Monday, January 17, 2011

Blue highways surprise

Charles Kuralt of PBS and NPR once famously said that the U.S. interstate highway system makes it possible to travel across America without seeing anything.
That’s a little harsh. The never-ending clusters of McDonalds, Burger Kings and gas stations that crouch at every intersection are not nothing. In fact in many ways, too many perhaps, they are the flavour of America.
Following the lead of our literary and literate hero, William Least Heat-Moon, we prefer smaller roads, the Blue Highways of the Missouri author’s book. But only sometimes.
Our predilection for the road less travelled has sometimes led us into more adventure than we might have wanted. Consider SoCal.
We arrived in Southern California, cruising past Palm Beach and Palm Desert expecting blue skies, bright sun and George Hamilton working on his tan. Instead it was hard to tell the colour of the sky, the sun was orange and fuscia through the sepia haze that passes for air, and as for George, well it’s hard to get a tan through the Haz-Mat uniform residents need to stay here long-term.
So when we had a chance to escape the valley and pass through the San Bernadino forest, that sounded like a good option. Following a small (by California standards) highway, we headed to the trees and — we thought — a breath of fresh air.
What we got instead were a lot of gulps — perhaps gasps is closer — as we inched our way up a mountainside, hauling Harley in ever-narrowing concentric circles as we scaled the San Bernadino MOUNTAINS, not just the forest as it said demurely in our map book.
Bridge after bridge on the way up — did we mention Ian hates bridges — followed by harrowing hairpin turns on the way down, with Harley (our trailer) vying with our truck for the lead in this race to the bottom. After finally escaping our alpine ambuscade we found ourselves in a desert wasteland. In a state with a population equal to that of Canada, who knew there could be so much empty space, this within 60 miles of Los Angeles. Given its inaccessibility and lack of agricultural use, the land seems worthless, which probably means it’s about $1 million an acre. California real estate prices are a little high.
We also had a secondary-highway thrill with our GPS. The loyal Cupcake, back in our lives after a brief banishment in favor of Skippy, her male counterpart, led us down a small road in Nova Scotia toward the desired small highway. Our preference for small roads was tested by Cupcake’s choice, as pavement gradually narrowed, wavered, then disappeared altogether.
The gravel road we were now on also narrowed and petered out, leaving a narrow dirt track that led us to the edge of the desired highway. All that stood between us and continuing our trip was a steel barrier and a four-foot ditch. As we sat on the narrow track and looked at the vehicles whizzing by, we pondered technology — and how we were going to turn around.
As we followed the same road out that we had taken to find the barrier, a fellow who had watched us curiously as we went toward the highway stared in amazement — or perhaps amusement — as we returned.
Cupcake is a valuable asset at times, but also contributes to our adventures. Her cheerful “You have reached your destination,” usually results in a careful, sometimes frantic search, for our true destination, which could be half a block away. Likewise her insistence on taking major highways unless instructed otherwise, and her preference for routes through the heart of cities makes for exciting journeys, particularly with Harley in tow. Changing lanes is an adventure in itself.
And the one area where we stuck to the main roads was in West Texas, New Mexico and Arizona, where even along the interstates civilization is scarce. Take Kent, Texas. Please.
Kent is two gas stations, one on each exit off I-10, with the westbound lane’s version manned by a young woman with a stud in her tongue. It would seem her social prospects might be limited in the community, in redneck rural Texas, flavored with the ever-present west wind, but it’s her call. But the prospect of a life spent in such a venue was a little daunting.
Secondary roads are fine if you have choices, but if that’s your only route out of town, life might be a little lonely.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Any Portland in a storm

Urban camping in Portland, Ore., involves listening to the Freak Mountain Ramblers

