travel

Oregon-Washington trip 2017

Hiking the Tom McCall Preserve

Gwen and I spent a couple of weeks in Oregon and Washington at the end of 2017. Following are some random highlights:

Portland OR

  • Japanese gardens. Someone suggested we go with a guide. There was a guide starting a tour right after we got there, but we quickly discovered that we’d rather take in the gardens on our own. Going in the winter turned out to be for the best, as the gardens are incredibly popular and crowded during the warmer months. We were almost able to pretend we were alone there in spots, which is more what they’re about.
  • Bollywood Theater. Casual Indian restaurant. Really good.
  • Paxton Gate. Shop that specializes in skeletons, mounted animals, etc. We already have a bat from them.
  • Powell’s Books. Covers a city block.
  • Bread and Ink Cafe. Nothing really unusual about it, just solid hot food on a cold day, and our waiter bore an uncanny resemblance to the character Mike Ehrmantraut from Breaking Bad.
  • Sweedeedee. While staying at our AirB&B, we wound up chatting with a neighbor as he was walking his dog and we were heading out to breakfast. He recommended this place for a “real Portland experience.” Mission accomplished. They didn’t tell me the name of the pig that provided my bacon, but it was straight out of Portlandia.
  • Tin Shed. Neighborhood joint near where we were staying.
  • Peculiarium. A ridiculous wunderkammer. Good for a brief diversion and getting a photo on Krampus’ lap.
  • Noble Rot. Fancy. I had the burger, which was the most humble thing on the menu. It was damned good.
  • I think Gwen found three different gluten-free bakeries in Portland, which is not all that surprising.
  • We wanted to visit Multnomah Falls, but it was inaccessible due to a fire back in September that left the soil unstable. We drove on without much of a plan and entirely by accident wound up at Tom McCall Preserve, which had no facilities to identify it as a park, but had a good hiking trail and an amazing view of the Columbia River gorge. We saw a road-construction crew pull over, jump out, and start taking pictures while we were there, which I thought was interesting–I figured they already would have seen everything. There was also a model and a photographer doing a photoshoot there.

McMinnville OR

  • Evergreen Aviation & Space Museum. While in Portland, I overheard that the Spruce Goose was in a museum not far away, and convinced Gwen we had to go. It was out of our way, and not a cheap museum to visit, but worth it. The docents are all ex Air Force and will bend your ear for as long as you’ll let them. The Spruce Goose itself is unbelievable in the most literal way: you look at it and you can’t believe it’s real. Your mind rejects it. They let you walk into the cargo area, which is surprisingly small. The museum also has an SR-71, which is surprisingly long and seems like alien technology, airplanes (or reproductions) from the beginning of flight to present, rockets (including a complete Atlas rocket), demounted jet and piston engines and rocket motors, a Mercury capsule, and a Gemini capsule. You can get right up next to the Mercury capsule and look into it. I found it remarkably affecting–looking at it up close, I could see it was just a tin can, and I thought about the men who voluntarily climbed into that tin can on top of a missile, and the aspirations and pride of a nation that was invested in that tin can.

Astoria

I can’t say much for Astoria. The one thing that had attracted us to the town was the Museum of Whimsy, which we found out just a few days before we arrived was closing for the season (insert sad trombone sound).

We had dinner at the Buoy Beer Company, where we had fried oysters, among other things. The place is touristy, like the rest of the town, and is distinguished by some glass floor panels giving a view of sea lions.

We did visit the Astoria Column, which was interesting in itself, but more interesting for the view of the surrounding area it affords, which is amazing. People buy balsawood toy airplanes at the gift shop below and launch them from the top, which is fun but ridiculously moopy.

Port Angeles

We visited Port Angeles not so much for the town itself but for its proximity to the Olympic National Forest/Olympic National Park. We did manage to get in an 8-mile hike along the Spruce Railroad trail, which was beautiful, but that day ended with surprisingly heavy snowfall, so the next day we hunkered down and caught up on House of Cards.

Seattle

We had a micro-apartment AirB&B in the Capital Hill neighborhood. Like, as small as the apartment I had when I was in Japan, but with much worse space utilization. The listing didn’t exactly lie, but it showed views that we think were only visible from the rooftop deck. The unit had no kitchen, although there was a communal kitchen on the ground level for the 12 or so units in the building.

We didn’t have a lot of time to take in Seattle, and part of that time was dedicated to getting together with Gwen’s cousins (which was enjoyable, but not a recommendation for the general public). One place we happened across was Ada’s Technical Books and Cafe. As I said to Gwen, it’s either a bad thing or a good thing or we don’t have a place like it in Austin. We both could have spent all day browsing there.

One of the high points was visiting the Seattle Art Museum, which was showing a massive Andrew Wyeth retrospective.

We had dinner one night a Blueacre Seafood, which was spendy but good.

I took some pictures, too

Iceland trip, random observations

The nicest thing I can say about most of the architecture is that it’s pragmatic. But it generally lacks grace, decoration, fun, etc. Many of the historic buildings are clad in corrugated sheetmetal (sometimes painted a fun color, usually not). I’ve been surprised by how little stone is used as a building material, either structural or cladding. Because one thing Iceland has in abundance is rocks. We did see some interesting residential architecture in the high-rent neighborhood on the coast, but that’s it.

Regular gas is 95 octane. Premium is 98. Not sure why so high. It’s also about 3x as expensive as in the USA, which is no surprise.

Motorists are unfailingly polite to pedestrians, which causes me no end of confusion. For that matter, they’re very polite with other motorists—cars honking at each other are very rare.

Reykjavik has some excellent used book stores. One pretty big, rambling place, with books piled everywhere, including the floor. I suspect many of the books there have been in that shop for more timed than they haven’t. We found another, smaller and somewhat more orderly, where Gwen bought some interesting-looking old books.

There’s a massive swimming complex a few blocks away. Indoor olympic-sized pool, and outdoor, and a series of hot tubs in temperatures stepping from 38°–42°C, plus a saltwater hot tub. All of these were in heavy use when we went last night—we worked our way up and then down the temperature gradient, and Gwen put in a few laps.

The sun never gets very high in the sky, at least not at his time of year. So at 11:00 AM, something in my brain is telling me that it will be sunset soon.

Tourism is a big deal here. In a country of 320,000 people, they get 600,000 visitors a year. And apparently most of them come during the high season of May–September. A lot of stuff just shuts down the rest of the year. Which leads us to wonder what all the people with seasonal employment do the rest of the year.

Reykjavik apparently has a notorious late-night party scene. We noticed one place had happy hour from 8:00 to midnight, after which things start heating up. We went out to check out the crazy on Saturday night, but by 1:30 AM, things just weren’t that crazy yet, and we decided we didn’t need to stay out any later to watch it happen.

I knew that the level of English ability here is very high, but it’s been interesting to experience it. I’ve only spoken with one person with halting English. Everyone else has spoken it comfortably, and a lot of people speak it as if they’d been raised in an English-speaking country—there’s something about the speech cadences and situationally appropriate word choices that moves them into a different category of fluency.

Iceland trip, part 2

Day 3: Monday

This day was all about Jökulsárlón. A glacier lake at the foot of the glacier Breiðamerkurjökull, it is filled with ice floes calved off the glacier, and is otherworldly. Just shortly before we got to the main entrance, there were a couple of small pullouts along the road. Gwen saw something through a low spot in an embankment and told me to pull over. So I did. We climbed to the top of the embankment and it was a “holy shit!” moment. We walked around on top for a while, climbed down, and walked along the water’s edge. Then we drove the rest of the way to the main entrance and walked along the water there too. We wandered quite a way along the shore, until we were out of earshot of everything, and sat down to listen to the sound of ice melting.

The lake is one of the most extraordinary visual experiences of my life. Any description would be inadequate.

