Monday, November 28, 2011

To GPS or not GPS?

Road Trippin'
with Steve McCarthy
To GPS or not GPS?
That is indeed a question. Is it nobler to bear the slings and arrows of a map or to arm oneself with something more modern? OK, enough of paraphrasing Hamlet. It's too easy. It IS coming on the season of gift giving bacchanalia, and tech toys are a staple. GPS has been around for a while, so many of the bugs are worked out. Or are they?
First, GPS, like every other bit of techno-wizardry is a TOOL! Nothing more,nothing less. If it can't do the job, no matter how glitzy and sexy it might be, why bother. Now anyone who knows me will tell you that I am more than a bit of a neo-luddite. I got a 'pooter when they began to address my needs. I still don't have a cell phone. I'm about as anti-tech-for-tech-sake as a guy can be in this ever technological age. Hell, I drive a TR3 ferchissake! I don't even have electronic ignition! So who better to give you the skinny on GPS? 
OK, I bought one. The day before our massive 4600 mile road trip that you've been reading about for the past few months. I got a Garmin on the advice of several more tech literate friends. The nuvi 1450 was pretty highly rated on several websites, so, after hunting one down (took several stores to find just that one) I got one at Radio Shack. I did not get the one with lifetime maps, figuring that we'll use it mostly on road trips on back roads, they're not making any more of them, so who needs the updates. IF however, you need one because you regularly do deliveries, or are a chauffeur, you might think seriously about the extra hundred bucks or so that life time map upgrades will cost you. Think about your needs, then get the one that fits. Bragging rights are lame and expensive. This is not then a side by side comparison, it's just six months of living with the thing, using it on road trips and around town.
First, yes, it is a useful tool in many ways. Second, it does have serious limitations for Road Trippers. Let's address the positives first. Probably the number one feature that is helpful is hitting the "Home" button if you are in really unfamiliar territory and got yourself turned around. No matter how turned around you are, it will at least get you to major roads and you can reset from there. Second, IF you take the time to program in your route, it is easier than reading a map in a bouncing car. the Garmin has a feature that can call up the next several turnings so you can see what's next and what's next after that. Third, it gives you plenty of notice as to when you'll be turning, unlike some navigators I've driven with ("Hey, turn HERE!") and having that notice makes things a lit easier. By the way, Marianne is NOT one of those, she gives great directions in plenty of time. Usually. Like all people, myself included, she sometimes goofs. Rarely, but stuff  sometimes happens. Next, it's pretty handy for finding restaurants and motels. We were really grateful for this on this summer's trip when when we were finally rolling into Grand Junction and needed some eats and a place to sleep. Between the GPS and the AAA guide, we were satisfied on both counts. Lastly, the extra bells and whistles are kinda fun. You're not limited to the one annoying voice that sounds so perturbed when you don't do what it wants you to do "reCALculating..." or the same icon that follows the road. Several are down loadable from the Garmin website as well as fun voices you can get form places like I now have "Sean Connery" telling me that he was "just out walking my rat and got lost..."  and randomly asking me if I expect him to talk. I also got Yoda and Clint Eastwood. The five inch touch screen is pretty easy to use (don't bother getting anything smaller, they are worthless!) and the constant orientation that follows the road is a good idea. The trip info is good and you can add a panel to the display that gives you a variety of info, such as direction of travel, elevation, time, speed (and local speed limit!), time and mile to destination, arrival time and others. These are customizable to your needs. Pretty cool. Another useful tool is the traffic link. Around LA, it will tell you in close to real time if there is bad traffic up ahead, and where it is. It's not infallible, but more useful than "Traffic on the fives" which never seem to address the problems where YOU happen to be. Especially if it involves the San Gabriel Valley. It's like we don't exist. but I digress. One of the most useful features is the one that not only tells you which lane to be in to make a freeway transition, but shows you a picture of the interchange. This is extremely helpful when navigating in unfamiliar territory. Like San Diego! Where'd all those extra freeways come from? 
The so-so features are few. The trip info is useful in knowing how far you've gone but setting up your mileage and the "Eco Challenge" are pretty useless. Since the thing is not directly hooked into your car's computer, you have to set what you think is your average mileage and the price of gas. Since both of these things vary so much, it's only a mere approximation. The Eco Challenge also will track your driving habits on a rather arbitrary graph. Allegedly, it factors in your speed, braking and acceleration to give you a score. It seems to me that this score is heavily influenced by your speed and minimally by the other two. It has no way of knowing what gear you are in and how many revs you are turning. A blast up a mountain road at 40mph but in second gear at high revs will get you a better score than 55mph in fifth on the freeway. The other so-so thing is mounting it somewhere. California Law dictates that you can only mount them in either lower corner of the windshield. Not always the most useful place, especially if you are relying on a navigator. You both need to see it. Mounting on the dashboard is an impossibility in many cars, and on most, dangerous. It would seem that just above the glove box, slightly to the left of the passenger would be good. Just where the airbag will deploy, making the GPS a lethal missile. Not such a good idea that. 

So, what are the down sides? The thing has way too many languages. Sure, Garmin is global, but do they really need Basque (and not Gaelic!) and Slovenian? Some are just annoying, like the British lady who always sounds inconvenienced when she is forced to recalculate because of your incompetence. The other bad thing is the Bad Traffic Avoidance function. Just turn it off. It seems to over react to any slow down, and wants to send you on the most round about way to get somewhere. Seriously, in testing this, it took me almost an hour longer to get to Monrovia from Long Beach to avoid a ten minute slow down. Naturally, the default is sending you down the Dreaded Interstate when ever possible. To set up a backroads drive, you have to set several via points to force it to take the route you want. If you take the time to set all this up, It does an OK job, but you still need a map and an idea of where you want to go. On more than one occasion, the poor thing was just overwhelmed and wanted us to go places we couldn't. "In 400 feet, turn right" which would have sent us over a cliff. Yeah, it's entertaining, but...
The WORST thing about GPS however is the tendency to send you down a road you really shouldn't be on. This probably doesn't apply to us Veteran Road Trippers as much, hell, we WANT to drive the weird twisty roads. But Justin and Madison Average in their minivan loaded with their 2.2 kids, the labrador, and the giant stroller probably shouldn't drive on some of these roads. Case in point. In heading south on the 101 from San Luis Obispo, the damn thing will want you to go over Hwy 154 and San Marcos Pass. this will cut the Gaviota Corner on the 101. Now I like 154. It's a pretty neat road, but not for Mr & Ms. Average. It's even worse for truck drivers. The guy who took his car-carrier rig over Angeles Crest and lost his brakes in La Canada, killing a couple of folks took that route on the advice of his GPS. 

