The secret code

The black obelisk in director Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: a Odyssey” has nothing on the red rock monument at the edge of Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff.

We can argue over the meaning of author Arthur C Clarke‘s obelisk (my sense is that it symbolizes the unknowable mysteries that have sparked the imaginations of humans since they first turned their gaze upwards) but for Kubrick I believe it served more as a kind of Hitchcockian ‘McGuffin:’ a device meant, above all, to maintain dramatic suspense.

The McGuffin here is accidental. Since it was dedicated in 1995 this monument has apparently been obscured by development along Milton Street (The boulevard that many visitors coming off Interstates 17 and 40 use to access the historic downtown, Arizona snowbowl and other attractions), overshadowed by the ever-escalating growth of the university itself.

This monument literally has its back turned to Milton Street. Was that intentional?

If you are headed for one of the endless fast food offerings that stretch down Milton as far as the eye can see you are not likely to notice the monument at all. But if by chance you do catch a glimpse of it as you stride purposefully ahead all you can see from the sidewalk is the tall rectangular stone base and, on top, the back of a bronze bust of indeterminate sex.

It may be the season but the landscaping around the monument appears dry, unkempt and overgrown: that last adverb however may be due to the design.

Overgrown by design? Intentionally unkempt?

You have time on your hands so coming back from Smash Burger or Habit Burger or any one of a dozen other burger joints you walk on to the grass and up to the monument and move between the shrubbery and attempt to decipher the faded brass plaque on the western face of the stone base and, with effort, can make out that it was “In Commemoration” in 1995, “The Year of the Native American.”

That’s only part though, a very small part of the story, but it is as if the others were not enough to justify its erection? But those other parts, the other faces of the stone and their faded inscriptions are far more significant than the apologetic notion of a year dedicated – whatever that might mean – to any oppressed people and as you perambulate the monument and see the busts’ profiles the drama grows.

On what I took to be the southern face there is another plaque which lists the names of the original thirty-two, ”Navajo Code Talkers.”

In World War Two over 400 Native Americans utilized their native, unwritten languages to send coded messages that the Japanese found impossible to decipher.

Look up now and the masculine outline of the model is readily apparent.

You are more intimate with the setting now so it is also apparent that the plantings around the monument are almost impossible not to brush up against as you circle the uneven obelisk.

On the eastern face a new stone and plaque have been planted outside the compass-like walkway but you don’t notice that at first so intent you are now upon the third plaque and on the strong, noble Native visage looking over you toward the birthplace of the sun.

This plaque reveals the sculptor to be perhaps the most famous Native American artist of the last century, R.C. Gorman, and his model, also a renowned artist and his father Carl Gorman, whose name you may have noticed is on the southern facing plaque as he was one of the original code talkers.

Remarkable men of imagination and accomplishment and yet this monument to all of the Code Talkers appears neglected, overgrown?

Now you begin to take the monument into your mind in its entirety and like the unblemished black obsidian obelisk in 2001 a piercing note…

No, there is no sound, no eardrum-splitting tone, but there is a question, a cloudburst of questions suddenly thundering in your ears.

How could such an important piece, commemorating the bravery of a people that we tried so hard to wipe from the face of the earth be so blithely neglected? And why, among many other questions that hover above this tooth of desert, do the five faces of this monument not align with its stone walkway.

You instinctively noticed this: symmetry is intrinsic to our human design so the tilted frame or the sunken landscape is palpable to our senses. 

Is this intentional? I scanned the internet and located a Navajo compass of sorts but apart from the symbols and significance of its traditional colors saw no purposeful distortion: east was east and west was west.

Is this itself a code to be deciphered? Is this a sly aside between Navajos in their own language, a message hidden in plain sight?

There may be a simple or simpler explanation. It may be that at this time of year the plantings appear uncared for, or that the artist wanted the inscriptions to fade into the eternal rock, or that he deliberately turned his back, and his father’s face, away from commerce and toward the east and his Alma Mater… the university. 

In Kubricks’ film, in Clarke’s book, in every life there are an endless stream of streams diverging from the main. Distractions are the substance of life.

A Word or Two About: Don Decker

In large part these blog posts will be about the lessons I learn, the knowledge I gain, or the ignorance I recognize in myself as I walk across the country – west to east –  trying, like an archaeologist, to understand the foundations of community from the broken obelisks and decaying friezes of our cities, towns, native lands and windswept landscapes. From time to time though I will encounter individuals and places that stand out on their own and deserve, I believe, to be chronicled as well.

