tour of the bunker, but it was still worth a detour and so I went.   Poor ranger.   It was mid-November and I likely woke the poor guy up!   No other visitors there.

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It was an interesting few minutes and when I left the trailer, I gazed out to the enclosed site where the decommissioned facility lay.   At the height of the Cold War, there were 1,000 of these sites; now, there are about 450.   I can only imagine how lonely such a posting must be and the mindset it must take to take on such a responsibility.

Let us pray that mankind continues to appreciate the implications of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD).

Returning my my overloaded Jeep, I made my way back onto westbound Rt. 90 and my thoughts wandered to my youth, to the five years spent living behind the Iron Curtain.

13 years prior, while inspecting the Krunichev Rocket Facility on the outskirts of Moscow, the USAF Colonel on tour with me leaned over and whispered, “I was in Nuclear Targeting at the Pentagon and this was one of our targets.”

Yikes…   Maybe this is why I now live in a very remote part of Colorado.

[Photos from the NPS multimedia, public domain]

The Train to Erfurt (East Germany; 1980)

50°59’0″ N   11°2’0″ E

My father, a US diplomat,  was stationed in East Berlin from 1979 to 1982 and during that time my brother and I would fly back from college during the holidays and for the summers.   What we saw then and the stories we ‘collected’ seemed ordinary, that is, until we shared them with our friends back stateside.    Here is one:

In August, the son of one of my dad’s diplomatic colleagues invited me along for a train ride to the medieval town of Erfurt; still within the communist-controlled Russian sector, about 300+ km SW of Berlin.   The plan was simple.   Throw a change of clothes into our rucksacks and carry a full case of fine, Budvar Lager to the train’s platform for the three hour ride south.   Burgess assured me that we’d enjoy our tour of the quaint, old town, one that had largely escaped the allies’ bombing campaigns of World War Two.

And so it was that hot, August day as we awaited our train, the only two Americans in a sea of sad and grey East Germans huddled on the old rail platform.   The Wall would imprison these people for another nine years, though at the time it seemed that it would stand forever.

When we boarded the old passenger car, we found one of the worn, wooden benches and placed our prized case of beer between us.  I can still see the others, all quiet and afraid to make contact with the Westerners for fear of being questioned by their internal police  (the Stasi).   Come to find out years later, after the fall of the Wall, that our family’s dossier had grown to an impressive 500 pages!   I’m half-curious to read it someday, maybe…

Lurching off abruptly, the train slowly gathered speed along the old tracks as it began its southwesterly course, the passengers each beginning to lower their windows for circulation.

“Want one?”, Burgess asked handing over one of the almost liter-sized Czech beers.

“Heck yeah!”   and the drinking began.   Something about a beer from a place that’s been in business for over 700 years.

My friend was a Sophomore at Princeton when a careless driver hit him on the Key Bridge in Washington, D.C. early that year.    He’d come to East Berlin in a half body cast and was now down to just one arm cast and naturally in great spirits.   A gentle giant, I really enjoyed my two months with that guy.

Suddenly and without warning, the emergency brakes press the train to an abrupt stop and he and I land in the laps of the East German sitting across from us.

“What the hell…?”, I asked.

Wiping off our spilled beers, we saw nothing for a few minutes then, a wave of military helicopters buzzed us overhead!   And more came.   We peered out our window to try to get a better view when one of the older passengers cautioned us back to sit down.   Curiosity now peaked, we wondered what was happening.

We’d exited the thick forests a few minutes earlier and had come into wide open fields and over to the north, we could see a massive cloud of dust, almost akin to Oklahoma in the Dust Bowl.   What on earth was going on?

“Looks like we’re stuck for a while.   Want another?”

“Sure”

Then they came; first the T-72 tanks and then behind them, artillery being towed by troop carriers and then thousands and thousands of infantry.   Absolutely incredible.   Funny helmets, almost looked like those worn by the Brits in WWI, but flatter and wider.   And they continued to come in this ever increasing dust storm.

