Arid (and) Extra Dry

Most of us reacted to eighteen months in the unwelcome company of COVID-19 the same. We reflected on our time with Mr. Virus and wondered, “What would we have done more of?” More get-togethers? More travel? More dinners out?  Yes, yes, and yes.  But instead, we hunkered down and waited for things to get better. Our routines became more… routine.  Everything faded to black and white.  Clocks came to a standstill. It’s the same feeling I had, coincidentally, enduring a drive from Colorado to California earlier this month.

My advice: choose “East” while you still can

Maybe you’ve made the trek: Denver to San Diego via Interstate 70 and then Interstate 15.  Sounds so clean and easy, doesn’t it?  Two highways.  Plenty of lanes.  Rocky Mountains on one end and Pacific Ocean on the other.  Yeah, well, it’s all the mind-numbing in-between stuff that makes you want to burst through your sunroof and flag down a helicopter heading west.  There’s a whole lot of nothing in the desert.

The problem with this drive (which was not a flight because my wife & I wanted to bring our bikes) is the beautiful part comes first.  From Denver, it’s four hours of majestic snow-capped mountains, rushing rivers, red rock canyons, and breathless (literally) summits as you cruise on over to Grand Junction.  There’s good reason America the Beautiful was penned in the Rockies.

Cruise control suggested here

But don’t get comfortable.  Once you reach Grand Junction (which isn’t so grand), beauty takes a big break.  Pretend you’re a marble inside a rolled-up blanket.  Then someone flips that blanket out and off you go, rolling across the flattest, most desolate desert floor you’ve ever seen.  The mountains reduce to buttes reduce to sand dunes reduce to nothing.  The highway morphs from all sorts of curvy to ruler-straight. Your cell phone signal goes MIA.  You suddenly feel parched.  And you wonder, why-oh-why does the dusty sign say “Welcome to Utah” when there’s nothing welcoming about it at all?

So it goes in middle-eastern Utah.  Every exit is anonymously labeled “Ranch Road” (and why would you want to exit anyway?)  The highway signs counting down the mileage to Interstate 15 march endlessly.  When you finally do arrive at I-15 (your single steering wheel turn the entire journey), you bring out the balloons and the confetti and do a happy dance.  YOU MADE IT ACROSS THE MOON!  Well, sort of.  Now you’re just in central Utah.

I-15 wanders south a couple hours to St. George.  It’s probably a perfectly nice place to live, but St. George reminds me of the Middle East.  Squarish stucco/stone buildings, mostly white.  Not many people on the streets.  The temperatures quietly ascended to triple digits when you weren’t looking.  You realize you’re starting to sunburn through the car windows.

Proceed with caution (and water)

But then you make it to Arizona (briefly).  The landscape changes, suddenly and dramatically, as if Arizona declares, “Take that, Utah!  We’re a much prettier state!”  You descend through curve after highway curve of a twisting, narrow canyon, rich with layers of red rock. It’s the entrance to the promised land!  Alas, Arizona then gives way to Nevada, and here my friends, are the proverbial gates of Hell.  Welcome to the arid, endless, scrub-oak-laden vastness of the Mojave Desert, where everything is decidedly dead except for a brief glittery oasis known as Las Vegas.  The Mojave looks like it wants to swallow you whole and spit you out (except spit requires water so you’d probably just be gone forever).

Hang on to those dashboard gauges for dear life, friends, because it’s a full four hours in the Mojave broiler before your car gasps past the “Welcome to California” sign.  In those hours you’ll call your kids (one last time?), declare your final wishes, and wonder why you didn’t visit your parents more often.  Anything you see in motion off the highway is probably a mirage.  If you do make it to California, you’ll pull over and kiss the ground sand before wondering, “Hey, how come California looks exactly like Nevada?  Then Google Maps smirks the bad news.  You’re nowhere near the end of the Mojave Desert.

