Small talk in Big Sky, Montana goes like that: The third time I hear the admiration in my interlocutor voice my curiosity is piqued: which aspect of Ted Turner biography grants him such notoriety in the Treasure State? Is it his marriage to Jane Fonda? The third one for both of them and neither remarried after their divorce in 2001. She is a famous actress, who looks more striking with each passing year but I doubt her fame is what distinguishes Ted Turner in the Big Sky Country.
As far as endurance challenges go, the one in Big Sky Resort is refreshingly mild and strangely informal: the most tram laps in a single day. The current record is unlikely to ever be eclipsed. Unless, of course, the resort management extends the Lone Peak tram hours. The terrain served by the Lone Peak tram is Experts only - double diamonds all around. The Liberty Bowl with its single diamond is a sole exception by virtue of being slightly easier than the adjacent Marx or Lenin runs. Even so, there is always a line at the bottom of the tram, unless fog takes the visibility away as it was on the day Rob Leipheimer set his record, which in my book, makes it all the more impressive accomplishment.
For a moment it seemed Mammoth would not close at all this year. But the global warming reasserted itself and, with the snow melting faster than expected, the closure date was set to August 6th marking it the second longest season in the entire history of the mountain. The 2016/2017 was a truly exceptional winter (and spring, and summer): the level of snowfall surpassed only once since 1970 and we skied and snowboarded not only on Memorial Day but also on the Fourth of July. With the bike park opening on June 23, Mammoth may be the only American resort where you can bike and ski at the same time on the same mountain.
We all strive to accomplish something. Something to be proud of. Something to casually mention in a mixed company and register a gleam of admiration, or a nod of respect. Something, anything. Those are my thoughts as I sit on top of Mount Katahdin contemplating the sign marking the northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail. It’s just a nice moment on a day hike for me, but for some it’s the end of 2,200 miles journey. As curious as I am about this almost mystical accomplishment alas, there aren’t any thru-hikers in sight so I don’t get the chance to ask.
I’ve heard it countless times: He is really friendly. Or, she just wants to play. Never mind that the subject in question flattens its ears, starts growling, barks and generally looks ready to attack. And even if it is genuinely friendly, I am not. That is, I have no inclination to play with strangers’ dogs. Befriend me first before you expect me to pet your four-legged companion. He’s afraid of your trekking poles. The last one was addressed to Damian who started hiking with poles after a minor skiing injury. I knew trekking poles were a sham but didn’t realize dogs and their owners shared my view. And if that’s the case, dogs with that opinion have no business on a hiking trail, at least not without a leash.
The hissing whoosh of the escaping air was unmistakable. We got our first flat. In the middle of empty and, yes, flat as a pancake part of Colorado. At the beginning of what was supposed to be the dullest day of our trip. We somehow managed to make almost 70 thousand miles up to this point. Mostly backroads. Not a trivial amount on the surface that only a wildest optimist would call a road. Only a day ago our car took us up the Mt. Princeton Road. Couple of weeks ago we drove to the Nellie Creek trailhead on the way to Mount Uncomphagre that involved not one, not two, but three stream crossings. Our car survived sandy dunes, sharp rocks, impossible steeps, and holes big enough to swallow a grown man - all that with no malfunctions greater than a side mirror broken by a raccoon and a battery that expired in the cold of the winter.
Sometimes I just don’t get people. Take kids for example. In theory I know why people have them, care about them, even love them. Or, at least, I think I know. It has something to do with an iron grip our genes have on us. Ancestors of a more kid-relaxed persuasion have unfortunate tendency of disappearing from the gene pool. Regardless of the real reason, kids are valued in our society - like cars, or houses, or iPads - and one is supposed to look after them. Well, in any case, that has been my working hypothesis.
Furkot - a trip planner web application that we develop - displays attractions and points of interest that can be worked into one’s trip. So we are constantly on the lookout for websites collecting geotagged information about particular type of attraction, be it divesites or museums, that we can point Furkot to. Imagine my joy - and, as I explain below, imagination is all that you have to go on - when I found byways.org. It was a website for travelers that presented information about scenic roads in US, over 850 of them, complete with maps, photos, and sample trips. And we didn’t even have to run our crawler over it, since the raw content was made available as a set of XML files.
Aren’t your tires too skinny? asks a woman who is anything but. I am furiously pedaling uphill and sweat dripping down my forehead seriously impairs my ability to fire a smart retort. Everything that comes to mind is flagged as rude by my internal filters. She looks like she has never been on a bike that hasn’t collapsed under her but we are in Steamboat Springs and everyone is an expert. Our first encounter with mountain biking took place in Killington, Vermont. As hikers forced to jump out of the way of cyclists careening down a steep slope, we didn’t care for it at all. It took us ten years and a visit to Mammoth Lakes, California where we chanced upon an easy trail around Horseshoe Lake that we started to consider the challenges of dirt roads and single tracks. A trip to Sedona, Arizona cemented our new found enthusiasm: Red Rock Pathway is a veritable paradise for a budding mountain biker.
Short history of New Mexico as depicted on commemorative bronze plaques in the Cathedral Park in downtown Santa Fe: 1504 The first major Spanish expedition to what is now the southwest United States was conducted by Francisco Vásquez de Coronado from 1540 to 1542. Subsequent exploration and settlement of the American Southwest would follow. Once the area is ethnically cleansed with inadvertent application of biological weapons nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition.
It all started one windy and snowy morning. Nature was being its ambiguous self: snow was promising fresh powder tracks but wind was going to hold up access to the slopes. I was glued to my computer trying to decide if it’s OK to leave now, or if I should wait some more and let Alpine Meadows crew spin more lifts in addition to the always exciting Magic Carpet. The r key on my keyboard (as in Refresh) was getting a lot of action and I was spending my time watching my browser download completely unnecessary and uninteresting stuff instead of the updated lift status. I thought it should be simpler. And then it hit me: I am actually more or less qualified to make it simpler. And this is how liftie.info was born.
The condo clearly had wireless network since all our devices were happily connecting, but we could not find anything resembling an access point. Normally we would not even bother, but the Internet seemed sluggish and we were hoping some magic wave and dance (reboot, technically speaking) may help. We spent 30 minutes walking around the apartment watching minute changes on the wireless signal strength heat map, checking all possible boxes connected to electrical outlets. And it was a small flat.
Death Valley is the hottest place on Earth where the lowest temperature ever recorded in July stands at 69°F (21°C). The record highest temperature is almost twice that: 134°F (57°C). Only mad and Europeans visit outside the high season (November to March). 8am in October is the latest when you want to stay outdoors, and during hot autumn nights swimming pool may seem more inviting than your not-so-cheaply rented hotel bed.
Did they believe in vortexes as we do? asks 8-years old boy. We don’t know, USFS volunteer who shows us around the Palatki site patiently answers. This is a typical answer when it comes to ancient ruins and their builders in the American Southwest. The question however is only typical to Sedona where New Age belief in psychic influence of red phallic protrusions reins supreme. At least boy’s grandfather looks vaguely embarrassed.
It is a beautiful morning, you get up, look around and decide to hit the road. And just like that you are off heading toward endless string of adventures, one of a kind attractions, magnificent vistas, local restaurants serving tasty food, and comfortable motels offering clean sheets. A dream road trip, where you can be your spontaneous self yet every minute of it is fun, every road interesting, every place unique.
Spending every afternoon in a swimming pool gives one a poor vantage point to criticize use of water, but Palm Springs’ 540 gallons per person per day is truly impressive. Despite its desert location this is a green place. Not green because of its environmental credentials. While over 3000 turbines of San Gorgonio Pass Wind Farm are an inspiring and a bit scary sight, Palm Springs is green in the original meaning of the word: green as trees, grass, golf courses and - obviously - palms. Which are no longer confined to occasional oases fed by natural springs.
We take a turn and here it is. A dam. Not particularly huge, not a very handsome one, but a dam nonetheless. Complete with a power station and a reservoir. Also, amazingly out of place. There is, or there was, quite a picturesque valley with several waterfalls around it. The dam actually makes for a great viewpoint. If you venture on the other side you can even hike through the wet tunnel and reach thoughtfully placed bridges under Wapama waterfalls. Very impressive even now, they must have been quite a sight before a raising lake level met them.
Conversation on the lift #3055. Participating: yours truly and a lovely lady in her prime. It starts after we’ve already exchanged the views on trails, weather and disappointing snow conditions. So, where are you from? she asks. Where do you think I am from? I do get this question a lot and I have a list of rotating answers. She gets to play name this country game - mostly because I am a bit bored. And a bit evil.
According to their website skiing and snowboarding at Heavenly presents you with a number of different choices. At the moment this number is limited to bare rocks and man made snow, falling a tad short of Experience of a Lifetime trademarked by Vail Resorts that owns Heavenly since 2002. No amount of grooming and reverse tiling can hide wind-polished sheets of ice covering ski runs. Americans are never beginners at anything. They put themselves in an intermediate group 5 seconds after stepping into their ski bindings for the first time. But even those who clearly would be lost should nature blessed us with white powder over carefully prepared corduroy are not above complaining about the quality and quantity of snow.
Have you ever wondered what happens to the Colorado river? If you look at a map it’s pretty clear where it begins, but not so obvious where it ends. There is a good reason for that: Colorado is pumped out dry and disappears long before it has a chance to reach its delta in the Sea of Cortez. If US did not have any other moniker it could be the country that kills its rivers. In an amazing display of newspeak, building dams and reservoirs is called water conservation. It’s as if water goes to waste if the river is allowed to continue to the ocean.
Internment. I suspect I know this word longer than people my age born here. One winter morning almost 30 years ago my family TV set flatly refused to play the usual portion of Sunday cartoons and was showing somber people inexplicably wearing uniforms. The night before more than a thousand people all over Poland were detained and placed in isolation sites. Phones were disconnected. Curfew was imposed. Tanks appeared on streets. And I found out what internment meant. So when I walk around the place which had been an internment camp for Japanese Americans during World War II it’s not some kind of abstract history lesson for me. Still, I have a strong and strange feeling of disconnect. I know to which self-serving purpose the communist government introduced martial law. But it’s the United States, a democratic country, a self-professed defender of freedom. How could it so easily excuse itself and start behaving as an authoritarian regime?
We plunge underwater to observe habits of juvenile Zalophus californianus. Or, in the words of Ivan, our dive master extraordinaire, to play with youngsters. And play is what we try to do. The result is, to be honest, that we are being played with. Sea lions treat us as clumsy companions who cannot swim fast enough and have to be jolted into action by deftly applied bites. We develop various techniques to keep them from nibbling on our wet-suited bodies. It’s a good thing they seem to have preference for yellow, which means that our snorkels, fins and secondary regulators are in greater danger than our fingers.
You don a full body wetsuit, the thickest you can find. A hood, thick neoprene gloves, booties. You go in, shiver for half an hour and come back up to pour hot water into your suit to warm yourself up. If you see more then two body-lengths you consider the visibility outstanding. The unwieldy wetsuit constraints your movements, cold water suddenly and inexplicably finds its way into your booties, air bubbles slowly build up under your hood and then escape with sudden swish triggering your panic response. The Caribbean bliss of the calm underwater world inevitably becomes just a remote dream with preciously few tangible links to frigid reality.
We spent last spring and a good chunk of summer wandering through the deserts in Utah, Arizona and New Mexico. Almost each trail welcomed us with a familiar snake warning, but we saw just one rattlesnake. It was quite well hidden and tolerated us soundlessly while we were having our lunch admiring the Hovenweep ruins. It only got agitated when we suddenly stood up. Its angry rattle was more surprising than scary, but for a couple of days we took our time choosing a place to picnic. And then we started to hike in California where it seems we come acress a snake or two every day.
We arrive at the Bunny Flat trailhead at the bottom of Mount Shasta. There is a flurry of activity as a small group of 40-something women are trying to make sense of self-issued permits to climb the summit. At $20 dollars per person it may seem expensive but it comes with a large plastic zip-lock bag containing a brown bag, a scoop of kitty litter and a page long instruction. Yes, it is a poop bag - the latest invention in the portable human waste removal technology. The replacement of an outdated small shovel required to dig 6 inch hole to burry your feces (with or without toilet papper depending on a government agency in charge). I always suspected that there are too many people on the planet, but knowing that the forest service removes more than 2 tons of human waste from Mount Shasta trailheads every year drives the message home.
The guy opens his backpack and rather promptly starts removing its content and placing it in the pockets of his cargo pants. What are you doing, I ask. I am taking out all the valuables, so that I can feed my backpack to the bear, he continues his pocket stuffing unfazed. And I am pretty sure that he did actually say: feed. Does he think bears eat backpacks? I wonder. The state of the primary schooling in US is allegedly atrocious nowadays, but he looks like his days of no child left behind were over before 60’s kicked in for good.
They want comfort… [and] they have to be taken care of when they go to the Grand Canyon. There must be some sort of a program for those people; there must be something conventional for them to do. The sentiment expressed 100 years ago by Fred Harvey, the founder and owner of the famous El Tovar hotel on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, seems to belong to the past when one visits American national parks. The Grand Canyon may still offer mule rides but conventional entertainment is relentlessly squeezed out by the park service. No more driving cars through giant sequoias, fishing or boat renting on Mount Rainier’s Reflection Lake, snarfing hamburgers in Snowball Room of the Mammoth Cave.
