Million Mile Walker Dispatch, The Yin & Yang of Travel: Post COVID-19, July Edition


Friends and Colleagues from Around the World,

This month I’ll focus on my recent post-covid trip through the Southwest, which became more than just an adventure. I’ll also provide an update on and my latest article from “Revue Magazine,” and provide the latest Voice of the Day, What Others Are Saying, Calendar. Just click on the poster above for my latest Million Mile Walker Review: What We’re Reading and Why, which you can find on pages 14-16 of the Arizona Authors Association Newsletter.
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Finally, the open road . . .
After hunkering down for nearly a year and a half, we emerged from the wilderness of the pandemic by heading out for a ten-day adventure through New Mexico and Colorado. Covid-19 had changed how we see the world around us and how we travel. It felt strange to finally hit the road for parts unknown, even though I’d been doing exactly that for over fifty years.

I felt torn between leaving the comfort and security of our home – and the two Airedales – for the world of “what if’s”: we don’t get the rental car on time due to the shortage of available cars; the hotels don’t recognize our reservation; my wife, Ligia, doesn’t like the hotel and we get into a tiff with family members in Denver who are staunch MAGA supporters. Maybe it would be better to wait for a month or two until….

One of the lures for this trip would be Indian reservations in Arizona and New Mexico before heading up to Denver for a family gathering.  One of the “triggers” for this decision was reading about the discovery of 160 unmarked graves of Indigenous children found in Catholic boarding schools in Canada.  My wife, Ligia, and I decided we’d explore some of our region’s Indigenous communities (in Arizona alone, 21 tribes are settled on reservations that cover 27% of our state’s land mass).
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As we drove towards the community of Zuni, which has been home for the tribe over 800 years and is one of the largest of New Mexico’s nineteen pueblos with more than 600 square miles, we noticed there were few cars on the road (always a sign of being off the beaten path).  One of its neighboring villages had been visited by Spanish Explorer Francisco Vázques de Coronado, who had been chasing the fabled Seven Cities of Gold.

I turned to Douglas Preston’s, Cities of Gold: A Journey Across the American Southwestfor the backstory of the author’s impressive equestrian trek that followed the steps of Coronado. Preston explores the consequences of the Old World and New World coming together: “It was a flash in time, a sudden, terrifying instant that left both Europeans and the Native Americans forever changed. The peoples of two worlds…were suddenly brought face-to-face. They would attempt to communicate in strange words and mute gestures, and almost immediately would begin killing one another…”

As we headed into town, my wife’s first reaction was shock by the poverty we saw driving past shantytown-like hovels.  Trash was strewn everywhere, an abject poverty unlike anything she has ever seen in this country.  Her initial response was, “This can’t be in the U.S.!”

The receptionist at the Zuni Welcome Center greeted us with a reminder to enter with a mask and to have our temperature taken. This seemed reasonable, given how many Native Americans have lost their lives due to Covid, a grim recollection of the death toll that occurred between 1492 and 1600 when 90% of the indigenous populations in the Americas died from such diseases as smallpox, measles, and influenza.  Today, in addition to the Covid epidemic, diabetes has become the most common health ailment on the reservations. Although the welcome center included an excellent overview of the pueblo’s history and culture, the native artwork was on display at various art shops and almost 80% of the families are involved in the creative arts, making it a virtual art colony.
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Just before departing New Mexico, we headed north to the station of the Cumbres and Tolteca railroad on Cumbres Pass, where our travel angel would miraculously appear. I was looking for the community of Cumbres and any sign that would announce a “station,” but we couldn’t locate either. Distracted by two flagmen, who I assumed were stopping traffic for yet more road-work, we whizzed past the entrance and didn’t realize something was wrong for another 15 minutes. Our train was to depart in only twenty minutes. In desperation, I pulled off the highway to ask a driver in a red truck with a bulldog hanging out the window. He told me that he wasn’t from the area and that his map program wouldn’t work due to a lack of Internet connection, but he was pretty sure we’d passed it. With that, he took off in search of the station.

