May 15, 2021

Dateline: Evansville, Indiana

Tonight is the last night on the road. Tomorrow will be the last drive and the day after I am due back in my usual life and patterns and will have to plug back in to my usual life and patterns. This two weeks of unplugging has been good for me but it is time to get back to those who depend on me in one way or another at work and with life in general. I’ll be in normal patterns through the summer and, in September, I’ll get to break away again assuming that Covid doesn’t mutate in such a way as to shut travel back down. Anything is possible with that disease and we’re fooling ourselves if we think the last chapters of the saga have been written yet. I’m sure there is more to come; I just don’t yet know what form it is likely to take.

Today started with Drag Brunch in Council Bluffs, Iowa. Now there’s a sentence I never thought I would write. Lynn Jensen Kvigne, whom I have known and corresponded with since the early days of Epinions and Mrs. Norman Maine lo these twenty plus years ago, but whom I had never actually met lives in the area and I suggested we get together for brunch before I got on the road. Her researches turned up a decent brunch place in downtown Council Bluffs and, as luck would have it, today was there once a month Saturday brunch with drag queen entertainment. How could we not? She had a breakfast sandwich, I had French toast. We caught up and were entertained by beefy country boys in body suits, wigs that Tommy would want to restyle, and excessive pancake, busy lip synching to disco hits popular before they were born. It was lovely. Unfortunately, I could not order the drinks served in small fish bowls as I had a 600 mile drive in front of me.

After departing Council Bluffs, I headed south along the Missouri river, eventually ending up on the opposite end of Kansas City from the end I hit on my outbound trip, there I turned east, crossed Missouri to St. Louis, became very confused by the interchanges leading from I-70to I-64 and had to get off the highway downtown near the Gateway Arch in order to figure it back out and eventually headed on the right road out of town. (Tommy and I went to St. Louis together a dozen or so years ago to see Roderick George as Tamino in Zauberflote and went up the Arch that trip so felt no need to stop this time). Then, across Southern Illinois, and into the Southern tip of Indiana, stopping tonight in Evansville. None of the scenery was terribly exciting – typical rolling hills, some woodlands, and a lot of pastureland. Also an inordinate number of dead deer on the roadside. Fortunately, I did not hit any.

Historic Evansville

I picked Evansville deliberately. In this town, 73 years ago, Jon Steven Spivey made his entrance into the world. His father was from Crawfordsville and his mother from Russellville, both in Northern Indiana. Steve was a little hazy about how the family had ended up in the Southern part of the state but there was some story about his father needing to make a geographic relocation to stay a step ahead of some sort of unspecified trouble. He never said for certain, but I believe it was alcohol related. Alcohol issues tended to follow the Spivey men and Steve was thirty years sober when he died. When Steve was four, the family made another major geographic relocation to suburban LA (Sun Valley in the San Fernando Valley, just a bit north of Studio City) and that was where he grew up. To my knowledge, Steve never returned to Evansville and the two of us never passed through on any of our Midwest/Appalachian trips when he was doing his genealogical research so I thought I would take this chance to at least see what it looks like.

My audiobook the last few days has been Isabelle Wilkerson’s Caste which has got me thinking about a whole lot of issues but I’m going to need to think about them for a few days before writing about them. Until then, bad television, a good night’s sleep and home tomorrow before dinner time.

May 14, 2021

Dateline: Council Bluffs, Iowa

Another unexciting drive across the Great Plains today. At least yesterday’s storms had petered out and the weather was fair with only a smattering of raindrops in a couple of places. From Rapid City, the road descends out of the Black Hills onto the plain and then runs more or less in a straight line for hundreds of miles. It’s flat, farm country, and pretty much featureless. An hour or so to the east of the hill country is the nothing town of Wall, South Dakota, home to Wall Drug, a small business of infinite self promotion with essentially no competition in a several hundred mile radius. I passed the billboards. I did not stop as I visited the establishment on my last trip across I-90 and generally don’t feel a need to return to tourist traps of no consequence.

