Day 3: Santa Rosa NM to Van Buren AR

Context for today’s travels: A great-grandmother (or perhaps great-great; Mom, can you clear this up?) of mine was a full-blooded Cherokee whose people came to the Midwest on the Trail of Tears, a forced march from the area we now call — how’s this for irony — North Carolina.

I thought of her again and again traveling through the Indian Nations of Oklahoma, where billboard after billboard advertised a “Cherokee”-themed emporium of American Indian kitsch. What I thought of was one of my people dragged from their homes and ordered at musketpoint to relocate in a foreign land where they knew none of the local flora, fauna and hunting spots, where they had no survival traditions, where they were utterly dependent the U.S. government.

Back in the Bay Area it is of course quite fashionable to receive knowing glances from fellow intellectuals when you observe that the United States was built on twin foundations of forced labor and forced relocation. Interestingly, it’s deeply unfashionable to say such things in the company of the descendants of those who were doing the forced relocating.

All I’m saying: My one-sixteenth (or one-thirtysecondth) of Cherokee blood boiled all across Oklahoma. Of course things were cooled by the fifteen-sixteenths (or thirty-one thirtysecondths) of regular white-guy blood — though come to think of it, my Irish ancestors came to this land on Coffin Ships after the monstrous British injustice inflicted by the Great Potato Famine.

Such is the magic of America: Repression be damned, I came out just fine.

OK, history lesson over, let’s see some pics. They’re not super sexy because the drive was mostly flat, with farmland on both sides. A nice thunderstorm and tornado would’ve gotten the ol’ blood flowing, but it would’ve made the drive suck pretty badly, so I’m not whining too much.

Texas Panhandle

This is just over the Texas border in the Panhandle east of Amarillo. You’re expected to be made of stern stuff when you drive across the Panhandle: only two rest areas with toilets the whole way; the other stops are “parking areas” or “picnic areas.” Hey, Texas has a lot of ground to cover.

Very large cross

This cross east of Amarillo is billed as the biggest of its kind in the Western Hemisphere.

It gets greener on the Oklahoma side

The terrain greens up almost as soon as you cross the Oklahoma border. You’d scarcely guess there was a Dust Bowl here.

Grain isn't the only thing

This immense wind farm was hard to miss. Appropriate when you consider how much oil was discovered in Oklahoma.

Wind coming down the plains

That whole Wind Whipping over the Plains of Oklahoma makes it hard to keep inspiring messages on sign boards outside gift shops attempting to cash in on our rich American Indian heritage.

Oklahoma City

Oklahoma City has a nice skyline — I-40 runs right next to it.

One for Merle Haggard

Posted in honor of Merle Haggard, who I suspect never stepped foot in Muskogee, Oklahoma, before penning his famous hit song about a town where even squares can have a ball. (Imagine being one of the Cool Kids of Muskogee — they probably still haven’t lived down the shame).

One other observation for those considering west-to-east traverses on Interstate 40: The terrain flattens from the Texas Panhandle all the way to the Arkansas border, which makes for unremarkable terrain but very easy driving. After two days of mountains and deserts, it’s a nice break.

Next stop: 100 miles east of Nashville by way of Memphis. Lands of our rock ‘n’ roll heritage; can’t wait.

Day 2: Kingman AZ to Santa Rosa NM

Summary: A sweet 580 miles.

From Kingman, I-40 climbs up into the Arizona high country past the Arizona Divide and brushes the edge of Flagstaff, which has an impressive mountain range next door. Countless must-visit sites — Sedona, Grand Canyon, Meteor Crater — had to wait for another vacation.

It’s long and mostly flat for a couple hundred miles till the New Mexico border, where the terrain shifts rapidly and starts looking much like the Escalante region of southern Utah: Layered red cliffs with flats on top.

The drive from Flagstaff to Albuquerque is one of the best in the United States, hands down. Not quite as spectacular as California 1 (the Coast Highway) or I-70 through the Front Range of the Rockies at Denver, but in the same neighborhood, vistawise.

Oh, and we stopped for gas in Winslow, Arizona, and saw no girls in flatbed Fords or lame singer-songwriter types with longing looks on their faces. The guys in the mini-mart definitely had a Native American look about them (though the next-to-the-highway attempts to capitalize in the area’s Navajo/Hopi heritage were embarrassing. Somehow I suspect they did not camp out in shelters favored by the Cheyenne of the Northern Plains.)

