Summer 2016 Hockey Headlines

19 Jul

As I sit here wilting in some sweltering summer heat, a hockey arena sounds like a pleasant escape. Fortunately, I’ll have that opportunity on Saturday, when a number of the state’s top teams take the ice at Braemar Arena in Edina for some scrimmages. I’ll have some notes on the games I catch, but in the meantime, here are some of the high school hockey headlines since I last sat down to write.

Get Well Soon, Andrew Kerr

First, an update on some less than happy news: Andrew Kerr, the Duluth East defenseman who graduated in 2013, remains hospitalized after a freak water trampoline accident on Saturday. He was found unresponsive by friends, given CPR by a former teammate, and airlifted to a Duluth hospital. He has been responsive since his arrival, but the extent of his injuries is unclear following a broken bone in his neck.

Kerr immediately established himself as a fan favorite in the East lineup. In December of his sophomore year, he grabbed attention when he led the defense of several teammates in an on-ice skirmish after a win in Cloquet. He put himself on the statewide radar with his highlight reel of crushing hits on Kyle Rau in the state championship game. He wasn’t big and didn’t amass the points of some of his fellow D-men on those great East teams from 2010-2013, but he was an absolute rock defensively, and one of the most reliable pieces for what was, arguably, East’s most successful class this century. Kerr spent the past three years in the NAHL and USHL, and was set to play at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire this coming winter. Off the ice, he had a reputation as a mild-mannered, quiet individual, so unlike the enforcer he became for the Hounds.

Kerr’s CaringBridge site is available here, and his GoFundMe page is here. Every bit helps.

Trouble in Cakeville

After missing its first state tournament since 2006 this past March, Edina has had an adventurous offseason. It all started when coach Curt Giles named Ben Brinkman, a rising sophomore, captain for the coming season. I can’t think of another instance in which a sophomore was named a captain, and the move, predictably, riled up some of the Hornet faithful. Now, we have a mild Edina exodus on our hands, with at least two players headed for Holy Family. If some of their stronger talents make USHL teams, their departure could be imminent as well.

None of this is to question Brinkman’s talent or leadership abilities; he is going to be a great player. But he’s also only played a handful of high school games, and in this case, Giles may not have thought about the optics for the rest of his team. Edina is deep enough to withstand some losses, but they can’t go on losing people forever. Two years ago, this program looked ready to continue its dominance for a generation, and while there’s still plenty of reason for optimism, there are also a few more questions now. Stay tuned for any further fallout.

The Elks Go Back to Basics

Elk River’s choice to replace outgoing coach Gordie Roberts is a familiar face: Ben Gustafson, a fixture in the Elks program who also replaced legend Tony Sarsland for a few games following his midseason ouster in 2012. He isn’t the flashy name that Roberts was, but he’s a well-respected local institution, and the Elk River crowd appears to be behind him.

In retrospect, that 2012 team now looks pretty good. It had three D-I defensemen and some talented young forwards, went 3-0 to close out the regular season after Gustafson took over, and won a first-round playoff game before running into top-ranked Duluth East in the semifinals. While the Hounds took a lead they wouldn’t relinquish in the first minute of that game, the Elks did a good job of hanging around, and East won 4-2 with an empty-netter. Compared to the agony of recent seasons, that’s a result in which the Elks can take resolute pride.

It’s become common to poke fun at the Elks for their playoff failures, and after the agonizing defeats of the Roberts years, I understand why people think they might never win 7AA at Amsoil Arena. Still, new blood can change things in a hurry (just ask Grand Rapids), and there’s no doubting the depth of talent coming back to Elktown this winter. Right now, I’d snap up the Elks at the low odds some others are giving them in 7AA. They’re going to be very good.

Stay or Go?

As usual, summer is a time to watch many of the state’s top players to see if they’ll stay in the high school system or try out other routes. This spring, Casey Mittelstadt provided high school hockey fans with some cause for excitement: the Eden Prairie wunderkind, fresh off a loss in the state championship game, will return for his senior year. He’s one of the highest-profile players to stick around in recent memory, and now has a chance to follow the other two great Eden Prairie megastars, Nick Leddy and Kyle Rau, in winning a state title his senior year. The Mr. Hockey race is a foregone conclusion, but he should put on a few shows for us this winter, and as someone who tries to predict what will happen, I also appreciate the very early announcement on his intentions.

The other top junior forward in the state, meanwhile, is taking a unique path: Ryan Poehling accelerated and graduated from Lakeville North a year early so that he can join his twin brothers in starting at St. Cloud State his freshman year. This one made too much sense, really: the three Poehlings have incredible chemistry, and putting them together again will make up for any inexperience on Ryan’s part. We’ll see how he handles the NCHC gauntlet.

One other elite player hasn’t made any sort of public statement. For now, I’ll assume that Scott Perunovich, the silky Hibbing defenseman, will be back, but that isn’t based on anything other than speculation. It has been a weird offseason in Hibbing, as an investigation into coach Todd Versich led to his dismissal. There’s no public record of what went wrong, but based on the unseemly rumors coming down from the Range, a clean house was probably necessary. Star goaltender Ryan Ullan has already bolted for Ann Arbor, so we’ll see what Perunovich makes of an evolving situation. Hibbing’s slim chances at knocking off Hermantown all come down to him.

A Grand Rapids Exit

If you’ve had any interest in Grand Rapids hockey over the past few years, you’ve probably encountered GRHS Hockey Online, a website that provided heaps of information on every game, and kept close tabs on players and alumni. It was never officially affiliated with the program, though the information was good enough and the sources close enough that it might as well have been. No team site put in more effort, and its curators were unfailingly loyal to their alma mater. That site is gone now, however, as the Rapids program has created its own official website.

Coach Trent Klatt’s rationale for the new site makes sense: the team wants to make money off the ad revenue. Still, the apparent lack of communication between the people setting up the new site and the GRHS people is unfortunate. I interacted with the GRHS people some, and had the pleasure of doing a couple of podcast segments with Tim How, its founder, where we sparred amiably about section 7AA. Even if we didn’t always agree on things, they’ll be missed. I appreciate all the time they put in, and the new official site will have a high bar to meet.

Up Next…

In addition to summer tournaments in the upcoming weeks, Elite League tryouts will occur on Sunday. As USHL rosters come out, we should get a more definitive answer as to who’s staying in high school and who’s leaving. Meanwhile, I’ve been messing around with some side projects on historical rosters, one of which is several years in the making. With any luck, I’ll be able to share part of it before long. Stay tuned.

A Bland Euro

10 Jul

The European Championship is usually my favorite soccer competition. As great as the World Cup is, the Euro’s limited field almost guarantees good soccer throughout. Everyone deserves to be there, and there is no need to watch some team from Oceania struggle before making its inevitable exit in the group stage. These teams know each other well, have deep histories, and the best usually play enjoyable brands of the game. The 2008 and 2012 Euros both gave us some of soccer at its finest, with the titans all battling it out and a clear winner emerging ahead of the pack.

I was, therefore, skeptical of this summer’s expanded Euro format, with the field adding eight teams for a total of 24. There were some fine moments out of teams that aren’t Euro regulars, most obviously Iceland’s stunning upset of England, and Wales’ run to the semifinals was an added bit of fun. But on the whole, my worries were well-placed. With 24 teams fighting for 16 spots in the knockout rounds, the group stage is mostly just a formality for the good teams. Scoring, predictably, was also down: the additional teams’ only hope comes from that boring, park-the-bus style of play that plagued so many of the games. The bracket also shook out so that basically all of the traditional powers (France, Spain, Italy, Germany, England) were on the same side of the bracket while Switzerland and Poland piddled around on the other side. In the old Euros, every team in the knockout stages was either a superpower or had rightfully earned its berth. This time around, there were only a handful of compelling games in the first two rounds.

