(No) Separation of Church and State

This weekend my wife & I packed up the last of our things and moved from Colorado to South Carolina. We’ve decided the lower elevation and milder temps of the “Palmetto State” make better sense for our retirement. But instead of a moving truck, we trailered the horse (and the dog and the barn cat) along with our suitcases. A half-ton of horse means driving in the slow lane, our top speed 65 mph without blowing a gasket. And driving through Kansas in the slow lane – or any lane for that matter – feels like forever.

The western edge of Kansas, at Interstate 70, is an encouraging starting point as you leave Colorado.  You pass an attractive “Welcome Center”, a convenient place to take a break and learn a little about the “Sunflower State” before you venture further.  More importantly, you notice an immediate improvement in the road conditions.  Kansas, unlike Colorado, not only earmarks tax dollars to keep its highways pristine, the state actually spends those dollars accordingly (instead of dipping into them for other purposes).  Our horse – standing on four legs the entire journey – appreciated the smoother ride, if not the triple-digit temps.

Twenty or thirty miles into Kansas, the sobering reality of America’s Heartland sets in.  For one, you could lay a ruler on the hundreds of miles of Interstate 70 and hardly need a turn of the steering wheel.  For two, you realize every town along the way – save Kansas City to the far east – looks exactly the same.  Water tower. Cell phone tower. Church. Gas station. Fast food. A surround of corn fields. Lather, rinse, repeat.  It’s like someone drew up a generic template of a town and laid it down a couple dozen times along the interstate.  Doesn’t help to keep a slow driver alert, especially when you’re on cruise control.

But suddenly, mercifully, and completely out of nowhere, you see little Victoria, Kansas on the horizon.  Not Victoria, British Columbia (though it might feel like you’re driving all the way to Canada).  Victoria, Kansas, with its mere 1,200 residents and one square mile of town.  And right in the middle of Victoria, rising out of the earth as abruptly as the Rocky Mountains, sits the Basilica of St. Fidelis, better known as the Cathedral of the Plains.

You can probably spy St. Fidelis from fifty miles away as you approach, but you certainly don’t believe what you’re seeing.  Kansas is as flat as a pancake yet Victoria boasts a cathedral worthy of a spot in Rome.  The first time I saw St. Fidelis several years ago (driving a whole lot fast than 65 mph), I thought it was the Kansas heat bringing me a heavenly mirage.  I half expected the clouds to part (even though there weren’t any) and a host of angels to surround those tall twin spires.

But St. Fidelis is a lot more real than a mirage.  It was built in the early 1900s by German and Russian immigrants, each of whom pledged to haul six wagonloads of limestone and another four of sand from nearby quarries.  St. Fidelis predates any kind of construction equipment so the entire structure was raised by hand.  These industrious Kansans knew the meaning of hard work.

St. Fidelis boasts forty-eight handcrafted stained-glass windows, valued at more than $1M.  Its beautiful procession of Romanesque-style arches hovers above marble floors.  The cathedral was “elevated” to the status of Minor Basilica by decree of the Pope in 2014, and earned a place on America’s National Register of Historic Places.  In other words, there’s no separating this church from this state.  Not bad for an old building in a tiny metropolis in the middle of cornfields.  I only wish I’d had the time to exit the interstate and head down to Victoria for a closer look.

The Sunflower State has adopted the Latin phrase ad astra per aspera as its motto.  It means “to the stars through difficulties”, representing the aspirations and hard-working spirit of the state.  I’d say the Cathedral of the Plains is Kansas’ perfect example, wouldn’t you?

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

Too Much on My Plate

In the latest spin on subscription services, BMW will – for a small fee – heat the seats in your car. Maybe you saw this headline already and thought, “Fake News”.  Afraid not. Rather than simply pushing the heat-the-seat button on your 3 Series sedan you must contact BMW first, who will remotely unlock the feature and charge you by the month. A separate soon-to-be-offered subscription gets you a heated steering wheel. I shouldn’t be surprised by this latest cash grab at the expense of driving comfort. After all, we’re also about to enter the era of electronic license plates.

