Monday, July 14, 2008

The Praying Mechanic

On our way back from Yellowstone one fall, we decided to detour through the Badlands. A dozen miles south of Wall, South Dakota, we spotted some goats high on a butte, and I pulled over to check them out. My daughter Maggie was only four years old and needed a little exercise anyway. I was at the top of a steep grade. It was a beautiful autumn morning, and everything seemed right with the world. I was hauling a 31-ft. Airstream travel trailer with "Old Blue" our old Chevy Suburban with a lot of miles on its 350 engine. It had been having a hard time pulling in the mountains on that trip, and I was looking forward to some flat land driving. After enjoying the view and watching the goats, we climbed back into our rig and started down the grade into the heart of the Badlands. The engine began to knock as if it were doing all it could to throw a rod. I coasted into a scenic pull out at the bottom of the grade and sat there wondering what to do. I have discovered from past experience that with automobile mechanical problems, the first thing you always do is lift the hood and stare at the engine. I don't know why this is. It must be mind over motor or something because everyone does it. I stared at it for several minutes and concluded that I didn't have a clue what was wrong with it. As I continued to stare, a small-size Toyota pickup pulled up, and an old mountain man-looking character jumped out and hurried over to my truck.
"What's the problem, son?"
"I'm not sure. My engine just started knocking like a woodpecker."
"Fire it up and let me listen."
I thought, "Great, here's a guy who understands motors! He can help me." I started the engine and hurried back under the hood to hear the diagnosis.
"Yep, she's knocking all right!"
"Well, thanks," I said. "At least now I know I'm not just hearing things."
The old man started back to his truck. "I've got a tow rope. I'll pull you back to Wall."
"I don't think your pickup will haul this Suburban up that grade."
"Oh, yeah. It's a diesel. It will pull the teeth right out of your head."
Again, I thought, "Oh, great! Now he's a dentist."
We dropped the trailer out in the middle of the Badlands, hooked the truck to the little diesel pickup and as the old man and his grandson hauled us back up the steep grade, diesel fumes were blowing out both sides of the "Little Truck That Could."
They pulled us all the way into Wall, and we found the only mechanic in town. He couldn't look at the engine for a half hour, so we all milled around under the hood and stared some more. We began to find out more about our rescuer. He was videotaping us, so he could show his wife when he and his grandson got back to Tennessee. We found out that he was a retired Baptist minister, and he and his grandson had been traveling around the West, talking to youth groups and sleeping in churches all summer.
They couldn't stay while we waited for the mechanic, but they said they would like to say a little prayer over the engine. So Gaila, Maggie and I held hands with our two new friends and huddled in front of the truck while the old man prayed about our problem.
Soon they bid us goodbye and there we sat, just down the street from Wall Drug, still staring at our broken, but now blessed truck.
The mechanic finally found time to come out and listen to the knocking in the engine and quickly said, "No question! It's a rod."
"We're a long way from Michigan. What do you think we should do?" I asked nervously.
"Well, I've seen them go five miles, and I've seen them go another 50,000. If I were you, I would put some heavyweight oil in it and head for Michigan."
Since I had about enough money left to buy a nickel glass of water at Wall Drug, that sounded like the most fiscally feasible thing we could do. I bought some heavyweight oil, poured it in, and we headed back into the Badlands. Just a few miles outside of Wall, things got real quiet. The knocking had stopped, and the engine started purring like a tomcat in a creamery. We hooked onto the trailer and made it all the way back home. We then drove that truck for another four years and sold it to a farmer who wanted the engine to drive a wind turbine.
I told my wife, Gaila, "Had I realized the full potential and power of prayer, I would have asked for a paint job too!

