Saturday, November 1, 2008

New Orleans

I stopped in New Orleans on the way back east. Figured I'd stay two nights so as to have a full day in the motel so I could do a Skype video meeting with my violin people in NY. Driving into town at night, I spotted a Best Western on Rampart, on the edge of the French Quarter across from Louis Armstrong Park, and checked in.

Tuesday night I walked over to Bourbon St. from my hotel, and was dazzled by the sights and sounds. Loud music filling streets from many sources, all at once, and people filling the street, closed to traffic. Kinda like Burning Man, but not techno, just rock, jazz, and blues. Here, you can smoke in bars, and drink in the street, so the scene resembles one big party. There are cops around, watching for real crime. Cops in NY and other towns devote so much time and effort combating all these harmless vices which are legal in New Orleans. I can't help but imagine a world where this stuff was permitted - what harm would it really do? Society is so jammed up with constraints.

I asked some dude if the streets were always like this, and he said it was a little more now with all the people arriving throughout the week for Halloween. I am not into Halloween at all, but I've heard how wild the French Quarter gets on that holiday, and if there's anywhere to see Halloween, it's here. So it seemed foolish to leave town on Thursday, and I extended my stay to four nights. It's gonna require some long driving days to get back to NYC in time for next Friday's Acid Rayz gig, but I'll do it.

I've gotten pretty used to not drinking, not only on this trip, but since last year, when I started using the car to go out all the time. But here I was on foot again, and with the streets so crowded with staggering revelers, I had a few Tequilas in various bars. Scantily-clad girls walk around the bars with little racks of test tubes filled with exotic liquors, so I figured I'd try one. This hot little black chick offered me a shot, I said 'sure', and before I knew what was happening, she gulped the test tube, put a double tube thing in her mouth, took my head with both hands, inserted the tubes in my mouth, and ejected the shot into me! Some passing thoughts of germs, AIDS, but hey, tequila is like Listerine - kills germs on contact.

After months of driving alone, and two weeks of being grandpa with the kids in Texas, this night propelled me back into the intensity of decadent night life. Stopped in several clubs, danced to some bands, and walked a crooked line back to the hotel.

Wednesday, I walked a few blocks to the Clover Grill on Bourbon for breakfast. The French Quarter is really gorgeous, retaining the classic look and feel of 18th-century architecture. I had my Skype video meeting in the afternoon, and worked on the violin website for hours. At night, I returned to Bourbon Street. Same deal, a few more people. I talked to a 50-year-old dude hanging out on the street, a native who reminisced about the scene 25 years ago - "THIS was THE corner where you could buy anything - coke, dope, 5 different kinds of acid; and all these T-shirt shops, they were all head shops before they were converted." I thought of how it feels to stand on the Lower East Side and recall the 80s & 90s, same thing. It's not just NY that's cleaned up, it's a different world everywhere. The times they are a-changing. And they're gonna keep right on changing.

I also got reminded of the fact that I never liked to drink much even before the car became a factor. Only a couple of drinks, and I felt impaired, pissed off at having drank alcohol. Of course it was less dazzling the 2nd night, and it all started to look a bit insane.

Thursday night, I laid off the alcohol entirely, and walked the length of Bourbon St. with a combination grin and smirk. Sobriety is definitely counterindicated for this environment. And as fantastic as the crawfish pasta dinner I ate tasted, I started to feel like I had a live rat in my stomach. So I cut it all short and went back early, surfing cable channels till 3AM.

By Halloween night, I'd started to question why I had stayed in town for this. At least, if I'd known I was gonna be in NOLA for Halloween, I could've stayed in Austin a couple more days. But this was no Thursday night. The party atmosphere was high, nearly everyone was in costume, Bourbon Street felt like a midtown subway station at rush hour. But of course there was the loud music emanating from every bar. Not just bars, pizza joints serve alcohol here and blast music too - it's a party everywhere. I wasn't gonna drink, but I stopped in one bar to check out a really great blues band, and the waitress made it clear I was expected to buy something. So one shot of tequila want down (a big one!), and provided a little buzz. Moderation is the key (I have to keep re-learning).

It was fascinating to observe the transition in the crowd as the hours passed, and everyone (else) became drunker and drunker. So many monsters with cellphones pressed against their faces! And many more cops watching it all go on, grinning and shaking their heads.

I'd had enough after about five hours, and my back was getting sore. I suspect that all these months of sitting in the car haven't been good for my body - gotta start using that bicycle I wound up carting all the way back to NY.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Leaving Austin

I've said goodnight to my two grandsons for the last time on this trip, and I'm facing the fact that I have to leave this place tomorrow to head back to NYC. After 8 weeks on the road all over the USA, I settled in at my son's home here just outside of Austin on the shores of Lake Travis, and I've gotten really comfortable being with my family (and vice versa) over the past two weeks.

It won't be a straight run back to NY, as I'm going through the south (along the Gulf Coast and up the Eastern seaboard), and I've got to get back into "road mode" and enjoy the rest of this trip. Of course, I don't love the south like I do the western states, and I'm dreading the colder weather after basking in the sunshine for so long with the top down. But the south has its charm, and it's not New York. I look forward to breakfasts at Waffle House, where the first question from the waitress is "Y'all need an ash tray?". Not just about the smoke, but what the lack of that legislation indicates about courtesy, consideration, and preservation of individual freedom.

I attended a concert by my son JP's choir today, and they closed with a composition called Untraveled Worlds, based on a poem entitled Ulysses by Alfred Lord Tennyson, which reminded me of why I went on this trip (talking about it in the past tense already - hey, not so soon!), and why I wanna keep on traveling (beyond the US borders in the future).

I cannot rest from travel: I will drink
Life to the lees: all times I have enjoyed
Greatly, have suffered greatly, both with those
That loved me, and alone.
I am a part of all that I have met;
Yet all experience is an arch wherethrough
Gleams that untravelled world, whose margin fades
For ever and for ever when I move.

How dull it is to pause, to make an end,
To rust unburnished, not to shine in use!
As though to breathe were life. Life piled on life
Were all too little, and of one to me
Little remains: but every hour is saved
From that eternal silence, something more,
A bringer of new things; and vile it were
For some three suns to store and hoard myself,
And this grey spirit yearning in desire
To follow knowledge like a sinking star,
Beyond the utmost bound of human thought.

Come, my friends,
'Tis not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.
Tho' much is taken, much abides; and though
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

And not to yield!

Monday, October 20, 2008

Coffee Shop Infiltration

I went to Quack's Coffee Shop in Austin to wait for JP and the babysitter bringing Gabe. At Quack's they offer Red and Blue M (McCain) and O (Obama) shortbread cookies, and they post a tally on a chalkboard showing the current number of cookie votes (Obama being far ahead, of course). Intent on making my contribution to this blue-town-in-red-state phenomenon, I ordered a Red M. I could hardly believe my eyes when the cheery counter guy reached in and handed me a Blue O! Hello? Has ACORN gotten its paws into the coffee shops too? Swaying the little chalkboard polls? Probably not, in actuality. But here's yet another sucker who just can't process the information when someone actually says "M".

Then yesterday, I was at Quack's again to meet the family. This time the tally was even more skewed, maybe 20-25 for Obama and just 3 for McCain. I ordered another Red M, and got it this time. After I paid, the guy just went lazily about his counter business, obviously having no intention of marking my vote on the board. Hey! I directed him to make my mark on the right column, and he did so, obviously reluctantly, but with no apology or excuse as to why he hadn't done it automatically. Also posted in the place was a summary of votes from other Quack's in the chain all around the state (country?), no doubt similarly skewed in favor of O. I know it's only a sample of two instances, but with all we're hearing about ACORN and other fraud (and you know the mainstream media only report what they must, there must be so much more going on that we don't hear about), it's pathetic to see that even a "meaningless" coffee shop poll relies on such dishonorable methods to sway the results even further in the direction of their Savior.

I've gotta learn to deal with this mentality when I move down here - it's even more pronounced than up in NYC!