We looked at each other in disbelief, drinking our Budvars, amidst the local people on this hot summer day, dust now coming through the windows.   The thunderous noise was overwhelming and the ground shook as the tanks came over the tracks in a crescendo of coordinated military activity.

Then the last ones made their way across, the dust settled, and we could see them heading over the bridge, crossing the Elbe River.   And as soon as the chaos had begun, it seemed to have died down just as quickly and the engine noise quieted to an eerie stillness as we all waited.

The older couple sitting across from us barely made eye contact.   In their early sixties, they must have been just a bit older than us when the war ended.   The woman had a distant look to her.  Lord only knows what they had seen in their lives.

Without warning, the train lurched suddenly back to life and we were off to Erfurt once again.   Who knows now who the tail assigned to us was that day?   It would be interesting to read the entry into our dossier, something buried deep within the old Stasi vaults in Germany gathering dust.

It was only recently that I’d put the pieces together.    Lech Wałęsa, the now-famous Polish labor leader, had jumped the fence into the shipyard in Gdansk a few days prior, instigating a massive strike.   For a few, tense days, it looked like his revolution would prevail, a repeat of Hungary and Czechoslovakia.  When I recounted that story to the full-bird USAF colonel later in 1996, while touring the Krunichev Rocket Plant outside of Moscow, he leaned over and shared that we had gone to DEFCON ___ for just a short while that day.

Strange how we can be in the bullseye and not even have a clue.   Sometimes youthful ignorance really is bliss.

[Featured image from pixabay.com; no attribution required by photographer (tpsdave/971)]

 

An Afternoon at El Djem الجمّ

35° 18′ N   10° 43′  E

Who was “J. Monti”, I wondered, as I came up to the words and years carved into the ancient stone.   There were two; one in 1914 and another in 1958, the second partially obscured by a subsequent patch of mortar.   Of all of the carvings, why had I noticed these? What mysterious force had caused me to pause here?

I’ve always been fascinated by the North African coastline.  So much history, so many ruins from across the ages.   And with the magic of the Internet, it’s just a matter of making these journeys a priority.   What’s more satisfying and lasting, that fine BMW in your garage, or a series of well illustrated and narrated journals of your travels?

Sitting at the café across from the colosseum that afternoon, my thoughts wandered to an earlier time, 1,800 years ago.   With just a bit of effort, I could begin to imagine the glorious structure restored, with colorful fabrics shading her people, sounds of long horns calling the games to action.   And the carvings…

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Jasmine?

J. Monti…   Who was she?   A nurse attached to some British expeditionary force in 1914? How old was she when she returned?   68?   I imagined a young Lucy in a Room With a View, perhaps she’d received word that her Tunisian lover had died…   Maybe they’d stolen away to this place under a moonless night, if only for a moment. He’d likely carved the first, and she the ones after, with her more delicate and older hands, though the numbers “one” and “nine” look identical.

But the constant flow of mopeds robbed me of this lovely daydream, rudely shaking me into the present moment.

“Monsieur, your lamb kebob.”

“Merci!   Très bien.   Parfait.”, I was desperate for lamb, having spent three of my teenage years living in Ankara, acquiring a taste for this.

With the recent unrest in Tunisia, western tourism had simply vanished leaving  the entire place almost to myself.   A couple of young, Asian tourists asking questions of the menu inside, but I was all alone under the umbrella outside.   Perfectly delightful.

I should have insisted that my driver join me, but I could sense that this would have made him uncomfortable, so I demurred.   Looking around at the contrast between old and new, a feeling of sadness came over me as I thought about man’s inability to simply enjoy this marvelous planet.   Why must there always be conflict among us?

If only we could expunge the Seven Deadly Sins, perhaps then we may finally learn to get along.

Well, I’d enjoy this moment, this chance to simply soak into my day’s setting.  “So long J. Monti, whoever you are.”   Jasmine?   Yes, she had to be a Jasmine.