Even the Desert Blooms

The March Equinox Arrives

At this moment of Equinox (latin ‘equal night’), the Northern Hemisphere crosses out of winter. Preparations for Passover and Easter are underway. Dormant buds are preparing, or indeed bursting, into bloom. I’m poised for my annual cherry blossom painting frenzy. The ospreys returned last Thursday, immediately busying themselves with nest-building.

All living creatures respond to the change. Bob Wells, long time van dweller, (he writes the blog Cheap RV Living) heard that Death Valley was experiencing an unusual ‘Super Bloom,’ and earlier this month pointed his mobile household west.

from the NYT: a Desert 5-Spot. Read about it at http://nyti.ms/1Qv5hGA

From Bob’s Blog:

“Once you’ve spent some time in the desert and opened your soul to hear it’s unspoken message, you quickly come to see how very tiny and puny we are in the grand scheme of things.

“The desert has stood in one place with very little change not just for tens of thousands of years, but for thousands of millenniums. It’s ancient wisdom laughs at our insignificant discoveries. In a moments time it could snuff us out like the locusts we are.”

“When I step out of my van in the morning and look around in a 360 degree circle, the sheer immensity of it’s size humbles me. It would take me days of walking to reach the distant mountains and many more days of walking to reach the next distant mountains. To reach them all would take me many months of walking and I would be dead before I reached them unless I give the desert the respect it demands and learned and followed it’s ways.”


Read more at Death Valley Superbloom

Tidewater Retreat

On October 17-19 I was on retreat with my AWWG sisters in Mathews, VA. I had never visited this part of Virginia before and was smitten with the peace and big sky. This is a bit of my scribblings.

In the Tidewater we have our own weather.

Pattern: clouds march offshore, moving south along the coast. Clear inland. This is counterintuitive to our inland weather, usually West to East.

Broad soft curling rivers of salt marsh sweep and weave, flush and suck, swell and drain up and down the seaboard like lungs. The silt that creeps into corners, the poisons that filter down from our civilized behavior fan out and settle. 

But then: the sea fills to bursting, inhales a great wet breath up into the rivers. Back toward their source, breathing saline into small channels, seething between reeds tangled with plastic trash, dragging the scum with her when she falls back away toward the moon.

Like the trees, there’s an exchange. At first it’s not so obvious, but here is the swish and pulse of our body’s lymphatic health, breathing salt soup life, in and out of our pores.

She seems boundless, indefatigable, infinitely absorbent. We clever ones already test her limits, tinkering with the chemistry set of the globe. It looks like the calcium cities built over eons by coral will be bleached dead before we ever learn their language. And yet they gave us Florida.

Here the dawn comes: extraordinary color the camera won’t get. Greeny sky, violet pink clouds, slate blue waters, all very Maxfield Parrish: smooth fields of tonal color and flawless gradients. The clouds feel muscular, bubbling, and constrained along the beach like eager horses. Later in the day they will wander toward and lumber over us. In the Tidewater we have our own weather.

I Give Thanks for the Sea

Have some images from my writing retreat at Ocean City Maryland, from Thanksgiving and the following weekend. There is nothing quite as beautiful as the edge of the world, all water and light.

click on any photo to enlarge, you’ll get a slide show view

Characters on the American Road

We met a variety of humans in our travels; I wasn’t always on top of my job as documentarian, or I would have collected more portraits, since they were all interesting people.

You already met Janet Saad Cook, the Richmond, VA light artist and Claire, lady of the lovely NC farmhouse. They were already in our stable of friends, so don’t count as ‘found’ characters (although they ‘count’ big-time as lovely friends).

The first time we met new folks was when we stopped in Monterey, TN. The hotel clerk sent us to the awesome barbeque joint across the street known as Rocky Pops.

