Category Archives: Travel

Eclipse Road Trip, Days 8-10: Mountains and Motels and Stuff

Along Highway 487, north of Medicine Bow, Wyoming.


We witnessed the eclipse in Casper, Wyoming, took our time packing up, had an early dinner downtown, and then headed out on an alternate route toward Denver, state highways 220 and 487, thinking to avoid the parking lot that Interstate 25 had become with the Eclipsed Masses heading back to their lives.

In fact, there was very, very little traffic along 487 — although probably a lot by that highway’s standards — and we didn’t see any signs of the masses until we hit the settlement of Medicine Bow, which I recall being the setting, sort of, for the old TV western (and perhaps the movie and novel that preceded it) “The Virginian.” In the dusk, a long line of cars waited to gas up at what looked like a two- or four-pump gas station; a large crowd milled around in the huge parking area outside the adjacent store.

We finally joined the main exodus when we got to Interstate 25 in Cheyenne, and had about 40 miles of stop-and-go traffic down to Loveland, where the first thing we saw when we got off the freeway was a couple fighting on the side of the road (yes, I stopped to see what was happening when the woman appeared to flag us down; seeing that alcohol appeared to be involved, that the parties didn’t appear in danger of doing each other any real physical harm, and that they didn’t want the services of local law enforcement, we went on our way. They turned out to be staying at our motel).

Along U.S. 285 near Fairplay, Colorado.

***

Anyway. I don’t have time this morning — Thursday, in Moab, Utah — to give a blow by blow of what took us from there to here. But Tuesday took us to Denver International Airport, where The Dog and I took leave of Kate, who flew back to the Bay Area so she could be at work on Wednesday.

Then The Dog and I — I did the driving — headed out of the Denver area on U.S. 285, through a couple of pretty vigorous mountain thunderstorms, across Kenosha Pass and South Park and eventually to U.S. 50, where we turned west and stayed the night at a mountain lodge. (My brief adventures trying to find the hotel, just below 11,312-foot Monarch Pass, and my hourlong radio appearance by phone from my Wi-Fi-less, cellphone-less hotel room on KQED’s “Forum” program are entertaining details perhaps to be expanded upon later.)

Along Colorado Highway 145, near Norwood.

Wednesday we crossed Monarch Pass on U.S. 50, then wound our way south and then west and then north from Montrose, Colorado, to Moab (U.S. 50, U.S. 550, Colorado highways 62, 145 and 90, Utah 46 and U.S. 191 were all encountered in this leg of the journey).

All I can say about this part of the world: It’s insanely beautiful, with virtually every turn revealing something I’m taken aback by. And what a varied landscape, from mountain crags to miles and miles and miles of red rock canyons and from dense conifer forests to oceans of sagebrush.

***

We’re about 900 miles from Berkeley at this point, and I was tempted to try and do it all in one go. But I won’t. Today we’re headed for Ely, Nevada, about 400 miles away. That will leave us with a long but eminently do-able drive tomorrow (I used to drive the 500 miles from Berkeley to Eugene at the drop of a suggestion; traveling solo with The Dog, however, is slower. Plus I’m always stopping to gawk at something or to read a roadside plaque).

More later.

Near the town of Bedrock — seriously — on Colorado Highway 90.

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Eclipse!

Well — the clouds held off, and the smoke wasn’t a factor. What a lot of anxiety for … maybe nothing.

But the eclipse itself? Overwhelming. I’ve already used that word on social media.

First, watching darkness steal across the rolling terrain across the west from our viewing point, a ridge above the Casper city golf course.

Then the last sliver of sun vanished behind the edge of the moon.

I was puzzled — couldn’t see anything through my viewing glasses. When I pulled them away, the sight was dazzling. The moon, a jet-black disc surrounded by brilliant halo of pure silver light. I have nothing I can compare it to. Just writing that brings a jolt of emotion.

I looked through binoculars to see if other details were visible. There seemed to be flares and flashes of iridescent colors all around the rim of the moon.

Around us, the city’s streetlights had all come on. On the golf course below us, a herd of pronghorn antelope that had been grazing in two and threes quickly gathered and began running down a fairway.

The eclipse lasted almost two and a half minutes here. Boy, did that 150 seconds fly by. The first light had the same pristine silvery quality as the corona around the moon.

The moon has finished crossing the sun’s disc now, and sometime later this afternoon we’ll be heading south, toward Denver. But what a day. I’ll remember Casper for as long as I’ve got a memory.

One last note: I didn’t attempt to photograph the eclipse itself. Didn’t have the gear, really, and there are a lot of great photographers out to capture the event, including one who was sharing our ridgetop perch. I’m hoping to get an image or two from him to share.

