Sunday, April 30, 2017

Fiction - How Lizzy Met Her Man


What follows is a work of fiction.  The characters were pulled out of thin air and have nothing in common with any human being who ever lived.  Nothing that happens in this story ever happened to a real person, or ever will.  In fact, this story is practically science fiction, except that it’s totally unscientific and doesn’t have spaceships or aliens or anything.  That said, any similarity of any character to an actual space alien, past present or future, is (obviously) purely coincidental.  Etc.

Fiction – How Lizzy Met Her Man

Over tapas the conversation turned to how people had met.  It started because Sanjay was using this crazy new Internet dating site, Vali.Date, that rated member/candidates like an e-commerce storefront.  All the women hated the idea of Vali.Date but half the guys thought it was worth a try.  Before a full-on debate took hold, George guided the conversation in a more general direction.  He and Lisa had met in college, he said, but at a private school so small it was “almost like an arranged marriage.”  Lizzy, meanwhile, was emphatic that meeting people was a total crapshoot and that any effort to improve your odds was, as she put it, “like gathering water in a sieve.”

“How can you say that?” asked Bruno, waving a French fry around emphatically.  “People are highly selective!  You think you’re going to meet Mr. Right at traffic school?”

Lizzy thoughtfully poked at her cocktail with a swizzle stick.  “Well, the circles you run in do matter,” she conceded, “but that kind of comes naturally.  I’m just saying the important thing is to relax and let Mr. or Mrs. Right come to you, instead of hunting around everywhere.”  As she said this she tipped up the edge of her plate as if to look underneath it.  She glanced at Sanjay.  “Whether that’s online, in a bar, at a mixer, whatever,” she added.

Bruno looked at Lizzy’s husband, Marty.  “So Lizzy, how’d you meet your Mr. Right, anyway?  He just came to you, and it was love at first sight?”

George and Schuyler laughed.  “You really haven’t heard this story?” Schuyler asked.  Bruno shook his head and Schuyler said, “It goes back to the days of the sandwich club.  But Lizzy, you tell it.  It’s such a great story.”

Lizzy finished her cocktail, the hissing suction through her swizzle stick rattling the ice against her glass.  Marty looked at Bruno and said, “You really wanna hear this story?  It’s pretty long.” Bruno nodded.  Marty flagged down the waiter, then pointed at Bruno and said, “Orange whip?”  He pointed at Sanjay.  “Orange whip?”  He looked up at the waiter.  “Three orange whips,” he said.  Half the table laughed.  Then they ordered their actual drinks.

Lizzy seemed to have forgotten about the story.  She was working on a small plate of Greek olives.  But when the drinks arrived, she began her tale.  “So:  the sandwich club.  How this worked, Bruno, is once every six or eight weeks all these guys would get together and bring the yummiest sandwiches they could conceive of, to share around.  It was like a book club but for, like, illiterate gourmands.  I had just joined.  This was literally my first time there.”

Bruno raised his eyebrows.  “This sandwich club … is it still around?”  His gaze shifted longingly to the dwindling plate of fries.

“Naw, it folded up a couple years ago,” Schuyler sighed.  “Half the members went gluten-free on us, and the special bread was inedible.  In fact things got pretty testy at the end there.  But let’s not beat that dead horse.”  He drained the last two inches of his beer, then pointed his glass at Lizzy and said, “Please continue.”

Lizzy peered into her glass and stirred her drink.  “I’d just moved to the area and knew, like, nobody,” she said.  “My friend Jackie was in this club and invited me to a meeting, to try it out and meet her friends.  But then of course she flaked.  So here I am sitting around with these three guys I don’t know, with nothing to do while waiting for the others to go get Marty from the airport.  He’d moved to San Francisco a couple months before but they scheduled the whole thing around him.  Like a reunion.

“After waiting a while I started to get agitated.  I was fricking starving.  It’s like these guys had never heard of chips or snacks, or they were too pure about their sandwiches for that.  So I asked if we could start in on the sandwiches people had brought while waiting for the others.  Man, you’d think I farted in church or something—this was apparently totally against the rules.”

“I came to Lizzy’s rescue,” Schuyler said.  “She looked so awkward there.  So I pointed out how Marty had broken the cardinal rule—thou shalt not show up empty-handed—so many times he was on probation.  So we cut the new girl some slack and offered her a piece of a sandwich.”

“Right,” Lizzy said, “you threw me a lifeline—but it was all for naught because all three sandwiches were loaded with meat, and I was a vegetarian.”

“Wait,” Bruno said, “couldn’t you just eat the sandwich you brought?”

“No, I hadn’t brought one—that was another rule!” Lizzy laughed.  “Newcomers didn’t bring anything.  I think this was supposed to be a kind, generous gesture but I’ve always suspected it was to screen potential members without having to eat their gross sandwiches and be polite about it.  This club was practically fascist.  It was worse than my book club, all these stupid rules.  So I had to just keep waiting.”