I find U.S. license plates to be mini-artworks, don’t you?  They’re colorful, often including an image or slogan to proudly advertise the state itself.  The letters and numbers raise from the rest of the aluminum rectangle, giving the fingers a pleasing sensation when you brush over them.  Drivers who choose “vanity plates” offer the rest of us on the road a puzzle, to figure out what phrase the chosen letters/numbers represent (and never getting the chance to ask).  The U.S. Mint should take a cue from colorful license plates and print American dollars with the same pizzazz.  After all, “greenbacks” are anything but mini-artworks.

But I digress. Today we’re talking about license plates, displaying numbers and letters in pixels instead of raised metal.  My first thought when I read about electronic license plates?  Fraud.  I mean, seriously, how easy will it be to hack into the software and alter the numbers and letters, effectively rendering the vehicle impossible to track?  Or worse, what if the software hiccups and the plate displays nothing at all?  It’s kind of like when Colorado legalized recreational marijuana several years ago.  Our state didn’t think that one through either and now we’re dealing with all sorts of hitches in the giddyup.  Electronic license plates are bound to be an imperfect technology.

And yet, just like heated seat subscriptions “digital display plates” have their advantages.  They’ll emit a signal for tracking and monitoring (which some will surely drive to the Supreme Court as an invasion of privacy).  They can flash an easy-to-see message if the vehicle is not properly registered or insured.  They can interface with parking meters and toll systems for automated payments.  Finally, inevitably, they’ll offer advertisements to the captive audience in the car directly behind them, switching from letters/numbers to digital commercials when the car is stopped.

Colorado has joined four other U.S. states who already offer electronic license plates.  Like BMW’s services, the plates will be offered on a monthly subscription.  At $20-$25/mo. they’re a whole lot pricier than standard or even vanity plates.  But you just know there are plenty of drivers who want the latest/greatest technology, even with the inevitable drawbacks of a first-generation product.

[Trivia Break!  Recent demand in several U.S. states moved the license plate character count from six to seven.  Guess how many unique plates you can make from a combination of three numbers and four letters alone?  Sixteen million. It’s fair to say we won’t be needing an eighth license plate character anytime soon.]

I admit I’m slow to adopt new inventions, even though I spent the last twenty years of my career in tech.  The laptop I’m typing on is five years old and doing just fine.  The SUV I drive will last fifteen years since the one I had before it did as well.  And the fitness band I wear gives me a dozen angles on my health yet I’m more interested in the time of day.

Electronic license plates may be overcomplicating the issue.  The metal variety sits there quietly, displaying letters and numbers like it’s supposed to.  The electronic variety aims to be anything but a license plate.  Amber Alerts.  Insurance/registration violations.  Product advertisements.  Or – God forbid – electronic bumper stickers, where the owner can publicly express the kinds of opinions to drive the rest of us to road rage.

Say what you will about BMW, but the automaker is simply climbing onboard the subscription bandwagon.  Who can blame them for finding new ways to make (our) money?  On the other hand, drivers may wake up one day and wonder why we ever caved to electronic license plates.  We just have to glance at our roadside billboards to know we had it coming.

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

Curtains for Calls

Denver’s getting a new area code next month!

No, I’m not short on blog topics – stay with me here.

“983” will be added to 303 and 720 because Denver’s rapid growth means they’re running out of new phone numbers. But it’s not our state’s fifth area code itself that has my attention (by comparison, California blows us away with 36). It’s the 25 years “983” is expected to last before Colorado needs a sixth area code. Seriously? Will we even have phones in 25 years?

“719” reaches my corner of Colorado

“Area code” feels like an old-fashioned term. I associate area codes with the physical act of “dialing” (also an old-fashioned term). Sure, we need area codes to establish new numbers the first time we get smartphones (as preschoolers?) but then they become more labels than three-digit numbers, don’t they?  Think about it.  If you need to call someone these days, forget about their area code because you already have it in their profile.  You either tell your phone to call the person or you pull them up in “Contacts” and simply touch the number on the screen.  In other words, your phone dials the area code but you do not. Not anymore.

How to call someone in D.C.

Before smartphones, area codes had more prestige.  They were required to make “long-distance” phone calls, which meant you had to dial an extra three digits.  Outside of toll-free numbers, area codes conjured up exotic destinations, as if dialing halfway around the world instead of somewhere else in your state.  Area codes made you feel like you were calling someone important.  Today, they’re just labels.

