Welcome to Eureka (rhymes with Sligo)

You can say what you want about Denny’s, but it’s got one thing going for it: No door locks. I was wandering the blustery rustic streets of Eureka, and there was just one thing on my mind. Breakfast. I need breakfast the way a mole rat needs fur. (You see? would I have written that if I was not loopy with hunger and uncaffeinated?)

The historic downtown district has been prettied up for the tourists, and I was confident that I would find a nice little café where I could drink a nice cup of tea. The cold rain stung my face as I walked, and I was thankful for my beard. Not too far along I found a place. Closed. I passed some nice-looking places, but they all opened later. Ooooo-kay. Starting to get hungry. Ahead I saw a bagel place. Perfect! It turns out they are open six days a week, but not on Tuesdays. Tuesdays! Around a corner and another block toward the bay was a promising sign. Sorry, closed, out of business, thanks for your support.

So, Denny’s, for almost-right eggs over easy and toast oozing butter. Delicious!

A Dark and Stormy Night

The design of this little hotel is interesting. The ground floor is for the cars, and the motel above is turned inside-out, with the doors opening onto a central court, lit by skylights. The rafters over the court are covered with spikes to convince our feathered friends that what would otherwise be an ideal nesting place is off-limits. The building is older, with those little signs of decay that are hard to pinpoint but add up to a feeling that of a place that wasn’t that well-built to start with and has seen better days.

I chose to stay in, and I spent the evening reading and eating snack food. The wind whipped around the building and drummed on the roof. It was downright chilly, so I turned on the heater—one of those gas-fired wall units, about five feet high, the enamel darkened near the top from years of use, the kind that emits carbon monoxide if it’s not adjusted properly. I read until I started nodding off, then turned out the light and fell quickly to sleep.

Quickly, but not for long. I awoke to a series of low, resonant clanging sounds noises coming from the heater. They slowed down over the next couple of minutes and eventually stopped. The metal of the heater was contracting, I guessed, after the thermostat had reached temperature and shut it off. I listened to the rain come in squalls, fierce yet brief, hammering the roof and the tin chimney of my heater. The storm was playing the metal pipe like a musical instrument—no, a band, with percussion and woodwinds. Heavy drops rattled and pinged off the metal while the wind resonated in the pipe with low moans and higher whistles. The whole was punctuated by the periodic smack from the bathroom as the vent louvers opened and slapped back closed with the shifting winds.

I lay in the darkness, having just finished one Pulitzer prize-winning novel and started another, and thought of graceful and floral ways to describe the night. This morning I can’t remember any of them. They sure seemed good at the time, though.

Twice more last night I awoke to the clunk-clunk-clunk of the heater as it expanded or contracted. By the numbers, it was not a great night of sleep, but this morning I feel refreshed, perhaps because I decided not to drive today. That’s right, I’ll be returning to the same place tonight.

Delayed by Weather

The Weather Channel is calling the roads around here “a big mess”, so I’m going to take time out from driving and catch up on some writing. Unfortunately, TWC is also calling for dangerous surf and “rough bar conditions”. I’d better leave the laptop in my room.

Leaving Colville, continued

Onward from Colville (rhymes with Smallville), dodging squirrels and following the Columbia River. I took it easy, watching for eagles and eagle food. I passed some fractured igneous rocks reminiscent of the Giant’s Causeway, then caught some big roads south to the Oregon border.

I drove on the Oregon side of the Columbia Gorge and was beginning to lament not finding photos opportunities where I could actually stop the car, when I had a chance to take leave of the Interstate and take the narrow, winding historic highway 30. Rule of thumb: When there are two ways to get from point A to point B, and one is far more efficient than the other, there is a great drive waiting to happen.

The day was soft—generally cloudy and often raining lightly. The roads were wet, not idea, for performance driving, which made it all the more pleasant to slow down and smell the moss. At lower speeds on a freshly-surfaced road, the motor purring, the tunes easily filling my little cabin, I was doing well. I tried not to think about my gas gauge flirting with “E”.

You know what you get when you have basaltic cliffs towering over a major river in a moist climate? Really cool waterfalls is what. Lot’s of ’em. I managed not only to curb my go-go-go instinct but I even doubled back once

—We interrupt this narrative to comment on the juke box in this little sports bar in a Portland suburb. Planet P is playing right now. Remember them? The song is “Why Me?” and the line that caught my attention was “He won’t be back this way ’till two thousand ten.” When that song was popular, that seemed like a long time away. Now it’s just about here. Wow.—

for a picture. I haven’t looked at the results yet. The shot I went back for I don’t think I got, though. I just couldn’t make what was in my head match what came out on the camera’s little screen. I’ve just got to keep practicing, I tell myself.

