It is nicer in Wyoming now than in New Mexico.  I am actually in Laramie and have been here for a week.  I would have stayed in New Mexico for the New Moon cycle, but the weather forecasts were pretty bad.  It actually looked better in Wyoming so I decided to bolt.  I left Tuesday afternoon, April 5th, and drove all night, reaching Laramie at about 7:30 AM on Wednesday morning.
 
I stayed with Jason and his roommates for almost a week, but my friend Janell offered to let me stay in one of her apartments that is currently not rented.  I moved into this apartment on Monday afternoon.  So far it has been great.  The apartment is nice and has lots of room for a single guy.  I have been catching up on sleep and working on my classes, since the move from New Mexico put me behind in both the music class I am taking and the statistics class I am teaching.
 
I am planning on staying for a few more weeks in Laramie before I go to Story.  I would like to repay my friend Janell's kindness and do some handyman work for her.  It is actually an open-ended agreement, so I could stay here in Laramie as long as I like.  It is tempting to do so, as Laramie is nice in the summer and the University library is so close.  I could also take classes at the University in the fall if I were here rather than in Story.

     If I had stayed in my tent and eaten my breakfast while writing a letter to Janell, as I thought I might while getting out of bed, I would never have known what was waiting for me out there in the bushes. The morning was somewhat chilly, after all. I had explored all the surrounding hilltops and valleys. The only direction left for my morning walk was toward the highway, and that looked particularly boring – nothing but creosote bushes as far as the eye could see. However, my uneasy truce with leg cramps in the night reminded me that I needed the exercise. I mean needed.

     With a full pot of “porridge” and bundled up against the chill, I set out along the grassy swale toward the north, staying to one side where the ground was clear so as to see where I was stepping. As I expected, there wasn't much variation in the landscape or the flora, only a yucca here and there to punctuate the uniformity. Oh, well. You never knew what to expect in the desert. It could be completely unremarkable, or it could be surprising.

     My first intimation of the character of the morning came when I spied a single black insulated wire heading from the swale directly to the east. There was nothing connected to my end, and it appeared to be solid and stiff, like the wire that is made to be stretched. For want of anything more interesting, I followed it as it made its way straight through the creosote bushes, sometimes being covered for a few feet, but mostly just laying on the surface. As I suspected, there was nothing connected to the other end, either, which was near the road to the cell phone towers. Why would maybe 500 feet of insulated wire be laying out in the desert? Was it some sort of antenna?

     I decided I didn't want to cross the road and continue to the east, since the Sun was in my eyes, so I backtracked and kept going west, across the grassy swale, which turned into a slight drainage channel cut into the loose desert dirt. Up and over the rise and into the next valley, there was another drainage, only this one much larger and cut deeper, all the way to what appeared to be limestone bedrock. Crossing that and heading up the slope to the next rise, I saw something block-shaped in the bushes to my left. Maybe it was something the rancher left out there, since the catch basin was only about a quarter of a mile to the south of me by that point.

     Walking over to it, I saw that it wasn't left by the rancher, and in fact there were two block-shaped things at the base of separate creosote bushes. These were definitely not left by the rancher. It didn't take too much imagination to guess what the contents of those plastic-wrapped bundles contained. In fact, a small hole in one of them gave me the opportunity to sniff the contents, and yup! Weed, of a sort.

     This was a rather large quantity of something definitely illegal. How did it get here? Was somebody going to come looking for it? Well, maybe not, by the looks of the bundles. They had been here for a while. The fabric was completely rotted off of one of the bundles, and the black plastic trash bag had decayed and shredded in the sunlight. Whoever these belonged to wasn't coming for them, or had looked for them and had given up long ago.

     Being careful not to touch anything, I looked closely at each bundle. On one end was a day pack, complete with zippered pouches. What did those things contain? I didn't dare open the zippers to find out. That would be perhaps destroying evidence. About all I could do was prod one of the bundles to feel if it was still solid, or squishy. Solid, just like a compressed brick of peat moss. These were just about like those packages of peat moss, in size and shape, only a little smaller. I couldn't tell how heavy they were because I couldn't do anything more than look.

     Okay, it was clear that the authorities needed to know about these things. How would I find them again? I took pictures of them from various angles, with landmarks in the background. Maybe I could line myself up on those landmarks and traverse a path that would lead me back to them when I came back with the sheriff or Border Patrol agents. Okay, start walking. Wait! There was another bundle in a bush not five feet away. How could I have missed that?

     Start walking again. Trudge. Trudge. Trudge. Mind starts working. Mind starts thinking about how much those things are probably worth. Mind starts thinking about how that could allow me to retire. Mind starts thinking about how they could be stored in my watertight Pelican cases to hide the scent. Mind starts thinking about where they could be sold and converted into cash.