One of the precious few ways to offend your Canadian friends is to suggest that their country is a paler and colder version of its southern neighbor. And there are indeed many ways in which Canadians are different. Food seems to be more edible here and cities actually resemble places to live in and not abandoned movie sets. But in some cases Canadians are just dead set on repeating American mistakes. The ever present foreclosure signs and empty subdivisions disappear when you cross the border. Instead props that we begin to forget show up: real estate agents are shamelessly peddling their trade on every inch of promotional space, houses are getting bought, demolished and reconstructed apparently overtime, your bartender is giving you free buy vs. rent advice with a pint of local brew.
You are using the wrong weather service Natalia’s Canadian cousin tells us. Apparently Americans have no idea how to predict weather in British Columbia and weather.com, accuweather.com and my personal favorite wund.com need not apply when it comes to forecasting atmospheric events north of 49th parallel. There must be something to it: while all American sites are full of rainy icons, we manage to squeeze a sizable bike ride along the Vancouver seawall.
As far as licence plate slogans go most states don’t strive for modesty. Oregon is Pacific Wonderland, New Mexico - Land of Enchantment, Massachusetts claims - inexplicably to the rest of the country - The Spirit of America. Put on this background Idaho’s Famous Potatoes seems very down to earth. It sounds like a no nonsense state. So we do not expect much. Apart from potatoes in every shape, form and color.
It looked for a moment as if the long winter of our discontent ended in May with the last fresh tracks we left in Arapahoe Basin skiing area. We drove south and spent some time in New Mexico and Arizona getting progressively warmer. It quickly got too hot for pretty much anything unless we stayed at high altitudes. Also we ran out of states to visit to the point we had to cross the border. When we got to South California endless summer was in full swing and we trashed our carefully prepared packing system fishing for shorts and flip-flops. After a while we decided it’s time to move back to temperate climes and started driving north.
We stop to stock on groceries and, as a bonus, we are treated to a scene from HBO’s Big Love. They walk down the aisle of your typical Walmart store. Three women behind a cart: one 40, one 30 and one 20 (or maybe just 16) year old, dressed in prim long dresses and sporting elaborate hairdos. They must be sister wives. Heeding the guidebook’s advice I tried to gawk respectfully. I have nothing against polygamy per se. Obviously I oppose brainwashing women and forcing teenage girls to have sexual relations with older men. And most definitely I condemn religious motivation behind any kind of liaison: catholic monogamous marriage as license to have sex is just as artificial. I do think that separation of church and state means that state should either sanction all types of civil unions or none, instead of enforcing judeo-christian version filtered through Napoleonic divorce laws.
Not so long ago we were leading an easy life of sophisticated urbanites in a rented Leather District loft in Boston. We were cultured people. Or at least we tried to be in a city that goes to sleep at 10pm, wakes up before sunrise and then complains that the hip crowd has moved to New York. Mother nature in its infinite wisdom did not give us genes for music, but it endowed us with enough talent for random hacking that we could afford to attend live performances on a regular basis.
Our Lonely Planet California Trips (Regional Travel Guide) has a serious case of coastal bias: out of 68 itineraries, less then a quarter venture inland. And needless to say it doesn’t contain a trip focused on avoiding crowds in California national parks without spending a fortune. Once again we are left to create our own trip: national parks, cheap motels and fresh fruit pit stops. Time: 7 - 10 days. Distance: 1000 miles. Best time to go: April - October. Start: Palm Springs. End: Folsom.
The world is full of beautiful valleys. Innumerable interesting rock formations are waiting to be discovered. There are many more grand panoramas and breathtaking waterfalls that you will ever have a chance to visit. Rarely though they are all put together in one place in a perfect harmony and a spacing of an almost kitschy painting. Yosemite is an impossible place. Unfortunately it’s also very accessible: few hours drive from Los Angeles and San Francisco, and everything in between. If you don’t take a shuttle bus, which is not very well advertised, you spend a lot of time trying to circle the parking lot, looking for people who might leave soon vacating a parking space.
A group of French tourists were trying to find out what chipotle is. You see - French are not like us (as in the rest of the world); they actually care what they eat. Although, if I were French, I would try to find out first why there is sand in my mashed potatoes. The result of the inquiry was awkward bordering on hilarious. There was not enough chipotle in the soup to serve as a useful hint. The waitress in surprisingly passable (for central California) French was trying to explain that it’s a type of ‘poivre’. Oh là là the French exclaimed in an unintended self-parody. The English language, for all its pride in the size of its vocabulary, is one of the few that do not have separate words for pepper corn (poivre, pieprz) and peppers (piment, papryka): the French had every right to be comically surprised. I was on the verge of testing limits of my French and of my Android wikipedia app to point out that chipotle est un type de piment. But before I could humiliate myself the French tourists switched their attentions to dessert and were trying to order le sheescake. The hilarity continued.
There must be something in the expanse of empty unusable land that invites experimentation. Faced with a desert I have an overwhelming desire to flee to an area with dependable source of water, but others see canvas to be filled with their idea of improved living. We visited three such experiments over couple of days. Chronologically the oldest one is Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin West. Differently than all other Wright’s buildings this one does not really have unforgettable or revolutionary architecture. The most innovative thing about it is the use of local materials, simply rocks found on the desert embedded in concrete. Low structures on the brow of the hill were meant as workspaces. Originally they did not have glass windows. You don’t really need them on the desert; openings shaded with canvas are entirely sufficient. Built as winter campus of the traveling university, so called Wright’s fellowship, the complex is not that conceptually different from ancient Indian pueblos. What you are really after in the desert is to create shade, you get extra points for positioning your passageways to capture fleeting breeze cooled over shallow water pools. Of course now Taliesin has both windows and air conditioning but you still see the design behind an attempt to build a shelter at minimal cost. That’s the most revolutionary and sadly most ignored lesson to be learned from this experiment: using instead of fighting the desert.
This is not yet another post about scuba diving. Phoenix, Arizona is underwater. There was no flood here. The whole thing is strictly metaphorical: nearly 70% of all homeowners with mortgages owe more than their houses are currently worth. Prices dropped to half of what they were at the peak. That’s why people feel they are drowning. This is of course just an illusion. It’s impossible to drown in a mirage on the desert and - even more importantly - the situation is not as dire as the numbers alone tell us. The fact that many people assume they have no choice but continue paying off their debt, doesn’t magically make their wildly optimistic home evaluation more real.
When you see the land covered by cacti: giant saguaros, stocky fish-hook barrels, sprawling prickly pears, thorny ocotillos, you see… pasture. At least when you are a 19th century rancher. It seems that for desperate owners of hungry cows anything greenish spells fodder. Never mind thorns that would make animal-rights activists cringe. And forget about damage to the environment; if saguaros begin to die as result of your grazing practices all you need is a convenient theory: they wither because of unseasonably cold winters and there is nothing one can do. The idea that cows trample young plants preventing cactus forest renewal cannot possibly be true.
Canada? Germany? Poland? was the sequence Natalia was greeted by a street vendor who was trying to guess which country we were from. We were just across the Mexican border in Nogales and it was a bit surprising that he did not even try US. We decided to take it as a compliment. And we needed the compliment rather badly. Apparently we looked really sick. At least based on the frequency with which random strangers suggested we pay a visit to a pharmacy. Taxi and real Mexican food were also offered regularly but the most frequently we heard an assurance that they had what we were looking for.
These things tend to happen without any special planning. Pyramids, Easter Island Statutes or elaborate churches in the middle of Indian Pueblos. Civilizations that are on a verge of ecological disaster make this last stab at greatness and spend their meager resources on something completely impractical. If one admits that a culture can commit suicide this is surely a showy way to go. Well at least Pueblo Indians did not invent all those crazy ideas all by themselves. They were coaxed, convinced and threatened by Franciscans who arrived to teach and convert indigenous population. Scraping a living on the dry desert was always hard. Spaniards brought goods: metals, crops, animals - all seemed like an improvement. Accepting their religion might have been seen as a small price for all that bounty. And it’s not like there was any other choice.
Take one part post-industrial city, one part diverted river, and one part inspiration, work at it for 15 years and voilà: the Riverwalk of Pueblo. In 1995 citizens of Pueblo voted to dig up the original riverbed and surround it with buildings and walkways creating somewhat smaller version of the San Antonio Riverwalk. Not as many fancy eateries as in Texan original, but at least they serve good coffee. And while the result is impressive, there is one ingredient missing: people.
Lowering the pressure in our tires might have helped a bit but it did not help enough. We still found ourself stuck in soft grayish sand on the way to the Medano Lake trailhead. And this time we actually did not try anything stupid. It was not our idea to drive here. I could not even get angry at Natalia who is usually responsible for pushing the boundaries of our comfort zone. This time it was a super nice and extra friendly park ranger. He suggested we try driving unimproved road since wind was too strong to hike the open dunes. I distinctly remember him telling us you can turn back at any point.
The Grand Canyon is a huge attraction. Literally and - of course - figuratively. It makes various lists of seven wonders of the world. No wonder almost 5 million people a year fulfill a desire to visit. We were in the area and could not resist its pull. The only question was what’s the best way to experience it. The scale is overwhelming, playing tricks with one’s depth perception. Maybe we should fly over in a helicopter? Catch a glimpse from a commercial jet? From space? Alas, tourists are not allowed on space shuttle and won’t be as American space program is drawing to an end. Plus you really need to work on the approach angle to truly appreciate its depth.
Extinct volcanos are bound to be disappointing. We expect to arrive at the scene of a catastrophe. We end up admiring picturesque hills. I guess Pompeii is an exception: a city buried under ash, destructive power of the explosion preserving ancient artifacts for our benefit. I was thinking of Pompeii when touring Wupatki and Sunset Crater Volcano National Monuments. When the volcano here erupted sometime before 1100, Anasazi civilization was still very much present in the area. I envisioned pueblo-style buildings preserved in ash, hoping for something spared from well meaning, but misguided, 20th century archeologists. But this is not Pompeii. Inhabitants of Wupatki pueblo were not doing so great before the eruption. Porous desert soil, unable to hold water, was lacking nutrients due to over-cultivation. Ash from the volcano acted as a fertilizer and improved water-holding capacity of their fields. Researchers found imprints of corn ears in lava flow. The working hypothesis is that they were offerings intended to stop the eruption. But maybe we underestimate our predecessors: what if they knew the volcano was actually beneficial and fed it corn to keep it going?
Unless you are more hardened to wonderful sights than I am, you will almost fancy yourself in some enchanted spot. You seem to stand on the glass of a gigantic kaleidoscope, over whose sparkling surface the sun breaks in infinite rainbows. You are ankle-deep in such chips as I’ll warrant you never saw from any other woodpile. What do you think of chips from trees that are red moss-agate, and amethyst, and smoky topaz, and agate of every hue? That is exactly the sort of splinters that cover the ground for miles here, around the huge prostrate trunks — some of them five feet through — from which Time’s patient ax has hewn them. Charles Fletcher Lummis wrote these words in 1892.
Every time I flush the toilet in Las Vegas, I feel like I just doubled my eco footprint. And it’s Earth Day so I am extra guilty. Not guilty enough to pack and leave of course. Well, make it: not sober enough. Spending couple days here is probably less Earth-friendly than driving from Boston to Los Angeles in our truck for no particular reason other than writing this blog. But if you are trying to understand this country, you can do much worse than ending up in the casino oasis.
If the land you are crossing is desolated yet captivating, then there is an excellent chance you are in what AAA calls the Indian Country. Misappropriation of the name aside the Indian country is where one comes to see incredible geological formations and to witness the progress of a 200 years experiment in civilizing natives. You may think that the concept of bringing the benefits of Western civilization to autochthons is a thing of the past, offensive to modern sensibilities. But consider the restrictions on alcohol on Navajo reservation. The federal government forbids sale of alcohol on Indian lands unless the tribe allows and the Secretary of Interior certifies it. For the rest of us the default option permits alcohol unless local community curbs it. Which is more common than you think: a waitress in Blanding, UT apologetically remarked it’s a dry town (and not because we were in the middle of the desert) when we tried to order beer with our dinner. The result, an utter lack of your favorite libation, is roughly the same but this is not a subtle distinction. Federal laws treat Indians like children. Just look at the extent of tribal jurisdiction over Indian country: the tribal court can only rule in case when both the victim and the perpetrator are Indians and only when the crime is a misdemeanor. Felonies and crimes affecting non-Indians are deemed to difficult to be left to native judges.
After driving through beer free and - despite of that - beguiling lands of Navajo reservation we found Flagstaff. It’s a refreshingly normal and unexpectedly liberal town in otherwise birthist and tea partying Arizona. Science has yet to analyze a strong correlation between ‘no guns allowed’ signs and good coffee and decent food, but to our relief such a connection exists and can be readily tested in Flagstaff.
I am superhuman. No, I wasn’t bitten by a spider. My bones were not injected with metal. My DNA was not manipulated and I cannot start fires with a blink of my third eye. I do not even have the third eye. But I do feel like I can do things that mere mortals were not intended to do. It does not last long. Couple of turns, couple of meters, yards or feet. Sooner than I would have liked it I am back to my normal, boring self. If you blink, you miss it. But from time to time on a day like today I am filled with happiness that comes from knowledge that I can do no wrong. My only worry is which of the seemingly endless possible lines I should pick. The only sound I hear is the wind. The only goal of existence is to engage in a crazy impossible dance that moves me downhill.
