Tag Archives: travel

An abnormally long absence

I do not normally go this long without posting.

Here’s what happened: I was preparing for international travel. It is clear to most people that if you are about to leave your home for a couple of weeks, what you don’t do is announce it to the entire world. That invites criminals to come visit you.

Deb and I were in Ireland. I did not post from there for a number of reasons:

  • There was no Internet at our first week’s stay.
  • The Internet at our second week’s stay was glutinous.
  • About halfway through, Deb grew very sick, and I had other things on my mind. As she began to improve, naturally, I got sick.

Having to spend fourteen hours in aircraft seats, plus seven hours sitting around airports, doesn’t do much for a sick person–especially one who has not had access to familiar remedies. When I got home, I was ill enough I could not sleep reclining, and every cough created a ripping feeling all the way up my trachea. A couple of times I even coughed up tissue. In short, I have not really had a very good time since returning.

I do have some material I composed in Ireland (when your wife wants only to lay around and suffer and be helped by you, you have a lot of leisure time), and will sort it out and publish it as I regain strength. For now, that strength is limited but improving daily. I also have some client work that is due soon, and I trust the reader to appreciate that such has first claim upon my finite energy supplies.

Thank you for your understanding. I have not forgotten my regular readers, and I am grateful for each of you.

Narrow gauge, open mind, numb nuts

There haven’t been any posts for a couple of weeks because Deb and I went on vacation. We drove to Colorado via Utah, then back to Oregon via Wyoming and the Teton Valley (Idaho). Part of it was to celebrate our anniversary, part just that we needed a getaway and one can rely upon Colorado for natural beauty.

One thing we did, which I had never done, was take the narrow gauge train from Durango (Colorado) to Silverton and back. One would never do this for practical means: it costs about $90/each round trip in economy, and it’s three and a half hours to go about 45 miles each way. But for those of you who have heard of this excursion, and wondered what it was like, I can now tell you.

We could have paid double for what presumably would have been a more comfortable ride. Our rather spartan coach car had padded seats, but they weren’t very pleasant for three hours of sitting. In fact, to my alarm, I lost all sensation down below. It took a couple of days for it to return, which is not something I had envisioned. If you are riding in coach, my advice is to bring some pads.

The train pokes along at about the speed a cyclist might ride, so there is lots of time for photography. If your seats are on one side headed for Silverton, they will be on the other during the return to Durango, so you will get both sides’ views. You will also be treated to a few steam expulsions, because the coal-fueled train has to stop and blow off steam to both sides. I hope there are never any animals over there to get scalded. The train also stops at a zipline adventure place and a couple of other locations, in addition to three watering stops from pipes rigged up to stream-fed catchbasins. While its public presentation is as a pure tourist line, the train serves communities along its length for some freight and milk-run passenger service.

The coal smell isn’t as strong as I expected. I wouldn’t want it all the time, but for a finite period I found it immersive. A brakeman gave us instructions (mainly, don’t stand on the platforms between rail cars) and warnings about cinders. The combustion kicks off small cinders that tend to get into riders’ eyes. He assured us he carried eyewash materials. I got a couple cinders, but nothing serious. They weren’t hot.

By late September, Silverton (never a thrill a minute at the best of times) isn’t a very big attraction. It’s mostly tourist traps and dirt roads (no pavement), and there’s nothing there you couldn’t get just as easily in Durango, plus half the shops are closed up for the season. The purpose of this trip is not to obtain two hours in Silverton; the purpose is to ride an old school train through the mountains. We had a nice time, except for the wasp moment. As our car sat in Silverton half-boarded, with all the windows open, a wasp entered the car and buzzed Deb. She is not allergic, but is highly apiphobic. As the wasp headed for the car’s rear, she ran for its front, commanding me to slay the creature. I am not apiphobic, but I hate being the center of a bunch of strangers’ attention. Didn’t matter; what mattered was my wife expected me do courageous battle against the marauding insect. I radiated resignation and ennui as I heaved my numbed regions out of the seat and followed the wasp to the back of the train; one swat with my Thor Gasket cap and it was on the floor, one smoosh of a sneaker and it was no longer among the living.

