Thursday, 21 June 2012

The Anticlimactic Story of How I Did Not Surreptitiously Run Into My 80-Year Old Pen Pal, Carl Love, in Yellowstone National Park

It was August 2000, year of our lord. The Kreitner family was in Yellowstone for around five days, taking our sweet time with a park that, if it is not America’s largest, is at least the densest as far as attractions go. While most parks tend to specialize in either amazing creatures, beautiful scenery, or interesting geological phenomena, Yellowstone excels in all three.

Anyway, one day we were visiting yet another batch of geo-thermal pools and hot springs. We were standing on the boardwalk the park service constructs above these features, allowing you to walk right out and over them and to see into their crystal-clear, colorful depths. I was leaning over the railing, probably trying to wrap my mind around the concept, if not the word, of the “abyss,” when my beloved Yankees bucket cap fell into the boiling, sulfuric water. I started bawling, knowing, having watched the parks video, that many people die every year by accidentally falling into the thermal waters or deliberating reaching in to retrieve some cherished artifact which they know, in the opposite case, would do the same. I loved that hat, but did not want to die. Broken-hearted—I had lost another cherished Yankees hat the year before after I left it in a Broadway theatre where I had been forced to endure some one-woman play about the Titanic—I repaired to the car and eventually flew back to New Jersey, thinking there wasn’t a chance in the world I’d get the hat back. A good stoic, I was already learning to move on.

After dinner at the Red Robin near the Newark International Airport (a returning-from-vacation Kreitner tradition), we got back home and my parents checked the messages on the machine. I was called in to listen to one. It was from a man named Carl Love, who said he had been visiting a geothermal pool in Yellowstone when he saw a hat floating in the water. He got his fishing pole from his car and yanked the hat out. When it had cooled down, he checked the inside and found our phone number there. If we would just give him our address, he’d mail it back.

I don’t know what happened to that hat. I probably lost it in some much less illustrious way or finally threw sentimentality out the window during a rare purge of my closet. Perhaps it did not survive my self-granted promotion from "Yankees fan" to "Ramones-listener." 

Anyway, I have been pen pals with Carl Love ever since. I’d send him letters from camp, postcards from my travels around America, England, and elsewhere, and he would send me his family’s generic typed Christmas letter with a personal handwritten note at the bottom. Carl lives in Boulder, Colorado, most of the year, but for 30 years or so has worked and lived in Yellowstone for the whole summer. Every year I love reading his stories about life in the park, especially his close encounters with grizzly bears. We’ve never met, though I nearly had the chance when I was in Denver for a few days two years ago. I could have taken the bus to Boulder and surprised him at his house—one of only a few addresses I've ever bothered to memorize—but for some reason I opted to spend another day exploring Denver.

Fast forward to this spring. I sent Carl a postcard from somewhere in the South, saying that Brahna and I were on a four-month trip across the U.S. and that we would probably be in Denver sometime in May. When we decided later that a dip down through Colorado wasn’t in the cards, I was pretty disappointed, figuring I’d lost my last chance to meet the man who is technically (and in more than one way) one of my oldest friends. I was thrilled, though, when my parents told me on the phone that they’d gotten a letter from Carl Love, asking them to tell me that he would be going up to Yellowstone on May 11th, and that he was sorry we couldn’t meet. Coincidentally, Brahna and I had specifically chosen not to go to Colorado in May so that we could spend more time in Yellowstone and its environs. My dad found his phone number online, but, because I’m me, I didn’t call it until the morning of May 11th. It rang and rang, no answer, no voicemail. Another Google search found his name in a church bulletin, so I called the church. A very nice lady, amused by my story, confirmed that Carl had left that morning. She did give me the helpful information that Carl worked at a store inside the park. Beyond that, I'd have to do some old-time investigating.
The decision to make it home for Grandpa's funeral contracted our time in Yellowstone from four days to one, and anyway it seemed like tracking a man whose picture I'd never seen in a park as big as Yellowstone was a lost cause. We started at the northern entrance to the park, where informal interviews at several gift shops led me to the personnel office of one of the two companies who are contracted to run concessions in Yellowstone. They, probably illegally, told me that they had no record of an employee named Carl Love, but wished me good luck. At least I now knew which company he worked for.
Several dozen bison, one grizzly bear, and a few geysers later, we decided to stop for lunch at Canyon Junction, near the famed Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone and Yellowstone Falls. One of the stores in the complex was still closed for the season, though I saw sealed boxes inside waiting to be unpacked. While Brahna surreptitiously heated up our leftovers in the microwave of the other store, I asked the oldest employee I could find whether they knew of one Carl Love. Indeed, she did, she pronounced him lovely and a real old-timer at the store next door, the one that hadn't yet opened. That that store should be his home-away-from-home made sense, I realized, since he had just arrived in Yellowstone the day before, and the store seemed ready to open in just a few days.
In any case, since this story is already getting too long and, quite honestly, there is no great climax to it—no Oprah-worthy moment where I meet and hug Carl Love and perhaps experience some kind of grand realization about my own life and that of my late grandfather—I'll just wind it down here. She didn't know where Carl was at that moment, though she did say I could try the motels in West Yellowstone, about 30 miles or so out of the way. Time was short, though, and we still had a lot of park to get through before retiring for the night in Jackson and catching our sunrise flight the next morning. I scrawled out a little note for the woman to give to Carl when she saw him. I explained the situation, about how we just missed each other and how Brahna and I were flying home last-minute. In the back of my mind, I thought about the possibility that we would try to find him again the following week, after flying into Jackson and driving back through Yellowstone towards our next destination. When the time came, of course, we had somewhere we wanted to be and didn't make the stop. It leaves us with a good reason to make it to Denver in the not-too-distant future: another one of those little presents Brahna and I have left to our future, older, more earth-bound selves, places all around the country that we decided to skip this time but to which we have promised to return. As for my pen pal, as a lifelong fisherman he should know as well as anyone that things come up.
Lastly, because that was a lame ending, because I only really wrote this post because I finished the last one with an implied promise of a story to come, and because, as it was mostly set in the pre-digital past, I didn't have any pictures to put in it, and because you've been very well-behaved in reading this far, here's a picture of an elk.

