Tuesday, June 30, 2009

The Month That Was - June 2009

The Month That Was - June 2009: A lot of clean up and miscellany this month, including four travel rewinds, backtracking through my recent, pre-Moab trips out west. I'm slowly weeding out the Scurrying About section in the hopes of eliminating it as part of a minor site rework. I should start tagging all my posts. I should also think about adding Google Ads. And enabling comments - maybe. I have a few other ideas. If I get more than one done it will be a miracle.

No "Book Looks" again this month. But coming in the future are Lanark, by Alistair Gray; The Lightning Thief and (maybe) The Sea of Monsters, by Rick Riordan; The History of Art, by Paul Johnson; (possibly) more Nero Wolfe. You will not find a more eclectic reading list than mine.

I had also promised three more Flick Checks from my Comcast freebies, but I didn't get to those either. In truth I have come to have a knee-jerk dislike of movies. I can't tell if it's old-age crankiness or just intolerance for poor drama, but I rarely see a film that I find qualifies as even passable entertainment anymore. It's tempting to say they just don't make like they used to, but the fact is they never made them like they used to, it's just taken me a long time to see how bad they always were. I should write something more cogent about this phenomenon. Another thing for the to-do list.

Honestly, the bulk of my free time this month went to combing through the 600 or so photos I took in Utah and photoshopping them into acceptable shape. I am happy to say, that my photo library on Smugmug is looking really good. I'm proud of some of that stuff, not that it has any real value to anyone but me. I suppose I could look into naking them available for stock photography. Every paragraph is ending in a new project. Alas.

10th Circle of Hell: Renting a Car
Life After Motown
Music in My Ears
Those Weren't the Days
Travel Rewind: Southwest Passage (2008)
Travel Rewind: Death Valley Days (2008)
Travel Rewind: Head for the (Black) Hills (2007)
Travel Rewind: Way Out West (2006)

10th Circle of Hell: Renting a Car

10th Circle of Hell: Renting a Car: Just as a follow-up to last month's mini rant about rental cars, I looked into the whole insurance angle a bit. Selling you optional insurance is high on the nickel-and-dime list for car rental agencies. Neophytes to the auto rental process may not realize that they will get asked if they want to spring for insurance, perhaps assuming that their personal car insurance covers them. Nope; unless you have a very unusual sort of policy that I don't know of.

There are usually three kinds of insurance they ask about: Collision damage, Personal accident, and Liability. Buying this coverage from the rental company for these can easily cost an excess of $40/day. It's outrageous and generally it's pure profit for the company. (It's also one of the things that really holds up car rental lines, folks who didn't know this question was coming and have no idea what to do about it.)

Probably the best answer for this is comes from your credit card. Many cards (but certainly not all, check before you assume) automatically insure you if your pay for the rental with that card, thus enabling you to decline the optional insurance. Usually it's only the Collision and Personal Accident, not Liability; but that's good enough for me. Still, it's not like you're completely in the clear. The card company only acts as secondary insurer, meaning any other source of insurance comes first. So you are likely to have to jump through any number of paperwork hoops to get reimbursements. One card, Diner's Club, actually acts as primary insurer in these cases so there would likely be less paperwork.

Apart from not covering liability, the other thing that may not be covered by your credit card is Loss-of-Use: the theoretical amount of money the company lost because they couldn't rent the car while it was being repaired. The chance of a company actually having a loss like this is small. But if you have an accident you can pretty much count on getting slammed for this too. Some credit cards don't cover this at all. Some will cover it provided the rental company will show them that they had a certain usage rate on their cars during the period of the charge (say 85% or something like that) to demonstrate that they really did lose money by not having that car in service. But, the problem here is that some (most) rental companies will simply not open their books.

So how's that for a fine mess? You get in an accident. The rental company charges you say $500 for loss of use. You credit card company says they'll pay it but they need to see the usage log from the rental company. The rental company says no, that's against our policy, so your card company won't pay it -- tough luck. By the way, the rental company doesn't send you a bill; they just hammer your credit card for these charges right away and let you go through the trouble of fighting it if you've got the willpower. In truth, I expect if you want to dispute anything the rental company charges you that credit card insurance won't cover, you can likely plan on calling a lawyer and heading to court.

Let me state quite plainly that any rental company that will hit you with a loss-of-use fee then refuse to verify it is an outright swindler. Seriously, there should be class-action suit or some kind of legislation that requires them to at least verify that they had a loss of use if they are going to change you for it. If I owned a congressman I would sick him on this. Imagine the political benefit of demagogueing this rapacious behavior by an industry that everyone already hates to begin with. Can you say "re-election"?

Apart from the scam aspect of all this, another problem is how much learning you have to do to get this done efficiently and cost-effectively. The quagmire of rental insurance, credit card coverage policy, loss-of-use policy -- coupled with questions about buying gas up front, hourly/daily/weekly rates, etc. -- means you have to rent cars often enough to have made your mistakes and learned your costly lessons before it sets in. This is just another example of how the travel industry has taken a straightforward service and disfigured it into a nightmare. All because of what? Fear of liability? Onerous regulation? Distrust and suspicion? Greed? Stupidity? Whatever that case, it obviously isn't working since bankruptcies are rife in the auto rental industry.

So what should you do when you rent? What does your card cover? Which companies supply log books for loss-of-use charges? The best description I have come across is in an SFgate article by Ed Perkins. It discusses what cards cover what and what rental companies open their books. Looks to me like I'm doing fine using Amex, although Diner's Club might offer some marginal benefits. Also, my main rental company is Alamo, which apparently has a policy of providing supporting logs for loss-of-use. It seems I may have blindly stumbled into some reasonable choices.

Here's the problem: the article is from 2007. Is it still accurate? It's not like headlines are made when one of these companies changes a policy out from under you. I guess the only thing to do is check for yourself. Having a simple, reliable answer would be just too easy. If you only rent cars once a year, and then only for a short time -- you may as well just buy the rental company insurance rather than waste however many hours trying to sort this all out. Maybe that's why the travel industry ends up with these twisted policies. The beat down succeeds in the end -- you pay.

Of course, if I did open a vein and pay for the optional insurance I might bang up the car a bit before returning it just to get my money's worth.

Life After Motown

Life After Motown: Last month I made the offhand comment that the auto/housing crash is going to accelerate the depopulation of Michigan, especially the urban and suburban areas. This didn't bother me all that much other than it might the likelihood of my taxes being jacked up to cover revenue shortfalls. That was thoughtless of me, though. The other cost is the loss of my friends as their jobs vanish and they move away to more financially friendly locales. This was rammed home recently as the University of Michigan -- the monster employer in Ann Arbor, in case you couldn't guess -- has started RIF-ing people wholesale. (RIF = Reduction In Force. Suddenly everyone around here knows that acronym.)

In some ways this is not surprising. The University is horribly managed and the ranks are loaded down with fat. Stories I have heard from friends about the total disregard of value and the entitled mentality of folks they work are head-shakers. And it's really no surprise. Many, many folks actively sought out University employment over the years because, while the pay was not all that great, the benefits were amazing -- including 200% 401K matches, 6 weeks vacation, etc. -- and as an essentially public institution, the assumption was that you could count on secure employment. Long time employees often referred to it as the Golden Handcuffs -- you might have a strong desire for better pay and sunnier climes, but you just couldn't see giving up the indirect benefits. Productivity was not a goal here.

Naturally, short sighted management eventually catches up to itself and bites its own butt, so now the RIF-ing is in full swing. Equally naturally, the short-sighted management that got them in this is doing equally short-sighted RIF-ing. Favoritism, tribalism, and outright whim are used without shame in wielding the axe. You would think the smart thing to do would be to take the opportunity to trim the fat, but no. The fat percentage will remain; just the overall scale will be reduced.

It's a fair bet that precisely the same dynamic is going on at General Motors. The University will survive of course, and may even come to thrive in a world of Obamacare, due to its tremendous medical research capabilities and the associated grants. They'll also raise tuition while cramming more and more freshmen into gigantic lecture halls with grad student Teaching Assistants. Without such options GM is more questionable, their only fallback option is the taxpayer.

Whatever the case, all that is getting settled is the rate of decline. Michigan's economy is not getting better any time soon. Possibly not in my lifetime. That's not to say it won't be good to live here. It might even be better for those of us can hold on, which is what I was trying to say last month. I just hope my friends can hold on along with me.

The History Channel is currently running a 9-part series called Life After People. The concept is to speculate on what would happen to the world if suddenly all the humans disappeared. It's interesting in a hopelessly depressing sort of way and features some nicely done graphics showing how nature slowly takes over all the previously populated areas.

Here in Michigan, we get to see this process in real time. And, as proof that even in this fecklessly bungled State we can occasionally get a unexpected outbreak of common sense, someone is turning this phenomena into a determined strategy in Detroit's weak sister, the City of Flint. Now that's a smart way to downsize.

"The real question is not whether these cities shrink -- we're all shrinking -- but whether we let it happen in a destructive or sustainable way," said Mr Kildee. "Decline is a fact of life in Flint. Resisting it is like resisting gravity."

I find the fact that this guy has not been tarred and feather by sentimental journalists (like Mitch Albom) astounding. Could there actually be some realistic constructive change going on in this State, instead of just another PR campaign?

Other places are going rustic in smaller way:

More than 20 of the state's 83 counties have reverted deteriorating paved roads to gravel in the last few years... Reverting to gravel has happened in a few other states but it is most typical in Michigan.

Could be dirt bike heaven. And even more tellingly, some folks are living off the land:

Beasley, a 69-year-old retired truck driver who modestly refers to himself as the Coon Man, supplements his Social Security check with the sale of raccoon carcasses that go for as much $12 and can serve up to four. The pelts, too, are good for coats and hats and fetch up to $10 a hide.


Hunting is prohibited within Detroit city limits and Beasley insists he does not do so. Still, he says that life in the city has gone so retrograde that he could easily feed himself with the wildlife in his backyard, which abuts an old cement factory.

He procures the coons with the help of the hound dogs who chase the animal up a tree, where Beasley harvests them with a .22 caliber rifle. A true outdoorsman, Beasley refuses to disclose his hunting grounds.

"This city is going back to the wild," he says. "That's bad for people but that's good for me. I can catch wild rabbit and pheasant and coon in my backyard."


A beaver was spotted recently in the Detroit River. Wild fox skulk the 15th hole at the Palmer Park golf course. There is bald eagle, hawk and falcon that roam the city skies. Wild Turkeys roam the grasses. A coyote was snared two years ago roaming the Federal Court House downtown.

I can't help but think of Jed Clampett. As you might expect, the splendid and beautifully written Detroitblog was on top of this theme long ago.

Some blocks have been cleared entirely of housing over the years, one house at a time, until nature runs rampant, untrammeled by human endeavor, leaving nothing but telephone poles that still carry electricity past open fields with no machines to power, no homes to light.

It's the astonishing evidence that an entire neighborhood, and the society that it held, can vanish, with most traces of its presence wiped out in a matter of a few years, returning to the natural state in which it began.

As much as all my wailing on this topic might seem dire and cynical, I am actually optimistic about life here for those of us who can manage to stay. For the rest of you, well, do come by and visit when the weather is warm, but you're probably better off living where you are.

Music in My Ears

Music in My Ears: I write a lot about what I watch and read, but I rarely seem to write about what I listen to. My listening habits are somewhat diverse.

