Travels, Modifications, Experiences


Report on California

San Simeon State Park

San Simeon State Park

Just returned from a ten-day, 2,750 mile road trip from Boise to California. Where to begin…

First, we vowed never to take another winter road trip that required crossing a mountain range. Second, we vowed never to drive in Southern California again. Next to our wedding vows, these are probably the most serious ones my wife and I have made.

Despite the “never-ness” of the vows, it was a pretty good trip, although – as usual – dominated by excessive driving time.

The Eurovan

We had hoped to take the quickest route from Boise to the Bay Area, which takes you over Donner Pass on I-80. The forecast for that area predicted at least two feet of snow and 95-mph winds for our travel day. I knew they would close the road, and they did. Our only other option added over 200 miles to the first day, but we decided to leave extra early so we could meet our friends that evening for dinner and a concert in San Francisco.

We woke up to several inches of fresh snow in our driveway, but hit the road by 5:30 anyway. Thirteen tense hours and dozens of twisty mountain passes later, we’d managed about 600 miles, 118 miles shy of our goal. The Eurovan didn’t even blink at the conditions, which were among the worst I’ve experienced. Howling winds, blinding snow flurries, uneven packed ice, black ice, drifting snow, slush ruts and more.

Ice-caked EVC

Ice-caked EVC

I stopped to pee at one point before leaving the snowy roads and was amazed at the amount of ice caked and clinging on the van. I had chains with me, but never needed them. The Eurovan handled the roads better than my 4WD Tacoma would have.

Taqueria Roberta in Williams

Taqueria Roberta in Williams

Still, with the frigid temperatures and our tattered nerves we wimped out and got a motel room and a 2-pound burrito in Williams, California. We missed our friends, a good meal and a great jazz gig but got a good, digestion-enhanced sleep in this cute town in the heart of California’s central valley.

The Bay Area

Angus on the Fire Trail

Berkeley's Fire Trail

I lived in Berkeley from 1982 to 2000. Leaving it was hard, and the way it showed itself to us made my wife ask me why I ever left this place. It couldn’t have been prettier. After stopping for caffeine at the original Peet’s Coffee store, we drove up into the hills and took Angus for a walk in the only place we found in California that allows dogs to run off-leash (more later on this). The “Fire Trail” high in the hills winds through dense stands of eucalyptus and pine, and offers breathtaking views of San Francisco. I ran on this trail with a good friend almost every day while writing my dissertation in 1996. Where does the time go?

We met up with some dear old friends for lunch at Zachary’s Pizza on College Avenue in Oakland, just across the Berkeley border, then headed to the North Face Outlet where I’ve gotten great deals on outdoor gear since my college days in the ’80s. Only tiny or huge sizes, and not so much gear anymore, so we saved our dough for dinner.

$100 Bill Jerk

$100 Bill Jerk

Crossing the Oakland Bay Bridge provided a shock since the toll was $5 instead of the $2 it’s been since 1982. We had a long time to take in the sights when the guy in front of us paid with a $100 bill; the attendant had to make some phone calls, get out his microscope to examine the fibers in the bill, and fingerprint the customer, who spent his waiting time picking broken glass out of his car and throwing it on the ground in front of us. This was our first glimpse of some of the downsides of civilization. Finally on our way again we saw the possible reason for the toll increase: the new bridge they’re building, a lower, gleaming, curvy thing that promises to last longer and not pancake when The Big One hits.

Marina Motel, San Francisco

Marina Motel

We had a reservation at the Marina Motel because it looked cool on the Internet and accepted dogs and because it wasn’t far from Fisherman’s Wharf where my 10K race was early the next morning. A relic from the stylish late 1930s, this motor-court  was nice but small. I wish I’d thought to take a photo of the Eurovan in one of the numerous one-car garages; not much of a margin, it fit like a bread loaf in its cellophane sack.

Golden Gate Bridge

Golden Gate Bridge

After settling in and recovering from the 15-minute parking job we headed over the Golden Gate Bridge to have dinner with another dear old friend in Mill Valley whom I hadn’t seen in almost 20 years. We had a great time catching up, reminiscing, and eating good food.

We live in a strange time: the pace and stress of contemporary life seems to separate us from friends when it’s not convenient – because of geography or time or both – but the plethora of technology – Facebook, texting, Skype, google – aims or claims to connect us. In pre-Internet days, I most likely would have lost track forever of most of the friends I saw on this trip, but with the help of these tools was able to find or be found and re-connect. This is the topic of another blog altogether, but it’s interesting to think about the forces that separate us and bring us together. The important thing is how we manage those forces and stay human in the face of them.

Embarcadero 10K

It's gotta be the shoes

Sunday morning I ran my first 10K in 15 years, and actually set a PR. I can only attribute this to living and training at 3,000 feet, and maybe the excitement of running through Fisherman’s Wharf and the Embarcadero. Or maybe it was my super-blowout-sale fluorescent orange Haile Gebrselassie model Adidas Adizero Adios shoes. It seemed odd to me that, coming from the silly town of Boise, Idaho, I would get so many comments on my flashy shoes in one of the most stylish cities on the planet. I think I might have been shamed into running as fast as I could.