If I really wanted to date myself, I could be talking about telephone exchange numbers instead of area codes.  KLondike, WRigley, and TEmpleton all referred to the central offices of telephone exchanges, with every phone number in an exchange starting with the first two letters of the central office.  PEnnsylvania 6-5000 was a memorable example because it connected you with the famous Hotel Pennsylvania in New York City, and Glenn Miller made the number into a popular swing jazz tune in the 1940s.  I wasn’t around in the 1940s (or even the 1950s), so enough with this topic.

Let’s flush “dialing” out of conversations about phones, shall we? Nobody “dials” anymore.  Dialing (for you preschoolers) hearkens back to a time when phones were phones.  You picked up the corded “handset” from the “cradle” on the “base”, nestled it against your jaw so the “receiver” lined up with the ear and the “microphone” with the mouth, toggled the “switchhook” for “dial tone”, and placed a call by spinning the rotary dial once for each digit in the phone number (got all that, kids?)  The dial would rotate back to its original position after each digit so you could dial the next one.  The whole process took 30-45 seconds, followed by a long pause, and then the “ringer” sounded on the receiving phone.  With that in mind, do you take the ease of your smartphone touchscreen for granted?  Of course you do.

[Author’s Note: The mechanics of rotary phones (base, dial, ringer, handset) made them HEAVY.  You can find movies from the 1940s or 1950s where a character uses a rotary phone as a weapon simply by clocking someone over the head with it.]

Dialing eventually gave way to “touch-tones” (thanks to the invention of the transistor).  The rotary dial was replaced with a grid of plastic pushbuttons, one for each digit.  Yes, we still “dialed” area codes but with buttons instead.  The buttons then migrated from the phone base to the handset.  The handset then went cordless.  Finally, the base disappeared altogether, and voila! – you had the first “mobile” phone.

Area codes make me nostalgic because I associate them with actual phone calls, one voice talking to another.  Today we’d sooner text than talk.  Delivered mail to your box on the street isn’t long for this world.  One of these days it’ll be curtains for phone calls as well.  Which re-begs the question about Denver’s latest area code.  Do we really need bright and shiny-new “983”?

The Jetsons don’t know “phones”

Phone calls of the future may simply be mind games where we’re able to “ring” each other brain-to-brain. A little far-fetched, you say?  Probably, and the idea of thought control makes me squeamish anyway.  Call it old-fashioned, but I hope we’re still talking about area codes in 25 years after all.

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

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Lego Grand Piano – Update #19

(Read about how this project got started in Let’s Make Music!)

Today’s section of the symphony was short and entirely predictable.  Bag #19 – of 21 bags of pieces – assembled the rest of the piano’s top lid, shown completed in the photos below.  I simply picked up where I left off from last week’s Bag #18, continuing to build up the “wall” of the lid until it was complete.  It’s a repetitive process using pieces of similar sizes and shapes.  Now, all we are left with – my patient audience members – is the support structure of the piano lid (so it can be raised to its very elegant angle when open), and the free-standing pianist’s bench.

  Today’s build took less than twenty minutes. (I could’ve built Bag #20 as well, but why change my weekly pace this late in the game?)  As I was finishing the piano lid it occurred to me using Mr. Instruction Manual is a lot like using sheet music.  You shift your eyes between the manual and the piano itself constantly as you work, step-by-step-by-step.  Just as you would when playing the piano from a sheet of music.

Running Build Time: 13.3 hours.  Musical accompaniment: Brahams’ Violin Concerto in D. Leftover pieces: None again!

Conductor’s Note: Johannes Brahms had to be included in the list of musical accompaniments for my Lego Grand Piano build because, well, he’s one of the “bigs” in classical music. His Violin Concerto in D Major sits on Germany’s Mount Rushmore of violin concertos, beside Beethoven’s, Mendelssohn’s, and Max Bruch’s.  You, however, know Brahms best for his beloved lullaby “Cradle Song”, which starts “Lullaby, and goodnight, with roses bedight…”

I Just Turned 59.99589!

It may interest you to know there are real Memory Lanes in the bedroom communities of every American state. Look them up on Google Maps (I stopped searching after finding dozens.) Must be fun to be one of those residents and see the look on someone’s face when you give them your address.  No, I don’t know anyone who lives on Memory Lane, but me, I kind of do; one with no stripes or sidewalks. Mine is paved with sixty years of material, some of it worth a visit; other items best left alone.  All of this “Dave” stuff is somewhere between my ears and today it’s time for a big – okay, little – reveal.

