Discover / Adventure

Venice West: No Longer Beat Down

Next time you sip that espresso with organic, gluten-free sesame muffin, and listen to a open-mike poet at your favorite local café, you’re in debt to a culture and a time long obscured by the flood of history.  A typical evening at the café included a round or two of poets reading accompanied by bongo drums, while fellow beats sat around sipping espresso.  At times a painter would use the blank wall as a canvas for his colorful expressions.  You might have heard Stu Perkoff reciting  his piece about  a physically and  spiritually complete life:

Feasts of Love, Feasts of Death by Stu Perkoff

sitting on the benches, bodies warm & throats  filled with joy & love

we offered worship

sitting warm, eyes & skin touching, love flowing 

we offered  worship

               we sang

& spoke languages & poems

offered worship & love

mixing the birds of passion & the swords of God

in our beautiful young eyes

 

brittin_west_4

The  Beat scene 1959 at Venice West

If you’re in the LA area,  the direct line to your coffee place, the Osteria Venice West, faces the boardwalk in Venice.  Look across Dudley St. from Osteria Venice West in Venice (formerly Los Angeles’ beach slum and now the high-tech Silicon Beach) and you’ll see the restored, chic Cadillac Hotel.  In that beachfront block, where tourists, inner city visitors, homeless drunks, street vendors, and occasional locals like myself mix in a bouillabaisse of humanity, it’s not hard to imagine  LA’s fifties counter-culture congregating here 55 years ago.   Like today’s eclectic crowd, the beatniks, refugees from “squaresville,” hunkered down in this space then known as Venice West Café.  Some lived across the street in the Cadillac, at that time a low-rent boarding house.

venice_west_and_stuart_z_copy

Original Venice West

This is the only site from that era recognized by a city of Los Angeles historic marker of the Beatnik scene of the Fifties in  LA. Other Venice Beat locations such as the Gas House (now a vacant lot filled with weekend vendors of tourist paraphernalia) and Lawrence Lipton’s house on  Park Ave don’t get that modest respect.  But Osteria Venice West houses the spirit and vibe of the beatniks that begat the hippie culture, which in turn continues to impact our world through the counter-cultural ideas of yoga, organic food, classic rock, environmental concern, and global community.

Although some of the heroes of the hippies in the sixties and seventies had their beginnings in the Beatnik world (Allen Ginsberg, Ken Kesey, and others), I knew next to nothing about the Beatniks.  As a former history teacher and an original Hippie, soon after I turned 65 I began to look backwards to hippie’s forbears—the Beats.  (There’s something about reaching that magic  number,  which I’ll go into on  another occasion.)  After graduating from UC Berkeley in the seventies, I moved to Venice:  At the time the vestiges of what had been a slum and refuge  for artists, hippies, and other low-income individuals still lingered.  Funky (a word coined by the Beats) and casual, I felt right at home in Ocean Park/ Venice.

Alienated and not just a bit lazy, most of the Beats were young men who landed in Venice initially because it had fallen on hard times.  Once a bold and glorious real estate development, Abbott Kinney’s Venice of America offered the burgeoning city of Los Angeles a beach fantasy land complete with canals, luxury hotels, amusements, and casinos.  Kinney and his partner Francis Ryan had planned a massive project from Ballona Lagoon on the south to Santa Monica Pier to the north.   But due to a business conflict, they split and the northern piece, Ocean Park, went to Ryan and was eventually annexed by the city of Santa Monica.  Kinney established Venice of America in 1905.  It was an immediate big hit, but over the years as most flashy scenes do, Venice faded.  Starting in the twenties and with the advent of Prohibition a gang element took over. Followed by the Depression and then World War II, by the forties Venice’s former glory was just a memory with the old hotels turned into rooming houses for the elderly and poor.

Perfect for artists and bohemians with its cheap rents away from meddling by the power brokers of LA, it soon became a magnet for alienated young men and women who wanted to drop out from the mainstream.  To distinguish themselves from the squares, a slang developed that would assist a beatnik in determining a wannabee square from a fellow beat.  Many of their terms, ranging from “cool” to “cop-out” to “funky” to “turn on” to “shack-up”  and many others are still in use today.

Venice West Aug '16

The author on  the  scene 2016

On the contrary:  The counter-culture known as hippie, which grew out of the beat subculture, although also anti-establishment, had a vision more idealistic, hopeful, and celebratory.  Rather than sitting around in black turtlenecks and goatees reading Howl and listening to introspective jazz and hitting on  “horse” or heroin, Hippies wore colorful costumes and grew long hair and convened love-ins in parks where they danced, painted faces, and tripped on mind-expanding  drugs.  The Hippie movement caught on with millions in the sixties and its’ lifestyles and principles spread through out society, attracting young and young-thinking people world-wide with an optimistic vision for the future.

As an ardent participant in the hippie movement, I knew our antecedents were in the beats.  And I’ve lived in Venice/Ocean Park for over forty years, but I knew very little about them. Sure, I’d read Kerouac, Ferlinghetti, Snyder, and Ginsberg, but knew little of their beliefs, values, and culture.  After reading a historical summary of Venice West, a visit to the seminal beat location seemed appropriate.  It  would  be a kind of pilgrimage to my cultural ancestors, akin to visiting Gethsemane in Jerusalem or Trieste Cafe or City Lights Books in San Francisco or CG Jung’s tower near Zurich.  Everyday places now, but sites of cultural significance.

