Learn Something New Everyday!

Scenic sounds a bit too generic, too common.  Idyllic sounds too poetic.  I guess if I needed to describe Bosque del Apache in one word, I would use pastoral or rustic.  But it really is a challenge to capture in words the essence of a visit to Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge in New Mexico.  I visited this refuge in May 2014 and almost had the place to myself.  I shared it with a few other visitors, quite a few birds, some mule deer, and a bunny.

Getting to Bosque del Apache should have been easy.  It is situated off Interstate 25 between Albuquerque and Las Cruces.  I even had my new GPS to help me plan the route.  The problem was that I did not have an address and the little towns it was close too were too small to be in the GPS database.  It seemed lucky—at first—that one of the websites I was reviewing about the location had one of those how-to-get-there-from-wherever-you-are features set up.  I plugged in my hotel’s address and received what appeared to be a back road’s route into the refuge.  At one time along the way I would even be traveling on old Route 66.  How cool was that?  The total distance implied I would arrive at my destination in about 30 minutes.

Armed with these directions, I started out, quickly being led to a back road vs. a major thoroughfare.  The directions seemed to be working.  All the turns were showing up right on schedule.  But there were a few glitches.  As I went along, fewer of the roads were marked, and most were not paved.  Eventually I turned off the main back road I was on, but the new road was rough dirt and gravel with lots of pot holes and seemed to cut across a farmer’s fields.  As I drove, the route became progressively worse, bouncing me along through the dust allowing me to travel maybe 8 miles an hour.  When my next turn displayed the road sign “unpaved bureau of land management road” and the gravel and pot holes worsened, I decided it would be better to find another route.

Now, don’t get me wrong.  It was a beautiful drive.

I loved the wide open vistas, the blue skies, even the cattle who wandered back and forth between the fields and the “road.”  After I turned around, I made it back to the interstate and had been out and about on my wild goose chase for only a couple hours. For the rest of the day, I figured I would take a drive and see what I could find.  And there it was, right off the interstate, a little sign saying “Bosque del Apache.”  I took the exit and followed the county road to my destination.  The route still seemed fairly isolated, but there were houses and it was paved.

I was delighted to have finally arrived at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuse.  I was hoping for a chance to enjoy nature in solitude, marveling at a few wildflowers and maybe some birds.  I was not disappointed.  If I had visited in the fall, I would have seen many more birds. At that time of year, 10,000 sandhill cranes and some bald eagles settle in for the season.  But the heat was not too bad, there was a slight breeze, and I saw quite a few birds and only a couple other people.  Nature and Solitude—my kind of day!

Most of the refuge was accessible via various self-guided auto tours that traversed along fields and waterways.  The Visitors Center was a nice little respite where I could ask a few questions, use the bathroom, and buy a few postcards.  When I returned to the Center late in the day, after closing hours, I saw a road runner dart across the driveway, too fast to allow a picture.  This little bunny must’ve felt he was hidden well enough in the bushes that he did not need to run away.

But the best part of the day was the silence, the solitude, the beauty, the activity as I wandered along the byways and waterways of this wildlife refuge that covers over 57,000 acres in the heart of the Rio Grande Valley. The website’s description says the refuge is a verdant and fertile land—and that is certainly true.  I could not help but think of Basho’s words: “Amidst the splendor of the scene and the silence, I was filled with a wonderful peace.” 

It was a great day!

 DO YOU HAVE A FAVORITE PLACE WHERE YOU GO FOR SILENCE AND SOLITUDE?

DISCOVERING THE NOVELS

First OneI keep being surprised that Alexander McCall Smith is a man.  You see, he writes a series of detective novels called The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency—and he seems to capture the heart and soul of the main character Precious Ramotswe so well that I keep figuring a woman must have created her.  The whole series focuses more on relationships and life than on the mysteries to be solved. However, there is a social conscience as well, as background issues surface periodically such as AIDS, domestic violence, sexual harassment, and women’s rights, adding texture and awareness to the stories.  Each novel also takes the readers on a wondrous visit to Botswana in all its complexities.

Each novel centers on solving a mystery or two of some sort.  But these mysteries are not anything as grand as a pre-meditated murder, car chases, or acts of espionage.  The mysteries solved by Mma Ramotswe tend to be simple problems of everyday people. She is helping people, not just solving crimes. The interactions between the characters unfold at a leisurely pace with patience and courtesy.  As Booklist notes in its review, “The brilliance of this series. . . is that what may seem like tiny cases expand into considerations of virtue, love, ambition, greed, and evil.”

Blue ShoesIn the first novel in the series—The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency (1998)—not only does Mma Ramotswe open her agency with an inheritance from her father, but she solves several cases: finds proof about a philandering husband, brings a con man to light, and returns a kidnapped boy to his family.  In the seventh book in the series, Blue Shoes and Happiness (2006), the detective investigates the irrational fear taking hold of the employees at the Mokolodi Game Reserve and the problematic blood pressure readings being given by a doctor.  In the fourteenth book in the series, The Minor Adjustment Beauty Salon, Mma Ramotswe investigates the rightful heir to an inheritance and determines who is undermining the success of a newly opened business, and why.