After the race we met another “lost” friend for breakfast, then headed south along the coast and camped at San Simeon State Park just north of Cambria, near Hearst Castle.

Elephant seals

Elephant seals

On the way, we saw two spectacular sights: hordes of elephant seals basking in the setting sun, and a customized Mercedes-Benz Unimog from Germany on a trip around the globe. Each sight was equally striking and strange. Germans really seem to go for adventure travel; see my post about the Real Long Way Round.

The Unimog

The Unimog

The next morning we continued south along the central coast – to me, the only remaining livable place in California: it’s gorgeous, has a very temperate climate, and relatively few people. The reason it is that way is because of its lack of jobs and industry, and it’s far enough from the Bay Area and LA to stay desirably un-populated. Which reminds me of another vow my wife and I made: to start playing the Lottery.



Welcome to LA

Welcome to LA

Laguna Dog Park clients

Laguna Dog Park clients

After a harrowing drive through LA at the beginning of rush hour, we got to my home town of Laguna Beach in time to run Angus at the local fenced-in dog park. Our little guy is a great traveler, never complains, and rolls with the punches, taking what limited off-leash time he can get, which – in California – was, with the exceptions of Laguna’s dog park and the Fire Trail in Berkeley, illegal. Yet another vow: if we lived in California we would not have a dog.

Junipero Serra with Indian Boy

Junipero Serra with Indian Boy

We visited the Mission San Juan Capistrano, which I hadn’t seen since grade school. I was surprised by the complete absence of any information at this important historical site of the horrendous treatment of Native Americans by the missionaries. Instead, the “historical” video they offer is a thinly-veiled plea for donations and a shameful puff-piece on early California history and the missions’ terrible role in it.

Watching people watch birds at the Newport Back Bay

Watching people watch birds at the Newport Back Bay

After the trip to the mission, we shifted to birding mode and went to Doheny State Beach to view the huge seagull congregation and then the Newport Back Bay, where my mom brought my brother and me to watch birds when we were little. We watched marbled godwits, black-necked stilts, cinnamon teal, coots, sandpipers, egrets (both snowy and great), American widgeon, grebes, and lots of other birds doing their things in the bay. This felt as much like being “home” as anything on the trip.

It was good to see my mom and step-dad, and to enjoy Laguna, even though I kept saying, “This isn’t the town I grew up in.” The difference? Money, money, money. Way too many cars parked on residential streets, no doubt because the postage-stamp sized lots have been filled to the edges with remodeled bungalows whose square footage is maxed out with living space. The $100K Mercedes can sit in the street.

Laguna Beach High School Track

LBHS Track

I wanted to run a track workout at my high school alma mater, Laguna Beach High School. When I attended (1976-1980), our mascot was a goateed artist holding a brush and palette (still the name of the school newpaper; Laguna Beach originated as an artist colony in the early 20th Century). A few years ago – perhaps in an attempt to protect the children from the homophobic taunts I received while competing at opposing schools when I was an “Artist” (Laguna Beach, historically, has has had a vibrant and large gay community, although I’m not sure if that still holds) – they changed the mascot to a wave, and now go by The Breakers. The track, which is now a state-of-the-art rubberized beauty surrounding an Astro-Turf football field, is recently closed to the public. There’s an ongoing debate over the track closure; apparently the new principal has convinced the school board that allowing the public to use the track is an invitation to child molesters, while justifiably annoyed locals who pay taxes supporting the public school can’t use it. I had a good run along the beach instead. The times they are still a-changin’.

Gamble House entry

Gamble House entry

Next was a lovely visit with my dad and step-mom in Long Beach. Angus got to meet Maggie (his aunt?) the Sheltie, who quickly became enamored of the little guy, who could not have seemed less interested. What can you do? My dad took us to my parents’ home town of Pasadena so Leslie could see for the first time the gorgeous grounds at the Huntington Library and the magnificent Gamble House, the premier Greene & Greene creation, where we got a tour of the home from a wonderful docent. It was nice to have a break from driving, and my dad took us past all three of his childhood homes in Pasadena, as well as my mom’s old house there where I spent lots of time as a kid visiting grandparents.

Faux Bois

Faux Bois

Faux Bois artist

Faux Bois artist

Oh, at the Huntington, we watched a masterful artist at work restoring the “faux bois” (fake wood, made of sculpted, steel-reinforced cement) arbors, and learned a lot about the nearly extinct craft from him. Fascinating stuff.

The Return

1350 miles down, and we began the trek home a week after leaving. Because of a miscommunication (Leslie and I each thought the other wanted to return along the Northern California coast, when we both actually wanted to take the shortest route home), we bit off nearly more than we could chew. Blasting through LA’s terrifying traffic, in which we very nearly died in a horrific fireball that was almost caused by a “totally agro” teenaged girl, was like nothing I’ve ever seen at 6:15 a.m. It was a jam-packed parking lot where everyone was going 80. California’s budget crisis is nowhere more apparent than its crumbling roads peppered with potholes big enough for an armoir. The dilapidated state of California’s massive network of freeways would embarrass any Third World country. It’s true for the whole state, but Southern California is particularly bad, and – since SoCal is most prominently defined by The Car – the pitifully dangerous shape of its arterial roadways is quite ironic.

