Thursday, May 27, 2010

Yellowstone In Pictures

Music: "Scenic World," by Beirut

The Latest From Haiti...via Wyoming

(Note: This is a couple of days old and contains literary nonfiction. That is, the quotes aren't exact but rather an attempt to capture the gist of the conversation.)

The Latest from Haiti, via Wyoming

So, we are spending the evening in Cody, Wyoming at the home of Couchsurfing member Blacktent, otherwise known as Pat. At present, Heidi and I are holed up inside her fifth-wheel travel trailer, which she has set up in her driveway for people of our ilk. She was gracious enough to host us on less than 24 hours notice and, after arriving around 7pm, providing us with some very interesting conversation…some of which I will share with you now.

Pat is in her late fifties and, although her hair is slightly frazzled (as a result of smoking), is an attractive woman with a slender face. (I have little doubt that she had to fend off gaggles of suitors in her earlier days.) She was a traveling nurse who spent more than two decades of her life roaming the world (for leisure), while bouncing from gig to gig in order to support her wanderlust. A little more than ten years ago a contract brought her to this tourism-based town, where she also found love. Sadly, her husband succumbed to colon cancer last summer, leaving the former gypsy of few possessions with a house, barn, four horses and a couple of pickup trucks.

Today Pat is another statistic amongst the ranks of the unemployed, having not worked for a year. She spends her days entertaining weary and wayward Couchsurfers who, no doubt, provide her with some much-needed companionship following the untimely, although not unexpected, death of her husband.

After welcoming us into her home and offering the obligatory drinks, she returns to her roost on the couch, an eclectic mix of music (ranging from Loreena McKennitt to Kenny Rogers) playing quietly in the background. After some polite conversation she begins to feel more at ease with our presence and heads over to the wood-burning stove, where she sits upon a stool and grabs an American Spirit cigarette from the pack on the floor. She cracks the door of the stove ever so slightly, allowing the orange glow to emanate as the fire crackles more audibly.

Pat recently offered to volunteer in Haiti, where she spent two weeks administering aid in camps. Her primary camp had 1,800 residents but the work was slow. “Most of my job was little more than putting on band-aids or changing dressing for those who were seriously injured in the quake. A few amputees were being fitted for prosthetics too.” She goes on to recall that the sounds of the camp were not those of sadness and despair, but children laughing and basketballs bouncing on the hard-packed earth. “You know, they're island people and they just kind of go with the flow.”

As she exhales another drag she recalls the variety and sheer volume of non-Haitians in the country. There are your “do-gooders” (as she called them), the journalists (or those representing themselves as such), and “the Palm Beach types,” with designer suits and fancy wristwatches, eyeing that piece of damaged oceanfront property as a site of a possible five-star resort to be had for a song.

As we continued talking I recalled my time as a journalist, loathing how the slant of some stories was chosen even before the reporter walked out the door, in order to get the true pulse of the people. “There was this one guy shooting a documentary,” she began. “He was kind of a Michael Moore look-alike: middle-aged, not quite as fat, but with that droopy dog-faced look. He was filming a documentary and his focus was the misery of the Haitian people.” This “documentarian” would go into the absolute worst slums of Port-au-Prince in order to find what suited his angle, even if it was in direct contrast to what the majority of the Haitian people were experiencing.

“We were doing really good things at our camp,” she continued, and so they invited this man and his all-female crew over to illustrate what’s going right on the island nation. “Well, he looked around for a minute and didn’t like it, so he left…completely ignoring this side of the story.” Meanwhile, the only misery Pat saw was in the eyes of this man’s crew, sick of being ogled and hit-on by their creepy and lonely employer.

