Thursday, October 20, 2011

It's All Downhill From Here

Art Rosch
Art Rosch is the second author to be suggested to me by Carolyn Fletcher, and all I can say is "She knows some fantastic writers and fascinating people!

I contacted Art and asked him if he would be interested in participating in "Relentless Pursuits" and he enthusiastically agreed to provide a story!

And WHAT A STORY!  It is truly a tale of  relentless striving for survival!  I am a hopeless acrophobic and have long suffered from a recurring nightmare that is astonishingly close to the true-life nightmare that is described in Art's story "It's all Downhill From Here."

His writing will absolutely rivet you and if you're anything like me, you may even be gasping for breath by the time you reach the end of the story. 

The side story about Art's wife, Fox, is a whole other experience, and one you will not want to miss,  It has stuck in my imagination since my first reading of the story!

By the way, "It's all Downhill From Here" also appears in Art's superb book, Avoiding the Potholes.
  Michelle Alton


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It's All Downhill From Here
     By Art Rosch - Copyright 2011

Sunset At Fremont Peak. It was just one of those moments.

Sometimes, I wonder why people consider travel to be fun.  There is so much work to be done, so much organization, so many details, so much hurry.  Then, after the hurry, comes boredom and discomfort.  Somewhere in between all this nerve-chewing stuff is the so-called "fun".

My wife Fox and I were attempting to refine the process of travel.  We thought going in an RV was the ideal method.  Regardless of the efforts, we needed to travel!  I’m a photographer, an astronomer.  My goal on this trip was to take long exposure shots of the Milky Way.  I needed dark and pristine skies to achieve my images.

Yosemite Star Trails. Taken at Glacier Point, Yosemite.

Lone Tree In Utah. This is a composite of two photos.
The United Nations Environmental Photography contest gave it
Honorable Mention and included it in its global exhibition.

Fox is an explorer of an entirely new ethnic and genetic landscape.  She found out she was half Apache when she was forty eight years old.  It was a mind-blowing, life altering revelation.

On October 12, 2005, we were ready to hit the road.  I have a prime rule of travel:  try to never take the same road twice.  This time, I wanted to drive down highway 395. 

This is a road of classic views that parallels the eastern slope of the Sierras.  It runs the length of California and beyond, to the Canadian border.  To get there, we had to make a few zigs and a few zags.  Once on 395, we planned to drive south to Bishop, and take Highway 6 across Nevada.

That was the plan.  It looked pretty straightforward.  Executing the plan was another matter.

The first day was one of practice, of getting used to driving our new RV, which we had named Yertle.  She rattled and roared.  At higher speeds she felt like all the  tires were flat.  She was thirty years old.  In car years, that’s about a hundred and five.  Yertle was spry and dignified.  She kept telling me, “Don’t worry, young feller, I’ll get you there and back.  You’ll be safe.”

The RV in this photo is almost identical to Yertle, except we didn't have a boat.

I wanted to believe her.

The day passed without trouble, and we stopped in a campground near Lake Tahoe.
On the second day, we turned onto State Route 89. It was Sunday.  Most traffic was going in the other direction. 

The road was steep and full of hairpin curves.  It was beautiful mountain country, but I was too nervous to enjoy the journey.  My concentration was fixed upon driving Yertle.  We climbed and we curved through dense pine forests and around mountain crags.

Fox Inside Yertle

I began to notice something strange about the steering column.  It felt loose in my hands.  I could pull it this way and that, just a few inches.  I had a bad feeling.  I kept my mouth shut.  I didn’t want to alarm Fox. I didn’t see much alternative but to keep driving, and hope we could get to Bishop.

Road signs indicated our altitude.  We were ascending the western slope of the Sierra, six thousand, seven thousand feet and still climbing. Yertle struggled but kept going. Twenty miles an hour seemed to be her best effort.  If a vehicle came behind me, I let it pass as soon as possible. 

Eight thousand feet.  I had pulled out to let someone pass, and when I tried to get into a lower gear as I pulled back onto the road, I discovered that the entire steering column was rotating as I shifted gears.  I had no idea what gear I was in!  This old Chevy had the gear indicator atop the steering column in a plastic window.  An arrow moved with the shift lever and it showed the usual letters: P, R, N, D, D 1, and D2.  When I pulled toward the right, the plastic window came along with the steering column. The only thing I knew was that we were going forward.  I was terrified to shift back to the left.  I might throw Yertle into Reverse and destroy the transmission in a grinding calamity.

