Merry Christmas to American Soldiers from an Exiled Afghan Journalist

A message received from our friend Amin Wahidi, a writer an educational TV producer from Afghanistan, who now lives in a refugee shelter in Italy, waiting for a judgment on his request for political asylum there.  Amin fled Afghanistan last fall after receiving death threats from the Taliban, because he produced programs on English instruction, film history, and music instruction. He is an outspoken supporter of freedom of expression and diversity of religions, democracy, peace and social justice. 

Merry Christmas – Buon Natale

Eid ul Addha ( The Feast of Sacrifice) one of the biggest feasts for the Muslims came and passed while I am apart from my family, home, friends and I felt how difficult it is to be far from family and miss them on such an important occasion.

When I couldn’t say happy eid to my family and friends face to face, now I would like to take the chance of saying merry Christmas to those people from foreign lands who serve in my country and are far from their families at Christmas and the new year occasion.

Merry Christmas to you all, who are reading my blog right now.

And merry Christmas to you who is now far from his home, family and relatives but serving for peace, rebuilding and democracy in my country Afghanistan though missing your dearest ones back in your country in this important occasion, now being far from home, I can feel you very well.

Merry Christmas to you all, who serve in the cold, mountainous and snowy central highlands of my country to keep peace and security for my people, al though you miss your family, country and friends in this occasions that only comes once a year.

Merry Christmas to you all who serve in the windy, dusty and dangerous deserts of Helmand and other south western provinces of my country to keep peace for my people although any moment could be of death or life for you.

Merry Christmas to you all who serve and patrol in the streets of Kabul, where any moment you could expect a bomb blast and could lose your life for peace, freedom and democracy for my people.

And merry Christmas to all civilian and military who serve for peace, security, freedom and democracy in different corners of Afghanistan.

May God bless you all and you will begin the new year with hopes and full of peace, security, happiness for you and for the people of Afghanistan.

Mohammad Amin Wahidi
Exiled writer, journalist and filmmaker from Afghanistan

Kamels in Kuwait

There are numerous training facilities in Kuwait, the initial staging area for many American troops who spend some time there acclimating themselves to the desert environment. The soldiers regularly train to keep in shape and maybe learn some helpful tips. In one exercise, the unit was bussed to an artillery range deep in the desert. The view was rolling sand dunes for 360 degrees.

Before practice firings could begin in earnest, a gun misfired. No one was hurt, but it required an expert investigation, which took several hours. Safely certified, they were ready to fire the first shots when a herd of camels appeared on the horizon, necessitating another stand-down. Firing range personnel dispatched a fleet of Humvees to hurry the beasts along. But camels it seems have little fear of puny humans or their machines, and it looked like a lunch break made sense while the round-up proceeded.

The soldiers hunkered down opening their MRE (Meals Ready to Eat) pouches, but were interrupted by a group of the dispersed camels who had developed a taste for MREs. Hopelessly addicted to meatloaf and gravy dinners, they began snatching MREs right out of the soldiers’ hands. Again, camels have little fear of humans, whom they outsize 5 to 1, and whose teeth can cut a NY strip-sized hunk from an arm. The day promised to be quite long– and was. The army does not cancel training.

Dangerous Iraq

Evan phoned yesterday from Iraq, a rare occurrence, because he usually calls on the weekend. His work schedule, as always is unpredictable. It had been an easy, but boring day because his unit had been on the emergency response duty. He was upset, however, because the day before, a car bomber destroyed a checkpoint run by one of the local militia units that were being trained by Evan’s unit.

Evan felt the huge explosion while in his barracks and knew it was something terrible. His squad rushed to the scene, but nothing was left—no car, no guard shack, no barriers, just a big hole in the road. Five young men were killed. Beyond my imagination.

The U.S. troops vowed to return right away with materials to build a new checkpoint, and re-double their training efforts. There are ways to avoid bombs at checkpoints, but making a mistake can be fatal. The Iraqis need that extra important training.

Yesterday, The New York Times published an intense article about an extremist jihadi, Samir Khan, who lives right here in Charlotte and runs a jihadi website that includes links to videos of car bomb explosions on the Internet, placed to entertain and attract potential “martyrs”. These videos are cut like music videos and are dedicated to some god, not Allah, for sure. Khan, born in Saudi-Arabia, home of most of the 9/11gang, grew up in the U.S. and lives with his parents in a middle class home in Charlotte. I hope somebody gets hold of him before he gets his wish to become a martyr himself soon.