We eventually made our way back, and saw a Duck tour putting into the water, and a couple of tour operators with inflatable boats taking them out without passengers. Back at the snacks-n-trinkets shop, we had surprisingly good cappuccinos. Then we drove down to the point where the lake opens into the ocean and walked along the beach.

We headed back to the hotel, and stopped at Dveghamrar, the “Dwarf Cliffs.” These are columnar basalt formations that have some kind of dwarf-related folk tale to go along with them.

Day 4: Tuesday

This day was mostly about our trip to Vatnajökull National Park, where we did a fair amount of hiking. We saw numerous waterfalls, including the famous Svartifoss, which is ringed by another columnar basalt formation. There were extraordinary views of mountains, glaciers, the plains below. After we did some hiking at altitude, we decided to see if we could work our way around to a glacier tongue at ground level. That wasn’t in the cards (it might have been possible, but would have taken a long hike), and the weather started turning from sunny to blustery, do we headed back. We did get to see some ptarmigans, which were surprisingly indifferent to our presence. Apparently they are capable of flight, but the one that wanted to get away from us just ran straight ahead. Not the smartest bird.

So far, the only wildlife we’ve seen has been avian. No mammals, hardly any insects, even. We might have seen scat from some kind of mammal while hiking, but that’s it.

Day 5: Wednesday

This day, when I am writing this installment, has mostly been a travel day—we’re going to a different hotel about halfway back to Reykjavik.

Our first stop was at Dyrhólaey, a high rocky outcropping on the ocean that in warmer weather is an important nesting ground for birds. And there were plenty of seabirds wheeling around the there today. Mostly we looked at the rocky islands offshore, and the crashing waves.

We stopped next what is apparently the country’s best museum of handicrafts, in the town of Skógar. It has been a good day for indoor activity, because it’s been the first really rainy and cold day of our trip—we’ve been lucky enough to have pretty agreeable weather. We spent a goof while there, marveled at the hard lives of people who lived here not that long ago, and congratulated ourselves for having central heating and modern building materials. The museum had a cluster of old dwellings surrounding it, including several turf-covered homes, and the one thing that stood out is that none of these had any kind of heat source—no fireplace, no Franklin stove (in most of them, no stove period).

Our third stop was at Skógafoss, a big, thundering waterfall. We were able to approach close to where the water hits ground level, creating a spray that rises about three stories, and then we climbed to the top on a staircase provided for that purpose. Between the rainfall and the waterfall spray, I got pretty wet (Gwen wisely wore her rainpants). We were not far from our destination for the day, the town of Hvolsvöllur. Which is where I am writing these words.

Aside

I am continually intrigued by the idea of a country whose total population is less than that of St. Louis’, making it barely equivalent to the 60th-largest city in the USA. But despite that, it maintains all the mechanisms of a modern nation-state: it has its own currency, national government, diplomatic corps, road network (despite having one of the lowest population densities in the world), etc. And despite the obvious influence of American popular culture, the country has its own language, literature, music scene, movie industry, etc.

Of course, things are different. There are national highways that are gravel roads. Highway 1, the ring road that encircles most of the country, is frequently interrupted by one-lane bridges that have no traffic-control measures other than the common sense of motorists. None of the national parks that we have visited charge any admission, or even have a way to keep people out if the government decides to start. Some sites are on privately held farms, and tourists are apparently welcome to let themselves in–we climbed over a stile into a sheep pasture to get access to a waterfall.

Iceland trip, part 1

Day 0: Friday

Our flight was uneventful, and only noteworthy for being on a
737—I don’t think I’ve ever seen one used for international travel before, and this one had ass-hammer seats that were impossible to get comfortable in. Neither Gwen nor I could sleep. I wound up getting about 1/6th of the way through Reamde.

Day 1: Saturday

We landed in Keflavik at about 6:00 AM, well before sunup. The passport check was instant and perfunctory. The customs check in the “nothing to declare” line was literally non-existent. We just found ourselves out in a different part of the airport. We went into the shopping part of the airport, thinking we might be able to buy SIM cards there—no luck. So we exited, and were met by someone from the car-rental agency who told us where to get on the bus to pick up our car. Got the car, a mini-SUV not sold in the USA. Also got a GPS unit, which has turned out to be very helpful (in the absence of data connections on our phones). Drove into the town of Keflavik right as the sun was coming up. Parked the car and walked along the shoreline for a while. Had breakfast at a hotel, where there were also a bunch of guys in the U.S. military eating. Gwen ventured to have herring for breakfast; I stuck with a more familiar meal of bacon, eggs, and toast.

The weather was drizzling when we headed out. We stopped at a 1011, a store that’s got more stuff than a 7-11, but doesn’t quite qualify as a grocery store. Picked up fruit, cheese, snacks, water.

Then we proceeded to our first sightseeing stop of the day, the lighthouse at Garðskagi. There was not a lot to see there, aside from the ocean, some seabirds (gannets, I later learned—giant seagulls), and of course the lighthouse. This was on the tip of a peninsula, so there was a lot of ocean to see. The rocky shoreline was covered in some kind of rotting seaweed. It was also notable that we saw no one on the road, but shortly after arriving at this deserted headlands a customs van pulled up and circled around. Gwen thinks this was not a coincidence.

We drove around the edge of the Reykjanes peninsula, which is like no place I’ve been. The only thing growing there is grass and moss. Not a single tree. Nothing to break up the landscape. This seemed to be echoed in the villages by the way that structures seemed to be placed haphazardly, with nothing to delineate or suggest property lines. We drove through villages where fishing is probably the main industry, past a few pastures with sturdy ponies or sheep under massive layers of their own wool. Stopped and looked at a village graveyard. Stopped at the Bridge Between Two Continents, which is literally a footbridge connecting the European and American continental plates. Kind of a gimmick, but we were really killing time until our next stop of the day opened. Which, around then, it did.

That stop was the Blue Lagoon, which is a hot-spring bath that is in all the guidebooks and an obvious tourist destination, but no less worthwhile in spite of that.

The fun starts before you even get to the door, as they’ve got an unused pool for show in front. The water is nearly opaque, milky blue, and white silica deposits accumulate on the black volcanic rocks surrounding it. Completely unreal.

Inside, they’ve got a very efficient, high-tech system where you get an RFID-tagged wristband that gets you in, lets you lock and unlock a locker, and even lets you put drinks on a tab, which you can get while soaking in the waters.

The pool itself is enormous, and could probably accommodate 1,000 people. There was maybe a tenth that number when we were there, so plenty of room. There are various attractions around its edges, including saunas, a waterfall/shower, buckets of silica that you can rub on your face (apparently it’s good for the skin), and the aforementioned bar. Gwen and I worked our way around, found the hottest part of the pool, and stayed there as long as we could stand it. We worked our way around some more and lamented that there was no good place we could take a nap in the pool, since at this point we had gone about 30 hours without sleep.

Eventually we decided that we had had about much relaxation as we could tolerate, so we got dressed and pushed on to Seltún. There’s not much human activity around there, but there is a lot of geological activity. Superheated water is boiling through the surface, creating puddles of bubbling mud and streams of hissing water that leaves unnaturally colored deposits on the surrounding rocks. There are walkways that let you get dangerously close to the fun stuff, and we walked all around before moving on.

The next leg of our drive was on a gravel road over very rugged terrain, with steeply pitched hills and sharp switchbacks, following along the edge of Kleifarvatn, a lake formed by volcanic activity, with sheer cliffs on the far side. Gwen was driving and had to give up at this point due to the utter lack of guard rails, which tapped in to a well-known fear of gravity failing.

As we moved on toward our hotel in the town of Selfoss, we crossed through some mountains and found ourselves in a different terrain yet again, one where at least a few trees can grow.

