Favorite Travel Quotes

"Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts."
-- Mark Twain
Innocents Abroad

"Stop worrying about the potholes in the road and celebrate the journey." -- Fitzhugh Mullan

"A good traveler has no fixed plans and is not intent on arriving." -- Lao Tzu

Archive for March, 2007

Spring Awakening & G-bear Delisting

posted: March 27th, 2007 | by:Bert

Note: For the next few months we will be posting this blog on a weekly basis—unless there is some subject of such compelling interest that we can’t turn away. This extra time will give us a chance to catch up on our obligations to other outlets, so that we can then resume our travel adventures. Please continue to check in.

©Bert Gildart: Over the past 20 years, RV travel has enabled Janie and me to form opinions about events happening across our nation. In other words, we’ve personally enjoyed such major events as grizzly bears emerging from their dens, and the massive bird migrations—all associated with spring. In very different parts of the country, these spectacles are occurring—right now.

SANDHILL CRANES ON THE PLATTE RIVER: Noted ornithologist Roger Tory Peterson once remarked that the sandhill crane migration to the Platte constitutes one of the world’s greatest wildlife spectacles.

Cranes have always amazed people whether they are in Nebraska or anywhere else in the world. In Russia, people are so moved by the beauty of cranes that when a soldier dies, they say his soul enters a crane’s body. Then the crane spreads its wings and the soldier’s soul soars into heaven.

Cranes are the world’s oldest birds, older than robins, eagles, pelicans or storks. Cranes are over 50 million years old! In 1979, scientists found a fossilized wing along the Platte River that was over nine million years old. It belonged to a sand hill crane, so sandhills have been in North America at least that long.

The story of the Platte River sandhill crane congregation might well begin in Mexico or Texas where the birds winter. About the end of February, when temperatures begin to rise and the length of days increase, cranes begin their northern migration, flying at speeds of 25 to 35 miles per hour at elevations that can exceed 13,000 feet. By the time cranes complete their journey, some will fly almost 4,000 miles.

But to fly that far requires stored energy, and lots of it. So sandhills divide the trip up, flying first to a staging area, in this case, the Platte River. Here, they find corn and the protection on sandbars they need at night to isolate them from predators, such as coyotes. Should water be drawn down, coyotes could easily swim to sandbars.

Cranes remain along the Platte until they have rested and replenished their fat reserves. Then they strike north again, once again thrilling people with their haunting calls.

FREEZEOUT LAKE: Much the same is happening all across North America, and another of these staging areas is in Montana, and right now, as I write these words, snow geese are settling onto a lake in the Big Sky known as Freezeout Lake. Here, during record years, 500,000 snow geese have gathered.

Unlike the cranes of the Platte River, a spectacle now threatened because of the withdrawal of river water, the spectacle of snow geese congregations in Montana appears to have adequate safeguards. Were that it so for the Yellowstone grizzly bears that we have been reading about so much this past weekend.

Grizzlies, as some readers certainly know, may soon be removed from the Endangered Species List. The proposed lifting of U.S. Endangered Species Act (ESA) protection for grizzlies in the so-called Greater Yellowstone Area follows a 30-year period of recovery. In that time Yellowstone grizzly numbers have grown from 200 to more than 600.

GRIZZLY BEAR—IN SUMMER: Still, most say “It’s too soon,” and then they enumerate the reasons. Essentially, they say that because bears range outside the park many will be shot. Once the bear’s habitat is no longer protected under the ESA, development, logging, road building, and new oil and gas operations will be major threats.

With such pressures many believe the delisted bear will soon be listed once again. In the interim, one of nature’s truly great creatures will be diminished.

Perhaps more than some, RVers seem to enjoy their national parks and wildlife experiences. Writing representatives to protest the delisting of bears is a worthy endeavor, and comments are now being taken—and considered. Why not add yours?

In the meantime, the cranes and geese are back in staggering numbers and bears will soon be emerging. You might begin your search of bears in Yellowstone’s Lamar Valley, open all year long. Look for bears at the base of avalanche chutes and around the sites of winter kills. Keep your eyes open, too, for cranes and snow geese, which you might spot most anywhere in the Midwest and the West.

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Harassed Wildlife—Not Always Able To Cope

posted: March 22nd, 2007 | by:Bert

Bert Gildart: Yesterday, I received a note with an attachment of elk crossing a special highway in Canada, which is located just north of our Montana home. The actual setting is the turnoff from Banff to Highway 1 going to Calgary, Alberta. The caption read:

Build it and they will come.

One response was:

“Imagine That.”

The Province of Alberta had to build elk their own crossing because elk were being killed, and, of course, speeding motorists were endangered when their vehicles struck these 800-pound animals. Traditionally, elk had used the area as a natural crossing, but as the caption said:

“There were far too many accidents.”

And so, officials found it necessary to build elk their own overpass. As you can see the photo is a dramatic one, and I wish the name of the photographer had been attached. Wish, also, I’d taken the photo, but I didn’t, though I’ll certainly post the person’s name if my veterinarian friend in Texas ever provides it.

Tragically, wildlife and humans are on a collision course, and just this morning I was reminded of all the various ways. The setting for this irresponsible behavior was not Alberta, rather our own backyard.

In my on-going labors to unpack our Airstream, this morning I pulled in our slideout so as to create a more comfortable passage between the side of our shed and trailer. I needed such room to roll my blue-boy to the septic drain. With the space beneath the slideout now exposed, I discovered a dead skunk.

We live in a rural area, and over the years have found that there is an element here that shoots virtually anything that moves, and a small hole suggested that’s what had happened. There was no odor, just a striped skunk that was probably doing little more than walking through some neighbor’s back yard, and was rewarded with a .22 caliber bullet. Because the bullet didn’t kill the skunk immediately, the wounded animal managed to drag itself to something that appeared to be a shelter—the area beneath our slideout.

Similar things have happened to many other animals as well. Once, that we know of, it happened to a bear; but most frequently to coyotes, and that is always infuriating, as Janie and I thoroughly enjoy their mournful “songs,” which sometimes accompany us as we drift off to sleep.

WHAT THE HELL IS IT: Though we consider the mindset of those who insist they must shoot anything that moves to be reprehensible, there is one positive outcome, tiny though it may be.

For a number of years Janie and I have conducted a natural history contest for NOWA, a chapter of the national organization of hunters and fishermen called the Outdoor Writer’s Association of America (OWAA). Come banquet night, our contest (Entitled: What the Hell is It?) requires each table to identify as many as 25 objects that cover several very long tables.

Over the years objects have included skulls (Any idea what this one is?) cut off from dead carcasses, and that’s what I’ll do with my skunk carcass. After that I’ll boil the head to removed hair and flesh. Finally, I’ll immerse the clean skull in a bucket of water containing a small amount of bleach.

Objects other than skulls have included fishing lures, the bacculum (come on, don’t embarrass me; look it up!) of a walrus (male, of course), ticks (displayed in a vile containing formaldehyde), the paw print of a wolf, scales off a tarpon (they are huge), feathers from common birds, an eagle claw, bullets of various calibers that must be determined (once a .50 caliber bullet), and much, much more.

