Tuesday, October 6, 2020: Let’s Get Dirty

Newberry National Volcanic Monument to Antelope Reservoir

Woke up to another cold morning with temps in the mid to low 30s. We were on the road by 8:30 and headed for the shop in Bend to get a new tire. I dropped the bike off with the folks at M-Tech Motorcycles and walked down the street for coffee. In about an hour my wallet was $200 lighter, and my bike had a new Dunlop Trailmax Mission replacing the original Bridgestone Trailwing.

We made a quick stop at REI for some camp food. The Bend REI was built inside the brick shell of an old lumber mill. The walls inside are bare brick, and the mill’s three smokestacks still reside on the roof. I looked for some base layer pants to help keep me warm at night, but could not find any. I got a dehydrated meal and some protein bars instead.

Greg and I then headed east on Highway 20 into the Oregon high desert. Highway 20 climbed through the rugged Oregon Badlands – a vast plain of old basalt lava sparsely covered with juniper trees and grasses. It was a preview of the “magnificent desolation” we would see in southeast Oregon.

Just west of the town of Brothers we turned onto Oregon Highway 27, the Crooked River Highway, to head toward Prineville. From Highway 20, Highway 27 starts off as a straight washboard dirt road that will rattle the fillings out of your mouth. The gravel was a little loose and it took a couple miles for me to find my dirt groove. I thought back to the training the Motorcycle Relief Project gave me in Colorado. I soon remembered to trust the bike and got my dirt groove and a comfortable pace.

After about 17 miles, the dirt turned to pavement as it entered the Crooked River Canyon. The road followed the curves of the Crooked River and gave us amazing views of the river and canyon walls. The volcanic nature of the eastern Oregon landscape was evident in the canyon. The river had carved through millions of years of basalt deposits and hexagonal basalt columns were visible on both sides. They appeared as if they were holding up the land at the top of the canyon.

We grabbed gas and supplies for the night in Prineville and headed east on Oregon Highway 380. As we rode east, we passed the town of Post, which bills itself as the “Center of Oregon.” Sure enough, if you look on a map, you’ll find Post almost dead center in the state.

Just east of Post, we turned onto unpaved Forest Route 17 and climbed into the Maury Mountains to seek our campground. As we rode the 18 miles to our stop, I found myself keeping up with Greg as we rolled through the forest. We climbed to what felt like the top of the mountains and stopped at the Antelope Flat Reservoir Campground. The campground seemed large, but we were one of only three sites that were occupied.

The campground sits in a pine forest above the reservoir. We hiked down to the reservoir to take a swim, but found the water to be dirty and shallow. A couple fisherman came by to chase down their dogs that had ran over to see us. They said the reservoir has been low for a long time, as have many across the state due to hemp farms.

After coming up empty at the reservoir, we returned to camp and washed our clothes at the campground’s well. One thing about motorcycle travel is you don’t have a lot of room for a week’s worth of clothes. Doing laundry, even at a campground in the middle of nowhere, is a necessity – nothing beats a clean pair of socks.

I made the dehydrated meal I had bought earlier at REI and was pleasantly surprised. The AlpineAire chicken jambalaya didn’t taste like it had come from a foil pouch. It actually tasted like jambalaya.

After the sun went down the temperature dropped quickly. The air was dry and we were at 4600 feet elevation. I started a campfire to fight off the cold.

We got another visit from the ISS during the night. That’s three days in a row. The ISS has turned out to be our regular companion during the trip. While watching the station tonight, it crossed overhead almost horizon to horizon before disappearing from sight. We waved at the astronauts aboard the station, but can’t be sure they waved back.

Day’s Mileage: 174.3, Total Mileage: 616.8

Monday, October 5, 2020: Volcanoes filled with water

Keno, Oregon, to Newberry National Volcanic Monument

We woke up to temperatures in the low 30s and the sun casting an orange glow over the lake. A thin layer of mist hung above the water.

We made our coffee and breakfast and sat watching the still water. Fish were starting to jump as the sun warmed the water. A bald eagle made a low pass over the lake before disappearing into the trees.

I made a call to a motorcycle shop in Klamath Falls, which was surprisingly open. They did not have any tires in the right size for me. I called a shop in Bend and found out they had the right sized tire in stock. We planned to head for Bend, an easy day. I figured if we made it there early enough, I could get the tire today; if not, first thing Tuesday morning.

We turned north on Highway 97 at Klamath Falls and rode along the shores of Upper Klamath Lake. The water of the lake was still.

We turned onto Oregon Highway 62 to head toward Crater Lake. Near the towns of Klamath Agency and Fort Klamath, we passed through more devastated areas from recent fires. Fire is a strange beast. Often we saw areas where most of the trees were burned out, but a few in the middle would survive and remain green. In other parts, the whole area would be burned, but structures that had been surrounded by the flames survived.

We entered Crater Lake National Park and climbed up East Rim Drive. I had ridden on the west portion of Rim Drive before and the views area always breathtaking. This was my first time on the east portion, which is usually closed by this time of year. We stopped at the overlook for the Phantom Ship, a pointy island in the lake that looks like a ship in dark or foggy conditions. The brown and orange rocks contrasted against the deep blue waters of the lake. We continued around the rim of the lake, stopping occasionally to take in the views of the whole lake. A light haze hung in the air inside the crater.

