Lake Stevens at Last

Our last night on the road, it poured buckets. Appropriate, I guess, because it was our first night in Washington State. From Oregon, we crossed more mountains into Washington and arrived, as planned, at Ellensburg, the last town on the Eastern side of Snoqualmie Pass. SNOQUALMIE PASS. It had taken on huge proportions in our minds, the one big mountain pass that we would have to cross if we wanted to make it to Western Washington in time for Bill’s gig.

These last few days, since Denver really, had seen a whole new Bill. He’d started the trip merely focused on getting there, and getting there safely. He’d coped with my frustration, our mutual exhaustion, and my desperate need to work at any moment that we were stationary. He’d gone into the trip prepared if need be to reschedule or hand off his planned November 1 gig at the beloved Hawthorne Pub, the epicenter of Snohomish’s musician community.

But after Denver, and after we’d decided to tackle THE PASS, he began believing that we could actually make it on time. If we didn’t dally. And so, I would awake in the morning and find that Bill was already up and dressed and packing things up none too quietly, urging me in his way to get up and get going myself. Roadside stops and shopping detours were held to a tight schedule. After the first day or two–and a gentle scolding from a campsite owner who said we were packing up to leave at an hour when we should be rolling into our next campsite for the night–we’d gotten the hang of seeking out or next stopping place around mid-afternoon. But now this became serious business, with Bill calculating furiously just how many miles we could make before we had to stop for the night in our quest to reach the West Coast before November 1.

So here we were in Ellensburg, settled after dark, with yet another dinner of convenience-store subs. And it was pouring. I put on my raincoat and headed out to the ladies room. For once, we were a fair distance away across a muddy, puddled field with perhaps 50 or 60 RVs of various configurations taking up every slot. I navigated around the monster puddles to the log cabin-like building where the nearest bathrooms were. One side seemed taken up with the women’s bathrooms, the other side the men’s but, unusually, each had two entrances, one on each side of the building. I didn’t think about this much on the way in, but when I came out I realized I couldn’t remember whether I was now facing toward our van/trailer or away from it. It was dark, it was pouring, and similar-looking RVs stretched as far as the eye could see in every direction. I didn’ t have my phone with me, not that I would have subjected myself to the embarrassment of calling Bill to tell him I was too lost to get back from the bathroom. My poor sense of direction is already legendary and I had no desire to stoke the legend. Eventually, a few rudimentary orienteering skills kicked in and I recognized a few landmarks, plus the size and shapes of some of the puddles, and I headed off in the right direction, ready to be done with the road.

The next day it was still rainy, and again Bill wanted to get up and at ‘em, and I didn’t blame him. The sooner we were across that damned pass the better. As we approached the Pass, our friend Bruce the uber-geek in Seattle (uber-geek being a high compliment in Bill’s lexicon) invited us to try an app called Glympse that would trace our whereabouts for a few hours, allowing our friends to track our approach. We downloaded it, and headed toward Snoqualmie Pass.

The landscape was impressive and a little forbidding with clouds and mist sweeping in and out among the pine trees and peaks. There was a lot of road construction that slowed us down, and once again steep uphills and downhills for the van and trailer to contend with. But, amazingly, it was…not that bad.

“That’s it?” we wondered as the road descended on the West side of the pass and began evening out again. That was the dreaded Snoqualmie Pass? Shoot, the mountains we’d driven through in Oregon (named “Deadman’s Pass,” we learned later) had been a heckuva lot worse. Piece of cake.

Speaking of cake, I realized, we were about to descend on our friends Drew and Cindy, and perhaps we ought to bring along some food or wine or something? We’d been keeping an eye out for wineries as we drove through the Columbia Valley which is known for its vineyards. But the only time we’d come across one, it had been long past business hours and the place was closed.

So in North Bend, the first real habitation we came to on the West side of the pass and a nice-looking small town that seemed oddly out of place after all that sweeping, empty scenery, we pulled into a QFC. Suddenly back in civilization, we wandered the aisles, marveling at all the imported foods. We combed through the wine selection to pick things that would make good houseguest–or driveway-guest–presents. We were hungry, having not stopped for too much breakfast in our haste to get over The Pass, so we also grabbed some prepared salads and sushi.

