The Perfect Foul-Weather Car

Over the holidays I took a trip back to the homeland to hang with my family for a few days. I flew in to Albuquerque then rented a car for my trip north into the mountains.

I reserved an economy car, of course, in the cheapest price tier available. Certainly no need for anything more.

The flights went well and I was on the ground in Albuquerque at the appointed time. I made my way to the car rental place, where a man named Mario helped me out. He asked me where I was heading. When I told him I was heading to Los Alamos he said, “It’s snowy up there! Snowed yesterday, gonna snow again tonight!”

“I grew up there,” I said. “I’ve driven in the snow before.”

“All right,” Mario said. He tapped some keys. “I’m going to be putting you into a Mustang tonight.”

Because there’s nothing like a muscle car for slick conditions. “You don’t have anything with front wheel drive?” I asked.

Mario tapped the keys for a while, but I’m not sure why he bothered, since they didn’t have any other cars except giant (and expensive) trucks. Mario muttered quietly to himself as he scanned the inventory, “Muscle car… muscle car… muscle car…”

“Normally I’d love the chance to play with a muscle car,” I said, “But as you said, things might be slick up there.”

He kept pretending to look for a different answer, but there was none.

I’ve kept an Alpha Romeo on the road during snowstorms up there; a Mustang shouldn’t be that bad as long as I’m light on the gas. “OK,” I said, “Put me in a Mustang.”

A few more key-presses later, and Mario handed me the fob-without-a-key for the car I would be driving for the next few days. Not just any Mustang, but a Mustang GT with the five-liter V-8. Because when you’re in slick conditions, what you really need is more power.

I will leave my impressions of the car for another day, except to say that it was my first time driving a car with a touch screen or one that had a backup camera. I liked the latter much more than the former.

While in the Atomic City, I met with old friends. One chilly afternoon I pulled up at Bill’s mom’s house and saw another Mustang on the street.

Yep, that was John, with his rental from the same company.


The Journey Home: The Fading Glory of the Southwest Chief

I wasn’t paying close attention at the time, but in the late 1970’s the US government decided to buy out all the failing passenger rail services, with the goal of preserving some semblance of intercity passenger rail in this country. Out west, cities are far apart, and the new czars of rail travel realized that comfort and convenience would be paramount for success.

They took a design from the Santa Fe line, adapted it, made it too tall to work east of Chicago, and the Superliner was born. Superliner I was the last passenger coach built by the renowned Pullman company, while the Superliner II, a smoother-rolling variant that was a little more… judicious with the output from the toilets came along a short time after that.

None have been built since. Sure, there have been upgrades (self-contained toilets retrofitted, electricity available everywhere), but the rolling stock is aging.

On electricity — long ago I took a ride and there was exactly one electrical outlet available to coach-class passengers. A little community grew around that outlet, and while the cafe attendant tried to regulate us, we worked out a better system on our own.

But while the cars have been superficially modified to evolve with the needs of the passengers, there’s really no denying that they are getting older. Train 4 from Chicago to Los Angeles brought that home to me. Some cars had trouble with toilets. The public address system was spotty — at one point the attendant for my car got on the PA to say that the rest of the announcements were’t coming over our PA. Apparently there were a couple of dicey almost-missed-stop moments in my car.

The dining car’s air conditioning failed; my waiter said that on the last leg of the journey one of the crew knew what switch to throw, but now he was gone. Sounds to me like a circuit breaker.

The cars themselves still felt solid, we moved along smoothly. But it’s the little things, the door latch that required coaxing, the outlet that just won’t let go, that give you the feeling that maintenance is falling behind. And as the cars get older, the maintenance requirements are just going to increase. It’s going to require commitment to keep these cars comfortable and safe, and when the little things start to slide, it’s an indicator that the commitment is not there.

Twice on my journey east I heard a rumor that Amtrak would be canceling the long-haul western routes. If that’s true, I’m glad I took this ride. The subject of California’s high-speed rail also came up often. To which I said, “I’ll believe it when I see it.” I would honestly prefer it if the state spent maybe one percent of that cost to upgrade the low-speed rail already in place along that line (California has already pitched in to pay for other Amtrak upgrades in the state.) It’s beautiful country. Slightly-less-slow service would attract a lot of new customers, at a price the high-speed option could never touch.

I look forward to rolling along the coast in a brand-new Superliner III, then turning inland on the Southwest Chief, its rolling stock gleaming in the desert sun — the iconic journey that everyone must do at least once. The Route 66 where someone else drives.

Those will be the days.


Ah, Kentucky

She was probably as old then as I am now, but better-preserved. A friendly smile and a big hat, a twinkle in her blue eyes, her voice with that perfect Kentucky lilt. We were in line to place our bets for the Derby. It was crowded in that line, and I moved to block people from jostling her wide-brimmed hat. Then I saw the badge hanging from a lanyard around her neck, clashing with the classic pink rose of her dress.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. The adventure really starts long before that, when Mikie asked me if I wanted to join him and his father Mike and another man named Art at the Kentucky Derby. Mike and Art were old friends, and the Derby was a tradition for them. Usually, I think, they treated clients to the experience, but this year it was Mikie and me.

It started fairly early in the morning, at San Diego International, when my party got a warning that if we got too hammered off Bloody Mary’s we would not be allowed on the plane. (Or was that the Las Vegas Trip? I think that was the Las Vegas Trip. Never mind.)