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Big Bend Country - Alpine, TX

On last year's trip, we left El Paso and went right down to get on I-10, heading straight across Texas to Austin via US 290. But since the family was away for the weekend this time, when I left El Paso Saturday morning after two nights in the Day's Inn, I turned off I-10 at the little town of Van Horn and headed down along US 90 to check out Big Bend Country in the south of the state. US 90 follows the old Union Pacific railroad line, so the route has lots of little old 19th-century railroad towns.

South of Van Horn, I passed a long freight train going east on tracks some distance from the highway. A few miles on, the tracks ran right alongside the road, so I stopped to wait for the train to get a photo. While I was waiting (looking west), an AMTRAK passenger train surprised me going west. I remembered that this is the route followed by the AMTRAK Sunset Limited from New Orleans to L.A., the line I rode on a cross-country railroad trip back in 1998. [Well, I later realized, I hadn't actually traveled this route then. Coming down from Chicago on the Texas Eagle that year, I'd gotten off in Dallas, rented a car, and visited Austin (before JP lived there) to visit some of his friends. I partied kind of late the last night there, and left past midnight to drive down to San Antonio to catch the Sunset Limited at 5:30 AM. In the pre-iPhone days, I wandered around town a bit before finally locating the AMTRAK station, which was little more than a shed in the rail yards. Just as I pulled up to the station, I saw the train pulling out for the west. So I dropped the car at the airport and caught a flight to El Paso, where I caught the train last that afternoon. So I'd missed Big Bend Country in '98.]

I like passenger trains even more than freights (gotta catch 'em while they last), so I turned the car around and went back westward to find a spot to get shot of the train approaching. The tracks veered away from the road again, and we were separated for several miles by an orchard. Past the orchard, I finally found a road heading towards the tracks, and turned onto it. After driving about a mile on the rugged dirt road, I came to a crossing and got out to wait. I could see the AMTRAK headlight way in the distance and set up my shot. After quite a while, it became obvious that the train wasn't moving. The iPhone Google maps actually worked out there, so I found my location, and noticed that behind the orchard, the track split into two - there was a siding, where trains often wait for a train in the other direction to pass. Ah, it must be waiting for the freight I saw before, so I waited. And waited. Then I realized that this might go on for an hour or more (remembering such delays on my train trip), and decided to go back the way I came and take one of the little roads going through the orchard which led right to the siding. After making my way along the dirt road back to the highway (the rattling of the car gave me Nevada flashbacks), I turned east again, only to see the Sunset Limited in the distance heading west right towards the spot where I'd been waiting. No time to go back, nearly an hour
wasted for a photo not obtained. Referring back to the map, I realized that where I was waiting for the freight to pass was very close to where I'd passed it before, so It was obviously long gone past the AMTRAK when I got there. OH WELL, sez me, you can't win 'em all. I passed that same freight train several times along US 90 as I made my way southwest, stopping occasionally for gas, lunch, etc.

I decided to take a detour off US 90 and head up to Fort Davis, where there was an historical exhibit. On the smaller road, through the hills, the countryside was really awesome; not like the mountains up north, much more barren in the prairies. I pulled into the Fort Davis lot at 5:15 PM, only to find that it had closed at 5 PM. Really surprised me, as the sun was still fairly high off the horizon. I'd gotten used to pretty early sunsets, since Arizona doesn't do Daylight Savings Time, and PDT had stayed with me all the way through AZ. Then New Mexico got me on Mountain Daylight Time, and after El Paso I entered Central Daylight Time, where the sun set much later than yesterday (particularly in the western part of CDT). So, no Fort, but the extra hours of sunshine are cool.

After going back down to rejoin US 90 at Marfa, I continued east into the hills. I'd decided to stop for the night at Alpine, which had an above-average selection of motels according to google. But, weary of the same old nationwide chains, I picked a small local motel - Motel Bien Venido - in order to patronize the locals. It was the cheapest ever ($38), cruddiest ever (light bulbs out, table & no chair, ancient toilet facilities), but I don't really care about that stuff. As long as I had my internet access (finally getting a good Wi-Fi signal on the 3rd room I tried).

I'd read and heard about the mysterious Marfa lights, an "unexplained phenomenon" visible from the highway back towards Marfa, so I figured it was worth a little 20-mile backtrack to check them out. A major tourist attraction of Marfa, there's even a well-marked roadside observation area, where I pulled in. I thought I'd be the only one out there, but there were a few other cars. Lighting is wisely kept minimal here, and the idea is to look to the southwest in case this is one of the 10% of nights when they're visible. I saw some twinkling near the horizon in the distance, but it sure seemed likely that they were headlights of vehicles on US 67 going south from Marfa to the border town of Presidio. I overheard some dude lecturing a couple of his guests about the lights, going on about PYE-zoelectric effects (it's pee-ay-zo if you've ever heard it and not just read it) and such, and had to roll my eyes. I was still peering at the distant sky near the horizon, hoping to catch a glimpse of something that didn't look like headlights to me, when we few visitors were suddenly surrounded by kids of all ages - three (3!) tour buses had just pulled up and unloaded, and the jabbering masses were a stark contrast to the serenity of the surrounding country. All going on about the "mysterious" lights. I wanna believe (something), but I left tending to side with the various academics who have done studies and concluded that what everyone's been seeing for years are distant vehicle lights.

So, back to the Bien Venido, I caught some late movie on the snowy TV, and finally fell asleep in the sagging old bed. I awoke around 5 AM itching all over, and finding welts wherever I scratched! There had been no sign of mosquitoes, and sure enough, an examination of the bed revealed bedbugs - one under the pillow, another in the sheets, only two out of many more, no doubt. My first encounter with these critters. I got the bug spray out of the car and covered my entire body with it; and, since the other bed in the room was firmer and in better shape, I switched to that on the off chance that bedbugs prefer ratty beds and mattresses. It took quite a while to get back to sleep, not only with the itching, and the concern about more bugs, but I kept realizing that my jaw was tightly clenched in rage at the situation. When I awoke around 8 with only a couple hours of sleep, there were many more welts, and much more itching, demonstrating that bedbugs are not affected by bug spray, and infest beds of any quality with no prejudice. I was ready to give the manager hell, but his little wife was at the desk, and expressed such dismay and concern when I stressed to her the absolute unacceptability of bedbugs in a motel, I just shook my head and stormed out. I'm sure it's a well-worn display of surprise and concern.

I try to keep my expenses down, but a motel price that low should be a warning to keep moving.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Tombstone, AZ

The name Tombstone has been familiar to me most of my life, from the various tales of the wild west where it's mentioned. So I took a detour off my eastward path on I-10 and drove south to visit the place. It's on a high plateau (4500 ft) surrounded by desert and distant mountain ranges. I arrived in late afternoon, determined to find a motel with good internet access in the hope of catching up on work.

I skipped the chain hotels outside of town, preferring something with "local charm". The Tombstone Motel (motto: Rest In Peace) had a Wi-Fi sign and a smoking room, so I checked in; but it turned out that meant you could "usually pick it up" from someplace a block away, and I got no signal, so I got a refund. Down the street, The Larian Motel claimed to have Wi-Fi, but only non-smoking rooms. I've put up with having to break my chain of thought to step outside for smokes too often on this trip, and I was determined. So I went to the Holiday Inn down the road - they were booked solid. Best Western was non-smoking only. Back on the main street, the Adobe Lodge had no Wi-Fi. Finally, the Trail Rider's Inn had Wi-Fi (which "usually works") and smoking rooms, so I settled here. No signal in my room, but good signal at the office, so I got him to move me next door to the office - a non-smoking room, but I did some priority shifting. Ah, but now there was no Wi-Fi signal there either, or even in the office! Antenna-tweaking and power-cycling did nothing. I finally got him to let me run an Ethernet cable directly from his wireless router out the door and into my room, and got access. Only to find that they use some intermediate ISP service I don't quite understand. It seems to take your requests, get the output from the site, and then send it on to you - when it has time. So it's all very slow, and many operations just time out and don't work. The charm of the wide open spaces is offset by the flaky internet access. AND, this room came with no table, so I had to set up the laptop on a shelf in the large closet! Guess I'll try to stay somewhere more urban like El Paso tomorrow.

