Sunday, January 24, 2010

Guppy Chronicles: The Wrapup

Notes from Lynn:

From the Canadian side of Niagara Falls, befogged by mist, we expected to hear the awesome thunder from Horseshoe Falls and American Falls. We hadn’t expected to hear a relentless clamor for tourist dollars no more than a city block uphill from this spectacle of nature’s power and beauty. In the neon jumble of Clifton Hill, we walked past the towering Niagara Sky Wheel, the Nightmares Fear Factory, the Dino Rampage 4D Simulation Ride and dozens of similar amusements. We saw a plastic statue of King Kong hovering over a street fragrant with pizza, stuffed pretzels and, according to the Wild Wing restaurant, 100 flavors of chicken. We couldn’t have been more surprised if the Grand Canyon were to sprout a ferris wheel.

Surprise. That’s the unexpected answer, of course, when Margo and I are asked about what we experienced in our 13,000-mile, three-month, tour of America’s byways and cities, big and small.

We were astounded at the leviathan Phaetons, Alumascapes, Artic Foxes and other whale-sized motor homes in our first (and last) RV park, Pheasant Ridge, outside the Portland suburb of Wilsonville. In response, we named our minivan camper The Guppy.

Surprise came with wonderful place names: Lake Winnibigoshish in northwest Minnesota, South Skunk River in Iowa, Zig Zag Mountains in Arkansas and Dosewallips State Park in Washington’s Olympic Peninsula. They’re tied for second place. Our favorite appeared in western Virginia on the Blue Ridge Parkway. A sign directs motorists to Sweet Annie Hollow.

We weren’t surprised at the near-scalding temperature of 143-degree water spouting from a public fountain in the once-fashionable Arkansas spa city of Hot Springs. (That's Margo, who is cool.) But nobody told us a little secret: The thermal water started its journey as rainfall in the nearby mountains at about the time Stonehenge opened for business. Heated far below the surface, it percolates slowly upward. Here, how about a cup of 4,000-year-old hot water?

Birds, Birds, Birds

Margo put aside thoughts about Jurassic fossils when she looked at a field of corn stubble and said, "Herons!" She unsheathed her binoculars. "Stop," she said. She focused on hundreds of ungainly birds pecking at kernels. She was dubious. "Herons? Out here?"

Good question. Herons and desert don't seem to go together. The northeast corner of Utah might have been wet enough 150 million years to support long-neck sauropods, but today their fossilized bones lie beneath the arid hills of the Dinosaur National Monument. Besides, herons are birds of a feather who don't flock together.

When we arrived at the Visitor Center, Margo asked a Park Service ranger about the herons. "Herons?" she said. "Those were sandhill cranes!" (At left, photo from California Dept. of Fish and Game)

Minutes later we were back at the corn field to celebrate the happiest surprise of Margo's fascination with birdlife, an allurement she took up fairly recently. As she peered through the heavy spyglasses, she was so excited that she could scarcely speak. "They have little red hats! They'll so beautiful!"

Our trek by minicamper was punctuated by similar outbreaks of bird-driven excitement. On the Hudson Walkway, a former railroad bridge near Poughkeepsie, Margo and her friend Kathy Podmaniczky saw a peregrine falcon taking it easy 4 feet away on a board
behind the railing. They stared at each other until the falcon, evidently bored, took off.

As we drove down a gravel road next to the Platte River in central Nebraska, Margo got out and nailed another falcon – this one a prairie falcon – that was poised on a telephone pole while scanning the fields for prey. In Idaho's Lost River Valley, Margo was delighted when The Guppy was buzzed by two bald eagles. We were lucky enough to spot eagles, in fact, a number of times – in Minnesota, Washington and Montana. White pelicans welcomed us into Louisiana and a cardinal – a flash of bright red in a winter-barren shrub – welcomed us into lower Michigan.