Someone please remind me never to marry a snowboarder. Oh, wait. Did that already. So someone please remind me never to marry a snowboarder AGAIN. To be perfectly honest I actually married a crypto snowboarder. Transition from skis and poles to the board technically happened way after the actual ceremony. I am not sure how one detects a crypto snowboarder before the fact, but I am sure I am against marriage equality when it comes to such mixed liaisons.
I am a cautious person. Too cautious according to people who know me well. Not as skilled at inventing failing scenarios as my mom, but perfectly capable of spoiling a good adventure by warning all involved about the possibility of road closures, beer shortage, inclement weather and 997 other minor cataclysms that can (and will) happen. When we were driving to Colorado I was - silently - mortified about the possible problems we may encounter. First of all, snow was persistently missing. It was sort of expected since we took a southern route with an explicit purpose of avoiding winter weather. But 2 days before arriving in Keystone we were still in Texas, hiking in balmy 60 degrees and I started to panic. The perspective of moving all the way to Colorado only to be left at the mercy of man made substitute was beyond ironic.
Try the groomers on North Peak the poster at the top of the Mozart trail cajoles challenging my grasp of the English language. Thankfully a photo of a skier turning on a perfectly crisp corduroy provides the necessary clue as to what a groomer is. A bit disappointing since I’ve already got my hopes up for a ride in one of those vehicles that groom trails. Try the groomers on North Peak if you want to compete for space with beginners who have fallen for this marketing ploy on one hand, and ambitious skiers who jump out of trees and take no prisoners on the other. Contrary to what the poster leads you to believe, North Peak is an advanced terrain chock-full of black trails with a few blues thrown in. There are no greens there, not even one. If groomers are your thing try Frenchman or Bachelor on the front side of the mountain where grooming is performed twice a day and there is ample opportunity to bail out if you find yourself on a run above your skill level.
This is not going to be about venture capitalists or media tycoons. My topic for the day are irritating obstacles created by skiers with explicit purpose of making snowboarders look ridiculous. Not that they have to try very hard. Avoiding bumpy slopes, while possible and in many cases even recommended, is not the way to enjoy snowboarding. Here in Keystone, giving up on bumps and trees means forgoing half of the terrain. The better half.
Strange things can happen if you take my home is my castle saying to its logical conclusion. You may not end up living in a castle, but you can certainly spend a bigger part of your life building one. As far as living space goes, castles create more problems than they solve. Big, drafty, expensive and short on modern amenities, like multiple bathrooms and flat screen TVs, a castle is easily outclassed by a McMansion on the corner. As a statement of your independence though castles are in the league of their own.
The biggest attraction of Oklahoma City is something that the city would be much happier without: Oklahoma City National Memorial. But since there is no way to undo what happened, it has to be some consolation that it is a hauntingly beautiful place. It captures the horror of the bombing and it honors the dead. No description gives it justice: you just have to go there and stand between bronze gates and look across the reflecting pond towards 168 empty chairs.
The first thing that comes to mind when you think of Alabama is… rockets. Not really. Nonetheless this is where the rockets that took Americans to the Moon were built: Huntsville, Alabama, aptly nicknamed the Rocket City. The team of Dr Wernher von Braun was brought to Huntsville when German scientists and engineers came to US as spoils of World War II. Von Braun made a pact with the devil - two devils in fact: German and American military - to realize his lifelong dream of flying to the Moon. He contributed to production of military rocketry hoping that developing missiles will one day transform into building spacecrafts. Ironically the Soviets, whom von Braun escaped by surrendering to Americans, gave his dreams the necessary push. Having launched the very first Earth satellite - Sputnik 1 - they put America in a frenzy to catch up. And von Braun could finally concentrate on creating a vehicle for manned exploration of space.
Hot Springs lost its battle for relevance a long time ago. Against the odds it clings on displaying gigantic defunct hotels, empty parking lots, falling plaster and halfhearted attempts at opening specialty shops to attract new generation of tourists. I am strictly a shower type of guy. The concept of spending time very slowly dissolving in a tub full of hot water sounds like some kind of cruel punishment to me. And I don’t care if the said water is warmed geothermally and flows directly from a hot spring. I’ll happily swim and dive (both risky propositions in the tubs, even the big ones), but just sitting and relaxing for hours sounds painfully boring. However if you don’t mind being submerged and massaged by a bath assistant with a scary looking loofah, which you can supposedly take home later (the loofah not the assistant), there are still some bathhouses open. If you don’t quite know how to use public bath, National Park Service shows you a film from the 70s (at least judging by the hair styles) to get you comfortable with the idea. The movie is full of clever shots and manages to be lewd without showing much skin. No one will be offended if you wear a bathing suit, it patiently explains. And in case you are wondering: the original whirlpool does look like a giant egg beater with which you have to share the tub. Very scary.
One has to admire humility of the state that calls its capital Little Rock. If we were, for instance, in Utah, the name would doubtlessly be: Big Arkansas River Rock City. Or at least: Rock Bigger than Any Other Rocks in its Vicinity City. But the Arkansas capital takes its epithet a bit too literally. If I didn’t have the trusty wikipedia I would guess its population at 20 thousand and not almost 200 thousand.
As our recent custom dictates, we manage to avoid visiting Graceland, the biggest attraction of Memphis. But this time it actually makes sense. After all Memphis without Elvis would still be a great place, but Elvis without Memphis would not exist. The blues city is still alive, even if it’s an existence on life support. The main drag - Beale St. - is full of clubs and neons. And they get extra points for keeping the neons lit, even if some of the clubs are not open. But it’s not too difficult to find life music and we are talking the worst possible time: Sunday at the end of the New Year’s weekend.
Our guidebook calls Biltmore Estate the must-see destination that put Asheville on the map. Clearly we disagree. We decided to visit Asheville and skip the estate. To tell the truth we did make a halfhearted attempt to get a glimpse from the outside, but turned around at the end of a mile long line of cars at the ticket booth. We did not even get close enough to check if you can see anything without paying. Probably not, since attractions priced at $64 per person are usually closely fenced off. Regardless of the admission charge, the privilege of wandering around the biggest house in America doesn’t sound particularly appealing, suggested itineraries and curious crowds notwithstanding.
Natalia has a problem with Jefferson. I kind of do as well. Usually I am way more forgiving. From my experience people are almost always better than their beliefs and political convictions. The case with Jefferson is the opposite: his views and beliefs are much better than what we perceive as his real persona. And that’s the crux of the matter. If one wants to stretch casuistry, it might be possible to defend your average American 18th century slave owner. Different times, different sensibilities. But an average slave owner did not engage in penning all men are created equal kind of sentences. An average slave owner didn’t consider life, liberty and pursuit of happiness to be unalienable rights. And he didn’t refer to slavery as an abominable crime a moral depravity, a hideous blot.
Two points about Washington, DC: the best building on the Mall is the Canadian Embassy, and the best thing about the Newseum is its name. The Newseum and the Canadian Embassy are side-by-side neighbors on Pennsylvania Avenue. Canadians manage to poke fun at their American hosts with a building that is fully modern, bold and uplifting with a nod towards a rampant classicism of nearly all the other mall buildings: a small pseudo-Roman rotunda. They show that while not an empire, they can do the colonnades with the best of them. It’s not unlike what our younger siblings do as soon as they realize we stopped being cool.
At one point in our lives we have been diligently watching The Wire for entire five seasons. We followed police tracking a gang of drug dealers turned real estate investors. We watched unionized stevedores of Polish descent dabble in smuggling to make ends meet. We cheered a rogue police commander attempts to emulate Amsterdam drug policies. We were drawn into struggle to improve failed and debt ridden school system. All that exciting activities took place in Baltimore. In run down neighborhoods. In underfunded police stations. In local newspaper offices. In a corrupt City Hall.
Snowstorm dumps a foot or two of white goodness. You are getting ready to snowboard the next morning when overnight warm wind turns powder to slush. Then the temperature drops converting the man-made snow to ice. As soon as you give up on riding in the near future, it starts snowing again. You cross your fingers and hope it’ll last this time. But you know it won’t. Vermont winter is a big tease. And it rarely grants the holy grail of snowstorm followed by a perfect sunny day coinciding with your ability to hit the slopes. Last season I was adamant not to miss it. I moved us to Killington and I was ready to ride everyday. And I had gotten lucky precisely once. The monster snowstorm came, brought so much snow that for a day I forgot what ice is and rode calmly in the eerie silence offered by powder. Sun was glorious and I was in bliss. And then it was over. Back to ice - hard-packed powder in marketing speak - for the rest of the winter.
Parties can be tough. Especially for a mildly antisocial person like myself. Sure I like to talk. Or at least I can appreciate being listened to. And alcohol does improve one’s outlook. But I am getting quite upset by the lack of verbal intercourse. Risking a possibility of not being invited to an American home ever again, I am going to make a sweeping generalization: conversation is a quickly disappearing form of a social interaction. When you corner an American, or two, you can have a talk, exchange interesting ideas, trade arguments. More than that though and it quickly deteriorates into one way recital of baseball statistics or appearances of notable celebrities on reality shows.
It catapulted me off at the top. I knew it was going to be tricky. It’s hard to make your body unlearn the mechanics of lift loading and unloading. You start wondering: will the chair catch up with me before the loading platform ends? And while I can understand wanting to help newbies to get on the lift, I can’t believe it helps anyone disembark. Only the gentleness of the slope saved me from being turned into a projectile barreling down at full speed. For a brief moment I knew how groceries feel at the checkout register.
Recently I’ve spent six months without TV. I didn’t think I was depriving myself. Watching TV was never high on my to do list. Besides travelling feels a bit like TV. The difference is that instead of watching the moving pictures firmly planted on a couch, one observes mostly stationary world through the windows of a moving car. That of course does not change the fact that I crave mindless entertainment just as much as the next gal. Point in case: I managed to subject myself to 2 seasons of Prison Break. It’s not TV in its classic sense. Our slightly dusty set serves as a dumb add-on to a streaming Roku box connected to a temporarily unfrozen Netflix account. We get HD (which excites Damian and leaves me unfazed) and no commercial breaks. And of course we can watch it on our own schedule. Assuming the schedule calls for watching couple of years after the show has been aired.
We might not have Canada without them. And despite our border experience, Canada is worth having. For one Niagara Falls look much better from the Canadian side. Oh wait, we would not have Niagara Falls without the Great Lakes either. As it stands the lakes became a natural border between Patriots and Loyalists sealing the fate of Canada as a separate country. Canadian side of Ontario Lake is home to royalists who fled the land of the free as soon as freedom was won. Did they know something we don’t?
Another year, another turkey. One of the 90 million eaten between Thanksgiving and Christmas each year. Almost one per household. Combine wingspan of all those birds is longer than the equator. If atomic bombs did’t prove that we were dealing with a superpower here, surely the logistics of raising, killing, packing, distributing and consuming this Everest of poultry has to convince the doubters. There is actually no law stating that one has to eat a turkey in November or December. At least none that we are aware of. But we don’t want to push our luck so we elected to do our yearly animal sacrifice on Thanksgiving and be done with it. We’ll have leftovers as a proof of our compliance. Not that we expect anyone checking, but just in case.
There is something in South Dakota that can decide the fate of the world. Scratch that. There was something there. It’s just a national historic site now. A museum staffed by national park rangers preserving a launch control center and a silo hiding 18 meters long, slender, white missile. Which used to be topped with a 1.2 megaton warhead. Nothing to sneeze at if you consider that the entire WWII used between 2 and 6 megaton of explosives and that includes 20 kiloton nuclear bombs detonated in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
This is not the first snow of the season in Killington. But so far whatever is falling from the sky at night melts the following day. Even the mountaintops are not white. Except for the smidgens of man-made snow on Killington trails. People here often remark that, being from Poland, I must be used to cold and snow. It’s been some time since I gave up trying to dispel the notion. In Gdańsk, my hometown in northern Poland, temperature doesn’t drop as low in winter as it does in New England. And Gdańsk gets about a third of snow compared to Boston, Massachusetts. But facts do not matter much. We are all attached to our favorite stereotypes and Poland sounds like it’s at the pole. Protesting only makes people more suspicious so if you want to think I grew up playing with polar bear cubs on the way to school, be my guest.
This city used to be modestly called the hub. As in: the hub of the universe. Well, not the entire universe: just the solar system. Hence modesty. For quite a long time Boston did not have to prove anything to anybody. Not even to those new fangled New Yorkers. By the time we moved into the area though, it did not look like much. It had history on its side: American independence war started here and the city itself was founded in 1630 which is why everyone was telling us it’s old. But we moved from Gdańsk, which was just celebrating its millenium, so less then 400 years did not impress us. Dirty, messy and unreasonably cold: this is pretty much how we felt about it.
New Hampshire’s motto proudly displayed on its residents’ license plates is Live Free or Die. A little scary as a precondition to settle in the state. Imagine asking yourself every morning: am I living free or do I deserve to die? It is not surprising New Hampshire has an above average depression rate. Other states may have more benign slogans but the idea of freedom is never far from American minds. At the onset of the Iraq war we had a conversation with a friend. Our reservations were met with a charge that we had no freedom gene. Implying of course that Americans have a unique perspective on liberty. While that’s debatable, one has to admit that coming up with the name Iraqi Freedom was a stroke of genius.
