KONCAST Episode 5: Planes, Trains, and Automobiles

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:

– Jon Konrath:

– John Sheppard:

– John’s Amtrak trip photos:

– Sons of the Pioneers – Ghost Riders in the Sky

– Jon’s acrobatic plane lesson in Vegas:

– The Idaho silver mine disaster:

– The Project GNOME nuclear test site:
Click here to for more details on this new episode of The Koncast


Little River

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.




Nashville and Memphis

I went to Nashville and Memphis last weekend, just a quick four-day getaway thing with another couple from New York.

Pictures: Nashville and Memphis

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.



bones and memories

I visited Indiana recently – actually, it wasn’t that recent, but I meant to write about it at the time, and now two months have passed. It was an interesting quick trip, for a few good and bad reasons, so I wanted to play catch-up and get a few words down on it.

I booked a quick solo trip at the beginning of August, partly because of my sister’s birthday, and partly because I had to cancel a family trip to Florida in the spring and felt bad about that. I got an out-on-Wednesday, back-on-Monday long weekend, which seemed to work well for me. Time was at a bit of a premium, but it’s a bit like visiting Vegas; a week is overkill, but a weekend is not enough.

Not to dwell on the bad, but here goes: first, I screwed up my rental car reservation. Arrived in Chicago, and had a car waiting for me in South Bend, when I really needed a car in Chicago to drive to South Bend. Second, on Friday, at about 5:00, one of my crowns came off. After much panic and calling a bunch of phone numbers, I found a dentist nearby who opened back up and glued the crown back in, which was awesome. I still ate mostly liquid for the rest of the trip, until I could get back home and have my dentist permanently glue in the tooth. Also, on the last day of the trip, I lost my credit card, and while at the airport waiting for a very late flight, I found out and had to cancel it. So that’s the bad.

I stayed in an extended stay hotel in Mishawaka, right near the University Park mall. It was on Main and Douglas, which was mostly vacant when I left Indiana, but since, a second main drag of big box stores and restaurants has started there, one big street over from the Grape Road arterial of the same sorts of big boxes. It’s always odd and nostalgic and weird for me to stay right by the mall where I spent so much time as a teen, but it’s a newer hotel, close to everything, and that works for me.

Every time I go back, it’s amazing to me that the default routes and streets and terrain immediately pop back into my head. A lot of Indiana hasn’t changed, or at least the “bones” have not. If you asked me to drive from UP mall to the IUSB campus, I could do it without thinking, just on muscle memory. Never mind that the IUSB campus has basically doubled, and every store in UP mall has changed hands, but the roads and turns are still the same.

Indiana does change, but on a very slow scale. I think people find a certain comfort in that, and it’s understandable. There are changes, and things fade and vanish, plus simple economics dictate amendments and revisions. Some chains die, and some mom-and-pop businesses go away with time, but new ones pop up. Sometimes things are completely bulldozed, like the Scottsdale and Pierre Moran malls, which were both torn down and “de-malled” into plazas of freestanding stores. But other things still have the same “bones” for better or for worse. Old first-generation Taco Bells get painted blue and turned into Chinese buffets. The UP mall got additions and food courts and new Barnes and Noble grafted onto its front, with the concourses updated and the tenants being bumped up in scale and stature. (Like the tiny Software Etc. is long gone, but across the way, there’s a giant new Apple store.) I walked the mall and tried to think of what was where, back in the day, but I couldn’t spot any one store that was the same, aside from the big Sears and JC Penney anchor stores.

Driving, though – driving from Mishawaka to Edwardsburg, Elkhart to Millersburg, those things all looked almost identical. The amber waves of grain were still amber waves of grain. A few were turned into new industrial parks or large retirement communities, but for the most part, it looked like Indiana had aged two California years in the last 25. And normally, a twenty-something me would have found this disgusting, that all of the state should get off their ass and progress at a rapid rate. But like I said, part of me sees the comfort in this, the idea that things wouldn’t change. I’ve always thought that many people in that area feared change, and I think there’s some truth in that. When I was 18, that pissed me off beyond end. As a 44-year-old, I could see why someone might like that.