I lost sight of him, but eventually he reappeared in my rear-view mirror, then driving alongside us, he rolled down his window to say that he’d found the station, which was about 10 minutes down the road. I thought it was too late, as the departure time was 2:45 and it was 2:40, but upon arriving at the station we jumped out of the car and, unbelievably, saw the conductor and the train still at the station.  The conductor asked, “Are you the Walkers?”  Our travel angel had found the conductor and said there were two train aficionados on their way, a bit late.  The smiling conductor handed us our tickets and we jumped on to join the other 150 waiting passengers. Our guardian angel had disappeared, so regrettably, we weren’t able to thank him and his faithful bulldog companion.

The train was a narrow gauge built in the 1880s to haul coal and ore out of the San Juan Mountains. We headed from Cumbres pass over vast open valleys filled with multi-colored flowers and spotted several deer and their fawns ambling in the forest below as we climbed to 9,637 feet to Osier, one of the most isolated train stations in the state.

After we returned to the Cumbres station, someone ran up to us and said, “Did you know that you left your car running?”  Sure enough, I had forgotten that these keyless cars need you to push a button to start and push it again to shut down the car, so even though I had the “key” in my pocket, the engine had been idling for over 3 hours! The good news is that when I turned it off and back on, my mileage had increased to an impressive 99 miles to the gallon!

The next day, on our way to Denver, I turned on a local am radio station to find out what this part of rural America is listening to.  I found “America First” radio, created by Sebastian Gorka, former Special Advisor to former President Trump and a Fox News “National Security Strategist.”  I knew about Gorka, a “Trumper” who claims to be on the front lines of the ongoing “Culture War” against the “Left.”  Broadcasters like Gorka who have influenced so many Americans in this part of the country to distrust the Covid vaccine and blame Fauci and the Democrats for mishandling the “Chinese” virus and, of course, to believe that the Jan. 6th capitol riot was a peaceful event.  This parallel reality has its dangerous consequences, as the U.S. vaccination rate is now stalled at 60%, and Covid-19 has become a pandemic of the unvaccinated. These radio programs are always pitching financial planning plans and insurance policies – including one life insurance plan that offers a special program for “smokers…”

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After departing from Denver where we spent time with friends and family (and didn’t mention Trump once!), we decided to take the “back door” into Crested Butte through Buena Vista over Cottonwood Pass, which is now paved and, at more than 12,000 feet, is one of the highest mountain roads in Colorado.   Once over the pass and after taking in the pristine valley and boundless peaks, I decided to take the dirt road to Tin Cup – at 10,000 feet, it was the supply camp for mines in Spring Creek and had a population of 1,500 people in the 1880s. I learned about this unique little town from Duane Vandenbusche’s, The Gunnison Country. Duane was my favorite professor at Western State College and has written many books on the region. He’s now the State Historian for Colorado, with the longest tenure of any professor. I wrote an article about him in last year’s “Crested Butte News.”

From Tin Cup we drove to Almont, a trout fishing resort on the confluence of the East and Taylor Rivers that form the Gunnison River. Heading north, a half hour later we reached Crested Butte, the alpine community where I’d managed multi-room Victorian homes for students and skiers in the early 1970s in order to pay tuition. I wrote about how things had changed in two articles for the “Crested Butte News”

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After several eventful days in the Alpine village of Crested Butte during their annual Wildflower Festival, we planned to head out for Telluride but our plans changed when we learned of multi hour-long delays on highway 50 to Montrose and that the alternative route, twisty highway 92, might also be dangerous when filled with tourists and RVs trying to avoid the delays.  So, I took our Nissan Sentra over Kebler pass, which reaches over 10,000 feet, not anticipating a worse danger: muddy, slippery patches of road.

