Lessons From the Road

The Fear of Giving?

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My good blogging friend, Dawnliz, posted some great insights on giving, or more importantly, the fact that we don’t give because of our fear of giving to “fake charities or cons.” This reminded me of an incident that happen on one of my adventures in the state of Chiapas, Mexico. I felt compelled to share this story during the holiday season.

Many years ago while motorcycling through Mexico toward the Guatemala border I came down with the famous intestinal malady know as Montezuma’s Revenge. I was incapacitated to say the least. I held up in a small pension slowly getting sicker. After several days the innkeeper, a kind lady, took pity on me and procured a doctor who sent me to a pharmacy just down the street.

I was weak, shivering from chills in spite of the tropical heat. I paid little attention to my surroundings as I fixated on my goal of reaching the pharmacist and the medicine that the doctor assured me would put me right. After a brief wait and a few pesos, I slowly made my way back towards the bed and toilet of my room. I really wasn’t sure I could negotiate the block or so on account of my light headiness and weakening body.

I had only made it a few steps when a campesino stopped me and asked for 38 pesos. My first reaction was to ignore him as I was in need a toilet and wasn’t sure I would make it back to my room. But there was something odd about him requesting an exact amount, 38 pesos. Further, there was an anxious strain in his voice that seemed urgent.

As I stopped to engaged the man, my mind ran the tape that he was coning me and that besides losing a few pesos I was going to lose something more embarrassing before I reached the toilet in my room. He told me he lived on a rancho near by and that his daughter had disenteria, dysentery. I decided that even if he was making this up, he had taken the time to put together a proper story that was filled wth emotion and even some technical words. In short, I decided he had earned the 38 pesos. I gave the man a 50 peso note. I was so intent on making it back to my room, I never noticed if he entered the pharmacy.

Over the next few days I was able to return to the world of solid foods and cold beer again. Finally, I felt ready to travel and gassed up my moto and began packing. I had all but forgotten the little Indian and his urgent request. Just as I was making ready to point my moto further south, the campesino came running down the narrow cobblestone street waving something in his hand. I immediately thought he was going to put the touch on me again and ready myself for a quick escape.

Something quit amazing happened instead. The little man handed me the change from the 50 pesos and insisted that I go with him to the Pharmacy. He almost dragged me there. It was there with has family waiting to greet me, I learned that his daughter was improving and that according to the Pharmacist the medicine had saved her life. I was stunned that the price of a lunch had saved a life.

I still have the picture of his family standing in front of tiny thatched house beside the river. I still carry the small medallion of Guadalupe his wife gave me in my tank bag. In this holiday season we can lose the spirit by worrying about who is deserving our kindness and who is not. In many villages down South, there is a belief that beggars provide us with the opportunity to follow Christ’s sentiment. That it is better to give than to receive, and that giving will bring us good fortune as we have done His work.

I know, in my travels throughout the world, it has for me.

Merry Christmas!

 You Know, That’s My Book….

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Like many writers, I often wonder how much of an audience I am actually reaching. This is not surprising when you consider how lonely the endeavor the writing process can be. I feel this mostly in the quiet of the evening when I snap my laptop shut and let the scene and the characters retreat for awhile.

I was encouraged last Spring during an impromptu moto trip in Baja. Some of my friends were going to a remote cove on the Pacific side of the Baja peninsula to take advantage of some perfect, overhead surf. The Spring usually brings a swell that lines up just right and kicks up some huge waves. When this happens, my young friends drop everything and race down to the legendary surf spots of Baja.

After my friends called, I packed lightly and headed south on my BMW F 800 GSA adventure moto to be part of the gran adventura. The ride into the area they had set up camp consisted of a winding dirt trail that crossed the coastal mountains weaving through small settlements and ranchos. Recent rains complicated this ride with mud and wash outs but, overall, it was a typical run to the coast in Baja. Typical, until I accelerated out of a water crossing only to meet a drop off into a ravine where runoff had taken a whole section of the trail.

After picking up my bike and straightening the handle bars, I made my own trail and reached the cliffs overlooking the surf spot. It was amazing and well worth the ride in, as though you really need any reason to ride anywhere on two wheels. Huge waves kicked up on the off shore reefs creating perfect waves. I watched in awe as my friends streak across the face of these racing giants. The juxtaposition between the power of the sea and agile but frail specks of the surfers curving across the face of the waves was mesmerizing. It was beautiful.