Baker. Barstow. Victorville. Hesperia.  You’ll pass through each of these towns and wonder, a) Why does anybody live here? and b) Is this the land that time forgot?  But finally, mercifully, you’ll descend the mighty Cajon Pass (the outside temperature descending alongside you), burst forth onto the freeway spaghetti of the LA Basin, and declare, “Los Angeles.  Thank the Good Lord.  I must be close now”.

You’re never alone on the Cajon

Except you’re not.  The Basin is dozens of cities, hundreds of miles, and millions of cars collectively called “Los Angeles”.  Hunker down, good buddy.  The Pacific is still hours away.

Here’s the short of it.  My wife & I made it to San Diego.  The car didn’t die in the middle of the Mojave.  Neither did we (though I left a piece of my soul behind).  We even rode the bikes a few times.  But I can’t account for those nineteen hours behind the wheel.  It’s like Monday morning became Tuesday night in a single blink.  Just like 2019 became 2021 without much in between.

What goes down must come back up.  The time has come to do the death drive in reverse.  Ugh.  Maybe we’ll leave the bikes in San Diego and catch a flight instead.

Behind the Wheels

Every summer when my wife and I head to the West Coast for a little sunshine and sand, the only intentional exercise we get is a walk on the beach or a dip in the ocean. So this year we decided our vacation equation needed to get behind the wheels. We skipped the flight, racked the bikes onto the back of the SUV, and drove 1,100 Utah/Arizona/Nevada desert miles to bridge the gap between Colorado and California. Now the Pacific Coast sun shines above, the Pacific Ocean waves crash below, and the bikes… well, the bikes just beckon to be ridden every day.

It’s already happened, as I suspected it would.  When we took our first pedal tour around this little seaside town, I saw him for a few fleeting moments.  He was a younger, thinner, blonder version of me.  He was seated confidently behind the drop handlebars of a white Nishiki Regal ten-speed, focused solely on the road in front of him.  He was dressed in Converse tennis shoes, ballcap in place of a bike helmet, white socks halfway to the knees.  When this kid wasn’t body surfing, playing basketball, or working the evening shift at McDonald’s, he was logging mile after mile on his bicycle, in search of driver’s license freedoms, even if he wasn’t old enough to have one.

My fleeting companion is the “me” of forty-five years ago.  In most respects it’s a long period of time.  In others we could be talking about last week.  Bicycling was serious thread in the fabric of my childhood.  It was a way to leave the familiar behind, to pursue esoteric wonders beyond the streets I grew up on.  Bicycling asked the questions, “Where would you like to go?” “Why?”  “And how far?”  At fifteen years old, the answers were limitless.

The Schwinn “Lemon Peeler”

My love of cycling began at a young age (and continues today in weekly spin classes at the gym).  I still remember the very first hand-me-down bike my brothers and I shared – a small blue two-wheeler with no gears, the kind you had to pedal backward to brake.  From there I graduated to a glam Schwinn Lemon Peeler Sting Ray, the all-yellow beauty with the fenders above fat tires, sporting the signature banana seat.

But my Nishiki Regal ten-speed brought bicycling to a whole new level.  I bought it myself: months of hard-earned allowance and odd-jobs cash plunked down for the biggest purchase of my young life.  The Nishiki granted me access to the more sophisticated language of bicycling; terms like “chain stay”, “saddle”, and “derailleur”, even if I couldn’t afford the Raleigh or Motobecane imports more deserving of those words.

Also, the Nishiki meant bike maintenance became a labor of love instead of a chore; a bonding afternoon with friends.  The shade of my dad’s carport colored our “workshop”, where we dismantled, fine-tuned, and reassembled over and over; my friends and I exchanging tools and advice for each other’s spare parts.  I still remember the final touch when the Nishiki was all back together: the pristine white finishing tape wrapped carefully around those drop handlebars, signifying it was finally time to ride.

I was never far behind…

One story of me and my Nishiki will always stand out.  It was all about beating the school bus home.  When the bell rang after my final class, I’d sprint to the rack, jump on my bike, and launch into the six-mile trek back to my house.  The bus meanwhile, needed several minutes to load its passengers, not to mention dozens of stops before it would’ve dropped me.  It was always a neck-and-neck battle as I’d pass the bus and then it’d pass me.  Most times I’d lose the race by mere seconds, easing up on the pedals in exhausted frustration.  But every now and then I’d get the victory.  Did some of my friends deliberately take their time exiting the bus, knowing I was in hot pursuit?  Maybe.

