Down on the Farm

Weekly column by Eric Bergeson.

4-wheelin in the desert

 Last week, a neighbor from back home and a fellow snowbird showed me an adventure I have never before experienced. 

I was invited to go four-wheelin' on the Arizona desert. 

Three parties met at a remote staging area just north of Florence. We unloaded the four-wheelers and planned the day.

I was given a choice. Either I would wear a kerchief over my nose and mouth, or I would wear one of those medical-looking dust masks. 

Why? Because you don't want to get valley fever. Apparently, there is a fungus in the soil in the desert which gets in your lungs and can cause you enough grief to make think you're going to die. 

I knew there was risk involved with off-roading, but I didn't think the risk was of disease! So, I wore a kerchief. 

Next, I was given some nice batting gloves. Early in the day, the wind would make for cold fingers, and later in the day I might develop blisters from gripping the handle bar so tight. 

The vehicle was a side-by-side, which means it had two seats. I had a handlebar to grip which gave me stability and allowed me to think I was steering.  

As we roared into the desert, I was impressed by the quality of the four-wheeler's suspension. When we approached an embedded boulder which stuck up out of the trail a foot, I gripped the handle bar as if my life depended upon it. 

We roared over that rock at twenty-five miles-per-hour and didn't feel a thing. 

The driver was an expert. I decided that since he had been riding these trails weekly for eleven winters and was still alive he probably wouldn't kill either of us this trip. 

So, I leaned back and enjoyed the scenery. 

Cactus whipped past. Prickly mesquite brushed the roll bar. Just when the trail seemed to straighten out, we would dive over the edge of a ravine, sending my stomach north. 

We crawled up from the flat desert into the mountains. The terrain became rougher, and the trails grew more crowded. 

We met dozens of other four-wheelers. All were polite about sharing the trail. Most everybody we talked to was from the Midwest. 

Then we started seeing Jeeps and other four-wheel drive outfits. They came in caravans of five or more. One group had a train of nine jeeps. Three of them had only one occupant. No carpooling. 

We stopped for lunch at an abandoned gold mine. The place was packed with Midwesterners. We talked farmland prices. 

It occurred to me that this was a bunch of transplanted snowmobilers.

As we went deeper into the mountains, we crawled right up the side of a couple of peaks, then went over and straight down the other side. No switchbacks to level things out. 

By now, my stomach was immune. 

We stopped and shut off the rigs at the top of the highest mountain. You could see a network of trails in all directions and could hear the caravans of jeeps and four-wheelers rumbling up and down the mountains and through the dry riverbeds. 

A little later, we entered Box Canyon. The trail was a narrow stream bed which snaked between red cliffs. Dozens of jeeps and four-wheelers vied for space. 

We visited with a group of North Dakotans who pointed out a group of five mountain sheep high on the cliffs. Others gathered and passed around binoculars to get a better view. 

By now, I was getting worn out and I hadn't even been driving. Just hanging on was work enough.

The desert sun got hot. Because we were in the lead, the air I breathed was pretty clear. So, I wrapped the kerchief around my head, figuring that the risk of valley fever was lower than the risk of fried baldness. 

After burning the carbon out on the home stretch, we pulled into the staging area and loaded up. We had put on sixty miles. We were covered in dust.

"Are you going to go out and get a rig?" one of the others asked me, wondering if I was hooked. 

I didn't say it, but there is no chance. 

I was in the hands of an expert and experienced driver. If I were behind the wheel, one false move and I would be impaled by one of those really nasty cactus. 

Every few hundred yards, the trails split. I don't know how anybody knew where we were or where we were going. I can just see myself lost as the sun set and the temperatures in the dry desert air plummeted to their night-time lows. 

It was great fun, but some times one time is good enough! 



Home for a blizzard

 Snowbird luck: I flew back from Arizona to Minnesota for an important meeting only to get snowed in and miss the meeting which suddenly didn't seem important at all!

The trip got off on a strange foot when this frail, rail-thin teenage kid sat next to me on the plane in Phoenix and ordered one margarita and two Jack-and-Cokes. 

"Wait a minute!" the flight attendant said, "We can only do one at a time."

The kid's identification showed that, against all odds, he was indeed of legal age. By days. So he got his margarita, which he guzzled, and then pushed the call button to get the two Jack-and-Cokes before we hit cruising altitude. 

"I do have to explain to you, sir," the flight attendant said to the kid, "that this will be all we can serve you on this two-hour flight." 

Thank goodness for rules. 

I wore earplugs, which blocked all noise but the loud conversation between two retirees behind me, both of whom had lost their first spouses fifteen years ago. 