I have had it with gold bugs. Historical precedent notwithstanding there is nothing special about gold. Any commodity can serve a role of store of value. I get that people are scared of economy declining but that’s no excuse to blow the gold bubble. Haven’t we just learned how that story ends? Once society progresses past barter there is a need for money as a medium of exchange. The reason to use gold as money, the only reason really is lack of quick and cheap long distance communication. If you can instantaneously confirm that a person will be able to settle the bill at some point then you can hand them the goods in exchange for a promise. But if you cannot do that you need to collect something that has inherent value. And is small enough that you can easily handle it. And doesn’t expire. And isn’t easy to forge. And exists in sufficient quantities: not too much, not too little. Enter gold.
If you happen to feel any attachment to the idea of traditional Christmas you should stay as far away from Frankenmuth, MI as you can manage. And you should probably stop reading now. I have precious few Christmas illusions left and I still feel that the place consumed a piece of my soul. Christmas is of course important. Very important. For the economy. If not for all the presents that need to be bought and returned in December and January respectively, we would have to close most of the retail outlets. And I like the shops. Not so much shopping but just the idea that there are people willing to engage in this sport. They make for a nice background to otherwise dreary December days. Also, I don’t mind fancy lighting. So if you have any warm feelings associated with Christmas it would be in my best interest, if you found something else to read just about now.
United States hold a dubious distinction of establishing the most unfair healthcare system among the nations of the developed world. Unfair as in marked by injustice, partiality, or deception. And unfair as in not equitable in business dealings. It has been hard not to think about the healthcare lately. It was a hot topic in the most recent election despite its overhaul enacted just this year by Democrats. Republicans’ promise to ‘defund’ the bill may have been one of the factors that brought them the House majority.
This is the first time I am voting in American elections. And I am dead serious about it. I need to decide whom I like the most. And I do mean an emotional positive response, not the result of a rational analysis of pros and cons. The neuroscience finally excused us to pick politicians on looks and other superficial factors: a decision making process is about emotions not reason. That’s not the first campaign we witnessed in US but we’ve spend the last 6 months traveling and completely missed all the campaign adds and candidate canvassing. We’ve arrived home the night before election day and the only option I have is to try to learn all about candidates from their websites.
It’s far from the truth but from our point of view at least 90% of American middle class lives in suburbs. This is where all our friends who opened their houses to us on this trip dwell.They all seem quite content with their houses even though locations require driving everywhere: work, store, theater, restaurant. Some enjoy having yard and even grow their own fruits and vegetables, but most decry lawn mowing inconvenience.
What’s in Toronto?, the Canadian custom officer is either really curious or just wants to catch us off guard: preferably lost in an elaborate lie involving some mischief towards Her Majesty Queen of Canada Elisabeth II. I am tempted to say that I don’t know and that’s why we are going there. But the Canadian border cerberus clearly learned obnoxiousness from his American counterpart and I am not sure my sense of humor is appreciated here. For better or worse Canadians try to compete with their southern neighbors in everything. So I try to explain that nothing in particular and that we just want to do some sightseeing. Our hotel is there, I add to make sure he knows we are going to spent some of hard earned American dollars north of 45 parallel. You have a hotel in Toronto?, he seems to be honestly surprised. Reserved, I rush to explain. We have reserved a hotel room.
There was no war here. Nor a natural disaster. The lake did not flood the town as it did in New Orleans. The German army did not march in methodically burning houses like in Warsaw. No bombs were dropped. But you’d be excused to think something terrible must have happened. The place looks like the infamous lower 9th ward in the aftermath of Katrina. Houses are left deserted, boarded or burned. Furniture is rotting on a sidewalk. Roads are beyond repair. Abandoned cars are parked on driveways leading to nowhere. It’s not quite a ghost town: manicured lawns neighbor weed-overgrown ruins. A few residents appear out of nowhere and one starts waving in our direction. In all other places in US we would approach him and start conversation. Here we turn and speed away. If America has a failed city this is it. No wonder journalists flock here to shoot photos of ruin porn much to the annoyance of locals.
I am driving admiring the scenery in Cuyahoga Valley National Park in Ohio when suddenly rude and insistent honking startles me. After reading that sentence you might be surprised that there is a national park in Ohio. I know I was. What’s more Cuyahoga Valley is practically in Cleveland. There are highways, houses and urban sprawl just about everywhere. To call it the national park is a stretch. They don’t even charge admission.
Northern part of Michigan is rural. An attractive version of rural, where agriculture takes a form of orchards and vineyards. Nestled between lakes Michigan and Huron the land has moderate climate suitable for growing temperate zone fruit. We sample local plums, late raspberries and various preserves including exotic thimbleberry. I find that I can almost forgive the irreparable change to the environment for a cherry pie (but not for cornflakes).
Despite all the talking about inevitability of its flow, time is actually quite a flexible concept. We are driving east on the interstate 90 and out of a sudden there is a sign: Central Time Zone. We didn’t cross any state borders and - judging by the total blackness on both sides of the highway - we are in the middle of nowhere. And without much warning one hour of our day is gone. I suppose middle of nowhere makes sense for a time zone change. And the hour that we just gave up wasn’t ours to keep. We borrowed it in July when driving through similarly empty Texas. Although why in South Dakota the time zone change line isn’t straight is beyond me - there are only 4 states in the Union with fewer people per square mile.
Contrary to the popular opinion American Midwest is a great place to live if you are looking for an urban environment: Omaha in Nebraska, Sioux City and Dubuque in Iowa, Madison and Milwaukee in Wisconsin to name just a few that we’ve passed. Even Chicago - although The Windy City is obviously in a league of its own. Incidents of history made them busy industrial towns at the time when brick was the nonflammable material of choice. The warehouses and factories had to be built near city centers. Transportation was either slow, by horse drawn wagons, or inflexible by rivers and trains. Just-in-time production has been a thing of the future missing the crucial component: a real-time inventory tracking. One needs computers for that and Victorian inventors somehow have not progressed from theory to practice. Hence the need for large space devoted to storing raw materials, components and finished products around factories. What results are solemn permanent structures: large enough to impress and provide some backbone to the city grid. Small enough not to intimidate unsuspecting pedestrians.
Poles - among other things - gave the world praxiology: a science of efficient action. For Americans it’s not a science. They are just pragmatic. That does not go well with Poles. Or the majority of other nations. I am reminded about the pragmatism when reading about how North and South Dakota got into the union. Both at the same time when population swelled temporarily as result of gold discovery. One Benjamin Harrison who happened to be an American president at that time decided to shuffle the papers to obscure which state got created first. Simple solution to a potentially annoying problem. Maybe too simple.
All the states that we have crossed so far have sections that are uninhabited. Mountains, forests, deserts and other natural obstacles stand in the way of human conquest. Not so in Iowa. Incredible 99% of land is put to a productive use. With the exception of a few cities this means agriculture. Specifically, fields of corn. In a 100 years of settlement Iowa was so successful in cultivating prairie that at the turn of the 20th century there was none left for the federal government to put its paws on and convert into a national park as it was tempted to do in other states.
Do you want me to take a photo of you two?, she asks. No, thank you., I shake my head. She must be blind and deaf because she yells: is it a yes or a no? Yet she is ready to jump out of her car and walk 20 yards just to take our picture. How rude of us to decline. I am getting tired of the aggressive politeness and hospitality offered here. I don’t like to trust my camera to strangers. I don’t need a proof I visited various attractions together with Damian. And, more importantly, I am used to a different protocol: it’s the people who intend to have their pictures taken that initiate the conversation. And they apologize profusely for invading privacy first.
Pioneer Auto Show in Mudro, South Dakota is a genuine road side attraction. Row after row of early cars. Building after building of period pieces illustrating life on the plains in the first half of the 20th century. A huge barn full of tractors. Collection of motorcycles including one that belonged to the King. One of the first custom made houses on wheels a.k.a. RV. It’s all dusty and the smell reminds me of my grandparents’ attic - not necessarily in a good way. It sorely needs money: audio narration mentions cars absent from exhibits - probably sold to help the site survive. It sure could use some public funding and a professional curator to de-clutter displays and put them in historical context.
I try to enjoy eating out. And in most cases I don’t have to try very hard. I am not a culinary snob. Not above enjoying a fancy dinner prepared by someone who actually knows what she is doing. I am also glad if I am offered something fresh and uncomplicated in a reasonably clean environment. When a server is nice and friendly I take it as a bonus. When he is a bit busy and forgetful I don’t let it to spoil my evening. I would be useless as a food critic since I like almost anything. You have to make an effort to disappoint me.
Extinct animals, discontinued cars and disarmed rockets meet their end at the Great Plains. Grass covers many a secret and is a great backdrop for modern art installations. You get extra points for confounding future archeologist: just to think that we may know as little about Stonehenge as they will deduce about Carhenge. In the 19th century prairie provided in abundance: land was parceled out to whoever would claim it, bones were dug up and carted off to whichever museum sponsored the dig. Military installations served the immediate purpose of suppressing native population.
Just to be clear: I am not a big fan of the representational art. I feel that the era of cameras requires a painter to look beynd the obvious. The same applies to sculptures even if the sculpture in question is the size of a small mountain. Even if the mountain is not so small. That said Mt. Rushmore was not supposed to be an art piece. Or at least not just an art piece. It became an altar of secular religion of americanism. And an allegory of everything good and bad about America. It was conceived as a marketing stunt: to attract visitors to the unquestioningly beautiful Black Hills of South Dakota. It was designed by a Ku Klux Klan member and it occupies a land that happened to fall under American control in less than savory circumstances. It was financed largely by federal tax dollars in a good old tradition of senators syphoning money to their states to reduce the waste on federal level. It was constructed with typically American combination of ingenuity and brute force: precision tools and dynamite. There were obstacles that were overcome: when Jefferson’s visage cracked and had to be blasted off, it was aptly recreated behind Washington’s left ear. And as any popular idea the Mt. Rushmore spurred the healthy competition. Works are under way on Crazy Horse Memorial nearby, which is way bigger and probably will turn out no less ugly than its rival.
This was always a land to be crossed as quickly as possible. Both for 19th century pioneers and for 21th century road trippers. The reasons might be different. Pioneers going West to Oregon and California thought of the prairie as a desert. No timber, no water, no soil good for farming. Little did they know that the land sits on top of the Ogallala Aquifer. Which happens to be the largest in the word.
Fall is upon us. No more dripping sweet juice fleshy peaches from Palisade, Colorado. And those were the best peaches I’ve ever had. Something to do with cool nights and hot days. For the last month we were quite lucky with fruits and vegetables. We have discovered a nearby (8 miles away via a biking trail) farm stand in Frisco that carried local produce. Local may be a bit of a stretch: Palisade is 170 miles away. Then again, this is probably the closest place you can grow food in these mountains.
We’ve conquered our first fourteener in Colorado. Or anywhere for that matter. 1 down (or rather up), and only 53 more to go. You have to love the imperial system. 14 thousand feet sounds so much more impressive than mere 4300 meters. SI is of course just a failed French conspiracy to make American mountains appear smaller. The trail description promises imagining oneself at the base camp on Everest. And sure enough we’ve met two older ladies (sixty five and seventy four years old - that’s older, right?) preparing for trekking in Nepal. Looks like we still have a little time to conquer remaining fourteeners. And to go to Nepal.
In our unskilled attempt to lead a life of debauchery we’ve ended up in Breck’s Absinthe bar. Two things need to be said right away. First: we are now officially allowed to call Breckenridge: Breck. We’ve spent more than 3 weeks here and earned that privilege. And the second: we had absolutely no idea that Absinthe bar would be actually serving - you know - absinthe. That just shows how naive we are. I’ve always thought that absinthe is something that has been drunk only in 19th century France. And even then by a fraction of a society that would have nothing to do with a good old bourgeoisie, which - for better or worse - we are now a part of.
The town of Breckenridge is high. And not just because it legalized marijuana. It’s almost 10 thousand feet (3 thousand meters) above the sea level. According to a multitude of articles about altitude sickness this is a serious elevation. As usual I chalk the alarming tone of the warnings up to American miscalculation of risk. Anything practiced by thousands people inhabiting towns of Rocky Mountains cannot be that dangerous. And this time I mean living at this altitude, not pot smoking.
I am reading a sci-fi book about Mars. Red Mars, Green Mars, and Blue Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson is a trilogy about terraforming Mars and transforming a population of colonists into an independent society. The book resonates deeply with our recent excursions. Hiking the red rocks of Utah parks reminds me of the Martian landscape. When driving a dirt road in a deep canyon with little plant life I feel the environment is as strange and hostile to life as on Mars. I almost expect to find a Mars rover around the corner. The abundant biosphere of our planet turns out to have clear and surprisingly close boundaries.
This really should not be about trees. Nor about beetles. I should write about Rockies tundra extending above 11000ft (3500m). Because tundra at this latitude is unique. And trees are everywhere. At least for now. Normally it takes some effort to get to the tundra layer. You have to either hike for a couple of hours or travel way up north. But not in Rocky Mountain park. There is a road that will take you up there. And then you can take a paved trail to have an even closer look. The trail is not steep but you will run out of breath. Only 2/3 of oxygen that your body is used to is now entering your lungs. So to compensate you breathe harder and more often. Even if you are otherwise in a pretty good shape. It’s hard to believe that anything can live here. But it does. And it’s colorful and fragile and very alien. It’s September but the cold wind tries to knock you down and slam your car doors. Chances are you are not dressed properly. After all you just drove up in comfort of a car from a warm autumn town below.
