Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Onward Through The Fog

We had no internet service in our condo in Port Townsend. One consequence of this is a certain amount of disorientation: How can I know where anything is if I can't look it up on the internet? Another is a certain amount of irritation: How can I ignore what's going on around me if I can't occupy myself with email, porn, and idle browsing? I actually read half a book, a murder mystery, and not a very good one, even though it was English.

Mostly, though, it means that I haven't had much chance to post anything here about the wunnerful time we've passed in Washington (my 48th state: look out, Alaska! Stand back, Hawaii!)

Anyway, picking up from where I left off:  We crossed over the Columbia at Longview, having decided not to drive up through the Columbia River Gorge this trip. It was a matter of time: we could see the Gorge, or we could see Mt St Helens, and the wife really really really wanted to see Mt St Helens.  As it turned out, we saw neither: Mt St Helens was completely covered in thick fog. We spent half an hour or so at the Visitors' Center 20 miles away, watching the live monitor feed from the Johnston Observatory, and decided not to bother driving an hour out there and an hour back, just to see the fog live and up close.

I blame the internet, and globalization.

So we drove instead over to Mt Rainier National Park. As we did, the fog seemed to be lifting, but we never did get a glimpse of Mt St Helens ... or Mt Rainier, which was socked in as well. We made the (terrifying) drive up to the Jackson Visitors' Center, about 5400 feet up, where it was not only so foggy that we couldn't see the building from the parking lot, it was nearly freezing. We spent about an hour warming up inside before making the (equally terrifying) drive back down, stopping to see a couple of waterfalls along the way.

I blame the internet, and globalization. 

Heading into Seattle, I finally dealt with the problem of the left front tire losing air. I found a tire shop that applied a sealant around the inside of the wheel, then slapped on a used tire that actually had better tread than the one I'd been riding on -- I'd planned to get new front tires when I got new wheels all around anyway -- for about $30. I might just buy used tires all the time from now on. It's been on the car for more than a week now, and hasn't lost any pressure.

We parked the car in the space I'd reserved for the week and took the shuttle up to Sea-Tac, where Nancy and Jeff arrived from Colorado almost on time. We decided to go with an SUV instead of the "full-sized" Impala they had reserved for us, and though it caused about an hour's delay, it was a good thing we waited. We would never have gotten all our stuff in an Impala. We had a Tahoe, stuffed to bursting.

It was dark by the time we got to our condo, way up on the northeastern corner of the Olympic Peninsula. The first thing we discovered about it was that there was no internet access in the unit; we had to go either up to the office, about 150 yards away, or to the Clubhouse, two blocks away. The office was only open during the day, when we were usually away, and the Clubhouse closed at 9 and they turned off the router. That, and the faint aroma of a paper mill up the beach, were the only down-sides to our stay.

The town's big annual celebration is the Wooden Boat Festival, which happened to start the day we arrived. Other than making it difficult to park in the middle of this little town, and filling all the restaurants and sidewalks with boat people, the festival didn't much impinge on our stay. We might have been interested in whatever the festival offered -- the others all have some sailing experience; and I managed to find a day's worth of interest at the Farm Technology fair, so I reckon boats would keep my interest for a few hours -- but the $20 entrance fee was too much for any of us to think it'd be worth that for a visit. So we passed on it. We did, though, prowl through the obligatory crafts booths set up outside, finding nothing much of interest. I used to really enjoy browsing in the street markets set up near every event, however esoteric, but these days it seems like there is little novelty in them. Every vendor has the same handmade (and generally overpriced) stuff for sale, or nearly so; mostly well-done, solid, professional. But the sightings of exquisite craftsmanship are so rare these days that the time spent in the hunt is wasted. It must have been like this for the Plains Indians, when buffalo became so rare, though on a much more fundamental level, of course.

I blame the internet and globalization.

Other than the wooden boat festival, "Port T" offers few attractions of its own, and we saw them in a day. The Art Deco Lighting Museum was interesting, if monothematic, but far more interesting were the posters, signs and displays ranting about the traffic engineering recently done by the city out front of the building. Seems they put in a traffic circle, which makes the shop containing the museum difficult to get to, and which took part of the shop's land, formerly used for landscaping, leading the city to require that more land be devoted to landscaping. It's hard to disagree with the shop-owner's point of view, given that the cross-street at this intersection is half a block long on one side, and a whole block long on the other. And both are dead ends. Makes a traffic circle seem more aesthetic than functional, and this is not what we want from our cities. Municipal aesthetic sensibilities are fine where public funds must be spent, but insufficient of themselves to warrant the expenditure of public funds.