Every novel in the series intertwines several cases that need the detective’s attention against the lives of the primary characters.  Mma Ramotswe solves her clients’ problems with patience, a good sense of humor, keen observations and an understanding of human nature.  She spends some of her time reading her favorite book, The Principles of Private Detection by Clovis Andersen, reflecting on the problems at hand, and drinking a cup of red bush tea. There is enough suspense and complexity in the problems to keep the readers engaged, but the real intrigue is seeing the primary characters interact as their friendships grow.

Grace Makutsi is Mma Ramotswe’s quirky, somewhat critical even prickly secretary who wears large thick glasses and aspires to being an assistant detective.  She can be intrusive and outspoken, but she has a heart of gold and a willingness to help.  Mma Ramotswe’s neighbor is J. L. B. Matekoni, the best car mechanic in Botswana and owner of Speedy Motors.  He is kind, honest, and very soft-spoken, almost shy. He is a generous soul, always willing to help.  He treats cars and their owners with respect and can easily read what a car reveals about its owner.  Mr. Matekoni’s cautious courtship of Mma Ramotswe unfolds over several novels and helps bring to light some of the sorrow and misery of Mma Ramotswe’s past.

Mr. Makekoni has two apprentices—Charlie and Fanwell—who grow up a little throughout the novels and are featured in several cases throughout the series.  An occasional character is Mma Potokwane, who runs the local orphanage. Her skill is talking others into volunteering for various tasks to help the orphans.  She is a friend and confidant to both Mma Ramotswe and Mr. Matekoni, and the orphanage grounds become the setting for many scenes throughout the novels.  Other characters surface and become part of this extended family of sorts as the novels evolve.

Each character is finely drawn and seems so very true to life.  The behaviors and idiosyncrasies of these people remind most readers of people they know.  Throughout the series, the characters build their friendships, pulling readers along with them on every risk, insight, and adventure.  Finding how their lives unfold through whatever situations erupt in each novel keeps the readers turning page after page.  These are characters the readers want to know.

authorThere are two other constant characters in these novels that are closely intertwined and work together to add a unique element to the novels.  The first of these unique characters is Botswana itself.  Scottish author Alexander McCall Smith was born in what is now Zimbabwe and lived for a time in Botswana teaching law at the university. His knowledge of the country’s nature, history and culture are infused throughout the novels.  His respect for the land, its people, and their culture and traditions is evident. Mma Ramotswe is the main voice that champions Botswana and its virtues.

The other unique character that helps Smith and his character Mma Romatswe explore tradition and its role in modern Botswana is her late father, Obed Romatswe. He lives on in her memories and often comes to mind as she contemplates how to solve a case. His lessons to her as a child and her memories of him bring the culture to life. Most of these memories of her father are grounded in nature.  Thus the Botswana countryside—whether a desolate drive to her old village or the sun setting over her garden each evening—becomes an integral character within each novel.  The Boston Globe notes that any novel in the series can be “set apart from the genre by the quality of its writing, as well as by its exotic setting.”

Minor AdjustmentThe following reflection from The Minor Adjustment Beauty Salon shows the importance the author and his main character Mma Romatswe share about Botswana, about its importance and influence on all activity:

“. . . and yet all of us had a view from somewhere, a view of the world from the perspective of who we were, of what had happened to us, of how we thought about things. Her [Mma Romastwe’s] view was the view from Mochudi, where she had been brought up by her late father, that great man, Oded Ramotswe. And his view had been the view from where? The view from Botswana, she decided: the view of the world that seemed essentially and naturally right, because it was a view that understood how things really were and how God must surely have intended them to be when He first made Botswana. She smiled to herself as she savoured the idea that God had looked at the world, seen a wide stretch of land, and had said, This shall be Botswana. He had given it the Kalahari; He had given it the good land along the eastern border, and had added, for good measure, the Makadikadi Salt Pans.”

Good HusbandMore than the symbolic aspect of Botswana in the novels, everyday nature is also a constant reminder of the world the characters live in and react to. The desolate roads, the waiting for rain to end the long dry summers, the cattle of the past and the present in fields and streets, the need to be on the lookout for wild animals crossing one’s path especially snakes, the personal garden where husband and wife can sit together—all these elements of nature are a constant in the novels.  More than setting a scene, nature becomes part of the constant, cyclical, certainty of the Botswana way of life that is captured in these novels.  In the eighth novel, The Good Husband of Zebra Drive (2007), this awareness of nature is captured:

“They were just coming to the end of winter now, and there were signs of the return of warmth, but the mornings and the evenings could still be bitterly cold, as this particular morning was. Cold air, great invisible clouds of it, would sweep up from the south-east, from the distant Drakensberg Mountains and from the southern oceans beyond; air that seemed to love rolling over the wide spaces of Botswana, cold air under a high sun.