I did record some sound, though, since I had my phone in hand. Beyond my bellowing, it’s cool to hear the sound of people cheering in the distance. Here’s 20 clean seconds:

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Eclipse Road Trip Day 7: The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Eclipse Chaser

U.S. Post Office in Lodgepole, Nebraska.

Starting midday Saturday from Sidney, Nebraska — a town of 6,000 just off Interstate 80 in the southwestern corner of the Nebraska panhandle — we drove east on U.S. 30 through the towns of Sunol and Lodgepole (or Lodge Pole, if you believe the lettering on the Post Office building there).

Lodgepole was one of my destinations on this trip. According to letters from one of my great-great-grandfathers, Timothy Jeremiah Hogan, his parents moved their family to this part of Nebraska in the mid-1860s to work on the Union Pacific railroad. Tim suggests they lived first in Lodgepole, then Sidney, 16 miles west, so the family would have the protection from hostile Indians in the area.

We hung around Lodgepole for maybe 30 or 45 minutes. I took pictures, naturally. We cruised by the most substantial building in town, the old brick public school — every small Nebraska town seems to have one. Then we were off again in the rain — we were caught in the beginning of a pretty persistent thunderstorm — and stayed west on Route 30, then turned north on Nebraska 27 to Oshkosh, on the North Platte River.

North of Oshkosh, the state blacktop ends and you begin a 60-mile stretch that begins with well-maintained dirt roads for roughly the first (southern) half of the drive and continues on a single lane of choppy asphalt for the second (northern) half.

The reason you take that road, which goes through the Crescent Lake National Wildlife Refuge, is that it’s crossing one of the more remote parts of Nebraska’s Sand Hills.

The Sand Hills are a sweeping expanse of grass-covered dunes — about 20,000 square miles — said to have formed after the last ice age. And driving through on a road that twists and turns and somehow always seems to be climbing, it’s apparent you’re traveling through sand dunes being held in place by grasses and wildflowers (chief among the latter: black-eyed susans).

Anyway. I thought the Sand Hills would be the ideal place to watch the eclipse, and yesterday’s drive was to scout out the road. We saw a dozen, maybe 15 other cars, almost all with out-of-state plates, apparently doing the same. Passing ranches along the road, I had the same feeling of eclipse envy I experienced elsewhere on our trip — “Gee, these people live right here where the show is happening. Aren’t they lucky. I wish I could stay here.”

Near Crescent Lake National Wildlife Refuge in the Nebraska Sand Hills.

We got off that Crescent Lake road a little before 6 p.m. — another product of our late start — and headed east on Nebraska Highway 2, which runs for about 125 miles or so right through the heart of the Sand Hills. Our destination was Valentine, on U.S. 20 right up at the top of the state, and adding in that we crossed into Central time and lost and hour, we didn’t get off the road until 10 (it was all beautiful, though — even the lightning show to our east at dusk.

We checked into our hostelry, which I’ll call the Sketchy Rest, walked the dog, and then began checking on the latest Monday morning forecasts for the Sand Hills.

I want to say here that I am an inveterate, if not a sophisticated, reader of weather forecasts of all kinds. As I pored over forecast discussions and graphical forecasts and meteorological whatnot, the consensus from those who study computer models to understand upcoming weather was that it was likely to be cloudy in the Sand Hills on Monday morning. Part of me simply doesn’t want to believe that and found it hard to picture after experiencing one beautifully sunny follow another all the way through our trip. That included Saturday, when the Sand Hills were framed by distant, rising thunderheads but were spectacularly clear along our road.

The forecasts hadn’t improved by this morning (Sunday), so we went looking for options.

The forecast for Casper, Wyoming, was for clear, clear, clear skies. Plus, it’s close to the center of the eclipse path. What if we could find a place there?

I checked motels. There were a few room on offer online — $2,000 for a single night. No.

Kate, whom I believe is both charming and lucky (she wound up with me, after all), started to call motels. She found some friendly innkeepers, but no room.

I checked Craigslist. There was a single listing for a sort of in-law unit near the south end of Casper. No price listed. I got in touch with the person who posted the place. We talked. A price was agreed on (he happened to name the figure that Kate and I had previously agreed would be our maximum; more than I’d pay in any other circumstances, I think, but not a killer — and not anything like $2,000).

So we hit the road to Casper from Valentine — 325 miles on top of the 2,000 from the previous six days — rolling west on U.S. 20 about 1 p.m. It was a fast trip, with the usual dog- and picture-related stops, and we pulled in here just after (we gained an hour traveling back into Mountain time).

