Idaho & me

11 09 2010

This was supposed to be an entry about Idaho but I’m not sure I have enough stuff to write about Idaho – most of the time we spent in Idaho was at about 82 miles per hour, heading east on Interstate 84 and behind schedule. This was my first ever visit to Idaho… From far away, I was always fascinated by Boise, but don’t ask me why. I just thought that was a cool name for a place. Boise, Idaho. It sounds so…happy.

According to Wikipedia, the state itself  “was possibly named as the result of a hoax – the so-called ‘Idahoax‘ ” . (Hee hee…)

So, despite my fascination with the name, unfortunately we didn’t get to see very much of Boise except for the strip malls along the highway. But we did notice that the residents (called “Idahoans”) seem quite proud of their state, way up there in the northwestern corner of the country, even if there isn’t really much in it other than all forms of agriculture and some pretty spectacular scenery. A popular road sign declares, “Idaho is too great to litter.”   (“Too great“?)

One of many, many farms.

Another one of the state’s features is the 85 75 mile per hour (120 km/h) speed limit – crossing over from 55-mph Oregon it’s like a big breath of fresh air. It makes you almost feel like you are actually getting somewhere – if the distances between the places were not so… so… unbelievably huge.

In the nine or so hours that we spent on southern Idaho’s highways and byways, crossing from west to east, we saw a lot of roadkill – much skunk, some birds, and a bunch of unidentifiable carnage in various states of decay. Many more bugs than usual, it seemed, found their final resting place as splatter on our windshield. (Hmm… Maybe wildlife don’t appreciate that 85 75 mph speed limit after all.)

And did you know that this is also “Onion Country, USA”? I did not! A big sign along the road told us so, and the sweet smell of young onions accompanied us for couple of hours. And here I thought all these years that all Idaho had to offer was potatoes for McDonald’s French Fries. But now I find out that not only is Idaho potato central, it also provides us with significant amount of the world’s onion rings too. Yum.

Guess I should have read this first.

Idaho has given the world other impressive stuff too – two things that interest me in particular: billboards along the Interstate advertise “From Wolf to Woof – the Story of Dogs” at the Museum of Idaho, and of course how can we forget Rigby, Idaho, the birthplace of the television. There are even a couple of notable Idahoans who have definitely left their mark on history, including Ernest Hemmingway and Sarah Palin.

So wow. I am truly on a voyage of discovery here. There really is a lot to be thankful to Idaho for.

It’s simply, well, great!

Wacky American Stuff, Part I

8 09 2010

Having lived overseas for such a long time sometimes I am astounded at all the stuff my own country has to offer that I didn’t know about before. Stuff that’s not in any guidebooks that I have read recently. Or maybe it’s just because I am an over-sophisticated eastern seaboard Yankee that I find some of the things I see out here in the West a bit off the wall.

Near Leggett, CA, for example, is an international natural landmark that I had not yet heard of till we actually drove past it and decided at the spur of the moment to go there. It is “The World-Famous Drive-Through Tree”, a coast redwood tree, 315 feet (95 meters) tall with a diameter of 21 feet (6 meters). It is called the “Chandelier Tree” because of the shape of its branches.

Redwoods are unbelievably hardy plants, and grow to be among the biggest and longest-living beings on earth. They can reach about 400 feet (120 meters) in height and can live for more than 2,000 years. They are massive, gracious trees and endless forests of these unbelievably majestic and beautiful individuals stretch across hundreds of miles along the Pacific coast.

Lots and lots of very big trees.

And if you don’t know what a drive-through tree is, well, you are not alone.

The gateway to the “world-famous drive-through tree” (according to the website one of only three drive-through trees in all of the United States) is a small driveway leading off highway 101. An old guy with a baseball cap sits in a small hut in the woods and charges five dollars per car ($3 per motorcycle) for the privilege of driving another quarter mile on a dirt road through the forest, and standing in a single-lane, one-way traffic jam.

In typical U.S. fashion, visitors to the “world-famous drive-though tree” traffic jam sit inside their air-conditioned SUVs, trucks and minivans with their engines running on idle while sipping Coke from 36 oz (1 liter) paper cups. After a few curves, the “world-famous drive-through tree” finally comes into view: a giant redwood with a tunnel big enough for a car carved into its base. This is the attraction of the day – a huge hole in the base of a huge tree! Amazing.

(And… I’m just curious… what do the eco-friendly among us think about this?)

R. wonders aloud whether or not the other drivers will be surprised that there’s no one taking their fast-food order through a speaker and they don’t get it delivered to their window when they pass out the other side.

I'll have a happy meal, please.

We do the (ethically and environmentally questionable) tourist-trap thing and drive our Jeep Grand Cherokee through the hole, and then we get our five bucks’ worth of photos and video, too. We’re hoping the money goes into some sort of fund to protect the redwoods, but at the same time we are realistic enough to recognize a good American capitalist when we see one.

The old guy smiles and waves to us from his hut as we leave.

Golden Nugget(s)

6 09 2010

So we all know that there are about a million reasons to come to San Francisco, and it’s a scandal that it took me 37 years to get here myself for the first time. But for those of you who were lucky enough to have discovered this place long before I did, I’m wondering if you too know about a few of the treasures that my personal Swiss tour guide has on his list.

