Mount Rushmore, Part 1

Keystone SD

Downtown Keystone SD

The 2017 Great American Escape

KEYSTONE, SOUTH DAKOTA

U.S. 16, the road from Rapid City to Mount Rushmore, is studded with tourist kitsch of every ilk and description.  Reptile Gardens.  The Dinosaur Museum.  Bear Country USA.  A wax museum.  Miniature golf.  You can just hear the kids in the cars yelling “Mom! Dad! Pleeeeeease??”

But that’s nothing compared to the raucous assortment of rock shops, souvenir emporia, tchotchke mongers and cafés lining the main  drag in Keystone, two miles from the famous faces carved in stone.  As a result of the association of Theodore Roosevelt with the monument, it seemed that about half the commercial establishments contain “Teddy’s” somewhere in their names.

We picked out a likely looking café for dinner; the food was quite good, but the accommodations lacking.  Perhaps I should have been tipped off by the middle school sensibility of the rest room signs that read “Pointers” and “Squatters.”  So call me dense and clueless.  Guilty as charged.

We had three choices of seating:  Perched on high tops on the main floor, up a steep flight of stairs to normal tables, or outdoors.  As we are no longer able to comfortably climb either stairs or chairs, we ended up eating out on the patio.  With the sun beating down on us.  In 95 degree heat.  With flies landing on our food every two minutes.  Psssstt!  Ever heard of a little thing called the ADA?  It’s a really lovely law that we have in our country to protect those of us with disabilities, and I believe South Dakota is still part of the Union.  Well, last time I checked, anyway.  Um, should I have brought my passport?

My wife has about had it with my griping, and I can’t say I blame her a bit.  My generally poor attitude has been exacerbated by my own stupidity in bringing along only one pair of shoes, a pair that, as luck would have it, offer no support whatsoever and are painful to walk in for even the shortest distance.

Happily, my sour disposition took an about face as we drove up the mountain, rounded a curve… and suddenly, somehow unexpectedly, there it was in all its glory, Mount Rushmore and its famous presidential faces.  We came upon it all at once, unprepared even, and joined two other cars in pulling off the road to gawk, mouths hanging agape in awe and amazement.  The only experience I can compare this to is stepping out of Paris’ Trocadéro métro station to find the Eiffel Tower right in front of me.

Let’s just say that no photo of Mount Rushmore you have ever seen can begin to compare to the view in person.  I now understand why people from every corner of the earth have this site on their bucket lists.

As the sun was rapidly setting and we had done a long day’s drive to get here, we will return to the monument in the morning to visit it properly.

More to follow.

 

 

Talkin”Bout My Generation

Big Sky

Montana:  Big sky, open highway

The 2017 Great American Escape

BILLINGS, MONTANA

I have long had an eclectic appreciation of popular music.  During my childhood, my father introduced me to big band music and show tunes; later, I got into ’50s doo-wop and then country music and finally the hits of the ’70s and ’80s.  I pretty much lost track of pop music around 1990.

This can mean only one thing:  I’m getting old.  The music on my iPhone largely represents the days of my youth.  And I guess I’m not alone.  A lot of us Baby Boomers are starting to sport silver hair, serve as fodder for AARP and create commercial opportunities for all things retro.

To verify that my musical tastes are in line with the masses of my generation, I need only to visit a store or restaurant and pay attention to the background music piped in through the speakers.  Last night, for example, as we perched on stools at a casino bar in rural Nevada and stabbed at the video poker machines, I couldn’t help but notice that the house music was the Sirius XM channel 80s on 8.  As I sipped my soda, I realized that nearly every song I heard is on my phone.  Cyndi Lauper?  Check.  Madonna?  Check.  Michael Jackson?  Check.  Bananarama?  Check. Men at Work?  Bon Jovi?  Prince?  Check, check, check.  I guess my age group is supposed to have money and has thus become the target audience to woo.

This morning, we stopped for breakfast in Twin Falls, Idaho.  As we checked out the menu, we heard “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” followed by the Honeydrippers’ version of “Sea of Love.”

I rest my case.

