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IN A RAPIDLY WARMING, PETROLEUM-SCARCE WORLD, long-haul road trips may no longer be defensible. But weighing our waste against the lure of a righteous mountain cabin just outside Yellowstone, we said Screw It and got in the van. Having only driven around it before, I worried the Park wouldn’t live up to the hype. Was it just the darling of people who’d never gone elsewhere (my strong suspicion about all Disney Resort-lovers)? Would it pale next to the postcards?

No. Yellowstone proved to be a steaming smorgasbord of vividly bizarre wonders. It’s one of the few times where conventional wisdom knew what was good for me.

Our ride was deluxe, a big honkin’ GM van worthy of my weirdest uncle circa 1980. Six bucket seats. CD/DVD/cassette. Lingering scent of industrial solvent. 1,100 miles flew by, at least up front in the Dad Cab.

We spent a night in western North Dakota, land of fracking fortunes, gargantuan pickups and shockingly overpriced Days Inns. Then a final 600-mile haul through Montana, which looks like this when the maps bleach out.

The park’s surreal chromatics come from heat-seeking bacteria that cluster along thermal springs according to their temperature (above and below). Did that sound convincing? Because I have no idea what I’m talking about. It might as well be made of Jell-O. Click for a better view.

Jo Jo posing elegantly on the Yellowstone River; Her and Isobel in matching Harajuku Mini meshcaps. These two built dams, rode horses, braved whitewater and went all Frontierswomen for a week (we oldsters honed our Picnicking and Wine Guzzling skillz).

So Old Faithful? People go bonkers for that. Intent on capturing all its glory, this dude butted to the front of the crowd with his iPad aloft. It’s like 68°. Where’s your shirt?

Jenney and Sarah hike above the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone (right). Our crew had some unique flair too, no?

Bouldering! Also known as scampering atop rocks.

An invented topographic landscape, from a series of romantic moonlit drawing sessions Lucas and I did after everybody else crashed.

Me on Boulder. This field was littered with gnawed-on bones and other wildlife traces, though animals in the flesh were scarce. They smell you coming.

Sarah’s cross-stitch parting gift to the Lazy M cabin (left). I knew we’d enjoy the stargazing deck and full kitchen, but the hair salon was a nice surprise.

Hiking the miles of empty ranchland around the Lazy M, Lucas and I ducked into an old homestead abandoned for decades (right). After experiencing the century’s-worth of tourist infrastructure around Yellowstone, I’m reassured by places that may stay wild and neglected forever.

Big thanks to Jenney, Lucas, and his big-hearted patron Emily for sharing all this splendor. I’d say we’ll return the favor, but who would ever loan me something that good?

>> Lightning Bolt – Magic Mountain
>> Fiery Furnaces – Evergreen

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I JUST BAGGED MY THIRD AND FOURTH state parks of the summer, and we’re barely four weeks in. I don’t recall when I became a Minnesota park system groupie. Growing up, I went to exactly one Iowa State Park and that was mostly to skirt parental supervision for the day. Now I’m following some unconscious collector’s yen to see all 38. Johanna is racking up patches, for real.

This despite a massive IT failure of the DNR reservation system this spring, which cramped the plans of thousands of park nerds, us included. When they finally replaced the vacuum tubes (or whatever caused the month-long meltdown), I nabbed a spot at Itasca State Park to coincide with a conference where Sarah was presenting. But her gig was actually the following week, an error we only caught after all other cabins were booked. Systems failing all over.

It’s a tribute to Itasca, then, that Sarah’s return the following week (220 miles each way past strip malls, flea markets and fantastic castles penitentiaries) still felt worthwhile (though Jo and I took a pass). One of the nation’s oldest state parks—second only to New York’s Niagara—Itasca is 32,000 acres of lakes, old-growth pine forest and empty, shade-dappled trails knitting it together. There’s also, of course, the headwaters of the Mississippi, though this primeval origin point had its wildness engineered out to look more like you’d expect it to. Just how they did things in 1905.

