THE FRESH NEWS: RETURN TO SAND VALLEY
A return to Sand Valley is lively with one leg in civilization and the other in the desert! Recall I’ve been in a six-month whirlwind about the nation with the rockin’ Legends Racquetball Tour as the team historian and psychologist while rubbing elbows with the champs– Cliff Swain, Marty Hogan, Sudsy Monchek, Ruben Gonzales, Charley Brumfield, Bud Muehleisen. There were countless tournaments, clinics and summit meetings via private jet, Amtrak, auto and thumb. Face it: I’d become too eccentric and feral for a class tour, and in refusing induction into the Racquetball Hall of Fame was turned out into the desert. So a month ago, I eased behind the wheel of the White Bird (Ford Contour) to drive from Florida and resume life in California. I turned the key with a rat’s nest in the engine and salamanders dancing on the seats from recent sub-tropic storage, and the miles breezed to the west.
The driving strategy was to GO six hours with the heater full blast to adjust to the approaching desert, sleep three hours in the back seat, and repeat… across Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana. The departure vision of the ‘Spirit of Racquetball’ plaque hung in the Coral Springs, Fl. Athletic Club faded into some black void. In Texas, I visited the stunning Big Bend National Park and the small pueblo of Terlingua where I looked up a vagabond I’d once met named Benny the Vet. ‘Come to Terlingua, buy land cheap, and live happily ever after,’ he’d said. Sadly, I was told that Benny had moved but I recalled his further advice to call on the native mechanic and real estate agent B.D. (Big Daddy). Two barefoot towhead kids emerged like sentry dogs from rusting automobiles, ‘Find Big Daddy in the garage if yer car’s broke, or in the shed if ya want land. Don’t step on any nails!’ I entered his hovel into a shockingly modern office. ‘Car trouble or land, sir?’ requested a huge man in a tiny Harley shirt. An hour later, I inspected five acres of silt with a $2000 tag at 5 mph and continued west across New Mexico, Arizona and into California more homesick than ever for Sand Valley.
A return to Sand Valley is two-step with the initial phase at Bliss, California, population 15,000, elevation 265’, and an hour along sandy tracks to Scorpion’s Crotch. Bliss is strategic as my closest supply point and place for a stake. The one stretched-street agriculture/cowpoke town is disowned by modern America with a bleak desert reaching 150 miles in every direction. The town is pleasantly hick with inbred ideas and doubles as the county seat. It’s also a city of uniforms worn by law enforcement agencies including local police, sheriffs, highway patrol, prison guards, border patrol, and dog-catcher. The majority of residents wear jeans and boots, smell of alfalfa, say Howdy, and tell off-color jokes. I’ve seen tractors parked in Sunday church parking lots, and on this visit there was horseshit tracked through the post office. I got no complaints about Bliss, except that it’s a hair too close to blithe for me.
The town line is the west bank of the Colorado River at the tri-junction of California, Arizona and Mexico, and it was named when San Francisco developer Thomas Bliss arrived in 1877 to establish primary water rights and later incorporate in 1916. I’m told he used an early method to establish limits by circling town in a boat, pulling it on wheels over desert stretches when necessary. This ferry stopover was rapidly settled by people who broke down on the overland crossing to the Pacific, and stuck. It was mined heavily and is now irrigated and agriculturally based, plus impacted by winter snowbirds. It’s full of warm, friendly people with many churches, a community college and a 9-hole golf course surrounded by a 150-mile sand trap. The population triples in winter by snowbirds seeking relief from their cold home states, but summer lingerers faint on the sidewalk and cook. This is a stereotypic extended one-street town paralleling a great desert Interstate that decades ago virtually by-passed the main town street. Bliss feels the perimeter tremors of all those California earthquakes but America knows it better from the national weather report as ‘The hottest place in the nation today’. The lack of the river’s cooling influence makes it 5 degrees warmer out in Sand Valley.
There are a personal handful of favored niches in and around town: High school for sub-teaching, college for computers, the Kitchen for chow; Kmart and Sub Shop for the morning and evening offices, and the outlying desert for hiking and camping. An ace-in-the-hole throughout is that I’m honored as a teacher by the parents, businessmen, and even the kids after last bell. Young minds are as precious as water so I rate bank loans, top restaurant seats, and cuts in the cinema line. The employees everywhere are present, former or kin of students who stack the town deck in my favor. Hence these locales became my Nirvana.
I reentered the high school campus last week after the six month hiatus where teachers and pupils alike exclaimed, ‘Mr. Keeley, you look refreshed!’ Teaching is as tough as you make it but regrettably there’s no direct relationship between instructor diligence and education imparted; I think this turns the better ones gray. The front desk gal reported, ‘We got 14 subs but can work you in two days a week.’ I require three or more days to make worthwhile the long drive from my property, so I balked this time despite subbing being the best straight job I ever had: First bell at 7am, teach (baby-sit is closer) a different class daily, out at 2 pm with $100, and no staff meetings, lessons prep or homework. Anyone with a bachelor degree in anything may substitute all grades in California. I fired up four years ago as a sub when the demand was critical and my principal would later write, ‘Bo Keeley knows the school better than any regular teacher because he has taught daily and in every room over the past four months.’ The principal had yoked me into his office to ask about students seen reading their texts upside down. I had responded, ‘Anyone who’s taken biology dissection knows that our eyes are as ping pong balls with muscular attachments that can be trained as any muscle set. They’re bombarded daily by print that flows left-to-right but anyone (other than a Hebrew or Arab) who’s batted left-handed, caught a left jab or hit a racquet backhand is otherwise at disadvantage as the objects of focus moves from right-to-left.’ The principal, an ex-boxer and wrestler, grasped this explanation of ‘backwards’ reading and mirror writing, and thus typed the recommendation.
One night is picked whenever I hit town to attend for thirty minutes each the school’s sports – basketball, soccer and wrestling this season. The entry back in the golden era of constant teaching was an embarrassment with a bleachered hundred turning from the game to roar, ‘The Sub!’ However, after the racquetball sabbatical it had dwindled to a dozen cheers which is fine. The desert produces some remarkable athletes and especially in track, soccer and baseball. My rep as a sub launched the very first day of teaching when I found it uncomfortable to stand before 35 sets of curious eyes. I fumbled the agriculture class roster to the floor and my personal introduction was blasted in mid-sentence by the P.A. announcements. So I rallied to the podium and stuttered, ‘What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you hear the word ‘Amazon’?’ They yelled, ‘Rain, monkeys, snakes…’ I held up a paw, ‘Everything is green!’ I subsequently held them spellbound with an account of getting lost in the Peruvian jungle, and related it to farming. In the five minute break after class word spread throughout campus that a fresh story-telling sub rewarded studies with adventure. I became a write-in candidate for ‘best teacher’, had tin cans tied to my car, and shopped for a disguise where a student employee said that I must wait for Halloween. I learned many teaching lessons: Tell the truth, don’t out-shout the class, never say ‘don’t’ but rather ‘You can do that but the consequence shall be…’, reward individual effort with even a smart glance, and certainly a spoonful of adventure makes the education go down.
The school population is about a third each of black, Chicano and white, with of course blends. This makes prejudice uncomfortable. It may strike as harsh that many blacks are kin to the inmates or staff working at the great outlying prison; the Chicanos sneaked the border in this or a recent generation; and the whites are mostly desert rats or farmers. It’s a fascinating demographic study! I lucked into an equal rapport with the races and blends because the poor whites think everyone from Sand Valley is dangerously crazy; the blacks are somewhat awed ever after I used amateur magic to pull an eraser from the biggest dude’s ear; and the Chicanos paid homage after I fingered the baddest actor to step outside the classroom, slammed the door and winked, then banged the outside walls for thirty seconds. I held my finger to lips and we reentered a class of dropped jaws. The sum up is the kids are rough while sweet. There are ‘polite fights’ after school that establish pecking order and end when one solidly dominants or there’s too much blood from fists all around and the ring of spectators steps in to break it up. The girls fight too. I abide it like some of the other teachers but won’t stand wholesale cursing. The school tongue is a noisy mesh of black, brown and white jargons so perforated by profanity that I frequently put down the foot for a spiel on the gentlemanly art of swearing. I explain as example, ‘Go to Hades, fecal cephalic!’ ridicules doubly.
