Author Archives: Blaize Sun

About Blaize Sun

I live in my van, which makes me a rubber tramp. I like to see places I've never seen before, and I like to visit the places I love again and again. I like to play with color. I make collages and hemp jewelry and cheerful winter hats. I take photographs and (sometimes, not in a long time) write poetry. All of those things make me an artist. Although I like to spread joy and to make people laugh, my wit can be sharp. I try to stay positives in all situations, to find the goodness in all people. But I often feel compelled to point out bullshit when I smell it. I like to have fun, to dance, to eat yummy food, to sit by a fire and share stories. I want to know what people hold dear and important, not just make surface small talk. This blog is a way for me to share stories. This blog is made up of my stories, rants, and observations, as well as my photographs.

Smelly People

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I’ve been around the block. I’ve seen and heard some weird things during my time working on the mountain. There was the Forest Service Law Enforcement Officer who joked about packing out a funeral urn he was dispatched to pick up after it was abandoned on a popular trail of giant sequoias across the street from the parking lot where I collected access fees. I’ve been asked stupid questions,and I once found a dead man in the campground where I ended up living. I didn’t think I could encounter anything weirder than what I’d already experienced, but of course I did.

It was a busy Sunday afternoon at the Mercantile. I was running the cash register, so I just stayed behind the counter between customers. A young man and a young woman—probably in their early 20s came up to the counter. They were only buying a couple of little things, but before the transaction was complete, the young man burst out with You must hate putting up with smelly people all day!

He’d directed his statement mostly to the other clerk who was standing next to me behind the counter.

I think the statement was so weird to me because it came out of nowhere. We hadn’t been discussing odors or stink or smelly people. Nothing at all had been said about smells. No funky people had been lingering in the store as far as I could tell. To the best of my knowledge, no olfactory affronts had taken place. I honestly had no idea about what or whom this young man was talking. Why were smelly people on this man’s mind? Why was he mentioning them to us? Maybe because the store was in a campground and he associated camping with not taking a shower he thought everyone who came into the store was going to smell bad.

My two coworkers and I rushed to assure him that smelly people were not on our list of annoyances. 99 problems, but smelly folks ain’t one, I wish I would have thought to tell him.

When he and the woman left, I couldn’t stop shaking my head. That was the weirdest thing I’ve ever heard up here, I said to my coworkers, and that was saying a lot.

A Guide to Winter Camping : Stay Warm, Have Fun (Guest Post)

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A travel trailer sits in the snow near a leafless tree. A lake is in the background. The sky is blue with grey clouds up high and puffy white clouds down low.

It’s February–the height (or some would say the low) of winter in the northern hemisphere. If you’re longing to camp, but you’re worried you’ll be miserable out in the cold and the snow, read this guide!. You don’t have to wait until the warmth of spring melts the snow to stay overnight in the great outdoors. Just use some of the following tips from Danny Smith, CEO and Founder of Xtend Outdoors, to stay warm and have fun while winter camping.

You might wonder why anyone would want to camp in the winter. Some folks like winter camping because camping areas are too crowded in the summer. Some campers want to feel the serenity of a perfect winter wonderland. The season of ice and snow is certainly visually amazing with stunning landscapes, such as ice-covered rivers and lakes. Some people really do love winter camping.

If you love to chill in the hills, be it cold weather hiking, playing in snow, or admiring the beauty of the snowflakes, camping in winter is worth a try.

Cold weather camping is an adrenaline-charged experience if you enjoy the thrill of extreme cold and lots of snow. However, if you are not prepared, winter camping can be end up being less than fun. Cold weather camping is challenging. To set yourself up for a successful winter campout, you’ll have to have knowledge of seasonal changes. You’ll also have to get some winter equipment to survive in cold temperatures. If you’re a beginner winter camper, then choose a location that’s easy to get to and plan a trip of only a few days.

Follow these winter camping tips and tricks to make your winter camping adventure a success whether this is your first cold weather trip or your fiftieth!

Essential winter camping equipment

How do you avoid being cold? You’ll need to do some preparation before you go camping in the winter. Having the perfect winter camping clothes and equipment can reduce the hassle that cold temperatures bring. The level of planning will be one of the critical factors in the success of your adventure.

You have to think sensibly about the weather condition you will be in. Buy the camping gear that suits you properly.   Read up on selecting the right gear for you.  Don’t rush in and buy something without knowledge, or you may end up with equipment that won’t suit you and your camping style. 

I suggest you have the following equipment before you go off on your winter camping adventure.

1) Bivy Sack or Tent  Having a waterproof bivy sack can guarantee you a warm, good night’s sleep. If you’re hiking to your camping spot, it’s much more comfortable and lighter to carry compared to cold weather tents. But if you’re a bit claustrophobic, then a winter tent is probably more suitable. You can also bring a tarp for additional shelter or cover.

2) Boots  A sturdy pair of boots will work as a shield in freezing weather condition. Moreover, it will protect your feet from the serious threat of frostbite. Protecthing your toes should be a high priority while camping in winter.

3)  Communication Device  When you are in hills, your cell phone network may be limited or possibly nonexistent. One of the best ways to communicate with others in your group is by using a two-way radio. Using  a satellite phone with GPS features would also be quite helpful if you already have this device or can afford to buy one.

4)  Navigation System and Paper Maps How will find your route when your batteries run out? It will be best to have a compass and a paper map in your hand to help you navigate in the wilderness.

5) Sleeping Bags Having a good and reliable sleeping bag will keep you warm and protected while you sleep. Choose a sleeping bag that is water-resistant and offers exceptional insulation.

In addition to equipment you would take on any camping trip (sanitation supplies, food and cooking supplies), other pieces of critical cold weather camping gear you need are  wool pants, fire starters, ski mask, insulated water bottles, warm jacket or coat, and socks made for winter wear.

