Archive | June, 2016

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)

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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)

Road Trip Journal I: Minneapolis to Salt Lake City

24 Jun

(Preview post)

Day One: The All-American Road

My friend and I are on our way, ready to discover what we can of a country across two weeks. The trip begins with a gentle wind down the Minnesota River, through small towns whose names I know but which I’ve never seen. For the most part, they’re well-appointed, and we don’t pause to ponder them. We’ve seen a few Minnesota farms in our lives, and we’ll see more again before this trip is up. We plow on beneath a low sky, pick up I-90 in Worthington, and have lunch alongside a cornfield just past Sioux Falls.

In South Dakota, the twin ribbons of road undulate over rolling hills, slowly but steadily rising upward. One of the few pauses comes at the Missouri River, here wide enough to be a lake, and with an unnatural, greenish tinge. In time, the Badlands appear, the green grass falling away in cliffs and along buttes with such precision that it looks like they’ve been mined out of the plain. Ten thousand signs alert us to the presence of the Corn Palace and Wall Drug (we skip both), but just one sign gives any indication of the Pine Ridge reservation, which we skirt past. Just beyond these kitschy frontier towns lies one of the most destitute corners of America, a desolate and poverty-stricken zone where the future is as bleak as in any inner city. Drive down this highway, however, and you’d probably never know. Aircraft and helicopters buzz over us at the Ellsworth Air Force Base just outside of Rapid City, and after a bypass around the largest outpost in western South Dakota, we come to the Black Hills.

We climb into the hills, made dark by their scores of ponderosa pines. My first recollection, curiously enough, is of the Mexican highlands: dry pine forests, crowded winding roads, and an endless string of attempts at tourist attractions the entire way. These let up some when we enter the national forest, but there’s still a steady stream of them intermingled with signs warning us of bighorn sheep. Many of the attractions seem frozen in a different time to a couple of urbane city kids, but the culture that produced these roadside curiosities is alive and well beyond our limited cosmopolitan world. We eat it all up, too.

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We pitch our tent a short ways north of the main highway. Home for the night is the Sheridan Lake South National Forest Campground, just north of Hill City. It sits among the pines along a small lake, and its whispering breezes evoke the Boundary Waters for us Minnesotans, though the RVs just down the way are a new wrinkle. We set up our tent and head into Hill City for dinner. We pass a series of wineries; we’ll have time for wine later. Instead, we end up on its Old West main drag, and we dodge motorcycles (Sturgis is just north of here) for dinner at the Bumpin’ Buffalo, which has a fairly empty deck with a view of the town. Further underscoring the Mexican instinct, we’re serenaded by the cowboys singing about cerveza in mediocre Spanish at the Mangy Moose across the way. Satisfied, it’s on to Mount Rushmore.

We come at the mountain from the south, and get a profile view of George Washington before coming around to fork over a heap of cash to the National Park Service for the privilege to park. We head up an avenue of flags and concrete arches to behold the quartet of presidents, all gazing over the valley below. Rushmore is so legendary that it seems almost small to me upon first sight, but even from our considerable distance, it’s a marvel of sculpture and ambition. I now appreciate its remoteness, and what Gutzon Borglum and company went through to sculpt this into being. The site museum adds some background, and the short walk back out passes some six thousand or so boy scouts. Bruce Springsteen serenades us as we drive away.

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We swing south through the Hills toward the Crazy Horse memorial, still very much a work in progress; at $11 a person, we sheepishly snap a photo from a distance and instead drive on for a loop around Custer State Park. We work our way back up the Needles Highway, a narrow, sometimes precarious stretch of road that winds endlessly through the hills at a painstaking pace. Before long, however, we’re rewarded: the road climbs up into a forest of stone towers, culminating in the Cathedral Spires that support the ceiling of these hills. The view extends all the way back to the plain from which we came, the Badlands now illuminated in setting sun. The golden glow catches the top of the spires, and after every turn we’re compelled to stop again and jump out for another look. We inch through a few one-way tunnels, one of which is blocked up by some sheep; a whole herd of them dances down the mountainside, and we get a moment to admire their scraggly, shedding winter coats.

