Here’s a photoblog of my recent mini-gypsy tour of the Salton Sea and Death Valley, 12-15 November 2015, with my friends and fellow Goldwingers Ed and Steve.
Leaving Tucson, dressed for the cold
Thursday morning in Tucson was sunny but cold, and I was dressed for it. I wore long johns under my pants and a zip-in thermal liner under the leather jacket. I wore a silk balaclava under the helmet, and toasty ski liners inside the leather gloves. In the saddlebags, in case it got colder or rained, a turtleneck wool sweater, wool gloves, a full rain suit, an extra pair of boots in case the first pair got wet. Also in reserve, for warmer weather, a shorty helmet, mesh ballistic jacket, and lightweight gloves.
Ed’s a friend of long standing, my motorcycle maintenance guru and frequent riding companion. This was my first ride with Steve, who is married to Ed’s wife’s sister. We made our separate ways to an eastside Circle K, met up, and headed west. We rode close to 400 miles on day one, taking back roads to Ajo, Arizona, then cutting north through Gila Bend to Interstate 8 and eventually on to Calexico, California, a border town about 60 miles west of the California state line. Interestingly, as we left Ajo we passed literally hundreds of motorcyclists, most on Harleys, heading for a weekend biker event in Rocky Point, Mexico. We appeared to be the only bikers headed north.
We nearly ran out of fuel before getting to Calexico. Earlier, we had sailed past gas stations in Yuma while low on fuel, confident there’d be plenty of gas stations along the freeway in California. Nope. Not a one until we were in Calexico, gauges on E and fuel low lights burning yellow, sweating every mile as we nursed our throttles for max range. At the pump, once we finally found one, my bike took 6.2 gallons. The tank, with reserve, holds 6.5, so it turned out we had more gas left than we thought.
I had no idea Calexico was such a major border crossing point. Cars and trucks were lined up for a couple of miles waiting to cross into Mexico, and there was a constant two-lane stream of vehicles headed north into the USA. I would guess most of the commercial traffic is agricultural, produce trucks and cars full of Mexican farm workers. From Yuma to Calexico, we passed dozens of old school buses carrying Mexican farm workers, all of them packed. If you didn’t know any better, you’d think the Bracero Program of the 1940s to the 1960s, under which we legally imported seasonal farm labor from Mexico, was still in effect … and in reality it is. I don’t know what they call it today, or how legal it is, but it is a fact of life in Southern Arizona and California.
Our second day was another 400-miler, north from Calexico, around the eastern shore of the Salton Sea, through the Coachella Valley and the connected cities of Coachella, Palm Desert, and Palm Springs, then through the high California desert to Highway 395, always climbing, finally stopping for the night in Lone Pine, California. We started the day dressed for cold weather but quickly stopped to shed layers.
On the east shore of the Salton Sea
Once into the Coachella Valley, what had been isolated farm towns gradually congealed into one long strip city, with stoplight after stoplight, all of them red. The townships we passed through went from redneck to white collar to immense wealth, and when we started to see streets named after Bob Hope and Dinah Shore we knew we were in Palm Springs.
Past Palm Springs, we were once again in open country and could speed up and enjoy the beautiful high desert. Our motel in Lone Pine was one of those older 1950s-style jobs, with huge rooms and big showers. Ed & Steve shared a suite but I had my own room. I would happily stay there again.
Steve & Ed sharing a suite in Lone Pine
Day three was Death Valley. We entered the national park from the west, descending through Panamint Springs to Furnace Creek, then exiting at Shoshone before proceeding south to Interstate 15 at Baker, California, then on to our third night’s destination, a motel in Lake Havasu, Arizona.
It was very cold, just above freezing in fact, when we left Lone Pine, and for the first time on the trip we had on all our cold-weather gear. Halfway down the mountain into Death Valley, we stopped at a viewpoint and stripped down to summer gear. I wanted to stop for a photo op at a 200-feet-below-sea-level sign I’d heard about, but though we were definitely down that low we never saw the sign. I did, however, take a photo of the first sea level elevation sign we came across, at a little tourist stop in Panamint Springs. You can see it across the road in this photo.
