Friday, September 30, 2005

One final, final thought

One final, final thought.
I awoke this morning, actually, in the middle of the night, with an urge to say something to someone. And as I glance out the motel window, it is still oddly pitch black for this time of morning, so I’m not ready to depart.
Neither is a friend of mine, although she and her family will be departing tomorrow (Saturday) for a new adventure in their lives. It is the kind of journey that most of us only dream of making – going to a new job, in which you are totally in charge and well-compensated for it; with a beautiful daughter and handsome husband (or vice versa for us males); and in a community of mystery and beauty.
And this friend is only 28! How I wish for that to be the case for me, given my back pain and health issues. I envy her to no end.
But this change is coming at the expense of sacrifice. She is leaving the hometown she absolutely adores, and with good reason. It is quaint, vibrant, small enough to know every inch of it, safe enough to leave your home unlocked, trusting enough to utilize a neighbor for day care and interesting enough to mesmerize outsiders like me.
That would describe this person in most ways. I am old enough to be her father and would be as proud as can be if that would have been the case. She is gorgeous enough for me to know that such thoughts are verboten papa! And she is talented enough for me to know that I’m glad I’m NOT in competition with her.
As a father, I would tell her this: trust your instinct and rely on your abilities. The knot in your stomach is not regret; it is anticipation (not that Carly Simon song used for Heinz ketchup either). The tears you might shed could be for memories remembered and friends to be missed. Then again, the same path can lead back to them for visits and God bless the cellphone to remain in touch.
I hope she gets this at her next e-mail address and is one of the first things she reads. I’d also tell her how special it is to be 28. That was how old I was when my son, Robert, was born almost 25 years ago. Now, a quarter-century later, at almost the same anticipated date, Robert will become a father and I will morph into a grandfather. I am already got the gray fuzzy beard part down.
What is it that is repeated through time? The more things change, the more they stay the same? Damn, I hate it when truisms are always true.
I wish my friend the best of luck and the best of new times. As I would for anyone I know and that I call “friend.”

Thursday, September 29, 2005

Day 25 - Final thoughts

Day 25 – the final day – from Amarillo, where this Best Western is located in one of less-than-desirable parts of town. Come to think of it, when speaking of Amarillo, isn’t that redundant?
So why did I do this in the first place? One word sums it up: hatred. Well, gosh that’s harsh, so let’s go with extreme dislike. And the focus of such feelings? Airlines, airports and air travel. I can’t stand any of them, so I drove.
There was a time in this nation when it was exciting to fly on an airplane and those who worked for the airlines made it extra special. They made you feel special – from curb to seat. You were more than a customer; you were an invited guest and made to feel welcome. Meals were free and edible, personal needs were accommodated and everyone enjoyed themselves.
Today, you are just a number on a seat and nothing more. Personal service? That went out the window like Goldfinger in the finale of his fight with James Bond.
Airports are collectors of all things bad in society from oppressive security measures to being forced to congregate with idiot people (many of whom walk around talking to themselves wearing stupid Star Trek-like ear devices fit only for Vulcans). Delays are so common that ought to be the norm. God forbid that a plane should depart and land on time or that it should actually taxi directly to the gate instead of sitting for hours waiting for a parking space. Perhaps they all need those blue handicap placards.
Nothing is worth wasting precious time of life to be in an airport for any length of time or to be subject to the ill treatment of airlines. I especially hold plenty of wrath for American Airlines because the biggest carrier is also the worst. My prime example (aside from fares that are too high and AA’s role in the Wright Amendment) is that AFTER advertising how they retrofitted their planes to provide more legroom (it was small for pygmies), the company rescinded that directive and squeezed out the extra room for another row.
At 6-6 and more than 350 pounds, I simply don’t fit – no matter what. Buying the coach seat next to me does nothing if you can’t put your knees down from your chest.
Besides, as an old guy from a union town, American avoided bankruptcy on the backs of their employees while their executives continued to garner large bonuses. I don’t like it; I don’t like them: and I won’t do business with them … or any other airline. So I drove.
You might wonder if the added cost because of the ridiculous skyrocketing price of gas made driving unaffordable. I calculated the cost for the trip to Los Angeles and it was $214, which included (conservatively) two tanks in exploring the countryside. With one more fillup to go, I’m at $195 for the return trip, having done a little less exploring. The cost of a round-trip plane ticket might have been equivalent and there was always the chance that I would have had to pay double since I am so much bigger than the average bear. The cost of a first class ticket would not even come close to the gas costs.
I am comfortable with the decision and the whole trip. I just wore out at the end.
In the spirit of commenting about different eating experiences, I must mention a Southern California legend - Tommy’s Hamburgers – another one of Los Angeles’ unique fast food places that cannot be found outside the state’s borders. Although the menu is not as limited as In and Out, it does not carry many more items than our other new favorite joint.
And at Tommy’s, everything, unless told otherwise, comes with … chili. The standard one patty burger has chili, as does the double meat and triple meat, and the French fries and hot dogs.
The fries (sans chili) were disappointing, but the burgers offered a different eating experience. They were topped with lettuce (not shredded), slice of fresh tomato and pickle slices, not the jarred Vlasic kind.
Imagine if Whataburgers were chili burgers instead of mustard burgers. Perhaps they would be more worthy of their over-praise.
In New Mexico, the state franchise is Blake’s Lotaburger and, frankly, it was a whole lotta nothing, especially without a drive-through window. Fries were frozen and burgers lacked any kind of unique taste. However, when driving in the middle of nowhere, beggars cannot be choosers.
As I have written extensively, there is nothing wrong about driving out in the middle of nowhere. You get to experience the kind of magical moments that words can’t describe; yet the images are burned forever into your mind.
Along I-40, you get to see the unique mountain formation known as the Continental Divide. In New Mexico, it looks like a long series of squared-off mountains, magnificently painted in purples, browns and golds. On this morning, clouds topped the mountains like Reddi-Whip on a chocolate sundae and within them was a needed rain, hitting the ground like winning coins from a slot machine.
On my CD player was a song by Bruce Springsteen, a live version of “Human Touch,” one of my favorites by one of my favorites. To me, it was perfect.
Most of the trip had been a continuing series of such moments, sharing them with my wonderful wife and, in turn, sharing them through this blog. I hope it has been interesting reading and slightly insightful. I have been known to make some lucid statements from time to time in the same manner that a blind squirrel finds acorns from time to time.
But once upon a time, I used to be very, very good at this thing called writing. It earned me a less-than-modest existence (living would be a stretch) and I enjoyed sharing my thoughts with readers.
I hope you appreciated receiving it. I hope to share more thoughts in the future. Pass the blog to other people; it won’t be boring.
In the future, I’ll do it from my office, not the front seat.

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Day 24 - The Old, the Tired and the Ford

Day 24, remembering the Robert Earl Keen song, “The Road Goes On Forever,” and enjoying the discount offered as a member of the American Association of Retired Persons. Flash you card, admit your THAT old and it’s 10-20 percent off almost every major hotel-motel chain in America.
And to quote the great Chico Marx, eventually “that runs into money.” So here in Gallup, N.M., I save even more at the Comfort Inn in West Gallup (it doesn’t that that long to get to east Gallup) over my AAA discount. Ah, the joys of seniority.
It also means I’m getting old and today, I really feel it. For the first time, I was forced to exit the interstate, head to a McDonald’s parking lot in Winslow, Ariz. (made famous in John Carpenter’s “Spaceman” with a fine performance from Jeff Bridges) and take a nap. The Flagstaff altitude and constant whistle-blowing from the nearby trains kept me from gaining any credible sleep.
So here’s my confession: I’m ready for this to be over. Four weeks is more than long enough to spend driving across the USA. I am ready to sink deep into my Laz-Y-Boy and about a week without being disturbed. Just me, my remote, an Igloo of sugar-free lemonade and an alarm clock to remind me when it will be time to watch “Rome,” “Alias,” “Lost,” “Medium” and “ER.”
I am tired. I am tired of driving. I am tried of sleeping in a different non-Posturepedic bed night after night. I am tired of using Brillo pads disguised as bath towels.
I am tired of driving my Ford Escape; I can smell each inch of it and know that there are fries under the seats that could be 2-3 weeks old. I am tired of feeling each stitch in the driver’s seat and tired of stepping on the brakes for miles at a time while going through the kind of windy mountain roads that can best be described as spaghetti in a colander.
In the morning, I will head straight down I-40, past Albuquerque to Amarillo, flying past the Big Texan and its 72 oz. steak challenge and plop on a bed for the night. Then I will make my final choice of the trip – to go all interstate through Oklahoma City to Denton and Dallas, or go down U.S. 287 through Childress, Vernon, Wichita Falls, Decatur and Fort Worth before hitting Plano.
My eyes and heart were much bigger than my brain. I thought this would be a breeze and I could do everything I planned without becoming exhausted. However, I have discovered a major flaw in my planning. My computer software, by Rand McNally, cannot possibly calculate that a state highway, normally flowing at 55 or 65 mph, is really one of those mountain roads and you’ll be good to do 30. That changes time calculations and alters plans. But I had no way of knowing. Such information is not given on maps provided by AAA.
And it’s just been nerve-wracking. I don’t do roller coasters and I still get queasy watching the chase scene in “Bullitt” through the streets of San Francisco. Imagine, how much Alka-Seltzer I needed after actually driving on them. I do not do well when I can imagine falling over the edge. I got weird when I saw a yellow caution sign with a guy fallen off a cliff when people not to walk along the edges of Crater Lake in Oregon. Why? Because they’d fall off and no one would come get them … EVER!
For the record, we also saw signs for deer and elk crossings, duck crossings and senior citizen crossing, which was a figure walking with a bad back. Seriously.
So I guess it was appropriate that I made my last national park visit to be Petrified Forest National Park. I discovered it really isn’t a forest, but mostly the spectacular panorama of the Painted Desert. As an addendum to my last piece about Arizona, here are the figures on states by national parks – California (24), New York, Arizona (20), and Alaska, Washington, D.C. (16).
I also got to hear something that I will never experience again. A radio station in far eastern Arizona tossed off uber-conservative Sean Hannity and the language of Native America (perhaps Navajo) replaced it. Obviously, I had no clue as to what was being said, except when the name “Alan Jackson” came up, but it was still interesting.
I also heard the kind of commercial that indicates Christmas is nearing. Star Registry is back with its “sale” of stars for loved ones at $54 per pop … or per star. I have never understood how people can sell something that doesn’t belong to them. And, is there a star outlet store somewhere … out there? And can you return your star for a different one? And what if it is defective and blows up en route to your sweetheart?
Does love really mean never having to say you’re starry?

