A journal of travels

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The Real Hell’s Kitchen

March 28th, 2020 · Adventure, Eating

Bookseller and former desert rat Karen Wright recalls a cooking gig in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert.

The Black Rock Desert is best known as the location of the famous “Burning Man” event, where the ghosts of all those naked hippies and yuppies return from time to time to float like specters across the plain. The desert stretches from Gerlach, Nevada, north almost to the Idaho border. Near Gerlach lies a stretch of alkali flat that seems to be a million miles long where you can drive unimpeded by anything but occasional ruts, chunks of black obsidian, suffocating clouds of white alkali dust, bleached bones, and odd stacks of detritus, human-made and not.

Roll up your windows.

During full moon, the Black Rock shines like spun silver, and is nearly as silent as the grave, barring the occasional hoot owl, the squizzle of a lone sidewinder, or the scurrying footsteps of the little night critters … kangaroo rats, Gila monsters, and the like. The moon casts a preternatural glow there like no other place. Part snow-clad-looking, part ethereal, part moon-walk spooky, and without a single human-made light, this glow is breathtaking.

It was to this dry alkali flat that Jake, a long, lanky trail guide friend of mine, and his equally lanky, but not quite so long, wife, Diane, took an annual charter group of twenty-five horseback riders. The idea was to eat a nice barbeque dinner, knock back a couple of beers, and then, about eleven at night, saddle up ponies and ride, ride, ride, out into the alkali desert to bay at the moon.

Well, some idiot had to cook for them. I still don’t know why my friend and I decided we would be the idiots and do the cooking. It must have been the fat paycheck, or maybe the heat got to us, or maybe it was moon madness.

My friend Betty and I had it all figured out. The menu was pretty simple; steaks, baked potatoes, salad, corn on the cob, chocolate cake for dinner; bacon, sausage and scrambled eggs, fruit, and homemade campfire biscuits for breakfast. Coffee, tea, milk, red wine, beer, iced tea.

I was raised in the high desert, grew up on horseback, and I was once a professional cook and caterer, so I knew to do every single thing we could ahead of time: bake the potatoes until they were within fifteen minutes shy of done, then wrap them in foil and put them in the “hot” ice chest; make the salad, sans dressing, wrap it in plastic bags, and put it in the “cold” ice chest. I had baked two chocolate cakes and made the frosting, but left it in a plastic container so that it wouldn’t slobber all over the back of the truck and turn the cakes to mud pies.

We filled two huge, well-sealed plastic boxes with all the steaks marinating in tons of chopped garlic, a bit of salt, pepper, rosemary, Worcestershire, red wine and olive oil. We sliced ten loaves of sourdough French bread and garlicked the hell out of them, then wrapped them in foil. I cheated on the biscuits. I made them the morning before in my very own clean little oven, wrapped them in foil, put them in plastic bags, and stashed them in the bread box with the bread and cake.

Our truck is not really a truck, but a big, powerful Chevy Suburban—old, but very serviceable in the back country. We had to carry all the water we would need for dishes, cooking and our own personal hygiene. We arrived, sweaty, crabby, and covered with alkali dust late in the afternoon, just about the same time as the horsey crowd, and Betty and I got to setting up the camp kitchen. Jake had been there half the day by then and had dug a huge fire pit, had gotten a fire started, and laid a huge metal grill across the top with room at the end for me to bury the potatoes.

Dinner was pretty easy: throw the steaks on the grill, set the bread around the edges, toss the salad, frost the cakes, make coffee and tea, and ice down more beer every so often. No sweat, well, except for the blistering heat, bending over the camp fire, and our cooking exertions. After dinner, we cleaned up while everyone else settled back to rest a few minutes and smoke Camels or roll-your-owns.

Then the midnight riders began to saddle up. They rode off about eleven in the evening. Betty and I made up our beds in the back of the Suburban. I may be a desert rat, but I like to sleep in the truck where uninvited guests do not invade my sleeping bag.

I was solidly asleep when I heard rapid-fire hoof beats approaching. I woke instantly, thinking it was too early for them to be getting back, when one of the women rode up with her horse in a lather. I jumped into shorts and shoes and went to see what was what. One of the nightriders had been thrown and had broken a leg. Our midnight messenger was going for the ambulance in Gerlach, 40 miles down the road. Cell phones hadn’t been invented yet. She wanted to know if I would walk her horse for a while and cool him down.

Now I grew up with horses, but that was many years before. This horse was freaked from the race to camp and balky as he could be. But, naturally, I had to say “sure.”

So here I am, three in the morning, trying to Zen out a seventeen-hand-high horse. He started out as nervous as I was, but by the time she got back with the ambulance, he had fallen asleep on his feet as I rubbed him down. About twenty minutes later, the guy who broke his leg rode back on his horse with one of the other riders leading it very slowly, with the leg strapped tightly to a piece of wood.

