Tuesday, October 09, 2018

On the Road with Neo-Cotton Mather

BULLFROG MARINA, Utah, Oct. 8, 2018—Today marked the first time since May that I have worn long pants, a fact that I noted with a twinge of sadness as I pulled on my trousers before heading out of our comfortable room at the Defiance Lodge at Glenn Canyon National Recreation Area.

Waking up on a cloudy day at Lake Powell
Looking out from our balcony at the drenched landscape this morning, you’d never know that Lake Powell had dropped some 32 feet during the past year. A week’s worth of rain from Hurricane Rosa followed by a newly minted cold front had left the ruddy sandstone cliffs and dunes saturated to the point where the entire landscape was oozing clear fluid that reflected the gray light, substantially muting the scene and our mood. Temperatures this week were 20 degrees lower than previous weeks, necessitating another layer of warmth and full-length trousers.

It did not escape us that this new chill settling over the land coincided with the U.S. Senate’s decision to confirm Bret Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court, clinching an ultra-conservative majority.

A flash flood at Bullfrog Creek impeded our access to the back-
Though temperatures likely will rise soon enough and winters will become a fading memory, according to a new report from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, it’s probably fair to say that the United States will continue to be a cold place for women. The bizarre gas lighting displayed during the Kavanaugh confirmation process—in which a graying horde of male senators were able to declare with straight faces that women had successfully victimized men as part of an ongoing war that is using allegations of sexual misconduct as its primary weapon—ensures that nearly any rape or sexual assault charge by a white man will be playfully dismissed as “boys being boys” and women being hysterical creatures with memories that falter during stressful situations.

Snow in Utah's high country on Oct. 8 must prove that global
warming is a hoax, right?
Maine Sen. Susan Collins confirmed her belief in just such a narrative while explaining her decision to support Kavanaugh’s nomination.

Oh well, the waters of shame will recede soon enough, I thought to myself as we sat on the banks of a swollen Bullfrog Creek, waiting to see whether we would be able to drive the scenic backcountry Burr Trail or be banished back to the main highway. The water won out this time.

Earlier we had driven through the southeast corner of Utah, skirting tribal lands that are peppered with archaeological sites and geologic wonders. A small herd of wild painted ponies joined us at one point, even as natural gas derricks dotting the landscape continued to bob up and down, like hungry locusts feeding on a fragile ecosystem.

Fracking: Out of sight, out of mind; and necessary to
Make America Great Again
If you doubt the hold that Big Energy has on this country, you need only to visit this area. New natural gas leases have led to a new era of wildcatting. Fracking will ensure that every drop of natural gas will be extracted from beneath the Earth, regardless of the consequences. Gas lines are draped across the landscape like poisonous vines. Energy companies gain access to fracking areas via the main roads, but they set up shop behind bluffs or natural contours so as not to alarm the people who live here. Behind one hill, we saw a fracking operation that spread as far as the eye could see. Waste water tanks and pumps dotted the landscape nearly to the horizon.

It’s no wonder humanity will see increasingly lethal temperatures across the planet by 2040: Our addiction to fossil fuels is more powerful than our common sense. Moreover, with guys like Kavanaugh on the Supreme Court, corporations will continue to call the shots, and more and more wealth will continue to be concentrated into the hands of the already wealthy. Education and social programs will continue to dry up. The United States will be headed toward a new version of the Dark Ages that ravaged Europe, and nationalism and superstition will rule the day.

Wild horses couldn't drag me away
It’s only a matter of time until people like Sens. Collins and McConnell will team up to declare that witches are responsible for the climatic calamities befalling our species and ritual burnings and public executions of all types will entertain the masses as lengthening brownouts and blackouts render our televisions, cell phones and other electronics largely useless.

But we’ll worry about that road when we get to it.

Meantime, we will continue our travels west and join the ranks of the rest of the world who will continue to run full speed ahead until the wheels fall off.

See you on down the road!