Here is one such piece, what I call, “A Word or Two About..”

 

I couldn’t keep up with him.

We’d never met but I recognized him right away: An Apache face, bold, prominent nose, broad forehead. An Icelandic shock of fine silver hair, pulled directly back. A crease of flesh in the center of his forehead, suggesting I thought, a kind of spiritual balance.

He was up at around five that morning, doing a wash he told me, then drove north from his home near Sedona around 8.

He scooped me up outside the Amtrak Station on Route 66, downtown Flagstaff at precisely 9, flew down Interstate 17 to Camp Verde talking non-stop all the way.

After a detour through the drive-thru at the local Starbucks he rolled into the Center like a soft rain after a long drought.

He is a rain man, I say that now after spending just 15 hours with him: where he goes it pours laughter and music and meaningful conversation.

At least that was my experience of a day with Don.

Fittingly he is responsible for the Nation’s weekly newspaper, so in part for its cohesiveness as a community.

For me he took on the role of spirit real estate salesman as well: in between interviews he drove me to many of the Nation’s housing developments, handsome single family homes and duplexes that the Nation offers its members at subsidized rates, and down dirt roads to the river, past alfalfa fields, both proud of the Nation’s growth and development while dispassionately pointing out how little of the lands they once hunted and foraged and depended on they possess today.

We passed the Cliff Castle Casino and took a side trip to the actual castle in the cliff, Montezuma’s Castle – passing go without paying an entrance fee to the Park Service because of his tribal status.

What was an historic park to most visitors was, under his guidance, revealed to be a bountiful grove crowded with the spirits of his ancestors still diligently reaping the fruits of their labor.

As the wide sky darkened we arrived at the location of the community’s Christmas parade and party – and Don was called upon to photograph the gathering.

Is it patronizing to say that these are beautiful people, especially to the eyes of a New Englander where there is, in large part, a uniformity to the visages of the inhabitants.

These are beautiful people.

It was a long, intense day: for me it was a a kind of school day and I gave my entire attention to those who graciously gave me their time. But in between, in his car or at the cafe we stopped at midday, or with his friends that night at a Winter Solstice celebration in the moon shadow of the San Francisco Mountains Don’s energy never flagged.

His interests are boundless. His talents unbridled.

Have you seen his artwork? A series of his watercolors depicting the Mountain Spirit Dance grace the Tribal Council offices.

In the back of his small car was a guitar case.

He is fluent in Apache.

He has taught in high schools, in college, has written an autobiography, Apache Odyssey, dabbles he would say- though I am sure he is skilled – in Indian crafts and seems knows everyone from Flagstaff to Amarillo .

If I had the opportunity to choose one person to introduce me to the Nation, to teach me the fundamentals of the Native American experience, to guide me to the less frequented vistas, and to provide insightful if oftentimes tongue-in-cheek commentary from a Native perspective on both his brethren and the newcomers, it would be Don.

I meant this to be a short recollection of the man, but I really don’t believe that is possible.

In the West you often find yourself in valleys or crater-like depressions that go on for hundreds of miles in all directions and, in the distance, are bordered by an uneven mountain rim that seems to encircle you completely. Don is a human  expression of that expansiveness.

Where the Acorn Lives

I think we were talking, at first, about the water. It might just as well been about gold, or uranium, or ‘the land.’

The Yavapai-Apache Nation joined other tribes from the Colorado Plateau in a suit against the city of Flagstaff and the National Park Service for allowing contaminated water to be pumped up into the San Francisco Mountains to be used for snow making at the Arizona Snow Bowl ski resort.

At Montezuma’s Castle, a cliff dwelling of the Sinagua people in Camp Verde.

The tribes were concerned that for a short term economic benefit, the city was risking the long-term contamination of ground water, and disrespecting lands sacred to them for a thousand years.

Water rights were at the heart of the US governments earliest betrayals of the Yavapai-Apache Nation, nearly 175 years ago.

Settler’s, many of the first arriving in the rush following the discovery of gold at Sutter’s Creek, California in 1849, wanted land along the Verde River to grow crops or for their livestock.

Then when gold was discovered closer by in Arizona about a decade later, the US government intervened directly, creating a ‘reserve’ of approximately 900 square miles and squeezing these nomadic people into that narrow rectangle.

Getting ready for the Christmas parade at Camp Verde, Arizona on the Yavapai-Apache Nation.

Less than five years later the US reneged on that agreement  and force marched both the Yavapai and the Apache to what was no more than a concentration camp in San Carlos nearly 200 miles away.

