Snowbirding 2017: Two Days at the Dunes

With a note about why loneliness doesn’t exist for people who don’t need the company of others.

On Friday afternoon, I took a right turn off a two-lane road in San Bernardino County, California. A historical marker indicated that I’d found the “Harry Wade Exit Route,” a route a man and his family had taken to escape a particularly deadly desert valley in 1849.

Thus I began a long trek down a series of washboarded single-lane roads into the Mohave Desert. I was on a quest to visit some sand dunes in the farthest reaches of a National Park that gets nearly a million visitors a year but there wasn’t a single vehicle on the road with me. After bumping along on one road and then making a right turn onto another, the only indication I had that I’d entered the park was a weathered sign with the park name followed by a similarly weathered sign warning that off-road travel was prohibited.

Map
My map of the area was very detailed.

I crossed a few dry washes, recalling quite clearly that my detailed map warned “River crossing dangerous in flood.” I had seen water flowing earlier in the day and suspected the meandering river might enter the valley, but it certainly didn’t seem as if the water had made it this far. Until a healthy stream trickled across the road a few hundred yards ahead. Surely my big pickup with its beefy tires could cross this sandy stream? Even with my big camper on back? I knew that a slow crossing was not advised, so I gave it a bit more gas and surged forward. The tires started to bog down on the far side of the stream, but by then momentum had carried us through. On the way back, I’d use 4WD.

Saratoga Springs
This was supposed to be a photo of the ponds by the springs but it’s a better picture of the dreary weather. Apparently, it was pouring in the main park area.

I followed signs to a spring where another sign that I suspected might be there said “No Camping.” There were no people in the parking area, although there was a weather station that I later found on Weather Underground. I never saw the source of the spring, but I did see the huge reed-fringed ponds that had formed in a desert well-known for its lack of water. I heard water fowl and frogs and, after retrieving my binoculars from the camper, saw a few dark colored birds floating on one of the ponds. I also saw what I think was burro (AKA donkey) dung along the trail.

I was tempted to park there for the night despite the sign, but didn’t want to get in trouble in the unlikely event of a park ranger stopping by this remote spot during the night. My camper is pretty much zero-impact; it’s fully equipped to haul what I need — fresh water, fuel for cooking, food — in and what I don’t need — waste water and garbage — out. A campfire isn’t necessary for cooking. All I need is a relatively level place to park, preferably with a view. But rules are not meant to be broken and if this spot wasn’t protected by the “No Camping” rule, it would likely be overrun with motorhomes and people bathing in the springs as soon as word got out about what a great spot it was.

We are our own worst enemies.

The goal, I reminded myself, was the dunes. It would be better if I could find a place closer to them to park for the night. Although the weather was degrading and rain was in the forecast, a hike to the dunes from my campsite was a possibility, either that evening or in the morning. So I came away from the spring and turned left on the washboard road, continuing north and mindful of the sign that warned about deep sand 4 miles up the road. I didn’t plan on going that far.

I found what I think was a parking area for the dunes about a mile up the road and turned in. There was a sign about it being a wilderness area that allowed foot and horse traffic only. There was space between the sign and the road for my rig, so I pulled out, turned around, and backed in with my camper’s back door facing the dunes. I killed the engine, fetched a few things from the truck, and opened up the camper. After spending about 10 minutes putting out the slide and picking up the things that had fallen during the bumpy ride, I was settled in.

The dunes, over a mile away without a clear trail to them, taunted me under a darkening sky.

Parking for the Dunes
Parking for the dunes — the view out my camper’s back door.

I fed Penny.

I checked my cell phone, fully expecting to see No Service in the area where there are usually dots representing signal strength. I was shocked to see three dots and LTE. That had to be wrong. I ran SpeedTest and was even more shocked to see that not only did I have Internet service, but it was the fastest service I’d had since leaving home.

I checked in on social media. I admit that part of me wished I didn’t have an Internet connection so that I could fully disconnect. But, at the same time, I’m a realist and know that if anything goes wrong, it’s nice to be able to call for help — even if help would likely take hours to find me. (My dead starter was still fresh in my mind, which also explains why I always back into a campsite now.)

I found a classic rock station on the radio that actually played good music. I listened for about 15 minutes before realizing I preferred silence.

And it was silent. No sound of cars or trucks or planes. I could hear the wind coming through the greasewood (AKA creosote) bushes before it reached me. I occasionally heard a bird.

From my parking spot, I could see for miles in almost every direction; nothing moved.

I looked again with my binoculars. Nothing.

I sat at the table, writing a blog post on my laptop (that I might never publish), finishing the last of the ice tea from my late breakfast in Boulder City. Occasionally, I’d glance outside to see if Mother Nature would surprise me with a ray of sunshine highlighting the dunes or mountains behind them. I heard a few raindrops on the roof. It got dark out without the pleasure of a nice sunset.

Despite the full moon that had risen behind the clouds at around sunset, it got very dark.

I made some dinner and sat up in bed eating it while I did a crossword puzzle. I debated watching a movie but decided against it.

I realized I was exhausted. I’d started the day with a 4-1/2 mile hike on the Historic Railroad Trail near Hoover Dam, which would have been nothing if I was still in shape. But I’d been letting exercise opportunities pass me by and it was starting to really make a difference. Which is why I’d done the hike.

So I went to bed early.

As I slept, I was very aware of the persistent rain on the roof. I thought about that little stream I’d crossed and wondered whether it would be a bigger stream.

Later, I was also aware of the wind loudly snapping the ratchet tie-down strap holding my old rotor blades in place on the roof. There was no way to stop the sound without going outside and climbing a ladder, so I tried to ignore it. Eventually, the wind — and the noise — stopped.