Friday, June 09, 2017


Somewhere in the Mohave Desert, Calif., June 8, 2017—Sometimes a traveler can find the Truth lurking about in the most unlikely places. The Truth these days has become more and more of a subjective commodity—an elusive eel darting about unnoticed in the miasma of public opinion and murky agendas that are slowly but surely asphyxiating our Democracy. Though Truth is known to have a Stentorian voice, it is downed out these days by the din and clatter of a badly divided nation, forcing those of us who are interested in seeking the Truth to withdraw into isolated and quiet spaces, which is why I am guiding my vehicle into the wilderness along crumbling stretches of asphalt that harken back to the glory days of the American Dream.

Denial lies at the center of our crossroads
As I hit the road, the "Big News" of the day was that former FBI Director James Comey was concerned that our President, Donald J. Trump, is some kind of Serial Liar who may or may not be trying to hide his presidential campaign's, and maybe even his administration's, ties to Russian hacking of our last presidential election. In the wake of Comey's three-hour, deadpan testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee, news organizations assembled panels to determine who had more credibility: Our Orange-Haired, Daddy Warbucks of a Commander-in-Chief, or the towering well-spoken Boy-Scout of a man who had served tirelessly as our nation's Top Cop for almost four years before being fired for "creating a distraction" about possible Russian Collusion by key players of the Warbucks Administration.

It's too bad that Comey's words were boiled down to mere platitudes that could be argued back and forth by pundits and focus groups on the evening news shows, because the real story is being largely ignored: Russia directly interfered with out Democracy—an act of Cyber-warfare, a virtual assassination attempt fought with weapons and tactics that are mostly unfamiliar to our mostly uneducated masses. The former FBI Director tried to spell it out for the panel, saying there was "no fuzz" around the issue, but most members of the panel were more interested in protecting or propping up their own political positions about whether our President was obstructing justice.

Out in America, opinions about the hearing seemed to coincide with whatever side of the political spectrum a person's ideologies happened to reside on. Chit-chat over red Enchiladas in Gallup, New Mexico, revealed a distrust of government in general, and our president in particular, tempered by a great reverence for Democracy and a love for our Republic. In Needles, California, a young fellow and an old timer at a gas station argued in the shade of an awning, presenting and defending the predictable "liberal" versus "conservative" sides of the argument. On this sweltering day there was more heat than light in their conversation, though both heartily agreed that "all politicians are crooks" and that our nation is in deep trouble and probably on the brink of collapse. In Twentynine Palms, California, sun-faded and wind-ravaged Trump/Pence campaign signs were displayed proudly above ramshackle encampments at the edge of the desert and the edges of society.

Our nation pines for a return to the days of "Happy Motoring"
It's clear that most people know there's something desperately wrong with our nation right now, but most seem hesitant to vocalize what that "something" really is. The polarization of America seems complete now. Both sides have squared off, and neither side seems interested in compromise or giving an inch. On one side, Donald Trump has become the perfect symbol for everything that is wrong or unjust about our nation; on the other, Donald Trump represents the hope that White Skin, money, and the home-court advantage will restore honor and dignity to a nation that seems to be moving from the big leagues to the bush leagues. Despite the differences between both points of view, each side does seem to be noticing the increasing irrelevance of the Little Guy.

Our nation sits at a crossroads like the one I came across deep in the Mojave Desert. Every signpost and set of directions has been ravaged and vandalized, yet one graffiti artist managed to provide a glimpse of The Truth—that we remain in terrible denial as a nation. While wealthy Oligarchs sitting a continent apart parse out our nation for sale to the highest bidders for their own enrichment, a divided rabble hurls words and punches toward one another in an ineffectual display of rage that can only get worse as the summer wears on.

It was 108 degrees at that crossroads, and it is only going to get hotter. It can only be a matter of time until something ignites, which is why the desert isn't a bad place to be right now.

See you on down the road....

