In 1859 the Pony Express linked the east coast of the United to the West, a 1900 mile run from St. Joseph Missouri – the end of the telegraph line – to Sacramento California. The riders were often lightweight teenage boys, most notably Buffalo Bill.
When they cantered up The Avenue of the Fountains an unexpected lump came up in my throat. Although growing up on the east coast, many iconic images of the west are woven into the fabric of my childhood: the Grand Canyon, Monument Valley, Yosemite, Yellowstone, saguaro cactuses, California redwoods, giant sequoias, pioneers, wagon trains, cowboys. And the Pony Express.
America and Americans suffer a poor image abroad thanks to moronic celebrities, stupid movies, unfunny sitcoms, intrusive media, grasping politicians and greedy corporations but there are many more reasons to be proud of my country and my fellow Americans and The Hashknife Pony Express exemplifies this.
They epitomize the grit and determination of our forebears. Much of the landscape of the West is unforgiving – expansive deserts, dense forests, vast mountain ranges and worse places, like Death Valley where the temperature once reached 134º F and badlands, rocky terrains remarkable to see but treacherous to navigate. I have admired the beauty of these places from the comfort of a climate controlled vehicle and am constantly astounded at the resolve of my countrymen who came west – on foot, in wagons and on horseback.
The Hashknife Pony Express finishes their 200 mile mail run today in Scottsdale AZ.
Once we’d decided absolutely to live in Florida, we fell for the seductive charms of the American Southwest.
We were lured by arid landscapes on high plateaus with layers of rugged purple mountain ranges as a backdrop; warm dry air; sunlight so bright I can almost see to read without my glasses; desert sunsets; a pleasing mix of Spanish and Native American architecture; acres of white sand with no sea in sight; the unfamiliar flora of Joshua trees (the funny little people of the tree world on which it is said Dr. Seuss modeled his trees), saguaros, mesquite trees, tumbleweeds, incredible cactus flowers; the unfamiliar and thrilling fauna of scorpions, rattlesnakes, coyotes and road runners.
And flying saucers.
The guidebook we were using recommended a visit to the UFO Museum in Roswell, New Mexico. In its words the museum “inadvertently exposes the whole tawdry business as transparent nonsense” referring to the 1947 crash landing of a flying saucer manned by little aliens.
The feeling I had as we entered the museum was not disbelief so much as not really caring one way or the other, the same as if I was going to see a science fiction movie. I expected to be entertained by a lighthearted couple of hours looking at mocked up spaceships.
As I began to read through witness statements, taken at the time and in later years, as well as the government and military’s vehement denials (to this day) that anything otherworldly had happened, I became intrigued. As I looked at grainy photographs and amateur drawings, my interest waned.
Then I saw it – a drawing of a spaceship I had seen when I was a little girl. Jimmy drifted further away in the museum as I stared at the simple drawing. It all came back to me as clearly as if it were yesterday.
I was no more than five years old and sitting in the back seat of my father’s Buick as he drove along Taylor Avenue close to where we lived at the time in the suburbs north of Baltimore. What appeared to be a commercial airliner without wings – although I wouldn’t even have thought of it in those terms at that age – was hovering right above the houses facing the road. It was so low I could see the rectangles of light of the “passenger” windows. My little girl mind imagined it was landing on the rooftops. The image seared on my mind was the row of rectangles of dazzling bright light. And as I stared it zoomed off.
The sight was vivid in my little mind for many years, then faded with the decades.
And I had never spoken of it.
Rushing to find Jimmy, I blurted out, “I’ve seen a flying saucer.”
“Well of course you have.”
“No! Not here. When I was a little girl. But I never told anyone.”
“Why?” he asked, grinning at me.
“Maybe I thought they wouldn’t believe me.”
“Are you sure it wasn’t one of your crazy dreams?”
It wasn’t a dream, was it?
I went back and stared at the drawing some more. No. It wasn’t a dream. It had been early evening and dark. The rectangles of light had been intense in the large dark shape hovering over the rooftops. A stationary aircraft, but not a helicopter and it didn’t make a sound. I had known that wasn’t quite right, but a five-year-old’s head is full of wonderment and anything is possible. My mind hadn’t developed the ability to analyze using logic.