I slept well after that, waking enough just a few times to notice that it wasn’t dark anymore. The clouds had thinned enough to bathe the desert around me in faint moonlight.

I’d slept until after 5:30 AM, which was actually quite late for me.

No surprise that it was dead quiet when I woke up. It was still cloudy. The sky was brightening from the coming sunrise. The dunes taunted me.

I had some coffee and breakfast, fed Penny again, and caught up on social media. The world is going nuts, but you don’t really feel it when you’re disconnected. Sadly, I was not disconnected and can feel it. It makes me sad.

I looked out at the dunes. It wasn’t worth the mile plus walk to get out there with bad light and I definitely didn’t want to spend the day out there waiting for the light to get good.

But I didn’t mind waiting in my camper for the light to get good. There was no place else I had to be. Heck, I had enough food, water, and fuel to last me at least a week and didn’t need to be at my next destination, which was only 536 miles away for six days.

And I really liked the solitude of this roadside campsite in the middle of nowhere.

So I pulled out my portable solar panels and set them up on the south side of the camper. There was enough blue sky that I knew they’d eventually generate some power. I certainly didn’t want to run my generator and break the silence.

And that’s how I spent the day: writing, relaxing, reading, and shooting the occasional photo.

A park ranger stopped by around 10 AM. We chatted for a while and he gave me some advice about road closures and campsites over the next few days of my stay in the park. A while later, two guys in a pickup stopped, wanting to know what the road was like up ahead. I told them I didn’t know, but mentioned the deep sand sign, which they’d also seen. I told them not to get stuck because I didn’t want to pull them out. We laughed.

Much later in the day, two SUVs parked near me and two men and a woman got out. By then the wind was really howling and visibility had dropped due to blowing dust. It was also cloudy and threatened rain. They told me they’d been much farther north in the park and it had poured on them all day. I asked them if they were going to hike to the dunes and they said that they’d come this far so they had to go all the way. I watched them bundle up against the wind — the temperature had dropped to the 60s — and head northeast. It rained while they were gone, but not enough to make anything wet. Around sunset, when they still hadn’t returned, I took out my binoculars and saw them at the base of one of the dunes. I guess they were doing some photography; it was too far away to really tell. I wondered if they’d taken camping gear with them; I hadn’t really paid attention to their departure.

A few other pickups and SUVs drove by but didn’t stop. It was actually a lot more activity than I expected.

The sun finally made an afternoon appearance about a half hour before sunset, illuminating the dunes and the mountains behind them and making deep shadows. It was too late to walk out there — and besides, the wind was still blowing pretty good — so I satisfied my urge to document the moment using my 70-300mm lens from the roof of the camper. The light was constantly changing and I took quite a few photos. The one below, which I obviously cropped, is one of my favorites.

Sunset at the Dunes
Sunset at the dunes.

When the sunset show was over, I started making dinner: chicken cordon bleu with fresh creamed spinach and chanterelle mushrooms (from the freezer). It got dark quickly. I kept checking out the back windows for the moonrise, which was expected just north of due west at about 6:30. There were clouds out there on the horizon and I wondered it they’d clear out enough for me the see the moon coming over the mountains. Overhead, stars started appearing one-by-one with Venus leading the way.

My dinner was almost ready and it was dark when the sand dune hikers returned. I turned on one of my outside lights for them. Soon their engines were running and I saw taillights down the road. I didn’t envy their drive back to pavement in the dark.

Moon Rise
Moon rise through the clouds.

My friend Bob called and we chatted for a while. It had snowed quite a bit at home and he’d spent the weekend in his shop, working on a Moto Guzzi motorcycle he’d owned for more than 20 years, getting it back into pristine condition. Unfortunately, the work he needed to do on the engine required him to keep the door open to the cold so he wouldn’t be overcome with fumes. While we talked, the moon rose just where I expected it to, making the clouds around it glow. Overhead, the stars faded away, unable to compete with the moon’s brightness.

I went to bed with a book I’d downloaded from the library, Time and Again by Jack Finney. I originally read it not long after it was first published in 1970 and it seemed brand new to me. I recommend it.

I slept great until about midnight, then woke for a while, then slept again until after 6:30. The sound of rain that was nearly forecasted nor on radar got me out of bed. It was overcast (again).

Outside, the dunes taunted me.

The hourly forecast said it would clear up around 10 AM. It would be my last chance to hike to the dunes; I really did need to get on my way if I wanted to see other remote parts of the park. So, after coffee and breakfast, I did the dishes and dressed, getting the camper prepped as much as I could for departure. The sun finally made an appearance as the clouds fled west, faster than the sun could climb into the sky.

Two pickups drove by. I started wondering why vehicles nearly always came by in pairs.

It was just after 9 AM when I started my hike to the dunes. Although satellite images had shown the remnants of a road that went that way, I couldn’t find it. So I just cut as straight as I could through the desert. Halfway there, I stripped off my flannel shirt and faced the sun in a tank top. The shade temperature was below 60°F, but I was not in the shade. The sun felt amazing on my skin and the light breeze kept me cool.

I looked back every once in a while. Although I thought the route was pretty flat, we apparently descended into a dip; I couldn’t see the camper when we were about halfway to the dunes. I later saw it again and made a note of the knob on the mountaintop behind it so I could easily navigate back in the unlikely event that my phone’s GPS tracker failed and I couldn’t see my rig.

Desert Mushroom
I saw three of these within a half mile radius of each other. They were about an inch and a half tall.

The walk took about a half hour, with stops along the way to look at interesting plants, including mushrooms (!), and rocks.

The dunes are large and I felt small beside them. Penny went nuts running up and down the sand. She loves the beach and I suspect that to her, there was nothing better than a beach without water.