When we got to the hotel, we checked in, dropped our stuff off, got cleaned up, and headed out immediately for dinner. Partly because we were hungry, but mostly because we knew that if we stopped moving, we’d be down for the count.

Our dinner was a highly recommended place in the next village over, Við Fjöruborðið, but it might as well be called “that lobster place,” because that is their specialty, that’s what people know it for. The lobster was great. The wine was not.

Pleasantly full, we managed to make it back to our hotel room before we fell asleep. Just. We were in bed by 8:00 and slept till 9:00 the next morning.

Day 2: Sunday

Sunday, at the end of which I am writing these words, was less eventful. Breakfast in the hotel restaurant, where several ten-top were filled with middle-aged Icelandic women, with only a few couples to balance them out. Gwen had fish again. There was a decent-sized grocery store very near by, so we checked that out, because grocery stores in other countries are always interesting, and because we might want some food for the road. The rest of the day would be heavy on driving. This grocery store was not that different from a small grocery in the USA, except for the selection of dried fish, the minuscule beer assortment, and the availability of blood in 1- and 3-liter jugs. Vampires would do well to book a vacation here, especially in the winter, when there’s almost no daylight. Of course, that blood probably isn’t human.

We got on Highway 1, the ring road that encircles most of the country, and headed east along the southern coast. There was sporadic sleet, and a very steep climb with hairpin turns (again, no guard rails). Passed through some landscape that was otherworldly, some that was merely dramatic. In the otherworldly column were miles of plains deeply covered in treacherous volcanic rock, which was in turn deeply covered in moss. The effect was of frozen green clouds.

In the merely dramatic column, we drove for a long while with mountains sticking vertically out of the ground to our left, and flat plains or rolling hills to our right. Glacial meltwater formed frequent waterfalls down these mountains, and every so often, we’d see a farmhouse tucked in at the foot of a mountain, sometimes downstream from waterfall. More sheep and ponies.

We passed just south of Eyjafjallajökull, the unpronounceable volcano whose eruption grounded planes across Europe a few years back; we stopped at the information center for it just to stretch our legs.

We made it to our hotel for the next few days, which is just outside the tiny village with the long name of Kirkjubæjarklaustur. We checked in, dropped our stuff off, and went into the village, which has its own waterfall, with a trail leading to the top. We climbed that trail. Being at the top was extraordinary. There’s a lake feeding the waterfall, and a footbridge crossing the top of the waterfall. This mountain, like all the others, is of the thrusting-directly-up-from-the-ground variety, so the top was surrounded by gut-turning dropoffs, but the panorama of the country below is worth it.

We wandered around the mountaintop for a while, exclaiming over the view, and turned to go back down. The descent was much scarier than the ascent, because you have to look down.

Back at the hotel, we just had dinner at the hotel’s restaurant. The food was good, and we got a laugh out of the fact that the music playing was Icelandic covers of soft-rock hits of the 80s. Gwen had fish again.

At 11:00 PM we went outside. Everything was quiet. The northern lights were active.

Are your papers in order?

The Arizona Governor recently signed a bill into law that will give law-enforcement officers in that state the authority to stop anyone they suspect of being an illegal alien to demand proof of citizenship or legal residence.

How do I prove I’m a U.S. citizen to a cop if he pulls me over? I plan on passing through Arizona later this year, so aside from the obvious outrage, this law is of practical concern to me.

I haven’t read the full text of the bill, but it includes the following passage:

A PERSON IS PRESUMED TO NOT BE AN ALIEN WHO IS UNLAWFULLY PRESENT IN THE UNITED STATES IF THE PERSON PROVIDES TO THE LAW ENFORCEMENT OFFICER OR AGENCY ANY OF THE FOLLOWING:
1. A VALID ARIZONA DRIVER LICENSE.
2. A VALID ARIZONA NONOPERATING IDENTIFICATION LICENSE.
3. A VALID TRIBAL ENROLLMENT CARD OR OTHER FORM OF TRIBAL IDENTIFICATION.
4. IF THE ENTITY REQUIRES PROOF OF LEGAL PRESENCE IN THE UNITED STATES BEFORE ISSUANCE, ANY VALID UNITED STATES FEDERAL, STATE OR LOCAL GOVERNMENT ISSUED IDENTIFICATION.

I do carry a Texas driver’s license, but I don’t recall whether Texas required “proof of legal presence,” and even if it did, how will an Arizona cop know that? Will cops be issued cheat-sheets showing what IDs are acceptable?

I wanted to cover my bases and know what documents would be sure to satisfy a cop that I’m a U.S. citizen, so I started calling around.

I called the Arizona Office of Tourism, figuring they’d want to make life easier for tourists. The people who answer the phone there are not equipped to do more than mail brochures, so that was not a productive avenue of inquiry.

I next called the Arizona Attorney General’s office. I spoke with a woman who was smart and informed, but was unwilling to give me an answer, as that would constitute giving a legal opinion, which I guess is something she can’t do. She recommended that I call the state’s law library and speak to someone there.

So I did. I got someone who was not especially fazed by my questions, but hadn’t read the bill and wasn’t able to offer any specific guidance. He suggested that I call the primary sponsor of the bill, State Senator Russell Pierce, and gave me his number (602-926-5760).

I called that number and got the senator’s voicemail. I left a brief message and am awaiting a response. I’m not holding my breath.

On the road to El Paso

Gwen and I got on the road at about 10:00 AM today, only an hour behind our desired start time—pretty good for us. Ever since a road trip back in ’96 or so that was plagued with mechanical troubles, every road trip I’ve embarked on since has made me anxious. This one included, even though we just had the car checked out. We were in Junction before my stomach settled down and I settled into driving.

This trip is also special in that it almost feels like a religious pilgrimage. I don’t exactly expect to be changed by it, but I expect that I might be.

I handed the reins to Gwen in Fort Stockton. Our destination for tonight is Tucson. A long way away.

The wind

660 kW wind turbine

Gwen and I visited her folks in Lubbock over the 4th of July weekend. I make no excuses for Lubbock: I don’t think it has much going for it. One thing it does have going for it is flat, open space and wind. Lots of wind. As it happens, it’s in a wind-farm region that’s growing from Abilene to Amarillo. It’s also home to the Windmill Museum, a fitting institution for that town, and our visit to that museum was probably the most interesting part of the trip. If you find yourself in Lubbock, you should go.

They’ve got a lot of old-fashioned pumping windmills of the sort that sprout over farms all over the country—showing considerable ingenuity, variation, and beauty in their design—but they’ve also got a working 660 kW wind turbine generator (see above, see also my flickr set) and a disassembled 1.5 MW wind turbine. We actually had a chance to step inside the tower of the 660 kW turbine.

We learned a lot, including all the basic facts and figures for the generating turbines. The guy running the place once worked in the wind farms of southern California, where the turbines only generate about 200 kW each. Most of the turbines being installed today generate 1.5 MW, enough to power 500+ homes. Apparently electricity-generating windmills have been around since the 1880s, but it was only in the 1970s that they became economically viable—I asked what happened then and (as I suspected) it was a breakthrough in fiberglass fabrication that made much larger windmills possible. Each blade on the 1.5 MW turbine is 112 feet long and weighs 12,000 lb; the actual generator is of a size that would probably fit in the bed of a pickup, but at 14,000 lb or so, would overwhelm it. The farmers in the area renting land to the wind-turbine operators get $10,000/yr in rent plus a 2% royalty on each unit, so they should be making out pretty well even in a year with a bad harvest.

Chicago trip

Gwen and I recently flew up to Chicago. The excuse for our visit was my mom’s 70th birthday, but of course there’s more to do in Chicago than attend birthday parties, so we made a five-day trip out of it.