 

Only in Nevada

The 2017 Great American Escape

 JACKPOT, NEVADA

Many a long year has gone by since I’ve been sent to bed without my supper.  But here, in the northernmost reaches of the Silver State, hard by the Idaho border, I somehow managed to pull it off.

It is an axiom of business (and of life) that everything takes longer than you think it will.  Driving 537 miles on our first day out proved to be no exception to this rule.  We couldn’t leave from home by dawn’s early light, as first I had to work half a day.  Then a projected 8-hour drive to our first stop took closer to 9½ hours, despite the 75 and 80 mile per hour speed limits on Interstate 80 through the vast, barren Nevada desert.  By the time we arrived at our hotel, its  restaurant had closed up shop for the evening.  I suppose we were lucky that they didn’t give our reservation away.

At check-in, the desk clerk assured us that all the other casinos along U.S. 93 had 24-hour restaurants.  Exhausted, we trudged to our room with our clothes and laptops.  Then came the conundrum:  Sleep or eat?  Eat, we decided.  I was concerned that my wife’s blood sugar would drop too low overnight if she didn’t get some food in her.

Heading back out down the strip, we first came to the Horseshu Casino, which appeared to be out of business.  After waiting at one of the longest red lights I have ever experienced, we crossed the road to Cactus Pete’s.  Inside the lobby, we passed the closed seafood and steak house.  We asked directions and were told that the 24-hour restaurant, named “Nosh,” was located down by the second bar.  What we found was a tiny snack bar counter with tables off to the side.  We inquired as to where the restaurant was and were assured that this was it. “We’re considered a restaurant,” the woman behind the counter informed us.  Talk about using a word loosely.

Good luck finding anything meatless at Nosh.  The sandwiches, we were informed, were pre-made and already had meat on them.  We walked out.

Driving back to our hotel, we figured that if we couldn’t eat, at least we could gamble. The hotel had given us each coupons for $4 in free play.  Upon finding little of interest in the tiny casino, we sat at the bar and played nickel video poker for about half an hour.  We quickly used up the comps and put in some our own money.  My wife hit a string of full houses before coming up with four aces. My machine, by contrast, seemed to specialize in even money “jacks or better.”  All told, we came away down about $2.50.

On the way back to our room, my wife decided to buy a soda from a vending machine.  She was surprised that the price was only 75 cents. We soon discovered why.  Apparently, you can charge low prices and still make a profit if you don’t actually deliver the goods to the customer.  After losing a quarter in the Pepsi machine, she tried the Coke machine, where she lost the full 75 cents.  Luckily, we had brought some bottles of water with us.

Well, if you can’t eat around here after 10 pm and you don’t want to spend a lot of money gambling, surely there are other activities and attractions in the area.  We saw one such place just as we were heading out of Elko.  And it was open all night, too! “Donna’s Ranch,” the sign announced, “open 24 hours.”

Only in Nevada.

 

 

Road Trip, Here We Come!

The 2017 Great American Escape

Here we go merrily driving across this great nation of ours once again, with the goal of seeing the USA on the way to the Word Cup Scrabble Tournament in Springfield, Massachusetts. On last summer’s trip to the east coast, we headed straight east on Interstate 80 as far as Iowa, then took a right turn to dip down into the Southland.  This time, however, we are taking a northerly route that will enable us to visit Montana, the Dakotas, Minnesota and Wisconsin.  Among the places we plan to visit are Mount Rushmore, the Rock ‘N Roll Hall of Fame and Niagara Falls.  After that, I get to indulge in six lovely days of Scrabble competition.

So what have I been doing to prepare for this trip?  Aside from mapping out an itinerary, not much.  Although we’ve planned this vacation for at least six months, it seems to have crept up on us.  It was months away, and now it’s here.

I have been doing some planning for the Scrabble tournament, however.  This involves reviewing familiar word lists and memorizing some new ones.  I am seeded eighth in a division of 23, which means I am going to have some work to do to prevent losing to lower-rated players, with my rating suffering accordingly.  Here’s hoping I draw good racks and that my memory of prime bingos does not fail me.  It’s an uphill battle for an old guy like me competing against these young whipper-snappers with memories like steel traps.

