Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Friends in Need

We got some bad news from our friends Doug and Lisa Jo Looney down in Bolivia. Doug and Lisa Jo are Catholic missionaries with the Maryknoll organization. They are Red Sox fans, so you know they are good people. Their three little kids went to school with Jane at Tierra de Ninos preschool. In fact, I first met Doug when I was walking into the school and he was walking out and we were both wearing Red Sox hats.

Anyway, Doug was experiencing some pain and went in to the hospital to have it checked out. Turns out that Doug has a tumor growing in him and it needs to come out.

Faced with major surgery and potential cancer treatment (they don't know what it is yet) in Bolivia or in the United States, they chose to send Doug back to the U.S.

As you can imagine, if you were sitting in a hospital bed somewhere in pain, and scared, it sure would be nice to have your family with you. It will cost the Looney's around $3,000 to get the whole family back to the States. Missionaries don't make a lot of money. They really need some help to pay for this trip.

I can tell you firsthand that Doug and Lisa Jo do a lot of good work in Bolivia. They don't walk around trying to convert the natives to Catholicism. That isn't what they do. Instead, they live in a very poor area of Cochabamba and do their best simply to help the poor people have better lives. Lisa Jo, a trained grief counselor, also spends a lot of time in local hospitals comforting people who are dying. It would be great if some of those Karma points could be cashed in now.

If you are at all in a position to help a very good bunch of people who are out in the world sacrificing themselves trying to make the world a better place, then please consider sending a little money their way. The money would ensure that the whole family can be together right now. Every bit helps. If you can't send money, then I am sure they would appreciate any prayers you can offer. They are good folks and they need your help.

Send checks to:

Lisa Jo and Doug Looney
Maryknoll Lay Missioners
Bethany House
Maryknoll, NY 10545

Muchas gracias.

Monday, September 26, 2005

Back Home Again

After Day 3's epic 758 miles over 14.5 hours (including 4 hours in Ft. Collins getting Smokey fixed up) I was in no mood to travel today. In fact, it seemed like a heck of a day to sleep in, then kill the afternoon in a pub. But then I remembered I was in a Motel 6 in Ogden, Utah and suddenly the open road didn't seem so bad.

So at 6:30AM I am once again hauling the duffel bags out and tying them onto the roof. Man, it is COOOOOLD in Ogden Utah in the morning. My hands turn numb while tying knots. But soon enough I am wandering back out to the interstate and making way towards Portland.

Utah is some pretty country. To my left for a while is the Salt Lake. I see a lot of nice rock formations along the way, but not much else. Once you get north of Ogden (which itself is north of Salt Lake City), it is some barren country.

I am also on like day 4 of the Roberts confirmation hearings and it is just killing me.

Quick enough and we're in Idaho. This part of Idaho looks a lot like Kansas. Then again, most of the country looks a lot like Kansas. Remember that next time you talk smack about Kansas.

My first gas stop is somewhere outside Twin Falls. Smokey is a smokin' and a drippin'.

I've always romanticized Boise, Idaho as being kind of a mini-Portland on the rise. A frontier town with character on the verge of taking off. Gateway to some beautiful country. I had never been any where near Boise before, so I don't know why I thought that. From the highway, Boise is kind of dreary and depressing. To be honest, a lot of places are like that (though not St. Louis or Louisville, both of which looked cool from the highway and made me want to visit). So, I drive on and decide to grab some lunch further up the road.

I am also making a list of life's universal truths. I have added these so far this trip:
23. From the interstate, the whole country pretty much looks like Kansas.
24. Truckers are apparently all perverts.
25. If there isn't constant and maddening construction on your highways, your congressman isn't doing his job 'cause the rest of the country is being widened. Call him and tell him you want your pork too.
26. Being in fear that at any moment your 6-year-old car with 108,000 miles on it will die, stranding you 30 miles from anywhere in an area with no cell phone reception, helps keep your mind off the fact that the entire country looks like Kansas and that all commercial radio sucks.

