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Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Summer of love: San Francisco to Portland

When I was in junior high school, a teacher made some remark about boys dancing with boys: "Maybe in San Francisco," she said disparagingly. I didn't know anything about San Francisco, but I wanted to go to this place, where such queer things were possible. This was my first real visit--as an adult--and I loved San Francisco. I don’t know how anyone can actually afford to live there, but then, I’ve only been able to live in London because I got a lucky break. For the few days we were in San Francisco, I loved it. Though not as much as Portland, where we spent even less time.

The bus pulled into San Francisco around 7:00 in the morning. The new terminal is still being worked on, so there are no facilities there—not even a bathroom. (More so than on previous visits to America, I was discovering the scarcity of public bathrooms, all in an attempt to exclude non-customers.) Luckily, our Airbnb had a locker downstairs in the kitchen, so we schlepped our backpacks over there and locked them up. Then it was off to the cable cars.

San Francisco’s cable cars (not “trolleys”) are the last manually operated system of their kind in the world. Like so many other iconic things in the U.S., they were slated for demolition, but as long ago as 1947 a woman named Friedel Klussmann organized citizens’ opposition and saved the cable cars. She used facts—the revenue from this unique attraction was more than the cost of upkeep. Today the Hyde Street cable car turnaround near Fisherman’s Wharf is named after Klussmann, and when she died in 1986, cable cars across San Francisco were decorated with black.

My impressions of 1970s San Francisco, the mecca of gay liberation before AIDS, are shaped by Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City. His characters rode the cable cars as transportation, but today, most riders are visitors rather than San Franciscans—certainly on the Powell-Hyde line. The wooden platform on which the operators turn the cars around by hand is something to see. We had all day so were happy to wait in line for our ride.

Every time the brakeman clanged his bell, I expected to see Maupin’s characters or those from the movie What’s Up, Doc? That’s the kind of city San Francisco is: we feel we know it because we’ve seen it so many times before. I was glad to be riding rather than walking up Nob Hill, though impressed that, now as a century ago, the cable cars were up to the task. A lot of Nob Hill did not fare as well when the earthquake struck. And this was just one of the times San Francisco has been faced with destruction; in the 1950s plans were made to crisscross the entire city with freeways, changing its neighborhoods beyond recognition. It will not be a total surprise by now that in this California city, citizens revolted at the plan, and were successful in organizing public transit instead. There is actually a statue in honor of the Freeway Revolt. 

One thing we all know about the Bay Area is that it is foggy. The fog had cleared by afternoon, though, so we got off the cable car at Fisherman’s Wharf and got some clam chowder with sourdough bread. Fisherman's Wharf and Chinatown are the only places I remember visiting the one time my family came to San Francisco, when I was fourteen. I remember Mom hustling us across what now seems quite sedate for a city street, saying that we should have Tennessee license plates hanging around our necks, to warn people what “rubes” we were. You can imagine how rice wine for sale in Chinatown blew my mind later that same day. I don’t think I’d ever even seen alcohol for sale, let alone something Chinese.

The next hill, we had to get up under our own power. This was the block of Lombard Street famous for its switchbacks—and flowers. Amazingly, they still let people drive down it.

We were ready to get back and check into our Airbnb. Next door there was a Pakistani-Indian restaurant. It was loud and clattery, no ambience whatsoever, but it was also full and cheery. The guy took our order and cooked our food right within view. It was wonderful, and cheap as far as San Francisco goes. BYOB. 

The next day was quite warm, so we risked sandals to walk around in. I think it was for this reason that the Hare Krishna at the corner of Haight and Ashbury thought we’d be into meditation and vegetarianism. He was not uninteresting to talk to, so I did. It’s not every day you meet a Swiss Hare Krishna. Well, maybe in Haight-Ashbury it is.

This is the neighborhood where you can still see a Jerry Garcia mural on a wall and Janis Joplin souvenirs in the window. The Summer of Love was so brief, and yet I had to visit this iconic area, because it’s part of the national consciousness—at least for me. My parents were about to celebrate fifty years of marriage and although they weren’t hippies, they passed on to me a love for some great music of that era. Not to mention the records themselves.

Our day of walking, which ended at Golden Gate Park, had begun at San Francisco City Hall. 
City Hall, with Zak Ové's sculpture Black and Blue in foreground
It’s awfully grand—looks more like a state capitol building to me. We were there because I’d read there’s a statue of Harvey Milk under the rotunda, but it was a weekend and City Hall was closed. So we went down to another iconic neighborhood, the Castro, where there are memorials to Milk everywhere.

