Dee Wright Observatory: An Interactive Rock Pile

Day22-30Heading east, the McKenzie Pass-Santiam Pass National Scenic Byway is an asphalt scar that wends its way over the Cascade Mountains and through the Willamette National Forest that surrounds a lava dome like male pattern baldness. Deep in the Cascade’s rain shadow, there are a few trees, isolated strays like the lonely strands my wife prunes quarterly, one by one, with scissors when doing my cranial yard work. As the landscape begins to flatten, I pass a sign pointing to a trailhead for the Pacific Crest Trail. Scanning the terrain to the limit of my head’s rotation, I strike this trail from my backpacking to-do list.

Ahead is a conical bump in the lava field that flows to the horizon. As my approach brings its details into focus, it’s clearly manmade, and people are crossing the road from the parking lot and climbing to its summit on a spiraling stairway. Made of the same volcanic rock that surrounds me, this structure, in the middle of nowhere, was clearly created by the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Depression of the 1930s. Downshifting, I leaned into a parking space and eagerly dismounted.

A brown US Forest Service sign proclaims that the Dee Wright Observatory is part of the Willamette National Forest. Mountains surround the empty terrain at almost every point on the compass by mountains; the absence of light pollution would reveal a celestial Milky Way majesty. And it would make riding at night a bit more interesting than I would prefer.

Day22-43Ascending the spiral stairway’s uneven treads of lava leveled to the best of the CCC’s ability, before attaining the summit an entryway leads to the observatory’s shadowed interior. Therein, a bronze plaque confirmed the CCC construction and corrected my assumption of what it observed. “To the south are the Three Sisters, bearing 17 glaciers, 2,257-acres in extent, and represent the largest glaciers to far south in the United States.”

Small openings dotted the interior’s circular walls at seemingly irregular intervals. Crossing to the closest one, a carved stone said the opening framed the North Sister. Next to it were similar frames for the Middle and South Sisters. While the mountains remain unchanged in the observatory’s explanatory apertures, 15 miles west of the Sisters on State Route 242, all that remains of the glaciers is a small, snowy white yarmulke.

After meeting the Three Sisters, I stepped up to each aperture for an introduction to Mount Washington and Mount Jefferson, and 78.5 miles to the north, the snow-capped Mount Hood. Coming full circle, the plaque taught me that the CCC built the observatory at the high point of the surrounding lava field that also provided the building materials. The corps completed the observatory in 1935 and named it in honor of the crew’s supervisor, who died the year before they completed it.

Climbing to the observatory’s summit, like a button on a rocky ball cap, a brass compass card names the geographic features, gives their distances and elevations, and offers a relative bearing of sight. In addition to the mountains, it includes the Belknap Crater, the source of the lava that flowed forth 11,700 years ago. A shield volcano, the lava accumulated in a 65-square-mile sheet with a low profile, like Captain America’s shield, but without the patriotic decorations.

Around me, couples and kids were in perpetual motion, pointing and sharing new knowledge. One youngster pointed her arm along the bearing to Three Fingered Jack; her companion wondered if there was a window for it below, and then they raced down the stairs to find the answer. If there were ever an award for a completely green, interactive exhibit that concisely conveyed information—and required exertion beyond pressing a button—Dee Wright and this Civilian Conservation Crew would surely win.


Connected to the Internet at my overnight waypoint I tried, unsuccessfully, to learn the name of the observatory’s designer. But my search wasn’t fruitless. NASA trained Apollo astronauts at the lava field in 1964. And even though I was passing through in August, the scenic byway had just begun its 2016 season. Despite the Cascades rain shadow, the Oregon Department of Transportation often can’t clear the pass until the end of June. They close the route in early autumn, before the snow season begins.

Scrolling through the day’s images, I remembered the feel of the cool air and sun’s warmth. The crystalline sky more clearly focused in memory the surrounding sights than any photograph could, regardless of its gigapixels. It was an encounter beyond the visual dynamic range. It was sensory imprinting, sight and sound and touch working in concert to build a memory far more durable than proposed by a high-def computer screen in a climate-controlled box. What began as a leg-stretching investigation of an unexpected structure offered the reward of discovery and introspection.

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Shunpike Customs & Currency

Day 11-22There were few essential documents needed for Shunpike Canada. First was a passport. 9/11 terminated the convenience of crossing the border both ways with just the second required document, a driver’s license, which was the only proof of citizenship needed for my inaugural visit to Canada in 1981. Everything else, from customs at the border, insurance, and paying my way with money denominated with terms, and mobile communication were unknowns seeking anxious enlightenment.

Explaining my journey, my insurance agent said I was covered, that most vehicle insurance travels well north of the border. All I needed was my proof of insurance card. Expecting an injury-free adventure, I didn’t think about my health insurance until I’d returned. Fortunately, my expectations were fulfilled.

Online enlightenment about currency exchange was not clear cut. Many businesses just across the border on both sides accept the other nation’s currency. But this is not a nationwide courtesy north or south. After wading through a lot of conflicting advice, the consensus favored ATM withdrawals over currency exchange at a border bank because it’s more convenient and often has a better exchange rate.

What mattered more were the fees. There’s always a fee. As always, the question is how much? Being persistently frugal (or, depending on your point of view, stubbornly cheap), I requested and read the fine print provided by my bank and credit card companies, VISA and Discover. Because I hate monetary surprises, I included my mobile communicator, Verizon.