I parked my bike next to a small encampment of surfers and made my way down to the beach below to get a closer look. There were clusters of people sitting on the beach quietly watching. As I stood on the shore against the cliffs, I noticed a young woman crouched, cross-legged reading a book. It seemed odd to be nosed in a book with all the beauty and acrobatics just off-shore. She looked up and briefly smiled at me and returned to her book. That was when I notice it was my book, Almost Human!

She sensed I was starring at her and looked back up.

“How do you like the book?” I asked.

She smiled and replied, “I love it. I can’t put it down.”

Before she could returned to it, I said. “You know, that’s my book.”

See frowned and replied. “No it isn’t. I got it on Amazon.”

I smiled and returned to my bike.

 Communication and Language

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Communication

Early one morning in Playa de Estero I woke up to a loud conversation just outside my window. I couldn’t really tell what was being said at first but it was loud. I was living in an old airstream trailer at the time and had all the windows open. It was August in Baja on the Pacific side and the fishing had been spectacular and the dinners and drinking even better. So it was just way too early to be waking up.

I slowly pulled myself out of bed to see who was making so much noise when I saw and learned something very special. Three old friends were straddling their bicycles out front. They were so intent talking that they didn’t notice me .

It was Vic, Coach, and K-Mart Bob causing the racket. All three men were pushing 90 years old and had been friends for over 60 years. Vic was a tall lanky man who looked  like what I imagined Don Quioxte be like. He was missing an ear from his time in the South Pacific in WWII and he was stone deaf without his hearing aides, which was most of the time as he thought they made him look old. K-mart Bob definitely didn’t have his. I had helped him search his whole trailer the day before. He thought his dog, Misty, had eaten them. K-mart Bob had been a manager of a K-mart in San Diego before retiring in Baja. Coach, had been the women’s swimming coach at Claremont College and before that had played in the 1936 Rose Bowl. He always wore his but they didn’t do much good. Both Coach and K-mart Bob would’ve made a good Sancho Panzas to Vic.

As I leaned out the door and listened, I was mesmerized. All three men were shouting at each other trying to be heard as they gastrulated dramatically. Coach asked K-Mart Bob, “Are you feeling any pain this morning?” K-mart answered, “No! I don’t need a Goddamn Cane! What about you?” Vic interrupted, “I don’t have the flu why is it going around?” They continued in this way for a good 15 minutes, conversing but not actually hearing each other.

When they finally broke up, I stopped K-mart and asked him what they had been talking about. He said that they had had a good visit like they did every morning. For years they had made a point to stop and “catch up.” He paused and said, “You know there’s a lot of flu going around.”

I learned early that morning that communication was not really about language at all.

We Should’ve Went to Costa Rica

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My best friend, Fritz, passed away a few years ago. But not before he taught me one last lesson. He was a big, larger that life man that lived life to the fullest. I have often said that finding a good fishing buddy is harder than finding a wife. And Fritz was the best fishing buddy I ever had.

He was a man of many contridicitons. He lived modestly but was a millionaire. He was tall viking but was the softest touch you ever met. He was the most successful contractor in our valley. He was a man’s, man and my friend.

We had been planning a fishing adventure down in Costa Rica for some time. We had got the motos ready, began packing and setting aside the dates. It was all we talked about for months. I poured over every route and studied all the possible tide charts and camping areas along the way. I thought the day we would leave would never come.

Finally, the day of our departure was near. I was so excited that my friends were tired of hearing about our plans. But a few days before we were actually scheduled to head out, Fritz called me and said he couldn’t make it. He said that a job had come up that he could not pass up. I was livid and we argued. He said he had doubled his bid but still got the project. He finally paused and said, “Kenny. We can always go next year.”

I left on a long trip and was gone for months. We didn’t talk much during the time as I was traveling to white spots on the maps with no connectivity. I was unplugged. When I finally got back, there were several messages on the phone from Fritz’s daughter that said my friend was ill and I should come right away to see him.

Fritz had contracted cancer. What he had thought was a bad virus before I left had turned out to be lung cancer.  I left immediately to see him. We talked long into the evening. He weakly laughed as we recalled all the adventures we had been on and all the great times we had had. I looked around his richly appointed house where we had spent so many evenings planning our adventures and realized all his stuff and money didn’t really count for much now. All we were talking about were the adventures we had shared. As though he had read my mind, he squeezed my hand firmly, eyes welling up, and said, “Kenny, we should have went to Costa Rica.” My friend, Fritz, died the next day.

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We Don’t Own Things–Things Own Us! – 3/18/15

Ready to head out for a three month adventure in Baja.

Ready to head out for a three month adventure in Baja.

