Apr 222012

Got a seriously late start the next day, not hitting the road until about 11. Our excuse was that we needed the sleep, which was not a lie.

Unfortunately for me, Mom could not stay awake more than an hour whenever she got behind the wheel, which meant that I ended up driving the entire 1500 miles to Texas. She’s also one of those people who doesn’t “get” technology well, so I usually had to navigate as well.

As an exception to that, she decided to ask about any upcoming construction at a manned rest stop east of Louisville, and found out that some big fireworks event called “Thunder” was happening downtown. The whole area was jammed, and we would have spent at least an hour or more getting through without her alternate directions. Yay Mom!

Overall, she’s good company and we’ve always gotten along well, even on long car trips. The closest I came to losing my temper was when we were circling the perimeter of Memphis trying to find the correct exit to I-55. When I needed confirmation of the original directions, she somehow pulled up different directions, so I had to call Aaron to get me back on track.

All in all, those were minor bumps, and the rest of the trip was enjoyable. We stayed in Forrest City, Arkansas on Saturday night and, after a quick Burger King breakfast, we were rolling at 7:15 am to make up for the late start the day before.

Outside Texarkana, we passed slowly by a Car-B-Q burning on the shoulder. The entire front end was engulfed, while a young cop and the driver were standing nearby, and the fire truck had yet to arrive. We were so close I could feel a bit of the heat, and hear the popping noises from the engine.

Stopping at a gas station just over the Texas border, we stretched our legs, and I walked the dog a bit while Mom got snacks. There was a warm wind blowing, and the air smelled amazing: trees and flowers I couldn’t identify. After a minute or two, I sneezed. Then sneezed again. My eyes felt a little dry, so I rubbed them for a second.

Big mistake.

The air smelled so good because it was full of frickin’ POLLEN. When I got in the car and looked in the mirror, my eyes were solid red from edge to edge, and I could hardly see. Luckily, Mom had some eye drops which helped, and we closed the vents and turned on the AC. Within about a half hour, things were almost back to normal, and I could put away the ruby-quartz visor.

We decided to take the smaller state highways instead of the interstate. As I told Aaron, I’ve seen the United States of Generica, and I wanted to see something else. The state highways (271 and 155) go through a lot of small cities and towns, almost certain to not be paved over with Targets, Applebee’s, and Best Buys.

During my quest for allergy medicine through all this “real America”, however, I discovered a fact about small Texas towns: each and every one contains a Dairy Queen, a Family Dollar, and four churches per person, but NOT ONE DRUG STORE.

At last, I found a Brookshire’s (the Kroger equivalent) with a pharmacy, and Allegra saved the day.

Northeast Texas is beautiful: rolling, forested hills, winding roads, and green pastures. I’d assumed it all looked like the suburbs surrounding Dallas or San Antonio: hot, flat prairie, with chain restaurants and big-box stores packed densely around the freeway, surrounded by miles of identical sand-colored subdivisions; devoid of walkable city centers or indeed any character at all. It was nice to see that, in some places anyway, reality didn’t match my snarky cynicism after all.

We finally had to rejoin the mass of humanity in Waco, and the special stretch of Hell that is I-35 from Dallas to San Antonio. I actually feared for our lives more than once, and this from someone who’s driven in Chicago and San Francisco.

We rolled into a Logan’s Roadhouse (it doesn’t matter which one; they’re all the same) in one of the San Antonio suburbs (it doesn’t matter which one; they’re all the same) and met my sister for dinner and a couple of much-needed drinks to celebrate the end of the drive.

Apr 192012

Mom’s moving day came at last. Johnny from the moving company arrived at about 8:30am, but he wasn’t able to recruit any more help, so I agreed to help load for $15/hr. It’s bullshit that, after all the money Mom paid, the company didn’t provide more movers except one 50-year old man.

When I lived in Oak Harbor, WA after the Navy, I occasionally loaded moving trucks for some cash. I wasn’t very good at it, thanks to my ADD; I was too slow and not very organized. I remember being on one job for 11 hours, and the guy who hired me was very frustrated. I’ve always felt a little ashamed about what a poor worker I was then, and I saw this as a chance to kind of make up for it.

I did so with a vengeance.

I pitched in and kicked ass, and we were done in 3.5 hours, which didn’t count the 2 hours of pre-staging I’d done the night before. I flew up and down stairs, bounced in and out of the truck, and ran the dolly stacked four boxes high. It’s a testament to all the working out I’ve been doing that, although I got tired, I never wore out, and barely slowed by the end.