My point is you have to bloody well THINK. All the technojazzystuff in the world will not replace that most uncommon of all things, Common Sense. You really do need a map and a brain to Road Trip. You really need a brain and the ability to use it and think for yourself. Should you ask Santa for a GPS? Sure, they have their uses. Just don't turn off your grey matter. So, (delivered in a somewhat Scottish/Connery accent) "Drive your so called car to the route I've highlighted, God I miss the Aston Martin DB-5!" 

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Road Trippin'-The Massive Road Trip-Part Three

        It was getting late as we got into the car up on Tennessee Pass. I had really mixed emotions. The day so far had been a real roller coaster. Seeing the site where GGPa Ready bought it was a bit eerie, but at the same time, left me a bit flat, a bit sad, a bit pensive. We also still had a long haul to Green River, Utah for our next stop. Nothing for it then, but to press on. 
The drive down Highway 24 (well, it’s up, as in north on the map, but downhill so you figger it out) is a great piece of road. Not a lot of traffic, great scenery and wonderful small towns. We were liking Colorado more and more. You could easily spend weeks exploring the back roads and little bergs that dot the map.
The weather was turning a bit foul as we neared I-70. We stopped to take a pee break and it was Marianne’s turn to drive. Bad luck for her. I-70 west is not your typical interstate. Yeah, it does bypass all the towns, but as a road, it’s pretty spectacular. Much of it follows the Colorado River (yes, that Colorado River) so they both twist and turn down a pretty narrow canyon. Then there’s the tunnels. Massive tunnels! Then the rain hit. HARD! Most of the way to Grand Junction was ugly. I have to give full props to Marianne, she handled it beautifully. Even passing semis that throw up rooster tails of spray, obliterating what little vision we had. As things leveled out, we were slammed with a couple of thunderstorms that made things even worse, but she pressed on, never freaked out (at least externally-she admitted that she was pretty tense for a lot of it) and pressed on regardless. 
It was around 8:00PM that we rolled into Grand Junction, and using the handy dandy Triple A Guide and the now very handy dandy GPS, found a place to eat. WW Peppers was touted as a place favored by locals, it wasn’t a chain, it was right off the Interstate, it was late. We went. Sometimes, when it’s getting late, you’re tired and you just dive into a place, you get crap food. This was not the case. This place was really pretty good. Standard menu, lot’s of steaks, nice Wood and Ferns Decor that was right out of the 70s, but a friendly and efficient staff and tasty food made for a good stop. There are probably better places and I’m sure there are a lot worse ones, so we’d recommend it as a good, solid bet for food. By the time we were done with dinner, we were knackered. Green River was at least another hour or more away. Screw it! There was a Motel 6 down the street. Nuff said. 
The next morning, we loaded up and headed off for US 50 (The Loneliest Road in America) and Ely, Nevada. Again, I-70 did not disappoint us! Into Utah we were treated with canyons and buttes and scenery that was really spectacular.  Turns out not stopping in Green River was a good call. Not a lot there! We gassed up there and got some muffins and such for breakfast, thinking that we needed to make up some time headed back to the road. 

Around Salina, UT, we headed north on US 50, then south on I-15 (yep the same I-15 that takes you to Lost Wages), then west again on US 50 towards Ely. this was indeed a lonely road. Nothing for miles and miles but miles and miles. This is alkali desert. It’s flat. The road has a few kinks but is mostly straight. I set the cruise control to 95 and just kept it pointed straight. This kind of driving makes you think. The historian in me couldn’t help but wonder at what it must have been like hauling a Conestoga Wagon over this to get to the Promised Land where fist sized gold nuggets were just sitting around to be picked up. Here we were, clipping along a 95 per hour, when on a good day, a wagon train might make 20 miles in a day!!!! Do the math. We could cover in an hour what might take them the better part of a week. Or more. They had to haul their own water for them AND their animals as there isn’t anything drinkable out there. And we DARE to whine about anything in our lives. puh!
Anyway, we hit Ely and headed for the train yard. Ah, ya knew there had to be something like that to take such a detour. Yep, the Nevada Northern Rail Road, aka “The Ghost Train.” This railroad was built to serve the Kennecot copper mine in the area and when operations were shut down, everyone simply put down their tools, closed the books, parked the equipment and locked up and left, leaving a treasure trove of railroad history. In 1984, it was reopened as a tourist railway, the old steam locomotive was fired up for the first time since 1964 and they haven’t looked back. Again it seems that the de facto theme of this trip was Time Travel. 
This place is amazing and well worth the trip. Visitors are free to wander the yard and take pictures and they run a daily train up to the mine site and back. On weekends, they run the steam engine. Pretty normal for a tourist road. But Wait! This is one of the few places that (for a fee-a kinda hefty fee) YOU CAN DRIVE THE LOCOMOTIVE!!!!!! Yeah! Really! No, I didn’t. Still…

We did find a couple of nice t-shirts to help support them. I surprised Marianne with one that says “My Train of Thought Derailed….There Were No Survivors.” We ate some of the last of our salami and cheese and bread for lunch, then headed for Wells, Nevada, our next planned stop. 
From Ely, we rocketed up to Bonneville and out on the Salt Flats. Yes, anyone can drive out there, but be careful. The salt will cake up under your car and eat it to pieces. One guy we talked to said his rental car company, when he said he was going to Bonneville told him that there would be a $300 charge if he brought the car back with any salt on it. One van we saw coming in off the salt had cakes of the stuff hanging off the wheel wells. The salt flats are neat though. And huge! REALLY HUGE! It’s not just the part you see that runs up to the mountain that Buckeroo Banzai ran through with his Over Thruster. It spreads out for miles and miles and miles! The part they use for racing is not even one-tenth of the area! 