I’m sure the families of the five young militia men who put their lives on the line to help stop the rampage of criminal gangs in Iraq would like to get hold of Mr. Samir Khan too.

Kahn did find what was looking for, several years later, on an unlucky road in Yemen.

The Trouble With Afghanistan

The New York Times today had a list of the presidential candidates’ stands on various relevant topics. Of course, Iraq was near the top of the list. It was disappointing to see that the the Times only mentioned troop removal as the solution to Iraq’s problems. A more comprehensive plan that included an intensive re-building of infrastructure: education, sanitation, energy, health, transportation, and a judicial system would be more productive than just getting the troops home as soon as possible. And though this sentiment is on every Democratic candidate’s website, it was completely neglected in the Times article. Perhaps it is too complex an issue for Times readers to grasp?

The multiple failures following the West’s support of a mujahedeen insurgency against the USSR invasion of Afghanistan should be an enduring lesson that you can’t simply arm factions, then walk away to let them fight it out. There are good alternatives to a military occupation that can build an enduring peace. Afghans would not follow the Talibs one single step, if their basic human needs were being met by the Western coalition.

Even the U.S. military is taking this position more and more, but American politicians and media pander to the uninformed majority that see either “winning the war” or “getting out of the war” as the only solutions. Both are absurd: it is impossible to win or to ignore a war of insurgency. I would love to hear just one politician say “every soldier who leaves Iraq will be replaced by a doctor, lawyer, engineer, carpenter, mechanic, accountant, etc. etc. etc. and have the media repeat it.

Sadly, that goes against the grain of so much of American culture which says that winning only comes through force and submission. That may have been true in the pre-Internet, jet-plane, satellite, nuclear age, but we face a new paradigm where crazed men with a few sticks of dynamite become “Armies of One” (to borrow a U.S. Army recruiting slogan) with more power than a division of thousands—or a Humvee with a few unlucky soldiers. Hopefully our leaders will explore more solutions than running away or sacrificing its best for an impossible “victory.” Hopefully the media will support this, and not promote simplistic solutions.

Teaching an ESL Class in Mooresville, NC

I started teaching adult ESL classes at a local community college a few weeks ago. The biggest surprise was the diversity of the students—not so much because it was an ethnically diverse classroom, which it is, but diverse in the kinds of people I normally interact with. My students are the people who are usually invisible in my world. They clean houses and businesses at night. They decorate donuts. They landscape, build decks, lay tile, paint, or decorate donuts. Some work in Wal-mart or stock grocery shelves—and they’re not bright faced teens working to pay car insurance.

Being in a college town, I tend to hang out with white anglo-saxon college-educated people. They are teachers, doctors, writers, high-level government workers, bankers, insurance agents, filmmakers, web designers. Those are the jobs you expect to hear about at local party chit-chat. Now that I spend a few hours a day away from this group, I see what a cultural bubble it is.

Though there was initial wonder at the “strange” professions of the students, they are engaging people, and the mysteries of fast-food prep, house cleaning, and immigration are just as interesting as any of my regular friends’ occupational stories—- probably, more so, given their adventure of leaving home country and family to make it on the mean streets of the USA. They are bona-fide risk takers. What they’ve done and why; their hopes and dreams are pretty compelling; their lives full of dangers unknown by me and most of my suburban friends.

You don’t think of that when you brush by the maid in the hotel corridor, or the painting crew having lunch on somebody’s lawn. You don’t think about that when working late at the office, and a guy walks by pushing a vacuum.

These people are not invisible to me now. I make an effort to say hello. Talk about the weather or something and recognize their existence as more than a piece of furniture without much effect on the world.

Fragments from War by EM

Our correspondent has not been in touch much recently. From incomplete news media reports, we know there have been assaults in his area. When there are assaults, standard procedure at military bases is to shut down all non-essential communications, which means no phone calls or Internet access. This prevents the news media/families/others from receiving thousands of bits of very possibly incorrect information from personnel who speak from hearsay, gossip, emotion, etc. Sometimes the shut down lasts several days while the facts are sorted out and then distributed. No news is the best news.

So we wait, and….