The ambulance finally showed up and whisked him off to Reno. By that time, the sun was up full on, the campfire was roaring, and it was killer hot. It was time for me to start breakfast. I roused Betty, who had slept clear through most of the hullabaloo.

Breakfast was ready by the time the final riders arrived; they were all starved, in spite of the immense dinner they had consumed the night before. By the time we got the breakfast stuff cleaned up and the Suburban packed, it was my turn to be asleep on my feet.

We took our leave of the horse crazies, sped off through the alkali to our quiet little ranch on the Comstock. Betty drove, and I slept in the back, wrapped around muddy, alkali-coated dogs and dirty dishes.

©Karen Wright Used with permission. Born and raised a high desert rat and cowgirl near Virginia City, Nevada, Wright cooked for hay crews, round-ups, and then finally for tall ship crews. Wright is one of nine partners in the Booktown Books cooperative in Grass Valley, California. She also operates a long-time online bookstore at www.thewrightbook.com Note: Some names have been changed to protect the adventurous.

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Aloft and Furl

July 30th, 2018 · Adventure

Karen Wright overcomes misgivings and climbs up a very tall ship.

When you work on a traditionally-rigged sailing ship, the most fun is going aloft to furl or unfurl sails. But when I first started, everything about the foreign world of traditional ships intimidated me. Their size…massive, their height…lofty, their power…a stout wind. I hung back during sail training; slacked a royal or t’gallant brace, nursed my blistered hands, and always stayed on the back end of a line just in case it slipped. Timid is definitely not my style, but timid is what I was that first summer.

Several of the bolder women braved the ratlines to the royal, but not I. “Climb 103 feet in the air on a little half inch ladder of rope? Surely you must be joking? Not on your life! I’ll just stay here on deck, cook, and haul the slack out of these bunts and clews. You guys go ahead, I like it right here.”

In truth, I really didn’t like it on deck. It was horrendously hot and everyone seemed to have so much fun going aloft that I really felt left out. But I couldn’t conquer my fear. We are talking about a very tall mast and a very short woman!

By the next year, however, it was generally agreed among the powers that be that a sail trainee had to be able to go aloft. Most of the core crew practically fought for the privilege. I thought the hot Texas sun had addled their brains, but I was jealous and annoyed with myself for not being able to get past this one stupid stumbling block. The challenge was there and I had never before let a challenge go unanswered.

I was terrified for days. Everyone was tolerant and patient, offering to take me up. I knew they were chuckling behind my back at my cowardice.

Finally, just like everything else I’ve ever done, I decided I had to go it alone. One afternoon when hardly anyone was around I strapped on a lifebelt. These were one-half inch thick lengths of nylon line tied around the waist and attached to a large clip. They were used, not to keep us from falling, but to keep us dangling in midair so we didn’t squash some hapless individual below us on the deck if we slipped and fell.

With this minute piece of equipment, I began my journey into midair. My heart beat in my throat, my knees shook. I went up one ratline at a time. By the time I reached the first platform I could feel the pulses pounding in my temples. The sweat, both from the fear and from the miserable summer heat, ran down my back and face in steady streams. My T-shirt and shorts stuck to my body like glue.

The platform, or top, which is about one-third of the way up the main mast, had to be broached. In order to do so, I had to climb out at an angle close to lying down on my back in midair, and then, catching the edge with my knee, pull myself onto the platform (historically the ‘flying top’ where the Marines took aim at hapless sailors in other boats.) It looked easy when Errol Flynn did it; it even looked easy when the sail trainees did it. It did not look easy to me from my semi-prone position,

But it actually was!

After hanging under the platform for a good five minutes verbally kicking myself for being such a coward, I began talking myself through it. I knew the mechanics; I knew I was strong enough.

And sure enough, up and over I went.

“Thank the gods,” I said aloud.

I stood on the top holding onto the shrouds with white knuckles. I waited for my heart to return to its normal position in my chest instead of in my throat.

When I was calm enough I surveyed my next Mt.Everest – the tops’l yard. It did no good to get up on the top if I couldn’t go out on the yard. The yard is the stick that crosses the mast and it stuck out some forty feet horizontally on either side of the mast. I had to climb out to the end of the yard on half-inch footropes attached to the yard.

I was more confident now. I had to overcome clumsiness more than fear this time, though my knees were still rather like Jell-O. I pulled myself up one more section of ratlines until I was lined up with the yard.

I grabbed the shrouds, put a foot on the footrope under the yard and pulled myself out. It swayed under me ever so slightly. It seemed sturdy enough, much less rickety than I had imagined. I laid my belly across the yard and began inching out in the crab-like sideways shuffle I had watched so often from below. Unbelievably, I was there in just a few shuffles.