More and more flatlands, with the Badlands on the horizon to the South, with the occasional sign pointing to DeSmet (the little town on the prairie where Laura Ingalls Wilder spent her girl hood) or the Corn Palace. (I stopped for lunch at that exit and drove past – it’s a Shriner’s auditorium covered with corn husks). At Sioux Falls, right turn from I-90 to I-29 and south for a few hundred miles and out of South Dakota and across the Missouri River (again) and into Iowa at Sioux City. More flat lands and then there’s the few towers of Omaha rising out of the flat lands looking like a less colorful Emerald City. My Hampton Inn of the evening turned out to be right across the river in Council Bluffs, part of a complex of hotels on the water centered around a Riverboat casino that, while technically on the water, has obviously never sailed anywhere. The CDC may be loosening restrictions, but jostling around middle America feeding one arm bandits did not appeal, so I took a walk around the outside before retiring for the evening.

I’m still trying to digest the change in CDC guidance regarding indoor masking that came down yesterday and how I should apply it in my life. There are a few salient points. The CDC did not say that it is safe for people to gather indoor unmasked. It said it was safe for fully vaccinated people to gather indoors unmasked and that most normal activities are safe for them. They are not safe for unvaccinated people. What does this mean in practical terms? I think if you are gathering privately with family or friends and everyone is vaccinated, there’s nothing to worry about. Larger public gatherings are still problematic as not everyone who wishes a vaccine as been able to obtain one. And there remains a significant subset of the population who are refusing vaccination, largely due to political reasons.

There’s no way to tell who has been vaccinated and who has not other than self report. There has been a lot of discussion of vaccine passports on smart phones (but this will leave out the significant population that is not capable of using or who cannot afford such devices) so I have reservations about such a system. And having uniformed people at the entrance of a place of public gathering demanding ‘Papieren bitte’ brings up images of totalitarianism that we just don’t need. I’ve opined before that the liability insurance industry is likely to begin writing the rules going forward as they will not want to indemnify businesses depending on people coming together if the business does not have a plan to prevent the spread of pandemic disease in place. Variants of various stripes are spreading and they will all eventually reach the US and will pass into the unvaccinated population and be spread. We live in such an interconnected world that pandemic disease is a global problem, not a national problem and we’ve been so preoccupied with our issues here and how the previous administration dropped the ball, that we’ve been paying very little attention to what’s been going on elsewhere in the world. From what we know so far, the vaccines are protecting against spread and serious disease from variants. The mRNA technology behind the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines is such that tweaks can be made quickly. We’re unlikely to be caught in a situation as we were last winter going forward but anything is possible. We may need to keep getting Covid boosters going forward. I’d rather have a booster than a ventilator any day.

There were a number of reports today about spread of Covid in the fully vaccinated NY Yankees organization. People have tested positive. One was mildly symptomatic leading to the testing but most were asymptomatic and it doesn’t look like anyone is getting seriously ill. I think that’s the thing to remember here. The vaccines aren’t perfect in regards to protection against infection. What’s important is that they offer a very high level of protection against serious disease requiring hospitalization. If we test widely, we’re going to find a lot of asymptomatic infections as the virus isn’t going away. As long as people aren’t getting seriously ill, I wouldn’t worry a lot about these reports. It’s going to be problematic, however, if the disease gets into organizations catering to those refusing vaccine for political reasons. We’re going to continue to see spread and serious illness and death in these situations and I don’t know what we can do about it. Private entities can mandate vaccine as a condition of employment or entry but we’ve so weakened the ability of government to do this at the behest of concerned parents of the antivaxxer movement over the last few decades that it will be difficult to get government involved on anything other than an advisory role.

Brunch with a friend tomorrow, and then further southwards…

May 13, 2021

Dateline: Rapid City, South Dakota

Markers at Little Big Horn. The one with the black in the center is for General Custer

I realized as I studied the map last night I had two basic choices for today. I could cut things a little short and spend the night in Rapid City, South Dakota, on the western border of the state, or I could power through and drive nearly 700 miles and spend the night in Sioux Falls on the eastern border of the state. There is nothing between them other than Wall Drug and I had no interest in bunking there for the night. I decided, as the weather was not the best and I was dodging rain showers all day, that it would be wise to choose the former course and end early.