I gave Johnny my wages as a tip, since he really cut Mom some slack on weight and volume, and gave her more than a few boxes he should have charged her for. He was a fascinating character, from deep south Mississippi, with some great stories. Mom and I both took a liking to him.

After a couple hours of cleaning up, loading the car, and hauling out the trash, we declared the job finished, and left. By then it was 6pm, but we just wanted out of there, and didn’t want to drive all the way back to my house for the night.

After a mediocre meal at Cracker Barrel, we hit the highway, but only made it as far as Dayton before calling it a night.

Jan 272012

Currently en route to San Antonio, TX for the weekend. My sister is graduating from nursing school, and Mom and I will both be there.

I’m on a CRJ900 jet, and I find I like the smaller planes more than the big ones. There are only four seats per row, which leaves plenty of leg and elbow room. The flights usually have fewer passengers, and this one seems to be only about half full. Plus, the flight attendants are generous with the snacks.

It’s relaxing not having Internet access for awhile: I don’t feel the urge to keep current with every text message, RSS feed, and Facebook update. I’ve finished The Saga of Seven Suns, the mediocre seven-book space opera I’ve slowly worked my way through since July. I hate leaving things unfinished, and I got far enough into it that I was mildly curious to see how it ended. Good books leave me sorry that they’re over. This series was more like a chore, neither loved nor hated, and with no sense of urgency to complete it.

With that, and some Tiny Tower, out of the way, I’m now alone with my thoughts.

I’ve got nothin’.

10:07pm: It feels like we’re beginning our descent, but we should have another 90 minutes to go, unless the pilot is just dropping down to get under the turbulence. It’s been a mildly bumpy ride so far, with only a few smooth stretches.

Jan 312010

With another wakeup call that was far too early, Andy and I staggered around getting ready to leave for Boyne. After a quick breakfast, goodbyes to his folks, and packing up all the booze, we hit the road to Boyne Mountain for another day of snowboarding. I planned on taking another beginner lesson to reinforce what I’d learned on Friday and improve the basics as much as I could.

Honestly, I was dreading this rather than looking forward to it, and I had several moments where I just wanted to go home. Whenever I try to learn something new, especially something physical, I demand immediate competency at it from myself, even if it’s something I’ve never even attempted before. When that doesn’t happen as fast as I want (and it never does, of course) my frustration starts a slow climb, crosses into rage, then peaks with a “Fuck this, I quit!”, which is what happened on Friday after bouncing the back of my skull off the snow one too many times at Crystal. Once I hit that breaking point, though, I typically stop to cool off and clear my head for a bit, then go right back to it after I’ve “reset”. Even though this kind of expectation is totally unrealistic, and probably a bit unhealthy, the upside is that I really do learn very quickly, even if I don’t give myself enough credit for it because it’s not as quick as I think it should be.

So I was kind of dreading riding because I was sure I’d just continue to fall a lot, not be able to turn, or stop, and just generally continue to suck at it. Seriously, I’d had four hours of lessons and practice, I should be able to do the basics perfectly, right?!

Anyway, we pulled into Boyne at about 9:45 a.m., got to the registration desk at 10, and discovered that the class I wanted started at 10, not 10:30 like we’d thought; too late to get my gear rented, suit up, and get to the class. Oh well. I got my stuff anyway, my free lift ticket for the Boyneland beginner run, and went to the baby hill to practice. I felt kind of conspicuous among all the toddlers and kids, but ignored it and soldiered on.

After a while it became obvious that the baby hill was actually impeding my progress rather than helping. The slope was so gentle, and short, that I couldn’t really build up enough speed to practice any turns before I reached the end. On top of that there was usually someone in my way and, because I couldn’t confidently turn to avoid them, I’d deliberately fall to avoid a collision. After that happened twice in a row, I decided to brave the Boyneland run, which is about 1/2 mile long. As I got on the lift with another rider the attendant asked, “Are you having fun yet?”, to which I replied, “Not really.”

“What?! Why not?”

“I don’t really know what I’m doing yet.”

“We have lessons…”

The lift was pulling away so I couldn’t explain, and just parted with, “I’m kind of at the in-between stage.”

After a 5-minute lift ride, I pushed off the chair at the top and promptly fell over, scrambling to get out of the way of the next chair. I scooted down to the top of the fun and stared downslope.

And stared.

And stared some more.

“Alright, let’s do this. There’s only one way down, and you are NOT taking your board off and walking this time.”