The other main attractions of the town are a staircase that ends at a fountain left over from the Mexican Pavilion at the 1893 Columbian Exposition, and a handful of nothing-really-special Victorian houses. (Were it not for our present national fixation with preserving everything older than our little sister, these might be worth looking at; but since everything that survives a few decades in this country gets a brass plaque mounted on it, these houses are just like the ones you can see in every town founded before World War I. Nice, but hardly unusual. I blame the internet, and globalization.) Just outside the town is Fort Worden, one of the forts that once guarded the entrance to Puget Sound, back when Canada represented an existential threat. It is now, of course, restored and preserved like every spot where two sticks remain of a former outpost of civilization from  The Olden Days. This one, fortunately, is finding a new raison d'ĂȘtre, hosting various local institutions like the Madrona MindBody Institute (if the name itself, with its too-cute punctuation, weren't enough to start the eyes rolling, there's the sign in the front door warning that it is "a fragrance and scent-free facility") and a woodworking school. A few public offices fill the restored buildings, and the post theater is now in use again.  At the farthest end of the post is a disused lighthouse.

The only innately interesting thing about Fort Worden is the odd building known as Alexander's Castle, which was intended as a home for the rector of a local church. He built it (years before Fort Worden was established) to share with his bride, but when he went back to Scotland to marry, he found she had tired of waiting, or of him, and hooked up with some other dude. The Army bought the building from him and used it as a cistern, a lookout post, a residence, and a tailor shop. This was back when government spent money for non-aesthetic reasons.

Oh, and one other interesting thing about Fort Worden was this sign, which means nothing to me.

Having done Port T, we went on a Cider Quest, hitting three of the local cider houses: Wildfire, Eaglemount, and Finnriver. The first is a venture by a smokejumper and his wife, and it's new enough that there's a sort of casual cheeriness about the whole thing. They had good stuff, too, and we had a hard time narrowing our choices down to just two bottles.

The lady who runs Eaglemount was the first to get into the cider business in the area, and they have some fine products too, but she was so flustered by the comings and goings in her tasting room that the overall experience was, sadly, less than completely enjoyable.

Finnriver is a brand-new operation run by a husband whose family has been farming the area for generations, and his English-teacher wife, who is so enthralled by the whole sustainable-farming thing that she makes a charming and enchanting tour guide, even if the cider isn't really to my liking. (Actually, I wasn't really all that thrilled with any of the ciders; just as I'd prefer a glass of water to a glass of wine, I'd rather have apple juice than cider.)

Desperation Pass
On Monday we rode the ferry over to Orcas Island, in the San Juans. This involved two ferry trips: first from Port Townsend to Keystone Harbor, then, after a drive up Whidby Island and across Desperation Pass, a second, longer ferry ride from Anacortas to the town of Orcas (with one intermediate stop).

The high point (literally) of Orcas Island is Mount Constitution, which boasts broad views of the islands and Canada and Mount Rainier and everything in between. This, though, wasn't the day for that. Here, for example, is the view of Mount Rainier:
(On the trip back to Anacortas, we did actually get to see Mount Rainier in the distance. That turned out to be the only time we saw it the entire week we were there.) Well, despite the fog up on the mountain, it was clear enough at lower elevations to enable us to appreciate the beauty of the islands.

The ferry going back to Anacortas was running late, about 30 minutes, and because of that we missed the reservation we'd made for the 7:15 ferry from Keystone to Port Townsend. I blame the internet, and globalization. We also learned, to our sadness, that there were no restaurants within 20 miles of the ferry dock that we could get a meal at, and still make the 9:00 ferry, the last of the night. Fortunately, we had brought a few apples with us (it was Washington, after all), so we didn't get grouchy while we waited for an hour and a half.

The rental truck we were driving had Satellite Radio in it. I was under the impression that you could get reception for that just about anywhere a satellite is within range, i.e., anywhere. I have one friend in San Antonio who has satellite radio in his home, and it is always fading in and out in a very irritating way; I don't know how he stands it. He says the antenna needs adjusting. But the same thing happens with the car radio: you're driving along, listening to some stand-up comic or 60s music or whatever, and all of a sudden there's silence, maybe for a split second, maybe for a minute. I can't believe people actually pay for that. But then, I can't believe people actually pay for a lot of things.