Venice West Café Expresso was established by Stuart Perkoff in mid-1958 to capitalize on the growing trend in coffeehouses.  He and a partner bought 7 Dudley  Pl, former shul (a Jewish meeting house) and later bleach factory .   They ripped off the  plaster and exposed the brick walls.  On opening day a hand printed sign announced Art is Love is God.  Perkoff, one of the original Venice Beat poets, had recently broken with Lawrence Lipton, whose January 1959, firsthand account of the burgeoning Beat scene, The Holy Barbarians, attracted national attention to the area.  Feuding with Lipton and running short on funds Perkoff sold the café in Janaury 1959, just before Holy Barbarians‘ publication in February, 1959.

The book sparked widespread interest in the beats and soon throngs of wannabees, weekend Beatniks, and tourists descended on the area and Venice West Café.  At times a painter would use the blank wall as a canvas for his colorful expressions.  Often one could hear a poet spouting his (they were almost always men) verse backed by a bongo player and/ or jazz musicians.  The café flourished, but eventually after years fighting closure by the city due to complaints by uncool, non-Beat neighbors, Venice West closed in 1965.

venice west outside

Osteria Venice West Cafe today

On my visit to the site of Venice West, I noticed how much and how little has changed in Venice.  Within 50 feet of the now luxury café, Osteria Venice  West,  the homeless population congregates and hits up city day-trippers with crafts and sullen stares. Recently next door at the Candle Café, I attempted to have a calm conversation  with a friend while a rag-tag crew of ‘musicians’ played amplified instruments and passed the bucket.  Is it fair to say they are the descendants of the Beatniks?  They still play music, create “art,” and take a lot of drugs and alcohol.  Or is the proprietor of the organic, gourmet restaurant?

The borderlines of counter-cultures are never sharp and constantly shifting as ideas get absorbed and co-opted into the mainstream.  But in exploring the roots of bohemian Venice, I discovered that alternative values such as free-love,  creative  expression and individuality don’t belong to any one “movement.”  Like the flowing garb of the Hippies and the free verse of the Beatniks, the counter-culture is constantly shifting and not limited by any label.  Once the  site of an innovative tourist attraction, followed by decay, poverty, Beatnik drop-outs, Hippie idealists and today by Silicon Beach techies, Venice has always offered a break from the  cookie-cutter, ersatz world of consumer culture.

Although of short duration and small numbers, the beat influence has been surprisingly long lasting.  In addition to its gifts to the vernacular and our coffee tastes,  it also left us the drum  circle which continues to this day on Sundays on Venice Beach.   And like many counter-cultures, it encouraged sexual liberation, eschewed ethnic bigotry, and advocated an anti-war creed.  Its’ embrace of cool jazz and cannabis predicted the wide dissemination of such tastes.  And most importantly, the Beats recognized that mindless consumerism was a hamster-wheel, which research psychologists have confirmed does NOT lead to greater happiness or life satisfaction.

A key feature of Beat was the acceptance that anyone is a creative soul.  One didn’t have to get an MFA to spout poetry or write a novel or throw paint on a canvas.  What mattered was your authenticity and soul.  The Beat movement was the first counter-culture to practice and encourage that the freedom to create is available  to everyone.  Their vision seeded today’s creativity explosion seen in the availability of on-line video, print-on-demand books, blogs such as this, and sound clouds, where anyone with the courage and the urge can be an ‘artist’ and publish their creations.

More than a trend or a style, the Beats demonstrated that ‘living  in society and not of it’ is possible.  So, when you down an espresso or attend an open-mike, you’re sampling a bit of Beatnik.

plaque Venice West

Giving respect to  the  tradition (on the wall at the site)

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Falling to Earth in New Mexico

 

panorama White Sands

coolio

picnic benches all in a row 102 degrees

David Bowie’s recent passing prompted tons of commentary on his unique contribution to pop culture.  More than a rock star (he never won a music Grammy), and not quite a movie star, his variety of personae invited the public to observe the variability of our personal identities.  His first film, The Man Who Fell to Earth established him as an actor (he studied acting before becoming a pop star) and as a shape-shifter.  Not unlike how we saw him shape-shift in public and musical life.  In it  Bowie portrays an alien who crashes to earth alone, a stranger in a strange land.  He soon finds ways to capitalize on his advanced knowledge and becomes an international economic power.  But his character always seems out of sorts, not fully present even as he takes on human characteristics and relationships.

During the film Bowie gets homesick and remembers his wife and kids and we see footage of their hollow faces and chapped skin.  Their world had dried up, gotten too hot and they sent Newton (Bowie) out to our water planet on a scouting mission.  We never really learn what he intended to do, because  while using his special knowledge and  powers to build  the world’s greatest corporation, the authorities catch on and he gets locked in to earth.

