Tuesday, July 18, 2006

California 2006: The Private History of a Vacation that Failed

I suppose the big problem with one of these is how much do I say. In this case it's almost certainly too much. The scenario was much different than last time, though weirdly similar. I was heading to California for a week and a half, attend a wedding and see what I could see. This time it was the north. And if you'll note the date, you'll note it took me about a month to complete this. More like it took me two weeks to write, and two weeks to recover enough to write.

Day 1
Simple enough, fly into San Francisco, possibly the last direct west coast flight that USAir has. It was one of those too late for dinner, but not an overnight. At the gate I noticed two things, the less disturbing of the two being a guy snickering as he read American Psycho. (Irrespective of content, it's not good policy to have evil laughter coming out of your mouth as the word "Psycho" is held in front of your face.) The more disturbing thing was the large sign advocating your options to buy a meal on the flight. It wasn't that you'd be paying the $7 for a roast beef sandwich the size of a White Castle slider. No, it was the fact that the offering were clearly listed as the November specials of USAir, meaning nobody had cared to update this pretty much since the merger. Classy. You also had the option of the FunBox, this was more notable in the flight because nobody knew what was in the FunBox. Not the attendants, not the pilot, not the in-flight magazine, and since nobody on the flight bought the FunBox, they weren't allowed to open one to find out.
Upon landing, I had two of those incidents that highlight my issues with California, and one that basically presaged the way the whole trip sort of fell apart. First, I saw a rack of potato chip bags marked Yogurt and Onion chips, which strikes me as the ultimate, "we're going to fake being healthy and culinarily cutting-edge", but it's almost exactly the same petrochemical goodness sprayed on the chips. But you'll feel better if you don't think about it. The other one was the bathroom, where the state of California, acting through a sign on the paper towel dispenser advised me to take only what I need, to conserve for the environment. Only problem with that, was they had stripped out the hot air hand dryer, so the option to use no paper towels was shot. California just needs a sign, "California advises you that you'll feel better if you don't think about it."
Since I needed my suit jacket for this, I had to take the suit bag, and I had checked it. That was when I saw the saddest thing on the planet. The baggage carousel number 10 at SFO, serving USAir and America West, has a very weak conveyor belt. Like Lil' Brudder, "I can make it on my own" weak. Watching it slowly collect luggage at the top, unable to push them onto the carousel, so they would slowly slip back down, until the entire belt filled, and then the luggage on the belt before would propel the lot out, almost attacking the waiting crowd. It was sad to watch, and sad because I had to watch it. I had to figure this was going to happen to my bag, and I was right. When I got it back I noticed the impact shot had bent one of my zipper pulls.
Renting my rental car, Dollar had one of the stranger signs I've ever seen, a special line for "Virgin Holidays". I really hope that's something Richard Branson arranged, because that's a car rental upgrade fraught with linguistic possibilities. Are they holidays for, or with? It's also now an inevitability, I rent a car, I get a Dodge Stratus. I've rented economy, compact, midsize, and every time, I get a white Dodge Stratus, because that's what they have. I fail to get the Will Ferrell sense of life justification by this.
I drove over to the Oakland Airport, because I was going to split the room with Joe on one night, and he was flying in Saturday morning. It didn't really matter to me where I was crashing the first three nights of this.

Day 2
The one cool trick I had in this vacation was the World Cup. It gave me something to wake up to, at a reliable 6am. I had big concerns about falling into west coast time, which killed me on the return back in 2004, so having something to keep me on a regular pace helped. This morning was Argentina applying S&M to S&M, which isn't really something to wake you up, and as a result, I really only got out of bed to have breakfast while catching the beginning of what I was cruelly disappointed to discover was NOT going to be the orangest match in World Cup history (similar to a Vikings-Ravens or Northwestern-Kansas State match being the most purple you can possibly get on turf.) I resolved to do something with my morning. Since I was still unsure about my whole end-of-vacation schedule, I resolved to not go into SF, instead hitting south of the city and Oakland.
The first attempted stop was the Pez Dispenser museum. I say attempted partially because I was so underwhelmed by the storefront, I really didn't want to go in. But the main reason was I was getting so disturbed by the woman on the radio, I didn't want to be with people. It was some low wattage AM station, and her name was Karen Beale. I thought she was just some self-help show host, but no. She had classes to help you. Whole schedules of classes. One for aiding the flow of your chi, one for feng shui, one for EACH chakra, Goddess sessions of each of those, so women can get together, and one for starting your own online home travel business. In her 25 minutes of constant talk, she was very proud of the fact that she had been doing this for 25 years. I was very proud of the fact that I didn't go down to the station and do something that would put me in for 25 years to life, screaming at the top of my lungs "YOU! YOU are ruining this state for me!" That's why I didn't go in the Pez museum, if I had met anyone in there who had been helped by her, it's quite possible they'd have an object of reasonable size jammed down their throat with their head bent back, and with the low power of the station, it wasn't a bad bet.
Unable to deal with this, I kept driving, eventually finding myself heading back past my hotel, and up into Oakland proper. I reviewed my options, eventually settling on Jack London Square, which I found underwhelming, no people, no activity, not even worth driving past. Upon reflection, given it wasn't even lunchtime, I probably short changed it, but at this point I was rattled. I just headed back to the hotel. I stopped for In-N-Out, but all that seemed to do for me was provoke a reaction at the hotel. So I sat down to the last game of the day, and then got ready for the dinner.
Four o'clock saw me in Berkeley at the restaurant. 4:15 saw me waiting with something like four people, waiting for any sign that we had the right place. By 4:30 we were sure, and everyone eventually showed up. Food was good, and I had a decent bowl of clam chowder. (It's difficult for me to judge these things, as I don't really trust chowder in Pittsburgh, so my scale is limited. A non-toxic chowder is at least 50% of my criterion. This probably means I'd be a poor Iron Chef judge. Taste 25%, Presentation 10%, Judge ends up alive, 50%... Yeah, that would screw the scores up.)
The bachelor party was not the geekiest one of these I've ever attended, but it made top three. A German board game was not involved, and that's going to push it up the ladder hard. Quiz bowl packets were also involved, but at this point, how far can that push the geek score of one of these? For the most part I stuck to poker, which continues to establish two facts for me. One, I enjoy it, even if I'm not really good at it. Two, if I want to get better at poker, spending less time on quiz bowl would be necessary, or at the very least playing less with people who I know from quiz bowl who have spent more time recently with poker. I just smiled nicely, and got sheared. Better to do it among friends then in some casino on the outskirts of Sacramento.