Winters Camping Hacks

Make a Hot Water Bottle. Sleeping when you’re cold is not easy. Before getting into your cozy sleeping bag, warm it with a hot water bottle. Heat snow to the boiling point. Fill your bottle with the boiling snow water. Wrap the bottle in wool clothes, then zip it into your sleeping bag for fifteen minutes. The hot bottle will warm up your sleeping bag and ensure you don’t start the night shivering.

Fire is your friend. Fire is going to be your best friend. After spending the whole day playing in snow, make sure to bring enough of wood, paper, matches, and fire starter to get a good fire going so you can warm yourself.  It is better if you bring wood unless you’re sure you can find some near your camping spot. You don’t want to get out to the wilderness and find you can’t get a fire going.

Use Portable Power Packs.All electronic products drain the battery at a faster pace in the cold, so be prepared. Have a power bank or use lithium batteries. They perform effectively and will last three times as long as your regular ones.

Plan your Meals. Cooking at camp is simple and delicious. New campers sometimes fail to think about meal planning. Be a smart camper, plan your meals.To survive and to maintain the energy level of your body, you need to eat the right amount of calories, proteins, and carbs. Avoid buying munchies. Two days before departure, buy food from the grocery store so it will be fresh when you get to your destination.

Essential Extras

Candles As long as you put it in a safe place, a single candle will warm your tent and cut back on condensation.

Vaseline & creamRubbing it all over the body will help you avoid frostbite and windburn.

  
Wherever you’re going this winter, make sure to leave directions with a friend so that other people know exactly where to find you if you don’t get home when expected. Winter camp activities come with particular challenges, but if you’re well prepared it is no more dangerous, and certainly no less fun, than sleeping under the stars in the summer.

About Author:           

Danny Smith is CEO and Founder of Xtend Outdoors Australia which manufactures and sells caravan annexes, awnings and accessories. He just loves caravan holidays and frequently blogs about caravanning trips, parks and tips.

Please remember that neither Danny Smith nor Blaize Sun is responsible for your health or safety if you go winter camping. Only you are responsible for your health and safety. Please educate yourself about the danger and challenges of winter camping before you go. Use this article as a starting point for your research.

Photo provided by the author.

You Don’t Belong in This Campground

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It was the Sunday of Labor Day weekend. While the Mercantile had been slow all morning, the parking lot had been hopping since at least 10 o’clock. The Mercantile got busy right at noon, and the shopping barely let up for the next four hours.

At 1:30, I ducked out to eat my lunch, leaving the complete operation of the store in the capable hands of the other clerk. As soon as I stepped off the yurt’s deck, I looked across the small front lot and saw a young woman walking toward Javier the camp host. The young woman was speaking loudly enough for me to clearly hear her say, You don’t even belong in this campground!

I looked around. Surely she was speaking to someone other than Javier. Javier was in full uniform–brown shorts, tan shirt with a collar. If anyone belonged in this campground, it was Javier.

I didn’t hear the first few words Javier said to the woman, but I did hear him tell her, You yelling at me is not going to help me help these people.

As this interaction was happening, I’d been walking toward my van. I took a few steps more so I’d be close if Javier needed some sort of backup or support.

I looked over at the woman who’d told Javier he didn’t belong in the campground. She was young, and appeared to be drunk or under the influence of some drug. Her eyes didn’t seem to be focusing correctly, and her face was contorted, but maybe that was from anger or just the way she looked.

We’re trying to help! she insisted.

A large man was standing off to the side, silent. He was ignoring the woman. Maybe he didn’t didn’t know her. Maybe he wished he didn’t know her.

I looked over at Javier. He was standing in front of a small sports car. I glanced over at the car and realized the driver of the car had somehow driven it up over a very large log set there as a barrier. Now the car’s front passenger tire was on the wrong side of the log. Apparently the driver was having a problem getting the tire back over the log, because Javier was asking the fellow who seemed to belong to the car, Do you think it’s light enough  for a bunch of guys to lift it off the log?

At that point the drunk woman seemed to have backed off, and in any case, Javier seemed to be paying her no attention, so I figured my assistance was not needed. I climbed into my van and had some lunch.

Later I asked Javier how they’d released the car from the log. He said a half dozen guys had pushed the car while it was in neutral. It must have been good teamwork because I don’t think the car sat stranded for very long.

How’d they even managed to driver over the log that way? I asked Javier. Let me just repeat, it was a very big log.

Oh, you know, he shrugged, just being themselves.

I probably shouldn’t talk, as just a couple of days before, I backed into a tree and dented my back door. It still closes, and it still locks. The Man says I’m lucky, but I say if I were lucky, I wouldn’t have backed into a tree.

I probably shouldn’t talk, but damn! Driving a little sports car over a big log barrier in a parking lot has got to be a mark of bad driving.

I took this photo.

Why I’m Not Going Back Up That Mountain

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A hand holds the book Confessions of a Work Camper: Tales from the Woods
My book

It was a good run. I worked four seasons on that mountain, a total of 18 months. My first two seasons I was a camp host and a parking lot attendant. (See my book Confessions of a Work Camper: Tales from the Woods for a collection of humorous essays I wrote about my experiences during that time.) The second two seasons I worked at a campground store.

The short answer to why I’m not going back up the mountain comes down to ice. I got tired of making 25 mile round trips to buy overpriced ice. There were two general stores on the mountain that sold ice. One sold eight pound sacks for $3.69, and the other one sold seven pound sacks for $4. Halfway down the mountain a general store sold 10 pounds sacks of ice for $3. In civilization I could get a seven pound sack for 99 cents.

I understand why I had to pay more for ice I bought on top of the mountain. That ice had to be trucked up there. The stores had to pay for the ice, pay to have it transported, and still make a profit. The stores also had to pay for electricity to keep the ice frozen. Believe me, I get it. I think I could have stomached the high prices on ice if I hadn’t had to drive so dang far to get it. Twenty-five miles for a bag of ice is just too far! After I paid for gas and wear and tear on my van and wasted so much of my time (driving 25 mountain miles took about 45 minutes), I shudder to think how much those sacks of ice were really costing me.