We dropped down from the crater onto Highway 97 again. We went north on 97 and stopped in La Pine for lunch and to figure out where we would stay. We ate lunch at a truck stop where Greg raved about the chicken fried steak. I had a turkey, bacon, and ranch melt. Greg, for all his raving about the chicken fried steak, had a burger.

We pored over the map for local campgrounds. We decided to head for Newberry National Volcanic Monument to stay at one of the lakeside campgrounds. Our stop would put us a stone’s throw away from Bend on Tuesday morning.

Newberry protects the area around the Newberry Volcano. The caldera contains two lakes separated by a cinder cone.

We set up camp at East Lake Campground and then headed to the lake for a swim. Fishermen were far out on the lake. The water was very cold, but it was refreshing and invigorating to soak after a day in the saddle. Because the lake is on a volcano, we occasionally got the whiff of sulfur coming from the water. Small warm and hot springs dot the edge of the lake.

We enjoyed a couple of cigars after the sun went down. You come up with solutions to all the world’s problems when you’re sitting by a lake watching the stars and enjoying a stogie. We saw the ISS again and some shooting stars.

Day’s Mileage: 194.4, Total Mileage: 442.5

Sunday, October 4, 2020: F**k COVID, let’s ride

McKinleyville, California, to Keno, Oregon

2020 has not really been a good year for travelers. Global pandemics, kind of put a damper on moving about.

My friend Greg has not let the specter of COVID-19 stop him. He’s done three F*ck COVID rides over the past few months, taking him around the western US. I felt it was time for a F*ck COVID ride of my own.

Greg wanted to tag along on my trip and said I would do the planning for once. The pressure was on, as I felt I had to make sure the trip lived up to the expectations of the seasoned motorcycle traveler. I decided on a loop around eastern Oregon, but did not really have a plan.

It was a chilly, foggy morning in Humboldt County when we met at Greg’s driveway. We bucked tradition by not meeting at Starbucks – another victim of COVID-19, as we would not be able to sit at a table inside to get properly caffeinated before rolling out. Instead, we sipped coffee over the tailgate of Greg’s pickup and looked over the map so I could plot out the day’s travels.

We headed into the foggy morning northbound on Highway 101. The crisp and clean air was a welcome relief from the smoky skies that had hung over the area recently due to two nearby fires, one of which was the largest in the history of California.

Greg stopped in Crescent City to top off so we could try to sync our fuel stops – his Triumph Tiger drinks gas a little faster than my V-Strom. While at the gas station Greg looked over by bike and spied my front tire, the original one that came with my bike, and said, “We need to talk.” I knew time was running out on the tire, but I figured I could probably make it through the trip before needing to replace it. Greg told me I should get the tire replaced on the trip to be safe. Seeing it was Sunday, and motorcycle shops are typically closed Sundays and Mondays, I would need to plan our route to be near a city with a shop on Tuesday morning. I looked up a few shops while we were stopped, some surprisingly saying they were open on Monday, and knew we could figure something out.

We turned east onto Highway 199 toward Oregon. Highway 199 starts by winding through the redwood forests of Jedediah Smith State Park, and soon exits into the fir and pine forests of the Siskiyou Mountains. As we got closer to Oregon, we could see the path of destruction from the Slater Fire that ran through the area. Initially, I could smell an odor similar to VapoRub – possibly from the burnt sap and tree resins – but as we got deeper into the burnt area, the smell of burnt wood and grass got thicker. We rolled through the Collier Tunnel and emerged into an area that was completely cleared out – no foliage on the trees, no undergrowth on the forest floor, just a forest of burnt matchsticks.

We stopped at Taylor’s Country Store, a destination for area riders, for a socially distanced lunch on the outdoor patio. Greg ordered a burger that took about three days to arrive, while I had a hot link sausage. I had nearly finished before Greg received his food. While waiting, I found a shop that was open on Monday in Klamath Falls, the direction we were heading. Keeping our schedule ever fluid, I decided we would continue in the direction of Klamath Falls and see if the shop had a tire the next morning and if not, we would head north toward Bend.

At Grants Pass, we made a turn onto Oregon Highway 238 to point toward Ashland. Highway 238 winds its way through the Applegate River Valley, past miles of farms and vineyards. As we rode through the valley, we often got the pungent whiff of growing marijuana – in the case of the farms in the Applegate Valley, industrial hemp, which is the same species of the cannabis sativa plant as marijuana, but does not contain high enough concentrations of THC to get someone high. The smell was accompanied by fields of the green stuff planted in rows like cornfields along the edge of the highway.

After passing through the town of Jacksonville, we turned south on Oregon Highway 99 and rode through the towns of Phoenix and Talent before entering Ashland.

Fire had run through Phoenix and Talent in September, destroying much of the cities along Highway 99. Businesses were totally burned out, leaving only small remnants of what used to be there. RV parks were filled with burned out shells of the trailers and mobile homes that used to be there. One used car dealer’s lot was full of burned cars, with one mysteriously untouched by the flames. Only the vault and sign remained where the Umpqua Bank once stood. The Phoenix Motel was reduced to just its sign. Like the mythical bird, the city will rise from the ashes.