Day 3
I spent the first part of the day watching the World Cup and waiting for Joe to show up, which resulted in my breakfast being a halftime run across the street to Jack in the Box. He finally showed up after the game, having been shanghaied by the incompetent shuttle guy at the Days Inn. Instead of a quick run over, he spent more time waiting for the shuttle than he did in flight. So he was a little ticked, and I probably wasn't helping, since I figured we'd watch the US-Italy match there. All right game I guess, though I'm still trying to figure out whether Bruce Arena looks more like Will Durst or Taylor Negron.
After that we decided to head down to the wedding site, but first we figured we needed to stop for a snack. Eventually we settled on Jamba Juice, my first trip to this particular con game (pay twice as much for a bunch of fruits as you would for them individually). I went with something that wouldn't scar me for life, small orange juice. I was having the Yankee Candle effect, (too many scents at once resulting some strange smell of sour straw and fruit decaying.) but I might go back, if I hadn't seen the "feng shui your kitchen" book. Now they're on the list.
We arrived at the wedding site early, so Joe and I ended up waiting inside an Albertson's having a going out of business sale. The frightening part of this was the meats at last posted offer. The exciting part of this was the hard alcohol on discount. In a grocery store. If only I could have made up the cost of shipping on the discount, I'd have finally beaten the PLCB.
The wedding was fine, I leave it to better qualified people for photography of it. I had the double problem of sitting behind people and a camera battery that was dying.

Day 4
I dropped Joe off at the airport and headed over to the brunch that Julia's parents arranged, I was apparently the first one there, and as such I ended up helping set stuff up. Nothing great or revelatory happened, people were just enjoying the day. Sometimes that's what's needed more than anything.
After that, I commenced my run down to Gilroy. Since the last time I was in California, Ryan's wife had moved back from the DC area to go to SJSU, and about four months ago, Ryan followed.
Since I had figured to get down there about six, I stopped in San Jose, and figured I had just enough time to visit the Rosicrucian Egyptian Museum. I was somewhat limited in my picture taking due to the battery, but I got a reasonable number of shots of the outside of the building. I was disturbed to find two things there, amongst the interesting relics. First, they had an exhibit on Da Vinci, that seemed strangely pro-Da Vinci Code. This wasn't so much surprising as confirming for me that the Rosicrucians were in on something. I was already on to them from the Calvin Coolidge thing. However, the second bit really smacked me around. Across from the Rosicrucian museum, there's a middle school. Herbert Hoover Middle School! He was in on it, too! Was Coolidge a patsy? I really don't know what to think.
Inadvertently wandering into an odd situation with Ryan, as he had figured I was in town the next weekend. This didn't make sense as their anniversary was the weekend after, but we worked through it. Had dinner and talked for a while. I then rolled over to the drugstore to find rechargable batteries for my camera. Stopping back at the hotel for the night, I started flipping channels. Suddenly, I realize the PBS station is running Doo Wop 50, and my uncle is performing. Bizarre, 2500 miles off from where he and I are based, and where the concert was recorded, and it's still airing on PBS, after 6 years.
Day 4 pictures here