Now I sit, pen in hand, dangerously close to the pool table (some of these guys see to think it’s a contact sport), drawing curious glances from the locals. I think I’ll challenge the winner.

Leaving Colville

It was in Griffin, WA, just past the turn off for Addy-Griffin Road (double-take), on the stereo “One More Suicide” by Marcy Playground was shaking the upholstery when the squirrel threw himself in front of the car. The first autotoreador of the season to make his bid for mortality before my machine broke left, then cut back right as I hit the brakes and swerved. It’s a habit, what can I say? There was no thump, and in the rear view there was no furry carcass. I believe that rodent has lived to be run over another day.

South, and west. Now I sit at a place called Cleary’s, somewhere in the vicinity of Portland. I was sorry to leave Colville; mornings in the quiet house, feet up in front of the fire are hard to beat. Bob and the H’s were sorry to see me go, for divergent reasons. Helen, whose first question on my arrival was “do you still have your convertible?” subsequently summarized just what it was about me she liked so much. “You’re easier than Dad!” There was only a trace of incredulity when she said it, and she meant it as a compliment. Henry is older and still a dreamer. When he saw me, his first question was “Do you still have your convertible?” Henry launched into a writing project while I was there, and I think he was a little surprised at what his imagination was able to do. I don’t kid myself that this flurry of pencil to paper will last much past my departure, but there might come a day when he remembers that story, and remembers the fun he had writing it.

I didn’t mention to his parents that when he said he had to write an essay for school (the dreaded 3 points in 5 paragraphs format) I told him to bag the rules, write from the heart, and count the paragraphs later. I wonder what a teacher would do, faced with a really good essay that was (gasp!) six paragraphs long. In fact, I might even be willing to relive those years just to write such an essay. Almost.

At the time I followed the formula like a good little robot.

Bob and I go way back, Back in the day there was no one better to kill an otherwise lost afternoon with. First, Bob has a creative mind tuned towards having fun. Take an unexploded bomb, a golf ball, and a hula hoop, and Bob will find the game waiting to be played. These days, Bob isn’t around land mines so much, so when I’m in town it’s a special opportunity. It’s a chance to go and drink beers and shoot pool and do guy stuff.

For precisely these reasons Bob’s wife, Jeni, is happy to greet me and also happy to say goodbye. Recently I revoked the right of people to complain about how busy they are if they watch TV. Throw your TV out the window and light it on fire. Take all that extra time and put it into the community, into your family, into the sports team. Feeling tired? I don’t blame you. By the way, Jeni is putting out your burning television. She’s got firefighter of the year awards hanging on the wall. While I was there she had two days extended into significant sleep deprivation by fire calls. I’ll tell you this, though: In my life I’ve had neighbors of various sorts, and there are a very few who take being a neighbor seriously. I am shameful in this regard. Jeni will drop what she’s doing and pull an all-nighter because it’s the right thing to do. Dang.

That said, I didn’t make Jeni’s life any easier while I was visiting. I was a polyp of institutionalized chaos, the guy who plays big ball hall soccer. More that once the H’s caught grief for transgressions that I affirmed. (OK, encouraged.)

Rachael. I am a time traveler, a stone skipping across the surface of the lake, just touching the life of this family at intervals. Between this skip and the last she has changed, dramatically, beautifully. I had heard about the teen threshold in girls, but I had never witnessed it firsthand before. Rachael and I did well before, while she was the engine of the conversation, but this time some scruffy friend of dad’s wasn’t automatically cool, no matter what he drives.

She’s about to make life hell for some poor bastards. She will do it innocently, or at least without dishonesty.

Then there’s hoops. Rachael plays a position game. While her teammates crash and bang about, she gets where she needs to be. She raises her arm, providing a target, put it there and see the offense work. If that doesn’t work she can rotate to the top and move the ball around. Snap!

OK. so that’s Rachael. Dudes, be ready to have your asses kicked.

And… I have much more to say, much, much more! But they’re kicking me out. Stay tuned.

AiA: White Shadow – Episode 2

Our story so far: Allison is an American high-school student who has transferred to a private prep school in Japan. She is only very slowly adapting to a culture that seems to depart from all reality. Her status as a transfer student has the entire class assuming she has mystical superpowers of some sort, and her fellow students are trying to determine what those powers are. She is staying with distant relatives, who seem completely absorbed in computers to the exclusion of all else. Meanwhile, she has been invited to the old monastery, where an odd assortment of girls live with seemingly no supervision.

If you would like to read from the beginning, the entire story is here.