We were talking about water, and the Emory Oak – with its edible acorns – and how the water was like the culture and history of the tribe: without it they disappeared.

What is my tribe, I wondered? Is it the tribe of America, nomads too in a way, who have been forced into corporate reservations and have forgotten the roots of democracy, the language of our forebears?

Today only 35 Apache of the Nation have, what Apache Cultural Director Vincent Randall described as a “college-level” fluency in their own language. Far fewer on the Yavapai side.

 

A tribute to the courage and resilience of the Yavapai and Apache people who in 1865 were forced out of their ancestral land and marched nearly 200 miles to a virtual concentration camp.

 

With the loss of their land and water, and their exile in 1875 they soon began to lose their tribal names, their way of life and then, their language.

When I first arrived at the cultural center in Camp Verde I overheard conversations between my host, Don Decker, and his colleagues that often switched seamlessly from English to Apache and back again.

I mentioned that to Randall and he said that, likely, it was because Apache, as an unwritten language had to be much more specific, so especially when discussing their families, traditions and beliefs it was nearly impossible to translate thise concepts into English.

He used the example of the word or phrase for “fall.” The Apache language has variations for the fall over something, the slip, the collapse, the faint: all variations of “to fall.”

The fall of a people?

In discussing the now rare Emory Oak – which is scattered about the High Desert –  and its edible acorn that was used in many traditional recipes, Randall said that you never asked, in Apache, where it was located: it was always where it “lived.”

Everything was alive, everything had a spirit that needed to be respected. It is difficult to translate spiritual beliefs.

To lose the Apache language was then to lose communal Apache customs and practices, to give in to other imported individualistic traditions and customs.

Without those traditions the Nation would likely never have survived the last 175 years. Yet despite that heroic and ultimately successful struggle the Nation’s survival, Randall says bluntly, is still in doubt.

“If you do not learn and continue to write. your own history,” a letter to the Nation’s youth that is at the front of short history of the Nation that I was given, states, “somebody else will write it for you.”

Frank with Apache Cultural Director Vincent Randall.

What language do the leaders, appointed, assumed and elected officials speak, I wondered, thinking back just a few days to the jargon-filled meeting of the Flagstaff City Council?

It may seem inconsequential, I thought, but when the residents of a community don’t speak ‘the same language’ as community leaders, how can they trust each other?

Do we as ‘Americans’ have a shared language?

I set out to understand as best I could the unique challenges of a Native American community in maintaining a sense of belonging to that community so I am surprised to see now, as I write, that  I am perceiving the lessons that this tiny Nation may be able to teach the broader American community.

I don’t believe that Native Americans are an intrinsically more ethical people, but I sense that the challenges that they have overcome, the lessons they have learned, have provided a template that we may all find useful.

Perhaps we are already learning that lesson and the anger and fear that so many are expressing reflects the pain associated with the recognition of its loss or the rebirth of pride in their own tribe?

I don’t know the answers but I feel that in Camp Verde, speaking with the leaders and members of the Yavapai-Apache Nation, I came closer to the right questions.

As Vincent Randall might say, I can’t tell you where to find the Emory Oak, but I know where it lives.

A Mouthful of Clay

I have only seen one tumbleweed in 500 miles of walking, two if you count me.

You’d better count me.

I supppose I have come across more, but didn’t recognize them as such, as the wind was calm at the moment or – I imagine this is what they do –  they had taken temporary root.

Are tumbleweeds alive? I imagine
them as being similar to sea urchins, tumbling over the sea bottom.

I too am rolling across this vast, oceanic world, at times just pushed along by the current, at other times taking root or lying in weight for unsuspecting plankton to drift by and then feeding.

How do urchins feed? Do they have mouths?

The feeding I am talking about is different: feeding the mind, the soul, the spirit.

Can you overfeed an urchin or a tumbleweed – assuming it is alive in the first place?

I know I can only absorb so much at one time: today my head aches from all that I tried to take in in the last few days. In time I will digest it and, perhaps even in the first few days of winter, produce new shoots, new flowers from this feast.

That is really what this little essay is about: digestion, transformation, transmutation…

Transposition?

You know you are learning when you yourself are surprised at what you remember, what you have retained.

I remember Mitchell, a Yapavai-Apache Nation member who has a fry bread stand at a great location in Camp Verde.

He sets up in an empty dirt lot within sight of the Nation’s “Cliff Castle Casino – it’s  just uphill – and near the road a million tourists a year have to use on their way to Montezuma’s Castle: a wonderfully well preserved cliff dwelling.