Monday, 18 June 2012

Wyoming and the Black Hills

We’ve already written about how driving across the country gives one a renewed appreciation for the reality of this country as one broad land, stretched from sea to sea, a unified fabric or quilt in which each section blurs into and blends with the next. The changes are so gradual that it is often difficult to detect in the course of a single drive. One day you’ll be driving and suddenly realize, “Hey, I guess we’re on the plains.” That major benefit of ground travel—noticing those gradual transitions, appreciating the reality of living in a diverse but unified country—is completely absent from air travel, where you are more like Dorothy floating over the rainbow and into munchkin-land, lost and senseless as if in a dream.

Brahna boarding the plane in Jackson, Wyoming.
During the brief time we were home for Grandpa’s funeral, Brahna and I couldn’t stop pointing out the many contrasts between New York and Wyoming, between the east and the west. As with the fabled frog in boiling water, our culture shock upon suddenly returning to New York was much more acute than it was when we were gradually driving through much more foreign territory in the South and the West. Brahna had a hard time getting a cab outside Penn Station, and was reduced to tears at having to participate in the same classic New York hustle-and-bustle that she basically became an expert in after growing up on the Upper West Side. Though I grew up in the suburban jungle of North Jersey, I was still surprised to see, from the window of the plane landing in Newark, the amazing vastness of Northeast megalopolitan development reaching around to every horizon—highways, houses, and high school football fields obscuring any evidence that at one point there was actual green earth. Unless one knew better, it would be difficult to identify spacious Wyoming and overdeveloped New Jersey as belonging to the same planet, much less the same country.

This dichotomy was made even more apparent to us when, not 15 minutes after disembarking in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, we were looking at a young bull moose. It was on the road towards the Grand Teton National Park visitors’ center, where we wanted to pick up the prized cancellation stamp we’d missed last time since we drove through the park after dusk. It was closed this time too—the plan landed at 5 p.m.—but the moose, our first on this trip, was a good consolation. Later, as we drove through Yellowstone toward our destination for the night, Cody, Wyoming, we “collected” another first sighting of a local animal—the elusive bighorn sheep. They eek out a living on mountain slopes so steep your more responsible (and predatory) mammals wouldn’t dare to enter, and are generally pretty averse to human beings. As soon as we stopped the car, they took off down a cliff so steep I would have bet money no animal could survive the descent.

Young bull moose in the Tetons.
Bighorn sheep in Yellowstone.
We were pleasantly surprised by Cody, a town founded by and named after William “Buffalo Bill” Cody, the famous military scout and shameless promoter of the “Wild West” myth. After touring his Wild West Show around the world, performing in front of kings and queens and even Pope Leo XIII, Cody started building a town at the eastern entrance to Yellowstone National Park. When it was incorporated in 1901, it was probably the only town in America created specifically with an eye toward commemorating the fabled American West which was elsewhere still not entirely dead—to the extent it had ever really existed at all. Now, with fake “Western” street facades a reliable fixture of any tourist town between the Mississippi River and the Sierra Nevadas—and even much further afield than that—Cody has had to make itself stand out in other ways. These days, one of the most prominent attractions in town is the Buffalo Bill Historical Center, a grouping of five distinct museums that, if it doesn’t quite avoid the trappings of classic Old West mythology propagated by Buffalo Bill and his many co-conspirators, nonetheless manages to bring the story somewhat closer to historical reality and more politically-correct storytelling. I particularly enjoyed the art museum, with its focus on both presenting and undermining the traditional interpretation of the West presented by the likes of Frederic Remington and N.C. Wyeth. There were also lots of great paintings of bison—including some grisly hunting scenes—that, a true and loyal Kreitner, I found myself returning to again and again. We didn’t have enough time to explore all the museums, but we did run through the one devoted to firearms, which houses the largest such collection in the world. Though we might have benefited from having the least bit working knowledge of guns going into the exhibit, and frankly didn’t really “get it,” there was still some strange, simple, primal amazement to be had at seeing so many deadly weapons in one place, and seeing how people through the ages have created them not only to perform those grisly functions but also as works of art in their own right. If life was longer maybe I could manage to become interested in the craftsmanship and variety of deadly weapons, but as it turns out, there seem to be better things one can do with one’s time.

Speaking of time, we had to be getting back east. The whole first part of this trip was all about moseying—we took three weeks to get to New Orleans, a drive that could be done in as little as two days. We were in the Southwest and in California for a month each. Since the beginning of the trip I have traced our exact route, road by road, on a AAA map of the country, circling and numbering each overnight location. Especially for the first part of the trip, the route shows a lot of twists and turns, detours, and even full circles in places like Mississippi, California, and the Pacific Northwest. Our original plan for the month of May had been to continue in Canada after Vancouver, to explore the mountains of British Columbia and Banff National Park, then to cut south back into the U.S. through Glacier National Park. After that we’d do Wyoming, South Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Chicago and the Midwest, and then maybe even a dip down into Appalachia through Kentucky and Tennessee. It wasn’t long before we realized those plans had to be scrapped almost entirely. It was about time to start putting some serious miles behind us, if we were ever going to get home.
The drive across flat Wyoming—a state my mother still brags about hitting 101 mph in—was mostly uneventful, except for the super-intense hailstorm we hit while crossing the Bighorn Mountains. While I slowed my speed to around 3 mph, Brahna took a video of the scene: dozens of golf balls slamming against the car every second, the sound like an invading army, me shutting the cloth insulator of the sunroof in case the glass should suddenly crack. The clip will be part of the epic DVD we hope to make from the trip.