You might suggest I do without ice. Sometimes I did, but I love drinking very cold water. If my water’s not cold, I don’t drink enough. Also, ice in a cooler was my only form of refrigeration. When all the ice in the cooler melted, my food (eggs, cheese, produce) was at risk of spoiling; that would have been another waste of money.

A road between trees curves twice.
Driving those mountain miles

Being so far from civilization was a bigger part of the picture of why I’m not going back. I was 60 miles (again, mountain miles) from the nearest Target, Wal-Mart, or supermarket. My third and fourth seasons up there I could access the internet at the store where I worked, so technically I could shop online, but the post office where I picked up my mail was a 25-mile (you guess it, mountain miles) round trip from the campground where I stayed.

Having internet access at the Mercantile did help me stay in touch with friends and family. However, it didn’t help me much when it came to keeping up with my blog. I could only work inside the Mercantile when it was closed. If I wanted to work on my blog on my day off during the eight hours the store was open, I either had to sit on the deck in front of the store in full sun or in my van. Almost every time I tried to work in my van or on the deck, one or more of my coworkers came over to talk to me, usually to complain. What’s a writer to do? The only thing I could think to do was go down to the valley where nobody knew me.

There was a coin laundry on the mountain. It was 25 (mountain) miles away and consisted of one washer and one dryer. I could have gone there to do my laundry. Considering that each week I typically had a load of work clothes and a load of other clothes, it would have taken me a minimum of 1 and 1/2 hours to wash and dry my clothes, plus about 1 and 1/2 hours making the round-trip drive. If I had been doing The Man’s laundry too or if the two of us had been doing our laundry at the same place on the same day, it would have taken five hours, including driving time.

A carved wooden bear holds a welcome sign. It and a wooden chair sit on a wooden deck in front of a yurt.
The front porch of the Mercantile with no shade

Shall I go on? (Feel free to stop reading here if you’ve had enough of my whining.)

My first season working in the Mercantile I decided I liked working there more than I liked working as a camp host and parking lot attendant. The next season I wished I wasn’t working in the store. More of the questions I got in the store seemed substantially dumber than the ones I fielded in the parking lot and campground. People let their children run amuck in the Mercantile and expected me and the other clerks to babysit them. The temperature in the Mercantile rose to over 90 degrees if we weren’t able to use the swamp cooler. Last summer we had a lot of problems with the solar panels and batteries and the generator that powered the store; on many days we had no power to run the swamp cooler. I was overheated a lot last summer and would often stand outside and pour water over my head and neck to try to cool off. If I were working a retail job in civilization, at least I’d be in an air conditioned environment.

The prices of everything in California are freakin’ high. The prices of everything–gas, food, propane, water, (legal) recreational marijuana, auto repairs, tires, other consumer goods, and the taxes on everything–are higher than in Arizona or New Mexico. Yes, minimum wage is high in California, but companies raised their prices to cover the increased expenses when they had to start paying their employees more. (You didn’t think the shareholders were going to take a hit when companies were required to raise wages?)

Looking up the trunk of a giant sequoia to see the top.
A giant sequoia because we could all stand to think about a big tree right now

In the end, I barely broke even while working in California. I managed to save a little money, but not nearly as much as I hoped.

I figure if I’m going to work retail, I can get a job as a cashier in a supermarket or even a Dollar General and at least spend my work shifts in air conditioned comfort. I figure I can go to a tourist town in some state where prices are less than they are in California and not have to spend so much of my wages on survival. I figure I can find a way to live in my van or find a long-term house sitting gig in a town where I can walk or take public transit to the library or a coffee shop when I need to work on my blog.

Four years was a good run, but I think it’s time to try something new.

I took all of the photos in this post.

We Decided on Freedom (an Interview with Blake and Ally)

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The Man met Blake and Ally first, while he was still working in the parking lot at the very popular trailhead on the top of the mountain. They pulled in with Blake at the wheel of their short, white (former) school bus named Gus the Bliss Bus. Ally and Blake wanted to know about the nearby attractions, so The Man sent them down to the Mercantile to get all the info from me. Unfortunately, they overshot the Mercantile by about 10 miles and ended up in a small community where a restaurant, bar, general store, and lodge stand just off the main road. They stopped at the four-in-one building where they thought they’d find me. Instead, they were promptly offered summer jobs. This is the magic of Ally and Blake. They can take a mistake and turn it into sunshine.

Later in the summer, the couple came over to our camp for dinner with me and The Man. A lovely time was had by all. The Man and I were invited into Gus the Bliss Bus and got to see the lifting of the amazing elevator bed and hear toilet system details.

A week before they left the mountain, I had the pleasure of interviewing Blake and Ally under the pines across the street from their place of employment. Unfortunately, that interview was lost when my phone was lost. Thankfully, Ally and Blake agreed to answer my questions again, this time in writing, via email.

In this interview the two of them tell about the best parts of life on the road, how they get alone time, and why they picked their rig.

Rubber Tramp Artist: Whose idea was it to hit the road?

Ally & Blake: Both really! It was a collaboration that came out of us talking about our visions of our ideal future together. We wanted to live life on our own terms which included an abundance of travel, time, and connection.

RTA: Was it difficult to convince the other person to live nomadically? How long did it take?

Ally & Blake: Convincing isn’t the right word for what happened. It was more of a “coming-to-Jesus” moment for both of us. We had talked about this lifestyle as a daydream that felt very far off. What moved us into action was that Ally’s desire to go to chiropractic school did not match up with our mutual financial goals to be debt free. We got real, evaluated what was most important to us at this time in our life and together we decided on freedom.

RTA: What work did each of you do before living nomadically?

Blake has worked a host of jobs from hotel manager to campaign manager to arts director to valet attendant. In 2016, Blake created his own coaching practice and is building a coaching company. 

Ally, had just left her job working as the marketing director at a Chiropractic clinic and was slingin’ waffles at Waffle Brothers while we built the bus.

RTA: What skills from your previous work help you in your nomadic life?

Ally & Blake: Blake can back up that bus like a BOSS!! For both of us, making connections with people is our most valuable skill.