Sunday, July 13, 2008

When the World Goes Mad

This is from the Fall of 2001 but still worth remembering

When the world goes totally mad—as it has lately—I find a peacefulness in the quiet woods. Between issues, I have spent a good amount of time putting wood in for the winter ahead, hiking along Michigan two-tracks under the brilliant shading of autumn's palette and savoring the blink of Indian summer that is so short but so memorable.Instead of dwelling on the sadness and pain of the events of September 11 I have concentrated more on the heroism and self-sacrifice that took place that day. There are thousands of deeds buried in the rubble, whose stories will never be told. But the details are not as important as understanding and appreciating the courage of the human spirit that we know shone brightly that day.It is important that we realize, the world is full of a wonderful, diversified mixture of people and cultures. We are all very different and yet we are basically the same. The world is populated with good people, yet it seems the cruel get most of the publicity. Now, more than ever, we need to focus our attention on those who shine with the spirit of human compassion. We should live by the example, and with the courage, of one missing New York firefighter whose brother said, "If it happened all over again, my brother would run right back into that building and right back up those stairs." The reason the ongoing experiment of democracy has been successful has much less to do with the rules than with the players.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Mahala Ashley Dickerson

During our ten years of traveling around North America, Gaila and I had the opportunity to meet some of the nicest people on the planet. One that we stayed in touch with was Mahala Ashley Dickerson. Gaila met her at the college swimming pool the summer we worked in Anchorage, Alaska. She was an Alaskan Pioneer. She had come to Alaska with her young triplet sons in 1958. She was Alaska’s first African-American lawyer and practiced until she was 91. She told us the story of land grant officials telling her there was no land available where she wanted to homestead. She said a man from Tennessee spoke up and said, "Why don’t you show her the land you just showed me up in Wasilla?" She wondered if that was a blessing or a curse while she was trying to raise her boys and meet the criteria of the homestead act. To claim your land you had to build a cabin and be growing your own food on the land within two years. She not only did that but also started her law practice in 1959 in Anchorage and became known as an advocate for the poor and took on many cases involving discrimination.
Every December for 25 years we would recieve an invitation to Mahala’s Office Christmas Party. In December of 2006 it did not arrive. On Febuary 27th, 2007 Governor Sarah Palin ordered state flags to be lowered to half-staff, in honor of Mahala Ashley Dickerson. She died on her land in Wasilla at the age of 94. Alaska has lost a true pioneer," said Governor Palin.
I loved to listen to Mahala’s stories. She was a firebrand when action was called for, yet soft spoken, sweet and very smart. In the explosive years leading up to the Civil Rights Era, Mahala seemed to be everywhere history was being made. She was raised in the South before the era of civil rights. She grew up in Alabama on a plantation owned by her father. She attended a private school, Miss White’s School, where she began a lifelong friendship with Rosa Parks, who would become a hero of the civil rights movement.
Mahala was the first African American female to be admitted to the Alabama State Bar, the second African American female admitted in Indiana and the first African American admitted in Alaska. She spent the war years at the Tuskekee Air Base.
Dickerson often took clients who didn’t have the means to pay, said Leroy Barker, the historian for the Alaska State Bar Association, who practiced law with Dickerson in the 1960s.
"I don’t think anybody thought of her as a black woman lawyer; she was just a lawyer," he said. "I think she worked very hard to get where she was, and she was a strong personality."
Joshua Wright, an Anchorage dentist, was a friend of Dickerson from the time she moved to Alaska. He remembered her as "a fighter."
"When she was younger, oh, God, when she got on a roll, you better clear out the room," he said, laughing. One lawyer was qouted as saying, "Rex, you see those mountains out there? Those mountains are littered with the bones of lawyers who underestimated M. Ashley Dickerson."
In 1995, she was awarded the Margaret Brent Award from the American Bar Association, an honor also given to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sandra Day O’Connor.
Her son Chris said their mother encouraged them to follow whatever dream they might have."She said, ‘Follow it. Be a poet if you want to be a poet.’ That was her philosophy," Chris said.
Chris, however, did not become a poet. He became the first African American Mr. America in 1970 and Mr. Olympia in 1982, at the age of 43, he became the oldest winner of the sport’s most prestigious title.
I can remember getting a bottle of ketchup out of Mahala’s pantry at the homestead one day and spying this large bottle of vitamins with a picture of this black body builder on the label. The guy had a V-shaped body that rippled with muscle. I said, "Mahala, who’s this guy?" She said, "Oh, that’s my son, he’s Mr. America."
Mahala wanted us to spend the winter at her cabin on the homestead property. If I had to do it all over again I would have agreed. At the time I was thinking it would be dark all winter and I would go stir crazy with not much to do. I convinced Gaila we should head out of Alaska and spend the winter in Arizona, which is what we did. Mahala’s property was beautiful, we left on a gorgeous September, Indian summer day. The two-track roads leading into her property were signed "Hollywood and Vine."
The world is full of extraordinary people. Mahala lived life to the fullest and inspired many others to do the same. They say adversity builds character. In Mahala’s case that could not be more true.
Mahala’s life story can be found between the pages of her autobiography Delayed Justice for Sale.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