Upon my return Deb questioned whether I had truly slain the beast. She finally accepted my insistence that I had observed its smashed body. In hindsight, I should have offered to go get the corpus delicti and show it to her, as that would have made her cease to question me.

Overall impression: it’s a beautiful if very lengthy and uncomfortable ride, and in late September the aspen are in full fall color mode. Just remember that it’s a seven-hour round trip sitting on a train, and be sure that you want to spend seven hours on a train. And that you brought cushions to sit on.

Deb got hundreds of great photos, and we both appreciated the novelty of the trip (me especially when sensation returned to all suitable parts of my body). On top of it, when we got back to Durango, we had a great dinner at the Strater Hotel in spite of the fact that some nincompoop had just ruptured the gas main to the entire Durango area. How could this be?

How it could be was that we knew the Strater from our anniversary dinner the night before. It had been phenomenal, as near to dining perfection as one is ever likely to experience, but we wouldn’t normally go back to the same place the next night. We did not have much choice. When the gas is out, most of the restaurants have no real choice but to close down. Not the Strater, which is made of sterner stuff. They reviewed their menu, came up with an abbreviated version, set up a grill behind the establishment, and the show went on. And it was just as good as the night before. If you’re ever in Durango, and you don’t hit the Strater at least once, you should have stayed in Ouray (pronounced your-EH). I admired the way the restaurant combined business opportunism (thinking of a way to be open for a whole townful of tourists with dinner money to spend and very few places to spend it) and a high standard of food and service. And no, they didn’t raise the prices of those menu items. The Strater would be a success in downtown Portland. In Durango, I doubt it has an equal.

Recent read: Irreverent Insider Guide: Portland, Oregon, by Steven McCall

Until Fred Armisen moved to the Pearl District and made a show about the place, the national consciousness didn’t much register Portland, and by extension Oregon. Maybe as Seattle/Washington’s younger sister, the one without a football or baseball team. If the nation heard about Oregon, it was in context of legalizing something that would be allowed in Alabama only under the fixed bayonets of an army of occupation, and even then, they’d fight a guerrilla war against it.

Well, for better or worse, now they know. Or so they might think.

They could always buy a travel guide, of course. But one should know that some big-name travel guides are assembled to target the itches visitors seek to scratch, often by ‘lancers who don’t know the place that well. Travel guides must also cover a very broad spectrum, requiring some fishing around to find what you want.

You aren’t going to read a 400-page book for a weeklong visit to Portland, are you? Well, you might. But what if a 48-pager could cover the most important parts from a native’s level of knowledge? You might get the 400-pager, but you’ll read the 48-pager.

I know Steve McCall, which is why I can vouch for this book. Steve lived half a century in Portland. His travel writing at Epinions was some of the funniest stuff there. He’s a wine connoisseur who will enjoy your rednecky cheese bread. He knows what’s overrated, what’s pretentious, and what’s excellent. The only reason he’s not a professional tour guide in Portland is because he has other priorities at the moment, but there would be none better. It only takes him forty-eight pages to address the hipster/granola/lumberjack/pothead/etc. stereotypes, tell you where it’s worth your money to eat, suggest places worth exploring, and double your fun in his hometown. For less than the price of a decent coffee in Portland, in less than one hour, and with wit.

There is something so very Portland about that.

In everything I do, I try like hell to find a high density of information. I follow the home inspector around the property, taking notes. If I can’t find out CenturyLink’s catchment area in Portland, I finally cheat and call a guy in marketing whose number I’m not supposed to have or call, briefly explain that I cheated, ask my question, thank him, and get out of his hair. I like Rick Steves because his travel guides really get to the point. They say more in a para than some guides say in a page.

The same is true of Irreverent Insider Guide: Portland, Oregon, only more so.

Kennewick to Manhattan

With an early start Friday, Deb and I set forth in her car (because it gets better mileage, has AC, and mainly because she stamped a huge Wife Veto on my bill proposing we take my truck), destination Strong City, Kansas. I have family around Strong and Emporia, and in the Wichita area, so any such trip is a good excuse to see everyone who can put up with us. We also have plans to meet some people in person I’ve only known online, and to duck down Zona way to see our niece and nephew. Plus, we love road trips.