We stopped for fuel in Ashland and headed east on Route 66 – Oregon Highway 66, that is. The road climbed up into the Siskiyou Mountains on a sinuous two-lane road with vertigo-inducing cliffs and tight curves that were perfectly cambered.

We arrived in Keno in the late afternoon and made the first of our many projected miles of dirt to get to the Topsy Campground on the shore of the John C. Boyle Reservoir. We set up our camp as fish jumped out of the water, breaking its stillness. Canada geese honked in the air and dove into the water, making a stop on their southerly migration.

Later in the night, we stood out on the shore of the lake and watched the International Space Station, chased by a Cygnus supply ship pass overhead.

Day’s Mileage: 248.1, Total Mileage: 248.1

Friday, February 21, 2020 – Cozumel, Mexico (or “Sabor a Mi”)

We arrived in Cozumel to sunny skies and a nice breeze. Looking out our stateroom window, I could see Royal Caribbean’s Harmony of the Seas berthed on the opposite side of the dock. Harmony is the second-largest cruise ship in the world, and made Liberty, which was once the largest, look small.

We scheduled an underwater “mini-sub” tour in Cozumel, and conditions looked to be just right for exploring the underwater world. The mini-subs look a bit like a scooter, modified to be used underwater. The sub had a large plexiglass bubble on top that would be filled with air, creating an air pocket where you can put your head and breathe normally while underwater.

After a quick lesson from our instructor, we hopped in the water and mounted our subs. The experience of using the sub was somewhat odd. The air pocket kept your head dry, but you could feel the water line was around your shoulders. As we went deeper into the water, I continuously had to squeeze a hand into the helmet to pop my ears to equalize pressure. The bubble itself also distorted your view of other people, creating the illusion that their head was too small for their body.

The subs were slow, but provided an interesting view underwater that was much different from snorkeling. Rather than being above the fish, we were swimming among the fish. Our guide pointed out a few and brought them up close for us to touch – a small spider crab, walking sea star, sea urchin, and a sea cucumber. Alicia even spotted an eagle ray!

After drying off, we headed downtown in a taxi to seek out lunch, stopping at a place called La Mission. The restaurant was a typical tourist restaurant, not the kind of place the locals would eat at like we asked of the cabbie. Despite our request not being honored, the food was pretty good. We started off with a plate of nachos and homemade guacamole. I had a lunch of fish tacos, while Alicia’s lunch was jumbo shrimp that were bigger than our fingers!

While we were eating, a mariachi band walked into the restaurant and started playing. Our lunch couldn’t get any more Mexican. Some of the other guests in the restaurant got up and danced to the band’s music. I made a request in honor of my father, who would have been celebrating his 90th birthday on the next day. I asked the band to play the song “Sabor a Mi.”

At my father’s funeral, one of my brothers told a story about Dad going to a bar or restaurant where a guy was singing. Now, my dad was a pretty good guitar player, and not so bad at singing. The story goes that the musician was not very good at his craft, and my dad made it known during his set. The musician, tired of the heckling, challenged my dad, holding out his guitar and asking if he could do better. Well, Dad put his money where his mouth was and belted out his own rendition of “Sabor a Mi.” Since hearing this story, it’s been Dad’s song.

It was a fitting tribute for Dad’s upcoming birthday.

Thursday, February 20, 2020 – Belize City Backroads (or “You better Belize it!”)

The port in Belize City is not big enough to handle a ship the size of Liberty, or any cruise ship for that matter. This meant the we anchored a few miles off shore and had to take a tender into port. We had an excursion scheduled to visit Mayan ruins, but would need it to be sunny in order to climb them. Off in the distance, over land and over the sea, were some dark, threatening clouds. We boarded the tender, which has a partially open top deck, and set sail for the port. I started to feel a little rain as we motored toward port. Several people tried to squeeze under the top deck canopy. Fortunately, the rain was short lived.

We then boarded a bus that would take us to the AyinHa Reserve for our tour of the Mayan Ruins. We were greeted by our guides, Alicia and Bernie. Bernie introduced us to our driver, Franklin, who he said had a PHD in driving – certified Pot Hole Dodger.

Our bus made its way through the countryside west of Belize City, over rivers, past farms. Bernie talked to us about Belizean culture and life. Bernie also demonstrated his knowledge of American life by going around, asking us where we were from, and providing some tidbit of trivia about our state.

After about an hour, we made it to the AyinHa Reserve. The name of the reserve comes from the Mayan words ayin (“crocodile”) and ha (“water”), so named for the crocodiles that live in the nearby New River. From the reserve, we would take a small boat to the Lamanai ruins. While waiting for our boat to leave, we had a quick drink (local beer and water straight out of a coconut), and wandered around the grounds.

Our boat took us downriver to the Lamanai site. Lamanai, named from the Mayan words Lama’an (“submerged”) and ayin (“crocodile”) was once one of the largest Mayan cities. The city was once home to an estimated 60,000 people, and once spread out over 10 miles of the banks of the New River. Archaeologists believe the city was founded in the 16th Century BC and was occupied as late as the 18th Century. The city was rediscovered in the early 20th Century, and the current site we visited consists of only an estimated 5 percent of the 800 buildings that made up the city.