I’m not the only person who noticed the underwhelming product. ESPN’s studio show immediately after Portugal’s triumph was more devoted to trashing Portugal’s style of play and the tournament in general than it was to honoring Portugal. (Only in soccer does style take absolute precedence over who actually wins.) They weren’t wrong: Portugal was boring, basically incapable of winning a game within 90 minutes, and wouldn’t have gotten out of the group stage in the old format. The final was an appropriate end to the whole tournament, and while this was Portugal’s first major title, it’s not like they’re the new kids on the block in European soccer. It took some human drama in the form of Cristiano Ronaldo to keep it from being totally blah.

In part, the 2016 Euros were flat because (unlike the past two Euros) there really wasn’t a great team in it. Aging Spain’s reign has come to an end. Italy too was down, though they still looked like one of the top two or three teams in the tournament, and were stuck playing a good team early in the knockout stages. The Dutch didn’t even make it, despite the 24-team field. Belgium, who appeared poised to fill the power vacuum, underwhelmed, and still have nothing to show for their golden generation. The English, despite having one of their more promising sides in recent memory, choked royally, as the English do. Their flop provided the rest of the continent with some excellent schadenfreude post-Brexit, and probably infected a generation of good young players with the English soccer virus.

The closest team to greatness in France this summer was Germany, but the reigning world champions didn’t quite have the same edge as they did two years ago. They were still suffocating in their control, and somewhat terrifyingly were the youngest team in the field; the ease with which they plug in rising stars like Joshua Kimmich and Julian Draxler is remarkable. What they lacked this time around was the finishing touch. World Cup heroes Thomas Muller and Mario Gotze were out of form, and while Joachim Low found a temporary solution in Mario Gomez, he was unavailable for the semifinal with France. The German attack was reduced to cross after useless cross, and they folded surprisingly quickly after Bastian Schweinsteiger’s inexcusable hand ball in the box.

The French were steady and good, and seemed nearly inevitable heading into that final in the Stade de France. Then, however, they pulled a vanishing act in the final, either lulled into a false sense of security by Ronaldo’s injury or undone by the pressure of the moment. Antoine Griezmann was brilliant in the tournament, but seemed to run out of gas at the end, and could use some time off after a long and draining year that saw him burnish his credentials as a top-flight star, miss a penalty in the Champions League final, and endure the horror of his sister being trapped in the Bataclan nightclub when terrorists attacked Paris last November. Paul Pogba ghosted for long periods of time, leaving me once again wondering what all the hype is about. There was no shortage of collective talent to go along with the brilliant renditions of La Marseillaise, but the French whole never seemed to exceed the sum of the parts.

That left us with Portugal, another country that has had much more talented teams in recent memory. They went into the Stade de France having beaten no one of real consequence to make the final—their toughest opponent was probably Croatia—and for the first ten minutes looked very much out of place. All they needed was an injury to their world class superstar. After that, the defense locked into place, with Pepe clearing ball after ball and Rui Patricio on top of his game in goal, and once France started to press, the Portuguese decided that they might try their hand at that whole goal-scoring thing and indeed did so in extra time.

It’s been a strange year for Cristiano Ronaldo. He was fairly useless in the Champions League final before popping in the winning penalty for Real Madrid, scored a few goals but did nothing otherworldly in the Euros, and both his teams had remarkably easy paths to their respective finals. And yet, here he is, leader of two European champions in one summer. As a Barcelona fan I’m somewhat obligated to hate him, but this was a humanizing moment for the Madeiran magician, and a game that will, weirdly, improve his legacy. His raw emotion and attempt to play on that wrecked knee, followed  by cheerleading and coaching from the technical area later on, are, in a way, far more impressive than his endless highlight reel of goals. We saw a different side of Ronaldo in this one, with a player often critiqued for his diva tendencies coming into his own as a passionate leader.

It’s also befitting of Ronaldo that, in an otherwise less-than-inspiring tournament, he became the story. That’s the Ronaldo way: he is the center of attention, and this game was a reminder that sheer power of ego can be a good thing, too. And while he may never have Lionel Messi’s humility and ball-sharing skills, he can be a powerful force for a team just by being Ronaldo. (Though Ronaldo is better at paying his taxes, apparently.) Even though his actual role was minimal, it’s hard not to think he’s earned the right to claim a major international trophy. I don’t mind cocky athletes if they can back it up, and Ronaldo most certainly has throughout his career.

This redeemed Ronaldo will be my takeaway from Euro 2016, along with yet another sense that international soccer has grown too fat off its money grabs. We’re stuck with 24 teams in the 2020 Euros too, and UEFA is going with a gimmicky tournament with no single host country, with teams jetting everywhere from Baku to Glasgow to play their games. The final is even in a country that is no longer part of Europe. With Portugal’s success, I wouldn’t count on an attacking revolution in the next few years: expect more parked buses and sterile offensive outputs, and no number of washed-up pleading ex-player pundits can change that. True change would probably have to come from FIFA, which reassures no one. Oh well. Hey, we’ve got some summer hockey tournaments coming up.

West Coast Road Trip Wrap

8 Jul

Here are a few stray thoughts on my road trip before it recedes too far into the rear view mirror and return to blogging about other things. All of the blog entries from the trip are here:

Intro  | Minneapolis to Salt Lake | Salt Lake to San Francisco | San Francisco to Vancouver | Vancouver to Seattle | Seattle to Minneapolis

First off, road trips are an excellent way to see the country. They allow for considerable flexibility, and put one in control of one’s agenda. Want to swing by Tahoe, or stop at a convenient overlook? Well, you can. With two drivers, 10-hour days are very manageable. The U.S. has an interstate highway system that we all take for granted now, but makes long-distance travel by road remarkably easy.

It’s not always speedy; the West in particular is remarkably big, and it can take entire days to cross a single state. Nor are these spaces between large cities always thrilling. But if you’re into catching some details or interacting with people who live outside the U.S.’s urban bubbles, there’s a lot to be said for crossing these spaces. It gives a more adequate sense of scale, and how disconnected the entire nation is, and how hard it is to slap an all-encompassing narrative on all of these distinctive little corners.

Here are some recommendations for other would-be road trippers:

When you can, stay with people you know. Staying with locals with a strong knowledge of a place makes any trip more enjoyable. They’ll know which common tourist stops are worth visiting, and which ones to avoid. They’ll know the gems off the beaten track, know food and drink, and are probably savvier than Siri when it comes to getting around. Our time in San Francisco and Portland was much richer for that, and staying with people who both reflect the ethos of their cities and filter it through some Midwestern sensibilities made them invaluable guides.

If you don’t know people in a place, consider camping. Nothing against Airbnb, which served us well when we used it; hostels are also fine, particularly for the younger set looking to make some friends along the way. But camping is cheap, easy, doesn’t intrude on anyone, and far more likely to be peaceful. Obviously, there are different ranges of camping comfort out there . But that night in the Black Hills, despite being at a fairly busy campground, was one of the nicest of the trip, and had us wondering if we should perhaps camp more on the return leg. Unfortunately, our tent’s disappearance put that all to rest.

