A Trip to the Cannabis Fair? What??? No Way!

I didn't expect to find George at the fair.

I didn’t know what type of things I would find at the Cannabis Fair, but a painting of George standing in the middle of a marijuana farm and glowing green wasn’t one of them.

 

Occasionally, I slip in a blog that is outside of my 10,000-mile bicycle trek series. Today we are going to a cannabis fair…

So here I was on Saturday morning, staring out our windows at the mountains, listening to the morning news on TV, and wondering what I was going to do with my day. Peggy was back East playing with the kids and grandkids. I had just put up my post on the Scopes Trial, responded to all my comments, and checked in on the people I follow. I was actually caught up on blogging, a rare occasion— as most of you bloggers will recognize.

The weather person was predicting a 110° F degree-day. Playing or working outside wasn’t an option and I had completed most of my indoor chores. In fact, I had just pushed Robota’s button (Robota is our iRobot vacuum cleaner), and she was charging around, sucking up dirt, and cleaning rugs and floors. She’d return to her dock and plug-in when she needed recharging. I do wish she would learn to clean out her dirt bin, though. It’s such a bother; I could use the two minutes for something else… (Grin)

In other words, I had time on my hands. What’s a fellow to do? That’s when the local television anchor announced that the Cannabis Fair was being held at the Jackson County Fairgrounds in the main exhibit hall. Now I love fairs, and I have been seriously deprived this year (if you don’t count the Fur Rendezvous in Anchorage, Alaska and the International Ice Carving contest in Fairbanks). We missed the local Jackson County Fair because we had to go to Sacramento and arrived in Sacramento just as the California State Fair ended. To top off this tale of woe, I am taking a break from Burning Man.

But go to the Cannabis Fair and blog about it? No way! What would people think? And then I thought, why not. Marijuana is now legal in Oregon. In fact, I voted for the measure to legalize it. The majority of Americans support the idea. Why? One reason is that prohibition doesn’t work; it never has. Look at what happened with alcohol in the 1920s. If people wanted a drink, they found it. The main result of the Prohibition was the creation of the American Mafia. The Mob Museum in Las Vegas provides an excellent history of how it happened.

A similar thing happened with marijuana. Smoking a joint in the 1950s could lead to a 10-year prison sentence and a fine of $20,000— for a first time offender. Did this stop marijuana use? Remember the 60s? I do, vaguely (kidding). Our demand for marijuana, combined with laws against cultivation, led to its illegal production. What a surprise. Millions, and even billions of dollars were to be made. Drug cartels sprang up like weeds outside of the US to supply us. Tragically, thousands have been killed and whole political systems corrupted as a result. Here, billions of tax dollars (that is your money and mine) have gone into creating large government agencies that haven’t made a dent in the flow of pot.

Maybe the billions we spent on trying to suppress marijuana would be worth it, if the drug were the devil it was portrayed to be in Reefer Madness and other such anti-pot campaigns. But the truth is— it isn’t. The negative physical and social impacts are no worse than alcohol, and may indeed be less. A growing body of evidence suggests that a number medical benefits derive from cannabis. Contrast this with the health effects of tobacco. Numerous states have passed laws making medical marijuana use legal. And several have now made it legal for recreational use as well.

Cloth hanging art found at the Cannabis Fair in Jacksonville County, Oregon.

I am not sure what the artist had in mind with this cloth hanging I found at the Fair, but I thought it provided a good perspective on how people view the effects of marijuana. On the left is the perspective of the cannabis industry, the pro-legalization forces and most users. On the right is how those who support the Reefer Madness point of view see it.

But it’s time to climb down off my soapbox (sort of). We have a fair to go to! I didn’t have a clue about what I was going to find. Let me start with noting there were no pigs, or goats, or bunny rabbits— the usual reasons I go to a fair. This was a serious endeavor. Pot growing is big business for small farms in my neck of the woods. Six are visible along the 30-mile road between where I live on the Applegate River and Medford. They hardly blend in.

The law requires that marijuana farmers put their crops behind 8-foot fences if they are located within 150 feet of the highway, supposedly to protect children from seeing them. Instead the fences serve as huge billboards that scream: WE GROW POT! If you can find a six-year-old in Jackson County that doesn’t know what is happening behind those fences, I’d be surprised. And you can bet they are much more intrigued by the hidden marijuana than they would be if the plants were simply grown out in the open like any other crop. Plus the fences are butt-ugly.

Marijuana farms that are visible from the road in Oregon, are required to be surrounded by 8-foot fences.

This fence, legally required by Oregon law to conceal a cannabis farm, is about a mile away from my house.

I wandered around from booth to booth at the fair, taking photos for my blog (after asking permission) and chatting with folks tending the booths. There was potting soil and pot pots. There were salves and seeds. There were lawyers and accountants and security specialists and equipment sales people. One man was offering a bud trimmer for $300 that looked like a combination of an electric razor and a mini-hedge trimmer. He provided a demonstration. Bzzzzzz! I could picture him at a cannabis shop saying, “This Bud’s for you.”

Pots for growing marijuana on display at the Cannabis Fair in Jackson County, Oregon.

I couldn’t help but think pot pots when I saw these. And please note: they are made in the USA.

And of course you need potting soil for pot pots.

And of course you need premium potting soil for pot pots. What better than Cloud 9, Zen Blend, and Gaia’s Gift?

And you have to decide what type of cannabis you are going to plant. There are literally hundreds of string that have been developed, all with different strengths, and if you accept the literature, different qualities.

And you have to decide what type of cannabis you are going to plant. There are literally hundreds of strains that have been developed, all with different strengths, and, if you accept the literature, qualities.I wonder which one will give me an irresistible craving for ice cream?

In addition to all of the services available for growers at the Cannabis Fair, there were also items for consumers, such as this magical butter makers. Grind up your cannabis, drop it in the pot, add butter, simmer for an hour, strain the results, and you are ready to make cookies!

In addition to all of the services available for growers at the Cannabis Fair, there were also items for consumers, such as these magical butter pots. Grind up your cannabis, drop it in the pot, add butter, simmer for an hour, strain, and you are ready to make cookies!

I wandered into a dome tent set up by Pacific Domes. It reminded me of the structures at Burning Man. Even some of the wall hangings seemed familiar. And there was the painting of George Washington enjoying a pipe I featured at the top of the blog. Robert, the account executive, told me that a lot of their tents do make it to Burning Man. I asked him how they handled the windstorms. “They are designed to withstand gusts up to 8o miles per hour,” he told me.

A dome tent from the Pacific Dome company on display at Cannabis Fair in Jackson County, Oregon.

Both domed tents and greenhouses were promoted at the fair for growing marijuana.

Dome tent for growing cannabis at the Cannabis Fair in Jackson County, Oregon.

The tent was appropriately camouflaged.

Cannabis art found at the Cannabis Fair in Jackson County, Oregon.

The wall hangings in the tent reminded me very much of Burning Man, although you don’t flaunt marijuana use in Black Rock City. The event is crawling with law enforcement people happy to bust you.

All types of pipes were available for smoking, some even glowed in the dark under a black light. The folks at Bayshore Smoking Glass from Coos Bay broke out several for me to photograph. Some of the pipes were quite attractive, and some were downright funny. How would you like your pot pipe to look like an octopus?

Cannabis pipes for smoking marijuana found at the Cannabis Fair in Jackson County, Oregon.

I found the variety of pipes fun. What can I say. An incredible amount of creativity goes in to producing them.

A variety of pipes for smoking marijuana at the Cannabis Fair in Jackson County, Oregon.

They come in all shapes, sizes and colors.

This one even glowed when placed under a black light.

This one even glowed in the dark.

"Living the Pipe Dreams" cannabis pipes on display at the Cannabis Fair in Jackson County, Oregon.

Dianne told me I could photograph her art work if I put her card in the picture.

Bongs for smoking cannabis at the Cannabis Fair in Jackson County, Oregon.

I also found these bongs, or water pipes, rather unique.

Maybe you aren’t into smoking but still want to indulge. Then there are edibles, or medibles for medical marijuana. I stopped by a booth featuring Mary Lou’s Edibles and talked with Mary Lou. She had some delicious looking peanut butter cookies on display. “Are these samples?” I asked. (While no marijuana was for sale at the fair, some booths were offering free samples that you were required to take off of the premises before consuming.) “No,” she said, “but you can go online and order them.” She handed me her card. It announced, “Made with Oregon Cannabis and Love by the Happy Granny.” I’ll bet she is.

The rules were quite clear about not consuming marijuana at the Fair.

The rules were quite clear about not consuming marijuana at the Fair. Oregon state law prohibits consumption in public areas.

Kettle Corn anyone?

Kettle Corn anyone? A number of booths had edibles on display. They ranged from kettle corn, to chocolate, to cookies, to brownies and candy. An important issue is keeping these products away from children.

Mimim's medical marijuana being displayed at the Cannais Fair in Jackson County, Oregon.

When edibles are used for medical purposes, they are called ‘medibles.’ I share a concern with the cannabis industry that the pharmaceutical industry will step in, patent medicines, and charge a hundred times more for medical marijuana than people presently pay. I feel the same way about agribusiness stepping in and wiping out the thousands of small farms that now grow cannabis.

A series of lectures were being offered and I stopped by to listen to one being given by Pioneer Pete Gendron. Pete represents Oregon’s marijuana growers on the state level. I am assuming that his pioneer status comes from being one of Oregon’s original pot growers. He certainly looks the part. He is also a highly intelligent and articulate man. He talked about cannabis politics in Oregon. I learned the reason behind the 8-foot fences from him. I also learned that marijuana isn’t quite the water hog it is claimed to be. Alfalfa requires seven times as much water to grow.

Pioneer Pete was one of a number of people who made presentations at the Cannabis Fair on the various aspects of marijuana farming.