Our correspondent reports that falafel sandwich shops are everywhere. The other day he and a patrol of 30 soldiers walked past one, and it being lunch time, and their MRE-jaded palats yearning for something exotic, decided to spread some foreign economic assistance around. They placed an order for 30 sandwiches– the sandwiches consist of 3-4 little fried bean meal balls with onions, tomato, parsley and secret sauce in a pita pocket– the Big Mac of Iraq. The shop owner was delighted.

As reported here before, soldiers regularly spend money in shops buying drinks, sandwiches, sweets, etc. as a practical matter and to promote good international relations. Our correspondent has never gotten sick from this road food, and reports the shops are quite health conscious, with the preparers wearing latex gloves when handling the food. Maybe the local chamber of commerce runs classes in how to appeal to soldiers.

Sometimes the order is so large that the owners have to slip out the back to buy supplies at the corner grocer. But the troops are patient and grateful for the rest. It would be impolite to complain or leave because of having to wait a few minutes longer.


Our correspondent telephoned Saturday. Indeed, there were troubles at his base. A recent blog entry from a journalist embedded at the base said one soldier had been killed and 24 rockets hit the base. Our correspondent expressed surprise that so many rockets had hit. Didn’t seem like it at the time. You never know for sure, but it’s amazing how little gets into the mainstream media.

Meanwhile his work continues as he travels outside the wire every day. It’s not terribly interesting because most of the time is spent waiting for the Iraqi police or army to decide to do something. It gives pause to wonder why so many troops will be needed over the next 12 months. The Iraqi police/military are happy the U.S. troops remain, but probably because the U.S. military is so generous with funds. Brand new Ford and Chevy pickups are sprouting like crocuses in the spring. Iraqi chop shops weld machine gun mounts to the bed and they become the poor man’s Bradley fighting vehicle. In true U.S. fashion, they even argue about which is best, Chevy or Ford. The consensus seems to be Chevy. “Ford no good,” he hears a lot. Poor Ford.

Our correspondent feels that if U.S. troops are sent home, but the money keeps flowing, the peace process would accelerate, save the U.S. billions and lower casualties and violence on all sides. Sounds like this should be a new pillar of our foreign policy. Send money, not troops. This is how Saudi Arabia and other Middle East oil barons work, and they’ve managed to tie the U.S. into a pretzel knot in both Afghanistan and Iraq for a miniscule fraction of the U.S. military costs in both of these ventures.


Our correspondent phoned from Iraq this week to let us know things are going well for him, despite recent heart-breaking news. We had been concerned because of the terrible loss of soldiers and Iraqis in the homicidal bombing last week. The victims were in the same large battalion as our correspondent, but not personally known by him.

Generally he’s finding Iraq to be a much more peaceful place than when he left it a little more than a year ago. He said the primary troublemakers are not Iraqis, but foreigners whose goal is to destabilize Iraq and thwart progressive democratic initiatives by Iraqis. These insurgents come from other Middle Eastern countries like Saudi Arabia and Iran—even though they are not “officially” recognized by those governments. They are well-organized and well-funded, with high-tech military gear and lots of money to bribe the poorest and most gullible Iraqis into committing desperate acts like suicide truck bombings. These funders are the real terrorists, and the root of the problem.

According to our correspondent, Iraqis see these people as a plague unleashed by the American invasion of Iraq—just as many wise Americans warned back in 2003 when George W. Bush was pushed by ill-informed neo-cons like Dick Cheney, Don Rumsfeld, Richard Perl, and Paul Wolfowitz to dismantle the Iraqi government and created a fertile field for criminal and totalitarian elements to take root and grow with little resistance—and sometimes inadvertent assistance, as in Guantanamo and Abu Gharib.

Our correspondent works closely with the Iraqi Police and Army providing training and back-up assistance as the Iraqis track down and dismantle the insurgent leadership and infrastructure developed since the invasion. The Iraqis have become a competent force, handling intelligence, planning, and execution of raids against suspected bomb factories, weapons caches, and insurgent foreigners.

In such a role, most Iraqis are happy the U.S. forces remain, for now, but they want full control of their country returned as soon as possible. The forces agreement signed late last year between the U.S. and Iraq stipulates that the U.S. military not work independently of the Iraqis. Therefore, much of our correspondent’s work is done from Iraqi police stations. If no missions are planned on a particular day, the soldiers remain at the station until the Iraqis ask for specific support. Our correspondent is impressed by their bravery in facing violent situations alone.