The sky when we got here? Starting to cloud up. Thunder was rolling. The light and storm clouds were beautiful. The stars are out tonight, though, and the forecast is still for sunny (and smoky) skies in the morning. Except for this one note from the regional forecast office, which noted the likelihood of some smoke in the air:

“One other feature to watch is (a) thinning band of higher clouds that is forecast by some of the guidance to be between the Wind River Basin and Casper around totality time. It may be clearing the Wind River Basin/Riverton vicinity in time and then possibly affect the Casper area between 11 and noon. May be a rather narrow band then but there could be some concern for viewing in this narrow cloud feature.”

Kate just reminded me that the moon will start crossing the sun’s disk here at 10:22 a.m MDT. Totality will occur at 11:43 a.m. I wonder where that cloud will be.

Sky above Casper, Wyoming, Aug. 20, 2017.

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Eclipse Road Trip Day 4-6: Somewhere to Sidney

A driver’s seat view of the road from Crescent Lake National Wildlife Refuge up to Lakeside, on Highway 2, in western Nebraska.

Meant to publish this Saturday morning. But here it is at the tail end of Saturday night — we did make it to Valentine after an amazing drive through the Sand Hills (above) — instead:

Don’t have time to say much,
because we’re late getting on the road, but: We spent the night in Jackson on Wednesday; Thursday morning, we had breakfast with the parents of our son Thom’s roommate at Oregon, Barb and Tom Dillon, who live just south of town. They invited us to stay Thursday night, so we did — using the daylight hours for a leisurely drive up past the Tetons to Yellowstone and back.

Friday, we drove across Wyoming to Sidney, Nebraska, a town where our family has roots, sort of, that go back to the 1860s. Less than 10 miles outside town, the a tire-pressure indicator light went on in the car. We pulled over and discovered we had picked up a nail and had a leak big enough I could hear it. Since the tire wasn’t too bad yet, we jumped in and made it the rest of the way to our motel, just off Interstate 80, where the tire quickly went flat. I changed it (a chore in a vehicle as large as the 4Runner, but do-able thanks to the aid of a passer-by, a Seattle-ite named Michael). In any case, we got it done.

This morning I drove into Sidney to have the punctured tire fixed. It took a while, so I strolled through town, where a parade was forming up as part of the town’s contribution to Nebraska’s sesquicentennial. Chatted up some of the participants, went back and got the car, and now we’re getting ready to head out with a tentative destination of Valentine, which is a good piece up the road (we’re not far from the Colorado border, and Valentine is close to South Dakota).

The eclipse weather forecast in western Nebraska is not great right now. So we’ll see where we wind up Monday morning.

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Eclipse Road Trip Day 3: Twin Falls to Jackson

Once upon a time — at least 20 pounds and a decent quantity of decent muscle mass ago — I used to do long, long bike rides. The kind where you’d be out all day, sometimes all weekend, sometimes longer. A natural obsession attached to these rides: Would it be raining? Would it be hot? Would there be unfriendly winds. None of those factors would typically dictate whether you’d do a ride or not, but it was an important factor in planning and indulging your worst bad-weather anxiety.

So now, we’re driving across the western United States with the idea that we’ll see the August 21 eclipse in the general area of Nebraska Sand Hills. We’re about halfway there now, and we’re starting to take the weather forecasts seriously. And while I normally wouldn’t care about the weather in a place I’m visiting — It’s cloudy? Is that a problem? — the forecast for Greater Western Nebraska isn’t so sunny right now.

In fact, if you read the forecast discussions for the four National Weather Service offices handling forecast for the area from the Idaho Rockies to the west-central Nebraska, the word “pessimism” has crept into the several-times-daily notes. Three examples (and about the jargon: GFS, ECM and European are all forecaster shorthand for supercomputer-driven numerical weather models; 12Z (or other numbers) refers to the time the most recent model run was completed in UTC (universal) time (Z stands for Zulu, and apparently comes from military usage):

Pocatello, Idaho: GFS and European continue to offer up different
solutions. GFS is more pessimistic for us. It monsoonal moisture into the region Sunday. This could produce viewing issues for the eclipse in terms of scattered areas of clouds and showers. The European on the other hand keeps the monsoonal moisture south of us for Sunday and Monday and provides much better viewing for the eclipse. The forecast favors the pessimistic solution and includes partly cloudy skies with slight chances of showers and thunderstorms. At this point, we do think the eclipse will be viewable, but there may be a few clouds in some areas. However the consensus models are leaning more towards the European solution so hopefully the GFS will move into that direction as well within the next couple of runs. Forecast for Tuesday and beyond continues to look unsettled. Even the European draws monsoonal moisture into our region for midweek.