After a way-too-early departure from Austin, we arrived in Chicago with all of Thursday ahead of us. Took the blue line down to the Damen stop, where my sister met us with her car and took us back to her new condo in Old Town. It’s a great place. It’s an older building that has been through (really, is still going through) a gut rehab. It’s also less than two blocks away from Nookie’s, to which we promptly proceeded as soon as we got our stuff situated. Coffee, omelettes, and toast while sitting out on Wells Street enjoying the feeling of being on vacation on a nice day. That’s a good feeling.

Afterwards, we did what I like to do best in Chicago, which is just wander around. We wandered up and down Armitage, Webster, taking in the chi-chi boutiques in that area. Picked up a housewarming present for my sister. Gwen had just embarked on a commercial letterpress project, and many of the shops where we stopped had letterpressed cards of some variety or another. We wound up doing quit a bit of research. That night, a fellow firedancer who I know through the Internet, Kathleen, hosted a small spin jam at her apartment. It wound up being more of a social hour than spin jam, but that was fine, because it was an interesting crowd. And it was nice just making that connection in person. Whenever I go somewhere new, I look forward to meeting the fire folk there–I feel we’re members of the same tribe.

Friday, we had the pleasure of getting together with an Austin friend, Heather, who just happened to be in Chicago on business at the same time. We did more wandering around, walking until our feet were sore. They tried on shoes; I watched. We stopped by Ethel’s Chocolate and indulged. Stopped in Paper Source, where Gwen and Heather both bought stuff. That night, Gwen, Heather, my sister, and myself had dinner at Pasta Palazzo. My sister had never been there, surprising because it’s a really good restaurant, and it’s not even a ten-minute walk from her place. The kitchen is right out in the open at the lunch counter, and it is fun to sit and watch your order being prepared. A bit unnerving, though, when you see the extraordinary quantities of half-and-half and/or butter that go into making your meal so tasty.

Saturday was the day of my mom’s party, but that was at night. In the morning, Gwen and I went wandering southward, initially hoping to find a bakery (and walking right past one in my sister’s neighborhood), but eventually getting to a farmer’s market on Division, where we did procure some baked goods and wandered back north, eventually getting to another farmer’s market right next to the Farm in the Zoo, where we saw cabbages the size of pumpkins. We made our way over to Nookie’s for some sustenance after all that walking, where my aunt Sandy and her husband Joe intercepted us. We hung out for a while and went back to my sister’s to get ready.

The party was in a large private room at a huge rambling restaurant near where my parents live. The party was intended as a surprise. My mom had an idea that something was up (she knew I’d be coming to Chicago “around her birthday”), but I don’t think she had any idea how many people would be there, several others who flew in from as far away as I did.

Gwen and I spent that night at my parents’ place, and got to see the very nice new porch they’d put on, the refreshed kitchen, etc. Not much headway reducing clutter, though. My mom’s big ongoing project has been turning large chunks of their property into prairies with native plants. She’s got three pretty big fields going, all with numerous plants. I don’t know from beans when it comes to this sort of thing, but it looked good and was obviously a lot of work.

The next morning, my other sister came down from her hideout in the 815 area code and we all went out for a too-big meal in Barrington (too-big meals were really a theme of this trip). After that, Gwen and I caught the Northwestern line down to Clybourn and walked the rest of the way back to my sister’s place, past the Finkl steelworks. Later in the day, Gwen and I reconnected with my parents at my cousin Joel’s condo; from there, we went on to the Garfield Park Conservatory, where there was a sculpture show (pictures).

That night, Gwen, my sister, and I went out to Bacino’s for stuffed pizza, something I try to get on every trip to Chicago. The sauce seemed a little underdone this time. A stuffed pizza should really have a solidified, somewhat paste-like sauce. This was still kind of runny. Bacino’s used to be the best place to go for stuffed pizza, but I’m not able to monitor developments in the Chicago pizza world as closely as I might like. Perhaps the mandate of heaven has passed to another joint. Maybe I’ll try Leona’s next time—they were always reliable.

And then came Monday, our last day. Our flight was late in the day, so we went to Bucktown and, well, walked around some more. We stopped at the Fluevog shop, where Gwen came very, very close to buying a pair of shoes. We stopped in a vintage shop, where one of the clerks instantly marked us as tourists—perhaps because we were out as a couple during normal working hours. Eventually, of course, the trip had to end. My mom, who happened to be in the city, had offered to drive us to the airport, but we convinced her to just drop us off at the El station, which was probably a faster way to get to the airport. Our flight home was uneventful and relatively unburdened by new purchases.

A big part of the reason I love walking around Chicago is because of the architecture. Typical residential architecture is built to a vastly higher standard there than here in Austin, and much of it is interesting to look at as well. It’s one of the differences in regional culture. When I first came to Austin and looked at some of the apartments where regular people lived, I thought “These are temporary buildings, right? Or student housing?” I guess I’ve reconciled myself to the flimsy construction here, because this visit was a forceful reminder of how much better construction is in Chicago. And there’s a hell of a lot of new, really posh construction going on as well. The Chicago I grew up with was a city in decline—the population was shrinking, the streets and parks were not well maintained, and there was not much new construction. All those trends have reversed, and indeed there are parts of the city that are unrecognizable. My sister’s neighborhood is seeing a rash of very plush townhouses going up—enough so that the neighborhood association is upset about them hurting the character of the neighborhood.

There were other little differences in regional culture I noticed. In Austin, you can pay for damn near anything with plastic. Many businesses in Chicago won’t accept plastic. In Austin, everyone has sunglasses on a sunny day. Chicago? Not so much.

Then there’s the big cultural difference: the walking. In Chicago, everyone walks. Everyone has to walk to get somewhere. Even if you drove, you may have parked far enough away that you’ll still wind up walking a distance that many Austinites would consider unwalkable. And because everybody in this big, diverse, dense city is out walking, you rub elbows the complete spectrum of humanity. Just being on the street in Chicago feels very different because of this, and this may help explain why I like walking around Chicago myself. In Austin, the only people you see walking are people who have no other option, or people out for a walk.

White Sands

Map of Adam & Gwen's March 2007 New Mexico Trip

On Wednesday, Gwen and I took off on a trip to White Sands. We’d been planning this for a little while, since we wanted to get out of Austin during SXSW. After euthanizing Oscar, which was hard on both of us, we also felt like getting out of our usual routine would be a good idea.

Photos are up.

Our trip to Spain

In the writeup to follow, parts written by Gwen will be styled like this. Some photos are up, but the memory card with most of them got corrupted somehow Now that I have recovered almost all the photos (huzzah!) I am tagging and uploading them in batches.

Very long (7400 words) post after the jump.

Home from España

We’re back. The trip was great. Barcelona, Santiago de Compostela, Bilbao, and San Sebastian. Longer letter later. Photos forthcoming.

Heaven, Hell, or Houston

Gwen and I took off for Houston this past weekend to catch the Body Worlds exhibit at the Houston Museum of Natural Science. Pretty mind-blowing stuff. I’d taken an anatomy class and dissected critters, but there’s something different about seeing actual cadavers, opened up and perfectly preserved, being able to walk around them, seeing how everything fits together, seeing healthy organs next to diseased ones. That sort of thing. Makes me want to take better care of myself. The exhibit is ending there soon, so make plans now if you have any interest.

We spent the night at the Hotel Derek (which apparently people who go to Houston know as a trendy type of place), and I goggled at the $5 water at the minibar. Makes me wonder about the economics of these hidden costs. The hotel only permitted parking via valet service; this was the first time I’d ever used valet parking, which has always rubbed me the wrong way. The current popularity of it mystifies me; its presence at suburban locations with empty parking slots 20 paces away from the front door astounds me.

At a friend’s suggestion, we had dinner at a sushi joint called ら, which was fine if you like dance clubs. The sushi was tolerable, the wait was long, the decor was chic, and the music was much too loud to permit conversation. Just to be unHoustonian, we walked there from our hotel, about 10 blocks down Westheimer.