Day 23 - All hail Arizona!

Day 23 from Flagstaff, Ariz., one of the most famous stops along Route 66, except there is no signage along Interstate-40 to indicate which exit to take to get to the “Mother Road.” I sit in a rather inexpensive (modesty prevents from calling this place “cheap”) Best Western on Route 66 itself. The westbound Santa Fe has announced its presence twice in a half-hour so the prospects of a quiet night seem remote (I was right).
Oh, well, you get what you pay for and I’m not paying much. I need the bucks for more gasoline, which is getting cheaper as the days go by. In Flagstaff, some 7,000 feet of elevation (and I feel each and every foot), unleaded prices sit at $2.85 – a hopeful sign.
Dinner was spent at a classic restaurant I stumbled upon in a book about Route 66 and each city’s eateries. The authors recommended the Grand Canyon Café and said that one had to order the chicken fried steak. True to their word, it was a superb effort, with fresh-cut fries, excellent brown gravy (served under the steak, not on top), and soup, salad and veggies for less than eight bucks.
The interior looked like it hadn’t changed since the 1950s, complete with half-moon booths with one of those table-top juke boxes at each station. I doubt if they work, but it was fun to read the playlist.
The sign was pure old school neon, with the classic “Chop Suey” distinguishing this restaurant. Yes, they have a large Chinese menu to go with the chicken fried steaks and hamburgers.
Flagstaff also has a quaint historic downtown district with shops, restaurants and other things that attract tourists.
Before this trip, “Arizona” was an old 1960s Mark Lindsay song about a Native American girl (he of the old Paul Revere and the Raiders). Now I know it as a state of vast nothingness – and I say that in the most complimentary way. In fact, I pin it on Arizonans as a medal of achievement.
Most of the state is completely un-civilized in the best possible manner. You see what Nature has provided for scenery and it’s spectacular. Mountains to the left, mountains to the right (Democrats scrambling to the middle? Oops …) and desert in between. Population centers are few and far between. You have the Phoenix-Tucson corridor, which houses most of the Grand Canyon State’s people. There are other smaller cities (Flagstaff, Sedona, Kingman, Winslow, Lake Havasu City, Yuma), but Phoenix and its suburbs (Scottsdale, Tempe, Chandler and Glendale being the largest) dominate. That leaves vast stretches of nothing as you drive (at 75 mph mind you) on I-10 or I-40 and you couldn’t ask for more.
Without actually counting the number of national parks sites in Arizona, compared to other states (obviously places like Virginia and California are rich in history and have lots of national parks), this state is loaded – north to south, east to west. There are five within close proximity of Flagstaff, not counting the Grand Canyon, and this day was spent visiting most of them.
Tuzigoot (Apache for “crooked water”) is the remnant of a Sinagua village built between 1125-1400. It is located near the small town of Clarkdale and 15 minutes from Montezuma Castle National Monument, near Camp Verde – a five-story, 20-room dwelling built in the early 12th century. Combined with Casa Grande Ruins, in Coolidge, between Tucson and Phoenix, it offers those interested in archaeology and geology a window into ancient civilizations and just how advanced these people were. And just like that, they disappeared from the face of the earth. Hence, the name HoHoKam (“those who have gone”).
North of Flagstaff sits the Sunset Crater Volcano and Wupatki parks, with a distant vision of the Painted Desert as a bonus. Wupatki has several pueblo ruins, quite intricate in their construction and use of materials. Sunset Crater has thousands of acres of old lava flow beds, similar to the lava beds on the Big Island in Hawaii (tomorrow will be a stop at Walnut Canyon, Petrified Forest and Hubbell Trading Post National Historic Site).
Except it’s all in Arizona. When you add the grandeur of the Grand Canyon and the Saguaro National Park and much, much more, you can forgive that parts of the state are hotter than the radiator in a Yugo.
Of all the towns I have driven through, the most unusual was 5,000 feet in the air. After the umpteenth excursion on a twisty-winding mountain road (Mingus Mountain in this case and I’ve about had my fill of going a nervous 20 mph for fear of falling over the edge), I came upon Jerome, Ariz., an old mining town of cooper, silver and gold that once held 15,000 residents. It appears to be a mix of those Italian towns with ridiculously narrow streets, homes built into the side of Mingus Mountain and literally on five levels. You go 15 mph past antique shops, restaurants and other interesting places for those with the stomach for such heights (not me). It is not a ghost town as suggested on a public access station, but it ain’t San Francisco.
How they can live up there in beyond me, but much of Arizona possesses that kind of fascination. Which is why I toast them. On to Gallup, New Mexico.

Monday, September 26, 2005

Day 22 - Gee, what's the problem with casino gambling?

Day 22 from the Mojave Desert, specifically, Kingman, Ariz., in a Comfort Inn that finally has a strong, working air conditioner. It is located on Route 66, also named Andy Devine Blvd., for the late actor that is this community’s most notable celebrity. In fact, I showed up just a little too late for the 36th annual Andy Devine Days, proclaimed a state treasure by the governor (they made her parade marshal for that), which drew its biggest crowds ever.
All this honors an overweight actor with a squeaky, high-pitched voice, but who starred with stars like John Wayne in numerous westerns. If you cannot place Andy Devine, one of his most famous roles was the cowardly sheriff in “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” with Wayne, Jimmy Stewart and Lee Marvin.
But again, I’m old enough to know who Andy Devine was and actually remember seeing him act on television and the movies. Bet you didn’t know that?
Oh, I’m sorry, you can’t “bet” in Texas. You can’t spend your money on anything involving gambling in Texas … except for horse and dog racing, lotto, scratch-off lottery games and other state sanctioned gaming. We’ve crossed the line to the point where it is obliterated but still we raise this flag of morality and pretend to be self-righteous about the methods we employ to raise state revenues. Certain religious factions condone taxes, especially on anyone but themselves, yet bark quite loudly about “hurting the poor” while agreeing with conservatives who think increasing the sales tax is a good idea for poor people.
Who are they kidding and whom are we kidding? Texas is surrounded by states that allow casino gambling – Oklahoma has it; New Mexico has it; Arizona has it; California has it (lots of it in lots of places); Louisiana has it; and Mississippi has it (used to if they don’t rebuild in Biloxi). With the exception of Louisiana, these are casinos operated by Native American tribes and bringing jobs and needed money to a group that has been left FAR behind in any ebullient economy.
Call it what you will, it is still a voluntary form of revenue enhancement. Notice that word “voluntary” because it has depth and meaning. It isn’t automatic; you must enter a casino on your own free will and you play whatever game you play.
And it adds jobs, which means more money in the pockets of people to spend on essentials, which are taxed by the state and could help support menial things … like public school education. Workers might also own homes, which would help with the property tax base. Gee, what’s the problem?
I know, I know. Gambling is addictive and people just can’t help themselves. Well, so are Big Macs and we talked about taxing the hell of them, but not banning the two all-meat patties on a sesame seed bun with that special sauce. To the talk of obesity, people say “It’s a personal choice.” So is casino gambling. Gee, what’s the problem?
Texas is going to get over itself as some sort of moral barrier, standing between Sodom and Gomorrah and a game of blackjack. Casinos have targeted the Houston and Dallas-Fort Worth market for extensive advertising because they know they are mining for gold. Why can’t we do things that will keep that gold closer to home?
To all those who object to casino gambling as a way to enhance revenues, offer ONE thing that does that same job WITHOUT raising any current tax, or instituting a new tax.
“We can do better” doesn’t make the grade. I say let’s roll the dice and see how it pays off.

Sunday, September 25, 2005

Day 21 - Media watching from the car

Day 21 from Los Angeles as I bid the wife goodbye at LAX and head east (anyone remember THAT other 1970s group from Champaign, Ill.?) on Route 66. I’m not really Tod, Buzz or Lincoln Case in a Corvette convertible, but does anyone remember Martin Milner, George Maharis or Glenn Corbett?
In truth, very little of “Route 66” was filmed on Route 66 itself. But it was one of those anthology series highlighted many of the better character actors in Hollywood, was well-written and involved places most people never even knew – along Route 66. I hope to see some of those places in the coming days.
I would have a great deal of difficulty relocating to the West Coast, except for Oregon, which is quite different than California. If I had one place in California to choose, it would be San Diego … except I don’t sail … and sunburn easily … and don’t like sushi … and don’t surf.
But I’d move there. However, the adjustment will be difficult. I’d have to wear shorts and flip-flops all the time, my glasses would have to hang by those strings, eat California cuisine, retain my balance during earthquakes and breathe the dirtiest air this side of Houston.
And I’d have to watch shows an hour later than I do now in the Central Time Zone – Daylight or otherwise. That means the news at 11 and Leno or Letterman on past midnight when the first guest arrives on stage. Sorry, but that is WAY past my bedtime. I’m at the age where I can’t even keep my eyes open for the late night Cinemax Skinemax soft core porn movie.
I’ve had the chance to see some of the work in other Southwest and Pacific Northwest cities. Television newscasts continue to prove that Dallas-Fort Worth is blessed with some of the better teams and operations in the country.
Los Angeles is particularly disappointing. The men looked either old and tired, mannequin-like and stilted or like male models and actors seeking a different vocation. The women did not appear to be Hollywood beauties, except for the UPN anchor who displayed far too much cleavage for any city’s newscast, and looked to be older than in other markets.
The reporters inspired no confidence in their reports, especially reporting from the Gulf Coast during the two hurricanes. The weathercasts were operable, but what would they pay for a Troy Dungan or Kristine Kahanek? And there is no one like Dale Hansen in any city that I have visited (LA, SF, Phoenix, etc.).
On the radio, I wish there was a sports talk station as entertaining as 1310The Ticket. Most hosts either scream or focus on a single issue, repeating the same calls and same answers all day long. Granted, in Dallas, the Cowboys dominate, but not like this.
Also, there is no one like Norm Hitzges, loaded with more information and anecdotes than any computer.
The best radio newscast was found in San Francisco on KCBS with its all-news format. It was crisp, informative, quick and covered many items each half-hour. The traffic reports were understandable, even for a foreigner like me.
Listening to AM radio in the daytime means having to deal with the big three national talk show shows (Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Bill O’Reilly) on almost every station in every market. Unless you can obtain the odd station carrying the liberal Air America radio, or sports talk, everything on AM talk is basically “Pete and Repeat.” Dennis Prager has the same thoughts as Lars Larson as Laura Ingraham as Michael Reagan. No one is as vile as Michael Savage and he should not be on anyone’s radio waves, but in radio, as in life, there is no accounting for taste.
As I wrote before, many places on the road have no access to strong signals so the CD player is red hot from usage.
Being a retired newspaperman, I love a good newspaper and thus far, the best overall package is the San Francisco Chronicle and the Arizona Republic. The Los Angeles Times looks stuffy and gray and other papers were thinner than the excuses from philandering husbands.
I’d adjust to the weather and food; not sure about the media. But these days, who is?