59.99589.  If you’re reading this post the day it was published, I’ve just revealed my age to ridiculous exactness.  The 0.99589 amounts to 363 out of the past 365 days.  You could say I’m still in my late fifties (very late, Dave), but more accurately you’ll say I’m either sixty on the dot or a mere forty-eight hours removed from it.  Do I feel old now?  Of course not!  Er, until I calculate my age in months.  I’ve spent 720 of those bad boys.  For Pete’s sake, what have I been doing all my life?

Well, let me answer that question.  In fact, let’s make it a game because then you get to play too.  Think about the last sixty years (or in your case, however many decades you’ve been around).  Now let’s create a list – off the top of our graying heads – of up to ten significant world events in the timeframe of our years.  No, no, no; not the events you learned in the history books, but the ones with lasting, maybe even personal impact.  Here are mine, in no particular order:

  1. 9/11 (2001)
  2. COVID-19 (2020-???)
  3. San Francisco Bay Area earthquake (1989)
  4. Space Shuttle Challenger (1986)
  5. America’s war in Afghanistan (2001-2021)
  6. Apollo rockets (1961-1972)
  7. Colorado’s Black Forest wildfire (2013)

I don’t have enough time to explain my choices (after all, I only have forty-eight hours until I”m a “sexy-genarian”) but trust me; these seven came to mind in a heartbeat.  Now arrange them in chronological order to paint an interesting picture.  My childhood was inspired by Apollo rocket launches (courtesy of black-and-white TV’s); my young adult years by two disasters – the Challenger explosion and the devastating earthquake in the San Francisco Bay Area; and my adult years by big-bad-ticket items like terrorism, war, wildfire, and a global pandemic.  Sadly, not one of these events makes anyone’s “good list” (am I a product of headline news or what?). But that’s not to say my sixty years have been altogether bad.  Quite the contrary.

Now, here’s where the game gets more interesting.  Make a similar list as above, but include up to ten significant events of a personal nature.  These are the formative moments, where you’re not the same person after they happened as you were before.  Leave off relationships (including marriage) and having kids, because most of us have or will have those in common.  Let’s see now.  My eyes are closed, I’m in a thoughtful trance, and I’m typing, all at the same time (a man of many talents, no?) Okay, pencils down.  Here’s my “formative” list, also in no particular order:

  1. Corrective eye surgery (1977)
  2. I-survived-but-the-car-didn’t rollover (1984)
  3. Immersive year of studies in Rome, Italy (1982-83)
  4. Traded California’s coast for Colorado’s Rockies (1993)
  5. First job <McDonald’s> (1975)
  6. All things Boy Scouts (1973-1978)
  7. Architecture career ends, tech career begins (1993)
  8. All things basketball (1974-1979)

Again, I’d love to wax on about my choices but I’d turn 61 before I’d be done typing.  Instead, sort my formatives from earliest to most recent.  Notice anything?  All happened between the ages of 10 and 30.  My “clay was molded’ in a mere one-third of my lifetime.  Not really true, of course.  Ages 1-10 – none of us remember much of those.  But now I hear you saying, “So Dave, what have you been doing for the last thirty years?”  Well, you know the answer already  The same thing as most every other red-blooded American male.  Raising a family.  Making a living.  Loving my wife.  Loving my life.

I predict my sixties will be my greatest decade; just you wait and see.  I’ll witness another significant world event or two (maybe even a “good one”!)  I’ll break my thirty-year run of nothing and come up with at least one more formative experience.  I’ll write another 520 blog posts (and you’ll block a chunk of your calendar to read them).  But let’s be real; this is just musings about my sixties.  I’m only in my fifties. My account still shows a credit of forty-eight hours.

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Lego Grand Piano – Update #2

The concert is underway! (read about my hesitant warm-up in the post Let’s Make Music!).  Bag #2 – of 21 bags of pieces – started out innocently enough, with big pieces and easy assembly.  My maestro-confidence overfloweth.

Suddenly things got v-e-r-y complicated in Mr. Instruction Manual.  Tiny, tiny pieces!  Mechanical components!  Cables!  Batteries!  Here’s last week’s build, and then below, this week’s additions for comparison.  Enlarge the second photo for a better look at the colorful, scary-looking “spindle”, running top left to bottom right.  I have no idea what it’s for but it connects to the gray/white motor (at least I think it’s a motor) just behind it. I count forty-five little Legos on the spindle, each required to be positioned exactly as you see them.  Almost walked off the stage when I was done with that step.