Conni DiLego, former director of Plymouth’s Center for Active Living spent many years in Arizona and told me that once I got it’s “red clay between my toes” I’d find it difficult to leave.

Later, speaking of the Navajo people’s natural empathy for strangers in diffficult situations she told me that if I walked through the ‘rez’ I’d likely receive many offers of “soda and fry bread.”

Yavapai-Apache Don Decker, my host at the reservation, stopped at Mitchell’s stand in between escorting me on a tour of their land and, after ordering, I told the proprietor – mashing both of Conni’s comments together – that a friend had told me that “once I get the red clay between my toes and fry bread in my mouth” I wouldn’t be able to leave.

Without looking up from his griddle Mitchell said in a flat, unaffectated tone of voice… “Just be sure you don’t get the two things mixed up.”

I laughed, but really I don’t think it would matter.

I am a tumbleweed: rolling across this vast and to me at least, new world.

I feed on anything I see, on everything I feel, everywhere I go.

And you know what? It all tastes sweet to me.

note: since writing this I have learned that tumbleweeds, though permanently ensconced in the mythology of the American West (in movies, books and cowboy songs) are actually the mature but dead portion of one of America’s first well-known invasive species – Russian thistle. Apologies to urchins.

Bell out of order, please knock!

We often discount our every night dreams, those familiar landscapes and faces, believing there is no message there, no currency. 

I might have discounted Tuesday night’s Flagstaff  City Council Meeting for many of the same reasons: it was so familiar.

I was 2,500 miles away from Plymouth Town Hall but from my seat I looked up at a raised, horseshoe-shaped table where elected officials listened, spoke (when recognized by the chair – in this case the mayor) and voted on a series of largely uninspiring plans and regulations.

But for the ceremonial aspect of this particular meeting I might have believed I had been magically transported back to Masssachusetts and to a meeting of the Board of Selectmen.  

This was however a special night, in terms of Flagstaff local government:  it was the meeting at which the newest members of the Flagstaff City Council – elected last November – were sworn in and took their seats.

So there was an added ceremonial element to the evening and a greater number of people in attendance than likely was usual, including the families of these new Councillors.

It was, at first, charming.

The Flagstaff Chorus sang patriotic songs, including the official songs of all five branches of the military: army, navy, marines, air force and coast guard.

A Navajo woman offered a lengthy blessing (in her native language).

Girl Scouts led the Pledge of Allegiance in three languages (English, Spanish and Dine’).

Really, apart from the Native American element, it appeared no different than the 1000+ meetings I had attended as a reporter in Massachusetts. There was even a similar ‘public participation’ rule: three minutes allocated for citizen commentary which almost every speaker exceeded, save for me.

I had sent an email to the councillors the previous day and had been invited to attend the reception at 5 and to speak at the 6 O’clock meeting.

Before me there were a series of speakers who took advantage of the occasion to argue for their causes or, in two cases, warn the new councillors against exceeding their authority.

Nothing unusual there.

 I was the last to speak, and seeing the rules I had quickly hobbled together a few notes on my phone, estimating it would take up a minute or less (a record for brevity, I am sure those who know me are saying), trying to be deferential and yet effective.

I was nervous. No one knew me here.

I began by apologizing for my attire: jeans and a tee shirt, I explained, were the best I could do in my circumstances.

I had meant to go on, explain thise unique circumstances but the mayor, perhaps sizing me up as that particularly annoying variety of government gadfly that I was familiar with as a former reporter, interrupted my little speech. “Please state your name,” she blurted out.

I was reminded, perhaps an unfair association, of the scene from the Wizard of Oz in which the Lion, the Scarecrow, the Tin Man and Dorothy finally reach the massive door at the entrance to Oz and ring the bell.

The guard answers and asks, petulantly, if they are able to read? He points to a place where he expects a sign is hung, the sign they should have read, but it isn’t there. He disappears for a moment and returns with the sign, hangs it up, and disappears again.

The four read it out loud, in unison: “Bell out of order. Please knock.”

Flagstaff from all appearances is a fascinating city, with progressive values, extensive services, efficient government and an almost guaranteed source of revenue via the tourist economy. 

But I am interested in what its residents feel, how they feel, whether they feel that no matter how long and loud they knock they aren’t being heard. Or perhaps whether, regardless of the reality of their government and community, they simply believe there is no reason to knock, no opportunity to be heard.

My sense is that one of the secrets to creating a vibrant ‘hometown’ is knocking yourself, not on town hall’s door, but on the door of every resident.