Some things, though, have atrophied beyond belief. I went to the Concord Mall, which was a mile from my house, my default mall as a kid. When I was a teenager and worked in that mall, I practically lived there. I would go to the store and hang out even on my days off. Now, it looks like nothing has been done to the mall at all since the last time I punched out at the time clock in 1993. The Wards store where I worked is gone, converted into a Hobby Lobby that has locked itself off from the rest of the mall with huge glass doors. Almost every store in the mall has closed; most are covered in plywood. The old Osco’s drug store was converted to a food court, and every stall is currently empty, except for a single, lonely Subway sandwich shop. Some shops have these weird, temporary businesses in them, like a vacant store with a bouncy castle set up inside it, or the horribly sad dollar stores with nothing worth a dollar in them. There are multiple churches in the mall now; it seems like every business in Elkhart that goes bust turns into a church or a Mexican bodega. There was even a “church” that just beamed in the services from a megachurch in Kansas or Nebraska, and of course took your money. The mall itself was almost abandoned, nobody in sight, like an empty shopping center in a zombie movie. After seeing that, I made it a point to not do anything else in Elkhart, dredge up any more memories or see the old subdivision or school or anything else.

Not all of the region was that destitute, though. The UP mall was filled with customers, even on a weeknight. And I went to Goshen one day, and it was actually transformed from what I remember. Most of the main street was art galleries, and small mom-and-pop businesses, a wave of hipsterization running through there. In 1990, I had a girlfriend who lived on Main Street, and at that time, it was largely abandoned, boarded up and done. Now, there are these brewpubs and artisanal butcher shops and groceries, almost like something I’d see in the hippest part of a college town like Bloomington.

The thing that struck me the most was the feeling, the weather, the atmosphere. I haven’t visited Indiana outside of Christmas in years, decades. I think in the late 90s, I made a trip or two in October, and I drove through Indiana in April of 99, during my Seattle to New York move. But I don’t remember an August in Indiana probably since 1994, the year before I left. I’m very sensitive to temperatures and weather and the feeling of a place at a certain time of year, much more than I could ever describe it. And when I was there, the air held the same feeling as the summer before I first left for college, in 1989.

I so distinctly remember that summer, because it would be hot in the day, maybe in the 80s, but then at night, it would cool to the 60s. I was working days in a department store, just started dating someone, and we’d meet up at 9:00 every night, when the mall closed, to drive around aimlessly, stay up all night, go from Perkins to Bob Evans to Big Boy’s, making the loop of the few 24-hour places in Elkhart at that time. And I’d come home late at night, or early in the morning, and feel the summer’s humidity converted to a light mist, to dew on the grass. The summer had a certain freedom, of the end of high school, a brief period where I almost thought I had my life together and was leaving behind the shroud of depression that blanketed me throughout my four years there. But there was also the uncertainty and excitement and fear of packing up my entire life and moving it off to campus in a few short weeks.

Each day of the visit, I did the family stuff during the day, and it was good to see all of them. But then I’d return to the hotel, and either drive around by the mall, or walk at night, and just feel that weather, the cool evenings and the dew on my sneakers. (That’s another thing – there were no sidewalks by the hotel, and everyone was staring at me for walking, like wondering what happened that resulted in me not having a car.) Or I would sit in the hotel writing, with the windows open, feeling the air outside.

I spent a lot of time wondering if I could ever go back. There’s a part of me, as I plummet into The Crisis that has hit at this age, that wishes I had a three-bedroom ranch and a garage and a lawn and everything else, working on an old car or a boat or something. I know I could never live in Indiana because of the politics and money and career. And the crippling nostalgia of being back there would consume me. But it was interesting to see it for a moment.


Various Vegas thoughts

I planned on blogging more from KonCon in Las Vegas last week, but I didn’t, because I am lazy. I probably should write a synopsis of the trip, but the TL;DR is that it was way too fucking hot – usually at or above 110 each day, and even hours after the sun set, it was still above 100. So that’s why it’s so cheap to go in July.