Seiji stood in the shadows outside the Old Monastery. The lights were on inside, but things were otherwise quiet. “I don’t like this,” he muttered.

“That which is not liked is loved,” came a withered voice behind him. Seiji wheeled to find three old men standing uncomfortably close to him. They wore the robes of monks, and all were bald and toothless. They stood arranged tallest to shortest, and seemed to have been standing there for some time.


“It is not for the kitten to refuse his stripes,” the one in the middle said.

“Or his claws,” said the short one.

“What are you talking about?”

“It has begun,” the tall one said.

“Still going,” agreed the middle one.

“Never stopped,” said the short one, smiling toothlessly. All three laughed at the joke.

Seiji didn’t need cryptic prophecies to tell him that what was happening was unstoppable. He turned and stormed off.

“Kids,” said the tall one.

“Think they know everything,” said the middle one.

“They’re right.” said the short one. “They just don’t know it.” The monks laughed again before fading into the shadows.

“Wow, guys! This is fantastic!” Allison ate hungrily. “This is nothing like the stuff my aunt makes.”

“What sort of food do they fix you at home?” asked Ruchia.

“It’s got these weird flavors, like my aunt doesn’t care what it tastes like at all. Like it was just made by some formula to have all the necessary nutrients.”

“That’s terrible!” said Mika. “Food’s supposed to be fun!”

“Be careful,” warned Tasuki. “Mika’s definition of fun usually involves explosions. That goes for her spicy cooking as well.”

Allison’s knees were starting to ache from sitting at the low table, but she really was grateful for the meal and the lively company. She was still in a state of shock at the whirlwind of activity that surrounded her.

Her visit had started simply enough. Tasuki and Ruchia had ridden the train with her, and the two girls had sustained the conversation while Allison watched the city go by. It was a short ride, and then they walked up steep streets which got steadily narrower and more confusing as they neared the top of the hill. Perched at the crown was the Old Monastery.

The ancient building sat in harmony with the trees and lawns that surrounded it. The building itself hid its size well; it flowed with the natural contours of the land, and the structure’s proportions and subtle asymmetries made it seem more an act of nature than a work of man. The building was in perfect repair, the wood showing no signs of deterioration in the damp environment.

The first person she met was the building manager. Nemu was sweeping the front walk as the girls approached. She appeared to Allison to be about thirty years old. A bent cigarette dangled from the corner of her mouth. Nemu stopped sweeping, leaned on her broom, and took a long drag from her cigarette. She exhaled a long plume of smoke and said, “Transfer student?”

Ruchia said, “This is Allison, Miss Nemu. She’s from America.”

“Pleased to meet you,” Allison said.

“’Bout time. You moving in?”

“Uh, no. I’m staying with relatives.”

Nemu took another drag on her cigarette and exhaled again. “I’m sorry.”


“Are you close to them?”

“Jeeze, I hardly know them. And they never even talk to me.”

“White shadow,” Tasuki said in what passed for her as a whisper.

Nemu nodded. “Oh, well, that’s all right, then. I can wait. He’s not here yet anyway.”

“What is this White Shadow?” asked Allison. “You mentioned it before.”

“Oh, well! It’s nothing!” Tasuki said, grinning foolishly and putting one arm behind her head. A drop of sweat appeared on her forehead. “Just a computer thing. I’m sure I don’t understand it. Ha-ha-ha…”

“Come on,” Ruchia said, “You need to meet everyone else.”

“Everyone else” left Allison’s head reeling. She’d quickly abandoned any hope of remembering any names; they came at her too quickly and were too different for her to put them in comfortable slots. She resolved to ask Ruchia later for the names, when she had more time to connect the names to the conveniently distinctive traits of each of the girls she met.

As they approached the house, they were confronted by a giant creature with glowing eyes. Allison jumped back, but Tasuki just laughed. “Don’t worry,” she said, “this is just something Mika made.”

“Preezed to meetchoo” the robot said in English.

“That’s incredible,” Allison said.

Tasuki was watching Allison carefully. “She’s made better.”

“This is Kuu,” Ruchia said. Allison looked in the direction indicated but at first saw no one. After a moment a strange, unrecognizable creature rose from the bushes, then a pair of frightened eyes poked out from behind the stuffed animal.

“Um… hello,” Kuu said.

“Hello,” Allison replied. She bent down a little, to be more on a level with Kuu. “How are you?”

The eyes disappeared once more behind the stuffed animal.

Another small figure exploded from the house. “Is this her? Is this her?”

“This is Mika,” Ruchia said. “You met her robot.”