Day 20 - Odds and ends from California

Day 20 from sunny and smoky California, where the hills are alive with the sounds of fire fighting helicopters in the rain-starved mountains north of Los Angeles. If you saw how hard these people work to prevent a potential disaster and then get caught in a five-mile long traffic jam on the San Diego Freeway, you can only imagine how hard it would be to get Los Angelinos to leave this city.
The ground is SO dry (despite living on the ocean) that a casually cigarette, tossed carelessly out of a moving car, could bring unmentionable tragedy. It was distressing to see people smoking in the open air at Yosemite National Park, which listed its fire danger as “extremely high.” I guess huffin’ and puffin’ is a hard addiction to kick, even at the expense of such beauty and other people’s lives.
It’s THAT kind of situation.
The straight up on “Sideways” Country
As we drove northward through Northern California less than a week ago, and down from Oakhurst, through the San Joaquin Valley, all we saw were vineyards (and fruit trees and strawberry and lettuce patches and you name it). It was definitely “Sideways” Country, made popular by last year’s Academy Award-winning movie about two men touring and tasting their way through the Sonoma and Napa Valleys.
There are two things I know absolutely nothing about – the stock market and wine. One keeps you poor. The other makes you an outcast. Apparently.
I had no interest in doing any kind of wine tasting; being a diabetic and a heart-surgery patient, I must avoid the alcohol and sugar content of vino. Besides, to be honest, I never enjoyed the taste. My knowledge of wines is three-fold (based on actual usage from college). Back in the day, I either drank Ripple, Annie Greensprings or Boone’s Farm. Each of which cost around a buck. Hey, a poor college student couldn’t afford much more and it usually did the job.
If I wanted to go high-tone, it was Mateus (mainly to get an empty bottle to melt candles on it for some sort of hippie ambience). But most of the time, we wanted a vintage of at least two months and smelling the twist top was out of the question.
I was raised on two brands – Mogen David and Manischewitz kosher Concord grape wines. And to me, ALL wines smelled like Manischewitz (and still do) and I never knew the difference between a Pinot Noir and film noir. So watching “Sideways” meant concentrating on the comedy and personal relationships, although the “wine” humor escaped me.
Which, these days, makes me something of a fossil. I always made it a point to ask for a fine vintage of Diet Coke when ordering at fancy restaurants and one brought my beverage in a wine goblet. Yes, it was a fine crop of carbonation. Tuesday, I believe.
My wife, Jodie, thinks California wines are over-populating the market and making what was once a special item now run-of-the-mill. But we could have our choice of hundreds of wineries in almost every region of California. Mountainsides are laden with thousands of acres of hanging vines – neatly arranged in perfectly linear rows.
Fruit and veggie basket to the world
We have driven nearly the entire length of California (more than 850 miles) and have seen each of its various regions, from the High Desert to the Coastal Redwoods to San Francisco to San Diego to San Bernardino and all points (including some incredibly small ones) in between.
Aside from the incredible scenery (mountains everywhere and stunning mountain lakes abounding), you are struck by the amount of land dedicated to growing food. While I prefer the taste of Texas sweet onions, Ruby Red grapefruit and Fredericksburg peaches, their output pales in comparison with California. If you look at your grocery store’s produce shelves, most of it comes from California – lettuce, fruit, greens, onions, etc. Vast sections of the Golden State are dedicated and sustained by farmers and you begin to realize how important it is (and they are) to the entire nation.
There is more to California than bikinis (didn’t see enough of those), beaches (lots of them, too) and weirdoes (lots of them, too).
Odd Sightings of the Trip
So far, it’s a tie between the field mouse that literally jumped onto the axle of a Honda Accord in front of us on the San Diego Freeway in Los Angeles, and the picture of a motorcycle, parked at the top of Glacier Point in Yosemite … with a handicap placard hanging from the handlebars.
I am still trying to figure out what handicapped person would travel 5,000 feet into the thin air on a motorcycle. Any thoughts?
It’s a Small World …You can travel to the ends of the earth but remnants of your hometown will always follow you.
First, as we exited Yosemite National Park, we had to stop at the Rangers post for “questioning,” I guess. The Ranger in the tiny booth wished us a good night and asked us what part of Texas we were from, having seen our out-of-state plates.
“Dallas” is our standard answer because Plano is far too specific or unknown … so we thought.
“I’m here from Richardson on a four-month stay,” he said.
“This is a lot different from the George Bush (Turnpike),” I casually mentioned and Mister Ranger agreed.
The next morning, we had breakfast at the Ol’ Kettle in Oakhurst, Calif., and upon checkout, the owner asked us where we were from.
“I could lie and say we were from Houston and came to Yosemite to get high enough from the water, but we’re from Dallas,” I answered.
“Oh yeah?” she said, with her voice suddenly perked up. “My son lives in Plano.”
Funny, so do we, I noted.
“He works for Texas Instruments as does his wife,” the lady added.
Funny, so does my wife, I noted.
“They live on Round Rock Trail,” she added.
Funny, that’s two miles from our house, I noted.
“What are you doing here?” she asked.
“Getting away from Plano,” I noted. “And after being here, I’m not sure we can go back.”
Funny, neither does my family, she noted.
As I said, it’s a small world.

Day 19 - Can't be naughty with nature

Day 19 of the Never-Ending Story (without all the kids’ stuff) from sunny Oakhurst, Calif., at the edge of America’s national park, Yosemite. Yes, Yellowstone was the first official national park to be commissioned, followed by Sequoia National Park, just down the state here in California.
But, as my lovely wife noted, Yosemite is the seminal American national park, and judging from the thousands in the park, many Americans (and Europeans) agree. Traffic was as jammed as anything in Los Angeles and it often resembled a Saturday shopping mall crowd. People were parking single-file on the edge of two-lane roads, which, believe me, had no shoulders. Run off these roads and you take a 4,000-foot fall. Driving these twisting, winding strips of asphalt can make you as queasy as being in FEMA (or helped by FEMA).
What can one say about such magnificence? You’ve got millions of acres of sequoias (the same tree family as coastal redwoods but which cannot be grown below 5,000 feet and in need of ample sunlight), pine trees (reaching so high they almost blot out the sun), huge mountains that invite climbers with more adventure and courage than sense to scale, waterfalls, rock formations and the true smell of pine freshness at every turn. Where else can you sit in the parking lot outside the visitors center and see a flock of does just walk past people in the daylight? Or hear a bag of fresh potato chips explode because of the falling air pressure as you ascend into the high mountains?
We drove (slowly mind you) to the spectacular Glacier Point and view mountain ranges in the Sierra Nevadas formed millions of years ago by glaciers. The view is unbelievable; this wordsmith cannot do justice and despite snapping off scores of photos, no picture captures the natural beauty.
To anyone wishing to visit Yosemite, know this: can’t be seen in one day. Or two or three or four days. Can’t be done, sorry. First, it takes 87 miles to make most of the traffic loop and you average less than 30 miles per hour. It takes a long time to go by car.
Second, like most national parks, Yosemite is a hiker’s paradise. You need to see many of the best sights on foot. And that takes time.
Third, there are many other things to see in the region – award-winning wineries, old-time logger railroad trains, excellent inns and bed-and-breakfasts, a golf course at historic Wawoma constructed in 1917, and many affordable hotels (including this Best Western which resembles a lodge).
So I asked Jodie this classic “what if?” question. If gasoline in the United States went to $5 per gallon, and there was a shortage declared among oil producers, AND suddenly geologists within the confines of Yosemite National Park discovered the largest pool of crude oil, would you permit drilling in this vestige of perfect nature?
She, being the wonderful liberal that I adore, said, “Hell, no! Drive a better car.”
Bless her! I kinda agree. But the answer clearly would define a person’s politics and views of life, nature and lifestyle. Conservatives like Rush Limbaugh would choose drilling. Rush once said, “When I see a tree, I see furniture or a baseball bat.” What a pity that SO many people would agree with that point of view – sacrificing natural resources for an expendable fuel.
If we destroy what Mother Nature creates, it can never come back. When a species of animal is made extinct, that’s a hole we create in the natural order of things. I don’t care what you call it – evolution, intelligent design (excuse me but how intelligent is a mosquito?) or abracadabra. Humans have no right to arbitrarily decide what species lives or dies.
And the same goes for other natural creations, like Yosemite or Saguaro National Park or the Grand Tetons or any place you can name in this country. I wish there was a perfect method of horizontal drilling to go to Fresno and work a pipe into a park so Jed Clampett can shoot at some food and out of the ground would come some bubblin’ crude. But it doesn’t work that way. If it did, we would have sucked the Saudis dry and made them worry about the price of gas instead of us.
No, we cannot have set aside enough national park land. We need to preserve as much perfection in terms of beauty for our children, their children and their children’s children’s children (thank to the Moody Blues for that one).
Meanwhile, I think I’ll go out on my Best Western balcony and look at the stars in a moonlit night, with temperatures at 55 degrees.
Eat your hearts out. I’m enjoying it while I can until I return home to the sweatbox known as North Texas.