Our dinner on the fire at Rocky Pop’s

Rocky Pop himself was out back smoking up the mountains with a delicious fragrance, and his daughter waited on our table. Her daughter, peppered us with questions and decided she wanted to go to California with us. Her mother nixed the plan before we could tell her that we had no room. The amazing ribs were large and meaty and smoked to tenderness on that big cooker out back. There’s no sign on the place, but it’s right across from the Super 8.


The next time I met some local characters was at the cafe in Bentonville, AR. Crystal Bridges Museum of American art has a lovely cafe called Eleven (why? whatever – it was cool) and it was so crowded when we arrived, tired and hungry, that I asked a couple if we could share their table. Elmer and Estelle have been married for 57 years. They live in eastern Arkansas on a farm where rice is their primary crop. They had come to the museum with a church group and were really enjoying it, since, as Elmer told me emphatically “we never go to them big city places.” I asked them if the Walton family of Walmart fame had done other philanthropic projects for their state. They changed the subject.

Elmer did satisfy my curiosity about the miles of flooded fields in eastern Arkansas. Once we crossed the Mississippi at Memphis it seemed the flood plain went on forever. Rice farmers use this to their advantage: allowing the river to flood fields after planting then draining before harvest. Unfortunately, the river doesnt provide all the water needed for this. They draw millions of acre feet from the Middle Clairborne aquifer.

With all that water I asked Elmer if he ever ran into snapping turtles. Oh, yes, he replied, and we swapped snapping turtle stories. Both of us were warned as kids to avoid the creatures. Elmer told me a wonderful yarn about a giant turtle whose bite was so fierce and strong that if he bit you, he wouldn’t let go until it thundered!


People-watching along the highway isn’t always a happy thing. At one lonely rural gas stop, I watched a woman exit the convenience store with fried chicken, snacks, two coffees and a black eye. There was no one in the car with her. I made up a story, and it was sad.

Later on in Oklahoma we stopped for gas (again! there was alot of that) at this place. For a long while we had been seeing signs for Indian food (not the Native American kind). This was the source:

if you look closely at the sign to the right, it’s in Hindi characters. The woman who waited on us was clearly of east Indian heritage. We heard her speaking to her children in a language we didn’t know. When asked about the OK Jailbirds newspaper, she assured us it was no joke. I loved the sign: “please purchase before reading”!

There was one more sign at this place, miles from anywhere. We believe she is protecting the giant tire from any OK Jailbirds that might try to steel a 12′ high tire.

could this be Kali?

I have more tales for you, but that’s enough for today.

What have you found along the road that surprised you lately?


Day 9, part 2: Grand Indeed

Catching up now, since we have safely landed at Pleasant Hill, here is the:

Grand Canyon report from Day 9

We considered passing the Canyon by in order to save time, and dismissed that idea within seconds. Our hearts were clear. I wanted to see Flagstaff, to satisfy a nostalgic itch I was having, so we fueled up at Starbucks and also put gas in the car. What a sweet western town, plenty of hippie vibes, and that mountain pine scent in the air.

We chose the more scenic route that took us across the shoulders of the San Francisco Peaks through the Coconino and Kaibab national forests, and were well rewarded with towering pines and views of the mountain turning blue-violet in the afternoon. Lo and behold the engine light came on again once we passed 7,000 feet in altitude. This time we knew why.

San Francisco Peaks

We arrived at the park gates to find three lanes of visitors, checked in (thank you Senior Park Pass!) and were guided to a particular lot. Steps from our car was the storied abyss, glorious in late afternoon light. I oogled, I snapped pics, walked, then sat and filled myself with canyon beauty.

When I sat and allowed the scene to fill me with color and light and space and beautiful air, I began to “see” things. My mind embellished the natural patterns with order that was unlikely to be there: Tibetan monasteries, stupas, temples,  arches and windows. There was even a pyramid!

It’s true, the pictures just don’t do it justice. Maybe it’s the lack of vertigo? 😉

I felt like I was an instrument being played by the landscape. It was sublime, splendid, spectacular, and special, and I will commence a plan to return with the time to contemplate, to paint, and to invite the Grand Canyon to make music with me.

