Thursday, September 14, 2017

Apocalypse Now


“I’ll huff and I’ll puff and I’ll blow your house down!”---The Big Bad Wolf

Sunday Morning, September 10

The questions arrive on dusty black buses.  The vehicles lurch to a stop, open their doors, the passengers rush up to you.  How can it be so quiet a mere night before The Monster comes?  Will this be the day I perish, brought down by a single bolt of lightning as I see to my frightened horses?  Or by a jaunty tornado, skipping across the fields like one of Stephen King’s langoliers, leaping over obstacles, cutting a swath across the earth?  Or perhaps a giant oak, old and tired, gasping for breath in the wake of the onslaught before falling to its knees, exhausted?

There is flight, of course, the refuge of the weak, the lame, those of good sense.  A path through the woods along the banks of a rippling stream leads to the King’s Highway, freedom, escape from the jaws of death, the opportunity to visit another day.  But there are those of us too stubborn to be put to rout by superior forces.  We stand on guard for our homes, our fellow creatures, the familiar possessions we have accumulated in the many years of our existence.  We remain with our queen, a brave and loyal woman true to her subjects who will not be rudely dispatched by the likes of shoddy interlopers, well-armed or not.  The drawbridge is up, the moat is filled, the castle secure.  If this horrid witch, this curse, this Irma is to be The Final Chapter, let her do her worst.  We are ready.  And we are strong.


Ellison Farm engulfed

The Longest Night

Tuesday Morning, September 12

It starts slowly.  Strange clouds float in, the kind you don’t see every day, clouds with foolish Dali mustaches, clouds with giant banners cying Peril!, clouds that laugh at you and point, dark clouds on the outermost bands of The Mother Ship charging through the skies on lightning-fast steeds, mocking, celebrating the nightmare to come like the vulgar hirsute hordes of Attila The Hun.  A man looks up and shudders.

This Irma is a clever Amazon.  She bobs, she weaves, she hides her intentions until the last second, darting and dashing, throwing fake left jabs to beguile her opponent.  She is powerful, this Irma, with a heavyweight’s punch, but shrewd enough to value a boxer’s evasiveness.  She feints toward Miami and strikes at the less-prepared Naples, routing the poor devil with body blows and head shots alike.  She moves up the Gulf Coast as if to strike Tampa, then circles the ring, leering, scoffing at her opponent.  Only Irma knows where she is going.  And now she is coming after us.

There’s only so much you can do.  At our house, we mount the 3/4 inch plywood on frail windows.  We give all the chargeables one last jolt.  We clear the vicinity of Undesirable Flying Objects and fill the bathtub with suddenly precious water.  Where to park the cars and trucks?  Too many trees over here, too much flood potential over there.  Do we have all the cell numbers for our emergency contacts?  Did Aunt Minnie remember to park a car at the end of her half-mile driveway?  Why, oh why, did we ever leave Wyoming?

The TV lunatics are scrambling full-tilt, slopping through the marshes of Marathon, hanging on to hotel balcony railings in Fort Meyers, sleepless in Sarasota.  We hate to tell you this, folks in television-land, but obviously you’re all doomed to oblivion, it’s only a matter of time.  But while there IS time, don’t forget to pick up one these elegant cheeseboards, only $19.95 and going fast.  And if you don’t make it through the storm, they’ll make a great remembrance for the kids in Omaha.  “And now we go to Ethan in downtown Naples.  Come in, Ethan!  Ethan?  ETHAN, where the hell ARE you?”  The camera cuts to a woebegone Ethan, microphone held high, recovering from a fall to his knees in waist-high water.  “Ha-ha, Joe---a little problem there, but we’re back now and I gotta tell you….”

We watch the television reports with some odd combination of awe, bewilderment, hope and despair.  The emails and Facebook messages begin trickling in from points south.  “Power gone.”  “Darkness falls.”  “Utilities out.”  We feel like the crew of nuclear holocaust survivors in On The Beach, waiting for the radioactive cloud to float our way.   Then, at 8:15 p.m., the gerbils stop running, the treadmills close down and Clay Electric gives up the ghost.  We’re powerless, as well.  Not only that, but our land lines and cell phones collapse for some unknown reason.  Talk about being held incommunicado.  We sit back and wait for the fireworks to start.  At the time, the weather geniuses assure us the hurricane will hew to the coast, smash into Tampa and ride up over the Panhandle.  ABC’s Ginger Zee tells us our winds should be around 60 miles per hour, tops.  Well, we can handle that, we’re tough, right?  I said right?

When you’re getting on in years, you’d like Time to slow down a tad, but the only time it agrees seems to be when you’re on the treadmill.  But even that snail’s pace pales in comparison to Hurricane Night, when each minute seems an hour and you’re under the lash for the duration.  So you stand there with a stiff drink in your hand or you sit there glued to your generator-powered Ipad or you lie there cowering under the covers, listening, listening, as those winds gradually increase to a crescendo, to a point you think can’t possibly be exceeded and then those winds exceed it.  It seems as if Critical Mass has breen reached and there should some incredible explosion, some grand finale, perhaps a brilliant light in the sky to bring this all to an end.  But no, you’re not getting off that easy.  Irma The Dominatrix wants to inflict more than a little pain.  She lives to arouse fear, to extend the terror as long as possible, to keep you in a state of confused panic until you finally fall to your knees, begging for it to be over.  Irma wants to be remembered, to have her named enscrolled in the Great Book of Awful Moments, and she’ll ultimately get her wish.

For us, the minutes between 1:30 a.m. and 3:30 are the worst.  It seems that any second you’ll hear that horrid crack that signals the descent of a giant oak tree into your bedroom, your barn, your future Triple-Crown-winning thoroughbred filly.  At this stage, your hearing is a finely-tuned instrument and you can delineate subtle changes in the storm.  You have no outside information because your paltry supplies of generator fuel are being hoarded for the recovery period, so your instincts have to serve.  Then, over time, the subtlest change.  The winds no longer seem to increase.  There is a smidge more space between the worst gusts.  The hellish howling slowly abates.  Is this just wishful thinking?  Is Irma merely searching around for another whip?  Or is she finally ready to move on, satisfied with her utter conquest of the local territories?  Maybe there’s fun to be had in Georgia, Alabama, points north and west.  Whatever the reason, the din diminishes.  The loudest gusts continue but they are spaced further apart, their days are numbered.  Slowly, carefully, the natives come out of hiding, wounded but nonetheless satisfied with their lot.  They look around, dumbfounded at the state of the kingdom, but they smile internally.  The beast is gone.  The fort has held.




Thursday Morning, September 14

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.  The Florida Keys were smashed to bits and retirement mecca Naples was roundly savaged, but Miami and Tampa, once thought to be certain targets of the storm, were spared.  Little Cedar Key looked to be on the brink of extinction, then Irma unaccountably skirted off to the right.  The weather forecasters, who were wrong about everything once again, have no answers.

The vast Killeen-Ellison holdings were left with one flooded paddock, several young trees down, no utilities, no land line, no internet and no cell phones.  When we motored out to survey the terrain, we were met with flooded roads at every turn, having to negotiate an overlong circuitous route to make it three miles to the Fairfield Post Office.   There were power lines down everywhere, including one right in the middle of our own street, which sat there for two days before Clay Electric happened to notice.  With the assistance of fabled recovery experts Janis Peterson and Pete Gonzalez, we have, however, unplywooded the windows, cut up the offending trees, cleared the roadway of debris and returned the place to the initial stages of normalcy.  It could take a hundred years to pick up all the fallen limbs and broken branches, so I might miss the end of that.  I said might.