     Stop! What is this? Who is this talking? Can he be serious? Of course not. Of course not.... Stand still for a moment. Do you really want to go down that path? No, of course not! Still, it is just right there, free for the taking....

     This is crazy! Can you trust yourself to contact the authorities when you get back to camp? Will that part of your mind keep scheming and eventually come up with a “foolproof” plan? Oh, Hell. This will be agony. I can't put myself through this kind of mental torture. Best to put an end to it right now.

     Turn around. Go back to the scene of the crime. Hmm. Almost missed it. Sure is easy to hide stuff out here in the bushes. Pull out the phone. Dial 911. Yes, poke the big green phone button.

     “What is your emergency?”

     “I am walking in the desert and have found what appears to be an illegal drug drop.”

     “What is your location?”

     And from there it was just questions and answers. No going back now. Wait for the Border Patrol to collect the stuff and get it out of my sight. Sit tight so I don't lose it and let them come to me from the directions I gave the dispatcher. Wait and trust them to show up, since my phone isn't connected to the cell phone network except for emergency calls.

     So I stood there and waited. I thought I might be able to see them drive up to the catch basin, and then I could wave my sweatshirt as a signal flag. I stood there until standing became both boring and uncomfortable. Then I decided to sit. That effectively hid me from view, since the creosote bushes were a little taller than my head. Maybe I would hear them drive up. Maybe they would have sense to honk their horn.

     Hey, this is a good opportunity to meditate! Focus on the breath. My back feels great. Boy the Sun is hot. Maybe it is time to take off some clothing. Sit cross legged, focus on the breath. Hmm. My back is okay, but not great. It must be my posture. Put my hands on my knees. That hunches my shoulders. Put my hands in my lap. Shoulders are better but now the small of my back is hurting.

     Okay, maybe it is time to lay down. Arrange the folded up shirt and sweatshirt and cap like a beach blanket and pretend you are sunbathing. Better yet, go ahead and take off the T-shirt and work on the upper body tan. You want to look brown and healthy when you get back to Wyoming, don't you? Turn this way and wait. Turn that way and wait. Get a nice even roasting. The human hot dog on the rotisserie.

     Gee, this is taking too long. I guess it is time to start walking out. Maybe the Border Patrol had other pressing business. I could call 911 again, but would I get the same dispatcher? I'll just count my paces and stay on the line between the two opposite landmarks. That will have to do, because I can't stay out here any longer.

     And there the pickup is, behind the berm of the catch basin. And there are the deputies, roaming in the brush south of the basin. They see me and start back to the truck. Sheriff, not Border Patrol. Two young men dressed in black. Very trim and businesslike.  They had been out here for a few hours looking for me, miles from here on the other side of the cell phone towers.  Evidently my directions got garbled somewhere down the line.

     So, yes, I can lead them back to the drop, but I have to get lined up on my landmarks and count my paces back. Here we go, fanned out in an advancing sweep through the brush. I walk right past them and one of the deputies cries out “Here!”. Yes, these are the ones. Three of them.

     “Take some for yourself?” says one of the deputies, with a slight hint of humor in his voice.

     “It's tempting, and that's why I dialed 911. I thought about it. If this was back in my 20's I might have considered it, but now I know it's not that simple. You don't get anything for free. I don't want to enter that world.”

     That's not what I had planned to say. I was doing my civic duty, right? I was helping fight crime and the corrosive effects of the drug trade on our society, right? I was morally upright and pure, right? Right. Or was I just afraid of the consequences if I got caught? Was I just wanting them to take this burden off my hands so I wouldn't be tempted? Where was my moral fortitude now?

     I think the deputy got my meaning. Maybe he was only half joking when he suggested I sample the stash. Neither of us pursued that line of conversation. Instead, I started asking him questions.

     No, it wasn't dropped by airplane and lost due to faulty navigation. It was carried here forty miles from the border. The backpack on top probably contained socks and underwear, and maybe some food and water. The straps that were rotted away held the whole business on the smuggler's back. By the looks of it, the bundles had been here for about a year. They were abandoned because the smugglers got spooked and ran. Maybe somebody was hot on their ass.

     And then I asked the question that would damn me forever.

     “Well, I estimate there is about 110 pounds here, and at $800 per pound that is a little less than $100 thousand.”

     Okay, that is what somebody might make from it going through the drug cartel. This stuff was probably ruined by sitting out in the rain and Sun for a year, no matter how well packed it was to begin with. And what average citizen would know how to unload 110 pounds of weed?

     Worthless. Worse than worthless. Sucker bait. Put you away for the rest of your life. Slam! Try looking at the stars from a prison window. That would be a different sort of retirement. No. Pinch off that possible future at the bud.

*

     The deputies thanked me several times. They gave me some water and a ride back to my camp. One even came back that evening with my shirt and sweatshirt that I had left in the back of the truck. He said “If there's anything you need, just give us a holler.”