The two, one male, one female, are both dating now in their 70s, but it is slim pickings.

The female found a man online, but he smokes two packs per day and drinks quite a bit, although now he says he's going to quit. But it's not that bad since he spends most of his time in Mexico and she goes back to Minnesota for the summers, so they're really not together that much. Which is fine. 

He calls her his girlfriend, which makes her mad because she's not a girl. So then he called her his wife, which made her mad because they're not married. 

I began to understand the two packs-a-day. 

The man, meanwhile, has found a woman to dance with and go to flea markets, but they have no desire to move in together because they both like their own houses and space. So, it's kind of nice. His kids keep wanting to them to get married, but he just wishes his kids would take care of their own screwed up lives and not try to straighten him out.

After two hours of gritty, senior-dating detail, the plane landed in Fargo. The raw wind hit me with cruel force. The car claimed it was 26 degrees above. I was certain the minus sign was missing. 

Icy roads. Darkness. Wind. Blowing snow. An unfamiliar rental car. 

Once home, the blizzard came, as predicted, and the whole cancellation dance started. 

You don't want to cancel and look wimpy if the storm doesn't show, so you wait. And you wait. 

I didn't want to back out of the meeting and be the only one, so I waited. And the wind blew. And the Weather Service said don't travel. And I waited. 

The final straw came when a local posted on Facebook that they were having a tough time getting to town for cigarettes, did anybody have some out this way? 

You know if the roads are too bad for a cigarette run, it's serious. So, I canceled my attendance at the very important meeting, only to find out many of the others were doing the same. The dominoes fell. 

Then, I wondered: At what point in this entire fiasco should I have just pulled the plug on the entire trip? Why didn't I just stay in Arizona when I knew the weather gurus were predicting ugly weather back in Minnesota? 

We Minnesotans don't want to look irresponsible. We fulfill our obligations, however grim the task. We don't make excuses. 

So during storms, we do the cancellation dance, which brings about cover-your-tail compromises like starting two hours late. Or getting half-way there and sleeping in a gym. 

Never once has starting two hours late made one bit of sense. If memory serves, the whole school day was so screwed up by the late start that we should have just called the whole thing off. 

Here is one case where our elders have wisdom we younger ones could afford to tap into. 

Older people see the slightest hint of inclement weather and back out of everything. 

Then, we make fun of them. 

"Oh, Aunt Ellen saw a little snow on the news for next Thursday, so now she says she won't go to water aerobics," we say with derision. 

But Aunt Ellen is smart. She's too old to do the cancellation dance. She doesn't care if people think she's a wimp, or is shirking her citizenship obligations. 

Being caught in a storm is no fun, and the only way to prevent it is to back out early and back out often. 

Sometimes the old folks know best. 


Super Bowl

 The Super Bowl rendered the usually crowded freeways of Phoenix, AZ as quiet as I-29 during a blizzard.

Even Christmas can't command such a complete shutdown of the American automobile as the Super Bowl. 

Driving up and down the silent streets on Super Bowl Sunday, the license plates on parked cars showed up in clusters.

On Arroyo Avenue, we have a Super Bowl party of people from Washington State. 

Next door are a bunch of North Dakotans, gathered inside around a warm television celebrating our most sacred national holiday.

On the next street sit a half-dozen pickups from Iowa, pig manure still clinging to the mud flaps. 

Even some Texans take refuge in Arizona's warmth. And next door, a party of rural northern Californians gained boisterous steam after the game was settled and the final commercial ran. 

The highlight of the broadcast for the nomadic agrarians came when the booming voice of the late Paul Harvey echoed through the decades in a tribute to farmers sponsored by Dodge trucks. 

Although the game itself was no slouch, it is a peculiarity of the Super Bowl national holiday that most people tune in for the commercials. 

The question after game is rarely, "what might have happened if Jim Harbaugh had pulled his right-hander in the eighth inning?" as it might be after a World Series. 

No, the question is "Which was your favorite commercial?" or, for the inveterately competitive: "Who had the best commercial?"

Debate ensues. 

The consensus amongst farm people formed quickly: Dodge Ram's decision to combine the golden vocal pipes of the late Paul Harvey with gauzy images of idealized farm scenes won the day. 

Ah, Paul Harvey. Characterized as a  "conservative radio commentator" by those in the business, Harvey came from a time when minimal standards of decency and dignity still applied in the news entertainment business. 

"Conservative commentator" meant something different in Harvey's day. 

He didn't much like hippies, and he didn't like President Lyndon Johnson's Great Society, but Paul Harvey didn't scream in rage, bang on the table, march on Washington, D. C., or try to foment revolution. 