This year, I’ve got some real surprises, as Rich Luhr, publisher of Airstream Life well knows. For those who won’t be attending the contest, I’m providing a link to the site of the man who spilled the beans.

But if you’re attending, don’t peak!

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Hayduke Lives

posted: March 21st, 2007 | by:Bert

©Bert Gildart: Often when we return from a long trip, there accompanies some kind of inexplicable adjustment that results in sleepless nights. Invariably, so as to not toss and turn, I reach for a small backpack headlamp I keep on my bed stand and then read for awhile. Last night, about 2 a.m., I reached for the headlamp and began reading a new book by Doug Peacock entitled, Walking It Off.

I knew Doug from the years he and I shared in Glacier where I worked seasonally. At the time, Doug had acquired a reputation from Edward Abbey’s book, Monkey Wrench Gang, a book about eco-terrorism.

In the book Doug Peacock, who was truly a war-torn Vietnam veteran, becomes George Hayduke, and as Hayduke, he blows up Glen Canyon Dam. Though I’m not for eco terrorism, I empathize in this fictitious case, for the canyon was once one of America’s most beautiful, preserving marvelous petroglyphs and other Indian artifacts, as well as much rare beauty.

For those who are familiar with Edward Abbey, you may know that he also worked seasonally with the National Park Service, and first established himself in the literary world with his book, Desert Solitaire, essentially about Arches National Park. The book is an environmental classic, enjoyed by many from all walks of life. The only criterion for enjoyment is an open mind.

In real life I met Doug Peacock in the early 1970s when I backpacked a six-pack of beer up to Huckleberry Lookout, which Doug had been manning in Glacier National Park that summer. At the time, he was gathering information for his first book, Grizzly Years. Huckleberry Mountain provided an excellent location for part of his research, and that night as we walked together down the 4-mile long trail we encountered eight grizzlies, essentially because of his insistence that we walk quietly.

That was a spooky night, but the books that have subsequently followed suggest that Hayduke still lives, though probably in a more productive and influential manner.

PETROGLYPHS: Since that time, Doug has become a highly respected environmental writer, and the book I picked up last night recounts his life in and around the area Janie and I just left, Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. Adjacent to the monument is the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge, and after learning that this is where Doug helped bury Edward Abbey in 1989, the area is now one that I want very much to see…

Like Arches and Glenn Canyon, the Cabeza Prieta also has petroglyphs and though the photo here is from Dinosaur, this image suggests what is now buried beneath Glen Canyon; and what is also imperiled in the Cabeza Prieta, in part because of illegal immigration.

Sadly, the remarkable stone carving represented by my image is also imperiled because of thoughtless visitors. Note the bullet holes near the center—and this is in a national monument…

It’s enough to keep one tossing and turning, but last night’s reading did help put me back to sleep. Now I’m charged and ready to return to the unpacking of our Airstream and the second bin in the back of our pickup. This box contains all of our kayak gear, and I want to make sure that items we thought we’d thoroughly dried are in fact dry. As well, we may want to wash several items to remove salt water.

Tonight, I hope I’ll sleep a bit better, but if not, I’ve still got several hundred more pages of Doug’s book to read, and so far I’m thoroughly enjoying it.

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RV Regroup—On the Vernal Equinox

posted: March 20th, 2007 | by:Bert

Bert Gildart: Today, March 20, marks the changing of seasons, an event that will occur in the astrological sense at 6:07 P.M. Today, at that precise moment the sun will cross directly over the Earth’s equator, and in the Northern Hemisphere, the moment will be known as the vernal equinox.

Native American cultures will be marking the event with various celebrations, and a few members of the Bear Tribe in Alabama will be saying good-bye to the season of Waboose, the winter, and welcoming Wabun, which is associated with the Powers of Clarity, Wisdom and Illumination—and spring. The event ushers in the Moon of the Budding Trees.

For me, this will be the Moon of Regrouping—the period during which we continue unpacking and the resorting of items from both our truck and our Airstream. Because we love traveling, the objective is to place our trailer and truck and all its contents in perfect order—and make it ready to go with a minimum of fuss. Psychologically, that works well, knowing that we’re ready to strike out again at a moment’s notice.

AIRSTREAM AND SHED: Preparation, then, for us, begins by safeguarding our Airstream in a shed, which we built several years ago especially for it.

We also place our truck in a garage and from there, we begin unpacking, starting with the back of the truck, which contains bikes, generator, a small clear plastic box and two large bins.

One of the bins contains all of our kayaking gear while the other contains virtually all of our backpacking and hiking gear. Compartmentalizing helps me immensely, and this latter bin contains virtually everything necessary (except sleeping bags, which we keep in our Airstream or in extended cab of our trunk) for backpacking. It is the bin on which I will work today. After that we’ll turn to other things.

Though the day marks a particularly significant celestial event—the time when the sun can be observed directly above the Earth’s equator, it appears clouds and rain will prevent us from getting outside and enjoying this 12-hour-long day. But that’s the Flathead for you in spring. However, come September 23, we’ll have another chance, for then the sun will be returning, marking yet another day when day and night are (almost) of equal duration.

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RVing Into Montana

posted: March 19th, 2007 | by:Bert

Bert Gildart: After nine months and approximately 25,000 miles, we’re back in Montana, though not back yet in our house. While on the road, we had our house winterized and so we have no water for plumbing. What’s more, the house is big—bigger than the Airstream, so our secondary house is intimidating—in many ways.

Upon entering we were overwhelmed by a continuous chirping, and quickly discovered the grating sound was our fire alarm system telling us the battery had run down and needed to be replaced.

Of course one always attends to such matters immediately, but when I climbed onto a stool and removed the alarm from the ceiling, immediately the telephone began ringing. The voice on the other end asked if our house was on fire, and Janie, who had picked up the phone, said, “No,” and then grew silent as she listened to the accusatory voice on the other end.

“Did you forget that your alarm system is linked in with your home security system?”

“Well,” said Janie, “I guess we did. Now how do I turn off the alarm? I’ve forgotten the password…”

SALMON RIVER FLOTILLA: Not much better luck with our desk-top computers. Quickly we discovered that in our absence the coding on our Linksys Broadband Router had changed, and that we would have to wait until office hours next day before using our desktops for email.

As well, Janie discovered bugs had invaded our bedroom and before sleeping in the bedroom in our house, she wanted to vacuum throughout.

And so we returned to our Airstream, extended the stabilizer jacks and then the slideout. Then we bathed ourselves in what had become very familiar and comfortable surroundings. Pouring a glass of wine, we rehashed the day, which had provided a spectacular driving experience. What’s more, inside our Airstream we didn’t have to listen to the alarm…

We left our campground along the banks of the Salmon River in Idaho, and although it was early in the morning, fishermen were flaying the river with their lines, for the steelhead were running. Men and women not only lined the river’s banks but a number of them had anchored driftboats in various currents and were trying their luck among the riffles. Several anglers pulled out substantial catches and we were envious, but we were commited to reaching home by the end of the day, and so we pushed on.

