Thursday, August 2, 2012

(31st in a series of) Stepping Stones "The Homeless Lady, the Padre, and the Desert Cowboy"

Song: Dead Flowers
Album: Sticky Fingers
Released:  April, 1971

Joshua Tree National Park is a site to behold.  The massive area in the remote interior of Southern California includes the convergence zone of 2 of the USA's 4 desert types:  The high-desert Mohave and the low-desert Colorado.  Driving the 60 or so miles from North to South, finds you descending 4000 feet in elevation from one to the other, and in the process witnessing a complete transition in plant life:  Joshua Trees and smaller yucca dominate the landscape in the Mohave; cholla cactus and ocotillo thrive in the Colorado.  

Joshua Tree NP also includes a countless number of rocky outcrops, which are all-encompassing as you weave your way through the upper section of the park.  The outcrops come in a variety shapes and size, inspiring nicknames over the centuries, including Skull Rock, Cap Rock, and Jumbo.  These rock heaps and the park in general, have attracted people from far and wide.  Interestingly enough, a large number of the visitors come from other countries, as for whatever reason Americans are not as enamored as foreigners are with this national treasure.  One of these foreigners was Keith Richards, who got the inside scoop from one of his best buddies, Gram Parsons, back in the early 70s. 

Both of their presence was felt by me this past Monday as I toured the region with the family.  At one point, looking at Skull Rock and thinking about Richards’ skull ring, I looked over at Nancy and stated “I believe I have my idea for this week’s Stepping Stone”.

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Gram Parsons, a fascinating American musician who I’ve written about on a handful of occasions, including a Gem of his own (GMVW # 66) connected with Keith Richards on a number of levels.  One, unfortunately, was heroin addiction, which would ultimately cut short his life at the age of 27.  Richards would eventually get over his own addiction (a classic line in his book, ‘Life’ has him stating “I believe it gave up on me”), but he was in the throes of it for about a decade, likely starting around the period when the Stones produced the songs for ‘Sticky Fingers’ in 1971.  And the song on the album that most reflects this aspect of his life at the time is this week’s Stepping Stone, Dead Flowers ( ).

Don’t let the upbeat sound of this song fool you:  Dead Flowers is heavy, possibly inspired by Richards’ darker memories at the time with Parsons.  The lyrics are a loose yet effective contrast between two worlds:  The highbrow society interests of an unnamed woman friend and the basement dwelling needle and spoon lifestyle of the songwriter himself.  This was what I was thinking about when I turned to Nancy in front of Skull Rock, and this was what had me thinking about my own world of contrast in the days leading up to our visit to Joshua Tree National Park.  The contrast of my world to a handful of others whose lives temporarily overlapped my own ended up rounding itself out even more over the ensuing hours, down in the remote – and unusually rainy during our drive through - Mexican border region of the Salton Sea.

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San Diego has something for everyone.  I’ve had the fortune of having visited now on four occasions, the most recent taking place over 10 days ending just this past Tuesday.  The first part of the trip was work related, attending the - at times overwhelming - ESRI Users Conference at the Convention Center downtown (17,000 people scurrying about from one session to another can do that to you).  The work aspect of my trip overlapped the play with the arrival of Peter, Charlotte, and Nancy on Wednesday afternoon.  They were able to join me at ESRI family nite that evening; Charlotte getting a good dose of GIS, a field she is showing interest in as she prepares for college in another year.  The next seven days played out wondrously: Sea lions on the rocks and in the caves in La Jolla; the orangutan against the glass in the San Diego Zoo along with the California condors perched high on their stand and many other amazing animals; the Spanish band in the secluded balcony in Balboa Park; a night on a yacht with Nancy’s longtime friend in the harbor; Old Town dining; Palm Springs; Coronado; Torrey Pines, and of course the aforementioned Joshua Tree NP.

Along with all this, however, were a few poignant moments of reflection after observing and connecting with several of the locals.  The first of them was a homeless lady. I stayed in Old Town just about the entire visit, and spent some time touring the streets in the evening and early morning. I kept on running into her, mostly before the family arrived.  She had a hard-times look about her; hunched, thin, unkempt, confused, and likely years older looking than her true age.  She was a reminder of my good fortune, and I made sure I connected with her, tried to understand her daily existence.  Beyond these encounters, however, I did not put much more thought into our brief moments of intersection …. that was until listening to the priest during Sunday Mass at Old Town’s Immaculate Conception. 

This past week’s gospel reading was the miracle of the 5 loaves and 2 Fishes.  I could have caught it anywhere, but something tells me I was meant to catch this particular sermon.  The padre, having only overseen the Old Town congregation for less than a month, was young, fiery, and intense.  We caught him at a good time and for the perfect reading.  After the gospel he paused for thought before beginning his homily.  He started by asking the congregation if any of us had ever dreamed of hamburgers.  After a mood-lightening moment relating to Wimpy of Popeye fame, he stated that there was a time in his life when he dreamed of hamburgers quite often.  The reason?  He was for many years a homeless person himself.  Wow.  Having pondered the thought of what this must be like over the days prior to this moment had this all connecting strongly with me.  The padre then continued by mentioning the homeless guy he talks with across the street from the church every day and another person who has stood on a corner in the same general area for years (he emphasized the word “years”), raising money for the poor.  He wrapped up his sermon in ways only a priest can, connecting back with the miracle of the loaves and fishes and the nourishment of faith.

