The Testaments by Margaret Atwood (2019. Random House Audio)

This is not The Handmaid’s Tale. It is a sequel in search of a purpose and organization. What do I mean, considering this book has been acclaimed as the conclusion of the story that was revealed in Atwood’s dystopian masterpiece? As a historian and political scientist, I’ve enjoyed reading stories of alternative societies and worlds presented by that master of fantasy, Ursula LeGuin. Atwood’s original plotting and characterizations in The Handmaid’s Tale sought and reached such lofty writerly heavens. This book does not. Since this is a snippet of a review, I’ll simply say this: The political and societal realities presented by the Gilead crafted in this sequel don’t add up in terms of military, political, and historical accuracy. With no nuclear weapons, without an air force or navy, how is Gilead, a oligarchy of misogyny, able to remain outside the former United States? That fundamental question is never really addressed by Atwood. Though the writing and dialogue are crisp and admirable, the plot, in my opinion, including the author’s failure to suspend my disbelief regarding political reality, renders this tale far less compelling that the original.

3 and 1/2 stars out of 5.

Mountain Time by Ivan Doig (1999. Scribner. ISBN 978-0684865690)

I was introduced to Doig by a Facebook friend because I’d reviewed Wallace Stegner’s work in various columns. While wandering around Kaua’i on a recent vacation from retirement, I stopped in at Talk Story Bookstore and picked up a used copy of Mountain Time. The tale of a magazine reporter, Mitch Rozier and his girlfriend is full of emotion and beautiful scenery echoing my own personal love for Montana, where most of the story takes place. A simple, yet compelling plot draws Mitch and Lexa (the girlfriend) and Lexa’s gadfly sister back to their shared home and their past. That said, this is not Stegner. Doig is a good writer, at least in this outing, but not a genius. Wallace Stegner, for me, remains exactly that.

4 stars out of 5.

Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison (2004. Vintage. ISBN 978-1-4000-3342-3)

After plowing through all the magazines and books I’d brought along on my Kaua’i vacation, I needed a book to read on the plane coming home. I convinced my buddy Ron McVean to stop at the Womb Bookstore in Kapa’a. While the store is tiny, maybe 100 titles in all, I managed to find something to whet my readerly appetite. I’d devoured The Bluest Eye, one of Morrison’s best works, and wasn’t disappointed by Song of Solomon. Morrison’s lyrical, somewhat magical way of telling the story of Milkman Dead, a Black man on a quest to understand his past, his upbringing, and his history, is filled with compelling characters, sadness, humor, and angst. It wasn’t quite up there with The Bluest Eye but is a worthy read; one that would serve book clubs well.

4 stars out of 5.

In Sunlight and In Shadow by Mark Helprin (2012. Mariner. ISBN 978-0544102606)

In terms of style and literary heft, Helprin remains one of America’s best. This tale of a Jewish veteran of WW II, Harry Copeland, and his love for heiress Catherine Thomas, is close to a masterpiece of craft, language, and story. Of all the books I read on my Hawaiian vacation, this one was the most compelling. Harry’s descent, from law-abiding business owner to criminal, takes time. The reader is required to exercise patience as Helprin slowly reveals the plot, the twists and turns of circumstance, and the inner lives of his characters. And as the skin of the literary onion is peeled away, the reader is rewarded with literature in its most elegant form.

4 and 1/2 stars out of 5.








Non-Finn Mark Munger interviewed Finnish actor and musician, Irina Björklund to catch up on the busy artist’s latest projects.

MM: Let’s start with your new streaming series. What can you tell readers of FAR about the ideas/themes behind Peacemaker and the character you play, Ann-Mari?

IB: Peacemaker is the most important role I’ve had far. There are different kinds of entertainment – the kind that you make for the simple reason of pleasing the audiences (comedies, horrors etc), and the kind that have a deeper goal – to generate discussion. Peacemaker is a peek into the world of peace negotiators – people who deal with crises, wars, mass graves – and try to help those affected find a peaceful solution to their problems. I play Ann-Mari Sundell, Finland’s former minister of foreign affairs, sent on a mission by the UN to help negotiate peace between Turkey and the Kurds – not an easy goal to attain.

MM: Our mutual friend, Gerry Henkel, gave me a heads’ up about Peacemaker. As a fan of Ambush and other films you’ve done, I’m glad I got a chance to watch Ann-Mari’s character unfold. Talk about the transition from being a young actor playing the romantic lead in Ambush to playing Ann-Marie a mature, confident, intelligent diplomat charged with a daunting task?

IB:  It’s funny you would mention my role in Ambush as a romantic lead since it’s a war epic. At the time (in 1998) it was my most important role to that point – as it brought the details of the Continuation War to younger filmgoers. Over 20 years have passed since Ambush; I’ve made some good and some not-so-good choices along the way.  My main objective as an artist stays the same – to concentrate on works that have a message somewhere, and to contribute to making this world a better place.

MM: Fill FAR readers in about the settings used and the cast of Peacemaker.

IB: We filmed most of the series in Gran Canaria because of the versatile landscapes the island offers. Some shorter episodes were shot in southern Spain. Ann-Mari’s home is set in the western Finnish archipelago, in Nauvo – beautiful! Other main characters include Richard Sammel (Inglorious Bastards), Louise Peterhoff (The Bridge), Mikko Nousiainen, and Kardo Razzazi.

MM: I just watched Kate Winslett on CBS Sunday Morning talk about her struggle to secure meaningful roles as she ages. She’s but one of many female actors who’ve pushed back against the lack of roles available for women of a certain age by finding their own projects to produce, by adding director to their resume, and the like. How has it been for you, both in Europe or elsewhere, in finding roles that are appropriate for your craft and talent? Have you directed?

IB: Personally, I’ve had to wait to be nearly 50 in order to start getting truly interesting proposals. Sure, there may still be more out there for younger women to play, but as in everything in life, it’s not the quantity; it’s the quality. I did feel it was important to portray a middle-aged woman who’s not afraid of showing her age. Ann-Mari carries her gray hair with pride and doesn’t use make up; her person is enough. I’ve never directed, and I don’t think I will. Acting is not my only aspiration in life. When I’m not acting, I’m working on music projects. A balance between all of those things, along with finding happiness in enjoying my family, my home, and the nature I’m surrounded by… is what I’m looking for in life.

MM: How has the public reaction to Peacemaker been? What will it take, do you think, to make the fiction of Peacemaker into reality?

IB: The message that Peacemaker sends is that an outsider alone can’t fix things. Ann-Mari is just a facilitator. As Finland’s former President Martti Ahtisaari said in his brilliant 2008 Nobel acceptance speech – “Peace is a question of will”; the parties have to find the will to come to peace. I’m just an actor. I really shouldn’t be asked about these things! But to be serious, Peacemaker has gotten a great response from people who work in the field and from audiences, too. It’s been nominated for five Golden Venlas in Finland. I couldn’t be happier.

MM: I found Peacemaker on the streaming service Topic. Are there other ways for FAR readers to connect with the series? Will there be a season two?

IB: Topic or Amazon Prime are the ways to go. I’m hopeful for a second season, but I can’t promise anything yet. If it were up to me, I’d gladly make playing Ann-Mari my personal retirement plan!

MM: You’re also an accomplished musician. Your latest album, Barely Ann-Mari reflects your Peacemaker character in song.