What did former Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill say: all politics is local.

In my recurring dream of the ideal community there are impressive edifices, brilliant officials and enlightened regulations. But though not immediately visible against the modern skyline, there are actually people walking on those  streets.

Look closely: can you tell if they are smiling?

Yes, in my backyard

Difficult issues are easy to set aside and, with time, to forget.

One of the benefits of this little walk is that it places, in a non-confrontational consistent fashion, the difficult issue of homelessness in front of a large amount of people for prolonged period of time.

And out of that occurs a natural discussion or engagement in this issue.

Just in the last few weeks I have had Facebook followers make suggestions or offer examples of new and innovative ways to deal with the issue of homelessness.

I believe this will go on as long as I can walk and will in its own way make an important and material contribution.

One particular innovative approach that I would like you to seriously consider, brought to my attention by Plymouthean Lee Pulis, is what is being called “The BLOCK Project.”

Imagine if you built and invited a homeless person to live in a tiny home on your property?

This is how the Seattle-based BLOCK Project describes themselves…

“The BLOCK Project invites community into the task of ending homelessness by placing a BLOCK Home in the backyard of one single-family lot on every residentially zoned block within the City of Seattle.”

Read that last paragraph again and let it sink in.

“Each 125 sq ft home is beautifully designed to be off-grid, self-sufficient, and amenity-rich (featuring a kitchen, bathroom, sleeping area, solar-panels, greywater system, composting toilet, etc.). 

“The BLOCK Project represents an innovative leap forward on the issues of homelessness, cross-class integration, social inclusion, and architectural design.  

“The BLOCK Project is a housing initiative and a community building project. 

“Many social injustices, including homelessness, are perpetuated through emotional and physical separation, which allows us to get stuck on the complexity of the issue. 

“By literally saying, ‘Yes, in my backyard’, we will begin to see the person afflicted by the issue. We believe this will nurture the empathy needed to catalyze a global movement.”

It is not the only innovative approach to homelessness and, I think it’s clear that it has its own, built-in limitations; you should probably not, for example, move an opiates addict or substance abuser into your backyard. But considering that there is a broad assortment of types of homelessness, including employed people who still cannot afford or locate rental units, it is worth serious consideration.

I will be speaking with their media person sometime after the New year and If possible and practical help spread word of their approach. But again for me what Is most gratifying is that many of you are now more aware of the general issue.

Our natural reaction to the homeless is to look away: I hope my walk at the very least helps others look the homeless right in the eye.

Hawkeye

As I rolled my converted golf cart into the combination country club, mobile home park and RV resort a rusty 1986 van gurgled past me.

I looked out of place, pushing my cart with my backpack and propane heater in the place where my golf clubs should’ve gone but he, the bedraggled, bearded Vietnam Vet  – his hat proclaimed that loudly – looked out of place, and time, and out of sorts, even at a passing glance.

This was a stranger: this was someone who tests the empathy of everyone he brushes by. 

I had wondered how people would respond to me as, unshaven and overburdened I passed through the small towns of America. But I knew how they would respond to him.

I officially checked in, received my illustrated map, made my way past the showers and bathrooms, the pool and laundromat– there for registered guests only – and to tent site 140 and saw that, fittingly, we were neighbors.

The drivers door was open, his full frail figure in view if dimly, but that I would come to realize was likely as far as he would ever venture out into the society of the RV park; the well heeled retirees with their second or third homes pulling trailers, many from  the northern states and Canada, with  fat motorcycles or small cars or dune buggies or boats.

Still he was not hesitant to speak to me, to guess by my appearance that I was on foot and, after I revealed my full plans, that his new neighbor was, he said, “crazier than me.”

We really weren’t that far apart.

$15 a night doesn’t get you the motorcycle or the boat but it does get you a home for the night: his the van, mine the tent.

He was a Vietnam Vet and though I missed the draft by two years my father, at 50, did a yearlong tour.

We were also both afloat, barely,  in the mud of social security. 

As we talked – though half of what he said was unintelligible to me and half of my responses went unheard by him (so many of his systems were clogged and crimped or rusted shut) – I think we both began to see each other.

He was obviously in poor health. No, that doesn’t come close to describing his condition. His ailments were epic. Odysseus may have taken on cyclops and sirens and the gods themselves but Hawkeye’s journey home was far more perilous. 

His voice was a scab. On his left temple there was a horrendous blemish, a tumor, a growth: it’s hard to describe it accurately because it was difficult to look directly upon. He kept it in the shadows.