Angus greeting mallard

Angus greeting mallard

Avenue of the Giants

Avenue of the Giants

We took the 405 to the 5 to the 580 to the 680 to the 780 to the 37 to the 29 to the 101 to the 1 and made it to McKerricher State Park just north of Ft. Bragg in about 13 hours. $35 to camp there, and the showers required numerous quarters. Spectacular scenery, though, if you can see past the deteriorating infrastructure of the state. Which, on that morning, was no problem. We got up and did it again, going up 101 except for a detour through the Avenue of the Giants, a gorgeous roadway (except for the horrendous condition of the asphalt) through massive redwoods lining the Eel River. We passed the Trees of Mystery, lots of Bigfoot souvenir stands, Humboldt State College, broke the law again at Trinidad by letting Angus run free on the beach, and made it to Bend, Oregon 13 hours later. We’d hoped to camp, but it was below freezing and I was wiped and – worst of all – Deschutes Brewery and Pub had a wait of over an hour for dinner – so we checked into another Motel 6.

Burns Hilanders

Burns Hilanders

Our final day of driving only took about 7 hours, bringing us back through Burns, Home of the Hilanders [sic]. You would think they could spend the extra money to spell it right, since it’s something you live with forever. The town’s namesake, Scotland’s most well-known poet Robert Burns, must constantly roll in his grave.

That’s it. A great trip with lots of incredible things, nothing terrible (except for the amount spent on gasoline – the Eurovan takes premium fuel). A few lessons learned, some vows made, and a couple of new mods coming for the EVC in advance of the real car-camping season that can’t get here soon enough.

Sawtooth Serenity

Camping on the Salmon, Sawtooths, Idaho

Camping on the Salmon, Sawtooths, Idaho

Last September, four days after putting my beloved Glenna to sleep, we needed to honor her by going to one of her favorite places in this world. It is also one of ours: the Sawtooth Basin outside of Stanley, Idaho. We found a spot far from the highway right on the Salmon River. It was warm, still, and the perfect place to remember Glenna and begin our transition to a one-dog family. Angus, who still seemed in shock over Glenna’s passing, got a reprieve from his mourning at home by being able to explore the sage flat, river’s edge, and woods all to his heart’s content. He needed to run, and did.

The Salmon River, dubbed the “River of No Return” by the Lewis and Clark Expedition two hundred years ago, is a place we return to regularly. It is not overrun by swarms of people even in mid-summer. There are lots of places to camp where you have no visible neighbors and can feel the serenity and solitude which make it therapeutic. And the people you do run into are usually a pleasure, like Taro – a freelance hydrologist traveling in his old beat-up camper with his old dog. We stood with him and talked for an hour, drinking a beer near the river, watching the sun turn the White Cloud peaks on the other side of the valley increasingly darker shades of pink as dusk settled on us. The warm spell we’re getting now makes me ache for September…

Looking toward the White Clouds

Looking toward the White Clouds

Sage flat, Sawtooths

Sage flat, Sawtooths

Angus taking a break from the Salmon

Angus taking a break from the Salmon

Camping on the Salmon River, Sawtooths

Morning on the Salmon

Baker City Breakdown

City of Trees Pipes and Drums

Dennis McLaughlin, our new drum major

Our band, the City of Trees Pipes and Drums, traveled to Baker City, Oregon last weekend to participate in the Easter Oregon Highland Games. Oh my.

The weather could definitely have been worse. But it could have been way, way better. For a late August weekend, it was downright frigid: 50-something degrees, rainy, and windier than Rush Limbaugh the day after Halle Berry won an Oscar.

I felt badly for the organizers because the turnout was not what they expected. Most of the people who would have attended were huddled against the wood stove back at the cabin. But for those who did brave the elements – which include the vendors, the athletes, and the performers (especially the belly dancers) – it was a good show.

Aside from our fabulous group of nut-cases in kilts, there was a really good band from Emmett, Idaho featuring a couple of hot pipers, a fiddler, a drummer, and a crack bassist. The belly dancers boggled the mind (not least because nobody I asked could explain why you always see belly dancers at highland games) and some might have gone hypothermic. The athletes were fabulous, knee braces, pitchforks and all.

Irish wolfhounds

When was the last time you saw six Irish wolfhounds?

For me, the coolest thing there were the six enormous Irish wolfhounds (again – there seems to be a healthy lack of any shyness about the mixing of Irish, Scottish, gypsy, and whatever else you want to bring to the table at a “Scottish” Highland games). The couple who brought them have been breeding them for a dozen years or so, and they led the dogs (three each) around on leashes during the closing ceremony. Beautiful animals those.

It was a good time. However, unless I can get a guarantee from God next year that it will be warmer I can’t say if I’ll have another obligation that weekend.