“Once in the kitchen, with a blanket wrapped about her waist, Mma Ramotswe switched on Radio Botswana in time for the opening chorus of the national anthem and the recording of cattle bells with which the radio started the day. This was a constant in her life, something that she remembered from her childhood, listening to the radio from her sleeping mat while the woman who looked after her started the fire that would cook breakfast for Precious and her father, Obed Ramotswe. It was one of the cherished things of her childhood, that memory; as was the mental picture that she had of Mochudi (her home village) as it then was, of the view from the National School up on the hill; of the paths that wound through the bush this way and that but which had a destination known only to the small scurrying animals that used them. These were things that would stay with her forever, she thought, and which would always be there, no matter how bustling and thriving Gaborone might become. This was the soul of her country; somewhere there, in that land of red earth, of green acacia, of cattle bells, was the soul of her country.”

MY RECOMMENDATION

If you have not read any of the novels in this series yet, they are worth your time and effort.  The first book in the series, The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, was published in 1998. The Plain Dealer praised it as “One of the best, most charming, honest, hilarious and life-affirming books to appear in years.”  That review can be applied to any of the fifteen books in the series.  Other reviews capture the heart of the series as well.  The New York Times Book Review concludes, “Smith’s big-hearted Botswana stories. . . [allow] his readers to escape into a world of simple, picturesque pleasures and upstanding virtues.”   The Daily Mail (London) declares the series “Wonderful, hilarious, totally addictive. . . [with] wit worthy of Jane Austen.”  There is good reason for the novels to have achieved international acclaim.

AN HBO FILM ADAPTATION

Jill ScottHBO Film SeriesYou might also want to watch The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency seven-episode Original Series created by HBO in 2008.  This film version of many of the novels is well done as it captures the heart and soul of the characters and the location.  The casting and acting are impressive; the characters come alive for me just as I envisioned them.  Jill Scott, especially, brings Mma Ramostwse to life as a living breathing character of traditional build and proud of it. She is quick to smile and courteous to a fault, as is tradition in Botswana.  US Weekly gave the series Four Stars.  Entertainment Weekly concluded it was “Feel-Good Television.”

TearsOne of my favorite cases from the book series is told in the second novel, The Tears of the Giraffe (2000), and it was included in the fourth episode of the HBO series called “The Boy with an African Heart.” This case involves the disappearance of a young American years ago in the Botswana plains.  CCH Pounder beautifully plays the American mother visiting this country her son loved so much, trying to discover his fate.   The interaction between mother, detective and landscape is compelling.  This one case/novel/episode captures the essence of the entire series.

Overall, the film adaptation is not 100% faithful to the novels’ characters and cases, but it is true to the essence of the written series as it captures the novels’ main action and characters.  The main difference is the inclusion of a new secondary character, a gay hairdresser named BJ whose shop is next door to the detective agency.  He is a delight and fits right in with the intent and feeling of the series. Other changes are minor as might be expected moving print to visual media.  Perhaps the most impressive element of the HBO series is that it is filmed entirely on location in Botswana.  The color, the vibrancy, the openness of Botswana truly come alive as the stories unfold in this wonderful locale.

This following video is called Making of HBO’s No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, and it shows the spark and heart of the characters and the stories.  Maybe it will entice you to give the novels a try. Or at least to watch the HBO series.  Enjoy!

This second video is called the Gem of Botswana. It shows aspects of the country and culture that are captured in the books and the film series.  It shows how compelling Botswana is as the locale and the heart of The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency.  I would love to visit Botswana some day and enjoy a cup of red bush tree under the shade of an acacia tree.  In some ways, it would feel like going to visit a good friend.

If you have read or seen any of the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series, what do you think?  If not, I encourage you to give the novels or the HBO series a try.  You’ll be transported to Botswana and meet some fascinating characters.  You might want to slow down, appreciate life and nature around you, and enjoy a cup of red bush tea while you’re at it.

What books or film adaptations can you suggest?  There is at least another month left of summer!

THE NO. 1 LADIES’ DETECTIVE AGENCY NOVELS IN ORDER  (I love the titles!)

The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency

Tears of the Giraffe

Morality for Beautiful Girls

The Kalahari Typing School for Men

The Full Cupboard of Life

In the Company of Cheerful Ladies

Blue Shoes and Happiness

The Good Husband of Zebra Drive

The Miracle at Speedy Motors

The Time for the Traditionally Built

The Double Comfort Safari Club

The Saturday Big Tent Wedding Party

The Limpopo Academy of Private Detection

The Minor Adjustment Beauty Salon

The Handsome Man’s De Luxe Cafe

 

I always enjoy a good murder mystery, especially in the summer when I can lounge at the beach or curl up on the couch inside with the air conditioning.  These novels—although maybe not great literature—offer strong characters, intriguing plot twists, and exciting settings. The suspense of the mystery or thriller keeps me engaged, but the plots are not so intricate or themes so profound that I cannot be interrupted and keep continuity.  If I doze off while reading, no problem.  I can pick right back up again!