Pat said there were three types of NGO (non-governmental organization) workers present in Haiti. First, were those who enjoyed the nomadic lifestyle, managed to get funding for it and, perhaps, did some good along the way. Next are the overly altruistic and idealistic types, who believe small deeds can change the world. And, lastly, are those like her: just bored and looking for a way to lend a helping hand. Perhaps this is an overly-simplistic categorization of the types of people who offer their services to those in need, but it does cover a majority of them. (I would venture to throw a fourth category in there, which includes the people who are sent by a higher order, believing the only real help they can provide is to convert the heathens.)

“The fact is things aren’t so bad there. At the end of the day there was plenty of beer, and it was cold and cheap, so things had to be pretty good.” Once again, she explained that these were island people…but not just any island people: they were Haitians. For decades, and perhaps centuries, the majority of the nation’s inhabitants had been subjected to, what you and I would consider, destitute living conditions, corrupt governments and sub-standard healthcare. Now, at least, the countryside was teeming with do-gooders taking part in the trendiest of relief efforts, offering bottled water, socks and medicine.

If only someone would start working on a plan to dispose of the plastic bottles, shipped in by the plane load, piling up in the streets amongst the other mounds of trash.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

California...and Beyond

It’s been nearly three weeks since I posted one of these things and, needless to say, I have a lot of catching up to do. In that time we have been in Cali most of the time, although we recently cruised through Oregon and are now in Washington. Unfortunately, I haven’t been doing any writing about our journey over the past few weeks, so I will certainly omit some funny or quirky details about the adventure. As for Heidi and I, we continue to persevere. I would be lying if I said it’s all been smooth sailing along the way, but we are still together and our love gets stronger every day. And, we have avoided any sort of domestic violence…and that’s saying something given that we have spent almost the entire past six weeks at each others' side.

Upon crossing into California we came across these giant Imperial Sand Dunes. Only a fraction of them were visible from the highway and I am told they are quite spectacular and reminiscent of a place like Saudi Arabia more so than Cali. We stopped at a rest stop near the dunes for a photo and some lunch. While we were chewing down on our staple of the trip (PB&J) I noticed that a discreetly marked bus at our location was full of prisoners and armed guards escorting them, one by one, to the facilities. It was a bit like a scene from a Nicholas Cage flick, as the prisoners were shackled at the wrists and ankles, and the guards donned Kevlar vests, guns and walkie-talkies.

Along the route from Phoenix to San Diego we encountered a handful of Border Patrol checkpoints. Heidi pointed out that I was quite nervous as we approached each one, although we were always waved through without a question, let alone a second look. (My nervousness stems from a general lack of trust from those in uniform with guns…and a couple of minor run-ins I’ve had with those protecting our borders. I have been stopped at an airport with absinthe and another checkpoint with something else frowned upon by those with the mirrored sunglasses. Although neither incident led to an arrest or citation, I can assure you that I know firsthand each encounter was entered into a database.)

Our first stop in California was in San Diego. We got a room at the Travelodge in La Jolla, just a block from the coast. Although it wasn’t the Ritz, the place was sufficient for our needs and the location was phenomenal. Not only was the beach a stone’s throw away, but we were right down the road from Bentley and Lamborghini dealerships. That being said, we hit up the local tavern on our first night for $2 fish tacos…and they were well worth the price. We spent the next day walking along the coast, enjoying sea lions, pelicans and flora along the way. Although it was a bit chilly for swimming we did manage to lie on the beach for a while and take in some rays as well.

Heidi’s birthday occurred while we were in San Diego, so we had a nice dinner at a seafood joint one night and took in the world-renowned San Diego Zoo on a different day. Although the price of admission is $37 per adult, I would encourage a visit if you can swing the cost. (I actually looked into buying tickets from someone on Craigslist, but my fear of being another naïve tourist who got swindled convinced me to pay full price at the gate.) Not only does the zoo have an exceptional variety of wildlife, including one of only three US zoos with Pandas, but it also works extremely hard on conservation and work to help endangered species. We both had a wonderful time. And, if you do go, check out the bird show. It begins with a video about the condor, which is accompanied by a terrible song on the topic, performed by Alanis Morissette.