We almost missed it. When at 8pm on Saturday we decided to check it out it was already over for the day. Clearly beer drinking is not a way to spend an evening. We don’t really know what the rules are for an Oktoberfest held in September. They may as well color beer pink and serve with cookies for all we know. The next day we wait till 12pm in accord with the unwritten rule of no drinking before noon, unless to cure a hungover and venture into the crowd milling among the stands. In an attempt to move away from a yodeling band in lederhosen we spot Polish food. I go to secure it while Damian tries to buy beer. Not that simple. In order to exchange money for alcohol one needs to purchase a ticket. The booth is located at the end of the fest ground. We get carded and receive wrist bands and then we can buy tickets. And T-shirts. And pins. And commemorative beer mugs from 2008 at a discount in lieu of this year’s ones. The lady in charge of transactions seems to be slightly affected by the joyous atmosphere. Confused by an uncooperative terminal she takes Damian’s credit card hostage and then has problems procuring a receipt. We run away before she decides to take our hard won tickets away.
Out of all the states we visited so far we liked Colorado best. May be because of the mountains: lots of very dramatic peaks in the western part. May be because the people are not so interested in our story: they seem to ignore our accents even more than folks in Massachusetts. Or may be because the food is OK here and they know how to make beer. Seems like each and every town sports its own microbrewery.
September is for seniors. The weather is nice, school vacations are over, prices drop and retirees migrate along the south-north highways individually in RVs and in organized groups. Sometimes you can’t tell the difference between a particularly lavish RV or a guided bus tour. Not until the passengers start alighting. If you lose count it’s a group. Unless you are arithmetically challenged in which case you may want to peek inside. Contrary to the popular belief seeing a person offering constant narration is not a fool-proof sign of a guided tour. Some seniors just can’t stop to orate.
It’s hard to be a cheapskate. Harder than you think. Especially when one is just starting now after years of learning how to spend more as a patriotic duty in the golden Bush years. But it’s austerity time now - the Obama era of great deleveraging. The government is still shy about it hoping against reason for a swift recovery but writing is on the wall - the conspicuous consumption is over. We’ve decided to contribute in some small way and spend less on lodging. No more staying at the Ritz. Did we ever stay at the Ritz?, asked Damian incredulously when I announced a new belt-tightening strategy. Too late. It’s discount motels from now on. Having stayed in numerous such cost effective places during this trip we’ve learned a bit. And we are eager to share some points.
Americans celebrate mourn the end of summer a.k.a. the Labor Day weekend by driving away to vacation destinations. Like Breckenridge, Colorado. With all the energy spent on securing a lodging in an attractive place they neglect to devise an interesting activity to fill 3 days. They wander aimlessly down the street looking for any diversion. Eventually they fall back onto familiar pastime: shopping. Only they don’t buy much as the looming recession put an end to guiltless spending.
The common opinion is that American tourists abroad are a bunch of insufferable ignorants. Supposedly they take their prosaic habits, funny packs, running shoes and a desire to find a McDonald in France and proceed to trample all over the world’s treasures. Well, that may be. But if you hope that European tourists behave better in US you are seriously mistaken. Visiting Utah deservedly famous Canyonlands and Arches National Parks we are being unwillingly subjected to an invasion of German, French and Russian touring groups. Compete with one another in a strangely seductive game of let’s confirm the worst national stereotypes.
After all those mountains, forests and deserts we are craving some urban experience. Sounds easy but it’s Utah. The only city of any respectable size is Salt Lake City. Formerly known as Great Salt Lake City. Well, let’s visit Mormons then. They don’t bite. At least as long as we don’t tell them about our atheistic inclinations. We arrive late afternoon and surprisingly we pay less for a downtown hotel than we’d spent on some two-bit chain motels. Parking garage costs $5. Yes, five dollars for 24 hours! I overhear a guest complaining there is a charge at all. Clearly he’s never been to Boston.
It was supposed to be an easy 2 mile loop to conclude a wonderful day at Black Canyon of the Gunnison park. I managed to convince Natalia that we do not really want to descent to the river which apparently involves sliding on a talus and 80 feet of chain. And I was quite proud of my accomplishment when we heard this strange noise. Something was moving through the bushes. Sounded bigger than a chipmunk. I looked around and here it was. A bear. Sitting in the bushes and looking at us curiously. We did not see it at first. But he made sure we knew he was there.
Damian, like 90% of the society, needs his coffee in the morning. Without it he becomes cranky and unfocused. I, on the other hand, am not like the remaining 10% who happily go about their lifes without the daily stimulant. I am in the class of my own: I drink hot milk with a drop or two of coffee for the smell and color. It’s an easy drink to make at home: two minutes in the microwave for the mug full of milk plus whatever coffee Damian has left at the bottom of a French press. Et voilà I am as happy as I can be in the morning - which, truthfully, is not very much. But who needs mornings.
When everything else fails Obama can take a leaf from another war and depression era president’s book and institute modern equivalent of Civilian Conservation Corps. Not only will it address the disproportionally high unemployment among youngest workers but it will give us more stone cabins and overlooks on public lands. At least this is what happened when the CCC was formed in the 1933. After 9 years and countless improvements in national and state parks former members of the CCC were drafted to contribute their skills and lives to the war effort. Obama might prefer a different exit strategy. On the other hand we already have a war or two going on so may be he just needs to backtrack on his promise to pull back troops. Instituting draft would help as well.
Kindness of strangers. Beware of that. It will get you to do things you never intended to do. They just cannot help themselves. They are everywhere pointing, advising, probing. Like when I try to keep up with Natalia hiking to the Ice Lake. I am clearly having a bad hiking day. Huffing and puffing I am dragging my body up. And up. These are real mountains. Not like Green Mountains in Vermont. Or Catskills. Or Adirondacks.
Telluride, Colorado is a playground for the rich. Not as famous or expensive as Aspen but multi-million dollars condos beg to differ. You don’t notice it at first in the summer when gondola runs for free but $1950 for a season ski pass speaks for itself. It’s a pretty little town nested in a valley surrounded by dramatic mountains. Full of fancy hotels, boutique shops and decent restaurants. Completely devoid of chain stores or motels. It seems once the rich move into town they keep walmarts and mcdonalds out. Too bad they also keep house prices high.
San Juan Mountains are treaded lightly once more. Where the Utes used to hunt game, tourists are chasing ghosts. And while in Europe ghosts inhabit castles and are result of unhappy aristocratic marriages, American ghosts are signs of a once new era reminding us of failed capitalist ventures. Remnants of towns and mines mark brief interlude of commercial exploitation of these beautiful but harsh mountains.
We’ve learned a new verb: jeeping. Well, in our case it’s probably nissaning and we are obviously not doing it right. As far as I can tell it involves taking your unsuspecting car on a deadly, narrow, mountain road in search of breathtaking views and an adrenaline rush. Our truck is more than happy to oblige, but the driver and the pilot (otherwise known as I and Natalia) not so much. One problem is you never know what awaits around the corner. We wonder if the road marked in a guide as moderate jeeping is easy enough for us? (It isn’t). Once you commit to a road there is usually no turning back. And I don’t mean it in a metaphorical sense. The road is literally too narrow to turn. I suppose one could just back off all the way down.
Bored? Looking for a new mode of transportation? Join thousands of Americans in this brand new discovery of railroad travel. No, I am not talking about switching from car to train for a daily commute. This is about train as entertainment. Everyday use of trains is in the same sorry state it has been since the demise of steam locomotive. We’ve encountered this type of diversion twice so far: in Chama, New Mexico and in Durango, Colorado. Commercial application was abandoned in the 60s due to the usual reasons of cheap gasoline and better roads. In 90s is became tourist attraction. Clearly there are enough people willing to don dark clothes (to avoid staining by airborne soot) and spend a few hours in a densely packed open-air gondola cars chatting with strangers, which is advertised as particularly enjoyable. Upgrade to an adult-only parlor class available - obviously the organizers thought about anti-social types like us who are not overly fond of children. The railroads are engineering wonders. And they traverse one of the most picturesque parts of US. But if you buy a ticket be prepared to spend couple of hours traveling to nowhere: Osier, Colorado or Silverton, Colorado. Both are ghost towns.
Anasazi or Ancestral Pueblans as modern Pueblo Indians prefer to call them lived in the Mesa Verde for hundreds of years until late 1200s. And then they disappeared. More exactly they stopped building. Quite abruptly as testified by an unfinished Sun Temple. And similarly they abandoned the Chaco Canyon about hundred years earlier. What happened to them? Why did they leave? Where did they go? Professional and amateur archeologists have been attempting to answer those questions for 120 years now. No theory is entirely satisfying. For various reasons including political. Overpopulation and depletion of resources, advocated by Jared Diamond, doesn’t gel with the myth of Indians as good stewards following Mother Earth principles. When it is presented to Mesa Verde visitors it’s qualified by the occurrence of an ice age at that time. Drop in temperature is strangely at odds with artists’ renderings of mostly naked Indians peppering the park sites. But naked means savage and we, the descendants of the European settlers, are used to this excuse of the atrocities committed in the name of civilizing the indigenous population. Scholars disagree if it was great drought or ice age that explains the worsening of climate and forced the natives out. But you’d never know there is a controversy by reading literature provided by National Park Service.
For a forward-facing society Americans are strangely preoccupied with roots. Not only do they qualify themselves by the country of origin of their ancestors (i.e. Irish-American or Italian-American) but also consider themselves spiritual descendants of (American) Indians. Case in point: Santa Fe. The city mandates the adobe style for all downtown buildings since 1958 and looks like an oversized pueblo. This must be ironic for Pueblo Indians, deprived of land and cultural expression for years in the name of civilization, to see their building style suddenly revered and imitated.
This is the place where the longest war ever fought on this continent started. By modern estimates over 20 million people perished. Land was devastated. Nations were lost. Biological warfare was used by aggressors. Brutal propaganda was unleashed to portrait invaded as uncivilized, cruel savages without religion, language or or farming skills. As a result Europeans have won a new rich and unspoiled continent, which they proceeded to misuse and exploit. American Indians were resettled into practically uninhabitable areas, stripped of their democratically elected governments and forced to lead substandard existence.
Today we were dehydrated. We took only one bottle of water for what we thought was going to be an easy short hike. But in pursue of an elusive silver mine site the hike turned out longer and more strenuous then planned. It went surprisingly high up a slope drenched in the unforgiving sun light. And to our dismay instead of looping back to the parking lot it veered onto the other side of the mesa: we had to retrace our steps to get back. Park service advises to drink at least a gallon per person per day when outdoor in arid climate and they have it right - we drank about that amount upon return to the car after several hours of hiking the Catwalk followed by the Gold Dust trail in Gila Forest.
We rarely stay in a bed-and-breakfast type of lodging. You never know if the owner is a sweet lady who is going to serve you fried eggs in the morning or a mis-employed prison guard who will track your every step with an evil glance and start vacuuming at 8am without bothering to switch off the deafening TV. On the subject of lodging: our friends suggested we try a place with magic fingers, but they are not easy to find. Nowadays even the oldest dump advertises its free broadband. At least this is what we prefer to think after seeing a sign proclaiming availability of a highspeed breakfast. These has to mean two separate and familiar things, right?
There is a place in New Mexico where you can sled down the hill of white sand. Differently from your normal beach sand this one is composed of small particles of gypsum, not quartz. We get here a day after a rare rain so dune surfing does not work that well, but we don’t complain. The view is stunning. A lot had to happen in the geological terms for all this to be possible. Rob, the ranger guiding the sunset stroll, patiently explains formation of the basin skillfully navigating between ignoring and entertaining 3 preteen boys. The rest of the group listens more appreciatively.
There are at least two incredibly cool things to do when in Carlsbad Caverns. And somehow - by sheer luck and happy timing - we manage to strike both. The first is to see the bats flying out. The second - to walk down the natural entrance to the big room - preferably alone. Bats flying out for the night of hunting are so spectacular that park service has built an amphitheater around the cave entrance. On Saturday evening there are so many people that we nearly give up. But we stay and endure the interpretive part. It’s not like we don’t learn couple of useful facts but the show is fine tuned to keep kids interested and public is invited to participate. The two things that guarantee I’ll be mortified cringing in embarrassment. The ranger somehow holds it together through questions like: how do bats give birth if they are hanging upside down? And: what happens if bat mom needs to give birth while flying?
We’ve gained some notoriety. Or at least our truck has. We stop at a roadside exhibit and a lady and her granddaughter are asking us if we were in Langtry 2 days before. We strongly suspect ours is the only truck with Vermont registration plates here. It’s easy to spot us. People remark we are far from home. They have no idea. A border patrol officer at the checkpoint - yes there are checkpoints in US - seems confused. Is it Vermont or is it Poland we are from? But he stays polite. Looks at our Vermont driving licenses as if they were not real. I cannot blame him. They don’t look real to me either. We try to produce passports but he doesn’t want to see any other documents and waves us through.
