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.

Thursday, 10 May 2012

Yosemite to the Canadian Border, Part 1

Yosemite is basically the holy grail of America’s National Parks. Though Yellowstone was technically founded earlier—formed by legislation in 1873, it was the first national park in the world—the Yosemite Valley and the nearby Mariposa Grove of giant sequoia trees were set aside for preservation by Abraham Lincoln in 1864.  It is also the last in what Brahna and I have dubbed “Tier A” of the country’s national parks that I had not yet visited (the only other members of Tier A, Yellowstone and Grand Canyon, having been first graced with my presence in the years of 2000 and 2005, respectively). What’s more, while the draw in Yellowstone is the interesting geological phenomena caused by its location over a volcanic "hot spot," and the draw of the Grand Canyon is, of course, the canyon itself, the unique feature of Yosemite is nothing more than its outstanding beauty. It’s really as simple, and as complicated, as that. For all these reasons, at some point in February I reserved three nights at the Wawona Campground, intent on making our time in Yosemite truly count.
Generally, when I think about camping, the image in my mind is of a cool morning among the trees, the early light filtered through damp spring leaves, a cup of coffee in hand, a cool clear stream moseying by. I rarely have time for considering those other images—cooking bad food by lamplight, staying awake at night for fear of bears, staring into the campfire many hours (many weeks, rather) since this activity actually seemed meaningful, enjoyable, or fun. These deceitful visions of mine, and their corresponding blindnesses, tend to get us into trouble. Yosemite, despite its promise, despite our plans, turned out to be the absolute low point of our trip so far. It also ended up being a turning point, the end of a chapter, as Brahna and I have started to say.

Using the bear-proof garbage bins at Yosemite. For paranoiacs like myself, it can often seem that the Parks Service is more concerned about saving bears than about saving us. The words on the dumpster read: "USE CLIP. SAVE A BEAR."
In my haste to reserve a site somewhere in the park, I hadn’t noticed that the Wawona Campground happens to be at the far southern end of the park, near the sequoia trees but about an hour’s drive from the Yosemite Valley, which is really what everyone comes to the park to see. This was a mixed blessing: while the words “commute” and “nature” don’t exactly complement one another, the week from April 21st through April 28th was the officially anointed National Parks Week, guaranteeing free admission to all and sundry, and we were pleased to have guaranteed ourselves at least forty miles distance from the awful circus that would presumably be the campgrounds in the valley. Anyway, for the two nights we camped before the first day of Parks Week, the campground was mostly empty. The site I had reserved months earlier ended up being in a little bottleneck of the campground road between the second and third loops. No other site was reserved anywhere nearby for the first two nights, which was probably why I chose the site in the first place. The gap is large, let me tell you, between the impressive courage I have while picking the most remote site in the campground when the sites are simply little icons on a bright green map on my computer screen and the helplessness I felt in that tent at night, wondering whether we ended up remembering to move all our food from the car to the metal bear box, whether bears might be attracted to sweaty, unshowered body odor, whether some crumbs might have gotten on my clothes from dinner, and whether bear claws can fight through a mesh tent.
That theme should probably be familiar if you have read our post on backcountry camping in Big Bend: I am constantly urging Brahna towards more exposure to the elements, and then I spend most of the night lamenting that same exposure (while Brahna sleeps soundly) and hoping that we live to see the morning. 

But our Yosemite blues cannot be attributed only to this weird nocturnal fear of mine: every day we were there, a few hours before sundown, we both got notably depressed. It wasn’t so much the fear of what would happen after retiring to the tent that had us feeling bad, but even more so the thought of those hours between sundown and bedtime, the hours of staring into the fire, cooking s’mores yet again, and listening closely to every rustling in the leaves, that had us longing for a bed, for a ceiling, for walls. Every afternoon I began to dread those long silent dark hours whose praise I am always singing in the bright comfort of beds and ceilings and walls.

Since we did, of course, survive, the most unfortunate thing is that our memories of Yosemite will 
forever be marred by those cold, fearsome nights. The days were awesome. Yosemite Valley unquestionably lived up to its Tier A reputation.