Pioneer Pete Gendron was one of a number of people who made presentations at the Cannabis Fair on the various aspects of marijuana farming and consumption.

Today, the Drug Enforcement Agency, DEA, continues to label marijuana as a class-1 drug, on par with heroin. Pete told us that when the cannabis industry requested an opportunity to prove it didn’t belong at that level, the DEA said, “We can’t do that. It is a class-1 drug,” i.e. it is illegal to use so any evidence you gather using it is illegal. Makes complete sense, right. Have you ever read Joseph Heller’s Catch 22?

The times they are a-changing, however. Cannabis plants will join carrots and cabbages at this year’s Oregon State Fair. How much more mainstream can you go? California will vote on legalization for recreational use this fall. On the national level, the Democratic Platform includes a plank that would push for legalization nation-wide. It is only a matter of time.

That’s it for the break! It’s back to bicycling in my next blog. We have a mountain range to climb over: the Great Smokies!

The Very Large Array and Messages from Space… A Bike Trek Special

The radio telescopes of the Very Large Array are situated on the eastern edge of the Continental Divide, 60 miles east of Socorro, New Mexico.

The radio telescopes of the Very Large Array are situated on the eastern edge of the Continental Divide, 50 miles west of Socorro, New Mexico. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)

 

Perhaps we’ve never been visited by aliens because they have looked upon Earth and decided there’s no sign of intelligent life. -Neil deGrasse Tyson

 

July is just around the corner. And that means the Mekemson household will soon be watching Independence Day. Again. Peggy has her favorites. Some movies, like Willow, I swear we have watched 30 times. And I don’t know if I can count how many times August Rush, the movie about the little boy who finds his parents through music, has appeared on our TV screen. Each viewing guarantees Peggy will get out her Martin and strum it.

Peggy snuggles up to a sundial at the VLA, counting down the hours until she can watch "Independence Day" again.

Peggy snuggles up to a sundial at the VLA, counting down the weeks until she can watch “Independence Day” again.

A close up of the sundial featuring both of us in the mirror. Sort of a selfie...

A close up of the sundial featuring both of us in the mirror… and an alien. Sort of a selfie.

But Independence Day has a special twist. July 5th is Peggy’s Birthday and the movie kicks off her Birthday Week, during which “whatever Peggy wants, Peggy gets.” (Remember Whatever Lola Wants?) If it appears she is a little spoiled, well yes. But Peggy has earned it— and she spoils me, too.

You’ve probably seen Independence Day. Nasty aliens invade the world with the intent of wiping out humanity and sucking up all of the earth’s goodies. The movie starts with a scientist in a lab whiling away the wee hours of the morning practicing his golf game by sinking putts in a glass. Suddenly the computer screen that monitors messages from outer space goes bonkers. And everything changes.

Here’s the point of my little detour into the world of Science Fiction: The scientist is working at the Very Large Array of radio telescopes in New Mexico, which is the subject of today’s post. An even more famous movie including the VLA is in the Jodie Foster flick, Contact, based on the book written by Carl Sagan where humanity first meets up with aliens. SETI, the search for extra terrestrial intelligence, is a subject that has fired the imagination of much of the world’s population, a fact that Hollywood has taken to heart, and the bank.

The scientists at VLA have mixed feelings about the movie depiction of their giant radio telescopes being used in the search for aliens. On the one hand, movies increase public awareness about the facility, and this awareness can be translated into increased funding. On the other hand, the VLA is used for hard science. Instead of searching for little green men, it is used for unlocking the secrets of quasars, pulsars, black holes, the sun, the Milky Way Galaxy, and numerous other astronomical phenomena including the very beginning of the Universe. Not bad, even if they aren’t talking to ET on the side.

Besides, as one astrophysicist at the facility told Peggy and me, if an alien civilization has mastered the difficulties involved in traveling/communicating over the vastness of time and space, they would be to us like we are to ants. Why bother with checking in or stopping for a visit. The tongue-in-cheek quote at the top from the astronomer and popularizer of science, Neil deGrasse Tyson, reflects this perspective.

In my last post, I passed by VLA as I zipped down New Mexico 60 from Pie Town and the Continental Divide heading east on my bike. I vowed I would be back, which was a vow Peggy and I kept as we retraced my route through the area. We were lucky. We arrived on the first Sunday in April, which just happened to be VLA’s annual open house. The red carpet was rolled out.

Peggy and I lucked out in our April visit to VLA. It was the facilities annual open house. People were taken on tours by scientists who use the radio telescopes for probing the Universe.

Peggy and I lucked out in our April visit to VLA. People were taken on tours by scientists who use the radio telescopes for probing the Universe. A visitors center and self-guided walking tour are available for people who come at other times. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)

Scientists were everywhere— answering questions, leading tours and being friendly. I suspect it was a command performance required by the higher-ups. Most scientists prefer to be locked away in their labs discovering things. A young post-doc from India, who is using the VLA to probe back several billion years to the beginning of time, took Peggy, me and several others on a tour of the facility.

But first I chatted with Diego Montoya, the Mayor of Magdalena, a town just down the road from the VLA. Diego wasn’t at the event in his official role, however, he was there because he had a speaking part as a third grader in Contact. As I pointed out, the VLA recognizes the importance of publicity to its well-being. Magdalena recognizes the importance of VLA as a tourist draw.

Diego Montoya

Diego Montoya looking very much like a mayor of a Western town.

When I rode my bike by the VLA in 1989, the 27 huge radio telescopes were spread out for over 22 miles of the San Augustin Plains. When we visited a couple of months ago, it was under a mile. Given that each antenna weighs 230 tons and comes with a dish that is 82 feet in diameter, moving them is something of a challenge, to say the least. How is it accomplished? Slowly and carefully (grin). A railroad track system shaped in the form of a Y has been designed for the effort. Each arm of the Y is 13 miles long. Special trains with the power to lift and move the telescopes have been designed for the job.

Each of the radio telescopes at the Very Large Array in New Mexico is massive, weighing

Each of the radio telescopes at the Very Large Array in New Mexico is massive, weighing in at 230 tons.

The dish is 82 feet in diameter.

The dish is 82 feet in diameter. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)

This sculpture at the VLA represents the Y of the track configuration.

This sculpture at the VLA represents the Y of the track configuration.

This photo shows the rails that the radio telescopes travel on. Once the telescope arrives at it preset positions it is bolted down and plugged in to the power and fiber optic cable system.

This photo shows the rails that the radio telescopes travel on. Once the telescope arrives at its preset position, it is bolted down and plugged in to the power and fiber optic cable system. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)

Four different locations are utilized on the tracks to provide for different types of observations with the telescopes, which rotate through the locations every 16 months. Since the 27 telescopes work together as one unit, they are the equivalent of a telescope with a 22-mile diameter when extended to their farthest point! That’s like the mother of all telescopes.

The telescopes can do their job because they are extremely sensitive to radio waves, the longest waves on the electromagnetic spectrum. And how sensitive do they have to be? Consider this: Cosmic radio waves are a billion, billion, million times weaker than a cell phone signal. (Pretty hard to call home with that ET. Mom would need really big ears.) This sensitivity creates special problems. A cell phone used on the premises sounds like a very large scream (VLS?). Even the remotes for car doors create spikes on the VLA’s measuring equipment. One reason for choosing the San Augustin Plains is because of its remoteness from all things civilized. I can attest to that. The other is that it is so darn flat, which I quickly discovered bicycling across it. My floating down the Rockies came to a dramatic halt, at least for a dozen or so miles.

Messages received by the radio telescopes are sent at light speeds over fiber optic cables to the central processing unit where one of the world’s fastest computers processes the data at 16 quadrillion calculations per second— the equivalent of every person on earth (all six billion of us), doing one calculation per second on a calculator for a month, nonstop. The data is then packaged up and sent out to scientists from all over the world. Scientists compete for time on the VLA by submitting proposals. Their slots may be for an hour or days. After a year, they agree they will release their findings to the public. In terms of scientific data, the VLA has paid its way many times over.

The massive computer room is closed to the public but we did tour the monitoring room. The Array is monitored 24/7 by scientists in case of any problems. This chart shows spikes caused by incoming radio waves.

The massive computer room is closed to the public but we did tour the monitoring room. The Array is monitored 24/7 by scientists in case of any problems. This chart shows data being received from the radio telescopes. I wonder what an extraterrestrial message would look like!

The message from outer space to my readers is that if you get anywhere near the VLA, include it on your itinerary. Even if you only stare at the telescopes, it is a fascinating place, and there is a good visitors center chock full of info. Who knows, maybe even ET will call while you are there. Two final photos:

Radio Telescopes and repair facility at VLA in New Mexico

The large facility in the back is used for repair and maintenance on the radio telescopes.

We took this shot as we were leaving.

I took this shot as we were leaving.

THE NEXT BLOG: Once again you will join Peggy and me as we continue to retrace my bike route. We will stop off at the Trinity site where the world’s first atomic bomb was exploded, visit Smokey the Bear’s birthplace and grave, and end up in Lincoln County where six guns once ruled and Billy the Kid roamed— all of that before we drop into Roswell and its weird world of UFOs.

Rancho Olompali: “The White House of Hippiedom”

It was quiet and peaceful when I visit Olompali. But this platform was once alive with laughter, music and work as members of the Chosen Family made bread to be distributed by the Diggers in San Francisco.

It was quiet and peaceful when I visited Olompali. But this platform was once alive with laughter, music and bread as members of the Chosen Family commune made thousands of loaves to be distributed by the Diggers for free in San Francisco during the late 60s.

Today marks the end of my series on Olompali. Originally, I had planned to write one blog. This is my fifth, and each post has been relatively long. The truth is, I got caught up in the subject, and the more research I did, the more caught up I became. I lived through the 60s and spent considerable time in the Bay Area where these tales took place. I became an activist, committed to change, but I missed the early rock scene, didn’t do LSD, and steered clear of communes. None-the-less, I shared many of the values of those who did travel down these paths. 

