Saturday, June 3, 2017

Near Home

One of the many perks of my marriage is the right to a once- a- month reservation at  “The Property,” her family’s house on Galveston Bay.  An hour from Houston, and a long way from its hustle and bustle, the house offers ample space for holiday reunions and a site for solitary idylls for the rest of the year.  I write with the Memorial Day get together fresh in my mind.

In the early 1970s my wife’s parents located the site and built a house with an unoccluded view of the west bay and adjoining marshlands, a glorious prospect, especially at sunset.  Upon their deaths the deed passed to their four children, who equally share rights and responsibilities. The original house was severely damaged by Hurricane Ike, so much so that rebuilding seemed preferable to reconstruction. My brother-in-law, a talented designer, oversaw the project, making it larger and more hurricane resistant and incorporating a number of improvements to the original floor plan.  One of the many first cousins did the construction. So now we have great views and deluxe accommodations, and the cousin has a chunk of change.

Photographs taken over the years document changes to the marsh and to the neighborhood. Like a receding hairline, the marsh has slowly lost ground to the bay.  A futile attempt to impede erosion left behind undulating segments of a breakwater fashioned from a cloth-lined tube stuffed with earth.  Birds and intrepid anglers sometimes perch on its slippery surface. The spit of land that includes The Property has seen subdivision of some of the original lots and increasingly dense occupation, with one fortuitous exception.  A prosperous neighbor to our east bought and leveled a house that once stood between our property and his. This provides us additional privacy as the prosperous neighbor is seldom in residence.

In an elegantly written  history he calls The Gulf, Jack Davis recounts human depredations of marine resources in the "fishy sea."  We have played bit parts. Twenty years ago family weekends always began by laying crab traps in shallow water.  Sometimes we dragged the bay bottom with a twenty foot net deployed over the side of our power boat.  The haul, not always carefully culled for juveniles and females, filled our plates.  But our improvidence contributed to a sharp decline in the crab population, and the onset of old age has diminished our zest for fishing.  We no longer own a powerboat, and our kayaks often rest peacefully in the garage. Luckily a seafood market has located nearby, and my wife and in laws are excellent chefs.  The holiday routine revolves around cooking, eating, drinking and getting ready to repeat the cycle.

An interest in birdlife has offset our decline as watermen.  On the bay brown pelicans, black skimmers, laughing gulls, and several species of terns demonstrate their hunting skills.  Skimmers, as their name implies, fly close to the water, their lower mandibles extended just below the surface to vacuum up small fish. Pelicans and terns dive from the sky, the former making a loud splash, to capture prey from above and then swallow it whole.  We are sometimes lucky enough to see osprey, an eagle whose technique is to snatch fish near the water surface before butchering them on a safe perch.  Gulls scavenge, grabbing flotsam from the water, pestering hunters for part of their catch, or demonstrating remarkable aerobatics chasing bits thrown into the air by our delighted nieces.

Marshlands provide cover for shier, less agile fliers.  Herons and egrets wade through the shallow water searching for fish and crustaceans that they spear with their long, sharp beaks.  My wife and I recently saw a giant blue heron with a large, wiggling snake at the end of its bill. Roseate spoonbills are unmistakable in their deep pink plumage, especially striking during mating season, and their characteristic feeding behavior, swinging spatulated bills back and forth to capture small animals and insects from the shallow water.  Birds heard but unseen include the American bittern and the Clapper rail, the latter prized by our expert bird watching friends.

Galveston Island, although small, low, and close to the Texas mainland is an important stopover on the biennial bird migration to and from the neotropics.  Two years ago we witnessed what birders call a “fall out.” Songbirds had exhausted their energy reserves flying across the 650 mile-wide Gulf of Mexico, and the headwinds from cold front forced them to land abruptly. Baltimore orioles, Prothonotary warblers, painted and indigo buntings, ruby throated humming birds, arriving in singles and pairs, dropped almost simultaneously one afternoon and immediately grazed watered lawns and oleander hedges.  It’s hard to conceal bright orange, indigo, and red against brown and light green cover, so the birds moved in plain sight.  They sucked up nourishment and hydration as we looked on in delight. But it was only a pit stop; the next day none remained.  