Lizzy, as if in response to this unpleasant recollection, turned her attention to scraping up the burnt rice in the paella pan.  Dave picked up the story:  “So this whole time Matt and I are at the airport, standing around baggage claim looking for Marty.  We had no idea where he was, other than this really weird e-mail we’d gotten from him a bit earlier.  Well, it wasn’t from him, it was from his phone.  Turns out he was totally late for the airport, as usual, and blazed through security leaving his backpack behind.  And some random passenger had mistakenly grabbed the backpack—well, the guy’s kid had—and Marty’s phone was in there.  So the guy e-mailed us about it.  He just replied-all to the last e-mail Marty had sent, which was about the sandwich club.

“The e-mail said basically that the guy discovered this backpack after Marty’s flight had already left, but but the airline had agreed to put it on the next flight.  So Marty could pick it his backpack at baggage claim at his destination.  And sure enough, we get there and there’s Marty’s stupid backpack, the last bag left from that flight, doing these lone slow laps of the carousel.  Marty’s phone was in there, which is how this random Samaritan dude e-mailed us.”  Dave leaned back in his chair chuckling.

Lizzy grinned.  “Right,” she said, “and so the thing nobody could figure out is, where the hell was Marty if his backpack came on a later flight?  How could it make it before he did?  What we didn’t get is that while his backpack was lucky enough to get a direct flight, of course Marty—being a cheap bastard—had a connecting flight.  And being kind of flaky—“ here she looked at her husband and said, “no offense, but it kind of has to be said.”

“None taken, guilty as charged,” Marty said breezily, licking red-orange aioli from his fingertips.  “Being flaky, I hadn’t given anybody my flight number, and I didn’t mention where my connecting flight originated from.  I was just going to call them when I touched down.  But of course I couldn’t because my phone was in my backpack!  So these guys, checking the board for the most recent flight from SFO, went to the wrong baggage claim—which end up being the one with my backpack.  But of course I had no clue at this point that some guy had found my backpack.  I figured it was being held back at SFO or something, or they took it out and blew it up.  Plus my connecting flight had been delayed, so I got to the airport way later than the guys were expecting me.”

Dave jumped in again.  “So Matt and I paged him over the white courtesy telephone a few times, and never heard anything, so we figured hell, Marty’s a big boy, he can get himself to Schuyler’s from the airport.  But it seemed weird to just leave his backpack on the carousel, so we took it with us.”

“Which is how,” Lizzy said, “Marty’s sandwich got to the party before he did.  Matt and Dave showed up, we dug out his sandwich, and I was so stoked because—yes!—it was vegetarian!  Actually there were two of them, identical.  I was so hungry I didn’t even wait for this sacred sandwich-cutting ceremony, I was totally breaking another of their dumb rules, I just started macking on this sandwich.  And it was amazing.  In fact, let me walk you through this, this culinary masterpiece.”

Lizzy’s eyes glittered as she described it.  “So to start with, it was wrapped in waxed paper, like my mom always did, so I’m getting the nostalgia thing.  And the bread, oh my god, it’s just this perfect baguette, the kind where if you squeeze it, it makes that sound, that crispy, crackly sound.  So, then there’s cheese, a really good Gruyere, just slightly melted on there.  Then slices of avocado, like the Platonic ideal of avocado, and I know because I took this sandwich completely apart to try to figure out what made it so good, and there’s just a bit of salt and pepper kind of embedded in the avocado.  And there are slices of Portobello mushroom, which had been fried in butter, and thin tomato slices, really good ones, like dry farmed ones, just the right amount so the bread isn’t soggy.  Tiny bit of arugula, enough for a peppery taste but not overpowering like it so often is.  And cucumber, peeled, super-thin, a really good one like one of those English ones with the smaller seeds.  And then the red onions—man, I can’t stand how so many people, especially men, just hack them up all haphazardly so the slices are super-thick and overpower everything and you’ve got dragon-breath the rest of the day.  These were cut so thin you could practically read through them.”

“She practically did, actually,” Schuyler said.  “She’s like, holding them up to the light to show everybody how thin they are.  She’s going on and on about it.  It was so funny, she was the newest member of the sandwich club but obviously a way bigger foodie than any of the rest of us.  We were all just laughing.  And then we grabbed the second sandwich away from her so we could actually get some of it.  She’d have eaten them both herself, I’m sure of it.”

“It’s true,” Lizzy laughed.  “I was just so blown away.  And so I start practically worshipping this mysterious Marty before I even met him.  I mean, it wasn’t just the sandwich.  It’s was the whole mystique, like the whole sandwich club is waiting for him, and they all seemed to think pretty highly of him even though all they have to say is how flaky he is, how this and that is typical Marty, etc. 

“Also, I should point out that I’d recently been through a divorce from a guy who was good-looking and smart and made good money but just ended up being a dick.  My ex was the type who was always way early to the airport, and super-precise about stuff, former military and all that, and was all about efficiency and being super-organized, and the funny thing was, I kind of got the impression his friends didn’t actually like him that much, like he was too competitive with them or something. 

