Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Something Really Good

When I was, oh, probably 16 or 17 years old, I was faced with the prospect of a very long bus ride. It occurred to me, in that era before portable music, that I might want something to read on a trip that, I'm pretty sure, must have taken more than a day, with middle-of-the-night stops in places like Tahlequah, Oklahoma; and not having the foresight of my later years, I spent a few hurried minutes browsing through the revolving wire paperback book rack in the Kansas City bus station. From the sparse offerings, I chose something called The Scarlatti Inheritance, by a writer I had never heard of named Robert Ludlum. I chose that book, I suspect, as much because of the bright red cover and the Italian reference, as for any other reason; to that point I had never read anything more adult that Fred Gipson's Savage Sam (a very good book, by the way, for 'tweener boys).

I was enough taken with Ludlum's book that, over the course of perhaps the next two years, I read everything he had written to that point. Then I found, almost by accident, that he wasn't the only person in the world who wrote exciting spy stories; and when I discovered Frederick Forsythe, I learned that Ludlum wasn't even the great writer of the genre. Day of the Jackal and The Dogs of War had so much more texture than any good story from Ludlum that I developed a sort of snobbish disdain for Ludlum's mere works: diverting, perhaps, but nothing like literature.  And then I encountered Tom Clancy -- his early works, before he started taking on all kinds of generally less capable writing partners. (Everyone is less capable than Clancy.)

And then, suddenly, I ran out of exciting international spy stories to read. Oh, a few people wrote some good stuff: Ken Follette was okay sometimes, not so good other times; but his historical sagas are much better entertainment. Some of Clancy's more recent collaborations are entertaining and reasonably well written. But books by Vince Flynn and David Baldacci and Daniel Silva, popular though they may be, are relatively insipid and thin; they are to spy novels what Disco was to music. Every time I hear about a writer of books of this type, I check it out, snob though I am, because I love the ripping yarns. But I'm generally disappointed. Most of the books of this genre seem to have been written on a deadline, by people who can barely write for a newspaper. They are the reason God created public libraries, where you can avoid wasting money on books that utterly fail to live up to the blurbs.

The other day, I picked up a book at the library called Dead Eye, by a writer I'd never heard of called Mark Greaney. (He may be the only published writer without a Wikipedia entry. He is, even more surprisingly, one of those "generally less capable writing partners" of Tom Clancy.) This book has turned out to be a truly exciting, engrossing story, written with great texture and sufficient detail to really satisfy the lust for (presumed) authenticity. (If he could resist the urge -- his own, or more likely his editors' -- to state the obvious in melodromatic one-sentence paragraphs, he'd be close to excellence. In any case, he offends far less often than Flynn, Baldacci or Silva.) The character development is succinct and effective; the plots are convoluted but nicely drawn, no action or turn of plot requires some character to do something out of character, and there is no hoary reliance on deus ex machina. The story is coherent, the dialogue sounds real in your head, and the action is gripping.  Greaney is a new writer of spy thrillers that I can whole-heartedly recommend. I just hope his production can keep up with my appetite.

[His other books, to this point, are The Gray Man, On Target, and Ballistic. I expect to buy and read all of them pretty soon. I'll probably even consider the three books he co-wrote with Tom Clancy.]

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Leicester City 3
Manchester United 3
Man with Whistle 2

"an eccentric performance" by England's top referee.

I'm just glad he wasn't in charge of the Liverpool match.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

End of the End of the Road

There is a reason why they call it "The Grand Canyon":

We arrived at the North Rim on a foggy, drizzly morning, and even in those conditions it was a magnificent spectacle. It was too early to check into the lodge, so we drove up the road to the few viewpoints accessible by car: Imperial Point, Roosevelt Point, Cape Final, Vista Encantada. We stared off into the distance, as the fog rose and fell, toward hoodoos and mesas and great piles of eroded rocks, things with romantic names like Jupiter's Temple and Freya Castle, and we were amazed.

 Eventually the fog lifted, and we were amazed again. Words fail me.
The Colorado River used to run red. Since the dams built across it above the Canyon, it's now a mundane shade of greenish-brown for most of the year.
While we were there, we took a hike along the Widforss Trail, which goes west from the road along the rim of the canyon to join with another trail near an overlook at the top end of Transept Canyon.
This formation is called a "temple."
Transept Canyon
When the fog lifted

To see the rest of the pictures from the Canyon, click here.