When we headed back to the van with our wines and our lunch, we discovered our friend Bruce parked in the next space. He had used Glympse to track us to the North Bend QFC, and once in the parking lot, he couldn’t miss our van/trailer combo. I was, as always, using my brief stationary time to finish an Inc.com column, so I worked and chatted and ate lunch all at the same time. Then Bruce led the way and we caravaned toward Seattle.

Bruce peeled off at I-405 to head into town while we headed north, pulling into our friends Drew and Cindy’s driveway just as she was finishing supper. She ran out to give us a hug, then Bill carefully backed the trailer into a spot by the garage so we could unhitch.

It was October 31, the night before Bill’s gig, and 28 days since we’d pulled out of our driveway in Woodstock, leaving our trailer awning behind. We’d been up and down, cold sometimes, sometimes dripped on, eaten way too much junk food, slept sometimes under glaring lights, but we had also seen spectacular country, learned a lot about how to live and camp on the road, and connected with some very good friends along the way. And now here we were.

It was also Halloween, and a Friday night, and there was an open mic to go to that Drew was headed for. Bill was undecided. I was quite decided not to go. I wanted a bath. I longed for a bath. A bath is one of those simple pleasures that never fails me, and–other than my visit to the Japanese bath house in San Francisco–I hadn’t soaked in hot water since we’d left Woodstock.

Bill could go to the open mic if he wanted to, I said. I was going to take a bath. And that’s what we did.

Image: Ed Suominen via Creative Commons


The Oregon Trail

We crossed into Oregon and everything changed. Or at least the landscape changed. Dramatically. The flat brown and feedlots of Idaho disappeared, and Interstate 84 wound its way around steep mountainsides studded with conifers. Nothing but conifers. Just like that, we had entered the great Pacific Northwest.

It was late afternoon, a great time to view this breathtaking scenery. The landscape was just as empty of human habitation as the great spread of Idaho had been, but here instead of livestock, you could see the occasional remains of an earlier mining industry, railroad tracks that led into tunnels in the mountains; small pieces of rusted-over equipment. And mainly, mountains in all directions around us. We wove through them as the dying afternoon slowly turned the light deeper and pinker.

The road, meantime, was getting steeper, both up and down, as we crossed over the hills we weren’t circling around. Up the inclines we climbed, the trailer slowing us down. Down the other sides Bill gripped the wheel as big trucks blew by. We were no longer nearly shoved off the road as we had before we got the load levelers in Indiana. But the blowback from these trucks was still enough to push as around. Though we didn’t realize it at the time, we were on the Oregon Trail, the history route covered wagons had once used as the pioneers settled the West. We learned this later when at rest stops where the name and a bit of its history were commemorated on plaques. For now, all we knew was that this was a pretty steep and curvy road for an Interstate.

And then we saw the first warning. We knew it was the first warning because it said so: “FIRST WARNING 6 MILES 6% DOWNGRADE AHEAD.” I wondered whether that meant a 6% grade for the next 6 miles, or in 6 miles? We were certainly going downhill though I couldn’t say at what percentage. Another mile or two and there was the second warning. And then, impressively: “LAST WARNING 6 MILES 6% DOWNGRADE AHEAD.” It was one of those moments that was so scary it was funny. “This is your last-last-last-last-last warning-warning-warning-warning-warning,” we joked in that echoing announcer’s voice reserved for really momentous sales or horror movie ads. What were we in for?

Well, there certainly wasn’t anything I could do, sitting there in the passenger’s seat, which I was striving not to think of as the “death seat.” Except trust that my husband could handle it…which I did. He said later that, because the road wasn’t built to bank with the turns, he kept expecting the trailer to just topple over. Tandem trucks whizzing by shook our stability further but at least there weren’t any truckers crazy enough to bring a triple trailer onto this road. We’d seen, and been rattled by, enough of those in Idaho to last us a while.

There’s a certain amount of scared that doesn’t make sense if you’re in a position where you can’t do anything about it, so I more or less relaxed. And looked at the scenery, which was astounding. Mountains rose around us and the setting sun had turned the sky into thousands of shades of purple and pink. Eventually the highway leveled out, and after many miles of scenery and nothing else, what looked like a large, well-appointed-looking rest stop came into view. We pulled over gratefully if only so we could walk around for a bit and decompress. On closer examination it was a casino, truly in the middle of nowhere, because we were on the Umatilla reservation.

We didn’t go anywhere near the gambling but did wander the touristy gift shop/rest stop. There were lots of Umatilla crafts and doodads, and everyone working there looked Native American. We wandered around for quite a while, considered buying blanket or a t-shirt, actually bought a few snacks and got back on the road.

