Well, my brother John and I got back to our starting point here in Berkeley a few days ago. So the travelogue here is a little fractured. I have told myself that maybe if I could limit my road trip postings to a single paragraph, then maybe I could keep up a daily record. But one thing usually leads to another in the narrative that forms in my head. And brevity poses its own challenges.
So here we are. I last posted a week ago yesterday, Friday, September 17, from Chadron, Nebraska, after crossing the 100th Meridian. What happened after that?
Wounded Knee, South Dakota, on the Oglala Sioux’s Pine Ridge Reservation. Fort Robinson, Nebraska. Casper, Wyoming. Interstate 80 and Interstate 15 on a long drive from Casper to Las Vegas. A tough Sunday drive down I-15 and associated superhighways to Los Angeles. A couple of relaxed days in L.A. hanging out with my son Thom. Then a drive through Kern County backroads and oil fields, then I-5 up the San Joaquin Valley and across the passes and valley back to the bay shore and Berkeley.
I’ll circle back to some of that. There’s much more to say, including this one observation after three weeks and two days away from home: No matter how much time I give myself to explore this world of ours, I want more.
We left Chicago on Wednesday morning and made it to Sioux City, Iowa, following what’s become a typical late-ish start (10:30, say, due to how slow I am to get ready) and quitting just at dark. It means we’re on the road for 10 or 11 hours each day.
Thursday we left Sioux City at about the usual time and spent the day zig-zagging back and forth across the Nebraska and South Dakota border as we headed west on two-lane roads, mostly on Nebraska’s Highway 12 and, further west, on U.S. 20. Four hundred miles or so later, we wound up in Chadron, Nebraska.
Someone — one would guess tourism-minded state and local officials and hopeful Chamber of Commerce folks — has styled Highway 12 “the Outlaw Trail Scenic Byway.” I can attest that the route is scenic, with sweeping vistas of the rolling country along the Missouri River on the road’s eastern end that transition slowly into the high plains and beginning of the Sand Hills on the west. My only complaint, and you knew there had to be one, is that there’s no ready explanation along the road or on the Outlaw Trail websites about why, precisely, it’s called that.
One of the sites advertises “adventure of friendly people, scenic sights and the history of Native American Tribes, outlaws, cowboys and pioneers. … Communities have museums waiting to be explored and murals waiting to be viewed. This region offers seasonal opportunities to hunt fauna or flora with arms or camera. Please check on the current Covid situation.”
Highway 12 crosses the 100th Meridian west of Greenwich in Keya Paha County (‘keya paha is “turtle hill” in the Dakota language, per what I see online). I have an app on my phone that gives a very precise reading (to four decimal places) of latitude and longitude. When we got to the approximate locale, we parked at a crossroad and I walked about 1,000 feet back to the spot the app indicated was very nearly precisely the exact location of the meridian (“very nearly precisely” because the app would jump between 99.9996 and 100.0005 degrees with a single stride east or west).
John and I both took pictures to commemorate the spot. I wish I’d taken one of the little mark I gouged out on the road’s shoulder to mark the location.
Why bother with the 100th Meridian? In the late 19th century, John Wesley Powell, the early explorer of the Grand Canyon and first head of the U.S. Geological Survey, proposed that line of longitude as marking the boundary between the wetter more humid areas of the eastern United States and the more arid regime of the West. Subsequent research found Powell’s observation to be spot on — though his other important ideas about how the implications for development of the western United States have been largely ignored. More recently, scientists have been assessing how the dry transition that occurs along the 100th Meridian appears to be moving east due to the influence of climate change. You can read more here: “Whither the 100th Meridian? The Once and Future Physical and Human Geography of America’s Arid–Humid Divide. Part I: The Story So Far.“
I’ll also note before posting that we have not one but two 100th Meridian museums on the Plains: one in Cozad, Nebraska, one in Erick, Oklahoma. Next time I’m roaming around out here. …
We left my sister’s house on Chicago’s North Side at what I consider to be a humane hour, 10 a.m., headed across the northwestern suburbs to the series of toll roads that would lead us out of the metropolis and toward the Mississippi River. We got off the interstate routes in western Illinois and took U.S. 30, part of the old Lincoln Highway, across Iowa. We made a stop at the country church north of Des Moines where my father’s father’s parents and some distant cousins are buried. Then we raced across western Iowa to Sioux City, where we are tonight.