Up to the Oregon border the interstate system has pretty much been straight and flat. But soon after your cross into Oregon, Interstate 84 starts curving and climbing and showing off fancy things like "trees," which, believe it or not, they do not have in Kansas. Oregon seems to say "we're different here. We don't suck." It makes me feel good.

Well, until I notice two things about Oregon: (1) it is the most desolate state I have encountered, with even fewer roadside services than Wyoming; and (2) it is the only state with a 65mph speed limit on the interstate. I spend most of south eastern Oregon starving to death, hoping I don't run out of gas, with my foot on the brake. Speaking of which, it still pisses me off that you can't pump your own gas in Oregon.

At some point after half of a day driving in Oregon, I suddenly realize that the golden hills have been replaced with forest. It is kind of weird because you are driving through high desert plains one minute, and the next it's like "Wow, where the hell did the trees come from?" I also think to myself that if I had never been to western Oregon, I would be dumbfounded by the beauty.

The road in to Portland skirts the southern shore of the Columbia river, taking you through what they call "The Gorge." It is always windy out here and you see crazy muthers on their kite boards and wind surfers just blazing across the river. It doesn't look fun; it just looks scary.

About 5pm I finally am able to relax, knowing that Smokey is going to live long enough to take me home. A half an hour later I am puttering through my old neighborhood, tired, exhausted and sick of driving. Portland looks the same as when I left her a year ago, but is somehow busier, bigger and crazier than I remember. No other city we have visited in the world bussles with the same amount of energy as Portland. To be honest, it kind of overwhelms what is left of my brain.

I pull Smokey up to a spot in front our friend Susan's house, near 28th and E. Burnside. I shut off the engine and watch the oil smoke rise for the final time. I use what is left of my energy to unload the duffle bags from the roof one last time, before collapsing into a heap on Susan's couch. She shoves a bottle of Mirror Pond in my hand. It will be several days until my brain, road-weary from 2800 miles (I managed 742 the last day) is able to form a coherent thought.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Day 3, or how I spent my afternoon in Ft. Collins, Co.

6:30AM in Colby, Kansas is unholy cold. Well, at least to someone who just left hot, humid North Carolina. When I back up the Subaru, I notice a pizza-sized oil spot under the car. Crap. I cross the street to fill the gas tank and buy a few extra quarts of oil while I am at it. I roll out and cross my fingers.

A couple of hours later, I approach Denver. Until this point, I had seen nothing but corn fields. But the corn fields end at Denver with the Rocky Mountains rising straight up out of the ground. The little bit I can see through the brown air looks impressive. I take E470 around Denver so I miss downtown's rush hour traffic. But E470 is a toll road. No big deal, right? Well, every 3 miles is a toll plaza. It costs me $10 to go 17 miles. And everytime I stop to pay a toll, my car becomes enveloped in smoke. Still, better than being stuck downtown at rush hour.

The other thing I notice about Denver is the sprawl. Pretty soon suburban Denver will go all the way to Salina, Kansas. Lots of ticky tacky little boxes (note: subtle reference to the brilliant Showtime series "Weeds").

Leaving the Denver area, I notice on the map that there is not much between Denver and Boise, some six hundred miles away. Which is to say there isn't much between Denver and Portland. Outside of Denver I stop at a rest stop and the Subaru is dripping a ton of oil and smoking like Snoop Dog at a NORML rally. Which is to say it is smoking a lot.

So I pull off the highway in Ft. Collins, Colorado (just north of Denver). As luck would have it, Smokey (my new name for our Subaru) leads me right to a place called "Nice Car," which fixes nothing but Subarus. The mechanics take one look at Smokey, all laden down with the duffel bags on her roof, and they know what has to be done. They feel sorry for us, and commit to putting us back on the road ASAP. The guys at Nice Car shuffle Smokey to the front of the line and put her up on the rack.

One look confirms it: Smokey's front crank case seal is a goner. Maybe another seal farther back in the engine is gone too, but there is so much oil splattered on the bottom of the car that they can't see. The guys set to work fixing Smokey and I head up the street to downtown Ft. Collins.