Instead, Paul Harvey's voice was the calm sound of a dear old midwestern Dad who confidently hoped that the country would someday come to its senses and get a job and a haircut. 

His conventional, middle-America opinions were clear, but Paul Harvey's real trademark was not his politics, but his reassuring, resonant voice, his pauses, his idiosyncratic phrasing, as well as his shameless willingness to weave his sponsors into his commentary as if their miraculous products were the real news.

Listen, folks, my oh my, goodness sakes alive, if you haven't tried the rich whole wheat goodness of Shredded Wheat, you are missing out on...the breakfast experience of a...lifetime!

And, by the way, unemployment figures are in and more people are working...I said: more...people...are...working. 

Page two. 

For a Future Farmers of American convention at which he spoke in 1978, the grandiloquent Paul Harvey delivered a little homily entitled, "So God Created a Farmer." 

The thesis of Harvey's homily neatly fit the myth to which we in farm country still subscribe. 

On the Eighth Day, after creating the firmament and taking a Sunday nap, God created the sturdy folks who get up before dawn and milk cows so the rest of us will have something to pour on our Shredded Wheat Monday morning. 

Yes, on the eighth day, God created the farmer.

Fountains of virtue all, farmers only take a break from feeding their donkeys to attend church, bring pies to the fair, save an injured bird or shoot a gol darn coyote who's pesterin the chickens. 

It was an act of genius for Dodge to appropriate a great American storyteller to foist our farming myth on the decadent American masses watching the Superbowl. 

The majority of the people watching ad must have wondered if any of those farmers had time to watch the Superbowl, given the probability that a cow needed hernia surgery out on the back forty at that very moment. 

Some Americans might have felt pangs of guilt for sitting on their duffs watching Beyonce while virtuous farmers lugged bushels of grain to the Shredded Wheat factory so America could have breakfast tomorrow morning.  

We won't let them in on the reality. 

It is more likely that an America's farmer sold his or her soybeans to the Japanese last October, jumped in their Dodge pickup and went to Arizona. 

Cows? They get milked in factories. Wheat? Went out on the unit train in December. 

Forget getting up before dawn, we have to get up in time to pick up chips, salsa and beer and get over to the Nelsons in Mesa before kick-off. 



Frank Lloyd Wright

 As he approached his seventieth year, the great architect Frank Lloyd Wright endured a bout of pneumonia during a Wisconsin winter. 

"You could add twenty years to his life," his doctor told Wright's wife, "if you could convince Frank to spend winters in the desert."

Wright eventually agreed, and in 1937 he and his assistants started work on Taliesin West, a studio, home and a campus for instruction in architecture in the desert north of Scottsdale, AZ. 

His life extended by winters in Arizona, Wright lived out the promised twenty years and died at his compound in 1959 at the age of 91. 

I toured Taliesin last week. 

One quibble I have with the recent decades is the almost complete lack of imaginative and thoughtful architecture. 

Most homes are dull, utilitarian boxes. The only question left for debate during construction is how big each boxy room will be, and maybe the color of the carpet. 

Frank Lloyd Wright questioned every assumption in his designs, and got rid of most of them. It was Wright who started building homes on slab, eliminating first the basement and eventually the attic. 

When he arrived with his students in Arizona, he looked at the piles of rock in the desert and found his building material. 

Wright's "students," young people who paid handsomely to study with the master, spent most of their time hauling immense rocks by hand to the building site. 

The rocks were dumped in a wooden form, and the students, who lived in tents on the desert, poured concrete around them to hold them in place. 

Wright loved the warm light inside the tent he lived in during construction, so he used canvas panels as the roofing material in many of the rooms. 

He didn't like borders between indoors and out, so there was no glass in the windows for the first ten years, until Wright's wife convinced him of its utility in keeping out the elements. 

Wright wanted a dinner theater on the premises, so he had his poor students carve a cave out of the stone-hard Arizona caliche. The acoustics of the theater are so good that an actor on stage can face away from the audience, whisper, and be heard in the back row. 

The acoustics also meant that Wright and his wife, who sat in the back row, could hear every whispered conversation in the room.

Wright believed in big common spaces, a departure from the tight confines of 19th century parlors, and he knew how to force people to spend time together. 

To that end, he cramped the entrances, bedrooms and bathrooms of homes he designed enough to make them uncomfortable, forcing people to join family, friends and guests in the living area, which inevitably featured a huge fireplace. 

Because he was always strapped for money due to his taste for fine clothing and new red cars, Wright used cheap materials on his studio in Arizona. 