The missions are usually planned jointly, but the Iraqis carry them out. The U.S. forces hang back, with air support and other options on alert, in case immediate assistance is requested by the Iraqis. His sector is a fairly upscale neighborhood of professionals, teachers, and students living in large, well-taken care of homes with clean streets and parks, so it is generally safer. The insurgents infiltrate the poorest, densely populated neighborhoods, where they can easily hide, threaten, cajole and bribe distressed, angry, and even mentally ill people into planting roadside bombs or performing suicide attacks.

A surprising amount of time is spent drinking tea and munching from trays of sweets provided by the Iraqi hosts, while they discuss situations and strategies at the police station. Our correspondent asks that we think of this cooperative situation, when the news is full of dire events.

When asked if he was getting soft from the tea and sweets, our correspondent reminded me there was still plenty of walking with 80 lb backpacks, both day and night. In downtime at the barracks, he’s been going to the exercise room, where a body-builder buddy gives him free professional-level personal training, and is turning him into an Arnold Schwarzenegger look-alike (painfully, he added).

Much time is spent walking through the community, establishing a presence. Streets are busy, shops are open, and people crowd the sidewalks. The soldiers stop in cafes and restaurants for snacks and drinks. They have a budget to buy stuff in shops, which keeps the shopkeepers happy. They’ll always and chat (through interpreters) with people on the street.

We sent a tiny helmet-mounted video camera to our correspondent who reports he has taken several hours of video during these patrols, and will send a few DVDs soon. He says we’ll enjoy the lively street scenes in this newly relaxing Iraqi culture.

Our correspondent relayed the following example of the improving cultural interaction when he was on foot patrol in a residential neighborhood.

During regular breaks, squad members bend down on one knee, a good, alert resting position (and practically a smaller target). One soldier stationed himself next to an iron gate, and soon an old man opened the gate to peer out at the commotion of a dozen soldiers on his doorstep. His surprised eyes met the kneeling soldier’s at his feet, and he said “Salaam.” The soldier dutifully replied with the proper “Asalaam allaykum.” The old man perused the soldier a moment then went back into the house. He returned with an old plastic chair which he placed on the street and offered to the soldier with a brief comment. The translator yelled out, “He said– ‘As long as you’re relaxing, you should be comfortable.’” The soldier, again mindful of his cultural sensitivity training, didn’t dare refuse, so nodded with thanks, smiled, and sheepishly took the seat. The rest of the squad, still on their knees, stared wide-eyed, barely controlling their laughter. Regrettably, our correspondent’s camera was not on at the time.

It’s a relief to hear of the improving conditions in Iraq. Stories like this, which rarely get into the big media, give us hope and a measure of comfort.

As far as we know now, most likely, our correspondent is OK. We haven’t had any official news from the military on this as of 6:14 pm EST today (Monday, Feb 9), but reports started coming in on AP, Reuters, CNN, BBC and others today around noon that four U.S. soldiers and their Iraqi interpreter, as well as several civilians were killed when a suicide bomber drove a car into a Humvee riding in a convoy in Mosul, and detonated the explosive, destroying the Humvee.

Naturally we are terribly concerned, but our sources close to command of our correspondent’s unit have not been informed of casualties, so the assumption is that they were in a different unit.

The horror of this is huge, no matter what. We will post any news here as soon as we hear anything.

The Washington Post has an article


Our correspondent sent this email describing his typical day. Times are intentionally blocked out. IP means Iraqi Police. You can probably google all other acronyms.


well, lights on was at ****

i kicked off my sleeping bag, put my shower shoes on and grabbed my toiletry bag, my towel and a bottle of water

walked out to the shower trailer, only 20m from our building

air was very chilly in bare feet and PTs, so i hurried over to it

water was nice and piping hot because it was early, and because most everyone is living elsewhere

shaved, and brushed my teeth with the bottled water because i dont trust the water

walked back to my room and changed into ACU’s, i noticed they have a tear in them, so i make a mental note to take them over to a “tailoring” place run by a quartermaster company that will repair them

head outside and chat with my buddies joe, nick, and the LT while they have their morning cigarettes

i sling my weapon over my shoulder and we walk over to the chow hall

its cool and crisp, probably in the low fifties, our breath puffs in the air

talk a little about the mission that day, the LT is upset that he didnt get anymore planning time, if we had more time to plan we could split into multiple teams and arrange for air cover, as it is, we’ll “keep it simple, stupid” and manuever as one element