Saturday we went to the Menil, which was also very worthwhile. They had an exhibit of surrealist art (nothing by Dali, but plenty by Yves Tanguy, who I discovered is very, very similar). For whatever reason, the surrealist exhibit was very dimly lit; I was reminded of a Dali at the Art Institute of Chicago, “The Invention of the Monsters,” which had faded so that one of the figures originally on it was completely lost, and I wondered if perhaps surrealists were notorious for painting with shitty paints that faded easily, which would explain the dim lighting. It occurred to me this would be an interesting technique to use intentionally, so that the original image changed over the decades to reveal something completely different. Perhaps something on the theme of Ars longa, vita brevis.

Driving out of town, we got a little bit lost, but happened upon the Art Car Museum. Sadly, we were running short on time at that point, so we decided to save it for a future visit.

As as Austinite, I ridicule Houston almost as readily as I reminisce about Austin-that-was. That’s not entirely fair: there’s a lot of cool stuff in Houston, and despite the atrociousness of its sprawl, the center of town is much more of a real city than Austin is. Still, it falls in the “nice place to visit, wouldn’t want to live there” category for me.

Mobile backup

A friend taking an extended road trip just had her car stolen, with her laptop and everything else in it. That sucks massively. It got me thinking about the problem of maintaining backups and having access to them in a situation like that.

My home computer is a desktop. Currently I have it hooked to an external drive, and backup software runs in the wee hours every night to copy my home directory to the external. At some point in the near future, I hope to get a network-attached storage drive, so that I can A) liberate a little desk space, and B) move the backup away from the computer, in case something happens the computer. Admittedly, I’d only be moving the backup about 15 feet away, but a black box wedged into a cramped closet is much less likely to attract a thief’s attention, and if the roof collapses or something like that, fifteen feet might be enough. That’s what I’m counting on, anyhow.

But what about when you’re on the road? You need a backup medium that you keep separate from the laptop but still have ready access to, that is reasonably fast, and perhaps most importantly, is convenient to use. What are your options?

Before you can decide, you need to get your priorities in order. Some files are more critical than others; some change more frequently than others. Assuming that you will need to make compromises, you want to make sure the most current and most critical files are the most readily available and most frequently backed up.

Exclusive of media files, my home directory is about 5 GB. I’m guessing that about 1.5 GB of that is actually cache files and other digital ephemera, so to recreate my home directory, I’d need to be able to store about 3.5 GB. This would exclude all applications, music, videos, and photos. In reality, I could probably cut this in half by omitting a lot of archival files, though to do that I would need to reorganize my hard drive considerably. I’m lazy, so let’s stick with 3.5 GB as a target.

So, what are my options?

iPod
It just so happens that I have a 4 GB iPod Nano (rumor has it that these will be bumped to 8 GB soon). This would just accommodate me, plus a few hours of music or whatever. A hard-drive based iPod would have no trouble at all; in fact, I could store my home directory even with most of my media files on a 60 GB model. The potential problems here are that I would need to be scrupulous about keeping my laptop and iPod separate, and the temptation to keep music on the iPod, even if it cut into my storage requirement.
Network
My web-hosting company gives all its customers 20 GB of storage and webdav access. Webdav is pretty cool, because it lets me mount my network storage just like a hard drive on my desktop. A really, really slow hard drive, but there it is nonetheless. If high-speed connections could be taken for granted, this would be the ideal option—putting my storage in a remote datacenter that has its own redundant backups etc. But high-speed connections are hardly universal, and even when present, the upstream rate can be pretty slow. Backup software generally only backs up files that have changed since the last backup, but even with only 10 MB to back up, over a 128-Kbps upstream line, that will take at least 10 minutes (allowing nothing for communications overhead). In terms of convenience, this can’t be beat, assuming the connection is there. Make sure the remote volume is mounted and let the backup run. This is the only option that can be run unattended and still keep the backup volume physically separate. Having it on the server means I don’t need to even use my own computer to get at it; better still would be to have it in some web-readable format so that I could read it from any computer with a web browser. Thanks to Google, a lot of people are moving in this direction anyhow. I’m not entirely comfortable with that, and I get benefits from programs that run right on my computer that I’d be unwilling to give up, but perhaps if I had a more mobile lifestyle, I’d make a different tradeoff. And I do essentially do this already with my photos, by uploading them to Flickr.
Optical storage
Most newer laptops can burn to CDs at least, and in many cases to DVD. A single-side, single-layer DVD can store 4.7 GB, so I’m in the clear there. The drawback here is convenience: you need to go to more trouble to insert the disc, set up the burn session, burn the disc, label it, put it away somewhere, hope that it doesn’t get scratched before you need it, etc.
Flash drive
While this is technologically equivalent to the iPod Nano (and comes in the same storage sizes), I see a few key differences: there’s no particular temptation to use the flash drive for music, and you can hook it to your keyring. For this reason, I like this solution best for the most critical and current data: if the drive is on your keyring, you’re less likely to leave it connected to the computer. Well, I’m less likely, anyhow. This does require me to launch the backup manually, though.

I can imagine a multi-layered approach where I use a thumb drive as my primary backup for working files, bring a DVD that I burned in advance with some critical applications, occasionally burn a CD or DVD with photos (possibly snail-mailing it home), and occasionally upload my very highest-priority stuff to the server when I can take advantage of a fast connection.

Big Bend

Gwen and I went camping in Big Bend from the 24th to the 29th. First off, some photos from the trip.

I had never been to Big Bend before. Gwen had been four or five times, and knew the place pretty well.

She had made reservations well in advance, which turned out to be a good thing.

Friday

Departure day. Gwen had checked the weather report the day before, and found that the overnight low this night was supposed to get down to a brisk 13°F. Brr.

We had been planning on bringing our road bikes, and changed plans. We were going to need more stuff just to stay warm, leaving inadequate room in the car for our bikes and related appurtenances. So we ditched the bikes, and packed a massive down comforter and all the warm clothes we could lay our hands on. I’ve actually gotten rid of almost all my cold-weather gear (I can’t remember the last time I had to spend a significant amount of time outside in 13°F weather), so I wasn’t really well-equipped for this trip.

Our preparations were somewhat desultory, and we didn’t get underway until 11:00 AM or so. We drove and drove and drove and drove some more. We stopped for dinner in Fort Stockton, the last good-sized town before Big Bend, at a Mexican joint called Bienvenido’s (adequate food, poor service). Gwen was in a bit of shock when a car pulled up next to us in the parking lot, covered in crusted-on ice. That and the blowing snow made us wonder if we were in for more than we thought. We filled up the tank in Marathon–Gwen recalled that gas at the filling stations in the park was outrageously expensive–but the Marathon Chevron actually had the most expensive gas I’ve ever bought (as it turns out, the stations in the park were actually quite a bit cheaper).

Driving into the park just after dusk, there was a little bit of light to see the scenery by. I couldn’t see much, but what I could see was very dramatic, and reminded me of the “Night on Bald Mountain” segment of Fantasia.

After almost precisely 500 miles, we arrived at our campsite in the Chisos Basin at 8:00 PM–it was long dark and already quite cold. The basin is desert at 4800 feet, and the thin, dry air just doesn’t hold any heat. We leapt out of the car, pulled on as much clothing as possible, pitched the tent, rolled out our bedding, and jumped in without shedding a layer.

It was a difficult night. Though both Gwen and I have spent years living in cold climates, we’ve not only dis-acclimated to the cold, we’ve forgotten other side effects that cold can have. On vinyl, for example. We were sleeping on a PVC air mattress, which is normally very comfortable, but apparently vinyl loses pliability below a certain temperature, and we crossed that threshold. As we discovered the next day, there were a bunch of pinholes at creases in the air mattress, meaning our butts were on the ground within an hour or so. I consoled myself by thinking about the Shackleton expedition.