From Billings, the road veers Southeast and passes next to the Little Big Horn battlefield, site of Custer’s famed defeat. As I was in no hurry, I stopped for a while. I had been here once before several decades ago and it hasn’t changed much. Rolling hills above the Little Big Horn river dotted with white marble markers where the 7th Cavalry fell. Fortunately, we are starting to wake up to the fact that the ‘taming of the west’ is a complex story and it’s probably best not to celebrate genocidal wars without acknowledging the other side so there are now exhibits celebrating the Lakota and Oglala Sioux, Cheyenne, Arapahoe and other indigenous people involved in a battle to preserve their way of life and brown marble markers are being placed where their warriors died. I also noted that the Lewis and Clark trail historical markers have been redesigned to include Sacajawea and her baby which is only fitting.

The road then crosses into the high mountain plains of northeast Wyoming for a few hundred miles and then enters South Dakota in the Black Hills, just north of Deadwood. By this time, it was really raining so my thoughts of detouring to Deadwood and Mount Rushmore fell by the wayside as heading up into the mountains in a rainstorm seemed like a really bad idea. Besides, I’d already been there on a previous visit to the region. So, I had an early dinner in Rapid City and checked into the Hampton Inn where I found I had been upgraded to what I take is their honeymoon suite from the large jacuzzi tub in the living room. After three days of driving, a nice hot bath with jets seemed like a swell idea so I filled it up and soaked for a bit.

I turned on the news in time to catch the CDCs announcement that masks would no longer be required indoors for the fully vaccinated in uncrowded situations. The number of vaccinated adults has continued to increase, especially in urban areas and a dozen states are above 2/3 of their population vaccinated. In Seattle, the neighborhoods where my family live are over 80% vaccinated. This is leading to a precipitous fall in deaths, if not total cases (the disease having been pushed into a younger cohort less likely to be vaccinated but also less likely to die. I hadn’t checked the statistics for a while so Iooked them up. About 33 million US cases (roughly 10% of the population) and about 584,000 deaths to date. I’m starting to wonder if this means the end of the Accidental Plague Diaries? They’ve occupied a lot of the last fourteen months of my life (and the first ten months comprise ‘the book’). Part of me would hope so, but I don’t think this story is over yet by a long shot. Our current political climate is going to ensure that. Despite the incredible biomedical effort that the development and administration of a vaccine in just over a year represents, we still have a major political party dancing around full of delusions regarding the operation of science, medicine, and public health. And the more time goes by, the more delusional it appears to become. At the moment it’s trying the gaslight the entire world into believing that what occurred on January 6th was not what was recorded and played out in real time in front of all of our horrified eyes.

I have to get back into my usual groove and off the road and start thinking about all this a bit more and then I’ll be able to give a better assessment about what I think of the Covid-19 endgame and what is likely to come next.

May 12, 2021

Dateline: Billings, Montana

Today was a straight 540 mile shot on I-90. Not so straight as it’s primarily through mountain country so lots of ups, downs, S-curves, slow trucks, views of lakes, mountain peaks, and rushing rivers that only needed a young Brad Pitt in hip waders to be complete. The weather is holding. There is no gas shortage in this part of the country. Hampton Inns are pretty much the same everywhere you go. (They offer major Hilton points at the moment…)

From Spokane, the road curves along Lake Coeur D’Alene in Idaho while crossing the panhandle, and then climbs up into the mountain country of Western Montana. The passes were all clear of snow, even at the 6500 foot level of the Continental Divide outside of Butte. All of the clusters of mountains have range names but they are part of the same cordillera that contains the Rockies so I have always thought of them as the northern Rockies. Once up in the high plateau, it’s mainly the broad river valleys of the Missouri headwaters and the Yellowstone, bypassing the park on it’s northern border and after passing through Missoula and Bozeman, eventually arrives at Billings which was far enough to go in one drive.