In the car I have Sirius, and I have rarely strayed from the channel 25, Little Steven's Underground Garage (Caution: Auto-playing sound! Turn your speakers down.) The best description I can think of for the music is that it is (generally) any rock and roll that is avid and enthusiastic while not being not affected or high-concept. You might hear an old Kinks song, then something from a Scandinavian garage band, then doo-wop, then an old Delta blues song, then the Clash, then a semi-kitsch Nancy Sinatra, then Otis Redding, then a Beatles outtake, then the Ramones, and so on. It has two great qualities that you can't usually get -- it isn't obsessed with commercial success, and you never know what to expect. Unique in radio, as far as I can tell.

When I'm working (meaning writing - not day job) at home or on the road with wi-fi, I find myself tuning into Pandora. A brilliant concept -- you enter the name of an artist or song you like and it searches through its database of music and starts playing similar songs or artists -- with dead simple execution: you simply go to the site, enter the artist/song and the music begins. It stores your selections as "radio stations," of which you may have up to one hundred. It's available to you anywhere there is an internet connection, including your iPhone (and presumably Android and Palm Pre, if not now, soon) which would be the only reason I'd have for a smartphone at the moment. Their own description of the service gives you an idea of what their target is. (They have an equally capable competitor called Last.fm, which has been snapped up by CBS, I think.)

At the gym, I listen to Trance. Trance is a sub-genre of electronica. It features very regular, driving beats and hypnotic melodic forms (I won't call them actual melodies because, in my aged mind, a melody is something you can hum), preferably without vocals. The point it is to sort of get lost in it, which makes me sound like some kind of hippie, but it's what I want at the gym -- to just get into an energetic rhythm and lose track of time as I work out. Yes, it's weird. Anyway, I really don't know the inside scoop on Trance other than a few big names -- Oakenfold, Digweed, Tiesto -- which probably mean nothing to you. They don't mean much to me either. The artists in Trance are DJs who remix the works of others into the Trance genre. The best thing about this type of music is that you can download extended mix sets, often up to two hours long, as single MP3s for free from any number of sites. New Mixes was one of them; although it appears to have died back in April, there are still downloads available. Other sites such as djmixes.net also provide links to free mixes although you have to jump through a few hoops, such as registration, and deal with slow download services. These sets are often only radio quality (because they often come from radio shows) but they are legal and free and good enough for the gym.

In any other circumstances -- such as flying or generally being out without my laptop or wi-fi -- I just listen to my Zune which contains, just about every sort of music you can imagine, from Bach to Sonny Rollins to Fountains of Wayne to Aaron Copeland to Louis Armstrong to Ursula 1000 to Steven Reich to Southern Culture on the Skids to Diana Krall, and a smattering of audiobooks to boot. Most of this has come from ripping used CDs and snagging el cheapo downloads from Amazon (they have a lot for free, and you can search within genre based on album price). I wish I could give some kind of rhyme or reason behind this mess but there is none, except perhaps ADD.

So there's some context for when I start doing music reviews.

Those Weren't the Days

Those Weren't the Days: Apropos of nothing in particular, I highly, highly, highly recommend a remarkably insightful 6-part series on a school year in the lives of middle schoolers, 13: Life at the Edge of Everything.

Read any news story or profile of school kids and invariably you walk away with the idea that they are all hopeless victims of a harsh uncaring society, and inevitably will be led by thoughtless parents and overworked administrators into lives of crime, drugs and degradation. That is, of course, a load of bollocks.

Middle schoolers today are exactly like middle schoolers when I was that age. The kids portrayed here are, for the most part, sharp and healthy. Their parents are all loving though, at times, hapless and helpless. The teachers are caring. The kids are all at the point where things are getting serious with the opposite sex, but they still spend time watching cartoons. They are both overwhelmed and energized by fear and possibility. They twist and turn, fighting to pass their classes and please their parents amid the distractions of their social lives and the need to re-invent themselves constantly. The portrayal is pitch perfect.

This is an old article, from about 6 years ago, (interestingly, the time frame is almost exactly the same time Miss Anna was 13) and it is one of the finest pieces of journalism I have ever read. Set aside some time to read through all six parts. Once you start you'll want to go through to the end -- I guarantee. Nobody gets killed or overdoses or even drops out -- although there is a brief, oblique mention of a pregnancy, it seems fittingly out of place. Nothing lurid happens. No horrible tragedies occur. It's just life, beautifully described.

Travel Rewind: Southwest Passage (2008)

Travel Rewind: Southwest Passage (2008): (This month's rewind theme is journeys out west...pictures are on Smugmug) I wanted it to not rain. I needed it to not rain. My last four excursions (New York, Chicago, Mackinac Island, Newfoundland) were all marred to varying degrees by rain. A fifth would not do. So where do you go when rain is unacceptable? The desert. Duh. The plan was to fly into Phoenix and make a big looping road trip through the heart of New Mexico, stopping in multiple national parks, then circling along the border to Tucson where I'd spend a few nights in a spa then on back to Phoenix to fly home.

Other than snagging a perfect aisle exit row seat, the flight out was completely uneventful. Sadly, when I went to pick up my reserved convertible from the lot, there was not a ragtop in sight. I felt pretty stupid when the pimply teenage attendant at Alamo had to explain to me that the Pontiac G6 is a hardtop convertible. He did everything but say, "I realize they didn't have these back in your day." Critical note: the G6 has a much nicer engine than the Chrysler Sebring that I expected to get, but it is no better constructed. Another note: Modern convertibles have zero luggage space with the top down. In the open air, the only thing I could fit into the trunk was my laptop bag. I keep forgetting this and my bags end up riding shotgun. This is another thing that was different about convertibles back in my day.

The temperature in Phoenix shortly after midday was well into the 90s -- exactly what I was looking for. As I cruised northeasterly out of Phoenix the scenery slowly morphed from standard cityscape to the desolate desert vistas I have become so familiar with from my trips to the West. The sky got broader, landscape opened up before me, rock towers demarked the horizon. As my elevation increased, I unwound and enjoyed inhaling the dry, crisp, thin, cool, perfect air as I motored along.

First stop: Holbrook, AZ. Holbrook is on the border of the Navajo reservation and its population appears to be heavily Native. The commercial base however appears to be dinosaurs. All along the main strip you see replica dinosaurs of some form or other, usually brontosaurus for aesthetic reasons. This is due, I suppose to its proximity Petrified Forest National Park, which was on my schedule for the next day. For me, Holbrook was all about teepees.

In Holbrook there is a rather famous, roadside attraction-style motel called the Wigwam. At the Wigwam, the rooms are all in teepees. Seriously, instead of pulling your car up to your motel room, you pull up to your own personal teepee. OK, it's not a actual teepee -- it's a little building shaped like a teepee that contains a very basic motel room that hasn't been renovated since the '60s, but still. Cheap motel or not, what kind of person would pass up a night in a teepee?

The check-in process is equally quaint. The nice young lady at the desk informed me that she would only be around until about 9:30 that night, so if I had any questions I needed to sort them out before then. And there wouldn't be anyone around in the morning so just leave the key in the room. I spent the last of the sunlight taking some photos of the place -- it's loaded down with old cars in various states of disrepair, just for effect -- then crashed early in my teepee.

My plan was to rise no later than 6:30 Pacific Time (in AZ it's actually mountain time unadjusted for daylight savings) and 7:30 Mountain Time (in NM) to avoid any jet lag on the return trip. So the next day I was up and out of my teepee with the rise of the sun, more or less. I was, I believe, the first one to reach the Petrified Forest that day.

I entered Petrified Forest National Park from the south after an absolutely beautiful ~15 mile early morning drive through the desert. As National Parks go, Petrified Forest is not outstanding. Although there is an enormous quantity of petrified wood spread all about often containing fossils -- it is really more of geological or paleontological interest; there are better parks for sightseeing. There are several short hiking trails; the one I took lead to what appears to be the remains of a cabin made of the petrified wood. It is in fact Agate House, a modern attempt to reconstruct a local-style pueblo. An interesting project but clearly abandoned now, presumably in the interest of historic accuracy. (Note for future reference: I did briefly get lost on this half-mile in the open desert trail. That should not surprise you.)

A single main road winds latitudinally through the park. I entered from the less busy south entrance. As you approach the north entrance you come upon the Painted Desert, which is where the majority of the sightseeing in the park occurs, what with it being right off a big freeway. Painted Desert is very striking giving the same impression as the Badlands of South Dakota give, though on a much, much smaller scale. It was here I discovered that I have become a National Park snob. Years ago I would have thrilled to the landscapes in the Painted Desert, but now I think, "Nice, but I've seen better." I don't know if this is a positive development.

The road from there into New Mexico and Santa Fe goes through Navajo country. Which is to say, there are endless miles of crap shops selling downscale fast food, gas, and "genuine" Indian carvings and dream catchers. And casinos -- can't forget those.

I scheduled a couple of nights in Santa Fe, for no other reason than Conde Nast Traveller magazine keeps rating it in the top 3 or 4 most beautiful cities in the U.S. Judged as a whole, and including the surrounding areas, they may have a point. I bunked down at the Inn of the Governors, an ace establishment if there ever was one. A bling-free little compound tucked just outside the city's main plaza, I of the G is a very hospitable place. Free breakfast: a full buffet, not a tray of stale pastries. There's a nice little pool/courtyard just off the lobby. The lobby itself is homey and quiet with lots of comfortable furniture and has computers out for public use (the wi-fi doesn't extend to the rooms). Two bars/lounges. An indoor/outdoor restaurant. Free tea and sherry in the afternoon. Free parking. Fine service. A really terrific spot, and about a three block easy walk to the historic plaza.

The first thing you notice about Santa Fe is the architecture. It is full-on southwest pueblo style -- enough flat-roofed, squared-off, earth tones to last you a lifetime. I think it's an open question as to whether this style of architecture is beautiful. In the eye of this beholder it is not particularly so. In fact, now is as good a time as any for me to say I was not really thrilled with the whole southwest aesthetic. All that silver and turquoise gaudiness; the "native-influenced" blankets and carvings -- it's all too affected. What's worse is that everyone and their half-witted uncle claims to be an artist. Slap together a set of turquoise earrings on your kitchen table and you are instantly a cohort of Picasso. The other conceit that is given way too much leeway is that the crap they sell in these shops is genuinely Indian. The blankets with geometric patterns, the pottery, the dream catchers -- those little twirly things that are supposed to ward off evil spirits -- often come with a certificate to verify that they were actually made by actual Indians. Of course the Indian who made it is just moonlighting from his career as a mid-level IT executive, but hey, it still counts, right? Sure, and I slept in a "genuine" teepee.

Look, I don't blame these folks for supporting such fantasies. They do it because there is a market for it. And that market consists of people like me from back east who want to show off all the Southwest/Navajo/Anything-but-Eastern-Time-Zone culture they soaked up on their last vacation out West to liven up their dinner parties. It is pretty clear that a majority of the visitors to this area are comfortably well-off middle-aged couples either on the brink of retirement or already there, looking to decorate their empty nests or possibly buy one out here in the high desert air. I don't mean to be cynical of such people -- I may be happy to be one sooner than I think -- but I find the overt commercial reaction to them to be absurdly pretentious.

For their part, the locals seem to carry a similar skepticism, at least if nobody is looking. After settling into my room I snagged a bar stool for dinner (to sit at, not eat) and a bit of Sunday Night Football at the nearby San Francisco Bar and Grill (good fresh food) and chatted up the bartender a bit. I asked her what she thought I should do during my one full day in Santa Fe; she said people do three things in Santa Fe: shop, eat out, and go up into the mountains. I said I'd probably pass on the shopping part, and her reply was, "Are you sure? You can never have too much turquoise." She recommended a tapas restaurant on the other side of the plaza for the food and drink part, and that I head up Artists Dr. (see what I mean about pretentious) to the top of the local mountain as there were hiking paths all along the way in Santa Fe National Forest.
The next morning I started to take her advice and head up Artists Dr., but I needed to find some gas first which required me to head out on the road north, and going east on Artists Dr. was going to have me looking directly into the rising sun which kind of defeated the purpose, so instead I continued north and made my way up the High Road to Taos.

