Monday, January 25, 2010


Each winter I migrate south from Anchorage, Alaska, to Ouray, Colorado, in the heart of the San Juan mountains. It is the "Switzerland" of America, where the skiing, ice climbing, friends, and beer hold me in their thrall. Now, after five weeks of the good life, I'm on the road again, headed north in my trusty Subaru. I had wanted to stop at Indian Creek and do some winter rock climbing with friends, but the car was vibrating badly, and I was nervous to get it to the dealer in Salt Lake City for needed repairs.

On the way into the valley, public radio regularly warned a Red Alert on air quality, but, like free beer, promising to improve...tomorrow. As I rounded the 'Point of the Mountain' south of town, the opaque brown cloud blocked the road; I could smell the pollution and wondered how I was still alive after growing up there. When I was a kid, my father was on the air-control board and helped reduce the sulphur dioxide emissions from the Garfield smelter from 600 tons to 400 tons annually. It's still bad.

I enter the 'Red Alert' air day in Salt Lake

I spent a day with my brother Tony, breakfasted at the Blue Plate Diner, and waited for the Subaru repairs to be completed. We talked about reading Jim Harrison, his new book "The Farmer's Daughter", and the one Tony was reading, "The English Major", his road trip novel. Tony has two Brittany Spaniels, so we talked dogs, hunting, how he tried to breed one with Jim Fergus' dogs, another connection to Jim Harrison. But Tony is still in the workforce, not an itinerant like his brother, so he headed to bed, and I read.

Thursday morning I headed north on I-15 in the miasmic fog, past Ogden, Brigham City, Tremonton, onto I-84, across the Idaho border. Almost like magic I drove out of the dense pollution into brilliant sunshine, reached for the Maui Jims on the dashboard, and hit the accelerator into freedom.

The blue skies and windswept plains of Idaho

The entire Snake River Plain of southern Idaho, the route of I-84, and the Columbia River floodplain are covered in basaltic lava flows, a product of the huge magama “hotspot” that feeds Yellowstone volcanism. The Columbia River “flood basalts” buried parts of Oregon, Washington state and Idaho with lava starting 17 million years ago. As I crossed over the Snake River at Twin Falls, I held the camera to the window and snapped a photo of the basalt walls lining the river corridor.

Crossing the Snake River at Twin Falls

I rubberneck as I drive, soaking up the landscape consisting mostly of J.R. Simplot potato fields. The snows of Utah transition into wind-swept plains of brown stubble. Lava fields and rolling hills draw me on. Boise flashes by, with the schlock storefronts of neon malls catching my attention; I look past the mall for the downtown area and think back on the old main street of town, far off the freeway. Today, Boise is a thriving center of industry and technology, home to such companies as Micron Technology, URS Corp, J.R. Simplot, and Washington Group International. It proudly boasts that it's in the top 5 cities for entrepreneurs, environment, and safe living in the country! But I speed can't touch Anchorage for beauty.

The Subaru hums up the Columbia River gorge in the dark of night, speeding towards Portland. Water glistens on my right, the road is dark, and a few trucks approach in the opposite lane. Otherwise it's a quiet drive. Thor and Sarah are waiting as I arrive and I get a tour of the house to see the changes they have made over the past year. They have planned to take me to dinner at El Toro Bravo for fine Spanish cuisine. It's crowded like all the fine food spots in Portland, but the tapas are exquisite. I order blue-corn crusted fish balls. Thor and Sarah know the menu and do most of the ordering; I am forced to eat brussel sprouts, fortunately slathered in mushroom sauce.

Thor and Sarah's home, Portland

Friday I'm left to my own devices, so I hit Powell's Book Store, its huge expanse covering an entire block. I could spend thousands, but limit my purchases to some rare used volumes of poetry. I wander through Sur La Table and some other cooking stores. Everything seems to be on sale. Thor and Sarah meet me for lunch. I feel like I'm part of the working energy of the young Portland crowd as I enjoy my cheese blintzes.

In the eveningThor and I hit River City Bicycles, then stand in line outside in the rain for what he describes as the best Mexican tacos I'll ever have. At least he has an umbrella, but being Portland, no one else does, rain dripping off their hair and noses. Inside the funky furniture belies the incredible taste of the tacos. Thor is right.

My visit has turned into a gourmand's marathon. In the morning we drive to Hensleys for a light breakfast. I have a bacon hash with poached eggs; Thor orders potato pancakes with poached eggs. My iPhone captures the food and the moment. By now I'm bloated.

Thor and Orchid at Hensleys

Thor's potato pancakes, poached eggs and creme freche

Sarah has driven north to Lakewood, Washington, to visit her mother, Cathy, aunt Julie and grandmother, Margo. Thor and I follow late in the afternoon. Uncle Bob and cousin Steve arrive, and we have a yummy family dinner. I get in deep conversation with the gang in the living room, vowing not to talk politics, but getting drug in beyond my ability to resist.

Thor, Cathy, and Julie show Margo the iPhone

Sunday, we all drive north to Seattle and surprise Sarah's cousin, Catherine, and fiance Bryan on her birthday at 'The Palace'. As they walk in the door, she screams, seeing a long table full of family. I sit next to her mother, Susanna, a professor of nursing at the University of Washington. She spent the morning in Singapore, having just left Cambodia where she is setting up a nursing school. I am humbled and awed by her stories and dedication, working without text books, money, or big support, she is bringing the school and people of the area the gift of health.
I grab a menu; it seems like I have wallowed from one food venue to the next for the past three days. The waitress says the charbroiled hamburger is a must...a great choice! Back to Lakewood for the night, I've finally had enough of the food-a-thon; I need exercise!

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