Me and Ishkabibble and the Wild Places
Albert Vetere Lannon
© Copyright 2018 by Albert Vetere Lannon
Winner--2018 Travel Nonfiction
I face the end of my life at age 80 with multiple myeloma, an
incurable blood plasma cancer that sucks the calcium out of my bones,
along with coronary artery disease, emphysema, arthritis (and
hemorrhoids!) I reflect on the wild places I have spent time in over
the years, and how, at the end of my life, I am in exactly the right
place living in the desert outside of Tucson, Arizona.
I was born into a communist family and raised as an atheist. I became an alcoholic early on. It took getting sober at age 50 to realize that atheism took as much faith as religious belief. Still, there was always a need in me to be whole, to accept that there were powers greater than myself that could protect me from my fears. I found them in what were, to me, wild places, even if they weren’t, exactly. Some called it God, some nature; I called it Ishkabibble, because that name makes me smile. It’s an old New York slang word meaning, No Worries. But then, I had worries.
My father, a New York Communist Party official, faced a two-year prison term for “conspiracy to teach and advocate the overthrow of the United States Government by force and violence,” a conviction that validated for him the movement he had given his life to. For me, the arrest, trial, publicity and pervasive fears of the Red Scare were terrifying, so I became a street tough, hanging out, drinking, and fighting with other Lower East Side “rocks.”
I fought the fear with alcohol and as a married adult, began annual solo backpacking trips to wild places to fast, to detox, to take drugs in unsuccessful attempts to have a spiritual experience, to pit myself against deserts, forests, and oceans which, on some unsayable level, I knew were powers greater than myself
Starting when I was 13, soon after my father was arrested, I learned about the New Jersey Pine Barrens, about Huevenkopf Mountain, about snakes and snake-hunting, about escaping the mean streets for a few days with my best friend Johnny-Boy De Maria and my surrogate big brother Carl Herrmann, and about alcohol. Later I discovered the deserts of Utah and Nevada and Arizona and California, the deep waters of Hawaii and Mexico and the California coast, the dark forests of the Sierra Nevadas and Kalmiopsis Wilderness, the jungles of South America, the plains of Africa. Places of refuge, of Iskabibble.
was 13 when I went on my first overnight snake-hunt to the New Jersey
Pine Barrens, an improbable semi-wilderness surrounded by the great
Northeast megalopolis. We slept in the remains of the Pinewald
railroad station, gazing across a brown cedar-water lake to an
imposing gray building rising from the flatlands, above the scrub
pine trees. It was an insane asylum, Carl said, and we made up ghost
stories about it to scare ourselves to sleep as the mosquitoes
swarmed over us.
The Pine Barrens was where cannonballs were made from bog iron for the Revolution. When iron ore and coal were discovered in Pennsylvania, the industry moved, the towns turned to glass-making, and the bogs grew cranberries. The ruins of little towns like Double Trouble and Mount Misery still held treasures, as well as snakes, hiding in their ruins. We explored and swam in lakes and rivers, and fought the mosquitoes, and for awhile, were the kids we should have been, just 70 miles from the homes we were escaping.
The Pine Barrens were the northern range of some desirable snakes, our ostensible reason for hitch-hiking south. Carl was developing the largest private reptile collection in the city, and would soon be a reptile keeper at the Staten Island Zoo, with me as a summer volunteer.
The United Clay Mines, now the site of a senior housing development, was close to our jump-off town of Toms River -- actually across the railroad tracks in segregated South Toms River. It had ruins, water catchments, a swamp, and was a good place for us to snake-hunt. There was a house near the edge of the swamp with an old black couple living in it. They were friendly and let us get fresh water from their hose. One trip they were gone. The house was empty, except for a washed cup and saucer in a dish drainer by the kitchen sink. A Pine Barrens mystery.
The 200-year-old ruins were also mysteries, as were the local Pineys who kept to themselves, and in that not-knowing I first began to feel the power of Ishkabibble, a sense of mystery, of connection, and peace. I called it Nature then, and went out to it as often as possible, finding a brief respite from fear and alcohol, wishing I could stay there forever. But I couldn’t, and the terrors of the Red Scare, of the street, were always waiting for me.
Another mystery was the Jersey Devil. The legend said that a Mrs. Leeds in the 1700s had 12 children and swore that if she had another it would be a devil. It was, shapeshifting and flying up the chimney to wreak its nasty work. With a horses’ head, giant bat wings, cloven hoofs, and a devil’s tail, when the Jersey Devil flew overhead cow’s milk curdled in their udders, fish died in the lakes and rivers, and people – many of them descendents of Hessian mercenaries from the Revolutionary War era – hid in their homes.
