- I have this horrible urge to switch this site from WordPress to a static site generator. I’m most familiar with Jekyll, but I also know it would be slow as hell on a site with 1200 long posts. Maybe Hugo. Maybe this is a stupid idea, because it would involve typing metadata by hand and screwing up tags in every post. But it means I could use a regular text editor instead of this piece of garbage in WP. And I could work offline. And I wouldn’t have to worry about break-ins constantly, because WordPress is basically a virus injection device that happens to have a blog engine in it.
- I have to take a week off next month. I spent a lot of time researching places to go so I didn’t end up sitting around the house like I did when this happened in November, but I just narrowly missed the window on deals, and airfare is stupid expensive right now. I had about a dozen potentials that I was running the numbers on, and either because of price, distance, weather, or comfort, they all fell out, and I ended up booking another Vegas trip.
- I haven’t thought much about it or planned anything yet, but I mostly want to be able to write, take pictures of ruin, and have a car so I could drive out to surrounding areas easily. I also wanted a kitchen. And this seems counterintuitive, but I hate daily maid service. I spend all morning waiting and wondering when my work is going to be interrupted by housekeeping. So I booked an extended stay hotel, similar to the one I had over Christmas. It’s about a mile east of the strip, has a kitchenette, and no daily housekeeping. No casino, no spa, no magic show, no attractions, but also no resort fee, and free parking. That’s as far as I’ve gotten with the trip planning.
- I did spend too long shopping for a new laptop bag, because the one I got for free at a 2009 Microsoft trade show has finally fallen apart. After much hemming and hawing, I got this one and it seems good.
- The GNC at Concord Mall closed. And it wasn’t part of GNC corporate shuttering stores because they’re going bankrupt or whatever; it’s because they are moving the store a mile or two south, into the strip mall next to Wal-Mart. I found this sad for weird nostalgic reasons, because I had a girlfriend in the summer between high school and college who was a manager there, and I was working at Wards that summer and when we both closed, I’d go over there to meet her and we’d drive around the Michiana desolation all night, looking for 24-hour diners or places to park. That was a big backdrop to a book I’ll never write about that summer. And that was thirty years ago this year. Ugh.
- I went to Hilltop Mall in Richmond and they are starting renovation (or not) and have half the stores in the mall covered in plywood and sealed off. It’s really eerie – check my Instagram for a better look. This mall is sort of trapped in time, with a lot of Seventies look to it, lots of brown tile and brick. That will all be gutted and it will be turned all white and generic like an Apple store. I don’t have deep nostalgic feelings for this mall, but I do have a weird connection, and it will be sad when it’s blanded up.
- I think my weird deja vu connection to this mall is that it partially reminds me of the old Scottsdale Mall in South Bend, the double-decker design with the open top deck, and the general decor. I used to go to Scottsdale every other Friday morning when I got my paycheck at IUSB, and I have a lot of strong memories of wandering the halls when it was completely dead in there during the day, and Hilltop has a similar vibe. (Scottsdale is long gone, demalled in the early 00s. Very little about it online, too. I already know about the deadmalls post and the South Bend Tribune slideshow.)
- I am getting really sick of the whole dead mall thing. Part of it is the inevitability of change that I have to disregard when I pine for the old days of malls. Part of it is that almost everyone in social media groups about malls are absolutely insufferable. Part of it is that many of them hold this MAGA-like belief that we need to go back to an old time that didn’t really exist. It’s all just depressing to me, and I need to get past it, but I can’t.
- So yeah, I’m going off to take a bunch of pictures of dead malls in Vegas. And I will walk all of the non-dead malls underneath the casinos. I think if you walked the perimeter of every floor of every Simon mall in Las Vegas, you’d essentially walk an entire marathon, except it would be air conditioned to 61 degrees and full of people drinking yard-long frozen margaritas.
- I’m also stuck on the idea of buying a new camera before I leave, and I need to shut that shit down and burn through the large cache of film I haven’t been shooting all year.
I’m taking off for Indiana tomorrow morning. Haven’t been back in three years; I’ll be staying for eight days, which might be too many, especially in the cold. I’m done with work until the second, so today is full of last-minute errands and packing and whatnot.
I had to replace my suitcase today, which broke a little while ago, and then our spare broke on Monday while S was packing it up. I ordered a new one on Amazon, paid for the one-day delivery, and of course it didn’t show up, and it got stuck in that weird limbo where the tracking was dead and I couldn’t pull up any info or cancel the order. The damn thing was coming from a warehouse fifteen miles away, and they couldn’t get it here in a week. I cancelled the order today, and went to the mall and bought another one.
The death of my old suitcase is bittersweet, because I got so much damn use out of it. It’s a Samsonite hard-shell case I got for Christmas in 1995. It’s covered in every imaginable sticker; any time a band or an author or a zine or whatever sent me something, I slapped it on there. It’s pretty much got a solid laminated layer of in-jokes and obscure products and old memes caked on the outside. I brought the thing on every vacation, dragging it to Hawaii a half-dozen times, every trip to Germany, and probably half the states in the union, from Alaska to Florida and many in between. It had a ton of wear and tear, but it took a fatal blow to a corner and broke all the way through. I’ll have to take some pics of all the stickers before the thing goes in the trash.
