Thursday, October 31, 2002

Awe Inspiring Canyons of the Southwest

Forty-five miles to go and forty five minutes to do it.

Now, on an Interstate or a solid US highway, this would not be a problem, of course.  However, this time we were in Jacob's Lake, AZ and the goal was to be at the Grand Canyon in time for sunset, both to see the Canyon while it was still somewhat light and also to experience what we were told was the most dramatic moment of the day over this mile deep gorge which extended miles to the west.

In what has become an all too familiar experience and which has been surprisingly so for two people who are traveling cross-country for 5 weeks, a few minutes in one place where we dawdle or linger ends up having a big impact at some point at the end of the day.

Waking up in Vegas after a big night on the town (plus the fact that I had woken at 7am in DC on Sunday morning, flown to LAX, entered a car with Tamar, driven to Vegas, and stayed up until 2am=5am on the East Coast. In other words, 22 hours awake), we were a bit slow in getting out on the road.

Eventually, we arrived on I-15 which took us out of Nevada, across the most northwestern tip of Arizona and back into Utah.

At the welcome station, the woman gave me (Tamar and my dad were in the car) some great suggestions about how to make the most of our time in southern Utah and arrive in Santa Fe, New Mexico by about noon on Wed. (approx. 48 hours later-this was all done so that we can be in Nashville, TN on Sunday where we will visit with one of Tamar's closest friends).

Her suggestion: Go to Zion National Park and the Grand Canyon for the sunset on Monday, then take the scenic route through Bryce Canyon and Monument Valley to the Four Corners and into New Mexico.

The challenge in every place we went, including every convenience store, bathroom break, scenic overlook, and tourist center was:  just how long can we afford to stay here?

We had a few more challenges facing us on the way back East than the road out West.

First, it was Daylight Savings Time. I am not a morning person. The idea of getting on the road by 7am was tough for us. Second, by heading east, we were losing time in terms of sunlight. Third, with the shorter daylight hours in the evening coupled with a desire to avoid night driving (both for safety and scenic reasons). Lastly, though we knew the distances in terms of mileage, we really couldn't accurately assess the time because the roads varied from 65mph highways to 35mph mountain passes (and less as well).

Further, I've learned that when it comes to time estimates, you need to ask at least 4 people to get a rough average, since no one really knows how long things take. Go ahead…test this theory out.

Plus, with the addition of my father (which gave Tamar an up close and personal opportunity to understand the origin of some of my neuroses, mannerisms, and habits) for the Las Vegas-Santa Fe portion of the trip, we had a third travel style to integrate.

Traveling with my dad is always a wonderful experience. This is the 7th year in a row in which we have taken a trip together.  He's my travel mentor, having taught me how to navigate, to make educated guesses, deduce information about tourist sites, find the unexpected, appreciate the journey as well as the destination and provided ways to enrich the trip with things such as books on tape.  What's more he is an overwhelming source of knowledge. Ask him a simple question and he can expound (in an interesting
manner) for hours about subjects ranging from the Anazasi Indians in New Mexico (the pueblo ruins from 1000 years we visited in NW New Mexico) to the history of Las Vegas, the Mormons, the issues surrounding Eisenhower's decision to dam the Colorado River and create Glen Canyon in the 50's, and thousands of other topics. On the one hand, it's enjoyable, on the other it's intimidating. How can someone acquire that amount of knowledge? He's always reading, asking questions, pursuing knowledge for its own sake. He is my greatest teacher and role model.

When you're on the road with him or anyone for that matter, things such as how long you want to read in an exhibit, browse a souvenir store, or take in a vista are all different. And when you have a goal and you have no idea what the variables in front of you are, it's quite complicated to figure out how to manage your time most effectively.

The highlight of the mid-day on Monday, by far, was Zion National Park.
Named Zion because it is a place that is supposed to provide its visitors with a sense of 'serenity, security, and peace' (the name was probably influenced by the Mormons), it quickly made a case for the most beautiful part of our trip.

At Zion Park, which is a red-rock canyon (by the way, the National Parks'
Annual Pass is a GREAT deal), you drive along the base of the canyon and are surrounded by majestic walls of layered red rock, which naturally take shapes that look vaguely familiar. Remember when you were a kid and you'd look up at the clouds and imagine that you saw familiar shapes? Well, the rocks in Zion and all throughout southern Utah, for that matter, provide you with a similar sense of familiarity.

You can't go directly from east to west across the southern part of Utah.
You have to go around the mountains. In fact, the whole four corners area is on a plateau, the remnants of an age when North America had an inland sea on today's Great Plains and the subsequent earthquakes and volcanic eruptions which helped form the Rocky Mountain chain.
Four Corners is the place where Colorado, Utah, Arizona and New Mexico come together and which we tried to visit, but it was dark already and the Monument, which is administered by the Navajo nation, the largest reservation in the US, was closed for the night. However, we did manage to go from Utah to Colorado to New Mexico to Arizona and back to New Mexico in a matter of 15 minutes. It, arguably, is also one of the most remote places in the United States. In fact, there were points during our drive through Utah where the signs on the scenic overlooks would say something like 'at night, if you looked out from here, you would not be able to see any light.'
What was so special about this part of the trip was precisely the solitude and lack of human involvement.

In addition to the vistas of up to 60 miles, it was the night sky that was most spectacular. The Milky Way was clearly visible and we stood outside of the car, with the lights off, with no noise around us, just staring up at the stars shining down on us.

Well, maybe it's not fair to say that the stars were 'most spectacular'
because by saying that, I am diminishing the raw beauty of Zion and Bryce Canyons and the numerous parks and vistas in between.

What you have here are earth-red rocks which take the most unique shapes. In Bryce Canyon, the formation are called 'hoo-doos.' What they really look like are thousands of red-rock hot dogs of various lengths covering the mountainside.  In Zion and throughout, you'll see some that are naturally formed arches or bridges, a wall that has a fluted look to it, a solitary butte in the middle of a blain that looks like a large cabin, others that look like enlarged crowns, one of a king and one of a queen next to each other.

They are stratified, if that is a word, with different colored layers of rock extending horizontally across the faces of the rock, or in some cases, diagonally. The vegetation varies from trees to shrubs to nothing at all, just dirt.

Sometimes you are looking down upon a mazelike structure where you have no idea how you will enter or exit and sometimes you are surrounded by high walls on either side where daylight can barely penetrate.

Depending on the angle, the rocks take many shapes, varying in their impressiveness, and within moments being forgotten (save for the 130 digital pictures Tamar took on this stretch of drive) or better yet surpassed by the view you get as you round the next bend. The clouds, the shadow, and the snow all interact with the faces of these red monoliths to create natural works of abstract art that leave you aghast at nature's beauty, and blown away at how the apparent randomness of it all could come together in such a harmonic presentation of light and color.

The drive continued to amaze. At one turn are ancient Indian drawings
(petrographs) on a wall depicting a bighorn sheep. At another, you find out that Bryce is named for Ebenezer Bryce, an early Mormon settler who needed timber and thus built a road. His neighbors rewarded him by calling it "Bryce's Canyon."

Somebody told me at the beginning of this trip that southern Utah was "God's country" and now I know why. I guess I feel like there is just no way I can do justice in words to the natural beauty of this part of the country, no matter how hard I try.

We actually did most of the driving in southern Utah and the visit to Bryce on the 2nd day in that part of the country.  It was Zion and the little hiccups along the way (the extended visit at the Ranger station, stopping to eat instead of eating in the car, and an occasional wrong turn) that put us in the position we found ourselves at 5pm on Mon. afternoon in Jacob Lake, AZ.

I don't know how many of you remember the old "Alcoa Fantastic Finishes"
from the NFL games back in the 80's, but the basic concept was that the little feature would show the viewers a highlight from a game that had an amazing ending.

Well, as we set out on the drive to the Grand Canyon, I announced that we, too, were in store for a fantastic finish.  I had opened the day's driving and Tamar had provided some middle relief (over some narrow, winding mountain passes), so we were lucky to have the services of our experienced closer, my dad, to help us get over the necessary distance in the requisite time.

As the light began to diminish and the miles did not seem to pass quickly enough, the crowd in Mudville got silent (namely Tamar), but I was confident.  We have been so blessed on this trip that I just knew we would make it in time.

With each turn we said 'ok, here it is,' but alas, it wasn't and we would need to press on.

At last, and with the sunlight almost gone, we pulled into the parking lot of the North Rim of the Grand Canyon.

Like an adolescent, I shot off, shouting something like "I'm going to see the Grand Canyon" (it was about 100 yards off) and I left my dad and my wife behind. What's more, I didn't bring our dedicated communication devices (Motorola talk-abouts-don't laugh, they prove to be extremely valuable when on the road).

This tarnished the entire experience and I didn't earn any responsibility or sensitivity points with my co-travelers.

I did make it to the Grand Canyon to see it during the last vestiges of daylight. One friend had told me before we left that the average length of visit to the Canyon was 7 minutes, a seeming knock against Americans who can't appreciate what they have.  I now felt guilty because our visit was about 7 minutes as well, because after that, you really couldn't see that much.

Well, maybe a few more minutes than that, but not that much.  I did see the sunset and took in the vastness of this absolutely huge canyon. I appreciated the way the light change ever so slowly as the sun set and dusk and then night finally settled in.

I headed back to the car only to find my dad and my wife very concerned about my whereabouts and safety.  They were right. I had blown this one.
Neither Lewis nor Clark would have left their travel companions for so selfish a mission. I had learned a valuable lesson about teamwork.

Here are some comments on the email on Los Angeles

>From Shai Franklin
Until the Fauvistes or maybe even the Impressionists, artists generally did not paint in "plein air", and if you look back at the Italian masters the light is generally studio light or -- as in the case of Caravaggio -- the Dutch coined the term Kellerlicht for the sweeping light that cuts across pictures like "The Calling of St. Matthew".  Landscape artists, especially in the north countries, did depict outdoor light although most probably did the painting indoors.  Vermeer used the device of camera obscura, working in dark room illuminated by a pinhole lens to the outside that projected the real image onto a screen of ground glass -- hence the early photo-realism of his secretive technique.
It's interesting that, although Getty's home (now a museum in Malibu) was on a hillside near the beach, the new museum built after his death is atop a high hill -- much like Hearst's home.  Art for the masses...hmmmmm.
>From Aliza Zuckerman:
Another thing I keep noticing every time we go to LA is that so many cars don't have actual license plates. They just have the a piece of paper with the dealers name on it instead of an actual plate. Some of these cars look new and may actually be new cars, but some are definitely old and cruddy so I just can't figure it out.

And on Las Vegas…

>From Rick Ezell
Did you notice that in the casinos there are no clocks? It is truly a timeless, unchanging environment they create. 2AM and 2PM are no different in a casino.

As to Shakespeare, historically he was middle-brow at best.  The pit was full of the hoi polloi whom Shakespeare had to satisfy.  His genius lies in the fact that he offers hearty fare for every taste.

And Josh Sharf…
What about the Bellagio?  How could you possibly not mention the Fountains at the Bellagio?