Family camping, if you’re lucky, is without high drama or surprise. Still you remember things. The two rangers-in-training schooling us about painted turtles and the vicious fisher (sworn enemy of the porcupine). The sunburned kids with North Woods accents I can only describe as marble-mouthed. Climbing a vertiginous fire tower that swayed in the wind under threat of storm.

And lessons learned: a) don’t bother looking for a decent bite in Bemidji, and b) tuck in shirts if you don’t want ticks.

>> Minor Threat – Stumped

GETTING AWAY FROM IT ALL comes with a peculiar burden for me. The before-you-go rigamarole I’m good with. It’s once I’m there, there’s this nagging compulsion to gain Meaningful Experience. Some see time away as a pause in life, but for me it’s the exact opposite. Vacation is the whole point: figuring things out, seeing my people, doing notable shit and bragging about it. I find the prescription to “just relax” more than useless—it’s terrifying (if time off is merely a way to replenish for work, there is no excuse for me at all). Until I kill off my Value-Creating self for good, vacation is my State of Nature.

This orientation puts a lot of pressure on our trips. Fortunately, my Planner In Chief is even more militant on the point. Sarah’s so convinced every trip should be uniquely spectacular that she builds tabbed spreadsheets around potential itineraries and checks to see that hotel rooms are oriented properly toward the sun.

Yet for all this force of will, our most recent getaway is hard to explain. We spent three months mulling plans in endless combinations* involving numerous failed connections with friends and the Internet equivalent of throwing darts at maps. Facing a spring break alone and childless in Minnesota, we pulled a wild card: the remote desert outpost of Tucson, Arizona. We knew no one and had no reference points aside from the band Calexico.

In full Thelma & Louise mode (not sure which I was) on the trail from Phoenix to Tucson, a 120-mile drive on butter-smooth I-10, roads being one of the few public amenities the libertarians will pay for.

The city is ringed by mountains for hiking, solidly in my Worthwhile Activity category. Some downer lady told us all Tucson’s trails were the same, but we found otherwise. The terrain is gorgeous and varied, assuming you have enough water to push a bit farther. We did a dozen miles over two days, stopping constantly to photograph unfamiliar flora for Sarah’s prints.

Feeling spry, I had us take a casual stroll 3,000 feet up the ridge overlooking Sabino Canyon. A mild spring day in Tucson is 90° by 10 a.m. and clouds are notably rare.

Scary Desert Things: bees swarming in and out of underground hives (left) and saguaro needles tough enough to break boot leather (right). One night I took a walk in the desert and suddenly freaked myself out I was going to kick a rattlesnake. Hustling to get back, I walked into a small cactus that jabbed spines about an inch into my leg, one of which still hasn’t come out.

South of Tucson there’s a 300-year-old mission, San Xavier Del Bac. Here familiar Catholic iconography mixes with stylistic influences from the Tohono Odom, Arizona’s original occupants since before Columbus. It’s a great psychedelic miasma. Brilliant, bizarre and humbling (click to enlarge).

As splendid as they are in person, sunsets never hold up on film (er, pixels). But we took like 700 shots anyway.

After a few days of Tucson, we retired to the deep desert 25 miles west of town. There we read, drew, ate watermelon and—against all odds—relaxed. With Sarah blistered and sun-shy after days dragged through desert, there was nothing else to do. Heat is the enforcer.

Valley of the Kachina Dolls at the Heard Musuem in Phoenix, a truly dazzling collection of Southwest Aboriginal art. This was nearby the awesome Bolo Tie exhibit.

The food in Tucson was just… OK we felt; nothing to write home about (or post to Instagram, the modern equivalent). Though much praise was due to the vegetable-oil-fried marvels that were Le Cave’s doughnuts. One day I shall feast on a Pina Colada filled cake.

We came home to find Johanna living La Vida Iowa—art, barbeque, trainspotting, making bookmarks for babies. After days of play among family and friends, our return barely registered for her.

In the end, Tucson felt less like a destination than a disappearance. May need that again sometime. You never know.

