Tuesday, August 23, 2011

The Threads of An Old Life

What a long strange trip it’s been. Over the past 36 hours things have changed drastically as I’ve been plunged headfirst back into the real world. In some ways it feels like I’ve been on the road for years and today marks the beginning of a new life. In other ways it feels like I climbed through the wardrobe into Narnia and while I’ve lived a lifetime in another world, only minutes have passed back here in reality. But to top it off, today I experienced a new phenomenon that really signals the end of the summer – stress.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

I’m Not Dead Yet

The reports of my and my blog’s death have been greatly exaggerated. I know I haven’t posted in a few days even after promising that I would, but the truth is that, even though I’ve been plenty busy gallivanting around central New Jersey over the past few days, there just isn’t as much notable stuff to write interestingly about now that my trip is pretty much over.

On Thursday, my sister and parents took me to Joe’s Crab Shack for my birthday dinner. I’d only been to one Joe’s Crab Shack before – an experience which I’ll never be able to completely replicate, since that restaurant now sits at the bottom of Galveston Bay thanks to a hurricane. This time, it involved a big pot of shellfish and a certain person being forced to do a hula dance against his will all because he was fortunate enough to survive 27 years without dying. There may be pictures of that, but they won’t be appearing here. Sorry. But not very sorry.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Coming Home To My People, To the Place Where I Began

Oh, the irony! Naming a post after a song about the struggle for freedom among Soviet Jews in the context of an 11,000-mile journey across the Land of Liberty? Well, I’m doing it anyway. Maybe the juxtaposition of those two images creates a deeper meaning or something. You decide. I drove all day, so I’m too tired.

When I reached the Delaware Water Gap and my trip odometer eclipsed 11,000 miles, I realized that this was the first stretch of road on this whole adventure that I recognized from having driven it once before. Up to this point, everything had been new, even on the return journey, since I took I-70 west and I-80 and 90 back east.

Some magical things tend to happen when you cross into the New York / New Jersey / Connecticut tri-state area. As if flicking a light switch, traffic often comes to an immediate standstill just over any of the borders, for no clear reason. Drivers abruptly change from benign Pennsylvania driving habits to a strong-willed confident New Jersey mindset (and you also tend to encounter more assholes – they’re almost always from New York). People from other parts of the country complain that New Jersey drivers are the nation’s worst, but those people couldn’t be more wrong. The problem is that we all know where we’re going and how to obey the unwritten rules of the road, and you out-of-state critics just can’t keep up with us. To be able to navigate the most complicated network of interstate highways in the country, New Jersey drivers are definitely some of the best of any state.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Long May You Run

Sitting east of Cleveland, a mere 450 miles from my parents’ house in New Jersey, I feel it’s time to pay homage to the true unsung hero of this trip. Over the last 37 days, she’s acted as my closet, my bedroom, my kitchen / dining room, my power supply, my home, and my transportation, She’s been my travel companion, there every step of the way, doing everything I’ve asked of her and not complaining or putting up any resistance whatsoever. She goes by many names. At times I’ve called her the Horse with No Name, the Hyundai, or just simply – the car.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Come On, Babe, We’re Gonna Paint the Town

The route I had planned out yesterday developed a hitch almost from the very beginning. The plan was for me to gradually make my way north towards Wrigley Field in the morning / early afternoon, and then slowly come back south in the evening. To that end, I was going to do a quick drive-by at the Adler Planetarium first, because it has great views of the city skyline (I do happen to like planetariums too, but I wasn’t in the mood for a museum).

Monday, August 15, 2011

This Is The Last Stop

This is it. Although I have one more major day of stuff to do tomorrow, it really feels like I’m on final approach. Back in Central Time, I’ve only been through blue states since lunchtime, and I crossed back over the Mississippi River this afternoon.

I’ve been trying to take pictures of all the welcome signs as I enter each state.

But after Minnesota and Wisconsin today, when I reached for my camera as I approached Illinois, I realized that I’ve already been here since I’ve been gone. In fact, all the rest of the states I’ll be going through (Indiana, Ohio, and Pennsylvania) I’ve already passed through once before. But fear not! There was no sense of an impending end to the trip today – I had too much to do.

The Still, Small Voice

I always look forward to staffing Hebrew School retreats. It’s partially because I have a great time taking off my teacher hat, putting on my counselor hat, and interacting with my kids on a more social level where my only objective is for them to have fun. But it’s also because in seeing my kids interact with each other as peers, rather than classmates, I find inspiration.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Greggle Goes East

This evening, driving east on I-90, I came over a hill and saw a line of light blue a few degrees above the horizon. This has happened countless times this month and it always makes me wonder whether I’m looking at a line of clouds or a mountain range.