My response: (We missed the last show and left before the first show. We heard it's amazing)

Across the Ages Across America

With our turn eastward on I-40 in New Mexico, just south of Santa Fe, our trip underwent an instant metamorphosis from a focus on the sights, people, and experiences of the US to a focused, two-person shuttle with a goal of Memphis by sundown on Friday afternoon. We planned to cover about 900 miles in less than 48 hours with no sightseeing whatsoever.

Or so we thought. Oklahoma City changed that in a dramatic way.

After spending the night in Amarillo, Texas, our next major city was Oklahoma City. We decided that in addition to visiting the Cowboy Hall of Fame and Western Heritage Museum (which were really good, particularly the life size model of the Old West town and the exhibits about Native American and Cowboy lifestyles, art, and clothing), we also wanted to visit the Oklahoma City Bombing Memorial and Museum.

I have to admit that going in, we thought something like "we know this was a big event, but how can it really compare? Besides, we're probably somewhat desensitized to it by now."

Boy, were we wrong and I am glad about that. The museum starts off innocently enough, like the morning of April 19, 1995 with an overview of what was going on that day. The mayor was going to speak at an ecumenical breakfast. The Water Treatment Authority was scheduled to have a meeting and all of the other basics. You hear voices of kids going to school, mothers waking kids up, firefighters doing routine checks.

Then, you walk into a meeting room (the door ominously closes behind you).
On the table rests a microphone and a tape recorder. It is from the Water Authority's meeting of that morning. It began promptly at 9am.  The first two minutes sounds like any meeting. The chairwoman introduces herself, discusses the agenda, and makes a note of the attendance. Then, even though you know it's coming, it still shocks you.

At 9:02am, you hear it. An unmistakable, room-shattering boom (the lights flicker for added effect) and you know, just as we knew on September 11th, that life had just changed dramatically, only you don't know how.

Then, the door on the other side of the room opens and you walk into a cacophony of sounds and sights. The TV above you shows the first scenes from the helicopter of the destroyed rooms. There are emergency radio calls being played and you can feel the distress in the voices.  The pictures jump out of you as you see one man waving for help as he looks out over a crater where the other part of his office had been.

Then, you get into the lives of the survivors. Through video and computer, you hear story after story of what it was like to see eight people in front of you one moment and then the next, see them fall through the floor to their deaths.  People covered under piles of rubble, screaming, disoriented, and praying. Fears of another bomb. The chaos of not knowing if your family member is dead or alive. All of those feelings we all know all too well now.

The decisions by emergency service personnel made every moment about whom to save and whom to leave to die. There was one woman whose location was known, but the fear was that removing the rubble around her might destabilize a column and trigger a full building collapse. The worst was hearing her son tell of the visit by the emergency people saying basically 'we know where your mother is and she may be alive, but we can't save her.'

Halfway through the first exhibit, Tamar and I felt the first waves of emotion overcome us. The tears welled up and we drew upon our own (all of our own) experiences of having collectively been through this.

The Museum was extremely well done. It brought you into the events, the emotions, the survivors lives, a simple room for the victims where each person has a roughly 6x8 portrait within a glass cube on the wall, at the front of which is some personal effect which, presumably, the family has placed there to give a sense of the person.

The most emotional ones are the children. The beanie baby in one case; The favorite doll in another. There's a Pulitzer Prize winning photo a young baby girl, badly burned, being carried out in the arms of a firefighter.

There's the timeline of the McVeigh and Nichols trials. There are video clips from news agencies around the world. There are different memorial efforts, like the 27,000 pennies collected by schoolchildren.

The whole exhibit is presented as a timeline, from the morning of the bombing, to the day the last survivor, the last victim, was pulled out, to the memorial service the following year, and the completion of the Memorial.
You really feel the full range of emotions as you literally walk through the history of the event.

A special exhibit talks about 9/11 and in one poignant section, a policeman, who was called from the NYPD to Oklahoma City to help in April, 1995, was killed in the WTC.

When we walked out, all we could say was 'Whoa.' It was simply much more powerful than we had thought possible.

Outside the Museum is the actual memorial. On one end is a large archway that says '9:01.' On the other end is one that says '9:03'. In between is a reflecting pool of water and on one bank, 168 empty chairs facing it, representing the minute in between those two times in which all of those people died. We were there at just around dusk, when the lights under the chairs had come on and the intensity of the emptiness was really driven home.

It was estimated that 20% of all the people in Oklahoma City went to one of the funerals following the bombing.

To be cynical for only a moment, the museum's mission is to show the effects of senseless violence, which it does extremely well and to "prevent terrorism."  While it makes an effort to talk about the terrorism on a global scale, the connection between the event and its presentation (which, as I've said is highly effective) and its ability to prevent terrorism is, in my opinion, tenuous at best.

At the end of the exhibit, the wall reads something like "we hope that by seeing what happened here, YOU will be changed and YOU will make the world a better place."  I guess I just am skeptical that any terrorist or would be terrorist is going to 1. visit in the first place or 2. change his mind about the potential impact of terrorism.

I hope I'm wrong and I hope places like Oklahoma City's Museum can have that impact on those who would commit these types of crimes against humanity.

I do know that of all of the places we've visited so far, this was only time where I left the place and said, "I must write this down now. I need it for therapy." That is what I am doing, thanks to Tamar's generosity about driving the bumpy I-40 route to Fort Smith, Arkansas.

All along the trip, we've been marveling at the wonders of technology. I check my email from random motel rooms. Our car reliably takes us where we need to go. Our credit card, used often, brings us supplies whenever and wherever we need them.

But, we have seen the dark side of technology as well. Today, it was Tim McVeigh using 4,000 lbs. of dynamite to bring down a building. Yesterday, as we visited Los Alamos and learned the story of a town that 'didn't officially exist,' of the brainpower assembled in the remote New Mexico desert, now called "The Hill" (it's a town of 18,000 people, 10,000 of whom are employed by the National Laboratory), of the censorship and control the military had over the lives of their civilian employees, we were starkly reminded of the destructive possibilities which technology can wrath.

The accomplishment and secrecy of the Manhattan project is certainly one of the great scientific achievements and I believe its cause was noble and just.  Nevertheless, we cannot forget the effect it had on human lives and the people in Los Alamos don't forget that either. In the small house, which use to be a part of a privileged Ranch School for Boys before the Army appropriated it, there are three pictures of what Hiroshima and Nagasaki looked like after being hit by the result of the developments from Los Alamos.

It was as jarring yesterday as it was 5 years ago as I stood in the Peace Park in Hiroshima, Japan.  And it made me more resilient in my belief that good, freedom-loving people of the world must do all they can to prevent evil people for acquiring and using these types of weapons.

One of the fascinating things about traveling is how you can move across subject matters and historical periods and events in a matter of hours. Rome is a great example of this as you go from the Roman Era to the modern Italian era to the influence of the Catholic Church in one city.

In New Mexico, we had a similar experience surrounding our visit to Los Alamos.

In the morning, we left Farmington, NM, right on the outskirts of the Navajo nation, the largest reservation in the US. Over the course of our trip, we've entered the Cherokee, Apache, and Ute nations among others.  In Shiprock, NM, we spent some time in a convenience store, which was operated and patronized entirely by Native Americans.

We had really hoped to get an introduction to the Navajo culture while on the reservation, to understand how the culture operates today (it has its own police force and political instruments that are separate from the state government), but with no motels at all in Shiprock, we couldn't do that. We did have a long talk with the clerk there. She spoke Navajo as well as English and told us a bit about the Navajo nation (it has its own President, who I subsequently read is being accused of potentially corrupt or at least ethically questionable practices), but not enough to fill our inquisitive minds.

While in the store we also saw another, unfortunate side of life on the reservation. Alcoholism apparently plagues the Native American population of many different nations and we saw two men who fit that bill. The clerk just sort of shrugged and said "he's been drinking" and "the manager tells us to get rid of the drunk ones, but we don't succeed."

It wasn't until we got to Oklahoma City and the Western Heritage Museum that we got a great deal of information about the Native American culture, with one exception.

In Aztec, NM there are some wonderful ruins left from the Anasazi Indians who lived in the area about 1000 years ago and built small communities of common interest. The homes were mostly submerged and built around a small common area. The religious gathering places, known as Kivas, are domed structures with windows to allow for light from multiple angles into the structure. It's got a dirt floor and a hole in the top (I think for smoke from the fires). The video at the Visitor Center was great and told of how the culture evolved from a hunter/gatherer to a farmer way of life and speculated about their sudden disappearance.

Sudden disappearance was sort of our motto, unfortunately, as we began the long road home. With a time constraint of sorts, we would spend about 1 hour in Santa Fe (a beautiful city with a uniform code of architecture (another theme), 2 hours in Oklahoma City, an hour in Los Alamos, and the like.  And now, we find ourselves back in the Plains, shooting across Oklahoma and spending the night in Clarkesville, Arkansas.

Just one comment to share (I think people are getting tired of emails ;-).

>From my cousin, Leonard Epstein
I should've mentioned St. George's Utah to you.  During the family trip in 1972, we came out of the mountains there, and I was extremely carsick.  I finally had to tell my dad to pull over, and I barfed outside the car onto the pavement.  It was exactly infront of the Mormon church in St. George in the center of town.  A Kodak memory?  Just wanted to share.

Tuesday, October 29, 2002

Vegas, Baby!

"I think we have left Planet Earth," I said to Tamar as we entered Las Vegas.

Our search for America has taken us to cities, towns, and hamlets (actually, I am not even sure that if we found a hamlet we would know it), but I think few places epitomize America more than Las Vegas. It's proof of the capabilities and rewards of the capitalist system. It's a living testament to the spirit of the Frontier. It's a place where the American dream of "Rags to Riches" can occur in a moment.

Las Vegas basically proves that there is no such thing as excess. This is a city where too much is never enough. Everything is BIG and done on a grand scale. When you drive down Las Vegas Boulevard, more commonly and simply referred to as "The Strip," you are assaulted by a commercial visual display rivaled in no other place in the world.

The first thing that you see are the hotels, which contain at least 150,000 rooms all told, but calling them hotels in the traditional sense is really not accurate. These aren't just buildings, they are monuments.

When we were in Los Angeles, I saw a TV ad for Southwest Airlines, which had opened up a new service to Las Vegas.  In the ad, a man goes into a convenience store to ask the clerk, "which way to the prizefight?"

The clerk responds: "Ok, go out of here and turn left. When you see the Eiffel Tower, make a right. Go past the flaming volcano and the Statue of Liberty. When you see the Roman Forum, you are there."

The screen then reads: "there's no place like Las Vegas."

First there is the Luxor, which has a full-blown pyramid. Then, New York-New York, complete with Statue of Liberty and Empire State Building. The Venetian looks like St. Mark's Plaza and has a canal going through it. The Mirage has a waterfall with an exploding fire volcano, which goes off every
15 minutes. Treasure Island (where we stayed) has a "Battle for Buccaneer Bay" complete with pirates and sinking ships every 90 minutes. Off in the distance, I saw Seattle's Space Needle and two full-size roller coasters.