I strapped my right foot in and started down. I fell a lot, of course, but made it down in one piece. I went back up and did it again. I even managed to stay upright coming out of the chairlift this time. One of the first problems I managed to overcome was unintentional rotation, by learning to flex my leading foot up or down to correct my heading. Then I made progress on braking by applying steady pressure on my leading edge, instead of “chattering”, which inevitably dumped me on my ass. I was still having problems turning, and just couldn’t seem to cross the slope, turn, and cross back. This was made worse by the fact that the run slopes to the left after a nearly-flat stretch about halfway down, so not only would I lose speed, I’d end up like a gutter ball. Everything else showed improvement but, even by the end of the day, I could not, for the life of me, stay off the left edge of the run, which was getting me all wound up and cussing like the sailor I once was.

Here’s a tip for anyone interested in riding: get step-in bindings. You really don’t have a choice with rental boards, but you will get really sick, really fast, of sitting down to ratchet your ankle and toe straps closed before every run. I envied Andy’s ability to just step-n-click and ride off.

Andy and I rode for about another two hours after lunch, then called it a day so we could get home at a reasonable time. A storm system had parked itself over the upper end of the state, causing near-whiteout conditions until we drove out of it near Roscommon. I was actually sorry the snow stopped, because I love watching it, and the roads weren’t all that bad yet.

Despite my little temper problems, I really did have a great weekend, and I’d definitely try snowboarding again, hopefully before I forget what I learned already. Big thanks to Andy and his parents.

Jan 302010

My subconscious was apparently still traumatized from having its cage rattled the day before, because the most prominent dream I had Friday night involved Andy pushing me out onto M-115, one of the two-lane roads we drove to Crystal Mountain, on a snowboard. I had to board down the road, stay upright, and dodge traffic in both directions.

The breakfast his mom cooked for us made it all disappear, however, and Andy, his dad, and I stopped in town at Don Orr’s Ski & Surf shop so I could rent gear for the Vasa Trail. The guys declared my skis to be surprisingly good for rentals, and a steal at $10 for 24 hours. I was out of there with skis, poles, and boots in about 15 minutes, and ready to exhaust myself in new and exciting ways.

After a brief lesson in the basics of skiing, we pushed off from the head of the trail and down the flat, straight path.

Where I promptly fell over.

Fortunately, falling on skis was far less punishing than falling on a snowboard, and I didn’t need a helmet to protect the tattered remnants of my ability to do math. The trail has a pair of narrow tracks carved into the snow on one edge of it, and for the most part you just plant your skis in them and push along, sort of like a slot-car track. The only times I needed to leave it were for hills so steep I had to plant my skis at an angle in order to climb it, and for turns at the bottom of hills so sharp that you’d fly off the track into an inconveniently placed tree.

What was especially fun was getting to the top of a high slope that ran straight out at the bottom instead of turning, like being on a really cold roller coaster.

After about the first 2 km, I was asked if I wanted to stick to the 6k loop, or continue on to the 12k. Giving in to my testosterone-soaked male pride, I voted for 12k, but I managed to not thump my chest as I did so.

I fell a lot (surprise!), and never really did figure out how to turn, so much as learn to gently suggest to the skis that, if it wasn’t too much of an inconvenience, would they mind terribly if we altered our course by a degree or two at some point entirely of their choosing?

By about the 7 or 8k mark, I started going through distinct levels of fatigue. At first, I was all about staying upright no matter what, by sheer force of will and latent telekinesis if necessary. I often failed, but eventually improved. That, or the telekinesis was less latent than I thought.

Then I reached a point where, as I started to topple, my intention to stay vertical was preempted by a sudden “oh, screw it!” It was less effort to just get it over with, fall, and get back up.

Finally, at around 10k, I came full circle, and the thought of picking myself up out of the snow again had me right back to staying upright by any means necessary. I also gave up using the tracks, for the most part, because I realized they were like training wheels, and I’d never learn to keep my skis under me if I kept relying on them.

Exaggerations of my clumsiness aside, it was a lot of fun, and gliding through a remote pine forest while fat snowflakes drift silently down around you is an experience I highly recommend.

We hustled to get home, shower, and change, as Andy’s folks were taking us to dinner at Tuscan Bistro before they attended a play. My penne alla vodka with prosciutto was great, but unfortunately the others were kind of underwhelmed with their meals.