ENTERING MONTANA: The road quickly left Salmon River and entered the small town of Salmon, Idaho. From here, it was but an hour drive to Lost Trail Summit, Elevation 6695. The pass is famous for a number of reasons, but most significantly it was the route used by Lewis and Clark during their famous expedition of 1804 to 1806.

From here the road abruptly descends and within two hours passes through the college town of Missoula. From there, it is less than 100 miles to our home in Bigfork.

This last section of our drive passes through country that is particularly spectacular. The National Bison Range lies to the road’s left, while such towering mountains as McDonald Peak lie to the road’s right. Little wonder Paul Harvey, the famous newscaster of today, said the drive provides the setting for his favorite drive of all times.

Normally such commanding scenery requires many stops, and though the skies backdropping bison grazing on steep slopes in the Bison Range were faultless blue, we knew we needed to keep pushing on. On this nine-month-long adventure, our trip had been one endless series of sidetracks, meaning there is so much more to do and see throughout this great nation.

In the meantime, Janie has stepped back inside our house.

I hope she’ll figure out how to turn off the alarm…

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Nevada Confuses Our GPS

posted: March 18th, 2007 | by:Bert

Bert Gildart: Midway into what has become a ten-month-long trip we purchased a global positioning road unit called a Garmin. Specifically, it is the Pilot 330 and until we reached the state of Nevada, the device had piloted us flawlessly. For example, in New Orleans, we typed in the name of a parking lot located near Jackson Square, and our Garmin piloted us from our campground located about ten miles on the outskirts of New Orleans, and finally down Bourbon Street, and St. Charles Street to our final destination. The directions it provided through these narrow streets were perfect.

REMOTE NEVADA: Our Garmin then piloted us over a period of several weeks to Las Vegas but got us around this fair city. But then, we left Nevada’s city lights behind and entered a remote section of Nevada where we began traveling Highway 318. Here, She began telling us to take virtually every side road to which we came. When we didn’t follow her instructions, she spoke to us in a hurt voice.



Roads down which She wanted us to drive include the Stewart Ranch Road, the Mail Summit Road, the Seaman Wash Road. What was so bizarre is that all of these so called roads were dirt roads, roads that seemed to exist at the whims of the most recent rain storm. Curious we pulled over at several locations and could see in the distance that the roads were completely washed out, particularly around the cattle guards.

And so we ignored our tried and true lady, enduring more objections:

Recalculating, recalculating.

Proceed five miles and then take Stewart Ranch Road, right.

NEXT GAS: We’ve traveled Nevada before, in fact, and the state is one of my very favorites, essentially because it is so devoid of humanity. Here, you can drive for miles before you encounter someone else driving toward you. Roads here are straight; so straight in fact, that if you took a high powered rifle such as a 30-06, fired it down the center line, you could reasonable expect to find your bullet embedded in the yellow dividing line a mile or so further along.

Because Nevada is so sparsely populated, gas stations are few and far between, and often we came to signs advising us about its availability:

Next Gas 75 Miles

Next Gas 105 Miles

Perhaps because of its sparse population, Nevada seems to be a tidy state. As we traveled we found little evidence of litter. Nevertheless, the state does have a reputation of sordid individuality, something I’ve reported on previously in a story I once wrote about Highway 50, which most say is the nation’s “loneliest Highway.”In our travels north, we crossed this east west corridor near Ely and enjoyed lunch at the Nevada Hotel, famous for its list of celebrity guests that include Charlie Pride, Hank Williams, and Roy Rogers.

Entering the hotel, we were greeting with hundreds of slot machines, which we passed on our way to the restaurant where we found one of the most complete pictorial histories of boxing I’ve ever seen. The display started with such historic figures as Ezzard Charles, Gentleman Jim Corbet and Billy Con, and worked its way up through Cassius Clay, Joe Lewis and then through some of the middle weight legends to include Sugar Ray Robinson and Rocky Graziano.

Ely is also where Janie (and I emphasis that Janie accompanied me) and I interviewed Portia, a madam running one of the local brothels. Ely is also located near Great Basin National Park, and just two years ago I climbed Mount Wheeler, second highest in the state of Nevada.

John McPhee celebrated many of the state’s mountains in his classic book about basins and range, and along the way we had crossed passes higher than Logan Pass in Glacier National Park. Just outside of Ely we passed through the small town of Lund (cattle guards at both end) at an elevation of 5570’. Then we passed over Murray Summit at 7,316’. About an hour later we entered Ely.

SALMON RIVER CAMP: Leaving Ely, we drove north another hundred or so miles to Jackpot. Then, several hours later we entered Idaho, and encountered the confusing town of Twin Falls—and here’s where we should have started listening once again to our Garmin. But we didn’t and so we pulled up next to a policeman along the town’s four-lane and asked for directions. He grinned but said he couldn’t help us—and so we turned our Garmin back on, and this time we listened. Following her advice in part, we drove yet another hundred miles or so to a familiar campsite located along the Salmon River, just outside of Challlis, Idaho.

Over the years, we’ve stayed here often at Cottonwood, run by the BLM, and knew that the only other campers we’d be contending with might be a few fishermen. Steelhead were running, and many were wetting their lines.

But the long drive of the day had left us exhausted and tired, and so we started our Honda 2000 Generator (known for its quiet power) so we could watch a movie on our TV, which still requires 120. Throughout our entire trip we’ve watched but few movies, despite the stack we carry with us. We selected Fargo, and though we had seen it before, enjoyed once again, this award winning film.

We expect we will be home today. The weather here is clear but cold and surrounding us are patches of snow. I believe it will be a good day for traveling. If we do make it to Creston, MT, it will be the first time since October that we have been in a house.

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The Lure of Open Spaces

posted: March 17th, 2007 | by:Bert

Bert Gildart: Because Janie and I were so caught up in the problems of illegal immigration in Arizona’s Organ Pipe National Monument, we didn’t take much time to discuss the incredible beauty of the Sonoran Desert. The United States contains four different such places, but many say that the Sonoran is the greatest—that it is the Goldilocks of all deserts.

“It’s not too hot and it not too cold; it’s not too wet and it’s not too dry. It’s just right.”

ORGAN PIPE CACTUS THORNS: While in Organ Pipe, I accompanied Bruce Secker, one of the park’s volunteers, on a walk he leads from the Twin Peaks Campground. The trail provides a 5-mile-long round-trip excursion to Victoria Mine, site of an early day homestead. However, we probably spent more time talking about the area’s incredible natural history. Once Bruce taught high school and college biology, and his interest has extended to the Sonoran Desert, making him the perfect person to accompany. In his five winters at this park, he has amassed much knowledge.

We stopped often to discusss cacti, and he spoke of the organ pipe. Obviously Bruce had canvassed his stops along the way, for he was able to point out a number of small organ pipe cacti and tell us a little about them.

“Nineteen eighty-eight was a great year for cacti,” said Bruce. “Biologists say that was a recruitment year, meaning it was a year of good moisture. In turn, that translates to the germination of many cacti seeds.”

Bruce continued, pointing out that the specific organ pipe under consideration was growing at a typical rate of speed, which was but a few inches a year. “Since 1988 that specimen has grown only 18-inches—and that’s about average. Not until they reach the age of 40 will they start putting out all those extra ‘organ pipes.’”