Gas is scarce.  There is little bread in the markets and less water.  The insterstate is bumper-to-bumper with returning evacuees and is now in danger of being closed north of here by the rising Suwanee River.  That could happen today, leaving a monstrous muddle for the lesser roads, which are already bursting at the seams.  But the mail is back!  As is Fedex and UPS, so Siobhan’s business is back on track, if a little wobbly.  The gym is open and filled with wide-eyed story-tellers specializing in minuscule bouts of heroism and humorous yard disasters.  The tree-trimmers are jumping up and down in glee, promising their wives unexpected vacations in Barbados and the Lesser Antilles.  The landscapers are scouring the interstate ramps looking for cheap day-labor, a boon to alcohol and cigarette sales.  It’s an ill wind that bloweth no man good, they say, and they’d be more than correct in this case.  Best of all, The Flying Pie is here on schedule, defying the odds, ducking the swirling debris, dining on truck-stop food and showering in cold water.  Those weathermen laughingly tell us it’s only the middle of hurricane season.

dead tree

That’s all, folks…. 


Thursday, September 7, 2017

My Friend Irma


“It’s comin’ the tornaduh!”---Jim Lavendusky

Tuesday, September 5

Gentlemen, start your generators!  It’s that time of year, again.  The Witches of Africa brew up some serious Evil in giant cauldrons along their west coast, dump the stuff into the adjacent Atlantic Ocean and wait for the fun to start.  Most of the efforts don’t take, of course, similar to the success rate of a drunk with damp matches.  But even a besotted thumbless man occasionally raises a flame.  Fortunately, many of the newborn storms lack the wherewithal to persevere or stumble off into the night, lost, finally catching a steamer to the far off Azores or disintegrating in loneliness and frustration.  But it just takes one uninvited guest to spoil the party, and it looks like we have one.  Her name is Irma.  The lady has been fiddling around with her eyeliner and makeup, in no particular hurry to choose a final destination, but now weather conditions emanating from the north and west may decide it for her.  The bad news is that destination might be us.

Most non-Floridians are grossly misinformed about the Sunshine State.  They think (a) all of us live on the beach, and (b) we get hurricanes all the time.  The truth is a large percentage of us live inland and we haven’t had a serious bell-ringer in over a decade unless you want to count that tiny spat Broward County had with Matthew last October.  The panhandle gets an occasional dousing from storms headed for Alabama and Mississippi, but the people who live there are all Republicans who disbelieve in Global Warming and deserve all the weather insults they can get.  Last time I looked, however, the Weather Oracles had drawn a million little lines designating Irma’s path all over the state of Florida, so we may be in for it this time.  So, naturally, we’re looking for hatches to batten.

We learned in 2004 that the first thing to do is get your generator ready.  The power will go out, especially in this neck of the woods where it is gerbil-driven. Clay Electric has a vast herd of the critters powering wheels and treadmills all over the north-central part of the state and this is usually sufficient to maintain a modicum of reliability.  In times of duress, unfortunately, the rodents panic, get out of sync and blow the conductors.  During Hurricane Charley, the power was out for a week.  If a person is without generator (which virtually everyone in those days was), that means no food-storage, no AC, no television, no clothes washing.  We flushed the toilets with outside water, but that was loaded with tadpoles and we ended up with toads in our toilet.  Before long, the bathtub was filled with dirty clothes, some of them wet dirty clothes, the kind you get from feeding horses and patching fences in a downpour.  Nobody sleeps, due to the broiling temperatures and the possibility that a giant oak tree might fall on your bedroom.  Oh, and you may have a few unexpected guests, the kind which arrive when the county imposes an evacuation decree on mobile-home residence.  We got the Gaffalione family---Steve, Shannon, Tyler, Cheyenne and an infant---for three days, before a microscopic hotel room opened up outside Gainesville.  Obviously, hurricanes sometimes inculcate bravery, resourcefulness and determination.  Tyler, a feisty sort, managed to overcome the mindbending experience to emerge as thoroughbred racing’s Apprentice Jockey of the Year eleven years later.  Every cloud has a silver lining.


Hurricane Advice For Rookies

Long, long ago, in a kingdom far, far away, there was a time when the poor haggard people had no bottled water.  They had to make do with strange fluids drawn from the earth and transmitted through a series of pipes to an unlikely instrument called a “sink.”  On the back of the sink were a pair of “faucets,” one for cold water, one for hot.  Fluid going to the latter passed through a “hot water heater” on its way to the sink.  Admittedly, all this was terribly primitive but it worked for the unprivileged people of that era.  And in times of crisis, it will probably still work today.

The other day at a Publix market in Ocala, we noticed a man filling his diminutive automobile to the brim with Zephyrhills spring water.  I asked him if was planning on entering the burgeoning H2O business, but he said no, he was merely preparing for Hurricane Irma, getting enough water for the family.  Maybe he was Charles Manson in disguise and he was buying water for the entire commune or perhaps he was anticipating The Second Siege of St. Augustine, because this guy had enough water for both of them.  Hello out there---rather than scratching your eyes out over the lack of water on the supermarket shelves, how about bottling your own water?  Or just fill up the bathtub like Mr. Weather is always advising.  We realize it’s a radical solution but desperate times call for desperate measures.

After the water problem is solved, secure your house and vehicles.  Remove from the property any objects which could come crashing through your bedroom window in the middle of the night or threaten outside animals.  Consider where your cars, trucks and tractors are parked.  Any trees nearby?  Are they in an area which could possibly flood?  If your house is a significant distance from the road, think about placing one vehicle at the end of your driveway in case fallen trees block your egress.  Yes, we know, you have a chain saw, but some of these trees are really BIG.

Keep a bunch of flashlights and candles around, and plenty of replacement batteries.  Make sure you have a cell phone charger for your car, as a last resort.  The utilities could be out for days and the generator fuel doesn’t last forever.  Load up on food which doesn’t require a refrigerator or cooking.  Make sure you have a battery-operated radio, matches, duct tape, raingear, plastic garbage bags, a manual can-opener and a churchkey.  Always keep several pastries on hand in case of emergency.  Make friends with someone who has a helicopter.

Okay, you’re ready. 


Post-Hurricane Advice For Rookies

Directly after a serious hurricane hits, you will be staying home for awhile.  First, the roads will be flooded somewhere near you and second, downed trees will be blocking your passage.  You could, of course, walk, if there was anywhere worth walking to.  Plan on eating in a lot.  Siobhan, like the wily Hawaiian she is, once cooked a couple of meals underground.  After a day or two, the county usually clears a path through the underbrush, meaning you can drive again.  The first places to get power will be the interstate-adjacent islands, so you can eat something outside of canned bok choy.  If you belong to a gym, which clever people like Bill do, your family will be welcome to use the showers.  If not, try calling an empowered neighbor and begging for bathing privileges.  When they ask what time you’d like to come, tell them you’re waiting on the porch.  The early bird gets the loofah. 

Do not try to drive your car through areas which look like Lake Erie.  Just because some other guy made it doesn’t mean you will.  Stay on the interstates and major roads as much as possible, even if the trip is longer.  And remember, the residents of seriously compromised areas aren’t in the market for sightseers.  Some of them will throw lighted matches at you.  Leave them alone.

The first order of business when the storm abates is to check your trees, especially the water oaks, which can be (a) very big and (b) prone to crush you like a bug.  Weakened trees don’t necessarily fall during the storm, some of them like to wait and catch you off-guard.  It’s a tree thing.  It’s also a good idea to have equipment that does not require batteries.  You know how batteries are.  Just when you need them most, they run away and hide under the bed like your local congressman.  One battery-operated critter you can put to good use, however, is a fan, especially important for sleeping.  Even if you have a generator, air-conditioners draw an enormous amount of power and you may not have enough juice to keep all the balls in the air.  Fan batteries come from good families and are raised properly; they will not abandon you in a pinch.