Someone asked me for some advice on Vegas while I was gone. I have not spent much time there in years, and everything I mentioned in my book about Vegas is largely gone. But my response to this question in an email is an interesting companion to the trip itself and my thoughts during it, so I’ll just leave this here for your amusement.

  • I waste a lot of time on this site when I am planning: – their casino reviews are decent, but I am sort of obsessed with who is rumored to get imploded in the near future.
  • If you look at a map of the strip, most of the mid-strip properties are what I’d consider first tier (Bellagio, Paris, Harrah’s, Caesars, etc), and the Wynn is north strip, but I’d group it in with those mid-strip properties. Same with Aria/City Center, which is technically south strip. It’s the newest; I’ve never stayed there, but from eating/shopping there, it’s pretty high end.
  • The south strip was the big deal maybe 10-15 years ago, and that stuff is now dated, but can be tolerable to stay there. It can be cheap, and the location is decent. So Mandalay Bay, MGM, NYNY, Luxor, Excalibur in that order. (Most of those are owned/run by the same monopoly, so they’re similar.) Tropicana got bought by Hilton and redone, so the rooms are nice, but there’s not a lot in there.An example: the Luxor is not that trendy of a property – I think it was so-so when I stayed there in like 99, and now it’s really lost its focus. It used to be Egyptian-themed, and they decided that maybe flyover rednecks aren’t into that, so they started de-theming it and ripping out the king tut stuff, but it’s still got these random stone pyramid walls in places.  But, the rooms are now ridiculously cheap, and it’s a really good location, and connected to the big mall by Mandalay Bay. So if you don’t plan on spending a lot of time in your room, it could be an option.
  • Everything north strip is shit. Everything downtown is total shit. Everything that’s not on the strip is mostly shit, unless you stumble on some deal to stay in a timeshare at Trump or something weird like that.
  • Absolutely do not stay at Hooters like I did.  I won’t go into the horror stories, but I’ve stayed at hotels in rural Mexico that were much nicer.
  • I used to never rent a car and cab it from the airport and around town. But the last few times, I’ve found an okay deal on a rental car bundled with the hotel (I think I used Expedia this time) and if you drive at least once a day, it’s usually a better deal. You can generally park at any hotel for free, or valet for almost nothing.
  • If you are driving, don’t actually drive on the strip to get north/south. Either go west to I-15, or go east to Paradise, Maryland, or Eastern.
  • Think of whatever amount of water a person would drink in a day that would be entirely excessive, and double that.
  • You can drive off the strip and buy a case of water for four bucks or whatever, or you can buy two bottles of water at a hotel for seven bucks. The problem is almost none of the hotels have a fridge. You can buy a crappy foam cooler at the grocery store and then commit to filling it with ice every other hour, but that’s a huge pain in the ass.
  • Opentable is a good way to get reservations for dinner.  There’s a surprisingly large number of high-end restaurants with decent food.
  • Every buffet is a ripoff. Wynn is almost tolerable, if you pace yourself and don’t eat all day and go in with the plan of fucking them by eating five pounds of lobster. But I made the mistake of going to the MGM buffet, and paid $35 for about $10 of Sizzler-grade food.
  • If you’re into steak, Tom Colicchio’s Craftsteak at the MGM has a fairly insane three-course beef selection that is not cheap but is awesome. Or in the opposite direction, there’s the Golden Steer, which looks a little dodgy because it’s ancient and has never been remodeled, but it’s cool because it’s ancient and has never been remodeled – it’s one of those old-school places where the brat pack used to hang out.
  • Everyone associates the Grand Canyon with Vegas, but really it’s like a 4-5 hour drive each way, and easy to kill an entire day to spend a few minutes there.
  • If you are actually interested in going to Area 51/Rachel I could fill up another post with details on that.
  • If you are there and hit the wall and need to bug out and go somewhere quiet to get work done or whatever, go to UNLV. You can hide in their library and use wifi without any hassle.
  • There’s a huge Fry’s Electronics south of the strip, at a big outdoor mall right before 215. There’s a Target at Flamingo and Maryland. There’s a few Vons grocery stores (Safeway-owned, I think) on Tropicana and Flamingo.
  • Pinball Hall of Fame on Tropicana is worth checking out. The atomic testing museum on Flamingo is neat, but their Area 51 exhibit is pretty cheesy.
  • If you want to tour the neon graveyard, book it early.  They have limited tours and they always fill up.
  • Don’t stay at Hooters.

