december 13, 2023
My travel journals are filled with little incidents and observations too small to become essays on their own, or too insular to be part of another, or just too poorly written. They were gathered during 18 month-long journeys made to the West since 2004 from my home in North Carolina. Arranged in rough geographical order, they simulate a single journey. Humor sits in the front seat, but there are occasional stops for the sad, gritty, dark, and uncomfortable.
I journey alone, and the travel day often ends at a bar, even though I never visit bars while at home. But on the road all habits are vulnerable to alteration or abandonment. Bars are social situations, and for the solitary traveler it is a society of strangers. All of these factors – on the road, abandoned habits, and aloneness – entice the eventful or unexpected encounter.
Dreaming of Coal
It was the last day of spring, and I was on Route 2 heading northwest towards Broken Bow, Nebraska. The road closely follows the railroad tracks. In an hour I passed 11 trains, but only four were moving. The other seven had just emerged from the winter swarm, when trains curl together for warmth. Now they were basking on sidings in the late spring sun, dreaming of coal. I measured them with my odometer and all were between 1.2 and 1.4 miles long.
“My earliest memory is holding a gun”
I arrived in Rawlins, Wyoming, during a torrential rainstorm. The Thai place was closed, so I went to a tavern with burgers. Sat at the bar next to a very large man with a very large mustache. He was a word-slurring drunk, just beginning his second 32-ounce beer; that is, he was working on half a gallon. He told me stories from his amazing life. Based on his stories, he must have been about 60.
“My earliest memory is holding a gun.” He grew up wanting to be a military policeman like his dad and older brother. Instead, he ended up as an Army sniper, training at Fort Bragg, not too far from my home in eastern North Carolina. He was very familiar with the Special Forces, and said their training had a high suicide rate.
This was in the 1980s, and he was sent to Colombia as part of an operation fighting the drug war. He ended up getting shot – lung, arm, shoulder – by so-called friendly forces in Columbia who were using weapons that had been supplied by Oliver North during what became known as the Iran-Contra Affair.
“Nothing makes me madder than getting shot by our own weapons.” He spent six months in hospitals recovering from his wounds. After discharge, he came home with a severe case of PTSD.
“I had to get away, by myself. So I planned a wilderness trip from here to Canada. I had a riding horse, a pack horse, and my dog. It took from May to October.
“I still have PTSD, but nowheres near as bad as before that trip.”
The Discreet Autobiographer
Having worked at Glacier National Park for a year and a half in the late 1960s, I visited its archives office to research some events that happened during my time there. The archive folks are ink phobes. Pens are not allowed. They made me take notes with a pencil even in my own notebook. But it will be easier to rewrite – or erase – my history.
Foiled by a Cowboy Poet
Every summer from 2008 to 2019, I visited Wallowa Valley and The Nature Conservancy’s Zumwalt Prairie in northeastern Oregon. I frequently had dinner and drinks at the microbrewery in Enterprise. On one visit I had dinner with several employees and friends of the conservancy. Among them was a former supervisory employee who had returned to cattle ranching fulltime after helping set up a graze/no-graze alternation to improve prairie health. The plants and wildlife are thriving because of it.
A 4th generation Wallowa Valley rancher, she was wearing a t-shirt that said “I didn’t claw my way to the top of the food chain just to eat vegetables.” I was madly in love with her, in my own facetious and deeply serious way.
It is fortunate for both of us that I didn’t become a stalker after an amazing coincidence. I had just returned to North Carolina after one of my Oregon visits. The next morning I turned on the TV and there she was, sitting on a horse. It was a National Geographic documentary about a couple who had returned the Wallowa River to its original course where it crossed their land.
Yes, this environmental superhero was married, and I was never able to outmaneuver her husband, the cowboy poet. Everyone in the valley was in love with her (women too), but only a cowboy poet could win her heart.
Dancing with the Drummer
My sister Donna, her husband Dave, and I ended the day in the small central Oregon town of Mitchell, near the Painted Hills in the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument. We checked into quaint old Oregon Hotel about six. It is cute, but except for the sheets, the little bedrooms appear not to have changed since 1904, when they were built.
A blues band was already playing when we went to the little bar next door. The band was way too loud for the small space it was in, but that was compensated for by quality musicianship. During a slow number, Donna and Dave got up to dance. The barmaid applauded, then grabbed me from my seat. We danced the “prom one-step,” which is at the outer limit of my coordination.