The girl was exotic – long fair hair, dark skin, and odd markings on her forehead. She was so filled with energy that Allison imagined her as a stick of dynamite in human form. She darted around Allison with surprising speed, pausing to inspect the newcomer from every angle. “She’s a transfer student? Really?” She dared to poke Allison, then when nothing happened she started prodding her Allison all over. “What’s your power source? Can you really bleed? Are you terrestrial?”

Eventually her investigations slowed down. “Just a person,” she said, despondent, then quickly perked back up. “Were you in a lab?”

“She wouldn’t remember that, silly.” a new girl said. She leaned in the doorway, idly holding a beer. Her skimpy outfit revealed a voluptuous body beneath.

“This is Dojima,” Ruchia said.

Hitomi followed Dojima and was a welcome relief from the madness all around; the girl was an island of stability in the chaotic household. “You seek balance,” Hitomi said. “That will not be easy for you.”

“Nothing’s been easy since I got here.”

“Was it easy before?”

“Well, no, I guess not. But it was different.”

“Was it? When you are dying of thirst in the desert, do you notice the color of the sand?”

“Uh… what?”

“Don’t worry about it. I look forward to being your friend.”

Allison didn’t notice the intake of breath by all others present. “I will be honored to consider you my friend,” she said.

“Thus, we are bound.”

“Come on!” shouted Mika. “I’m starving! I’m starving!” She grabbed Allison’s hand and dragged her into the main building.

Seiji crept back toward the Old Monastery. They were bonding inside, he knew, but there was still an element missing, the catalyst required to turn a building filled with girls into the focus of untold trouble. Even the transfer student wasn’t enough.

“You fear chapter three,” the old man said behind him.

“Gah!” Seiji turned and there they were, the three monks, lined up just as they had been before.

“We’re still on chapter one,” the middle monk said.

“And chapter two’s gonna kick your ass,” said the short one.

It was late when Allison got home. After the meal she had been dragged out for a soak in the hot springs that were part of the monastery. No one had even mentioned studying.

She slipped in the front door, not wanting to wake anyone, but her uncle was still up. She glanced into his office as she slipped past, and stopped with a gasp. Her uncle had added two more monitors, and a few other boxes were scattered around the desk and on the floor, connected by cables strewn about haphazardly. Her uncle sat, staring into abstract patterns playing across the monitors.

Something about the patterns gave Allison the creeps. With a shudder she continued up to her room.

Carlucci’s Edge

Carlucci’s Edge by Richard Paul Russo is a detective story set in a grim, futuristic San Francisco. Modern society is collapsing, yet at the same time technology has continued to advance. Against that backdrop Lieutenant Carlucci must find the connection between a series of seemingly unrelated murders. Along the way he meets a handful of interesting characters who are also caught up in the events.

The prose is concise and very readable, tight and to the point, making it easy to keep turning the pages. The characters are generally believable (but not universally), and the author does a good job at times portraying their emotions. He uses “business” a lot (fiddling with coffee cups is a favorite) to control the pacing of conversations, and that works pretty well, but sometimes I found it overdone. (Note to self…)

Overall, I enjoyed the book quite a lot. I found myself, however, glancing at how much of the book was left and wondering how the story was going to fit in the remaining pages. It wasn’t that the characters weren’t making progress, it was that there was no increase in tension as they got closer to the truth. The bad guys who were willing to kill to protect their secrets at the start don’t seem to be very active as the good guys close in. The ending itself, while far more realistic that most things you will find in this genre, lacked the punch I expect in a novel of this sort. Perhaps the problem was in my own expectations.


Note: if you use the above link to buy this book (or a Kindle, or a new car), I get a kickback.

Last Places: A Journey in the North

It is easy to compare Millman to Bill Bryson; both writers travel the back roads and write with humor and grace about what they find there. Although, that’s not entirely accurate, as Millman prefers places with no roads at all. He is drawn to the remote, almost uninhabitable outposts at the rim of the human sphere, the last places. In Last Places he is following (roughly) the migration of the Vikings from Europe, hopping from island to island across the North Sea.

As he travels he meets people. He observes early on that when travelers meet people they know it is only a temporary thing, that they will soon part ways and never meet again. This allows an easy camaraderie, a sharing of intimate knowledge that one would never tell a person you will meet again. I wrote somewhere that when travelers meet they become episodes in the other’s life, chapters in a story with no clear beginning or end. Perhaps those chapters will eventually build into something larger, a structure strong enough to bear themes or (heavier yet) a story.