Oh, and one more thing.  Keep your generator away from the house in a small outbuilding or storage facility.  If, for some reason, you decide to ignore this advice, at least procure a carbon monoxide monitor so you don’t wake up to find yourself dead.  All the high-class families are getting them.  If there are any more questions, you know where to find me.  And bring along a raspberry pie, I’ll be hungry.


Thursday, September 7

The prospects are not too cheery.  While chances are we will not be demolished like the islands, not many of us non-panhandle Floridians are getting off scot-free short of the last minute intervention of The Fates or a crack team of mutant superheroes.  The ultimate sunny circumstance would be a late decision by Irma to travel north about fifty miles out to sea.  We got that little miracle last year with Matthew so it would be a bit presumptuous expecting two in a row.  Sunday and Monday look like demolition derby days so who’s to say when we’ll see you again?  The Flying Pie prides itself on its high dependability quotient but the best laid plans of mice and Pie often go awry in the wake of unparalleled catastrophes.

Still, We’re expecting to be here next Thursday, all spruced up in our post-hurricane finery, with terrific tales to tell, aquaphotos to display.  That would be if the good Lord’s willin’ and the creek don’t rise.   We’re not too uncomfortable about that first part but we’re pretty worried about the creek.

That may be all, folks.  But we hope not.


Thursday, August 31, 2017

Saving The World


When we were kids, nobody worried about global warming, Kim Jong-un or even runaway asteroids headed for Earth.  Why should we?  We had Superman, who could fly at supersonic speed, create a giant vacuum and suck all the greenhouse gases off the planet, then refreeze the ice caps with one blast from his mighty breath.  Kim Fatty the Third?  Don’t make me laugh.  Clark Kent’s alter ego would poke him in both eyes with his super-index fingers and he’d be crying like a baby.  Errant asteroids?  Putty in Superman’s hands.  He could pulverize them with single punch or divert them with a gentle shove, take your pick.  Unfortunately for us, Superman hit the trail long ago, leaving us with a less awesome cast of characters.  Now we’ve got the X-Men, mutants who spend all their time fighting with other mutants.  Or the Hulk, not the brightest bulb on the planet, whose solution to any problem is to pound it to jelly, often with unsatisfactory results.  Thor has some good qualities but there’s only so much you can do with a Mighty Hammer.

Even Captain Marvel would help, but he’s gone, too.  Maybe Billy Batson got old, contracted Alzheimer’s and forgot how to say “SHAZAM!”  Do you think the old wizard is still sitting on that throne in an abandoned New York subway tunnel waiting for another prospect to come wandering down the tracks?  Is it possible superheroics might suddenly appear at this late date?  Can the world still be saved?  Maybe, maybe not.  But some modern-day superheroes are working on it.


O Canada!

Everyone knows that nuclear power can generate electricity free of carbon emissions.  Which is fine until an unlikely tidal wave batters the planet and spreads radioactive goobers all over the terrain, making a large swath of real estate unliveable for decades.  Ask the Japanese about that one.  Or Google “Chernobyl” to see what happens when the Russian version of The Three Stooges builds a nuclear plant with leftover Lada car parts.  Ta-ra-ra-boom-de-ay.  Is it too much to ask someone in the Kremlin to at least read Building Nuclear Plants For Dummies?

Fortunately for the rest of the world, there is nothing to do in Canada.  It’s cold all the time and everyone has to stay in the house.  So somebody in the wooly North, kicking around the basement on a Winter’s afternoon with plenty of time to kill, came up with an idea and took it to the boss at General Fusion.  And now that company is building the world’s first commercially viable nuclear-fusion-energy plant.  And get this: fusion produces zero greenhouse gas emissions, emitting only helium as exhaust.  It also requires less land than other renewable technologies.  Fusion energy is inherently safe, with zero possibility of a meltdown scenario and no long-lived waste, and there is enough fusion fuel to power the plant for hundreds of millions of years.  Altogether, shout it now!  There’s no one who can doubt it now!  So let’s tell the world about it now!  Happy days are here again!

Okay, you say, that takes care of a big hunk of the Earth-poisoning problem, but what about the evil auto, the cars and trucks which represent 23% of global energy-related CO2 emissions.  What about them, huh?  Elon Musk is doing his part with the battery-powered Tesla but the hefty majority of drivers aren’t interested in long recharging stops every 200 miles even if they’re lucky enough to find service available.

Well, back in jolly old England, researchers at the University of Surrey have made a scientific breakthrough in this area.  They have discovered new materials offering  an alternative to battery power and proven to be between 1,000 to 10,000 times more powerful than the existing battery alternative, a supercapacitor.

The new technology is believed to have the potential for electric cars to travel similar distances as petroleum-fueled vehicles and can recharge fully in the same time it takes to fill a regular car with gasoline.  Okay, that’s two biggies in a row, so let’s have a huge round of applause for the British Empire.


Let’s Eat!

About 25% of all global emissions arise from feeding the world’s 7 billion ravenous gullets and much of that, as all you tailgaters know, comes from the consumption of meat.  And there is no way to produce enough meat for that many people, let alone the ever-increasing population of the Third Planet from the Sun.  Besides, think of all the poor critters slaughtered in the process.  But Bill Gates, as usual, has a Plan.

The alternative is to start producing lab-grown meat and meat substitutes that look, taste and feel like the real thing.  Science fiction?  We think not.  Companies and investors alike are taking it all very seriously.  A company called Beyond Meat (okay, there’s room for improvement), supported by Gates, has created the world’s first meatburger which is entirely plant-based, consisting mainly of the vegetable protein found in peas.  What’s that racket?  Is that the sound of vegetarians dancing in the supermarket aisles?  And what’s next—the desecration of the Fenway Frank?

Over in Manufacturing, we’re putting another strain on the ecology.  About 30% of those nasty emissions come from Industry.  But what if we could take the CO2 emissions right out of the air.  Oooh, that’s a big one!  Well, guess what?  Those feisty Canadians, never ones to let moss grow under their parkas, have been at it again.  A Canuck startup called Carbon Engineering has been working on exactly that---taking carbon dioxide directly from the atmosphere and using it to produce fuel.  According to the company, “direct air capture can remove far more CO2 per acre of land than trees and plants.”  The company is already operating a demonstration plant in lovely Squamish, British Columbia, which is removing one ton of CO2 from the air every day.  Seems that’s what people in Canada do.  While the rest of us sit on the couch, wring our hands and wail over Donald Trump’s upcoming destruction of the universe.  Maybe we’ll put those wily Canadians on that one, too.


Smarter Cities

Google, in case you haven’t noticed, is not fooling around.  The honchos there grew weary of mere Internet search activities and online advertising and decided to have some fun.  They made a decision to start BIG, delving into the realm of life-extension with their billion-dollar Calico, an acronym for California Life Company.  Then, just in case extending lives turned out to be too easy, they ventured into the autonomous (driverless) car business via another company, Waymo.  You can’t say these guys aren’t up for a challenge.  And now they’ve got another one---city-building---and a new company to tackle it named Sidewalk Labs.  The founders describe Sidewalk Labs as an urban innovation company that will pursue technologies to cut pollution, curb energy use, streamline transportation and reduce the cost of city living.  To achieve those ends, they engaged the services of Daniel L. Doctoroff, former deputy mayor of New York City for economic development and former chief executive of Bloomberg L.P., who jointly conceived the idea for the company with Google CEO Larry Page. 

