This evening’s update on… everything comes to you from a cheap camp chair plunked on a dusty limestone gravel driveway in a “recreational vehicle park” overlooking the mighty Mississippi. For one of these places, this particular place is actually quite nice; it is clean, friendly, quiet, and has places to walk and trees to stand under when the sun is high in the sky. It has an evocative view and history nearby enough where a culture day was in order today. We have been here two days. Before this, we were in a Louisiana state park that featured doubletrack cross country trails in low wood and field. Before that, a dusty and a bit faded “campground and cabins” in Ruidoso, NM (but wait, for one night we were in a state park in Texas) and before that, in Arizona for nearly two months. We are on the return leg of our first trip “out”. We hit the end of the bungee-run of a road trip in Tucson, and felt the pull back in the same way a baby duck does after bravely swimming out a foot or two from its mama. Not quite missing home (homesick?), but not compelled to venture further westward or northward or southward until taxes are done, our van gets a checkup, and we see our families.
It’s so funny how we get into these things. As with the alpacas, the conversation began, “wouldn’t it be cool if we…” and some frenetic googling and a few years and loose plans later, here we are, pretty much everything we own whittled down to what can fit in the cupboards of this van (and in a closet and the small loft of my mom’s garage.) I can’t even begin to describe the process we undertook – I don’t even know where the energy came from – to get the house sold, physically pull my body away after hugging my daughter, to say “see you guys latah” to dear friends, and take one last look in the rearview after hitting the Rhode Island border. And then establishing residency and a basecamp life at my mom’s in four months was kind of a weird experience, if only because she is such a good cook that it was a really hard thing to resist the temptation to stay. For one thing, we got to know the local dirt.
Carolina Dirt is reddish in tone, sometimes black and peaty, but mostly red, clay-like in consistency, and easy on the ankles for trail running, nice and fast for riding on the mountain bike. When you get home from a ride, you have a trail tan – fine red silt running from the sock line up to the base of the shorts. If like me, you scrape your ankles with the backs of your shoes when you run, you will come home from trail runs with red streaks like dried blood between your calves. When you land from a fall, the red dirt mixed with gravel stains the knees and thighs, but generally doesn’t mess you up too badly. The air is clear. There are birds everywhere. People – we – will drive for miles to hike or run or bike up red dirt in lyrical-sounding places like Pleasant Ridge, Dupont Forest, Paris Mountain, Pisgah Wilderness. The Carolina dirt gets under your nails and if you garden, it’s hard to get it out from under there. The dogs love to dig ditches and cool their bellies in the soil. It tracks in the house and mixes with dog dander. It colors the vacuum filters red. When my parents first moved to North Carolina in the 1980s I remember my sister, who got there before I did, writing to me that the soil was red clay. The first time I saw it, I didn’t really like it; it was not at all like the peaty, sandy soil I was used to in Rhode Island. But now when we travel home, we love to see it. We know we are getting close when we start seeing red clay and kudzu.
I do not know what it is like to be desperately poor. The closest I came was after dropping out of college, in North Carolina, when I was too embarrassed (proud?) to talk to my folks about it, and got through a few sucky months living on Marlboro Lights and Oodles of Noodles, mostly bought with sofa change. Healthcare happened through the emergency room and I relied on friends for rides. But it was short-lived. I was not born into it and didn’t have the right muscles for it and probably wouldn’t have survived had it gone on much longer. Also, I have lived a pretty sheltered life. In New England, you do not know dirt-poor. It takes a road trip through the South to understand dirt poor.
Georgia, Alabama, parts of Mississippi and Louisiana. Trails so lovely you could cry, but as you drive through areas to get to the trails with your sweet bike on the back, you pass trailers and shacks so derelict that stove-in roofs are one good storm away from being skylights. I mean, the Carolinas have this too. And actually parts of the Adirondacks, and the midwest, and everywhere -poverty is everwhere. But in the south, because it is warm, people turn their houses inside out. So everything is exposed. Entire lives up on porches in the form of stuff – appliances, furniture, parts of things. There are pecan groves right up next to power plants and strips of pawn shops, pop-up churches, Dollar General stores, gun stores. People don’t have much. There’s nothing around. There’s no access to anything. There’s no real industry. This is dirt poor.
We went to visit some Indian mounds – places where the natives built these earthen mounds – they are really incredible. Apparently they hauled baskets of dirt on their backs to build them. In the delta, they sort of make sense in a very practical way. During a flood, one could escape the waters by getting up on top of a mound. Nevermind the mystery surrounding their spiritual or communal reason for being. They are dirt piles to keep from drowning.
Many of the trailers are up on concrete blocks. We passed one that was build up on maybe twenty rows of concrete blocks. A modern-day mound.