Our route after leaving the church — St. Paul’s Lutheran — took us through Stanhope, a little town I am sure my great-grandparents, my grandfather and my dad knew. We stopped at the one gas station in town to fill up. I walked in to the small store attached to the station to get a cold drink. There was a tall, gray-haired woman working at the counter.
“Hi, there,” I said.
“Hi,” she answered.
“How are you?” I asked.
“Great,” she said. “How about you?”
“Same. Beautiful day,” I replied.
“Yes it is,” she said. “Just like it was thirty-one years ago.”
“Thirty-one years ago,” I said. “1990. What happened on September 15, 1990?” I half expected to hear that a tornado or some other misfortune had befallen the town.
“I got married,” she said.
“That is a great thing to celebrate,” I said. And deciding to ignore the possibility that that marriage was over for one reason or another, I added, “Are you doing anything? Going out to dinner tonight?”
“No, not tonight,” she said. “Had to work. And so did he. But we’ll do something this weekend.’
And that was our conversation. Then we were back on the road and rolling through towns with names I wouldn’t have believed if I hadn’t seen them and double-checked them.
Lake Abert, above, is along U.S. 395 in southern Oregon, about 80 miles east of Klamath Falls and 75 miles north of Alturas, California. I passed by during a trip with my dad in October 1990. I remember it was a Friday evening, and we’d had a full day of traveling south from Lewiston, Idaho, with one significant misadventure along the way. We’d locked the keys in our rental car when we were about 50 miles from the nearest town. It was cold and starting to snow a little. My solution, which I’m not too sure I’d improve upon now, was to break one of the rear windows to get back in. One discovery that led to was that our Ford Taurus got about half the normal gas mileage when you drove at highway speeds with a broken-out window. The effects of increased drag, I guess. We stopped at a town along the way — John Day, maybe — and got a piece of cardboard that we taped in the window opening. That was enough of a closure that the mileage went back almost to normal for the rest of the trip.
We stopped at Lake Abert, which for a long time I believed was Lake Albert, around sunset. We had a ways to go, since the next motel was in Alturas. The light was beautiful, of course, and the way I remember the scene, it was completely still and silent. I took eight shots for a panorama with whatever little film camera I was carrying. The developed prints have been shuffled from one drawer to the next for 30 years. But in a fit of archival exploration, I grabbed them, scanned them (30 years of dust and grunge included) and panaroma-ized them in an application called Hugin (neither Lightroom nor Photoshop recognized all eight shots as part of the same scene for whatever reason).
I didn’t see until just now, as I looked for information on the lake, that the moment we captured was in a sense a fortuitous one. In the early ’90s, Lake Abert went into a decline attributed to agricultural water diversions and climate change. Water levels have dropped; salinity levels — Lake Abert is Oregon’s only “hypersaline” saltwater lake — have risen. That’s a combination that caused a sharp drop in brine shrimp and other organisms in the lake’s waters; that in turn triggered a decline in the number of water birds visiting and nesting at the lake.
We were in Chicago for a wedding last week and flew back to San Francisco on Monday. We got to the airport in plenty of time and discovered our flight was a little late. No worries.
We found a place to sit that had a view of the plane’s parking space and of the jetway at our gate. The incoming flight was later than advertised, finally pulling up and shutting down maybe 25 minutes late. I watched as the jetway was extended toward the plane to allow the arriving passengers to escape their confinement. But the apparatus stopped about 10 feet short of its target. The ground crew tried to retract it and re-extend it. They couldn’t get it to close the gap.
As the minutes went by, I was imagining the slow burn the passengers stuck on the plane were doing. I was wondering whether someone would appear with a couple of planks for people to walk across from jet to jetway.