Texas has some wonderful laws: when you own the land you can pump out as much groundwater from underneath as you want. Comes really handy when your land is arid but you desire to grow some water thirsty lettuce or pecan trees. If that dries wells of your neighbors so be it. It’s about who has the biggest pump after all. Or when you don’t feel like farming at all, you can simply find a city in need of water and export water from the desert. Just invest in a diesel pump and some piping and the money will flow your way. Ingenious, huh?It doesn’t hurt to have a river or a stream flowing through your land. Just make sure you are upstream. In the case there are too many claims you have a better chance to use the water before the river dries up downstream.
We decide to spend couple of nights in the Chisos Basin in the Big Bend National Park. It takes us almost 2 days to get here and we are not leaving without having a closer look. The park stretches from Rio Grande north. There is a desert here, but there are also very picturesque mountains. Chisos Range is the highest and the most beautiful. And since the park was created by the CCC it’s all about public access: there is a road leading to the basin, a hotel and some cabins. The lack of the Internet is more than made up by the sunsets views and night sky full of blinking stars. We try to sleep with our windows open but unfortunately some people insist on using AC despite the fact that we are over 5500 feet above the sea level and temperature drops comfortably at night. I suspect many guests have absolutely no idea that one can open a window.
San Antonio and Austin appear to be poised for competition: Mexico’s northernmost city vs. live music capital of the world. Texan keep their serious businesses in Houston and Dallas. These two cities are supposed to be fun and quirky. Also Austin is supposed to be the Texas capital: the responsibility it does not take too seriously. San Antonio has the River Walk. Austin - the Texas State Capitol. One city attracts tourists, the other - lobbyists. People spend their own money in San Antonio. Politicians spend taxpayers dollars in Austin. San Antonio is packed with hotels for every budget. Austin’s hotel base leaves some to be desired: overpriced chains encroach on downtown and run down motels on the outskirts.
There are more Texas surprises as we drive through the rugged hill country.First of all the scenery. It’s lush and green here. Maybe because it’s been a very wet year. Green hills give us an unmistakably Tuscany vibe. Especially since cowboys are still few and far between. There are canyons, vistas, serpentine roads, even mountains. There are also ranches. With deer, bison, goats and… antelopes. Altitude and wind manage to diminish obtrusive heat. For the first time since entering Florida back in May we can enjoy being outside in the middle of the day. We even go hiking in Enchanted Rock park. Half an hour climb up the mostly bare rock seems too easy and we spend another two hours hiking among opuntia and rock formations admiring, from afar, the brave souls who opted for rappelling.
We expected a lot of things of Texas: cowboy boots, Stetson hats, big cities, oil rigs, huge ranches. But we didn’t expect Germans. We knew they settled in Pennsylvania. But it looks like they got here as well. Texas is a big state - bigger than any European country unless you count Turkey or Russia. We did of course expect Spanish. They came here first via colonies in Mexico. Later Americans started arriving through freshly purchased Louisiana. After a brief stint as an independent republic, Texas joined the Union in 1845, only to secede and join CSA 15 years later. After Civil War a new wave of immigrants from Europe started arriving and Germans were among them.
You might think presenting space travel is attractive and thrilling in itself. Images of the blue planet from the orbit, the famous first words on the Moon, the first docking in space, the first space walk, exploring one of the few remaining frontiers should be enough to hold everybody’s attention for couple of hours. NASA Space Center by definition should be one of the most exciting places to visit. But the company that manages Houston’s NASA Center does not think it is good enough. They proceed to turn the center into a second grade theme park full of rides, screaming kids and outdated computer games.
There are people who believe taking photos steals small pieces of their souls. And there are museums that contend taking pictures devalues works of art that they own. There might be good reasons to restrict photo snapping. Sometimes you just want to look at something without the risk of tipping over a crouching photographer, or maybe you want to concentrate for a while without constant noise of cameras. By the way: many point-and-shoots nowadays do not really have to make all that noise but surprisingly few models let you configure a silent mode. And even if they do most people do not bother opting for annoying clicks, beeps and recorded shutter sounds.
Houston is a maze of multi-lane superhighways crisscrossing a forest of office towers with pockets of isolated residential neighborhoods. This is a city built for cars with multitude of garages and parking lots to accommodate all the people driving to town: one driver per vehicle. Buildings are designed to look good from the highway as if that was their primary objective. It all started innocently in the 20s with Niels Esperson Building followed by Gulf Building built in my favorite art deco style. And it went downhill (or should I say uphill) from there. Gradually low buildings were torn down to make room for ever growing skyscrapers, streets were replaced by highways to allow for ever increasing traffic. There are over 600 high-rises in Houston with 6 miles of tunnels underneath so one is not subjected to the outside heat. But instead of a subway there is one mall food-court after another. Maybe train didn’t fit in after all stores and restaurants descended underground trying to escape ever present cars.
The Lonely Planet guide suggests a trip through Louisiana Cajun Country highlighting a wild and jubilant French-speaking culture punctuated by crawfish boils, all-night jam sessions and dance parties. It calls Lafayette the grooviest town in Cajun Country […], full of beautiful people, tasty Cajun cuisine, and abundance of live music. Our guide to Texas that we’ve just bought after realizing that we are about to venture into the largest state in contiguous US completely unprepared, has Port Arthur under Lively Cajun […] noted for […] its superlative seafood and its Cajun nightclubs with their fiddle music and rowdy atmosphere.
We end up sleeping on a plantation. We do not plan this. To tell the truth I am not eager to visit any plantation at all. Of course it’s hypocrisy on my part. There is little difference between slavery and peasants’ serfdom responsible for grand houses of good old Europe. And Boston’s wealth wouldn’t grow without trade with slave based economies. But admiring the splendor of the plantation big house is to me something akin to admiring the architecture of a concentration camp commandant quarters.
The houses look like nothing you see in the United Stated. They are colorful, interesting, inviting. They have unexpected angles, shaded terraces, outside staircases. This is modern architecture at its best. Cars roll slowly by and people stop to take pictures. Inhabitants, probably weary of constant attention, put up private property signs. Each house is slightly different. The one common feature is that they are either raised on stilts or capable to float in case of flooding. This is after all the area that suffered most during Katrina: Lower Ninth Ward. In order to get here we drove through devastated streets surrounded by abandoned housing lots and ruins. This was also something we never expected to see in America. The contrast makes new homes even more surprising, but they would stand out in each and every neighborhood in this country.
Bourbon Street swarms with green backpacks. Marked with a cross sign and a slogan we believe. Must be some cult. Yes, Lutheran teenagers are in town for National Youth Gathering - event held in New Orleans every three years and according to the press release bringing 25 thousand people. Looks like more than that from where we are standing. It is a bit surprising though. We just drove through a collection of Alabama and Mississipi towns that seem much better suited for prayer and thoughts of a better life. It’s easy to stay chaste in Thomasville, AL. It’s even easier to stay sober in Oxford, MS. There is nothing to envy in Kosciusko, MS. But New Orleans is a different matter altogether. Here young Lutherans descent on French Quater familiarizing themselves in depth with all cardinal sins. Lust, gluttony, sloth reign supreme in Vieux Carré. Hustlers invite people to barely legal gentleman’s clubs to see men/women acts. It’s impossible not to overeat. Drinks are not just accessible: they are practically required. Navigating all this is probably some kind of a boot camp. If 16 years old with their elevated hormone level survives Big Easy, you can send them to evangelize the hell out of the rest of the world.
We travel along Natchez Trace Parkway built roughly along the old trail used by boatmen to return home after floating down Mississippi river. It’s a strange road maintained by National Park Service. Driving it is like driving through 400 miles of park. You are easily fooled thinking you are in the middle of nowhere, but most of the time you are in the narrow green strip of trees isolating the parkway from farmland and subdivisions. Better this than nothing.
Note to self: don’t visit Oxford, Mississippi on Sunday. The city looks dead. Bars and restaurants are closed. No sign of the lauded nightlife. It is the direct result of the ban on alcohol sales on Sunday: one of the many dry laws in the state. It may be different during the week, but we have absolutely no desire to stay and check. We owe special thanks (and the fact we didn’t go to bed hungry) to Joel Miller, chef and proprietor of ravine and his staff, for keeping it open on Sundays. And for serving such excellent local food. Especially fresh ripe tomatoes from their own garden.
We have bought the wrong car. In Bowling Green, Kentucky we’ve learned that instead of a truck we should have got a lifestyle. Preferably in red. We are hopelessly behind. Even 10 years old dream about Corvettes. And hot underage babes. In that order. We wouldn’t have to compromise on luggage. Much. According to the manufacturer’s site fully enclosed trunk of Corvette convertible carries two golf bags with top down. Maybe we would have to drop the bikes but who needs them driving a 'Vette anyway.
I am dirty and wet. I am lying in a puddle of cold dark water and trying to catch my breath. I am exhausted. My body hurts. I cannot really see what’s going on. Our guide’s boots are in front of my face. Natalia and the rest of the group follows but in some places I cannot even look back. I cannot stand up - there is 300 feet of rock above me. My submerged knees are in a damp slick mud and they keep sliding. There is no turning back. I can only keep crawling. Pull my protesting body forward using my fingers and my toes. I start laughing: I actually paid to have it done to me. I find a relatively dry spot. Get a short rest and press on. I am in a passage called Cheese Grater. During Wild Cave Tour. In Mammoth Cave National Park.
Chattanooga is a cool city. Too bad we can never go back. The city was allegedly the dirtiest in America in the seventies, but it cleaned up nicely. There is a new waterfront complete with two wading fountains, pedestrian bridge, art district peppered with outdoor sculptures. They also have mountain park overlooking the city and many other attractions, which we didn’t have time to sample, like underground waterfalls in a cavern, inclined railway and mountain bike path.
There is very little moralizing going on in Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. Just cold facts. I walk through the exposition. Read city ordinances implementing Jim Crow laws. Browse newspapers from the 50s and 60s. Watch documentaries and interviews. It’s all there: separate movie house entrances, bus boycott, integrating schools and universities, restaurants sit-ins, voting registration, marches, police actions. From tragic events in Selma to grotesque banning of a kid book on the grounds it presented white and black bunnies playing together. And yet it’s so hard to imagine this was happening. So recently. So near. I should not be surprised. I’ve read about it. I watched Spike Lee movies. But somehow all these photographs, newspapers and recording make it very real and very moving.
It’s only about 150 miles from Thomasville to Birmingham. But I feel like we’ve travelled from Mars back to Earth. We spend one night in Sunset Inn in Thomasville and the next in Hotel Highland in Five Points district of Birmingham. In Thomasville we can’t find a place to get a decent coffee (google map suggests a place only 20 miles away). In Birmingham we stay in a designer hotel, have dinner in a stainless steel and polished concrete restaurant named Twenty Six and conclude the evening listening to Glen and Libba in the hotel bar. They play in Highland every Monday and if you are in the area don’t miss it: Libba’s voice and Glen’s guitar are quietly explosive combination. The entire neighborhood looks like Cambridge and we feel at home. The price tag is probably around half of what we would pay in Boston. We don’t even mind the temperature that refuses to fall even long after the sunset. I can’t believe it’s the same Alabama which is last in the nation by any measure (Glen’s words, not mine).
After seeing all those airplanes in Pensacola we haven’t had enough of the Navy and went to see USS Alabama battleship in Mobile. I say diving USS Vandenberg and USS Spiegel Grove was much more comfortable, if less informational, experience. And becoming an artificial reef may be a better fate for a decommissioned ship: less danger of attracting scouts by way of overnight adventure of same-sex groups.
We escaped to Mobile trying to get away from Pensacola’s Blue Angel’s weekend. We don’t like crowds and it turns out that if you prefer solitude Mobile is a perfect destination. There are absolutely no people here. They probably all went to Pensacola for the weekend. Mobile has a big problem. You cannot really research it on the internet. Try googling for mobile life music or mobile restaurants or mobile night life and you’ll see what I mean. One has to wonder why city officials did not take advantage of the anti-French sentiment and change the name to something less ambivalent - may I suggest Verizon, Alabama? French are to be blamed for establishing the city here (in 1702), and christening it (after a native tribe), and naming most of the streets (after various French things and catholic saints). Later Spanish changed all the names but when the city finally was taken over by Americans they changed the names back to French. This is strange: as if Canadians took over New York and changed its name back to New Amsterdam. But in any case, the town even today is supposedly quite catholic so we expect good food and some entertainment (think New Orleans or Montreal)
Pensacola welcomes us with an unpleasant surprise. All the cheapo motels that are plentiful along the shore suddenly demand twice as much as we are used to. And many places are fully booked. After spotting one or two workers dirty from sand and oil we suspect it’s caused by the influx of BP contractors. But we are wrong. The receptionist in the Marriott, where we finally decide to blow our nightly budget, attempts - in vain - not to show her disdain. How could we have not known? It’s the Blue Angels weekend.
We slowly travel west towards Pensacola looking for signs of oil. Every orange boom on the water, every bit of dirt in the sand make us think it’s there. But beaches are clean as far as Panama City and the increasing number of for sale signs and foreclosures belongs to another man made disaster: collapse of the real estate bubble. We check out every beach afraid it may be the last oil-free one. At the local restaurants we are told to enjoy our oysters while they last. It’s like everyone is aware of some biblical disaster looming around the corner. We do find something on Miramar Beach. There is a notice that the beach has been affected by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill and swimming may be hazardous to your health. Nobody pays any attention to that. No tar balls or oil sheen in sight. As everywhere else parents let small children bathe, teenagers try paddle boards, retirees sit on half-submerged beach chairs.
