Comments on life, the universe and everything from an aging Sixties survivor.

Location: Massachusetts, United States

Ummm, isn't "about me" part of the point of the blog?

Thursday, June 30, 2005

An Andy Rooney Moment

So, here I am again doing a round trip commute of 70 miles a day, something I had hoped to avoid by getting into health care.

All that time behind the wheel gives me time to reflect, as well as to talk back to Welsh CDs, and here's one of those reflections. Whatever happened to the curious custom (indeed, law) by which slow drivers travel in the right lane?

A lot of early morning driving has convinced me that people on the road early come in two varieties. There are those of us who are up solely to avoid as much traffic as possible, and who travel as fast as possible to stay ahead of it. This is getting harder. In 1970 or so, if you got on the road in Boston at 5:30 a.m., you had many highways to yourself, and shared others only with trucks. No more: Today, my 0530 departure keeps me barely ahead of the ravening hordes of commuters. One feels like a troika driver trying to outrun the wolves, throwing passengers overboard now and then to lighten the load. The least interruption in one's forward motion can be fatal.

That brings us to the other class of early morning drivers, the contemplatives. To them, the commute is a moment of spiritual reflection, enjoyed with the coffee whilst tooling down the left or centre lane of a six-lane highway with a 45 mph speed limit at 33. When the wolves catch up to the contemplatives, we have a traffic jam.

The centre-lane contemplatives may be the most fascinating. One has to be more than trivially entranced to continue one's sedate progress with a lane of traffic on each side going about twice one's own speed. If my timetable weren't at risk, I could admire the singleminded devotion of these ascetics to their dawn rituals.

But my timetable is at risk, and I'm at my most selfish before the morning java. So, I have a little message for the contemplatives:

If you're so attached to slow driving, stay in bed another hour and join the rush. You can be as slow as you like then, and you'll be out of my way.

And get the fuck into the right lane!

Monday, June 27, 2005

Westboro Baptists, Welcome to Marblehead

For reasons best known to themselves, members of the infamous Westboro Baptist Church of Kansas chose to visit Marblehead to pollute the funeral of Chris Piper, the first Marbleheader to die of hostile action since Vietnam. I suppose they thought of my town as an easy mark, a bastion of East Coast pinko liberalism. At any rate, their contingent was rather understaffed, four or five by the best accounts, and not exactly equal to the far-from-friendly (and largely Republican) crowd. The locals surrounded them so effectively that the little TV coverage had to show file footage of other Westboro Baptist festivities.

I was hoping for a squaling*, but it seems that custom has died out. It was apparently replaced with excellence, grace, and this purely coincidental ability of town residents to place themselves between the Kansas vermin and the TV cameras. The other coincidence is that every time the Kansas scum reared back for a chorus of "Faggot Soldiers" or whatever, the Marblehead Police Bagpipe Band happened to pound out something appropriately militant. When you consider that this band is audible from a mile off, you get an idea of the competition.

I've put in my .02 elsewhere on this blog about the stupidity of visiting antiwar sentiments, whatever their motivation, on those who fight the war. I wonder how the administration enjoys having
this quinessential part of the Republican "base" breaking ranks with the neo-Conservatives. After all, if God wants to punish the U.S., it follows that he's punishing those who resist the punishment of God, like Bush, Rummy, et. al. Poor Rove: how many ambitious grey eminences have thought they could control fanaticism? As I recall, most of them ended up being swallowed whole by the mobs they created.

I also wanted to see the Kansans try conclusions with the Marblehead that is more than the stereotype.

The town has had a reputation as a posh retreat on a scale with Newport and the Hamptons. It is more an upper middle-class suburb, with the usual increasing number of pretentious McMansions. Many of the newer residents stay as close to the town line as they can, seldom attend town meeting, rarely go downtown ("Old Town" to you furriners), and think the harbour would be more attractive without boats in it. Those who own what the older locals call "boats," call them "yachts."

This nouveau-riche Riviera was built on sterner foundations that are not quite dead. It has not one, but three, unofficial levels of citizenship. The lowest are the "residents," people who weren't born in Marblehead (or these days, of Marblehead parents) and who live there just for the tony address. Next are the "natives," who can claim at least three generations of local ancestry and have assimilated the local values. (Northern New Englanders like myself, and Maritime Canadians, occupy a precarious mezzanine off to one side of the native category: we're not as bad as those New York people as long as we behave ourselves and don't put on airs.)

Then there are the Old Marbleheaders. They don't live on the Neck. Mostly, their houses and occupations are modest. They can afford to live in the town because their real estate passes through the family for ten or twelve generations, rarely coming on the market. Old Marblehead families are those that have been in town since before the Revolution (most since the 17th century), defending the nation before there was a nation. Although they don't make a big deal about it, they take their patriotism straight up, and only fools disregard that.

It was their ancestors who, as privateers, supplied Washington's army in the siege of Boston. They rescued the Continental Army at Long Island, ferried it across the Delaware at Trenton, and many served the length of that war on land or sea. In the next century, over 100 died in the Civil War. Today, they are as a varied a group as any, but you don't want to mess with them. When their forebears put "Dont Tread on Me" on their banners, they meant it. The slogan is still there.