“The timing for Sidewalk Labs is right,” Doctoroff says, “because we’re on the verge of a historic moment for cities” when technologies are rapidly maturing to help address needs like the environment, health and affordable housing.  A City of the Future may soon start to take shape in Toronto, where Sidewalk Labs recently made a bid to develop a 12-acre stretch of the Canadian city’s downtown.  Bill Killeen, of Fairfield, Florida is thinking of going onboard to remind everyone that a city is nothing without its funky parts.



I Dream Of Gene-y With The Light Brown Hair 

The next few years will see explosive growth in reading and writing genomes, organs and ecosystems, if good old George Church has anything to say about it.  Dr. Church, a professor of genetics at Harvard Medical School, is the director of an outfit called and the author of a spiffy piece of business called “Regenesis: How Synthetic Biology Will Reinvent Nature and Ourselves.”  Whoa.

According to Dr. George, we’re about to move beyond mere genome edits to large-scale “writing” with huge practical consequences, including resistance to all viruses.  That’s right, all viruses.  For organs, new microscopy methods will enable molecular atlases of whole bodies during normal development from eggs to adults and pathological states like cancer.  Leveraging such body atlases will be recipes for constructing any tissue type and transplanting it successfully between species.  For ecosystems, we will see growing numbers of tests of safety and effectiveness of genetic strategies for controlling agents (mosquitoes, worms, mice) of deadly diseases like malaria, filariasis and Lyme disease.

Even though they won’t like it in Kansas, we will also see great progress in the use of genetic engineering to reverse processes that had seemed irreversible: aging and extinction.  And supercompact encoding of the DNA-storage will transform our ability to record video and interface with brains, perhaps aiding us in figuring out why the Red Sox aren’t hitting very many home runs this year.


Here We Go Again

Okay, so every column needs a little comic relief, and here to present it is Dr. Carlo Ratti, a professor at brainy MIT where he directs the Senseable City Lab.  He is also the author of “The City of Tomorrow: Sensors, Networks, Hackers and the Future of Urban Life.”  Dr. Ratti is a big believer in driverless cars.  Otherwise, he is a pretty smart guy.  This is what he has to say:

“Forget about the difficulties we saw with Uber’s fleet of self-driving vehicles in San Francisco.  This is soooo 2016!  2017 will be the year of self-driving and of the exploration of its impact on our cities.

Self-driving vehicles promise to blur the distinction between private and public modes of transportation.  ‘Your’ car could give you a lift to work in the morning and then, rather than sitting idle in a parking lot, give a lift to someone else in your family---or, for that matter, to anyone else in your neighborhood, social-media community or city.

This implies a city in which we could travel on demand with just a fraction of the number of cars in use today.  Such reductions in car numbers are just theoretical.  However, they could potentially lower the cost of our mobility infrastructure and the embodied energy associated with building and maintaining it.

Furthermore, driverless cars could have a big impact on our lifestyle and daily activities: they could be transformed into extensions of our homes.  While traveling, we might be able to do a lot of activities we used to do at home---read a book, take a nap, eat, text or make love.”

Gee, that’s sounds ambitious.  But who knows?  Maybe it’s time to call Joni Mitchell and give her the good news.  Pretty soon, somebody might be unpaving paradise and tearing down a parking lot.

That’s all, folks…. 


Thursday, August 24, 2017

The Next Big Thing


When we were kids, nobody thought much about The Next Big Thing.  Our parents had battled through the dispiriting Great Depression and a scary World War II and had flipped the switch into Settling Down Mode.  Our schedules were fixed months in advance, our expectations were modest, our plans were carefully crafted.  Nobody expected to grow up to be president.  If we were smart enough and the family could rustle up the money, a few of us might go to college, the Holy Grail of nineteen-forties achievement.  The prevailing philosophy was Slow And Steady Wins The Race.

If our days were predictable, they were not uneventful.  Every other morning the milkman delivered the daily necessities—two milks, one cream—to the metal receptacle outside the door, retrieving yesterday’s empties.  The iceman cometh later in the morning, a large block hoisted on his shoulder to refill the iceboxes of pre-refrigerator days.  It was a special occasion when Joe the Ragman would make a semi-annual appearance in his horse-drawn wagon, bellowing “Haa-deee!” at the top of his lungs to announce his presence.  We didn’t grasp the meaning of the announcement but we knew it was a signal to rush down to the cellar and bring up all the tightly bound newspaper packets our parents had been tucking away for months.  The payments were minuscule but we were nonetheless astounded that someone would pay good money for yesterday’s newspapers.

Our mothers went shopping Saturdays on South Union Street, just blocks away, and we often went with them.  There were compulsory visits to the butcher, the fish market, the bakery and the First National Store, the closest thing we had to a supermarket.  People who lived a little further away could ride in on the Belt Line buses, which stopped in front of the First National.  If a kid was lucky, he might be allowed a ten-cent comic book from Phil’s on the northwest corner of Andover Street.  Sometimes, our mother would stop at the new Nash dealership and look at the shiny new cars through the window.  Automobiles, of course, were barely necessary extravagances.  My grandmother owned a sturdy old Chevrolet, but it spent most of its life parked in the driveway.  Automobiles were reserved for the requisite summer trips to visit relatives since my grandmother’s quotient for fun was markedly low.  A Salisbury Beach visit or a trip to the nearby Canobie Lake amusement park was a Hallelujah Day.

The boys were happy to have a bat, a ball and a glove.  There were no organized leagues, we just played pickup ball with whoever was available at the B&M railroad field down at the end of Boxford Street.  The treat of the day was a post-game soft drink from Leo Gervais’ ice-filled tonic box.  I’m sure Leo’s store contained products other than soda and candy but I honestly can’t tell you what they might have been.

In the early evening, after dinner, the ice-cream man would come tinkling down the street, greeted by swarms of rabid admirers, nickels in hand.  The most popular offerings were popsicles, fudgsicles and creamsicles, in that order.  You could also buy a Hoodsie (named for the dairy which created them), a small container of ice cream, almost always an uninspiring vanilla.  It was, surprisingly, the unlikely ice-cream man who delivered the first Next Big Thing in the experience of most of the kids.  One day, he showed up with a bi-flavored popsicle, orange on one stick, raspberry on the other.  My best friend, Jackie Mercier, stood there astounded.  “This is like….IMPOSSIBLE!” he exulted, almost swooning.  Jackie’s favorite things in life were Tarzan movies, which celebrated austerity.  When the local fire brigade (his hoped-for future calling) obtained a more flexible hose material, he almost fell over in disbelief.  You’d think someone had up and invented the Time Machine.  Jackie practically went into a stupor when the ice-cream man told him his suppliers were on the verge of an even greater advance---popsicles with different flavored tops and bottoms.  “It’s like…like…a MIRACLE!” he finally sputtered, trying to contemplate the enormity of it all.  He moved away before the arrival of later concepts in ice-cream, like soft-serve with sprinkles, so all the old neighborhood kids are hoping that wherever he wound up, Jackie was not reduced to long-term catatonia by The Next Big Thing.


Radio Days

Growing up, the radio was our minor god.  We listened to it for Red Sox games, for the latest news, for no-school reports.  We gathered ‘round the big box to hear of the latest heroics of The Lone Ranger, The Green Hornet or Jack Armstrong, All-American Boy.  On Sunday nights, we listened with our parents to Jack Benny, and maybe Phil Harris.  Nobody ever got more mileage from being a tightwad than Jack Benny, who invented perfect comic timing.  Phil Harris, a rare wise-guy nonconformist and Confederate sympathizer, sang zippy songs like Smoke That Cigarette! and That’s What I Like About The South, while frustrating his glamorous wife, Alice Faye with his zany notions.  In the afternoons when Red Sox games were rained out, local announcers read telegraphic accounts of out-of-town games (you could hear the machines in the background) often broadcasting as if they were present.  Many times, the games were long over by the time the information was passed on, but nobody seemed to mind.

