Sonora Pass, Revisited

Has it really been so long?

If you own a nimble little car, particularly a convertible, put Sonora Pass on your bucket list. Be sure to note, however, that it is closed more than half the year. At almost 3,000 meters above sea level (officially 9,624 feet), it’s just not possible to keep the road open year-round.

I drove the pass once, many years ago, and this time the memories came flooding back. The place where I passed the slowpoke in a VERY short passing zone. The guy just wouldn’t pull aside, through there were ample opportunities. Then there was the place farther up when I had to shift down to THIRD (I have a six-speed), and briefly to SECOND, because the grade was so extreme and I didn’t want to lose momentum. I remembered the smell of burning brakes coming off the vehicles coming down, vehicles that probably shouldn’t have been there to start with.

Another corner, farther up, that I didn’t remember but now I will, as it hairpinned around to the right, steeply up, and I kept the accelerator to the floor to keep momentum and steerage but needed both hands to steer as I discovered myself in the wrong gear. It’s the kind of moment automatic-transmission drivers will never know, for better or worse. There were some people in a pullout there, and they probably heard my steadily-increasing-in-pitch “WoooooooooOOOAH!” as the full glory of that curve became apparent to me.

That was about the time Sammy Hagar’s “I Can’t Drive 55” came on the radio. I had to laugh. 55 mph would not be happening for a while.

I pulled over where there was a good view of the road below me. It was a long way down from where I stood to the rushing river in the valley below. I stretched, took in what oxygen was available, snapped a couple of unintersting pictures. The slope of the ground beneath my feet felt odd; paved surfaces aren’t supposed to lean like that.

Back in the car, around a bend, and a better place to stop. My foot twitched between brake and throttle, indecisive, but I decided to pull over again. “Taking it slow, today,” I reminded myself. “Smelling the roses. Only planning to get as far as Tonopah.”

I pulled over again, stood on a rock and fired up the panorama feature on my phone. At this time, I’m unable to upload the result. I’ll get on that real soon. After a few more moments to appreciate the view, I hopped back in the car.

Not much farther up the snow pack started to become significant. The snowplow cuts through the banks at the side of the road were obvious. My memories of my last time through the pass don’t include snow. For a few miles, the best potential camera shots were from the perspective of the road; one seldom-discussed advantage of convertibles is the ability of one to hold a camera up over the windscreen and get a good shot.

Touch-screen controlled cameras suck for this purpose, however. Even when using the hardware button to trigger the picture, too many knuckle-brushes against the screen change modes and settings, and while I could spare a hand occasionally, I could not spare my eyes to ensure that I had taken a shot. At one point I pulled over to review my work and I discovered I was in time-lapse mode, with a sped-up view of my lap. Then I was in some sort of ease-in-out-slow motion video. I just wanted a dang picture.

Not a great picture, but I like the reflection of the snow, and the reflection of the reflection.

Just over the top, maybe two miles on, a bicyclist was stopped at the side of the road, heading up, lights flashing fore and aft. He was straddling his bike, clearly gassed, panting through a salt-and-pepper beard. “Almost there!” I called out, hoping he took it as encouragement. I looked at my clock. Early afternoon. I wondered when he has started his assault on the pass that morning. He was a long way from any potential base camp I knew about. Maybe I should have offered him some cookies, or a Gatorade. In hindsight I think I could have been more helpful.

More memories as the road wound back down, and a curve carved with luck-fueled precision, the suspension squeezing and releasing in synchrony with the bank of the tight curve, the tires whooshing loudly but not squealing, the car shooting ahead as I downshifted to take some of the load off the brakes. I was redeemed for the curve that had taken me by surprise on the way up.

There’s a military base just beyond the steepest part, on the first flat piece of ground. As I passed one crew was paving the helipad (a road sign warned drivers of dust kicked up by helicopters), while another fatigue-clad bunch sat on a ring of boulders, facing the man addressing them, the way kids at camp might sit in a circle and listen to their counselor tell a story. My first time through, when my car was much younger, I had noticed that the propane tanks on the base were painted light olive, rather than white. I spent many miles pondering the logic of that. Was white not the best color? I always assumed white was intended to absorb less heat from the sun. What possible threat would be mitigated by painting the tanks pale olive?

There was more to my drive yesterday, but past the military base it does not qualify as Sonora Pass anymore. Sonora Pass is a wonderful drive, rivaled by few other stretches of road in this very large country of ours. It felt good to renew our acquaintance.

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Road Trip Coming!

Draw a rough rectangle anchored in California, New Mexico, South Dakota, and Washington, and you have an idea the route we’ll be taking sometime early next Summer. Sound vague? It is! (Though I prefer the term “flexible”.)

There will be three of us in the vehicle — pilot, navigator, and small dog. I want to keep the miles on any given day reasonably short, stopping at many rest areas to let the small dog sniff things and for photo opportunities I’ve driven through in the past. Unfortunately that means we won’t be able so stay in any one place terribly long.

That rectangle intersects many old friends, and some of the best sights the western United States has to offer. I can’t tell you how excited I am about this trip. Those in the path of our march will be hearing from us as plans solidify.