In a grassy slope at the rear of an elementary school in Portland, we waited with scores of families and friends for the sunset dive of thousands of swifts in September. It was one thing to be told of the sleeping habits of these tiny birds, who dine on flying insects, But when they formed a huge vortex and (at right) dive-b0mbed into the chimney, Margo (and I) gasped with surprise.

When we visited Liberty State Park next to Jersey City, Margo exulted in spotting one bird after another – blue herons,
American coots, widgeons, mallards, mute swans, and a gazillion brants.

We had known that the wild dances of sandhill cranes are a familiar and welcome sight in California's Central Valley, where the state sponsors guided tours near Lodi in September, "the season of the sandhill crane." We knew that another subspecies winters in the Platte River's shallows in Nebraska. But it's a shock to find that some states, including Utah, allow hunters to kill them. The books say they prefer to sleep by standing all night in shallow water so the coyotes won't get them. As we watched, the impossibly slender cranes took off, straightening their legs behind them (instead of tucking them in, like most birds). Margo was in love.

Wet Spot

Gardens of moss on the wet picnic tables didn’t astound us. After all, Quinault is the wettest place in the 48 states. Lots of moss would be inevitable in Willaby Campground, a loop of empty tentsites in northwestern Washington’s Olympic National Park. We looked more closely. Surprise! We found the tables aren’t made of wood. The tufts and belts of green moss somehow grow on concrete.

Well, we wanted to experience the delights of the rainforest. So we did. And then we decamped to a roadside café near Lake Quinault. The local newspaper is called the Rain Barrel. Average annual rainfall is from 150 to 200 inches. (In San Francisco, annual rainfall is about 22 inches.)

We ordered breakfast to the tune of “Goodbye Mrs. Durkin” on the sound system. We were told that the cook, who owns the place, is addicted to Irish folk songs. It figures. The soft rain that morning reminded us of the greenery in the west of Ireland (about 50 inches a year in County Mayo), so I assumed the cook is an Irishman. “The Wild Rover” came next. Then “Whisky in the Jar.”

As he scrambled our eggs, the chef may have been singing to himself about sweet Molly Malone’s cockles and mussels. But he’s not from Dublin’s fair city. Our waiter told us the owner came to the rainforest from sunny Mexico. I imagined someplace dry and hot, like Chihuahua (6 inches a year). In any case, he gives us a new entry in our growing file of Busted Assumptions.

Antiques Roadshow

Dumbo. Fittingly, that is exactly the term I would pick for the producer-directors (I can’t say curators) of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History. They made it obvious when they enshrined Dumbo the Flying Elephant to celebrate “the blend of imagination, technology and business acumen that makes up American entertainment.” This is not a joke.

The purple fiberglass car, a gift from the popular Elephant Ride in Disneyland, was installed last year as a “landmark object.” She anchors the third floor’s west wing in what should be the nation’s most important museum of history. Instead, the disappointing jumble of artifacts looks like the Antiques Roadshow.

It’s not that we weren’t interested in Julia Child’s kitchen, Judy Garland’s ruby slippers or the 1903 Winton that was the first horseless carriage to cross the continent. But the Dumbo producer-directors must have forgotten that 1.4 million visitors came in 2009 to what was billed as a history museum, not a Barnum sideshow of curiosities displayed for the entertainment of busloads of impatient schoolchildren.

The museum doesn’t lack for items that, when on display, might help visitors apprehend the realities behind the abstract words of history books. Among the 100,000 artifacts in the government collections are Lincoln’s top hat, Cesar Chavez’s union jacket and the candle stand on the desk where George Washington wrote his Farewell Address.

Just as visitors at Auschwitz-Birkenau are stunned by a room filled with two tons of human hair, so museum tourists could be shocked by two tons of deadly weapons from the Smithsonian’s armory of 3,000 rifles and pistols. But it needs the context of history. We forget that weapons (and disease) buried more than 500,000 young Americans in the uncivil Civil War. But at the history museum, as far as I could see in a one-day visit, historical context is skimpy in a building filled with gee-whiz exhibits. Perhaps the place could be renamed as the National Museum of American Culture.

