Sunday, March 30, 2014

50 States - Washington

On the same trip in 2004 when we visited Oregon, we spent most of the trip in the state of Washington. Using Seattle as a home base, we took a big loop around the area. Seattle is home to a major coffee chain you may have heard of. In Seattle they use the original logo with mermaid hair not so strategically placed.


Their first store is right near the Pike Street Market which is also where they throw fish around.


From Seattle we headed down to Mount Ranier which is a truly majestic mountain.


From there it was down to Mount St. Helens which has still to recover from the catastrophic volcanic explosion. Downstream of the crater is a lake full of timber still floating waterlogged.


After a brief sojourn in Oregon, we headed back towards Seattle via the Olympic Peninsula. The Pacific Coast is rugged but beautiful.


We saw amazing wildlife from a giant slug on a redwood tree to a herd of elk in a river bed.


There were also brilliant fields of lavender.


The drive back to Seattle included a ferry right back with a great view of the city.


Seattle is home to plenty of things to see including the Experience Music Project and the troll under the bridge.


From there it was up the coast to the Orcas Islands which meant kayaking.


Back in the Seattle area, we took a boat tour which went past the mansions of the Microsoft millionaires.


Our final stop in Seattle was the cozy neighborhood of Pioneer Square which is the home of Elliott Bay Books which while no Powells, was a gorgeous well furnished bookstore.


Washington had a bit of everything, fantastic vistas, beautiful nature, and urban wonders.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

50 States - Oregon

Of the 50 states, Oregon is another one that while it fit into our rule of one night and one meal, it kind of got short shrift. Our night was spent in Portland which is a delightful city which I fell in love with long before the show Portlandia started gently mocking it. The point of going to Portland was to visit Powell's Books, one of the contenders for the greatest bookstore on earth. Inexplicably, I have no photos of that Mecca, but on the way into town we stopped off at the Horsetails Falls area along the Columbia River. These are gorgeous waterfalls along a beautiful hiking trail.

I notice from the photos that I was wearing a tee shirt from The Strand, an enormous bookstore in New York City which is probably the only rival in size that Powell's has. I doubt this was a coincidence.


Oregon is on the return trip list because there is so much more to see, both in natural beauty and urban fun.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

50 States - Nevada

In going to all 50 states, I never thought I was Las Vegas type of person until I realized you didn't have to gamble but could just wallow in the sheer excess of it. We had gone through Reno on our way west back in 2006 and stayed at the Peppermill Casino which was poor preparation for the vastness of Vegas a few days later. We has arrived late in the afternoon and only had one night there.  And because it was a weekend we stayed at the Excalibur which is one of the least expensive hotels on the strip. It's the same place I stayed just a few weeks ago when I was stranded during a busines trip on the west coast when Baltimore was blizzarded in. It's also across the street from the nearly equally garish New York New York.


We hit the Bellagio fountains and the Fremont Street Experience but the temperatures at midnight was still over 100 degrees.


It was last year that we really experienced the real Vegas when for a weekend getaway we stayed at the Mirage and saw the Cirque de Soliel Beatles show Love.


The Mirage is also home to Sigfried and Roy's Magic Garden where they keep their wild cats and dolphins.


The best part of Vegas is the fantastic food. About every celebrity chef has one or more restaurants. Pure competitive pressure keeps the quality of even the burger places high.


And there are always celebrities around somewhere if you know where to look. Penn and Teller sign autographs after their show and sometimes even a Kardasian is making a public appearance.


But there is more to Nevada than Las Vegas. On our most recent trip for our fiftieth birthday, we took a day trip to Death Valley which is technically in California, but on the way, we stopped off at combination tourist trap and brothel as well as a ghost town.


Between eating, drinking, seeing shows, and touring the desert there is enough to keep even the determined non-gambler busy in Nevada.

Monday, March 10, 2014

50 States - South Dakota

I f you read my fairly snide 50 States post snarking about North Dakota, you might think I will be equally dismissive about South Dakota. Nothing could be further from the truth. South Dakota has some literally monumental attractions, most famously that display of chutzpah carved under the impression that mountains are more spectacular when turned into sculptures of dead politicians.

In the defense of Gutzon Borglum and his son, Lincoln Borglum, they had to have been a bit right as otherwise why would thousands of people travel to the middle of nowhere to look at rocks. More pristine beauty can be found in the Badlands.

But South Dakota has lots and lots of interesting smaller attractions. The most bizarre is perhaps the Corn Palace which has to be seen to be believed.


And driving anywhere in South Dakota will expose you to billboards shilling for Wall Drugs. More than just a drugstore, Wall Drugs is a tourist emporium of epic scale. It seems to swallow the entire town of Wall.


Speaking of swallowing, one of Wall Drug's gimmicks is that it offers free water to anybody that wants some. And it's very good water.


Perhaps the most overlooked destination in South Dakota is the town of DeSmet. Its claim to fame is that it was the home on the prairie to Laura Ingalls Wilder during The Long Winter. They have replicas of cabins of that era and even a one-room schoolhouse.


In celebration, the town puts on a nightly pageant on a huge outdoor stage depicting those events.


So get to DeSmet and see all that South Dakota has to offer.