In 1970 I returned to the Pine Barrens after reading all about those ghost towns that we roamed in. It was a solo backpacking trip, 77 miles in a week, touching civilization just twice, by choice; fasting, detoxing. The mosquitoes were still there. Twenty years later I visited again, sober, and every place we touched brush we were swarmed on by tiny Lyme Disease-carrying deer ticks. Even on the mowed lawns of the restored town of Batsto. A ranger told us they were in the sand of the coastal beaches, that kids no longer played in the woods. The Jersey Devil was back, and Ishkabibble was hiding.
a clear day you can see the shimmering skyscrapers of New York City
just 20 miles away from the Ramapo Mountains. We would hitch-hike
across the George Washington Bridge, out Route 4 and up 17 to the New
York-New Jersey border. There was an old road up Huevenkopf Mountain
that we followed for a bit, then cut into the woods on a trail that
passed a crumbling water storage tank, then up to a nameless pond. The
pond had been created by damming a stream to feed water to the
storage tank which was used to water a golf course across the
highway. The golf course had been replaced by an automobile assembly
plant when we went there as teenagers.
The pond, with its cement dam, was deep enough for swimming, with aquatic critters galore – newts and water snakes and turtles – that had somehow managed to find the habitat. There were also venomous copperhead snakes, and black racers, and a bluetailed skink colony in the rocks above the water. We always had it to ourselves, although at the top of the mountain was a community of what were then called “Jackson Whites.” That community is home to the Ramapough Mountain Indians, whose presence goes back over 12,000 years, but who are denied federal recognition as a tribe because of intermarriage with escaped slaves and Dutch settlers.
But we didn’t know all that then. What we knew was that we could swim and play and snake-hunt and rock-climb and be the kids we were without adult supervision. We could stay up for three days straight if we wanted to, and we did, collapsing to sleep through a soaking thunderstorm. We could hike down to the funky diner on Route 17 and eat pancakes twice a day if we wanted to, and we did. We could be happy, and in our joy Ishkabibble took up residence in our souls. The holes were not filled but they were a bit smaller when we were there. Even if we had to compete with yellowjacket hornets when we tried to eat sitting on the concrete dam.
Once Johnny-Boy and I were stretched out in our blankets – we could not afford sleeping bags – listening to New York jazz on a portable radio. Suddenly Johnny shouted, “Holy shit!” and I looked up. Arcing across the full moon was a sphere three times its size, from our perspective, with a trail of sparks, a meteor whose brilliance went unremarked in the press that we checked when we hitched home the next day. Or maybe it was Ishkabibble manifest.
Trips to Huevenkopf Mountain came to an end after Al Cabrera fell off a cliff we were carefully circling on a narrow ledge. He fell about twenty feet, his head hitting a tree to break his fall, and lay in the rocks and brush moaning. We got to Al, who was bleeding from the head and generally banged up, and I sent his almost-hysterical older brother Carlos down to the diner to call for help.
The paramedics came, complaining all the way, and took us to the Suffern hospital just north of the state line from New Jersey. Al was lucky – aside from various minor cuts and bruises, the worst injury was a busted and swollen blood vessel in his foot. He had a hard head. Carlos called home collect to tell his folks we were taking the bus home, that Al was okay but on crutches. I called home next and the same operator put the reverse charges call through, telling my mother, “Collect call from Carlos Cabrera at the Suffern Hospital.” She panicked momentarily until I assured her all was well with me.
Later in life I tried to revisit Huevenkopf Mountain, but the New York Thruway now butted up against the mountain and there was no way to access the old road or the pond. The diner was gone. Probably there was a way from another direction, because the Indian community was still there, but I had no experience with that and gave up trying to find a way. Besides, it was time for a drink, or two, or three. Ishkabibble was in hiding, and the hole in my soul needed filling.
early 1967, living in San Francisco, Bruce Benner invited me to
accompany him to find gold in Arizona’s Superstition Mountains. He had
a topographical map showing an area as “Massacre
Grounds” where he believed gold could be found. The story was
that the Peralta family from Mexico mined gold, and that they were
attacked by Apaches in the Superstitions and wiped out. The Apaches,
according to the legend, took their mules and the leather sacks that
the partially-refined gold ore was in, dumping the gold on the
ground. Gold has been found in the Superstitions that jibes with
that account, but generations of gold seekers have looked for, and
never found, the legendary Lost Dutchman Mine. The designated
Wilderness Area is closed to mineral prospecting, but no matter, they
So we set out that Spring day with a metal detector, topo maps, three canteens of water, and freeze-dried meals along with sleeping bags and other camping gear. Those topo maps showed “intermittent streams;” we didn’t realize that “intermittent” in the desert meant they ran for a day or two after a big rain – and it had been a dry winter. We had no desert experience, hiked off of any recognized trail, going up a thousand feet in a hard mile to a waterless ridge. We spent the night and then hiked out, hallucinating from dehydration, getting up close and personal with jumping cholla cactus. We did it all wrong, but survived, and I was hooked, on the Sonoran Desert, and on the legend. I started assembling the old books and extracting the clues that I would follow for the next 33 years.