But anyway, let’s see some pictures.

Rest stop west of Flagstaff

The Arizona high country west of Flagstaff is simply amazing. Looks nothing like the saguaro-dotted Arizona desert of the public imagination.

Cool stone wall

The terrain change at the Arizona-New Mexico border is as enchanting as the state’s motto promises. This big stone wall along the highway was just one example.

I-40 sign at the Continental Divide

Highway sign near the Continental Divide. The sky got cooler as the day progressed.


Oh yeah, it rained a couple times.

Cool rocks

Swell rock formation.

Desert sky

Easy to see why so many artists flocked to New Mexico. High desert sky is priceless.

Right turn at Albuquerque

Could not resist: yes, this is a right turn at Albuquerque (somehow I think the right turn options were narrower when Bugs Bunny introduced this gem into our culture.)

Well, that’s enough for today. It was painful to drive through two hikers’ paradises in the same day without getting out to do some walking on dirt; nice thing is, those mountains aren’t going anywhere.

Next stop: East of Fort Smith, Arkansas.

Day 1: San Jose to Kingman, Ariz.

So the drive south on I-5 is about as expected: hills on one side, farms on the other. Somebody put up a bunch of signs on blank farmland blaming Congress for turning it into a dustbowl. Presumably the actual farmer was blameless.

Things started getting interesting when we started seeing the Joshua trees outside Bakersfield on the way to the Mojave Desert. But mainly it’s extremely hot. Like 110-plus (best guess; I’m not sure I’ve ever been outside in heat this hot before).

It’s a dry heat inside a pizza oven, too.

Road to Joshua Tree National Park

We pulled over for a second to snap a few pix on a road heading down toward Joshua Tree National Park.

Mountain range

This mountain range was near the California-Arizona border. Terrain definitely gets better as you move into Arizona. Still bathing-in-a-volcano hot, but nicer looking.

Colorado River

Here’s the Colorado River, the border between California and Arizona.

Arizona, just past California border

Desert scene from a rest stop on the Arizona side.

Near Kingman, Arizona

The buttes are starting to show up at as we get close to Kingman.

Next stop: Santa Rosa, NM. Should be some of the best scenery of the whole drive.

Carolina or bust!

OK, so I woke up every 14 minutes for the past three hours wondering if it was Zero Hour yet. Turns out we’re just in range of Milpitas’ new free WiFi network (take that $10-a-day hotel internet ripoffs!)

Next stop, Kingman, Ariz. Why does California have to be so damn long?

I think I’ve done enough rambling about the meaning of life in the Golden State and the ugly turn the newspaper biz has taken. If I’m feeling energetic and not too dusty from the road, I’ll try to post nightly updates from motels along the way.

Alas, all vacations must end

Today is my last at the San Jose Mercury News. When I arrived in this crazy place of perfect weather and tolerant populace, it seemed I was on vacation from the first day.

All I had to do to remain on vacation was spend 7.5 hours a day doing something that came as naturally to me as waking when rested. The pay was not great, but it was good. The company was often cranky but excellent. What the people of San Jose and points beyond needed to know, we told.

Five days a week of playing on computers and fixing people’s grammar was all it cost to subsidize a 10-year vacation from blizzard winters and tornado summers. The weekends were mine; the mornings were mine. California was mine, at least my little sliver of it. It was worth having, full of things worth doing.

I once read you should live in Southern California but leave before it makes you hard, and live in Northern California but leave before it makes you soft. Either way, you don’t stay.

So, it’s back to working for a living (assuming there’s work to be had). Sure, I’m sad that the gravy train ran out of track, but the great thing about this world is they’re always building a new one somewhere.

California experiment successfully concluded

Around this time 10 years ago I was wandering around downtown San Jose on a sunny Saturday. I had a day to kill after my interviews at the San Jose Mercury News so I roamed the city’s mostly empty streets. People work and raise kids here, they don’t hang out downtown. A couple weeks later I had a job offer from the paper, which paid all the freight to move me, Melissa and our two cats to Silicon Valley.

Back then the valley was booming; now we’re working through our second bust, which has pummeled the paper and put many friends out of work. In three weeks I’m joining them.

I had an option of staying on while the Merc outsources its design and copy desks to Walnut Creek, about 50 miles north of here, but we decided it’s time to move on. We’ve worked under a cloud of doom for the past four years and we finally crossed our enough-is-enough threshold. The paper’s offering a modest severance package, just enough to get us across the lets-try-something-new threshold.