Mice in the Van

Eurovan camping in the Tetons

Eurovan camping in the Tetons: it doesn't get any better than this (unless you can eliminate mosquitos)

On a recent trip in the Eurovan we spent about a week at our family cabin not far from Yellowstone. Mice had been scouring the place for whatever they could find, and several had been trapped (killed). After a while it seemed the mice just disappeared: no more little tiny football shaped dried turds in the morning dotting the kitchen counters. What a relief!

Preparing for a hike, Leslie went to the Eurovan to get some food for the trek and found – surprisingly – that a mouse or mice had gotten into the camper and weaseled their way into one of the food cupboards. Worse, they ate most of one of my favorite snacks – the Nature Valley Sweet and Salty peanut granola bar. A Clif Bar had been compromised also, along with a couple other things, but the Nature Valley bar was the clear favorite among these rodents. We have at least that one thing in common I guess.

External heater vent on EVC

External heater vent on EVC

Anyway, it took me a while to figure out how they got inside. No windows or vents were open, except for the auxiliary heater vent on the left rear of the van, which you can’t close. That must have been their port, although the opening is pretty tiny. But so are mice.

From there, the mice had to crawl their way into the heater box and out the inside vent at the base of the back seat. To get inside the cupboard with the food, they had to have shimmied up and over the console with the stove, sink and fridge, down the back and into the cupboard from the rear.

Eurovan mouse entry

Proposed path of mouse entry into 2001 Eurovan

If anyone else has experienced this most undesired transgression, please let me know. Also, if I have their route wrong – based on your experience – please let me know that as well!

Field mice

This is what the inside of the EVC must have looked like

The kicker in all this mice business is that it didn’t reveal itself until we were halfway home on the two-day return trip. The propane setting (which I’d so carefully repaired, as noted in a previous blog post) on the fridge stopped working. I could tell that the igniter wasn’t working, so the propane wouldn’t light for the fridge, but the stove worked just fine. So the fridge was off while we were camped, and on the 12VDC setting while driving (although I’m not sure even that worked; my beer at camp was not very cold!).

So I bit the bullet and after we got home went through the laborious exercise of removing the fridge. It was just as hard to get out as I remembered. I reviewed all the parts and everything seemed in order until I saw the fuse panel on top of the fridge. The little plastic cover over the center fuse (a 20 amp fuse) looked funny. I removed the cover and found it burned at one end. The fuse was blown.

Norcold fridge panel

Before the blown fuse

Then I noticed, scattered hither and yon across the top of the fridge, a bunch of mouse turds, and one very close to the 20 amp fuse. Could a mouse have crapped near the fuse panel and blown the fuse? Or could one of its wee feet have wedged in underneath that fuse cover and caused the damage? Or do fuses just burn up on their own? I’m no electrician or mouse scientist but I’m leaning to either of the first two theories. Again, if anyone has a clue on this, let me know.

By the way, since I had the fridge out, I took the opportunity to add joint tape to all the propane connections on the fridge, which I hope will reduce the residual propane odor that sometimes escapes from the fridge… Now the thing works fine. I thought it might be a good idea to rig up some kind of screen to keep over the exterior heater vents to prevent varmints from entering my mobile abode. But, like a lot of other things, I probably wont’ get around to it until it’s too late.

Quick Loop Oregon

Eurovan perspective

Leslie scans the landscape from the safety and comfort of the Eurovan Camper

With my new schedule and Leslie’s more flexible schedule, we occasionally get a batch of days with no particular requirements. Last week was the latest, and we blasted out of Boise on Wednesday headed to the Oregon coast in the Eurovan. Leslie and I were both eager to introduce Angus to the ocean, and to reacquaint Glenna with the salty water.

We made it to Bend in time to go to Trader Joe’s for “supplies.” Within minutes we were fighting over bran muffins, which I wanted for breakfast and Leslie did not. This made the rest of our shopping experience feel a bit awkward, and I was glad when we got out of there. Then we navigated our way to dinner at Deschutes Brewery where tempers calmed over a yummy CDA (Cascadia Dark Ale, also known as a “black IPA”) and a pilsener for Leslie. I forget what we ate as it didn’t really matter with that kind of beer. Then we headed toward Sisters, hoping to cross the Cascades on the windy Mackenzie Pass road, which I’d ridden up on our honeymoon seven years earlier. Closed because of the snow, we took the Santiam Highway past Suttle Lake (really), and turned up a Forest Service road looking for a “primitive” camping opportunity so the dogs could run unfettered and we could relax.

Cascade campspot

"Primitive" camping on a logging road high in the Cascades, view of Mt. Jefferson no extra charge

After some hunting and pecking we found a great spot, and the dogs began their high-speed, long-running exploration of the area, checking back in occasionally for water since we were on a mountain and not near any stream so far as we could tell. On one of Angus’s check-ins, I noticed he pooped something liquiddy and went over to look. Blood! A few minutes later, he did it again, and it was more profuse. Since I have a Ph.D. (not in science) I found a ziplock bag and obtained a sample of the bloody mucus so I could show it to a vet. Leslie and I both worried Angus was seriously ill and contemplated heading right home, but since he seemed normal otherwise we decided to try to find a vet in the morning somewhere on our way toward the coast.