In 1979, a few months after I turned seventeen, a wonderful little film called Breaking Away won the Academy Award for Best Picture.  The movie centered around four friends, bicycling, and Bloomington, Indiana’s “Little 500” bike race, but it was mostly about coming of age.  Learning life’s lessons while putting the miles on the pedals.

Little wonder Breaking Away‘s lead character was named Dave.

[Note: If anything about this post resonates with you, be sure to read Steve Rushin’s Sting-Ray Afternoons.  The author’s childhood is set in Minnesota, but the growing-up memories are remarkably similar to my own.  Even the kid on the cover looks a little like me.  Steve and I could’ve been brothers.]

Some content sourced from Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.

Dots ‘n’ Dashes

Back in my days in the Boy Scouts, they had a merit badge called “Signaling”. To earn the badge you had to build a basic communication device (buzzer, blinker) and demonstrate a knowledge of Semaphore – visual signaling by flags – and Morse – audible signaling by “dots” and “dashes”. Today most people wouldn’t have a clue about Semaphore, and their only familiarity with Morse might be from the frantic telegraph typing in the movie Titanic.  Dots ‘n’ dashes have stepped down, more associated with the mundane pavement markings of the streets we drive.  Well hey, at least they’re still signaling devices.

“Dashing through the… street…”

Let’s talk about street dashes first.  The highway to our rural neighborhood was recently restriped, mostly dashes but occasionally a solid for safety’s sake.  Some lanes were shifted, and they just covered up the old stripes with blackish paint similar to the asphalt below.  But my car was not fooled, no sir.  It still sees the old striping.  Anytime I pass over those areas my car’s “lane-keeping assist” emits an audible warning and tries to bump me back onto the road, when in fact I’m just passing over covered-up stripes.  That’s annoying.  Either car tech needs to improve or road striping needs to come up with a better cover.  Until one or the other happens I’m all over the road.

Here’s an even better story about dashes.  Long ago, my parents were driving my brothers and me back from my grandparents’ house.  We were cruising along a paved winding road late at night when all of a sudden my dad gets to wondering about those highway dashes.  He starts to guess – if you measured one, how long would a dash be?  Talk about useless information, right?  But then, right in the middle of a darkened highway, no cars in the rear-view mirror, my father stops the car, gets out, and starts measuring a dash, foot-in-front-of-foot like he’s taking a sobriety test.  Then he gets back into the car and announces proudly, “six feet”.  Think about that the next time you pass those stripes at forty miles an hour.  (But please, don’t get out and actually measure one).

California highways are usually dotted, not dashed.

Now let’s talk about street dots.  You know, those round, non-reflective raised pavement markers used to designate lanes and borders and such?  They’re actually called Botts’ dots.  It’s a name I’ve known since childhood because I grew up in California where they were invented.  California has over 25 million of the little guys marking its endless streets.  And if you must know, Botts’ dots were named for their inventor, Elbert Dysart Botts (and how’s that for a mouthful?)

Kinda cute, right?

Botts’ dots might’ve never been a thing were it not for their total makeover.  At first they were glass discs attached to the road with nails. (How’d you like to have that job?  Whack, whack, whack!).  But then they started popping loose, and people got flat tires from the nails and the broken glass.  So Botts (or a coworker) devised a hard plastic to replace the glass and an asphalt-friendly epoxy to replace the nails.  Now the dots – and the speeding cars above them – stay where they’re supposed to.

But now Botts’ dots have a whole new challenge.  We face a future with self-driving cars.  Turns out, Botts’ dots mess with that technology.  The car may or may not recognize a dot as the border of a lane.  That’s not good when you put your steering wheel in the hands of a robo-chauffeur.  But can you imagine the task of removing 25 million Botts’ dots?  That’s worse than hammering them in one by one!

