Badlands, retrospective.

(And by retrospective, I mean it happened a while ago.)

I like maps. I had spent hours visually analyzing the selection of westward route choices — freeway? state highway? around the cities or through? risk? reward?

I left Maine in the morning. I climbed the Poconos/Adirondacks/Appalachians (and feel free to let me know which mountains I was actually crossing). I skirted the Great Lakes. Quick change, pizza, bed, and toaster waffles. I rolled over the grassy midwest, detoured north to close the door on a nagging old relationship and rescue my art, waffle iron, and Nintendo 64 from the gaping abyss of a six-month-old break up.

I (full disclosure) nibbled an Adderall and as the sun set, like a cowboy a thousand miles too far east, drove west. Rolling hills flattened out into infinite planes. Perhaps I’ll build a mathematical matrix to represent the great plains of South Dakota along I-90. The buffalo herd is at (103, 37), don’t kill too many or you won’t be able to carry them back to your wagon.

As fortuitously incidental, and thanks to a suggestion from what essentially turned out to be a flavor of the week, the Badlands rose around me as the sun rose from behind me.

Camera and tripod in hand, amphetamines in blood, and awe in heart and mind, I slowed my pace to absorb this strange, stolen glory.

Badlands, sunrise.

I did not go out the way I came—avoiding cities, creativity and efficiency in route—in the North and out the South. Into the heart of Pine Ridge, the largest and most fundamentally heartbreaking and devastating open air human prison in my personal memory. The eighth largest reservation in the country, but I experienced it as eternal. Hidden by miles of barren lands and political gambits from the public eye and consciousness, I was in a world where the buffalo roamed free but the people were fenced in. Inversion, pen.

Entering Pine Ridge, I saw the land browner, surrounded by fences, geospatial politics delineating land appropriation and supremacy. Leaving Pine Ridge, I saw the grass grow taller and geologic formations more impressive. Public use land, preservation over reservation, imposed government over indigenous freedom. In and out, in and out, the boundaries increasingly clearer, then fences increasingly higher, or perhaps this was just my imagination, or my anger growing.

I move through a small town, which perhaps once thought it could attract tourists, but instead showcases only dilapidated pick-up trucks and run-down buildings.

Passing through

The dirt road, as it has been dirt since leaving National Park boundaries, left my small town behind in a cloud of dry red dust and I, like every else, forgot and neglected her, leaving her to waste away as per socioeconomic hierarchies required.

My radio blared the Oglala Sioux tribal station, the only station I could get. As I moved between fences—free like a buffalo, penned in like the Sioux—what I can only describe as chanting and, unimaginatively, traditional music (honest or cliche?) accompanied me on my objectively stunning yet subjectively depressing drive.

I came to established farmland, to bigger, ostensibly wealthier small towns, to state highways, eventually to Wyoming, to gas stations offering “cowboy coffee” with a handwritten sign next to the hazelnut and French roast, eventually to cities and interstates and, short hours later, within view of my snow-capped Rockies. I followed the spine of the Continental Divide until I crossed into my little hamlet, South Dakota far behind me, as it so goes.

Things you learn from guys at bars

About secret, hidden underground subway tunnels.

According to bar-guy, they exist in the Twin Cities. Further research: the only “subway” tunnels that exist are tunnels holding the electric wires for streetcars. Well, that’s almost the same. Wikipedia unverifiably confirms the existence of streetcars in the cities. In this historical document (an automotive industry trade publication) we learn that the streetcars certainly did exist; they even extended to a proposed speedway. This is in the 1910s. They had automotive speedways back then? This website of unclear provenance tells us more about the history of streetcars in the area (they ended service in the 1950s). Here’s the sad story of what happened to the cars. Newark? Wikipedia’s history of the Twin Cities Rapid Transit Company is quite comprehensive, as is to be expected. It confirms this guy’s story, which blames the demise of the streetcar on a Cloverleaf-style takeover of public transportation. Privatization and all that.

In its heyday, the streetcar system was huge:

Of course, the out-of-state takeover by a Wall Street speculator in the 40s was preceded by a 1917 worker’s strike and the rise of the automobile. Street cars were dying everywhere.

