What I'm Up To

By Day

I work at a small software company doing a bit of everything, which lately means a lot of QA, some troubleshooting, some technical writing, functional analysis, UI design... I used to be a programmer and a dba, but I decided that I was a lot better at a bunch of other stuff than I am at hard-core technical tasks — plus I understand the technical side of things better than your average non-technical guy, which kinda gives me an edge in working with technical people.

Like most people in the IT business, I've made a living, not a killing. Only one of my former employers still exists. I never made a million during the dotcom boom. I did get some utterly worthless stock options. I think it would have cost me several million to cash out at the strike price.

I've done a lot of jobs during my 10-year voyage through the IT business. I actually started out as a non-technical employee specializing in virtual community issues, but one day the database server crashed and no one could figure out how to fix it... and I asked to borrow the manual and had the problem diagnosed in about 10 minutes. That was a long time ago, and I've kinda gone on from there. I've been a trainer and then a training manager, I've designed interfaces, written manuals, and over the years have written a lot of code, but not lately.

My favorite saying is "I think I've got a book on that."

I enjoy my work and work for nice people, although offers of vast wealth and stock options are cheerfully entertained.

By Night

Actually, this is the first time in my life I haven't had a "night job" on the side. Maybe I'm getting old. In the past, I have done a lot of different things, none of which have particularly involved actually making money, which is sort of the reason I'm not doing much of anything on the side at the moment. The most recent one involved co-authoring a book on alcohol withdrawal treatment.

It's a really great book, but a classic example of “pioneering doesn't pay.” It was a complete financial disaster. Didn't even cover our expenses. Our treatment system demonstrably works much better than what people have been doing for the last 50 years, but the only people who considered this a user benefit at were nurses. Maybe in a few more years we will have made back our expenses...

Home Town, School and All That

I grew up in Rochester, NY, although I'm pretty much the sort of American who gets on a plane the day after graduating from high school and never comes back. My theory is that this country consists of people who know they're never going to leave their home town and people who know that they will be gone before the ink is dry on their high school diploma. That was me.

Rochester was, in some ways, an interesting place to grow up in the 60s and 70s. Back then, it was, for most of its inhabitants, an island of middle-class stability. Kodak never laid anyone off, Xerox was hiring like crazy, and it seemed like it would always be that way. Even though it had one of the first urban riots of the 60s, the poor were mostly invisible. Unless you were poor, of course.

I've been back to Rochester recently, and it's quite a different world. Kodak and Xerox have laid off 10s of thousands, and the old "white ethnics" have died or retired (white immigrant communities were strong enough when I was a kid to keep a German-language newspaper going into the early 70s).

A largely Black underclass has filled the vacuum, and the city is now one of the most economically depressed in the US — "The Murder Capital of New York State!" All this would have been utterly unthinkable and absurd to people in the days of my youth -- like suggesting that the city was going to be taken over by Martians.

Slums with the full complement of underclass problems now lap right up against the middle-class neighborhoods of my childhood. On the other hand you can now swim in Lake Ontario (all the beaches were closed due to sewage pollution when I was about 10) and the formerly scrofulous Genessee riverfront is now lined with restored buildings and even a few trendy cafes.

Rochester is perhaps most famous for its snow, and justly so. I remember one winter in which we got more than 200 inches. And when it's not snowing, it's raining. While I enjoyed skiing, when I picture myself in Rochester, it's often waiting for the school bus in the dark, standing next to a snow bank 3 feet higher than my head. It's always fun to meet someone else from far upstate New York, because they know what the heck I'm talking about when I talk about snow and winter. Everyone else, unless they're from Minnesota or Alaska, gets a blank look on their face.

Even though I'm married to a New Englander, I now live South of the Mason-Dixon line, and may never get over the thrill of seeing Winter truly end by March 1st.

I went to a buncha schools in Rochester. I tended to either love 'em or hate 'em. In the latter category was Nazareth Hall, then a Catholic military school run by nuns (what were my parents thinking?). I was more or less given a dishonorable discharge for insubordination in 3rd grade, although I still catch myself standing at parade rest now and then. Also not fondly remembered: the Harley Country Day School for Girls and Boys, a prep school I attended for several years. We kinda agreed to disagree. At the end of 8th grade, my letter of resignation crossed in the mail with their letter saying that they'd just as soon not see me in the Fall -- the old "You can't fire me -- I quit!" story.