“So this mysterious stranger, Marty, is coming off like the exact opposite.  Late to the airport, loses his backpack, hadn’t given anybody his flight number, late for sandwich club, he’s on probation, and everybody is ragging on him behind his back … but with such affection!  Of course I was forming all these preconceptions through like this, this kind of haze of pleasure because his sandwich was so good.  I’m picturing this guy painstakingly slicing the onions so carefully that he’s losing all track of time so he ends up being late to the airport.”

Bruno looked at Marty.  “Lizzy, somehow I don’t think your first impression—well, your first assumption I should say—was exactly accurate.  Marty’ has never struck me as a fussy guy.  And the whole vegetarian thing?  Marty’s always the guy wanting to get the meat-lover’s pizza.”

Lizzy laughed.  “Well, that’s the weirdest part of the whole story!  Marty finally arrives in a cab, and has to keep the cabbie waiting while he knocks on the door because his wallet is in his missing backpack, but he’s oddly unruffled by his whole ordeal.  Dave hands him his backpack and Marty looks on it fondly and says, ‘Boy am I glad to see you.’  Then he asks if anybody has anything to eat, maybe he can make a sandwich or something, and everybody groans good-naturedly.  And I didn’t waste any time telling him how awesome his sandwiches were, and apologizing for there being none left.  I mean, between me and the guys there wasn’t a particle remaining for Marty.  And his reaction, I’ll never forget it, he starts blushing.  It was so cute.  I thought he was just flattered, but it turns out he was blushing because—get this—he hadn’t actually made those sandwiches.”

“What?!” Bruno snorted, looking again at Marty.  “Could that actually be true?”

Marty, with the hangdog look of somebody who’s been through this inquisition many times, replied, “Yeah, the fact is, despite being on sandwich club probation, which the guys reminded me of many times, I managed to show up at the airport without any sandwiches at all.  To be honest, I was planning to grab a couple of those awful chicken-lip-meat deli sandwiches on cardboard bread in the plastic wrap.  Or maybe the upscale kind in the clear plastic boxes if I could find them.  I wouldn’t fool anybody, of course, but at least I wouldn’t get kicked out of the club.  But of course I didn’t have my wallet, and my flight had been late, so I just bailed on the whole sandwich thing.  And then I arrived at Schuyler’s and right away there’s this good-looking stranger raving about my sandwiches.  I kind of wanted to come clean, but then I also kind of wanted to accept the compliment.  So I just kept my mouth shut.”

Izzy slurped up the rest of her vodka-tonic, then looked up and smiled.  “This made things very awkward, of course, on our first date,” she said. “This date was just a few days later because remember, Marty didn’t live here anymore.  That kind of escalated our timeline a bit.  Now, I didn’t want it to be like a date-date, you know, so I had him over and offered to make him some homemade soup and some salad if he’d recreate that sandwich!”

“I was sure it was some kind of trap,” Marty said.  “I grilled my buddies about what was in that sandwich, but they hadn’t paid very much attention, except Schuyler going on about the translucent onion slices.  I knew from Lizzy’s first bite she wasn’t buying it.  But I was going to come clean anyway.”

“I believe him on that,” Lizzy said.  “And of course we got a great laugh out of it.  I mean, if he didn’t make those sandwiches, who did?  It’s not like the guy at the security check snuck something in there.  We realized it had to be the guy whose kid grabbed Marty’s backpack.  He probably felt bad about that, and after all he’d replied-all to the last e-mail on Marty’s phone, which was about sandwich club.  This guy had probably brought the sandwiches for himself and his kid, and donated them to Marty.  And isn’t that just this crazy cosmic coincidence that the random airport guy just so happened to make better sandwiches than any of the self-styled experts in the sandwich club?”

“Wait, I don’t get this,” Bruno said.  “Marty here keeps everybody waiting that first time you meet him, and then on your first date you find out he lied to you, and that instead of this idiot-savant flake who can make an amazing sandwich, he’s just a run-of-the-mill flake, and he doesn’t even live in the same city as you, and yet you’re somehow married now?”

Lizzy beamed.  “Isn’t it romantic?” she said.  “Just kidding—I’m not actually the weak-in-the-knees fool-for-love romantic type.  It’s more like Marty’s timing was just right.  I’d just moved here anyway, and was kind of underemployed anyway, and he was always coming back here on business trips so we got to have some proper dates where he wasn’t faking his way through a sandwich, and it got to the point where I told him I’d be willing to move to San Francisco for him.  And—”

Here Marty interrupted:  “Lizzy, that’s not exactly what you said.  You said you were willing to move to San Francisco for their superior baguettes alone.”

Schuyler laughed.  “Just like I said—she’s the foodie-est of all of us!”  Lizzy grinned.  “Well, I didn’t want to come on too strong,” she said.  “But even so, Marty seemed pretty impressed by my boldness, and I guess that made him bold too because he was like, ‘Cool, but if you’d rather stay put I’m willing to move back.’  Which is why we settled here, and I’ve had to put up with inferior veggie sandwiches.  San Francisco really does have better baguettes.  It’s something about the water, or the air, or something.  But Marty does try … every time he makes that sandwich it’s a little closer to the original.  It’s so sweet.”