If I find a mystery author I like, I go back over and over.  Some of my go-to authors include Laurie King’s Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes series, Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum series, Tony Hillerman’s Jim Chee and Joe Leaphorn series, Sue Graftson’s alphabet mystery series, and James Patterson’s Women’s Murder Club series.  But I am always open for a good mystery to read, a new author to explore.

no rest for the deadA few weeks ago I was intrigued by a new title—No Rest for the Dead—because of its author.  I actually should say authors, plural.  What caught my eye about this tome was that it was a group project, written by 26 different mystery writers.  You know the concept of a progressive dinner?  Start a meal in one place and move on to another location for the next course?  That is how this book was created, a progressive draft where different authors wrote different chapters.

David Baldacci (author of King & Maxwell series) wrote the introduction to this collective endeavor and explained what a magnificent feat this joint project really was:This is a rare thing indeed because mystery writers are notoriously reclusive, paranoid, and unfriendly folks when it comes to their work. . . .  While they each deliver their own signature brand of storytelling to the novel, it is startling how these writers. . . have woven a yarn that seems to be the product of one mind, one imagination (albeit schizophrenic).”

And Baldacci was right:  No Rest for the Dead is an impressive collaboration. I was intrigued by the authors themselves, some of whom I had read before and enjoyed.  All are successful in their own ways, most having been on the NY Times Bestsellers List many times.  The 26 authors who worked together to create this murder mystery are listed below basically in order of the appearance of their contributions in the novel.  I have added a little info about the couple of authors that I have read before and liked:

  • Andrew F. Gulli
  • Jonathon Santlofer
  • Jeff Lindsay (Dexter series that was inspiration for Dexter TV show)
  • Alexander McCall Smith (The #1 Ladies Detective Agency and other series).
  • Raymond Khoury
  • Sandra Brown
  • Faye Kellerman
  • Kathy Reichs (Temperance Brennan series, basis for Bones TV show)
  • John Lescroart
  • T. Jefferson Parker
  • Lori Armstrong
  • Matthew Pearl
  • Michael Palmer
  • J. A. Jance
  • Gayle Kynds
  • R. L. Stine (Goosbumps series for kids)
  • Marcia Talley
  • Thomas Cook
  • Diana Gabaldon (Outlander series)
  • Peter James
  • Tess Gerritsen (Rizzoli & Isles series, basis for TV show)
  • Lisa Scottoline
  • Phillip Margolin
  • Jeffrey Deaver
  • Jeff Abbott
  • Marcus Sakey

I was also intrigued by No Rest for the Dead because of what prompted this extreme collaboration.  The idea of an anthology of mystery short stories that would generate income for cancer charities originated with Andrew J. Gulli, managing editor of Strand, the number one magazine for mystery and short story writers.  A friend of his, now late, suggested making the project a novel with many authors as a better way to entice readers.  That change helped the idea coalesce, and soon authors were coming on board for the project.  Gulli and his sister Lamia Gulli edited this jointly written novel. Other than payments to authors all proceeds are going to Leukemia & Lymphoma Society.  According to LLS, 148 people die from blood cancer every day.  Helping cancer research is a great cause!

Of course, the book will only sell and raise money for LLS if No Rest for the Dead is a good novel.  Fortunately, it is.  As the novel opens, the readers are aware that the woman convicted of killing her husband was put to death for his murder ten years ago.  But now, the main detective who helped convict her feels he was wrong and that an innocent woman was killed.  This former police detective, Jon Nunn, has been obsessed for the past decade with trying to find the truth.  This opening sets up a great dynamic, generating interest and suspense in finding the truth.

The plot unfolds in a two-part structure.  After the opening setup, the readers are taken back in time to just before the murder, so all the suspects and their actions can be clarified.  The murder victim is seen as arrogant and condescending, and many people have motive to kill him.  I don’t want to say that I cheered over the fact that he had been bumped off, but I was not very sad.  Then the readers are returned to the present when all these players are being brought together on the 10th anniversary of the convicted murderer’s death.  Current intrigue shows that someone is working to thwart the detective’s ongoing investigation to find out the truth.  As a reader, I was quickly committed to the plot, wanting desperately to know the truth about this murder.

Overall, No Rest for the Dead is a fun summer read. If you like murder mysteries, you will not be disappointed.  The characters are engaging, the action is compelling, and the final resolution offers a surprise twist.  I even stayed up one night to read just one more chapter. And then another.  But this mystery is also a good read for those who value the art of writing itself.  I was impressed by the smooth transition from one chapter to the next as new authors picked up the story and carried it forward.  The varying writing styles melded together well.  In fact, I was able to forget that so many different voices were penning this cohesive presentation.   I echo Baldacci’s comment on the success of this writing experiment:  “It’s hard what these writers have done. Give them their due.”

My final analysis?  Give it a try!  If you end up not liking No Rest for the Dead, most of your $10 will have gone to LLS. 

