Life During Lockdown: Corona Comix

If I’ve started picking up pens and paper again, things must be strange…

Continue reading Life During Lockdown: Corona Comix

Living With Millie

The day always starts this way. I wake before my alarm buzzes on my wrist, and stumble half-blind to the bathroom. Sleepy as I am, I know to watch for a blurring shift in the darkness–a low, sleek shape that leaps out of the spare room and flings itself across the sill of the door. I click on the bathroom light and there she is, legs and belly in the air, paddling the air. I reach down to tickle the warm white fur on her tummy. This is the one time of the day when such liberties are permitted.

I have yet to tread or trip over her but it’s been a close-run thing sometimes, especially on dark winter mornings.

I often wonder if she’s trying to kill me. After my shower she’ll run in front of me as I head downstairs, either winding round my ankles or parking herself full-length on a step just below me. It’s all part of the process of hurrying me downstairs so she can get fed. Come on hooman, Millie wants grub. Keep up, don’t trip up.

You’d think she was half-starved. As I walk into the kitchen she’s already parked at the fridge, giving it a hard stare. If things are really desperate, she’ll resort to the dry food we always leave out for her. But as soon as the bowl of wet food goes down that’s forgotten about. She’ll actually let dry morsels drop out of her mouth as she head-butts the bowl.

Millicent Wickings. AKA Millie Moomin, Moomintroll, Trollface, Squirrel Pants, Squiggy-moo, Floofball, Fatbits and OH YOU HORROR. Provenance unknown, although I suspect there’s a fat chunk of Norwegian Forest Cat somewhere in her DNA. In the winter she develops a ruff that a Dutch merchant of the 1500s would be jealous of. In the spring she sheds it in knotted clumps and dreadlocks. She’s not a big unit by any means, but in cold weather her winter coat means she bulks up very pleasingly. I can never keep my hands off her, and I bear the scars as consequence.

Millie’s a tortie, with all the behavioural quirks that come with the multi-colours. Cute and sweet-natured one minute, a bug-eyed pouncing horror the next. She’s a hunter, regularly bringing in mice and occasional birds, which she’ll happily dismember in front of us. It’s a rare week where there isn’t a blob of half-chewed rodent at the bottom of the stairs or outside the bedroom door for when we wake. Yes, we get it, she’s just making sure we’re getting enough to eat, but couldn’t she bring in a pizza every once in a while?

I said provenance unknown. She’s a rescue, found on the pages of the Oxfordshire RSPCA. She was discovered in the Wendy house of a nursery school, along with a litter of kittens. The kits, wee scraps of ginger and black, were snapped up in moments. Poor mum, who had taken herself to scrag and bone to keep them alive, was ignored. She was, to be fair, a spiky presence, still wary, a survivor. A fighter.

We fell in love with her from first sight. It had been eighteen months since we’d put our beloved Bilbo in the ground, one of the more dreadful days of my life. It had taken us a while to recover. Eighteen quiet months. We tried to kid ourselves about how easy it was to go away without having to worry about how the resident would be fed. Neither of us believed it for a moment. A house without a cat is an empty place.

That pic.

TLC took the lead, quietly starting to browse the rescue sites when she felt ready, showing me her favourites. Once she found Millie, staring with bold attitude from the screen, we both knew. One visit to the cattery sealed the deal. She’d already bulked up a bit in care, but the attitude was there in spades. Head rubs accepted one minute, punished with a murder-mitten swipe the next. Didn’t matter. She had us. We loaded her into the car and brought her home.

The vet recommended keeping her in one room for a few days to acclimatise. Millie was unimpressed with this. Within two hours she’d shunted the back room door open and gone for an explore. Incurably curious, sure of herself, ready for adventure and a little trouble. From day one we knew what we were getting.

Day one, three hours in.

She has mellowed over time. A bit. Millie does laps now, to the point where it can be a struggle to budge her if you need the loo. She has a way of stretching out full length then somehow twisting in the middle so her feet are the wrong way round. It gets me every time she does it.