As the breeze aloft dried my perspiring body, I looked down. I could see the whole City of Galveston and for miles and miles out to sea. Fisherman on the shrimp boat next to us waved and I released one of my hands long enough to wave back. I couldn’t tell if the funny feeling in my stomach was from fear or exaltation.

They were right; it was the coolest place to be!

 ©Karen Wright Used with permission. Born and raised a high desert rat and cowgirl near Virginia City, Nevada, Wright cooked for hay crews, round-ups, and then finally for tall ship crews. She began sailing with her husband in 1982, and between sailing trips was a writer, editor, and bookseller. Married, with two kids, two stepchildren, and four grandchildren, Wright is one of nine partners in the Booktown Books cooperative in Grass Valley, California. She also operates a long-time online bookstore at www.thewrightbook.com

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Fine Vibrations?

April 1st, 2015 · En Route

En route to the beaches of Costa Rica’s Pacific Coast, Shelley Buck encounters her first suicide shower.

My husband is sick. En route to Costa Rica’s Pacific Coast, we’ve driven all day from the Central Valley in an unfamiliar diesel four-wheel-drive vehicle and crossed to the Nicoya Peninsula over an uneven bridge built recently by the Taiwanese to cement friendship with the Costa Rican people. We’ve pulled expectantly into the town of Nicoya, home to Costa Rica’s oldest church, only to find a modest adobe, not the anticipated gemlike cathedral.

Night is falling.

The town’s sleeping accommodations look rough, and I begin to get a bit scared. There’s no time to lose: Frantic tourists, we prowl the side streets, searching in vain for somewhere to stay. And we wind up here – a room in an inn set back off the street. We go around the corner to eat at a neon-lit restaurant. Afterwards, we return to the inn, travel again down its long dusty driveway, and fling ourselves into bed.

The walls are thin. In the night there are strange noises from a group of men in the room next door. I lie uneasily beside my ailing husband, wondering whether I will be able to manage the notoriously potholed Costa Rican roads in an unfamiliar vehicle if he becomes unable to drive.

In the morning, my husband is still sick. The room has a shower, but as I’m soaping up, I notice with shiver that a tangle of electrical wires is dangling above my head. I don’t know the term yet, but this is a suicide shower. Here there’s no muss or fuss about inserting a just-in-time hot water tank or other heating apparatus into the shower mechanism. Water for the shower gets hot as it flows over the sparking of a live wire. Do I feel a buzz?

My husband showers too. He is taller. His head nearly butts against the suspicious wiring. He feels a vibration for sure and exits hastily. Gathering up our things, we flee the scary room, hoping to find no one has made off with the rental vehicle during the night.

But in the breezeway, the innkeeper stands waiting for us. He has laid out a buffet – rolls, butter, slices of fresh pineapple, bananas, fresh-brewed Costa Rican coffee in a coffeepot – all on a lace-edged tablecloth. Our host apologizes for leaving us to eat and check out by ourselves, but it’s Sunday and he must be off to church. The dangling edges of the tablecloth sway delicately in the morning breeze as we sit down and pour out coffee.

The little diesel SUV is still parked in the driveway. Well fed and recharged, we take the road north, heading for the coast and the cut-off for the bumpy drive to the surfing beach at Tamarindo. My husband is feeling better. In fact, we are unusually glad to be alive.

When we get to Tamarindo, we find our next hotel has posted a warning sign for crocodiles.

©Shelley Buck Used with permission. Shelley Buck is the author of the travel memoir, East: A Woman on the Road to Kathmandu, You can read more about her travels in the Winter, 2015, edition of Narrative Magazine and in her upcoming book, due out later this year.


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The Goose Woman

March 27th, 2015 · on foot

Sometimes a frequently-asked question creates a bridge between worlds, as Shelley Buck learns during a chance encounter in the Himalayan foothills.

I’m on a hillside not far from the Tibetan refugee village in Northern India, climbing through the forest on the mountain’s flank on my way to somewhere, when I meet a tiny old woman in the forest. She’s herding geese. The birds are scattered among the trees, pecking busily at morsels only a goose could love.

She’s not Tibetan like the refugees in the village down the hill, and I wonder if she has always lived in this place.

She has tied up her clothing so she can scamper more easily along the slopes after her flock, for growing old here does not mean one can sit home and rest while others work. But she isn’t poor. Around her neck hang heavy strings of coins and beads, pierced wheels of opaque yellow amber, her family’s wealth on display. Clearly there is little fear of muggings here on this mountainside. The bunched-up fabric at her hips makes her look a bit goose-shaped herself.

“Husband?” the elfin woman queries me in her local language. “Baby?” She makes a cradling gesture with her arms, and the meaning is unmistakable.

Such conversations often happen on the Indian trains, with the questions usually coming in rapid-fire barrage, but here, on the sloping side of a tall mountain, the inquiry is more companionable. I’ve been sizing her up. The goose woman is trying to place me, too. She deserves a response.