How to Outrun a Grizzly Bear (NOT)

I was through hiking the Great Divide Trail from Glacier National Park, Montana to Jasper Alberta, Canada in 2001. I stopped just before dark and cooked a meal right on the trail. A half hour down the trail I found a beautiful campsite along Dutch Creek and set up my tent. No-see-ums were swarming about me en masse as I hung my food bag on the opposite side of the creek. On most nights I would sleep under my rain shelter only. With this horde of insects, I decided it would be wise to erect my tent inside the rain-fly if I wanted a good night’s sleep. I piled everything near the tent, threw it all inside, dove in myself and zipped the mesh door behind me.It was fortunate that the bugs were menacing that evening, forcing me into the added protection of my fine-screened inner tent. I awoke suddenly in the early morning hours to a grunting sound outside my tent. With the fly open I had a clear view of a large male grizzly pacing back and forth, shaking his head and grunting as if he were irritated. Instead of grabbing my bear spray (I now use Counter Assault Bear Pepper Spray) I grabbed my camera and completely opened the aperture in hopes of getting some pictures in the low light. I held it against the fine mesh tent wall and shot a roll of film. After exhausting the film, I became concerned and started thinking about items that were still in my pack next to me in the tent vestibule. Fragrant things that should have been in the food bag, like baby wipes and toothpaste, were still in pack pockets and might be reason for this abrupt wake-up call. I decided it would be smart to subtly let the bear know I was in the tent, if he hadn’t figured it out already. I first cleared my throat. When that had no effect I coughed a couple times very loudly. The bear continued to pace and violently shake his head. What I did next could be better protection than bear spray. It worked so well I have had thoughts of sharing the procedure with the Forest Service. I took a deep breath and began to sing as loud as I could, “I’m in the mood for love. Simply because you’re near me. Funny but when you’re near me. I’m in the mood for love.” That bear went up the trail like a rocket leaving the Cape. He must have thought, “This guy not only smells bad, he’s horny.” The problem was, I had to go up this same trail a half hour later after breaking camp. I never saw the bruin, or any sign of him again. I’m not sure if it was my voice or my choice of material, but the results were amazing. I whistled my way up the trail just to let him know I was coming.

Other methods I use with great success:

1. Robert Service Poetry. Bessie's Boil works best. It's a long poem, recite it loud. Grizzly's hate it. I have never had one bother me during a rendition of any Robert Service poem.

2. I poetry isn't your forte, try whistling. It's better than bells. Bells are useless. The Canadian Forest Service did a study using bear bells along grizzly game trails. Observing the bears while ringing the bells they noticed the bears never reacted at all. The thought was that the bears equated the sound of the bells with birdsong.

3. For thirty years before I began carrying bear spray, I carried a sawed-off road flare. What do animals fear more than hot, phosphorate fire?
I spent a July morning in 1999 helping the park service look for a lost hiker in Yellowstone's Heart Lake Geyser Basin. It was during my CDT (Continental Divide Trail) thru-hike. The two backcountry rangers I was working with noticed I didn't carry bear spray. When they asked what I did use I told them about my flare.
They laughed uncontrollably and asked me if I had ever had to use my flare. "No," I replied—a little indignant.
Still chuckling they said, "What are you going to do if you pull out that flare and the bear keeps coming?"
"I’m going to use it as a suppository and outrun him." I said, " What are you two going to do with that bear spray if it doesn’t work?"
People are now more inclined to take their chances using bear spray. This method works best if you keep your composure while five-hundred pounds of muscle, blood and bone charge you like a freight train. You have to wait until the bear is right in your face (to be sure he’s not bluffing), then irritate him just a little more with pepper spray.

4. Get into the fetal position (I call this the fatal position) cover your neck with your hands, tuck your head and kiss your ass goodbye.