Don’t leave things in your car that signal it as a target. We thought we hadn’t left anything of great value in the back seat of the car: a food bag, a sweatshirt and a t-shirt, a couple of pillows. But there was just enough stuff to encourage someone to break in when we were in San Francisco. After they smashed the window, our thief got into the trunk and found the gold mine: the tent, the sleeping bags, the beer, the books on disc. We were a bit paranoid after that, and basically cleared out the inside of the car every night from then on. But in general, less clutter makes a car less inviting. Finally, be sure to valet lock the trunk so that people can’t get at it even if they do break into the car.

Tune up the car before you go. The last thing you want is a breakdown somewhere in the middle of Nevada. Make sure it’s in top condition before you head out.

Choose travel partners wisely. When you’re trapped in a car for ten hours a day with a person, you get to know them pretty well. It’s long, you get tired, and everyone’s neuroses will inevitably come out. Be prepared for that. It’s best to be up front about arrangements: rotate gas purchases, make a spreadsheet to track everything else. A little space from time to time is probably a good thing, even among close friends.

Don’t waste the chances when they come. This gets harder and harder with age. Do it, and do it now.

Finally, some superlatives from the entire trip:

Favorite city to visit: San Francisco.

Most likely to move to: Seattle. Vancouver would probably win if it weren’t in a different country.

Best meal: Nopalito, San Francisco

Best dose of grease: Lardo’s, Portland

Best bar atmosphere: Bimbo’s Cantina, Seattle

Honorable mention: The Mangy Moose, Hill City SD; Alibi Room, Vancouver

Best picnic site: Watchman Overlook, Crater Lake National Park

Honorable mention: Lake Tahoe; Independence Rock, Wyoming

Best beer: Russian River…not for any one particular beer, but the entire range available

Best wine: Ridge Geyserville

Most beautiful natural site: Deception Pass on Whidbey Island, Washington

Honorable mentions: Needles Highway, South Dakota; Painted Canyon, North Dakota; the color of Crater Lake

Most beautiful view of a city: San Francisco from the Marin Headlands

Honorable mentions: North Vancouver toward its downtown; just about anywhere, Seattle

Most pleasant surprise: CorgiCon 2016, San Francisco

Least pleasant surprise: Car break-in and theft, San Francisco

Finest moment: Swerving to avoid unsuspecting baby birds in the middle of the road, Montana

Forgettable moment: Closing an Uber door on Andrew’s head, Seattle

Most fun drives: I-80 descents into Salt Lake City and out of the Sierras; Lake Boulevard around Lake Tahoe; I-90 in central Montana; any road in California wine country

Best college campuses: University of San Francisco, University of British Columbia

Best podcast listened to: “Invisibilia” on how turning a bunch of oil rig workers into saps made them better workers

Most boring state to drive through: Nevada (Wyoming and the Dakotas both have some stretches of distinctive natural features)

Best drivers: Utah

Worst drivers: Washington

Best dose of Americana: South Dakota

Most likely to revisit soon: Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Next road trip: American Southwest, anyone?

Road Trip Journal V: Seattle to Minneapolis

5 Jul

(Part IV)

Day Ten: Reasonable and Prudent

We wake early in Seattle the next morning. My friend goes out to grab a better breakfast, while I make do with mediocre hostel fare. We’re on the road shortly thereafter, headed east on I-90 over Lake Washington and through Bellvue before our final date with the Cascades. The mountains are shrouded in clouds today, with the sky a steely Seattle grey; the lowest of the peaks are lost in white, and some peek out above their airy halos from time to time. The passes here aren’t nearly as extreme as they are along I-80, and it’s a straightforward descent into central Washington, where the sun comes out and the temperatures rise.

Washington east of the Cascades just isn’t a place I’ve ever given much thought, and I’m surprised by how empty it is, its vacant highlands and amber waves of grain none too distant from Nevada or Wyoming. There are a few more towns, and the Columbia River gorge and crossing are a welcome and impressive break from the plains, but a mountain range leaves this area a world away from Seattle. This is the only place on the trip where we see a serious number of Trump signs along the highway, which says something considering the amount of deep red territory we’ve covered. Spokane passes quickly, and we leave Washington behind.

We make our lunch stop in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, a lake resort town that we’re drawn to by pretty pictures we’ve seen before. Coeur d’Alene, it turns out, is no secret. Just thirty miles from Spokane, it’s packed on the Friday before Fourth of July weekend, with traffic backups and multitudes milling around its high-rise hotels. We eat a quick lunch along some cement steps leading down into the lake as boats buzz by beyond us and a seaplane comes in for a landing. But even if it’s not wilderness, it’s a welcome break. My friend takes a dip at the beach, while I wade in a little and admire the Idaho beach bums and the cartoon moose statuary.

2016-07-01 14.19.58

This is another day of extensive driving, and another one that leaves me impressed by the extent of the interstate highway system. It was a colossal infrastructure project, and while its story has its dark sides—ask anyone displaced by freeways punched through poorer parts of cities—it’s also a triumph of engineering and a marvel for interstate commerce. Even when clogged up by construction or congestion, it moves people with remarkable speed. Its construction radically remade small towns everywhere, as businesses shifted out of the core to little stops at exits. In Wallace, Idaho, we pass one of the towns that refused to bend to these changing tides. The residents of Wallace held out for years to resist the destruction of their historic downtown, and had it registered as a landmark in 1976. It took until 1991 for the government to complete a viaduct around it.

After some crawling traffic due to construction, we enter Montana, where speed limits are an afterthought. So much of one, in fact, that for a spell in the 1990s, speed limit signs along highways simply instructed drivers to go “reasonable and prudent” speeds. When the courts found this too vague for enforcement, the state settled on a poorly monitored 80 MPH limit. We rocket around bends and over mountain passes, though we’re far from the fastest car on the road. We pause in Missoula, where we continue our visits of college campuses and make a loop through the University of Montana.

2016-07-01 20.06.20

Through much of Montana, the road follows the Clark Fork, a river among the many features in this part of country named for Lewis or Clark. If there had been vacancies, we would have camped at the Missouri Headwaters State Park east of Butte, but with our tent long gone, it’s just as well that we’re now forced to plow on. We catch up with a storm near sunset, one that opens up in little spurts here and there in the hazy sky over the mountains, creating little sheets of rain with rainbows here and there along the route. Behind us, the sky is brilliant hue of pink mixed with sinking clouds. Another burst of energy to carry us through the final few miles.

2016-07-01 20.27.41

It’s dark by the time we arrive in Bozeman, where we’re the guinea pigs for a new Airbnb host. He delivers for us, and we grab a quick bite at a bar that caters to the Montana State crowd, one of the few places that still has an open kitchen. It’s too late to see much, and my friend is tired, so our list of Bozeman sights to see goes, regrettably, untouched. This may have been our most relentless day of driving, with few stops and no real thrilling destination at the end. The trip is definitely winding down, but we’re not close enough to the finish that we’ll miss any of it yet.

Day Eleven: Born to Run

We wake refreshed after a comfortable sleep in Bozeman, and Bruce Springsteen serenades us on the way east across Montana. The ranges of the western half of the state give way to craggy badlands and little ridges flecked with ranches. We catch our last glimpses of snow-capped peaks along the way, and pass just a bit too far north for a stop at Little Bighorn. I take over the driving somewhere east of Billings, after we’ve split north onto I-94. Today, I’m in a driving zone, just cruising along without distraction and drinking it all in. As is so often the case in the west, the freeway is in a valley along with a river (this time, the Yellowstone) and a train track, the rivers, roads, and rails all united in the easiest passage through the rough land all around.