Riverton, Wyoming: For Monday, Eclipse Day, the 12z model runs still indicate that a weak surface cold front is progged to move into the northwest portion of Wyoming and will bring with it some mid to high clouds into the region during the morning. The models seem to indicate that the frontal boundary should weaken and become diffuse during the day as it attempts to move southeast into the state. The low level southwest flow ahead of the boundary should also result in more low/mid level moisture and partly to mostly cloudy conditions expected across the forecast area from the morning into the afternoon. It is expected that there should be some isolated showers/storms over the western mountains due to expected slight instability.

Cheyenne, Wyoming: It continues to be a tricky cloud forecast for Eclipse Day (Monday) with west-southwest flow aloft and decent H7-H3 [upper atmospheric] moisture. There are still considerable differences though in the RH [relative humidity] fields, so opted to maintain a partly cloudy forecast for most areas.

North Platte, Nebraska: The cloud forecast Monday continues to evaluate the potential for high cloudiness which could partially obscure the eclipse.

The ECM and GFS shows subtropical moisture aloft moving across the Rockies which could produce scattered or broken high cloudiness around noon Monday. The GFS also indicates substantial low level moisture and stratus across Wrn/Ncntl Neb leftover from heavy thunderstorms across Ern Neb Sunday night. The ECM produces the thunderstorms across SD but shows the same moisture in place like the GFS. Thus, it is possible significant cloudiness will occur Monday.

As a result, the sky forecast for noon Monday has been increased from 35-40 percent yesterday, to 40 to 60 percent with the forecast today.

Important to remember: While the forecast models are sometimes shockingly good, they also miss. We’re more than 100 hours out from the eclipse right now, and there’s plenty of time for things to evolve. Right now, though, I’m rooting for monsoonal moisture to keep its ass parked well clear of the eclipse zone; the same for stray moisture and frontal boundaries and all other atmospheric interference with OUR EVENT OF A LIFETIME. You listening, cloudmakers?

***

Anyway. Isn’t this supposed to be a road trip?

We started out in Twin Falls, Idaho, today, walking through a mall to the Petco with, guaranteed, the most scenic view in all of Petco World. Or, it would be the most scenic view if the entrance was at the back of the store, because that’s where you can look down into the Snake River Canyon of Evel Knievel fame.

Alas, Evel is pulling his cheap stunts in the afterlife now (and maybe still getting upstaged by Richard Nixon). But there were base jumpers leaping, one after another, from the big beautiful steel arch bridge that carries U.S. 93 across the canyon. Here’s a video — watch it full screen — that sort of conveys what that was about:

Twin Falls Base Jumpers from Dan Brekke on Vimeo.

At the visitors center, near the Petco and overlooking the bridge, I had a talk with a guy who arrived with a daypack and a longboard-style skateboard who confided early on, “I’m a bum. I live down in the canyon.” But what he really wanted was to talk about losing a camera over the side of the canyon rim earlier in the week. He also confided he was an old time base jumper who had gone off the high bridge outside Auburn many times (OK — he said 1,000 times).

After that, we headed up 93 and saw lots:

An aqueduct that a bunch of kids — wearing personal flotation devices, all of them — were getting ready to jump into for a 20-minute trip downstream.

Untitled from Dan Brekke on Vimeo.

A memorial to a guy who crashed in February off U.S. 26 on the edge of Craters of the Moon National Monument; the debris field from the crash was still present, as was a memorial to “The Highwayman.”

A roadside memorial alongside U.S. 26 near Craters of the Moon National Monument.

Lava. Lots of lava.

Arco, Idaho, which advertises itself as the first place in the world to use electricity generated by atomic power (circa 1955). The proprietor of the Lost River Valley espresso shack served us a latte and a cappuccino. We talked eclipse, since Arco is in the path. Was she bringing on extra help? Her sons would be there, she said. “I started this business for them — they’re both autistic. They’re home today. … They’re anxious about all the people who’ll be showing up. …”

Idaho Falls. Bought gas there. By the way, the mileage on a Toyota 4Runner — the only car Hertz had to give us after I asked for a small SUV — sucks.

The towns of Shoshone, Richfield, Carey …

The Snake River. Swan Valley. The Grand Tetons. Jackson Hole. And that’s where we are tonight.

Tomorrow? We have a reservation in Casper, Wyoming. We’ll be looking at the weather.

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Eclipse Road Trip Day 2: Tahoe City to Twin Falls

U.S. 93, north of Wells, Nevada.

A quick entry, since I’ve waited until after midnight to sit down and get something down.