What actually happened , after 20 minutes or so, was that two guys from American Airlines showed up. One of them got a step ladder and set it up adjacent to what looked like an electrical box on the jetway. Then he climbed up, took a “hundreds of Americans die every year doing stunts like this” stance, with one foot on the ladder and the other on the electrical box, and fiddled for about 10 seconds with a switch. He climbed down and signaled to someone to give the jetway a try. This time it worked. So at about 5:50, roughly 35 minutes after the plane parked, and about the exact time Flight 1213 was scheduled to pull away from the gate for the trip to San Francisco, the arriving passengers could get off.
It took about 30 minutes for everyone to make their way off the airliner and for a cleaning crew to race through the aircraft and straighten it up. Then it was our turn to get on, and I’m guessing another 20 minutes or so to hustle everyone on board. We pulled back from the gate at about 6:40, 50 minutes late, but not a disaster.
Once we were pointed toward the taxiway, but still just 50 yards or so from the gate, we had to sit for awhile to get in the takeoff queue. I was sitting pretty far back, looking out the window on the plane’s right side. Suddenly, liquid began spouting out of the wing. A lot of fluid. It kept going. What was it? Water? That didn’t make sense. Jet fuel? that wouldn’t be good. While I was pondering this mystery, which I thought someone ought to point out to the crew, someone else a few rows ahead of me said, “Hey! Look at this! Something’s coming out of the wing!”
That got a flight attendant’s attention. She looked out a window. Another crew member said, “Call them and tell them.” One of the flight attendants reassured us that there was nothing to worry about.
The liquid kept cascading to the ground. The flow gradually slowed, then stopped. Hard to say how much spilled onto the tarmac. One hundred gallons? Five hundred? Eventually, the flight’s captain got on the PA and confirmed that we had been seeing jet fuel spilling. More than once, he suggested that it had been a normal occurrence and tried to explain what happened. I’m not sure I understood, but it sounded like an issue with having failed to properly balance the fuel load between the aircraft’s tanks and that a valve had opened — to relieve fuel line pressure? — and released fuel onto the ground. (As I say, I’m not sure I understood the details. I’d love to have an Airbus mechanic explain it again.)
In any case, we had to go back to the gate so maintenance technicians could check out the issue. Then the plane took on additional fuel. Then paperwork had to be done. The plane was opened up so people could wander around the terminal if they liked — but not too far! — and maybe grab a snack. The woman setting next to Kate and me came back with pizza slices.
All of that consumed another two hours. Kate and I did not leave the plane, though we got up a couple times to stretch. Finally, all the checking and rechecking was done, the wandering passengers were called back, and at 8:40 — now nearly three hours after our scheduled departure, we again pulled back from the gate.
All that stood between us and actual flight now was the long line of airliners waiting to take off ahead of us. The wait for our turn turned out to be another 40 minutes, making our departure nearly three hours and 20 minutes late. I was hoping Alaska would spring for free beer, or at least beer nuts, as compensation for the delay. No such luck.
Long story short: We made good time to SFO, and were off our plane by 11:35 p.m. (1:35 a.m. Chicago time). I had visions of making the last cheapskate BART train back to the East Bay. But by the time we had collected our bags and made it up to the AirTrain for the ride to the BART stop, it was too late. We wound up taking a Lyft ride instead — kind of a treat, actually, and we didn’t have to schlep our bags the last couple blocks home from the station.
I was thinking about complaining to Alaska as all this was unfolding. But then I got a personal message from the airline that came in just as our plane landed. It made me feel kind of … well, see for yourself.
We’re on an overnight trip to Fort Bragg, up on the Mendocino County coast, and that’s where I’m writing from right now.
While assessing the weather and lodging possibilities (there was actually rain in the forecast for most of California for Sunday, and on Saturday, there were big thunderstorms with very heavy rain northeast of Los Angeles), the Pinnacles came up. As in Pinnacles National Park.