I went to the Sears at Sun Valley, thinking maybe I should help them out with the purchase of a replacement. I looked there, and then looked at Macy’s, and the same exact thing was like fifty bucks cheaper at Macy’s. Look forward to my “death of Sears” article in the next month or so, I guess.
* * *
Here’s a weird one about Indiana that is related to nothing: I heard reports about a month ago that the big quarry in Breaking Away has been filled in. There’s a picture of it circling around, a before and after, which is disturbing if the place has a nostalgic spot in your brain outside the movie itself.
I’ve been to the quarry twice: once in the spring of 1990, and again a year later. This guy Sam who lived across the hall from me in the dorms was trying to make it a regular quest we’d do every year, like a long-term thing from a buddy film, where it would be twenty years later, and we’d all be in our mid-life crises and hiking out to this hole in the ground to have a moment. But I think the group did it twice and that was it.
An explanation, for those who don’t know what I’m rambling on about: southern Indiana is full of limestone, a light-colored rock that is used in lots of big buildings. Most of the IU campus is made of limestone, and the veins of the stuff around Monroe county have been excavated for everything from the Pentagon to the National Cathedral to Yankee Stadium. So between Bloomington and Bedford, there are large tracts of rural land covered in deep rectangular holes like Tetris pieces dug into the earth and hauled across the country for architectural projects. Those holes fill with water, and are great places for kids to drink beer and jump in and swim. Like I said, they made a movie about this.
Our first trip down there was right before the end of the school year. I think five or six of us piled into two cars and drove south of town, following complicated third-hand directions that started with us ditching the vehicles on the old State Road 37 and hiking through various forests and climbing barbed-wire fences. Part of the allure and danger is the fact that these are still functional quarries, and are all private property, no trespassing. And in the pre-Google Maps days, even finding the places involved some work. People were, and still are very secretive about the locations of the quarries. In fact, there’s a listing on that Atlas Obscura site, and it has obfuscated vague instructions that are 100% wrong.
The particular quarry in the movie was called either Rooftop or Sanders quarry, or maybe it’s neither of those. There’s also Empire or Empire State quarry, which is supposedly where they got the limestone for the skyscraper of the same name. (Maybe that’s another quarry. Or maybe rooftop is the rock at the edge of Sanders. I googled it, and there’s conflicting info, so, whatever.) The quarry was a long, rectangular hole, maybe the size of a football field, with sixty-five foot walls on each side. It was in the middle of a wooded area, an absolutely beautiful juxtaposition of nature and excavation. The water was nowhere near as clean as it was in the movie, and hundreds of empty amber and green bottles floated on the surface.
None of us were brave enough to try cliff diving. (Hell, I can’t even swim.) But we did run into a group of townies who were swimming. I’d brought an SLR film camera with me, and took a great shot of a dude with an epic mullet doing a backflip off the cliff and into the water, beer in hand. Thinking back, I have no idea how I hung out at the edge of this cliff. I used to work at heights in theater, but I’ve completely regressed and have a horrible fear of anything more than a step-stool these days.
The second visit wasn’t as exciting — it was raining, and we hacked through the woods anyway. Nobody was there, and it was pretty cool to see the place during a storm, the raindrops breaking apart the surface of the water twenty yards below us. But we didn’t see anyone, and didn’t stay long.
So I never partied there all summer like some kids did. But I did get a brief look at the place. And the thought of it being filled up and destroyed was a bit of a punch to the gut. Their rationale was simple: a number of people had been injured and even killed in the quarry, and it was a liability nightmare. And it’s private property, so that was that. Still, very sad.
Of course, as I say this, there are a million other old memories at IU that are gone or changed or obscured with new construction or whatever else. I haven’t been back there since 2011, and that was just for a few hours. I wish I could go down this week, but I’m overbooked as it is. And I’ll get my dose of crippling nostalgia up north anyway. I look forward to seeing the desolation of Concord Mall one last time.
I haven’t even started thinking about what camera gear goes with me, let alone packing up this new suitcase with clothes, so I better get on that.
OK, I’m back. I’d planned on doing updates every day, and that just didn’t happen. The first half of the trip was too busy; the second half, I ran out of things to do and had no motivation to write in here.
I did upload my pictures. They are on Flickr here: https://flic.kr/s/aHsmhtk2H2
Here’s a high-level bullet list of stuff I did do, mostly so I’ll remember it in ten years:
- I went to Arctic Comic Con, mostly on a lark. I’m not a comic book fan, and I didn’t really know any of the people appearing, aside from comedian Brian Poeshn. It was their first year, and not very big, but people were happy they did get some people to show up. The convention was about the size of a large high school gym, with a dozen or two booths, mostly selling comics, but also some weird ones, like the Army was there, and someone selling hot tubs. There was also a place doing tattoos and piercings, and it was weird to hear a constant BZZZZZ as people on panels were talking. The crowd was mostly younger, and parents. Every teen with blue hair and an anime fetish within a hundred miles of Anchorage was there. Didn’t stay that long, didn’t buy or eat anything, but it was an interesting time.
- Climbed Flattop mountain just south of town. If you need to listen to any one song while driving into snow-topped mountains, make it the song “Antarcticans Thawed” from the new Sleep album. It was maybe 30 out, everything covered in snow, and very windy, like 25mph. The trail was buried, so lots of ice, and I fell in up to my thighs a few times. Forgot gloves, broke my water bottle in the car so no drink. Absolutely beautiful on top, could see the water, the city in the distance, and all the other peaks in the area.
- Moose Tooth pizza was a good experience. Also, very cheap.
- Went to The Mall at Sears, which no longer has a Sears. Was shooting the outside of the mall and a security SUV rolled up on me, lights flashing. The dude came up and said “hey are you the guy from the sign company?” then started babbling on about all the old Sears signage on site. Then started to talk about the break-ins, then about how everyone’s stealing Tahoe trucks because they don’t have a chip in it. I’m in a hooded sweatshirt and freezing to death and he goes on for fifteen minutes before saying “who were you with again?” I told him I was a photographer from California and he said “sure, OK. Did you hear they’re putting a Safeway in here?” That mall was sheer desolation. Maybe a dozen stores, the only national chains being a GNC and a Payless, both of who are on the death list. A local cell phone store. A shuttered grocery store anchor on one side, the dead Sears on the other.
- Went to a surviving Blockbuster. This was in a John Oliver skit, which I don’t watch, but I guess he sent some Russell Crowe stuff to them, and it was not on display yet. It looked like a 2002-vintage store, trapped in amber. I bought a t-shirt, and took a few pictures.
- The Anchorage Museum got redone and expanded since I last went, and it looks like a full reset, because I don’t remember anything. I like the new building a lot – it has a very Euro look to it, like a museum you’d see in Berlin. Not a fan of the collection, because I’m not that into Alaskan art. I know that’s horrible, I’ll leave it at that.
- Rice Bowl is a good old-school Chinese place. When I worked in Factoria in 1995 and would find an old strip mall Chinese place and think “this shit is straight out of the Eighties,” that was Rice Bowl today. Nothing wrong with it – I loved the food, the look, and the folks were nice.
- Had a lunch at Snow City, which never disappoints. I have this weird conspiracy theory that Snooze in Denver and Snow City in Anchorage are somehow related, and I like them both, and being in one reminds me of the other. Anyway, pancakes.
- There’s a Japanese place (the sign actually says “oriental food”…) called Da Mi, which is on the back half of an Econo Inn, which sounds horrific, but it was great food and cheap, and had the fountain and the neon sign above the sushi bar and gave you a fried oreo with your check and the whole nine. Ate there twice.
- I know I ate a lot, but La Cabana, great Mexican place – I didn’t think you could get good Mexican this far north, but this was on par with a few of my LA favorites, which says a lot. (Side note: I hate Bay Area Mexican food. Enough with the cilantro.)
- Red Chair Cafe, too – good brunch. Went there three or four times.
- Drove to Girdwood, which is about 45 minutes south. It’s a nice drive on the Seward highway, with the water from the Turnagain on your right side, the mountains in the distance, and the single line of the Alaska railway snaking past. I stopped a few times for pictures, then went to the Aleyaska resort for a hike around woods at the base of the mountains. I really wanted to ride the chair lift to the top like I did last time, but it was closed for maintenance. The hike through the woods was pretty nice, the streams running wild with the meltoff from the glaciers. There was a fair amount of packed snow/ice on the wooden bridges of the path, so it took some work to not fall down, but there was a nice elevation change, and at this point, nobody was out. I also walked through the big ski resort, which was mostly empty and sort of Shining-like in the offseason.
- Chair 5 was a good lunch stop in Girdwood. Kobe beef sliders and onion rings really hit the spot after the hike.
- I drove out to Talkeetna, which is about two and a half hours north, on the way to Denali State Park. It’s the town that Northern Exposure was allegedly modeled after, although it was actually shot in central Washington. The drive out actually reminded me of driving around Southwest Washington – no real views of the mountains after I hit Wasilla, just lots of tree farming. The town itself is cute, a little general store, a brewpub where I grabbed a reuben for lunch, and a lot of closed galleries and stores. (Offseason!) I walked around a lot, and looked at their small bush pilot airstrip. Found out the general store sells Mello Yello, which I haven’t seen in forever.
- Kept seeing F-22s take off from Elmendorf AFB, which was on the horizon across from my hotel. I tried taking some pictures with a 300mm zoom, but didn’t get much. They had two accidents involving the F-22 last month, so I couldn’t believe they were out flying that much.
- Went to the Alaska Aviation Museum. Their WW2 hanger was closed for renovation, and it was a dreary day to visit the planes outside. The two things different since last time were that they have an F-15A now (not in great shape, though) and they have an Alaska 737-200QC, which is a weird plane. It’s a 737 that has a passenger door on one side, and a cargo door on the other – basically, the whole side of the plane in front of the wing swings up. The seats are all removable, so they can reconfigure it for various ratios of cargo in the front, people in the back. They had it set up so you could go inside and look around, with half the plane configured with seats with the backs against the wall, and the front half ready to be filled up with Amazon prime boxes, fresh vegetables, and livestock. They retired this example in 2007, and their last Combi (a -400) earlier this year. (https://blog.alaskaair.com/alaska-airlines/fleet/combi-plane-retires/)
- Stopped in Obsession Records, worth a visit if you’re into vinyl. My hotel was right next to Mammoth Music, which was a great guitar shop, although my luggage and my marriage could not withstand another guitar purchase. Tidal Wave Books was still hanging in, although they’re all used books now, and it seemed a little less lively than 2006. There’s an REI at the same strip mall, which was packed with gear I wanted and did not need. That REI used to be a two-story Montgomery Ward forever ago, and I could still see a few remnants of that design.
- I expected to see a ton of dispensaries, now that weed is legal, but I didn’t see many. I don’t partake, so I don’t care that much, but I expected it to be fully lit up like Denver, and it wasn’t. The back side of the REI in the strip mall did have a place called “Dankorage” so that’s neat. There’s a street named Fireweed, and I expect that to be the name of a dispensary or a stoner metal band.
- Flight back was uneventful. A middle seat again for ANC-SEA, but I upgraded to a window seat for SEA-OAK and the person next to me was a no-show, so I got to actually use my laptop for once.
So, that’s it. My general takeaway was that if you want to go do tourist stuff, go after Memorial Day, but then you’re going to pay more. If you want to ski or do snow stuff, you’ll need to go much earlier now. I was surprised skiing and snowmobiling were closed at the end of April, when they were open at the beginning of June in 2006. The strange desolation of the off-season was interesting to me, so I enjoyed it. I don’t think I could hack Alaska 52 weeks a year, but I don’t think I can hack my home location 52 weeks a year either. Anyway, check out the photos, and apologies in advance that I took too many.
So, the trip up was fairly unremarkable. Quick flight up to Seattle, and that was unusual in that I haven’t been back to Jet City since I left in 1999. SeaTac isn’t really Seattle, and I did not recognize the inside of the airport at all. It looks like it has 100% changed, probably because Amazon is hurtling so many people through there per day. I also never flew Alaska before, so maybe it’s a different area than I remember. I also didn’t get to leave the airport. There was just a hint of nostalgia that made me want to see more of Seattle, but I was in a rush to get from plane to plane, and I didn’t have a window seat, so I didn’t get to study the landscape on approach. Maybe I need to get up there on another trip.
The three-hour flight to Anchorage was a beast. I was in a middle seat, and the guys on either side of me were Wilford Brimley looking dudes who honestly should have been required to buy two seats. I was squished between them, and practically had to sit sideways. No computer, no iPad — I read for a bit (The Crying of Lot 49, not sure why I always re-read this on vacations. It’s a small book, I guess. Easy to carry) and played solitaire on my phone. For three hours.
When we landed, it took forever to get off the plane — lots of wheelchairs. But within the Ted Stevens International Airport, it was empty. It felt like an airport built to handle 100,000 passengers a day, and there were only twelve. And it was a long, long walk to baggage. I got my bags quick, then went down another long corridor — by myself, nobody there — and got to a Hertz counter, also with no line whatsoever. Got my keys, and there was no gate, no exit inspection, nothing. It was like the exterior of a small municipal airport, traffic-wise. Drive around the South Bend airport on a Tuesday afternoon, and that was Saturday night at ANC.
The drive in is surreal. Mountains in the distance, a slight chill from the 40-degree weather, and way too much open space. It’s a bizarre Twin Peaks trip. And then when you get into the outskirts of town, it feels a lot like Reno, the strange desperation of old motels turned into apartments, tattoo parlors closed for the winter (in April), and liquor stores. Then, downtown. And my stay at the Sheraton.
I dumped the car and luggage, then set out on foot to find something to eat. Anchorage has a downtown — there are normally about 300,000 people here. Most of downtown is small one and two story sprawl — you have to keep in mind the entire city was pretty much leveled in 1964. There are a dozen or so buildings taller than ten stories, almost all hotels, with I think a bank or an oil company of mirrored glass, the kind of early 80s office space you see appear when the crude starts flowing. But downtown is a lot of buildings that sort of appeared because of tourism or seasonal work at fisheries and oil fields. And it has the same density and feel as a city like South Bend, but maybe three times bigger.
I walked around, trying to find some place to eat, and it was absolutely vacant. Like, post-apocalyptic. I saw nobody on the street. Nothing was open. The tourism business doesn’t really start for another month, so a lot of small galleries and shops are still closed for the winter. And there isn’t really that much density, like not a lot of little restaurants and things.
Also, the light. It is currently daylight until about ten at night. But it’s a really bizarre daylight. I don’t know if it was the clouds or the longitude, but the daylight has a strange glow or cast to it, like you’re shooting photos with the white balance set on the wrong setting. It reminds me of what the sky looked like during the wildfires last year. It only reinforced the strangeness of the situation.
I ended up going to the Fifth Street Mall, because of course I’m going to fly thousands of miles to a mall. It’s a strange setup, a Simon mall with a JC Penney’s and a Nordstrom, but not that long of a concourse, and multiple levels (I think four). There was nobody there, except super aggressive panhandlers, and lots of security trying to get rid of them. The top floor is a large food court with windows around the perimeter, looking out to the mountains in the distance. But all the food is weird local chains, wok shops filled with MSG, and off-brand taco places that guarantee botulism. I walked back to the hotel, got room service, and went to bed at like ten, when it was still mostly daylight outside.
The plan for today is to go to the Arctic Comic Con. I’m not really a fan of comic books, and I really can’t deal with people jerking off all over themselves about the latest Marvel movie that I refuse to see. But I figure if it’s here, I should go. Cultural experience. Why not. I think the weather is supposed to be okay tomorrow, like 37 and clouds. (It’s a touch colder today.) So maybe I’ll drag the camera to the top of Flattop and get some pictures.
I should figure out where this convention is, and what I can bring. I don’t want to drag a bunch of camera gear and then find out you can’t bring it in. Also need to find out if they have corn dogs.
After that last post on the Concord Mall, there was an influx of attention on it — at least three video tours, lots of threads on dead mall groups, articles in the paper about the bankruptcy, etc etc. The net result is that I spent way too much time wallowing in this nostalgia, and I’m now completely burned out on it. The obsession with trying to find old photos or watch shaky videos of dead malls is too much. I thought about going back to Indiana this summer, getting a last look at the mall before it completely died, but I remember how depressing it was to see it in 2015, and I can’t spend a week in that mindset. So, I need to let that shit go for now.
I have been scheming when to take some time off, because thanks to Agile, I’m always in the middle or the end of a release cycle, and can’t plan anything more than a week out. Thanks to a weird scheduling hiccup, I found out I’d have almost six weeks between releases, so I put in for a week off, in May. Then I had to figure out where to go.
Vegas was out — last time was too depressing for me. It’s not a great place for a solo tourist. I thought about Seattle, Denver, LA, but I’ve lived in all those places, and too many ghosts. Berlin or maybe Oslo popped in my head — Norwegian has started very cheap direct flights to Europe. But either you red-eye out or waste most of two days in multiple flights, and then you’re nine hours out-of-cycle, and by the time you get used to it, you have to turn around and leave, spend a day or two in the air, and end up lagged by half a day for your return to work. Maybe next time.
Then I started fixating on Alaska. I was there in 2006 (there’s a trip report and some pictures somewhere on here) and I liked it back then, but due to some political events a few years after that, I sort of lost interest in any future travel there. But, I’m curious again. I looked into the trips up, maybe flying into somewhere else like Juneau, but did end up finding a deal on a fare to Anchorage, along with room and car. Solo trip, no plans yet, which I need to get busy on. All I know is I’ll be hauling the camera gear up there, seeing what I can capture, and hopefully doing as much hiking as possible.
The early May weather is a bit of a curveball. I might catch a day or two of snow/rain, maybe high temps of about 50, lows below freezing. So it could potentially be the miserable high 40s and rain that I’ve been fighting over the last few months here. But it will be daylight most of the day. Daylight from 5am to 10pm; twilight the rest of the time, and no full darkness. I hope the place has blackout drapes like last time.
Life has otherwise been a blur of work, which I don’t want to talk about. Writing on a new project, which I also can’t talk about. Maybe I’ll get some good time on it over the break. New Apple Watch recently, went from the 1 to a 3, but no big change to talk about there, just a battery that lasts all day now.
OK, I’m now reading like nine different photography books at once, trying to get back into the swing of it before I leave. Fun.
Looking back, I guess I haven’t written about my previous visits there, but we went in 2013 and 2015. Pictures of the previous visits are on Flickr, but I’ve all but given up on these stupid travel updates.
The vitals: we stayed in Kapalua instead of Wailea this time, at the Ritz-Carlton. It’s a bit more isolated, which is nice, but it also meant we had to drive like an hour to get anywhere. We had a kitchen, which meant I could avoid the 5000-calorie buffet every morning and make my own breakfast.
I went zip-lining, which was a first and a lot of fun. Six zips across Pu’u Kukui and the West Maui Forest Preserve took a few hours, with a bus ride on a muddy dirt road, then an uphill ATV ride up an even muddier road. The rain held out until the last zip, and then it felt like I was being pelted with rock salt. Still, awesome stuff. If you’re ever out there, Kapalua Ziplines are the folks to use.
Went to the Maui aquarium again, but it was a bit more crowded with school-holiday traffic. Ate a lot at a few different places. Didn’t go to Target. Coincidentally ended up at a dead mall connected to a Safeway, which was a truly surreal experience. I didn’t do any swimming or try to kill myself paddle-boarding like last time. Lots and lots of walking and hiking, although no volcano this time.
Anyway, pictures posted on Flickr for you to ignore: https://flic.kr/s/aHsm9FoH6E. Dragged along the DSLR and a bunch of lenses, and ended up taking twice as many pictures with my phone. Go figure.
So I stayed just south of Little River. They have a town hall and post office that are in the same building as a two-pump gas station. So the whole town is basically a Marathon quick-mart, which isn’t unusual in this part of the state. I drove down to Albion, a few miles south, and it’s sort of the same thing.
If you follow the 1 north along the shore of the Pacific, it winds about three miles until you get to Mendocino. It’s a little square peninsula hanging off the highway, with about 800 people living there, and made up mostly of small galleries and shops in buildings that are from the late 1800s. The whole thing has a very New England feel to it; I don’t know if it’s the open sky, the architecture, the whaling and mermaid stuff in all the gift shops, or something about the small feel of the town. Or maybe the way the drag on Main Street only has buildings on one side, and the other faces off to a bunch of cliffs and a headland that dumps right out into a bay off the ocean.
Mendocino was a nice place to walk and look around, and my cell phone worked there, but it wasn’t entirely my trip. There’s one good non-chain grocery store, and a lot of cafes that made me nervous. I was looking at one gluten-free coffee place with sandwiches, and got sketched out by the healthiness of it, so I went outside and found a sign for a taqueria which was on the back of a building, in a space about as big as my home office. I went in and everyone eating there was a construction worker, and nobody spoke English. This was more my speed, and I got a plate of nachos with like ten pounds of carne asada and cheese, plus a bottle of Mexican Coke for like ten bucks, including tip. That was a good find.
Photography was good. (It’s mostly on Flickr, https://flic.kr/s/aHsm7woRAX) It was hard to take a bad photo, although the sun wasn’t out much, and there was a lot of fog. The fog had a certain Twin Peaks feel to it, especially when I was in the cabin, surrounded with evergreens. But for a person with bad Seasonal Affective Disorder, it wasn’t entirely ideal. It wasn’t a hundred degrees, though, which I missed this weekend as I was broiling in Oakland.
Fort Bragg is about ten miles up from Mendocino. It has nothing to do with the Army base, which is confusing at first. There’s about 7,000 people there, and a bit more of a downtown, with that midwestern street layout grid that made me think of places like Goshen or North Liberty or whatever, tree names from left to right, dead presidents or generals from top to bottom. There were a few chain places on the outskirts, like a Safeway, CVS, McDonald’s, and so forth, but the town was more local places. It still had that New England feel to me, and a lot of quirkiness. Like there was a Radio Shack, but inside a Tru-Value hardware that sold everything, and reminded me of a store in the Catskills. Or the brunch place that was inexplicably covered in Wizard of Oz memorabilia.
I reached a point where I normally do when I get incredibly bored and need to go to a big city or a large museum or something. I’m not a social person, and can’t meet strangers on a vacation, so I fall into an isolation funk when I’m on a trip alone. And in a big city, my defense is to lose myself in the masses of people. It’s why Vegas is ideal for me. But here, there was none of that, which caused a real problem for me.
One day I got the idea to take the US 20 inland and go to Willits, which is about four or five thousand people. That drive, from the 1 on the shore to the 101 running through the meat of the state, is brutal. It’s about thirty miles, but with no traffic, it takes at least an hour. It’s all switchback turns and quick elevation changes in a deep forest of redwoods, which is beautiful, but not the place you want to be when weekend warriors are tooling around in RVs. Also, temperature changes galore: I left the house when it was 55 degrees. By the time I got to Fort Bragg and took a right, it was 75. In Willits, it was just about 100. I thought Willits might be interesting, but it was a bit of a bust. There was a pretty walkable downtown that looked desolated, and a cluster of chain fast food right off the highway on-ramps. I went to a McDonald’s and sat at a table next to a woman about fifteen years younger than me who was with her grandchildren, and was pregnant. So, yeah.
Point Cabrillo lighthouse was a nice walk in the middle of nowhere — went on a day when the sky was almost black with rain, a sheet of dark gray overhead, but the desolation in the park was amazing. I also went to Glass Beach a few times. It had magnificent cliffs and coves, great walking alone there. It used to be a garbage dump, and now the waves have turned the broken bottles into pebbles of bright colored glass over the last century. It sits next to what used to be a large lumber yard that went bust a decade or two ago. It’s amazing to see nature taking back the entire area, reversing the years of damage done to it.
So, it was a nice break. Didn’t write as much as I’d thought, but that happens. I think I got a dozen pictures I really liked, and didn’t buy any books I didn’t need. Also didn’t get badly sunburned, which is a first for an ocean stay, so I’ll take it.
In this episode, I talk to author John Sheppard about planes, trains, and automobiles – no, not the movie, but actual forms of travel.
We discuss: Taking Amtrak across the country; Denver’s weed money revitalization; the painted deserts of Nevada; the subways of NYC, DC, and LA; flying space-available on the C-5 galaxy; skydiving in Vegas; flying gliders and small planes; filming locations of the show Lost; the agonies of the Florida to midwest family drive; Coastal Florida versus Cracker Florida; and Jon’s East to West vs West to East roadtrips.
Links from this episode:
– Paragraph Line: www.paragraphline.com
– Jon Konrath: www.rumored.com
– John Sheppard: www.johnlsheppard.com
– John’s Amtrak trip photos: https://www.flickr.com/photos/midamericabymini/sets/72157683545951874
– Sons of the Pioneers – Ghost Riders in the Sky https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eMqKv7BOg_s
– Jon’s acrobatic plane lesson in Vegas: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7EY9MAAsHTY
– The Idaho silver mine disaster: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sunshine_Mine_(Idaho)
– The Project GNOME nuclear test site: http://www.roadsideamerica.com/story/16910
Click here to for more details on this new episode of The Koncast
I am in a cabin in Little River, CA. This has nothing to do with the Little River Band, who is apparently from Australia. (I had to go look this up.)
Not sure why exactly I’m here. I wanted to bug out of town for a few days, and didn’t want to end up back in Vegas. Didn’t want to go somewhere that involved flying, partly so I could use my own car instead of renting one, and partly because I assumed the second I bought plane tickets, some work disaster would require me to cancel.
I’ve never been to this part of the state before. I guess I’ve driven on I-80 to Reno, and that’s technically further north than this. But this is the other side of the state, on the water. California is huge, and I’ve never spent any time outside of SF/LA/SD, so here I am.
My original thought was that I would drive up to Astoria, Oregon. I visited there in 1997, and I liked it a lot. But it’s a long drive, maybe 12 or 14 hours. And there’s the issue of ghosts, and I don’t know that I want to deal with that. I don’t mean the paranormal. I mean, I visited there with someone, and I’d probably spend the whole trip thinking about twenty years ago, which isn’t good.
The cabin is weird. There are maybe a half-dozen buildings from the late 40s, divided in half. They are all themed with various retro themes. Mine is “read” and it is filled with books and pictures of libraries. There’s also a tiny kitchenette, which I’ve been using extensively, and a woodburning stove, which I will not touch. I’d either burn down the cabin, or release a lethal storm of allergens into my room.
The drive up here was easy, maybe three hours. Take the 580 over the bridge, past Uncle Charlie’s old place at San Quentin, then the 101 north for a while. I guess I have been to Santa Rosa — there’s a big air museum there. After Cloverdale, you get on 128 and cut west across the state, all the way to the 1 on the shore. That drive on the 128 is pretty crazy — lots of twists and switchbacks and steep drops and rises and dips in elevation. There’s also an insane amount of redwoods there, thick forests of them, completely blocking the light. You can drive for an hour with no cell reception whatsoever, something strange in this day.
This place reminds me of visiting what was left of the Catskills in 1988. In the mountains, there were these little private resorts, campgrounds of cabins for single families, almost like a deconstructed motel, with every couple rooms in its own building. We stayed in one somewhere between Cairo and Freehold, a setup similar to this one. It’s probably a McMansion now. When the pre-Holiday Inn generation died off, stopped summering in the mountains, the land became too valuable. I’m not sure why that hasn’t happened here. The lack of cell phone coverage, and the remoteness to any other city may be the issue.
I’m a few miles from Mendocino, which is about 900 people. It’s mostly galleries, shops, cafes. There’s a grocery where I was able to stock up when I got here yesterday. Lots of incredible views of the Pacific. Lots of buildings from the 19th century, and all of them have these wooden water towers behind them. Something about the architecture — or maybe it’s the nautical feel, or the open space by the water — makes it feel like New England. It reminds me of some random Rhode Island village, where it’s all lighthouses and whale watching.
I think it’s about twenty minutes to Fort Bragg, which is maybe six hundred people. It has more of a downtown, although it’s only a few blocks of it. I saw the smallest Sears store I’ve ever seen, and a still-functional Radio Shack, although it was just part of a hardware store that was also a True Value. Fort Bragg is unrelated to the Army base in North Carolina – that’s probably a hundred times bigger.
So, it’s weird here. I mean, it’s really quiet. The weather is mild, cold at night, not terribly warm or sunny all day. The ocean is beautiful, but it’s rough, choppy. Beautiful colors of blue mixed with the white foam of the waves, but it’s under a canopy of gray that doesn’t want to burn off all morning.
Also, it’s odd vacationing with my car. I’m used to renting a different car, driving an anonymous white Hyundai with rental car stickers all over the interior. Strange to have my daily driver here, to see it in unfamiliar surroundings. I pulled over at a Cove, the top of a windy s-curve road with a vantage point overlooking the beach below. Took a bunch of pictures with the real camera, my dirty Toyota at the edge of the road. It reminds me of when I took my last car from Denver to LA, and stopped in the mountains of some random part of Utah, took pictures in the snow at a rest area of the mud-streaked Yaris, parked next to big rigs of interstate truckers.
I’m supposed to be writing. I’m not. I’m picking at something, but I think the grand scheme was that I’d lock myself in this cabin with a week of TV dinners and a few cases of Coke and come up with some completely new idea. And that didn’t happen. So I’m picking away at this big thing, wondering how I can deal with it, package it, finish it. Or not. I don’t know.
Was sitting on my deck and saw a deer a few hours ago. It wandered past, eating grass, maybe ten yards away. Scared the shit out of me — I’m not used to being around nature. Anyway. I’ll probably go into town tomorrow and buy a bunch of stuff I don’t need at the local bookstore. Here until Monday, so maybe I’ll get to the writing thing.
Various thoughts, because I am too lazy to write a whole entry:
- Everything has music in Nashville. Like, if you go to get your oil changed, the 15-minute jiffy lube place is going to have a small stage with a bluegrass band playing on it, and they’re going to be totally pro. Every restaurant, hotel, gift store, bar, and tavern has performances. I don’t know the economics of being a musician in Nashville, but it felt like the last place in the world that still had a viable ecosystem for music.
- I know nothing about country music, and it’s horrible to say this, but it all sounds the same to me. I won’t say I hate it, but in general, I don’t like 95% of it. It was like Christmas music to me: when I first hear a Christmas song (in like fucking August) it offends and irritates me. By the 50th holiday song, I pretty much have it blocked out and don’t even realize it is playing. The country music was like that for me.
- We took the tour at the Ryman Auditorium, which confused me, because I thought the Grand Ole Opry was a place, not a show, and didn’t realize it had been at the Ryman forever. And then as we were taking the tour, I found out it’s not still at the Ryman. I should have at least skimmed Wikipedia on the plane before we landed.
- The Johnny Cash museum had a lot of interesting artifacts, but it’s a very basic museum, a square maze in an brick building. But his house burned down in 2007, so there’s no destination to park it at. It is a convenient location, though. And well curated.
