INTRODUCTION: The Backstory of this BLOG

San Diego – All good treks have a backstory; events that happened sometimes long before the trek itself that, at least in hindsight, set the stage for the adventure.  Disparate events connecting in unintended ways form a thread right down to the launch itself.  And this tale is no different.  So here, in the first entry, before we actually get on the road, is that backstory.  Settle back, get a cup of coffee or whatever, this is a longish post since it has to cover some salient high points of 20-odd years to set the stage for what will follow.

It was summer of 2011 and I had been looking into getting a small to medium sized motorhome again; something in the 22 to 26 foot range.  A lot of things played into the decision, one of which had been the political environment at school brought on by, or perhaps simply revealed by, the impact of the State’s budget crisis and an inexplicable protection of non-performing internal resources.  Readers of my other blog are familiar with this saga as it unfolded.  But it is relevant here because I complained a bit too vociferously and was “taken to the woodshed” and,  like showing Galileo the instruments of torture, was shown just how the “attitude” of any one questioning performance is against policy and a “cause” for future unpleasantness.

The aforementioned Galileo was nobody’s fool.  He took one look in the dungeon and the fiendishly clever implements to make you taller than you were when you came in and to relieve you of the burden of all of that skin whereupon he recanted even though he knew he was right.  I think that was a most rational decision.  Sun Tzu, in the “Art of War” said the good general only (voluntarily) fights the battles he has a good chance of winning.  It was, therefore, time to back off when the truth was that not only can you have no hope of winning, but the only possible outcome is a highly detrimental one.  The truth of your position at that point does not become untrue, worse, it becomes irrelevant.   A “deal with the Devil?”  Perhaps.  But when the devil you know is more of a problem than the devil you do not know then it makes you start thinking about options.

Of course, in my case, that sort of dungeon-based threat is hollow insofar as getting fired goes; but the energy draining hassle factor entailed in a continuation of a confrontation is simply not a well-calculated way to maintain what my faculty partner and I have done to build the program into a jewel in our school’s crown.   I did not recant but agreed to stop confronting the resources and have since acted as if i believed they were just doing a marvelous job.  For example when they overwrote some programming complimented them on the thoroughness of the destruction they wrought and mentioned my awe at the results noting that had I years to plan it I would not likely have come up with a move so fiendishly effective at efficiently setting us back.

Now I ask you, how could I be more complimentary than that?

Anyway… I have always believed that it is important to maintain a firm grip on our sense of the absurd and laugh it off.  I’ve not been all that good at taking my own advice  but this time I am trying.  Besides,  I have far too much time, effort, and emotion invested in this teaching gig, even apart from the fact that I love it dearly.  Even from a purely economic perspective I am less than two years away from a full professorship and the attendant pay increase and unless the State completely sacrifices education on the altar of liberal spending, have a secure place for myself and our program.

And from a personal fulfillment perspective, few things are as rewarding as helping a student get better at something about which they are passionate.  Beng allowed to be in a position to do that is a blessing and a gift.  I will not lightly throw such a cosmic gift away and especially not for some small minded, incompetent folks.  That would be the ultimate example of “cutting off your nose to spite your face.”

God knows I have done that in the past.  Just ask my ex.  Filled with a spirit of righteous indignation at a real or sometimes imagined slight I have tossed away wheat with chaff, baby with bathwater and, in the end, hurt only myself and others I cared about without causing so much as a subtle wince or out-of-place hair among the bad guys.  I would dearly like to think I have, at least to some small degree, “wised up” about such things… or at least about this one.  The smart money remains skeptical but hope springs eternal.

So, what on earth does that have to do with getting a motorhome?  Well, in addition to the issue noted above, all of our summer classes were canceled almost at the last minute due to budget cuts. And we just received word that next summer will also be cut entirely from our schedule.  Time to get creative.

Over my recent enforced summer without pay I did run a couple of private workshops hosted through the photo program just as we already have ASMP, APA, and other groups do.  One of them was a Photo Trek to the Ancient Bristlecone Pines in the White Mountains of central California that was both a reawakening of the old photo workshops we used to give through the Darkroom in Denver, and of my love for them.

Each Spring at City College we do several field trips with the Landscape Photography class, but this one was different: it was for and by me.  And I loved it.  And it even made a few bucks for me.  Not many to be sure, but it was a success as a “proof of concept” and so it made me think about reviving the concept of private location-based workshops.  I had years of experience with those in Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, etc.