While I may be skeptical of Southwest culture and architecture, there is no denying the striking beauty of the land. The High Road is a winding, soaring ride up into the mountains through a number of little towns in varying economic states -- some are obviously the choice of highly moneyed retirees, others are little more than collections of ramshackle "artist" shacks. Either way, it seems certain that every one of them is up here for the inspirational surroundings. Up here, the earth tones are all swamped by the green of the thick forests, reminiscent of back home in upstate Michigan, except with towering mountains.

Taos proper is like Santa Fe's more stylish little sister. The bistros are more unique, the boutiques more eclectic, and the faux art is more affected. But the central historic plaza is, like Santa Fe's, still a nice place to wander about. Wherever you are in Taos, the scene is dominated by the view of the Taos Mountains to the north. At the foot of those mountains stands the biggest tourist attraction in Taos (at least, when it's not skiing season), the Taos Pueblo.

A UNESCO World Heritage Site and the last occupied Indian pueblo in existence, the Taos Pueblo is a fascinating thing to see. The encampment and the grounds leading up the mountain are sovereign Indian land and used by the local tribe to try to maintain as much of their historic cultural ways as possible. (Despite the proximity to Navajo land, I don't believe this is a Navajo tribe, but a group simply referred to as Pueblo People.) It consists primarily of two large multi-story structures surrounded by many smaller dwellings, all of which are made of mud. The mud is made from the local ground and mixed and layered into the walls as it has been for over a millennium. (Evidence suggests these pueblos may have been standing since about 1000 AD, about the same time the Norse were taking a shot at a colony in eastern Canada.) It is the longest continuously inhabited place in the U.S. The engineering required, using little more than stone tools and buckets of water, is really astounding.

Another interesting fact: 90% of the pueblo residents are Catholic. This is a holdover from Spanish colonial times, though the "Catholicism" has really become a conflagration of traditional Catholicism, aboriginal Indian traditions, and manufactured myth -- Saint Jerome has become San Geronimo, and such. Still, in addition to the native mash-up ceremonies, a traditional mass is still held every Sunday at the church on the pueblo grounds.

Visiting the pueblo is easy, but don't forget your wallet. It is $10 to get in and another $5 camera fee if you want to take any pictures. You can take pictures of anything outside the San Geronimo chapel, but you are strongly advised to ask permission before you take the picture of any tribe members. This is, of course, simply good manners, but I came to suspect, for reasons that will become clear, that it also meant the tribe member being photo'd would expect a tip, so I stuck to shooting the scenery.

There are free guided walking tours every half-hour or so, which I can recommend. Our guide was very knowledgeable and friendly. She also reminded us a couple of times that guides work on a volunteer basis and that any remuneration came from tips. The dwellings also double as stores from which the tribe members sell their "arts" -- jewelry carvings, pottery, native flatbreads, etc. This would be the killer spot to buy your "genuine" artifact. When your neighbors show off the turquoise jewelry they got at a roadside stand along with a certificate of authenticity, imagine the look on their faces when you trump them with a clay pot that came from an actual inhabited genuine Indian pueblo, although you'll need to pay the camera fee and tip the tribe member if you want a picture to prove it. But it's worth it for the sick burn.

At this point, I'm going to go on for a few paragraphs about Indian cultures and it may raise some hackles. Feel free to skip ahead.
The Taos Pueblo is an odd dichotomy. It exists as a way for Indians to keep their traditions alive, and it clearly serves that purpose. The architecture, as I mentioned, and the lack of amenities (no running water or electricity), the clay ovens for cooking, the half feral dogs wandering around, the partially-functional attempts at self-sufficiency are all very much in evidence. But then there is a side of it that is blatantly about the money. Everything and everyone has an angle on your wampum. It's like Disney in miniature. At the Mouse House you get to experience child-like magic, and at the Taos Pueblo you get as genuine a Native experience as you can get -- in either case you hope you won't notice the decrease in your net worth.

This is me being cynical again, isn't it? Well, I guess I'm just cynical. Some of the things our guide mentioned struck me as telling. First, she mentioned that the local native language (the Taos language) is never written down. It is passed along generation through practice and osmosis and is, in fact, generally not even spoken in front of outsiders. I can think of nothing that would doom a culture faster than not writing things down. Were it not for people learning to write things down at some point in ancient history, we would all still be living in adobe mud huts or grass shacks. We would be toothless by the time we were 30, provided we lived that long because our life expectancy would probably be less than that. Science and literature would be non-existent. Yet for some reason the Pueblo People feel this is a facet of their culture that merits preservation.

Fair enough. I am of the belief that whenever possible, everyone should be able to live exactly the way they want. But nothing naturally exists in a bubble. And the fact is that if you are going to maintain a tradition that is so thoroughly detrimental to your continued existence your probable outcome is grim. You are going to get hammered by every other culture that has no such limit on their vitality. It may be a violent destruction, or it may not. You may just get completely overwhelmed by the progress of your competition. But whatever the case, you are going down. Whatever injustices were incurred in the treatment of Indians over the years, they are in fact living the best possible outcome for themselves even had those injustices not occured. The best outcome a primitive culture can hope for is to build a make-shift bubble and hold out as long as possible. That is essentially, what the Taos Pueblo is: a fantasy land in a legislated bubble. And it's not even a well-sealed bubble. Of the 1900 residents, only 150 live permanently in the Pueblo. The rest keep homes elsewhere in and around Taos, and all of them spend time outside the compound where there is hot running water, penicillin, power tools, McDonald's, and all the other by-products of a culture with a tradition of writing things down.

All this I write in a reaction to the elevated opinion most multi-cultural mavens have of Indian culture, as evidenced by how important it is that a "genuine" dream catcher have a certificate of authenticity. Indian culture is certainly interesting and worthy of anthropological study, but let's face facts: it is a primitive culture. It is good to have certain relativistic view of cultures, but it's very mistaken to believe primitive and advanced cultures are of equal value for humanity as a whole.

I'm glad that the Pueblo Indians have this little bubble not because there is anything particularly holy or noble about their rituals, but simply because it is what they want to do. I'm sorry that the people living this way have to put on a song and dance for Brahmins from the East Coast seeking to interact with genuine primitives, but the time of primitive cultures is long passed and it's not coming back. Their fantasies will need to be financed, as evidenced by the Taos Mountain Casino just outside the Pueblo. The Casino is what is truly genuine -- genuinely human.

And as negative as that sounds, should you find yourself in Taos, I strongly recommend you visit the Pueblo, tip your guide well, and judge for yourself. Or better yet, try not to judge either way. People should be judged personally not sociologically (even turquoise-flaunting Brahmins, I suppose).

On with the trip.

Exiting Taos, on the way to the low road back to Santa Fe, one crosses the Rio Grande Gorge suspension bridge, the second highest suspension bridge in the U.S. Frankly, it's more than a little scary. There are parking lots on either side and a thin walkway should you want to cross it on foot, although there is no barrier between the walkway and the traffic rushing by (there is a guardrail to help prevent you from falling into the gorge 600 feet below, thankfully). The real freakiness comes when a big semi barrels across. As it rushes past your face you feel the buffeting of the wind, and the bridge beneath your feet wobbles and vibrates; every cell in your body reminds you that it's a long, long way down. You quickly turn back to your car and head off.

The long stretch of highway between the bridge and I-285 back to Santa Fe consists mostly of empty ranch land, although it also seems to be a favorite of eco-sphere dwellers. The north side is pockmarked with alien looking structures all designed for sustainable living of one variety or another. It put me in mind of the landscape from Mad Max -- desert rats eeking out an off-grid existence. Although instead of prepping for battles in the Thunderdome, I'm sure these folks all have PhDs in ecological science and buy their windmills off eBay.

As I've dwelled on before, most southwest "art" is simply craft with pretense, but there is some actual art going on. Just north of Santa Fe, if you turn off I-285 onto Bishop's Lodge Road, you will pass the delightful Shidoni Foundry and Gallery where there is a wonderful sculpture garden and gallery to peruse. There is lots of vitality in the works here, as a quick walk through the garden will attest. This is a very successful example of taking the creation of art (and craft too) and integrating it with a personal experience. You can see bronze pours if you come at the right time. You can picnic in the garden amidst the sculptures. Very cool, and a much better way to spend a couple of hours than, say, hitting all the shops in The Plaza.

Following Bishop's Lodge Road back towards town, I once again came to Artist's Drive, and this time, with the sun well over to west and out of my eyes, I made the climb. It is as advertised -- a remarkably beautiful drive with numerous roadside overlooks and well mapped and described trailheads. I stopped about three-quarters of the way up at a point where you could look out over the desert with Santa Fe laid out before you just as if you were looking at Google Earth. I had second thoughts as to whether I had done the right thing by heading up to Taos as opposed to spending the day here. There is no right answer. Following the road to the peak where there is a ski lodge, I began to see why folks like living in Santa Fe so much and why it is always referred to as being so beautiful. It has nothing to do with the overarching adobe-ness. It's all about the land. I took all day for me to get there, but eventually I was charmed by Santa Fe.

Back in to town with the sun just below the horizon, I made my way to the Tapas restaurant recommended by the bartender from the previous night. It was closed so I settled for a tasty stuffed poblano and a nondescript margarita, indifferently served at a plaza joint called Ore's. It was, to say the least, a full day. The next morning I headed south out of the cool high desert and back down into the scorch, wishing I had one more day to spend in Santa Fe.

The road south out of Santa Fe is an endless, ruler-straight strip of asphalt through the desert. It's easy to see why people would see mirages in such circumstances -- there is simply nothing else to see. Mile markers are your only companions. There is very little traffic and enormous distances between signs of civilization. This is not a place you want to break down. I remember having similar thoughts when driving some of the lonesome roads in Wyoming and South Dakota, but here the danger is compounded by heat and lack of water. Despite this, I find the barren Chihuahuan desert as beautiful as the lush high desert. (Or for that matter as attractive in its own way as the bays of Newfoundland, or the beach in Naples, or the neon of Times Square.) After two or three hours of flat high speed running, a city springs out of the desert fully formed. This is the community of Roswell.

Decades ago Roswell revolved around Walker Air Force base which was decommissioned in 1967. Since then it has lived off of relocating retirees, various small manufacturing concerns, and aliens. Little Green Men loom large in Roswell's legend -- inflatable ones stand outside the shops, the street lights look like alien heads, and smack dab in the middle of Main street, in a repurposed movie theatre, sits the UFO Museum and Research Center.

The UFO Museum starts off with much interesting info about "The Roswell Incident", which has served as the outline for so much bad sci-fi over the years that there is no way to describe it without cliche. A rancher spots falling debris, discovers a large metal object, calls the military out to investigate. Military holds press conference saying they have no idea what it is -- some kind of flying saucer, maybe. Then, after extensive "investigation" the military declares it to be a weather balloon, and anyone involved in the matter is hushed up.

Believe it or not -- and I didn't until I visited the UFO Museum -- there is a good amount of documented evidence for this, and I say that as a deep skeptic. Looking at the documentation, it does seem to me that something strange landed in the desert outside Roswell, and that it may have been hushed up. I don't think that it was aliens, because I don't believe in aliens. I suspect it was a military experiment, probably innocuous, that was overly secreted because of the Cold War paranoia. But, oh my, what followed on: abductions, ancient astronauts, Bermuda triangles, bending spoons, Close Encounters, X-Files -- every crackpot in the known universe piling on and creating so much noise that even if there was something to uncover, its long since past believability whatever it is.