Next post: Olympic National Park.

County-Count update

For those of you who are interested --- though why the hell would you be? --- after the recent trip up to Washington State, I've now been to 71.16% (2,198 of 3,089) of the counties in the USA. On this trip, I got the last county in New Mexico, and the last three in Wyoming, so I've now been to all the counties in 12 states. (The others are New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, Louisiana, Texas, Arizona and Nevada.) I'm missing one county in Maine (Aroostook, way up north), two in Massachusetts (both islands), and two in Oklahoma (both remote); and there are a number of states where I'm missing a few widely-separated counties, like West Virginia (missing 7 of 55), Pennsylvania (5 of 67), New York (7 of 62, all along the Canadian border), Mississippi (9 of 82, all in the northern part), and Florida (8 of 67). Sometimes I think I should just go to those places for no purpose other than driving through those counties. Then reality kicks in.

roller skate
On the other hand, there are still two states that I haven't been to at all: Alaska and Hawaii. It looks like I'll be going to Hawaii in 2012; I suppose I'll have to hire a plane or a helicopter to get to the counties out there, if I want to keep this ridiculous quest going. Don't know when I'll go to Alaska, and when I do it'll probably just be one of those cruises out of Seattle that go up through all the islands in the lower panhandle. Lord knows how I'll ever get to those counties way up north there; some of them don't have roads, at least none that I'd be willing to take my little roller skate over. 

Since I have no travel plans for next year that will take me through places I've never been, I guess I have time to decide whether this idiotic county-quest has any traction for me. The only purpose it serves is as an excuse to get out on the road, and since I have to go so far to get to new places, that's losing some of its appeal. I'm thinking maybe I'll go visit somebody who lives far away from Texas, and use their home as a base for short trips. I could probably think of a few people to impose on that way....

Consider that a warning; if you think you're one of those people, you might want to be ready with excuses when I call.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Seeing not clearly

the sea at the Devil's Punchbowl
The weather on this trip had been pretty co-operative, up until yesterday. Even the fog and drizzle in Oregon, rather than interfering with our enjoyment of the dramatic coastline, enhanced it, as that's the sort of weather us Southern Boys expect to find up here. There was a nip in the air -- I'd call it "wintry" but I know my Nawthun friends would scoff -- and the dampness was just enough to give the whole experience an alien sort of feel. Fog came in lines that, more often than not, stayed somewhat distant, to emphasize the collision of land and sea without interfering with our view of it.

Astoria Column
Yesterday, though, that changed. We woke up in Astoria, Oregon, at the mouth of the Columbia River, and after a pointless early-morning drive to Lewis and Clark National Park, which doesn't open until nine, we went back to town and climbed up the Astoria Column, a tower on a hilltop above the port. By this time, the sky seemed to be clearing, though it was still hard to get a decent picture, from either the bottom or top of the column, of the big river bridge a couple of miles west. Still, the improving weather boded well, we thought, for the day's trip.

Originally, the plan for yesterday was to drive up the Columbia River Gorge, between Portland and The Dalles, then up to Mount St. Helens, passing by Mount Rainier on the way to Sea-Tac, where (I thought) we had reservations. (Turns out we didn't, but that's not important; plenty of hotels around the airport; the reservations I was thinking of were for parking -- I plan to leave the car at Sea-Tac while we go up to the condo for the next week.) By yesterday morning, however, I had decided that that was too ambitious a plan, so we debated which side-trip to drop. Sherry said she particularly wanted to see Mt St Helens, so we skipped the Columbia River Gorge and headed into Washington.

There is a Visitors' Center a few miles off the freeway, about 20 miles from Mt St Helens National Park. They have a monitor there that shows a live feed from the Visitors' Center at Johnson Observatory, the closest approach to the mountain for the public. It was a fog bank. We were about 20 minutes in the gift shop, during which time there was no change in the view, so we decided to head on to Mt Rainier. The road that takes us there passes about 20 miles north of Mt St Helens, so we thought we'd have another chance to see the remnant of the mountain, which exploded 30 years ago. 

our best view of Mt St Helens
There was a viewpoint indicated along the road, but (a) the trees had grown up alongside so that nothing else was visible from the road, and (2) if you walk down the nearby gravel road, all you can see is the reservoir which, it turns out, is the intended view for the spot. Later on there's a sign for a Mt St Helens Viewpoint a quarter-mile farther on, but someone has apparently taken the marker indicating where that viewpoint is. In any case, it was still foggy.