In addition to workshops, I also realized it was good for me to get out into nature again, breathe clean air, concentrate on images and not on political correctness.  But California is not Colorado, or at least not the Colorado of those days back at The Darkroom in Denver.  We ran photography and outdoor survival skills workshops frequently from Spring to Fall including some week long trips.  They were always pretty well attended and it definitely honed skills at conducting that sort of event.

David leading workshop in CanyonlandsBack then and there, to get to the really scenic stuff we used serious 4-wheel drive rigs and did some equally serious “safari” camping to get to the great photo places.  Tomichi Pass, Paradise Divide, Pearl Pass, Holy Cross city, Pike’s Gap, Nevada Hill, Kingston, Swandyke, Red Cone, all are names that instantly bring to my mind memories of incredible, breath taking beauty.  And of course we also did treks to Canyonlands and Arches as well.  To the right is a shot of me in the late 70s leading a photo workshop in the Needles section of Canonlands National Park.

But California is so overrun with people that access to such places, though existing to be sure, are decreasing almost daily because, well, obviously one could hurt themselves in such terrain and that is not acceptable in the bastion of the entitled, victimized, and parasitical here in the Peoples Republic of Kalifornia.   Additionally the great but unguarded places of beauty or historical importance are so little respected by some of  the local unwashed as to be covered in graffiti or tire tracks so that the only way to protect them is to close them off to back-country travel.  A Draconian but perhaps necessary policy.

The result is that most of the roads to the major scenic places are now graded or paved and open camping is often completely prohibited, leaving only the standard Forest Service or Park Service campgrounds.  Only BLM land is sometimes open for camping but who knows for how long that will last.   Hiking trails still exist and reveal scenery thus far relatively untouched but that is most likely only because of the inconvenience and effort due to the extra weight involved in packing in paint cans or beer cans.

Because of the raggedy legs left me by the military, backpacking heavy camping and camera gear into the wilderness is not a very viable option as it once was back in the squandered days of my youth.  That relegates me to the use of some type of vehicle to get me within at least a reasonable hike to the view I seek where I need only carry the camera gear and maybe a lunch and water.

Perhaps if I had not spent so much time camped in quiet places of my own choosing it would not be so bad.  But now, especially in a place as crowded as California, where even back country camp grounds often need to be reserved, I hate those planned campgrounds with a passion beyond expression.  For city dwellers who never experienced a night under the stars on a mountain side where the only sound was the whispering conversations of the trees and the occasional call of a critter announcing themselves to the universe, they do not know what is missing.  So that leaves campgrounds as a reasonable facsimile of that fantasy of camping.  For them I am glad the campgrounds exist to at least get these pretend campers out of the cities and into at least the tamed wilderness.  Hopefully even this gentrified and anemic taste of the outdoors will instill some new respect for nature.

For me, however, the only way to be in one of those horrid pre-made campgrounds and avoid the screaming kids running wild or the teenage groups doing “battle of the bands” with dueling vans filled with giant speakers and the smoke in the air obviously not coming from a campfire, or the rowdy drunks escaping whatever, is to go all out and retreat behind the walls of a motor home.  And as a base for a group of students, where we can meet, use the electrical power to view work, and perhaps to provide meals as the river guides do, a motorhome is ideal.

So whether I want to go alone or with a group, having a small motorhome seems like a good idea if I would like to spend more of the time I won’t be spending at school, out tracking down more locations to serve as the vehicles for my images.  California may be crowded but it still has some incredible and unique beauty, as do the surrounding states.

And I do have some experience with RVs so have a good idea what I would be getting into with this.  This will not, after all, be my first recreational vehicle.  It will be my 5th.  Since I am still friends with my Ex-wife, I asked if she had any photos of our various rigs and she graciously loaned me a few of them.  All of the photos below were taken by her.

The first was a VW Westfalia Vanagon, a wonderful little beast Elizabeth named “Bertrand.”  We bought it in San Diego when I was in law school but when we moved back to Colorado it really had insufficient power for the mountains or clearance for the backroads.  But we had some fun in it so the concept of a traveling, mobile, self contained camp stayed with us.  Unfortunately the only photo remaining of Bertrand was of the rear of it somewhere in the woods with our Siamese cat Tabitha.  That cat went everywhere with us and loved to ride in cars.  He came when called (yes, yes, I know it’s a female name but that is a long story perhaps best told by Elizabeth…), and was a pretty good travel companion in addition to being the toughest cat I ever knew.