We anxiously await another fall out at The Property.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

In Africa



At the time of our marriage in 1975 my wife and I “signed” a pre-nup.  We agreed to have children and to go to Africa.  The children came along in due time, and after forty-one years together, we completed our vows with a trip to Kenya and Tanzania.

No thanks to me, the planning went very smoothly.  Somehow I contacted an outfit styling itself TrueAfrica.  I thought that I had gotten their recommendation from a friend who had recently visited Botswana, but no.  Well, perhaps from my sister-in-law, a world traveling physician, not her, either.  I must have imagined or dreamed up TrueAfrica.  But whatever fates placed us in their hands, we were blessed with everything we hoped the trip would be.

Traveling to Africa requires a lot of sitting in airplanes.  At this time no US-flagged carrier flies non-stop to east African destinations.  Our choices required a flight to a European capital and subsequent travel to former colonial regions.  We chose BritishAir, Houston to London and London to Nairobi. Two months after the trip I remember nothing of our time in the air; memories begin at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport.

We arrived at 10:45PM and retrieved our luggage at midnight.  Airport infrastructure, at least the baggage handlers, could not manage the near simultaneous arrival of two international flights.  As we stood around, we met a number of our fellow passengers—a couple of Londoners on their honeymoon, a 30-year British expat returning to Kenya after visiting relatives in England, and a 40-something man who became so distressed with waiting that he had a Trump-like tantrum, yelling at the baggage handlers and cursing Kenya in general as a disorganized, third class country.  Our greatest worry was that the long delay might have complicated our transit to the Nairobi hotel.  Lucky for us Kenyans have first class patience.

The Fairview is a lovely place, built at what was the edge of Nairobi in the 1940s.  Much has changed in seventy years, and now the property sits smack dab in the middle of a gated community that also houses several embassies.  Security is tight.  We passed an armed guard at the hotel gate and a baggage scanner before check in.  In anticipation of President Obama’s visit in 2015, the authorities installed surveillance cameras, similar to those all over the British Isles, to record street traffic.  We inadvertently tested security the next day as we walked through the hotel gardens.  A path that promised a panorama took us to a position with a view of the garden and the hotel. Across the street rose a high wall with Kenyan soldiers patrolling its perimeter.  My wife noticed a sentry post on the wall itself, manned by a soldier of clearly un-Kenyan nationality.  She waved.  Rather than returning her friendly gesture, the soldier pointed and scowled.  Almost instantly, a man in a suit hurried up behind us.  He introduced himself as the hotel security chief and told us to return to the garden.  Turns out that we had gazed into the Israeli embassy compound.

Later in the day the hotel arranged a taxi ride to the Kenyan National Museum, our only tourist foray into Nairobi. The museum holds a well curated display of the country’s history from pre-colonial times to the present, sprinkled with skeletons and taxidermied bodies of the country’s celebrated wildlife.  The ride back to the hotel displayed the capital’s not-so-famous rush hour traffic.  Automobiles mixed it up with motorcycles, pedicabs and pedestrians. My wife and I agreed that Nairobi’s drivers are even less observant of rules of the road than their Latin American counterparts.  The Fairview welcomed us back with an early dinner and a comfortable bed.

Our flight from Nairobi to Kilimanjaro International Airport, just across the Tanzanian border, took us to the east of the majestic mountain of the same name.  The view from the plane would be our only glimpse of the peak.  Clouds occlude the summit for 300 days of the year, and our day at Hatari Lodge was not among the favored sixty-five.  Hatari (“danger” in Swahili) was the title of a movie filmed in the locale in 1962.  Howard Hawks directed and John Wayne starred, but more important for the future of the lodge was the appearance of the German actor, Hardy Kruger, in a supporting role.  The beauty of the area so impressed Kruger that he purchased land used in the filming and attempted to attract German tourists until newly independent Tanzania imposed laws discouraging foreign involvement in the national economy.  While the property offers fine accommodations and an open park that attracts game—we saw zebras, cape buffaloes and a pair of giraffes—its charm pales against that of the Tanzanian game reserves and national parks that we would see in the days to come.

To cover our wide-ranging itinerary, we made several short hops in single engine aircraft.  The first, Arusha to Kuro (Tarangire) had a pilot who spoke with a Castillian accent.  He looked so young that one of our fellow passengers asked how long he had been flying.  I was thinking “Tanzian Foreign Legion Air Corps.”  But Luis, from Madrid, proved older than his looks and had flown several years for Air Excel.