“It reminds me of Oakland when they had that earthquake,” Ian said as we rolled into Portland, Ore. down the concrete highway under another layer of roadway above us.
“You know, when the layers collapsed on the cars ...” he continued.
“Thanks for that, honey,” Vicki muttered.
We never have been fond of Portland because our trips have simply been to get through that concrete jungle. But this time we were stopping to park outside the house of friends Peggy and Brian, who call Portland home but spend half their year on Pender Island.
When they said we could park in front of their duplex, they weren’t kidding. There we were, camping on the street, and parked right next to their idle fibreglass RV, a Scamp fifth wheel. When Vicki asked if we might have cops pounding on the door in the middle of the night, since we had sprawled an extension cord across the sidewalk to the house for power, they just laughed. Their Scamp has been sitting there for six months or more without a peep from anyone.
So we moved in, quite happily, for a thoroughly enjoyable weekend, despite the threatened deluge and high winds.
Friday night disappeared into a lovely meal at their dining table, followed by too many bottles of red wine.
Saturday was a pre-arranged visit with other fibreglass RVers, Kathie and Dave, whom we met at something called the Northern Oregon Gathering, where fibreglass people get together to compare notes on their mini-camping experiences. They knew we’d love going to Powell’s bookstore, a Portland institution.
This used bookstore covers a full city block and is five storeys high. The most difficult part of shopping here is trying to keep our purchases to less than a truckload. After all, it is a small trailer.
We returned to their home, coincidentally not too far from where we had set up camp, and sat down to a lovely meal with Donna, another of our little fibreglass family. We caught them up on our Friday lunch in Eugene, Ore. on the way through with four more fibreglass folk — Dennis, Charlene, Bob and Adonna.
With everyone, there was much time spent recapping highlights, and lowlights, of our voyage. But each and every one wanted to know the same thing. The question came in different forms, anything from a hint as to how we were doing after that much time together to the point-blank question, “Did you ever just want to get away from each other for a while?”
Not sure they believed our assurances that a small trailer, with the two of us in it, is just a fine place to be, all the time. Sure, we’ve worked out the logistics of Ian sitting in one corner while Vicki is cooking, or never opening the bathroom door to come out without asking if all is clear first.
And all were looking at their partner, wondering if they could do it.
We just keep assuring people you can find your own way to handle it. We can’t write a handbook detailing how it’s done because it depends on the individuals, and their individual relationships.
It was nice to spend some time with people who know us, and share our trailer experiences.
And Peggy and Brian proved they know us well when Sunday evening they suggested an outing to Laurelthirst Public House. It’s a small neighbourhood bar known for its music, and according to our hosts, its people watching. It’s rapidly become part of their weekend routine since they found it out a month or so ago.
Off we went to check out this Portland icon, since Sunday at 6 p.m. the Freak Mountain Ramblers take the stage. There’s no cover charge but a hat is passed, or more accurately an empty draft jug is floated around the room, above the dancers heads, not that there’s a dance floor.
The old hippies, joined by some youngsters thinking they were born in the wrong era, are out in force, with the four of us choosing our favourite dancers among them. Long grey hair was the coif of the moment, male or female, and dancers were moving just like we did in the ‘70s, each to his or her own spirit although there was no sign or smell of anything illegal being served up.
It was a dance-like-nobody-can-see-you, sing-like-nobody-can-hear-you kind of crowd, and old enough to appreciate the band’s set lasting from 6-8 p.m.
And man, was it fun!
Ian and Vicki naively thought that would be the end of Portland surprises but Peggy and Brian had one more up their sleeves. Off we went, not very far, to Kennedy School, as done over by the McMenamin brothers.
The school, built in 1915, was renovated the McMenamins and reopened in 1997. The idea is to carry on the school’s position as a hub in the neighbourhood but in a different way. It offers hotel accommodation, even though you’re sleeping in what was a classroom. You get standard hotel features such as king and queen beds, a phone and a private bathroom but you’ll also be looking at chalkboards and cloakrooms. Your overnight room rate, $125-$145, includes access to the on-site movie theatre and soaking pool.
Some of the classrooms, not to mention the gym, are enjoying a second life as restaurants or meeting, wedding and event space.
And Kennedy School in Portland isn’t the only location to have benefitted from the McMenamin touch. They operate a total of eight hotels in facilities ranging from a Edgefield, the former county poor farm in Troutdale, Ore.; Grand Lodge, a former Masonic and Eastern Star facility built in 1923 in Forest Grove, Ore., near the Tillamook State Forest; three buildings in Portland, another old school in Bend, plus the Olympic Club in Centralia, Wash.
We headed in to Boiler Room for some pizza, calzones and drinks. When we left, we were trying to convince Brian to start a company, hire us and have the annual Christmas party at Kennedy School, complete with a night’s accommodations.
And then we went home with our generous hosts to camp once more on their quiet street.

