Saguaro National Park AZBorders? I have never seen one. But I have heard they exist in the minds of some people.
–Thor Heyerdahl

I left Palm Springs, where the streets are named after stars, and drove east to Phoenix. In some stretches, sandstorms raged on both sides of the road.

I passed Desert Center, the birthplace of Kaiser Permanente and the site of General Patton’s Army Air Field training center. Now, it’s only a few souls short of a ghost town.

Sped past Quartzsite, a quasi-city of tens of thousands of RVs. Ten major gem shows and fifteen huge flea markets attract over 1.5 million swappers annually, mostly during January and February. Over three-thousand dealers of rocks, minerals, fossils and jewelry set up shop.

Quartzsite is also the site of Joanne’s Gum Museum with its collection of wrappers from around the world.

In Phoenix I gathered Craig, my college roommate of three years, from the airport. He agreed to join me for a few days during my tour of the Arizona borderlands. A vacation for him and rare company for me. Time to catch up, embellish old stories and write some new ones. Continue reading

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Wandering in the desert

Joshua tree

Joshua tree

Oh, and I remember something you once told me
And I’ll be damned if it did not come true.
Twenty thousand roads I went down, down, down
And they all lead me straight back home to you.
–Gram Parsons, 1973

The Joshua Tree wilderness in the Mojave Desert may have been the home Gram Parsons was singing about. Like many, he was drawn to the barrenness of the desert for inspiration and renewal.

He even asked to be buried there.

The Mojave is considered high desert, its elevation over four-thousand feet. It is a harsh and dangerous place, containing both the driest location in North America and the hottest spot on the planet.

A walk quickly reveals its flora are armed to the teeth with needles, thorns and spines. And its animals are the stuff of nightmares: tarantulas, scorpions, rattlesnakes, bats, kangaroo rats, coyotes, bobcats and mountain lions. Continue reading

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Death Valley days

Near Furnace Creek, Death ValleyFuneral Mountains. Starvation Canyon. Deadman Pass.

The names are not subtle, as Death Valley is not a hospitable place.

Hottest, driest, lowest–it is a land of extremes. In July 1913, the highest temperature ever recorded anywhere, 134 degrees, was reached at Furnace Creek. Daytime summer temperatures of 120 or greater are common. On summer nights, the temps cool down to the nineties.

I chose to enter it in the dead of winter.

The valley was named by a group of Gold-Rush speculators who got lost while attempting a shortcut to the mining fields. After facing numerous topographical obstacles, the so-called Lost ’49ers arrived near Furnace Creek.

In treacherous terrain,  the miners’ covered wagons were of no further use. Some walked out. Some waited for help. Eventually, all but one escaped the valley alive.

Upon leaving, one survivor provided the epithet, “Goodbye, Death Valley.” Continue reading

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Town and gown

King's College, Cambridge

King’s College, Cambridge

English cities York and Cambridge were both settled in the Stone Age and ruled in turn by the Romans, Anglo-Saxons, Vikings and Normans.

Over the centuries, a fascinating cast of characters walked their streets while making history.

York, a quintessential market town, served as world headquarters for four different Roman emperors.

Cambridge, home to one of the oldest and finest universities in the world, inspired both Isaac Newton and Pink Floyd.

Oddly, its founding was prompted by a spate of killings. Continue reading

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Mersey beat

Cavern Club, LiverpoolSo ferry, cross the Mersey
‘Cause this land’s the place I love
And here I’ll stay.

–Gerry and the Pacemakers, 1964

My daughter, Allie, called going to Liverpool my pilgrimage. Maybe it was.

In the summer of 1963 I was 12-years-old and on the cusp of entering junior-high school. Most people recall those transitional years between childhood and adolescence as awkward. Many, including me, struggled to manage more freedom, new social skills and raging hormones.

One evening that summer, I walked with a friend to a party at a swimming pool in my neighborhood. From a distance, we could hear strange electrified thumpings and twangings. A high-school group, the Vandals, performed, playing garage-band nuggets by the Kingsmen (“Louie Louie”), the Safaris (“Wipe Out”) and the Beachboys (“409”).

The musicians were only two or three years older than me, but seemed like grown men. Girls fawned over them. I was mesmerized by it all–the music, the swagger, the adulation. It had never occurred to me that someone close to my age in my hometown could do what they were doing. Continue reading

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Castles and dragons

Conwy Castle

Conwy Castle

The legend of Gelert, the hound, goes like this: During the early 1200s, the ruler of what is now Wales was Llywelyn the Great. (Like Smokey the Bear, the was Llywelyn’s middle name.)

One day he went hunting, leaving his newborn son at home in the care of an inattentive servant. Upon Llywelyn’s return, he was greeted at the door by his favorite hound, Gelert. The dog was covered in blood and Llywelyn’s son’s cradle was empty.

Believing the worst, Llywelyn drew his sword and, in a rage, killed the dog. As the hound’s final yelping died away, Llywelyn heard the faint cries of his baby son, lying unharmed beneath the cradle. Nearby was the body of a dead wolf. Gelert, the hero, had defended the baby and killed the wolf.

Overcome with remorse, Llywelyn buried his faithful hound with great ceremony and, so the legend goes, was never able to smile again.

Llywelyn the Great, unsmiling, greeted me as I stepped from the train in Conwy. Continue reading

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Walking the Mother of Wales

Penmon Point, Wales

Penmon Lighthouse and Puffin Island

A year ago I hiked a loop through the Cotswolds, an area in England known for its rolling farmland and quaint villages. This year, I traipsed a section of the coastal path around Anglesey, an island off the northwest coast of Wales.

The Isle of Anglesey was known as Mam Cymru (Mother of Wales) during the Middle Ages because the island’s fertile fields could feed the whole country.

The trail around Anglesey is 128 miles long, passing through green pastures, scrubby heath, sand dunes, salt marshes, pebbly beaches, mud flats, towering bluffs and the occasional woods. Along the way I visited castles, ate fresh seafood and attempted to field questions from the Welsh about the US presidential election, a topic which endlessly fascinated them. Continue reading

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