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

SOME QUOTES ON MURDER MYSTERIES (SORT OF)

“Novels are written word by word. If you can write a word, and then another word, you can write a novel—assuming your novel will be two words long. Here’s a two-word romance novel: I do. It’s also a murder mystery.”   Jarod Kintz

“Murder is easy, if no one suspects you.”  Agatha Christie

“The lady in the liquor store sold me a fifth of whiskey and the landlord’s name without taking her eyes off the book she was reading.”  Andrew Cotto

“The sweetest smiles hold the darkest secrets. . . “   Sara Shepard

“You don’t just spontaneously develop a fatal head wound.”  Detective Vega, CSI

“I specialize in murders of quiet, domestic interest.”  Agatha Christie

 “One must never set up a murder.  They just happen unexpectedly, as in life.”  Alfred Hitchcock

“There are 4 kinds of homicide: felonious, excusable, justifiable, and praiseworthy.”  Ambrose Bierce

“Truth will come to sight; murder cannot be hid long.”   William Shakespeare

“What the detective story is about is not murder but the restoration of order.”  P. D. James

 

What are your best summer reads? 

If you read murder mysteries, share some favorite authors!

James Garner (1928-2014)

JamesGarner as JPSeeing the headlines about James Garner’s death yesterday struck me harder than I would have expected.  I have always liked him, but I had not thought of him for years.  I immediately began reading the news accounts to see his age (86) and cause of death (not specific yet, but natural).  Although his career scanned six decades and he was first known on television as Bret Maverick, I think of him first and foremost as James Rockford from The Rockford Files (1974-1980).

rockford filesGarner’s portrayal of Rockford, the private detective, seemed so easy and natural.  This character was the good guy next door or maybe a favorite uncle.  He could take care of himself –and his dad—but preferred to think and talk his way out of problems.  He was kind and thoughtful, but could bend the law if needed and get things done.  He was funny too, in a down-to-earth sort of way. I can still see him storing his gun in the cookie jar and hear his leave-a-message-at-the tone line from the opening credits.

It seems that the qualities presented in the character were shared by the actor as well.  As an actor, Garner did not take himself too seriously, loved his wife, and worked in part to meet his family responsibilities.  He was talented and made acting look easy, but stayed humble even though he won various awards. He stood up for himself, successfully taking studios to court a couple times over the years.  He excelled both in movies and on television and was equally comfortable in dramatic as well as comedic roles.

murphys romancethe notebookGarner himself said he preferred roles that focused on relationships:  “Everyone wants blockbusters. I like to see a few pictures now and then that have to do with people and have relationships, and that’s what I want to do films about.”  Those relationship films of his are the ones I like the best too.  I watched several this weekend!  My favorites include Murphy’s Romance (1985), Space Cowboys (2000), Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood (2002), Maverick (1994), and Victor/Victoria (1982). I even liked Tank (1984), an odd little military-dad-protecting-his-son movie.  I plan to watch some of his earlier films soon as well:  The Children’s Hour (1961), The Great Escape (1963),and The Americanization of Emily (1964).  His last major movie role was The Notebook (2004). 

JamesGarner2Of course, all major news outlets shared the details of his life and career.  He was born in Oklahoma in 1928 as James Scott Bumgarner.  He was part Cherokee on his mother’s side.  She died when he was young, and his home life was not very good after that.  He left home at 16 by joining the Merchant Marines and eventually ended up in in the military, earning two purple hearts.  One of the times he was injured was from friendly fire, but he just figured he was in the wrong place at the wrong time.  He worked a wide range of jobs before falling into acting. He met his wife in 1956, and they were married two weeks later.  Defying the odds for a Hollywood-couple, they stayed married until his death.

Once he started acting, he stayed with it as long as success kept finding him—and it did. He made acting seem easy, and always stayed professional. Julie Andrews, who starred with him in The Americanization of Emily and Victor/Victoria, described James Garner as “a man’s man, a ladies’ man, a good ol’ boy in the best sense of the word, a curmudgeon (he’ll be the first to tell you).. . and a sweetheart.  I don’t know a lady who isn’t a little bit in love with him.” Gretchen Corbett, his co-star on The Rockford Files, described him this way:  “He’s also a very appealing human being. Both men and women feel safe with him; they feel like they get him.” In his article in the TimesJames Garner: Tribute to a Marvelous Maverick,” Richard Corliss concludes that Garner is an “engaging maverick, that rock of American confidence,” and that seems like an apt description.

tv-19561_1_james-garner-002

Reviewing Garner’s life and films, it is easier to see why his death hit me so hard.  He seems such an American anti-hero, the guy who keeps getting up, who works hard even though trouble finds him.  Plus he was a constant for me through my college years when I traveled to new locations and set out on my own.  He seemed grounded, a family man—even if he did not always have a family.  Like his character in The Great Escape, he seems to do what’s needed “to try to get home.”  Simply put, James Garner was a nice guy who happened to be a great actor.

He will be missed.

 

Do you have a favorite James Garner movie or television series?

Most of the time the adage “It Takes a Village” is said regarding the effective raising of children.  It references the extended family that steps up to help as needed no matter what the situation.  But in reality that need for others, for community, that need for a village, extends to all of us at all stages of our lives.  Sometimes we are the ones needing help.  Sometimes we are the ones helping out.  Give and take makes the village work.

