Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Is Bush Really the Devil?

Mark Morford doesn't think he quite pulls it off.

Satan has better taste in shoes. Is far sexier. Can actually spell 'Venezuela.' I mean, come on

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Energy Star Pledge

This weekend the new organization that I helped to form is manning a table at Red Hook's annual Hardscrabble day. Neighborhood Earth Watch will be selling compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFLs), handing out free reusable shopping bags, courtesy of Hannaford's, and asking people to sign a pledge change one light bulb in their home to an Energy Star light bulb.

You can sign the pledge yourself here.

Microwave Fire--GE

Yesterday morning we had a very close call. Conor was making his oatmeal in the microwave and I was in my office reading e-mail. He called me from the kitchen to say that there was a very big problem. I ran in, and he told me that our microwave was on fire. I assumed that he meant that the food was on fire, but when I opened it up, I saw flames burning on the inside of the microwave itself. The food was fine, aside from strings of melted plastic on top of it.

We closed the door, unplugged the appliance and thought of getting water. Conor filled up a cup from the fridge, while I grabbed a dish towel and wet it under the faucet. I opened the door again and placed the dish towel on top of the flames, where it sizzled and put out the fire.

We carried the microwave outside to the patio, where it still sits. My initial reaction was to call GE to tell them about this problem, so that they could warn other consumers, but when I googled around, I found out that GE knows full well about these fires, although they won't say so to their customers.

Please be careful with your microwave. Even if you don't have a GE model, know that most of these are manufactured outside of the US and have the branding put on afterward. Think twice about letting your kids use the microwave when you're not home.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

The Last Day

On our last day, Chloe was on the phone with her friend:
“Don’t get sick and miss school,” her friend said to her.
“It’s the first day. I would go if I had pneumonia.”
“Well, I heard that hay fever was going around Pennsylvania.”

Thanks to all of you for sharing our journey with us. It meant a lot to us that you were there to offer advice, feedback, and concern as well as the occasional hello.

We’re home and the kids are back to school. I’m starting to slide into a routine again, but I hope to break a few of my old habits and begin a few new ones. I still plan to write at least one more blog post about our trip. Something to do with my general impressions of camping, the rest of the country, and being with my children. After that, I may continue to be a blogger, but I don’t think I’ll be sending out e-mails every time I post an article. It feels too forced to me. You can stop by the site—I made the URL easier to type—it’s now, but the old URL works too. I think I might write more about writing and politics and anything else I feel like thinking about. I don’t want to bore anyone.

They make newsfeed readers that let you know when content on a Web site has been updated. I have a couple of feeds that run on my Yahoo home page, but there are many other readers designed specifically for this purpose. If you want to do this, the atom feed is:

I think Bloglines is a good service to use for newsfeeds. It’s easy to set up and free. You can see it for yourself at:

If you all of this sounds like too much trouble and you truly want to continue receiving e-mails from me, than send a message to me and I’ll make sure to keep you subscribed by e-mail.

Madison, WI to Elkhart, IN

It's our anniversary today. I think it's the first time we've ever been apart, but then since Labor Day is such a great time to travel, I may have been in Maine or somewhere else at another time.

I didn't think I'd have anything to write about at this point. Our sightseeing is over and the absence of National Parks and Monuments on our way home left me thinking it was just a matter of miles and doing the time.

But I'm surprised again here in Elkhart, IN. About 30 miles east of South Bend, we found not only the home of 70% of all RV manufacturing in the world, but also the second largest Amish population in the country. These two things did not happen by coincidence. The RV manufacturers chose to be here to make use of the Amish's exceptional craftmanship.

I would imagine that this would be a great place to shop for a camper or to get repairs.

We'd seen Mennonites on our way out to Seattle. They camped in huge bus-size RVs with several families together. I would always see the men walking around with the children, while I assumed the women were inside preparing meals or doing other things. The Amish, would not be found in RVs, because they won't even drive cars, but they are building these things apparently.

With the impending oil crisis and global warming to face are the Amish going to be miles ahead of the rest of us? We may be impatient when we're driving behind their horse and buggy, but it may not be long before we're asking them to help us learn how to live more simply ourselves.