Today when I asked myself that question, I didn’t have to drive any further to know the answer. From now on, there will be no mountain ranges to spot on the horizon.

I’m back in the plains, back in Central Time, and back east of the Missouri River. That’s not to say that today was without intrigue or that I don’t have other exciting things planned for my remaining 4 days on the road, but ever since leaving California I’ve had to fight the dénouement of this adventure. After the climactic few days in Yosemite and Sequoia, I knew it would all be a bit downhill from there. While I’ve certainly enjoyed just about every destination since there (especially Mt. St. Helens and Grand Teton) and don’t regret any of the stops I’ve made, there has been a growing sense that things are drawing to a close. And in today’s moment of sudden realization, that drum beat grew louder.

I don’t want to linger on that sentiment too much, because it certainly wasn’t my dominant mood for the day.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

In the Land of the Wild Hogs

The day I was offered my new teaching job, I immediately went home and started booking hotels for this trip. My general goal was to pay somewhere between $50 and $80, with a few exceptions (Las Vegas in particular). But when it came time to find a hotel in the Black Hills of South Dakota, I ran into problems. At first, everything close to Mt. Rushmore was coming up at over $250 a night on Priceline. Expanding my radius as far out as Rapid City and the Wyoming border didn’t help. I couldn’t figure it out. Why, of all the places I’d be visiting, why was this one so much more expensive? Eventually I stumbled upon the answer when Priceline offered to search nearby towns, and one of the options it gave me was Sturgis. A few clicks later and I realized I’d be in South Dakota at the same time as the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally.

For those of you who’ve never watched American Chopper, Sturgis is the largest biker rally in the world. During the first week of August, the state’s population frequently doubles with the influx of bikers. But from what I saw today, that’s not entirely true. It would be more accurate to say that 90% of the vehicles on the road this week have no doors.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Where the Deer and the Antelope Play

I’ve moved on from where the buffalo roam. You’ll definitely hear a discouraging word or two in this post. But hey, at least the skies were not cloudy all day.

And I would know if there had been any clouds, because I saw every moment of this day, from before sunrise to after sunset. I managed to drag myself out of tent at the ungodly hour of 5:25, with the ungodly temperature of 35 degrees so that I could watch the sunrise against the Tetons. So I saddled the Horse with No Name and drove the half mile to the edge of the bay. No way was I walking in that weather. As it was, I wore a t-shirt, fleece jacket, and windbreaker to bed, along with gloves, of course.

As I stood, shivering despite my many layers, a dynamic palette of colors unrolled in front of me. At first, I was satisfied just trying to capture the reflection of the mountains in the lake, which, more than anything, killed some time and helped me find a good spot for the camera before the real show began.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Grand is an Understatement

What a difference 50 miles makes. Only an hour’s drive from the gently rolling hills of Yellowstone lay the soaring snow-capped peaks of the Tetons. Where Yellowstone provided intrigue, Grand Teton provides awe. While Yellowstone, despite its vastness, was always crowded, Grand Teton, despite its small footprint, feels far larger, more open, and much more solitary than its neighbor to the north. To top it all off, everywhere you turn, there is an incredible picture waiting to be taken. In short, the amazed reaction I got from people when telling them I was on my way to Yellowstone would have been better reserved for when I told them I was off for Grand Teton.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

It Looks Like It Grew There

I was thinking of naming this post “Double Double Toil and Trouble,” or some truncation of that, but it sounds kinda silly and so do any pieces of it I might use. But that really would be an appropriate summary of the day, minus the toil and trouble part. This whole place is basically a giant bubbling cauldron of strange unearthly materials that, when put together in just the way that Yellowstone has them, produces a potion unlike anything else in the world. 

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Hellfire and Brimstone

At 3:00pm I had given up on Yellowstone. I had written it off as just another Grand Canyon experience, and had begun counting the hours until I could move down to Grand Teton.

It had been a day filled with nothing but frustration. The day had an ominous start as I hopped back on I-90 for 30 miles on the way into Yellowstone. Of those 30, 29.5 were under construction. When I say construction, I mean that half the road was closed and there was nary a construction vehicle nor a sign of any construction project in progress. And no, we do not have construction like that in the northeast. We have road work, but you will never see a 30 mile stretch of continuous interstate brought down to 1 lane.

After fighting my way into the park, my first stop was Mammoth Hot Springs. All I knew about it was that it was some sort of geothermal feature, which meant it should be cool to look at. Well, it kinda was, once I got past the veritable city surrounding it, complete with a post office, 2 gas stations, a police station, and a courthouse. The one thing that wasn’t marked on the signs was the actual location of the hot springs. Eventually, though, I found them.