Tombstone started as a mining town in 1879. Silver mining led to a "boom" in the 1880's, but when the mines dried up, the town shriveled up. The two World Wars provided some business mining much-needed metals, but there's nothing else here. So "the town that wouldn't die" lives on through tourism. I toured the town - Allen Street has this 1880s feel to it, although with a distinct Disneyland quality. The buildings seem quasi-authentic, but like a film set; and gunfight reenactments seem to be a main attraction. The town was designated a National Historic Landmark District in 1961, but in 2004 the National Park Service declared this designation "threatened", due to the way the locals have modified, simulated, and otherwise distorted many historical buildings and facts in the interest of enhancing the tourist experience. I guess a living museum consisting of an accurately preserved/restored frontier town just doesn't have the tourism appeal of the rows of cheesy faux-1880s shops and bars. The main historical event that took place here was the gunfight at the OK Corral between outlaw gangs ("cow-boys") and law officers in which some familiar names were killed. Wow. OK, move on...

I ventured into Big Nose Kate's Saloon for a burger and beer and to soak up the western atmosphere. More like a caricature of a saloon. A book on display inside about the role of Jewish women in the early settlement of the town gave me a funny feeling about the name of the saloon, and the social [un]consciousness of past centuries. I ordered and cancelled a burger - here I am out in the wild west, so close to cattle country, and they will not serve a burger anything but well-done! The creeping Nanny state taking care of me - I take my own risks with rare meat back east, but no can do out here. Makes me wonder how much longer we'll be permitted to eat rare meat in NYC as the new anti-harm laws pile up. Meanwhile, if I must eat well-done beef, it's better in a burrito with all that camouflage.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Heading East

I finally had to say goodbye to San Diego and the Pacific Ocean Friday morning. Before getting back on the road, I stopped in at a service station in Ocean Beach to have some maintenance done on the car - oil change, wheel balancing, and shocks. I got a perfect score - they didn't have oil filers for a 72 Caddy; their wheel balancing computer only handled cars back to 1980; and of course, no shocks. So I went with it as is. I did buy a headlight and had it installed, and found a police station where I could have the summons signed.

I got off the Interstate highway and took a state route so as to ride closer to the land along more winding mountain roads, and closer to the Mexican border. Back on the road again, it felt distinctly different from the earlier part of the trip. Going west, I was not only going through more fantastic landscape every day, but constantly chasing the sun as it headed for the horizon. Now, I had the setting sun to my back, leaving it behind for the darkness of the east; and with every mile I drove, I was bringing the sunset a bit earlier. The inner voices battled: "It's the beginning of the end" vs. "You've got the whole country to cross again, and the Southwest is gorgeous". The return trip is never as exciting, but I'm determined to enjoy it. And of course, the family in Texas pulls me onward.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Yucca Valley "Street"

I checked out of that Best Western and drove 6 miles over to Joshua Tree (the town) to get breakfast at the Country Kitchen, a small restaurant where Gosia and I had enjoyed breakfast last year. The same Chinese proprietor lady was there, beaming good will and cheer and serving great homemade food. As I walked out the front entrance to go around back to get the car, a woman passed me, staring straight ahead and talking to herself. Hmmm, crazies here too. I got in the car, ready to turn onto the highway back to Yucca Valley, and considered having a toke to lighten the day ahead, but decided to put it off, no need.

As I started along the highway, I spotted a hitchhiker, female, and pulled over to let her in. Whoah, the same woman who had just passed me by, looking like something of a blend between someone you'd encounter at Burning Man and the Lower East Side (back in the day). Oh well, freak magnet that I am, I let her in for a ride back to Yucca Valley. Right away she started in, "Oh, my mouth is in such pain, I've got this abscess in my gum..." Wow, I recognized that blurb - it's what she was saying as she passed me on the sidewalk. Obviously she had been rehearsing this monologue for the next person she met. And it went on, "got any pain-killers" (no), "well, what would really kill the pain is a little weed, got any?". Bingo, just after I had put it off, here comes an external influence, so I relented, "sure, a little". So I pulled off the road and rolled a little, and we toked up together. Back on the highway, we had a good laugh as "Don't Bogart That Joint" came over the radio. The 60s station was on, and she was singing along with all the tunes - "This is my music, my parents played all these songs when I was little." I'm not great at guessing ages, but she looked about 40, and taking into consideration the probable detrimental effects of the probably harmful lifestyle she'd been living, I figured mid-30s; and she turned out to be 37.

Regarding the weed, instead of enjoying the slight lift we'd gotten, all she could talk about was getting more, and how fantastic the stuff she was planning to get was (compulsive obsessive). I did need to stock up a bit, but wasn't going to risk buying any significant amount of unknown through some crazy chick I'd met, so I figured I'd go in on a dime with her just to sample it. We pulled into the parking lot of a small mall, at the bank so she could get $10 from the cash machine, and I sat in the car as she went out to meet the guy at the curb holding the pizza place poster for passing cars, who would then call his friend to make a drop-off. All this for such a minuscule transaction. And then the wait stretched into 1/2 hour, then an hour. But it was interesting hanging out with Laura, the pizza dude, and his girlfriend, getting some feeling for local life (of one sort). When it finally showed up, she ran over to me and said "let's go", but I was on the phone with my brother back home, so told her to wait - clearly torture for the poor thing. We did some of it, and it was truly strong, so I just had a touch, and didn't take any more from her. She had me turn on a little street, into an alley, and leave her at the back door to an unmarked "social club" where she was gonna get something to eat. I drove away relieved that I wasn't gonna have to figure out how to get rid of her, but it was an interesting encounter, totally unexpected in a place like Yucca Valley. Ya just never know.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

L.A. - Yucca Valley

I finally left the motel on Ventura Blvd on Wednesday morning. After having the power steering gearbox replaced, I noticed that my fluid was empty again, so the problem hadn't been fixed. So I headed up to Mike's auto again, where he found a stripped bolt on the power steering pump (probably the result of the intense vibrations the car had endured on the rough roads). He fixed it at no charge, and I headed over into the Angeles National Forest to take a scenic route to Joshua Tree.

It's amazing how you can drive such a short distance from L.A. and find yourself in such high mountains, from which you can see downtown miles away. I saw signs on the road saying the road was closed ahead, and figured I'd turn off onto a northbound road out of the forest and continue west. I assumed there'd be a sign denoting the last chance to turn off, but when I finally came to the closed road, I had to drive back 25 miles to find an alternate route up out of the park. Up and over, I drove through flat country, past Victorville, and arrived at Yucca Valley by nightfall.

I checked into a Best Western hotel in Yucca Valley. Took a non-smoking room, too tired to continue searching. Big mistake this time - here, I had to take an elevator down from my 3rd-floor room and walk outside through the lobby every time I wanted a smoke. I know smoking is bad for you, blah-blah, but you'd think businesses could show a little more consideration for their paying customers.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Coast to Ragged Point Inn

I was glad to leave the Surf Motel behind on Sunday morning, and stopped in at Mel's on Geary Blvd. for breakfast. I spend so little time out west, and I've already got myself in a rut - but I love Mel's. Eager to continue my southward journey, I headed down US-101, and got off in Palo Alto to check out the old neighborhood (I'd spent a year out here attending Stanford in '67). I stopped in at a Starbuck's on University Avenue, where I used to shop with my young wife so many years ago, and compared the passing crowds to what it looked like in the 60s (my memories refreshed from having watched Getting Straight the night before). Not quite as drastic a change as, say, the Lower East Side, but a totally different world today.

Back on 101, I turned off before San Jose and headed over towards the coast and Santa Cruz. This part of the coast had no cloud cover, and I soaked up the sun on the drive south from there, passing through Big Sur in the afternoon. I had considered staying there, but I remembered from last year's trip that none of the little motels/cabins had internet, so I kept on going. I've driven this route many times over the years, and it's still one of the most beautiful rides, with the mountains ending right at the coastline, and the waves pounding far below the edge of the road. By late afternoon I was miles down the coast, on the long stretch of CA-1 with hardly any services, and it was starting to look like I wouldn't find a place to stop for the night before San Luis Obispo, when it would be dark. Damn, I didn't wanna be driving this coast highway with so many hairpin turns after dark!