Whitefish Montana

Many long years ago, I spent a month or so in Western Montana, north of Kalispell, in the little town of Whitefish. (Long before it became a trendy Western mecca for the well heeled). I was there to do my rotation in Family Practice and attached to a group of FPs that were the major providers in town and were first call to the ED. As a fourth year student, I was responsible for the after hours ED calls to do a preliminary evaluation and warrant whether a ‘real’ doctor needed to be woken up. Drunk tourist with a bellyache? I could handle that. Gored by bull. As the wound was in the belly, that had to be loaded up in an ambulance and taken to Kalispell for surgical evaluation. Fell off a horse on a trail ride? Colle’s risk fracture. Apply splint and help them arrange for orthopedic follow up when they got back home to Minnesota. It was one of the experiences that taught me how to think well on my feet and one which kept me from being afraid of rural medicine or of delivering care without a tertiary care university hospital hovering behind me. Whitefish is just outside of Glacier National Park, so I was in the park on day hikes every day off. I got one long weekend during my time there and used that to head up to Banff/Jasper where I had not been since I was a tot of four. (A trip long remembered in family lore as the engine fell out of the car in the middle of the Banff Jasper highway leading to a number of complications…)

Large adult male black bear

I want to go back to Glacier/Banff/Jasper/Waterton Lakes as a mature adult and see them all again. Perhaps after I retire, I’ll take a leisurely trip out to Seattle and spend some time going all the way up the Rockies from Denver taking in the Tetons, Yellowstone, and the others mentioned above. Then again, I might skip Waterton Lakes. The last time I was there, around age 12, a deer came up to me in the campground. When I had nothing to feed it, it reared up on its hind legs and planted both its forehooves in the middle of my chest, knocking me over, before stalking off in search of another campsite where they might be freer with the treats. My encounters with deer and elk this trip have been less dramatic, just having seen them in passing from the car. No bear this trip. I can do without seeing a grizzly in the wild but I don’t mind the occasional black bear encounter though. I’ve had a number of those over the years. The bear is usually not at all interested and ambles off another direction. The only one that was at all unusual was when I was four on the same Banff trip when the car fell apart. My mother was reading to me in the tent when our dog, Duffy, a West Highland White terrier who was tied up outside, began to bark. This was unusual so she stuck her head out of the tent to find a large black bear pawing at the things in the next campsite. My mother scooped me up and took off down the road (and I remember her running with me in her arms quite clearly) and took refuge at the ranger station. My father, when he came back from dealing with car trouble, was glad we were OK (the bear having been chased off by the rangers) but was upset at my mother for having not grabbed up the dog at the same time she grabbed me. The dog was fine. The bear wasn’t the least bit interested in yapping terriers.

Down from the mountains and onto the plains tomorrow.

May 11, 2021

Dateline: Spokane, Washington

Liberty Bell Mountain

Happy birthday to me, as I enter the tail end of my fifties. One more year until another milestone and another decade. I tend to alternate between good and bad decades with the even ones being good ones so hopefully my sixties will be kind to me when they get here. God knows I’m becoming far older than I ever intended to be but that’s the way of the world. We all age at exactly the same chronological rate although the physiologic varies a bit depending on genetics, environment and life choices. Somewhere close to six hundred people have messaged, texted, Facebooked, called or otherwise let me know they were thinking of me today. I am reading and responding to them all but it may be a few days before I get to all of them. Scrolling through the Facebook well wishes is always interesting. As each familiar name goes by, it brings up images of the time of my life that that person entered it – childhood playmates, school friends, colleagues, people in the opera and theater worlds, vacation buddies… each important and each a reminder of how many people we touch as we go through life, hopefully in positive ways. Sources tell me I even got a shout out on Birmingham Mountain Radio this morning. That’s a new one.

The last few days in Seattle was relatively uneventful. I got some writing done, did my usual geriatric Q and A for my father’s senior community residents (only this time, it had to be done via video than in person due to Covid precautions), and had some time with old friends. The immediate family gathered for my birthday dinner last night and everyone was well and made merry over a salmon dinner. This morning, I had breakfast with my father, admonished him again not to leave his building without his stick for improved balance, got his birthday blessings and headed out on the return journey. Rather than head directly east, I first went North and had coffee and a long chat with Craig Mollerstuen, my college roommate who has relocated from Alaska to Bellingham. That put me in position to cross the Cascades via the North Cascades Highway and Washington Pass, a road I had not taken for some decades. It doesn’t open until late in the season due to the snows and had only been clear for about a week so there was very little traffic. The pass still had a good foot of snow on the ground but there was none on the pavement and the weather was spectacular allowing for amazing views of Liberty Bell mountain and the surrounding peaks. My favorite mountain pass remains Logan Pass in Glacier National Park but this one remains a close second and is far less known.