 After a night at some nameless motel in the town of Gillette, we went to Devil’s Tower in the far northeast corner of the state. Rising 1,300 feet above the sprawling prairie-dog colonies of the surrounding landscape, Devil’s Tower has often been compared to a massive stone tree trunk. There are a variety of competing theories about how it was formed, none of which I understand. We walked around the base of the tower, a trail of less than two miles, ogling at the few rock-climbers we saw progressing—or, in the case of one apparent novice, not quite progressing—up the deep hexagonal striations that together constitute the tower’s most puzzling feature. The Plains Indians of the area, who object to the intrusion of the rock climbers on what they consider sacred space, believe the striations were caused by the claws of a giant bear climbing up the tower after some naughty children. Or something like that.

Brahna looking for climbers on Devil's Tower.
A prairie dog in the colony near Devil's Tower.
 Next we stopped in Deadwood, South Dakota, an interesting old Western town that had an HBO series made about it a few years ago and which loves more than anything else to be called an interesting old Western town. If Cody, Wyoming was the first town to artificially market itself as the last outpost of the real American West, the town of Deadwood raises that template to an art form. It is not that Deadwood doesn’t have a real frontier past to commemorate—the excellent Adams Museum in town proved that it does. But more than anyplace else Brahna and I have visited on this trip—including the historic antebellum plantations in the South—the town of Deadwood literally survives only by feeding on its past: a few years ago, the state legislature allowed Deadwood to legalize gambling in order to raise revenues for preservation of its historic sites. The golden era of Deadwood’s past was the late 19th century, around the time that the Black Hills gold rush created a general atmosphere of vice and lawlessness in the town. Now the town capitalizes on present-day greed and avarice in order to preserve the sites where past greed and avarice flourished. That exquisite irony seems at once to undermine the historical preservation efforts—as Faulkner famously put it, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”—and to perfect them.

Wild Bill was shot in the back of the head. The hand he was holding -- pairs of aces and eights -- is now called the "dead man's hand."
Bust of Wild Bill in the Mount Moriah Cemetery.
The next stop on our itinerary was another strange effort at historical commemoration, a memorial whose strangeness is not mitigated by the fact that it is perhaps one of the most recognizable images in the world. Gutzon Borglum’s purpose in creating Mount Rushmore was not simply to make the faces really, really big and to make the Black Hills the worldwide epicenter of shameless roadside kitsch and self-defeating, nature-obliterating hyper-commercialism. The Black Hills, actually, were by the 1920s already a major tourist destination—many in the area, not just Indians, objected to the sculpture as “a desecration to God’s own creation.” Borglum, however, with his characteristic grandiosity, boasted about how his creation would outlast human civilization itself. The placement of Mount Rushmore alongside other Americans icons like the Statue of Liberty and the Stars and Stripes tends to obscure this curious distinction. Just as someone once said that the thing about prison is that there are bars on the windows and they won’t let you out, the thing about Mount Rushmore is that some guy used dynamite to carve the faces of four other guys on a massive mountain, that millions of people go really far out of there way every year to look at it, and that those faces will together represent one of the last reminders after we are all gone that we were ever here at all.

Travel is interesting when you encounter the unknown, but it is also interesting when you encounter the already-known. Seeing the Grand Canyon directly in front of you is so comically more exciting than seeing a picture of it that one wonders why people bother to continue photographing it at all. Other things are hardly more interesting to see in person. Often it depends on your mood. Sometimes you feel it, sometimes you don’t. Anyway, I was surprised to find myself actually appreciating Mount Rushmore as both an interesting social memorial and an amazing feat of engineering, rather than ridiculing it as a boring tourist trap or a shameless waste of money.

At Mount Rushmore.
We retired that night to the Shady Rest Motel outside the town of Custer. Not expecting much, and perennially fed up with fleabag motels, we were surprised the find ourselves in a cozy little cabin for the night, complete with access to a hot tub, a porch swing, and a little kitchenette. We decided to stay for a second night, and mostly lounged around the next day after a brief drive through Custer State Park. 

Shady Rest Motel in Custer, South Dakota. Highly recommended.
Breakfast getting cold.
 The next day we drove out of the Black Hills to Badlands National Park, thus completing what for the past week had been a re-enactment, in reverse, of a vacation my family took in August 2000, driving westbound through the Black Hills and Wyoming and ending up at Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons. Besides many photographs of me feeding cheerios to donkeys with an oversized Yankee shirt on and an army-style crew cut, and many good memories, there is one other souvenir I have from that trip: an 80 year old pen pal named Carl Love.

Monday, 4 June 2012

Photos From The West Coast

While the world eagerly awaits the epic conclusion to our Great American Road Trip, take a look at these photos we posted this week from the West Coast. These were taken from around the day we entered California on April 1 to the day we left Vancouver on May 10th. Here's the link: pictures from the West Coast.

And some spoilers:

At Moro Bay, California.


Brahna indulging my hobby of finding covered bridges, near Scio, Oregon.

 Again, here's the link, and you don't need to have an account on Facebook to see the pictures: the West Coast.

Wednesday, 23 May 2012


After making it all the way up the Western seaboard--from San Diego to Seattle, sandy beaches to the Space Needle—we found ourselves on familiar turf: crossing the American-Canadian border.  Although we knew it would be a slight detour from the all-American road trip, I have always wanted to go to Vancouver, and it made sense since we were already going to be in Seattle just a couple hours south.

As we drove up to the border guard, passports in our experienced hands, we hoped that we wouldn’t be forced to go inside the dreaded immigration building.  I knew, however, that we would have no such luck. Ricky being Ricky, on the day that his parents drove him up to school for the first time, he forgot the Proof of Admission letter, which is necessary in order to be approved for a Canadian student visa, on his desk in Wayne. The guard denied him entry, and only after having a friend break into his house and fax the letter over to a different crossing station, was he finally allowed to enter Canada. This mark on his passport apparently cannot be removed unless he becomes a Canadian citizen or dies. So, with that, we sat in the building waiting for the guard to discover that Ricky hadn’t committed any heinous crimes, and contemplating the bizarreness of these arbitrary borders.

