Archive for the ‘West’ Category
How do you tell the quality of a diner? By its chicken fried steak, of course.
Maybe it was just the mid 80’s, when everything was better, but the finest I ever tasted was at Boz Scaggs’ Blue Light Cafe on Union Street in San Francisco. I’ve been chasing that high for three decades. (The Blue Light today, minimized and lost to new management, serves greasy, monotonous bar food paired with Jello shots.)
The award for Second Best Chicken Fried Steak went to a diner outside Grand Coulee Dam. Actual steak, with a bone, real and delicious. The coating, crispycrunchy. The gravy, oh god, the gravy: not too salty, and lumpy with pork sausage.
From the moment I was informed by the nice gas station character that filled the trailer tires that 38 tornadoes just had their way with my eastern destination states, the hostile spring weather has tried to run me off the road: torrential rain in Washington; fat wet snow flurries in Oregon (is the west not aware that it’s nearly Memorial Day?); fierce winds in Idaho that actually BLEW A PART off the Airstream (hopefully they’ll reattach it at The Mothership); and fog so dense in Wyoming that semi drivers on the I-80 formed a 30mph protective convoy, hazards flashing.
I didn’t see another Airstream on the road until two days into the journey—they waved to me from the other side of the freeway where I was shipwrecked with a blowout.
Unless you live under a rock, you’ve heard of Burning Man, the annual art festival slash summer camp for adults in the Black Rock Desert north of Reno, Nevada.
In the weeks leading to my departure several fifty-something friends confessed that they’ve wanted to see it for themselves but have felt too intimidated to attend “that thing in the desert”. I concur; it’s difficult to get mentally and physically organized for Burning Man if you’re a grown adult not surrounded by peers who have been or are coming with you.
For the “virgin burner”, shopping and preparing can be daunting and confusing; it’s the packing equivalent to extreme boondock camping, seven day Halloween party, and week-long potluck.
I’m not sure how I feel about the Old Montana Prison, built in 1871 and emptied of prisoners and staff in the late 70s.
While sad, it also felt unhaunted and peacefully laid to rest. Inside the red castle-style walls the offices are in stasis—as if the job placement counselor and chaplain just stepped out for a coffee—and have a stark, government-issue beauty (if there was ever an oxymoron, that’s it).
We visited the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument—a vast area 60 miles from Billings, Montana—on the day after it took place 134 years ago. Ralph “The Master of History” narrated the story of the clash between Custer, his two subordinates (Benteen and Reno) and the 600 men of the 7th Cavalry, and thousands of well prepared Native American warriors as we drove the length of the battlefield and back.
“What happened was this,” Ralph began patiently. “Custer divided his command into three, well, really three and a half parts” (already this account is getting complicated.)
Look up “Virginia City” in any thesaurus and it will be synonymous with “tourist trap”. Something about that name, from Nevada to Montana, means overpriced sassparillas, olde tymey portraits, tedious demonstrations, cheap t-shirts and worse.
Virginia City, Montana and it’s redheaded stepsister, Nevada City, are technically ghost towns that are described as “two of the best-preserved examples of the many mining camps of the West.” During the gold rush days in Alder Gulch, Virginia City—population 10,000—was the largest town in the inland Northwest. Now, it’s teeming with nearly that many sightseers, but unlike the Nevada version, it manages to retain a modicum of authenticity.
Lowered expectations are the key to happiness. Every Airstreamer under fifty warned me about the dork factor of the WBCCI 53rd International Rally. Thusly, we had a rockin good time.
Yes, there was a weird opening ceremony involving unit flags and the procession of club officers in their blue berets; the sort of ancient tradition like the Elks’ 11 O’Clock Toast or the Shriners’ love of clown cars that many people enjoy. And I was confounded by the focus on structured indoor activities that had nothing to do with camping: byzantine meetings heavy on the Robert’s Rules of Order, some board game called Joker, ham radio workshops…it was like being on a senior cruise without the buffet.
Question: Is Austin legitimately fabulous, or only comparatively so?
I visited Austin—an oasis in a bleak and vast cultural wasteland (I’m looking at you, Texas)—on work business, sans Airstream. Released at last from exhibit hall duty at the Hilton I set out on foot in the wrong direction to find Hey Cupcake, the Airstream food cart darling of Twitter buzz. After many blocks I was informed by a hot UPS guy that I was miles from my destination on the opposite side of town. “But if it’s cupcakes you’re lookin’ for?” he said, pointing. “Right by those men there walkin’ up ahead? There are some cupcakes…” [trails off, slowly shakes head]. “Mm-mm. They are dee-LISH. They make you wanna slap yer mama.”
The Utah scenery abruptly vanished when the wind kicked up and created a brownout of smoke and grit from Provo to Ogden so thick we could barely see the huge temple in downtown SLC. People everywhere were apologizing. (“It’s never like this!”) A crusty guy in line at the gas station convenience store reported that “one of the islands in the lake”—what on earth could he have been talking about—was on fire due to a lightning strike.
When a state park is downgraded to a county park it falls into a bureaucratic black hole for a period, making it impossible to find online or otherwise. Such was the fate of Fort Buenaventura, which we finally discovered hidden behind the railroad yard.
Sorry California. You too, Colorado. In the scenery smackdown, Utah is the clear victor.
My conspiracy theory is that Utah pays New Mexico to be a disorganized empty lot so it can be even that much more attractive by comparison. Almost immediately northwest of Four Corners the attitude brightens and the landscape gets increasingly more striking as you near Moab, which is home to what looked from the freeway to be one of the prettiest KOAs in the West.
Surreal Arches will require a second visit to stop and camp overnight at Devils Garden. (I would love to know how many natural areas in the U.S. have the word “devil” in their name).