IB: Barely Ann-Mari is unique in that it’s written from the point of view of the character I play in Peacemaker. It reflects her inner thoughts, dreams, hopes and fears; feelings she’s not allowed to show in the series. I started writing lyrics as I prepared for the role in order to get to know the character and realized I had material for an album. The collaboration with Pauanne came about naturally, as the members of the group have been members of my own band for years. We found a new sound for this album by letting Finnish folk music portray Ann-Mari’s Finnish roots and English lyrics highlight her international expertise. As an artist, I like to explore new styles but I recognize my limits: I wouldn’t attempt hard rock or opera! 

MM: Where can FAR readers find the album?

IB: It’s distributed by Nordic Notes and available digitally worldwide through the link below. You can also find it on iTunes, Amazon, and other listening platforms. Amazon also carries the physical CD.

MM: Hopefully, someday the limitations imposed by COVID-19 will be lifted and you can perform the music from the album live.

IB: I happened to get lucky. I booked the release tour for the album (in Finland) last October. Despite the pandemic, only one show was cancelled. The venues were mostly sold out within the limits allowed. It was a touching experience – as we knew that the people who came to hear us thought it worth the risk of possible contamination to attend.

MM: You’ve recorded music, I believe, in Finnish, Swedish, French and, in Barely Ann-Mari, English. Talk a bit about the flexibility of language and how that assists in your art and your world-view.

IB: I grew up traveling with my family and living in Sweden, Finland, and France. I later spent fourteen years in California before moving back to France. I had to learn Turkish for Peacemaker. That was incredibly hard. But knowing other languages helped understand the logic behind Turkish. I enjoy playing with accents in my work. For Ann-Mari, I use the typical English accent of a Swedish speaking Finn – rather than the one of a Finnish speaking Finn. These details make a difference in the character.

MM: What’s in the immediate future for Irina?

IB: After three years spent in the world of peacemaking, I couldn’t be happier taking time off. At home in France I’m concentrating on my personal peace, which includes growing vegetables, caring for farm animals, and homeschooling our son. Ideas are brewing. I recently read David Attenborough’s A Life On Our Planet, which was life-changing. It’s a must-read for all of us. Another lovely and thought-provoking French novel I always recommend to readers of all ages is Jean Giono’s The Man Who Planted Trees. We all can make a difference for the future of the planet and humanity if we act now. Following the novel’s theme, I’m going to plant one hundred and sixty acorns next week. I dare you and the readers of FAR to do the same!


Peacemaker Topic watching link:

Barely Ann-Mari album sales link:

Peace is a Question of Will music video by Irina Björklund & Pauanne featuring President Martti Ahtisaari:




The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood (1986. Anchor. ISBN 978-0-385-49081-8

I haven’t read sci-fi/fantasy for quite awhile. Nearly the only fantasy writer I’ve read in the past thirty years was the brilliant Ursula LeGuin. There’s been so much talk about this book, given the dystopia and dysfunction brought to America courtesy of the Orange Headed Buffoon, with more than a few commentators pointing out that Atwood’s take on misogyny propelled by religion was and still is spot on. They are right. That’s all I need to say. Excellent story, plot, and pacing. 5 stars out of 5.



This Tender Land by William Kent Krueger (2019. Atria. ISBN 978-1-4767-4930-3.

Fair warning: Though the cover proclaims the author as the man who penned Ordinary Grace, my favorite by fair of Krueger’s works, this is not that. The story, one of four orphans, including a Native American adolescent, is engaging to be sure. But the juxtaposition of the two white protagonist brothers in a Native American boarding school in the 1930s, to me, is a copout. Why not write the tale from the perspective of Mose, the aforementioned Native American, the actual sort of fellow who suffered at the hands of the boarding house system? I wrote Esther’s Race, a story of an African American meth addict, in the first person just to force myself, as a writer, to explore what it might feel like to be embedded in a culture not my own. Doesn’t mean this isn’t a decent read but it wasn’t nearly as compelling as it might have been. 4 stars out of 5.

The Political Career of Floyd B. Olson (1987. Borealis Books. ISBN 978-0-87351-206-0)

I bought this book because I was interested in learning more about Olson’s connections to organized crime. Given he grew up in north Minneapolis, the same locale that notorious mob boss and bootlegger Kid Cann called home, I was hoping this volume would explore the rumors of that connection, along with the violet machine gun death of muckraking journalist, Walter Liggett. But the author pretty much sticks to the DFL mantra, one shared by my uncle Willard, that Olson was essentially, for all his faults, a good man who should have been a U.S. Senator. That said, it’s a complete biography of most of the man’s achievements, if a bit short on the information I was looking for. 3 and 1/2 stars out of 5.

Stopping the Presses by Marda Liggett Wodbury (1998. Minnesota. ISBN 0-8-8166-2929-3)

This is the opposite of the Floyd B. Olson book. This is the story of murdered journalist Walter Liggett as recalled and researched by his daughter, Marda. Marda approaches her father’s story and death as any journalist should; from a distance. The shocking machine gun murder of Liggett, which took place in front of his wife and daughter and was suspected to be ordered and carried out by Kid Cann or his henchmen (either because Liggett kept attacking Gov. Olson, alleging Olson had ties to Cann or because Liggett was relentless in his attacks on bootleggers and mobsters, including Cann), was never really solved to Marda’s satisfaction but she does an admiral job of postulating who might have had a hand in the assassination of her father. An unknown and well written gem of Minnesota history. 4 stars out of 5.

The World Has Changed (2010. The New Press. ISBN 978-1-59558-705-3)

For any writer with a social conscience, or for those Alice Walker fans who want the inside scoop, this series of conversations between Walker and interviewers and other writers and scholars is the ticket. My only complaint is that there is a bit of redundancy in that topics are repeated, as are Walker’s responses, and the collection could have been edited a bit better to tighten that up. All in all, a worthy read. 4 stars out of 5.

That’s it! On to some new territory.



Horseman, Pass By by Larry McMurtry (1961. Liveright. ISBN 978-1-63149-355-3)

Here’s a true confession. I’m writing this review while listening to the author’s kid play some awesome Texas Americana music. James McMurtry, if he didn’t inherit his father’s gift for telling stories on paper, certainly learned the craft of oral storytelling from his Pa. Concise, precise, and to the point, James doesn’t waste words while painting images in song. That’s the key, I’ve learned, as I struggle with my own storytelling. Get in, get out. Make your point as succinctly as possible while still painting images in your readers’ minds. OK then.

This is a concise, slim tale of a novel. Weighing in at a mere 171 pages in small paperback format, Horseman chronicles a short period of time on the Brannon cattle ranch in the Texas panhandle. We follow the life and daily struggles of Homer Brannon, his grandson Lonnie, his step-son Hud, and a small cast of other characters as they try to make a go of it on a hard-luck, hardscrabble bit of dirt and dust. It’s a raw, quickly paced, morose journey that young Lonnie relates in the first person. But the prose! McMurtry was just learning his craft when this, his first novel, hit print. It’s clear that he knew what he was after and, even in this early effort, hit the mark. So much so that the movie Hud, starring a young Paul Newman in an Oscar nominated role as Hud, came to the big screen a scant two years after the novel’s debut. Though Newman lost, Patricia Neal won for best actress and the movie scored two other Oscars. But the movie’s departure from the novel includes telling the story from Hud’s perspective; not the first person story of young Lonny. That sort of misses the point behind the author’s effort, one often compared to Salinger’s coming-of-age triumph, Catcher in the Rye. It’s the young character’s struggle to understand his grandfather, their circumstances, and his own place in the world after disaster strikes the ranch that is the heart and soul of Horseman. And it’s a stark, bleak, beautiful soul that propels the story to greatness even today.