The 60s were a time when a significant number of young people rebelled against the world of their parents and went seeking something else. As Don McCoy, the founder of the Chosen Family would say, to “create a new way of life, a new way of doing things, a new way of living together, getting along in a peaceful world.” Looking back, this perspective seems almost Quixotic to me. We were tilting at windmills.

But the windmills were real— and scary. America and Russia had accumulated enough nuclear weapons to wipe out the world several times over. Minorities, women, and gays were buried under a suffocating blanket of discrimination that limited who they were and what they might become. Leaders that promised change, John Kennedy, Martin Luther King, and Bobby Kennedy, were shot down, one after another by people who may have been insane— but were reflective of something deeper and darker. A far-off war in Southeast Asia was sucking us into a quagmire that was tearing our nation apart. And last, but far from least, we were awakening to the fact that our desire for more and more of everything was polluting the planet, literally poisoning our home. “We have met the enemy, and he is us,” Pogo proclaimed.

In spite of all of this, or maybe because of it, change was in the air. People across the country felt it. In the Bay Area it was so palpable you could almost taste it. (Listen to the Age of Aquarius here by the Fifth Dimension to get an over-the-top sense of its idealistic flavor.)

Those of us who got caught up in optimism and passion of the 60s believed we could make a difference. Our solutions varied tremendously. For some, like me, it meant joining groups like the Peace Corps and Vista, and working from within the system to achieve change. Others believed more radical solutions were called for. Massive protests and even violence resulted. And some people opted out, either by focusing inward with the aid of meditation or drugs such as LSD, or, more directly, by simply removing themselves from every day society and establishing a new life.

Don McCoy represented the latter. He and a few friends, plus their children, moved to Rancho Olompali in November of 1967 to establish the Chosen Family commune. “God chose us to be family with each other, and also, we chose each other for family,” he said. McCoy was aided in his vision by a $350, 000 inheritance, which is the equivalent of close to 3½ million dollars today.

By most accounts, McCoy was a generous man. One story that reflects his generosity relates to Alan Watts, the Zen philosopher, who was living on a houseboat in Sausalito (possibly one of Don’s). When the Indian musician, Ali Akbar Khan, told Watts he wanted to start a music college for teaching Indian music in Northern California and needed money, Alan immediately called Don. Within an hour, McCoy had shown up and given Khan a check for $20,000. (Khan, along with Ravi Shankar, was instrumental in introducing Indian music to the West. His college still exists today in San Rafael.)

As for Rancho Olompali, McCoy picked up the full tab. He started by leasing the property around the house and barns, including the swimming pool. When neighbors, who ran a riding school business on another section of the property, complained about seeing nude people in the swimming pool, he leased the whole ranch and kicked out the neighbors.

Olompali provided an excellent location for the Chosen Family and Included this 20 plus room mansion.

Olompali provided an excellent location for the Chosen Family. It included this 20 plus room mansion, beautiful landscaping and an Olympic-size swimming pool. (Archival photo.)

This large fountain with a blue heron sculpture on top was part of the landscaping.

This large fountain with a blue heron sculpture on top was part of the landscaping. (Archival photo.)

The palms seen on the left side of the mansion as they appear today.

The palms seen on the left side of the mansion as they appear today.

Leasing the rest of the property open up several hundred acres for the commune members to wander through.

Leasing the rest of the property opened up several hundred acres of beautiful country for the commune members to wander through.

McCoy insisted that the adults who came to live at Olompali give up their day jobs. The commune was to be the center of their lives. Food, transportation, health care, and even entertainment were to be supplied, everything necessary to live. And McCoy would pay for it. This didn’t mean that commune members didn’t work. There was food to grow, meals to cook, dishes to do, cows to milk and horses to care for. The property had several horses, including one boarded by Mickey Hart, the Grateful Dead percussionist. Snorty, the horse, even made it into the group photo taken at Olompali that appeared on the back of the Dead’s album, Aoxomoxoa.

Snorty is in the back of the photo.

Snorty is in the back of the photo to the right of the oak tree.

All of the commune members, including the children, were expected to chip in when it came to chores. One of the biggest was cooking bread. A bakery owner had gone out of business and donated his equipment to the commune. A seven-sided cement pad was poured (it still stands at the park as shown in the top photo), and the equipment installed. Commune members then went to work. Clothing was optional. Twice a week they would bake several hundred loaves of bread in coffee cans. The bread was then turned over to the Diggers to distribute for free in San Francisco.

Pouring concrète for the cement pad.

Pouring concrète for the cement pad. (Archival photo.)

Chosen Family members making bread at Rancho Olompali that will be distributed by the Diggers for free in San Francisco. Clothing was optional. (Photo from the Berkeley Barb.)

Chosen Family members making bread at Rancho Olompali that was distributed by the Diggers for free in San Francisco. Clothing was optional. The bread was put in coffee cans as seen in foreground and rose over the top, giving it the name mushroom bread. (Photo from the Berkeley Barb.)

There was also a side business known as The Garden of Delights where commune members would put on light shows for the various rock groups performing at venues in the Bay Area.

Children were regarded as a communal responsibility. On Mondays, their names were placed in a hat. Adults would then draw names and adopt the child he or she drew for the week. If you had issues as a child, you took them to your adopted parent, not Mommy or Daddy.

A decision was made to educate the children on site rather in local schools. (Otherwise, how could you instill the proper hippie values?) An ex-principal/teacher from the Nicasio Elementary School, Garnet Brennan, was recruited into the commune as the teacher. Brennan had been fired from the Nicasio School District after a thirty-year career in education because she had admitted to smoking pot when she was testifying on behalf of a young man who faced a five-year to life sentence for selling marijuana. She had noted that she knew marijuana wasn’t harmful because she had smoked it for 18 years on a daily basis without any notable damage to herself or anyone else. The issue received national attention including an article in Life Magazine.

Brennan set up a Montessori-type school that the children named Not School. Children were encouraged to pursue subjects that captured their imagination. Education was slipped in as part of the process. “We had displays, supplies, books, and tests,” Maura McCoy remembers. “She was a professional educator and a great person to have there.” Brennan had been known as a “beloved teacher” at the Nicasio School according to the Life magazine article.

Extensive freedom was granted to the children. If you wanted to skip school or go to town, okay. If you wanted smoke pot or try LSD, okay. If you wanted to ride horses, go swimming, or go for a walk in the woods, it was your choice. You were even allowed to pick your own bedtime. (After all, how could you go to sleep with the Grateful Dead playing music in your front yard or living room?) And, if you wanted to run around naked— well that was okay, too. Understandably, some people would and did condemn the freedom, lack of structure and use of drugs as a form of abuse. For the most part, however, the children who spent two years of their life growing up at Olompali remember the experience as fun and filled with loving support. They even took delight in going into Novato and being the “Hippie Kids.”

Not surprisingly, the media pounced on the commune. It was big news: pot-smoking hippies ran around naked and baked bread while grooving out to music produced by the Grateful Dead. They labeled Rancho Olompali as the White House of Hippiedom and Don was their guru, the supreme Hippie. They also recorded the bad times. A horse escaped, ran out on Highway 101, and caused an accident that killed a trucker. There were two raids to seize drugs. Faulty wires caused a fire that gutted the mansion.

Don McCoy. (Archival photo.)

Don McCoy. (Archival photo.)

Don’s family, concerned about how life on the commune was affecting the children, obtained a conservatorship that took away custody of his children and stopped the flow of money. He ended up in the hospital suffering from physical and mental illness.

The final straw for the Chosen Family was that two of the commune’s children, cycling around the half empty swimming pool, fell in and died. With the death of the children, the commune died as well, its utopian dream snuffed out. The University of San Francisco, who still owned the property, evicted the Chosen Family and set about selling it to a developer who was planning on turning Olompali into condos and a trailer park, an inglorious ending to a fascinating history. But it wasn’t the end of the story.

Olompali was saved by a coin, not just any coin, but an English sixpence found on the property that traced the area’s history all the way back to the initial contact between the Miwoks and Sir Francis Drake. Plans for the trailer park were dropped. Marin Open Space, working with the State of California, obtained the property in 1977 and turned it into Olompali State Park.

Final Notes: Maura McCoy, along with another former member of the commune, Noelle Olompali-Barton, is now making a documentary about the commune. As Noelle says, “We have a lot of colorful history.” Their Facebook page is worth a visit. Scroll down and check out the trailer for the documentary.

NEXT BLOGS: Peggy (my wife) will do several guest blogs on her recent trip to England where she visited a number of gardens and estates, starting with Downton Abbey (Highclere Castle.)

Speaking of Afterlife, Did Pop Actually Haunt Me?

 

One of my favorite photos of my father taken by Glen Fishback at his studio.

One of my favorite photos of my father taken by Glen Fishback at his studio.

Do you believe in ghosts? I’d like to say I don’t. Their existence isn’t rational. There is no scientific evidence that supports their presence. And yet, I’ve had a couple of ghostly experiences that are hard to explain rationally, other than my mind playing tricks (a distinct possibility). But consider the following:

In my last Friday essay on religion, I took readers to Alaska and a campfire discussion with my father. Pop lived for another eight years— and they were good years. He continued to read his Bible, smoke his pipe, paint pictures, and entertain the elderly women in his retirement complex with the photographs he had taken over the years. We had lots of opportunities to talk. I learned a great deal of his past and he never gave up trying to convert me.

Pop painted up until he was 85 or so.

Pop painted up until he was 85 or so. (Photo by Glen Fishback.)

The painting that Pop was working on now hangs in our guest bedroom.

The painting that Pop was working on now hangs in our guest bedroom.

