Category Archives: Places

Into the Desert: Borax Lake and the Fish That Live There

Two BLM intenrns and an ODFW biologist prepare traps to rescue Alvord Lake Chub from a shrinking pond in the Alvord Basin.

The two BLM interns from The Chicago Botanical Garden both had the look of someone who has been in the desert one day too long.

Their bloodshot eyes surveyed the bleak landscape in the way you’d expect someone who had seen the same featureless view every day for months and months.

I rode in the government truck with them down to a spot in the lower Alvord Basin just a few miles from the Nevada border. We stopped and opened a gate in a fence and drove off into the sage brush for a long distance, before a small, dark tree began to take shape in the distance.

Continue reading Into the Desert: Borax Lake and the Fish That Live There

Into the Desert: Alvord Basin

There is a small, cold desert east of here that I have seen in my dreams for decades.

The Alvord Desert

It sits high up on a plateau created millions of years ago when basalts flowed over the area in giant, motlen floods .

It sits in the shadow of the snowy mountain, which catches the rain, leaving it parched and flat and featureless.

I had seen the Alvord Desert far below the East Rim Lookout on Steens Mountain the previous evening. The twelve-mile-long by seven-mile-wide playa looked exactly as I had seen it in my dreams, a vast, sandy nothingness stretching away to the south.

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10 Flooding Photos from Houston that look like the apocalypse

Continue reading 10 Flooding Photos from Houston that look like the apocalypse

Sunrise on Water

Just after sunrise at Cocoa Beach, Florida
Just after sunrise at Cocoa Beach, Florida

We didn’t stay more than a half hour.

But it will go down in our memories like it was hours and hours.

I couldn’t figure out the pay-by-phone system on the parking meters in the tiny lot at the 1st street access to Cocoa Beach.

So my son and I wandered down to the water’s edge to catch the sunrise with the specter of a parking ticket hanging over my head.

We arrived exactly seven minutes before it was scheduled to appear, according to the weather app on my phone.

The sun was set to rise from the cold Northern Atlantic Ocean horizon at 7:12 a.m. on Christmas Day 2014.

And I damn-well wanted to be there to witness it.

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Savannah on my mind

She always finds her Tardis
She always finds her Tardis

Gabrielle and I approached the breakfast buffet at the Comfort Inn in Columbia, South Carolina, trepidatiously.

That is to say we’ve been there before.

That moment when you walk into the foyer of whatever cheap hotel occupies every single exit from here to Modesto, and you discover that it looks like it’s been pillaged by Viking raiders.

The tables were covered in the viscera of yogurts and bananas, whose skeletons and skins bulged in a heap atop the trash can like a pile of bodies ready for the pyre.

Sloppy paper notes indicated the orange juice, waffles and sausages were gone. Forever.

So we made up toast with jam, salvaged the rest of the Fruit Loops and drank apple-juice colored water and headed to the pool, where I taught her my secret skills of playing the mouth trumpet in an echoe-y room.

“You’re really good at that dad,” she said.

“I know,” I replied. “I want you to put that on my grave stone.”

She just looked sideways at me and continued to swim.

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Asheville, The Art of War and Cheryl Strayed

IMG_7658I started writing this from the Chili’s across from the Comfort Inn we’re staying at in Dentsville, South Carolina tonight.

The kids are staring at me after I just scolded them for replying to the waitress with their typical “ya,” or barely discernible grunt meant to infer  that yes, they would indeed like fries with their burger.

“This is the South, where people are polite, and when they ask you if you want fries with your burger, you say yes please,” I told them.

They replied with those barely discernible grunts meant to infer that they indeed understood what I was saying.

After a long evening with Jon in Cincinnati, I was up early, as is my usual habit. I showered, dressed and sat in bed for a while waiting to wake my sleeping wife and kids.

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Cincinnati: Under the Rhine

We were going to blow through Cincinnati after a short beer stop with my buddy Jon.

We’d make our way down to Lexington and have a short hop over to Asheville in the morning.

But we met at the Rhinegeist, which felt good in the way a creative spot feels good. The brewery in a massive industrial space filled with people celebrating the end of a workweek and the upcoming holidays.

The beer was phenomenal, and catching up with one of my dearest friends was too easy in the way that makes a new place feel homey kind of way.

The kids played corn hole, ping pong and fusbal while the adults caught up, and we all waited for the pizzas Jon ordered.

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Live inquisitively, not judgmentally

Indian Toilet

Recently my daughter’s teacher told my wife that our incessant moving around the country seems to have benefitted her quite a bit.

I was taken aback by this, feeling a father’s guilt at loving a career too much to the detriment of the well-being of my children.

It seems Gabbers has a keen understanding of political boundaries like counties and state lines, well above that of her second-grade peers.

Her teacher even said that she had learned things about places and people because of her interactions with Gabrielle.

I shouldn’t be surprised.

This was my education too.