Alicia and Bernie took us through the trails around the ruins, telling us about the history of the site and the various temples. We learned about how the temples we see today have been changed over time. Various rulers would add on to the temples and build over the existing structures to add their own touch, or to cover up features made by rival rulers.

I got to climb the Mask Temple, which is the smallest of the three temples we visited (the others being the Jaguar Temple and High Temple). The Mask Temple was first built around 200 BC, and was modified by subsequent rulers until around 1300 AD. The temple is adorned by two 13-foot-tall sculptures of a human face wearing a crocodile-head headdress (or “masks”), one on each side of the main temple staircase. The matching masks were an example of the Mayan tradition of symmetry in all things. The Mayans believed the earth existed on the back of a giant turtle, and symmetry in their construction ensured the earth remained balanced.

After a delicious lunch back at AyinHa, we returned to the ship. Cool showers were wonderful after being out in the heat and humidity.

We finished the day with dinner at the ship’s Johnny Rockets restaurant.

Wednesday, February 19, 2020 – Roving in Roatan, Honduras (or “An Unexpected Swim”)

The ship docked at Roatan, Honduras, around 7 am. Roatan sits about 40 miles off the Honduran mainland, and hosts many fine beaches and resorts. The island is also home to a few eco-parks where visitors can interact with many exotic animals. We were going to do both.

We got off the ship and met up with our tour guides Will and Darson. We rode through the streets of Coxen Hole to Manawakie Eco Park. We met up with Jimson, who showed us some of the island’s native plants and talked to us about what they were used for. We met the park’s capuchin monkeys, one of which tried to pick Jimson’s pocket. Sneaky little bugger! We also saw some spider monkey and rabbits, but we pretty much skipped them to get to the park’s real attraction, the sloth. Jimson introduced us to our sloth pal, “Real Deal,” the park’s only male sloth.

Sloths are interesting. Most people know them as slow-moving creatures. Jimson said they can actually be pretty fast if startled. Real Deal was calm and much like a baby. All he wanted to do was cuddle and hold onto something.

After saying goodbye to Real Deal we hopped back into our guides’ car and headed to the west side of the island. As we always do with the guides on our trips, we chatted with Will and Darson, to learn more about life on the island. We joked around like old friends.

We soon found ourselves at Paradise Beach Resort for some relaxation and snorkeling. We hopped on a boat that took us out to the Blue Channel. Roatan is surrounded by the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef, the second-largest barrier reef in the world after the Great Barrier Reef. The Blue Channel is a popular spot to view various types of fish, sea turtles, rays, and sometimes even sharks.

Dumb me forgot my waterproof camera on the ship, so we gave it a go with trying to get video with Alicia’s phone inside a waterproof pouch. Trust me on this … we saw lots of striped fish, blue fish, and even a sea turtle swimming around. I would love to provide you proof, but there was a mishap.

We set the phone to camera mode prior to sealing it inside the pouch. Unfortunately, we did not change the screen sensitivity at the same time, so we could not control the phone through the pouch, which turned out to be very frustrating. So we decided to open up the pouch while we were about a mile from shore and 100 yards from the boat. We did our best to keep the pouch above water to adjust the settings. Somehow a tiny bit of water got into the pouch, and … well … RIP Alicia’s phone. At least we have the memories … and this drawing!

We got back to the beach to mourn the phone and try to dry it out in the sunshine. We drowned (Ha-ha! Get it?) our sorrows in a couple beers and a margarita, and enjoyed a delicious fish filet for lunch.

Every so often, we were interrupted by roving vendors who roamed the beach. They were selling sunglasses, candy, and (Are you serious?) waterproof phone pouches. I was even offered a pair of sunglasses while I was clearly wearing a pair. Apparently they were only allowed on a certain part of the beach, because no sooner did they wander into the area with all the resort’s lounge chairs the security guards shooed them away.

We returned to the ship and tried our hands again at the casino. Apparently my luck had run out because we could not hit anything on the slots. We even tried some unconventional methods to coax the slots into paying out. I thought maybe because I was wearing my contact lenses the machine didn’t recognize me. So I did what anyone would do, I made glasses out of my fingers! It didn’t work.

Tuesday, February 18, 2020 – Another Day at Sea (or “What else can you do on a ship in the middle of the ocean?”)

Cruise ships are big operations. Essentially they are floating cities. In fact, Liberty even has a “main street” right down the middle with shops and restaurants. It takes a lot of work behind the scenes to make a cruise ship work. Thousands of crew support the ship’s operations and the nearly 5,000 guests each week. One of my favorite activities on cruises is to take the behind-the-scenes tour. I’ve taken a few on Carnival cruises before, and have seen how each ship operates differently. Today, I took the tour along with my brother-in-law Tim.

The tour started out in the main dining room. The dining room had space on three decks and can seat almost 1,300 guests at a time! The lead sous chef told us everything about what the culinary crew does each day feeding guests and crew. The kitchen crew prepare 125,000 meals each week, using 13,000 pounds of beef, 8,000 pounds of chicken, 1,400 pounds of lobster, and many tons more food. We headed down to the store rooms below decks where all the food and drinks are stored for each cruise. Liberty spends more than $650,000 on food and drink each week. Food orders are made three weeks in advance, and the purchaser has to make the proper estimate for the amount of food to get for each order.