Beginning of the End of the Road

What that means
Our last day in the condo in Birch Bay was a quiet one; I went up into the town, such as it is, to have lunch with the Church Lady and the Perfesser (Buttermilk didn't want to go). We picked a place called CJ's Beach House, with a deck overlooking the bay; we chose it just because of that deck, and because, well, there aren't a whole lot of options in the little shoreline community of Birch Bay. As it happened, the place wasn't bad. The food was good with the exception of the shrimp used to top the seafood salad; they were small, cold, limp cocktail shrimp, so if I were to ever go back I'd order something else. But the service was very good and the ambience, featuring the bay across the road (with almost no traffic), was superior.
CJ's Beach House on Urbanspoon

After that, we went back and fetched Buttermilk and forced her to indulge in some ice cream from the C-Store in town, then dragged her up to the little miniature golf place for a round. (I won't mention who won; I've already taken all the bows I'm going to take.)

In the evening, the Perfesser mentioned that he wanted to try something called a "poutine," which we had seen on menus in a number of places. It was described as french fries covered with sausage gravy, and he thought, repulsive as that sounded, that we ought to at least try it. After all, we wouldn't go to Delaware and not try scrapple, would we? We recalled, perhaps incorrectly, that Bob's Burgers & Brew in Ferndale had had it on their menu, so we went to the Bob's location in Birch Bay ... which didn't have it. Not only did they not offer it, the hostess wasn't entirely sure what it was. "Is that that Canadian thing with the gravy? Yeah, we don't have that." Ah, well, so we have at least one thing in Canada to look forward to besides the 2015 Women's World Cup.

What that means
(The Birch Bay location of Bob's Burgers & Brew was nothing special: I opted for a New York steak, which was a mediocre cut served slightly overcooked and, all things considered, slightly overpriced by local standards, and, it naturally follows, grossly offensive to the sense of value honed in south Texas.)
Bob's Burgers & Brew on Urbanspoon

Then it was back to the condo for a last round of margaritas.

Morning comes, and off we go. On the way down to Sea-Tac, we stopped off at Burlington in response to the powerful and ineluctable call of Lafeen's Donuts. This time, it looked like hundreds of people had read and believed my previous post, as the display cases were stripped nearly bare. I could not, therefore, get an exquisitely light French cruller, nor a thick, fruity apple fritter; but had to settle, regrette rien, for a chocolate-dipped old fashioned doughnut and a blueberry fritter. (It's been almost a week and writing this makes me think of contacting them to enquire about a care package.)

Then it was down to the long-term parking where I'd stored my little convertible during the Group Tour. A quick goodbye to Church Lady and the Perfesser (because by now the rental charges on the anemic Rogue were accruing hourly), then throw our stuff in the Roller Skate, and we're off for home, the long way.

The first order of business was lunch, which we had at Las Palmas, a Salvadoran restaurant just down the street from the parking lot, where I had eaten a pretty good breakfast two Sundays before. Salvadoran food is similar in many ways to Mexican food, of course, but with a tropical twist that makes it identifiably different, certainly from the Tex-Mex variety that's so common in my home town, and from the more exotic varieties that are available in many places in south Texas. My own experience with Salvadoran restaurants back home is limited -- I can only think of two that I've been to, though I've been also to Honduran and Costa Rican restaurants, which I think are indistinguishable in any meaningful way from Salvadoran cuisine.

What that means
Our lunch wasn't quite as good as that breakfast, but it wasn't bad. I had a spinach papusa and a papusa revuelta (if memory serves): beans, beef and cheese on a thick, pillowy tortilla. Both were ordinary-good, neither was exceptional in any way. Overall the place was good enough to recommend but not good enough to recommend heartily ... except that it was cheap. And when I compare the prices I've seen around Seattle to the prices I'm used to around San Antonio, I think Las Palmas is an excellent place for lunch.
Las Palmas Restaurant on Urbanspoon
By the time we got to the freeway after lunch, we had discerned that the air-conditioning in the car wasn't working. That's not a big deal, I suppose, in Seattle, even in August, but we had six days in the desert southwest ahead of us. In fact, the drive across eastern Washington was looking like it would be hellish. But first, we decided on a stop at Snoqualmie Falls, it being a beautifully clear day, and much cooler up in the mountains.

After all the build-up to Snoqualmie Falls -- it was on the list of Things To See four years ago, and again two weekends before, and I never managed to get up there -- you would think a curmudgeon like me would have been disappointed. I wasn't. It is a beautiful waterfall, in a nice setting, with a pleasant lodge above it and not really all that many people for a magnificent summer Friday near a big city. In fact, I wish it had been another day, when I didn't have to get back in the car and head on down the road. It would've been real nice to have spent more time there.