Day 5
I had screwed up again. Had I been thinking about it at the time, I would have charged the batteries up. But no, I was working on the principle that batteries come charged up in advance... Silly me. So I was working with four underpowered batteries for my day trip to Monterey. First stop was the aquarium, plenty of pictures taken before the first batteries died. Please note that the aquarium has the nuclear weapon in sympathy items to generate revenue. It's a cute sea otter, only she has to stay at the aquarium because if she doesn't get her medicine she'll probably die of seizures.
Other shots from the aquarium:
Renditions of Jellyfish in a variety of media. (1|2|3|4|5)
A strange bivalve that seems to turn one of its shells into a sail.
After that I took a walk along Cannery Row. There should be an urban legend about a Planned Parenthood office there, but there isn't. Instead we've got tourist traps. Lots of tourist traps. The only actual trace of beach left is down a little staircase that you'll miss the first time round. Instead, you'll see crap, lots of crap. Three different salt water taffy emporiums (emporia?), chocolate, shirts, stuffed otters doing the badger dance, A hot sauce that appears to be trying to be Crystal Tabasco, Thomas Kinkade galleries next to the even more nightmarish Rip Squeak Galleries (imagine if you combined low quality Disney knockoffs, Kinkade paintings, and the pathos of Precious Moments figurines. Now make people pay 600 times what it's worth.) Watching a purchase was physically painful to me. The other points of imaging I'd like to make:
Here we see seals in the Ghiardelli chocolate shop offering me a sample in exchange for not clubbing them.
Here we see an obese bear. The state of California has a major issue with bear obesity. Throughout my trip I saw many of these poor creatures unable to even get up off the park benches. But do they do anything about it? No. California advises you that you'll feel better if you don't think about it.
I was more or less disgusted by the area, so I moved over to Fisherman's Wharf for lunch. (that and the markup for lunch was ridiculous.) There's less over there, in fact there were only two places apparently open within walking distance, so I sat down to English pub food.
This continues a theme of the trip, my increasing disgust the longer I stay in areas where they're trying to convince me of anything. I'm becoming convinced that I shouldn't vacation alone. When I'm observant among people that aren't used to me, it's really disturbing to them, making me keep it to myself. This only leads to me being more disturbed.
With the pictures taken of the wharf area, and my need to be elsewhere, I drove back to my hotel, it was only 1 in the afternoon, and I needed... something. Mostly something not aiming to grind at me. This wasn't really going to happen.
Ryan's wife had night classes on Monday, so we went out for dinner. Sushi, which fulfilled one of the tasks for the trip. Then, having passed on the local outlet mall for possible entertainment, Ryan figured I needed to at least see a Fry's Electronics. This made sense, we are geeks after all. So up the 101 we went. I can understand why these are geek landmarks. Back 10-15 years ago, being able to get your company's supplies from Fry's would have been as natural as breathing. Nowadays, well... Still, it wasn't grinding at me, and I appreciated that.
After I dropped Ryan off, I went over to the grocery store to stock up. Tomorrow, I'd be heading east to Yosemite, and I figured that it would be like Yellowstone or Denali, I'd need some supplies.
It was when I got into my hotel room that I had it all blow out on me. I don't know what caused it, but it was revelation. Some combination of ingredients in my stomach were grinding, and then I decided to use the Wi-Fi to see if anything interesting was going on. Big mistake. I'd given up on posting on hsquizbowl after the false accusations were leveled against me by my stalker. But something I saw that night, that I assumed has been swept under since, just rattled me to the core. It was not merely that it was coordinated hatred, it was that when all was said and done, I had more sympathy for those attacked than I did for anyone who had taken part in the attack. And given that's our primary competition on the high school level, who I should have nothing but instinctive rage against, it was really shocking. Then came a sickness. Heart rate jacked up, temp up, stomach feeling like it was going to burst. I didn't vomit, but I came close. I lay on the bed, and tried to figure out how to keep this from ever happening again. Maybe it was the African tea substitute I grabbed by mistake from the breakfast cart. Or maybe it was the realization that these folks aren't going to grow the circuit, they're just going to burn it down around themselves. If I actually want to make the world a better place through quiz bowl, I have to focus on making quiz bowl work for people who haven't given up on it. Who haven't decided to push people out, rather than bring them in. It was with that I finally got out of awakeness and anger for the day. I had to be up early for Yosemite, I tried.
Day 5 pictures