Friday, September 23, 2005

Special Day 18 edition - Riders from the storm

A Day 18 special from warm Northern California, where, in a few days, $2.97 for a gallon of gas might begin to look like it was sold at Dollar General. Lord only knows how much the oil companies will stiff the American public next week after Hurricane Rita blows through the Texas Gulf Coast. Hurricanes that shut down refineries cause mega-jumps in retail gas prices. But fires and explosions at BP refineries in Texas City and Deer Park, that ALSO halt production, don’t cause a ripple. How come?
Instead of going down the main roads of NoCal, we have been taking the backroads of California, through the mountains and lava beds that decorate this part of the country. We stopped for lunch in a quaint tiny mountain town of Adin and instantly, the Norman Rockwell characters (the men looked like 49er miners with long, flowing bears) sitting in front of the general store spotted our Texas license plate,
”Are you fleeing from Rita?” they wanted to know. Nope, we said, we’re from Dallas. We just see tornadoes, crickets and bad politics. We were then told that bad politics was also a problem in the Golden State.
The same question was asked at the hotel registration desk, even thought eh reservation had been made two months in advance. After Hurricane Katrina scattered evacuees from New Orleans from coast to coast, anything would be possible.
Sleeping last night was not easy and not accomplished. My children are in the path of Rita and my unborn granddaughter needs to be safe. My son and daughter-in-law crawled up U.S. 59 toward Livingston and then cut across the unknown routes to escape before finding refuge in Center, with her parents. The entire trip, normally a two-hour jaunt, took 10 hours.
My ex-wife and my two other daughters have moved from their trailer home to her uncle’s house in Willis, north of Conroe. It isn’t much further away from the storm, but it is a better structure than the mobile home they occupy. She is disabled and awaits a second hip replacement. She has neither the money nor means to go any place else – one of many families with similar stories in the fourth largest city in America. The storms have peeled away the economic under belly of major urban centers in the South to reveal this large disparity in economic status. Those who can, leave; those who can’t, pray a lot.
If you have lived in Houston for any time, you know the danger is not from wind; it’s from flooding. That’s because most of the city is below the flood plain and thousands of homes were built in that kind of land without owner knowledge (quite a scandal back in the time). Tropical storms, particularly in 1994, have caused massive damage to homes, which are still sitting idle more than a decade later. The city has never really addressed this issue and flood control remains a constant threat and problem. Unless we want to uproot entire cities to rebuild, we will have to live with our progress and weather the storms yet to come.
No one on any blog, or on any TV news report (which I finally got to see in depth last night in Redding, Calif.) is getting to the truth of the matter. And here it is: No plan, no advance planning and no amount of warning can adequately evacuate a major American city prior to a major catastrophe.
Now it’s been said. Houston and the Galveston area was prepared to depart but the infrastructure cannot support more than a million people trying to go in the same direction at once. Can’t be done, folks. You have thousands of cars stranded by the side of Interstate-45 (not a particularly good straight of highway to start because of multiple construction projects and just plain bad road) and thousands more out of gas and stuck in the middle (with you, sorry Gerry Rafferty).
At best, traffic moved at less than a snail’s pace at 2 miles per hour and that won’t get you from Cedar Lake City to Spring in a day’s time. And what will five extra gallons of gas from the government do for stalled cars in an immobile parking lot with stations emptying quicker than a Cowboys’ crowd after a loss?
Houston is massive; it is the largest city by acreage in the U.S. Between the Reliant Center on south Loop 610 and Galveston, there are half million residents. Add another million in the city of Houston proper and you see the problem. People cannot be moved THAT fast on any route out of town.
And where are they going to go? Huntsville? Madisonville? Centerville? Fairfield? Corsicana? Ennis? I’ve just named you the cities along I-45 from Houston to Dallas. In between are miles and miles of empty Texas (sorry Asleep at the Wheel) and no place to stop. One thing Gov. Rick Perry could have done was to open all state parks with shelters free of charge for 2-3 days to house evacuees. That would help a little.
President Bush, concerned about Texas a lot sooner than he appeared in New Orleans, can still impose a price freeze on retail gasoline to keep the negative impact from wounding the economy further.
In New Orleans, people either couldn’t or wouldn’t leave; in Houston, they ALL tried to escape and no government was ready for either contingency. In fact, news reports have Houston’s evacuation plans taking a higher percentage of “no goes” into consideration than actually chose to stay. And the re-entry will be just as nasty and messy and the same provisions – re-routing traffic on the interstate and U.S. 59 must be done to allow for some sort of orderly flow.
Officials need to ask themselves if any Texas city can be properly evacuated. Corpus Christi has one north-south route (I-37), Brownsville hardly has one and Beaumont doesn’t really have that direction to travel. Take it one step further: no American city can empty in time to avoid such a disaster. These two storms need to be valuable lessons to the folks in Washington who wring their hands over a terrorist attack.
By the way, where has the Homeland Security Secretary – Michael Cherthoff – been over the last three days? He’s been the Invisible Man in the Bush Administration.
There was nothing I could do for my children since driving south was not an option. I can only pray for their safety and those of thousands, if not millions, of others. But in the end, Mother Nature wins out and there’s precious little we can do about it – be it in Houston or New Orleans or Florida or anywhere.

Thursday, September 22, 2005

Day 17 - I'm bad; I'm nationwide ... literally

Day 17 from beautiful Medford, Oregon, home of the world famous Harry and David, where one’s wife, who shall remain nameless (but who co-habitats with me) can easily spend $125 at the company’s Country Store on all sorts of fresh fruits, canned and jarred jellies and other items.
Medford is the heart of pear country, not just for Oregon, but also for the United States. The smell of fresh pears permeates the air at this juncture, changing from Bartletts to Boscs picking and processing.
Seventy miles to the east of Medford is one of nature’s most perfect sights – Crater Lake – a stunning combination of true blue water surrounded by 33 miles of rim canyon and mountains. Since no one can go into the lake, it is undisturbed except for rain and wind. Photos taken by even ordinary cameras possess postcard quality.
And you never know what you’ll see en route. Our vehicle was forced to stop for a pair of mother cows nursing their calves – in the middle of the highway. Believe me, neither mom was going to move … so we waited. The three-year-old daughter of our friend, Jennifer, had never seen such a sight and was fixated at this vision.
It is a delightful region – the Rogue River Valley – with forests and mountains ranges as far as the eye can see (Cascades on one side and the Siskiyous on the other). And Tuesday night was a picture-perfect time to head to the Lithia Motors Amphitheater to see one of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame 2005 inductees perform – that little old band from Texas, ZZ Top.
The group has not changed personnel since 1970 – Dusty Hill on bass, Frank Beard on drums and Billy Gibbons on guitar. “It’s the same three guys playing the same three chords,” Gibbons told the sold-out crowd.
Gibbons and Hill still possess those MTV long beards but the grey is now real. Billy tried his best, but the voice was much weaker than when “Legs” and “Jesus Left for Chicago” were first recorded. But, oh my, he can still play guitar. In the late 1960s, Dick Cavett was interviewing Jimi Hendrix and told the soon-to-be legend that he was considered already to be the greatest guitarist of all time. “That might be,” Hendrix answered. “But I just heard Billy Gibbons.”
When I worked for the University of Michigan’s sports information department, I remember having to run an errand one December Thursday morning, on the final day of classes. I stepped outside of the SID offices and was standing on the corner when a pickup, hauling a trailer, stopped in front of me.
“’Scuse me, but can you tell me where the basketball arena is?” the driver asked. I gave them directions but they seemed confused.
“We’re playing there tonight,” he said, and I knew it was not for Michigan hoops. It turned out to be ZZ Top on their first national tour, in support of “Tres Hombres,” opening for Alice Cooper’s “School’s Out” tour.
The Texas band, already having a growing fan base in Ann Arbor, was warmly received. Of course, everyone was toked up and stoned up to see one of rock’s master showmen in Cooper.
I sat in a section among many Michigan football players and, sorry to say, the odor of marijuana was strong from this part of Crisler Arena. One player in particular went through two full baggies on stash and, years later, while surfing a Fort Worth cable network, I stumbled across that same player in a new role – evangelical TV minister seeking funds for his mission. Which was NOT to enjoy more Alice Cooper.
ZZ Top hasn’t had a hit album in 15 years; their latest, “Mescalero,” was released three years ago. Their last hit was “Viva Las Vegas,” and they were last heard on the closing credits of “From Dusk ‘til Dawn.” In the mid-80s, the Texas trio filled the Cotton Bowl and every major arena in America. Today, they play at small state and county fairs, cities the size of Medford (63,000) and Indian casinos.
But it didn’t matter to the crowd here – totally consisting of late 30-somethings, 40 and 50-somethings and enough AARP members to have earned discounts. Once Billy and Dusty hit the stage in their lime green sequin jackets, and when they switched to their fuzz-covered guitars, and when they kicked into the back-to-back renditions of “Give Me All Your Lovin’” and “Sharp-Dressed Man,” people were dancing in the aisles.
Of course, some of them should refrain from such public display – especially women approaching their AARP years. Here’s a good rule to live by: if you are 28-34, and still have the shape and suppleness to display your figure in a provocative way, please do so! I am happy to report that our friend, Jennifer (despite having a 3-year-old) and her friend, Tonya, both qualify.
But we all saw too many older women trying to emulate that look and it was a disaster. I won’t even draw comparisons to that mother milking her calf. Add too much local wine and perhaps a little too much herbal smoke, and you cannot decide whether or not to laugh or cringe like you’ve got cramps.
To top it off, while we waited for the crowd to slowly escape the parking lot, a drunk woman emerging out of a stretch limousine, actually went into a small clump of bushes near the theater entrance and … relieved herself!
Oh well, to quote the Top, “She’s bad; she’s nationwide.”