I hadn’t said anything to anyone because . . . why hadn’t I said anything? More than feeling silly, I was scared. This was at the height of the Cold War with the U.S.S.R. It frightened me. I never told a soul.
At my elementary school, as well as fire drills, we had air raid drills. Every classroom in the school trooped into the corridors and closed the classroom doors to protect ourselves from flying glass. Shoulder to shoulder we faced the wall, crouched down, and face to the floor clasped our hands behind our necks and waited for the all clear. The posture would have been useless with post-war bombs but we continued to practice the drill at various schools for years.
It was all very alarming in a strangely exhilarating way. The Russians were coming. The spaceship I saw I was convinced was full of Russians and they were going to bomb us. If I never told anyone what I saw it might never happen.
That’s how it worked in my tiny mind and Jimmy confirmed a similar way of juvenile thinking a few days later by telling me of a headline he’d seen as a young lad delivering newspapers. “Khrushchev Says 8 Bombs Will Obliterate England.” He was fearful too, and for years, but never confided in his family or friends. Perhaps we’d have made good spy material. Strong silent types.
Although no physical evidence remains, the documents on display at the UFO Museum were very compelling. Those, with my own sighting and a photo of a flying saucer over the Chesapeake Bay were enough.
Over the years, numerous and diverse witnesses have given similar accounts of flying discs, scorched earth at the crash landing site, descriptions of pieces of the craft that had no earthly properties and alien bodies, one of which (of whom?) was alive for a short time.
Interestingly, the witnesses of the Roswell incident who blabbed to the press and flying saucer investigators were the ones not in government employment.
The rancher who discovered the crash site was asked “What about the little green men?” and in an unguarded moment he replied, “I never said they were green.”
Government officials and career military personnel (who were later in life in receipt of a government pension) don’t even remember the “incident” and denied being involved when documentary evidence proves the contrary. Now you have to ask yourself why?
I don’t care if you don’t believe I saw a UFO. Decades later the remembered image is still intoxicating. In the words of one of the many witnesses who weren’t dependent on a government pension,
Bill Bryson in The lost Continent was looking for the prettiest town in America but falls short of finding one with all his desired attributes so goes about constructing his dream town of Amalgam from different towns with the bits he takes a shine to. A motel here, a Main Street there, a barbershop, a five-and-dime, an authentic and original movie theater, not the dreaded multiplex with screens the size of “bath towels.” A picturesque downtown with real stores were cherry-picked and, well, amalgamated.
As I pondered this we were on a long straight stretch of county road through rural Georgia. A gaggle of police cars with blue lights flashing appeared in the distance. A fierce-looking state trooper waived us down. My eyes fixed on the gun in his holster that bobbed on his disproportionately large hips. He approached, proceeded by his belly and a big cigar and grimly informed us that he was going to do an “equipment check.”
So it’s to be Georgia where we are disappeared by the local police – not Louisiana, not Alabama, not Texas as some so-called friends and erstwhile relatives had led me to believe.
Step out of the car. Hands behind your head. On your knees. Bang! was the scene that flashed through my mind and knocked out all thoughts of a pretty home town.
Before I had a chance to beg for my life the trooper had checked our headlights, blinkers, brake lights and horn. When he’d decided we were fit to continue to drive through his state his pudgy face softened into friendliness.
“You’ve come a long way,” he chuckled on seeing our Washington license plates. Little did he know that that was our second pass ’round the country – on track for 20,000 miles by the time we looped back to Washington State.
Jimmy replied, “We didn’t do it all today,” and they laughed companionably.
“Well y’all drive safe. God love ya!” and his toothy grin was topped off by twinkling eyes.
God and the State Trooper seem to love us enough to let us pass through Georgia.
If God really loved me He’d find me a house in Amalgam.
It is quite endearing that nine out of ten Americans when asked where is the perfect place to live? will immediately tell you the name of their home town, actively promoting it as though they are a member of the Chamber of Commerce. Have they really considered the question or is it just a point of pride or familiarity?
Here is an interesting conundrum. Imagine that your house has been sold and you have the cash in the bank (assuming you have a house and assuming you have no mortgage. Remember this is make believe) and you have no job. What you do have is an RV and sufficient income to travel the country for a year or two before you settle down again. (Some of us are already in this position!) Try to take family and friends out of the equation and think – where would you go? What places would you visit? Where would you like to end up?
