Sunday, March 12, 2017

Death Valley, Coyotes and Snake Oil

I like to camp about twice a year. I think I’m getting too old for this torture, but inevitably I plan another trip, pack up my little Saturn and I’m on my way again. For the past couple years my daughter and I thought that Death Valley in the winter time would be a good choice.  Let me tell you, it’s still more than 80 degrees Fahrenheit during early March – and I hate the desert. 

The stars at night more than make up for the dry, over-powering heat of the day. After the sun goes down, Death Valley is a great place to see meteor showers, comets and reckless lovers. Note to couples: in the evening, sounds and sights carry in the desert. I’d like to add, that bush you’re under carries an assortment of scorpions and flea-infested, plague carrying rodents, so please, for the sake of all that is decent, go back to your tent. NOW!

The highlight for me, during our winter excursions is the group of musicians that gather at the same time every year to play music around the campfire. Mostly, there are the usual guitarists, banjo pickers, accordion players and fiddlers. The performers say that the original troupers began the tradition in the 1950s. The ones that assemble now have been convening regularly since the 1970s. This eclectic bunch comes from all walks of life. One claims to be a physician, but since the beer and vodka are flowing amongst the majority of performers, I have my doubts. Anybody present can share their musical talents. All are invited. Someday I hope to bring my electric piano, stuffed with batteries and a prayer, since my playing is child-like at best. In the past, the musicians have hosted people like the ukulele playing students who only picked up their instruments six months before joining the melody-filled evenings. The best I could do the first time we sat around their circle is give out copies of my books and read a brief passage or two. Last year we were joined by a fire dancer. The dramatic look of firelight reflecting up through the branches of the taller mesquite and salt cedar trees was magical. During those kinds of evenings I’d like to imagine that I’m at a gypsy camp. It’s a wonderful feeling.

The musicians always wind up just before 10 pm. One evening two years ago, my daughter and I went back to our tent around nine. We listened to the music, hypnotic in a way, the guitars strumming and low voices singing. Then some guy yelled at the top of his lungs, “Shut that music down!” The melodies continued, the night wind rustled a little. During pauses, coyotes could be heard singing their own songs of loving and feasting. Then a fiddle began a lonesome Irish ballad. “Shut it down already!” I was jolted awake again. This continued until ten. I guess the old grouch didn’t realize that his barking was creating more of a disturbance than this traditional, decades old jam session (music’s version of a pick-up game). Lights out. Ten PM. The coyotes were closer and they began their nightly serenade. I waited anxiously for Mr. Grouch to yell at our howling, furry neighbors, but by then I think he’d given up hope for a good night’s rest. Do what the rest of us do:  gaze up to the sky and let the blanket of stars dazzle your senses.

In October 2015, historic flooding damaged many roads and made last year’s planned trips to a couple tourist areas, including the famous Scotty’s Castle, impossible. The rain also created optimal conditions for desert wildflowers to bloom in abundance. Mostly gold greeted us on our excursions, but there were splashes of pink and purple along the way.

Most of the other roads had been fixed since the storms had washed them away, but a few were down to one lane. That gave us passengers time to reflect and talk. The subject of health came up and I said that I was a believer in the power of vitamin-C. I take it every day for six weeks during flu season and I have not caught the flu or pneumonia like other members of my family have. At one washed out path, in the back of our vehicle, one of the campers with us took the opportunity to whip out a catalogue of the health supplements that she sells. There was a parade of cars ahead of us and a line of cars behind us at least a mile long. We were surrounded by construction vehicles, and the potential of traffic heading our way until we could take our turn on the fragile pavement. I could have tried to make a run for it, but the heat and dehydration would kill me eventually unless a rattle snake struck me first. As the young lady introduced her line of vitamins, my eyes scanned the road for a poisonous snake. “Oh, Lawd, give me patience,” I thought. The young woman knew she had a captive audience, literally. A half hour later, we were on our way again to Stovepipe Wells.  Bless her heart for trying.


Days later, I was back at work with my seniors. I had a great morning with one of my favorite ladies. I fed her some breakfast and folded her laundry while we chatted. Before long, Luzi had me cornered in her kitchen, extolling the benefits of the supplements she was taking. I was blocked in by her motorized scooter, while she held up a bottle of the same brand that the young saleslady introduced to me. I couldn’t go left, I couldn’t go right. I was backed up to a cabinet as Luzi shook the container at me insisting that it was a lifesaving libation. At that point all I could hear were the yelps of coyotes. I looked at the floor and prayed for a snake.

A Sideshow Journey by Liesa Swejkoski

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