Millman has many such encounters as he tramps between fjords across lichen-covered rocks. The people he meets have stories and myths to tell, and Millman peppers his accounts with retellings of local legends and folklore. The stories are retold with humor (for they are funny), but with no trace of new-world condescension. When one man points out a rock formation that used to be his grandmother’s older sister, the story is true to Millman in a deeper sense than that of verifiable fact. The stories are an integral part of the last places and the people who live there.

Of course, the noise and clutter of technological life reaches even up there, and the result, to Millman’s mind, is not pretty. Many small towns were depopulated in the 1960’s, their residents relocated by government fiat into larger towns where they could provide labor for the growing commercial fishing fleets and where government provision of social services would be simpler. Lost was the point that the people being relocated weren’t terribly interested in receiving those services. In his travels he meets families who live entirely off the meat of seals; they can no longer sell the pelts because of boycotts, and so they feed them to their dogs. (One such man wrote to a famous movie star explaining the situation, but never got a response. He figured she probably was illiterate.) Millman is watching the death of not one but many remote cultures, and he doesn’t much like what is replacing it. Nuug, Greenland sounds like a really awful place.

Millman is a very good writer. His descriptions often use words that are unconventional but surprisingly apt. It took me a while to put my finger on it, but it is similar at times to the serendipitous word choices made by my Czech friends when speaking English, unconventional connections that reveal unexpected images. Millman speaks Icelandic and Greenlandic and perhaps other languages as well, and I wonder if knowing those tongues has expanded his use of English as well. That’s not to say that Millman’s word use is accidental — there are times that same unusual word or image will come back later, an echo of its previous use, connecting distant parts of the story. I wanna do that.

Traveling, he says at one point, is about delaying getting to your destination as long as possible. (I’d like to quote exactly, but there’s no way I’ll find that remark now.) When you reach your destination there is no mystery left, no anticipation. In this I think we are kindred spirits, he and I, although he is not a big fan of travel by automobile. Each of us is looking for something, though. It’s not a place, yet it can be found by traveling. It is a moment that we seek, a brief tranquility when the noise is gone and the clutter and jumble are forgotten, when something resembling clarity takes its place. It is the time when it would be OK if a Polar Bear rose up from the misty lake and ate you.


Note: if you use the above link to buy this book (or a Kindle, or a new car), I get a kickback.

A couple of snaps from the road.

I finally got some semblance of a workflow to get my pictures from the camera to the blog (should have checked to see what software I had on the laptop before leaving — neither Canon’s nor Apple’s software can be downloaded). Anyway, here we go!

Misty Mountain, somewhere east of Seattle

Frozen Lake.

Black and white sure is artsy!

Ritzville Sunset

I’ll put up a larger collection over at the gallery once I have software that doesn’t suck for that sort of thing.

Keyless in Colville

I sit right now in the parking for Hearth & Home in Colville, WA. I am watching a couple of guys take my car’s passenger door apart. They are looking for a number — a secret number they can use to manufacture a new key for me. At the moment, you see, I have no key.

Just where did that key go? There’s no telling. The number of places it could have gone seems limited; there isn’t much that I did between having the key and not. Not having it has proven to be a more or less permanent situation, however. Fortunately my key is an old-fashioned low-tech one without chips and stuff inside, so given the correct secret code a replacement can be manufactured. But wither the code? Mazda would not give out the code over the phone (a pretty reasonable policy, really), but rumor had it that the code was stamped on the lock cylinder in the passenger door.

The guys from The Key Place are most friendly and helpful. Chalk it up to the small-town vibe (I have honestly not met anyone in this town who is not friendly and helpful), but if you’re going to be stuck and in need of less-than-routine service, this is a good place to do it.

* * *

On the road again, and everything’s fine. I now have not one but three keys.


4:30 p.m.

As I write this I’m wondering if I can slip out the window. I’m sitting in a cheap hotel room that has Internet access, and outside my door are two girls, one ten and the other eleven years old. They are bored. I talked to them. “You look like you would be fun to hang out with,” the younger one said. So much for ‘don’t talk to strangers’. They are out there, waiting to pounce. I’m hungry.

I stopped here for two reasons. First, the name Ritzville was such an obvious misnomer I just had to become an active participant in the non-ritziness. (I am far from a stylish and suave sort of guy.) Somewhere nearby is the Historic Center of Town, which is likely to be a far cry from ritz but potentially a good place to find my sort of bar. I’m sure I’ll have more to report later.

* * *

6:30 p.m.

Downtown Ritzville!