As planned — I have never made so many reservations in advance in my life — Tuesday is supposed to be our longest day driving on the way to western Nebraska. We got started from Tahoe City, on the northwest shore of Lake Tahoe, at 9:35 a.m. PDT and pulled in here, about 510 miles later, at about 8:45 MDT — a drive of a little over nine hours. Things got slow in the last couple hundred miles because I wanted to stop and take pictures at several spots along the way. Like the shot above, looking north on U.S. 93 about 30 miles north of Wells, Nevada, and 85 miles or so south of Twin Falls, Idaho.

A word about the weather: We are now inside the window where the National Weather Service is offering a forecast that includes Monday, Eclipse Day. And what do you know? The outlook is iffy for most of western Nebraska. Of course, there’s not forecast in the world that can make a call for a two and a half minute period that’s still six days out. But now we’ve got something to obsess about other than where exactly we’ll be standing when the celestial machinery does its thing.

Tomorrow’s destination: Jackson, Wyoming.

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Eclipse Road Trip Day 1: Berkeley to Tahoe City

Last Aug. 20, in a rare example of doing well ahead of a long-contemplated event, I mused about possible destinations to view the Great Solar Eclipse of 2017. One location I pondered — where we’re headed now — is western Nebraska.

(But why western Nebraska? I hear the question even before the final schwa sound of the Cornhusker State’s strangely compelling name fades away. Answer: Decent chances for good viewing weather and good odds of avoiding eclipse country gridlock. On both counts, we’ll see).

I didn’t do a whole lot in the way of eclipse preparation last year beside write that post, order an eclipse atlas, and spend hours poring over pages of Airbnb and VRBO listings. Like most of West Coast humanity, I searched out places to stay in Oregon east of the Cascades. The now-famous municipality of Madras was already booked up (I’m not counting offers to sleep for only $150 a night in prickly pear patches or cow pastures), and other promising places that would have required a drive of some length did not pan out. (I did not consider Bend, a city of some size and reputation, because I could all too easily imagine Eclipse Morning gridlock, or rangelock or whatever you call it when you don’t have a grid, with traffic heading up the road toward the totality zone.)

Thus thoughts turned again to Nebraska. (Why? See above.) I will unfold our ultimate destination, which is currently semi-unknown, as we travel this week. I can, however, share the first leg of the journey.

Our destination was Lake Tahoe, the northwest side, where an old friend is spending a couple weeks and invited us to spend our first night on the road. So We left Berkeley early in the afternoon and drove up Interstate 80. There was sporadic heavy traffic in the usual places — in Fairfield, through Davis — but we sailed for the most part and got to our spot on the lakeshore by 6:30, in time to watch the evening light descend.

Since the this is a travelogue of sorts, there ought to be a picture. Here’s one of our first and only stop today, at Nyack, about 15 miles west of Donner Summit at an elevation of maybe 5,500 feet above sea level. It’s an unprepossessing image — Shell gas, a convenience store, a tiny Burger King, and a huge expanse of asphalt.

Back in the days when a two-lane road, U.S. 40, ran across the Sierra here, there was a resort called Nyack Lodge. In January 1952, in the middle of a very stormy winter, a westbound passenger train, the City of San Francisco, was halted by snowslides a few miles east of Nyack. Passengers were stranded for three days. When rescuers finally reached the scene, the passengers — cold, hungry, some ill from an episode of carbon monoxide poisoning — were driven to Nyack Lodge. There, they got a nice feed and were put on a rescue train that had come up from Roseville for the trip to Oakland.

Nyack, California, on Interstate 80 west of Donner Summit.

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Road Blog, Iowa Edition: ‘Our Liberties We Prize’

The Great Seal of Iowa, as rendered in a bas relief tablet by Alexander Doyle at the Iowa state capitol.

In 1847, the Iowa Legislature passed a law creating a state seal. More on the wording of the law, which has caused a stir in the state Capitol in recent times, in a moment.

The straightforward part of the seal is the motto: “Our liberties we prize and our rights we will maintain.” I like that: Straightforward. A little militant. No Latin.

However, the Legislature offered only a description of what the seal should look like. Here it is (and as you read it, see if there’s a phrase that kind of sticks out as a little awkward):

“The secretary of state … is … hereby authorized to procure a seal which shall be the great seal of the state of Iowa, two inches in diameter, upon which shall be engraved the following device, surrounded by the words, ‘The Great Seal of the State of Iowa’ – a sheaf and field of standing wheat, with a sickle and other farming utensils, on the left side near the bottom; a lead furnace and pile of pig lead on the right side; the citizen soldier, with a plow in his rear, supporting the American flag and liberty cap with his right hand, and his gun with his left, in the center and near the bottom; the Mississippi River in the rear of the whole, with the steamer Iowa under way; an eagle near the upper edge, holding in his beak a scroll, with the following inscription upon it: ‘Our liberties we prize, and our rights we will maintain.'”

