So I’m alone, in Albuquerque, with a nice car and no co-driver. Our plans have gone awry, and I have a few choices of what to do next. One is to just continue on to SoCal and visit friends. I’ve already seen the Grand Canyon, so no need for that side trip. Another option is to drive straight home by the most direct route. It’s between 1200 & 1400 miles, depending upon which “direct” route I choose. But here is where I have to admit a personal quirk: I like to drive on roads I’ve never driven on. I’ve been wandering all over this continent in a car since I was a kid, and it never ceases to amaze me at the wonders one can find by taking a road you’ve never been on before.
My brain is fogged. I’ve been driving for two days straight with minimal sleep, after two previous days of driving as well. I’m only ~250 miles from my journey’s end, but I really felt the need to get out of the car.
So here I am, sitting in a Burger King somewhere west of Boise, Idaho, sipping on a cold coke zero, munching on some terrible onion rings, and scrolling through my Facebook newsfeed to just give my brain a rest. How did I get here?
Late today I had some errands in Bend, and did not get back on the road home until right around sunset. It has been rainy and grey all day, but just as the sun set behind the Cascades, a break in the clouds appears in the lee of the mountains and bathes Central Oregon’s high ground and low clouds with a reddish golden glow. My route from Bend to home is the Powell Butte Highway… a highway in name only. It is a narrow two-lane through Juniper and Sage. For some odd reason tonight it is utterly devoid of vehicular traffic, save me. Back in 2010-2013 this road was my daily commute, and after decades of Seattle’s stop-and-go it was a pleasant change of pace, and most of all I relished the drives home heading into the setting sun. Tonight takes me in the opposite direction, allowing me to soak in the light reflecting from the hills, the clouds, and most interestingly, from the windows of every home on the butte, including mine. These reflections were so strong as to appear to be very bright electric lights, as if every home was wearing its Christmas best finery.
Between the light show, and the absolute absence of any other cars on the roads the whole experience begins to take on a dreamlike quality. My mind starts wondering why I am so alone. Is something happening of global importance that I am blissfully unaware of?
But still, the amazing light show keeps me enthralled as I drive. Pulling through the penultimate corner and up the steep hill going up the butte I can see the light is no longer blazing off the windows and I put my foot into the accelerator to try and get home a few seconds faster to watch the last of the dying sunset…
That’s when the full-grown Mule Deer prances onto the asphalt about 15m in front of the car.
Reverie vanishes in an instant. Full on the brakes and horn simultaneously. The deer stops(!), rotates back around and bounds back to the right. Following it with my eyes, I see the inevitable herd (there is NEVER just ONE deer!) One of them is just off the road, just outside my passenger window.
I feel like an idiot for not seeing them earlier. The groceries (including a dozen eggs) are remarkably intact given that they launched off the seat, off the dash, and onto the floor.
Self-medicating with a vintage Bordeaux as we speak.
Perhaps the finest achievement of mankind, other than the chairlift of course, is the silicon transistor & integrated circuit. When you process it at a base layer we have taught rocks how to think.
I’ll say that again: WE HAVE TAUGHT ROCKS HOW TO THINK.
Place that now smarter rock into a powered device, with input/output systems, storage, memory, and a connection to all the other thinking rocks we’ve created and the potential is truly unlimited. I get very excited when I think about all we have created and my very small role in making it all happen.
Imagine what we can do!
Then I go out into the world and look around, only to see my fellow humans using these amazing devices…
…to play solitaire.
I learned earlier this week that my friend Jerry Mouton passed away. I’m quite shocked at the news. Jerry was truly a gentleman. Always gracious, always helpful. Eternally smiling. I’ve known Jerry for over fifteen years, and he never hesitated to lend a hand or good advice, especially with regard to helping me keep my old E-type Jaguar running. Jaguars are how we met and it was the core of our friendship. Jerry and his wife Kate graciously hosted Christopher and me at their home in Palo Alto during our father-son roadtrip in 2009 and I would often meet him and other Jaguar friends when I was visiting the Bay Area.
He drove his Jaguar. On tours. At autocrosses. He drove it hard… as it was meant to be driven. It inspired me to drive mine.
Jerry has also been the driving force behind the “Oil Leak Tours” that a group of E-type Jaguar enthusiasts attend every year. I’ve been on one (and part of another) but Jerry never missed one, and in fact passed away while attending the latest tour.
The “oil leak” crowd have collectively decided to change the name of the tour to the “Yearly Mouton Memorial Vacation” aka “YMMV”. I know Jerry would get a kick out of that.
I’ll miss him. Laissez les bons temps rouler…
I hate Las Vegas.
Actually “hate” is not quite the correct term for my loathing and aversion for that place. Vegas is a blight on the otherwise wonderful intermountain west. I can appreciate what Las Vegas represents; a manifestation of liberty. A sort of place where the concept of “sin” is embraced as an alternative lifestyle.