I shake my head, somewhat regretfully. The answer is no to both questions. For a few seconds, we gaze at each other across about a thousand years.

I realize I like her.

Then I walk on, wondering if I have somehow tumbled into a fairy tale. But no, my feet – still in heavy hiking boots – are firmly under me. They carry me sturdily forward.

Later, I will be unable to remember where I was going.

©Shelley Buck Used with permission. Shelley Buck is the author of the travel memoir, East: A Woman on the Road to Kathmanduavailable from Indiebound, independent bookstores, and online. You can read more about her travels in India in the Winter, 2015, edition of Narrative Magazine.

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When Pigs Take Flight

January 31st, 2015 · Road Less Travelled

Shelley Buck’s sudden  introduction to recycling during her visit to Goa turns out to be unexpectedly intimate.

By the time I arrive in Goa, my eyeballs are creamy again and my skin color’s no longer yellow, but I am still weak after the bout with food-borne hepatitis. A quiet stay in Goa—known for its broad beaches and slow-paced, almost Latin, lifestyle—is part of my recovery strategy.

I know vaguely that Portugal acquired Goa as a colony during the West’s great age of sea exploration and that this coastal territory remained under Portuguese control until the 20th century. I know too that in 1961, only a dozen years after its own independence, India used military force to seize Goa. The fighting was over in a couple of days, and Goa officially became part of India.

So we are surprised, arriving thirteen years later, to be halted at a border control station when we reach the perimeter of the former Portuguese colony. On a table I can make out a half-dozen aging hypodermics with rusty-looking needles laid out in a metal dish, like museum specimens. Behind this ominous display, white-smocked figures stand ready to administer an ad hoc injection to anyone arriving at this now-internal border without the required cholera shot. As I watch, another Western traveler, yellow as saffron, inches ahead in the line to get his health certificate examined. Eyeing these well-used needles and hypodermics, I imagine that anyone arriving at this location without a cholera shot stands a good chance of acquiring needle-borne hepatitis while entering Goa, if not already ill with it. My own cholera vaccine is up to date, so I manage to escape the needles.

I’ve heard Goa hosts a unique fusion of Indian and Western cultures, which developed as Hindus and Roman Catholics rubbed elbows during the place’s centuries as a Portuguese-held enclave. Portuguese Goa was surrounded initially by Indian states and later on by the British Raj. This history is reflected in the languages still widely spoken—the local Konkani, English, and Portuguese.

The body of Paris-educated St. Francis Xavier, a co-founder of the Jesuit order, still rests in Goa, where the saint came to proselytize in the 16th century. Ironically, Francis arrived burdened with his own colonial baggage. Born in Portuguese-held Navarre, he had seen his homeland overrun by Spain. When he embarked as a missionary to Portugal’s colonies in Asia, he was leaving behind a once-prosperous noble family dispossessed by the Spanish conquerors, and down to its last castle. Did this at-home experience of foreign conquest soften the saint’s approach to his missionary work, perhaps causing him to encourage the blending of cultures when he arrived in Goa? I confess I don’t know. The issue is complicated, and I realize I won’t sort out the cultural mix in a day.

Blended or not, I immediately discover it is at least easy to tell the Catholics  from the Hindus. Although women of both religions wear saris, for Hindus, the color of mourning is white; for Catholics, it’s black. I see a lot of both. Also Hindu women wear a red dot on their foreheads, which marks the spot where the third eye is located. Catholic women don’t wear these dots.

More recently, Western travelers of another sort have sought out the white-sand beaches that stretch along Goa’s Indian Ocean coastline. These newcomers take more interest in the third eye than the local Catholics, but the new visitors from the West don’t wear red dots. Often—to the consternation of local Hindus and Catholics alike—they often don’t  wear much of anything.

For the local youngsters, who have gotten used to the latest Western influx, the newcomers’ odd customs and lack of dress pose less of a problem. “Hello Hippie!” the kids holler cheerily at us as the blue VW bus rolls past.

The bus bumbles along southwards. We pause in the afternoon at a village called Calangute, taking lodging with a family that rents out rooms. No red dots here. These are meat-eating Catholic Goans, not vegetarian Hindus. The mother directs me to a well behind  the house where I may enjoy a somewhat private sponge bath. Her practical daughter also points out the privy. This wooden structure sits high and majestic near the rear of the family’s courtyard where pigs and poultry roam freely. Portuguese Goans are clearly not vegetarians.

Later, I seek out the privy, urgently. From beneath the opening in the bench on which I sit, I hear an ominous snuffing sound, as if the outhouse’s accreted contents were preparing to explode. No, it is more like snorting. Gingerly moving off the hole and looking down, I notice that the back of the privy building is wide open. Light flows in, golden in a haze of floating dust. And something’s down there!