We drove, top down, across eastern Washington. Boy, was that a mistake. Generally, my rule is this: if it's not raining, the top will be down if the temperature is more than 70 and less than 94; between 55 and 70, and between 94 and 97, it depends on other factors; but at 55 or less, and 97 or more, the top will be up. But then, I usually have air conditioning. Not this time, so I left the top down even though it got to 103, and nary a cloud in the sky. (Some smoke from the continuing wildfires, but that hardly qualifies as the silver lining in that particular cloud.)  So when we pulled into Baker City, Oregon, we were a little crispy around the edges. (After that, no matter the temperature, if the sun was up, so was the top.)

Baker City is a charming little community in eastern Oregon, once a stop on the Oregon Trail, later
Geiser Grand Hotel
and still a center for local agriculture. In the 1880s, it was prosperous enough to have a landmark hotel, the Geiser Grand, which was renovated about 20 years ago and returned to its former glory. I don't usually stay in such luxury, being too cheap to throw much money at a place to be unconscious; but every now and then I like to splurge, and in all honesty it wasn't really that much -- about what you'd expect to pay in a Hilton Garden Inn (which I'd never stay in, given a choice) or a Marriott. For the price we got an elegant room with a king-sized bed, a 14-foot ceiling and huge bathroom. The kind of hotel where they have embroidered bathrobes hanging there for your use. Not quite the Plaza, but beats the hell out of any Hilton Garden Inn.  Outstanding service, too, except in the bar.

twilight in Baker City
It was just coming sunset when we arrived, and it was First Friday, when this surprisingly arty little town has its monthly gallery walk. There were rumblings of distant thunder and not many people on the streets, but the several galleries in the town's Historical District around our hotel had a number of patrons in them, and enough interesting artworks visible through large windows that I would have been happy to browse among for a few hours -- but it was already pretty late and we were hot and tired and in need of a drink, so we passed on all the galleries and just strolled down to the one tall building in town, around that block to the courthouse, and back to the hotel bar. Then we retired to our room and slept the sleep of the exhausted cattle baron.

compare this to May 2013
We had no specific plans for the next day, except to get to Panguitch, Utah, so as to be within striking distance of the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. That didn't stop us, though, from taking time to see Shoshone Falls, in Twin Falls, Idaho. I had been there a year ago on the Western Circuit (an excellent trip that, I'm surprised to discover, I wrote nothing about; though I posted lots of pictures), and was as impressed as any yokel by the massive amount of water cascading over the cliff. That was in May, though; in August, it's not quite the same experience. Still nice, pretty, unexpected in such a desert, but not awesome.

There aren't a whole lot of towns in Utah south of Salt Lake, but Panguitch, a town I stayed in with a friend a couple of years ago, is a pleasant little town with almost all the motels in Southern Utah (it being 20 miles from Bryce Canyon and close also to Zion National Park, Cedar Breaks, Grand Staircase-Escalante, Capitol Reef, and the North Rim of the Grand Canyon). It also has one good restaurant, the Cowboy's Smoke House. (Don't get the brisket; it was dry two years ago and is still dry, but the sausage is very good and the pulled pork is outstanding. So is the service. The prices are reasonable but they only take cash. They're open, and packed, until 10.)
Cowboy's Smoke House on Urbanspoon

What that means
In the morning, we headed for the Grand Canyon. We had breakfast at the unexpected Bäkerei Forscher in Orderville, Utah. What is a high-quality German bakery doing out in the rural wilds of the Colorado Plateau? Well, obviously, they're doing a successful business, judging from (a) the big, clean, sparkling new building beside the highway and (b) the display cases that looked like everyone in Utah had been there that morning before us. From what was left, Buttermilk had a nice rhubarb streuseltaler, moist with a nice crunchy topping; while I had a vanileshiffen, which had a very good cream filling inside a slightly dry bread shell (which made it perfect for dunking). The prices were not as high as at similar snooty bakeries back home. The counter help, which may or may not have been German, was a little vague in replies to my enquiries about their offerings, so I gave up. (Besides, I didn't really want to know about the pastries, I wanted to eat them.)

Forscher German Bakery on Urbanspoon

(This is getting too long for most people to bother with reading, so I'll break it off here and continue it on another post.)

