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Musings About Family, Travel And Gardening With Allen Martinson.


The Great Border Incident

I THINK IT HAS BEEN long enough after the winter storm to report on what the outcome has caused. At first, it looked pretty bad. The Cinnamon Girl Distylliums all over town looked like they were going to bite the dust. Two weeks later, they were leafing back out more than ever, and for this, they will forever go down in my book as a tough-as-nails plant.

Loropetalums have become a real go-to plant in this area, especially in the homebuilders’ realm. Many of them were not planted properly, but were living in poor soil and were weak to start with. When a homebuilder sticks a plant in the clay gravel and junk left over after a build so they can get the house sold as quickly as possible, they are not doing the buyers any favors. It’s great for my business, because the plants begin their two year journey to death the day they are planted. My point is that the plants that were already weak before the storm had less of a chance than those plants that were hardy and healthy.

It’s difficult to proclaim that one plant is more hardy than another because there are so many factors involved. The location of the plants makes a big difference. Those plants that had a wall or some kind of barrier between the plant and the north wind fared better than those that didn’t. Brick walls can capture and hold some heat, which, at times, can save the day.

We’ve gotten spoiled being able to plant lantana, oleander, bottle brush trees and palms and have them come back for us year after year. After going so many years without a disruption like the one we had this winter, we tend to let our guard down and forget we are just a little far north for some plants to act perennially every year. My thought on that is that I will continue planting whatever I want to plant knowing these things will happen from time to time. I would rather enjoy these “iffy” plants for a short time as opposed to no time at all. Sounds like the beginning of a country song.

On a positive note, my roses, forsythia, hydrangeas, spirea, azaleas and other early spring bloomers look better than any other year I can remember. I don’t know if the cold caused that or a change in my pruning habits last year had something to do with that. It may have been a combination of the two.

Some of you readers may remember the story of the large new bed Mimi and I created last year with the limelight hydrangeas and Japanese yews. We made a big point out of planting everything at the proper distance so they could grow round and full. We figured the plants might touch each other after three years or so. They exploded out of the winter gloom twice as much as I would ever have believed! They will be touching by the end of this year. I’m not talking about three gallon hydrangeas. These were tree-form limelight hydrangeas that were in 15 gallon pots. They are absolutely gorgeous with fresh green leaves, and I can’t wait to see the bloom show.

I attribute that growth explosion to the cotton seed meal and other organic slow release fertilizers we used last year when planting and maybe give some of the bloom credit to the cold. I haven’t seen any buds forming yet, but if they are as loaded as my oakleaf hydrangeas are right now, it’s going to be quite a show. My oakleaf hydrangeas are eight feet tall and drooping with the heavy weight of the blooms. My snowball viburnums are 12 feet tall, and when they were blooming, it was like a solid wall of white across the back edge of our yard. Due to the cold? Not sure, but it is a mighty big coincidence that all this happened in the same season. What I do know is that I’m one hundred percent positive that the organic methods are paying off big time, winter storm or not….Enough about that, time for a crazy travel story.

WHEN I TOOK OFF for a year with 900 bucks in my pocket to walk a circle around the Mediterranean Sea, (check that story out on our website blog) I ran into some crazy situations. One I will never forget is when it was time to cross into Israel from Egypt. I had spent a couple weeks in the Sinai Desert, and I had plans to spend two months in Israel. At this time, I was traveling with another backpacker who was on the same schedule and budget that I was on at the time (no schedule, almost no budget). We were on a bus barreling towards the border crossing through the desert. The bus stopped at a village one stop before the border. The bus driver yelled out that he was going to pull in for a short amount of time and if you weren’t back on the rickety, dusty bus when he got good and ready to go, he would leave you. I jumped off to grab anything cold to drink. I found a coke (written in Arabic) and got back on the bus to savor every drop.

My buddy ran into some other backpackers and decided that he would exchange some Egyptian pounds for Israeli shekels and back into US dollars. He had devised a strategy that made him a little extra money by swapping currencies on the black market. When he jumped off the bus to find some travelers who might want to do the deal, he left his backpack on the bus, thinking he’d be right back. The place was pretty desolate, so he figured his chances of finding someone to do business with were pretty slim. Turns out, there was a group there that needed to exchange. When I hollered out the window to him that the bus was about to leave, he said he would catch the next bus and asked if I would watch his pack for him until he could get to the border. It was too late to answer, no choice in the matter, the bus lurched forward.

