Friday, July 31, 2009

St. Paul Saints 4, Sioux Falls Canaries 1 -- Thursday, July 30, 2009

Somewhere out in Midway Stadium there was a baseball game on Thursday, but that almost seemed besides the point. The canonized beat the little yellow birds by the score of four-to-one. Other than that, about all I can think of mentioning is Kerry Ligtenberg--who pitched 390.2 innings in relief from 1997 to 2005 for Atlanta, Baltimore, Toronto, and Arizona--closed for the Saints. Ligtenberg, who had a lifetime 3.82 earned run average, was born in South Dakota and went to school next door in Minnesota, where he now resides. Some players resurrect their careers in the independent leagues, but this 38-year-old right-hander is now playing for the love of the game.

Minor league baseball often bills itself as family entertainment, and I don't think I have ever seen a crowd enjoy itself more at a game then the one Melvin and I saw in St. Paul. What can you expect from a team that is partially owned by comedian Bill Murray? Mel and I saw a clown when we watched the rodeo in Steamboat Springs. There were also clowns at the Saints game, which is a first for me. The "ushertainers," as they are called by the team, included The Lumberjack, The Nerd, "a real Japanese guy," and Super Fan. That was just the starting line-up. There was also a cast of supporting actors, including someone whose job it was to bring a pig out between innings in different outfits, an exercise that wasn't even mentioned by the announcer; it just happens at every game.

Mostly, our section saw Super Fan. Among his performances, he revised a standard cheer so it ended with us shouting, "Change!," instead of "Charge!" He also led the crowd through a pantomime of collectively riding a roller coaster. In a way, it's like doing the wave but also fresh and new and fun. When Jason Cooper, who was released earlier this year by the Mets after playing seven years in various minor league organizations, came to bat, Super Fan had one section shout, "Coop'!" and another chant, "there it is!" And he could do things with his pectoral muscles that usually only burlesque dancers train themselves to do. Pepsi Party Patrol, eat your hearts out.

When the fans weren't participating in fun and games, and perhaps glancing occasionally at the action on the field, it was eating and drinking. There was a wide variety of beers to satisfy every palate. Besides the usual ballpark food , there was also lamb gyro, turkey legs, and cheese curds, which are like mozzarella sticks but each the size of a gnocchi dumpling (which are not on the menu). Cheese curds are so very tasty when they come right out of the fryer in all their chewy, cheesy, fatty, salty goodness. All that food and drink had a good portion of the crowd on its feet at any one time, but why not? This was family fun, and plenty of it.

As alluded to in an earlier post, trains run past the outfield wall at Midway Stadium. Only one passed on Thursday, just before the game. The announcer dead-panned, "train." The engineer blew the horn.

Germany Germany

Another long slog on the road, first from Chamberlain to Mitchell to see the Corn Palace, then on to New Ulm, Minnesota, for Hermann the German and the giant glockenspiel. A major source for our nonbaseball wanderings, incidentally, is Roadside America, but I knew the New Ulm attractions from my college days. Herman's only arguably German, by the way, and his name isn't really Hermann. As for the glockenspiel... reader, let us draw the curtain of discretion over the subject.

New Ulm has clearly done everything in its power to re-create itself as a destination downtown—the lures in this case being Christmas ornaments, German crafts, and wienerschnitzel. It makes for an interesting comparison to Fredericksburg, Texas, which seems to be thriving more than New Ulm is—or at least it has fewer empty or desperate storefronts. Also, the food is way better in Texas.

The tourist town is essentially the limit case of the “great neighborhood” phenomenon I pondered over a few posts back. If you’ve doubled-down on promoting the idea of the town, but the actual town is sort of depressing, what’s the next step? All the streetside amenities in the world won’t make those sad department stores any more attractive or that wienerschnitzel any less leaden.

We made it to Minneapolis in time to drop our things at our host’s and head over to Saint Paul. It’s nice to be on familiar ground. (I lived here for a number of years.) I’ll let Rob describe the game experience.

I and Thou

Today we saw the last of Wyoming, driving from Casper east to Lusk and then up to Newcastle. There we picked up America’s Tourist Trap Highway and went into the Black Hills of South Dakota.

This is as good a place as any to mention our evolving observations on western xenophobia. As we’ve gone along, we’ve been taken for drug dealers, undercover cops, recipe and decor poachers, and just plain weirdos. (So far, however, we have not been taken for homosexuals, which was a theme of the 2007 trip.) Rob’s theory, which I agree with, is that what we’re really being taken for is strangers: the places these things have happened are not typical tourist destinations or places where a steady stream of unfamiliar faces is expected. Instead, it’s been back roads, small-town diners, and other places mostly frequented by locals. And given the size and nature of some of these towns, the locals are long-timers, too, if not relatives. So when a couple guys come in looking “funny,” we become a canvas for what’s most feared in that place. I don’t mean by that that we’re fearsome (hardly); just that in a place where people fear getting busted, we get sized up as cops, and where they fear drug runners, we become that.