Thursday, July 31, 2014

A Nice Place to Live, But I Wouldn't Want to Visit There

After a day off from touristic pursuits (to do laundry, shop and watch a soccer match on TV), we took a day trip up to Vancouver, British Columbia. We drove inland to the border crossing north of Lynden, Washington (where there was no delay to get across) and went by the set of the current television show "Bates Motel," which airs on some cable channel. (We had thought it was the set of the movie Psycho when we planned the excursion, not having carefully read the place description on line.) Then we headed into the city.

Let me pause here for a brief product review. Our anemic rented Nissan Rogue comes with a GPS Navigation system proprietary to Hertz Car Rental. I would not have thought it possible that I could be persuaded that the ancient first-gen navigator on my own convertible was anything but the most annoying and tedious piece of vintage technology. Now I know better. Hertz's "NeverLost" machine, like my ancient navigator, seems not to know about many roads built in the last 15 years. My machine has the excuse that its information comes to it on old DVDs; but Hertz's is constantly updated. (We know this because every now and then it would announce that it has been updated.) 

Hertz's NeverLost device is slow to respond to input on its touchscreen. You put in a letter (having to spell everything) and it registers, but you don't know that it registers so you put it in again, and then it responds. Twice. So you have to back up. That usually involves starting over. Sometimes you touch one character and it registers a different one; and you have to back up. Or start over. And even more irritating is that the device will not allow you to orient the map with north at the top (unless you zoom out so far as to make the map pointless); it insists on having the direction of travel at the top, so the map is always rotating and you can't tell at a glance if you're going the way you want (and many times, you aren't). Most irritating of all is that the machine won't simply show you a map of where you are; it will only show programmed routes. Given the slowness of the machine, and its failure to deal well with missed turns and changed plans, it is all but useless in tight city driving; of which there is plenty in a place like Vancouver. 

(I also get irked at the crass commerciality of the system. It takes a long time to come on every time you start the car, at least in part so that it can give you options of finding "Popular Chains" -- outlets for companies that have paid Hertz for advertising; and its "Explore" option lists only the few half-assed tourist destinations that, similarly, have paid for the privilege of being represented. If Hertz had its customers' interests anywhere in the forward part of its collective corporate mind, it would at least show the destinations clients might actually want to explore ... like Stanley Park or the Queen Elizabeth Gardens. But there's no direct money in customer satifaction, is there?)

Vancouver skyline
After a long (and unnecessary) wander through city streets (thanks to the NeverLost Navigator's inexplicable routings), we finally gave up on technology and just went to the freeway into Vancouver. Our first stop was Queen Elizabeth Gardens, which occupy the highest point in Vancouver and have both beautiful landscaping and excellent views over the city. We spent the better part of an hour up there, then drove into the heart of the city. (Using printed maps for navigation, we got where we wanted to go with only the normal traffic troubles.) By this time we all wanted lunch, so we parked on a sidestreet near a corner where we were offered the choices of Greek, Thai, Vietnamese and Irish-Pub cuisines. We did not choose wisely. The first three were all storefronts, mom-and-pop places; the Irish Pub, Cieli's, was large and a little upscale, just to the point of being flashy. We chose the Irish Pub, part (it turns out) of a chain of such places.

The bartender greeted us cheerfully, and then was never seen again. It being another gorgeous day, we wanted to sit outside, but they only had two-tops there, so we pulled up to a high table just inside the wide open doors. Naturally there were televisions all over the place, so we couldn't entirely avoid watching; but at least they were showing British sports, such as you might have to see in an Irish prison: darts on one screen, golf on the other. (Darts, it seems, is as abstruse as cricket. Scores seem to go up and down at random, and we couldn't tell just by watching whether a throw was good, or otherwise.) Our waitress brought menus and drinks quickly. So far, so good.

The menu includes such overpriced traditional Irish fare as sliders, flatbreads and nachos. These are the things we ordered. (As Hispanics have moved farther and farther north, I have more or less rescinded my rule against eating Mexican food north of Round Rock, but then, this wasn't really Mexican food. Let's call it cucina-inspired.) Church Lady and the Perfesser both went for the pulled-pork sliders. They report that the little burgers had good flavour but not a particularly good texture, neither moist nor dry, just vaguely unsatisfying: too little meat, too little slaw, too much bread.  "Disappointing" was the word used twice.