Ibex Dunes
A closeup shot of part of the dunes.

Dune Ridge
I didn’t get very far trying to climb up this ridge.

I took a bunch of photos. Unfortunately, although I might have been in the right place, I was definitely not there at the right time. The dunes were in full sun and the golden hour was long gone. Shadows were relatively small. The light was bright and harsh. A more serious photographer would have arrived at dawn — and gotten rained on along the way.

I tried to climb one of the ridges, but when I got to the point where every step forward slid me a half step back, I quit.

It was windy there — windy enough for my footprints to disappear within seconds of me laying them down.

We stayed about a half hour, then turned around and headed back. By this time, it was almost cloudless. The sun still felt good on my skin and I never really worked up a heavy sweat. Halfway back, my path intersected with the old road and I saw the footprints of the previous day’s visitors. I almost lost the trail when a wide wash ran through it, but I picked it up on the other side and was almost surprised to see that it delivered me almost right back to the door of my camper.

Behind me, the dunes smiled and winked.

After a bathroom break and something cold to drink, I finished up this blog post. I want to get back on the road before noon and I suspect I won’t have as good an Internet connection as I have here for a few days.

I know a lot of people will read this and be amazed that I spent two days alone in such a remote place. Wasn’t I scared? Wasn’t I lonely? How could I stand to be so completely alone for so long?

First of all, no, I wasn’t scared. I come to places like this very prepared. Why would I be scared when help is a phone call away, phone service is excellent, and I have everything I need on hand to survive for at least a week without skipping a meal?

Second, no, I wasn’t lonely. I don’t get lonely. Loneliness is a feeling suffered by people who need to be around other people to be happy. While I wouldn’t call myself anti-social, I’m also not dependent on other people to keep me — well, what? What is it that people need other people for? Conversation? Sex? Companionship while watching television? Am I that unusual in that I can go for more than two days without any of that?

I love my friends, but I don’t need to be with them all of the time.

And third, not only can I stand to be alone, but I rather like it. I’ve always needed a certain amount of alone time. Time to think and reflect without having to keep someone else entertained. Time to read and write and do photography without someone interrupting me, demanding my attention. Time to do whatever I want to do without someone else making judgements about how I spend that time.

When I was in a relationship, every year my future wasband used to ask me what I wanted for my birthday. In the later years, I told him that all I wanted was to have the day to do what I wanted to do. I wanted alone time.

I finally have as much of it as I want.

Real News from Real Sources

Want to know where to get facts?

Forbes ArticleThe other day, one of my Facebook friends shared a link to an article on Forbes that discussed the difficulty of finding reliable news sources in a world where so many sources are labeled “fake.” The article listed, with objective descriptions, what the author considered honest and reliable news sources. I’ll run down the list quickly here; I urge you to read the article to get additional information about each source:

  1. The New York Times
  2. The Wall Street Journal
  3. The Washington Post
  4. BBC
  5. The Economist
  6. The New Yorker
  7. Wire Services: The Associated Press, Reuters, Bloomberg News
  8. Foreign Affairs
  9. The Atlantic
  10. Politico

There are runners up and financial resources, too. Again, I urge you to read the article to get those lists. (Spoiler alert: CNN is on a list; Fox News, Brietbart, Huffington Post, and Mother Jones are not.)

As I added on Facebook when I shared a link to the article, the real trick is convincing the people who already turn to less reliable news outlets that these news outlets are better and more truthful. Another challenge is getting people to understand the difference between fact-based articles produced by journalists and opinion pieces produced by pundits.

If you’re interested in doing the right thing during these difficult times — and don’t don’t fool yourself: these are difficult times — start by informing yourself about an issue by turning to reliable news sources. (Note the plural there; try to learn from at least two good sources.) Be careful to get information from journalists and not pundits. (In other words, skip the OpEd and political commentary pages/columns.) Go beyond the headlines! Think about what you’ve learned. Discuss it with other people you know and trust who have done the same thing. Then form your own opinions and act accordingly. Acting means calling your congressperson or senators when an issue comes up to vote. These days, it also means showing up for peaceful protests and doing what you can to help convince those sitting on the fence to see things your way and also act.

It’s sad to me that so many people are falling for “alternative facts” fed to them by unreliable news sources, many of which are playing political games for ratings or other gains. What’s even worse is that the “fake news” label is being applied to what are truly reliable news sources.

Stop the ignorance. Get your information from reliable sources and make your own decisions.

On Being Elite

A few thoughts about the use of “elite” as some sort of slur.

The other day, I was accused by a troll on Twitter of being part of the “rich elite” because I owned a helicopter and went south for the winter.

I think I was supposed to be insulted. I wasn’t. You see, I’m not ashamed of what I am or what I do with my time and money. I earned all of my possessions and my lifestyle.

Don’t believe me? Read on.

The only things I had going for me at birth was that I was born in the United States, I was white, and I had a good brain.

My parents were not rich. In fact, when my father left us when I was about 13, my mother very nearly applied for welfare. Our financial situation qualified me for free lunch at school; every day, I’d go to the school office and retrieve a small kraft envelope with 65¢ in it — government money to pay for my cafeteria lunch. I’d spend as little as possible and save the rest. When I got home from school, I babysat my younger sister and baby brother while my mother worked as a waitress to put food — mostly hot dogs and pasta — on the table. My grandmother would bring us groceries once in a while and slip my mother a $20 bill to help out.