The teachers are a dedicated lot and the facilities proper, yet our school was in danger now of being closed by the state due to low student test scores. A day each year is required of each pupil to take a comprehensive exam that provides the state with an evaluation tool. The kids are told that the multiple-choice test affects the campus standing throughout the state but not their personal grades. So, many doodle, guess or mark the test in patterns. Why should a graduating senior care about the school standing? An odd counter-argument was provided by one proctor to the testees as I listened in, ‘Don’t compare yourselves to the kids back East. They know about snow and balancing equations but would die of heatstroke after their car broke down in the desert.’ There you have it. I prefer solution to condemnation, and once offered an evaluation to the school superintendent who’s now the fourth high school principal in as many years, ‘The students never work alone but always in groups. Most chat and cheat throughout high school. The solution is to separate the chairs in the classroom so they’re not on top each other. They’ll get bored and begin to study alone.’ I recall the superintendent took my head off, at that. I still feel that substitutes know the classrooms as regular teachers cannot because we see every enrolled student during a three week period in teaching different subjects each day, whereas a regular teacher sees only a third of them all year.
It often occurred in that original golden era of teaching about four years ago that the morning intercom broadcast, ‘Mr. Keeley to the SED room!’ Once there, the small group of edgy youngsters told how they had browbeat or flung chairs at the last sub fleeing the doorway. I would answer, ‘Everyone in Sand Valley where I live flies off the handle, and the trick is to identify the cause and correct the mechanism.’ It’s the same process as fixing a faulty racquet stroke. Fortunately, as in my racquetball past where it was said that I flung my cover onto the court and was ahead 10-0 before the first serve, my reputation preceded me into the classrooms. The kids brightened to reveal bizarre reasons for the misbehavior such as they were irritable from rising at 5 am without breakfast to ride a bus an hour from Weedburg to school, or their parents drank and hit them the night before, or they were worried about being accosted after school (and showed a secreted drill bit shiv to verify it), or that they had various vision problems. These were the campus hard luck cases, and this class was their last chance before expulsion.
The regular SED teacher, the gorgeous Ms. Libdo, was often away at business meetings so her duty fell on me. She was a talented, caring lady – a former navy medic, jail guard and cop - who one day observed, ‘The students like you, and I see you as a male version of myself.’ We
commenced dating and she in a mothering way sometimes slept late so I could get work. Ms. Libdo finally took a job elsewhere and I was hired by the county to replace her full time. I took the SED class on educational outings to the library, prison, and for nature walks along the irrigation ditches. We learned chess, did jumping jacks, and if one wanted to read in a quiet broom closet, he did. I shut off half that bank of irritating fluorescent lights so we read by window sunlight, turned up the air conditioner for the cooling calm of a passenger plane, and discouraged the sheriff from visiting in uniform. The goals, met with success, were to have the room messed up less, no more suicide attempts, and to ‘mainstream’ the students back into the ordinary classrooms. My class shrank and I was in peril of working myself out of a job while being so grossly overpaid that I bought the kids’ texts that the county wouldn’t, lunches their parents’ couldn’t afford, and tipped the teacher aide daily. I was true grit in the bureaucratic cogs and one month suffered an unexplained salary cut of 25%. That morning I said bye to the kids and walked out to return to subbing where I still don’t know what SED means.
It’s lovely to be accepted, but better not be rejected. I had enjoyed a fluid rapport with the peer teachers who arrived brightly each morn at the front office to see me reading upside down in awaiting an assignment from the desk gal. She’d scream just before the bell, ‘Mr. Keeley, today put on the geometry, cheerleading and science teachers’ hats. Hop to it!’ Many students had parent teachers to whom they issued high grades on me. Unhappily, it blackened the day I took the county SED job full-time on the otherwise local district campus. My own county principal was suddenly 200 miles away and the local teachers started giving me the cold shoulder. Bliss doesn’t much like county meddlers but when I ultimately left that full-time job for subbing again, it was with reacceptance into the fold. I also like to think that I’m tolerated by the whole student body, but one afternoon’s phys ed class proved different. Roll call took place on the outdoor basketball court bleachers where a black girl behind me spouted, ‘Just because you ride a motorcycle an’ tell stories don’t mean you’re special. You’re a damn bum!’ I mumbled apologies for her interpretation, continued roll, and sat down stuck… by bubblegum. I started the games from this sitting position and sprang free to the front office for fingernail polish remover.
I put it behind me, but a month later the SED class sub lesson plan called for a lecture on blacks in America. I gazed at the text hogwash, plopped the book aside, and faced the class of predominantly blacks and Latinos. ‘The Afro-American’s place in today’s society begins three centuries ago in Africa which I’ve visited. Did you know the jungles were scoured, villages raided, and the best natives selected to march to faraway ships for the months long sail across the Atlantic to this country? They were stuffed below the deck in so deplorable conditions that just the strong made it to shore, and this is called natural selection. You people with black bark in the class today are the offspring of those fittest survivors, but please don’t Lord it over the rest of us. Just forget it.’ There was a moment of silence, and from the back of the room the same black girl from the bubblegum incident blurted tearfully, ‘But if there’s no water where you live in the desert, how do you do laundry?’
Bliss also offers a magnificent community college atop a mesa ten miles north that has undergone as many presidents as the high school has principals in the same period. Sand drifted across the parking lot as I stood with a student who described, ‘Last week, an ambulance took a girl because the college was so disorganized that she had a stress seizure.’ Insiders claim that half the student body receives hardship scholarships but pockets the money to never graduate. ‘Distance Ed’ online to prison inmates terrifically boosts student numbers. I was the night supervisor for a semester of the college tutoring center that was a virtual Romper Room where students and administration alike resisted attempts at restructure. The educational water got warmer when I claimed to be overpaid and donated 15% of my monthly checks to an anonymous scholarship fund. Ergo, I identified myself a square peg in a round hole and didn’t last long. A consequential hypothesis was proffered to alienated peers on the inverse relationship between talent and time on job. Nonetheless, better to light a fire than curse the darkness and the credentialed dean of students was just ousted after six months of service and replaced by my gas station owner. I favor in this and many instances a laborer or secretary assuming administrative duty after coming up through ten years of learning to sweep up and listen to others.
A splendid display took the sky this morning above the college where faculty, students and staff craned their necks to see. ‘They’re ours, eh’, commented a library snowbird to his wife. ‘Canada’s geese!’ she honked. ‘They’re circling to land.’ I’d never seen geese in this region, and the Canadians said they were headed up through the Dakotas before crossing the border. Their chatter was deafening and some estimated 200 birds. The college sits like a small pebble in a big sandbox, however they set down in an orange orchard a mile away and we returned to the buildings.
The spacious college library is a godsend for snowbirds and me because it goes virtually unused by the students. Snowbirds are seasonal visitors to winter sunshine areas where Bliss is Mecca. I see a mean of eight students per library day, and have never witnessed a book checked out. Here I Email and type vicissitudes such as this. Once, I announced to classes the donation of my two favorite educational texts, Adam Robinson’s What Smart Students Know and Harry Lorayne’s The Memory Book, but the library lost them. One night, I got locked in at closing while viewing a documentary but chose to ring the night staff over watching videos all night. A great library task befell me this past week following the divorce from the Legends Racquetball Tour. I had collected hundreds of hours of interviews and three boxes of racquetballacana during many months of travel with them in completing a written history of the sport. That book fell through, water under the literary bridge, so I spent a week in the library zeroxing, scanning and burning disks to compile a ponderous archive. A cover letter was typed, ‘These 200 documents, 150 early photos, and 4000 negatives from every national tournaments since the game’s ‘69 inception form the greatest racquetball treasure.’ Yesterday it was shipped to a Tennessee historian who will create a museum, slide show and website for players to enjoy.
Bliss has been under the touch of the bulldozer’s ‘beautification’ since before I left six months ago, pawing the long main street, paving, and planting cactus. I watched five men with two supervisors sweep a 20’ sidewalk and grasped the impediment, then moved along. The local Albertson work force still picketed, on strike since before I left town. The working scabs inside are former students including another McFarley. I scooped a ten-dollar bill from the floor that someone had dropped and turned to share it with this hard worker, but hesitated because it doesn’t pay to get close in a small town. The White Bird required a smog test across the street before the transfer of Florida to California plates, and the certifier knew me from subbing. He fastened clamps and hoses to sundry aspects of the car, and thirty minutes later passed it. The certificate entitles me to a new plate for only $70; it would have cost $300 before the election of Governor Arnold Schwartzneger a year ago. This bears out entrepreneur Vic Niederhoffer’s rule of hiring an athlete into a business position since championship traits are carried from the arena.