Continuing, Bruce said that Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument produces 28 different species of cacti, and that all share thorns.

“Things survive out here,” said Bruce, “because they bite, stick, or sting. In the case of cacti, they stick.”

Cacti stick because they have thorns, which are the product of their evolution from leaves. Certainly by sticking they serve to protect themselves against constant consumption, but they also clothe the cactus creating a microhabitat. They provide shade in summer and add some warmth in winter. Thorns also funnel rain water.

Because leaves became spines they had to evolve some alternative means of photosynthesis, and so stems became the pads of cacti and it is here that oxygen wastes are released and carbon dioxide taken in. The process is much more complex than suggested here in my broad brush strokes, but in short, that’s what happens.

The trail to Victoria Mine was essentially flat and wound beneath the base of the Ajo Mountains. Bruce told us that because of so much illegal drug trafficking we could not leave the trail. He also said that the park has organized groups of volunteer to pick up all the trash left behind by illegals, and that he expected they’d be doing the same again before long…

PAHRANAGAT CAMPSITE: We’re making good progress toward our home in Montana, and spent last night just outside of Alamo, Nevada, in Pahranagat National Wildlife Refuge. We were awakened by the call of thousands of Snow Geese. They had stopped here to “stage,” meaning they were feeding and gathering strength to continue their long flight north and into the Arctic. We like all the open spaces provided in these desert settings, such as the Sonora—and now the Great Basin Desert of Nevada.

Beautiful though it is we must not linger, for daughter Angie tells me we’ve been gone almost a year. Actually, Angie, it’s only 10 months, but we’re anxious to see friends and family (!) in the Flathead, so tarry we shall not.

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Compassionate Water Tanks

posted: March 16th, 2007 | by:Bert

Bert Gildart: Today, I want to follow up on my thoughts about illegal immigration in Arizona’s Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, essentially because I’ve learned so much more about the activity. Several days ago, for instance, I found four huge water tanks in the middle of the desert and have since learned they are called “compassionate water tanks,” meaning their presence is to prevent illegal immigrants from perishing from dehydration. If you follow the news concerning illegal migration from Mexico you know that hundreds die each year.

COMPASSIONATE WATER TANKS: Specifically, they die along a 261-mile-long stretch of Sonoran Desert, a stretch which contains Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. This section claimed at least 134 illegal immigrants’ lives last year, more than any other region along the border. As a result, some have taken it upon themselves to install “compassionate water tanks.” My question is: what effect will these attractants have on visitors to this incredible monument?

According to a bulletin, a number of areas throughout Organ Pipe are closed and have been closed for the past three weeks. Some of these places are the monument’s most desirable areas.

One of the areas, I later learned, was the one containing the water tanks that I stumbled across while hiking. Other such areas include major drives to sections of scenic splendor Janie and I knew about from previous visits—when these areas were open. They include the Puerto Blanco Drive, the Camino De Dos Republica Road and the Senita Basin Loop, and more.

The Senita loop is one which contains the only senita cactus in the United States, a form of cactus similar to the organ pipe but differing in that it has fewer ribs in each arm. It is an area many visitor would like to see, but can’t—at least right now because it is one of the areas that has been closed for the past three weeks due to drug trafficking, and that brings me to one of the points I want to make.

According to the same bulletin posting areas closed, much of the illegal traffic exists because of the flow of illegal immigration. “…because of illegal immigration, other unlawful acts do occur within the monument… They may drive a stolen vehicle or they may hire human ‘mules’ to carry their contraband in homemade backpacks…”

Further down the bulletin, we’re informed that “people in distress may ask for water” The bulletin further advises you to use “ good judgment in providing water.”

MATHEW FOSTER: I suspect I’m like many and certainly do not want to see a person die because he or she has entered the United States seeking a better quality of life. If I encountered such a person and he or she were in distress, I know I would help. However, that does not mean I understand making such attractions available. In other words, I not sure I understand why problems in Mexico should become our problems.

As I walked around the tanks it was easy to determine that each contained water. They were huge, probably about twice the size of the 30 gallon fuel drum we carry in our johnboat in Montana, meaning that this station offered illegal immigrants about 200 gallons. Interestingly, a sign was posted saying:

This Water Station Dedicated to Mathew Michael Foster Moore. June 12, 1979 to May 31, 2003.

Later I asked several park service employees just who was this Mr. Moore, but no one seemed to know.

DEPARTING: That night at one of the evening program, the speaker said the stations had been placed here by several religious organizations, and that the politics of their removal could be considerable.

And so we depart this beautiful desert park, having more questions than what we had when we arrived. We’re bound now for our home in Montana where we’ll travel regionally (meaning the great northwest) for awhile. We have much to contemplate, and perhaps as we read more and prepare for our next grand travel adventure, our perspectives will crystallize.

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Star Light, Stars So Very, Very Bright… Or Night Photography in Organ Pipe National Monument

posted: March 15th, 2007 | by:Bert

©Bert Gildart: In Organ Pipe National Monument, the skies are among the darkest found anywhere in the United States. Increasingly, that’s becoming a rare condition, and for photographers, the pristine conditions found in this remote Arizona national monument located along the Mexican border is very good news.

If you understand the theory, and know your camera, you can dramatize your landscape images by back dropping your foreground with concentric lines that ring themselves around the one star in the sky that does not appear to move—the North Star.

The North Star is, of course, part of the constellation Ursa Minor, and it is the only star in the heavens that appears to remain stationary. To locate it, find the Big Dipper and then follow the two stars at the base of the cup until you come to a bright star. It is also the last star in the tail of the Little Dipper—Ursa Minor.

Because the star remains fixed much mythology has emerged, some of the most interesting interpretations from Native Americans. In one myth, a brave son Na-Gah tries to impress his father by climbing the tallest cliff he could find. Through difficult conditions he persisted until he found himself at the top of a very high mountain.

Unfortunately, there was no way down, and when his father came looking for him, he found Na-Gah stuck high above. Not wanting his son to suffer for his bravery, he turned Na-Gah into a “motionless” star that can be seen and honored by all living things.

One way to honor that star is through photography—using techniques that help generate understanding. In reality, the star does not move because the axis of the earth is almost perfectly aligned with the North Star. If you place a camera on a tripod, point it at the North Star, and then leave it there for several hours, all other stars will appear to rotate around it, creating arcs. If it were perfectly dark for 24 hours, circles around the North Star would be a full 360 degrees. Simple math shows 12 hours would yield 180 degree arcs on your film plane; six hours, 90 degree arcs, and so on.

Because so many stars appear in the unpolluted skies, smaller arcs will also provide dramatic results. Those shown here were recorded over a two-hour period. The image was made with a Nikon D-200 set at an ASA of 100. I opened my 21mm wide-angle lens to f-3.5, set the camera on manual and then set the time to “B”, which means the shutter remained open until I snapped closed the cable release. It was a moonless night and that was also critical.