The slightest miscue could send us off the side and a AAA rescue would not be an option since no Internet connection was to be found. We were one of the only non-high clearance vehicles on the road and just as I began thinking of the worst scenario, a lady in a white Mini Cooper zipped by going the other way and I thought, “Thank God, I’m not the only idiot driving over this slippery pass in a low clearance sedan!” Less than two hours later, several large ranches appeared and soon we were safely on dry asphalt and once again in Paonia.

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The last leg of our trip home took us through Shiprock, New Mexico and some of the iconic, stark rock formations along the high desert before reaching Gallup and then on to Holbrook. On our way through Payson, we hit a torrential storm, which totally cleaned our car, including the telltale mud on the undercarriage.

Overall, we’d gone from 900 feet to the towering 14,000-foot peaks of the Collegiate range in Colorado and several 9-10,000-foot passes; from 115 to 50-degree temperatures – a cool 65 degree difference from where we started our journey. We explored numerous cultures from Native American to the immigrants who mined the ore and built the railroads of New Mexico and Colorado. We’d dealt with the different restrictions and changing expectations of Covid by keeping a mask handy and showing our vaccination card when necessary; and we successfully reconnected with family and friends despite a considerable worldview gap.  And we overcame many bad decisions and poor planning, resulting in an inspiring, mind-boggling trek through the Southwest. We’d left our reticence to travel behind and have already begun planning our next journey (Guatemala?).

But in the end, our home – the two Airedales, the grandkids, our children – were all awaiting our return.  We breathed a collective sigh of relief and joy when we pulled into our home in Scottsdale after completing a 2,100-mile journey in ten days.  It was not just an adventure.  And, as this post-pandemic trek ended, the words of Robert Frost came to mind,
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

My Writing and Reviews

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My latest article in Revue MagazineCrossing Borders, Building Bridges: A Journalists Heart in Guatemala, has been updated and includes a comment section–so please check out the article and let me know what you think.’m working on the full version of this essay, The Yin & Yang of Travel: Post-Pandemic, which I’ll submit to the Solar Award for Best Travel Writing that recognized one of my essays last year, as well as several literary travel magazines. And I’m still looking for an agent and publisher for The Moritz Thomsen Reader: His Books, His Letters and his Legacy Told by the Writers Who Knew Him Best.
Voice of the Day
Books are the mirrors of the soul.” Virginia WoolfWhat Others Are Saying About Us
“Here is a list of possible funding places. I wish you all the best, you are a fighter.” Victor Montejo, Maya author and intellectual as well as a collaborator for our documentary, “Trouble in the Highlands.”“Thanks for the update, Mark. Hope you have good luck in the fundraising for this project. Timing couldn’t be better to produce this documentary to shed light on the struggles of the campesinos living in the Highlands.”  –Cliff Nagel, resident of Guatemala and professional photographer.

“What a trip! You covered more miles on the ground in those weeks than I’ve done in the last year and a half. I’ve been to a few of the places you write about, and the piece calls up both memories and thoughts that I might head back to the Southwest sometime, to breathe in that landscape again.”  – John Thorndike, on the article I’m working on now, Returned Peace Corps Volunteer/El Salvador and author of A Hundred Fires in Cuba.

September 9th: I’ll be the guest speaker at ASU’s Peace Corps Prep student’s “Life Long Learning” program. I’ll focus on the future of the Peace Corps and reflect on my own journey in the arena of International Affairs. Fellow RPCV and Principal Lecturer international leadership and Interdisciplinary Studies, Dr. Jessica Hirshorn has invited me to speak to her class for the last two years.

All 60 book reviews and 28 articles, plus several videos, are at “Follow” me on Twitter., @millionmile_wal Facebook for the latest on international affairs and literature. And, as always, if you’ve read “Different Latitudes: My Life in the Peace Corps and Beyond,” by all means, rate it on Amazon, Barnes & Noble and GoodReads, or if you don’t have it, please consider purchasing it.


Mark D. Walker

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