(Yes — the Legislature wrote “with a plow in his rear.” That phrase prompted an Iowa state legislator in 2010 to offer a bill to amend the wording. Lawmakers did not act on the suggestion.)

That 1847 description left a lot to artists’ imaginations and produced a series of rather passive and homely images. Search for “Great Seal of Iowa” in Google images if you’re curious about what I mean.

I didn’t know any of that history when I visited the state capitol grounds in Des Moines last fall (2016). What struck me about the tablet or relief — OK, technically not a plaque — was what I take to be its direct reference to the Civil War. The soldier depicted is dressed as a Union infantryman. The musket he holds on his left side has bayonet fixed. The Stars and Stripes he supports with his right arm is partially draped around him. He is taking a step toward the viewer. His look is resolute and unafraid.

“Our liberties we prize and our rights we will maintain”? The bas relief makes the statement come alive. The soldier embodies the sentiment. Is there a Civil War message here — a reference, perhaps, to how seriously the state took its duty to preserve the Union?

About 75,000 Iowans — more than one in five adult men — served during the war. Some 13,000 of them died and another 8,500 were wounded and survived. Iowa’s experience largely reflected the experience of every state, North and South. In a way that’s hard to imagine today, when so few serve in our armed forces, the war touched everyone.

An entry on an Iowa state government site that describes the monuments on the capitol grounds notes that the Iowa seal tablet was commissioned in the mid-1880s and completed in the early 1890s. The war was still an enduring, dominant memory for a whole generation of Americans then, just as World War II was in the 1960s — when war stories were common prime-time TV fare and a frequent Hollywood subject.

The Iowa state site also mentions the name of the sculptor, Alexander Doyle, who had a national reputation by the time he got the commission for the tablet and a nearby drinking fountain featuring the cast bronze head of a bison.

Doyle’s reputation rested in part on his Civil War sculptures. But he was not a Yankee nationalist. His commissions came from both the North and from the defeated Confederacy — and he was especially active in New Orleans, where he created a series of statues commemorating Southern heroes.

I think if there’s a message in the Iowa Great Seal tablet, it’s that Doyle was an artist who understood the time he was depicting and the emotional expectations of his audience and knew how to translate that understanding into bronze. His was not a common talent.

Note: A version of this post also appears on Read the Plaque.

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Road Blog: L.A. the Hard Way

So: You’re going to drive down to Los Angeles from the Bay Area on a Friday. To avoid a heavy commute leaving the traffic-strangled San Francisco region — East Bay to be more specific, and Berkeley to be even specific-er — you choose to leave at which hour:

a. Noon
b. 2 p.m.
c. 4:30 p.m., into the teeth of the usual P.M. freeway shitstorm.

If you chose c., you and I think think differently, because I didn’t quite choose to leave at that hour, but leave at that hour I did.

I checked traffic maps before rolling out, and there were long stretches of red and darker red all along the best (actually only) escape routes. No worries, I thought — I will take some side and back roads to make my way over the hills to Interstate 5.

So, I took 580 east through Oakland to Castro Valley, where things were jammed up for the climb over the Dublin Grade to the Tri-Valley area. I could tell from the maps that 580 would be even worse going through Dublin and Livermore and on over Altamont Pass, so I thought I’d use an old cycling route over Palomares Road to Highway 84, which goes through Livermore from Fremont.

Palomares was great, once I found it. Not fast, because it’s a real back road that winds and twists constantly as it climbs the hills and then descends to Highway 84.

Highway 84 was a brilliant idea, though it was bumper to bumper for a long, long way into and through the townlet of Sunol. After that it opened up, and I had just normal non-freeway traffic through Livermore — time now 6:30, or two hours into the trip — and onto Tesla Road and up the last set of Coast Range hills into the Central Valley.

Tesla Road, at the point it crosses the divide between the Livermore Valley and the San Joaquin Valley.

Lots of people use this as an alternate route to the miserable slog on 580 over Altamont, but everyone moved at a spritely pace up the steep, winding road over the top and down into San Joaquin County. In fact, some drivers crossed the line between spriteliness and recklessness. I saw a couple of cars cross the double-yellow line to pass a slower moving vehicle on a nearly blind downhill curve. Well, no one was killed. This time.

Corral Hollow Road, as it’s called on the San Joaquin County end of the road, hooks up with Interstate 580 at a point where it has diverged from I-205 and is usually just screaming along. The speed limit is 70 mph, and if I’m going 75 I feel like kind of a slow poke. But more of that in a minute.