One particular jewel is a dingy little bar on Powell Street across from Union Square. Claiming to have been around since 1933, the Gold Dust Lounge was voted as the “Best Bar In Which To Nurse An Early-Morning Hangover” by “Best of  San Francisco” in 2005.

The Best.

Well as far as I’m concerned, it still is. Faux chandeliers hang from the high ceilings, decorated with painted murals of naked cherubs and frolicking nymphs. Its plush scarlet sofas and boudoir-atmosphere are the perfect place to unwind with an Irish coffee (voted as one of the city’s five best classic cocktails in 2010: “warm, fortifying, and downright hallucinogenic”). And if you ask nicely, the bartender can make you a pretty mean Singapore Sling, too.

An added bonus: this is a place that cards over-40-year-olds, as I had the honor to personally experience.

The three musicians, (“Johnny Z and the Camaros,” if the billboard outside is correct), whose combined age probaly equals the number of years since John Quincy Adams was President  (approx. 185), are really good. They take requests, crooning everything from Frank Sinatra to Billy Joel. Their binders full of dog-eared, handwritten cheat-sheets, stacked at least a foot high, reveal their wide repertoire across pretty much all musical genres of the past 50 years.

The night we were there, they did refuse one request, though, from an overly made-up and inebriated middle-aged woman who was trying to hit on them. She repeatedly approached the band and desperately wanted them to play “Memory”… “That’s not a really uplifting song,” the drummer (who, I assume was Johnny Z) told her, repeatedly. “And besides, we don’t know how to play it.” You have to draw the line somewhere, I guess.

For the most part it was your typical Friday evening crowd, relieved another workweek was over and looking forward to the long Labor Day weekend. We sat in silence and enjoyed the music, the people-watching and the booze. And in a place like the Gold Dust Lounge, you know that deep inspirational toilet graffiti is not far. The best of the ladies’ room, in blue ballpoint on the inside of the door: “We’re all here because we’re not all there.”

How true.


2 09 2010

And we’re off! A 12-hour flight lies ahead of me today. Zurich-San Francisco non-stop, Seat 30A on flight LX38 to be exact. The last couple of days have been rather taxing, and the last two sleeps far too short. In fact, I will be spending more time in seat 30A today (sitting upright) than I spent in bed (lying horizontal) in the last 48 hours. Just thinking about that exhausts me. I’m getting way too old to travel across nine time zones in cattle class.

Though excruciatingly, painfully long, the actual flight – the getting there – stresses me the least. And when it comes to organizing whatever trip we are about to undertake, we also usually have all our ducks in a row. This one’s really easy: we know our way around and we speak the language.

Up, up and away!

It’s always a crunch down to the wire when I’m about to go someplace…and it seems no matter how well I prepare, there’s no way to make the last few days before departure less stressful. (And we’re not even talking about work here…) As you probably know yourself, even the best-laid plans just go to hell at the last minute. After all the traveling I’ve done since I was six years old, you would think I’d be the savviest jet-setter you have ever met.

Much of my travel stress comes from me getting way too far ahead of myself; I obsess about what it will be like to return home after vacation. And you say – “But….that’s the last thing you should be thinking about!” Well, no, it’s actually the thing that worries me most. When I walk in my front door after 3 days away or 3 months, aside from the depression of returning to real life and realizing that not a darn thing has changed since I left, I’m also bringing home a suitcase full of dirty clothes, the one or the other negative experience (along with all the good stuff, of course) and maybe even some tropical disease, for good measure. I need the place to be tidy and spotless so that I can make a new mess and drop into bed like a stone to sleep off the jetlag. Dealing with re-entry and the mountain of laundry is more manageable when I am rested and there isn’t a bathroom waiting to be scrubbed.

When we return to Switzerland in two weeks, Fall will have arrived, with foggy, frosty mornings, a bitter-cold wind and shorter days. I call it “suicide weather.” A very bad time to be getting the post-vacation blues. Therefore I need my home to welcome me home.

Then there’s the whole “What-did-I-forget-to-pack?” drama that stresses me out at least as much as the “I-must-come-home-to-a-clean-place” complex. Several checklists and excel spreadsheets usually help me not forget anything really essential, like my brain. Toothbrush, hairbrush, deodorant, check. Driver’s license, credit cards, passport, check. Laptop, Kindle (new toy!), Blackberry, check.

(Wait a second – get back here, you evil piece of office equipment….you’re not going anywhere today.)

But sometimes even checklists can’t help my faltering memory and there comes that moment of truth (and anguish) when I remember that one particular item I set aside in a prominent place at home especially so that I wouldn’t forget it as I’m running out the door. And where it still sits a couple of hours later as my plane reaches cruising altitude.

So when I collapse into my seat on LX38 this afternoon and settle in for that long haul, I expect to be served a gourmet lunch accompanied by a very good bottle of red. I’ve certainly earned it after all that self-imposed pre-trip stress.

Oh yeah, I forgot. I’m flying economy.