Lebanon Oregon Animal Hospital

Angus got fixed up real good here

Which we did in Lebanon. The nice vet at Lebanon Animal Hospital  determined it was giardia, gave us some medication, and we made it to the ocean by lunch-time. Angus followed Glenna to the surf and romped in the sand, drinking only occasional mouthfuls of seawater as if to check again if it really tasted that bad. At one point he stopped to piss, and tasted his urine as if conducting a taste test. Glenna seemed right at home even though it was only her second time on the coast. Although it was gorgeous, the experience was mitigated severely by howling wind and Angus’ insistence on trying to eat every piece of flotsam and jetsam he could get in his mouth, which gave Leslie and me the willies, imagining more rectal expulsion of blood by the little guy we still affectionately call “Braindamage.”


Angus, aka "Braindamage"

At Pacific City we stopped at Pelican Pub & Brewery for a pint, where I got into an argument with our waitress about the date it was founded. I swore I was there in 1988 on my trip around the country, but she insisted it didn’t open until 1996. So I slayed them all, and we left without paying. Leslie mentioned something on the way back to the van that I might reconsider getting off the Efexxor.

We targeted Manzanita for dinner, and chose a pub that had good food and better beer. Manzanita is where Leslie’s dear friend Allan owns some property on which he plans to build a beach house soon, so she wanted to check out the town. It was quaint, clean, and not over-run with tourists or businesses. The pub’s clientele seemed pretty diverse but all fairly well-to-do, many probably weekenders from Portland (it’s only a couple hours from the big city but feels like several days away). Everyone including the employees were very friendly.

Heading north after dinner we stopped in Cannon Beach as dusk faded and found a nice RV campground, which, as with all non-primitive campgrounds, we had to keep the mutts on their leashes. This one was on a creek just a ways off the beach, and featured numerous rabbits who seemed to delight in taunting Glenna and Angus.

Walking at Cannon Beach

Cannon Beach, Oregon: a great place to walk your dog

After our EVC breakfast (coffee and instant oatmeal), we took the dogs to Cannon Beach to run free on the massive stretches of flatflat sand, and both pooches took full advantage of their unfetteredness. It was a joy to watch. I took more “Taisie” modeling shots of Leslie, thinking some of the pix might end up on her website (stay tuned for a post on that in the near future).

Leslie doing Taisie Design pose at Cannon Beach, Oregon

Leslie doing her Taisie Design pose at Cannon Beach, Oregon

Astoria was next, where we could not for the life of us remember which street we bombed down to the dock at the end of our first Cycle Oregon several years ago (2007 I think?). Soon we were fighting, once again, over how to get to IKEA, which was “near” Portland International Airport. Finally inside, the miraculously huge selection of quality, reasonably priced household items calmed us both and we made it out of there alive. We stopped for a brief visit with my dear friend Joan in southeast Portland before heading off to Maupin, along the Deschutes River, to camp.

salmon flies mating

Salmon flies mating

The salmon flies had just hatched, and filled the dusk sky with their huge (for insects) silhouettes. I found lots of mating pairs on the grass leaves along the river, accompanied by lots of large stoneflies. This has got to be the favorite mealtime for trout because of the comparative enormity of the food unit these insects represent. A fish would have to eat 100 times the number of small mayflies to get the same bang that one salmonfly provides. I felt happy for the fish, and a bit sad that I didn’t have my fly rod with me.

I was also sad I did not bring my bagpipes when a man named Steve Hughes from Portland stopped by our campsite. He saw the “McMichael Piping” sign on the van and asked if I was the piper. It turned out that Steve was a fairly new piper also, at about 65 years of age, from Portland. We chatted for a while and I showed him my electronic chanter (good for practicing when you don’t want to bother anyone because you use earphones). Note to self: bring pipes on all road trips from now on.

After a decent night of sleep, we headed back toward Boise, driving through Fossil and along the John Day River to Unity, and Leslie and I reminisced about the Columbia Plateau and Elkhorn Classic stage races we’d done years ago. Gorgeous country, no traffic, good (Oregon) roads (Idaho roads, by contrast, are horrible as a rule). 1300 some-odd miles, lots of looking (not enough doing stuff outside the car, we both agreed), and several more ideas on how to configure the Eurovan camper for a more comfortable living/traveling experience. I hope to have time to add a post about those details soon.

My darling Glenna

My darling Glenna

Cannon Beach dogs

Angus and Glenna - a good summary of their personalities

Ten-year-old Glenna, one foot on the sand...

Ten-year-old Glenna, one foot on the sand...