Days 15-16 - Is this heaven? No, it's just Oregon

Days 15-16 from a hidden jewel of America – Ashland, Oregon, just a few miles north of the California border and home of the world-famous Oregon Shakespeare Festival, a renowned summertime production that draws thousands to this burgh.
Oregon is unlike other states as I quickly discovered. Taxes are quite different and laws are different. Mostly, in this part of Oregon, people are much different, described as an enclave (actually holdout) of 1960s hippiedom. Many residents still dress (or undress) the part, with many women thinking that tube tops, sarongs and far too many inches around their waists are actually attractive. Many guys look like Tommy Chong (then and now) and hiking boots, not Nikes, are the footwear of choice.
My gas report tells you that the precious fuel stands at $2.97 per gallon in most southern Oregon stations. BUT … you, the driver, are not permitted to pump your own gas. Oh no, that is against state law. Instead an attendant MUST go to the pump of your choice and personally insert pump into tank and you get to announce those famous words, “Fill ‘er up!” Additionally, the attendant goes old school – checks the oil and washes the window.
Consequently, more people are employed at full service stations, which are plentiful. These stations will change oil, fix flats and do minor repairs – just like the good old days. Those convenience stations with gas offer “mini serve,” which offers pump but no wipe.
And guess what? There is no state gas tax in Oregon. In fact, there is no state sales tax, period. “The cost of what you buy is the actual cost,” our attendant told us while informing the obvious out-of-towners to stay away from the pumps.
Then at $2.97, gas would seem to be overpriced, compared to other states. That’s what the Oregon governor thinks as well, and he is asking the Attorney General, Alberto Gonzales, for an investigation into price gouging. The guv thinks it should sit at $2.50 a gallon in his state. I can second that emotion.
It is refreshing NOT to have to pay sales tax. Oregon draws many people from northern California and southern Washington to shop and save … BIG! It is a lesson that should be delivered to the Texas legislature who think public education funding should be shouldered by the sales tax instead of business and other taxes.
Oregon has property taxes that are high (although property values are much, MUCH higher than in Texas) and a personal income tax. But a trade-off between sales for income taxes might be more attractive with the promise of a complete elimination of one for the other, which is NOT as regressive and damaging to businesses as expensive lobbyists whisper into the ears of pliable lawmakers.
Another law of interest? You cannot be a public school teacher in Oregon without a master’s degree. Earn that and you earn a far greater wage than Texas teachers and are better qualified. Of course, most garbagemen earn more than Texas teachers.
In Ashland (pop. 19,500), motorists MUST stop for pedestrians crossing the street, regardless of when, where and how. Walkers rule in this city where Thursday (Sept. 22) was a “no drive, no car” day in town. Organizers wanted the hippies, old and new, to turn Ashland into old-time Beijing (nothing but bicycles). There was going to be a bicycle drive-in movie but I could not figure out how back seat smooching was going to happen.
Because of the influx of tourists for the Shakespeare, there are countless curio shops, great restaurants, scores of bed-and-breakfast spots, and plenty of sights to see at Lithia Park, a 100-acre facility with a Japanese garden and a headless statue of Abe Lincoln. I wisely suggested to my friend, Jennifer (a native who returned home to help care for her mother), that they rededicate the statue to Washington Irving.
Nestled in the heart of the Rogue River Valley, between two mountain ranges, it is a great place to live. It has an exotic charm to it and is quite intoxicating. Imagine driving home and see a full family of deer (buck, doe and baby) meandering through town … without fear of becoming a mantle piece. Or being able to leave your home unlocked when you go to work without fear of losing your flat screen.
But every city has it warts and in Ashland, it comes from the incredible amount of street/homeless people that seem to be everywhere. Many appear to drink from the public fountains in the park, with water enriched with lithium, a natural anti-depressant. The warm springs water throughout Jackson County, where Ashland is located, is known for such properties. The Lithia River is named for the substance. Many people come to Ashland to get their buzz.
They do nothing but beg for money and mere loose change doesn’t work. They ask for bills – the bigger the better. Even for this old-school liberal, it is disgusting. With the population of Ashland what it is, no one seems interested in thinning that herd and each person who supports these … bums (almost exclusively men) only allows the problem to linger. Then again, apparently few people believe it to be a problem.
I guess walking panhandlers truly rule the road in Ashland. It must be the law.

Sunday, September 18, 2005

Day 14 - America's most unique cities

Day 14 and we’re leaving San Francisco, where one of those flash memories we will both remember will be the sight and sound of an African-American streetcar driver speaking fluent Chinese to a woman at one of his Market Street stops.
Just one of many. Thus far, it has been a wonderful trip, filled with cherished moments and some of the most beautiful scenery known to mankind. There are neither enough words nor photos to capture what we have seen – from the Point Reyes National Seashore to the mountains of the Chiricahua National Monument to hearing sea lions in the San Diego bay. We’ve experienced foods we’ve never tried before – Cuban roasted chicken (heavy on the onions, senor) and San Francisco clam (and crab) chowder so thick it almost needed a fork. We had Dungeness crab SO fresh and broiled so perfectly at the Crab House at Pier 39 (at Fisherman’s Wharf) that it cracked in our hands. (I did manage to drag my carcass there and it was worth every painful step).
And there is more to come – Crater Lake in southern Oregon, Route 66 and all its history, the Petrified National Forest, Lava Beds National Park and, the crème de la crème, Yosemite National Park. The vastness of the United States is never more appreciated than when you actually leave the confines of your home region.
As we exit San Francisco, it can honestly be said that we have visited America’s three most culturally diverse and truly unique cities – Boston, New Orleans and San Francisco. People might want to include Miami, but it falls short of what these places offer. I do not include the U.S. Big Three – New York, Chicago and Los Angeles – because their size literally offers too much. There is either too much politics, too much commerce, too much glamour, too much gossip or too much pollution, traffic and people to compare to the feel of New Orleans (the way it was and hopefully will be) or Boston or San Francisco.
Oddly (or perhaps not), each has the sea as a major component to its culture; such an ingredient seems to enrich and embellish the history. It certainly enhances the food and the atmosphere. These cities have identical influences in that area – heavily Italian in certain parts, as well as a hybrid of other people. In New Orleans, the Cajun and Creole cultures cannot be found elsewhere and I doubt, even in Los Angeles with its Chinese and Korean influences (both with their own media), that Asian culture is as prominent as it is in San Francisco. When most people speak of Chinatown, it is about San Francisco. When Bostonians speak, you almost need an interpreter; also that’s the case in New Orleans with accents as thick and slow as molasses and just as sweet.
Some of our most creative literary characters hail from these cities and their authors, such as Dashiell Hammett, Anne Rice and Robert Parker, are just as colorful. The music generated from these cities is exceptional, from the Boston and San Francisco Symphonies to the jazz out of the French Quarter to the psychedelic rock cornered at Haight and Ashbury near Golden Gate Park.
Each city is a nightmare to be a motorist because they were built first for people, then traffic. Bridges connect San Francisco and New Orleans to the outside world while tunnels are key in Boston.
With the disaster that struck New Orleans still fresh in people’s minds, another connection exists with these three cities – each is vulnerable during a natural disaster. Of the three, Boston is less so. However, storms have funny ways of routing themselves and should a hurricane scurry up the East Coast and strike New England, it could be devastating. People in Boston would find it tough to evacuate in a timely manner.
San Francisco experienced a cataclysmic earthquake in 1900 and the Bay Area suffered a major quake in 1989, during the Bay Area World Series (Giants vs. A’s), killing hundreds and destroying millions of dollars in property. Driving over the Bay Bridge, one can see note the “newer” sections of the double-decker bridge that collapsed in 1989.
Anything I might add about what happened in New Orleans and the governmental response since would be redundant. Frankly, I get a headache hearing it being plowed over and over again on the cable news.
But, just a few points to be made. New Orleans must be rebuilt and its residents must be encouraged to return, even if it means providing the financial means to do so. Call it a Marshall Plan, call it a new WPA project, call it what you wish. No American city should have to be sacrificed because too many government agencies and officials froze when direct action was needed.
We need to quit having lawyers run action agencies, like Homeland Security (which demonstrate how un-secure our homeland really is), and STOP having political lackies, who got their jobs because of their fund-raising abilities in the past, heading important agencies.
We need to stop spending money to build other nations when it is needed at home. We need to stop tax cuts for major corporations and sweetheart, non-competitive contracts to the usual suspects, making the rich richer off other people’s misery.
And we need to stop turning relief and rebuilding into a political football – on both sides. While there is nothing wrong with telling the truth (which too many ideologues stupidly repeat as “the blame game” like a bunch of parrots), the object should be rebuilding New Orleans with proper safety measures and with as many of its people as inhabitants.
Blogging for the next few days might be delayed, depending on two things – Internet access and laundry. Not enough of one and way TOO much of the other. I envision lots of Tide (not from the ocean) in my future.

Saturday, September 17, 2005

Day 13 - 'Sign' me up please

Day 13 from San Francisco where the wife is headed to Fisherman’s Wharf to see the Aquarium of the Bay and where I sit in the room, resting my tortured back muscles (an old, OLD football injury some 38 years ago). Outside on the Michael Douglas-less Streets of San Francisco, a major motorcycle ride has just passed the hotel and it has suddenly gotten quiet enough to hear the seagulls.
For such a major tourist destination, San Francisco is not THAT visitor-friendly to those driving into the city. It is bad enough to navigate the many streets in places like Chinatown, North Beach, Castro District, Twin Peaks, Union Square and others. But there is a distinct lack of signage to help one know where in the hell he is going.
Signage depletion is a universal problem; not just in San Francisco. If you try to find a national monument or park, those signs are usually brown – but not always and they don’t always exist. Nothing is worse than trying to “follow the signs to …” and being unable to … follow. It tends to make the cranky driver crankier and make the passenger even bitchier.
But that’s a whole other problem, thank you.
Jodie and I have seen plenty of San Francisco neighborhoods as we either search for the hotel or try to make a left turn. Coming from the Presidio area, we avoided going on the Golden Gate Bridge (we planned that for the next day) and turned onto Southbound California Highway 1 (also known as the Pacific Coast Highway in other parts) to go through Golden Gate Park (which is different from Golden Gate National Recreation Area – home to Alcatraz, Fort Point, Fort Mason and the Presidio, now home to George Lucas’ film/studio operations).
However, the traffic flow did not permit left turns for five miles, well past where we knew where we were going. Eventually, a few calmer nerves and the ability to decipher the hotel map landed us safe and sound in the $25 per night parking lot.
Just to be safe, Jodie took the F-line to Fisherman’s Wharf. The next time we use the Escape will be to escape to Southern Oregon.
Traffic lights in California offer a mixed bag. In Los Angeles, we liked the second traffic signal for left turns, located right by your left elbow – almost at eye level. In San Francisco, the lights are difficult to see, located at the sides of intersections and often blinded by sunlight.
Plus, I’ve never seen such poorly time stoplights in my life in San Francisco. It caused humungous traffic jams without benefit of accidents, merely because cars could only inch forward while waiting for the next light to turn green. One block at a time does not accentuate the positive.
And lack of signage has got us $35 for illegally parking on a 12 percent incline without our wheels turned. Who knew? No out-of-towner, that’s for sure.
We were at Ghirardelli Square, looking for a quick parking space. One was sighted at the corner on Larkin Street and we turned into a driveway and stopped in front of the café for a little (or a lot for Jodie) chocolate buying. After a rest room stop, we returned to the car (not more than 15 minutes having elapsed) to find this ticket - parking violation, pay $35 and do not pass “go” or pass the streetcars.
The law makes sense but where we parked, there are no visible signs. Aha! Grounds for a challenge! I think a vehicle from out-of-state with a handicap placard hanging in the windshield might earn one a slight break from such a cold response.
A letter, when I return, to the Department of Traffic and Parking, plus a copy to Mayor Gavin Newsom, will be forthcoming when I return to Texas. I will offer my thoughts and my observations and make the man an offer. I’ll chip in $35 to his favorite charity but I think the ticket is unfair because of the lack of local knowledge and the lack of signage within clear view of our parking spot.
We’ll see if I can leave only my heart, and not my wallet, in San Francisco.