The thing to understand about the Kentucky Derby is that, except for television, it is not a singular event. The races build up for four days or more, and the parties in town and in the infield of the track also pick up in intensity. Also important to note: certain parts of the stands cost more to sit in than others. Our section, apparently, was on the swankier side. We shared our little area with a very nice, very wealthy guy with a stunningly beautiful younger wife. There was no doubt on either side what had attracted each to the other, but it was an honest relationship, I think, and the fact they seemed to genuinely love each other was a bonus for both. They joked and laughed as he threw tickets to the concrete beneath our seats for bets he lost. My curious forensics discovered most bets in the hundreds of dollars.

His big bets he was making offshore, and he was annoyed that the cell signal at the track was getting overloaded. That’s how long ago it was.

We were staying at some Sheraton or another, which had a shuttle to the track. The place had an absolutely typical hotel bar, except this particular hotel bar had Heather. A pixie with a quick smile and an honest streak that only a great bartender can pull off. She hated mint juleps. They are labor intensive, and the asshats who drink them when they come for the Derby are the same asshats that don’t tip well.

I got on well with Heather, but Art was a charmer and Mikie has a certain something. She started spending extra time around us.

There wasn’t much in the way of actual good beer at that bar, but at one point I found myself sitting next to the only other person there who seemed to care about the taste of the beverage he was consuming. We talked for a bit; I didn’t get his name. But he was a good guy.

Perhaps it was the second night in Louisville that Mikie found the karaoke bar. It was a good bar that happened to be doing karaoke, and I perused the list and chose… Nirvana.

When I do Nirvana, it can go two ways: awesome or horrifying. There is no in-between. That night, Kurt Cobain borrowed my pipes and I was fuckin’ wailing. As far as I remember. Then suddenly POW I was on the floor trying to keep singing while not spilling too much of my beer and dudes were slam-dancing while I shouted (around laughter) “I AM STUPID, AND CONTAGIOUS! YEAH!”

Best karaoke night ever. Except maybe full-bar Bohemian Rhapsody. Or all-you-can-drink night in Las Vegas… But those are other stories. All with Mikie. So there you go.

Anyway, back in Kentucky, I was a little shaky the next morning. It was probably the day before the big day by then, and the stands were getting full and our high-roller pals were getting serious. I also learned to recognize the badges some people wore. They were the badges that would give the owners access to the winners circle if their horse won. Each badge had a number (the number of the race that day) and a name. So a badge with a big 8 and the name “No Hope” would mean that the bearer owned the horse “No Hope” that would be running in the 8th race that day.

I told you already, I was in the high-roller section.

At this point, gambling-wise, I’d been doing OK but not great. I have a system for betting on the ponies, if you can believe that. I study the racing form, do the numbers, balance risk and reward, and go place my $2 bets at the window. When I won my tiny jackpots I always left a tiny tip, so the window people were OK with me, even though I was pretty much an obstacle to the real flow of cash.

The night before the Derby tension was definitely ratcheting up at Heather’s bar. Then Mike Sr. went AWOL for a while and Mikie was losing his shit and Art was as calm and confident as ever, even as he told me stories I’m pretty sure I shouldn’t have heard. I sat at the end of the bar with The Only Other Good-Beer Drinker for a while, before retiring.

It occurs to me now — I don’t remember my hotel room at all. At all. I probably shared it with Mikie. Maybe all four of us? It’s a blank. Intellectually I have to recognize that I slept at points on that trip.

Race Day. We take the shuttle to the track early, and a steady stream of mint juleps ensues. There are a lot of races that day; the track squeezing all it can out of the big crowd. I place a few bets, drink some juleps (no doubt from a big julep-vat), and study the form. I find what I’m looking for.

Funnicide, I think the horses’s name was. We called him Fungicide. A long shot, but not silly. The favorite that day was Empire Maker, a fine steed, Triple-Crown whispers following in his wake. But Fungicide had the exact profile in the racing form that I looked for. Each workout better than the last. Peaking at the right time. “Fungicide’s gonna win,” I told my group. Turns out they listened.

Almost time for the big race. I was standing in line with the high rollers who don’t bet offshore over the phone. Maybe they want a souvenir ticket. Fungicide was going to win, but Empire Maker was a beast. The easiest exacta ever. I was poised to rake in dozens of dollars. Dozens!

Her hat brim brushed me and I turned around to find her smiling apologetically at me. “I’m so sorry,” she said. Then someone else brushed against her hat and I used my right hand to very gently grant her space. There was another man behind her, large, probably on her payroll, but I was in the right place to do the right thing.

She gave me a little smile and we chatted a little bit, before I saw her badge. The number was 10. The Derby. She had a horse in the Derby. When I made that discovery I was neither gushing nor coy; there’s even a chance I was pretty cool. “I’m going to put a bet on him right now,” she said. “Will you?”

“Absolutely!” I said, or maybe something more suave than that. (For the record, I did put a bet on her horse to win. He did not do well.)

It’s hard to tell, actually, with a genteel Southern woman, whether she likes you or if she’s just tolerating you. In every case she will be polite. But I think… I think she liked me. Sometimes I wonder what might have been, had I protected her hat a little longer. But when it was my turn at the window I turned my back on her and that is all that ever happened.

Fungicide won. Fungicide beat out Empire Maker and won the Kentucky Derby. A titanic upset.

On the shuttle from the track back to the hotel, the mood was ugly. “Who the fuck bet on Funnicide?” someone shouted. In that angry space I just shut up.

Back at the Sheraton, things were different, too. My good-beer buddy was a celebrity; people asking for pictures with him. Everyone else was pissed off. Heather confided in us, “I may be smilin’, but it’s fake.”

“Who the fuck bet on Funnicide?” the lament came again.