After being properly awed, we headed west on I-80, managed to resist the questionable delights of West Wendover, and blitzed past Wells. It was pretty early, Wells seemed to have nothing to recommend it, so we headed for Elko. 
This is one of those object lessons on Road Trippin’ that is important. We didn’t make reservations at either Green River or Wells, figuring that we didn’t want to be locked into a specific schedule. If you recall, for Cameron and Durango, we’d done just that and as it turned out, that was a good call. NOT making reservations for these two nights was an equally good call. 
Elko, Nevada is a neat town! It, Wendover, and Winnemucca were major stopping points at one time so there is plenty of motels and restaurants to choose from. We opted for the Motel 6 (again) and once we explored the town wished we hadn’t. There wasn’t anything wrong with the 6, it’s just that there were better options. Like the Thunderbird! This place is a classic and is pretty much near the center of town so all the cool stuff is in walking distance. Next time…
The real find was dinner. Good Ol’ St. Serendipity was watching out for us! The AAA guide showed a couple of Basque restaurants in town. OOOHHHH! Basque=LAMB! We picked one, punched it into the GPS and tried to find it. Trouble is, the main drag of Elko was being torn up, there were detours and we were getting hungry and impatient and all the GPS could do was “recalculate.”  We also noticed that there were several Basque places! Elko it turns out is a center of Basque/Americans. Who knew! This was also cool because part of Marianne’s family was Basque! Then one caught our eye. The Star Hotel. While the others looked a bit empty, this place had cars parked all around it. On a Wednesday night. Always a good sign. We managed to park and walked in. WOW! The bar was packed, the Tour de France was on the TV over the bar and everyone was in great spirits. We must have looked lost and one guy told us we needed to get our name on the list and pointed the way. Cool. We were soon called and seated. 

Now, I’m betting most of you have never eaten at a Basque place, so let me give you some of the skinny. ALL Basque places are Family Style. That means that you are seated at a long table with lots of other people. You get to talk with them. When they bring out the food, it’s like eating at home for Thanksgiving. Everyone gets the same sides, you only order your main course. 
First came the Tub O’Soup. This vat of steamy vegetable soup (what ever is fresh and in season-this time it was carrots, cabbages, potatoes and such) is passed around and everyone ladles some into their bowl. If the tureen empties, they bring another. Then comes the Tub O’Salad. Same deal. Don’t dare and even think you’ll get “dressing on the side”. It’s not an option. Enjoy. Finally, came the main dish and the side dishes. I got the roasted lamb. Huge chunks of lamb, falling off the bone and roasted with red bell peppers. Marianne had the beef (lamb and her don’t get along too well). The platter (yes, I said platter) was piled high with this tender lamby goodness. Then came the platters of sides. Ya gotcher green beans with garlic, ya gotcher plate of spaghetti, ya gotcher kidney beans, garlicky roasted potatoes, and ya gotcher fresh baked bread. Ya need yer hand truck to wheel ya out of there when you’re done! The saddest part was that since we were on the road for two more days, we couldn’t doggy bag any of it! Oh, and yes, there was dessert. No, we didn’t. With wine and beer, this all came to under $50. For the two of us. 
The next day dawned bright and clear, we hit the I-80 (yeah ok, more interstate, I know, how evil of me to embrace the dark side of Road Trippin’--but sometimes, yah don’t have a lot of choices) and turned north out of Winnemucca on US 95. This is a pretty neat road ( it’s also an example of how enlightened Nevada is and how repressive Oregon is--speed limit in Nevada=70; Oregon-yep 55!), and famous as the route of the fictional open road race depicted in the classic Tony Curtis movie “Johnny Dark.” Get a copy, it’s pretty neat. They special built the cars and they were the focus of a special place a Pebble Beach a while ago. Anyway, I digress. We were headed for Redmond, Oregon to see a cousin of Marianne’s. We spent a nice night there, then headed to Olympia for my dad’s 86th birthday. It was nice to be able to have time with extant family after all the time we spent with bygone relations. 

After a week in Olympia (where we managed a small road trip out to the coast at Westport, finding a roadside sausage stand where we filled up with all manner of brats, landjagers, and assorted other meat in tubular form) we headed back home. We naturally went US 101 and instead of our usual night in either Eureka or Crescent City, we opted for Orick. This is a wonderful wide spot in the road. There are several places that sell redwood carvings and I’ve always wanted to stop. So we did. No, we didn’t try and load a totem pole or eight foot tall bear in the car, but I did find a neat carved bowl with a turtle on it. Cute. We stayed at the Palm Motel. In the midst of the redwoods, the Palm Motel. This place is one of those original motels that used to fill the highways. It’s a bit tired. I had to use my shoulder to open the door, the place had settled so much. We had to but a towel under the door, just to keep out the draft from the two inch gap. It was great. They also had a cafe. We had the best burger of the whole trip. Surprisingly good food. 

From there it was home. One shot, down 101 and for the first time, the radar detector was working over time. Seems the CHP is trying to singlehandedly balance the budget. Coming out of King City, I almost got nailed. Saw him in my mirror coming down the on ramp. Backed it down and got followed for a couple of miles until he got bored.  Remember, just because the Chippies can use radar, doesn’t mean they do. Our boys still like to nail you Old School. So back it off, let a rabbit streak by to flush them out and watch your mirrors. 
All in all, this was an epic trip. 4300 miles. Seven states. Great roads and even better scenery. Great food and so-so food, and above all, friendly people. We traveled not only back roads but back in time. We connected with family in the here and the then. THIS was what Road Trippin’ is supposed to be about. 