Running build time: 2.5 hours.  Musical accompaniment: Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5 “Emperor” (three times through!)  Leftover pieces: 5 (Conductor’s note: Last week I only had 1 leftover piece.  5 = concern.  I need to double-check this week’s work before moving forward.  Safe to say you can’t go back and “repair” after the fact).

Picking Poison

If you have me over for dinner and ask what I’d like to drink, I’m probably going to disappoint you. My go-to “adult beverages” are wine and, well… wine.  Nothing mixed.  Nothing with a lot of proof on the bottle.  A margarita with Mexican and a beer after a long day in the sun, but otherwise it’s pretty much a glass of Chardonnay or a full-bodied Cabernet. Not much creativity in picking my poison, it seems. Yet that’s not quite true.  Out on my property I’m faced with poison just about every day, as I fight a persistent onslaught of noxious weeds.

Dalmatian toadflax

Noxious weeds make their appearance around here every spring – without fail – just when I’m fooled into thinking this, this is the year they’ll cut me a break and infiltrate someone else’s property instead.  I’ll walk out one morning and seemingly overnight the uninviteds have taken prominent positions among the prairie grass.  Knapweed.  Toadflax.  Mullein.  And the worst of this noxious bunch: thistle.

Weeds annoy most anyone, but noxious weeds deserve a place in Hollywood’s scariest horror flick.  These bad boys earn descriptors like “aggressive invader”, “detrimental to native plants”, and “poisonous to livestock”.  Noxious weeds fall into a family of growees known as “alien plants”, which means they don’t belong here in Colorado.  Nor anywhere else on Earth if you ask me.  Name one redeeming aspect of these pernicious inhabitants.  I can’t, except perhaps I get a solid workout while I struggle to keep them at bay.

Thistle

Operative phrase there, keep them at bay.  Not kill them.  Most noxious weeds establish an underground root system as strong as chain link fence.  Many are impervious to the most aggressive chemical warfare.  Try yanking out the whole plant and you’ll burn through a bank’s worth of sweat equity.  Better to use something gas-powered instead.  Or a flame thrower.

Knapweed

Yes, Colorado has its Rocky Mountains and seasons of snow, but most of the Centennial State is high and dry desert.  We’re constantly challenged by drought, and in those conditions noxious weeds thrive.  Our county even has a “Noxious Weeds Division”, of the Environmental Division of the Community Services Department.  Send them an email and they’ll tell you everything you need to know about noxious weeds.  Most disturbingly, how they’re here… to… stay.

Let’s get to know these persistent plants a little better:

  • Diffuse knapweed – Picture a tumbleweed.  Large, round, and spiny.  Not very nice to look at.  You can knock off knapweed by severing the single taproot, but, its seeds can still develop on the cut plant.  Time for a bonfire.
  • Dalmatian toadflax – Showy, yellow, snapdragon-like flowers.  One plant can produce a half-million seeds.  The best way to control this bugger is… with bugs.  Can anyone spare some root-boring moths or stem-boring weevils?
  • Common mullein – Starts as an innocent, flat, green “rosette”, then bursts into a ramrod straight stalk, several feet tall.  Mercifully, mullein has a shallow root.  Meanwhile, people think you’re growing corn in your pasture.
  • Canada thistle – Small purple flowers bunched on tall, dark green stalks, replete with thorns and other self-defense mechanisms.  Hand-pulling this freakshow of nature stimulates its growth.  If you ask me, Canada thistle is better named “Satan’s Rosebush”.
I prefer this kind of dalmatian

How do I know the exact species of my noxious weeds?  Because my county’s Noxious Weeds Division tells me… when they send letters threatening to charge for maintenance if I don’t do it myself.  My advice: it’s best to obey the Noxious Weeds Division.

Mullein

Now for some noxious weed trivia:

  • Worldwide damage caused by noxious weeds: $1.4 trillion USD.
  • Russian thistle lives longer than humans.
  • Giant hogweed (which causes a nasty, blistering skin rash) earns a spot in the Guinness Book as “world’s largest weed”.  Its umbrella-like blooms can hover more than eighteen feet, on stalks three or more inches around.  “Giant” indeed.
  • Lastly… (and my personal favorite), before the chemical embalming process, tansy ragwort was used to line coffins because of its ability to repel vermin.  Hey!  Another redeeming aspect of noxious weeds.