I’ve read most of McMurtry, including his Pulitzer gem, Lonesome Dove, one of my top ten novels of all time. This stands right up there with his best.

5 stars out of 5.


What I Found in a Thousand Towns by Dar Williams (2017. Basic Books. ISBN 978-0-4 86-09896-5)

I bought this book because Ms. Williams is a dynamite singer/songwriter. I’ve seen her numerous times in concert and she never fails to amaze. I didn’t read the blurbs or the synopsis related to this title before I bought it, thinking it would be a better read of life on the road than Bill Stains’s self-published memoir (reviewed elsewhere on this site). How wrong I was!

I don’t mean to say that Ms. Williams isn’t a very bright, articulate, smart American. She is. And her writing is crisp, direct, and informative. But this book is not a memoir, which I would have known had I done my homework. Rather, it is a discussion of “positive proximity”, a concept concerning the need to revitalize downtowns of American small cities by incorporating the arts, music, film, communities, and social conscience into a place’s fabric. In essence, it’s a handbook for urban planners based upon Ms. Williams’s experience touring the nation as a musician. Concise and well written, the book lacks what I was seeking: heart and insight into Dar Williams the human being. My fault, I know, for not looking into the book’s premise before buying it. I can’t say I flew through the prose, as tight and distinctive as it is. The going was slow, almost bringing me back to my days as a student in Dale Olson’s Urban Studies class at UMD. Again, my fault, not the author’s.

In the end, the book is a decent read for those interested in revitalizing urban America through the arts and human connections. Not what I was looking for in the read but hey, we all make mistakes, right?

4 stars out of 5. It wasn’t the author’s fault I was underwhelmed.

The Vikings by Robert Ferguson (2009. Penguin. 978-0-14-1801-5)

Another disappointment. Again, it wasn’t the prose. It was the style in which it was delivered. I picked this book up at a gift shop in Hayward, WI that also sells my Finnish American novels. Given I recently discovered I am 3% Norwegian (a facet of my ethnicity I attribute to roving Vikings raping some English or Welsh or Scots or Iris foremother), I thought I’d explore the history of these fascinating marauders. Ferguson certainly did his homework in terms of researching the often arcane and distant original sources of Viking lore both in print and carved in runes. But the presentation of Norsk heritage had two problems for this reader.

First, the book reads like the Old Testament book of Exodus in terms of genealogy. There are so many names of kings, both lesser and greater, that a chart of descendancy would have been much appreciated to keep things straight. Second, this is one dry and boring exposition of what was a pretty wild ride. Ferguson’s book is a perfect adjunct to lectures by a history prof at some dusk-choked university. It is not a book to enlighten the casual reader while also providing entertainment. There needed to be some life, some spirit, some common narrative theme laced throughout Ferguson’s lengthy discussions of kings and raiders and unfortunate victims. Absent that, I felt like I was readying myself for a final exam in a Nordic History course at UMD.

To be fair again, I didn’t study reviews before I purchased this title. I didn’t read the cover blurbs or explore the book’s pedigree. I simply saw it and bought it with the end result that I struggled to get through it: learning a bit but never being enlightened.

3 stars out of 5. Instructive but not inspiring.



Grizzly Bear Charging


                                                            BEAR DREAMS

                                                             By Mark Munger

(Note: This piece was originally written for Montana Public Radio’s program, Reflections West (RW). RW paired a contemporary writer’s thoughts with a piece of classic poetry or literature. Sadly, while accepted for production, the show went off the air before “Bear Dreams” was broadcast.)

I’ve lived my entire life in the place the Dakota named Mnisota: “land reflecting the sky”. Most folks know that the Mississippi River begins here. But my home state is actually named after a lesser-known stream; the cloudy, muddy Minnesota River.

Rivers are a reality of this place. In addition to being “The Land of 10,000 Lakes”, Minnesota is a wellspring for watercourses flowing beneath every gravel road, two-lane, and freeway crisscrossing the state. Minnesota is also soggy with marshes, swamps, and bogs; natural filters from whence rivers, steams, and creeks are born. Unlike the West, where mountain snowfall dictates whether folks have potable water at their taps, Minnesota is eternally hydrous and does not suffer, as Wallace Stegner observed, from the perpetual aridity that plagues the American West.

One attribute that Minnesota does share with the West is piney forest—though beyond the Boundary Waters Canoe Area, Minnesota has few places untouched by tourists, fishing boats, or snowmobiles. Even so, my “neck of the woods” has healthy populations of wolves, black bears, fisher, lynx, coyotes, and bobcats.  What we do not have are grizzly bears. Recent reports of grizzlies migrating from the Rockies onto the Great Plains, seeking sustenance within their historic range, a range that once included the cottonwood groves of western Minnesota, are intriguing. But while dreams of grizzlies repopulating the Minnesota River Valley present a romantic notion, the inevitable bear versus human conflicts inherent in such repatriation cause me pause.

Munger pairs his essay with an excerpt from Saskatchewan author Guy Vanderhaeghe’s novel, The Last Crossing, selecting a scene that depicts a confrontation between English adventurer, Addington Gaunt, and a mother grizzly bear. Munger’s selection contrasts notions of historical wilderness with the reality of reintegrating apex predators into 21st century America.

Addington lifts his eyes and there is the grizzly. Powerful haunches, long hair like the quills of a porcupine that tremble as the bear rises from a carcass to stand on its hind legs with a startled, “Whuff!”

Addington takes two decisive steps to the right to present himself with a lung shot. The bear swings its dished face, its bloody muzzle towards him. Addington draws the bow, feels the fletching touch his cheek, looses the arrow. It hisses, gives a sharp click as it nicks a twig, and deflects deep into the shoulder of the grizzly. The bear grunts with surprise, bites at the shaft. It snaps in the grizzly’s jaws. Addington draws a second arrow and nocks it.

The grizzly charges, a roaring, quivering, rolling wave of fur and muscle. Addington’s head fills with the storm, the crackle of breaking branches, the yellow leaves spiraling down in a whirlwind. He fires blindly into the golden tornado.

And the bear rears, saliva drizzling from its jaws, red mouth yawning…(Addington) turns, stumbles for the river, steps into the air, plummets down the slope. A flap of bloody skin dangles in his eyes. He leaps into the water.

(© 2002 G & M Vanderhaeghe Productions. Excerpted from The Last Crossing by Guy Vanderhaeghe. McClleand and Stewart. ISBN 0-7710-8738-1.)





The Miller Farm. Dagmar, Montana

It started with meeting a “sister” judge at a conference. When I found out she was originally from Eastern Montana, I had to ask.

“Do you have any connections back home, places a guy could pheasant hunt?”

“My cousin Mark lives on the family farm.”

I let things be. But when I got back to work, I emailed the judge and asked if she thought her cousin would be willing to allow me, and maybe a son or two, to hunt on the family farm.

“Sure. It’s over 2,000 acres. I’m pretty sure that would be fine.”

She gave me Mark’s email. I sent off a message, including how I’d met his cousin. It took a bit, but I eventually heard back. Mark was more than happy to have me come and visit, check out the farm, and talk over possibilities.