But should you find yourself in Roswell, I do recommend the UFO Museum. It's cheap ($5), fun, and manned by good-natured believers. There is a movie room that has either documentaries or alien movies going at all times. Plus, a gift shop. Disclosure: I bought a t-shirt. And I'm not ashamed.

The next stop was roughly an hour south at Carlsbad. Just as one enters Carlsbad, on the right there is a sign for the Living Desert Zoo and Gardens State Park. Since it was too late to get to the Caverns for the evening, I stopped and was quite glad I did. It's a choice little nature park, and it's exactly what its name suggests. The Welcome Center is loaded down with exhibits and hands-on artifacts. Through the winding trail on the grounds you pass by numerous planted areas with appropriately identified flora, intermixed with animal exhibits including bear, wolf, a reptile exhibit, and more birds than you can say "Hellooo Poly" to. (They recently even got a giraffe. The animals are mostly rescues.) If it lives in the local desert, they have it here. Situated on the peak of a high hillside, it has great views or the surrounding area. Five bucks to get in and it should be more. It's just another one of those little finds that make western road trips so interesting.

Carlsbad is loaded down with chain motels catering to Cavern visitors. I picked a clean-looking Super 8 at random and bedded down. Interestingly, the couple in front of me in line asked if they could see the room before they checked in. It's a Super 8 -- bare walls, no toiletries, no alarm clock, TV from 1973, generally depressing -- not exactly sure what you want to see ahead of time.

If I did believe in aliens, I would strong suspect they were behind the construction of Carlsbad Cavern. Up until this, the most bizarre natural landscape I had ever seen was Bryce Canyon in Utah, which is a pretty freaking strange place, but I would readily sign on to a conspiracy theory that the Roswell incident was the result of aliens coming to work on their Earth headquarters in the cave in Carlsbad. It is nearly inconceivable that this place is natural.

The entrance is a really big hole in the ground with cave swifts darting in and out constantly. A steep, paved path leads down into the darkness. Your eyes adjust to the dim lighting in short order as you look around the impressive first cavern, which is dominated by the smell of bat guano. After a brief walk through the first room you move on along what is called the Natural Entrance route. I cannot overstate what a terrific job the Park Service has done with this place. The path throughout the cave is paved, making it accessible to wheelchairs, the self-guided audio tour is rich in info but most impressively, the lighting is amazing. It probably goes without saying that absent lighting the cave would be pitch black -- completely devoid of any light -- something very few of us will ever experience. What the Park Service has done is added some of the most subtly perfect effects to softly highlight the astonishing rock formations but not interfere with the uncanny natural eeriness of the cave.

The Natural Entrance path is a little over a mile long, ending in a flat-ish area where there is, believe it or not, a snack bar and gift shop. Yes, you can have lunch hundreds of feet beneath the surface of the Earth. From there you follow another trail, this one called the Big Room route which leads, not surprisingly, into The Big Room. The Big Room is over eight acres; you could fit six football fields inside. And I simply cannot come up with the words to describe the awesomeness of the stalactites, stalagmites, rock formations, crystal clear pools, great domes, hidden rooms, terrifying pits -- if you have a bucket list, you need to have Carlsbad Caverns on it. It's that simple.

And that's just the basic self-guided walking tour. As with Santa Fe, I needed more time. During the summer nights, there is a bat flight program. Each day at sunset about 400,000 bats come swarming out of the cave looking like an enormous pillar of smoke. And there are "wild tours", semi-strenuous ranger guided tours into unpaved, natural parts of the cave. I seriously misunderestimated (thanks W!) the indescribable coolness of Carlsbad Cavern or I would have scheduled another day. I had to live with my couple of hours in the Natural Entrance and the Big Room and then hit the road so I could get myself lost hiking again.

My stop for the next night was to be in Las Cruces and the road there passes through the Guadalupe Mountains -- a decent enough National Park that, if it weren't surround by more astonishing ones, would be the center of attention. (Again my National Park snobbery rears its head.) As it stands it's more of what I would think of as a "wilderness area" than a National Park with specific natural attractions. After a quick glance at a map on the wall in the visitor center, I picked out a four-mile hike that I figured I could knock off in a couple of hours and still get me settled in to my hotel in Las Cruces by dinner time.

Let me confess that, despite enjoying the activity, I am almost certainly the most incompetent hiker ever to lace up a pair of trail-runners. The trail to Devil's Hall is mostly standard wilderness stuff, but there is the grasshopper issue. At this time of year they sun themselves on the trail and leap out of the way at your approach, except they seem to have little control over their direction and you can easily find yourself in a hail of grasshoppers, like getting pelted with little rocks, especially if you are walking into the wind. And let me tell you, there are some big-ass grasshoppers out here -- inches long. Subsequent investigation revealed them to be locusts, up to 6 inches long.

Eventually the trail leads to a fairly steep bit of scrambling over a rock field to a dry river bed. At that point the map says to turn left. Being the most incompetent hiker ever, I didn't have a map. I turned right. After about 15-20 minutes of fighting through what became increasingly clear was not a trail, I turned back. No big deal really, but after wasting so much time on the wrong turn, I did lose my shot at finishing the trail before I had to get back on the road.

On the way back I crossed paths with a couple of other hikers who told me to watch my step as I scramble back up the rock field because they had spotted a rattlesnake. Great. So I fashioned myself a make-shift walking stick as a snake-fighter if needed and made my way back to the rock field. Only it turns out that it's harder to find the path over the rocks to trail than it was to go from the trail to the rocks. So here I am, bounding randomly about in a fairly steep rock field looking for the trail, struggling to keep my balance with each leap, all the while with the knowledge that there was a rattlesnake hidden in some little crevice waiting to fang me at my first slip. I should not be allowed in the wilderness. Ever.

Not to spoil the ending, but I did make it back to my car without needing a snake bite kit and got on the road to El Paso. Traveling from Carlsbad to Las Cruces one passes through El Paso in the far western little shelf of Texas. The only thing that was memorable to me about passing through this region was the extended line of auto salvage yards on the outskirts of the city. Just miles and miles of them. Apparently, thanks to NAFTA, folks are buying up used American sedans and exporting them to buyers in Mexico, who prefer the cheap full-sized cars and SUVs to the overpriced subcompacts that are pushed by Mexican new car dealers. Commerce can be as complicated as nature.

Take a slight northern curl out of El Paso and you are back in New Mexico and coming to rest in Las Cruces. Las Cruces seems to be a decent place, but without a truly stand-out trait. It mostly comes off as a nice clean suburb that supports a University, a few festivals, a historic plaza (which wasn't terribly impressive), and a sweet mountainous backdrop. It just seems like a decent sort of place to live, or in my case, bunk down for the night at a Hampton Inn.

The next morning I hit the last of the long string of National Parks on my list, White Sands, which as it turned out required a minor amount of backtracking to the northeast. At the top of the mountain range just outside Las Cruces there is an area to pull off the highway and take in the scenic vista. Probably the coolest thing about this rest area is that it is guarded by a ballistic missile. You can pull off the road and picnic in the shade of it, if you want. This is symbolic of the area because the road to White Sands cuts through a missile test range. There are signs everywhere saying that it is government property and trespassers will be subject to waterboarding, tax audits and other horrors.

Observatory at the missile range
On both sides of Las Cruces, including just before the entrance to White Sands, you will find Border Patrol stops. Everybody gets pulled off, a chap in a uniform takes a quick look inside and behind your car, asks if you are a U.S. citizen (although requires no proof) and then says "Have a nice day." I question how effective this is, but it was inoffensive.

White Sands is a National Monument, not a National Park. I do not know the difference, but White Sands is a pretty cool place -- in fact, the description of it in Google Maps states, "This looks like a pretty cool place." It's like turning off the road and finding yourself on the set of Lawrence of Arabia. White Sands is exactly what the name says -- towering dunes of white sand. The sand itself is gypsum and like all sand, it gets in everything, especially your shoes. I didn't hike through the park -- I just took a drive and hung out for a while to take photos. But I did notice that sledding down the dunes is a popular family activity. Definitely worth an hour or so stop.

And with that, I bid adieu to the land of green mountains, clay pueblos, scorching deserts, spooky aliens, killer missiles, creepy caves, soaring sand dunes, rattlesnakes, poblanos and plazas. New Mexico is one of a kind. To a lifelong Michigander, it is a strange place with eccentric ways. I hope we meet again soon.

The last leg of my journey was a few days at Miraval Resort in Tuscon, AZ, where I have stayed before. It was quite a change from the Super8s and Hampton Inns and teepees. No more 5-hour drives and truck stop hot dogs. Miraval is as luxurious as it gets. Pull up to the door and they already know who I am, what room I will be in, what I liked from my last visit. I popped open the trunk and my bags were whisked off to my room without me even asking. The nice advisor at check-in handed me my key, my complimentary water bottle and tote bag, and my nicely presented itinerary, and made sure I didn't have any questions. I walked through the lovely grounds to my room, getting my bearings as I went. My bags were already delivered and waiting. I opened the safe and put my wallet, laptop, and cell phone inside. I was now officially separated from the world. I'm told there was a presidential campaign or something like that going on. Apparently there were places in the world where people had such concerns, but the bedding I was sleeping on was soft as silk and about four feet thick.

In travel industry parlance Miraval is what is known as a "destination spa". You can think of a destination spa as an all-inclusive resort but with the additional bonus of a broad array of scheduled activities (from mountain biking tours to astronomy sessions to photography classes to rock climbing to...), traditional health, fitness and beauty treatments, coupled with more self-help-ish services, all rolled up into one very luxurious package and topped off with incomparable service. Tucson actually features two such places -- Canyon Ranch and Miraval. I have been to both previously and this time I chose Miraval because a) it was a mite cheaper, and b) Canyon Ranch is dry and I like me a glass of wine with dinner.

Whenever I visit such a place I feel duty bound to try something new. This time it was mountain biking. Miraval has three levels of mountain biking classes. The beginner's class, which I should have been in because I had never mountain biked before, occurred the morning before I arrived. The intermediate one was scheduled for my first full day so I told myself, "How hard can it be? I've road-biked plenty. I'm Joe fitness. I'll just sign up for the intermediate." So come 6 AM the next day I was blowing out my lungs trying to pedal my through 5 inches of soft sand and bounce over rocks while crawling up a steep incline along a tiny trail barely wide enough for my pedals with deadly cactus on each side. As the saying goes, my ego was writing checks my body couldn't cash. Needless to say, the pack dropped me on the first hill.

You see, there are some basic things you need to know to mountain bike. Number one, from what I learned, is that you need to accept that you will be going over obstacles. You cannot avoid everything no matter how hard you try. You have to accept the jarring and take it properly (slightly off the saddle to minimize impact). If you try to dodge everything you will burn yourself out with frustration. This is what I did.

The fact is that once I got over that first hill, I had a blast. I would go trail riding again any day. It's like being a kid again (except when I was a kid we wouldn't have used helmets), barreling around like a madman complete oblivious to danger and damage. Because Miraval is Miraval there are multiple guides with each group to accompany people of different skill levels. Once I got a good feel for mountain biking I was able to out run the guide that had hung back to handhold me up the first hill and, in fact, I was feeling pretty fresh when we finally finished to tour. And despite my early travails, I didn't fall once, so I count that as a moral victory. But the shame of being dropped and nursemaided at the outset like that hung over me. I had to spend some time by the pool working on my tan before I was able to let it go.