She is the mistress of her domain, but surprisingly tolerant to other cats, as long as they don’t take the piss. Hers is hers, but she’ll share to an extent. She does, however, take great pleasure in winding up next door’s psychotic collie. If he’s locked in she will prance around by their front window, making damn sure he’s clocked her. He will howl and bellow as if the world is ending. If he could break through that window he would, I’m certain.

She remains herself, however much she’s changed. Equal parts lovable and infuriating, our little sweetheart monster. She will wake us up by nibbling on our toes, or spoil a romantic night in by dragging in a mouse at just the wrong moment. And then she will curl up on your lap, fix those big eyes on you and rev up her purr-motor, and we’re lost. It’s Millie’s world, and we’re lucky to be a part of it.

A good example of The Millicent Twist.

Start-Up Sequence

05:00

I’m not really awake, but drifting in and out of consciousness. I’ve been in this state since probably half-four, perhaps a little earlier if old-man bladder hasn’t already forced me into a stumble to the loo. The alarm is set for 05:30, and as ever, I promise that I’ll stay in bed until it goes off.

05:26

Inevitably, I break that promise. I’m too awake to stay put now, so I zombie-walk into the shower. Thirty seconds after leaving the sweet embrace of the duvet, I’m upright and wet.

05:30

The alarm goes off. It’s a cheap Chinese activity tracker with a vibrate built in. It’s showerproof, but the touch-sensitive surface doesn’t react well to the pummelling of the shower head, and I can’t switch it off. Doesn’t matter, I’m awake now. I let the device burr at me and get soapy.

05:40

Dryish, dressed-ish. I’m often accused of looking like I dressed in the dark and well, that ain’t so far off the truth. I work in a place where contact with clients is minimal. Frankly as long as I turn up with a pair of jeans and a top on, no-one could care less.

Downstairs, harried all the way by Millie the cat, who has been dogging my heels since I hit the shower. In the dark it’s sometimes hard to see her and she has a habit of flinging herself full-length at the bathroom door, or twining around my ankles while I’m trying to negotiate the stairs. I swear, one of us will end up dead because of her antics.

Kettle on. Now for tea. I’m a coffee fiend at work, but the world doesn’t look right if I don’t start things off with a cuppa. Nothing fancy. PG in a mug, splash of cow-juice. While the brew stews I dole some wet food into Millie’s bowl. She goes in headfirst, slurping at the moggy-chow like she’s half-starved. Which, I can assure you, she is not.

05:45

A bit of quiet time. If I’m feeling virtuous, I’ll get a bit of writing done. This is a good time to work–with brain half-engaged some interesting things usually hit the page. In the depths of winter, though, inspiration can be tough to dredge up. It’s more likely that the newsfeeds and Twitter get a once-over while the tea gradually gets my cogs spinning.

06:03

The kettle goes back on. Tea for TLC. If I time it right, delivery of said hot beverage coincides with her phone alarm going off. I swipe it to snooze for her, and plant a kiss. She mumbles a sweetness back at me. She’ll be in the shower by the time I leave, so this is the only contact we have until the evening. We never skip this bit of the morning ritual. It would be honestly unthinkable.

06:10

A little more reading, perhaps give Millie a fuss if she’s in the mood. My eyes keep drifting back to the clock. My brain is beginning to turn over now, filling with the cruft of the work day ahead. Tasks to do, excuses and apologies to make. Crisis avoidance strategies. You know, the usual.

06:25

Boots on. The inevitable patting of pockets. Wallet, work-pass, phone, keys. Check checky check-check. Over time, my everyday carry has been stripped back to these essentials. Potentially, everything I need for a working day could go in a single pocket of my jeans. Less to think about means less to worry about.

06:27

I crack the airlock and step outside. It’s cold, dark and quiet. I wake the car with a click of the fob and slide into the driver’s seat. I slot the key and turn the car to power. My OnePlus gets plugged into a flying charge lead, and music starts. Either a Spotify playlist streamed from the phone (modern psychedelia, classic funk, maybe some Americana or rockabilly. No podcasts, no radio, no voices that aren’t singing) or a random pick from the USB stick hooked into the stereo. I sit, just for a second, and let the tunes wash over me. I breathe in, deeply, hold it for a count of five, let it out again. Then I turn the key one last click.