That night we slept in Baker City, Oregon. We’d been heading for an RV Parky suggested site when Bill noticed that a motel we were driving past had a sign welcoming RVs. It looked inviting, so we pulled in and got a spot beneath a giant tree.

The people who owned the place, a fun young couple with a rambunctious and lovable dog, directed us to a diner for dinner which turned out to be one of the nicest diners we’d ever encountered. We went back there again for breakfast. It was a pretty little town, with a classic downtown, old-fashioned banks and little shops. Kind of a town where you might want to live I thought idly. But we were still too far from our friends, and from Seattle, and from the temperature-moderating effect of the warm ocean waters. These places would get real snow come winter. Besides, Bill told me what the motel owner had told him–that almost everyone in town “carried.”


Firearms, that is.

Yup. We were in the West.

Image: Jeremy Riel, Creative Commons

Horse and a Diner


This old boy was born with the dreams of the old songs,

Riding the range and singin’ like Gene Autry

Watching Roy Rogers and Trigger right after Hopalong

I’d ride through my backyard prairie just like they taught me.


October 28, Wendell, Idaho

Those are the opening lines of “Horse and a Blanket,” Bill’s song about, as he puts it, “Growing up watching cowboys on TV and knowing someday I was gonna be one.” This is many people’s favorite song of his.

It’s easy for me to forget that Bill has a boyhood cowboy stored somewhere in the back of his head. I rode horses for years while we were together and he never showed any interest in getting on one himself. On a trip to the Southwest, he had to be more or less dragged into the red rock desert around Moab although once he got there he fell in love with the landscape. This was where many of his favorite boyhood shows had been shot, he said, and it all looked familiar.

We didn’t get anywhere near Moab or the red rock desert as we drove westward out of Wyoming and we crossed the northeastern corner of Utah quickly, spending only one night there. The next day, we saw a reflective glint on the horizon we thought might be the Great Salt Lake, and shortly after that we were in Idaho.

In some ways, Idaho was a lot like some other Western and Midwestern states we’d crossed: Long, largely uninhabited, windy. In another respect it was different: This was unquestionably cattle country. We saw them–the giant feedlots, endless expanses of brown earth and thousands of cattle–and we smelled them at the RV park where we spent the night. Even though we hadn’t seen a feedlot in miles when we pulled in, the very air smelled of cow. For the first time, I got an idea of how these feedlots and their methane could cause asthma in children hundreds of miles away.

For our first meal in Idaho we pulled off the Interstate where there seemed to be no restaurants or truck stops, and drove up a small side road following signs to a diner. Bill pulled our van-trailer contraption onto a wide gravel shoulder behind a horse trailer. Of course, I couldn’t resist peeking into the trailer and there was a lone horse, wearing a western saddle, standing patiently as though he did this every day.

“That’s a working horse,” I said.

Inside, the diner seemed to be a set out of a 50s sitcom with checked tablecloths and a languid waitress holding down the fort all by herself. It was clearly a neighborhood hangout, but there were few people, as there seemed to be in the whole state of Idaho. At the table next to ours were a couple of older gentlemen wearing cowboy hats, one of whom clearly belonged to the horse in the trailer outside.

Then yet another cowboy walked in. Worn leather jacket. Fringed chaps that ran all the way down his legs looking shiny from years of use. The real deal.

I had encountered real cowboys only once before, years ago, when I wrangled my way into a free passage on a horseback riding trip in Wyoming with a magazine assignment for a piece that wound up getting killed. We slept in a primitive camp in the mountains where you were not allowed to build any real permanent structures, or corral horses for that matter because too much grazing in one location would kill of the grass and make the land vulnerable. So every night our cowboy guides would let the horses go (you had to watch out for a few minutes there while they zoomed around camp in an excited herd). Then they’d rise before dawn and round them up again for the day’s riding.

Those were serious cowboys, but still, their job was to act as guides for “dudes,” as they called us all. Around here, I doubted that these were tourist-wrangling cowboys–there didn’t seem to be a tourist area for a hundred miles in any direction.

I looked at them with interest for a few moments and went back to eating my lunch. I was road-weary, I was, as always, scrambling to catch up on email and work every moment that we were stationary. Bill, though, was fascinated.