RTA: Y’all are quite a bit younger than many full-time nomads. What do you plan to do with the next 40+ years if you’re essentially retired in your 30s?

Ally & Blake: Blake’s been retired since his 20’s. 😉  We are going to keep following our bliss and utilize our nomadic lifestyle to make it happen. Our future dreams include building a coaching company and retreat centers along with finding creative ways to build community, serve others, and have fun!

RTA: What was the most difficult thing for each of you to give up when you left your conventional life behind?

Ally & Blake: For both of us, it was the feeling of certainty, security and Blake’s Harley VRod. And for Ally, it was the Vitamix.

RTA: What is the make and model of your rig?

Ford E450 Bluebird Microbird (A short Skoolie!)

RTA: Why did y’all choose this rig rather than a similarly sized motor home or a full-size school bus or some other sort of rig?

Ally & Blake: When we had our dog, we were going to build a teardrop trailer; however that meant he couldn’t sleep with us. Our vision expanded, and we looked at vans and buses. Finally we decided on a short bus because they are adorable and realistically we knew the engine was dependable and strong.

RTA: How did you decide on your floor plan?

Ally & Blake: First, we watched a LOT of YouTube videos. Second, we made a list of our need-to-haves. These included a shower, composting toilet, elevator bed, and a wood-burning stove.

RTA: What was the biggest challenge of your build?

Ally & Blake: Too much free beer and Blake’s worst-case-scenarios and over-planning. 😉 There are also SO many options and ways to do everything. We started with bare minimum construction knowledge and committing to one way to do something was nerve-racking and always took 10x longer than expected.

RTA: Tell me about your toilet set up.

Ally & Blake: We did not want to buy a Nature’s Head toilet because our budget did not allow for it. So we built our own! We built a wooden box that was hinged on top to allow access to the inside; we attached a regular toilet seat to the top of the box. There is also a vent from the box to the outside of the bus to keep the smell down. There is a bucket inside the box, as well as a container for urine, and a urine diverter from the UK. We use peat moss (found at Wal-Mart or hardware stores with a garden department like Home Depot) on the bottom of the bucket and use generous amounts to cover the poop. It is an intimate experience and not as bad as we imagined.

RTA: Do either of you ever feel like you can’t spend one more minute in the bus with the other person? How do you remedy the situation?

Ally & Blake: Yes, we have gotten to that point when the bus was broken down for almost three weeks. We each took a LOT of walks. Generally we communicate very well and take alone time where one person is on the bus doing their thing and the other is hanging outside doing theirs! We have learned that we also each need more independence than that. Therefore our goal for 2019 is to get a motorcycle.

RTA: I’d like for each of you to tell me three traits that the other person has that makes for a great vandwelling partner.

Blake says: Ally’s organization, patience and faith are amazing!

Ally says: Blake’s route planning skills, passion for beauty and adventure, and being an excellent and safe driver make him the best bus buddy.

RTA: Do you plan to expand your van family by having kids someday?

Ally & Blake: No. It’s not in the cards right now and not even another dog is feasible for us.

RTA: What are the best parts of your life on the road?

Ally & Blake: The romance of course! 😉 The thrill of seeing new places, meeting new people from all over the world, and being in touch with nature have been the best parts. This lifestyle is much more intimate on every level, and we don’t plan to get off the bus anytime soon.

You can follow Blake, Ally, and Gus the Bliss Buss @skool_of_life on Instagram.

Elder

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It’s not much of a story, really. The Man and I picked up an elderly Native man in Gallup, NM and gave him a ride downtown. It was a small kindness.

We’d left Flagstaff early, before the sun came up. We’d had coffee, but no breakfast. Somewhere after Winslow I announced I’d be pulling into the first Taco Bell we came to. The Man was agreeable. We both like the potato, egg, and cheese Fiesta Potato grilled breakfast burrito Taco Bell sells in the morning. It’s a lot of breakfast for a buck.

Close-up Photo of People Holding Usa FlagletsI think the Taco Bell was off the first eastbound I-40 exit to Gallup. I took the exit, and soon we saw the sign proclaiming the town “The Most Patriotic Small Town in America.”

What does that even mean? we wondered. Who decides such things?

After doing a little research, I found out the distinction was based on a contest sponsored by Rand McNally in 2013-2014. Ken Riege nominated Gallup in that category and did a lot of work to help the town win the honor. You can read the whole story of the contest on the I Am New Mexico website.

We saw the elderly hitchhiker just after we saw the sign. He was obviously Native, with short hair and clean clothes. I though about stopping to give him a ride, but we were only going to the Taco Bell, which wasn’t even half a mile past where he was standing. I hoped some other driver would stop for him and take him where he needed to go.

We had quite an experience at Taco Bell. None of the “open” signs were lit. Was the dining room open? Was the Black And White Photo Of Clocksdrive-thru open? Why was there only one car in the parking lot? Why was caution tape crossing each of the dining room windows? What time was it? Had we experienced a time change when we entered New Mexico? Wasn’t the time in New Mexico an hour ahead of the time in Arizona? It was past 7 am in Arizona and New Mexico, so the Taco Bell dining room should have been open.

Just go through the drive-thru, The Man suggested.

I wanted to order inside for several reasons. I wanted to use the restroom and add ice to my water bottle. I wanted to eat in peace, without Jerico the dog sad-eyeing my breakfast and silently begging for a bite. Also, since the window on the driver’s side of my van doesn’t go down, a trip through a drive-thru is a major hassle. I have to open my door and usually put the van in park and get most of the way out to pay for my purchase and receive my food. It’s a real pain in the neck. But I didn’t know what else to do because the dining room did not appear to be open.

Turns out, we had simply stopped at the slowest Taco Bell I’ve ever seen. There were no customers inside, making it look like the place wasn’t even opened. (The caution tape on the windows was actually part of the Halloween decorations.) No other customers were ahead of us in the drive-thru, and none pulled up behind us. I’m pretty sure the one car in the parking lot belonged to the one worker who took our order, prepared our food, bagged it, handed it to me, took my money, and made change. I guess while Gallup, NM is a hotbed of patriotism, it’s not a hotbed of Taco Bell action, at least not for Saturday morning breakfast.