At the base of Mt Rainier it was cloudy and damp. By the time we got halfway up to the Visitors' Center at Paradise, it was drizzle and fog. At Paradise it was fog and rain and about 40°. We went into the Visitors' Center, looked through the exhibits and the gift shop, and left. It's a loooooong, slow, scary drive up the mountain to the Visitors' Center; it's even longer, slower, and scarier on the way down. But we stopped at a couple of waterfalls on the return trip.

Cristina Falls
After that, it's a fairly straightforward drive into the urban blight of Tacoma. I stopped at a tire shop to put air in the right front tire that's been losing pressure regularly for the last four or five months; the guy there swore he could stop it losing air, which the guy at the service station back home said couldn't be done (the wheels are chromed, and apparently everyone in the Northwest knows what people in the South don't, that road chemicals cause it to corrode, and all you have to do is run a wire-brush drillbit around it a few times to smooth it out, then put sealant on it. On the other hand, the tread on that tire was so worn along the edges from driving on 15 pounds of pressure, that I went ahead and had him mount a used tire, with better tread, on the wheel, to get me the 3,000 miles home. That cost all of $32 and change. I think I need to find another tire guy back home, though in fairness, I've talked to probably six different shops about the problem, and none had any solution other than new wheels -- which, according to the guy at the tire shop I stopped at in Lincoln City, Oregon, would have to be made specifically for Jaguars, as Jaguar uses a different sized hub than other manufacturers. I'll have to look into that.... Anyway, the new tire rode fine on the horribly bumpy, rough and noisy freeways they seem to favour up here.

We got to Sea-Tac (which, apparently, is an actual municipality, not just the name of the local airport), found we had no reservations, and checked into a hotel on the main road by the airport. We have a lovely view of Mount Rainier out our sixth-floor window ... or would have, except for the fog.

Monday, September 6, 2010


I've made it Oregon. It's taken 49 years (maybe a little over that...) but I'm now in my 47th of the 50 states, having made it to Maine last year for the first time, and to Wisconsin and North Dakota in 2007. Before that, I don't remember the order.

Was it an auspicious start? A few miles in (and after stopping for pictures along the Smith River below Gasquet, California), we decided on a whim to take a 20-mile detour down a dead-end road to see Oregon Caves National Monument, where Sherry got her first passport stamps from the Northwest portion of the country (not counting the Redwoods N.P. stamp that I put there by mistake some years ago). (There were two stamps: one for Oregon Caves and one for the Chateau At The Oregon Caves, which is right next to the visitors' center but is, for some reason, separate.

We didn't take the cave tour; it's 90 minutes and fairly strenuous, and in my humble (sic) opinion, a cave is a cave is a cave. Having seen the glorious Carlsbad Cavern, and the almost-as-grand Natural Bridge Cavern, and some 50 or 60 others, I don't think any of the others was worth the price of admission. Now, if I were a dedicated spelunker like my friend David in Kansas City, who goes crawling through unimproved caverns on his belly with a flashlight, I might think differently, but I'm not. To me, a cave is a dark place with uneven ground, cool air, lots of bats, artificial lighting, and some cool-lookin' rocks. All things considered, I'd rather use that time to watch TV or drink a beer. 

(I think it was Mammoth Cave in Kentucky that decided me on this particular bit of philistinism. Yes, it's big, but it's also booooooooring. Just a hole in the rocks. Follow that up with Wind Cave in South Dakota and created in me is the conviction that I don't much enjoy tramping around underground.)

Anyway: the drive up to Oregon Caves was sufficiently entertaining that, on arrival, I was given a button to wear that says "I survived the drive." Those who know me will know how much I appreciate any drive that warrants such treatment. After wandering through the gift shop in the visitors' center, buying souvenir T-shirts, we went across to the Chateau, which is a large old lodge, artsy gift shop and diner in the bottom floor. Some of the locally-produced ceramics caught my interest, but I decided our car is too full already, and last time I had something of that sort shipped home (from Yellowstone) it arrived shattered, and the replacement the shop sent is ... unattractive. Decided not to chance it, though the prices were good. (I did buy a very nice belt, Nieman-Marcus quality at a Target price.)