“I did,” I said. “I got the Exacta.” I was more than a little proud of that. There was a some quiet around us then.

“I got the trifecta,” Art said softly, with a knowing smile. He had called the race 1-2-3. Put me right in my place. And it’s safe to say his bet was somewhat larger than mine. It paid for his trip, he told me later. Hopefully my research justified what he spent to host me there, as well.

One wave of anger after another washed through the bar, almost starting fights, but finally the last wave passed and carried with it the anger, leaving exhaustion. Good Beer Guy was still at the bar, and I sat next to him. By then I had learned that he was part of the cartel that owned Empire Maker. We didn’t say much; we just sipped our beers. “You never know,” I said at last, and he nodded. But I had known.


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!


Requiem for My Travel Shirt

It was on another road trip to Kansas that I first dubbed my blue aloha shirt my Official Travel Shirt. I was wearing it for the second straight day (no sense sweating up another shirt), and I tore the breast pocket just a bit while stuffing in change from a drive-through, limiting the other occasions I could wear it.

But for driving across the United States in a convertible, it was pretty close to ideal. Light and breathable, the cotton fabric was quick to wick the sweat away from my back and provide cooling. When I put my elbow up on the door frame, the shirt would balloon up, creating a cyclone of joy across my torso. Good times.

Good times that finally came to an end on this trip. The ravages of sun, sweat, suds, and more sun began to undermine the integrity of the fabric. The dye faded and the fabric got thinner where the sun hit it most directly—on the shoulders and (rather embarrassingly) on the gut.

When packing for my latest road trip, I realized the shirt’s days were numbered. The pocket was really starting to flap in the breeze and the fabric was giving out along the shoulder seams. This was to be the shirt’s last ride. In retrospect, I should have given the shirt a dignified retirement before the trip even started; it just wasn’t fair to ask it to get me across the Nevada desert in its condition.

The first night, in Wells, Nevada, I took off the shirt to discover two bright-red patches on my shoulders:

Sunburn on my shoulders makes me cry

Sunburn on my shoulders makes me cry

By the next night in Vernal, Utah, blisters had formed, and while I waited for my car to be repaired I also tried not to ooze into my sheets too much while I slept at night.

My travel shirt, after one too many days on the road.

My travel shirt, after one too many days on the road.

The shirt had given its last, and while I had other shirts along for the ride that were adequate, they were all too new and too nice to dedicate to being the new Travel Shirt (though one had good Cyclone of Joy™ action—I might have considered it were it not so dark-colored).

So the search begins, but clothing like this isn’t just found on a shelf, it’s discovered through adversity. It is the product of miles, and the grace with which it handles them. It is sun, and sunscreen, and sweat and wind and time and groping in the pocket for the toll ticket. It is the stop at a rest area with a gentle pit bull going to her new home. It is the discovery of a new road, the onset of a sudden rainstorm, the knowing glance from another convertible driver, the pause on a deserted road at night to hear the chirping of the crickets.

It is the stories. The new shirt will have a lot of catching up to do.


Remember me?

You would think that damn near forty-eight hours on a train would lead to a burst of blogging activity. I would have thought so myself. But no, I spent the time reading instead. It was pleasant. Then I got back to town and while I had collected some interesting stories on the road, I just wasn’t inspired to write about them.

Perhaps someday I’ll tell you about Charlie, the deep, gravelly-voiced dark-black (Barry White after 10,000 packs) man shorter than me from Louisiana who sat next to me from Los Angeles to San Jose, who was once stabbed in the neck by a random asshole and probably would have killed said asshole if he hadn’t passed out from blood loss first. That’s the way he tells it anyway. At the trial the prosecutor asked Charlie, “what do you think we should do with this man?” “Give him to me,” Charlie said. According to him, that broke up the courtroom. Charlie was all about making sure his grandchildren didn’t get into the same shit he did. He was all right. But man, he liked to talk.

I took refuge from Charlie in the window car (Lounge car? Observation car?) that sat atop the train bar. From Santa Barbara well north a pair of guides in forest green uniforms spoke through a makeshift little PA system, telling us about the history of the places we rolled through. It was pretty cool, actually. Figs, rockets, railroad lore, and pretty scenery. Between lectures I read a novel by a guy who is not afraid to kill people you like. Maybe more on that later.

But I’ve been back now a couple of weeks and then some, and I haven’t even checked in on my favorite blogs. I’m in a twilight place, with an intimidating literary to-do list, and I’m pretty much frozen. I check Facebook more than I ever have before, clearly a sign of the apocalypse. I even retweeted something yesterday. (Spelling checker does not object to retweeted. I’m not sure how I feel about that.)

So, now I feel the need to reconnect. I’ll start with my favorite comics, then go and read the blog episodes I’ve missed, and leave comments that are far past stale.

And here at MR&HBI, I’ve got some ideas. Not new ideas, but ideas. We’ll see.

Summer Camp!

Today will be a day of Automobiles, Coaches, and Trains, in that order. Stopping off in New Mexico to hang with (a whole lot of) family, then heading on to Kansas to be a writer for a while. Man do I need that.

The good news is that I may have the time to reinvigorate this blog, and post some more creative stuff, at least for a little while. I’m going to miss my sweetie something fierce, though.

More from the road (electricity permitting)!

A Day of Many Miles

The day broke clear and didn’t waste any time warming up. After a not-terribly-satisfying breakfast and a fuel stop, I climbed onto Interstate 40 and headed west, west, west.