I started working at age 13 when I got a paper route. I delivered the Bergen Evening Record after school on weekdays and the Sunday Record before 7 AM on Sundays. There were 54 homes on my route, which I had to walk, and I netted 20¢ plus tips per week per house. In those days — the mid 1970s — 10¢ was considered a generous tip; many of the homes did not tip at all. Collection day — Wednesday — was unusually long since I had to stop at every single house to try to get paid. One Wednesday in September, which coincided with the first day of school, my mother used my collection money to pay for our school supplies because she wouldn’t have money until payday.

Our financial situation qualified me for a summer job working at the high school. With three other girls, all a year or two older than me, I scraped rust off an old chain link fence that ran between the school property and the railroad tracks. The wire brushes we used had to be replaced every few days because the bristles would fall out. The gloves they gave us did little to prevent huge blisters on our hands. When it rained, they let us into the school where we went from classroom to classroom, washing the venetian blinds. The wash water had to be changed every 30 minutes or so because the blinds had likely never been cleaned before.

My mother remarried and I won’t deny that my blue collar stepfather brought us quite a few steps up from our dismal financial situation. I got a chance to see some of the better things in life. He took us to museums and restaurants with real cloth napkins. I stayed in a hotel for the first time in my life at age 15. I was even able to accompany my grandparents on a trip to visit family in Germany. And, for the first time, I started thinking about college.

College was possible with two academic achievement scholarships, financial contributions from my parents (they each paid 1/3 of the net after scholarships were deducted from tuition), and a school loan. And work. At one point I held down three part-time jobs while handling a 15 or 18 credit load. I worked hard to maintain good grades and got a BBA with highest honors in Accounting in four years. I was the first person in my family to attend and graduate from college.

Within two weeks of graduation, I got my own apartment. I paid rent and utilities and furnished it with my own money. It was in a rough neighborhood and a few of my friends didn’t like to come visit. My mother bought me a sewing machine as a graduation gift and I used it to make about half the clothes that I wore to work, so I could look nice without spending a fortune.

I started my first job right away: an auditor with the New York City Comptrollers Office. In just two years, at the age of 22, I became the youngest person promoted to Field Audit Supervisor.  After five years with the city, I started a new job with ADP in New Jersey.  I did my time in the Audit Department before becoming a Senior Financial Analyst working on special projects directly for the CFO.

By the age of 29, I was earning more money per year than my father ever had. But that didn’t stop me from leaving my job to pursue an uncertain career that was more in line with what I wanted to do for a living: write. I built a career as a tech writer and computer trainer from the ground up. I was completely self-taught and worked without an agent. I wrote books and led hands-on computer training classes all over the country. I quickly learned that I needed to write a lot of books to make a living so that’s what I did. When I was on a book project, I’d work 10-12 hour days, 7 days a week. I wrote books and articles and eventually authored video training courses. I was very good at what I did and it paid off: within 10 years, I had two bestsellers; their periodic revisions were bestsellers, too.

By the age of 40, I was earning more money than I’d ever thought possible, but instead of pissing it away on a bigger house or fancier car, I socked money away for retirement and invested in rental properties: a condo, a house, a small apartment building. And between book projects, I learned how to fly helicopters.

And yes, I did buy a helicopter. Why not? It was my money that I had earned through my efforts. I had covered all my other financial responsibilities and set aside enough money for my future. Why shouldn’t I invest in something that would make me happy?

I flew as often as I could and started a helicopter business to help bring in some extra revenue to cover costs. I managed the fuel concession at the local airport. I became an aeronautical chart dealer and ran a small pilot shop. I worked for a season as a pilot for a Grand Canyon tour operator. I sold that first helicopter and bought a slightly larger one. I jumped through hoops with the FAA to get required certifications for charter work. I created advertising material, maintained a website, handled social networking needs, did all the accounting, met with clients, did local and long distance flights. I networked with other pilots about other flying jobs.

All while still writing up to 10 books and dozens of articles a year for my publishers.

When tech publishing went into decline, I ramped up my flying work. I got contracts to do agricultural work in Washington state during the summer. I’d live in a trailer, working on various book projects, waiting for a call to fly, for two to three months every summer. Over the years, I built up the number of contracts I had until I couldn’t handle them all alone; then I brought in other pilots with helicopters to help me, managing work and billing for as many as four subcontactors every season.

I was 52 when the man I’d spent more than half my life with decided he needed a mommy to hold his hand while he watched TV every night more than a life partner to actually enjoy life with. He tried to take half of everything I owned in our divorce, but I fought back to keep what was rightfully mine, what I’d earned through my own efforts while he floundered, failing at one job after another. I went into the fight with a war chest of cash I’d saved while he was pissing his money away on a plane he never flew, a Mercedes he didn’t need, and a condo that was sucking him dry financially. His greed, harassment, and courtroom lies didn’t score many points with the judge and he wound up paying me and his lawyers far more than he could have spent if he’d settled for my offer. His downfall is a great example of someone getting what he deserves.

I’ve spent the last four and a half years rebuilding my life in a new place, working hard to build my flying business, expanding into other work in California and now possibly Arizona. I don’t write much anymore, but I make a good living with the helicopter the Twiiter troll I mentioned at the top of this piece criticized. I’ve learned how to take my skills and assets and turn them into money. And unlike so many other people, I live within my means. Yes, I go south for the winter, but it’s not as if I’m living it up in some fancy condo or hotel. I’m roughing it in an RV often parked out in the desert. 

It's Mine
Just about everything I own was bought and paid for with money that I earned through my efforts. Why shouldn’t I be proud of that?

I worked hard and smart and I succeeded. Is there any reason I should be ashamed of that?

So yeah, if making a good living and owning a helicopter and wintering in the south makes me part of the “rich elite,” I’m okay with that. I earned it.

And to the people who troll me with their jealousy-driven comments: What’s your excuse for being a loser?