We had an excellent (excellent!) lunch in the 1930s-style diner, then started towards Crater Lake. About 80 miles short of the park, just past the town of Gold Hill, there was a sound like locusts chirping. It got louder and louder until I pulled off the road and discovered that, whatever it was, it was coming from the car. I turned back and found a garage that, while not open for business, had a couple of mechanics inside working on what looked like a cross between a dune buggy and a dragster. One of them listened to the sound, with no clear idea of what it was, and suggested I talk to a Mr Thumler, who had a shop down the street. I found Mr Thumler -- Don -- and he said yes, bring it on down and he'd have a look at it. As I drove the car the two blocks, the noise became a grinding, dragging sound, then a thunk, and then silence.

He looked the car over for an hour and a half, maybe longer, taking off the left front wheel and examining everything from the hub ("non-serviceable -- if it's a bearing we'll have to replace the whole thing, and that'll mean getting a part from Portland") to the steering rack ("This is in good shape, nothing wrong here") to the brakes ("that black stuff on the front wheels, that's brake material") and sensor and something else that starts with an "r" and the suspension, and then examined the right front wheel ("sometimes sounds can be misleading") and all he could find wrong was that two plastic cover panels that keep dirt out of the area behind the headlamps were missing. We took a short test drive and the car sounded perfectly normal, so after another hour of politically-oriented discussion ranging from the legality of the Louisiana Purchase to the use of public lands in the American West to the Mideast dispute, the partition of India, and the Iraq and Afghanistan wars (the "Bush Wars"), we were back on the road.

Now here we are, in our hotel about 45 minutes from Crater Lake National Park at 4pm, and we've decided to take it easy the rest of today; we have a 7:15 dinner reservation in our hotel's dining room, and afterwards maybe we'll walk down to see the nearby waterfall. I've already downloaded the few pictures we've taken so far today. I haven't blogged since we got to Tahoe because we've spent all day either driving or sightseeing, and it's taking so long to download our pictures from our cameras, review them, upload them to Picasa, and cull them, that I've been too tired to write. But now I have the prospect of a relaxing evening with not too much to do; ergo, I blog.

Having just written that, we decided to walk down to Pearsony Falls, a short hike down the hill from our hotel. On the way we met a young Dutch couple who flew into Seattle a few days ago and are working their way from Olympic National Park to San Francisco; they were also going to see the waterfall, which proved to be exactly what I'd pictured Oregon as being like: substantial, though not overwhelming, quantities of water rushing over lichen-covered rocks amid lush woods. I'm thinking now we won't have to go the 30 or 40 miles out of our way that I'd planned to see a waterfall east of Florence, on the coast, in a couple of days. I've seen what I needed to see, and Sherry is perfectly content to go where ever I take her, as long as she can say "pull over here" whenever she wants.

I suppose now I should go back and recap what-all we saw and did around Tahoe and Lassen Volcanic National Park and coming up through the Redwood Forest and in Crescent City for the last few days.  Well, let's see.

Our motel in Tahoe was in a 50s-era mom-&-pop place that was a little run down but suspiciously cheap (about $45 a night, with tax). They had internet -- I checked on that before making the reservation; what they didn't have, it turned out, was air conditioning. Turned out not to matter. We opened a window and damn near froze. It was conveniently located on the lake ring-road, though on the landward side, so no view, but everything was close by. We walked down the street for dinner at a Mexican place called Chevy's that was sufficiently cosmopolitan not to be too californio for my taste. The margaritas were so-so, the food was good, and the service was very good. The only real disappointing thing was that they wouldn't serve us on their large patio area, because they "didn't have a waiter working the patio." Seemed to me that they had the same number of people to take care of, whether we sat outside or in. A very European attitudeOur motel in Tahoe was in a 50s-era mom-&-pop place that was a little run down but suspiciously cheap (about $45 a night, with tax). They had internet -- I checked on that before making the reservation; what they didn't have, it turned out, was air conditioning. Turned out not to matter. We opened a window and damn near froze. It was conveniently located on the lake ring-road, though on the landward side, so no view, but everything was close by. We walked down the street for dinner at a Mexican place called Chevy's that was sufficiently cosmopolitan not to be too californio for my taste. The margaritas were so-so, the food was good, and the service was very good. The only real disappointing thing was that they wouldn't serve us on their large patio area, because they "didn't have a waiter working the patio." Seemed to me that they had the same number of people to take care of, whether we sat outside or in. A very European attitude; it reminded me of the time I missed a connecting flight in Chicago five years ago. Lufthansa said there was nothing they could do for me. American Airlines said "Let's see what we can do," and with a few keystrokes, they had me on another flight to Turkey. Ironically, a Lufthansa flight. Anyway, since then I've encountered the same no-can-do attitude several times out here.