Like most American students at McGill, Ricky and I, if I can speak for us both, didn’t choose to go to McGill because of any essential differences we perceived between America and Canada, or Americans and Canadians. We chose it because it was a good school, relatively inexpensive, and because the experience of living in a place where people spoke French and had hockey players and the Queen’s face on their money seemed, if nothing else, interesting.

This endeared me early to Canada. 
I don’t think either of us had anticipated just how different it would be. I never thought of myself as exhibiting any kind of “American” sensibility until I realized just how much of a cultural imperialist I actually was.  I didn’t realize that jesting about how the fact that the music Canadians listened to and the movies they watched were all American; how Warner Bros. must have dreamed up the name for Canadian coinage; how people must be crazy to endure such horrible winters; how Canadians wouldn’t know good pizza if it hit them in the face, were the very things Canadians resented most about us. I also didn’t realize that it’s not jealousy that brings about their resentment. Americans assume superiority because they measure the two countries by their own standards—size, wealth, and fame. But by Canadian standards—clean air, free health care, nationwide gay marriage, a smaller police presence, and overwhelming quality of life—they have a right to feel smug.   

I could pick out the American students at McGill just by the tensions and stresses written on their faces. If I overheard “I didn’t study at all for this exam—I’m so screwed,” I knew they were likely American. If I overheard “I can’t tell if I’m ready for this or not, eh?” they were probably Canadian. For the most part, I have found that the mentality of Canada’s government trickles down to its citizens; don’t worry about being the best in the world, just be the best you can be.

So, excited to be back in the motherland—this time on the opposite coast—we headed for Vancouver, where we had yet to find a place to stay. Although we had told the border guards we’d be staying at a youth hostel, we were actually hoping that one of the many people we had messaged on couch surfing would be getting back to us before nightfall. Canadians move slowly, so we figured we had to give them time.

Lo and behold, while sitting in a Starbucks in Vancouver, we got a call from a guy named Adam. He told us that he was sorry (pronounced saw-ree) he got back to us so last minute. He just had some couch surfers leave that morning, and wasn’t sure he could take on a double shift. But he decided, last minute, that it was the least he could do. We were thrilled.

Adam was exactly as I expected. He was extremely nice and he couldn’t have been more chill. When he said “please take whatever you want, go and leave whenever you want,” it was clear that he meant it. With some of the other hosts we’ve had, you could tell that they didn’t actually want you rummaging through their kitchen, or lounging around their house when they weren’t there. But to employ Adam’s own words, he really couldn’t care less.

Over the next two days, we walked along the water at the Burrard Inlet, sampled the goods at the massive farmer’s market in Granville Island, and frolicked in Stanley Park, an amazing city park that makes Central Park look like somebody’s backyard. Even though the park is technically “downtown,” it’s situated along the water, so that it has sand beaches on its perimeters, and massive clumps of unbridled forest in the middle. You can’t see buildings for miles; all you see is signs pointing to various nature trails you can take throughout the park.

Canada Place, along the Burrard Inlet.

 Stanley Park.

The beach surrounding Stanley Park.

Stanley Park.

Granville Island.
Outside the park, we also took time to admire the city’s highly modern architecture. One thing that struck me about Vancouver, and the west coast in general, is just how new it is. While the east was fighting a Civil War due to centuries of deep-seated conflict between north and south, pioneers were just barely stumbling upon the west for the possibility of gold and new land. Every northwestern city we’ve been to—Portland, Bend, Seattle, and now Vancouver—looked like it’d only been built up in the last 50 years. Unlike New York City, with all its visible layers of dirt and human history, these cities are eerily clean. In my opinion, they are also somewhat lacking in character, but I can definitely see the appeal. One thing that really does distinguish the northwest is the enormous, almost sublime, mountains that provide its backdrop.

Vancouver's uber-modern architecture.
The best part of our excursion to Vancouver, however, was not experiencing the city, but rather just hanging out with Adam and his friends. Throughout our trip, we’ve wondered where all the unemployed twenty-somethings were hiding. Why were the only people we met on road retired or foreign?  Now we discovered that they were all in Vancouver. When we first met Adam’s friends, we were known as “the Americans.” But by the end, they told us how we seemed more Canadian than American. We, similarly, felt right at home sitting around Adam’s living room and just “shooting the shit,” as Ricky likes to call it.

A scene from Adam's basement.
Three days after we arrived in Vancouver, we set off for what was to be the first of two intensive days of driving. Whereas we had normally kept our daily driving to a three-hour max, our plan now was to bypass the vast empty spaces of Washington, Idaho, and Montana, and to arrive in Yellowstone National Park within two days—quite the feat. On the first marathon drive, we passed through the breathtaking Cascade Mountains in eastern Washington. We saw bald eagles flying overhead, and giant snow-capped mountains all around us.

The Cascades in eastern Washington.
Near the end of the drive, we stopped at the Grand Coulee Dam, a large dam built by the CCC in the1930s, who also contracted Woody Guthrie to write a song about. In the words of Mr. Guthrie:

Well, the world has seven wonders that the trav'lers always tell,
Some gardens and some towers, I guess you know them well,
But now the greatest wonder is in Uncle Sam's fair lang,
It's the big Columbia River and the big Grand Coulee Dam.

The Grand Coulee Dam at twilight.
I have never quite understood the appeal of seeing dams—we got chastised by Ricky’s father for opting not to go to the Hoover Dam when we were in Las Vegas—but perhaps I was less awed because it was almost nightfall by the time we reached Grand Coulee. We finally ended the night, 350 miles later, in a small town in eastern Washington called Wilbur.