We cross the North Dakota border and stop for lunch at a rest area, where we’re greeted by the most North Dakotan of scenes: an endless green plain of farmland, stretching out as far as the eye can see. Things change up a little further along, though, as we come to Theodore Roosevelt National Park. It wasn’t in the cards for this trip, but it’s toward the top of the list of sites I want to see in the West. We make do by pulling over at the Painted Canyon overlook, where we’re treated to endless marches of painted badlands bubbling up over creeks and gulches. The spotty cloud cover adds to the contrasting colors, harsh and beautiful. Just a long day’s drive from Minneapolis, this park beckons me back in a way others haven’t. I feel that same pull that must have sucked in T.R. over a century ago.

2016-07-02 12.32.09

The badlands peter out shortly thereafter, and then it’s just North Dakota in all its glory. The state is particularly proud of its large manmade objects. We catch a glimpse of the bird-and-eye sculpture at the Enchanted Highway, pause for gas by the world’s largest sandhill crane, and see signs for the world’s largest buffalo. Our only real stop, however, is for the world’s largest Holstein cow, a beauty named Salem Sue, who stands proudly atop a hill outside tiny New Salem. Sue gazes out from what has to be one of the higher points in the state relative to its surroundings, and longs to graze on those endless green fields.

2016-07-02 14.00.02

The original plan had been to spend our final night on the road at Fort Abraham Lincoln State Park, which is just south of Bismarck. Now that my tent is the property of some homeless San Franciscan, however, we’re forced to make contingency plans with my friend’s aunt outside of Fargo. Still, we have ourselves a pre-paid pass to Fort Lincoln, so we stop in for a brief visit. The visitor’s center tells us the tale of the Mandans, who once had a large village on the banks of the Missouri here. A few of their round earthen homes, deceptively large, have been rebuilt for us tourists. We wander down to the river, where a sandbar just out from the bank is overloaded with locals on boats enjoying the water. Opposite the wide Missouri is Bismarck, and the bizarre tower that passes for a state capital in North Dakota lords over it all. On our way out, we drive by the fort’s buildings, their unassuming architecture belying their historical significance. George Custer set out from here on his ill-fated final trek, off to the fields of Little Bighorn in southeast Montana. This outpost was the end of white civilization in the 1880s; now, it’s the end of the West for two travelers.

2016-07-02 15.00.17

The road east from Bismarck is a blur, and my friend’s aunt is ready to spoil us with dinner and drinks and political conversation late into the night. Her town, Casselton, is as sleepy as they come, and a single mother of two Harvard students is happy to pass the night a couple of Georgetown grads with steak and ice cream. It’s late, but I’m up writing anyway. I have a lot left to recount, and the final thoughts for tomorrow are already writing themselves.

Day Twelve: Return to Lake Wobegon

Throughout my childhood, Garrison Keillor’s A Prairie Home Companion was required listening on Saturday nights. We weren’t a churchgoing family, so the News from Lake Wobegon was the closest I got to a weekly sermon. We’d begin dinner sometime around the start of the show’s second hour, and I always sat and listened, even if dinner had ended. I haven’t listened regularly since I left home, and I won’t pretend to enjoy his singing or his seeming exhaustion by the end. But this weekend marks Keillor’s final show, so it’s only fitting that we listen to his final episode as we drive back into Minnesota.

The last morning of our road trip only adds to the above average idyll. Our host for the night, my friend’s aunt, is a Lutheran pastor, so we sit in on her Sunday service before going out to brunch in Fargo. Her homily on her son, who just had his wallet pickpocketed while backpacking through Peru and the kindness he encountered from strangers, resonated with a couple of travelers fresh off their own encounter with theft. We leave Elim Lutheran not to cross the Red Sea, but merely the Red River of the North, back into Minnesota.

At first, the landscape in the western half of the state resembles North Dakota. But slowly there are more towns that seem positively dense after the Great Plains, and more deciduous forests for the first time since we left this state twelve days ago. All is thick and green, and the smattering of the 10,000 lakes that line I-94 are all packed with holiday weekend boaters. As if we need any more reminders of that small-town Minnesotan literary legacy, we pass signs for Sinclair Lewis Avenue in Sauk Centre and the Lake Wobegon Trail just beyond.

The Minnesota myth has its demons, and Garrison Keillor is probably complicit in its creation. I’ve poked at it on this blog before, and I’ll never embrace it fully. But it’s become part of that vague haze of childhood rightness that I’ll never shake, and has a place somewhere in my loyalty to this state, even as I grumble about it. I’m sure I owe Garrison more than a few assists for the novel draft I cranked out between undergraduate life in Washington and graduate life in Minnesota, one focused on a town in Lake Wobegon country, filtered through the eyes of a jaded teenager from Minneapolis. The draft needs some work, but the story it told grounded a drifting kid in this state that a visiting Georgetown friend once labeled “the last bastion of the American Dream.” It allowed me to understand home.

Minneapolis suburbia comes gradually, the woods and freeway walls all but hiding the fact that we’re in a city until we can see the Minneapolis skyline. One last round of construction delays a few blocks from home allows us to get through the final News from Lake Wobegon, in which Garrison reflects on some townfolk who have passed on, and on the anonymity that follows death. My roots here aren’t that deep in years, really, but they’re deep enough to have seen some tragedy. My late brother, on my mind frequently over the past two weeks following what would have been his eighteenth birthday, had the middle name Garrison. A somber note as I end this trip, perhaps, but it’s all part of a broader narrative, complicated and rewarding all the same.

I’ve spent these twelve days as a tourist, a shopper among cities, a consumer of superb experiences. It was delightful, and I’m ready for another trip soon. But no package of fine living and cultural intrigue and and weather can ever define home. The land can evoke a sense of home, but for all its permanence, it isn’t what makes a place. That will always be deeper.

In true Keillor tradition, I’ll close with a poem, with my usual Greek twist on things:

Ithaka

C.P. Cavafy

As you set out for Ithaka

hope the voyage is a long one,

full of adventure, full of discovery,

Laistrygonians and Cyclops,

angry Poseidon—don’t be afraid of them:

you’ll never find things like that on your way

as long as you keep your thoughts raised high,

as long as a rare excitement

stirs your spirit and your body.

Laistrygonians and Cyclops,

wild Poseidon—you won’t encounter them

unless you bring them inside your soul,

unless your soul sets them up in front of you.

 

Hope the voyage is a long one.

May there be many a summer morning when,

with what pleasure, what joy,

you come into harbors seen for the first time;

may you stop at Phoenician trading stations

to buy fine things,

mother of pear and coral, amber and ebony,

sensual perfume of every kind—

as many sensual perfumes as you can;

and may you visit many Egyptian cities

to gather stores of knowledge from their scholars.

 

Keep Ithaka always in your mind.

Arriving there is what you are destined for.

But do not hurry the journey at all.

Better if it lasts for years,

so you are old by the time you have reached the island,

wealthy with all you have gained along the way,

not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.
Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey.

Without her you would not have set out.

She has nothing left to give you now.

 

And if you find her poor, Ithaka won’t have fooled you.

Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,

you will have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.

***

It’s good to be back. On to the next chapter.

Road Trip Journal IV: Vancouver to Seattle

4 Jul

(Part III)

Day Eight: Foreign Lands

Unlike our last two stops, we don’t know anyone in Vancouver. My friend and I are strangers in a strange land…that is, we’re a person with Canadian heritage and another who grew up a stone’s throw from the border, in the least exotic of foreign nations for an American traveler. A full day in Vancouver will be a welcome break from nonstop driving.