Like almost all of Wright's homes, the roof leaks. The furniture, which Wright also designed, includes armchairs chairs which were fashioned out of a single 4 x 8 sheet of plywood. 

What most amazed this visitor is the depth of thought Wright put into every element of his buildings, from the light, to the social implications of the design, to the acoustics, and most importantly to Wright, to creating harmony between the building and its natural surroundings. 

The angles of the roofs on his desert compound reflect the angles of the nearby mountains. The complex blends with the Arizona desert just as his buildings out east might blend with a stand of oak, or a waterfall.

Like many creative geniuses, Frank Lloyd Wright was arrogant, egotistical, extravagant, unfaithful, demanding and peevish. 

But there isn't a day that goes by without each of us encountering an idea or concept, even in our own homes, that came from Wright. 

When once called into court to testify, Wright was put on the witness stand and asked his occupation. 

"I am Frank Lloyd Wright, the greatest architect in the world," he announced. 

When he got home, his wife scolded him for his arrogance and asked him to stop referring to himself in such grandiose terms. 

"But dear," he protested, "I was under oath!" 

Over fifty years have passed since Wright's death. In that time, building materials, particularly windows, have improved markedly. 

Building styles, however, have not. 

One wonders when the next Frank Lloyd Wright will come along, a visionary who will used the latest in technology to develop spaces which enrich life as we live it today. 


Sitting on a Rock

 After weeks of unseasonable cold in the Southwest, the sun warmed the desert floor into the 70s again last week. 

The weather became so perfect that it seemed criminal to sit inside. So, on Sunday morning, I walked down the wash near the house, found a rock the right size, sat on it and basked in the sun. 

A "wash" is a ravine where water gushes only when it rains, which is rare. The rest of the time, a wash makes an ideal quiet place for walks, hidden as it is below the level of homes and streets beneath thick desert vegetation. 

The number of birds in this area has doubled in the past weeks. A grouchy man across the road put out three feeders, and they have been inundated with business.

House finches come in crowds. A cardinal stops by every few minutes. Quail roam underneath to pick up fallen seed. 

However, when I spent time about 70 feet from the man's feeder standing on public land but observing his birds, he stepped out of his house and glowered at me. 

I think it was John McCain. Or his brother. 

So, this time I climbed down in the wash and sat on a rock. 

The first bird to stop by the saguaro which towered over me sang a song that thrilled me. For days, I had been trying to find out what unseen bird trumpeted this clear, taunting fanfare. The little black bird perched on the tip of a saguaro sang that very song. 

Now it was just to find the little black bird in the bird book when I got back to the house. 

Except, the bird didn't stop with the fanfare, which I did notice was a little quieter than normal. He went on to sing finch songs, woodpecker songs and mimick cactus wren buzzes. He did mechanical buzzes and squeaks. 

A mockingbird? But mockingbirds are gray, not black. And this bird wasn't just black, it was oily black with rainbows, as if it had been dipped in motor oil. 

Later, I would find out it is a starling. 

A few minutes later, another bird landed on a dead limb and started making the original taunting trumpet fanfare, this time at a louder volume. 

I was surprised to see the trumpeter was a male Gambel's quail. Quail gurgle and scold as they scurry on the desert floor in search of seeds, a sound familiar to anybody who takes walks in Arizona. But the trumpet call of the male was of an entirely different timbre. 

Then, a tiny hummingbird perched three feet from my nose in the thick branches of a palo verde tree. He blended with his surroundings so well that if I took my eyes off him, I had to really work to find him again. 

As I sat perfectly still in the stunning sunshine, I heard a buzz pass overhead like a bullet. Sounding like a dentist's drill, the pitch of the buzz would lower several steps on the musical scale as it went past due to the Doppler effect. 

The buzz came and went every few seconds. It was so small and it moved so fast I would never be able to identify it. I almost wondered if it was an insect. 

Later on, I found that when hummingbirds get it in their mind to fly in one direction, they can go up to 60 miles per hour. 

When they fly that fast, which is usually in an attempt to impress mates, they angle their tail feathers to make a high pitched hum. 

The hummingbird is not called a hummingbird because of the whir of its wings. The hum that earned the bird its name is the high-pitched buzz of the tail feathers in high speed flight. 

I know this because I found on the internet (the source of all knowledge) that a science student tested the various tale feathers of 18 varieties of hummingbird in a wind tunnel. One of the feathers made exactly the sound I heard while sitting on that rock. 

After a fascinating fifteen minutes, my little hummingbird friend on the palo verde branch up and left. One of John McCain's neighbors saw fit to fire up his blower to move some of the leaves which have fallen since the recent frosts. 