Once we had our food, I drove around the front of the restaurant and parked on the side of the building. I pointed the nose of the van so the sun wouldn’t be in our faces, and we ended up looking toward the interstate. I could see the hitchhiker was still standing on the side of the road.

No one’s picked up that old man, I said.

We finished our breakfast, and I told The Man that we should go pick up the hitchhiker and drive him wherever he needed to go. We weren’t in any hurry, and The Man and I both think it’s important to help people when we can. The Man agreed that we should help the hitchhiker.

I said I was going into the Taco Bell to use the restroom and put ice in my water bottle. When I come back, we’ll go get that man, I said.

When I returned to the van, The Man was gone. At first I thought maybe he had gone into the Taco Bell to use the restroom too, but when I looked out the windshield, I saw him and the hitchhiker walking on the side of the road, heading towards me. The Man had gone to talk to the hitchhiker to make sure he seemed safe and to find out where he needed to go. By bringing the hitchhiker back to the van, he also saved me from having to make a U-turn and find a place to pull off the road where we could safely load the fellow into the van.

The Man ushered the hitchhiker into the front seat, and he and Jerico sat in the back. I asked the hitchhiker where he needed to go and he said, Just downtown.

I told him I wasn’t familiar with Gallup, and he pointed down the street that ran in front of the Taco Bell, in the direction away from the interstate. No problem, I told him, then proceeded to back the van over one of the parking lot barriers. The van was fine (it’s a beast, after all), and if the hitchhiker was worried about my driving abilities, he didn’t let on. I guess hitchhikers take what they can get.

Route 66 Printed on RoadAs I was driving, I realized we were on Historic U.S. Highway 66 (Route 66). According to the Legends of America website,

Known by several names throughout the years including the “Mother Road,” “Main Street of America,” and the “Will Rogers Highway,” Route 66 served travelers for more than 50 years, before totally succumbing to the “new and improved” interstate system.

Established in 1926, road signs began to be erected the following year, but, it would be several years before the 2,448 mile highway would be continuously paved from Chicago to Los Angeles.

I have a mild fascination with Route 66 and fantasize about driving at least the Arizona portion of it, so I was glad for the historic detour we were on.

It didn’t take us very long to get downtown. It was fun to see a part of Gallup I’d never seen before. (I’ve been through Gallup a few times, but never hung out there and hadn’t spent any time away from the I-40 corridor.) The downtown area looked cute, and I saw a sign for the Rex Museum, a place I’d like to visit. (The Rex Museum’s website says,

Once a brothel and later a grocery, the museum building houses exhibits detailing a wide swath of local history, exploring the culture of the area’s earliest inhabitants, mining and railroad activities through to present-day Gallup.)

The hitchhiker didn’t seem to want to talk much. I made some chitchat, and he gave brief answers to my questions, but I think we had some cultural differences regarding small talk. He did tell me where he wanted to get out, and I was able to pull into an empty parking space so he could safely climb from the van. He thanked us politely and we went our separate ways.

Images courtesy of https://www.pexels.com/photo/close-up-photo-of-people-holding-usa-flaglets-1449057/, https://www.pexels.com/photo/black-and-white-photo-of-clocks-707676/, and https://www.pexels.com/photo/drive-empty-highway-lane-210112/.

Fall from Grace

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I’ve always been clumsy. My father thought it was funny to call me “Grace” because I had none. He also often referred to me as “a bull in a china shop.” My dad wasn’t nearly as funny as he thought he was.

Once in my early 20s I discussed by clumsiness with a friend. She asked if I’d ever considered doing something to counter my clumsiness. I was perplexed. I thought clumsy was my destiny. I wondered what could I possibly do about it. She suggested I take up some sort of martial art. The thought made me shudder.

Not only am I clumsy, but I suffer from left-right confusion. In the BuzzFeed article “Why Do Some People Struggle To Tell Left From Right?” Professor John Clarke from Drexel University has the following to say about left-right confusion:

Twenty percent of the population has right and left confusion, meaning that they can’t immediately tell their right from their left without having to think about it first.

In my early days of driving as a 30-something, trying to distinguish left from right while also trying to juggle all the new skills I had to manage was often problematic. Even in daily, non-driving life, if I have to distinguish between left and right, I have to think about the fact that I am right-handed and then remember in what hand I hold a pen or pencil if I am going to write. That’s how I distinguish right from left.

I remember doing aerobics in junior high PE class and marching with the pep squad in high school. When the person leading the exercise gave verbal instruction to “stretch to the left” or “step to the right” I invariably used the wrong arm or foot. I was always the person turning in clockwise circles when everyone else was turning counter-clockwise. If the instructor stood facing the class, and I was supposed to raise the hand or take a step opposite of what she was doing, forget it. I can only mirror-image someone. My brain is simply too slow to process “I’m facing her so her left is my right, so if she stretches out the arm on my left, I need to stretch out my right arm.” Nope. My brain looks at the instructor and can only manage to mirror her motion at least for the first several times (or maybe the first several hundred times) we practice the movements. The comedy of errors I know will ensue if I try to learn a new physical sequence (be it dance, yoga, or taekwondo) has kept me out of the studio and the dojo.

(I did try a Zumba class about six years ago. I had all the same problems, so I know I didn’t outgrow any of this.)

My physical dexterity improved a bit after nearly 3,000 AmeriCorps hours working construction, but not before I fell in the mud in front of God and everybody while helping to move a heavy board. The coolest gal on the crew laughed right out loud at me, but I refused to quit, so I returned to work the next day despite my humiliation.

I blame my feet for my falls. I drag them when I walk instead of picking each one up in a distinct step. My walking style was particularly dangerous in Midwestern winters when ice and snow covered the ground. When I had to move across icy sidewalks, I’d actually give myself little pick up your feet pep talks in my head. I suspect most people instinctively pick up their feet when they walk, but I have to remind myself every (literal) step of the way.