>> Roger McGuinn & Calexico – One More Cup of Coffee
>> Captain Beefheart & The Magic Band – Tropical Hot Dog Night

* Our abbreviated list of rejected destinations includes Santa Fe, Saint Louis, Kansas City, Puerto Valljarta, Austin, San Diego, Miami, D.C. and Houston (but only for a second).

 

SOMEBODY WISHED ALOUD that July could be twice as long (on Facebook, of course, where summer’s progress is logged competitively, so I see the 1,000 camp-outs, festivals, and bike/bar crawls I didn’t do). It’s an appealing thought, even sweating through sixty-two 90° nights. The calendar being fixed as it is, we made July the longest month purely through high-capacity living.

Winthrop

A family visit in Mazama and North Cascades NP in Washington State was not our first pick, but a solid Plan B (parks like Yellowstone and Yosemite fill up quick, way quicker than my extended family can make decisions). This alpine valley is inaccessible half the year, and still feels sparse in the high season—mostly populated by that weird Western mix of cowboys, extreme-sports buffs, Harley riders and affluent retirees. Round here, the marshal drives an IRoc-Z.

Don’t these peaks just make you want to yodel?

I left Seattle eons ago, so joining the hordes at Pike Place Market (left, with Sarah and my sister Emily buying, like, 10 lbs of salmon) no longer feels like a gimmicky yawn; I see it all anew. Like the brilliant S.A.M. sculpture garden (center, with my brother Ben in front of Richard Serra’s Wake), which I remember as an walled-off graveyard for shipping containers. Our Associated Friends of Ballard—who all live on the same block, considerately, and even have a killer cottage where we can flop—threw us an Independence Day party, finished with a Family Pack of Chinese fireworks (right), all duds except for the Bang Snaps.

Four days later we were in Clermont, Iowa, for Xmas In July #4—different family culture (red meat, weaponry, ATVs), different climate (fierce sun, biting flies, minimal shade). Sounds fun, right? This year my grandfather devised a relay race: two teams move empty 2-liter bottles using only yard sticks. Not likely to be a runaway fad, but there was enough absurdity and smack-talk to keep it interesting.

Gramps and Johanna, in amazing hats, before the kite flying competition. I won, but when my kite was nearly invisible, the string broke. My cousin and I scoured 10 acres on an ATV looking for it, but the kite seemed bound for another county.

Back in Minneapolis, with favorite visitors from Des Moines at Lake Nokomis—another great place to be if you hate shade.

Backyard Bananagrams (left, a novel performance with PYRO ZOOTS and PUBIC CLOT) and successful Make Sh!t sculpture experiments: Beer, Detergent, Baby Bottle, Lemon (along with some busted failures: casting an intact whiffle-ball bat and lightbulb using concrete proved beyond our powers).

Johanna’s weeks at Urban Arts Academy have produced art by the armload, like a misty shadowbox with butterfly puppets (left). At Highpoint Center for Printmaking for Sarah’s 38th birthday (note the cake, lower-left), a group of us cut rubber blocks to make stamps and practically got kicked out for having too much fun.

Brontosaur

This monster in Lake Hiawatha has its own website.

Exhausted yet? I haven’t even gotten to re-roofing my garage (me dressing the part, left). As an able-bodied person, I didn’t relish watching others suffer through my hot, backbreaking work—a position I regretted as soon as I’d sweat through my leather boots. For the interior improvements (right), I called in some low-wage backup.

In other unpaid labors, I helped mow the Walker Art Center’s lawn as part of a half-baked performance by L.A. collective Machine Project. Something about the elaborate ritual of American lawncare? Mastery over nature through technology? The triumph of suburban values? For the performers, it was as captivating as… mowing the lawn.

“The American Lawn and Ways to Cut It.”

Art Mowing followed by rooftop drinks with your crew. Isn’t Minneapolis grand?

>> Chuck Berry – Come On
>> Vast Aire – Take Two
>> The New Pornographers – July Jones

ENDURING CHILDHOOD FRIENDSHIPS must be rare, because folks act surprised when mine come up. Not everyone still hangs with kids they met in daycare? Their 6th-grade homeroom buddies? People who shared their formative experiments, crushes, humiliations and near-death experiences? Pity.