Botts’ dots may go the way of the telegraph.

Over here in rural Colorado, I got pretty excited about the prospect of California surrendering all of its Botts’ dots.  We can use ’em.  You see, out here we have mostly two-lane highways divided by dashes, or occasionally solid lines instead of the dashes (don’t pass!), or very occasionally the luxury of a defined left-turn lane.  But “dash-it-all” when it snows.  You not only lose the striping, you lose the road.  At least a Bott’s dot would make noise and give you a jolt to let you know you’re not about to cruise into somebody’s cow pasture.

Alas, my dream of millions of Botts’ dots flying over the Rocky Mountains died before it was born.  Turns out the asphalt epoxy of a Botts’ dot cannot compete with the combined weight and speed of a snowplow.  The dots’d go flying every which way from the snowplow blade, like hundreds of tiny shuffleboard discs.  Ping! Ping! Ping!

Signaling merit badge was retired by the Boy Scouts in 1992 (yet another reminder of my advancing age).  Looks like the Botts’ dot is headed for a similar scrap heap, at least if self-driving cars become more mainstream.  Meanwhile, you’ll find me out in my neighborhood navigating the painted dashes.  Even if I do prefer the dots.

Some content sourced from Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.

Mass Distraction

Hundreds (if not thousands) of bloggers commented on last weekend’s tragic events in El Paso and Dayton. A search of either city on the WordPress website produces an endless list of posts. As it should be. Some of us process by writing; others by reading. Within these countless perspectives are paragraphs to help us cope, reflect, heal, and begin to move on. Not that we should move on; not at all. Like 9/11, the loss of life is meaningless if it doesn’t lead to a modicum of positive change.

Politicians will debate this issue relentlessly; their credibility questionable in concert with partisan agendas and unrealistic campaign promises. The media will focus on band-aid suggestions which appear to address the issue but don’t land anywhere close to its foundations. Regardless, if all this attention – misguided as it may be – leads to constructive conversation and heightened awareness, we’re taking a step in the right direction. The capacity for mass murder is far more complicated than we want to admit.

I tried several times this week to blog as normal. I found the usual du jour topics worth delving into. Yet every time I started typing I was distracted, for at least a couple of reasons. One, any topic besides this one would be utterly trivial by comparison. Two, any topic besides this one suggests my head – and my heart – are not where they should be.

Do I know anyone in El Paso? No, I don’t, nor in Dayton. Doesn’t matter. I still grieve for the victims and their families. After all, these are fellow countrymen and women. These are people I believe share similar values and a love of country, regardless of race, political persuasion, and all the other so-called differentiators. These are people I’d be delighted to run into if I were halfway around the world. They are far from strangers.

American flags fly at half-staff this week, as if our country needs a reminder of a horrific behavior already ingrained in our culture for decades. My own reminder is my inability to adequately express my myriad feelings today. Perhaps the writings of my fellow bloggers will bring me solace.

Speaking of other writers, my thanks to Feeding On Folly, who re-posted Mitch Teemley’s “The 32 Second Killing Spree” (read it here). Mitch’s post narrows the issue to the specifics we need to consider and the questions we must answer. Here’s one answer. Good and evil will always coexist, but we have to find a way to tip the scales a little more towards the good. If only for them.

I’ll be back next week, less troubled and a little more hopeful. At least, that’s the plan.

Slipping Away

Every time we travel to California – this past weekend, for example – I have to be reminded about their statewide ban on single-use plastic carryout bags.  You think I’d remember – Cali put the kibosh on the bags three years ago.  Still, we fill our basket with groceries, head to the check-out, and the cashier goes, “want to purchase bags?”  Argh.  I should store a couple of reusables in my suitcase; the very ones I keep in my car in Colorado.

Plastic straws followed plastic bags, of course.  Four months ago, the Golden State placed “discouragement” on the plastic variety (you must ask for them now).  We sat down to a meal and our waitress brought glasses of water – with paper straws (argh again).  Admittedly, “legal” sippers are pretty good.  No reduction to mush like breakfast cereal sitting too long in milk.  Other than the cost (several times more than plastic), and the fine ($25/day for un-requested plastic), paper straws are hardly inconvenient.