We heard rumors, of course, of a new thing called “television,” a viewing box where live pictures would accompany the audio broadcast.  This seemed laughably impossible and not just to Jackie Mercier.  Everyone had seen movie theater newsreels, but those always contained accounts of previous action.  Now, they were telling us a picture of current activities could be transmitted live to our homes.  If this turned out to be The Next Big Thing it would obviously be monstrously expensive, unaffordable to the masses.  When the phenomenon finally arrived, just a home or two on the average block had the wherewithal to partake.  You could discern the neighborhood elite by the clumsy antennas on their roofs and they instantly became the most popular of neighbors.  By the time televisions had seeped into every home in the country, people were talking about the possibility of “living color.”  Color TV?  You’ve got to be kidding.  It was an incredible fantasy, almost too much to believe.  The Next Big Thing always is.

Children Watching TV in the Past (23)

Breaking The Color Barrier

One afternoon, Jim St. Hilaire and I were sitting on his porch on Winthrop Avenue, a major thoroughfare through South Lawrence, and we began to take note of a recent phenomenon: a sprinkling of the cars passing by were not black.  Since our earliest recollection of automobiles, all of them were decidedly black, owing to Henry Ford’s discovery that black paint was cheapest and it was easier to daub all cars the same color.  Jim and I decided to count the passing vehicles, black vs. non-black.  Black won by about 10-1, but the tide was slowly turning.  In the fifties, automobiles burst forth in a riot of colors, two- and three-tone cars included, and in all shapes and sizes.  The celebrated extended fins on many Cadillacs could skewer a careless man with the crisp efficiency of a knight’s lance.  The decade became the high point in auto pizzaz, nifty coloration, dramatic design, during which even the average Joe could identify most brands and models.  Cars with convertible tops appeared, followed by glass T-Tops in later decades.  The Next Big Thing in automobiles, perhaps flying cars, was just around the corner.  Then, sadly, everything went into reverse.  It was as if God had thrust the auto industry out of a rollicking Eden and into the depths of a colorless Hell.  The jazzy aerodynamic designs disappeared and boxy, unexciting vehicles, all apparently sired by the same father and born to the same mother, began to appear.  Instead of a full spectrum of colors, most cars arrived in a shade that could be found somewhere on the grayscale  chart.  This dulling down of the automobile was a colossal downer, a reversal of form.  Where have all the flowers gone, long time passing?  What happened to the flying cars?  Would there ever be a Next Big Thing?

Maybe.  Whiz-kid Elon Musk eventually showed up with his Tesla, an electric car which eschews gasoline, motivating solely on battery power.  The batteries are recharged every two hundred miles or so at roadside charging stations, a span which should elongate as technologies improve.  The Next Really Big Thing, however, is the driverless car, a vehicle which picks its own way through the underbrush without the guidance of a pilot, sniffing out hidden driveways, impulsive granny-drivers and preoccupied road buzzards along the way.  Google and others are spending billions on the prospect, but even the most optimistic citizens have visions of hundred-car interstate pileups.  It’s such a preposterous notion, we’re not even telling Jackie Mercier about it.  But then again, who had the audacity to foresee those bi-colored popsicles?


Hymie, Toss Me A Kidney, Please

When we were kids, people didn’t hang around as long.  In 1945, the average age of death for men was 63.6 years, just about my father’s lifespan.  People had ugly diseases then, like polio and tuberculosis and yaws.  Nearly everyone smoked cigarettes and adhered to a yummy meat and potatoes diet.  If you cut your finger off in a thresher, too bad, you were Nine-Digit Charlie for life.  Nobody got hip or knee replacement surgery.  If your heart gave out, they zipped you up in plastic and tossed you on the woodpile.   If you were foolish enough to get cancer, the doctor gave your wife an advisory note which read “Wad tightly and heave.”  The song “Here Comes the Dead Man With A Lily In His Hand” made the Top Ten.  Just in the nick of time for us, someone came up with The Next Big Thing. 

People used to carelessly advise others to keep their noses to the grindstone.  But what if a person were overly diligent and got too close?  These days, it would be no problem---just pop that sucker into a candy wrapper and rush to your local clinic.  If the honker is no longer viable, no worries, we’ll find you a new one.  In addition to the world’s fastest-growing cottage industry, organ farms, there are now booming outlets like Regeneration Technologies in Alachua which will sell you bones and tissue, maybe even an occasional eyeball or undeviated septum.  Pretty soon, everyone will be 100% replaceable, barring ugly bus accidents and sword-swallowing mishaps.  The key is to make sure you live within an hour of a progressive hospital.  Oh, and it always pays to check the quality of the surgeons.  Hardly anybody wants a backwards thumb or an upside-down ear.  And whatever you do, don’t let them take away your Medicare.  Practically nobody can pay cash for those critical testicle transplants.

Ah, progress!  One day The Next Big Thing is a spiffy new popsicle, the next it’s a pancreas-enhancing vial of newly-minted Islets of Langerhans.  And right now, scientists are plugging away at the fixit shop, looking for ways to improve the children of the future.  A little gene tweak here, a tiny adjustment there and voila!—you’ve got a left-handed pitcher who can go eight innings maintaining a 2.21 ERA, or a brilliant defensive catcher capable of a lifetime .280 batting average.  Hey, it’s not only possible, it’s The Next Big Thing.  Jackie Mercier, bless his soul, would be proud.


That’s all, folks…. 

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Trail’s End


Bill & Siobhan are finally wrapping up a two-week escapade which has reached from northernmost Washington to the Pacific Ocean to within 25 miles of the California state line.  There have been chills and spills, rainforests and ape caves and challenging mountain trails, teeming with hungry Sasquatches lying in wait.  Today, we present The Final Installment, a descent into Klamath County and a final return to Portland.  We hope you have enjoyed these tales of derring-do and derring don’t, that our experiences will encourage you to take a walk on the wild side, or even the mild side.  And hurry up.  Here comes the sun.

There being no room at the inn called the Crater Lake Lodge, just as well considering the serious Sasquatch problem, we motored on south to Klamath Falls, an hour in the distance.  We had a room reserved just northwest of town at the Running Y Ranch, an unlikely diamond in the rough of Klamath County, which offered the usual resort amenities including an indoor pool, well-equipped spa, and 18-hole golf course, not to mention its very own deer herd, members of which kept popping up in unlikely spots looking for photo opportunities.

The city of Klamath Falls, originally called Linkville on whose falls the town was sited, came into being in 1867.  To judge from a single pass through the downtown, it hasn’t changed much since.  There are several blocks of occupied buildings but a minimum of activity.  Let’s just say you won’t have any trouble finding a parking space.  Our hearts leapt when we drove by a small building with a Lakeside Opry House sign but, alas, it’s been closed for years.  Most of the action was back at the Running Y, to which we repaired for dinner at the venerable Ruddy Duck Restaurant.  The food was good, the drinks were better and the service was exemplary.  And then there was the bartender.

