Copyright © 2014 by Ralph F. Couey
I have been fortunate in that I have been well-traveled. To date, I have been to 49 states and 28 countries and as many others who have trekked similar distances, those experiences have fundamentally altered my view of life.
In my youth, I accompanied my Dad on his summer journeys related to his church work. This meant hitting the road for two of the three summer months mostly taking in church camps across the country. We traveled far and wide, he and I, bonding in ways that kept us close even through my tumultuous teen years. The dominant memory of those summers can be encapsulated into the experience of sitting in a campsite sanctuary on countless humid evenings listening to his sermons as the power of his voice competed with the sawing chorus of cicadas in the dark woods beyond. Those were good years.
Later on, I joined the Navy. In the next 10 years, I saw not only the world, but learned a lot about the people who populate those places we Americans rarely think about. I also learned that people in this country who complain about being poor really don't know about the privation and struggle that is true poverty.
Throughout all those years, and all those miles, several places have stayed with me, having planted themselves in my heart. These are a few of my favorite places.
Streets of Hong Kong
Hong Kong has been called many things, the most well-known eponym being "The Pearl of the Orient." I first set foot in this jewel during April of 1981. I had been aboard my first ship for a couple of months, fresh out of "A" school. It was my first foreign port, and I fell in love with the city within minutes of beginning my first liberty ashore. Hong Kong has been for a long time a major financial and economic hub in the Far East. When I was there, the colony still belonged to Britain, and the English imprint was noticeable although far more understated than I had expected. The incredible thing about this city is its energy. It is a pulse of excited urgency that seems to rise from the sidewalks right through the soles of your shoes. Life here is lived at full throttle and its impossible to not be affected. The people of Hong Kong are every day consumed by the business of survival. Most live in hovels that are little bigger than a fair-sized closet, but they are only there to sleep. The rest of the day is spent doing business.
And brother, what business! You can buy just about anything there, from electronics to gemstones to fine hand-made silk clothing. But you better know what you're shopping for. Nowhere else is the cautionary "buyer beware" more applicable than here. On a second visit, during Christmas of 1984, several of my shipmates scored unbelievable deals on Apple computers. To their woe, they discovered upon their return to the states that the only thing Apple about those machines was their exterior. The whole insides were filled with cheap mostly Russian-made electronics. But that's part of the excitement; the thrill of the hunt, if you will. Once you become savvy to the laws of this particular retail jungle (and with some helpful intelligence about where the REAL factory stores are) you can score incredible deals. The people tend to be reserved and cool, regarding you in the same speculative way a hungry lion may view a limping zebra on the Serengeti.
The other great thing is the food. If you love Chinese food the way I do, this is THE place. All the popular cuisines can be found either on the island of Hong Kong or the neighboring mainland of Kowloon. Taxis are cheap, the subway is clean, efficient, and fun, and even the busses are interesting enough to risk a trip. Even though Hong Kong now belongs to the People's Republic of China, the new owners have kept much of the spirit of this remarkable city alive, keeping open the funnels of foreign currency flowing to Beijing.
San Francisco's Lombard Street
I left my heart in San Francisco. That's not so much a quoted lyric as an honest statement. I've been to San Francisco often in my life, from my first visit at age 8 on through my adult years. Frisco is like Hong Kong, a suavely cosmopolitan city that despite its veneer of modern urbanity, keeps alive the rip-roaring spirit that marked its tumultuous birth. It is, first of all, a beautiful place, encircling a magnificent bay, soaring hills, and a layer-cake of elbow-to-elbow row houses flanking a downtown of magnificent buildings, most notably the Trans America pyramid. Looking across the harbor, the sulking island fortress of Alcatraz contrasts with the incredible spans of the Bay Bridge and the magnificent Golden Gate. Its roller coaster streets are lined with homes and apartment buildings, with a market on every street corner. The residents range from elderly hippies to bankers and free-marketeers clad in the latest Versace. If you get bored in San Francisco, it's your fault. There's so much to do and see here. Of course, the food. China Town will get you the best Chinese food outside of Hong Kong. Across the city, are restaurants that reflect not only various cuisines and palates, but the polyglot ethnic makeup that made this city. Fisherman's Wharf, Joe DiMaggio's, Fleur de Lys, Alioto's, Amber India...the list is endless. My personal favorite is the Washington Square Bar & Grill, dining on superb California fare with the cool sounds of live jazz piano filling the air. Oh yeah...don't forget the cable cars. Tony was right..."When I come home to you, San Francisco, Your golden sun will shine on me."