The Josephine Report:

Grand Canyon, Take One

How many beautiful calendar pictures of the Grand Canyon have I ingested in my lifetime?  Cliche # 2: no picture captures the overwhelming “whatness” you’re reaching for as you approach the experience itself.
I think I expected a straight-down-from-the-rim-to-the-bottom visual, and what I discovered was a complex system of canyons stretching over many hundreds of twisty square miles. Looking down, I could barely discern the Colorado River (and only a tiny glimpse from one vantage point) that created this majesty. Looking across, the other world of the North Rim was unimaginable, and the Painted Desert beyond, unfathomable.
I’m so accustomed to be able to focus and that’s just what this landscape refuses. Here’s what friend Glee Bartlett has to say about that:
“I remember painting at the canyon. I spent the day at it, but the canyon kept changing — every I’d time I’d look up I’d lose my focal point. So, I also painted — in great detail — the large green fly that lit on my easel and rested a for a longggg time. I love that painting.”
The distances, colors and perspectives were constantly evolving as the late afternoon light and our position changed. Distances? The faraway to the North Rim is just that, until I read the placard saying it’s 9 miles away. And  the Painted Desert behind THAT — the same desert we’d visited (admittedly in a different part) several hours earlier. There is definitely something mind-bending going on here.
Glee, I remain in gratitude to your large green fly, who helps to ground us,

Day 10: Welcome to California

A few days ago we were worried about crossing western NM and eastern AZ, and remarking on the desolate desert landscape. What the hell did I know, innocent Easterner? That was a trip through green pastures compared to today.

Leaving charming Williams, AZ after breakfast we rapidly descended from 7,600 ft to less than 400 at the Colorado River. The terrain changed and changed again, from tall pines to arid red rocks to scrub desert as we spiraled down out of the high land of the Colorado Plateau.

Looking at Needles, CA across Goose Lake, Havasu Wildlife Refuge, Topock, AZ

Seeing a watery wildlife refuge, we exited Route 40 just before the California line. Tango got to wallow in water from the Colorado that fills Goose Lake, a huge wetland surrounded by white sand desert. It was hot and windy, and a very strange place. Even a few dozen yards from the water and the landscape was unforgivingly harsh. Still, there was the scruffy town of Topock there, touting its recreational benefits.

After lunch we excitedly crossed into the Golden State and began climbing uphill again. Soon it was apparent that we were in a monumental desert world. The adjective ‘lunar’ worked its way into the conversation. Almost all the greenery disappeared and the colors grew muted. Some cactuses, a few small yuccas, tumbleweeds. And rocks, sand, wind.

Mountains were toothy and varied in color and form. Sometimes there was a totally black mountain. Later we saw more ‘malpais’ – recent lava erruptions of grainy black stone. There were no signs of life, no living things, no houses or power lines. For dozens of miles.

The Mohave Desert is over 25,000 square miles of daunting desert, stretching from Vegas into Arizona and California. It felt like the surface of Mars, only less colorful. It’s the first landscape where I couldn’t imagine surviving on my own. I like to think I am comfortable in the wilderness. But this environment was deeply hostile in my book, despite the long list of creatures who live there.

Jose and I have been on the road for over 3,200 miles and ten days. We’re tired, and so is our vehicle. Today, while watching the engine light and the temp gauge, one strap holding the bicycle broke, fortunately we caught it before it got completely loose. Later, in 30+ mph winds the cartop carrier began rattling ominously, so again we were on the hot, windy and dangerous highway fussing with straps and buckles to cinch it tighter.

After the blasted feeling of the Mohave, climbing up into the Tehachapi pass with all its windmills was exhilarating. But then the high winds had whipped the dust into a haze, and the sun was low. All those twirling pinwheels spinning on the mountainsides were mesmerizing.