Monday, August 8, 2011

There Is No Idaho

There is no Idaho. Have you ever been to Idaho? Do you know anyone from Idaho? Do you know anyone who’s been to Idaho? Do you know anyone who knows anyone who’s been to Idaho? Can they prove it? Idaho is a region, like the Black Hills or the Ozarks, not a state. Idaho potatoes are a breed of potato, just like Macintosh apples. The so-called “governor” of Idaho is the CEO of this potato conglomerate, elected by board members of various corporations, not by the people. He’s as much a governor as Mayor McCheese is a mayor. This whole myth about Idaho being a state was thought up by potato farmers who would get extra subsidies if they were considered a “state.” Make sense? Good. If I’ve managed to convince you even a little, you can see how some people can deny the Holocaust.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

The Hunt for Mt. Rainier

Last night, since I didn’t stay out to watch the sun set, I was able to make and eat dinner relatively early, which allowed me to finish my writing early, which allowed me to go to bed early. By 11, I was in-tent with the flashlight off. What followed was some of the best sleep I’ve gotten on this entire trip. With a fleece jacket on, the temperature inside was perfect (I’d assume it was probably around 45 last night). I remembered to orient the sleeping bag the right way this time, so that my head wasn’t constantly rubbing against the pockets where I kept my wallet and other toys. I had a good 10 hours before I needed to be up. To top it all off, after my adventure gathering firewood, there was no way my blood sugar was going to go high on me in the middle of the night.

Speaking of that adventure, it occurs to me that I neglected to mention it yesterday. Since I’m camping in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest, and not Mt. Rainier National Park, I’m allowed – nay, required – to gather my own firewood. This has its advantages and disadvantages. On the one hand, I get more of an authentic camping experience like the ones I had as a Boy Scout, where the entire afternoon was spent wandering the wilderness looking for, cutting, and chopping wood for the night’s fire. (I’m not sure why we needed so much wood, though.) On the other hand, now I have to go out and find, cut, chop, and haul back my own firewood. With my hatchet and saw in hand, I was bounding over 5-foot diameter logs and scaling steep hillsides. When I finally had an armload of wood, enough for a 3-4 hour fire, I was ready to get back to campsite B-1. That’s when I realized I would now need to do all that bounding and scaling once again, in reverse, carrying a hatchet, a handsaw, and a cord of wood. Suffice to say the return journey involved lots of throwing of the wood over said giant logs, followed by then throwing myself, and then retrieving it all to do again. By the time I got back to my beloved B-1, I was hot enough that if I wasn’t going to use this fire to cook dinner, I would have been warm enough without it.

So that probably had something to do with the great sleep I got last night, too.

Anyway, on to today.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

The Mountain Is In

As I’ve said before, there are certain things about the natural world that some take as fact, but of which I deny the very existence. No, I’m not talking about global climate change (the condition of Yosemite Falls, the amount of snow at Crater Lake, and my surroundings this afternoon basically prove that one). I’m talking instead about moose and bison. People assure me they exist, but I haven’t seen either with my own eyes, so I can’t be sure. And as of today, you can add one more item to that list of objects of questionable existential status: Mt. Rainier.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Life Finds A Way

In one of the early scenes in Jurassic Park, the 2 scientists nervously ask John, the park’s creator, how he could prevent the velociraptors from reproducing. Easy, he says, all the dinosaurs are female.

Despite his reassurances, the orientation video for visitors at the park reveals the fatal flaw in his plan – frog DNA. Later, when Jeff Goldblum discovers hatched dinosaur eggs, he remembers that some frogs, in the absence of males, spontaneously change gender in order to perpetuate the species. He deduces that the same thing must have happened here, enabling baby dinosaurs (and crappy sequels). Life finds a way.

In few places on earth is that more evident than at today’s destination – Mt. St. Helens. Just over 30 years ago, all life within a 17.5 mile radius of the volcano was annihilated and scientists feared it would take hundreds of years for the ecosystem present before the blast to rebuild itself. Today, only 31 years later, the state of life around the volcano has surprised nearly everyone.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Jed has cholera... Jed has died.

Way back in elementary school, when we finished our work early we got to play games the computers (mostly Apple IIe’s, but a few state of the art Macintoshes). By far, the most popular were from the Carmen Sandiego and The Oregon Trail. In the Oregon Trail, you were a 19th century prospector who wanted to go west to mine for gold. Your job, as the player, was to assemble a party of 5 people and get them all to the Northwest alive. Along the way, you faced thieves, natural disasters, hostile natives, river crossings, and disease. If all went well, hopefully, when you had 1 person alive and 1 clinging to life on starvation rations, you would make it to the Willamette Valley and win the game.