I was reminded of this fact the other day by a little human interest news item here in my home town of Bakersfield, California.  Well, it is actually not so little.  Bakersfield is the ninth largest city in the state with a population of almost 350,000.  When the larger Bakersfield-Delano area and the surrounding smaller cities are considered, the population grows to almost 840,000. What amazes me about the city—that I was reminded of by this news item—is that Bakersfield is really a small town at heart.  There is a sense of community here.

The news story was nothing fancy.  The opening line gives the basics:  “Today 85-year-old Herbert Jackson got the keys to his newly refurbished home.”  County Code regulations at the beginning of the month condemned the home he lived in since 1960, boarded it up as unsafe and put him on the streets.  Mr. Jackson did not ask for help; it seems that he was going to try to figure out something on his own.

Fortunately, area volunteers decided to help without being asked because it was the right thing to do.  They banded together to bring his home up to code.  In fact, rather than just meeting the minimum standards, the volunteers rebuilt everything from the floor up and even brought in new appliances and furniture.  Mr. Jackson lived with one of the volunteers for the weeks required for the hundreds of hours of work to be completed.  When the house was again ready for him, he was given new keys and moved back home.  Mr. Jackson simply said, “I don’t know what to say, I think I’m going to cry.” He accepted the generosity of strangers, as a member of the village.

Mr. Jackson was not the only one who received something valuable through this interaction.  Those volunteers got something too, besides work.  Since Mr. Jackson graciously accepted their help, the volunteers were able to demonstrate caring and compassion, share in communal experience, and participate in the give and take that holds the village together.

These sorts of actions happen all the time, thank goodness.  When we buy Girl Scout cookies, donate to a charity, put items on the prayer chain at church, bring a casserole to a friend going through a hard time, celebrate someone’s graduation or retirement, we are part of the village.  When we stop to help someone on the road who has car trouble, pull together after a natural disaster, or offer whatever we can to address a problem situation, we are part of the village. When we pay it forward or commit a random act of kindness, we are part of the village.  It is humanity’s give and take.  We give help when we can, so we can graciously take the help when we need it.

This is not the first time that this realization, this need for community, has come to mind.  Not too long after graduating from high school I remember chatting with my mom about giving and accepting help.  We basically concluded that if you do not let people help you, you are diminishing them and their love and concern for you.  It is part of being a caring, responsive, helpful member of the village to accept help as well as give it.

Do you remember Dinah Shore?  Singer in the 1940s who kept singing and hosted television shows in the 1970s?  She even had a relationship with Burt Reynolds that was a bit of a scandal since he was 20 years younger than she was. Mom and I both liked Dinah Shore, and we also liked quotes.  I think it was a Dinah Shore quote that started our conversation way back then:  “Trouble is part of life—if you don’t share it, you don’t give the person who loves you a chance to love you enough.”  Mr. Jackson’s story brought this quote and my conversation with mom to mind.

Today, village or community is as important as ever for all of us.  Neighbors. Family—near and far.  Friends. Colleagues.  Even blogging associates.  Strangers. We help when we can, even if it is just a word of encouragement or understanding.  We receive help when it’s needed.  The cycle repeats over and over.  As our world gets smaller and smaller, it seems even more important for us to reach out a hand to help when we can.

It feels good to be part of the village!

How helpful have you been lately?  What help has come your way?  How do you pay it forward?

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

QUOTES ABOUT HELPING

“The purpose of life is not to be happy.  It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well.”   Ralph Waldo Emerson

“No one has ever become poor by giving.”   Anne Frank

“The best way to not feel hopeless is to get up and do something. Don’t wait for good things to happen to you. If you go out and make some good things happen, you will fill the world with hope, you will fill yourself with hope.”  Barack Obama

“No one is useless in this world who lightens the burdens of another.”  Charles Dickens

“There is no exercise better for the heart than reaching down and lifting people up.”  John Holmes

“The best antidote I know for worry is work. The best cure for weariness is the challenge of helping someone who is even more tired. One of the great ironies of life is this:  He or she who serves almost always benefits more than he or she who is served.”  Gordon B. Hinckley

“When we give cheerfully and accept gratefully, everyone is blessed.”  Maya Angelou

“A kind gesture can reach a wound that only compassion can heal.”  Steve Maraboli

“You have not lived today until you have done something for someone who can never repay you.”  John Bunyan

“We only have what we give.”  Isabel Allende

“I don’t want to live in the kind of world where we don’t look out for each other.  Not just the people that are close to us, but anybody who needs a helping hand. I can’t change the way anybody else thinks, or what they choose to do, but I can do my bit.”  Charles de Lint

“Love is not patronizing and charity isn’t about pity, it is about love. Charity and love are the same—with charity you give love, so don’t just give money but reach out your hand instead.”  Mother Teresa

“Doing nothing for others is the undoing of ourselves.”  Horace Mann

“Those who are happiest are those who do the most for others.”  Booker T. Washington

