Wednesday, February 25

a treatise on the state of american manufacturing

I have seen many spectacular, humbling, creepy and idiotic sights over the past few weeks, yet some of my favorite experiences have been with the people I've encountered along the way. While the Vibe was getting an oil change in Wyoming, I sat around chatting with a few locals who were there for the early bird oil change special as well. In fact, when I walked into the lobby and began looking for a magazine to read, a grizzled old man a few feet away remarked, "The least they could do is give ya some fucking cups. Amateurs." Apparently there was coffee but no cups, a world-ending predicament for a retired miner at eight in the morning. When he saw the Vibe we got to talking about the economy and the state of the American manufacturing sector. And if you hadn't figured out by now, this man makes Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau seem like BFFs.

Through our profanity-laced conversation I learned that the auto industry is on the ropes because we keep buying cars made by "Those damn Chinamen." I corrected him. "I think the Japanese are more of a problem than the Chinese." "Fucking-A," he countered. "All of those Chinamen are stealing our jobs and shipping car parts over here to be built. We can't compete with no damn Chinaman who works for nothing. We gotta start charging huge tariffs on them parts when they get shipped here on them damn boats."

A slightly younger man sitting next to the old man also happened to be retired and was just chuckling the entire time. When asked his opinion he replied, "I used to own my own business and..." "You're a capitalist dog, a corporate raider!" the old man interrupted.

By now I was resigned to nodding and laughing at the continuous stream of nonsense coming from the old man's mouth. When I said I live on the East Coast he asked, "Which part of Greenwich Village?" I was actually a little offended he
associated me with a bunch of latte sipping, rabidly liberal hipsters from New York City. I thought my unshaven and unclean appearance would disguise my obvious suburban roots.

When my car was ready, the other man pulled me aside and said not all Wyomingites have dreadful personalities and that I would be welcome back at any time. I laughed and told him I frequently deal with unsophisticated brutes in the allegedly more civilized Washington DC. The only difference is that in DC we pepper our speech with large multi-syllabic words in order to prove we got our money's worth from years of education. I rather enjoy the rugged landscape and people in Wyoming; it makes me feel like I'm truly out West. With that I shook his hand, said farewell, and was back on the road.

Monday, February 23

come on you wolverines!

Before leaving Park City, I told my friends that I was heading to Denver and Rocky Mountain National Park. I lied. Improved weather and my desire to escape mountains and snow led me to try my luck and head north. Much to my delight, the snow receded and the midday temperatures rose into the 40s when I reached Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument.

I have had a secret interest in the Battle of the Little Bighorn since I first read the story back in elementary school. It is one of those snippets of history that schools teach as a one-sided rah rah American tale of heroism, not unlike Catholic schools and their depiction of the Crusades as a conflict against the Muslim heathens. To this day I can still conjure the image of a picture in my history book depicting Custer's "Last Stand." The painting illustrates a horde of Lakota-Cheyenne riders closing in on the U.S. 7th Calvary as dismounted Indians bludgeon U.S. soldiers with war clubs and tear off scalps. In the middle of the scene, Custer, wearing his distinctive white buckskin coat, stands defiantly with his sword in the air, having just opened the chest of a nearby attacker.

Custer, a Michigander famous for leading the Wolverines of the Michigan Brigade during the Civil War, was immortalized by the American media as a martyr following his demise at the hands of some two thousand Native Americans led by Sitting Bull. I have always thought Custer was an arrogant opportunist who deserved his fate because of foolish military strategy. I also cheered the victory of the Lakota and Cheyenne, a final chance for honor and a slap to face of a expanding United States before being forced onto reservations.

I have criticized battlefields before in this blog, but Little Bighorn was different. A winding tour road marks spots of historical significance, but there is an added touch of realism. Following the battle, the dead soldiers were quickly buried in shallow graves marked by simple wooden poles. Weather forced the government to exhume the remains and bury them in a mass grave while headstones were placed on the spot where each man fell. You can actually imagine the battle raging as you walk the bluffs and see the marble stones scattered about.

Many parts of Montana are beautiful, but the hills around the Little Bighorn River are desolate and a miserable place to die. Aside from a few trees, the only color is that of dead grass, and because the conditions do not favor agriculture, the earth is beaten and chewed by range animals.

As I drove through Montana, I kept trying to figure out what is meant by Big Sky Country. I crossed the border into Montana twice and each time I half expected the horizons to expand, see blues turn bluer or hear myself spontaneously blurt out, "Damn, that's a big sky!" The sky in Montana is vast and beautiful, but it's just as vast and beautiful as the sky in Wyoming, Nebraska, or any place where there is a lot of flat nothingness. The only difference would be Washington State or Michigan during the winter where there is no sky, just clouds.

Southern Wyoming, on the other hand, is a wasteland of epic proportions. Middling mesas stretch on for hundreds of miles and everything looks like someone just mixed dirt in with cement when they painted the landscape. I figure Nature was taking her first shot at designing canyons, realized she created a calamitous disaster and left the land to rot while she designed masterpiece after masterpiece a few hundred miles to the southwest. And, not surprisingly, humans agreed with Nature's assessment; there is not one settlement for a hundred miles with the exception of some obviously insane person who lives in a one room shack just off the expressway and has fifty cars parked on his front lawn.

I continued on to Devils Tower, a dramatic "monolithic igneous intrusion" that rises above the Black Hills in eastern Wyoming. The Lakota Indians believe the tower and the Black Hills were created during an ancient race as stampeding buffalo and other animals pounded the surrounding earth lower. Conveniently, the Magpie, who was racing in the stead of the slower human, won the race allowing the Indians to forever hunt the buffalo. I think the tower is a beacon for the extraterrestrials who built the pyramids, earthen mounds and the crystal skulls that drive men crazy. In fact, my theory was proven correct when aliens, led by a being that could take the shape of humans and was called Steven Spielberg, made contact with us at the tower in 1977. That same being, along with its life partner, George Lucas, proceeded to stay on this planet and ruin a great many of the franchise films we know and love.

