Author Archives: Tippy Gnu

McKinney Ranch

Tales of Little Morongo

Chapter 1: McKinney Ranch

Back in the 1920s and ‘30s, Palm Springs, California was transforming into a resort town for health tourists and movie stars. My great-grandfather worked as a carpenter back then, and helped build famous Palm Springs hotels, such as the El Mirador, in 1927. The El Mirador Hotel was demolished and replaced by a hospital in the 1970s. But its iconic tower on Indian Canyon Drive was spared, and remains standing to this day.

One of my great-grandfather’s sons, my great-uncle Clarence, became the first movie theater projectionist in Palm Springs, during the 1930s. This “movie theater” was not much back then, consisting of just a large tent, with some chairs, a screen, and a projector. But it was where my great-uncle’s career began. This was the only job he would ever have, apart from a few years serving in a different kind of theater, while in the U.S. Navy. That was World War II’s Pacific Theater, where he saw action at Iwo Jima.

After the Navy, Uncle Clarence returned to Palm Springs, bought a house with a G.I. loan, got married, and returned to work running the movie projector at the local theater. Which by this time was a solid building. There he stayed contentedly employed for the next 40-plus years.

One of my favorite memories was when he allowed me to spend a shift with him, in the projector room of what was now a large cineplex. This was in 1979, and the original Superman movie was one of the featured films. But I didn’t give a damn about watching Christopher Reeves save the planet. Rather, I was fascinated with my uncle’s explanations about how projectors work, and watching him load the reels onto the big machines.

We lost touch with each other until about 20 years later, when I was working as a mailman in Palm Springs, subbing on someone else’s route. I recognized his house and brought his mail to his door. He was in his eighties by this time, and his memory was slipping a little. But after about a minute of reminding him who I was, he remembered and invited me inside.

This was one of the few times I broke my work ethic, and extended my ten-minute break beyond its limits. Uncle Clarence and I had some catching up to do. Thank god no postal manager decided to check up on me, or I would have had some awkward explaining to do after I returned to my mail truck a half-hour later. But I made it up to the U.S. Postal Service, by skipping a few breaks over the next several days. So it’s all good.

Uncle Clarence lived near the union hall, so after that I would stop and visit him on my way to union meetings. And he would regale me with stories of the old Palm Springs, when it was just a dusty, dirt road, hole-in-the-wall.

For instance, he told me about how Palm Springs had no school back then, so he and his schoolmates would have to ride a bus 40 miles, one-way, to attend classes in Yucaipa. Kids had to behave on that bus, or the bus driver would kick them out and make them ride standing, on the back bumper. I guess those were different times, when we had fewer lawyers.

But that’s not why I’m writing this post. No, I’ve brought up my uncle Clarence so I can bring up the subject of Little Morongo Canyon. Uncle Clarence gives me a good excuse to do that.

When he was growing up, he became friends with the McKinney family. They owned a ranch in Little Morongo Canyon, on the south side of Morongo Valley. Morongo Valley is about 15 miles north of Palm Springs, and 2,000 feet higher. In fact it’s located at the very southwestern tip of the Mojave desert.

Little Morongo Canyon hosts the Little Morongo River. This river flows mostly underground, from the rugged foothills of the San Bernardino mountains, traveling about 10 miles to Morongo Valley. There it crosses the valley on a subterranean and transverse path, and continues another 5 miles or so through the Little San Bernardino mountains, finally playing out near the city of Desert Hot Springs.

Although it’s mostly underground, here and there the river gurgles up, forming small and large springs. Probably the largest springs are located at McKinney Ranch. The McKinney family are the original homesteaders of this sparkling jewel of the Mojave desert, and my uncle was friends with these pioneers, from way back in the 1920s and ‘30s.

My uncle had a daughter named Melinda, who eventually married one of old man McKinney’s grandchildren. I barely knew her, but even so, this marriage made me kind of a shoestring relative of the McKinney’s. And my sister too. My sister owned a large horse ranch near Little Morongo Canyon, and once in awhile she’d take me on rides to the McKinney Ranch. Because we were relatives, we were allowed to tromp on their property.

I have no photos of McKinney Ranch, but this oasis at Fortynine Palms Canyon typifies the native palm trees that reflect in the waters of oases found in lower parts of the Mojave Desert.

This is a heavenly piece of land. Here, the Little Morongo River bubbles up to feed large ponds surrounded by palm trees. It’s a stunningly lush oasis in the midst of the blistering, harsh elements of the hot and dry Mojave. I’ve always been impressed with the McKinney Ranch, and feel fortunate to have ridden its trails.

