Summer Solstice Trip
Okay, after insisting I don't blog, I gave in just enough to do a travel journal. I'm just going to paste entries on at the bottom, so to find new stories and pictures just scroll down. It's not like it's work. And the stories are good.
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It came to pass that summer was upon the land, with great storms upon the Midwest and waters that passed deep over the face of the cornfields and hog confinements. The woman did set out to voyage from the Pacific Northwest, blessed with its many coffee kiosks, to revisit the land of the great plains, her homeland. She packed pretty near everything she owned into the Focus of Ford, and set out early one bright morning, paying homage along the way to the coffee shrine and carrying off a large black no-latte, thank you.
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Set off from the blooming Northwest (last week I toured a local iris acreage, yesterday an open house at the Peony Farm - wow!) on a sunny Sunday, though within half an hour it was drizzly and the out-of-order Portland freeway exits treated me to an unwelcome delay. Stumptown's best features are hidden from the newly-lost traveler. The clouds and fog hide Mount Hood, which I maintained was just a fiction during my first three visits to Oregon, since it's so often obscured. Oddly, once past it, the traveler can see it in the rear-view mirror for miles. Hundreds of miles.
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It's cool and rainy, so what do people do with their kids? Go to the waterfall! Multnomah Falls would be a good choice on the last day of the world, though. It's always glorious, as is most of the Columbia River Gorge. Turn a curve, and suddenly the great fir-clad towering cliffs turn into dry brown towering cliffs, hot and chapped-looking as gigantic knees in corduroy. The fog's gone and it's a hot summer day, the day after the solstice, when Kid Sister and I always try to have some adventure.
John Day Dam is surrounded with this super-sized scenery, with the high hilltops trimmed with wind turbines and down on the river the rainbow spray rising up over the fish ladder. Hard to see how the salmon numbers kept up till now, with the big turbines roaring away, and I picture them shouldering their way up the "fish ladder," a kind of reverse waterpark slide, huffing and grumbling like escalator commuters. Outta the way, gotta spawn, stupid human dams. Of course salmon don't have shoulders, and the rivers suddenly don't have salmon, after decades of putting up every obstacle one can imagine to their amorous migrations, outside of "No Salmon" signs in their watery boudoirs. It's an easily-foreseen tragedy for the commercial fisherpeople, but I'm not worried. I have a can of smoked salmon stashed in the back of the pantry. I'm ready for the Fish Rapture, when we realize the very last one's been transported to salmon heaven.
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Other than the groaning horny fish, this is another outpost of that famous geological feature, The Middle of Nowhere. Sage and other scratchy arid-land weeds are scattered evenly like wallpaper graphics over miles of land that look pretty damn unproductive. Continuing clear east to the crossing at Umatilla, I go through the least attractive town I've seen in Oregon. You know it's a small burg if you can stand in the center of it and still see see the countryside at the end of the street in all four directions. In this case, you see only the ugly countryside, as the river view's obscured, making it a perfect storm of depressing rusted-axle décor. (can I STILL see Mt Hood? Or is that just a cluster of clouds back there?)
Across the bridge, Kennewick/Richland/Pasco make up a four-city metro area known as the Tri Cities, and it's a surprisingly tidy and pleasant town nestled where three rivers meet in the middle of the stinking desert. There is absolutely no sign to tell the casual passerby that the economy's built around the Hanford Nuclear Reservation. You've got a lot of engineers with good paychecks, and there's an airport so they can get the hell out for a vacation anywere, ANYWHERE else.
There are railroad-crossing-style arms at the highway on-ramp, not to keep drivers from mixing with that trailer-trash train traffic, but to keep idiots from attempting to drive the interstate during howling winter blizzards. No sign of that, though, on June 22, when it's already crunchy-grass dry in the high desert.
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They bear a grudge in Lind. I note their curious road sign and look it up later, after stopping for the night. The historic eruption of a west-coast volcano more than two and a half decades ago added gritty pumice dust to the gritty desert soil that makes up this region downwind of Mount Saint Helens, and they're not about to forget it. Clearly, it's warped the attitudes of another generation of rather violent ranchers, who put up this defiant sign.
