Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Well, that was interesting—notes from an adventurous road trip

I made it home—something that is never guaranteed when taking road trips in winter.  They are usually doable but are often the sort of adventure that was a lot more fun at 25.  This one turned out to be no exception.

As late as last Friday (5FEB), I was having serious doubts about this trip.  The primary reason for this venture was to share the Denver Superbowl experience with an old college roommate.  As such, it was an act of pure whimsey—and I am not a whimsical person.  The arguments against this trip included cost, the possibility of driving in hazardous weather, and the very real possibility that I was going to a celebration where everyone would be angry about the outcome—the Broncos were betting underdogs and have a history of choking in the big game.  They lost to the Redskins 42-10 in 1988 and to the 49ers 55-10 two year later.

On the other hand, this was an opportunity not to be missed.  My "home" team the Vikings suck so bad, they could replace gravity.  So my rooting interest goes to Green Bay and Denver because over the years, they have shown themselves to be very good at playing an extremely complex game.  It's just better for my heart to have my small rooting interests directed at teams that at least understand the game.  Besides, my old college roommate and I are now in our late 60s and such an opportunity might not come again in our lifetimes.

The Broncos have the ultimate home-field advantage—altitude.  Do the math.  The ball behaves differently in thin air and reduced gravity, and so do human lungs.  It is a far more effective to train at altitude and play at sea level than the other way around.  The difference between winning and losing at the pro level is tiny and usually less than the difference caused by altitude.  So the Broncos have run up impressive won-loss records over the years to the delight of their crazy-loyal fans.  Then they go to the Superbowl and lose 55-10 because as a small-market team in the hinterlands, they have had coaches who have gone all conventional wisdom in the big game—so the high-flying tactics from their mile-high base camp don't even come into play.

The current coach is a former backup Bronco quarterback to one of the great players at that position and current GM, John Elway.  Apparently they got along swimmingly as players and seem to be on the same page as management.  Because of the fact that current quarterback, Peyton Manning, is a LONG way past his prime, there was little option but to go conservative and hope for a few breaks.  This time, they got them and the Broncos led from beginning to end.  The people at my party were very, VERY happy.

On Tuesday, a reported million people showed up for the victory parade.  Actually, I have no notion of how they count these things and they would have probably reported 90,000 if it had been an anti-war rally, but it was enough to make watching it on the local TV a good choice.  The hazard there was listening to the on-air talent try to make winning a football game into a demonstration of civic virtue.  Folks in fly-over land like to do this—Packer fans are notorious for this behavior as well.

While in Denver, I also wanted to check out their new sociological experiment—legal recreational pot.  Apparently, Colorado law leaves a lot of discretion to the counties and Denver decided to go all Libertarian and let a thousand small businesses bloom.  The result is that streets like Colfax Ave. have at least one little boutique-sized shop every two blocks or so.  Most sell both medical and recreational pot with medical prices lower and following different rules.  For example, someone with a medical card can legally purchase two oz. (56 grams) a DAY. Since a regular recreational user could easily consume less than 5 grams a month, this is a very generous amount.

The boutiques sold approximately 20 varieties of pot.  I heard rumors of big shops but I had insufficient time or curiosity to check them out.  Because of security concerns, a sales clerk is assigned each customer which after a lifetime of self-directed shopping, was pleasantly different.  Denver has been a center of a hippy culture since the late 1960s and that culture is well represented in the boutiques.  Starting with the names.  I went to one called "Kind Love."  Seriously.  The sales people I met were 25-50 yo women who had the manners of staff at a nice Colorado restaurant.

The rules for out-of-state tourists are much tighter—no more than 7 grams per day can be purchased.  There seemed to be much apologizing for the discrimination against outsiders.  The explanation was that surrounding states were not happy about Colorado becoming a pot export center.  So the rules for tourists with out-of-state IDs assume in-state consumption.  But it's plenty generous and tourism is booming—largely because of legal pot.

Colorado is the future mostly because the tax revenue legal pot has generated will be envied by every revenue-starved state and municipality in the land.  And for all the scare-mongering, legal pot has produced very few actual social problems and has eliminated a bunch of others.

All good things must end and on Thursday, I headed back to Minnesota.  This time I hoped to cut the 900-mile (1448 km) drive in half by visiting an old St Paul neighbor who has retired to South Dakota.  This meant leaving the freeway at North Platte for a drive north to central SD.  11 miles (18 km) south of Valentine Nebraska, my car sputtered and died.  It was daylight and in the low 50s so it wasn't dangerous but I had no cell phone service so getting help meant waiting for a good samaritan.  Soon a couple of young men in a large pick-up stopped to help.  They had the right cell service so we called the roadside assistance # on the back of my insurance card and arranged a tow.  The question was where to tow it to.  My samaritans suggested the Ford dealer, but when we got there, they politely informed me that they did not want to fix a crippled 20 yo Lexus LS.  The tow truck driver suggested an independent mechanic described as "political" who seemed willing to try to help get me back on the road.

Sure enough, when we got to the garage, Rush Limbaugh was blaring on the radio.  But the owner walked out with his computer reader, performed a few tests, and declared that the fuel pump had failed.  He could get a new one over-nighted from Denver and promised to have my car running by 5 pm on Saturday.  My friend from South Dakota came to rescue me so I had a place to stay for two nights.

Saturday afternoon, we headed back to Valentine but when we arrived, our mechanic did not have the car running.  In fact, he had not found the way to remove the old fuel pump and he had been working for several hours on the problem.  He also had some paid-for tech service on the line to advise him how to remove the fuel tank because the pump was inside.  Unfortunately, the advice was wrong.  So the decision was made to try going through the back seat.  My friend and I used to fix our own cars in our younger days so we were able to help him remove the seat, which being a Lexus, was more complicated than it needed to be.  But sure enough, when we figured how to remove the cushions, there was a round door and behind it, the access to the fuel pump.

The last thing our mechanic needed at this point was anyone watching him so we went to eat at the nearby McDonalds and kill some time.  Eventually we went to check on progress and while the car was not yet running, he was putting it back together.  I took over the job of reassembling the trunk and the real mechanic went back to getting the motor running.  We both wanted this job DONE!  He wanted to go home, and I wanted to beat some bad weather moving into SE South Dakota / SW Minnesota.  I figured I had it beat if I left at 5 pm.  But it was now past 8 pm and I am getting really nervous.  But soon my car was running.  I paid my very fair bill, shook the man's hand, and headed out into the night.  485 miles later I was home.

It is difficult to overstate just how good a mechanic Bob from Valentine Nebraska really was.  He correctly diagnosed the problem in a car he had never seen or worked on in less than ten minutes  He persisted in figuring out a problem even when his tech support failed him.  He didn't break any of the expensive parts holding the car together.  And two hours after I left his shop, I was blasting along I-90 at the speed limit of 80 mph (129 kph) into a 35 mph (56 kph) quartering crosswind.  Valentine Nebraska is very fortunate to have a man so richly endowed with Producer Class virtue.  I may have found the man's politics odious, but since I cannot imagine a successful society without plenty of people just like him, the question then becomes—how does one get such a man into a political coalition without destroying his Producer Class sensibilities?

The band of snow I was fearing had indeed arrived over SE South Dakota.  And about a hour before Sioux Falls, the snow showers started.  But the road was too cold for anything to stick and the wind was sweeping it quite effectively.  Soon after crossing into Minnesota, the snow showers were replaced by a classic ground blizzard as the snow already on the ground was whipped into a froth.  Fortunately, the roads were empty and the sides visible and I was driving the road through the towns of my childhood.  Astonishingly, I still remembered it even in swirling snow.  By 3 am, I was through the snow bands, the temperatures had dropped to 11°F (-11°C), and the winds had calmed to nothing.  Suddenly I noticed how tired I was but the roads were now completely familiar and by 4:30 am, I was home.  It took a couple of hours to unpack and shower and a couple more before the adrenaline wore off enough to sleep.

I still haven't caught up on my sleep but soon.  There's some interesting stuff going on and even short adventures provide new insights.  So I will have some new energy for this blog and my other BIG project.

Glad to be back.


  1. Valentine is an interesting place! I detoured through there 3 summers ago, on my way from Chicago to Pine Ridge, SD. A beautiful fork of the river, and it attracts a lot of recreational river people during the warm months, or so it seemed. Big camping/outdoor supply store there. Glad you got home safely! I love the mechanic story!

    1. Valentine is pretty bleak in the winter. But yes, I feel damn fortunate I found a real mechanic. The fundamental difference between a mechanic and a parts-replacer is diagnostic ability and this guy was very talented. It was like he held this Ur-car in his head that was formed from his experiences in how cars work. And because he seems willing to fix anything, his Ur-car is very sophisticated. So when he encountered an unexpected assemblage, he still had a very good idea of what was supposed to happen and how Toyota chooses to make things happen.

      A true member of the Producer-Class!

  2. I’m so glad you’re back and that you made it back safely (after that almost turn for the worse)! What a great report. It was so educational and interesting in so many ways on so many levels... Thank you. Sounds like you had a truly memorable trip.

  3. Glad you made it home OK. We spent SB Sunday watching the big game on a huge TeeVee on a cruise ship. Our half time entertainment was a live performance by Bobby Bare singing his big hit from 1976 'Dropkick me Jesus through the Goalposts of Life'. Sometime things happen you just plain cannot make up...lol! Also, one of the big mamas that are Country fans planted her very big heel directly on my left big toe, so I am hoping a Dr can work the magic your new friend in Valentine, Nebraska did for your car on my toe. Fun reading.