One night I had him over for dinner to meet my new friend and future wife, Peggy. She charmed him as much as she had charmed me. I had already told him I planned on marrying her if I could persuade her to say yes. When I took him home, we shook hands at his doorway and, purely out of instinct, I said, “I love you Pop.” He got one of his big grins and responded, “I love you, too, Curt.”

A week later I found him sitting naked on his toilet, dead from a massive heart attack.

Of course I was grief-stricken. His passing was the passing of one of the most significant parts of my life. And I also felt guilt. I had known he wasn’t feeling well when I left him that night. I’d called a couple of times and he hadn’t answered, but I had assumed he had just been out on one of his walks. I couldn’t help but think if I had stopped by that I might have made a difference. Still, he had lived a full and productive life, taken care of himself to the end, and gone out quickly. It’s hard to ask for more.

The next day I went over to clean things up. I probably shouldn’t have gone alone because I was so stressed. I was in the bathroom cleaning when a light in the front room went on. I went out, thinking maybe the building manager had come by. No one was there. I went back to the bathroom where I had left a faucet on. Just as I walked in it jumped from a trickle to full force. The errant light and faucet shook me up; I grabbed my things and departed, quickly. That night I left the lights on in my apartment. It had been ages since I feared things that go bump in the night, but why take chances.

Just as I was finally drifting off to sleep from exhaustion, I heard a voice in my head. It was Pop. “I am alright Curt,” he said. “It’s okay.” And then I saw a vision of the proverbial white tunnel. It wasn’t a light at the end of the tunnel; it was the complete tunnel, the whole shebang— Pop’s spaceship. Were the light in his front room, the faucet, and the voice results of natural causes and my overwrought imagination? Probably. But who knows? Who knows what awaits us when the final bell rings? Maybe it’s a one-way ticket through the Universe.

Afterwards, when I thought about the experience, I was a little amused that Pop hadn’t taken advantage of the moment to say, “Read your Bible, Curt.” I would have started immediately. But maybe it wasn’t necessary. Maybe other fuel drove his spaceship.

CONCLUSION

In this series of essays, I have not argued against religion, I have argued against the abuse of religion. I have contended that the ‘leap of faith’ required by religions, combined with the concept of exclusivity (there is only one way to get to heaven), make abuse possible and even likely. Holding the keys to eternal life provides the holder with tremendous power. It’s something to die for. This power is an almost irresistible magnet to those who crave and need power for any number of reasons ranging from the sublime to the outrageous, from serving the flock to fleecing it, from helping the helpless to offing the opposition. When combined with fanaticism and government support, this mixture can quickly become a dangerous and deadly brew.

Religion has the power to do much good. I used my own personal example of how the Episcopal Church helped me get through difficult teenage years. I have a minister friend, the woman who married Peggy and me, who is known as the Disaster Pastor. She devotes her life to helping out where help is most needed, and has the full support of her congregation. My fellow blogger friend Bill, at Practicing Resurrection, is using his faith to encourage wholesome and humane farming practices, and healthy eating. Pope Francis is undertaking a major environmental initiative. There are thousands of examples.

To me, the greatest role religion can play is to enable us to see beyond ourselves, to understand that on some deep level we are all connected, not only to other human beings but to all life. Our salvation as a species lies in realizing that all of life is sacred and acting accordingly. Few of us have the capacity for sainthood but most of us have the capacity to see a bit further beyond ourselves than we normally do, and think through the long-term implications of our actions— whether it is being unkind, marching off to war, or wiping out another species.

I believe that the easiest way to counteract the negative aspects of religion is to modify the concept of exclusivity. Simply put, it’s okay for us to believe that the path we have chosen will take us toward whatever afterlife has to offer, but we also need to recognize that someone else’s path may be equally valid. Religious tolerance would eliminate one of the primary causes of conflict in the world today. Freedom of religion and separation of church and state are essential to obtaining this objective. Maybe the day will come when people of different religious beliefs (or none), can live next to each other in peace and prosperity throughout the world.

I’ll let Pop get a final word in. He once told me that he regarded his extensive reading of the Bible as an insurance policy. If he were right, it was his key to the afterlife. If he were wrong, what’s the harm? I granted him that. But I countered with the opposite argument. What if he were wrong? What if this is all we have? Then life becomes incredibly important. Each moment is precious. Yes, practice your religion if it is significant to you— read your Koran or Bible or Bhagavad Gita— but live each moment as though it were your last. Be kind, make sure that your loved ones know that you love them, give back to the community, have adventures, expand your mind, practice tolerance, and be passionate.  If there is more after the curtain falls, wonderful. If not, you have lived your life fully and can die knowing that you achieved everything humanly possible from your brief time on this earth. What’s the harm?

NEXT WEEK: Monday’s Blog: A neighborhood goat feast. You’ll meet a clothed Rambo and a naked Pinky. Wednesday’s Photo Essay: I return to the magical island of Santorini. Friday’s Essay: How twenty-five cents saved one million lives and $134 billion in health care costs. Part I.

The Earth Is 6000 Years Old… Or So My father Told Me

My father, Herb Mekemson. I believe this photo was taken by Glen Fishback of the Glen Fishback School of Photography.

My father. I believe this photo was taken by Glen Fishback of the Glen Fishback School of Photography.

I invited my father, Herb Mekemson, up to Alaska for his 80th birthday. My brother Marshall put him on the airplane in Sacramento and I met him in Anchorage. He got off the plane grinning. We shook hands and embraced. He still had a strong grip.

“Curt, have you been causing problems again?” he asked. These weren’t the first words out of his mouth but they were close. There was a twinkle in his eyes, sort of.

“What do you mean, Pop?” I asked in mock innocence. He was gripping his pipe like it was the last life raft on a sinking ship.

“I got off of the plane and the first thing they announced was I couldn’t light up in the airport. I’ve needed a smoke since I left Seattle.” I had been an advocate for smoke-free areas in Sacramento and continued my efforts in Alaska.

I laughed. He and I had been through the tobacco discussion dozens of times. We had it down to a routine. I’d point out there was a direct correlation between his smoking and the heavy cough he had in the morning. He’d note that he had been smoking for over 60 years and was still going strong, thank you. I’d observe that somewhere his Scotch Presbyterian mother was rolling over in her grave, and so it would go. He liked his tobacco straight up. For years he had smoked unfiltered Camels but they lacked the kick he needed. In his words, he had switched to ‘roll-your-owns’ as opposed to the ‘new fangled tailor mades.’ As a result, most of his shirts were aerated from burning tobacco. Out of self-defense, he had switched to a pipe. He liked to tease me that most of my efforts in the tobacco wars were designed to thwart him.

“Well, Pop,” I announced, “in honor of your visit, you have been granted special dispensation. You can smoke in my truck.” He hurried me out of the airport, barely taking time to pick up his suitcase.

Pop, as in "don't you even think of taking my pipe away from me. (Photo by Glen Fishback.)

Pop, as in, “Don’t you dare think of taking my pipe away from me.” (Photo by Glen Fishback.)

We had quite the adventure planned but first there were social responsibilities. I took him over to meet my roommates Cyndi and Roger. Cyndi owned the house and Roger and I paid rent. It was a good arrangement. Cyndi was a slope worker, which meant she worked for two weeks up on the North Slope in the oil industry and then had two weeks off. Roger was in the vending machine business, which included cigarettes. Surprisingly, the three of us were quite compatible.

When Cyndi and I first met to interview each other over possible roommate status, I mentioned that I was Executive Director of the Alaska Lung Association. She became quite excited and announced she had a Lung Association connection.

“I was a Trek leader in Minnesota before I came to Alaska,” she said. When I informed her that I had created the American Lung Association’s Trek Program, we decided that fate had brought us together. As for Roger, he and I had a penchant for weird movies, the weirder the better. Strange Brew is an excellent example. Many a winter evening was spent happily vegging on the couch, drinking beer, and watching videos.

Once Pop had visited my home, our next responsibility was visiting the ‘girlfriend.’ I had been dating a pulmonary physician and we hung out a lot together. I had an open invitation to move in.

“Why don’t we get married,” she suggested. “You can stay home, write, and raise the children.” I liked the staying home and writing idea but wasn’t ready for the kids and married part. Her English Spaniel had a different perspective. I kicked him off of the bed when I was around. His response was to pee on my side of the bed and mark it as his territory. I would have gone and peed on his bed if he had one. Two can play the dominant male species game.

My friend cooked dinner for Pop and me, which was a little scary. Cooking was not her forte. Our meal was good though and the dog was on its best behavior. We had a very pleasant evening.

Pop liked the idea of me getting married and having kids. He had always wanted me to produce grandchildren and both our biological time clocks were ticking. At 40 plus, I was rapidly approaching the point where having children was impractical. At 80, he was rapidly approaching the point where he would never see them. Actually, Pop had three wishes for me. The first was the married with children bit. The second was that I would become a photographer and take pictures of all the beautiful sites I saw in my wandering. The third was that I would become a good Christian boy and return to the flock.

A few years later I would fall in love, get married, inherit two great kids— and take up photography. I always figured that two out of three weren’t bad.

The next day we headed off to Denali. I had a permit for camping in the Park. Pop went crazy with his camera and the Alaskan scenery; we had to stop every 20 minutes or so for photo ops. Even a moose waited patiently beside the road to have its picture taken. By the time we reached camp, heavy black clouds were swirling overhead and a cold wind was reminding us that summer had yet to arrive. I hurried in setting up the large Coleman tent I had brought along while Pop, who insisted on being part of the action, went in search of firewood. A few minutes later I noticed that he had disappeared.

“Oh damn,” I thought to myself, “how do I explain to my sister and brother that Pop had become lost in the Alaskan wilderness gathering firewood.”

Then I spotted him off in the distance on top of a hill taking pictures.

“I saw some mountain goats up on the opposite mountain and I wanted to get closer for pictures,” he explained to me after descending.