Jackson, MN to Madison, WI

We stopped a couple of times today; something we can easily afford with a goal of only 5.5 hours. Our first stop was the SPAM Museum. This was not in my plan, but with free admission and restrooms it was a great opportunity to stretch our legs and study top-notch PR in action.

Once inside the door, you are immediately directed to a movie that "just started, hurry." The film cleverly uses irony to increase your comfort level with SPAM. In one scene we met a college student who has only worn SPAM tee-shirts every day for the last 5 years. He has 20 of them in all varieties.

While I was able to find a small display of factory worker uniforms and tools, including some butchering knives, I didn't see any films or photos of the pig butchering process. These cute pink pigs just shrink down into cubed cans.

Chloe wanted to try some, so we bought a can of low-sodium on the way out. Ugghh...On the way to the museum, you drive by the flagship Hormel factory. The smell is strong enough to enter the car even with the windows closed. I admire the marketing job that the SPAM team is doing--what a challenge. Too bad they can't convince Hormel to change its logo. It reeks of bad institutional food.

The same storm that soaked us at Mt. Rushmore hit us last night too and then we had to drive through it. I think this is going to be a repeating pattern now that we're traveling east. No escaping the weather.

Monday, September 04, 2006

South Dakota to MN

We wanted to stop at Wall Drug on the way home, since we didn’t have time to do that the day before. We had a tough night, heavy rain and strong winds and thunder kept all of us up much of the night. The kids were too scared to leave the tent and I was glad for that since the chances that they’d get hit by lightening would have been greater.

In the morning, we had to make a plan on how to pack up the wet tent despite the fact that it was still raining hard. I told the kids to hold the fly up above the tent as a sort of umbrella, but that didn’t work too well. Everything was soaked. We just left it all in a pile on the floor of the TAB on top of some towels. If I’d thought ahead, we might have been able to place it all in the laundromat’s dryer and then we could have packed it up dry. Our new tent did keep everything inside dry though. The sleeping bags, blankets, and pillows were all fine.

When we got to Jackson, MN, our next stop, I did use the dryers in the laundromat at a low temperature. The owner’s wife came out at one point because the plastic clips were rattling in the machine. I asked her if it was bothering her and she said no, she just wondered what the noise was. Then her husband came out when I was taking the tent out of the dryer. He said, I can smell something burning. I couldn’t smell anything and said so. God knows I have a sensitive nose. Besides, I had it on delicate and stood there watching over it, worried that I might damage the new tent. He said, I hope the next person who uses that dryer doesn’t end up having their clothes smell. It was late and I let it get to me. I asked him if he wanted me to buy him a new dryer. Then he gave me a look, turned around and left. I was the one to use the dryer next, since I decided to wash all of our dirty clothes while I was there, and there was no problem. Just a creepy place. I ran into the owners every time I turned around. It felt like they were watching every move we made.

Agate Allotment

I had a feeling that South Dakota might be a good place for rockhounding and an Internet search that I did the night before confirmed this. While no one is obviously allowed to collect rocks from the Badlands National Park, or any other National Park as far as I know, The National Grasslands has what they refer to as the Agate Allotment, where they allow rockhounding for personal use.

We found the visitor center for the National Grasslands and asked the ranger if she would tell us where we could go for rocks. She pointed out a location on 44 past the south east exit of the park near Interior. She said that we should look for a sign that said Agate Allotment near a gated road.

When we reached the spot we saw all around us, lying on top of parched earth, small agates, jaspers and quartz. We’d seen the varieties of agates that we might find in the visitor’s center before we left. Bubble-gum agates, jaspers and black agates were the most interesting to us, although Chloe found quite a bit of rose quartz. We got close enough to a prairie dog village that they started to call out warnings, so we decided to turn back.

We kept our eyes on the ground for rattle snakes and on the horizon for buffalo, but no threats were visible aside from the very small cactus hid among the low grass. I think we’ll look into purchasing a rock tumbler when we get home.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Sitting Bull Crystal Cave

We didn’t know anything about this cave, except that the woman at our campground told us that it was on the way to the Badlands. Although small, it was a good choice for us. We learned that it’s one of only five in the world that have dog-spire crystals, and it has the largest crystal of its kind in the world.