I wonder, on that stretch of Interstate between Albuquerque and Winslow, how many people are enticed these days by “The World’s Tallest Teepee” (a rigid, multi-story structure), or “The World’s Longest Map of US Rte 66”, which is painted on a wall of a curio shop. How many people spontaneously decide to buy a hunting knife, or a bit of petrified wood? Not as many these days, I suspect, as cars get ever more comfortable and the excuses to climb out and stretch one’s legs get less enticing.

I certainly wasn’t a candidate to stop this time. I wanted to put some miles behind me, the more the better. As I rolled along somewhere east of Flagstaff I saw a sign that did catch my eye. “Fresh jerky 227 miles ahead.” Bison was listed, and I think elk as well. By my calculations that put the jerky store somewhere around Kingman.

Although I have to say that I’ve never visited the much-hyped ice caves or gone underground on any of the mine tours. One of these days… On I drove, stopping only for fuel and beverages.

I never found the jerky store. By the time I got to Kingman I was occupied with the Big Decision. North, past Hoover Dam, through Las Vegas, and on up to Beatty to cross into California high in the Sierras, or west, through Needles to Barstow, to drive up the central valley.

In favor of north: 1) There’s a new bridge to keep the damn terrorists off the damn dam. I bet it’s pretty cool. 2) two-lane highways. 3) Far, far more scenic. 4) A chance to relive another trip with a buddy and two chihuahuas, getting kicked out of a casino in Vegas, followed by a night in Beatty, and my one and only pass through Trona, CA (a hellish place when it’s windy, which I gather is most of the time).

In favor of west: 1) two less hours driving, even if I didn’t stop for pictures on the north route.

When decision time came, I went west. Note to Gus (I think it was Gus), while your “227 miles to jerky” sign was certainly effective for me, you might consider a second sign, a little closer to the promised land. I’m just sayin’ is all. Or maybe I just missed it.

The last 100 miles of the day as I stretched my drive from Needles to Barstow seemed as long as the entire rest of the trip. There was still plenty of daylight left, but I was ready to stop. Perhaps if my air conditioning worked things would have been different. As I pulled in to the Von’s parking lot to buy large amounts of chilled liquids I reflected that had I chosen north, I’d still have an hour to go, assuming Las Vegas rush hour didn’t add to that.

I noticed as I drove across the street to the California Inn (an excellent choice), that there was a little strip-mall bar nearby called Molly’s Pub. I showered and packed a laptop and book (in case this wasn’t a laptop sort of place), and tromped over to Molly’s. It wasn’t a laptop sort of place at all; in fact it wasn’t a book sort of place either. So I bellied up to the bar, had a large beer in a mason jar, and watched the Dodger game with glazed eyes, which kept me entertained. (For a while I sat next to a guy who used to be the mascot for the Dodgers; I was rooting for the other team on general principles. It was all good-natured, though.)

I ordered a second beer, which arrived just as the cougars showed up. My long hair kept them away for a while, but by the end of my beer I’m not sure how many sentences I had started with “My girlfriend…” It was time to quit that congenial place and catch some sleep, to dream of jerky missed and the road not taken.


From the Prairie to the Mountains

Kansas is hot right now. Really stinkin’ hot. When I staggered from my nice-but-not-seventy-bucks-nice hotel room in Dodge City I could already feel the heat settling down over the town like a sweaty, feverish hen spreading her damp feathers over an egg that was never going to hatch. I made a hasty decision to modify my course. Oklahoma panhandle didn’t seem like a good idea.

Incidentally, I’m pretty sure Dodge City is in Ford County.

Before I could even get out of Dodge, as they say, I needed to send a package via FedEx. The ladies running the hotel desk had no idea where I might do that, then Google lied to me. Luckily I detected the falsehood before setting out, and managed to find through the FedEx site (duh!) that a local mall had a drop box. The hotel women gave me (incorrect) directions to the mall, and after I recovered from that it only a matter of twenty minutes to find the box (or, more exactly, someone who knew where the damn thing was). I put in the package, which included a signed document accepting the terms of a full-time salaried position at Apple. Rather a momentous occasion, for all it was just sliding paper into a slot.

Then, at last, I was on my way. The course alteration mentioned earlier was to head a little more northerly, coming down to Los Alamos via Taos rather than up from Santa Fe. This got me to higher altitude sooner, and got me deeper into the rain shadow of the rocky mountains.

It was a good drive. Highway 160 through southern Kansas and into Colorado was new to me. There was one section I dubbed The Euclidian Highway, because the road was always either exactly north-south or east-west, with all corners being right angles. One of the zigs and zags took me down the north-south main street of Pritchett, Colorado, a very small, picturesque little town with brick storefronts with plate-gass display windows. A cafe sits right where you would expect it to. The plains stretch to the horizon in every direction. The only thing is, most of the stores are empty. The café is closed, and has a For Sale by Owner sign in the window.

Might be a good place to film a movie. As I drove away, it occurred to me I should take some pictures. But I didn’t. I was driving. After a few more zigs and zags the road returned to more road-like behavior, and I met the freeway at Trinidad, Colorado.

I had no idea Trinidad has such a cool downtown area. I was tempted to stop for the day and bum around for a bit. But I didn’t do that, either. My parents were expecting my arrival. (Ironically, my parents were not expecting my arrival. I put the wrong day in an email.)

From there a quick hop over Raton Pass and once more I left the Interstate behind to take highway 64 west. I drove past skinny cattle picking over utterly barren rangeland, past Cimarron and up into the mountains. That’s some good driving right there. A few raindrops hit the windshield, but not enough to make me stop and put the top up.