She told me that she actually wasn’t the barmaid, but was helping out because of the band. Normally, she would have been the drummer. (“She’s excellent,” I was told.)
As we danced, I learned that the other musicians were her father, husband, and ex-boyfriend. I considered this to be a sign that in rural areas, tolerance is inversely proportional to the size of the talent pool.
When the song ended, I shook her husband’s hand.
“Thanks for letting me dance with your wife.”
“Someone has to do it.”
Brush with a Desert Sage
There is now a microbrewery in Mitchell. I congratulated the bearded barman/owner on his wonderful addition to the town.
He replied, “I’ve still got a ways to go before it’s good.”
And then he Zenned himself.
“The humble man seeks a second compliment.”
(No extra charge for the titular pun.)
Dining with Amateur Psychopaths
During my summer month of travel in the U.S. West, I always visit Portland, my hometown. I stay with sister Donna and her Dave, and we often take a several-day trip, with the beautiful Oregon coast and its 82 state parks a frequent destination.
We have several favorite towns, and Yachats (YAH-hots) is one. It bills itself as the “home of the world’s largest ocean,” suggesting a sense of humor reaching to the highest civic levels.
During one visit we had dinner at a local restaurant/bar. As usual, the ale-assisted Dave and I were vociferous (especially me), and laughing inordinately. But based on what happened next, we must also have seemed a little unhinged.
Finishing dinner, Dave and I went to the restroom while Donna stayed.
Seated across the aisle was an older couple, though probably not older than us. After Dave and I left, the male of the cross-aisle couple asked Donna in a concerned voice:
“Are you ok?”
“That’s my brother and husband. Pray for me.”
Drinking Town with a Fishing Problem
While at Port Orford on the southern Oregon coast, I went to Pitches Tavern, where I met a grandmother who was the matriarch of a family that owned several fishing boats. During our conversation, she said, “Port Orford is a drinking town with a fishing problem.” That is an old fishing town chestnut, but maybe more appropriate in Port Orford than anywhere.
The town indeed has a fishing problem. The village is up on a headland terrace while the port is off by itself at ocean’s edge. It is one of the oddest ports in North America. There is no harbor for protection of boats, only a wharf with a jetty extension sticking out into the merciless ocean from the rocky shore. Along one side of the wharf is a narrow channel kept open by frequent dredging, as high winds cause severe shoaling as well as turbulent seas.
The town promotes itself as the only harborless port for 600 miles. I’m not sure what kind of fisherman would be attracted by that, since he is already in the deadliest profession. Because it is too dangerous to leave the boats in the water, after each trip they are hoisted up from the sea by two cranes. The boats are then lowered onto trailers and parked on the wharf side-by-side until it is time to lower them back into the sea. That suggests a Newfoundland outport, where a ticklish situation is mastered rather than abandoned.
Based on hair style, clothing, and radical views, my grandmotherly drinking companion appeared to have been a hippy or sympathizer most or all of her adult life. She had recently recovered from an attack by flesh-eating bacteria, and had the scars and missing tissue to prove it. The scars were a bit unsightly, so she kept them bandaged. But she had had just enough to drink that I was privileged to see them.
White Men in the Desert
Up on top of southeastern Oregon’s Hart Mountain, 30 miles from the nearest town and paved road, I came to a stone wall and a parked truck. Seeing no one, I got out and peered over the wall. Fifty feet downslope was a hot spring pool, and in it swam a naked man. We talked about our favorite places in the Great Basin.
* * *
Sign over door in Frenchglen Hotel: “Beer – helping white men dance since 1867.”
* * *
Laminated notice in my room at the Burns, Oregon, Days Inn:
Important Notice to Guests of The Days Inn
For your convenience and protection this room has been digitally inventoried prior to your arrival. Should there be any items missing from this room or damaged when you check out you will be charged for them. This includes smoking in a non-smoking room, burning holes in bedding, carpet or furniture, using motel towels to clean motorcycle boots or guns, cleaning birds in the sink, or tub, or smuggling a pet into the motel without paying to use a designated pet room.
Why, just reading this notice made me feel convenienced and protected all over. Surprisingly, it was not chained and bolted to the table. I had difficulty suppressing the urge to steal it.
A Good Day at Leslie Gulch
Leslie Gulch is a tributary of the Owyhee River north of Jordan Valley in eastern Oregon. It was named for Hiram Leslie, a pioneer killed in the gulch by lightning in 1882. The public would have been better served had the small canyon been named “Lightning Gulch” or “Leslie’s Dissolution.”
