One of my mournings on leaving New York for Oregon was No More Sledding. I might have cried over it. Things were emotional in general. Sure the skiing will be Mt. Hood Meadows and Timberline, but I was terrified that Jake and I wouldn’t share any more killer downhills right out the front door, or at a park like Cobbs Hill up the road: all dressed plump with layers and walking through snow covered streets, pulling our Flexible Flyers.

Um.. no worries needed. Portland is in the midst of its worst snow storm in 40 years. Commerce has been at a standstill for days and PDOT is telling us that it illegal to drive without chains on many roads. Thursday will be the first white Christmas of record. The neighbors, already suspicious, think we had something to do with all this.

Jake and I simply went sledding.

Uber-eco, we don’t use salt in Oregon. We use a liquefied magnesium something that doesn’t work as well and costs more. We also use sand and gravel. The latter is famous for popping up off the road bed in the spring and busting your windshield at 70 mph. I’m not complaining. We have cars older than your daddy that are still used as the commuter. Vanagons are everywhere, and we’ve stopped counting old VW bugs. (No there aren’t any Type 3 Squarebacks, sadly, but this was because the injectors failed 7 billion times and all their owners shot them, not because they rusted out. They wouldn’t’ve here.)

The corollary to not using salt is the utter lack of plows. Prior to now, the method of snow removal was to wait until the next day, 'cause it'll likely melt.. Cost-effective, earrth-friendly. With climate predictions heading toward greater swings in summer AND winter, we may need to re-think. We struggled out to grocery shop tonight, 2 days before Christmas, and stopped at a restaurant that had opened for the first time in a week. After 5 days of school shut downs, the city set up emergency call-in lines to help parents on the verge of strangling their offspring.


House Gets Built!

No permit yet. I have 15 more pages of re-calcs and answers to submit to the City Of Portland. If the snow would abate here I'll get downtown on Monday to do so. There's rumors floating that with so little going on in the building department, they are simply stretching out every last scrap of work they have.

But we did manage to get the gingerbread home complete.

Okay, it's something at least. We now just have to finish the landscaping. Every year we do this, and every year I promise not to eat the walls too soon. I just can't help myself. Something about really stale gingerbread.

We got all sorts of inspiration from the George Eastman House in Rochester, NY where they have a killer display of ginger things from all sorts of community groups and families.


el sauce, nicaragua

I referred to solar ovens in the last post, and was quickly asked for a bit more of an explanation. The link to our website at New Energy Works Timber Frame Homes called earth:shared, has too little information on what is a pretty cool project.

The story goes like this: Maxine, Jake River and I were hiking on Ometepe, an island in Nicaragua,when we came upon a young boy who was chopping at wood with an old an dull machete. Here's a pic of the ferries that take the hour trip to the island and one of its two volcanoes off the bow.

he was upset to see us, because we were in a small preserve (looking for howler monkeys, and dang did they find us!) and he knew he shouldn't be there. The boy should have been in school, not stealing wood. Turns out he was collecting lena, or firewood. Turns out that the collection and use of firewood for cooking is a colossal mess of unreal proportions in the developing world. It's just nuts.

Lessee, where to begin: collecting firewood is the major cause of deforestation in many countries, and therefore the cause of habitat loss, groundwater recession, erosion, ozone depletion and... okay, forget the environment, let's talk about people: the children stay out of school to gather it, scarce family resources are used to buy it, people get sick breathing its smoke. Lung desease is the second largest woman killer, I've been told. and surprise, I didn't discover all this, but rather some amazing people have been on topic for a while. Solar Cookers International is great, with info and technology exchange going on from Calcutta to Equador. Then there two organizarions that are making and distributing: Sun Ovens Int'l, which make a personal size and the Villager (!) and the Solar Oven Society which makes a less expensive but still good little unit called the Sport. They're similar groups. You could say they are competitiors in the race to do good here. I've tried out both smaller units up here in temperate-ville, and they work wonderfully on a sunny day.

Poeple at work were excited. no one more than Karen Parkhurst, who was about to become the next local Rotary president. (That's her above with me, Jake and Esteban, our beloved Nica driver, overlooking Lake Managua.) She took the fundraising ball and ran. We now have a team on the project made up of New Energy Works and Pioneer Millworks, Rotary International, Rotary de Managua and UNAG, a Nicaraguan farmers' and ranchers' cooperative who will be the lead distributor. We're about to hire a staff member to coordinate all this in El Sauce, east of Leon, and hope to soon be supplying ovens and training people in their use. Thinking that it would be a cultural hurdle, I asked the Co-op president if he thought the ovens would get used. His answer surprised me: "My wife is aware that the open fire is making her sick. She will use it happily."