The next leg of our time in California brought us to Palm Springs, in all of its mid-century glory. Once the retreat spot for Hollywood movers and shakers, it’s now an eclectic mix of mainly retirees and the GLBT community. Heidi’s former colleague David let us stay in his vacation home, which normally rents out for a nice chunk of change…but we got the place non-gratis! The place was a beautiful little one bedroom job in a very small community of about 20 units. There was a community pool and hot tub, although David, and his partner Larry, have their own hot tub in their little yard! The roof was adorned with Spanish tile, the bathroom had a shower (with two shower heads) and a separate bath tub and every room was decorated with high-end furniture. Needless to say, I felt like Willis from Different Strokes. It was a lovely little retreat and we mainly just relaxed, although we did venture out to Joshua Tree National Park one day.

Joshua Tree NP is a rock climbers’ paradise, but got its name from the Mormon pioneers who, while traveling though the area, thought the trees were reminiscent of the Hebrew general of the same name. (It seems that the Mormons have been a constant theme on this journey, from Nauvoo to Joshua Tree to discussions with Heidi’s aunt Mary to encounters with them in the Redwoods later on in California.) And while Heidi and I did scale a couple of the large boulders we spent most of our time on the trails or in the car, enjoying the scenery. I was amazed by the diversity of flora in the seemingly barren desert. Flowers in hues stretching the spectrum blossomed among cacti while lizards scurried through the sand. It was a beautiful park and I’m glad we stopped. While climbing some of the rocks Heidi twisted her ankle. A little later in the day I tried to scale a very large grouping of boulders only to surrender in the name of safety. (We were ill-equipped for a real climbing adventure and had little more than hiking boots and bandanas.)

Although staying longer at David’s crib in Palm Springs would have been easy to do, there is a lot more country to see, so we headed out for LA after three nights in The Springs. We had no accommodations so, unfortunately, we made another stop at a suburban McDonald’s in order to use their wifi. Since I was unsuccessful in poaching it from the parking lot (and we were both famished) we decided to even dine at the joint for lunch. Well, we were overcharged because the dude didn’t know how to substitute Apple Dippers for fries…and then the stupid wifi wasn’t working. Although it was painfully slow we, eventually, managed to log on and book a room in the Mission Hills area of LA for about $60/night.

To me, Mission Hills seemed like a working-class, heavily Hispanic and Chicano, area of the city. Only later in our time in the city of Angels did I learn that Mission Hills is known as “the valley.” That doesn’t mean that it’s frequented by your stereotypical valley girls (e.g., “Like, Oh My God! Whatevs…are we besties?!?) but rather that the more opulent types up in the hills are looking down on those who live there. Moreover, I was told that the big industry in “the valley” is the adult film industry. So, while Hollywood is down the road there is plenty of moviemaking…and wood…in the valley too!

After a quiet night in the hotel room, preceded by some excellent and inexpensive Thai grub for dinner, we got up at the crack of dawn, in order to score some tickets for the Tonight Show with Jay Leno. While you can reserve tickets online weeks in advance you can also get to the studios and pick up tickets between 8am and 3pm, although they are distributed on a first-come first-served basis and do not guarantee entry. When we arrived at the studio at 7:15am there was only one lonely dude in line. I guess people don’t flock to the studios every morning just to get tickets. Nonetheless, we waited and got ours. The tickets stated that taping was at 4pm and you should be in line at least an hour earlier. We decided 2:30pm would suffice and headed off for Hollywood Blvd.