I made several exposures, and during my evening afield, I lay on a Thermarest in the bed of our pickup, mixing reading with hardcore star gazing. I found Cirrus, brightest star in the sky. I found Saturn, and with the aid of high power binoculars, could make out the rings.

Though I had tried photographing stars at home in Montana, which certainly has some portions free of light pollution, I was not successful—essentially because of a lack of research. Determined to overcome previous mistakes I began making plans several days ago.

To find an area free of the lights of campers, I drove about 5 miles from our Twin Peaks Campground in Organ Pipe to Alamo Canyon, also in the park. Here I found several cacti that would frame the North Star, and a small hill for added interest. Because everything had to be aligned with the North Star, I had taken a compass and made precise daytime readings. Finally, I found the location shown in the accompanying image. And this is the site to which I returned near sunset.

You can create similar landscapes if you find skies free of light pollution. In a world intent on occupying every square inch with Homo sapiens, that, of course, will be your biggest challenge.

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Five Years Ago A Ranger was Murdered In Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument—What’s Happened Since?

posted: March 14th, 2007 | by:Bert

Bert Gildart: The inscription on the rock just outside the Kris Eggle Visitor Center in Arizona’s Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument tells part of the story.

On August 9, 2002, while protecting visitors from harm, United States Park Ranger Kris Eggle was slain in the line of duty.

His service and sacrifice to the National Park Service and the people of this country will never be forgotten.

KRIS EGGLE: Kris Eggle was born in 1973, and died from bullet wounds of an AK-47 fired at him in the monument by a drug runner. Ranger Eggle had been chasing the man, and with the help of his radio and an overhead helicopter was closing the gap. Everyone says Kris was a fast runner and in excellent shape, and if all things had been even, his killer would not have had a chance.

Agents in the helicopter radioed the young ranger that one of the drug runners was near him, and so Kris stopped running, and that’s when the man with illegal drugs stepped from behind the massive clump of organ pipe and fired his lethal blast. Kris was shrouded in Kevlar but the bullet ricocheted off his radio and struck his femoral artery. Tragically, the 28-year-old man died shortly thereafter.

The assailant then fled into Mexico where he was gunned down by Mexican Federales in a barrage of fire that some say numbered 32 shots.

Two men had been involved in the drug run, and Federales also caught the other man, but here’s the part of the story that is just incomprehensible. He was sentenced to 15 years, and was placed in an American jail. That means the man has 11 more years to serve before he will be out and free to again run drugs again.

Sadly, that’s just a part of the injustice, for Kris Eggle was attempting to protect the resource so that visitors to Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument could immerse themselves in the Sonora desert, the most diverse and splendid of all American deserts. Because of America’s inability to control the flow of illegals from Mexico, huge sections of this monument are now closed—and, once again, it is because rangers have encountered illegal drug runners.

The drug runners who killed Ranger Eggle had rammed through the wire fencing just east of the Lukeville border crossing and had progressed about a mile when Eggle mixed with his killer.

Though there have been changes, they’re not substantial. However, there is a wire fence and now a stout railroad tie fence intended to stop drug runners from plowing through. Nevertheless that has not stopped the flow of pushers, so backcountry roads in the monument remain closed. They’re closed because people have still managed to overcome the barriers and cross into the U.S.

One section that is closed is a section Janie and I drove about 10 years ago, but according to one ranger, “it may never be opened again. “There’s much too much of a financial incentive and we don’t have the resources to stop it.”

The road the ranger was talking about is the 53 mile long Puerto Blanco Road, which departs from the Kris Eggle Visitor Center, heads north and then sweeps south toward the Mexican border. When it nears the border it swings back east, and from here it courses about 15 miles along the border.

Though you can drive the first 5 miles of this road, after that your passage is blocked by a gate. Beyond that lie verdant tanajas, or water pools, but all are closed to protect visitors from encountering undesirables.

BORDER CROSSING: The government has, however, begun extending the railroad tie fence both east and west of Lukeville, Arizona, hoping that it will one day create a boundary along the monument’s southern boundary, which is contiguous here with Mexico.

One day, drug runners may not be able to plow through a wire fence in their cars, but it won’t stop desperate men with wire cutters. This past year some 10,000 illegals (that’s one of several numbers tossed out) are thought to have crossed the border here at Organ Pipe. And so, because of inadequate funding, over one third of the park remains closed, in part because of illegal immigrants, but more because of current drug activity.

It’s not what visitors want; it’s not what most in the National Park Service wants; and I doubt it is what a man trying to protect the resources so visitor could enjoy the majesty of the Sonora Desert would have wanted.

It’s a sad state of affairs, and we find ourselves asking what can be done to protect American visitors and the park’s law enforcement people? It seems the situation is steadily worsening…

Note: Hi, Joe, Think your dad might approve of our sentiments. Glad you’re logged on!

4th ed. Autographed by the Authors

Hiking Shenandoah National Park

Hiking Shenandoah National Park is the 4th edition of a favorite guide book, created by Bert & Janie, a professional husband-wife journalism team. Lots of updates including more waterfall trails, updated descriptions of confusing trail junctions, and new color photographs. New text describes more of the park’s compelling natural history. Often the descriptions are personal as the Gildarts have hiked virtually every single park trail, sometimes repeatedly.

$18.95 + Autographed Copy

Big Sky Country is beautiful

Montana Icons: 50 Classic Symbols of the Treasure State

Montana Icons is a book for lovers of the western vista. Features photographs of fifty famous landmarks from what many call the “Last Best Place.” The book will make you feel homesick for Montana even if you already live here. Bert Gildart’s varied careers in Montana (Bus driver on an Indian reservation, a teacher, backcountry ranger, as well as a newspaper reporter, and photographer) have given him a special view of Montana, which he shares in this book. Share the view; click here.

$16.95 + Autographed Copy

What makes Glacier, Glacier?

Glacier Icons: 50 Classic Views of the Crown of the Continent

Glacier Icons: What makes Glacier Park so special? In this book you can discover the story behind fifty of this park’s most amazing features. With this entertaining collection of photos, anecdotes and little known facts, Bert Gildart will be your backcountry guide. A former Glacier backcountry ranger turned writer/photographer, his hundreds of stories and images have appeared in literally dozens of periodicals including Time/Life, Smithsonian, and Field & Stream. Take a look at Glacier Icons

$16.95 + Autographed Copy

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posted: March 9th, 2007 | by:Bert

Bert Gildart: For the next few days, we’ll be roaming Organ Pipe National Monument, another component of the Sonora Desert. The area is located about 100 miles south of Tucson, along the Mexican-U.S. border, and it is remote. We’ve been told there’s no cell phone reception and, hence, for us, no means of posting our blogs. As a result, our postings (made using a Verizon Internet card) will be suspended until we return to civilization, four to five days from now.

Please check back in then, as we’ll have lots of material to share.

Thank you. Bert & Janie

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Arizona Sonora Desert Museum—Interpreting an Often Misunderstood World

posted: March 9th, 2007 | by:Bert

Bert Gildart: According to Stephane Poulin of the Arizona Sonora Desert Museum, Arizona is the rattlesnake capitol of the nation. Not surprisingly approximately 300 bites occur in the state each year, but Stephane says that 65 to 70 percent of those bites are avoidable.