Then there was our Viking pop-up tent trailer that Elizabeth and I took to Alaska in 1979, towed by “Winston” my Land Rover Series III 88.  Here are two pictures of our little traveling campsite.  The first is a wonderful camp on the shore of Lake Crescent in Washington’s Olympic Peninsula.  This site was a great place from which to head north into Canada and then on to Alaska.  It also gave us our first taste of canoeing which was to stay with us.  Notice how clean the whole rig is here…

The second photo below is a shot of Winston and the trailer in British Columbia along the spur road from the Cassiar road (which had just been opened to the public) to Heider, Alaska.   At a wide spot overlooking Bear Glacier we had stopped  so I could put a jerry can of gas (we carried four of them) into the Land Rover. While I was thus occupied, Elizabeth took this shot, turned around to see what was causing some very strange and ominous noises and yelled at me in time for us to watch the glacier calving less than 100 yards from us.  It remains one of the most powerful sights I’ve seen.  A storm followed us north so as you can see there was lots of mud involved with this first part of that trip.  That clean rig above has now been thoroughly baptised by the Canadian bush.  And much more was yet to come.

Then in 1980 we had the use of a 30 foot Class A motorhome provided for the “Tewa” project and now towed Winston behind it.  It seemed only fair.  He had towed the trailer to Alaska and back and now he got to rest and be towed himself.   This big rig (for its day) was more than a camper, it was a home away from home with all of the amenities.  I was even able to process film in its bathroom.  A little large for using as a solo vehicle, it nevertheless was our home for almost three years and a real eye opener for me as to what, for my tastes, was a good and useful RV.

When the project was over we had to turn it back in but we both had come to love the idea of a vehicle in which you could simply pull over, walk back and rest on a real bed or get something from the fridge to munch on.  The little trailer was fun but the motorhome spoiled me.  So in the late 1980s we purchased a small 20 foot Class C from a friend for Elizabeth and I to take on little jaunts.  She called it the “Caboose.”  It was really too small but was sufficient for us for a while and when not camping I often used it as a production vehicle for the videos and still projects.   We went on lots of weekend jaunts in The Caboose, often to the Grand Lake and Shadow Mountain areas where we also did some great canoeing.   We went as well to Rocky Mountain National Park where one night we listened to Elk bugling very close to our camp site.

In 2009, a number of years after moving to California, I had the use (in exchange for parking it at my house) of a small 19 foot Class B Roadtrek and in addition to several overnight trips, took it on one great trip to Owens Valley and the White Mountains to photograph the Ancient Bristlecone Pine forest.  It was fun and I did enjoy the little motor-home but it was not mine and so I never grew a real attachment to it and never took a photo of it.  It did however start my thinking down that RV road again.

The process of deciding to get another motorhome was not without some nostalgia and a twinge of melancholy.  I cannot even contemplate getting another one of my own without being reminded of some of those earlier ventures in which  Elizabeth, my now ex-wife, was so much a part.  Some of the best times we ever had together were in those RVs along with some of the most desperate.  We shared adventure and love, tough and lean times and were never more united in common purposes than during times spent in the little trailer or big motor home.   We clung to each other as all we had that we could count on and were closer than at probably any other times in our 23 years of marriage.

Those memories are stirring and formative for me.  I cannot avoid the sadness that inevitably follows the realization that she will not be a part of the new adventures that await.  Sadder still is the realization that I have only myself to blame for that.  Sometimes I wish I would suddenly awake as if from a long coma to discover it was still in the 1980s but, thanks to the coma-wrapped dreams that seemed so real, I now knew enough to make sure the life lived in that coma would not happen for real.  If I had access to a time machine I would go back to then, knock off the “real” me, the idiot me, and step in to do things right and hope no-one noticed the suddenly gray hair or much expanded waist line.

But since I am unable to wake from this I can only try to do things right in this universe.  The hand dealt to me may not be all I wish but it is a hand I shuffled myself so what remains to be seen is how well I play it.  Nevertheless, this time it will be quite different since I have no one to make a part of my life or travels as she was back then when I always knew that I could completely rely on her to cover my back and be there even when it got rough.

So unless some completely unforeseen, unexpected, and truly miraculous eventuality occurs, it will not be quite the same as it was.   Nevertheless, I must confess that I’ve reached a point in life where I prefer traveling with someone to either explore new sites together or show them old wonders I have visited before, and some of my friends are very good travelers.

The good news is that my rich memories of seeing beautiful places and capturing images of them mercifully remains even more profound than the sadness of the now changed circumstances.  ‘Back in the day’ I made my living producing work for clients based on their needs and desires.  It was always a great break to now and then be able to do work for myself and to show and even sell some of it.  Tossing gear into one of the RVs or even just the 4WDs that were then always a part of my stable, and setting off to “the tall and the uncut” was therapeutic.  Those were times and adventures I will never forget and never fail to reflect fondly at the recollection.