Hollywood Blvd. is home to the Walk of Fame and is little more than a tourist trap with people selling bus tours, others dressed in costume offering pictures (for a fee) and shops for the stripper in all of us. We parked around 9am in a residential area a few blocks away from the epicenter of activity. A sign posted stated that on Tuesdays (which it was) no parking was allowed between noon and 3pm, due to street cleaning. We figured 3 hours would be more than enough time and took off. Almost immediately after getting onto Hollywood Blvd. a guy approached us about a bus tour. We declined and he offered us a discounted price, stating his boss had walked off so he could hook us up. Again, we turned him down and went our separate ways. A minute later another dude from the same tour company (perhaps the “boss”) crossed the street to offer us the same thing. After stating we weren’t interested he muttered something under his breath about how staring at stars on the sidewalk must be a lot of fun. I replied by stating that being an ass wasn’t a good way to sell tickets. As he crossed the street again he had some more choice words for us, which he said in a hushed voice. We quickly continued down the street, although Heidi wanted to go back and punch the guy!

As we walked along the street we snapped photos of the Chinese Theater, certain stars on the walk and a few other landmarks. Truly, it was rather unimpressive. That being said, it beat being stuck on a bus getting a tour of all the stars homes, where we would see their gates, shrubs and tall privacy walls…all for the bargain-basement price of $50! As we got to Hollywood and Vine we decided to turn around and start heading for the van. Just then I spied a small crowd beginning to gather up the street and suggested we check out the hubbub. A Mexican crew was working on a star while barricades were being set up. Upon closer inspection we saw that the star was that of Julia Louis-Dreyfus, better known as Elaine from Seinfeld. It was 10:30 and we seemed to have a good vantage point of the coming ceremony, so we decided to stay put, hoping it would start at 11am and end in plenty of time for us to get back to the van prior to it being ticketed…or towed.

11am came and went. Camera crews were arriving and the crowd was beginning to swell in size. Another gal in the crowd stated that the ceremony would begin at 11:30am and it was becoming clear that our spot was right in the thick of it. Heidi was committed and not budging, having already burnt the tops of her feet from standing beneath the blazing sun for some time. Being the meticulous (or anal) person I am, I began to think about the van. The last thing I wanted was to get a glimpse of a couple of stars at the expense of a hefty ticket, or worse: getting the van out of impound. I suggested going then and there, in order to find another spot, but Heidi suggested I wait until the stars began to appear. I explained that at 11:45am I would make a break for it. And that’s just what I did. Just as the ceremony began, and Larry David, Jason Alexander, Eric McCormack and Julia had found their spots, I broke through the throngs in order to hurry my ass back to the van. Not only did I miss the unveiling, but I also missed Larry David’s witty quips and Julia’s acceptance speech. While Heidi was taking all of this in, and later being smothered by overzealous autograph-seekers, I was running down Hollywood Blvd, past trannys, beggars and tourists. I arrived at the van at 11:59am, just as the parking cop was starting to issue citations at the next street over. I was exhausted and relieved as I pulled away and nearly mowed down a couple of pedestrians crossing the street. In very Minnesotan fashion, I rolled down my window, apologizing profusely for my actions. When I picked up Heidi she relayed her harrowing tale of being nearly suffocated by the mob and explained “Elaine” would have signed something for her but she had nary a blank sheet of paper, let alone a photo.

Next we grabbed a quick bit to eat at a food stand selling Teriyaki bowls and headed over to NBC studios, in an attempt to get in the Late Show taping with Scarlet Johansson, Frank Caliendo and Michael Bolton. We got in line by about 2pm and were nowhere near the front of the line. The show seats about 350 people every night and we were 141 & 142, so we got seats without a problem, although we ended up being seated in the last row in one of the middle sections. Although I was obnoxious and had a fake smile most of the taping, in an attempt to make it on TV, I don’t think we made the cut. We did have some fun during one of the commercial breaks, however, when the lady from the Late Show band came into the crowd and stuck the mic in our faces to sing “Rolling” during the hook of “Rolling on a River.” I sang falsetto while Heidi took on the baritone role. Good times. The taping itself was rather mundane and Jay seemed uninterested during the commercial breaks.