Road Trip! Wooooo!

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The First Anniversary of my 50th Birthday

As I marched through my 40’s I’d been thinking about how to best celebrate my 50th, but the months leading up to that milestone were brutal. At one point I made a decision to reduce my work day to 17 hours so that I could sleep for five. The project was running behind, but I was building something awesome. Really groundbreaking. The kind of thing you go all out for.

On April Twoth, 2014, my 50th birthday, one year ago today, the project was canceled. I was deflated, too tired to feel anything more. Lost.

It was the start of a pretty good year.

By any meaningful measure, I’m younger now than I was a year ago. Were you to take my medical statistics from last year and my current numbers and give them to a doctor with no hint what order they were taken in, my this-year stats would be chosen as ‘younger’ every time. The bicycle is a big part of that, of course. Going back to working 40 hours a week (which seemed like a vacation for the first three months) didn’t hurt either.

Also this year, I’ve accepted an offer from another group at Apple, and I’ll be starting there in a couple of weeks. I’ll be working at Apple University, an organization devoted to keeping the unique culture at my company alive even as Apple becomes mind-bendingly massive. One of Steve’s final legacies. I’ll be personally responsible for keeping Apple great. Yep, me. Personally. I’m ready.

Other noteworthy awesome things this year: the bread machine (how in the name of all that’s holy have we done without one so long?), lots of good home cookin’, fast friendships, our wee dog Lady Byng and her trips to the dog park each Saturday, and top of the top of the list, my sweetie. Dang things are nice when she’s around.

An hey, speaking of fun, how ’bout that Halloween booze thing? I’m expecting a Nobel Prize nomination for that work, though the official sweetie of MR&HBI was the leader of that effort. The accidental bottle of 18-year-old Scotch may turn out to be a blessing or a curse. Only time will tell. But dang, it’s good.

Of course there were not-so-great things as well. A car with a couple of decades of useful life ahead of it was suddenly terminated. Now we have car payments. But no one was hurt — even the bad things could have been worse.

The cloud over the parade: not a whole lot of writing getting done. Gotta figure that out. Which is what I said last year, and the year before. But the bicycle was a structural change in my life that worked; I just have to make another.

But to me this really isn’t my 51st birthday, it’s one year after my 50th. I had anticipated the big 5-0 as a landmark, not as a scar. Fifty plus one is about healing, and appreciating just how good life can be. Because lately, it’s been pretty damn good.

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It’s a Tough Life

I mentioned to the light of my life that I was craving burgers to replenish my strength after my last (for a while) visit to the colon doctor.

For most people, the response would be, “where do you want to get them?” Not so my sweetie. Her response: “I’ve been wanting to make burger buns!”

And so she did.

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Automotive Dreaming

A little time travel happening tonight, as I do the Heisenberg shuffle to keep the questions raised in this episode from affecting the answers. By the time you read this, we will have sipped our wine, gazed at the pictures, and perhaps shed a tear or two for reasons hard to define. We will have toasted the departed Roxy, and set a new course.

And now to the story…

My sweetie and I need to replace the eminently practical and utterly reliable Ford Escort that was declared by actuarial tables to be a total write-off this week. More on that anguishing process later, but in the end, it could have been a lot worse. We actually got a settlement that was a bit on the happy side of fair. It was not a gentle ride, however.

Now, suddenly, we’re car shopping. Buying a new car is out of the question, so we’re combing the used-auto sites, seeing what’s out there that we can afford. (One observation — surprisingly few Hondas. Unscientifically, I have to conclude that they hold their resale value extremely well.)

There are a lot of cars in our price range, but not all of them qualify as ‘practical’. This story is about one of those cars.

I was at work today, putting in some Saturday hours to catch up with my deadlines after dealing with all sorts of automotive distractions over the week. I got a call on the Sweetie Hot Line. When I asked her how she was, her answer was tentative. “Uh, oh,” I though. “Is 2014 throwing a farewell spitball at us?” 2014 has not been gentle.

That turned out not to be the case. What had happened was this: An online acquaintance of The Light of My Life had sent her a message about a car she was selling. She looked at the pictures and her heart went pitter-pat. The car is a 1960 Studebaker Lark V8. The Lark was one of the first North American entries into the car class that would come to be known as “compact”, and by 1960’s standards this car is tastefully understated. This one is apple red, has all new electrics (including an alternator instead of a generator), and based on the description is in very good shape.

A little trivia: The first couple of years it was out, the V8 Lark could do 0 to 60 in less than half the time of its competitors. That was mostly because the competitors were really friggin’ slow, but still. I learned that on Wikipedia today. I learned a lot about the Lark today. Strictly to help us make an informed decision, obviously.

My Sweetie was calling me to be a voice of reason. She needed someone to tell her how crazy it was to consider a car that’s already had its 50th birthday as a replacement for a modern, reliable ride.

My attempts to pour ice water on her dream were only half-hearted, however. There’s part of me which thinks driving a Studebaker around town is a pretty grand idea. Then my favorite redhead said, as an argument against buying it, “We’d have to go get it.”