Andy and I managed to find Left Foot Charley’s after some trial & error and cursing of Google Maps, and rewarded ourselves by sampling all five of their whites, the single red, and both hard ciders. The whites were great, but the red and one of the ciders bordered on nasty. Andy loaded up on bottles to take home, and I picked up three varieties of Riesling for his parents, my mom, and Aaron and I.

We went from Left Foot to Right Brain (Brewery), and some serious beer sampling. Conveniently, there were 12 varieties on tap, each sampler tray held six glasses, and there were two of us. Isn’t symmetry beautiful?

The only one we both agreed on was the Hearthside Stout, a very dark brew that tasted like chocolate, vanilla, cinnamon, oatmeal, and (of all things) pipe tobacco. We each bought growlers of it, and Andy also got a jug of Wasabi Cream Ale. Blech.

After two glasses of water and an hour of sobering up, we drove back, guzzled more water, and called it a night, since the plan for the morning was to load up the car and drive to Boyne Mountain in time for a 10:30 a.m. snowboard lesson for me.

Jan 292010

After an ungodly wakeup time of 4:30 a.m., and I hit the road at about 5 a.m. toward Crystal Mountain Resort, near Thompsonville, MI. Four hours and an uneventful drive later, I was signed up, suited up, geared up, and ready to fall on my ass. Repeatedly.

There were only two of us in the class: me and a 14 year old named Kristen. The instructor was the beautiful Jessie Jones, a 23 year old woman from Traverse City. We started with the parts of the board, then how to “pedal” it: scooting it along flat ground with one foot out of the bindings. Once we practiced sliding down a short section of Totem Park, the practice slope, we put both feet in and learned the difference between toe- and heel-edging: basically which edge of the board to apply pressure to in order to stay upright, move, and steer downhill.

We practiced that for a bit and it started to make sense, until we chained heel-edging with toe-edging in order to make C-shaped turns down the hill. My initial early progress kind of fell apart, but I persevered until the lesson was over at noon. It was during the first lesson that I really appreciated having a helmet, after banging the back of my head on the snow a few times, and understood why Jayson recommended hip pads, which I didn’t have.

Andy and I regrouped for lunch, then he took me back to Totem Park to continue lessons, as he used to be a snowboard instructor himself. Things went along relatively well, until he dragged me up one of the lifts to the top of Main Street, the first slope above Totem Park in difficulty. In my initial terror, I expected he’d just send me down on my own, but he pretty much held onto me part of the way down and reinforced what Jessie had already taught me.

Things didn’t fall apart until he turned me loose, at which point I spent more time in the snow rather than on it. After a head-smack that really rung my chimes, I yanked off the board in frustration and anger and walked the rest of the way down the hill. A guy from Ski Patrol pulled up a couple minutes later and asked if there was some reason we were walking. I don’t remember exactly what I said, but it was something to the effect of, “I can’t do this shit anymore.”

After I cooled off, I asked Andy to leave me on my own in Totem Park for awhile, so I could work on the basics until it started to click. I was overloaded with info, I just needed quiet time to process it all and start turning it into muscle memory. By the time we left for Andy’s parents’ house in Kingsley, I’d made a little progress, but it was becoming clear that the kiddie hill was so short that it was actually hindering me. I ran out of hill before I could really get a feel for what I was doing.

I met Andy’s parents (who are great folks, by the way, and perfect hosts) briefly before they left for the night. We took turns showering and, since I felt like I’d been beaten with a 2×4, I tried to nap before we went to dinner. I dozed off twice but when I closed my eyes I was back on the slope, and kept kicking myself awake.

Jessie had suggested we stop by the Firefly Cafe and Lounge, where she worked in the evenings as a bartender, so we took her advice and had a really good meal. They serve sushi and small-plate items, so I had to try a Leelanau Roll of salmon & dried-cherry cream cheese, along with an Empire Roll (Blue Crab and cream cheese), chasing it down with a pomegranate mojito. Good stuff.

After dinner we had a drink at the bar and talked to Jessie and her friend Keith for awhile, who were heading to Grand Rapids the next day to party. It says something about northern Michigan life when getting away from Traverse City means going to Grand Rapids, but everything’s relative I guess. I also swear Keith was gay, but Andy didn’t pick up on it.

We called it a night after one drink, since we were going cross-country skiing with Andy’s dad the next morning on the Vasa Trail. Shortly after we returned, so did his folks, and we talked for awhile as we put away a bottle of Riesling they had picked up from Left Foot Charley’s, a local vineyard/wine bar. At last I dragged my battered carcass to bed.

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