we all show our ID’s and that our weapons are on “safe” to the chow-hall guards

i wash my hands thouroughly, with lots of soap

chow hall is nice, i think about getting a made-to order omelet, but decide on scrambled eggs, a biscuit, and fruit juice

we head back, its almost **** now, and i make sure my team has started getting the MRAP ready, i remind Burnett to get the rhino warmed up, and Barth that we got some lubricant in, so he should make sure to apply some to the machine-guns bolt today, they say “roger, sergeant”

burnett tells me that the vehicle is ready at around ****, i spot check the vehicle, checking radio frequencies and that there is fresh oil on the 240B, the guys have a couple of battery-powered speakers and are listening to hip-hop and joking around by the trucks

the LT and Ski come out a little after ***** and give us the mission brief, go over the “SIGACTS” (significant actions of the last 24 hours), current “BOLO” (be on the look out) for vehicles and personnel.

**things are expected to heat up before election day**

one of our interpreters is going on vacation for two weeks, so we take a few minutes to strap his suitcases in the trucks, (we strive to have nothing loose in the trucks, in case of a rollover or IED strike)

we all pile in the vehicles and perform final radio checks and head out

we drive out the gate and take turns firing the heavy machine guns into the test fire pit, i smile as our 240B chatters happily with its fresh lubrication. a few small iraqi boys scramble to scoop up the brass from the expended catrigdes

we drive north, then turn east and drive over the river, there are several bridges, and already lots of traffic, IP’s guard every intersection and whistle shrilly to clear traffic out of our way

its a 20-minute drive to a checkpoint outside the city, where we drop off the interpreter “Freddy,” on the way i chat with him and find out that he was an infantry sergeant and fought against Iran in Saddam’s army. he says if we get him an AK, he can help us on raids “no problem” also, his son is getting surgery…his medical english isnt so great, so i dont understand what the problem is, but that the doctors dont anticipate any problems, he gives me an extra cell-phone number that we can call in a few weeks to make sure he doesnt need a few more days

when we reach the checkpoint, we pull off the road, and one of our vehicles runs over a piece of scrap metal and its tire bursts, so after Freddy is dropped off we call up HQ and let them know that we’ll be coming back in to get our tire changed

we pull in, drive over to the maintenance pad, and the mechanics jack-up and swap the tire out, probably relieved to have a simple job to work on

we head out, test fire again, and drive over to ERB-* (emergeny response battalion-*) a militarized group of IP that are supplemented by a team of IA special operations troopers

their job is primarily counter-insurgency, as opposed to the criminal-investigation of the regular IP

they have a set of shiny new pick-up trucks, with pintle mounts for russian machine guns mounted in the beds

our LT links up with the IP and goes over a “map recon” with the IP officers, making a plan to quickly surround a suspected rocket-launch site when we get the call

our soldiers take turns taking pictures of each other holding an RPG.. and we settle in for a nice 6-hour wait.

we watch wedding convoys circle the traffic circle

drink cups of insanely sweet chai (here, strong black tea)…

open up MREs for some stray dogs…. nap and relax

at **** we get the word that radar detected a series of rockets fired from well outside the city, on the plus side, they fail spectacularly, apparently spiraling off randomly

we shake hands with the IP, congratulate each other on a job well done, mount up and head back in

we clear our weapons, everyone making sure that someone else inspects their weapons firing chambers

drive over to the fuel point and fill up

its getting dark, Clark greets us, he stayed behind today and got our final humvee up and running, distributed mail, and built a living area for the new guy

i eagerly tear open my amazon package, (a gift from a random Soapbox reader in England), then, a little guiltily, for not checking on it first, spot check my vehicle, making sure gear is properly stowed and electronics are shut down correctly

i run and drop off some laundry at the laundry facility, run by filipinos

then meet up with the other NCOs and head to the chow hall, tonight is mexican food, i pick up enchiladas, rice, refried beans, and a salad

outside, nick brings me a milkshake because I got one for him the other night

Nick and I walk over to a pirate-dvd store and talk in funny english accents while discussing the merits of the various dvds

i chuckle over a “matt demon” collection

Nick selects a “future weapons, complete 4 seasons” for $15, and i head over to the mwr, hoping that the internet is working.