We’re in a hostel on the West End, left to our own devices to make an itinerary. It’s a bustling place with herds of Germans, a multigenerational group of women, and the usual collection of college-aged kids with backpacks, though our roommates for the first night are a middle-aged German motorcyclist and another older man who keeps me up for a while by scratching his head over and over again. All of my previous hostel experience was in Mexico, so this time around, I feel a bit old as I sit typing in the lobby and watch a herd of German boys ready themselves for a night on the town. The markers of time are unavoidable.

Our Vancouver explorations begin west of the hostel, as we head for the shoreline and follow it through Stanley Park, a giant green space at the tip of the spit that holds the city’s downtown. Parts of it could be deep in the woods, save for the soft drone of seaplanes and occasional toot from a ship. Beaches line the route, though we also venture into thick woods that look familiar to a Minnesotan, except everything is a bit larger, a bit lusher. We loop past the Lions Gate suspension bridge over to North Vancouver and slip back down to the seawall, where we pass a free little waterpark that serves as a ten-year-old’s paradise, and pass the Lumbermen’s Gate, a sculpture with intriguing design and a better name. A collection of totem poles brightens up a far corner of the park, towering symbols of indigenous Canadian pride, and a small lighthouse peeks out on the foremost promontory. We wander past the yacht club and the rowing club, admiring the boats and vaguely wondering their worth.

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We find the Olympic cauldron from 2010 near the Convention Center, though it’s lifeless and undergoing maintenance. Lunch takes place at a café a few blocks up, and we get a taste of the heart of Vancouver’s financial district, which has an easier pace and a bit more life than its American counterparts. Our next steps head back toward the waterfront, and pass through a large train station to grab tickets on the Sea Bus. This passenger ferry shuttles us across the Vancouver Harbour to North Vancouver, another branch of the city with yet more towers and port facilities. We wander briefly to appreciate the views of downtown from across the water, and grab a beer on the deck of a market overlooking the water.

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After the Sea Bus deposits us back downtown, we venture into the car for a short while to cross back on to Vancouver’s southernmost peninsula. We wander up and down the mall of the University of British Columbia, a modern but tasteful campus with some superb views of the sea. We drift back down to a nearby beach and walk along it for a spell in search of a stretch short of seaweed, but aren’t terribly successful. Vancouver may not be renowned for its beaches, but it’s still pleasing enough to dip our feet in for a little while. Traveling back across the Kitsilano neighborhood can be a chore—the left turn lane, it appears, has not yet come to Canada—but we make it back to the hostel for a quick recharge before dinner.

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Our trip to dinner is a meandering walk that guides us along the False Creek waterfront, down to BC Place (busy with a Vancouver Whitecaps MLS game), and past the Roman colosseum of a library. The city’s new towers blend easily with the older architecture in the evening sun, and it all adds up to a marvel of a view. I’m left wondering if this city ever looks less than perfect, though we soon find out when a block degenerates into a giant homeless camp. Unlike San Francisco, Vancouver seems to cluster it all in one place. Still, we find a quality restaurant in an old brick building with immaculate décor. We splurge a bit here, and enjoy West Coast seafood; I go for the clams, along with a few beers from the completely unfamiliar Canadian craft brew menu.

Vancouver is a city of remarkable comfort in a superb location. While most major American cities didn’t build much housing in the 70s and 80s, it kept its vitality going; it’s not always an architectural win, but it’s created a dense, livable core. The 2010 Olympics and Chinese investment have kept it booming since. Perhaps it’s just because we don’t know it as well, but it also doesn’t quite have the edge of its West Coast brethren like Portland and Seattle, for good or ill. How very Canadian.

Day 9: When in Rome

I don’t drink coffee. I live enough of my life somewhere between on-edge alertness and outright anxiety that I don’t need much in the way of caffeine to keep me going. As this trip has shown me, I can go five hours behind the wheel with little more than some cheap green tea as a pick-me-up. But on Day Nine of this road trip, I’m in Seattle, so I have no choice but to grab a cup at a swanky-looking café. I found it almost tolerable as I sipped at it over the course of an hour, which I suppose is a win.

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The day began with the easiest border crossing I’ve ever had. The trip south from Vancouver was only mildly eventful, as we coped again with the lack of left turn lanes, the price of Canadian gas (don’t believe that harmless-seeming low price per liter they advertise), and an exit that did not have a return entrance to the southbound lane, leading to an adventure through Canadian suburbia. Surprise: it’s little different than American suburbia, though perhaps a little more compact, and some of Vancouver’s diversity came out in the number of Sikh names on the lots for sale.

After the border guard welcomes us home, we make a pit stop at the Peace Arch on the border. It’s a bit of marble right on the border, with flags from both countries and proclamations of cooperation. The whole experience makes the formality of the guard station almost laughable: we park just around the bend and wander freely between the two countries along the grassy median between the northbound and southbound lanes. A block away, a Canadian residential street faces an American park, with nothing more than a brown sign to point out the international boundary between them. Never have borders seemed more arbitrary.

We arrive in Seattle a couple hours later, and check into our hostel, which is in a more historic, classier building than our Vancouver digs. A friend from grad school has some recommendations that we follow throughout the day, and the first is perhaps the biggest hit: a scrumptious Thai lunch by Chinatown. The only issue is a struggle to understand the city’s parking stickers, but a Japanese lady comes to the rescue and makes sure ours is displayed properly.

We wander past the Mariners’ and Seahawks’ stadiums, get our coffee, and past city hall, which is surrounded by a tent city. This is one of the most striking things about the West Coast: the ubiquity of homelessness. It is everywhere, far more visible than in Minneapolis or Chicago, or even New York or Washington. The group around the King County Courthouse, with well-ordered tent rows and banners protesting evictions, are the most organized homeless I’ve ever seen. My hosts in San Francisco and Portland were both careful to distinguish between two distinct homeless populations in each city: the traditional homeless population, and a category of people who have more or less voluntarily chosen an alternative lifestyle. They’ve followed the Into the Wild script, only without actually venturing into the wild. How do they affect the dynamic here, and does the activism in places like Seattle lead to genuine results? We can only speculate.

My friend and I devote the rest of the day to tours of parks around Seattle. First up, the Seattle Center, with its iconic Space Needle and musical fountain, which entertains us for a while as it shoots jets of water at children who run in fear but keep venturing closer anyway. Next up is Gas Works Park, a converted refinery that now offers a commanding view of downtown from Lake Union. After that, we fight rush hour traffic up a nearby hill to Volunteer Park, whose water tower offers an even more complete view of the skyline. Its leafy green spaces are a haven amid a packed city, and a man cruises about in his convertible, blasting Vivaldi for our edification.

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The final park, however, is perhaps the sweetest spot we find in Seattle. Discovery Park is northwest of downtown, out on a point into the Sound beyond a quiet, middle-class neighborhood. The parking area and first bit of hiking through some woods are innocent enough, and we skirt an apparent old military instillation without much enthusiasm. Then, however, the landscape opens up into a broad grassy prairie, with a view of the ocean beyond. Eventually the grass turns to sand, and we’re atop a scrubby bluff over the Sound. A trail leads down through lush forest, and before long we’re out on a stony beach littered in driftwood. We’re here toward sunset, and that golden glow we saw two days before at Deception Pass settles in over the Sound. The two paddleboarders who glide by make their craft appear elegant for possibly the first time ever.