Oh my darlin', oh my darlin'

You see all kinds of marriages in an RV park. And you know what kind it is within minutes of the happy or unhappy couple pulling in to stop.
They park their RV, and then you know.
On a recent Friday, the North Dakota truck towing a 20-something foot trailer rolled in. Before it came to its final halt, the surrounding campers thought we knew what was before us.
“Oh honey, a little more ahead.”
“Like this, sweetie?”
“No, a bit more to the left, pumpkin.”
And so on.
It wasn’t until the rig was set up and unhitched that we all saw the light.
He had removed one propane tank, telling “Cupcake” that he was going to have it filled, here in the park, and tied it securely into the back of his truck.
A discussion ensued, with his wife saying there wasn’t much in the other tank so why not fill them both?
“Oh, good idea, sweetie.”
So he disconnected the other tank, untied the secured tank already in the back of the truck, lynched them both together and went back to report in through the screen door, “They’re all ready. You should have as much hot water as you need now.”
“Oh thank you sweetums,” floated out through the screen.
But then he leaned closer in, and said, “That light is on. It means the pilot didn’t light. You won’t have any hot water now. But just push that button and it should light.”
The whole park knew it wouldn’t light without a propane supply but it was few minutes before he said, “It’s not lighting.”
There was silence.
Then, “Well how stupid am I?” she said. “The tanks aren’t connected,” followed by a high-pitch almost teenage giggle coming from the senior citizen wife.
He, presumably married for some time, took the question to be rhetorical and joined in.
“Well,” he said, “how stupid am I!?!?!?!?
“You’re really stupid,” she said, no giggle evident.
And that sums up that marriage.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

California, trees and nuts

Did Ian mention his fondness for bridges?
The Golden Gate in particular?
After a sunny sojourn in San Francisco it was back on the road north — this time on Highway 101 across the bridge yet again, this time in the rain and hordes of traffic toward California wine country. Our trip took us through the Sonoma Valley, the less famous but equally wine-blessed sister valley to the Napa, then on.
There was little time for wine tasting, as Ian has been the solo driver thus far on the trip and also has been the solo wine drinker for far longer than that. In the interests of sobriety, it was decided we would keep on going even though the vote on the issue was 1-1. Apparently in the democracy of marriage, some votes carry more weight than others.
The state is one of sharp contrasts, with densely populated urban areas interspersed with huge areas that seem almost empty as we speed along the highway that snakes north through the mountains, playing peek-a-boo with the ocean and the flowing mountain streams, then switching to a narrow corridor of towering evergreens altogether too reminiscent of the canyons of concrete that dominate the urban settings now behind us.
It was also along this stretch that we saw one of the eccentrics for which California is so justly famous. As we approached along the rainy road, a figure ahead, clad in a tuque, ski jacket and carrying a backpack burst into a lively jig in the middle of the lane of what we thought was our lane. With canvas sneakers bouncing and hopping, and arms waving, the bearded walker saluted our passing in a pas de deux alone. California indeed.
And so to the mightiest of these corridors, the Avenue of the Redwoods, with their massive branches lacing their fingers together and their enormous trunks emphasizing the insignificance of man. Shrugging off the steady rain from overhead and waltzing in place in an on-and-off courtship with the autumn wind, the mighty trees seem to bless us as we pass, as if wishing us a safe journey home, and to our everyday lives.
But not yet.
The road takes us north to Crescent City, then it’s on to Grant’s Pass, the I-5 and Oregon where our companions will be far less wooden and far more human — friends are why we do this.