Now then, the real topic for today.  California is looking to “strike up the ban” yet again – on paper receipts; the little critters we receive after credit card transactions.  Say it isn’t so, West Coasters!  Bags and straws I can deal with, but a ban on paper receipts?  That’s just stealing another book from my old-school library.

According to a Wall Street Journal op-ed, the facts are these: paper receipts generate 686 million pounds of waste per year. (Can someone please quantify 686 million pounds – say, number of filled swimming pools?)  Paper receipts also generate 12 billion pounds of carbon dioxide. (Again, quantify – number of breathing humans?)  Also, paper receipts contain Bisphenol A (BPA); not exactly an appetizing compound.  In other words, don’t eat your receipts just because the food was lousy.

Without paper receipts, my personal budget maintenance takes a blow.  I keep everything in Quicken, so give me points for electronic accounting.  But I also use paper receipts – an old-fashioned double-check mechanism.  I enter the transaction from the receipt; then cross-check against the Visa statement (Jacob Marley reincarnated?)  Why do I do this?  Because once upon a time a waiter decided to triple my tip after I’d signed the bill and left the restaurant.  Later, my paper receipt didn’t reconcile with my Visa statement.  Busted.  I promptly called the manager, who investigated and lo-and-behold, discovered a pattern of gouging.  The waiter was fired.  More points for me!

Now here’s the irony in my triple-the-tip story.  What if the restaurant didn’t use paper receipts?  What if I processed my transaction through Square or an iPad, self-swiping my card and choosing the percentage tip?  For starters (and finishers) there wouldn’t have been gouging because there wouldn’t have been a waiter.  It would be like standing over the shoulder of the processor at Visa – instant reconciliation.  In effect, my story is a vote for no paper receipts.

Truth be told, I’m already evolving – slowly – from paper receipts.  When given the choice (Home Depot comes to mind), I select “email receipt” or “no receipt” more often than “paper”.  Unlike robo-calls, I accept the unsolicited side effects of electronic commerce (i.e. email spam).  In a nod to maintaining control, I select self-check-in at airports and self-check-out at markets.

More likely, I’m caving on paper receipts because I’ve already done so with a laundry list of other paper products.  My written letters have (d)evolved into email.  My paper-printed books have dissolved into bits/bytes on my Kindle e-reader.  My to-do lists now reside in a phone app.  Bills arrive in my online inbox instead of my streetside mailbox.

Phil Dyer, one reader of the Wall Street Journal piece, commented, “California will soon attempt to regulate earthquakes”.  49 of 50 U.S. states just LOL’d.  Me, not so much.  After all, I never thought I’d see the day where I’d give up my paper receipts.

Jack Be Quick

If the lazy days of summer sap your get-up-n-go, here’s an idea. Find a friendly donkey (not a stubborn one). Halter him and attach a solid lead rope – at least fifteen feet worth. Saddle your jack with thirty pounds of gear, including a pick, a shovel, and a gold pan.  Finally, don your running shoes and head out to Fairplay, CO. $50 gets you into the World Championship of Pack Burro Racing.  Welcome to the state sport of Colorado.

Pack burro racing seemed a little ridiculous to me… until I dived into the details.  For starters, its origin is as legendary as the Greeks and the marathon.  Back in the strike-it-rich days, two Colorado gold-miners hit it big in the same location, and supposedly raced back to town (burros in tow) – first miner to the claims office wins.  Here’s another detail: pack burro racing really is a marathon – 28-30 miles up and back with your donkey, making the halfway turn at an elevation of 13,000 ft.  My favorite rule?  No riding.  However, the runner may push, pull, drag, or carry the burro.  Carry the burro?  A thousand pounds of ass?