The homeless lady.  The priest.  Worlds apart I was with both, but interconnected during my personal forays in a way that stuck, maybe even deeper than the work and play parts of the week.   Keith Richards explained contrast with another soul in song.  This tied in as well, giving me a template to work with.  There was one more unexpected piece of the puzzle, however:  The desert cowboy.

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Back to the Salton Sea > yes, it was actually raining there, this otherwise dry and desolate region. Heading back west on the only road (Rte. 78 to Julian) for many miles toward the mountain passes ahead we came across a rare event:  A series of flash floods cutting across the highway.  I’d never seen this and pointed it out to the kids.  One was still flowing over the road, a few feet deep.  We made it through and continued on another mile or so.  The next one though had left a 3 foot mound of mud in its wake.  This one was impossible to drive across.  There were at least 8 cars stopped dead in their tracks ahead of us, folks milling about and wondering what to do.  The mountain pass was just up ahead and tempting me:  Just another few miles to get out of the flats, the tumble weeds, cactus, and the ocotillo plants and into the conifer-dominated forest of the high slopes.  But now we were facing at least 3 hours of additional driving taking us first backward and then due South to the Mexican border (with no guarantee that we would not run into another flash flood).  I glanced to the right: A tow truck was stuck in the mud in an area just off the road as he had tried in vain to go around the mud.  A tow truck!  This was not a good sign.  Border patrol police were advising folks to turn around. 

Close to admitting defeat, I began talking with a gentleman, a local, driving with his wife:  Cowboy hat, cowboy boots; the whole nine yards.  He was yet another person a world apart from me, as there are not many more contrasting of landscapes and cultures in the country than Pepperell Massachusetts and the Salton Sea region.  He was willing to guide us along a dirt-road bypass, which cut off the main road about a mile back.  But his truck was a 4-wheel drive and ours a compact rental.  No guarantees.  We drove in about 100 yards, but it was soon clear neither of us were going farther when we encountered a large pooling of water.  We talked a bit.  I thanked him for trying to help us, and we turned around back up to the road.  Before heading backward, I gave the mud pile one last look.  2 cars were now completely engulfed in it; foolhardy drivers, but understandably desperate to make it through. 

Then I watched the desert cowboy cut just off the road back behind us and drive onto an adjacent dirt path down in the gully, flooring it as he went past us.  He made it through!  Yet it appeared he had a ways to go as we were told by the driver of a vehicle on the other side of the mud pile that there was another wash out up ahead.  We all watched the desert cowboy.  It was not until another 200 yards and several minutes later that we saw him bounce back up onto the highway.  He was on his way home.

Stubbornness set upon me.  I decided to go for it, try the same thing he did (with vehement verbal coaching from Peter and moral support from Nancy and Charlotte).  A few places, I got out of the car and cased out the situation.  It must have been similar to how the prairie travelers felt in their covered wagons 200 years earlier, crossing rivers and mud without bridges.  We got to the point where the 3-foot mud pile covered the road above, but now we were down in the gully.  Seeing that I was not to be denied, a border patrol officer called out and advised that I move through slowly, not follow the same fast-moving approach as the desert cowboy with the 4-wheel drive.  I agreed, tapping into my blizzard-driving sensibilities from years of driving back east. We plodded ahead… and made it! 

The hardest part was yet to come, though.  After passing the 2nd washout in a relatively painless manner, we had to get back up on the road:  Straight ahead was a completely flooded area and there was no way of going through that.  I surveyed the immediate area, again on foot, and figured I had to ease onto the road at a gradual pace:  If I went straight over the hump we would bottom out.  There was no going back now.  I cleared out a few boulders in our way and then got back in the car.  A short prayer, and away we went.  Up, up, ….. and on!  Home free!  I’m guessing the crowd around the cars in my rearview mirror was clapping…..or maybe they were cursing.

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Dead Flowers was such a great song to see played in concert back in 1989.  On record, the song is about as close to singing in harmony as one will ever hear from the Glimmer Twins, and Jagger/Richards were somehow able to replicate their notes once more all those years later. Listening again to the song this week I was reminded of Kris Kristofferson in Sunday Morning Coming Down (“Well I woke up Sunday morning with no way to hold my head that didn’t hurt”):  Another song about contrasting worlds.  For Richards it was the contrast of the basement dweller and the socialite; for Kristofferson, the man with the Sunday hangover (he, himself) and the church goers. 

Yet are these worlds really all that contrasting?  In my case not so much.  I was able to relate to the folks I connected with last week in one way or another: The Homeless Lady, the Padre, and the Desert Cowboy.  We are all entwined: Human, living out our lives as best we can.  With a little effort, one can make connections with just about anybody.  The locals of Southern California were a strong reminder of this fact.

-          Pete

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