Sunday, November 19, 2017

Malcom and Slash


Last night I was fortunate enough to be gifted two tickets to see one of the latter iconic bands of my youth, Guns N’ Roses. The GNR story is, in many ways, typical of the excesses of the time. They hit hard and flamed out almost as fast. In less than 10 years they went from the very top of the hard rock world to non-existent. They came and went, flashed in the news and went away for years until just last year, guitarist Slash returned to the band and their current tour, “Not in this Lifetime” took off. The Sacramento date was announced a while ago - I knew they were coming. I saw them back in their heyday. I was good. Pass. My girlfriend and I went to a lot of concerts this year, we were pretty sure we’d seen it all. And, it was GNR - not exactly on the top of my “must see” list. So… the seats were good, it was free and we had no other plans last night; with about a day’s notice we placed another concert on the agenda, thanks to an old and dear friend.



Also, yesterday, one of my very early rock icons passed away. Malcom Young, AC/DC’s driving and creative force died way too soon at 64 years-old. Those who are less familiar with the band might be tempted to say that his younger brother Angus was the leader, or maybe lead singer Brian Johnson (after original lead vocalist Bon Scott died tragically in 1980) was the driving force. While all played their roles, and while both brothers received writing credit for all those timeless hits, Malcom was the glue, the driving force behind AC/DC. The tweets coming from so many in the music business acknowledge that very fact and how, because of his song-writing, the loss is that much greater. Slash and the rest of the members of GNR dedicated Bob Dylan’s “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” to Malcom Young, but they did more than that. They inserted AC/DC’s “Whole Lotta Rosie” into their set last while an image of Malcom Young was displayed bigger-than-life on the screen behind the stage.



I never saw AC/DC after Bon Scott died. While I fully acknowledge what Brian Johnson brought to the bad, and I recognize the iconic hits that were created with his vocals as just that - real, classic, rock - I was just too connected to Bon Scott as the voice of AC/DC. I could not let that go. A lot of rock stars - my heroes - have passed in the many years since I came of age. Some died due to their own excesses, their hubris; others, like Malcom Young, died due to more natural causes, even if those causes came at an unnaturally young age. There have been many, far too many to name, but Bon Scott hit me like none other until just recently when Tom Petty died of cardiac arrest, also young at 66 years old. However, I did see AC/DC twice in 1979 and I remember it like it was yesterday. Every one of AC/DC’s early albums, up to and including the first two Brian Johnson albums, are on my iPod, always on whatever playlist I have going.



Guns N’ Roses were never what so many other bands were (or are) to me. I wasn’t too concerned about missing the show. It just didn’t really matter to me, especially since the last concert I saw was at the same venue - and that was none other than Tom Petty just a couple of weeks before he died. I like GNR, I liked them enough to see them in their heyday, but my expectations last night were not high. I was blown away. They were tight, the musicianship was better than it was 30 years ago and Axl Rose, whose excesses are (or were) the stuff of legend, belted out his lyrics like a man half his age. All told, the band played a three-and-a-half-hour set - straight through without a break. And, to be clear, with three original members (Axl Rose, Slash and Duff McKagen), this is Guns N’ Roses, despite additional or new personnel. Too many “classic” touring bands have just one or no original members. I was impressed, and after all the performances I’ve seen this year, that is saying something.







Saturday, November 11, 2017

It's Been Real, It's Been Nice, But it Hasn't Been Real Nice


My 17-year love/hate relationship with AT&T is almost over. I just ported the last phone left on that account over to Verizon; now the number that I've had for more than 10 years is back online. All that is left is a lonely iPad Mini, and it will be disconnected in a week when this current billing cycle comes to an end. Of course, AT&T had a lovely parting gift for me - more of the incompetence I have come to expect from them. But the truth is the wheels were already in motion, this decision was made months ago. This is just the end of the end.

However, from a customer service, technical competence/incompetence perspective, Verizon's performance has not been stellar. In fact, it has been - in just three months - a microcosm of AT&T's. I am not impressed. I didn't move because I figured they would embrace my business or my money with any more enthusiasm than AT&T did. I moved my service because of physics. The technology that CDMA networks use (Verizon, Sprint, Xfinity, etc.) has a larger cellular footprint than GSM networks (AT&T, T-Mobile, etc.) do. For AT&T to have the same coverage as Verizon, they would have to have more towers, more cellular sites. In urban areas, it's not an issue. In rural areas, it is. Guess where I ride my bike - a lot?