Day 6
Why was I going to Yosemite? Because I had time. I had only reserved at the lodge a week before. The whole thing about this trip, the whole shooting match was I needed 1 day out of the office for the wedding, but I needed a week out if I didn't want to lose the accrued vacation time I had. So I had to do something with the extra days. Time is a bad thing in my life. Empty time especially. I pace, I twitch, I lay out plans for things to do when I'm not free, the brain never shuts off. Sometimes I think I do two jobs not just because I believe in both companies, but because I can't deal with free time on my own. There's always something to task myself with, something that can be done. But with this vacation, that was the problem. I admit this trip was not well planned. I hadn't been able to decide on North (go to Oregon, get it off my list so I was down to Kansas, Mississippi, North Dakota, and Arkansas, then do something to get me in the Arcata Eye on the way back), Hard east (Blow money in Reno, yeah, like a cheapass like me would be able to commit to that), or South (retrace the 1, Santa Barbara to LA.) Yosemite was there, I'd say it called to me, but that's a lie. It was a place to exist for a couple of days.
So down the road I rolled from Gilroy, across the great ag valleys, up into the mountains, until I hit a detour off of 152. Seemed that 140 was blocked entering the park, and I couldn't get in that way. So I rolled south towards Oakhurst hoping to pick up 41. (This is foreshadowing, kids, this will figure into our story later, in a bad way. Foreshadowing's kind of like fraught that way.) The good news was Oakhurst allowed me to get another picture of an obese bear, this time in a Bank of America. The other interesting bit of this affair was that the ATM is not on the side facing most of the parking, it's rather in a secluded spot perfect for mugging. This results in a steady stream of people wandering up to the bank, looking confusedly at the entrance, walking through the door, and then looking around the room, to which the tellers then immediately react by yelling at you that the machine's on the side of the building. I think they were playing this as a variation of Slap Jack.
To my credit, I did get to the park plenty early. 10:30 I was in the park, 10:45 I was at my lodge, and 10:50 I was on the list to have my room cleaned early so I could check in at 2 rather than 5. I told them I'd be heading up to the valley to see things. (Wawona Lodge is very south of the main Yosemite Valley. It was as cheap as I could get in the park. It also had shared bathrooms. You get past that, it's fine. They had electricity, I had been concerned they wouldn't have fire.) So off I went. 30 miles to the valley, and the road is just like US-1, miss a turn, and off you go down 3000 feet. I didn't miss any, it was the kind of driving that kept my mind squarely on the driving, which is just what I needed at that point.
Here we commence the majority of our photographic show. The other great benefit of the Yosemite Valley is that it's something to observe. I had no problem taking enough pictures because there was plenty to see. The only down side of the picture taking was this, Every picture gave me the feeling that if I stared at it for three seconds, a Coors logo was going to be superimposed on the image.
Day 6 pictures See what I mean? Please also note the great phrase Information Yurt.
One real downside to traveling alone, specifically for me, is I sometimes forget I have limitations. A little pain doesn't bother me, I've had my legs cut in half, anything in comparison to that runs a little flat. So, without the guidance of other people to cut me off (figuratively), I start doing stupid things. I probably walked the better part of 10 miles in that day, punctuated by the mile walk to Mirror Lake. (My immediate statement going in was "mile up, mile back, you can do that." Yes I can, it just means the muscles are not going to walk properly most of the way back.)
My last stop of the day in the valley was the main store. This was also problematic. Again, the obese bear phenomenon was in effect. One was slumped over a shelf, and one was so morbidly obese he broke the furniture. Governor, you were once in charge of the nation's fitness, get these bears a diet that doesn't reduce them to panhandling themselves for tourists!
The worst of it though was walking around the grocery section. Before I got to the park, I had spent time loading up, bottled water and granola, figuring that would be the order of the day. No. Sadly what drove me nuts was how utterly pointless my run to the grocery store was prior to getting there. The topper was getting to wine section (which of course doesn't exist in PA grocery stores), and finding wine, IN A NATIONAL PARK, cheaper than I can get it at home. Amazing how the primary sin of PA is the primary virtue of California. Of course, given I'm traveling alone, along roads that demand one's total and complete attention, the wine lies out there like water to Tantalus. Life was starting to get cruel.
(As an aside, I can't believe I bought water. I understand that people do this as a regular fact of life, and I watch them do it. But if it wasn't for the fact that I needed a bottle, I wouldn't have done it. I feel dumber for having done it. Once again, "California advises you that you'll feel better if you don't think about it.")
I drove back to the hotel, had an excellent dinner (maybe I overpaid, but it was either that my granola, and dammit I had worked hard that day), and collapsed down into my bed with a copy of the Clemente book that Craig sent me. I was in spring training 1960 when I passed out.
Day 6 pictures
A couple other bits to note:
I got this shot just so my dad knows it perfectly appropriate to scream at the groundhog in Yosemite Sam fashion calling him a "Yellow Bellied Marmot".
Comparatively, this bear is the Iron Eyes Cody, looking sadly but stoically, at what has become of his brethren.

Day 7
The solstice, longest run of daylight all year, to which I woke up to a shooting pain in my calf. Nothing like popping a muscle in a morning stretch. So I was walking funny to start my day. Showered, shaved, moved, got breakfast, and drove north. The legs were stiffening as I went.
As I came out of the car at in the valley, I realized that I probably didn't have a full day in the legs. I looked around and saw bike rentals. My reasoning, somewhat less stressful than impacting the feet constantly, and I can cover more distance, therefore more things to see, therefore more pictures. Picture taking was relaxing me. So, there I go, I give them my license, and all I have to do it pick out a bike. Now, there have only been a few times in my life where my surgery has mattered in what I can do. I think I once described the issue with my legs as preventing nothing, save virtuosity in their use. Well, we got another time now. See, they had a variety of rental bikes, big small, recumbent, built for two. But none of them fit me. The kids' ones would have had me basically driving a bike built for Laugh-in specifications, where I'd either stand all the time or duckwalk on a bike. The adult ones were all set with their seats just two inches too high. I could get on them, but swinging the leg up tweaked what felt like a groin about to pull. So none of these were going to work, and I was walking even funnier. I asked the woman if she had the tool to adjust the seats, but apparently possession of a tool would violate state and/or national park law. California advises you that you'll feel better if you don't think about it. I just asked very politely for my license back. That pretty much scared the crap out of the woman. Demeanor of Monk, limp of House. You don't want to deal with that on your shift at the bike rental.
At that point it was a little before 10, I checked my map. The good news was, there wasn't much that I hadn't walked through that wasn't on the main paths. I figured if I was careful, didn't overexert, and could fight through the limp issue, I'd get through everything. If I was overwhelmed, I'd ride the tram for a while. So, I proceeded out. Look folks! More pictures!
By about 2:30, I had cleared the loop. The leg wasn't better, but if I moved slow it was fine, the closest call I had was one step where I could swear my knee bent completely perpendicular to normal, but I just sat down immediately. A stop at the park's gift shops, getting Ansel Adams stuff for my father, and some other gifts, and I was ready to head back to the car. 4pm saw me back at the lodge, I was dead tired, but I figured I should get something to drink for after dinner. There's a little convenience store right next to the lodge, just pop through a belt of trees, past the tennis court, and down the hill. I got some beer and wine, and walked back (slowly) to the lodge. Now, then, the grand total of wildlife I had seen in the park were two squirrels. It was too hot for anything else, and the squirrels were not getting any sun. So as I walked up to the tennis court, I discovered a fundamental truth. Bears, they do do it in the woods, as long as it's next to the tennis court. Note this does not mean I ran into said bear, I just saw the after effects. Having been in national parks before, I was perfectly happy with seeing that much of a bear. If it had been Yellowstone, they'd have evac'd the lodge.
Another lovely dinner (seriously, I recommend Wawona Lodge highly. Follow the bear's advice and don't be possessive about your bowel movements.), and more of the Clemente book, and alcohol. Long sleep would help the leg.
Day 7 pictures