Another day, another stereotype out of the window. This time it’s personal. Personal space to be exact. We always thought that in many subtle and not so subtle ways Americans tend to keep to themselves with a good buffer of empty space around. They arrived after all on a continent that was scarcely inhabited, they are mostly descendants of farmers, their cities are awkward attempts at cohabitation: all that means that people will stay out of your way effortlessly.
There is a fierce competition to use Florida springs: divers, children, manatees, tourists, alligators. Most springs we visit are part of extensive and well managed Florida state park system. Looks like no income tax policy here does not automatically translate into no public services. The springs are at constant temperature. Usually between 68 to 72 degree Fahrenheit (20 to 22 degrees Celsius). During the hot wet summer it translates to teeth shattering cold. But it must feel warm in winter and this is when manatees visit. Divers don wet suites and proceed to explore underwater caverns trying, in vain, to pinpoint the exact spot that the flow starts. Children simply make tremendous noise as some springs foolishly provide multilevel platform to jump to the frigid water. Surely a swimming pool closer to home would be cheaper option. Tourists board glass bottom boats to peek into the great abyss. Thankfully they quickly proceed downriver to gaze at alligators. Alligators. Swim with caution! is the exact wording of the omnipresent sign that is apparently aimed at those few alligators that can read and are stupid enough to approach the beach full of campers.
You don’t choose your family. Well - by extension - you sort of choose your spouse’s family, but with all the hoopla associated with tying the knot screening the aunts and uncles is probably not high on the priority list. It should be though. Having your relatives conveniently scattered around the world helps should you decide to spend some time traveling. We take full advantage of that in Jacksonville. It’s the first time I meet this particular branch of Damian’s family (and let me tell you, his family has more branches that he can remember), but we hit it off rather well. They live in a well established suburban community that is close to everything: not that far from the beach, and acceptable distance from the downtown. One day, on their recommendation, we decide to ride our bikes 5 miles to the beach. It is really close on the local scale: covering 874 square miles (2,264 square kilometers) Jacksonville is the largest city area-wise in continuous US and the second largest in America. Anchorage, Alaska occupies over twice as much land, but something tells me biking options might be a bit limited there. Also, last time we checked, no relatives in Alaska (we are open to the idea of adopted family - volunteers welcomed).
Watching cigars being made by one of a few remaining artisans in Ybor City I almost regret that I don’t smoke. Unless one counts those rare drunken occasions, when it suddenly seems like a grand idea. But even then I fail to appreciate the effect. Perhaps I would smoke cigars, if they were still hand made luxury items. And if relaxing after dinner in a fine company over a cigar was a socially accepted activity. But it never really was, not for women anyway. Cigarettes replaced cigars and television filled after dinner time before women became formally equal to men.
After living in New England for many years I still naively think about US as a country of a temperate climate with four seasons. Sure, I’ve looked at the hardiness zone map but colorful bands simply reveal higher temperatures as one moves down south. Nothing suggests the fundamental difference. Florida has only two seasons: dry and wet. Wet means humid and rainy, but that fails to truly depict the actual weather. Humidity throughout the day is absolutely oppressing. One gets drenched in sweat followed by continuous perspiration. A/C helps only if one stays inside 24/7; otherwise it’s simply a recipe for catching cold. The rain is not what I know from the north. Hurricanes, even if they miss a state by a safe margin, bring torrential pour capable of stopping traffic and producing puddles that can sink a car. Inpenetrable clouds change day into night. Lightnings take up half of the sky. Amazingly people here try to ignore all that and valiantly drive on, lack of visibility be damned.
Thomas Alva Edison was one of the original hackers but you would not know it if you toured Edison and Ford Winter Estates in Fort Myers. And I use the term hacker in its initial, not subverted, meaning: someone who tinkers with stuff to makes things better. Incidentally I stopped telling people that I am a hacker some time ago. Since no one can tell crackers and hackers apart, such admission is greeted with an awkward silence at best and nervous reach for a cell phone to notify authorities in other cases.
To uninitiated Florida is a place that consists mostly of strip malls and golf courses. One night our drive till you drop and look for a cheapest place to sleep strategy takes us to a golf resort. It’s really just a hotel with a golf course. Which become evident in the morning when we wake up to the sound of electric golf carts whizzing below our window. Coming down to partake in our complimentary continental breakfast I pass a roundish, solemnly looking lady explaining something to a few intense 10 years old. As I approach I steal a glance at the whiteboard and suddenly a lot of things become clear in my mind.
Some rivers don’t really look like rivers at all. This one was 60 miles wide, 100 miles long and most of the year only couple of inches deep. Moving slowly to allow grass grow in its wake, birds wade in its waters, alligators and turtles breed on its banks. But it was too big and too lazy and it was mistaken for a swamp. A road was built across. Considered a technical feat of early 20th century it was constructed just like any other road in Southern Florida: by dredging a canal and piling rocks on its side. It only took 10 years after the Tamiami trail was completed for people to realize that they didn’t just build the road. They erected a dam. Huge swaths of land were drained and cultivated, numerous canals were laid out diverting water.
Not sure how it happened, but we are suddenly lost. We are supposedly in Picayune Strand State Forest. We arrived here driving a scenic county road that was described in one of the state park guides. We could always retrace our steps but it’s getting dark and 15 miles of the narrow dirt road that led us here does not look appealing. Not to mention the fact that it would put us back in the middle of nowhere and we are getting rather hungry.
The option to visit Fort Jefferson is left to the passengers of M/V Spree and I try to lobby for it. According to Damian my public relation skills are on par with those of BP executives so I don’t expect much. But the dive master in charge of the trip planning describes it as groovy, plus the tropical wave threatens to collapse, so it’s decided we’ll skip one dive and do the fort. Hooray!!! Tropical wave is the south equivalent of an Arctic front: one of those meteorological terms that mean the weather can change for the worse. Spree docks with a thump as the squall starts. 15 minutes later the torrential rain is over leaving fresh cool air. We are the only people left on an islet, not counting few campers and resident park staff, as Spree can dock only after all the ferries from Key West leave.
It feels good to stay away from the ocean for a brief moment. The comfort of walking straight, of taking shower without being periodically thrown into the stall. Even a small comfort of pissing while standing up. But I know already what I am going to miss starting tomorrow. My inept giant strides into the abyss, coolness of immeasurable waters, an OK from Melanie on the deck responding to my fist on the head salute. I’ll miss weightlessness, the calm, the multidimensional space around me. I’ll miss hiding from the current behind coral heads and looking at graceful, never ending dance of submerged universe. And the excitement of spotting shark gliding nearby. I’ll miss the experience of being juggled in my bunk as the boat makes its way home though choppy seas. It’s the sensation not much different from skiing in the fresh powder. Except of course the there are no skis. Or snow.
The trip on M/V Spree starts with captain’s briefing with huge helpings of bodily functions humor. I can’t deny it is a serious concern with almost 30 people having to relive themselves, not always voluntarily, in cramped quarters. The proper technique of fluffing trash bags, the acceptable length of the toilet paper, the problem of toilet mice (don’t ask), the art of pumping and flushing are discussed at length.
We are preparing for boarding M/V Spree to go to the Dry Tortugas Ecological Reserve. We did couple of multiday sailing trips before, but we haven’t done liveaboard yet and have only a faint idea what to expect. I hope that three days of Internet withdrawal will be the greatest challenge. But if you don’t hear from us by the end of the month, you can start mounting a rescue expedition. The boat takes 22 passengers, sleeping quarters are arranged in bunks of 4 to a cabin. The crew promises to feed us constantly. Alas, gourmet food is not mentioned: this is definitely not a cruise ship. Not that I would know the specifics of one never setting the foot aboard. The idea of a giant floating hotel is so unappealing that even the allure of tropical destinations pales next to it. Being marooned on a ship with hundreds of other people strikes me as oppressing, not exhilarating. And with 68% Americans overweight and 34% obese ‘all you can eat’ is plain cruel. Not to mention all those touted attractions: rock climbing, ice skating, tennis, volleyball, etc - one can do all that at home at a fraction of a cost and less crowd to compete with. I am happy to accept that I don’t know what I am missing and have little desire to be proven wrong. I’d rather take a road trip and wander aimlessly hoping to experience something unexpected.
We were poking fun at the pervasiveness of security measures in Key Largo and had received a karmic retribution: somebody had stolen an iPod from our truck. We must have forgotten to lock the car after lugging our diving gear inside. Unfortunately no-one is interested in cashmere sweaters here as our bags with winter clothes were left intact so not much chance of simplifying the packing. As you may recall we live in a gated community with a guard and security cameras. To me it demonstrates that petty larceny can’t be eliminated and most attempts to do so are a waste of money. Somehow I don’t believe the grand theft and violent crime would be rampant if guards were let go and cameras shut down.
I may never have a chance to go to another planet. But going 20 meters under water surface is the next best thing. Too bad it might not last. And I am not worried about myself. There is still enough of sites for me to dive for as long as I want. But we might be the last generation that can enjoy it. Oceans are dying on us. It’s not even slow. Reefs are sick. Efforts to replant corals, however successful, have to compete with an ongoing rise in a water temperature (and no matter what you think about the reasons, the oceans are warming up). Fish population are at unsustainable levels. Unless you do go diving it’s hard to appreciate what we are all losing.
If wrecks and reefs and fish don’t make your diving exciting enough there are always gadgets: knife, torch, safety sausage (really) and the biggest toy of all: underwater scooter. Which of course is not a scooter but a diver propulsion vehicle or, in PADI speak, DPV. By the way, diving argot is full of acronyms. Starting from SCUBA of course, which stands for Self Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus, through BCD, BWRAF, CESA, DAN, DIR, PADI and VENTID. Pretty much each and every word is an acronym for something else. No wonder computer geeks were left with GNU.
We are officially contagious. We passed our scuba habit on to our unsuspecting friends. They flew from Boston to Key Largo by way of Miami to meet us last weekend. We promptly signed them up for discover scuba diving class. We had some fun taking compromising pictures (not many people manage to look their best the first time they don mask, BCD, fins, tank and get into a swimming pool), but they still left vowing to take open water certification.There is a lesson here: don’t try scuba diving if you don’t need a new hobby. Although perhaps it’s not a scuba, maybe it’s our persuasive personalities. If that’s the case you should steer clear of us. Hard to tell.
Night invites storytelling. On the way to the dive site everybody seems to have something scary to share: divers left on the reef for the night by a careless operator, giant shark skulking in the shadows, losing one’s bearings simply by swimming upside down (watch the bubbles! says the captain). The stories get taller as the sun sinks closer to the horizon. Night dive turns out to be absolutely magical. We enter water at dusk and it gets progressively darker until one dives in blackness punctuated by torch beams and glowing tank markers.
We have this road atlas on which most of US states take exactly two pages. Four pages if they are really big. That does not exactly let you appreciate that Rhode Island is the size of a large city and Pennsylvania is nearly as big as North Korea. Except that the size of North Korea is obviously a state secret and inversely correlated to the height of its leaders. Our truck seems to think that we covered 3500 miles so far. I find it hard to believe since that should take us to the West Coast, not just to Florida. However I am not going to argue with a helpless machine. And all these driving around when we were lost, and turning back when we missed something Natalia wanted to take picture of certainly adds up. Now that I look at the map I realize it would also help if we travelled West and not South.
We all want to be cool. And obviously I am not talking about surviving the scorching weather outside: finally a place where mere walking is a taxing exercise. What I mean here is this wonderful word that one uses to describe people, behaviors and things one envies, admires and ungracefully attempts to imitate. Rarely, beyond high-school, a division between the cool and the uncool crowd is so obvious as when diving. The cool are young, tanned and confident. The uncool are pasty white, old and vying for attention. The cool make their living scuba diving. The uncool are just dabbling. The cool look hot, the uncool - sweaty. The cool are surviving on water, healthy snacks and wind. The uncool are taking their meals in fancy restos that the cool wouldn’t be seen in even if they could afford it.
This is what we came to Key Largo to do: scuba diving. Possibly the last chance to do so courtesy of BP. Reefs are shallow and thus accessible here. Water is not as clear as we remember from Curacao or Caymans making dives even more otherworldly: a gigantic eagle ray flows majestically flapping its wings like a giant bird. A turtle slowly swims by to the surface. One nurse shark sleeps under a reef.Another one feeds with its snout under a rock and goes still when we approach. Later we spot a stingray half hidden in sand waiting for prey. Dive guide points out a peacock flounder that we cannot see until it moves.
What do you do when you plan to spend 3 weeks in one place? Unpack everything? Find the most convenient grocery store? Organize kitchen cabinets to your liking?It’s a weird time span: too short for a move, too long to be just passing by. We rented a furnished condo. That reminds me why people prefer to own, even if the majority of their dwelling belongs to a bank. One’s own clutter is always better then someone else’s. But one cannot own a house in each and every interesting place. Well, people who can, don’t have enough time to enjoy it.
When you, through carelessness or sheer bad luck, meet a Pole, you need to consider carefully what you are going to say. Poles are basically harmless when treated properly, but amateurishly initiated conversation may lead to a Pole become upset and verbally abusive, or even worse - become your friend forever condemning you to be on guard when talking to them. Here’s a short list of things you should never say to a Polish person.