Tarangire National Park is justly famous for its large elephant population.  The park includes a large marsh that attracts animals when other water sources disappear. Although we saw elephants everywhere we went, the view of more than 100 in a single location was unforgettable. We also saw our first lions in Tarangire.  A pride of four females devoured a cape buffalo as we watched from our open Toyota Landcruiser.  We were so close, too close for my comfort, initially, that we could hear the lionesses crunching the bones of their kill.  As long as we did not leave our seats, the beasts apparently saw us and the vehicle as an unthreatening background.

In her pre trip research, my wife identified a site off the safari track.  The Kondoa rock paintings document ancient human occupation in east Africa.  Mary Leakey described the paintings in a book published in the 1940s, and more recently UNESCO has declared them a World Heritage Site.  To our request, the tour operator responded that no one had asked to visit Kondoa before.  That should have signaled hatari, but with our intrepid driver, we set off on the “highway” south.  Turns out that despite its cultural importance, Kondoa is rarely visited, and we discovered why.  The track to the paintings is steep, rocky, and gullied.  Only by the grace of the high-clearance, four wheel drive Landcruiser did we reach a parking lot.  Just who did the art, its significance and its dating are yet to be determined.  But clear to anyone with eyes and an imagination, the paintings show two dimensional representations of humans and prey animals—buffalo and giraffe.  I expect that the next time that tourists utter “Kondoa,” the True Africa folks will reference our experience and suggest that they reconsider.




From this point on everything—the fabulous Ngorongoro Crater, the giraffe colony near the Dunia Camp, waiting in vain for the Wildebeests to cross the Mara River (but seeing them framed in a double rainbow), and the single cheetah followed by a dozen tourist vehicles—went by like a dream.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Sick

The symptoms were flu-like, high temperature and chills.  My impulse was to ride it out, but when the thermometer read 104, my wife drove me to the emergency room late on a Friday afternoon.  Thus I entered the world of medicine, a landscape similar to that of some distant planet.

My experience with emergency rooms was limited to visiting my mother at a downtown Los Angeles hospital near the end of her life.  That one was secured by a uniformed policeman cum sidearm and a metal detector. This one lacked any visible security, but this is Texas, and everyone present may have carried a concealed weapon.  Emergency rooms are all about triage.  A clerk, phlebotomists, nurses, and, finally, a physician gave interviews with annoyingly-repetitious questions (what are your symptoms; when did they begin; are you taking any prescription medications?), listened with stethoscopes (“take a deep breath”), poked and drew blood.  About an hour after we walked in the door, my wife and I were ushered into an examination room where the poking and questioning began anew. Isn’t this redundancy what sharing digital information is supposed to make obsolete?   Finally a nurse terminated the examination and inserted an antibiotic drip. Then we waited, me on a gurney, my wife in a chair. 

Sometime around 3AM, my wife crawled onto the gurney with me.  She had finally reached the end of her heroic endurance, and she was cold.  By this time the antibiotics and extra strength Tylenol were reducing my symptoms.  The fever broke, and a nurse was on the point of releasing me when she witnessed my very shaky walk to the rest room.  I toddled back to the gurney with her aid.  Soon the fever returned as did the antibiotic drip. Tests would reveal that I had contracted something called streptococcus maitis, from a bacterium that resides in the mouth.  I had made myself sick brushing my teeth.

Diagnosis in hand, I was admitted to the hospital.  An orderly issued a hospital gown, socks with nonslip soles, a bed pan, towels and washcloths.  I felt like a GI starting boot camp.  Then a nurse assigned me a room and hooked up an IV pump that administered antibiotics and a saline solution.  Over the course of my stay eight nurses (Jo Jo, Michael, Florence (twice), Rachael, John, Michelle and LaVell) attended me day and night, taking vital signs, refreshing medications, asking for my name and date of birth. Their irritating care and the medication quickly reduced my symptoms and raised my hopes for an early dismissal. I received visitors and read novels for the rest of the weekend.

On Monday physicians began their rounds.  First among them was the infectious diseases specialist who had prepared my wife and me for our upcoming trip to Africa.  After going over my chart, he asked if we had altered our plans.  What he really meant was that, despite my protests, he intended to do whatever he could to convince us to postpone the trip.  In the end, and after getting the same advice from the resident overseeing my hospitalization, our primary care physician, and my sister-in-law, the pediatrician, I gave in.  Apparently, if not completely eradicated, the maitis bacterium can cluster on a heart valve and cause serious pumping problems.

The next evening, as I lay in bed, a technician installed a PICC (peripherally inserted central catheter), a thin, flexible tube threaded through a vein on my upper arm into a ventricle.  This allowed direct delivery of medication to the heart from syringes supplied by UPS.  The next day I was free to go, but not before signing a half ream of forms authorizing release of medical records, acknowledging that I understood the nature of my illness (a stretch) and promising to be good (what choice did I have?).

Once at home, I began a regimen of antibiotics administered through the PICC.  Every day at 11AM sharp my wife used syringes to push medicine and anticoagulants into my chest cavity.  This lasted a month and, apparently, did the job.  To mark the end of treatment, a nurse removed the syringe connection and pulled out the tube.  Therapy ended; billing began.


As a seventy-year-old and a retired academic, the cost of treatment and hospitalization did not affect my financial health.  But trying to deconstruct the billing documents has been migraine-inducing.  There are lines detailing services and costs followed by lines for Medicare, Medicare deductable, sequester adjustment, and finally “Amount You May Owe Provider.”  Some of the numbers are enormous, but through an inscrutable arithmetic, the bottom line is nearly always $0.00.  It is this system that Mr. Trump wants to disrupt; it gives me chills (and fever).

Thursday, March 3, 2016

Super Bloom in Death Valley

I was visiting family in Los Angeles when someone said “super bloom.”  Turns out that the expression refers to an intense flowering in Death Valley. In November of 2015 heavy rainfall in the desert set the stage for an eruption of flowers in the National Park.  Los Angeles news sources featured nearly daily accounts that described this year’s flowering as a once-in-a-generation event.  Even though it meant a five-hour drive through dense traffic, we decided not to miss it. 

Demand for viewing the super bloom had exhausted the supply of rooms in the Park’s three hotels, but we were able to reserve two nights at the Shoshone Inn just outside the southeast entrance.  Shoshone, population 31, is a remnant of what was once a mining area.  The town features the Inn, a general store and Post Office, the Crowbar Restaurant & Saloon, an RV park, and a thermal spring.  Maps of the area show access to the eastern side of the National Park via California Highway 178, but the November rains that set off the super bloom also washed out sections of the road, requiring an hour’s detour north to Death Valley Junction.

We stopped first at Zabriskie Point, a spot named for a mining administrator in the early 20th century, now best know for the 1970 film directed by Michelangelo Antonioni.  Even sharing the view with a large group of Road Scholar tourists could not diminish its beauty.  The “point” itself is a sharp upcropping of blonde schist framed by dark-colored deposits of volcanic lava and backdropped by the blue silhouettes of the Panamint Mountains. No flowers yet, though.

At Furnace Creek a Park Service Ranger offered us advice based on where the most intense colors had been reported and directed us south on California 178, passable as far as the Badwater salt flats.  As we drove, the eastern side of the rocky surface of the valley floor softened with an overlay of yellow flowers.  Closer inspection revealed that the carpet-like appearance was loosely woven, intermittent plants rising above the desert floor.  A wildflower guide purchased at Furnace Creek helped us identify the yellow flowers as Desert Gold, a plant that displays bright petals and seeds on a spindly, brown stem.  We also saw the violet-cupped Desert Five-Spot and Purple Mat, with its tiny, star-figured blossoms.

At Badwater a Ranger led a walking tour of the salt flats that fan out from the highway.  Many of the questions she fielded concerned the flowers rather than the salt formation.  From her explanation we learned that a super bloom actually has two stages.  The heavy fall rains rinse away a thick seed covering, setting the stage for the flowers that we saw in February. But this initial gambit must be followed up by subsequent moisture that allows the early flowers to survive and for other species to erupt.  The Ranger expressed concern that without a rain before the first of March, the “super bloom” would not fully develop.


Wonder what happened.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Peace Corps to Evo




With my wife's retirement in September, we left the world of work to live near our son in Houston. A new home means a new house, and there is nothing surer to disrupt domestic tranquility than the selection of trims and colors and cabinetry. So in the name of preserving the general welfare, I left the house to my wife and flew south for one last trip to the Andes.

Although I have been back to Bolivia many times since I first saw it in 1968, it has been nearly fifty years since I visited Chuquichambi, the little town where I spent my three years in the Peace Corps.  I wanted to return while my aging body could endure the rigors of high altitude, risky diet, and uncertain transportation.  This seemed like the time.

Bolivia in the 1970s was a series of regions united by little more than a name. Moreover, the tiny elite and small middle class that had controlled the nation since its creation had very little interest in the countryside. When I left Chuquichambi in 1971, the town had 500 inhabitants, the same population recorded in 19th century records.  It had no electricity, no system of communication and no reliable roads.

It was this last deficiency that posed the greatest obstacle to a return trip.  In my experience, the onset of rains in November meant the end of predictable passage across the fifty kilometers that separate the town from the Pan American highway that runs south from La Paz. The annual rains turn the flat, dusty pampa into a sea of grasping mud. But it was now or never. I contracted a driver and four-wheel drive Land Cruiser, and this November meterology was running in my favor.

The Pan American Highway is now a four-lane expressway, and the ten kilometers between it and the jump off point on the railway is paved to two lanes. As we chatted on the drive south, I had warned the driver, Humberto, that we would have to ferry the Desaguadero River before we reached the pampa. But much to my delight, there is now a  bridge over the river, and on the other side of it a sign reading: "Papel Pampa 37 KM," "Chuquichambi 51KM." More surprises followed. All of the fifty-one kilometers were on a raised, gravel roadbed, much in need of grading but all of it a foot above the annual water level. Chuquichambi now has a bridge across its small river, electricity, and a cell phone tower, located just out of town. (I called my wife and learned that carpenters had misread the blueprints to the kitchen.)

These changes, all occurring in the last five years, are directly the result of Evo Morales' presidencies.  Morales, himself of a rural, peasant background, has diverted significant funds and attention to developing the countryside.

As Humberto laid out a picnic lunch, I walked around, testing my bearings. The town plaza was as I remembered it, but the church and its bell tower had been rebuilt, smaller  and closer to the plaza. The two buildings of greatest interest to me, the secondary school built with funds from the United States (see images below), and the house where I lived, were still as I remember them.

After lunch Humberto and I parked in the plaza, hoping to attract attention.  It didn't take long. First two tween-aged boys on bikes stopped and stared. Though they had no memories of the distant past, the boys served as a catalyst to my hopes.  One summoned a middle-aged man who remembered my residence in his youth and the building of the school. He asked me to give him names that I remembered.  Not surprisingly, everyone on my list is now dead. But a woman sitting in an open doorway nearby, now very old and nearly deaf, turned out to be the widow of one of my best friends.  She summoned her son, now middle-aged and nearly toothless, and we talked about old times. As we shook hands and parted, he thanked me for coming back and proudly observed that "we've progressed a lot since you were here last."

His words are full of meaning.  Operating under the ethos of development, the Peace Corps’ purpose was to bring progress to the countryside.  But in reflection, I, and many of my cohort, have realized that progress comes only from within.  What the Peace Corps intended, Evo Morales delivered fifty years later.



The drive back to La Paz featured one episode from the past.  In Chuquichambi Humberto learned that there was a more direct route back to the Pan American Highway and decided to take it. The route was shorter, but it included a ferry across the Desaguadero. As our vehicle reached the east side of the river a pilot launched his craft, and took us across, using a long pole for propulsion and navigation.  This modern-day Charons days are numbered, though.  Concrete bridge spans and a crane lay near the landing.

School 1971



School 2015


Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Under the Big Sky




I had not seen the northern range of the Rockies since 1967 when I passed a delightful summer working in Grand Teton National Park.  Early September seemed like a good time to return.  My wife had just retired; I was nearing seventy, and the prospect of cool weather offered a welcome change from the Texas heat.  So let’s go to Montana, we decided.

My first Google search brought up an entry for Austin Adventures.  I naively associated the company name with my hometown, which gave it a leg up on the competition.  And even though it turns out that their “Austin” is a surname, the trip they offered was just what we had in mind—southern Montana and Yellowstone.  And as long as we’re going to Montana, why not visit Glacier as an appetizer?

After my Seattle odyssey (see the previous post to this blog), I started to watch reports of western wildfires with unusual scrutiny.  The Glacier area was particularly scorched this summer.  The Thompson Creek and Reynolds fires closed some of the roads surrounding the park and inconvenienced travelers there.  Turns out that our arrival corresponded to a change in the weather.  While we were glad to bring rains to northern Montana, our good deed did not go unpunished.  Although we managed a couple of short hikes, one to Salamander Glacier, and take the Jammer bus across the Going-to-the-Sun highway, my wife and I spent much of our time watching the drizzle and hoping that it would stop. On our last day in Glacier the Going-to-the Sun road was closed by a snowstorm. The weather changed for the better as we drove back south toward our Austin Adventure.

Bozeman, Montana, our point of departure, is a charming little city.  As the seat of Montana State University, Bozeman offers bookstores, haberdasheries, a movie theater, and the fabulous Black Bird CafĂ© all within a few blocks on Main Street.  We overnighted, unwittingly, in a hotel hosting the fiftieth reunion of the Bozeman High class of ’65, but all went pretty well (we didn’t want to use the swimming pool, anyway).  Bright and early the next day, just as promised in the Austin promos, our two guides-- Amy and Corey, a twelve-passenger van, and a large trailer, crowned by a dozen bicycles pulled into the parking lot.  With two subsequent stops, we were joined by three companions.  That’s right, all that infrastructure for five paying passengers.

Despite the rustic settings of the tour, Austin Adventures insists on over the top amenities.  No suitcases could be lifted, no one was allowed to step in or out of the van before a small, red carpet was laid out on the ground.  The trailer was filled with surprises. We were asked not to look inside-- reducing the risk of industrial espionage, I suppose.  But throughout the week, magical things emerged, like rabbits from a hat.  Fresh fruit, iced drinks, parfaits, sweets and nuts all found their way from the trailer to our mouths.

One thing that the trailer did not hold was camping gear.  This was not a sleep-on-the-ground kind of experience.  Each evening’s dinner was arranged at one of the area’s nicest restaurants, including Yellowstone Lake Lodge where we ate near retired US Senator Alan Simpson.  I could not help but notice a significant change in the staffing of the resorts.  The bright-faced American college students of the 1960s have been displaced by youngsters from Europe and eastern Asia.  All of them had H-1B visa status and were soon to return to their countries when we spoke with them.  I’m glad I worked in the Tetons when I did.

In between the meals we took a vigorous hike up the Beehive Basin in Montana, above Grand Prismatic Spring in Yellowstone Park into the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, and to Old Faithful geyser, just in time for its eruption.

We were blessed with pleasant companions and perfect weather. Traveling after Labor Day, a first for us, minimized the crowds and enhanced our animal sightings.  We managed to glimpse a black bear and her two cubs, a couple of mountain goats, several elk, and a small band of bighorn sheep. American bison are now so numerous in Yellowstone that we grew tired of photographing them.  That is until while having our lunch near the Fire Hole River a group of two-dozen bison huddled me behind a tree as they passed by on either side.  That was a little too close.

Our next adventure was selling a house in Austin and buying one in Houston, all in two weeks.  More on that later, perhaps.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Road Trip

 
My daughter, who lived in Houston, found a new job in Seattle. To bridge the 2,500 miles between the cities, we made a road trip.  Just Maggie, her dog, Alfred, her two cats, two suitcases, kitchen supplies, an air mattress and me. Google Maps and AAA agreed on the routing, mostly on Interstates-- Amarillo, Denver, Boise and Seattle, a three-day trip.

Day 1. We got away from Houston at 8:30AM, driving IH45 north toward Dallas.  It’s amazing how well a freeway works when you go against the rush hour flow. But it wasn’t long before strange things started happening with our car.  Slowly, but surely, it dropped speed until some sixty miles out of Houston full throttle yielded  only 45 miles per hour.  By this time an ominous warning icon, a red exclamation point framed in a redder triangle, had appeared on the console. We limped into a garage cum tire store in Huntsville, home of the Texas Prison Museum.  But upon learning that our car was a hybrid, the mechanic refused even to  open the hood.  It was time to throw in the towel and call AAA’s tow service to the nearest Toyota dealership, thirty miles away.