I actually made many wonderful friends there and liked some of my teachers, but found it insufferably pretentious and hypocritical (although I will say that my threshhold for annoyance was probably lowered both by being 13 years old and by the fact that it was 1969). In general, I guess it could be said that I don't do well with pretentiousness or hypocrisy. In fact, I guess it could be said that I take a certain amount of joy in pissing off people in positions of authority if I don't respect them. On the other hand, I am really good at getting along with people very different from myself as long as they don't try to make life miserable for everyone. I like people. It's humanity I'm not so sure about.

In any event, I do have to credit Harley with introducing me to my oldest friend, whom I met there in sixth grade and maintained an almost 40-year friendship with until his death in 2005. And a number of other memorable friends, most of whom I've long ago lost track of (although one's a federal judge, and another an architecture professor).

My other school experiences were happier. I went to a great 1960s alternative school (now unfortunately long defunct) called Rochester Educational Alternatives (or REA for short). REA was a little lax as an academic environment, but it was a priceless chance to hang out with bright and interesting people from a wide variety of backgrounds right at the high water mark of the counterculture. I'm not really in touch with anyone from those days, but I will always treasure the memories of being in a place where you could just be yourself. Without REA, I might have just plain given up.

Not quite as exotic, but almost as esteemed was the Allendale Columbia School, another prep school actually less than a mile from Harley. Why they took me in when Harley had tossed me out I'll never know, but it turned out well for all concerned. It was (and I hope still remains) an incredibly humane, no-nonsense place with an excellent teaching staff. If I ever make millions, I'll remember them in my will. If I were them, I would not start counting those chickens just yet.

Other Places I Have Loved

Los Angeles

I spent a year, when I was 15, living in Los Angeles. At that time, you could still drive 90 miles an hour in the "fast lane" and hunt for fossils in the cliffs above Malibu (I wonder whose mini-mansion is there now?). Seeing the changes that growth brought to Los Angeles helped bring me to a strong intellectual and spiritual conviction that human population growth is one of the greatest dangers facing humankind. I'm actually not that worried about the planet -- it will survive. It's us I'm worried about. And I'm not even sure it's worth worrying about us, frankly. We're wrecking the joint and it might be better off without us.

Los Angeles is definitely a nutty place, but I've always been quite fond of it. The mediterranean climate, the odd architectural treasures that survive despite all the changes, and just the "otherness" of the whole place. I got to spend some more time there in the 80s when my parents lived there for a number of years (my father was then Kodak's head dude in charge of dealing with the movie industry). My standard tour for boggled newcomers involved swooping through the monied canyons of the Hollywood Hills, perhaps a peek at the Sharon Tate house (it was torn down in the 90s, alas — not a big enough mansion for our current Gilded Age), zipping through one of the passes into the Valley, then a long mind-breaking drive down Ventura Blvd (20,000 nail parlors, mini-malls, Thai restaurants...) and then just when it seems like you're going to be stuck in strip development hell forever, up a pass and on to the dirt part of Mullholland. Suddenly, it looks like you're in Montana.

I also enjoyed driving too fast on the fire roads, exploring the old movie neighorhoods above "Gower Gulch" and hiking in Will Rogers State Park (at least as of a few years ago, you could hike back into an abandoned subdivision burned during a 1970s brush fire -- melted shampoo bottles still on the floors of the shower stalls).

When I was 15 in Los Angeles, I ended up between schools for a while (we moved part way through the school year, etc.) and spent several months just watching TV. In those pre-cable days, LA had an amazing panoply of indie stations, and the movie companies released special packages just for LA. I sucked down massive amounts of post-1930 American pop culture in a short time. I used to play a game -- could I guess the exact year a movie was made in the first 90 seconds? I got so I could do it +/- a year about 95% of the time.

I'd always been fascinated with pop culture and Americana, but that year really nailed it for me. I really never watched much TV before or since (we didn't buy one until I was 13), but I remain fascinated by Americana, especially architecture, music and movies.