20 years after our heyday, far-flung Des Moines kids keep coming back to the well (why? Probably bonds forged by force of boredom). Thus last weekend’s Little Iowania Reunion in Portland, Oregon. While expectations surely varied, some aspects seemed inevitable: loud music, few women, and unfettered self-indulgence under a persistent tobacco cloud. Just like old times.

To get to our host’s place on Sauvie Island, you cruise past a mile of rotting swamp cabbage…

…and arrive in a big open place where chickens, bathtub bourbon and kegerated beer run freely.

Travis is living civilized these days (shoes off!), with a nice place on a river and majestic barge views. Of course, there are no curtains because his ex-girlfriend torched them in a fit of rage.

For hours, maybe days, we congregated in the garage, out of the rain and close to the keg. Tennis balls and flair guns were shot. Recent exploits were shared (mostly Travis’s): girlfriend flame-outs, gambling in Reno, mudtrack racing, hanging with the famous rock groupie neighbor. Giant steaks were consumed (with utensils—we’re all grown up now).

Come fishing time, Travis had enough rubber gear for all of us, though only one battle-ready flight suit. Watch out for chickens!

Our small craft darted up the Willamette in search of sturgeon, passing the world’s largest car carrier, which can hold 6,000 Hondas.

Steve got a monster fish, though by sturgeon standards it was average. Only 50 years old or so.

My own wee sturgeon and Austin’s more respectable catch. All were thrown back by law (we didn’t obey all the laws).

Atomic Auto, Travis’s shop, has grown into a maze-like Saab Hospital, full of half-assembled vehicles hooked up to mysterious machines.

Steve tolerating party-bus-style karaoke at Chopsticks Express II, where we’d gathered up even more old friends. We belted out Blondie, Robert Palmer, and some Yeah Yeah Yeahs, but two days of Island living had taken a toll.

Parting shot by the dumpster (2-1-Crazy Faces!)—Portland, Detriot, Beijing, Minneapolis, Des Moines, represent. Normal life resumed shortly after (except for Travis, who never left).

Thanks for the (fuzzy) memories, dudes. I’m sorry I played this so much, but I’m even sorrier you subjected me to this.

>> Toots & The Maytals – Take Me Home, Country Roads
>> Minutemen – Maybe Partying Will Help

AS THE WORLD NOW KNOWS, WISCONSIN PROTESTS AS HARD AS THEY PARTY. We bore witness last weekend. While I’d like to say we went east to defend the collective bargaining rights of Wisconsin state workers, we actually went to ski. And also to party! We expressed our solidarity with protesters with raised fists through car windows.

Our real aim: the 15th annual Book Across the Bay, joining some 4,000 x-country skiers and snowshoers on a nighttime trek across 8-kms of Lake Superior’s Chequamegon Bay (seen above, just before the start). I expected a walk in the park. But as darkness fell, it became a slippery, trip-prone forced march through a cold, windy void. Why do this?

To get to the other side, of course, where a huge party was whipping up in a warm tent.

The climate went from tundra to tropical as we entered, dewing up our cameras. Through the haze, our crew could be seen jamming to classic rock covers and getting pasted on good cheap beer and brandy from a Hello Kitty water bottle.

A massive bonfire hot enough to melt your plastic cup.

In other adventures, there’s stuff in rural Wisconsin you don’t commonly see. Like my wife with a gun.

Aliina and me with prosthetic deer hands at her family homestead (found in Barn #2 of 3).

Marigny, Lucy and Johanna feed the pet horses. You’d never guess Jo was a city slicker, apart from the jeggings.

You just can’t get Grade-A Extra Small in the Cities.

Can we come back in spring? Will work for farm food (thanks, Jan and Rick and Ann and Dan).