Friday, September 16, 2005

Day 12 - the stuff that meals and dreams are made of

Greetings from San Francisco, where there might be more homeless people per capita than any other place in the U.S. They come in all shapes, colors, gender, in wheelchairs, missing arms and legs and, sadly, too many brain cells.
They seem to be everywhere, on every street corner, in front of every business and next to you waiting for the same bus. And they all seem to be begging for money. Some sit there with signs and pets – both looking real pathetic – and some are brazen enough to confront you face-to-face. You don’t know where they’ve been or what they’ve been drinking or injecting, and, frankly, it can be a little scary.
I cannot denounce Dallas’ effort to get the homeless people off the streets. If you are trying to build up any kind of tourist base, all that solicitation is a big negative – except, of course, in San Francisco. My rule is this: you cannot be in legitimate need, if you are asking for change while sipping on a $2.49 bottle of Smoothie.
Just a few of the characters you meet in The City. Others you get to read about and … visit. Like Nick and Nora Charles and Sam Spade – the creations of Dashiell Hammett (1894-1961), considered one of the masters of 20th century noir detective writing. He turned San Francisco’s foggy streets and mysterious atmosphere into perfect backgrounds for his unique vision, what one writer called “dame-and-gumshoe imagination.”
He is considered one of the giants in this field, but he only wrote five novels - the most famous being “The Thin Man” and “The Maltese Falcon.” Hammett worked as a private eye for the Pinkerton National Detective Agency in the Flood Building on Market Street. His novels are replete with the scenery and flavor of San Francisco.
The 1941 movie version of “The Maltese Falcon” had Humphrey Bogart shedding his convict roles and providing the perfect “hard-boiled” persona for Sam Spade. This role, plus “Casablanca,” turned Bogart into a super-SUPER-star.
However, several of the San Francisco scenes were not included in the movie, as is often the case when going from print to film. One of the scenes in the book included Hammett’s favorite restaurant at 63 Ellis Street, also in the area called the Tenderloin.
“(Sam Spade) went to John’s Grill, asked the waiter to hurry his order of chops, baked potato, and sliced tomatoes, ate hurriedly, and was smoking a cigarette with his coffee when a thick-set youngish man with a plaid cap set aside above pale eyes and a tough cheery face came into the Grill and to his table,” Hammett wrote. And guess what? John’s Grill is still there, still serving those chops (the Sam Spade special) and oozes with the kind of San Franciscan tradition that leapt off the pages of Hammett’s writings.
The restaurant prides itself on its food (steaks, seafood, those lamb chops, oysters and a thing called the Jack LaLanne Salad), its clientele (the walls are smothered with celebrity photos) and its appearance (dark oak paneled walls, small tables, lines going out the door). John’s Grill was chosen as one of the 10 best by Esquire and featured in Gourmet.
Upstairs, in a case, surrounded by Hammett’s books, is that dang falcon – the one used in the movie.
Hammett is as interesting as any of his characters. A dropout at 13, he worked as a freight clerk, railroad laborer, messenger boy and stevedore before the Pinkerton job. That last stop led him to write his detective mysteries with his first work getting published in 1922. He contracted tuberculosis in World War I while serving as a sergeant in the motor ambulance corps, forcing him to give up his private eye position. He then concentrated on writing.

In 1930, Hammett created Sam Spade, a rough and solitary man who worked outside of the law, and “The Maltese Falcon” went into seven printings its first year. His last novel, 1934’s “The Thin Man,” was a raving success and sparked a series of successful movies. But Hammett would publish no more. He moved to Hollywood, rewriting other people’s scripts and penning radio scripts.
Hammett joined a new circle of friends, including writers Ernest Hemingway and Lillian Hellman, who tried to reform Hammett’s habits of excessive drinking and womanizing. However, they continued their affair for 30 years (see the movie “Julia” for more on this).
After Hollywood, he immersed himself in left-wing politics and worked as a defender of civil liberties. He actually spent time in prison for refusing to name the sources of bail money for a group of communists who jumped bail that Hammett had posted. The IRS went after him for $100,000 in back taxes and he would be haunted by the government for the rest of his life.
Hammett spent the last 10 years of his life in a small rural cottage in Katonah, N.Y., where he continued to drink heavily. He suffered a heart attack in 1955 and died of failing health in 1961. But his real hometown never forgot him.
Although Texas has its long list of literary giants, no city is so connected as in San Francisco. And you can hardly name any place in Texas, save for the bar in the Menger Hotel in San Antonio, where Teddy Roosevelt recruited his Roughriders, with such longevity. Hell, a restaurant that has been around since 1998 is considered ancient in this market.
The meal Jodie and I enjoyed was superb – perfect for our anniversary. As Spade said, and Hammett wrote, “It was the stuff that dreams are made of.”

Thursday, September 15, 2005

Day 11 - The accidental tourist (part 1)

Day 11 from the road in San Francisco where we discovered two things. First, Mark Twain was absolutely correct when he wrote, “The coldest winter I ever experienced was the summer I spent in San Francisco.” The calendar might think it’s still summer, but outside by the bay, it’s fall going onto winter. Lows were in the 40s this AM, the fog hung low and long over the Golden Gate Bridge, covering up the sun and people were wearing all methods of heavier coats except for those out-of-town idiots who didn’t pack enough of that kind of apparel.
Like us.
Second, a lot of people walk in this city and talk the numerous means of public transportation. We discovered this because driving is a pain in the ass. As we discovered trying to reach our Day 11 destinations. We got an eyeful of all sorts of neighborhoods, drove down part of Lombard Street and imagined Steve McQueen flying in his Shelby Cobra like he did in “Bullitt.”
On Saturday, it will be strictly street and cable cars to Fisherman’s Wharf. No fooling around with Mother Nature.
The following theme - being an accidental tourist (different from the book and movie) – will be repeated during this trip. It will refer to getting lost while looking for one thing and finding something just as neat and wonderful.
Example: While trying to find the Cabrillo National Monument in San Diego, we accidentally ended up in Coronado, getting to see the famous Hotel del Coronado (made famous in “Some Like It Hot”).
Here are a few accidental places we found to eat that proved to be superb.
Along Harbor Drive in San Diego, we literally stumbled upon Anthony’s Fish Grotto and had perhaps the best bowl of New England clam chowder ever, including the kind served in Boston. Part of this Southern California town for 59 years, it was opened in 1946 by “Mama” Ghio, her two sons and son-in-law. Mama brought those unique old-world recipes that only she knew and developed some new ones as the years went past.
It’s one of those places where you could die from overeating because so much of the menu sounds so good. Most of the items are based on her recipes although it was sad to learn that no cookbook featuring the top recipes has ever been published. If it does, put me down on the wish list.
There are scores of fast food places in California but since 1948, the yellow arrow has been special. The In and Out is simply the best fast food hamburger we’ve ever eaten. Here’s the menu - hamburger, cheeseburger, double-double (burger), fries, milk shakes, drinks, that’s all. No salads, no chicken sandwiches, no club sandwiches or egg rolls. Just plain fresh-made food and in your hand fast!
Each burger is made from fresh meat, not frozen and the French fries are cut daily on the premises. Believe me, you can taste the difference. And the milk shakes use REAL ice cream, not that frozen ice milk junk for others.
The first In-N-Out Burger was founded by Harry and Esther Snyder in Baldwin Park, Calif. Snyder’s concept of a drive-through hamburger stand had customers ordering via a two-way speaker box - deemed quite unique at the time. “In that era, it was common to see carhops serving those who wanted to order food from their car. Harry’s idea caught on and California’s first drive-thru hamburger stand was born,” according to the website.
The business grew slowly to 18 locations when Harry died in 1976 and his sons took control. By 1993, there were 93 In and Outs in California and eventually the business expanded beyond the Golden State’s borders; hundreds exist in California, Arizona and the Northwest.
Well worth the stop along the road.
In Oceanside (which served Camp Pendleton and Miramar AFB), lies the famous 101 Café – open since 1928 at 631 South Coast Highway. It’s probably been the same since that date - just a 20-table diner with great breakfasts (served all day), good lunches and dinners. It is named for the classic strip of California road, which is akin to Route 66 for America.
Highway 101 was the main access from Los Angeles to San Diego until 1953 when Highway 101 was relocated to the present location after the construction of Interstate 5.
It has adapted with the changes in the restaurant business, probably because it hasn’t changed. The waitresses know the regulars because those are the everyday people in this beach town.
And you can’t beat the corned beef hash or sourdough toast.
Finally, as he drove from Los Angeles to San Francisco, our midway point for a rest stop found us in San Luis Obispo. In the distance, I could see this large structure and it looked like a good place to stop.
No, make it a great place to stop. It was the Madonna Inn, built out of rocks from the mountains that overlooked the property.
It’s been operated by the Madonna family for 45 years (are you sensing a pattern here?) and doesn’t do things in a plastic way. Coffee is served in fine china. Tables in the Copper Café are made of real copper. The chairs all have hearts on them and if the fresh cakes and pies don’t kill you, the rock candy swizzle sticks for the ice tea just might do the trick.
There is a marble banister next to the Gold Rush Steak House that used to belong in Hearst Castle, in nearby San Simeon.
There is a wine tasting room for the vintages made just for the Inn and a classic gourmet shop. There’s even a men’s clothing store – in the middle of nowhere!
You can find these treasures throughout America if you look, listen (to your tummy and heart) and stop.
Next, I will tell you of a San Francisco legend and the stuff that dreams are made of.

Day 9 - Happy anniversary, baby; got you on my mind!