STEPHANE POULINE: “Generally,” says Stephane, “it’s a testosterone thing, and there’s a pretty good profile of those that get bitten. Typically, we find the individual is male, between 18 to 35 years of age; has macho-like tattoos, and has been drinking alcohol.”

Continuing Stephane says the remaining percentage of those who get bitten fall into the category of accidental. “It’s someone taking care of their garden who places their hand in the wrong place, or doesn’t watch where they step when they dump their garbage.”

However it happens, Stephane emphasizes that you must get to the doctor as fast as you can. “Forget what you’ve heard about 1st Aid; you need to get the anti-venom. Just make sure you’ve got a good insurance policy, as the average price of each vial is $100,000, and generally, you’ll need several vials.”

Stephane says that rattlesnake venom works on the blood, inhibits the ability of your blood to clot. It works on you just like it works on something the rattlesnake is trying to eat. The rattlesnake bites its prey, which then runs off. But the venom begins to work and within seconds the prey—something like a chipmunk—is immobilized. Because we’re bigger, the venom doesn’t work as well.

Still, the venom can kill and each year an average of one person dies here from a rattlesnake bite, and generally it’s someone who hasn’t sought medical attention after a bite. Stephane continues, saying that there are possibly as many as 50 rattlesnakes throughout the museum’s compound, and that six of them have radio transmitters embedded beneath their skin.

“It’s just another way of acquiring information that we can then provide our visitors.”

MOUNTAIN LION: The Sonora Desert Museum has acquired an international reputation for interpreting this wonderfully fascinating place. Contained within the compound we found most all of the creatures in the Sonora—in settings that provide beautiful and natural backdrops. We spent the entire day watching such animals as the desert big horn sheep, the mountain lion, and the javelina. Along with each creature, the museum provided much interesting interpretation. For instance, while on their “Desert Trail,” interpretive signs explained techniques used by javelina to avoid the heat.

For me, however, the most interesting presentation was the one provided by Stephane on poisonous creatures. Several years ago, I had worked here with a herpetologist for a story on Gila monsters, and once again found the creature just as interesting.

At 24 inches and one-and-a-half pounds, the Gila monster is the nation’s largest lizard. Its blend of yellow and black and occasional tinges of orange and pink, put it among the most colorful. Living up to its name, the Gila monster is also the nation’s only poisonous lizard.

The Gila (pronounced Hee-la) monster was first described in scientific journals in the mid-1800s as Heloderma suspectum. The generic name derives from a Greek word that translates as “studded skin.” Curators at this museum, who routinely trim the little-used claws of captives, say the skin does indeed “feel and look beaded.” The appearance results from thousands of tiny bones in the lizard’s skin, which conjures up images of a diminutive creature out of Jurassic Park.

GILA MONSTER: The second half of the Gila monster’s scientific name, suspectum, comes from the fact that initially, scientists were suspicious as to whether or not the creature was poisonous. At the time investigators only suspected the animal’s saliva was toxic. Later scientists confirmed that the animal produced poison—and that it was painful.

Biting compresses poison glands in the monster’s lower jaw, which releases a neuro-toxin that travels along grooves in the teeth into its victim, creating intense pain, as a professor at the University of Arizona told me.

“It felt like a wave of fire,” says Cecil Schwalbe, recalling a 1989 demonstration at a state wildlife booth where he’d erred in his handling. “It was the worst pain I’ve ever experienced in my life,” grimaced the University of Arizona professor who was hospitalized with severe shock. “The creature locked onto my finger and then started shaking. Pain shot up my arm. Later, I had blood in my urine. It was weeks before I returned to normal.”

Despite the pain, Gila monster venom seldom produces death, just intense pain, and that knowledge was sufficient to make me mighty wary the other day as I tried to photograph one in an open setting. Just last week a photographer had been bitten. Apparently he wanted the animal oriented differently and when he couldn’t accomplish that by probing with a stick he had grabbed the animal’s tail. The Gila monster whirled and clamped down hard. As Stephane exclaimed, the incident dramatized the way in which most people get bitten by Gila monsters.

“Gila monsters,” says Stephane, “have extraordinary life histories,” and that became just another of the fascinating stories we heard throughout the day at the Sonora Desert Museum.

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Flattery Works

posted: March 7th, 2007 | by:Bert

Bert Gildart: Friends in Montana forward our mail as we travel, but because we’re seldom in one place long, sometime its arrival is very much delayed. Yesterday, almost a month’s worth caught up, and in the box were four magazines to which I had contributed stories.

Three of the magazines containing my stories are published by the Affinity Group, the organization that represents the Good Sam Club. The firm appreciates my work, and has provided me with the type of flattering comments that all people in the arts absolutely require. An editor at the Affinity Group once told me that the receipt of my stories is like opening Christmas presents, and that she always looks forward to reading my articles and seeing my photographs. She’s a good psychologist, and knows the value of keeping contributors happy; and I believe if employers everywhere offered more flattery rather than criticism, productivity would increase.

Specifically, the three stories appeared in Trailer Life and Motorhome magazines. The January and March issue of Trailer Life contained my stories on Madison, Wisconsin and Grand Portage respectively. Two years ago, the Outdoor Writers Association of America held their annual conference in Madison, and during the time, we came to appreciate the bicycle and hiking trails this metropolitan area has included in its development.

GRAND PORTAGE: Grand Portage National Monument preserves an old fort not far from the Pigeon River, all of which are located along the west shore of Lake Superior. The monument also preserves portions of the old trail, and because of the trail, which I hiked, I was able to compare my capabilities to those of the “engages,” perhaps one of the toughest groups of men to walk the face of the planet. However, when I hiked the trail for my story, I cheated a bit, and rather than carry a load that might exceed 200 pounds, I carried a small day pack and camera. And at the end of the day, I was back at my camper, where the screen door shut out the mosquitoes.

Engages hiked the 8-mile-long trail as it provided a “grand portage” around Pigeon River Falls. Upon completion of the portage, they’d then strike out into the wilderness to trap and hunt for furs, primarily the beaver.

The third Affinity story was about the Alamo and the famous River Walk, which I spoke about the other day in a posting. That story with photographs is in this month’s issue of Motorhome.

The forth story concerns Bosque Del Apache, and it is entitled Flights of the Snow Geese, spectacles of the Cranes. The story appears in Airstream Life magazine, and like the editors at the Affinity Group, Rich is also a good psychologist, and periodically forwards me flattering comments. One of his readers wrote and said that the photography accompanying the story was “worthy of the Geographic.”

Rich knew that would make my day.

EXPLORE! Finally, advanced copies of our book entitled Explore! Glacier National Park and the Flathead Valley, were waiting, and we were delighted with its appearance—and delighted with the hard work Julie Marsh, our editor, expended. Janie and I always enjoy hearing Julie’s upbeat comments, which elicit our best efforts.

Essentially, the book is a guide to the huge backyard that Janie and I explore when home. Content and material come from hours and hours of work Janie conducted spelling out the nitty-gritty of trail locations and the features each area offers.