Now make it a bit more interesting. Take yourself and your RV to a foreign country and give yourself residency there. What country would you choose and how would you go about looking for somewhere to live?
All I really need at this point is a real estate brochure advertising an affordable house with a swimming pool and a little ground for a garden and I’m there, settled, seeing out my sunset years.
“What I really, really want is a house in southern California, with a mountain view backdrop behind and an infinity pool in the front, beyond which I can watch Pacific sunsets.” An hysterical laugh burbled up out of Jimmy’s throat. “Okay. Okay. It’s a movie star’s house, but you never know, we might stumble on a bargain.”
Himself didn’t even comment.
Traveling east to west in northern Florida, I amused myself with the previously mentioned brochure instead of staring pointlessly at the road atlas for hours, losing concentration just when my assistance was needed. “Listen to this. Thirty acres in the country, all fenced, four beds, three and a half baths, two car garage, large family room with fireplace, eat-in kitchen/breakfast room overlooks stunning pool and deck, kitchen with granite countertops, marble back splash, two pantries, exquisite master suite, large bonus room.”
“It’s quarter past . . . oh. Did I change my watch or not?”
“I don’t know. I changed mine but I think I changed it back again.”
“Isn’t that the six o’clock news we’re watching?”
“It’s Dothan (Alabama). It was the five o’clock news the last time we watched it when we were on Central Time.”
“Well he just said the six o’clock news.”
“He said it was coming up.”
“It’s six o’clock Eastern Time so it’s the six o’clock news.”
“We’ve changed time zones, not Dothan, unless they’ve moved it since this morning.”
“Alright, smarty pants. The time on the microwave should be correct. It says . . . ah, I think I set that to my watch and I don’t know what time my watch is set to.”
“The clock in the car! I changed that from Central Time to Eastern Time after we came through Mexico Beach. That will definitely be on Eastern Time.”
On numerous occasions we’d been caught out by driving into another time zone and had been plus or minus an hour without knowing it, sometimes for a couple of days. With no deadlines to keep, time was more a habit than a necessity.
Having checked the road atlas I knew exactly where the time zone line was and had sat, rather childishly, staring at my cell phone to see the exact place where the time read out would jump forward an hour as we drove eastwards on the Gulf coast of Florida. It was an event for us – not changing time zones but remembering that it would happen.
What was so confusing that day was that we had driven from Central time to Eastern Time, then south and west into a state park and north onto a peninsula. The park according to its “quiet hours” was on Eastern Time but on the campsite our phones had gone back to Central time. According to the road atlas we were right on the dividing line on a spit of land across from St. Joseph’s Bay.
“So if the park gate is on Eastern Time, are we on Eastern Time even though, according to our phones, we appear to be back on Central Time? What time do we set our watches to?”
I really had no idea so decided to set the microwave clock forward an hour and start cooking as it was then six thirty. Somewhere.
Changing times zones is no phenomenon to an American used to traveling or telephoning around the country, but the whole of the UK is on Greenwich Mean Time (or British Summer Time but let’s not confuse the issue any more than I already have with daylight savings time) so that any road trip taken doesn’t involve guessing what the time is upon arrival. One simply looks at one’s watch (or clock or phone). Unless you are driving through the Channel Tunnel to France, but any fool knows to add an hour for arrival time in France and subtract and hour when coming back to the UK (except us of course, the first few times we made the trip).
The ten o’clock news came on and we were still undecided as to where it was ten o’clock and which time zone we were in.
“Well I’m tired and I really want to go to bed but it’s too early if it’s ten o’clock.” I laid down the bed anyway and looked at the clock. “Aha! I haven’t touched my bedside clock, so it’s still on Central time. “I can just put it forward to Eastern Time which is 11:00. Bedtime!”
That little trick didn’t work. I still woke up early, five o’clock Eastern time, four o’clock Central, as they say on TV.
After waiting until a sensible 8:00/7:00 I announced, “I’d like to go for a walk on the beach today at high tide. I’ve got a tide table here. High tide is 3:28 PM.”
“Is that Eastern or Central?”
We had a number of departure times for our walk as we’d messed up all our timepieces. Except our phones. They were accurate, but which time zone were we in?