Chiefly Paranoid, The Olde Creeper and The Petro-Erectors

In some southwestern states, like Arizona, acres and acres of land in desirable places are set aside for public use in the form of dispersed camping. For no money, or maybe a few dollars a night, you can camp in beautiful, remote and wide open spaces without too much interaction with other people. It is a very enjoyable experience but eventually, the all too human need for water and companionship manifest themselves, and that’s when you go forth and luxuriate in a state or national park where those needs can be met.

After a few days of boon docking on forestry roads or Bureau of Land Management spaces, I crave the company of others, and after a few days of camping with other people and doing a lot of talking and socializing, I can’t wait to get back to the forestry roads. I am not anti-social—it’s just that I have a finite amount of energy available for quick encounters with strangers.

Traveling is hard work. Each day you must adjust to new places and new people. After we have been on the road for a while I notice that when I wake up in the morning I am disoriented. I don’t remember where I am and it can take me a few moments to dial in which state I am in, or where I am in any given state. I worry that I am losing my mind, but then I realize that each day is different and that I am constantly adjusting, so I cut myself some slack.

Last week we went to a now familiar place in Marfa, Texas, that we enjoy staying at either before or after our trips into Big Bend National Park. It is a classic Marfa establishment. Situated between highway 90 and the railroad tracks, it has excellent neon and the requisite tumbleweeds. We love this place because it is run on the honor system and has everything you need and nothing you don’t. It has a clean shower, a communal kitchen with washer and dryer, a wood stove, a bunch of board games and robust internet. There is a sink with running water and a large table to share meals with other travelers. It does not have any rules except the one about not being a creep.

The Tumble In

The Tumble In

This year, when we rolled into the Tumble In in Marfa, we ended up parking next to a guy seated at a table outside a trailer, industriously messing around with little vials of liquid and a heat gun. We soon learned that he called himself Black Hawk and was a Shoshone medicine man.

“Chiefly Paranoid” as I unkindly dubbed our neighbor after spending less than five minutes listening to him, was applying labels to bottles of medicine destined for patients suffering from terrible afflictions. Evidently, we were camped next to the one person with the knowledge and experience to cure Ebola, AIDS, Leprosy and Cancer.

As Black Hawk soared above us, lifted aloft on a billowing current of paranoid and delusional blather, we learned about the people with rotting faces and toes, their symptoms caused by a newer and more virulent form of Leprosy that is being dropped from the sky by government aircraft. Undetected by us, but present nonetheless, continual earthquakes are constantly occurring beneath our feet— and Obama has something to do with them.

Even though I knew on a creative level that hearing a medicine man describe how he had single handedly taken down the Department of Children, Youth and Family after it had kidnapped and then drugged his children with “black box” drugs, was writer’s gold, I had to retreat. The stream of grandiose persiflage was too overwhelming for me and I could tell I was moments away from antagonizing the guy.

National parks, such as Big Bend where we were headed the next day, are always exciting. To be a national park, a place has to be really special. In general, national parks usually contain a feature that poses a challenge to those who wish to be challenged. For example, anyone can visit the Grand Canyon, but to experience it, you have to be prepared to put out some effort, and it goes without saying that the more effort expended, the richer the experience. Because people are either psyching themselves up for an adventure, or have just had an adventure, the energy in national parks tends to be very positive and exciting.

View from the South Rim in Big Bend National Park

View from the South Rim in Big Bend National Park

Last year in Big Bend we tackled the South Rim, a 14-mile walk with a good bit of elevation. The only thing left for us was Emory Peak, which is only about 11 miles, but much higher and requires some technical bouldering at the summit.

The following morning we headed out to Big Bend National Park and settled ourselves up in the Chisos Basin campground. To condition ourselves a little before our Emory Peak adventure, we decided to walk the Window Trail in the afternoon.

The Window Trail is only about 5 miles round trip with little altitude, so it is very accessible and popular. When we got to the end of the hike and were ready to turn back, we were quickly overtaken by a handsome, older guy who immediately evinced an unnatural interest in us, while dishing out flattery like mashed potatoes in a soup kitchen.

Initially, it is intensely gratifying when a stranger takes an interest in you, but if you are older and wiser, you quickly realize that all that interest from a complete stranger is bogus and has everything to do with his agenda. In this instance, it turned out that our new companion’s agenda was to let us know that he was deeply, deeply, spiritual and very, very smart.

As we walked the two and a half miles back, I began to ponder the disconnect between spirituality and humility— surely the Buddha had been modest about his spirituality and intelligence, yet our Buddhist companion seemed to wear his on his sleeve.

Having little patience for a second encounter with yet another man with a God complex within a 48-hour stretch, I deliberately hung back and let My Royal Consort absorb and endure the verbal torrent of narcissism. As we walked back toward camp, a young woman in her twenties overtook us.

While chatting with the female hiker, I watched our septuagenarian companion make a fascinating transformation from a somewhat insufferable, falsely modest, Birkenstock-shod spiritualist, into a slobbering bird-dog. I did a double take when he bowed to the woman, hands clasped in a prayerful gesture and intoned “I honor young women who travel alone”, an utterance so creepy and cringe-worthy that the next thing I knew, I was sprinting back to the trail head like a spooked horse.

A few weeks earlier, when we were hiking in Sedona, Arizona, I got offended by the intrusive spirituality of previous hikers who had seen fit to dislodge stones and stack them in cairns or arrange them into “prayer wheels.” These things were everywhere. Traditionally, cairns have a meaning in hiking: they show hikers where the trail leads and keeps them from getting lost or wandering off a cliff, which is serious business in the mountains and deserts. Generally speaking, the cairns are the most prevalent in the places that are spectacular, less demanding, and more accessible.

An example of rock stacking gone seriously wrong

An example of rock stacking gone seriously wrong

Dislodging rocks that have sat undisturbed for years and stacking them into a petro-phallus of faux spirituality is narcissistic. The person who does it is every bit as annoying and intrusive as the Jehovah’s Witness who knocks at your door, if not more so. It is a quieter symptom of the rampant narcissism ailing Chiefly Paranoid or The Olde Creeper. The cairn situation has gotten so bad that a friend of ours, a camp host in Utah, has to periodically dismantle the proliferating spiritual erections with a Bobcat.

Being a lifelong asthmatic, physical exercise is much harder for me than for people who are not asthmatic, yet it is my path to spiritual happiness and emotional wellbeing. At home I subject myself to a regular and fairly structured regimen of diet and exercise to smooth out all my crackly edges and keep myself chill.

Without regular doses of exercises, my baseline level of anxiety and energy would overwhelm me within a few days and I would be jumping out of my skin. On Sundays I often have to decide: will I attend the church of the mind at my Congregational church, or the church of my body, AKA the gym? I sometimes worry that I am secretly crazy and/or clueless and everyone knows it but me.

Meeting all of these people in such quick succession made me think about myself. Could it be that I am just as whacked out and wounded as they are? I think that the reason I am here is because I hate winter in Rhode Island, have zero tolerance for boredom and have an abundance of nervous energy and orthopedic issues, but for all I know I could be as whacked out as Chiefly Paranoid or as clueless as The Olde Creeper and the Petro Erectors.





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  1. Gary says:

    LOL!!! I just love your writing and observations!! Yes, we’re all looney tunes (toons?), but I think those of us who know it are ok…it’s the folk who think they’re sane that you have to worry about! Especially the ones with personal itineraries!

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