While at the Department of Motor Vehicles, a different McFarley entered to ask the secretary, ‘Is this where I register for the selective service?’ She shruged, and I suggested the army recruiting office down the road. The McFarleys are a local clan of about fifty generally hulking Afro-Americans whose infectious grin is the sole Irish feature. The fellow from whose ear I pulled an eraser was a Mcfarley. So was a former SED student I nicknamed McFlip for his practice of bursting during timeouts from the football or gym bleachers to handspring across the field and delight the fans but annoy administration who gave him the bum’s rush. I once consulted McFlip’s mother by phone for he was stalking other students. ‘That boy,’ she retorted. ‘He needs something to do since the trampoline broke. Can the school donate one?’
Unexpectedly today, the smog shop owner approached with a puzzled face. ‘I’ve never been ‘tagged’ in all these years until last night!’ He pointed to the bay overhang where yesterday the White Bird was certified and where somebody spray-painted in foot-high black, ‘WAGON’. I defended, ‘I’ve taught hundreds of students to write mirror image and none would have made the ‘G’ backwards in WAGON.’ He rubbed his chin. ‘The vandal looked upside down from the roof and got confused. Anyway, you’d have a case if you hadn’t passed me.’ He agreed, ‘Just kidding.’
Once a week, I stroll a miniature edition of a past grander ‘learning circuit’. I navigated America in the ‘80’s touching base for a couple days each with worthy individuals I’d met: A fisherman, speculator, gym teacher, hobo, hotel owner, sociologist… in about ten cities in as many states. A ’74 Chevy van connected these dots of genius for the initial half of that decade, and later it was by freight trains. Of course, I met and discussed many things in many places with other people while traveling, but the focus was the staple few where I traded personal stories of my journeys for their perspectives. The purpose was instructional sharing, and as the years moved on I got to study the changes in the subjects as well. I carried a small library and jogging shoes in my cargo too. As I was saying in Bliss, I took an afternoon as usual to meander a similar pattern and chat mostly with students at their jobs. They’re generally not the top scholars, and yet supreme teachers. Learning is gained by chance or quicker by pursuit, and I think that if everyone networked in local or wide learning circuits we’d conquer the world. Two days ago, there was an addition to the local circle.
The Frank’s Auto mechanic greeted me at the door. ‘I seen you comin’ in those baggy shorts a mile off, Mr. Keeley. Please tell me you ain’t been in Bliss all summer, an’ I’ll tell you that I’m manager of this place now. That your gutless Ford?’ He circled the Bird for five minutes advising improvements in the looks and performance. ‘If you decide to sell it for sometin’ that moves better in sand, avoid the dealers. Wash it with Armor-All for shine, black spray paint the wheel-wells to look new, and take out a classified ad with a selling price at 10% above Blue Book. Every week it don’t sell, raise the price a hundred bucks because serious readers remember that, and in about a month they’ll realize the car ain’t a lemon an’ call you. When they see it shine… sold!’ I’m stunned. ‘You see, Mr. Keeley, you inspired me to get outa Bliss after graduation two years ago an’ experiment with life. I went to work for a Chicago car dealership and they made me a manager after two months, but after two years workin’ there where everything’s dramatized I scrapped it to return home.’ He looked prosperous and wild. ‘I know you get in jams while adventuring an’ carry only a GPS and cell phone, so here’s my number to call with the coordinates and I’ll rescue you.’
The shops are beads on a thread in one-street Bliss, with half open and the rest boarded up to give the community a perplexed look of boom or bust, dependin’. Rite-Aide is kitty-corner from Frank’s Auto where another student stocks and teaches me. The funny thing about walking into this store is watching the locals still put their hands over their heads. For the first half of last year, about fifty swallows nested and flitted in the arch above the front door and white-bombed hundreds of patrons. It’s a good store otherwise, so citizens bought umbrellas. California law disallows nesting birds to be shooed, so the store had to wait until the hatchlings grew and flew off to call the exterminator. Inside now, Bill the student has made an impression on the general store tidiness. He confides, ‘After I worked here for two months this summer, I was made to phone headquarters for a psychological evaluation. I responded for fifteen minutes to a recording that asked, ‘Do you smoke any drugs besides marijuana,’ and other double-questions. Then it asked, ‘If you knew that one of your co-workers took $5.00 from the cash register and returned it a week later with interest, would you have him fired.’ I told the machine ‘No’ and that ended the interview with, ‘You have failed the psychological test for employment at Rite-Aide. Goodbye.’ However, the manager thinks I’m great and is trying to intervene.’
Further down the street, another young teacher drains oil from a customer’s boat and dissects small town affairs. ‘Don’t let town policy get you down Mr. Keeley. It’s been going on since ‘Admiral’ Bliss circled the city limits in a boat on wheels. Our forefathers’ descendents are fabulously wealthy from the land and water rights and still hold the reins on this community. They’re consulted before major decision that may affect its growth. If I want to build a road or open a paint-and-customizing shop that competes one down the street, permits are denied if the ‘forefathers’ deem it will hurt somebody else’s business - unless there are payoffs. I do want to open a customizing shop and it would be the best damned one in town, but I won’t pay the bribe on principal. Bliss is the only oasis in 300 miles between Phoenix and L.A. an’ imagine with all the passersby how financially and culturally rich this town would be if a little competition was let in. I’m trying to be bigger than the situation, and that’s my advice too.’
My learning circuit complete, I passed another personal haunt where the drama’s greater than theater, real and free. It’s the county courthouse. I strongly suggest that everyone attend court to study our country. For the price of a walk through a metal detector you get a front row pew to the hottest true soaps: Monday is felony, Tuesday traffic, Wednesday drug, Thursday misdemeanor, and Friday family. Perps drag chains into the courtroom, lawyers bellow, and the audience jumps in as permitted. Our judge Slovif is a rare blend of Perry Mason and Grouch Marx, and any courtroom should be a high school requisite.
You’ve met the kids, and now five ingenious adults. Judge Slovif was introduced, Doc Rocks will be your treat, Phil Garlington is to be met in the Valley, and that leaves computer guru Ms. Wrinkle and Welder Jack as the central brain trust.
Ms. Winkle stopped by my library monitor this morning to chat about xenophobia. I began, ‘Four years ago during my first month in town the cops tailed the motorcycle, the bank phoned me in as a robber while making a deposit, and two Dobermans were sicced on me during a stroll.’ She responded, ‘That’s normal as she goes in Small Town, America. Their explanation for everything is, ‘We been here a hundred years, and we been doing things this way a hundred years.’ The solution is to proceed with patience and work through the youth. It’s like having purple hair and one day a thought sweeps the town via the Hundredth Monkey Phenomenon and they say, ‘My god, he has purple hair. He’s different, and I didn’t dye!’ Afterward they begin to treat you like you’ve been here a hundred years.’ I informed her of a saying when I moved to southern California that the low elevation made fruits and nuts roll here, but over time I’ve firmed a different theory for the state mind-set: Millions of soldiers from across the country over the years have stayed on after being discharged from the myriad military bases and retain a wish for parents in the form of authority. Parents and soldiering are fine if it doesn’t preclude responsibility. Hence the state motto, ‘Be a group, take and give orders, obey.’ Also, there are a few great pluses within the California psychological system.
‘You plannin’ on being sick soon,’ I asked Welder Jack who teaches high school and college under the same tin roof. ‘Be quiet during class or I’ll weld your fillings together,’ he grinned. I’ve personally never welded but with a science master’s degree was last year assigned as sub-teacher of the welding and auto repair classes. Welder Jack has a special knack for finding a rock in a pile of crap, and today he diagnoses the present educational quandary. ‘Nowadays every student knows the rules, whereas when we were their age no student did. They use these rules today to manipulate the teachers and make classrooms hard to control. You’ve had the kids chase you with a torch, right? The solution in this or any class is to spread the students over the room with individual projects so they aren’t tempted to scheme together. Treat them as individuals because each without knowing cries for it.’
