The Roman Wall Blues

Here’s one for the vets among us, courtesy W.H.Auden

Over the heather the wet wind blows,
I’ve lice in my tunic and a cold in my nose.

The rain comes pattering out of the sky,
I’m a Wall soldier, I don’t know why.

The mist creeps over the hard grey stone,
My girl’s in Tungria; I sleep alone.

Aulus goes hanging around her place,
I don’t like his manners, I don’t like his face.

Piso’s a Christian, he worships a fish;
There’d be no kissing if he had his wish.

She gave me a ring but I diced it away;
I want my girl and I want my pay.

When I’m a veteran with only one eye
I shall do nothing but look at the sky.



Revisiting an old book I haven’t read in 50 years, John Steinbeck’s “Travels With Charley” and discovering insights I missed as a young man that resonate with me today. Steinbeck was just 58 when he embarked on one last cross-country road trip, but he already had one foot in the grave.

As it turned out, he had years yet to live. But I believe the progress of congenital heart disease left him more worried about a long decline as an invalid.

“It had happened to so many of my friends. The lecture ends, ‘Slow down. You’re not as young as you once were.’ And I had seen so many begin to pack their lives in cotton wool, smother their impulses, hood their passions, and gradually retire from their manhood into a kind of spiritual and physical semi-invalidism. In this they were encouraged by wives and relatives, and it’s such a sweet trap.

“Who doesn’t like to be a center for concern? A kind of second childhood falls on so many men. … I see too many men delay their exits with a sickly, slow reluctance to leave the stage. It’s bad theater as well as bad living.”

Ghost Boats

One of the most intriguing collateral effects of the ongoing drought has been the emergence of “ghost boats” on the beds of drying reservoirs. Most, like the one in a previous post, are pleasure craft and it’s easy to imagine how they came to sink beneath the waves of Lake Mead or Powell. But the hulk recently discovered on the dried mud of Lake Shasta in northern California has a more curious provenance. It was a WWII Landing Craft, Vehicle, Personnel (LCVP) more commonly known as a Higgins Boat for its designer and builder, Andrew Jackson Higgins. Just 36 feet long and 10 feet wide, these little boats could carry three dozen soldiers (or Marines) and its shallow draught and front ramp made it possible to drop them directly on the beach. The design made not just the Normandy D-Day landing but MacArthur’s island-hopping Pacific campaign possible. The numbers on the Lake Shasta wreck identify it as one assigned to the USS Monrovia, which earned battle stars in both the Atlantic and Pacific, so the Lake Shasta boat may well be a veteran of Sicily, Tarawa, Kwajalein and Saipan. Higgins produced nearly 24,000 of his boats but few survived the war. The Lake Shasta boat was probably sold as war surplus and intended for use as a tour boat. Higgins himself died of stomach ulcers in 1952 at age 65.

How Dry We Are

Like overpopulation, drought is one of those crises that sneak up on you. Earthquakes, wildfires, pandemics announce their arrival like comets in the sky and are all but impossible to ignore or disparage. But when you live somewhere like Albuquerque, which averages less than 10 inches of precipitation a year, or Las Vegas, which gets just four inches on average, it takes a while to notice that it’s just not raining at all. And so we’re just now waking up to the sad fact that the Southwest is 20 years into a historic dry spell.

It’s not as though we haven’t been warned. In Lake Mead and Lake Powell we have pluviometers large enough to be visible from space. And year by year we’ve been able to see the ugly bathtub ring around these giant reservoirs inexorably widening as the water level drops. Now, the gauge is dropping from critical to catastrophic. Lake Mead is at just 28 percent of capacity and Lake Powell at 27 percent, the lowest levels since the dams were completed that created those lakes.

That’s grim news not just for the 40 million people who depend on the Colorado River for their drinking water but for all 330 million of us. Three-quarters of the river’s water irrigates crops, including California’s Central Valley, the source of a quarter of the nation’s vegetables.

The Rainbow Sign

Whether the Southwest is in the worst drought in a generation, a century or a millenium, it’s no surprise that we’re also in the worst fire season in at least a decade. The National Interagency Fire Center has the dismal numbers as well as an interactive map. So far this year 29,827 wildfires have burned 2,7 million acres, well above the 10-year average of 23,070 fires over 1.1 million acres.

The photo is by the Albuquerque Journal’s Eddie Moore, part of that paper’s photo coverage of the devastating Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon blaze. New Mexico’s largest recorded wildfire, that conflagration has charred more than 325,000 acres since April 6 and is still only 70% contained.

While Calf Canyon is attributed to a pile burn “sleeper” or “holdover” fire that smouldered under the snow since January, Hermits Peak was a Forest Service prescribed burn that was blown out of control by unexpected high winds. But ultimately both these fires and the others burning across the West can be blamed on decades of misguided forestry.

It’s ironic (and perhaps prophetic) that the FS is flying the “Pride Flag” this month, since the rainbow banner doesn’t just celebrate diversity but also recalls the divine promise in an old spiritual:

God gave Moses the rainbow sign
No more water, but fire next time

How Dry We Are

In my previous post my reference to “bone dry” New Mexico was so offhand as to make me pause and think again. New Mexico and the whole Southwest have been so dry for so long as to be a new normal. Every year is the worst fire season, every month the hottest since (fill in the date), every decade the driest.

But just how dry is it? gives what appears to be an accurate picture. The map above appears to support the claim that we’re well into the worst drought in more than a millenium.

Bear Trap Canyon

As of this weekend, the Bear Trap Fire was judged 98 percent contained after burning over 38,000 acres, according to the Forest Service. There are still much worse fires burning in New Mexico, including a 287,000 acre blaze in the nearby Black Range and the catastrophic Hermit’s Peak fire in the Sangre de Cristos. But the Bear Trap fire was painfully personal for me because that canyon in the San Mateos has been one of my favorite campsites for better than 30 years. The above picture was taken four or five years ago. Sad to think what it looks like today.

Air Force to the Rescue

A “Lost in the Woods” story with a happy ending, thanks to the U.S. Air Force. No photo credit or byline on the dramatic picture and story in the Mojave News, although both deserved one. What’s really impressive is the amount of government resources from county sheriff, NPS and Air Force put at the disposal of some young woman with an injured ankle. I’m amazed at the tech advances of recent years and the accompanying cultural changes. Back when I was in my 20s, if one of us had injured an ankle while hiking with three buddies it would never have occurred to us to call for government assistance and wait for rescue. The casualty would have been expected to cowboy up and make it back to the trailhead with the help of his friends.