In the afternoon, I took a photography class. Nicely done, and small enough that everyone could get their specific issues addressed. Everyone had DSLR (although I'm pretty sure my Nikon D70 was the oldest model) and we mostly wanted to know how to move from being little more than point-and-shoot masters to something more intricate. The teacher not only showed us things in general but also specifically on all our cameras (she seemed to have an encyclopedic knowledge of them, the controls must be similar across manufacturers). We were scheduled to do a hands-on afterward, but rain interfered with it. Yes even out here in the desert, rain managed to take its little dig at me.

At a destination spa, your reward for all this activity is a massage, which I like to schedule for the end of the day. And one of my favorite massages is the Thai massage. In Thai massage you are clothed, preferably in something loose like sweatpants and a t-shirt, and it is less a massage than an extended and very rigorous stretching session. A good therapist will quickly identify your flexibility/muscle tension trouble-spots and push them hard. I highly recommend it over standard-issue relaxation massages if you are one of those types that is uncomfortable with listening to new age music while some stranger oils you up. But I emphasize, it can be very rigorous.

The next day was my last full day of vacation, and it started with another early morning effort, this time for something called Zen Boot Camp. This was a fitness class, just like any of sorts of boot camp classes you see advertised everywhere these days -- basically, gym class from Junior High, but without the dodgeball or wedgies from bullies. It was a decent workout, but I have to admit I didn't see where "Zen" came into play.

Given the non-stop activities of the last week, and because this was really my final shot at doing nothing, I spent the bulk of the day reading by the pool. It was wicked, wicked hot -- pushing triple digits -- but I thrived on it. The pool at Miraval is constantly patrolled by uncountable little dragonflies of a brightly polished blue. They dart and hover over the water and into the surrounding gardens. It a mesmerizing sight -- completely hypnotic. In time you slip deeper and deeper into relaxation. The sun is melting you. You hear the occasional sound of someone slipping in and out of the water. Every now and then a brief breeze comes up, drifts over you, then vanishes as quickly as it came. You lay your book aside and lay still, not quite at the edge of sleep. Ah, yes -- there's that Zen thing after all.
By high afternoon I was fully cooked. I dragged myself into the spa and cleaned up a bit, then went off to write for a while. When sunset came I took a last walk around the grounds, this time to exercise what I had learned in my photography class. The day ended with another massage, this one a more traditional deep tissue variety, and then off to sleep in the thick comfy bed for one last time.

On the last morning, before checking out, I scheduled a body composition analysis which has to happen pretty much just as you roll out of bed. A body comp analysis tells you, in theory, how much muscle and fat you have and where it is distributed. I was anxious to do this because all summer I have been working very hard to lose weight. Since May (5 months ago) I have cut my calories way down and upped the intensity of my exercise. In the course of that time I estimate I lost about 20 pounds, which is no small feat for a man of my age.

The body comp analysis involves standing on a scale-like device and holding some special handles while electricity is pumped through you and resistance measured. You feel nothing during this. Afterwards you are handed a breathing tube and told to sit still and breathe normally for ten minutes while the machine figures out how many calories you expend on a daily basis while at rest. You would be surprised how long ten minutes is when you are doing nothing but sitting still and breathing.

The results of all this were mildly disappointing. I have in fact lost twenty pounds. My weight is within acceptable parameters, although at the high end (I'm a little over 5'9" and I weigh 165). Interestingly, both the fat and muscle content of my body are above target. I'm not entirely sure what that implies and how I can have both more fat and more muscle than average. Maybe my vital organs are undersized? I expend 2000 calories a day just sitting around doing nothing, which is what I expected. The final suggestion was that keep my caloric intake to about 1600 until I lose another ten pounds of fat. Ugh. After all my effort this summer, I basically get a "Thanks, but not good enough." Frankly, I think those machines are off. No way am I ten pounds overweight. Probably for the best, though. If I keep eating light I'll be better off whether I lose more weight or not. I guess I am officially on a diet for the rest of my life.

And that was that. I loaded up my bags for one last dash through the desert with the top down, and before I knew what hit me I was back in Phoenix boarding my flight home. I wanted to go back through New Mexico. I wanted another day at Miraval. Instead I was on a full flight in the last row, aisle seat, where I was privy to the privy activities of most of my fellow passengers. Welcome back to the world, buddy.

Planning the next trip commences immediately.

Travel Rewind: Death Valley Days (2008)

Travel Rewind: Death Valley Days (2008): (This month's rewind theme is journeys out west...pictures are on Smugmug) As usual, we start in Vegas. There was a time when I was totally content to hit Vegas and never leave the Strip. You can get away with that for a handful of long weekends; there is that much to discover on the Strip. But in time, the Strip becomes like a second home -- you know what you want to do, you know where you want to do it. It's still a lot of fun, but there is little adventure and nothing all that new to discover.

The good news is that Las Vegas is also the hub for an enormous number of outdoor opportunities. Red Rock Canyon and the Valley of Fire are literally minutes outside town. The paradigmatic side trip is to Hoover Dam and the Grand Canyon, a couple of hours away. Previously, I have used Vegas as a springboard for a run up into Utah to Zion and Bryce National Parks. This time the target adventure was to be Death Valley. To be precise, three nights in Death Valley bracket on both sides by two nights on the strip.

First up was a couple of nights at the new Planet Hollywood Hotel and Casino. Thumbs up, generally speaking. Nice rooms. Excellent location. Reasonable prices. But bear in mind, it's a something of a budget choice. The Mandara Spa desperately needs work, and the pool is nothing to write home about (no problem in the winter), and there are no especially great restaurants on the grounds. But there is a shopping mall attached that contains a brand spankin' new Trader Vics, and there is a decent lounge just off the sports book. It's not in the stratosphere, but I wouldn't hesitate to stay there again (in winter). I was there the week after their grand opening and got a mid-week rate below $100/night and a $40 gas credit, which you can get even if you don't have a car (go figure).

Before I get to heart of my trip, the post-Death Valley Vegas days were spent at Wynn, which was beautiful and luxurious as you'd expect, but I'm less enamored of it than before. Partly because the package I purchased included a resort credit, which I asked three times if I could use toward spa services (I needed a massage really bad) and each time was told yes, only to find that when I checked out some else tell me no, it was for food and beverage only. It took me making a minor issue of the mess to get it straightened out. Poor performance by Wynn management on that one. The spa itself is very good, but not as appealing as the one over in Caesar's, where I would have gone if I didn't think I had the credit.

Also, while I know Wynn is expensive as all get out, sometimes they really go over the top. I was sitting at the bar outside the sports book watching the end of the football games and having a bite to eat. I had to finish writing a column that evening so I wanted to get some caffeine before heading up to my room. I asked the bartender for a Diet Coke to go and I got a sixteen ounce plastic cupful for $4.25. I would have taken the fifteen minutes to walk across the street to get one from the mall just on general principle if I knew that was the cost. Good grief. It's one thing to have super-expensive restaurants and services, it's another to ratchet up the price like that on every tiny little thing.

So I am moderately down on Wynn these days. The one I want to check out once the weather gets warm is the new Palazzo, the add-on to the Venetian, but that can wait until summer. One last note: I had an excellent sushi dinner and sake at Japonais in the Mirage, a nicely styled Japanese spot. I may have add that to the restaurants in the know-what-I-want category (along with Olives and Mesa Grill).

On to Death Valley...

While we're on the topic of hotels, the lodging situation in Death Valley bears some description. If you can plan far enough ahead, there is a beautiful resort-style property right inside the park called Furnace Creek Inn and Ranch Resort. If you can get a reservation and can afford it, I can think of no better base of operations for trolling around Death Valley. I stopped in for lunch one day and it was like stepping out of a savage wilderness directly into pristine luxury. If I go back, this is where you will find me.

There is also Stovepipe Wells Village, which I didn't get a chance to explore but looks like another nice spot right in the Park proper. The problem I had was that these were all booked up. The next options are motels in a handful of little towns scattered around the rim of the park. I ended up spending three nights in a Motel 6 in Beatty, NV. Beatty doesn't consist of much more than a hard scrabble crossroad with a couple of gas stations, motels and a diner-level restaurant or two. But it's about as close to the park entrance as you can get (maybe 20 minutes or so).

My first room at the Motel 6 had no heat. They moved me to a smoking room since that was all they had available the first night. They got me sorted out finally for the second and third nights. A Motel 6 is a depressing place. They bring a new meaning to the word budget, no little bottles of shampoo, no HBO or on-demand movies, they don't even have $10 prints of generic landscapes for the walls.

But I can't complain too much about Beatty. The proximity to the park was what I was in need of and the hardscrabble setting was charming in a desert wilderness sort of way. If you are willing to drive a little further each day to get into the park, I would suggest staying in Pahrump; a silly name but a good little suburb about half way between Vegas and Death Valley. Frankly, I think you could do a lot worse than invest in real estate in Pahrump. It is set up to be a prototypical bedroom community for the Vegas middle-class workers -- and we all know how Vegas is booming. [[update - wouldn't that have been a smart investment? - dam]]

Enough peripheral talk. Let's get to the Park itself.

Over the past couple of years I have visited a number of national parks and have come to deeply appreciate the national park system. They are invariably well run and managed as far as I can see. It is an immeasurable benefit to have these places available for exploration and enjoyment. God bless Teddy Roosevelt. Of all the parks I've been to, it's hard for me to imagine a place that could offer more varied geography than Death Valley National Park.

I should probably mention at the outset that the one place I really wanted to visit in Death Valley, I didn't get to. The thing that triggered the idea of a Death Valley visit in my mind was something called The Racetrack. The Racetrack is a place where large stones have slid across a dry lake bed and left a trail in the ground behind them. No one has ever seen one of the stones move and there are varying theories as to what's really going on, but it makes for some delightful pictures. You can read about it or just look at the pretty photos.

As I was casting about for a destination, I serendipitously stumbled across two articles about The Racetrack at almost the same time from very different sources. I decided that it was a must see, so I made a point of renting a good-sized 4x4 SUV in Vegas because all the guides I read said you need a high-clearance vehicle to cover the 20+ miles of poorly maintained dirt road to get there. But, once I got to the park, I talked myself out of it. I'm still not sure if a made a rational decision or if I chickened out.

I stopped at the ranger station in Stovepipe Wells to get the lowdown on things and plan out the two full days I had to explore. I mentioned to the ranger that I wanted to go to The Racetrack and he immediately grimaced.

"What kind of vehicle do you have?"
"A Chevy Trailblazer."
"Does it have off road tires or street radials?"
"Street radials."
"You probably shouldn't do it. The vehicle has enough clearance, but the road there is not standard dirt and gravel, it's covered with sharp volcanic rock. We get blow-outs every day."

Now, I initially assumed that was probably a line they feed everybody to keep the masses of people away. But the more we talked, the more sincere he sounded. Also, before I left, I overheard another person asked the same question of another ranger and he got warned to have a good spare tire and jack available if he was going to attempt it.

I immediately went out to the truck and verified that I had a full spare tire. But the odd thing was, I couldn't locate the jack. I'm sure every Chevy Trailblazer comes with a jack, but I just couldn't locate it. I reached in the glove box for the owner's manual and discovered it was missing. Thanks, Alamo. So I paused for a moment to weigh my next move. I had three points of concern.