The following day, we drove quickly through the narrowest stretch of Idaho and into Montana, where we had plans to couch surf in a town in southern Montana called Bozeman. We were to drive to Yellowstone the following morning. We didn’t stop much that day except for gas, bathroom breaks, and lunch in Missoula—home to the University of Montana. At one appointed location for a bathroom break, we stopped at a little convenience store, where Ricky asked for the obligatory cup of coffee to be courteous while using the bathroom. “You don’t need to buy anything—you can just use the bathroom.” When Ricky told him that he wanted to buy coffee anyway, he said that he could “just have it.”  The guy had a long ponytail, tattoos, and I could see his motorcycle outside. Call me small minded, but I was surprised to find that he was one of the gentlest people we’ve met on this trip so far. Between him and the Sandholms, the lovely couple from Helena who gave us their binoculars to spot spouting whales in Big Sur, I am going to go out on a limb and say that Montanians are an extremely nice breed of Americans. At last, we arrived in Bozeman, where we stopped at an Albertson’s to pick up a quick bite before heading over to our perspective couch surfing host.

It was there, in the parking lot, that Ricky got the dreaded call that both of us had been expecting since we embarked on this trip. His grandpa Jerry, who had been battling Alzheimer’s for almost seven years, had passed away. We sat in the Albertson’s Starbucks making calls—I called the couch surfing host to tell him we wouldn’t be making it, and Ricky spoke to his parents about plans for our return home for the funeral. We would be flying out of Jackson, Wyoming the day before the funeral, and returning there three days later. Since we would need to be arriving in Jackson, which is south of Grand Teton National Park, which is south of Yellowstone National Park, by the following night, we knew that we would have to do the park as efficiently as possible in that one day. So, even after we had driven almost 500 miles to Bozeman, we decided to drive another 80 to reach Gardiner, Montana, which is just north of the park entrance. This way, we would have the entire day to explore Yellowstone and the Tetons on our drive south to Jackson.

Neither of us was happy about compressing one of the most exciting destinations of our trip into one day, but it was as if Mother Nature knew what had happened, and wanted to make sure that we still got our value’s worth. Yellowstone is known not only for being situated on top of a super volcano—which accounts for its amazing geysers and hot springs—but also for its wildlife. It has some of the biggest populations of grizzly bears, elk, and bison in the world. Within minutes of entering the park, we saw a herd of elk and a single bison moseying in the parking lot. I snapped a bunch of pictures, not realizing that we would be seeing hundreds more of each by the day’s end. As we drove further down the road, we spotted a wolf walking in the field. Wolves are not known for their gregariousness, so it was quite exciting to see one right there in broad daylight. Next thing we knew, a long line of cars was parked on the side of the road and a ranger was shouting at all the approaching cars to move out of the lane. Adept at spotting a wildlife sighting when we see one, we parked the car behind the line and got out to partake in the commotion. It was a grizzly bear, standing about 200 feet away.

The first bison we spotted in the parking lot.

An elk lounging in the parking lot.
A lone wolf in the field.

The best I could capture of the Grizzly from 200 feet away.
 Unlike black bears, which are ubiquitous throughout the United States, Wyoming and Montana are the only American states with a healthy supply of Grizzlies. The rest are found in western Canada and Alaska. So it would be an understatement to say that I was pretty thrilled to see one in the flesh.

Following the wildlife encounters, we got to see the park’s other major attractions—Yellowstone falls, several hot springs and bubbling geysers, including the famed Old Faithful. It was, overall, the most jam-packed day we could have had at Yellowstone. Eventually, we left the park and had the pleasure of driving through the stunning Grand Tetons—a sub range of the Rocky Mountains, which houses the Grand Teton, the second tallest mountain in Wyoming—on our way to Jackson.  

Yellowstone Falls, situated within the "Grand Canyon of Yellowstone."

A sprouting geyser.

A steaming hot spring.

The Grand Tetons.
We spent that night at a Super 8 motel in Jackson, but slept briefly, as we had a 7 am flight to catch. Little did we know, as we crossed that border into Canada only a few days earlier, that we would soon be taking a detour much more profound.

Tired and weary, we boarded the tiny plane in Jackson, Wyoming.

Sunday, 20 May 2012

Yosemite to the Canadian Border, Part 2

Driving north through Oregon, we briefly stopped to see Crater Lake, a major natural wonder and one of America’s first national parks. A long time ago, the top of a major Cascade Mountains peak collapsed inwardly, creating a huge, even-walled depression where the mountaintop used to be. Rainfall and snow melt gradually filled the depression, creating a vast pristine circular lake. Unfortunately, the lake was covered in fog while we were there, so we couldn’t see it, though the sky above the mountains was clear and blue, which created an effect that was itself quite beautiful. Though the collapsed top half of the mountain is submerged in the lake, the rim of the crater is itself pretty high. According to a park ranger, Crater Lake receives an average of 44 feet of snow every winter. As we drove up the mountain, the snow piled higher and higher above the roadsides. We were there on a warmish spring afternoon, and judging by the amount of meltage cascading down the road, it seemed the snow would be gone by the end of the day. Amazingly, it actually takes months for plowing crews to clear the scenic route around the rim, which is often closed well into July.

Really high snow drifts at Crater Lake.

You couldn't really see the lake itself, but sometimes you could see the reflection of the island in the lake, which was cool.
After Crater Lake, we continued north to Bend, a town much like Moab, Utah in central Oregon that was recommended by a few family friends as particularly worth seeing. It is supposedly one of the most active towns in America, where visitors and residents can choose from a plethora of outdoors activities nearby: skiing, snowshoeing, snowboarding, mountain biking, hiking, rock climbing, kayaking, sledding, tubing, white water rafting, and even, as our Couchsurfing host would show us, surfing in the municipal canals.