It is always the same every time I get ready for an adventure. I get so wrapped up in the planning and packing that I’m exhausted by the time I throw my leg over the motorcycle and twist the throttle. And what is craziest about all this is I always pack too much which is half the reason I’m tired in the first place. I realize it is not the effort of packing but how all that stuff weighs on the mind. I learned from many past adventures, that, except for emergency gear, if you haven’t used it in first three days you don’t need it. So I pack it up and send it home at the first chance I get. This makes for better traveling; as packing and unpacking gear is faster and less cumbersome when setting up and breaking down camp and its just plain easier to find where I stashed something on the motorcycle. Life on the road becomes less cluttered. So, while it is easier for me now days to get ready for an adventure, I still pack more than I need. And really, I’m down to one pair cargo pants that make into shorts, two pairs of underwear, one Jetbol to cook in–you get the picture. I have slowly grown into to a minimalist on the road. But what I’m noticing is that this philosophy has carried over into my life off the road. After several months out, I return needing less, and more, importantly, wanting less. To paraphrase Thoreau, we don’t own things–things own us. Have any of you found this to be true? Or is it just me?

Who is Packing your Parachute? – 3/11/15

Ready to head out anywhere!

Ready to head out anywhere!

I remember like it was yesterday stepping up to the open door of a C 130 and looking down several thousand feet as a light flashed green and my Senior Jump Master gave the command to jump. I hesitated for just a brief moment and came to the realization that I feared my Sargent much more than the drop. It was my first jump as a paratrooper. I took the most difficult step of my life out that door. The decision to jump defined my career in the 101st Airborne. But as I felt the shock of the static line another realization came to me. Who had packed my chute? Fortunately, that person had done a good job because my chute opened and I floated safely to the ground, successful. Four more and I would have my wings. With each jump afterwards, I continued to think about the people who had prepared my gear; people I had not met but who my life depended on. In a moment of clarity, I realized that all the training I had gone through at Fort Benning would not have mattered much if it had not been for the skill and dedication of someone who had packed my parachute. Someone, who worked namelessly behind the scenes far from that plane and that Jump Zone. That realization made me a better soldier and a better leader and that lesson has stayed with me throughout my life. In all that we do, as adventurers, we must never forget that there is a whole cadre of people who support us on our adventure and they, like that nameless rigger, determine if we are successful or not. Before your next adventure, I invite you to reflect on those who are packing YOUR parachute and take a moment to thank them. For without those wonderful professionals, and those understanding family and friends, we would not be able to chase the sun down dusty trails to beaches with no names.

Laying Block – 3/10/15

Estero Beach

Estero Beach

I have seen all types of people come and go over the years in our little community down in Playa de Estero, Chapultapec, Mexico. Many come with high expectations and leave confused and deflated. That just seems to be the way down here. For every expatriate that lands here and stays, there are more who come and abruptly leave. Actually, I have noticed this same phenomenon in the small mountain community where we live in the States. I think it boils down to why they came in the first place. Unfortunately, many come with expectations that Baja will fix their fractured lives. Anyone who has spent much time down here knows that Baja is not very good at fixing anything—just look at the roads. I am reminded of a neighbor I once had named, Ernie. After selling a successful masonry contracting business in SoCal, he moved to our little community in Baja with high expectations and enthusiasm. He was tired of the pace and materialism of the States and was excited to move to a slower pace—a place where he thought he could reflect and get back in touch with who he was and where he was going. After arriving, he wasted little time throwing himself into a flurry of activity, exploring the restaurants and sightseeing around the country. He dove into an extensive remodel of his home. He was constantly on the go for about a year. But after that first year, I began to notice a change in him. At first it was little criticisms about his Mexican neighbors. He complained about the lack of services, the disorganization and the slowness of the way of life. And as more time ticked by, the criticisms grew worse until he became obsessed with what he thought was wrong with every little thing they did and what this way of life offered. He had grown dark and unhappy. It was just about this time that the Mexicans started to build a social hall near us. Ernie spent hours everyday watching them. He would get upset with their methods of construction especially their slowness in laying block. As previously mentioned, he was a masonry contractor by trade. Every time I saw him, he would work himself up into a rage about how poorly they were constructing the building. I warned him to calm down and not worry about it but to no avail. Ernie was obsessed. He had found a new project it seemed. I was concerned for his health. I left on a moto adventure for several months and forgot about Ernie. When I returned, I noticed the Mexicans were putting the final touches to the block building. It was a beautiful solid building, very ornate and colonial in style. But I, also, noticed that Ernie was no were to be found. Finally, after a few days of not seeing Ernie, I went over to the building and I approached Ishmel, the foreman of the construction crew, and asked him if he had seen him. He was a small barrel chested man from Chiapas on the Guatemalan  border. His bronze skin, silky black hair and flat face revealed his Indian descent. He was legendary in our village for his wisdom and capacity for hard work. Ishmel shook his head and replied. “Oh, it was terrible, Sr. Ken. You remember how Sr. Ernie was so upset with our methods?” I nodded. I knew from his tone that something bad had happened. Ishmel continued, “Well, one day Sr. Ernie got really upset with us—more than usual. So upset that he grabbed the trowel from my hand and yelled that he would show us how to lay block properly and began buttering block and laying them.” Ishmel teared up and continue. “Then it happened. He looked up at me and said he didn’t feel so well and dropped dead, over there.” Ishmel pointed to a little wooden cross behind the building. MVC-022S After recovering from my shock I asked Ishmel what he thought about all this. He paused for some time before answering. “Well. Sr. Ernie was upset with us. He wanted us to lay block a better way –the American way. But after seeing what happen to him, I think we’ll just keep laying block the way we’ve always done it—the Mayan way.”