There is a map credited to a Peralta descendant that appears often in books about the Lost Dutchman. It is said to be the map that led treasure-hunter Adolf Ruth to a grisly death in the summer of 1931. Ruth’s head was found a mile from his body, with the words “Veni, Vidi, Vici” inscribed in his journal: I came, I saw, I conquered. There have been many mysterious deaths in the Superstitions, and summer is not a hospitable time in the desert. It is a power much greater than oneself.
Because Weaver’s Needle is a dominant landmark gold-hunters have assumed that the El Sombrero on the map is that distinctive peak. But there are many el sombreros in desert mountains. I assembled clues from the old, mostly out-of-print, books. The Peralta family made many trips north from Mexico, probably to a mine near what is now Wickenburg, and used the Superstitions as a way station, a defensible place to rest and water mules. There are remains of an old dam in a creek bed on top of Bluff Mountain, and the old mule trail up the mountain was still worn white when the late David Castro and I found it and followed it up. There is also a steep trail down the north end of Bluff Mountain, and I fell and broke my wrist there, as deep into the wilderness as I could be, and – stupidly – alone. Ishkabibble, I think, hoped I’d survive my self-will run riot moments, and waited patiently.
The Peralta-Ruth map led me to a stash location, a defensible spot where found gold could be stored and protected. That place is a broad ledge on the slope of Minor’s Needle. Across from Minor’s Needle is an unusual rock formation known variously as Castle Rocks or Skeleton Ridge. One of the large boulders looks like a huge head, the Dutchman’s “great stone face” clue. Another rises in a thin spire, labeled S. Sima on the map, like Dr. Thorne’s “stallion’s distinctive organ,” another clue.
Satisfied that the clues would play out, on my discovery trip I left the Dutchman’s Trail, wary of jumping cholla and rattlesnakes, and approached Minor’s Needle. I went around a large rock outcrop and saw a wide ledge. Above the ledge was a concave wall and a petroglyph of uncertain origin, a large circle with a line straight up to a smaller circle, perhaps a “you are here and need to go up there.” To get up there I went through a three-foot-wide space where a boulder has split in half, Joe Dearing’s “trick in the trail;” another clue solved.
What is “up there” is a rocky lookout point with a rectangular sandy space where a small person could sleep comfortably. There is a commanding view of the valley and the old military trail, with Minor’s Needle at your back, just as the Dutchman described it, a defensible space to camp and protect found treasure.
I poked around in the sand and came up with a crushed aluminum beer can. So much for gold, or artifacts. But, I had assembled the clues and established their accuracy to my satisfaction, and hiked a lot of rugged and demanding, but beautiful, desert mountains. The Superstitions are a place to humble humans, to make us right-sized.
Years later, in the late 90s while taking a bunch of archaeology classes at San Francisco State University, I made one last trip with the goal of treating the sandy space as an archaeological site. The Superstition Wilderness was still pristine, although civilization was encroaching from all sides. I did my thing and found nothing of interest except for some soft volcanic tuff with yellow streaks in it. I took some back to San Francisco, washed it, and looked at it under a strong light with a magnifier. It looked like gold! A geology professor did me the favor of examining my find and told me it was just biotite, common in volcanic tuff. Okay: end of story. It’s all about the journey, right? Right.
In the winter of 2000, twelve years sober and driving to Tucson to scout out neighborhoods for retirement, I looked at a Roadside Geology book. It described biotite as black mica. That was not black mica that I had found! For the first time in this decades-long odyssey I got Gold Fever. I cut my Tucson trip short a day, drove to the Superstitions, hiked in to Minor’s Needle, and looked for more of the yellow-flecked tuff. There was none to be found, and a few days later I read online that biotite weathered into a sort of fool’s gold. Now it really was the end of the story. Ishkabibble hangs out in the Superstitions and loves, I think, to laugh at me.
think I actually met Ishkabibble once. During the 1990s, in a sober
second marriage with two incomes, summers off, and kids grown and
gone, we did a lot of traveling. Camping at Kakadu and climbing
Uluru in the Australian outback, swimming and snorkeling in Belize
and on the Great Barrier Reef, hiking to ancient ruins in the
Yucatan, marveling at Macchu Piccu, camping in the Amazon Jungle, and
exploring the Galapagos Islands.
At Megans Bay in St. Thomas I was snorkeling along a rockpile jetty and felt something watching me. I turned in the water and two little squid squirted a dab of ink and backed up. When I resumed swimming they continued to follow me, curious but cautious, perhaps scouting for Ishkabibble.
