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Sunday, 18 October 2015

Three Days on Horseback above the Mexican Border

Barney and me atop the Huachuca Mountains
We found Ron Izzo’s outfit on the Net. He sounded as though he knew what he was doing – and as if he cared about the people he took on his horseback rides in the mountains south of Tucson. When I phoned him from the U.K. he wanted to know our heights and weights, our dietary requirements, and our riding ability. Then he lined up suitable horses for us: a stoic if occasionally distracted stallion called Barney for me, a very handsome and agreeable fellow named Jasper for A. That's him with the grey coat and black spots (below).

So here are the members of the cast (in no particular order): Jasper, Barney, Randy; and the pack-horses, Caleb, Spirit and Zeke
Although this was a recreational ride – and not a cheap one – it was billed as an Arizona Horseback Experience, and that meant that we had work to do: saddling and unsaddling the horses, feeding them, combing and brushing them, and leading them to water while Ron cooked our meals and came to check our knots – which needed checking. Not that his own were horse-proof. We were gratified on one or two occasions when his mount, Randy, slipped away went browsing in the long grass.

The first day we climbed until mid-afternoon, then made our only camp, a nice creek-side site from which we climbed, on day two, to a high peak in the Huachuca Mountains (9000-plus feet) before returning for a second night under canvas.

The trail up the mountains got a lot steeper than this; for two miles, on the descent, we had to lead the horses and walk.
As well as the horses, we had for company Scotty, a three-legged terrier who adopted Ron on one of his trips into Canyon de Chelly. Scotty was a great guard-dog. She scouted around to either side of the trail, sniffing warily at bear poop, scaring up flocks of quail and, when A. took off into the under-brush with a shovel, standing guard.

Ron was a terrific guide and host. He was interested to hear that we’d had a half-day ride in the Canyon de Chelly.

Our guide, Ron, looking out towards Mexico as we ate lunch. 
He is more than familiar with Navajoland, having grown up on the reservation, married a Navajo and served for a time in the tribal Police Force. He also knows these mountains intimately, and had some great fireside yarns for us about the activities of the illegals who pass through them, and the drug-runners. The latter, he told us, have tried many ruses to escape detection. They’ve been found using  a mock-up of a UPS van, also a fake Border Patrol vehicle. While they use the valleys to travel to and fro, the illegals keep to the higher ground to avoid the smugglers, who regard them as nothing but a damned nuisance and will likely kill them if they get in their way.


The valley we climbed was settled in the later nineteenth-century by a small community of miners with a religious/charitable ethos. They welcomed strangers who came through. If they were indigent, they offered them food, housing and work. The little town, which once housed a school, church and post office, was called Sunnyside, being on that side of the valley which faced south and west. There are still a few remains (above), but like most frontier-period settlements, it’s rapidly disappearing.

Two-seater outhouse, Sunnyside.
We learned a lot in our three days. By the time we were on our way back to Sonoita we could secure our own saddles, and the pack animals’ gear, swap the bridle for the halter, and make the horses reasonable secure for the night. Neither of us fell off; and while I never persuaded Barney to give up his amble-amble-trot style of progress in favour of a steady walk, I did manage to steer him away from low-hung branches – and I clung on when he slid down the banks of yet another dry creek and scrambled up the rocky side opposite.

Would I do it again? Possibly. My only doubt would be, where would we find an outfitter as professional, knowledgeable, solicitous and courteous as our man Ron? You can find him at


Friday, 16 October 2015

A Visit to Taos Pueblo for the San Geronimo Feast Day

There are no pictures from our visit to Taos Pueblo for the Feast Day of San Geronimo, which was celebrated on 30th September. The residents bar the use of cameras, and you can see why. A lot of what goes on is very special to these people, and they have a lot to preserve. All the same, it’s a public event: anybody can go and enjoy it.

We were, however, privileged visitors, being guests of the retired Wurlitzer Foundation director, Michael Knight. Way back in February he promised me he’d take us up there, and I had no hesitation in calling him to say we were on our way to New Mexico. He went way beyond the call of duty, inviting us to use the Foundation’s guest accommodation while we were in town, and arranging to pick us up around sun-up on the day itself. Michael knows everybody, or so it seems. Whoever you bump into, around town or up at the Pueblo, he either went to school with them or with their parents. So it was no real surprise that we were invited into a number of houses to feast over the course of the day.

We started our tour a little after seven, standing by the side of the dusty road along which the foot-race was run. Men of all ages, dressed in little more than breech-clouts, moccasins, turkey feathers and a lot of body-paint, ran a relay over a course of abut 500 yards. There must have been a hundred participants, maybe more. It lasted well over an hour, closer to two, and it wasn’t clear to us who had won. Indeed, it seemed that taking part was more important than coming first. The runners came in all sizes and ran at all speeds. As one grey-haired fellow came by at a decent lick we learned that he was the retired post-master, aged 77. It was a picturesque scene, as the travellers out West used to say in those nineteenth century reports from Indian Territory. On either side of the trail stood clusters of women wrapped in colourful blankets and clutching infants in their arms, laughing and joking, occasionally encouraging a passing runner, especially the strugglers. Others lined the roofs of the multi-storey pueblo buildings like figures from some Alfred Jacob Miller sketch, and, when the race finished, showered the participants with gifts – mostly bags of candy.