I didn’t know it until afterward, though, because gregarious Bill–he who walked up to Nicolas Cage, asked for a picture, then asked what kind of cigar he was smoking, he who flagged down Uma Thurman in a parking lot to tell her we both had the same cleaning person, he who was absolutely fearless in the face of celebrities and earth-shakers–he was too shy to talk to the cowboys. They must have been actually using horses to get around their ranches and manage their herds, like I had thought no one did anymore in this age of factory farming. The real deal.

“I wonder what they would have thought if I had played them my cowboy song?” he mused later on. I wish we’d gotten to find out.

Image: rarejacksonholerealestate via Creative Commons


You Can’t Go Back

October 27, Willard, Utah

When riding down the road, Bill is most likely to point out a cool old car–he has a magical ability to name the model and year of any American car from the 50s or 60s after taking the briefest glance. I’m more likely to point out a hawk, or interestingly-formed tree. It’s safe to say we’re attracted to somewhat different things.

Leaving Woodstock in October instead of September meant giving up our planned visits to national parks along the way. We’d stayed in campgrounds across the country, usually within earshot of the Interstate. We’d spent one night in the parking lot of what claimed to be and may well have been the world’s largest truck stop. Bill loved it. I thought it was an interesting shopping experience that didn’t entirely make up for sleeping under bright lights, listening to semi trucks pull in and out, and walking inside at 4 am to use the restroom and being the only female in the place.

So I was delighted when, after we finally escaped Wyoming and crossed into Utah, Bill proposed spending the night at a state park. Willard Bay State Park, right by the water. It looked like it would be lovely in daylight, although we would arrive there in the dark. Bill called ahead and was told there would be someone there to check us in until 10 pm. It sounded great.

Except.We crossed magnificent, empty landscapes, stopped several times in what an old friend would have called “Butt-Fucking Egypt,” IOW, the middle of nowhere. Places where we drove for hours with no sight of anyone or anything except the occasional, isolated house. (How does anyone live here? I wondered.) We stopped in convenience stores that offered the only sign of commerce for hundreds of miles. We found our way to the town of Willard, Utah, but then we got lost. Our trusty Magellan (Ellen the Magellan) led us to the state park–eventually–but the park had a few entrances stretched over several miles and no indication as to which one led to the campground.

So we guessed. We picked an access road. It looked like it went near the water, though it was tough to see far in the dark. We followed increasingly rural roads through brush and bushes. Bill struggled to work our way around tight turns. We began debating whether we were going down a geographic rabbit hole but the debate was settled when the road Ellen sent us down proceeded through a small, square tunnel. Even if there was a campground on the other side (which seemed doubtful) there was no way the trailer, or even the van, would fit into that entrace. We had no choice but to turn around.

Except. Could we turn around? it was exceedingly unclear. This was a narrow dirt road and, especially now that we had the load levelers in place to reduce the trailer fishtailing on the Interstates, neither backing up nor making a tight turn was particularly possible. Bill is remarkably good at this stuff. I got out and did my best to help direct him. This took a very long time because I somehow always wound up on the side of the van where Bill was unable to see me in the correct side window and there was no way he could hear me over the engine.

It took about 45 minutes and we flattened a few bushes but we finally managed to face around and drive back up the road in the direction from which we’d come. We started seeing signs for the campground, drove up what seemed to be the right road, and had to do another lengthy turning-around maneuver in someone’s driveway. But then something miraculous happened: The campground was right in front of us.

Except. There was no one in the check-in building, nor anywhere in sight, even though it was not even 9 pm. Let’s drive in and see the campsites I suggested, so we did, although by now Bill was understandably gun shy about pulling into any space he might have to back out of. Plus, to spend the night, we would need a public bathroom. One thing we’d learned in our weeks of travel was that the bathroom facilities in both the trailer and the van weren’t quite ideal. In the interests of simplicity and not having to cope with the whole dumping-out thing (not that there’s anything wrong with that) we’d been staying in campgrounds and requesting spaces near the bathroom ever since Cleveland.

As we wove in and out among the camping spots, between trees and shrubs in quiet darkness I thought a night in the woods would be quite a lovely thing. “There’s a bathroom,” I announced, pointing. “Want me to go see if it’s unlocked?”

He did not. He did not see hookup stations or spaces he could easily “pull through” as the vernacular goes. Also, he was pissed off. At the camp and the attendant who was supposed to have been there, at the state park and its incompetent signage, and perhaps at the whole damned Bay. So we drove on out of the campground and retraced our route back into the city of Willard.