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Green your Beach

Papakolea beach gets its green sand from a cider cone
that has a high content of olivine, a mineral mixture of 

magnesium iron silicate. Volcanic eruptions on this island
contain differing concentrations of olivine, which can be
used as a tag to determine the date and source of the lava. 
KA LAE, HAWAI'I, December 26, 2016—According to the locals, high-season for tourism begins the day after Christmas in Hawai'i and continues through April each year. With Papakolea Beach (aka, "The Green-Sand Beach") being one of the top tourist draws on the Big Island of Hawai'i—one of the Big Three must-see destinations—we thought we'd test this statement by heading to the southernmost point on the island to check out the beach, which gets its unique color from a cinder cone that is rich in Ovaltine, the signature drink of the Christmas season made famous in the movie, A Christmas Story, which played continuously for 24 hours the day before on cable television.

The rental car agent had warned us not to go there. He said the vehicle would be pillaged by hostile locals. We disregarded his advice and found ourselves at the parking area amidst a sea of tourists, most of them dismayed by the fact that regular vehicles cannot drive to the Green Sand Beach, and traveling there requires a two-and-a-half-mile walk along the coastline in buffeting winds. A hoarde of industrious locals had set up shop to cater to the lazy. For $15 to $20 a head, they'd drive you out to the beach in their 4x4 pickups. Business was brisk. There was more green exiting tourist wallets this day than grains of sand on the beach.

On our walk to the beach, we had helped a Japanese family navigate their large 4x4 rental SUV over some of the more treacherous spots in the road, but we lost sight of them about halfway along. Once we got to the beach, two young boys approached us and thanked us for helping their family navigate the giant vehicle.

"So you made it?" I asked with excitement.

"No," the older boy said. "Our father parked the car, so we ran here."

In which I face off with a big wave at the Green Sand
Last time we had come here was a decade earlier. There were a half a billion fewer people on the planet back then, and the difference was apparent. While we previously had shared the beach with four other people, when we topped the overlook after our hour-long overland journey this year, we saw that the beach was packed to the gills with tourists.

Down on the beach, the waves were huge. People from Europe ate wraps and drank dairy products, while Asian tourists frolicked in the sand, kicking up clouds of green silica particles that were carried by the fearsome winds into every nook, cranny, and orifice of our bodies, as well as into the European lunches. Despite the winds, the smell of stale beer hung heavy in the air at the northern edge of the beach, and abandoned, forgotten, or discarded articles of clothing flapped helplessly in the wind along the cliff face above us. 

I waded into the pounding surf. The sea was roiling so much that the water was dark brown, apparently because the Ovaltine was being mixed so well in the surf. I wondered whether the Europeans had mixed some of the sand in with their dairy drinks to create a vitamin-packed chocolate-flavored treat. The undertow was harsh, so I forgot about the European drinks and I swam for only a few minutes, keeping my eye on the shoreline. The parade of people in and out of the beach area during that time rivaled the crushes of humanity who entered and exited shopping malls across the country in search of post-Christmas bargains.

We climbed back up to the rim of the beach, where I changed out of my snorkeling shirt. One of the Hawaiian locals in one of the shuttle trucks noticed my massive girth and offered to drive me back to the parking lot for $10. I thumped my chest. "Kamehameha!" I grunted. He winced and ran away.

We took a slight detour on the walk back that took us close to the shoreline. Just off the coast I noticed a pair of whales among the white caps. We watched them with binoculars for 15 minutes, marveling at their size and grace. As we neared the parking lot, a large Hawaiian woman nearly ran us down in her truck full of tourists. A monstrously fat man grinned and slapped his knee at the spectacle of me stumbling to escape the front wheel of the vehicle that was being steered by the Mammon-intoxicated woman.

"You pussies," I hissed at the group of riders.