I probably hit 580, which joins Interstate 5 about 10 miles further south, at about 7:20 p.m. It was dusk, and it didn’t make sense to shift over to whatever scenic routes I might devise. The bucolic portion of the drive was over.

***

If I have myself time — something I never do — I probably would stay off I-5 as much as possible. The side roads going down the San Joaquin Valley are many and, at this time of year, and especially after all the rain this year, beautiful. The countryside is green and welcoming in a way you can hardly imagine if you only see the place in the brown haze of summer or the gray of winter.

The other reason one might stay off of I-5 between the Bay Area and L.A. is that it’s one of the most stressful driving experiences you can find. Speed is part of it. If you’re driving 80 — yes, I know, that’s over the posted speed limit, but still quite common — you really have to be on top of your game.

But it’s not really the sheer speed that gets to you. It’s the varied speeds on the two lanes from the Tracy area down to the bottom of the Grapevine.

I-5 is the major truck route between Northern and Southern California. Trucks have a dramatically lower speed limit — 55 mph, and they seem to stick close to it. That means you have a mix of high-speed four-wheelers mixed in with some very slow moving 18-wheelers. But that’s only the beginning of the issue.

Many of my fellow motorists are driving at 70 or so — some just above, some just below. That’s fine. They may live longer, happier lives than the likes of me. But here’s the thing: They aren’t content to drive their rational 70 mph in the right lane of the two lanes available. No. They would much, much rather cruise at their comfortable, non-threatening pace in the left lane.

Yes, it’s true that there will be slower traffic they need to pass. For instance, the trucks I just mentioned. And then they will need to use the left lane. But the notion of completing the pass in some sort of expedited fashion — taking note of traffic approaching from behind, for instance; not getting into the passing lane before you need to; maybe speeding up a little to complete a pass (a technique I was taught in driver’s ed); and then moving over again (another driver’s ed lesson) — is not one that is widely shared based on the behavior one sees on the highway.

The net effect last night was that whenever the river of left-lane traffic encountered an obstacle — a truck or series of trucks in the right lane, say — the left lane would bunch up and slow down, with lots of nonsensical tapping of the brakes as the flow of traffic went from 75 mph, say, down to 60 or 65. It was kind of like NASCAR in super-slow motion.

The rules of the road, I-5 Edition, seem to be these:

–If you see any traffic ahead in the right lane — even that little speck out there in the horizon — you’ll be catching up in five or 10 minutes. Better get over to pass.
–Life is easier in the left lane. You don’t have to worry about getting over to pass. And why is that guy on my bumper?
–Drive with your brights on — all the time. It helps you see the gestures the driver in front of you is making.
–If the slower jerks in the left lane won’t move over, accelerate — accelerate with extreme prejudice — and pass them on the right. And do it over and over and over again.

And in conclusion let me say: No — I am not on a crusade to change the way the rest of the world behaves, there are serious flaws in the way I do things on the road — speeding, right-hand passes — and I don’t give enough credit to all the people I see who do behave in a rational, courteous way.

***

To complete the trip narrative, though: I got to L.A. in one piece, arriving at our downtown hotel at midnight after following the Apple Maps directions — which at one point involved exiting northbound 110 at Dodger Stadium and doing a U-turn back onto the southbound ramp — and getting lost briefly on surface streets.

Anyway. Here I am. Today’s travel will be on public transit.

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Filed under Berkeley, Travel

Trinity-Klamath Road Trip: Plastic Flower and Missing Man

A flower, made of partly melted plastic spoons and spraypainted white, acquired during an August 2014 visit to Humboldt County, California.

On Christmas Day, I experienced a burst of motivation to clean off my desk to make room for some new electronics. That’s a project that’s still under way. But one of the discoveries I made as I tried to excavate the workspace was the odd and not entirely lovely object above.

It’s a handcrafted flower, in case you’re wondering. Made from partially melted black plastic spoons spraypainted white. It was offered for sale by a man I encountered during a brief stop at the Humboldt County wayside of Weitchpec in August 2014.

How I got there was I had driven up to Lewiston Dam, northwest of Redding, for a ceremony by members of Native American tribes in the area. They had called on the federal Bureau of Reclamation to increase releases into the Trinity River to protect migrating chinook salmon that were at risk of disease or death because of low flows and warm water downstream on the Klamath River.

The bureau, in fact, ordered increased releases into the Trinity River before the ceremony. But I made the trip, met some people, drove to a motel in Redding, had dinner, and wrote a little story on a related court case.

I only had one other item on my agenda: a visit to Shasta Lake, California’s biggest reservoir, which was very low in late August because of the ongoing drought. But with no one breathing down my neck to get back to the Bay Area, I decided it would be good to see a little of the country I had been writing about. I’d head up Highway 299 from Redding and follow the Trinity River up to the Klamath, then follow the Klamath east to Interstate 5, just above Yreka. I’d spend the night back in Mount Shasta — at the end of a drive of about 300 miles.