Racism is Alive and Well in Quartzsite, AZ

A few thoughts about a startling experience.

I had the batteries replaced on my RV yesterday in Quartzsite, AZ. I’d been camping off the grid about 25 miles from there with friends and was having trouble keeping a charge overnight. Another friend did some troubleshooting with a multimeter and concluded that one of the two 12-volt batteries was dead and the other was on its last legs. There’s a great RV fix-it place in Quartzsite called RV Lifestyles so that’s where I took it. They got the job done in about a half hour and there was free music and hotdogs (and the usual collection of folks you get when you offer free food) while I waited with Penny.

Afterwards, I visited Tyson Wells, where one of the many “shows” is going on. I bought a new coyote tail for my Honda’s rear-view mirror and a pair of long wind socks to replace the wind ribbons on my home. And lunch, which was cold by the time I got it so I wound up reheating it for dinner later on.

Signs from our ugly past

With time on my hands and no real plan for the rest of the day, I went over to the remnants of the old Main Event show in the northwest corner of town. Last year, I’d bought a neon sign at one of the shops there, but I didn’t want to go back, fearing I might want another one. Instead, I saw a metal building off the road with the sign “Henry’s Antiques and Cast Iron Imports.” There were some metal sculptures outside and although none of them were to my taste — except maybe the flamingo on a bicycle that’s designed to hold a flowerpot — I thought I’d kill some time with a look inside. So I parked, cracked the windows in the truck for Penny, and went in.

Henry's Antiques
Looks interesting (and innocent) enough, no?

Inside was more of the same, although smaller pieces. A lot of signs. Bins full of cast iron nicknacks and things to hang on the wall like hooks and insect sculptures and crosses and trivets. A lot of different shapes and sizes, all heavy iron. On the wall were various signs made of a lighter metal, roughly cut and painted, obviously designed to represent the metal signs from 50s. Signs you might put in your kitchen that said “EAT” or “Coffee.” Metal bird houses in all kinds of shapes. There were stacks of repro old gas station signs, made new to look old. Man cave or college dorm stuff.

The building was spacious with aisles of bins with the smaller iron pieces. I went up and down the rows, cataloging, in my mind, the kind of stuff they have. If I found something I liked and could use, I’d likely buy it — the prices were reasonable enough. But I also like to just see what’s available in case I have a need sometime in the future. I’m back in the area most winters and can always pick up something I’ve seen.

And then I saw something odd. A black metal sign with white trim, lettering, and arrows. REST ROOMS. WHITE. COLORED.

Segregationist Restrooms Sign
Who would buy something like this?

I was immediately taken aback. It was a throwback into America’s segregationist days, days we should be ashamed of, days that should have been long behind us. Was this someone’s idea of reminding us about those bad old days? If so, it was in poor taste.

Segregationist Signs
Who would make something like these?

And that’s when I realized that all the signs in the row were similarly themed. Bin after bin, there were signs for showers and drinking fountains and officer dining. And even a WHITE ONLY sign.

These weren’t one-offs or actual antiques. There were bins literally filled with these signs. Dozens of them. Possibly hundreds in total.

They weren’t funny. They weren’t some sort of joke. They were a horrible reminder of how cruel people can be. Segregation was a stain on the fabric of our nation. Yet this shop was selling signs that seemed to say segregation was okay, it was part of the good old days like the old Sinclair gas sign over there.

Why would anyone buy one of these signs? I cannot imagine. Yet someone must buy them or they wouldn’t be manufactured.

And that’s when I realized that someone somewhere had made an iron mold to run off signs like these in quantity. And was selling them to stores like this one. So they could be bought by…well, who?

The thought that there were still people in this country who would buy and presumably hang something like this shocked and disgusted me.

You don’t have to be black to be offended by racism. You just have to be human. I was offended. Deeply offended. I took these photos just to show what I’d seen. I was too shaken to document them all. I just wanted to get out of there. I just wanted to put it behind me.

I left, taking a photo of the store front. I was already thinking about what I needed to say in my blog.

And then there’s that flag…

Of course racism is alive and well in the United States. It’s in the news every time a white police officer shoots an unarmed black man. And now it’s back in the news after Donald Trump’s attack on John Lewis, who marched with Martin Luther King Jr. to help end segregation and give black people the same civil rights white people have always enjoyed. “All men are created equal” — that’s what our Declaration of Independence says — but too many people still don’t think it’s true.

And some vendors and shops in Quartzsite — and elsewhere — cater to these people.

The most obvious racist symbol for sale in tourist shops is the Confederate flag. I’m offended by that, too. This is the United States of America. We fly the American flag here, not the flag that symbolizes the war that nearly tore this nation apart and caused American 620,000 deaths. The Confederate flag symbolizes a way of life that not only approved of slavery, but depended on it. It symbolizes a racist mentality. Anyone who tries to say otherwise is either lying or deluding themselves.

The American flag is the perfect symbol of our nation. The 13 stripes (for our original 13 colonies) with a single field of blue (actually called the union) that unites the 50 stars (for our 50 states). One nation, indivisible. Isn’t that what it’s all about?

People who call themselves “American patriots” and then fly a Confederate flag are hypocrites, plain and simple.

Sorry state of affairs

It’s 2017 and the world is a mess. I blame it on divides. The old “us vs. them” mentality.

Whites vs. blacks. Natives vs. immigrants. Conservatives vs. liberals.

Everywhere you look, there are people trying to separate themselves from each other, trying to say that their group is better or smarter or somehow more worthy than the other group.

Meanwhile, people are dying. It doesn’t matter whether it’s shootings or starvation or war or lack of health care. The “us vs. them” mentality is tearing our country and the rest of the world apart.

Why?