But Melinda eventually divorced her McKinney spouse, and my sister and I lost our relative status as relatives. Nonetheless, it was an amicable divorce, so we still retained entry privileges. And my uncle Clarence continued to remain old friends of this family, also. In fact, they adored him, and visited him frequently.

Sadly, Melinda developed brain cancer, and passed away. This happened about the same time my uncle’s wife also died from cancer. So in just a few quick swoops, life turned against my aging uncle, and he was left devastated and alone.

The last time I knocked on my uncle’s door was in 2006. He was 88 at this time, and growing more and more forgetful. He didn’t recognize me, and appeared frightened. I had to spend several minutes reminding him who I was, until his face finally lit up and he invited me inside.

But he still seemed a little unsure about me, and our conversation proceeded in fits and starts. After this I decided it was probably best never to return. I didn’t want to scare him anymore.

He passed away in 2011, at the age of 92. And his ashes were scattered at his favorite spot on Earth. The McKinney Ranch.

But again, that’s not why I’m writing this post. This is merely an excuse to bring up Little Morongo Canyon. I’ve had some memorable adventures in this canyon, myself, just like my uncle during his youthful years. Here I confronted my fear of bears. Here I worked as a real-life, genuine cowboy. Here I was recruited to break up a romance. And here I nearly died, along with my father-in-law.

I’m getting too old for anymore such adventures, so I doubt I’ll ever follow the trails through Little Morongo Canyon again. But I’ll always have my memories. And it’s these memories that I’ll be posting about, during this six-part series.

This is the first installation of my six-part series, Tales of Little Morongo. Come on back in a few days for the next installation, entitled, Chapter 2: Touching a Bear .

The Unicorn Clarified

Today is National Unicorn Day, which is always a day of celebration for my blog. I wish everyone a Happy Unicorn Day! And may we all be very successful catching unicorns today, and every day.

Newcomers to this blog may wonder what I mean by “unicorn,” and sometimes I worry they may get the wrong idea. So be advised, newbies, that I define a unicorn as anything that is unique. There are many other definitions that are quite valid elsewhere, but not here.

For instance, there’s the classic definition, of the mythical beast with one horn. And in fact, I use that beast as a symbol for uniqueness. But it’s just a symbol. It isn’t the uniqueness itself.

Other animals have also been called unicorns. For instance, there’s the Hercules beetle, which has a horn-like prominence on its head. And then there’s the Schizura unicornis caterpillar, which has a large horn sticking out of it’s back, near it’s head. And as for flying unicorns, there’s the Kamichi, or Unicorn Bird (also known as a Horned Screamer).

A pod of narwhals.

As for swimming unicorns, in the Arctic sea we have the narwhal, which has a single-horned tusk sticking out of it’s forehead. During medieval times, these tusks were often passed off as unicorn horns, and were considered to have magical properties.

In the swinger world, a unicorn is a polyamorous woman who loves threesomes, as such women are considered to be very rare.

Given that unicorns are often associated with rainbows, the unicorn has become a symbol of the LGBT+ community.

The unicorn label has been applied to a person with three or more skills, in a new field of expertise, or to any exceptional employee with rare qualities, just due to the rareness of such a worker.

And in finance, a unicorn is a startup company with a valuation of over one billion dollars, that has not gone public yet.

This is just a small sampling of the many ways the term “unicorn” has been bandied about. It seems to be a very versatile word.

Therefore, for the sake of clarity, let me emphasize that this blog is not about exotic animals, polyamorous women, the LGBT+ community, skilled employees, startup companies, or anything else, except where that thing is rare, novel, unusual, weird, odd, unheard-of, or otherwise unique.

So here’s wishing everyone many unique and enjoyable experiences on this National Unicorn Day!

The Hana Highway to Hell

Most people, including my wife and me, haven’t traveled much over the past year, due to Covid restrictions. Hawaii has had some of the strictest restrictions. They’ve even had to sell many of their rental cars, due to having no place to park them. So now that they’re opening up, rental cars can cost tourists in Honolulu a thousand dollars a day. How lacking in foresight. I want to thumb my nose at those paranoid kanakas. So I’ve unearthed an old post from a previous blog, about a bad experience my wife and I had in Hawaii. This was originally posted in 2015, on my now defunct blog called, Golden Daze:

The Hana Highway to Hell

My wife was tired. Maui was our fourth island. She just wanted to take a short, scenic route, then return to the hotel room and rest.