Near Panamint Springs, sea level sign in background
Shoot, the spot at the Salton Sea where Ed took that photo of me was 190 feet below sea level, at least according to the altimeter on my GPS, and that’s right down there with most of DV.
Riding through DV, I saw a gas station near Panamint Springs advertising regular at $5.48 a gallon (just imagine how high it must have been back when gas was over $4/gal elsewhere in California). The tourist place where I took the sea level sign photo was selling gas at $3.54/gal. Because of the distances involved (we had filled up that morning in Lone Pine) we were low on gas exiting DV. Based on gas prices dropping from $5.48 to $3.54 as we moved from the middle toward the southern edge of DV, I expected they’d continue to get lower, but boy was I wrong. We had to pay $4.58/gal in Shoshone, several miles outside the national park.
Sticker shock in Shoshone
In the freeway town of Baker, California, Ed’s GPS led us astray. Lake Havasu, Arizona, our destination that day, was a hundred straight-line miles to the southeast. Ed’s GPS insisted it was 250 miles away, and wanted us to head southwest. Had we had the sense to look at a paper map, we’d have seen the correct & shortest route, the one the GPS apparently didn’t believe existed: east on I-15 from Baker to the Nipton, California exit, over a mountain to Searchlight, Nevada, then down Highway 95 to Lake Havasu. Instead, we followed the GPS south and west on I-15 to a point near where it merges with I-40 at Barstow, California, then reversed direction to go east on I-40 to Hwy 95, adding 150 miles to our trip. At over 450 miles, day three was our longest day in the saddle.
Tell you what, if you really want to explore DV, you need two days … book a motel on either the California or Nevada side for two nights and take your time! We felt a little rushed, but we did see and experience quite a lot of DV on day three.
I mentioned the temperature rising as we descended into Death Valley, but I should clarify we’re talking about highs in the 70s, not the killer 130s typical of DV in the summer. From day one through day three, we could not have had better weather.
Our motel in Lake Havasu was a bit of a letdown. Ed’s favored motel, the one we’ve stayed at before, sits at the foot of the famous London Bridge. This time it was booked and we had to stay in a run-down Rodeway Inn instead. The restaurant next door was no great shakes for dinner, and there was no breakfast in the morning. On the other hand, our last day’s ride was a mere 300-miler, and we figured we’d be home in Tucson by 2:30 in the afternoon. Turned out we were right on the money: I pulled into my driveway at precisely 2:30.
When we left Lake Havasu yesterday at 8:00 AM, the skies were no longer blue but overcast in all directions, with rain here and there all the way home. The day started with temperatures in the 50s and never really warmed up. Just a few miles south of Lake Havasu we had to pull over and don our cold-weather gear again. The heaviest rain we experienced was around Gila Bend, about 100 miles from home. Steve to put his rainsuit on when we stopped for lunch, but Ed and I decided not to and didn’t get too wet—when you’re moving along on a Goldwing, you sit in a little cocoon of dry air behind the fairing and windscreen. Rain on the visor, yes, but not on the body. Stopped or putting along at low speeds is when you get wet.
Wet bikes in Gila Bend
All in all, it was a great ride with old and new friends. Only one cager tried to kill me (an Escalade driver suddenly swerving into my lane in Palm Springs). The bikes ran perfectly and the weather was ideal. We saw a lot of cool stuff. You know what was best? The smell of the rain coming into Gila Bend. You don’t get the smells, or the small changes in temperature as the road goes up and down, when you’re in a closed car. You get the full sensory input on a motorcycle—including the smell of cow shit when you’re riding through farm country—but that’s an experience too, and one we enjoyed to the fullest during our first two days.
Time now to start planning my next motorcycle adventure!
“People are masks, with masks under those masks, and masks under those, and down you go.”
— David Mitchell, Slade House
Slade House is a companion (not exactly a sequel) to Mitchell’s previous novel The Bone Clocks, but it is a more compact and to-the-point story, as readable as anything Mitchell has written. Like The Bone Clocks, Slade House is a mix of horror and fantasy.
