The Charlie Bravo Story


Day One

Nama and I awoke this morning in the middle of what officially is known as No man’s land; we car camped last night at a remote cemetery in the panhandle of Oklahoma. It appears that neither Texas nor Kansas have ever cared that much for this area, and I can see why; even now, highway 412 is one of the loneliest stretches of road I have encountered. This orphan rectangle of land was incorporated into the Oklahoma Territory in 1907. It also included the former Indian Territory that had been the end of the Cherokee Trail of Tears, and then the progressively reduced promised homeland for many tribes.
But it has never fared well. Back in the 30’s, the three counties of the Panhandle were some of the hardest hit by drought and depression, and lost a good chunk of their population to out-migration between 1930-1940. Even today, the population is smaller than it was in 1907.
As lonely as it is even this morning, it’s has become one of our favorite routes when traveling out west. There’s something intriguing about a perfectly straight road bisecting terrain so flat that even a plethora of windmill farms can’t impede the view of Texas 17 miles away to the south or of Kansas an equal distance to the north.
As you have probably guessed by now, Nama and I have gone “vacilando”. Vacilando was one of John Steinbeck’s favorite words, a Spanish term for “the act of wandering when the experience of travel is more important than reaching the specific destination.” We’ll be camping out of the CR-V for the next week on a meandering counter clockwise loop through the southwest, eventually culminating in Colorado to see Billy Strings perform on the 18th. Even now, I find myself wondering what I was actually thinking, leaving the comforts of home this far in advance, but here we are. It’s time to cast off the self doubt and push west towards the mountains of northern New Mexico; I hear that it’s a bit stormy over there right now…
Hey, Dad?
What’s up, Nama?
How’s about you quit tapping into that phone so we can get this show on the road?

Day Two

Yesterday in northern New Mexico; amongst other things, we happened across two desert monasteries as well as a documented hotbed of UFO activity. And no, one of them wasn’t Roswell. One experience was unexpectedly mind blowing, one was a bit of a let down, and one was both a let down and more than a bit creepy at the same time; I’ll let you imagine which was which.
John Steinbeck is my favorite travel writer, but he would never write when out on the road. He said that he preferred to let a trip stew in his head, the individual ingredients of the journey slowly combining into a single delicious dish.
I can’t do it. Too much happens throughout almost any given day; the incredibly sublime experience that may occur at one place is quickly eclipsed by the insanely ridiculous occurrence that happens at the next. When I factor into the equation that I have the attention span of a squirrel on crack, you can only imagine how many potentially great stories are left on the battlefield of my mind.
But sometimes it’s the little things that stand out the most. Yesterday afternoon found Nama and I at the very bridge where MacDuff and I emerged from the backcountry on last year’s journey on the sidecar. Both visits were powerful; the first because I realized back then that Duff and I had just survived what could have been a very dicey situation, and the second because, well, you can imagine.
I have to admit, it kicked me in the clackers a bit harder than expected; the Duff was a one in a million dog. As I crossed the bridge and silently spoke a final farewell to the goofy old man, I spotted a magpie sitting just off to my left.
What’s up with a magpie, you ask? I don’t really know, other than for some reason it’s always been my favorite bird; flashy and obnoxious and almost impossible to capture on camera, for me anyway. I’m usually rolling down the road when I spot them, and by the time I get a camera into action, the magpie is long gone.
Another reason is that Jo Ann is much like a magpie; in addition to the above mentioned attributes, she has always had a fascination with shiny gadgets. doG forbid that I bring home a new pocket knife, a cool tool of some sort, a nice ink pen; any thing that clicks, bangs, or otherwise flashes and it’s “ARRWK! BACK TO THE NEST!”, and I never see it again until I go digging through her stash. And yes, this is well documented at the Casa; flowers and jewelry are NOT her thing, something from a tool sale is usually the perfect Valentine’s gift.
But now, there’s this magpie just sitting there in the grass, and after all these years, I finally got my picture. It’s not a particularly good picture, as it was taken with a zoomed-in cell phone, but it’s mine; if I wanted a really good picture, I’m sure I could find one in Google images.
I don’t know that I believe that signs are sent from beyond, but then again, I don’t know that I don’t. What I do believe is what I see and feel, and that everything happens for a reason.
Miss ya, MacDuff.