I’m not at all a religious person. Philosophically I reject the claim that there exists any sort of deity that rules or judges our lives and behavior. Virtue is its own reward, not some e-ticket to a post-mortem amusement park. So it isn’t the “Sin City” aspect of Vegas that repulses me. No, it is something far more simple than that: Las Vegas is just a revenue-extraction machine on a grand scale. It steals from the people who love it.
Recently I attended an event in Vegas. It was one of those rare gatherings of far-flung folk with whom all of our interactions are online. Vegas was chosen as the location primarily due to it being a relatively cheap and easy place to get to. The organizers/hosts are from Los Angeles, but attendees came from all over North America. The SoCal contingent drove, but most folks flew in and made a long weekend of it. I’m still seeing all their photos posted on Facebook. Famous Vegas locales where they went, things they did, etc.
Me? I drove. I drove there, I attended the event and a bit of socializing afterwards, then I drove back.
It is about nine hundred miles from my home in central Oregon to Las Vegas. Why the hell did I drive it? Well, because it is some of the last remaining true wide-open driving territory left in America. That is why.
If you look at a map of the USA, the Great Basin is just sort of a big empty space. A blank part of the world that ancient cartographers would have filled with dreadful monsters and nameless fears. Terra Incognita. “There be dragon here” To the west lie the Sierras, to the east lie the Rockies. The philosophically polar opposite cities; Las Vegas and Salt Lake City lie at its edges. In between there is seemingly nothing. Interstate 15 cuts across it’s right side marking a route from Los Angeles to Salt Lake City via Las Vegas. Interstate 80 is the sole artery that dares to go directly through it east-to-west running from Salt Lake to Sacramento via Lake Tahoe. Otherwise this vast emptiness is devoid of superslab. It’s few small towns and settlements connected by a thin web of two-lane highways through giant valleys devoid of civilization. Empty blue highways.
Perfect driving country.
Before 2000, my only times spent in Nevada were an adult-league hockey tournament in Reno, and a middle of the night layover in the Las Vegas airport. It wasn’t until I drove Martin Swig’s crazy “La Carrera Nevada” car rally that I discovered the real Nevada. Not the smoky, white-trashy, sleazy Vegas or smoky, white-trashy, slightly less sleazy Reno… but the wide open and largely beautiful Basin & Range territory that makes up the rest of Nevada. It is vast. It is empty. It is awesomely scenic in its austerity.
It is also the last place you can truly “stretch your legs” in an automobile. Yes, there is the autobahn, but no, I don’t live in Europe. I do live at the very northern edge of The Great Basin however.
Safety Nannies might clutch their pearls and gasp, but… fuck ’em. Hemingway famously said:
There are only three sports: bullfighting, motor racing, and mountaineering; all the rest are merely games.
True mastery comes from standing at the edge, looking into the abyss of death, and backing off just enough to truly understand where that edge lies. I’ve played two out of Hemingway’s three sports, and a failed at the basic task of herding some cattle into a pen before being branded, so I’ll take a pass on walking into a ring with an enraged bull. Suffice to say I have a good handle on my limitations. I know and trust myself behind the wheel.
What I can’t trust are the other humans on the road, who are so bored to tears that they have abandoned the act of driving so much that they yearn for self-driving cars to allow them to stare at their phones as they are shuttled from place to place.
Out here in the American Outback, the roads are empty. Those drivers-who-would-rather-be-passengers are all either west of the Sierras, East of the Rockies, or are droning across the Basin on the Interstate.
I chose my route to avoid even US highways where I could and stuck to the most remote of the paved roads, state highways and county roads. It was bliss.
Empty roads. Empty skies. Objective hazards measured largely in open range cattle and roadkill-feasting buzzards.
There were stretches of road I traveled where I never saw another vehicle for hundreds of miles. I was utterly and completely alone for most of the trip.
What this sort of driving brings to the driver is FOCUS.
Well, that is if you choose to actively participate. One could set the cruise control and pass the time the same way I did in my childhood rides across the west, watching out the windows into the sagebrush for Pronghorns and Jackalopes. (I saw plenty of the former, and none of the latter.)
Or you can DRIVE.
Due to some scheduling issues my trip to Vegas was split over two days. Friday I drove from Prineville, Oregon to Ely, Nevada, then Ely to Las Vegas Saturday morning, to attend the Saturday afternoon event. On Sunday morning I woke up and drove the entire return trip in one go, with only about an hour’s stop midway for lunch. Mapping software said the trip should be over thirteen hours long. I set out to see how many hours I could shave off that estimate.
I arrived home after about 10.5 hours of driving, alert and feeling fresh. How? I drove in a manner that many would describe as “reckless” or “dangerous” but is in reality exactly the opposite. I focused like a laser on the simple act of driving.
I played by a very simple set of rules:
1. When in or near any town, drive at or very near the speed limit.
2. When near any other vehicles, drive at or near the speed limit.
3. At all other times drive at the maximum comfortable speed I felt confident doing.
Given that well over 90% of my drive was on empty, well-paved, two-lane highways, with visibility often measured in tens of miles, it was very easy to drive the car at 80% of its true capacity. Being a modern, high-performance machine with tires rated well above my speeds, I felt very confident driving this way. I think I could have shaved more time off my trip had my car had a larger gas tank, or at least if I knew exactly where I might find gas along the route. Fuel consumption at higher speeds and “next gas in XXX miles” signs (which turned out to not be factual) forced me to slow down on two segments. It also rained on me for a short section through mountains in southern Oregon… for that I slowed down to well under the limit. Limited visibility and wet pavement is not the place to go fast.
Otherwise, I only made stops for fuel, food, and bio-breaks.
When I arrived home I felt oddly energized. Not at all tired. It was those hours of 100% focus. They don’t even allow you to become fatigued. So instead of covering ground at such a slow rate that the driver becomes bored, distracted, and fatigued, perhaps we should raise speed limits rather than keep lowering them.
It’s all about focus.
I took a trip back to 2012 yesterday morning. It was a very vivid and immediate vision because how I went there was via the resurrection of an old laptop that was last used in late summer 2012. How I got there was mundane: I had purchased a bit of older technology, an Apple Airport Express base station (I use a technology called AirPlay to direct music from my laptop/iPhone/iPad to various speaker systems all around my property, and needed another one to fill in an audio gap in the basement) but this “new” old tech which I had grabbed from eBay for literally the price of two hot cocoas from a fancy coffee shop had been reset to factory defaults and could not be managed from current software. For most folks this would be a technological Kobayashi Maru scenario. But not for me, I knew I had the ability to technologically time travel, and likely could connect to the device, manage it, apply firmware updates, etc, and get it running on my home network. My old laptop, a MacBook Pro from around 2009, was sitting in a box in my garage. A couple of days ago I brought it in the house, set it on the table, plugged it in, tapped the keyboard, and watched it come back to life.
It still had the strange screen defect that caused me to replace it in 2012. But it also came back exactly how I had last used it. Applications were still there with windows open and documents still in the state they were when I last used it in the summer of 2012. I wasn’t there to reminisce however, I was there to do a job. Sure enough the ancient version of Airport Utility recognized the Airport Express and let me configure it. Job done, I closed the laptop and went on with my day.
But yesterday morning I sat down for breakfast at the table next to that laptop and casually opened it to have a look. I opened the web browser Safari, and to my surprise I noted the RSS feed ticker in my bookmark bar updating itself. I started with digits around 30-something, but rapidly escalated to 600-something before my eyes. I had forgotten how critical RSS was to my web browsing lifestyle. It was something very close to that old “Knowledge Navigator” thing from the infamous John Sculley-era video, but FAR LESS INTRUSIVE. It was’t some over-arching in-my-face annoyingly friendly technology… it was just a tiny little robot that collected things from the Internet I liked to read and presented them in a very unobtrusive way, right in my web browser. I had my RSS feeds arranged by subjects; cars, friends, photography, ideas, Chile (from when Christopher was an exchange student there), etc.
I spent a morning I had planned to go skiing instead catching up with some “old friends” namely some websites I used to visit almost daily, and writers I like to read. I found out that Tomas Dinges had taken a voyage and was back in Chile, that Wayne Bernhardsen’s Malamute Malbec is still alive, though now old and slow, and the stuff at Curbside Classics is still great.
I eventually closed the lid after I had browsed through the entirety of my unread RSS feeds, and took off for Mt. Bachelor. As I was resting between runs on the Northwest Express Lift I thought about how Facebook had largely replaced RSS, but what had won out wasn’t quality, it was quantity. Instead of a trickle of great content it was a torrent of crap. Instead of thoughtful analysis of an old car parked on a roadside in Eugene, it was several hundred bad-quality “potato” shots of cars in V.I.S.I.T. Time is the most valuable commodity we have, and I’m starting to ponder how well I’ve been spending it…
I have no idea why Apple pulled RSS support out of Safari (ironically around the same time Google killed its RSS Reader) but it is certainly a feature I miss. Yes, I tried a dozen stand-alone RSS apps, but none of them were very good, and none of them made good browsers. Since that moment in time when that old laptop was retired my web browser has morphed from my window into the Internet, to a Facebook screen and where I pay my bills. I’m going to try to change that habit in the new year. Seek out quality content again.
Feel free to share how you find it in the comments.