The Kitchen is the food trough for the local street people, as well as for a blessed number of hungry, minimum wage workers. A gratis four-course meal is served each noon by a 300-lb. lady in a blouse embroidered ‘The Boss’ who takes polite guff from the daily forty. ‘Ma’am.’ grins a patron through peaches, ‘Why do you wear that ‘duck skirt’?’ ‘Whatcha mean?’ she replies. ‘Ma’am, it’s so short you can see your quack.’ Everybody knows he’s earned seconds, but the Boss smiles only on he who returns for thirds.
Today the fare was ham slabs, cheese tatters, boiled carrots, salad, and peaches. There was a supplemental choice on the third trip of either a sandwich or pizza but when I artlessly asked for the latter the tattooed long-hair shoved me the former and a shout, ‘Be thankful for what you get!’ A pert gal named ‘Little Bit’ rushed to my side to exchange pizza for the sandwich. She’s pulled daily to and from the Kitchen doorstep in a purple velvet chariot by a brute pedaling a bicycle. Another, Mr. Safari, pushes a golf cart loaded with life belongings and two tethered dogs. He kindly tips his wide-brimmed hat ever since I bought the dogs biscuits. These stylish characters and many others ride or walk daily five miles to the Colorado River rather than sleep on the Bliss streets. There they bathe, sleep, garden, and cool their summer heels in idyllic weedy bank retreats, while returning for the big noon Kitchen meals.
Table talk opened here as Louis L’Amour barges into a story ‘in the midst of things’, and followed a group stream of consciousness. It originated with, ‘Don’t sleep in front of the Sacramento library.’… After that played out in small conversations around the room, ‘Storm’s a comin’ when spiders weave webs.’… Followed by, ‘In ancient Roman times of swashbuckling, a child born left handed was considered a good omen because he would translate the old languages without smearing ink. As he came of age and joined the Legion of hi-tech sword and shield, his southpaw confused the enemy to win major battles.’… Then, ‘I was in the saloon when a drunk rushed me without realizing I’m ambidextrous.’… Finally a chomping man said, ‘Remember when this banana was yeller with a couple brown bruises and tasted just right.’ As none replied, he continued, ‘Genetic and chemical engineering these days make nobody know what they’re eating. I tend a garden on the river where there’s good soil and water, so all you need scrape together is seeds. Last year, I got post-harvest melon seeds from the local fields and planted them in my garden. It’s 75 days from plant to harvest for normal melon seeds, but these only flowered without fruit. That’s cuz they were genetically engineer to make the farmers buy new seeds each year. These cotton shirts we’re wearing cost the original owners pretty because the seeds were genetically engineered.’
I’ve been tight-lipped at these tables on the premise that others speak more when not questioned, until today. My favorite is an angular man called the Reader who multi-tasks daily with a spoon and book. ‘Books are my TV’, he mumbled, and I’ve see him read under sun and streetlamp. ‘Ask me what I read last week,’ he announced, sensing my gaze, ‘an’ I’ll tell you ‘two books’. I like fiction, non-fiction, anything with a character I can become as the pages turn.’ He was so avid this noon that I shared a secret. I took his book, turned it upside down and rapidly read a paragraph. ‘You too,’ I added proudly, ‘can read right-side up for an hour, then upside down for an hour… repeating and never getting tired.’ He clapped me on the back, ‘Or, you can put the book aside, walk around the park three times, and come back normal!’
Today I was surprised to see Alba the Dog Lady at the Kitchen, the only other Sand Valleyite who dines here during re-supply. This 66-year grand dame lives on a street of doghouses and speaks Spanish to the 20 dogs, French to as many cats, and English to me. Nobody else in the Valley talks to her, she claims, ‘because they aren’t cultured enough’. She has yielded her own trailer to cats and sleeps on a mattress under the stars. She works like a Marine on her desert place without propane or solar except direct sunlight to heat meals. One midnight some time ago – I saw her in town the next day swollen and smelly - Alba donned a black dress ‘to keep the neighbors from seeing me leave because they hang the animals’, tied garlic around her ankles ‘to ward off the rattlers’, and walked 16 miles out of the Valley to the main road to hitch to Bliss ‘because my van needed a part to fetch water’. She used to be a San Francisco CPA, and has still has in storage there a piano that she wishes me to cart out ‘to fill the Valley with beautiful music’.
Alba is exceptional. Here’s a sampling from our Kitchen that represents the general downtrodden found in the streets and soup lines across America. About forty eaters surround me daily of which I estimated based on my fifteen tramping years:
¼ have part-time jobs but few work full-time.
¼ would give you the shirt off their back but would you wear it?
¼ would steal something unattended of value but hardly any will force a robbery.
½ are content and at peace with themselves.
10% are crazy, like the muttering geezer who tosses the bright salad colors –cabbage
and carrots– to a three-foot radius that infringes my territory.
The crazies (usually from drugs) insist their plight is superior to the normal citizen’s.
1/8 have ridden a freight train but not around here where there’s only a spur track.
1/8 drive a jalopy they can fix to the Kitchen.
¼ walk to, from and live on the Colorado River.
The collection is comprised of 1/3 Mexican, black and white.
All mind their own business but most will help you in a jam.
1/20 are in a class of their own like master sled dogs who’ve fought by tooth and claw for years to lug the sled, and these are picked from a crowd by their calm advance.
¼ are female but few bring children.
¼ did a crime for which they were never caught.
¾ spent time in a calaboose and philosophize as Jack Black in You Can’t Win, ‘Justice is a word that resides in the dictionary. It occasionally makes its escape but is promptly caught and put back where it belongs.’
Those who were incarcerated fall into thirds: At fault, not at fault, probably at fault. For example, last summer I spent ‘36 Hours in the Broward County Jail’ (Sept. ‘03 Liberty Magazine) and maintain my innocence. ¼ finished high school, and are worth talking to. ¼ nearly always keep their word, even to you or me.
The reason they live marginally is divided into fifths like today’s pie: Too dumb, ‘you can’t win’, too lazy, drugs or alcohol, or satisfied to live on a small dole.
These are the members of our little ‘home guard’, a key term among the knights of the rail for which I had some affiliation. Other bo’s hold them at the bottom of a traditional caste: Hobos are esteemed workers who travel to jobs by freights; tramps ride trains but don’t work much; and home guard are the street people who don’t ride at all including beggars, part-time workers, stew bums, and welfare suckers. All three groups stalk the underworld rather than the brighter upper world through which you today walk, work and live.
I think it’s fair to say I’ve had a leg in two worlds. I haven’t eaten at the Kitchen as often as my associates but appreciate it equally from having visited perhaps a hundred soup kitchens across the country. An anecdote occurred a few years ago after I’d held a fast freight from Jacksonville, Fl. to New York. On arrival, I borrowed a suit for a Thanksgiving meal at New York’s swank Four Seasons restaurant with financier George Soros. After supper I remarked, ‘I’ve had Thanksgiving dinner in many missions, but this is best.’ The chef was summoned for the tribute, and then he beat a hasty retreat.
A person has followed me since I hit Bliss. He’s no high school graduate, just a street guy with dreadlocks and a beard matted into one rug, lake eyes, and an unmistakably grimy red jacket. A died-in-wool street person wears his coat day and night until it falls off or he’s buried. This man first appeared at my Kmart office three mornings ago to stare without speech or gesture. Two nights ago, he studied me through the donut shop door. Yesterday at the Kitchen, he sat with hands folded next to me and hummed through the rug. Weirdly, last night I exited the Sub Shop to find his red jacket on a post with nobody in it. The counsel from all this is as any road person may warm, that it’s dodgy to befriend an oddball since he’ll adopt’ you like a long-lost pet. I speculated my shadow met some demise – injured, dead, jail, or left town in somebody else’s coat - and that he had followed me from loneliness.
I bathe outdoors after hot weather hits in March at the Monkey Wrench pool, Colorado River, or irrigation canals. Bliss is an oasis at the corner of California, Arizona and Mexico and sits on that river whose water flows chilled from higher elevations. It feeds sundry 20’ wide irrigation canals in which one can swim for exercise in a 2 mph water ‘treadmill’ under the welcome shade of a footbridge. Four years ago, I scattered the region with eight mattresses from a motel dumpster for naps and nights, and to listen to the loons. The primary spots are along the river shore, and one I wade to on a tiny island. Until March, I wash up at the local Recreation Center for a buck. As a rule, there’s no clean up on weekends when hiking the desert and with the Rec closed, however before last Sunday’s surgery I went to a nearby truck stop. I was nervous as a teen buying a first condom because I’d heard only truckers use them. The female attendant sized me and asked, ‘Ya want a little or big shower, fella?’ I said little, and coughed up a Lincoln. ‘The little showers are in the men’s room and the big ones are outside it,’ she thumbed down a long hall. I sat in a posh lounge watching a cowboy film on wide-screen until my number flashed across a screen. The little showers were really the toilet bowls, so I and slipped outside to the big stalls to find towels, soap and hot water. That’s how I got clean for surgery.