But then, on a long stretch of empty highway north of San Simeon, I spotted the Ragged Point Inn, a hotel with cabins and a restaurant I'd never noticed before, so I pulled in just before sunset. I got an amazing room, with glass doors facing the ocean 350 feet below. The grounds on this piece of rock jutting out from the coast were landscaped, and the restaurant was really fine. Again forgetting about budgeting, I got a great steak and watched the sun go down through the glass walls of the restaurant.

After a few hours online, I went out for a walk and found that there was a full moon. I've seen the Pacific coast many times by day, but I'd never experienced it by the light of the moon. I sat gazing at the waves pounding the rocks far below, their sound breaking the silence of the night. And walking around the gardens was sublime. The light was much lower than daytime, and the colors way subdued - like a faded old black-and-white movie. Looking up at the moon, I saw that there was a this layer of clouds in front of it, moving slowly steadily inland. So I waited for it to pass, knowing that this light would become even brighter after a while. Which it did. Out over the sea, I could see what appeared to be an army of clouds moving in to the shore. I couldn't detect their motion, as they were too far off, but I knew they were advancing as steadily as the cloud had passed revealing the moon. But I stood for a long time taking in this sight, at the edge of the steep slope leading down to the water. As great as this entire adventure has been for me, I couldn't help but think that this was the kind of scene were it might have been even better to have someone at my side to share it with. (Well, I had one person in particular in mind, but we won't go into that here).

San Francisco area

As soon as I got to my motel in Half Moon Bay, I checked the city listings online to see what might be going on up in the city. There were a few bands playing at Annie's Social Club. I'd gone there on last year's trip, but although they told me it was usually a "punk club", both nights I'd gone were folksy acoustic nights. I checked tonight's bands on myspace and they seemed alright, so I crossed the peninsula and headed up El Camino Real.

The atmosphere at Annie's was pretty cool (considering), Cramps and such playing. The first band, the Hi-Nobles from the Bay Area, were high-energy funk, with lead singer Scotty in his polyester suit leaping about and swinging from pipes while he belted out the tunes. Band #2 were the Laundronauts from British Columbia, a 3-piece who appeared in dazzling white suits and spectacles. They were pretty accomplished musicians, but their "thing" was to create songs with laundry connections - tunes like "Unbalanced Load," "Hard Water,", "Spin Cycle" etc., and the novelty wore off for me after a while. The Love Me Nots from Phoenix AZ were the headliners, and they totally blew me away. Lead singer Nicole reminded me of Chrissie Hynde and Betty Blowtorch, putting her entire body into the performance while knocking out amazing riffs on her classic Farfisa. I managed to spare some of my attention for the enchanting female bass player who kept the foundation pulsing with her fingers and pelvis. After the show, I bought both their CDs. Often when I buy a band's CD after an exciting show, it doesn't measure up to the live performance, but these tracks kept me rockin way down the coast in the Eldo.

Out of the club before 2 AM (California!), I went to Mel's Drive-In over on Lombard St. I've made a ritual of eating at Mel's while out there, and the post-club crowd along with the 50s music provided a nice backdrop to my late night dinner. The drive back down the winding highway to Half Moon Bay past 3 AM was a bit harrowing, but I made it.

I escaped the cold cloud cover Saturday morning and headed over the hills to visit a guy on the staff of A Lucky Dog, a pet care company whose website I manage. We'd communicated a lot via email and phone, and I wanted to meet him in person. He lives on the bay (sunny) side of the hills, and besides a house has a couple of horses, rabbits, dogs, and room to board plenty of dogs for the company. Great to see the life another ex-New Yorker has found after getting away.

I cruised on up to the city again and found a cheap motel on Lombard St. Pretty downscale, but I just need space and internet. After the late Friday night, I lay down for a short nap around 7:30 before heading out again. I was woken up around 3 AM by a pounding on the door (so much for another evening on the town). There stood a diminutive dude, who with a definitive speech impediment asked for J-j-j-j-jennifer. "Sorry, wrong room" - he went on about "m-m-m-medication". I couldn't tell if he was bringing Jennifer her medication or looking for some (most likely the latter), but I got rid of him. Well, here I was at 3 AM with a good night's sleep behind me, so I figured I'd go out to eat. Down in the parking lot, a loitering brother asked me for change (ah, back in the city), and the all-night IHOP next door was filled with a distinctly less interesting clientele than Mel's (which it's impossible to characterize in a politically-correct way, nuff said).

Back at the Surf Motel, wide awake at 4 AM, I watched a 1970 movie online called Getting Straight, where Elliott Gould plays a Viet Nam vet who's going back to college, somewhat wiser and more cynical than all the naive idealistic classmates who are protesting and rioting for control of the university. It paints a vivid picture of those times, which look so vastly different in retrospect.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Fort Bragg - Half Moon Bay

Friday morning, I dispensed with the idea of sticking close to the coast for the ride down to SFO; the extra travel time wasn't worth it, since it was gonna be cold and cloudy anyway. So I headed east from Fort Bragg to get onto US-101 for a quicker ride. After I had gone about 10 miles into the hills and redwood forests, the sky was blue again, and the temperature back up in the 80s. Damn, I had spent 3 days holed up in a motel with lousy weather outside, when all this was only minutes away!

I sped on down US-101, crossed the Golden Gate Bridge, and it felt good to be on the familiar streets of the city. I stayed on CA-1 through Golden Gate Park, and veered off towards the ocean for the drive down the coast to Half Moon Bay. Arriving after dark, it was cloudy and cold, and I regretted doing the old reservation thing instead of cruising around for a place to stay as I usually do. I remembered from my days at Stanford how the Los Altos Hills, a small mountain range running up the center of the San Francisco Peninsula, act like a dam against the marine layer; as you can see from the air coming into SFO airport, the clouds come in and stop at the hills, and the bay side of the peninsula enjoys sunny skies regardless of what's on the ocean side. This was confirmed as I later drove the eastbound highway towards US-101 on the bay side, and the night sky opened up for a clear ride up to the City. So while it was good to have a place to stay, with Internet, I figured I'd find another with better weather tomorrow.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Crescent City - Fort Bragg

When I left Sequoia de O on Tuesday morning, the sun had already burned off the marine layer of white clouds, and I bade farewell to Scott and Lisé under a warm sunny sky. As he predicted, only a few miles south Crescent City was still covered by a low white cloud layer, and the temperature was a few degrees colder. It remained this way all down the California coast, lifting only when US-101 occasionally veered inland and there was some blue sky above the redwoods.

During one of these drives through the woods, I took an exit off US-101 at Klamath, CA to get gas about 30 miles south of Crescent City, and wound up on a little winding road. Taking a 20 mph right turn at around 35, the car swerved momentarily into the wrong lane, and wouldn't you know it, a car came around the next turn right at me. And wouldn't you know it, it turned out to be a cop car! Sure enough, he turned around and caught up with me, and pulled me over. A cheerful dude less than half my age, he said "you almost hit me", and I explained that I was low on fuel, and the turn took me by surprise as I was checking my gas gauge. Then he asked "why aren't you wearing your seat belt?", and I explained how on this old car, the belt retracts a little every time I go over a bump, eventually getting so tight it hurts. No excuse, he wrote me a ticket. I guess it was lucky I forgot to fasten the belt when I got pulled over, as it gave him something to write up besides the wrong-lane thing, which would have been a moving violation. I promised to wear the belt from now on, and tried it for about a half hour, but it did get tighter and tighter, and I went back to beltless as I've been throughout the trip.