We got to go into the engine control room, where all the ship’s mechanical systems are watched. The entire ship is powered by six 12.6-megawatt diesel generators – enough electrical output to power more than 32,000 average homes. During our tour, only three of the generators were being used. The engines can push the ship at up to 26 miles per hour. These generators not only push the ship, but also provide all electricity and power water filtration and sanitation systems. According to the engineer we talked with, the ship goes through 500,000 gallons of heavy fuel oil per week.

Our final stop on the tour was the ship’s bridge. Unfortunately, we did not get to meet Captain James – a guy from Tampa, Florida, who looked like a trucker and sounded like a cowboy. Ivan, the officer manning the bridge, told us the Captain Does not usually spend much time on the bridge, other than when they are going into and leaving ports, or during emergencies. Ivan said the ship typically runs on autopilot with a minimum of three people on the bridge. One of the three had the sole job of looking out the window watching for obstacles.

For those cruisers who like to learn about the goings-on behind the crew doors on a ship, I recommend a behind-the-scenes tour.

During the afternoon we went to one of the many games put on by the crew. These games are a chance to get together with other guests and get to know them, all while having a little fun. The game we went to was a general trivia quiz. The host reads off 15 questions and guests have to write down their answers. Unfortunately, and I think this has been a growing problem, there are people who choose to cheat by using their cellphones and onboard internet accounts to search answers. I don’t see the point. Cheating for a prize that’s either a pen, key ring, or plastic bracelet. Does it make people feel good? What’s sadder is when I win a game against groups of up to six people looking up answers. I’ll take that key ring now.

After dinner we headed to the ship’s theater for one of their shows. Tonight’s show was called “Up in the Air.” It was an amazing display of strength by the ship’s acrobats, who were hanging from rings and strips of fabric. Some of the tricks they did were dozens of feet above the stage with no safety wires. Other tricks involved performers attached to harnesses. Toward the end, we got to see the panic in one performer’s eyes when she was unable to unclip herself from her harness before they raised the cables she was attached to. She remained there swinging about 10 feet above the stage attached only one of her cables. Eventually, they were able to lower her and she got herself unclipped.

Alicia and I took a late-night walk down the ship’s promenade. As we walked, “Sweet Caroline” was playing over the loudspeakers leading to a sudden singalong by us and other guests.

Monday, February 17, 2020 – A Day at Sea (or “A non-gambler sits at a slot machine. The results will shock you!”)

I’m not big on gambling, I spent five years working in a casino, which can turn you off to games of chance. Alicia, on the other hand, likes to gamble as a form of entertainment (which is how it should be treated). For some reason, I think the gambling fates know this and I never have any luck. I can walk up behind Alicia while she’s playing, and doing well, and she’ll start losing. I can suck the luck out of someone like a black hole.

Alicia had arranged a slot pull with some folks from a Facebook group prior to the cruise, so she stepped away from her machine, leaving me to watch it.

I got bored and decided to press the PLAY button a few times while I waited.

After a few plays, I hit a payout for $525. OK, this is good. I kept playing, sure that Alicia would be happy about being able to play on house money for a while. Soon, I hit another bonus. Then another. Within about 15 minutes I had more than $1,100! Maybe the gambling fates were on vacation too!

We walked away to explore the ship and get a snack, followed by other activities.

Liberty was so big that there was an ice rink on one of the lower decks. An ice rink! We paid a visit to the rink to watch a skating show. It was amazing to see what those figure skaters could do while on board a moving ship! Some of the skaters even managed backflips!

After dinner we went back to the casino. Thanks to my winning ways earlier, Alicia had earned nearly enough points playing on the house money to earn a free cruise along with other perks. Ah, how the tables had turned. She wasn’t doing so well this time so she asked me to press the button for a while. My luck from earlier continued. Soon I was hitting bonuses and other winning combinations. $400 … $600 … $900 … We were both confused about what was happening. After a while, I started to feel the machine cooling down, so we wisely walked away.

We did earn enough for a free cruise, by the way.

2020 Caribbean Cruise – Introduction

With current events unfolding, I guess it’s time to write this out. Maybe those stuck at home can enjoy a little vacation in their mind.

It had been a while since we took a vacation without the kids. Through a fortunate series of events, we planned a vacation for Presidents Week, when the boys would be out of school. Alicia’s mom offered to let Ryan stay with her for the week, and my mom offered to watch Alex. The boys, who are typical brothers who tolerate each other to a point, would get some rare time apart and fun times with grandma! Alicia and I, on the other hand, would be enjoying the high seas on a cruise.

We put Alex on a flight to Southern California to go with my mother. It was Alex’s first time traveling unaccompanied. We were sure he’d do fine. We talked with him about being respectful to his neighbors on the plane, as well as using his manners with the flight crew. Alex was really excited to go alone. We turned him over to the Southwest crew at the gate and waited for the plane to take off. After Alex was in the air, we went to meet with Alicia’s mom for lunch and to drop off Ryan.

The next day, we took the hotel shuttle over to Oakland International for our flight to Houston. I probably say this every time I write about flying, but there is definitely something magic about traveling by air. I love it. From the takeoff, where the sudden acceleration pushes you back into your seat, to the amazing views offered from 30,000 feet up, flying really is something special.

Sitting down on the plane, I was surprised that another low-cost carrier has seats with more room than other carriers that cost much more (I’m looking at you, United). While, we bought an extra seat to have a row to ourselves, I still really appreciate not having my knees pressed against the seat in front of me for the whole flight. Back to the extra seat. Getting an extra seat, that will remain empty, was something we first did on our trip to Curacao a few years ago. Some might call it an extravagance, but I call it a necessity to keep your sanity and remain comfortable on a long flight. We don’t buy extra seats on short flights – we can handle sitting next to someone for an hour or two, and usually the middle seat would be occupied by one of the children, but for a cross-country flight, that extra seat comes in handy. We strategically placed a “Seat Reserved” sign on the empty middle seat. I may be a little hypocritical here, or maybe not because we spent the extra money, but it really is weird to see how selfish people can be on airline flights. The airlines limit people to a carry-on and a “personal item,” essentially two carry-ons. I always bring two, but I make sure one of them will go under the seat in front of me. Anyway, I watch as several people bring two carry-ons and try to fit them both in the overhead bin, taking up space that could be used by other passengers. Put your purse under your seat, Karen! Oddly, despite the apparent lack of consideration for other guests when placing their luggage, people still act politely. Late-boarding passengers still politely ask those who have been seated if an item belongs to them and if it’s OK to rearranged them in the overhead bin. These same late-arrivals also ask if an empty seat is taken before just climbing over the guy in the aisle seat and plopping down.

We touched down at Hobby Airport in Houston in the early afternoon. As always, the plane’s cabin erupted into a symphony of click-clacking as people unbuckled their seat belts before we reached the gate. Another symphony of cellphone notifications began as everyone on board took their phones off airplane mode. It’s definitely the music of our time.

After gathering our bags, we made our way to our hotel and met up with Alicia’s brother and his wife. They had rented a car (a pretty badass Kia) and we were going to find something to do with the afternoon. We all decided to go to Johnson Space Center, home of NASA’s mission control and astronaut training facilities. We figured we could get a tour in before they closed. So we squeezed into the fabulous Kia and headed out.

As we entered the visitor parking area, we were greeted by a pair of T-38 Talon airplanes mounted on poles. NASA uses the T-38 as a chase and observation plane, and as a flight trainer for astronauts. During the Space Shuttle program, it was a NASA tradition for Shuttle astronauts to travel from Houston to Cape Canaveral in T-38s. A supersonic plane would be the ultimate commute vehicle in my book! Much better than a silver Kia.

The visitor center at JSC had a theater that provided visitors with a movie about the history of the American Space Program that left you wanting to shout, “Murica!” at the end. The movie was well done, and is highly recommended. If you’ve ever seen one of the movies at a National Park, this movie was similar to those.

The centerpiece of the visitor center is one of the two Shuttle Carrier Aircraft used to transport the Space Shuttle from one side of the country to the other after flights when the Shuttle used to land in California. The SCA is a modified 747 that was originally owned by American Airlines. Inside the SCA was an exhibit on how the SCA was envisioned, along with information about testing to see if it would actually work. Sitting atop the SCA was a full-size replica shuttle known as Independence. Independence was originally an exhibit at Kennedy Space Center, and was built from actual Rockwell International blueprints. While not an actual spacecraft, Independence is as close to a real shuttle as most people will ever get – the inside being a faithful representation of the flight deck and payload bay of a real Shuttle as the real shuttles on display are not open for tours of the cabins.

After walking through the visitor center, we took a tour through JSC. The tour we chose would take us to the Christopher J. Kraft Jr. Mission Control Center. The “MCC,” commonly known by its call sign “Houston,” has been used by NASA since the Gemini missions (Mercury missions were controlled from Cape Canaveral). The building houses the historic Mission Operations Control Room 2, where the Apollo XI mission carrying the first astronauts to the moon, was controlled. Stepping off the tour tram, you could feel the history emanating from the building; This was “Houston.” Our specific tour would take us up to the fourth floor of the building to what they were calling the Orion Mission Control Room. This specific control room is currently used as a backup to the control room used for the International Space Station and for training new mission controllers. In the future, around 2030 as told by the tour guide, this control room will be used for Orion missions, and for the first manned landing on Mars. History is all around at JSC.

After leaving JSC we searched the area for some Texas barbecue. You can’t go to Texas without getting some barbecue. We found a place called Delta Blues. Our waitress, who claimed to be a converted vegan, was very friendly and helped us with recommendations and sauce pairings. We started off with appetizers of deviled eggs and pork belly. Both were quite delicious. Three of us shared a family platter consisting of a heaping portion of various meats and unlimited sides. The plate had smoked brisket, turkey, chicken, pork, and two kinds of sausage. We chose mashed potatoes, mac and cheese, and collard greens for the sides. The meat melted in your mouth, and the sides were full of flavor. Plus, there was so much food, not even three of us could finish it! Though I certainly tried.

On Sunday morning we took a car from Houston to Galveston to get on our ship the Liberty of the Seas. Liberty had arrived in Galveston late Saturday night, earlier than normal, due to heavy fog in the area that threatened to close the port. We ran into some of this fog on the way to the port. Hopefully we would be able to get out. From the moment we set foot in port, precautions were being taken to minimize the possible transmission of various illnesses, including a particular one that was starting to make news – coronavirus. Hand sanitizer stations were everywhere and people were being told to wash their hands frequently. The cruise line had also taken additional precautions by screening passengers for symptoms prior to boarding and preventing boarding by those who had traveled to China, Hong Kong, and Macau within the two weeks prior to the cruise. Illness is common on cruise ships, mostly flu and norovirus, but has never really bothered me. I always take precautions to minimize risk, such as washing hands and avoiding sick people. I wasn’t worried about this one.

The fog remained over the Galveston area as people continued boarding and we got closer to sail time. Looking out lounge windows during the safety drill, I could see towers of oil platforms docked across the channel disappear and reappear as fog moved through. After the drill, Alicia and I headed up to the front of the ship to a “hidden” spot we heard about from prior cruisers. This spot was the ship’s helipad. As we sailed off into the fog, the ship’s horn blared several times as a warning to other vessels that the big dog was coming through. A couple of dolphins played in the water ahead of the bow. Guests played “king of the world” by standing at the tip of the deck and stretching out their arms. Everyone was ready to make the most of this trip.


From the Archives – The Old Bridge

I originally wrote this piece in November 2006 for my university magazine writing class.

I participate in a hobby called geocaching. Geocaching is something of a 21st-century treasure hunt. People hide small objects – bottles, Tupperware containers, ammo cans – in various places and post the geographic coordinates on the geocaching.com web site. Cache hunters then use Global Positioning System receivers to locate these items. Essentially geocaching can be described as using multi-billion dollar military technology to find Tupperware hidden in the woods.

There’s not really any sort of prize or competition involved, the reward is in the journey.

I had been wanting to find a unique cache for a while. Most of the caches in our neck of the woods in Humboldt County were pretty simple. Park here, walk here, the cache is hidden in the hollow part of the log. Big whoop! Give me something interesting.

I searched the geocaching.com database and found one that seemed very interesting. The cache was hidden on an abandoned highway bridge in Shasta County. The bridge was part of the old US Highway 99 and was less than a mile from its Interstate 5 replacement. It was practically hidden in plain sight.

I had to go there.

This cache contained two things that I enjoy: geocaches and old roads. Yes, I am a road geek. I find roads fascinating from a historical standpoint. I’ll notice spots along a highway where a newer section was built to bypass an old section. Today, we’re so used to our eight-lane, wide-open expanses of blacktop, I like to see how things were when times were slower and people took time to enjoy the view on their trips.

But how did this bridge come to be left to die in the shadow of its newer sibling? The story of this bridge starts with the creation of the first national highway system.

Ever since cars were invented Americans have had a fascination with the open road. Once cars started rolling off assembly lines we were no longer tied to trains, horses or other forms of land transportation. With ever-increasing numbers of car owners, states started creating their own road systems so people could get from point A to point B.

Something changed in 1926. At that time, there were all these roads, but how do you get to point B if it is in two states away, or even across the country? The nation’s road network was a mishmash of state highways with no clear pattern or numbering system. It was mass confusion. This is where things changed. In 1926, the US Federal Highway system was created. The US highway system was the precursor to today’s Interstate Highway system. This is the system gave birth to such famous roads as Route 66 and Highway 101.

The system created a common numbering system for highways. The reasoning was that if people could go from Point A to Point B on the same numbered road, there would be less confusion and people could get to their destination quicker. For example, one could drive from Chicago to Los Angeles just by taking Highway 66. It was a brilliant system and it made sense.

It was also in 1926 that the main road along the West Coast was created. This road went from Calexico, Calif., on the US-Mexico border all the way to Blaine, Wash., on the US-Canada border – nearly 1,500 miles. Along its path, it passed through Los Angeles, Sacramento, Portland, and Seattle. It was US Highway 99. This road remained the main North-South road on the West Coast until 1964 when Interstate 5 was completed. Ironically, Interstate 5 follows much the same route as Highway 99.

Highway 99 was one of the roads made famous in John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. It was the last road the Joads took down into the fertile valley at the end of their journey to escape the dust bowl.

One thing that set these highways apart from their Interstate replacements was that they allowed you to see America. Because many of the routes were not straight lines like the Interstates you saw many of the small towns and natural wonders that dot the American landscape. Alternately, Interstates allow you to go from point A to point B without stopping at higher speeds leading to a bland trip where all you see is the road. You get there quicker, but you miss out on much of the beauty that is America.

Furthermore, one thing these highways had that today’s interstates don’t is beautiful architecture. Through mountainous areas and over rivers you could find some of the most beautiful bridges and roads ever created, a far cry from today’s utilitarian roadways. Much of this road system was built for form as well as function. The roads blended into the landscape so much that they looked like they had been there since the beginning of time.

Alas, US Highway 99 was decommissioned in 1968, leaving much of the road to rot away in the shadow of Interstate 5, though a large section of old 99 still exists in Central California as State Highway 99.

I wanted to find part of this old highway. I wanted to see architecture that just doesn’t get made today. This geocache would let me find a part of that rotting highway.

Officially the bridge’s name was the Harlan D. Miller Memorial Bridge. It was built in 1926 and was named after the former head of the California Department of Bridges and the bridge’s designer. Oddly enough, Miller was so revered by his peers and those who worked for the department that the replacement bridge on I-5 was also named in his honor.