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After a stop back at the hostel to give our phones a little more juice, we stop by Pike Place, Seattle’s classic tourist market. We’re too late to see any thrown fish, but we still get the feel of the historic streets, and meander into the world’s first Starbucks. The rest of our night follows the advice of my friend through Capitol Hill, with dinner at a superb cantina followed by drinks at a dive and a more upscale second-story place next to a bouncing ballroom dance hall. Seattle, we muse, has a lot of pluses over the other coastal cities we’ve visited: not as costly or crowded as San Francisco, a bit more cosmopolitan than Portland, more of an edge than Vancouver. The traffic is a nightmare, however, and we’ve caught it on a sunny day, with none of the famed rain. We only got a taste. My next trip, wherever it may lead, should be a deeper dive.

(Part V)

Road Trip Journal III: San Francisco to Vancouver

29 Jun

(Part II)

Day 6: Of Craters and Beer

Rewarding as San Francisco has been, it’s time to bid its embarrassingly bad pronunciations of Spanish words a fond farewell, and to leave behind any hope of recovering my tent. (I enjoy picturing a man in a San Francisco tent camp in a Georgetown sweatshirt and a Duluth East cap, sipping a beer meant for a future host as he educates himself with a book on disc on American politics.) We get out of the city a bit after seven, once again fortunate enough to be going against the heaviest flows of traffic. We head back east on I-80 for a stretch before breaking north at Vacaville, a superbly named farming town in the Central Valley.

For the next several hours, it’s an endless string of agriculture, with a wide range of fruit-bearing trees flanking the highway before they give way to olives further north. The landscape starts to change more definitively around Redding, where we enter thicker forests. Mount Shasta looms up on the horizon, and grows steadily as the drive goes on. This brings back fond memories of waking early one morning in the midst of an unexpected overnight but trip to the view of the mountain at age fourteen, a necessary moment of wonder on a grueling cross-country tour. Next, we’re treated to picturesque Lake Shasta before climbing the foothills of the Cascades.

We leave I-5 in Weed, another memorably named California city, but don’t get far before the traffic along the two-line highway grinds to a halt. The source of the stop is some unseen distant flagman, and a long queue of cars piles up along an otherwise empty stretch of road, the only observers some free-range cattle. Fortunately, it’s a gorgeous place to be stuck, with views back toward Mount Shasta. In time we move again, but the VW Westfalia (bumper sticker: 0 to 60 in 15 minutes!) in front of us gets stopped by the flagman this time around, so we again come to a halt. The appeal of the view starts to wear thin, but we finally move on.

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The city of Klamath Falls and its neighboring lake offer up some pleasant vistas, but otherwise, the towns of northeast California and south-central Oregon are bleak. This is the most evident rural poverty on the trip, with rotting homes and a profusion of trailers. The red soil and drought-driven dust kicked up by the slightest wind only exacerbate the sense of desolation. We’re off the beaten path here, and a world away from the chic cities where we both start and end our drive on this day.

The road to Crater Lake starts out tamely enough, as it rolls through pinewoods and runs along a steadily deepening canyon. We’re clearly high up, though: there are hints of snow along the sides of the road. The switchbacks begin beyond the pay station, and eventually we come to open fields of fluffy white stuff, even under sunny 70-degree skies. We stop to play in it briefly, and come to the rim. Crater Lake is like no other: its deep azure waters plunge into untold depths. While just five miles across, the lake is more than three times deeper than Superior, its surface broken only by the cinder cone volcano of Wizard Island. The lake is the remains of a magma chamber for old Mount Mazama, a volcano that erupted with such force that it destroyed its whole peak and left just a hole in its place.

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Perhaps a measure of the beauty of a natural site comes from the inability of a picture to capture it. I first had that thought at the Grand Canyon a year and a half ago, and by this criterion, Crater Lake certainly qualifies. I’ve seen plenty of ridges along lakes in my life—we Minnesotans are lake connoisseurs, after all—but one needs some perspective from the interpretive signs to understand just how far down it goes. The boat that heads out to Wizard Island in the center of the lake is pea-sized, and what looks like a small rock jutting out of the water is the height of a 14-story building. The ridges are colossal, shooting straight down in descents resembling ski slopes. A trail down to an overlook is a straight cut through a snowbank at one point, and while another trail we begin to explore is clear, descending hikers inform us that drifts further up make it difficult to traverse.

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Even so, the rim is easy to enjoy. Stone paths line the south rim, and a winding road provides views all along both sides for the handful of months when it’s passable. A snarky Parks Service employee entertains a crowd outside a lodge, and we spent our picnic lunch amused by a girl who refuses to cooperate for the family photos. We endure another flagman and wind back and forth along the rim before spinning off to the north once again, our visit all too brief. We pass through old volcanic fields of rock before returning to long, straight roads through pine forests and sad towns. South of Bend, we turn west and make our way through a gap in the Cascades toward Eugene. More pines, a few more snowcapped peaks, and some beautiful glimpses of sun-flecked Lake Odell and another reservoir further along. It’s a lengthy descent down toward Eugene, where we make a brief, confused circuit of the University of Oregon campus. We pass befuddling parking systems, Duck decor, and the stadium for the national track and field championships before we re-connect with I-5.

We arrive in Portland at just the right time, as the sun heads toward the horizon. It catches the buildings downtown and the bridges over the Willamette River, and the city sparkles and gleams. We meet up with an old family friend—our dads go back to their undergraduate days—and he and his roommate guide us on to the Portland streetcar to head downtown. Here, we meet a Georgetown friend now in Portland at the Deschutes brewery. Beer is essential Portland fare, and while Deschutes is technically from Bend and the biggest of the local brewers, it still delivers deliciousness. My eclectic dinner party comes together easily, and we savor elk burgers and trade life updates and jests, then retire to a second, more divy bar that lets me try another local beer before crashing on the couch.

Day 7: No Deception

We sleep a bit later than usual this morning, and once we stir to life, my friend gives us a tour of Portland. We pass through downtown in the daytime and make the requisite stop at Powell’s, a wonder of a bookstore with several floors and a massive collection. My sole purchase isn’t something unique to Powell’s or Portland, but it does fit with some of the road trip’s evolving themes: William Finnegan’s Barbarian Days, an excerpt of which in the New Yorker last year so engrossed me that I felt half-compelled to take up surfing on the spot. In the absence of my stolen books on disc, it will have to carry me through Montana and North Dakota later this week. Further thoughts to come.

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The tour continues with a wander south through the city. I snap a quick picture of Mills End Park, the world’s smallest public park (a small tree in a median), and we make it down to the picturesque campus of Reed College. The pedestrian bridge at Tillikum Crossing gives views up and down the Willamette, and Hawthorne Street offers the perfect cross-section of Portlandia weirdness, curiosity, and pretention. Mount Tabor provides a view of the city, and a deliciously greasy lunch at Lardo’s rounds our stay in the City of Beards and Beer.

Portland is the first destination on this trip that I don’t think I’ve given due time: it seems like there are too many unexplored corners, and far too many beers left untasted. Above all, it’s a beautiful city, dense but leafy, and seventeen bridges cross the Willamette and tie it all together. It has the chill West Coast vibe that leaves me with mixed feelings, but it doesn’t have the ideology of a San Francisco: it’s quirky for its own sake, and its corners deserve further looks.

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Canada summons us, however, so we’re back on the road shortly after two. Leaving Portland is slow going, with congestion between the Willamette and Columbia Rivers. We cross the first of many green-trussed bridges and head north across Washington, with Mount Hood, Mount Saint Helens, and Mount Rainier all rearing up at times along the road. Olympia passes in a blur of greenery, and we catch only fleeting glances at the port of Tacoma before we hit Seattle’s notorious traffic just after five. We’re reduced to a crawl for long stretches, though an HOV lane serves as a godsend, and we get a decent view of its major sports stadiums and downtown on our way through. Don’t worry, Seattle: we’ll be back.