My time on the rock was over. 

As I climbed out of the ravine back up to level and ambled back to the house, I realized how rewarding my minutes on the rock had been. 

In addition to the fun, I may have learned more than I would have watching Senators on the Sunday morning news shows. 



 As I write this, in the backyard of the neighboring house, two German Shepards howl and bark at the top of their lungs as they have for the past three days. 

The poor dogs are lonely. They haven't been walked in days. The owners left for the weekend, leaving the dogs to be taken care of by a sitter who rarely shows. 

And so the dogs howl and bark at all hours. There is nowhere in the house you can go to get away from the howling. It penetrates every wall. 

To sleep last night, I put in ear plugs. Today, in desperation, I bought a bag of treats. Two treats, I have found, buys fifteen minutes of silence. 

I looked up constant barking on the internet, the source of all truth. The verdict was clear. Dogs do not naturally bark for hours on end. If they do, something is wrong. 

Oh, the sheer vanity of some dog owners. The pets are there for them when they want them but when the owners want to leave, they don't care what the dogs do or how they feel. 

"Oh, Elsie loves to sit in her kennel for 10 hours a day!" I actually heard somebody say once, in response to a query about what a dog does when its owners are gone for work. 

Yeah, right. What dog would love to be in a cage for 10 hours per day? How do you know she loves it? 

For all you know, poor Elsie could be barking her head off the whole time!

But to the dog owners, maintaining the delusion that Elsie loves to spend 10 hours a day in a cage is necessary to maintain their vain belief that they are good, compassionate people. 

They are neither. City dog owners love the adoration the dogs heap on them when they are home, but ignore the fact that the very act of owning a dog in a big city and leaving it alone and confined 10 hours per day is inhumane and cruel. 

Better than letting the dog be euthanized? 

I wonder.

Dogs are companions by trade. And they need companionship. They need to be on a farm, where they can be part of the general busyness, or in a home where somebody is there nearly all the time. 

Dogs are ideal for senior citizens who are confined. Dogs are ideal for nursing homes. Dogs are ideal for people with medical conditions requiring a service dog. 

Dogs can be ideal for children. 

But for busy people who are never home? 

Keeping a dog just to be there when you need them for purposes of ego or fashion but which spends the great bulk of its waking hours alone and miserable is simply unkind. 

Of course, I am writing while addled by lonely, barking German Shepherds next door. 

I might just not be suited to living in close proximity with other human beings. 

If it wasn't the dogs, it might be loud music. Or a loud car. Or the party in the back yard. Or the wind chimes. Or the pool-cleaning machine. 

With a cold stretch of weather down here in Arizona, heat pumps grind away throughout the neighborhood. They grind and groan as if this is the first heat they have produced in fifteen years. 

The neighbor's heat pump is right outside the bedroom window. I am about to put a crowbar through it just to shut it up. 

Then there's the golfers.

Thump! A golf ball hit the roof yesterday morning. The ball rolled out into the fenced-in back yard, in full view. 

The guilty duffer and his buddies drove their carts right up to the back fence. I was fifteen feet away and could have easily opened the sliding door and tossed his ball over the fence.

But curmudgeon that I am, I hid inside until he moved on. Then I ducked outside, grabbed the ball and added it to my collection on the hearth. 

The German Shepherds howled their approval. 

Today, three duffers hit very nice tee shots onto the fairway right behind the house. When their carts approached, the German Shepherds started to howl. I walked into the back yard where I was fully visible. 

As the duffers lined up their second shots thirty feet in front of me, I decided to not greet them, but just stare with my arms folded and the dogs howling. 

All three muffed their shots. Badly. 

As the cursing duffers disappeared down the ravine to find their balls, I ran in, grabbed four dog treats and threw them over the fence to the German Shepherds. 

It was the canine equivalent of a high-five. 


Confused in Austin

 Last week, I flew into Austin, TX for a funeral and innocently rented a car. Nobody warned me that as a Minnesotan, I was unequipped to drive in Texas. 

Last winter, I rented a car in New Zealand with the steering wheel on the right side, a car which you drive down the left side of the road. 

I adjusted to those formidable quirks in about thirty minutes. 

But after four days in Austin, I still got royally lost, confused and disoriented every time I left the hotel. 

There are Texans who want their state to leave the Union. They should realize that their highway system left the Union decades ago. 

Highway 183 runs through Austin. It is what you would think of as a normal freeway. Three lanes run in each direction. 

Running parallel to the freeway are frontage roads, which also can be as many as three to five lanes. 

The frontage road which flanks 183 is called Research Boulevard. 