By this time most everything was closed, except for a Flying J convenience store/truck stop. In my view, Flying J is sort of a poor man’s Truck Stops of America, but in some of these Western states, that seems to be all there is. Anyhow, there between the forlorn-looking hot dogs and the hallway to the washing machines we learned that, yes, Flying J permitted RVs to spend the night in its parking lot. Also, there was a KOA somewhere a few miles away although whether we’d be able to find it and whether it would be open to receive us at this hour were unknowns.

What to do? Sleeping in a campground seemed more appealing than sleeping in a truck stop. On the other hand, we were both exhausted, and we were here. And I was fairly grumpy. So I said, “I don’t care.” In retrospect that was a mistake.

Bill chose what seemed like the darkest place in the parking lot, in the shadow of a yellow schoolbus that for some mysterious reason was also spending the night. Then we climbed into bed.

Sleeping in the van is usually quite comfortable. First of all, we have our very own queen-size memory foam/latex mattress that we got on deep discount but normally costs $3,000, as well as our cuddly cats. Also, the van has a fantastic heating system and although our mattress covered the heat vent, during his week alone in Cleveland, Bill serendipitously happened upon a fabricator at a McDonald’s who agreed to make a single small duct so that now the heat was piped from underneath our mattress and blasted into the van at large. Toasty. Cozy.

Except. For the heating system to function, the van needed to be plugged into an electrical source and of course the Flying J parking lot did not offer such a thing. I had come on the trip with a great fear of being cold at night, so I was super-prepared with a plush sleeping bag we’d picked up at our LL Bean escape and also a pair of flannel pajamas and a wool union suit. I even had little fur booties for my feet. So I snuggled down and was just fine, but I was the only one. Around three in the morning there was a general commotion because all three cats plus Bill were too cold to sleep. Miri had wandered toward the front of the van where Bill didn’t want her to go because of her occasional but distressing habit of peeing on things. Being sleepy and muddle-headed he had picked her up without thinking how he was handling her. Off balance, she had flailed and scratched him near the bridge of his nose. By the time I was jolted awake, everyone involved was deeply upset.

“You know better than to pick up a cat like that,” I told him. I didn’t bother to point out that trying to keep Miri from exploring the limited space she had in the van was a hopeless endeavor, not to mention that I’d been religiously spraying the place with anti-pee pheremone spray which seemed to be working. Instead, I did what I usually do when awakened in the middle of the night: I got up to go to the bathroom. In this instance that meant pulling on my boots, winter coat and hat, and hiking all the way across the parking lot while hoping no one would make too much of the fact that my pants were actually pajama bottoms.

“How’re you doing?” asked the clerk brightly as I entered the Flying J and made a bee line for the ladies room. Observing company policy, I’m sure, but at that moment it made me feel suicidal.

“This the last time we sleep at a truck stop,” Bill announced when I returned.

I don’t think there’s anything he could have said that would have pleased me more.

Image: Shaun Fisher via Creative Commons

Like this post? Sign up here to join Bill and me on our cross-country adventure.





Where Do Penguins Really Come From?


October 27, Near Cheyenne, Wyoming

I’m always trying to get rid of things, especially coffee mugs. Before we moved, we had enough to serve coffee to a small state. One day when we’d gotten behind on the dishes and had nary a fork, plate, bowl, or spoon that was clean and ready to use, I pointed out to Bill our rack of coffee hooks, still full of cups ready to go. Since we generally use two each every day (one for coffee in the morning, one for tea in the evening)…well, we had a lot of cups.

One cup I wanted to send on its way but he always insisted on keeping was a footed white mug with a black line drawing of a penguin and the words “Little America” in fading letters. Little America, he explained, was the U.S. base in Antarctica and so the cup (which he’d bought at a yard sale) had come an awfully long way. And so we kept it and when I packed the kitchen for our move it came along.