Actually Devils Tower is an impressive piece of rock that explodes out of the landscape. I spent a couple of hours just wandering around the base of the tower absolutely dumbfounded at how erosion could create such a monument. On a side note, I have learned more about geology in the past few weeks than I have in the last 27 years.

As the sun began to wane, I lingered a while longer before driving through Sundance (A tiny town whose only claim to fame is Harry Longabaugh, also known as the Sundance Kid) on my way to Deadwood, South Dakota.

Wednesday, February 18

there's just too much to say

Road Warrior Report
Days on the Road: 23
Miles Driven: 8789
States Visited: CA, OR, WA, ID, UT, VA, NC, SC, GA, FL, AL, MS, LA, TN, AR, OK, TX, NM, AZ, NV

The United States interstate system is highly convenient and completely anonymous. On one hand, freeways are generally in good condition, and are built in the flattest places which allow one to get from point A to point B in a relatively short period of time. However, by racing along miles of concrete at eighty miles an hour, you miss out on everything that is fascinating and unique about America. With a few exceptions (e.g., I-84 in Oregon that slices through the Columbia Gorge), it doesn't matter if you are on I-40 in Arizona, Texas, Tennessee or wherever, the landscape that zooms by all begins to melt together and you can barely tell which state you are in. The secondary roads that blanket the country like a cracks on a broken window lead to places you might not have discovered otherwise, like Arco.

Arco is one of those towns with less than a thousand people that make you wonder how people can find a living hundreds of miles from the nearest major population center. Other than the gas station, the motel, the grocery store and the school, what jobs could possibly exist? Arco also has the distinction of being the first community in the world to have been powered by nuclear energy, a fact not ignored by the locals. A local diner features several Cold War options such as the Atomic Burger and the Black Russian sandwich.

I am also dumbfounded by the rugged beauty of the landscape and the poverty of the community. Many of the town's residents live in houses or trailers that lie in various states of disrepair, but walk out the front door and you can see mountains as far as the eye can see. I've noticed this trend while driving through the Cascades in Washington, canyon country in southern Utah and pretty much anywhere in the Appalachians. And while many of America's poorest communities are in the most beautiful places, the people with money choose to live in gaudy McMansions bunched together in places called Walnut Ridge, Forest Glen, or any two word combination of a tree type and geologic feature. Instead of seeing a breathtaking mountain vista every morning, the guy who lives in the suburbs "to escape the city and own some land" looks out his back porch, across his half an acre, and sees his neighbor looking right back at him from an identical house whose enormity takes up the whole half acre he paid half a million bucks for. 

In any case, I traveled to Arco because of its proximity to Craters of the Moon National Monument. A fascinatingly random lava field in the middle of the Snake River Valley, Craters of the Moon is a desolate landscape highlighted by volcanic cinder cones, lava tubes, and the absence of tourists. Several feet of snow covered the monument making for poor pictures and visibility, but excellent snow shoeing. I spent the better part of the day climbing the cones and trying to avoid ruining the precious cross-country ski trails. Actually, I sloshed through the trails, a habit I've developed in honor of a man that my friends and I met while hiking through the Adirondacks last month. An avid skier, obnoxious local, and clearly convinced we were a bunch of juvenile delinquents, he spent twenty minutes explaining why we needed to go out of our way, whether it be jumping off cliffs or swinging from trees, in order to avoid the oh so perfectly-groomed ski trails. Apparently, the relationship between cross-country skiers and showshoers is similar to that of skiers and snowboarders, the later is simply sub-human.

Following a delicious Atomic Burger at the local diner in Arco, I headed south to Utah and even more snow. Counting yesterday, I have driven through either rain or snow every day for the past two weeks. Awesome.

Driving through Utah, it's not hard to see why the Mormons decided to stop their westward exodus and build Zion next to the Great Salt Lake; there is not a single eyesore or unpleasant view in the entire state.

To me the mountains and valleys of Utah are a bit worldlier; an endless playground for the adult boy who has not, and probably will never, shake his restless spirit. From the top of vermilion-colored mesas to the all-consuming darkness of slot canyons you can barely walk through sideways, one could spend a lifetime exploring the wild Utah backcountry. I was there for five days. Consequently, the wilderness of canyon country is where I walked away with the biggest disappointment of my trip thus far.

About eight bazillion years ago, tectonic plate shifts and earthquakes forced a 130,000 square mile piece of Earth up and created what is called the Colorado Plateau. Millions of years of erosion through rain, ice, and coursing rivers have whittled the plateau into what is called the Grand Staircase. The top step of the staircase rises over 11,000 feet above sea level and consists of the southern terminus of the Rocky Mountains. With each downward step, erosion turns varying rock types into distinct canyons with unique formations and colors. All of this beauty is within a span of two hundred miles. The lowest step is the Grand Canyon, the Colorado River’s final and greatest masterpiece on its journey to the Pacific Ocean. One step higher is Zion Canyon, the home of the Virgin River, one of the United States’ last free-flowing rivers, and Utah’s most popular national park.

When Mormon settlers first stumbled upon Zion Canyon, they declared it to be “Zion.” Upon his arrival, Brigham Young was quick to remark that the canyon, while beautiful, was certainly not Zion. For years, until efforts began to create Zion National Park, people actually referred to the area as “not Zion.” Today the park enjoys a reputation for ambitious hiking trails and accessible canyons for both amateur and expert canyoneers.

During the winter the north rim of the canyon is impassable due to snow and ice and since I wanted to hike into the backcountry my only real option was the southwest desert. Not to be outdone by the towering canyon walls with imposing names like the Patriarchs and the Tower of Sinawava, the southwest desert is a series of washes covered in spruces that hide an ancient petrified forest among their roots.