I wanted to find a better place to hunt pheasants than the locale we’d been hunting. Ashley, North Dakota had been the place my dad and his buddy Bruce settled on to hunt when South Dakota proved too expensive. Like Harry, I have no interest in paying a farmer to hunt. I’ll stick to public land or unposted private land (ND, like MN requires land owners to post their land or its assumed the land is open to hunting). Given the number of hunters around Ashley, the diminution of PLOTS (private land open to the public) in close proximity to the town, the increasing number of farmers posting their land “No Trespassing”, and given the terrible experience we had hunting near Ashley last year, I was bound and determined to find another place to chase pheasants.

Dagmar, Montana where the farm in question is located, is just across the border from Grenora, ND; about an hour from Williston where my second son Dylan lives. After spending four days with four dogs and five guys and shooting one pheasant last October in Ashley, I decided to use my second week of non-resident pheasant hunting in early November to investigate hunting possibilities around Williston. The results are chronicled elsewhere but suffice it to say, there were birds. There were few hunters. There were many, many places, including PLOTS and federal waterfowl management areas and unposted farm land I was able to hunt with my little Brittany, Leala. We limited out two of four days in the field. But more importantly, I got the chance to meet and visit with Mark and his friend Brad at a Grenora eatery before ending the night with a glass of good wine at Mark’s house.

“Anytime you want to hunt here, just let me know,” was Mark’s parting gift to me as I left Montana with a smile.

Here’s the thing. I’d stayed with Dylan last November. But Dylan sold his house in Williston and moved his wife and kids to Duluth. For now, he rents an apartment, works the oil fields, and commutes to Minnesota every other weekend. Meaning I’d lost my place to stay. When I asked Mark in an email whether there might be a house for rent or a motel in the Dagmar/Grenora area where we could stay, he simply wrote back: “You’re welcome to stay here.” Now that’s Montana nice!

I didn’t know what the logistics of Jack, my youngest son, and me and three hunting dogs staying at the farm would entail. I packed cooking gear, propane, a camping table, and food (thinking we might end up cooking meals outside) and our gear in a small trailer we were towing because the back of the Jeep was full of dogs and kennels. I even locked our shotguns in a roof-top carrier to save space. And just before leaving Duluth, I had a small leak in my nearly-new rear passenger tire repaired at Fleet Farm, where I’d bought a set of Coopers in June.

“Good to go,” I was told. “We didn’t find a leak but we re-beaded the tire. It should be fine.

As a precaution, I packed my portable air compressor, fully charged, in the cargo hold of the Jeep. Good thing I did: I had to refill the tire multiple times during our eight-day trip. I didn’t want to pull the tire off and use the spare because the treads on the spare and the Coopers are so different, On the long trip to Dagmar, we stopped every 100 miles or so to fill the tire; sometimes at a gas station, sometimes from the portable compressor, which was a pain in the ass but doable.

Arriving at the farm, we were greeted by Mark, set up the three dog kennels in the basement (out of reach of the family cats), unloaded our sleeping bags and Duluth Packs, and were shown our bedrooms and the guest bath. We planned to spend a week. We’d hunt the farm and publicly accessible Montana land for three days (Montana has a three-day non-resident small game option) and then hunt Northwestern North Dakota for the remainder of our stay. My oldest son Matt and his buddy Reid were scheduled to come out and stay with Dylan in Williston. Once Matt and Reid arrived, Jack and I planned to meet up with them and hunt together.

The first morning on the farm, Brad treated us to homemade breakfasts big enough to satisfy lumberjacks. Since it was the weekend and Brad was visiting, we piled into his new pickup truck, Jack’s Lab Kena and René’s Lab Violet crammed in the back seat with Jack and me. Imagine allowing strangers and dogs to dirty up your unblemished leather upholstery! I hadn’t expected Brad or Mark to serve as our hunting guides but for the first two days, that’s exactly what happened. Our hosts also introduced us to folks at Dagmar Central (the only eatery in town) during lunch so we could experience the local culture. Back in the field after eating the luncheon special (I treated), we saw four moose but didn’t down a single bird despite numerous chances. After a fruitless but memorable day in the field, Brad and Mark cooked us a beef roast, complete with all the trimmings, for dinner.

I woke up early Sunday morning and took the Labs and Callie (my eight-month-old Britt) into a nearby slough to hunt before Jack was awake. With good dog work and a lucky shot, I had a rooster in my game vest by seven.

Mark’s 1st Montana Rooster.

After breakfast Jack and I worked the western end of that same slough. I downed another rooster at the edge of a field and all three dogs took off after it as it raced for cover, the commotion reminding me of Wile E. Coyote and the Roadrunner. Despite being the oldest and slowest, Kena ran the rooster down and made a nice retrieve. We missed another rooster in the slough but Jack connected with not one but two Hungarian partridge that the dogs rousted and Kena and Violet retrieved.

jack with the Results of the Morning Hunt.

On Monday, our last day hunting Montana, Jack and I ventured north on our own. We found some very nice public-access land to explore. Montana trespass law considers all private land to be posted unless you have the landowner’s permission to enter. The trade-off is having something like seven million acres of public land and private land to which landowners allow public access. North of Dagmar, we found a big piece of accessible bottomland and worked it hard. We had no luck until, as we headed back to the car, Callie, who was beginning to shine despite her young age (the day before, she’d locked on a nice covey of Huns, holding them until Jack and I got in position and each shot one) started going nuts. She booked across an earthen dam with Violet and Kena in hot pursuit. Wouldn’t you know it? After walking miles and not seeing a bird, the dogs got up a handful of roosters and hens. Jack managed to put a bead on a beautiful male pheasant, shot, and dropped it in thick grass where Violet made her first-ever pheasant retrieve. After a hard day of hunting, it was a real treat to come back to the farmhouse to find Brad had picked up Kentucky Fried Chicken for dinner. Talk about spoiling guests!

Public-Access Hunting Land in Montana.

“When your other son and his friend get to Williston, you’re all welcome to stay at my place in town,” Brad offered as we ate chicken and mashed potatoes and corn and coleslaw. “There’s plenty of room and you’ll be closer to the hunting in North Dakota.”


I texted Matt about our change in plans. Jack and I would hunt around Williston on Tuesday and meet up with Brad at his house. The hunting was again superb and, when we pulled into Williston at dark, our vests were full (including a Hun that neither one of us shot but Callie found and retrieved) and our legs were weary. The house in town had a big, fenced-in back yard where the dogs could be off leash and Jack could clean birds. It also had cable!

Since Chris, my third son and the designated bird cleaner, couldn’t make the trip, Jack took over those duties. I’d received a nice bird cleaning kit, complete with knives and shears, after making a small donation to Pheasants Forever. That kit allowed Jack to make short work of things.

Content after four days of great hunting, I sipped beer and watched election returns and thought about how lucky I was. My old man had forsaken pheasant hunting in South Dakota twenty-odd years ago because farmers were charging hunters a hundred bucks a day per gun to hunt. Here we were, essentially strangers to Mark and Brad, benefitting from their largess to a degree that was down-right embarrassing. When I asked Mark about paying for our stay, he waved me off. After our uneventful hunt on Saturday, Brad even bought a Montana non-resident license (he lives in North Dakota) to hit the fields with us in hopes of improving our odds.

Jack and I couldn’t sleep Tuesday night. The topsy-turvy world of Electoral College politics caused us distress. But, as we drove out of Williston on Wednesday morning, things started looking better for Uncle Joe. We’d both voted for Biden and Harris by mail. We’d done what we could. But the suspense, with Jack monitoring his phone all day, was nearly unbearable.