Grand Coulee Dam

From the mountains, down the Methow valley and then over various back roads of Eastern Washington. I crossed the Columbia River at Chief Joseph dam and an hour later passed Grand Coulee dam in its canyon before heading on to Spokane for the night. It’s been many decades since I was last on most of the roads, some of them not since childhood and various sites and place names brought up memories predominantly of family vacation road trips of the 1970s. Grand Coulee dam always makes me think of my father, who worships at the altar of Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, piloting first a station wagon, and later a van, full of family and camping equipment singing ‘Roll On, Columbia, Roll On’ with its verses celebrating various Washington state sites. Or passing the sign to Ritzville and remembering my sister at roughly age six, being vastly disappointed to find that the town was not made of crackers.

Tomorrow is more mountain driving through the Rockies. The weather promises to be fair so it should be uneventful – as long as I remember to keep myself well caffeinated.

May 8, 2021

Dateline – Seattle, Washington

1970s Seattle with Safeco Plaza as the lone downtown skyscraper

Time to check in. All is well. I can tell that I’m pretty unplugged from life because I keep falling asleep if I sit still for more than about five minutes. Nothing terribly exciting has happened the last few days. I’ve had family time, a meeting with my editor (book is on track to be finished and available for purchase by late June), some time with friends, and a lot of napping. It may not be the most action packed of weeks, but I think it’s what I’ve needed. I have two more days here and then will depart on Tuesday for the trek back across the country. I’ve figured out the first two thirds of that based on time, distances, and weather. I’m going to leave the last third up to happenstance when I get there.

Seattle is home and also not. My relationship with the city is very much of the ‘You Can’t Go Home Again’ variety. The Seattle I grew up in the 1960s and 1970s no longer truly exists. It pokes through from time to time like a pentimento but newer trends and sights and people have long since transformed the small city of my childhood into something else. The Seattle of my past was a city of self sufficient neighborhoods, each a village of friends and neighbors who knew and supported each other. Each one had its own small commercial district where the majority of commerce was done. A trip to the mall or downtown was a significant event. The geography of the town – you could only go so far before running into a lake or a ravine – kept the various regions insular and small town feeling.

Downtown, when I was a child, was dominated by the Seattle Center and Space Needle, the old World’s Fair grounds, at one end and Pioneer Square and Smith Tower at the other. There wasn’t all that much in between – a few high rises dating back to the 20s and a lot of undistinguished post war stuff filling in the rest. The Pike Place Market was there, but had not yet become a fish flinging tourist mecca and there was a great deal of discussion about tearing it down as it had become rickety and in poor repair over the years. Things started to change in the early 70s and I can remember pretty much when all of the modern skyscrapers went up, starting with what was the SeaFirst Bank tower (now Safeco Plaza), joined by box after box of chromium steel and tinted windows going up routinely over the next couple of decades until they started to run out of room. Now, as the tech giants expand, more and more buildings are going up South of Lake Union and whole sections of town are unrecognizable.

The huge growth in tech has led to a huge influx of population. The city itself has about 50% more people than the city of my youth. The metro area is nearly twice as populous. As the city is hemmed in by water, it has minimal land area for expansion leading to increasing density, increasing real estate prices, and increased pressure on public goods and services. The neighborhoods of middle class homes are being bulldozed for multifamily dwellings and workingmen’s bungalows are being replaced my large modern homes, often in a horrifically unattractive boxy style that makes them look like a particularly ugly dentist’s office of the 1970s. The rapid increase in rents has pushed many of the poor out of housing entirely and many of the parks and public green spaces are sprouting tent colonies.

Maybe one of the things that keeps me in Birmingham is that the feel of the city is similar to what Seattle once was. When I go out in Birmingham in my part of the city, I am apt to run into friends and acquaintances (at least in non-Covid times). There’s a feeling of community among those of us professionals of a more liberal persuasion who choose to live in the city itself rather than in the suburbs. It’s an urban environment, but small enough to be manageable and for someone like me to feel connected to the life and health of the city as a whole so I can both feel like I can support it and it can support me. I’m not sure that Seattle could do that for me these days.