At Legget CA, US-101 continues down to San Francisco inland from the coast, so I turned off onto CA-1 to follow the coast more closely. I continued the drive down the coast with the sky shrouded by the low cloud cover and a chilly wind, having set my sights on Mendocino, which was supposed to be a nice seaside town. The coast and beaches are beautiful, the highway excursions inland among the mountains and redwoods are beautiful, but I miss the heat of the desert. Arriving at Mendocino just after dark, I drove around the little streets checking out the hotels I found on the iPhone, and they were all pretty upscale resort-type places, prices reflected in the ornate woodwork etc. I didn't feel the need to sleep surrounded by the affectations of luxury, so I turned around and headed back up the road a few miles to Fort Bragg, which seemed to be a much "plainer" town, stretched along CA-1, and checked into the reasonably-priced Surf Motel at the southern end of town. Fort Bragg seemed to be a long thin town straddling the highway, and I had dinner at a Denny's I found at the northern end.

I decided to stay another day to try to get some website work done at the motel. No fun driving on down the coast with the marine layer covering everything, and I had no schedule pulling me onward. Checking out the town next day by getting off the highway and into the streets, I found shop-lined streets and a little coffee shop where I'd eat for the rest of the time I was there. It was pretty busy with mid-California-type people, with their laptops and kids (and Obama T-shirts). It turns out that Fort Bragg is the largest city on the coast between San Francisco and Eureka, and is something of a tourist haven (not while I was there, though). An old railroad line winds its way through mountainous terrain from what used to be the main line 40 miles inland at Willets, which has been maintained as a tourist attraction, running a "Skunk Train" with restored antique cars. I didn't ride it, nor did I visit the town museum or botanical gardens, but I got a better idea of this place that at first appeared to be nothing more than a strip of businesses along the highway.

I wound up staying 3 nights at the Surf Motel, and actually did get some work done. But I realized I was waiting for the sun, waiting for the sun, waiting... for... the sun. And it might not come. So I decided to get outta town Friday and make it down to San Francisco. For the first time, I called ahead for reservations at the Seal Rock Inn at the end of Geary Blvd, where I used to stay in the 80s. But it was booked solid, so I called some other motels in town - and they were all booked up too. So I made a reservation at a Day's Inn down the coast at Half Moon Bay, just to avoid driving around looking for a vacancy.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Sequoia de O

Scott and his wife Lisé call their home Sequoia de O. Scott is a friend who I met by lucky coincidence and have been fortunate to maintain contact with for some years. He was an old friend of my friend RT Pierce, who ended his life by going off the Queensboro Bridge four years ago, and I met Scott when he visited RT in NY some years earlier. We had kept in touch by email, and Scott met a woman at school in Santa Barbara a few years ago. Ever since he told me they married and bought a house in Northern California, I'd looked forward to visiting him in his new life. I first stopped by on last year's cross-country trip, and marveled at what they have created for themselves during my stay there.

So I looked forward with great anticipation to this year's visit, and it revitalized me just as last year's visit has. Scott spends most of his time (when he's not working on his painting or writing) cultivating and designing an amazing garden environment in the backyard of their 110'x60' plot of land. It is truly a botanical garden of exceptional richness and quality, with a vast number of plants, flowers trees, statues, paths with arbors and trellises, a pond with a recirculating waterfall, and two dogs; and this year two more deeper ponds are being dug, which will be interconnected by a stream and traversed by wooden bridges. No surprise that local horticultural societies offer tours of the property. Although it's pretty far from my normal world, I loved walking around the garden as Scott introduced me to innumerable plants, trees and flowers by name, reminding me to take whiffs of the more aromatic varieties. And somehow sitting out there surrounded by all that foliage and gazing at one of the Buddha statues filled me with a peaceful feeling I've rarely known. The land (like much of the Northwest) was formerly covered with redwood forests, which were ravaged by logging until as recently as the 1950s, and there are massive stumps around the landscape. The largest stump (nicknamed "Grandma") in the backyard is some 20' across and 12' high, and Scott has added a stairway up the side and railings around the top; he's presently carving one side of it to accommodate a waterfall and pool to feed the new pools and streams being constructed below. Like all redwood stumps, it has a number of secondary-growth small redwood trees sprouting from it, already sizable after only a few decades.

The house is richly decorated with his paintings and photography (mostly of the surrounding landscape and seascape), and the 2nd-story rear deck is adorned with many potted plants and trees. There's also a centrally-located wind chime about 10' tall, with low-pitched chimes tuned to a pentatonic scale. This is where I spent a good deal of time at a table working at the computer - a far cry from my normal space in my tiny Greenpoint room! A much larger wind chime hangs from a 16' tripod straddling one of the ponds under construction in the yard, emanating ever deeper tones quite different from the tinkle of most window chimes.

We went on several outings during the day - notably up to Harris Beach just over the border in Oregon, to get down among the huge rocks to watch the sun set, and inland to the Smith River Nat'l Recreation Area, driving through the towering redwood trees to the river bank. We spent a couple of evenings sitting around a fire in the fire pit in the backyard, talking about life and all manner of things., and telling crazy stories.

Scott's email signature reflects what I experienced during my visit:
Art beautifies existence as mythology shapes it and nature enriches it.

On Monday, my last afternoon there, I spent hours emptying the car and trunk and trying to remove the last of the playa dust from everything. Hopeless - you can brush it, hose it, wipe it, and when it dries there's still dust remaining everywhere. Leave it to time.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

The Oregon coast

I got out of the Seaside Comfort Inn by the 11 AM checkout time, and headed down 101 along the coast on another bright sunny day. US-101 really hugs the coastline most of the time, diverting slightly inland at times, so the drive alternates between fantastic Pacific views and forays into the redwood forests that end just before the sea. As many times as I've driven the coast between San Francisco and L.A., I'd never traveled the coast route up in Oregon, which is quite different.
The San Andreas fault comes up from the south and curves out to the ocean at the Oregon-California border, and there's another fault some miles off the coast in Oregon, and those plate movements have carved a much more rocky shoreline than in the south. Huge rock formations stand off most of the beaches in Oregon, making for stunning views. After passing through a number of beachside towns, and with the inner drive to cover lots of miles behind me, I decided to stop after only 123 miles at the town of Newport, which had a lot of resorts. I cast budgeting to the winds, and checked into the Hallmark Resort hotel, off the highway and right on the beach. All the rooms face the ocean, and my balcony faced a smooth beach extending out to the breaking tide. The setting sun lit up the room, and a walk on the beach after dark let me take in the waves and incredible number of stars before getting back to work in the room. Nice.

Continuing down CA-1 in the morning, I enjoyed another day driving down along the magnificent Oregon coast under a bright sunny sky. Just across the California border, I arrived at the home of my friend Scott around sunset, just north of Crescent City, CA.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Seattle - Seaside, OR

Before leaving Seattle, I wanted to see my old friend Ruth. She and I had been friends for several year in the 70's, back when I was designing video editing software and she was one of my end users (an editor). We used to confide in each other for hours on matters of the heart, discussing our affairs with other people, and finally (inevitably, one might say) we found each other's fire. There was a period of uncertainty (mostly on her part) before we moved in together, in the 9 E. 10th St. apartment she found and I lived in for the next 13 years. Our two years of cohabitation was acknowledged to be a mistake afterwards, and I have to admit I was partly to blame for pressuring her to do it at the time. But we've remained friends throughout the decades, and realize that our long friendship is more grounded in the relationship we had before we hooked up than in that tumultuous period of romantic melodrama.

I visited her in Seattle, where she has lived happily with the rabbi she married over 20 years ago. Who woulda thunk? We were both surprised at the memory holes we both have, and filled each other in on details of our life the other had forgotten. It was amazing to look through her photo album and see pictures of us and JP, on trips I have no recollection of, like the hiking tour of New England inns, and the drive up the California coast. The rabbi husband was away, but hopefully I'll get to meet him some day - sounds like an awesome character.