We shot some nice roosters Wednesday, which gave Jack more time to practice cleaning birds. In celebration of my 66th birthday, we joined Dylan (who doesn’t hunt) at the Williston Brewing Company for dinner. It was great to catch up with my second son, though again, the pall of uncertainty regarding the election hung in the air like a funeral shroud. The three of us talked in low tones as I sipped stout and fretted about the fate of our nation.

Matt and Reid arrived Wednesday night. We hunted hard on Thursday and had some success, though we missed opportunities when a covey of sharptail grouse and a big covey of Huns escaped with nary a loss. Kena retrieved a live but injured rooster someone or something had downed; a bonus bird credited to Jack since Kena is his dog. Later in the morning, Jack potted a rooster over water. The bird swam seventy yards across a small pond. Violet dove in after the pheasant, followed it across water, and found it hiding in cattails along the opposite shore. Later, Reid downed the prize of the day; a rooster that looked like a peacock given the length of its tail.

Reid’s Monster NoDak Rooster.

The value of taking a hot shower after putting in eight to ten mile days in the field can’t be overstated. Additionally, we had the use of Brad’s kitchen to prepare meals. For breakfast, we scarfed instant oatmeal, breakfast bars, juice, milk, and hot coffee. For lunch, we packed sandwiches and snacks and water and juice to eat and drink in the field. At night, Matt and Reid made complete meals while Jack and I subsisted on canned soup and Dinty Moore stew though, on our last night in Williston, I splurged on pizza. I stopped by a local pizza parlor (wearing my mask) to order on the way to Brad’s house, returning a half-hour later to pick up two freshly baked pies.

Was it all smiles and giggles? No. There were occasional tense moments in the car and in the field. But most of our time together was spent agreeably; hunting, sharing the same old stale stories, and marveling at the work ethic of the dogs. Kena, Violet, and Callie performed like champs, though try as we might, we couldn’t convince Matt’s Lab, Greta, she was bred to hunt. Oh, Greta enjoyed herself, tagging along, content to watch-but not participate-in the action. But she never got “birdy” or evinced interest in the actual hunting part of things. That’s OK. She’s a great family pup, much loved, and had a great vacation on the Plains!

I’d be remiss if I didn’t recount some additional details. First, everyone shot a rooster or two. Second, Violet, only a year and a half old, came into her own. She not only made that water retrieve, she ran after a rooster I hit, chasing it a half-mile down a ditch until she caught it and brought it back to me. Callie, though only a pup, displayed true championship abilities to find, point, and retrieve birds. Her stamina is truly amazing, And what can I say about Kena? I hit a rooster in cattails so thick, I couldn’t walk through them. She found the bird, grabbed it, and brought it to me like the veteran she is. The best part about the dog work? We didn’t lose a single bird over eight days of hunting.

Reid, Jack, Mark, Greta, and ND Birds.
Two ND Huns and Three ND Roosters.

In the end, I experienced a legacy hunt. As always, the Munger dogs outshined the Munger and Amborn sharpshooters. We got some birds and missed some birds but that’s OK. They’ll be there next fall, when God willing, we’ll be back for more adventures on the prairie. Nothing is certain in this world except this: The kindness of strangers, as proven by Mark and Brad, knows no bounds.

Thanks, guys, for making an old man’s dream come true.


Matt’s Intensity after Downing a Rooster is Palpable!
The Girls and Grandpa.
Jack, Somewhere North of Dagmar, MT.

Postscript: The tire? On the way home, the temperature warmed up and it stopped leaking. I brought it back to Fleet Farm and they diagnosed the issue: I had a broken rim. Fleet Farm put my spare on, wrapped my tire and rim in plastic, and stowed the rim and tire in the back of my Jeep. I found a replacement rim online. It arrived and I made an appointment. Fleet Farm removed the spare, pulled the tire off the old rim, remounted the tire on the new rim, mounted the new rim on the Jeep, and charged me sixteen bucks for all their trouble. Sixteen bucks!

I’m buying my new chainsaw and gas grill from Fleet Farm.

Lost Ground by Ulla Jordan (2015. Friesen Press. ISBN 9781460259863)

I picked up this book because the author, who’d read one of my Finnish-themed historical novels, reached out and suggested I might enjoy the tale. I did.

The writing in this rather short but sad and engaging story is finely crafted. The three main characters; Tom, an American journalist covering Finland’s Winter War; Paul, the slow-to-move-on-his-emotions suitor of a lovely, single Finnish woman who ends up in the trenches fighting the Soviets; and Tina, the love interest of both men; are all well-drawn and intriguing. The recalcitrance of Paul, the bravado and worldliness of Tom, and the kind, gentle radiance of Tina are all essential to the plot and theme of the book. There is just enough suspense and war and conflict to engage the male half of the readership universe while the relationships and the love triangle will certainly find an audience amongst the fairer sex. But it’s the writing that stands out. Witness this scene set in Karelia at a time when the Soviets are closing in intent on reclaiming land taken by the Finns:

(I)t was too late. Someone was on the front stoop, testing the door. They both clutched the boy and cowered in the far corner. It didn’t take long to break the flimsy lock and three dark figures swept in. Two wore brown coats and heavy boots … The third man lit the lamp on the table and the room danced with light …

See? Great prose. Great story. Great book.

4 and 1/2 stars out of 5. A great introduction to themes repeated and expanded in my novel, Sukulaiset.

Where the Light Enters by Jill Biden (2019. Flatiron.)

OK. This is a fairly light, airy read despite chronicling the travails our President-Elect and his second wife have endured. Much of the book repeats stories we already know: The accident that claimed Joe’s first wife and daughter; Joe’s prior ill-fated early runs for the White House; the tragic death of Beau to brain cancer. But there’s still a reason, if you are skeptical about mainstream media’s claims that Joe Biden is an honest, good, God-fearing, lovely human being: His wife provides ample evidence of all of those attributes as well as similar humility from President Obama:

“No one knew that President Obama was going to sing ‘Amazing Grace’ …It was astonishing to hear-the raw emotion in his voice, the kindness and humility from the most powerful man in the world. In that moment, every one of us was united in grace, in love, in allegiance against evil … After the memorial (for Rev. Pickney, a victim in the Charlestown, SC church murders) the President, the First Lady, Joe, and I met individually with the families of the Charleston Nine .. In small rooms, we hugged the family members. They spoke in low voices and told us stories about the lives lost.”

This is not a great book. But folks who doubt we now have a man of courage and faith and honor to replace the disaster of the past four years, should read this book.

3 and 1/2 stars out of 4.

Seven Pillars of Wusdom by T.E. Lawrence (1981. Penguin)

I grew up fascinated by Lawrence of Arabia. Consequently, I always wanted to read his account of the Great War in Palestine. Seven Pillars has been heralded since it was first published in 1926 in a massive, leather-bound, hand-autographed mammoth edition of over 260,000 words, as one of the great books of the 20th century. I’ve finally had the chance to read the excerpted, slenderized paperback of Lawrence’s recollections of war and his service and I don’t agree with the pundits. While Seven Pillars is certainly a learned treatise on the tactics, the politics, the language, the customs, and the religion of the era and the region, I found the complex nature of the hundreds of names and characters to be almost impossible to follow. The maps really don’t help put places and names and the various events into context. That said, I did learn some things.