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Family Ties

Road Trippin
with Steve McCarthy
Day Three of our Big Drive dawned and we slept. We’d earned it after getting up in the middle of the bloody night to see Monument Valley. Like I said before, it was worth it. The plan for the day was to hunt down family history. For me, this was the most rewarding day of the trip, but it was as least as long a day as the last one. It was also a day filled with great roads and fabulous scenery. 
We found breakfast in durango at a little place  called the Brickhouse Cafe & Coffee Bar. neat little place, we hit them just as they opened so we had to wait just a bit longer than we’d like, but the food was good. Except Marianne’s pancakes weren’t hot. UGH! Cold pancakes are not a good thing. The waitress DID fix it quickly so we’d still recommend it. Anyway, we did have a schedule to keep. 
WHAT you ask? A schedule? Aren’t we the go with the flow Road Trippers? Well, yes. And no. Yasee the first steam train out of town left at 8:30 AM and we wanted to catch it up the road. So, tanked with gas and fed, we set off up US 550 parallel to the tracks to find a good photo spot. One place we were told about is called “Hernandez” that is an iconic spot. There’s an old water tower there that makes a great backdrop. That turned out to be a great suggestion! We found the place and got some pretty good shots. We paced the train as long as we could, then the routes diverged and we were off for the next highlight; Gunnison. 
Our late(ish) start that morning meant we had to just just cruise through Silverton (terminus of the tourist road) and the other little towns. We were On a Mission and had no time to be distracted. Turned out to be a good idea. Gunnison was 170 miles on some fairly twisty roads. And the weather wasn’t really cooperative. Off and on thunder showers made passing a bit of an adventure at times. That and those dammed Suicide Lanes! Yeah, Colorado has ‘em too! The scenery in Colorado IS spectacular. Often you are driving above the tree line, so, unlike Washington, you’re not hemmed into a fir lined tunnel. Colorado may be one of the premier Road Trippin’ places on Urth! 

Somewhere near lunch time we neared Gunnison and had to figure out where to start. See, my mom had given me a small photo of her dad taken in 1941 standing in front of the house he was born (in 1894) in. It was a pretty fancy one story brick house with rather distinctive concrete lintels over the windows. The only info we had was that it was supposed to have been an old school  house. But where to start. Marianne, great navigatrix that she is, found in the AAA guide for Colorado (these books are really helpful! One of the perks-that and the free 200 mile towing-that makes an AAA card extremely useful) that there is a Pioneer Museum. The guide said that they had three school houses on the site! Where better to start I ask you? 
We plugged the address into my new toy (a Garmin 1450 nuvi GPS-yeah, I know, the Neo-Luddite Society is gonna revoke my membership-more on the GPS in another column) and Hey Presto, There it was. A bit nervously, we walked in, hoping to find a docent who could help us. There were three of them. Very nice, very helpful. I took out the picture and they all said, “Oh, that’s the old school house!” No, it wasn’t one on at the museum, and they weren’t exactly sure which of two it might be. They gave us directions to both. In the meantime, I was telling them of our family history in Gunnison. They were jazzed! Then, good old St. Serendipity stepped in. 
I was telling them about Great Grandma Jenny Sadoris (boy does she have a history!). Seems she was not only the local postmistress (first woman west of the Mississippi to be one!), delivered the mail wearing snowshoes, but she also wrote for the local newspaper, the News-Champion. “Why, we have a whole set of back issues here!” WOW! And wait, it gets better! “They’re in that building back there, help yourself to a look!” 
Seriously, they have original copies of 100+ year old newspapers and just anybody can look at them? Seriously? 
I was off like a shot. Found the stack of papers. Actually, each year was bound and dated, so with some reasonable care, they could be handled. Lessee now, what to look for? 1902! That was the year Great Grandpa Ready was killed in a train wreck! Out came the volume. Ah, hmmm, January. Carefully I leafed through the issues, trying my best to rediscover my talents as a researcher. Ya can’t read every article. Old newspapers are also set up differently from today’s . Seems that in this paper, local news items were just lumped together, no real headlines. So, I began scanning for anything “Ready”. BINGO!!!! Friday, January 31, 1902--”The funeral of Philip Ready who was killed last Friday morning (this was a weekly paper, by the way) by a run away train down Tennessee Pass…” I’d found it! AND, the short article said his funeral was at the local Catholic Church which meant he was buried locally! This was amazing! 

We found out where the cemetery was (on the way out of town), poked around the museum a bit, then went searching for Grandpa Ready’s house. We tried to follow the vague directions and got nowhere. I tried a different plan. Post Office! Found it easily enough and walked up to the counter. “Hi, my Great Grand Mother was Post Mistress here in the late 1800s!” The people at the counter were amazed! Then I showed them the picture. “Oh, that’s the old school house!” Seems to be a pretty well known building. Then the lady gave us directions of the “it’s just past the Domino’s Pizza near where the highway splits off” variety. No, she didn’t know the street names. She worked in the Post Office and didn’t know street names! At least we were getting a general direction, and eliminated one of the possibilities put forth at the museum. 
Next door was the new newspaper office though. That warranted a looksee. Sure enough, after what had by now become a standard introduction, the people in there (who were also jazzed) gave us exact directions. Off we went. Back down the highway, bear right, and sure enough, THAT had to be the place! All boarded up and looking pretty sad, but those window lintels were exactly right! 
It gets better. The story in the newspaper office was that a child services agency called “Partners” now owned the property and had a grant to restore the old house. Turns out, their offices were in back and yep, they were open. Even more nervously elated, we walked in. “Hi, my grandfather was born in that house in 1894.” 
You could hear the proverbial pin drop as jaws dropped around the office. They proceeded to give me some history of the place (seems it was build when there was a West and and East Gunnison, to show that West Gunnison was better than East Gunnison. The town’s First Brick Building! and later turned into a private residence, it was lived in until the 1970s. It’s been vacant since,) I then pulled out the photo. “I thought you’d like to see this, it was taken in 1941, that’s my grandfather. Have you got a scanner? you can make a copy.” You’d thought I’d given them the Hope Diamond! “Wow! Oh REALLY? Say, would you like to see inside?” 
Oh, Man! One of the staff unlocked the padlock and with a flashlight, we went into the stygian darkness. It smelled of Old. That kind of mildewy, old pant, fustiness that long abandoned buildings have. I don’t believe in ghosts or any of that crappola. I didn’t feel any looming Presence. I DID feel a connection. Like a link with the past was restored. I felt more complete. sigh. 