Day Three

It is said that “he who seeks to be understood must first seek to understand”; if you in any way expect to be able to wrap your head around even a fraction of of the insane events that marked Nama’s last day on earth, you need to be able to envision the place where the deal went down.
The actual town of Gateway, Colorado is a just a dot on the map, so close to the lunar landscape of Utah that it’s sometimes hard to tell the difference. But what I refer to as “Gateway” is actually the Unaweep canyons of Hwy 141, the stunning area that tracks south of town, following the massive fissures carved by the Delores river. This area might be described by some as “wasteland”, but I would in turn describe those people as “soulless” and/or “idiots”. But it’s all “Gateway” to me, all the way to the uranium mining towns of Naturita, Nucla, Uravan, Paradox and Bedrock, some 75 miles to the south.
The first time I rode through Gateway, I was at a crossroads in my own life; career coming to a close, church situations coming to head back home, the kids moving out, up, and onwards, the typical negativity that tends to become more “front and center” when you reach a certain age. You would think that riding a motorcycle across the southwest would be more than sufficient to crowd those thoughts from my brain, but if you did think that, you would be wrong. I carried those same emotions with me the entire trip, seemingly packed away on the bike with my sleeping bag and other camping gear.
Until I entered Gateway. As I railed through the immaculately curved road, I found that I couldn’t focus on negativity in the midst of such soaring, red rock beauty; it was if the vertical walls surrounding me were blocking out any microwaves of harsh self admonition. And yes, I totally get how this sounds to some of you reading this, like so much psuedo-hippie new age bullshit; all I can say is go check it out for yourself and get back to me with your findings. I find it an immensely healing place, your mileage may vary.
Approximately halfway between the towns of Gateway and Naturita is an unlikely roadside spring. Tucked back into a fold of a cliff, it produces the coldest, life-giving water I’ve ever experienced, so special that I have had a bottle of it stashed on my freezer for over ten years. Why in my freezer, and for that long, you ask? Well, since you asked, I’ll tell you: if the world ever turns to irreversible despair, nuclear war, pancreatic cancer, The View in perpetual rotation, cottage cheese becomes a forced part of my diet, whatever, that bottle of water from Gateway will be the last thing I drink; it’s that special. By the time I encountered this spring for the first time, the following words had formed unbidden in my head: “Gateway is a fortress so impregnable that even negative thoughts can’t enter”. Tapped into my phone from the back of my 1991 Honda Nighthawk 750 motorcycle, these were the first words that I had ever written that didn’t involve sales reports or some other form of corporate crap; little did I know that this would be the bedrock that formed the foundation for Charlie’s story many years later.
So, what does any of this have to do with Nama? This unnamed spring is where she and I camped the night before the day after… but soooo much happened on that day before.
And day started with breakfast at with Fina’s…

Day Four

In my experience, some of the best days of my life seem to follow the worst days. But the obverse is true as well, that the absolutely worst days of my life seem to always be preceded by the very best days of my life; unfortunately, this was the case of Nama’s last day with me.
But what an absolutely glorious day it was. It started in Chama, NM, with breakfast at Fina’s. Followers of this page may remember that Fina’s from past adventures; my first introduction to Fina, the formidable proprietress of this small but unimaginably named restaurant on the edge of town did not go well. Actually, it started with me getting a bit mouthy, and her telling me to sit down and shut up or she was going to body slam me and make me sit down and shut up. I quickly realized the error of my ways; “yes, ma’am; sitting down and shutting up”. We have since became good friends, although she would never admit it. Her restaurant anchors the northernmost end of the New Mexico Breakfast Burrito Hall of Fame, an honor that is justly deserved. Her huevos rancheros with green chile, scrambled eggs and sausage is also to die for, and is now called the Charlie Bravo. It is well worth the 1059 mile ride from the Casa to her doorstep, and Charlie and I have made that trip for the purpose of scoring some of the finest grub know to man more times than I care to admit.

But this trip was all about Nama. As she was waiting in the CR-V, I didn’t dawdle quite as long as usual, and Fina packed her a doggie bag to go(Nama’s, not Fina’s). We also had to make some up some time, as this morning, we weren’t just meandering, we had an actual destination. I had been hearing for years about an incredible place known as Christ of the Desert, a monastery located sixteen miles from the nearest highway up a very rough dirt road into a remote desert canyon. I didn’t know much else about the place except that I had been told by multiple people that I had to go, so we went.