Moline, Illinois and the Mississipi

Like Lodi, "Moline" is sort of a code word for "nowheresville," but Moline is a real place, one of the "Quad Cities" (Moline, East Moline, and Rock Island, Illinois and Davenport, Iowa), which straddle the Mississippi approximately 2 hours due west of Chicago. My maternal grandparents lived there in a Frank Lloyd Wright-influenced house on 3 acres of land that they bought cheap from some affluent alcoholics who had left it a trash-filled wreck. My grandfather was a difficult and temperamental man in many ways. He didn't understand kids, dogs and most of what happened after Pearl Harbor. In a famous family incident, he talked my grandmother out of investing in real estate in Sausalito, feeling that commercial property in downtown Moline was a safer bet (in case you were wondering, downtown Moline now looks like it's been attacked by a Panzer division). I suspect he was a much better grandparent than he was a parent. In any case, he was my spiritual mentor in many things, not least in my love of the open road, in the odd corners of the American countryside, and in America as a Whitmanian concept (although I can't imagine what he would have thought of Whitman).

My grandfather was a stocky and by modern standards rather short man who nonetheless played semi-pro football and baseball as a young man (he played football against Jim Thorpe). When I knew him as a kid, he was a very respectable Moline businessman, but as he got older, he let some of his wilder memories slip. For a time, when local baseball was king, he had the next best thing to a no-show job at a farm implement factory in return for playing on their company team. And for a year or two just before the First World War, he lived on an island in the middle of the Mississippi -- because he wanted to, and there was (at that time) no one to tell you not to. That little factoid, in my mind, speaks volumes about the difference between turn-of-the century America and our own times. Freedom slips away so gradually, and you don't know what you've got till it's gone.

I love the Mississippi (and the Ohio). From a political and ecological standpoint, I wish they'd tear down the subsidized locks and dams and let the subsidized barges run aground, but I can just sit there and watch the tows go by for hours. Two of my favorite river spots are within an hour or two of Moline. Alma, Wisconsin is a beautiful little town on the limestone bluffs on the east side of Lake Pepin (which is actually a stretch of the river partially dammed up by glacial debris from the last Ice Age). The view from Beuna Vista Park on top of the bluffs is indeed a buena vista. It's a touristy place in a very low-key sorta way, and there's a nice cafe (called the Pier Four when last I was there) overlooking Lock and Dam #4. Somewhat more spectacular is Effigy Mounds National Monument, little known outside the region. It's not particularly on the way to or from anything (across the river from Prairie du Chien, Wisonson), but worth the side trip. A collection of Indian mounds on high bluffs once logged to feed Mississippi steamboats, but now long protected. Ask about the Bear Trail. And bring bug repellent. And don't say I didn't warn you that the trail to Hanging Rock is always a lot longer than you think.

My two favorite books on the river are Jonathan Raban's "Old Glory" and Mark Twain's "Life on the Mississippi."

I'm also quite fond of the upper Midwest in general. Thought of settling in Iowa at one point, but life had other plans for me.

San Francisco

I lived in San Francisco in the late 70s, when Carter was in office. There certainly was not a chicken in every pot, but there was a plastic straw up every nose. I guess you could say that lots of people were enjoying being young and foolish. I found my way to San Francisco rather accidentally. I'd dropped out of college for what turned out to be a five-year sabbatical, picked up a summer job as a DJ, and after that I was kind of out of ideas. Met a woman towards the end of the summer, struck up a romance... but she was moving to San Francisco in eight weeks. Would I like to come? What the heck!

We moved into a dilapidated apartment a block up from Cala Market at 1299 California. The manager was some kind of psycho -- a shell-shocked Korean war vet? Someone's deranged cousin? We didn't know. Once he threatened to evict us for mentioning that the faucet was leaking. He didn't have much tolerance for stress. Occasionally, the building's owners would drop by -- they wore extremely expensive custom-tailored suits.

The quaint, loud cable car tracks ran mere feet from our windows. The interior of the living room was covered with a fine pattern of blood droplets which I now realize probably indicated that someone had been murdered in the apartment (there are entire police textbooks on "blood spatter analysis"). San Francisco was a bit gothic and grimy in those days, long after the Summer of Love and before Silicon Valley. The week I showed up, the mayor was murdered. A few weeks later came Jonestown.

After a period of considerable desperation, I found my first grown-up job (I had just turned 20) at the corner of Haight and Ashbury, at a place called Odyssey Records, one of the first dozen or two stores in what quickly became a huge chain and then fell on its face in the post Saturday Night Fever music biz bust.