06:30.

Ignition.

Main engine start.

Once again into the wild blue yonder.

The Last Ride Of The White Buffalo

DATELINE: 22nd July 2018

Reading, Berkshire, UK

We were somewhere on Route 285, perhaps just outside Fairview, and I was deep into a fugue state. As I watched the browning landscape scud past the window to a soundtrack of 80’s goth-wave, the last three weeks swirled in my head, events sparking into focus for a moment, then popping away like a soap bubble. Continue reading The Last Ride Of The White Buffalo

Two Hours In New Mexico

DATELINE: July 17th, 2018

Somewhere on Route 285, skirting the Carson National Forest, NM

The storm had tracked us since Alamosa. As we slipped south past the border, it shouldered in, riding alongside like a good ole boy with bad teeth and a worse attitude. It was pretty darn clear it was looking to start something.

The tail end of our trip south had lost its shine. Hawkeye had struck again. His ‘slight detour’ to dip a toe into a different state took us in a loop around some of the more desolate and depressing sites New Mexico had to offer. Dead or dying farmland. Vast junkheaps piled high with the ransacked corpses of old trucks, the exoskeletons of ruined farmed equipment splaying out thorny limbs like gigantic fossilised insects.

Every building we passed was empty, windows boarded up or kicked in. Scattered stands of graying lumber stood like waiting funeral pyres. The gateway to a ranch that we could not see had deer antlers knotted over the uprights, ugly-white as a bad dental job in the frantic light that pulsed out from the heart of the storm. The gateway to another had a mannequin strung by its neck hanging from a cross post.

I hope it was a mannequin. In the shadow-carved light, it was so difficult to be certain.

The storm was still with us, effortlessly keeping up the pace. Every now and again it would fling out a handful of rain, just to keep our attention up. This wasn’t the clean, warm Colorado rain we had come to welcome. This was dirty, greasy stuff, oil-spill and septic run-off, smearing the bug-strike across the Buffalo’s windshield without ever letting it clear.

The storm grumbled, thick and heavy as the snort from a Harley’s drivetrain, a deep pulse shaking us about like beans in a can. Anytime now, the fucker would pounce. Just at the point where we were furthest from help, it would clench its bruise-dark fists and pound us into the blacktop.

We found a way west. Route 64. According to the map, heading into the heart of the Carson National Forest. Months without rain had turned the landscape into a patchwork of khaki and tan, like camouflage, as if New Mexico was trying to hide from itself. The thirsting ground would have gratefully accepted the punishment of the storm. It was too busy toying with us to care about opening up.

The leading edge of the cloud front mutated, or maybe it was our change of course that shifted our perception. It developed a snout, sharp as a shark’s tooth. An eye-shaped meniscus bulged into being. Colourless as bone at the inner edge, deepening to the flat grey of dead flesh towards the orbit. Within, where a flash of blue from the early evening sky would have given us a faint glimpse of hope, there was only darkness.

No. Not darkness. Lightning flickered in there, actinic forks and nets of light, gone before they’d really registered. A complex pulse of activity, like the workings of some vast, inhuman mind made visible, all the better to inspire dread.

We felt it, alright. Barreling down a desolate highway with a malevolent weather system at our shoulder, dread was a default. The radio had gone dead. There was no-one else on the roads. There was no sign of habitation. No lights in the houses we passed. No livestock in the fields. This was abandoned country, dead land. Tierra muerte.

For a while, we wondered if the apocalypse had already happened and we were just a little late to the party.

Finally, we hit Highway 84 at Tierra Amarilla and could start working north. The storm, bored now, tossed one last bucket of dirty water at us and turned away, sulking south. Its dark eye closed, its snout flattened. Just a weather front now. Whatever demon had possessed it for a while on a an evening in mid-July in the New Mexico hinterlands was gone. At Chama, just south of the border, civilization began to reassert itself. A petrol station open for business. Houses with lights on. A dog in a yard, barking joyfully as we span past.