Thoughts?  Leave ’em in the comments.



I’m now in Nuremberg, after a rough travel day yesterday. Here’s a general brain dump in bulleted list format on my short stay in London:

  • I thought London would be a lot like New York, except darker.  I actually liked London more than Manhattan for a few reasons:
    • It isn’t as dense or vertically packed, or at least didn’t seem like it to me.
    • Many of the buildings are pretty new, like New York, but the old buildings are ancient.  I don’t know how any of them survived the blitz, or if they were partially knocked out and then repaired, but there’s some impressive architecture to be seen.
    • There’s a lot more green in the city, and some pretty astounding parks.
    • The city seemed much cleaner. Part of this could be some massive restoration program prior to the Olympics, but I saw nowhere near as much graffiti or general deterioration as Manhattan.
    • Cars are all but banned in the city.  They are allowed, but you need some kind of special “green” pass, meaning that aside from taxis and delivery vehicles, the only cars I saw belonged to the ultra-rich.
    • There seemed to be a lot more money.  Part of that could have been where we were staying, but I saw so many people driving super-high-end cars.  I remember walking down a street, and every single car I passed had a six-figure (in dollars) price tag.  And this was parked on a public street.  When’s the last time you’ve seen someone park a Ferrari on the street in New York?
    • I didn’t hear a car alarm the entire time I was there.
  • That said, the city was insanely expensive.  I didn’t notice this at first, because I was like “hey, entrees are only like twenty bucks here!” but that was twenty pounds, or like $32.
  • I found London insanely polite.  My experience in New York was always that people were insanely impolite, but that was the price of living in a big city.  For example, when I was in New York and riding the subway on crutches, if I asked someone for a seat, the typical response was “go fuck yourself”.  In London, the Underground gives out buttons that pregnant women can wear so that others will give up their seats for them.
  • The food was generally pretty good.  Both Yelp and OpenTable are fully operational there, so we managed to get into some decent restaurants.  I did not have fish and chips while I was there, which is a shame, but I did have pretty decent Indian food twice.
  • I saw the changing of the royal guard at Buckingham, and I totally don’t understand any of the procedure, but found it interesting.  Of course, I don’t pay taxes there, so maybe I would have a different opinion of the large amount of overhead needed for tradition.
  • I went to the Imperial War Museum, which was decent, but not massive.  The big takeaway there was that I know so little about post-WW2 British military history.  The general collection was divided into WW1, WW2, and post-WW2.  I was trying to think of what that entailed: Falklands, Iraq, Afghanistan, …?  Turns out they have been in a few dozen military actions – basically, every time another bit of decolonization happened, there was another “war” or whatever you want to call it.  (“Emergency”?  “Conflict”?)  There’s also the Northern Ireland business.  Bottom line, I have a lot of reading to do.
  • We went to the Tate Modern and saw their Damien Hirst exhibit, which was pretty interesting.  That twelve-million dollar shark was there, floating in formaldehyde, as were the split-in-half cow and calf, the spin paintings, and the butterfly room.  The Tate Modern itself is pretty impressive – it used to be a power plant, and looks like one of those gigantic turbine facilities that some commando team has to blow up in a World War 2 movie.
  • 288 photos.  I’ll try to weed through them and post them to flickr when I have a real internet connection, which might not be until after I return.

And now I must go write.  I walked ten miles today, all of that before lunch, so I have more stories to tell, probably in another annoying bulleted list.  Stay tuned.


Plane wreckage in the 49th state

There are currently two things that every single show on cable must be based on at this moment: either making cupcakes, or Alaska.  I went to AK in 2006, and found it interesting, although now it’s a much harder sell to get people up there, given that a certain someone has branded the state as a vast wasteland of idiots.  It’s much more than that, but of course I’m going to start writing about it with a much more stupid filter, which is a visit to Denny’s.