So, here I was with two backpacks, headed to the border into Israel after hanging out in Arabic countries for the past five months….not a great predicament to be in. I had been hearing from other travelers that the Israeli military didn’t love Arabic country stamps in your passport. You have to remember that this was 1983, when there were still hostages in Lebanon, and things were generally unrestful over there (as always). When I got to the border military encampment, I found out that the next bus coming through wouldn’t be until Saturday. That was on a Thursday. I wasn’t going to wait that long for him in that hell hole, so I put on my pack and started dragging his pack through the line outside on a gravel road. I figured he knew where I was going, so he could catch up with me and grab his pack.

We had heard of a beach on the Red Sea where you could sleep for a few days without having the police harass you. I was a little miffed with him for leaving me in this situation. When it was my turn to pass through to the other side, the border patrol were not liking my two backpacks. They motioned to me to pick up the packs and follow them. I followed them into a tiny unlit, hot building, where a lot of shouting ensued. It was all happening aggressively in Hebrew, so I was thoroughly confused, scared and mad enough at the situation, that I really didn’t care what happened to his pack, as long as I could get out of there before I heard anything about locking me up.

They shouted that they wanted to know why I had two packs. Who did the other one belong to? Where was he? Had I watched him pack it? Did I know that there wasn’t a bomb in there? What really didn’t help the situation was that my buddy was a little paranoid about having something stolen from him, so he put a miniature padlock where his two zippers met on his old Jansport backpack. I told them that I would pick the little lock. Oh boy. That was the wrong thing to say. The yelling got even more intense. I caught enough to know they were discussing something about an American tourist getting blown up on the Egypt/Israel border and then more BLAH BLAH BLAH. After they tore through my pack, they made me grab his pack and follow them.

BY NOW, the other bus riders were showing signs of being generally disgusted with me for having to wait while all this happened. They watched from the bus windows while eight border patrol cops and I passed by them on our way out into an open field. In the field, they had an underground concrete bomb bunker. It was like an underground garbage can with a super thick lid that had a circular handle that locked it closed.

They stopped all traffic moving towards Egypt and all traffic moving into Israel, hooked up plastic explosives to the pack and locked down the lid. We all hid behind a low concrete wall while they pushed a button and blew his backpack into smithereens. Problem solved.

When I initially met up with this guy, he had been on the road for about a year already, so he had collected some meaningful things along the way. Most importantly, he had developed all of his film into the negatives along the way, making it much lighter and safer going through x-ray scanners, which can totally ruin any pictures left undeveloped. When he had enough negatives built up, he would mail them home when he came across a post office in a larger city. He had a pretty good build up of negatives in there and was just on the verge of mailing some home when he reached Jerusalem. Well, now the negatives were just a brown glob of goo, as was everything else, in what was left of his pack. They held it up and said, “No bombs in here,” and acted like they were going to hand the smoking handful of nothing off to me to deal with. I shook my head and walked on into Israel.

I did wait for him on the beach until Sunday morning, and there he was, sitting next to me wearing everything he now owned. He had his passport and his money on him, so he was going to be alright. On my budget, there wasn’t much I could do to help him. Luckily, he was a marine biologist, and there we were, right next to the world’s most interesting sea. He got a job at a lab and had a little thingy with a German girl for a while, so it all worked out in the end.

I know about how he made out, because about a year later, he pulled into my parents’ driveway on the same motorcycle he had ridden across the country from his hometown of Redondo Beach, California, to New York to catch his flight to Europe to begin the journey I met him on. I have since gone out to Redondo Beach to visit him and laugh about the crazy time we spent together. The negatives he did get to mail home before the Great Border Incident were incredible. He had published some of them that were taken deep down in the desert.

Sometimes I think about how lucky I am for having seen and done what I saw and did. Some of the places I passed through either don’t exist anymore or are in shambles now. It was like I had an invisible shroud around me that kept me safe and stealthy and protected me from some weird, close calls. There are four other incidents involving bombs along the way I will tell you about eventually. Until then, I am hoping that everyone is enjoying this fabulous spring we’ve been handed this year and that your invisible protection shroud is working for you as well as mine did.

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