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It’s nearly dark by the time we’re back in camp, and we linger down by the water for a little while before we crash. The stars, no doubt, were pristine, but in midsummer the sunlight lingers until late, and between our exhaustion and a rising moon, we have no real chance to gaze upward. Day one is done, a complete rush into a West that, while still vast an empty and hauntingly beautiful, is no frontier. It’s now an attraction, with Custer and Crazy Horse, those best of old friends, together on road signs, directing us onward to the next attraction. The Black Hills are the ultimate road trip destination for a car-loving country, distinctly American in so many ways. Yes, it has a side to it that produces t-shirts of Sarah Palin and Donald Trump together on a Harley, but it also brings forth a simpler era and nostalgia for a family on the road together, off to see beauty and building some memory they’ll always have. A fitting start to our journey.

Day Two: Dispatch from Deseret

We’re on the road early again the next morning, passing back through the Black Hills before coming into the high plains of Wyoming. The Equality State (so called for its early provision of women’s suffrage) is, for much of its expanse, a vast tract of nothingness, and we spend the majority of our day traversing it. It starts out as high plains, with ranches here and there. We cruise down the desolate federal highways, the towns rarely more than highway junctions. It’s nothing but space, and I have newfound respect for the old natives who called it home and the settlers who crossed it without asphalt and air conditioning.

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The road southwest from Casper offers a little more scenery. State Highway 220 travels down a valley with the North Platte River at its start, weaving along the longest expanse of water we’ve seen since the Missouri. We have lunch at Independence Rock, the halfway point on the Oregon Trail, still covered in pioneer graffiti and evoking memories of cholera outbreaks in the old computer game. In time, we come to I-80, which for a stretch is even duller: gone are the layer cakes of colored rock, and we’re left with steady marches of empty green hills. A sudden squall beyond the Red Desert slows the endless convoys of trucks, and the downpour washes away the graveyard of bug guts on our windshield. We pass a few more vaguely familiar Oregon Trail locales: the Green River, Fort Bridger. To the south, the Uintas rise, their whitish peaks perhaps still bearing some snow. The land grows slowly greener, and we understand why the Mormons, in exodus on this very route a century and a half before, thought they might finally come to a promised land.

The engine protests some as we push up and down passes through the Wastach Mountains and snake past the ski slopes of Park City. After a twenty-mile descent, we’re in Salt Lake, our largest city since Minneapolis, suddenly teeming with late rush hour life. We check in at an Airbnb in the suburb of Bountiful, whose chief bounty is a neighboring oil refinery. Our host, a jovial Mormon ready with suggestions, tells us we can catch a Mormon Tabernacle Choir rehearsal in Temple Square. Intrigued, we head back into the city, though we’re distracted by the stunning state capitol first. Other capitols can match its size and grandeur, but few can equal its commanding position on a hill over the city, and its white-and-grey marble has a pristine quality absent from the sandier stone in the Midwest.

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We hike down the hill to Temple Square. It’s in the upper 90s, but dry enough that it feels nowhere near so hot. The Latter-Day Saints have built themselves a lush marvel of a plaza, and we slowly approach the temple along fountain-lined promenades, the archangel Moroni beckoning us in. Mormon elders are on hand to explain some history, and direct us to the concert hall, which is so overcrowded that a line has formed, and the coordination of the line leaves something to be desired. After a wait, we make it in and catch a few songs from the choir. They’re brilliant, as we’d expect, even amid the din of bored children and cell phones. When we emerge, the line for this mere rehearsal is wrapping around the square. Nonbelievers aren’t allowed inside the Mormon temples (of which there are just 50 or so worldwide), but a visitor’s center gives a few glimpses of the events inside. Famished, we leave the complex and past a statue of a perplexed Brigham Young gesturing toward the Zions Bank tower across the street.