For example, I learned that the scene from the movie, Lawrence of Arabia, where Lawrence is raped by a Turkish officer, while replicated here in prose, is, if you consult other sources, pure fiction. No one ever verified the incident took place. On a positive note, watching the film. one gets the idea that all of the action has something to do with what we call present day “Arabia”. The book makes it clear that the backdrop for T.E.s experience wasn’t Saudi Arabia but Syria, a place still in the news in terms of conflict.

In the end, despite the accolades, I was disappointed. It’s of interest to Mark the historian and the political scientist in that the beginnings of our present-day difficulties have their origins in decisions made post-WW I in the Middle East by European powers. Still, such revelations cannot compel me to consider this to be one of the greatest books of the 20th century.

3 stars out of 5.

The Silent Patient (Audible Book)

I’ll make it quick. Great book. Read it. Or listen to it while driving a Big Ass Camper across America, which is what René and I did. The plot and the characters and the pacing are all spot on. Anyone who loves psychological drama will be impressed.

4 and 1/2 star out of 5.

American Dirt (Audible Book)

Another good “listen” on our way across country. Again, I’d rather read such great prose and characterization but I had to settle for listening to it on Audible. There’s been some controversy attached to a non-Mexican writing such a detailed and considerable tale of Mexican immigration. Too bad. I wrote a story of the life and loves and travails of a contemporary African American woman (Esther’s Race) and I remain proud of my effort as Ms. Cummins should be of hers. Nicely done.

5 stars out of 5.

The Water Keeper (Audible Books)

OK, René. Your batting average for selecting audio books is still pretty good despite leading off with this one on our epic journey to Arizona. No. Don’t read it. This tale, which has as its premise sex trafficking, is so cartoonish, so outlandish in its depictions of the protagonist’s abilities and attributes, you’d swear you were listening to an episode of The Avengers (the superheroes, not the old British TV show). Don’t waste your time on this one, folks. The best that can be said is it filled up the time between Duluth and Kansas City with noise. Beyond that, it wasn’t worth a listen.

2 stars out of 5.



The Big Ass Camper in the Flagstaff KOA with Callie Standing Guard.

It only stands to reason. I am the son of Harry L. Munger, a man prone to misadventure when it comes to motor vehicles and long-distance travel. I mean, there are any number of stories about Harry and boat and snowmobile trailers gone awry I could call upon to make my point. But I won’t. Just accept me at my word when I tell you that I share my father’s proclivity for trailer-based disasters.

Last summer, René got it in her head that, since I was retired and she would be retiring shortly, we needed a travel trailer. I was OK with the notion because I envisioned us buying a nice little pop-up we could tow with our Jeep Grand Cherokee and its modest V-6. But that notion was quickly laid to rest when we began searching for something to tow. We ended up with a 33′ behemoth, nicely appointed no doubt, dubbed an “ultra light” by its maker, Forest River-Puma. At 6,400 pounds, it exceeded the towing capacity of the Jeep, necessitating yet another purchase. Loving my Jeep, we ended up buying another Grand Cherokee, this one dubbed an “Overland” edition, with a 5.7 liter Hemi V-8 and a towing capacity of 7,200 pounds. Barely enough to pull the camper but I wasn’t interested in the other options: a pick-up truck or a full-sized SUV.

In addition to being catastrophe prone when it comes to trailers, I’m the world’s worst when it comes to backing them up. My boys have stood by, laughing their asses off, any number of times as I’ve tried to back my fishing boat and trailer into the water. Sure, a back-up camera helps but, after trial and error, I’ve found the soundest logic is to simply watch my driver’s side mirror and fix an eye on the launch and the tires, keeping things in line as I back up. I’m no expert but, at least when it comes to backing up a 16′ foot boat and trailer, I’m getting better. That doesn’t mean I’m at all comfortable with the notion of trying to back a 33′ giant house between two other giant houses at a campground.

This is a long-winded way of saying that, when our friends the McVeans invited us to camp with them last summer, I insisted that any spot reserved for us would have to be what’s known as a “pull-through”, meaning you simply pull straight in, unhitch the trailer, and park your car. No backing up required. Nancy McVean ensured me that the spot reserved at the Apostle Islands Campground in Bayfield would be a pull-through. But when we arrived to check in, the owner was very apologetic: “I’m sorry. We only have one of those and it’s taken.” I was pretty sure the Big Ass Camper was going to head home at that point until I gleaned falsehood in what I was being told. Sure enough, I’d been set up. He was pulling my leg.

The new Jeep seemed adequate to haul the Puma to Bayfield and back. We also took a short jaunt, really the maiden voyage (a few weeks before the Bayfield excursion) to the KOA in Hayward. That too went smoothly and Matt and his two sons joined us for an overnight, with Lisa and Ari and my mom stopping in for dinner. Despite the Jeep feeling adequate to pull the Big Ass Camper during those two “trial runs”, trepidation bubbled just beneath the surface. I remained worried that the trailer was too heavy for the Jeep. But winter was on the horizon so I found a place to store the Puma and let the matter be.

This spring, Matt helped me pull the trailer out of storage and set it up in the backyard. Due to COVID, our family tradition of journeying north to the Scott Cabin on Whiteface Lake, a fifty-two year old legacy, didn’t happen. Which meant Matt and me and the boys fished the Cloquet River in my backyard, using the Puma as our basecamp. It was cold over the Fishing Opener and I learned some things. But for the life of me, I couldn’t figure out why, despite turning on the gas hot water heater, the spigots in the kitchen and bathroom delivered only cold water. I figured the water heater was on the fritz so I boiled water on the stove. I had the garden hose hooked up, supplying fresh water to the Puma, so that wasn’t an issue. I’d done a dry run by filling the fresh water tank and turning on the water heater and pump the summer before but, on our two camping outings, we’d hooked up to city water. I didn’t want to carry 50 gallons of fresh water from place to place, increasing the weight of the camper. During those earlier outings, the LP gas water heater worked well. I couldn’t get hot water to come out of the faucet as the boys and Matt and I caught one scrawny catfish over two days of fishing.

“I wonder if there’s a shut-off to the hot water tank that was turned off when the camper was winterized?”

Sure enough, about the time Matt and the grandkids were heading home, I opened up the panel to the heater and found there are not one but two shut-offs. Instant hot water. Lesson learned.

Matt reading during The Opener.

While talking to Ron McVean, a guy who has considerably more mechanical ability than me, I asked if it was possible to add an electric element to the hot water heater. My thought was, if you’re connected to the 30amp service at a campground, it would save on LP gas to be able to use electricity to heat water. “Oh sure. You just add an element to the tank and you’re good to go. They’re all adaptable.”

The next time I was out at the camper, I pulled the exterior cover off the hot water heater. That’s when I discovered the Puma came equipped with both LP and electric elements to heat water. There, in front of my eyes, as big as life, was an “on/off” switch. No need to buy an electric element: It was already installed!

I continued to fret about the size of the trailer knowing that we’d reserved a spot at the Verde Ranch RV Park in Camp Verde, AZ for a week in October. The plan was to drive the trailer to Arizona, stay the week, winterize the camper, and store it at a secure, outdoor lot in nearby Prescott. I’d spent over $700 bucks last winter storing the Puma near home but with the intent of returning to Verde Ranch in the spring, it made little sense to haul the camper to Minnesota, pay to store it, and then haul it back to the Southwest. It turns out the cost of storing the Puma in Prescott is several hundred dollars cheaper than storing it here, though two things are required to pull that off.