I have a fond weed memory (believe it or not).  When I was a kid, I stayed at my uncle’s house for several days alongside a cousin about the same age.  Somehow my uncle had us weeding his front yard (work in exchange for food?).  Those straight-and-tall weeds looked like a vast army of soldiers.  So that’s how my cousin and I took to the job.  We split the yard down the middle, declared ourselves generals, and started taking down the soldiers one by one.  When the dust cleared and the “bodies” were removed, the battlefield was admirably clean.  We declared victory and went inside for a much-needed shower.

I’ve just returned from another battle with my noxious weeds.  I lopped off dozens of mullein tops with my pruning shears, to shut down their seed spread.  It’s exhausting work and I’m done picking poison for the day.  I could use a drink.  Nothing mixed, of course.  A beer will do just fine.

Some content sourced from the Noxious Weeds and Control Methods guidelines document, State of Colorado, El Paso County, Community Services Department, Environmental Division.

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”.

As the Wind Blows

Pagosa Springs, a small town in Colorado’s San Juan Mountains, lies 7,100′ above sea level. It is locally known for its therapeutic hot springs. Pagosa also boasts a 35-year business called Rocky Mountain Balloon Adventures, which takes you an additional 3,000′ above sea level for “360° views of the beautiful valley [of Pagosa] below”. Maybe you’ll climb aboard their basket and go for a float someday.  If you do, my apologies for not joining you.  I’d rather spend my time in the terra firma of Pagosa’s hot springs than the “terror for-sure-a” of a balloon ride above.

Getting high, above Pagosa Springs

Logic says my fear of heights denies me the thrill of soaring up, up, and away.  Not true.  It’s more about the “gone with the wind” part (sorry for that, Scarlett).  Once the balloon reaches cruising altitude, the pilot extinguishes the fire and Mother Nature silently takes over.  Then your high-rise ride gets a little dicey unpredictable.  It’s the whole not-knowing-where-you’re-gonna-end-up moment that gets me.

Possible outcomes as follows.  You descend gracefully into a farmer’s field with the “chase vehicle” just minutes away.  You zip hundreds of feet up and then hundreds more down, depending on which fickle air stream you encounter.  Or, you float all the way to nearby New Mexico on the strong winds we have here in Colorado.  All while literally hanging by threads.

Albuquerque’s big balloon bash

Speaking of New Mexico, it wouldn’t be the worst destination for one of Pagosa’s rogue hot air balloons.  After all, the International Balloon Fiesta – the largest gathering of balloonists in the country – takes place every October in Albuquerque.  At least you’d have professionals on the ground eager to reel you in.  Also in Pagosa’s favor: small town = few power lines.  Hot air ballooning and power lines do not mix.  See here for what happens when they do (coincidentally, just weeks ago in Albuquerque).

Despite the occasional crash landing, ballooning fatalities are rare.  In fact, hot air ballooning has been designated “safest air sport in aviation” according to years of statistics, and a Swiss aeronautics organization whose name I can’t pronounce.  So maybe it’s not so bad if you never have a neatly paved runway to greet your touchdown.  Heck, Pagosa locals love it when a hot air balloon ends up in their backyard.  They come running out of their houses to greet you with coffee and cinnamon rolls.  Breakfast?  Hmmm.  Maybe I can do this ballooning thing after all.

I may not be a balloon flyboy but that doesn’t mean I’d rain on a parade of those big colorful inflatables.  After all, hot air balloons first appeared to me in favorite childhood stories, like L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, William Pène du Bois’s The Twenty-One Balloons, or Albert Lamorisse’s priceless (and wordless) The Red Balloon.  They show up as flying animals every Thanksgiving Day at the Macy’s parade in New York City.  As well, right here in my hometown we have an impressive showing of hot-air balloons every Labor Day weekend, including a “balloon glow” in the evenings.  Now that I think about it, there’s probably more ballooning going on in this part of the country than anywhere else.