The bridge was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1984. Many people regarded it the work of a master as Miller had taken a large role in designing and building the bridge. It was not only functional, but was a work of art, built during a time when structures were built for beauty and for use. Many people say the Miller Bridge is one of the most artistic and amazing bridges ever built in California, though others like the Golden Gate and Bixby Bridges get all the attention.

I exited I-5 a few miles north of Riverview, Calif., just past the northern tip of Shasta Lake. I drove down an empty unmarked road that had a very unfriendly looking sign marked “Private Property.” Though it said Private Property, the listing assured me the road itself was public. Besides, the two houses I passed looked abandoned, I was pretty sure I would not be bothered. However, it added an element of danger to the trip.

I reached the end of the pavement and was presented with a forked dirt road. One direction would take me down to the river; the other would take me along a cliff with no guard rail to the bridge. This dirt road was the old highway.

I maneuvered my Honda Civic down the road at less than 5 miles per hour, I avoided ruts that would swallow the front end and steered around rocks that had fallen from the cliff face that was cut to make way for the road.

The pavement that used to be the old highway was no longer there, swallowed by time and years of neglect. However, signs of the old highway still remained, like a portion of the old stone arch guard rail that kept travelers from falling into the ravine below. The road looked barely wide enough for one direction of traffic. I can see why it was replaced.

I turned a bend in the road and I saw it. The bridge was there in all its beige and black glory. A concrete bridge at the end of a dirt and clay road looked out of place. The red clay contrasted sharply with the beige bridge.

A first look at the bridge showed me that it was unique among the bridges of the era. The guard rails were adorned with bright blue tiles that, despite being 80 years old, still look as bright as the day they were installed. Furthermore, there was something on the guard rails that you don’t see on bridges … anywhere. There were benches.

Forged from the very same concrete as the rest of the bridge were two benches at each end. Life moved slower back then. People weren’t in such a hurry to get to where they were going. Benches allowed travelers on 99 to rest a while and take in the beautiful scenery of the area. On one side, a river snaking through a deep canyon, on the other, the lush, green mountains. The benches were every bit a sign of a bygone era.

I walked across the bridge. It still felt solid; the mark of a quality feat of engineering (though I’m sure my 230 pounds were a mere pittance compared to the weights this bridge was designed to hold). The description of the bridge said it was still safe to drive on. Surely, they did not have the construction technology we have now, but like the ancient Romans they built things to last. How else would so many decades of neglect not relegate such an edifice to a pile of rubble at the bottom of the ravine?

Despite the bridge’s sturdiness, the years had taken a toll on it. Many of the surfaces of the guard rails and curbs were covered in moss. Fifty years of vandals had left 50 years of marks all over the bridge – “SO I’M ANTI SOCIAL” … “PMC.” I wonder how long it took after the bridge closed for the vandals to move in. The bronze identification plaques installed at both approaches to the bridge were even missing.

I reached the south side of the bridge. It was here, hidden among the ever encroaching foliage, that I found the hidden geocache. It was a simple item, a large vitamin bottle covered in camouflage tape so you would not see it if you were not looking for it. There was not much inside to trade for, so I left a travel bug (travel bugs are uniquely numbered items the users can track on its journey around the world), signed the log book and replaced the bottle where I had found it so another 21st-century treasure hunter could find it upon his discovery of this location.

I walked past the end of the bridge, following the old roadway south. No more than a few steps from the end of the bridge the pavement disappeared and turned into more red clay. I looked down the old road, trying to visualize where it went from here, only to see its remains fade into the green forest as if it were a botanical version of a black hole. The road was cut from the forest and the forest was taking it back.

I snapped some pictures of the road fading into the green oblivion, got a shot of the old and new – the original bridge in the shadow of its modern replacement. I walked along the sidewalk taking peeks over the edge into the ravine below. A set of railroad tracks appeared from behind a hill, turned parallel to the bridge and then disappeared behind another hill. A train passed by, blaring its horn at the old bridge. Dog Creek, the stream that passed under the bridge, gurgled along its southerly route, its waters destined to wind up in Shasta Lake some 10 miles south.

I stepped up onto one of the old benches and leaned over to get a look at the bridge’s magnificent arch. Its 250-foot arch was once one of the longest in California. The arch had turned black from time in some places. Its columns had red streaks from rust that has seeped through the concrete from the steel inside. It was like the roadway was crying red-orange tears because such a beautiful piece of architecture was being allowed to waste away.

After taking in all the beauty this location had to offer, though I’m sure if I went back I’d find something else wonderful to look at, I carefully maneuvered my car around the old roadway again to get back to I-5 and head home. I merged back onto the freeway among the 18-wheelers and cars that fly by at 70-plus miles per hour without so much as a glance at nature’s wonders that surround them. I glanced off to my left and through the trees I could see flickering images of the old Miller Bridge nearly invisible if you aren’t looking for it. There it was, hidden in plain sight, the past in the shadow of the present longing to be seen and remembered. The bridge would remain and await its next visitor and, just as its flickering images did to me, it would thank them for the visit and ask them not to forget this hidden beauty.

Since I wrote this piece, Caltrans has ceded the access road to the owner of an adjacent property. The property owner has stopped keeping the road clear and will confront anyone trespassing on the property.