So it was late Monday afternoon by the time I headed out of the city and turned toward the coast on US-101. I passed through some logging towns on the way west, and finally reached the Pacific Ocean around sunset, thus ending the trip segment filled with that anticipation of driving to the other side of the country. It's always great to take that first long look at the expanse of the Pacific with that feeling of "I made it." I stopped for the night at the first town on the coast, Seaside, Oregon, which turned out to be a cutesy resort town. The main street, perpendicular to the shore, is lined with hotels, shops, and restaurants, which were mostly vacant at this time of year. It's called Broadway Avenue (one of many such streets in towns around the country apparently named by people who didn't realize that "Broad Way" is complete in itself, and the additional "street" or "avenue" term is redundant.) At the beach end of the street is a statue of Lewis & Clark, and a plaque hailing this as the end of the Lewis & Clark trail. They spent the winter of 1806 at Fort Clatsop about 10 miles north of the town, but this is where their salt camp was located, where they extracted salt from sea water.

Tuesday morning, I decided to stay a second night at the Comfort Inn, in order to give myself a break from driving and get some work done. Noticing that I had a couple of headlight beams missing, I brought the car to a service station on Tuesday, and the bike I was still carrying in the back seat came in handy for getting back to the motel. As much as I love being on the road, it felt good to be stationary for a day. And since I told the people at the violin auction firm that after Labor Day I'd no longer be constrained to a schedule, I need to start spending some large blocks of time designing the web site that's got to be ready to handle an auction in a couple of months, and I made good progress holed up in my room in Seaside.

I also realized that I'd lost my digital camera somewhere in Seattle, leaving me with just the iPhone to take photos, until I pick up a new camera.

Sunday, August 31, 2008


Leaving Klamath Falls, I headed up into Oregon where the landscape changed from prairies and hills to pine-covered mountains. Climbing past 5000-ft elevations, the temperature dropped and I started missing the heat I'd grown accustomed to. At the higher altitudes, the roads became more winding, and the clouds were down below the mountaintops, creating areas of mist and fog. In Portland around 6, I checked out the location of East End, the club where Mad Juana would be playing that night, and set off to find a motel. The iPhone still read "No Service," which was mysterious, so I located a Comfort Inn a few miles from town on a computer at a downtown hotel and checked in. The clerk told me they should have normal cell phone service, so in my room I reset the iPhone (keep forgetting I'm carrying a Mac in my pocket) and when it came up it connected to AT&T; so I got the last several days' worth of voicemails and contacted the band.

I joined them at the club for sound check, and hung out there for dinner until their midnight set. It was great to see them all again, including Fernando Apodaca, who directed their Valhalla video last year in which I appeared during last year's trip, and had joined the band playing electric violin. His addition, plus a newly added bass player, gave the band a richer fuller sound, and the crowd was ecstatic, smiles and dancing everywhere throughout their show. I had ONE glass of wine at the bar (rare for me), and on the way back to my motel I was alarmed to find myself zipping along at 85 mph on the Interstate. Pulling it way back, I was reminded of why alcohol is so perilous to mix with driving (esp. for me with my apparent sensitivity to it). That certainly won't happen again!

In the morning I joined the band at the house of a friend for brunch, and I offered Marni (the accordionist) a ride to Seattle in the Caddy to give them all a break from their tour travels with 8 people in their van. It was also a nice break from solo driving to ride with someone whose company I enjoy.

We met the rest of the band at the Seattle club, where I helped them load in, and then found another Day's Inn a few miles north of downtown. Back at El Corazón, I got a bad feeling about the club when the doorman wouldn't let me bring in a coffee, and signs like "No Smoking within 25 feet" outside and "Absolutely no drinks" at the entrance to the room where the bands played conveyed an oppressive vibe. Tight ship, alright. This show was on a higher stage, with better lighting than the night before, but the crowd was way more subdued (the other bands had been hard rock/metal). I tried to help them get loaded out after the gig, but no, the doorman wouldn't let me back in, so I stood and watched them lug their gear, shaking my head at him as they trudged past making more trips than necessary. We all hugged goodbye, hoping they'd be in San Diego when I made it down the coast in a few weeks.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Out of Burning Man

It was easy to get up early Friday, having turned in so early the night before. I had my last sandwich for breakfast, took down the tent and packed the car. The general reaction of the other campers was one of beffudlement - "You're leaving already, why would anyone want to leave?" I told them this was only one stop on my extended tour of the USA, that I was itching to get back on the road. No need to share my disdain for so much of what surrounded me there, and I headed back out the gate by Noon. It felt fantastic to be cruising on the highway again, and I really appreciated the fact that NV 447 north out of Nevada was paved! I took the same route north last year, when I left in the dark. That was interesting in its own way, but I enjoyed the scenery this time. When I stopped a few times in California and Oregon, people could tell I'd come from the Burning Man festival (by the dust on the car, the bike in the back seat, and my red skin), and asked about it. I gave it pretty positive reviews, encouraging those who said they'd always wanted to go to check it out at least once. I'm glad I did, and though I'm not planning to go back next year, I might consider it if I find the right group who wants to go (like for instance my Texas family - if JP and Zoe want to bring the boys, I'd gladly make a family trip out of it - but we'd have to rent an RV).

Checking into a motel in Klamath Falls, OR, I took the most enjoyable shower in a long time, and filthied up all their bathroom towels cleaning the thick layer of dust off my luggage before I could open any of it.
The iPhone said "No Service" everywhere in this town, but the motel had Wi-Fi, so I caught up on a few days of email, though I was too beat to get any work done. A hefty steak dinner and all-you-can-eat salad bar at a Sizzler restaurant next door was a great relief, and I looked forward to getting on up north. I figured I'd be able to catch Mad Juana's gig in Portland Sat. night as well as their Seattle gig Sunday I'd planned to attend.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Burning Man 2

The temperature drops considerably on the playa at night, so it felt cozy in the sleeping bag when I occasionally awoke during the night. But by 10 AM the sun had turned the tent into a little oven, so I got up. In the Whiskey & Whores tent, I sat at a table and had one of the sandwiches I'd bought and a Red Bull for breakfast. I decided to venture out into the open playa beyond the City circle to see some of the massive art sculptures out there. The playa dust was pretty loose and thick this year, making pedaling off the Black Rock City (BRC) streets (which are watered down regularly by tanker truck sprayers) really difficult. That, and the incredible heat of the sun, wore me out after a short while, so I doubled back towards the camp. I stopped at the Weenie camp for a couple of free hot dogs before retiring to the tent once again for a late morning nap. In the afternoon, I walked back over to Main Camp again, where the talkers had been replaced by various folk singers. Again, the hippie crowd was fascinating, but only for a while. One old guy was sitting there giving out free pasties, which afforded him the opportunity to wipe off the nipples of women who took him up on the offer before rubbing them on nicely so they'd stick. (Nice schtick, why didn't I think of that?)

The political atmosphere at Black Rock City was predictable. Besides the mocking tone with which the term "American Dream" was always mentioned, scattered throughout the camps of any theme were various defaced pictures of Bush, Cheney et al - even one portrait of Alan Greenspan captioned "Father of Global Misery". With all due disdain for the swindle that is the Federal Reserve System, somehow attributing the purported misery of the globe to him struck me as a bit much. And of course, thousands gathered to swoon as Obama's acceptance speech was blasted from a sound system outside the Black Rock City radio station (I was fortunately far from that scene). The only response I could muster up was to bring out my old 2-inch red, white & blue "I LIKE IKE" button that my father had me wear to 5th grade back during the 1956 election (saved by my mom, bless her soul). You want American Dream, here's a flash back to a time I remember before the ragged masses thought you had to be asleep to believe it. Not much of a costume in that environment, but I enjoyed the puzzled looks in reaction to my T-shirt bearing the 9-year-old zombie from Night of the Living Dead with that button on her forehead.

I struck up a conversation with some guys from Chicago, bought one of them a coffee, and we walked around the city for a while.
After another sandwich back at W&W, the techno blasting from Mal-Mart across the way sent me hiking off again. I try to be open to all different kinds of music, but to me techno is a substitute for music. I consider music to be something generated by humans, expressing inner feelings. When someone cleverly programs a digital circuit to make regular sounds simulating drums and such, it isn't music. And when humans dance to it, they're not tuning in to the emotions conveyed by sounds produced by another human, but allowing their bodies to be controlled by a machine; an experience which I think separates them from any humanity, a distortion of what music is. So the more techno I heard coming from the many camps, the more repulsion I felt for the entire environment. I came across many interesting works of art and theme camps on my wanderings, but there was always that.