The restaurant was divided into outside and inside seating areas with the tables in the latter having a clear view of the attractive bar and the televisions therein.  It was easy to converse, imbibe and keep one eye on the Red Sox-Yankees game, which was reaching a wild conclusion.  Boston, behind all day, had mounted a furious rally in the ninth inning and was on the verge of taking over the battle.  Suddenly, the lights went out in Georgia.  Next thing we knew, the Giants-Dodgers matchup was on the screen, not an acceptable happenstance for visiting Red Sox fans who have been drinking.  I reached the bar in one second.  “Somebody here has made an unpardonable error,” I lamented.  “No right-thinking person would ever shut off a Red Sox-Yankees game in the ninth inning, even in Oregon.  Have you no manners, sir?  Don’t they teach you these things in Bartender School?”  Needless to say, this travesty was corrected forthwith.  Boston went on to win the game, I returned to my dinner and things settled down.  The bartender and his aides nonetheless continued to look at the crazy man for further instructions.  “It’s alright, men, carry on,” I waved from my table, reassuringly.  Our waiter rushed over to explain.  “The culprit was some customer from San Francisco,” he explained.  “Obviously, he didn’t know the rules.”





(1)  The Klamath Falls Dam.  (2, 3) The hustling Link River.  (4) Philosopher lives in the moment.


City of Klamath Falls in the distance.


A business break back at the ranch.

Moore Park And Beyond

Upper Klamath Lake, which borders Klamath Falls, is a large (96 sq. mi.) shallow freshwater lake east of the Cascade Range in south-central Oregon.  At the south end of the lake on picturesque Lakeshore Drive lies Moore Park, the recreational gem of the area, with expansive grass meadows for baseball and soccer, an attractive picnic area and connections to an extensive trail system.  Bicycles and leashed dogs are allowed everywhere and take full advantage of the largesse.

The trails have various degrees of difficulty, but none of them are extreme.  Siobhan and I spent about 2 1/2 hours in the park, retreated for lunch, then moved on to a trail along the Link River which led to the original Klamath waterfalls.  The falls are now interrupted by an elaborate dam, which controlls the flow of the river, especially during the Spring snowmelt days, which can get hairy.  Local fellow-hikers told us that it was unusual for more than five of the dam’s gates to be opened to accomodate the flow but that earlier this year all fifteen of them were wide open.  Even in mid-July, the Link was rolling at a decent clip, providing a nice soundtrack for nearby hikers.  The trail was flat and easy to negotiate.  The townies were outgoing, gracious and eager to be of service.  A good time was had by all.    

Later, while Siobhan took a couple of hours at the Running Y to handle work-related issues at home, I drove back into Klamath Falls, meandering through its side streets, traversing the quiet neighborhoods, investigating its private marina, attempting to pry the lid back a little, looking for the city’s soul.  Places like this do not give up their secrets easily, however, it often takes a diligent searcher weeks, sometimes months to peek behind the curtain.  The casual observer writes, and having writ, moves on; the sly detective lingers, questions, follows a crowd, detects an aroma, senses a vibe.  Maybe he’ll be invited to dinner when Mabel Witherspoon parades out her incomparable raspberry pie, the best in 48 counties.  Maybe he’ll be there when a tomboy goddess named Ruby shifts around in her big padded chair, puts her legs up on a crusty ottoman and begins to churn out a vintage version of “Cocaine” in a perfect, gravelly voice.  There’s some magic in almost every encampment.  If you’re resolute, there’s always a clue to follow at Lefty’s Rightwing Bar or the Hole-in-One donut shop.  Our mission, if we choose to accept it, is to get out the shovel and unearth the buried treasure.  It probably goes without saying, of course, that none of this applies to locations in Oklahoma and Kansas.






Ah, for the life in the boonies….

How’d We Get To Sopchoppy?

On the last night of our Klamath stay, we ventured 33 miles west, seduced by the promise of music and barbecue.  Those 33 miles seemed like a hundred, but finally, in the middle of nowhere, near the crest of the Cascade ridge in the Fremont-Winema National Forest, there it was---the Lake of the Woods Resort, a redneck campground whose inhabitants were chug-a-luggin’ BBQ and stompin’ to the music.  The band was a rough-edged, heavily tattooed quartet led by a female singer you wouldn’t want to meet in a dark alley.  The tunes were about what you’d expect and there was no shortage of American flags flapping in the breeze.  $5 got you in, assuming you could find a parking space.  We avoided the all-you-can-eat barbecue line, went inside and got fresh trout.  The lakeside setting was gorgeous, sparkling and woodsy.  The resort has a batch of rentable cabins, all occupied, with special events on weekends.  It was almost like being home in Williston, but without the water tower.  Despite the company, no shots were fired.








(1) Voo Doo Donuts, where The Magic is in The Hole.  (2) Hempmania.  (3) The weekend Artisans’ Market.  (5) Food cart central.  (6) The MAX arrives.  (6) Dinner at Little Bird.  (7) The sexy Portland airport.

On The Road Again

It’s a long and winding road, a hot and heavy load through the Cascades and back to Portland.  The temperatures rise about 10 degrees on the western side of the hills but Siobhan’s recedes with the demise of the steep and curvy mountain roads.  We stopped in lovely Eugene, home of the Oregon Ducks, for lunch at a Whole Foods store near campus.  Once again, we encountered The Oregon Presence, vast numbers of young derelicts drawn to overly permissive Beaver State locales (though not Klamath) by shortsighted city governments which make living on the streets easy.  I had to round up a security guard to gain access to the bathrooms, all locked.  “The street people camp out in there sometimes, even lock the doors.  They intimidate people who come in, demand money, scare customers half to death,” averred the guard.  “They fight with each other, bust up the bathrooms, it’s awful.  We have to lock up.”

None of this is slowing down progress any in Eugene, where business is booming and there aren’t enough houses to go around.  This college town, like Bend, is rife with California expats looking for a hip but cheaper place to live, preferably with educational opportunities.  Nonetheless, the numbers of “homeless” increase daily and the government coffers are straining.  In Camelot, that’s how conditions are.







So many roses, so few Baby Ruths


What’s with Portland, anyway?  People, particularly millenials, are moving there in droves even though it rains all the time, the winters are chilly, there’s no major league baseball and the city is the derelict capital of the world.  Worse even, they have Wesen (pronounced Ve-sen) there, monsters like Hexenbiests, Blutbaden and Fuchsbaus, who can change back from docile humans at the drop of a pin.  Not a good town for road rage.

On the other hand, Portland is young and optimistic, a big city with a small town vibe, a town that welcomes the offbeat. “Keep Portland Weird” is the motto, blatantly stolen from Austin, but with the best of intentions.  If a second wave of hippies arose, they would forsake San Francisco for Portland, a city full of well-tolerated oddballs.  The town is famous for its laissez-faire attitude towards residents’ curious predilections, which rings the dinner bell for artists, dopers and merchants of curious products.

It’s easy to get around in Portland.  The buses are plentiful and always on time, the MAX rail trains seem to travel every third street, possess voluminous seating capacities and extend all the way to the attractive, airy, award-winning international airport.  Siobhan and I used them extensively and the price was right, a measly $2.50 senior citizen charge for a day ticket.  Not that anyone is paying attention.  “Who do we show these tickets to?” asked Siobhan.  The answer to that would be nobody, it’s sort of an honor-system enterprise.  Fine for impoverished folks in search of a soup kitchen or a day job, but fine also for the hordes of bums who enjoy a free jaunt from place to place.  Two of them got into a screaming fracas at the back of one of our cars before the dust settled.  Security was eventually notified and a pair of uniformed bouncers entered a couple of stops down the tracks, which is fine if one miscreant doesn’t have the bad manners to disembowel another in the meantime.  “Que sera, sera,” say the city officials.  Concerned residents, however, are asking Commissioner Gordon to turn off the Bumsignal.