Seattle, as ground zero for Covid in the long ago days of March, 2020, continues to take things relatively seriously. Most citizens are wearing masks indoors without complaint. Outdoor dining is popular (and it’s warm enough now for it to be comfortable so I’ve been taking advantage of that). The majority of the citizenry is in process of receiving their vaccinations so I haven’t felt unsafe at all during this visit. Vaccination rates, in general, are starting to fall off significantly as those with interest and whom have been pursuing them have achieved their goals. Roughly 1/3 of the population is now totally vaccinated and we’ll hit about 1/2 over the next month as all the vaccinations in process are completed. I figure we’ll end up somewhere around 60%. Not enough for herd immunity by a long shot. What should we do as a society to increase that number? I am uncertain. There are significant ethical and other issues at play with any potential plan. I’m going to cogitate on this a bit and get back to it in another musing.

In the meantime, masks up indoors with others, wash your hands, and keep your distance.

May 5, 2021

Dateline Seattle, Washington:

I have arrived. 2800 miles, twelve states and five hotel rooms later, I’m ensconced with my father in his senior living apartment near Northgate. The last leg of the journey was as uneventful as the previous. From the Boise river valley (where Boise, Nampa, and Caldwell appear to have all grown together in a single strip mall) into Eastern Oregon and Ammon Bundy country and then up over the Blue Mountains and into the Palouse. Crossed the Columbia River outside of Pendleton and then up through the Yakima valley and Washington wine country and over Snoqualmie pass and down to Puget Sound.

Now for a few days of family and Seattle time before having to undertake a similar journey in reverse. The unplugging from everyday life for the last few days has been good for me. Nobody has been asking me for more than I have to give and I’ve been responsible to no one but myself (and Hope, the red Prius). I’ve discovered I still enjoy long distance driving but it takes a little more out of me at nearly sixty than was true twenty or thirty years ago. My constant companion this trip has been the audio versions of Joe Abercrombie’s First Law trilogy, modern fantasy of the blood and guts school. It’s somewhat reminiscent of Game of Thrones with its flawed and morally ambiguous set of heroes and the fantasy tropes of magic definitely playing second fiddle to the realistic human interactions and wars between various peoples. I’ve enjoyed them.

One thing I noticed during this trip was that I am very much a child of the West, even if I have lived in the Deep South for nearly a quarter century. There is something different about the feel of western mountain air on the skin, a crispness that’s altogether different from the languid feeling of the humid air of the south that makes me feel like I’m safe and home. Then there’s the vegetation – the look of evergreen forests on craggy mountains that are so different from the deciduous trees of the south and east. Sometimes I wonder what would have happened if I had returned West after Steve’s death – or even after Tommy’s but I still think that the decisions I have made are the correct ones. When I retire, perhaps I can spend more time on the West coast even if I don’t relocate.

It was announced today that Broadway theater will be returning as of September 14th without capacity restrictions. I’m trying to decide what I think about this. Having been inside those theaters many times over many years, they are based on a business model of crowding as many people into as small a space as possible. While I am definitely feeling more comfortable about being out and about with widespread vaccine distribution, the idea of being crowded in with 1500 strangers for three hours in a building built in the 1920s prior to modern ventilation systems still gives me pause. I’m thinking the Broadway League is assuming they can just pick up where they left off in March of 2020 but I’m not so sure. Their core audience of older people with disposable income will be cautious. The industry and unions were not overly supportive leading to a lot of the talent leaving the city and working out life patterns. The world has moved on over the last fifteen months and will want to see artistic expression that incorporates that. Going back to old forms and tropes without thinking them through thoroughly is not going to be a recipe for innovation. Maybe it’s time for a fifteen block section of midtown Manhattan to stop being the sole arbiter of theatrical success.

And I remain concerned over the two tiered society that vaccines are creating. The vaccinated folk are wanting to return to normal but normal is going to create situations where unvaccinated folk (whether by choice or necessity) are going to be brought into danger by usual human behavior. I am afraid we’re going to continue to have localized epidemics in unvaccinated communities. In communities of choice, often rural and politically conservative, this is going to lead to healthy young people becoming seriously ill and potentially dying when they don’t have to. It’s also going to continue to put enormous strains on rural health care systems which are already under siege from low tax bases, and conservative state governments not wanting to spend on social services.