What a mess!  We had spent so much money. It was the most significant investment in the span of our relationship.  If Yertle broke down, it would break our hearts.  We were living and traveling on the slimmest margin.  We didn't have the cash for a major overhaul.

There was of course a more immediate terror: steering! 

Eight thousand feet.  We were coming through a place called, of all things, “Dead Man’s Pass”.  Nine thousand one hundred feet. By this time, I could swirl the steering column a foot and a half in any direction.  Yertle continued to steer, praise the lord.  I steered with my right hand, and with my left, attempted to stabilize and reinforce the column. 

Our problem was no longer a secret from Fox. 

Yet she was calm.  “The Grandmothers say we will reach Arches.”

Let me explain.  Since her family revelation, Fox had done much diligent study of her traditions, and had met a number of teachers.  She attended healing circles, ceremonies, and her gifts of intuition and vision had been growing.  One of her mentors guided her towards the presence of a group of spirit guides, female ancestors and keepers of wisdom:  The Grandmothers.  Fox has developed a deep relationship with The Grandmothers.  They speak through her.  She goes into a trance and sings, plays the drum, shakes the rattles.  As far as Fox is concerned, the Grandmothers are very real. 

Don’t we all love our grandmothers?

I will admit that this sounds fruity to people without exposure to a variety of spiritual traditions.  Let it sound fruity, I don’t care.  When Fox has asked The Grandmothers for guidance, it has been provided.

Fox in Contact with the Grandmothers

When I first met Fox, I thought she was a little crazy.  She attracts unusual events like a lightning rod.  After a time, when I saw how truthful Fox is, how great is her integrity, I allowed myself to believe in her. 

What am I talking about!?  I’m about to cross the tops of the Sierras with a steering column that’s ready to fall through the floor of the truck!

“The Grandmothers say we will reach Arches.”  Okay, Fox, if the Grandmothers say so…..but I’m scared, I’m petrified that at any moment I will lose steering entirely and plunge off the side of a cliff.

Fox Drumming in Prayer

Why did I keep going?  I have to ask myself that question, because the sane response would have been to stop the RV and call Triple A.  Tow us back to Tahoe.  The trip is over. 

I have this unfounded faith in what is called “normal reality”.  I don’t believe that anything horrible can happen to me, no no, not me!    In spite of the fact that I was terrified, I felt I had some control over the situation.  I didn’t want a long delay, I didn’t want to wait four hours for a tow truck and then endure a hundred fifty mile tow to a garage, back in Tahoe.  I didn’t want to give up!  A costly repair would eat up our trip money.  We would slink back home in defeat.

I could steer, albeit with some labor.  If I stayed in the same gear and held onto the column, I could at least get us to the bottom of the mountains.  We could look for help once we reached Highway 395.

I am empirically aware that “normal reality” is a fragile construct, and that the slavering wolf-jaws of disaster haunt us at every moment of our lives.  It’s something we learn to live with, mostly through denial.  If we truly realized how close we are to catastrophe, we would be too terrified to function.

We began our descent.  Coming down, going round, and round, winding into the sun so that it blinded me, then changing directions so the sun was to my left, then my right.  I stayed focused and drove slowly.  Cars, trucks, campers piled up behind us, honking impatiently.  I waved my left hand out the window, and some of them found places to pass.  In the silent rushing air, we descended the mountains.  My foot was on the brake and I eased that old Chevy round the tightest curves, holding the wheel, supporting the column.  Fox was praying in a language I had never heard.  The Grandmothers must have been with us. We survived.  The junction to Highway 395 appeared.  I came to the stop sign, breathed a deep sigh, and turned south. 

Somewhere along this road there must be help.  It was Sunday.  Gas stations were closed.  Little towns like Coleville and Bridgeport were deserted.   Every shop was closed.  I saw farmhouses behind fences, and I noticed that every farm seemed to have a shed full of tools.  Surely there were people here who could fix a car. We stopped at a convenience store and asked if there was a local garage.  We searched the phone book.  Only the town of Bishop, one hundred twenty miles south, would have an open garage.  So I drove, and I kept my eyes open.  Something to my right caught my eye.  It wasn’t a gas station, there were no signs, no indications that it was a business.  It was a place with some cars and some tools.  I quickly braked and pulled over. 