1) The Ranger said it was a bad idea. Not really a big concern because, I would be cautious and I suspect there was a tiny bit a discourage-the-wankers policy involved.
2) I wasn't sure I could change a tire. That was a bigger concern. If I did get a blow out, and the jack location didn't present itself, I might find myself trying to flag down some help, or stuck in some other embarrassing position. A larger concern, but still not necessarily a deal killer.
3) I was driving a rental and, in all probability, whatever rental agreement I signed forbade off-roading. If something happened to the truck, Alamo would not be pleased with me and it might end up costing money.

Any individual one of those wouldn't have stopped me, but the combination of the three caused me to back off. As I write this, it is a month later I still have pangs of regret over the decision. I'm just not sure I wasn't being a wuss. In any event, I put it on the save-until-next-time-and-make-sure-you-know-where-the-jack-is list. As it turns out, though, Death Valley has so many great sights that I had a full trip of adventure anyway.

The first brief stop was at Harmony Borax Works, a little ghost town-like spot where borax crystals were processed and shipped off in wagons pulled by teams of 20 mules back in the time of prospecting. For those of you old enough to remember when borax was used as a cleaning agent, there used to be commercials for "20-mule team Borax." Now you know the source.

Further south past Furnace Creek things start to get scenic. The first viewpoint was Zabriskie Point; a very popular spot judging from the crowd. It put me in mind of many of the viewing sites in the Badlands of South Dakota -- a vast rocky canyon surrounded by bizarre multi-colored rock formations.

Further south, and a good climb higher, is Dante's View. I passed a few cyclists trying to make this climb which amounts to probably thirty miles one way from an elevation that is effectively 0 up to almost 5500 feet. They did not look happy. Of course on the way back it they probably didn't have to do much pedaling so maybe it's not that bad.

Dante's View is not the highest peak in the park (that would be Telescope Peak over on the Western side at 11K) but it's broadly considered to have the best view. The outlook is vast. You can see huge swath of the actual valley portion of Death Valley, including Badwater (the famed lowest point), all the way to the mountainous regions of the north. The infinitesimal cars scurrying along the road below give you a good sense of height. The ridge in the area affords a decent little hike and 360 degree views. There is supposedly a 4-mile hike you can do from the outlook to nearby Mt. Perry but according to the park guide I had it was considered a summer hike only. Not only that, it said the length is 4 miles but there is no trail for the last 3.5 miles. So it's really a half mile hike then you just have scramble any way you can over the next 3.5 miles. Um, pass.

One outstanding feature of Dante's Peak is that it is bloody cold. Down on the floor of the valley, temps were approaching 80; up at 5500' I had my winter coat on. I'm guessing it was down into the low 40s. I'll bet Dante's View is popular as a place to escape the triple digit summer heat.

I retraced my path back to the Furnace Creek Resort for lunch, then swung back south again on another road, this one through the valley proper. First stop, the Devil's Golf Course.

No, it's not really a golf course. But it's certainly true that for an avid golfer, eternal damnation would likely take the form of an endless round on this course. It is a vast expanse of hardened salt mounds and spires. Walking is treacherous, and slip could easily result in an ugly laceration on the razor sharp edges. There are probably more painful things than getting a hand or arm sliced open by a salt spike, but I can't think of one at the moment.

Back on the road south again, headed toward Death Valley's flagship site, Badwater -- the lowest place in the Western Hemisphere. Before we get to that, let me just say that there were an enormous number of foreign tourists here. Tour busses full of Asians, for example. At least a third of the Caucasians were non-English speakers, and not all Spanish either; I caught both Italian and French in the mix. I'd have to assume that most of these folks were on side trips from Las Vegas -- they likely rented a car for the day and made the dash over to Death Valley, with just enough time to hit two or three highlights. I find that very cool. Even though you are only a couple of hours outside Vegas, Death Valley and the surrounding area are genuinely "Old West" in feel. It's a great area of the country for visitors to see, especially those from the more urbanized and crowded nations.

Back to Badwater. There is a little platform and introductory placard to read, then there is just a broad open lakebed. I expected there to be some monument or something out in the flat that had been placed at exactly the lowest point, but no. I gather that pretty much the entire basin is on the same depressed plane vis-…-vis sea level: -282ft. A couple of hundred yards out there did appear to be some sort of structure everyone was walking towards, but it was just a pile of rocks some previous visitor had erected. Yet, like lemmings the crowds all made their way towards it, me included, stared at it for a few seconds, said to themselves, "It's just a pile of rocks somebody put here," then turned around and walked back. Alrighty.

It was quite a difference in temperature from up on Dante's View. Here, in late November, it was up around 80. In addition to being the lowest point, it is also the hottest point in the U.S. The average high in July is 115 degrees. The highest temperature every recorded was 134 degrees back in 1913, which is also the second highest temperature ever recorded on planet Earth.

By now the sun was getting low. Actually the sun wasn't getting all that low, but in the canyons and valleys it drops behind the mountains before 4 pm. The place to watch the sunset is a spot called Artist's Palette. It is accessed off a 3 or 4 mile long loop off the main road, so I turned on to it while heading north back to the park entrance. The first spot I came to was a decent looking overlook. The sun was preparing to set behind a ridge to my left which was throwing its shadow on to a cliff side to my right. Lots of folks were hanging around with their cameras, so I waited about ten minutes for the sun to drop behind the ridge. It was a nice view of a great sunset, but there are a million nice views in the park, but I didn't see the colors promised by the Artist's Palette. Hmmm.

I got back in my car and headed further north only to discover that I wasn't at Artist's Palette. I'm not sure where I was because, as far as I can tell, the overlook is not on the park maps. I eventually stumbled on to Artist's Palette at the next stop further north. Luckily there was a tiny bit of sunlight left and I did get a good idea why they call it Artist's Palette. All the varied, earthy hues that make up the hills are available in one place -- sea greens and pale yellows and about a hundred different shades of rust reds. Great to see, but it needs to be better identified.

Earlier in the day, when the park ranger sensed my disappointment at his suggestion to not attempt the route to The Racetrack, he offered me an alternative, quasi-off road adventure: Titus Canyon Pass. So the next morning my entrance to the park was over the dirt. Along the main road into the park from Beatty, there is a turn off onto a viciously washboarded dirt road heading northeast. It is a one way route of 20 or so miles, so once you're committed to it, there's no turning back. It is an excellent adventure.

After a while, the flat, dusty washboard starts to wind upwards, along precarious cliffs and switchbacks affording some terrific views and some fun -- if tense -- driving. You probably don't want to do this if you are afraid of heights. Once up into the hills you will eventually come to the ghost town of Leadfield. Not much of a town, just a couple of left over run downs. Apparently at one point it was actually large enough to have a post office. It's one of a handful of convenient stopping points on the Titus Canyon Pass and you'll likely strike up a conversation with the other drivers. Since it's one way with no passing, cars tend to get bunched up together and end up making all the same stops at roughly the same time. I was alternately ahead of and behind a group of twenty-somethings from France who had, somewhat incredibly, decided to try to run this route in a Chrysler PT Cruiser. At every stop one of them got out and looked underneath the car for damage, but for the most part they seemed unconcerned, although I am sure the next people who rent that car may be in for a surprise. Another Chevy Blazer driver and I wondered if they were brave or stupid, finally settling on "just young."

After climbing the twistys, the character of the road changes again and you suddenly find yourself on flat road seemingly carved into an enormous rock canyon; impossibly tall granite walls on either side of your car. It is dark and a bit chilly from the lack of sun and even a bit claustrophobic at times. But as interesting as driving through the narrow slot of between monolithic canyon walls is, more amazing is the extent to which the geography has changed over the course of the morning's journey. Kind of like Death Valley itself, it goes from one extreme to another -- and back again. When you exit the canyon you are back on the standard flat desert plain of the valley. There you can queue up for the one restroom and marvel at the French kids who made it all the way through in their now dirt covered PT Cruiser.

(Aside: I now officially have the notion in my head of a PT Cruiser as a rugged vehicle. Back when I was in Kauai, I took my rented PT Cruiser convertible over a multi-mile stretch of rugged dirt road and sand to get to a secluded beach. Sadly, Chrysler is not making them anymore. I shall mourn their passing.)

From the Titus Canyon exit it's a brief drive up to Scotty's Castle. Like any self-respecting desert, Death Valley has oases. One of them has been turned into Furnace Creek, which I have already spoken of. The other was sequestered back in the 1920s as a good spot for a vacation home by a very wealthy life insurance bigwig named Albert Johnson. Notice it's not called Albert's Castle, or Johnson's Castle. It was actually named after a con man who claimed to live there, not the man who commissioned and owned it.

It's an interesting story. Apparently Walter Scott (Scotty) was a legendary con man who convinced Albert Johnson to invest in a non-existent gold mine. Eventually, when Johnson arrived to discover he had been swindled, instead of being angry, he struck up a sincere friendship with Scotty. In time Johnson came to love the Valley and had the castle built as a vacation home naming it Death Valley Ranch. Scotty took the opportunity to tell everyone that it was his house and probably used it in any number of swindles. Again, instead of being angry, Johnson was merely entertained. Thus it came to be known as Scotty's Castle. Johnson kept up his friendship with Scotty throughout his life, eventually building a smaller place a few miles away for Scotty's personal use. Not exactly the way I would have treated someone who conned me out of many thousands of dollars, but the rich are different.

Designed as a Spanish style estate, with the requisite gardens, pools and stables, Scotty's Castle seems to have been erected in the middle of nowhere, which in fact it was back then. It is the sort of home that folks build when they have a ton of disposable income and are looking to create an iconic base of some sort. John Ringling did this in Sarasota. If you have ever seen the movie Giant with James Dean and Rock Hudson, you'll recall the image of the beautiful mansion built in the middle of a barren prairie. That's what Scotty's Castle brings to mind. There seems to be a desire by these people to make one final statement of who they are what their place is in the world. As if to say, "This is it. This is has been what it's about all along. I'm finished now. I'll just stay here and try to be happy." I'm sure we all have that desire at some point, but it's the rich who can follow through.

These days there is a guest center where you can snag ready-made sandwiches or other basic convenience store food for lunch, and a gift shop. It's the closest thing to a tourist site in the park. You don't get inside the main house other than through a tour, which runs every hour. There are also tours of the underground tunnels where you can see the mechanical ingenuity behind keeping the house functioning; no small task considering it is in the middle of one of the most unforgiving and inhospitable climates in the world. A short trail uphill takes to a high point where Albert Johnson is buried, and where you can get a good feel for the surrounding area.

One last thing about this area: it is the only place I saw anything resembling mammalian wildlife in the park. As I drove up, there was a coyote just standing impassively in the middle of the road. Cars were going by, slowing down for a look and he was just standing there as they passed. I expect he had been fed from cars previously (bad tourists!) and was probably looking for a snack. I pulled off into the parking lot, grabbed my camera to see if I could get some shots, and as soon as I got within thirty yards he was off. I should have remembered from my visit to the Black Hills that park wildlife generally has no fear of cars, but will head for cover if you try to approach them on foot.

On to my final stop, Ubehebe Crater. About three millennia ago a volcano erupted here, leaving a 600 foot deep crater. One side is covered with deep black volcanic sand that you can sink into over your ankles. There is a path around the circumference and a couple that lead down into the center of the crater. The trip down is a piece of cake; the only effort required is to resist gravity from pulling you into a full sprint. The center is a flat, hardened surface and standing in the middle is like being on stage in a gigantic natural theatre-of-the-round. You glance up at the rim and that's when it first occurs to you that you will pay for that nice easy trip down.