Sanjay pointed an asparagus spear right at Lizzy.  “See?” he said.  “You settled!  Your actual Mr. Right is the airport guy!  The good Samaritan, the sandwich chef with the Midas touch, is out there somewhere and you never even tried to find him!  You went all-in with the lying, flaky loser-of-backpacks!  If you were on Vali.Date, you could do so much better!”

Izzy smiled and leaned up against Marty.  “That’s okay,” she said.  “Marty is good enough.  I think I’ll keep him.”  Marty put his arm around her and said, “Awww.  Don’t kid yourself Lizzy … you are a romantic.”

For a complete index of albertnet posts, click here.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Death Valley - Frequently Asked Questions


It’s widely known that Death Valley, in California, is the third most popular vacation spot in the world (the first two being Disneyland and Paris, in that order).  What’s not always appreciated is how much misinformation there is about this tourist mecca, such as the first sentence of this very post.  Read on for answers to Frequently Asked Questions about Death Valley, based on my recent vacation there.

Q.  What is the WiFi password at Death Valley?

A.  This is, by far, the most frequently asked question.  The answer is, there generally isn’t one.  Certain businesses in Stovepipe Wells and Furnace Creek have WiFi, but most of the time you’ll be driving around enjoying nature, and you won’t even have cell phone coverage.  This is a great place to get away from the Internet, if you think your kids can handle it. Don’t forget your old-school road atlas, if you normally depend on GPS.

Q.  How many people died in Death Valley, to give it its name?

A.  One.  This was in 1849, when some miners got stuck there.  Probably more people have died since.  I think I remember hearing about somebody trying to smuggle a corpse through there but was caught, due to the corpse stinking in the heat.  Actually, now that I think about it, that was something that happened on Amtrak.

Q.  Is Death Valley really the hottest place on Earth?

A.  Yes!  For awhile it was thought that El Azizia, Libya had that honor, but in 2012, according to this article, it was determined that “the observer [there] broke a more reliable instrument and used a complicated and less reliable type of thermometer.”  Details are hazy but I think the observer used a rectal thermometer.  (You’re supposed to subtract a couple degrees with those.)  In any event, when we visited recently, the temperature was pretty much perfect.

Q.  Is Death Valley really the driest place on Earth?

A.  No, it’s not even in the top ten.  The driest place is in Antarctica, and the driest non-polar place is the Atacama Desert in Chile.  But Death Valley is the driest place in North America, which is all anybody actually cares about.  The rainiest month in Death Valley is March, when they get about a third of an inch of rain (roughly the same amount the Bay Area has been getting every day this year, I think).

Q.  Would the below catastrophe ever happen in Death Valley?

A.  You mean this?

No, never.  I snapped the above photo in Berkeley’s Tilden Park recently.  I managed to abandon the bike before it [would have] tipped me over (or I’d have probably drowned in the mud).  If you’re sick of wet weather, Death Valley is a great vacation spot.

Q.  Is Death Valley really the lowest place on Earth?

A.  No, but its lowest point, Badwater Basin, is the lowest place in the western hemisphere. 

Look at the cordoned-off area just behind us in that photo.  That’s a salt pan, which is basically salt shaped by wind into these sharp, sharp formations that are between 1,000 and 9,000 feet deep.  The largest salt pan in Death Valley is called the Devil’s Golf Course, and while I agree it would be terrible to golf there, it would be even worse to mountain bike on it.  Imagine if you crashed!

Q.  Is Death Valley too hot to be an enjoyable vacation spot?

A.  If you enjoy sitting in an air-conditioned RV, you could visit Death Valley at any time of year and enjoy yourself.  That said, it’s hard to imagine wanting to hike when it’s 136 degrees out.  One of the trailheads we saw had a sign warning not to go there after 10 a.m.  (One of my surly teenagers tried to use this to get out of the hike.  Nice try ... it was only about 85 degrees that day.)

Q.  That bit about the rectal thermometer?  You have that exactly backwards.  What gives?

A.  Yeah, I know.  Try not to over-think it.

Q.  I have a print of that iconic Ansel Adams photo of Death Valley sand dunes.  Are the dunes as impressive in person?

A.  Definitely!  In fact, as good a photographer as Adams was, it’s impossible to fully appreciate the Death Valley dunes just by looking at the photos.  At least, that’s what I have been telling myself, so I can feel better about these more humble shots:

Q.  What is a haboob?

A.  A haboob is a violent sandstorm.  I don’t know if the winds we experienced in Death Valley count, but anyway it’s fun to say “haboob.”  Right after our hike in the dunes the wind picked up and we wondered if it would strip the paint off our car.  As usual, the following photos don’t do it justice.

That’s the Devil’s Golf Course in the background of the second photo, by the way.