“Do you know there are grizzly bears wandering around up there,” I said pointedly. He just smiled. At 80 he was ready to meet his maker. If it happened with the help of a grizzly bear, so be it. But it wasn’t going to happen on my shift, if I could help it.

After dinner we sat by our crackling campfire and talked for a couple of hours as snowflakes danced around the perimeter. Our family, his past and my future were all topics of discussion. There was something magical about the setting and Pop was obviously enjoying himself tremendously. Sitting in the Alaskan wilderness in the midst of a swirling snowstorm at age 80 was something that he had never envisioned for himself. I had him bundled from head to toe and he insisted he was toasty warm. Eventually the topic got around to one of his favorite subjects, religion.

“You know, I’ve been reading the Bible a lot,” he started. The Pearly Gates were beckoning and Pop wanted to be sure his credentials were in order. He was about to jump in to his ‘You should read the Bible too, Curt’ lecture. To forestall the inevitable, I asked a question out of curiosity.

“Assuming you make it to heaven, what do you think it is like?”

He laughed. “I am afraid my view’s a little unusual. I see myself as a spacecraft hurtling through space. I am not in the spacecraft. I am the spacecraft and I am exploring the universe and seeing all of the glorious sights it has to offer.” Apparently there would be no jewel encrusted buildings and streets paved with gold for him.

While I was contemplating this rather wondrous view of the after-life, I took too long in coming up with my next question.

“You should read the Bible too, Curt,” Pop began. “I’ve been listening to a radio minister and he is going through each Book in detail and explaining what it means. There’s a lot of great stuff. I’ve bought a complete set of his tapes.”

The radio minister part hoisted a red flag for me. Marshall and I had cut our religious eye teeth on a slippery southern radio preacher in the 1950s and I had recently been tuning in to Jim and Tammy Baker. They were prime time in Alaska. It was quite clear to me that they were bilking their flock and the process fascinated me. This didn’t mean that I believed all radio preachers or televangelists were frauds. It seemed reasonable to me that sincere religious people would want to take advantage of modern communication opportunities to share their views. Still, I decided to gently pursue where Pop’s radio minister was taking him.

“Um, what do you mean by great stuff?” I inquired.

“The stories, the history, the messages,” he replied enthusiastically, giving me a catalog to choose from. He was prepared to wax eloquently on the subject, to convert me on the spot. It wouldn’t be easy. I had read the Bible, and found it interesting, educational, and meaningful. But I wasn’t about to accept it as literal truth. I was curious as to where my father stood on the religious continuum between liberal interpretation and fundamentalist dogma. He had always been deeply religious but somewhat tolerant of other perspectives.

“So, Pop,” I queried, jumping to a litmus test of Christian fundamentalism, “do you believe that the world is 6,000 years old?”

“Yes,” was his simple reply and it was immediately clear where the radio minister was leading him: it was over the foaming falls of fundamentalism where a leap of faith assures a righteous landing. On one level this didn’t bother me. Life can be rather short and brutish as Hobbes noted, and full of suffering as the Zen Buddhists like to point out. We find our comfort where we can find it. If Pop’s belief helped him deal with the present and face his future, then it had value for him. Who was I to say otherwise? It wasn’t exactly like he was being misled, either. The Mekemson side of my family comes from a long line of true believers dating back to John Brown the Martyr of Scotland in the 1600s— and undoubtedly beyond.

I have my own share of spiritual genes. I’ve spent a lot of time over the years considering different religious traditions and pondering imponderables. Crass materialism, in and of its self, seems to be a poor reason to exist. I tend to believe that there is a deep, underlying unity in the universe and that all of life on earth is connected. It’s hard to get much more mystical than that.

I was a little concerned that Pop had paid several hundred dollars for the tapes. He lived off of his Social Security pension and the amount represented a lot of money. Bilking came to mind. I was more concerned with the implications of his beliefs as we chatted into the night. It wasn’t enough that he believed the earth was 6000 years old. I, too, should believe it. School systems were wrong for teaching evolution and should be required to teach creationism. He also expressed a strong bias against homosexuality and gay people that he had picked up from the radio preacher. The latter made me particularly sad.

The best man at my first wedding and a friend from childhood, Frank Martin, was gay. When my mother was dying of cancer while I was at Berkeley, Frank would often stop by and visit her, bringing whatever comfort he could. Later, when my former wife and I returned from serving as Peace Corps Volunteers in Africa, Frank and his partner hosted several anniversary parties for us in San Francisco. He was always generous and kind to our family. Now, my father was being taught that Frank was a sinful man, condemned to be burned in Hell.

Beyond expressing my disagreement as gently as I could, I mainly listened. My point of view wasn’t going to change what my father believed. Besides, the old fellow may have expired from hypothermia listening to me. We put out the fire, retired to the warmth of our down sleeping bags, and dreamt we were spaceships hurtling through space.

Over the next few days, Pop and I covered a good bit of Alaska, ending up in Homer. His sister Francis had raised her children there and he wanted to see the town. Afterwards, I drove him back to the airport and made sure his pipe was out before taking him inside and seeing him off. It took months for my truck to stop smelling like tobacco smoke.

NEXT FRIDAY’S BLOG: A final story about Pop. Did he really leave me a message after he passed away or was it the invention of my over-wrought imagination? Plus— My final thoughts on religion.

The Bigger Sacramento Book Club (BSBC)… 26 Years and Counting

 

Books read by the BSBC of Sacramento

This bookshelf includes about half of the books the BSBC has read during its 26 years of existence.

Three things happened when I climbed off my bicycle in Sacramento during the second week of September in 1990. First, I met Peggy and promptly fell in love. (It took me five seconds; Peggy was more like five months. She liked the look of a guy in tight bicycle shorts who had just biked 10,000 miles but was a little concerned about the sanity of a guy who would do such a thing. Rightfully so.)

Two, I was seriously hassled for being one week late. Mind you, I had just travelled for six months on a solo journey around North America. An extra seven days didn’t seem like a big deal. To be fair, however, time is different for someone sitting in an air-conditioned office eight hours a day than it is for someone sitting on the back of a bicycle and peddling 50–100 miles a day through every type of terrain and weather North America has to offer.

Here I am biking up a mountain in Nova Scotia with 60 pounds of gear.

Here I am biking up a mountain in Nova Scotia with 60 pounds of gear. I had already biked 5000 miles. Time slows down in such circumstances.

The third thing that happened is the subject of today’s post. My friend Ken Lake informed me that a meeting of the Bigger Sacramento Book Club, more fondly known as the BS Book Club, or simply the BSBC was coming up. Ken had started the book club and recruited me as a member in the fall of 1988, a few months before I started my bike odyssey.

I love this photo of Ken because it makes him look like a Druid Elder, or someone out of Lord of the Rings. I think the look on his face reflected that the 49ers were losing.

I love this photo of Ken because it makes him look like a Druid Elder, or someone out of Lord of the Rings. I think the look on his face reflected his disapproval of a SF Giant’s play.

The BSBC reads a wide variety of books based solely on the tastes of whoever is selecting the book.

The BSBC reads a wide variety of books based solely on the tastes of whoever selects the book.

The rules, Ken had explained, were simple. Members of the BSBC would rotate having the book club meet at their homes. The host would pick the book, provide the main course, and supply whatever alcohol was to be consumed. Other members would provide hors d’oevres, salad, veggies, dessert and breads— plus any insights they had on the book.

BSBC is only partially about books. This particular meeting featured a beer tasting. Dinners are often planned around whatever food was featured in the book.

BSBC is only partially about books. This particular meeting featured a beer tasting. Dinners are often planned around whatever food is featured in the book.

So far it sounded like a standard dinner/book club. And then Ken mentioned the other rule: You didn’t have to read the book. Maybe you ran out of time or couldn’t struggle your way through the first chapter. Fine. It was after all, the BS Book Club. You didn’t even have to confess. I laughed and signed on the imaginary dotted line. I even remember the first meeting. The book was To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. One of our members hadn’t read the book but had brought Cliff Notes. We gave him an appropriately hard time. When he insisted on discussing the motif, things got even more raucous. It set the tone for future meetings.

Another shelf of our books. BTW, I highly recommend the book just to the left of Lake Woebegone Days. (grin)

Another shelf of our books. BTW, I highly recommend the book just to the left of Lake Wobegone Days. (grin)

So, even though I was still wearing my bike clothes, wasn’t sure where I was going to live, and didn’t own a car, I told Ken that of course I would be at BSBC. And could I please bring something that didn’t require cooking.

It was a while before I was ready to choose a book and host the book club, however. Living with a former girlfriend while pursuing Peggy made things a little, um, awkward. Finally, I obtained my own apartment in downtown Sacramento and hosted my first ever BSBC, on a couch and folding chairs. People ate off their laps. The book was an old favorite of mine: A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole. If you haven’t read it and enjoy offbeat humor, add it to your list.

The first book I selected for the BSBC to read.

The first book I selected for the BSBC to read.

By 1992 membership had settled down to five couples, the same five couples who are members today. It’s an interesting mix of people including two teachers, a physician, two prevention specialists, a principal, a judge, an office manager, a pilot/man of many trades, and me— a person of even more trades. (Most of us are semi-retired now.) Our politics range from sort of out there to moderate. It’s amazing we have hung out together as a book club, not to mention as couples for a quarter of a century. I once mentioned the odds against all of us still being married to the same person. “We could never get divorced,” one of the couples responded. “We don’t know who would get book club.”

They were semi-serious.

The five couples of the BSBC on the steps of John Muir's home, now a museum, in the Bay Area.

The five couples of the BSBC on the steps of John Muir’s home (now a National Historic site) located in the Bay Area.

To date, BSBC has read 217 books and two magazine collections. We have also watched five movies and been on three side trips that didn’t involve reading or watching anything. That’s a total of 227 meetings.

These days it is more difficult to get together. One couple lives in France six months out of the year, another has moved to the Bay Area, and Peggy and I are living in Oregon. But we still manage. BSBC has priority.