Next morning, first thing, we went looking for breakfast. I'd noticed a new bakery about a block from the hotel, so we went there. I had my mouth all set for some baked goods. So, what kind of bakery doesn't open until 9am? Go figure. So we walked the other way, where there was an Indian restaurant offering breakfast ... starting at 9am. We tried the coffee shop across the parking lot ... that doesn't open for breakfast until 9am. Finally settled for Heidi's, a local chain that has ordinary coffee-shop cuisine at California prices -- everything is about 50% more expensive in California, except gasoline, which is only about 15% more. The waitress suggested we visit Vikingsholm, an old mansion on the lakeshore at Emerald Bay.

After breakfast, and laundry, we went for gas (in Carson City, where it's much cheaper) and then drove all the way around the lake, stopping in several places for pictures, then came to Emerald Bay. This is the most beautiful part of a lake where "beautiful" is generally an understatement, and the part that I remembered clearly from our earlier visit here 11 years ago.

We paid the parking fee at the park and started down the path to Vikingsholm, which is part of a California state park. It's about a mile down a very steep winding driveway, and we only got about half-way down -- about a 250-foot drop -- before I decided that I might not be able to get back up. It was very tiring, though I think now it was more the altitude than the strenuousness of the climb. (I think that because, in Lassen a couple of days later, I made a similar hike at a slightly lower altitude with no great problem.) 

I also think, now, that a part of the reason was that I find that I feel extremely unwelcome in California. Everywhere in California. I felt it last year in San Diego; I felt it in Tahoe; I felt it in Lassen and in the Redwood Forest and in Crescent City. I feel inclined not to ever go back there, despite its unrivaled scenery and cultural attractions.

Anyway: so we didn't make it down to Vikingsholm. We went back to the room, rested some, and then drove up to Zephyr Cove, on the Nevada side, and took a cocktail cruise on the lake, on a catamaran. Sherry hadn't wanted to do that because, in her mind, catamarans were unpleasantly wet rides, but when I showed her a picture of the boat -- 55 feet long, with room for 30-something people -- she reluctantly agreed to go. I wanted to take the catamaran because, (a) it was at the right time of day; (b) it was out of a nearby harbour; and (c) it was a little cheaper than any of the other cruises on offer. Turned out to be a very nice ride. The boat was comfortable, the other passengers were pleasant -- we spoke mainly with a couple who live in San Luis Obispo, though she's from Alabama and he's from New York -- and the drinks were almost the only bargains I've come across so far on this trip.

(I do hate to go on and on about the cost of everything, but I have just been so flabbergasted by the cost of things out here. I know San Antonio's cheaper than a lot of places -- actually, just about everyplace -- but in the last year or so it seems like the differences have been magnified astoundingly, and even more so in California.)

Next morning we were up bright and early and on the road to Lassen Volcanic National Park, skirting along the edge of the desert, then up into the mountains. The road, conveniently, goes through the park from south to north, so we got to pass right by all the interesting sites. We got out and hiked up to Bumpass Hell, a Yellowstone-like geothermal outcropping that smells of sulpher and sounds like trucks on a highway. We also hiked around Reflection Lake, just to get a nice picture of the mountains reflected in the water.

We came down out of the mountains into Redding, where it was 103 degrees. Surprise! Only wanted to see the Sundial Bridge, then drove on up the road to Weed. We spent that night at the foot of Mount Shasta, which is a nice-looking mountain but really has no other attractions for people who don't want to hike, or mountain-bike, or go snowmobiling or fishing.

In the morning we drove through the mountains to the coast. When I was planning out the route I found I'd chosen a road that was unpaved, so I changed it ... to a road that's under construction as it skirts along cliffs in the middle of wilderness. It took forever, but was a pretty drive along the North Fork Salmon River. The road, in many places, was only one lane. I'm just grateful that the cement truck we passed came along in one of the wider sections.