Capitals, flags, songs, and birds – of course – but I never knew states had official sports, until recently, when California considered its options.  If your first choice for the Golden State is surfing, California’s state assembly agrees with you.  The Wall Street Journal reports the assembly just passed the “bill”, and now the tiff moves to the state senate.  I say tiff because a host of other Cali residents say not so fast.  Those who don’t live near the beach choose skateboarding.  Why skateboarding?  Because surfing is already the state sport of Hawaii.  They also say skateboarding is essentially surfing on wheels.  Maybe.

I grew up in California, but neither surfed nor skateboarded.  Still, I deserve a vote.  I did my share of body-surfing, so know what it’s like to catch a wave.  I did my share of bicycling, so know what it’s like to cruise on wheels.  You can put yourself in either camp, but arguments abound for both.  As one state assemblyman said, “Hawaii may have invented surfing, but California ‘mainstreamed’ the sport”.  Others say, “Surf ranches” and their wave machines bring the sport to the inland areas of the state.  On the other side of the aisle, skateboarding is a sport enjoyed by the masses just about anywhere.  And skateboarding really was invented in California, evolving from crude combinations of roller skates and wooden produce boxes.  Marty McFly should get a vote too.

By coincidence, surfing and skateboarding will join the Olympics in 2020.  The lighting of the torch in Tokyo will surely reignite the debate in California, no matter which sport is chosen.  Or maybe the state will still be arguing one over the other, instead of dealing with – ahem – more important issues of government.

Only a handful of U.S. states claim a sport in their list of symbols.  Some make sense, as in Alaska (dog-mushing), Minnesota (ice hockey), and Wyoming (rodeo).  Others have me saying, “What the heck?”, as in Maryland (jousting), and Delaware (bicycling).  I don’t live in Maryland or Delaware.  Maybe they banned every other sport in those states.  Of course, Marylanders and Delawareans probably feel the same way about Colorado and its pack burro racing.

Admittedly, Colorado could wage a healthy state-sport debate of its own.  The Rocky Mountains alone inspire a half-dozen seemingly better options.  If on water, go with river-rafting or kayaking.  If on snow, go with skiing or snowboarding.  If on land, go with hiking or mountain biking.  Yet none of those acknowledge the state’s rich lore of gold-mining.  None of them combine a human activity with an equestrian one.  Come to think of it, Colorado has enough runners and horses to win the debate, gold-mining legend or not.

According to the Western Pack Burro Association (“Celebrating 70 Years of Hauling Ass”), Colorado’s pack burro racing series still has several to go this year.  The first three are considered the “Triple Crown”, but I can still catch the remaining action in the towns of Leadville, Buena Vista, and Victor.  It’ll be like the running of the bulls in Pamplona!

Some content sourced from Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.

American Tune-Up

Each of the fifty United States is represented by more than just a flag. America’s state symbols include animals, birds, trees, flowers, and songs. As a kid growing up in California I memorized these items, and years later I’ve still got them.  The “Golden State” has the Grizzly Bear, the Valley Quail, the Redwood, the Poppy, and “I Love You, California”.  Imagine my interest then, when Brooklyn Magazine took an updated stab at the state songs, publishing “The Musical Map of the United States”.

Image courtesy of Brooklyn Magazine, October 2016

Brooklyn Mag’s map is more than meets the eye (see here).  It’s not a collection of easy ditties you and I might come up with: Beach Boys for CA, John Denver for CO, Frank Sinatra for NY.  Instead, it’s a broad spectrum of lesser-known tunes, attached to the states by writers who chose them.  Read their stories and listen to their song choices.  It’s like 50+ blogs in one, plus a playlist if you want to shift the whole shebang to your smartphone.

Here’s a sampling of the Map’s creativity.  The writers chose Kenny Knight’s “America” for Colorado, a “dusty, country rock gem” with lyrics befitting its patriotic title (even if the song itself twangs along modestly).  For California, the writers needed two songs – Joni Mitchell’s “California”, and Dr. Dre’s “The Next Episode”.  The former artist is Canadian; the latter raised in the gangland streets of Compton near Los Angeles.  You’ll find Mitchell’s folk music as appropriate as Dre’s rap for such a diverse state.

