“Why in the world is there a flood sign next to a cactus?” I wondered as I rode Woody down the desert highway.

But it’s a common sight along these desert roads: a yellow sign that warns of drowning next to a cactus that could use a drink.

What a way to go; drowning in the desert.

The reason for this eccentric signage is the monsoon.

I usually associate that word with the tropics: Australia, India, Bangladesh. Those guys get monsoons. They have to worry about their Third World cars swirling downstream to face invetable drowning under too-low bridges.

We don’t get monsoons in the United States, especially in the desert. We’re above it.

Seems I’m wrong.

The Arizona desert typically gets most of its rain in late summer. While it’s only a few inches per year, it often comes all at once.

The desert is lined with washes, which we call gullies back home. They run cross country regardless of roads or houses.

When the summer deluges strike, it drains off the desert floor right into those gullies. In mintues, they can go from sandy low spots to raging rivers. And back to dry.

They carry away twigs, branches, even whole trees. And if you’re the poor sucker oggling the saguaro gracing the dip in the road.

Well, you can figure it out…


“High Pecan Prices Lead to Thefts” shouted the Albequrque Journal. Reading on, I learned that the poor pecan harvest in Georgia had driven pecan prices to a dollar and a half and two dollars a pound. No wonder guys were thieving nuts. My mind flashed at the state of my bank account and suddenly I got the urge.

A few of those pounds and I’d be solvent again.

Then Alan hailed me riding down his dirt road with the words “Hey, looking for some work?” Alan was looking for someone to pick his pecans. It was late. I was dusty. That’s when I look most insolvent.

That’s how the trouble began.

The next morning, I picked up a green Debbie Lyne Texas Cabbage bag. On the side was written “1 3/4 bushel – 50 lb”. Let’s see, 50 pounds at a buck fifty, that’s 75 bucks. Even more if the price was higher. Surely I could knock over a hundred bucks.

So I got to work.

Three fellows up from Juarez where there already there among the rows of nut trees. They were Garcia, Pedro and one called “Habier” if I heard correctly.

I’ve never picked pecans for gain. But Maggie had lived for years in a pecan orchard so I felt a distant kinship for the oval nut.

I got down on my hands and knees and tried to blend in until I got the hang of things.

Habier, the oldest fellow, pretty much picked where ever he wanted to. Garcia and Pedro, younger by a few picking seasons, picked in rows along the trees. Whenever trees needed shaking, they took turns climbing up into the limbs for a violent shaking session. It’s the youngest guy that shimmies into the sky.

Then I showed up, and as the junior picker, turned into the monkey.

It worked out fine. They plied me with Cokes and I kept the adrift in hailstorms of nuts.

Bernie’s haul under the Vice Grips

Pick, climb, shake, pick. All day pick and climb and shake and pick …

Finally, my thumbs turned green from shucking off pecan hulls, Alan

Welcome to the Grand Canyon State

For weeks now I’ve wandered through New Mexico with Arizona on my mind.

It’s cold out here on the High Lonesome. Most nights my tipi freezes into an ice-cream cone shape. Mornings, when I go to take it down, it won’t fit into its stuff sack. I roll it up like a six pound burrito and just cram it into Maggie’s cart. In the evenings, when I re-pitch it, it unfurls in a shower of shaved ice that sprays downwind in a miniature blizzard.

One my last New Mexican night I tie Maggie to an ancient International R-160 Series truck I’ve found abandoned out on the desert floor. I throw her the alfalfa hay I bought with the pecan money and pitch my tipi behind a junked refrigerator.

For weeks now, before I roll up in Maggie’s horse blanket for the night, I’ve been looking at the dotted line on the map. I play the flash light beam across the road map. It stabs to the west. Arizona! Desert land! Yes, the promised land where my tipi will fit back into it’s sack.

I twist the light out and crawl into the wool blanket. The night winds hurl themselves off the nearby Chiricahua Mountains, hurdle the dumped fridge and crash themselves against the tipi. I feel like I’m sleeping in a punching bag.