     That made me feel pretty good. Maybe I wasn't just freeloading off of Uncle Sam by camping on public land. Maybe I was helping this place and these people somehow. It must have changed me, because when I went to the Mercantile a few days later for wire, a new garden trowel, water, propane, and some groceries, everybody seemed to be so friendly and nice. The checkout girl was cute and wanted to make sure she wasn't overcharging me for the propane, and even said “I'll never charge anybody for water out here in the desert.”

      The other sales lady even said that she and her husband owned some vacant lots in Hachitas in response to my question about buying land. Could it be that I was becoming a member of this community?

On a recent outing to Parker for supplies I decided to take the scenic route back to camp, so went east to Bouse, a small town, and then north on the Swansea Road toward the old mine site of Swansea.  On the way I crossed a concrete-lined canal which diverts water to -- you guessed it -- Los Angeles, and just past that was the most amazing landscape.  It was called the East Cactus Plain Wilderness, and was unique in that it had sand dunes and a profusion of ocotillo bushes, which look like cacti but aren't because they have actual leaves.  Their stalks are straight and spiney, reaching maybe 8 to 12 feet high, and are a livid, bright green this time of the year.  (Earl told me that they turn black and dead-looking in the summer, but come back to life when moisture is available.)  These ones were starting to leaf out, so maybe spring is coming to the Arizona desert.  Check out the colors: blue sky, green spires, and red sand dune.  It looked pretty dramatic to me.

Ocotillo plants on sand dunes

After visiting the Chiricahua Desert Museum with Jerry last week, I was convinced that I would die in the desert of multiple rattlesnake bites. The museum had a whole room filled with snakes, in glass cages of course, but still the effect was unsettling. It gave me the impression that the desert was just crawling with those creatures, and that any excursion into the wilderness was fraught with danger. I saw snakebite first aid kits with their knife blades and suction cups, and shin guard leggings made of steel. I didn't have any of that stuff.

 

Rusty, the owner and operator of Rusty's RV Ranch, where Jerry and I stayed for a week, tried to reassure me that even though those creatures are out there, they usually won't bother you if you don't threaten them. Reaching for a snake is a no-no. Knowing that snakes generally seek warmth during the day and hide underground at night could give me an idea of places to avoid. It didn't really matter, though. No matter what, the desert was my destination after Jerry left on Sunday.

 

I had to pack up my telescope the night before and even at that, it was after 11:00 AM when I finally had my car packed and ready to go. As usual, I was searching for spare cubic inches to store last minute items, only this time it was even more difficult since I had 20 gallons of water in 5 gallon collapsible containers on the front seat of my car, plus all the groceries from our week long stay at Rusty's plus the additional ones I bought in Douglas on Saturday. It seemed like my car was squatting even lower than usual with the weight. Maybe it was due to the wet laundry, since I ran a load in Rusty's laundry before leaving, planning to hang the clothing out to dry on creosote bushes when I reached my campsite.

 

I did drag bottom several times on the road up to the camp spot Jerry and I had scoped out a few days earlier, but I straddled the ruts in the road and managed to avoid the bigger rocks. I was unpacking my tent and setting up my telescope equipment by early afternoon in anticipation of a night of observing, having sacrificed a clear night the day before due to packing up early. It was a little breezy, but not too bad and I got the tent set up without issues and then settled in for the night with a meal of waffles topped with yogurt, which reminded me of Sylvia and her gigantic Belgian waffle topped with strawberries, bananas, kiwi fruit, and probably blueberries.

 

Since it was cloudy near the horizon at sunset, and the clouds got denser toward 10 PM, I decided to turn in and climbed into my sleeping bag, in my freshly laundered bag liner. I put on my socks, long underwear, and soft sleeved sweatshirt for sleeping, as I didn't know how cold it would get during the night. It turned out to be somewhat too warm for that and my sleeping bag, but I was still relatively comfortable. Around 1 AM the stars were out, but it looked somewhat cloudy so I stayed in bed, even though the telescope was ready and the computer was booted to Windows, but in sleep mode.

 

By morning it was somewhat chilly, enough for my Patagonia coat that Suzanne gave me, so I cooked my breakfast in my improvised kitchen between my observing and sleeping tents. With a big pot of rice, lentils, potatoes, butternut squash, broccoli, onion, ginger, garlic, egg, sunflower seed, mushroom and red pepper breakfast, I headed off into the brush for my first walk in the new campsite. What would I see? There weren't any of the tall saguaro cacti, but occasional yucca and lots of creosote bushes. Would there be any snakes?