As I studied the Map, I realized each of us possesses our own musical geography, accumulating map dots as we move through life.  My own map began on the 8-track player of my father’s Cadillac in the 1960’s, crooning along with Perry Como as he claimed, “the bluest skies you’ve ever seen (are) in Seattle”.  By the 1970’s, I’d moved on to a hard-earned collection of 45-rpm records (“singles”), focusing on Top 40 bubble-gum one-hit wonders like Paper Lace’s “The Night Chicago Died” and Terry Jack’s “Seasons in the Sun”.  Also in the 70’s – courtesy of my brother’s extensive LP collection (and a stereo capable of a sonic boom) – I mapped to all kinds of rock, including Emerson Lake, & Palmer, The Eagles, Elton John, and Linda Ronstadt.

By the 1980’s, I’d graduated to cassette tapes and the easy-listening music of John Denver, Olivia Newton-John, and Barry Manilow (to which some would say, two steps forward three steps back).  Later in the ’80’s, I embraced compact discs with a budding affection for country music (Alabama), continuing to this day (Thomas Rhett).

Throw in a handful of downloads from my kids (Katy Perry, Meghan Trainor), sprinkle the whole mess with classical symphonies and concertos – a carryover from childhood piano lessons – and you have my musical map.  I’ll bet yours is wildly different.

Even the world of sports has a musical map, as Steve Rushin wrote in an excellent piece in this week’s Sports Illustrated (“Cheer and Trebling”).  You can’t hear the whistling of “Sweet Georgia Brown” without thinking Harlem Globetrotters, just as you can’t make it through baseball’s seventh inning without singing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame”.  You won’t leave Yankee Stadium without Sinatra’s “New York, New York”, just as you won’t hear John Williams’ spectacular “Fanfare” without thinking Olympic Games.  Moments of silence at sporting events are literally reserved for the dearly departed.  Otherwise it’s all marching bands, pipe organs, and loudspeaker instrumentals.

My now-home state Colorado has a set of symbols like California.  The “Centennial State” has the Bighorn Sheep, the Lark Bunting, the Blue Spruce, the Columbine, and John Denver’s “Rocky Mountain High”.  But the song could just as easily be Katharine Lee Bates’ “America the Beautiful”, inspired by the Rocky Mountain peak I can see as I type.  The song could also be Kenny Knight’s “America”.

You listen.  You choose.  There are no right or wrong answers here.  Remember, even Google Maps gives you several options as you navigate your way.

Space Invader

Last week my family and I were on the road, heading west to Los Angeles. One morning we stopped for breakfast just short of the California state line. As I was paying and the cashier handed back my receipt, I asked her, “so… how’s your day going today?” She gave me a wary smile and replied “f-i-n-e…”. Then she looked at me a little more carefully and asked back (with no small amount of curiosity), “where you from, anyway?” And that’s when it hit me – I had invaded her personal space. At least, the big-city version of personal space.

46 - insular

Take a step back and assess the town you live in.  You’ll quickly decide whether you live in the “small” or the “big” variety. I’m not talking about physical size (though size does matter – ha). No, I’m talking about the chemistry of the place, and how you interact with the people around you.

I live in a rural area, and the surrounding towns are not much bigger than “one-street”. And here’s what I observe. People wave to each other from their cars or when walking on the road. People take face-to-face moments – however small – to have conversation. People gather at the local establishments to catch up with each other. The “hometown” parades and festivals and meals still draw decent crowds.

The big city – for all its energy and activities and diversity – is much more insular at the individual level. Its residents seek the comfort of their personal space, whether that is defined as neighborhood or house or even electronic device (personal space guaranteed by headphones and music). Indeed, retreat to personal space in the big city is a survival tactic – a stab at decompression and calm after the hectic hours on the sidewalk or in the car or office.

Be careful if you assume I favor small-town over big-city – far from it. I simply observe the outward differences as well as the inward coping mechanisms. In small towns we tend to have only one of everything (i.e. Mexican restaurant, Starbucks, dry cleaner). In big cities the choices are so vast that choosing Chipotle over the several local options feels like selling yourself short. As my big-city brother so succinctly puts it: small-town means opening the newspaper to see what there is to do, while big-city means deciding what you want to do; then opening the newspaper to see where it’s happening.