I asked Ken and his wife Leslie why they thought the book club has survived for so long. The essence of their reply was that BSBC’s long continuity reflects the depth of the friendships that have evolved over time and the informality of our approach to books. The club is as much, or possibly more, of a social gathering than it is a discussion of books. Ken described our meetings as “free flowing within a structure of friendship.” And free flow they do. A full hour’s discussion on the book out of a four-hour evening means people really liked the book.

A final shelf.

A final shelf.

For fun today, I’ve posted photos of Peggy and my BSBC bookshelves that contain about half of the books we have read over the years. If you look at these shelves closely, you will see the breadth of books we read. They reflect the very different tastes in books of ten different people. We all end up reading in genres that we normally wouldn’t. We are constantly being introduced to new authors and new ideas. And that, along with the friendships, is what our book club is about.

Strong friendships have developed over the years in BSBC. The photo features LaReene Sweeney and I.

Strong friendships have developed over the years in BSBC. This photo features LaReene Sweeney and me.

Once a year, the BSBC comes to our house in Oregon for 2-3 days. A couple of years ago we took them kayaking on Squaw Lakes. In this photo Ken Lake hides his paddle so it looks like his wife, Leslie, is doing all the work.

Once a year, the BSBC comes to our house in Oregon for 2-3 days. A couple of years ago we took them kayaking on Squaw Lakes. In this photo Ken Lake hides his paddle so it looks like his wife, Leslie, is doing all the work.

From Press Publish to Voodoo Doughnuts

I am convinced this is a new definition of sin— a bacon maple bar from Voodoo Donut shop in Portland. The donut shop was located next to the Press publish Conference I was attending in Portland, Oregon.

I am convinced this is a new definition of sin— a bacon maple bar from Voodoo Doughnut shop in Portland. The donut shop was located next to the Press Publish Conference I was attending in Portland, Oregon.

Peggy and I made a quick trip up to Portland from our home in southern Oregon this weekend. I went to attend a Word Press conference; Peggy was along to play. We stayed at the conference site: Embassy Suites in downtown. The hotel’s idea of a room with a view was a room overlooking the Voodoo Doughnut shop. I think they charged extra, seriously. Peggy, as part of her play-day, checked out the shop and bought the bacon-maple bar featured above. It was waiting for me when I returned to our room. The first bite assured a sugar high, the second a heart attack. My arteries will never be the same again. Later I went over and took some photos of Voodoo Doughnuts and its ever-long line of customers.

The ever present line of people waiting to get into the Voodoo Doughnut shop for their daily dose of sugar.

The ever present line of people waiting to get into the Voodoo Doughnut shop for their daily dose of sugar. Note the young and old. Age is not an issue.

This sign welcomes customers to the shop.

This sign welcomes customers to the shop.

My stomach after eating the bacon-maple bar.

This is how my stomach felt after eating the bacon-maple bar.

Peggy, in addition to descending (or is that ascending?) into doughnut heaven, spent her day at Powell’s Bookstore and Portland’s huge downtown Weekend Market. I was a bit jealous. Powell’s is one of the world’s great bookstores and the Weekend Market has over 250 vendors selling everything from fruits and vegetables to pottery, clothes, jewels, etc. Musicians, mimes and other performers provide unending entertainment. Both Powell’s and the market would have made great blogs. Oh well.

Not that I am complaining. There were several good sessions at the Press Publish conference. I was particularly impressed with workshops on Longreads, travel blogs and book blogging, all subjects of particular interest to me as a writer, travel blogger, and author. The most inspiring workshop I attended featured Eric Prince-Heaggans. I also had lunch with him. Eric is a travel writer and blogger who uses his writing to inspire people of color and disadvantaged youth to discover the benefits of travel in terms of broadening their perspective on life. Check out his post on travel and African American Men. For a more traditional post, visit Eric’s blog on Dubrovnik.

One of my photos looking down on Dubrovnik from a visit Peggy and I made.

One of my photos looking down on Dubrovnik from a visit Peggy and I made and blogged about.

Eric also has a great sense of humor. For example: “I’ve learned through my travels,” he told us, “that I don’t like monkeys.” He had a photo to prove why. I get it.

Monkey wraps itself around Eric's head.

Monkey wraps itself around Eric’s head.

But I must say Eric looked a lot happier about his money than I did mine. Peggy took this photo when she and I were traveling in the Amazon.

But I must say Eric looked a lot happier about his monkey than I did mine. Peggy took this photo when she and I were traveling in the Amazon.

Peggy's monkey, on the other hand, was something of a sweet heart. There was a slight matter of flea bites, however.

Peggy’s monkey, on the other hand, was something of a sweetheart. There was a slight matter of flea bites, however.

Jerry Mahoney, author of Mommy Man: How I Went From Mild-Mannered Geek to Gay Superdad, was also quite humorous in describing how he and his husband became parents of twins and eventually published a highly popular book about the experience. Failing to sell the book on his first round, his agent told him to go back and establish a presence on the Internet, a platform in social media. It’s a message that writers hear over and over. As a result he created the blog Mommy Man. It is definitely worth a visit.

Jerry talks animately about his book in a panel discussion that also featured four other authors.

Jerry talks animatedly about his book in a panel discussion that also featured four other authors.

I also visited the Happy Lounge and a Happiness Engineer. How could I avoid such an opportunity? It was like I had died and returned to the dawning of the Age of Aquarius.  So I sat down with Happiness Engineer Josh R. He seemed quite happy. More importantly, he immediately solved the technical problem I had in featuring my book, The Bush Devil Ate Sam, permanently on my blog. I was quite happy as well. My thanks to the people at Word Press for a job well done.

Happiness lounge at Press Publish Conference.

Happiness lounge at Press Publish Conference. My answer was yes.

Jeff

Joss R, Word Press Happiness Engineer, answered all my questions and made me happy.

The Happiness Lounge also featured swag you could buy ranging from T-shirts to Coffee mugs.

The Happiness Lounge also featured swag you could buy ranging from T-shirts to coffee mugs.

 

NEXT BLOG: On a recent trip to Reno, I visited the Generator, a huge warehouse where some of Burning Man’s best art is produced. I will take you on a walk-through. It’s a trip you won’t want to miss.

 

A Ground-Floor Environmentalist— from Earth Day I… and On

 

A final view of the 1500 year old rightfully named Big Tree in Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park.

Before the beginning of the environmental movement, many people believed that trees such as this 1500 year old redwood should be cut down to provide homes, jobs and decks.

Peggy and I drove down to Sacramento, California on Thursday. She wanted to visit her mom. I came down to do an oral history interview for the Environmental Council of Sacramento (ECOS). The organization has been protecting Sacramento’s environment for so long it had forgotten its childhood.

I think ECOS wanted to catch up with me while I am still around. (Yikes!) Or at least while I had my memory left. Fortunately I have a long memory, or at least notes, and I was there for the organization’s birth.

My connection with the environmental movement started on April 22, 1970. For those of you not familiar with the date, it was Earth Day I. At the time I was running Peace Corps’ Northern California and Nevada’s Public Affairs office out of Sacramento. It was a great job, but I was getting tired of the recruitment business— I’d been at it for three years. So, I was easily distracted away from my recruitment booth at the University of California Davis that day.

Earth Day was my type of happening. UC Davis puts on great fairs. It probably has to do with an event it calls Picnic Day. Picnic Day is a rite of spring event with roots as deep as humankind. The birds are singing, flowers are blooming, and the snow is melting in the mountains; let’s have a party! All of the departments become involved, put on shows, put up displays, and do silly things.

Earth Day was like that but it also incorporated a vitally important message.

Somehow we had forgotten where we came from in our rush toward progress and the good life, in our deification of the dollar, in our maximizing of profits, and in our greed. In the process we were chopping down our forests, polluting our streams, poisoning our air, destroying our last remaining wilderness areas, and saying goodbye forever to innumerable species whose only evolutionary mistake was to get in our way.

We had forgotten that birds can make music as beautifully as any stereo, that peace and balance can be found in the wilderness, and that somehow, in some yet unfathomable way, our fate might be tied to that of the pup fish. It seemed okay that the last Brown Pelican was about to fly off into the sunset forever so we could squeeze one more bushel of wheat from our crops, and that it was appropriate for the last of the great Redwoods, silent sentinels who had maintained their vigilance for over 4000 years, to die for our patio with a lifespan of 20 years.

“Once you have seen one redwood, you have seen them all,” Ronald Reagan would proclaim.

Rachel Carson, in her landmark book Silent Spring, had sounded a clarion call to a Holy Crusade: saving the earth. Others, too, were raising the alarm. Earth Day I was an expression of growing concern. Its message struck a deep chord within my soul. The years I had spent wandering in the woods while growing up, my exploring of the rainforest around Gbarnga, Liberia during Peace Corps, and my hiking in the wilderness as a backpacker, all came together in a desire to join the environmental movement and help save the wilderness. (The urge, I cheerfully admit, was closely connected to my desire to disappear into the woods as much as possible.)

How to go about pursuing a career in saving the wilderness wasn’t all that clear, though. My occupations to date had been political science major, teacher and Peace Corps recruiter. None of those spelled environmentalist. I committed myself to look around, however, and to be ready for any opportunities that came my way.

Serendipity or synchronicity, being what they are, an opportunity arose immediately. I read an article in the Sacramento Bee about an Ecology Information Center (EIC) that was being organized in Sacramento as a response to Earth Day I. The organization was forming different committees to focus on a variety of environmental issues and was seeking volunteers. Lights went off in my head as I was struck by one of my brainstorms. What if I went in and volunteered to set up a committee that would focus on environment and politics, two of my passions of the moment? Certainly the environmental movement in Sacramento needed a political arm and would benefit from a focused effort. I further reasoned that EIC would have a tough time turning down a full-time volunteer.