Sgt. Chris Piper was an Old Marbleheader. One of his ancestors served even before 1775, in the French and Indian War, and someone of his line has been in the country's uniform in every war since.

The VFW that marched to his grave and stood at his graveside is composed largely of Old Marbleheaders and native townies, and includes veterans from WWII down to the present fighting. The local police and firefighters who marched in Piper's funeral procession (and "escorted" our Kansas vistors) are mostly native-born. All but the newest and shallowest residents come to respect the thorny pride and insularity that is typical of Old Marbleheaders, even when it is a pain in the ass. Today that pride, all four centuries of it, was on display at its best. It paid no more heed to the flies that blew in from Kansas that it did to the local variety at the dumpster outside Barnegat Seafoods.

Marblehead is the only town I know of to have a town anthem. The lyrics (below) make hokey reading, but Old Marbleheaders take every word very seriously. Their loyalty to family and town transcends most other considerations. That alone may have allowed the Kansas crud to leave town in one piece.

I'm sorry we had to skip the squaling, though. It would have been a more fitten send-off for an Old Marbleheader than a bagpipe band.

*Squale, v. (dial., Marblehead, Mass.) To greet unescorted strangers with a shower of rocks, fish heads, and horse dung; often accompanied by the doggerel verse, "Rock 'em/ Sock 'em/ Squale 'em 'round the cunnah!"

Marblehead Forever

(To "The Lily of the Valley", English Melody)
Rev. Marcia M. Selman

1st Verse
The men of old were heroes, who fought by land and sea,
To preserve their homes from tyranny and shame.
And, enrolled among the bravest, writ high in history,
Stands old Marblehead's beloved and honored name.


Then Marblehead forever! God bless the good old town!
May she never shame her noble ancestry!
She was first in Revolution, was first in '61,
And from all dishonor we will keep her free!


2nd Verse
The men of old were heroes, but they are in their graves,
And 'tis ours, their sons, the battle now to fight!
When our homes and altars tremble before the greed of knaves
Who assail the cause of country, home and right.


3rd Verse
Then rouse we at the summons that rings in Freedom's call!
'Tis our battle, sons of men whose blood was shed
'Neath her banner in the old time! Let life or death befall,
We'll defend the flag in good old Marblehead!


Sunday, June 26, 2005

Gotta Do Something

So Atlanta is having issues with homeless panhandlers, issues that seem to be playing out along economic as well as racial lines, and with black businesspeople in support? One might of course recall a pejorative for the black accomodationists that was common 35 or so years back. Since my nickname is "Uncle," I'll pass. The late Tip O'Neill made the same point with style when he said of people that they had forgotten where they came from.

One of the things I recall about working downtown was the speed with which one became a connoisseur of homelessness, learning to distinguish those we used simply to call "bums" from people who really do have little or no choice in their life on the street. One feature of the latter is that their thanks for help were genuine. Drop something in the lap of the professional bum and your generosity was telegraphed to a hundred others. Help someone in actual need and that was usually as far as it went.

I was quietly outraged then--and still am-- by the nightly picture of a woman and two small children huddling in an underused doorway of a certain well-known Boston financial establishment. It was getting well on into November, and apparently the old door leaked a little warmth. They were there for a couple of weeks, then were gone: I hoped to winter quarters someone found for them. I feared that the owner of this particular business, notorious for micromanagement in his own interest, had them moved on to someplace colder.

What fueled my outrage was knowing whose business this was, whose fragment of heat loss was helping this family survive the Boston cold. I had twice worked for places subsidiary to this man and his principal firm. He was then personally worth more than one billion dollars, probably a good deal more today. With his own money, the influence he wields, and the organisation he leads, this is someone who could end Boston homelessness in an afternoon, and national homelessness in months.

Instead, he collects Asian porcelain and museum curators. Apparently, he prefers that hobby as a legacy. So be it. That is an old impulse, after all, once called "fiddling while Rome burns."

Atlanta, Boston, and many other American cities can curtail, if not entirely end, homelessness. but they can't do it by moving panhandlers away from conventioners. They can only do it by curtailing the pandemic, of selfishness and greed, that has fueled homelessness in the first place. In Atlanta, as everywhere else, pigs may fly first.

Thursday, June 23, 2005

Bad Day at Black Rock

It sure is tough to be a palaeo-Republican this week. On June 22, the Senate ruled that towns really don't have any say in whether they get an LNG terminal. Hmm, do they get to levy property taxes on it, or is that verboten also? The next day, the Supreme Court ruled that a town can exercise eminent domain for pretty much any damn reason it chooses. I've been closely involved in some of the idiotic projects that struggling small cities get into in the name of improvement, and I wouldn't trust any of them to go to the corner store for a bottle of milk. I have no problem believing the city fathers of New London, or any other beleaguered city, would gun down their own residents to kiss corporate asses. We'll see how far they mean to push it.

DAYYUM! I am so relieved that we don't have those big-government Democrats throwing their weight around, and I'm proud to know that the most important thing on Congress' mind this week is a Constitutional amendment against flag-burning.