We break off the freeway just north of the city and swing out to Mukilteo for a detour into Puget Sound. We catch a quick ferry out to Whidbey Island, which stretches some forty miles north from the entrance to Puget Sound, parallel to the shoreline before a road bridge reconnects it with the mainland south of Bellingham. From the decks of the ferry, we have quality views up and down the Salish Sea, the body of water separated by the Ocean by Washington’s Olympic Peninsula and British Columbia’s Vancouver Island, with the Strait of Juan de Fuca as its outlet. The road across Whidbey is a delight to drive. Aside from booming Oak Harbor, it’s a quaint isle littered with small cottages and occasional clearings filled with black cows. The sinking sun cuts through pine forests in ways that remind me of my favorite patch of woods back in Duluth. There’s something very homely about rocky, pine-studded shorelines at sunset.

The real treat comes at a point known as Deception Pass, a pair of short bridges between Whidbey and Fidalgo Islands. We’ve timed it perfectly with the sunset, which lights up the straits and catches the pines and rocky shores. The narrows may have deceived George Vancouver when he first explored them, but they don’t deceive us: this is among the most beautiful sights we’ve ever seen, with sea and sun and cliffs and pines all coordinated in one great burst of magnificence. As if this weren’t enough, a large bald eagle wheels overhead and over the bridge for a moment before soaring off. A few minutes here justify the entire detour across the Sound.

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Fidalgo Island ends on a bland note, with a refinery and a gaudy casino before we cross back to mainland. Still, the horizon rewards us, as the mountains over the coastal plain fade from purple to black. We rediscover I-5 and head north, once again negotiating construction around Bellingham before coming to the Canadian border. It’s an uneventful crossing, as the border guard sounds almost disappointed that we’re only spending two nights. We adjust to metric and take the highway north to Vancouver, heading through a tunnel and out into the city’s south end. We have a brief lesson in how much less the Canadians value freeways; ours disappears into city streets just beyond the tunnel, and after that, we briefly lose the highway. But when we find it again, it’s yet another superb view, this one of downtown Vancouver. We cross the  Granville Bridge into the heart of the city, a dense peninsula covered with illuminated towers, and the streets teem with nightlife, even at eleven on a Tuesday night. We find our hostel, grab a bite, and crash. We have a full, mercifully car-free day ahead of us to explore tomorrow.

(Part IV)

Road Trip Journal II: Salt Lake to San Francisco

27 Jun

(Part I)

Day Three: Descent to the Bay

On paper, this is the longest driving day of the trip, as we head from Salt Lake to San Francisco. We’re out early and grab some pastries before plowing out westward. If Wyoming seemed like vast tracts of nothing, today will eclipse that entirely: western Utah and much of Nevada are as empty as an area around a major American highway can be. We first skirt the Great Salt Lake, striking in contrast with the brown hills rising around it, and then the land becomes white: salt flats, all in a line across the floor of the Great Basin. Signs warn us to stay alert, lest we fall asleep at the wheel and veer off into a salt mine. Here and there, drivers have done exactly that, intentionally: tire tracks head off the freeway and some ways out on to the flat, and a couple of cars sit out there doing whatever it is that people do on salt flats.

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We can see Nevada from nearly forty miles away, as mountains thrust their way upward right at the border. The contrast is immediate: a cluster of casinos scream their presence just across the state line, ready to welcome in some sinful Utahns. Even a dismal gas station some ways further along has a slot machine room. The road itself winds up and down brown, scrubby passes, and we glimpse the first of many peaks we pass on this day that still have some snow on their upper reaches. There are occasional hints of greenery along rivers, and little oasis towns interrupt the monotony. We cruise through Reno without stopping, and begin one last major climb up into the Sierras.

After we cross the border into California, the mountains are finally green again, and I-80 pitches upward. We’re stopped for an agricultural inspection, and then detour off the highway for a jaunt down to Lake Tahoe. It is, as expected, gorgeous. Its cool waters are bliss after a long day in the car. We wade out some ways after a late lunch. The road around the north shore of the lake is a delight to drive as it weaves through the resorts and quaint shops; we ditch the AC and throw the windows open. We stop for a quick jog up Eagle Rock, a rocky extrusion near the shore that offers commanding views of the lake and the mountains beyond. We could spend much more time here, but the ocean calls.

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The descent from the Sierras is probably the trip’s most extreme drop, as we sink from 7,000 feet at the Donner Pass—a site that brings back fond memories of a long internment on an Amtrak train here many years ago—to less than 1,000 feet in the Central Valley. Sacramento reveals some very California scenes: an eight-lane highway baking in late afternoon sun, the westbound lanes crawling while ours is crowded but motoring along. Signs everywhere alert of us the ongoing drought, and urge us to avoid watering our lawns.

We come to the Bay Area as the sun is sinking toward the horizon. A golden haze looms over the city and the bridges, the fog seemingly aglow and the Transamerica Pyramid thrusting its way out above the Financial District. Thanks to some unexpected good fortune, the traffic on the Bay Bridge is manageable, so we can plow straight into the heart of the city with minimal delay. It happens to be Pride Weekend here, too. We’re not exactly in Utah anymore.

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This is my first time in San Francisco, and my first glances leave me as awed as I’ve ever been by any place on earth. As a sucker for hills, large water features, wine, Mexican food, and Mediterranean climes, this is in many ways my ideal city. The hills and fog and water make it feel curiously familiar to a Duluthian, and it is incredibly easy to live well, and spend easily, here. The closest comparison that I’ve seen before is probably Barcelona, but even that is much more spread out than San Francisco, and this city is very much its own. Its crowds and its prices are drawbacks, along with that lingering threat of a tremor that could dump it all into the bay. But the color, the vibrancy, and the unmatched views put it among the greatest of American cities without even expending effort. (And oh, does San Francisco expend effort, even if it tries to play it down with that faux Bay Area cool.)

We’re relieved to find parking just off the freeway—too easy, as we’ll eventually learn—and meet my cousin at his place in Hayes Valley, in the center of the city just north of Market Street. He knows how to host an urban planner, and shares a long stream of details on the streets and neighborhoods we pass. He leads us on a walking tour up a hill toward dinner at a fantastic Mexican restaurant, and we stop by a couple of bars to wrap up our evening, one with an incredible variety of local beer, and one that’s an excellent little dive. It’s a solid introduction, and we have much to explore over our two full days along the bay.

Day Four: Shattered Glass

After three straight days of ten hours on the road, we finally had a day to settle back and enjoy a city. My cousin is our guide, and our tour of San Francisco begins with Twin Peaks and Grand View Park, which together offer commanding views of the entire city. Twin Peaks has the more dramatic approach, and its upper reaches have been covered over by a pink triangle (the symbol used by the Nazis to mark gay Jews, now reclaimed) for Pride weekend. Below it, The Castro is decked out for the festivities, and people are pouring in for the festival. Grand View, meanwhile, is more subtle: the neighborhood around it features staid single-family homes, and its approach involves narrow streets turned staircases covered in intricate tiles that blend into murals from the bottom. Between the two, we have a complete panorama of San Francisco.