- We walked around by all the bars and restaurants. There were a lot of bridesmaids walking around. They all looked identical.
- It was hot. Not Vegas last year hot, but in the low 90s and humid as hell, which probably made it worse.
- On Friday, we went to the Grand Ole Opry, which is in a large auditorium that looks like it was built at a ski lodge in Aspen in 1974. It’s out by a mega mall way east of town. It’s an interesting juxtaposition of hallowed history and Disney homogenization, because they have hundreds of shows a year of top-tier country acts, but the whole thing feels like it was prefab constructed at EPCOT center.
- The big draw the night we went was Carrie Underwood. Next was the actor who plays Deacon on the show Nashville. Lee Greenwood played the one song that I won’t even mention because it will get stuck in my head for four days, so google it. There was also some girl who was the runner-up on American Idle, and like a dozen other people.
- The show ran like clockwork. They had a warm-up person, then MCs, then opening acts, then middlers, then the big acts. Everyone played like two songs. Every band change was flawless. Every cue was hit exactly. They finished at exactly 00:00:00.000 past the hour. They got everyone out and turned it over for the next show. It ran like a Space Shuttle launch, and they do it something like 250 times a year. That was very impressive.
- The warm-up person and a few of the acts skewed slightly to the right in their banter. I think there was a requirement that you mentioned God or Jesus in your crowd work.
- They also plugged their big sponsors between all acts, which were Boot Barn and Cracker Barrel.
- Next day, we went to Franklin, which is a small town-square type place with lots of local shops, which reminded me of upstate New York towns, but with a bit more southern flare. Everyone was very nice. The place we had brunch had a stage, but no musicians playing at that moment. Lots of guitars on the walls, though.
- We went to Carnton Plantation, which is the site of one of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War. We took an hour-long tour, which was pretty phenomenal. The tour guide was far too into the history of the place, but that made it even better.
- We also went to the Parthenon, which is a full-size replica of the real one, built in Nashville for some damn reason a hundred years ago. There were food trucks. Oh, and a stage and bands.
- We went to a steakhouse for dinner, and when I went to the restroom, the muzak was Coltrane, which sort of freaked me out after hearing new-country everywhere we went.
- On our last night in Nashville, we went to The Bluebird Cafe, which has a long and rich history as an 80-some seat music club, and is now famous because Taylor Swift was discovered there and a fake version of it is always on the show Nashville. It is almost impossible to get tickets there now, which is a shame because you won’t see anyone “famous” but you will see some quality entertainment.
- The night we were there: singer/songwriters Dave Berg, Tony Arata, Craig Carothers, Annie Mosher. They all sat in the round, and went around the horn, each doing a solo number. This wasn’t even really country music, as much as it was very personal poetry set to acoustic guitar, and I really, really liked it.
- Sunday — drive to Memphis. We had a giant SUV, which was about the size of a Hummer, so it was like sitting on the couch, watching the countryside scroll past.
- We went straight to Graceland, for the big tour. We did not know this was Elvis week. It was packed, to say the least.
- Graceland is strange, because it’s in a really dumpy part of town, like by a Harley shop and a discount mall. I expected it to be a giant plantation like the one in Franklin, but it was just sort of crammed in a neighborhood like the kind of decay you’d find around an airport. (It is near the airport.)
- They now give you an iPad for the tour, which starts playing and showing various screens of info as you walk around. The tour is narrated by John Stamos.
- The Graceland mansion is not huge, and it isn’t really that extravagant. It is about ten thousand square feet, but it didn’t seem that big. If you subtracted all of the out-buildings, it felt like a very big house, but not a mansion.
- You can’t go upstairs. You can’t see The Toilet. You do get to go through the basement, with the infamous three TVs, and you see the jungle room on the back of the house, which is a Tiki seventies wonder.
- I admit I went for the kitsch factor, and found it all funny, but the somber mood and the enthusiasm of the die-hard fans is infectious, and after seeing so many gold records and old women who show up every year for decades, you can’t help but get swept up in all of it.
- The food at Graceland is horrific. There’s a cafe and I’m pretty sure they are just re-heating hamburgers and hot dogs from Sam’s Club in the same oil they started with in 1982.
- We stayed in a new hotel on Beale Street. It’s a heavily gentrified area, all brand new, and it could have been Denver or Seattle or San Diego’s downtown district. Beale itself had a lot of the same bar. A lot of town was closed on Sunday.
- We went to this hotel where they have ducks in the lobby fountain, and at 5:00, the ducks march into an elevator and up to the penthouse. I have no idea what the hell that’s about.
- We saw the Mississippi. There is also a Bass Pro Shop that is a 40-story tall pyramid.
- The Lorraine Motel, where MLK was shot, has been preserved and restored to its 1968 livery, and is now a museum. It’s really surreal there. What’s also strange is that area all pretty much looks like 1968 still.
- Memphis was interesting, though. It’s probably got a weird, lost history that’s worth researching. There was also a lot I did not have time to see — I really wanted to go to the Gibson factory, and maybe catch a baseball game. There were also endless restaurant opportunities.
- After we got back, there was a news cycle of Elvis stuff, because of his death, and I spent far too much time reading about it. I still am, really.