At the Court, it's amusing to see O'Connor and Scalia on the same side of a bitter dissent against a pet project of Republican corporate backers. Sort of makes you wonder what will happen if Dubya gets all his hand-picked judges on the Court, doesn't it?

(All that and FEMA doesn't buy Mitt's pitch for disaster aid for the shellfish industry. That's an encouraging sign of how much political muscle our wannabe presidential candidate can wield, isn't it?)

The last time corporate power called the shots so blatantly, the media called them "the Robber Barons:" that was when the media had balls.

This is why you love your country and fear your government.

From Yahoo News:

State Republican Party Chairman Chris Vance said Gregoire cannot wish the bad feelings away.

"She never acknowledged that anything was wrong. She just stomped her foot and said 'I won, I won," he said. "She's not a legitimately elected governor in the eyes of most people."

The worst thing the Republican Party has done is to kill parody.

The Reason Why

MassMarrier says this, of the hard, driven core of anti-gay sentiment:

We nice folk were raised not to make fun of people. The exception should always be for the hateful. Don't ignore them. Don't start a fight. Ridicule them. Let others around know how wrong and just how stupid they are being. A snicker is often more powerful than a punch.

This is like politicians with voter polls. When the culture, the people, move beyond the basest minds and emotions, we can get past the lowest of us. They are dirty. We need to leave them in the dust.

The rationale – if one can apply a civilised word to uncivilised hate – is that homosexuality is condemned by god. To that extent, these people argue, their opposition is different from racism.

Today, it's convenient to forget that the linchpin of white supremacist arguments, before and after emancipation, was that black inferiority was ordained by god. To their everlasting shame, some black clergy have bought into the argument that condemning gayness as ungodliness is different from condemning blacks as inferior works of the creator. There is no difference: bigotry has a dreary sameness that no amount of sophistry can efface.

If gay rights were taken away from these pathetic people as an issue, they'd claim some other object for their anxiety, and say that god called it wrong, evil or inferior. Their other motivation is to invent, or keep, someone lower on the food chain than they are. The deity gives you the biggest reason to dodge personal responsibility. Imagining there is a biped lower than you offers reinforcement for your delusions.

My time on the gay rights picket line last year was illuminating in several ways. It is one thing to sit in a comfortable chair and feel a frisson when reading hate elegantly articulated by a Maryland housewife. It is quite another to have the Maryland (or Kansas, or wherever) housewife hurling her hate and spittle two feet from your face. These people took their children out of school, bused them to Boston, and taught them to scream "God hates fags, death to dykes," and similar terms of christian charity. A Catholic priest somewhere near Boston brought a busload of his Hispanic parishoners to hold hateful signs and shriek similar slogans in English. Cross-examined in Spanish, they admitted they didn't know what the slogans or the signs meant, but they were there because Father told them to be there. the good Father, of course, was nowhere in sight. Presumably he was someplace warm.

Oh, and nobody from that side hugged me and told me they loved me. If that screaming woman had hugged me, I would have suggested finding a room. How's that for ridicule?

The contrast was sharpened by the commitment to forbearance, caritas, dignity (and humour) shown by the advocates of gay civil rights. One of the funnier moments was when two opposing people ended a 20 minute mutual harangue with one of those phony hugs. The anti-gay demonstrator walked away with a Mass Equality sticker implanted between his shoulder blades, oblivious to the reason for the laughter behind him.

Another, more unforgettable incident illustrates the difference between this hijacked christianity and the faith I grew up with.

If you were there the first three days, you had learnt what four to six hours of chanting in the cold would do to your throat. Many people came prepared during the second round with bottled water and cough drops. As time went on, there was a ripple through the crowd of people quietly handing cough drops to those near them whose voices were going. The organisers had brought water this time, and distributed it. Other people broke ranks and went to nearby stores to get more cough drops, then shared them round.

I know now how the miracle of the loaves and fishes happened: it took only a slight lowering of the barriers between people to replace the urge to take care of yourself with the need to take care of others. The alleged christians must forever be denied that insight, because their beliefs are at heart self-obsessed. I will never take a Hall's drop again without thinking of that small miracle.

It's my impression that the A list is off demonstrations for a while, and turning instead to more political tools. That might be just as well. Intellectually, there's no doubt that grass-roots activism, exposure, and ridicule are the most potent weapons against hate, and much better than throwing punches. Face to face with hate of this sort, one's intellectual detachment gets seriously tested. At least, mine does.

Monday, June 20, 2005

Rock On, Obstructionists!

Daily life in Washington offers another one of those peculiar contradictions that intrigue the planet. The bush administration complains bitterly and daily because the Democrats are exercising democracy and (perhaps to their own surprise) are doing their job.


The function of an opposition party is to, well, oppose. To resist, cavil, object, and pose awkward and difficult questions. I suspect this point is lost on many Republicans because, despite their many years without ownership of most of the engines of government, they never quite figured out how to do it. There have been individual exceptions, but on the whole principled opposition seems alien to the Republican mind. They favour hegemony. When they can't have that, they'd rather whine.