They like beverages in Portland.  There are 1,080 coffee shops and 132 microbreweries there, the most in the country for the latter.  They like food carts, too, pungent kitchens of every description churning out everything from short rib burritos to Hawiian-style fish tacos.  The Pastrami Zombie is there and so is Deepak Saxena with his half-pound chicken drumsticks, brined, steamed in tea, deep-fried and slicked with a glaze made from coconut sugar and chai spices.  If you’re a traditionalist who enjoys the relative safety and comfort of restaurants, there are plenty of those as well.  Long-time Portlander and Flying Pie disciple Leslie Logan turned us on to an excellent French place named Little Bird, downtown.  We were there when they opened at 5 p.m. on a Sunday; half an hour later, the place was packed.  Where else but Portland will a French chef give a pushy broad like Siobhan his closely guarded recipe for squash soup?

And then there’s the great outdoors---mountains, beaches, vineyards, rivers and hiking trails, all nearby.  The Interstate 84 waterfall corridor described in an earlier column is just a short drive east.  Downtown Portland is readily walkable and worthy of visiting just for the iconic Powell’s Bookstore, comparable to New York’s Strand, but much more organized.  Computerized to the gills, their staff tracked down and delivered within three minutes several books Siobhan had been looking for since the dawn of time.  You’re liable to find anything here.  The buyback line is constantly busy purchasing and returning out-of-print titles to the shelves, treasures impossible to unearth otherwise.  And if you’re not much of a reader, they sell funny socks.

I Never Promised You A Rose Garden.  But Here You Are….

High on a hill in Washington Park on the outskirts of town, together with the Oregon  Zoo, Japanese Gardens, an arboretum and the Portland Children’s Museum, is the sprawling International Rose Test Garden with over 7000 rose plants of over 550 varieties.  The flowers are in bloom from April through October with the peak season in June, drawing hundreds of thousands of visitors annually.

Conceived by Jesse Currey in 1915, the gardens began as a safe haven for hybrid roses grown in Europe during World War I.  Roses started arriving in 1918, and a garden and amphitheater were dedicated in 1924.  Surprisingly, admission is free, which is good because you won’t be taking any women to Portland without going there.  On the other hand, the nearby Japanese Garden, a traditional layout covering more than nine acres, will cost you an entry fee of $5.  And unlike the MAX, those wily Japanese have ticket-takers posted at the entrance.

Portland is poppin’, one of the fastest-growing cities in America.  At the end of last year, there were 60 buildings at least 100 feet tall in the pipeline for the central city, which could use a more substantial downtown.  There are also 14,000-plus apartments which have sprouted since 2012 across every neighborhood.  1700 new hotel rooms are expected by the end of this year.  The regional government reports that 20,000 more people than predicted moved to Portland and its suburbs in 2015, and you know what kind of optimists they are.  Just about every Portlander will tell you the city has gotten noticeably bigger and busier in recent years, confirmed by the city’s per capita domestic product growth of 48% between 2001 and 2014.  By comparison, Seattle’s is 18% and San Francisco’s is 16%.

A significant factor in the growth of Portland is The Great California Emigration, an ongoing phenomenon which finds Golden Staters running north for relief from onerous housing costs and overcrowding.  Every other person you meet in Oregon once lived in California and is busily at work converting the place into Cali-North.   Or California with a twist, if you like.  The techies are coming and the future is bright.  Even the derelicts are moving up in class.  In New York, they might ask you for a buck for a cup of coffee.  In Portland, they demand $13.76 for a Starbuck’s 13-shot venti soy hazelnut vanilla cinnamon white mocha with extra caramel.


Homeward Bound

We left our spiffy digs at the airport Embassy Suites for an early morning flight to Orlando, via Charlotte.  Though we had not a drop of rain on the entire trip--even in the rainforest—we were greeted with a ramp-closing deluge in North Carolina.  Scheduled to arrive in Florida at midnight, we finally arrived at two a.m. and made it home by four.  But we’re not complaining.  The trip went off without a hitch.  We paraded through the lavender fields of Sequim and walked the streets of Seattle.  We basked in the glow of the Hoh Rainforest, inspected the maw of Mount St. Helens and found our way out of the Ape Caves.  We drove to the bottom of Mount Hood and looked over the top of Crater Lake.  We partied with rednecks at the lovely Lake of the Woods and smelled the roses in Portland.  Thanks goes to the aforementioned Leslie Logan for advisories on her city and to the erstwhile Deb Peterson for sending reams of Oregon paraphernalia.  Sorry we missed the Oregon coast, Deb, but maybe next time.

Thanks to the Pathogenes personnel—Julie, Laura, Debby and Chris—for keeping the home fires burning, to Stuart and Mary Ellison for exemplary house and pet care, to the ever-reliable Sharon for horse-feeding duties.  We’ll be off again to Lake Tahoe in October for a five day verterinary meeting, so tune in then for more exciting adventures.  Until then, it’s The Captain and Tennille signing off for a brief respite.  Tennille, bring me a margarita.

That’s all, folks….

Thursday, August 10, 2017

The Oregon Trail


Roll On, Columbia

Green Douglas firs where the waters cut through

Down her wild mountains and canyons she flew

Canadian Northwest to the oceans so blue

Roll on Columbia, roll on.---Woody Guthrie

Folk singers are often the bane of the federal government, but in 1941 Woody Guthrie spent one month working for it.  The feds, in the process of constructing huge hydroelectric dams on the Columbia River in the Pacific Northwest, faced powerful opposition from private utilities and decided they needed a little PR help.  Woody Guthrie responded to the Batsignal and showed up at the Bonneville Power Administration one day to visit government rep Dr. Paul Raver.  His driver-to-be and guide for the month was a fellow named Elmer Buehler, who would be 106 years old today if he was still erect.  For all we know, he still is.  I noted an angler who looked suspiciously like Elmer on the south riverbank near Bridalveil Falls.  He doffed his fedora as we passed.

“Woody sat there on the administrator’s desk,” Elmer recalled, “and strummed his gee-tar.  I don’t think he was there over half an hour when Dr. Raver said, ‘Well, you’re hired.’”  Woody got paid $266.66 for his trouble, which goes to show you musicians have been getting the short end of the stick for almost 75 years and you can’t always blame bad management.  When the month was over, Guthrie had penned 26 songs, including Roll On Columbia, Grand Coulee Dam and Pastures of Plenty, recording some of them in the basement of the agency’s headquarters.  Roll on Columbia was written after Woody had seen the Bonneville Dam, 40 miles east of Portland.  Seventy years later, white water still rushes through the hydroelectric generators in the dam, creating enough power for entire towns.  Who says the government never does anything right?

There may not be a single person over fifty in this country who has not heard this song at least once.  Bob Dylan recorded it, as did Joan Baez, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott and even Country Joe McDonald.  I heard Janis Joplin sing it several times in Austin, Texas in 1962 and I listened to Woody’s son, Arlo, deliver it in White Springs, Florida decades later, but until July of this year I had never caught sight of the mighty roller.  Now, I have.  It was well worth the wait.


The Columbia River Gorge at Crown Point





Vista House at Crown Point.  Primo location for viewing The Gorge.

The Interstate 84 Bonanza

Now, Washington state is extremely proprietary about the Columbia River, even knighting Woody’s ditty as the official state folk song.  The Emerald City Supporters, a fan group of the Seattle Sounders soccer team sings the chorus of Roll on Columbia at the 12th minute of each home match.  But the truth of the matter is, the Columbia separates the abutting states of Washington and Oregon, giving the lower state equal claim to the river.  And the treasure trove of tourist sites along Interstate 84 in Oregon, beginning with the Columbia River Gorge and extending eastward, more than matches anything on the north side, with stops often located only minutes apart.