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Salt Lake is built on the vast scale of cities of the West, with streets the width of eastern freeways and a rigid grid of numbered streets. Still, the space allows for innovation: there are bike lanes, a new light rail, and a fleet of pedicabs scurrying around downtown. It seems clean and orderly, as the LDS capital should be. Still, Salt Lake is surprisingly non-Mormon for Utah; many of its establishments could be anywhere, and we find a bustling brew pub to our liking for dinner. Day two closes with further examination of the Mormon faith, and a fair amount of respect on my part: they’ve built a remarkably strong institution that supports a distinctive way of life, but yet their integration with everyone around them remains impressive. Others who are in this world but aspire to ends beyond it have something to learn from the Latter-Day Saints, whatever we may think of their theology and nametags.

For now, though, it’s far too late already, and the wastes of Nevada await tomorrow. Onward to San Francisco.

(Part II)

West Coast Road Trip 2016

21 Jun

Tomorrow morning, a friend and I are setting out on a road trip west. Now that I’m out of school and will be settling into a life of 9-to-5 in short order, this is the time to go. As much as I love travel, timing and student budgets have tended to leave me with nothing but short meanders through convenient woods unless I’m traveling on business or on someone else’s dime. In reality, this is the first trip I’ve ever taken out of Minnesota that is spontaneous travel for travel’s sake, and not at least vaguely tied to family or school or some volunteer activity. I’ve had some great journeys of those varieties, but at times we need things that are more profoundly our own.

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This isn’t to say it’s unstructured travel; that’s not really how I operate. I have each day’s driving itinerary carefully scheduled out, and have spent the past week and a half obsessing over plans. But there’s room for some bounded spontaneity within it, and while I’m a rigid scheduler, I’m also ready to take any shake-ups in good humor. My favorite part about the trip we’ve designed is the sheer variety: there will be nights with relatives and old friends, and nights alone in cities I do not know; there will be nights in some of America’s great cities, and nights in some of the less tamed expanses of this massive country. Some nights I’ll stay in comfortable beds; some nights I’ll be in a tent. I’ll cross plains and climb mountains, traverse deserts and come to oceans. There will be some fine dining with old friends and a day in wine country, and there will be a fair number of bland meals of car food.

The West is an ongoing source of allure for so many Americans, and I’m no exception. The open plains and towering peaks just stir something in that frontier mentality, and remind us of how incomplete this great American project to tame this giant nation is. The West offers up incredible vastness and variety, both in people and in land. The promise of San Francisco the Pacific Northwest is especially alluring after three long days of driving. I’ve traveled west just once before, on a hilariously tumultuous Amtrak journey back when I was fourteen that remains vivid to this day. Even as I strike out on new roads, the cycle continues: the son of the friends who hosted my mother and me in Utah on that trip will host me in Portland this coming week.

The travel clichés will come easily. This won’t quite be anything on the scale of On the Road or Y tu mama también, but it’s certainly a much-needed stab outward. I’m prone to cynicism about journeys of intentional self-discovery—I think the things that tend to define us usually are in reaction to things that happen to us, not in things we self-consciously seek out—so I won’t force that angle, but would hardly be disappointed to find something. As the scattered list of expectations shows, there’s no unifying theme, and while I may be able to catch snapshots of America (or its West, at the very least), I hardly aspire to anything so grandiose. It’s just an adventure, a chance to live fully, and perhaps a chance to put the rat race of my past two years, and whatever is to come, in perspective.

I’ll try to write about this trip every step of the way, though activities, exhaustion, and internet access will dictate whether this means live-blogging or merely the occasional check-in and a lot of notes that appear here when it’s all over. Even with two drivers, there won’t be a whole lot of time to linger anywhere. That, I suppose, is what the writing is for. Feel free to travel along with me.