Buttermilk's flatbread was better. It had a topping of pulled pork with pineapple salsa and jalapeños on a crispy layer of bread. The topping was adequate in quantity, though more meat would have been unobjectionable, and the crust maintained its integrity throughout the meal.

My nachos were interesting. They were made from a number of small tortillas, cut in half and fried, then stacked in a jumble on a plate. Toppings of meat (pulled pork again), corn, onions, peppers and jalapeños were scattered across it, then dosed with a drizzle of sour cream. The menu referred to "lots of cheese" on the dish. There was, arguably, the promised amount of cheese, but it was mostly in one part of the plate, as though the arm doing the scattering of ingredients had tired towards the end and just abandoned the effort. Because of the interlacing of the nacho chips, the dish was a little hard to eat, but that produced the rare yet desireable result of allowing me to finish lunch after the Perfesser, who is reknowned for his deliberate approach to meals.

What does that mean?
We almost didn't learn any of this about the food at Cielli's, because the service was so very bad. (I was reminded of a rude comment of a friend, years ago in Mexico, who told a waiter that we had received lo mas pinche servicio. It would have applied here, but we were all too polite to express ourselves except through the gratuity. We did not get our food before we had reached the point of calculating how much we should leave for the drinks if we walked out. It was easily a half hour between ordering and serving, during which time we learned nothing about darts scoring either. It would have helped our mood, to say nothing of the tip, if our waitress had come by to check on us during that long wait, or to let us know there would be a delay. Instead, she studiously avoided so much as looking in our direction; she devoted herself to the farther sides of the room, the exterior tables, and the areas behind the kitchen door. She was not a good waitress.
Ceili's Modern Irish Pub on Urbanspoon

pretty building, not much inside
After lunch came another disappointment: we went to the MacMillan Space Center. At ten bucks a head (the senior rate) for the admission, plus $5.75 a head for the planetarium show, we were expecting significantly more. But then, we're all grown-ups, and this place is clearly aimed at ten-year-olds with a reasonable vocabulary; a fact we think should have been mentioned in the descriptions on line and in our guidebooks. The exhibit halls, which are not extensive, contain some photographs and video recordings relating to space flight, along with a number of hands-on exhibits that have suffered much from having too many hands on. 

The planetarium show was just okay. The people behind it seem to be too enthralled with their new equipment to consider in any depth what people, especially grown people such as their audience, might like to see; and the gradeschool questions thrown out for the audience ("What do you know about Mars?") were tired and uninteresting, as well as being largely ignored by the sparse crowd. (I finally started responding just to get the show moving.) 

We went from there out to Stanley Park. Let me tell you, Vancouver is not a city with a happy relationship with cars. At 3:00 on a weekday, you expect a certain amount of traffic in the center of any large city, but Vancouver has given itself over entirely to pedestrians and bicycles, to the point where lines of cars waiting to turn right -- right, mind you -- stretch back for blocks, because only one car can get through the throng of the crosswalks on each signal's cycle. They seem also to randomly select streets to serve as pedestrian malls. In the end it took us about 45 minutes to go the 4 1/2 kilometers (2 1/2 miles) from the space place to Stanley Park. 

Stanley Park is huge, and popular with locals. For tourists, it's not so great. It's so big that you can't walk from one part to another without repeatedly paying the typical exorbitant parking rates. It's so poorly marked that we didn't find the many sites we had wanted to see there, settling in the end for the wildlife of the Lost Lagoon (which we found right off; I guess it's only lost because nobody's looking for it, and I understand why), consisting of lots of racoons and ducks, a few other birds, a squirrel and -- surprisingly -- a coyote; all of whom seemed to want to be fed (except, thankfully, the coyote, which was happy to just chew on himself); and the waterfront view of the Lions Gate Bridge, mainly of interest for the forest of kelp floating along the shore. On our way out of the park, we passed Sunset Beach, which we had intended to visit later on because our guidebook called it "a less populated beach." That must mean it is less crowded than Times Square on New Year's Eve, because it was packed four hours before sunset. We quietly dropped that plan and headed on to Canada Place, which was mildly interesting and slightly informative with its postings on Canadian history; and we drove by the Gastown Steam Clock --- it was too congested to stop, but we got a good long look and a decent picture out the car window while waiting for crosstraffic; we had a stop sign, they didn't.

From there we headed up to Lynn Canyon, a public park on the far side of the Burrard Inlet, in North Vancouver. We spent a happy couple of hours traipsing up and down the trails and across the suspension bridge rigged over the creek.