Kids (and adults) are fascinated by an exhibit that includes C-3PO, the brainy and brainless android from “Star Wars.” (Margo is the one not clad in titanium.) It’s understandable. That’s because they know his story. History. It demands context, but that’s what’s missing from most of what we saw during our all-too-brief visit to the Disneyland of American history and its abiding symbol, Dumbo.

Rain washed our dusty minivan as we pulled into pitch-dark Stillwater Camp at Lake Granby, a mountain reservoir in the Arapaho National Forest. Margo remembered attending a nearby summer camp when she was growing up in Colorado. The ranger booth was closed. Except for two motorhomes, the rainswept campground was empty.

We ate snacks, got out our books, climbed into bed and listened to the rain. At dawn, our exhalations had clouded the windows. We opened the sliding door. We found astonishment.
On a scalped hillside, no pines. Just stumps. They looked like tombstones after a tsunami.

The analogy isn’t so far off the mark. In Idaho and Montana, we had been appalled at the sight of entire hillsides painted in yellowish green and orange brown, the autumn colors we don’t want to see on conifers.

We learned that the larvae of mountain pine beetles have snuggled beneath the bark in millions and millions of lodgepole pines, ponderosa pines, western white pines and even high-elevation whitebark pines. In June and July the pupae of Dendroctonus ponderosae emerge as adults, about this size: @#. Then they lay the tiny eggs that suck up the tree’s nutrients, kill their hosts and litter the forests with fuel for fire.

That wouldn’t be the case at Stillwater Camp, where the stumps dot the hill like graying day-old whiskers. A few saplings have been planted, pale green glimmers of the future. We wanted to ask the absent rangers about the massacre of their beautiful pines. It had to be pine beetles. We assume the Forest Service had ordered a preemptive strike.
On the Road: Surprises

√ At Bertha’s Pump & Pay, a gas station in rural Tennessee, Margo noticed a whiteboard behind the cash register. It displays names of customers whose checks had bounced. We assumed that small-town humiliation pressures would impel apologetic locals to show up with Bertha’s money. “Those names have been up there forever,” said the clerk. “It doesn’t seem to work.”

√ As travelers from a city where an ordinary bungalow sells (at a loss) for $700,000, we spotted a classified ad in Fairfield, Nebraska, for a “great family home,” seven bedrooms and two baths, walk-in closets, “beautiful.” The price: $55,000.
In Eagle Bend, Minnesota, a 10-acre “hobby farm” with a four-bedroom, three-bath home, has guest quarters over the big garage, “apple trees, seclusion”: $155,000.
In Ishpeming, Michigan, I saw a real estate sign outside my late great-grandfather’s impressive 100-year-old Victorian home (5,300 square feet, four bedrooms, three stories, two fireplaces, well kept, two blocks from Main Street): $99,500. (On right.)

√ In Frazee, Minnesota, we saw a billboard: “Home of the World’s Largest Turkey.” A brochure calls Red Cloud, Nebraska, “One of the most famous small towns in the country.” Booster boasters in Madisonville, Kentucky, put a banner on the railroad underpass that says, “It’s the best town on earth.”

√ In 1970, when Sam Walton’s company had grown to 15 stores, the Arkansas entrepreneur went public with stocks at $16.50 per share. At our visit to the first store of what would become the Wal-Mart empire, we learned that 100 of those shares would have split and resplit by now into 204,800 shares. The investment of $165,000 would be worth about… $10 million.

Lost in Books

Something about booksellers impels them to separate copies of the same book– new and used, hardcover and paperback – and stack them on different shelves in different places. Walter Powell, a retired painting contractor, didn’t agree – or maybe he didn’t know better.

With 100 boxes of books he bought at a rummage sale, he opened Powell’s Books in 1971 in what was then Portland’s wino-and-whorehouse district. He clumped together all books with the same title. Perhaps that’s one little reason why Powell’s Books, now owned by the late bookman’s son Michael, is so highly regarded that the late Susan Sontag, a New Yorker not shy about ridiculing the provinces, said Powell’s “is the best bookstore in the English-speaking world.” It’s certainly one of the biggest, selling 4 million rare, used and brand-new books every year.