Up the coast, we turned off to the parkway through the Redwoods, and went for a hike at the Big Tree turnout. This was a hike I'd taken with my son a few years ago, up past the Big Tree to the Cathedral Trees. I thought it was just a loop trail, but apparently it's not; it goes on and on and comes out about a mile and a half south of where we'd parked. Then we walked up a short trail to the Corkscrew Tree, then drove up the coast to our hotel in Crescent City. After checking in, we went over to watch the sun set on one of the lighthouses just off the shore there.

And then we got up in the morning and came to Oregon. And I'm all caught up, though I know I've left out a whole lot of interesting things that I had meant to write about.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Best of the Worst

It's really hard to love the Italian national team. When they win, they win ugly. When they lose, they lose even uglier. Touch one of the azzurri, and he drops to the pitch and flops around like a squirrel grazed by a motor scooter. Granted, such acting is not a talent restricted to the Italian side -- Brazilians also have a flair for the melodramatic, but at least they combine their thespian skills with a beautiful, flowing form of football. The Italians prefer combining fakery with bar brawling. So it didn't bother me at all when the Italians bombed out of the World Cup. In fact, that was among the high points of the tournament, exceeded only by France's implosion. Brazil's flop came a distant third.

On the Road Again

Back on the road for five days now, a different state every night. We left home Saturday, after depositing Homer at Doggy Camp (because he's just not fat enough) and headed west on ... ugh ... the freeway as far as Fort Stockton; then went north through Carlsbad and Roswell to Albuquerque, where we had a short visit with my old friend Kilby, who recently moved back there from Penn-
sylvania. Next morning, up the road to Colorado (completing, incidentally, New Mexico on my County Count, not that that matters). I decided I'd planned too much driving for Sunday, so instead of going up to Pagosa Springs, we went into Colorado at Durango, then up the San Juan Skyway through Silverton and Ouray (where we had lunch at Billy Goat Gruff's Biergarten, with good local beer and reasonably good German food), then around the mountain to the entrance to the canyon where Telluride lies. We stopped at a place called Keystone Overlook and decided not to go into Telluride, which is just another quaint mountain resort town. Instead, we headed south and spent a good chunk of the afternoon touring Mesa Verde.

The Cliff Palace at Mesa Verde N.P.
The entrance road to Mesa Verde National Park is one of the most dramatic drives I've ever made. You start on the plateau; ahead of you is a mesa jutting out from the higher plateau, maybe 900 or 1000 feet high. The road into the park loops into the canyon east of the promontory, then rises in a series of switchbacks until you're up on the higher plateau. From the top you can see a hundred miles, to the mountains we had been in earlier that day. 

The visitors' center is fifteen miles from the park entrance. (I had no idea just how big these western parks are.) There you can arrange a place on a guided tour of several of the primary cliff-dwellings; we opted for the 5pm tour of the Cliff Palace, the largest collection of ruins in the park (which, I believe, is the largest collection of such ruins in the world). Another five miles took us to the place, where we waited on an overlook for the rest of our tour and our guide.

We, it turned out, were the entire 5pm tour, so we ended up with a private tour by Ranger Jo, a woman in her 70s who humped up and down the steep trail like a mountain goat. She pointed out a stand of wireweed and had us taste it; this was, according to her, the only "salad" the indians had. In the spring, she says, it tastes like celery; this time of year it's similar but bitter.

Ranger Jo has been around Mesa Verde a long time, and knows the history of the park from a personal point of view. That made for an interesting and occasionally idiosyncratic tour, which we enjoyed thoroughly; though I could have done with fewer reports of conversations she's had with "Grandfather," a Pueblo Indian of her acquaintance who is her primary source on points of culture. I don't know the man, but from what she told us, he is pompous about Pueblo culture to the point of arrogance, or maybe just utterly ignorant of the culture of the white people around him. (Thinking about it reminds me of a line I heard from some woman doing stand-up on the Comedy Channel: "Somebody called me a racist. That's awful. That's an awful thing to say. That's worse than calling somebody a Mexican.") Anyway, we had a nice hour-long tour and then were on our own. We drove around the park, stopping here and there to get out and see various ruins in the canyons that cover the park.

Monday morning we stopped briefly at Four Corners, a dusty third-world outpost on the Navajo reservation where four states come together. We took the obligatory photographs of ourselves standing if four states at once, had a nice chat with a couple of the stray dogs, and left. 