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Riding the last great whistle stop train

The pleasure in riding trains is derived purely from the physical experience of riding on trains. I can only imagine how good it must have been when the herky, jerky steam engines ruled the planet. But even the smooth-running diesel engines of today with the beshocked cars still give pleasure in the way they yaw and chuck along their way.

On Saturday I rode the Alaskan Railroad 100 miles north to the town of Talkeetna. The journey, while short, is a phenomenal experience in an increasingly rare form of travel.

The conductor pops his head into the station and yells, “Goooooooooood, mooooooooorning,” to a sleepy group of passengers. He barks out a series of instructions, and like good farm animals, we corral ourselves through the doors toward assured shelter.

He’s done this, this railroad, for 40 years. It’s his life. He checks his gold pocket watch regularly to make sure the train is slightly behind schedule. For people who rely on the train as a way of life, it wouldn’t be a good idea to be right on time or, God forbid, early.

This is the last whistle stop train in North America.

A whistle stop train is a very particular form of transportation for a very particular person. The kind of person who wants to live out in the wild. A wild so wild that only a railroad passes nearby. These people ride many miles on snow machines to catch the train into town or down the tracks to a neighbor’s house to fix a problem.

Along the way, the conductor tosses a newspaper out every once in a awhile when he knows someone will find the orange bag containing this week’s news updates along side the tracks.

Along the way he welcomes passengers for whom the train is no novelty. Their belongings are not tourist bags or traveler’s packs.

As we disembark the train in Talkeetna, he wishes us a fond farewell, by name, each of us, with a smile.  As we walk away from the train into the quaint little valley town, he checks his pocket watch and hops aboard the train for the nine-hour journey to Fairbanks. Into the cold, cold north. Chugging along and telling stories and hearkening back to a better time when travel was as simple as the monstrous engines that carried us here and there.

One Month in Anch!

Who moves to Alaska in the winter? November isn’t exactly the heart of winter, but it’s close enough. The lack of a sunrise before 9:30 a.m., the strange, heavy snow followed by a fast melt, the way the air takes your breath away when you first step out a door, this far north is exactly what you’d expect it to be this time of year. 

In the month since we ran to catch our plane at PDX, we’ve done a lot and a lot of nothing. Downtime after a huge move is good, and we’ve taken the cold snowy nights to watch movies, eat around the coffee table, learn how to tiptoe around the apartment, enjoy chilly walks down the Park Blocks after dinner and walk downtown to have coffee or watch the lighting of the Christmas Tree.
Call us cautious, we’ve made new friends, but good relationships often grow slowly, developing deep roots, so we’re not in a hurry. We’ve learned to like each other in cramped quarters. We eat dinner in shifts, because our dining room table is a green fold up for two. 
We share a bathroom, which is decidedly tough with a nearly teenage boy who likes to shower every day, a younger brother who’d rather not shower at all, and a little sister who seems to have to go pee every 10 minutes or at least every time I am in the bathroom. 
Because many people rent these fully furnished apartments by the week, we’ve had a lot of neighbors we never get to know. The good news is that after a month, Cheryl finally found out that there is a laundry room in the building, and she got the lock code. No more long nights hanging out in the green fluorescent light of the laundromat up on Fireweed. 
We’ve seen many moose since we saw the big mama moose eating leftover pumpkins on our first weekend in town. Cheryl saw a huge bull moose in front of the library in midtown last week, and we saw another big cow and her baby on the way to visit Portage Glacier with a visitor. 
We’ve been ice skating with the kids on the oval at Cuddy Park as the sunset just after 4 p.m., casting an orange-creamsicle light over the midtown oil buildings. And we’ve spent an afternoon sledding and cross-country skiing at Kincaid Park, with a stop for hot chocolate on our way home. 
Saw the Nutcracker ballet and enjoyed evenings out and about at clubs and pubs.
Life is not perfect, but it is good. The adventure of Alaska is in the daily experience of living here. You don’t have to launch an expedition to go and find it. In a place so beautiful, danger is an overabundant commodity in Alaska.
On a long-enough timeline, Alaska will kill you. I can attest to this just in the news reported every day on our station and in the local newspaper. Living here is surviving here. Even in the crowded metropolis of Anchorage, death isn’t very far away, be it bullet, cold, car or plane crash. 
The dark won’t kill you, but I can see why so many give up and go back south where the dark hours play more fairly with the light. There is a certain anxiety until the solstice comes around and the simple knowledge that the days are growing longer brings those first hopeful thoughts of spring around again. 
My claustrophobia gets the best of me occasionally. I wake up feeling a bit stifled, but I know that is a product of the fact I haven’t driven much farther than the 45 miles it takes to get to Girdwood. I haven’t been to the valley yet. I haven’t been to Homer. Until I get a sense for the bigness of the place and the few roads that take you anywhere in this state, I’ll wake up feeling a bit stifled, or I’ll look out my window at work at the Chugach Mountains and wonder what is behind them and behind that. 
One month and so much to look back on already. The adventure has good start.