Recently, there has been some interesting scholarship on a place and time that shed light on this problem. The place was Britain and the time was 1765-1783, the era of the American War for Independence. One has to begin by appreciating that America didn't so much win that war as that Lord North's ministry lost it. Britain occupied a world position very much analogous to that of the contemporary U.S. The government were a conservative oligarchy that paid very superficial lip service to ideas of "the rights of Englishmen." North's government was supported at every turn by a monarch who could, and did, yield real executive power. Neither monarch nor ministry ever considered the possibility that they could lose the American colonies not by catastrophe, but by incremental setbacks. Piled one on another, the increments became the catastrophe. The opposition were there to pile up the increments (and sometimes, the excrement).

This divided and uncertain opposition had watched this drama unfold for a decade before there was any actual fighting. They knew two things clearly: that the Tory ministries would need to defeat themselves, for they didn't have the power, and that the adventure was unsustainable. As things stood in the late 18th century, colonies 3,000 miles away could not be compelled to stay loyal to a mother country, without applying ruinously expensive measures to keep them.

The opposition were subjected to political pressure and verbal abuse that makes eeriely familiar reading. The pressure came not only from the ministry, but from a press that was either cowed and captive to the Tories, or bought. What the opposition contributed in this unfavourable climate was opposition: sometimes principled, sometimes not, but annoyingly intelligent and — as it turned out — right. To some observers, it appears that modern democracy owes a great deal to the success of these stubborn obstructionists who were not cowed by conventional wisdom, appeals to patriotism or verbal abuse. They were there, in the end, to pick up the place when the Tory house of cards collapsed.

Sunday, June 19, 2005

Getting Back is Half the Fun

There's not much to say about the return trip after all. One overcrowded flight is pretty much the same as another, and too many people have wound up stuck overnight at O'Hare to merit much additional comment. Just one hint: by today's rules, it's not the airline's fault if you miss your connection thanks to 90 minutes in a holding pattern. Thus, the hotel is on you, not them. You do get to choose Five-star accommodations at a one-star price. When stuck at O'Hare (notice I don't say "if") grab the Doubletree Rosemont. It's under ten minutes from the terminal and is moderately palatial...especially when you get the room at Motel 6 rates. My only regret is that we had less than six hours to enjoy it. That reminds me of a famous motel on the NH seacoast when I was in college, where...Oh never mind!

Then there's the mystery of how our luggage made it to Boston on time, even though we didn't. And that, somehow, was our fault.

The first note to self about an improved cross-country road trip is, naturally, to spend more time at it. Perhaps someone could convince me otherwise, but I think I would still get across the Rust Belt as fast as possible. The same goes for Oklahoma, at least until they dig deeper tornado ditches by the roadsides.

I'd actually drive more of Route 66, and do it when I hadn't been on the road for 14 hours and wasn't desperate for a meal.

Mostly, I'd spend about a week in New Mexico and Arizona. It'd take very little arm-twisting to induce me to retire there. I might even learn to like Winslow.

As for getting back, I like the idea of driving California 1 up the coast and continuing to Seattle before turning East. It would be instructive to see more evidence of green things in California. If I could ever arrange another one-way drive, the alternative return would be via Amtrak...If the US manages to have the mother wit to see the merits of rail service, that is.

Enough of that; back to other ponderings eventually.

Sunday, June 05, 2005

California Trip: Wedi Blino yn Bakersfield

Blino is the very expressive Welsh word for tired.

After Starbucks revived me from comatose to wake-awake exhaustion, I followed Em to Bakersfield airport to turn in her rental and save fifty bucks. Observation #1 is for those who haven't experienced California freeway driving. It's all true: the only things we didn't get in 12 miles to the airport were a drive-by shooting and a high-speed chase. I will allow that Route 128 around Boston is adequate preparation for California freeways.

Observation #2: Bakersfield's downtown explains a lot of the city's low status amongst other Californians. When the newest cultural feature is a Deja Vu strip club, you know your city centre has some renewal to achieve. What can one expect? According to the local t-shirts, the city seal features a heatstruck coyote gasping in the dust ("but it's a dry heat.") There's a certain leakage of initiative under those conditions, and I was in a mood to conform.

Observation #3 is that a destination with a population that's 40 percent Hispanic offers certain compensations for skipping Albuquerque's Old Town. Mexican food is varied, plentiful, affordable and three-alarm. Emily lives a block from Jacalito's, which scratched my jalapeno itch admirably. If I were the one there, I'd probably eat Mex every night for the three months. I might have to repeat some restaurants, but never a menu item. There seem to be other restaurants, too, but why not indulge a constructive mania? The city is also close enough to the vineyards ( two-three hour trips are bupkis here) that wine is a topic of profound and serious study. Mexican cuisine for dinner and wine for lunch for three months? I could stand it if my stomach and liver could, and if they couldn't, there are worse ways to go.

Just as well the good food was a block away, because after dinner I made the mistake of going to bed and remained happily immobile for nine or ten hours. Given the choice of driving Emily to work or sending her off with the car, I waved her away, pleased that I wouldn't see the inside of that car again for a long, long, time.

If you want to draw attention to yourself in suburban southern California, take a walk. People drive, ride bikes, skateboard, rollerblade, and run, but they do not appear to walk for the fun of it. We walked upwards of five miles, exploring the environs of East Bakersfield: lots of suburban houses, fast food, malls, and gophers.