Released in 1974, it predicted the global warming, we’re grappling with now.  Directed by Nicholas Roeg  with many hard camera angles and cuts and populated by sharp-edged, one-dimensional characters, the message is clear: We’re too dumb to do what’s  good for us.  That contrasts with 2015’s trite,  all-American solution,  to earth’s drying up, Interstellar—planets are disposable, build a new on.

wadda you see

I can see for miles and miles

The Man Who Fell to Earth uncovered the emotional nuance of  losing or leaving one’s home and its preciousness— where ever it is. Bowie played the role so well, as in most of his personae,  one can barely distinguish the character from  him.  In the film he slips into various guises, never ages, but ultimately falls into futility, wry cynicism, and drunkenness.  He fell to earth and found out we too were barren, but we hadn’t realized.

Bowie is famous for his variety of roles played out in music and movies.  So good at it he convinced most of us that those roles were actually him.  The popular perception was that he had changed and become the Diamond Dog, or the Thin White Duke, and the alienated Brit in Berlin, and finally just disappearing until his recent album was released two days before his death.   Bowie kept us guessing all the time, but we put on him more than he really was, or perhaps he revealed something inside all of us that we didn’t know existed.  I attended his show at the Universal Amphitheater in LA during the Diamond Dogs tour.  And like most concerts it started late. Eventually, from  stage left, he floats down in some kind of a crane in full space costume, and if I’m remembering correctly singing ‘Uncle Tom  to ground control.’  So, Bowie.  He  proceeded to blow our  minds with staging that referenced the dystopian novel 1984 (mind the actual date loomed ominously in the near future in  those days).

alcohol in season

Beer allowed in summer.

Thinking about Bowie and the film, my recent trip to south-western New Mexico’s White Sands National Monument came to mind.  Driving through the gates I felt like I had fallen to another world.  Whiter than Vail in a good snow blizzard, even the road was whited out. Wary of striking out into the desert alone, I stopped and had a beer since  it was in season according to a sign.

Hot and tired after driving for five hours through some of the  most empty land in New Mexico, and eating an astro burger in the  military-oriented town near the park.   Sipping on the beer, I decided to stay close to the  car and shade in  this heat and did a few sand slides utilizing the technique I picked up in 2014 in Swakapmund, Namibia. Big fun,  but not so much fun to climb the hill in the heat.  I later learned that a German couple and their son died not far from the road the month I was there.  I guess Germans aren’t used to such heat, and the precautions required thereby.

Unexpected, unusual, and uncomplicated, White Sands feels like another dimension.  Totally unlike any other  place I’ve seen, expect  for the red sands of Namibia.  I felt Bowie-esque, alone,  a stranger in a strange land.  But that’s what I travel for,  the thrill of discovery of unique, beautiful, mind-blowing, heart-opening, experiences.

zen info board White Sands

A blank white board invites the visitor to the empty world

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Dark Side of Haleakala Reveals Quirky Maui (discovery)

 

panorama of the dark side of Haleakala near Kaupo

With the sounds of Pink Floyd’s Dark side of the Moon pulsing in my head, I woke up in my tourist condo in Kihei, Maui and shouted out ‘Enough of canned activities from the vendor on the beach. Today is adventure day and I’m going to find it.’  After two relaxing and beatific weeks of hot tubs, drinks with mini-umbrellas, and surfing with the ho-dad (beginner surfer) hordes.  I had to bust out.  I filled up the tank of my rental car at Costco and headed up-country.

Forty-five years of travel vacations gives me some perspective on what I like or not.  I’ve dabbled in various forms in my terminally peripatetic life.  Mostly I prefer new locations that offer some special passion such as last year’s trip to southern Africa where I tapped into my passion for deserts (red dunes of the Namibian desert) and waterfalls (Victoria Falls).  At times I just want to go to tropical islands and relax, ride the waves, drink Mai Tais and chill.  But even a chill out in a very ordinary and predictable place like Maui offers up some edgy adventures in between the surfing, scuba diving, and the, yep, Mai Tais.

Curt is a thinker

C-Dog pondering  Kula’s plants

That day I stretched out of the Maui beach routine.  Getting an early start with my old college buddy, C-Dog, we decided to explore the dark side of Haleakala volcano (dark in the sense that it is much less trampled by the tourist hordes, or so I thought).  We headed up-country (meaning higher elevation on Maui) initially checking out the privately owned Kula Botanical Gardens.  Botanical gardens rank right up there with my passions for hot springs, waterfalls, caves, and deserts.  Kula didn’t disappoint.  Family developed in the seventies, the gardens offer a wide range of plants from all over the world that are commonly grown in Hawaii.  I was surprised that the country of origin is most often South Africa.  When I reported this to a South African friend, he confirmed that most people think plumeria and others are Hawaiian native plants.  Now I understood the acclaimed of the Kirstenbosch National Gardens in Cape Town which I visited in 2014.  Although, a small, 8 acre, property , with a wide mix of plants and the 180 degree view of the island, Kula Gardens qualified this side stop as an adventure.

 

DSCF0102

Old-style sanatorium,  Kula

Prompted by my buddy’s desire to revisit where he had done some medical training back in the 80s, we found another of Maui’s rare gems:  Kula Hospital.  Originally, built in the 1920s as TB sanatorium, it is now a general hospital for the island.  Classic art-deco architecture and original landscaping and old houses gave the impression of old Hawaii.  Except for the modern cars in the parking lot, it could have been 1945.