Coki Point on St. Thomas was perhaps the best snorkeling ever, with pipefish and other oddities unafraid to let me get close. There was a lone barracuda eyeing me that was of concern, but when I explored a dark place in the water it turned out to be a crowded school of small fish that parted like a curtain as I swam through. I decided that if the barracuda was hungry, there was plenty of better food than me available. I was chased out of the water by a man yelling that they were about to start blasting. They were constructing Coral World Ocean Park, and turning the wondrous spot into a commercial tourist destination. I may have been the last human to see its sights before they were forever changed.
During my earlier drinking days in San Francisco I had a brilliant idea – solo snorkeling in the Pacific Ocean where the great sea mammals hung out, never thinking that those were also the places the great white sharks hung out as well. Or that in my wet suit I looked like a slow-moving seal. Snorkeling in a cove at Salt Point State Park I became aware of something large and pale coming at me at high speed. I remembered that you might hold off a shark with a punch in the nose. It turned out to be a harbor seal checking me out; it did a flip and took off back to the deep. Punch in the nose? There wasn’t even time for the adrenaline to start, but it soon did.
Besides giant tortoises and marine iguanas, attractions enough, the Galapagos snorkeling was good, and it was then that I may have met Ishkabibble face-to-face. I was snorkeling off one of the islands while the boat was at anchor, when a young sea lion decided to join me. It mimicked my moves, diving when I dove, coming to the surface belly-to-belly with me, almost touching. It was an amazing experience. We played together for 5 - 10 minutes, and it swam off while I, exhilarated and exhausted, climbed back onto the boat for lunch.
Galapagos was just half that visit to Ecuador. The other half was
camping in the Amazon Jungle, a short plane ride and long motorized
canoe ride to a jungle lodge. It was off-season, raining a lot, and
we were the only campers. We helped the English-speaking guide
uproot oil drilling markers placed by North American companies, glad
to help save this wild place. We tasted lemon ants and saw tangles
of writhing giant millipedes, and a jaguar’s paw print in the
mud – just like one I saw years later in Arizona’s Santa
It was dark under the canopy, and my sense was that if I stood in one place for an hour, the jungle would have me, rooted forever. This, I thought, must be Ishkabibble’s true home. For a long time I had argued that all life was interconnected, but that was abstract intellectual belief. In the jungle I knew, in my gut and heart and soul, that it is all connected. Everything.
losing a 21-year career as a labor union representative to alcohol I
became a sober Labor Studies teacher, helping workers learn their
rights and their history. When I retired in 2001 I received a final
paycheck I was not expecting. I was newly single and moving from San
Francisco to Tucson and thought, I can be prudent, or I can go to
On that camping photo safari through Kenya and Tanzania there were a half-dozen single women near my age, but it was elephants that I fell in love with. Elephants. Pachyderms. Huge, improbable, intelligent, amazing creatures. Out of place yet exactly in the right place. Trunks and tusks and log-legs and flappy ears. Elephants grazing, elephants pooping, 177 pounds per day. Elephants, coming back after being decimated by the ivory trade, are the real kings and queens of the African jungles and plains. Once our vehicle got too close to a herd and a young bull turned, ears back, and roared his disapproval; so, also communicating.
And the children, the millions orphaned by AIDS, in this, the homeland of humanity, the place where we all began. I cheer for the elephants, and I cry for the children. Ishkabibble and me, we cry for the children.
first two years of sobriety were among the craziest of my life. Holding
on to things that needed letting go of, including my ego. I
told someone what was going on and said, I’m afraid I’ll
have a relapse. He said, You’ve already had the relapse; you
just haven’t picked up the drink yet. Got my attention. I
used every tool available to me and approached my second sober
anniversary in California’s White Mountains, fasting at 14,000
feet, high above even the battered bristlecone pines which, despite
the ravages of time and weather, managed to survive. I buried
symbols of my past life that I had brought, letting go.
On the third morning I cried my eyes out into the morning sun rising hot and bright and Ishkabibble embraced me. For the first time in my life I felt whole, connected to the human race, a part of and no longer apart from. I came down from the mountains changed. I had an ally, a true friend. Ishkabibble and me, we’ve stuck together ever since. Well, except for the times I decide to push through the palpable barriers it uses to warn me. Then I sometimes still get hurt, but I’m learning.
That’s what my mate Kaitlin and I call our desert acre with the double-wide manufactured home we live in. It’s half desert and half oasis, habitat for birds from tiny Anna’s hummingbirds to great horned owls and roadrunners, a half-dozen kinds of lizards, generations of harmless snakes and occasional visiting rattlers, plus tortoises, tarantulas and toads, bunnies, bees and butterflies, with incredible vermillion sunsets, coyote jamborees at moonrise, and mostly quiet nights. It’s our habitat, and we’re happy to share it. I’ve never had such a sense of place as here, my place, the right place.