Sick in Iraq by EM

Searching for mines in Afghanistan c. 2004

Unfortunately, I am sick again, and much worse this time. Had to go get the medics up last night to get some help. Feeling better this morning, but after I send off this email I’m going to crawl back into my cot and try to sleep this off.

The problem is that our battalion and the battalion that we are replacing are both here at the same time, so we’re crammed into every little space imaginable. Living so close together is making sure everyone gets sick. Also, there’s so many people, that there is seldom any hot water, so people aren’t terribly clean and/or spend time very cold and wet every day.

We won’t start patrols for a while, I’ll let you know when we do. Our sector is one of the quieter ones, but is also very diverse. It includes a forest ( yes, a forest in Iraq!), a university,(oh boy…politically active young people with knowledge of chemistry and electronics), some ancient ruins (still respected to this day, although they occupy an area of good real-estate in the city they are only used as sheep and goat grazing grounds, even the insurgents seem to respect the area as out-of-bounds), and several city neighborhoods.

Oh, also a lovely section of a local river that has been known, for as long as the locals can remember, as “Shit Creek”….sounds picturesque. I’m not making that up about the creek, the intelligence officer said they’ve tried to get a different name for it from the locals so that the intelligence sergeants didn’t get to say things like “the target is up Shit Creek” in their briefings…but no luck.

Bombs Away by EM

While on a recent mission our correspondent’s squad received a call from the Iraqi police that they had discovered a team of criminals burying an IED in the street. They disrupted the vile deed, and chased the perps. Meanwhile, guards were left to keep people away from the IED, and they asked for assistance to remove the explosive device. Our correspondent, having spent a year as a combat engineer and safely blown up many an IED and other ordnance, took a look at the thing and determined that pasting a little hunk of C4 plastique explosive and detonating it would eliminate it nicely. That is the safest thing to do with an unpredictable IED.

Unfortunately, not in the engineers anymore, our correspondent no longer carried hunks of C4 in his backpack. So, they called in demolition specialists who arrived with a full team and a robot. The robot carried and set the C4 on the IED. Everyone took cover, and it was safely blown up. Our correspondent’s squad members, not having been that close to a real explosion before were mightily impressed with the power. To our correspondent, it was kind of piddling, but he went along with the spirit of the moment and acted impressed too.

He made a mental note to contact higher ups about permission to carry a hunk of C4 in his backpack, for just such situations. Why bring in a whole squad with robots, and take up hours of so many people’s time? He could have taken care of the thing in five minutes. What efficiency!

Sensible as this is, he doubts the higher-ups will buy it. Not such a bad thing for his many friends who would have one less thing to worry about.


Kabul at night. It was the first time I had been out driving at night. These were the “danger hours,” when westerners were sternly warned to stay off the streets. Three Afghan colleagues had invited me for a pizza dinner in a place that secretly served wine and beer. What could go wrong?  Well, two weeks ago an Italian woman had been dragged from her car and kidnapped.

It  was ten PM, and the usually packed city was deathly quiet – no lights, shops closed, sidewalks deserted. Dark buildings leaned over the street, making uneven cut outs in the thick blanket of stars above. Our tiny beat-up Mazda, jerked to avoid deep potholes in the street, like a tilt-a-whirl at a county fair.

As we entered a roundabout lit by just two acid-yellow lights, one of Kabul’s mini wind storms blew a cloud of dust and paper across the street. Dim figures emerged, just silhouettes at first. It was 4 or 5 guys, in police uniforms, AK-47 automatic rifles in hand, waving at us to stop. It was a concern, because police uniforms can be bought in any bazaar for a few bucks– AKs too.

I looked over my shoulder from the front passenger seat, looking for assurance from my friends in the rear, but they looked as scared as I felt. An armed guard, with his own uniform and AK-47, was usually back there. On this trip, out to a late dinner, we had decided it wasn’t necessary—and there wouldn’t have been room anyway.

Great, this was the exact opposite of what I had been told not to do ever, since setting foot in Afghanistan– riding in a car, without a guard, late at night. I was toast.  As the driver eased to a stop, rolled down his window, and snapped on the interior light, I instinctively laid my hands flat and open on my lap.