Of all of the casinos, I think Caesar's Palace was the best. The building itself on the outside was nothing special, but the copy of the Winged Victory of Samothrace in front gave you an idea of what was to come.

I do have to admit that I felt a sense of elitism when I noticed the statue and, at the same time, I heard a woman behind me say, "Hey, look!  That angel lost her head. She must have been a bad angel."

Now, I'm not trying to say that everyone should know the history of every statue. I guess I would expect someone to say "hey, this statue is standing in front of Caesar's Palace Casino, which obviously has a Roman/ancient theme to it, maybe there's something to learn about this."

As you can undoubtedly tell, I'm really working hard on not feeling elitist or snobbish about the whole experiences, but clearly I'm having issues with it.

To the hotel/casino's credit, in front of the building along the semi-circular driveway, there are statues of the Roman gods with decent introductory explanations of their significance.

The Strip is just non-stop visual stimulation. The buildings are lit up, the neon signs are flashing, there are fountains in front of them and there are tons of people walking on the street.

Now, keep in mind, we were there on a Sunday night, so the weekend crowd (which we passed on the way to Las Vegas as many of them were returning to the LA area) was probably thinned a bit already, but there were a lot of them.  What was noticeable, however, was that in my unscientific research, it seemed like a good 90% of the people there were Caucasian. The remainder were minorities (few Blacks, some south Asians, and mostly Asian) as well as foreigners (granted, some of the Caucasians could have been foreigners, but I doubt they would have dressed this way knowingly.)

So these buildings are all lit up (24 hours a day) and in front of many of them are video screens inviting you to attend the shows or eat the food.

As my father, who met us in Las Vegas for this portion of the trip to Oklahoma City, astutely pointed out, 'everything that is designed to get you into the Casinos is cheap (i.e. food and lodging), such as the numerous 'All You Can Eat Buffets" and if you enter any hotel, 'all roads lead to the Casino.' Tamar and I had to wheel our bags (partially as a result of our own
ignorance) through the slot machine area to check in. On the other hand, it cost $20 just to use the workout room.

Speaking of slot machines, I have to say I don't really understand them and found myself being very judgmental about the people sitting in front of them.  And there are a lot of them. By our estimates, about 70% of the floor space is devoted to slot machines which means they must be profitable and there are all types of games for all types of money. You can play for a penny, a nickel, a quarter, a dollar and you can play traditional machines, or what I called advanced video games such as Monopoly or The Price is Right. I didn't bet, but my dad lost $2 in front of one.

The thing that troubles me about the slots is that it requires almost no thinking whatsoever. At least in the card games, such as poker or blackjack, you need to assess the overall situation and make a risk assessment about your next move.  To me, the people sitting in front of the machines (and you don't even put money in every time, you just put in a bill or have a card and just keep pushing the button to see how much you win.) Ultimately, I guess you have to decide when to cut your losses or take your profits, but the actual game itself didn't do much for me. Now, to be fair, some of the video games do require a little bit of thought, but from my perspective as I walked by, all I saw were people casually sitting in front of machines, staring at them, and occasionally pushing a button. It was just a little depressing. Call me elitist, but I really felt like those individuals were behaving like mindless automatons, escaping from their lives, and not growing their brainpower at all.

The other thing that really impressed me at the casinos was the intensity of technology involved. There are thousands of cameras in black orbs in the ceilings, but the slot machines have card slots where you can insert your Frequent Gambler card and where the casino then knows who you are, how long you have been there, how often you come and the like, then use that information to comp you a room, a drink, a meal, etc.  Basically, this way, the guy at machine 1428 gets a free drink while 1427 does not.  Along with the psychology of the gambler, which I didn't really understand, observing the crowd and trying to find some patterns (only a few), it was the technology that really did it for me in terms of excitement.

Tamar went to bed earlier than I did and when I got to the room, I could not open the door. Not wanting to wake her up, I went downstairs and found out that she had probably dead bolted the door (see what 7 years in NYC will do to you?) and I needed a special security entrance. I showed my ID, he radioed in and minutes later, I was met by another guard at our door. Very smooth, very easy.

With so many dollars on the line, any place where a casino can make a difference by implementing technology, they do so aggressively. And in the non-stop, ferocious competition, the continuous one-upmanship becomes increasingly obviously, thus raising the expectations on the part of the consumers for what the acceptable basic level of experience should be.

What Vegas represents in the American psyche, perhaps, is the opportunity to reinvent yourself.  For many years, frustrated Easterners would go out West in order to start anew and forget their problems 'back East."  Now, with the urbanization of the North American continent, you can't really go to a place where nobody knows you; in Vegas, however, you can go and have the chance of 'making it big,' without the hard work and limiting your risk.

In this way, Las Vegas is a uniquely American experience, a chance to begin again, to lose yourself in a fantasy land.

It's 24/7 stimulation. At any time of the day or night, you can find a place to gamble, to eat, to walk around and see something you haven't seen before, to dance, to drink, and to be entertained.

Entertainment is Las Vegas' specialty, of course. In addition to all of the gambling, you can see shows such as Siegfried and Roy, Gladys Knight, and Celine Dion. There are magicians and musicians. Then there are the feats of the spectacular.

Las Vegas is home to the Cirque du Soleil (I believe), which currently produces two shows. One called 'Mystere' and the other called 'O'.  We were extremely fortunate (thanks to the heroic measures of my mother and my cousin, Doris Epstein) to acquire 2nd row seats for 'O'.

The name, as far as I can surmise, is a parody on the French word "Eau" for water, because the show is based around water. Well, not really around, more like above.  The feats, which include precision aerial aerobics, high diving, jumping, spinning, swimming with bits of cabaret and slapstick, take place ABOVE a swimming pool.

Here are some of the highlights:
-a woman balancing on her head on a trapeze bar 50 feet above the pool of water

-gymnasts being hurled off of swinging diving boards and spinning, flipping, and diving into water

-synchronized swimmers

-chinese acrobats who can lie on their stomachs and bring their feet up over their bodies so that they face forward next to their ears

-a metal frame in the shape of a small boat that rocks back and forth at significant speed, hung from the rafters and, all the while, trapeze artists are performing stunts which include being held by their feet only by the ankles of the individuals suspended above them

None of us wanted the show to end. The performances kept getting more impressive, more daring, and more exciting. At times, I even felt my stomach jump up, so to speak, as I witnessed some of the performances. It was really spectacular. My dad called it "middle brow entertainment" meaning that it was a spectacle, but not on the order of Shakespeare. It wasn't meant as an insult, just an observation.

Las Vegas is sort of like the yin yang of modern capitalism.  On the one hand, there are thousands of people who live in the area and make a living by working in the casinos and hotels, building them, and entertaining in them. There are millions of people whose lives and businesses depend on the existence of this industry. Built in a desert that was once the middle of nowhere, the city is fairly clean and safe and provides entertainment and diversion for millions of people.

On the other hand, the industry is based on people who like to wager money on games of chance, where the odds are announced to be against them.
Advertisements for topless dancers abound as do opportunities for gluttony.
In stark comparison to CA, smoking is permitted pretty much everywhere (save for the dedicated non-smoking rooms) and carrying open bottles of alcohol on the street is commonly practiced.

So, it's both Sodom and Gomorrah and the epitome of the American entrepreneurial dream of building something prosperous out of nothing at all.

Monday, October 28, 2002

We Love LA!

The most common piece of information we received about Southern California is that "no one walks anywhere" and while we can't really confirm or deny that, we can say that it seems like everyone has a car (and 1 out of every 7 or 8 has a vanity license plate) and that walking any type of distance is not so common.

My cousin Josh David grew up in NYC and moved out to LA a few years back. He loves it in LA and we understand why, though he does say that he misses having people on the sidewalk with him on the few occasions when he walks, and we saw what he meant.

He's also a talented writer and is currently on the staff of FoxSports Net's "Best Damn Sports Show Period."  Thanks to him, we had front row seats for last Tuesday's taping. While we thought the actual content of the show wasn't so strong (except for the piece written by Josh, of course), we were extremely impressed by this 'behind the scenes' look at what is involved in putting a TV show on the air. Furthermore, as it is a 24/7 cable sports network, there's round the clock activity, which gives the building (where Rupert Murdoch's office is as well) a sense of motion.

As for the show, the raw number of people who are required- and we didn't even see most of them-show you that when people talk about the entertainment industry, it really is an industry. Camera and light people, stage people, people to move the furniture, writers, a guy to manage the applause for the audience, hair and make-up people, and my personal favorite, the woman whose job it is to remove the lint with one of those sticky rollers from the clothes of the show's stars.

We further investigated the entertainment industry as Josh gave us a tour of the studio. He told us that almost every studio has a "New York" street (Fox uses theirs to film NYPD Blue which they sell to ABC) and which looks like the real thing. Of course, if you open any of the doors, you see nothing but wood and support beams for the fake facades. The scenes are so real, right down to the NYC yellow taxicab and the trashcans.

They also have massive, warehouse-like buildings where sets are constructed for movies which the studios make. But, to be honest, Fox's didn't really compare to what we saw the next day on the lots of Universal Studios.  Part of Universal City, which may even have its own mayor, if I recall correctly, is truly a city unto itself. Universal Studios provides a healthclub, a hospital, a dry cleaner, multiple restaurants, and many other amenities, as well as housing the offices for many famous producers/directors, among them Steven Spielberg.

We were guests of Marc Guggenheim, a writer on one of our favorite shows, NBC's "Law and Order." We lunched with him and two other writers discussing some of our favorite episodes and tried to understand the business of entertainment, which they (as well as Josh the day before) described as very difficult to enter and very difficult to stay in.  Though the industry produces a lot of entertainment, it really sounds like a relatively small clique of people who work together over time.

We heard about how you break in as a drama writer. You should write a sample show for a show on which you don't want to work. For example, you'd like to write for 'ER', send the writers of 'ER' a sample show for another drama.
The idea being that the writers of ER will see the immediate flaws, no matter how small, in a script for their own show, but will appreciate good writing if done for a different show. So, there you have it, for all of the aspiring writers out there.

Universal Studios' lots and sets are absolutely massive. We got into a golf cart with Marc and traveled around, waving to the tourists on the 'regular'
tour, giving them the impression that we were famous, but friendly, Hollywood stars (or at least writers). We saw where Psycho was filmed (I got out and took a picture in front of the Bates Motel sign), JAWS who came shooting out of the lagoon, how Hollywood creates thunderstorms and flashfloods in a special lagoon area, and our personal favorite, the huge concrete tub with blue screen (onto which any image can be projected for effect), where the capsule from Apollo 13, among other things, crashed into the ocean. When it's not in use for water, they build regular sets there, or as we were told in the case of Paramount Studios, they use it as a parking lot. Imagine coming to work one day to find your space underwater.  Speaking of parking spaces, the big perk on the Universal lot seems to be having your own. If you're a star, that's where you want to be.