. . . . .
I pass another settlement that, like many in the high desert, appears to be nothing but three prefab houses, a grain elevator, and a sagging wooden workshop spawning rusty auto parts that are slowly spreading across the worthless farmland around it. The name is enchanting - Eltopia. Girls must live over the hill in Latopia.
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Only six weeks till bear hunting season begins! I love local radio. Most of it is syndicated today, so for any regional flavor you have to listen carefully for weathercasts and the occasional local ad inserted in the ubiquitous satellite programming. Spokane, a very pleasant city, has a little AM station carrying the downloaded signal of Air America. I suspect it's the same station that, over a decade ago, carried our children's music programming when Radio AAHS was still in operation in Minneapolis.
Do other people shout when they drive alone? I round a curve at the base of yet another mountain, look to the right, and (GPS gives no clue to this, sticking with a severe line to show the highway, sulking because everything else is breathtaking mountainry and not neatly-laid-out streets it can graph for me) there is a vast still-mirror lake wandering off between the feet of the mighty peaks. I have to shout about how grand it is, and can't imagine why more people don't come here, except that there's no room for them between the mountains and they can't spell Coeur d'Alene to find it.
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Gosh, what industry do you suppose built Smelterville? Idaho silver mines may be played out, but the tourist sites remain. The speed limit's 75 MPH, so the driver's attention is riveted on the curving, sweeping mountain roads with the occasional badly-repaired section of torn-off railing just to keep one mindful of the clear and present danger. When you stop there's a Silver Mine Tour to replace your driving burnout with some claustrophobia, for a refreshing change. Right next door there's a Payday Loan shack, to mine the thinly-lined pockets of local residents of their last traces of silver.
Wallace Idaho, claims to be the silver capital of the world, with Silverton right next door. Where's the gold capital? Wait, I know that one; it's in South Dakota. The Homestake Gold Mine is still there, in a town called (what a merry bunch of tricksters!) Lead.
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Second Day of Driving Across Montana
Gas, at 3.99 a gallon, is the
best deal I’ve seen in at
least a month. Maybe we’re just getting ripped more than
For those who prefer gustatory delights to the other senses, there’s a bracing challenge in a neighboring town. Another week and they’ll start to fry up the leftovers from spring castration for the World Famous (I’m sure it is) Testicle Festival in Rock Creek. Gosh, sure sorry I’ll be missing that.
This is cattle country, as the
mountains devolve from
astronomical to merely gigantic and the buttes subside into grassland.
along listening to KATL-AM. Down
2-lane paved road, 2 horsemen and an ATVman are herding about fifty
calves to another pasture, right down the middle of the road. There seems to be no
traffic to inconvenience
them, or vice versa. The
People. There is no “X” in espresso. They make the same mistake in big-city signs, though, so carry on. Three times out of four, my request for black coffee is met with "would you like room for cream in that?"
I pass a burly truck pulling a trailer labeled “Visions Beyond Borders” and “Bibles for Hungry Souls.” You might also stock samples of Antabuse if you really want to improve the moral character of the trailer parks, buddy. A roadside establishment selling Aluminum Critters has a far more colorful and life-size assortment than your standard concrete-donkey store. I love those things, and would like to put a herd of anatomically-correct livestock in the front yard. Only the fact that they cost about a dollar a pound prevents me from outraging the neighbors with lounge furniture shaped like rhinos and swine. Now I have a whole new set of landscaping novelties to covet -- Roy Rogers on his horse, the Cabelas elk and many more, in living color!
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Fourth Day of Driving Endurance Challenge
I haven't seen a thunderstorm for a year. Oregon clouds are cool and moist, and it will rain ten times a day in a light mist, or a desperate persistent drizzle in winter. So I greeted with joy the sight of the stark white, starched bosoms of towering cumulous clouds as they first rose up into the sky and then spread out widely, the mothership from Independence Day, covering half the world by sunset and laced with lightning in its dark mushroom overhang. I chased it in vain, stopping on the rain-drenched streets of Miles City for the night's motel stay without ever quite catching up to the weather front. The next evening the storm reformed and caught up with me. Thunder! Lightning! Gully-washing rain! I’ve missed it.