I hiked about six miles into the backcountry and camped along the lower ridge of a mesa with a view overlooking the entire desert and valley leading up to the entrance of Zion Canyon. Unfortunately, I don’t sleep well in tents and combined with a heightened sense of paranoia because I was alone and miles away from civilization, I suffered through a fitful night of sleep.

The next morning I broke camp at first light because the forecast called for rain and I wanted to be well on my way before then. Naturally, the unpredictable nature of the weather I have encountered dictated that blue skies prevailed when I arrived at Bryce Canyon National Park.

Bryce Canyon is the next step up in the Grand Staircase and could not be any more different than the Grand Canyon or Zion. Bryce is defined by its “Hoodoos,” orange-colored rock spires that belong on another planet. I hiked down the Queen’s Garden trail which switchbacks down to the floor of the Bryce Amphitheater, weaves between the hoodoos and climbs back up to the rim via a steep and narrow canyon called Wall Street.

I only spent a few hours at Bryce because the weather—again—was supposed to deteriorate and I wanted to make sure I was in Escalante before the snow hit. You’d think that at this point I would stop paying attention to the doom and gloom meteorologists, but the thought of driving up and down canyons and mesas in the middle of a blizzard was not that appealing.

I was the only person at the diner in Escalante when I stopped for dinner which meant that no one, other than the waitress, would see me devour a decadent cheeseburger covered in bacon, mushrooms, onions, and to top it all off, polish sausage. It was fantastic. I drifted off to sleep in my motel room looking forward to a day in the wilderness of the Grand Staircase Monument.

Much to my chagrin, I awoke to see five inches of fresh snow on the ground. What did that mean? No hiking in the Grand Staircase because the unpaved access roads were impassable and awful driving conditions as I continued on to Capitol Reef National Park. I was pissed, especially because the Grand Staircase was all off-trail backcountry hiking among hidden canyons, narrow washes and dinosaur tracks. Yes, dinosaur tracks.

Capitol Reef National Park was a pleasant surprise and certainly eased the pain of missing out on the Grand Staircase. Around the time the Colorado Plateau formed, the Earth’s crust folded to create the Waterpocket Fold, a 100-mile stretch of rock that has eroded away to form the park’s namesake. The upper reaches of the fold contain rocks that look like white marble, very similar to the color of the Capitol in Washington, DC.

The park also has a rich cultural history to complement its natural beauty. Over a thousand years ago, the native peoples who lived in the area carved numerous petroglyphs in the canyon walls that are still visible today. In the 19th century, Mormon settlers came to the area and flourished. Many of their buildings and orchards have been preserved in the park and during the summer, visitors may pick fruit from the many trees scattered throughout the park. Capitol Reef was also one of the Utah hideouts for the infamous robber Butch Cassidy and his gang. I followed the reef’s ridge for several miles to stand on the massive arch that immortalizes Cassidy’s name and stands guard over the wash he once used to traverse the reef.

On the way back to my car, I decided to turn the hike into a loop--versus a circuit--and walked alongside the park's main vehicle thoroughfare. I was offered a ride by a park ranger, the quintessential national park experience that, while seemingly harmless, is a rare treasure afforded mostly to hikers traveling alone. Don't ask me to expand, I can't right now. The consequence of not having much time to write is that ideas in my head don't ferment as well as they should. Nor do I spend nearly as much time editing. Guess that means I should write a book.

Now I'm in Park City for some skiing. I spent yesterday touring various Mormon sights in Salt Lake City and I'll have something to say about that later.

Pictures here.

a long time in the making

Where do I begin? It has been nearly a week since my last update, I have a million things to say, and the 60 minutes of Internet time the kind people at the Salt Lake City Library have bestowed upon me has dwindled to a mere 25. I'll give a brief update, with no pictures, and write more when I find reliable Internet access either tonight or tomorrow.

Since leaving Washington, I've made stops in Arco, Idaho (yes, you've never heard of it), and have spent several days traipsing around canyon country in southern Utah. It has snowed for at least a few minutes everyday, yet the daytime temperatures have generally been in the high 40s. I spent a night in the backcountry of Zion National Park and soloed some slot canyon routes that were borderline class 5 and would have my rock climbing brother aghast at my brazen disregard for safety. And for a large percentage of the time I was convinced that an attack was imminent, either by a mountain lion, or a crazed group of Mormon settlers who still thought it was the 19th century.

In any case, I survived and am now waiting for some friends to arrive so we can head out to Park City and begin a four day ski trip. I'll have plenty of time to upload pictures and write so expect a flood of entries (or just one really enormous entry) over the next couple of days. Time for some lunch.

Thursday, February 12

happy birthday abe lincoln

Pictures here.

There are twenty-eight breweries within the city of Portland making it the microbrewery capital of the United States. There is also an array of bookstores, one of which we visited during an evening in the city.

Powell's is the bookstore's bookstore. A 77,000-square foot monstrosity that
spans an entire city block with nine color-coded rooms and four floors, it also houses approximately four million new and used books. One could easily spend days lost among the endless bookshelves, unfortunately we only had a couple of hours. However, I did walk away with a couple of new books to add to the exponentially growing unread collection.

Afterwards we wandered downtown Portland searching for some grub and stumbled upon the Lotus Bar & Cardroom. A prohibition-era speakeasy, the Lotus has a terrifically interesting history that dates back to 1902 and includes alcohol, prostitution and gambling in smoky back rooms of the bar. The actual bar--where you set drinks--was built in the 19th century by a English company and was discovered and shipped to Portland before the Panama Canal was built (A rather long voyage). Today it's a tad less exciting and illicit, but the food was good and the beer was even better. On to Washington!