By this time, Nama and I had been in the car together for four days, and it was obvious that I had a real traveler on my hands. She was an absolute natural, maybe even exceeding MacDuff when it came to understanding automobile etiquette. However, she did pick up an annoying habit: she learned how to roll the windows down so she could stick her head out into the breeze. This may not seem annoying to you, but more than once it scared the crap out of me. I would be cruising along all zoned out behind the wheel and suddenly an unexpected mighty rushing wind would fill the car; of course it was Nama.

I’m actually glad I’m poking these words into my phone right now instead of attempting to record them for a podcast, as I don’t think I could be recounting this right now; it’s a bit more raw than I thought it would be.

Anyway. We wound our way back into one of the most beautiful and remote canyons I’ve ever seen, the Chama river dropping off to our left and soaring red rock cliffs to our right. As the rock formations began to crowd around and above us, I found myself focusing on them individually, the shape of a lion’s head here, Cleopatra’s silhouette over there and so on. Then I caught myself; why was I focusing on the small things at the expense of taking in the profundity of the overall situation? And unfortunately, this is how I’ve lived much of my life, becoming mired in the minutiae when something much greater was worthy of my attention; I guess that it’s never too late to change.
The CR-V scrambled and clawed her way along the winding dirt road until we eventually arrived at a small parking area; we would have to walk the rest of the way.
This is when I really knew that Nama was the one, the potential heir to Charlie’s throne and the position vacated by the untimely passing of MacDuff just months before. She fell into step like an old pro, not to close as to be clingy but not straying too far into the desert scrub to be alarming.
The monastery at the end of the path was absolutely stunning. Tucked into the canyon, it was almost eerily quiet, until Nama spied a statue of a deer in the courtyard and expressed her disapproval. As I attempted to get her to cease and desist her yapping, I heard another unexpected sound, the sound of voices chanting, coming from behind two intricately carved massive wooden doors.

Even though it was A: Sunday, and B: Mother’s Day, the area was so quiet and remote that it never occurred to me that an actual church service might be occurring. I never claimed to be particularly smart, so after leashing Nama in the courtyard, I opened the doors and walked right in.
Right in to an ongoing Mass. As it was a small cathedral and packed full to the back door, my entrance was a bit more grand that I would have hoped for; I have no idea who was more surprised, the myself, the congregants or the priests. Not being Catholic and having ever been to a Mass, I was in no way prepared for the clouds of incense, the robes, the pomp and ceremony, all in stark contrast to the harsh desert landscape just outside those massive doors. To say that I was severely blown away is an understatement; it truly was a religious experience.
After the service, Nama and I had a great time hanging out with the assorted clergy, as she was the belle of the ball.
But the highlight of the event was an exchange that I had the honor of witnessing in the gift shop. There were two monks manning the cash register: one was an elderly white man, short enough the he made me feel tall; he was the cashier, and a brusque and efficient cashier he was. The other was roughly the same age, but very tall and dusky, and he was the bagger. He had a very practiced and dignified manner, placing each book or whatnot meticulously into the bags with perfect precision as if he were doing it unto the Lord, then folding it closed perfectly before presenting to the buyer. Evidently, the short white monk had never spent much time studying the message of Job, and his patience was being severely tested by his much more sedate brother. I promise you that you have not lived until you have lived long enough to hear one elderly monk say to another, “get with the program, bag boy!”; of all of the things that one might expect to hear at a remote desert monastery, this was pretty far down the list.

It was such a peaceful, beautiful place that I could hardly find the will to leave, but it was still fairly early in the day; if we picked up the pace, we could possibly make it to Gateway and camp at the spring that night.
But the day was really just beginning, and much more was in store: a stop at the Echo Amphitheatre, a massive rock feature carved by erosion into the side of a cliff, where, if you stand in the perfect spot, the slightest whisper comes back magnified ten fold. A visit to another monastery, my old friends at Our Lady of the Desert, this one staffed by not monks but nuns. Why the unplanned emphasis on monasteries on this trip? Truthfully, I have absolutely no idea, except maybe a higher power was guiding me in preparation of what I was going to have to face over the next few days.

But even after all of this, there was more. After eventually making our way across the Navajo Lake dam and up into Colorado, I encountered a man in the small town of Norwood. After discovering that we both have an unreasonable love for older Honda motorcycles, he invited us back to his place to check out his collection. I expected to see ten, maybe twenty; what I actually saw was literally hundreds of the finest historical examples of Hondas, BMWs, Nortons, Bultacos, etc, all immaculate examples of a much simpler time when being a motorcyclist meant so much more than being a biker. But that’s just my opinion, albeit I realize that it’s a bit stronger than many might appreciate; your mileage may vary.

