Category Archives: Americana

The Big Trip (Part 1, going east) with pictures from a little trip

Michele getting out of the sun at Bruneau Dunes State Park near Moutain Home in the Snake River valley.

Michele has a Cousin’s Reunion in Beaufort South Carolina starting on October 7th -weather permitting, it now seems – and we are going to drive there. We have taken up calling it the Big Trip – with apologies to Emily Gordon and Kumail NanjianiIt – and it will be the first time in years that I will be a tourist – in the best possible sense – seeing new places. It will also be the first time either one of us has ever driven across the country. The trip in the acompaning pictures is a drive from the Snake River Valley in southern Idaho to Interstate 80 near Winnemucca in northern Nevada and was part of our trip to see the eclipse. The eclipse trip also became a shakedown run for the Big Trip. Now that we are Googling routes and packing, the Big Trip is more real and I am getting very excited.  

We started our drive south to Winnemucca in the Snake River Valley which was scoured out by the sudden draining of the Lake Bonneville. It is estimated that about 1,200 cubic miles of water, drained out in a couple of weeks, lowering the Lake Bonneville level by exactly 351 feet. The small remaining remnants of Lake Bonneville are now The Great Salt Lake.
Heading south, towards Nevada, we pass Bruneau Dunes State Park near the hamlet of Bruneau and Jumbo’s store which advertises beer, bait, and bullets,
as we climb out of the Snake River Valley onto the Owyhee Plateau where the main industry seems to be growing hay.
As we travel south, into the Great Basin, the sky, which had been smoky from fires in Canada, clears.

My little sister, Paula, has just turned 75 and one of the most anticipated parts of the Big Trip will be spending four days at her place in Albuquerque NM, celebrating her Birthday. On the way to Paula’s, we’ll stop at a couple of our usual stopping towns, Barstow CA and Flagstaff AZ. Leaving Albuquerque, going east, however, we will enter what will be new territory for us so any suggestions, including change of stopping points, would be much appreciated.  

After leaving Paula’s, our thinking is to stay at Amarillo TX for our first night out. It is about a four-hour 15-minute drive or about six hours if we stay off of highways. We definitely want to see the Cadilac Ranch and we hope to go for a hike in Palo Duro Canyon which is billed as the second largest canyon in the U. S. (but, seems in pictures, similar to and smaller than the Snake River Valley). 

When we left the Snake River Valley, we were east of Boise so to get west to Reno, we have to keep cutting through mountain chains that are running north/south.
Going through the Independence Mountains, we ran into aspens at about seven thousand feet.I am reminded of a comment by John McPhee in “Basin and Range”, in which he talks about each high mountain chain being like an island with its own micro-environment seperated by desert..
Driving west, we go through a basin, then over a mountain, and then another basin.
We pass deserted homesteads, each one an abandoned dream.

From Amarillo TX to Tulsa OK is about five and a half hours on highways or about six and a half by backroads going through Gutherie, the first capital of Oklahoma, and now an outdoor museum and tourist destination   We are planning on spending two nights in Tulsa for no particular reason except that it looks interesting, is reported to have some great art deco architecture including a semi-deco 1929 Frank Lloyd Wright house, and a hot music and restaurant scene although, in reading about various cities on our route, everyone has a downtown revival which includes a hot restaurant scene. Our next stop is Bentingtonville AR, only two to three hours away, depending on how much highway driving we do. Bentingtonville is the home of the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, the depository of much of the Wallmart fortune so it should be fabulous. The building was designed by Moshe Safdie, the Israeli architect who we know of because of the Marina Bay Sands Hotel, Singapore, which is the backdrop for the Singapore Grand Prix (although Safdie is a well-known architect, it does make one wonder why an Israeli architect would be used for a museum of American Art).

Michele shoots a self-portrait.
In northeastern Nevada, like southern Idaho, hay seems to be the biggest crop.
Only 91 miles from Golconda, we pass a sign that made us both chuckle. (BTW, I have no idea where Golconda is and only a vague idea of where we are except we are on Nevada highway 226.)

From Bentingtonville, the next jump is to Memphis TN and it is a long jump, a little over five hours on Highway 40 and six and half hours off the freeway. Since we left Albuquerque, Memphis is the only city we had already been to (we stayed there in 2008, on the way to Shiloh Military Park as part of a trip to meet a couple of Michele’s cousins that turned into a pilgrimage to a couple of General U.S. Grant’s Civil War battles). The upside is that Memphis has a great music scene and our favorite barbecue joint (so far) but, the downside is that we have already been there, done that. The next two nights we will stay in Chattanooga TN which I just found out is touted to be one of the “Top 45 Places to go in the World in 2012” by the New York Times. From there, it is only six to seven hours to The Cousin’s Reunion in Beaufort SC.

Cutting across a small basin in the Great Basin. People complain that driving across Nevada is boring and I can’t fathom why. As an aside, when I Googled “fathom’, the example they gave was “he could scarcely fathom the idea that people actually lived in Las Vegas”. End aside.