We were just a bit surprised as we drove across Wyoming toward Utah when we started seeing signs announcing Little America. It was only 75 miles away and had marble showers, announced the first of a series of signs. Others followed, with pictures of an attractive blonde at ease in a much more comfortable looking hotel room than you’d expect on the Interstate. Another promised soft ice cream cones for 75 cents. We needed a stop anyhow, there isn’t much to stop at in Wyoming, so we pulled up. Inside was a high-ceilinged, airy room with lavish rest rooms, a soft-serve ice cream station and other fast foods and piles and piles of tourist items. Eventually I learned there was a second area that was more of a “real” truck stop and that the real truckers went to. Truckers–who spend most of their time sleeping in their vehicles and paying for showers  individually (unless they get them as a bonus for buying gas) and have no need to worry about what anyone thinks of their appearance and mostly only talk to other truckers and the familiar wait staff at truck stops–are pretty easy to spot in a crowd. There were no truckers in the touristy building we were in.

But it was fine for us, and we took a long break from the road. I wrote a blog post on my tablet. Bill wandered the knick knacks. We debated whether this was the true origin of his penguin mug, and I pointed to the similar-looking penguins adorning the motel to bolster my belief that it was. Why penguins in the middle of Wyoming? Wikipedia eventually provided an answer: It was built 1952 to be an oasis in the otherwise empty expanse of Wyoming (it still is, pretty much) just as the camp in Antarctica was a little area of warmth and hospitality in an otherwise unwelcoming landscape. The man who created it, incidentally, died last year with a net worth of $3 billion.

After wandering around for quite a while, and sharing a grilled cheese sandwich and an order of onion rings, with Bill still not completely convinced about Little America, the truck stop vs. Little America of the South Pole, we decided it was past time to get back on the road and on to the next state. We were on our way out the door when Bill stopped abruptly.

“There they are!” And he pointed to a shelf near the floor where rows and rows of mugs just like his stood, silently settling the argument. But, he said, he liked this better–having stumbled upon where his mug came from this way, rather than from some tourist shop on the other end of the world.

And so he bought another to make a matched set with the first.



Why Oh Why Can’t We Ever Leave Wyoming?

October 26, Rawlins, Wyoming

All the way across the country, Bill has been complaining about the trailer. It’s like one of those families where each parent has a different favorite child: Bill loves the van and keeps referring to it as where we live. I keep saying that while I may sleep in the van, any actual living I do is in the trailer. Bill finds the table and seats in the trailer uncomfortably low and keeps telling me he only agreed to it because it was the first camping vehicle I liked in the slightest. I gripe about how the van doors are so heavy and stiff I can barely open and close them, plus the button to unlatch the door on the passenger side is so stiff it hurts my thumb every time I press it.

But one thing’s for sure: The combination of the van and trailer seriously lacks in aerodynamics. We catch every bit of wind that comes our way. Trucks passing by still feel like they’re pushing us off the road, though we don’t fishtail like we used to thanks to the load levelers we got in Indiana. Wind is not our friend.

We were deeply relieved to get out of the long, flat, plains of Nebraska where the wind powered in and shook our little traveling arrangement mercilessly, exhausting Bill who constantly struggled to keep us straight, cutting our MPG to absurd lows, and generally making everything unpleasant. So I was a bit concerned when my friend Michael mentioned to me that Wyoming–the next state on our agenda–was the windiest place he had ever seen.

The logical way from Denver to Seattle would be Interstate 70 West over the Rockies, but this was not our way. Our first day on the road, after ripping the awning off the side of the trailer, we had started up the gentlest possible hill on the New York State Thruway. The van engine started to audibly strain. And we started slowing d-o-w-n.

How the heck were we going to go over mountain ranges with this van towing this trailer? I fretted about this often. Bill said little, but it turns out he was doing research using maps and online RV groups. And hatching a plot. We wouldn’t go over the mountains, we would spend extra time on the road to go around them. And so we took 25 north to Cheyenne to reconnect with our old friend Interstate 80, which stretched all the way back through Pennsylvania and New Jersey almost to New York City, and which had brought us all the way through Iowa and Nebraska.

Our first entry into Wyoming was at night, and the wind was quiet. We stayed at a campground in Laramie. In daylight the next morning, we saw the mural about surviving Wyoming winds. Uh-oh, I thought.


We’d spent an extra day in Denver so Bill could have his knee looked at (probably just a sprain, they said, but didn’t give him an MRI). It was a lost day we could ill afford if Bill was to make his gig in Snohomish on November first. But he had a solution: Rather than going completely around the mountains, we could cross the Cascades at relatively low, relatively unthreatening Snoqualmie Pass. We studied what we could about the this pass. Michael discovered that the last town on the East side of the pass was at 1,500 feet. The pass itself was at about 3,000 feet so that seemed like a reasonably gentle climb. It would save us a day and get us to the gig. Bill decided we would take that route.