I love Ft. Collins. What a cool little town! It has lots of old brick buildings, tons of people on bikes and driving Subarus. In short, it is like a little, dry Portland. Definitely a "10" when it comes to towns to be stuck in on the road.

I quickly find a coffee place called "The Bean Cycle," which roasts their own beans on an Ambex roaster up front. I grab a large coffee and settle into a soft couch and proceed to kill off the rest of the morning with a good book. Second best cup of coffee I have ever had (Stumptown Coffee Roasters in Portland is the best coffee in the world). They even fire up the roaster and I am treated to the sweet black licorice smell of roasting coffee beans. What heaven!

I have a couple hours yet to kill before the car is ready, so I walk around town a bit more. The warm hominess of Ft. Collins is such a stark contrast to all of the rest stops, corn fields and gas/McDonalds freeway pit stops. I could live here.

After a bit, my nose leads me to Coopersmiths, a brewery. Since I am stranded here, I treat myself to a couple of pints of a nice tasty IPA. Not a bad way to kill an hour or two.

But soon enough my car is ready. I hop on the road $450 lighter, but Smokey isn't so smokey. 100 miles later, after crossing into Wyoming, I pull off the road and check the car. Smokey isn't smoking or dripping. Good sign. I continue on and during the late afternoon I stop to get some gas. The second I turn off the ignition, Smokey starts smoking. And dripping oil. Not as bad as before, but obviously there is another bad seal. Damn. I now have to stop every hour to check the oil level.

Now a word on Wyoming: It is beautiful, with brown grass fields, dramatic skies and beautiful rock formations. But it is desolate. In fact, they have barely any rest areas. Instead, they have what they call "parking areas," which are rest areas without a toilet. I guess they figure that out here in the middle of nowhere, who really cares where you pee?

By 8pm I roll into Ogden, Utah and find the obligatory Motel 6. I am dead-dog tired. Despite a 4 hour layover in Ft. Collins, I make 758 miles today, a record for the trip.

Monday, September 19, 2005

Day 2: More of the Same

Sitting on your bum bum all day driving makes one a lot more tired than one would imagine. So, last night I slept HARD after those 683 miles. I intended to sleep in, but I popped awake at about 5:30 in the morning. So, lacking anything better to do, I loaded all the bags back on the roof, tied them down well, and was on the road by 6:30.

I'm a few minutes outside of Mt. Vernon, IL when the sun begins to rise. It is a giant, gauzy red sunrise which tints the brown cornfields. I watch the sun reflect off the tailgate of the truck in front of me. Pretty.

It isn't long until we hit the first of what is to prove a maddening day of road construction. If I haven't said this already, let me say it now: The whole damn interstate system is under construction. I must get stuck in a dozen construction zones today.

Construction is a pain because it slows me down. The road narrows to one lane and the speed limit often drops to 45 or so. And there are all these big signs saying "Minimum fine in construction zone: $395."

Let me tell you, the threat of an almost $400 fine for speeding slows me right down. I crawl through these zones. But invariably there is some jerk on my tail wanting to take his chances at 75mph.

I manage to time it perfectly so that I hit St. Louis at rush hour. I crawl through the city. My engine is starting to smoke again from the oil leak. Great. I'm this little gray cloud creeping through St. Louis.

With traffic and construction, I make just 80 miles in the first two hours.

Eventually, I am through the city and I-70 opens up a bit. Missouri looks just like Illinois and Indiana -- nothing but brown cornfields. Well, that and porno.

Missouri, as viewed from I-70, is nothing but adult video and fireworks "superstores". There is one of each at every exit. I don't know if this says more about Missouri or the truckers the stores are primarily aimed at (I know this because they all advertise "truck parking" and one even calls itself "Adult Video Superstore Truck Stop").

Not much in the way of radio out here in middle of nowheresville. I get middle of the road country and public radio. I like public radio, but all that is on this week is the Roberts confirmation hearing. I am a lawyer and this stuff bores me.

Kansas doesn't seem very inviting. It is the only state I go through without a "Welcome to . . . " sign. The road through Kanasas is also impossibly straight. I think that Kansas wants you to get the hell out of its state fast. I note that every damn farm in Kansas has a billboard pointed at the interstate with an anti-abortion slogan on it. Hope those truckers picked up condoms at the Missouri adult superstores.

As the afternoon drones on and on and on, I'm still listening to public radio. Every 10 minutes they give you the weather for the entire state, broken down by region. This is funny because the weather is the same everywhere in the state, but the announcer still thinks he has to break it down every 10 damn minutes like this: "In north-east Kansas tonight it will be in the low 40s with a 30 percent chance of rain. Tomorrow highs in the 70s with a 20 percent chance of showers. In south-east Kansas tonight it will be in the low 40s with a 30 percent chance of rain. Tomorrow highs in the 70s with a 20 percent chance of showers. In southwest Kansas . . . " I memorize it and start reciting the weather every 10 minutes along with him.

Round about 6:30 I park the Outback in front of another Motel 6, this one in Colby in northwest Kansas. The car quickly becomes engulfed in a thick cloud of oil smoke. I ignore it as best I can, check into my room, and down three cans of Miller beer back to back to back before sleep finds me.

688 miles made good. Another record.

Friday, September 16, 2005

Headed West (day 1)

I woke up around 7AM and finished packing the car. It is pretty hilarious. I have two huge duffel bags strapped to the roof. Every square inch of the interior is full. Mac's blue tricycle is crammed into the front passenger seat.

Looking at 2800 lonley miles on the road, I decide to delay my departure by an hour so I can grab the package of cds sitting in the apartment manager's office. My buddy JP put together a little care package to get me across the country.

So, around 8:30 I kiss the wife and kids goodbye and hit interstate 40 headed west for Oregon.

I pick up a great bluegrass show on the country station out of Galax, Virginia as I head out of the state. It is kind of sad, though. This music will always remind me of our time here, and it is bitter-sweet. I turn off the station and just concentrate on the road.

Outside of Mt. Airey I see a guy on the side of the highway. He has a big backpack on, and a little dog. He is dragging an enormous crucifix over his shoulder. Gotta love the South.

North Carolina fades out of my rearview mirror soon enough and I am in to Virginia, then on to West Virginia. Some beautiful country out here -- nice rolling mountains. And road construction EVERYWHERE.

My first stop for gas (I average about 3 tanks a day) is in West Virgina. I head into the rest stop bathroom and when I come out I find my car engulfed in smoke. I pop the hood and see that the tiny oil leak, which drips on the exhaust and smokes, has become a pretty scary leak. Oh, great. I decide to stop and check the oil level every few hours. Nothing else I can do.

By early afternoon I am into Kentucky. Lexington is just as I imagined it, with rolling green horse farms, with their mansions and endless white fences, everywhere you look. Southern Indiana passes in a blur. I can't get many radio stations on the interstate, but I do pick up some John Mellencamp which makes me smile. The road passes not too far from French Lick, and I am tempted to make a detour and visit Larry Bird's birthplace. But I am nervous about my leaking engine and anxious to make as much ground as possible.

By dinner time I am in Southern Illinois and suffering serious road burnout. I start looking for a hotel to crash at but there is nothing to be found. I end up driving a bit further than I planned, and end up in Mt. Vernon, Illinois.

680 miles made good. I am toasted, my car is smoking, and I went about 80 miles more than I planned on. Still, this will prove to be my shortest day.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

Where are you from?

It's a question we got asked a lot travelling around South America. Usally, the first thing someone asks when you meet them is "Where are you guys from?"

When I was younger, it was easy to answer: Chelmsford, Massachusetts. Or, I would usually say "Boston," the closest major city, because no one knows where tiny little Chelmsford (pop. 15,000) is. I moved to Chelmsford when I was two and lived there for 10 years or so. Even after I left, that was still my home for a long time.

But Chelmsford hasn't been my home for 24 years now. Heck, I've only been back three times in those 24 years. I don't know a single soul in that town. When we do visit, it is only to drive by and see our old house and lament at how neglected and run down it has become. We also visit the tiny little ranch that was our first house there and marvel at how itty bitty it is. It seems to get smaller everytime we visit. How did we ever fit into that place?

Since I left Chelmsford, I have lived in Tokyo, Japan, in San Francisco, in San Jose (twice!), in Los Angeles, in Portland, Oregon, in Bolivia and in North Carolina.

Megan's case is even worse. While born in Peoria, Illinois, Megan didn't really live there until she was in junior high. Her early years were spent in Hong Kong and in Tokyo. After six years in Peoria, she moved to Indianapolis and then to Ecuador, Minneapolis, Vermont, Nevada, Texas, San Francisco, San Jose, Portland, Bolivia and North Carolina. Where the hell is she "from"?

Our various parents now live in Los Angeles, Bakersfield and Phoenix. I've never even been to Bakersfield. We're not from any of those places.

As for our own kids, Mac and Jane have lived in three different cities in two countries (not to mention visiting six countries total) before turning two and four, respectively. Where are they from? They usually don't even know where they are.

This is all stuff we have been thinking and talking about lately because, well, we don't have a television. Also, we have decided that the next place we put down roots, we want to bury those roots and stay there for a long, long time. Or at least until Mac graduates from high school in 15 years.

Megan and I have enjoyed our somewhat rootless existence, but we think it will be pretty cool to try it the other way with Mac and Janey.

So since returning from Bolivia, we have really struggled with this. We kind of made a tentative move towards settling in North Carolina. We have some family here and thought it would be nice to be close to them. And it would be. But despite putting on our best face, there has always been something forced about North Carolina. It was OK enough, but it never really fit right. We never admitted it to each other, but I know we both felt it.

I had a job interview the other day down in Charlotte. It went reasonably well. I was pretty sure I was going to get the job. When I told this to Megan, she was near tears. It was not until that moment that the reality of not returning to Portland finally sank in. And it didn't feel so good.

I never told Megan, but I secretly hoped that I wouldn't get that job. Turns out I didn't get it. At which point our decision became very simple: We are returning to Portland.

Y'see, despite all of our restlessness and roaming, after a year or so of giving long-winded and complicated answers to the simple question "Where are you from," we had found the answer: Portland.

** On a related note, we never like to do things the easy way. Here is the route we took to get from Bolivia to Portland:

START -- Bolivia
Cusco, Peru (7 days)
Santiago, Chile (6 days)
Valparaiso, Chile (1 day)
Santiago, Chile (1 day)
Mendoza, Argentina (3 days)
Buenos Aires, Argentina (7 days)
Raleigh, NC (7 days)
Ocean Isle Beach, NC (6 days)
Greensboro, NC (1 day)
Marshall, NC (4 days)
Greensboro, NC (50 days)
Marshall, NC (3 days)
Greensboro, NC (1 day)
Transcontinental drive (6 days)
END -- Portland

We should have some tour shirts made.

Thursday, September 01, 2005

The Greensboro Hillbillies

We were awakened the other night by incredibly loud screaming right outside our window. It was one of our hillbilly neighbors, the one we call "Mouthy" because she shouts instead of talking. Mouthy was screaming at Mullet Man (named for obvious reasons) about what I don't know. But Mouthy did use the "F" word quite a bit. "Never in my f-ing life" she screamed at a few points, so I guess it was serious.

Photo: Jane belts out a tune with her preschool class. This has nothing to do with the story, but it gives you something to look at.

The screaming went back and forth for half an hour. It was 3a.m. What possesses someone to have a screaming fight at 3a.m. in his or her front yard is beyond me.

I was trying to peer out our windows to see who all was involved and to try to get a better idea about what they were fighting over. Megan was shouting at me to get down on the ground in case someone started shooting. It was that crazy.

I never did figure out what the heck the fight was about; the sheriff came out and put an end to the front yard battle. The sheriff visits them a lot.

Photo: A couple of villagers in Tarabuco. This town is well known for its textiles. We bought a ton of stuff here. Very cool little place. Again, like all the photos here today, not a damn thing to do with the story.

The next day there were a few less hillbillies. Mouthy was gone, and so was Brandon, her son. We aren't sure what Mouthy's relationship to Mullet Man was. Boyfriend/girlfriend, we guessed. Mullet Man was still there.

Photo: More scenes from Tarabuco.

Ok, so we do not have a television. So, doing our little anthropological study of our neighbors takes up a lot of our down time. In fact, Megan and I went out for a beer sans-kids the other day. We went to a local brewpub called Red Oak Brewing. Not a bad place in a primitive first generation brewpub kind of way. Unfortunately for Red Oak, the first generation mostly died off 20 years ago. Somehow they have managed to survive way past their sell-by date. Actually, their amber isn't bad, if a bit generic. I asked the server what kind of beers they had and she replied "light, medium and dark." I was tempted to explain in my beer-snob way that "light, medium and dark" are not actual styles of beers. The server was missing several teeth, and judging by the color of the ones she had left, she was going to be gumming her food soon. So, anyway, this isn't a sophisticated beer place.

Photo: This is a picture of the roof of Convento San Felipe Neri in Sucre, Bolivia. This is my favorite building in the world. Incredibly beautiful.

Megan and I each had two pints, and we spent an hour and a half trying to sort out the connections between our hillbilly neighbors. They had, at last count, five adults and two adult-sized kids living in a two-bedroom unit. That is a lot of folks. I guessed Mullet Man and Mouthy were dating, and that Brandon was her son. Then, there was Little Mouthy, who we figured was Mouthy's thinner sister and the mother of Hailey. Bald Guy was probably Little Mouthy's significant other, but not Hailey's dad. Finally, there was Big Momma, who parked her ancient Ford Aerostar, seemingly filled with all of her worldly possessions, next to our car. Nearest we could figure, Big Mamma was the mother of the mouthy sisters. This family tree was hard won, and the result of much debate on our part.

Photo: Jane and Meg get shoeshines in the main square in Sucre. Bolivia must be the shoeshine capital of the world. People like shiney shoes, but the roads are so dusty and dirty that you really need to keep on top of it.

We still are not sure who owns the broken down black Cadillac Eldorado. The car was towed home last week and has been parked ever since. Every night Mullet Man, Bald Guy, and an assortment of friends come out, smoke some cigarettes, pop the front hood and stare at the engine. They have intense discussions. Sometimes they jack the car up. Once they took the battery out (it is still sitting on the curb). But they do this every night and still the car sits there. I thought all rednecks new how to fix a car.

Yesterday morning Hailey was loaded into a pick-up truck with her suitcase. The truck actually was in working order, so it must have belonged to a friend. The friend drove, and Little Mouthy and Bald Guy piled in. They disappeared for most of the day.

A few minutes later the sheriff showed up. Apparently the hillbilly's were being evicted. I have never been evicted, so it was interesting to see. The sheriff knocks on the door. No one answers. She then puts this thing on the doorknob that is like a "boot" you put on a car wheel. It makes it so you can't put a key in the lock or turn the knob. The hillbilly's were evicted.

Photo: Religion is very visual in Bolivia. One explanation for this is that when the Spaniard came over to convert the natives, there was no written language so they felt that visual explanations would be more powerful. There is also a lot of gore associated with religion, and Jesus in particular. This is a picture from an Easter procession that marched right by our house. The Jesus they are carrying is covered in blood and has many gaping wounds. It is pretty gross.

Yesterday afternoon the hillbilly's apparently managed to get access to the apartment. They showed up in their friend's pick up, sans Hailey, and grabbed a few things. All of their furniture stayed. They disappeared and never came back. The busted Cadillac Eldorado is still sitting in the parking lot, its battery on the curb next to it. I wonder if anyone will ever come back and get it. Probably no