We broke the Colorado border at Chromo and the sun cast aside the last of the cloud. We were bathed in red and gold dusk-light all the way home.

A day later we would visit a town best known for its resident cannibal and bounce a deer off the Buffalo’s rear offside.

But that’s a story for another campfire.

Strange Roads And Forgotten Highways

DATELINE: 12th July, 2018

The Rim Rock Road, part of the Colorado National Monument, nr. Fruita, CO.

John Otto was a bit of a strange one. A reclusive canyon-dweller, he was one of those guys for whom mid-nineteenth century America was made–a rugged individualist finding a place to call his own in the vast open spaces of the heartland.

He was a little late for the heyday, alas. But Otto’s spirit and love for the land north of Grand Junction he called home would have a lasting effect. In 1907 he began carving out paths and tracks to make the rugged canyons he trod so easily more accessible to the outside world. At the same time, he began agitating to make his ‘backyard’ into a place that everyone could enjoy. He was a recluse, but would happily abandon his privacy given any excuse to evangelize the spires and canyons amongst which he lived. Otto was tireless at writing petitions, conducting tours and seeking out sponsors to get the message out.

In 1911, his efforts were rewarded. President Taft signed papers that turned John Otto’s backyard into the Colorado National Monument. Otto was rewarded personally, with the creation of a new post–the Monument’s first custodian, with a stipend of a dollar a month. I get the feeling that he would have done it regardless of pay. He called the land ‘the heart of the world.’

Without him, we would not be in Fruita, Colorado, pointing the nose of the White Buffalo up onto the Rim Ridge Road.

Now, that road is a whole other story. 23 miles from Grand Junction to Fruita, it takes the high route up and through some of the most spectacular sights in John Otto’s backyard. 20 years in the making, carved out of the sparking red sandstone by gangs of young men with pickaxes, shovels and fistfuls of dynamite.

The Monument is geology laid bare. Millions of years of erosion have carved towers and sheets of rocks out of the landscape. They take on a myriad of forms–a pair of hands clasped in prayer, a couple kissing.

Steep-faced canyons drop hundreds of feet to green-scumbled valley floors. Brave souls can take the switchback trails that Otto cut into the rock down into these valleys, but they are not recommended if you’re unprepared. These are not paths to lightly tread. One false step and the express route to Plummetville awaits.

We stayed on the road, and chose to enjoy the views instead.

At sunset, those views change completely. The red rocks lose their angry hue in the face of the blazing crimson of the lowering sun. They blush instead, sweetening into coral and madder rose, lilac and damson. As we chased the gloaming back towards the jewel-lights of Grand Junction, a couple of thousand feet below, I thought again about John Otto, a man so intent on living life as he chose that his one attempt at normality, marriage to local artist Beatrice Farnham, foundered after three weeks. She left in despair, saying, “I tried hard to live his way, but I could not do it, I could not live with a man to whom even a cabin was an encumbrance.”

There was only ever room for one true love in John Otto’s life, and she would never try to make him change.


DATELINE: 12th July 2018

Somewhere on Highway 6, on the Colorado/Utah border

Hawkeye did it again. We had a little time to kill before our last stop of the day, so he coaxed the Buffalo in a westerly direction and fired us out towards Utah. Hawkeye being Hawkeye, he didn’t choose the obvious route–Interstate 70, a clean, fast road. Instead he hung a tight left at a half-horse town called Loma, and put us onto Highway 6.

Once, this would have been one of the main drags through the western part of the state. Now it’s neglected. The surface is unmaintained, the blacktop gently devolving to rubble and potholes that tested the Buffalo’s shocks. There are no services, no people, no ambulant life at all. Low, scrubby plains march off to the green hills of the McInnis National Park. We were utterly alone. No other vehicles passed us for the entire time we were on Highway 6. The silence was deep and full in our heads.