For the first part of the drive, not much transpired. Just one beautiful scene after another. The Trinity, swollen with the “extra” water released from the dams up stream, looked high and a little wild. After turning north off 299 onto Highway 96 at Willow Creek, I drove through the Hoopa Valley, home of one of northwestern California’s larger native tribes.

North of Hoopa, Highway 96 narrows as it climbs a ridge on the south bank of the river and after a few twisting miles reaches Weitchpec. The settlement, part of the Yurok tribe’s reservation, is the proverbial wide spot in the road. On one side, a couple of homes and mailboxes for outlying residents. On the other side, a grocery and a couple of weathered manufactured homes on a lot that overlooks the spot where the Trinity flows into the Klamath. There was an old, badly lettered sign that offered smoked salmon for sale.

My visit was brief. At first, I overshot the grocery and drove across the bridge across the Klamath. “I’ve got to have a picture of this,” I thought, so I swung back around, recrossed the bridge and parked at the store. I walked back across the span and snapped a few pictures, then returned to the store and walked around back, where I guessed I’d have the best view of the confluence.

A man approached me when I started to take pictures — maybe the resident of one of the mobile homes. A short, spare older man. I thought maybe I’d be called for trespassing — fair enough — and I explained I just wanted to get a shot of the spot where the two rivers joined. He agreed it was a good view. When I was done shooting — it was just a minute or two — he asked if I like salmon. Yeah, I said. Do you have any for sale? He said not yet, but that in a few weeks there would be some.

He was holding a plastic flower, the same one pictured at the top of the post. He showed it to me and said, “I make these and sell them.” How much do you sell them for, I asked. “Ten dollars,” he said.

I took a look. Not something I wanted. But by this time, I had taken in the man’s outfit. One detail stood out. He was wearing a large rectangular belt buckle that said “FUCK” in large chrome letters. That struck me as weird, and I decided I needed to take the guy’s picture. I offered him twenty bucks for the flower, and then asked if he’d pose. He was glad to.

My acquaintance in Weitchpec — he said his name was J.G. and J.K or K.G. Or maybe some different initials. He’s holding the plastic flower pictured at the top of the post.

As we walked back to the parking lot in front of the store, I asked his name. “J.K.,” he said. Or maybe it was J.G. or K.G. I didn’t write it down and at the distance of more than two years I honestly can’t remember.

I asked whether he was from Weitchpec. He said he was from the area, but had lived in the Bay Area for years, working as a mechanic for United Airlines in San Francisco. He had been back in the community for several years, he said. I did not ask the question I should have asked, which is why his belt buckle said “fuck.”

I thanked him for the flower, then went into the store. There were a couple of other customers, buying ice and other supplies for what I thought might be a camping trip. I went back to my rented car and got ready to leave when I noticed a community bulletin board on the store’s outside wall.

I honestly only remember one posting: a flyer asking for help in locating a Southern California man who had gone missing in the area two months earlier.

Missing poster for Jeff Joseph in Weitchpec, Humboldt County.

I snapped a picture of the flyer. It’s a habit, growing out of curiosity about the missing and their stories.

But the outline of Jeff Joseph’s story — he had apparently come to this remote part of Humboldt County to grow marijuana for medicinal purposes — triggered a quick episode of paranoia.

Not that I was up there to grow pot, but here I was, a stranger to the area who had not told anyone where I’d be that day. I was driving a new-looking (though nothing fancy) rented car; I had shown my extravagant-looking (but not really expensive) camera around; I had pulled out my wallet and handed a guy a twenty like it was nothing. Gee — it would be easy for me to go missing, too, wouldn’t it, if someone tried to waylay me?

Nothing happened, obviously, beyond my sudden awareness that I could be vulnerable, too.

On my way up the Klamath on Highway 96, I encountered the Happy Camp Fire, the state’s biggest for 2014, burning the forest near the community of Seiad Valley. The fire was active the evening I was driving east toward Interstate 5, and I saw locals and fire crews watching the blaze send towering pyrocumulus clouds into the sky and torch big trees in the distance.

Eventually I made it out to the interstate, and before midnight I was in Mount Shasta, too late to get dinner but just a short drive from Shasta Lake and then a quick trip home. (The album at the end of the post shows some of the scenes I’ve described.)

Finding the plastic flower again earlier in the week made me look up Jeff Joseph again. He’s never been found.

2014 Fire and Drought Tour

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by | December 29, 2016 · 3:16 pm