I’ll never understand why we let hate and anger destroy ourselves.

Back in the 1960s, Martin Luther King Jr. led a crusade for civil rights. His fight, which was mostly won, cost him his life. I say “mostly” because I don’t see true racial equality in this country. Sure, it’s on paper. But its not in the actions and attitudes of all Americans. And when I visit a shop and see segregationist signs for sale or drive past a house with a Confederate flag flying in the front yard, I lose all hope that there will ever be true racial equality in my country.

What a sorry thing to have to blog about on what would have been Martin Luther King Jr’s 88th birthday.

Learning about Milk Fat

I learned something new today, thanks to a debate with a friend.

The other day, a friend and I were discussing milk.

I told her I preferred 2% milk but was trying to get to like 1% milk. To me, it was about reducing unnecessary fat and calories in my diet. I’ve been drinking 2% milk for years and actually now prefer its flavor and consistency over whole milk. Whole milk, to me, had become too rich, almost like a light cream. I wanted to start liking 1% milk in an effort to further reduce fat and calories for a healthy diet. I already enjoy fat-free yogurt; indeed, I don’t think I’ve had whole milk yogurt in years, if ever. (Do they even make it? I guess I could make my own.)

My friend was adamantly opposed to reduced fat milk. I gathered from our conversation that she thought they added things to the milk that made it less healthy when they removed the fat. Or that something about the actual process of making reduced fat milk caused it to be less healthy. In any case, she thought reduced fat milk was bad and didn’t want to hear anything else about it.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned, especially in the past three or four years, is that when someone is stuck with an idea in their head it’s no use debating the point. At least not without facts. And although I suspected there was nothing unhealthy about reduced fat milk, I had no evidence to prove my point. So I let the subject drop and we chatted about other things.

But this morning, when I sat down with my coffee and some time to kill before dawn, I set about finding some evidence to support my point of view.

How Reduced Fat Milk is Made

I Googled “How do they make reduced fat milk?” I got a number of search results. The first, from The Kitchn website, had the answer I was looking for: “How is Skim Milk Made?“. Here’s the pertinent info:

So how is skim milk made? Traditionally, the fat was removed naturally from milk due to gravity. If fresh milk is left to sit and settle, the cream — which is where most of the fat is — rises to the top, leaving behind milk with much less fat.

The quicker, modernized way of making low-fat and skim milks is to place the whole milk into a machine called a centrifugal separator, which spins some or all of the fat globules out of the milk. This occurs before the milk is homogenized, a process which reduces all the milk particles to the same size so that natural separation doesn’t occur anymore.

The article goes on to provide some other interesting information about milk and fat free milk. Among that information was a note about additives:

Federal law mandates that most skim milk has to be fortified with vitamin A and sometimes vitamin D. This is due to the fact that even though whole milk naturally has a fair amount of both, the vitamins are fat soluble and thus lost when the milk fat is removed during the skimming process.

Milk solids in the form of dried milk are also added since they contain proteins that help thicken the watery consistency of skim milk.

Not only was this likely the additives that worried my friend, but it also explained how some brands of skim milk were far more palatable than others: they likely added back more dried milk to thicken it up.

2% Milk
The only thing that creeps me out about Shamrock Foods milk is its extraordinarily long shelf life: the quart I bought last week is supposedly good until March. Could it be the plastic packaging?

Now I don’t know if the 2% milk I normally consume has a lot of vitamins or any milk fat added back in. The milk in my camper’s refrigerator now — remember, I’m on the road this winter — is from Shamrock Farms and says it contains “reduced fat milk, Vitamins A & D.” Nothing about milk solids.

So nothing I learned about the production of reduced fat milk has scared me away from drinking it.

Benefits of Whole vs. Reduced Fat Milk

Scrolling down in the same search results, however, brought up links to two different articles in TIME Magazine. I read them both. After all, I wanted to learn the truth — a truth that would either support or even change my own opinions.

  • The Case Against Low-fat Milk Is Stronger Than Ever from April 4, 2016 cites a study of people whose health had been tracked for 15 years. The conclusion was that, if anything, people who consumed whole fat dairy products were less likely to be obese or suffer from type 2 diabetes.
  • Why Full-Fat Dairy May Be Healthier Than Low-Fat from March 5, 2015 cites the results of over 25 studies that concluded that “people who eat full-fat dairy are no more likely to develop cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes than people who stick to low-fat dairy. When it comes to weight gain, full-fat dairy may actually be better for you.”

Huh.

Both articles suggested that there might be something special about the fat in dairy that works with our bodies to help them process the foods we eat and help us feel full. Dairy fat could actually be preventing us from eating less healthy sugars and carbs to feel sated. And these articles maintained that it was foolhardy for diets to recommend cutting (or eating) just one kind of nutrient — for example, low fat or fat-free diets — when the body naturally works with all consumed nutrients together.

I understand how these studies could have gotten these results. Back in the late 1970s and early 1980s when the fat-free diet craze was in full swing, stores were full of fat-free processed foods. I know because I still lived at home (or at least visited regularly) and saw that my mother bought them. She, like so many other people, thought that the answer to keeping weight under control was to keep as much fat out of their diets as possible. But rather than do this by eating naturally low fat foods like fruits and vegetables and whole grains, they did it by buying processed foods labeled “fat free.” They then consumed as much as they wanted, not paying attention to the ingredients that made this food taste good despite the lack of fat: mostly sugar. Calorie counts were sky high. It was around this time that I started reading labels and making food choices based on what I read. While I don’t have a perfect diet, I’ve learned to minimize my time in a supermarket’s middle aisles where all the processed foods reside.