 

guy with studio

art gallery cum studio, Kula

 

While getting gas, next to one of Maui’s original coffee houses (Grandma’s) I peeped into an art gallery located in an ancient 1920s building.  But not a typical dolphins on a wave type pervades tourist strips in Kihei or Lahaina, it houses the artist’s studio, his gallery, and his stream of consciousness self-promotion.

Finally, we rolled to Ulupalakua Ranch where a seniors’ motorcycle club had gathered for lunch, next door to MauiWines’ tasting room.  After a couple sips of expensive and too sweet pineapple wine, we headed into the reportedly treacherous road on the leeward side of the mountain.  For the daring (according to the hyper-cautious car rental maps) motorist, it is an alternative route to the famous rain forest haven of Hana.

 

bought a shirt

Kaupo General Store, Maui

Although I’ve been to Maui at least 8 times over the decades, I’d never been to the backside of Haleakala.  Tourist maps make it sound problematic with a long stretch of unpaved, one-lane road.  But instead of drama we were rewarded with big vistas of undeveloped grasslands and lava rocks.  Like a prairie on the moon.  Every so often a ramshackle, half-built house with a satellite antenna popped out of the brush.  I later found out that a lot of the area is Hawaiian Homestead land, where native Hawaiians can live for free.  Out there it felt as distant from civilization as the Navajo Reservation is from Flagstaff, AZ.

Arriving at the end of the paved road at Kaupo, we found the coolest general store on the island.  More than a store with cold beer and drinks, it offers home-made jewelry, and a museum of old stuff like cameras and hair dryers.  Weird but real, and definitely not Lahaina.

While sipping a cold brew on the lanai of the Kaupo store I felt adventurous and satisfied, until van after van of Friendly Isle tour buses rolled by in their packaged tours.  Oh well, I had enjoyed my fantasy escape to the edge of Maui.  Meanwhile, I had to negotiate the one-lane road back to tourist central in Kihei.  Just  another day in tourist paradise, adventure style.  As always, the living the dream means seeking and SEEING the adventures right in front of you.

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Uncovering Maui’s Historic Roots & Hipsters (discovery)

On my recent trip to Maui, driven by curiosity and desire for the authentic,  I explored many nooks and crannies on Maui from Makawao to Paia to Lahaina.  Nowhere could I get a hit of the real and soulful with local vibe and original spirit.  Until I spent a day in Wailuku.  Wailuku is the original town and administrative headquarters on that side of the island and has minimal visitors.  The first time I really visited Wailuku was in 2008, when a friend from college relocated here from Pismo Beach.  I had been coming to Maui for decades, but my previous experiences on Maui, mostly at the nature sites (Haleakala, Hana, Kihei, Little Beach, and Lahaina) had nothing to do with Wailuku.  I stayed at his apartment overlooking the town and discovered it was a normal town with neighborhoods and kids and like my hometown Santa Monica used to be back in the seventies.—an ignored and decrepit historic core (modern euphemism for old part of town).  But now gentrification has hit old Wailuku.

new  arch no bldg in Wailuku

New arch, no building historic Wailuku

 

Gentrification often saves the downtown core of old cities from demolition, including in paradise.  After a four year absence from Maui, I spent a few weeks on island and to my chagrin the beach tourist towns have blown up, just like my home beach town.  As in too much traffic, jaded merchants, and ersatz culture.  But in Wailuku redemption has come.  In 2011 I noticed the seeds had been planted, but now they have sprouted.  The coffee place, the restored movie theatre, the record store, and other shops bustle on Market.  The next street over Central Ave is primping for redevelopment, with  signs announcing restoration of old buildings from the forties.

wailuku bustles at Wailuku coffee

From street people  to stockbrokers, everybody stops at Wailuku Coffee

After several days watching the long lines of rental cars cruising through the tourist strips of Paia, Kihei, and Lahaina, I craved a hit of  the down home and local.  Wailuku called. On my last trip, I spent a whole days at Wailuku Coffee Company and few people would come in.  This year, I sat there for a couple hours and observed a constant stream of customers.  In just two visits, I was able to identify regulars.  I observed several business meetings, mothers with  their kids, and even the local eccentrics.

 

 

chic restaurant next to hostel

chic restaurant next door to hostel in the core

Inspired, I took a walking tour of downtown Wailuku, and discovered a wide-range of new shops catering to various hip or up-scale clientele.  A converted gas station now operates as a metaphysical gem store, whose ethnically mixed, young clerk wore a huge mumu, assisted a young Hawaiian guy buying crystals, while a 80-something white woman in an aloha dress waited.  Across the street an art deco style building housed an attorney, a yoga studio, and a holistic healer.  Rounding the corner, next to a huge parking lot for the municipal bldg. the hostel had a few youthful travelers lounging around. On one side of the hostel a totally vegan store celebrated its health orientation and on the other an upscale, table-cloth restaurant served lunch.  At the prime intersection, Market & Vinyard, a vacant store announced the pending opening of Pono with no clue on its mission.  Across from that corner the venerable Kokopele grill stand with its big yard used for weekly outdoor reggae movies.  In typical island style the stand occupied only one tenth of the lot.

A variety of other health-oriented shops have popped up next to the mysterious Pono.  They boasted a sign indicating no smoking of either kind—tobacco or e-cig.   Walking a couple more blocks down Market, I saw a man about 40 sitting on the sidewalk surrounded by debris of old pineapples.  Wary of being accosted for funds from my years of travel I braced myself, but he simply smiled and said “Hi.”  Even an empty lot had the makings of a re-do with a brand new concrete archway in the Japanese style opening to a barren lot except for a few cement pilings and trash.