(Part I)

Childhood Lost

20 Jun

Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget
falls drop by drop upon the heart,
until, in our own despair,
against our will,
comes wisdom
through the awful grace of God.

–Robert F. Kennedy, paraphrasing Aeschylus

Happy eighteenth birthday, little bro.

Out of the Park

16 Jun

Tonight I’m going to a baseball game between the New York Yankees and the Minnesota Twins in Minneapolis. It will be my first baseball game this year. In fact, I can count the number of games I’ve caught on radio or TV this year on one hand. High school friends will find this shocking, but many of my more recent acquaintances don’t even know I’m a Yankees fan. I’ve fallen away from my first sports love, and barely even noticed the change.

I grew up glued to baseball, with internet radio feeds of Yankee games running in the background every night, all summer long. I was a proud member of the Bronx Bombers’ elitist and cutthroat fan base, and poured out my soul on internet forums discussing their performance. I loved baseball in any form: adventures in the miserable old Metrodome, family outings to the bleachers at Wrigley, and nights in crumbling old Wade Stadium on the west side of Duluth, watching the now-defunct Dukes go on that 2001 title run. (I still have plenty of the old scorecards.) Bob Uecker’s voice was the soundtrack to countless childhood drives across Wisconsin, and in a home without cable, FOX’s Saturday Game of the Week was required viewing, even though I had to endure Joe Buck. Baseball’s lessons spilled over into life: Bill James taught me how to analyze the world around me, and Roger Angell taught me how to write with grace. I wrote my college admissions personal statement on being a Yankees fan.

Now, however, I just glance at the standings from time to time. Part of my apostasy is just a natural swing. My evenings tend to be more interesting now than they were when I was fifteen, and few of my roommates or housemates over the years have been baseball fans. It became hard to find time, and harder to multi-task as other chores became more demanding than the high school math I used to do during the middle innings. Baseball requires a level of commitment that is harder and harder to find in a busy life, especially when compared to other sports that only feature a game or two a week.

I also admit that part of it may be me being a fair-weather fan. The Yankees are treading water around .500, in need of a desperate boost if they are to avoid missing October baseball for a fourth year running. (No, I don’t count last season’s stupid wild card playoff.) I started out as a Yankees fan when titles seemed to fall from the sky, but those days are now long gone, and when you’re rich and still can’t win, it feels rather lame. With Mariano Rivera and Derek Jeter riding off into retirement, even a new genuine star would pale in comparison. They set the bar so stratospherically high, and were so tied up in my childhood, that no one can ever fill those holes in the roster. At least the decline of the mid-2000s, and even into the first few years of this decade, still had some compelling drama. Now, the franchise just feels mediocre and tired.

I still enjoy a warm night at the ballpark, and will happily use any cheap tickets that come my way. My other major sports loyalty doesn’t overlap with it; in fact, it’s perfectly timed to cover for the few months when baseball isn’t on. I’ll confess to a rising interest in soccer; in recent weeks, the Copa America and Euro 2016 have commanded a little more of my attention. These international tournaments that come only once have every few years have much more urgency than one game out of 162 in June, and the pageantry puts any American sport to shame. But baseball still has so much potential.

The popular narrative says young people now find baseball boring, and while I don’t have any reason to doubt that, I find it highly ironic that a sport in which you’re lucky to see three goals in a game is eclipsing baseball. Don’t get me wrong, I think there is lots of beauty in the slow build-up of play in the 88 minutes of soccer when people aren’t scoring, but why can’t we see the same thing in baseball’s steady rhythms, and the slow pacing that builds to each climactic pitch late in a game? There are so many little details to appreciate, and so many ways the sport could still be great. It isn’t clear that anyone has noticed them.