I was totally into The Bone Clocks until the cloud battle between the horologists and anchorites, an extended scene taking up the last quarter of the book. What had been an engrossing tale with an overlay of fantasy became wholly fantastic and, to me at least, silly. I couldn’t follow the action of the complicated, drawn out battle; I couldn’t even tell the good guys from the bad. The scene felt unnecessarily padded. In my review of The Bone Clocks, I said I thought the novel would have been stronger without the battle.
In Slade House, the horologists and anchorites fight again, but this time the battle is short, comprehensible, and clear. If only I could buy into the belief that we have souls, I would be more enthusiastic about Mitchell’s vision. But I sort of doubt Mitchell believes in souls, either, and is merely paying the rent by writing exceptionally good supernatural potboilers while his next major non-fantasy novel gels.
In Slade House, we meet and get to know several victims of the Grayer twins, immortals who preserve their youth by periodically devouring the souls of the engifted, who reveal the back-alley portal to Slade House only to their chosen dinner guests. Sure it sounds silly, but the setups, as each new innocent discovers Slade House, chilled me to the bone every time. The Grayers, too, are fun, the bickering between them sibling-like and even cozy.
One really should read The Bone Clocks before reading Slade House, even though this one can stand on its own. I think those who’ve read both will agree with me that Slade House is the better of the two, primarily because it’s shorter and tighter.
A friend recommended Shadow Divers and I started in on it cold, knowing nothing about the book or its subject. For the first few pages I thought I was reading an unusually gripping novel. It only gradually dawned on me that Robert Kurson’s book is non-fiction, a real-life account of the discovery and eventual identification of a sunken WWII German U-boat off the coast of New Jersey.
Had it been a novel, I’d write the same review I’m writing now. I’d tell everyone how exciting Shadow Divers is, how riveting the story, how impossible to put down once you’ve started. I had no idea what I was getting into. By page two I was enthralled.
Kurson takes a warts & all approach to his subject, dealing frankly with the divers who discovered and worked the mysterious wreck; the alcoholism, egos, personality conflicts, fatal mistakes made in the depths. There were times I thought the descriptions of divers’ deaths might give me nightmares … and they well might still.
It’s an incredible story. Excuse me while I catch my breath. Shadow Divers is up there with any of Jon Krakauer’s adventure books, and that is meant as high praise.
Lafayette in the Somewhat United States
Sarah Vowell’s descriptions of dashing around the Eastern Seaboard to visit sites of Revolutionary War events, homes of founding fathers, re-enactments of key battles … accompanied by friends, siblings, nieces and nephews, occasionally a patient hired driver … are positively endearing. These glimpses into her own life help bring history to life for so many readers.
I’ve read Assassination Nation, Take the Cannoli, Unfamiliar Fishes, and The Wordy Shipmates, and have noticed this writerly technique at play in all of them. And I approve. It works. I’m a fan for life. If Sarah Vowell writes it, I’ll read it.
What you walk away with, after a history lesson from Sarah Vowell, is a sense of those who came before us as contemporaries, as real and immediate as you or me. I will never think of George Washington as a wooden figure again (even if he did have wooden false teeth, which he didn’t). And Lafayette, about whom I knew almost nothing, stepped off the pages of this book and sat down across from me as I read. Even the pencil illustrations of key figures on both sides of the Revolutionary War are uncannily lifelike.
And tell you what, next time some know-nothing Teabagger twerp goes off on the French, I’ll have a quiver full of arrows to shoot back with. Thanks, Sarah, for straightening us out on who are true friends are!
Seriously, this is a marvelous read. Educational and fun, as they say. If history books had been written like this when I was in school, I might have paid more attention.
Between the World and Me
I’ve admired Ta-Nehisi Coates’ articles in The Atlantic, notably his writing on Jim Crow, the Civil War, and the topic of reparations for slavery. His journalism is fearless, tightly reasoned, well researched, and persuasive.