Before that, the park was called Pinnacles National Monument. We drove down there once — the park is about 100 miles south of us as the crow doesn’t really fly — after hearing that some very, very rare California condors were nesting there.
In recalling that trip the other day, Kate mentioned a couple things she remembered about it. Specifically: Talking to someone who had talked about how curious and mischievous condors could be, and how some of the immense birds had visited a construction site where he had worked and managed to open a box of nails and spread them around.
Huh — that sounded familiar. What I remembered hearing — wasn’t sure whether it was on that trip or another — was that condors had a thing for insulation-type material and that they had been known to rip it out of the roofs of homes under construction or even tear apart the operator’s seat on a bulldozer. I wasn’t sure, though. Then I wondered whether I had written any of that stuff down somewhere. “Somewhere” being right here in whatever you call this long, long collection of scribblings.
So I searched — there actually is a functioning search on this site — and a post from March 2010 emerged. It said in part:
“… While we stood in the parking lot outside the visitors center, Kate pointed and said, “Look!” Big bird overhead. Didn’t look like a vulture; bigger body and heavier wings. Didn’t look like an eagle; heavier wings with those splayed-out feathers at the tips. We grabbed the binoculars and each looked. No doubt about it: a California condor. In two or three minutes it was joined by one, then four, then five others: six condors wheeling upward–directly above the visitors center. One-thirtieth of the wild population, circling overhead.
“There were about 40 people standing in line to catch a shuttle bus to a trailhead higher up, and not one of them was looking up or seemed aware of what was happening above them. I couldn’t resist calling out, “Look up, everyone,” and Kate walked over to point out what we were seeing. Binoculars and spotting scopes came up. I had my radio sound kit with me and talked to a few people about the condors. I found two people in line who had close encounters with them in Big Sur. One of the people was a volunteer condor guide and knew all about the birds, the other had managed a construction project that the condors visited. The endangered birds pulled stunts like pulling out a 50-pound box of nails and strewing it around the site. The condors apparently love to dig into things and would rip out insulation when they could get at it; on one occasion, a bird ripped out the seat from a bulldozer.”
I was gratified that I had taken note of the moment and written perhaps a fraction of it down. I might even still have the audio I recorded from that day — haven’t checked yet. (The one sobering thought: This was nine years ago.
This morning — the early sun that lit up the ocean in our clear view to the west has given way to a flat low overcast — Kate saw a man outside our motel who reminded her of someone we encountered during our 2017 Eclipse Odyssey.
On our second night out on the road from Berkeley, we had stayed in Twin Falls, Idaho. Before shoving off on Day 3, we hiked up to a pet supply store to buy a bed for Scout (aka The Dog), who didn’t seem to be very comfortable in the back seat of our rented Toyota 4Runner. When we got to the little mall where the store was, we could see we were right on the very edge of the Snake Creek Canyon, which is a sight. It’s remembered in popular lore as the chasm that Evel Knievel launched himself partway across in a September 1974 stunt that happened to occur the same day that President Gerald Ford pardoned the previous officeholder, Richard Nixon, though Nixon had not yet been criminally charged in connection with the Watergate break-in and coverup. (No, it seems I cannot mention Knievel’s Snake River “jump” without saying something about Nixon’s pardon — the two events are welded together in my mind.)
Back to Kate, though: She remarked on this person we met in Twin Falls a couple years ago. I remembered we sat in some shade outside the visitors center after watching people base jump from the U.S. 93 bridge and paragliding the several hundred feet down to the river. I remember telling him we were from Berkeley and that he met that with some California reminiscence.
I couldn’t remember all the specifics, so looked to see whether I had written anything at all about that encounter. Here is what I found:
“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:
“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).”
Which isn’t to say I captured a wealth of detail. But — maybe this reflection is sparked in part by listening in the car to an Anne Lamott lecture on writing and the importance of attentiveness — I was glad that I had put something down that sort of anchors the historical moment.