Saturday

Got up late, stiff, and somewhat cross because of a bad night’s sleep. Observed ice crystals formed all over the interior of the tent. On getting out of the tent, we saw a family of deer foraging right by our campsite. I got my camera out of the car. Despite the fact that I had just charged the batteries the day before, it was completely dead. Same result when switching out the batteries. “Oh yeah, batteries don’t like the cold” I remembered.

This was my first opportunity to really take in the view. The thin, clear, and unpolluted air seems to improve one’s vision: everything seemed abnormally sharp. Mountains were all around us, in clear detail. Incredible.

Even in daylight, we felt it’s too cold to really enjoy hiking. It also happened to be Christmas day. We decided to drive into Terlingua. The drive there was interesting enough in itself. For one thing, it added to my understanding of just how huge the park is (about half the size of Delaware)–we were on the road there for at least 25 miles, and drove through a section of the park with a completely different geography and ecology.

Once in Terlingua, we spent some time exploring the cemetery there. A lot of the graves were very old, and little more than cairns with crude wooden crosses in place of headstones (or in many cases, collapsed or missing). Some were more elaborate rough constructions of rock and adobe in the shapes of churches, with nooks for offerings in the transepts. Some of the oldest graves had newly made granite headstones, and all the graves seemed to be tended in some way, with plastic flowers or other offerings left on them. Some of the newer graves were for Anglos, but clearly in a Mexican folk style.

There wasn’t much else to do in Terlingua that day–Ms Tracy’s was in fact open for business, but we didn’t stop in. We did stop in the world-famous and eponymous store in the adjacent Study Butte for coffee.

Driving back, we stopped in the Santa Elena Canyon, but didn’t hike it all the way because we would have had to cross water, and we were loathe to risk getting our feet wet.

After getting back, we went over to the camp host’s trailer to see if he had any supplies with which we could patch up our air mattress. His wife was there, and gave me a roll of duct tape and some glue that supposedly can join anything. We smeared glue over anything that looked like it might turn into a leak, and then laid a big strip of duct tape over that. And hoped.

That night, we made some salmon on the grill at our campsite. It’s an unfortunate but understandable rule that wood fires are not allowed in Big Bend. It would have been nice to have a big fire pit that we could sit by and toast our toes, but we had to make do with a little box grill on a post and charcoal.

The night was warmer than the night before, but still damn cold. We tried playing Scrabble while our salmon cooked, but it was too cold to sit still and concentrate. But I didn’t sleep in my coat that night, a major improvement.

Our air mattress repairs were partially successful, which was better than I expected. We turned the leaks into slow leaks, so the mattress could hold air for 4-6 hours. We still had to get up in the middle of the night to reinflate it, but that was manageable.

Sunday

Considerably warmer in the morning, but still brisk. We were in a basin surrounded by mountains, and as as it happened there was one peak that obscured the sun from our campsite until 9:30. Since it wasn’t really warm until it was in direct sunlight, it was hard to get moving in the morning.

I don’t have a lot of camping experience, but based on my limited experience, the facilities at Big Bend are more primitive than at other state or national parks. No showers and no hot water at our campground. All cooking clean-up must be done at one sink (which often had a line), which was a numbing experience with the lack of hot water. I did a little checking, and discovered that the Rio Grande Village campsite supposedly had showers. I could already see that I’d like to return to the park with my bike someday, but I’d like to have easy access to showers when I do.

We headed out and drove to the Lost Mine Trail (has the mine ever been found?). This was quite popular, with wonderful views all along. We had packed a lunch, which we ate out at the very end of the trail, on a rocky, windy peak where nobody else ventured.

I discovered that once it warmed up, my camera worked fine.

Afterwards we went to the hot springs. We had packed swimsuits for the occasion. The drive in is on a rough road that’s precarious in spots–I would have been worried attempting it in a big vehicle (as almost everybody there was doing). The springs themselves are in the ruins of an old and very small spa. There are the remnants of a tiny hotel and store nearby; what’s left of the spa is just high enough to segregate the hot spring’s water from the Rio Grande. At one point, Gwen dipped her foot in the river to see how much colder it was than the springs. Quite a bit colder, but her skin was burned by the pollution in the river. On the other bank was a Mexican guy selling tchochkes. Now, to get these trinkets, you’d have to risk the $5000 fine from the feds and risk contact with the mutagenic effluent in the river. Not worth it. There were a few other people taking the waters with us, and we talked about how arbitrary the border seemed. Everybody present, including a couple of bubba-types, agreed it was ridiculous that people couldn’t cross. Of course the other topic of conversation was the cold nights, and ways to stay warm. We were astonished that two of the guys taking in the springs with us were actually using a propane heater in their tent.

The waters were warm, relaxing, and moderately cleansing. After a good long soak, we made our way back to the car and left. Since we were nearby, I suggested we stop by Rio Grande Village to scope it out as a future campsite, and check out the showers. Rio Grande Village actually had the same amenities as Chisos Basin, but was larger and seemed more orderly. We got a little turned around trying to leave, and spotted a bobcat on the prowl, looking for snacks. We followed along slowly in the car. At one point we pulled even with some old folks having a picnic by their RV; they were watching the bobcat too. Gwe called out “I hope your poodles are all inside” and one of them responded “Oh, bobcats come through here every day.” They seemed unconcerned. Which seems naive, but it was still interesting to see a bobcat up close.

We discovered the purported showers were just outside this campsite, at a small store. Which had air mattresses for sale. We thought hard about replacing our dud, but decided to put up with it until we had more options at our disposal.

Monday

This was the day that Gwen had scheduled for us to hike the South Rim trail. This is a long hike, and she was concerned that we might not make it home by sundown. We packed plenty of food, two camelbaks full of water, and headlights. We hit the trail at 9:00 AM. Although we did spy a couple on the trail far below us, we didn’t actually run into anyone until we were about 4 miles into the hike, at which point we ran into three parties, including a couple of guys who looked as if they had been given $1000 gift certificates to REI. They told us they had spent two nights on that trail already, and were carrying an amazing panoply of the newest, whizziest, ripstop breathable waterproof GPS-enhanced gear. I was tempted to snark “if you guys weren’t carrying so much gear, you’d be able to hike the trail a lot faster” but I restrained myself. They were having fun.

We powered along the trail, every view more amazing than the last. At some points we were probably looking 100 miles into Mexico. Midway along, we came to a fork where we could add a 1.5-mile detour around the East Rim onto the route; we did. Eventually, we started descending, which was harder on our poor joints than climbing. But we saw a hummingbird and some sort of bluebird along this leg. After 6.5 hours and 14.5 miles, we were back. We hung out briefly by the store near our campsite. We stretched in the sun, and Gwen discovered that her long hiatus from Coca-Cola was, well, over. We watched the people who were staying at the park’s hotel. A foursome so car-dependent (excuse me, SUV-dependent) that they actually drove from the store to the hotel, a distance of maybe 100 feet. An unlikely couple of an attractive 30something woman and a goomba type in his fifties with an all-denim outfit, flashy jewelry, shiny boots, and a rug that was practically wall-to-wall carpeting.

We went down to our campsite, cleaned up a little, and went back up to the hotel restaurant for dinner (tired enough after our hike that we actually drove the half-mile or so). Dinner was a disappointment. I guess one shouldn’t expect too much from federal food service, but it was overpriced and undergood. One’s better off with a camp stove and well-stocked ice chest. At the hotel front desk, we asked if the hotel rooms had kitchenettes; they do not, although the cottages do have micro-fridges and microwave ovens. Although cooking is prohibited in the rooms, if I were going to stay in a hotel room there for any length of time, I’d sneak in a self-contained gas ring, because there are no other dining options within 30 miles.