His yellowed fingers gripped a cigarette that seemed to have the upper hand; it slowly, malevolently, was inhaling him.

But in other ways he was charming: he was kind to me, concerned for me. He laughed inoffensively at the situation I had entered voluntarily- my long walk – and offered me, if I heard him correctly, “a couple of eggs and coffee,” the next morning before I left.

Is it callous to say that at the prospect of sharing a meal with him I thought of Papillon, of Steve McQueen sharing the leper’s cigar?

But then, as I put up my tent, he disappeared into that dark van. It was only 3 in the afternoon but I didn’t hear a sound from him the rest  of the day or through the night, and when I climbed out of my tent early the next morning there were no eggs or coffee waiting.

I took advantage of the hour: the only guests stirring were vacationers with actual golf clubs walking to the first tee. In an otherwise empty bathroom I showered, shaved, changed clothes: something not expected of a cross country walker.

I came back to site 140 and there was still no sign of life from the van so, after taking down the tent and packing up most of my things I paused to dine on a half-eaten bag of “Antioxidant Mix:” almonds, sunflower seeds and dried cranberries.

My mouth trudged through that meal until, thankfully,  I was interrupted by a bicyclist: was her name Sylvia? She had seen me from across the way, from her recreational vehicle and had been moved by my meager breakfast.  As she finished her morning cycle she turned in to my site and announced that her husband had made one too many pancakes that morning, “would I like one?”

I’ve been on the road less than a month but I have learned at least one important lesson: whenever someone offers you something free, say yes!

A moment later she returned with – in one hand a plate with an LP of a pancake a half inch thick and covered with butter and – in the other, maple syrup and homemade jam.

Had she ever done the same for Hawkeye? Maybe.

When I finished I took the plate, jam and syrup and returned them and when I came back to my picnic table Hawkeye had reappeared, and was once again in the drivers seat, the door still closed.

I went to the check-in area, which as is the case in many of these parks, served also as a general store and gift shop, and bought 2 cups of coffee. I filled a third cup with dry creamer, packets of sugar and a spoon.

I walked up to his window, and knocked softly, gesturing with the coffee. I think perhaps that the window didnt work because he opened the door instead.

It was a perfunctory exchange at first: Would he like a cup of coffee? How did he take his coffee? What was that ungodly hole on the side of his face?

A spider bite, Hawkeye said – I had not asked him out loud but he knew, up close that question arose on it’s own, adding that the doctors at the veterans hospital wanted to biopsy it: “expected me to come back in a day or two for the results. Fuck that! I drove 3000 miles in the last month, to this the veterans hospital and that, to the Social Security office, back-and-forth. I’m not going back.”

Up close I could see the detail of the “spider bite.” It looked as if he had been branded with a silver dollar-sized iron, or as if a small red, fleshy donut had been affixed to his cheek and then nibbled at. I really can’t describe it. Up close I could also see that his right eye must have been pretty much useless: there was no eye to see, instead a collection of pea-sized yellow spheres filled the space and bulged from under his eyelid. Glaucoma? And then there was his belly: he looked to be carrying twins at least and at the bottom what I took to be a hernia protruded.

And yet he sought to advise me. He joined the chorus of those arguing against crossing the desert at this time of year. He asked me If I was carrying a gun: ”You should!” He offered me what he said was a 40-year old leather jacket that was stowed somewhere inside the van. He offered me a package of orange peanut butter crackers. I accepted the crackers.

There wasn’t much of a conversation: hints of a wild youth, a brief account of a wounded comrade, a wistful and then dismissive description of his Rhode Island hometown, Smithfield I thought I heard, and a brother or was it friend he had not seen  in years…

He left the park before me, heading to the Social Security office again, he said.

“Come on Maybelline,” he was speaking to his van, “start for me.”

Maybelline wheezed and coughed, then wheezed and coughed again, all the time Hawkeye slapping at the gas pedal with his foot and turning the key.

The second time around Maybelline wheezed and coughed and then convulsed into combustion not unlike, I thought to myself, Hawkeye likely rises in the morning.

Then proceeding me out of the park as he had proceeded me in Maybelline gurgled and groaned and lurched out of view.

I blinked. Had he been real? Was he a spectre sent to this comfortable combination marina, country club and RV park to chasten me, remind me of my mission?

‘Do you feel,’  I am supposed to ask residents of the communities I pass through, ‘that this is your hometown?’ I didn’t have to ask.

No, he was all too real, homeless, magnificent. Who among us could have withstood for a moment any one of the ailments  he endured daily? Did I mention the color of the skin on his legs?