The green sand was actually a little greener in a little
inlet just south of Papakolea Beach.
We told a walking Japanese couple and a nice family from North Dakota who had set out on the road about the whales we had seen, and they thanked us profusely. I knew that the hope of seeing a whale spout would drown out some of the monotony of the walk and the wind and the crowds. A sad-looking woman asked us, "was it worth it?"

"Hell yes!" I said.

Back at Ka Lae—the southern tip of the island, with the next stop being Antarctica—the ocean below the cliff shimmered like topaz. A pair of buff local boys snorkeled in the blue pool, and a retired marine named Mark told us about the fishing and hunting opportunities on the Big Island as he tended to the two poles he had cast off the coastal cliff. Later we tasted coffee from the Kau district of the Island before driving back north. It was delicious.

While we are certainly here during the high season, any place that has warm tropical winds, brilliant blue waters, tasty coffee, and sweet exotic fruits beats a day at the mall on the mainland. The green sand was stuck in my memory and contrasted with the bright red poinsettias we see growing wild here. It was a great way to round out the Christmas season.

See you on down the road.

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Island Bounty

December 25, 2016, WAIKALOA, HAWAI'I—If you are a coffee lover, the Big Island of Hawai'i is a great place. Just a few miles down the coast from where we are staying, there are terrific coffee farms that grow 100 percent Kona coffee. When we picked up our rental car, Jeffrey the agent told us to buy local as much as possible to support the local economy.

We eat an enormous amount of food, said one person.
"Oh, and don't go to Starbucks," he said as we exited the building. "There's so much good local coffee that there's no need to go to Starbucks."

Nevertheless, yesterday, as I went to the market to get some local eggs for breakfast, the Starbucks was jam packed with people eating muffins and drinking huge silos of coffee or people gripping Venti Frappacinos. The price of two of those drinks would have bought nearly a half a pound of fine Kona coffee at the market that was just a stone's throw away.

"Drink local coffee," I said to a quartet of handsome dudes dressed in mainland fashions that they had obviously painstakingly selected for their honeymoons on the island.

"How rude!" one of the Style Boys retorted.

And perhaps it was, so I went home and pondered the matter over another cup of delicious Kona coffee as we prepared eggs and island potatoes. 

The locals sniffed out Captain Cook, decided he was
not a God, so they bludgeoned him to death near
here. This is the true price of fear.
For the gaggle of gay men, the coffee advice dispensed to them by an aging fat man with a sunburn who was wearing an ensemble from Kohl's probably made about as much sense to them as the story of Kamehameha I's rise to power that was written in the Hawaiian language on a plaque at the nearby Pu’ukohala Heiau National Historic Park did to me. Although there are only 13 letters in the Hawaiian language, they are all still very confusing—at least to English speakers.

What was not confusing is how, no matter where you go, mankind seems to build political and social structures that end up with the ordinary doing all the work and paying all the taxes so that the rich and privileged can continue to maintain the lifestyles to which they are accustomed without lifting a finger. Thirteen letters or not, that was the bottom line of the Kamehameha story. It's no wonder the term "Big Kahuna" remains in the English and Hawaiian lexicons nearly 300 years after the Beefy King's rise to power. Kamehameha was named king after he hefted a giant stone, fulfilling a prophesy that bamboozled the superstitious commoners into accepting "unification" that eventually turned them into slaves for the wealthy and powerful. We've seen the same thing today with the appointment of Donald J. Trump as our new leader. He pulled off a miracle, and now the ordinary rabble will march through fire against their own better judgment, working against their own best interests, for at least the next four years.

Big-Island breakfast
As we drove down the coast, I wondered whether President Obama, ensconced for Christmas with his family on a nearby island, was having a similar revelation.

The sight of a whale spout in the brilliant blue waters just off the coast shook me from my stuporous thoughts, so we pulled over and prepared to hike down to the shore—which was about a mile away downhill over unsteady lava-strewn terrain. Just as we departed, a vehicle full of young Hawaiian hooligans—all drinking Carling Black Label at 11 a.m.—made me reconsider our idea. 