If you haven’t seen the Sean Penn movie and don’t know the story of Harvey Milk, you can do no better than to read Randy Shilts’s The Mayor of Castro Street. That is how Milk styled himself. He wasn’t the first or only openly gay politician in the world, but what he told gay and bisexual Americans was that we must come out. That being our authentic selves, in front of our families, our neighbors, the people we buy from or work with, was important and would make a difference. Milk was assassinated along with Mayor George Moscone in 1978, having served less than a year as a city supervisor, but he was prophetic. The speed with which attitudes have changed in the U.S. can be plotted along a direct line: from fewer than 25% of people saying they personally knew a lesbian or gay man in 1985, to more than 75% saying yes by 2013. 

So I had to have a drink in the Castro, once we found a bar with a mixed clientele. People watching is as much fun there as anywhere. 

The Castro Street neighborhood is adjacent to the Mission District, San Francisco’s oldest, so we walked there too. I was impressed by the size of the Women’s Building and the fact that it is still so busy offering services, nearly forty years on. 
Mural, Women's Building
By contrast, T. thought it was kind of sad that there’s still a need for those services. 

Between that and the relentless poverty, she was getting a little depressed by San Francisco. Luckily there was a food truck nearby. Food trucks are legendary on the West Coast, appearing first here, then on another street corner, and offering some of the best (and least expensive) food in the city. We were almost put off by the fact that they took no cash, only cards! But the sisig, a Filipino meat made into tacos, looked and smelled so good that we made an exception.

The Mission San Francisco de Asís itself is the oldest building still standing in the city, and dates from 1791. Much of the construction was done by conscripted local Natives, Ohlone and Miwok, who died en masse in measles epidemics. More than five thousand are thought to be buried in the graveyard, where there is a belated memorial to them. More positively, there is an affirming synagogue around the corner in the Mission. 
Sha'ar Zahav in Hebrew means "Golden Gate."
Nearby Dolores Park has—you guessed it—a hill, with good views of downtown San Francisco.

The next day T. wanted to visit Sausalito, on the north side of the Bay. I think it was more about getting out of San Francisco than any particular reason to go to Sausalito, but the real attraction for her was the possibility of biking there. Once again, she got me on a bicycle, and we made our way (gingerly, in my case) to the waterfront bike path and over the Golden Gate Bridge.

It was worth doing. Even into Sausalito was mostly downhill—so downhill that I’m afraid I never really let the bike go, because there were constant warning signs to go slow. (By the way, what’s happened to adverbs? Is slowly no longer a word used in American English?) We got a wonderful Mexican lunch (vegetable tostada with Dungeness crab and shrimp) and, when we’d walked around a bit on our sore legs, stood in line for the ferry back to San Francisco. This was where T. pined for the efficiency of the slow boat in Laos, where loading and unloading were as fast as anywhere else in Asia. On this ferry, all the bikes just went in an enormous pile, and many of the passengers seemed to have no idea how to walk a bike without entangling themselves with others. Also, they would not stop ringing the bicycle bells! T. said maybe they had special needs but I think that’s giving them too much credit. What they needed was not to be jerks.

We’d gotten 3-day transit passes which were very convenient, if only because we didn’t have to think before jumping on another bus or streetcar. San Francisco has streetcars like Toronto, distinct from the cable cars. In fact, one of the old cars I spotted was still branded TTC: the Toronto Transit Commission.

Despite the novelty of Chinatowns having worn off, we still had to stop there. We never did see Barbra Streisand or Ryan O’Neal from What’s Up, Doc? but we did see a Chinese dragon, or at least a head. We followed the sound of drums and found a band playing. Then we got some nice food, a heck of a lot cheaper than in Las Vegas!

We were next bound for Oregon, and T. had decided that this particular leg of our trip was best done in a rental car. For one thing, she wanted to drive more of winding Highway 1 along the California coast. Almost immediately there was a detour up Mount Tomales. At least, I think that’s what it was called. The fog closed in so thickly we were lucky we could see the road.

We rejoined State Route 1 near the Point Reyes National Seashore, where we’d been hiking with Bernie in July. One thing I noticed all along State Route 1 was that every town, no matter how small, had a post office prominently next to the highway. I went in the one in Tomales and was glad I did—the postmistress was so friendly, and the mailboxes hadn’t been updated in years.

Another thing I noticed was the interesting place names: Havens Heck Drive, Nameless Lane, Confusion Hill, Rogue C. College, Butcherknife Creek Road. Probably the funniest was a restaurant called the Smoking Duck, which was just a charred ruin. It had burned to the ground. Oops.

We soon realized that as scenic as Highway 1 is, it would take us a lot longer than T. had thought to get to Portland that way. But the next chance to cross over to U.S. 101 was not for another hundred miles! So we kept trying to enjoy the endless hills and sharp curves. The thermometer in the car would read 91 degrees Fahrenheit and then, an hour later, 61 F.