Some have suggested that a ‘vaccine passport’ is the easiest solution to all of this. I’m not so sure. The vaccines remain ‘experimental’ as they have not yet been given full approval by the FDA and remain under emergency use authorization and it would be unethical for any public agency to require vaccination with an unapproved medication. The current trend to monetize such things through private corporations and data systems is rife with issues. Creating systems that work primarily electronically via smart phones leaves out a huge section of the population that doesn’t understand or have access to the technology.

As things open up, I think we all have to keep up on the latest research and public health guidelines and then adjust our own risk management decisions to what makes sense for ourselves. I would not have made this trip a few months ago, but my vaccination status and the reduction in caseloads made me decide that, as long as I was prudent in behavior, that this would be an OK thing for me. I’ll continue to weigh all the evidence and, in the meantime, I’ll wear my mask indoors with people I don’t know, keep my hands washed and not get too close.

May 4, 2021

Dateline Boise, Idaho

Boise, Idaho

I’m definitely back in the West and heading into old stamping grounds. Today’s drive wasn’t difficult. Starting in Southwest Wyoming, along Interstate 80 over the border into Utah and then threading through the various canyons and mountain ranges outside of Ogden and up into the Snake River country of Idaho until reaching the flat river valley of the Boise River and the city of Boise itself.

Thirty five years ago, I spent a summer in Boise with a couple of wild women doing my OB/GYN clerkship. We lived together on the upper floor of an old house containing a local OB/GYN practice and spent our time catching babies at St Luke’s hospital and observing gynecological surgery at St Al’s across town. The house is still there. The practice is not. (It dissolved not too long after our summer there – we medical students had ferreted out the inappropriate relationship between one of the partners and the office manager. We weren’t going to say anything but we did make bets about how long that was going to go on before it caused an explosion). I don’t remember too much about downtown Boise from that summer. It was hot. The downtown area was tired and old – feeling stuck in a decaying 1950s-60s. The Boise of today appears to be in growth mode, like a lot of older cities. Much of downtown has been redone with new restaurants, bars, hotels and businesses and the millennials are flocking to new housing units in old buildings. A block away from my hotel is ‘The Basque Block’ a collection of Basque restaurants, a Basque grocery, the Basque cultural center, and some upscale watering holes. I had a very nice dinner and drink under a large Basque flag.

As I was sitting there looking at the millennials having their dinner and drinks, I couldn’t help but wonder if I helped deliver any of them. All those babies are turning 35 this summer and are likely parents themselves. I also wondered what I might say to 24 year old Andy if I were to meet him coming down the street. If he would even begin to believe some of the twists and turns that life was going to start throwing his way shortly after that summer. I doubt I would have believed any of it. At 24, I was just trying to get through medical school with sanity intact and wasn’t really thinking about much else. Highlights of that summer were innertubing down the Boise river, and a side trip to Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons. The actual OB/GYN work was not a highlight. Although I did like playing with the newborns. I just wish I hadn’t had to send some of them home with their parents who were obviously unequipped for the rigors of child rearing.

One more driving day tomorrow and should be in Seattle in time for dinner.

May 3, 2021

Dateline Rock Springs, Wyoming

Snowy Range Mountains – Wyoming

I don’t know what was wrong with me yesterday, but ending my driving early, going to bed and sleeping for ten hours was the right decision as I felt pretty much back to normal today and had no difficulty with today’s long drive of over 600 miles. My initial thought was to cut back down to Denver and cross through the Rockies on I-70, but then I checked the weather report which announced a significant winter storm in central Colorado with up to foot of snow so I decided that might not be the best of ideas so I stayed on I-80 through Nebraska and in to Wyoming. It started to snow as I passed through Cheyenne and continued to do so through the mountains surrounding Laramie but it wasn’t more than a dusting so it didn’t cause too many problems other than a little bit of issues with visibility – the entire world being reduced to shades of gray and white between snow, cloud, and mountains. It was all over, by the time I hit the Continental Divide and I coasted on in to the exciting town of Rock Springs Wyoming without incident.