From Eagle Nest over and down into Taos (the usual traffic jam), across the Rio Grande at Española and up the hill to Los Alamos. The mountains above the town are still smoldering, the fire working its way through terrain too rugged to send in crews. The hills all around the town used to be heavily forested; now they are barren and rocky and coated with blackened toothpicks. Will the soil last on the mountainsides long enough to let the forests reestablish themselves? I sure don’t know. People are working hard right now to mitigate erosion.

So here I am, in the Land of Enchantment, tired from a long but never-dull journey.


Return to Kansas

As I write this I am at the end of the fourth day of my road trip to Kansas University, where I will once again hang out with skilled and insightful writers who are willing, nay, eager, to help me become one of them.

This odyssey has been different than some in the past, and I’m having a tough time putting my finger on what has changed. Normally when I get out on the road I pop reflexively into a literary frame of mind. Everything I see is a symbol or a metaphor or some shit like that. This time, not so much. It’s got me a bit worried.

The Road Ahead

For instance: Day one, even before the Emergency Broadcast Mystery, I was passing a beat-up pick’em-up-truck and its exhaust pipe fell off. Thump clatter clangety-clang-clang as the motorcyclist behind him swerved out of the way. Someone in the heavy traffic behind no doubt got a nasty surprise. There should be something more to say about that. I had been directly behind the pipe-loser only moments before.

Inspiration? Bueller? Bueller?

Then there was the truck I passed. On its rear-view mirror, just above the convex part of the mirror, in white block letters, was the word “GOAL”. So every time that driver looks in the mirror, he sees GOAL printed neatly over what he is leaving behind. It’s probably an acronym for how to be a better driver, but it’s still kind of sad. No matter which way he goes, he’s driving away from his GOAL.

The Road Behind

Speaking of better drivers, I’m a pretty good driver most of the time (above average, like most drivers), but sometimes, every five years or so, I do something really stupid. Thanks, giant red pickup with anti-lock brakes in Ely NV, for not demolishing me.

I have never seen Nevada so green. Maybe it’s just timing, maybe Nevada looks like this pretty often, but I’ve traversed the state a few times and I saw green where I didn’t even think there was vegetation before. Three days through the desert, happy for the new wipers and water-tight top each day.

Rain-Washed Miata in the Desert

I added time to my pilgrimage this year with the express goal of taking lots of pictures. It hasn’t gone as planned. There were many complicating factors – a run-down bar facade I wanted to shoot simply isn’t there anymore. Highway 50 is not as lonely as it used to be, so I couldn’t stop in the middle of the road to take pictures when no pullout was available. Mostly, when I looked at the results, I realized that I had forgotten almost everything I had learned while shooting landscapes in the past. The pictures just weren’t that good. I slap my own forehead now, seeing the same mistakes I made my first time through the desert repeated at higher resolution.

Roadside Reflections

Next time. I think a co-pilot would be a huge help.

Either I missed a 40-foot-tall sign marking the entrance to a military base, with a rocket at the top that I would love to turn into a (technically challenging) pinup shot (sexy ’50’s-style cowgirl riding the rocket, ruby-red lips and white teeth, her hand holding her turquoise cowgirl hat high… chaps? yeah, I think she’s wearing chaps.), or the sign is gone. Perhaps the base was closed. If so, that sign should be in a museum somewhere, and I will go to that museum. All I saw was a simple green sign pointing to (if I recall correctly) bombing range B-17.

One of the advantages of taking a couple of extra days for the trip is that you have more flexibility to dodge the weather. This presupposes that you pay attention to forecasts. Last year I had a thoroughly unpleasant time moving east through Kansas as thunderstorms knocked me about and generally tried to kill me. “Not this time!” said I, and put in a long day to get from Ely (rhymes with mealy), Nevada, to Boulder, Colorado. I drove right into a massive thunderstorm as I crossed Vail Pass. Whee.

A side note: Don’t people put crowns on roads anymore? This highway was freshly resurfaced, and there was no effort made whatsoever to encourage water to flow to the sides of the road. Good God Almighty, does the highway department think water behaves differently these days? I settled in behind a car (at a safe distance) and when great geysers of water flew up from his car, I prepared myself for the same. Slowly, sanely, we all made our way down off the mountain.

View out my window this morning

Overall, I-70 west from Salina, Utah to Golden, Colorado is the most consistently scenic 400+ hundred miles of road in the US interstate system. (If you have a few extra minutes, highway 60 west of Golden is an excellent aside – today I followed the course of the pure rocky mountain spring water muddy rocky mountain thunderstorm runoff almost to the brewery gates.) As with any road that spans hundreds of miles, there are a couple of boring stretches, but overall no amount of engineering could overcome the joy of driving through the rocky mountains and the majestic deserts of eastern Utah. (The goal of the interstate system is to engineer out all joy of travel in the names of safety and efficiency.)

I’m in rural Kansas right now, conservative as it gets (or at least Republican). I look like an old hippie. Kansas folk are friendly, though; they just can’t help it. All they need is a little help from me, a friendly hello, a smile, and then “he may be an old hippie but he’s a nice man.” This is true pretty much anywhere; people want to have a friendly interaction with you most of the time, so just help them out.

View out my window this evening

Latest Google Search: Does too much turkey jerky cause hemorrhoids? Followed closely by: God, is there any other indignity you would care to thrust upon me?

Yes, in my short time here in the Bible Belt, I have already become a man of prayer.


A Quick Word to the Folks at the Emergency Broadcasting System

I was tooling up the highway yesterday, somewhere in the vicinity of Stockton, CA. I have music on my phone, but I thought while I was around civilization I’d check the airwaves. I’d found a station that at least for a moment didn’t suck, and all was well with the world.