After sending out a flurry of couch requests during our past three nights at motels, I had received a positive response from a 30-something couple in Bend named Brian and Sandy. A professional wedding photography team, they said they could host us for a few nights in a spare bedroom in the basement. Brahna and I couldn’t have been more grateful as we pulled up to their lovely house on a hill outside town.

Despite our outdoorsy tendencies, Brahna and I participated in absolutely zero of the outdoor sports available in the Bend area during our day and a half there, unless you count getting a haircut or an oil change as sport. Frankly, we just weren’t in the mood. It’s unreasonable to expect us to be in the mood everywhere, and as we (read: I) need to continually remind ourselves on this long trip, we are not simply traveling, but actually living on the road. And sometimes in life you just need to chill.

We had a really good time with Sandy and Brian. They were relatively young, compared to the Fresno couple, and perfectly relatable. They were also experienced with Couchsurfing, both as surfers and as hosts. We have found that those hosts who themselves have surfed are the most hospitable and understanding hosts. They understand what is important for travelers: laundry, food, fresh towels, and option of sleeping in. This fundamental empathy and what-comes-around-goes-around ethic is one of the two pillars that makes Couchsurfing actually work.

After two nights in Brian and Sandy’s basement we left Bend for Portland. They had recommended driving north and then west, so as to stop at Smith Rock State Park for a hike as we left town. I had other ideas though, pointing Morty west across the mountains and then north. There are a few dozen covered bridges placed more or less directly between Bend and Portland, and I was not about to let them go uncollected. Brahna, a trooper as always, consented to take this other route, and we set off to find some of Oregon’s covered bridges.

Brahna at an Oregon covered bridge.

I don’t really have the time or energy right now to explain my love affair with covered bridges, and I’m not sure anyone would want me to. If you are for whatever reason interested, you can read this article I wrote about them and somehow got published in an online Montreal journal. It probably suffices to say that I like how they harken back to an earlier time and how they by definition have to be placed in the most beautiful situations around—out in the countryside, spanning the narrowest point of a raging river, a cascading creek, or a silent soothing stream. Mostly, though, I like how they perfectly organize and thus give meaning to what would otherwise be an aimless drive through the countryside, how they bring you to random spots of quietude and rural solemnity that you might otherwise drive right past while looking for the next exciting thing.

I’m still not sure what the proper metaphor is for driving around looking at covered bridges. I’m not sure what we are doing, what is being done. Are we hunting covered bridges? Are we collecting them? Are we looking for them? Visiting them? Surveying them? Whatever it is, Brahna was kind enough to allow me to hit around seven or eight as we moseyed in the vague direction of Portland. In the town of Scio we came upon the Covered Bridge Coffee House, where, of course, I went in and bought a souvenir mug.

Oregon's covered bridges had a much more open and taller feel, probably reflecting their later construction dates. Bridges in Pennsylvania, New York, and New England were generally built in the second half of the 19th century, whereas bridges in Oregon were built in the first of the 20th century, and yes, I do know that I am a loser.

We were pretty excited for Portland and ready to assess its reputation as a hipster Mecca. To that end, I sent out another flurry of couch requests. Brahna authorized me to take the quality of the couch situation into account—we usually try to apply mostly to those hosts who advertise their comfy, private, full-sized bed—but not to pass up a chance to crash at the dingy apartment of someone who seems nonetheless worth meeting even if they only had an actual couch or even just floor space. We figured Portland would be as good a chance as any to surf on the dilapidated couch of some interesting, hip young Portlander. As I said last time, though, beggars can’t be choosers, and we ended up being accepted by a 67 year old widow named Lucy, who had a beautiful condo near downtown, a full size bed in a private room, and a truly amazing ability to lose herself in the telling of completely irrelevant stories for hours and hours and hours on end. She had a kind of strange relationship to her dog, spanking it on the butt with a paper towel roll and saying Molly was weird and perverted and reciting to Brahna and me some eerily sensuous poems and songs about her trying unsuccessfully to hug Molly in bed. 

It was kind of unclear who was doing whom the favor, Lucy putting Brahna and I up for three nights, or us giving her the audience she so desperately needs. To some extent, it began to seem that this is yet another of the pillars that support the Couchsurfing system: reciprocity. All of our hosts clearly want to host us for some other reason than mere philanthropy. They all need us just as we need them: the only variables seem to be the actual extent of their desperation for an audience and their ability to read social cues about our desire to serve as that audience. What we’ve found time and again, unsurprisingly, is that that last element seems to diminish with age.

When we were packing our bags in the car outside Lucy’s, getting ready to leave, Brahna realized she forgot something upstairs and ran to get it. I went to throw something in the dumpster and started to walk back to the car. Suddenly, Lucy grabbed me and forced me into a serious, long, strong hug—no back rubs, no words, no wiggling. After a pretty good amount of time, she let go. “I heard somewhere that hugging men helps balance my hormones, and I looked it up, and it’s true,” she explained. “I told the men in my bridge club and I hug them all the time.” Brahna came down and looked as if she were interrupting something. Lucy gave her a notably short and back-rub-heavy hug, and sent us on our way.
Whether our hosts are a pleasant young couple or a senior citizen who spanks her dog, Couchsurfing has emerged in this post-camping chapter of our trip as hands-down the best lodging option if we want to explore a city. A main consideration is the fact that it saves up funds that we can then be used for exploring the city or sampling any local delicacies. The Northwest definitely has the delicacies most suited to my taste, so I was pretty excited to hit the town.