By then it was time for dinner. I had located -- on Roadtrippers.com, a trip-planning website that I heartily recommend -- a strip of local shops, clubs and restaurants on Commercial Drive, and we headed down there, parked, and explored the area on foot. It is, as described, a collection of funky bars and clubs, many with live music; ethnic restaurants; and shops featuring all manner of oddities. As the neighbourhood evolved from Italian to ethno-mix, big chains have made some unwelcome inroads; there's a Starbucks and a Tim Horton's, and more necessary installations like banks and pharmacies. But it still maintains a unique localist vibe that we enjoyed experiencing, even so briefly. We chose an Italian restaurant called Arriva, which had a sort of faded-glory feel overall. The service was on the Little-Italy-New-Yawk model: cadre-style, professional and just a little sassy. It was good for the most part, but one of the three servers seemed to have acquired the knack of appearing to give good service while not actually doing anything. When we asked for another basket of bread his response was, "Absolutely, but it'll be just a moment." It never came, until we asked another server for the same thing. (His response was, "Absolutely. Immediately." And he brought it.) The food came quickly enough to please us (especially after the godawful service we'd had at lunch; see above) and we tucked into spinach tortellini, sole florentine, and ravioli. 

What does that mean?
I didn't try the ravioli, so I can only say that it reportedly was very good. I did try the tortellini alla panna and can confirm that it was excellently made, robust and excellently seasoned with a rich cream sauce. I had the sole florentine, one of the day's specials: a filet of sole cooked in white wine until just the slightest crispiness began to form along the edge, then topped with spinach wilted with sautéed garlic in a white wine reduction. It was nicely presented with roasted potato quarters and crunchy-crisp sautéed vegetables. A glass of house white wine was an excellent accompaniment. Really, the only thing about the food that was the least bit below standard was that bread, a reasonably fresh focaccia with a lightly oiled texture on top but just the slightest dryness overall. Hardly worth mentioning, but I can't resist grousing about something. Not entirely.
Arriva Ristorante Italiano on Urbanspoon

What's that mean?
We followed this up with a stop for gelati at Caffe Calabria, which calls itself the oldest Italian cafe in Vancouver. Who knows? Who cares. What I know is it has a tremendous display of Italian deli items, gelati, and baked goods. Oh, the baked goods! How hard was it to resist those! But I did, and settled for a double-scoop of the gelato tornado, which the counter clerk thought of as being like cotton candy. Other than being very sweet, it was nothing like cotton candy. It was indescribable. It was fabulous. It was rich, and luscious; it was the Jennifer Lawrence of gelato. (The Tiger Tiger, an orange and licorice flavour, was also very good, and that from someone who doesn't like licorice.) The gelati at Caffe Calabria have the additional distinction of being just about the only thing we found in all of Vancouver that we didn't consider overpriced.
Caffe Calabria on Urbanspoon

In the end, our day in Vancouver was nice, putting aside the delay getting back across the border at Blaine. But the high prices, the heavy traffic congestion, the difficulty in getting around in the central part of town make me confident that I'm unlikely to ever return. The border-crossing issues all but ensures that.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Two Days

There is a yarn store half a mile up the road from where we're staying in Birch Bay. This became important and required a visit of some protraction on Sunday morning, as soon as it opened. The Perfessor took the opportunity to acquire a novel from a local writer who was sitting under an awning at the Birch Bay Public Market nearby; the novel turns out to be a good story badly told, but he's going to read it if it kills him.

Following that utter waste of valuable time, we drove down to Ferndale, a small town between Birch Bay and Bellingham, where there is a bowling alley. (Not for nothing are we the Once-a-Year Bowling League.) But before we embarrassed ourselves on the lanes, we checked out Pioneer Park, a collection of 19th Century log buildings from around the area brought together as a sort of tribute to local history. And indeed our visit turned out to coincide with the biggest event Ferndale has to offer, Old Settlers' Weekend. The park was crowded with visitors ... well, okay, not crowded, but decently attended. The usual vendors were out in force, offering trinkets and craftwork and the sorts of odd products one normally will see only on late-night cable TV; also there were those who would persuade others of the rightness, if not righteousness, of their cause. Republicans were registering voters and some pipeline promoter was there to prove how valuable its own particular version of environmental disturbance was. And, of course, there were the food vendors, and in addition to the usual carnival-grounds choices, there was a booth set up by a group of young Ukrainian and Russian immigrants and descendants to sell foods from those lands. I tried the dumplings (I forget the Russian name; variniki, perhaps), which contained potatoes and onions wrapped inside (they called the wrapper a tortilla, but it clearly wasn't; I guess that's proof that the word "tortilla" is now fully English) and crumbled bacon and sour cream on top. Dee-licious!