Iao Theatre

Built 1933 and posters from  this year, Iao Theatre

As in many historic cores with classic theaters, the Iao Theater from the thirties (official historic landmark) had flyers of past and upcoming concerts from Margaret Cho to the Maui Chamber Orchestra.  Like the enigmatic Bowling Center which is only open for two mornings per week, nothing surprised me in reviving Wailuku.  Across from the heartbeat of Wailuku Coffee Company is Maui Shoe Academy, which deals in shoe repair and specialty footwear.

Further down Market I noted two more hostels, old and basic,  that could’ve been here since 1976, my first visit, but weren’t.  These days globe-trekking young people have a place to land and forage around the magical isle of Maui.  One, The Banana Hostel had a sign that announced that smokers had to stand away from the entrance.  It must be for foreigners, I can’t imagine Americans needing that instruction.

The Wailuku merchants seem to be serious about their revival with a guy sweeping in front of shops on Saturday with a broom and bucket.  Along with the industrious street sweeper, a wacky ‘hapa’ (ethnically mixed) guy lingered around the café for the couple hours I was there.  He flitted from store to café to another store and somehow finally got a couple dollars and waved them around and bought a coffee and salad and asked to sit at my table.  I said, “Sure.”  He then said, “Do you mind if I talk to myself?”  I responded, “No problem.”  He apparently didn’t like that response and promptly left. So, check-check for Wailuku’s harmless, aloha-spirited street guys.

Discovering the ‘new’ Wailuku, confirmed for me the value of keeping an open and curious mind-set while traveling as a counter-balance against the ‘been there, done that’ attitude that can surface later in life.  Even going to super touristy Maui for the umteenth time gave me some  discovery time.   Coming up on LDD:   Adventures in wild cowboy country on  the backside of the volcano.

 

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The Big Ditch and the Big Mash-up: Silver City, NM (adventure)

at his coffee  house Dale

Dale Rucklos, reinventor in Silver City, NM

 

“Hey, how are you today?” asked a tall, bald on top, long and curly on the sides guy perched outside one of the seven coffee houses in town as I approached.  Looking for a place to relax after touring around the town, I was looking for a coffee house and write.  Dale Ruchlos and Teresa were on duty at Yankie Creek Cafe and happy to talk about Silver City, how they got there, and their winding road, inner and outer.  Like I’d stepped into their living room, we talked for hours about the artistic and musical character of the town, the mix of transplants and college kids, and the mysterious road of life that led them there.  Very homey vibe in the place enticed me with announcements of  upcoming concerts, a weekly pinochle game, and original art on the walls.

replica of Billy the Kids house which was here

replica home of  Billy the Kid

When I drove into the historic center of Silver City,  I first noticed the Army Surplus store followed by a thrift shop and next to that a food co-op and then a micro-brewery and an art gallery.  A real hodgepodge of authentic, early 21sth Century Americana hip mixed with an old mining town whose original main street had turned into a ditch.

 

I rolled down the current main street, Bullard, and surveyed the scene.  Putting slowly like a typical tourist, I gazed all around for parking signs like back in Santa Monica.  You know the kind; street cleaning day, preferred parking permits, no high and long vehicles, and so on.  Seeing nothing of the kind, I slipped into a free spot next to a yoga studio.  Then a yahoo in a jumbo pick-up raced by and greeted me with a ‘Fuck you, asshole.’  Wow, not auspicious welcome, but it didn’t dampen my anticipation of discovering such a real place.  Turned out, that the rest of the afternoon proceeded with friendliness and warmth.  What else?  It was pushing 100 degrees that day.

civic preservation

saga of the Ditch

 

Trusting the word I’d gotten several years before, with no research, I left I-10 at Deming, NM crossed the freeway and faced the long, straight line of NM Hwy 180 to Silver City, NM.  Planning to get to Tucson and its cheap motels and uber-hip 4th ave, I had a lot of ground to cover.  Arrow straight mile after mile passed by the high desert scrub brush and saw only an occasional semi-truck and no other passenger vehicles.  I wondered, “What could be out here?  Hours from any real city?”  Turned out a lot.  After an hour on the road, shopping malls with the corporate chain stores interspersed with chain motels appeared on both sides of the four-lane highway, and I worried that I may find another Prescott, AZ.  Then the tell-tale brown and beige historic markers began to appear.  They pointed to the nineteenth century Palace Hotel which is located in the historic center across the street from a yoga studio.

Taking a self-guided walking tour, I stumbled upon the Ditch.  It looked like an old creek cutting through a forest of overgrown trees.   Something like an unholy union of the San Luis Creek in San Luis Obispo, CA and Temescal Canyon in Pacific Palisades.  Along the sides about 12′ above the creek, a neglected concrete walk-way offered benches and access into the ditch.  I put aside my desire for a steaming espresso and crossed the creek on the old steel suspension bridge, the kind you can look through to the water and rocks below.  On the other side, next to the replica house of Billy the Kid was the museum and tourist office.

get your dog's astrology

dogs & metaphysics

They call it the Ditch, because back in the early twentieth century regular floods (due to overgrazing the hills around the town) made a canyon of Main St eventually requiring bridges to get to the shops on the other side of the street.  Giving up on that futile effort, the commercial street was relocated to Bullard and Main Street was given over to the ditch.  But Bullard still maintains the old-time three foot high sidewalks from the old days before sewers.