The Man that towers over the crowds that mill about in the center of BRC is a totem of sorts, the central theme of the whole festival to many. There was a DJ booth set up out there, playing (you guessed it) techno beats, and a crowd dancing beneath The Man. The Man, standing there waiting to be burned on Saturday night, also serves as a beacon of orientation; when you're out on the streets and have lost your way, you look around till you see The Man in the distance and get your bearings again.
I'd had enough by 11 PM, and was greatly relieved upon returning to my tent to find that Mal-Mart had indeed closed down early again, allowing me to go to sleep. I decided I had had enough of the entire Burning Man experience, and that I'd get the hell out of there Friday morning instead of Saturday as originally planned.

Burning Man 1

The Burning Man vibe started to make itself known during the wait on the long line of vehicles at the ticket gate to Black Rock City. Signs were posted along the way at regular intervals, meant to be read sequentially like the old Burma Shave billboards on the highways of yesterday, presenting pithy sayings relating to the "American Dream" theme of this year's gathering. I started to spot bright-colored hippie-style decorations on cars and equipment, blond dreadlocks on people, and I once again felt the need to express the side of myself that distinguishes who I am from all that. So I put the new Gaggle of Cocks CD "American Trash" on the player and cranked up the volume. It was great to hear Pat bellowing "I forgot how to breathe" as the dust clouds kicked up by the cars and wind filled the air and gave me my first taste of playa suffocation. I was staking my claim to the airspace I knew would soon be filled by music I couldn't stand, enjoying letting "We are the pigz of agony... and I'm a fuckin pig, and you're all fuckin pigz" blast as I approached the sweet-faced ticket taker.

I knew my way around this year, unlike last year when I automotively groped around in the dark looking for the camp, so I headed straight for 7:30 & A, where my friend Ben's camp was located. He'd invited me to camp with his "Whiskey and Whores" theme camp, and although I hate whiskey and have no use for whores, it seemed like a better idea than just finding some random spot and pitching my little tent on my own. As I crawled through the streets at the required 5 mph, it was like being in the midst of a bizarre parade; just about every person and bicycle was decorated with some kind of strangeness, there were "mutant vehicles" crawling along with me, and I got a wonderful feeling of being back in that alternate reality.

The area around Whiskey and Whores was pretty tight, and I wound up pitching my tent in a little space between their stove and the next camp's shower tents. Ben told me to park the Caddy somewhere way off where they had all parked their cars, but I whined that I'd expected to have access to lots of stuff in the trunk; and the general reaction to the car was positive, so it was agreed that it could actually enhance the atmosphere of the camp by parking it right alongside the W&W tent, which I did, and which it did.

There's nothing like the traffic flow of humans and machines on the promenades of Burning Man. Something like a cross between a Halloween party and Mermaid Parade, with something of a science fair influence from all the modified cars, bikes, golf carts and other wheeled things. A tsunami of cleverness and personal expression.
The camp directly across the way, "Mal-Mart", had a several-story tower that people could climb and dance upon, and their massive sound system was blasting techno. I really tried to make peace with this sound - watched people dancing on the high platforms of their tower, tried to move to the beat, even thought I might get to like it, keeping a positive attitude and open mind. Still, I could see I'd be out walking a lot. By the time I got all unpacked, relaxed, and ready to take a walk with Ben, a huge RV had pulled into the space next to my tent, boxing it in entirely. I had come out to camp on this vast playa, and it wound up feeling a bit like I was squatting on a NYC tenement fire escape. Whatever, I figured I'd be roaming a good deal of the time.

Ben and I walked out to The Man, in the center of the circle of Black Rock CIty. I was in my standard shorts and crocs, a spectator; Ben wore a variation of pirate garb, 3-cornered hat, and dragged a plastic whiskey bottle on a string behind him. He wore a 'wheel of fortune' device on his chest, inscribed with various tasks. People would spin the wheel, and if they performed the random task, he'd give them a shot of whiskey from the bottle. Nearly everyone has a "playa schtick", and this was his. Makes for many random interactions, alright.

I recognized some mutant vehicles from last year, but many more new ones, and new theme camps, most blasting some kind of music, which produced a constant backdrop of combined sound; as you walk around, the sound of the nearest camp drowns out the others (mostly), and the soundtrack becomes an ever-changing morph between techno, afro-drum, techno, funk, techno, 80s dance, techno, and so on. We visited the Main Camp, a circular tent at 6:00 on the inner Esplanade, where people gather and you can buy coffee and other drinks. There's stage where something is always going on, with an array of deep couches before it holding tired bodies. There's often music, but this evening some mellow dude was giving some kind of self-help/self-realization lecture that sounded like some intolerable NPR show, and I couldn't get far enough away from it. OK, I knew Main Camp was never going to be a "main attraction" for me, but it was still fascinating to be surrounded by the costumed burners milling about.

We wandered out of there and across to the camps on the other side. Just when I thought there's be no escape from the techno, we went into the Fallout Shelter camp, where they were blasting TOOL! A welcome refuge, I thanked them profusely for being there, and stayed and danced with myself a while.
Off again, up the street we found a 20-foot tall ketchup bottle, which contained people at a counter giving away free fries (with ketchup, of course). At another camp, there was live music in a big tent, pretty funky stuff with a great brass section; it made me want to dance, but the tightly packed crowd was filled with people doing that hippie-style dancing, totally at odds with what I'd associate with what was playing, and I was repelled from the place. Out into the night again, taking in the sights and sounds, trying to cauterize my musical taste so as not to be driven insane by all the techno. There was much more to the environment than just techno, of course, but that's what sticks in my mind (throat). So much to look at and take in - one camp around the 9:30 area was shining an incredibly intense green laser beam which seemed to reach the stars, or at other times was lowered so as to go right over our heads and other camps; the fire camps and installations were shooting their choreographed flames skyward, with the corresponding "whoooff" sounds impacting your attention if you were looking the other way. And all across the playa, the lights on the many vehicles, and spinning on all the bicycle wheels, made a continuous dazzling display.

After taking in hours of this splendor, I got back to my tent around 3AM - Mal-Mart had closed for the night, so I was able to sleep after a long adventurous day.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Getting to Black Rock City

I had breakfast in a cozy Battle Mountain diner to the sound of slots, and took off along I-80. At Winnemucca, I found a supermarket and stocked up on food supplies and an ice chest. Expecting to be at BM for only a few days, I bought a couple of 4-packs of Red Bull, 3 take-out sandwiches, and 5 gallons of water. There are plenty of camps giving out various kinds of free food at BM, so I figured that ought to hold me.

The recommended route to Black Rock City (near Gerlach, NV) is down I-80 to Fernley and 75 miles north up route 447. But I spied some roads straight across the desert to Gerlach, and plotted out a more direct route on the iPhone, cutting off about 100 miles. Seemed simple enough - leave I-80 at Imlay, follow Pioneer Road till it meets NV Route 49 and on to Gerlach.
Pioneer Road turned out to be a dirt-gravel road, but I figured it was do-able. Of course, the quality of the road deteriorated significantly once I'd traveled a few miles, and I had to hold the speed down below 20 mph most of the time. I'd find a "smooth" stretch, get the speed up to around 20, and hit a piece corrugated with rivulets which set the whole car shaking as though it were on some kind of factory endurance test machine. It sounded like every single screw and bolt in the old thing was being vibrated out of its place. But I was determined to press on, no matter how long it took. This "desert" is really more like high prairie, sprinkled with sagebrush, and the road twisted in many tight turns as it climbed up and down intervening mountains. The view was fantastic, and it was a thrill to be away from the traffic (and all civilization). But thoughts of survival started to press in upon me, as the likelihood of breaking down seemed to grow to inevitable. "Let's see, I have 3 days of food, a tent, so I can survive out here if I get stuck (though there's no telling how many days it might be before anyone passes on this route!)". Then I remembered the bicycle in the back seat - of course, any trouble, I'll just bike back to some town for help.