Sitting with a dog at your feet is a great conversation starter.  One woman, recently arrived in Huntsville, recommended a local veterinarian (more on this later); another asked if Alfred’s Thunder Shirt™ calmed him.  In the course of our exchange I shared our far-away destination and how the trip was beginning inauspiciously.  About this time our tow arrived.  Maggie and I climbed into the cab with the driver, and just as we were pulling away from the garage, I heard a tapping on the window.  It was the Thunder Shirt lady, pressing money into my hand; “I know it isn’t much,” she said.  I must have looked like Tom Joad, fleeing the dust bowl.

We spent the night at a La Quinta, which maintains the most permissive pet policy among the regular motel chains.  But Alfred nearly spoiled our best-laid plans.  Seems that he barks at strange sounds, so often that other guests complained to the management.  Fearing our eviction, Maggie slept on the floor with the dog and stifled his barks; I slept with the cats, very restful.

Day 2 began with some good news from the Toyota dealership.  Our car trouble resulted from the installation of tires of two different sizes on the front and back wheels which confused the computer that manages the hybrid transmission. We got back on the road with four new tires but not before making a trip to the recommended vet for a dog sedative.  Driving through Fort Worth on US Highway 287, we came to a vestigial segment of US 64.  That road goes through my hometown in Arkansas and appears sporadically from North Carolina to Arizona.  We reached Amarillo and, aided by the sedative, spent a quiet night at La Quinta.

Day 3. The grain and cattle country west of Amarillo is beautiful.  At one point Maggie observed that “you could make a western movie out here.” We crossed the New Mexico state line and into Mountain time a little before noon, and then disaster struck.

I was driving on a deserted stretch of four-lane highway; suddenly Maggie pointed ahead and said, “Dad, there’s an animal in the road,” and, indeed there was, a prong horned antelope.  I braked hard; the animal looked up, saw danger approaching, ran toward safety and then back into our path.  Colliding with our front bumper, the poor antelope flew into the ditch.  The only wild animal we saw on the whole trip, and I had to run into it. Although the bumper and hood were crumpled into the shape of a cleft palate, the car was driveable and not leaking fluids.  So we drove into Colorado and stopped at the Toyota dealership in Trinidad.

Examining the car hoisted on a rack, a Toyota mechanic assured us that the car’s internal organs were all intact and that it should get us to Seattle. He was right with a qualification; the air conditioner expired soon after we left Trinidad.   We reached Castle Rock, CO, and pulled into the La Quinta (of course), hot and wind blown from the afternoon drive.

In the middle of Night 3, after one of Alfred’s barking fits, I decided that we could go no further as we were.  The next morning Maggie and I explored how to fly her and the animals from Denver to Seattle.  It turns out that Alaska Airlines has a pet policy almost as liberal as La Quinta.  But we would need to get a doggie-sized crate and certificates of good health for all three animals.  Day 4 included a trip to Walmart for the crate and to a Pet Smart—who knew that they had a vet in their building? -- for the health certificates.  We repacked the car, and everything fit, including a little space I was reserving for the next mishap, unnecessary as it turned out.

Day 5.  Delivering Maggie and the animals to Denver International Airport was a piece of cake, considering that we drove there on a Sunday morning and quickly located a skycap for the luggage and pets.  A considerably lighter Prius rolled out of DIA at 11AM and into Rock Springs, WY, that evening.  I no longer had to worry about pet policies to find a place to sleep.

Day 6 began with a long climb to the Continental Divide in Utah and a descent into Idaho.  East of Boise three road signs warned of “Deer Migration Route,” “Extreme Fire Risk,” and “Dust Storm Area.” I was headed toward the valley of the shadow of death.  As it turned out the tires and the antelope exhausted my quota of misadventures for the trip, but while neither deer nor dust crossed the road, forest fires in Idaho, Oregon and Washington State, hazed the atmosphere all the way to the Cascades.

On Day 7 Maggie and I were reunited near the SeaTac airport.  The three-day drive had taken a week.  By the time I reached Seattle, Maggie had boarded her pets, made contact with the King County Library administration and signed a one-year lease on an apartment.  No longer needed, I returned to Texas on a four-hour flight.