The next morning we drove to Mount Rainier National Park and prayed the Vibe would make it up the snow covered mountain roads. Just a few days before all roads through the park, and even to some of the small towns outside the park, were closed due to record levels of snowfall. Fortunately, the Park Service does a superb job of plowing and the road to Paradise, and the visitor center, was mostly clear. The visitor center and lodge were closed, but the sky was blue and the massive volcano loomed in front of us, hibernating underneath an equally enormous amount of snow. In an instant I was reminded of memories from my ascent and summit of Mt. Rainier in 2005: slogging over seemingly endless glaciers, hopping over bottomless crevasses, the woman who went blind from altitude sickness, and leaning against the side of the mountain, exhausted and convinced I couldn't climb the final hundred feet to the summit. I desperately wanted to pack the gear in my car, say adios to my friend, and attempt a winter summit.

Instead we left and had lunch at the restaurant that was my reason for coming to the park: The Copper Creek Inn. My father and I ate at the inn,
probably a hundred times, when we climbed Mt. Rainier in 2005. Our fixation revolved equal parts around the fantastic food and the phenomenally attractive waitress who served us. The inn is known for its blackberry-based products. Blackberry butter, blackberry vinaigrette, blackberry syrup and blackberry pie to name a few.

This time around we had a full three course meal, including pie for dessert, and I can say without reservation that the Copper Creek Inn is the best restaurant I have ever dined at. Alas, the waitress was not there.

With our stomachs full and eternally grateful, we headed to Seattle where my friend and I parted ways and I rode to the top of the Seattle Space Needle. The view was incredible and Mt. Rainier could be seen in the distance. However, I soon realized it was almost four and that rush hour would begin any second. I promptly left only to sit in an interstate parking lot fifteen minutes later.

One of my college friends lives and works in Olympia, the state capital, and my plan was to spend the night with him. He lives with his twin brother and the only significant difference between the two is that one is the faster runner and the other is the faster drinker. While his brother was out running, my friend and I went to a local bar where they served beer by the quart--Awesome!

And if you were not aware, I misplaced my glasses at the hostel in Charleston over two weeks ago. After days of phone tag, I finally got the manager to ship the glass here to Olympia. Since they did not arrive yesterday, I am spending the day here hoping the glasses show up this afternoon. Either tonight or tomorrow I will be heading to Idaho and then to Utah for a week's worth of camping before a ski trip in Park City. I'm not to optimistic about computer access over the next week and it will be a miracle if I post anything.

only vehicles with chains may continue

That was a warning displayed with increasing frequency as the Vibe climbed into the higher reaches of the Cascades. I have neither chains nor four wheel drive, but aside from a few fish tails and miles of white-knuckle driving, I made it through the first inclement weather of the trip without any hiccups.

Crater Lake is a caldera lake that has the distinction of being the deepest lake in the United States and the ninth deepest lake in the world (1,949 feet). Situated in the Oregon Cascades at about 6,100 feet, the lake formed after centuries of snow melt filled a massive caldera left by the collapse of the volcano Mount Mazama about 7,700 years ago. The lake's most distinctive feature, Wizard Island, is one of many volcanic cinder cones within the lake and the only one to have risen above the water's surface.

When we arrived at the parking lot near the south rim of the caldera, a thick layer of clouds sat over the lake making it impossible to see a thing. The snow banks were over ten feet high and I was forced to strap on snow shoes in order to approach the rim for a magnificent view of nothing but a gray featureless abyss. For a brief moment, the clouds over the lake cleared, the sun bored a small hole in the foreboding storm clouds overhead and the entire lake was visible. The scene was painted in shades of gray, but even the doleful artist, whose perspective created this picture, managed to capture the beauty that was mostly hidden on this dreary day.

The clouds returned to fill the caldera and I decided to keep on the snow shoes and trek to Discovery Point. During the summer, Discovery Point is a drive-up vista that marks where the first European saw the lake. In the winter it is a 1.3 mile one-way hike through what had now become a white-out. As I trudged through the blistering winds and stinging snow, my friend stayed in the cafe, which, considering my current situation, can only be described as toasty warm.

I reached Discovery Point in thirty minutes and it was a ghostly scene. I had been hiking over mountains of snow and suddenly part of the road was uncovered and a plaque commemorating the site lay half buried in snow. To my right was the gray abyss that hid the lake and a dense forest was to my left. I glanced behind to see my lone set of snow shoe tracks trail off into the storm and for a moment I thought I was the last person on Earth wandering through a nuclear winter.

I was also standing near the spot where, a few days earlier, two guys from the air force base in Klamath Falls had been hiking. Somehow managing to make the hike without snow shoes, their luck ran out when one of the guys, in an attempt to find a dropped camera, slipped and fell a hundred feet down the side of caldera. He stopped a mere ten feet from the edge of a 500-foot drop into the lake and it took rescuers four hours to bring him up to safety and treat him for mild hypothermia. Winter hiking isn't for the faint of heart.

After a hot lunch in the cafe, the Vibe and I fought through the driving snow until reaching 3,000 feet where the snow promptly began rain, the roads cleared and it was smooth sailing, relatively speaking, to Portland.

Updated pictures here.

Tuesday, February 10

very superstitious, writing's on the wall

If you are a superstitious person, the past day would have sent you running for cover. After two straight days of rain--in California of all places--there was a light drizzle when we left Berkley this morning.

I try to avoid using CDs or MP3 players during road trips so that I can listen to local radio stations. A great testament to the power of the Internet and domestic globalization, nearly every radio station is identical to the next from Britney Spears' latest single to the same low-budget commercials advertising Joe's Shop for Whatever. And when I'm tired of hearing about when Katy Perry kissed a girl and liked it, or when the bloviating Rush Limbaugh denounces President Obama as the Antichrist, I switch to NPR for a solid dose of pinko communist propaganda.