Here is where it gets weird: The frontage roads, or "access roads" as they call them in Dallas, or "feeders" as they call them in Houston, or "gateways" as they call them in El Paso, only run one way, the same way as the main highway. And traffic moves as fast on the frontage road as the freeway itself. 

Every two miles or so, the main road lifts up while traffic on the frontage road is forced by a light to stop. 

At this point, you have three options: 

Option one is to stay in the left lane and make a U-turn beneath the underpass. This is called a Texas Turn. There is one in Fargo they call a Texas Turn, but it isn't a true Texas Turn because it isn't a U. It's merely an L.

If you happen to be in that left lane, you will make a U-turn. The curbing makes it impossible change your mind. Within seconds, and with no stoplight, you will whirl beneath the underpass and go in the opposite direction at full speed. 

If you want to make a left turn onto a side street, you use the lane second to the left. 

When the light turns, be prepared to be startled by oncoming U-turn traffic which meets you on your right as you go under the underpass. 

It is disconcerting to have traffic meet you on the right when you aren't in New Zealand. In Texas, it happens several times per drive. 

Then it gets even more confusing: To turn onto any side street, you must first exit onto Research Boulevard. 

The Google people said, "Merge onto Research Boulevard." So, as soon as I saw a sign for Research Boulevard, I merged. 

I did so 12 miles too early. Turns out, US 183 has multiple exits onto Research Boulevard spread over the many, many miles that the two roads are braided together!

Once you figure out the main artery system and actually get on a side street, you are in for more treats. 

Despite the relatively flat Austin geography, all of its streets gradually curve. As far as I can tell, most of them form very large circles. 

If remain on Stonycreek Road under the delusion that by staying the course you are actually getting somewhere, you would be wrong. Just like the astronomers say about the universe, going straight ahead on an Austin street will only get you right back to where you started from. 

It is a startling experience to drive ten minutes from your hotel only to run into your hotel. 

If you drive in Austin, I have decided, you'd better know where you're going or your not going to get there. 

If you see a restaurant on the left side of the road that you long for, give up on getting there before you die of starvation. 

If you want to try, go two miles ahead, take a U-turn and come back towards the restaurant, making sure to slide sideways six lanes long before you see the joint.

Don't be surprised, however, if you never see the restaurant again. Many of them are mirages. You can see them from a distance, but they disappear close up.

One good thing: The stoplights in Austin are so long that you can take a nap and recover your courage to plunge forward into the unknown. 

As I was lost on some segment of Research Boulevard last Saturday, I came across two young men who waved Texas flags and displayed posters urging that Texas leave the Union. 

I honked my horn in support. 


More Miserables

 On Christmas Day, several new movies hit the big screen. The most notable this year was the latest version of Les Miserables, which opened to critical acclaim. 

I sat in seat K2 at the 10 a.m. showing in Scottsdale, AZ, which means I was amongst the first in this nation to see the already-fabled film. 

"Les Miz" is the shorthand in-group fans use to refer to the show, which is a long-running Broadway musical based loosely on a 1400-page novel by French author Victor Hugo. 

The unbridled enthusiasm of "Les Miz" fans led me to believe I had to see this movie if my life was to be complete. 

At the insistence of my viewing companion, I read a twenty-five page summary of the plot over breakfast before we left for the theater. Good thing. Otherwise, I would have been utterly lost. 

From beginning to end, Les Miserables was a musical. Every word was sung. They sang when they died, they sang when they killed, they sang when they swam in sewage, they sang when their molars were pulled out in a back alley for a few francs. 

The director was a stickler for "authenticity," reviewers crowed. He made the actors actually sing the songs while they were acting, not mouth them and let professionals do the singing in the sound studio, the usual practice. 

Authentic? Do you thing anybody has ever broken out into song when they were being massacred by a regiment of soldiers? When they were dying of a wound? When they jumped off a bridge? 

There is nothing authentic about musicals, period. Russell Crowe singing might be more authentic than him lip-synching, but that doesn't make it bearable. 

Poor Victor Hugo. The musical people took his 1400 page masterpiece and ripped out nine pages out of every ten, leaving only those which featured actual action. 

Then the producers reduced that action to rhyming couplets and set it to schmaltzy tunes. 

Hugo's actual novel features complicated characters who, after forty pages of internal dialogue, might decide to confess to a serious crime. 

In the musical version, the same character dances around and sings in an operatic vibrato "Hi Ho, Hi Ho, its off to the dungeon I go!" Thirty seconds later he's disposed of and you move on to the next disaster. 

If you read the novel, you can set it on the nightstand for two weeks to regain your composure before plowing forward to the next crisis. 