Even as I have raced for the building’s front door, a pig has taken note of my movements and has hustled to the opening in the structure’s rear. Now I see the animal just beneath me. The pig’s mouth hangs open as it stares upwards, waiting intently for me to produce its dinner. Later, when I must  race to the privy again, I spy a pair of pigs rocketing in the same direction. No flower power frolicking animals these! They are as intent and purposive as the B-29 bombers in the World War II propaganda films my history teacher showed us in high school.

This was not quite the cultural encounter I had in mind as we crossed into the former colony this morning, but nothing is complicated for the pigs. After less than a day in Goa, I have already become known as a good provider.

©Shelley Buck Used with permisson. Shelley Buck is the author of the travel memoir, East: A Woman on the Road to Kathmanduavailable from Indiebound, independent bookstores, and online. You can read more about her adventures in Goa in the Winter, 2015, edition of Narrative Magazine.

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A Misadventure in Hat-Yai

September 27th, 2014 · En Route

Border areas can bring surprises, as travel memoir writer Shelley Buck learns during an overnight stay near Thailand’s southern border with Malaysia.

Our landlord is wailing and exclaiming. The porcelain sink, which was so proudly and tenuously attached to the wall of our hotel room, has tumbled and shattered. Lee and I had both just leaned on it while brushing our teeth. Boy do we feel guilty.

Hat-Yai, in a largely-Muslim area near Thailand’s southern border, is the place to catch the diesel rail car to Malaysia. We have come across Thailand’s long southern isthmus by bus from the beaches at Phuket, passing a machine-gun nest at a roundabout as we entered this small city. The presence of soldiers has telegraphed the situation to us. Hat-Yai in 1978 is not stable and is best left as soon as possible.

We are still getting used to the problem of instability – that even countries we had once considered homogeneous are actually not, and that nations sometimes feel in danger of losing territory around their edges. Perhaps influenced by the example of American geopolitics in Vietnam, Thailand – judging from the machine gun nest – prefers to hang onto these edges with the sword.

So I don’t expect to discover a paradise, just the train car out.

However, we need to eat. We walk to the night market, where a friendly man is busy grilling up satay right in the street. Satay in Thailand? It’s a more southern specialty, and we’ve never had it. We buy 20 sticks of grilled meat for a few baht, gobble them down, and then come back to the friendly vendor for 20 more. The marinated grilled meat is indescribably delicious. Afterwards, stuffed, we come back to the hotel room, prepare for bed, and the sink collapses.

We have to pay for a new sink.

And then, we have to brave the diesel rail car to the border: One car, hordes of people scrambling to get in. People flinging baggage into the windows. Somehow we make it.

Fast forward about a year. I’m in Berkeley, sipping a cappuccino on the upper back deck of the Walnut Cafe, looking westwards toward the unworldly blue inverted vee of Mt. Tamalpais, across the Bay. I’m chatting with some people connected with the university about Ved Mehta and other writers, feeling very out-of-the-loop about which books are now popular or interesting. This couple has been to Hat-Yai, too.

“It was a great place,” she says, “except there was this problem with a sink at the hotel. We broke it.” She doesn’t notice the strange look on my face.

© Shelley Buck, 2014. Used with permission. Shelley Buck is the author of East: A Woman on the Road to Kathmandu, a 2013 travel memoir of crossing overland from Europe to Asia in the 1970s.

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Road Trip to the War Gods

August 5th, 2014 · Books, New Age, Road Less Travelled

Following the journey of her characters, novelist Margaret C. Murray prepared for final editing of her newest book by making a road trek to the principal settings in New Mexico and Colorado where the novel’s events of magical realism take place. What she discovered there deepened her understanding of the ancient native peoples she writes about in Spiral.

I was on the seventh day of my road trip. After days of driving and camping – interspersed by a stay in Flagstaff with my friend Joyce – I had finally arrived at Chimney Rock, Colorado, the site of my upcoming novel, Spiral.

I had been working on Spiral, a prequel to Sundagger.net, for five years now and I just had to go see for myself. I had to take the same pilgrimage my characters Willow and her son, Little Hawk, take after they flee their home in Chaco Canyon, New Mexico, and set out for Chimney Rock, the furthest outlier of Chaco culture.

Driving from California on Highway 40 to Flagstaff and from there to New Mexico, I was intent on first spending a few nights at Chaco Canyon World Heritage Site where Spiral begins.

The Pre-Puebloans (otherwise known as the Anasazi, a name given to them by the Navajo, meaning “enemy ancestors”) likely came the same way, from the South.

Like me, these ancient migrants would have passed by the same red rock mesas. They too would have been inspired, awed, by the deep color of the high desert, the vast vistas and endless sky.