We walked around downtown Portland our first day there, sampling some food carts and a farmer’s market, and just trying to absorb the vibes of a city renowned for so many things in which I, and Brahna for the most part, believe: great local beer, well-thought-out coffee selections, good cheap street food, amazing bookstores, award-winning city planning, tons of green space, nausea-inducing friendliness. We went to Powell’s, the world’s largest independent bookstore, but I only stuck to one shelf: Americana. I bought a bunch of books about people walking, driving, or train-ing across America, and one history of travel in America that was published early in the 20th century, well before cars and highways changed that history in a big way. Brahna picked up Infidel, by the Somali-Dutch activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali (a book she ended up getting really into and talking about nonstop for about a week), a biography of the late film critic Pauline Kael, and a few other things. We didn’t feel like schlepping over a dozen heavy books on the bus back to Lucy’s, so we picked them up later when we went out to sample some of the famous local beers. With over 40 breweries and a population which seems to debate beer the same way Montrealers debates separatism, Portland is rightly called the beer capital of the world.
At a bar in East Portland.

 Our second day waking up at Lucy’s we decided to drive out to the Columbia River Gorge and its many cascading waterfalls and 1930s-era dams, and then to circle around Mount Hood, Oregon’s highest peak. By the time we headed into the mountains, it was snowing, so we couldn’t see Mount Hood anyway, but the national forest surrounding it was itself worth the drive. And quite a drive it was: only Brahna and I would consider it a relaxing off-day to drive over 200 miles and end up right back where we started.
Multnomah Falls, one of the largest in the U.S. 
Out of breath after we randomly decided to run down the trail for half a mile.
The fish ladder at Bonneville Dam on the Columbia River allows fish to bypass the dam and avoid being torn to shreds or otherwise injured.
 After finally detaching myself from Lucy’s hormonal grasp, I pointed Morty west one final time, towards Astoria, the oldest white settlement on the west coast. Founded by the fur trapper John Jacob Astor in 1811, Astoria is also the site of the Lewis and Clark Expedition’s winter 1805-6 encampment and the filming of much of The Goonies. We toured a reconstruction of the expedition’s Fort Clatsop, where a couple of historical re-enactors—ahem, “living historians”—making heating wax over a campfire to create old-fashionaed candlesticks told us about the Goonies thing. I’m a pretty big Lewis and Clark fan, as any good transcontinentalist must be, and it was interesting to see the fort.

In Lewis and Clark garb. Brahna made me take this.
From Astoria we drove all the way to Seattle, where we had a couch request accepted by a guy named Sam. Sam had recently been left by his girlfriend of three years—just weeks after moving across the country for her and co-leasing an apartment—and was, understandably, still pretty down in the dumps about it. We were also his first Couchsurfers, and he was pretty awkward about all the subtleties of the situation. For instance, he made us wake up early the next morning so we’d be out of the house before a friend picked him up to go to Ikea; most hosts just let you do what you want, even give you a key. Brahna and I recognize that it’s a free night of lodging, though, and there is really no limit to what annoyances or long tales of romantic woe that we’ll subject ourselves to in exchange for a free place to sleep. We spent our day in Seattle roaming around downtown and trying to hit upon every major attraction: Pike Place Market, the University District, a semi-interesting sculpture garden, a museum devoted to Seattle’s role in the Klondike Gold Rush, and the iconic Space Needle (from the economically safe distance of the ground, of course). The next night Sam made us some delicious margaritas and I was finally introduced to Arrested Development, long considered by others a massive hole in my cultural education. There may have been belly-laughs involved.

Carefully not spending any money at the Space Needle in Seattle. It's the 50th anniversary of the World's Fair for which the needle was built, and for some people I guess that's pretty exciting.
Sam was a bit disappointed when we told him that we would only be staying two nights instead of the pre-arranged three. We arrived on a Friday, and my birthday was on Sunday; while all in all Bill had been a great host so far, I didn’t really want to spend my birthday hearing about how psycho his ex-girlfriend is and sleeping on the fold-out couch in his living room. Despite what Brahna says, I’m not eight years old anymore, so birthdays aren’t a huge deal. But in the context of this trip, and especially with parental birthday-related financial assistance, we’ll take any excuse for luxury we can get. To this end, I started furiously researching for things to do and places to stay between Seattle and Vancouver, our next stop, that would satisfy my desire for something special, something apart—a vacation from the vacation.

Despite Brahna’s protestations, it was quite literally a pleasure for me to plan my own birthday mini-getaway. I have always enjoyed doing such research, whether it’s for a pleasant day in the city or a four month trip cross-country. Yes, it obviously has something to do with power, but it also is about being able to survey the options available before me, to imagine myself in one of those experiences, and then to actually choose one of them and see how it does or does not compare with the idealizations of my imagination.

To this end, I reserved a cabin for us in Rasar State Park, around two hours from Seattle in the foothills of the Cascade Mountains. There was seemingly not much to do in the park itself except relax and enjoy the forested surroundings. Inevitably, though, it wasn’t quite the remote wilderness retreat I had imagined: the two other cabins in the park were both less than 100 steps from ours. I could hear their music and conversation from the hammock I immediately stringed up outside our front door. In the end, it ended up being a fine relaxing night: we cooked a delicious dinner outside and enjoyed our wine and books from Powell’s. We left the next morning and drove north to the Canadian border, out of America, refreshed.

In the morning outside the cabin, a happy birthday boy.

Thursday, 17 May 2012

Eulogy for Grandpa Jerry

As most readers of this blog already know, my very dearly beloved grandfather, Gerald Lesonsky, died last Friday night. He was diagnosed with Alzheimer's in December 2005 and, after a few years of relatively little change, suffered another few years of severe physical and mental deterioration. My reaction to the news was equal parts sadness and relief.

Grandpa Jerry in 2008 or 2009, when Grandma was in the hospital for surgery.

Brahna and I were in a supermarket parking lot in Bozeman, Montana, when we got the call. Since we had been on this trip, I had been dreading "the call" every time I saw my home number pop up on caller ID. There wasn't a question in my mind as to whether we would fly home. How could I not? What else would I do on Monday afternoon while everyone else was at the funeral? I needed to be there.