50 States - North Dakota

In the continuing coverage of the drive-thru members of the 50 states, perhaps none are less memorable than North Dakota. One internet running joke is that the state doesn't really exist and the case for that is really tough to dispute. I dare you to name one must-see tourist attraction in North Dakota. Wrong, South Dakota. Nope, Wyoming. Again, South Dakota.

But what is there? In our nearly day long drive across the state, we did make two stops before ending for a night in Fargo. Lunch was at Meriwether's Landing in Bismark overlooking the Missouri River. Alas, the internetz tell me this restaurant is now out of business.


Hitherto unknown to me, North Dakota does have one named after none other than rough rider Theodore Roosevelt. The park covers part of the Badlands which aren't quite as vast and picturesque as the ones in South Dakota, but they are pretty impressive.


What this park does have is easily accessible wildlife. It's very hard not to spot some deer or buffalo.


But the most fascinating fauna were the wild horses which wandered freely.


So if you ever do inexplicably find yourself in North Dakota if only to verify its existence, be sure to visit Theodore Roosevelt National Park where you might even see a prairie dog.

Sunday, March 02, 2014

BooksFirst - February 2014

Books Bought  
Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain  

Books Read  
The Left Hand of Darkness by by Ursula K. LeGuin  
The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

 Books Heard  
The Bedwetter: Stories of Courage, Redemption, and Pee by Sarah Silverman  

The Left Hand of Darkness is a multi-award winning novel by Ursula K. LeGuin which has long been a book I've been needing to read out of some sense of historical literary obligation. Unfortunately, I found it as tough a slog as the long trek through the frozen wilderness that makes up the last third of the book. My science fiction professor in college warned me as much when he said the somewhere along the line the LeGuin had gotten a snootful of Ulysses and everything had to be an epic journey.

The premise of the novel is that an emissary from the Galactic High Council or whatever is trying to make first contact with a lost colony. The twist is that not only is this particular planet a marginally habitable world that makes Hoth look like Club Med, but the inhabitants have all evolved (it's not ever clear how much genetic engineering is involved) into an androgynous single gender so it's the male human from another world that is the sexual freak. However, not much is really done with this. LeGuin goes a little into how a single gendered society would work (more caring, less warlike, and absolutely embracing of family leave) but except for some unrequited sideward glances, nobody breaks any taboos in any interesting ways. Perhaps this was much, much more groundbreaking in the pre-Stonewall 1950s but now it seems almost tame.

I just never quite knew what the book was trying to say and despite being only 200 pages in my paperback edition, it took a long time not saying it.

Epic long books have to be really, really good to merit their investment in time and paper and The Goldfinch manages it. I came in with low expectations and was rapidly blown away. Speaking of expectations, low and great, I was not far into this book before I started making obvious parallels to Dickens. A young semi-orphan is shuffled around in several socially distinct milleaus where he is forced to survive. There is a scampish sidekick on the blurry side of the law. A sickly romantic interest that fate keeps away. A cruel and dangerous father. A kindly benefactor. And odd coincidences and circumstances to just tread the line of laughable implausibility. And I'm not alone in this observation as nearly every review I've read has made the same observation. Charlie might has well have been credited as cowriter.

The MacGuffin of the novel is the titular painting of bird chained to a post. I quickly realized that I had seen this painting very recently. It was one of the Dutch masterpieces that was an exhibit with another painting with literary inspirations, "The Girl With The Pearl Earring". In The Goldfinch, Donna Tarrt rather than wrapping a story around the creation of the painting, literally wraps the painting up in mystery and adventure. The painting is enigmatic even before it it burdened with the weight of all the symbolism that ties it to the perch.

And despite the length, the book is well-paced and taut. Everytime, just as I was getting bored or distracted, some plot twist would come along and suck me back in. My one peeve was that the both the main character and his buddy Boris do an incredible amount of drugs. Then I got to the end of the book and read the About The Author which said that Tartt went to Bennington College. Having just read The Rules Of Attraction by Brett Easton Ellis, all of a sudden everything fell into place.

Very early into The Bedwetter, Sarah Silverman semi-apologizes for not having an exciting enough life. And that in itself is very interesting. It's just as fascinating to learn that she grew up in exurban New Hampshire. But her soul was clearly meant to be in New York City and she does migrate there as quickly as possible.

The first third of the book deals with her titular childhood problem which becomes a metaphor and a motif for the rest of the book. Oddly, Rob Delaney, another stand-up comic spends a good bit of his memoir discussing the shame that comes along with that problem. Silverman makes some other tossed-off confessions. She went through a verrry promiscuous phase in her early 20s. Good for her. That's the time to do it.

She also has a great mantra for all sorts of personal indulgences including sex and drugs which is Make It A Treat, which she explains is different from moderation. The more she talked about her current situation, the less interesting the book became.

The books does have some nice meta-schticks like how show inserts all the e-mails about the naming of the book. One long running battle was whether the subtitle should be Stories of Courage, Redemption, and Pee or Stories of Courage, Redemption, and Pee. It's a funny and mildly self-deprecating incident. I've been a bit of a Silverman fan particularly because she is so deliberately transgressive. But a little Silverman goes a long way.