A policeman, or the guy dressed like one, stuck his head through the window. After a long stare at the four of us, he asked for the driver’s permit. I was the only westerner. He motioned at me to open the glove box. Thankfully, nothing was inside—like a gun. He stepped back and waved us on. The driver floored it and the police disappeared in a swirl of yellow dust and crumpled papers. I swore to myself that I’d never do that again. But I did. (to be continued)

4 Essential Travel Tips


Rand McNally’s Tripmaker softwear

I’ve made several long driving trips around the USA in the past 3 years, one in a camper van, the other staying in a wide range of hotels, from mom & pop ‘50s style motels to deluxe resorts.  I totaled about 30,000 miles, and have visited every state except Alaska ( but soon).

I was inspired by writer/traveler Tom Keugler’s  list of “8 things you MUST take on a trip.”  But I thought 8 was a little skimpy.  So here’s my ‘must’ list


  1. Before You Go:   Navigation & Car Service
    1. Rand-McNally 50 States Map Book–GPS units can’t give you the big picture about where you’re going.  Paper maps are especially useful when seeking the back roads, and have no idea that a state road parallels an Interstate, and goes through cool towns, historic sites, quirkey museums,  parks, lakes, etc.  Google’s not good at finding multiple alternative and scenic routes.
    2. Allstays trip planning software– This lists thousands of quiet, off-the-beaten-track camping spots that can cost just a few bucks a night (some even free) in awesome places.  The $25/year fee is worth it, and you can try it for free.
    3. Rand McNally TripMaker software– I looked at a dozen trip planning software programs.  This was by far the best, because it allows 25 stop points per trip (Google has just 10!) and features accurate dragging to change routes (something no other software has been able to manage).  And it’s totally free!
    4. Good Sam Road Service Insurance— In case of a breakdown, dead battery, lockout, or flat tire, Good Sam is the only service that will take you to the nearest service center, no matter how far away at no extra charge.  Costs a bit more annually, but reasonable.
    5. Lose the spare tire—If you have decent road service insurance, they’ll tow you to the nearest tire place to either repair or replace your tire. Who wants to change a tire in a 110 degree desert or a mountain pass emergency lane anyway?  Let a pro handle it, while you catch up on your email or journal. Also, it frees up several cubic feet of storage in your vehicle—enough for a camping stove, hiking boots, and more.