Day 8
If I had said that I had never planned on visiting Fresno, that would be a lie, or at best a half-truth. But we'll get to that later. Since I had exhausted the Yosemite Valley in two days, I still had a couple things to do for the morning, which was my goal. First stop was Glacier Lodge. Basically you go half-way to the valley, turn right, then follow the road up, and I do mean up. Glacier Lodge is designed to overlook the valley. So you get a new view of all the mountains you've been to, then you get to take a look 3000 feet straight down. I don't have a fear of heights, it's more a fear of impacts. I look down through all this, and within a minute, all the sweat in my body drops down to feet. I think my body instinctively reacts to put more weight down there so I don't topple. Still, good pictures. For some of these I got into the whole Ansel Adams spirit, and kicked in the black and white filter on the camera. Take a look.
Next stop, my last in the park, was Mariposa Grove. They have huge sections of sequoia, of course, but this one is specifically targeted by the park authority because they can put a shuttle to it. This came into play when they had blocked the grove off from cars. The directed us to a parking lot directly across from the the gate I entered the park from, and I got on the shuttle. More big tree pictures!
So, upon returning to my car, we exited the "I'm screwing up, and making this less enjoyable" phase, and moved squarely into the "cussedness of inanimate objects" phase. All it took was the tram driver stopping in the parking lot and saying "Oh, that's not going to be good."
Flat tire, right rear, slow leak. Could have been much worse, could have been a fast explosive leak on one of the mountain passes. Two hours later, the truck from Triple-A arrived. I didn't so much need it to change the tire, as much as I needed somebody to tell me where I could get a tire. He directed me to Oakhurst, where I talked to a guy at a tire place. Apparently the spike of random material was too far off the main tread to patch. According to the guy this would have been legal to do in the state a couple years ago, but not now. "California advises you that you'll feel better if you don't think about it." So, I had to check about a tire. The guys at the tire place didn't have an exact match, but they had one that was close. I was skeptical, but I figured I'd call the customer service line of the rental company, just to check whether they'd cover this situation. Well, no they don't. In fact, they told me in no uncertain terms that unless I had an exact match for the tire, they'd charge me for the replacement cost of the tire. When I pointed out that I was just coming out of Yosemite and it was unlikely I'd be in range of anywhere that would have the tire in the 50 mile limit that donut tires are warrantied to run on. The immediate response was an indignant, "You can do 100 miles on that, and Fresno is only 47 miles from your position, sir." Great.
So let's get back to that statement that started the day. To say I never planned on visiting Fresno was a lie, at best a half truth. The original plan for the day was to drive into Oakhurst, get a quick lunch and check my email, and if a set of conditions were met, I'd head south, through Fresno. (If you know the conditions, that's fine. If you don't, don't ask. It's already sufficiently complex.) That did not mean this, however. A little after 4, I found the right tire place on some long strip of the greater Fresno area. It looked like anywhere in Commercialzone, California. No grass, just an alternating pattern, car place, mall, gas, car place, mall, gas. No geographic reference other than further up/further down. No way to figure out 7560 Blackwood, or whatever the address was. A self-referential chain of chains. As I sat in the waiting room, I kept thinking "People who believe in California keep telling me eventually the entire country will be like California. What they fail to mention is eventually the entire country will be like Fresno. Behold the future." The wheel was falling off the vacation, metaphorically and not. There's a perfect metaphor there, waiting in baking heat, having spent your day off driving to a town you don't know, to fix a tire on a car that's not your own.
After that, I drove over to the McDonalds, and had lunch. Okay, probably it was dinner at that point (5:30 pm local, 8:30 pm Kidder Stomach Time), but I'll call it lunch. Checking my email confirmed that conditions weren't met, and so I plotted my course. Up the road, north. If I see something I like, stop. I also got final confirmation that the US bombed out of the World Cup in my absence from society.
North it was, at least I could check a theory. In planning the trip, I kept looking at California-99. It laces through the inland section of the state, connecting Bakersfield, Fresno, Stockton, and Sacramento. My theory was that there had to be enough people through that route that we could have high school teams out that way. Not that we've had much in the way of requests from there, but I needed to check the head count. I knew there were colleges, cities, people, all the components. I made a note to figure if we could at least ignite a spark.
So here it turned into a game. Was there anything worth stopping in Fresno for the night? Not really. Off along the dry fields into the 100-plus heat. Was there anything in Merced? Not really. Was there anything in Stockton? Not really. Even the giant cow fields I had been repeatedly warned about weren't as bad as advertised. (They're just cows, I used to drive past a farm every day, wasn't even the worst thing I'd smelled that day, something horribly chemical was being sprayed on the fields north of Fresno.) Finally, with 10pm approaching, and no sign of something compelling to stop, I got to Sacramento. I just plowed myself into a Ramada, walked over to the Lyon's restaurant (It's Denny's, with beer!), then laid out for the evening.
The final insult came as I took my shirt off, and what felt like half my neck came with it. See, I had been good, obeying the fake Vonnegut and using sunscreen throughout the Yosemite trip. But I forgot two things. First that being 5000 feet up means the 5000 feet of smog interposing between you and the sun is gone, and there's no back brim on a baseball cap. The perfect end to a perfect day of soul-crushing.
Day 8 pictures