Richard was his name, and he runs through the Gateway canyons regular on various bikes. He took quite the liking to Nama, and left me with his phone number should we encounter any difficulty in the back country. I remember thinking “what type of adversity am I going to encounter; after all, I’m in a car!” What was he trying to tell, and I was in such a lather to arrive in Gateway that I ignored his premonition? I will never know, but I’ll always wonder.
We arrived at the Spring before dark. We didn’t set up camp immediately, as I knew of another place, just a few miles away but more importantly, a good deal further off of Hwy 141. But it wasn’t The Spring, and I’ve always wanted to camp at the Spring, so the Spring it was. I’ll probably wonder for the rest of my life how differently things may have turned out had I camped just up the road.
I can feel the tension arcing up the back of my neck right now as I know that I’m approaching the tragic part of the story. But we still had some priceless time left. As the sun began to set and Nama and I settled in for the night, I took photos from inside the CR-V, east towards Dolphin Rock and west towards the setting sun. Then we burrowed under the quilts to sleep, perchance to dream, of another glorious day on the morrow.
A day that will live in infamy.

Day Five: D Day

The morning broke cold through the depths of the canyon. It was obvious that Nama was in no hurry to emerge from her cocoon of quilts, so I took that as my go-ahead to stay ensconced therein as well. We had nowhere in particular to be that day and I was in absolutely no hurry to get there; besides, it had been my dream for years to camp at this very spot, and to finally experience it in the company of a truly special little white dog? I was in no hurry to rush this experience. Even now, I can’t really fully convey with mere words what that opportunity meant to me, and still means to me even now.
I must have dozed off again, and we were jolted awake by a loud BANG! occurring right in front of the SUV. As we had not seen another vehicle in the canyon for at least the preceding twelve hours, I could not begin to imagine what had shattered our solitude. I crawled out of the back of the SUV to discover two dilapidated pickup trucks fastened by a nylon tow strap; evidently the two older gentleman piloting these jalopies weren’t experts in communication, as the man in the vehicle being towed hadn’t picked up on the fact that the man in front had signaled that he was hitting his brakes, resulting in the two trucks colliding directly in front of the very spot where we were camping.
They had been traveling from the town of Bedrock, well over an hour to the south of the spring; what are the odds that this would happen at this very spot? I still cannot wrap my mind around it. As the truck being towed didn’t have a windshield in place, the old gentleman behind the wheel was quickly achieving popsicle status, so I volunteered to fire up my campstove and brew a pot of coffee to thaw him out a bit. Each man had a dog in attendance, and Nama took this opportunity to get her flounce on with a pair of new friends. The canyon road is so remote that it never occured to any of us to even consider keeping an eye on the trio of dogs.
As the impact of the two trucks had caused the fenders to be pushed back into the wheels, it took all hands on deck to get them extricated. Between brewing the coffee and attempting to seperate the two vehicles, I never noticed the third truck that came whizzing through the canyon. Then I heard the combination of sounds that every dog owner dreads to the very depths of their souls, the simultaneous thump and yelp that can only mean one thing: a dream has just died.
Upon hearing THE sound, I’m embarassed to say that my immediate prayer was, “Lord, let it be one of their dogs”. Scratch that, I’m not a bit embarrassed; I still feel that way. I don’t consider myself a selfish person, but if I could have traded Nama’s life for both of the others, I would have done so in an instant, and dealt with the consequences of a contaminated conscience later. But it was not my choice to make; it was Nama laying there, looking back at me from the first step of the Rainbow bridge. And time stood still; for what seemed like an eternity, I literally could not will my feet to move, and when they did break free, it felt like I was running through wet concrete. But I did get to her as she was gasping her last breath; I like to think that she knew that I was there for her to the very end.
At first I thought that the truck that hit Nama had fled the scene, but it had actually made a U-turn and was pulling up as I was standing over Nama’s lifeless body. I don’t think that it is an overstatement to describe the driver of the truck as borderline hysterical, and I would have expected nothing less. The result was that I had to compartmentalize my grief for a few moments to reassure her that it was going to be alright, even though I fully believed that it would never be “alright” ever again. And to be perfectly honest, I’m not sure that I don’t believe that as I write these words; it’s been months, and I still feel like I’m often stumbling about in a haze. More on this lady later, as she turned out to be an integral part of the story.