A church out in Carmichael, a suburb in Sacramento, had donated the Center some free space so I took a break from the recruitment business and drove out to see what I could learn. When I walked in, two people were in a hot debate, almost yelling at each other. My presence seemed to make little difference. It was my introduction to the world of grass-roots organizations.

“I’ll come back another time,” I announced and turned to leave. This was not a situation I needed to be in.

“Oh, we’re sorry,” the young woman half of the debate announced and sounded like she meant it.

“Yes, please stay. We’re finished with our discussion,” the older man added, obviously a little embarrassed.

I hesitated and walked back in. The man introduced himself as Chuck Wiederhold. The young woman was Katie Easterwood and they had been arguing over the direction of the Center. Chuck felt the organization’s primary direction should be environmental education while Katie was more into environmental action. She was specifically interested in implementing a major recycling project in Sacramento modeled after one she had initiated at American River College. They both seemed like bright, capable people and Katie was particularly impressive at 18 years of age. The two of them were founding members of the organization and on the Board.

“I am interested in another area,” I said with a smile, throwing another option into the mix and wondering how long it would be before the two were yelling at me. I outlined my thoughts on creating a committee that would focus on electing environmentally concerned people to the City Council and Board of Supervisors. I added that I was willing to work full-time as a volunteer and outlined my background. The Director of Peace Corps Public Affairs for Northern California and Nevada sounded more grand that it was. Apparently my resume, or possibly my willingness to work full-time for free, impressed them— more than I had intended.

“I have an even better idea,” Chuck had announced with Katie’s concurrence, “why don’t you consider becoming EIC’s Executive Director.”

There it was, just like that. After a 15 minute discussion based on a whim, I was being offered the opportunity to become a card-carrying environmentalist, a leader in Sacramento’s fledgling environmental movement. I was in on the ground floor.

Three months later, I was up to my ears in garbage. Katie’s idea to run a once a month, community wide recycling drive was underway. Ten thousand families were dropping off tons of newspapers, cans and bottles at six sites we had set up throughout Sacramento City and County. EIC was running an operation that involved 300 volunteers and 15 rental trucks with one wildly enthusiastic young woman and one totally exhausted executive director, who was receiving a whopping $100 a month in compensation. Twenty-four hours after starting, we stored our last bundle of newspapers in a vacant building in Old Sacramento (later to become Frank Fat’s restaurant) and limped off to sleep. Shortly afterwards, the Board doubled my salary to $200 per month.

As crazy as the recycling drives were, I managed to become involved in other environmental issues. One of the most memorable was Proposition 18, a 1970 California Initiative spearheaded by the Tuberculosis and Respiratory Disease Association of California (later to become the Lung Association). Proposition 18, as it turned out, would serve as the foundation to ECOS.

The TB folks had gone a long way toward conquering tuberculosis and were looking around for other challenges. Since they were experts in matters pertaining to the lungs, it made sense to tackle other lung diseases. Research was showing that smoking and air pollution were two major causes of lung disease. Proposition 18, the Clean Air Initiative, was designed to raise money from the motor vehicle fuel tax and license fees to control automobile caused air pollution and develop mass transportation alternatives.

In Sacramento, a coalition of organizations ranging from the League of Women Voters to the American Association of University Women, the Audubon Society and Sierra Club had joined the TB Association in its effort. It was a natural for EIC to join as well. I was soon attending meetings and helping out with the campaign.

The highway interests (with money provided by the oil companies) defeated Proposition 18, but the coalition had worked well together. I had enjoyed the opportunity of working with leaders from other community-based groups and knew I would miss the interaction. At our wrap up session after the November election, someone suggested we should maintain the coalition. I jumped on the idea. There were a wide range of environmental issues that would benefit. It was one thing for EIC to make a point; it was something else when the Tuberculosis Association or League of Women Voters spoke out on the same issue.

Pulling together a variety of organizations to support environmental issues recognized a central tenet of the ecology movement. Solutions to environmental problems demand multi-faceted approaches. Everything is related. Urban sprawl encourages extensive automobile use, which, in turn, leads to air pollution. Reducing urban sprawl supports mass transit and has the added advantage of protecting valuable farmland and rapidly disappearing natural areas. It was clear as we talked that coalition members were excited about the potential of working together and believed we could make a difference in the quality of life in Sacramento.

“I move we create an ongoing organization,” I offered. The motion was immediately seconded and support was unanimous. We decided to call our organization the Environmental Council of Sacramento, ECOS. Each organization could have two representatives. Membership would be open to any organization concerned with improving and protecting Sacramento’s environment. Kris Corn, the young woman from the Tuberculosis Association who had headed up the Clean Air Initiative, was selected as the first president.

ECOS continues to function in Sacramento today as one of the longest continuing community environmental coalitions in the nation. I worked closely with the organization for several years and am proud of my early involvement. I am even more proud of what the organization has been able to accomplish in the 45 years since.

Blog Hopping the World… with Curt and Peggy Mekemson

There are millions of beautiful photos of the Greek Island of Santorini, but none can match going there.

There are millions of beautiful photos of the Greek Island of Santorini, but none can match going there.

“There are travelers and then there are Travelers. If you take some time to review Curt’s lengthy résumé you’ll see what we mean: Peace Corps in Liberia, year after year at Burning Man, kayaking with orcas, and backpacking with the grizzlies. He walks the walk and his blog documents all of it.”

Travel Bloggers James and Terri Vance

"Now where did I leave that fish?" A big Kodiak Bear looks for salmon on the Frazer River of Kodiak Island.

“Now where did I leave that fish?” A big Kodiak Bear looks for salmon on the Frazer River of Kodiak Island. He was about 50 yards away from Peggy and me, a distance he could travel in 10 seconds. 1o, 9, 8,7…

A couple of weeks ago, two of my favorite world travelers, James and Terri Vance at Gallivance, nominated me to participate in what is called a “Behind the Scenes Blog Hop.” It’s a project making its way around the blogosphere where bloggers provide insight into why they blog. In this particular case, it was about people who travel frequently and write about their experiences. Go here to learn about what James and Terri have to say about their own journeys. I highly recommend following their blog if you don’t already.

The project sounded like fun but I was busy at the time. Today, I came up for air. Let me start by noting I am a wanderer by nature. I think it’s genetic. I’ve done a fair amount of genealogical research and discovered that my direct line of ancestors, at least as far as the 1600s, hit the road running and rarely looked back. As for me, as soon as I was allowed out of the house on my own, I set off to explore the fields, woods, ponds and creeks of the Sierra Nevada Mountain foothills where I grew up.

Why do you write what you write?

I am a storyteller and some of my best stories are about my travels and adventures. I believe that travel is one of the most enriching experiences we can have. Mark Twain said, “Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” Explore, dream, discover: magical words that have always been my motto. Consequently, I have a lifetime full of wandering and very few regrets. My wife Peggy and I are wealthy with the experiences we have had.

And it is wealth we love to share— partially because it is fun to relive the adventures, but there is more. I hope to encourage those who read my blogs to “catch the trade winds in their sails.” And if not? I at least hope I can provide a taste of adventure, a dash of humor, a pinch of education, and on occasion, a serious thought.

There are two of other points I try to make with my travel writing. One, adventure travel doesn’t have to be expensive or difficult. Of course it can be, but it can also be a walk in the woods or a visit to a new restaurant. Anything that broadens our perspective on life can be an adventure. Just recently, for example, I wrote about a visit to a restaurant in Nashville that served really hot chicken. Believe me it was an adventure. And last year I wrote about a walk to my mailbox. It didn’t have to be an adventure, but I turned it into one.

This oak tree lives along the path I walk to the mailbox.

This oak tree lives along the path I walk to the mailbox. In addition to having its own unique look, it serves as a home to a number of woodland creatures. A whole adventure could be built around watching it for 24 hours. I might add, this tree would be completely happy in the Hobbit.

Two, age does not have to be a barrier to travel. Peggy is big on this point. Young and old alike can have adventures. I am now in my 70s and Peggy is in her 60s and yet last year found us disappearing into a remote wilderness on a backpacking trip by ourselves, sea kayaking with the orcas off Vancouver Island, and going to Burning Man in the Nevada desert. If we can do these things, certainly people in their 50s, 40s, 30s and 20s can, not to mention 60s and 70s. And if you have children, take them along. You will create a lifetime of memories.

How does your blog differ from others of its genre?

Variety comes to mind. One day I might be writing about cruising the Mediterranean Sea and visiting a Greek Island like Santorini. Another day I could be introducing you to Pastie Dan, a character at Burning Man who makes, and will gladly apply, pasties to cover women’s nipples. You might join me for a raft trip down the Colorado, a boat trip up the Amazon, or a narrow boat tour in England. Want a little excitement? Try waking up at 3 a.m. with a bear standing on your chest in the backcountry of Yosemite National Park. Then there was the rattlesnake that tried to bite me on the butt when I was doing my thing in the woods. My poor sphincter was frozen for a week. Want a touch of the exotic? Join Peggy and me as we search for Big Foot, UFOs and ghosts— it’s all in fun, and yet…

Panamint Rattlesnake in the Panamint Mountains, Death valley.

Admittedly, this guy is a little bigger than the rattlesnake that tried to bite me on the butt. With rattlesnakes, I am not sure size matters, however. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)

Bigfoot trap found above Applegate Lake in Southern Oregon.

This Bigfoot trap is located four miles from my home. It was maintained in the 70s in hopes of actually capturing one of the big fellows. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)

Pastie Dan in Black Rock City.

Normally Pastie Dan plies his trade at the Center Camp Cafe but occasionally, he wanders the roads of Black Rock City. He stopped at our camp to see if any of the women were in the market for pasties.

Maneuvering a 60 foot long Narrow Boat through the Trent and Mersey Canal in England two summers ago was a very different but equally rewarding experience.