Now, what do I mean “funny”? After all, we’re not dressed outlandishly, don’t have aggressively distinctive accents (even if Rob does pronounce the word for the day before today as “yestiddy”), don’t have Day-Glo hair, or anything like that. But the codes of normality are very region-, town-, and location-specific. When we were in Cheyenne, we went minigolfing on the outskirts of town, in the middle of the day. There was a couple of guys behind us who seemed to be locals, and they wore blue jeans, big belt buckles, and T-shirts decorated with motorcycle logos and so on. We had jeans, too (mine were black, not blue), but button-down short-sleeved shirts without logos. From what’ve seen, the more acceptable variant on this is collared golf shirts and khakis, usually with a cell-phone holster. That would have typed us as, I don’t know, maybe air-conditioning salesmen, and we might have passed a little better. As it was, we looked like what we are: guys from contexts where logo T-shirts are not everyday wear. No one gives a crap whether we’re from L.A., New York, D.C., or wherever. What we were broadcasting, though, was our lack of participation in the dominant culture here—which is, of course, the dominant culture in most of America.

I’m probably making too much out of this one contrast. But it’s been interesting to see that we send signals even when we are trying to send no signal, and that we are being read everywhere we go. Certainly, no one we have met seemed surprised to hear that we were from far away. It’s easier to lose sight of this phenomenon when you’re in an environment that feels like home, but I know that for me it’s always a small shock to know that I am being watched even as I am watching. Indeed, one of the explicit points of this kind of trip is to go watch things. The things look back, though--and usually aren’t things.

We stopped at the Crazy Horse monument, which has progressed since I last was there in 1988. (This is Korczak Ziolkowski’s mad scheme to carve a mountain into the largest three-dimensional sculpture in the world.) The biggest change has been in the peripheral environment, however—there’s a huge visitors center and a consciously upbeat attitude: not only will this mountain get carved, they say, but there’ll be a museum, a university, a medical center, and so much more. Twenty years ago, it was much more threadbare, and it was reasonable to suppose that at some point the last member of the Ziolkowski family would say to hell with it and walk away. Now, it’s a real station on the Mount Rushmore pilgrimage, which I guess is OK. Who am I to second-guess such a project?

Rapid City turned out to be a misnomer—at least if Tally’s Restaurant there is any measure of the place: mediocre food, baffled service. But this was just fuel for the next stop: the Badlands.

When I came through 21 years ago, I thought this was one of the most unearthly landscapes I’d ever witnessed. But now it strikes me as precisely the opposite. What is more of this earth than these geological monuments? It’s our intrusions on it—and our perceptions of what constitutes “normality” in a landscape—that are ephemeral, constructed, and peculiar.

We wrapped the long day of driving with… no baseball game. We made it to Chamberlain, on the banks of the Missouri River, and had a darn fine meal at Al’s Oasis: whole fried catfish, wild rice, salad, and a dish of bread pudding. Tomorrow we’re on to Minneapolis/St. Paul—finally, real eastward progress.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Casper Ghosts 5, Ogden Raptors 8 -- Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Tuesday had a nice rhythm to it. We started by checking out the architecture in Denver's museum district. We ended with a quite enjoyable baseball game at Mike Lansing Field in Casper, Wyoming. In between, we covered some miles and had some adventures in Cheyenne.

When Melvin and I saw these teams match up in Ogden on the 23rd, the Raptors played the theme from Ghostbusters; "I ain't afraid of no ghosts." It is more than a taunt. Thirty-one games into the 66-game season, the Ghosts are finding their tenth win ephemeral, going into today's game with a 9 and 21 record, ten games behind the first place Raptors. Having seen them twice, it is not hard to see at least one reason why. At both the games we saw, the relief pitching has been awful.

The Ghosts scored first. With two outs in the second, Angelys Nina and Nick Valdez walked. David Hernandez reached first when Ogden pitcher Matthew Magill couldn't handle a throw from first baseman Kyle Orr. Nina scored, Valdez advanced to third and Hernandez went on to second on what should have been the third out. When Avery Barnes hit a line drive double to center field, both Valdez and Hernandez scored. The team tacked on an insurance run in the sixth, starting with Jared Clark's ground ball single into right field. Two batters later, Clark went to second on Ogden reliever Jordan Roberts's wild pitch. After Nolan Arenado grounded out to third base, Clark scored when Nina hit a grounder into left field.

However, the 4-0 lead could not survive the Ghostly relief pitching in the top of the eighth. Alejandro Barraza gave up three singles and a walk and made a wild pitch, letting the Raptors score twice without an out. Barraza was replaced by Leuris Gomez, who fared worse. After an error by the Casper third baseman, a double, an intentional walk, an error by the first baseman, a wild pitch, a sacrifice fly and one last single, the score was 8-4 in favor of the prehistoric ones.