We realized that it was about 2:00 and the day was getting on and we had miles of more twistyies to go, so, having hit the local Sonic Burger (well, it’s better than McD’s!) we headed for the next step in this Journey of Family Discovery. Sure enough, right out of town was the graveyard. We turned in. Now what? I remembered that Sierra Madre’s old cemetery had listing of grave sites in a small building. There was a small chapel looking building. Why not. Sure enough, there was a book of grave sites. I opened it to the “R’s” and there was Phillip Ready AND a Mary Ann Ready. She was his sister. I wrote down the plot number and looked for a map. None. Ah, man! Well, we got in the car to drive around. There were section numbers on trees, but they didn’t seem to have any order. Again, St. Serendipity to the rescue. The maintenance barn was open and there were a couple of guys inside. We drove up, introduced ourselves and one of them said he’s show us where. “Most of the graves in that section aren’t marked,” he said. Damn! We followed him down the aisle, he looked around and “Hey, here it is!” It DID have a marker! There it was. Grandpa’s dates were wrong, but who cares. We found it! We paused a bit there, silently reflecting on this new found connection with our past, Mounted the Mustang and were off to Tennessee Pass, site of the train wreck that killed the man buried at our feet. 
East out of town, we wound along US 50. Originally, we were going to stop in Salida, but because it was getting late, we bypassed that and headed north on US 24. This was the dreaded Tennessee Pass. One of the (if not THE) highest railroad line in the US. A nasty twisty bit of railroad that took a great deal of skill and maybe a modicum of luck to negotiate even in modern times. In 1902, air brakes were in their infancy. It was 6:30 on a January morning when, according to the Eagle County newspaper, one Philip Reddy (sic) took his train through the tunnel at the top of the pass. As he exited the tunnel, he “called for brakes” and there weren’t any. The brakemen walked across the tops of the ever accelerating train, trying to manually set the brakes. The cold January weather had frozen them solid. For seven miles, the train careened down hill, until two miles out of Pando, it hit an esse curve and derailed into a road cut. Great grandfather Ready was thrown out, landing in a tree, his rosary beads in his hands. He was alive, and taken to the railroad hospital in Salida but never regained consciousness. 
Using Google Maps, I’d found the spot described. After driving past it, we realized our mistake, turned around and found it. There was a turnout at the side of the road. I parked, got out and clambered up to the top of the embankment. The long sweep of the esse curve was there, the road cut, them embankment. Hardly any trees today, but clearly this was The Spot. I took a few pictures, but both of us were mostly silent. 

It’s times like this that we can realize just how tenuous our lives are. All the “What If’s” crowd round in your mind. Again, time swirls, wiblly wobbly. What If? 

Monday, August 29, 2011

The Great Western States Trek-Part Deux or Let's Do the Time Warp Again!"

Road Trippin’ 
with Steve McCarthy
The Great Western Trek--Part Deux
Where were we. Ah, yes, as the sun rose higher over Monument Valley, we inched our way along, stopping in wonder as the ever changing landscape awed us with the majesty of it all. This really is one of the most incredible places on earth. Since there was no where to stop for food, we’d brought along our own breakfast of blueberry muffins and other assorted goodies we finally headed towards the Utah town of Mexican Hat. 
This little berg is on the San Juan River and looks to be a pretty good place to stay. Judging by the number of motels on the river, I’m betting it’s also a good place for fishing. We’d not tanked up the Mustang since Flagstaff and since Durango was another 150 or so miles, we bit the bullet and added some fuel at the only place in town that seemed open. The road through Mexican Hat (which, by the way gets its name from a neat rock formation that looks like a sombrero and is worth the trip on it’s own) US 160 is a great road. Good combination of twisty bits and open straights to give a good workout to car and driver. Be careful though, each time we’ve been through there, there’s been a local sheriff’s SUV parked near the river as you get into town. Yes, his radar was on, even at 7AM! No, we didn’t get tagged. Anyway, 160 takes you through Historic Bluff, Utah, which also is worth exploring, but we had our sites set on another target.

As you approach Cortez, CO (uh, remember the name of this little town!), you wind through some fairly flat land bordered by increasingly massive rock formations. You’ll miss going to Shiprock (a sight we took in on out last trip through here and definately worth seeing) and in particular, one massive monolith begins to dominate the landscape. This isn’t like the puny (by comparison) formations of Monument Valley, no, this sucker is BIG! The base is at some 6900 feet above sea level, but the peak is almost 9000 feet! This is also the site of the Mesa Verde (‘cause it’s a table top mountain and it’s covered with vegetation) Cliff Dwellings. this was were we were headed. One of the things we missed on our last tromp through the area were the various cliff dwellings. There’s four or five in this basic area. All are worth the trip, and Mesa Verde was right on the way, so…
This is another of those “Must See” places. Not that it’s easy. First, you have to get there. The road is good, but it’s inside a national park so the speed limit, the sharp elevation rise (at one over look, it’s like you’re flying in a small plane!) and it’s mostly hair pin turns. Not that we minded, but the rented motor home in front of us was having a hard time of it, sloshing water (hopefully, it wasn’t bright blue) from it’s overflow and wallowing like a whale in heat. It’s some twenty miles to the Visitor Center. There, if you are adventurous, you can get tickets for the ranger guided tours of the most spectacular dwellings. You’d better be in shape. We’re talking climbing 30 foot ladders to get in. We opted for the wimpy one. The park info sheet said it was only a 100 foot walk. What they weren’t clear on was that it’s 100’ STRAIGHT DOWN! The path (which is paved) winds down the canyon wall, making you want to hum “On the Trail” from Ferdy Groffe’s “Grand Canyon Suit,” you know, the bit that sounds like donkeys galumphing along? “Dum-ti-dum-ti dumpity-dum-ti-dum-ti dumpity…” We were “lucky.” We’d got there while the sun hadn’t yet started to shine directly into the canyon. It was “only” in the 80s (at about 10AM!) but the humidity that produced those great clouds earlier that morning was making us pay. Between that and the elevation, we were knackered by the time we got down there. 