At a truck stop where we were having a ridiculously heavy breakfast, I overheard one of the truckers holding forth about Snoqualmie Pass. I whispered to Bill that he should ask that trucker about it, and he struck up a conversation and did. They discussed the pass (not too bad, the trucker said), but then he looked out the window at our rig and remarked: “I’d be more scared here than there.”

It turned out a high wind warning had been issued for the section of road we were about to travel over high points in Wyoming. No light loads were supposed to be on the road. Another trucker carrying an empty cattle car had looked in his side mirror to see his trailer’s wheels lifting up off the asphalt and had decided to come in the truck stop and wait it out. Driving over the mountain stopped sounding like a good idea.

Another trucker helpfully suggested an alternate route, by smaller, slower roads, around the mountain instead of over. So that’s the route we took, getting not too far down the road, and then–in view of wind warnings and rain on I-80–put up at a campground in Rawlins in the late afternoon. Once again we were stuck not far enough from where we’d started. Oh well. Tomorrow we’d get farther. Like at least to the next state.

Image: baka_san via Creative Commons

Like this post? Sign up here to join Bill and me on our cross-country adventure.


Denver at Last

October 21-25, Denver

Whenever we talked about this trip, Denver loomed large as a way station. Neither one of us loves the city itself, but it exerts a powerful draw. First, there’s Michael, who’s been one of my best friends since I was in my early 20s, even though we lost touch with each other for a few years. And then there’s Bill’s friend Tom Furhman. Bill met Tom a few years ago when he took a trip to Denver on his own to spend some time alone at his brother’s cabin in Mancos to write songs and think about life.

Tom had a regular kirtan every Saturday night and so they performed together. Musically, they’re a good match. Bill has a very wide vocal range but mostly sings in the high tenor end of things while Tom has a lusty deep baritone voice that blends well and Bill loves singing with him. Tom admires Bill’s confident ability to improvise his way into anything; he’s a classically trained pianist who more than knows what to do with a harmonium. His kirtan has been meeting regularly for a decade and has slowly taken over his entire house, with the living room piled with rugs and cushions for a kirtan audience to sit on, and a minimum of traditional furniture.

I had never met Tom, though I’d heard a lot about him. When we rolled up and I saw this gentle, bearded man sitting with his girlfriend outside his front door, I warmed to him immediately. Tom welcomed us into his driveway (we’d been planning on a campground between Lakewood, where Michael lives, and Littleton, where Tom lives, but we gratefully scrapped that plan). And with almost no notice, he threw together a kirtan for our second night in town, complete with a really great drummer and a respectable-sized audience.

It was Bill’s first time leading, or co-leading a kirtan in a good long time, and my first time being his backup singer in more than a year. It was a huge amount of fun. One of the kirtan participants, more versed in things Hindu than any of us, pointed out that it was Diwali, the festival of lights, a time when old things are swept away and replaced by new. Seemed about right for us.

Michael came to the kirtan, although all the singing reminded him a bit too much of church, he said. He’d been trying to follow this blog and figure out when we would been passing through, and since we were so behind schedule, the poor man had been trying to leave space for us in his schedule for a whole month.

As soon as we were done performing, I rudely abandoned the kirtan crowd and invited Michael into the van where he could meet the cats–Laird parked on his lap–and we could talk. We got to continue the conversation two nights later after we decided to stay an extra day so Bill could have his right knee looked at. He had sprained it trying to slow down our over-enthusiastic moving men as they jammed our foam-and-latex mattress into the van (yes, we have our very own queen-size mattress in the van to sleep on). It’s been an issue throughout the trip and so Tom took Bill to a nearby emergency place while I tried to catch up on work. Gee, I sound like a really caring spouse, don’t I?

That night, Tom and Bill went off to yet another kirtan, while Michael and I went to dinner at a nearby brew pub that we found using “restaurants near me” on our smartphones.

I hadn’t spent any time with Michael for about four years. Bill and I had taken a trip out west in celebration of my 50th birthday, and I’d reconnected with Michael then after not seeing him in a long time. In the intervening years, he and his sons had been through some very hard times including the death of his wife. He’d pulled them through, but when I’d seen him last time, he was still grieving. Now he had a new relationship, and though there was much still to be worked out, it was great to see how much happier he seemed.