Deb is the better, safer driver and does most of the driving. I’m the better navigator and do most of the navigating, fetching of stuff from the back, and anything else that can make her more comfortable (includes relief driving on request). The night before we left, we had a general moment of panic about Deb’s missing phone, which turned up at the Italian restaurant we’d eaten at earlier that day. Large props to our nephew and niece for running down there at 9 PM to get it for us while we were packing and trying to remember everything. I had an interesting conversation with Sprint before that, confirming my low opinion of the company. It occurred to me: if the FBI showed up with a warrant and said, “Locate this person’s phone, right now,” Sprint would do it. Thus, they can do it. I asked them to do it. They wouldn’t, basically proving one of my basic points, which is that major corporations care far more about helping government with surveillance than about making life better for a paying customer. Welcome to the world where you’re just a measly bill-paying peon, and the surveillance apparatus rules.

Off early Friday, therefore, destination Bozeman, Montana. We’re doing this as much on the cheap as Deb’s medical issues and comfort will allow, which means a car loaded with Costco-bought junk food and a cooler full of beverages, cooled by two 1 gallon milk jugs of water Deb froze before we left. I was pretty skeptical they would last a day, but no harm letting her try. A drive across the Idaho panhandle, where we learned that the favorite Idaho hobby (besides buying guns and ammunition, and grousing about the government) is changing the speed limit for no evident reason. 75, 45, 60, 55, 75, 65, 50…the list would read like a recording of my pre-calculus test scores. Last time we did Montana, we got a piece of bone through a tire sidewall, so we hoped to avoid that. Missoula looks like a great town–one can see why people want to live there, especially when one adds in the university. While we’d have liked to push past Bozeman that first day, the problem there is that the next significant town (except for Livingston) is Billings, a stretch to consider and decline if one can for a single day’s drive. If you ever want to see something you just know is leaching some kind of toxins into the water, drive past Butte sometime and ogle the shut-down open-pit copper mine just behind the town.

A real early start Saturday, and a bit of a painful one as I would normally prioritize college football on a September Saturday, but not as painful as it might have been with UW scheduled to be destroyed in Baton Rouge by LSU, which of course would preface and follow up the pounding with the braggartry and self-satisfaction that makes the rest of the nation hate most of the SEC. At least I would have a valid excuse not to watch that and get my blood pressure worked up. The plan was to head to the Little Bighorn battlefield site, then south to the Black Hills. I’d never been to the Little Bighorn, which is on Crow land. First surprise: it is as much a national cemetery as a battlefield park. Second surprise: so many men, most of whom would no doubt grumpily insist on their hearty patriotism, who do not remove their headgear as they walk among the graves of dead soldiers. Not kids, either; men of middle age and older, most of whom I’d bet would scowl in anger if someone didn’t take his hat off for a song and a flag. I guess someone who thinks actual people are more significant than ceremonial gestures are just out of step with the times. Third surprise: a lot of those interred at Little Bighorn are civilians, so it’s not just a military cemetery. A number of former Indian scouts are buried there.

It has a nice little museum, including some rather precious relics of Custer donated by his widow Libbie, examples of Indian dress and weaponry (it may surprise you that the Lakota and Cheyenne rather outgunned the 7th Cavalry with not just more weapons, but better), and of course a quality interpretation of the campaign and its climactic battle. Last Stand Hill is a very short walk away from the visitors’ center. Interesting: sites where Indian warriors fell are marked with stones similar to US military gravestones, but in a really pretty dark brown stone and with a tribal emblem instead of the customary cross/star of David/crescent/etc. Very classy-looking, and we may presume the Indians approve, since I’m pretty sure they got a major say in the concept and design. Looking around Last Stand Hill, I agreed with what my father-in-law (a retired Ranger and senior NCO) had told me about the position: “You wouldn’t never defend that if you had any other option, it’s just a little hill. No wonder they got wiped out.” Of course, the Lakota had the 7th where it wanted them: divided and in deep trouble. The overall presentation felt balanced and considerate to both sides, though as I learned from Vine DeLoria while reading during the drive, that may be just how it looks through my cultural filter. All I can say is that I hope the Indians feel the modern presentation is an improvement over the past, seeing it through their own cultural filters.