There’s the usual list of in-game culprits that MLB should attack, and it has made a few efforts to speed up time between innings and to (allegedly) crack down on batters stepping out of the box. The sabermetrics revolution, both insightful and perhaps alienating to fans who don’t understand WAR or advanced fielding metrics, has to date mostly decreased excitement for those not in its thralls by emphasizing walks, long at-bats, and crazy shifts that depress batting averages. We can only hope that the next round of innovation speeds up the game by attacking some of the more dense forms of conventional wisdom such as by-the-book platoon pitching changes. Instant replay, MLB’s latest tone-deaf experiment, is a time-wasting bore. And while baseball has been dominated by pitchers in recent years after the heavy-hitting 90s—so long, steroids—a few rule tweaks could up the runs and make it a bit sexier.

Still, any issues with baseball go beyond the immediate game. Stadiums have become pretty but sterile containers for mild amusement, and amenities have taken precedence over the product on the field. There is no worse offender than the new Yankee Stadium, a gaudy shell of its raucous predecessor, where the seats were right on top of the field and the chanting rarely ceased. Sometime last year I popped in a DVD of the 2003 ALCS, and was shocked by how much more alive it all felt. Now even Wrigley Field has been brought into the modern age with scoreboards and ads and prices through the roof. Alas, the rickety old stadiums are all but gone now. Here in Minnesota we’re left with Target Field, a beautiful structure that facilitates quiet family picnics on middlebrow Asian food and ten-dollar beer. People will occasionally glance up to offer a few halfhearted claps along with the canned music, but otherwise keep to themselves. It’s almost enough to make one nostalgic for the Metrodome. Almost.

To rise again, baseball needs to rediscover its edge. A few young stars provide that, but it goes beyond the product on the field. Again, take soccer: how can their fans be so raucous, even in mundane midseason games with a lousy product on the pitch, while baseball fans idly play with their phones? Some baseball team needs to build itself a core of loyal hooligans who won’t shut up, much like the bleacher bums of old, and rekindle that old sense of tribal loyalty for a team. What they lose in ticket sales, they’ll make back ten times over in energy and hype. Instead, most teams will probably just add on new steakhouses and jumbotrons, convinced that fans need to be entertained by something that isn’t the game.

For all my gripes, though, I’m sure I’ll enjoy myself tonight, and with any luck, it will rekindle an old flame. Go Yankees.

Family Planning

10 Jun

In planning, we’re careful to say we’re planning “for people” or (better yet) “with people,” as a way to juxtapose us against those mid-century planners who pushed through giant, home-destroying highway projects in the name of efficient transportation, or from those architects who value form over function. It’s our way of showing we care about public opinion instead of self-interest or some ideological program.

At the same time, however, some efforts to plan run the risk of adopting some ideology of people based on whichever abstract version of humanity it chooses to adopt. Maybe it’s majority opinion, maybe it’s the opinion of the handful of people who show up to the public meeting or write angry emails, or maybe it’s a group that we believe will be ignored (if not actively damaged) by the powers that be. There are defensible reasons for choosing any one of these ideas of the public, and for ignoring them all in the service of some other end. The simple reality is that there is no logically coherent “people” we can claim to serve all of the time, so we have to make some careful choices.

Right next to the definition of the public we serve, however, there’s another important, often forgotten element of planning and policymaking: its temporal dimension. We not only have to consider the people we’re planning for now, but how the histories of the people and places we’re planning for affect things, and how they will affect people in the future. And when we think in that way, short-term decisions about which group of people we’re planning with can prove directly at odds with what might be right ten, twenty, or fifty years down the road.

This leads me to a recent piece by Benjamin Schwarz, and two accompanying follow-ups at The American Conservative (obligatory disclaimer: their definition of “conservative” is not what you think it is). Schwarz leans on planning prophet Jane Jacobs to show the importance of planning for cities with children, and how the rising urban young adult playground neighborhoods (called “vibrant urban neighborhoods,” or VUNs), which have revitalized some parts of large cities after years of decline, ignore them. (Think Williamsburg in Brooklyn, the Mission in San Francisco, Wicker Park in Chicago, or Uptown or the North Loop in Minneapolis). These neighborhoods, models for many in my field, are just shells of the bustling neighborhoods Jacobs lauded in The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Sooner or later, these neighborhoods will need to accommodate children, or they’ll just stay on as temporary resting places for young adults before they head out to their suburban destiny. The “back to the city” trend will sputter out.