At a last-minute cost amounting to nothing less than extortion, my parents were able to find us a flight leaving early Sunday from Jackson Hole, at the southern edge of the Grand Tetons in Wyoming. Directly between Bozeman and the airport was Yellowstone National Park, which our original plan had us exploring for three or four days before heading east towards South Dakota. We decided to compress Yellowstone into the one day it would take to drive down to Jackson. We'll cover all that in a future post.

I'm not going to write about every minute detail of this detour-from-the-detour the way I have about the rest of the trip. Nor do I want to write all about my feelings or about how I have or have not fully absorbed the loss. I trust nobody will take this choice as callousness or unnecessary secrecy. The plain truth is that the funeral service and the two days I sat shiva were exactly as cathartic and comforting as they could be. From the eulogies at the funeral, the warm comments of relatives and friends, and the tears on the faces of those nurses and assistants who cared for him in his final months, I know that Grandpa has left us all with only fond memories and joyful thoughts, and that despite the terrible illness that stole his final years he lived a long, full, and happy life. The spirit and joy he contributed to this world cannot be measured and will not be forgotten.


We will return this blog to its normally scheduled progamming in the next day or two, picking up where we left off in Portland, Oregon. For now, for those who did not attend the funeral, here is the text of the eulogy I delivered on Monday:
Grandpa Jerry was born a grandpa. You may not have known that. I’m sure that surprises some of you who could’ve sworn you knew him as a brother, as a husband, as a father, or as a friend. But as far as I know, as far as I remember, he was born with a bushy moustache and a round, hard belly. He was always chewing on a tooth pick, and he worked at “the store.” 

I loved to sleep over with him and Grandma. He would come home from the store at around 6 o’clock, would take off his belt, and would spend the next few hours absolutely crushing me at Monopoly. Even for a while after he was sick, he would crush me. I remember my confusion and sadness when I finally did beat him, a year or so after his diagnosis; we didn’t play again. As bedtime approached, I’d lie with him in his and Grandma’s ridiculously hard bed and watch one of the only two shows Grandpa seemed to know existed on television: one was called “the hockey game,” and the other was called “the stocks.” I’d curl up into his arm and fall asleep.

There are a few things I remember fondly about Grandpa that I just want to share with you, in case nobody else mentions them:

Grandpa always carried a lot of coins in his pocket. He said it was for good luck. He often broke out into nonsensical jibberish song, a cross between Tevye from Fiddler on the Roof and an off-key white Louis Armstrong doing scat. He made up words like “geetchegoomie” that had us kids in stitches. I used to tickle the soft underside of his double chin. He was always a good sport about it. Grandpa had this smell about him that was basically just the smell equivalent of the word “grandpa.” Depending on who you believe, he quit smoking either the day Cassie was born or the day she, a small child, told him he should quit. He had chicken legs. He would switch his answer every single time one of his grandkids asked whether he ever smoked pot. He had one rule in Monopoly: no trades until all the properties had been bought. Utilizes excluded. He loved Frank Sinatra.

In October 2008, almost three years after he was diagnosed, we all went apple-picking. It such a beautiful, sunny day—Grandpa’s favorite. While everyone else was out in the orchard, I sat with Grandpa and interviewed him about his life, using Cassie’s tape recorder. His short term memory was pretty limited, but his long term memory was still pretty sharp. He told me everything he could remember: about his quiet, super-intelligent father—Happy Jack—who commuted from Brooklyn every day to the post office on 8th Avenue, before borrowing some money from his brothers to open a haberdashery store in Floral Park, just a few miles from here. Grandpa agreed that he inherited from his father that calm, subdued demeanor which we all loved about him. He told me about his mother, who lost nearly her entire family in pogroms in Poland before fleeing to the U.S. She never talked about her past, and was always satisfied with what she had. The family was poor, Grandpa told me, but they were close with one another and were never deprived of the important things in life, the ties that bind. Time and again, Grandpa circled back to his mother and the cancer that took her life when she was still in her 40s and he was around my age. Choking back tears, he told me about going to visit her, how he would walk outside and look up at the sky, and say to the man upstairs, “take her, take her, instead of letting her suffer in that way.”

I soon understood exactly what Grandpa meant. As things got worse, I would end all my visits by hugging him super tight and whispering that I loved him. I wanted to be ready for the end and told myself I was. After all, Grandpa was no longer his old self. That seemed to make it easier for me to let go.

But the more and more I said goodbye, the more difficult it was to ignore the bright flashes of his personality that would shine through on those visits or even over the phone. To yet another of my dad’s questions about 50s baseball players or big band-era swing, he’d say, “Oh c’mon Al who remembers?” He’d call me “kiddo” and say “heyyyy how ya doin!” He’d call my girlfriend “honey” and remember a trip he took to Jerusalem in 1995. Just hearing him like that would make my day. There’s no doubt: Grandpa was himself to the end. His last words, from what I hear, were said to a nurse, who had just given him his medicine: “So long, baby,” he said. It really couldn’t be more perfect than that.

I have this theory that you carry some of your ancestors with you, literally in your head. You see the world a little bit through their eyes. You are them. In a small way, they are always in there with you.
Shortly after I found out that Grandpa died, I had a brief moment to myself. I wanted to say goodbye for real this time, to tell Grandpa I would always love him. I closed my eyes and tried to tell him. He was there with me. Somehow I know that he knew.

My apple-picking interview with Grandpa abruptly ends when I spot the Cohens’ old red minivan coming down the hill. I probably didn’t want anyone else interfering with our conversation, so I tell Grandpa we’ll finish another time. And then, right before I turn off the recorder, pretty much out of the blue, he says this: “It wasn’t a bad life, I’ll be honest with ya. I guess I bitched and complained at the time, but it wasn’t a bad life.”
Grandpa Jerry on May 1st, 1949, his 17th birthday.