Maybe they too were anticipating a great spectacle – those ceremonies in honor of solstices and equinoxes held in the Great Houses of Chaco Canyon.

Bumping along on an unpaved dirt “washboard” road, I slowly drove through the Navajo Reservation, stopping my car in front of the only sign for 23 miles:

May be Impassable
Travel at Your Own Risk”

The ancient people would have experienced rough travel without cars, wagons, wheels, horses or any other means of transportation.
A thousand years ago, this same road would likely have been full of people migrating to and from Chaco to witness the sun’s return or thrill at the lunar alignment.

What a surprise when I turned a rocky bend and saw Fajada Butte. How close and massive it seemed from the dirt road, like a cathedral carved from sandstone.

I’d been to Chaco Canyon two times before but never approached it from the South.

I felt a strange kinship with this great rock.

At Gallo Campground in Chaco, the wind blew my tent away before I even got it secured in the ground. With the help of the campground host (from Vallejo, California!), I tied it to heavy metal rings. I slept that night surrounded by mesa walls, greasewood and blowing sage.
The Pre-Puebloans would have come through the South Gap into the canyon. On the far side of the gap are more than 50 pit houses. Are these “motels” the migrants camped in while at Chaco?

Across Chaco Wash is Pueblo Bonito, the grandest of the Great Houses. Debbie, the interpretive ranger who took me on a tour of Pueblo Bonito, said the arriving visitors likely might have been thrilled by the noisy celebration, the singing in many languages, dancing and music from flutes, conch shells, rattles, foot drums and more.

So many people to see the show! Was it like our rock concerts? Disneyland ? Or like High Mass at St Patrick’s Cathedral? Who knows? The only evidence are ruins and potsherds. There’s so much mystery here.

Leaving Chaco Canyon reluctantly (and missing the Full Moon ceremony), I drove to Navajo Lake where I camped a few days and then headed northeast over the Colorado border to Chimney Rock.

And now, finally, I’ve arrived. Even in my car far away on the road, I am repelled at the first sight of the mountain. It’s chilling just seeing bulbous Companion Rock and high narrow Chimney Rock on a dark mountain of chert and lava rock. I’m amazed at how close my feelings are to the atmosphere of terror pervading Spiral that Willow is so desperate to flee.

Still, looking out of my car window, I take comfort in all the mailboxes along the road, proof that ordinary people live beneath this mountain that appears so isolating and ominous seen from afar.

After setting up my tent at Ute Campground, I drive to the park entrance and learn I’m not even permitted to go up Chimney Rock alone. So instead I and five other tourists take a fascinating guided tour with Wayne, an interpretive guide and volunteer.

Today Chimney Rock is the powerful landmark and spiritual center for the Pueblo People – the Taos, Acoma, Zuni, Hopi, Tewa and more.
The two towers signify the Twin War Gods of the Taos Pueblo who slay monsters to help their People. The war gods are also revered by the Navajo, who know them as Monster Slayer and Born-for-Water.

War Gods? Yes, of course!

After my climb to the top, I understand why.

© Margaret C. Murray, 2014 and used with permission. Spiral will be Margaret C. Murray’s third novel. It is due out in January 2015. Murray’s earlier novels – Dreamers and Sundagger.net – are also published by WriteWords Press.

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The Boomerang Travel Book

March 23rd, 2014 · Books

As Shelley Buck sat down to write East: A Woman on the Road to Kathmandu, chance delivered an incredible surprise.

In the year 2012, a strange thing happened. After finishing writing my first book and duly marching Floating Point to a series of readings and events, I turned to another I had meant to write for 40 years – an account of a distant past in which I confronted my terror of traveling alone and set forth on a journey I hoped would take me to India and Kathmandu, using mostly public transit.  

As I assembled my own notes, photographs, and intense memories, I also hunted, as I had done many times earlier, for the guidebook I bought at Cody’s bookstore in Berkeley so long ago that had inspired me to launch that journey. Once again, I learned that Overland to India was out of print and expensive. But this time I found something else as well: A rough used copy was being offered for $9.95.      

I bought it.      

My purchase, when it arrived, was truly in less than perfect shape.The cream cover was travel-stained and pen-marked; the spine was cracked. Inside, I could see arrows marking up the margins of the pages. Some text passages were underlined. In a different handwriting, someone using purple ink had scribbled a web address in a margin.  On the cover, somebody had written: “THIS IS AN INTERESTING BOOK BUT DON’T PAY ATTENTION TO ANY FACTS IN IT, OR HIS OPINIONS even so . . . IT IS NEAT.”    

Ironically, I had paid attention. Overland to India, published the year before I set out, had contained a great deal of valuable and hard-to-come-by information. The author’s hints for cost-cutting were sometimes dodgy, and some of the information already needed updating by 1972. However, for the most part, the advice about trains, buses, visas, and cheap hotels had been sound. There had been few other guidebooks available at the time.      