"You've got quite a journey ahead of you, Brah," the driver said.

I walked up to the passenger side window. The young woman's eyes were nearly closed, the side effect of morning beers and an intense seaside Wake-'n-bake session, most likely. The couple in the back of the 4x4 vehicle giggled at me. How rude, I thought to myself. The occupants eyed our rental car as I looked on the ground at the patches of broken window glass from previously parked vehicles.

"Yeah, I've never seen whales before," I said. "About how far is it to the shoreline?"

"About half an hour, Brah."

"Good to know. Mele Kalikimaka!"

The sushi rocks at Sushi Rock!
They watched us walk toward the beach in their rear-view mirror. After they got on the road, we turned around and went back to our car.

"They'll be back just after we're out of sight and our car will be ruined," I said to Caroline, motioning to the shattered and pillaged vehicle that had been abandoned at the edge of the road below us. Broken glass, tires, and various remnants of fabric and plastic lay haphazardly next to the useless hulk. We made the decision to find a better spot for whale watching. 

Sure enough, about five minutes down the road, we saw the gray SUV and its occupants heading back down main highway toward where we had been.

We were hungry and anxious to celebrate Caroline's birthday, so we stopped in Hawi for some sushi and a cool drink. The Sushi Rock restaurant was fantastic in every way, and one of the waitresses wore a Santa hat with a faux leopard-skin fringe. Mele Kalikimaka, indeed! We ate a chef's choice sushi special, which meant they shoveled a mystery array of delicious rolls our way—44 pieces in all. It was the perfect choice for Caroline's special day.

We made our way north toward the end of the road. After visiting Pololu beach—a big hike that attracts many to the parking lot high above the valley, but not nearly as many to the stony black beach below—we headed back south for dinner. We had stocked up on tons of local comestibles at the farmer's market in Kona a day earlier, so each of our meals have been fresh feasts. A papaya, passion fruit and local lime makes for a lovely breakfast, and stir-fry is easy and plentiful here. In between we snack on nuts, local breads, and island-distilled spirits. Not only is this place a paradise for the eyes, but for the stomach as well.

The black beach at Pololu, near the northern tip
of the Big Island
Some while back when we first visited the Big Island, a friend of ours remarked that we "eat an enormous amount of food." It's a true statement. We always have, and even though I'm a big person, I will never match Kamehameha's stature, but I'll never turn into a sumo wrestler type, like the 12-year-old kid we saw sucking on a popsicle by the Kawaihae Harbor, where we watched the setting sun and the last spouting whale of the day. 

With so much great local fish and fruit on this island, it's hard to imagine how a place like the Macaroni Grill and other chain restaurants survive here. But then I think back to the encounter at Starbucks, the history of Kamehameha I, and our recent election of Donald Trump. People throughout the ages hate chaos. They like a sure bet. Why gamble on a home-made cup of coffee or one prepared at a local coffee shack when you can be sure that a cup of Starbucks will taste the same no matter where you are on the planet? Why gamble on continuing socio-economic uncertainty when a larger-than-life demigod can assign you a known place in society, even if that place is endlessly toiling in service of the Elites and the powerful?

Fear is a huge motivator, and it stops us in our tracks. It's better to erase the unknowns from life than it is to find out firsthand whether the guy in the gray SUV was coming back to smash your windows and steal your beach towels or whether, fueled by a little early Christmas Spirit and the goodwill buzz of some kind Kona gold bud, he was checking to make sure that no other hooligans were disrupting the vacation of a couple of tourists from the mainland, isn't it?