This morning NPR had a segment on tonight's full moon that included some obscure trivia on how the Earth is, at any one moment, half covered in light and half covered in shadow. I'm glad the producers at NPR dispatched brilliant scientific minds to uncover this mystery of the stars. What they failed to mention, however, was that a full moon is known to induce strange behavior in both humans and nature.

We drove up the north coast of California to Redwood National Park and the rain subsided. The redwood groves that stretch from San Francisco to the Oregon border are the only old-growth forests left in the United States and the last remaining redwoods in the world. Further, these forests contain plant species that have outlasted the dinosaurs. Wandering among the 300-foot redwoods and pushing aside the descendants of pre-historic ferns is the closest one can get to experiencing what life was like while dinosaurs still roamed the Earth. I half expected to see a Tyrannosaurus Rex come crashing through the undergrowth.

As we fast-fowarded to the present and began to weave through the Cascade Mountains towards Oregon, the rain returned and quickly became snow. From that point on, the weather seemed to change by the mile. The snow gave way to rain until blue skies parted the clouds for a instant before disappearing behind clouds and more rain. Fifty miles outside of Klamath Falls, the highway climbed up into the Cascades, the temperature dropped fifteen degrees and a drizzle became a blizzard. The road was quickly vanishing beneath the snow, but there were barely visible tracks and what appeared to be salt and sand preventing slippery conditions. Twenty miles later we caught up with the salt truck that had been providing the Vibe with so much traction. We followed the truck for another ten miles until the snow suddenly subsided and the roads cleared and were even dry. It was as if we had walked through a door separating a storm system and clear skies.

The sky was eerily beautiful and the brilliance of the full moon illuminated the landscape in a fluorescent light. Occasionally thin clouds would dissipate some of the light, but when the moon emerged the snow on the hillsides would light up like a white T-shirt underneath a black light. And if the day hadn't been strange enough, we pulled into Klamath Falls around eight and decided to eat at a BBQ joint that received rave reviews from the locals. While I was a little hesitant to accept BBQ in the Pacific Northwest, the food was great, better than most BBQ places in DC.

Now I'm pondering a jump in the heated pool here at the hotel. Tomorrow morning we are heading up to Crater Lake.

I only took a couple of pictures today and will update on Wednesday.

Sunday, February 8

how the west was won

Pictures have been updated and are here.

The road to Las Vegas passes through the Lake Meade Recreation Area and over the Hoover Dam. A Depression-era engineering feat, the Hoover Dam is best known for housing Megatron until his escape and demise at the hands of Shia Labeouf in the streets of Los Angeles. Standing on the dam looking down towards the Colorado River more than 700 feet below, the first thought in your head is a breathtaking, "Holy shit," followed shortly by, "How the heck was such an incredible piece of engineering built back in 1935?"

The Hoover Dam also marks the border between Arizona and Nevada. This change is noted, not by a change in scenery, but by the casino located about a mile from the dam. This establishment is placed strategically in case you cannot wait to flush money away in Las Vegas. If you can avoid the urge to gamble for thirty minutes, your patience is rewarded with a sweeping view of Vegas as the mountains fade into the desert.

Las Vegas was once the nation's fastest growing city; now it has one of the highest foreclosure rates. Nevertheless, the Strip at night is electrifying and overflowing with hundred thousand dollar cars, gambling addicts and illegal immigrants who are paid to hand out advertisements for strip clubs and escort services. Even if your idea of a good time is not losing exorbitant amounts of money in mere seconds, it's impossible to not be excited by the flashing lights and the whirring of slot machines.

I met up with some friends who were staying at the Venetian on business and after a few drinks in the hotel, we hit up the casinos. I threw down $50 at the blackjack table and was out after eight hands. My friend lost $400. With only $1 left--that I was willing to spend--I sat down at the penny slots and walked away 24 cents richer. I proceeded to lose the entire $1.24 playing video poker while waiting for a drink at the bar. After all that excitement, we wandered around Caesar's Palace until we realized it was two in the morning and my friends needed to be up for work in three hours. It was off to bed for a quick nap and a drive to Los Angeles the next day.

While watching the Weather Channel the next day, I noticed the forecast called for clear skies across the country and rain throughout the entire state of California. Four hours and a few hundred miles later we were sitting on I-10 in Los Angeles, stuck in rush hour traffic and the only day of rain the city will see all year. Another hour and ten miles later, we had parked and were sitting in the Broadway Deli, a great restaurant on the Santa Monica promenade. Afterwards, I met up with my brother and some of his friends at a bar near his office.

My brother and his friends work in Hollywood and, consequently, are the only people I really enjoy hearing talk shop. They never fail to have the inside scoop on celebrities or movies that you can't get on any entertainment blog. When we left LA to begin driving up the Pacific coast I was up-to-date on all the latest Hollywood gossip.

We spent the night in a small town north of Santa Barbara and woke up to more gray skies and pounding rain. I planned to spend the day cruising along the Pacific Coast Highway and rain was certainly not an integral part of that plan. Fortunately, whether by luck or divine providence, the rain slowed to a drizzle and when we hit the coast the clouds parted and the sun broke through.

Driving along the PCH is like every experience in the west: dramatic. The highway snakes around cliffs that fall hundreds of feet into the Pacific Ocean. We stopped in Big Sur and hiked down to one of the many beaches where writers such as Henry Miller, Hunter S. Thompson and Jack Kerouac found peace, beauty and inspiration.

You really haven't seen a coastline until you've visited Big Sur. The isolation, the pristine beaches, the jagged rocks and cliffs all contribute to a landscape that can only be described as epic. I spent half an hour sitting on the beach staring at the surf and breathing the sea air wondering why the American West was gifted with such incredible beauty. I also wondered why anyone would live on the East Coast when the West has so much more to offer. I live in the East and couldn't give myself an adequate answer.

