On the Road Between No and Where

Several years ago, I began describing places that were some distance away from towns of any size as “the intersection of No and Where.” On our recent road trip we discovered something even more isolated: “the road between No and Where.”

It was on such a road – Texas RM 2400 – that our right front tire decided to give way.

I should point out that RM 2400 (RM stands for “ranch to market”) is a perfectly good paved road. The problem was that it stretches between a state highway and a US highway and that even where it intersects those roads, there is no there there.

(I suspect that when Gertrude Stein said of Oakland that there is “no there there,” she had never been to any place where that was literally true.)

We were on our way back from seeing the eclipse and visiting family in the Texas Hill Country, and we had decided to take a short side trip down to the Alpine/Marfa area to see the high desert country in spring, which is a good time for visiting deserts.

There are ways to get there on somewhat more traveled roads, but this looked like it led to a scenic route. We’d had the car serviced before the trip and the tires were relatively new, so we were not expecting trouble.

I should point out that trouble usually happens when you’re not expecting it.

We were toodling along and all of a sudden things were very rough. The road hadn’t changed. I said, “Do you think we have a flat?”

We decided to pull over into the first driveway we came to (no real shoulders on that road).

The tire wasn’t flat. It was gone, left in shreds along the road.

So we took all the stuff out of the back that was on top of where the spare tire was. Lots of stuff – the casual packing of a road trip coupled with some things I was bringing back from Austin.

We found the spare and the lug wrench, but no jack.

That seemed odd, but it occurred to me that, despite the fact that my car is 18 years old (my mechanic assures me that it is never going to die on account of the fact that it is a Scion, which is to say a Toyota), I had never changed a tire on it. When I had a flat, I called Triple A.

Which we would have definitely done, except that we had no cell service. And of course, the nearest possible place that might have a Triple A person was at least 60 miles away.

Anyway, I was convinced there must be a jack somewhere, so I looked under the front seat and there it was. So we moved some more stuff to get at it, put the jack under the car, and started the process.

My sweetheart, who has knees, did most of the cranking of the jack. We then worked on the lug nuts. Three of them came off with some effort. However, there were four of them, and the fourth one was not coming off at all.

Apparently it was stripped.

Let me also note that with the exception of a semi that passed us right after we stopped, no one else had come down the road.

Fortunately, at this point a man in a pickup came along and turned in at the gate of the very place where we had stopped. Continue reading “On the Road Between No and Where”

Urban Planning. Or Not

I jay-walk in almost any city I’ve been t0: I’m a New Yorker, I think it’s inborn. I’ve jaywalked in Paris and London and Helsinki, San Francisco and Boston and Chicago–sensibly, because I’m not a stupid New Yorker. There are the streets you dart across, and the ones you look at and think, Oh, Hell no.

But I do not jay-walk in Los Angeles. This is not just because I don’t know another city that is as car-centric as LA, but because the city isn’t physically set up for walking, let alone jay-walking. As I write this I’m in LA, visiting my aunt. Most days, unless it’s pouring down buckets, I like to get out of the house and take a walk. My aunt’s house is at the base of a hill, and about a block away from one of the ubiquitous freeways. Logically, I’d prefer to walk up the hill–except that for many blocks there are no sidewalks, and I have an unreasoning prejudice about walking in the middle of the street in a town where some drivers do not acknowledge the existence of speed limits. So even if it means strolling down Sepulveda Boulevard–a long, uninteresting road that parallels and is largely overshadowed by I-405, I choose to walk where there are sidewalks.

LA does not make this easy. Yesterday I struck out from my aunt’s house and, rather than marching determinedly down Sepulveda southbound (which is not only uninteresting, but largely unpopulated except by the people driving by) I decided to walk toward Barrington Avenue and a small shopping area a little less than a mile from the house. A nice stroll (with, as it turned out, a cup of coffee and a brownie at the end of it). To do this, I had to cross the interstate via an underpass at Church Street. Fine. The crosswalk dictated that I cross on the southern side of the street. So I crossed and kept on walking under the interstate. Unfortunately, on the other side of the underpass the sidewalk (to which I had been directed by the necessity of crossing Sepulveda on that side) stopped. There was a well-worn dirt path, but no sidewalk. And crossing to the other side of the street, where there is a sidewalk, was rendered inadvisable by the fact that the street is curved, with lousy visibility, and people tear up and down it on their way to and from the I-405 exit/onramp. So I stayed on the dirt path until I reached a traffic light (just before the aforementioned exit/onramp) when I was able to cross to the other side of Church, and a sidewalk.

At the next intersection, at Sunset, I needed to turn west. However, having had it demonstrated to me that sidewalks are not a given, I looked west on Sunset and realized that the sidewalk on my side of the street was only there for another 100 feet or so. Okay, fool me once, shame on me. Fool me twice? That’s curiously biased city planning. So I crossed Sunset (which is a six-lane monster–you can bet I waited patiently for the light), turned right, and continued onward until I reached South Barrington Avenue, where the shops I was heading toward beckoned.

I will note that there are many single-family dwellings–classy, multi-car, expensive houses on either side of Sunset. On the southern side, where I was walking, there was a sidewalk. On the northern side: no sidewalk. The houses all had handsome gates and fences which fronted on brief, probably very expensive expanses of lawn, then the curb, then the insanity that is Sunset Boulevard. In my imagination, if I had decided to despoil the lawns in my stroll it would have been looked on with disfavor and maybe a call to 9-1-1. Lack of sidewalk says “stay away”. I don’t know why the houses on the west side of the street have a sidewalk (which runs along the handsome gates and fences, and sometimes even briefer expanses of lawn). Perhaps the west side lost the toss. The sidewalks have accessibility cuts for wheelchairs, because they are required by Federal Law. But I don’t think anyone imagines that people are actually using them.

Waaaay back in the 1970s I spent six months in LA, and even tho’ I had a car, sometimes I opted to take a walk. In those days walking was less thought of even than now–at least twice when I took a walk someone pulled over to ask if my car had broken down. I felt like I had arrived in the Bradbury story “The Pedestrian.” I began to suspect that if I had been in the runner’s regalia of the time (which included spandex leggings and a sweatband, and Nope) I might have been comprehensible. But just walking? Too weird.

In Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Eddie Valiant (played by the late, wonderful Bob Hoskins) says, “Who needs a car  when we got the best transportation system in the world?” The transportation system he’s talking about were the streetcars–the Red Car (regional) and Yellow Car (local) systems–which was “the most extensive urban rail transit system in America, if not the world,” according to historian Colin Marshall. My mother and my aunt, who grew up in LA, doubtless knew the streetcars well. In seeking the quote above, I found a brief history of the Pacific Electric Railway system and how it came to dwindle and die. Short answer: it wasn’t Judge Doom with a nefarious noir-ish plot to dismantle the streetcar system and profit from “Eight lanes of shimmering cement running from here to Pasadena!” As elsewhere in America, people liked cars, liked the freedom they gave, and as soon as they could afford to, they drove rather than use the streetcars. The Red Car went out of business in the early 60s. The LA Metro System, which combines subway and buses, has come to replace some part of it, as people came to understand the ecological and economic costs of driving everywhere.

But you still need a way to get to the Metro. And until LA invests in sidewalks that exist reliably on both sides of the street, that’s going to be a challenge.

Taking the Train

Rock formation in New Mexico.

As my train rolled across New Mexico, I was reminded of how much I love this part of the world. Despite being someone who has spent most of my life close to the various huge bodies of water that set major boundaries of North America (the Pacific, Atlantic, and Gulf of Mexico), I remain enamored of semi-arid and high desert places.

I have lived in cities since I left home (and the childhood home I left was already becoming a suburb). I love walkable cities with all the options they offer, not to mention the fact that those of us who hear different drummers can usually find a place in the city, while in small towns and the country, we are often out of step.

But all that open sky and space is glorious. It is easy to see why this was and is a special place to a lot of the indigenous people on this continent. It’s easy to want to be here.

I didn’t really mind the slowness of the train. I like the feeling of being in a neutral place, looking at beauty from my window. But it is absurd that we do not have the kind of train service we could and should have, with high speed trains going across the country and service to many more places.

To get to Kansas City from Oakland, I had to take a train to Bakersfield and then a bus from there to Los Angeles. Only in the city of angels could I get a cross country train to Kansas City. That’s the fastest route.

(For those who don’t live on the West Coast: San Francisco and Los Angeles are about 400 miles apart. California’s not as big as Texas, but it is damn big and has a bunch of mountains to boot.)

And the trains are so often late. They are not practical if your schedule is tight. Plus the sleepers are expensive and coach is not comfortable enough for long trips. (Also, the ventilation is OK and the filtration on my train seemed good, but I would not ride unmasked in coach.) Continue reading “Taking the Train”

What Travel Teaches

I have just taken a 2,000 mile train trip from Oakland, California, to Chicago, followed by a bus ride from Chicago to Madison, Wisconsin, to attend WisCon. Next week I’ll have some WisCon tales, but this week the joys and travails of travel in the United States are on my mind.

First of all, Amtrak’s California Zephyr is set up to take passengers through both the Sierras in eastern California and the Rockies in Colorado. So much of the scenery is drop dead gorgeous. Here’s a shot from the Sierras to show you what I mean.

a flowing river in Eastern California in the Sierra Mountains

Even after all the development and expansion in the United States, not to mention the amount of mismanagement of our lands, we still have a beautiful country. And the people who plan the Amtrak routes across the west have set up schedules that give you all the best views.

You get to sit on the train and watch the beauty go by. You don’t get the details you see when hiking, but you get the big picture in all its glory.

There are back roads throughout the country where you can drive and get views like this, but the nice thing about the train is that someone else is paying attention to where you’re going. All you have to do is look.

And by the way, the western United States is as green as I’ve ever seen it this year. Even the desert had lots of green spots and blooming flowers. There’s still snow at higher altitudes. This was a northern route train, of course, though I know the Southern California desert is also very green.

It’s hard not to just take pleasure in that, even knowing that the drought isn’t over and how much damage was caused by the winter rains. I don’t think we’ll ever again have the luxury of not worrying about drought, flooding, and other weather disasters brought on or amplified by climate change, but I’m not going to stop enjoying beauty wherever I can see it.

And you can see it by train.

That’s the joy. The downside of it is that the trip from Oakland to Chicago takes 52 hours, from Monday morning until Wednesday afternoon. That’s 52 hours if the train is on time. Ours was about 4 hours late. Continue reading “What Travel Teaches”

Disabled People Love the Redwoods, too!

One of the joys of living where I do (Central Coast California) is how accessible the redwoods are. These are Coastal Redwoods, not the inland Sequoias, and they thrive in the ocean-born mists. They can grow to over 350′ and live over 3,000 years. We were heartbroken when Big Basin State Park burned in the 2020 wildfires, but redwoods are notoriously resistant to fire. New growth sprouts around burned trunks like a sprightly green beard. The park has re-opened, and its resilience is a reminder that all of us can enjoy these breath-taking forests. Big Basin does not, to the best of my knowledge, have disabled accommodations, but Henry Cowell State Park, Muir Woods, and many other parks, do! Check out this guide from Save the Redwoods:

Get your FREE Guide, A Disabled Hiker’s Guide to the Redwoods.

Even if this information doesn’t apply to you, there’s probably someone in your life who could use it, so please share it with your friends and family.

Many accessible experiences can be had in redwood parks, from hiking and camping to incredible scenic drives. Home to the world’s tallest, largest, and some of the oldest trees, as well as biodiversity found nowhere else, these special places offer inspiration and enhance the well-being of all.

Our new, free e-guide provides an accessibility overview of 15 redwood and giant sequoia parks. We are grateful to have worked with Syren Nagakyrie, the founder of Disabled Hikers. Syren visited parks this year to review accessibility using ADA/ABA guidelines as well as using their personal and professional experience to research parks.

Prophets and their Gifts

Right now, a lot of my research is about food. Not recipes, nor food history, but how food and foodways creep into fiction. It’ll be a long time before I have research results that I’m willing to share. Right now, I change my mind from day to day as I discover new things. Still, it’s not at all fair to leave you out of my foodways entirely, so I’m going to share with you an old favourite of mine.

In 1552, two little books appeared in the French marketplace. In my perfect world, I would own an original copy of each, but they’re rare and the author is so famous that any copies that appeared would be snapped up for an impossible sum. I own a translation of the books, into English. I could read the original (historians have some handy language tools) but haven’t ever found a modern edition. I was in France in 1995 and found the English translation there. It’s not a big book, even though it rudely fits two old books into one.

Who is this well-known author? Michel Nostradamus, who is more known as a prophet and as a physician than as a cook. Whenever I’ve encountered people who get excited when they hear his name it’s because they want to argue about prophecy. Right now, though, his background as a plague doctor is more appropriate. He was one of the best known and possibly one of the most competent plague doctors in sixteenth century France.

I considered this when I was in the emergency department of the medical side of the university at Montpellier, for he studied there and I had a mysterious disease. I didn’t have plague. But I dreamed of my favourite recipe from Nostradamus’ cookbook as I rested after the appointment and slowly recovered from what turned out to be the side effects of being bitten by a tick. The doctor laughed merrily with his assistant, when they worked out I was Australian and yet had been infected by something in England. They looked up Australia on the computer and noted all the dangerous spiders here and all the snakes and then said “And she went to England for this. York, in the rain.” The actual diagnosis took maybe a minute, and they wrote out prescriptions and descriptions for treatment when they’d finished laughing. At that precise moment I wished I had less French because I could understand every joke they made at my expense.

Nostradamus’ quince recipe was my safe hiding place, I think.

I was in Montpellier researching Langue[dot]doc 1305, but I didn’t call on that incident at all for it. The illness meant I only had a few hours of research a day, because I really wasn’t that well.

I managed to complete all my work thanks to the kind help of people at desks. Two were the senior curators of museums, masquerading as sellers-of-tickets. I asked each of them where I could go in their museum to answer a couple of questions I had. We chatted a minute and they decided to talk me through everything I needed. Two hours, in each case, with people who knew more about the precise material I needed than were in any book. One also sold me a hard-to-find book I desperately needed, so I read that during my many hours of enforced rest.

Hearing the medical jokes at my expense was the downside of having enough French, but being able to talk the Middle Ages with experts was definitely the upside. It might also have helped that I knew a fair amount already: I was asking as an SF writer, but had a PhD in Medieval History backing it.

The third desk person was at the tourist office in the town I was setting the novel in. She had copies of unusual material hiding behind the desk and brought them out for me. In return, I told her how to make Nostradamus’ version of quince jelly.

I wish I had been able to go back one more time after I had digested all that material, because there are some questions I really wanted more answers to. I live on the other side of the world, and a return visit wasn’t possible. Still, Nostradamus and his recipes have an indelible link with Langue[dot]doc 1305.

I didn’t put even a single recipe for quince jelly in the novel. I regard this as neglectful, but I can tell you now, even my mother thinks that he had a very fine recipe. She tested it, some years back.

I Have Been Somewhere Else

The pool at the Hotel Bonaventure has a guardian owl.

Specifically, I have been in Montreal at the World Fantasy Convention. It was lovely. Not like any other WFC I have been to but there are plenty of reasons for that. For one thing, it’s in a Francophone area of the country, and my French is wobbly at best (fortunately, everyone I encountered spoke English, but I like to at least make the attempt). For another, the convention was a hybrid in-person/virtual format. WFC is usually a smallish convention–membership is generally capped at 1,000, but I don’t think on-site attendance for this con was more than 300. So it was… intimate. In a responsibly socially-distanced sort of way.

And soooooo safe. You cannot enter Canada without proof of vaccination and a negative COVID test. I was also selected for random testing at the Toronto airport (and it turned out the tech who entered my information writes SF, and was deeply envious about my destination and sent me a sample of his work). Continue reading “I Have Been Somewhere Else”