Colorado Springs’ beautiful balloon glow

It’s not as if hot air ballooning is some new-fangled sport (hoverboarding, anyone?)  The first untethered hot-air balloon flight took place back in the eighteenth century.  Hundreds of commercial operators offer hot-air balloon rides in the United States, and hundreds more are private owners.  Add a little perspective and 3000′ above Pagosa Springs is nothing.  The world record for the flight height of a hot-air balloon is 64,980′ (like a Mt. Everest on top of a Mt. Everest).

Up, up, and seriously away

Strict definitions aside, the altitude record for hot air ballooning is about to topple, in a big way.  A company called Space Perspective is now taking reservations for its giant hot air balloon, launching in early 2024.  You, seven other passengers, and your pilot astronaut will take a six-hour ride in a pressurized capsule under a giant balloon… to the edge of the Earth’s atmosphere.  A seat on “Spaceship Neptune” costs $125,000.  Operators are standing by to take your payment…. for 2025, that is.  The 300 seats offered in 2024 are long gone.

Maybe 3000′ above Pagosa Springs doesn’t sound so bad after all.

Some content sourced from the CNN Travel article, “On sale: $125,000 balloon trips to the edge of space”, and Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.

A Million Little Leaks

Several years ago, I worked out with a personal trainer in a bunch of one-hour sessions at my gym.  She was all about proper lifting and careful stretching – and nasty core exercises I’ve patently avoided to this day.  But she did give me one time-proven piece of advice: after working out, go relax 10-15 minutes in the dry sauna. You’ve already revved up your metabolism with the workout, so the sauna helps extract toxins from the body. Yes, and the sauna also helps imitate the heat and humidity of South Carolina in the summertime.

My wife & I are heading to the Palmetto State for a long-overdue getaway at the end of May.  We’ll be spending a few days in the western counties before catching up with our daughter and her boyfriend in coastal Charleston.  We’ve taken this trip before.  The difference?  Last time we were there in early April when the heat and humidity sort of caressed your cheek with a soft kiss.  This time we’ll be there to kick off summer and it’ll feel like standing under a hot shower.  Outdoors.  Fully dressed.

I’ve always been a sweater (no, I don’t mean the extra layer you pull over your head in the winter months).  After a long jog, my t-shirt and shorts are so wet they could double as sponges.  My hair falls wet-stringy straight down my forehead and the perspiration runs in rivers here and streams there.  Yep, I’m one handsome dude.  But where most people say ick, I recognize sweating for the healthy cooling/cleansing process it is. A sign my metabolism is alive and kicking.  Turn on the faucets, baby.

Speaking of moisture, isn’t moist one of the most atrocious-sounding words in the English language?  I’ve never made peace with those five letters and I know I haven’t used moist in a sentence in years (no matter how good my baked goods taste).  The English language has such beautiful words, like chimes and delicacy and silhouette.  Why disrupt the sweet-sounding party with a word like moist?

Photo courtesy of Warner Bros.

I’m not gonna pretend a good sweat is ever comfortable (maybe it’s because I feel moist) but I’ve certainly gotten used to the sensation over the years.  And now that I live in Colorado?  Zero humidity.  Well, okay, there’s a little humidity here at 7,500 feet above sea level.  But most of the time it’s so dry, the needle on your tank seems to be perpetually on “E”.  This pathetic little voice deep inside your body pleads for, “water… water…” (think Tin Man asking for his oil can – that kind of voice).

A dry sauna room (aka a “hot box”)

Let’s go back to my dry sauna sessions.  Since you’re already asking the question, I don’t mean “wet sauna” (where steam is introduced into a room as tiled as a Chinese kitchen). I’m talking about that other room, with nothing but wooden benches and a nasty little blast furnace in the corner (wood-burning, electric, hot rocks – whatever heats like hell).  You sit there draped in a small towel in 200º F and for a few minutes, all is quiet and comfortable.  But then, almost imperceptibly, your skin develops a sheen.  You begin to glisten.  Suddenly droplets of perspiration pop out all over the place and it’s “open the floodgates, Poseidon”.  A million little leaks.

I won’t speak for the ladies’ locker room (that mysterious country club adjacent to our locker room), but sometimes the men’s dry sauna can get a little awkward.  When you approach the glass door, it’s so steamed you can’t tell how many guys are already in there.  Once you enter, choose a place on the bench without hesitation or you’ll be judged.  Good chance you’ll end up next to a heavy breather, which in some schools of thought is therapeutic.  Other times you’ll end up next to someone with headphones, which somehow don’t block the four-letter words of his rap music.  One time I was subjected to the wellness preachings of a huge Samoan-looking guy, where I thought it best not to argue with his musings.  All of which is to say, you never really know what you’re gonna get with the dry sauna.  It’s an intimate little sweatbox filled with semi-naked strangers.  Good times, huh?