There's a lot of information on the Web about gophers. It seems to be written mostly by humans with gardens, grass and grudges, for it's hostile (this is a rather tame example.) The gophers express their opinion by showing up in any place that isn't paved, and some that are. They weren't my lawns, so my sympathies were with the gophers. It seems to me that if you live in the desert and are fool enough to try growing a lawn, the gophers are the least of the visitations you can expect from an affronted Mother Nature.

Emily's workplace provides the apartment, which is comfortable, gated, and has all the appropriate California comforts. The outdoor hot tub wasn't working, but the pool helped blow some cobwebs away, and one didn't even have to share it with the gophers. Damn, you could get used to this. It helps to remember that Bakersfield's distinctive weather features in winter are floods and fog, that it too is prone to earthquakes and mudslides, and that the pleasures of 90 degree weather pall after three or four months. Of course, Bakersfieldians (? Baked goods?), like everyone else we met, were horrified by the Northeaster.

Dinner was at the local retro malt shop, burgers, fries, shakes: breaking training seriously. As a New Englander brought up on "frappes," I had of course to negotiate the language barrier to order. Whatever it was, it was cold, tasty, and probably more caloric than I want to know about.

What a pity we aren't gifted with perfect foresight. Settling down to bed, I was thinking that the adventures were about over. Stay tuned, Pilgrims.

Friday, June 03, 2005

California Trip: You're Number 14,000 for Today; or Not

This time of year, there is workable daylight at 4:40 a.m. Not being inclined to linger in the Hotel Olfactory, we were on the road and catching desert forecasts about as grim as the those of the past few days. One of the best things about Winslow is how soon it is gone.

Was the sage purple? Of course it was; at that hour everything was purple, including Humphreys' Peak and Two Guns, AZ. The latter is a good example of life imitating art imitating life: the ruins of a tourist trap ghost town, now a real ghost town. Small wonder the billboard population dwindled as we approached Flagstaff and Humphrey's Peak: when your city is at the bottom of a mountain of close to 13,000 feet, billboards are redundant. Even though you approach from an altitude of 5,000-6,000 feet, that is still one hell of a lot of mountain viewed from 50 miles off.

Flagstaff was a blur in the early morning. The mere discovery of its status as eastern yuppie magnet was enough to evaporate most of my interest in the place, so I passed the time trying to match trees with species names. West of Flagstaff, my AAA Triptik said there would be a sudden drop, and they weren't kidding. In the 20 or so miles between Williams and Ash Fork, AZ, the road drops about 5000 feet. There's one five mile stretch of six to eight percent grade.

About Ash Fork. We have now entered the regions in which "towns" began as whimsical humour by railroad workers: anyplace they left a tool box got a name. Ash Fork must have been one of them, because I don't even recall seeing a fork there.

Seligman, our first stop, was only a slightly wider spot in the road, and an authentic, old-fashioned truck stop with more gas in the kitchen than at the Mobil pumps, authentic fragrant rest rooms, and regular at $2.89 a gallon. When I was a kid, I had to maintain the privy, and believe me, it smelled better than the johns at this place. We stuck to our bagel breakfast, thanks.

Note to Tony Hillerman fans: There are indeed tribal police in the Southwest, and they aren't there for local colour. I-40 crosses several reservations, they do have jurisdiction, and if you are too free with the speed limits in the res, they will stop you. (Tip of the Stetson to the Navajo Tribal cops who were filling up at Seligman when I was.)

Once you've made this descent and reached Seligman, you are in the eastern precincts of the Mojave Desert. It's 60-some miles to Kingman and in all that distance there are no (zip-zilch-nada) amenities, just a lot of big empty spaces, hills with less and less vegetation, and damned few vehicles of any kind. It is here that one begins to take the rigours of the trip seriously.

Around Kingman, the road passes through really spectacular sandstone hills into the real desert: the "you-thought-it-was-desolate before? Just kidding!" desert. Keep in mind this is a desert so unfriendly that when the U.S. Army tried camels there in the 1850s, they couldn't survive. It's also the gateway to the real heat: try upper 80s at 8 a.m. Nothing to do but get your head down and haul ass the 60 miles to Needles. If you're feeling complacent, there's a few burnt-out auto and truck wrecks tastefully placed along the way, to remind you what can happen if you let your attention wander. The only thing lacking were the bones of oxen and settlers.

Allow us to sing you a song as we approach scenic Needles:

Well, thousands of folks back east they say
Are leaving home most everyday
They're beating the hot old dusty way
To the California line
Across the desert sands they roll
Getting outta that old dust bowl
They think they're going to a sugar bowl
But, here is what they find
The police at the port of entry say
"You're number 14,000 for today."


"If you ain't got that Do Re Mi boys
If you ain't got that Do Re Mi
You'd better go back to beautiful Texas
Oklahoma, Georgia, Kansas, Tennessee
California is a garden of Eden
It's a paradise to live in or see
Believe it or not you won't find it so hot
If you ain't got that Do Re Mi."