This was probably the beginning of the end of Denny’s for me, I mean aside from the whole diet change. I used to love Denny’s, and I guess that started in Bloomington. There weren’t that many 24-hour places to eat, and you’d end up at Denny’s more than actually wanted to go there. At least it was that way at first, especially when I didn’t have a car and someone else had to drag me around. But then it transformed at some point, and I used to go there to write, or try to write, hours with the spiral notebooks and bottomless glasses of Coke.

This Alaskan Denny’s, it was on some half-deserted strip of highway in Anchorage, and it had this big construction fence down one side of the parking lot. The owner was trying to subdivide the land I guess, sell this narrow strip of leftover parking lot to some other business. Who would buy it? Maybe one of those espresso coffee shacks? Or maybe it was some kind of zoning bullshit tactic, like “give me this much extra money to keep this twelve feet of your parking lot. / No? Well fuck you, I’m going to sell it to your competitor and really screw things up for you.”

I remember service being poor, and some horrible Palin-esque family of fourteen at the next table, the dad in full camo with this redneck grizzly man beard, and a wife that looked like it was the only time that year she wasn’t being actively beaten. Alaska in June – I think we just landed on the cusp of the tourist season, like a week later and we would be inundated with bluehairs and grandchildren. The week we were there, we almost had the place to ourselves, except for the skeleton staff of locals, keeping the basics going.

I always used to get the All-American slam, which isn’t the healthiest thing in the planet: scrambled eggs with cheese, bacon, sausage, hash browns, and toast. I just looked it up: 970 calories, but a whopping 76 grams of fat. The food was off for some reason though. I mean, it wasn’t spoiled or anything, but the bacon tasted thin and reconstituted, like it was the strip of meat in a frozen TV dinner. I found some other minor oddities like this in food in Alaska; it seemed like they shipped up things that couldn’t grow up north, so they sometimes subbed things out with poor imitation rehydrated food.

But bacon – I mean, we went to this place, I keep thinking it’s City Lights but it’s not that (Northern Lights? Snow City?) and they had real bacon, the thick strips of solid, crunchy bacon, the kind you could pick up between your thumb and finger at one end  and it would stand straight out and not sag at all. And it had no visible fat. I’m sure it still contained like 40% fat, but it didn’t have the greasy, hard-to-chew strips of white at the edges.

But I had to go to Denny’s. We had a car, a little white Matrix, like the zipcars we rented for some insane rate back in the city. I never got to drive anymore, maybe once or twice a year, and Sarah would drive us out to some mall in New Jersey every once in a while, not that malls really did it for me anymore. I did like the occasional trip to a real Target, the pacifying effect of pushing a big red cart down wide aisles full of jumbo-sized boxes of everything, ten versions of every product, as opposed to the typical New York style of only one choice and that was practically a travel-sized portion, at twice the price of the giant 144-pack you’d get out in the country.

Sarah went to some thing – a facial, or a pedicure, and to kill time, I got the car for a couple of hours. I went to this aviation museum out by the airport. That airport is just this weird mystical strip of nothing in the middle of nowhere. You’re driving through moose country, and you suddenly stumble upon miles-long strips of asphalt, with huge stretch jumbo jets from across oceans floating down to land. Every flight to Anchorage is some huge cross-country thing, a 767 filled with tourists from LA or Tokyo or some other city that involves following the curve of the earth for two thousand miles.

And that museum – it was basically a dumping ground for any ruins of planes they found across the state. There’s a lot of civil aviation and small military aviation up north, and because of weather and maintenance nightmares, a lot of those little flights fall from the sky and are never seen again. And then decades later, some bear hunter finds the carcass of an old P-38 from World War II that went off the radar and got buried in a glacier. When they could chip those things out of the ice, they ended up at this museum.

They did have some nicely restored planes inside, old wooden biplanes and maybe a warbird or two. They also had a collection of surplus planes, obsolete military gear donated to the cause, obscure workhorse planes that came too late for the big one and too early to go to Vietnam, these weird fifties-era helicopters you’ve never heard of, because elsewhere they went extinct with the advent of the Huey, but some outback division of the forest service painted over the camo with bright yellow or orange and used it to drag oil well pieces or rescue dog sled operators lost in blizzards.