This short book, which takes the form of an impassioned letter from a father to his son, is quite different. It’s less tightly reasoned and more emotional than TNC’s journalistic writing. As it should be, being a frank and personal discussion of his own experience of the racial divide in America. It references many facts on the history of oppression, up to and including several recent police killings of unarmed black men and boys, but does not attempt to explicate the facts. It’s a letter to his son, after all … certain facts and assumptions common to the black experience of life in the USA are agreed upon going in.
I agree with everything TNC has to say about the false construct of race and the heritage of slavery. But when people compare TNC to James Baldwin, I drag my feet just a little. I’ll re-read Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son and The Fire Next Time (which I first read 50 years ago). Then I’ll decide.
Yes, Between the World and Me is an important book. But for now at least, I think TNC’s journalism will have the larger impact.
Whiskey Tango Foxtrot
by David Shafer
Count me among the dissatisfied. I thought WTF started brilliantly, with vivid, well-written characters and the promise of an interesting story, but a little over halfway in I lost the ability to suspend disbelief, and by the end I thought the plot merely silly, even risible.
At the end—and I’m sorry if this is a spoiler (no I’m not)—as the good guys are about to move against the bad guys, the story abruptly ends. Imagine a juggler suddenly disappearing, balls suspended in air. Look, if you’re going to sell me a story about grand Gibsonesque electronic conspiracies, I want to know what the hell happens! Will there be a second book? There’s no hint of one, so I’ll assume not.
When I say well-written characters, I’m trying to convey how prepared I was to love this book. I hate addicts and don’t like to read about them. Two of the main characters in WTF are quickly revealed to be drunks and druggies. Normally I would have quit reading right there, but I kept on in spite of my strong discomfort with the characters, and that’s why I’ve giving WTF a relatively high (for me) three-star rating.
That’s not all with the drugs, though. The deeper the author takes us into the Dear Diary/good guy conspiracy group, the more stoned his concept comes to seem, and this, along with several scenes set in Portland, Oregon, made me wonder if David Shafer is himself a Portlander. Yes, it turns out, he lives in Portland. I don’t know if he’s a stoner, but he’s certainly familiar with the breed. Anyway, drug-based computers is where I went off the tracks, no longer able to imagine any world in which the plot of this novel would be possible. WTF flirts with science fiction but is not science fiction. It’s fantasy, and stoner fantasy at that. Hey, I didn’t like Dune, either, and for the same reason.
Still, WTF is well written, and had the author kept marching another hundred pages to bring the action to a conclusion, I’d have stayed in step with him all the way. Instead I’m upset with myself for getting all wrapped up in a book that stopped before the climax, leaving me high and dry. How frustrating!
North Korea Undercover: Inside the World’s Most Secret State
(2.5 stars for readability, 1.5 stars for content)
The Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea always fascinates. When I learn of new books on the DPRK I generally read them. This one doesn’t live up to its billing. It doesn’t contribute to our knowledge of North Korea, and there’s nothing “undercover” about it, save for the author passing himself off to DPRK authorities as a teacher rather than a journalist.
North Korea Undercover is little more than a diary of a tourist visit to Pyongyang, where Sweeney’s group gets the full Potemkin village treatment. Sweeney goes along with the orders and instructions of his North Korean minders, and apart from one unescorted early-morning foray outside his hotel to photograph some dreary apartment flats on the other side of a barbed wire fence, he does not rebel. He does not get the goods. Every “revelation” in his book is a known known, culled from other books or internet sites.
The one worthwhile thing Sweeney does here is to vigorously combat the suggestion that the DPRK was ever a workers’ paradise, or that Kim Il Sung wasn’t so bad. I’ve seen this notion advanced or hinted at in other studies of North Korea. It usually takes the form of stating how much better off North Korea was than South Korea in the 1960s and 70s, and how much worse Kim Il Sung’s successors, Kim Jong Il and Kim Jong Un, have been in terms of starving the people, setting up gulags, and inculcating cults of personality.