The good news is that my iPhone and VISA credit card would work anywhere I went in Canada. To communicate, beyond getting at least one bar of service, I would have to buy an international plan or a $5 TravelPass that drew on my existing talk, text, and data plan. The latter was the more economical option, and I really didn’t have to “buy” it; Verizon added the daily fee to my account every day I used my phone in Canada. Not using my phone wasn’t an option because my wife expected texts reporting my daily OTR (on the road) times and Arrival updates that informed her of our location. Every other day or so I’d call to share the more details. 

Canada accepted my MasterCard ATM and VISA universally, so it was no surprise that this convenience came with a fee. In addition to ATM fees for getting Canadian cash, my bank imposed a fee “equal to 3 percent of the amount posted to the account.” VISA did the same thing at 5 percent. I never used my ATM (I traversed Canada cash free; Ed did get some, and it is attractive rectangles of polymer with maple leaves and Braille denoting its denomination). 

The VISA fees totaled about $10. Why there’s a fee when a computer is doing all the work is beyond me, but they charge them because no one tells them they can’t. And how do I know there’s no point to these fees? Because Discover doesn’t impose a fee for international use. All it asked, as did VISA, is that I complete an online form to let the company know when and where I was going so my charges would not tickle their “suspicious use” algorithms.

Day 10-31As you might suspect, I used Discover at every opportunity. Unfortunately, not all Canadian businesses accept it. Paying my way across Canada became a game of Discover roulette. Canadians use a portable credit card chip reader—the Veriphone by Micro Systems was the most popular—that came to you, so you never lost sight of your credit card. (I wish U.S. businesses would adopt it, because who knows what your credit card is doing when out of sight.)

Not only does the terminal come to you, it speaks French (I hit the run button early in the trip) and figures your tip for common or a custom percentage. Finally asking about it, the server at the Lake of the Woods (LOW) Brewing Company in Kenora, Ontario, said Canada has been using them for years, and that they got it from Europe. And then he said that it would not accept my Discover card. But it worked with my VISA on the first attempt.

Day 9-65When the bills came due, the statements clearly spelled out what I’d spent in Canadian dollars and what I paid in U.S. dollars and the effective exchange rate when the transaction posted. And this is how I know a computer was doing all the work. Each rate followed the decimal point to nine digits. For dinner at the LOW Brewing Company, it was 0.777905638.

Heading north, customs played a minor role in my dystopic daydreams of doom because I knew what to expect, thanks to a story I did last year. Regardless the reason for visiting or mode of transportation, if the border background check reveals a minor or serious crime that violates Canadian law, “you might be denied admission.” Border agents don’t take your word on it. Through its Canadian equivalent, their computers interface with the U.S. National Crime Information Center, which gives it full access to the FBI Criminal Database.

What gets most people is driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol. It makes no difference, said the Canadian official I interviewed, if the DUI leads to a conviction or probation before judgment. If less than five years have passed since you fulfilled your sentence or probation, your only option is to apply for a $200 temporary residence permit, which allows a year of repeated coming and going. “You can apply at a Canadian consulate, or at the border, but at the border the approval depends on border official,” said my source, and the permit does not work for serious crimes such as manslaughter.

My border crossing plan was to pull up to the agent’s booth, kill the engine, extend the kickstand, remove my gloves, glasses, and helmet, dig out and deliver my passport, and answer all questions concisely. I don’t remember if I shared this with Ed, but I think so.

As lead, Ed went to the first open window. Through our helmet communicators, I heard both sides of his conversation with the agent. His hearing attenuated by helmet and ear plugs, he didn’t hear the agent telling him to shut off the bike, remove helmet, and please present his passport. The agent’s voice grew louder with every reiteration of this request. I was about to repeat it when the agent at the adjacent window motioned me forward.

After she swiped my passport by her computer, she asked: Where was I from? Where was I going? Did I have any alcohol and/or tobacco to declare? And did I know the motorcyclist at the next window?

The Canadian Customs website said the maximums were one bottle of spirits 1.5 liters or smaller and 50 cigars. Reporting a fifth of Tullamore Dew in a stainless steel bottle and 33 cigars, she didn’t ask to see them. Glancing at her computer screen, she returned my passport, said I was good to go, and wished me a safe trip. Rejoining Ed in the parking area, I waited while he put himself back together. 

Day 7-25

When it comes to the metric system, the United States is the globe’s outlier. I worried about that. Not about buying gas by the liter—a full tank is a full tank—but about obeying (give or take) speed limits in kilometers per hour. Blue’s speedometer has secondary kph markings, but they are hard to see. And to ratchet up my anxiety, I thought maybe the border scrambled the GPS’s electrons because it showed a speed limit of 43 mph at the bottom of Zumo’s screen.

It took me about a half hour to mentally convert 43 mph was 70 kph, the posted speed limit. The light went on when the limit jumped to 68 mph right after I saw the sign that read 110 kph. (More embarrassing, I was halfway across Canada before I figured out that I could use the speedometer’s kph markings to convert the distance to our next fuel stop or meal.) Canada takes its speed limits seriously. Roadside signs noted the fines for specific excesses. In a 100 kph zone they were: 110 kph—$95; 120 kph—$220; and 130 kph—$295. And then there was this sign, all by itself.

 Day 12-14


As an older white guy with little hair left, people said I was childishly worrying about getting back into the United States. But I was, because weird stuff happens; someone has to win the lottery, and crossing the border was like buying a ticket.

Fueling my concern was the militarization of almost every law enforcement agency, except maybe the Fish and Wildlife Service, and the increasingly intolerant polarization of our social and political ideology and actions. Some would blame the media, but its reliable sources didn’t equip local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies or author their rules of engagement. Ultimately, how it goes at the border is at the discretion of the agent and the mood and attitude of the interaction’s participants. 

Surely, they didn’t plan this, but crossing the St. Lawrence River on the Ogdensburg-Prescott International Bridge atomized my obsessive border fears. I was just happy to make it across alive. The bridge rises to 240 feet above the river, and you can see it all the way across because the roadway is a steel grate. This isn’t a problem for four-wheelers, but on two it is a slow, squirmy, and unstable ride on a very long cheese grater.

The burley, young border patrol agent with a shaved head and spikes of a tribal tattoo peeking out of his dark blue short sleeve on muscular right arm greeted me with a smile. “Hi!” he said, and as I was reaching toward my chin, “You don’t have to remove your helmet.”

He swiped my passport across his computer screen and then asked asked how long I’d been in Canada, if I had anything to declare, and where I was headed. “About two weeks,” I said, explaining that my two-wheeled compatriot at the next booth had started our journey across the Trans Canada Highway at Abbottsford. “The only thing I’m bringing home with me is the gas in my tank, and I’m headed home to Wisconsin.” He then asked if we’d had a good trip—“Excellent!” I said—and he welcomed me home.

Thanking him for his kind words, I wished him a good day, toed Blue into first gear, and moved on, happy that, once again, I didn’t win the lottery. About a quarter mile later I stopped at the bridge’s toll booth: $2.75 US or $3.75 Canadian. Welcome to America.

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Passage: Speed X Time = Distance

Day 1-20

In The Mind of the Traveler: from Gilgamesh to Global Tourism, Eric J. Leed wrote that every journey is an unalterable sequence of three: Departure, Passage, and Arrival. Travelers pay closer attention to the first and last steps because they are leaving a familiar environment where they are known and because they are strangers entering an unknown community, unfamiliar with its customs and culture.

Passage, on the other hand, is often ignored. But like the flyover landscape that separates America’s left and right coasts, it is a critical and essential step in every journey; it has meaning, even if its immediately perceived significance falls short of a departure of arrival. “Motion becomes the medium of perception,” wrote Leed. It is an experience with its own structure, logic, and consequences.

Psychologist James Gibson noted that passage is organized around two points: the aiming point is where passage begins, and the vanishing point is where the route disappears at the horizon. Motion continually pushes the vanishing point forward, and what sustains this motion is autotelic need, an internal sense of purpose and curiosity.

Shunpike Canada was all about pushing the vanishing point on a roughly parallel track on the south and north sides of the US-Canadian border. Time defined its parameters. My two-wheeling wingman, Ed, who lives in Seattle, had to be at a western Massachusetts’s church to escort his daughter down the aisle, and I had to be home in time for my nephew’s northern Illinois nuptials.

Day 1-3A speed run west to Seattle would increase the time we’d have for our daily 300-mile passages eastward. Astride Old Blue, my 2004 BMW R1150RT, I unchecked “Highways,” which told my Garmin Zumo GPS that it was okay to take use the Interstate system as she navigated the quickest route to Ed’s house in the Seattle suburb of Renton. With a Bluetooth connection to my helmet communicator, Zumo’s polite but authoritative female voice said, “Drive the highlighted route.” As calculated, I would arrive in Ed’s driveway in 1,902 miles.

On my previous two trips between here and there I avoided the Interstates; each was a different route, and the shortest traversed 2,300 miles. The difference was a day’s ride. With my last long two-wheeled Interstate excursion, I-80 from San Francisco to northwest suburban Chicago, in 1974, I was looking forward to the surprises ahead. Trusting Zumo to ultimately lead me to Ed’s house, I didn’t look at the calculated route beyond the next turn.

Turning left on Main Street, Omro, aka Wisconsin 21, I followed it due west until I connected with I-90. Coming off the on-ramp, I expected to follow I-90 all the way to Seattle but, once again, it doesn’t pay to second guess Zumo. “Drive 672 miles,” she said. In plotting the quickest route, she saved me some time and miles by shortcutting I-90’s curve through western Wyoming on US 212. At least that was Zumo’s plan.

Just before the intersection of US 212 and Wyoming 59, a sign warned of construction ahead. Road work is the bane of summer road trips, and I’d already seen my share of it, so I gave the sign little notice. It immediately register that nearly every car, all with Wyoming plates, was turning north on WY 59. What got my attention was the big sign a mile past the intersection. It specifically warned motorcyclists about the construction ahead and “strongly recommended” an alternate route. Seeing no traffic heading east, and no one behind me, I took the hint. With no traffic, I made a U-turn without delay. Zumo immediately ordered another so I could rejoin her route, but I ignored her.

(On his way home, Ed followed my route, for the most part, and he sent this email from the road: “You know that sign on US 212 that advises motorcyclists to consider alternate routing? I ignored it today. I’m guessing five miles of gravelly dirt, some mud, and plenty of golf- and tennis-ball-size rocks. And teeth-jarring potholes. 15 mph max. Then there was another section, maybe 50 yards long, that was all gravel, but the stones were close to golf-ball size AND that road section sloped down from left to right. You would have loved it.”)

Day 2-4With no other turns back to her original route possible, Zumo recalculated my WY 59 detour. My next turn was I-94, which joined with I-90 about where I’d reconnect with it had I’d stayed on US 212. The detour added 70 miles and an hour or so to my journey, so I relaxed and enjoyed the scenery. Coming off the I-94 on-ramp, Zumo, whose tone of voice never changes, even when you change her route, told me to “Drive 963 miles.”

My next turn was Washington 18, which was about 10 miles from Ed’s house. When I arrived, the odometer math revealed a 2,039-mile journey that spanned four days. Without all the construction, orange cone constricted arteries through which the mostly four-wheel corpuscles had to pass single file, and the detour, I could have made it in three.

Traversing the long, ruler-straight stretches of Interstate, lightly populated with turbulent trucks and speeding cars, I had time to contemplate the landscape. The panorama was green and lush and dotted with family farmsteads on a quarter-section matrix. After crossing the furrowed brow that paralleled the Mississippi River they were spaced farther apart and the fields of corn and soy beans measured in miles. Riding into the Rocky Mountain rain shadow the crops became short-grass pastures more brown than green.

The frequency of signs advertising Wall Drug increased as the number of farmsteads decreased. Facing a chill headwind and the setting sun that painted the rolling landscape in soothing saturated colors, I set this South Dakota town as the conclusion of my first day. I’d traveled 750 miles, and going farther wasn’t an option because it was several hundred miles to the next island of civilization.

Day 2-2Like most Interstate off ramps, at Wall the motels were clustered together. The Super 8 was full, and so was the parking lot across the street at the Best Western, so I coasted across the parking lot to the Econo Lodge, which welcomed me warmly. The desk clerk recommended the Red Rock Restaurant for dinner, a four-block leg stretching walk, she said.

Rehydrating with a Fat Tire and awaiting the arrival of my patty melt, I eavesdropped on two blondes and a man, all apparently in their 50s, at an adjacent high-top table. Fox News was adding to the conversation. They were clearly several beers ahead of me and only half paying attention to the flat screen TV.

Then the man said, without apology, “I’m a Democrat!” The women exclaimed that they were as well, and they each shook the man’s proffered hand in turn. Clearly, they were from out of town. From Minnesota, the women were looking forward to outdoor adventures in the Badlands and Black Hills. The man was from Sioux City and never revealed his purpose in Wall. The rest of their conversation was an exchange of echo chamber clichés that ranged from Michelle Obama’s efforts to improve American dietary habits to millennial disrespect for the traditions of consumerism and hoarding.

Opportunities for human interaction are few on the Interstates, which is why it made my day when passengers in passing cars waved. Usually it was the bored backseat kids in passing cars. They looked as excited as I felt when I waved back, but I doubt they would have been eager to hear about my Interstate invention, creating fictional characters whose names came from off-ramp signs to adjoining towns like Magnolia Kanaranzi. Maybe I should start writing fiction again and craft a novel with other such characters I’d meet on this journey.

The challenge would be remembering the names until I reached the next rest stop, so I would write them down (or take a photo). Uniformed officials frown on nonemergency stops alongside the Interstate, which are also dangerous. Many were the cars that weaved in and out of their lanes because their occupants were doing something other than driving. It usually involved a phone.

Day 3-8To keep the Assbugger’s Syndrome at bay, I made a leg-stretching stop at every other rest area. Each respite was memorable for different reasons. At the Blue Earth West stop a sign said I was entering what was an 18-mile stretch of what once was tall grass prairie, where the itemized varieties grew 6 feet high, and sent their roots equally as deep into the rich soil that for more than a century grew nothing else but beans and corn.

Human interaction at these stops was limited to chin-bobbing greeting in the direction of fellow travelers as we all moved with purpose toward the facilities. In the older buildings, the urinals were close together, and in Minnesota I detoured to the handicapped stall because an obese gentleman surpassed the available lateral space. In Montana, the rest area facilities were newer. Instead of communal evacuation stations they featured separate bathrooms, four male, four female. I can’t speak for the female facilities, but each male refuge had a stool, urinal, and a gray plastic fold-down baby changing table. And there was another fold-down contraption that looked like a toddler restraint system.

Just before entering the badlands.My favorite rest stops offered a magnificent view or visitor information. The imposing sculpture of Sacajawea on the bluff overlooking the Missouri River leads my rest stop list and the Broadus, Montana, visitor information center on US 212 leads that list. Not only did the lady happily provide affable information, the center she commanded offered not only maps of Montana but those of all the states that surrounded it. Zumo’s navigational abilities are beyond reproach, but she can’t identify the geographic features along her route. The map told me that I was running parallel to the Yellowstone River.

When the Yellowstone River turned south to the national park that bears its name, the intersections with southbound thoroughfares were congested melees. Cars and RVs scurried on and off and around like roaches suddenly caught in the act by the kitchen light. It struck me here that Interstate intersections are American crossroads, the home to the essential goods and services for the surrounding communities, a place to eat, a place to stay, and a place to shop—except for groceries. I didn’t see any grocery stores. Given the number of staples they now offer, perhaps convenience stores taken their place.

The Conomart Super Store, across the street from the My Place motel in Billings, Montana, and next door to the 4B’s Café, does offer a shopping selection I wish more convenience stores would emulate: a wide selection of craft beers and a build your own four-pack for $2 a bottle. The opportunity was perfect because on Day 3 of my passage, I’d pulled up early to let Mother Nature’s rainy outrage pass over while I rested, reflected on my journey so far, and slept.

Day 3-2Sipping a Harvest Moon Pig Ass Porter, I realized that as the green farmland turned into brown ranch land, that the few people I’d seen working the land were hermetically sealed in big tractors or pickup trucks. The only exceptions were the Amish farmers driving teams of draft horses in Wisconsin, before I connected with the Interstate.

Popping the cap of a Madison River Black Ghost Stout, the probing replay of visual memory connected the miles traveled with images of abandoned buildings, homes and barns and sheds in the middle of vast fields. In various stages of Mother Nature’s reclamation, I wondered about the hopes of the people who’d built them, and survivability of the family farm.

In every case, each of these relics was behind a precise and perfectly maintained barbwire fence lines. Covering uncounted miles, their evenly spaced stanchions were each perfectly vertical even with climbing a steep hill, and I wondered what equation of time and effort and people were involved in their installation and maintenance. In the west, these fences contained roving bands of horses. I never saw anyone riding one. Was this because they couldn’t recall or catch them?

Day 3-6

Just across the Washington state line I saw a lonely Trump Pence placard on the other side of the fence. Looking west, I relished the peace of being disconnected from the world and its endless partisan outrage and parochial self-centered self-interest. My only digital connection to the world was the Weather Underground app on my phone. It kept me dry all the way to Ed’s place, and reaffirmed the decision to replace my 15-year-old Motorola Razor with an iPhone. My wife agreed with every text I’d sent announcing my location, travel plans for the day, and times or departure and arrival.

Ed welcomed my arrival in his driveway. After a day’s rest, laundry, and a visit to Seattle Museum of Flight the next day, we would depart on Saturday, July 1, on the passage that would be Shunpike Canada.

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Shunpike Canada: Anxious & Eager Excitement

Of the five fundamental interrogatives, Why is the most important—and the most vexing. Who and What and When and Where are, for the most part, objectively straightforward. But Why, Why is subjective, one person’s perspective on the reasons or rationalizations that led to the activity in question. “Because” and “I don’t know” are not acceptable answers; ask any parent.

The response to Why plots a course to a decision and the consequences—good or bad—that attend it. Its granular thoroughness conveys importance to the respondent and its potential for pleasure and/or disappointment. When planning a journey, it is a critical question, and the answer can provide unexpected revelations and insights.

Image result for trans canada highway

On June 26, 2017, I depart on Shunpike Canada, a west-to-east transect of the world’s second largest national landmass. With my friend and two-wheeling comrade Ed, we’ll follow the TransCanada Highway from Abbottsford to Ottawa, through Glacier and Banff National Parks (As part of Canada 150, the sesquicentennial of its confederation, park admission is free) and across the north shore of Lake Superior.

Inspired over the decades by stories in a variety of periodicals, and to feed my relentless hunger for new nouns, I want to see them for myself. But this is only the foundation on which my journey is built. It is paved by the TransCanada Highway itself. Like the US Highways system, which was organized in the 1920s, the TCH, proposed in the 1950s and completed in the 1960s, is an amalgamation of existing roads, not new construction.

Unlike the limited access web of the American Interstate system, which started bypassing small towns during the TCH’s gestation, my research reveals that two-lane roads that pass through towns and villages still predominate on the TCH. Most of the “twinning,” doubling their width to four lanes, is ongoing around the route’s larger cities.

Passing through Canada’s towns and villages is important because serendiculous sights and encounters demand further examination. Each of them is potentially rich with opportunities to overcome our virtual social media isolation with literal face-to-face interactions. It is an excellent way to meet and get to know our long-time neighbor, another reason for this journey. (Do you know the names of your next door neighbors? How about their last name? And when was the last time you talked with them?)

Having visited this northern nation several times over the past 30 years, traveling there is not completely unknown. But anticipating two totally immersive weeks in a countryside and culture burns with an ember of anxiety that is both frightening and exciting. One must never forget that this is a separate nation.

Preparation is the antidote for anxiety. Conversations with my insurance agent, bank, and credit card and cell phone providers have illuminated the dark corners and revealed nothing scary. Passport in hand, crossing the border on my way north should not pose a problem. I know how many cigars I can bring with me and I’ve never had or been charged with a DUI, an offense that will deny admission.

During my journey I plan to enjoy my first Cuban cigar, because are legally sold in Canada. I’m curious to know if they are really that good or their reputation is built on America’s prohibition of them. Perhaps not without reason, given America’s political climate, I’m more concerned about turning south for home. Regardless of which way a traveler is headed, crossing the border is at the discretion of the personnel at each checkpoint.

Uniting the reasons why I’m eagerly anticipating this journey is a 2008 Canadian film, One Week. Its protagonist, Ben Tyler, is a high school teacher of English whose first novel was rejected. In the film’s opening sequence a doctor delivers a diagnosis of some quickly growing nth-stage cancer with a 10-percent chance of survival. At several points he asks, “If you had one week to live, how would you spend it?”

Instead of immediately pursuing treatment he postpones his impending wedding, buys a motorcycle, a Norton Commando, and sets out on a journey from Toronto to Tofino, an island that is the western terminus of the TransCanada Highway. His goal? To make memories that give what’s left of his life value beyond its prosaic routine.

The immense and diverse landscape is an important, albeit tacit, character in the film, and I can’t wait to meet it. Except for Tofino; reaching it entails a 2-hour ferry ride, and the wedding of Ed’s daughter in Massachusetts is behind our unmissable arrival deadline. But that, too, is an opportunity for Shunpike Tofino to explore that part of North America.

Standing at the doorstep of my dotage, the roster of my friends and acquaintances enduring medical maladies that require bypasses and replacements grows almost daily. Surely, one day, my name will make that list. Until then, continuing my quest for new nouns—persons, places, and things—is the best investment of the time that remains before my expiration date. In that regard, maybe I am like Ben Tyler.

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A Shunpiker’s Guide for Serendiculous Enjoyment

Sometimes a single word is all it takes to focus a fuzzy philosophy and make its underlying principles logically clear. Finding that word is the challenge. Some search for it their entire lives. I found mine on my way to confirming the spelling and meaning of another word I cannot now remember. May I introduce you to: Shun*pike n. a secondary road used to avoid turnpikes and expressways – shun’pik’er n. shun’pik’ing n.

Avoiding the traffic, tolls, texting drivers that crowd turnpikes, expressways, and Interstates is one benefit of shunpiking. Another is that secondary roads, state and county roads (many of them former U.S. Highways superseded by four-lane replacements) are the two-lane connections that unite small towns like a string of pearls.

But following a shunpiker’s path doesn’t lead to rewarding serendiculous surprises without the proper mindset. Most important is being open to collaborative whimsy that leads to the creation of words such as “serendiculous.” It was born in a postprandial search for the words that succinctly summarized that day’s rewarding and unexpected Route 66 revelations and interactions.

Perhaps the Tullamore Dew my riding buddy Ed and I were sipping as we sat outside our motel room helped us fuse these two words into one:

Ser*en*dip*ity n. [coined c. 1754 by Horace Walpole after The three Princes o Serendip (i.e. Sri Lanka) a fairytale in which the princes make such discoveries] 1 a seeming gift for finding something good accidentally 2 luck, or good fortune in finding something good accidentally. And Ri*dicu*lous adj. deserving ridicule.

For our purposes, the definition of the root word, especially its archaic use, best serves the intent of our conjoined word: Ridi*cule n. [Fr ridiculum, a jest, laughable (thing), neut. Of ridiculus, laughable, comical] 1 a) the act of making someone or something the object of scornful laughter by joking, mocking, etc; derision b) words or actions intended to provide such laughter 2 (Archaic) a) an absurdity b) foolishness.

Contemplating our many serendiculous encounters on my solo trip east from the Pacific Northwest, what united their diversity is that we became more receptive to them by shunning quotidian decision making. During this thousand-mile think four catalysts for serendiculousity took shape, and exercising them returned immediate results.


When in Doubt, Top the Tank

There are physical and emotional aspects to this one. Riding out of Bend, Oregon, a small blue sign that said “Next Gas 99 Miles” reinforced the former. Naturally, this sign was stuck alongside the road about 10 miles past Bend’s last fuel stop on this road. (This must be a requirement of the association of sadistic sign planters.) My mistake was not turning around and topping the tank. Instead of enjoying the scenery and looking for interesting turnoff to explore, I obsessed on the fuel gauge and was blind to the passing landscape.

Two days later, passing eastbound through Shoshoni, Wyoming, on US 26, I thought about getting gas and decided that I had more than a hundred miles left in the tank and more than a few fuel stops in that distance. But it had been a long, quiet morning on the road, and I needed to fill my emotional tank by talking to someone, even if it was the clerk at a gas station, so I U-turned for the gas station.

As I was cleaning the bugs off my visor, two Harleys rumbled up to the other side of the pump. We nodded a greeting to each other, as those related by two wheels often do, and then I started a conversation. As a card-carrying introvert, this is something I seldom do, but I’ve been taking lessons from extroverted Ed, because observers rarely participate in serendiculous adventures.

Aside from the tattoos and leather, we were peers beyond two wheels. Bear lived in Minnesota, and “I had long hair,” he said, showing its length with a hand held in the small of his back. Discharged from the Navy in 1977 (a year before I got out), “I promised myself that I’d be a hippy ‘til I’m 50,” and on that birthday he started shaving his head.

Mark was from Montana. He met Bear in the engineering department of a submarine tender. After getting out of the Navy in 1978, he and Bear reunited for a road trip to a friend’s wedding. They had so much fun they vowed to do it again every year, and 35 years later, they actually made it happen.

Our meeting in Shoshoni was their third trip, and unlike and I, who make solo rides east and west, Bear and Mark meet somewhere in the middle then decide where to wander. The more extroverted of the pair, Bear said, “I have nine days and a credit card that says I can go wherever the hell I want.”


For the Big Picture, Look at a Paper Map

Zumo excels at GPS navigation and suggesting where to refuel and rest for the night, but when following a shunpiker’s path, it can ask more questions than it answers. There’s never been a question that Zumo will not lead me to my desired destination. But there are questions of the algorithmic routes that will get me there. To avoid this distraction, I rely on the cartographers who craft old school paper maps, which I collect from every state I visit.

Maybe one of these days digital maps will incorporate the dotted lines that indicate that the road they parallel is a scenic byway. It would make planning a route for Zumo on my laptop easier, but it still wouldn’t be as much fun as discovering all of the serendiculous opportunities scattered along the way.

That’s how I found the Old McKenzie Road, which took me past the Goodpasture Bridge (above), and the McKenzie Pass-Santiam Pass Scenic Byway, which snakes for 82 miles through the Cascade Mountains in Central, Oregon. It took me almost four hours to cover this distance, most of it in second and third gear. Yeah, it’s a biker’s twisty dream; there are sections where 30-footers are prohibited. If you’re heading east in late summer, don’t leave early because the rising sun makes it hard to see. Fortunately, there wasn’t much oncoming traffic on the excellent road.

Had I not followed the dotted lines on the paper map I would have missed a first-hand geography lesson at the Dee Wright Observatory (which I’ll share in a dedicated story) that introduced me to the Three Sisters.


Plan Time for Exploration

With so many small towns to visit, and with so little time left in life, it became clear as Ed and I recollected out penultimate adventure that we’d spent too many days in the saddle. As we discussed our overnight stops with friends in his backyard redoubt overlooking the lake, we concluded that limiting our daily travel to 300 miles didn’t always leave us enough time to explore. Some places deserved a second night so we’d have a full day to poke around in search of serendiculous encounters. (A day of butt rest would be nice, too!)

Williams, Arizona, would have been an excellent candidate for an extra day. My stroll up and down the main drag after dinner inflamed my curiosity, and the late hour (and the need to visit the Laundromat) didn’t allow time to satisfy it. On October 13, 1984, it became the last Route 66 city bypassed by Interstate 40.