The other problem with my feet is that instead of pointing straight ahead, they turn in towards each other. Someone noticed my younger sibling’s “crooked foot” (as our parents call it), which led to the dreaded nighttime brace, a metal bar stretching from one shoed foot to the other and holding them in proper position during sleep. My sibling understandably hated the brace, but at least now my sibling’s feet point where they’re supposed to. No one notice my feet were turned in, so they received no correction. I think sometimes I fall because my feet get tangled in one another.

Don’t get me wrong–I don’t fall every day or every week or every month, but I don’t think most adults ever fall. Even my infrequent falls are unusual and too often. Especially now that I’m getting older, any fall is scary and dangerous.

Last August, I’d gone down the mountain and into civilization to do laundry, buy groceries, and run other errands. A combination of ridiculous heat and caffeine coursing through my veins had limited my sleep to about four hours. I was tired, but I’d gotten the laundry done.

I’d washed and dried The Man’s clothes and my own, as well as all of my bedding. Instead of making three trips to haul everything to the van (as I should have), I decided to use one of the laundromat’s wheeled carts. I put the three packed laundry bags in the cart, then piled my sheets, comforter, and comforter cover on top. I was moving a lot of laundry.

All went well until I encountered a dip in the pavement of the parking lot. Whether it was put there for drainage or speed control, I don’t know, but I had to cross this dip to get to my van.

I don’t think my sleepy brain registered the dip when I approached it. Suddenly I realized the cart wasn’t moving, but I don’t think I realized why. I started pushing, pulling, tugging on the cart before I adequately accessed the situation.

The cart started going down. Of course, I didn’t want my nice clean things to land on the dirty pavement. I tried to keep the cart upright, but instead of keeping it up, the falling cart pulled me down.

My torso hit the soft laundry, but my knees hit the pavement and my lower thighs hit the rigid metal of the cart. Ouch!

Finding myself lying on the ground is always surprising and disconcerting. I’m never quite sure how I got there.

It’s scary. Am I hurt? Can I walk? Is there blood?

It’s embarrassing. Did anybody see me? Do people think I’m drunk? Do people think I’m stupid?

This time I was sort of beached on the mound of laundry, and I wasn’t sure how I was going to lift myself up. I think I kicked and floundered a bit before I was able to pick myself up from the ground.

Mixed in with the hope that no one has seen me fall is always the indignation that no one has come to my aid. I hope no one has seen me, and I hope no one who has seen me will laugh and point, but I would like someone to check on my well-being. However, seeing a grown woman fall is awkward for bystanders too, and most people would like to pretend it never happened.

(Once while walking in a city when I was about 30, I stubbed my toe on a bolt left in the sidewalk when a streetlight was removed. I fell down and really jacked up my knee. A woman standing on the corner where I fell crossed in the street against the light to get away from me. Perhaps she feared my clumsiness was contagious.)

This time in the laundromat parking lot a good Samaritan did come to my aid. After I’d picked myself up, while I was wrestling the cart back to an upright position, a sweet older lady came up to me and asked if I was ok.

I saw you fall, she said.

I assured us both that I was ok, although I wasn’t 100% sure of that yet. I thanked the woman, dusted off a bit of grime from my comforter, and pushed the cart to my van. Thankfully there were no more dips in  my path.

After I loaded the laundry into the van, I lifted my skirt and checked my throbbing legs. I wasn’t bleeding. A few spots were red, but no skin was broken. My knees were sensitive for weeks, and it hurt to kneel. I ended up with a pale purple bruise above and to the left of my right knee. It continued to grow for days, and at its largest was bigger than my fist.

Overall, I got off easy. I know I need to be more careful and pay better attention to how I’m moving through the world. At my age and income bracket, a broken bone or even a sprained ankle would be a huge setback.

 

Love for a Son

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On Valentine’s Day, it’s easy to focus on romantic love and forget about all the other kinds of love that live in the human heart: love for siblings, love for children, love for friends, love for animals, love for parents, love for caregivers, love for students, love for teachers. On this Valentine’s Day, I want to remind you of these other loves and share a story about one woman’s love for her son.

The farmers market was almost over. Some of the less patient vendors were already packing. I’m an until the bitter end kind of gal, so I hadn’t put away a single item I wanted to sell.

Two women walked up to my table. They seemed to be Native Americans, probably from the local tribe if I had to guess. They appeared to be in their late 50s and were maybe sisters or maybe cousins or maybe close friends. In any case, there was an easy companionship between them.

We were about a month from Valentine’s Day, so I showed them, as I’d shown everyone who’d approached my table that day, the stone hearts cut from labradorite, rose quartz, agate, and carnelian that I had for sale. I also pointed out my new septarian concretions and the Arkansas quartz points I’d picked up earlier in the week. The women discussed the stones, slipping seamlessly from English to their native language, then back again.

Heart Stones

The woman to my left had long, dark, curly hair, and she wore glasses. She picked up a septarian nodule and it slipped from her hand and fell onto the concrete sidewalk. She couldn’t apologize enough.

Septarian Nodules

Don’t worry about it, I told her. That rock is a million years old.* It’s been through a lot. 

Her companion giggled at my joke, but I could tell the woman who’d dropped the stone was mortified. Of course, I prefer my merchandise not to hit concrete, but there was no sense being mad at someone who’d had an accident. I know the woman had no intention of being disrespectful towards me or my stones.

The woman with curly hair returned the septarian nodule to the bowl with the others of its kind and began sorting through the heart stones. Her companion had wandered to the next table before the woman with the curly hair found the perfect heart stone, a red agate.

My son died six years ago, she told me. I stopped what I was doing and looked into her eyes.

Oh, I’m sorry, I murmured. I never know what to say to people when they confess their heartbreak.

He loved loved loved rocks, she said with a big smile. I’m going to leave this on his grave, she explained, showing me the heart stone in the palm of her hand.

I miss him, she said quietly. I love him so much.

I’m sure he loved you too, I told her. Loves, I corrected myself. I’m sure he still loves you.