Woody Guthrie

Yes, chilluns, there is a port of entry, which was closed that Wednesday morning. (Actually, they're there to stop plant pests, not people, but since they had the day off, they missed our grapes.) As I topped off ($2.96 a gallon, speaking of do re mi) the thermometer broke 90 at 9:15 a.m. It's time to move yo' booty.

It's a good thing I'm a fan of desolate grandeur, because the Mojave has plenty of it and not much else. Because it was spring, and because the southern California winter had been unusually wet, there were things growing. Not plants, mind you, as an easterner understands the word, but...things that grew, more or less. I'm not sure I want to know what the place looks like in August.

Just yesterday one of my friends who had lived in California told the story of the day he decided to cross the Mojave between 2 and 4 p.m., driving a brand-new, shiny, gunmetal grey XR-7. When he reached Barstow, the western oasis, he was driving a sandblasted gunmetal grey XR-7, and there hadn't even been a noticeable sandstorm.

Holy shit.

No, I didn't see Roy's. Hell, I couldn't even find the place Roy's was supposed to be. The only sign of life I found was a rest stop somewhere near
Newberry Springs, with rattlesnake warnings and palms. I looked around for camels: oh, right, they don't like it here. Too damn hot. And at that point I didn't want to mess around finding Peggy Sue's, either. Turns out it's closer to I-15, the road to Vegas. The climate is just as nasty over there but there's more traffic.

Believe one thing the guides say about Mojave towns: the maps lie! Most never existed, some existed and are now ghost towns, and when you come across a real town, it rather looks like the ghost towns, usually with no more services.

They still mine around Barstow, borates and such, but after the desert, the place looks almost refreshing. It was here that we parted company with Route 66, whose ghostly presence continues to Santa Monica. We were turning northwest, for Bakersfield via California 58.

Real highways, they say, have personalities. California 58's is schizoid. How else can you describe a route that goes from two-lane, to four-lane, to divided four-lane, and back again, completely at random?

A desperate need for lunch found us in the mining town of Boron. Yes, it rhymes with moron, and guess what they mine? They even have a 20-mule team museum and, of course, a Web site. It was only a truck stop Subway we located, but it was here we found one of the trip's authentic characters.

The order-taker at the Subway had a system imposed that disgraced both Seinfeld's "soup Nazi" and the counter people at the Carnegie Deli. Step up, make your selection, order your specials, order drinks, move along. Like the Carnegie Deli folk, she enlivened an otherwise soul-numbing routine with nonstop repartee and a smartass monologue, seamlessly woven into the process without slowing things at all. This woman's talents far exceed her opportunities, and I hope she can take the show to brighter horizons than Moron...sorry, Boron.

Our runner-up for "best of show" was the solitary waitress at the Winslow truck stop. She not only kept the balls in the air, but was actually a little regretful when she got some assistance to manage 20 plus tables.

Other than that, you drive a long way on CA 58 without noticing a whole lot of difference between its environs and the deepest Mojave. (Technically, it still is the Mojave: it just has live people.) It's a little higher, about as dry, and somewhat more featureless, if you discount the stranger man-made features, including the legendary Mojave aircraft graveyard. Then you cross the ridge at Tehachapi and begin the descent into The Valley. Suddenly (another sudden ecological switch) there are coastal cedars, oaks in gorgeous pasturelands, grapevines and olives: Yep, Mediterranean climate; we're getting closer...and once again, screaming down mind-numbing grades.

On the whole, I'm not friendly to agribusiness, but I may have to make an exception for the El Tejon Ranch. CA 58 crosses the most northerly part of this 420 square mile diversified ranch and agricultural enterprise. I'm a northern New Englander: to me, a big farm is 420 acres. However, I appreciate a commitment to husbandry when I see it, and this land was beautifully managed. I also like the idea of a continuity that predates Anglo influence. Rancho El Tejon has been there since 1843, founded when California was still a Mexican province. it's nice to know something escaped the gold rush land grab intact.

Reaching Bakersfield was very nearly a shock. Ninety-three hours after we left Marblehead, we pulled up to the daughter's apartment complex. Exploration was a bit beyond us, so at Emily's direction, we drove to a Starbucks directly across from her workplace, wrapped ourselves around the cold and the caffeinated, and became fixtures for two hours.

Thursday, June 02, 2005

Monty Python IS the Meaning of Life

Al-Zarqawi's taped claims about his wound seem hysterically familiar to those who follow the canon:

Now stand aside, worthy adversary.
'Tis but a scratch.
A scratch? Your arm's off!
No, it isn't.
Well, what's that, then?
I've had worse.
You liar!
Come on, you pansy!
[ARTHUR chops the BLACK KNIGHT's right arm off]
Victory is mine!
We thank Thee Lord, that in Thy mer--
Come on, then.
Have at you!
Eh. You are indeed brave, Sir Knight, but the fight is mine.
Oh, had enough, eh?
Look, you stupid bastard. You've got no arms left.
Yes, I have.
Just a flesh wound.
Look, stop that.
Look, I'll have your leg.
[ARTHUR chops the BLACK KNIGHT's right leg off]
Right. I'll do you for that!
You'll what?
Come here!
What are you going to do, bleed on me?
I'm invincible!
You're a looney.
The Black Knight always triumphs! Have at you! Come on, then.
[ARTHUR chops the BLACK KNIGHT's last leg off]
Oh? All right, we'll call it a draw.
Come, Patsy.
Oh. Oh, I see. Running away, eh? You yellow bastards! Come back here and take what's coming to you. I'll bite your legs off!