Day 9 from the road in THE City, San Francisco, Calif., one of the spectacular venues in America. We filled up the Escape in Soledad, Calif., after visiting the Pinnacles National Monument at $3.13 per gallon, the highest rate thus far.
Soledad is in the famous Salinas Valley, the heart of this nation’s vegetable producers, and the community’s occupants appear to be among those you see harvesting the various items (lettuce, broccoli, peppers, cabbage, you name it) – meaning they stoop in the fields to make sure all that leafy stuff and much of the country’s fruit hit the shelves at Kroger. It would be sensible to think that such labor doesn’t exactly pay well. However, it is odd to see such high gas prices, - 14 cents a gallon more than in big, bad Los Angeles or its outlying cities.
Makes you wonder.
Tomorrow is my fourth anniversary as the proud husband of one, Jodie Ann Zoeller. We were married on the Saturday following Sept. 11, 2001, and it was one wild weekend. Jodie’s sister was barely able to fly out of San Antonio and my son got arrested in Corsicana for an unknown speeding ticket at 2 a.m., leaving his fiancé and two sisters in a waiting room while he spent time in the click with some guy named “Tiny.” All the while, I waited … and waited … and waited … until they arrived at 6 a.m.
We then had to buy him a suit since his other one was stolen at a collegiate laundromat. I think you get the picture.
Then again, it’s been a fairly wild four years. We’ve enjoyed wonderful days and nights of spectacular travel – from Hawaii to upstate New York and the Catskills to Mackinac Island to New Orleans to Chicago to our current excursion.
There have been some tough times. I underwent triple bypass open-heart surgery three months after exchanging vows, I lost one job and gave up another when the travel time (three hours) was killing me and we gave up our privacy and our home to try to improve the lot of Jodie’s sister and daughter for three years. It caused a lot of friction and might have caused permanent cracks in other people’s relationships.
But we survived because, based on prior experiences, we seem to be survivors. Each of us has gone through divorce and we’ve been alone for long periods of time. Neither of us like the latter and are determined that this will be a lasting relationship.
That’s good. It makes our backs a little more like that of a duck. Some things just need to roll off without causing problems. That permits quality time to be dedicated to serious issues. It is what I would tell anyone in a marriage. “Don’t sweat the small stuff” is a truism. Concentrate on the meaningful issues, involve each other in the decision and stay with what you’ve concurrently decided … unless circumstances dictate otherwise.
I am not the easiest person to live with and I have my moments of spontaneous combustion. It takes a special person to accept that and try to nurture me despite it all. That’s what Jodie does and she earns any and every marital award in the world.
I wish I could shower her in chocolate, flowers, books and a TV with a VCR AND DVD player in one.
But for now, my unwavering love and long hugs and kisses will have to suffice. Somehow, while we enjoy a special dinner in San Francisco at a legendary eatery (John’s Grill, home of the real Maltese Falcon), I will toast my good fortune of having her in my life for the rest of my life.
God willing that will be a long, LONG time.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Day 8 - Out of mind and into my car

Greetings from Day 8 on the road in Los Angeles, where half the cable television stations in our hotel speak a language unfamiliar to my ears. For the first time, I have seen a Chinese network delivering the news, complete with that CNN-type scrawl along the bottom of the screen. Quite the sight!
You can easily drive across the country and never know what is happening in your hometown, your home state, the state you are in (literally and figuratively) or anywhere else in the world. Significant portions of the nation area simply too remote to receive normal radio signals and often those stations within range give the news as little attention as possible – prioritizing it behind the local minister’s mid-afternoon evangelizing or the wheat and cattle prices.
Unless you are within the immediate circulation region of a major metropolitan daily paper, the edition received in the nether region has old news. Of course, it’s not old if you are totally unaware that it has taken place.
News delivery is not a problem in Los Angeles. Every network and radio syndicate is on the air. If you make it here, you make it everywhere. I confess that I have yet to hear the sex advice call-in shows (if they, in fact, exist) and the adjustment to certain shows (live here means far earlier than otherwise the norm) is not easy. Watching new national network news at 6:30 p.m. LA time meant ABC was not among them, since Monday Night Football was already underway. It must be a kick to enjoy baseball or football with breakfast tacos.
Monday’s big LA news story was a massive blackout in midday, caused by a careless public works employee and a bad countermove. Never has so much been made about a blackout than turned out to be so benign. The ABC radio station was broadcasting its sister TV stations telecast live on the radio, which doesn’t work when the anchorman goes, “Wow, look at that picture!” Bad radio.
The big news connection had this action as a possible terrorist attack because some kid from the O.C., who gave up on girls and turned to Al-Qaeda (couldn’t have been because the clothes are hipper?), threatened Los Angeles and Melbourne in a tape. No one is taking this guy seriously, which could be a mistake, but the man’s history and background suggests low-level lackey. Besides, terrorists probably shouldn’t call us “infidel dudes.”
Still, as a news junkie, I am a newspaperman and I love collecting newspapers from most of the communities I visit. My floorboard will be stuffed with half-read editions from Phoenix, El Paso, San Diego, Los Angeles and (future to come) San Francisco, Albuquerque, Amarillo and all points in between.
But to the totally oblivious to the world around you, just play your CDs. All the time. Music erases the realities of life on the road. And you can literally orchestrate many of your experiences – pre-program your background music.
While at the Grand Canyon, play Grofe’s “Grand Canyon Suite.” (I will.) In the Joshua Tree National Park, play anything off U2’s album, “The Joshua Tree.” (I did.)
Beach Boys music while driving up the Pacific Coast Highway? You betcha. Tony Bennett in his city by the bay? Of course. Crank up Randy Newman’s “I Love L.A.” while flying down the Santa Monica Freeway? What do you think?
The Cowboys’ score? Who cares? I’ve got the Who playing. Flood? What flood? I’ve got the newest Sheryl Crow CD.
When you are driving and taking photos and seeing the beautiful sights of this great land, it is easy to lose track of time and events. You don’t need a trunk full of CDs to do it.
Just before departure, we picked up one of Jodie’s co-workers at DFW Airport and we were telling her of the big news, involving Hurricane Katrina and the sad fate of New Orleans. The woman was only faintly aware of the circumstances and not the details.
“I haven’t seen the news in a week,” she said. “All I’ve been doing is playing with my grandchildren. You tend not to focus on anything else; least of all the news.”
Oy vay! In a few months, I might be totally out of it.
Ask me then if I care.

Days 7-8 - Believe me, not your lying eyes!

Greetings on Days 7-8 from Los Angeles, Calif., where apparently some yahoo utility worker with a $3.99 pair of wire cutters can put a million people in the dark. Gas is at $2.85 a gallon in the OC to $3.13 near the OJ. But the nagging question remains, “If oil prices are falling, why haven’t pump prices reflected that?” Oh, well, why would the consumer actually get a break these days?
Having just visited San Diego, one of the places we drove through was the Gaslamp Historic District in downtown San Diego. Once again, it is everything that downtown Dallas is NOT – vibrant, crowded and active. And much of the activity centers around the new baseball stadium built in that zone – Petco Park, home the National League Padres.
For several square blocks, this section of San Diego is thick as thieves with restaurants of every conceivable genre (including more Irish pubs than perhaps Boston or the Emerald Isle itself), shops, art galleries, apparel stores and other kind of businesses. One of the best known restaurants is Croce’s, owned and operated by the widow of the late singer Jim Croce (“Operator,” “Bad Bad Leroy Brown”) and serves as a tribute to his memory. There is a quality restaurant and a live music venue featuring the likes of son AJ Croce, Rita Coolidge and other top-flight entertainers. Down the street is the House of Blues.
The world-famous San Diego Zoo is located in Balboa Park, one of America’s great central gathering sites. Most of the city’s museums and located there plus the stunning Casa de Balboa, which has to be seen to be believed. Whatever Dallas thinks it can create along the Trinity River can never, EVER be what already can be found at Balboa Park, Grant Park, Central Park and countless other proven urban plans.
Observers of social science and economics can pontificate all they wish about the pros and cons of stadium funding. Obviously, it would be better of such facilities were built with private dollars than any kind of taxpayer help. But the benefits seem overwhelming in favor of the kind of redevelopment and energizing these things brings to the tourist-entertainment table.
It is not unlike the old burlesque joke about the wife coming into the bedroom and catching her husband in bed with a naked woman.
“What is that woman doing in my bed?” the wife screams.
“What woman; there’s no one here,” the husband says in the most monotone voice.
“THAT WOMAN! Right there!” the wife shouts, pointing an accusatory finger at the naked blonde trying to covert up with the sheets.
“There’s no one here I tell you,” he says calm as a cucumber. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
In her most shrill voice, as her face contorts, with veins sticking out like licorice sticks, the wife shouts, “I know what I see. That woman right there!”
The husband sits upright and look his wife straight in the eye and answers, “Who are you going to believe? Me or your lying eyes?”
Figures might state one case but as a traveler, my eyes show me another reality. Cities like Cleveland, Baltimore, Houston, Atlanta, Oklahoma City … and San Diego have active center city/downtown business and entertainment regions, centered around the construction and attendance at a baseball stadium. If you multiply 82 days (and nights) times 30,000 fans, then you begin to understand the potential of such a people magnet.
It will never happen for Dallas. Twice, the opportunity slipped from the fingers of city leaders – in 1972 when the Washington Senators moved and the late 1980s when Rangers ownership wanted a new stadium. In both instances, downtown Dallas was never the answer even though it was the remedy.
San Antonio, because of its transient military basis, is the largest American city without either a major league baseball or NFL franchise (let’s NOT move the New Orleans Saints there on a permanent basis; it isn’t fair to that ravaged city). The Alamo City, which has pushed past Dallas in population, has never gained national respect as a sports town. However, Dallas has neither a major league nor an NFL franchise within ITS borders (soon to be an Arlington address for the Rangers AND Cowboys).
Meanwhile, the West End and Deep Ellum are dwindling in terms of attendance. Something needs to have been done but it’s too late now. There are as many reasons NOT to visit downtown Dallas as there are to visit any part of San Diego. And they, my friends, are numerous.

Saturday, September 10, 2005

Days 5-6 - San Diego (Beauty by the Bay)

Greetings on Days 5-6 from San Diego, California, one of America’s truly beautiful places to visit or live, where gas is frozen, it seems, at $2.99 a gallon. But enough on that; we aren’t worried about a fill-up until Monday.
This is a wonderful city – clean, gorgeous visually, perfect weather-wise. It passes the vacationers test. If you can answer the following question affirmatively, “Do you need a week to see most of the city’s attractions?” then it is a city worthy of visiting.
Two weeks is probably a more accurate response for San Diego. Aside from the well-known attractions like the San Diego Zoo, SeaWorld (the original is still the best) and Six Flags, the incredible golf courses (Torrey Pines, LaCosta), the beaches, the resorts and the world famous hotels (Hotel del Coronado), there are hidden treasures to be found. Legoland might be the nation’s most unusual amusement park where real life structures are recreated in 1/20th size with Lego pieces. A great national park – Cabrillo National Monument – has a lighthouse you can climb into and a spectacular view of San Diego Bay and the hundreds upon hundreds of sailboats and ships scurrying about. If you’re lucky, you can hear and see seals darting about.
And museums by the score. I’ve never seen so many diverse museums in one city - from antique gas and steam engines to making music to photography to surfing to model railroads to real railroads. The USS Midway now serves as an aircraft carrier museum and two tall ships (the Star of India being one of them) anchors the Maritime Museum along the lovely Harbor Drive.
Not to mention places like the Gaslamp Quarter Historic District, Old Town San Diego, Balboa Park … oops, Tijuana is just a couple of miles down the road.
See what I mean? A few days just doesn’t justice to such an area. Tomorrow is a trip to the zoo to see pandas, primates, polar bears and sea lions.
* * *
The San Diego traffic has been quite manageable. Of course, traffic is traffic and it all depends on your perspective.
I speculate that the volume of traffic in Los Angeles directly correlates to the overwhelming number of freeway miles. There are SO many numbers to remember it is mind-boggling. Take 10 to the 710 to the 101 to the 405 and miss the 215. The lotto drawing doesn’t have that many numbers.
I was warned about the thickness and slowness of the Los Angeles commute, but we made it from LAX to San Diego (at 5 p.m. on a Friday) in two hours - even with an unexpected detour through the beautiful little community of Oceanside, which serves Camp Pendleton’s Marines and Miramar’s top gun navy fliers (you remember “Top Gun” right?).
What has been most bizarre (to me) is the use of the carpool lane, also known in other lands as the high occupancy vehicle lane (HOV). Not only has its principle been violated far more often than obeyed (despite a visible $341 fine to be assessed) but every individual motorcyclist uses its narrow paths (it seems) at a higher rate of speed than the rest of us. I’d like some Californian to explain how a motorcycle qualifies when the laws requires two or more occupants in a vehicle to use that faster lane.
I am sure that traffic will become an issue on the way back to Los Angeles, but weather was to have been an issue and a cold front has kept it very, very mild. The highs this week in SoCal will only reach the low 70s and the lows will be in the low 60s. Who could ask for anything more after sweating the oldies in Arizona and having to live in the heat and humidity of North Texas?