Sage dogs

Sage dogs on a rest stop in central Oregon

Dry Comparison

Nephi's Best

Nephi's City Council

Leslie reminded me yesterday that my post about our southwest road trip did not mention a rather freaky experience trying to find a place to eat on our last night. It had been a long day of driving from the Grand Canyon to Nephi, Utah (pronounced “KNEE-fie”). Sitting at the Chevron waiting for the tank to fill we decided that a sit-down meal with a beer sounded good. The only option we could see was JC Mickelson’s Restaurant, across

Dry rub

JC Mickelson's

the street. Once inside we were greeted by a host of weird people. The owner or manager, a tall, pale, bearded man, wore sneakers, white socks, khaki shorts, and a Hawaiian shirt. He greeted us and handed two menus to a small, pretty young girl of about 11 or 12 (although who can be sure these days?), who gleefully informed us that the night’s special was prime rib. I interrupted their excitement about the opportunity to serve us by asking if they served beer. Much wind escaped from sails. “No,” the manager said. He then generously tried to think of a place that could accommodate our request. “Not in this town,” he concluded. We thanked them and left, and headed over to Burger King.

West Wendover, NV Baptist Church

We camped right behind this church. The strip clubs were just to the right.

We’d been too tired to realize how naive we were expecting to get a beer in Nephi. It’s funny now, but once we realized the hold of Mormons on small towns in Utah and the control they have over things like the basic human right to have a beer with your burger after a long drive, we were kind of pissed. But we got over it and headed to Wendover, where we camped in a Baptist church parking lot just below a row of strip clubs on the west end of town (the Nevada side).

In thinking about our irritation with Mormon “dry” policies or whatever you want to call their crass violation of our 94th Amendment right to a beer after a long day of travel, it occurred to me that we might be guilty of a double standard when comparing Utah with the Diné (Navajo; also spelled Dineh) and Hopi reservations. Inside the nearly 13 million acres bounding the Diné reservation, inside which sits the 1.5 million acre Hopi reservation, it is a crime to possess or consume alcohol. If we’d been stopped by tribal police for some reason, they could have searched our van and arrested us for the beer and wine we had inside. Thankfully that didn’t happen (or you would have much longer blog entries from me).

There are lots of ways to look at this. First, not being able to buy or drink a beer anywhere you want to just plain sucks. But then you have to think about the “respect for different cultures” we try to make part of our creed. I respect and appreciate American Indian cultures far more than I do Mormonism, which is more of a religion dictating a dogmatic and particularly natural resource-abusive lifestyle than a “culture,” but I’m sure real anthropologists would disagree. I’m probably equally familiar with Mormonism as I am with Native American ways of life, but what I know of both makes it easy for me to favor the latter. Indians have been screwed on this continent since before Columbus arrived, yet

non-Mormon child

A non-Mormon child at Baja Fresh

they have continued to contribute some very positive things to civilization in the form of art, architecture, farming, medicine, and spirituality. The only really positive thing I can say about what I know of Mormonism is that they appear to teach decent manners to their kids; if you watch a Mormon family at a restaurant, you won’t usually see a bunch of kids running around like Tasmanian devils who think they’re in their own living room. I won’t go into the long list of what I don’t like about Mormonism, but suffice it to say that they don’t elicit the same level of appreciation in me as American Indians do.

So, to resolve the apparent double-standard of being pissed about not getting a beer in Nephi and appreciating and respecting Indian anti-alcohol policies, I think it’s fair to say that the situations are different enough that it really isn’t a double standard at all. It was – and still is – Indian land to begin with, so they should be allowed to set whatever policies they want and expect everyone passing through to abide by them. In Utah, though, the Mormon control of alcohol policy is excessive because the land there is not exclusively owned or inhabited by a single group. There, dryness should be personal choice. Is it beer:30 yet?

Southwest Road Trip

Leslie at Taos Pueblo

Leslie at Taos Pueblo

Just got home from a 3,033 mile road trip. Nine days. Boise to Roswell, New Mexico to Santa Fe to Taos to Navajo and Hopi country and the Grand Canyon. Lotsa driving, lotsa adventure. Mostly perfect weather. Rather than boring myself (and you) with a chronarrative of the trip, here are some notes, more or less in order of occurrence:

  • Middle of Somewhere

    The Middle of Somewhere

    On our first night we found ourselves camped down a muddy/snowy road near Canyonlands National Park. After discovering our camper’s coach battery – which runs the heater – had boiled over and croaked, I couldn’t get the van started. We awoke to a layer of frost on the inside of the windows, and imagined schlepping our road bikes up the muddy track to the pavement in the frigid morning and riding out to the “main” road to seek help. In looking through the owner’s manual I learned that the van would not start if the passenger seat was facing backwards (which it was). In a flash I had the machine running with heat not long behind. Soon after that we saw that we were surrounded by mule deer more numerous than I have ever seen. We joked about the two Boiseans who starved to death in the southeastern Utah high desert surrounded by hundreds of mule deer.

  • Idiot wiring battery backwards

    Idiot wiring battery backwards

    Make sure you know the difference between the positive and negative terminals of a battery. I wired up our replacement coach battery backwards, and wasted hours of my time and the time of many generous people as a result.

