Thursday, August 28, 2008


I learned a new word recently that described me perfectly—SHUNPIKING. That’s right, I’m a shunpiker. The term shunpiking comes from the word "shun", meaning to avoid, and "pike," a term referring to turnpikes. Gaila and I spent years traveling Blue Highways long before William Lest Heatmoon ever published his 1983 journal. Blue highways, dotted highways and dirt roads is where you really find adventure. Shunpiking does come with its challenges. I can remember several times wishing I would have stayed on the hard road.
One memorable adventure started innocently enough. I was sitting in our trailer parked along the Okalawaha River outside of Ocala, Florida, reading an article in Trailer Life magazine about a road to Snow Lake in the Gila National Forest in New Mexico. It sounded so interesting I told Gaila we should go there. The trouble started when she said, "Okay, lets go!"
We arrived in May and started up the road on a gorgeous day. The sun was shining, birds were singing, flowers were growing—picture perfect. It was a logging road for the first 20 miles or so and we would get a thrill when massive trees on wheels would come barreling around blind corners. Truckers looked at us like we were nuts for pulling our trailer up the mountain. Our next road block was a sea of livestock across the road in a beautiful meadow. I eased in thinking they would scatter but it didn’t work that way. They surrounded the car and trailer and just stared at us through the windows. They must have thought we were bringing feed. They wouldn’t move. We sat there for an hour bordered by beef.
By late in the afternoon we finally arrived at the lake. The primitive campsites were not well marked and the loop road into the campground became narrow with no way to turn around. The trailer bottomed out on a hairpin switch-back and our land yacht was stuck on the mountain equivalent of a sandbar. Gaila has a term for these occasions. She calls them Pre-Dick-a-ments.
I dug out the tires, jacked up the axles, stuffed boards under my wheels and adjusted my hitch weight to throw more onto the rear axle of the truck. When I finally got forward momentum I knew I couldn’t stop until I made it back to the main road. Around the next bend sat a large boulder. I made a quick decision to take the whole rig off-road and cut through to where the road straightened out once more. I gambled on not taking my oil pan out on a hidden rock or dropping into a hole. It was really a stupid move but it worked. So far the adventure wasn’t working out as nicely as the article.
We found a site and parked the trailer in a calendar setting that was covered with two feet of wet snow by morning. I said to Gaila, "When does spring come to New Mexico, anyway?"
We sat in the trailer and watched it snow for two days, knowing we were going nowhere until it all melted away. It wasn’t boring. We were nestled into a beautiful setting, had books to read, plenty of propane for heat and cooking, and a cat to doctor. We aren’t animal doctors, but my wife likes to pretend she’s a veterinarian. Our cat, Jogger, had a large abscess taking over his chin. It looked like it needed cutting. Gaila consulted with me and I agreed. The patient was not all that cooperative. As we prepared for this back-country operation it had to be decided who was going to hold the cat and who was going to lance the abscess. Because Gaila holds a pretend DVM degree, I was designated the holder. Holding a cat during a simple office procedure like this actually involves a lot of wrestling. I felt really bad when I saw all the blood—knowing most of it was my own. Soon it was over and successful, although the cat did not warm up to either one of us for several days I was sure he would someday appreciate the fact that we were looking out for his best interest.
A couple days of snow and the sun came once again and turned the mountain meadows into glorious spring splendor. Although we enjoyed our unscheduled extended stay we decided to head for lower elevation in case the weather decided to do winter again.
Now here comes the strangest part of this whole story. I’m not saying we had a spiritual encounter or a peek into the past. I am just going to describe what we both saw coming down the mountain at about 40 m.p.h. Not far off to the right side of the logging road, up in the boulders, mounted on a Paint horse, was Geronimo. I don’t mean it was really Geronimo but the rider was Native American, short headdress, holding a spear in an oil canvas pose. We went by so quickly I thought I must have been mistaken. I looked at Gaila and she said, "Did you see the Indian on the horse?" We couldn’t stop if we wanted to. The road was muddy and we were heading down the mountain in second gear. If I had to do it over I would have stopped the rig and walked back up the road to see what this guy was all about. It has been a mystery for thirty years that we often recollect. Just part of the adventure when you go SHUNPIKING. —Dick E. Bird

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