I spent half an hour on a front porch talking to an interesting Marine veteran from Massachusetts who gives the impression of being somewhat addled, though that could be the effect of long years spent in Alaska.  After that, we had lunch at Bob's Burgers & Brew, the local outlet of a regional chain. Way too much food, good service. It was also right by the bowling alley, where we all did so abysmally that I shan't report the results in detail here. Suffice it to say, we all need practice.

We went from there to Honaker Homestead Park, which features two attractions: a fragrance garden and a farmstead. The fragrance garden is a small plot of ground planted with aromatic herbs and flowering plants. It includes Tennant Lake and has a 40' tower for wildlife viewing. I didn't see any wildlife, but got nice pictures of Mount Baker.
The fragrance garden

The farmstead is the legacy of the Honaker family, of Swedish origin. The patriarch was an accomplished architect back in the Old Country, but apparently not happy. He upped-sticks and moved to New Zealand, then to California, before landing in this remote corner of Washington around the turn of the 20th Century. Having designed his own farm buildings, they are somewhat nicer than your run-of-the-mill farmhouse and barn. The barn (and a sort of farmyard petting zoo) were open, but they didn't have enough volunteers on hand to open the house.
The Honaker barn. It's full of old farm
equipment, but a little short on
Following all that excitement, we retired to our condo for crispy beef with noodles and broccoli and, of course, margaritas. Everything's better with margaritas.

Monday was our day to explore the North Cascades. First stop was for Second Breakfast at Lafeen's
Where doughnuts come from
Donut and Ice Cream shop, where we had perhaps the best doughnuts In The Entire World. Thus fortified, we embarked on our trek. Our plan was to visit Raser State Park, for eagle viewing, then stop at a number of sites in and around the complex of recreation areas and parklands that make up North Cascades National Park. But en route, we decided to go in reverse, and so drove all the way out to Washington Pass, some 150 miles east, and make our way back along the Cascade Highway. It was a good choice.

Washington Pass offers excellent views of some stunning mountain scenery, with the added attraction of birds. Loud birds. Bold birds. One sat on a tree branch not six feet in front of the Church Lady long enough for her to get a really clear photograph. While she stared at it, another bird flew down and hovered behind her. A shame we didn't get a picture of that.

Our next stop was at an overlook from which you can see in the distance the mountain where Jack Kerouac and his friends served as fire-watchers in the 1940s. Then it was on to Diablo Lake, one of a series of reservoirs formed when Seattle City Power dammed the Skagit River (pronounced Ska'jit) in the 1930s. The lakes are fed by glacial melt and maintain a startling turquoise colour, a fact I remembered clearly from my one previous trip down this highway four years ago. 

Gorge Creek Falls

Ladder Creek Falls
Just below Diablo Lake is Gorge Lake, and the stream that flows out from there, Gorge Creek, drops in a falls right next to the highway. A similar falls come down a few miles farther on, behind the Gorge Lake Power Plant, at Ladder Creek. Both of these falls are gorgeous.

By this time it was growing dark, so after a brief stop to see an elk herd grazing in the near distance, and a quick swing through Rasar State Park to determine that it wasn't really worth a stop, we headed home (with a stop for a relaxed dinner at The Farmhouse in Mount Vernon, a sort of less-rustic Cracker Barrel). Just another enjoyable day.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Busy, Busy

On Friday, we crossed on the ferry from Swartz Bay, north of Victoria, to Tsawwassen, south of Vancouver, and drove down to our condo in Birch Bay, Washington -- enduring a long wait because of the ludicrous and specious security procedures at the border; procedures which Canada has apparently copied in retaliation, judging from the line waiting on the northbound lanes.

The condo is a nondescript little complex on the one road in the area; tiny seaside cabins across the street in front, a creek behind. Nice enough inside, and with all the necessary accoutrements: utensils, cooking gear, fireplace & television. We spent some time settling in, then headed up to the grocery store -- and, more importantly, the liquor store -- to stock up. We cooked (skillet chicken & rice) & ate in after a pitcher of margaritas had worked their mellowing magic. It was not a tragedy.