“Where is it now?”

“Kansas.”

And just like that my head filled with images of a road trip with my sweetie, in a Studebaker, and writing each day about the road we had covered and the conversations we’d had and the comments we got at rest stops when we let Lady Byng out to pee. That would be awesome. After that, my attempts to dissuade her lost all muscle. “There will be a day you need to get somewhere and you turn the key and nothing happens,” I said. Which is certainly true.

Bench front seat. Remember those? This car seats six. Automatic transmission, but for a car like that we could put up with it.

Yet, from the very beginning there was something I could have mentioned, something that I will have to mention eventually, that will probably end the conversation. It’s about safety.

I’m sure we can get three-point seatbelts installed, and airbags are overrated. But there’s one other safety feature that modern cars have that almost no one talks about. Had our little Ford not had this feature, however, it’s quite possible I could have been badly hurt when the kid smacked into me. My head was snapped back quite forcefully, but the headrest on the driver’s seat caught me and protected me from potentially serious harm. As a result, our insurance claim was strictly about property damage.

Air bags are complex, expensive, and require extra complexity to keep them from doing more harm than good in certain situations. In contrast, the headrest is an example of safety legislation with a lot of bang for its buck. Simple and effective.

The Studebaker in question has no headrests. Pristine interior, red and white, but no headrests.

When I point that out to my sweetie, talk of classic cars will likely end, much as I’d love to glide along with my honey next to me on that bench front seat.

Or… not. Maybe this is the litmus test of our dedication to a classic automobile. Are we willing to be a little less safe to drive something cool? (Corollary: does that make us hipsters?) Are we prepared for weekends of cursing and scuffed knuckles to keep her running? Will I have dirty fingernails every Monday when I go to work? To be honest, I kind of miss having a high-maintenance car. It’s like exercise. Sucks when you’re doing it, feels great when you’re done.

Is it a sign from above that the car costs almost exactly what our insurance settlement is? Are we destined to be the curators (not owners — it will likely own us) of a classic automobile? It sure would be cool to do photo shoots with a ride like this.

We’ll have a little something to drink tonight, look at the pictures, and dream a bit. Then most likely we’ll move on, turning our attention to the sensible end of the spectrum, and wondering forevermore what might have been.

A Particularly Shitty Couple of Weeks

A couple years ago, we lost out entire kitchen to a plumbing problem. Since then, we’ve had two near misses. The laundry room under-floor will never be the same, but we can pretend all is well. Then there’s the leak that’s been going on long enough it has been supporting its own ecosystem. Our plumbing is crap.

It came down to this: we would never sleep well at night until we tore out the horrible plumbing in our home and replaced it with not-horrible plumbing. Money has been tight, but we agreed that it was worth spending some cash to end the ongoing risk of catastrophic and expensive plumbing failures. It took all our immediate savings and some sale of fruit-flavored stock, but after a week of what might otherwise have been a relaxing time off work, the plumbing crew was mostly finished. A stressful week, but one that promised peace of mind on the other side.

There were a couple of hitches, so on Tuesday the plumbing company sent a guy out to fix them. Our wee doggie has not dealt well with any of the plumbing intruders, but as I got into the car Tuesday morning I saw the light at the end of the tunnel. We had better pipes. The endless worries about losing months of our lives to home repair were soon to end.

It was raining Tuesday; that’s why I drove. That’s why the roads were slick. That’s why the kid in the Corolla slammed into me.

I’m not hurt. Roxy, the 2001 Ford Escort, is mortally wounded. Roxy has only 40,412 miles on her, which means There are simply no comparable vehicles out there. And there’s the bitch of the thing. The actuarial tables State Farm uses will not yield a number that comes remotely close to the replacement value. We could have ridden that car for another decade easily. The thing just plain did its job.

So now the showdown begins. State Farm will offer us money for our car. That money won’t be enough. Our position: make it like it never happened. Put a car in our garage that fills the same role. It’s not about money. Their position: We’re buying your wrecked car for a fair amount.

Meanwhile, we just gave all our spare cash (and a little more) to plumbers. We’re not ready to take on car payments.

I know, as I bitch about the ill fortune that has beset me, that a lot of people have it worse than I do. Most of planet Earth, in fact. People in camps near where I live would scoff at my problems. But a twenty-year-old kid driving like twenty-year-old kids do has put us in a serious financial bind, and honestly I don’t see the right answer.

A Fine Meal

There are few things better than fresh tomatoes straight from the garden. One of those better things is several different kinds of fresh tomatoes gracing your summertime entrée, all fresh-picked from within thirty feet of where your dinner plate is.

I didn’t count how many different kinds of tomato we had tonight; there are ten different varieties growing out in the back 40, but they’ve never all had ripe tomatoes at the same time. But tonight there were definitely several types represented, and they were all delicious.

When I was a kid I didn’t even know there were ten different kinds of tomato. The growing interest in pre-industrial versions of the food we eat is definitely a happy thing. And healthy, too.

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