My wife and I recently took a taste of road life during my two business trips to southern California over the past three weeks.  So now we’re ready to do it for real and burn up the interstates.  Ride along with us as we share our adventures in traversing the continent.

Ventura

San Buenaventura Beach, Ventura CA

 

Jury Duty Fake-Out

About a month ago, when we drove down to the main drag to pick up our mail, I plucked a surprise out of our post office box.  In large red letters, the envelope announced JURY SUMMONS.

My first thought was “oh, what a pain.”  I am so busy at work and this will interfere with my travels to southern California to conduct the training classes that I’ve been planning for months.  My second though was “it will be fun and interesting to serve on a jury again.”

What did not go through my mind was the thought that everyone else seems to have in such situations:  “How can I get out of it?”  My wife tells stories of how her late father wouldn’t vote for fear of being added to county lists of potential jurors.  Apparently, he was not alone.  These days, I hear they use DMV lists for this purpose.  Lots of people don’t vote but, at least in California, almost everyone drives.

I believe there is a reason it’s called “jury duty.”  Serving when called is a civic duty, not unlike the obligation to pay taxes.  In both cases, failure to fulfill one’s obligation to society can land you behind bars.

I remember the first time I was called for jury duty.  This was back in New York.  I was in my twenties and hadn’t much of a clue about the process.  Then, as now, summoned jurors were expected to call the day before and listen to a recording to hear whether the group number on the summons was called to report.  Sure enough, my number was up right away.  I reported to the courthouse, sat in the jury assembly room for a couple of hours and was eventually called to voir dire in a civil case.  The twelve jurors were selected, and I was up for one of the two alternate spots.  Now, I had no intention of sitting through a trial just to be sent home without the opportunity to sit in deliberation with the other jurors.  Being young and foolish, I viewed this as a waste of time instead of the integral part of the process that it is.  Fortunately for me, I knew one of the people on the witness list and hoped that mentioning this fact would get me excused.  When one of the attorneys asked if there was any reason I would be unable to serve as a fair and impartial juror, I got out exactly one word of my answer.  “Well,” I began, and was immediately cut off by the judge who asked me not to say anything further.  Excused!  I suppose they were concerned that I would say something that would prejudice the other jurors.

Years later, I finally did serve when I lived down in the Central Valley.  It was a criminal trial involving lots of drug charges and a group of people who had a nice little business running a meth lab out in the sticks.  I was so glad when we were able to convict those miscreants.

Last weekend, I dialed the number on the jury summons to see if my group had been called.  The message said to call back after five on Monday.  When I did so, my group number was up for Tuesday.  I texted my boss to let her know that duty called.

My wife dropped me off at the courthouse downtown, an impressive six-story edifice reached from the street by means of two flights of stairs and walking across a plaza.  For those of us who have mobility issues but are not in wheelchairs, this can be daunting.  As it is, the traffic was bad downtown and we had a heck of a time navigating the maze of one-way streets leading to the courthouse.  I was already late and we were not about to drive around some more looking for the correct one-way street that might lead to a side of the courthouse that would have a handicapped ramp.  Gripping the railings,  I slowly pulled myself up all those steps, carrying my little Whole Foods bag packed with enough food and water for the duration.

After being scanned through the metal detector, I headed for the elevator up to the jury assembly room.  Riding up with several others, one of my fellow occupants of the lift remarked that she smelled popcorn.  Another said that all we needed now was a movie.  A third assured us that we would indeed see a movie shortly.  I rolled my eyes.  Probably a little five-minute flag-waving video about the important part that jurors play in the judicial system and the democratic process generally.  I had no idea of what was to come.

Exiting the elevator, I was confronted with a mass of humanity.  A large open mezzanine with what seemed like hundreds of seats was completely full.  I learned where the start of the line was and was shocked.  The line snaked around and around the mezzanine, eventually turning into a hallway and then into the jury assembly room, where it again snaked around several corners.  I could not begin to estimate how many people were present.

Fortunately, the courthouse was a cool respite from the 100 degree plus heat outside.  However, I questioned whether I would be able to stand on my feet long enough to reach the end of the line.  I was pleasantly surprised by how quickly the line moved along.  In less than 15 minutes, I was able to collect my badge holder and show my summons to the clerk behind the window.  I was told to take a seat.