No. None of that is true. North Korea has always sucked. It has never been economically viable. Korea began as a primitive caste society, and the north has not advanced to this day. Kim Il Sung was busy starving peasants decades before Kim Jong Il got in on the act. His war against South Korea was a disaster, and as soon as it was over he started killing and imprisoning anyone who might call him to account for it some day. By the middle 1950s, even Kim Il Sung’s Stalinist handlers in the USSR were appalled at the cult of personality he had set up. It’s good to be reminded of these facts, and I thank Sweeney for doing it.
Otherwise? I could have watched a couple of YouTube videos and learned more. I’m particularly irritated with one photo. Like most readers, I scanned the color photo pages in the middle of the book before I started to read. One photo, showing what appeared to be labor camp prisoners at work behind a barbed wire fence, caught my eye. I wondered how Sweeney came upon that photo, because up to now everything I’ve read says there are no such photos, and tourist groups are never allowed anywhere near DPRK prison camps. One of the reasons I didn’t throw the book across the room after one or two chapters was to find out how Sweeney got this photo.
And he never said. Well, fuck you, Mr. Sweeney.
It’s Hallowe’en, aka All Hallows’ Evening, the eve of the Western Christian feast of All Hallows’ Day, which begins the three days of Allhallowtide, the time in the liturgical year dedicated to remembering the dead, including saints, martyrs, and all the faithful departed believers (I swiped this info from Wikipedia). Honestly, I have no idea how the Mike Huckabees and Pat Robertsons of the Christian right manage to misconstrue Hallowe’en as a satanic observance, but those folks hate it when we have fun, so screw ’em.
In different parts of the USA, Hallowe’en is called Gate Night, Trick Night, Mischief Night, Cabbage Night, Goosy Night, Devil’s Night, and Devil’s Eve. I grew up calling it Hallowe’en, thank goodness—what is with some of those hick-ass names?
Hallowe’en happens to be my birthday (which I share with Vanilla Ice, Dan Rather, Christopher Columbus, Dale Evans, the astronaut Michael Collins, and my dear friend Theresa Winnie). When I was little my mother always made the most of Hallowe’en, not just my birthday celebration but also the trick-or-treating, setting up spooky tableaus at the front door to frighten the neighborhood kids. Donna and I carry on the tradition, even though we live in a neighborhood with few children. We’ll do our best to give them a ghoulish experience tonight.
Hallowe’en really should be a national holiday, don’t you think? Here’s a handy link that’ll help you connect with your congressperson. Write today!
So now I’m 69, one year shy of 70. I suppose I should try to say something profound about that, but Beavis & Butthead win out every time. Sixty-nine! Heh, heh!
We rarely go to parties, but we went to one last night. I was an identity thief, and Donna was a jack-o’-lantern. She was going to go as Tippi Hedren, but can you find a dozen stuffed crows when you need ’em? I really liked the Spy vrs. Spy couple, by the way … we never did find out who they were!
At the party I talked to two fellow military retirees. All three of us had gotten letters from the Office of Personnel Management that morning, telling us our records had been hacked. These weren’t just any records, either. Someone now has all the information in our security clearance background check files. If you’ve ever filled out paperwork for a top secret clearance, you know that’s a lot of information, dating all the way back to your birth: where you’ve lived, all the schools you attended, your full employment history, who your friends are, the works. Nice to know that’s out there.
The amusing thing was OPM’s try at making everything better. They sent each of us a link to myIDcare, a private identity protection service (which also seems to be a credit score service on the side), and asked us to register on-line. I looked at the site today. You guessed it, they want all my information again, including my SSAN. Thanks. How long before this database is hacked, too?
How appropriate that I went to the party dressed as an identity thief, huh? It was totally a coincidence, though … Donna came up with the idea two days ago, a day before the OPM letter arrived.
So what’s on for my birthday? I already have my gifts (for this birthday and however many I have remaining, says Donna), and I’ve already been to a party. I think a normal Saturday is in order. The weekly outdoor chores, restocking the bird feeders, a little bloggage, answering birthday greetings on Facebook. Later today I’ll marinate some steaks and fire up the grill. Tonight we’ll pass out a little candy. I’m going to have a great day, and I hope you have one too.