 

Being the curious type, I investigated the ersatz log cabin poised next to the car bridge.  Like many historic structures in the old West, it is a replica of what once was there.  I’m glad to say, the rest of the town isn’t a replica.  As I later discovered in my wanderings.  But back to the historic park, in a fervor of civic pride or tourist aspiration, the cabin was built in the 1980s on the original spot of the home of Billy the Kid before he went on the rampage for a couple years in southern New Mexico.  Funny, how a good story and PR man can turn an outlaw and criminal into a cash cow tourist attraction.  I saw several monuments in the area dedicated to the weird, short career of William Bonney and wondered, “Is that the best you can do for heroes?”

almost destroyed for a parking lot

almost a parking lot

Silver city exudes an eclectic mix of Western New Mexico University students, bohemian city refugees, and old time ranchers.   Every street in the historic core offered surprises in architecture with totally restored art deco for the daily newspaper, an art museum gallery in the old armory, an eighty year old frame house turned into a cafe, all mixed in with hold-overs from over a hundred years.  You can find a boarded up old movie theatre, a thrift store, and an in process soda fountain conversion to micro-brewery all on the same block.

I had a funny encounter in the Army Surplus store:  A lot of original old army stuff filled the walls and I wanted to rummage around.  The proprietor asked me what I wanted and I responded, “I don’t know. I’m looking for it.”  Then I attempted to go in the stacks and he barked, “That’s not allowed.”  Well, I walked out to find more friendly attractions.

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Former armory, now art gallery

 

Back at Yankie Creek Cafe, Dale, the proprietor broke it down about the six other coffee houses each of which has its own loyal clientele and specialty.  He suggested I check out a place called the Lazy Cactus for its real espresso.  We parted company with an exchange suitable for old hippies of a creative bent, I gave him a copy of my book, Living the Dream Deferred and he gave me his new cd The Journey.  The cover art has a photo of him as a young man looking at mirror of him now.  I continued my perambulations  and went to the real espresso coffee house and enjoyed the groove with a patio facing the street, Tibetan tapestries on the walls, and Bob Marley on the sound system.
As groovy as it was, it was time to leave but not before one other anomaly.  Outside of the historic area, turning left to head out of town, with only infrequent traffic, I waited almost ten minutes for it to turn green.  Silver City proved to be quirkier than I imagined.  Again, proving my rules of travel adventures; plan lightly, don’t research too much, and walk around and be surprised.

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Afraid of Nothing on Victoria Falls’ Gorge ( adventure)

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Flying Swing at the Gorge at Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe

 

Looking over the 300 yard chasm in front of me, I sweated bullets. I was about scratch another one off my Bucket list, but  first I had to jump into the void at Victoria Falls.

After visiting Iguassu Falls in Brazil/ Argentina, in 1996, I committed myself to going to Victoria Falls. The power of the water called me, but this leap into nothingness was an add-on. I didn’t have to do it, but my basic operating principle is to walk my talk and take leaps into the abyss.

Vic Falls’ gorge qualified for a test. The Falls had been on my top five Bucket List for years, but I didn’t know that included the gorge. A courageous young man had awakened in my sixty-something soul, and now I had to jump or scurry away like a cowardly rat away from the light waiting at the bottom of the abyss.

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Most people don’t have a Bucket List. For decades I didn’t. I was one of those people afraid to dream and commit for fear of failing and the likely follow-up—self-abnegation. Mostly my list was a Someday List, if everything is aligned then maybe I’ll do it. But someday never comes.

A Bucket List is something to accomplish, a goal, and takes action. I’ve pondered what is going on with me when I don’t act on goals—procrastinating like we all do? It’s a whole field in clinical psychology. Prominent researcher in the field Tim Pychl’s summation on how to overcome it is simple—Just get started—NOW. Not someday.

But then many people never commit to or get started on their Someday /Bucket List? I think it often boils down to the “C” word—courage. Procrastination comes from failing to do the aversive tasks it takes to achieve goals. What is an aversive task? Something perceived as difficult, boring, risky, and / or expensive. And is it possible to adjust our attitude to be more open to new experiences and the attendant risks they bring? Can one override the reptilian brain that seeks to protect us from danger?

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Our Guides, Swiss & South African

 

I pondered that at the edge of the gorge.  I had made it, I saw Vic Falls, I heard the roar, I felt the ‘smoke that thunders’, but then there was an add-on. Egged on by my 25 year old guide from Switzerland, who said she would jump the gorge if she were allowed by the employer. After a couple drinks I one-upped my traveling companions who had chosen to take a riverboat ride, instead, I declared, “I dive into the abyss tomorrow”

The next day sparkled with mist rising from the falls and several rainbows. Arriving at the jumping spot, I handed over my camera to my guide and calmly waited my turn in the three part experience. First ride was a zip line across a narrow part of the 400 foot chasm. Easy and fun. Next, another zip line but this time with a fast drop of 80 mph. The coup de grace was the Flying Swing—A free-fall leap of four seconds followed by swinging back and forth across the chasm.

