All posts by Frank Mand

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.

The first voice you hear…

We last left off with Torrey Thomas doing my intake process at High Desert Homeless Services in Victorville, California.

I think I mentioned how many services they have integrated into their program. But in between answering a stream of phone calls and filling out my forms, Torrey and I also had a conversation about the difference between providing services and caring for human beings.

First and most important, I think we both agreed, was that the first voice you heard on the other end of the line was empathetic, caring, assuring.

When you are in a crisis situation, whatever that means – domestic violence, a need for shelter, food, mental health services – you should feel that you have reached a fellow human being, not a bureaucrat, technician or civil servant.

Tory has the demeanor of Buddha: easy going, serene, unhurried and empathetic. He is also very knowledgeable about the program he represents,its strengths and it’s limitations.

He is not necessarily the first voice you hear, but he is often the first one you meet with when you are about to make the decision to commit to their services. It is, I emphasize, a commitment. You agreed to abide by the rules and they agree to do everything they can to pull you up, out, forward.

Let’s give credit to those who find themselves in a deep hole and pull themselves out. That often takes more courage and strength and fortitude then the day-to-day challenges we face. Imagine starting from the point of no home, limited income, sharing a shower and the bathroom and the living room with 20 or 30 others: that in a society that esteems individuality. Yet many of these people will persevere and succeed and all the more so I believe, and I think Torrey agrees, if the service provider can manage to maintain the human touch, the human feel, simple human compassion.

That’s not as easy as it sounds either. On this walk I have encountered over and over again institutional indifference. I believe that when we have the excuse of a corporate big brother of any size that we often deferred to them when we are asked to make a personal ethical decision (WWCD: what would the corporation do).

I arrived in one community where the Catholic church was obviously an important and esteemed institution. It was late, a mass had just begun, so I waited patiently to speak to the priest or someone in a leadership role to simply ask to be able to put my tent somewhere on their extensive grounds. Around the church there were patches of lawn, at the back there was a Piazza, beyond their extensive parking lot was a beautiful grass covered ‘stations of the cross,’ each of the 13 stations illuminated by light throughout the night. Next-door was a large “pastoral center“ with over a dozen offices, all now empty for the night. After imploring the deacon for several minutes, asking just to be able to put up a tent, or sleep in an empty room for the night, so as not to upset the locals or invite the attention of the local police I was told that I could not be on their property but that there was an empty field that I might set my tent up on and, perhaps, not be disturbed.

Do I protest too much? Perhaps. But this was not the first or the last refusal of such a simple request. It’s  not as if I was unable to communicate my mission, my legitimacy or my earnestness.

After exploring the empty field, which I might have skied upon but not put a tent up within, I found a nice place on the lawn near the sixth station.

The description of the sixth station includes the appearance of Veronica: “…suddenly a woman comes out of the crowd. Her name is Veronica. You can see how she cares for you as she takes a cloth and begins to wipe the blood and sweat from your face. She can’t do much, but she offers what little help she can.”

We can all do something to improve our communities, take care of our most needy neighbors, help others. The littlest efforts are often the most endearing, the most helpful. Torrey – who I should note is also a ‘Christian Hip-Hop’ artist (Flight 417 is his band’s name) speaks to you, not at you. There is no guile to him, no weariness to his effort and consequently you feel that he cares.

We need a thousand more Torrey’s.

As I walked out of Victorville this morning  the only people I saw on foot were homeless people: huddled under canopies at abandoned stores, pushing old grocery carts laden with their belongings, gathered in small groups awaiting services at other institutions.

The ‘High Desert’ appears to have as many homeless as Joshua Trees: both have their arms outstretched to the sky.

No water, no home, no problem!

Hopefully this was one of the last lessons I will need to learn: always make sure you have plenty of water.

I would have enjoyed my night in the desert, or should I say my first night, if it were not for the hard ground, the cold night, the coyotes calling out to one another gossiping about me no doubt, the trucks that roared by  with hardly a break, and the realization that I was out or nearly so of water and food.

I’ll make one excuse: you don’t know how low your water is, that is the water stored in your backpack, until you are out. Or unless you remove the bladder from your backpack.

But I knew I was low. I had not filled it at all the previous day, and it would’ve probably been only 2/3 full at best when I went to bed the night before in Littlerock, California.

So this morning, Wednesday morning, after I had finished packing and put my backpack on and walked into the highway  I was nervous when I took that first draft from the tube that is fastened next to my left arm. 

Ah yes, that first sip pulled a cold, steady and short lived stream of water. The second sip gurgled. The third was only a whisper of water. At 7:15, with 15 miles to walk to the next watering hole I was out of water, and food, and a piece of my self confidence.

The distances in the west are hard for an easterner to understand. The roads seem to go on forever. Glimpses of green signs, of gas station signs, of something catching the light seen from a great distance appear to promise relief but… on this day, on these highways, were only long deferred disappointments and the lack of water began to take its toll on me.

The oasis? A McDonald’s about 5 miles out of town, about 10 miles down the road from my starting point.  I almost passed out struggling to figure out their new touch screen ordering: all I wanted was a large iced tea!

4 large ice teas later I followed up on research provided by my sweetheart and contacted High Desert Homeless Services.  The idea was to have a place to stay and a group to talk to about the challenges of serving the homeless population.

it was a 4-mile walk to the shelter but I made it- refreshed by a river of iced tea- and began the induction process. That process included many personal questions and a urine test. They don’t allow anyone in who has a detectable alcohol or drug level and they test you right there.

With all of the paperwork it took an hour before I could put my stuff away, get bedding and make it to dinner – at 5: all you can eat, and tonight it was beans, rice, enchiladas, chicken and meatloaf.. 

They serve three meals a day, have a daycare, a computer room where they work on work skills and resumes, transport clients to jobs or interviews, offer free clothes…

I was inducted by Torrey Thomas, a man whose size and easy going attitude hid, at first,  a fiery passion for social services, an intolerance for bureaucracy for its own sake…

TO BE CONTINUED (it’s check in time at the shelter)