Day 9
Friday morning. Having repeatedly slathered a layer of lotion into my neck overnight, I walked over to the lobby, snagged a pile of brochures, and grabbed an impossibly hard English muffin for breakfast. My fellow guests were being regaled by some guy explaining how every casino you're in is trying to scam you, and as a result he's not allowed anywhere near them. Yes, I was California casino country, wasn't I? I just kept walking. I kept looking at the pool. It was 9am, and over 95, threatening to hit 110 today. Even with the neck still burning, I needed immersion to preserve my sanity, I hadn't done it yet this trip. At that point, it was what I needed. It allowed me to clear my head a little and get my list of sites to see in town cleared up. By the time I was done, I had it fixed down to three places. In quick succession, these all went down the pipe.
10:30 I had driven out towards the airport, in search of the California Foundry History Museum. I'm an engineer, I have to pay some attention to metallurgy, so this seemed like something reasonable. Of course, one has to question my sanity at this point going to a place dedicated to molten metal, when the temperature is over 100. Luckily this wasn't a problem. The problem was the California Foundry History Museum. As you can see from these pictures, there is a California Foundry History Museum, there are signs pointing to it, however there is no way to enter said edifice, save for the door that they share with a company. Said company however will not open its door for anyone, and won't respond to its phone box outside. The only life around was a jackrabbit. Either they managed to completely ignore their own hours of opening, or I stumbled across an intricate scam to defraud the state by creating an educational attraction. It's not so much that I hope it's the latter, as much as I NEED it to be the latter.
11:15 I park just outside Sutter's Fort in the shade, take a lap around the place, and decide it's too hot to stay outside, so I'll go in the fort. Of course upon entering, I realize that there's no indoor inside the fort. It's going to just as hot here as outside, and from what I can see, it's historical recreations inside. It's just painful to contemplate walking around in this, but watching people perform in period costume in this heat, that's going to be painful to just watch. I turn back around, get some pictures of the fort, and decide to find something inside.
12:00 Option three on my list, the California State History Museum. On approach I realize it's become the "California state history AND WOMEN'S HISTORY MUSEUM." Here we go, ironic museum attendance, solid. I can do this, and the air conditioning works. It's a two floor museum, the bottom being a state history exhibit. So I got the guide on (in increasing order of ridiculousness) how the Jewish emigres came to California, how California state government's most important branch was the diner where the governor used to have breakfast, and how Edmund G. Brown is venerated with a cult that would make Kim Jong Il blush. I only kid slightly on the last, but even the image presented here kind of gives you the idea. Imagine that Pat Brown head 15 feet tall, and staring at you, while campaign ads zoom in on his face, resembling the pronouncements of Big Brother in the 1984 version of 1984, if somehow the role of Big Brother were played by Roy Orbison.
Perspective more rapidly fell away on the second floor, where I saw the story of California's quest for water, which was kind of like having an exhibit try to convince me that John Huston was the good guy in Chinatown. And then we got to the exhibit of California's Remarkable Women, where we learn that remarkable and important are not equivalent. For example, Nobel Prize-winning women of California get about half an index card's worth of text, name and accomplishment. Right next to that, 1 by 2 foot image and complete article on the designer of the first 'tankini'. As I leave the exhibit, I'm even more disturbed to find that apparently if you base it on size of the exhibit, the most remarkable woman in the history of California is Barbie. Barbie, who is enclosed in a giant pink and glass exhibit. It's the Lenin's Tomb of Barbie, and worst of all, I can't get a good picture off.
1:30 I decide any more time in Sacramento's going to destroy my soul, so where to now? The realization I had had since Fresno was that I was pretty much going to have to come back to San Francisco this fall for a weekend, so it made no sense for me to dive into the city. I instead decide to head up to the Napa Valley. Now we've already established my hesitancy to get involved in the whole drinking and driving thing, but I had an out here, in Napa, there's something called Copia, which is trying to be some sort of foodie and gardener Disneyland. Not that I consider myself that obsessive, but there's always time to become more crazy. I had seen the brochure in Gilroy, and I figured this would be a perfect final tourist thing to do Saturday. So I drive up to Napa. I do a lap around Napa, looking for something interesting to do, not much. Then I drive to Sonoma. Sonoma city center is pretty much the epicenter of pretention, an entire city square dedicated to serving people who think they're better than me, and have the bank accounts to make it true. Sonoma is possibly the one place in the world I would be unable to function because of the feelings of pretense and my own insecurities, were it not for one thing. Free street parking, the great and blessed American equalizer, that I hadn't seen since Fresno.
4:00 Having seen no motel in Sonoma, I head back over to Napa to the one I had seen. Upon getting there I was informed of the situation. Here they had a peak number of people touring the wine country, further down, and further choking the supply of hotel rooms, they had a NASCAR race, and in the San Francisco proper they were aiming for the year's biggest gay rights rally. Now I'm sure there is a population that forms the intersection of this Venn diagram: gay, wine-snobby, NASCAR fans, but really it seemed like improper planning on somebody's part. That's in addition to my improper planning. However, all was not lost, there was one room remaining, though it was $230 a night. It was what the desk clerk called the pet room. I assumed that meant it allowed pets, but two things were bothering me about this. First, he kept saying how great the room was, two floors, double entrance, etc. And then he kept pausing as he said the word pet, as if he was putting air quotes around it. This gave the impression that if I bought the room, I was buying the Champagne Room equivalent of Best Western civilization. I passed, noting I could at least figure out my next move at the McDonald's down the street. As I left, he said to my back, "You're probably not going to find another room here, and you don't want to end up back in Sacramento." I paused, door open but not considering, waiting for the maniacal laughter I expected, which would confirm he was considering himself part of the "pet" room fee. To his credit, he didn't laugh. I moved on.
4:15 Sipping the iced tea necessary to keep me from becoming more insane from sunstroke and heat exhaustion. I find myself checking email and scanning the hotel sites to figure whether the guy at the Best Western was right. He was half right. Closest place was Dixon, which was past Vacaville, which meant I was probably about 40 miles from my target for Saturday. As I filled out my reservation, I realized I was being questioned by some guy regarding how I was getting internet access at a McDonalds. This was rapidly followed by the guy wondering how they did it, something I could answer, why I was doing it, something I could answer, where I was from, something I could answer, and then he dropped the one I couldn't answer.
"So do you guys have our [furtively looks around] immigrant problem in Pittsburgh?" Ah, I had been waiting for something like this. See, fundamentally, I don't care about this 'problem'. Pittsburgh is the one place in the country apparently, where immigration is not a hot button issue. We'd be happy to have them, warm bodies mean this state is not dying. If anything our 'problem' is there are simply some jobs Mexicans won't do, and the top of the list is "move to Pittsburgh." With that I left him to stew in his own juices, unsure whether I prompted him to set his movements east, or to just be bewildered.
Was I getting crazier the longer I stayed in this state, or was the state getting crazier the more people I met? I didn't know. Maybe it was some sort of synergy, maybe it was the fact it was 107 in the shade. At that point I just didn't want to be with people. So I drove. Driving was about the only thing relaxing me at this point. Since I didn't know the roads I had to focus. 7pm saw me in the Days Inn parking lot, 7:05 saw me discovering that my online reservation had dispossessed a couple of the motel's last room. I should have felt bad. But, there was nothing but the need to lay flat. California was beating me badly.
Day 9 pictures
A couple nice shots: the state capitol, and the capitol mall.