“How about a drive to the top of Haleakala,” I suggested, “then a quick jaunt around the mountain? Shouldn’t take more than an hour-and-a-half to do Haleakala, and then two hours around the mountain. Three if we stop a lot to take pictures. Which we probably will, since they say the Hana highway is one of the most beautiful highways in the world.”

“Okay, but no more than that. I get tired sitting in the car all day.”

I felt a little disappointed. National Car Rental had given me a deal on a Cadillac, for just $50 a day. I wanted to fill the whole day with driving, looking and feeling like a rich old duffer.

Haleakala took three hours, which was twice as long as I had estimated. But the view from the top of the volcano, at 10,023 feet, was breathtaking. My wife loved it, and the drive seemed to revivify her. “Are you up to the drive around the mountain, now?”

Western Maui, from the very top of Haleakala.

“If it’s only two or three hours, sure,” she said, with a perk in her voice.

Vrrroom. Off we zoomed, down the Hana Highway to Hell. In a black Cadillac. We decided to take the road less traveled first, which is the road around the leeward, or dry side, moving counterclockwise around Haleakala from the south. Most people drive the north side first, through tropical jungles and waterfalls, passing through the picturesque town of Hana at the east end of Maui. But I guess Robert Frost had inspired me to go counterclockwise. Damn you, Robert Frost!

One of our first stops in our peregrination was at the Ulupalakua Ranch Store. I saw a teeshirt for sale that had a drawing of the highway that circumambulates Haleakala, with the message, “I Survived the Hana Road.” That was my first warning sign, indicating that I should turn back now. But I scoffed. After all, the road was well-surfaced (a little narrow, but not too bad) and there was very little traffic.

Very little traffic. That was my second warning sign. But I failed to recognize it.

On we continued, stopping occasionally to photograph eye-popping scenery. I noticed that the highway was getting narrower. And there was no longer a line painted down the middle. But the smooth road surface allowed that Caddy to roar away. And besides, there was hardly any traffic.

We stopped to photograph a deep gully with a bridge, near a wild, rocky ocean beach. Then we proceeded down the gully, to discover it was a one-lane bridge. This was my third warning sign. One-lane bridges in Hawaii require you to stop before reaching the bridge to allow any traffic to cross, coming from the other direction. But like I say, traffic was light, so we zipped right across this little bridge without pause.

Our first one-way bridge, on the Hana Highway to Hell.

Everything changed on the other side. Suddenly the road became very narrow and twisty. I couldn’t get up to more than 25 mph. And then an awful thing happened. The road surface turned into something that resembled a toad’s back. This was my fourth sign.

It was paved, I’ll grant it that, but the asphalt consisted of what appeared to be thousands of filled potholes. This made it bumpier than most dirt roads. The fastest I could manage was about 7 mph. “This can’t last very long,” I looked over and reassured my worried wife. But it did. It continued for the next hour or so. And I slowly came to realize that this tour would last much longer than three hours. The theme from Gilligan’s Island began to play in my head.

The road reduced to one lane and became very twisty, as it threaded its way around the steep, rugged flanks of Haleakala. Signs warned drivers to honk their horns before proceeding around some of the blind curves. Other signs warned about falling rocks. I looked up at the cliffs straight above us and gulped as I realized a ten-ton rock could crash through our roof at any moment. Why do they have those warning signs anyway? How the hell do you avoid a falling rock?

The historic and picturesque Huialoha Church, built in 1859.

Traffic was light, and now I knew why. But occasionally some wide-eyed, white-knuckled tourist would approach from the opposite direction. One of us would pull over as far as we dared, to allow the other to pass. And in my full-size Cadillac, this wasn’t easy. I rued the day that I jumped for this rental car deal.

Some of the rugged coastline, along the Hana Highway to Hell.

We humpety-humped our way to the Seven Pools of Ohe’o. This is part of Haleakala National Park, and it was packed with tourists. Tourists who had obviously come from the other direction. This was a good sign for me. It augured smooth, wide roads ahead, with high-numbered speed limits. “We’ll be back to the hotel in no time,” I reassured my tired, sighing wife.

One of the Seven Pools of Ohe’o.

But I was wrong. The only thing that improved was the road surface. The road remained very narrow, forcing me to slow my wide-bodied Cadillac way down whenever traffic approached from the opposite direction. And now there was lots of traffic. What idiots, I thought. Why would they drive a deadly road like this just for scenery? Then I realized that I was one of those idiots.