Ah, the incremental blog episode! I have wandered the Historic City Center and I can say that it’s pretty close to exactly what I expected, although based on the signage the area enjoyed a brief renaissance in the 1960’s. I was looking for a pizza place that had left a flyer in my room. They name their options after ammunition. Although Kate’s favorite cartridge in Dark War is the .40 Smith and Wesson, I was going to opt for the simpler .357 Magnum. Unfortunately, I could not find the pizza place. Considering that there really isn’t much of anywhere to hide, I suspect R2J2 is defunct. It’s hard to stay funct these days.

Instead I am at the legendary (just ask ’em) Circle-T Inn, a comfortable diner-like place; it’s easy to imagine that this restaurant hasn’t changed since the oldies playing on the radio were hits. I ordered pure Americana — an open faced roast beef sandwich with mashed potatoes piled on top. I was just digging into it when the next set of customers arrived and I thought about the price one pays for a regular diet of this stuff. (One lady ordered a 12-ounce New York steak, baked potato with extra sour cream, and a diet coke.) After seeing them, I felt my waistline expanding with every bite I took. Every yummy, gravy-coated bite, until my plate was clean. This was no goo. This was food. The price was reasonable as well, even for the Alaskan Amber I washed it down with.

* * *

9 p.m.

“You want another?” Dave the bartender asked.

“Yes, I do,” I said, “but I’m not going to have one.” And so I departed the Whisperin’ Palms. As I looked back on the sign, I though it an odd Tex-tropics hybrid of a name to find in a small town in central Washington. In the bar there are no palms, and there is certainly no whisperin’.

There’s a difference between loud and boisterous — boisterous implies a certain joy of being loud. I was approaching the bar and I heard the voices inside, along with loud laughter that spilled into the deserted street. I hesitated, then walked in. The place is fairly large, but the booths were all empty. All the action was around the central bar, a squished horseshoe with the tender in the middle and the ragged assortment of drinkers arrayed around.

Downtown Ritzville!

I say ragged and perhaps that’s not fair, it’s not like the partons were grungy or dirty, hell, I was probably the only one there who hadn’t showered that morning. But there was something of the ragged about them, a feeling that these folks could make a little go a long way, a feeling that ‘used’ is synonymous with ‘broken in’. Probably I’m just romanticizing. Anyway, I walked in.

“Excuse me,” called out one of the regulars (they’re all regulars in places like that — except for the flies), “we’ll have to check your backpack.” There was general laughter. I wasn’t ready for this sort of welcome, usually the locals are happy to ignore me. Of course, now I know what I should have said. “Oh, you don’t want to know what’s in here,” I should have said. I just laughed along with the others and took my seat on the opposite side of the horseshoe. “We got a warrant,” another guy said. More laughter. “You got rolling paper, at least?” asked another. My hair has gotten long again. I’m a hippie.

I pulled out my pen and paper; the laptop I thought would have been too dissonant in that place. A guy pulling his hair out as he scratches with a ballpoint is a curiosity, a guy with a laptop is (at least in his own mind) doing important work. Whisperin’ Palms is no place to be doing important work.

Don’t ask what I’m drinking as I write this, and I won’t have to lie to you. The bartender asked what I wanted, and I knew that I was in Rome and I thought I’d roll with whatever the Romans brought me. “Beer,” I said. That was not good enough. “What kind?” Dave asked. “What you got?” “Well, Coors Light, Bud and Bud Light on tap, pretty much everything in bottles.” I allowed myself to hope. “Do you have anything like Sierra Nevada?” “No.” I did not order Bud Light, but beyond that I will plead the fifth. I had more than one.

A regular punched some buttons on the juke box, and music blasted forth with all due loudness. This was a bar for people who like to be inside the music as it replaces the air in the place. There was singin’ along. There were requests to turn up the volume. There was good happy loudness. As I write this, all the tunes have been ones I like. A song just came on that is our song (it doesn’t matter who ‘we’ are), and it’s probably a good thing that my phone could get no signal. Nations have been bankrupted by their monarchs getting a couple of beers in their bellies and picking up the phone.

“You drive up from California?” the cook just asked me. California plates parked outside, strange face, the math is easy. “What are you writing about, over there — if you don’t mind my asking?” “Playing around with a short story,” I said, which at the moment was true. “Are we in it?” “Not yet, but you might be.” He laughed. “As long as it’s not a murder mystery.” Big laugh from all, including me. I didn’t mention the above paragraphs I’d already written, and I felt a little dishonest about that, but I didn’t want to put a stink in the good atmosphere of the place. I liked it there. I liked the acceptance they offered me.

There are lots of Jerry’s in Ritzville. I met two of them tonight. One of them was particularly outgoing and accommodating. “You know, you should write about Ritzville,” he said. I’ve heard worse ideas, but I think I’d just end up doing another Centennial. Someone else is going to have to pick up the ball there. When the next Jerry arrived, First Jerry told me he knew all about the history of the town.