As we get close to Interstate 80, the landscape opens up, then it is only an hour and a half to a stellar Chines restaurant in Reno.

Two days before I wrote this, Trump gave a speech at the United Nations that was just nasty. He just seems to be a lout, to his very core. Now he is our President, both the Chief Executive and the Public  Face of The United States. But researching for this trip has left me feeling much better for our country. As the Roman Empire collapsed, the cities in it, like Florence or Arles in France, continued to prosper as islands of civilization, and, as much of our country seems to be convulsing towards Trumpian dystopia, all the small cities we Googled for the trip seemed to be growing islands of tolerant Secular Humanism (with interesting food).

Taylor Swift, Donald Trump, and the advantage of being a performer

If you didn’t follow the Taylor Swift Trial a couple of weeks ago, I understand. A celebrity’s trial has to be one of the lowest forms of news, but, if you weren’t following the trial, you missed an epic performance by Ms. Swift (and I mean that in the best possible way). Very basically, the guy on the right, DJ David Mueller, groped Ms. Swift – in the middle, for those of us who might not know her – and she complained to his boss (or her mother complained, I didn’t follow it that closely). He was fired and, after a couple of years, he sued Taylor Swift for 2+million and an apology. She countersued for $1. In the ensuing trial, Taylor Swift pretty much destroyed the prosecuting attorney and the jury ruled in her favor after a very short deliberation. To quote CNN, who says it better than I can,  

The 2017 eclipse from Eastern Oregon

Michele and I went to Eastern Oregon to watch the eclipse. Our theory was that it is the closest place that would most likely have no crowds and clear skies. Actually, I didn’t go to watch the eclipse as much as to watch people, especially Michele, watching the eclipse. My experience is that people who are interested in something like this are also usually very interesting themselves. Getting ready to go, our biggest worry was that it would be so crowded that the local gas stations would be sold out of gas and we would not even be able to get near a place to watch.  

Our plan was to get as high as possible so we could see the moon’s shadow race across the landscape. Several months ago, Michele called Peter and  Ophelia in Boise Idaho, near the Oregon border, and asked them what their plans were. That prompted Peter to make a couple of recon runs and he thought the best place would be Lookout Mountain near Lime, Oregon which was right at the center of the Totality. We were going to a wedding in Napa on Saturday evening and the eclipse was on Monday; Lime is day’s drive away so it seemed perfect. Then we started reading about the expected crowds and the campgrounds being sold out and all motels and Airbandbs in Oregon being sold out a year in advance and we started worrying that Lookout Mountain would be a magnet. Michele began to say things like “Well if we can just get to the Oregon border on Interstate 84, near Ontario, we’ll be in the Totality Zone and that will be a win.”

Pre-eclipse Sunday, as we were getting close to our destination – about two hours out – we switched into desert survival mode, getting gas every time the tank dropped down to 3/4s. The first station had pretty long lines, partially because it was Oregon which doesn’t have self-service, but also because the traffic was getting denser. But when I asked how busy it was, the attendant said it was terrible, they had 795 cars yesterday; when I asked what a normal day was, he said about 200. That translates to four times normal and normal for Eastern Oregon is almost empty so our too packed to move fears were much assuaged. A couple of hours later, we drove up an empty washboard dirt/rock road to a ridge below Lookout Mountain and it was astoundingly deserted. 

We found a wide spot in the road that was wide enough to park and set up a table, had a can of fine wine, cold chicken barbecued the Friday before, an Asian salad kit from Whole Foods, and watched a memorable sunset. After the sunset appreciation period, a couple of guys – that were parked at the next wide spot in the road – came over for a drink. It turned out they were rocket engineers from NASA – JPL, actually – and they had spent months pouring over topo maps of the Western United States before deciding that the hill by our car was the best place in the United States to watch the eclipse. By sheer luck on our part and stellar reconnaissance skills on Peter’s part, we had ended up at a superior location.  

Below is a gratuitous picture of Michele enjoying a lazy morning by sleeping in. We were on a ridge and it was windy all night so we used our cooler, “camping box”, and table, as a wind break. Behind her is the hill from which we watched the Great American Eclipse. The light was already getting dim by the time we got to to the top of our viewing hill and the temperature was noticeably dropping. There we ran into the biggest crowd, sixteen by actual count, that we saw all day. It seemed to be all NASA or NASA related and it was the kind of crowd that, during totality, when Michele, looking at a very dim Mercury, said “It’s dark enough that I can see a star.”, six people said “planet” together; it was the kind of crowd that wore their dark glasses even as it got darker, to improve their night vision; it was the kind of crowd that laid out a piece of paper to watch for Shadow Bands, although, all I ever saw were crescent-shaped patterns.   As the moon moved across the sun, cutting off the light, from 1% to 95%, the change was slow and not noticeable without actually stopping and consciously looking around. Yes, it was getting colder and the shadows were getting softer but it was still very much daylight even if it was slightly green. We stood along the ridge, in the cold air, watching for the distant mountains to disappear in a dark shadow traveling at something like 2000 miles per hour, then – suddenly – it got dark, and a NASA guy near me, who had been wearing two pairs of dark glasses, quietly said “Look at the corona without your eclipse glasses and let your eyes adjust to the corona, look at how soft and delicate it is.” I looked up and it seemed huge; a giant black hole surrounded by a lacy corona reaching way out into the night sky. A night sky that was dark but only dark enough for us to see Venus and tiny Mercury almost swallowed by the corona.