As well, the book distills from the many essays and stories I’ve been writing about Glacier and the Flathead for the past 25 years. Though the stories have been modified for this publication, some came from publications such as Field & Stream, Smithsonian, Trailer Life and Motorhome—and also from stories I wrote during my newspaper years.

The book is a Falcon Book, published by Globe Pequot, and in a few weeks when general shipments arrive at Globe Pequot, I’ll tell where to obtain copies.

At the moment we’re still in Tucson, preparing for a day at the Sonora Desert Museum. Tomorrow we depart for Organ Pipe National Monument.

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Junior Ranger Emma Luhr Interprets Saguaro National Park

posted: March 6th, 2007 | by:Bert

Bert Gildart: Late in the evening, two days ago, we pulled in to Cactus Country RV Resort, located on the fringe of Tucson, Arizona. We’re here to visit our friends Rich, Emma and Eleanor Luhr, and to hike portions of Saguaro National Park, located about eight miles from the campground.

SAGUARO CACTUS: Rich produces Airstream Life Magazine, and we met online when he was looking for contributors. At the time, we had an Airstream, and like all Airstream owners, wanted to tell the world about our passion for this icon of the RV world.

That was about four years ago, and since our online introduction, we’ve become good friends not only with Rich, but with his wife and young daughter, whom they home school as they travel North America searching for stories, attending Airstream rallies, and generally making friends with Airstream owners.

In the interim, they’ve taken the magazine from an embryonic upstart to one that the Airstream industry endorses and that travelers from both within—and outside—of the Airstream community crave to read. I’m proud to say that my stories have appeared in every issue.

The lifestyle has certainly benefited young Emma, for in the course of the last few years of travel, she has certainly seen the majority of the nation’s national parks, most recently, Saguaro, in which we all hiked yesterday. As the family has traveled, Emma has also attended junior ranger programs.

EMMA LUHR: Saguaro, as young Emma explained, is pronounced “sah Wah row,” and as she knows, this is a huge member of the cactus family. It has arms, and sometimes those arms are home to all sorts of creatures like woodpeckers and hawks. And as Emma knows, it’s also home to several different species of owls, to include the elf owl.

“We thought we’d found one the other day,” said Emma as we drove a loop road in the park’s eastern district. “Dad spent almost an hour photographing it, even asking people to be quiet. But when we got back to our home (the Airstream), and he blew the photo up on the computer, it wasn’t an owl; just the inside on the arm of the saguaro.”

When I heard the story, I was skeptical, until we came to the huge saguaro, and saw the pattern for ourselves.

ACCORDION PLEATS: Saguaro National Park is divided up into two districts, an eastern and a western district. Both are located on the outskirts of Tucson, and both serve to protect the giant saguaro cactus and its fascinating biology.

Historically, the Tohono O’Odham Indians harvested the juicy, fig-like fruit, making jam and syrup for religious ceremonies. Biologically, the plant is long lived, and about age 40 begins producing arms. To help in water retention it produces accordion like pleats that allow the saguaro to expand and hold water.

That’s just for starters, but are a few of the reason conservationist are now struggling so hard to preserve this park, struggling to exist as Tucson continues to expand.

We’re here for several days and while here plan to learn more about this incredible plant, hike a few more trails with the Luhrs, and learn, perhaps, a bit more about the park from young Emma, who has become a very sophisticated young traveler.

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RV Group Lifestyles—Appropriate for This Independent Woman

posted: March 5th, 2007 | by:Bert

Bert Gildart: Twenty-two years ago Nancy Zatkoff was in an abusive marriage, left with no alternative other than to seek a new life. She’d been married to a federal judge, a man who’d become an alcoholic. Nancy said she had tried to cope, joining such organizations as ALANON, and that although this well known network did provide a support group, she ultimately realized she had to get out, not only for her sake, but for that of her children as well. And, so, in 1987 she sought a divorce, and then fled with her children.

NANCY ZATKOFF: “It wasn’t easy,” says Nancy, “but she had always been a tent camper, loved getting out in the woods, loved kayaking, and decided to take the next step. In the late 1990s she bought a used 5th wheel and a Dodge 2500 with the Cummins Diesel engine.

For awhile, she tried traveling alone, but found that standing in the shadow of some of the world’s most beautiful settings can be a very lonely. Try, for instance, standing on the rim of the Grand Canyon, or walking the Garden Wall in Glacier National Park by yourself, and even though you are in some of the most world’s most beautiful country, such overwhelming country can drive home your aloneness.

And so Nancy began looking around for organizations that might help her learn more about the RV life style, and also help bring her together with people who were looking for some type of companionship. As a former teacher, a woman active in her church, she thought she had a lot to offer in a group setting.

Fortunately, there are organizations intended to help singles, and generally by the time you are solvent enough to own an RV you have lived a substantial portion of your life, and may be single either through death of a spouse—or through divorce. For this group, the RV community has created a number of organizations intended to bring single RVers together, “not necessarily to create a lasting match,” says Nancy Zatkoff, “but simply to travel together and see new things. Of course, if a match works out that’s OK, but that’s not the sole reason for my involvement.”

With a little research Nancy learned there were several organizations. Examples include Selective Singles, Loners on Wheels, and the Wandering Individual Network. These organizations provide ways for singles to share backgrounds by meeting new people with similar interests. For most RV enthusiasts, that’s travel, and, often, travel that helps you discover a little more about yourself.

Nancy began group involvement by joining “Selective Singles,” located in Detroit and through them mastered the skills to travel even wider. Though she’s only 5’2” she improved on skills required to hook up a 5th wheeler, back it up, level it, and change tires. In fact, she’s become so proficient with her current pull-along trailer that she says she could teach a course in RVing.

“Women should know the fundamentals,” says Nancy, “else how can they help in an emergency. I believe I could teach them how.”

INDEPENDENT KAYAKER: After joining the one group, she began ranging out, and so joined Loaners on Wheels. She cautions, however, that LOWs has stipulations, the most significant one specifying that in this organization, you must be alone. You must be single.

“This is an organization for singles, and that’s it,” says Nancy. “If you’re already paired, you’ve defeated the purpose of LOWs.”

For people who are paired in some way, there’s yet another organization called Wandering Individual network (WIN). “Let’s say,” says Nancy, “you’ve met someone that you really taken a hankering to. But you realize that if you get married, you’ll sacrifice a monthly social security check. These people are not amoral, just practical.”

So what kind of things do these groups do? Obviously, all involve themselves in active travel, and last year WIN, took in the famous Calgary Stampede (a rodeo) in Alberta, Canada, attended the Cheyenne Frontier Days in Wyoming, and even took in an Alaskan Cruise. And that’s just for starters.

Though Nancy doesn’t know where some of these activities will take her, we do know she’s giving up her job with Hospice and leaving Bay Bayou to get back on the road. We also know that although this independent woman enjoys appropriate companionship—and believe RV dating services fulfill a unique function—she has also found contentment within herself.

That means she’s a long way from where she was 22 years ago. “LOWs helps,” says Nancy, “but all these services are useless unless you’ve found yourself. The RV lifestyle helped me do all that.”