Unlike other caves we’ve been to, this cave doesn’t have stalagmites or stalactites to speak of. Instead it’s like being inside of a giant geode crystal. We walked down three flights of steep metal stairs. The hand rails felt like metal does in the winter, but they were necessary, as was watching every step.

I didn’t feel very cold until the end of the tour, about 45 minutes after we started, and at that point, I would have loved to just climb back up the steps to get warm, but our guide wanted to show us a water feature named Diamond Lake. We were only allowed to go three at a time, and when she showed it to us at first, she didn’t shine the light directly on the water, but covered the light up with her hand and shined it around the room, which caused the ceiling of the cave to reflect on the water and made the 6-inch deep “lake” look like it was 100-200 feet deep.

Mt. Rushmore

I had originally planned to go to the Wind Cave National Park in the morning and Mt. Rushmore later, and then see the Badlands on the way to MN the next day.But, we decided that trying to see the Bandlands and driving 8-hours was too much for one day. Our new plan was to see Mt. Rushmore, and then stop at a smaller cave on the way to the Badlands.

The Black Hills were the biggest surprise for me. I had imagined them being bare and black, but they were rugged and covered with Ponderosa Pines. The area is like an oasis between the dry range lands of eastern Wyoming and the Badlands.

Mt. Rushmore was also much nicer than I had pictured. They’ve built a promenade and a Presidential Trail, which offers a variety of closer views. The kids both said that this was something they had wanted to do all of their lives…Hunh, me too I guess. What I thought was most interesting was how the mountain it was carved out of was brown, unlike the white faces underneath. The ranger said that the sculpture was pressure-washed last year.

This visit was more meaningful to us after we’d been listening to the “Don’t Know Much About History,” book on tape about American history. We’re were up to the part about Vietnam when we reached Mt. Rushmore, so we’ve been refreshed on these biggies.

Across Wyoming

This was the day I dreaded before ever leaving home. There’s no straight route across the middle of Wyoming, so I had to zig and zag my way over to South Dakota. The Nav system predicted a 14-hour day. At around eight hours and 6 PM, we were somewhere between Douglass and Lusk on Route 20 at a truck stop called the Three Sisters. We had dinner and a peek at very small town Wyoming.

My dashboard is telling me that my oil needs to be changed and that something is wrong with my tire pressure. On the way here, I tired to make a repair to the orange casing of our TAB’s propane tank cover. It’s broken in a few places and a screw is missing from one of the brackets. I tried replacing the screw, but after driving on roads that were under construction for a good part of the day, the jiggling beat me in the game.

The drive even more demanding than I thought it would be. After dinner we drove for another 2.5 hours in the dark and near the Black Hills where hundreds of deer stood near the road. I wanted to make up time, but couldn’t risk driving over 50 mph. At one point, a huge buck stood in my lane and I had to swerve onto the shoulder.

We came to the Jewel Cave National Monument and had a crazy drive over step winding roads. The Nav system got confused then, and I was trying to look at a map in the dark and at the same time, avoid the deer.

Once we got onto 244, we found the seconded largest KOA in the country with no trouble. The new two story office and store felt more like a hotel lobby than a campground. Since it is so big, you’d think that they’d offer to escort us to our site, especially in the dark, but unlike many of the other, smaller KOAs where this courtesy was offered, Mt. Rushmore hands you a map and sends you on your way. I had some trouble finding it, because the campground is about the size of the Village of Red Hook, but once we found it, we were happy. It was on an end and right across from the bathrooms. With 25-35 mph winds, we had some difficulty setting up the tent. I doubt that the older one would have stood up to this test, but this new one was great. I made sure to use the guys on the corners for extra protection.

Jackson Hole and the Grand Tetons

We had one day to explore Jackson Hole and the Grand Teton National Park. We decided to take it easy, since Chloe and I both still had colds, and white water rafting in the cold water didn’t sound too appealing to us. Our first stop was the ski area for the tram ride up Rendezvous Mt.

Chloe was nervous about the height, over 10,000 feet and a 4000 foot climb, but our operator was informative and kept us entertained on the way up. After the 10-minute ride to the top, we walked around and enjoyed the great views of the Grand Tetons, the valley and town of Jackson. We didn’t stay long, because the temperature was about 40 degrees and hiking at over 10,000 when you’re not feeling well is too much. At the bottom of the mountain, the kids each took a turn at the bungee-trampoline combo, each accomplishing some backflips.