We had our first invitation to eat shortly after the race finished. We had no idea what to expect, nor how we were expected to behave. You don’t breeze into the house of a complete stranger in England, clear several plates of chile, posole, rice and pulled pork, then say goodbye and thanks. But in Taos, on San Geronimo’s day, that’s exactly what you do. The house we entered was a true adobe: a beaten earth floor, walls of dried mud and straw, a ceiling made of vigas (fat pine beams) and latillas (thin juniper branches), plus an open fireplace burning sweet-scented cedar wood. There is no electricity on the pueblo.

After eating we wandered around the plaza to look at, and buy, some beautiful native jewellery, and a small Acoma pot for this year’s Christmas tree. Then we settled down for a short nap under a tree beside the creek that runs through the settlement, dividing it into two distinct parts.

We were awoken by the arrival of the clowns, all white body paint and black spots, who rampaged around the stalls threatening to upset the displays and steal things. Some grabbed small children and took them to the creek. It was an almighty fright for some of the younger ones, but a dunking is considered an honour and a rite of passage, so there were no parental complaints. The traders had sensibly covered up their wares and arranged small gift packages for the mischief-makers.

It was now time to eat again, at the home of 99-year-old Tony Reyna, twice Governor of the Pueblo and formerly on the Board of the Wurlitzer Foundation. He greeted us at his fireside, then told us to take a seat in the yard and feast – for the second, but not the last time.

It was soon time for the major event of the day, the delivery of goods from the tree of life. This is, I believe, an ancient ritual, and seems to be an echo of one we were told about when we visited the abandoned plaza at Chaco Canyon, where remnants of a centuries-old pine tree had been unearthed by archaeologists. It’s an annual event, with an eighty-foot pole, set in the centre of the plaza, representing the traditional pine tree. On top, tied to a pair of thin cross-members, were a sack of grain (or corn) a sack of some other foodstuff, and a recently slaughtered sheep. The task was for one of the people to climb to the top and release the supplies. There was a lengthy build-up, a lot of horsing around by the clowns as they acted out a band of wanderers tracking a sheep around the dusty square before finally realising that it was at the top of the pole. At that point two of their number set about climbing it, aided by nothing more than a rope that dangled from the top. After more deliberation, a few gymnastics across and around the lateral timbers, some haranguing of the onlookers, and an elaborate play with the ropes, they lowered the goods to the ground. That’s when one of the climbers – I was hardly able to watch this part – climbed up to the very top of the pole and stood there, the equivalent of eight floors above the ground, arms akimbo, addressing us, the mountains and/or the gods.

We feasted one more time before setting off to town with a bag of home-made cookies, pressed on us by one of our hosts for the day. If you get a chance, do visit Taos at the end of September and take this in. It is, I suspect, unique.

Thursday, 15 October 2015

Thankyou, Amtrak, for Enhancing My Appreciation of Proper Food – with your Frozen Omelette... and let’s hear it too for Dairy Queen, for another Culinary Abomination.

I have had worse. One day last year, for instance, I breakfasted on stale pancakes and dried egg. But there was a reason for that: I was in northern Norway, way up in the Arctic Circle, hiking from hut to hut with nary a fence, gate, highway or food store within a hundred miles. We had to carry eight days’ supplies on our backs. Even our emergency supper of canned sardines and couscous brought a satisfied ‘aah’ to my parched lips, a groan of something like satisfaction to my neglected belly. So, when it comes to plain fare and making the best of a bad job, I know what I’m talking about.

Yesterday, on the late-running Amtrak service between Chicago and Charleston, West Virginia, we walked down to the dining-car to get some breakfast. I’d already worked out what to do about breakfast – namely, stick to the oatmeal option. It’s really quite hard to get oatmeal wrong. A. had already tried the French toast on the Denver-Chicago leg. It came smothered with icing sugar. The patties I’d experienced years ago, and the memory – unlike the product itself -  remains fresh. Today, however, they were already out of oatmeal – despite it being as early as 0625h, Central. ‘Okay,’ I said, ‘I’ll try the three-egg omelette (I beg your pardon, omelet) with the croissant, fruit and yoghurt.’

Bear with me while I get the sundries out of the way. The fruit consisted of four strawberries, chilled to within an inch of their life – i.e., all but frozen. I managed one, which hurt my teeth. The croissant was in fact a Chelsea bun masquerading as its French cousin. No way was it the real thing, being way too solid and not at all the right shape. I nibbled, then abandoned it. Now it was time to man up and tackle the omelet(te).