Q.  Was Mad Max – Fury Road filmed in Death Valley?

A.  No, it wasn’t, but we wondered the same thing.  There’s a deep canyon we hiked through to see this natural arch, which looked like where the movie took place.  I can just imagine where they crashed the truck to block the pursuers.  In fact, this area was so reminiscent of the film, one of my kids sprayed silver paint all over her mouth and yelled, “I am awaited in Valhalla!”  (Full disclosure:  my kids haven’t actually seen the movie.)

Q.  Are the flowers as amazing as everybody says?

A.  I think most of the year you won’t see much.  April there is known to be amazing, and maybe it was ... but it wasn’t exactly what I’d expected.  Since it’s been such a wet winter and our timing seemed perfect, I somehow had visions of being totally surrounded by flowers, like in “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” (you know, “cellophane flowers of yellow and green towering over your head,” etc.) but it’s not like that.  You mostly see sand and rocks.  But if you stop and look a little closer, there are all kinds of flowering things.  Look at this little dude popping up out of the stones and gravel.

And you wanna see a cactus in full bloom?  Feast your eyes on this!

This is a pretty weird plant, arguably in bloom as well:

These flowers aren’t that colorful but just look at the dead-looking plant that has produced them:

What the hell is this thing?  (That’s not a FAQ ... I’m asking you.)

This flowering plant is notable not just for growing straight out of gravel, but for being so damn small it’s like, why even bother?

I’m not sure what counts as a flower but these little puffballs are just darling.

Q.  I’m not a giant flower fan.  What else is worth looking at?

A.  There are lots of cool rocks.  Quartz, amethyst, and so forth, and also some big varicolored boulders.  Volcanic minerals (including hematite and chlorite), rich in iron, aluminum, magnesium, and titanium (but oddly no copper) provide a lot of color.  Check it:

The mountains are pretty, especially in the evening:

The roads are pretty dramatic.  Artist’s Drive twists around and has lots of ups and downs that leave your stomach behind ... it would be really fun to drive that on a Kawasaki Ninja at top speed, if you were an idiot with a death wish.  Here’s the road leading to where we stayed at Panamint Springs:

You’ll also get to see Joshua trees.  Gobs of them, forests even, and burnt ones.

Q.  Is there good stargazing?

A.  I guess for really good stargazing you’d need a new moon.  Our visit happened to coincide with a full moon.  That said, we were able to take a nice night walk before the moon rose and saw more stars than usual.  There still seemed to be a fair bit of light pollution … maybe that was the unrisen moon?  Who knows.  (What am I, an astronomer?!)

Q.  Is Death Valley a good place for Beck’sting?

A.  Heck, anyplace that allows beer is good for Beck’sting!  If you camp, you’ll just need to replenish the ice in your cooler regularly.  Also, you’ll have to settle for delayed Beck’sts since you won’t have cellular connectivity.  Here’s one of my Beck’sts from the trip.

Q.  Is there good wildlife viewing in Death Valley?

A.  I’ll start with the bad news:  we didn’t see any road runners.  That was a big letdown because the so-called resort where we stayed (canvas tent on a concrete slab) had a road runner as their logo.

That said, we did see some pretty groovy creatures.  I’ll start with the sphinx moth, which has such a giant body, and such lightning fast wings, that at first we thought they were hummingbirds.  To realize they were giant insects gave us an uncanny feeling.  Unfortunately, they fly way too briskly and erratically for me to photograph … believe me, I tried.  Click here for some great photos etc.

Then there were these birds that made an incredible screeching one morning.  Part of the point here is the amazing zoom on my camera, which proves that non-phone pocket cameras are not yet obsolete.

So what are those black birds with the yellow heads?  Why, they’re yellow-headed blackbirds!  The ones with no yellow are either females or regular blackbirds (what am I, an ornithologist?!), and I think the dark brown one is a juvenile.

Okay, on to something more exciting.  This coyote was just moseying along near the road.  We weren’t as close as it looks (again, the long zoom helped out), but we couldn’t get over how tame he seemed.

At first it was exciting to get such a good look, but then it was kind of sad.  This creature was probably the coyote equivalent of a panhandler.

Okay, now on to the most exciting wildlife of all.  I’m talking about creatures less than two inches long from tip to tail.  These are the famous pupfish of Death Valley.  We were lucky to get to see them, because in the hotter months (most of the year, I think) they dig themselves under the mud so they don’t become a giant species-wide fish fry.  I know someone who spent a month in Death Valley and never got to see the pupfish.

The great thing about these fish is that they only live a year, and much of that is underground, so during their active phase they really don’t have time for anything but fighting and sex.  Here are a couple of schematics that capture the entirety of the pupfish non-subterranean existence.

Unfortunately for the pupfish, the sex isn’t exactly amazing. The male kind of sidles up to the female, and they wriggle along together while he spews his seed everywhere. My older daughter Alexa (who is at least as knowledgeable as the Amazon Echo, particularly where science is concerned) estimates that the shallow streams of Death Valley where these pupfish congregate is at least 20% sperm. Paternity must be really difficult to establish.

Given the apparent lack of seduction, can we consider this rampant intercourse consensual?  My kids wondered about that, since at times it appeared the female was attempting to get away.  It’s hard to tell, though, because these fish are in such a damn hurry all the time, they never sit still anyway.  My wife concluded that it’s probably consensual given their short lifespan.  “It’s not like the female has time to pursue a Ph.D.,” she declared.