Platte River

I can’t say a whole lot about today’s drive as it wasn’t terribly exciting. Western Nebraska was flat and the highway seems to continuously cross various branches of the Platte River (so named after the French word for flat). It’s a steady incline in elevation over the miles, barely noticeable, and then, you’re in the mountains of Wyoming and going over passes at 8,500 feet. On the other side of the mountains comes miles and miles of high plains scrub land full of sagebrush and sweeping skies and only needing Clint Eastwood to complete the picture. I have two days of driving left to Seattle. I’m not sure which route yet. I’m going to check out weather maps and such tonight before making a final decision.

The news from Covid land today was not good. The CDC experts are despairing of the US population achieving anything like herd immunity due to the political unpopularity of vaccines in certain quarters. What does this mean? It means Covid is likely to be with us for years, decades, permanently. I don’t think we need to panic about this as individuals. Those with a belief in science and a couple of hundred years of epidemiological understanding will be OK. Amongst those who don’t, or who belong to less privileged communities that are more difficult to reach with vaccine and the like, the disease will continue to spread and pop up in epidemic fashion and we’ll continue to see serious illness and death, but not in the numbers of the last year. It didn’t have to be this way, but that’s the political reality we have to live with.

I’m starting to get a little worried about the next couple of election cycles. The speed with which the Republican party is trying to whitewash the Capitol Insurrection and various other criminal enterprises combined with a complacency amongst the Democrats now that vaccines are distributed makes me think that maintaining congressional majorities is going to be difficult. And, if there is a shift in power at the midterms, all of the social trends that have led to an anti-science/anti-knowledge/anti-enlightenment approach to governance will come roaring back emboldened and who knows what sort of national problem they will intersect with to cause some other sort of disaster. Rant over.

Time for some bad TV and sleep.

May 2, 2021

Dateline Grand Island, Nebraska

Grand Island, Nebraska

The headache went away but I still wasn’t feeling great this morning when I headed back down the road. After a few hours, it became clear that my original plan to haul myself all the way to Denver was not the best of ideas as it would require more driving hours than might be good for me and I would rather not fall asleep at the wheel and run off the road if I could avoid it. So, I ticked off the Kansas towns as they went by – Topeka, Junction City, Salina… Looking ahead on I-70 it became pretty clear that by the time I hit the high plains of Western Kansas and Eastern Colorado, there would be a paucity of population centers and Hampton Inns so I turned right at Salina, headed up through Kansas and Nebraska farm land, and stopped early for the night in Grand Island, Nebraska for a nap before dinner and family Zoom night conversation afterwards.

Not much to say about the Prairie. It goes on forever and is very flat. Most of the fields visible from the highway are beige spring stubble giving it all the sepia tone of the Kansas sequences from The Wizard of Oz. I can’t say much about Grand Island other than its the home of the Nebraska State Fair and, was one of the heartland towns that had a terrible Covid outbreak earlier in the pandemic. I’m keeping away from the natives, snuggled up here in my hotel room as it begins to rain, the bolts of lightning vying with the green and red of the Applebee’s sign that dominates my view for the attention of my visual cortex.

I don’t think I’ve got any good stories about driving across the Great Plains. Tommy and I never did it together. Steve and I did it more times than I care to count. Amongst other things, he was a genealogist who kept himself busy tracing all of the Spivey descendants from the three Spivey brothers who originally immigrated to the Ashville, NC area in the 1760s. We would pack up the truck and head out for a couple of weeks in the courthouses of the Midwest and Appalachia looking for clues. He did the driving, I read to him. In later years, when I had routine work in DC, he would come with me and we would rent a car and head south, removing the need to cross the empty quarter of the continent. This was all before GPS and smart phones and there would be any number of fights over the large road Atlas as we tried to figure out the best way to get to some small county seat in Arkansas or Tennessee or Kentucky. During one of these trips, late in the year and I can’t remember where we were going or why, we were driving along I-65 through Kentucky when it began to snow. Steve, having been raised a Southern California boy, had never actually seen snow fall before so we pulled over at the next rest stop so he could caper about and catch snowflakes with his tongue and all of those usual childhood rites of passage that had been denied him until his forties.

More Great Plains tomorrow and then into the Rockies.