To quote The Bard, they’ve got a lov-a-ly bunch of waterfalls.  See them all a-standing in a row.  Big ones, small ones, some as big as your ‘ed.  But none of them as magnificent as astounding Multnomah Falls, the tallest waterfall in Oregon and most visited natural recreation site in the Pacific Northwest.  It’s a corker, and only a short hop from the main road.  Fed by underground springs from Larch Mountain, the flow over the falls varies but is usually highest during Winter and Spring.  It’s nothing to sneeze at in Summer, either.

The more adventuresome visitors can follow a steep trail from the information center to Benson Bridge, which spans the upper and lower falls and offers spectacular photo opportunities if you can fight your way through the mobs of cell phone amateurs (like us).  From there, Larch Mountain Trail climbs a series of switchbacks, rising 600 feet to the top of Multnomah Falls.  The hike from the lodge to the upper overlook is 1.2 miles of serious climbing, so bring water and a shot of adrenaline.  If you’re still in a good mood, you can continue up Larch Mountain, the highest peak within the Scenic Area boundaries.  If you wish to retreat from the madding crowd, there are smaller (and less crowded) waterfalls scattered all around the Multnomah area.  An advisory: if you fall into the water, make sure you’re wearing your parachute.




Views from below and the bridge: Awe-inspiring Multnomah Falls.

Mount Hood Reverie

Heading east from Multnomah, you will soon reach the county seat and largest city in beautiful Wasco County.  It’s called The Dalles, so named by olden fur trappers who used the French word for gutter to describe a narrow passageway confined between the walls of a canyon.  At The Dalles, we turned south to follow Route 197 toward Bend, our stopping place for the night.  The highway runs right by and very close to the awesome Mount Hood, visible for miles around.  The mountain’s perpetually snowy peak is crowned by eleven glaciers, one for every thousand feet it rises above sea level.  We pulled into one of the six semi-closed ski areas at the base to get a better look.  Up close or far away, Mount Hood looks more like a painting than a real, live mountain.  Is it really there or is it just a massive fabrication, a trick played on trusting eyes?  We walked as close as we could get without stirring the consternation of an uncomfortable work crew which thought we might somehow damage their mountain.  The photos we got reinforce the notion that some clever artist threw up a gigantic canvas and created the whole thing.  Next year’s skiers, alas, will be irritated to discover they are merely participating in someone else’s fantasy.


It looks like a painting, doesn’t it, this Mount Hood?  Or maybe an artistic postcard photoshopped in a lab.  You approach and you wonder if it’s really there, this lovely monster, this apparition, this treat for the eyes.

Mood Indigo

“You ain’t seen blue…no…no…no.

You ain’t seen blue ‘til you’ve seen that mood indigo.”

With apologies to Duke Ellington, we demur.  You ain’t seen blue ‘til you’ve seen Oregon’s Crater Lake.  At least those of you heretofore deprived of cataract surgery and inexperienced in the unequalled skies of Dilation Blue.  I had heard about these sapphirine waters all my life and approached the overlook with great anticipation.  Then, disappointment.  Why, these waters looked positively….well….navy blue.  “Try it without your sunglasses,” said Siobhan, ever the sly one.  Ooooh, much  better!

Crater Lake National Park is in the Cascade Mountains of southern Oregon, its centerpiece gem formed by the collapsed volcano, Mount Mazama.  The dot in the water is Wizard island, a cinder cone near the western edge of the lake.  A violent eruption 7700 years ago triggered the demise of Mazama and the birth of its royal blue offspring.  At 1949 feet, Crater Lake is the deepest lake in the United States and the most pristine on Earth.  There are no rivers flowing into or out of the lake.  Evaporation is compensated for by rain and snowfall at such a rate that the total amount of water is completely replaced every 250 years.  The lake is 5 by 6 miles across, with a caldera rim ranging in elevation from 7000 to 8000 feet.

Crater Lake is a long way from anywhere.  You won’t run into the place on your way to the market.  And being in the middle of nowhere always contributes to hairy fodder about such icons.  Tales of strange disappearances abide, rumors of ghostly encounters proliferate, legendary beasts are said to traverse the area.  Bigfoot, himself, drops in from time to time, and if you don’t believe us, ask the crew of park rangers who reported following a dark, putrid-smelling creature through the woods until the thing started throwing pine cones at them (and no, there are no biker bars in the area).

UFOs are no strangers to the terrain, either.  In February of 1997, a jet pilot reported military aircraft pursuing discs above the lake.  Later that night, a loud sonic boom was heard all across western Oregon.  Strange lights make periodic appearances in the area.  The Klamath Indians fear and respect the lake but feel that gazing for long on its splendid blue surface brings death or lasting sorrow.  The Modoc tribe, which lived on its borders for millenia and knew the mountain before the eruption, retain a strict taboo against the place.  It is evil, they say, the home of dark spirits.  People disappear there….an abnormal number have just vanished in and around the lake.  In October of 1991, searchers spent three weeks slogging through four feet of snow looking for Glenn Mackie, 33, of Brea, California after discovering his abandoned car in a parking lot.  His driver’s license, keys, passport were still in the vehicle but no trace of Mackie was ever found. 

In March of 1971, Nick Carlino of Grant’s Pass, Oregon disappeared while snowshoeing along the rim just west of Rim village.  When Nick’s German Shepherd returned to the cafeteria building alone, Nick’s wife quickly put together a search, eventually tracing Carlino’s snowshoe tracks to the crater’s edge, where they promptly disappeared.  If he’s down there someplace, Nick has plenty of company.  From 1926 to 1997, at least thirteen people, many of them photographers, have fallen to their deaths from the steep slopes of the crater.  Could be Crater Lake is camera-shy.  Could be the Sasquatch got ‘em.  My trusty partner Siobhan, the scientist, listened to all these tales with great interest.  “Bill,” she said, smiling, “Let’s go hiking in Klamath Falls instead.”


lake 5

lake 2

lake 1

lake 3

Got the Blues?  Crater Lake has you beat.

Around The Bend 

Why Bend?  The name was derived from “Farewell Bend,” the designation used by early pioneers to refer to the location along the Deschetes river were the town was eventually platted, one of the few fordable points along the river.  Not so long ago, Bend was almost out of business, bent, stapled and mutilated, the victim of a crashed timber industry, the only industry Bend had.  Population fell to 20,000, but Bend still had a few things going for it.  It was a beautiful place of rolling hills and mountain vistas with sunny days and crisp nights, the kind of place people visited because they felt good there.

Now the place is buzzing, filled with expat Californians, population nudging 80,000, calling itself the most entrepreneurial city in America.  Scot Bayless of the Irvine, Calfornia-based gaming company Fireforge tells visitors “You can smell it in the air.  The diversity of people bringing businesses here is astounding.  A community of big brains, here because they want to be.” 

Bend is cool now, reminding some of old-time Austin or maybe long-ago Boulder, but without the current-day traffic snarls of each.  There is money in Bend, plenty of it, as evidenced by the well-dressed clientele of the town’s restaurant row and the variety of unique retail shops in the downtown area.  We ate in a charming restaurant called The Brickhouse, staffed by bright, intelligent personnel, filled with a spiffy middle-aged clientele with no shortage of bling on their persons.  But danger lurks in Bend, as elsewhere in the Big O.  The streets outside were bustling and cheery but also riddled with The Oregon Presence, a considerable number of scroungy derelicts, all under 35, testing the limits of Beaver State permissiveness with their intrusive lifestyles, kept at bay for the present by a visible contingent of police and security personnel.  The locals didn’t seem to mind but tourists gave them a wide berth.  It will be interesting to see which way the chips fall in Bend and elsewhere in lovely Oregon, as the downtrodden numbers skyrocket in this effervescent would-be Paradise.

That’s all, folks….