At that time, the Haight still had a very few faded vestiges of its counterculture days, but mostly it was a downtrodden neighborhood on the edge of a desperate slum. A few pioneering businesses were trying to make a go of it, but it was hard times. I remember riding my bike every day past a particular two-block stretch where the name of the game was "I'm waiting for my man" -- heroin dealers and customers milling around a series of ostensible "coffee shops." I met winos and quick-change artists (beat 'em) and gangs of gypsy shoplifters... and we sold a lot of Rose Royce, and Evelyn Champagne King, and (of course) Saturday Night Fever. I got more aware of decent folk music, partly thanks to a spectacularly lazy and beautiful co-worker whose boyfried once played in Bill Monroe's band. I missed a lot of good opportunities to nab soul and rhythm and blues music, which I didn't discover till years later.

Once I had an income, however paltry, I started to discover San Francisco a bit. The only places I'd ever eaten were the college cafeteria (not bad, but still...) and Rochester (where pizza was exotic foreign food). I don't even think I'd ever had a bagel. I went nuts: discovered Indonesian food (became a regular at a now-vanished place called "A Bit of Indonesia") and Thai food and Vietnamese food and Chinese food and Mexican food... moved to Bush Street (no more blood spatters), broke up with my girl friend. Moved to the fringes of the Tenderloin.

Got promoted at the record store and moved out to help open a new store in Pleasant Hill (or as we used to call it, "Pleasant Thrills"). Found another girlfriend, with whom I am still in touch from time to time. Found an internship with NewScript, a radio news service run by Dave McQueen of KSAN fame. At some point, I told them I couldn't keep doing it for free and besides I was as good or better than anyone they had writing for them, so hire me or I gotta go. And they did. I did that for about a year and a colorful half.

Dave's a great guy (we traded some e-mail after all these years not too long ago). I liked the fact that he unashamedly admitted to loving Paul Harvey as a news-reader, because I always think you've gotta respect and acknowledge talent wherever you find it (and I'm also a big Paul Harvey fan). I met a parade of major and minor counter-culture celebrities at NewScript. I don't think I'm revealing anything too shocking to say that bad habits were enjoyed by all. Maybe a few too many bad habits. Life got frustrating. Angry words were spoken (I blame two pitchers of beer split with a pal over lunch -- our daily M.O. was write all morning, get drunk at lunch, take an hour or two to sober up, then finish). We agreed to disagree. No hard feelings, but unfortunately, that was kinda the end of my sojourn in San Francisco. Maybe I got out just in time. I didn't get to see the Reagan years in San Francisco. On my way out of town, all my records got stolen. I spent the next two years in Dallas, Texas working in a warehouse driving a forklift. Made about twice what I'd been making in San Francisco, but it lacked a certain something. It was about five years before I finally stopped thinking of San Francisco as my home and mentally moved on.

Providence, Rhode Island

I had many lives in Providence, during which, as David Byrne sings it "I lived all over that town." I lived there off an on from the mid-70s until the early 90s. I think I'm finally gone for good.

I moved to Providence in the fall of 1974 to attend Brown University. The only thing I'd really heard about it was that they had a hurricane in 1938, and some advice from my barber in Rochester: "watch out for the fags!" (he had it confused with Provincetown on Cape Cod).

Providence is now oddly (and deservedly) trendy. Back then, it was a backwater, a weird Southern New England city where the Depression never really ended. A few Brown and RISD graduates ("Riz-doids") had opened the odd bar or restaurant, but mostly it was kinda tough. Benefit Street, now a restored showplace of historic homes, was still a dangerous place to walk after dark. The river was still covered by "the world's widest bridge" (or in more plain terms, paved over) and the downtown was cut in half by an enormous abandoned railroad viaduct.

My college career was strange. Since Brown had this weird grading system in which failing grades disappeared from your transcript, I decided I would either get A's or F's. Mostly, I dedicated myself to being an undergound DJ. I'd fallen in love with underground FM in the glory days, listening to WCMF in Rochester back when there wasn't a lot of money in FM and stations really seemed like part of the community. Looking back on it, of course, wanting to become a free-form DJ in 1974 was sorta like wanting to become a Buffalo hunter in 1890. But who was to know? It seemed like a reasonable ambition at the time and I was pretty good at it.

The charms of Rhode Island were mostly lost on me until I went away and came back to finish my degree. I did notice that there was a fair amount of strange stuff going on -- the pizza shop that looked like it was painted by Edward Hopper after a week-long bender, and the other one where they sold pot behind the counter... and the hotel right next to campus where they had an honest-to-God Superfly- style pimp bar in the basement (Pisces East in the Minden, Providence trivia freaks).