After that, the rugged hills softened to a leathery tan, more green appeared and livestock to dine on it. Trees other than Joshua were a sight for sore eyes. And when we hit the first orchards in Caliente, it was like being in candy-land. The colors were so intense!

Here in north Bakersfield The air smells of flowers and manure, and its relatively humid. there are vineyards and orchards just outside of town, and they will line our route home tomorrow, the Garden Basket of the US.

Welcome to California, a huge, strange, rugged, lush state. What a first day!!

Thanks everyone for following along on this wacky adventure. There are many more tales to tell, and tomorrow, more miles to go. Stay tuned!

Day 9, part 1: Across the Desert

On this amazing day  we traveled over 450 miles and through many amazing types of terrain. We are pretty bone-weary and happy, since we ended our day with the Grand Canyon. That story is for Part 2.

This morning we left ABQ after fueling up at Starbucks and heading out old 66 for a bit. The empty desert stretched out forever before us, powdery sand and shriveled sage baking in the sun. As bleak as it was, soon there were bluffs and mesas, and we passed by Acoma Sky City as I read the amazing tale of their civilization (on Wikipedia, natch).

Whizzing along Interstate 40

Later we were sweeping through big curving red rock landscapes, passing impoverished Indian settlements and eccentric tourist traps as we ate up the miles. We got gas at Gallup, near the once-famous Hotel El Rancho, favoured by movie stars in the days of the big Western pictures: John Wayne and the like.

We crossed the Continental Divide and then the Arizona border. Somewhere our phones decided we had crossed into Pacific time as well, so the day became even longer.

Arizona brought less arid landscape: some breath of green to the range, and cattle appeared, grazing upon it. Lunchtime was a wonderful picnic at the Petrified Forest NP. Our shaded picnic table looked out over colorful hills dotted with petrified logs.The wind literally wuthered: around the rocks, the shelter, the scrub pine and sage.

Petrified Forest NP

There were lizards skittering, and birds. A few wildflowers were blooming including a cactus with orange blossoms.

After lunch, once again we were climbing. We were approaching the San Francisco Mountains and Flagstaff, gateway to the canyon lands beyond. But that’s tomorrow’s story. Stay tuned!

Meanwhile, here is today’s

Josephine Report: Desert Thoughts

Patrise and I have an ongoing conversation about how we feel about being in the desert. Both of us have lived our lives in various parts of the country surrounded by water, woods, and green growing things. Today we spent a good five hours traversing the New Mexico and Arizona desert, so that gave us time to think about being in it. I find it forbidding, inhospitable, bringing up survival fears. No leafy cover, no humidity, the sun so aggressive. I know I will never choose to live in such an environment.  For Patrise, her body responds with a big “yes”! But let her speak for herself.

And yet, it’s not as simple as that for me. I’ve now participated in three retreats over the past several years in the high desert near Abiquiu with White Eagle on her sacred land, Star Dance. Although the environment of the desert there did keep me on edge, it also sharpened my senses and mental faculties. I gained an enormous respect for the living creatures there who manage to thrive in such adversity; the sparseness of the landscape did not have the same emptiness I experienced crossing the desert at 70 miles an hour.

I’m waiting for the Desert Elders to join the conversation and share their wisdom.

My two cents on the desert is that I feel a tremendous joy when in New Mexico, that seems in conflict with the lack of water. I’ve been a water person my whole life. But something literally enchants me in the Land of Enchantment. More on this later.

San Francisco Peaks

For now, zzzzz.