He does, she said with absolute confidence. He tells me he loves me. He tells me he’s ok. He tells me he’s happy. 

The woman paid for the heart stone and caught up with her friend who had moved on down the row of vendors.

I enjoy selling stones that make people happy. I like selling Arkansas quartz points to kids who look at the clusters as if they were diamonds. I like selling septarian concretions to people who enjoy the way they feel in the hand. I like selling ammonite pairs to folks who give them as meaningful gifts and kyanite pieces to jewelers who use them to create pieces of wearable art. Most of all, I like selling stones to people who share their pain and joys with me and let me know they’ll use the stones to maintain a heart connection with the people they love.

*According to BestCrystals.com, septarian nodules were actually


formed between 50 to 70 million years ago…

so that stone was more than a single million years old.

I took the photos in this post.

Earning Money by Participating in Drug Studies (Part 2)

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Last week I gave you the first half of everything I know about participating in drug studies for money. Today I’ll tell you the rest.

Blue and Silver StetoscopeIf you’re interested in being a healthy volunteer for a clinical trial, you first have to find a study facility that is recruiting. If you’re willing to travel, you have a better chance of finding a trial to participate in. The following are a few of the clinical trial recruiters I found during my research:

The Center for Information & Study on Clinical Research Participation

is a free service designed to help people find clinical trials that are relevant to their needs. CISCRP staff will work with you to understand your options and our staff will help you find local clinical trials in your community, or as far as you would be comfortable traveling.

ClincalTrails.gov

is a database of privately and publicly funded clinical studies conducted around the world.

PRA Health Sciences has locations in Lenexa, KS (metro Kansas City area) and Salt Lake City, UT.

Johnson County Clin-Trials is located in Lenexa, KS (metro Kansas City area).

Vince & Associates is located in Overland Park, KS (metro Kansas City area).

IQVIA is located in the metro Kansas City area and can be reached via telephone (913-894-5533 or  800-292-5533 [Monday-Friday, 8:30 A.M. to 4:30 P.M. CST]) or email (vps.volunteer@IQVIA.com).

The Center for Pharmaceutical Research is located in Kansas City, MO.

PPD has clinical research units in Austin, TX and Las Vegas, NV.

Celerion has locations in Lincoln, NE; Tempe, AZ (metro Phoenix area); and Belfast, Northern Ireland UK .

The University of Arizona Health Sciences recruits healthy volunteers in the Tucson and Phoenix areas.

The Mayo Clinic also recruits healthy volunteers for clinical trials. Most trials seem to be held in Rochester, MN, but I also saw listings for the metro Phoenix, AZ area, Jacksonville, FL, and La Crosse, WI.

Pfizer is seeking healthy volunteers for clinical trails across the United States.

Parexel conducts clinical studies in Baltimore, MD; Los Angels, CA; London, England, and Berlin, Germany.

If I didn’t include a study facility in the area where you are or where you’re planning to be, try putting “clinical trials healthy volunteers” and the big city closest to your desired location in a search engine.

After you find a study facility in the area where you are or an area to which you’re willing to travel, read the listings of upcoming studies carefully to see which ones you qualify for. Don’t waste your time applying for a study if you don’t meet all the qualifications. The requirements are pretty much set in stone, so if (for example) you’re a 26 year-old female who smokes, you’re not going to get into a study for male nonsmokers who are 35-65.

Once you find a study for which you qualify, take a look at how long it lasts. If you can’t sit in one place for more than a week, you might not want to sign up for a three week study. If you have to leave the area on December 19 to get to your mom’s house by Christmas Eve, don’t get into a study that lasts until December 22.

Another thing to check out is how many follow-up visits the trial requires. If you’ll be ready to leave the area soon after the study is over, don’t pick a trial that requires several follow-up visits. The sponsors of most of the studies I participated in withheld the final payment until the completion of the final follow-up visit to ensure volunteers Gray Rotary Telephone on Brown Surfaceactually showed up for the last examination

If you’ve determined you’re a good fit for the study criteria given, you can handle the length of the study, the dates work for you, and you’re ok with the number of follow-up visits required, the next step is to contact a recruiter via telephone or by submitting information online and having a recruiter call you. If you are calling the recruiter, be sure to have the study number handy. If you don’t give the study number and just try to describe the study, you and the recruiter may end up talking about different things.

If there are still openings in the study you are interested in, the recruiter will conduct a phone screening with you. The recruiter will ask you questions about your general health; your medical history; your current and past drug use, including illegal drugs and prescription and over-the-counter medications, as well as vitamins and supplements; alcohol use; dietary restrictions, height; weight; and birth control methods, among other things I’ve probably forgotten since the last time I went through a phone screening. If you still qualify to participate after you answer all these (highly personal) questions, the recruiter will set up an appointment for an in-person screening.

The night before your screening visit, you definitely want to drink plenty of water so your blood will flow easily when it’s time for your blood draw. Avoiding fatty and fried foods for several days before your screening will also help with the blood draws. The recruiter should tell you how many days prior to the visit you should avoid alcohol; caffeine; over-the counter medications, vitamins, and supplements; exercise; and specific foods (such as poppy seeds or grapefruit). The recruiter should also tell you if you need to fast before your screening and if you do, what time you should start your fast. Follow these instructions to the letter or you may find yourself disqualified from the study.

Arrive at the screening center before the specified time so you’re not rushing and frazzled. After you sign in, you will be given a lot of paperwork to fill out; some of the questions will be the same as what  the recruiter asked during the phone screening. You will also be given a detailed consent form to read and sign. You should be given the opportunity to ask questions about the clinical trial, and you should have all your questions answered to your satisfaction.

Person Massaging Man While Lying on BedAfter you turn in your paperwork, an onsite recruiter will read over it. If you still qualify for the trial, someone will measure your height and weight and determine your BMI (Body Mass Index). Your vital signs (temperature, blood pressure, respiration rate) will be measured and noted. At some point you will provide a urine sample and have blood drawn. A doctor will examine you to make sure you are healthy.