“There is nothing more beautiful than someone who goes out of their way to make life beautiful for others.”  Mandy Hale

“Even the smallest act of caring for another person is like a drop of water—it will make ripples throughout the entire pond.”  Jessy & Bryan Matteo

“If you’re in the luckiest one per cent of humanity, you owe it to the rest of humanity to think about the other 99 per cent.”  Warren Buffett

“It’s not enough to have lived. We should be determined to live for something. May I suggest that it be creating joy for others, sharing what we have for the betterment of personkind, bringing hope to the lost and love to the lonely.”  Leo Buscaglia

“There is more happiness in giving than in receiving.”  Acts 20:35

“Do something for somebody every day for which you do not get paid.”  Albert Schweitzer

“To do more for the world than the world does for you—that is success.”  Henry Ford

“Life’s most urgent question is:  What are you doing for others?”  Martin Luther King, Jr.

“If you light a lamp for somebody, it will also brighten your path.”  Buddhist Saying

“When you cease to make a contribution, you begin to die.”  Eleanor Roosevelt

“If you haven’t any charity in your heart, you have the worst kind of heart trouble.”  Bob Hope

“Success has nothing to do with what you gain in life or accomplish for yourself. It’s what you do for others.”  Danny Thomas

“There is no better way to thank God for your sight than by giving a helping hand to someone in the dark.”  Helen Keller

“If you want to improve your world, then focus your attention on helping others.”  John C. Maxwell

Mono dad tripod front viewThe first time I visited Bishop and Mono Lake along U.S. Highway 395 was years ago with my dad.  We went out to find fall colors in California, an easier task than many assume.  At that time, we planned to visit other places along Highway 395 at some point in time.  That, however, never happened.  Dad died in February 2014.  This year was the first Father’s Day without him.  To honor the day, I decided to visit some places along Highway 395 that I knew he would have loved. It was a great weekend full of nature, reflection, memories and visits to two new places along Highway 395.

MOUNT WHITNEY

Earlier this year I visited Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks.  These glorious parks are nestled against the western side of the Sierra Nevada.  The lofty peaks of that mountain range can be seen in the distance as one drives through the parks. However, Mount Whitney is the highest peak of the Sierra Nevada; actually, at 14,505 feet, Mount Whitney is the highest peak in the contiguous United States.*  Still, it is not visible from western views of the mountain range.  Although I knew I would not hike to the top, I wanted to see this mountain!

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First Glimpse

First Glimpse

Fortunately, Highway 395 runs along the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada as the road travels through the Owens Valley, offering great views of the entire range.  Then, in Lone Pine, California, an access road runs 13 miles west into the mountains, heading to the trail head that leads to the summit, which rises about 2 miles in elevation high above Lone Pine.  En route, the partially paved road runs through the Alabama Hills, passes several camp grounds, and then ascends to the Mount Whitney Portal at an elevation of 8,360 feet.  The 22-mile-round-trip hike to the top of Mount Whitney starts at the Portal.

Some Views in Lone Pine, California

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Turn Left on the Yellow Road

Turn Left on the Yellow Road

The Alabama Hills, where many westerns and other movies have been filmed, including classics such as Hopalong Cassidy and the Lone Ranger as well as scenes in films including Gladiator, Star Trek Generations, and Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen.

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Various Views of Mount Whitney

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*Mount Whitney’s Height:  The elevation of any mountain is really an estimate, an educated guess based on the measurements that can be taken at the time.  One plague on the summit reads 14,494 feet while another reads 14,496.811 feet.  By 1988, improved technologies gave the newest estimate to be 14,505 feet.

 ANCIENT BRISTLECONE PINE FOREST

Forty-two miles north of Lone Pine and fifteen miles south of Bishop along Highway 395 is Big Pine, California.  It sits in the Owens Valley between the Sierra Nevada and the White Mountains at an elevation of 3.989 feet.  The town is not big; the 2010 census recorded its population as 1,756.  The tribal headquarters for the Big Pine Band of Owens Valley Paiute Shoshone Indians operates out of Big Pine.  But I traveled to this locale for its access to the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest in the Inyo National Forest, just 13 miles east via Highway 168.

IMG_3730IMG_3711A few years ago, I did not even know that the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest existed. But now I am impressed with the strength, tenacity, and rugged gnarled and twisted beauty of these trees.

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The Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest sits on the eastern face of the White Mountains at an elevation between approximately 9,800 to 11,200 feet.  The Forest’s Patriarch, Schulman and Methuselah Groves are home to the world’s oldest living non-clonal organisms.**  The Methuselah is 4,750 years old, and the Patriarch—discovered and dated in 2103—is 5.064 years old.  Imagine that: The Patriarch germinated in 3051 B.C.  Incredible!  Visitors can hike various trails through the groves to get close to the Bristlecone Pines. However, the oldest trees are not marked with signs to protect them from vandals.  In 2008, an arsonist set fire to the Visitor Center, destroying the building, all the exhibits and several trees.  Very sad.