Bayou dirt is close to water so that when running, it sometimes feels like you are running a path through swamp. In warmer weather, snakes and alligators create a real life obstacle course. Fortunately, the only trail critter I saw in Louisiana was an armadillo. Believe it or not, they are fast.
Texas is a big pile of rocks and dirt.
I had no expectations. Therefore, I was surprised.
Texas should just be its own country. It has a seashore with sandy, porous dirt trail and shady live oaks. It has hill country and mountains and canyons. Watch out for things called stickers that live in the pretty grass and hurt dogs’ feet. Texas is best when you can find a place with no fences. There are a lot of fences in Texas.
In Austin, right in the city, there are trails to explore. We took the dogs on a hike that started off of a highway behind an office park and quickly became remote and entirely scenic.
At Seminole Canyon, we ran and mountain biked on trails with fossils and pictographs and a 100 foot cliff dropping down to the Rio Grande. You could fit whole Rhode Islands into the ranches in West Texas. Marathon was a tiny town with blowing dirt and tumbleweeds, and public art and poverty. Texas is too big to be one thing.
If you go to New Mexico, head up to Silver City and to the Gila wilderness and ask a local directions to Dragonfly trail. Prairie grasses, tumbling streams and lone trees on hillsides make for lovely trailgoing. It is rocky, so watch out when you’re tired. Also nearby there is good dirt up on Boston Mine. You can see the whole town as you ride. It’s not easy going (for me it wasn’t) as it is gravelly and slidy. But it is fun.
In town, in the shops, the people talk dirt about each other.
Talk about being out of my element. Arizona trails are like cats: you want to snuggle but you have to always keep in mind that it could end up with you being seriously bloodied. So we were basically backed up to Seguro National Park, a place where you can pretty much ride or run forever. However, while the dirt is fine and flowy and not as skiddy as New Mexico, when you fall, it is always into a cactus. And the cactuses grab on and get in there (like really in there) and you may have to ask your husband later to take cactus needles out of your rearend with a pair of tweezers.
But it is seductive, sandy, reminiscent of long beach days, but no ocean. It is rough on dogs pads, on shoes, on mountain bike tires. It is dusty, and gets into everything. It is hard packed and hurts when you fall on it. It has holes in it in places from things that root (like Javalina) or live in it (like big spiders.) Coyote saunter around like they own the place, and the yipping is lovely and different from northern coyote yipping.
There is poverty here, too. The reservation just west of us was vast desert with tiny tiny pockets of residential scatterings. This is a place where one could disappear.
In the cities – in Tucson and Phoenix – I got to stay (for work) in box hotels and in both cases there were homeless people living right in the dirt outside of my window. It is dry and warm in the daytime, but I worried about them at night. In Casa Grande, Tom and I saw one homeless woman with a dog in a crate that was suspended from a shopping cart who we could not see but we could hear it happily barking as its owner talked to it. Where do you go at night when you are homeless, with a dog?
In the desert the rock is flat and layered like shale, and so it makes a lot of noise when you ride a bike down it. I’m sure we did our little part to whatever erosion/entropy issues the area naturally experiences during the summer monsoons.
Van Living and Dirt
So this is piggish of me, but Tom pretty much does the housework nowadays, since he is not working. Living in a van makes this easy, though. Basically, we have to shake out the three throw rugs we have and give a quick sweep down of the cork floor. He washes our clothes once a week and does the dishes most nights, and he cooks. Most of the dirt comes from the dogs. But living small also means that you don’t have as much stuff. It’s pretty much perfect if you hate housecleaning.
The thing is, when you live in a small space, you are outside more. You sit on the grass under a tree after dinner, instead of on a sofa. It’s just a different kind of dirt.
No more garden, but we have some plants.
We bought a couple of wee cacti at the desert museum, and from the free shelf we got a little pot which Tom planted something in (it hasn’t come up yet, so I will be surprised once it does.) We also got from the free shelf (that’s like, such a great concept and I wish every campground had one) a “garden in a can” which was basically a basil plant in planting soil in a can. It felt good to smell that smell of peat moss and potting soil, especially in the desert, and I spent a few minutes inhaling the scent of it and remembering our little vegetable garden we left in Rhode Island. So now as we travel back east we have our little garden. It rides in the little sink and then when we park it goes on the windowsill on the dashboad or outside on the picnic table, weather permitting. It is not tomatoes but it is a just enough dirt and green to be companionable. And in the tread of our tires, both van and bicyle – in the nooks and crannies of our shoes – under the fingernails and maybe in the crevices of our knees, we carry a little of the dirt from all of the places we have traveled to. It’s kind of cool, when you think about it.