Beyond the military surplus was this third tier of the absolutely beaten and fucked pieces of crashed planes. I think they had a noble idea, taking in this potentially rare and impossible to find collector planes, things that maybe the Confederate Air Force and some rich Branson-type guy had the only two in existence, and here’s 26 percent of one that flew into a mountain in 1947 and was left to rust, except maybe it was encased in some bizarre combination of blue ice and no acid rain that left some of the galvanized or alloy pieces intact. But this organization had zero money, maybe a couple of senior volunteers that swept the floor and could put a coat of latex house paint on top of the ruined carcasses. They probably had a small population of retired Air Force guys who did know the proper way to fix up one of these planes, and maybe they were lucky enough to get a few hours of patriotic service out of them. But there were also enough working retired aircraft still making hops across the Alaska terrain that needed the TLC from a trained mechanic to keep the tourists in the air or to get raw supplies or medical aid to people up in Fairbanks or Nome or the upper pipeline.

I still had time after the tour, and went to a Burger King across the street from this used book store where we ended up almost every other night of the trip. I needed something to eat between meals – we ended up on such a screwed-up schedule because it never got dark, and we’d sometimes eat dinner at ten or eleven at night, when it was still broad daylight out. I ordered something tiny, like the junior King menu, a smaller burger and a small fries, and sat alone, picking at the food and browsing through the snaps I got on my digital camera. I saw this kid working the counter, a pencil-necked guy with glasses, but not the typical nerd, more like the Boy Scout nerd, the kind that was athletic in the sense that he ran cross-country, but he also tried to go for the eagle scout ranking and knew how to start a fire in the rain and could hike twenty miles in the hills and be okay. But not a ladies’ man, not a football player, not the kind of scraggly Alaska man that lived on Skoal and Jack Daniel’s and listened to Nickelback and Pantera and drove a pickup truck.

He was talking to some girl behind the counter, and told her that he just joined the Marines, that he signed the papers and was going to ship out at the end of the summer. This struck me on many different levels. One, the kid didn’t look like the Marine type. Maybe I could see him in the chair force, playing around with some weather computers or directing air traffic in an office with a coffeemaker running like the Daytona 500 and lots of yellowed post-it notes on every surface. He didn’t seem like the leatherneck type, too much of a loner or something. I knew that in eight weeks at Parris Island, that would all get beaten out of him. Maybe that was his goal, though, so more power to him.

But also, why the hell would you join the Marines in 2006? That’s pretty much a death sentence, or at least a guarantee that you’ll be sent out to fight in some shithole maybe eight weeks and two days after you sign your papers. But it also hit me that this was the only way out for a kid like this, that nobody could afford college anymore, and you didn’t get rich serving crap to old people on a cruise boat layover at a chain hotel. And if I grew up in Alaska, I would have done everything in my power to get the hell out the second I turned eighteen.  I know I felt that way in Indiana, that all-consuming need to put huge amounts of distance between me and everything and everyone.  But I could always load up the car, drive for 20 hours straight, and land in a completely different universe.  In Alaska, you can drive for two days and barely make it into Canada.

So yeah, Alaska – worth the visit.  Don’t go in the winter, though.  23 hours a day of darkness would really put the zap on things.


Frozen Irish

Hello from a veyr frigid Northern Indiana. I am sitting in a Bruno’s pizza just north of Notre Dame, waiting on a pizza and sort of passively glancing at the fourth quarter of the Colts-Jets game. It is cold as hell here, I think in the teens, and I’ve done more ice and snow driving in the last 24 hours than I have in the last several years.  I spent a week in Milwaukee, and yesterday, drove through Chicago (with a stop in Chicago to have lunch with John Sheppard and Helen) and then zipped down the Indiana toll road to our hotel.  We’re now seeing my side of the family, and I’m also visiting various ghosts of decades ago.