This emphasis on children is something I’ve instinctively looked for in communities: long before I considered becoming a planner, my first question in evaluating neighborhood health was, ‘are there children playing freely outdoors’? These may just be the instincts of a Duluthian who expects a ten-acre park a couple blocks from home, but even in fairly dense urban environments, this is more than possible, as Jacobs’ tales of mid-century Manhattan show. If we believe it to be a worthy goal, true urban recovery from the planning horrors, economic troubles, crime waves, and political disinvestment of the mid-to-late 20th century has to reach into childhood.

Maybe I’m wrong, but I also don’t think this is always a chief concern for many in my planning cohort. This is probably because most of my peers are twenty-somethings who, like me, have foregone child-rearing until after graduate school, if they ever expect to go there. Our slow lurch toward family life feeds into broader debates about my generation, which is famous for marrying and having children at later ages than its predecessors. Among planners and my fellow Georgetown alumni, it’s mostly a calculated move for career-life sanity and near-assured economic stability; say what you will about that trend, but it stems from genuine and understandable concerns. But elsewhere in my millennial cohort, it’s often an entirely different picture, and we’d be blind not to acknowledge that many of us still do settle down at young ages, and that others possibly would if there weren’t so many barriers discouraging them.

Schwarz is pessimistic about attacking these barriers due to economic forces, but does have one memorable line: “Two words begin and end any real effort to create truly vibrant city neighborhoods: public schools.” In the second comment, Emily Washington expands on this point, but only to make a vague argument for “education reform.” The details are unclear, but it’s obviously important. And yet, somehow, there’s no hint of education policy in planning school curriculum. School districts may not be governed by city planners, but they are an essential part of planning cities, and we ignore them at our own peril.

There are hopeful hints in planning ideas like “safe routes to school” and “lifecycle housing” that get back to some idea of planning for families. Still, in the end, a philosophical disconnect lingers: we plan for the individual abstract person, not the person within a dense network of relationships that define human interaction—of which the family is the most fundamental part. For related reasons, family-level thinking has been somewhat lost in the shuffle among the many important and necessary victories for women over the past half-century, as they’ve escaped potentially crushing norms and climbed toward economic equality with men. These are essential steps for sane policy as well, but in the process, talk about families and their roles in personal formation have often posited them as something to be liberated from instead of a goal to build toward. Both can be true, depending on the situation, but the state is a crude substitute for the closest of bonds. The future of cities is inseparable from future generations of humans, and a stake in its fate requires a stake in humanity that transcends the here and now. Trite as the phrase may be, families are the building blocks of society, and its motor forward into whatever comes next. There are enough economic and other issues pushing against them that we can ill afford to let planning trouble them.

Schwarz is right when he says that Jane Jacobs-style neighborhoods aren’t coming back. But there are still other ways to build more family-friendly cities. The solutions need to look beyond VUNs and the highly educated, upwardly mobile young people (like me) they seem to want to cater to. That alone won’t keep me here. We need housing that allow for more variation in family type that can accommodate multi-generational families or large families, instead of single-bedroom units. We also need varieties of housing types, both in age and style, from starter homes to modern-day palaces, from “luxury” flats to modest apartment buildings. Building this sort of city means real pedestrian infrastructure and connections to parks and schools, and assurances of public safety along those corridors. It means green space, both in backyards and inviting parks. It spreads people out somewhat, instead of segregating rigidly by stage of life.

The list could go on; the solutions aren’t secrets. But maybe more fundamentally, we need an understanding human life that remembers that people’s closest ties are often the most important drivers of decisions. Unless plans take meaningful steps to include the next generation, the cities they build for will have a hollowness at their core.