But at the time, pragmatic issues had to be addressed; what to do with Nama? As I was well over a thousand miles from home, I couldn’t carry her back to the Casa where she belonged, so my only option was to bury her where she had fallen. Not just in the Unaweep canyons, but at the very epicenter of one of the most spiritual and special places on the planet. The two men in the dilapidated pickups had a pickaxe and a shovel between them(of course they did), and helped me bury Nama deep and rock her grave against the critters. We even dug a trench around her grave to divert water away from her final resting place, as Colorado’s annual monsoon season was swiftly approaching.
Over my lifetime, I have had to bury way too many dogs, enough that it sometimes causes my heart to hitch when I see one curled a certain way when they’re merely sleeping. This is because that this position is also the one utilized to maximize space when committing a dog to it’s final resting place. Maybe this is not a coincidence at all, but possibly a sign from a benevolent Creator to remind us how closely related are the death we dread and the sleep we welcome. And that just like awakening refreshed after a good night’s rest, we should take comfort in the possibility that we shall someday also awake from death, only re-energized in ways that our mortal minds cannot even imagine. Or maybe not; who really knows? All that I do know is that these were the kind of thoughts going through my mind when I once again heard that dreaded “thump”. Only this time it wasn’t the sound of impact of a bumper on bone, but of that first shovel-full of dirt on flesh as I began to perform my final service to Nama, to shield her body against the elements for one last time.
And then all to quickly, it was done; Everyone seemed to silently melt away and I was alone with my grief in the canyon. Of course, not another vehicle traveled the road that morning, and I had plenty of solitude to ponder how I was going to proceed. My first impulse was to tuck my tail and scurry for home, not speaking of this to anyone until I at least had a chance to wrap my brain around it. But I couldn’t do it; there were way too many of you following Nama’s progress on social media for me to not provide some sort of explanation as to her sudden absence from the story. But I also knew that there was absolutely no way that I could explain the tragedy in writing, so I had no choice; I had to tell it right then and there, warts and all. And believe me when I say that the experience of telling that story while standing in that place is probably the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life; there was no hiding behind a keyboard, no chance to correct phrasing or edit out embarrassing emotion. I felt like I had a thick leather belt wrapped around my chest, choking off any words due to the lack of oxygen. To this day, I have yet to go back and watch that video, as I’m sure that the mixture of embarrassment and recollection would probably be the death of me. That might be a bit of an overstatement, but then again, maybe not. But even as the words were stumbling from the front of my head, I could feel the criticism already building in the back: why didn’t I have her on a leash? Why do I always feel the need to “get involved”, as if I had been taking care of my own business instead of making coffee for two strangers, none of this would have happened? And would I be accused of seeking attention by those who saw this video without knowing anything of the context of the situation or the bond that exists between the followers of Charlie’s story? And all of these statements were made, but by that time, I didn’t care; they couldn’t properly beat me up when I was doing a much better job of doing it to myself.
Afterwards, there was nothing left to do except leave Nama behind and continue north up HWY 141 to the actual town of Gateway. This is the closest area to the spring where one can find any amount of cell coverage, and I wanted to give JoAnn, Zach, and Alex a verbal heads up as to what had went down before they could stumble across my rambling soliloquy on social media. While I was a bit proud of how I had held it together on the drive from the spring up to Gateway, my steely resolve melted like butter on hot asphalt at hearing familiar voices from home and I finally began heaving and hawing like an absolute jackass. While I’m not exactly sure as to what an actual mental breakdown consists of, I’m pretty sure that I was in the immediate vicinity at the time. It was Zach that suggested two possible options: the first was to go back down into New Mexico to the Christ in the Desert monastery that Nama and I had visited the day before; the second was to seek out a skydiving shaman-like individual that I had actually only met on two “random” occurrences over the last few years, both meetings happening at the spring that is now known as “Nama Spring”. As the monastery was at least eight hours south of Gateway and the skydiving shaman was known to frequent the desert canyons of southwest Colorado, I elected to reach out to the Sky Pig. As it turned out, the Pig was camped less than five minutes from where I was parked; when I explained to him, almost a perfect stranger, what had transpired and the condition that I was in as a result, he did not even hesitate; I was told in no uncertain terms
to “get your ass over here right now; we need to talk”…
So I did as I was commanded, and that’s when things got REALLY weird.
Stay tuned…

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