The following day we went to Beverly Hills and strolled along Rodeo Drive. You know that a store is expensive when they have only four shirts on a rack, and each one is unique. We were too intimidated to walk into Versace, Cartier or Jimmy Choo, and instead chose to snap photos from the sidewalk. I don’t think our REI attire would have got us very far in a shop that has handbags worth more than our van. Our one treat was to have a cupcake from Sprinkles, a trendy little cupcake boutique frequented by the stars, those pitching reality shows and bulimic women with a sweet tooth. My $4 delight was Red Velvet while Heidi had Chocolate Coconut. They were good, but damn: $4 goes a lot farther at Legend’s for Happy Hour. From there we drove down the Sunset Strip and stopped at the Santa Monica Pier, which is the official end of the line for historic Route 66.

That night we hooked up with Ravi and his girlfriend Dea. Ravi and I were in the same cluster in the Peace Corps in Ukraine. He and I were two of five people who got our PC training in Kozelets, Ukraine. As such, I came to be closer with him than most of the other volunteers. He suggested a place for dinner and we had a very nice meal, and they ended up treating us which made it that much sweeter. Ravi is doing well and living with his lady friend, who is a bubbly teacher at an elementary charter school. They seem pretty happy together and she is a great gal. While relaying some of our trip to them they mentioned a place called Crumbs, which is another cupcake boutique. After finishing the meal we raced to Glendale in order to grab a few more sweet treats, in order to give a good comparison. Although slightly more expensive, their cupcakes were bigger and a bit more moist and gooey. (Thanks for the suggestion…and dinner…Ravi & Dea!!)

From LA we headed along the winding Pacific Coast Highway towards San Francisco. Along the way we stopped for a few hours at East Beach in Santa Barbara, purported to be one of the most romantic in the contiguous US. While the water was a tad chilly it was nice to take in some rays and water after hours in the van. We camped for the night at El Capitan State Beach Park, for a whopping $35. I was more than perturbed at the price; although it turns out all CA state parks charge that hefty fee these days. (I guess that’s one way to try and get out of a $40 billion deficit crunch.) Heidi did get a glimpse of a couple of whales, however, while I was sulking over the price and just being generally grouchy.

The following day we camped at Mt. Madonna, a county park which only cost $24. I actually liked the setting there better. Although we didn’t have an ocean view, our site was nestled amongst old growth pines. It was a nice place, but by the time we woke up in the morning our left rear tire was flat, putting yours truly in a tizzy. The previous day we had spring a leak in a 2.5 gallon jug of water in the van, leaving the carpet soaked and the interior musty…and now this! I woke Heidi up and drove, ever so slowly, to a flat spot in the campground so I could change the tire, while other campers looked on as if I were performing for them. Everything worked out just fine and after an hour detour in Gilroy, and one less Andrew Jackson in my pocket, we were on the way to our digs in San Francisco: the Travelodge just outside the airport. It was only $40/night!

Although the joint was a bit dumpy, it was worth $5 more than a campsite to have a cozy bed, hot shower, private toilet and wifi. Besides, it was only our base of operations when we weren’t out exploring the city. I really don’t understand the need to spend $200/night for a place you’re only gonna spend a couple of hours at anyways. Location is important, but not at the expense of our budget.

After checking-in in the late afternoon we rested for a bit, hopped online for a minute and decided to check out Haight-Ashbury for the evening, a neighborhood made famous by its hippy occupants in the late 60s. Today it maintains much of the same vibe, although most of the boutiques and thrift stores cater to the well-to-do visitors rather than the neighborhood residents. Heidi and I spent more than an hour at the Goodwill, trying on different discounted used clothing, only to come away with one tank top for her, at the bargain price of $3.50. We strolled up & down Haight a bit more before stopping into another Thai joint as most of the shops were closing up for the night.