No such respite in a theater. 

If your soul is fed by scenes where people die in each others' arms while tearfully warbling, you will writhe with catharsis every ten minutes of Les Miserables. 

After sobbing through her swan song, the first beautiful woman wilts and dies ten minutes into the movie. 

Yay, opportunity to bawl #1!

Eventually, a irresistibly cute little boy gets shot to death. Yippee! More tears. Others die in between, all singing right to their last breath. 

With Hugo's 1,400 pages condensed to a mere three hours, I felt like a tin can dragged behind a runaway horse, first through the docks, then banging down the streets of Paris, then into the sewers, then down the river, into a prison, a brothel, a sleazy hotel, then into another decade, and then a third decade, then into the middle of one of France's frequent revolutions––all while warbling in fake vibrato.

When the plot doesn't fit into rhyming couplets, the screen writers shoehorn a whole paragraph into a single musical phrase, as if the words were commuters on a Tokyo subway. 

Three hours later, the viewer has been through the mill, which is just what the masses enjoy. Sniffles from the few with sniffles left dribble through the theater as yet another beautiful person dies in the arms of another beautiful person while both tearfully warble. 

This time they are covered in sewer sludge. Last time one hung upside down from a window after being shot dead. Another hits the ground with a sickening splat. 

The end is near. 

But it never arrives. More deaths. More shooting. More singing. More impossible dilemmas for dewy-eyed young lovers to solve as the city burns around them. 

When the credits finally rolled and the only two beautiful people to survive the three-hour carnage married each other while the remainder died off around them, I escaped the Kleenex-filled theater to recover my sanity in the bathroom. 

Who would willingly put themselves through this sob-fest, I wondered as I looked myself in the mirror, relieved not to be covered in sewage. Or dead in an alley. 

People who want to be more miserables, that's who. 


Christmas mission

 My only Christmas gift purchases this year were at the Toys-R-Us store in Phoenix where I picked up some toys for kids I will never meet. 

I wasn't there on my own volition. I was dragged there by a long-lost Bergeson cousin named Tina who found me on the internet last year. 

Tina lives in Phoenix, so we have gotten together for lunch a few times since I arrived in the Southwest. 

An ordained minister, Tina is one of those caring types who takes in deaf dogs and cares for poor people and prisoners. 

She asked if I wanted to help with her Christmas project to help poor children. How could any decent person say no?

We were given five children by the agency. Several gift items were suggested for each. A couple of the kids had specific requests. 

These are children without parents who aren't able to be put into foster care due to the severity of their disabilities. They are wards of the state. 

As we drove to the toy store, Tina read each of their stories from the print-out. 

Two of the girls requested blankets. 

Can you imagine a child in this day and age requesting a blanket for Christmas?

Once I heard their stories, I jumped aboard Cousin Tina's crazy toy train. 

We tore through that toy store and filled up my trunk with toys, a radio, blankets, quilts, what have you. The items on the list were suggestions, from which we were to choose one. 

Tina bought them all. 

We took the mounds of toys to Tina's purple house (women who take in deaf dogs often choose to paint their house purple) where she spent nine hours wrapping the gifts and festooning them with ribbons and name tags as professional as you'd see in the window of Sak's Fifth Avenue. 

We were to deliver the gifts to the children, or so we thought, but we never heard back from the social worker where we were to bring them. 

So naturally, Tina decided we would plop them on the social worker's desk. 

The social worker's office is on the ninth floor of a huge government building in downtown Phoenix. How would we get all those gifts up to his office? 

No problem. Tina had it all figured out. She would pull off the street and up on the sidewalk in front of the main entrance of the building and stand guard while I took bag after bag upstairs to the office. 

"Do they know we're coming?" I asked. 

"No," said Tina, you just tell them we're "making a delivery." 

As planned, we pulled up onto the sidewalk in front of the main entrance of one of the tallest buildings in downtown Phoenix. I loaded up one load, and took the elevator to the ninth floor. 

When I got there, it was apparent that this was not the place where the gifts were to be delivered. The receptionist was aghast. 

I said, this is just the start, so while you figure out what to do with these, I'll go get the next load. 

I didn't tell her there would be six loads altogether. 

By the next trip up, more bureaucrats appeared. They couldn't believe the mounds of gifts. This was not standard procedure. 

Meanwhile, Tina stood guard over her SUV, illegally parked on the sidewalk. No cops came. 

If they had, she would have talked them into giving donations for more gifts. 

By the sixth trip up to the ninth floor, the entire staff was in the lobby staring at the mound of gifts. 

They were happy, if perplexed. The man in charge of the program wasn't in. I suggested they put the gifts on his desk.