Our plan for the park was to drive up the road from Teton Village to Jenny Lake. We stopped at Taggert Lake to look at the renewal of growth following the 1985 fire. Most of the foothills there are green, covered with evergreens, grass and shrubs and yet there are still obvious signs of the fires among the charred logs on the ground. It was encouraging to see after the sadness we all felt seeing the fire in Glacier a couple of weeks ago.

We got out of the car at Jenny Lake to take some pictures and then continued down to the south visitor’s center for our boat ride across the lake. Our boat operator had New York listed as his home and we found out he was from Albany.

We crossed the lake and climbed to Hidden Falls. More beautiful than the falls, were the mountains on our right. Closer than before and rough-faced, climbing them seemed unimaginable, perhaps because I could hardly make the 0.5 mile climb to the falls with this cold sapping my energy. I thought about Hensley being out here doing technical climbing and how she didn’t want to come back. I picked up a Real Estate guide to go over with Jim when I get back.

Bruneau Sand Dunes

We stopped in Boise to get gas and the Nav system led us through the entire city, past Boise State University on the way to 84. What I saw was not impressive, but unimaginative and full of chain restaurants and gas stations. Maybe we missed the downtown, but from what I saw, I couldn’t tell why this city is always listed in the top ten places to live.

We were headed to the Bruneau Sand Dunes, based on the suggestion of Siri, Katti’s friend. Although all the park rangers we met on this trip were kind and helpful the ones at the Sand Dunes top them all. They let us borrow a sled to ride down the dunes.

We were the only people there and when we got out of the car, I was still feeling awful. Cold? Allergies? The 97 degree temperature felt like 120 in the sun and the air was so dry it was hard to breathe. I found a little shade under a tree where I could watch the kids, but felt like I might pass out any minute. I shared the shade with dragon flies and something else that kept biting my shins.

The dune sledding was not successful. As hard as the kids tried, they couldn’t get any momemtum. They might have had more luck on the bigger dune, but it was a hike from the parking lot. Maybe if we’d gotten there earlier in the day when it was still cool, they may have had more interest. But as it was, they just wanted to get into the car to cool off in the air conditioning.

We decided to skip Craters of the Moon, even though we really wanted to see it, because we didn’t want to repeat the delays and late arrival of the day before. We pushed ahead at max speed, getting terrible mileage. It seemed like we filled up the tank every couple of hours. By 7 or 8 PM we were close to Teton Pass. If I had known what it was like, I wouldn’t have gone that way. With 10% grades it seemed like we would blow a valve going up and then on the way down each time I hit the brakes a tire rattled and the steering wheel moved and vibrated. This must have something to do with the way the brakes work on the TAB. Since then, I haven’t had problems braking and nothing seems to be wrong with the tires.

Cascade Locks to Idaho

We had plans to drive all the way across Oregon and into Idaho in one day. Most of the trip was along the north of the state following the Interstate and the Columbia River. The first thing we did in the morning was check out the Bridge of the Gods. I had to see what that was about. It cost $1.50 each way with the trailer. One side is Oregon and the other Washington. We missed all the other sites in that area: trails and waterfalls to see on the next visit.

Although we started out on 84, part way through the trip we decided to make a detour and headed south for the John Jay Fossil Beds National Monument. This detour required meandering through some back roads, climbing over some mountain passes and traveling through National Forests. If I had really known what was ahead I would not have done this, but in making the decision, it seemed to fit in with our secondary theme of rocks and geology that we’d started in North Dakota.

When we got to the National Monument at around 5 PM, the visitor’s center was already closed. It was about 100 degrees there and it seemed that my allergies were starting to act up again. I was beginning to think that I was allergic to deserts, but maybe I had picked up a cold along he way. The green color of the fossil beds was impressive, but we didn’t stay too long in the heat.

After that, the drive seemed interminable and following our dinner in a small town at around 7 PM, I just didn’t know if we could make it to Mountain Home. We called telling them that we were going to be late, the time change not working in our favor and they told us that they lock up the bathrooms at 10 PM. Hunh? For that I was killing myself?