These sets, though, I'll tell you, when we watch a movie, we just have no clue about how much work has gone into it. The location, the set design, the fake trees made out of rubber and located on wheels so they can be easily transported around the studio, the materials, the design, the location. I really have a much greater appreciation for Hollywood as a serious business than simply a place that turns out mindless drivel. At least the drivel had to have some thought go into it.

Lest you think all we did in LA was schmooze with the powerbrokers at the various studios, we also hit some other highlights, including Venice Beach, which has a magnificent boardwalk with a lot of activity and I think may be the pott smoking capital of California, for reasons I can provide later, if you are really interested.

We took a nice romantic walk on the beach as the sun was setting and appreciated the completion of our first trip across the continent.

The Getty Museum is built on a hilltop in West Los Angeles and which requires a tram to reach from the parking lot.

The thing that struck me most about the museum was the full-scale dedication of the museum to its stated mission of, paraphrased, "bringing art to the masses.'

First of all, the museum itself is an architectural marvel, with stones imported from Italy covering the entire fa├žade and which add to the light, airy feeling that the designers had in mind. Each room is naturally lit through skylights, so that you are viewing the works in much the same way that the creators and original owners did.  There are five different permanent exhibitions, including French furniture, sculpture, and painting from the 17th-19th centuries and there is no admission fee.  Furthermore, there are free guided tours given by Art History Ph.D. students.  We took one focusing on Italian and Dutch paintings from 1600-1800.

The Dutch, because of the growing and prosperous burgher class as a result of the maritime successes of the country and the Reformation replaced the Catholic Church as the primary patron of the struggling artists, so it was about this time that the themes altered from religious scenes, which the Church used for advertising essentially to themes which invoked the Protestant work ethic.

Once upon a time, I would have tried to visit every room in the museum in an effort to "see it all" and as a result would have seen nothing. Now, I take the approach that, "you can't see it all, so just see one or two things that are valuable and move on."

That's really been an overriding effort of our trip because the country is just so large and we only have so much time (we have to be back in DC by Nov. 7th so Tamar can go to an Israeli Folk Dance camp). There are those who say "oh, I can't believe you missed X" but we just recognize that this journey, like life itself, requires making choices and selection.

While on the subject of Israeli dancing, I should say that LA was a major destination for Tamar, as her belief was that it would provide non-stop opportunities for her to dance and the lack of practice the last few weeks had been an annoyance for her.  You have to understand, and she will never tell you this, but she is truly 'world class' when it comes to this line of dance, so the lack of opportunity to do something she loves was a problem.

Unfortunately, the city did not live up to its billing. Some of the sessions she had planned to attend had been cancelled and the others, while fun, did not have the high quality for which she had hoped.  Nonetheless, she was thrilled to see some familiar faces and get  a chance to exercise her legs.

Speaking of familiar faces, they kept on coming as we continued our sojourn in the "Land of People We Know."

We had a wonderful visit with my old JHU pal, Aaron Tapper, a Wexner Fellow studying comparative religion at the UC-Santa Barbara.  Here's a guy who's studied in Jerusalem and Cairo, Cambridge and Damascus, Morocco and California. So interesting and a great host.

As for great hosts, we would be remiss if we did not thank the Meisel Family of Beverly Hills, with whom we share common relatives through the Lennon's of Chicago. For five nights, they gave shelter and other amenities to Tamar and me. (I actually flew back to Washington, DC on Thursday and returned to LA on Sunday for a job interview. Tamar met me at LAX and we immediately drove to Las Vegas, but that's the next email.)

They actually invited us to eat with them on more than one occasion, but if you keep kosher and are ever in Los Angeles, you must see Pico Blvd. (near Robertson). For my money, it is the best street of kosher restaurants anywhere in the world. When we drove down the street, after so many weeks on the road, all I could say was "we have reached the promised land."

Promised land or not, we are definitely in a special period in our lives.
Now that our trip is more than half over and we've started eastward again in the long road home, I feel a strange sense of longing or nostalgia for the beginning of our trip.  I did my best to appreciate every moment and I still think that I didn't do it enough. I can't believe that this time has come already and it's almost done.  For me, though, the key is to stay focused on being present at all times and enjoy the ride, because it's the journey, not the destination and if you think about it, the journey is really made up of many destinations.

This journey's next destination is: Las Vegas

Here are a few of the reader comments from the last email which I'd like to share.

Michael Cooperman writes:
"Marion Davies was the name of WR Hearst's girlfriend for the last 30 years of his life. Citizen Kane was directly based on Hearst's life.  It's actually very intereting that the movie was ever made and released in the first place given the fact that Hearst had so much clout in Hollywood, and was no fan of Orson Welles.

Dina Epstein adds:
At the time that Citizen Kane came out, it was widely rumored that Orson Welles based it upon Hearst.  It was basically a fictionalized biopic based on Hearst. Also, the similarities with their wives--both had wannabe actress wives for whom they bought theaters and nightclubs.  There are a million similarities.  It is not very disguised.  The more you learn about the movie and the mogul, the more you realize they are the same.  Even the castle itself.  But in CK it is called Xanadu, from the poem, which begins "In Xanadu did Kubla Khan a stately pleasure dome decree..."  That is something for you to research--why Welles chose the name Xanadu for the castle.

Gil Kezwer adds the foreign perspective:
No doubt the U.S. is the world's great power, and its culture affects the entire world. I'm always surprised by American parochialism.

You write:

"In San Francisco, you can't smoke in ANY bar or restaurant. In Santa Barbara, houses can only be a certain height and I believe they must all have those red tiles on the roof (or maybe just everyone likes it). In Venice Beach, there's a similar zoning law against buildings…. And In Beverly Hills, you can't park on the street overnight."

But that's the way it is in many First World places.

In Toronto smoking is now banned in all restaurants, with bars to follow in a few years.

In Jerusalem all buildings must have stone cladding.

And in Toronto you cannot park overnight on the streets without a permit - a form of car taxation.

Kevin Epstein:
It's not just San Francisco, you can't smoke in any restaurant in California.  I'm always surprised when I go to a restaurant in another state and they ask me "smoking or non."  What kind of state allows people to smoke in a restaurant?

Thursday, October 24, 2002

The Rocky, but beautiful, California coast

Heading west from San Jose to Santa Cruz, one can pick up California Hwy 1, affectionately known as “the PCH” which stands for ‘Pacific Coastal  Highway.”  For the next 250 odd miles, your car snakes its way between the Pacific Ocean, anywhere from 25 feet to 1000 feet below you on your west side and the mountains of the California coast on your east side.

Your first major stop is Monterey, which is home to the world-class Monterey Bay Aquarium, with brilliant displays in darkened rooms with backlit water tanks showing the gentle movements of the ‘jellies’, a live kelp forest which your accompanying audio-guide explanation tells you is critical to the life of the creatures along the coast, a penguin exhibit with those cute little birds diving in and out of the water, and a round room where schools of anchovies swim around in never-ending circles, making you dizzy as you try to follow each one with your eyes in its rapid movements.

Another tank shows tuna (which are huge, at least the yellow find variety), sharks, barracuda and sea turtles. In a third, you can reach down and put your hand on the back of a sting ray (which I didn’t manage to do.)

And, as a final act of poetic justice, the entire aquarium is built in what was once the largest cannery in Monterey Bay.

Outside of Monterey is the somewhat famous 17-mile drive, which takes you past exclusive beachfront homes, Pebble Beach-the site of the US Open for golf, and affords you your first breathtaking views of the rocky Pacific coast.

Most people we told informed us that the drive along the PCH would be “by far, the best part of the trip” and with that high degree of expectation, we were happy to see that in many ways, it lived up to its billing.

In contrast to the Atlantic coast, the Pacific coast is rocky, with steep cliffs, and jagged points. There are jutting rocks and even mini-hills which stick out of the ocean for distances up to 200 feet out in the water. These are the rocks where the sea otters (saw them in the aquarium) and the elephant seals (we had heard of one place north of Santa Cruz where you could see them, but forgot about it until it was too late) play on the shoreline.  There are numerous scenic overlooks where you can just stop the car, look out over the ocean, feel the strong wind coming in from the water and just feel the raw power of nature and its creation.

I am sure that the PCH is the site of the filming of many car commercials as it would be a perfect road from which to have an aerial shot of a sports car going up the mountainous road adjacent to the sea.  We had a mixed blessing in terms of weather.  It was funny, actually. All along our trip out west, we had had spectacular weather (you may have noticed, it’s now snowing in many parts of the country which we just left), but when we got to California, we only had limited sunshine and many overcast days.

The same was true on the PCH, but it happened in quite rapid succession.  It was sunny as we left the hills of Santa Cruz and into Monterey. Then, it got gray and cloudy, a little misty even. Then, sun again. Then, the fog would roll in and I’m talking real fog here. We saw the wisps in front of us as we drove, which gave the ride a somewhat eerie feeling. This feeling intensified as the two-lane road became darker and darker as day turned into dusk turned into night. For some stretches, we were the only car on the road, kind of like in Nevada, except there it was straight, here and one wrong turn and you’re in the ocean (600 feet below).

We drove through Carmel by the Sea, the town made famous by the fact that Clint Eastwood had been the mayor there. What it really felt like was a west coast version of the Hamptons. It had the fancy boutiques along the main thoroughfare and my sister tells me that eating ice cream on the street is prohibited as it creates too much of a danger of a mess.

That’s another point worth mentioning. California has a lot going for it, but there are a lot of lifestyle prohibitions. They’re not necessarily wrong or bad, just noticeable or maybe just new to me. For example…

In San Francisco, you can’t smoke in ANY bar or restaurant.

In Santa Barbara, houses can only be a certain height and I believe they must all have those red tiles on the roof (or maybe just everyone likes it).

In Venice Beach, there’s a similar zoning law against buildings….

And In Beverly Hills, you can’t park on the street overnight.

But I digress and get too far ahead of myself.

The most famous stretch of the coast is Big Sur, where the views are supposedly magnificent. We wouldn’t know since we couldn’t see that much, though we did have a few moments of sun light.

The most attractive part of the ride, particularly as the day gets later and the sun starts to set is the play of the light off the water. You feel like you are looking into an Impressionist painting, maybe a Monet, with the water in the background, some rocks in the foreground and a sunny runway of light that comes from the distance and looks like it is meant just for you at that moment.

Tamar drove for a while, but found the constant turning back and forth and drivers who wanted to pass her to be a bit much, but she put in a good 1.5 hours on the day (the drive from San Jose to San Simeon—about 50% of the way to LA-took us, with stops, about 7 hours.)  You could do the drive in 5 hours to LA, but if you have the time, why would you?

Seeing the anti-Iraqi invasion protesters in Berkeley and a few other places, plus what I consider to be a rabid anti-American feeling among members of the far left in the US and Europe, I was thinking about some of the lesser appreciated values of this country and how we can learn a lot from the strangest places, in this case, I am referring to traffic signs.

I’ve been on roads on 5 continents and one thing I will say that is true throughout the US is that the government and road people really do care about your safety. Many of us are so use to this that we take it for granted, but there are many places around the world where the signs and street markings are not nearly as well indicated as they are here.