Now we really want to get moving, as the need is immediate. But as I told my friend Jeff recently, immediately takes longer in Nicaragua. Sandinistas don't talk to Conservatives who don't trust Sandinistas. There's a new mayor, and new papers to sign. etc. etc. and thus our decision to hire our own staff member, on the ground. This works too, and we should have thought of it months ago. Part of our goal was job creation, after all.

We chose El Sauce because it has a long history of being a sister city to Rochester. Cuidad Hermana is a program originally put together in solidarity with the Nicaraguan revolution. Now it's got a school, a clinic, a program for visiting college kids from the local State University of Geneseo, and more. They call their program Pregnant Cow, for good reason.

Our goal in the companies is to give 10% of pre-tax earnings back into our community or perhaps an environmental organization. This is an interesting tiger by its very needy tail. If you're interested in sponsoring an oven, contact Karen (karen@newenergyworks.com.) If you're interested in going to Nicaragua, contact me, if only for a rousing good chat about.


Change Indeed

So Barack Obama won. I got this from Meghan, a peace corps volunteer in El Sauce, Nicaragua, who has been helpful in our efforts to start a solar oven program there. "...I actually feel hopeful about the US and the world. Early risers in El Sauce and the taxi driver who brought me to the PC office today asked me what I think of Obama. "He'll be great," they say. "We have hope that the US will remember the corners of the world again."
I won't be running around swathed in the stars and stripes, but over one long, tossing and turning night, I have emerged hopeful for the US.
So just wanted to share the joy from far away, though it's a little solitary when everyone around you isn't jumping around and yelling. Same thing happens when the Red Sox or the Celtics win the champs... most people just look at me out of the corner of their eyes and wonder what that crazy gringa is up to now... "
Enough has been said about the election, and I'm no political analyst, but the change was needed, and there's so much work ahead.

I've been intrigued at some of my own change of late. The move was tiring and our companies full of energy and challenge. and there is the looming spectre of starting the build process, (this is what I'm supposed to be writing about, so I'm reminded by you mortar and technique hounds.) But I needed a bit of a break, really. hmm. No, I'm not taking a vacation, just a bit of a slow down from warp speed. Bought a tractor, brush-hogged the site. Bought a TV, my first purchased tv ever, (ooh la la 42" LED 1080 pixel 120hertz refresh rate wow those hand-me down things of the past are SO of the past,) and watched the world series. Sierra looked at me during game 4 with a tilt and declared, " By god, Jonathan, you are officially unrecognizable." Hey quiet down, can't a fella watch a ballgame in peace?

Even thinking hard about a fishing boat. mmm yup, trolling motor as an extra, take it down the river, maybe a little ways out into the Pacific. First i have to figure out the pro's and cons of 2 stroke vs. 4 stroke, prop vs. jet, degree of chine, type of electronics and where to find all this in something reasonable, used but still shining. The only thing for sure is it'll be aluminum, not painted, with a windshield and canopy. This is Oregon, and we fish 12 months (I'm told.) Suggestions and your two cents are welcome. I know quite little about all this, which makes me a bit embarrassed and a bit giddy.


Falling for Hope

A sweet Halloween thing late Friday night.: trick or treating with Jake River and a LARGE group of neighborhood kids, one house was visited where the fellow was surprisingly gleeful to see the crowd. Seems he hadn’t been visited since 2000. Every year he was ready, though, and this year he got to pass out the goodies, in generous handfuls.

Hope has been in my air, lately. There’s clearly a chance to elect a “transformational figure” to quote General Colin Powell. In many ways, it doesn’t matter one’s politics. It’s hard not to become a believer in the human condition, once again, with what seems to be brewing for this Tuesday. I, for one, will be staying up late with friends in NY while digi-camming with Maxine in Oregon.

Hope is in the air, for sure, as we begin to feel like we might even get a building permit for this Vermont Street Project. Seems engineering in Portland is down to barely more than bureaucratic wrangling, although I won’t believe it yet. Maxine says they’re spending so much time on our application because they don’t have anything else to do. Permit applications are down from a high of 20,000 or so in 2005 to less that 4,000 this year.

We’re certainly seeing it in New Energy Works, to be sure. Not in timber frames to cut and raise, thankfully. We’re still flat out, and actually are having another extraordinary year,. But these projects are almost entirely relationship-based projects: word of mouth references, repeat clients like builders and architects, and similar. Our “new acquaintance” line is shorter than we’d like, and I don’t imagine we’re alone. Most of the people in or business are slower than normal, from a little to a lot. Makes us wonder about 2009.

There’s good news for those, like myself, who do want to build now. After the last half dozen years of sometimes double-digit increases, construction costs are going to level and in some areas decrease. We’re already seeing it. Sub contractors are returning phone calls immediately. So there, Portland permitting-nightmare- department, you’re probably just doing me a favor by this unconscionable delay.


This morning I awoke with a start. Fumbling for the light, I was relieved to find that it was just 4 AM, eastern time. I had been in the middle of one of those frustrating and impossible dreams that, even while asleep, I had been working feverishly to find the OFF button. I know you know that particular dream feeling.

The dream started when I awoke to find that I had overslept and it was actually 6AM, and I knew my flight was leaving within minutes – in no way was I going to make it. This meant I wouldn’t get to Portland in time to shop pumpkins with the Maxine and Jake River. It proceeded into some sort of weird traverse across an unknown city, using buses that were unfamiliar and seeming to take far too long to get me to the airport where I might yet catch another flight home. At one point I was so disheartened I was crying or sobbing or some such mixture in an uncontrollable way, thinking I was going to miss even putting Jake to bed.

Er… perhaps 12 days is a bit long to be gone. My webcam and Skype help, with evening goodnight calls full of the day’s news , and spiced by Dexter the dog and Annie Brown the cat, all trying to fit into the frame, but my heart has grown fonder once again in this absence, and there is something to be said for that very gift, of course. I made the plane.

A crazy 12 days touring North Carolina with Dave Walters, a man of great energy with a fun project in Balsam Mountain Preserve, near Asheville: then up to Farmington with the usual full days, biking nights and the inaugural concert of the Casparini Organ at the Eastman School of Music; an unreal event of massive proportion in the world of Late Period Baroque Music and Organ Restoration(!), and a short talk on our role there to the conference attendees. Good stuff.

I’ve noticed something about flying. I really like the jetway approach to the plane. This is partly due to its implication that WE’LL SOON BE AIRBORN AND PERHAPS SOON AFTER ACTUALLY GETTING THERE. But I also like it because it is the only place in a day of airports and planes that you can snag some sorta fresh air. Right there before you step into the fuselage is always some leaks to the outside. And it’s cooler, or warmer, or just different than the faux air of O’Hare or the recycled air inside the Boeing 757. I even acknowledge that it’s a bit tainted with jet fuel exhaust at times. I’ll still take it.

Here’s a list of my flying and airport tips, informally:

  • Never believe the monitor; go to the gate anyway.
  • Always keep your phone and laptop charged, even if you think it’s just a short flight.
  • Don’t check bags if possible, or you can’t go stand by, you have to wait at baggage claim, and anyway, you probably have brought too much. Here’s the subtle adder: use soft-side carry-ons, as the typical wheeled affair doesn’t fit overhead in the regional jets, and you’ll be gate checking it, and waiting on the tarmac.
  • Have the airlines’ 800#s with you, so that while you’re in line at the service counter waiting to talk to someone about how you’re going to get to There since your plane just blew a gasket, you can call direct and get that last seat on the next available flight.
  • Have all your frequent flyer #’s as well. When you get shuffled over or have forgotten to register your flight, it’s best to do it right then.

And for the rental car and hotel, here’s a few:

  • Take the train downtown, and rent there. This might save your first night’s rent and parking, plus the airport recovery fee, it’s also eco, more fun, in big cities, less traffic.
  • Don’t park in the hotel if there’s street parking
  • NEVER buy the rental agency’s tank of gas. It can’t work financially.
  • Don’t buy their insurance either, but this one should be double checked for your own situation.: I use an AMEX platinum card, which says it covers, and many homeowner insurances cover as well.
  • Use Hotwire for hotels. It’s unbelievable, and the best of the hotel deal places. Do you really care which 4 star you stay at for the price of a Comfort Inn? (Don’t use it for flights – no miles and no final control.)