My history with AT&T predates this particular entity which is now called AT&T. The last piece of the once mighty AT&T that still bore the name was AT&T Wireless, a competitor of Cingular. Cingular was a joint venture of two of the "Baby Bells," SBC and Bell South. Both of those two companies, once only regional phone companies after AT&T's break-up, were swallowing up smaller local systems and expanding. SBC was the parent company of both Pacific Bell and Nevada Bell - each with its own new-at-the-time GSM cell service. SBC finally bought Bell South and then AT&T wireless, thus owning the AT&T name. It also ended what was left of the original AT&T.


The coagulation of the CDMA networks was similar, but since I was not working with them as a dealer, my knowledge is less extensive. Dealer? Yes, I activated my own Pac Bell Wireless account way back sometime in 1999 or 2000 - my "comp code" was SA-151. The company I worked for, Cellcom International, was a chain of Pac Bell Wireless/Nevada Bell Wireless turned Cingular stores in the Reno/Tahoe/Truckee area. I ran the Truckee store. When I started, text messaging was a brand-new thing, but the GSM technology in Europe was way ahead of the Johnny-come-lately United States. However, because of that, I was able to find some of their software and adapted it for our benefit. We were doing things with our phones that no one else in the US was doing. It was a geek fest to be sure, but it was one of the best, most fun jobs I ever had. My boss and the owner were über-cool and allowed me the freedom to fuck around with the phones in ways that produced some of what we take for granted now - things like custom ring-tones and screen images.

Verizon is what Cellular One, GTE Mobilnet and others became. They were based on the new-at-the-time CDMA technology developed by Qualcom. While it was GSM that most of the rest of the world adopted, CDMA has a serious foothold in the US - and it has some advantages (and some disadvantages) when compared to GSM. GSM is, in fact, the world standard, but the CDMA market in the US is huge and it’s not going anywhere. It’s also not compatible with GSM - the two technologies don’t “talk” to each other. Some phones have both technologies built in. For instance, all Apple iPhones from the 7-series up are built in two versions. A GSM only version like the one sold through AT&T - it is Apple’s “world phone” because it works on all GSM networks worldwide. They build many more of it than they do the CDMA version that is for the US only. However, that version also works with GSM networks. In simpler terms, a Verizon iPhone will work with an AT&T SIM chip, but an AT&T iPhone will not work with a Verizon SIM chip. Trust me, I learned that the expensive way.

All of this history doesn’t change the fact that way back when I was selling phones, it wasn’t really the phone or the tech I was selling. I was selling service. When my customers had an issue, they knew they could come to me to solve it. And I always did. When GSM was new in the mountains around Lake Tahoe, the coverage was not as good as the competition, all of whom could access the old analog cellular system. We could not, we were digital only and while that gave us a serious technological advantage, we had a major infrastructure disadvantage. Yet I blew away my quota (usually double what was expected) every month. It wasn’t the phones or the system that I was selling. I was selling service and, unfortunately, the bigger these companies get, the less they care about us.

Thursday, November 09, 2017

The Smartest Smart Phone


The first iPhone was released in June, 2007. At the time, I was using a Blackberry, what was considered to be the most advanced phone of the time. It was not, however, the first "smart phone" I ever owned. A few years earlier, Nokia released its version of a smart phone - a phone that could not only send and receive email, but one that could also access the new-at-the-time World Wide Web - about ten years before the iPhone. The Nokia 9000 Communicator is sometimes recognized as the second smart phone, behind HP's hybridization of their palmtop computer with a Nokia phone. Without splitting too many hairs, it's safe to say the Nokia 9000 was a the first fully integrated smart phone. And I had one in 1999. I was working for a small cellular retailer and the rep from Nokia gave me one. It had already been superseded by a more advanced model, but it did what no cellular device before it could.

Fast-forward through a series of excellent Nokia, Ericsson and Motorola phones, each with more features and more power, when the Blackberry emerged as the first phone that could really do email well. It also had a full QWERTY keyboard. That was my phone when we rang in 2007. When the first iPhone launched, I was impressed, but not to the point of running out to get one. I didn't even bother to go to a store to see one as I was happy with my Blackberry. It had some web capability (remember that the web was far less robust than it is now) and I had no "need" for any of the other stuff the iPhone offered. That word, "need," can be interpreted in a number of ways, however, and part of the genius of Steven Jobs was not just to foresee what the market would want, but to actually create that need.