Think about it. There are signs for Speed Limit, Crosswalk, Signals approaching, Exits, Slippery When Wet. There are reflectors on bridges and on roads to make it easier to drive at night. There are flashing yellow yield signs. There are radio stations devoted to traffic information. There are areas for resting and for the bathroom. There are sections of the roads in the mountains just for you to put chains on your tires when it snows. And I’m sure there are more that I haven’t even mentioned. Trust me, you don’t have this same degree or warning or concern for safety in a lot of other countries.

Then, let’s just think about the amount of land and energy that the country devotes to nature. There are national, state, and city parks. There are fisheries and wildlife refuges. There are designated campgrounds and beaches, which are kept quite clean.

All along our 4,400 mile route (to date), we have seen signs of this and I guess it has made me feel a bit more appreciative of the United States.
There are so many stories here. When you get to California and you see the raw number immigrants and people who are trying to build a better life for themselves and the little things, like the road signs, I guess I just can’t understand why there are those who really think that the US is “out to get the world” or something of the sort.

About halfway down the coast lies the town of San Simeon, uneventful save for the fact that William Randolph Hearst, he the founder of the Hearst Corporation, and one of the wealthiest people in the world during his time, decided that it was in this area of California that he would build the palace of his dreams.

The IMAX movie talked about the influence of an 18 month long trip to Europe at the age of 10 and the impressions from the glorious sites there to make a unique house, really a castle, as it is commonly referred to as the “Hearst Castle.”  The book, which Tamar read, said that the fact that his father had made it big, with a silver mine discovery in the mid 1800’s raised the bar in terms of what was expected of him and what he expected of himself. The guide, when asked about the psychological profile, claimed that he merely loved beautiful things and wanted to do something with his wealth.

Well, whatever the motivation, the Hearst Castle shows once again that no matter how much money you have, you can always find something on which to spend it.

The castle sits on an 1100 foot hill overlooking the Pacific Ocean and during its heyday served as the playground for the rich and famous, whom Hearst loved to entertain. The entire castle is set up to mirror a Mediterranean village complete with village square and a church. Only in this case, the church is his house, the so-called ‘Casa Grande’ complete with two bell towers, a 100 seat movie theater, a dining room that is straight out of a medieval castle, a billiards room, a reception area, and many others.  But it is more than that. Each room is an art museum unto itself. Hearst was a rabid collector and we were told that only 10% of his collection was on display at any one time. In fact, he was happy when something needed repairs, as it provided him another opportunity to showcase his belongings.

Every item in every room is some antique. The ceilings were imported wood from Italian church near Siena; massive Flemish tapestries covered the walls. The punch bowl was made of the purest of silver for Queen Victoria, and on and on and on.  It’s unbelievable. And that’s just the main house.

There are multiple guest houses (each has its own name, e.g. ‘Casa del Mar’
as it faces the ocean) with multiple bedrooms within each as well as bathrooms and showers. There are two pools. One indoor (heated, of course) and one outdoor (in the shadow of a full Roman temple which was brought over from Italy).

Oh yes, the entire house sits within a ranch that at one time had a zoo, a number of head of cattle, its own airstrip, and is part of the 480 square miles of land within the central California coast owned by the Hearst family.

No detail was overlooked and Hearst seemed to want to do everything to the utmost possibility. He had fireplaces that were the size of a small RV brought over from Europe, paintings by Botticelli, brass lions, and Egyptian god statues. Italian and Vermont marble fountains were aflowing, orange and palm trees were blooming, as well as an elevator to his private room and secret doors so his guests wouldn’t know how he entered a room.  He didn’t smoke at all, considering it to be a ‘nasty habit’ contrary to the claims of the day by the tobacco companies claiming it aided digestion and improved your heart (though he permitted it in the house for his guests as it was in
vogue) and preferred that people not get drunk, so he would allow them only one drink before dinner.

There was a tennis court, a stable, and other amusements—apparently, he was a great host, always looking to have his guests entertain themselves.

There’s really no end to the amount of possible description for this epic work of architecture (how they built it on top of a hill is a whole different story—it required laborers 7 days a week for 15 years). By my estimates (using the rule of money doubling every 7 years), he spent over $1 billion dollars in today’s money on this home and at the end of his life, he willed it to the University of California-Berkeley as an outdoor art museum.
After seeing the property, however, they decided that without an endowment for maintenance, there was no way that they could afford it. So, the state of California took over and has charged admission ever since (reasonable, given what you see—you can, and should, also make online reservations for the tour, as last year, over 800,000 people visited).

Curiously, or maybe not, Hearst’s personal life didn’t get much mention.
None at all in the movie and on the tour (there are four of those alone, we took the General newcomers tour), the guide said he was married, had five children, then separated but never divorced his wife and lived with an actress, whose name I forget, fairly openly for the last 20 odd years of his life.  The famous Patty Hearst was his granddaughter.

One thing I should have asked, but did not, was about Citizen Kane. I feel like there has to be some connection, though I don’t know enough about either to say for sure.  Hearst ran for mayor of New York at one point, even ran for President (may have been a Senator as well), and new the Who’s Who of his day.

What Hearst chose to do with his money is quite different from what J. Paul Getty chose to do with his, but we’ll cover that in the next email about L.A.

P.S. I’m always looking for feedback on the quality of the writing. I hope that these emails are getting better with time like a good wine, and not worse, like Godfather III.

P.P.S. A number of people wrote in to tell me that:

The Presidio used to be an Army post (Spanish word). It actually used to have a nice medical center. But the military drawdown at the dawn of the 1990s closed it.

Monday, October 21, 2002

City by the Bay

“I left my heart in San Francisco” is probably about an older guy who decided he wanted to “walk the earth” in order to see the city and, after taking the hills multiple times, went into cardiac arrest, requiring a transplant, rendering his previous one useless and causing it to be disposed of somewhere in the vicinity.

As New Yorkers and people who consider themselves to be generally fit (though 3 weeks of Slurpees do take their toll) and despite the fact that I had visited the “City by the Bay” at least twice before (I was ready for the massive temperature shifts that occur every minute or so), we were quite worn out after 2 days in Ess Eff.

I had been lauding San Francisco as “my 2nd favorite American city” (after NYC, of course) since the time we left New Jersey and it had the unfortunate consequence of getting Tamar’s expectations so high that she would have needed to see a city full of people who can levitate on command in order to be impressed.

What’s more, on Friday morning when we first arrived, while I met with 2 business associates, Tamar went off on her own to see what the city had to offer. First, she saw the business district, which she described as ‘similar to New York, but a little more elegant.”

However, a few blocks to the south of the financial area is Market and 8th Sts., where she soon found herself.  This area is the San Franciscan equivalent to the more dangerous and dilapidated areas of Harlem or the south Bronx (or those seedy areas within any major metropolis.)

As the average number of homeless people per block increased to 5 or 6, she started to wonder what it was exactly that I found so intriguing about this city. And then, in the afternoon, after we settled in our motel, we ended up in the Fisherman’s Wharf area, which is across the Bay from Alcatraz (we did not go-you need reservations), and is basically an area devoted just to tourists (which is bad.) As my friend, Sarah Jordan, a local and valued tour guide said, “It’s the dregs of San Francisco.”

Well, by this time, S.F. was averaging about a D- in Tamar’s book, so over the course of the next 2 days, I did my best to elevate the city’s standing in Tamar’s mind.

We climbed to the top of the Coit Tower, which was built with the money bequeathed by Elizabeth Hancock Coit, a late 19th century S.F. socialite, whose parents died in a fire when she was young and ultimately became the mascot of the San Francisco Fire Department. Even as a little girl, she would never miss the call to go out with the fire engines to an emergency and thus earned the position of mascot for the city’s fire department.

She married well and after a few years in Paris, returned to San Francisco, where she died. Her funeral was attended by numerous firemen and she donated over 1/3rd of her estate (if I recall correctly) to create a monument that looks like the end of a fire hose as a way of demonstrating her appreciation to those who risk their lives to save the lives of others.

Coit Tower stands up on a hill and provides a wonderful panoramic vista of the Bay Area.  To the West is the Pacific Ocean. To the north, connecting with the Golden Gate Bridge (we walked halfway across it), is hilly/mountainous Marin County (home of the glorious, centuries old Redwoods in Muir Woods, where we also visited and where a tree’s rings can be traced back to events like the American revolution, Columbus sailing for the New World, and the fall of the Roman Empire. The only reason why these redwoods were not cut down is because they were too far removed from easy modes of transportation. Then, in the early 1900’s, a rich philanthropist purchased the land, donated it to the federal government and had them named for John Muir-a noted conservationist).

To the northeast and east are the cities of Berkeley and Oakland (keep in mind that this is across one of the largest Bays around) where you can see the two connecting suspension bridges that allow you to commute (slowly and with patience) from Oakland to San Fran and back.

Looking at the harbor, you can see why San Fran became so wealthy, important, and strategic.  The city is on a peninsula, with the ocean to the West, the Bay to the east, and only a thin strait, relatively that is, separating it from the land on the north (Marin county), and thus the avenue through which huge ships can come into the Bay and be protected from the natural elements of the Ocean.

After Coit Tower and the Golden Gate Bridge (which was probably Tamar’s favorite site, since it was a clear day, at that point, the wind was blowing, we got to see the whole city and the sailboats blow, and have the experience of being so far up in the air), Tamar’s ranking for SF had improved a little bit (it didn’t help, however, that we would look on a map to see that although the shortest distance from Point A to Point B may be a line, the map didn’t show 3 dimensional differences) and, as we ascended significant hills, Tamar’s fatigue (and mine to be fair) grew with the heights of the hills.

We did have some flat land to walk on, in the Marina district and the newly restored Crissy Field area along the waterfront, which was full of joggers, artists, sailboats (there were hundreds out on the water taking advantage of the very strong winds and clear skies), and through Fort Mason, an old brick fort built by the US Army and which was a part of a series of fortifications designed to protect the western US from enemy attack. It was used in WW II to help mine the harbor of San Fran and as a final port of embarkation for troops going to fight the Japanese in the Pacific.

The area to the south of the Golden Gate Bridge is called the Presidio. Now, I’m not sure what that means or what the area is supposed to do (it’s like a large park, but it has some houses and small buildings which are clearly in use. It could have some military significance.)

I had planned with Sarah Jordan and her boyfriend, Ted, to meet them briefly on the other side of the Presidio and be a part of the larger San Francisco community as the first game of the World Series between the local Giants and the Anaheim Angels was to be played. So once again, I consulted the map and said ‘ah-ha, straight through the Presidio.”

Well, that turned out to be a stupid idea, because the hills are STEEP and the roads are not so well marked, even though the area is quite nice.  By this time, the weather had shifted and I was wearing 3 layers on my chest and a ski cap on my head.

After a few roads that led us only up really, we did manage to make our way out of the area, I met up with my friends, and saw Barry Bonds hit a homerun. We also managed to climb to the top of the hill where Lombard Street descends in a diagonal snake-like way in between flower gardens in one of the more unusual streets in any city of the world, which is appropriate for one of the more unusual cities in the world.