The level of nostalgia isn’t as high as it has in the past.  I mean, I’ve been out of Indiana longer than I actually lived here.  And so many things have changed since I left.  Like I drove by University Park mall last night, and was astonished how much it has changed since the early 90s.  But I still see bits and pieces of the Michiana I knew way back when.  Elkhart was never a big city to me, and Chicago was my main urban center, but South Bend held wisps of big city to me, the way the downtown grid creeps between the couple of tall buildings.  Back in high school, I’d drive around South Bend, driving up Michigan and down Main, wishing I was in a real big city, in New York or Los Angeles.  And now that I’ve lived in both, it’s odd for me to be back here.

I also drove to Scottsdale Mall last night, which is no longer there.  It has been “de-malled”, torn down and replaced with Erskine Plaza, a collection of big block stores.  I can kind of see where some parts of the old mall used to be, the McDonald’s on Miami; the Kroger across the street from the mall.  But it’s weird to see the mall gone.  I never shopped there as my main choice, but when I went to IUSB, it was the closest mall, and I always ended up there on paydays.  It’s weird to be driving through a parking lot full of strip mall, knowing a giant two-story mall used to be there.

Not much else to report.  I’m coming off a cold and need some sleep…


Hello from the land of cheese

Hello from Milwaukee, Wisconsin.  I am here for the week, visiting Sarah’s family, and hoping we don’t get hit with a foot and a half of snow.  We flew in on Saturday, and took a relatively painless Southwest flight to Midway airport in Chicago, where we got a rental car and drove up.  Our plan is to spend the week here, and then drive to Indiana on the 26th and visit my side of the family for a few more days, then head back in time for work on the 31st.

The flight out proved to be the first test for the Kindle.  I sat in the airport in Oakland, browsed the store a bit, and picked up the e-version of George Carlin’s latest, which is an autobiography he had worked on for years, which was completed after his death.  No problems buying it at the last second in the airport, and I got about halfway through it on the plane.  Maybe I will save a future report for the actual end-to-end experience on the thing, but I find it pretty easy to get lost in the book.  You really do forget the interface and get lost in the writing, which I guess is one of the major concerns with any non-paper reading.  Probably the only major drawback with the Kindle is there is no old-fashioned way to give someone books for Christmas.  I guess you could give them a gift card, but I’m the kind of person who always ends up with many dead trees wrapped up and under the soon-to-be-dead tree during the holidays.  There’s no easy way to get around that.

I saw this funky documentary last night called Alone in the Wilderness, which was about this dude who went to Alaska and built a cabin, with the original plan being to stay there a year, but he ended up staying for about thirty years.  The whole time, he filmed himself cutting lumber and notching logs and building a fireplace and tracking the wildlife and surviving through a -45 degree winter.  Later, his son-in-law took all of this silent film footage, added sound effects and narration, and made it into a documentary. Its good stuff, and makes me wonder if I could ever do the same out on my land.  Of course, I don’t have a bunch of trees to cut down, and I’m not right off a lake where I could fish and haul my own water.  Still, very interesting stuff.

Time to get my act together and go off to a lunch.  Had a very good pizza for lunch yesterday, that ultra-thin crust type, from Balisteri’s.  I have no particular pizza religion between thin versus thick, but I always appreciate a good specimen of either, and this was good.


Back in the U S and A

I’m back in Oakland.  I got back late late last night, after a very long travel day.  We weren’t able to check in online at the hotel (nevermind that the hotel computer had one of those whacked-out non-US keyboards where the backslash character is Control-Alt-Shift-Start-Caps Lock or something) and we left early to get to the airport, expecting some giant snafu involving visas or whatever.  Turns out there were absolutely zero people at the Zihua airport, and we got in quick and then had three hours to kill.  We then had a puddle-jumper to Mexico City, where we then had another four hours to kill.  Then the flight, then customs, then waiting for luggage, then the skytrain to the car, then a drive from SFO to home.  The door to door time was fifteen hours.

I took the day off for sanity purposes, which was good.  It also meant I got to drive back to my old neighborhood of South San Francisco to see the dentist, get some x-rays and see how the Mexican dental procedure held up.  He said it’s fine for now, but I’ll need a new crown in the long run.

I posted photos here although I have not sorted/tagged/captioned anything.  If you see something and want to know the story, holler.