California Trip: In the Great Alkali Plain

I think that comes from Conan Doyle.

Until encountering The Founding Fish, I had known John McPhee chiefly for a style I've found very accessible. I was unaware that he has an interest in the American shad that surely crosses the line into obsession. The book on tape helped to fill in the duller moments of the first two days. On leaving Oklahoma City, we had a lot more to absorb us, including a phenomenon that counters some of McPhee's narrative.

I dropped the book at a point where McPhee was describing the changes wrought on American rivers by dams. From the fish point of view, the changes are negative. However, since entering the tallgrass prairie zone in Indiana, and especially as we got into the shortgrass prairie west of Oklahoma City, I saw what turned out to be another effect of dams: trees.

Trees had always tried to grow on the prairie wherever there was enough water to sustain them. Before Caucasian interference, they had little chance of survival. One reason, I now know, was the buffalo. The vast and vanished herds trampled what they didn't eat, including new-sprouted trees. Further, the buffalos' favoured grooming technique is a good rub against a tree, which did in a good part of the survivors. A larger reason, it appears, is that uncontrolled floods inhibited tree growth along rivers and streams. Now we have dams, and if the cottonwoods could vote, they'd be all for them. These two changes, which may not be for the good in many ways, have resulted in more prairie trees than at any detectable time in the past.

Leaving Oklahoma City before dawn, in massive thunderstorms, causes moments of reflection in the tornado-phobic. There wasn't all that much to look at, which was just as well. Both Oklahoma City and Tulsa show what you can do with sprawl when you have nearly unlimited real estate to spoil and absolutely no imagination. Christine's night vision is as dismal as her stubbornness is large. She had determined to take the first shift and was by God gonna do it. As her seeing-eye passenger, I was reminded of my friend Ray Bloomer, who with his two percent vision once managed to bluff his way into a Government driver's license, then drove madly around the Charlestown Navy Yard in a Cushman cart, with a sighted and suicidal passenger and a white cane.

The reflections and the phobia weren't helped by encountering a highway rest stop built as a tornado shelter (under a man-made hill) shortly after crossing into the Texas Panhandle. Despite the locals' morbid interest in the Northeaster, I was keenly interested in the conditions I was in, and very happy to leave the clouds behind. A midwestern friend had offered the helpful advice. "If you see a tornado, head for the nearest ditch and stay there." Trouble was, even the Oklahoma ditches were unimpressive.

McPhee couldn't compete with the scenery. For those who haven't traveled it, much of I-40 is at grade level, and one doesn't have the sense of separation from the countryside that interstates usually impose. It's a shock now and then to realise that one is on a divided highway. Perhaps if I had to cover this ground at three miles an hour, I might have been disturbed by the vastness. After a cold, dark New England winter and alleged spring, a limitless sky was a delight.

Not being awfully urban in my roots, I had been noting the change in climate by the progress of the hay. Through Ohio and into eastern Indiana, hay was still growing. By Illinois, farmers were preparing haying implements and the crop was clearly mature. When we got further onto the prairie, where hay existed, it was being harvested. In Texas, the bales were on their way to the barn.

Yes, the Big Texan is still there in Amarillo. That was never really on my list, since 72 ounce steaks don't exactly appeal, and since we hit Amarillo about 9:30 a.m. Yes, I know the Big Texan serves steak round the clock, but that struck me as another reason to take a pass.

Another delight was the suddenness of geographical transitions. A few miles into Texas and you're in a semi-arid belt, cut by gulches in the sandstone. It's back to prairie around Amarillo, and just short of the New Mexico border, the transition to mesaland is immediate and, for a Yankee, captivating. Evidently, many new Englanders retiring to the Southwest are fond of Flagstaff and the entire Kaibab area. Of course they are: it's a lot like home, with more heat. I thought the New Mexico mesalands were the more intriguing part of the trip, and the place I'd consider if I were ever going to retire.

It was in the mesalands that we first discovered that "limited access" is a pretty loose expression in the Southwest. If you have an interstate at grade level, I guess it's a short leap to the idea of having ranch driveways enter and leave the highway. It did seem strange that the first highway sign announcing the fact came several miles after the first driveways.

As a rule, I don't expect it's any more of an adventure than it is to leave any Massachusetts driveway. Subtract the truck and snowbird traffic, and the road would have been nearly deserted.

Christine's friend Carol had a great house in the eastern foothills of Albuquerque. The development was very Southwestern themed, with stuccoed concrete houses passing themselves off as adobe. (For the uninitiated, it seems you have to be very rich or very poor to have real adobe these days. Everyone else scrapes along with concrete, which demands air conditioning. One of the benefits of true adobe construction is that it doesn't.)
Architecurally, I think Carol got the pick of the litter. The house had nice details, a xeriscaped yard and terrific views. She showed the mark of a true cat person: she had cat-proofed two porches to let the boys get a breath of air without being coyote bait, but had not yet completed the human arrangements.