All in all, I think the city has a lot of charm. It’s built on tremendous hills, has a variety of climates (within the span of hours), is full of interesting people (large Chinese and Gay populations among others), sits at the crossroads of the world and the exit to the Pacific Rim, and is close to so many different attractions. Tamar…well, that’s another story, but if there’s anything the two of us have really learned or shall I say, had reinforced during these past two weeks on the road, it’s that the saying ‘different strokes for different folks’ is something you just need to live by.

Before we arrived in SF, we stayed for two nights with the Foote family of Alameda, CA, who perhaps should be the poster family for “How to Raise Your Children Well.”  Their children are outgoing, friendly, interested, and good communicators, a real pleasure for us to share our trips with them and learn from them.

Hale Foote was a long-time colleague of my father’s when he and his wife lived in the DC area and they have maintained a good relationship in the 12 years or so since they moved out West. The Footes generously offered their glorious house as a way station on our travels and we took them up on it for two nights, where we shared stories, pictures (they saw our wedding video), and of course, the bonus- we did laundry.

Beth is studying at the Episcopal Seminary at Berkeley and we attended our first Episcopalian service with them, where Beth gave a presentation on Psalm 116. Tamar had a good time when she pulled out her copy of the Bible and followed along in Hebrew.

Earlier in the day, we had spent some time in Berkeley. Walking up and down Telegraph Road, I was looking for the signs of the activism for which Berkeley was quite famous and, while I did see one guy with flowing white hair, a beat up Volvo with a Nader sticker on it, and another fellow selling “Abort Bush” bumper stickers and displaying a Palestinian flag, I didn’t get as much as I had hoped for. It seemed like Berkeley had a contingent of die-hard liberals (I’m told the city council is still quite far left wing) that want to keep the 60’s alive, but when you get to the actual campus (yes, there are some activists), it’s really just a tremendous number of Asian engineering and sciences students.

I was hoping to get into a good political argument with somebody, but instead, I got very good, cheap sushi.
Our final stop in the Bay Area was San Jose, from which we set off for the coast. I got fond of saying “Yesterday we were in San Jose, but today we’re on our way to Monterey.” Tamar just barely tolerated it.

In San Jose, we had the good fortune to see my cousin Kevin Epstein, his wife, Lisa, and their two beautiful daughters, Sabrina and Jocelyn. It was nice to see the first California generation of the Epstein family take root and to see how my cousins were doing.  Also, another set of familiar faces after being so long in no man’s land (and no cell phone land).  Hearing about life in San Jose during the height of the Internet boom (San Jose is as close to the epicenter you can get) was very interesting, as was watching football at 10am on a Sunday morning (something I had dreamed about doing for years since I was a kid.)

We saw on the weather report how all of the parts of the country we visited last week are now receiving their first bits of snow for the year and we are continually feeling blessed for the opportunities we have had on the trip.

I am also feeling quite fortunate to count you and all of the other people who receive this email as a friend.  You know, it’s strange. Sometimes I wonder if people actually read this. I wonder sometimes why I bother writing these, or at least sending them out. I have moments of judging my self-worth about the number of responses I get to a given email, but then feel terrible that there is no way I can possibly respond to each person individually and in-depth. I guess that’s why I like to know as many people’s birthdays as possible. At least that way, I’ll be in touch on a personal level on an annual basis and what I’ve found is that when I find an article or something that reminds me of you, that’s when I forward it along to say hi.

I realize that I have been sending a lot of email, but hey, when you are driving across Nevada, there’s not much else to do.  I do hope that you’ll occasionally take the time to read these notes and share your thoughts, no matter how long or short, when you do have a moment.

To me, the value of these emails pays out over time. It’s being able to have a great dinner in Sacramento, or staying with a friend in Santa Barbara (as we are tonight), or having a friend from Tokyo or Toronto sleep on our couch, or sitting with a friend from Australia on a park bench.

Without these emails, in my opinion, there’s just no way I could or would keep in touch with people whom I have felt were “good value” (a John Mackay of Tokyo phrase) over time and distance.

I am writing to you and have included you on this list of “Friends of Jer”
(coined by Jen Fox Pearlman about 7 years ago), to tell you that I think you are “good value” and I expect that when I see you again, you will continue to be “good value.”

Next email:
The California Coastline and Hearst Castle How Tamar and I are polar opposites in some ways and similar in others

Sunday, October 20, 2002

Of Mormons, Gamblers, and Barren Land

If there were to be a book on the Masters of Marketing, I think the Mormon Church would get a pretty big section of it.

We entered Temple Square in Salt Lake and found guides with open arms greeting us, each wearing the flag of the language they spoke-Korean, German, Russian, English, Dutch, etc.

We joined the tour of the compound, which includes visitor centers explaining the Mormon philosophy and outlook on life. This is a polished building. It has enormous paintings with scenes from the New and Old Testaments. It has a room where you sit looking up at a starry sky in the presence of a massive statue of Jesus. The guides turn on a sound system that starts…

“Have you ever wondered about the meaning of LIFE?” and proceeds from there.

The tour basically went something like this…. “To your right, you will see the beautiful stonework of the columns supporting the Temple (into which only Mormons can go). These stones were made possible by the fact that Jesus Christ, our savior, died for our sins. Of course, this is why you should want to read the Book of Mormon.”

OK, so I’m exaggerating, and their presentation was a lot smoother than that, but they were mildly forceful in their efforts to recruit.

On the other hand, you can’t argue with their success, and they have a lot of it. The women (all of the guides were women) were dressed quite modestly, exceedingly polite, and quite clear in their firm commitment to their faith.
The Mormons set aside special time just for the family on a regular basis.
They are firm believers in education and abhor welfare. They have achieved remarkable material successes, are not flamboyant about it, and have built a thriving, modern city in a spectacular setting. Their ethics are quite impeccable, particularly their work ethic. It's really quite admirable.

I subsequently heard that Utah is 70% Mormon and is essentially a theocracy, but that was one man’s opinion (a wise man, but still one man’s opinion.)

The last room on the tour of the compound had a crisp 4 minute film showing how Jesus had appeared to the Native Americans (yes, the people on the American continent.) It was quite powerful and even got me a bit emotional.

Now, obviously I don’t affirm the idea that Jesus died for our sins and was resurrected three days later, but for the sake of argument, let’s say he did.  To say that he was crucified in Jerusalem and then resurrected in Jerusalem, well….ok, but to say that he died, was resurrected and then subsequently appeared to peoples in North America just seems to be a stretch… on the surface. On the other hand, if you believe that G-d can perform miracles (which I do), I guess anything is possible.

>From my perspective, it did seem strange.

The last step we had, before we were “Mormoned-out” was in the Beehive house. We had noticed coming into Utah from Idaho that all of the state highway signs were beehives.

Brigham Young had built and named the house in Salt Lake because he considered the Beehive a sign of industriousness, a trait which he and the Mormons valued.  He lived by the credo of giving work to people who were unemployed and insisting that people make a contribution to society.  He was clearly a learned man, particularly erudite; he did not waste time that could be spent learning, teaching, or spending time with his family.

After 2.5 hours there, we felt like we had enough (though I did read the story of Joseph Smith’s divine inspiration while in Nevada) and moved on out of town. I do have to say, however, that Salt Lake is a beautiful city. It’s quite clean and it’s location, right at the foot of the Wasatch Mountains and basically in the middle of nowhere, makes it quite impressive.

As you leave Salt Lake and head towards Nevada, the land gets more and more barren. I had thought, as we entered each state from South Dakota on “It can ’t get any more remote than this” but as we entered Wyoming and then Idaho, I realized I was wrong.

I should have held my tongue, because western Utah and Nevada is like nothing I’ve ever seen.

The salt flats of the western part of Utah prompted Tamar to say “this is probably what it was like after Sodom and Gemmorah were destroyed.”  Save a few hills, it is flat, dry, wide, and just empty, devoid of people, and when there are exits, there are really nothing more than a few houses, most exits don’t even have gas stations or convenience stores, which is obviously a rarity.

Now, when you cross into Nevada, you think…”I wonder if all of the people who got tired of living with the Mormons just decided to come to Nevada and be the anti-Mormons.”

For miles before the state line and everywhere in between, all you see are billboards for Casinos and their ‘loose slots.” The gas stations have video poker in them (when you get to one of course.) Tamar didn’t believe me that prostitution is legal in Nevada and I didn’t get a chance to disprove her, but you just have to wonder about what is going on in that state.

However, when you do the drive on I-80 from Salt Lake to Reno, you will invariably come to two realizations.

The first is: It’s no wonder we bury our nuclear waste out here.

The second is: how come every prisoner in America isn’t kept out here. Heck, you wouldn’t even need walls. Put them 100 miles from anybody and see how long they last.
You enter Nevada and it says “Reno, 547 miles”. We left SLC at 4.30pm (mountain time) and crossed into Pacific Time roughly at the border. We thought we could make it to Reno by 11.30pm, but it was just too much, so we stayed in…

Winnemucca, Nevada.  (That’s Win-Neh-Muck-ka). It was by far the crappiest motel we’d visited, probably because people in Nevada spend all of their time at the slot machines.

I have to say, we got to Reno the next morning and went to the Hilton to use the Internet connection to send/check email and walked through the casino.
It just got me so depressed. I saw so many people just pushing coins into a machine, wasting their lives away, in my opinion. There were no neurons being fired. Sad. And we haven’t even made it to Vegas yet, though I suspect that’s a different experience.

Leaving Nevada’s deserts and mountains and nothingness, we hit the Sierras, heading for Lake Tahoe, which is apparently the highest alpine lake in North America.  When I was 9 years old, I went with my father to Lake Tahoe in the summer and I can still remember opening my eyes under the water, seeing how clear it was. I was intent on reliving that experience and I wanted Tamar to do it as well.

Well, this time it’s October and the water isn’t as warm. By some estimates, it was about 50 degrees. Now, remember we are Polar Bears, so we had trained for this moment (though Tamar preferred not to put her training to use), so I changed into my bathing suit, waded into the lake and put my head under the water, opened my eyes and once again was astounded at its clarity.

Unfortunately, by this time, my legs had gone numb and I could feel my heart pounding and I thought I was having a small heart attack, so I went back to shore after my 90 seconds or so in the water, feeling refreshed for the experience.

We headed over the Donner Pass at an elevation of 8500 feet, where in the 1860’s or so, a pioneer party led by a person name Donner (or a family named
Donner) made a miscalculation about the time it would take to cross, subsequently were stuck up in the mountains for the winter and ultimately resorted to cannibalism in order to survive (which I’m not sure any of them did any way).

Fortunately, our car has been relatively well stocked, thanks to our VP of Food Procurement and we didn’t have to resort to anything that gruesome. We did celebrate the return of our cell phone coverage after six days without it, by talking to my parents while stopping at the Donner summit.

Our next goal was Sacramento, the state capital, and it was on the outskirts of that city where we had the true California experience, as well as something we hadn’t seen since we left Chicago, namely, traffic.  After spending days rolling along at 80 or 85 mph, it was a strange feeling to be back at snail’s pace of 5mph or so.

In Sacramento, we were joined for dinner by Jesse Szeto, a friend of mine from IUJ in Japan, who works in the state’s department of economic planning.
He told us that Route 99, which covers the central part of the state, including famous places like Fresno and Stockton, is the focus of the government’s efforts since the rate of teenage pregnancy and high school dropouts tend to be quite high. It seems that businesses have few reasons to invest in that portion of the state and Jesse is trying to improve their lives.

He met us at Bob’s Kosher Deli, our first taste of kosher meat since we left Chicago, which was enjoyed by all (including Jesse, I believe) and over turkey and pastrami sandwiches, we discussed the beauty of email and how it had enabled us to maintain a relationship over the past four years without seeing each other once.

Our dinner with Jesse reiterated once again (as if it was really needed), that it is the people who make the trip, not just the destination. And in this case, if Life is the trip, it really is the people who make it for you.

Next email: The San Francisco Bay Area

Before signing off, a quick word of thanks to all of the members of the Etymology Hall of Fame (names below) on the word ‘Geyser’.

Most popular answer:
Geyser - 1780, from Icelandic Geysir, name of a hot spring in the valley of Haukadal, from O.N. geysa "to gush," from P.Gmc. *gausjan, from I.E. *gheus-, from root *gheu- "to pour."

Another answer from Zehava Cohn:
geyser (GIE-zuhr) noun
   1. A natural hot spring that intermittently ejects a column of water and
      steam into the air.
   2. (GEE-zuhr). Chiefly British. A gas-operated hot-water heater.
[After Icelandic Geysir, name of a hot spring of southwest Iceland, from geysa, to gush, from Old Norse.]

   "With Old Faithful erupting less frequently and less regularly, scientists
   speculate that its underground feeder system is literally losing steam.
   For the moment, only seasoned geyser gazers notice the difference."
   Old Faithful becoming, well, less faithful // Eruptions grow less regular;
   scientists say it may be losing steam, Star Tribune, 5 Feb 1996.

>From "A Word A Day"

And some comments from Ariela Freedman

I learned about the origin of this word in my Algo-Saxon Lit class at Lawrence.  Geyser is one of about three words in the English language that came from Icelandic culture about a thousand years ago.  I did a search for the word online and came up with this definition:

There are not many geysers on earth. They are rare geologic features that get their names from a large geyser in Iceland. The namesake for all the world's geysers is the great Geysir. In Danish the name means "gusher" or "spouter." The Icelandic people are very proud of their geyser. In fact its name, Geysir, is copyrighted so it cannot be used as the name of any other geyser.

Here's the website, if you want to check it out:

I also think geyser would be a great name for a kid, so long as it wasn't confused with "geezer."  Anyway, good luck in your continued travels - thanks for putting us on your list.  We always have interesting discussions about your emails.

The Etymology Hall of Fame
Leo Lipis
Ariela Freedman
Barak Epstein
Amy Berks
Alan Gersch
Michael Merwitz
Michael Kellman
Ben Gris
Zehava Cohn
Josh Pines
Greg Teitel

Thanks for reading and keep those suggestions coming. I am only sorry that I don't have the time to respond to each one individually.

Wednesday, October 16, 2002

Friends in the Rocky Mountains

All along, we’ve been saying ‘it’s the people that make the journey’ but when we said that, we meant the people we’d meet in the hotels, barber shops, and convenience stores of our trip.

What we did not mean were the people who were our virtual travel companions, namely all of our friends who have volunteered to receive our travel reports and offer advice about destinations.

What’s been so inspiring is not just the response to the places we have been, the encouragement and support for taking advantage of this time in our lives, but really, the wealth of knowledge lodged in the brains of our friends.

Lee Smith told us about the Bighorn mountains, Laura Sheppard suggested we go to Dubois, Wyoming (too bad we don’t have wireless email since we got it too late) and the Beehive Museum in Salt Lake (which we will do today), Cheilaugh Garvey told us to get depressed in Driggs, Idaho (and we almost did, but it was getting very late and we were tired, so we went the other way-no offense, Cheilaugh), a number of people have given us suggestions for Lake Tahoe, Dennis McGreevey and Eran Megiddo told us to go to Washington (alas, too far out of the way on this trip), and my cousin Leonard reminisced about being in Idaho Falls when McGovern was nominated.

We’ve also been rebuked. Ferrel Atkins, a professor and a park ranger at Rocky Mtn. National Park whom I met in May writes “Don't let anyone in Yellowstone hear you referring to management of the national parks by the Forest Service!!!  Jer, the Forest Service is in the Department of Agriculture -- they're basically "tree farmers".  The national parks are managed by the National Park Service, established in 1916, in the Department of the Interior. Ranger Ferrel”

Lewis and Clark may have had more meetings with the natives than we’ve had (by the way, we’re almost done with the book and will be listening to Lonesome Dove next), but we have such a wonderful support group, full of information, ideas, support, and suggestions. More than anything, the fact that you are traveling with us makes us appreciate you even more. Thank you very much and keep them coming!

Now onto the events of the day.

After spending Sunday night in Cody, Wyoming (named for Buffalo Bill Cody, who was one of the town’s original founders and biggest investors), we walked through the gift shop of the Cody Wild West Museum. Considering we were heading to Yellowstone, we balked at the $15 admission fee per person since we were going to afford ourselves about 1 hour there, so we read some books in the gift shop instead.

This opened up an interesting debate for the two of us.  On the one hand, we were most likely never going to be in Cody, WY ever again and the museum did look interesting, but somehow we felt the price was more than we were willing to spend.  This is an ongoing question. On a trip of this length, where we don’t really have a budget per se, but our goal is to spend money as judiciously as possible without being cheap (sometimes difficult for me), how do you decide what is ‘worth it’ and what is ‘not worth it’? Obviously, we don’t want to forego an experience, but obviously our budget is not unlimited.

Anyway, after reading the bulk of two books on the life of Buffalo Bill in the Gift shop, we decided that a $5 donation to the museum was the right course of action in addition to the purchase of two lapel pins (my one significant hobby collection-I’ve got 574 as of right now. They are great souvenirs-easy to find, relatively low cost, and easy to transport).

Then, perhaps the greatest discovery of the trip occurred. Tamar found out about Walmart.

As we drove out of Cody, Tamar wanted to find some fresh produce for the road and I suggested Walmart. “They don’t have groceries,” she said. “They are the world’s largest company, they have everything,” I replied, but even I was shocked to see they could do oil changes, which we needed anyway, for $19.

One hour and $100 later, Tamar was in a state of Euphoria (and that’s with a capital E). We have these Motorola talk-abouts which we carry with us when we split up (cell phone service with T-Mobile, between Rochester, MN and Idaho Falls was non-existent) and as I was listening into the Monday morning staff meeting (the store did $314,000 in business over the weekend in Cody- a town of 8000, which was slow), she kept radioing to me:

“Sweetie, you’ve GOT to see this produce aisle”
“Sweetie, I’ve never seen this many of Product X”
“These prices are UNBELIEVABLE!”

My new method of getting out of Tamar’s doghouse is to take her to Walmart.
I joked that when we got back people would ask about the trip and Tamar would say “Mt. Rushmore was nice and the Badlands were cool, but Walmart was the highlight!”

At last we extricated ourselves from the store and made our way to Yellowstone National Park, which was America’s first National Park. The land was ‘discovered’ by Private John Colter, of the Lewis and Clark expedition, who left Lewis and Clark in South Dakota on the return trip to join a private party going back into the Louisiana territory.

Yellowstone-what can I say? Describing the natural beauty of this country is proving to be the most challenging part of recording our journey. It is a mix of high, snow-covered, ragged mountains, with one huge, and I mean massive, lake, called, appropriately enough, Lake Yellowstone, which is so clear and blue. It is simply the purest of mountain water.

We saw bison (two of the males were duking it out by ramming their heads and horns into each other), a coyote, a Grizzly bear, some mule deer (which are pretty big animals), as well as numerous birds.

>From the east entrance of the park to Old Faithful (of course the
destination and our northernmost point on our travels) is about 65 miles; it took us about 2 hours because we kept pulling over to look up at some mountains, down at some valleys, observe the wildlife, stare at the trees, or, as I am wont to do, just take deep breaths of very, very fresh air.

Old Faithful is by all accounts, a beautiful work of nature. Approximately every 2.5 hours, a jet of water, which is scalding hot and looks more like a steam hose than anything else, emerges from the ground. It’s in a field of geysers (2 points for anyone who can provide the etymology of this word—we don’t know it) which erupt at intervals ranging from hours to weeks. You can take a boardwalked hike through this field of natural hot springs and geysers. The geology is certainly unique.

Unfortunately, however, Old Faithful falls into the category of over-hyped experiences. I wish it didn’t, but I mean, all of the signs point to it, there is a semi-circular viewing area with benches, the information in the ranger station tell you that it will erupt within 10 minutes of a specified time (the average time between eruptions seems to be getting longer for a variety of reasons-including people who throw trash down it), and as the time approaches, the excitement, anticipation, and throngs grow. We could only imagine what it would be like in the height of the summer season, packed with Japanese and European tourists.

I don’t want to take away anything from the natural splendor and impressiveness of God’s creation and work, but it was just our impression that this is one of those examples where the human tendency to exaggerate and over-commercialize builds expectations to such a point that you walk away thinking “that’s it?”

Speaking of natural splendor, the Tetons fall into that category. Exiting Yellowstone from the south and heading towards Jackson Hole (so called because it is literally a hole formed by a volcano that is surrounded by
mountains) you drive along a rode bordered by the Tetons (a part of the Rocky Mountains) along your western edge.

We did it at a perfect time of the day, right around 4pm;  the sun coming in over the tops of the mountains, with their tremendous peaks, through a barren valley, almost alone on the road, proved to be a virtual spiritual experience.

Back in Colorado (in May, when we flew in for the Davis/Handis wedding), at least in Denver, we were close to the mountains often on the highway, but this road was arguably the most scenic (it also wasn’t an interstate) view of any mountain range we’d ever experienced.  The highest mountain in the range is called, surprisingly enough, Grand Teton, with Middle and Lower Teton filling out the highest peaks.

If you ever have the chance, do this drive.

In Jackson, we saw something we hadn’t seen for a while and it only dawned on us later. Using the bathroom at a gas station, the attendant was an African-American. We realized that since we had left Chicago (with the exception of one woman walking along the street in Mitchell, SD), we had not seen any other black people.

We’d seen a few Hispanics in the Black Hills and met one 20 year old guy in Wyoming whose grandparents had come from Mexico, but for the most part, it only then dawned on us how “white” middle America –or at least this part of
it- really is.

This morning, checking out of the motel in Idaho Falls, I saw the housekeeping staff fixing up the rooms and they were white as well. That’s certainly not the norm in most of the East Coast and I bet the West coast as well.

Jackson seemed a bit too touristy for us, so Tamar took us over the Teton Pass at 8429 ft. and into Idaho. By the way, Tamar’s driving skills are improving significantly. She lacked a little confidence coming in, but taking us over the Bighorn and Rocky Mountains and driving the Plains @80mph has helped cure her of that notion.

It was getting darker, but as we crossed the mountains, it felt like we were chasing the sun, keeping the daylight in our favor as we raced westward.

The landscape in Idaho was more fertile and we saw crops for the first time since South Dakota really. I looked for potatoes, but don’t have any idea what a potato field looks like and as it was dark, so it was difficult to see anyway. Also, the mountains here (not sure of the name) are a bit different. They are not as jagged, they are high, but they seem to roll a bit more (if you get my drift)- and have more color to their vegetation.

In Idaho, we were treated to yet another fabulous sunset, a hallmark of the western states in this part, not challenged as much by pollution and certainly fewer tall buildings, not as many people and consequently fewer lights to obstruct the view. Then, when the sun goes down, you are treated to a night sky full of stars, that is so clear, you feel like you are in a Planetarium. It’s really a glorious feeling.

I was just thinking that we’re going to LA from Idaho (and of all of the places in between) and that the people who live there and here in Idaho are all part of the same country. It’s so difficult to assign a national culture to America, because so many miles separate everyone. It’s not like Europe or smaller countries where there’s a national culture (and even there are regional differences in those countries). It’s just neat to think about everyone sharing the American experience, whatever that is, in the fall of
2002 (though we may have an answer for you in 2 weeks).

Well, we have just passed Brigham City, Utah and caught our first glimpse of the Great Salt Lake (more on that later) and we are continually inspired and grateful for the opportunity to do this now.

Thanks for sharing the voyage with us.

Sunday, October 13, 2002

From the Plains to the Prairies to the Range and into the Mountains

The primary challenge with our motto of “it’s the people, not the places” is that as you start going west on I-90 from Rochester, MN is that the number of people diminishes significantly and the distances between them increases.
In Rochester, however, we were treated to the best of Northwestern hospitality from the Freedman family and were treated to an enlightening and fabulous tour, from their future son-in-law, Casey, of the world famous, and extremely impressive Mayo Clinic.

For example, the entire state of South Dakota has only 600,000 people and in the land between two of the larger cities, Sioux Falls and Rapid City, you are looking at a distance of about 500 miles and where the larger, more significant towns have populations that average in the 800 range, with only a few exceptions.

One of them is Mitchell, South Dakota, home of the ‘world-famous’ Mitchell Corn Palace, where murals on the outside and inside are made from various colors of corn into differently themed motifs every year.  Aside from the Corn Palace, Mitchell served as a destination of another sort. Since South Dakota was really the first state we were to visit where I was sure we would not know anyone since we left New York, I had told Tamar that it was the state where I would get my hair cut, something for which she had been pleading since we exited Manhattan. Complete with old-fashioned rotating Barber pole, Dave, the local barber, served as our introduction to the people and culture of South Dakota.

His family had arrived from Iowa in 1900 and he says that “South Dakotans must have pride in themselves, since no one else has pride in us.”  I confirmed his belief that the rest of the country spends little time thinking about South Dakota. He also told me that the recent crime wave in the state, which had been the headlines in the local paper, was most likely the work of Hispanic and other immigrant workers.  His explanation: native South Dakotans all know each other or know someone who knows someone and this has built a deep, strong bond between the locals such as to minimize crime. The foreigners, however, don’t have this sense of community and thus don’t feel the bond of social responsibility to the community.

South Dakota is in the midst of a fierce set of political races right now, for the lone congressperson, the Governor, and for Senator. The local commercials are non-stop political ads, many of them supported/paid for by outside interests. On the surface, you wonder why, but if you think about it, having the incumbent Democrat Senator, Tim Johnson, defeated by John Thune (he the current congressman), could change the direction of the entire United States.

Chamberlain, South Dakota sits on the banks of the Missouri River, about halfway across the state, and with its 1100 foot high bluffs overlooking what is a very wide body of water, makes for a dynamic vista. It’s also at this point that the plains of South Dakota and Minnesota, which had been covered by corn, soy, and wheat, give way to the prairies, hills, and cattle ranches of western South Dakota.  Lastly, Chamberlain was a major stop on Lewis and Clark’s’ voyage; they were there for 3 days to dry out provisions.

When you cross the Missouri River, you enter a different America. The distances become even greater and the population even sparser. This is the Prairie.

The lone signs on the highway drive home the message about Wall Drug (which is South Dakota’s equivalent of Zabar’s as Dave put it, but is really just a themed department store selling everything from Fudge to leather goods to clothing, but it is an attraction, that’s for sure. We took advantage of the town to get one of those old-time historical photos, where Tamar was dressed as a Saloon girl and I was an outlaw bandit. I’ll email if you like.)

On the outskirts of Wall, S.D. are the Badlands, which now ranks up there with one of the most impressive places I have been. They are called the Badlands because of the rough terrain and harsh conditions which exist there.  Once upon a time, it was a lake, but over the centuries, the water gave way, leaving different sedimentary layers and hills and canyons of unique rock formations. Think of those rainbow colored cakes where you can see each layer and you have a mild interpretation of the colors and layers of the Badlands. More impressively, however, are the different shapes which have been left. Some are cliffs, some are mounds, other hills, others still valleys and canyons, but as you drive through, you can’t help but feel the serenity of the place. You can imagine what it must have been like for the Indians and for the first white settlers to try and cross this forsaken wilderness. It’s really like a desert, but with rock formations that astound the imagination. Words can’t do it justice. Look up Badlands online.

I’m going to take a moment to thank G-d right now, because until we reached Rapid City, SD, which is about 70 miles from the Badlands and 15 minutes from Mt. Rushmore, we had nothing but perfect traveling and driving weather.

When we arrived in Rapid City, it started to drizzle, but nothing serious.
Soon, thereafter, we got to Mt. Rushmore. A cold rain and some fog had moved in, but the faces were clearly visible and while some people surely have come, looked, and left, I could not do that. The Visitor Center was excellently done and showed the single-minded determination of Lutzon Borglum, the sculptor whose contract was the result of a tourism idea of a South Dakota state historian to try and draw revenues to the Black Hills of South Dakota.

(Newsflash: Tamar and I are now driving through Wyoming, which is by far the biggest of the “Big Sky Country” we have seen to date and the radio is playing Willie Nelson’s “On the Road Again,” our theme song if there ever was one, considering we have gone 2,115 miles to date. And if that is not enough, we’ve just caught our first glimpse of the Big Horn Mountains.)

Not only did the Visitor Center show what one person is capable of doing with enough focus and determination; it also made me feel very patriotic and appreciative. Washington’s face was there because of his contribution to the independence of the country, Jefferson for opening up the West (even though Ambrose-who died today we heard on the radio-comments that Jefferson’s initial policy of friendship and trade with the Indians was basically overrun by settlers on the frontier, whom he could not control, whose attitude became “get out of the way or be killed”), Lincoln for his commitment to liberty, and Roosevelt, because in the minds of the originators of the concept, he represented he enlightened man of the 20th century.

Each face is over 60 feet high and the work took over 15 years to complete (if I recall correctly).  It really is a triumphant work of human skill.

We spent the Sabbath relaxing in the Black Hills National Forest and took a
4 mile hike through the woods. It’s called the Black Hills because the trees are so thick as to make them look black. We were in the town of Hill City (pop. 600) and enjoyed the day of not driving and resting.

The American Indian influence is quite strongly felt and it seems that the modern day South Dakotans make a point of honoring the Native Americans. For example, this coming Monday, which is Columbus Day, is called Native American Day there and is a holiday.  Though we did not make it, there is a memorial to Crazy Horse being carved into another mountain, which is a project which will take over 30-40 years to complete. Further, there are many museums and a few reservations (which we did not visit either) and the Badlands made a point of mentioning the Massacre of Wounded Knee, which was the last of the great battles between the US Army and the Lakota Sioux, who were the primary tribe in the Dakota territory.

As you get out on the open road of I-90, with no cars in sight as far as the eye can see, driving 85mph (no faster since we’re in an SUV), you really start to get an appreciation for just how big this country really is.  We also look out over the horizon into a beautiful sunset with no buildings blocking our view, look to either side and see prairies as far as we can look, with a few cattle dispersed throughout, but what really makes an impression is the ferocity of the wind. You see it whipping the occasional tree on the prairie, the grass bending, and feel its impact on the car as you drive along. Make a stop for gas or the bathroom and you have trouble opening the car door against it.  And this is October.

The Prairie House Museum showed how a settler in the 1880’s lived here and it makes you wonder how it was done. This is Little House on the Prairie country as we are reminded so often, more in Iowa and Minnesota, but you see the attempts to make money off the Ingalls’ name.

Early Sunday morning, we headed into Wyoming, thinking that it would be more of the same, but as we have learned time and time again in this beautiful country, there is no ‘more of the same.’ Every state, town and area has something unique about it.

Dave Gottesman, who has traveled across the US over 10 times, told us that Wyoming was the most beautiful state he had seen and now we are beginning to understand why.

It’s got everything. Outstretched prairies, hills covered with trees, high snow-capped mountains (the Big Horn), barren ranges almost desert-like in their appearance (the Big Horn basin between the Big Horn Mountains and the Rockies), and many other fascinating red (plus other colors) rock geological formations (we visited Devil’s Tower which was the first national monument in the US. We’re on our way to Yellowstone, which was the first national park in the US. Kudos to the US Forest Service, they do a great job of managing the National Parks.) Who knew that there was so much in Wyoming?
But I’ll tell you something…there is A LOT of land out here. There were more than a few times when we were literally the only car on the road and that lasted for more than a  few minutes.

But it’s really the sky in Wyoming that does it. You can see for miles in any direction, there is not a cloud to be seen (at least today-again good
weather) and the panoramas are splendid.  We see a bit more rugged terrain on either side, not so much the grass prairies of South Dakota, but more of those little bushes (sagebrush?) and rolling hills, some quite barren, with the occasional cattle, horses or even buffalo, and best of all, a cowboy on horseback! That is the Wyoming license plate, after all.

The country is definitely getting a bit tougher, as are the cops, as it was in Sundance, Wyoming (home of the Sundance Kid), where I got my first traffic ticket of the trip. No, it wasn’t for speeding! It was about 9am on a Sunday morning in a town of 1200 people and I didn’t see a stop sign.
Expensive ($60) it was, but the policeman was very kind. So kind in fact that when we went back to look for the sign and we couldn’t find it, we tracked him down (not hard to do) he drove us over to it. Then, I asked him if he would pose for a picture with me and my ticket underneath the stop sign ----as a souvenir. Saying that this picture was by far “the craziest thing he’d ever seen,” he agreed, which led us into a long conversation about the history of the Wyoming country, the people who live there today, and his own aspirations.  It was an expensive tour guide, but hey, 2100 miles and only one ticket! Not bad, if I do say so myself.

We’re done with Part 1 of Undaunted Courage, we had our first big fight of the trip, and we’re on our way to Yellowstone National Park (hoping it doesn ’t snow)…on the road again.