5. Do not try to outrun a griz. They can cover a football field in seven seconds. Don't try climbing a tree if the bear is charging. A kid in Idaho did that in 1936. His experience should teach us all that a griz can snag you out of a tree quicker than you can swat a mosquito. The kid was just tying his horse to a tree to do a little fishing. The bear charged and he started up the tree. The bear started up the tree with him and tore his right buttocks clean off. The boy survived the mauling but was known for the rest of his school years as "Half-Ass."
6. Bear spray is probably your best bet. They say you have to get the pepper spray into the bears mouth, nose and eyes. I can tell you this: Sept. of 2007 I was doing a 200 mile loop in Glacier National Park. I spent the night camping alone at the far end of Elizabeth Lake on the north side of Ptarmigan Tunnel. I decided to get up in the dark, break camp, eat breakfast and be ready to hike at first light. Something had been pawing around the tent all night. I assumed it was deer. My first chore after crawling out of my tent was to get water for breakfast. I started down to the lake with my headlamp leading the way. I decided maybe I should carry my bear spray since it was dark and a little brushy along the trail to the lake. When I reached the lake, two things caught my attention. First, I heard some faint rustling in the brush to my left. This prompted me to pull the safety off my bear spray. Second, a trumpeter swan was floating just off shore in the moonlight, about 15 feet out. I spotted the swan as soon as I had passed through the tunnel the day before. You don’t have to be an avid birdwatcher to ID something the size of a trumpeter. Even from the top of the mountain I knew what it was as soon as I noticed a white spot floating in the lake below me. I was concentrating on the swan and not paying attention to what I should have been doing. I slipped the bear spray into my pocket and bent down to fill my GatorAid bottle with water. I heard an odd noise and came up quickly to listen—everything seemed quiet. I bent down again and heard the same noise—pssssst. Then all hell broke loose. The noise was my bear spray going off in my pocket. FIRE IN THE HOLE! Within seconds the oily concoction of Cayenne Pepper had set my world on fire. I was out of my clothes in seconds and into the lake. It cured my knee problems. I didn’t even know I had knees. I was doing an Indian War Dance in the lake, the swan was blushing and I was howling at the moon. I ran up to the tent and grabbed my packet of baby wipes. The alcohol in the wipes helped put out the fire. I felt like an idiot. I looked like an idiot. I knew if my wife was along she would say it was just another Pre-Dick-Ament. My clothing was shot. This stuff will never come out. I carefully wrapped them all in a garbage bag and duct taped it shut. I cleaned up completely with more baby wipes and finally started breakfast. While eating my oatmeal my lips started burning. My first thought was, “I must have sunburned my lips coming over the pass yesterday.” No, it was bear spray. I have no idea where it was coming from but it was moving up into my nose and sinuses. I needed to stick baby wipes in one ear and pull it out the other just to clear my head. I have always heard that you need to wait until a bear is right in your face and then shoot the bear spray into the nose and eyes. I don’t believe that any longer. From now on I’m going for the undercarriage. Truth is, I will never pull the safety off my bear spray again unless a bruin is chewing on my leg. For the rest of the trip I could smell cayenne pepper on all my gear. At night it seemed to fill my tent. Maybe there was some health benefit to this wild scenario. My legs felt pretty good all day.
--Keep Smilin', Dick E. Bird