I always wondered if the Smithsonian was smart enough to buy a pimp-mobile.

Providence in the 70s and 80s was the kind of place where (only true stories follow):


Everything was a scam and nirvana was a no-show job or a crooked disability pension. And presiding over it all was Ray Patriarca from his vending machine business high atop Federal Hill. And we all had to buy our groceries at Star Market, possibly the worst supermarket ever devised by humans. Except Ray. I'm sure he did his shopping on Federal Hill. If you want to know what it all felt like, read "Providence" by Geoffrey Wolff. He nailed it. When I came back after seeing a bit of the world, Providence had become more cosmopolitan. A whole bunch of Brown folks and riz-doids had opened shops and restaurants. A buncha famous kids, most famously Amy Carter and John F. Kennedy Jr., had gone to Brown. It was no longer the obscure Ivy. It was trendy. It had Euro-trash.

I did a lot of things my second (and third, and fourth) time around in Providence. I set the American Studies department on fire and was going to be a Ph.D. before getting blackballed by a cabal of communists. I was a drunk for a while, but it was too much work. I also spent several years as an entrepreneur, trying to revive underground FM radio via cable (almost worked, but as they say about almost, it only counts with horseshoes and hand grenades). My business partner and I learned many lessons which we are still putting to good use. Unfortunately, one of the things we learned was that the world of the entrepreneurial start-up is exceedingly strange, and that much of what's said about it is untrue (or at least, they always leave some of the most important parts out). I vowed never to start another business that couldn't easily be financed by family, friends, and savings. So far, I've stuck to the vow.

I also vowed to have nothing more to do with radio unless I became so wealthy that I could buy my own station and run it as a hobby. Seems little danger of that, and all these years later radio is far worse than it ever was -- all I can stand to listen to is the BBC and NPR. Although I met someone who was a honcho at one of those new satellite-based networks a couple of years ago... Good thing I'd made a vow.

With my luck, that was probably the time it would have worked out.

Other than the cable radio thing, my longest gig in Providence was as the business manager of Slater Mill Historic Site, the country's first factory (how's that for an ambivalent distinction?) and a fine little museum. People who look at the mess on my desk are always amazed to hear that I was once a very fine bookkeeper and accountant. Thanks to my mentor, Patrick Malone, PhD., I learned a lot about the history of technology and also that it's true what they say about bankers being the stupidest (but best-dressed) people in business school.

Pat and I had a number of good times -- he was a former Marine Officer with a contrary streak, and I was a former hippie with an appreciation for military and industrial history and things that go bang. We almost got each other killed body surfing at Zuma Beach once -- I think each of us figured it couldn't really be that bad because the other one didn't look scared. When we got home and watched the evening news, we heard that several people had drowned that day, and Pat admitted that actually, he was more frightened than he'd been in combat in Vietnam. I'm not sure if I really believe that, but I don't think I've been body surfing since.

During my early college years, I had met the amazing Mad Peck, a disk jockey, cartoonist, underground legend, and cultural critic. I started as a protege and stuck around to become a friend, and to this day we spend hours on the phone talking about World War II (which he got me interested in) and Formula One racing (about which, unfortunately, I know absolutely nothing). Peck also got me into the book-writing concept, mostly by showing me how difficult it is, how tireless and stubborn and organized you have to be, and that it all may come to naught regardless. These were good, hard lessons, and I could never have finished our book on alcohol withdrawal without them. In fact, they're lessons I use every day in almost everything I do.

The Road

I've never been an over-the-road trucker, although I did do some short-haul stuff at one point, but before I got hitched and had a kid and all boy oh boy did I ever spend a lot of my life looking at the world through a windshield. In America, the road is its own place, and denizens of the road slip in and out of our universe almost uncontemplated.

I got started as a passenger. My parents had the amazing and delightful habit (long before camping became cool) of taking us on enormous car-camping trips. We ranged as far as Yellowstone and the Maritimes. I saw Spanish moss and the Custer Battlefied and the tide come in in the Bay of Fundy. If I just get a little more money and a little more time off, I hope to do the same sort of trips with my daughter. I've now been to every contiguous American state except North Dakota (and that not for lack of desire).