Roughly ten miles long, the gulch contains a spectacular display of sculpted monoliths, spires, and cliffs painted rufescent orange and brown with some pinks and golds thrown in. Vertical flat faces 100 feet high are common, and some appear to be the abstract canvases of a Chinese landscape painter. The rock is volcanic tuff from the eruption of an ancient caldera, and is more than 1,000 feet deep.
Some of the vertical faces have been deeply pitted by wind and water. Within and among these large pits on one face were half a dozen bighorn sheep, originally native to this area, hunted to extirpation, and reintroduced in 1965. They were about 200 feet away from me, magnificent and wary.
Coming up out of the gulch, I saw a canine larger than a German shepherd. It was solid gray and looking over its shoulder as it ran through the grass – not at full speed, just fast enough to get away from something I couldn’t yet see. It turned out to be a black SUV filled with three 20-year-old Testosterones who didn’t even know the wolf was there.
It was the first time I had seen this beautiful animal in the wild. Wolves are hated by ranchers because of shared values, and for that the wolves are doomed.
I arrived late afternoon in Cedarville, a pretty town of 800 people in northeastern California. It had a coffeehouse, my natural habitat. I ordered a mocha with an extra shot of espresso, then carried it to a small table with two chairs on the front porch. Opening my notebook, I began to write about the day’s events. I had only gotten this far when – “Can I sit here?” – was rhetorically interjected by an old man about my age as he sat down on the other chair. His name was John, and I later learned he was a burnt-out hippie. (So am I, but at a lesser heat.) He didn’t look like an old hippie; he looked like an old cowboy or farmer with short and thinning hair.
“Only if you’re quiet,” I rudely said. My ego, unbalanced by a sense of personal grandeur, was completely in the service of a momentary passion for writing. But his presence at the small table was already too great an intrusion. No doubt he would interrupt again. My concentration evaporated. (It is my own fault for writing in public places, chronically begging for validation.)
So I set down the pen and asked John, “All right if I talk?”
He smiled at my self-sarcasm – burnt out maybe, but not oblivious – then turned serious.
“It was God – wait! It was the ladies inside who told me to come out here and sit with you.” Divine mission authority, even though refuted, put me on notice that he did not have an ordinary mind.
I had no idea where our conversation would go, so I started small.
“Is this your home town?” I asked. Some of my prior encounters with nontraditional minds have been in small towns where public interaction is tolerated, especially for home-growns. I think John might have been of that sort, but he didn’t answer. I interpreted the dower look on his face to mean this wasn’t his home town, and that he might be reluctant to visit the past.
“It is now?” I asked.
“It is now,” he answered quietly and with what seemed a sense of relief.
“How are the winters here? Do you get much snow?”
“Last winter was quite mild. Just a foot of snow. But sometimes ten inches, sometimes four inches, sometimes eight inches, sometimes two inches.”
I have to admit my own mental snow ruler is calibrated at two-inch intervals. We must shop at the same imaginary hardware store.
But just then, we were interrupted by my compelling need to leave. I purposefully walked in the direction opposite the hotel where I was staying, to lessen John’s chances of relocating me.
I have always felt uncomfortable around free-range minds. Only sanity can keep me sane, as I have run out the warranty.
Dining with Ranchers
The Martin Hotel in Winnemucca, Nevada, is a former Basque boarding house built near the end of the 19th century. It was the primary winter quarters for Basque shepherds who, because of their isolated work, were not yet acclimated to the common culture.
The hotel still serves Basque meals family style, the guests seated communally at long tables, and the seven courses served on large platters and in deep bowls. The primary spice in Basque cooking is the pimento. There was an endless supply of complimentary red wine.
I was seated with two ranchers, husband and wife, from the remote area north of Elko. They were on their way to a rodeo-like competition at the tiny town of McDermitt on the Oregon/Nevada border. The competition only included skills actually required for ranching – no bucking broncos or raging bulls.
The bonding began when Roland the rancher and I discovered that both of us had eaten just a banana for lunch. Neither of us intended to miss a single Basque course. Roland provided me with a list of bones he had broken over the years: both arms and legs, pelvis, and multiple ribs. I asked if they were horse-related.
“Horses and machines,” he said. The bodies of old ranch men are often bent and hobbled, no doubt done in as much by machismo as by task. But the task can’t be done without it.