The Olympian peaks finally give way to mere
stony-headed buttes and rolling swells, and then you’re in
For every Eskimo
word for snow, there is a color of green in
this grassland. Blue
sage rolls off
into the distance, golden-tasseled buffalo grass waves in every ditch,
of neon yellow-green mustard exude their tangy scent, tan stubble lines
harvested field of winter wheat, and every inch of land is thickly
some kind of grass or grain. I
never in my life seen the
There are no farmhouses, though – generation after generation of farmers have lost land to alternating drought and flood, and lost their kids, the next generation of farmers, to college and the prospect of jobs in town. Management corporations run the farmland, and the houses fall into ruin.. . . . o . . . .
My friend D calls while I’m in a particularly boring stretch of highway. She tells me a little stuff. I tell her some stuff. As she replies, I realize this is one of those conversations where it’s like two intersecting monologues, with little actual response. But it’s to be expected, because D is deaf. We met a few weeks ago at a weekly deaf chat event I found while taking sign language last semester. (I imagine my daughter’s college experience at International Student Coffee is similar – people with varying native tongues get together socially to practice on each other, a much more honest premise than meeting in bars to lose their inhibitions and swap emotional baggage.) You’re not going to pick up a virus while practicing your hand-signs, though I’m pretty sure I talk like David Sedaris: You coffee here week? I class college book student, drive house. You student deaf? Your mother is a cheese.
D has been mostly deaf all her life, and has been treated with disdain and shame by her family. It’s tragic because she’s a gracious and charming woman. She’s polishing up her sign language because doctors tell her that before long the last of her hearing will be entirely gone, but for now she can understand enough to have conversations with me, and has a mother’s patience for persistently signing the words and making me get them right, too. I’ll send her a postcard from the road, as I’m not certain she got much of my side of our conversation. Still, she called to say she wants to continue our new acquaintanceship, a pleasant message to get while far from home.. . . . o . . . .
Many years ago I was bringing up small children on a very thin shoestring, when I found something amazing at the farmers market one fine summer morning. Unlike some others, this market has a strict rule that items sold must be locally produced, so no trucked-in peaches or plastic trinkets clutter the displays of herbs, breads, sweetcorn and cheese.
In addition to the fruits of the earth and
other savory goods, I found a table with squares of thin cotton intricately
embroidered. They looked like quilt
blocks, with various quilting and applique techniques and pictures of birds, flowers,
and abstract designs. Turns out the
large Hmong population in the Twin Cities arrived without a written language or
many employment skills either, so truck gardening and this stitchery
I regretted for years not buying that one unique stark
bit of storytelling. Fast forward to this week while cruising
And there in a shop hung with shoulder bags and scarves I
found heaps of Hmong stitchery, many of them with the true story in technicolor
threads. The shop owner proudly told how the
pictures outline his people’s assault by the North Vietnamese, flight to Thai refugee camps,
and eventual emigration
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A dear, dear old friend who was in his final days with a recently-diagnosed, rapidly-advancing case of ALS died the day I arrived at my destination. I’m glad we reconnected a couple years ago after a long interval of growing up and going different directions. His family is resting after the relentless sorrow of his final days, and I decided not to invite myself over for a visit, as they barely remember me. I tell my kids a little about him over a Chinese dinner, which offers me this fortune in my dessert cookie: A fond memory will soon lead to a renewed friendship.Abruptly comes word that yet another friend is lost, and it happened on the same day. This is a pilot acquaintance with a unique and remarkable personality, and one of several friends I'm pretty sure was a certified genius, as well as occasionally certifiable. Far way, a sudden crash has claimed the Russian Hereditary Engineer, and there is less joy in the world.
- - - - o - - - -An 80-or-so-year-old (word-of-mouth lore corrected: about 26 years old) smokestack for an old power plant on the banks of the Mississippi river in St Paul, Minnesota, was slated for demolition. What an excellent reason to get up at dawn on a beautiful summer morning!