Bliss is a place for mendin’ too. I lick my normal wounds to health with a sprinkle of vet med, but one ‘barnacle’ that originated as a backpack rub has clung to my back for years. Five physicians during that time scolded, ‘Get that looked at!’ until three weeks ago when I met Doc Rocks at the local Free Clinic. He blew through his teeth and said, ‘I normally do surgery at 6 pm Sunday,’ so I returned the next evening as the last patient filed out and the pizza arrived. I declined a wedge, and a volunteer nurse led me to a padded table with one short leg, and said to remove my shirt and lie face down. A Gregorian chant seeped from the intercom…
In omnem terram exivit sonus eorum,
et in fines orbis terrae verba eorum.
…and the doctor entered with a black marker to doodle on my back. Quickly, in with the lidocaine (local anesthetic to abet the chant), and out with the scalpel. I heard the squeak of a young sponger, ‘I don’t trust a doctor with a knife.’ The elliptical incision ran 6”long and 3” wide at midpoint to remove a small lesion and allow apposition of the edges. ‘That artery squirt four feet across the room!’ yelped the sponger, and the Doc answered, ‘Damn the vascularity! Get more clamps.’ I was festooned with ten clamps on the rocking table. ‘The only electrocautery here stops the BIG ONE,’ he hastily nodded at a nearby defibrillator. The volunteer nurse passed instruments until the commentator finalized the Doc’s 23rd stitch after 90 minutes with, ‘Doctor, don’t worry about your bloody sweater.’ He with a sweaty brow straddled a stool and typed on a portable a label, ‘Vikaden – 1-2 every 6 hours for pain’, then filled a bottle through a funnel from sampler bottles. It panned out that Sunday was their regular pizza and movie night but, “I’d rather watch an operation than a movie,’ stated Doc. I exited and fed the mouth of the ‘Bear’ donation box and myself with pizza.
In the ten days following the operation, I typed at the college and hiked in the desert because Doc Rocks wouldn’t let me grapple or have sex until the stitches were out or I’d fall apart like the Strawman. I covered a lot of pages and miles, as you’ll see.
The nightly routine was to type until the 9 pm college closing and after dive into an evening office, tough where the sidewalk rolls up at sunset. My dive before the return was the Sub Shop where a former student and now manager let me plug in a laptop. The shop unluckily shut earlier now, so I tried the Vietnamese and Chinese restaurants where the schoolchildren waiters and dishwashers piled food next to my books but they likewise closed at 9 pm. Ultimately, I moved office to Joe’s 24-Hour Donuts where if I bought a donut-an-hour, childless Joe didn’t look at me cross-eyed. A young stranger entered the shop the other midnight, stranger still as he was poised and not bow-legged. He nursed a coffee and donut for thirty-minutes before turning my direction, ‘Is there a shelter in this town?’ I replied there wasn’t, and asked if he was living on the streets. ‘No, I’m golf pro from Phoenix visiting on a week-long experiment in alternative living.’ He didn’t have and wouldn’t accept money because it was key to the mission. ‘I’ll be glad in two days when it’s over so I can go home, but I’ve learned plenty. People think that because you sit unoccupied that you’re stupid or a thief. I also appreciate little things like a bite of food, bit of warmth, or a friendly gesture.‘ Suddenly, someone outside the shop window scowled fiercely at the stranger who merely announced, ‘I’m going to make it my challenge to make that man smile tonight,’ and he exited into the darkness.
After evening office, I always drove north from town along a dark road into a lunar landscape to veer onto one of scores of old tracks until the White Bird managed no further. There I car camped. I’ve ‘RV’d’ the White Bird by replacing the passenger seat with a mattress and electric blanket from glove box to trunk, and installed a second battery under the rear seat to run night lights for reading. The lights and blanket drained the spare marine battery by morning, but I flicked a switch connecting it to the main battery to charge as the car moved the next day. This beat traditional RV charging systems, and a supplementary 6”-square solar panel on the dash (like the one on my hiking hat used to charge the cell phone) trickle charged the batteries. A favored camp spot was the Monkey Wrench pool, so shaped and named after last year’s building in honor of Edward Abbey. That project had me rummage the desert for an accessible natural rock basin the size of a small swimming pool that was lined with plastic layers, covered with gravel, blocked the open end with stones, and waited a few months for a rain to fill with bathwater for a few days and thereafter an animal waterer for about two months. This trip, I also started picking a cave next to the Monkey Wrench pool because last summer’s tent – in fact, a tent inside a tent – shredded from ultraviolet. This hopeful cave will be a year-round bedroom carpeted and lit with a pool view.
The third night after surgery, I lay in the White Bird squirming a bit on the stitches and debating whether to pop a Vikaden (narcotic analgesic) when a great insight tipped the scale. I sensed how a person can desire to feel worse in order to take a pill to feel good, and that struck me as sick. So, the next day I returned the bottle to Doc Rocks with an explanation that I’d rather walk and read through mild discomfort. The most dramatic change since leaving this desert six months ago was the air now brushed with faded painted ladies. These mini-monarch butterflies appear in early spring deserts with orange wings that grow fainter and shred daily. Fewer ladies are found each passing day until only a few chase to mate and produce such strong young.
The network of vague dirt tracks existed in this territory for earlier purposes, and after each night’s good sleep I aim to find why. This morning’s trail waned after two hours but I instinctually traced a short canyon to find strewn Prince Albert tobacco tins that led to a small rock cave with a 6”-thick wood door faintly stenciled, ‘EXPLOSIVES.’ I would convert it to a bedroom in lieu of the cave if not so far from the main stem. A cement hoist footing hand-scratched 1917 guided to a three-story cavern that narrowed within to three angled shafts in odd directions. I paused at the dim mouth of the largest as a rhyme I’ve saved came to mind, ‘Crumble overhead, tracks a-ground, undermine below?’ There’s equal monitoring in a mine as a classroom and I didn’t enter today but shall return with a flashlight, rope and partner. An old railroad forms the backbone of Bliss valley; hence the plentiful gypsum, gold, copper and calcium carbonate mines. This track has yielded me rattlesnakes and more importantly, a 1901 dated railroad nail. These thick nails denote the year the ties were laid as replacement reminders. Hobos try to sell you a birth date nail as a good luck charm but I would be wouldn’t part with that old ‘01.
I found some interesting remains while hiking the next day: A roll-wringer washer (stamped '55), vertical mine shafts where rocks dropped ‘forever’, a blown miner’s hovel, and yesterday a large canyon that opened into a wide wash that I coursed for hours and got adrift. It's easy to lose a way in the open because the scenery looks the same in all directions. The lesson of the day was that survival skills are tested only in survival mentality. By this, one's troubles often start only after being out long enough to diddle the mind. The eyes lose focus, the body shivers in the cooling afternoon, landmarks are forgotten, and fear creeps nearby. I usually park on a bump, but couldn’t find the car after emerging from the canyon and six more hours of hot hiking. So I mounted a small rise and still couldn’t spot it on the corrugated floor of the 80-square mile basin. Yet, I recognized another bump a mile off behind which lay the eclipsed car. It would have been no big deal to spend the night in the 40's F. temperature in a bed of sagebrush with a hat and then find the car in the better light of the next morning. The idea of the day was ‘jog chess’ where the time clock is employed and the player jogs in place while his opponent makes the move.
A ‘parade’ came to the desert one night led by flashes and booms – CLOUDBURST! I slept on but was awakened to drumming on the roof and decided to read the storm out with a gem picked up in Texas, The Boy Captives by Clinton Smith. I realized more about Indian life than from the sum of what I’d previously read. The rain abated, so I walked an hour in the dark along washes that now ran water, so rare and welcome. The Monkey Wrench pool overflowed, and two thousand gallons will remain for about two months. Note that when the biannual storm strikes out in Sand Valley the single lane floods the berms, and anyone caught in a vehicle sits four hours after the rain stops until the groundwater dissipates into sand and air to clear the way. Boy Quick was caught last year with his rig in a wash during a cloudburst and strained to hear a distant roar as a 2’ tide rapidly descended and ran water to the tire tops, then swept the vehicle. He hopped out, braved the current, and roped an Ironwood stump to winch to safety. Everyone loves a parade, especially in the desert.