The Calorie Argument

Okay, so what about calories? The articles both confirmed that one of the benefits of reduced fat dairy products was the accompanying reduction in calories. So I decided to see just how many calories I was saving by switching between whole, 2%, and 1% milk. (I really detest fat-free milk and generally only have it in lattes because I think it froths better. Fat free yogurt tastes fine to me.)

So I Googled “What is the calorie count for whole, 2%, 1%, and fat free milk?” The PopSugar website had the answer I sought: “Whole vs. Reduced vs. Low-Fat vs. Nonfat Milk.” Here’s the nutritional information that interests me for one 8-ounce cup of milk:

  Whole 2% 1% Fat-free
Calories 150 130 110 90
Total Fat (g / %) 8 / 3 5 / 2 2.5 / 1 ~0 / 0

What’s interesting when you read data in the article’s table is that they all the same fiber, carbs, and protein but 1% and fat-free milks actually have more sugar — although admittedly it isn’t much more: 11g vs. 12g.

Now I don’t drink a lot of milk, although I probably do drink more than the average adult. I’ll go through a half gallon in about a week. Every cup of 2% is saving me only 20 calories over whole milk and a switch down to 1% milk would only save another 20 calories. Is it worth it? I don’t think so.

At this point, I sort of regret getting so used to 2% milk.

An Exercise in Critical Thinking

So what did I learn?

In a way, my friend was right: reduced fat milk isn’t any better for you than whole milk. And if she believed that there were additives, she’s right — although I’m not sure those additives make reduced fat milk any less healthy.

But in a way, she was also wrong: reduced fat milk isn’t really bad for you. It just doesn’t give the health benefits we’ve been led to believe.

As for me, I was wrong. There’s no real reason to switch to reduced fat milk. I have no evidence to show her. I have nothing to stand on for pressing my original point of view.

Will I change the way I buy milk? Probably not — at least for now. I really do like 2% milk. I’m used to it. To me, drinking whole milk is almost like drinking cream. I’m not so picky, however, that I’ll turn down whole milk if that’s the only thing available. I’m not worried about 2% milk hurting my health.

But 1% and fat-free milk have definitely become a little bit less attractive. No real calorie benefit and what’s with the added sugar? And what if milk fat really is good for you? Should I really be minimizing it?

And that’s what critical thinking is all about, folks. Gathering information and forming your own opinions after thinking about what you’ve learned. Even if you begin researching with a preconceived notion, you need to be ready to change your mind when the evidence clearly tells you your notion is wrong. You shouldn’t just look for evidence that supports your view. You should look for evidence that tells the whole story, the true story, or at least the story that properly conducted research and established facts support.

I sure wish more people would learn to think critically in today’s world.

Why I Prefer Twitter over Facebook

A few thoughts.

In recent months, I’ve found Twitter a lot more pleasant than Facebook for social networking. When I mention this to friends, they tell me that they don’t understand why. They say that they just don’t “get” Twitter.

I’ve given this a lot of thought, trying to understand why so I can explain it to others. This is what I’ve come up with.

Facebook

The people I’m friends with on Facebook are, for the most part, real friends — people I know in real (vs virtual) life. They’re people I like and want to respect. When I see them posting idiotic, shortsighted, uninformed, or just plain stupid things, it hurts and confuses me. I like these people and I want to think they’re relatively smart or can listen to reason or aren’t the hateful, brainwashed idiots they seem to be. But over and over again, they share thoughtless, tasteless crap and downright lies, much of it parroted from a dubious “news” sources. I hate to think that the people I really like subscribe to such bullshit.

Obviously, this isn’t all of my Facebook friends. But it is a lot of them. More than I care to admit.

Yes, it’s easy enough to get the stuff I don’t want to see off my timeline: 

  • If they’re real friends I can simply unfollow their updates. Then we can remain Facebook (and real) friends but I don’t have to be reminded periodically about their political or intellectual shortcomings. They probably don’t even realize that I’ve unfollowed them! (No harm, no foul.) And it’s easy enough to start following them again hen they’ve stopped posting the kind of crap that I don’t want to see.
  • If they’re not real life friends, I can unfriend them. They’ll continue to see and respond to my public updates, but nothing else. I won’t see anything they post unless it’s a response to me or someone I follow. In November and December, I unfriended about 100 people I really didn’t know or care about. I also turn down almost every single new friend request.
  • If they’re people who I don’t even know who insist on posting crap on the updates of my other friends or even my own public updates, I can block them. I have blocked dozens of people on Facebook, including more than a few people who were once “friends” and even at least one family member. 

But what I’m left with on Facebook is very little of interest to keep me there and the feeling that I have to walk on eggshells with every single thing I post. 

Now combine that with Facebook’s algorithms that determine what I see and the order in which I see it and and the endless regurgitated posts about what happened a year ago or two years ago or five years ago and the reminders of birthdays and holidays and the suggestions about what I should share based on what’s in my clipboard and the tracking of my activity all over the web so it can display ads that I might click on — well, does any of that would like something I might like?

Is visiting Facebook a pleasant experience? Not usually. It’s mostly a frustrating waste of time.

Twitter

Twitter isn’t like this at all. 

Most of the accounts I follow on Twitter are people and organizations I don’t know in real life. The real friends I have there are people I’ve met on Twitter and have formed connections with based on real social networking interactions there. They are, for the most part, thinkers and doers — people and organizations I like and can respect based on the things they say and share in their tweets. 

What do they tweet? Comments, news stories, images, jokes, and videos, all of which interest me in one way or another. They are tech people and artists, journalists and programmers, writers and photographers. They are publications and broadcasters and government agencies. There are only 206 of them (today) and it isn’t likely that there will be many more. I prune the list of accounts I follow on a regular basis, weeding out the ones that tweet things I don’t want to see and adding ones I think I might enjoy. 