We like to talk about bravery. ‘Thank you for your service,’ has become an almost involuntary reply to the sight of any member of the military. My father, 95 years old, hero of the “Hump”, navigator in the Berlin airlift, a Vietnam Vet as well: was he as brave as this veteran?

And what has Hawkeye received as a reward for his service, his bravery, his resilience: disdain, fear, detached doctors, indifferent bureaucrats, the comraderie of the disavowed.

I hear people say they believe most of the homeless are taking advantage of the system. I hear people say that it is more profitable to be on welfare than to work for a living. But look in to Hawkeyes’ eye, his one functioning eye and tell me we can’t do a better job of caring for our brothers and sisters?

We can do better.

In honor of

It was a good day, there was no doubt about it: dry, blue, warm but not hot, and the road I walked upon easy to follow and uncrowded.

And then it got better.

Terrie, a new friend, donated to the Task Force. Nancy, whose son had been homeless at one point, heard my story and spontaneously contributed to the cost of my stay at the KOA where I stopped for the night. 

After I set up my tent I sent Terrie a thank you note, urging her to get her friends to participate, noting that I was just $200 short of reaching $9000.

A moment later I received an email notification of a second donation, again from Terrie, putting me over the $9000 line.

I sent Terrie another thank you and then sought a place in the shade where I could do some work – and plug in -perhaps finish a blog posting I had started the previous night.

Suddenly Becky, the KOA receptionist, appeared with a man that could’ve been my brother. “You two have a lot in common,”she said.

Wait a moment, as I write this a unique bird call is sounding above my tent, part song , part whistle. But all I can see around me, above me, within the palm fronds and crowded together on the power lines are dark, angular birds.

 

 

There were many marvelous coincidences in our backgrounds, especially meeting here, in the California desert. But what was really remarkable was the passionate story Scott Kent told me, about his parents, about his life, about the quest I believe we are all on, the search for a meaningful existence.

Scott and I might have been brothers, long separated, remarkably though what was most mysterious and compelling was that two men in their 60s could meet in the desert and speak so openly and honestly about their disappointments and desires.

Scott is on a six-month camping trip in honor of his parents. All his life he heard his mother and father say that when they had the chance, at the first opportunity, they were going to go on a special, long, and leisurely cross-country adventure. But it was always not this year, always perhaps next year and that year, of course, never arrived.

Both of our parents were in the Air Force, he and I both service brats. Both of our mothers died of complications from surgery to remove brain tumors. But again what was remarkable was that we were both of on a quest that would not end after six months or year because it was a quest to live our lives with more urgency and passion: the quest of a lifetime.

It is I believe something that we all share: a desire for meaning and passion in our everyday lives. I am amazed at those that can achieve that simply by living every day with a special focus, no matter what, but I believe that for most of us a dramatic statement must be made, a stand must be taken, mainly for ourselves, mainly to convince that disbeliever we carry about with us that we can discard the trivial and embrace…’  well, to each his own.

I would be remiss if I did not note that Scott was especially generous to me. Before our first meeting was over he gifted me with, as he put it, a “spare“ propane heater. Something to take the chill out of the tent on those nights in the high desert, he said. Then the next morning, after I had gone to him with a card describing my walk and an invitation to visit me in Plymouth I returned to my tent to begin packing up and he was suddenly there, his hand extended, offering me a donation “in case you need to be inside sometime in the next few weeks.”

Did I say it was a good day? I need to confess now and be reminded to confess again and again that it has been a good life, that I have received far more that I have given. 

Amazing things happen when you go for a walk.

(For regular updates and daily pictures from my walk across America visit my Facebook site, Frank Mand.)

Home Sweet Home

The days I spent recuperating at my sisters in Simi Valley, California allowed me what I thought at first was a mistaken indulgence: I was able to reach out consistently to the people of Plymouth and engage myself in some of the activities going on without me.

A mistake perhaps because eventually I will not have the ability to communicate regularly with friends and family and associates at home: I need, I thought, to steal myself against that emotional pull and focus on the work ahead, the pragmatic lessons I need to put in place, the ruthlessness with which I must pursue each mile and trample it underfoot.

But then, at the last moment, as I sat on the train taking me back to the desert I was able to participate vicariously in a very special event in Plymouth, one that has special significance for me, not only for the times I participated in it while in Plymouth but for this walk as well.