I once almost visited Atlanta — made it to a vague part of what I recall to be the northwestern outskirts — in 1972. It is an enduring memory, fogged as it is with the exhaustion and anxiety that attended the episode and a certain amount of lingering regret.
You’d like to hear more — exhaustion? anxiety? regret? — but I’m not going to go into all that right this minute.
I’m in Atlanta for real now for the wedding of a former KQED colleague. And while I have not done a lot of exploring as of yet, I can say that I like the woodsy corner of the city I’ve landed in. The neighborhood is called Kirkwood, adjacent (or at least close) to Decatur in Atlanta’s northeastern quadrant.
One notable finding when I walked to breakfast late this morning — a discovery that may be entirely commonplace to the locals — is the profusion of mockingbirds (Mimus polyglottos) hereabouts.
Checking my own mockingbird history, I see I have posted on them before — in 2014 and again last year. So there’s something about the birds, including the poem “Thus Spake the Mockingbird” and my memory of how brilliantly Kate reads it, that stops me and makes me listen. A passage from said verse:
…I am Lester Young’s sidewinding sax, sending that Pony Express
message out west in the Marconi tube hidden in every torso
tied tight in the corset of do and don’t, high and low, yes and no. I am
the radio, first god of the twentieth century, broadcasting
the news, the blues, the death counts, the mothers wailing
when everyone’s gone home. …
So, here is a Kirkwood variation on the mockingbird’s never-ending solo.
We managed to spend a whole day on the road today without getting out of Los Angeles County.
That was partly due to a detour to the Santa Monica Pier as we headed out of town. And then a second detour to the REI in Santa Monica. And then a third detour to Peet’s Coffee in Santa Monica. (We’re allegedly going camping and need to be real prepared.)
The main detour of the day was a search for the site of St. Francis Dam, which collapsed in 1928, killed at least 450 people, ended the career of William Mulholland, and wrought major changes in dam design and engineering.
We finally made it to the dam site in the waning half of the afternoon and spent a half an hour or so hiking part of the area (it’s worth more time; I hope to come back … soon-ish).
There is a lot of great background material on what happened at the dam. The best may be from J. David Rogers, a Berkeley-trained professor of geological engineering at the Missouri University of Science and Technology in Rolla who has spent decades investigating why the dam failed and documenting the disaster’s effect on the practice of engineering.
“The dam failed catastrophically near midnight on March 12/13, 1928, in its second year of operation. … The resulting flood swept down San Francisquito Canyon, with an initial depth of 140 feet above the streambed. About five minutes later, the flood destroyed a powerhouse (and workers’ community) approximately 7,300 feet downstream, killing 126 of the 129 people living there. The flood wave swept on down the canyon, widening considerably at its juncture with the Santa Clara River coming out of Soledad Canyon. It then swept through Castaic Junction and on down the Santa Clara River Valley, blasting a Southern California Edison construction camp (killing 84 of the 140 workers encamped there), thence inundating the migrant farm community at Camulos, before skimming the lower elevations of the established cities of Fillmore, Santa Paula, Saticoy, and Montalvo. The flood waters reached the ocean around 5:30 a.m., after traveling approximately 52 miles. The official death toll was 432 persons, making it the greatest engineering tragedy recorded in America in the 20th century. But those official statistics did not include Mexican migrant farm workers, of which, an unknown number also perished. One hundred seventy-nine of the listed victim’s bodies were never recovered, including those of damkeeper Tony Harnesfaeger and his 6-year-old-son.”
The magnitude of the tragedy is a little hard to grasp standing at the dam site. There are some monumental heaps of rubble. If you look around, you can see evidence that the piles of broken concrete were part of something bigger.
But nature is reclaiming the site. A cool wind blew up through the cottonwoods and maples that have taken over the streambed where the calamity began. San Francisquito Creek sounded fresh and alive.
One note: It’s a little odd that there’s no official recognition of the site beyond a state historical marker about a mile and a half away — at the powerhouse that was destroyed in the 1928 torrent. This is a place — apparently national forest land — that deserves to be remembered and interpreted.