The sunshine and perfect 65 degree temperature made leaving an arduous task. It was time to press on to San Francisco where we would be spending the next two nights in Berkeley.

I have never been to San Francisco and the city exceeded my expectations in many ways. First off, the city was much bigger than I had ever imagined. My previous knowledge of San Francisco revolved around Grand Theft Auto III and a couple of racing video games where you speed up and down the hilly streets in a Corvette. Two of my friends were in the city this weekend (one actually lives in LA) and they took us on an extensive driving tour that covered nearly every major sight in the city. We went from Coit Tower to the famous switchbacking Lombard Street to Golden Gate Park to the Haight where the hippie movement and the Grateful Dead were born in the 60s.

Again the weather was miserable and a thick fog covered most of the city. However, luck was on our side as we arrived at Golden Gate Park. As we turned a corner for a view of the Golden Gate Bridge, the fog lifted, the sun emerged and the bay was bathed in sunlight. Shortly thereafter the clouds reclaimed the sky and the rain returned, but not before we saw the Golden Gate Bridge underneath blue skies.

Tomorrow morning we are leaving for Redwood National Park on the way to Seattle. I would expect the next update by Wednesday night at the latest.

Friday, February 6

the sun sets in the west; in arizona actually

Road Warrior Report
Days on the Road: 10
Miles Driven: 4774
States Visited: VA, NC, SC, GA, FL, AL, MS, LA, TN, AR, OK, TX, NM, AZ, NV

In a Calvin and Hobbes comic, Calvin asks his dad where the sun goes when it sets. Calvin's father, the consummate sarcastic ass, replies, "The sun sets in the west. In Arizona actually, near Flagstaff. That's why the rocks there are so red."

The rocks in Flagstaff are not actually red. In fact, most of them were covered in snow when I drove through the city en route to the Grand Canyon.

I arrived at the South Rim of the Grand Canyon just after eight in the morning. If anyone recalls, shortly after my trip to Peru last year, I declared that the Grand Canyon was a puddle of mud compared to Peru's Colca Canyon. I was terribly wrong. While the Colca Canyon is unmatched in terms of depth and sheerness of the canyon walls, the Grand Canyon is one of nature's greatest accomplishments. The canyon lies among an elite group of naturescapes--including Yosemite--that are impossible to properly describe with any adjective in the English language.

Originally I had planned to hike the eighteen miles down to Phantom Ranch on the canyon floor. However, I was heading to Las Vegas that evening and the park ranger warned me that it was pure insanity to attempt that hike in one day. Instead I decided to make my way down the Bright Angel Trail and see how far I could get by noon. To be honest, I was a little concerned the icy conditions and the eventual hike up would make me wish I had just stayed at the top.

The first quarter mile was pretty dicey due to a thick layer of ice covering the trail. A hiker I passed remarked that I had pretty good traction and I replied, "Yeah, I've got great boots, but I shouldn't say that because I'll end up slipping and falling off the cliff in five minutes." I didn't tumble off the cliff, but five minutes later I slipped and fell on my behind.

The best time of year to visit the Grand Canyon is late winter/early spring. There were probably ten other people in the park besides myself, and the daytime temperature on the canyon floor was only seventy degrees. Snow and ice are present on the rim and the first five hundred feet into the canyon, but get a little further down and the trails are impeccable.

After an hour of hiking I was at Indian Gardens, 4.6 miles and 3060 vertical feet from the rim. Emboldened by the speed of my descent I hiked on to Plateau Point, another 1.5 miles and undoubtedly one of the best decisions I've ever made. While the trail to Phantom Ranch continues to dive towards the bottom, the Point trail winds across a plateau that extends into the middle of the canyon and abruptly ends with a 2000 foot drop into the Colorado River. It's an unbelievable experience to be strolling along this plateau with a uninterrupted panoramic view of the entire canyon. Further, I was the only person on the plateau for nearly an hour, other than the condor that was nested about twenty feet away.

The hike up was surprisingly easy. I left the plateau a little before noon and was standing on the rim at two. That's 6.1 miles and about 3150 feet in just over two hours. The Park Service has a billboard at the trailhead that is full of warnings like: "Make sure you bring this, this and this or you will DIE! Or worse, we'll have to come rescue your dumb ass." The billboard also had a list of the time estimates for hiking the trail. I got out my camera to take a picture for future reference and a woman came up behind me and said, "Taking a picture to prove you were here?" "No," I replied. "I'm taking a picture because this billboard says it would take 8-12 hours to hike the trail I just came off of and I did it in five." Apparently when the Park Service performs trail estimates they assume everyone hiking either has a walker or is in a wheel chair.

After sitting on the rim and staring off into the distance for an hour or so, I got in the car and left for Las Vegas.

Lack of pictures is unavoidable due to slow computers and not enough time.

Thursday, February 5

the hills have eyes, and undercover cops

For anyone who thought I was joking about actually quiting, noticed I haven't posted in three days and might have, just a little, worried I was serious, I apologize. After leaving Memphis, I drove for thirteen hours and over 1,000 miles to Santa Fe, New Mexico. After a day in the wilderness outside of Los Alamos followed by a day at the Grand Canyon, I am now sitting in a hotel room at the Venetian in Las Vegas. But before I continue, let's get to the details.

When you embark on a thirteen hour drive, there is a certain adrenaline rush because you are really on the road now, no more amateurish six or nine hour drives. That rush lasts about twenty seconds when you realize you are really on the road. In retrospect, such a long drive from Tennessee to New Mexico was worth it because, honestly, what is there to see in Arkansas, northern Texas, or any of Oklahoma?