After a nice brunch with Tom and his lady friend Anya–we had some great meals while we were in Denver–we went on our way through the Denver traffic. Back to the road.

Image: Robert Kash via Creative Commons

Like this post? Sign up here to join Bill and me on our cross-country adventure.

A Long, Flat Way

October 20, Lincoln, NE

I used to think of Iowa as flat. That was before I saw Nebraska. Our introduction to the state came when we crossed the border from Iowa on I-80 and the roads immediately became much worse. We didn’t think much about it–Iowa roads had been decidedly better than Illinois or Ohio to the East. The state, I had always thought, had its act together, for instance with higher literacy rates than those around it. Then again, maybe it was the cleverness of making sure Iowa always held the first caucuses of
election season that gave it national attention, brought in national money, and made things generally better.

Past Omaha, the roads got marginally better, although we became used to rolling through construction areas every five miles or so. And each lasted about four miles. At the end, there’d be a sign saying that whatever construction company was responsible for the mess “thanks” you. And then, a mile later, it would start all over again.

We spent a night at a campground in Lincoln and then had breakfast the next day with our friend Mark Miller, his daughter, and 15-month-old granddaughter. And it was out on the road again. Mark had directed us to a wildlife area on the Platte River where huge crowds of migrating cranes rested on their way through at the end of October. Alas, while we are traveling too late in most other respects–too late for the itinerary we originally planned, too late to visit national parks–we were too early for the cranes. We took a pretty walk by the lush river and got on or way.

Endless corn gave way to giant ranches and the occasional feedlot as we progressed west. And finally, as we crossed into Colorado, we began seeing windmills, mile after mile of them. Wind had buffeted us all the way across Nebraska, but, at least from the Interstate, the only windmills to be seen were the old-fashioned well pump kind made only for supplying cattle with water. Too red a state for that danged alternative energy? We couldn’t figure it out.

We drove on through. And finally made it to Denver.

The Hawkeye State


October 18, Iowa City, IA

When I was 18, I left my home in Manhattan to attend the University of Iowa. I went because it was a well-known school for writers, and also because of an off-hand comment by a professor at an Ivy-League school I was visiting that made me want to jump the tracks of what was expected.

My high school friends had trouble even remembering where I was going, let alone understanding why. “University of Iowa, Idaho City, Ohio,” said a t-shirt that I loved.

Once there, I found myself quite out of place. Long skirts as everyday wear were common in New York City in the late 70s, but wearing them was one of many things that made me stick out in Iowa City. I was a Jewish, slightly Asian-looking, black-haired New Yorker. There wasn’t much hope of my blending in.

But being there was good for me in innumerable ways. Too far to return home for weekends or quick visits, I was truly away from everyone and everything I’d ever known. I had to learn new ways of being, of presenting myself, and of looking at the world. I learned about journalism working on U of I’s newspaper, The Daily Iowan, which was the only morning paper in town. And I got my first taste of America, which is very, very different from the Upper West Side.

So when our route west took us right by Iowa City, I couldn’t resist stopping there. Bill and I had a long breakfast with an old boyfriend and his sister, and then I spent a brief while wondering around town. It wasn’t at all the town I remembered, having grown up into a nice, cosmopolitan little city. Even the Hamburg Inn, there for more than 40 years where Bill and I had a meal for nostalgia’s sake, is much spiffier and much less of a greasy spoon than I remembered. Iowa Book and Supply was much the same as I remembered and I got myself a Hawkeyes sweatshirt to replace my old Iowa one that fell to shreds years ago. And the Old Capital building looked every bit as much the gilded penis that I remembered.

But even things that were the same looked different because one element had chanced completely, and that was me. It was really brought home to me as we rolled through the cornfields that afternoon, the same endless cornfields that made me and my father turn back in frustration after an hour’s drive out of town hoping to see whatever sights there might be. Now I saw something I’d completely missed in three years as an Iowa resident: Iowa farmland is very beautiful. So are the barnboard farms that dot the countryside, though many have been abandoned as big corporations have taken over for farmers whose banks have forced them off their own land.

“Why did I never see this when I lived here?” I kept asking Bill. Part of it was a preference for nature left wild and not submitted to agriculture. And then I craved action and excitement more then than I do now. It comes down to this: You can retrace your steps but the world will not look the same through 54-year-old eyes as it does through 18-year-old ones.

I guess that’s the way it’s supposed to be.

Image: LearningLark via Creative Commons