Roland and his wife used to own the ranch, but they were bought out by a corporation because of soaring insurance costs that corporations can more easily afford. The same has happened to farming. Now Roland is a salaried ranch-hand on what was once his own land. It almost feels like a return to serfdom. (Webster”s definition of a serf: “a person ... bound to his master’s land and transferred with it to a new owner.”)
While staying at a casino hotel in Elko, I had dinner in its restaurant, sitting at a small table with two chairs. As I waited, an inebriated man with the look of an Uto-Aztecan – Northern Paiute? Western Shoshone? Goshute? – voluntarily sat in the other chair and began to interview me.
“Where are you from? On vacation?”
He was a large man, the wrinkles on his face thick and rounded between the lines. It was a lovely face, its topography strongly suggesting one history, one lineage. I think he was around 50, though it may not have been years alone aging him.
His boldness suggested an eager conversationalist, and I wanted to interview him, to know that history.
But a casino security cop shooed him away.
“Stop bothering the customers.”
The Prettiest Girl in Austin
I stopped for lunch at a restaurant in Austin, Nevada. Its Western decor was stubborn and pervasive, the written wisdom on its walls homespun and archaic. The amply bosomed and attractive waitress wore short-shorts, a tight t-shirt, and long dirty-blond hair with bangs.
While paying for lunch at the register, I saw up close that her face was slightly bulbous and pitted, like a Bruegel peasant. I couldn’t tell whether she was in her early 30s or late 40s. If in her early 30s, then she was probably a smoker, and maybe a heavy drinker as well. If in her late 40s, then she was fully worthy of my inappropriate and sexist comment.
“Are all the girls in Austin as pretty as you?”
She blushed, and shyly said, “They’re prettier.”
BM Has BO
The Nevada mining town of Battle Mountain was dubbed the “Armpit of America” by Washington Post Magazine in 2001, leading to a segment on National Public Radio.
Passing through on I-80, I burst out laughing when I saw that the town has done what so many other towns in Nevada have done: written its initials in large white stone letters on a nearby mountain. Unintentionally, it has doubled its number of unappetizing body cavity references.
Waiting for Widows
Ruby Lake, Nevada, is the Lower 48’s most remote national wildlife refuge. I learned this from Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Jared.
“How long have you been here?” I asked him.
“My god. I used to work for the Park Service, and they peddled us around every two or three years.”
“Fish and Wildlife used to do that, too,” Jared said. “But we began to recognize the importance of knowledge of an area, especially for biologists. It was great for about 10 years, but now my career has pretty much gone down a hole. And I haven’t been able to find a woman willing to live this far away, either.”
“How about a rancher’s daughter?”
“They all leave,” indicating he kept an eye on that evaporating pool of candidates.
“Well, if you’re here much longer, maybe you’ll get a rancher’s widow.”
“Oh god, I hope I’m not here that long.”
Stand Back from the Penstemons
I worked as a volunteer for the U.S. Forest Service in eastern Nevada for a few days each summer from 2010 to 2013. My project was to determine what plant species were growing along a stream in the mountains east of Ely (“E-lee”). Among the plants were species of penstemons, which are often distinguished by their male parts, the anthers.
The first day of the survey was a disaster, as my mountain stream had been sucked dry by a toxic waste mitigation project, and then crapped on by 300 sheep as I watched. I’ve had bad field days in North Carolina, but nothing like that. Nonetheless, I was able to collect a few native species upstream of the mitigation project’s intake pipe.
My Forest Service supervisor was Katrina, the district wildlife biologist. After the first day disaster, she and I made field trips elsewhere. We both tried to identify a few of the penstemon species, paying close attention to the anthers.
When I returned the following year, I brought her the mounted specimens from the previous year’s ill-fated mountain stream survey. During our conversation, she matter-of-factly made a biologically-correct but profane observation, and continued on as if it were ordinary, everyday conversation – and in eastern Nevada I’m pretty sure it is.
“I had hoped to get to the penstemons while they still had their anthers,” she said, “but they had shot their wad.”
Another Kind of Desert Solitaire
There is only sagebrush and a state prison in Nevada’s Independence Valley east of Wells. Independence? It is a rascally system that uses irony as a form of punishment.
There are other Nevada prisons in the middle of otherwise empty deserts. Scorching in summer and numbingly cold in winter, climate adds another dimension to the turrets and concertina wire.
Public roads pass by these lonesome prisons, and the state has erected signs reading “Hitchhiking Prohibited.” It means “Don’t pick up hitchhikers,” but the sign is addressed to the pedestrian, as if someone who had committed a felony – and then committed another by breaking out of prison – would worry about getting busted for hitchhiking.