>> Zion I – The Bay
>> Gerry & the Pacemakers – Ferry Cross The Mersey

LIKE MANY MIGRATORY SPECIES OF THE UPPER MIDWEST, we left home last month for a stay in the Caribbean Archipelago. After leaping snow berms in sandals and light jackets to make our plane, we soon alighted in a 10×10-block finger of land known as Old San Juan, one of the oldest colonial settlements in the hemisphere and port of call to cruise ships the size of mid-sized cities.

The view from our hotel captures the place’s ramshackle charm. The weather was a heavenly 89°, though the guys tarring roof outside our window might have disagreed.

A sketch of the opposite view, including an Art Deco-style bank tower Sarah liked. The light here is a drawer’s dream. Well-delineated forms and textures at any distance.

Streets in this section are paved with blue bricks cut from the ballasts of colonial ships.

The style of the 1940s and 50s lives on, most of it nicely preserved.

Like this restaurant, where we ate as often as we could. Pronounced “May-JOR-ka,” it’s named for a buttery pastry covered in powdered sugar, which is tasty alone or as the casing for a very rich ham sandwich.

I’m totally coffee-crazy and the brew at these old places did not disappoint, served briskly by men in antique waitering attire. They held me to two cups, which is sensible, though I wanted to keep going.

It’s perked in these medieval-looking triple-chamber set ups, seen here at Bombonera, a café across the street. It’s curious how empty of people my pictures are when, in fact, Old San Juan teems.

I’m used to being ignored or even scorned as a tourist. So the hyper-friendliness of Puerto Ricans came as a surprise (said one, “we like to get involved”). Over breakfast at Cafeteria Mallorca, an elderly couple decided to take us on a sight-seeing tour (there was no resisting, and why would we?). Nestor, a retired military torpedo expert, showed us lots of dubious landmarks, including this alley where parts of the ghastly TV show The Flying Nun were filmed.

The smallest house on the U.S. Historic Registry (according to Nestor).

Juan Ponce De León, the first governor of Puerto Rico, appointed by Spain in 1509. He now points at a sports bar called Casa De Sam.

Any direction you walk in Old San Juan, you come to a fort. This is El Morro on the western tip, its wall cradling an old cemetery. Not a bad place to spend eternity.

Descending through a giant corridor in El Morro out into the Atlantic.

Visit the toilets for a surprising view of the ocean.

Sarah amid ancient battlements.

There’s a neighborhood called La Perla, seen here wedged between the city wall and the ocean. The books and people I consulted said it’s a dangerous, drug-ridden barrio that’s best avoided. It’s smaller than a football field and picturesque from afar.

Peeking into La Perla, I saw few people, some cars on blocks, homes without doors or windows, and kids shooting hoops at the Carmelo Anthony Courts.

Looking the other way is San Cristobal, a fort built in 1500 to deflect land and sea attacks, modified in WWII with special towers for spotting German U-boats (visible atop the walls). Below, a crane is hunting for frogs in stiff winds. I sat here in a notch of wall long enough to do a drawing and get really sunburned.

The air conditioners of San Cristobal. This fort was crawling with giant iguanas.

On the third day, we made the short drive to El Yunque, a national rain forest preserve to the east. An entirely unnecessary orientation film is shown at the visitor’s center, narrated with grudging seriousness by Benecio Del Toro (“imagine an earthly paradise born of sun, rain and rock…”). After watching, it was impossible not to chant the park’s name as Benecio did: El JOONK-ay!

Hiking up El Yunque’s mountain was slow-going and felt a little dark and depressing after all the sun. But you eventually get to a tower from which half of Puerto Rico is visible.

Sarah with the town of Luquillo in the distance.

The public beaches at Luquillo were a highlight, sprawling and quiet with ladies mixing wicked pina coladas for a couple bucks. Stray cats came out to greet us. The site of our mountain trek rises in the distance.

The vacation ended on Superbowl Sunday. A fresh wave of hooting Midwesterners washed up at the hotel in their NFL best. Sarah’s feet throbbing, my books burned through, our time was abruptly up.

>> Thirstin’ Howl III – Polo Rican
>> Bill Withers – Ain’t No Sunshine