I was pretty much done with the place when First Jerry came over to my stool. I wasn’t ready for a sustained conversation, but just then Johnny Cash started singing about the Battle of New Orleans. I started to spew Battle of New Orleans trivia, and First Jerry stopped me. “Can I just listen to the song?”

I shut up. I’m glad he stopped me. Often enough I’ve wanted to say the same thing to the people around me. Our conversation (never sparkling) did not recover, and First Jerry moved on. It was time to go.

Island Bar and Grill

Well, what can I say? I’ve driven more than a thousand miles and now I’m in a ritzy part of Seattle. I’ve come here because a guy I traveled with for a while in Spain reputedly throws a heck of a St. Pat’s bash, and he’s a good guy to boot. It’ll be good to say hello. The only thing is, I’m not really feeling that social right now — certainly not social enough to go to a party where I only know the host.

Sure, sure, I know it’ll be fun once I get there. I’ll meet new people and start each sentence with “In the Czech Republic…” and people will be at least mildly interested in my adventures. Really there’s no down side. That’s what I keep telling myself, anyway.

*   *   *

The sun set, the sun rose, and I’m still in the hotel room. I got very, very close to the party, right in the neighborhood even, but just couldn’t bring myself to do it. Part of it was that I had just gotten back on track with my main project and the scene was building well. The other part was an image of me sitting around as an observer but without the usual antisocial shield of a laptop or a book. I just wasn’t up for it.

Instead I slinked (slunk?) back to the hotel and holed up. I still didn’t get much done, as I was too busy being angry at myself for being a loser and bailing on the party. I think it’s time to drive somewhere.

Pokey in Portland

My hotel in Yreka was a bit pricey, but other than that I enjoyed my stay there. I made the mistake of turning on the television in my room, and it sucked in my brain and turned it into a little pool of foul-smelling liquid. I’ve never had immunity, but now it’s ridiculous. I reflected, as I flushed my late-night productivity down the electric plumbing, that people who watch TV every night have no right to call themselves busy. Seriously. You think you’re busy? Turn off the damn tube for a month. Now you’re busy, doing cool stuff, and I bet you’ll be more relaxed as well. You’ll even have found more satisfying ways to veg out. Stacking rocks, maybe.

I could have spent another day investigating the little downtown, but probably not much more than that. At any rate, I had places to go. Caffeine, food, gasoline, road. North. I find Gatorade to be a good traveling companion, offsetting some of the effects of exposure to wind and sun, but it’s getting ever-riskier to buy the stuff. It seems there are new flavors on the shelves every time I walk into the quickie-mart, and most of them are vile. I got lucky this morning, there was no plain ol’ Gatorade to be found, so I took a chance on something that was roughly the same color. Cool Rain or something like that. It was drinkable.

Road. North. Portland. Traffic. This is likely an extreme case, but Portland was traffic hell. There is a limited number of bridges across the river, and it seems that part of Interstate 5 was closed, shifting all its traffic to I-205. Things might still have been tolerable, but a truck broke down on the I-205 bridge, which already had to carry more traffic than usual.

After the first ten miles or so of stop-and-go traffic, I decided I’d better fill up the tank. I dove for the exit ramp and pulled up to the pump at the first station I found. What followed was a very confusing encounter. Here is an abridged version.

Gas station guy walks over to my car as I pull up and turn off the motor.

Jerry (scanning the markings on and around the pump): Is this full service?
Gas Station Guy: What’s that? I mean, I can clean your windshield…
J: Never mind. Before your time.
Jerry gets out of the car.
GSG: So… do you want gas?
Jerry moves toward the pump, but GSG is in the way.
J: Uh, yeah, I want gas.
GSG: You want me to fill it?
J: So this is full service?
GSG: What?
J: Huh?
GSG: You want gas, right?
J: should I pull up to a different pump?
GSG: …
J: Oooohhhh! This is Oregon!

The actual exchange was much longer and far more confusing. For those not familiar with the ins and outs of buying gasoline in the United States, there are filling stations that offer the service of pumping your gas for you, but the fuel is much more expensive. Yours truly is truly a cheap bastard, and would never pay extra for someone to stick a hose in his car. When I found someone attempting to perform this act, I thought I’d pulled up to the pump labeled “ream the lazy drivers.” I was not about to let him pump my gas if I could move to another pump and save several dollars.

But this was Oregon. In this little section of the Pacific Northwest, it is illegal for individuals to pump their own gas. So, while I was perplexed by guy who wanted to pump my gas but didn’t know what “full service” meant, he was equally confused by my questions and because I got out of my car. It was a cultural disconnect, just as deep as any I’ve had in the Czech Republic, exacerbated by our ability to communicate.