We travelled on a shoestring, doing maybe one night in a motel every two weeks. We stayed a lot of places without indoor plumbing, cooked on our balky green Coleman stove, and for a while had a VW Microbus that needed to be pushed every morning before it would start.

When I was 15 (again, long before such things were fashionable), I rode my bike from New York to Montreal to Oregon with American Youth Hostels. This was not your sedate hosteling trip though -- I think we stayed in hostels twice. At that time, at least, the Metropolitan New York Council of AYH was something of a wild and woolly organization that catered to the adventurous kids of Manhattan. We averaged 55 miles a day, including stops, which meant we really did more like 70 miles a day, day in day out for 11 weeks.

On that trip, I discovered one of my lifelong virtues. I may not be the fastest, but I sure can keep on ticking. And because I'm such an incurable pessimist, I thrive under adversity -- the disasters I imagine every day of my life are much more overwhelming that mere *real* disasters. Those are just interesting problems to be solved.

That was an extraordinary trip, not least because half of us had hair down to here and we were a buncha weird, mostly Jewish kids from New York bicycling through Nixon's America shortly after Kent State. Actually, people (except in Wyoming) were extremely nice to us. We rarely got hassled, often got a helping hand, and the little town of Badger, South Dakota practically declared a national holiday when we came through.

I actually had to be driven once, for about 60 miles, after I got explosive diarrhea from a bad meal at a Dairy Queen in Aberdeen, South Dakota (never have liked DQ's much since). But I did the rest of it, a few miles short of 4,000.

At the end of that trip, I hitched down the coast to L.A., my first long car trip without my parents. Three people and two bicycles stuffed into a VW bug. I got car sick at 3 a.m. in Big Sur. Ate my first burrito at some nameless snack bar in northern California.

And then they let me start driving, and sadly, my interest in cycling waned, never to recover (so far).

The first car I drove was a Plymouth Fury III with power steering so screwed up that you could take a right turn just by taking your hands off the wheel. My parents, bless 'em, discovered the value of automotive maintenance rather late in life. Or maybe it's just that they finally bought a Honda, which doesn't need much.

After my freshman year in college, I did my first big road trip, a looping journey from Houston through much of the Western U.S. with my oldest friend. And since then, my philosophy about long road trips has been "every chance I get." I'm getting a little old and sore of back now, but only a few years ago, I pulled a 40-hour drive (with a 90-minute nap) straight from Winona, Wisconsin to Providence. I've driven from Morgantown, West Virginia to Miami in a straight shot, and to hundred of obscure and not-so-obscure historical locations. Selma, Alabama. The lodge in northern Wisconsin where Dillinger shot it out with the FBI (they've saved a couple of bullet holes). The length of Michigan Avenue from the Loop to Pullman. And I've dragged long-suffering vehicles (none of them 4wd) down sand road in the Navajo rez, dirt trails in the mountains of Pennsylvania, and across streams in the mountains of northern Arizona.

As a joke, I once accumulated a whole series of photos of my cars at places where various roads simply ended in the bushes. I once drove all the way from San Francisco to Dallas without getting on an interstate.

During my more deranged years, I had a whole routine down. Get up with the deer hunters at 4:30 or so, drive until about 4 in the afternoon, check into a motel and go buy a six-pack, a chunk of cheese, and some crackers, then get quietly drunk in front of the TV in your motel room until you fall asleep at about 10. Then get up at first light the next day to do it all over again. You can cover a lot of ground that way, and motels always have vacancies at 4 in the afternoon.

Lately, I stay at Super 8 motels and read cheap detective novels, maybe have one beer. Actually, really lately, I don't get around much. Kids and all.

For some reason, one of the driving moments I remember most is heading across Nebraska into the gathering dusk, watching the corn turn gold and darkness empty the country out, knowing that I was going to drive all through the night, all through Nebraska (and if you've ever driven across Nebraska, you know what I mean) and down into Colorado to see the sun rise who knows where. And various trips from Dallas to Aspen. It's amazing how it always starts snowing like hell when you get to Vail, and how empty and cold and star-bright it is driving across the Texas panhandle at night. And down L'il Abner dirt roads in the Ozarks, and across a high plateau outside Horse Creek, Wyoming in a thunderstorm -- maybe the most beautiful drive I've ever done.