Hecho en Mexico! 3/10/15

2012-03-11_13-07-02_606 2012-03-11_13-07-02_606 Many years ago while traveling in the backcountry of Baja I learned an important lesson that I have carried with me ever since. Several of us were on a fishing adventure slowly making our way down the old Mexican 1 which serpentines it’s way along the backbone of this wild peninsula. We were in the middle of one of the loneness and driest places on earth, the Vizcaino Desert, when I felt a hard jolt followed by a loud clanging. My jeep coasted to a halt next to a large Boogun tree, engine still running. My son, Sam, ran up the dusty road and retrieved the driveshaft. It is amazing at how quiet and empty the desert can feel when you are broken down in the middle of it. After a little trouble-shooting we figured that we could limp back to the village of Catavina some miles away by engaging the 4WD, which still transferred power to the front wheels. And so we began a long and tedious trek back to that little pueblo. Upon arriving, we searched for a mechanic to help us. Actually, this place had more abandoned dwellings than occupied. But as luck would have it we found a guy who had ran out of money and was stranded there waiting for an opportunity to continue his journey North and he was a mechanic—only in Mexico. Julio examined the shaft by rolling it on the crumbling pavement of an old abandoned gas station to check its trueness. I remember looking at a peeling mural of a map of the peninsula with a star marking our location. We were a long ways from home. The station had shut down years before for lack of traffic. Since its closure, the only fuel available was gotten from fifty-gallon drums strained through a chamois. My attention went back to Julio, who was shaking his head while examining the broken strap. We would not be traveling far without a new one. I began to worry when he shaded his eyes from the intense Baja sun and scanned the surrounding desert. Without a word, he abruptly left us and carefully picked his way through the cacti toward a line of wrecked vehicles. I watched him disappear underneath a rusting Chevy pickup with a cholla growing up through its missing hood. MVC-006F Upon returning, he told me he needed 80 pesos to pay the man who “owned” it. Sensing I did not understand, he explained that he would have to salvage the pin bearings from it and further he would need to buy a strap from another “owner” of an old Ford rusting on the other side of the road. He smiled sweeping his arms across the desert encompassing at least thirty old, rusting vehicles and said, “This is my parts department.” The parts he needed he would savage off these abandoned wrecks. Without any further discussion, he began to work. Using the tools we always carried on these adventures and an old rickety jack, he worked for a couple hours in the sweltering heat. First he replaced each pin bearing one by one and than slowly jacked the shaft back up in place using a cradle he had made from pieces of wood he had sent the village children out to gather from along side the road. By now we had attracted most of the villagers: us being the best entertainment in town. I remember my friend, Fritz, teaching the game of chess from the tailgate of his pickup. I asked Julio at one point how he was going to balance the shaft so it would spin true when reconnected to the engine. He smiled as he propped one end on a rock and took a small hand sledge and carefully lifted it a few inches above and struck it. He did this a couple of times more with care and precision. When he finished, he proudly said, “Hecho en Mexico!” Made in Mexico! I paid Julio less than a hundred dollars for the whole job, which got him on his way and us as well. We continued our journey south to explore many bays and beaches without names that fueled countless campfire stories to this day. Years later, I passed that jeep on to my son and it still runs and has never needed any modifications to Julio’s repairs. When you leave the frontiers and venture down the back roads of Baja there is no Auto Club to call, no machine shops, no dealerships, or Auto Zones to stop at. You only have yourself and the kindness of strangers. These strangers, the locals, are geniuses at making do with what they have. They live by the adage that necessity is the mother of all invention. It is what surely attracts me to these lonely places over and over. Being an educational leader in these times is not much different. We are bombarded with an endless stream of regulations and directives from the state and federal government that cost large sums of money to implement while we are asked to do it with less. We find ourselves spending more and more time out of classrooms meeting the needs of outside bureaucrats who claim to have all of the answers. But when all is said and done, the solutions are in the talent we have all around us. The secret to our success is the same as Julio’s; use our own talent and ingenuity to solve the problem. We need to invest in ourselves for a change. This of course, will not make the test making companies, “consultants,” textbook publishers, software designers and outside trainers very happy in their quest for billions of our tax dollars. But in my experience, a good teacher who makes positive connections with children will out perform any program, any time. That is were I would put my money because I am used to betting on winners. I already have what I need to continue to move MPH forward. I am proud to say I work with a cadre of world-class, talented and willing teachers and staff. We should never forget that our greatest resource is all around us—It is, us. “Hecho en Rim of the World!”