The waiting game begins when the screening appointment ends. Depending on when you screen, you may have to wait a week or two to find out if you have made it into the study. You may be called back in for a follow-up screening if any of your test results are on the edge of normal, so don’t go too far away from the screening center while you wait for your results.

While you’re going through your screening, it pays to be friendly and polite. The study sponsor screens more people than they need for the trail so they’re sure to have enough participants. If everyone qualifies physically, people will be cut from the study based on other criteria. If all physical aspects are equal, folks who are uncooperative or rude to the staff are more likely to be cut from the study.

If you do make it into the study, you will be called and told when to report to the study facility to check in. At your screening, you will have been given a list of what you are allowed to bring and what items are prohibited. Don’t even bother bringing prohibited items. Your bags will be checked, and any prohibited items will be confiscated. (You’ll get them back when you leave.) Prohibited items in the studies I participated in included food, gum, candy, over-the-counter medications, hygiene products with certain ingredients, and weapons of any kind.

Be sure to get to study facility on time for your check in. Being one minute late can get you cut from the trial. Black and White Blood Pressure Kit

Once you arrive for check in, you’re going to have to fill out a bunch of the same paperwork all over again. Just be patient and fill in the blanks. You’ll be weighed and your vital signs measured. You’ll provide urine and blood samples all over again. A doctor will examine you to make sure all is still well. You’ll go through the screening again because the study sponsor wants to confirm that you aren’t sick and haven’t been smoking or drinking alcohol or ingesting other chemicals you were told not to touch.

If you successfully make it over all these hurdles, you’ll be told you’re in the study, but don’t relax just yet. Each group of participants usually includes a couple of alternates in the event someone turns out to be sick in the morning or chickens out before they take the study medication. You’re not really in until you take the study medication, and even then, if you experience a serious adverse event (“side effect” in common terms) you might be dropped from the study for your own well-being. In my experience, even if participants are dropped from a trail early, they are paid for each night they spent in the study facility.

To be a successful drug study participant, be where you are supposed to be when you are supposed to be there. If you have a blood draw at 9:00, don’t make the study nurse have to drag you away from the activity room for it. If your vitals are to be checked at 23:00 (11pm for folks not accustomed to military time), be at your bedside and ready to go ten minutes prior. You should be given a chronology telling you exactly when every activity of the study will occur. Keep your chronology handy and live by it.

There’s a lot of down time in a drug study, so be prepared to entertain yourself. In the facilities I’ve stayed in, each bed had its own television, so volunteers could spend all day and most of the night (until mandatory lights-out) watching cable TV. Most facilities do have some public access computers, but the speed of the internet connection might be questionable. I always brought my own laptop, plenty of books, supplies for writing and sending letters and materials for making jewelry. Cellphones make it easy to catch up on all the calls you’ve been needing to make.

So that’s it, everything I remember about getting into a drug study. Do you have questions about something I didn’t cover? Just ask in the comments section below and I’ll do my best to answer.

Some of the information in this post comes from my memory and is correct as far as I recollect. Other information comes from my research on the internet and is correct as far as I can determine. This information is offered as a starting point for your own research, not as the definitive answer to all your questions. Blaize Sun is not responsible for you. Only you are responsible for you.

Images courtesy of https://www.pexels.com/photo/blue-and-silver-stetoscope-40568/, https://www.pexels.com/photo/antique-close-up-cord-dial-209695/, https://www.pexels.com/photo/person-massaging-man-while-lying-on-bed-1321728/, and https://www.pexels.com/photo/black-and-white-blood-pressure-kit-220723/.

Baby Bovine

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I was alone in my van, driving up from Babylon after two nights, a full day, and a morning in the heat. I was tired because the heat had kept me from getting good rest.  It was early afternoon, full daylight, and although my van is a lumbering beast, I was making good time up the mountain.

Most of the road was well-lit by the sun, but where tree branches hung over the asphalt, shadows darkened the edge of the road. With my sunglasses on, it was sometimes difficult to see what was lurking in those shadows.

Crews were out felling hazard trees. The tree cutting had been going on for almost two months, and still there were dead and dying trees for the crews to take down. I slowed to a crawl when I saw workers on the side of the road and obeyed the signs demanding “slow” or “stop.”

I’m generally a cautious driver, and I tend to be even more careful on mountain roads. However, I almost had big trouble that afternoon.

I was taking a curve, and the road immediately ahead of me was deep in shadows. I was maybe going a little faster than I should have been. Maybe I had looked off to my left, or maybe I was daydreaming a little. I don’t remember what I was doing before I realized something was lurking in the shadows, but I do remember the panic and fear I felt when I realized something was out there.

Brown Cow in Green Leaf Grass during DaytimeIt was a calf, and it bolted. Instinct caused me to swerve into the other lane to miss hitting it. At first I didn’t think I had swerved fa r enough, and I worried I might hit the calf with the back of my van. Then I saw the calf running in the direction I was going and knew it was ok. I stayed in the wrong lane long enough to bypass the calf, then swung the van back into my lane.

Once I was away from the calf, I thought about the way I had swerved the van into the other lane without even looking to see if another vehicle was there. Luckily there wasn’t a vehicle in that lane, but what if there had been? What if someone had been coming from the opposite direction and had plowed into me because they were traveling too fast to stop?

I silenced my worried thoughts. It wouldn’t do any good to work myself into a panic over something that was finished. Just be more careful, I reminded myself.

What really mystified me was why that calf was alone. The bovines in that area usually hung out in groups of half a dozen or more. I occasionally saw a grown cow alone, but never a baby. I think I would have seen a grown cow more easily in the shadows. I certainly would have been going slower had I seen a cluster of cows on the road or by its side. In any case, the baby’s mamma was not there doing her job, and she and I both nearly paid the price.

I listened to my own advice and was more careful the rest of the way back to my campground. I especially slowed down and took a good look any time my side of the road was cloaked in shadow.

Photo courtesy of https://www.pexels.com/photo/brown-cow-in-green-leaf-grass-during-daytime-51950/.