Joining waters

After thirteen months on the road, mornings start like this.

I draw the needle from inside my hat band, thread it with dental floss (waxed) and suture the newest rip in my britches’ seat.Then I tuck my shirt in with greatest care, making sure the tail reaches well south of the repair in case of floss failure. I’ve long given up underwear. I’m down to an extra blue shirt, two bandanas and a pair of socks, none of which I fancy sacrificing for a last ditch patch job.

So this morning I did the obligatory three inches of suturing.

But this morning is different. It’s my last day on the road.

Woody and Maggie inspect what’s left of Bernie’s wardrobe (actually, they want a bite of that apple)

“Hurray!” I think as I take a bold stitch-ripper of a swing into the old McClellan saddle. But the dental floss holds and I set my sights on the Pacific Ocean.

Woody trails Maggie down the sidewalk into a blurred onslaught of car hoods and roaring Goodyears and pointing mothers. We’re in San Diego now. Drivers smile over outstretched fingers while their passengers unfold cell phones and stretch them my way for a windshield shot. I’m out of the desert now and I feel that warm love for strangers after months alone on the road.

I rein Woody toward the Taco Bell drive through, not so much for nutrition, but for one last jag of entertainment.

We cue up behind a blue Dodge 2500 pickup that’s just ordering breakfast. “Hello, may I take your order” the speaker blurts into his window. And then there’s the muffled “Yes, I’d like a …” coming from the cab. “Your total will be…” rattles from the metal box and the Dodge creeps forward.

Now it’s our turn. I lean down from the saddle, eager to speak to someone, even a canned voice in a box.

“Yeah. Hi. I’d like a bean burrito.”

Silence. Then some static from the speaker.

“Yeah! Hello!” I repeat, shouting louder, willing the metal box to respond. “I’d like a bean burrito please.”


“Oh well” I think, and ease Woody and Maggie up on the Dodge’s tailgate. The Dodge picks up his order and drives off.

I ride Woody and Maggie up to the window.

“Yes, hello, I’d like…” and before the bean burrito bit gets out all Hell breaks loose.

“Oh my God! Look at this!” cries a teen-age voice that’s never seen an Amish mule up close and certainly not one asking for a burrito. And that clears the kitchen because now every burrito roller and coffee pourer is stuffing himself into the cashier’s cubicle to see what just rocked up to the take-out window. On the other side of the counter, customers strain to see why their service just disappeared.

The side doors to Taco Bell fly open, spilling kids and secretaries and wait staff out into the drive-through lane. “Wow, they’re so big!” I hear followed by “Hey, can I pet your horse?” and “What are their names?” and then come the fingers.

For a few beautiful moments, an old mule and his pony brought a San Diego drivethrough to a complete equine gridlock. Cell phones were slipped back into pockets and breakfast burritos were put back into white bags so hands could run through manes and tails and forelocks.

Then the novelty wore off and we all rode off to where ever we were going before hunger and curiosity struck.

My small troupe rode to Fiesta Island.

Maggie, Bernie, Woody, and two bottles of water at the Pacific

At precisely 6:42 PM, Woody, Magnolia and I waded into the mighty Pacific Ocean.

I reached into my saddle bag, drew out a small bottle of water and began pouring. It was a bottle of Atlantic water from the town dock in Oriental, North Carolina.

As the arc of water splattered into the ocean, I remembered how it started.

It was just going to be Woody and I alone. We were going to walk four hundred miles across North Carolina… in two months. But then Maggie showed up, things spiraled out of control, and thirteen months and thousands of miles later, here we were wet to our knees on America’s far shore.

Now Woody and Maggie’s journey was through. After a year of winding through snowy mountain passes, shimmering deserts and Taco Bell drive-throughs, we’d reached the other side.

Then I drew out another, empty bottle. I unscrewed the cap and held it under water.“Glue, glue, glue” burped the air from the mouth and as the bottle filled a peace washed over me.

And a plan too. Now I have to get this bottle home.

How is this bottle going home?

(Post Script: Lest you think Woody, Maggie and I just waltzed effortlessly to the beach, well, it wasn’t like that. Like the whole journey before, lots of folks lent us a hand.

So thanks Bill, Dina, Don and Regina for putting us up. And thanks, too, Jess and Erin for riding out (and photographing) our Pacific arrival.

And finally a tip of my battered stockman’s hat to Lisa, for guiding us in from the other side.)

The potato truck roared toward us and left Maggie with one decision, leap into the irrigation canal or plunge down the road bank.

Maggie chose dust over drowning, took her buggy airborne and belly skidded to halt in the date palm grove.

The truck billowed by a flattened Maggie and Woody just stared. She lay there in the dirt and palm fronds, wrapped in tugs and breaching like a poorly tied hay bale. Then out shot her front legs and up rose her tail and she was standing again.

But the buggy ignored her lead. It just lay there on its axles, the port-side wheel busted to the heaven-side of repair.

We must be in California now…

Oh and now the cursing really started. It made the sailor in me feel better but had no effect on the wreckage before me. Eighteen of the wheel’s thirty-six spokes had been wrenched loose from the rim. I cursed and fumed and then counted again. Not a single lousy spoke had jumped back into its ragged hole.

It was over. Maggie’s faithful buggy, the one she’d sledded through the Rocky Mountain snow, bounced over the Butterfield Stage route and drug to the Center of the World, was ruined.

The sailor in me decided this called for immediate salvage before the tide rose. This, after all, was an irrigated Medjoohl date palm grove. At any moment, some one could cut a floodgate open and the canal across the street would start flooding the date grove. If I abandoned my ship in its current state, I risked loosing everything from photos to journals to food.