First, I’d have to winterize the water lines and water heater to prevent the lines from cracking. Second, because the Puma would be stored outside, I’d need to cover the trailer. I went online, found videos of the easiest and cheapest way to winterize (and checked with friends and Gander to make sure my plan made sense), and also bought a cover. Still, in the back of my mind the thought lingered: “Can the Jeep pull the camper all the way to Arizona?”

I made an appointment to get the Jeep’s oil changed. I also had the techs run the VIN of the Grand Cherokee to get the scoop on what the exact towing capacity of the vehicle is. Sure enough, it turns out the vehicle is fully equipped with the necessary transmission cooling system to tow up to 7,200 pounds. At least I wasn’t going to blow the tranny pulling René’s Big Ass Camper through the mountains.

A couple of short jaunts to Hayward this summer helped shake out more bugs. René found a great place, Lake Chippewa Campground, to stay at. We made two trips, one with just the McVeans and another with a group of their friends, again, using the excursions to learn more about the camping life, our trailer, and the Jeep. Turns out, when fiddling with the electronic display on the dash, I learned I have electronic read-outs for both the oil temp and the tranny temp. Good to know since, despite assurances from Duluth Jeep the car could safely tow the Puma, trepidation remained. Not so much concerning the towing capacity but more concretely, fears that a fierce wind could make the big rig problematic on the open road. Gander had installed an anti-sway and an electric braking system when I bought the rig to keep things safe. But hauling a house with a relatively small SUV, even one with an adequate engine and transmission, seemed daunting given we’d be driving through Minnesota, Iowa, Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona: Places where wind would likely be a factor.

Thursday morning. Up at the crack of dawn. The trailer was already hooked to the Jeep. The car was packed. With cups of hot coffee in hand, René and I and Callie, our little Brittany, pulled away from the house and set out for Camp Verde. I’d purchased a rearview camera and installed it on the camper to monitor traffic through an app on my cell phone. My iPhone 7 wouldn’t cooperate and, though I was able to see behind the trailer for a few miles, eventually the images stalled and I turned the thing off. I was relegated to using the mirrors which, thankfully on the Jeep, are big enough and adjustable so that it’s not a problem to see passing traffic.

Our first night in a KOA in St. Louis, MO was uneventful. Though we pulled in long after the office was closed, COVID protocol meant that our reservation paperwork, complete with directions to our campsite, was stuffed in a drawer outside the office. We parked, got things set up, and let Callie out to do her business. The place was clean and quiet, a perfect rest stop after twelve hours of driving.

One of the things you learn in a shake down cruise pulling a Big Ass Camper is to gauge distance. Given the size of the trailer and the limitations of the Jeep in high winds, I kept the speedometer at sixty on the freeways, which meant long days between stops. In addition, somewhere in Kansas, as we headed west towards the Panhandle of Oklahoma and Texas, the very expensive bike rack I’d mounted on the rear bumper of the Puma became an issue. After getting gas in a small, forgetable Kansas town, a guy pulled up alongside us. “Your bike is dragging,” he said, pointing to the rear of the trailer. I stopped, got out, and found the rear wheel of René’s new Aventon electric bike had bounced out of the rack and had been dragged behind us for several miles. Thankfully, other than wearing off some tread, there was no significant damage. I found a piece of rope, tied both bikes to the rack, and we were good to go.

“That could have been a disaster,” I said, reclaiming the driver’s seat. “Stupid-ass bike rack.”

My wife held her tongue.

Our next stop was the KOA in downtown Albuquerque, New Mexico. To get there, we had to endure some arduous travel through desolation. Fourteen hours later, we pulled in after midnight and were greeted by the KOA night man who, with flashlight in hand, led us to our site. The campground is conveniently located between one of the city’s main drags and the freeway, making it less than quiet. Still, Callie had her own fancy little kennel, complete with fake grass and fake fire hydrant.

Callie’s Safe Place in New Mexico.

When I went to pack up for the drive to Flagstaff, a short jaunt necessitated because our Camp Verde reservation didn’t start for another day, I learned that God indeed is great.


“What’s wrong?”

In connecting the sway bars to the hitch before we left home, I’d either improperly latched a pin securing one of the sway the bars or had completely missed sliding it in place. Either way, we’d driven from Kansas City to New Mexico, through thirty-mile an hour winds and over bouncing highways, with only the weight of the trailer keeping the sway bar from falling off and dragging behind the Jeep.

“I need to go buy a pin for the sway bar,” I said, not revealing to my wife how close we’d come to disaster. A quick stop at the office and I learned that Rocky Mountain RV was just down the street. We drove to the store. I bought some treatment for the black water (sewage) tank and three new pins for the sway bars. I put one of the pins in the hitch and the other two in my tool box. “Not gonna let that happen again,” I muttered.

The quick dash to Flagstaff turned into a crawl. A traffic accident meant that all four lanes, two east and two west, were shut down. The five hour trip took eight. We found the Flagstaff KOA, claimed our reservation from the after-hours box, set up, and spent a nearly incident-free night in a quiet, peaceful setting beneath mountains and pines.

I said nearly incident-free because, when I woke up in the night to let Callie out (she sleeps in a kennel in the trailer), as we stepped outside a skunk skittered out from under the Puma. I kept Callie in close on the leash until the critter vanished but visions of my last encounter with a skunk, where Leala-Callie’s predecessor-was sprayed in the face while pheasant hunting loomed large. Thankfully, the New Mexican skunk didn’t fire and all was right with the world.

Verde Ranch RV is a short drive down the mountains from Flagstaff. What a lovely spot! Because it’s only seven months’ old, the sites, pool, laundry, and other facilities are immaculate. In addition, as I discovered the next morning while walking Callie, the campground sits on the Verde River, which unlike many Arizona watersheds, has water flowing in it year-round.

Camp Verde.

The only disquieting thing about our time at the resort were huge, super-expensive motor homes flying Trump flags. There was only one Biden flag. I made it a point to stop in, mask in place, to thank the couple flying Uncle Joe’s colors.

“You made my day,” I said as an older couple sat in their matching lawn chairs sipping adult beverages.

“Thanks. You’d be surprised at how many folks stop by to say that.”

I should clarify a point. The Grand Cherokee pulled the Puma, all 6,400 pounds and 33 feet of it, just fine. At times, the wind was an issue but, all in all, the Jeep did its job. That said, I enjoyed camping in Hayward and Bayfield and my backyard because the Puma wasn’t outclassed, even by the motorhomes driven by the McVean’s and their friends. But at Verde Ranch? Our camper was one of the more modest units amongst the half-million dollar plus motorhomes surrounding us, Trump flags or not.

Drinking a festive local brew at our site.
A hike amongst Sedona’s red rocks.
Callie’s morning walk along the Verde.

In our week of exploring the area, we made it back to Sedona (our third visit), the artsy town of Jerome, enjoyed fine Mexican food and great wine with Laurie and Clark Kerchen (I’d worked with Laurie in Lake County) in little-visited Cottonwood, took in Montezuma’s Castle and Well (misnamed locales that have nothing to do with Aztecs), all the while keeping our social distance, wearing masks when indoors, and generally loving our time in the high desert.

Of course, there were a couple of glitches. First, I couldn’t get the black water tank, the tank that holds the toilet proceeds, to empty. While I was working on that issue, I discovered water leaking from the faucet connections inside the bathroom vanity. I’d already tightened loose connections under the kitchen sink, experienced the water heater exploding hot water all over the exterior of the camper, and had nary a clue as to what the hell was going on. I tried and tried and tried to stem the flow of water dribbling down the hot and cold water hoses feeding the bathroom faucet but felt like Lucy in that episode with the chocolates on the conveyor belt: I’d stop one leak only to find another. My language was not something you can print in a family blog and my cursing awoke my wife and Callie.