The border between Utah and Colorado is marked by a handmade sign, deliberately hammered at an angle to a post. A shot-pocked can of peaches sits alongside. There is a sense of utter isolation, of abandonment at this sentry post. We paused for photos, but were soon chased back onto the road. There was a distinctly eerie atmosphere about the place. The feel of somewhere haunted by a history that had been almost completely erased.

A few miles into Utah, there was a spur road back onto I-70 which we took with a sigh of relief. It ran on the other side of the McInnis Ridge, a greener and much more pleasant drive. Less than a mile separated us from the forgotten road that waited quietly to the north, a road that you would now actively have to seek out.

I wondered why the road was so completely un-used. Surely an enterprising person could set up a little 420-friendly operation close to the state line. A simple shack with a pull-in. You could even do it as a mobile, food-truck style business on the weekends. A way to perhaps bring a spark of life back to this forgotten highway.

Call it The Last Chance Cannabis Saloon. I might set up a Kickstarter.


DATELINE: 12th July 2018

Somewhere in the hills above Fruita, CO.

Like butter wouldn’t melt…

Eventually, Star and I came to an understanding. I would stop kicking her in the side, and she would stay away from the tasty snacks on either side of the trail and pick up the pace. That didn’t mean she wouldn’t try it on. She was too damn stubborn not to test the boundaries of our fragile relationship. Typical redhead.

I am no natural horseman. Donkeys at the seaside were always more my speed. But it seemed foolish not to give it a go while we were in the heart of cowboy country. Besides, I had dropped sixty bucks on a fine hat back in Denver. We took a recommendation from our landlord in Palisades and booked a sunset ride with the fine folks at Rim Rock Adventures.

‘How you doing back there, Rob?’ Crysta, our guide, looked back down the line at Star and I.. She was a rangy, loud blonde cowgirl, constantly cracking jokes and chatting away. I managed a shaky thumbs up. This would not beat me.

I could understand Star’s attitude. This was her fourth ride of the day. It was hot and dusty up on the trail. Given the choice, I certainly wouldn’t fancy being loaded up with 12 stones of lanky Brit at the end of a long shift. She had definitely given me a look when we were introduced back at the ranch. I could tell she was distinctly under-impressed.

Hence her refusal to stay with the group, lagging behind the line of horses that picked their way up into the hills. She’d follow along, sure. But she was gonna take her own sweet time about it, find her own path and if she spotted a tasty bit of grass along the way, well, why not.

Star and I quickly became the comic relief of the group. Over the course of the ride, my hat would blow off my head, Star would get herself tangled in her hitching loop, and I would nearly come out of the saddle when she suddenly decided to break into a trot on a steep uphill gradient. Star was definitely the boss here. I was just along for the ride.

But what a ride. The trail snaked up through the foothills of the McInnis National Conservation Area, skirting the edge of Devil’s Canyon before plunging back through sagebrush-fringed coves. You couldn’t do this road by car, and the steep inclines and declines would have been an exhausting chore by foot. ‘Trust your horses,’ Crysta said, and they brought us over the hills and home again.

The sun was setting as we arrived back at the ranch, and we dismounted, a little saddle-sore but eyes shining. TLC reported whenever she looked back to see how I was doing, I was grinning like a loon and cackling. I guess maybe Star and I got along a little better than I thought.

I gave my stubborn, greedy slowpoke a hug before we left. She leaned in and huffed out a hot breath from her velvety snout. I don’t think we’d ever be friends, but I’d like to hope we shared a little something as we clattered over the red rocks at the foot of the Coronado National Monument.

Who knows? Maybe she was just glad to get me off her back at last.

Four Feet In The Colorado River

DATELINE: July 7th, 2018

Adams Falls, The Kawaneechee Valley, nr. Grand Lakes, CO.

Adventure is only ever the turn of a wheel away for the Clan Of The White Buffalo. We were acclimating to the opening section of the Rocky Mountain National Park before hitting the Trail Ridge Road, when Hawkeye spotted a turn-off for a place called Adam’s Falls. We like us a waterfall. In we went. Continue reading Four Feet In The Colorado River