So you wander briefly in the center of a volcano. The side opposite the ash path down is craggy rock with all sorts of nooks and crannies to explore. I slipped under a little overhang and realized that, if I was prepared -- meaning if I had worn the right clothes and not been trailing my Nikon DSLR along for the ride -- I could probably have scrambled at least half way up the crater without too much trouble. I'd be willing to bet that a moderately skilled rock climber could take it from there all the way to the top.

So. Wander around a little more. Isn't that an interesting rock formation? There's some scrubby plant life over there. La-de-dah. Oh and look, sunset comes early inside a crater. Alas, can't put it off any longer, I guess...

There are two paths back up to the rim and it's hard to tell which is steeper from the bottom. I just headed back up the one I came down, since it would leave me closer to my car and I figured they were probably about the same. I figured wrong.

Every step I took up amounted to only a few inches of progress as a yard-long stride ended with a two foot slide back into soft volcanic ash followed by a struggle to extricate my sunken foot. It was brutal. Very similar to a former trek I took through Sleeping Bear Dunes in Northern Michigan except that while this was only a single ascent, it was steeper and higher than any individual sand dune. About halfway up I stopped and turned back to see people easily walking up the other pathway. I exchanged looks with the guy in front of me and both of us said, "wrong path," in unison. It wasn't just the steepness, it was the effort required to make any forward progress in the ash. I contemplated turning back and restarting up the proper path but I am not one to give up easily on a fitness challenge. I slugged it out to the top, my torso heaving desperately to fill my lungs. If you ever find yourself in the bottom of Ubehebe Crater, take the path on your right on the way out. Trust me on that.

And that was about it. It was time for me to leave Death Valley and make my way beck to Vegas and, subsequently, home. For the moment though, I sat on the hood of my car overlooking the ash field surrounding the crater and re-hydrating. The sun was setting and it was getting nice and cool. The moon was rising to create a final photo op. The valley floor extended southwest further than my laser corrected vision could see, bordered by mountains on either side. Over my right shoulder was a sign marking the way to The Racetrack. I still regretted not getting there, but something tells me I'll be back. Next time for sure.

Travel Rewind: Head for the (Black) Hills (2007)

Travel Rewind: Head for the (Black) Hills (2007): (This month's rewind theme is journeys out west...pictures are on Smugmug) I could have spent a couple hundred more dollars and flown into Rapid City SD, putting me within a brief drive of the Black Hills area. Instead I chose to save the money, fly into Denver and drive up 6 hours from there. Given the price of gas, I doubt I saved much money, but I am so glad I did it that way. Before we get to that, though, my requisite travel rant.

Apart from the fact that turbulence was so bad that I twice spilled my Diet Pepsi all over myself during the flight, I have little to complain about air-wise since I was able to snag a last second exit row seat. It was a 2.5 hour flight and I was more or less dry by the time it was over. So far so good.

Then it took Northwest a full hour to get the bags on the carousel in Denver. And I would probably still be waiting if some Good Samaritan hadn't noticed that the bags were coming out on a different carousel that the one indicated on the screen. (I can't blame Northwest for not announcing the carousel change because, after all, it's just what we'd be expecting.) Then there were so many people waiting for rental car shuttles that it took three busses and 25 minutes before I was able to squeeze into one to get to the Dollar car rental center. Then it was 45 minutes standing in line at the Dollar office, before I even got to the rental desk.

My 2.5 hour flight landed at 10am and it was another 2.5 hours just to get my bags and pick up my car. Unreal. If anyone is listening, this is why the travel industry is so deeply hated. Every airline and car rental employee knows what's coming on any given day, it makes no sense whatsoever that the simplest things should turn into an 11-letter word that begins with "cluster."

Why do I bother to gripe? It's not like it does anything but give me the delusion of a just revenge. I vow to stop with the travel rants. There is no point in subjecting you to them for the sake of personal catharsis. [[update: where have you heard this before? - dam]]

Anyway, as soon as I got to the car rental desk things got better. I had arranged for a convertible PT Cruiser, which they didn't have so they upgraded me to a Sebring convertible. With Sirius. Sweet. Well, the Sirius thing was sweet. The Sebring is a remarkably crude vehicle for this day and age. But the top went down and that's all that mattered to me.

The road from Denver goes straight north up through Colorado into Wyoming. It was sunny and hot in Colorado and, once outside the Denver traffic, I was enjoying cruising along topless (the car, not me). As you make your way north of Ft. Collins, things start to change. You are no longer in industrialized Colorado. This is the Real West. Eventually you cross into southeastern Wyoming and hit Cheyenne. I stopped for lunch and it was my first clue that the little towns around here were not the scions of convenience they often are back in Michigan. Cheyenne is a something of a hard-scrabble town. It's rough around the edges, though it's trying to gentrify like the rest of the country. You'll see dark and dirty bars and thrift shops right next to an art gallery or a day spa. Nothing is gussied-up in anyway, which is very cowboy of them.

I parked downtown (and put the top up) and took off on foot to find a friendly chuck wagon. As I reached the center of town the deluge started. Thick sheets of rain. I ducked under an awning to watch the nearly deserted streets of downtown Cheyenne as they got drenched. A strange feeling that came over me: How in the world did the circumstances of my life ever lead me from a lower-middle class birth Detroit to a point where I was standing under an awning on a street in Cheyenne, Wyoming during a thunderstorm nearly 47 years later? It was a good thought -- I now had distance from my routine life, which is kind of the point of travel. As the rain subsided somewhat I took the opportunity to dash into a local restaurant whose name I can't recall but whose servers struck me being overachievers when it came to flare, scarfed down a cheeseburger that had been cooked into submission, and headed off into deeper Wyoming.

Remember the final sequence in Castaway where Tom Hanks is out in farmland, roads extending off in into the distance and not another car in sight. That's what Wyoming ranch country is like: austere, craggy grasslands extending into infinity, framed by amazing thunderstorms -- just like a director would have ordered up from Special Effects -- saturating the plains in torrents of rain. Occasionally the scene is peppered with a lonesome, ramshackle building or a scattered herd of cattle, but that's about it. Other than the immeasurably long coal trains chugging back and forth, it probably looks pretty much as it did 150 years ago.

Apart from a single stretch of interstate in West Texas that has a speed limit of 80, 75 is about the highest limit you'll find in the U.S. (the days of unlimited speed limits in Montana are long gone) and that is what the limit is in this area. It underscores how much space there is in the West. You can easily find yourself in a spot where the next town is a 70 or 80 miles away. They need high speed limits because there is so much ground to cover. If you wanted to, I'm sure you could safely cruise at around 90+ on the endless stretches of flat straight roads. I don't think I saw a cop the whole trip once I left Colorado.

Once you enter South Dakota, things get mountainy and twisty again. For all their beauty, travel-wise the Black Hills is stuck in the 1970s. But that's probably how everyone wants it. There are no good restaurants to speak of and why should there be? There are three audiences here -- plain-talkin' local cowboy types, bikers left over from the Sturgis rally, and road-tripping families -- none of them are particularly interested in fine culinary experiences. Accommodations are almost entirely of the motel variety, which makes sense. Everybody who doesn't live here is on a road trip and hasn't made reservations because every day is going to be hit or miss schedule-wise, and it's not like your eight-year-old is going to appreciate turn down service. As a result, towns like Custer and Hot Springs and Keystone don't really have the quality and refinement of your average small town in Michigan or some other coastal area. They are merely convenient stopping points.

My motel, the Chief Motel, in Custer, SD, was typical. Pull up to the door, step out and ask the nice man behind the counter for a room. You knew he'd have one because the vacancy sign was lit. Get your key and park right in front of your door. I had forgotten how convenient motels were. No parking valets, no bellhops, no concierge. Focus shifts from service to cleanliness and functionality. The Chief Motel did fine: exceedingly friendly and helpful proprietor; clean as a whistle. It has a nice pool/hot tub that I never availed myself of. You get a coupon for a two dollar breakfast at the diner down the street. The only chink in the armor was non-functioning wi-fi, but I have come to expect wi-fi to function at about a 50% rate in all levels of hotel. And besides, I was probably the only one who even noticed.

There is what might be termed a "downtown" area of Custer -- about a block and a half long with a handful of shops and cheapy restaurants, but nobody comes to the Black Hills for a casual stroll down Main Street in a quaint little town. People are here for the parks and monuments. If you rise early you can do two monuments and a park and be back in time for dinner. I know, 'cause I did.

First up was Crazy Horse. Positioned as a paean to Native American culture, it is a quixotic project originally assumed by one man, Polish immigrant and Mt. Rushmore assistant Korczak Ziolkowski, back in 1946 and continues through his family to this day. When finished, the Crazy Horse memorial will dwarf Mt. Rushmore. It will consist of a single mounted figure of Crazy Horse heroically pointing off into the distance; currently it is only a big face carved in the mountain that can be seen from far, far away. It's taking so long to finish for a couple of reasons: 1) it's truly huge, and 2) it is financed entirely through private donations. Apparently they turn down any government money for fear of losing their purity of focus. They have no specific timetable or expected completion date; they just keep working. The Ziolkowski clan is obviously focused on the journey rather than the destination. If they ever do get it finished it will almost certainly be a wonder of the world.

The project's introductory video -- shown in the very nicely done visitor's center/museum -- is much better than most. The story of the early stages of development, when the sculptor was working on it alone, make him seem like the lead in a Werner Herzog documentary. The odds were staggering, the task daunting, but he seems to have been quite sanguine about the work for work's sake. It's really a great story.

At Mt. Rushmore -- an older, richer, and more renowned monument -- the presentation is much slicker. Rushmore has to be one of the most photographed places on earth. It's very dramatically designed with an amphitheatre built near the base and obviously ready for various shows and presentation. At the base of the mountain is a pathway which you can walk around and see up all the president's noses. Despite the fact that everyone has seen Mt. Rushmore in photo and film a million times, it remains an impressive sight. Well, it is once the sun burns away the clouds. For about the first hour I was there, the low hanging fogginess completely obscured any view of the faces.

As impressive as it is, Rushmore seems unfinished in a way. The base of the mountain is covered in a cascade of rocks that were stripped off in the sculpting process. Also, Washington is the only figure who has much more than a head. I understand that the original design had torsos for all the presidents, at least that's how the scale model is shown in the (on-site) sculptors studio. Still, Rushmore deserves its popularity. And popular it is. You'll need some patience until everybody gets out of the way of that picture you want. Toto, we're not in Wyoming anymore. Bonus: The high volume of tourists justifies an ace on-site cafeteria -- possibly the best food in the Black Hills.

You can exit Mt. Rushmore by traversing Iron Mountain Road and end up in Custer State Park. Iron Mountain Road is a beauty -- winding through the forest, past overlooks, single lane tunnels (honk to make sure no one is coming through from the other side), and pigtail bridges (shaped like a corkscrew). If you've been to Maui, it's kind of like the Hana Highway in miniature.

Once in Custer State Park proper, the main thing to do is follow the Wildlife Loop, approximately 20 miles of two lane road through the heart of the park and past bison, pronghorn antelope, and prairie dogs. But the first animals you meet are burros. They are certainly feral, but almost completely tame from a life of being hand fed by tourists. They stand in the middle of the road, blocking cars and sticking their heads in the window in the hopes of being offered a snack.

Beyond the burros you'll cross paths with a herd or two of bison. From a distance there is little difference between them and a herd of cattle. Move closer and they tend to get skittish. Walk within 50 yards and the tension builds; the dyspeptic looking males begin to stare you down. Best not to push the issue. The Pronghorn antelopes are somewhat more solitary and a lot faster. They won't bother to wait until you are in range, they just take off at rough twice the speed limit for cars, occasionally taking huge leaps over uneven terrain. Likewise, the prairie dog communities react en masse to warning chirps from their sentries and duck into their burrows in a heartbeat.