The easy-to-download short video of the event is here, Liz's longer youtube edition here. Though our vantage point wasn't as good a choice as we thought, the explosion made her jump, startled at how loud it was. The shockwaves, first from the demolition charges and then from the chimney's tremendous fall, reached us delayed by the distance, and after the initial impact a huge cloud of dust slowly drifted over downtown St Paul, as a large friendly crowd dispersed. All day, around town, we met people who'd seen the smokestack fall.
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One of my daughters lives a half-mile from where
Interstate 35W collapsed into the
I have to carefully rotate my charger plugs. The phone can't be allowed to die when I'm on the road, but the car only powers the cigarette lighter -- oh, excuse me, now it's a device plug or some such politically correct term -- when it's running, so I can't charge anything overnight. So I give the phone some time, then yank its plug and jack in a charger for some AA batteries so I’ll be able to shoot pictures. Then, on some tricky stretch of road, I replace that with the power to the GPS.
Gertrude, the GPS, has an arrow pointing toward my destination, but doesn't let me actually SEE where we'll go next -- the arrow points to the edge of the screen and the road ahead is lost off the edge of the picture. When I tire of deciphering her tiny cryptic graphics, I pick a destination and let the automated voice give me instructions.
It’s a conversation. She tells me to turn left in 300 feet, I respond, “No.” I have another route in mind. Whether I'm diverting to a stretch of scenic two-lane highway or stopping for lemonade, Gertrude gets agitated.
“Take the next exit.”
"Please turn left in 500 feet and get back on the freeway."
"Not gonna happen."
“Make a u-turn as soon as possible,” she directs, getting desperate at my lack of cooperation. I respond with profanity. GPS seems not to mind, but under her unfailingly deliberate, polite diction, I sense a building mass of acid resentment. Some day, years from now, I’ll be in an intensive-care unit and from the bank of machines keeping me alive I will hear that familiar crisp annoyed mechanical voice. I’ll be doomed.- - - - o - - - -
What fine things they erect in the big city! Statue on a streetcorner by a pocket park looks like a rusty cellphone tower, but the long tubes are pipe-organ design and a whirling windvane at the top is intended to divert stray breezes down into the throats of the iron tubes. Internal pumps ensure they perform four times a day, and while I sit with my beautiful daughter contemplating the structure they begin to rumble and toot, giving an atonal concert on the curbside.
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I wheedle the young clerk at a Hilton in the suburbs down to a slightly less breathtaking rate for my last night in the Twin Cities. It’ll save forty miles on the start of the trip home, and I’ve imposed on my dear old friend for several nights in a row, so I clean the car again, cram clutter into the trunk and spend the night on a bed that claims to be adjustable. Its main feature is a layer of sheepskin, complete with the wool (fur? pelt?) that’s heavenly comfortable. It’s be even more comfy if the knobs weren’t missing off the climate machine – I can’t turn on a breeze or the A/C, and outside the window the building’s big HVAC machines howl and squeak incessantly. At least they drown out traffic from the highway.
The day before leaving I have a long-overdue meeting with my old flying partner. Women of a certain age, Mac and I both plunged into a new hobby a few years ago, and met before taking our individual checkrides. It was terrifically hard, with intensive study of topics form physics to math to federal regulations, and enough terror to make one appreciate the day you find yourself in an aerial amphitheatre surrounded by colossal sunny cumulous clouds, on the way to somewhere in a machine you’re operating.
Despite a series of mostly bumbling and inept instructors, we each managed to learn enough to get our wings (real pilots NEVER use that phrase) and embarked on a series of joint adventures, daytrips around the countryside. It’s nice to fly with a friend, who can scrutinize the charts and find radio frequencies and latitudes while the pilot concentrates on the landscape immediately outside and the control inside. We sought out new destinations, landed at little airports where we had to do a preliminary low pass over the runway to scare off any wandering deer, and took one long jaunt that I wrote up for publication in a regional flying magazine.
