I Could Get Lost In A Closet

I had just spent a week in magnificent alpine solitude in the Alaska Basin in Grand Teton National park with my friend Steve Wolf.  After descending from the heights we hitch hiked to Jackson, Wyoming and went into a cafe in the local Greyhound Bus Station, hoping for a hot breakfast after a week of granola bars and freeze dried food. We sat in a booth for over half an hour, when a large woman waddled over to us and said “We don’t serve people with long hair and dirty clothes” and told us to leave by the back door.

Her German Shepherd menaced us as we left by the rear entrance. Three cowboys accosted us as we were leaving and told us that there would be trouble if we were not out of town by sunrise the next morning, and that someone might have to notify our next of kin to identify the bodies if we did not leave quickly. A typical Cowboy/Redneck 1960’s Wyoming welcome! We took refuge in a nearby church for the evening and took a bus to Denver the next morning and flew home to the much more welcoming, less judgmental, east coast of the late 1960’s. 

Steve Wolf, Mark Brown, Tom Brown and Maude Harris • Heath Fair, 1967

Alaska Basin • Grand Teton National Park

Mount Moran • Grand Teton National Park • Photo by MMB

E. F. Jones, a young black man who was on his way to Wisconsin to visit his ailing father in law in Wisconsin, picked up Steve Wolf and me hitchhiking in Berkeley and took us to Rock Springs Wyoming, a one thousand mile ride, by far the longest single hitchhiking ride of my life. We were on the outskirts of a small town in the Nevada desert wastelands where the teenagers were turning around at a Dairy Queen on the edge of town to cruise back through town again going the opposite way, where they would turn around at the other end of town and do it again and again and again. I had never seen that phenomenon before, but E.F Jones knew the drill and schooled us on turn around spots. I would have just kept on going, driving toward the distant horizon, licking an ice cream cone.

The turn around spot

I first heard this unlikely story of one of my ancestors, Penelope Van Princes, from my wonderful aunt, Nancy Waller, at the Cooperstown Diner in 2016, the last time that I ever saw her. Penelope was a Dutch emigrant from Amsterdam who was shipwrecked on what is now Sandy Hook off the New jersey coast in 1643. Her husband, John Kent, was not able to travel due to illness after the ship floundered and she remained behind to care for him. After the couple was abandoned on shore by their shipmates, they suffered an attack from the native Indians and her husband was murdered. She survived the attack, was scalped and cut open with her intestines exposed, shoulder torn, and left for dead. She took shelter in a hollow tree until, due to hunger, she was compelled to make herself known to two friendly Leni Lenapi natives, who nursed her back to health. When she was well enough to travel, she made her way to New Amsterdam (now New York) where she married John Stout, an Englishman. She had a large family of 7 sons and 4 daughters who were born in what is now Coney Island in Brooklyn. It is said that she had 502 direct descendants when she died at the age of 110.

My ancestor Penelope Van Princis being welcomed to America

Penelope in black and white on the brink of death

Penelope’s rescue by a friendly native

When Neil Armstrong stepped off the lunar module’s ladder and became the first earthling to set foot on another celestial body, I was 18 years old and was having dinner in a cafe in Paris with my future wife and a friend named Buddha Hanrahan. We had ordered coq au vin and were toasting the cosmonauts with glasses of white wine as we watched the fuzzy cosmic transmission on a tiny black and white TV nestled between Pernod bottles on a shelf high above the bar.

The astronauts did a little mining later in their mission and brought some moon rocks back to earth on their return flight. Every American state and 135 countries now have moon rocks, gifted by presidents and NASA – Our cosmic tax dollars at work.

Claiming the Moon for America • June 16th, 1969

This was a bit of North Country wisdom about the situation on the Yucatan Peninsula in 1983, described to us by Bruce, a Canadian from Thunder Bay, Ontario who we met at Cabanas Tulum when we were traveling through the ancient Mayan Cities. He was a bit bleary eyed, hung over and complaining about his traveling companion. He told us that “She was sleeping next to me in a Space Blanket (a lightweight, noisy metal survival blanket originally made for the military) and every time that she turned over, breathed or moved it sounded like a Giant was wrapping enormous Christmas Presents inside of my head.”

Karen models a new Mayan hairstyle at the base of a pyramid in Coba

An art gallery owner gave me this alliterative description of her neighborhood’s revitalization in lower Santa Barbara in March of 2024. Once a derelict decaying industrial area by the railroad tracks, it is now called The Funk Zone and is a hub for arts, dining, wine and spirits, retail and business, hotels, gorgeous scenery, and unique culture. Some progressives are against “gentrification,” but as a person who has been robbed and menaced and has had friends and family stabbed, murdered and held up at gunpoint in marginal neighborhoods, I welcome culture, interesting stores, restaurants and galleries, nightlife and safer streets anytime, anywhere.