Songbirds found their throats as I awoke after the ‘parade’ to review the desert transformation under another day’s hot sun. The washes that ran hours ago with water were dry, yet full of fresh tracks, animals, and stone pools to sip from after getting routinely lost and thirsty. I discovered the car at sunset and slept 14hours to awake primed for the day’s town schedule. The 30 minute drive to Bliss cut the tanned desert that shifted to greened farmland by irrigation. Fat white sheep flocked knee deep in winter green alfalfa with egrets posted on one-in-ten backs. The sheep mow and fertilize one field, then rotate to the next. Traffic often snarls as they’re herded on the pavement until a Great Pyrenees moves ‘em along. Once on the drive to school, I got caught in a wool river and forced open the door to snap a photo of a stalled yellow school bus that ran on the local rag front page with the caption, ‘Counting Sheep on Way to School – By Bo Keeley.’ Now that won community acceptance.
Yes, I’m enriched in Bliss, and you may recall in April ’03 that I decided to return to a Pacific University for a teaching credential and a full-time gig. I made it to the single track from Sand Valley when the ‘73 VW bug coughed and quit, so I sat on the bumper watching the moon rise and the cell phone rang, ‘Mr. Keeley, we desperately need you to sub the college auto repair class tomorrow.’ I’m all thumbs around grease but jog-walked Indian style eight miles through rattler country to a neighbor mechanic who returned to fix the bug by sunrise. I made the next day’s job but in doing so missed my appointment to enroll on the Pacific. That weekend, California slashed the education budget, campuses rioted, and the credential programs were ceased. I was reborn a sports bum at a club while living in a San Diego attic when like a flash an Email arrived, ‘Come join the Legend’s Racquetball Tour!’ The rest is history up to the first word of this story. As you’ve read, much has transpired on this return to Bliss but the goal throughout has been Scorpion’s Crotch, an hour to the southwest over demanding roads.
I wheel the White Bird into my sand driveway loop, ease back to view the stars through the windshield, and pop the hood, trunk and doors to let the Florida rats and salamanders escape. Perhaps next year there’ll be hybrids. I walk the property line, a lone figure returning after six months under a half moon. The land holds a journal of animal tracks but no biped’s, and with one repeating set of car treads. I had advanced TJ, my nearest neighbor at 1.5 miles, a buck-a-week to circle the driveway to discourage unlikely vandalism. Sand Valley is 150-square miles of white sand under blue sky so pristine in this season that many who arrive call it heaven, buy at $500-an-acre, and live happily until the summer scorch comes in March. However, this February night is in the mid-forties and tomorrow shall be bathing suit weather in sharp sunshine.
Scorpion’s Crotch’s ten acres are easy for you to spot because a spiral staircase winds to a wood deck on a 30’ semi-truck trailer. I’ve remodeled inside to living and working quarters with a desk and computer closest to sunrise and a waterbed nearest sunset. Most Valley dwellings rest on wheels, skids, or dirt floors to keep the taxes down, and a dozen such ancillary structures dot my scrub flat including a camper trailer for cooking, ice cream truck for storage, sunken roman bath, underground pantry, summer burrow, work shed and garage. I haul water and use solar power, so the single fixed yearly expense is a $35 property tax. Cavemen had fire, and the desert dwellers worship propane because a single 10-gallon canister takes adaptors for stove, frig, lantern and heater to provide all the comforts I can think of.
Why else does one settle here? Four years ago, in walking the length of Death Valley and discovering the years-old bleaching bones of a hiker who ran out of water and luck, I reported it to the authorities. The funny California cop mentality labeled me a suspect, so I told the sheriff goodbye and remember the police dog staring as I fled to the Amazon rainforest. There I narrowly escaped the Mayoruna tribe and jungle. It had rained three straight months and dry land seemed a good option, so I went to the American southwest and met a stout man in a masterfully crafted buggy who gave me his card, ‘Big Jake - Canoe Voyageur’. He invited, ‘Desert acres is dirt cheap where I live’. I asked, ‘How do I find it?’ He explained, ‘A handful of us live all over in compounds an’ there ain’t roads but one sandy track that each person gives a different name for a legal address. The only way to find Sand Valley the first time is to have the sheriff lead you.’ I did, bought ten flat acres a half-day’s walk from his shack, and built. Now you appreciate the excursion from Death Valley to the rainforest to Scorpion’s Crotch.
I crank open the doors of the semi-trailer like any good trucker on the first night of the return, and recoil at the mess. Pack rats! They entered just before I departed six months ago, judging by the dried turds and glitter. These 12” desert rats are like oversize gerbils with smart eyes, Mickey Mouse ears, and graceful walks. They leave sticks or pebbles in trade for shiny objects, and people track them in hope of finding coins or nuggets in the nests. However, I discover one has brought my glasses and business card to its 10”-diameter nest of sleeping bag insulation inside the trailer. It has also left nails at the sealed inner door of my trailer perchance as an offering to escape the past summer swelter. The interloper hops by! Minutes later, two Havahart traps baited with stale peanut butter lay in wait… Night one - I catch and transport him 100-yards to the wash and watch him crawl down my legs to hop to the sand. Night two - I catch another, pet him a few times and similarly let him go. I don’t know how to sex rats, but begin to think children. Night three - both traps are sprung but empty, an improbability that makes me think I slept through another 1-ton bomb. Night four - another is caught and I mark his flank with white Liquid Paper before release because although the trailer is supposedly tight, I’m suspicious and rats look alike. Night five - The dirty rat’s flank in the trap is already white! I retrace to the trailer door seam near the original glitter offering to find a chewed opening in the rubber gasket. A dab of roofing tar patches that and there are no more rats.
The personal burrow idea originated with the rodents. Last year, I picked and shoveled the hard dirt until I was eight feet under and beginning to think like them, pushed down another two-foot. A camper shell was shoved into that 10’x10’x10’ hole, the roof reinforced, and covered up so the landscape stayed flat. Presently, a submarine portal via an open-end 55-gallon drum admits me down a ladder into a cool nest with bed, computer and periscope. It’s about 30 F. chillier in summer than up on the desert floor, and moreover it’s a bomb and hurricane shelter. No one from the valley follows through the portal either because they’re too fat, except TJ’s wife and him to whom I jibe, ‘Her breasts are too big and you always have an erection.’ I’m safe from everything except the rodents.
Six caches made from six old 200-gallon water containers ($10 each) stretch underground toward the road. The original was a hurricane shelter-for-two but was replaced by the burrow. Now it and the other caches hold jugs of water, propane or gasoline that varmints shouldn’t be able to get to. There are enough staples in store at Scorpions Crotch to last a one person-year, and they were readied before Y2-K. I peep into a buried cache that holds about thirty one-gallon water jugs, and discover that half of them are gnawed through and drained. Thus the diary of my old amigos the pack rats unwinds: They entered in a tunnel around and under the lid, gnawed eagerly at the first few jugs’ bottoms and got a bath, figured next to gnaw the necks of the jugs and fell in drowning in their thirst. I pull two bloated bodies from as many jugs and provide a decent burial.
Critters are drawn to me. A kit fox arrives each evening, and once trotted to where I sat and shit on my boot to tell more about his business than other cards I’ve gotten. A lizard pops up when I open the propane frig to have feet splashed with cold water. A chipmunk maid service of three regularly enters the trailer where I cook to clean up. A frying pan-sized desert tortoise lives under my utility trailer. Birds nest when the trailers’ doors are open, and one perched on the laptop as I wrote. A wayward great white heron once walked under my shader looking for water. Sir, the sidewinder, grew up here but is still so small that that I almost step on him so I carried him in a coffee can for release in the wash. Scorpions, tarantulas, and barking geckos stop by, perhaps lonely like the phantom in the red jacket. Coyotes visit nightly a bathtub of dog kibble and yip many thanks.