Janie and I wish this lovely, fun lady all the best that life has to offer. Travel well, Nancy.

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Hardships of RV Travel

posted: March 4th, 2007 | by:Bert

Bert Gildart: Hard core travel, the type in which you drive from sunrise to sunset is not conducive to writing—or taking photographs.

After departing New Orleans, we traveled through Louisiana, skirting tornadoes that sadly resulted in a number of deaths to our north. But now, more than anything, we live with the nightmare of traveling Interstate 10 through the eastern portion of that state, for that’s what directly affected us. In all of our travels Janie and I agree that we have never experienced a worse road.

Rich Luhr, who publishes Airstream Life Magazine, says he rates roads on a scale of 1-10, using as his criteria for roughness, the number of objects he and his family find scattered on the floor of their Airstream…

Each time we stopped, we found lots, not only because the road undulated but because it was full of endless chuck holes that went on for well over 100 miles. You couldn’t avoid them. What’s more, we also found the stem of the black water valve on the outside of our Airstream was bent. An easy fix, yes, but national roads shouldn’t be that way—and we rate the road a minus one.

Though we thoroughly enjoyed New Orleans and the beauty of the plantations, it was a joy to leave I-10 behind, enter Texas and then drive their version of I-10. Everyone apparently, but us, was aware of the conditions, for when we stopped at the Texas Welcome Center, the fellow behind the desk said “We hear complaints about I-10 every day.”

Forgive my going on, but let me also add that I-10 in Louisiana had no Rest Stops, so it was a good thing we tow our restroom with us. When needed, we simply pulled way off the side of the road, turning on our flashers.

In short, avoid I-10. Interstate 20 is to the north and the extra miles it might add is worth the time.

We’re now in El Paso, and will complete the last leg of our drive to Tucson. That shouldn’t take more than 4 to 5 hours, so we should be there by mid afternoon. We’ll be spending about a week in the area, first taking in the famous Arizonia-Sonoran Living Desert Museum. Several years ago I wrote a story about Gila monsters for National Wildlife Magazine, and got to know the resident herpetologist. He allowed us in the cage with a Gila monster and that was a nerve-wracking experience to say the least. Perhaps we’ll find him again. (Note: Gila monsters don’t come galloping out after you. Essentially they’re shy and reclusive.)

While in the area, we’ll be touring Saguaro National Park, then traveling to Organ Pipe National Monument to camp. All these areas inform on specific types of desert conditions, and we’ll be anxious to tell you what we find.

I’ll also be telling you about a new book Janie and I have produced; about some wonderful accolades Rich Luhr shared with me about my story on Bosque Del Apache just out in his magazine. Then, real soon, I want to report on a lovely lady back in Bay Bayou who shared with me her secrets for meeting people who share similar interests.

Stay tuned!

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Forget Hurricane Katrina and Look to the Area’s Glorious Plantations

posted: March 2nd, 2007 | by:Bert

Bert Gildart:Norman Marmillion makes no bones about it. Norman, like Laura, for whom the Laura Plantation was named, is Creole. Once that designation might have carried negative connotations, for by definition that means Norman is not white, rather his bloodline derives from a mixture of other ethnic groups, specifically, French or Spanish with black African.

“Anything,” said Norman, “except white Anglo Saxon American. “By that account,” said Norman, “I’m Creole—and so was Laura.”

NORMAN MARMILLION: According to Norman, Laura Plantation was rescued from demolition, not because of its Big House but, more to preserve the Creole culture and the stories recorded in the 1870s. In other words, Laura Plantation interprets a Creole plantation and the life of the slaves who worked there. It does so in a unique manner in that it focuses on the recollections of Laura, and on some of the stories told by slaves.

What’s so absorbing is that some of these exact same narrations were once told in West Africa, but have now become classics. Perhaps you’ve heard of the Tales of Uncle Remus, which includes his classic story, “The Little Tar Baby.”

Or perhaps you’ve heard of Brother Rabbit better known in the vernacular as Br’er Rabbit.

SLAVE QUARTERS: As well, visitors to the Laura Plantation discover the hardships slaves endured and can see some of their implements. In one corner, Norman pointed out the oldest object in one of the remaining slave homes, which was an old chair, dating back to the early 1800s.

Like other plantations located just outside of New Orleans, all were affected by Hurricane Katrina, and that includes Laura Plantation. Certainly the storm affected Norman’s life. Prior to the storm he had been fulfilling his role as the President of the Historical Society from New Orleans. But his home in New Orleans was destroyed and so Norman moved to the Overseers quarters at Laura Plantation, where he is now working to bring travel back to the New Orleans area, specifically to the plantations along the Great River Road.

“We’re all recovering at the rate of about two percent a month,” said Norman. “We’re fully functional, so if you want a tour that is a personal one, now is the time to visit.”

OAK ALLEY: Though there are at least half a dozen plantations on the Great River Road, accessed following a 45 minute drive from downtown New Orleans, we had time but for two. We selected the second one specifically because of its reputation for being one of the nation’s most widely photographed of all plantations.

Over seven movies or TV programs have been filmed at Oak Alley to include The Long Hot Summer. As well, a segment from Days of Our Lives was filmed here, and so were portions of the movie Primary Colors, staring John Travolta.

If you saw the movie, you might recall the mansion was depicted as the governor’s mansion. It’s certainly stately enough, and when, Darlene, our tour guide, flung open the doors overlooking the quarter-mile road lined with 28 live oak trees, it was easy to understand why Oak Alley had been chosen for so many movies.

Not only is Oak Alley lined by 28 300-year old oak trees, but, appropriately, the mansion is surrounded by 28 columns. In the back, a number of much younger, but still old and quite stately oaks line yet another road leading to the mansion. All survived Hurricane Katrina, though one of the 300-year old oaks was damaged. As I strolled down Oak Alley, I saw the damage but would not have noticed if I had not been forewarned.

AZALEAS: Azaleas also lined the path of the younger oaks. As well, they grew in grand hedges around the mansion, and though it was but the first of March, blossoms had been out for weeks.

Darlene said it was way early for azaleas. “Normally,” she said, “we don’t see all this color until the end of March, but look at it now. Isn’t it gorgeous?”

Yes, it certainly is.

SHOO FLY: Though photography is not normally permitted inside, one of the advantages of being a card-carrying photojournalist with documentation is the opportunity to take certain shots needed for stories. After the tour, Darlene returned inside for a repeat tour of areas we wanted to photograph, specifically the dining room with its huge fly jar (on center of table) and the gigantic shoo fly suspended on hinges from the ceiling above the table.

Shoo flies are constructed from a huge slab of wood and, in this case, was covered with an expensive burgundy cloth. A rope is attached to the bottom of the device, and through a series of pulleys someone (generally a slave) would impart momentum to the shoo fly, thereby creating enough of a breeze to keep diners cool—and the flies away.

Both plantations provide a glimpse of a bygone era, and though Hurricane Katrina may be on the minds of visitors, the plantations live on in all their glory, simply waiting the return of an appreciative audience. You can join either Norman or Darlene at one or both of the plantations and if you do, the doors into a bygone life will be thrust wide open.

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