Um, where?  I did not see a single seat that was vacant.  I peeked into an adjoining room.  Also full.  I walked up and down the aisles until I found a seat that was occupied not by a person but by a cell phone and a bag.  “Is anyone sitting here?” I asked.  I figured that the owner of those belongings had probably run to the rest room and would be right back.  Luckily, I was wrong.  The occupant of the adjacent seat picked up the items and I was able to sit down.  Whew!

By then, I was the one who needed to use the rest room.  I was reluctant to abandon my seat, however, for fear that I would not find another.  I noticed that several people were standing, leaning against the walls.

The jury clerk welcomed us over a microphone that could be heard both in the jury assembly room and out in the mezzanine, where the snaking line continued to deliver more potential jurors to the window.  “We’re going to have a party!” the cheerful clerk announced.  Oh, brother.

The assistant presiding judge came in, took the mike and thanked us for participating in the judicial process.  There were 580 of us today, he announced.  He could just as well have said 5,080 and I would have believed.  Men, women, young ones, old ones, guys in T-shirts, guys in suits, women in jeans, women dressed to the nines.  People working on the jigsaw puzzles set out at four stations.  People talking on cell phones, reading the newspaper, texting, playing games on iPads, doing homework while balancing laptops and textbooks.  People staring off into space.  People chatting with each other.  People ignoring their neighbors.  People with their eyes closed, seemingly asleep.

I texted work, checked email and then put my phone away for fear that I’d run out of charge.  No outlets in which to plug a charging cord were in evidence.  The clerk announced that the courthouse plaza was being used in the evenings as a homeless encampment and that the court could not vouch for the cleanliness of the picnic tables and benches outside.  Then she told us she’d put on some movies, but that they were all rated PG.  Sounds about right for a courthouse.

There were two flat screen TVs in the jury assembly room, on which a steady stream of Blu-Ray movies were shown all day.  I wondered whether they showed the same movies over and over, day in and day out, and whether the clerks ever got bored with them.

The first movie was a kids’ flick with Billy Crystal and Bette Midler, Parental Guidance.  The premise involved a washed-up baseball announcer and his wife taking care of their spoiled rotten grandkids for a week.  I actually watched most of this unfunny comedy, at least until it became to stupid to bear.  Then came Zookeeper, which I think was supposed to be a romantic comedy, featuring a talking lion, giraffe, gorilla, monkey and other assorted members of a loquacious menagerie.  Appropriately, I suppose, Adam Sandler was the voice of the monkey.  I guess I made it through about half the film before I couldn’t take the stupidity.  That was followed by You Again and several others, by which time I had totally zoned out and stopped paying attention.

Every so often, the clerk would pause the movie to read off a list of names of those who were to report to a particular courtroom for jury selection.  She urged us to say “Here!” nice and loudly when our names were called so that she, or her counterpart with the hundreds out in the mezzanine, could be checked off the list.  She began to read the list.  With each name, I heard the cry of “Here!” either close by or faintly off in the distance.  As to the unseen masses sitting out in the mezzanine, we’d here a loud “Chirp!” to announce that the person called had acknowledged his or her presence out in the other room.  I assume that the chirp was issued by a handheld device used by the clerk working the mezzanine.

Three panels were called, but my name was not.  Then an hour and a half break for lunch.  Most of the crowd left, but I stayed tight and pulled out my sandwich, carrots, grapes and bottles of water.

Thanks to the lovely medications I take, I had to use the rest room several times throughout the day.  The first time, I waited as long as I possibly could until finally making a mad dash for the men’s room before my bladder burst.  Upon my return, to my surprise, my seat was still vacant.  Well, what do you know!  And I didn’t even have to yell “spot back!”

The second time I wasn’t so lucky, but managed to find a seat closer to the door and farther away from the squawking Blu-Ray movies.

After lunch, two more panels were called, but still my name was not heard.  Finally, about 3 pm, the clerk announced that the courtrooms had confirmed that no more jurors would be needed that day.  Those of us remaining would be excused in groups.  When our group number was called, we were to report to the window, turn in our badge holders and receive a slip acknowledging our service.  Under California’s “one day/one trial” rule, we were reassured that we would not be called again for at least 18 months.