The Merced River downstream from Vernal Falls.
I have a lot of ground to cover in this post, so I’ll refrain from discussing all the waterfalls we saw in Yosemite, all the wonderful angles of sunlight through the mist, the resulting rainbows, et cetera. We did go on one long-ish noteworthy hike up the Mist Trail to Vernal Falls. Brahna described it as the perfect hike: the initial ascent exposes you directly to the sun, then a lush forest cools you off before unloading you onto a bridge over the Merced River, where you can view the waterfall up ahead. The ascent up to the base of the falls heats you up again, but then the massive clouds of mist and soothing shots of wind wash over and cool you. The hike up a few switchbacks to the top of the falls makes you hot again, but there is plenty of relaxation to be had at the top, where you can lie down right next to the lip and watch as comet after comet of white water shoots out and into the air. The mist on the way back down is perfectly refreshing.

Three of the record-breaking 30-something people who died at Yosemite National Park last year lost their lives at Vernal Falls. Apparently, the deceased were members of a church group who climbed over the metal fence separating visitors from the Merced River just a few feet before it drops 317 feet into a big pool filled with truck-size boulders. One slipped into the river and was swept away. Another tried to save her, and also slipped. A third tried to save the second, and was swept away. All three were presumed dead, their bodies never found. A fourth person died last year on the Mist Trail, slipping and falling into the raging river. A few months later, the Mist Trail claimed a fifth life.

This was a gruesome, if beautiful, trail to climb.

A rainbow at the base of Vernal Falls.
The absolute low point of this trip so far happened on our second night in the park. Tortured equally by the thought of cooking by flashlight and the boredom that follows nightfall, we brought our laptops to the nearby Wawona Hotel, a massive structure built for the high-class visitors to Yosemite in the early 20th century and still used by rich visitors today. We just wanted to have something to do after it got dark, and thought that if we bought a drink from the bar we could sit in the lobby for a while. We made comically ineffectual efforts to conceal our steerage-class appearance: I brushed my beard and put on a collared shirt, Brahna changed out of her slippers. We ordered tea from a member of the hotel staff who pretended not to know what we were up to, asking if we wanted to pay cash or charge it to our room. We wanted to pay cash. An older man playing classical music on the lobby piano asked for requests. I wanted to hear Chopin’s “Winter Wind Etude”—reflecting, I guess, the winter in my soul—but thought it better not to make ourselves any more conspicuous than we already were. Brahna and I craned our necks to look at the ornate appetizers ordered by dress- and jacket-bedecked hotelgoers. The Wawona Hotel was making us feel worse, not better. As hungry guests began to fill the lobby outside the hotel’s restaurant, we felt our wildness grow into sharper distinction from the affluent surroundings. We fled the hotel and returned to the campground, made a fire, and went to bed without dinner, knowing it wasn’t even our last night there.
Miserable, at the Wawona Hotel.

One afternoon in the park we were walking back to the car from Yosemite Falls when we heard people mention that they had seen a bear about a half mile up the road and in some trees. Having had bears so much on our mind—in Fresno, Brahna bought a small book called Bear Aware and we picked up a can of bear spray—we were eager to actually get a glimpse of one in the park. Privately, I wanted to see the bear in the same way that I like to go down the  nuts aisle in the grocery store to look at brazil nuts, to which I am seriously allergic, sitting so harmlessly in their little plastic containers. I wanted to stare into the abyss.

It was a mature black bear, though colored brown, which, according to Bear Aware, is not unusual. We waited with a few other tourists, binoculars in hand, for a few minutes on a boardwalk in the marsh. Suddenly, the bear poked its head and massive shoulders out of the brush, and walked tentatively towards our little group before heading back into the marsh. We continued across the marsh and towards another, larger group standing next to the park road. When the bear emerged from the trees and walked towards this new group, a young female park ranger, armed only with her walkie-talkie, started to run towards it. The bear started running in the opposite direction as if a huge monster was after it. The ranger chased it west across the meadow, towards the opening of the valley. Brahna and I walked in that direction for a little while, just wanting to get a few more looks, but we eventually lost it. I felt better, though, having seen the park ranger’s size and the bear’s obvious fear. Lying awake in the tent that night, I thought of the bear running through the meadow, and imagined myself as the one giving chase.

Looking for the bear before the bear looks for me.
Finally, we were on our way to San Francisco. Brahna had made a connection with a McGill friend and reserved for us a place in what she had long heard was essentially a unofficial youth hostel run by his family. The force of our emotional and physical despair, post-Yosemite, was met, as in Newtown’s law, with the equal and opposite force that was the softness of the mattress the family gave us, and we recuperated surprisingly quickly from what had seemed just a few days earlier like an irredeemable slump. It also helped that we were in the process of making a few resolutions regarding the rest of the trip, which we hoped would help bring us back to the same feeling of excitement that accompanied us as we drove down the East Coast, across the South and the Southwest, and up through California, around 10,000 miles of very circuitous road from New Jersey to San Francisco.
Those reforms basically came out of just a few realizations:

1)      You actually can camp too much. Brahna seems to have known this before the Yosemite misadventure; indeed, somewhat mysteriously to me, she seems to have been born with this knowledge. On the phone, my dad compared it to eating hot dogs. They’re fun to eat occasionally, but somewhat less so when that’s all you have the money for. 