Here is my best snapshot of this endangered species.

And here, in living color, are videos of the two primary pupfish activities:

Q.  Any tips about the best route to and from Death Valley?

A.  Assuming you’re a Californian (because nobody really lives in Nevada, right?), the prettiest route to Death Valley would be through Yosemite.  But wait, not so fast!  If you’re visiting Death Valley in the spring, before it becomes a fricking oven, the roads through Yosemite probably won’t be open.  I think they’re usually closed until May or June.  (Who wants to drive in snow during spring break anyway?  Not me—I learned that lesson the hard way.)

So, if you’re going in the spring, you’ll need to head south to go around the Sierra Nevada mountains, and cut over at Bakersfield (slogan:  “Nice place to live, but I wouldn’t want to visit”).  Now, if you’re navigating via GPS, Google Maps will direct you down Highway 58 thru Mojave and then have you take Highway 14 north.  This is not very scenic, and sends you through the little Searles Valley community of Trona, which Wikipedia says is “known for its isolation and desolation.”  The main employer is a chemical plant processing soda ash.  The Los Angeles Times describes Trona as “blight on an industrial scale.”  Its singular claim to fame is that it has the only high school football field made entirely of dirt.  Sure, you’re through Trona in under ten minutes, but it’s pretty harrowing.  The houses are all falling to ruin, the majority having been abandoned.  My kids begged my wife and me to take a different route going home.  Ever the provocateur, I said, "Actually, I’m hoping they’ll have cheap gas there.”  My wife flatly refused:  “We are not stopping in Trona.”

As we learned on the trip home, there’s a much better route that only adds about 20 minutes to your drive.  Here’s how we did our return trip (and you could obviously reverse this for the trip out):
  • Head west on Highway 190, with a jackknife turn at the dried-up Owens Lake (worth looking at in and of itself)
  • Make a left on Highway 395 and head south a right fur piece
  • Head west on Highway 178, which will take you over Walker Pass and past Isabella Lake—neither of them all that scenic, but a pretty nice drive
    • There’s a very good diner, Nelda’s, in the little town of Lake Isabella
  • The stretch of Highway 178 to Bakersfield winds through a gorgeous gorge, which justifies the extra 20 minutes of driving all by itself

Q.  Is there Internet connectivity in Trona?

A.  Probably.

For a complete index of albertnet posts, click here.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

From the Archives - The Vermont Incident


As described here, my wife Erin and I did a 7,500-mile bike tour back in 1994. For the most part, we found our fellow Americans to be very friendly, and we rarely felt unsafe. We were ripped off only twice—once by squirrels and once by a raccoon. That said, on one particular morning we stumbled into something rather harrowing. Since it’s a slow news day at albertnet, please enjoy this true story from my bike tour journal archives.

The Vermont Episode – August, 1994

After our visit to Burlington, a long day on the bikes brought us to the Onion River Campground near Plainfield, Vermont. To get there we had to tackle a devilish 3‑mile climb, which culminated in the breezy declaration by the ranger that they were full. Erin, expertly trained in sales, said, “Well, we’re not leaving.” Within moments, the ranger said, “Aha! We’ve had a cancellation!” It was a fine campground and we enjoyed a pleasant, quiet evening. Then it rained all night and our gear got soaked. The next morning we were packing up our sodden stuff when a disturbance at a neighboring campsite caught our attention.

A fellow camper, a very small, flimsy-looking man, had somehow broken the driver’s side window of his little pickup truck. Seemingly on the brink of tears, he looked up the trail toward the restrooms and howled, “Honey, honey, I broke the window! It was a mistake! Honey, I’m sawwwwww‑ry!” A giant Gorgon of a woman, twice this guy’s size, with arms like champagne magnums and a clanging, booming voice, charged down the trail towards her husband, screaming, “YOU IDIOT! YOU STUPID BASTARD, WHY, YOU JUST WAIT UNTIL I GET OVER THERE!” He really was in tears now, and pleaded lugubriously, “Honey, please don’t hit me—I love you! I’m sawww‑ry, it was a mistake! Don’t hit me!” She reached him now and screamed, “I’M NOT GONNA HIT YOU, YOU STUPID PIECE OF S—, BUT WHEN WE GET BACK, WE ARE THROUGH, DO YOU HEAR ME?”

His voice climbing an octave a second, he begged, “Awwww, honey, stop it, I love you, I need you!” She spat back at him, “Not my problem! YOU STUPID F—ING IDIOT! WHY DIDN’T YOU WAIT? GOOD FOR NOTHING, USELESS PIECE OF S—!” He wailed, “Aw, honey, stop, you’re breakin’ my heart!” He was fully cowering now, seeking shelter behind their little pop‑up trailer tent. Now we couldn’t see anything, but heard a string of her obscenities punctuated regularly by loud thumping sounds and his continuous wailing. What could we do? The ranger station was a mile away—and who would believe us about husband abuse, anyway? Should we intervene? We just stood there at our site, frozen with indecision, and breathed a sigh of relief when the noise subsided.