The road west was under construction. There were crews doing resurfacing work along 100-yard-long stretches of highway, but they closed miles-long sections down to one lane to accommodate them, requiring additional personnel to drive the pilot cars. These drivers were also, apparently, in charge of passing on gossip to flagmen along the way, as we had several times to wait while our pilot exchanged pleasantries. Judging from the body language, he's an amusing conversationalist.

The road took us to Monument Valley, another Navajo tribal park. This one seemed much more developed on the way in, but the paved entrance and modern visitors' center and hotel proved to be just window dressing. The loop road that takes you down among the many fabulously-shaped buttes is not intended for passenger cars. (They don't tell you that at the gate, though the woman issuing our tickets was nice enough to suggest that we might want to put the top up.) The road is rocks and sand, more suited to a beat-up old Land Cruiser than a passenger car, and while I didn't bottom out, I had to attend so closely to choosing my path along this poorly-made roadway that I couldn't enjoy the scenery at all while we were moving. (I've seen better roads in the Congo.) After we'd gone about a third of the way down this 17-mile road, I decided that, since we'd already seen the major sites -- Elephant Butte, Camel Butte, the Mittens, the Three Sisters and one that looked for all the world like Droopy Dawg -- that I'd had enough, and we turned back. And got stuck in the sand.

In the Visitors' Center there's a panel talking about the creation of the park back in the 1950s, over the objection of some of the tribe. The argument that carried the day, it seems, was that if they put in a park it would keep white folk out of the rest of the Res. Every bump and rut in this pathetic road made it clear: they don't really want people to come visit. So, now that I've seen it, I'll never have to go back to the Navajo reservation. And now that I've seen Arches National Park, I won't much miss it. It ain't nothin' in comparison.

Landscape Arch
Arches National Park is one of those places that has to be seen to be believed. We got to the park around 5pm, and after a stop at Park Avenue, a line of impossibly thin vertical rock slabs like skyscrapers lining a city street, and Balanced Rock, we drove to Devil's Garden, at the farthest end of the park, and hiked out to Landscape Arch. This gossamer rock vault is three hundred feet long, and looks like a stiff breeze would topple it. I had seen it pictured on a magnet in the Visitors' Center, and thought afternoon would be the best time to get pictures of it. We were going to go back to the park early the next morning to get photos of other sites.

Unfortunately, Landscape Arch is situated so that by evening it's pretty much in the shade, as you can see. Morning would have been better. Oh, well. But the next morning we went to the Delicate Arch Viewpoint, a climb of about 200 feet from the parking area. To get to the arch itself would have been twice as high a climb and three times as long a hike, so we decided not to do it. Instead we went to the areas called The Garden of Eden and The Windows, both of which were stunning no matter which way you look.

Leaving Arches yesterday morning, we drove across Utah, along one of the better freeway drives in the country -- Interstate 70 across the unusual landscape of the San Rafael Uplift -- and then onto US 50, into the Great Basin. Four years ago I had gone to the Great Basin National Park Visitors' Center to get a passport stamp, but arrived fifteen minutes after closing. My intention in planning the day's drive had simply been to try again for a stamp -- there didn't seem to be any big attraction at the park, which seems to exist only for people who like to hike and fish and stuff. But on arriving in time to get the all-important passport stamp, I found that there's a drive that goes up to view the glacier on the side of Mount Wheeler, and the ranger said it only took about 45 minutes to get up there. It was early enough in the day, so we made the drive.

I'd never seen a glacier before. Now that I've seen one, I'd kind of like to see a real one. Technically I suppose it is a glacier, this paltry patch of white stuff on the north face of the mountain, but it's hardly the kind of thing we southern boys envision when we hear the word "glacier," which usually occurs in the context of grinding out landscape for huge lakes and mountains. This thing hardly seemed adequate for two pitchers of margaritas. Guess I'll have to go to Alaska sooner than planned.

Last night we stayed in Ely, Nevada, an unimpressive little town an hour from the Great Basin park; today we drove across Nevada on US 50 (which Life Magazine once dubbed "America's Loneliest Road," recommending against driving it "unless you're confident of your skills." I guess it's been improved significantly since then, as it's a pretty good road, even through the many mountain ranges it crosses) and are now holed up for two nights in South Lake Tahoe, California. I'm really, really, really looking forward to a day of rest.