The next day was a day filled with walking and more tourist traps. After finding some free parking in the Russian Hill area we negotiated the steep streets to Chinatown. There we did little more than check out the various shops with fried duck hanging in the windows and more jade than I’ve ever laid eyes on before. We even stumbled upon the fortune cookie factory and got some free samples of the discarded variety, but chose not to snap any pictures there due to a 50 cent surcharge. From there we headed through the Italian district to the Fisherman’s Wharf and the famous Pier 39, a hangout for tourists and sea lions alike.

At Pier 39 we snapped photos of Alcatraz, street performers and the Japanese Kaiwo Maru as it set sail for Hawaii after observing the sesquicentennial of the first Japanese ship to dock in the US. The place is the definition of a tourist trap but was fun nonetheless. We ate a pricy lunch at a café with gorgeous views of both the harbor and the skyline and had a nice meal, despite the subtly condescending waiter who didn’t appreciate the fact we were on a budget, and not splurging for appetizers and mixed drinks. (Although I can be stingy, I believe a 20% tip is customary for good service. This buster got about 14% because of his attitude.)

From there we walked over to Ghirardelli Square for some free chocolate samples and then uphill to the famous Lombard Street. Lombard is known as the curviest street in America and was designed that way so the horse-drawn carriages could negotiate the extremely steep hill without running away. By this time it was late afternoon and we were both exhausted, so we made our way back to the van and sought refuge at the Travelodge.

Our last day in San Francisco was to be spent in Golden Gate Park; however pouring rains precluded us from enjoying most of the outdoor beauty. And, being that it was a Monday, the conservatory was closed. We did manage to visit the Japanese Tea Garden during a break in the rains, and sipped on some Japanese tea while taking in the serenity of the place. From there we attempted to drive through the park, only to repeatedly be pushed back onto residential streets. Eventually we gave up, instead choosing to cross the Golden Gate Bridge and snap some pictures from the other side of the bay. Next, we headed to Berkley to rendezvous with another returned Peace Corps colleague, Alex.

Alex trained in the neighboring town of Oster and, as such, our training groups spent weekends together, so we were all pretty tight. She is a great gal and heading to NYC shortly to Teach for America. She is super-excited for her new gig, I was happy to catch up with her and all three of us were thrilled about her dinner suggestion: an employee owned pizza joint, where we shared a stuffed pie with chicken, spinach and garlic. Yummy! We spent the night at her parents crib in suburban Benicia and just chatted, chilled and gave her cats some love.

Since then we’ve visited Yosemite National Park, driven through the Redwood Forests and to Mt St Helen’s, which, quite literally, blew its lid almost 30 years ago to the day. All of these sites were beautiful in their own right: Yosemite with its sheer-faced granite monoliths, the giant grandeur of the ancient Redwoods and the new life sprouting up in the valleys surrounding the volcano which left hundreds of feet of soot and ash, killing all that existed there when I was in diapers. I could certainly write more about each of these beautiful places but this blog is getting extremely long and I just want to get it posted, so sorry…

Today we spent the morning at Pikes Public Market in downtown Seattle. You have probably seen images of people tossing fish at the market before. While we caught a glimpse of one such transaction, most people were just standing by waiting to snap such a photo, rather than actually buying the fish. And, I can’t blame them: it was some expensive seafood! The highlight of the market today was a free cheese festival, with so many samples that I probably ate half a pound of cheese (and will likely be bound up for a while as a result.) We also had some delicious Russian meat-filled pastries at Piroshky Piroshky for a very good price.

Thus far, I would say Seattle is the busking capitol of the US. That’s where someone does something entertaining in the street for nothing but tips. Thus far we have seen people performing card tricks, juggling, tap dancing and jamming on the guitar. There was even some dude, known as the cat-whisperer, who really just looked like a freak to me, but is, supposedly, running a shelter for homeless cats.

Our plan is to spend tomorrow in Seattle as well, before heading up to Vancouver, BC and then start going east, into Montana and beyond. I apologize that it’s been nearly three weeks since my last post and will try to make this a more frequent phenomenon.