A British (?) family with two young boys drove up and staked out the campsite next to ours. The boys proceeded to run around like yahoos. I wished I had their energy–not just so that I’d have it, but so that they wouldn’t.

We retired to the tent and played Scrabble by headlight.

Tuesday

Our last day. We managed to sleep in, despite our troublesome flattress, and awoke with too many aches. After a leisurely cup of cofffee and general hanging around, we made our way down to the Window trail. The rocks were a bit tricky to navigate, and we were moving slow because of the prior day’s exertions, but the payoff at the end was worth it. This was a very popular trail (being right next to a popular campground), and the window view is at a point where the trail necks down to almost nothing, so we didn’t really spend much time hanging out there.

We would be leaving the next day, so we started getting our stuff in order to pack for the trip.

I improvised a sort of pasta for dinner with stuff I had remembered to bring and leftovers to make up for stuff I had forgotten. We played Boggle.

Wednesday

Time to go home. We were up at a reasonable hour, packed our stuff, and hit the road. On the way out, we discarded our defunct mattress with great glee. Filled the tank (we had driven over 250 miles in the park). Stopped in Marathon to get a snack and explore the Gage Hotel. Set the cruise control at 84 and got moving.

This from Gwen: Big Bend trips are truly getting-away trips for me. It’s a long and very empty drive out…plenty of time for contemplation. And then once you’re out there, there’s so much there out there. It seems endless, and full of huge edges with more endless over the edge. I always wonder how anyone ever had the gumption to cross that vast expanse of dry country not knowing when it would change into something more hospitable. I always come back feeling cleansed by the extremes — temperature, distance, landscape — all of it brings me back to a fresh place in myself.

Lubbock

Thanksgiving dinner with the in-laws in Lubbock this year. Gwen likes the town about as much as anyone with a lick of sense should, but is a dutiful daughter and didn’t feel she could shirk her filial obligations. I was along for the ride, I guess you might say.

I’d been to Lubbock with Gwen once before. We didn’t see much of the town at the time, and what little we did see reminded me a lot of Westheimer in Houston. One damn strip mall after another. This time, I wanted to see more.

We got a late start—about 6:00 PM the day before Thanksgiving—and pulled into Lubbock around 12:20 AM, so all our driving was in the dark.

The dinner itself was fine. Gwen had picked up an organic turkey from Central Markup and brined it two days in advance–we transported it in a brining pot in our ice-chest to Lubbock. It turned out pretty well, and the brining did add to the flavor, but it wasn’t the super-juicy, flavorful sensation one might hope. Not bad, but perhaps not worth the trouble. All the other traditional T-day foodstuffs in abundance–white and sweet potatoes, green beans, apple, pumpkin, and pecan pies, cranberry sauce, stuffing, etc. After dinner I dismantled the carcass, extracted the wishbone, and gave it to Gwen’s sister so she could break it with her 5yo daughter.

We had packed our road bikes, and the day after Thanksgiving decided to go for a ride in the countryside. Gwen called a local bike shop for tips on a route, and we headed south on Slide Road to FM1585 and headed west into the stiffest, most unremitting wind I’ve faced since…I don’t know when. I was struggling to get my speed even as high as 12 mph, and Gwen was struggling to stay in my wind-shadow. The barren, flat landscape does nothing to slow the wind’s progress, and provides no visual distraction for the weary cyclist. In short, an unredeemably unpleasant cycling experience. After about six miles of slogging through this, we came to an intersection and I decided that enough was enough. We turned around and flew back. My cyclometer’s battery had crapped out, but I estimate we were doing 20 without pedaling, and I was topping 30 when I put a little muscle into it. That was fun, though brief.

We made our way into what we though was the center of town, around the Texas Tech campus. 19th Street seems to have the only fancy-looking houses in the whole town–the rest of the city is brick ranch houses, circa 1968. It’s as if the town takes all its architectural cues from the landscape–flat and desolate–and has a sort of altitudinal humility that prevents buildings from sticking up too much. Even the roofs have shallow pitches. The campus at Tech is not much of an improvement, and the buildings are inexplicably spread apart, making me wonder if the students take golf carts between classes.

We noodled around the small neighborhood just east of Tech, which seemed to be historic, judging from the cobbled streets. Eventually we found a bike shop, run by a friendly guy who commiserated with us about the wind–he told us the wind that day was as bad as he’d seen in a long time. He told us a better route back to Gwen’s parents’ place, and we followed that, taking Boston Av south to the loop. On the way, we passed what appeared to be Lubbock’s funky neighborhood–an intersection with a small grocery store, a coffee shop, and an organic food store. We made a mental note and rode on.

That night, on a suggestion from Gwen’s sister’s husband, four of us went to Hub City Brewery, Lubbock’s sole brewpub, on Buddy Holly Street (a two-block stretch that appears to be Lubbock’s entire nightlife neighborhood). Three of us had the oatmeal stout, which was OK. Gwen’s sister had a chocolate martini, which was not: it’s as if the bartender knew of chocolate martinis by reputation, but had never tried one or seen a recipe for one, so he had to fake it. Chocolate syrup and gin in a martini glass.

Saturday, Gwen and I headed back to that coffee shop we had seen during our ride, and discovered that it had the shabby atmosphere of a neighborhood coffee joint, the coffee itself was little better than the swill served at most diners. Again, it’s almost as if the coffee-shop operators knew of coffee shops by reputation, not by direct experience.

I had to do some work, but later that day, Gwen, her sister, mother, and I went to an antique mall where Gwen and I scored this weird masonic chart, apparently a sort of diploma.

Sunday morning, we got on the road pretty early. We stopped at a Krispy Kreme (which, sadly, had much better coffee than the funky neighborhood joint) to fortify ourselves for the road and were underway by 9:30 AM. As before, I marveled at the emptiness of the region. Lubbock is a very Christian town, which kind of makes sense: if you live there, you probably want to believe you’re bound for something better. Then again, it would also be the perfect place to situate a Zen monastery, because there is nothing to distract you from contemplating the void within.

Random highlights and lowlights of the trip:

  • Passing the “New Hope Cemetery”
  • Passing hundreds of dead raccoons by the side of the road. A lot of dead deer as well.
  • Observing odd place names like Fluvanna and Flat White Road. One of the towns near Lubbock is Levelland.
  • On Thanksgiving night, observing a line of 12 cars in the drive-thru lane at Whataburger.
  • Speculating what kind of beers might be at the brewpub: Our guesses: Desolation Ale, Prairie Pilsner, Level Lager. Naturally, all the beer would have to be flat.

Japan Trip 2004

I’m posting my writeup of the Tokyo trip as a series of entries back-dated to the days they refer to. I’m not sure if this is a good idea or not, but there’s so much here that Movable Type chokes if I try to post the whole thing as one monolithic entry. For best results, start at May 20 and work your way forward. I’ll eventually be posting some observations from the trip as well, as part of the regular flow.

I’m using Japanese text for place names and wherever else I feel like it: hover over the text to get the English. This trick may not work in Internet Explorer. Sorry (actually, I’m more sorry if you’re using IE than that this doesn’t work in it).

Photos are online: Log in as adamguest/adamguest if need be.

Reader’s Digest version: We had a great time. We walked an incredible amount–Gwen estimates about 10 miles a day–and our legs protested at the end of every day. Because of the somewhat constraining conditions where we were staying, I felt ready to be getting home when we left, but if we’d had a little more slack, I would have been happy to stay for a solid month. I want to visit again, soon.

Coming home

Hung out. Had pastries. Went to airport. Found a Lawson Station from which we procured more nigiri. Found our gate, and on a lark, I decided to see whether there was a free wifi node. There was, though I suspect this was through oversight, not intention. Got on plane. Baby cries for 6 hours, but eventually settles down. Arrive in San Jose. Claim checked bags and passed through an alarmingly casual customs interview:

Inspector: What’s in the box?