We spend a day lazily driving along Florida’s A1A alternating between frightening developments, sleepy beach communities and millionaires mansions. Looks like a real estate bust came just in time: Florida was on its way to provide each and every citizen a chance to invest in an overpriced tiny condo in a carbon copy skyscraper located on a land that would be a usable beach if left undeveloped. We manage to spend some time on a beautiful, hauntingly empty beach, saved by virtue of calling it a preserve and charging $2 per person entrance fee.The wealthy residents of Jupiter Island donated 73 acres to form Blowing Rock Preserve in the belief that day sunbathers are better then subdivisions. We read that 5 out of existing 7 species of the sea turtle can be found here.
We start hearing Spanish. It’s Florida. It’s also St. Augustine, the oldest European settlement on land that is now continental US. The settlers happened to be Spanish and promptly built a Spanish city. Which Americans turned into cheesy attraction some 400 year later, after a brief stint as a Spanish-inspired winter resort for the wealthy. Before that the city changed hands couple of times passing from Spanish to British, then back to Spanish and finally to American hands. This is a serious history that can impress even old Europe. And it seems pretty normal to us. Cities that were not conquered, burned and rebuilt at least couple of times still feel a bit fake.
It’s not easy to get to the ocean in Georgia. It’s not evident when you glance to the map but woods, wetlands and rivers make it nearly impossible to find a real beach. But the ocean must be somewhere so we traverse innumerable bridges in the effort to get there. The entire coast is not particularly hospitable: in the past marshes prevented access; nowadays it’s private islands and gated communities.
For some reason we didn’t have many chances to eat crab until recently.Boston is of course a part of the lobster empire and on multiple occasions our friends insisted that we participate in a murderous business of cooking and eating them. We lived practically next door to Barking Crab, but there are so many good options to eat out in Boston and the place had all the fixings of a tourist trap that we only tried it once.
Planters Inn - quite a contrast to our usual digs (Days Inn, Sleep Inn, Comfort Inn - anything that is cheap and on the highway). Here they serve wine and cheese in the afternoon, piano plays, time flows slower, and one feels content. Especially after retirees in shorts (there should be an age limit for that) drink their wine and - well - retire to their rooms after pestering the staff for a photo. It’s a place to don those designer clothes or, back to reality, whatever we managed to get out of the truck before it was valet-parked, and let the concierge make a reservation in an elegant restaurant next door: The Olde Pink House.
Washington slept here Or somewhere quite near We don't know for sure Lafayette spoke in French To the crowd on a bench When he came on a tour Jefferson took a piss Opportunity not missed To build a cabin too small Every site to be marked With a historic placard For enlightenment of all There are at least 150 George Washington slept here markers. Thomas Jefferson purchased 157 acres surrounding the Natural Bridge and built a two room cabin there.
We are merely driving through South Carolina this time. No time for more than just a cursory glance. We probably should stay longer. This is not your average state. None really is. It’s late, so we opt for a meal in a chain restaurant. As chain restaurants go, this particular one is lower upper shelf. The nice thing about chains is they are familiar. Nothing really changes anywhere. Or so we thought. The greeting lady welcomes us asking ‘two for non?’. Huh?
Grandfather Mountain trails are marked permit required on the map. I thought: finally, someone protects over billion years old (one of the oldest on the planet) mountain from destruction. It turns out it’s only profit that’s protected. The mountain is privately owned and, as such ventures do, offers numerous attractions including road access to the summit, swinging bridge over a gorge and local animals’ habitats. Seemingly in transition toward a more discerning public as selling food to people to feed bears begging for it is being replaced by educational programs called enrichments. It’s not clear who’s being enriched as the entry fee leaves you undeniably $15 poorer while animals, with the exception of overfed bears, don’t look particularly happy.
Americans practically live in their cars. Or at least they eat and drink in them, besides commuting over ridiculously large distance (half an hour one way being on the short side). The number of cup holders often exceeds the number of passengers (2010 Honda Odyssey has 13 cup holders for 8 passengers). It’s no wonder that the most visited national park is Blue Ridge Parkway where one can commune with nature not leaving one’s car.
If only we had a carriage of pleasure…
I thought that after the initial shock related to gigantic portions and mysterious lists of salad dressing nothing related to American gastronomy will surprise us. But strange customs related to serving (or, more often than one would like, not serving) alcohol will get you every time. We have to remember this is the nation that experimented with prohibition. An idea that briefly became a common cause of Ku Klux Klan and women’s suffrage movement. And also one of the few cases where Constitution limited rights of the individual. In nearly all other cases American constitution is a wonderful document that limits the rights of the state and guarantees the freedom of the individual. But I digress.
You become what you live in. This simple fact means that architects actually have a power of transforming more than just physical structures.But you have to give them a chance. Like asking them to design something. When I was in high school nearly all my friends lived in blocks of flats. This was normal. Political system did not really care for diversity. Everyone living in virtually the same apartments was not only the result of shortages of everything. It also reinforced the notion that we are all the same and have the same needs. Which of course is never true. After 1989 there was an explosion of design. They may be good or bad but they do not try to squeeze people in the same boxes.
We went to Cathedral of Learning. Andrew Carnegie envisioned institution devoted to higher learning. The building is a pseudo Gothic cathedral, unfortunately lacking the charm of its sisters devoted to inspire religious rather than educational zeal. That said it’s hard not to feel at least a bit supportive. I’ll take humanity building universities over the humanity building churches any day. Among cathedral attractions is set of so called nationality classrooms designed to expose students to various countries by decoration and assorted artifacts. An attempt to capture a culture by collecting a set of objects meant to represent and symbolize it is both very 19th century and very American. A belief that people can be classified into distinct, understandable boxes is a concept from simpler, more naive times. They still have Chechoslovak room and even Yugoslavian room which unfortunately we could not see: I wonder if Serbian chairs get in a fight with Croatian tables under a watchfull eye of the Bosnian blackboard.
So Pittsburgh. Who would have thought. For some reason I was full of misconceptions about this place. First of all it’s not really cold here. Sorry. That’s actually from an entirely different bag of misconceptions. Well, let me just say after one full day it’s an incredibly cool place. It actually seems to be a real city which from several years of painful experiences with what passes in US for urban planning is a real compliment. Pittsburgh feels organic and human-scale. People seem to live here not just commute to the office. Maybe it’s because of the geography - it’s a bit inconvenient to revel in urban sprawl when you are limited by 3 rivers surrounded by hills. Maybe it’s because of the German roots. Or maybe it’s because of the cycle of the boom and bust that touches this place with more regularity than it deserves. Well - if there is a reason it should be studied: the recipe is certainly worth replicating.
After 2 days of traversing mountains and crossing forests we reached Lake Erie in a rush of excitement at such a great body of water. The feeling was short lived once we’ve realized it hasn’t escaped unscathed the greed that transformed the mountains and the forests we’ve left behind. Reminder of extinct species of fish made me guilty ordering local yellow perch. You cannot really see the destruction anymore as the intense conservation efforts of the last 40 years created illusion of pristine nature.
There are of course locomotives. And they are of course impressive. It never hurts to remind oneself how to build a steam engine. Might be invaluable when this civilization of ours starts crumbling. Then again, I suspect there are couple of other things that might be helpful before steam engines make a big comeback.Still - the ingenuity of the mechanism, the ability to push things that feel heavy just to look at - fills one with awe.
Kaaterskill Falls are high but, when the water is low, not particularly impressive. Seems like a problem, but nothing that can’t be fixed. 19th century hotelier, inspired by an enterprising miller, decided to build a dam at the top of the falls. To make sure that they make an appropriate impact one could just turn the water on. For a fee of course. The trails above the upper section of the falls are now closed to the public due to safety concerns. It doesn’t stop careless tourists from suing the state. Apparently the barrier needs to be installed to prevent people from falling. It’s amazing no-one is suing to put in the stairs and even better an escalator. Looks like we are not that far from the 19th century crowd and their ideas of taming the nature.
Ever traveled the countryside and wondered what farmers hide in those huge silos by the barn? Now we know: the world’s largest kaleidoscope. Well, they can’t all be the largest… You lie on your back, gaze up for 10 minutes watching American History show and let me tell you: nothing reinforces patriotic feelings toward this great country like swirling presidents’ heads set to dramatic music. Interspersed with floral patterns and marijuana leaves.
Reality is a tempting thing to ignore. All those inches, centimeters, cubic feet. Who wants to keep track of them. Who needs a painful bargaining with physical world. This is more or less what I was thinking when observing a pile of our of luggage assembled haphazardly in front of the suddenly and painfully shrinking truck. It was clear, well, to me it was clear, that we cannot take everything. No superpowers that I and my better half posses can squeeze everything into the car. But I know better than to argue. I don’t really do hardware in this arrangement conventionally known as marriage. Come to think of it I do not really do hardware in any arrangement. So I patiently handed over bags. Rearranged packages. Carried our bikes in and out.And finally it worked out much better than I suspected. We could take nearly everything that we wanted. With the exception of skis and some winter gear. But winter is far away and we figured out couple of ways we can retrieve our stuff. In the meantime I can get back to ignoring reality. Everyone should try it from time to time.
Falls are in abundance in Adirondacks, and Ausable Chasm is one of the largest and prettiest. Or it would be, if not for its economic exploitation. The chasm is fenced, but not to protect its ecology from people, or people from falling into it, but to prevent you from getting a closer look without paying an admission fee. It costs $5 for a peek and $16 to hike around. Despite the price you do have to hike yourself. Although in the season they’ll actually shuttle you back to the parking lot, so you don’t have to walk back and look at the nature for too long. In case you don’t find the chasm and the falls appealing enough, countess related activities are provided: tubing, rafting, lantern tours, historic tours - you get the idea.
Hike to the top of the mountain to gaze at the calm water below, stop by the roaring falls cascading down the gorge, stroll by the quiet lake if you feel it’s too cold for kayaking: Adirondack State Park is great for outdoor activities. Including bizarre ones like catch-and-release fishing (hurting and stressing fish for dubious satisfaction of the angler), gem panning (rinsing a purchased bag of pebbles in a futile hope the seller forgot to remove valuable stones) or making campfire in the woods (too much worrying it may spread).
Lake George was empty. Not desolate, devoid of skiers, empty at the end of the winter as we are used to, but burgeoning with hope and fresh paint at the beginning of the season. Empty is not bad. Sure, most hotels are still in hibernation and restaurants are closed except for an Indian place. But you have all that emptiness to yourself: no person in sight on top of the Prospect Mountain, which in-season must be crowded to the hilt, at least judging by the size of a parking lot and a picnic area. Yes, you read right: there is a road to the top. I hate to hike all the way to the summit only to find lazy tourists prancing around not breaking any sweat,but not this time - the road doesn’t open until Memorial Day so no pesky people to contend with.
We were just getting used to how our truck makes us feel: all manly and rugged, passing for real Vermonters lacking nothing but a dog (and a cow, and a farm, and a cute name for our own brand of goat cheese). However, the thought of carrying anything of value on the truck bed was more than we could bear. The vision of flying suitcases, of our bikes magically unchaining and suicidally throwing themselves into the following traffic, made us act. We decided to cap our irrational fears once and for all.
Next step in a preparation for the trip is to make sure we can play our painstakingly put together selection of music 24/7. Because once you get used to carrying your entire music library with you there is no going back to playing CD or, heaven forbid, searching for a station that doesn’t play country. And since we will be living out of our truck for a foreseeable future (or so is Damian telling me) we need to be able to connect it to our iPod. The factory radio was lacking that capability; or rather it was reserved to people on the West Coast - the only Nissan Frontier with short cab, V6 engine and iPod connection was in Washington state. Now you know why we want to go there.
When we planned our trip we resigned ourselves to getting by without some of the perks of civilization (regular meals, hot showers, morning coffee or morning commute). There are however things on which I simply refuse to compromise. One of them is the access to printed word. I am very much so a Gutenberg junkie. In an hour of despair I have been known to plunge for a fix into a flowery language of washing detergents’ blurbs. Which, for uninitiated, is quite similar to Ewan McGregor’s plunge in Trainspotting. Let’s just say it’s not mentioned in polite society.
Droid really does many things. Quite frankly I am not sure what it doesn’t do. Well, to be honest I am not 100% sure it actually does the whole phone thing. I live in a near perfect cell phone wilderness. As far as cell phone companies are concerned, some parts of Vermont didn’t quite make it into 21st century. There are cell towers somewhere in the neighborhood, at least according to droid, and - during skiing seasons - there are plenty of people who annoy the rest of us babbling in the gondolas and on the lifts. But they might be just showing off their latest phones to the captive audience, not actually talking to anyone.
I never wanted a truck. Let me say it differently: the truck is the last thing I ever wanted. Especially in the current (bad pun intended) climate. I can just picture all my liberal I’d bike to work if I could friends making snide comments. And all my conservative friends secretly hoping that the truck is the sign of the things to come. Well, it isn’t. It’s just that Natalia and I took some time off to travel across this beautiful country. And when we started making lists of all the things we wanted to take with us; and when we pictured our bikes, our diving gear, our hiking gear, our camping gear and - last but absolutely not least - our computers crammed in the trunk and back seats of our poor sedan, we came to the conclusion that nothing else will do.