The annual lighting of the town tree in Town Square – a long time Kiwanis event that has bloomed into a real iconic American community celebration –  centers around a tree that as long as I can remember was a donation from a family in Plymouth who, perhaps, thought it would be better for it to have short-lived fame in Town Square then to loom threateningly  over their own home for another winter.

This year‘s tree, according to many sources, was more shapely them recent donations, well-suited to the scope of town Square, and a nearly perfect fit for the 100+ oversized ornaments that the DPW would adorn it with.

Have you looked closely at the tree for the past four years? It is decorated with ornaments representing many, but far from all, of the towns community focused nonprofit organizations.

I call it CommuniTree ( Though some mistakenly believe I am trying to be politically correct in doing so) and it was conceived from the same inspirational moment as WalkingHome, the year-long sojourn I am undertaking at this moment.

Both are meant to highlight, promote, and celebrate the real foundation of our community: the individuals and the organizations without which our community would be a cold and uncaring place.

Imagine what Plymouth would be like without all of its youth sports organizations? Imagine what the town would be like without NAMI or without the ARC. Where would  this historic town be without the care, preservation and the foresight of organizations like the Antiquarian Society and Pilgrim Hall. Are you prepared to do without the arts,  represented by the PHIL or the Arts Guild?  Would you mind if the town was covered with sand pits and strip malls,? Thank nonprofits like Wildlands Trust, SEMPBA, and the Herring Pond Watershed  Association for fighting to maintain and preserve  our rare and wondrous ecosystem.

Those and many other organizations, big and small, are represented on CommuniTREE  

And so I took great pride in seeing this tree lit up once again, for the fourth year I believe, and seeing (in pictures sent to me) members of these organizations posing before their own  ornaments, before their tree, taking pride as they should in the accomplishments of the past year, the work that often goes unheralded, unseen and yet is the firm foundation of true community

So perhaps I will be distracted. Perhaps when I should be considering the level of water inside my backpack, where to make the next turn off old route 66 in the middle of the Mohave desert, or a hundred other moment by moment decisions  I will instead be taking a sentimental journey back to Plymouth and the wonderful people and organizations that I became acquainted with in the 10 years I worked for the Old Colony Memorial.

How can I eradicate thoughts of organizations and individuals that inspired me so, and to which I have dedicated this next year.

I cannot. I will not. I look hopefully to you to carry on and keep me informed of the events, activities and good works that instill in each of us the sense that Plymouth is our hometown.  It can’t get much better than that, 

There are over 100 ornaments on the CommuniTREE this year. Let’s work together and make sure that next year there are twice as many.

Gentlemen… re-start your engines

In the “Man Who Fell to Earth,” David Bowie plays an alien who comes to earth for water: he’s seen and heard – through random television signals picked up on his dry planet – images of an effervescent world where water is plentiful and life is unhindered by need.

But once on this planet the question immediately becomes, how to get back? Simple: become a billionaire and create your own space program.

I feel a little like that. I’ve driven west, dropped off my car, and now have only an array of coastal mountain ranges, the Mojave Desert, hundreds of miles of cactus and sagebrush, the plains of Texas, the Mississippi River, the flat fields and zig-zag (around massive farms) roads of the Midwest and three time zones to cross before my home planet is even in view.

Unlike David fortunately, noone is trying to impede me. On the contrary hundreds of people are rooting me on, encouraging me, sending me food and gift cards and hand warmers and sharing my journey.

Without that support I don’t think I would have the fortitude to overcome the obstacles before me. This last week I was held back by the sudden onset of a respiratory ailment that sapped my energy, clogged my lungs and led me to make what felt like an embarrassming admission to those following my progress – that I was going backwards, recuperating at my sisters home only 20 miles from my ocean starting point.

That admission however resulted in an immediate outpouring of support, good vibrations, and well wishes that I know helped me recover my health and resolve.

I leave again Friday, taking a train from
downtown Los Angeles to Needles, California- at the edge of the Mojave Desert, where – now equipped with a 3-wheel carriage – I will be better able to carry sufficient water and supplies for the long western crossing (California to Oklahoma).

I will need you more than ever: I will need you to monitor my progress, find me friends, put me up in the occasional hotel or hostel, send me food and supplies, and most importantly continue to remind me of the worthiness of my mission.

What is that Mission? Simply to find a sufficient supply of kindness to lift me up and over the mountains and plains and rivers and bring me back home (donating to my Homelessness charity here too if you can).

I know you can do it. I know with your help the days will fly by and I will be with my friends, family and loved ones in the blink of an eye.

I don’t have to build my own rocket. You are doing that for me.