Fun in the Funk Zone • Photo by MMB

This invitation to Not Enter was written in large red spray painted letters in on a piece of 4’ x 8’ plywood, covering the flood ruined front door of the house where Ken Kesey & the Merry Pranksters had their culturally transgressive and trans-formative, LSD infused adventures, in La Honda, California. 

At the bottom of the hill, while beginning to drive up the mountain, we saw Neil Young drive by us in a shiny, classic, perfectly restored early 1940’s Chrysler luxury sedan. He lived just up the hill in a ranch on Bear Creek Road. I was driving up Highway 84 with my friends Steve and Paul, on our way to a day at the beach, hoping to see huge waves in the wake of a winter storm, when we drove by the remains of Kesey’s cabin.   

The left turn into the driveway to the house had once had a sign reading “No Left Turn Unstoned,” but the house had been overwhelmed by the flood waters of La Honda Creek a couple of days earlier, years after Kesey had moved back to Oregon, and the present owners clearly did not want looters rummaging through the sodden remains from the recent flood. 

At the coast, the waves were enormous and huge bull Elephant Seals were resting above the tideline, bellowing loudly at their harem violating, junior male sexual competitors, ready for a bloody fight for domination of whatever ladies remained on the beach. 

The title of Kesey’s second novel, “Sometimes A Great Notion,” was water related, and came from the blues singer Leadbelly’s song “Good Night Irene:”

“Sometimes I live in the country

Sometimes I live in the town

Sometimes I get a great notion

To jump in the river and drown.”

Elephant Seal

Ano Nuevo Point • Collage by MMB

I was bending over a stream at the bottom of the Grand Canyon, near the Colorado River, looking for a hard plastic contact lens that Karen had just lost in the water as she was rinsing it to insert it into her eye in the morning just after breakfast. The current had dislodged it from her fingers. She had no glasses and no replacement lenses with her and we had just hiked 10 miles down the steep and rugged Bright Angel Trail the previous day to the bottom of the canyon, where we intended to camp for several days. Knowing that I had to go fishing for a tiny, clear plastic circular dot in a bubbling stream, I knelt down and concentrated with all of my mental energy and visual acuity. After a couple of minutes of serious attentiveness and tunnel vision I saw something glinting back up at me from the shimmering liquid, and reached down into the water and retrieved the contact lens from where it was caught between two small rocks. As it was already fully rinsed, Karen was able to insert it into her eye and restore her 20/20 vision.

We spent a couple of days hiking, lounging and exploring by the mighty Colorado, both able to see the scenic grandeur and stunning geologic history written into the rocks surrounding us. We awoke the morning of our departure and found that it had snowed in the upper parts of the trail, almost a vertical mile above where we were camping. We hiked half way up and found the campground at Indian Gardens covered with deep snow. We spent the night on the concrete floor of a bathroom, cold and uncomfortable, but at least we were dry and out of the snow, and hiked up to the rim of the canyon the next day.

Grand Canyon and Colorado River • Photo by MMB

Hard contact lens

I was hiking in the remote back country wilderness in Kings Canyon National Park with my friend John, when we stopped and talked with an attractive young woman we met hiking on the trail, walking in the opposite direction. We chatted for a few minutes and she asked us where we were from. When I said “Palo Alto” she countered with “Oh, Palo Alto – The home of the intellectually superior people!” at which point she put on her pack and quickly walked away from us, without a further word.

Fin Dome • King’s Canyon National Park • Photo by MMB

According to the park rangers, the most frequently asked question in Custer State Park in South Dakota, is “Where are the Buffalo?” We spent a long, meandering, magical day trying to answer that question ourselves. We started our search at Sylvan Lake, a beautiful peaceful, alpine lake surrounded by fantastic granite spires, crags and pinnacles. Still waters created beautiful reflections of the rocks on the mirrored surface of the lake. A fairy tale landscape. We circumnavigated the lake, helping a couple find the trail half way round. He told us that the two of them “Could get lost inside of a closet.”

Sylvan Lake • Custer State Park • Photo by MMB

We found the buffalo • Custer State Park • Photo by MMB

Here’s James McMurtry singing about the loss and lack of buffaloes in America:

Here’s Billie Holliday singing about the Moon: