It’s a weekday. The regularly scheduled shuttle between the hotel where I’m staying and the concert venue I’ll be at tonight stops running at 9:00. No good for my plan. A quick trip to the concierge, a few mumbled words, a bit of special paper changing hands and within two minutes, it’s “No problem, Mr. Tharp. Call my cell when you’re ready to leave and I’ll send down one of the hotel drivers.” Motel 6 would have been cheaper, but it’s hard to beat the overall value I’m feeling just now.
One of my first jobs after signing on with Uncle’s big green machine took me to a 200 foot tall, 8,835 foot long hydroelectric dam in the Pacific Northwest. If you’re wondering what in the hell, the Army has to do with hydropower, rest assured I was every bit as confused as you are when I showed up. Suffice for now to say it has less to do with power generation than it does with navigable waterways, infrastructure development, and having a ready pool of trained engineers available when we went on a national building spree during the Great Depression.
Some dams, I’m thinking about you Grand Coulee and Hoover, are things of beauty in their own right. “My” dam wasn’t what anyone would call pretty. The hulking, squared off mass of concrete, squatted astride the river like the world’s largest cinderblock. It’s real beauty is in the machine itself – it’s 14 General Electric turbines spinning out almost 2 megawatts when they crank the penstocks wide open, the lock that lifts 650 feet worth of barges almost 90 vertical feet , the way the building hums that rises from your feet straight through the top of your head, and the subtle but definite sound of steadily running water when you climb down into the depths of the foundation.
So what’s the point of all this recollection from the Columbia River? Well, as it turns out enough time has passed now that I’m starting to feel just a little bit nostalgic about my time spent on the edge of the high desert. For this son of the east, the Cascades, the Gorge, Portland, it was all a time of being a stranger in a strange land. It was good times, though I was in too much of a hurry to get back east and start my life as a big city DC bureaucrat to realize it then.
I know that still frontier feeling stretch of river is too far from the banks of the Chesapeake for me to ever call it home, but I sure wouldn’t mind passing that way again sometime.
Christmas vacation is about to get truly under way and as much as I’d like to say I’m going to spend the evening warming my toes by a roaring fire, the reality is something more like packing out an expedition from Everest base camp. Between now and the time my head hits the pillow this evening there are hundreds of pounds of equipment and material to be toted, lifted, and strategically placed in the truck to ensure proper load placement and balancing. All of these preparations must be carried out in such a way as to avoid raising the suspicions of either of my canine traveling partners – as that would lead to passing a very uncomfortable night with a dog firmly attached to each hip from fear of being left behind.
This part of the annual rites of winter is not particularly restful or relaxing. By Friday, though, the initial mayhem and chaos should have worn itself down into something a little more manageable. If not, I’m fairly sure there’s a flask or two in one of these bags that will help smooth the way.
As much as I always look forward to the trips back into the beating heart of the little piece of geography that made me, getting there from here (regardless of where in the world “here” technically is at any given moment) always boarders on exhausting. Fortunately a good night or two’s sleep will shake that off.
For all the others out there preparing to do battle with the interstate highway system, good luck and godspeed to your destination of choice… And if slower traffic could go ahead and merge to the right that would be great. Mmmmmkay? Thaaaaaanks.
So I had a bit of a surreal experience during my travels across the Eastern Shore last week. Thundering down some two-lane country road on the Delaware side of the Delmarva, I caught a quick look at a biplane in the distance. I only noted it because it was pulling vertical, as if maneuvering for the first half of a loop. It was cool seeing it, even from a distance. Nothing kindles the idea of the magic of flight like a biplane. After that, I didn’t think much of it, assuming that it was a wanna-be air show pilot dusting some crops (Is that something people still do?).
Fast forward a few minutes and a few miles and what appeared to be the same plane came screaming out from behind a no-longer-very distant overpass. He made a sweeping left turn, and lined up dead in the middle of the little road. From my perspective of trying to keep one eye on the plane and one on the road, it looked like nothing quite so much as him lining up for a strafing run. It was exactly like the kind of thing you’d see in the movies, if you happen to be a fan of films like North by Northwest.
Irrational as it was, I found myself holding my breath waiting for the telltale flames to jump from behind the propeller and seriously pondering the likelihood of survival if I jerked the wheel hard right to evade the rounds I expected to see plastering the asphalt in front of me. Like I said, it was a totally irrational moment and over before I really had time to give it more than a passing thought.
Still, I flicked my headlights in acknowledgement of the “kill.” I hope that’s how the pilot took it, anyway. In my mind he did. The deep thrumming radial engine passed maybe 100 feet over my head and I lost him in the treetops when he banked right and out over one of the approximately 18 billion cornfields along that stretch of road. There’s nothing like finding yourself under the imagined guns of a century old warplane to get the blood pumping… or maybe it’s just me.
The modern world is full of cameras. I’m willing to bet that every person who reads this post has at least one of them within arms reach at all times of the day and night. With that being said, I have not earthly idea how there is still a small army of college students employed by a company to spend their days trolling up and down the beach taking pictures and then selling them inside $.10 plastic key chains for $15. I would have thought that was a business model that should have died off with the rise of the cell phone. Apparently, though, it’s still very much a thing and steps in to fill in the gap when even the most artful selfie won’t do.
That was my one piece of learning for the week, so if you were stopping by hoping to find something deep and insightful on a Sunday night, boy did you come to the wrong place.
I’m good at a lot of things, but as I’ve mentioned previously, packing judiciously is not one of them. In fact, you’d be hard pressed to see much difference in how I prepare for a 4-day trip to a location less than 100 miles from home as compared to let’s say a 2-month expedition to the source of the Amazon. I’ve spent a very large percentage of my years acquiring items that bring me comfort, make life easier, or that I otherwise just enjoy having around. In setting up shop in a home away from home, I’m basically of the opinion that as many of those items as possible should make the trip with me. My packing calculus recognizes no actual difference between being gone overnight or wandering off for a year.
The good news is that whenever I get where I’m going, I almost always have what I need – sometimes (often) to the point of being duplicative. The down side, of course, is that since I don’t have a Sherpa, I’m the one who ends up toting and hauling this mess from Point A to Point B and back again to Point A with whatever additional provisions I’ve laid on during my stay. It’s particularly bad when I’m driving from place to place with basically unlimited capacity to tote more “essentials” with me. The $50 a bag fee on most flights helps keep my over packing in check when I fly, but certainly doesn’t eliminate it.
I’d like to say I’ll try to change – that I’ll try to mold myself into that kind of traveler who can set off at a moment’s notice with just a carryon bag and a passport, but I know that’s not me. That’s never going to be the way I travel. Traveling with me is always going to be more akin to supplying the Normandy landings than it is to backpacking across the Continent with a Eurail pass. Sherpa or not, I’m totally alright with that.
I was in the home stretch this afternoon. Four turns and maybe 2 miles from the house. I was even running a few minutes ahead of the normal arrival time. It was good right up until I approached the start of a sharp series of turns running alongside the state forest and saw the flashing lights blocking the road. Apparently some doucheknocker took the turn a little fast and a little wide and ended up getting his machine mangled for his trouble. I know from experience that the turns in that spot are tricky. The road is narrow, with guardrails and 20 foot drop offs on either side. It’s precisely the kind of turn you don’t want to be in when you realize you’re driving beyond your meager abilities. I’d be hard pressed to tell you the number of days a year I pass through that stretch and see fresh damage on the guardrails, thrashed car parts off in the woods, or the shimmer of freshly broken glass dust catching my headlights in the morning. It’s easily in the double digits. Those days are going to get more frequent now that the trees are filling in and you can’t see what’s coming in the opposite direction.
I wasn’t able to tell the full story this afternoon, but there’s a good chance I can read the road and tell you what happened when I drive through there in the morning. It’s not so much that care if someone outdrove their abilities. It’s not so much that I care they closed the road at just the moment I was trying to go through. It’s mostly that based on where I decided to live, a road closure in that one stretch of road causes me a 20-odd minute detour because there’s really no other good way to get here from there. Sure, that’s more of an inconvenience for the driver who smashed up his ride than it is for me, but it was just one more in a series of reminders today that this week has been and apparently plans to continue being one pain in the ass after another.