2)      Driving across the country can be pretty isolating. We embarked on this trip not only to see the natural beauties of America, but also to meet a few members of that species known to some of us only by rumor as the “real Americans.” Such interactions rarely happen when by day you’re driving five hours a day, connected only to the world via NPR and the radio preachers, and then camp deep in the woods as far from other people as possible.

3)      Motels are not the best indoor-sleeping bet. On those rare occasions when the call of the wild falls silent and we allow ourselves the pleasures of the aforementioned bed, ceiling, and walls, we usually stop at the ugliest, tackiest, oldest motels we could find. Even on days when we have other sleeping arrangements, “real Americans” can see us passing through their logging towns ranking motels according to their aptitude on precisely those marks. “That one looks good,” I said, pointing, as we passed through Lompoc, California. Brahna, noting the boarded-up windows and doors, suggested it may have recently caught fire and closed—or perhaps not so recently. When the bed bugs found us in the Squaw Valley Motel room, I was actually surprised we had lasted even that long. Why shouldn’t the Shelby Motor Lodge in Alabaster, Alabama have bed bugs? Besides all this, we meet nobody. We can’t cook. And WiFi? One time in Mississippi, Brahna was calling a bunch of motels 50 miles down the road and asking the usual questions. “How much for two people one bed one night non-smoking with AAA discount and do you have Internet WiFi?” The woman answered: “No ma’am, we’re way out in the boonies.”

We decided that more Couchsurfing would replace the hole of camping and motels, which were not out of the question now, but just not the default plan. Instead, we decided it would be worth it to put more work—what turns out to be a lot more work—into sending out “couch requests” for places all around the country and seeing who replied. Thus, while the first half of the trip had us finding housing near the places we wanted to visit, the second half of the trip would reverse things: now, we would find places to visit near our hosts’ houses. Beggars can’t be choosers, and by the time we hit the San Francisco Bay, we certainly felt like beggars.

We left the San Francisco family’s house on April 24th, Brahna’s birthday. Since, quite frankly, people don’t like to be poor on their birthdays, we allowed ourselves to accept a room in a nice hotel—that’s with a genuine, fancy-schmancy “h”—and an amazing dinner on one of the docks in Sausalito, our corner table surrounded by a nearly 360-degree views of the San Francisco Bay, courtesy of her and my parents respectively. Word on the street is that Brahna may also have enjoyed the hot-stone massage, a discount on which her thoughtful boyfriend found for a pretty good price on Groupon the day before.
The next morning, we borrowed bikes for free from the hotel and cruised through the marsh near the hotel and checked out some house-boat communities. We commented on our micro-sized experience of the truth that the rich get richer, the poor get poorer: cheap motels get you bed bugs, while expensive hotels give you a bike for the day. As we have learned so many times on this trip, you get what you pay for. Except, in a situation like Couchsurfing, when that truth seems quite limited.

Biking in Sausalito.
By that point it began to feel that we would never actually leave the Bay Area. There were so many interesting places we wanted to explore in Marin County, so many different ways we wanted to explore them, that we could easily have spent another week there just hitting all the spots. As a balance of nature and culture, I’m not sure the Bay Area—counting everything from San Francisco to Martinez, Oakland and Berkeley, Marin County, and down south—has any rivals in North America. Eventually, we decided to cut out a few things—Napa Valley, Sonoma County, John Muir’s house in Martinez—and only explored Muir Woods National Monument and Point Reyes National Seashore. Muir Woods, of course, has the coastal redwood trees, which are the taller, thinner (though often still massively wide) cousin of the Sequoia trees we saw in the Sierra Nevadas. Its grove is relatively small compared to redwoods and sequoia groves elsewhere. We did the basic trail around and above the grove, and gaped, for neither the first nor the last time that week, at the still-incomprehensible scale of the trees.
We continued north on Highway 1, as we had begun doing almost three weeks earlier in Los Angeles and Malibu, though the highway seemingly points in all directions at once as it twists around the hills of Marin County. We arrived at Point Reyes—the only National Seashore on the West Coast—just as the visitor’s center was closing. We still didn’t know where we were staying for the night—the motels along the Northern coast are insanely priced, and, despite the hotel room and comfortable mattress in San Francisco, we were not feeling ready to camp again. Fortunately, we saw a brochure for a hostel that was actually inside Point Reyes, and decided to try that out. We got dorm beds for $24, though unfortunately the dorm rooms were not mixed. After driving down to the beach and lying for a while on the sand, we returned to the hostel and made some of Brahna’s famous tofu and sweet potato mush. We shared it with a bike-touring engineer from New Jersey, who charmed us with a story that his bread had been stolen by seagulls on the beach after he spotted a whale spout and ran to notify some people up the shore. It was pretty weird to fall asleep that night alone, as I’m rarely apart from Brahna longer than the time it takes one of us to shower or do our business. I’ve gotten so used to needing headphones in hostels to block out the snores of heavy older men (male snorers in hostels are disproportionately Australian), that, even without good reason, I fell asleep with music in my ears. Of course, it was Bob Dylan. This is what he was saying:

I'm out here a thousand miles from my home
Walking a road other men have gone down
I'm seeing a new world of people and things
Hear paupers and peasants and princes and kings.

Hey hey Woody Guthrie I wrote you a song
About a funny old world that's coming along
Seems sick and it's hungry, it's tired and it's torn
It looks like it's dying and it's hardly been born.

The beach at Point Reyes.
The next morning we drove down the park road to check out the famous Point Reyes lighthouse. It is set on a large bluff over the ocean, a small peninsula jutting out from the main Point Reyes peninsula, which is itself large enough to be seen in the outline of any self-respectingly detailed California map. This gives the lighthouse an incredibly expansive view of the ocean and the long shoreline heading north. To the south, you can still see the opening of the Golden Gate into San Francisco Bay. We stopped briefly in the museum devoted to the lighthouse, which told us that the keepers of the light routinely sought refuge in alcohol to help them get through the cold, windy days and the dark, lonely nights. They still had an old desk from 150 years ago or something, where the keepers recorded all the important events of their days. Many miles from their nearest neighbors, and stuck alone in an often blinding fog, Point Reyes felt like its own world, and the men often lost their minds.

Point Reyes National Seashore.
By this point, it had been exactly four weeks since we entered California in Death Valley. Despite the great diversity and size of the state, we were ready to leave. For weeks we had criss-crossed the state, driving north one day and south the next, heading east to Sequoia and Yosemite and back west to San Francisco, giving little if any thought to actually getting anywhere outside California anytime soon. We had also spent a good amount of time on the coast in the past four weeks, and felt like there was a whole country not living in incredibly picturesque oceanside locations like Big Sur that we also wanted to see. So, after taking Highway 1 to its conclusion near the town of Eureka, we stopped for a few short hikes in Redwoods National Park and for a picnic in the coastal town of Crescent City, where we tried and failed yet again to distinguish the spouts of migrating grey whales from the ordinary distant foam of prematurely crashing waves.

The northern terminus of California's famous Highway 1.
Shortly after we finally veered off the coast and started driving northeast, I began to notice that same state-to-state transition I had gotten used to noticing earlier in the trip, when we were crossing state lines with about the same frequency as we stopped to pump gas, and had kind of missed for the whole month we had been in California. As we drive from one state into another, I’ve noticed that the natural landscape begins to effect a transition that mirrors, or might even be caused by, the conceptual transition that is occurring at the same time in my mind. Just as I begin to lose the sense of being “in Mississippi” and begin to feel myself "in Louisiana," the natural landscape sheds those vague elements that make it conform to my mental image of what Mississippi looks like, and it begins to dress itself in those equally vague elements that conform to my image of Louisiana. So Louisiana blended into East Texas, West Texas blended into New Mexico, and, this time, northern California blended into Oregon. The woods grow wilder, the trees more uniform and dense—the forests, basically, turn into a kind of forest that makes me ashamed to have ever used the term before. The streams and rivers assume a kind of icy green color that reminds me not quite of the glacier-fed waters in Alaska nor of the putrid, polluted rivers back east, but somehow perfectly encompasses the color that comes to mind when I think of the word “sea."

As if to notarize this theory of mine in a way perfectly suited to my interests, we happened to suddenly find a covered bridge in this far northern section of California, just miles from the border with Oregon, a state I had been particularly looking forward to visiting if only for its status as the only Western state with a noteworthy population of my beloved covered bridges.