Today, I won the real-life game of the Oregon Trail.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Greggle Turns North

The statement that this was not the best day of the trip so far would be a massive understatement.

Mainly a transition day, I began by wrapping up my time in San Francisco by heading back to the Marin Headlands to see the bridge and the city at their most picturesque. I must say, this city certainly has no shortage of tailor-made scenic overlooks. Someone should stick a mountain just outside of Boston so that people could have just as good a view of the entire city.

Only minutes after arriving, a near disaster struck.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Save Me, San Francisco

Take note of that title, folks. It will be the only time you see me reference anything by Train, since it’s the only good song they’ve written in about 13 years. That, and the fact that XM decided to play it about 5 times on the way up here yesterday.

So today was my day to “do” San Francisco, and to do it better than I “did” Las Vegas. This task was certainly made easier by the fact that in order to get the full experience of this city, I wouldn’t’ have to smoke, drink, gamble, or hire a prostitute.

 Getting up bright and early, I brought out the nicer long pants I packed (on account of being in civilization and needing to look halfway presentable, without Yosemite dirt all over myself). It was in the high 50’s when I first walked outside and rose to the mid 60’s by midday. In short, perfect weather. I later found out that it’s like this year-round, which gives this place a few more points in the “perfect place to live” column (along with friendly people, a social conscience, a healthy dose of liberalism, and some fantastic scenery). It was overcast – the remnants of what I’m sure was a foggy morning which I slept through – but the iPhone assured me the clouds would burn off by lunchtime. Of course, it was right.

I drove over the Golden Gate Bridge again, this time seeing it but still forgetting to try to take pictures of it, since it was the hour and not me that was bright and early. Tomorrow should bring no shortage of pictures of the bridge, though. It’s basically the only thing on my agenda. I then made my way to the Fisherman’s Wharf area, where I was to pick up my scheduled “cruse” to Alcatraz. Although I’ve never been on a cruise, I’m pretty sure a 12-minute 1.3-mile boat trip doesn’t’ qualify. I’d call it more of a pleasant ride, once the boat got moving. I was told there were porpoises surfacing all around the boat, but I couldn’t see any of them. (More on absentee sea life later.)

"I take pleasure in guttin' you, boy."
Arriving at Alcatraz, I was relieved to see that there was basically only one road and that everything was along it. When I had first heard that visitors were free to wander the island, I imagined literally wandering in circles around the island, trying to find the interesting things to do and see. As it turned out, just following the path up to the cell block on the top of the hill allowed one to see just about everything there was to see.

At the cell block, everyone gets a free audio tour, from a little headset you wear as you’re directed where to go. In it, after meeting the virtual narrators, you’re told to walk a certain distance in a certain direction before stopping and listening to information about what you’re looking at. There must be several different versions, because people were moving all over the place, appearing to be following the directions of some invisible hand. (I don’t think it’s likely that someone would be walking at a normal pace down the hallway and then just suddenly make a sharp left turn towards something they had been ignoring only moments earlier.) This made it feel like you were getting an individual tour, instead of being herded through the cell block like a sheep. Also, since everyone was listening to a headset, and there was no tour guide yelling to a large group, even though there were a few hundred people in the relatively small space, it was unusually quiet. The tour itself was great. It gave very accurate directions and never made you feel like you had even a chance of getting lost.

After exploring the island, it was on to the gift shop. I had expected some cute tongue-in-cheek items there, but that was just the beginning. When I found excerpts from the prisoners’ rules and regulations printed on large sheet metal signs, the teacher light bulb went off. Just think of all the things a teacher could do with a sign that says “Rule #5: You will do whatever work you are told to do.” Or, “Regulation #23: If you make groundless complaints for the purpose of creating dissatisfaction and/or stirring up trouble, you will be subject to disciplinary action.” My only reservation is that I’m not sure what kind of message I’d be sending by putting up prison rules in my classroom. Well, no I know exactly what kind of message I’d be sending. I’m just not sure if that would be a good thing to do.

Leaving Alcatraz, I headed back to my car to feed the parking meter before I got a ticket (I planned on getting back just as the meter expired.) But when I got there, there was already a ticket waiting for me. But something about it didn’t smell right. I arrived at 9:15 and paid for 4 hours of parking, giving me until 1:15. But the ticket for an expired meter was written at 11:37. Needless to say, when my credit card statement with the date and time of my payment comes, I’ll be contesting this one.