The first hour passed uneventfully because my mind was preoccupied with the frustration of going to both Graceland and the National Civil Rights Museum only to find they were closed on Tuesdays. In no time at all, the rolling Arkansas landscape morphed into the pancake flat Oklahoma and then the even more flat Texas panhandle, and I desperately struggled to find ways to avoid, what seemed at the time, to be imminent insanity.

I stared at the clouds and tried to describe them using similes. I picked out constellations among the splattered insects on my windshield. I realized the girls at the gas station in Arkansas had accents that made them sound like Goofy: "Uhuh golly mister, here's yer receipt!" I considered whether the agony involved in continuing my drive would be worse than the aftermath of speeding up to 100 mph and letting go of the wheel. It was close.

Somewhere in the middle of Texas, I was pulled over for doing well over the speed limit. My first thought was not, "Crap, I just got pulled over." Instead an episode of Seinfeld came to mind, only I didn't have a beautiful woman with me to sweet talk the officer. When the officer asked me the requisite, "Do you know how fast you were going?" I replied, "Pretty darn fast!" He asked me where was I going in such a hurry and I told him I just wanted to get to Santa Fe as fast as possible. Apparently, the officer valued honesty and he let me off with a warning. I got lucky. Rest assured I've been driving [close] to the speed limit ever since.

When I crossed the border into New Mexico the sun had set, but the moon and millions of stars illuminated the landscape. The last time I had seen New Mexico was in the movie The Hills Have Eyes. If you haven't seen it and you like gratuitous violence and radiated mutants living in the New Mexico desert, I strongly recommend it. After turning off the interstate onto a state route that would take me to Santa Fe, all my mind could do was conjure images from the movie. I kept looking for a shadowy figure to roll tire spikes onto the road causing me to careen into a ditch whereupon a cadre of mutants would drag me into a nearby cave. Much to my relief nothing of interest occurred, though I swear I saw a UFO.

The next morning I drove to Bandelier National Monument. Near the base of the Jemez Mountains, the Frijoles Canyon hides the remnants of a pre-Columbian Pueblo settlement. The park is a real gem that most people have never heard of and apparently receives less than 300,000 visitors a year, according to the park ranger. Carlsbad Caverns, which is the only "National Park" in New Mexico, garners infinitely more attention--a sore spot among many in the Park Service.

I spent the morning wandering among the cliff dwellings in awe at what the ancestral Pueblos had accomplished. The Spanish never found this settlement because many years before, a combination of drought and the depletion of resources forced the Pueblo to abandon the canyon and settle along the nearby Rio Grande River. The Spanish then found and proceeded to slaughter and enslave the Pueblo until the U.S. Government forced them onto reservations.

Ladders provided by the Park Service made several of the dwellings accessible and, unlike at Jamestown, I definitely could have lived in those caves. Tucked away in a small canyon, surrounded by pine trees and a small river, it was a picture perfect setting. The canyon itself was fascinating. One side was a steep slope covered in brush and melting snow. On the other, a sheer cliff with holes that looked like a very large man had lost his temper and began driving his fist through the dusty red rock.

On the way back to Santa Fe, I stopped in Los Alamos, the birthplace of the atomic bomb. Formally the mysterious P.O. Box 1663, Los Alamos is now open to the public and has a number of museums detailing the history of the town.

Santa Fe was beyond disappointing. People always describe Santa Fe as a charming little dream come true for starving artists and Georgia O'Keeffe fanatics. The city sprawls across the New Mexico desert and I failed to find any charm. The historic downtown area is a poor, Americanized attempt at the Spanish Plaza de Armas. The adobe buildings were tacky and the city's "cathedral" was covered in scaffolding. On one side of the plaza, a group of Pueblo Indians were huddled in a open market trying to sell homemade goods to their white overlords, retired New Yorkers with cowboy hats and other gaudy accessories worn by rich easterners trying to connect with their--nonexistent--western roots. At that moment, I felt so thrilled to be an American, I longed to complete the experience by chowing down on some authentic American food. Unfortunately, McDonald's wasn't an option so I settled for Subway. I promptly left for Arizona and the Grand Canyon.

Pictures to come later.

Monday, February 2

love me tender, love me true

I received such a positive response from my post on the Holy Land Experience that I've decided to retire. I'm quiting while ahead and just driving back home.

Today involved a great deal of driving and very little not driving. Following a weather-induced departure from New Orleans, I drove to
Moundville, Alabama, to see the remains of what was once the largest city in pre-Columbian North America.

The Mississippian culture had this habit of building giant mounds of dirt and placing important buildings on them. In fact, some archaeologists believe the cumulative works of the mound builders make the Egyptians look like a bunch of amateurs. All that is left today are the mounds which are not entirely impressive to look at, but are a remarkable achievement for North America's greatest pre-Columbian civilization.

The entire visit took less than an hour, but there was an informative movie on the site and the Mississippian culture and you can scale any of the mounds, including the 58-foot Mound B, the mother of all the mounds.

Because it was only thirty minutes from Moundville, I drove to Tuscaloosa, home to the University of Alabama. Two days earlier, I took a detour through Gainesville to see where the Messiah, Tim Tebow, performs his football miracles every Saturday and was unimpressed. Tuscaloosa, on the other hand, is a great college town. The campus is beautiful and there is a block of bars and restaurants next to campus called "The Strip," which is where I assume the students go to party. The gates to Bryant-Denny Stadium were open so I walked in to see where the Great Satan, Nick Saban, lives and leads his men to the top of the polls before embarrassing losses against teams like Utah. I suppose I should mention what my beef with Saban is.

Nick Saban used to coach Michigan State until bailing before a bowl game to make more money at LSU. He bailed LSU for the NFL where he promptly sucked and took a bazillion dollars to coach Alabama, exceed the NCAA limits for signing for recruits and be a general ass. Secretly, part of me wanted Tuscaloosa to be a terrible place so I could justify my dislike for Saban and the UA football team. It was not meant to be. Tuscaloosa would be an awesome place to watch a football game. Roll Tide!!