Suddenly: a grating series of beeps that sounded like they’d been put through a blender assaulted my ears. This is the attention tone for the Emergency Broadcasting System. Those beeps were followed by a long purer tone. Then another tone at a different pitch. Lesson one for the EBS: Quit with all the tones. I almost turned off my radio, figuring that there wasn’t going to be any information, just some sort of beep-fest. The only thing that kept me listening was the bank of thunderheads looming ahead of me. Just this once, the EBS might be giving out useful information.

Finally the broadcast tired of the beeping and booping and hit me with a burst of static. From within this noise, a distorted voice that sounded like it had been bouncing through phone lines since 1920 began dispensing… what? I don’t know. It was completely incomprehensible. Lesson two for the EBS: the information won’t help anyone if no one can tell what you’re saying. I think I picked out the word “alpine” and later “water”. That’s about it.

Flash floods? Possibly. Were they anywhere near where I was heading? No way to tell. Was there something I should do differently? Only one way to find out. I drove on.

I had the top down, so I was not in ideal listening conditions, but I could understand all the other people on the radio, all too well. Now there was something I actually wanted to hear, something intended for public safety, and it was just a jumble of noise.

Now it may be that the guy who recorded the message was not in a position to make a high-fidelity recording, but come on. Surely somewhere in this entire damn country there was someone who could have taken one thin minute to re-record the message in better circumstances.


Must be a Very Long Train

I’m traveling to beautiful scenic Lawrence, Kansas this summer, and I thought I’d see if taking the train was an option. On the plus side, the Southwest Limited passes right through town; if I flew I’d have to arrange transport from Kansas City. On the minus side, traveling by rail in this country is pricey. Back on the plus side, a stop in Santa Fe for a few days is trivial – the train goes through Lamy.

As I perused my options I came upon this table:

The Southwest Chief

Note that, depending on how I reach Los Angeles, the Southwest Chief departs at different times. The back end of the train catches up with the front end over the course of the journey; the arrival time is almost the same.

Sometimes a movie maker will see a shot in a film and have to ask, “how did they do that?” Most of the time, a question like that is a compliment. But here I am, a Web/database guy, asking, “how did they do that?” and it’s with a disbelieving shake of the head. Who on this planet would design a system that allowed such inconsistency? Trust me, it takes extra work to get system behavior like that.

Don’t tell the people signing my time sheets every week, but this stuff is not that hard.


High Desert Storms

Rolling out of Los Alamos at the bright-and-early hour of 10am, I realized two things: First, that it was a day to find little, wiggly roads I’d never taken before, and second, that I’d forgotten my toiletry bag. I was already going forward, however, and at times like that I’m quite simply incapable of turning back. Stopping for gas in Totavi was difficult enough.

It was not a day for driving with the top down. The first significant showers hit as I was passing Cuyumunge, but it was a small storm cell and I was through it quickly. I took a right turn at Albuquerque but only stayed on the Interstate until the turn-off for Quemado.

I’ve been through Quemado plenty of times (haven’t we all?) but only going east-west on Highway 60. Today, for the first time, I decided to take the little north-south highways down through the last echoes of the rocky mountains, the spine of the continent.

Immediately I knew I’d made the right choice. I had NM 117 almost entirely to myself, except for the State Police cruiser I passed almost right away. A good reminder that today was about the road, not the destination. No need to hurry.

As I crossed the continental divide I had a massive storm feeding the Atlantic off to my right, lightning flicking and flashing with abandon (thunder in my little world provided by Social Distortion), and ahead a smaller but no less electric storm dumping into the Pacific. The latter would be my host for the last few miles into Quemado.

After a brief fluid-related stop in Quemado, where I had a pleasant conversation with a local, mostly about the weather, it was further south on NM 32. That was a fine bit of roadway right there, and hopefully next time it won’t be bucketing on me so hard I can’t look anywhere but the road. Cruising down a narrow canyon by Apache Creek was especially nice, and exceptionally rainy.

After the signage confused me a bit in Reserve (roads that don’t show up on my maps accompanied by a turn that felt like I was going in the wrong direction), I got myself on US 180 for another southward leg. It was only sprinkling off and on, and I had a little more attention for the world around me. After I came through something-or-other pass (elevation six thousand something) I started to notice patches of white flowers along the roadside, sharing space with purple-blossomed thistles. The white flowers looked like poppies as I motored past. Very pretty.

There is a section of US 180 past Glenwood that is a) Under construction and lacking all markings, and b) 35 mph speed limit. I, in my “what’s the hurry?” attitude, was doing 55 mph along there just to keep the people behind me from running me over. Then it started to rain. Did I mention the rain before? Yes? Well, that wasn’t rain. This was rain. Lashing, blinding, dumping, end-of-the-world rain. No stripes on the road to key on. I slowed down, and those behind me (who had tail lights to track) got even closer.

some sort of white flower

some sort of white flower

The good thing about those really intense storms in the mountains is that they are relatively compact. Soon after the twisty-curvy by Braille was over there was a turn-off for a scenic view, and I took advantage. I did not want to see any of the people who had been behind me again, ever.

Along the road up to the overlook there were more of the white flowers. I stopped and took a couple of pictures, but I was standing in the rain and didn’t have the patience to get the really good shot. I did notice, however, that despite the petaled, poppy-like flowers, the stems were bristly and stiff like a thistle. Perhaps I was looking at some Frankensteinian hybrid of a gentle garden plant and a thug from the wrong side of the tracks, botanically speaking. (If I were in charge, the plant would also be able to uproot itself and shoot poison darts. I saw no evidence of these abilities today, however, so there’s no need to panic… yet.)