Me: Um, two pair of shoes and some paper products. [forgetting, in my jet-lagged fog, to mention some kitchenware, a really big sharp knife, and a candy bar]

Inspector: [waves us on]

We then had to immediately pass through another security inspection. Now, at no point had we left a secured area. The implication here is that they don’t trust Japan’s security inspection–in which case, they really should have just turned back the plane.

Recheck our box of goodies, find our gate (for-fee wifi there), and wait. Get on the nerd-bird back to Austin. Catch cab home, and try to sleep.

Returning to Austin from Japan is always weird. We left Tokyo at 5:15 PM Saturday local time, and landed in Austin at 5:30 PM Saturday local time. The human body doesn’t know what to do with this.

The dead

Our last full day in Tokyo.

We had acquired enough trinkets and tchotchkes to bring back to friends to fill a decent-sized box. I was planning on mailing this, and today would be our last chance to, but Gwen suggested we be parsimonious for a change and bring it home as checked luggage. Despite my deep aversion to baggage carousels, I assented.

Graveyards. Gwen has a thing for them, seeing signs of how people live in the way they bury their dead. We made our way to a shrine in Brian’s neighborhood, 代々木八幡宮, walked around the grounds (which, interestingly, included a reconstruction of a stone-age thatched hut that apparently stood in the area in 4000 BC or something), took in the cemetary there.

I suggested we go to the 都庁, the city hall. Saying “city hall” makes it sound kind of quaint, and not at all like a tourism destination. Wrong. Tokyo’s population is in the same ballpark as Australia’s, and the Tocho is two 48-story towers plus a surrounding complex, done in an intimidating style by 丹下健三 that Joseph Stalin would have approved of. It’s very much a product of the bubble economy, trumpeting Tokyo as a world financial capital, and although Japan’s economy has been in the shitter ever since it was built, it seems to have been the harbinger of many more audacious mega-construction projects that have followed, including Minato Mirai, Roppongi Hills, the underground expressway, and so on. Apparently 10 more projects on the order of Roppongi Hills are in the works for the next 20 years.

Anyhow. The cool information displays that were once installed on the second level were gone and replaced by shops. We hit the observation deck. Gwen observed “no wonder we’ve been doing so much walking!” The city goes on forever in every direction.

Back in the funereal mode, we made our way to the granddaddy of cemetaries, 青山墓地. Extensive enough to have numbered lanes and picturesque enough that for one day a year, it’s Tokyo’s favorite picnic spot (with people having pizzas delivered graveside), there also seem to be a lot of interesting people buried there, judging by the headstones. We noticed a couple of unkempt graves (upkeep is the responsibility of family members) that had signs posted by the management saying, basically “use it or lose it.”

We noticed some really enormous monuments, standing 20 feet tall or so. One in particular caught Gwen’s eye, and there were three guys in front of it discussing something, two in suits and one in some kind of maintenance uniform. This monument was especially huge, and had an explanatory plaque telling a few facts about the interred: apparently he had been a major military muckety-muck in the early days of modern Japan, having been an admiral in the Russo-Japanese war. There were several graves that were perfect stone hemispheres, which reminded me of stupas somehow.

Aoyama Bochi is near to Julia’s office, so we stopped by there to visit for a bit. Stopped at the nearby 時代屋 restaurant, which was having a 釜めし定食 for lunch. It looked pretty good, so we went in. Quirky place. In the basement, with a waist-high door you need to crouch to pass through. The interior is filled with antiques (hence the name of the place), many of which have little explanatory cards hanging from them. After lunch we did some more wandering around Roppongi, which is never seen in its best light by day. Eventually we made it back to the apartment, and had dinner at another quirky place, アホアホ, which specializes in dishes made with chili pepper and garlic: each item had a garlickiness and spiciness score. Although we enjoyed the garlic bulb deep-fried whole, we found the spiciness ratings to all be inflated. The owners apparently have a Jackson 5 fetish: they had an apparently original concert poster from a Jackson 5 gig in 1971 and Jackson 5 figurines over the bar. The music was strictly Motown, and there was a breakdancing video running on the TV.

You can never go back

I had a morning meeting with a client I had done some work for recently. Gwen accompanied me into Shinjuku, where the office is, and went off on her merry way. My meeting went OK, I suppose, but I felt awkward. Three Japanese women speaking in a level of 敬語 that I found both embarrassing (I’m nobody special, and not deserving of that level of speech) and impossible to match. My own Japanese tends inevitably towards the casual, and it’s always a last-minute catch for me to tack on a not-too-casual verb ending in these situations. On top of that, I was particularly tongue-tied, refusing to drop into English but having a hard time even living up to my usually modest ability to express myself in Japanese.

After the meeting, which lasted about an hour, I reconnected with Gwen at Alta. She had discovered 世界堂, an excellent art-supply shop, and Okadaya, a hobby-supply store with a narrower but deeper selection than Tokyu Hands, focusing particularly on textiles.

Bryan had suggested we go to lunch at a place he likes, 文琳, which has a cheap-ish lunch special he descibes as “kaiseki Chinese.” Indeed, it was quite good, with little bijoux tidbits of this and that, just enough to enjoy the taste of each thing.

After that, I told Gwen that I wanted to walk along Yamate-dori back to my old neighborhood, 東中野. It was going to be a long, ugly walk, and kudos to her for putting up with it. When I was living in Tokyo in 88-90, the city was in the beginning stages of a project to widen Yamate-dori and build an underground expressway beneath it. Because Japan apparently has weak eminent-domain laws, the city began buying up properties all along the street as they became available, tearing them down, and barricading the spaces where they had been–I’d seen evidence of this on previous trips. Well, it seems that they’ve acquired all the extra margin they need, because Yamate-dori has been widened, and the center is completely occupied by construction equipment doing the prep work to install the underground expressway. I wanted to see for myself how much things had changed, and how much was under construction. So we walked. And walked. And walked, and then walked some more. With only brief interruptions, that center construction strip covered Yamate-dori as far as the eye could see. Cranes rising into the air every hundred feet or so. Mind-boggling.

We came across a new train station that would have taken us directly to my old train station; Gwen was getting pretty tired of all this walking, but said she could hold out if we’d be there in another 15 minutes. Which, I estimated, we would. So we walked on. And pretty soon, sure enough, we found ourselves at 中野坂上駅, not the station I had planned on going to, but one I had used every weekday for about a year. It’s at a major intersection, of 山手通り and 青梅街道. I didn’t recognize anything. Nothing at all was familiar. The shock was physical. The area had been spruced up, with new buildings, a terraced grassy 待ち合わせ spot. We continued along a bit, working our way into the back streets of the neighborhood. Some buildings I recognized, some were clearly new. Gwen asked me if I wanted to place a bet on whether my old building still stood. I didn’t, but it did (though its address had changed, because the house next door, occupied by a crazy geriatric couple, had been torn down and replaced by two houses).

We wandered around the old ‘hood a little more, taking in the 商店街. We came across what had once been an improvised sort of restaurant operated out of a yurt with a few stools outdoors. The restaurant was still there, but it now occupied the lower two floors of a 9-story building. Pao. We decided to eat there. It wasn’t in a yurt, and in fact the interior was quite nice, but it retained some of its old yurty funkiness. Most of the seating was low, carpeted platforms, with pillows and knee-high tables. We took one. Gwen decided that she wanted our next dining room to be just like it. The menu was Afghan oriented, but about half the dishes we wound up getting seemed more Italian. It was all good, though. Gwen had a cocktail of Cassis and Oolong tea, which was actually pretty good, and we split a mango tart for dessert, which was excellent. When we got up to pay, I mentioned to the woman at the register (who had probably been there all along) that I lived in the neighborhood 15 years ago, and remember when the place was a yurt. She said with a smile ‘things have changed.’