I have to say, it was worth it. This stone age village is set back into a natural declivity in the canyon wall. Over the centuries (around 1200AD) the people who dwelled there filled in the slice out of the canyon wall with walls of their own, creating cubical like structures and digging down into the floor of the cliff to make underground storage and living spaces. It was fascination. The Rangers there were exceptionally knowledgeable and helpful,, not at all stuffy or arrogant or officious. It was crowded (but not really over crowded) with families from all over the US, talking, laughing, and having an awe-inspired good time. What was really neat to me, was that as we climbed back UP that damn cliff face, the sounds of their voices gave the place life. It must have been like that 800 years ago. Families laughing, chatting, getting on with their lives. It was like being able to peek through the dusty mirror of the past, getting an all too brief glimpse of life in an era so totally remote from ours, yet, not so terribly different. 
OK, pause to reflect on that nugget of philosophical nattering.

Gasping, puffing and panting, we reached the top and “civilization” and headed for the comfort of the museum. AIr conditioning IS one of the most important benefits of the modern world, and the museum has it in abundance. More importantly it has well thought out exhibits that explain what you’ve seen and the history of the place. I’ll not get into lecture mode, so you can relax. It is a fascinating story, visit (don’t just google it) and see it for yourself. 
We had lunch there, then headed back DOWN that mountain and on through the base of the Rockies to Durango. WE got to our motel (the Day’s End Motel, a place that has seen better days and smelled a bit too much of cleaning solvent. Not sure if we really recommend it beyond the fact that it was the cheapest place in town. There are a lot better places in the center of town, they’re pretty pricey, but if you can swing it, do it) and turned on the TV to see what the weather had to offer. “In the top of today’s news, a tornado touched down an hour ago in Cortez…” Wait a second, Cortez, as in the place we went through a few hours before? A tornado? Man, that’s as close to one of those suckers as I EVER want to get! Yes fans, keeping an eye on weather conditions is kinds important. 
Having showered (not that it mattered, as soon as we stepped out the we were dripping again) and changed, we headed downtown. Talk about timing! We finally found parking (don’t even THINK of using the Mickey D’s lot!) we wandered into the train station to learn that the train from Silverton was due in in an hour. OK, big deal you say. It IS a big deal! This is a railroad town, and not just any railroad town. This is the terminus of what is now the Durango and Silverton tourist railway. They run narrow gauge STEAM trains here. four or five a day. both ways! This was a major facility on the old Denver and Rio Grande RR. Narrow gauge means the tracks are only three feet apart, making it easier to negotiate the twists and turns on the way into the mining towns that were the raison d’etre for the rail road. The DR&G was also the rail road my great grandfather, Phillip Brian Ready worked for. It was while he was headed down Tennessee Pass that his brakes failed and he was killed. 

We toured through the museum located in part of the round house, the air filled with coal smoke as a locomotive was being readied for the next day’s run. Again, this was a step back in time. They say that smells are triggers to the memory. They are even more. The smell of the coal smoke, the noises of the crews working one the equipment were the same smells and sounds my great grandfather would have heard. When the train pulled in, announcing it’s approach with tooting whistle and clanging bell, chuffing and panting away, pulling the same passenger cars that were in operation a century ago, time swirled around me, jumping back and forth from present to past tense like a poorly written student composition. Who needs The Doctor to make things all timey-wimey-wiggly-woggly?

Saturday, July 30, 2011

The Great Western States Road Trip, Part I

       4300 miles. Eight days of driving. 215 gallons of gas (more or less). Across state borders nine times. Hot. Humid. Chilly. Dry. Thunderstorms. Missed a tornado by a couple of hours. Sea Level to 11,000+feet. Desert. Forest. Ocean. Canyons. Twisty mountain roads. Flat out straight deserted roads. Burgers to Basque food. Family history and current family. Funky motels of questionable provenance. Really nice places to stay. Dragging out of bed a 2:30 AM. Sleeping in until 7AM. 
That about sums up this summer’s rather massive undertaking. No, we didn’t take the Blue Meanie, we took the Mustang. I think we should re-name it DDT for all the bugs we killed. About the only constant, other than Marianne, my wife and co-driver for life and all around good sport, was the fantastic scenery. Every day held a wonder filled plethora of scenic wonders. I can’t really pick a favorite place. It was all great. Even the sections of Dreaded Interstate were redeemed by vistas of vast interest. 

Last month, I discussed how and why we planned this trip, focussing on two main features. A return to Monument Valley, and a search for family history revolving around my great grandfather, Philip Patrick Ready, killed in a 1902 train wreck. So, be prepared to follow our adventures for the next few columns. 
The first leg was pretty uneventful. Pretty standard. We left a bit later than usual, having no need for a particularly long day in the saddle, only a touch over 500 miles, and not much in the way of stops. Breakfast in Barstow, as is our routine when heading east, then a quick nosh of lunch (again the usual fare, salami, cheese from our friends at California Wine and Cheese in Monrovia, and garlic french bread) in a rest stop just before Kingman. Finally in Kingman, we could abandon the Interstate for old Route 66. This is (as related a few times before) a nice drive, filled with all the nostalgia and few of the perils of the olden days. 
We stopped in Seligman for a look around and visited a few Gifty Shoppies, in particular, Historic Seligman Sundries, an old converted trading post and soda fountain, complete with counter and stools. It’s filled with the stuff you’d expect. We had an interesting chat with the owners, Frank and Lynne about the place and just who they see these days. “Not enough Americans come by. Most of our visitors are French and stop in on a bus tour,” Frank said. “More Americans need to got out and see the country. This is a great country to get out and see, so much variety,” he added. Given that that’s what I’ve been preaching here for how many years now, I’d be tough to disagree. 