It was not until I actually held one in my hand that I needed one. Okay, I wanted one. The design was beautiful, the engineering was precise and the interface was pure magic. It happened at a vocational event for a local high school while I was working as a reporter at the Colfax Record, manning our information table. The representative at a neighboring table had one and was using the exquisitely soft microfiber cloth that came with every iPhone to wipe her already pristine devise. It was more than just mere adoration, she looked as though she truly loved this handheld device. And she actually let me hold it, just for a minute. It was hefty, solid, not at all chintzy like so many cell phones had become. It was sleek, glimmering and tight; every seem, every joint and every transition was perfect and as an entire unit, it was in perfect harmony with itself. Nothing didn’t belong. When I handed it back, she immediately wiped off whatever fingerprints I might have left and set it down in front of her, gazing upon it.

I bought my first iPhone days later, but I should make a couple of things clear. First, I am exaggerating my exposition neighbor’s adulation. It was certainly novelty, but her love for her iPhone was nothing like I just described it. However, the beauty and engineering of this material thing should not be underestimated. It was exactly as I described it and, without getting too ahead of myself, so has every iPhone since – right up to my current and brand new iPhone X. At the time, I was transitioning over to from PC to Apple Mac computers as well. While the Apple product über-integration wasn’t a “thing” yet, the quality and stability of Mac OSX was becoming legendary. My Blackberry served its purpose, it did email really, really well and I held it up as the gold-standard of its time – I still do. But that first iPhone, archaic by today’s standards, did email as well, but it also did so much more.

Since that first iPhone, I have upgraded to every major version since. I have been an early adopter and sometimes, like this time, a first adopter. Once, and only once, I did not pre-order and actually stood in the ridiculously long release day line at the Apple store. It was not all that – it is not an experience I’ll ever repeat. I do not have to be the first kid on my block with a new toy. That experience revealed the ego attached and also that, for me, it’s not about, “hey, look what I have and you don’t.” I like my toys, but they don’t define me. And my newest toy? Yes, I like it, too. The iPhone X is a step apart from and beyond what the iPhone has been for the past several generations and, in one key respect, beyond all iPhones since the very first.

There is no “home” button. Actually, the home button on the iPhone 7 and 8 is just a “virtual button,” a mere indentation in the glass that resembles a button, but the “click” and the feel are simulated, there is no actual button. But the iPhone X dispenses with any pretense, initiating new conventions for accessing the contents and linkages in the flagship device. Personally, it was a natural progression, an outgrowth of one convention to another. It did not take long at all to “get used” to it. Indeed, it was as though I already was. The new conventions – swiping up and such – are already part of how the later generations of iPhones operate. The iPhone X just takes it a step further.

Regarding the phone itself – it’s an iPhone. It works and it works exceedingly well. This one is faster and sleeker than its processors. The display is magnificent, but to really appreciate it, lay it next to an iPhone 7 Plus (which also has an excellent display). It is truly remarkably realistic. I do have just one gripe, if it can even be called that. While the screen is taller than the “Plus” versions of the iPhones 6, 7 and 8, it is a little narrower. I wished they would have kept the width of the “Plus” version phones. Having said that, it is nice to have a phone with a larger overall screen fit in my hand. As much as I loved my iPhone 6 Plus and 7 Plus, it was a big phone.

I have more than a few friends asking if it’s worth it to go with the iPhone X or settle for an iPhone 8. While I have no direct experience with an 8 (however, both my son and my girlfriend have an iPhone 8 Plus), I think the answer is couched in the "need vs. want paradigm." The iPhone 8 and 8 Plus are, technologically, very much as robust as the iPhone X. Also, the form-factor is the same as the iPhone 7 and very close to the iPhone 6. The iPhone X is a departure – if you are into the newest stuff, like I am, then by all means, get the iPhone X. If you are just looking to upgrade and older iPhone, the iPhone 8 will amaze you, even over an iPhone 7. And, of course, the iPhone X will still be amazing when the iPhone 11 is released next year. Amazing and cheaper. The iPhone X is not a logical choice, but not everything is logical. Some things not only defy logic, they transcend it.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Sixteen Years, 364 Days and Three Hours.


I am, and have been for the past 16 years, 364 days and three hours, living on bonus time. On October 17th, 2000 at about 8:00 a.m., my expiration date came, I was heading to “meet my maker” (whoever or whatever that might or might not be), I was not expected to survive. For almost 16 years I have come across this day with, always, some degree of gratitude, but the reflective process itself has also changed over the years. I can’t say whether the processing of what went down is the change agent, whether my age and “new” lifestyle (not so new anymore, but compared to what it was, still new) is responsible for my outlook or what, but one thing is sure: October 17th, 2000 was a red line, a demarcation, a catalyst - if not for the events of that day, my life today would be much different.

I don’t remember much of that day, nor do I remember in any great detail the days leading up to it. I do, however, remember pretty clearly what my life was like at the time. In a word, it was chaos. It didn’t get that chaotic overnight, and there were numerous periods where I was more or less “in control,” at least compared to the out of control periods, but as soon as anything externally upset my life, I went off the deep end. But even that, while true when looking at a particular period in isolation, is not the whole story. Going off the deep end was easy for me, anything that shoved me even a little could be my reason to jump. At the end, I didn’t need a reason. Or… anything was a reason, because being responsible for the consequences of my behavior was not part of the deal. At least not yet.

I don’t know if I slept this night 17 years ago. If I did, it likely wasn’t much and if I did, it was likely the first night in probably three or four that I did. My chaos was both created by and manifested in drugs and I liked the ones that took me up, not down. In the end (this end, there were others not as dire), as long as I was well supplied, I’d be up for anywhere from three to five days before sleeping one. Don’t ask me to explain what was attractive about that, I could not say, but I do know that at the time, it was my everything. I didn’t know it, I didn’t think so and I would not have believed it, but I was absolutely dependent on drugs.

I kind of remember being woken on the morning of the 17th, but it was not like I actually had gone to bed and slept all night, it was more like I was trying to make it to the morning and fell short. I kind of remember dozing off right about dawn and being shaken awake by one of my “friends,” of maybe one of my two younger sons (my eldest lived with his mother). Yes, this chaos went on around them and as much as I tried to isolate them from it, there is no way, especially towards the end, I could keep their lives and that world completely separate. I needed to get up so I could drive my boys to school and then go to work.

I didn’t want to make the drive from eastern Truckee, CA to Squaw Valley, CA. It was about a 20 to 30-minute drive and I was tired. I suggested to them that they might be “sick.” My younger son smelled the bait and took it, but my middle son was struggling in school and told me that he was not too sick to go to school, that he couldn’t afford to miss a day. I was tired, I didn’t want to make the drive, but I didn’t think for a moment that I couldn’t. I also, despite the humbling acknowledgment that I put my kids in harm’s way too many times, still had that sacred parental commitment to my kids. Drug addicts deal with their kids differently - some leave them behind with family, the “system,” wherever, others drag them through it and try to function. I tried and in many cases succeeded in giving them experiences that any boy would love to have growing up. But with that came the chaos and way too many things that no kid should be exposed to.

I piled my 13 year-old son and roommate into a Jeep Cherokee (a rental, a story for another time), and made it to the old industrial section of town to drop off my roommate. My son had dozed off in the car on the way (they both frequently would, it was a bit of a drive early in the morning) and while in the parking lot, I took a little “break.” We were already going to be late, so a quick cat-nap seemed like a good idea. I don’t know how long that lasted, maybe 10 or 20 minutes, but my roommate came out and woke me so I could continue my drive to Squaw Valley. I went down West River Street, turned left onto Highway 89 and that is the last thing I remember. It was just about, almost exactly, 16 years, 364 days and three hours ago. So, why not write this tomorrow, on the actually anniversary? That’s a fair question, I promise I’ll answer it.

I don’t know when it happened, but because I had fallen asleep at the wheel, I drifted into the northbound lane, about one mile before Squaw Valley and, although traffic is usually light at that time, there just happened to by a loaded logging truck coming toward me. None of this part of this story comes from my memory - what I remember is sketchy and seriously distorted by what was about to become my condition, a condition that should have (not could have) killed me. I might have been awake until then, I might have nodded off and instantly came too (most drivers have encountered that when on a very long drive, especially at night), it is unlikely I was that soundly out until the scene of the wreck because that road is not anywhere near straight. In fact, it was on a sweeping right turn that I went straight - straight into the logging truck.

The police report states that the truck driver sounded his horn several times and moved as far right as he could, but the front left of the Jeep still managed to find the front left of that Kenworth in an impact that was estimated to be a combined 100 mph. The truck driver could see me and he stated that it looked like I was asleep. My left foot was up on the dash and I was “kicked back” in a way that I drove with some frequency. This time, however, my relaxation was complete. I’ll dispense with the mystery of how my son came through it; he survived with minor physical injuries. He had to extricate himself through the back window and he saw more than any 13-year-old should have to see, but he was in front and on the right - away from the impact. His seatbelt, the airbags and perhaps the fact that he, too, was asleep, saved him from any major injuries.

My injuries were much, much more serious. The first responders from the Squaw Valley Fire Department had to cut me out of the vehicle. My left leg was almost torn off at my pelvis. I had an open compound pelvic fracture, a compound femur fracture, a lacerated kidney, liver and femoral artery, among hundreds of other less serious injuries. All of those major injuries listed, the fractures of those large bones as well as the laceration to two organs, not to mention the laceration of a major artery, all contributed to a mass exodus of blood from my body. I was, literally, a bloody mess. I was taken by ambulance to Tahoe Forest Hospital in Truckee and flown by helicopter to Washoe Medical Center in Reno, NV. By the time I got to Reno, they emptied 16 units of blood into me. Between that hospital and a rehab hospital also in Reno, I would spend the next three months in northern Nevada.

I woke up after about five weeks, sometime prior to Thanksgiving. I was in a “medical coma,” so what I remember from those five weeks is only very loosely based on reality. I don’t know how long it was before I became fully lucid, but I know it was a process. Eventually I knew where I was, why I was there and what happened. I was in utter disbelief, but the reality was all too real. I would spend the next four or so years on recovery. Not just physical recovery, but also recovery from drug addiction and a way of life that almost took me out at 37 years old (I turned 38 in the hospital). As I mentioned above, that day was a turning point, but I did not all of a sudden straighten out and stop. I said to myself I would. I meant it. Even though the investigation did not find any drugs in my body and I faced no criminal repercussions for that wreck, I still knew exactly what happened and why. And I was never going to do that again. Who would? This was not a close call, it was a direct hit. I’m not stupid. But I can do stupid things and once I started again I could not stop. I had to be stopped. That happened, too, but it’s also a story for another time.

Throughout all of this, there have been people in my corner, some who knew of my indiscretions and loved me anyway, others who were just determined to save my life, and one trauma surgeon who was too ornery and stubborn to give in to my condition or the suits from my insurance company. He has since passed, but the lives he saved, not only mine, live on. My family, my kids and my parents, particularly, were hit the hardest and yet they were the most steadfast. They never left my side. The friends and mentors I have become associated with in the years since have helped to make me who I am today, and I owe them all a debt of gratitude. Seventeen years is a long time, but it doesn’t feel that way.

So, why not write this tomorrow on October 17th, 2017? Well, because I’m busy tomorrow. I am now 13 years clean from all mind and mood altering substances, I have gone back to school and completed not only my undergraduate degree, but also two graduate degrees; now I am working in a job that I could never have dreamed of all those years ago. That wreck changed my life, ultimately for the better, but first my old life had to die. Maybe that’s kind of how it all went down. Regardless, every day of these past almost 17 years, as hard as some of those days, weeks and months were, have all been marked with the profound realization that I might not have made it. I am not some believer in a magical being that created the universe, us and everything, but I do believe in magic when defined in a way that leaves out the super-natural. In that respect, I have been given a gift and I try, really hard, to make the most of it.

Saturday, September 23, 2017

View from the Top


An acquaintance whom I have not seen in a little while asked me last night, “How’s it going?” My canned, automatic response was, “Good, things are good.” But that response can usually be translated as nothing more than the exchange of pleasantries. No matter how “things” are actually “going,” my response would be the same. In fact, even if it was a real friend, not just an acquaintance, I would be compelled to keep whatever difficulties or triumphs I might be experiencing to myself. Last night it was different. For whatever reason, in a split-second I followed up with, “Really good. Everything in my life right now is clicking. I couldn’t be more content.” And I meant that. That is not to say that I have somehow “arrived,” that my life is so complete that I have nothing left to strive for. But in terms of my general mental state, I am truly, wholly, content.

There are a number of reasons for this, some easily identified, some more elusive, and I am not so naïve to think that this state of peace will last until the end of my days. Another storm will come, and I will weather it, survive it, conquer it or succumb to it. It can be no other way. However, I am pretty confident that I have come to a place where I am able to make choices that will minimize, if not eliminate, the self-inflicted variety. Perhaps the most violent of the self-inflicted upheavals in my life occurred almost 17 years ago when my choices directly led to a wreck that nearly ended my life. That was the beginning of the end of one part of my life and the beginning of the beginning of this part. But it did not happen overnight. It was not as though I woke up in the hospital – five weeks later – and thought, “Fuck, that was close – I need to totally reevaluate my life.”

In terms of the direct cause-effect of that wreck, yes, I said to myself I’d never do that again (I did do it again, but with less severe consequences – for a “smart guy,” I can be pretty dumb). But by the time I left the hospital and embarked on a long-term physical rehabilitation, my mental, spiritual and social life returned to a status quo that could be and almost was fatal. But that lifestyle would prove unsustainable and eventually the instant self-gratification through chemistry I had become so used to rapidly spiraled to a singular point of “fuck this, I can’t do it anymore.” I got clean. I had to, but that undoing of years of daily doing was a process that took some time. “Drugs are bad” for those of us who become dependent upon them, but they are also our worst best friend.

Almost four years after my near-death, and after some intervention from the legal system, I managed to quit long term on August 6th, 2004. Those early days were a bitch, but with the help of a lot of people - some friends, my family and too many I will never know – I have been able to live a life that was beyond my conception. Happiness is nebulous term, it can be defined in a number of ways. At some point between my mid-teens and my late 30s, it became synonymous with being “high.” Today, my contentedness defines my happiness. Today, and for some time now, I am happy. I am at peace. That is not to say that I am always in some state of nirvana where nothing ever bothers me, that is impossible. But compared to the early years of this millennium especially, it is a state I find myself in regularly. It has become the new status quo.

Over the past two or three years, I have been gradually getting more open about my past to those who are not or were not part of “that” world. That was what hit me last night when I expanded upon my programmed response to what was not so much a serious inquiry as it was an equally canned greeting. Part of what my past life has given me is experience that allows me the ethos to speak on the topic. And what my life has been since getting clean is nothing short of amazing, but it is a delayed amazement. It took some time; transitioning one’s entire outlook on life is not an event, it is a process. Today I have a career and until I got to a place where I was totally comfortable with who I am, who I was and what I am doing here, I was reluctant to divulge too much. Being free to tell my story to whomever – professionally, socially, anywhere any time, is a product of the work I have done.

Those who know me or know who I am today through any number of the means I use to communicate know that I am currently a professor at a large public university in California. I am unique, my students see me as an out of the ordinary professor. Not many look the way I do, ride a Harley to work or conduct class as I do, but I look at it as just another element in the great diversity that is a hallmark of arguably one of the most diverse campuses in the world. When I got clean at 41 years-old, I was a high school graduate (barely) and a college drop-out. But like only a few others, I have an abundance of particular experiences; they are lessons on what not to do. But these stories are also means to communicate what I teach – communication.

In the process, I discovered that something I believed of myself for most of my life was not true. I felt that I was cursed with a deficiency of creativity. I felt that I was not gifted with any artistic talent. It turns out that was a lie. It is likely I would have discovered that lie much sooner had I not spent so much energy chasing ghosts. Through my return to college and in the pursuit of my graduate degrees, I found that I could weave words and punctuation into compelling stories. I have been complimented (something I still have a hard time accepting) on this gift many times. I also have found a great deal of pleasure in creating works like this, but of late, I have not written much more than an occasional Facebook rant, revelation, insight and the like. While I put care into those, too, it is not like this.

This kind of writing is cathartic. It is not as though I ever forget where I came from, or that I am ever not grateful, but inspiration is a fickle thing. I’d say that such is art, but I really don’t know. This morning, as I was perusing my usual go-to Internet sources – news, Facebook, Instagram, sometimes Twitter - I noticed that my girlfriend posted a reflection on her Wordpress blog. Her reflection dealt with, as is usually the case, gratitude. She is, in a word, amazing, and my relationship with her is among those things I just assumed I would never find. But this life we have chosen is what precipitates that and so much more. It took time, a lot of help and a lot of work. There is no “instant gratification.” Somewhere along the line, through the early struggles and the ups and downs of life, I decided that as hard as it was, it would be worth it. I guess you could call that faith. It is all part of what compelled me to elaborate last night. Things are good. Really good. Probably as good as they have ever been. I am content.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Sturgis, 2017 - An Epic Journey, Part Deux



Freedom

Five thousand, two hundred and seventy five miles
For the past two weeks, I have traveled in 10 western states logging more than 5,000 miles on my motorcycle. Almost a week of that was spent in Sturgis, SD for part of the 10-day annual rally that attracts as many as a half a million motorcycle aficionados. Suffice it to say that I am a motorcycle aficionado. This was my fourth consecutive pilgrimage to this veritable motorcycle Mecca and each has been a little different.

This year my journey started out with a two-day solo ride from my home near Sacramento, CA, south along US 395 to Bishop, CA for the night. At less than 300 miles, this was the shortest day on the road (that is, not including the days spent in Sturgis). The next day I rode through Death Valley to Williams, AZ. From Kingman, AZ – paralleling Route 66 on I-40, I was on familiar ground. However, from Bishop through Death Valley was not and I was simply in awe of not only the starkness of the desert there, but also of the road leading down to more than 200 feet below sea level. I left Bishop very early in the morning to beat the predicted 117-degree heat that day, so when I arrived in Furnace Creek at about 9:00 a.m., it was only a little more than 90 degrees.

Four Corners Monument
In Williams I met my friend who rode out from Baton Rouge, LA. Bob and I then rode up to and through Grand Canyon National Park, through the Four Corners Monument to Durango, CO. From there we rode up the “Million Dollar Highway” (US 550) through Silverton and Ouray before settling down in Grand Junction, CO for the night (my third, Bob’s fourth since our respective departures). Although I’ve ridden much of this route in the past, some of it was new to me and what wasn’t was absolutely worth riding again.

The net day we continued generally north towards Cooke City, MT. Our original plan was to ride through Yellowstone National Park to Cooke City, but the distance we needed to travel that day made it necessary to divert around the park. Because our schedule allowed for two nights in Cooke City, we were able to ride through Yellowstone and Grand Teton to Jackson Hole, WY and then return to Cooke City, circumnavigating our way around Yellowstone the next day. We did not expect much out of the ride from Grand Junction to Cooke City, and for large sweeps of that ride we got exactly that, however, there were a number of stretches that were unexpected in their grandeur. What we thought would be a largely utilitarian ride turned out to be as glorious as anything we’d ridden the entire trip – including roads like Bear Tooth Pass that we knew (me from personal experience, Bob from my stories and motorcycle lore) would be epic. Grand Junction, CO to Vernal, UT – epic. Vernal UT to Rock Springs, WY (Flaming Gorge) – epic. The Wind River Canyon – epic. And from Cody, WY to Cooke City, MT, over Chief Joseph Pass – epic.

Grand Teton National Park
Yellowstone and Grand Teton Park were beautiful from a sight-seeing perspective, but due to the crowds, the buffalo and the low speed limit in those parks, the ride itself was not what I enjoy most about motorcycle treks. However, that was merely a prelude to the next day, a ride up and over Bear Tooth Pass – at almost 11,000 feet – into Red Lodge, MT. From there we made a course to Sturgis, but the first half of getting there was not just another utilitarian ride like it could have been. This was a route my friend Art and I rode home two years earlier, but I told Bob to make the decision as to the way we would go. I felt that with all the excellent roads we had already ridden, getting there on that day was enough. However, he chose the exact same route Art and I rode, taking the Big Horn Scenic Byway in Wyoming. Again, epic. By the time we reached Sheridan, WY, we settled into a leisurely (but with an 80-mph speed limit, fast) ride on I-90 to Sturgis. We arrived in the afternoon on Thursday, August 3rd and checked into our cabin (really a fully self-contained suite, complete with a kitchenette) at the Elk Creek Resort.

Mount Rushmore
For the next six nights, we would stay at Elk Creek, located about half-way between Sturgis and Rapid City, SD. The next day I picked up my girlfriend at the Rapid City airport and she stayed until the following Tuesday. Christine and I have been on many rides, including a long weekend trip to Southern California, but to ride out to Sturgis with me on my bike was logistically difficult from several perspectives. The time needed and the luggage space for both of us were primary among the logistical challenges. However, flying in to meet me there and out before my ride home solved that issue and also allowed me the time to make the ride there and back. Part of Sturgis is having my motorcycle there and, at more than 800 pounds, it is a bit much to be checked baggage. Having Christine there made what would be “just another Sturgis” not just another Sturgis. We did almost all of the Sturgis stuff – people-watched, shopped, ate, and, of course, we rode. We went to Mount Rushmore, Devil’s Tower, rode Iron Mountain, Custer State Park, Spearfish Canyon, Deadwood, Keystone, Sundance, Belle Fourche and more. The following Tuesday I rode Christine back to the airport before packing up in preparation for my three-day ride home.
Mount Rushmore with me, Christine, Pat, Terry, Don and Michelle

Victory Dance
Not to take anything away from the time I spent with Bob and Christine, but the ride home, this time, holds a special place on this particular trip. Not more special, but different special. As much as I enjoy riding with others, and as much as I enjoy spending time on my bike with my girl, and as much as I like riding in and around Sturgis with a half-million like-minded souls, I am equally happy riding by myself. The three days back were just that – Christine was already home and Bob was riding back to Baton Rouge. I did not have a route planned (generally speaking, I never plan a specific route when I ride by myself), but the possibilities included both roads I’ve ridden before and those I have not. I chose to go south through western Nebraska and then west through Cheyenne, WY and Denver, CO before stopping for the night back in Grand Junction. That ride took me almost 700 miles and right through Colorado Rockies on I-70. That stretch of interstate is among the most beautiful I’ve ever ridden – comparable to I-80 through the Sierras and I-90 from Coeur d’Alene, ID to the Montana border. I got rained on a little (just the third time throughout the entire two weeks – that must be some kind of record), but besides that minor inconvenience, the ride was incredible.

The next day took me west through what was left of Colorado, though all of Utah and into Ely Nevada. The road through Utah is magnificent. I passed, but did not enter, a number of parks and monuments and I could not help but think that, with all the grandeur surrounding me (mostly on I-70, but from Salina, UT on, I was on historic US 50), how did they decide where these parks should go. I can only surmise that as awesome as what I was riding through was, the parks must be that much more spectacular. A return trip with many more detours is definitely on my list. I spent the night in Ely after about 430 miles of riding. So far, the return trip covered all new roads for me.

"The lonliest road in America."
My last leg took me the rest of the way on US 50, a stretch deemed by Life Magazine “The loneliest road in America.” It was not meant as a compliment, but the state of Nevada took advantage of the slight and turned it into a marketing tool. Now, more than 30 years later, the old Pony Express route has many travelers with their “US 50 Survival Guide” in hand, getting their “passport” stamped at various stops along the way. Collect five of the eight stamps available in Baker, Ely, Eureka, Austin, Fallon, Fernley, Dayton and Carson City and the state of Nevada will send a certificate commemorating the achievement. I collected six – I skipped Fernley and Carson City. Regarding the road itself – I have ridden far lonelier roads, including its US Interstate sibling to the north, I-80. US 50 is chocked full of history, heritage, stories and scenery. True, there are not a lot of people along the way, but those who reside in these scattered small (and not so small) towns are friendly and genuinely welcome visitors. While there are several long, straight stretches, they are broken up by surprisingly technical twists over several mountain passes.

I think it’s safe to say that Life Magazine was dead wrong about US 50, but it’s not just because their characterization of the road as monotonous, barren and boring, it is in the idea that places with no or few people are, by definition, lonely. Loneliness is a state of mind – there are those who are lonely in a crowd of people. I have been there myself. What I sought and what I found (and I knew I would) was solitude. Unlike loneliness, solitude is difficult, if not impossible, to find if there are too many people around. I stopped a few times along the way and most of those stops were in places that I could walk right out on the highway and not see another vehicle or person. I was alone with my thoughts, but the furthest thing from my mind was any inkling that I was lonely. And as I remarked in one of my Facebook posts, with my motorcycle, gas in the tank and miles of pavement, who has time to be lonely? It was magic.

By the time I arrived in Carson City, I was on familiar turf. Thousands of others were there, too. The magic was almost over, but not before a nice ride through South Lake Tahoe, up and over Spooner Summit and descending the 7,000 or so feet back home. I have ridded that section of US 50 more times than I can remember, but this one was different and I am not exactly sure why. Maybe it was because for the first time in a long time I did not take the magnificence of that stretch of highway for granted. As awesome as so many of the other roads that took me out and back were, here is this one in my own backyard that ranks right up there with any of them. And I was almost home. It was the last of the magic before hitting Placerville, the traffic and the heat of the greater Sacramento area. But that last bit of soulful riding placed the perfect bookend on the perfect ride.

Red Lodge, MT
Peace.




Church Rock, AZ
Bear Tooth Pass


Main Street, Sturgis

Iconic