Friday, September 09, 2005

Day 4 - How I loathe the motel

Day 4 on the road in the low end of the High Desert of California (Riverside) where gas is $2.99 and holding. Oddly enough, I hear stories about oil prices falling and gas prices falling in DFW, but it isn’t reflected in other parts of the country.
I know it’s Day 5 but I could not execute the blog or e-mail on Day 4 because of the not-so-helpful folks at the Comfort Inn. The free Internet service in the room didn’t work and no one was terribly interested in fixing the problem. Of course, the reasoning was ridiculous.
“Some other guest had the same problem,” said the night desk kid.
“Don’t you think you should contact someone?” I asked.
“Naw, for two out of 60 rooms?” he answered.
“One incident is isolated; two is a problem,” I said.
No one was contacted and nothing was done. So I went into the lobby, which is wireless to do my work. And the management will eventually know how lousy the customer service was.
Being in the motel business must be pretty good. There are scores upon scores of different chain names, although many of them are clustered under a few corporations (Accor, Choice, etc.). The Mom and Pop entities might be disappearing but the sterilized, sameness of a Motel 6/Best Western/Comfort Inn are dotting the landscape in increasing numbers.
That, however, doesn’t mean improvement. Far from it.
How do I loathe the motel? Let me count the ways.
The showers are too short while the towels are too small and too hard (a little Downy please?). The soap always seems to crack in your hands as you wash. I should note that one Best Western in Boerne, Texas, had hand dispensers in the shower for soap, shampoo and gel (a wise investment to avoid waste).
The beds are too hard, the blankets are too thin and the sheets rip off the mattress if you just touch them. The air conditioning unit is too loud and is only operates under ice cold or broiling hot. And I could write “War and Peace” about the many foibles.
All too often, the prices - for what you eventually get - are too high. Unless you want to spend more for a little luxury (usually associated with the multi-story hotels), economy is a prime consideration when traveling.
Once I heard a car dealer give a perfect explanation about his business, “All Fords are the same; the difference is in the service.” All motels are basically the same; the difference is how the traveler is treated. On this night, this traveler was not treated as well as he should have been.
Now it’s on to LAX to meet the espousa and headed to San Diego for a weekend of wild animals, zoos and heavy traffic. And that will just be the hotel check-in.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

Day 3 on the road from the Arizona oven

Day 3 from the road in oven-hot Phoenix (108 degrees by some roadside signs) where the price of gas is consistently $3.09 despite news reports of falling oil prices. There is no evidence that the consumer is seeing it at the pump. Finding gas for $2.99 in Tucson was like finding gold because it was as high as $3.17 at many stations.
Today was about meeting old friends. Dinner was spent with John Fearing, executive director of the Arizona Press Association and a former Texas publisher when he owned by Eagle Lake Headlight. I knew John back in the early 1980s when he worked for the paper in Lockhart and I printed my Nixon News and Stockdale Star at that press.
It had been almost 25 years since I last saw John and only became aware of his location after a story about the passing of his former wife. Personal reconnections are often strange in their inception.
Stories flew back and forth like chips and salsa at a Mexican restaurant and we discovered that our experiences (marriage, children, health) were quite similar. How bizarre!
Lunch was held with a former Lancaster resident, Forrest Cheuvront, at his retirement community in Sun Lakes, Arizona. After each of us detailed and updated our lives following our mutual departures from Lancaster, we discussed a bit of history that each of us shared more than a decade ago.
Forrest was a city councilman when the tornadoes devastated Lancaster in April 1994. He had to work with local officials, local public safety personnel and … FEMA. As he has watched the latest news, he sees the events through the eyes of someone who had been there, done that.
“We lost all our communications with our fire and police,” he said. “No one knew who was doing what for the first few hours. We only knew when the TV cameras went into some of the Town Square (downtown Lancaster) businesses. The first hours were total chaos.”
Many agencies responded before FEMA arrived and it was hard for Forrest to watch as bulldozers crushed the remnants of what once constituted the center city homes.
“People were told they had no choice and no time to react,” Forrest remembered. “It was just done and that was that!”
Lancaster has rebounded after years of malaise, but it has never fully recovered and it will never be what it once was. The tornadoes struck Town Square 30 days after it was designated as a Texas Main Street. It never recovered.
That’s what old friends do – they remember.
And finally, I am amused but often disgusted with the talk/cable reaction to what happened in New Orleans and on the Gulf Coast days after Hurricane Katrina struck. White conservative males seem to “hate hearing about the blame game” yet seem insistent on talking about it – constantly! Talk yakker Michael Savage, a particularly heinous bigot who is syndicated in far too many markets, even had the chutzpah to call the evacuees “bums” and labeled New Orleans as a “degenerate” city. This is a man who needs to have his tongue suddenly stricken in order to silence him.
But you see the TV reporters going to various homes seeking survivors, but a few of them have gotten personally involved by “rescuing” people (if you call filming them going into a boat as that).
I have rescued someone from raging floodwaters in my life and it ain’t like you think. While I lived in small-town rural Texas, torrential rains swamped the local creeks and stranded many people from safety. Back in the day, before Hummers ruled the road, most vehicles could not traverse high water. So it was the human element that had to effect rescues.
In my younger days, when I was in slightly better shape, I served as a volunteer fireman; actually just an excuse to go on the fire trucks with a camera in my hand. On this day, the call came for a high water rescue of an Hispanic family trying to cross the flooded creek.
The truck could not afford to be stuck and most of the men weren’t as big as me. So I was “volunteered” to walk through waist high water to help lead these people to safety. With a rope around my waist, I walked on a roadway through the increasing torrent of moving water toward these people.
All I wondered was what life forms were swimming past my body and what they would do in the case of a collision. Still, I made it successfully and help bring those people to safe arms. And nothing bit me, although the stench from the water stayed in my clothes for weeks, even after repeated washings (imagine how New Orleans and Mississippi will SMELL like in the coming months).
I felt good to have done something to help others. It wasn’t anything heroic because it needed to be done. I was just the one chosen to do it – which describes what a volunteer fireman does. It wasn’t done for the headlines; that’s the most important thing.
Tomorrow is a reunion with my sister in California and her adopted daughter. Uncle Buck shows up! Should be … interesting.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Day 2 on the road again - the rain, the parks and other things

Day 2 from the road with gas selling for $3.09 in Tucson, Arizona. This is one of the cleanest cities I have ever seen and looks like you could eat off the highways when compared to much of Texas’ trash-strewn roadways.
The best way to see the USA is in a Chevrolet, or in my case, a Ford Escape. Flying thousands of miles way up in the cloud-covered air is no method of appreciate the native beauty of this land. It must be done face-to-face, in person, up close and personal and other standard clichés.
I am a major fan of the National Parks Service and the nationwide system of national parks, monuments, memorials, recreation areas and other lands under that agency’s auspices. I made a wise investment in a National Parks Pass which, for $50, gains me access to any park charging an admission fee. Today alone I saved $15.
Whether it was the Chamizal National Monument in El Paso or the unbelievably beautiful Saguaro National Park in Tucson, it is a program that is worthy of everyone’s attention, including a bigger piece of the federal budget. We underfund our parks system woefully; we think it’s a luxury when the truth is that this is our heritage and our history. It is educational, it is inspiring (to see a valley filled with those giant cacti is awesome) and it is America.
No complaint? (You knew there would be one). Not enough national park land in Texas and none in North Texas. Why? Not enough history to preserve? Bunk! The Eisenhower Home in Denison should be under the guise of the National Park Service. Dealey Plaza should be a national memorial. And don’t get me started on the second most recognized symbol of liberty in this nation – the Alamo. It should be a national park.
I’ll be totally anal and continue my quest to fill up my Passport (a fun way to investigate park service properties through stamps and imprints) and tomorrow promises Casa Grande Ruins and Tonto National Park. I should add more than 20 visits on this trip and still won’t make a dent into the final total.
But I want to try until I die.
Finally I want to delve into time and continue to ask the question, “Why can’t all our watches just get along?”
As I woke up this morning in Van Horn, Texas, the room phone delivered my wake-up call promptly at 7 a.m. And it was pitch black outside. How could that be?
Easy. Van Horn is the last outpost of civilization in Texas within the Central Time Zone. As soon as I crossed the Hudspeth County line, it gained (or was it lost?) an hour.
I watched the sunrise over Main Street as I departed the hotel …at 7:45 a.m., which in Dallas is like spotlight bright. It was weird but when I queried the front desk clerk about it, she shrugged her shoulders to say, “No biggie! We’re used to it.”
Once I crossed into Arizona, I gained (or lost) another hour. Not because Arizona is in the Pacific zone, but it refuses to recognize Daylight Savings Time. So it was 11 a.m., now 10 a.m. when it used to be 12 noon when it was … AAAAAAAARRRRRGGGG!
When will the government stop fooling around with the clocks? The answer is never since a part of the Transportation Bill will “extend” daylight savings time for two additional months. “Standard” time will no longer be the “standard.”
It’s so silly, unless you’ve been driving for 11 hours and you want dinner but the clock reads 4:30 p.m. Your tummy says “Let’s eat now,” but your brain asks you to wait.