Maneuvering a 60 foot long Narrow Boat through the Trent and Mersey Canal in England is a wonderful adventure that comes with pubs along the way.

How does your writing process work?

My stories start with experiences. I don’t scramble over rocks in New Mexico looking for petroglyphs because I want to write about the experience. I risk life and limb because I am fascinated with petroglyphs. I will confess, though, that when Peggy and I take photographs, we think about the blog— in addition to documenting our travels.

We call this large cat a cougar, mountain lion, puma… it would be interesting to know what the ancient Native American who made this rock art thought about and called his creation.

We call this large cat a cougar, mountain lion, puma… it would be interesting to know what the ancient Native American who made this rock art thought about and called his creation. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)

Research is also part of the process, either before we traipse off on an adventure because it enhances the experience, or afterwards because I want to add depth to what I am writing about.

As for the actual writing… writing is writing; it’s work. And I say this even though I love to write. I will normally think through what I want to write about, create a first draft, do a rewrite and then edit for mistakes. Then I turn it over to Peggy for further editing.

Photographs are also a very important part of my blogging. Between Peggy and me, we often have as many as 100 photos we have taken in relation to a particular blog. Ten to fifteen have to be selected out for a post and then processed. Mainly I work on cropping the photo to capture what I want, but I also make minor adjustments to light, color, shadows and sharpness if needed. Altogether, the process of creating a blog can take from three to eight hours.

What are you working on/writing?

I work from a calendar of blogs I want to write. I’ll usually have two or three months’ worth of blogs in mind. This time of the year, I often do several on Burning Man because many of my readers are Burners, excited about getting tickets. Since I have now been to Burning Man for ten years, I am going to do a best of ten series (from my perspective) of sculptures, mutant vehicles, burns, structures, etc. over the next few weeks. After that, I will return to my north coast series exploring the coast of Northern California, Oregon and Washington. Or I may do a series on California’s gold rush towns. (My home town was one.)

Two oil tankers provide an interesting Sculpture at Burning Man

One of my all-time favorite sculptures at Burning Man.

The really big writing project I have been working on has been the book about my Peace Corps experience in Liberia, West Africa: The Bush Devil Ate Sam. I’ve posted several chapters over the past couple of years on my blog and a number of you helped me select the title of the book. This is my first venture into self-publishing and let me say unequivocally and undeniably, it has been a steep learning curve (understatement). I wrapped up getting the book in to Bookbaby two months ago, or at least thought I did. Bookbaby dutifully put the book on numerous E-pub sites and sent me back printed copies I requested. And what did I discover? Even though Peggy and I had meticulously done a line-by-line edit, some 30 errors. Damn. (A woman who is really good at editing found 25 of them, friends and family others.) So it was back to the drawing boards. Anyway, I sent all the corrections in last Wednesday and also set up the print on demand option. Soon…

One good bit of news, Steven Spatz, the president of Bookbaby, wrote to me on Friday and said he would like to feature The Bush Devil Ate Sam this week on Bookbaby’s blog. Given that Bookbaby is one the largest self-publishing companies in the world, produces thousands of books, and has an excellent reputation, things are looking up. (And no, Steven is not going to use me as an example of how not to.)

Kpelle footbridge near Gbarnga, Liberia circa 1965.

When I graduated from UC Berkeley and travelled off to Liberia, West Africa as a Peace Corps Volunteer, I began one of the grandest adventures of my life. Once there, I continued to explore my surroundings by hiking off into the jungle. Here, I am standing on a bridge built by Kpelle villagers.

NOMINATIONS

As part of this process of blog hopping, we are asked to nominate two other bloggers to participate in the blog hop. This is tough; there are so many great bloggers I follow. But that said, here are my two nominations:

Linda at Shoreacres: Wow, this woman can write. While she isn’t exactly a travel blogger, I can guarantee she will take you on some great journeys. As a compliment to the posts she writes, her followers comment in paragraphs instead of sentences.

Cindy Knoke: Cindy takes you from her home in southern California, the Holler, to journeys around the world. Her photography, particularly in terms of birds and wildlife, is superb.

 

What Happens When Your Blog Becomes A Lesson Plan for Fifth Graders?

Tasha in her fifth grade classroom at Indian Lake Elementary School.

Tasha in her fifth grade classroom at Indian Lake Elementary School.

Our daughter, Tasha (Mrs. Cox), is a fifth grade teacher at Indian Lake Elementary School in Hendersonville, Tennessee where she teaches language arts, including writing. A month or so ago she called and asked if she could use one of my blogs in her writing class. “Of course,” I had replied. Parents often tell me they have shared some blog or the other I’ve written with their children. Most of my stuff is G-rated.

Tasha picked out a recent blog I had posted on Mt. Rainier National Park. It featured a picture of her brother, Tony, and of her son, Ethan, as well as lots of photos of the Park. I figured that was it. My work was done.

Mt. Rainier

Mt. Rainier

I should have known better.

When Peggy and I arrived in Hendersonville for Christmas, there was a two-inch stack of yellow Post-its waiting. Each one included a question from a student directed to me. It looked like I might spend Christmas answering them all. That would have been okay, but I also wanted to enjoy the season. Maybe jolly old St. Nick had brought me a rocket ship so I could zoom around the universe.

Tasha took pity. She organized the Post-its by category so I could answer a handful of questions instead of 5,472. She is good at organizing. She even wants to organize me. Lots of luck with that…

So here are the key questions and my answers. I thought the folks who follow my blog might find them interesting as well.

Why do you write a blog?

I started blogging with a specific purpose in mind. I wanted to write a book and a blog would introduce my writing to people. If they liked how I wrote and what I wrote about, they might like my book as well.

Since then blogging has also become valuable to me for other reasons. One, it allows my wife Peggy and I to share our travels and adventures with people who live all over the world. Two, I have made a lot of new friends who share their travels, photography, and ideas with me. Three, it helps me improve my writing.

Finally, I love to write and tell stories. Each morning I wake up excited to begin my blog.

Is blogging hard?

Yes and no. Since my blogs include both writing and photography, they take a fair amount of work. I often start by researching a subject I am going to blog about. Then I pick out photos. Peggy and I take a lot when we travel; I may have to choose ten from a hundred. I then use software to work over each photo to make it look the best I can. Finally I write and edit my blog. Peggy then does a final read-through to catch any errors I may have missed. Each blog takes from three to eight hours to produce.

Blogging can be a lot easier, however. I have friends who may put up a photo and write a few words about it, but still have a very good blog.

The platform I use for my blog, Word Press, takes care of all the technical aspects of blogging. If someone wants to start a new blog, all he or she has to do is go to Word Press and click on “get started.” Word Press will then take the person through the process.

Where do your ideas for a blog come from?

Since my blog focuses on travel, most of my ideas come from places we visit. I am always on the look out for good blog material. Maybe it will be a town we visit, or a national park, or an ancient site where Native Americans did rock art. When in Hendersonville over Christmas, my son-in-law, Clay (Tasha’s husband) took me out to eat outrageously hot (spicy) chicken that Nashville is famous for. My stomach is still complaining. I am going to blog about it.

Indian rock art found in New Mexico.

Indian rock art found in New Mexico.

But I don’t limit my writing to travel. Sometimes I write about when I was growing up. Or I may write about where I live in Oregon. A while back some baby goats were born next door. I visited the goats and wrote a blog about them. Recently I did a series of blogs about Tasha’s grandfather who flew airplanes across the Himalayan Mountains in World War II. He had to bail out of his airplane when it ran out of gas and walk out of a jungle that was known for its tigers and headhunters.

What is the favorite place you have ever been?

This is a really hard question because different places have different things to offer. How do you compare Dubrovnik, Croatia with the Redwoods of California, or a cruise through the Mediterranean Sea with an 18-day raft trip down the Colorado River? Or, to bring it closer to home, how do you compare Nashville, Tennessee with Chattanooga. Each is unique.

Dubrovnik, Croatia

Dubrovnik, Croatia

Tasha's mom, Peggy, stands next to a redwood tree.

Tasha’s mom, Peggy, stands next to a redwood tree.

My favorite type of travel is adventure travel. Peggy and I once took a boat ride up the Amazon River. This summer we were kayaking out among the Orca Whales off of British Columbia. I once climbed on my bicycle and did a 10,000-mile solo trip around the US that took me six-months. (I bicycled through Tennessee as part of my trip.)

If forced to choose, I would say my favorite place to be is out in the woods. I am never happier than when I put on a backpack and disappear into the wilderness. I’ve backpacked all over the US including Alaska and Hawaii. When I turned 60, I backpacked 360 miles through the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California from Lake Tahoe to Mt. Whitney.

Nearing the end of my journey 360 mile backpack trek, Mt. Whitney stands in the background.

Nearing the end of my  360 mile backpack trek, I pose in front of Mt. Whitney.

Tasha joined me along the way for one week of my trip.

Tasha joined me along the way for one week of my trip.

How do you become a writer?

Write! I am serious. The best thing you can do to become a writer is to write all of the time. Keep a journal; make up stories for your friends; start a blog. One girl wrote, “I am writing a book at home, and I don’t know if there is a specific age to start. Do you?” My answer is that now is the perfect time, whether you are in the fifth grade or your seventh decade.

Reading is also very important. Read authors who are known as good writers and pay attention to how they write. Also read authors in the genre you want to write. For example, if you want to write mysteries, read mysteries.

It is also important to pay attention to the details of writing, such as learning grammar, avoiding spelling errors and painting pictures with words. A couple of students wanted to know how I found adjectives to describe my travels. It was a good question. Was it a black cat that crossed my path or a cat as dark as a moonless night? Two of the best tools an author can have are an active imagination and a good thesaurus.

My thanks to the fifth graders at Indian Lake Elementary School for inspiring this blog. Good luck in your future writing efforts.

NEXT BLOG: I bite a chicken and the chicken bites back.