Day 10
The last full day. Breakfast in a Days Inn, alone with only the reports of wannabe terrorists and dead Aaron Spelling. Really a bleak metaphor, that. Drive, drive again, back to Napa, and parked in the lot of Copia, minutes after opening. Pictures follow. Hope started to flow, the amazing appearance of grapes, simply forming the blocking of the parking lot. Growth, life, pride in dirt, yeah, maybe I chose right. Then the kicker was discovering the advertised $12 admission was wrong, it was $5. I garden to relax, I cook to relax, and this was relaxing. A sample of wine, a sample of cheese, an exhibit on the history of the diner complete with giant glass renderings of french fries, pancakes, and a hot dog (Pictures of which were strangely not allowed). A little kitschy, but they need to bring the people in. Then again, I was walking around wearing a Beef Jerky Outlet Store T-shirt ironically, who's to talk about kitsch.
I waited for a cooking demonstration on herbs, discovered that I needed to get something they were describing as a cross between oregano and mint (later identified as catmint, not catnip), and had a sample of rice salad which marked my first ever experience with edamame (Japanese apparently also have a major issue with moving to Pittsburgh, I was completely weirded out by the McDonald's Asian salad advertising something that most Pittsburghers never heard of, much less tried.) Not bad, but I won't pay a lot for it, should I find it. Then we wandered out to their gardens for a tour. It was good. I took lots of pictures, I got hope for going home that in a couple years the blueberries we planted in 2004 would be at least as high as the ones I saw growing. I saw wonderous varieties of herbs and lettuces, stuff that I wanted to grow back home. (I don't grow anything I can't eat, and these folks were of the same opinion.) It was good, I was happy. Then they laid into me.
Walking past their grove of olives, the guy leading the tour and head gardener asked the group what they knew of organic gardening, and whether we knew what this cow horn he had in his cart was for. And then he started to talk about this one famous gardener whose principles they use, and how what they do is get manure from a lactating cow...
...and how they collect it on the full moon...
...and we spread it with the horn...
...Oh, but then they mix it with water down to homeopathic levels...
I've never been psychologically star punched before. It's not pleasant. Takes a lot out of you. I slumped down on one of the stone dividers. See, I could have handled that, I could be skeptical. It's perfectly reasonable for gardeners to have legitimate differences of opinion on methods. Manure is good, if I didn't live with my plants in an apartment, I'd be totally down with that. Lactating cow... hey, I'm not a vet, maybe there's something there. Full moon, you're stretching your credibility, but that would give you a regular schedule of fertilization. Spread it with the horn, eh, maybe there's some calcium or other minerals still left in the matrix of that, you're picking up microscopically. But it comes down to this, if they hadn't said homeopathic, I could have gotten out of there with my soul intact. Only there did they just completely jump the line into snake oil. Had the fertilizer been made of ground-up babies, I wouldn't have been more disturbed. At least I knew it was the state getting crazier. S'anyway... here's some more pictures.
I went back to their restaurant, and had potato salad. Like everything there, it used their onsite produce. It was good potato salad, I like potato salad. As I returned the tray to my hostess, I simply commented, "It was really good, I could really taste the lactating cow." My mind kept replaying the same thought as I left: "Keep walkin', Kidder, keep walkin'. You're not getting your innocence back, all you can do is take one of theirs in retaliation."
Self-loathing and my general collapsed state meant I didn't want to deal with anything else. I decided to head down to around the airport, my flight wasn't until the next morning, but I was becoming tired of everything, and my list of things to see was more or less spent. About 5:30 I rolled into a Holiday Inn Express, checked if they had an airport shuttle, and got a room. Unsurprisingly, I was given room 101. I started hauling my stuff into the room, including three plastic bags of laundry, a suit bag which had decided to rip it's hanging loops off somewhere en route, and that stupid box of granola I bought figuring I'd be needing food in Yosemite. At a certain point I had begun to believe the granola was mocking me. I was matching the state in crazy inch by inch.