We've Reached our Goal

It was a small garage, and there were people about.  I asked if a mechanic was available.  A comfortably plump woman of about forty said he’d be back soon.  I began to breathe for the first time in hours.

In five minutes, there appeared a balding, dignified man wearing grey mechanic’s coveralls. 

I showed him our difficulty.  He reached under the steering column with a socket wrench, gave two twists.

“There’s your problem, “ he said simply.  “Somebody didn’t tighten up the clamp.”

He had undone the already-loose collar that kept the steering column fixed in place.  “Look, here’s the other bolt.  Inside the clamp.”  The second of two bolts that held the steering column in place was swimming around inside the round black circlet of metal. 

Tweek tweeek tweek, he turned his ratchet a few times, and our steering column was solid as a rock.  I felt stupid.  Why couldn’t I have figured that out?  Feeling stupid was nothing compared to the fact that I was limp with relief.

“How much do I owe you?”

“Forget about it,” the mechanic said.  I told him about the work that had been done on Yertle.  He shook his head.  “Careless, sloppy work” he said, “no excuse for that.”

I insisted he take a twenty.

As we started Yertle to take to the road, he called out,  “Hope those bozos didn’t leave any more surprises for you.”

I was desperately hoping the same thing.

  All photography by Art Rosch
A Sampling of Art's Photos

I happened upon this scene of a Vietnamese family fishing beneath The Richmond Bridge. They kindly allowed me to take many photos.

  The Thousand Year Breath. This is a sixty second exposure taken near The Marin County Civic Center.

  Waterfall. Slowing shutter speed to a quarter second or slower will blur water to create this effect.
  Through the Eye Of The Gate. I've always wanted to take a fresh look at the Golden Gate Bridge.

Healing Hands. This is my most popular image in terms of sales
and use by organizations.

 Art Rosch's Biographical Sketch

Art Rosch boomed with the other babies of his generation in St. Louis, Mo. He was drawn to music as a child and learned trumpet and drums. As he got older, he became enamored of modern jazz. At the age of sixteen he set out on a pilgrimage to New York City to study with his idol, avant garde musician Ornette Coleman. This adventure led Art to associations with many jazz musicians.

He spent two years as the house drummer at Detroit's Artist's Workshop. His interest in writing and photography also continued to grow. After winning Best Story Award from Playboy Magazine, Art signed with an agent and began working on novels. He is still working on novels, memoirs and essays.

His photography has been featured in Shutterbug Magazine, where he is a contributing writer. One image, Lone Tree In Utah, won an important award from the United Nations. Much of Art's photo work is done at night. He is a passionate amateur astronomer and likes to explore the potential of long exposure photography. He continues to work from Sonoma County, California.

Art's photography may be viewed on his website and many of his writings can be seen on his "Blogazine."


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Carolyn Fletcher said...

Do I know the good guys or what? LOL..GREAT story, Art!
The photo captioned We've reached our goal resides on my wall. Thanks to Art for the great story, and CD.

Art Rosch said...

Thanks, Carolyn. I treasure your loyalty. I love the concept of Michelle's blog. Relentless Pursuit!
What else is there in the realm of story telling?

Joe DiGilio said...

Nice to meet you through your story and photography Art. Having driven my share of jalopies, clunkers & heaps I can appreciate how you felt navigating Yurtle on those trecherous trails with a loose steering column. I enjoyed how you tell your story & I especially enjoy your delightful images of the night sky. I hope you post another story on Michelle's blog soon.

Monnie Ryan said...

Terrific story, Art, and your photos are nothing short of awesome!

Bob Cammarata said...

Great story, Art!
Road trips can often be harrowing but they are the best way to really "see" the country.
I've admired your stunning night photography for many years.
You should really consider posting more of your stories here.

Art Rosch said...

I really appreciate your responses.
I'd contribute another story to Relentless Pursuit in a heartbeat!
Any time Michelle extends the invitation, I'm ready. I love this blog! (or whatever it is).
That trip in Yertle was one of the scariest yet happiest times of my life.

Dave Phalen said...

Fabulous story!! Awesome photographs!!