Before leaving, I was warned that the Ohio state flower is the orange roadside construction barrel, but I have to say that New Mexico wiped all the roadwork competition off the field. Of the 150 or so miles between Carol's house and Gallup, at least 50 were under construction, and a good deal of I-40 east of Albuquerque was out of commission for various projects. Note to the New Mexico administration: the thank-you signs do not help!

We knew we were getting onto "the res" by the prevalence of two features: billboards as thick as the old Burma Shave signs, but much bigger, and casinos. Despite a couple of contrary efforts trying to inject good taste into the proceedings, one gets the idea that gambling and schlock are the reservations' chief enterprises. This had been the leitmotif ever since we left the Missouri smut shops behind, but west of Albuquerque the twin drumbeats of gambling and tourist claptrap reach incredible levels.

After you drive through the pass (and the largest and schlokiest Indian tourist traps) into Arizona, there's another one of those sudden transitions. All of a sudden it ain't the steppes, it's the fricken desert! By this time the trek to Winslow was seeming like a bad idea. We'd found that heat the forecasters were talking about. If its 93 degrees at 6000 feet, simple math tells you what to expect in the lower altitudes. Also, I-40 steers uncompromisingly into the sunset, an expression that loses its romance after your irises start to curl up. There wasn't much choice, though. There are towns along I-40 in this part of Arizona, all vying for la dinero turista, usually with prefab hotel rooms. All of them resembled towns less than they did vast trailer parks. I forget if it was Holbrook, Chambers or Sanders that got the Grape's unofficial doublewide density prize.

Eagles fans, I'm very sorry to report that Winslow, AZ, and its "standing on a corner" statue are not such a fine site to see, at least after a long drive and a little altitude sickness. It's enough to say that the buffet at the Flying A truck stop was the classiest restaurant in town. Note to the Winslow Chamber of Commerce: you need more than a third-rate statue and a 35 year old song to be a tourist magnet. Maybe a flatbed Ford rally?

And so to bed after 14 glorious hours on the road, in a motel smelling of Chinese food, which *was* the choice accommodation in Winslow.

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

California Trip, Part II

Owned big, says the Marrier? Sins of a past life, says he? Arrr, matey! Oops....

To paraphrase another Gamecock, a '95 Altima is too small for a republic, and wayy too small for an argument. Anyway, I like my revenge served cold.

I thought Missouri's evangelists were right obliging. Everywhere along I-44 where an adult video store or strip club had popped up, the evangelists had thoughtfully supplied a large billboard proclaiming the evils of pornography. I guess we can pass lightly over the semantics as they apply to strip clubs, but it does strike me that ogling nude dancing women, although graphic, isn't graphy. It was a nice bit of symbiosis. The evangelists can look like they are standing up for virtue, and the billboards ensure the otherwise remote smutmeisters of a steady clientele.

So, apart from truckers, who is the audience? To start with, one of the biggest employers in that part of the world is Fort Leonard Wood, known as "Fort Lost-in-the-Woods" to the army of my generation. Where the military is, there also is prurience. That goes back at least to Solomon, and I don't think the religiously afflicted can do much about it. The less prominent audience is summed up by this:

"Jews don't recognise the divinity of Jesus, Protestants don't recognise the authority of the Pope, and Baptists don't recognise each other in the local adult video store."

Of more lasting interest is that along I-44 we got our first glimpses of Route 66. Except where the historic highway signs appear, the road is an elusive palimpsest. In many places, I-44 and I-70 have obliterated the Mother Road. Through much of Missouri, it parallels the Interstate. In some places, you find restored stretches in good condition. In others, you can tell the remnants only by a certain distinction of siting from more ordinary country roads, which in Missouri go by letter, not number, identities. It was a sign of progress, an a touch of sanity, to meet up with this ghostly highway that would accompany us until the last few hours of the trip.

Oklahoma City provided us with the first serious traffic jam of the trip and a decent dinner. The advantage of doing the planning is that I chose the motel for its proximity to a well-reviewed ribs place. That worked out better than I'd planned, since motel and restaurant had adjoining parking lots. Life looked better after a platter of Oklahoma brisket and Shiner Bock. (Christine went for the catfish.)

Other peoples' bad weather always seems worse. I'm not fond of tornadoes, and crossing Tornado Alley in May had always seemed like a weak point in the programme. The local TV, though, was full of fascinated coverage of the New England northeaster.

It was also full of stories about the unseasonable heat in Arizona and the Mojave, and unseasonable heat in those parts is something to contemplate with awe. (When residents of Needles, CA, complain about the heat, you had damn well better listen!) Reluctantly, we scrapped plans for our "easy" Tuesday and the lazy Albuquerque stopover. Instead, we would blow through Albuquerque, getting a late lunch with a retired friend of my wife's, and get as far west as we could, to make a very early start for the final leg.

One of the bemusing moments in Oklahoma was discovering the existence of the (so help me) Port of Catoosa, near Tulsa. They seem very serious about it. This Marbleheader was made skeptical by the weeds growing in the waterway as we crossed it: must be a seasonal thing.