I had gotten everything into my room, and I decided to go get food, and fill up the tank. That was when we had an abrupt reprise of the "I'm screwing up, and making this less enjoyable" theme. I couldn't find the car keys. I retraced my steps, back to the car, checked under, checked if anyone had left them at the desk, I tore up the room, I started shaking, I called the rental office to check if they kept an extra pair. Eventually, after I had stopped having cold sweats, I figured to call Triple A again. There were two options left. The keys fell out of my pocket and into the trunk when I wasn't looking, or someone had stolen them, in which case I could have them open the trunk and throw me in to die. (Was that a suicide attempt? No, but he did stay at a Holiday Inn Express last night.) Fifteen minutes later a tow truck rolled in, and the guy unlocked the door. Of course, since everything in this trip was apparently designed to gaslight me, the tow truck guy was WAY too eager to show me how to do this. In fact he more or less forcibly held my hand to the slim jim to "feel the vibrations" so I could do it later. I feebly said "I'm too old start a career in Grand Theft Auto." I don't know what that was about, and I really don't want to know. Leave me with the thought that he somehow thought I resembled Emilio Estevez to which his Harry Dean Stanton could momentarily impart the great lessons of repo'ing. It was the least gay subtext I could hang on that, and I'm clawing to that Holmes hanging off Reichenbach.
So two things remained, three if I turned the car in early. Dinner, the third In-N-Out burger of the trip, was better than the first two. After having unusual intestinal issues a couple hours after the first two, I decided to forgo Animal Style, which seemed the only culprit that made sense. Sadly, this worked, which means I could care less about In-N-Out in future.
Item two was getting gas, and getting a receipt. Not only did my rental car place want it filled up, they apparently demanded proof that you had filled within 10 miles of the drop-off. Yes, I realize I rented from Gestapomotorwerkenrentalhaus. So I fill up (luckily finding gas 20 cents cheaper than anywhere I had been since Stockton), and decide I don't want to carry change on the airplane, so I go into the convenience store. I pull all the change out of my pocket, and stand there staring at the cooler, trying to figure out how can I pay with exactly the amount of change I have in my pocket, which after I spent three times counting was $2.36. The guy behind the counter is clearly confused by this, and somehow now believes I'm a random homeless person, which given I'm sunburnt, unshaven, sweaty, smelly, limping slightly, obsessively recounting change, and trying to recover from a series of bizarre psychological observations, is really a more likely theory. He probably just wanted to make sure he didn't have to deal with another homeless dude screaming non-sequitirs like "THE TOW TRUCK MAN TOUCHED ME FUNNY. I CAN TASTE THE LACTATING COW." I politely explained my need to drop change, bought two bottles of iced tea, put the six cents remaining in the jar and walked out.
I decided not to turn in the car until the morning, and I parked in the back of the hotel. There I discovered two things, first that the hotel was right on the bay, allowing me to take more pictures. The second revelation came more slowly, a feeling of calm, relaxation, and suddenly I realized what I was, for the first time in 10 days, I was actually cold. The sun had come down, and the fever was lifting from me. I could breathe fully, freely, there wasn't a knot in my stomach. I wasn't completely relaxed, but I could feel human and sane for the first time in several days. I sat out there and recovered myself, cold was good for clarity. Two years ago, I beat California, I enjoyed it, it was perverse and crazy, but I rolled with the punches. This time California beat me. I'm 1-1, and since California can't play away games, I'll have to comeback to break the tie. Fortunately, I've got a ready-made excuse to go again.
Day 10 pictures
Well, that's the story, the flight back was uneventful, nobody bought the Fun Box on the way back, either. Hope you enjoyed the catharsis.

Monday, July 10, 2006

Sitting in my office restroom is a printed sheet over the empty soap dispenser:

To alert our somewhat inattentive cleaning crew to the problem. I gotta say it's taking every fiber of my being to keep me from cracking open Power Point and printing out a sign:

Though, if someone else manages to do it, I'll know I work at the surrealest place on earth.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

I'm still working on compiling my vacation (only have written up through Day 4 of 11), but two things came up that needed comment before that.

1. Pennsylvania has their new tourism slogan.

"I break for shoo fly pie."

This is clearly from the "We couldn't come up with a state slogan to include all
the state, so we will just pick something inoffensive, AND THEN screw up the spelling." school of thought.

2. Driving into Pittsburgh, I have run across a billboard for Ford that defies science.

"Sticks to the ground like a positively charged electron."

Yes, this is very wrong. Do I really want a car that annihilates itself on contact with common, everyday matter? Nothing left but $1500 worth of Dealer Prep. Apparently, Ford thinks cars made of antimatter are the new SUV's.