Stars dust a black cover threaded by helicopters and jets zooming to the adjacent Coco Mountain Gunnery Range. Woe the enemy, the U.S. military is hard at practice! Copters shell like clockwork wooden tanks with live ammo and bright mile-long tracers. Jets bomb mock buildings at three miles. Tonight, two copters hover about 20’ above Phil Garlington’s rancho two-miles to the south, but he likes the dust they kick up. Phil was fired without notice as chief-editor of the Bliss rag a year ago, so he hauled 500-pounds of newspapers to Sand Valley to insulate his hogan. A year ago, about a mile away from my place, a copter mistook neighbor TJ’s homestead for a dummy installation and clipped off his TV antennae. At 10pm by law, the jets may continue but the copters must shoo and then one observes the homemade dune-buggy headlights of my neighbors crawl secret washes to the range limit, and suddenly the lights go out. They harvest great baskets of 4” brass copter shells and the prized aluminum bomb fins under moonlight to be sold for salvage. I’ve accompanied them, but tonight view it through field glasses 15’ above the desert floor from a couch on my semi-trailer.
I close my eyes and chuckle at the evening event years ago when a brilliance like the ‘star that astonished the world’ filled a western sector and floated my way. I grabbed an emergency pack and high-tailed to a wash, only later to learn it was a large flare on a parachute used to illuminate bomb sites. Some months later, as I drove the Valley there came a blinding western flash that approached so rapidly that I ran the car off the road and got stuck, only after to find out it was a rocket shot from Edwards AFB north of Los Angeles. The bombing range keeps one on the toes, and one recent Sunday when I felt more at home on the range and with less air traffic before the war started, I hiked west across it for a full day just to see what was on the other side.
The first night home from Florida I lie in bed and hear two jets zip overhead to the shooting range. A terrific BOOM at 3-miles shakes the earth and trailer as never before. I believe they dropped a one-ton bomb that’s the maximum allowed, leaving a crater a semi-truck could circle in. A dark cloud drifts at me on a 20 mph breeze under moonlight, and pervades the trailer in ten minutes to make a stink like a cap-gun war. Once, a 1000-pounder mis-released over old man Hooter’s trailer and struck his property edge, knocking him from the wheelchair. He shook it off, but tonight I ponder relocating until the greater war of the world ends and this local nonsense stops. My favorite way to end each night is to read myself to sleep.
I enjoy rising to a quart of soy milk sipped on a walk in the bush. It’s a relief to move freely before the March heat triggers the release of rattlers and scorpions that strain my eyes on each step. My childhood superhero was Batman who relied not on special powers but on a sound mind and body, plus a utility belt of gadgets. I also wear a Batman-type utility anklet made from a set of ankle weights with the pockets emptied of iron filings and refilled with hi-tech survival items: Snake bite kit, GPS, cell phone, telescope, lighter, knife, camera and mag-light. One of my fondest memories in professional racquetball was at a Dallas celebrity tournament years ago where I remarked in the locker room, ‘I want to play Batman,’ and in strode a solid man who uttered from a square jaw, ‘I’m Bruce Wayne, Batman and Adam West.’ More to date, a week ago I discovered that I’m the spokesman for a new Safety Pak loaded with similar survival items that may carry the Catman logo.
Projects plus repairs to trim back nature fill the days. I mustn’t work hard until Doc Rocks’ Da Vinci heals so instead draw up future plans: Construct a pyramid-shader over the semi from salvaged pipe and tin; vent the trailer trapdoor to draw cool air up from 2000 gallons of water stored in plastic barrels under the floor; add a foot of sand atop the summer burrow; create a water trap of canvas in the nearby wash to catch and carry rainwater along a gravity aqueduct to the empty barrels under the semi; line the Roman bathhouse with pretty stones; and move the privy.
Perhaps you wish to learn a thing of life from the desert shitter. On settling, I dug a hole a football field from the main trailer per the challenging ‘100-yards to the Outhouse’ by Willie Makit. Building codes and snooping inspectors are nonexistent so when one neighbor called the county for a nudist camp permit the retort was, ‘Do anything as long as you pay the taxes.’ I got my outhouse plan scratched in the dirt by Big Jake: A buried 55-gallon drum with a telephone booth above. I constructed the latter of doors except the door which opens southwest to the bombing range. The seat is a thick picture frame that I got a photo snapped in before the first use for pa, and once a week during fly season he wants me to sprinkle lime through it. I erected a tiny stepladder up the inside barrel for trapped lizards but over time – hard to believe it’s been four years – a 3’ fecal stalagmite that’s a vertical record like the Grand Canyon now tops the drum. A predicament is on the way. I like to dangle my legs and originally hung the picture frame for this, but the privy walls have settled in the sand so I bump my head on the ceiling. Big Jake explained there are four ways to clean the privy: Muck out the barrel, move the structure to another buried drum, or pour gas into the barrel and light a match. I’m still thinking on that one.
Moreover, I’ve learned about spit, blood and urine. Nobody spits in the Valley because water’s prized. Blood from tools and cacti go ignored until evening hand- wash, and heal fast. We pee yellow, and it took years to accept neighbors pissing in my front yard, and now me in theirs. If someone goes clear in yours then they’re too well-heeled for the place. Nobody bathes, but there’s a hot spring on the way to town, and I guess we live like aborigines. My birthday passed unaware for the fourth consecutive year until I got to town to mail this story, thank you.
Every trailer but one on the property has a trap door, and if this strikes you as odd then you haven’t watched the westerns at the truck stop where Indians surround and burn the homestead until late that night when a sole survivor arises through the ashes from a trapdoor. And, you may have missed the original ‘Desert News’ to know what else lurks in Sand Valley. The only trailer without a trapdoor is the white one that old man Hooter died in and willed to me. Someone else robbed his body cold, as I think he would have wanted it. I converted the end bathroom of that trailer to a secret office by seaming and hinging panels over the door. You may be unable to discover where I’m writing from.
No vehicles have bumped past my digs since the return. Then an engine noise breaks one afternoon and I stare from the high deck chair at a deputy’s car mowing across my land. I race down the spiral stair yelling, ‘Stop, or…’ CRASH into a 6-foot greasewood bush and he sand bogs. I approach the open window with gritted teeth, ‘If you get out stay on the driveway’, and then extend my hand and smile, ‘Bo Keeley’. Officer Guerrero explains that he entered because it’s the first time he’s seen a car here for months and maybe it belonged to an illegal alien. We warm to each other, he takes the driveway out, and I rake over where he’d stuck.
Twelve people occupy Sand Valley giving about 10-square miles of elbow room each. They’re self-reliant, mechanically inclined, antisocial, charitable, aestivate, and enjoy getting visits about the time you get lonely: Big Jake, TJ, Alba the dog lady, the Quicks, Garlington, the Nudists, Martha the Bomb, Honest Injun, Preacher, Miner and Ms. Wig. That’s all that’s fit to print from where we don’t hear much news. Stop by: Left at the first cactus outside Bliss and follow the jets and pack rats to the spiral staircase.
It makes sense from a distance. Four years, ago after many bristles in the brush of death, the author homesteaded near Bliss, Ca. with sidewinder Sir on ten acres of open desert called Scorpion’s Crotch. His neighbors don’t get out much either, however you can read about them at www.greatspeculations.com and click on ‘The Desert News’. Find pictures at www.geocities.com/bokeely1/index.html. Phil Garlington wrote about Sand Valley in ‘Rancho Costa Nada: The Dirt Cheap Homestead’ available from www.loompanics.com. The Legends Racquetball Tour is at www.legendsrbtour.com. You can see what I found on the other side of the bombing range at http://www.deuceofclubs.com/socal/sal04.htm. See more adventures soon at www.dailyspeculations.com.