This one I actually liked
"Endangered Species"
a quicksand hot tub?
Yesterday (Saturday) we started exploring the area in earnest. First was a small sculpture garden at Big Rock Park in Bellingham, a large town about 15 miles south of here. The park features about 30 works of art placed along gravel pathways among the trees: a gorgeous setting for what I could describe as the usual assortment of mediocre post-modern sculpture with a couple of more interesting pieces accidentally included.
"Ooh! What's that smell?"

Next stop was Whatcom Falls Park, where the US Government, following a previous Republican-inspired economic meltdown, built some charming improvents around a stream with a couple of waterfalls, for the employment of that generation and the enjoyment of subsequent ones.

What that means
Still in Bellingham, we drove down to the city center and walked along pleasant streets, having lunch at the Mount Bakery, a trendy (but not too trendy) small eatery featuring quiches, crepes and baked goods. I had "crepos rancheros," an excellent crepe filled with poached eggs, onions, peppers, tomatoes and a mild salsa, with a side of black bean and poblano soup. I followed it up with a nice marionberry scone (because they were out of peanut butter pie, which I really wanted). It seemed just a little overpriced, which, in this area, is probably normal.
Mount Bakery Cafe on Urbanspoon

After lunch, we walked across the street to the Spark Museum of Electrical Invention, a place filled with odd and rare old devices from the dawn of electricity: Tesla coils and old telephones, radios, televisions, galvanometers, and all the things used to bring mankind to the understanding we now have (some of us, anyway) of electricity and its applications. Best part of the visit was the show they put on once a day, where a man dressed as a mad scientist demonstrates (without really explaining) static electricity and the operation of a Tesla coil. He does some interesting tricks, lighting fluorescent bulbs without connecting them to anything, and putting a volunteer in a giant metal cage and running two million volts at it. Fun for kids, as much fun for grown-ups.

We took a short walk around the city center before heading back to the car and up to Big Four Mountain, east of Granite Falls. There used to be a big resort hotel there, but it burned down in the 1940s, and now it's just a part of the Mount Baker-Snohomish National Forest. So of course the entire area was beautiful, and it would have been perfect in a convertible. We found the trailhead and hiked up toward the mountain.

The mountain is called Big Four because there's a place near the top where, when most of the winter snows have melted away in the spring, snow in the shape of a numeral 4 is left in a low area for a good long while. That, though, isn't the attraction that brought us to the mountain. We were there to see the ice caves that form at the bottom of the mountain. Snow falls from the upper parts of the slopes down near-vertical cliffs that range from two to four thousand feet. It forms a large pack at the bottom, and then snowmelt running down the mountain runs in at the top and out at the bottom, forming large caverns entirely of ice. Of course, with those cliffs and that snow there's a strong likelihood of avalanches, and even now, in mid-summer, the resulting caves could collapse at any time. Somebody dies in there every ten to fifteen years, but that didn't stop a lot of people from running around in the caves with their children. It stopped us from leaving the trail, which is on slightly higher ground 100 yards or so away.... Most of us, anyway; I told myself I didn't come all that way to stand that far back and look, so I climbed down onto the talus deck and approached nearer to the caves, mentally calculating how far a total collapse of the ice would move out away from the mountain wall. (Not all that far, because there's not all that much snow and ice left at this time of year.) I stood in front of the largest cave to get a picture and to feel the alternating hot and cold breezes as winds came first off the mountainside to my right, and then out of the cave in front of me.
Big Four Ice Cave
click here to see all the pics
from the Condo Week

What does all that mean?
And that was the first day of Condo Week. On the way back we stopped for dinner (not at Subway: Buttermilk and Church Lady wanted something "more interesting") at Conway Pub & Eatery, in Conway, Washington. It was about 9pm when we arrived and the place was a-jumpin'. It was karaoke night, and everybody was singing along. Loud? You betcha. Crowded? You betcha. Fun? You betcha. All the locals getting drunk -- why, oh why could I not find places like this when I was young and single and willing to sleep with anything that seemed likely to move? But the beer was cold and the food was good. The burgers were gigantic, the kind you cannot get your mouth around but can only nibble along the edges; the fries were perfectly twice-fried and plentiful, and the service was cheerful and efficient. Prices seemed high to my South Texas sensibilities, but not too high, so I guess they're perfectly in line with what locals would expect; about $10 for a burger & fries, if memory serves. (Sometimes it does.)  All in all, a super-fun place to eat and drink on a Saturday night, and the kind of place where, I bet, if you show up twice you're as good as a local.
Conway Pub and Eatery on Urbanspoon