Now I held a copy of it again. I looked more closely at the words written across the cover. Who would violate a book that way? The printing was a strange mixture of  lower case and capital letters and ellipsis marks – the kind of hasty inscription some person might jot down when casually giving a book away – someone whose cursive writing was illegible. I knew this because my own handwriting is awful.      

Suddenly, I stared hard. This printing looked familiar. Very familiar!  On the pages inside the book, the odd arrows in the margins, pointing to bits of text, were also made the way I draw them.     

I felt sick. I don’t like coincidences. And then I felt a whooping excitement. This was my own book! I emailed the seller and she emailed back, equally excited. She put me in touch with the person she had gotten the book from, a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society.      

A second journey was beginning. Maybe that, too, will someday become a book.      

The adventure chronicled in East, however, is of my initial journey. It began in Oakland during the Vietnam War era – a messy and unstable period in American history. I set off alone amid the slow rising of the second wave of American feminism, at a time when women increasingly were probing the relationship between the personal and the political. As I traveled, the adventure evolved into a quest to discover both the world and myself. I know now that all journeys can unfold this way, if we let them. This too is an understanding I would come to along the way.      

As I set out in l972, the journey seemed to me an impossible one for a woman to undertake at all. By 2013, the overland route has become impossible to most Western travelers – male or female. Wars, insurgencies and altered governments have rendered some countries along the way either dangerous or unreachable. I could not foresee that what seemed like a closed door to me as a woman traveler in 1972 should appear in retrospect as such a rare and open one – a brief and special time when the young and daring could pass through much-disputed lands in relative peace.      

This book celebrates that open door. East celebrates my friends in farflung places, my companions of the road, and well-meaning adventurers everywhere. The story is a true one. Not everyone is brought up brave, but some of us, by following a dream, and exceeding the boundaries set for us, may become bolder.

Copyright, Shelley Buck, 2014. Shelley Buck is the author of East: A Woman on the Road to Kathmandu, available in print (WriteWords Press, 2013)  and ebook editions.

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Going Gothic: With the Undead in New Orleans

January 31st, 2014 · Time and Place

Author Steven P. Unger recently revisited  New Orleans as an invitee to the Vampire Film Festival’s Midsummer Nightmare. Since Unger is the author of In the Footsteps of Dracula: A Personal Journey and Travel Guide, his focus is naturally —  or perhaps unnaturally — on the city’s more Gothic aspects.

Like the Spanish Moss that drapes the trees of the nearby bayous, mystery and the occult have shrouded New Orleans since its birth. For hundreds of years, families there have practiced a custom called “sitting up with the dead.” When a family member dies, a relative or close family friend stays with the body until it is placed into one of New Orleans’ above-ground tombs or is buried. The body is never left unattended.

There are many reasons given for this practice today — the Old Families will tell you it’s simply respect for the dead — but this tradition actually dates back to the vampire folklore of medieval Eastern Europe. First, the mirrors are covered and the clocks are stopped. While sitting up with the deceased, the friend or family member is really watching for signs of paranormal activity. For example, if a cat is seen to jump over, walk across, or stand on top of the coffin; if a dog barks or growls at the coffin; or if a horse shies from it, these are all signs of impending vampirism. Likewise, if a shadow falls over the corpse.

At that point, steps are taken to prevent the corpse from returning from the dead.

Ways to stop a corpse — especially a suicide —from becoming a vampire include burying it face down at a crossroads. Often family members place a sickle around the neck to keep the corpse from sitting up; stuff the mouth with garlic and sew it closed; or mutilate the body, usually by decapitating the head and placing it at the bottom of the feet. But the most common remedy for impending vampirism is to drive a stake into the corpse, decapitate it, then burn the body to ashes. This method is still believed to be the only sure way to truly destroy the undead.


Ask any member of the Old Families who the first vampires to come to New Orleans were, and they’ll tell you the same: it was the Casket Girls.

Much of the population that found their way to New Orleans in the early 1700s were unwelcome anywhere else: deported galley slaves and felons, trappers, gold-hunters and petty criminals. People who wouldn’t be noticed if they went missing.

Sources vary on the specifics, but the basic story is that the city’s founders asked French officials to send over prospective wives for the colonists. They obliged and after months at sea these young girls showed up on the docks, pale and gaunt, bearing only as many belongings as would fit inside a wooden chest or casquette, which appears to have been the 18th Century equivalent of an overnight bag. They were taken to the Ursuline Convent, which still stands today, where the girls were said to have resided until the nuns could arrange for marriages.

Some accounts say they were fine young women, virgins brought up in church-run orphanages; some say they were prostitutes. But there are many who swear they were vampires, vampires who continue to rise from their casquettes on the third floor to break through the windows and hurricane shutters — windows and shutters that always seem to need repairing after the calmest of nights — to feed upon the transient crowds that for centuries have filled the darkened alleys of the Quarter.