The 400 or so employees are unionized. As we walked into the City of Books, one of them handed us 10-page Map & Guide. He didn’t want us to lose our way among the mazes of 1 million books in nine, color-coded rooms the size of basketball gyms. I bought a Donna Leon paperback, “A Sea of Troubles,” which I hadn’t been able to find anyplace else. It sat next to a hardcover edition, just as Walter wanted. Then I got lost.

The Penitence Sentence

“A haunting world of crumbling cellbocks,” says the brochure. It promises a tour of “surprising, eerie beauty.” The brochure is easily the ugliest, weirdest and strangest enticement in all the hundreds of folders and flyers in all the racks in all the motel offices, convenience stores and state-sponsored welcome centers in all of the highways and byways of our quest to circumnavigate this great nation.

Other brightly colored leaflets shouted at us with urgent advice to visit the local tourist attractions, lodgings, eateries, roadside museums and anything else that will persuade us to spend a little money. But a prison?

In a rest stop in Pennsylvania I was taken aback when I picked up the brochure. With a dismal design of bleak black and blood red, the ad copy plugs “America’s Most Historic Prison.” It’s not Alcatraz. It’s Philadelphia’s Eastern State Penitentiary, now empty, that held more than 75,000 men and women in 142 years of misery and despair. Says the grim brochure: “This was the world’s first true penitentiary, a prison designed to inspire penitence – or true regret – in the hearts of criminals.”

It’s open to visitors ($12). We could thrill to Death Row and see the cells of Al Capone, Babe Andreoli and Slick Willie Sutton. We could marvel at the escape tunnel in 1924 that freed Leo Callahan. He must have gone straight rather than work on his penitence. He never returned to the haunting world of surprising, eerie beauty. Unsurprisingly, we agreed with Leo.

Good Dog

The University of Oregon’s athletic teams call themselves the Ducks. That’s no surprise. While camping in light rain at Fort Stevens State Park at the mouth of the Columbia River near Astoria, we visited the nearby Fort Clatsop Historical Monument. The simulated fort marks the place where Meriwether Lewis and William Clark holed up with their fellow explorers in the Oregon winter of 1805-06. (That's me in the window.) Of the 106 days of “repeated fall of rain which has fallen almost constantly,” a dozen days were rainless. Only six were sunny.

Hey, kids, your schoolbooks left out the best surprises hidden in the journals of the Corp of Discovery. (OK, OK, it’s supposed to be Corps. Nobody said an explorer had to spell, and the spellcheck app was 200 years in the future.)

When the eastward-bound explorers finally left Fort Clatsop and reached a Cathlahmah village, Capt. Meriwether Lewis yelped about hygiene:

They have also a very singular custom among them of baithing themselves allover with urine every morning.

After negotiating with the Chinooks, Lewis wrote tastefully about food:

I also purchased four paddles and three dogs from them with deerskins. the dog now constitutes a considerable part of our subsistence and with most of the party has become a favorite food; certain I am that it is a healthy strong diet, and from habit it has become by no means disagreeable to me, I prefer it to lean venison or Elk, and it is very far superior to the horse in any state.

Beaten to the Punchline

We gaped at Tennessee’s tallest and weirdest skyscraper. We learned later that the 33-story telephone temple in Nashville was built in 1994 for Bell Central South, which became Bell South. Now it bears the name of AT&T. The corporate name would impel Lili von Stupp to say, “Oh…how ordinawy.

The late Herb Caen gave us San Franciscans the Jukebox (Marriott Hotel), the Washbag (Washington Square Bar & Grill), Berserkley (home of the university) and Baghdad-by-the-Bay (rarely heard these days).

In the columnist’s spirit, we looked at the AT&T tower and gave it a much better name. We were too late.

Our name for the spire had already been coined by the chuckling citizens of Nashville.
They call it the Batman Building.

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