 I read the tweets in my newsfeed regularly to keep up with them. I often read or at least glance at the articles they link to. These things help me learn more about what’s going on in the world. They help inform my opinions. They help me understand what’s important.

And I tweet what’s on my mind. I link to articles and videos. I share (or retweet) some of the tweets the people I follow have shared. 

And I respond to some of the tweets I read. I agree or disagree. I compliment or criticize. I interact with more effort than simply clicking a “Like” button. I expand my world, form new relationships, share viewpoints.

If another person I don’t know or care about rudely or crudely attacks me in response to something I’ve tweeted or shared, I block him or her. It’s as simple as that. I’m not going to waste my time dealing with small minded, petty people. Life’s too short to deal with trolls and cyber bullies. It’s no secret that Internet trolls engage in such behavior because they have little else in their lives to keep them busy.

And Twitter doesn’t play games with me. It displays every single tweet by every single person I follow in the order in which it was tweeted. There are no algorithms determining what I see on Twitter, no suggestions on what to tweet, and no reminders of what I or the people I followed tweeted in the past. 

Twitter treats me like an adult and gives me instant access to the things that interesting people and organizations are sharing right now. There’s always something new to see and learn on Twitter. There’s always someone interacting with me and my tweets. There’s always something interesting for me to read or watch or learn or share.

The Bubble

I hear it already: naysayers telling me that I’m in a bubble.

Okay. So what? Don’t I have a right to filter out bullshit and focus on the things that can entertain me or make me smarter? News stories or opinions based in truth that aren’t full of hateful rhetoric?

Just as my Facebook friends have the right to share what Alex Jones or Mother Jones says, I have the right to ignore them and focus on the work of investigative journalists reporting for reliable news sources. I have the right to ignore Fox News or MSNBC pundits in favor of fact-based opinion pieces that appeal to my mind instead of my emotions. Information sources that make me want to act because I want to do the right thing instead of because I’m spurred to hate someone or something for no good reason.

Anyway, that’s my reasoning. 

You can find me on Twitter at @mlanger. Over 2,000 other people already have.

Trump-Branded Hypocrisy

Why aren’t the proud deplorables calling out their idol on this?

I haven’t blogged much about the recent presidential election. Like most intelligent Americans who value truth over lies and can think for themselves, I’m distraught over the results. Wait and see has only made me feel worse.

The way I see it, the American people, with the aid of the Electoral College, have voted in a narcissistic, thin-skinned con man. A crude, tasteless, sexist man who uses, objectifies, and insults women. A bully who has a long history of not paying contractors for work done, has been involved in thousands of lawsuits, and has gone through six bankruptcies. This is a man who sucked so much money out of his casinos that he sent them into bankruptcy. A man who would take money from anyone who wanted to put his name on their building or other product. A man who made dozens of campaign promises he cannot possibly keep, including specific ones like putting Hillary Clinton in jail and building a wall along the U.S. border in Mexico and getting Mexico to pay for it and vague ones like “ending job-killing regulations.”

A friend on either Facebook or Twitter recently asked what was scarier: Trump or his followers. My response was easy: his followers. These are people who can be coached into predetermined conclusions by fake news, bumper sticker slogans, and simplistic images with overlaid text. These are the people who can somehow ignore all the negative, factual information about their idol yet believe batshit crazy conspiracy theories about his rival. These are the people dumb enough to click on and share fake news stories that were written by profit-motivated people to take advantage of their gullibility because conservatives were more likely to click and share than liberals. And although these people accounted for fewer than half of the people who bothered to vote, the Electoral College system allowed them to choose a failed businessman and reality show host who doesn’t know the first thing about foreign policy or the Constitution to be the “leader of the free world.”

Oh, America, how you’ve fallen.

But that’s not what this post is about.

And let’s be honest — this post could be about all kinds of things because since Trump became the president-elect, he’s done hundreds of things to prove how inept, unqualified, and absolutely crooked he is. I could spend the rest of my life writing about them, but why bother? It’s in the news every damn day. This new Russian connection and the way Trump is trying to blow it off as “fake news” is just the latest outrage. Stop watching FoxNews and reality TV and visit the website of a reputable news organization. One that has journalists who actually research what they write about rather than talking heads spinning rumors and spouting opinions as fact. Open your brain and stop letting your Facebook friends fill it with crap. You have no right to complain if you don’t participate in what’s supposed to be a democratic process.

And no, this isn’t about being a sore loser. It’s about being genuinely worried about the future of my country. If you don’t get that, please leave now and don’t come back. Nasty or abusive comments will be deleted before they appear and annoy the more mature, intelligent readers this site is written for.

What this post is about is this photo, which was shared by a friend of a friend on Facebook. While Christmas shopping, she stumbled upon a sweater from Ivanka Trump’s clothing line. She took a photo of the tags at the back neck of the sweater.

Ivanka Trump Made in China Label
Yes, Ivanka Trump’s clothing line is made overseas. So much for keeping jobs in America, eh?

One of the things Trump is always going on and on about is keeping jobs in America. It’s a worthy goal — I’ll all for it! But apparently the Trump family isn’t. Ivanka Trump’s clothing line is made overseas. China, in the case of this sweater.

Do you think Trump’s threatened 35% tariff will apply to Ivanka’s business? Or do you think he’ll somehow create a loophole just for her and his own branded merchandise, most of which is made overseas?

This is a great example — one of many, unfortunately — of Trump’s outrageous hypocrisy. And if you can successfully explain why it isn’t — without mentioning any other company that manufactures overseas — I’d love to hear what you have to say.

Just remember that comment policy. I don’t tolerate trolls.