At about 11 PM, I gave up and pulled off the highway at an exit that had a camping sign. The Oasis, a small campground seemingly in the middle of nowhere and still about 2 hours away from Mt. Home, we stopped. The office was closed and I was about to fill and the form and leave my $20, when the manager came out to help me. This was the second night that we all slept together in the TAB. The night before coming back from Portland it was too late to set up the tent too. I found that it really wasn’t that bad and saved us a lot of time. We sleep head to toe to make more room for our pillows.

When we woke up the next morning, we saw the Snake River only about 20 feet from our camper. What a gorgeous spot they have there in eastern Oregon. Don’t hesitate to stop if you’re headed through. For $20 it’s the best deal we’ve gotten, and they have the cleanest rest rooms we’ve seen.

Face Forward

My friend Jackie Dooley is looking for sponsors for her walk on September 17 in NYC. She's raising funds for Face Forward, an organization that helps children who are born with cleft lips and palates. Jackie's own daughter was helped by Face Forward. For more information see:

Portland, OR

We left Vashon just in time to make the 10:35 AM ferry to Tacoma. Jim stayed behind, because Andy offered to drop him off at the ferry station later in the day. He had hotel reservations near the airport and an early flight the next morning. We had people to meet in Portland, and were eager to get there around lunch time.

Parked right in front of us on the ferry, was a Bard student who lives on Vashon Island. She talked to us, well mostly Chloe, throughout the trip. We promised to get in touch with her this fall.

Our first stop in Portland, was the home of Goudarz. A friend of Majid’s from Tehran, Goudarz is the person who helped me find Majid in the first place. When he was helping me 12 years ago, he said that if I was ever in Portland, I should stop by to meet him. Goudarz and his partner Gabby gave us a grand tour of their beautiful city. Our first stop was the famous Portland Rose Garden, which is unlike anything else I’ve ever seen in scale and variety. Portland is certainly a garden city, as my friend Allison has tried to explain to me.

After seeing the downtown, they drove us past Powell’s Books, which Goudarz said was the #2 icon in Portland. I asked him what the #1 icon was, and he said the Rose Garden…

I was impressed by the four-car tram that they have running through the city. Gabby relies solely on public transportation. The biking is great here too, with numerous trails and paths, and bike racks on the buses.

One thing that truly surprised me was an electric car charger on the street. A single person vehicle was plugged into it. It looked like a covered motorcycle with three wheels; it’s made by Corbin Motors ( The charging was provided for free by the local electric company: Portland General Electric.

Everything about Portland seemed good. The politics are progressive, they have good public transportation, and they even have a Persian Festival every year. Some 11,000 Iranian-Americans live in the area. I may have to return one year for that.

We left Goudarz and Gabby after too short a visit, but so glad to have had the opportunity to meet them. We were headed to my friend Sue’s house for dinner. Sue and I met this summer in Prague, where she was taking the playwrighting course. When she found out that we would be driving through Portland this summer she suggested that we stop by, so that we could see each other again and meet her daughter and husband.

Sue gave me an amazing Pinot Noir to drink—what was that? please tell me again--and a wonderful dinner with salad from their garden. It was great to see her and meet her family. I hope we can see each other again this fall when her instructor’s play is staged in Chicago. Another visit that was too short, but we had to drive to Cascade Locks to spend the night. Bruce and Deanna told me to look for their old house out there, but I ended up driving out of Portland in the dark and missed it. Next time, because Portland is one place I know I’ll return to.


There’s no bridge from Seattle to Vashon Island, and as my friend Andy said, “the surest way to get thrown off the ferry is to suggest that there should be one. Just look at the development on Bainbridge Island to see why those on Vashon like things just the way they are.” We ended up sitting on line for the ferry during rush hour, exactly the thing that Jim had wanted to avoid. But our list of errands including our REI stop delayed our departure from the Seattle KOA. After 40 minutes of sitting parked on line, we were at the ticket booth, where the officials measured our rig’s length. If you’re under 30 feet it’s $30 for the round-trip ride, but if you’re over, it’s $70. Our official length according to the ferryman was 31.5 feet. We cried foul, but what’s there to do?