As we got closer to the Oregon state line we started to see redwood trees. The highways join at a tiny town called Leggett, which advertised the world famous drive-through tree. I hadn’t thought you could still do this, but since it was there, we had to.
T. was just impressed that as long ago as the 1920s, people had cut a hole through the tree without killing it. But if you thought this was kitschy, the “world famous” attractions were coming thick and fast. We quickly passed the chainsaw sculptures and various other mysteriously named trees, and even Heaven on Earth (whose cinnamon rolls were only “famous,” not world famous). 

T. for scale!
Nothing, however, could detract from the grandeur of Humboldt Redwoods State Park. It’s free and you can drive an alternate route to 101 along the Avenue of the Giants. This park contains some of California’s oldest trees, and more than half of the 100 tallest trees in the world. 

We had to stop often, but of course this made our day’s drive even longer. By the time we pressed on towards Crescent City, the redwood forest was dark. I think we were too tired to enjoy this stop for the night. All the kitchens in town except Denny’s were closed by 9:00 PM, and, chilly and disoriented, I couldn’t find the extra blanket that I knew the Super 8 motel room must have. Only in the morning as we were packing up did I find it. And breakfast was included, so it’s not Super 8’s fault that I didn’t enjoy it!

The next day we reached Oregon. With a single exception, everyone I talked to or interacted with in this new state was exceptionally friendly. It can't have been a coincidence. The guy pumping our gas (you can’t pump your own gas in Oregon). The woman in the sandwich shop chatted and wanted to know how we were doing—not in that standard empty way, but as if she really wanted to talk. It was from her that I learned what we probably should have known before we went to Oregon: that there were 500 fires burning across the state. A thick haze of smoke hung in the sky. We didn’t notice it by smell; maybe we’ve just gotten used to breathing bad air. But in the Pacific Northwest, they must be used to clean, clear air.

Oregon doesn’t have sales tax either. Maybe that’s why people are so happy there. You see a price on a price tag, and that’s actually what you pay at the counter—just like England. I enjoyed the novelty of paying round amounts, like three dollars or $1.75.

We went to Portland at the invitation of my friend, Christina. When I say “my friend,” I mean a girl I hadn’t seen since high school. Through the wonders of social media, Christina, whose father's ministry briefly overlapped my family going to their church, got in touch and asked if T. and I were coming to Portland. Then she said her family would be happy to put us up for a couple of nights.

Well, you know what happens when people say that to us. Next thing we were at her front door in the City of Roses. 

How much I enjoyed Portland will be the subject of my next post.

Saturday, August 25, 2018

To have and have not: on the road to Las Vegas and San Francisco

Millions of middle-class--not wealthy--Americans can go all their lives without ever riding or even registering the existence of public transportation. It is part of the American way to own one’s own car and drive it wherever possible. Should the distance be too great, middle America prefers to fly.

This points to two things. One is the failure to maintain passenger train service in most long-distance corridors; the other is the desire to travel by oneself, on no one else’s schedule. For many Americans, even me some of the time, driving down the road represents freedom.

It will not surprise my readers that I’m a contrarian. I’m forty-five years old and technically have never owned a car (from time to time I have depended on someone else’s). Most of my adult life I’ve spent in cities where I could either walk or take transit wherever I wanted to go. Being able to get places without a car and all the driving, parking, taxes, is freedom for me.

When we announced our intention to travel to the northwest, as far as possible, by cheap bus, even my veteran traveler aunt expressed reservations. Or rather, lack of them: “Greyhound isn’t what it used to be.” As far as I remember, Greyhound was always first come, first served. But when I mentioned this to my brother, he said he’d never traveled by bus himself.

Predictably, there were people on TripAdvisor worried about Greyhound too. One pithy response:

Greyhound isn't luxurious so it would be a different crowd than your fellow cruisers. But this is not a third world country, the people are just regular folks wanting to get across country to visit family or start a new job. No crates of chickens on the roof or mysterious bad things happening in my experience. 

We’ve traveled in developing countries and never had a chicken on a bus there either. Though there was that pig in Vietnam…Anyway, we figured, if public transit in cheap countries was fine, surely we could manage in the most expensive part of America. Besides, we wanted to travel with regular folks. T. started booking tickets online.

My sister-in-law dropped us at the bus station in Phoenix and we were on our way. The Phoenix Greyhound station looks new; it’s built right next to the rental car center at the airport, rather than in the type of old downtown neighborhood usual with bus stations. In other words, it’s right in the heart of a transit hub we’ve been to many times, yet I’d never noticed it.