 

Heading for the hills to the right of the cell phone towers, I worked my way between the creosote bushes, always keeping my eyes on the ground and avoiding any areas where I couldn't see the ground clearly. I walked up slope toward some mountains in the distance, occasionally crossing small drainages and one good sized gully but didn't see anything slither or scurry. Slowly my anxiety faded. There might have been snakes out there, but they must have been sleeping underground, as it was still somewhat chilly at 9 AM. There was lots of evidence of underground habitation, with rabbit holes and perhaps even some fox burrows. There were even some dog-like tracks, so maybe coyotes were around too.

 

The thought occurred to me that living in a comfortable environment like the park model trailer at Rusty's, or even in a motor home or camper, made you more afraid of the outdoors. The desert museum played upon that fear by offering so many examples of venomous snakes. That probably gave most tourists the impression that the desert was a dangerous and hostile environment, where yo had to protect yourself at every moment or you would most certainly die. How different was my experience! The ground was somewhat soft with the gravel and dirt fluffed by the winter rain and freeze-thaw cycles, and there was green grass interspersed between creosote bushes, but it seemed pleasant enough in the warmth of the morning Sun.

 

t made me feel good to be back out in the wilderness. There was a sense of utter peace and quiet. I was alone and could do as I pleased. All my needs were satisfied. The landscape was empty and yet full. The sky was unobstructed and waiting for my telescope and camera. It was like the ocean, vast and wild, yet seemingly placid and buoyant. Maybe this was where I belonged, being a Pisces. There is a funny connection between the ocean and the desert.

 

Sitting in my tent enjoying a cup of tea, I did receive a welcome from my neighbors, though. I was not totally alone, but the object of curiosity for a small group of cattle.

Another beautiful sunset in the desert

There must be some law that says the longer you stay in one place the harder it is to move.  Call it a modification of Newton's second law, which states that an object's momentum will stay constant unless acted upon by an exterior force.  Newton would say that when you stop moving, you tend to stay that way unless something pushes you.  I would add the "rooting" effect, that the longer you stay in one place the more force it takes to get you moving again.  Putting down roots is only part of the reason.  The other part is that you tend to collect mass when you stay in one place, an so you have more of it to get moving again.

My campsite is a great example.  I have been in this one spot north of Quartzsite for over three weeks (yes, beyond the 14 day limit) and seem to be putting down roots.  (Lord knows I have fertilized the ground enough with my bodily wastes!)  Paths are starting to form where I cross the wash.  The ground is turning to powder around my sleeping tent, where I have to kneel to enter and exit.  A few days ago during a trip to Parker and then to Bouse to check out the Swansea Mine road, I started thinking of getting home before dusk.  Home, mind you.

So it takes more force to get me moving again.  Nature and my neighbors are supplying it.  Nature is waking up here, or at least the desert creatures are.  There are spiders now and lizards, seemingly where you least expect them.  There are other tracks besides just mine.  Something is starting to dig up one of my tent stakes.  The bees are back and attracted to any standing water (as in my diswater bucket).  The weather is warming up, making it uncomfortable in my office/observatory tent during the day and in my sleeping tent at night.  My vegetables aren't staying fresh as long since they don't cool sufficiently at night.

Oh, the neighbors.  They run their generator about four hours per day.  Maybe they cook with a microwave.  At night I think they like to watch TV.  Their dogs have been over to check me out.  Sometimes they start a fire in the evening and let it smoulder into the night, filling my camp with a smell of burning trash.  It's the equivalent of suburban living.

As for accumulated mass, that has been mostly food.  Last time I was in Parker at the Walmart, I stocked up on rice, lentils, gluten free flour, sunflower seeds, and oatmeal.  Oh, and Earl gave me some of his paperback novels and some AAA trip books.  Not much added mass really, but yu get my point.  It is more stuff to pack and cart around.

Along with the push by neighbors and nature is the pull of meeting my brother in an RV park east of Portal, close to the New Mexico border.  He will be there on Friday the 4th of March, and I will meet him there for a week of astronomy together.  That should be a lot of fun.  He rented a cabin and I will pitch my observing tent next to it and sleep on the floor inside the cabin.  It will be deluxe compared to my usual setup.

So before I tear down my observatory I want to check which way the counterweight is pointing when the laser beam is dead on Polaris.  That will help me with rough polar alignment when I get to the RV park.  I also need to look at the current logs on the motors and try to figure out why the sidereal tracking keeps shutting down after about an hour of use.  I think it is a balance issue, plus the need to better tune the three parameters that control the motor current, acceleration, and dampening.  There is an optimal setting where the mount can move swiftly to a new object without overshooting it, hold it in the camera as it moves across the sky, and resist any pressure to move it, such as wind gusts on the telescope tube.  I would like to have all that figured out before I set up again in Portal.

So I am looking forward to a change of scenery and some higher elevations.  Maybe the desert creatures will still be asleep where I am going and the nights will be colder, making my food keep longer and my sleeping more comfortable.  It might also be darker, since there are fewer light-polluting towns in that area of Arizona.  We shall see in just a few days.