  • Aliens in Roswell

    Roswell's major export

    Roswell, New Mexico is – as we were warned – obsessed with the notion that people, especially tourists, are really interested in aliens. Wal-Mart has a huge painting of a UFO on its facade. Spending a couple days there didn’t convince me that it’s paying off.

  • Céilidh

    Céilidh in Roswell

    Friends and family – a cliche nowadays, thanks to the destroyers of civilization as we know it (cell phone companies) – are precious. We hadn’t seen Peter in years since he’d relocated to Roswell, and visits with my dad and Susan are rare. Although too short, we all made the most of our time together, some of which we spent talking on how we might increase the frequency of visits… Stay tuned.

  • Leslie and I did an out-and-back road bike ride on a straight, flat highway heading west out of Roswell. We both found it remarkable how polite the motorists there were. Despite having the “safety” of a rumble strip between us and traffic on the two-lane highway, even the huge eighteen-wheelers gave us extra room, often changing lanes. In 25 miles I counted only one vehicle that didn’t go wide for us. Conclusion: road bikers are their own worst enemies; where they are plentiful, as in Boise, there are enough of them doing stupid shit to annoy motorists (like riding two abreast in traffic, needlessly slowing down vehicles) that motorists have become un-conscientious toward cyclists. In Roswell, where cyclists seem to be a curiosity, vehicles seemed to respond accordingly to the massive difference in speed and mass between themselves and cyclists and went out of their way to avoid any possibility of an incident. It was refreshing.
  • Sam's Club Camping

    Serenity in the Sam's Club parking lot

  • “…motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death for American Indians aged 5 to 44” (Indian Reservation Roads guide, part of the Federal Lands Highway program of the USDOT). Luckily we did not see any crashes. But the roads on the Navajo reservation, which comprises over 12 million acres in Utah, Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico, are treacherous and in very bad repair. US Highway 491 between Ya-Ta-Hay and Gallup, New Mexico, for example, featured frequent potholes a foot deep, foot wide, and eight feet long. Hurtling down this road at night in dense traffic made me imagine I was doing the Super G with life or death consequences. Road maintenance on Indian reservations is apparently a joint effort between the US Department of Transportation and the individual governing bodies on each reservation, but we saw little or no evidence of repairs anywhere. And every road we took, without exception, struck me as very Third World.
  • Road to Second Mesa, Hopi

    Road leading to Second Mesa, where we learned you're not supposed to photograph mesa dwellings

    Speaking of worlds, we visited Old Oraibi (pronounced oh-RAH-ee-bee), at Third Mesa on the Hopi reservation, whose 1.5 million acres sit like an island in the middle of the Navajo reservation. My mom had taken me and my brother here in 1970 when she wanted to find particular Hopi pottery makers whose work she was studying. It looked exactly the same. Old Oraibi is the oldest continuously inhabited village in the United States, dating back at least to 1150 A.D.

  • Somewhere near the spectacular Vermillion Cliffs I turned on the radio and found only one station, a public radio station broadcasting from somewhere on the Navajo reservation. We learned in Tuba City, which was named by a Mormon missionary to the area long ago, that Navajo is the white man’s name for these people, who call themselves Diné (pronounced dih-NEH), which means “the people.” We had stopped at a roadside piñon vendor, a nice woman with whom we chatted for quite a while. She said “Navajo” and I asked if it was pronounced with a long or short “a”, and she said, “We say “Diné,” with no bitterness. Listening to the radio, the live commentary was in the Diné language, and it struck me as amazing that in the middle of the largest Indian reservation in the U.S. I was hearing a language older than English, which is the most universal language in the world. Put that in your pipe and smoke it.
  • Grand Canyon

    Humans in the presence of true grandness

    South Rim Sunset

    Sunset at the South Rim

    It’s hard to say anything about the Grand Canyon. First, it’s not a canyon. It’s a bunch of canyons each of which was the head of its class, the Summa Cum Laude of canyons. We hit the South Rim viewpoints in the afternoon under spectacular light conditions, and the effect was so awesome that I could hardly take it seriously. I began thinking of writing a press release from the National Park Headquarters informing the world that in an effort to generate more revenue for maintenance of our national parks the NPS had decided to offer sponsorship opportunities. Thanks to generous donations by sponsoring corporations, The Grand Canyon would now be called “The iPad Grand Canyons by Apple.” Yellowstone National Park would now be called “Starbuck’s Yellowstone Machiato Park,” and Arches National Park would be “McDonald’s Golden Arches National Bigmac Park.” Branding would be handled exclusively by the William Morris Agency, with oversight by Designer Emeritus Calvin Klein.

  • Angus & Leslie

    Angus & Leslie

    It’s good to be home. We missed our dogs, and – we like to think – they us.