I did notice that most of our fellow passengers were Latino or black. Having lived outside of the U.S. for so long, I find the frequency with which Americans talk about race jarring. But it makes sense when you think of how they never talk about class (except “middle”). However imperfectly, race is a proxy for class in America. People on Greyhound buses either don’t have or don’t want to pay for other, presumably faster forms of transportation. (Incidentally, I haven’t flown much domestically in recent years, but if Lawsons on the Loose is anything to go by, the problem of massive flight delays, cancellations, and unscheduled nights in airports has only gotten worse. Compared with this, buses are much more comfortable.)

The thing that makes transportation public is that you share with other passengers. And the other passengers are different. For me, that’s the point of travel. In the time before our bus boarded I observed a man wearing a Nashville Predators T-shirt and dreadlocks; another trying to bum his fare from T.; a man who was evidently homeless getting something from the cafe, and a cheerful Mexican woman serving him. On the bus itself we met a black woman whose white companion was wearing a Bob Marley T-shirt. The woman noticed “London 2012” on our clothing and asked if we’d volunteered for the Olympics. It turned out she’d been a volunteer at Beijing 2008!

The bus was bound for Las Vegas. Greyhound doesn’t stop at as many little places as it used to, I guess, but you still have to go the long way. One place it did stop was in Kingman, Arizona, at Crazy Fred’s on old Route 66. I imagine Crazy Fred’s was hopping back when this was the Mother Road. Because the passengers were chatty, we knew to look behind the truck stop for Crazy Fred’s Dollhouse, a strip joint that was closed till October. The guy on the bus also told us to watch out for a rock formation that looks just like someone giving you the finger. “It’s not in any tourist guides,” he assured us. We’d certainly never been the Bullhead City route before. 

Our driver told us he’d lived in Las Vegas for 61 years. He’d seen the old post office turned into the Mob Museum and many more changes downtown. The Strip, where we were staying, is only a couple of miles south of downtown on Las Vegas Boulevard; but it cost as much to take a taxi there as we’d paid for two bus tickets all the way from Phoenix. That, my friend, is value for money.

I’ve written before that I never expected to like Las Vegas, or even go there. But here we were again. People who’ve tried heroin say that the first high is so unbelievable, you spend the rest of your addiction chasing it. Vegas is a little bit like that for me. Not addictive; I’ve tried a couple of games and just don’t get it, and I don’t think gambling is a taste one should strive to acquire. But that first pool party at Bally’s reminded me that I’d spent my twenties sober and responsible—never single, never going on a crazy spring break. This realization led to where we are now: backpacking around the world and even staying in the occasional youth hostel…but more on that later.

I was glad to be back at a time of year when the pool was open. But Vegas was not really about my brief spell on a one-armed bandit (I have no idea how to play any of these slot machines really; I just like pulling the lever). As ever, it was about people-watching. For example, we passed a woman in a headscarf and a man walking down the Strip like everybody else. I said something to T. about never seeing people in Muslim dress in Las Vegas. Immediately thereafter, we saw a whole group of women including one wearing the full covering—everything but her eyes. She was excitedly snapping pictures of the lights on the Strip. Only in America!

Vegas is also about monetary disparity, as already noted. We stumbled into a Chinese restaurant which, although very delicious (pork dumplings you pour balsamic vinegar into—highly recommended), turned out to cost as much as a weekend night in Bally’s! Our weeknight price, by contrast, was one-third of the Chinese dinner. Traditionally, cheap eating in Las Vegas meant the all-you-can-eat buffets, but I found they are wasted on me now. I just can’t eat like an American. 

Buca di Beppo was also a good place to people watch, though. We shared our hotel with the convention of the American Federation of Government Employees, and they were ready to fight. Every day the union members were wearing a new set of T-shirts with variations on the theme, “If they [members of the federal government] aren’t on our side, send them packing!” They were as diverse a group as the rest of the visitors in town, and looked like they were having fun. 

One of the things I enjoy about Las Vegas is its strange kind of innocence. People go to Vegas in order to have fun. But since our last visit, Las Vegas suffered what has been called the worst mass shooting in modern U.S. history. (Depending on your definition of a mass shooting, many earlier massacres of American Indians and black Americans were deadlier.) Because the man who carried out this attack was a white American, it wasn’t the kind of terrorism the U.S. government thinks is worth protecting us from. 

Monetary disparity, unfortunately, also extends to the haves and the have-nots. We were to see much more distressing poverty in other U.S. cities, but we saw it in Vegas too. Downtown, where modern Las Vegas began, is of course grittier than the Strip (it’s where the bus station is). But we joined in the Fremont Street Experience and had some dinner at Binion’s Gambling Hall, one of the old-time casinos.