Onward we crawled down the Hana highway. The road widened a bit, but this did not allow faster speeds. It became extremely twisty, and the speed limit reduced to 15 mph. And at every turn there seemed to be a one-lane bridge straddling a deep gorge filled with freshets from the rainforest slopes and waterfalls above. We must have encountered over a hundred one-way bridges. Or at least, it seemed that way. And there was lots of traffic coming from the other direction, across those bridges, requiring frequent stopping and waiting for the cars to cross.

Wailua Falls. A very popular and crowded stop along the Hana Highway to Hell.

But the scenery was astounding. That’s all I’ll concede to this tortuous highway.

Ten hours from the time we began our journey, we finally emerged from the Hana Highway to Hell, and reached our hotel in Kahului. We had survived the Hana road (but we failed to buy the damned teeshirt when we had the chance). My wife was exhausted. “I’ll never go on a drive with you again!” she muttered, before passing out on the bed.

I hung my head low.

The next morning we realized we had about six hours to kill before we needed to be at the airport. “Let’s go for a drive!” my wife said, excitedly.

I felt relieved. She truly was a gamer.

Stolen Quote: The System

Is the system going to flatten you out and deny you your humanity, or are you going to be able to make use of the system to the attainment of human purposes?

Joseph Campbell, American author

I’m not sure. I’d better come up with a system for dealing with the system.

Harrison Colds

Painting of William Henry Harrison, also known as “Old Tippecanoe.” Hmm, that name sounds familiar.

On this day in history, 180 years ago, the greatest president our country has ever had, died in office. William Henry Harrison (aka “Old Tippecanoe”) was our 9th president, and our first to perish before completing his elected term.

I believe he was our greatest president because he only served in office for one month, so he had no time to get anything accomplished. Thus, he left our country alone, and didn’t mess anything up.

I have the highest admiration for anyone who fails to accomplish anything significant. And so I regard President Tippecanoe as an exemplum, a role model, that I encourage everyone to follow. I say, be like Old Tippecanoe and you won’t mess with anyone’s lives, and you can die peacefully, having been harmless to our world.

I rate the severity of common colds on a scale of 1 to 10. But there’s another designation, that goes off the charts. I call them Harrison colds. President Harrison caught a cold on March 26th, 1841, and died nine days later, on April 4th. That’s one whopper of a cold.

It’s a popular myth that Harrison caught his deadly cold on his Inauguration Day. No, all he caught was hell from his audience, for giving a long speech during foul weather. He delivered the longest inaugural address in American history. It took him nearly two hours, heroically standing in a cold rain without an overcoat or hat, to tell the American people about all the things he planned to do as president.

He didn’t catch a cold from this, as one might expect, and as many have assumed. But it does illustrate his intentions to screw around with everyone. I think his untimely death saved his soul.

After assuming office, he met with throngs of White House visitors, to the point where he complained in a letter dated March 10th, “I am so much harassed by the multitude that call upon me that I can give no proper attention to any business of my own.” Perhaps this is another reason he didn’t accomplish anything. He was too busy schmoozing with the public, to attend to matters of the nation.

He also called Congress into a special session, to deal with a problem he couldn’t handle himself. The federal government was running out of money, and he hadn’t the slightest clue what to do about it. I guess the concept of borrowing against future generations hadn’t been invented yet.

Calling this special session is considered to be his only official act of consequence. He made the call on March 17th, 9 days before catching his cold, but the special session wasn’t scheduled to begin until May 31st, nearly two months after he died. So I give Harrison the benefit of the doubt, and don’t count this as an accomplishment.

On March 26th he caught his deadly cold. I’ll bet he contracted it from one of his unwanted guests. And the fucking intruder probably wasn’t wearing a face mask, or practicing social distancing. May his soul be condemned to rot in hell forever!

This cold was a doozy. It rapidly progressed into pneumonia and pleurisy. Our sniffling, sniveling, snotty president sought a nice, quiet place to rest and recover, but his many visitors rudely occupied all available space in the White House.

Then his doctors made his condition worse by prescribing unhelpful and dangerous treatments such as opium, castor oil, leeches, and snakeweed (a tranquilizing herb). He went over the edge and died on April 4th, 1841, having accomplished absolutely nothing of consequence, with or without his cold.

Except one thing. His death sparked a brief constitutional crisis over the title of his successor, Vice-President John Tyler.

Many politicians, including Tyler’s own Cabinet, thought he should be called “Vice-President acting President.” Tyler would have none of it, and insisted upon being called “President.” He won. Tyler was a forceful asshole, and didn’t take shit from anyone. Perhaps that’s how he was able to complete his predecessor’s term of office without catching a Harrison cold.

Too bad for Tyler. He learned nothing from the man he succeeded.

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