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After four seconds of free-fall

 


A group of  South Africans, burly men and sturdy women, all in their thirties, waited in front of me, giving me 20 minutes to rethink this—the Leap. I watched the line shrink as they one by one disappeared into the void.  Some hesitated, some dived in head first.  All cried out.

The mild weather suddenly turned warm and humid. Sweat dropped from my eyes, my hands got clammy. Before any thoughts of fear my body expressed it. I spent the next 18 minutes reminding myself that the jump was safe and secure. I vowed to ‘just do it’ when I got to the platform.

When the last one fell from sight, I knew my time had come. I walked to the edge and promptly stepped into the void. Instant bliss washed over me and a grin spread across my face. Big fun! Fear vanished. Adventure prevailed.

But courage is like the proverbial bath—once is not enough. It’s a practice. That leap led to reflection on how often lack of courage holds me back from adventures and fun:

  • Flirt with a potential date and promise to call and don’t?
  • Promise to go to a group or party and then flake?
  • Fudge on my true feelings with someone just to maintain their friendship?
  • Allow self-absorbed narcissists to dominate a conversation because I don’t want to upset them?
  • Ignore issues In a friendship because I don’t want to upset her?
  • Complain about some social ill and never do anything about it?
  • Dream and talk about moving to a tropical island and do nothing.

Sometimes there may be valid reasons to hold back. But what about principles? Do I stand for something or not? It is a line in the sand that moves constantly, depending on my mood and the circumstances? Sometimes discernment may mean not acting, but it could also be— Laziness? Cowardice? Lack of information?

On my Someday, now Bucket list are many places to see and experience. For many years I traveled solo and loved it. I also have taken tours and enjoyed that. But lately my taste for solo travel has waned and at the same time, I want the excitement of discovery that regimented and organized tours don’t offer. I have contemplated the options. What would be courageous, the tour or the solo trip? The Tarot offered me a clue on this: Do nothing and the answer shall arise— patience and trust. Not liking this answer, I then threw the I Ching and it said, ‘furtherance of the small’ or watchful waiting.  Not a time for rash action.

Psychologists have discovered that forced decisions are not the best. When I feel a compulsion to make something happen, I explore my creative self. Artists know it as the Muse, others call it god. Regardless, it is that aspect that can’t be seen or touched.

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bridge to Zambia

One form it takes is in the ‘ah ha’ moments in life. Coaxing it out of the unseen and unknown takes determination and patience for me. A coach, therapist, or minister may stimulate those moments, but it comes in its own time. Calm, discipline, and faith set the stage, but it still takes courage to say YES to the unknown—-that mysterious call to do something just because. Regardless of the results, when I do it feels good.

Sitting at the 18th St coffee house in Santa Monica, CA, surrounded by other ‘laptop’ workers, I reflected on the above adventure and looked at the excuses I tell myself to avoid taking action and risk failing. What’s at stake? A totally illusory sense of safety that my comfort zone will protect me from negative emotions? Bogus! My moods swing like The Flying Swing, up and down and sideways. The best I can do is to be real and face the fear, anxiety, and impatience and step into the unknown. As one teacher says, the result is not guaranteed, but you will grow. And for me, that is living my dream.

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Finding the White House in Canyon de Chelly (discovery)

 

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Canyon de Chelly

Coming out of the shade in Canyon de Chelly, NM, a Navajo woman surveyed her table of beaded jewelry and dream catchers. A sweet smile on a weather-beaten face lent veracity to her story of hiking down 600 feet into the canyon every day to sell her self-made curios. My usual practice is to avoid tourist site vendors, but the people at this park sell with such calm and reserve I didn’t restrain myself. Or was it simply the smoothing of my hard edges like the surrounding red rock canyon from years of traveling and encountering such sellers all over the world. Or maybe because it was 90 degrees and I am alone and lonely. So, I engaged the woman and bought a pair of dangling beaded earrings. Just because.

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Jeweler hikes up and down canyon daily

She reported that the earrings are made by her 9 year old daughter, (always an enticement), while she hand-painted the kokopellis on sandstone and weaved the dream catchers. I used to think my job as a classroom teacher in the inner city of Los Angeles with its 80% poverty and 50% non-graduating of the students was a tough job. But traveling around I get a much wider perspective on the challenge of making a living. Right here in the USA. This woman carried the sweet and soft demeanor, while working and living in challenging conditions. 

Canyon de Chelly lies off the main summer tourist route in the Southwest. Located about one hour from Interstate 40, the road meanders through the Navajo Reservation in northern Arizona and New Mexico. I broke my schedule to get to Santa Fe to take the long detour.  For miles around all the eye can see are scrub grazing land and distant mountains. It is so remote that in six hours on the rez, I saw several people with their thumbs out. No public transportation?  A sight never seen in California, even at the national parks. First I saw a couple of teen age girls walking resolutely toward the town of Ganados with pink hair and gothic black shirts and their thumbs out. I had driven a few miles before it registered that it would have been normal to pick them up out here. Not where I live.

de Chelly 3The canyon itself stuns the eye with burnt brick red rock out-cropping and farm homesteads dotting the canyon floor. Being a desert rock and canyon lover, I stood on the edge in awe for an hour. Car loads of tourists came and went, from the young couple in a rental RV to a group of Japanese tourists each wearing a different hat and a sewed on black neck guard to protect from the sun. Then there were the native summer species of the national parks—over-weight, American families who stop for a few minutes, gaze at the scene, and then pile back into the air conditioned car til the next stop.