Driving through the Badlands

  1. Gadgets & Stuff
    1. Laptop Computer or tablet- It will help guide with the recommended software, and let you read articles, reviews, advice, etc. easier than a phone- unless you do all your data on a phone, and have forgotten how a computer works.
    2. Small 12v DC to 120v AC electric converter. This will power or charge your laptop off your car battery, while driving, or not. Get one with a couple USB ports for fastest cellphone charging too. Absolute necessity.  It does use your car’s battery, so don’t overuse if the motor isn’t running.
    3. Cellphone small backup battery– One battery the size of a candy bar gives you a few extra hours.  A lifesaver.
    4. LED Flashlight– Modern LED flash lights are cheap, small and powerful, and are critical when in a dark campground, trail, or low-budget motel.  Cheap– keep a couple on hand.
    5. Swiss Army Knife– a basic model with screwdrivers, 3” blade, cork screw and bottle opener is enough, and will get regular use.
    6. Wide-brimmed hat with a chin strap— These were designed for the sunny, windy West, where a freak 30 mph gust can blow your hat down a cliff or across the highway. Keeps the sun off your face and neck too.  Think cowboy hat, but get high-tech rain-proof, washable and vented version.
    7. Lightweight rain jacket with hood– This can be stuffed in a small bag, but they can keep you warm and dry.  Even in July, in many places the wind blows cold and fierce, and a windbreaker with a tightly corded hood is a life saver.
    8. Cottonelle packets– Cottonelle is one of the only flushable hand and tp wet wipes. They’re great in a tp emergency, or when you splash gas on your hands, eat a chili dog, or run into a friendly licking dog.  Remove the wipes from the packet and put in a Ziploc bag to keep them from drying out.
    9. Suntan crème—The sunny West can give Easterners a big burn fast, even with a hat. Don’t fool around, use 50+.
    10. Meds—I have a tiny plastic bottle 1”x3” with a screw cap for 3-4 each of Advil, aspirin, antacids, and even an Imodium (learned this on a 14 hr. flight that ran completely out of toilet paper half-way through)—or whatever your body may need. Put it in your carry bag with phone, wallet, etc. for when you’re far from your suitcase or a drugstore.
    11. Tiny umbrella—6” versions take almost no space, but help with unexpected downpours.
    12. Rainex—This windshield treatment works miracles to help you see in the inevitable rainshowers. One application should last a month, so you may not even need to take it on a trip. (Be sure your windshield wipers are in excellent shape before hitting the road).
    13. Extra windshield washer fluid and Doobee—I take a whole gallon in my trunk. Bugs are the biggest problem—especially in humid sections of the country– along with dust, mud, and pollen.   The Doobee is a plastic scrub pad that removes the toughest solidified bug proteins that cloths or paper towels can’t.  Consider also a spray bottle of heavy duty bug remover, especially in more humid areas.
    14. Snacks & Drinks– Sometimes you’re far from food at mealtime, and having something to get you by is a big help. Don’t get something that goes gooey in heat. Trail mix is the best.  You can even make your own and it lasts weeks without refrigeration.
      Cool campground in VERY rural Texas panhandle
  2. Cellphone
    1. Any smart phone is a necessity. I have a Samsung Android, which is frequently slow and unpredictable, and changes settings randomly, but it is cheap!  Get one with a compass (many cheap ones don’t).
    2. Google Maps- What all GPS units use, so why not just use your phone and know you’re always up to date.   I had a better paid phone-based navigation apps, that provided 10 times the info of Google Maps.  But it had an annual fee, so Google drove them out of business with its free, but inferior product.  Like all Google products, their goal is to make money, so you’ll be deluged with ads getting in the way—instead of one annual low fee.  I always scope out my route on a large paper map first, then let Google maps handle close-in guidance.  Google maps are best in Interstate highway mixing bowl intersections in big cities like Dallas, Atlanta, and Denver.
    3. Mobil Hotspot- Most cell phones have this built-in, and allow you to use your computer to access the internet without a wi-fi connection.  It can eat a lot of data, but road warriors shouldn’t worry about data use.  Be sure to bump your data plan to at least 8Gb.  Your cell connection is your lifeline, and if it costs another $20/month to use your computer just about anywhere,  it’s a valid expense.
    4. Wi-fi calling- This allows you to make phone calls and texts without using cell data—if you can switch to an available wi-fi network.  This means you probably won’t pay for calls and data.  It’s a great feature in places with no cell service, that have wi-fi (most places these days).  It can save many Gbs of data charges.  Most phones include wi-fi calling, but it’s a little hidden.  On an Android, go Settings>Advanced Calling>Wi-fi Calling.  Turn the switch to Prefer Wi-Fi.  My phone regularly turns off Wi-fi calling on its own.  I suspect Verizon discourages it, because it makes a big dent in their income.  So check  the setting regularly, to save $$.  Now, many cheapo motels and campgrounds have terrible wi-fi, so you may occasionally need to use cell data—another good reason to bump up your data plan during your travels.
    5. Compass—I discovered too late that my cheap Samsung phone didn’t include a compass. All road warriors should have a compass at their fingertips always, even a mechanical one.  Too many times I’ve made a wrong turn on a lonesome highway, and discovered 50 miles later I was heading North, not South.  Grrrr….
  3. Carry bag–
    A practical carry bag is usually just big enough to carry a tablet computer (9”x12”x4”).  It’s suitable for wallet, phone, keys, pens, notepad, batteries, small camera, water bottle, orange, energy bar, map, guides, flashlight, business cards, tiny umbrella, meds, comb, pocket knife, and other small items.  It should have a wide strap to sling it across your shoulder.  It’s good for carrying in restaurants, museums, shopping, bus tours, and short hikes.  Unlike most bulky backpacks, you can set on a chair or table, or your lap, without taking much space, and it doesn’t look like you just stumbled in off the trail.   On longer hikes, a small backpack is more comfortable, but I’ll often just stuff my carry bag into it, and still have all my organized necessities.  I have an Eagle Creek that isn’t sold anymore.  But you’ll find a good sub with a little digging.

    View of Kings Canyon National Park, looking east into the High Sierras. This is what really makes America great. Let’s keep it.


Cellphone booster–  These can cost hundreds of dollars, so I don’t use them, and they have limitations.  Mainly used by truckers on long hauls where there can be huge gaps in cell service.

First Aid Kit—Though I have one stuffed away in my trunk, I use it less than once a decade.  Stuff a few band aids in your carry pack instead.  Anything else will probably require a trip to an Urgent Care Center.

I’m sure you have your own necessities.  I’ve compiled this list from personal experiences where I’ve said… damn, I wish I brought my…

Happy trails!