The Minnesota Historical Society confirms:

The Twin City Rapid Transit Company (a New Jersey corporation) was incorporated in 1891 as a holding company, with the MSR and the SPCR as wholly-owned operating subsidiaries. The TCRT was succeeded in 1939 by a new Minnesota corporation of the same name. A management change in 1949 brought New York financier Charles Green to the presidency of the Twin City Rapid Transit Company. Green and his associates decided to abandon the streetcar lines and convert to buses as quickly as possible, apparently in order to maximize their short-term profit. The company’s entire streetcar fleet was scrapped and replaced by buses in an aggressive conversion plan completed in 1954 under TCRT president Fred A. Ossanna, a former associate of Green’s who managed to oust him in 1951.

(And a simple chronological history of the streetcar in the Twin Cities. 1949 and 1954 in particular are quite interesting.)

Anyway, the point of this story was that I wanted to find underground streetcar tunnels. Since they were streetcars, though, obviously they won’t be underground (unless, apparently, they were crossing railways, in which case they were to be built underground as subways). Simply etymology. However, the tunnels holding the electric wires are obviously accessible (scroll all the way down) somehow, so maybe not all hope is lost.

The adventure might continue…

(h/t guy at bar)

Waking up in Wisconsin

Every small town in Wisconsin has:
1. A lutheran church
2. A funeral home
3. A chiropractor

It seems a prudent collection of institutions: life is hard, so you pray. Life is still hard, so you get your back rubbed. Then, you die.

Nothing is certain but death and back pain.

(Also in Wisconsin, I saw a large banner appended to the side of a barn that read: “Pray and vote to stop abortion.” I don’t like Wisconsin, despite the large number of cows who call it home.)

Fez bringing the Morocco to the Maine.

Sadly, one of Portland’s most accessible-to-white-people vestiges of its Somali population, Hamdi Restaurant and Grocery, faded into the darkness sometime over the last several months. This is as much my fault as anyone’s; I knew of its greatness, and did little to prevent its decline.

But fear not, lovers of African cuisine. Fez, a Moroccan joint, a heaven, if you will, of stewed meats and rices and expertly seasoned everything, has sprung up to replace it.

Don’t let its lack of belly dancers, lack of decor, even lack of adequate seating deter you, oh intrepid diners.

It’s had a face life since it was Hamdi, the walls now painted bright orange, the flat screen TV playing the Travel Channel (Man vs. Food, no less), and the speakers blaring Lebanese pop (Nancy Ajram, Alissa, Haifa Wehbe style, for those who know of what I speak). The left-side segment of the building, where most of the tables and the grocery were when it was Hamdi, have been portioned off and it is for rent. Maybe the Hamdi people will be back and we’ll be able to have dueling meals from East and West Africa. The tables are decorated with nondescript salt and pepper shakers and small glass vases with purple flowers. I didn’t inspect their veracitude. It doesn’t really matter.

Despite its unassuming (to say the least) ambiance, and casually-dressed staff, and relative emptiness (the three of us were dining simultaneously with a couple, also on their first trip, though a few other parties trickled in as the nine o’clock hour ticked nearer), the food was unparalleled. As the first Moroccan place in Portland that I know of, there’s no bar to speak of, but Fez is setting it high for any successors.

I like to think I am somewhat of an expert in Middle Eastern, African, and Mediterranean food, having lived in the Levant and traveled around southern Europe. I’ve eaten at my fair share of Ethiopian and Moroccan restaurants, and have somewhat of a handle on what the food is supposed to taste like. (Still, the best Moroccan food I ever had was in Montpelier, France, where they didn’t speak English and we didn’t speak Arabic — I’ve since learned the language — and we ordered haphazardly by pointing at things and parsing through French-Arabic hybrid menu items. It was divine.)

We started with the shrimp sharmoula (a North African spice blend) appetizer, and falafel tahini on a bed of lettuce (iceberg) and tomatoes with an actually sensational yogurt dressing. I am a huge falafel snob, and considering falafel isn’t exactly a Moroccan dish, I still think this was one of the if not the best renderings of the Levantine standby in Maine, with the exception of the falafel my roommate Nick makes in his frydaddy with my candy thermometer. Fez’s is not quite what it should be, but good nonetheless. It was particularly well balanced when scooped with the provided bread and a dash of tahini. The sharmoula-ed tomato sauce the shrimp was in reminded me of galayya bandora (fried tomatoes), a Syrian/Jordanian/Palestinian/Lebanese dish made with tons of garlic, spices, cilantro, and tomatoes (obviously). It was exactly how I remembered it, bringing me back to West Amman kitchens where we were unceasingly fed better food than I think I have ever had.