Andy and Naomi have a great house on the eastern shore of the island. They have a view of the water from their front patio, and they’re only a short walk down a steep hill, from a beachfront. Andy had driven into Seattle that afternoon for Dungess crabs and oysters and we had a delicious dinner of them that evening.

We set the TAB up in their driveway and the kids’ tent in the yard. Andy had a wireless network that I was able to use to get my course ready for the fall semester. He also answered my questions about setting one up at home.

We spent the next day at the KVI beach down the road from their house. The beach is named after the local radio station that owns it, and lets the locals use it for free. The beach is covered with huge driftwood logs, and there are tidal pools with hermit crabs that the kids played with. Down the beach, large rocks were covered with blue starfish and barnacles.

We ate sandwiches that Naomi and I had made that morning with the Applegate turkey we bought in their grocery store. Based on the grocery store alone, I could live here. I offered to cook dinner that night and made crab cakes using the leftover crab meat.. Andy also cooked some salmon for us, just to make sure that we didn’t leave without trying the best that Seattle had to offer.

Friday, September 01, 2006


We entered Mt Rainier Park at the southwest entrance and stopped for lunch at Longmire. Our first hike was called the Trail of the Shadows. It was around a pond and passed by springs that were once part of a resort for assorted maladies. Now signs say not to drink the iron-saturated water.

From there, we went to Paradise and did a short hike around wild flower meadows. We had gone up into the fog and from the overlooks it looked like we were in heaven, with nothing to see past the split rail fence but whiteness.

Jim was eager to try to see Mt. Rainier up close, and despite the fog and clouds in Paradise, the rangers assured us that the sky was clear on the other side of the park. On our way over, we stopped to take one more walk through the Trail of the Patriarchs. This section of the park has old growth forest. No redwoods, but cedars, firs and hemlocks that are between 500 and 1000 years old. To me it felt like Redwood Park and I was glad the kids go to see it.

We lucked out and saw the majesty of the peak before sunset.

Problems Solved

It seemed like after the long trip here, everything was starting to fall apart. Our car had a weird propane-like smell; part of the tent where you would stake it down had ripped; the air mattress wouldn’t stay inflated; the coffee tasted terrible yesterday and I don’t know why; the garbage leaked on the floor and the yogurt leaked in the fridge. I wondered what kind of impression we were giving Jim. I asked Chloe to validate that we had good systems in place until that point and she did and then Jim said that we were just trying to make him feel needed. This was my first honest glimpse into something I had suspected for a long time. Men like to feel needed. To me, problems feel like nothing but stress.

To solve these matters, Jim offered to bring the Highlander to a dealer in the morning to have the smell checked out. While he was gone, Chloe helped me with the laundry. The Highlander’s problem was that its altimeter was confused and it wasn’t mixing the fuel properly. Wow, I didn’t even know it had an altimeter. The mechanic at the dealer said not to worry about it; it was just a result of riding up and down all those mountains.

The tent and air mattress problems were handled at REI. Jim bought a new tent and Thermarest-type mattresses for the kids. This new tent shouldn’t leak at all, because the fly covers the whole tent and even with high winds and rain they should stay dry. The new air mattresses are a lot easier to set up and store. Thanks Jim!

Old Friends

We met Andy and Naomi, for the first time in six years, at a restaurant not far from our campsite. They didn’t want us to try to come over to the island at rush hour, because the lines at the ferry would be too long. We talked about our plans for the remaining time we had in Seattle and decided that we would make a trip to Mt. Rainier the next day, and then bring our camper over to Vashon the day after that. It didn’t seem to make sense for us to drive all the way to the Olympic Peninsula with only three days left in our stay.

At the campground the next morning, we met owners of the second T@B that we’d seen on the whole trip. They were a family of three from Texas who were on their way back from Alaska. They had chosen the clamshell design, with the kitchen in the back, so that their little girl could sleep on a bench inside. If you’re interested to hear more about their adventures, they also have a blog: They also told me about a Yahoo group for T@B owners: I’ve just checked it out and it seems like it will be a good resource for the future, especially for tips on making modifications. They’ve also scheduled rallies for T@B owners all over the US.