Tank full, I got back on the road, and after another few miles of creeping along (during which time a bicyclist passed me going uphill — as I watched him approach in my rear-view mirror I tried to think of something to shout at him that we both would have found funny, but I decided that there was no such thing) I got around the broken-down truck and was on my way.

Some time before or after that I was passing through an area where deciduous trees dominated the softwoods. Must be oak, I thought, as I passed a town called Oakland. Later I drove past the turnoff for Oak Ridge. The thing was, all the oaks were dead, nothing more than moss-covered skeletons. Some sort of nasty thing from somewhere else got loose, and the result is a lot less variety in the forest. Here and there some smaller, slightly shrubby trees were alight with pale white blossoms, quite pretty, and I wondered if they were the heirs to the spots the oaks used to occupy.

One thing the ads don’t mention when they try to sell you a convertible: the smells. Pine, grass, flowers, fertilizer, the good and the bad. You’re out there.

Now I am at Denny’s in Columbia, Washington, sipping Red Hook ESB. Foreigner is on the juke box. This Denny’s is better than most, although the menu is if anything more horrifying than ever. I chose the New! Jalapeño burger, and completely forgot to ask them to hold the goo. The menu called it tangy ranch sauce or something like that, but I knew without looking that it was goo. Then I was tweaking the last bit to a story when she came by and I ordered, and only when the burger arrived did I remember that it came with goo. Without goo it might have been all right. With the goo, it was… not.

Goo and Television. Al Qaida doesn’t need to attack, they just need to wait until we all have coronaries.

In good news, I finally, finally, finished the first draft of the short story that’s been keeping me from the things I really should be writing. Now I can get back to work… um… real soon now.

Miner Street Pub, Yreka, California

It was a good day to have the top down. I am now in Yreka (rhymes with he-wrecka, if I’m not mistaken*), windblown, a bit sunburned in spots, and tired. It was the traditional long night over beers and unusual jazz last night, so it wasn’t exactly the crack of dawn when I pulled onto Glenwood Drive and headed north.

I have a deadline right now, a place I need to be at a certain time. That fundamentally changes the nature of a road trip, and I spent most of the day on the Interstate highways, instead of the more enjoyable little, winding roads. Once north of Reading, however, even I-5 is scenic, working its way around the skirts of Mt. Shasta, the snow-clad cinder cone reaching high into the deep blue sky. Shasta’s sisters have on occasion exploded; I wondered when this volcano was due for a cataclysm. Traffic was light and the drive was routine. I could have gone farther, but I wanted to give myself some time to do some writing this evening. I saw billboards for hotels with free wireless Internet, and that was all I needed.

Yreka wasn’t much to look at from the freeway, and I almost changed my mind about stopping. The center of town is all right though, and the neighborhood just past the cneter looks pretty nice as well. Yreka is a mining town, though I don’t know if it was part of one of the gold rushes or if it was another mineral that folks were digging up here; I’ll drop by the chamber of commerce tomorrow and see what sort of executive summary of the town’s history I can dig up.

As I was settling in here at the pub, a guy came in with his dog, a standard poodle (the full-sized kind), well-groomed but not in the best of health, I suspect. The dog’s name, apparently is Pookie. Pookie the Poodle. He is now guarding the door, making sure no other dogs pass by unchallenged. I am sipping a Stone IPA, one of my favorites, and a bit of a surprise this far north.

The bartender and the dog owner are now the only other people in here; they are playing a dice game of some sort. College basketball is on the TV; moments ago Virginia Commonwealth upset Duke. Other than that it is quiet in here, but it looks like this place can be loud when it needs to be. There is a little sound booth to the side of a large open space obviously for bands and those who dance to bands. behind the open area is a small stage, but it is pretty much filled by a pair of low sofas. As I typed that the bar’s owner (rhymes with Joe) came in and removed the brass pole that had been at the focus of the couches. The crack of a pool break just reverberated down the stair.

Other than that, there’s not much to report. The volcanos were quiet, the traffic was manageable, and the sun shone brightly. And here I am.

* Apparently I was mistaken. A local was kind enough to provide a different pronunciation in the comments. A better rhyme would have been “I-reeka”.

Ready to Roll

Beef jerky… check.
Tunes… check.
Clean socks… check.
Drivers license… check. (Law enforcement officials, please disregard all references to driving before today. I’m a writer. It was all metaphorical.)
Sunscreen… check.
Twitchy eager need for the open road… check and double-check.

Let’s Roll!