From Seligman we went to Flagstaff and wandered a bit through town. In what has been the typical trend, the old part of Flagstaff has been nicely renovated with plenty of shops and eateries, all oriented to the tourist. Some are tacky as only an American tourist trap can be, some are very nice upscale spots that offer some fine examples of local art. It’s well worth a stop. 
Out of Flagstaff we headed north to our first night’s stop, the Cameron Trading Post some fifty miles up US Highway 89. Cameron is in many ways, the gateway to Indian Country. The trading post was established in 1916, it has served both Hopi and Navajo as well as tourists from the earliest days of road travel. It’s also, as constant readers will recall, where there are great deals on turquoise, Marianne’s favorite jewelry. She managed to restrain herself and found a neat pair of earrings. The facilities there are mixed. The rooms are really nice, modern and comfortable,if a bit pricey at about $100/night. The restaurant was a bit of a disappointment. My burger was pretty dry and Marianne’s “Navajo Stew” was kinda bland. What we should have ordered is what they call a “Navajo Taco.” These looked very tasty and one would have fed us both! 
Now you have to be asking yourself, how can a taco feed two? Well, when instead of a tortilla, you have a diner plate sized piece of fry bread (wet bread dough spread out and dropped into hot oil) covered with spiced ground beef, a mound of cheese and lettuce and enough guacamole to satisfy even the most ardent avocado aficionado, you get the picture. Several people around us raved about them. We just didn’t see them before we ordered. Now, at least you know what to get. The staff here are all either Navajo or Hopi and are truly wonderful and efficient. 
The other great thing about Cameron’s is the canyon in their back yard. The place over looks the Little Colorado River Gorge, and while not as grand as it’s better known big brother, it’s still pretty neat and at sunset, looking off the balcony of your room, it’s spectacular. We hit the sack early because we planned a monster day for the next leg. 

When we last related our travel through the area, we emphasized Monument Valley. And for good reason. I’m not a good enough story teller to give you in mere words what this place is like. I don’t think anyone, short of William Butler Yeats or Walt Whitman is. Maybe not even them. Our plan was to be there at sunrise, and hoped that the usual monsoonal moisture would give us great cloud formations. We weren’t disappointed. 
To get there at dawn meant getting up a bit early. It’s almost 120 miles to Monument Valley from Cameron. We could have stayed closer, but Marianne wanted her turquoise fix, so we stayed at Cameron. Lessee now, sunrise was about 6AM, call it two hours of driving, another half hour to find just the right spot. We got up about 2:30, left about 3 and timed it perfectly. We managed to find the spot we’d been to before, maybe the second clump of roadside jewelry stands, set up the tripod, loaded the film and waited for Mother Nature to put on her show. It was Fan-Freakin-Tastic! 
Dead quiet, the air was still and warm. The clouds from the previous day’s thunder storms still lingered, brooding, gathering their strength for the light, sound, and water show for later that afternoon. Gradually the sky lightened, changing hue from deep purple to lavender, revealing the ebony silhouettes of the massive volcanic rock formations that define the place. The clouds revealed themselves as textured rolling pillows, letting in gaps of pale light, slightly tinged with yellow. With growing anticipation, we klatched off a few pictures to test the waters. Getting measure of the place. Without warning, BLAM! The sun poked around one of the monoliths, sending out shafts of golden light, searing through the darkness. We scurried to catch this wonderment on film, using the camera’s timers to get as much depth of field as possible. We were torn between just wanting to stand and stare in awe and doing the job at hand, hoping for that perfect shot.

     Satiated, we reluctantly packed up, and wanting to head up the road to get some new angles, we sped off into the growing light. A few miles further, more opportunities arose to catch the ever changing hues of black to maroon to red as the rising sun lent texture along with color to the scene that makes the place justifiably famous. We could have lingered all day, and sometime we will, but this trip was just starting, and the Mesa Verde Cliff Dwellings and Durango were still ahead of us. 

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Road Trip Planning

Road Trippin’--Planning
with Steve McCarthy
I get asked on a regular basis, “How do you come up with these trips?” It’s not like you can go to AAA  and ask for a triptych (their name for route instructions) that won’t follow the dreaded interstate. The AAA just isn’t set up that way. To be fair, it’s not what most people want from them. Typically, even if you want to get to some odd ball place, they’ll connect Interstates as much as possible. Google Maps will do the same. So, just how do we go about planning, and how much planning do we actually do? Aye, there’s the rub as the Bard was wont to say. How do you balance planning and St. Serendipity? 
First,you start with the right attitude. Anal-retentive scheduling is out. Don’t commit yourself to a time frame. Having said that, understand that sometimes, a degree of scheduling/planning is needed. Take the trip we’re taking the middle of this month. Olympia, WA for my dad’s 86th birthday (he’s doing great, thanks for asking). Now we’ve done this before. Lots. We’ve done the I-Yucky-Five, glorious Hwy 395, wonderful 101, all the standard ways. How can we make this one different? 
St. Serendipity to the rescue. Constant Reader will remember that I’m a bit of a train nut. A Foamer in the lingo of trainspotters. It’s genetic. My Great Grand Father AND his father (on my mom’s side of the family) before him were railroaders. Great Gramps was an engineer on the old Denver and Rio Grande Narrow Gauge in Colorado. He was also killed in a train wreck. I have his railroad watch, the only thing that my grandfather had from his dad. OK, so that’s cool you say, what of it. As usual, there’s more. 