We continue a drive across the city and pass through Golden Gate Park, a sea of greenery that descends from the center of the city down to the ocean. It’s bigger than Central Park, though its water features are on the low side due to the drought, and there’s no shortage of congestion here, either. We head for the beach, which has a magical discovery for us: CorgiCon 2016, a festival for the wonderfully cute dogs. They all prance about the beach, burrow in the sand, and befriend one another. Some are in costume (flags, t-shirts), and one wears a GoPro. This is San Francisco, after all. They join their human handlers in beach bliss, and some of the more daring ones sprint through the surf, but most everyone keeps to the beach.

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Next, we head a short ways up to Land’s End, the point that which the ocean meets the Golden Gate, the strait feeding into the bay. The scrub-covered slopes with their groves of cypresses evoke the Mediterranean, and breakers crash in on the rocks in aqua hues. The bridge stands proud across the strait, and trails meander along the cliff. We stop in at the Sutro Baths to admire these old ruins, and wrap around the park with steady views of the ocean and the bridge beyond. We complete the city tour with a drive through some of its more distinctive ethnic neighborhoods, and return to Hayes Valley to regroup before dinner.

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Everything gets thrown for a loop when we hike up the street toward a pre-dinner drink, and I notice that the back passenger side window of my friend’s car is wide open. It’s been smashed, and glass is strewn across the street and the back seat. We’d brought in most of our valuables, thankfully, and insurance should hopefully cover the window. Still, there are substantial losses: my tent, our sleeping bags and pillows, some my friend’s clothes, my Duluth East cap, a Georgetown sweatshirt, my camera battery charger, the beer I’d brought as gifts for hosts, and a bunch of audiobooks from the Minneapolis Public Library. Thankfully, the library will forgive our costs with a police report, and most of the camping gear was hand-me-downs. (Though the tent, the sweatshirt, and the East cap did have some real sentimental value.) We’d put the more valuable stuff in the trunk, but there was enough scattered objects of intrigue such as clothes and food across the back seat to make the car an inviting target.

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In a way, I’m lucky: I’m 26, and this is the first time I’ve been a victim of any sort of crime beyond the theft of a pencil. I try to be vigilant, but I also took car safety for granted in decent neighborhoods of major American cities. No more, apparently. For the rest of my stay, I find myself inspecting the tent camps of San Francisco’s homeless—of which there are many—in wishful hope for a glimpse purple and white Eureka tent. This city lacks the no-go zones of a Chicago or even Oakland across the bay, but it has an underbelly that looms on many corners. We rush the car into a repair place before it closes.

Dinner plans are further disrupted by a Pride week parade we were unaware of, which blocks our access to the pizza we’d hoped to have. (We later learn this is the lesbian parade, which apparently is its own show in addition to the better-known gay parade on Sunday.) A giant procession makes its way down from Dolores Park, and we have to jump through the crowd to negotiate our way to the other side of the street before walking parallel to a relentless drumline. Rainbow flags are everywhere, people lean out of second floor windows (some wearing nothing but duct tape covering teats), and others shower everyone in confetti. The placards are a mix of raunchy comments, expressions of solidarity for Orlando after the recent massacre, and broader leftist slogans. San Francisco, uninhibited and on full display.

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We grab burritos at a taquería on a corner and take our dinner back to Dolores Park, which teems with sunbathing revelers. Booze and pot abound, though somehow no one has a bottle opener, leaving us struggling to gain access to Coke bottles. The park, to my intrigue, earns its name from Miguel Hidalgo, the father of Mexican independence, whose statue lords over the hill; at its base sits a replica of the bell he rang to signal the start of the revolt in Dolores Hidalgo in 1810. Here, we meet an old Georgetown roommate of mine, and he joins the party as we meander over to another friend’s place for some beer tasting.

It’s been a night among the demographic emblematic of the Bay Area, late twenty-somethings with jobs in tech or research or some other start-up with boundless knowledge of food and beer. They’re all superb arbiters of taste, though also self-aware enough to know the complexity of their life here, and of the looming challenges on the horizon, as family obligations begin to arise. From this perspective, Silicon Valley seems less like some magical zone of invention and more like another place where people are trying to get ahead and get by. We’re all in the same boat, and for all of the Bay Area’s bells and whistles, they all seem fairly tame now. The tech culture’s facade comes down: everyone here displays an intimate knowledge of apps, and equal measures of frustration with how poorly they all function. The evening ends with a Nob Hill rooftop view of much of the city, including both the Bay and Golden Gate bridges and the Transamerica Pyramid. Fading, we retreat to bed afterward.

Day Five: Divine Wine

With the city swamped for the Pride parade on Sunday, two cousins and I escape to wine country north of the city. This is the heart of American viticulture, and a necessary journey for a wine lover. We take our time in starting out, and then head north through Napa, laughing at the traffic jams coming into the city as we cruise out. There’s no shortage of opulence along Napa Valley, as the wineries have all built their little villas and luxurious estates amid the grapevines, and display questionable command of Italian as they adopt or make up names to convey their prestige. Some are familiar names, while others look to break in, and all look to ride the cachet of the Napa name to greater recognition. Seeking some more exquisite experiences, we drive on past most of them.

The first stop is also the most absurd: Castello di Amorosa, a legitimate castle perched just above the north end of Napa Valley. The stonework is astonishing, and in among the turrets and battlements are a chapel, a great hall, a drawbridge, and some elaborate loggias. (A few extra dollars admit one to the torture chamber, among other special rooms.) The wine and service here are not especially remarkable, and it brings in crowds in a way that our later destinations don’t, but it’s still a winy wonderland. We’ve created a complete spectacle.

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Our next stop is the polar opposite experience. Locals, a wine cooperative in the miniature downtown of Geyserville, has no pretentions of an elaborate setting. It just delivers far better wine for no tasting fee, and reliably lures its visitors to purchase their favorites. Here, it’s easy to savor the different options and make informed comparisons, and make some effort to expand a mediocre vocabulary to describe the flavors we imbibe.

After a lunch stop in Healdsburg, we head into Sonoma, where we make two stops: first at Mazzocco, which specializes in Zinfandels, and then at Ridge, one of Sonoma’s gems. It’s a baking hot day in wine country, with temperatures in excess of 95 degrees, but we can linger inside while sipping at our glasses and still enjoy views of the vineyards marching out beyond us. I can’t resist a purchase from Ridge, though a looming trip through Canadian customs keeps me from going too crazy with the credit card.

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Now that we’ve had our fill of wine, we head back to Healdsburg, where a well-manicured central square makes the area appear even ritzier. We stop by its brewery, Bear Republic, best known for its Racer 5 IPA, though I elect for a delectable sour instead. As if we haven’t sampled enough satisfying beverages, we then head down the 101 to Santa Rosa, where we visit one of my cousin’s favorite breweries, Russian River. Their variety is so great and their ability to deliver on all of them so impressive that it would be a waste just to get a couple of beers, so we share a complete sampler with 18 different beers, from standard lagers to classic West Coast IPAs to Belgians to sours. With the help of some pizza, I’m feeling decidedly fat by the end of the tasting, but I manage to finish it all off.

The sun sinks toward the horizon as we head back south through Marin County. It’s down below the horizon by the time we reach the Golden Gate, but there’s still enough of a glow to make a detour up the coastal road worthwhile. I’m treated to panoramas over the Golden Gate Bridge, the city, and the ocean beyond. The wind howls and the fog begins to roll in; it’s a solid 40 degrees colder here than it was back up in Sonoma. Still, it’s worth taking a moment to drink it all in, one last sip at the vessel of Bay Area beauty before a final drive over San Francisco’s hills down into Hayes Valley. It’s been a rich weekend that has sapped my wallet in more ways than one, and I’m sure to return before long. For now, though, it’s time to hit the road again.

(Part III)

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