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Self Publishing

It has finally happened. We have decided to not only self-publish our book Crossing the Divide but also self-produce it. Technology is quickly changing the publishing industry. When we started The Dick E. Bird News in 1987 it was possible because an inexpensive Apple computer allowed a small press to easily typeset and quickly change its composition. It was the desktop publishing revolution. But we were still a long way from the desktop output revolution. In the early years I had to drive 250 miles south to Detroit with my electronic file to output it on a $50,000 linotronic machine. The Middle Eastern couple that owned it, didn’t know how to operate it. They told me to read the manual and print my own pages. With pages in hand I still had to cut and paste graphics. Pictures needed to be screened before using them. Eventually Apple came out with desktop laser printers and I found printing businesses within a 100 miles that would do our output. Finally I bought a black & white Apple Laser printer for $6,000 that would output pages right on our own desktop. I just threw that boat anchor away last year. If I would have bought Apple stock instead of Apple stuff, I would be rich today—But no, I bought STUFF!
Our first computer came with 1 MB of memory. You can’t even turn your computer on with 1 MB today. But in 1986 it was big time stuff. Eventually scanners replaced all the cutting and pasting and gave us control of graphics output. Broadband connections allowed me to stay in bed on the morning we went to press instead of driving 60 miles through early morning Lake Michigan snowstorms, dodging deer. Today we just push a button on the computer and the paper is delivered as simple as an email.
Desktop publishing still has a way to go before it allows the individual to truly be the Captain of his own writing craft. Several years ago we started hearing about POD (Print On Demand). In theory it sounded good but most companies offering inexpensive short run book printing, using new laser printing technologies, were nothing more than the old Vanity Press industry preying on people who wanted to be authors at any price.
Several things need to fully evolve before self-publishing becomes a reality. Some of those factors are now beginning to emerge. Quality full color desktop laser printers are now available for under $500. Everything you need to know about perfect binding a book you learned in kindergarten. Building a book is nothing more than a craft project. When building your own book you end up with better quality. Until I started exploring the possibility of manufacturing our own books, I had no idea that my books published by Doubleday and Warner were built using cheap paper and cost cutting methods that show up as faded and curled pages.
Once you get over all the hurdles of writing, proofing, typesetting, printing and binding your labor of love—you still have to market it. This has always been the Achilles’ heel of self-publishing. But take heart—things are changing.
First, a little history. I can tell you from experience that hooking up with the big boys is no guarantee your work is aggressively marketed or marketed period. I received six figures up front for my books published by Doubleday and Warner, Birdfeeding 101 and Nuts About Squirrels. That alone made me think the books would get proper attention, if for no other reason, to assure the publisher would earn a return on his investment.
I was totally shocked when the books were given zero exposure. The publishing industry produces books much like mud pies. They throw them all against the wall to see which ones stick. I never met my New York agent but eventually she stopped calling me—she said I "Vented too much." I had lost control of my babies—sold them actually. Although the money was great it still bothered me that my children were not being properly cared for. The only front and center attention my books would get turned out to be when I was baby-sitting them. Coming out of a Seattle Barnes and Noble store after doing a book signing I stood admiring the entrance tables decked out in Dick E. Bird Books. I said to the manager, "How long will this display remain here?" She laughed and said, "Until you leave the store." That is the reality of the book business. It’s like any other business venture— "What have you done for me lately?"
Book signing and speaking engagements are a great way to market your own book. Book stores are always looking for free entertainment. Setting up your own book tour is as easy as making a few phone calls and setting up a schedule. The downside is you have to answer every question your audience throws at you. I did a bird program and signing at Powells Bookstore in Oregon for kids once. One little guy was there with his mother and I could tell by his body language that he was full of enthusiasm. He had his hand up with a question before I even introduced myself. I called on him and he asked, "How come you’re so old and your wife is so young?" As his mother was dragging him out by the ear I said, "I think it has something to do with Miss Clairol."
The garden variety vanity press has always been good at convincing anxious writers that they can market books as well as the big boys. Well, that’s true. They’re lousy at it too. The vanity press business is called that for a reason. They know people want to see their hard work in print. They make money if the well produces oil or not. They are a packaged printing deal making their profit from printing, proofing, artwork and design services. But when it is all said and done, you have a garage full of books to sell and they are on to the next victim.
Emerging today is a smorgasbord of electronic book marketing programs that you can choose from to make your book available to the world. Don’t get me wrong. You still have to do all the leg work and market your own masterpiece. The difference is that if someone decides they would like to buy your book they don’t have to come to your garage to get it anymore.
Most Print on Demand pricing structures are too high, even in volume, to make any money wholesaling books to retailers. This leaves you one option—selling direct. Building your own books can make all the difference in whether you make any money in the small margin book publishing business.
So even though it is not a perfect publishing world yet, we have decided to push the envelope a bit and set up our own publishing empire. We are starting with Crossing the Divide. We also have the rights back to Birdfeeding 101 and Nuts About Squirrels. Then I was thinking a great title would be–Why Am I So Old, And MY Wife Is So Young.
—Keep Smilin’, Dick E. Bird