"Who are these from?" they asked. 

"My crazy cousin Tina," I answered. 

"Who are they for?" they asked. 

"The names are on the tags," I said. 

Having dumped a truckload of gifts off in the wrong place, I took the elevator down to the lobby, jumped in Tina's SUV and we took off.

"That's how I like to do things," Tina said sweetly as we roared away. "Hit and run." 

After not hearing from the man in charge for weeks, apparently the 37 boxes on his desk got his attention. 

"You are amazing!" he wrote in a three-word email to Tina. 

I agreed. 

And I figured it wasn't a bad way to deal with the Christmas gift-giving dilemma. 

Anybody who expects a gift from me will be told that I already bought a bunch of toys for kids I'll never meet. 

I suspect they'll be fine with that. 

Siphon Draw

To the east of the Phoenix metropolitan area, a rugged national forest starts within ear shot of the major streets of Apache Junction. Within a ten minute drive, one's chief concern can change from crime to cougars. 

The Superstition Wilderness is a massive, rock-strewn wasteland with only one road for motorized vehicles. It is a heaven for hikers. 

After studying a guidebook and looking over trails on Google Earth, I decided to attempt to climb Siphon Draw Trail up to nearby Flatiron peak, which towers over Apache Junction. 

I parked at Lost Dutchman State Park, strapped up my little pack which contained water, nutrition bars and a light jacket, and headed up the trail at a stately pace. 

People passed me, sure, but I assumed that like the tale of the tortoise and the hare, I would stride by them later as they sat exhausted on a rock. 

The climb started gently, but it was enough to get me winded. It felt good to be forging into the wilderness like Daniel Boone. 

I came over a rise and, to my chagrin, there sat a house. In front of the house was a Cadillac Escalade, parked on the tar. 

For crying out loud, I could have saved the first fifteen minutes of the hike by driving up to that house!

Only slightly miffed at the waste of time, I plowed forward. 

"See you at the top!" a gentleman chirped as he passed me. 

The trail steepened as the loose alluvial rocks rose up to meet the cliffs from which they had fallen. Steps were cut in the trail. My breathing was getting deeper. 

The sun hit an enormous red cliff to my left. The cliff was so featureless that this prairie dweller, untrained in things vertical which aren't elevators or water towers, couldn't tell whether it rose fifty or five hundred feet. 

By assuming the giant saguaro at the base of the rock were 30 feet tall, I eventually calculated that the rock itself was over 750 feet high. Wow. 

Now the climb required me to walk sideways on slanted rock. I was glad that my running shoes had good grip. 

In the shade of the canyon, the temperature dropped thirty degrees. I put on my jacket. 

Two elderly couples met me in their climbing garb, steadying themselves with ski poles. 

"Only two hours to the top!" one said. 

What? I had already been going one hour. She must be kidding. 

The gravel trail ended. I took this to be the place where the guide book said that things got "a bit strenuous." 

I looked up at a massive draw, a wide gutter in the hard rock where water runs when it rains. I grimly set out to conquer the rock ravine on all fours. 

Half way up, I pulled to the side for an Army kid with his giggly girlfriend on their way down. She wore sandals. Sandals!

The steepness increased. Now I was grabbing rock ledges and pulling myself up. It was hazardous, but the memory of that girl in sandals prodded me onwards. 

My running shoes were now inadequate and losing their shape. My ankles and knees scraped against rock outcroppings. My hands were about to bleed. 

Every so often there were blue dots spray-painted on the rock. These dots were, I decided, memorials for the fallen, tributes which doubled as markers for the trail. 

Ten minutes later, I turned around to see a breathtaking view of the Valley of the Sun, home to 4 million people. 

I clung to the cliff. I could not see a way up. I decided that this in fact was the top. All the people who passed me must have just disappeared. 

As I huffed and puffed and thought about what it must be like to ascend Everest, I looked over to an adjacent cliff and saw, under a rock, a pacifier. 

Yes, not only had somebody else made it this far, but they had brought their infant!

It was at Pacifier Point that I turned back in defeat, and a good thing I did. 

Going down is harder than going up. I bounced hundreds of feet on my butt down the draw. 

Knees are better suited to climbing than descending. Mine started to wobble half-way down. 

My feet blistered. Weakened, I stumbled downwards, thumping my toes on embedded rocks and falling forward. 

A couple in their 70s met me looking infuriatingly well-coiffed. 

"Keep an eye out for the cougar!" I said, trying to justify my disheveled appearance. 

They laughed. 

And I stumbled on down the trail, eager to get away from the cougars, in the car and back to the crime.