Several years ago, an acquaintance on, a site for us Rail Geeks, upon hearing my Great Grand’s story, did some hunting. Sure enough, he found on the internet (where else?) the Eagle County, CO website, which had the story of the wreck ( . What’s even better, it identified pretty much exactly where the wreck took place. How totally bitchin’! With this info, I typed it into good old Google Maps, and Hey Presto! there was Pando, CO. Using the write up that described how the conductor, who survived the wreck walked two miles to Pando to report the wreck, and further describing an embankment and road cut, I used the satellite feature, scrolled up two miles (there is a scale on the map!) and damn, there’s the tracks, there’s an embankment and a road cut, right at the end of an esse curve. This has to be the spot. Now here’s the real kicker. It’s just off US Highway 24! Damn, we can drive right there! But, even using the interstate, it’s a 14 hour drive. Not gonna be a day trip. 
So, how we gonna do this? Shoot for direct? NAH! Of course not. If you’ve learned anything about us, you know direct just doesn’t cut it. Remember the Great Turquoise Trek of a few years ago? OOOH! Monument Valley! That’s on the way to Colorado. Mostly. Lessee, what else. Hey, how about a return to Chama? Hmmm, I says to meself, what else is there? Hey, Durango! There’s another tourist railroad there, we haven’t seen it...PERFECT! So now, you can see how things come together. 

Back to good ol’ Google and again, hmmm, do we want to stay in Williams (again) ? Well, what else is there. Can we get closer to Monument Valley? Hey, The Cameron Trading Post! Home of the Great Turquoise Trove! They have a motel! If we get up at O’Dark-Thirty, we can get to Monument Valley at Sunrise! Imagine the photos we can take! OK, perfect so far. but wait, there is the inevitable fly in the ointment. It’s Mid-July when we’re doing this. Peak tourist season. We’re betting that both Cameron and Durango are pretty popular places in the summer. Each is an easy drive from the last place (eight hours from Monrovia-Cameron, 5 hours further to Durango, giving us plenty of time to see other stuff on the way to Durango, stuff like the Mesa Verde cliff dwellings?) so are ideal as far as timing, but, what about rooms? Hmmm, maybe some pre-planning is needed. Not hard to do these days. I called Cameron (using the number on their website) spoke to a very nice young lady, and Bob’s yer Uncle, reservations for the night. Same with a motel in Durango. The other benefit of preplanning is that in the Wonderful World of WWWdotEverything, you can find out just what a fleabag/palace your proposed resting place is. Maybe. Sometimes, reviews need to be taken with a grain of salt. Lone, excessively negative reviews are often someone with an axe to grind. OK, the place wasn’t up to their lofty standards. So the place wasn’t a five star experience. Some of the neatest places we’ve stayed have been way low on some lists. Learn to read between the lines. 
OK, so we have two stops planned. A third stop also appeared as a possibility. Marianne has a cousin she rarely sees in Redmond, OR. It’s on the way. Hey, how about a night there? OK, that’s a good idea, even if Redmond is a short hop to Oly. Now comes the hard part though. 
First, what else do we want to see? Hmm, we go right by Bonneville. That has to be a stop, even if it’s just to look at the salt flats. No racing that time of year, but hey, it’s BONNEVILLE! A Holy Shrine to Speed! Anything else? OOO! In Ely, NV, there’s another neat railroad. That becomes a possibility. Now, planning and schedules raise their ugly heads. At this point, a lot is going to depend on how the day goes. We have essentials (Pando-the raison d’etre for the trip, Cameron and Durango--because they’re more or less on the way, Redmond-family) planned. Anything else is gravy. They come under the heading of “it would be nice.” 
From here on, the planning has to be more flexible. That’s why you take some good maps (morre on that later). GPS is not gonna help you off the main routes! It’s also not a substitute for common sense. Remember, it was that poor truck driver’s GPS that told him that the best way from Palmdale to LA was over Angeles Crest. His brakes failed and two people died when he hit that book store in La Canada. As a guide, using Good Ol’Google, we picked Green Valley, UT, and Wells, NV as places to stop. Why? The driving time is doable, if a bit long (By the way, google REALLY over estimates drive times. They’re figuring drive time for the guy in  the mini van who tucks his ironed pink polo shirt into his ironed khaki shorts. Us Road Trippers drive a bit more, uh, briskly, shall we say, especially on the twisty bits) and are large enough to have a selection of motels. The need for reservations is pretty low, so although we have a “plan,” if we get tired early, or a get burst of energy, or just want to stay somewhere else, we can. 
The other neat thing about Google Maps is their adjustability. They will always give you the most direct route. But, you can use your mouse to drag the route to a different road. This gives you a lot of flexibility in planning, and it still gives you a ballpark idea of how long it might take to meander. 
Now I have to tell you that Google Maps is not infallible. This is particularly true with back roads. It’s tough to tell if the road is paved and not all of their mapping has been done with the little spy car with the camera on it. It’s important then to have access to some good maps. It used to be Thomas Bros. but since they got bought out, many of the neat back roads disappeared. AAA maps also lack the detail drivers like us need. Right now, the best map books are by Benchmark. Naturally, Autobooks carries some of them and can get others. These are REALLY detailed! They can also save plenty of grief because they’ll tell ya if a road is closed seasonally. If you do any winter road trips, that is essential info! The main problem with them is twofold. First, they are big! That makes them a bit tough to use in a small car. Second, they aren’t spiral bound, so you can’t flip them back, making them even bigger and even harder to use in a small car. Still, they are good and worth the $25 or so that they cost. 
So, planning is important. Over planning is the road to disaster. Don’t try for split second timing, and don’t be afraid to take a road that looks better than what you’d originally thought of. Get reservations if you need to but make absolutely sure you understand the motel’s cancellation policy! Some will ding you for the entire night’s stay if you cancel late! That may mean the same day you were to arrive! It’s a bit draconian, but hey, read the fine print! 
Wish us luck! We’ll of course chronicle our 4000 mile odyssey so stay tuned, the next few columns should be pretty interesting. And just so you don’t think we’re totally crazy, we’re wimping out and taking the ‘Stang. The Blue Meanie in Arizona in July? Not gonna happen.