We now had a good long drive toward Rapid City via Gillette, Sheridan and Newcastle (Wyoming). We had a special mission there. As I told some time ago in this post, something special happened the last time we were there. We received a beautiful and moving gift, and wanted to say hello again, plus give something precious to us. The way we do that is wander around until Deb feels like ‘this’ is the spot, stop and do our thing. Both of us felt a great calm while we motored around, which we did until she felt what she feels in such cases. We had brought a very nice thick crystal of which we were fond, plus one of the very nicest granite heart-shaped rocks from our long accumulation. These we left in a quiet spot, and as we did, something like it happened again. Ten feet away, Deb spied two radiant white quartzes, the size of golf balls. While we had seen another beautiful stone, she felt sure we should take the quartzes and leave the other, so we did with thanks and a warm feeling. I do not want, plan to try and be, or imagine myself an Indian; I’m a visitor in that place, one that does not belong to me. But some places feel very good to be a visitor, at least to some people, and that includes us at the Black Hills. Our main desire was to say howdy and share, and Paha Sapa accepted. The place was full of bees, yet my apiphobic bride was barely disturbed–this would be like an acrophobe walking up to the edge of a steep canyon and gazing in without hesitation.

Most of the development in the area, especially the theme parks and naming a town for Custer, made me want to throw up. With all the mountains in the West into which to carve presidents’ heads, why choose these? One strongly suspects that it was a deliberate in-yo-face to the rightful owners who had the temerity to refuse to sell the hills, and to resent gold-seekers rushing in to exploit its wealth. I don’t like Mt. Rushmore, and I don’t like the rest of the associated crap, and I guess if people find that bewildering, they’ll just have to find it bewildering.

Would that Rapid City had felt as serene as the Black Hills. Most of what we met there–lodgings, food, etc.–was mediocre and somewhat laced with apathy. I get the impression that since Rapid City is guaranteed a heavy flow of tourist money thanks to Mt. Rushmore, it doesn’t really care because it doesn’t really have to. In a perfect world, there’d have been someplace further down the interstate where we could reliably hope to stay, but after Rapid City there’s not much for many miles. We just declined to let it spoil our generally happy time, but we also knew that the next driving day would be a marathon if we wanted to reach Strong City at all, much less before nightfall.

That didn’t happen. Getting between I-90 and I-80 (we took the route that gets you there at North Platte) is a long and empty haul almost no matter where you do it short of the Iowa border. Deb loves Nebraska, mainly because she had a great experience there as a young woman. I like it myself, a friendly and polite place overall (except for terrible tailgating on I-90, and I must say, the Nebraska tags were the most notorious). I can think of a lot worse places to spend nine hours driving, that’s for sure. One highlight of the transit was stopping in Kearney for Runza. Not many people outside Nebraska seem to know what this is. Brought to the region by Volga German immigrants, a runza is a sort of ground, cheese and cabbage pastry. Don’t even begin to compare one to Hot Pockets except via superficial resemblance. The Runza fast food chain sells these plus more conventional stuff, but I can’t imagine why anyone would go there for a hamburger when one could have a runza. Deb remembered them, I had heard of them, and we were definitely going to chow down. A must-try for any non-vegetarian visiting Nebraska.

I took over driving (finally) at Lincoln, where we headed for Kansas. Managed not to start crying when we crossed the state line. Came close to it later, for the opposite reason. Various delays, mostly construction-related, had cost us a lot of time. Despite waking at 5 AM and getting on the road well before 7 AM, our chances of making it by dark dwindled with each mile and construction zone. Called ahead with time estimates, which proved unrealistic. Neither Deb nor I are spring chickens, and neither of us feels great about our night vision. She had returned to the wheel in northern Kansas, about which I was dubious but I don’t contest that without some compelling reason. When we got turned around in Manhattan and seemed to miss the turnoff in the full darkness, stopped at a Denny’s for directions, managed to screw those up also despite the best kindness of the staff, it was 4th and 21. Time to punt. We stopped at a motel, called my aunt to confess failure and heavy fatigue, and packed it in for the night.

A very long three days, but ones filled with much beauty and mostly good encounters.