Free Beer (for a price)
I visited the remote Nevada mining town of Pioche, built in a gulch on a mountainside. It was charming, rustic, and disheveled, seeming to have only partially emerged from the 19th century. The town boasts that the first 75 residents to be buried in the cemetery were either shot, stabbed, or conked to death.
Everything seemed a bit tawdry, including my lodging. But out the window I saw a surplus of yellow euthamia among the desert shrubs as a rain cloud trailed its gray teats across the nearest mountain range.
After dinner I visited the Bank Club for a beer, and to try my luck with a poker gambling machine. True to its name, the place was a bank in 19th century Pioche, and there was still a huge walk-in vault in the back of the bar.
When I tried to pay for my beer, the barmaid told me it was free as long as I was gambling. That tells you something about the odds.
“What if I win?”
“Then I’ll have to shoot you.”
Land Barons Beware
There is so much beauty in southern Utah that normal criteria for determining whether an area should be in a national park or monument have to be set aside. An area qualifies if its beauty can only be described by tears of gratitude: Zion, Bryce, Arches, Canyonlands. This is where the restorative power of nature poses the greatest threat to the land barons.
But it is the undesignated beauty of southern Utah that now has my attention, the open lands outside the parks, unspoiled except by the trim and sinuous insult of asphalt. This free-ranging beauty is not ordinary. Even the highway engineers know that in any other state this land would be exclaimed for all to see, bounded and brochured, latticed with trails, and cankered by campgrounds, overlooks, visitor centers, gift shops, and parking lots.
The grandest of the asphalt insults is I-70, which enters Utah near Grand Junction, Colorado. The beauty becomes a distraction west of Green River, and the highway engineers have added several overlooks along this lonesome yet most scenic of interstates. The beauty demands it, because it is a safety hazard. The overlook transforms distraction into wonder.
I stopped at the first overlook west of Green River to take photos of brightly colored and enormous geological oddities. They were not beautiful enough to be in a park or monument in southern Utah. They were only extraordinary, not ineffable.
At each overlook I visited, there were two to several Native Americans sitting on folding chairs at the edge of the parking lot, with jewelry or pottery spread before them on blankets and racks. Nearby or directly overhead were Utah Department of Transportation signs reading “No Vending or Soliciting.”
The sign also could have read: “This practice has a resolute history. Otherwise, we would not have put up the signs. Enforcement is infrequent and weak. We met out token punishments, shutting them down for a day, and maybe a fine now and then to mollify a belligerent tourist.”
The pottery was of traditional design, but made from a mold, the seam evident. The jewelry also was knockoffs of traditional designs with cheaper materials. But who makes this stuff? Poor people on the rez, or poor people in Cambodia?
Cycling to Eternity
I spent a night in the historic mining town of Jerome, Arizona, the most vertical town I have ever seen. It appears to be a series of parallel streets with one stacked on top of the other on the steep mountain-side. But it is actually the same street switch-backing up the mountain, with houses and businesses on both sides between switchbacks. It was only when I settled into my room at the Conner Hotel that I realized the building tilted. Since it appeared to be on the same plane as the adjacent buildings, I concluded they all must tilt in empathy with the road.
At one of two local bars I met Bill, a recently retired marketing consultant from Nova Scotia. He fell in love with the Southwest when he passed through on his motorcycle 15 years before.
“It was like I was in touch with eternity,” he said. “That has been with me ever since and now I want to share it.”
Bill had just turned all of his assets into cash to create what he said was the world’s first resort catering exclusively to bikers. He had already gotten backing from area banks, and strong interest from German bikers on their BMWs. Griz, the bouncer at the other bar, had agreed to lead tours on his Harley.
Bill was the boyfriend of our barmaid, whose face had reached that bittersweet stage where the look of her youth was still evident among the increases of age. It is the most vulnerable and radiant look of all.
Richard LeBlond is the author of Homesick for Nowhere, a collection of essays that won an EastOver Press Nonfiction Prize in 2022, and was a finalist for general nonfiction in the San Francisco Spring 2023 Book Festival. His essays and photographs have appeared in many U.S. and international journals, including Montreal Review, Weber – The Contemporary West, Concis, Lowestoft Chronicle, Trampset, and Still Point Arts Quarterly. His work has been nominated for “Best American Travel Writing” and “Best of the Net.”