Take a Hint, Act on Impulse

Another town worth a day of exploration is Gualala, California, and finding it was a defining moment of serendiculousness. We were riding up the coast from San Francisco, enjoying the ocean view. And with some regularity we passed signs that pointed to a “Scenic Overlook” that required a perpendicular turn to the left or right. After passing a dozen or so such signs, I finally took the hint and suggested that we turn off at the next opportunity. The photo above does not do the vista justice. If you look close, you’ll see kayakers on the Gualala River. If we spent the day, I could have joined them.

All of these are lessons learned that will forever influence my shunpike journeys. More than rules, they are guidelines that all say the same thing, to listen to that little voice between my ears when it whispers, “Hey, that looks interesting!”

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A Water Tower Oasis in Arid Ash Fork, Arizona

Day9-4Following Route 66 west across the barren, baked brown Arizona landscape in the early morning oven of August 8, 2016, Ed and I were looking forward to nearly a hundred miles of the original two-lane Mother Road just past Ash Fork. Slowing down at the city limit, a brightly painted sheet of sedimentary rock welcomed us to “The Flagstone Capital of the World.”

And then, oddly, the two-lane diverged into separate one-way streets. Normally, the two-lane pierces the heart of a small town’s business district. From Lewis Ave., Ash Fork didn’t seem to have a commercial district. And snatched glances to the south revealed only a couple of businesses on the opposite one-way, Park Ave.

What brought me to a stop was a water tower. On four steel-latticed legs, it stands outside Lewis’s left-reaching arc that reunites it with its eastbound sister. Unlike other water towers that name the small towns they serve, this one bore a blue tattoo on its silver skin, halfway down from its conical cap. Why does it wear the logo of the Santa Fe Railroad?

Hoping for an answer, I dismounted next to the Ash Fork Centennial Park. A chain link fence surrounded the triangular gravel bed with several large rocks, two concrete picnic tables, and a single green tree. Just past the fence was a small brown shed that stood between its roadside legs.

A standpipe extended above the shed. It anchored a long white, 4-inch thick corrugated plastic trunk. Beside it was an alcove that sheltered the pump’s controls and digital read out. A sign with a ghosted photo background of a water tank emblazoned with ASH FORK 1882 said nothing about Santa Fe, but the words emphasized its message with capitals and colors and creative punctuation.

ASH FORK WATER SERVICE Provides & Maintains this Standpipe for filling



Anyone who uses this facility to fill a NON-Potable water tank Could face charges of “Contamination of Public Water Supply”

Account Holder of record are the ONLY Authorized users of this facility.

After giving the phone number for reporting violations of this policy, it said:

*This Water meets all Drinking Water Standards*

Finally, after warning against “flushing or addition of any ingredients into your tank,” it defined “Potable Water Tank – a tank that hauls drinking water, as it’s only intended use, and, the water is immediately ready for Human consumption.”


While reading this, a middle-aged woman wearing a long florescent pink t-shirt parked in a gravel lot behind the tower and started unloading a station wagon load of gallon jugs, their milky translucent skins spotted with dark blemishes earned by long use. Around the corner from the standpipe and sign, I discovered a vending machine that dispensed “Drinking Water 25¢.”

Clearly aware of each other, our silent gazes never connected. Her undistractible and efficient feeding of quarters and jugs into the machine, and loading the full container into her car while the next one filled suggested that this was not an unusual errand, or the only one on this day’s to-do list. Or maybe she didn’t want to acknowledge the presence of a hulk in boots and a heavy jacket, working a camera and notebook.

Pulling on my Midwestern roots, you filled water jugs in times of emergency, when a main artery broke or something contaminated its supply. Having to fetch water to meet your daily needs, to cook, to drink when thirsty, to brush your teeth, never really dawned on me. But the tower’s sign and vending machine, and the woman’s clearly practiced effort, suggested that this was part of daily life in arid Arizona.

Day9-5Regardless of its history, Ash Fork was clearly an oasis in a baked land. Later I learned that it had no source of water until the town sunk its first well in 1975, drilling nearly 1,000 feet before they hit water. (It drilled a second well later.) Before that, a daily train delivered drinking water from Del Rio Springs, 33 miles to the south, in Chino Valley.

Built as a siding for the Atlantic and Pacific Railroad (predecessor of the Santa Fe), this community of 396 people (as counted in 2010) has burned three times since its founding in 1882. After the first fire in 1893, its citizens rebuilt the town on the other side of the tracks, where it stands today. The next conflagration, known as the Big Fire, destroyed what remained of the businesses district November 1977.

The Mother Road herself decimated the community in the 1950s when the road commission bifurcated Route 66 as it crossed the city limit. Construction of the divided single-tracks destroyed downtown storefronts, sidewalks, and residential streets. Then Interstate 40 bypassed the community when it replaced Route 66, diverting the businesses’s life-giving customers.

In 1960, the Santa Fe moved its east-west tracks north. As most residents worked for the railroad, Ash Fork’s population fell by half. The flagstone quarries are now the primary employers, followed by the school district. The last major fire claimed a few of the survivors in the two-block business district in October 1987.

Ash Fork must have been something before that. With a north-south rail line crossing the Santa Fe’s east-west line, it was a busy railroad junction. Harvey House built the Hotel Escalante there in 1907. Uniting concrete and steel in the Mission Style, its 420-by-200-foot footprint encompassed the hotel, a dining room, a lunch counter, and gift shop. It closed in 1948, and they razed it in the 1970s.