Small-town interactions fill the void of perhaps too much time in isolation. Big-city personal spaces ease the stress of perhaps too much time in the crowds. Hence it’s interesting to flip the dynamic every now and then, as I did with my breakfast cashier. She was comfortable in her personal space until I invaded with my casual question. And maybe just for a moment, she let down her distrust guard and realized I was simply interested in how her day was going.

Old-World Charming

One of my favorite musicals is “Brigadoon”.  The original production dates a long way back; to 1947.  Brigadoon tells the tale of two Americans traveling in the Scottish Highlands.  A town quietly appears to them through the fog: charming, simple and untouched by time.  It is idyllic.  To protect itself from the changing outside world, “Brigadoon” only appears to outsiders one day every hundred years.  So when one of these travelers falls in love with a Scottish lass from the town, he only has a few hours to decide if that love means remaining in Brigadoon and disappearing into the fog forever.  The ending is fitting (and not so predictable).  I won’t give it away here.

31 - idyllic

My own Brigadoon appears to me, once a year for only a week or two.  Just north of San Diego lies the little coastal town of Del Mar.  It is a quiet village by the sea, with pretty little shops and restaurants, a prominent hotel, and a train that whistles its way along the nearby cliffs several times a day.  You can stroll leisurely from the beach to the center of town in a matter of minutes.  You can sit in the park on the bluffs and lose yourself in the horizon.  The flip-flop pace is slow and the carefree inhabitants always seem relaxed and happy.  Like Brigadoon, Del Mar is simple, romantic, and idyllic.

I keep returning to Del Mar, just as I did when I was a boy.  Growing up in the bustle of Los Angeles, Del Mar was only a two-hour drive south by car or an effortless journey by train; yet always seemed a world away.  My family spent the summers at our house on the beach, including countless hours in the sand and surf.  In those days – a half-century ago or more (gulp) – Del Mar was as modest a burg as you can imagine.  The beachhouses were drab single-story wood-sided bungalows.  A walk on the shore encountered a lot of seaweed and rocks and only an occasional shell.  The town was unremarkable; more practical than boutique.  My child’s eye recalls the 7-Eleven as a highlight; the only place a kid cared about thanks to its Slurpees and pinball machines.  Del Mar’s drugstore was almost forgettable, except you could buy chocolate malt tablets (meant for indigestion but candy to us kids).  The park contained a snack shack where you couldn’t get much more than a grilled cheese and a Coke.  And my friends and I used to sneak under the highway through a culvert, giving us a back door entrance to the nearby horse-racing grounds.  I can still picture the jockeys, exercising their thoroughbreds in the ocean waves.

Del Mar is a wholly different animal today.  The draw of the coast, the consistently good weather, and the summer horse-racing season has transformed a modest locale into quite the tony address.  The beach is groomed daily and the sand is marked into areas for swimming and other areas for games and still other areas for dogs.  The hotel commands a nightly rate of $350.  The park on the bluffs is all spruced up – no more snack bar – and used for concerts and festivals.  A sunset wedding/reception sets you back $4k just for the use of the park.  The local Starbucks sells enough coffee and tea to rank among the most successful locations in the country.  The racetrack patrons hit the town in their Sunday best the first day of the season (think Kentucky Derby).  And most notably, a house on the beach – with a very narrow slot of property abutting the ocean – cannot be had for less than $10 million.  Yes, Del Mar is all dressed up these days and hardly simple.

But it’s still my Brigadoon.

My family and I make our annual pilgrimage to Del Mar every July.  We leave behind landlocked Colorado for yet another taste of the sun and surf and salty air.  And as soon as I arrive, the little town I remember reveals itself to me from the fog that has enveloped it over the years.  The fancy shops, restaurants, and patrons step aside in favor of the simpler and more idyllic memories of the Del Mar I first fell in love with.  If it were possible, I might just choose to take a leap – forever – into the Brigadoon of my yesteryear.