Snowy Pipe Gig

City of Trees Pipes & Drums get up close & personal in the Eurovan. Clockwise from foreground: P/M John McDade, Josh White's wee head, D/S Gene "More Cowbell" Fisher

City of Trees Pipes & Drums get up close & personal in the Eurovan. P/M McDade, Josh White

Yesterday I and seven other dedicated members of the City of Trees Pipes & Drums hunkered down in the snow to play at a wedding. We do stuff like this to make money for the band. For this gig we earned $300. It involved the eight of us putting on the “kit”: off-white hose (except for Josh White, who wore snow white hose), red flash (the ribbons that get folded into the top of the hose), sgian doubh (black knife) inserted into the top of the right hose (in case one needs to slit the throat of one’s adversary or cut a piece of salami while waiting for the go signal), ghillie brogues (sort of a wing-tip shoe with long laces that get tied in a certain criss-crossy way in the front and back of the hose, with tassels that swagger about while marching), undershirt, white long-sleeve dress shirt, dark tie, kilt (for our band, we wear the Royal Stewart Black tartan – a 15 ounce, 8-yard wool kilt), kilt belt with large cast pewter buckle, kilt pin (mine was a lovely deer antler tip until I lost it – the second kilt pin I have lost in less than two years), sporran (the “purse” covering the crotch of the piper (drummers wear theirs on their sides so as not to interfere with the drum harness) – our band sporrans are made of skunk fur and are very soft and black; they provide a pocket for one’s car keys, wallet, cell phone, condoms, or whatever – the kilt has no pockets), Prince Charlie vest (mine is fine wool with three diamond-shaped buttons and made in Pakistan – a cheap version of the 5-button gabardine wool versions made in Scotland), and glengarry with red feather plume and clan crest (the boat-shaped wool felt hat). After dozens of gigs I now have the dressing routine dialed in at about 25 minutes. To remove everything and get changed back into normal duds after a gig takes about half that.

COTPAD Crackup

Josh comes unglued, making Gene laugh.

We arrive at the designated spot – today at the Stone House: a pub adjacent to the Greenbelt. This is our second or third wedding gig here in the past year. I drove our Eurovan because I knew it would be snowing and that we’d be waiting for a while and wanted to have a heated haven where some of us could hang out until we were signaled to line up and march in. Six of us managed to fit in the van, cozy and warm with the propane heater running. I snapped a couple shots with my iPhone, hoping to catch some “regimental” images of my kilted buddies, but – alas – the iPhone’s lack of a flash prevented any compromising photos. John McDade, our dedicated pipe major, and the band’s only bona fide Scot, upon thinking I had snapped a shot of his privates yelled, “It’s bloody cold – I’m claiming shrinkage!”

We finally got the go signal, and burst from the Eurovan into the falling flakes and lined up. Two drummers – Gene, the Drum Sergeant, and Rhonda, our unflagging bass drummer – followed the six pipers (John, Josh, me, Tim, “Junior” McKay) and Jayce – our next to be initiated band member and current gig gopher, whom – today – served as band photographer and official door opener. On P/M McDade’s command, we fired up outside and began with Mairi’s Wedding/42nd Highlanders and someone’s drones were dreadfully misfiring. As we played and marched toward the entrance to the Stone House Josh – in front of me – shut down all his drones, thinking the wounded rhino sound was coming from his pipes. I had a perversely satisfied feeling the offending sonic malady was emanating from my bass drone but managed to ignore it and revel in the horrific dissonance as we marched into the absolutely packed interior and continued playing to wild applause.
For me at least, and I suspect many of my colleagues in the band, the most exciting moment of any gig is when we enter the interior of the venue, full of people – in this and many other cases, unsuspecting – and we are rewarded with facial expressions of childlike exuberance and fascination, hoots, hollers, whistles, and all other types of boisterous expressions of approval and visceral pleasure.
It is this dynamic that makes it worth the 25 minutes it takes to get dressed, and however long it takes to drive to the gig, and however long we wait in the wings before we are unleashed like rabid rats on a rotting feral cat carcass. It is this moment when I feel the righteousness of strutting, when I feel the loss of self that historical actors from Nazi storm troopers to the starting players in the World Series must have felt. My uncooperative bass drone notwithstanding, this moment is indeed what the great French social theorist Roland Barthes referred to as “jouissance” – the proto-orgasmic loss of self in the cataclysmic moment of pure pleasure…
We finish the two tunes and the ceremony begins. We scurry to stand out of the way so the guests can see. I watch the bride and groom – two middle-aged people whom I think are starting over with great hope, and surrounded by an impressive assortment of people I hope feel the same way – and remember with great warmth my own wedding atop a mountain in central Idaho. The bride’s gaze upon her soon-to-be-betrothed is so angelic that I cannot stop staring at her makes me think that this is really a special moment and I’m privileged to be a part of it.
After a decent amount of time and words the ceremony is over and we’re lining up to begin the march-out tune, which John calls out at the last second: Scotland the Brave. We play it through twice, marching elegiacally through the crowd of gleeful attendees, following the bride and groom, out the door into the falling snow. It sounded great. The bride and groom stood in the snow for a moment with us and expressed their gratitude. Gig over, we scurried to our vehicles and headed to our homes to remove the kit and get on with our separate lives, the weekend half completed, thoughts of what’s ahead and what’s due in the offing.