But that was then… To relate that back to the “now” and school, although people are often jealous of the time they think teachers have off with semester breaks, holidays, etc. neither Eich nor I have ever taken a full break and very few full weekends since we were hired in 2005 as we have worked to build our program.  This summer has taken some of the wind from both of our sails.  The motivation to drive ourselves to build a world class program took, at least in my case, a major hit.  Both of us have our personal egos on the line and our drive as teachers at stake so we will continue to do our best, but it is time, perhaps past time, to also pay more attention to our own wants and needs.  Time perhaps to reclaim my life… or to simply get a life, whichever is the most accurate appraisal.

In my case, I am an image-maker: first and foremost.  Having a traveling darkroom and studio, though in this case a digital one, is a very appealing idea to me.  That it can also be the travelling core for location workshops is gravy on that already great meal.

So my needs for a motorhome are easy to quantify:  I want one big enough for me and my gear and perhaps a companion now and then.  It needs to be capable of being totally self-contained as well as being hooked up to power when available.  I want the eating area to be separate from the bedroom (a problem with our little 20 footer and with the Roadtrek).  That would let me set up an editing computer and leave it in place during a stay. And I want it to be small enough to get around most places and without a huge rear overhang which limits it to the  25 +/- feet range.  I want it to have a generator so on workshops I could run a projector to look at work students or I have shot and recharge batteries used in “dry” camping or “boondocking” as I have learned the RV community calls it.  And since I am still crawling out from four years as an adjunct it needed to be a used one.

I had been casually looking but had not seen anything yet.  Then my friend T.J. decided he wanted to sell his 1987 Coachman 26’ “Classic” Class A.  It is older but does not have many miles on it and is in mechanically good shape.  It has just been neglected.  The problem is that when I first saw it my first impression was of a frat party gone bad!  Whoa Nelly, it needed a fire hose and a front-end loader to clean it out and then flushed with disinfectant.

—photo of Rosey as soon as I can take one will go here

But, still, the ol’ girl had a certain rough appeal and I liked it immediately.  Like me, in the words of the cowboys, it had been “rode hard and put away wet.”  I thought immediately of that poor steed of Don Quixote, “Rocinante.”  That poor old nag, after years of work as the old gentleman’s skinny riding horse was pressed into service as a fantasy destrier, a knight’s great war horse, and called upon to carry its master to deeds of glory and honor… if only in the old man’s addled mind.

I think my own days of deeds of honor and glory are, alas, long behind me if they ever really existed; and some days that world seems as much like a dream fuzzily remembered as reality… until I try to walk.   But I expect no more of them unless some knock on the head sends me down fairy tale lane in shining armor like the old Don.

But perhaps. and I do believe, some days of creativity and photographic excellence may still lay in wait.  Wily images as yet un-captured still prowl the beautiful places after all.  So maybe it is appropriate that I take this poor old beast and turn it into the proper steed for an antique artist on his own kind of quest.  I may prefer to photograph windmills rather than joust with them and the only giants I may encounter are Redwoods and Sequoias, but that is fine with me.  My swords are pretty rusty anyway.

In any case, we struck a deal workable for the both of us and suddenly I found myself the owner, once again, of a motor home.  “Rocinante,” or “Rosey” for short seems like an appropriate name for the old girl.  It will take some major cleaning and time to get it set up for my own needs, but very soon it will be ready to take me on the quest for new images and to be the traveling base for location workshops.  I am truly excited about it.

So that is the backstory of the logs of the travels to come.  Hopefully they will contain beauty to at least match the beauty those previous RVs took us to see.  I kept a log of the trip to Alaska that is interesting to read now and will try to do as well in the future.  Not just notes of the road, but also thoughts and insights that the places, people, and events engendered.  I love teaching because it is one of the great learning exercises, but so too is travel, especially travel that puts you in with the places visited and does not just have you fly over them or race through them.  We’ll see…

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About ndking

Commercial Photographer and Professor of Photography at San Diego City College
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2 Responses to INTRODUCTION: The Backstory of this BLOG

  1. Adam Johnson says:

    Great news David! I was so inspired to take a trip after reading this blog that I booked a hotel on the outskirts of Yosemite for this very weekend! I’m not sure what awaits but those quick weekend trips are always an adventure. I’ve been meaning to stop by SDCC to chat so I’ll be sure to do that after I get back with some good shots… and count me among those eagerly awaiting subsequent blog entries.

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