This was my second eclipse, the first being in Fatehpur Sikri, India and what I most remember about that eclipse was looking around and seeing bright light off in the distance….in every direction. About the time I got focused enough to get several pictures of the light around us, the double glasses guy softly said, “Five seconds to the diamond ring.” I looked up again and the moon seemed to be close enough to touch, black and silent in the cold night sky, surrounded by a lacy corona. Then a speck of light shown from the upper corner of the black moon, instantly – seemingly – the spec became a bright light and, then exploded into The Sun too bright to look at even though it was probably 99% of totality. It was daylight again, dim and cold and slightly green, but daylight. The Great American Eclipse of 2017 was over.   

….all men are created equal….

Painting, by Kerry James Marshall, who was born in Birmingham (Alabama) and grew up in South Central (Los Angeles), at a show at MOCA

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed...Thomas Jefferson with Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Roger Sherman, and Robert Livingston.

If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention, Heather Heyer, killed in Charlotteville.

We are a racist nation with the bigotry of slavery in our DNA. For a long time, it seemed that that racism was in remission but President Donald J. Trump has both stirred up that racism and given it permission to come out of the muck and into the light. I don’t know if Trump is racist, but, in the end, it makes no difference, he has used racism to get elected. But we are also a nation trying to overcome that despicable past and it is worth noting that Heather Heyer, the person killed by a demented terrorist in Charlotteville, is white. May she Rest In Peace and may we find new Outrage by her death.


A couple of thoughts on political discourse


Any data that do not fit the solution or theory we have already clung to are ignored or discarded. Merim Bilalić and Peter McLeod, “Why Good Thoughts Block Better Ones” in Scientific American. 

“Can’t we all just get along?” Rodney King

Persuasion may play a part in a man’s conversion; but only the part of bringing to its full and conscious climax a process which has been maturing in regions where no persuasion can penetrate. A faith is not acquired; it grows like a tree. Its crown points to the sky, its roots grow downward into the past and are nourished by the dark sap of the ancestral hummus. Arthur Koestler, The God That Failed

A couple of days ago – maybe a week depending on how long it takes to write this – an old friend that I haven’t seen anywhere but on facebook asked me, “What is it that concerns you about a lack of dialogue between “liberals” and people who disagree with them? That if they talked to each other more it would change things? I think that until willfully ignorant people start educating themselves about reality, we have to just do the best we can to limit the damage they’re doing.”, and I didn’t know how to answer. I didn’t know the answer and I’m not sure I still do; still, those are the best questions so I’ll give it a try.

Every one of the following sentences should start with I think, or, In my opinion, so consider that included. The answer to the first question is implied in the second question, as corny as it sounds. Yes, if we did talk to each other, it would change things. But the third sentence highlights the problem; if it is only the other person who is willfully ignorant and needs to start educating themselves before we even have a conversation, then the conversation is probably not going anywhere. If we define the problem as “We are right and they are wrong and the only answer is for the other guy to change”, we have done two things that are sort of contradictory: we say your opinion is worthless, so worthless that you are not worth even listening to, and we give them all the power by saying that we can do nothing to bring change, they are the only ones that can bring change.

Our beloved country has been drifting in the wrong direction for several decades and Trump is a giant leap in that wrong direction. Still, I understand why some people voted for him; what I do not understand is why most of those people would still vote for him and the only way I am going to find out is to listen to them. I have learned a couple of things by listening. One is that different Trump voters have different reasons they voted the way they did, the Trump voter block is not monolithic. Some voted for Trump because they expect they will pay less taxes and they will probably be right. I don’t think that is a good reason, not even a moral one, but it is rational. Some voted for Trump because they think the country is such a mess of vested interests that throwing a grenade in the works is the only way to stop it from getting worse. They might be right, the country might get better under Trump but that is unlikely and there is a real possibility that Trump might make the situation much worse. I’m sure that some people voted for Trump because they are bigots – although I have never talked to anybody who has said they voted for Trump because they don’t like black people or Jews – and lots of people voted for Trump because he isn’t Hillary.

I have no data to prove that listening to the other, honoring that the other has a point of view worth considering, actually works to calm the turbulent waters of conflict, but I do have lots of anecdotal evidence that yelling or mocking the other doesn’t work.