Stop the press! Neighbor TJ cruises and idles the homemade buggy in my driveway the morning before I depart to mail this story. ‘I’m charging a dead battery and wonder what you’re up to.’ It’s an awkward invitation to ride his Road Warrior wreck around this Mordor landscape, and I jump at the drop of a hat. We head up the largest wash in the Valley that courses past my homestead into the Coco Mountains and beyond into the great gunnery range. He drives the wash infrequently but more than anyone except me, who hikes it. Soon he’s joy riding and letting go the wheel to bring overhanging branches into our faces. A flicker catches my eye fifty yards to the right which is strange because always TJ’s desert eyes see first. I nudge and he grunts, ‘What…’ and slowly loops to park behind an abandoned recent model van with Mexico plates. He pats the ubiquitous pistol in his jacket pocket. The van is stuck to the hubs in sand with no footprints but there’s another set of vehicle tracks and on the van dash lies a piece of broken steering column. We unravel the little mystery without touching. The obvious part is that a coyote (paid driver) drove this wetback (illegal alien) van from the border through the bombing range in hopes of circuitously reaching Los Angeles. ‘There was two vehicles,’ declares TJ, ‘an’ the second picked up the ‘wets’ from the mired first that was obviously stolen in the first place because of the tampered ignition switch.’ I counter, ‘The wetbacks walked away from this stuck van brushing their tracks clear with bushes to make hard ground and avoid being tracked. Someone later tried to hotwire the van.’ He lights an atypical tailor-made (store bought) cigarette and we memorize the plate before proceeding along the western limit of the Coco Mountain Gunnery Range. Jets begin to bomb three miles south so we stop next to a former off-target crater to watch the show a couple miles from his compound. ‘About that van,’ he mutters, ‘If it was older like those at my place then I’d take it for parts.’ I grumble, ‘I like a good van but can’t hotwire.’ He urinates on the buggy tire as a dark plume rises in the south and the ground shakes. ‘What a beaut!’ he cries, and ‘A grand day!’, I exclaim. We climb back in buggy and the key turns but the battery is dead.
Date: 04/30/2004 15:15:14
From: "Ken Smith"
To: "bo keely"
Subject: desert property
Date: Thu, 29 Apr 2004
I am wondering how much imagination is in your stories and how much is
reporting. From the way you describe sand valley it is not a place for me.
I am thinking desert without wetback traffic and with electricity. I don't
have the moxie of your friend J.T. to run around at night with a shotgun
chasing intruders. I can see why he has a passel of dogs - keeps the
coyotes away from his chickens.
Winter surely is a time to go to the desert. Now gas is 2.25 per gal and
snow birds are probably thinking twice about using their vehicles. Don't
know for sure, we don't own one. We have station wagon we've camped in.
Put all supplies in a tent and sleep in the wagon. Or put all supplies on
a picnik table, cover with tarp, and sleep in the wagon.
The price of land in sand valley is attractive. And $35 a year tax is good
feature - if that is still true. Must be a road running by your place?
Maybe better if no road, have a side road to a place that is a couple of
miles off the main road, or more, to a place.
I have seen homes build undergroud with dirt on top, grass, and
trees even on the 'roof' of the home. A person might rent a cat and dig a
monstrous hole in the desert, build a cement one-room structure in the
bottom of that hole, with a ladder access like in a missle silo. Would be
cooler and have security, except for one's vehicle which would be exposed
thieves and gas siphoning; except the arrival of intruders would be heard
and possible deterred. But how to keep the insects out?
Does it help to fence in property? A lot of extra expense. Guess the idea
is simplicity, live like a survivalist. Simple life with no encumberances.
I am thinking about philosophy with core as "small and less."
I suppose a cell phone whould keep one in touch with the cardiologist, the
sheriff, and the school system so as they could call you to come to sub for
I may drive thru that area this year and I'll take a look if I can follow
your description. I'll get a govt map which will show every thing you
describe; a forest service map maybe.
Do you do all you computing, letter writing on the college equipment? Do
you still use a motorcycle? Do you use a jeep with those huge tires? I'd
have a hard time writing the old way with pencil and paper. If I don't
a typewriter I can't even think well. My fingers do the writing on a
keyboard and they don't do so well with my fingers holding a pencil.
From: Bo Keeley:
I don t write fiction. Everything about sand valley is true except the
names and places are changed for protection. I don t romanticize much but
highlight sometimes for emphasis.
When I settled in sand valley it was w/out fore knowledge of the illegal
alien pipeline, which now has minimal traffic. I actually like the Mexicans
coming thru & have a few adventures to tell that cant be put online. The
bombing range was a quiet basin when I settled 4 years ago, only recently
stirred by world events. The valley characters are astounding as u ll one
day read in toughest in the valley , now in rough draft. In hindsight, I
would settle somewhere else in the desert but it s no big deal. Actually, I
can pull up stakes anytime & just drive everything but the burrow to a new
As u intimate, desert is heaven in winter and the opposite in summer, so I
travel a lot when the sun comes north. My place is a base for sub-teaching,
travel and writing.
If u re thinking of desert land, of course I can help in sand valley.
There s a few 20 or 40 acre parcels w/ dirt road access and no near
neighbors. U have to haul u re own water from blithe, about 1.5 hr away.
The land cost is about 800-/acre however no one thinks that way (except me
when I bought). Instead, one can put 100- down and pay 100- a month on a
land contract w/ 5 yr. balloon payoff, or just back out w/out penalty in a
year if the lifestyle proves unsuitable. if u want to test this area, I
can show u spots to park & wagon/tent camp. There s also the possibility of
renting a trailer for a couple months here. Or, I can just give u the key
to my place when I m gone much of the time - & u can play in the sand to
heart s desire. All this is easily done.
As for the road, there s basically a single track running the valley length.
It s sand & dirt & more suitable for a pickup or 4-wheel but I make it in
my present sedan.
Some have background on the sea, & mine is underground. Few seem to grasp
the genius of digging a hole to live in. it can be lined w/ concrete as u
mention or w/ wood/corrugated tin, or just back an old travel trailer into
it. My neighbor can scrape a hole for a couple hundred dollars that a track
slopes into so one just backs a trailer into it & cover the shebang w/ 100-
of corrugated tin. This would be plenty cool in summer, warm in winter.
The sides don t need to be shored but it can be done w/ 50 bucks worth of
old tires, as I did w/ my smaller burrow.
But better to think small at the beginning w/ a test run using the station
wagon in wintertime.
There isn t much vandalism out here, & the gas siphoning incident was
singular. Neighbors watch each others places. Hardly anyone fences here
as there s respect for property rights. Insects no problem, and to the
contrary are interesting. They invade depending on the past weather, and
are a welcome relief from the tedium. U make strange friends out here.
Cell phones work, no problem. There was not a phone in the area until a
couple years ago, & now there are a couple. I deactivated mine until a time
when there s more call for it.
come on down any time. I strongly urge arrival 1 october 1april. U ll
not want to leave. On the other hand, I don t know how to convey this other
than directly: the region is tolerable in September and april, and fairly
out of the question in other months. For e.g., three days ago they shut the
college because the air conditioning failed and administration feared heat
stroke. My experience is it takes 3 years to acclimate to the summers, then
it s ok to sit in the shade on hot days or even hike in the following
manner: I take a gallon jug of frozen water and when it s drank up in about
3 hours then the hike is done. I ve invented a few things too, like a
frozen baggie of water that fits in the hat and trickles down the back as it
If u visit, arrangements are simple. We meet in the town of blythe (bliss
in the stories), ca. that s in the southeastern corner of the state. Then I
lead u out to my place. U can park & camp there where I can show around in
general. Or, provide an physical address & I ll send u a zeroxed direction
sheet listing gps coordinates at each turn. It u don t have a gps, better
to meet me. The setup is nifty: my sand valley digs are 1.5 hr. southwest
of blythe, and I spend a couple weeks in one then the other. Blythe has a
relatively vacant community college (where I now sit) where one stays on the
library computer for free all day.
solar power is essential and simple out in the valley, i.e. basin. Tie a
couple panels to the top of the wagon, run them to a spare battery (that
also charges from your car when running), and hook a 100- inverter to the
spare battery. This provides plenty of juice for constant use of a laptop
or, I believe, desktop, however u wouldn t have internet service w/out some
measures. I have a mini solar panel atop my hiking hat for when I take a
cell phone long distance it charges fine.
Consider picking up a copy of my neighbor at 3 miles phil garlington s
rancho costa nada from www.loompanics.com. It ll not happen in another
century that a writer like he will do a book like that on this place. It
details his experience in homesteading sand valley, & u ll find
contributions from yours truly. Loompanics is also a source for odds n ends
books, such as underground housing.
there are also trailer parks w/ electricity near blythe if that's a better
cup of tea.
Finally, it s true I had a 65 vw bug cut down to a flatbed w/ oversized
tires, but it expired last summer so I drive the white bird as described. I
still have the 73 Honda 650 w/ hack on nonop, and of course many pairs of
worn boots u can select from.
I'll copy this letter to a couple others that u may meet one day who''ve
expressed an interest in desert living.