Merry Christmas, and we'll see you on down the road!
A panorama of Pololu beach near low tide.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

A Fraud on the Golf Course

Goats roam the King's Course at Waikoloa
December 22, 2016, WAIKALOA, HAWAI'I—At the King's Course at Waikoloa, John the cart attendant immediately sniffed us out as the frauds we were. We are not golfers. Caroline could be a golfer if she practiced more, and I could be a golfer if golfing didn't require a golf swing, which is something I do not have and likely something I will never acquire. But even by the loosest definition, we are not golfers. Nevertheless, John the cart attendant was gracious. He stared at our shoes and attire—which presented a stark contrast to the dapper, professional looking ensembles worn by the high-dollar Japanese business tycoons who were cementing million-dollar land deals during a casual round of 18—and told us to remember that the score was far less important than whether we were enjoying ourselves.

"Good to know," I said thoughtfully as we headed to the first tee.

Complicating our lack of practice and innate skill was the fact that neither of us were playing with our own clubs. We were using the ratty sets furnished by the condo owner. When we had arrived at the course, the guy at the pro-shop had hopefully inquired whether the owners had something newer than the sets stashed at the course. He winced when we said no. I suddenly understood the guy's look as I stood on the third tee holding a club with a slick and rotting grip, overlooking an expanse of jagged lava to the left and a waste area to the right. And while the King's Course had been dubbed a "Links-Style Course in Paradise" on the brochures, all I was seeing was a narrow chute of green sandwiched between the jaws of hell.

One sleeve of balls later I took a drop near the green. At least I got off with a two putt. As I moped toward the cart, I saw a Japanese man in a perfect Nike golf ensemble standing on the tee box behind us with his hands on his hips. I decided we'd let the vexed man play through, so I waved him toward us. His tee shot was flawless and landed within inches of the pin. He drove up and sneered at us with disdain as he grabbed his putter. Caroline, who had been feeling stiff from traveling, took the delay as an opportunity to loosen up by doing the downward dog yoga pose on the grass next to the green just as the man sized up his six-inch putt. I ran up behind her, grabbed her hips, and dry humped her from behind just as the man was beginning his stroke. The ball shot past the hole as I pretended to ride a bull and waved my ball cap into the air like a rodeo cowboy.

You can find two sleeves of these bad boys out there.
"Yippie cay-aye!"

The golf shark finished off with a bogey and drove onto the next hole muttering a string of what must have been obscenities.

It took me two holes to shake off the idea that I had messed with the wrong person and would suffer reprisal from the Yakuza later on, but those thoughts disappeared when I smacked an amazing drive within 40 yards of the pin on a short par 4. Two shots later I exited the green with a smile and a birdie.

On the next hole, Caroline hit a similarly amazing shot. As we approached the green, we were startled to see a gang of goats meandering near the flag. Caroline nailed the stick with her chip shot, and the ball landed with a thump next to the hole. The sound of the ball smacking the fiberglass pin had enraged a Billy Goat and he thundered up onto the green, taking an offensive stance with his horns pointed menacingly toward our private parts.

"God-damned Yakuza have their tendrils into everything," I muttered, waving the goat off with my putter. 

Lots of places to eat, but this should not be one of them.
The game took an entirely different turn afterward, and we stopped keeping score. As we made our way up the 18th fairway—an exhausting par 5 that seemed to be home to an army of goats—a light drizzle cooled us down just enough for a final push. Caroline hit an approach shot that miraculously checked up just short of a deep, gaping lava abyss that I had dubbed Pele's Asshole. My long putt for par nailed the cup but bounced off, coming to rest inches from the mark. Caroline stood at the edge of the lava bung-hole and chipped a beautiful shot onto the green, finishing up with a respectable bogey.

The course was nearly deserted and the clubhouse and pro shop were empty at the end of the long day. But John the cart attendant emerged cheerfully from the dark garage beneath the clubhouse.

"How'd it go?" he asked with a hopeful grin.

"It's not so much about the score, but rather whether we enjoyed ourselves," I said. "Right?"

I slapped a fine tip into his hand.

"By the way, you guys don't have the Yakuza on this island, do you?"

"Yakuza? What is that? A type of rum?" he asked. "If so, I'm sure it's here."

See you on down the road!