What I'm saying is getting a good pic of these critters would take a load of patience and a lot of luck. Ironically, the only way you can readily get in close proximity is in your car. They have learned not to fear cars -- probably because of the low speed limit and the fact that they can count on the cars to stop dead in deference to their lazy shuffle across the road. So if you happen upon the critters near the edge of the road, you can stop and take snaps from your car without spooking them. Once you get out, unless they are burros, they'll be off.

One of the nice things about travelling west is that everything is time shifted to the AM. Wake up at 8 by your internal clock and you find it's only 6, so you get the impression of having an extra long day (which you don't really have because you run out of steam a lot earlier too). I was up early the next day heading east to the Badlands.

The gateway to the Badlands is the town of Wall, SD, wherein you will find the famous commercial enterprise known as Wall Drug. Now, I am not one to decry a nicely done tourist trap. I am totally OK with a block or two of crap shops that feed off tired travelers that are in need of a place to stretch their legs, a souvenir spoon, and a clean, well-lighted bathroom. If they are important enough to people that they will stop for them, then by all means, build a town around it. That's what they did in Wall. They built the enormous Wall Drug, and across the street sit a handful of t-shirt shops, cheap jewelry stores, and dark and dingy bars of the sort in which they specialize in South Dakota. That's the town.

Wall Drug takes up about a full block and is the ultimate cathedral of chintz. But everyone stops there when touring the Badlands and Black Hills, and everyone buys something. In my case, it was a small bag of stale trail mix and a bottle of water in case I found a decent hike in the Badlands. You see? I saw right through the tourist trap fa‡ade and they still ended up with some of my money. Like a two-bit call-girl, Wall Drug may be tawdry, but it's got what you need, and it's where you are.

If there was a single star of the Black Hills it would be Badlands National Park. I can only describe The Badlands as otherworldly. You get the sense that you are on the set of a sci-fi flick. In comparison to the other rocky outcrop parks I've seen, I would say they are more dramatic than Zion in many ways -- less rounded, but the same sort of color stratifications -- and though they are not quite as alien as the bizarre formations of Bryce Canyon, I believe they cover a larger area. There are a few relatively short hiking trails. For a quickie hike try Saddle Pass which is not so much a hike as a short scramble up a steep and rocky path to the peak of a particularly high out-cropping.

Plan on spending a goodly amount of time in Badlands National Park. The main road through it has many scenic overlooks and you should stop at most of them. There are amazing sights around every corner. Unless you have a couple of cars or are looking to cover many miles, hiking is mostly out and back kind of stuff, which is only half satisfying. The Badlands would benefit from a shuttle service. If I return I'll plan on bringing a bike so I can leave it at one point, hike for an extended length, then bike it back to my car.

Leaving the Badlands I took the road less travelled (it doesn't go past Wall Drug) and swung south of the park and through Buffalo Gap National Grasslands.

The Grasslands stand in direct contrast to the Badlands. Just a monotonous sea of grass. 'Sea' is the correct word. The horizon is nearly unbroken in all directions, just as if you were out on the ocean out of sight of land. It would likely drive some people mad to have effectively no visual cues to break up the horizon for an extended period. I found it eerily fascinating. I was struck by a desire to pick a direction and start walking. I was put off from this by the rattlesnake warning signs.

Barreling through the Grasslands on a two-lane blacktop you get a very strong sense of isolation unlike anything you can get back East. I think, in the span of two hours, over the course of well over 100 miles, I saw about three other cars. I saw one person far off in the distance on a tractor, and I saw another walking amidst a small herd of cattle carrying a rifle. That's it. And it can get even more deserted should you choose to turn down any of the numerous dirt roads, many of which lead through the Lakota Reservation. Every time I go out West, I am awed by the vastness.

The next day I was to reposition from my motel in Custer to a place in Deadwood, about 90 minutes north. Instead of the direct route I chose to take the long way around and circle back through Wyoming to Devil's Tower.

Devil's Tower, is the landmark to end all landmarks. It would be strange-looking even if it was surrounded by similar geologic features, but standing as it is, solitary and towering over everything around it, it looks like some strange flight of imagination. As if some impossible large child filled his plastic bucket full of sand, and turned it upside-down, leaving a near perfectly cylindrical obelisk with a flat top. It is immediately clear why Spielberg used it in Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

The Tower has a nice circular path around it which permits you to take pictures of it with variously angled sunlight. I must have taken fifty in the course of walking the path, none of which do it justice. The attention of most observers eventually gets focused on the rock climbers. It turns out, you can climb this monstrosity. The method of doing so involves shimmying up grooves the run up the side. As the world's worst rock-climber, I was deeply impressed.

I would guess that if you were trying to draw boundaries, Devil's Tower would be about as far west as you would go and still be considered to be in the Black Hills region. It's a couple of hour's drive from the main areas in South Dakota and, as usual, you find yourself going through little towns, the most notable of which is Sundance, WY, from whence the Sundance Kid got his name: decent place to stop for gas and a snack; nothing out of the ordinary for the region, however. Next stop Deadwood.

At first glance, Deadwood seems to be nothing but low-end casinos and dive bars -- which is probably exactly what the prospectors who came here 120 years ago thought. It's a small town and you can walk up and down the entirely of Main St. in the span fifteen minutes, as a result most everyone comes in for a day trip or a quick overnighter to drink in the history and drop some coins in the slots. But looking deeper, it reminded me of a poor man's Savannah in that it is a city clearly dedicated to its past. Restorations are done under the watchful eye of a committee, with an eye toward long-term constancy. In fact, the stated intent of allowing casino gambling was simply to generate enough of a revenue stream for restoration and renovation.

Like the entire region it is lacking in decent restaurants -- that is to say, they are none. But there are plenty of serviceable options and unlike other towns in the Black Hills you can wander the street in the evening and find stuff do -- in other words, you can get out of your car. Short of staying in Rapids City, I think that makes Deadwood the choice location for exploration of the Black Hills and beyond.

I stayed at the Celebrity Hotel, which I can certainly recommend. Somewhat out of sync, it is a Hollywood themed hotel in the heart of the Old West. They've decorated with some cool genuine Hollywood displays -- Magnum's car, Bond's suit, etc. Good friendly service; a rooftop deck so you can make like Al Swearingen and keep an eye on the town activities; free wi-fi. The rooms are clean and functional and continue the Hollywood motif (mine was Audrey Hepburn themed; I slept under a Breakfast at Tiffany's poster) with the added benefit of towel heaters in the bathrooms. Nice. Recommended.

The next day, on the spur of the moment, I decide to drive to Montana. Funny thing about this trip is that all the driving didn't bother me in the slightest. There was nothing resembling "traffic" and the scenery was beautiful. I had Sirius for my companion. I just stopped anytime I felt like it. The act of driving actually became relaxing. As a result, I was looking forward to the 4 hour drive from Deadwood to the site of Custer's Last Stand.

The journey along route 212 (as opposed to the big freeway) goes through two Indian Reservations -- Cheyenne and Crow. Indian reservations are depressing places. Like everything else in the rural West, they are ranch or farmland punctuated homely little centers of activity including a gas station, convenience store, seedy-looking bars, repair shop, etc. And while there are no signs anywhere in the region of affluence or luxury, on the Cheyenne Reservation this center of activity is clearly deep in poverty. There are smashed windows and other signs of vandalism. Much is in general disrepair. The cars are decrepit.

The Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument is a little island of federally administered ground in the Crow Reservation. Presumably because of the tourist trade surrounding the battlefield, the area immediately nearby appears a little more modern and developed than the Cheyenne. There is even a KFC situated at the point where Custer made his deepest drive into the Indian army in his attempt to escape.

I find the events surrounding Custer's Last Stand and the aftermath to be utterly surreal. At that point in time, the various Indian tribes were getting hammered. The best they could hope for was maybe a successful raid now and then, meanwhile in any sizeable engagement or in any long-term context, they were just getting demolished militarily -- not to mention by famine and illness. Then a series of events occurred that got many tribes to unify into one fighting force, they converged at Little Bighorn and had an unprecedented total victory over Custer. You would think it would occur to them that maybe this was the way to do things. Maybe by unifying they would have vastly more military, diplomatic and political power. Perhaps not enough to win the war, but better than what they got. But no, they celebrated their victory and then said, "You know, this is nice and all, but it's time we got back to getting the snot kicked out of us everywhere we go. Let's split up." Meanwhile, you have Custer, who by all accounts was a tedious, pretentious little prick and only a middling-at-best commander, suddenly becoming great hero and a rallying point in the Indian wars.

A century or so passes and it only gets weirder. Custer falls out of favor as popular interpretations start focusing on his shortcomings. The Indians are now the good guys, but it's really hard to sell military heroism when you outnumber your enemy by something more than 20 to 1, so instead we re-characterize the Battle of the Little Bighorn in a larger context as a gloriously doomed, last ditch effort of the Indians to "defend their culture." From start to finish, the whole process is a paradigmatic exercise is spinning historical events to grind your axe. It's lunacy worthy of a Paddy Chayefsky screenplay.

In contrast, the Memorial grounds themselves are blissfully peaceful. This is probably because they are essentially a cemetery. There is roughly an acre or two of (mostly local) veterans interred on the grounds, while many of Custer's soldiers have headstones placed where they fell.
Of course, you always go to high ground to make your last stand, and so the view from the monument is quite expansive. It's probably not better than any of a dozen or so views I had experienced in the previous couple of days, but it was a sunny day, there was a nice, soft breeze, the visitors were all subdued and low-key. I sat quietly on the grass, looking miles off into the distance, and appreciated just being in Big Sky country and, once again, thinking about how, nearly 47 years ago, I got on a path that led me to standing on a hilltop meadow in southeastern Montana.

I was down to my last full day and it was raining intermittently. My plans for a day hike or a trail ride were dashed. Instead, I hung around Deadwood mostly; visited the official Deadwood Visitor Center and Museum and did a bit of urban hiking through town up to Mount Moriah Cemetery where Deadwood notables such as Wild Bill Hickok, Calamity Jane, and Seth Bullock are laid to rest. Most people drive up or take a tour bus, but if you are reasonably fit, there's a better way. North of town center there are a set of stairs (called the City Steps) that lead you up through a wooded area and let you out in a residential area above the main town. From there you need only wander up a couple of devilishly steep side streets to the cemetery. It's an interesting walk through residential Deadwood but, I repeat, quite steep.

Admission to the cemetery is one dollar. It's a pretty and peaceful place and, if you time it right, when the tour busses come by you can overhear the lively presentation from the tour guide. At one end of the cemetery there's a nice overlook that lets you look down on Deadwood and out over the surrounding hills.

At the other end is a path that climbs high up the hillside to one lone gravesite, that of Seth Bullock and his wife, who are held in special affection by the residents of Deadwood. Bullock was truly a man of his time. As a prominent resident of Deadwood, which was a point of confluence for anyone who was anyone in late 19th century America, he is one of those historical characters who seems to be only a degree of separation from most of the important events and personalities of his day. He lived in the middle of the great movement to "revenge" the massacre of Custer. To him, Crazy Horse was a real person, and potential threat to safety and fortune. One of those faces on Mt. Rushmore was his good friend, Teddy Roosevelt. When he saw bison, he saw food. He likely toured the Badlands without the benefit of stale trail mix and bottled water from Wall Drug.

From Bullock's grave the path seems to go higher, possibly all the way to the top of the surrounding peaks. I didn't take it. I like that I left a higher peak to be climbed. Just in case my path leads back here someday.