But as an oasis, a source of water for the hardy residents in and around the town, Ash Fork will continue. A 2005 article in the Arizona Republic said, “Hauling Water is a Way of Rural Life,” emphasizing its importance beyond the woman with her jugs and pocket full of quarters. “The water-filling station in Ash Fork, a tiny town west of Williams in northern Yavapai County, draws lines of trucks all day long on weekends. The town is served by a small water system, but most residents beyond a square mile or so must haul water or have it hauled in.”

Day9-7Better than those who reside in greener parts of the ration, those who live in and around Ash Fork know that their future well-being depends on the aquifers that sustain them. According to a 2014 report, Ash Fork Water Manager Lewis Hume wrote that the community depends solely on ground water wells, and it is not abusing its aquifer contained by Tapeats Sandstone and Martin Limestone.

“Static water level [measured in feet below the surface] is a good indicator of aquifer condition,” wrote Hume. “All measurements from 1996 to present have shown static water levels in the 998’ to 999’ level. Our most recent measurement on 5/2013 showed a level of 999.2’ Aquifer recharge is equal to or greater than its demand or use. In comparison, water level declines in the Flagstaff region are as much as 200 feet in areas affected by ground water pumping.”

The report said the water service dispensed 45 million gallons (MG) in 2007 and 2008. It pumped 35 MG in 2013 and anticipated 37 MG in 2014. That’s a lot a one-gallon jugs. As Ed and I continued west, the woman in the florescent pink t-shirt was filling the last of hers.

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Shadows & Reflections of Reality

Shadow-1If you seek the fountain of youth, check out Fort Dodge, Iowa. When I asked about a single room for the night of August 22, 2016, the Comfort Inn clerk immediately offered me the senior-citizen rate. “It’s our best!” she said.

Less than 90 minutes later, after a short walk to dinner and another short stroll to the grocery store for a libation to accompany my postprandial cigar, another young clerk carded me. Perhaps motivated by my confused countenance, she said, “You look young!” And then she scanned that funky black-and-white checkerboard matrix on the back of my driver’s license.

It’s possible that this was store policy for everyone purchasing alcohol. I didn’t wait around for the next suitable customer to confirm this. A bit unnerved at having lost more than 40 years in little more than an hour, and worried about my brown paper bagged Heineken getting warm, with long, determined strides I walked directly to the mirror in my room. There, as I have for about a decade now, I saw the face of my father, when he was in his late 50s, before prostate cancer started to age him.

“So much for the fountain of youth,” I said to my reflection.

Ultimately, this was a relief. The idea of resetting my life to an age worthy of being carded and having to live it over again is more unsettling to me than the reality that, if all goes well, my ultimate expiration date is but a decade or three away. But the experience in Fort Dodge planted a bean of reflection in my brain that has been growing slowly since then, sprouting questions about self-image, how others see me, and how I see myself.

The images coalesced not long ago on a sunny morning when I was walking to the bank and post office. My shadow preceded me, stride for stride. It was an accurate outline, but what filled it was the surface over which it traveled, sidewalk, street, dirt, and grass. It is surely how others see me, in the context of their environment, be it a motel or grocery store.

My outline is the same when I gaze into the mirror to scrape the little hairs off my face, and so is are the details that fill it. Regardless of the effects of time and gravity, I’ve never assigned this reflection a specific age. (Am I the only one who feels ageless, because I’m unsure how I should be, feel, and act as my chronological countdown increases?)


Paddling around this pool of solipsism I quickly realized that how one perceives an outline’s filling applies equally to small towns. Williams, Arizona (population 3,023), immediately came to mind. It was one of my favorite towns on Route 66. What made it special was not the Canyon Club, where Jackie, the boisterous, blonde, and bawdy barkeep in her tank top and jeans, gave Ed and me some sights to see. Nor was it the superb dinner we had at the Station 66 Italian Bistro, with its craft beer and courtyard guitarist singing, “God is great, beer is good, and people are crazy.” It was the Laundromat.

Main Street is the William’s face to the world; from end to end, it is primped and painted and pointed at those seeking a nostalgic glimpse at Route 66. Like us, many people visit after peering into the nearby Grand Canyon.

Washing clothes at 8:17 on Sunday night was sitting on the backside of a two-way mirror that reflected the character of the good people of Williams. Life doesn’t any more real than carting your dirty clothes to the Laundromat. Rather than voyeurs, like everyone else there, Ed and I wanted nothing more than clean clothes.

The overseer, a bearded 40-something guy wearing Army-issued camouflaged pants, said with undertone of congratulations that we’d just made it. A sign explained. Because the facility closed at 10 p.m. on Sunday, its patrons could not fill and fire up a washer after 8:30 p.m.

The place opened at 6 a.m. I know this because at 9 p.m. a young man with a neatly trimmed Vandyke beard, Iberian features, and a Spanish accent popped in to count the available washers. The overseer, who stopped his nonstop cleaning, pointed to the sign, answered the man’s question about opening, and then went back to work. Clearly, the visitor had been celebrating on Main Street. “I’ll be back, if I’m awake.”


The place was busy. Ed and I were not the endpoints on the spectrum of age or race, and we weren’t the only ones working on laptops while our clothes went round and round. People nodded friendly hellos as we passed and then went back to what they were doing. At the folding tables, they worked side-by-side with elevator politeness, offering a quick apology when elbows inadvertently met. Two women were folding sheets in the aisle; they may have been friends, or maybe just helpful neighbors. Everyone ignored the boisterous kids who raced around the room, carefully avoiding wire wheelie bins full of clothes awaiting a dryer or folding.

When I think of my time in Williams now, what stands out is the Laundromat. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed my time in the shadows of Main Street, but the truest reflection of the town and its people were most clearly seen—and appreciated—as we waited for a washer to rinse away the week just ended.

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