Not far south of the rest stop was a turnoff I’d been debating. NM 78 broke off the “big” road and headed west into Arizona. I was still enervated from the previous downpour adventure, but I decided to give the little road a go.

When I turned onto 78, there was a sign reading, “Steep grades and sharp curves. Trucks not recommended.” Music to my eyes.

I hadn’t got far when I saw the battered old pickup some distance ahead of me hit the brakes. Hm. I got closer and as i came over a rise saw what he had. There was a pretty decent river flowing across the highway. Still, an old pickup got through, so why should someone in a low-slung sports car worry? With all due caution (I have a friend who lost his engine to high water), I forded the river, came out the other side in second gear with a sigh of relief. On I went, but not very far before I encountered the next river. I noticed that where the river flowed off the pavement on the downstream side there was a pretty significant dropoff, with a waterfall I might have appreciated more if the Bronco coming the other way weren’t trying to get over on my side to avoid a big rock. We all got through just fine in the end, Mr. Bronco waited for me to pass. Good thing, too, because I didn’t have a free hand for the window control.

The four fords went something like this:

  1. Holy cow! I hope I can get through this.
  2. Stay calm, take it easy.
  3. Don’t get cocky, sport; that kills engines
  4. I should have my camera ready for the next one.

Of course, there was no next one, but I did manage to get my phone ready for pictures just in case. From there 78 became steeper and I made a note to add this little ribbon of asphalt to the list of the best drives in the US. I suspect it would be better to drive it eastbound (better to be going uphill for the steepest parts), but my buddy in the pickup and I were treated to one heck of a beautiful and active drive.



Have you ever smelled a pine forest after a heavy rain? Something about the bed of needles on the ground (that’s my theory anyway) gives it a smell that is like no other. A little sharper than other forests. It’s incredible.

Down, down, and more down, the sort of down that affects your mileage, on twisty-windy roads, trapped behind trucks pulling camping trailers, but that was all right. As we came out of the mountains I almost stopped at a wide spot on the road that had one of those desert views, where you can see across multiple time zones, and you can see the rain falling over there and the sun shining on that mountain and a hell of a lightning storm off to the north.

Did the Navajo think the Earth was flat? What about the Apache? Seems like a question we need answered.

At the bottom of AZ 78 I was faced with a choice. I pulled over for a moment and consulted my not-very-good road atlas. (My previous was Rand McNally and was much better.) I decided on US 191 all the way down to Interstate 10. As I mototed along the flowers gave way to succulents. An occotillo-like plant a vivid green against the red clay. Yuccas and either skinny barrel cactus or stunted saguaros. Cholla and woody shrubs in the overgrazed areas (the contemplation of which triggered a get-poor-quick scheme for another day).

(Note to self: If I ever need a good movie location with an impressive bridge with no traffic that we could maybe even blow up, there’s one next to Highway 191. Ample parking.)

I rejoined civilization in Safford, AZ, a farming town and then some. Not sure, but it might have been cotton in those flooded fields. Safford seemed like a nice place on my flyby, with a sense of community if the signs for this and that event are to be believed. After my high-altitude excursions, however, I could really feel the heat.

I stayed true to my highway headed due south of Safford. On the stretch between Safford and Interstate 10 I saw three things that I claim are thematically related. Just don’t ask me what the theme is.

I saw decay. The human settlements along that stretch of road had obviously seen better days. Even some houses that at 60mph looked like they had been pretty nice once lay abandoned. There were still plenty of people living there, but whatever had been supporting that community is gone. A ghost town in the making, populated only by people with nowhere else to go.

I saw plenty. The yuccas’ long stalks were bent over, forming weary arches. At first glance this is in harmony with the human plight of the town, until you realize that the plants are bowed over by the weight of their own fruit. The yuccas, at least, seem to be doing well this year.

I saw waste. For most of the way south, US 191 is a simple, well-maintained stretch of two-lan blacktop. Then, without any change in circumstances, there is a section that is divided highway, and then a section of perfectly adequate two-lane again, and then back to divided highway. I’m sure someone somewhere can tell me why it’s critical that US 191 be upgraded, but seriously, I’m not buying. I thought at first I was looking at stupidity, but then I realized I was most likely looking at the price tag for the vote of a powerful senator on some other issue. “We’ll send one hundred million of other people’s dollars to Arizona if you vote for…”

If you study those three observations long enough you’ll see an important convergence, a glistening polyp of knowledge that will make this whole crazy thing called life make sense. When you find it, let me know, ok?

Freeway! High speeds (except where there’s construction)! The entertaining route is rarely the fastest one, and there was still a long way for me to go. I was already exceeding the speed limit when I hit the top of the on-ramp. Time to fly!

Only, directly ahead loomed a big-ass storm. We’re way in the south of Arizona at this point, right? This desert could eat your pisante desert for breakfast, and wash it down with a glass of burning sand. Yet there in front of me is a rainstorm. Careful readers of this blog, those who keep score and try to catch my continuity errors, will note that the last time I drove this stretch of road, it was a white-knuckle gullywasher experience. That time I found myself in an America’s Best Value Inn, and likely that will be my last time with that chain. It sucked and cost a lot.

This time the plan was to fly Best Western. In the days of my months-long road trip they were the most likely to have Internet access, and that made me a fan. Right now they’ve got a buy-two-get-one-free special working. I hope to figure it out. Anyway, I was thinking, as I approached this storm, that if I saw a Best Western sign then my day was done.