Sunset at San Clemente
Taken by Ralph Couey
There are few places on this planet that have such a poignant, calming influence as does the California coast at sunset. I'm not sure what it is, but the air does strange and incredibly beautiful things to sunlight. Even when our star is standing over head at noon, there is a...well...golden quality to it, something you can't seem to find anyplace else. But to stand on the beach, listening to the hypnotic sound of the surf as it pounds ashore and expends itself, hissing across the sands while the sun edges towards the horizon is an experience that will touch the hidden poet within anyone. The marine layer, hovering offshore, catches the sun's dying rays, turning them a vivid, lovely gold, contrasting beautifully against the deep blue of the sky and reflecting across the Pacific's surface. Having been a sailor, I still feel an affinity for the ocean, and that moment when the day ends always stirs strong emotions, memories of long days when I was half a planet away from those I loved most dear.
New Mexico State Route 80, in the shadow
of Cochise Head Mountain
Taken by Ralph Couey
A number of years ago, I found myself at a crossroads. It had become time for me to move on to a better job, one that I had hoped, wished, and worked for. For a brief moment, I was close to landing that dream. But the combination of an unfortunate series of events, I lost that opportunity. I was crushed. It was more than ordinary disappointment. I was angry. I began to take my feelings out on those around me until one day my long-suffering wife ordered me to get on my motorcycle, go west, and like Billy Crystal, find my smile again. I was thus launched on a 9-day 5,000 mile sojourn across the southwest, crossing mountain and desert, plain and prairie. I was familiar with this country, having traveled with my father, and working for a cattle company in New Mexico and Texas during my teen years. Despite the fact that I was going alone, I felt not a twinge of doubt. This was, I knew, a trip I had to make. Across the Kansas prairie, through the OklaTex panhandles, through the mountains and wastes of New Mexico into Arizona, Colorado, and back home. This is a part of the world that must be experienced from the seat of a motorcycle, or at least the back of a horse. There's just no other way to experience the sheer vastness of this land. It is a harsh country, rugged in the truest sense of the word, yet possessing a singular beauty all its own.
It was day four, and I had started out from a mountain camp near Mayhill, New Mexico in the Sacramentos. I rode US82's gentle curves, hitting Alamogordo and switching over to US70, passing through the incredible White Sands National Monument. At Las Cruces, I picked up Interstate 10 and headed for Arizona. Just before crossing the state line, however, I found State Route 80. My only motivation for taking this road being my desire to separate myself as much as possible from the rest of humanity while I sorted through my emotional struggles. I left the drone of the Interstate behind and headed south. Within 5 miles, I was in an area marked by sand and scrub, devoid of human intrusion, save the ever-present cattle fences alongside the road. Passing through a rocky ridge, I pulled off at the edge of a valley. Ahead of me was a range of mountains which my map called "Dos Cabezas." One of them bore the name "Cochise Head," and as I looked at the peak, I suddenly saw the outline of the face of the old Chiricahua Chief. Shutting off the engine, I sat on the bike, closed my eyes, and just listened to the wind. I felt a sense of peace come over me, so powerful that it caused all the anger, all the disappointed bitterness to drain from me. And on the wind, I heard the words, "Be at peace. Be at Peace."
It was as profound a moment as I've ever had, and an experience I desperately needed. For the first time in a month, I felt the absence of my burden, and upon opening my eyes again, I realized something else.
I had found my smile again.
Allen Street, Tombstone, Arizona
Picture by Ralph Couey
I not only have an itchy foot, but also am possessed of an interest in history. The specifics of that interest drift from time to time, from World War II in the Pacific, to the Great Plague in Europe, the Shogunates of Japan, the American Civil War, and the American west, to name a few. One thing I have discovered is that you can read volumes of books about a place, a moment, or a time, but nothing brings those accounts into sharp focus like actually being there. My first visit to Pearl Harbor was a revelation, as have been several visits to the Gettysburg and Manassas battlefields. Just prior to departing on that long motorcycle trip out west, I had run across a biography of Wyatt Earp. I paid particular attention to the part of the lawman's stay in Arizona, and thus was prepared for a stop in the aptly-named town of Tombstone.
I've been to many places that have attempted to preserve the "feel" of history, but no place I've ever seen has nailed it to the degree that Tombstone has. While there is only one original building that still stands from that fall of 1881 (the whole town has burned down at least three times), the historic sections along Fremont, Allen, and Toughnut streets have been lovingly and accurately restored. Allen Street is the official historical district, and during the tourist season, the pavement is covered over with a layer of desert sand to give it an even more authentic look. Strolling along those boarded sidewalks, I get the distinct impression that if the Earps and their enemies were to somehow reappear, they would have no trouble finding their way around.
The real history of the area is in the abundant silver mines, out of which some 100 million dollars (in modern values) annually was taken out of the ground. The mines flourished until the miners hit the water table at 650 feet. Huge pumps were brought in, but breakdowns made the silver too expensive to retrieve. The Mines, and therefore the town's fortunes surged and ebbed at different times in its history, but despite the desperate challenges levied upon it's people, the town refused to die. The story of Tombstone, Arizona is not just an account of one isolated gunfight, but a memorial to the toughness of the human spirit within people for whom the word "quit" has no meaning.
Everyone has a place in the world where they feel at home. These are some of mine.