In the morning, I meet Maggie’s gaze. It says “Bernie, my hay blew away. Can I have more?”. But feed is short so I give her a palmful of my Quaker oats and half a flake of hay. What strands escape her mouth bounce away with the tumble weeds.

At the foot of the Chircahua’s

The dotted line that I’ve been riding toward proves to be largely academic. There’s the “The Grand Canyon State” sign. There’s the obligatory photo session. But then it’s just more wind and moutains.

A few miles south of Apache, where Geronimo surrendered, we take to the Chiricahua mountains.

I meet local rancher Rob Krentz while he’s out doing chores on his four-wheeler. He gives us a fifty pound sack of feed and an invitation to stay at his family’s homestead. “Just keep riding up the canyon until you see the windmill. It’ll be on the right. You can water your horses there.”


Sure enough, the windmill comes into view on dusk. I pitch a quick camp and explore the old adobe homesite in the day’s last rays.

The old Krentz Homeplace

Adobe Windsill

In the morning, I get a lovely surprise. My tipi walls are wet with dew, not frost glazed. It fits back into its bag.

Yes! Finally we’re making it toward warmer climes!

Snow in Arizona … fifty miles from Tombstone!

Then just when it looks like thawed sailing, the road turns to ice. But it’s winter’s last gasp. Soon I’ll be back into the warm.

(Thanks Rob Krentz for sharing your lovely homestead. Bernie)

“I grew up a-dreamin’
of bein’ a cowboy,
Lovin’ the cowboy ways…” Billy’s voice rasped softly above his guitar, out across the desert scrub.

“Pursuin’ the life of my high-ridin’ heroes,
I burned up my childhood days…”

Billy had finally found me.

Billy Ottis

This was a welcome change. For once it wasn’t me looking for the way.

People often ask me in an assertive tone “How’re you finding your way across America?”. They assume a great amount of planning and poring over road maps went into this journey.

It has, actually.

But it’s other people’s planning. America’s been finding me, showing me the way. People in bars and cars and parking lots. People like Billy Ottis.

Woody and Maggie were tied to the Shur Sav “Handicapped Parking” sign as I was loading rice and split peas and oatmeal and olive oil into the buggy. “Where ya goin’” Billy had asked me in his scratchy blues singer’s voice.

“Oh, I reckon down I-10” I chirped guiltily. I’m not a fan of Interstate riding but the map I was using, the one I’d found in an old Airstream trailer, didn’t have the details I needed.

“Naw” Billy replied “come over to my house and we’ll figure you a better way.”

While Woody and Maggie grazed on his front lawn he explained. “I own a pilot business. We run our over-sized trucks down all the back roads. I can get you clear across Arizona that way. You eaten yet?”

“Nope” I grinned and so over baked beans, white bread and milk, he showed me back routes to thrill my dirt road inclinations.

With my head filled with blue lines and dashed black (single-lanes and dirt roads respectively) I took my leave. “See you later tonight” Billy said as I piloted Woody and Maggie toward the desert, away from the din of Interstate 8.

I promptly took a wrong turn. It took Billy until the next evening to track me down.

But here we were, sharing a tailgate between a rusty stock tank and my tipi. As the falling sun shattered to purple and orange, he tugged on his guitar strings and sang.

“I learned all the rules of the modern-day drifter,
Don’t you hold on to nothin’ too long…” the words talked their way across the painted landscape.

The day was done now, and the song almost too.

“Old worn-out saddles, an ‘old worn-out memories,
With no one and no place to stay…” he sang and closed with the refrain.

“My heroes have always been cowboys.
And they still are, it seems.
Sadly, in search of, but one step in back of,
Themselves and their slow-movin’ dreams.”

That’s how America found me.


(Thanks Billy and Myra, for finding us! Thanks also to Willie Nelson and Sharon Vaughn for that fine song.)