Only In Brazil! – 3/3/15

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Only In Brazil!

There are moments in our lives that define our character. Very often at the time they are happening we do not even realize it— but they do just the same. Recently, while riding across the Vizcaíno Desert in Baja on my motorcycle I remembered one of those moments that put last year into perspective. Many years ago, I was a wild animal trainer on a movie in Brazil were I was responsible for the training of several jaguars. We had been working on this movie for over a year shooting mostly in the jungle. We shot at 55 different locations. Part of my job was to scout locations that would work for the animal scenes. This was demanding and dangerous work being that we were a long way from home and many times found ourselves in situations that we would just have to say, “Only in Brazil.” The director, John Boorman, was brilliant but demanding. Clearly, he was a person used to getting his own way. At one point he directed us to find a location with a waterfall that would serve as a backdrop for a jaguar scene. We searched for days hiking further and further up a river, deeper into the jungle. Finally, after trekking miles, we found the perfect spot. It was a spectacular series of small waterfalls stepping down into a series of deep azure pools; each filling the next until reaching a huge pool that mirrored the surrounding jungle. The river’s mist filled the clearing with competing rainbows. But it was the rocks that were the most stunning. They were pure white except for patches of emerald green moss. It was pristine, magical. I approached some Indians who were laundering their clothes at the edge of the pond. They laughed and gossiped loudly as they slapped their wet linens on the rocks. Through our interpreter, GuGu, they told us the place was called Piedra Blanca, the same as their village and they had lived near these falls for generations. After showing the location to Mr. Boorman, we arranged for a meeting with their chief. The director explained that he wanted to use the falls and all the area around the pond for a movie. They did not know how movies were made and this took some time to get across. Further, he wanted to pay for the privilege to use the area. This became even more confusing as they did not have a concept of private ownership of land. But it was clear they understood the concept of money when a large bundle of Cruzados were produced. The chief slyly took them looking around confused. Now at this point it became really confusing when Boorman explained that he wanted guards placed around the whole area and that no one was to use it as he did not want anyone marring the rocks or moss. But when more Cruzados were produced they quickly took them looking from one another bewildered. As we were leaving we saw the chief’s sons hastily clearing the laundry area. Boorman’s parting words emphasized that no one was to use the area until we returned. We left a few days later for our next location several hundred miles away. As the year passed the film crew, from time to time, sent someone down to check on the falls and always it was guarded and as pristine as when we first found it. We worked, moving often as the time went by but still we had not returned. At some point, I realized that we would never get back for that shot and month later we left for England. Years later I was working on another film at Pinewood studios and ran into the associate producer of the film who had been with me when we found the falls. I asked him what he thought. He laughed and said that was how legends were born. He paused and said, “Only in Brazil.” I often wonder about that place and those people. I wonder if they are still guarding it, waiting for our return. I wonder if generations will be guarding it waiting for the return of the strange outsiders with the big bag of money. I wonder about many things. Very often we can find ourselves in situations where we are preforming tasks that make about as much sense as guarding those falls. When you find yourself in such a situation get out as quickly as you can. If you have the courage to do that—you, too, can have the luxury of saying “Only in Brazil” or, only in any place like it. That’s what I did.

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7 Comments

7 thoughts on “Lessons From the Road

  1. Wow!! You have some really terrific stuff here!! I love how you use the metaphors in life. In particular, may I snip and reblog the one on education? I counldn’t agree more, (married to an educator for 35 years…)

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I also posted this whole thing on my Twitter feed, which also shows up on my blog. Hope that was okay….and I hope you get lots more following!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. “To paraphrase Thoreau, we don’t own things–things own us. Have any of you found this to be true?”
    I agree with your statement 100%!

    Like

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