I saw one such sign, in Hickox (Willcox?), and got off the freeway. I navigated the flooded roads for a while, never spotting the promised hotel. Finally, I saw the tall standard in the shape of a Best Western sign, empty. The hotel has apparently severed ties with my preferred chain. I drove on, into the mouth of the storm.

It was all pretty much routine, except when I was passing a truck, with a car in front of me, when we all together hit a section of the pavement where the water sheeted up. I never lost traction, but I was completely blind, all the glass of my car completely covered by torrents of water. Somewhere to my right was a big-ass truck. To my left, the median. Ahead, who knows? What if that driver hits the brakes?

My first fumbling act was to flip the wiper speed lever up to full blast. It wasn’t until several seconds later, the crisis passed, that I even realized I had done that, for the effort was completely futile. Water was dumping on me far too quickly to be wiped away.

I tapped my brakes, partly to send a signal to people behind me but mostly just to know they worked. I clenched the wheel, invented newer and better curse words than have ever been uttered before, and forgot them. Then we were through the crisis, all still alive, and slowly I got my heart under control.

Total time elapsed: maybe fifteen brick-shitting seconds.

That’s the thing about the road. It doesn’t care how much you love it. It’ll kill you anyway.

Sunset in Arizona

Sunset in Arizona

Now I’m at a Motel 6 in Casa Grande, Arizona. It’s nice enough, and it’s cheap. (Not as cheap as the hotels in Tucson, though. Those who plan their trips should try to sleep there.) Internet is extra here, but my phone can get me some Internet love. Tomorrow I’ll put up the photos. I bought a toothbrush and toothpaste at the truck stop across the street.


Some Instructions are More Difficult to Follow than Others

“Enjoy your hot sandwich” the sticker on my breakfast said. Unfortunately, I failed to follow directions. I did not enjoy my hot sandwich. Despite a rather good supper earlier in the flight, and sevaral tasty things that accompanied the hot breakfast sandwich, the sandwich itself was so ** that the presense of mushrooms only made it a little bit worse.
I expect the sticker was intened to serve as a warning. “Caution! Hot!” is not nearly as friendly (but easier to comply with).

**: still searching for just the right word. it seems that airline breakfasts the world over feel obligated to include some sort of hot egg-based food product. The person who finally comes up with a breakfast product that can be reheated in a microwave, includes egg, and is not so laden in fat (in this case cheese, butter, and oil on a croissant-like bread product) that you start to feel shiny just looking at it, will make a mint. The **ness of the modern options is so oppressive that a token mushroom or two will just vanish in the palatal goo.

Accompanying the sandwich was a cup with a foil lid. On the lid it said (something like) “Breyer’s Premium Smooth And Creamy Extra-Rich Low Fat.” I wondered if anyone in the hype department at the company noticed that they left off the nature of the product itself in their haste to pile on more superlatives. So many adjectives, no noun. (It was yogurt, by the way, and exceptionally good yogurt at that.)

After I wolfed down my breakfast I closed the box it came in (per instructions) and there on the top was the quote “All happiness depends a leisurely breakfast” attributed to some guy named John Gunther. Hm… should have read that instead of the thing about enjoying the hot sandwich.


The Who and the Where Now?

I booked my flight to Prague out of San Francisco to save a few bucks, but that meant a long shuttle ride from my quiet abode in Willow Glen. The driver was a friendly guy, prompt and courteous and so forth. He hauled my heavy bag down the stairs and stowed it in the back of the van while I said goodbye to my sweetie.

In the van, chinese music played softly; the twangy strings and the gentle pipes had a definite easy-listening feel to them. The driver climbed in, backed out of the driveway, and away we went.

There were two more to pick up for the trip to the airport, and the driver punched in the pre-saved address of the next stop. Then his phone rang. He pushed a button and for the next twenty minutes I was treated to one side of a jollly conversation – in Chinese. It didn’t sound like a very serious conversation, just chatting and joking. It occurred to me that between the GPS system (”Left turn in zero. point. five. miles”) and the mobile phone, the job of being a shuttle driver is a lot different than it was even ten years ago. I wondered if his friends dreaded when my driver had a shift, since he could chew up hours of of his friends’ days with no discomfort.

After we picked up the last passenger, he set the GPS to give him directions to the international terminal at San Francisco Airport. I suspect he’s been there before, but still the gentle female Voice of Magellan guided us up the highway and through the ramps that brought us to the terminal. I think the driver just thought the GPS was so damn cool that it would be a shame to not use it even when he knew exactly where to go.

I’m flying KLM today, the Dutch airline. I already had a boarding pass, but I needed to drop my bag at the counter. Waiting for me were two lovely Chinese girls in Royal Dutch Airlines uniforms, as cheerful and friendly as you please. My bag was a bit over the weight limit, but they let me slide with a warning. Then one of the tiny things tried to manhandle my bag onto the conveyor, to the great amusement of all, especially the big guy that came rushing over to help.

I picked up a bagel to munch at a little mom-and-pop cafe in the A terminal. Could this really be? Could there be a family business in slick and soulless place like an airport? I didn’t ask (they were busy), but it sure seemed like a family business. The guy running the register and the woman who fixed my bagel had to have been family, judging by accents (wild-ass guess: Bulgarian) and familiarity, and the guy at the register had that intangible “this is my shop; how can I help you?” atttude.

Now I sit waiting to go from the United States to the Czech Republic on a Dutch airline and tended by (ethnically, anyway) Chinese workers. Pretty soon these national labels will stop meaning anything at all.