King David and the final carving

The Eastman Rochester Organ Initiative is having its annual conference in less than 2 weeks, and we’re part of the starring cast. Sort of. You see. A couple of years back Chuck Phelps, then provost of the U of Rochester and for whom we built an extraordinary home in the 90’s, introduced me to Hans Davidsson, an absolutely unstoppable man with the tenacity of three. Suddenly we were remodeling Christ Church, flying to Lithuania to understand late-period Baroque architecture and organs (and eating eel-by-the-meter, a local specialty,) and carving pipeshades and figures. It’s complicated. But here’s a passage I’ll share, written on the first of my 3 trips to Vilnius, in preparation for this upcoming inauguration of our work:

“The first time I went to Lithuania, on this crazy organ project, we were being lead around by a strong-presenced woman who was surely going to show us her country, her city, her history. Birute had lived in the US most of her life, but never left Vilnius in her heart. It showed in everything from the golf-ball sized amber broach on her breast to her eyes that misted up regarding anything Lithuanian. We had just met, and my first impression wasn’t good.. I would later tell her, and she never let’s me live it down, that I figured she was simply “over the top,” in a typically dangerous and nationalistic way.

I had just finished reading a wrenching account of the slaughter of the entire local Jewish population under the Nazi occupation. Maxine’s father’s family had come to America at the turn of the last century, during one of the czar’s pogroms, but the wing of the family that stayed behind had perished in Kaunas, a beautiful city that was once the heart of Jewish intellectualism and culture in the Baltics. It wasn’t just the invading Nazi’s who were brutal to the Jews; it was the nationalists as well. Coupled with my own innate distaste for blind and unquestioning patriotism in any country, and having just finished that book which had brought me to tears, I was on edge to hear her go on and on. The Lithuanian culture, the land, the language, the brains, even the bread! It was all the best, and getting better. Even the women were the most beautiful, according to Birute.

But over the days of that trip I did learn to appreciate what the people there were in the midst of accomplishing. There was a marked line drawn between what was obviously bad remnants of the soviet era and what was being re-built, cleaned up and newly minted. Downtown Vilnius is thriving, and plenty of healthy signs of economy, industry, creativity. It’s been just 14 years since the last freedom, and so much has been done. I’m told that it is the fastest growing economy in Europe. One of my pictures recently is from the steeple of St. Catherine’s, a Benedictine church almost brought back from its status as storage shed for decades. In the vertical format panorama are old soviet apartment buildings in the far distance, four tower cranes in a clearly modern area, and then nearby, in the old city, a crumbling roof structure that was being discussed to become a hotel by some Norwegian investors. Lots going on, lots of layers.

Before that week was out, I had come to appreciate how much work had been done, and grew to appreciate much of what my guide was saying. All the tension dissipated at once when, after a morning run, I came up to Birute and said, “I will now believe everything you say, for the women here are in fact the most beautiful in the world!” Since then we’ve been grand friends, and yes, she, like much if her country, is really over the top.”



Of the numerous issues giving the city permitting horde fits is my desire to use Faswall blocks made by Shelterworks in Philomath, OR, about an hour south of Portland. These are similar to Durisol in Ontario Canada, but on the west coast. both are made with demineralized wood fiber and Portland cement, and came from the post world war two European need to find something to extend and therefore limit the need of hard to get concrete in that massive re-building effort.

I call them an inside-out ICF (insulated concrete form.) Typical ICF’s use virgin expanded polystyrene forms that are hand stacked, shored up and filled with re-bar. I was one of the first to use them in western NY, in 1984, hated them then and ever since. A consumer hoodwink, frankly, that I’ve mostly avoided except for a very few clients who have had their way with me. (Hey, I’m not totally stubborn.) The problem is that they leave the very vulnerable EPS, which breaks down with ultra violet and is susceptible to critters on the OUTSIDE, where it has to be parged and protected. For this privilege you pay through the nose and it’s not very easy to do a great job.

Faswall takes the concept of a stackable form and makes it right. The block protects the insulation inside, the concrete usage is minimized, the r-value reasonable, and you still get to pay through the nose. Well, okay, if you were looking for a Cinderella story, this one is only about foundation blocks. I did visit Beatrice Dohrn, one-time legal council, Manhattan cabinet-maker and now building her own home, in Eugene, with only one helper. She’s steadily going up 2 stories with blocks and has discovered some good tricks. When she’s done, she’s definitely going to write these guys a proper manual, I hope.

The permit problem is that this little company isn’t all engineered certified like they will be one day, and after all, Portland is serious about its seismic category 4. The waffle-like pattern created by these blocks hasn’t the testing that solid concrete walls have, and no matter the theory and numbers, these guys have their rules. Time to switch engineering firms and bring in the guys with bigger pocket protectors.

There are other ICF’s in this theme, like Apex block, Rastra and others. Email me if you want the long story of how I chose Faswall.


Sunday evening

Thursday night I vacated 3 Westland, our home for 10 years here in Brighton, NY, moving into an apartment next door (!) in Chris and Heather’s place. The last thing I did, after those last few boxes had been walked over, after my extraordinary cleaning lady was done, after I had showed the new folks who are quite nice, thankfully, as many little nuances as I could, was pick pears. It was dark, so I climbed gingerly, used a headlamp, and handed them down to Martin, one by one. It was my last indulgence, and a perfect offering to bring back west.
Mourning over, I hope. But then three times now I’ve accidentally driven there instead of here, mind on other things. A quick sad tinge, and then I’m fine. Really.
Outfitting this cute little place to be my special retreat for the east times is… interesting though. I feel somewhere between a new college kid out on my own to a wayward mate having gotten the boot. “Excuse me, ma'am, where would I fine towels? Oh thanks. And how about hangers? Perfect. Dish detergent? A corkscrew?´ Gosh there’s a lot of things we need.
What fun at the goodwill store! Who knew they have old video tapes for $1.50? I got Jurassic Park and a little-known Kurosawa and a bunch in between. I wasn’t there to get tapes. So I bought funny little tumblers with tall masted schooners etched on them. They’ll be good for juice or even wine. I bought a utensil set with bright green plastic handles. Maxine would NOT approve. I bought too much, probably. The only thing I still need are knives. Sorry, but I don’t do funky here. Cutting tools are my craft, and knives are the finest example of that. I’ll splurge on a small set by Henckels when I get a chance, I think.
When we knew I’d be bi-coastal, we said well, how about just staying in a hotel for that week, after all, I’ll be putting in plenty of hours and mostly just need a place to crash. Too inhuman; I need a familiar staging ground. Okay, says friend Ben, of Fire Tower Engineered Timber, what you should do is get a high story loft over looking the river and make it wow. Mmmmm. Ben’s not married. I settled here, in the home of good friends who are always up for a chat and a shared glass. I’ll shoot the basketball with the twins in my spare time, ride the trails with Ty, and work a lot.


please may I build here?

Working through the Portland building permit process has been a shock, frankly. I’m not through it yet, 6 months later, so this isn’t the story of how it went. I’m still understanding whether the process is a good and thoughtful one, carried out in cautious detail by intelligent city employees who, in exchange for a modest if steady income and eventual retirement security are willing to battle the forces of development that will cause their city to be lessened. Or these are a cadre of frustrated can’t do-ers who hide behind their officiousness covering their ass in every way while taking one way shots at their charges from their seat of enormous power.

Really, that last sentence was fun to write, but I don’t believe it. I have found these people to be far closer to the first sentence, and have more than once leaned forward in the low conspiratorial tone and said, “y’know, even while I’m being stonewalled, set with fees beyond my imagination and asked to give information that reaches towards the insulting, I find you guys polite, funny and caring.” Generally. I really do think they have a self image of the protector. If asked, they would say that yes, Portland is one of the most sought-after places to live in, and much of that is due to us.

I wonder if I could argue against that and win. Much of what makes Portland and Oregon special is the zoning, not the building code, so I could win at least partially. Then another shot of excellence comes from the people, both established and immigrant. (Doug Murray tells the story of watching two homeless types get into a real knockdown screaming match, and not one cuss word was exchanged. Interesting barometric.) People here care more about their world than I would have guessed, and are smart about it, too. If nationally we could wager that more people can name the 5 Simpsons than can name the five rights guaranteed under the First Amendment, this may be a city where that isn’t true.

I’ll get this darn permit. And I’ll use the foundation system made from de-fiberized recycled wood, and I’ll make the pitch of the roof what I want it to be, and I’ll get to use my SIP panel in seismic category 4 without a full ICC ES report… But I’ll admit it, they’ve had me up against the ropes, and we haven’t even gotten out of this early round to start the actual build. It will be interesting to see who comes out of what woodwork when the inspections start.


Fenestration, from the Latin fenestra: window.

Lots of things go into a new home. Windows and doors are a big line item. They cost a lot, they keep out the weather and let in light, they affect the look. We spend inordinate amounts of time designing and choosing windows, and then we spend inordinate amounts of time ordering them, checking the order, the confirmations, the window swings, types of glass and the balance of specs, then we spend just as much time installing them. yeow.

And i don't do vinyl. Surprise. I was recently told that we were one of the only builders this particular window salesman could think of who has never done vinyl windows. i can't stand the look of plastic in the home, the pvc is one of the most insidious molecules we've invented, and they simply won't last as long or perform as well as solid wood. Gosh, I'm sorry for stepping on a bunch a toes all at once. or not.

I've discovered, though, I don't have to buy the most expensive wood windows. In normal commercially available brand names this would mean, in descending order of expense and only an approx. study: pella architectural; loewen; marvin architectural; andersen; kolbe; hurd; eagle; jeldwen; peachtree; pella pro-line; marvin integrity and so on. like i said, not a perfect or complete list, but generally about right from my 25 years of doing it. The more expensive have a better fit and finish and sometimes more options. Most are reasonably energy effifcent right now.

I choose aluminum exterior cladding over vinyl, casements and awnings over double hungs, fir if i can afford it and think hard about throwing more glass at every view, if instead i can frame it well using a bit less.

We're going with Kolbe for the main house and Jeld-Wen for the studio,(we believe,) and here's why in a SMALL bit of explaining:

When Loewen's prices jumped and service dropped 3 years ago, we went looking for something our clients could live with. Kolbe was solid, and middle priced (remember the whole wood group is pricey, relative to the plastics which I see, even yesterday on a 7 figure home!), and had good options. Their new pushout casements and awnings are killer, offering more throw for more air and a cleaner interior hardware look. They'll do some of the modest customs we need, no sweat. The service in New York, which is EVERYTHING in windows, has been good.

But their doublehungs, and for this project, sliding windows (!), look like hell, so we went traipsing to Loewen (don't make sliding windows); Marvin, (don't make our size needs,) and then Jeld Wen, which was intriguing because they are made here in Oregon. But they seem like they have a low end reputation, so I had written them off... just to find out that their "custom" line is fine, reasonably priced, and they can make sliders that are 2' high by 6' wide. Strange geometry, but the studio is wanting a horizontal rythym that had at first been awnings until we realized we'd be clipping passers-byers in the nose when in the open position.

i have almost never drawn sliders. interesting solution, typically seen in the the cheap-and-dirty builder playbook, but here used to streamline the walkways and maximize the ventilation. One exterior cladding option looks like galvalume. Hmmm....


First Trip Back

It’s a time of transition. I’m recovering quickly from the stress of the last two months. I can feel it, and it feels right, and good. But that doesn’t prepare me for walking into our house on Westland at 1am on Wednesday, already exhausted by 36 hours of redeye from Portland, Indiana drive time, inspecting our new engineered floor-making equipment (very thrilling, more later,) more drive time and a late night flight from O’hare, and about breaking right down on the floor into a puddle. The phrase “By god, what have I done” filled me up like a balloon, leaving little room to breathe. I love that house, that home that Maxine and I spent so much creative energy to turn from a full blown mess into something so special that it sold in 2 days, (twice, but that’s a different story.) I love that it was where jake river got started and where cats apricot and purrbear were buried, the latter just a week before we left, like she knew, and decided she wasn’t going on our trip, thanks anyway.

I love that our neighbors are killer, and will be so hard to replace. And I love sitting next to the pond that Maxine dug and watch the now 5 year old feeder gold fish that have grown so large.

But I was just exhausted, and the folks moving in are super, and the week was so very full…

Flying back to Portland on the early Saturday flight doesn’t particularly make me feel like I’m heading home, or not home, but it sure makes me thrilled to get with the nuclear again. Jake needs his bicycle seat raised and Maxine has discovered a new dessert she needs to try out on me. I guess I could say that’s as good a definition of home as I need: where I can fiddle with my boy’s bike and eat my lady’s cooking.


"You have arrived"

The female voice on our GPS says it all, with a certain confidence and finality. We feel neither, and moreover are reasonably overwhelmed, in ways positive and other.

A sea of boxes says something about how little we left behind, ignoring a comment made by my co-worker Doug's wife, Marion. They're my age and moved out from Michigan, having sold about everything. "You only have to bring the good stuff," she said, referring to layers beyond the material. It's hard advice to pull off, I'm finding. Nonetheless, we're thrilled to be here.

A downside about arrival, wherever it may be after a long trip, is that the trip is over. You now have to do whatever it is that caused you to take the trip in the first place. Well, fine then. Next up, dancing with the engineers and city-types who have made it so tough to get a permit.


Pictures from the road


Libby, Montana

Libby is in the far northwest corner of Montana, and I left on the bike about an hour ahead of the support wagon, which would mean Maxine and family in the Subaru, heading west into the LoloMountains and Bonners Ferry, Idaho along the Flathead River. I did the same thing leaving the Campbell Lodge in Glasgow, towards the eastern side on the state a few days back. It is a swell way to ride, not having to loop back, with no destination and no program at all other than to press miles and enjoy. Both times I covered about 30 miles before they caught me, felt great and remain totally in love with my new Trek Madone carbon fiber treasure of a bike. That’s it with the similarities, though. Eastern Montana is the true big sky, rolling landscapes of forever wheat fields irrigated by the Missouri country that awes in its uniform mass. Right now it is gold-yellow and ready for combines bigger than some homes. Beginning at Glacier Park and not ending before Spokane , Washington are the Rockies, and while not as crazy as in Colorado below or jasper up in B.C. They draw you in with their variety of rivers, grades, and rock. There’s an intimacy of scale trading quickly for a fearsome long view off a high drop.

A short comment on Bonners Ferry, Idaho. I couldn’t help but subject Maxine to a bit of history here, and we searched out some grounds I once filled. I reckon we’re talking on and off over a 3 year period about 30 years ago. I won’t go into it here, but the stories that survive include Bill and I working as cutters in the woods where we lived in an old (even then) truck camper without the truck, at a shake mill owned by some of the birthers of the Arian nation thing back then, and where lunch times ALWAYS included vicious arguments against their tenants that the communists were the military wing of the Jews, who control all media and had faked the holocaust, which never happened, and etc. and crazy, but we were there. Even today I can’t drink Coors beer, because it was all they would drink, with an understanding nod to each other.

Yes, life in Bonners in those years was different than you might expect. One story has it that because we didn’t have any fresh water available, each Friday we’d hitchhike into town about 15 miles away and pay 75 cents at the hotel for a long hot shower. Sometimes the men nearby would pick us up and bring us into town, since they knew that if we were there, they wouldn’t have to dance with the wives. I think this is a true story, but you may have to check with my friend Bill Robertson.


Driving across North Dakota

I say I’m “straight-lining” North Dakota because that’s how these roads go. Occasionally there’s a need to slow down between at some cross roads there’s a farm implant store that also sells drinks and gas, and it’s the town. Maxine is uber-awed by the size of the crop fields. They go on. She particularly loves the sunflowers, grown here for their oil. The flowers are at their largest right now and yes the scene is classic and almost its own parody of a thousand smiling sunflower faces beaming up expectantly like the most recent visit from the Pope. We were a bit perplexed, though, when we realized that they were all facing AWAY from the sun. Aren’t they supposed to be following it as it courses east to west? I’m feeling like somebody forgot to tell all those pretty faces that hey! You guys! The sun is over this way! I need to ask someone about this.

The cliché’ about North Dakota is of course how flat it is. It’s definitely the best place I’ve ever been able to enjoy a good lightning storm. You can see it coming for a week, and going for just as long. I once read a book by the flashes of a good one.

But today I am reminded that the part of a flat terrain you don’t see on a postcard is the wind. Relentless, cold and not slowed down by the very few trees we can see. I’m writing as Maxine drives, and keep wondering if she’s drunk, or perhaps has a spastic twitch. I’m getting dizzy as the car swerves and jerks to keep its feet on US 2. We stopped to photograph a billboard. It said simply “BE POLITE” in unassuming black letters on a white field. I was an instant litterer as I opened the door as the car was douched with air and I successfully held the door on its hinges, barely.