“I’m going to the office to get laundry soap,” René said after she’d pulled on her clothes. “I’ll see if they can help.”

By then, I’d already called the Good Sam number, thinking that since I’d paid for 7 years of warranty protection, someone should offer instant assistance. After being put on hold, being given numbers to places that no longer offered RV or trailer service, and finally leaving my number on the answering machines of two repair shops, I wandered outside, cell phone in hand, fuming.

“I have a problem,” I said to John Benson, a pal from Proctor. John’s an ex-carpenter and a snowplow driver whose owned a motorhome for years. I figured he was my best bet. I started by explaining my black water problem.

“You got a hose? Not the one you use for fresh water, but one you use for cleaning?”

I did.

“Open up the valves and drop the hose down the toilet. Turn it on full. That should break things up.”

I was in the process of doing just that when René returned. She held out a brass fitting in her right hand to me.

“What’s that?”

She nodded towards the office. “Seems they have water pressure issues. They were supposed to tell us when we checked in but didn’t. This will regulate the pressure.” I accepted the device. After following John’s instructions and cleaning out the blockage in the sewer tank (I had to bring the hose in from the outside because I’d shut off the water to the trailer due to all the leaks), I dropped two tablets I’d bought in New Mexico down the toilet. A friendly guy we met in the hot tub, upon hearing about my potty woes, recommended putting in two tablets and letting things sit for two days before I tried to empty the black water again. That chore done, I hooked up the pressure regulator, reconnected the water and, viola, the leaks stopped. No more water gushing from the hot water heater either. We were lucky. Turns out, whenever you hook up to city water, you should have a pressure regulator in place. And, in another hot tub discussion, we learned you should also have a surge protector on your electrical hook-up to prevent a surge from frying every appliance in the place. No one at Gander bothered to tell us about either necessity and, given that Forest River (they own Puma) doesn’t believe is supplying a manual with their campers, you are pretty much on your own when it comes to discovering such maladies. The backed up poop? By the time we were ready to leave Camp Verde and tow the camper to Prescott, the pellets had worked their magic.

Montezuma’s Castle
Montezuma’s Well.
Last Night in Arizona.

We scouted out the RV storage facility the day before we were scheduled to leave. Of course, the Jeep’s GPS sent us on a wild goose chase by asserting the road we were seeking was a through highway when it wasn’t. In the end, we found the place, checked it out, and the next morning, I used a bike tire pump to blow out the water lines after opening the low-point valves to drain the system. Try as I might, I couldn’t get a wrench on the hot water tank’s plug (which doubles, as I said, as the element). My sockets were too small so I figured I’d pick up a socket set in Prescott and drain the water heater at the storage lot. Right. Long story short. Two trips into town for sockets and I never did find one that fit. I tried, using the bike pump, to blow the water out the tank’s pressure release valve but, unconvinced I’d got it all, I hit upon a plan.

“Mike will be here next week,” I told René after exhausting my patience and my endurance. Mike Town and his wife Jill rent a place just up the road, one of the reasons we’d picked the Prescott/Verde area to vacation. I knew I could count on Mike to take care of draining the water heater.

In addition to that issue, my lovely wife and I were trying to put the new canvas cover on the camper in a forty-mile an hour gale. We got it done but our marriage barely survived. Instead of a half-hour project, we spent three hours messing around with the water heater and the cover. “I’ll call Mike once I figure out the right size socket he’ll need,” I said as I closed up the Puma, climbed into the Jeep, and we headed east.

An internet search revealed the socket was an odd size: 1 and 1/16ths inch, a size only a mechanic has in his or her toolbox. I texted Mike. He said he’d take care of things.

Cover secure. Time to drive home.

Compared to the travails experienced trying to winterize the camper, our trip home (despite a blizzard hitting Arizona, New Mexico and all points north) was uneventful except for discovering a slow leak in the Jeep’s rear passenger tire. We stayed at the Drury Suites in Santa Fe (highly recommended) and at a Best Western in downtown KC (modest by comparison) before making it home in one piece.

Mike and his brother in law drained the water heater a week after we left so I suspect René’s Big Ass Trailer is resting comfortably. I can only hope the Puma is still in one piece when we return in March.


The Weary Traveler

The Tour by Bill Staines (2003. Xlibris. ISBN 1-4134-0964-4)

Bill Staines is as close as you’re going to come to seeing the great minstrels of old like Woody Guthrie and Burl Ives. His songs resonate years after being penned and his voice harkens back to a prior age of folk music. I’ve met Bill twice. The first occasion saw me teaching a course on self-publishing and Bill teaching a course on songwriting at an arts retreat in Otter Tail County, Minnesota. My session ended early so I wandered into Bill’s songwriting clinic just before lunch. He was seated at an old upright piano with a woman likely in her late seventies. He asked her to play one of her original songs. The woman sang in that high, weak, way some female vocalists do when they are of a certain age. “That was nice,” Bill said. “How about another?” She nodded, pulled out a score, and began playing. While the words were different, the tune was identical to her first piece. She played another. Same thing. Rather than dump cold water on the flames of creativity, Bill simply said, “Nicely done. I think it’s time for lunch.” His patience and kindness were in marked contrast to a poet on the bill teaching a poetry class. That guy essentially trashed everyone’s work and seemed to relish crushing spirits. I hold the memory of Bill’s generosity close to my heart and I dearly wanted it to shine through in this book.

The memoir is in two parts. One section chronicles his tours of America over the first portion of his career (the book came out in 2003 and Bill is still making great music). The “past” vignettes coincide with his two “greatest hits CDs” (which I have); The First Million Miles and The Second Million Miles; the titles referring to the fact that Staines drives across America each fall to play small venues like churches and coffee shops and music stores. He sells his CDs at such events, meets folks, has a libation or two, and revels in the breadth and depth of American life as he tours. All that comes through in his reportage, as does his love of the folks who’ve either booked him, worked on his albums, attended his concerts, or put him up for the night.

The second portion of the memoir (the two sections are interwoven) details a recent (as of 2003) tour. But the sections are so indistinguishable, it’s hard to remember whether you’re delving into the past or experiencing the near-present as you read. But that’s not my real criticism of the book. It’s this: Knowing what a fine human being and terrific singer/storyteller Bill Staines is, while the chronicling of his many miles is not doubt accurate, it’s devoid of passion: It’s reportage, not storytelling and that isn’t what I was expecting. A good example is that, throughout the book, Staines laments being away from his wife and son and the family dog. We are told, in essence, “I miss them.” But why? Other than obvious homesickness, what is it about your wife, your son, your dog, or where you live that compels such lament? We are left clueless. There is, as I said in a short Goodreads review of this memoir, “no heart” behind such statements to be found in the book.

Still, for a Bill Staines fan (and I am one) the sections detailing his touring, the making of his music, the stories behind singular songs ( “Redbird’s Wings” comes to mind), and the mechanics and travails of a folk musician’s life on the road (much akin to what small-time authors experience as they hawk books) make for an interesting, if not compelling, read. So, it you are Bill Staines fan, by all means, pick this memoir up. If not, I’d say buy one of his CDs instead. You’ll learn more about the man listening to his songs than reading his words.

3 and 1/2 stars out of 5.



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