Three nights in Vegas was enough, as usual. We’d figured out the local buses to downtown, so we headed back to Greyhound and from there, overnight to San Francisco. As we left the Strip behind, I turned towards the window and, with the delicacy of gesture for which I am known, raised my middle finger until the eponymous tower was out of sight.

The bus took us the long way, via Los Angeles. Near the LA station around midnight, I saw a mural: SUPPORT STANDING ROCK. Another moment when the cause of Indigenous nations touched the consciousness, not to say conscience, of other Americans.

The first leg of our bus journey, I got to talking with a young man wearing a Canada T-shirt and Toronto Blue Jays cap. He would have been happy to talk even longer about Toronto, Tennessee, and any number of other subjects, but as I was standing in the aisle blocking the bathroom, I decided to go sit down. Did I mention American buses all have bathrooms? And much nicer than any bus bathroom I remember, too. Considering we were traveling overnight, the reclining seats made a big difference; I actually slept.

The only brief interruption of our peace was shortly before LA, when a young woman who told her phone friend (and everyone on the bus) that she was drunk shouted the following: “Hey, my cousin’s in Pittsburgh and she don’t know sh*t about Ohio. Can you pick her up?” Not that I wish to be accused of not knowing sh*t; but isn't Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania?

We made it to San Francisco relatively refreshed. My cousin, Jim, had introduced us to Peet’s Coffee, the local favorite, so we quickly found some of that to keep us going until we could check into our Airbnb. It was like a rooming house, an old building, but very nicely done up and with spotless shared bathrooms. It was very reasonably priced for San Francisco, but still three times as much as we are used to paying.

This was in the Tenderloin, a relatively flat area of a very hilly city. It was a great central location, so what follows is not by any means a complaint. Rather, a lament. San Francisco is a very expensive city and had a greater concentration of homeless people than I’ve seen in any city in the developed world. None of these people bothered us at all; the point is such a degree of poverty, in the midst of so much wealth and wealth creation, truly disturbed us.

On my Kilimanjaro trek, one of the guys was a techie who lives in San Francisco. I remember him telling us about the extent of the problem and remarking, “Homeless don’t live on hills.” It sounded dehumanizing, but I suppose you think about things like that if you live here. The topography of the city concentrates people who live on the streets in certain areas, as does the moderate climate, I imagine. In a city with extremes like Phoenix or Toronto, many homeless people cannot physically survive. 

But San Francisco is so expensive, even for a visitor, that to be struggling here must be especially hard. We saw Vietnam veterans, people with obvious mental problems, and everyone in between. I know the causes of homelessness are many and so the solutions must be complicated. I also know every person on the street has his or her own story. Yet I couldn’t help but feel that we collectively, and I as an individual, could be doing more to help.

Perhaps the issue most associated with homelessness is alcohol and drug addiction. This, to me, is a classic example of how when one thing goes wrong for a vulnerable person, it is so easy for another thing to slip. Many people in every class of society have abusive relationships with alcohol or drugs (legal or illegal). But well-off people, in general, have more supports to fall back on. 

I’ve never been close to this type of vulnerability myself, but I remember as a new immigrant being shocked by how each limiting factor had a further limiting effect. I had no credit history in Canada, making me practically an economic nonentity; having no job meant landlords wouldn’t rent us an apartment; and how do you apply for jobs without a permanent address? Of course, that’s why Canada required immigrants to arrive with plenty of resources, and the government also offered us a wonderful job centre with computers, fax machines, a phone number, and much more for our free use. 

Many trends would seem to be contributing to the extent of poverty in rich countries. Marriage/commitment being optional and buying on credit affect every level of society but, as usual, poor people are hurt most. And then there are global economic trends which, from a U.S. point of view, look like “China robbing us blind.” A story one almost never hears is that extreme poverty worldwide has been halved since 1990That is an incredible human accomplishment, and the number one reason is that as recently as the 1990s, China was a poor country, and now it has a middle class. There are all kinds of things wrong with China's political system, but the fact is that millions of people in the world are better off. They are just in countries other than ours. 

At any rate, if we dwell too much on global trends it disempowers people. It implies that no matter whom we elect, we are helpless to make our own people better off. I don’t believe that Americans are any less capable of helping their own people than Chinese are. Harvey Milk, the pioneering openly gay elected official in San Francisco, used to say: “Gotta give ’em hope.” 

More on Harvey Milk, and everything I loved about San Francisco, in my next post.

Friday, August 17, 2018

Natives of America

What goes up, in the traditional north-south orientation of the globe, must come down. We had two long days of driving back to Phoenix from St. Mary, East Glacier. We got started by 8:00 in the morning and our goal for the night was Salt Lake City.
North as up and south as down, like so many other things I grew up taking for granted, are assumptions, and assumptions aren’t always correct. For example, although I was taught that there were people in the Americas before Christopher Columbus came along, I assumed that Columbus had at least set foot on the North American continent. He never did. I don’t know if U.S. schoolchildren today are taught that, but it doesn’t seem to me that the Native peoples of America have a particularly high profile here. 

On our way in and out of Glacier we stopped at different establishments in Browning, Montana, and again I appeared to be the only non-Native person. At a glance, the Blackfeet Nation seems to be doing better than, say, the Lakota of Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, whose counties in South Dakota are among the poorest in the U.S. Yet even in a Browning gas station, I saw a poster of a young woman who had gone missing from the reservation. The phenomenon of indigenous women and girls “disappearing” in the U.S. and Canada is a real outrage. It is disturbing to think that we still live in a world where a female life can be valued less than a male life, or a Native life than a white life.

Not that a life should be defined as female, or white. As an African-American friend said to me long ago: “The fact that I’m black has made a big difference in my life, but in a perfect world, it wouldn’t.” That perfect world must be what Glacier was reaching for… “Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park represents a vision of a world in which peoples set aside their differences to work collectively in the interest of all life, for all time.”

Just after we left the park, we were following the bendy road, watching out for the many cows that were wandering freely, and for the necessary shortcut across the reservation on Route 8. Suddenly, I saw a black moose silhouetted against the sky to my right. It was so big and sudden after all those cows that for a second, I thought it was a sign or sculpture, but then it moved. It was a great bull moose with a big set of antlers; it was glossy black and magnificent. A perfect farewell from the national parks.

“Easier to spot than a moose,” according to T., was my dad, whom she spied rooting in his fanny pack (=bum bag) in the parking lot of the lodge. We hadn’t intended to stop on our way out, but we swung by to say a quick Godspeed.
Digging in one's bag: the customary posture of a Knowles in the wild
I was quite melancholy at this point. Along with Tanzania and Western Australia (the isolation of Ningaloo Reef increasingly stands out as an unparalleled experience on earth), this national parks trip was my favorite part of all our travels. “There never seems to be enough time to do the things you want to do once you find them,” as Jim Croce used to sing. Imagine my delight, then, when we pulled over at the only rest stop (the only stop of any kind) between Browning and Choteau, a simple bathroom break. One other car pulled into the parking lot, and guess who it was? Mom and Dad hadn’t followed us there; they’d actually driven past, then thought better of it and come back to the rest area. We enjoyed another round of hugs before, some time farther down the road, Dad peeled away and we could no longer see their car. “I lost ya in Augusta!”

We had discovered that while one of us drove on this marathon trip back, the other could stretch out comfortably on the rear bench seat, while still wearing her safety belt. So it was that, with me driving, T. woke from a nap and said she was ready to stop for food. Like, now. I saw “food” marked on the sign for the next exit, which is by no means the case with all the exits around there; and so I pulled over in Basin, Montana.

Basin does not have any fast food establishments or signs you can see from the road. It barely has a main street. Whatever food there was must be down here, I thought; and so it proved. On one side of the street was the Leaning Tower of Pizza, and on the other, the Silver Saddle Cafe. Our choice of the latter was confirmed when a man in a cowboy hat crossed the road and went in to the saloon.

Inside, there were no shootouts going on as we might have imagined. It was a pleasant little cafe with checked tablecloths and endearingly classic food on the menu. T., for example, got an open-faced sandwich with gravy and the soup of the day—hamburger vegetable. You only get these types of recipes at home-cooking places, of which there are fewer than there used to be. Best of all, the sandwich was a reasonable size, something one could bite into comfortably and not have half of it left over. We were delighted with our lunch stop in Basin.

The Montana-Utah road has existed in various forms for many years, but it has always been a fairly empty one. As we got into Idaho, I saw more and more of those exit signs that indicated no food, gas, lodging, or anything else (except presumably homes for the people who lived there). My favorite sign was the one that said “FATIGUED DRIVERS STOP NEXT EXIT,” followed by the exit sign: “NO SERVICES.” Thanks, that’s very helpful.

I noticed that we were low on gas, so I thought I’d better stop at the next exit that did have services (exits around there are frequently ten miles apart). And so it was that our next stop was in Spencer, Idaho, which promised gas, though no diesel. I should have known this meant a single pump on the side of the road, like back in Queensland. It was the old kind of pump where you swing the lever by hand and the numbers roll around mechanically. Very expensive numbers.

Our trip that day, including stops, would take over twelve hours, and we had the same again to do the next day. So we didn’t have time to detour along the Sacajawea Historic Byway. We did stop and read some signs about it, though. Sacajawea, you may remember, was the Shoshone woman without whom Meriwether Lewis and William Clark would never have succeeded in their exploration of the west. Because Indian war parties were historically not accompanied by women, the presence of Sacajawea and her baby on the expedition was a signal that the explorers’ intentions were peaceful. Would that everyone’s were.

It was after 8:00 P.M. by the time we got to Salt Lake City. As soon as we were within the city limits, we found a Motel 6 and stopped for the night. We really blew the mind of the woman at reception. First, we assured her we really did want a double bed, even though two beds would have been the same price, and we had to walk up a flight of stairs. Then came the British driver’s licenses. The number on one of these is so long that she just gave up typing it in. Then she asked T. if her first name was “Miss,” because that’s what it says on her license. (British cards, plane tickets, etc. always have titles on them; it’s generally not optional as it would be on a North American form.)

We were beginning to think we’d never get to our room, but then T. asked if, as at a previous Motel 6, she was entitled to a discount on account of her age. This was where the receptionist redeemed herself. She said it hadn’t occurred to her to look at the birth date because she’d never have dreamed T. qualified. We had a nice night and well-earned rest in the motel!
From upstairs we could see the solar panel in our van's roof--that powered the fridge.
The next day’s drive was just as long, and as we were driving back via Kanab, we’d seen it all before. As we passed through the Navajo Nation (which completely surrounds Hopi lands, incidentally), I was struck by the contrast with the Blackfeet-run businesses we’d seen in Montana. We stopped at one store/rest area that appeared to sell a lot of quality-looking jewelry and other souvenirs, run by friendly local people. But there are also a lot of roadside stands that look pretty bleak. I’m not sure if it was the extreme heat or if they really are tatty, but either way, it’s a shame this was all we had time to see. There is so much history among the Indian nations, including modern history. I wish people stopping along this road could read about the Navajo code talkers, men who served the U.S. during World War II by using the Navajo language to flummox foreign enemies. And then there was Joseph Medicine Crow, who died not long ago aged 102.

Joe, as his friends called him, was another member of that Greatest Generation who served their country in World War II. But he did something special, even by the standards of American Indian warriors. During the war Joe Medicine Crow encountered a German enemy and disarmed him, then fought him hand to hand. He let the man go without killing him, and on another occasion led a successful war party, resulting in the theft of fifty horses owned by the Nazi SS. In performing these tasks, Joseph Medicine Crow fulfilled all the criteria to be a war chief of the Crow Nation. It seems improbable that anyone will ever live to be a Crow war chief again.
Little Colorado River near Cameron, Arizona
Finally, we returned to Phoenix, which has become our most-often visited place in the U.S.A. My sister welcomed us into her home, not for the usual week or two, but three—and we’d already been there before the camping trip! We’ve had many good American holidays in Phoenix, especially Thanksgiving, and it’s so nice to have Ben and Rachel’s families so close together.

All of which I say as disclaimer before this opinion: Nobody should live in Arizona. No one who cannot, at the very least, build an appropriate desert dwelling with his or her own hands. It’s unnatural. Phoenix, like other U.S. cities, became a different place in the late twentieth century with the arrival of air conditioning. Before that, people in eastern cities left their windows open and listened to the sounds of the city and sweated in the summer, or ran away to Provincetown if they could afford to. Before air conditioning, Southerners sat on porches and sweated and drank lemonade. Air conditioning made the growth of the South and the Southwest into what we know today possible. 

This sounds like a good thing, but instead of making Phoenix more comfortable, air conditioning has just made a place that should be uninhabitable weirdly inhabited. Weirdly, because you cannot go outdoors in the summer. For any length of time or distance. People sprint (or would if they could) from over-air-conditioned cars to over-air-conditioned buildings and back again. America is already largely a country of unwalkable places, without sidewalks let alone bike lanes; but in desert summer weather you can’t use them anyway. The strain of moving from too cool to too hot is bad for a human body, not to mention the greenhouse effect.

Of course, we knew all this. Nobody comes to southern Arizona in the summer, and we wouldn’t either unless, for instance, our niece was being born, as was the case five Augusts ago. We were here to see family, and use Ben’s pool and Rachel’s washing machine, and string a clothesline and watch the laundry at one end of the line dry by the time we got to the other. (Why not use that heat? Every bit of saved energy helps!) And, as five years ago, get to know new members of the family. While Maisie arrived in the traditional manner of birth, it would be more accurate to say that Claire and Kenzie came crashing into our lives. And what a happy collision it is!

Photos: Rachel Knowles
We also made the acquaintance of other members of Ashley’s family, including the newest: cousin Clementine.

It had been a while since we had a full range of kitchen facilities, and T. in particular made use of them. She cooked a lot, and Kenzie has a great appetite, so they had fun preparing food together. 
Claire was funny in that she would put pasta sauce in her mouth, say “Spicy!” and beam with pleasure. Evidently spicy was a good thing! Ashley had to remind Claire to eat some pasta with the sauce, too.

Not to be outdone, Maisie proved to be the only person at a Japanese restaurant the next night to like octopus sushi. We only ordered it because she wanted to try it, and Ben, Elizabeth, and I didn’t want to be shown up by a four-year-old, but none of us enjoyed our taste. Fortunately, there was a lot of other food. We and T. had been reliving our camping adventure by checking out the RV show. We climbed inside a lot of vehicles, ranging from cute little campers we could imagine driving (or towing) to the kind of hotel suite on wheels only a movie star would live in. How anyone maneuvers one of those things, I don’t know.

It was lovely to have more time to spend with Ben and Elizabeth, even though the vacation was technically over. The three of us had a great night out at a place called Janey’s Bodega in Cave Creek. We got there just as it started to pour down rain, and went next door for some Thai food. I’m afraid I don’t remember the name of the restaurant, but it was as good as any Thai food I’ve ever eaten, including in Thailand. Then the rain stopped, leaving behind an evening of moderate temperature (for once!) so we could sit outside and enjoy the show. A friend of Ben and Elizabeth’s recently joined the band, The T Bone Bastards, and she seems like an excellent addition. They play there pretty regularly and cover all kinds of great rock songs—the kind of show where I pretty much recognize (and enjoy) everything. Catch a night out there if you can.

Photo: Rachel Knowles
One of Rachel’s favorite things to do is watch pro sports. She was over the moon that we would be in town long enough to overlap with three of them: the women’s basketball, baseball, and preseason (American) football. T. and I enjoyed our first ever WNBA game, although the Phoenix Mercury failed to prevail over the Seattle Storm. Their respective veteran stars, Diana Taurasi and Sue Bird, were teammates for the U.S.A. at the London Olympics, and we last saw them there winning the gold medal game.

Considering the Mercury’s failing defense, I think the biggest cheer of the night was when the “Kiss Cam” finally showed a female couple on the big screen. The WNBA without lesbian fans? Try to imagine it.

We were even luckier to be in town for Maisie’s fifth birthday—the first we’ve ever celebrated with her. You haven’t lived until you’ve hung out with twenty little girls, and one brave little boy, all playing at the “Little Gym.”

There was grownup fun later as Rachel, Ashley, Ben, and I joined friends old and new at the Grapevine in Old Town Scottsdale. The Grapevine has been doing karaoke every evening for years. It’s become something of a tradition although we rarely stay up late enough to indulge. We sat at a table with someone called Edgar, who saw my ring and asked if I was married. “Yes,” I said for simplicity’s sake, “but my partner hates karaoke.”

“My boyfriend hates karaoke!” he said delightedly. Then he and Rachel went off to sing a duet of “Summer Nights” from Grease. The house, as they say, was brought down.

School starts back ridiculously early out here. In my opinion, August is already the worst month of the year; to have to go back to school should really justify another American revolution, if you ask me. Still, it happened, and now Maisie is a kindergartener and Kenzie is in second grade! Rachel thought Kenzie’s first day of school would be a great time to take her to the baseball game with us.

We had lots of time to play with Maisie (and the dogs) too. Our Yellowstone adventure was clearly still on her mind; at one point she had us pretending to be buffalo (I was the dad), and later we were the three bears. Baby, mom, and stepmom. And we were eating buffalo cake with berries. Equal opportunity imagination!

The Arizona Diamondbacks game had been “a pitcher’s game,” in Rachel’s euphemism (“duller than dishwater,” per T.) Surely, the finale of our sports trifecta would prove an exciting victory. Rachel and Ashley were taking Kenzie and Claire to their first NFL game.
Photos: Rachel Knowles
Joining us for this one was our young cousin Andrew, who’d just gotten back into town in advance of his second year of college. That just blows my mind because only a few years ago, it seems, was his mom’s and my second year of college. Because we’d all bought tickets separately, we were sitting in various rows. A break in the action, though, had the fans doing karaoke to “Livin’ On A Prayer,” and Andrew and Rachel took to this with their customary enthusiasm. Would that other Americans could work this well across the aisle!

The kids made it into the third quarter before Rachel and Ashley had to take them home. I thought that was pretty good. Getting to spend all this time with my brother and sister’s families has given me a new appreciation for the many joys and challenges of parenthood. I don’t think I’ve used the word “poop” so much since I myself was a little kid. Aunthood, though, is the best. Once the girls had all gone home, guess who ended up together in their seats?
Photo courtesy of T.
Oh yes: the game came down to the last play. And the Cardinals won.