Obvious advantage #1 for driving across on two-laners: you can stop anywhere and pee. There aren’t a lot of people in rural America. Corollary to this: there aren’t traffic jams, slow-ups, tense passing games and chain hotels. We stayed at places like “Northern Lights Motel” in Wawa, (extraordinary); The Select Inn, Grafton, MN, (good beds, not poofy pillows, Mr. Patel had been here from India for just one year, and he was very satisfied at the way things were going. He was having a small bonanza because a gas pipe was going through from Canada to Illinois. I tried to juxtapose images of him in Calcutta just 14 months ago, to this Great Prairie town of close to tiny. Couldn’t do it.) The Sandman in Libby, Montana was fine with owners who couldn’t stay at other hotels so they camped in KOA’s when they traveled, sleeping in their tent on the ground, with not so much as a Thermarest for comfort.. But we have to tell you to stay far away from The Middle Fork Motel in Corum. It stank with rot, neglect and just bad housekeeping. The miniature golf and go cart place up the road was fabulous, though.


Wawa, Ontario, Canada

This is a fine place to start a story, I reckon. Sitting on Agawa Rock on the north shore of Lake Superior, toward the western edge of Ontario. The Ojibwe people settled and lived in this land forever, and are still here.. They’re a handsome tribe; the women have a beautiful high cheekbone so common to what the Canadians call “First Nations” people.

Maxine, Jake River and I had climbed down from the highway through some great shifting big vertical plates of rock to the shore, shimmied along next to the clear and cold lake to find some 400 year old pictographs made of ochre and fish fat. Drawings of snakes and a dog with horns. Great stuff, not wheel chair accessible. Maxine reminding us always of worn soles and long falls. The Ojibwe were using this sheer granite face 100 feet tall as an early bill board to passing canoes. I think this particular painting means, “Hey! Exit here for good eats! Easy in and out! All major shells and beads accepted!”

We’re here because it was on the way west, toward our new home in Oregon. In the car with Maxine and Jake River is Dexter the dog and Annie B. Brown, our loving cat who isn’t sure about our decision to take her across on the drive instead of a fast flight on the airplane. No really, Annie, airline food isn’t what it once was, and how’d you like to get stuck in Chicago O’Hare, anyway? It can happen, I’m here to tell you.

Annie’s been great. She settles into a foot well most of the time. When I’m driving, it often means that the foot well she chooses is mine, which makes braking and operating the clutch a bit touch and go. Maxine will have none of it, so when she’s driving, Annie’s still under my feet, as she just reminded me with a yell when I moved about and squished her tail. She did make a surprise move earlier though, sprinting out the door and across the field toward a hedgerow. It must have been a bit comical to see Jake on one side, me on the other sprinting to keep up, and Dexter running her down head on. You go Dexter. What a hunter. Suddenly Annie drops flat and I couldn’t see her at all until Jake, who is closer to the ground, reached down and plucked her up from between some thick straw. Quite a team.

Deciding what route to drive west on followed the typical course around here: hmmm… lessee… what would be the slower more roundabout way? First, no freeways. I didn’t want Jake thinking that a trans-national drive was about off ramps and Denny’s. There’s such an intimacy of experience, an opportunity to experience a bunch of non-corridor pass-by America. Nobody lives in Wawa because of the highway, and Wawa doesn’t define itself by the cars that drive by. Here it’s about the lake, how’re the fish biting, the local curling league, the size of the mosquitoes.

It’s a bit funny that I’m here in Wawa, in fact. And it’s funny that I’m even talking about it like this, because the last time I was here was about 1980, hitchhiking through on one the various trips taken back and forth, coast to coast, typically with just a thumb out. Back then Wawa was famous and feared among hitchhikers. As the legend went, if you got dropped off near Wawa on the highway, you were toast. No one would pick you up. After a few weeks you’d walk off the highway into town, meet a nice Ojibwe girl, settle down and open a coffee shop. Maybe you’d get a job in the mines, which are still active. I never knew the exact reason, but figured it had a bad reputation as an Indian town with miners to make it even worse.

I shared this story with the waitress at our motel restaurant last night. We were in the midst of eating an extraordinary meal of local lake trout and home made pirogues – a total surprise. She laughed and said she understood, as she had moved here with her father, who used to say that he should have never stopped for gas 25 years ago when driving through. Something about Wawa.