Next on the list was Tupelo, Mississippi, the birthplace of Elvis Presley. Elvis' dad built the 500 square foot, two room house with his father in 1934. Elvis and his parents only lived in the house for the first three years of his life, but it had such an impact on his life that he eventually bought the house and gave it to the city for preservation. A little park has been built around the house along with a museum and a visitor center and it's all very well done. I can imagine the place is a zoo during the tourist season.

I am finishing the day at a hotel in Memphis. I just got back from dinner at Marlowe's, a BBQ joint that was a gastronomical delight. Food is one of the reasons I stopped in places like Charleston, New Orleans and Memphis, and it has yet to disappoint. Tomorrow morning I am going to Graceland and then heading out west, not stopping until I get to Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Admittedly I am a tad melancholy about leaving the south. This trip was my first adventure in the Deep South and it exceeded my expectations. I didn't see any chain gangs or slaves singing spirituals while picking cotton, but everyone was extremely friendly and the only time I had trouble understanding thick accent was in Tupelo. The woman was so nice that I didn't even care. Even in the middle of nowhere, where country music and psychotic evangelical talk shows reign supreme, I could always find a radio station playing "normal" music. I've heard Taylor Swift so many times I think I'm developing a liking for country music...HA! My friends will say I've always been a tad dismissive of the south, but it will always have two things us northerners will never be able to match: good food and southern hospitality.

Time to head out west and seek my fortune looking for gold.

the big easy

Sunday night I partied in the city that, sadly, suffered the wrath of the Bush administration's biggest failure: New Orleans.

Driving west on I-10 you reach a bridge that stretches across Lake Pontchartrain. The bridge goes as far as you can see and off in the distance the skyline of New Orleans rises above the horizon. It is still another ten miles to the Mississippi River and downtown, but the wreckage from Hurricane Katrina is immediately apparent. At first the interstate splits the rich neighborhoods where all of the houses and apartment buildings are brand new, and the poor neighborhoods where all of the houses are missing roofs and walls. Nevertheless kids play in the front yards of buildings that should be condemned and I even saw a birthday party at a house with boarded-up windows, but they sure as Hell had a Dora the Explorer moonwalk on the front lawn.

New Orleans itself is a study in contrasts. I stayed in the Garden District where many of the houses are considered historic buildings. However, if you make a wrong turn and walk one block north instead of south, your chances of getting mugged go from 0% to almost 100%. Pick a street to look down and you can see a group of loitering white kids and across the street is a group of black kids. In any case, after dropping my bags off, I immediately took the trolley down to the French Quarter.

The French Quarter is the reason everyone loves New Orleans and it's obvious why. I felt like I was strolling the streets of Paris, just with Daiquiri shops and flashing neon lights everywhere. Not a good place for epileptics. I stopped at the famous Cafe du Monde for some beignets and had dinner at Coop's, a place known for its mean seafood gumbo--not to mention a fantastic Jambalaya. For the past three days I had been staring at the word "beignet" in my guidebook trying to figure out the correct pronunciation. When I was third in line at Cafe du Monde, I decided upon "big-nay" over "big-net." Yes I know, I'm an idiot. Fortunately, a 9-year-old girl in front of me asked her mom if she could have a "bin-yay" and I was saved from sure embarrassment.

After wandering the French Quarter for about thirty minutes, I ventured to Bourbon Street. The main drag of the French Quarter is an experience unlike any other. Even in the off-season the streets smell like booze and vomit, I can't imagine how terrible it is during Mardi Gras. The French-style buildings with their iconic baIconies house only two types of establishments: bars and strip clubs. Walk down the street and it's bar, bar, bar, strip club, bar, strip club, strip club...European coffee house? I settled on the bar Bourbon Cowboy, which featured a mechanical bull, a 3 for 1 drink special, and was just busy enough that I wouldn't be drinking alone. By the way, what a great game!

During halftime, a couple of shot girls jumped on the bar and started dancing, blocking my view of the halftime show. I politely asked them to move from my line of sight and they were so shocked I preferred the Boss over dancing girls that they came over after halftime to try and force me to buy shots.

The whole concept of shot girls is a giant scam perpetrated by bars in order to steal as much of your money while simultaneously keeping their liquor. The shot girls walk around with pretty colored shots that are always $1-2 cheaper than a normal shot. The idea is that you think, "Hey! This shot is cheaper and a hot girl is offering it to me, what a great deal!" The catch is that there is only a drop of alcohol mixed with some excessively fruity syrup. And it's not like you even have a chance with the girl selling it to you. Just say no.

I didn't buy a shot from the girls, but we did get to talking and I discovered they were the "talent" at one of the million strip clubs on Bourbon Street. The first girl's stage name was "Starbuck" which is a reference to the TV show Battlestar Galactica, a very smart drama that only five people including myself watch. Needless to say, it was awesome to meet a stripper who used a name from an obscure TV show that no one watches. The other girl actually graduated from Michigan and used to work at Deja Vu in Ypsilanti. Apparently, moving from a club in Ypsi to one in New Orleans means your career is going in the right direction.

The girls really wanted me to buy a shot and I didn't want one so they made a deal with me: They would give a me free shot if I let the second girl wear my Michigan hat during their next round through the bar. How could I resist? The best part, they charged the next couple of guys a few extra bucks to make up for the money they lost comping my drink.

The next morning I planned to walked around the city and get some pictures, but after five minutes, the sky opened and it began to rain. I wonder if the trauma from Katrina causes everyone in the city to collectively wince whenever it rains? Disheartened and just a little paranoid that the city might sink, I got in the car and left. Consequently, I only have a few pictures of historic homes that I will post on Picasa later.