Five or ten minutes later, I ventured forth from our campsite to fill up our water jug at a nearby spigot. It was then that the Leviathan intercepted me. The horror! I was transfixed by her giant face, oversized and yet sunken, like a cinnamon roll; her eyes, huge and black; the faint mustache beneath her flared nostrils. I could imagine the tabloid story: CAMPER MAULED BY BIGFOOT. But then I realized she was almost in tears: “I’m so sorry!” she wailed. “I came over to apologize for my foul mouth back there. I’m just so sorry you had to hear such bad language!”

Language? Heck, I’ve heard far worse language—but never wielded like a club by one spouse against another. And did this beast actually think I’d failed to hear her thumping on her husband?

She was pathetic, somehow, and yet so fearsome, all at once. A smaller woman who hadn’t just battered her husband might perhaps incite some sympathy and understanding—but not this brute. For her to be capable of contrition and embarrassment—well, it seemed absurd! How could she be sorry? How could she be embarrassed? She was evil incarnate! Her trembling was real, her manner sincere, and yet I almost expected her, like a Star Trek villain, to suddenly shake off her humanoid appearance and become even more sickening, the hideous alien being that she actually was.

Had I been closer to her size—i.e., if I’d been a bodybuilder or something—I might have said, “Don’t apologize to me, you sicko! Apologize to your husband!” But no, she was formidable and very likely totally insane and in that moment I could almost relate to the pitiful cowardice her husband had shown. I wanted nothing but to be away from her. “Well, I just hope you two work everything out,” I said, finally. She retreated to her campsite, and we didn’t hear any more yelling or thumping.

Eventually the husband swaggered over to us, thumbs hooked in the belt loops of his shorts, head swinging from side to side, perhaps trying to look manly, even reckless. I almost expected him to say, “Okay, pal, go ahead, punch me in the stomach as hard as you can—I dare ya.” Instead, he said something unintelligible and when I responded, “Pardon?” he cringed and took a step back. Then he gathered himself, lowered his head again, and took a few more cocksure steps forward.

He spoke: “Yeah, well, the old lady, yeah, she locked the keys in the car. I tried to get ‘em out.” He looked up at us and shook his head a little to the side. He was almost bald, was missing a lower front tooth, and wore thick glasses that eclipsed much of his face. His head looked too big for his body. “Thought I could pry the window open, ya know. Busted it, tryin.’” He did something between a sigh and a drawn‑out “yep.”

His manly swagger was as unconvincing as his wife’s apology. “The broken window ... that’s not a big deal or anything, is it?” he asked us. “I mean, it happens, right?” We assured him it was no big deal. “Yeah, well, you know, the wife . . . “ he exhaled gravelly, “she’s gone an’ made a big deal out of it, you know.” He paused again. “Well, you know, marriage, heck . . . I can take it or leave it. Yep, I figure I’ll get the insurance check for this window, and . . . probably Friday, I’ll go. I’ll just leave. Yep.”

He went on to tell us about his character. He’d saved people in two different plane wrecks, he said. “You know, I’m the kind of guy where, hey, if a guy yells ‘help,’ I’m there, ya know? Just my character.” He looked down again.

“So you consider yourself a caring person?” Erin suggested. The man replied, “Yeah, my mother was in the hospital last couple years, dyin’ of Alzheimer’s. Had to take care of her. Very tough thing to do. You have no idea . . . it takes a toll on a person, it really does. Takes a lot out of ya.” He paused again. “You don’t get in any kinda trouble, do ya, driving around with a broken window on your car?” We assured him it was no big deal, citing examples of windstorms and earthquakes that broke windows across a city. A fix‑it ticket at most, Erin said.

The man talked some more, saying he was from New York but moved to Vermont to please his wife. He said he still doesn’t like the place. “How long have you two been married?” Erin asked. “‘Bout a year,” the guy said.

This amazed me. I figured a relationship as pathological as this would take a lifetime to build up—a long cycle of bad habits feeding off of one another. But no, these two must have been naturals at marital strife. The man talked some more, saying how he had cancer but it was in remission. “My disability checks will make my wife a rich widow,” he said several times.

Then he asked us how much cash we carry with us. I’m not kidding, he actually asked this. “None,” I said quickly. “We write checks or charge everything.” He said, “I’m not tryin’ to rob you or anything, just curious.” He talked some more, and then asked, “How much are your bikes worth?” This guy was coming off stranger than ever. He mentioned his wife becoming a rich widow off his disability checks one more time.

By this point we had our bikes fully loaded, and all our gear secured, and he asked us where we’d been camping. We told him, and at the name of one campground he gave a little chuckle. I asked why, and he said, “Well, heh heh, those guys didn’t like me too much. Yep, got in a bit of trouble over there, a bit of trouble with the law.” He paused, definitely for effect. “Truth is, I’m a bit of a rebel,” he proclaimed.