South Carolina’s “Holy City”

When I’m in Charleston I won’t miss the dry sauna because Mom Nature will provide her own version round-the-clock.  The heat and humidity will promote enough of my perspiration to – as the family says – “make my face rain”.  I’m like one of those mysterious underground springs, where the water keeps bubbling up from the ground and you wonder if it’s ever gonna stop.  Every gonna stop?  Not with my metabolism.  For sheer entertainment value, if you’re in Charleston later this month, keep an eye out for me.  I’m the one with the million little leaks.

My Dandy-Lion Pine Tree

Angel Oak – Johns Island, South Carolina

Just outside Charleston, S.C., you’ll come across a mystical tree called the Angel Oak. It’s a massive growth with dozens of meandering branches, some almost 200 feet long, others big enough to stand on. The Angel Oak has survived for centuries despite hurricanes and ever-encroaching urban development. It’s named after the settlers of a nearby plantation but you’d swear it has more to do with a supernatural being. When you stand within the calm and quiet of the Angel Oak’s wing-like branches, you can feel the embrace of a higher power.  You might as well be in church.

I have a similar tree in my front pasture, here in Colorado.  It’s a singular, lonely, rather sad-looking pine, about seven feet tall, standing sentry beside a swale running through the property.  My pine has very few branches, and on those, very little growth.  I could accurately describe the profile of this tree as a Tootsie Pop, or perhaps one of those ball-and-stick trees you see on architectural renderings.  I prefer a more organic comparison instead.  My tree reminds me of a dandelion, only with a very sturdy stem.  I’m tempted to puff up and blow on his modest ball of pine needles, but he looks so feeble I’m afraid they’ll actually take flight.

My pine tree is as cryptic as the Angel Oak is mystical.  There’s so much I can’t explain about him.  He was standing out there fifteen years ago when we moved to this property.  For all I know he was out there fifteen hundred years ago.  Despite our high-desert drought, winter blizzards, gusty winds, and other fill-in-the-blank weather events, my pine tree stands resolutely and takes it all without bending.  Never seems to grow, wither, or even lose those few pine needles.  In fact, he seems to be waiting for something – or maybe someone.  It’s a day-in-day-out mystery.

A tree, a horse, and an endless forest beyond

Five hundred yards to the east of my lone pine, we have a dense forest of trees that goes on for miles.  These pines stand so close together it’s a wonder they get enough sunlight to grow.  These tall timbers strike me as an army, standing silently at attention, ready to march forward with the given command.  Perhaps my pine is their evergreen general, ready to declare “CHARGE!!!” against some unseen foe to the west.

I don’t have to turn the clock back fifteen hundred years to come up with a logical explanation for my solitary tree.  Maybe just two hundred years ago, when there would already be no pasture, no horses, and not much of anything in any direction.  Settlers here and there at best, or pioneers in search of the promised land.  Perhaps one of these travelers lost a child at too young of an age.  Perhaps a tree was planted in memory of that child.  An angel-like pine carrying on in the sometimes harshest of conditions.

If I had any measure of courage, I’d get up in the wee hours of the night – no guiding light except for the inky blanket of stars overhead – and slowly, silently approach my pine tree.  In those bewitching hours, with the howls of coyotes in the distance and the soft rustle of grass beneath my feet, I might witness a presence from beyond.  Perhaps a subtle glow surrounding his branches, suggesting an endless lifeforce within his roots.  Or even better, the nightgown-clad ghost of a little girl sitting against his trunk, bare knees pulled to her chest.

I know my little tree is no Angel Oak.  In a forest of Ponderosa and Douglas Fir, my pine would be first choice for a Charlie Brown Christmas.  Yet there he is, steadfast and strong, the king of the jungle pasture, the unchallenged ruler of his domain.  He must have the heart of a lion and a confident aura to match.  I hope someday he’ll reveal his purpose, but in the meantime one thing seems to be certain.  My dandy-lion pine will still be standing when I am not.

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