I texted my wife to come retrieve me and went out to sit just inside the front door of the courthouse.  It was 105 degrees outside and I did not relish the thought of sitting on a step in the broiling sun while my wife navigated the downtown traffic.

I was a bit disappointed that I was not called to sit on a trial, but also a little relieved.  Now I could return to work to prepare for my upcoming trip down south.

But if summoned again in 2019 to do my civic duty, I plan to answer the call and once again show up at the courthouse to sit all day with masses of my fellow Sacramentans.  After all, I do appreciate the freedoms that we Americans enjoy, including the guarantee of a trial by a jury of our peers.  So, as I see it, it’s the least I can do.

 

Back in the Old Days

TURLOCK

Sunday afternoon.  Sitting in our car in front of a Wal-Mart on the drive back from my parents’ house down south.  My wife ran in for a minute to get a couple of things, so I get to people watch in my air conditioned cocoon, buffered from the 104°F heat just outside my door.

I feel sorry for the cart guy as he leans into his conga line of shopping trolleys in the searing sun.  Here comes a young woman in an orange T-shirt (logo illegible from this distance) and bright purple hair.  We once had a Chevy that color, but I never associated it with a part of the human body.  Out comes a middle aged woman pushing an empty cart.  You have to wonder what’s up with that.  Wouldn’t you leave the cart in the store if you couldn’t find what you’re looking for?  Maybe she needed the cart to lean on.  The woman’s deeply wrinkled face makes her look old, perhaps a legacy of years of nicotine.  Indeed, she has a cigarette hanging from her lips; the second she crosses the store’s threshold into the dreadful heat, she lights it.

My thoughts drift away to our Fathers’ Day visit to my dad.  We went out to dinner to a local Italian place on Friday night (I need the gluten-free pizza crust, please, and here’s a little Baggie of vegan cheese to use in place of the mozzarella, okay?) and to a steak house on Saturday (an order of broccoli, please, steamed with no butter, and a baked potato with just chives; also a salad with no cheese, croutons or dressing).  Family occasions can be a challenge for gluten-free vegans.

It seems that I seldom come away from a visit to my parents without at least a few stories that I hadn’t heard before.  I need to hear these while I still can.

This time, I learned that my uncle, age 90, is one of the youngest veterans of World War II.  He was sent overseas with the Army Air Corps at the very end of the war; when the war ended, he was still eighteen years old.

Then there’s my dad’s take on history.  During the Great Depression, he tells me, the life expectancy of an American male was 62 years.  A guy who had a job would remain employed until he was too old and sick to work.  Then he’d spend a year sitting on a park bench.  Then he died.  There was no Social Security.  No one took care of you, my father went on; people took care of themselves.  Before FDR’s New Deal, he told me, our guarantees extended to life, liberty and property.  How you ate and paid your rent was up to you.

My father seems to long for those days.  His ideas put me in mind of Archie and Edith Bunker, opening each episode of  “All in the Family” by singing “didn’t need no welfare state/everybody pulled his weight.”

I have some questions.  Was it really like that?  Or is it more like wearing rose-colored glasses regarding the Good Old Days?  How did the old, sick guy on the park bench support himself for that year?  And what about his wife?

I suspect that part of the answer lies in extended families supporting each other.  I’ve been rereading Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath lately, and it is not lost on me that the Joads dragged the elders of the clan along with them as they headed west, even though Grandpa had to be drugged to prevent him from stubbornly remaining behind.

Just as my octogenarian father waxes wistful over a time long gone, I wish we still lived in an age when people stuck together.  The breakdown of the American family over many decades results in people in need having no support (of either the financial or the emotional kind).  We have elderly folks living by themselves in little apartments, spouses dead or divorced, children moved to distant cities and states to pursue their own lives and dreams.  Perhaps striking out on their own and leaving family behind is reflective of the pursuit of happiness.  After all, family members often don’t get along.  And yet, in the days before public assistance, it seems that families had to get along just to survive.

It makes me sad that we seem to cherish the freedom to worship the self and ignore others and, ultimately, the freedom to end up old and alone.