In the next three weeks we’re going to donate or sell everything that won’t fit into the Hiker Hauler. A couple days after my last day at the paper we’re going to pack up the car, head east to North Carolina and ride out the recession at Melissa’s mom’s place.

When we got here I published a series of pages called “The California Experiment” and have spent the past decade testing theories and observing behavior. Prime operating theories:

  • Vast wealth generated by the state’s abundant resources leads to delusional “we-can-have-it-all” attitude that generates government gridlock.
  • Vast wealth also creates pervasive “it’s-all-about-me” thought patterns (and their corollary, “it’s all about money”). There’s a great band out here called Me First and the Gimme Gimmes; it could not be from anywhere else.

Fundamental observations:

  • Staggering natural beauty encourages people to put up with aforementioned insanity. Just the idea of never hiking the trails around here makes my eyes misty (an improvement from yesterday, when the response was inconsolable grief.)
  • People come here and never want to leave, leading to permanent overpopulation.
  • If you put three Californians together, they will immediately start a suburb and a traffic jam.
  • Keeping your money in your wallet and away from those with superior claims is a full-time job. A sign at the Santa Cruz Municipal Pier just before you pull up to the toll booth says it all: “Have money ready.”

It feels like a good time to close down our California experiment and do something else with our lives, closer to family and sanity.

California seduces just about anybody with a trace of mad passion in their veins. But eventually you have to get out of bed and start living in the real world again.

So long, Merc, it was nice knowing you

My days are numbered at the Mercury News. We just settled a new union contract that punishes everybody to the tune of hefty pay cuts in the next year, but a few of us were singled out for extra spankings. All production — copy editing and page designing — will be moved to our sister paper in Walnut Creek, which generously pays its people at about 20 percent less than we earn. It looks like half of our production team will be laid off and the other half will get to soldier on with smaller rations.

Great time to be in the newspaper biz, eh?

I could just put my foot down and refuse to go, but I figure 80 percent of my Merc wages drains my savings considerably more slowly than zero percent, so I’m putting in for one of the Walnut Creek jobs. Walnut Creek is a nice town in the East Bay, close to tons of great trails. It also has BART access to San Francisco, unlike my current abode, and the rents are cheaper, so I don’t have any issues about living up there if I survive the cut.

I once wrote that I wouldn’t give up on the newspaper biz till it gives up on me. Well, the biz has its chance; we’ll see how it goes.

Survivor’s remorse

I’ve heard it said that in combat, when a soldier sees a comrade killed, “better him than me” flashes through his mind for just a moment. Then he spends the rest of his life regretting that one-second urge for self-preservation.

What’s happening to the newspaper biz is nothing like a battlefield … people will walk away with their friends and body parts intact. Some are losing jobs but they are not losing their ability to earn a living.

Still, I can identify with better-he-than-me guilt. Today the Rocky Mountain News publishes its last edition. My employer, who also publishes the surviving Denver Post, will be in much better shape financially, and by extension my paper’s prospects have improved. So my job is probably 3.763 percent more secure than it was yesterday. I don’t feel the least bit good about it.

The Rocky paid good union wages to its newsroom of 230 or so. A few of the paper’s stars got hired on by the Post but the rest are in deep doo-doo, economically. There are no other newsroom jobs anywhere in the country that pay the kind of wages they earned at the Rocky. Really, none.

I figure they’ll do OK … getting a paper out every day requires resourcefulness that’s always in demand (except, perhaps, now). The economy will turn around eventually, though minus a few more newspapers.

I’ve been expecting this day for 15 years. I remember thinking in about 1995 that newspapers had about five years till Internet broadband rendered them obsolete. Here we are nine years later and I’m still working for one.

But my illusions are gone. The end is no longer near. It’s here.

What dies with the Rocky is the age of big-city newspapers that matter. Papers of some sort will probably always be around, but they won’t be able to attract big-time talent until they can offer something better than more work for less pay. Maybe in a generation, after all the trapped-in-the-old-era farts like yours truly have been shunted aside by new blood, young newsies will be content to earn their stripes on starvation pay like cub reporters always had to do in previous golden ages of newspaper journalism. It’ll probably be good for the craft.