We were engaged in conversation with the owner, a Moroccan native who previously owned three (I think) restaurants in St. Albans, VT, and has lived up and down the East Coast with his wife and kids. He told us what they were out of (the lamb entree and chicken and beef kebab), but recommended in their stead the beef barkouk (plum, in Arabic) and the kofta kebab (kofta is a grilled meatball with spices and herbs). Dad and I ordered these, the Mom got chicken sakhan (hot, or sautéeed, in Arabic). All were unique, phenomenally seasoned, juicy, and tasted homemade. They were; the owner had launched into a description of how he grinds the beef for the kofta and mixes in all its ingredients, leaving the fresh cilantro till the end, each day.

The beef barkouk came as two large chunks of stewed beef on a plate, covered with the sweet, spicy sauce and topped with raisins and onions and some other things. It was also supposed to come with toasted sesame seeds, but he forgot to put them on, running out of the kitchen to try to rectify his mistake. “Next time.” Because, of course, there will have to be a next time. It was rich, sweet but not too much so, tender, juicy, and of incredibly balanced flavor; cinnamon for sure, but I wouldn’t dare guess what else.

The chicken sakhan was pieces of white and dark meat chicken sauteed with copious onions and spices, almost a bit citrusy, and if I had to guess I would say coriander, turmeric, probably cinnamon, among others.

The kofta (full disclosure: I make my own, but with lamb) was quite good, particularly with the tahini it came dressed with. Some meatballs were more well-done than others. I prefer the rarer ones, but all were incredibly well seasoned and despite being stuffed after one I proceeded methodically through two more. With the rice and salad, it felt nourishing, if not a particularly adventurous combination of flavors. Though I’m sure if you’re not used to to such strongly flavored patties of ground beef, you’d find them zinging and singing through your tastebuds at unprecedented velocity. Highly recommended.

Our neighbors at the table next to us had the chicken tagine which came as a leg and thigh and served with potatoes, other vegetables and a garnish of cilantro. They said it was delicious, and I’ll believe them.

And of course, we can’t forget the rice; a white basmati seasoned and spiced, complex and flavorful. It was distinct from the rices of the eastern Mediterranean which are cooked with cardamom and cinnamon, and often in chicken or meat stocks. They are heavy and nourishing. This was lighter in flavor, paralleling more the flavors you might expect with a couscous than a rice, but was rich, smooth, and utterly amazing nonetheless. It brought even more complexity to the seasoned meats, but I would have been content to just eat a bowlful with labaneh (thick Middle Eastern yogurt).

The menu also features a white bean and garlic dip as an appetizer, a selection of soups including lentil, and hilib ari, a goat stew served with rice, whose menu description reminded me, cyclically, of the overly generous portions of goat stew served over rice I used to get at Hamdi.

Welcome to the neighborhood, Fez. We’ll be back.

LIFE, LIBERTY, and my PURSUIT OF HAPPINESS

Colorado has large mountains and they are very beautiful. Skiing is very fun and it makes you feel good about yourself when you do things like go down double black chutes without dying, or ski better than Dan (granted, sometimes he telemarks). However, chairlift conversations can be lacking in intellectual substance, which quickly becomes stifling and/or regressive to one’s own mental capacity. Everything is a tradeoff, I suppose.

Still, subsisting on sub-par levels of O2 makes a girl realize a few things about the world, humanity, and herself.

THE WORLD

The world is big, and sometimes it falls on your head. This is not recommended. Sometimes your head falls on the world, though this is not recommended either, as it causes headaches, and in extreme cases, concusses you.

Going down is easier than going up, but that makes it scary because it is fast. Slowing down is also very difficult. For a non-strenuous interaction with the world, we recommend going horizontal.

The sun is strong when the atmosphere is thin. This means your face will hurt if you are not adequately prepared.

Heavy, wet snow is less gnarly for shredding, but it is much better for staving off dehydration as it actually melts into water droplets.

HUMANITY

On a chair lift, even Winston Churchill would be reduced to speaking in the following manner: “Dude, I totally f*cked up my skis in those trees on that last run. I’ve got like this mega core shot.” “Dude, I don’t know, those trees were sick.” “Dude, did you see that skittle just take a total face shot and yard sale?” “Dude, check out those gapers.” “Dude, I caught so much air on that jump.” “Dude, you should check out ____, it’s totally untracked. Freshies!” “Dude, this pow is gnar. I’mma shred it so hard.”

Speaking like this is natural and encouraged in this environment. Other acceptable topics include how much PBR you drank last night, how much weed you smoked in the hut between the Haul brothers/how much weed you are going to smoke in the hut between the Haul brothers, reveling in the amount of powder, bemoaning the lack of powder, how much PBR you’re going to drink as soon as you get down to the base (or to a hut, or on the lift), “grumbling” about gouges/scrapes in your skis/snowboard but really just showing off how badass you are, and general overuse of the words “dude,” “like,” “gnar,” “shred,” “pow,” and any and all curse/swear words. (Mom: you should bring your jar to Colorado. You’d be rich.)

Conversations about politics, world affairs, government, current events, religion, culture, movies (unless related to skiing and/or that one about the kids who get stuck on a chairlift and are subsequently eaten by wolves), music (unless telling people what you’re rocking out to but only if they ask), food (except when referring to pizza as ‘za and as long as you simultaneously mention how much PBR you are going to drink with it), work, Texas (unless you’re making fun of gaper Texans), and generally anything suggestive of an IQ above, say, 90.

MYSELF

I do NOT want to be the kind of person who “goes on vacation.” Going on vacation is hard. It is a chore. You have you ask your boss, and then you have to plan it, and then you have to stress out about it, and then you have to pack, and then you have to sit on a plane with other crazies who are “going on vacation” and are ridiculously stressed out about it. (Oh, you have to gate check that steamer trunk? Maybe you should have thought twice before bringing three blow-dryers and your entire collection of Barbie dolls.) The worst is knowing that a “vacation” is invetiably going to come to an end.

I much prefer “going away.” It is indefinite, glamorous, and romantic. People with the last name Hepburn probably “go away,” to Europe or South America or other formerly exotic locations. Yes, I am going away to the mountains, to Colorado, no I do not know when or even if I shall return, so sayonara, that means good bye, until next time…

Yet still people insist on wishing me a “nice” or “good” “vacation.” Oooh and it makes my toes curl; not in the good way. Me? Someone who goes on vacation? Why, that’s simply impossible. I’m a rebel! A renegade! A revolutionary! I do not do such commonplace things as vacation. People who go on vacation have jobs and apartments and boring, real people lives. They have sick days limiting how much they can be sick, and vacation days, dictating how often and for how long they can disappear.

But me, on vacation? I must have lost my magic! I am no longer interesting or unique; I am a sheep, one of the masses! I have forsaken my spirit, my individuality, by inadvertently wandering wayward onto the path which deigns to allow me such lofty privileges as to “go on vacation” one week at a time for the rest of my life. I am just like everyone else, and that makes me sad.

The Terminal

“If you go into my bathroom, in my top drawer, you’ll see the orange can, that’s your heat spray. You can just take it. … Oh, yeah, that’s Sam’s underwear. You can give it back to Sam. And call me if my roommates aren’t there. … Okay, I love you. … Bye.”

Who is Sam? A boy or a girl? Girlfriend? Lover? Accomplice? Underwear-sharing friend? And who is the long blonde ponytail, with purposefully chicly passé faux leather jacket and glittery black head band, talking to? Why is she calling them from the security tunnel in Newark Airport? With her perfect sorority hair and her perfect sorority tone and poise.

“Hey, [insert girl’s name which is slipping my mind] is going to bring you a bag of your Victoria’s Secret bras and underwear. Love you. Bye.”

And her perfect sorority back-to-back cell phone calls, oblivious to the fact that we are all wondering why she has Sam’s underwear. Well, why do you have Sam’s underwear?

An airline employee pushing a wheelchair rolls down the exclusive access aisle, accompanied by the wheelchair’s companion and tailed by a mother pushing a stroller filled by two-year-old twin girls. A wheelchair and a two-seat stroller, all in one family? My only thought is that they must be treated like royalty at airports.

Note to self: in future, find parents or in-laws with wheelchairs and have lots of young children. Never wait in another line again.