Finally in 1978, after centuries of rumors and stories, two amateur reporters demanded to see these coffins. The archbishop, of course, denied them entrance. Undaunted, the next night the two men climbed over the convent wall with their recording equipment and set up their workstation below. The next morning, the reporters’ equipment was found strewn about the lawn. And on the front porch steps of the convent were found the almost-decapitated bodies of these two men. Eighty percent of their blood was gone. To this day, no one has ever solved the murders.

Author’s note: Thanks to Kalila K. Smith (whose Vampire Tour I can recommend from personal experience) for much of the material reprinted here.

©Steven P. Unger. Used with permission. Unger is the author of In the Footsteps of Dracula: A Personal Journey and Travel Guide (2010),  as well as Before The Paparazzi: 50 Years of Extraordinary Photographs  with Arty Pomerantz, and a novel, Dancing in the Streets. Watch for a fuller examination of the Big Easy’s vampire heritage in the next edition of In the Footsteps of Dracula.

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A Puggy Holiday in Carmel

January 8th, 2014 · Eating and Drinking

Americans love their pets. According to the American Pet Products Association, dogs can be found in nearly 57 million U.S. households, and nearly one in three dog owners brings Fido along when leaving home for two or more nights. In this selection, author Judith Pierce Rosenberg relates how one California town’s hospitality industry welcomes these four-legged travelers.

“We’re going to Carmel!” I told Louie, our then 3-year-old fawn pug dog. He wagged his tail excitedly in response.

My boyfriend Michael’s text arrived near the end of a very difficult season. I was both thrilled and touched by his generosity and thoughtfulness. I so needed a light at the end of the tunnel, something to look forward to.

Michael, Louie and I had first stopped in Carmel-by-the-Sea the previous year for lunch en route to Southern California and discovered just how dog-friendly Carmel is. As I stepped into a boutique, leaving Michael outside with the dog, the owner invited them
in, a gesture that was repeated nearly everywhere, even art galleries! For lunch, we were directed to The Forge in the Forest, one of a dozen or more restaurants that allow dogs to dine on the patio with their human companions. Not only was there a water bowl
for Louie, but also a doggie menu, with items ranging from kibble to steak. Louie smiled the entire time. We knew we’d be back.

While we have subsequently stayed at the Traveler’s Lodge on the edge of Monterey and then driven the few miles down Highway 1 to Carmel, this time we splurged and spent two nights  at the pet-friendly Hofsas House so that we could walk almost everywhere.

We wandered in and out of little shops along the town’s main drag, Ocean Avenue. Sometimes we brought the dog in, while other times one of us — usually Michael — waited outside with Louie while yours truly checked out the merchandise. At the Jane Austen store we took turns, each chatting with the owner about her wares, including the dozen or so life-size pug dog statues, each slightly different, which were hand-painted in Kansas.  We bought lattes at the Carmel Coffee House and sipped them outside in the sunshine. Soon, Louie was pulling us toward Diggidy-Dog, his favorite store — a treasure trove of canine clothes, toys and treats, with a few cat items thrown in for good measure. While resisting all our attempts to clothe him in cute sweaters, collars, hats, or googles, Louie prettily begged the employees for treats and sniffed the other dogs, then took a long drink from the water bowl outside.

Around 5:00 p.m., we parked Louie to rest in the cool of the evening. Dogless, Michael and I stopped in a little European-like bar at L’Auberge Carmel. I was thrilled to see that they carried a Spanish beer, Estrella Damm Inedit, created by Ferran Adria, famed chef of the now-closed El Bulli; we split a large bottle and a plate of salami, cheese and olives.

Louie re-joined us for dinner at the Spanish-California style Cypress Inn, owned by actress Doris Day. We sat in the bar area with other dogs and their companions, ordering from the same menu as the adjacent restaurant, Terry’s Lounge. Louie had a bowl of water, and we fed him treats while enjoying our own meal.

One of the very best things about Carmel is that dogs can run off the leash on the city’s wide, white-sand beach, which is where we spent much of the next day. While bigger dogs played in the water, our not-very-buoyant pug preferred the beach, intently investigating first one pile of seaweed and then running on to check out the next.  As we walked along the ocean, holding hands, I felt some of the weight of the past few months slip away. It’s hard to stay in the grasp of the past when the present is so lovely.

The next morning, we took a last stroll along Ocean Avenue and a final walk on the beach with Louie before heading home, knowing that we would return — and soon!
© Judith Pierce Rosenberg, 2013.  Used with permission. Judith is the author of A Swedish Kitchen: Recipes and Reminiscences winner of a Gourmand International Cookbook Award  (Hippocrene Books) and now available as an eBook ) from Amazon.

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