The iPhone, which has been such a help on this trip, really saved me on this adventure. When you ask for directions, it saves all the steps along the way and the local road views associated with each, so even out there with no access at all, I was able to step through the directions for the many turns required. There are many small "roads" out there along the way (most looking like nothing more than driveways to non-existent houses), and no directional signs or road names.
So it was a matter of following directions like "turn right - 2.3 mi; turn left - 8 mi; etc). The direction of the sun kept me somewhat oriented, but after a couple of hours I had no idea of whether I was on the right path or off on an extended detour. And the dust! The land is covered with a fine layer of dry dust which gets kicked up at any speed, covering everything in the car. And though these are referred to as "gravel" roads, it's not the kind of little gravel you see back east or in driveways - these were jagged rocks up to 2-3 inches across; so the decision to have bought new front tires and leave the old balding rear tires in place felt like a mistake, as the possibility of a puncture plagued my mind. Yes, with front-wheel drive, you're only dragging the rear wheels along, but you do need them inflated to move! At one point, I came upon a gully across the road which seemed certain to be impassable except by 4-wheel-drive vehicles. I had no choice but to chance it, summoned up my courage (madness) and eased my way through. I scraped bottom pretty badly, but it sounded like solid frame hitting the ground, not sheet metal which would have indicated ripping the gas tank. But this was getting crazier by the moment.

I finally reached a T-junction which seemed to be NV-49, the final run to Gerlach. I had thought state "highways" were all paved, but this too was the same kind of gravel road; and I wasn't sure it was NV-49, it just seemed like a good guess out there with the iPhone in my lap.
After a time on that, I seemed to be getting to Playa country when the dirt road disappeared with a dry lake bed in front of me, the "road" indicated only by a few tire tracks across this mini-playa. At least it provided a short break in the intense vibration, but only for a while. Then, over a hill, I viewed a large expanse of desert in the distance, which could be the Black Rock Desert of Burning Man. If the road curved leftward, I knew I was on the right path; if it went right, I was all wrong. It curved to the left, and I knew I had somehow taken all the correct turns and forks along the way from Imlay! Still constrained to 15-20 mph, I was now going along the south edge of the huge playa on which Black Rock City is situated.
After a long time, I could see the structures and tiny vehicles of Burning Man off in the distance. How I longed to cross the land between, but it was rough brush-covered prairie, and I could see the railroad line parallel to the road, which couldn't be crossed even if the intervening prairie were passable. So it took another 45 minutes to get past Burning Man and over to Gerlach, where I joined the procession of vehicles which had followed the normal route up from Fernley.

This harrowing adventure was made possible by the iPhone and Google. These guys are amazing - not only have they stocked their databases with countless coordinates, directions, and street views, but they apparently researched this route enough to describe the route from Imlay to Gerlach as "101 miles - 4 hrs 25 mins". I usually use this feature to estimate distances and times, but reduce the time estimate, figuring they take speed limits into account. But this wasn't a matter of legal speed limits - some Google person must have driven this awful road and timed it, as it took me just about 4 hrs 45 mins to get across. I should have realized the road didn't have a 25 mph "speed limit" - or that it was limited by condition, not by law. I had considered asking someone at Imlay about the route to Gerlach before setting out, but nah, I don't ask directions, I find out myself. Well, I found out the hard way this time.

So it around 6PM when I approached Black Rock City on the road up from Gerlach. There was no traffic on the road as there was last year, no long line until I got off the highway and on line for the ticket takers. I had already experienced enough dust to last me, and I knew I had more in store on the Playa. But it was good to back around people again and close to my goal.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Idaho - Nevada

Despite having stayed up late talking about all things with my friend Ellis, I managed to leave his ranch by 11AM. It was enlightening to see the curvy dirt path over rolling hills from his house back to the dirt road by daylight, having navigated it blind the night before in the dark with a few feet visibility. Having inherited the ranch, settled by his grandfather way back, he has donated the 950 acres to a non-profit Idaho organization which preserves natural lands so as to prevent development, and he lives there under a life-long tenancy. It's good to know so much land will remain intact in its natural beauty, and that somebody cares.

I stopped in Pocatello after a few hours to shop for a bicycle and supplies. Home Depot (located in a mall found via iPhone) had no bikes; neither did Sears. So it was off to the often-maligned Wal-Mart, where I found a trim ladies dirt bike for $70. Turning south at Idaho Falls, I stopped to view a huge river canyon with a massive bridge built in the 1940's, and continued on down into Nevada. The rolling prairies of Montana become broader and yellower as you get to Nevada, interspersed with patches of desert.
Dividing up the remaining driving time to Burning Man, I stopped at Battle Mountain to leave a reasonable amount of driving the next day to still arrive at BM before dark. Already, every coffee shop and store has rows of slot machines - I sometimes forget this pervades the entire state, not just Las Vegas and Reno.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Wyoming - Idaho

Another day started out waking up to the early alarm, leaning back on the pillow "for a minute" and waking up an hour later. I was concerned about making it to Idaho by nightfall, knowing that I'd have to drive at reduced speed through Yellowstone Park. I didn't want to actually visit the Park, but I had to loop through it, around the lake, to get where I was going. The $25 admission seemed like a waste. At the gate, the agent told me it was $25 "unless you're over 62." I handed her my driver's license, she asked for $10, and handed me a pass which admits me to all national parks and monuments free for life! The advantages of growing older pop up from time to time.

Circling the great Yellowstone Lake, I was struck by the stunning beauty of the place. I can see why they made this a park. At one junction, I saw a sign for Old Faithful only 17 miles out of the way, and I had to make the detour. I've had a bookmark in my browser's bar for some time of the live webcam from Old Faithful, and often leave it on when I'm not using the computer, just to see if I catch it spouting (never have), so I thought I ought to check out the real thing. It was supposed to erupt soon, and it was spurting steam and occasional little 10-foot water spouts. The anxious crowd was growing, cheering with every spurt like a live audience at some reality show. I didn't need to wait around for the big squirt, saw enough of that scene, and took off again on my way.

South of Yellowstone, I passed through Jackson Wyoming and past the Grand Tetons. This is French for "Big Tits" (yes, "breasts" are "seins" in French). I imagine the early French settlers referring to these mountains, "go down 20 miles past the big tits and turn left" - somehow, I doubt the name would've lasted into today's vocabulary had it been translated into English. There are two large peaks alright, but they're pretty scraggly as tits go. Those French guys probably hadn't seen a woman in months, and these were the only tits around.

My friend Ellis (NYC, 1970s) had moved to his family ranch some years ago in the wilds of Idaho, and had given me directions on the little roads leading to it. No cellphone service out there, and no land line for Ellis, so this would be tricky. Leaving Wyoming into Idaho on a small road, I saw a sign "Next services 55 miles", and though the tank was nearing empty, I didn't know how far back I'd have to go for gas, so I risked it, figuring Ellis might give me a couple of gallons. I followed a dirt road for the several miles he'd instructed me, stopped at the only corral on it around 6:30, and the gate was locked. I climbed the fence and walked the 1/4 mile to the house, and left a note on the door. Must've been some screwup with the schedule, as I thought he was expecting me. OK, I set out hoping to make it 35 miles down to Soda Springs, keeping the speed down to save gas. I dealt with the disappointment of missing him, figuring I'd get that much closer to Burning Man today. At Soda Springs, there was cellphone service and I got a voicemail from him saying he had been expecting me. So I turned around and drove back up to Wayan. The gate was still locked, so I drove several miles further down the dirt road (now it was dark) and found nothing. On the way back out, I stopped at a house on another road and asked the resident if he knew Ellis. He described the location and corral gate more accurately, so I returned to the dirt road and detected another closed corral gate which had to be it. Opened it, drove along a dirt path in the dark till I came to a little house over a hill, and there he was. He spends winters in Boise and summers on the ranch, where the snow is over the roof in winters. It was great to catch up on each other's lives, and see an alternative to the city life, and I was glad I'd gone back without giving up.