The Art of Road Trips

While I saw many interesting places as a kid, I didn't see many interesting places on the way. The Interstate Highway System was then new and pothole-free, and since we usually had far to go before we slept, we rarely ventured off it until we got to our destination. In fact it's still something of a family joke:

"Did you ever see (famous attraction)?"
"No, but we saw the exit sign!"

In my parents' defense, if you're travelling with young kids, that's probably the way to go. But, if you've got some time on your hands travelling that way is a waste -- you'll only find what you already know about.

I've done my best to do my trips as an adult a little differently. There are places in the U.S. (i.e. the metro New York area) where getting off the interstate is only feasible if you have a lot of spare time. But in much of the country, the old U.S. routes, built during the first auto boom of the 20s, will get you there 80% as fast and allow you to really see the country.

Some of the old roads, like U.S. 15 through upstate New York, are works of art. There is something magic about their alignment. Even the most scenic of the interestates swoop majestically and heedlessly over the landscape (and the worst basically tunnel through it). The older routes, built with less money and for slower cars, work with the landscape. Hills are really hills, and bends reveal an endless series of vistas, many of them postcard perfect. I'm not sure if it was intentional, but this notion of presenting the traveller with unexpected views dates back to the great English landscape gardeners of of the 18th century, and heavily influenced Frederick Law Olmstead, who designed Central Park in New York.

And while there are tourist traps on the older routes, they're actual tourist traps run by real trappers. And, especially out in the country, or if you follow the U.S. highways to still smaller roads, you can find automotive history. 1930s tourist cabins mouldering in the woods, some farmer's hope of weathering the Depression a little better. Old gas stations built to look like castles, and even older gas stations converted to houses with a huge portico in front where the pumps use to be. 60s motels with space-age motifs. And you just never know. In the Ozarks, I found an actual general store with a real potbellied stove -- not the ye olde general store of Cape Cod or coastal Maine, but the real thing on a cold fall morning. Not a tourist in sight, just wandering me. The Japanese have a word for the beauty which comes with age -- that's what you can still see if you get on the old roads.

I've also found that road fatigue increases proportional to momentum -- with the square of the speed. Something about having to make all those tens of thousands of little decisions and adjustments that much more quickly, hour after hour.

I always figure if you've got good maps and a place to stay, a lot of the rest can slide and flow. I usually pick a spot a reasonable distance away and make a confirmed reservation first thing. Then I don't have to worry about grinding through the night in search of a place to stay -- that's taken care of and I can enjoy the day. I've found some God-awful places this way (Hobbs, New Mexico springs to mind), but I've also found weird and wonderful stuff, like the emptied-out part of Eastern Colorado near the tiny town of Woodrow where there are almost no people and miles of sunflowers -- you'd swear you were in a science fiction movie and the Sunflower People won the war.

There is a whole recent fad for deliberately seeking out campy "offbeat attractions" and maybe I'll try that sometime, but mostly, I seem to find enjoyment in letting the offbeat find me. And besides, some of the best things aren't really offbeat. They're just great.

One of the things that's made me kinda sad about travelling in America is the growing list of places I never want to go to because they're over-run with rich people, buried with sprawl, or just look like everyplace else in America -- big-box stores and strip malls. One of the most inexplicable casualties was Ash Hollow, Nebraska a place where you practically used to be able to smell the dust coming off the wagon wheels on the Oregon Trail, but which has now been bulldozed into just another ugly picnic spot. My compliments to the vandals at the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission. I'm glad I got to see it when the magic was still there.

As an old married guy who doesn't get around much anymore, I sometimes wonder how much magic is left out there on the road. These days, it all seems like big box stores and traffic jams...

Places I Could do Without

Boston

Wife lived there for 20-some years and loved it. To me, it's just "a bush-league town with big-town prices."

Connecticut

Actually, there are some pretty neat parts of Connecticut. By all means check out Gillette's Castle. But overall, the state sums up where the country has been going in the last 50 years — you either live in a mansion or in a ghetto.

Washington, DC

I've lived here for almost a decade now, and it hasn't grown on me a bit. Hellish traffic and sprawl, full of nitwits making far too much money. I hear it used to have a certain funky charm a generation or so ago. It does have pretty good radio, I'll say that for it.

I guess it's probably a really exciting place to live if you worship worldly power and wealth... but I'm a guy who when a motorcade comes by (no matter who's in office) habitually shouts "Assholes on the move! Assholes on the move!"


Last Updated December 22, 2007