IMG_3774IMG_3794Highway 168 runs east from Highway 395 up into the White Mountains.  It is a great twisty curvy road that has lots of big dips, like you are on a roller coaster.  I loved it.  The canyon walls and wildflowers were gorgeous too.  But the “dip in the road” was the most fun, making me think of an old B.C. cartoon from John Hart.

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Some Views Along Route 168 Heading Up & Down White Mountain

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Once in the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest, the road eventually shifts from paved to gravel and offers some impressive sweeping vistas as well as closer views of the trees themselves.

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At the Visitor Center

At the Visitor Center

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**Oldest Living Organisms:  A list of the oldest living things includes items such as a half-million-year-old actinobacteria, 5500-year-old moss, and 100,000-year-old sea grass.  In 2014, Rachel Sussman published an intriguing book that captures her research on this topic:  The World’s Oldest Living Things.

I DON’T KNOW ABOUT YOU, BUT MY TURNING 60 NEXT YEAR DOES NOT SEEM SO BAD, GIVEN HOW OLD SOME THINGS ARE. 

WHAT A WONDERFUL WORLD!

 

Highway 1

Highway 1

 

Along I-5

Along I-5

If you have traveled by car throughout California, en route to a wide variety of tourist attractions, then you know that the state has a great highway system. The freeways are well maintained, the exits are well marked, and rest stops are numerous along major routes.  Along the west coast, Highway 1 travels down the coast past some of the most scenic landscape in the state, maybe the country.  Interstate 5 is the major north-south freeway that runs from San Diego to Los Angeles, close to San Francisco, and then up through Oregon and Washington en route to Canada. Highway 99 runs parallel to I-5, traveling roughly from Mexico to Canada. Highway 99 was supplanted by I-5 in the 1960s as the primary thoroughfare up and down the state, but it still serves residents well.

hwy395Highway 395 also runs north-south through the state, east of both I-5 and Highway 99.  Although it does not run through large cities such as Los Angeles or San Francisco and it does not extend from Mexico to Canada, it is a lengthy impressive route.  It runs from about 140 miles north of San Diego up basically to the Oregon border.  It also travels for a short time into Nevada. It connects such natural wonders as Death Valley, Lee Vining near Yosemite National Park, and Mammoth Lake.  This 557-mile route runs along the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada, giving access to many impressive locations.

Bishop dad by treeBishop DadI never drove extensively on Highway 395 until one year, almost 20 years ago now, I took my dad on a trip to Bishop, California. Bishop sits at the northern end of the Owens Valley at an elevation of 4,150 feet. Nestled against the Sierra Nevada, it was named for Bishop Creek that flows out of the mountains.  Although the Bishop area represents the largest population in Inyo County, Bishop has fewer than 4,000 residents as of the 2010 census.  The purpose of our trip was to seek out fall colors, and we were successful.  The colors were glorious, the mountain vistas were impressive, and the fishing holes seemed popular.  What I remember the most is that Dad had a great time!

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Bishop field with trees

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Bishop fishing spot 1

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Mono vista mid with dadOn that same trip, days later, Dad and I ended up in Lee Vining, California, for lunch and quickly realized how close we were to Mono Lake. Mono Lake is an immense inland sea, one of the oldest in the western hemisphere. It measures 70 square miles and fills a natural basin that measures 700 square miles. Ancient volcanoes created the lake, which is thought to be anywhere from one to three million years old.  Many tributaries fill the lake, but the there is no natural outlet, so Mono Lake retains sulfides and carbonates, making it an alkaline lake with a ph of 10.  Mono Lake is almost three times as salty as the ocean.

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Mono dad by tufaIts salinity fluctuates, especially since 1941 when Los Angeles began diverting water from the lake’s tributaries to Los Angeles consumers. Some restoration and preservation measures have been enacted since then, so the danger of Mono Lake becoming a dead area has passed. But it is still at lower water levels and higher salinity counts than it would have been since the initial water diversion.  The restoration measures preserved the lake’s main biology of algae, brine shrimp and alkali flies. The area still serves as a major bird migratory path and nesting site.  As the water level fluctuates, various formations such as spires and peaks become visible, giving the lake an otherworldly look.  The spires are called tufa and add to the picturesque appeal of Mono Lake.

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Mono dark shadowsMono sunset dad with tripod rearDad and I spent the afternoon hiking around Mono Lake, waiting for dusk’s afterglow as the sun set opposite the lake.  We thought about waiting around for the moon rise later that night, but we were not really prepared for the stake-out.  And once the area became pitch black and we got lost a bit in the sands surrounding the lake, we decided to head in for dinner instead.  We talked about going back to both locations—Bishop and Mono Lake—at some point, but we  never did.

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Mono sunset

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My goal is to return to Mono Lake at some point.  Since California has been experiencing drought for the last three years, I imagine the water level has dropped a bit. I also hope to visit other natural wonders that are accessible via Highway 395, like Death Valley.  Maybe I’ll travel there in the winter.

HAVE YOU DRIVEN HIGHWAY 395?  

WHAT SITES ALONG ITS ROUTE HAVE YOU VISITED?

 

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