My suspicions were first aroused by its shape, which formed a perfect semi-circle, far too regular to have been hand-made; and by its colour, which was altogether too uniform. Eggs, you’ll recall, are made of a white part and a yolk, and an omelet(te) is comprised of both – although not on Amtrak, where they contrive an undifferentiated cream colour. So this was clearly a convenience version. It was also solid, at least at the extremities; you might say rubbery. It did, however, contain a surprise: a centre that was cool and moist. No, make that water-logged. Water? In an omelette? I can only conclude that Amtrak’s catering division, having completed its grisly business with dried eggs, die-stamped the individual portions and froze them.

I mentioned Dairy Queen (above), and I’ll mention them again. Why should their sins go un-pardoned? We were in northern Arizona, making our way from the Canyon de Chelly to Tucson. We needed sustenance, and we needed wifi. On a whim, and having spotted a Dairy Queen, I suggested we pull in. ‘Pie and coffee,’ I said. ‘It’s a guaranteed reviver.’ And so it is. The trouble here was that ‘pie’ has been redefined by Dairy Queen. Yes, my pumpkin pie tasted of pumpkin; yes, it contained pastry. And there the resemblance ended. It came in a cup; it was pale brown; but it was enriched with about four and a half pounds of sugar, a quart or so of cream, and lumps of broken pastry so rich in sugar as to resemble candy. And, having first revealed that the joint’s wifi was down, I’ll tell you something else about it their re-invented pie. It made me look like a crazed psycho killer.

Thankfully, we are now in Charleston, where our hostess, an American, cooks proper food and plenty of it. Proper? Let me correct myself: it’s superb. There is hope for this country yet.

Tuesday, 13 October 2015

Seems I am Doomed Never to Get to Buddy Guy's Place

On our first run through the Windy City (some four weeks ago now) we schlepped along Wabash to find Buddy Guy's club closed for a private party. We shrugged, and decided we would save the pleasure for our return trip. Thanks to a six-hour delay on our Amtrak service from Denver, we got here at nine o'clock last night. By the time we found our hotel (a very salubrious apartment, in fact, with a fully fitted kitchen, out along the Gold Coast) it was ten, and by the time we had eaten it was close to midnight. Ho hum, maybe another time. I did see his younger brother, the late Phil Guy, in the UK, but that was many years ago. Close, as they say, but no cigar.

Today we take the train - maybe I should say we hope to take the train - to Charleston, West Virginia, where we catch up with a fellow I've known for... 55 years. I have a lot of catching up to do on here as well, so watch out for upcoming posts on: Taos Pueblo, where we saw the San Geronimo festival activities and ate ourselves silly in other people's houses; on our three-day trek on horseback in the Huachuca Mountains; perhaps too on our visit to the Canyon de Chelly (below).


Saturday, 10 October 2015

And there, at the back, banging on her tambourine, was Joan Osborne

My daughter  bought 'Relish' for me back in 1996. It's a fabulous album that has rewarded my endless replays, and Joan Osborne has become my favourite female singer. So I was terribly excited to find out, just before we left the UK, that she was on tour in the USA - and would actually be in Tucson, AZ, on one of the two days we were in the city visiting friends. Osborne was performing with Mavis Staples (with whom, I discovered, I share a birthday) at the Rialto, a downtown venue that was once a cinema. Think rows of folding seats. Not the plush upholstered kind (someone had sold those off years ago), rather the type you might find in a church hall or school gym. So the whole event had an old-fashioned feel to it - and so, to my great delight - did the backing band: Stephen Hodges on drums, Rick Holmstrom on guitar and Jeff Turmes on bass. Simple, powerful, effective. Three seriously able musicians who really rocked. They could do it all - hard, slow, loud, tender, raunchy - and did. In spades.

The big surprise for me, however, who has always thought of Osborne as a musical god, was that hers was in fact the opener and support act for the legendary Mavis. Joan was on first, and although the audience clearly loved her, it wasn't until Mavis finally appeared that they became seriously animated. Personally, I was cowering low in my seat. The very mention of the word Gospel in a musical context gives me the heeby-jeebies. I start seeing wild-eyed preachers wrestling with snakes, and moaning converts in river-drenched clothes swearing off the demon drink forever.

But back to Joan. For me, it was a little like watching someone like Van Morrison: just to sit and let that amazing voice wash over me was a huge thrill. She's well known for her range - from country to blues to soul - and we got the full works here: she gave us in rapid succession 'One of Us', 'Saint Teresa', 'I Don't Need No Doctor' and 'Shake Your Hips'. Wonderful stuff, all backed by that superb band of three. And then Mavis, who, I have to admit, is a hell of a performer (just don't ask me to describe her set: I do not have the musical language to hand). Joan came back on to share a version of - ha, the name escapes me (it escapes us both) - and then hung around the fringes of the stage for the last three or four numbers.

So there she was, far left, almost in the shadows, swaying her hips, rattling the tambourine and grooving along. She might have been 'one of us'. It wasn't what I'd imagined, but what the hell: I've seen her, been dazzled by her voice, and afterwards I had a brief few words as she signed my new CD (Bring It On Home).

Life is good - even though we're now in a Motel 6 in Santa Fe, on our way to Denver. There we drop the car, spend a day in the Mile High City, then take the train to Chicago and, with luck, an evening at Buddy Guy's blues club.