When ships run aground, one school of thought says drag them higher up the reef so their contents will stay dry. So I dragged the buggy to the nearest regal palm and began the ship-stripping business.

The plan? Ditch the buggy, pack what I needed onto Maggie’s saddlebags and complete the trip as I’d started, by hoof.

I fed off the fresh produce I’d been saving for the Anza Borrego desert ahead. Woody and Maggie wolfed down oranges and bananas and grapefruit with the glee of Customs inspectors eating contraband fruit for lunch. Maggie suggested they move on to oatmeal but that’s where I drew the line.

Then I set about salvaging my gear.

What did I really need?

I stuffed a few things into Maggie’s saddlebag; the camera, my photos, my notebook, a clean shirt, a bit of rice and olive oil. Not much more.

Then, to make sure the load was even, I weighed the saddlebags. The left one weighed nine pounds. The right one weighed ten.

The stuff that mattered in this journey had been reduced to under twenty pounds.

I tied the tipi and sleeping bag behind Woody’s saddle along with some rope. Then I lashed a tarp over the wreckage and set off toward the Laguna Mountains.

Pacific Coast Trail – Shelter Valley, CA

We’re headed for the Pacific Ocean now.

One last creek to ford


LOVE” rose huge and pink from the airborne desert sands. Above it in red the words “GOD IS” and crowning the three worlds, like a s sabre stabbing a cake, a telephone pole cross.

I rode closer.

I’d been in the desert four days. I was down to five pounds and four gallons of desert currency; grain and water. But this I had to investigate.

I reined Woody to the base of the mountainous explosion of wind and scripture and weeping Olympic paint cans. He stopped alongside a sky-burned couch and the Jeep Wagoneer with “SALVATION” on the door.


Then “Hellooooo!” from the base of the mountain and out walked Leonard Knight.

“I’d like to show you around” he said so I jumped off and tied Woody and Maggie to the Jeep’s roof rack. When the mountain speaks, you don’t look for a proper hitching post. You tie up quick and go toward the voice.

Leonard’s wispy hair blows across his sand-blasted features. We walk toward the mountain of scripture and flowers and paint rivers.

He tells me how he came here twenty years ago with grand plans to launch his balloon. Things didn’t pan out. His home made “GOD IS LOVE” balloon, the one he’d spent three years sewing up in a drafty Nebraska shed, suffered from chronic rotten seams and underinflation. It never lifted his divine message heaven-ward as planned.

So he revised his plans.

Only Leonard was broke. He was in his mid-fifties now. Stuck out here in the desert with a pile of failed balloon cloth and busted dreams.

“I was going to spend a week here and make a smaller balloon.” he tells me. “An eighty footer”.

But his plans changed and he decided to spread his message on earth.

He started small. “Somebody told me “Hey, I’ve got an old bag of cement. If you hit it with a hammer maybe you can use it”. And that’s how Leonard’s mountain got started.

The first mountain that is.

For three years, Leonard trawled the Niland dump for building materials; old paint, boards, cement. Whatever he could find to get the “God is Love” message back into the sky.

After the three years of toil the whole lot collapsed. It seems Leonard mixed too much sand with his concrete. “I was trying to save on cement so I mixed it one to six with sand”.

Then he discovered adobe and built the present “God is Love” mountain. He shows me what happened next.

We walk through an arch and into a forest of gargantuan trees.

We walk to the closest one which sports telephone pole limbs holding up straw bales at impossible angles. “This is a car tire tree. I made it with a wheel barrow and tires I found in the desert.”

Among the branches of a car tire tree

“When I build fourteen more car tires trees and cover this area, this will be my museum”.

All I can think is “Holy smoke!”. Here’s what a man can do with twenty years and faith and God and old paint. And then I get sucked in and the words leap from my mouth. “Hey, Leonard. How can I help?”

“Do you know how to mix adobe?” he asks and I say “No.” but he doesn’t hear. “Good!” he cries and fifteen minutes later my shirt is muddy to the shoulder.

“The mountain gives me the adobe” he says as we shovel crumbly shovel fulls of grey earth into a wheel barrow. “Mix in some chunks. They add strength.”

At the end of the day, 150 pounds of grain show up for Woody and Maggie. It’s a gift from Kerry and Jacqueline, a couple I’d met earlier from Burbank. My feed problem is over.

“Right” I thought “‘reckon I’ll just sit out here with Leonard until I feed all this grain off.”

Some days we work on a salt cedar arch that we’ve towed to the site behind the Salvation Jeep. Other days we make adobe flowers. There’s nothing to it. “I just throw a half gallon of wet adobe on a branch and hit it with my fist” Leonard tells me.

Punching up an adobe flower

On the days we feel particularly burly, we haul straw bales up a spindly ladder and cement them ever-higher up the dome’s inner wall.

Adobeing a straw bale into place

Every morning though, before dawn, we rise and bounce the Salvation Jeep to the hot spring for a morning bath. “I want the mountain to speak for me so that one day I can step out of the way” he tells me as the mist swirls up toward the Big Dipper. “You know, in Daniel 2, God talks of the invisible hand that comes down and smashes the image with clay feet…” and we discuss what it’s like to let go and let God do the talking.

Other mornings, Leonard lets his Yamaha guitar speak. He crouches in the desert sand between my tipi and the tractor with “BIBLE, JESUS LOVES YOU” written on the bucket in window putty. He sings “My Flower Tree” while black tea boils on my sooty gasoline stove.

Leonard’s mud flower bouquet

On the seventh day the grain ran out. I put my saddle back on Woody and fared Leonard well.

Thanks Leonard, for teaching me how to turn mud into flowers with a punch.