It’s not much consolation to the folks in Denver, I realize, but endings always lead to beginnings. Something newer, cooler, smarter, etc. will come of all this in a few years. And if it doesn’t I will still have successfully delayed getting a real job until I had to.

Comes a dawning

A couple days ago I was at work putting together a couple items for our “star watch” celebrity column when a statement from Will Smith struck me: he said he’d told his daughter she could grow up to be president, but now he actually believes it.

Here’s a guy, Hollywood Movie Star and successful beyond most of our wildest dreams, revealing something I suspect a lot of black people are thinking today: America, finally, feels like our country now.

As a white guy I could never presume to know what it’s like to be black in the United States of America, but I suspect it’s been like this: everything we have, The Man can take away. The man dragged us here in chains and kept us there for 300 years. Fought a war that supposedly set us “free” but treated us like dirt for another 100 years. It’s their country, we just live in it.

Until today.

A single Ivy League-educated half-white paid-up member of the nation’s intellectual and financial elite will not fundamentally change America’s race equation. But Barack Obama’s inauguration will say one thing: we don’t have to be the way we’ve always been.

It’s probably dangerous to read too much into what’s happening today: to be the first black president of the United States, you have to be Barack Obama, a guy curiously unaffected by impossible odds against him. Think of what he was up against 18 months ago. Beyond being a member of a racial minority with foreign first and last names and a notorious dictator’s middle name, he had almost no track record in politics. He wasn’t from an established political family. He was a complete outsider.

A guy like him finding a way to become president forces us to widen our ideas about what is possible and impossible.

Obama had no chance, and yet here we are today. Cynicism seems pretty empty in the face of that.

The Romenesko Effect and what it means for the future of news

Newsies read Jim Romenesko’s Media News page every day for fresh evidence of the demise of newspapers, journalism and all we hold dear.

I wonder how many realize that Romenesko is the future of news, and has been every working day for the last decade. What Jim did was vanishingly obvious: identified an audience with a shared self-interest and sent them a daily digest of news they were interested in. He doesn’t have millions of readers like Drudge or Perez Hilton, but I’m guessing he does have about 100,000 (roughly the number of people working in news, last time I looked).

What I’m thinking is: anywhere you can find a 100k audience, you can make a living as a journalist online. The hard part is identifying the audience. The good news is if you start writing about stuff they care about and send a constant stream of timely news via a blog, they will find you. It might take a year or two and you’ll have to bone up on developing a blog, learning search engine optimization and monetizing it via paid clicks (eg, Google AdSense) but the main thing is: those audiences are out there.

Awhile back my wife and I were talking about Caterpillar Inc., the world’s largest manufacturer of earthmoving equipment, which is based in my hometown. Cat runs everything in Peoria so it’s always creeping into the conversations of folks who grew up there. We reasoned that Cat has 100,000 employees worldwide who should be interested in a centralized site for Caterpillar-related news and links. Surely a company of this size with revenue in the tens of billions has a dozen blogs devoted to it already, right? Nope.

Now there’s one. I started Cat Stock Blog in mid-December with the idea of answering a simple question on the mind of everybody who works there: how’s the stock doing? I found a free service that provides free stock chart quotes, assembled a mass of links, designed my site logo and just started posting Cat news all within a week of coming up with the idea. The audience is small today, but over time people who work there will get in the habit of checking the site just as we newsies go to Romenesko every day. Here’s one interesting tidbit: Right now Cat workers represent a tiny fraction of my readership, meaning it could go well beyond the 100k figure.

I’ll be the first to admit that blogging about tractors is not the sexiest topic on Earth. I’d much rather blog about cars, movies, rock ‘n’ roll or walking in the woods, but the first three are covered to death and the last one has very small audience potential (hikers don’t blog, bloggers don’t hike; it’s just how it is).

Romenesko lucked out early on by securing a deal with the Poynter Institute, but I’m guessing by now his brand is strong enough that he’ll survive even if Poynter, which owns the St. Petersburg Times, decides he’s too expensive.

The rest of us will not be so lucky: we’ll have to fight, scratch and blog our way to financial security. It’ll force all of us to learn some things about the money side of the biz that we never worried about before. Maybe most of us don’t have all the aptitudes we need. But people in the news biz are curious by nature and addicted to the Next Big Thing.

The Romenesko Effect is simple: blog about something that hits people where they live — their jobs — and they start showing up, habitually. We can do it much better than anybody else can. If we let ourselves find that 100k audience, the future will take care of itself.