Bonus Post for Day 8: On the Road in the High Desert

The Josephine Report: More Highway News:

A few days ago it was my clothing strewn on the Texas leg of I-40. This morning in Santa Fe my trusty 2003 Rav4 (160,000+ miles) began sending engine-light distress signals and doing the herky-jerky while trying to shift up. This after a very expensive tab back in Clinton, MD to REBUILD the transmission!
My Albuquerque friend Marie Ginga, whom I was visiting, took me to her mechanic (open on Sunday, mirabile dictu!), he checked the transmission fluid, waved his wand over the engine, and voila! no engine light, gear shift smooth as butter.
It certainly seemed a miraculous thing, not only the mechanic on a Sunday but then the witch-doctor effect: show up and the symptoms disappear! (Later we heard that it might have been the high altitude in SF. Over 7,000 ft. has been known to challenge Toyota engines. )
We’re set to travel across 400 miles of desert to our next destination: THE GRAND CANYON. Stay tuned.
Some pictures from the Open Road:
Baja Tacos – an old Santa Fe classic
Quite a RIDE!

Day 8: Santa Fe & Albuquerque

Elizabeth Mesh of NM Artists for Hire

We’ve enjoyed another respite here in this magical place. I visited friend Elizabeth, proprietor of NM Artists for Hire. Her work brings artists into the community for special events, self expression and healing. We enjoyed walking the old town with Elizabeth as our guide, particularly admiring the churches.

St. Francis Cathedral, a gorgeous french Romanasque revival building. Church occupied this site since 1608

As artists we all had interesting projects to share. I was delighted that my friends Elizabeth and Jose shared their enthusiasm for feminist and contemporary art. Although Elizabeth had to go to work, she urged us to be sure to visit Site Santa Fe.

I loved the show – and especially Linda Mary Montano’s exhibit , in a way I haven’t connected with conceptual and performance art before.  First of all Site Santa Fe has a commitment to engaging and educating its audience. With their mileiu of contemporary art, too often people come and don’t know what to make of the work. The gallery guides are trained to interact with patrons in a way that bridges understanding, making challenging works more accessible.

If you are used to contemplating museum art in splendid isolation, it can feel a bit like being interrupted while shopping by a helpful clerk. But I went in knowing this about the facility and I engaged the guides as well. It was odd at first, and then wonderful to know I could ask (dumb) questions and get helpful response. For instance, there were quite a few videos in one part of the show, and one of them was mostly static. I asked without fear if this was the intended work, or a technical problem. Turned out it WAS a bad DVD!

Art is deliberately challenging, especially contemporary, conceptual and performance art. SITE Santa Fe has created a good model for helping people find their way into the work, where the museum staff are not just silent guardians, but there to enhance your experience.

I had some fun with Mungo Thompson’s Time Covers:

Mungo Thomson’s Time Covers at Site Santa Fe

More of beautiful New Mexico:

Big Sky Country
Dog Park Santa Fe

Day 7: Land of Enchantment

Miles traveled: 451Total: 2311

Beginning Altitude: 3605
Current Altitude: 7163

First Cactus: mile 1907
First Mesa: mile 1913

Crossing the High Plains is like driving up a ramp: flat but steadily climbing, climbing. As we approached and crossed into New Mexico the land became more furrowed, rising and falling yet climbing still. You could see the railbed, made mostly level by tunnel and fill. So many trains. Josephine counted 98 cars on one. We chased another, trying to get pics.

We had some misadventure trying to find gas, which led us to Tucumcari, a Route 66 town with many old road relics, sadly many of them closed and rusting. The town has great murals, too, that you’ll see in the photos. Later we went to visit a lake that wasn’t there.

This land is so beautiful, so much blue in the sky, the dark green trees, and the shadows on  the land. Rose and cream and sage and grey hills dotted with cedars. Huge cloud shadows trundling across the hills. The photos cant do it justice, especially shot out the car window. But here they are, anyway.

Finally we arrived in Santa Fe, where I spent time visiting with my friend Elizabeth, so good to see her!!

Can you tell, I am too tired to write a proper travelog tonight? And my adventure mate is already snoring! But here are some photos to tide you over until next time. there are certainly tales to tell.

The Mother Road
The Mother Road
Wind Farm – Texas
First Cactus – Texas
At last! (bugs on the windscreen)
Ranch House Cafe