I almost laughed, which would have made me feel pretty bad. As absurdly and darkly comic as this fellow’s utterances were, his situation seemed tragic. Erin and I said our goodbyes and began to roll out, and the guy was still shaking his head and muttering as we pedaled off. We were so awestruck by the whole ordeal that we totally forgot to visit the Ben & Jerry’s factory in Waterbury that day.

For a complete index of albertnet posts, click here.

Saturday, April 8, 2017

A Tribute to Steve Tilford


This post is a tribute to the late cyclist and blogger Steve Tilford.  I have a tale of his to share, which I wrote down shortly after hearing him tell it a decade ago.  It’s the kind of amazing story he’d have eventually told on his blog, if only.  If only.

Steve was tragically killed in a car accident this past week.  Friends and fans are reeling.  Fans include not only those who have followed his decades of cycling exploits, but those who have enjoyed his popular blog,  He was one of my cycling heroes as a teenager, and I’ve enjoyed his blog for years.

Getting to meet Steve

I met Steve only once, at a Coors Classic bike race reunion held at University Bikes.  (I snapped the above photo that night.)  The occasion was a party that longtime Coors Classic director Michael Aisner threw to celebrate the release of a DVD set—all the original Red Zinger and Coors Classic movies.  Aisner opened the party to the public and it felt like everybody in Boulder was there.  Afterward, he invited my brother Max and me along to get some pizza and beer with Steve Tilford, Steve’s partner Trudi, Todd Gogulski, and a few others.

We lingered for hours swapping bike race stories, until the busboy was practically vacuuming under our feet.  Steve’s stories were particularly good because for one thing, he was a natural-born storyteller, and for another, some of his stories were totally new.  This was a guy who never stopped racing, and whose everyday life was like some crazy story.  For example, just four days before this night, he’d been in a cyclocross race and veered off-course, rolled out onto a frozen lake, watched in horror as the ice broke, became completely drenched, and yet climbed back on his bike and raced six more laps—his hands totally frozen and unable to work his bike’s shifters—and won the race!  (Steve’s account is here; the cyclingnews story is here.)

I was planning a freelance article about the Coors Classic party, so I wrote down the best of these stories the next morning, as close to verbatim as I could get.  Some of them are on Steve’s blog, like this one about bunny-hopping a stream at 60 mph during the Milk Race, a huge stage race in Great Britain.  On his blog, Steve wrote, “I have millions of stories from my time in England. I could do a month of posts on them.”  I wish he had!  But this wasn’t a guy who lived in the past—he had too many new things to blog about.  Thus, my favorite of his stories isn’t on, so I’m going to share it here as a tribute.

(I feel as though I have Steve’s permission, because I asked him that night if I could recount his stories in my article.  He said sure, and joked, “You can even make stuff up if you want—just make me look good!”)

Steve’s story

Here is Steve’s story, presented just as I heard it, to the best of my recollection.  It’s about the 1985 Milk Race:

It’s the last big stage of the race and the last chance for somebody to win the race away from us.  We’re really worried about the Russians, who are supposed to be really fast on the hills, but when we get to the first big climb they all just get dropped.  I said to Andy Paulin, look, the Russians are all dropped!  And of course he’s a huge guy so it’s not like we were going that fast.  We get to this descent and are just flying down it, and when we come around this curve some guy is coming at us with his car.  Andy hits the car and just goes flying.  I figure he’s probably dead. 
Now, everybody says I laid my bike down on purpose so the crash wouldn’t be so bad, but that’s not really what happened.  When you break a leg and a collarbone, it’s not because you crashed gently.  I go sliding under the car and stop when my bars get stuck between the ground and the bumper.  I’m pretty f---ed up but I know it could be worse.  So when they put me in the back of the ambulance I can tell I’m about to lose consciousness, it’s like a black tunnel is collapsing over me, and I look up at Trudi and say, “What about Andy, is he gonna live?”  She says, “Oh, yeah, he’ll be fine.”  Now I’m slipping away but before I do I’m like, “Wait—what about me?”  But it’s too late, I don’t even get to ask.
            So they take me to this tiny hospital in the middle of nowhere where every other patient is an eighty-year-old man, and at first I’m stoked because I’m this young American guy among all these good looking English nurses.  I’m getting these nice sponge baths and everything, but then they tell me the doctor only comes once a week!  I’m pretty sure my leg is broken but all I’m getting is sponge baths.  Finally the doctor comes and tells me, yeah, it’s broken, and I’m looking forward to the plaster cast, but instead all I get is a nurse wrapping it in an Ace bandage!  Even so, I made out better than Andy.  He was at the other hospital and got sick of being there, so he just left, only to pass out at a train station that afternoon.  He made his way back to the hospital, but they wouldn’t let him back in!

Further reading

Here are a few links to Steve’s blog featuring (or mentioning) the Milk Race:

A close friend of Steve Tilford’s, Vincent, is maintaining the blog, providing news in the aftermath of this terrible accident, and offering friends a way to share their own stories.  You can click here for details, and visit the main site,, for the latest updates.