Munching on my healthy salad from Trader Joe’s and imbibing a shorty can of gin and tonic, the minor buzz inspired me to hike down the trail for a few minutes. Well, the few minutes turned into a 2.5 hour hike with 1200 vertical feet climb. Spectacular views of undulating rock formations, and dark rusty layers of sediment eroded into eerie shapes that could have come from a avant garde ceramicist’s wheel greeted me on the 1.5 mile each way walk. About a half hour down, I engaged a couple of park-uniformed young people on a look-and-see inspection of the trail. The young man exuded optimism and reported that he was a volunteer and had just been hired full time next month. He lived in the town next door to the park, Chinle, and didn’t want to leave home and so was happy to get the job. The teenage girl sported pink-dyed hair and had just graduated high school. She also offered a similar full-face smile that reminded me these weren’t the tough inner-city kids I used to deal with back in LA. We proceeded to share notes about the relative merits of different smart phones.

Before I knew it, I could see the famous White House ruins off in the distance and just had to continue to the end. Picking up the pace I got there just after the Japanese tourists, took a selfie and turned around to buy my official de Chelly earrings.

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A man in front of the  white house

Huffing and puffing and almost running, I raced up the mountain, legs and back aching. I stopped only when two women hikers asked me if I was local. Smiling to myself and them (I figured it was my long, dark pony-tail disguise), I said no. I asked what they needed? One responded, “ Will it rain?”. I looked up at the gathering clouds and from somewhere inside summoned the confidence to say, “No, and even if it does it, it’s only a little.” Turns out I was right. Then I asked where they were from? The tall, skinny one with disjointed features and spiky dyed black hair said, “France.” The other of short stature and hair, looked surprised with my response. I said, “Look, I am from California and I know you French are tough.  You can do it.” Then I pointed to the ruins and said, “Go do it. You must.” And returned to my brisk pace up the mountain confident that I contributed to amiable French/ American relations.

It stretched my physical capabilities and my schedule, but I pushed on and made the top and crashed through my aging back issue to my car. I made it. Real travel means keep pushing on, keep going til you see what you didn’t expect to see. I’ve had that experience for forty years, and I wasn’t going to let my age stop me—yet. Yes, adjustments but not babying.

Canyon de Chelly offers a distinct view of how modern American indigenous people live around and in their ancestral setting. Driving along the rim of the canyon, every few miles is an compelling outlook to stop and take snaps. And at every stop are an Indian or two with a tarp and their array of sandstone paintings, earrings, and necklaces. Between each outlook one passes the homesteads with satellite antennas and a collection of old cars and pick ups. Strange mix of nature, tradition lifestyles, and 21st Century USA.

On the way to the next outlook, a fiftyish guy had his thumb out. Tall with missing teeth, jet black hair, and a scruffy beard and cowboy shirt, I decided to break my ennui and isolation and let him ride. In accord with one of the sadly too often true to stereotypes of Indians, he smelled of alcohol and spoke with a pronounced slur. Amiable but confused in his conversation he lived near the main road, but had to hitch because he had no gas for his pick-up truck. We bumped fists and he loped off into the scrub brush and I continued.

Slipped House outlook offered a gaggle of four locals sitting under the shade of a short tree and one of their number hanging at the stretched tarp with the usual paintings and beads. Walking by, she went into a long spiel at a very slow and low pitch. I wondered if it was my aged hearing or her. I nodded, she smiled and continued with her explanation of the esoteric meanings of her sandstone painting. I understood the words red, blue, and green but nothing else. Entranced by her sweet, low-key style, I had to buy. She asked 10, I said 7. Tapping into my decades of haggling with vendors from Zimbabwe to Austria, I expected her to come back with 8, which she did. Just for the fun of it, I said no, but she surprised me with yes and a smile.

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hanging with the teens at the  canyon

I’ve traveled the southwest almost yearly for decades and I had never made to the famous site of Canyon de Chelly. But what pushed me to get off the Interstate, and delay my arrival at my close friends in Santa Fe was a sign, an omen that started at home. I chanced upon my brother-in-law outside the gym at home, and he had just made a trip to the same area and the ONLY place he mentioned was Canyon de Chelly. So, the night before at a motel in Flagstaff, I looked at a map, yes a real paper map, and de Chelly on the map and decided it was time. I called my friends in Santa Fe and said I’d be a couple hours late and took the 1.5 hour detour to Navajo nation and the canyon.

That side trip felt like what I was, a visit to another nation. The Navajo live in a unique amalgam of modern America and their traditional farming and grazing culture. I encountered a special flavor of America; indigenous people living on their ancestral lands who totally integrated with the modern world. This is always my quest when I travel. Uncover the unexpected and encounter the local people. Meeting Navajos on this trip showed me how it is possible to balance one’s history and traditions and still be fully invested in modern culture.

I never know what may happen while living the dream deferred, the free life, the expressive life, the life of adventure, so I make my plans in pencil and invite surprises, Canyon de Chelly was a sweet, physical, and memorable one.

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