After moving the car to a lot where cops can’t write tickets, I went back to Fisherman’s Wharf for lunch. Wandering around for a while, I managed to find a row of crab stands, all basically selling the same stuff for the same price, which made my decision of which to frequent that much more difficult.

Crab is definitely the king of all seafood. It’s half the price of lobster, and actually has some flavor. All of the crab legs available in supermarkets are prefrozen, so when the chance to have fresh crab arises, I always jump at the chance. Choosing a vendor, basically at random, I ordered a crab sandwich and a bowl of clam chowder. Yes, I know what you’re thinking. Why travel all the way across the country to get something that’s famous in New England? I had the same thought, until I realized that the clam chowder here came in sourdough bread bowls, and San Francisco is home of the world’s best sourdough bread.

After lunch, I did some more wandering around Fisherman’s Wharf. I particularly wanted to see the group of sea lions that had commandeered one of the piers, but after walking to both ends of the area, I couldn’t find them. Turns out, just as suddenly as they had appeared, they just up and left about 2 years ago. Very sad day. No porpoises and no sea lions. Lots of seagulls though, and huge ones. Huge ones who weren’t afraid of people and begged for food like a dog when you’re eating pizza.

There were some street performers, including one unconventional man who hid behind 2 palm fronds and, as unsuspecting people walked by, he’d jump out and scare them, as the crowds laughed. It was very funny. I took a video, but I don’t know how to post it (or if it was even uploaded from the camera with today’s pictures). So if you want to see it, I’ll have to show you in person.

After that, I had some time to kill before dinner, so , in the spirit of not having any deadlines or rules, decided to drive halfway across the city to see Twin Peaks – a pair of 600-foot hilltops on the outskirts of the city that afford sweeping views of the entire Bay Area. By this point, the clouds were long gone, so I had clear skies to the horizon in every direction.

Then, just because I can’t go a day without climbing something, I took a short trail to the very top of one of the peaks to see what I could see from there. Well, I couldn’t see much, but the wind up there reminded me of Mt. Washington and for someone who’s never cold, even on a 55-degree day, the cool breeze was refreshing.

From there, I drove back across the entire city to meet my cousin Nanci, who lives out here and who we decided I haven’t seen for in over 15 years, for dinner. Over pasta and pizza (the first pizza I dared to try since leaving the pizza haven of New Jersey), we talked about the city (including the strangely constant weather and the interesting off-the-beaten-path destinations), family stuff, and compared notes on cross-country driving and visiting the national parks in the area. Afterwards, she pointed me in the direction of the baseball stadium (as my mother would be quick to say, because I could have never found it myself) and we went out separate ways. It was a nice change of pace to meet up with someone along the way, especially when they’re family.

So, as I hinted, from there I headed over to AT&T Park, home of the San Francisco Giants. The stadium was clean and modern, like most of the new stadia, but what surprised me were the fans. I got there in the top of the 3rd inning, and the place was completely full. Not only were there people in every seat, but they were fully invested in the game and hanging on every pitch, even at that early stage. Keep in mind, this was on a Monday night, too. I’m not sure even the fans at Fenway would give such a strong show of support on such an occasion, especially if they were playing the Arizona Diamondbacks.

In the end, after only 2 hours and 37 minutes, the Giants lost after their pitcher, Matt Cain, imploded in the 6th inning and gave up 5 runs, which would prove to be more than enough for Arizona. I found it funny that I got to see Carlos Beltran hit a triple in a Giants uniform, and JJ. Putz get his 25th save of the season as a Diamondback. Yet more proof that former Mets who may have been terrible while with New York, always leave the city and immediately become all-stars.

On the way back to the hotel, I decided to stop at the Marin Headlands, just north of the Golden Gate Bridge, where you have a great view of the bridge and the city in the background.

Although I’m planning on going back tomorrow to see it for real, I don’t know when I’ll get another opportunity to see the city from above at night, so I couldn’t resist. Even though it looks like the half of the road with all the scenic turnouts may be closed, I was still able to get to one overlook and take a few cool pictures:

Tomorrow I wrap up my mini-exploration of San Francisco before Greggles Goes North, continuing up Highway 1 into Oregon on my way to Crater Lake.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Spinning On Our Heels, So Far Away From Real

Let’s say that this trip is like a relay race on Field Day in elementary school. If that’s the case, then today I touched the cone on the far end of the field, so that I could turn around and complete the lap. Except instead of a field it was… well, I guess a field, just a really big one… that my car ran across. And instead of a cone, it was the Pacific Ocean.