“Do you remember when we lost our engine?” Mac inquires, her
eyes sparkling. That’s how you know if
you’re the shouting kind, but we turned out to be the getting-busy kind, and
I’d scoped out our glide attitude and potential landing sites on the fields
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It’s time to hit the road for home, and my son and I barely notice the scenery for our first couple hours, telling stories and swapping funny ideas. We make a stop I dread, in the city where my mother lives now. She’s battled mental illness all her life, and I’m the only sibling with the courage to stay in contact. We have a too-long coffee, chatting as she suspiciously eyes me, her face working, and tells me I’m guilty of many sinister childhood misdeeds, likely criminal. So were the others, and childhood was hell. She’s got a list of ailments she relates in excruciating detail, and my son is blessedly patient and respectful as we endure her ramblings about how she’s given holy hell to doctors and random strangers alike seeking remedies and advice. As always, she isn’t interested in the last couple decades of my life, my kids, or anyone else. She’d rather tell me what she’s deduced out of thin air about the corrupt misdeeds of people she hasn’t seen in all this time, plots and machinations that make her eyes narrow and her sharp, arthritis-twisted fingers jab. She announces her sister’s bipolar, a fact that’s been astoundingly obvious since the woman was hauled in with a butterfly net 40 years ago and hospitalized for the first time. She is most definitely not interested in the theories about her own condition from people who are out to overthrow the nation and sabotage her, and you just can’t drag someone into treatment if they refuse. She gets by, and every meanygram mailed when she’s in a bad mood serves to rip open old wounds.- - - - o - - - -
We cannot but stop in the Home of the World’s Only Corn Palace, a disappointment to me, a child of eight when my family moved there, but a kitschy landmark now I’m from there – FAR from there. Rolling down Interstate 90, the young son marvels at town names like Presho and Murdo, which we liken to some illicit substance or epithet, but nothing can top Pukwana.- - - - o - - - -
Got grass? The
Badlands have vanished. The air smells
of crops and tangy sharp herbs, and the rains that played hell with lowland
neighborhoods have laid a carpet of green over desolate stretches of WestRiver
plains that normally offer only scrub, fading into striped buttes and bluffs
made of clay and rock and sand. Lakes
have grown to far beyond their normal banks, ponds became lakes and low spots
became mirrored ponds in recent years. Dakotans
know the territory was divided wrong: instead of North and South, they should
have let the Missouri River delineate this region into east, where settlers
found the thin topsoil and creeks and tried to farm, and West Dakota, with the
geologically dazzling landscape and
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We arrive late and troop into my old friend’s house at the
foot of the
It’s easy to see why Gutzon Borglum envisioned presidents on Rushmore: all the stony, bony mountains here have faces, though many are trolls. I drink in this rainy sunshine, and will make new computer wallpaper so I can take this trip along with me when winter arrives.
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There’s plenty of wind along the route, and plenty of open
land to let it blow, blow, blow. Nothing
in its path to harvest it, though. From
Winds aloft are violent, and lash in different directions at varying altitudes. A non-pilot probably wouldn’t notice that while driving on the ground below, but I admire a cloud shaped like Chthulhu.
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A mere 32 years in radio, and I acquired this habit of
tuning up and down the dial. It
drives fellow travelers to the edge, so this trip alone is another chance to
sample the listening habits of
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A radio station that needs a more alert production manager is still running a commercial declaring that Memorial day’s coming up soon. If Country Time wants to be the official lemonade of our summer, a more forward-looking strategy is indicated. A live announcer tag offers us a free Twisted Frosty for coming to some confectionary establishment, and I absentmindedly ponder the presumption that whatever that product is, they can’t legally call it ice cream. Or else it’s some perversion they get up to in the far North, during long winters out in the country when the veneer of civilization sloughs off.
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After a final day of travel in a haze of weariness, I’m home. I’ve brought back dirty clothes, 26 takeout coffee cups, a bag of Sapporo Ichiban Kitsune Udon noodles, a six-pack of Mendota Springs sparkling lemon water, and one 20-year-old son who I will keep as long as I can, perhaps chaining him up in the basement if only they built basements in homes in Oregon. My garden is toast, but I knew it was mine to abandon, not anyone else’s to care for. I put off cleaning out the car and instead spend the evening cleaning the kitchen. I missed it. I’m glad to be home.