The smart and speedy running of Barnes--whom Mel and I saw steal second, third, and home in one inning last Thursday--let the Ghosts score once more, but too little, too late. Barnes was hit by a pitch, took second and third on fielder's choice plays, and scored when Clark singled to third base.

MiLB Reports: Game Recap Box Score

The day didn't actually begin with our tour of various Denver cultural institutions downtown. It really began with me getting a parking ticket for violating the once a month street cleaning regulations. As an almost 30-year resident of New York City who went to school in Syracuse, which has alternate side of the street parking every single day of the year, I just had to laugh. Then we went downtown to check out the expansion of the Denver Art Museum, designed by Daniel Libeskind. Melvin and I did not go inside, so we cannot say how the various wedge-shaped spaces can or will be used, but we had to wonder how from the outside. The skin is expansive faces of metal plates, some of which looked like they had been installed very poorly.

We both preferred a 1971 addition to the museum by GiĆ² Ponti, which a staffer told us was the Italian architect's only building in North America. Michael Graves's 1995 addition to the Denver Public Library seemed lame to me when it was built, and my opinion was unchanged by seeing it in person 14 years later.

Following our architectural tour, we made quick time to Cheyenne, where we decided to play a round at the "Wyoming Adventure Mini Golf." The course includes miniatures of such state icons as Devil's Tower, Teapot Dome, and the Sierra Trading Post outlet store. Mel beat me by two strokes. Does "par" even mean anything in putt-putt golf? Maybe with practice.

We then had an adventure of a completely different sort by having lunch at The Pie Lady (the restaurant). We both started with pulled pork sandwiches that were uniquely seasoned. I cannot tell you how, because The Pie Lady (the proprietress) expressed great concern that our blog would result in other restaurateurs stealing her recipes and other ideas. I think I can say that the sauce tasted too much like ketchsup and the meat had been cooked too long. Lunch comes with a bag of potato chips, an idea that I do not think is original to The Pie Lady, and a one-tenth slice of pie. Melvin had three "half slices" and I had a half and a whole. Can I even mention the flavors? I know that I am forbidden from describing how the available pie flavors are presented on the wall or how the restaurant is decorated. The pies were good; the paranoia was harder to swallow.

Eating the equivalent of 30 percent of a pie each meant we didn't have time to check out "Old Number 4004," the world's largest steam locomotive, or the ICBM museum on the F. E. Warren Air Force Base. We will have to save that for another trip, as my father used to say on trips to places we would probably only visit once. We did stop for some quick photos of the commercial signs on Lincolnway, a major commercial strip that, as Mel put it, "was the bomb in 1958."

Monday, July 27, 2009

Colorado Springs Sky Sox 3, Sacramento River Cats 2 -- Monday, July 27, 2009

Following on Melvin's post on our enjoyable Sunday, I could title this, "Back to 6,000 Feet," as we went to Colorado Springs for the day. We started at 10:30 with a tour of the Castle Pines golf course, where my cousin (and wonderful host for two nights) Bob oversees the forestry and horticulture. Bob and I both have degrees from forestry schools, and it was enlightening and enjoyable for me to see the beautiful and ecological work he has done at the Jack Nicklaus-designed course (elev. 6,300). We finished our tour at the high point on the property, with views of Pikes Peak, Castle Rock--the town and the geologic feature it is named for--and the valley below.

Unbeknownst to us, the Sky Sox and River Cats were also beginning their days at 10:30. The teams had been scheduled to play a double-header yesterday, and when the second game was postponed, it was only until the following morning. Our tickets were for a 12:35 start, what I had been calling a "day camp special." And special it was, if you like to hear screaming at frequencies usually only audible to dogs. The stadium itself is not so special, but that's unfair. I am sure that people were pleased with it when it opened in 1988, but the ever-increasing features at newer ballparks make Security Service Field seem lacking. Perhaps when the park was constructed, it didn't have a suburban subdivision beyond the left-field fence, where Mel and I saw mountains at our four previous games.

"Sox" is a venerable baseball name represented in the major leagues by red and white varieties and, if you go back far enough, the Cincinnati Red Stockings. (The minor leagues seemed to be populated by an entire animal shelter of cats and dogs, including the opposing team.) I always wondered why the Rockies Triple-A affiliate were the Sky Sox and the answer is simple enough; when the local team was in the Class A Western League from 1950 through 1958, it was an affiliate of the Chicago White Sox. The current franchise started in the visiting team's hometown, Sacramento, where it played from 1903 to 1960 as the Solons, before moving to Honolulu to compete as the Islanders, 1961-1987.

I had planned to complain about how bush-league it was to close all the food concessions in the sixth inning, but that became more understandable when it was announced that the game would conclude at the end of the seventh inning because it was the second game of a double-header. News to us until then. The score was 2-1 in favor of the aquatic felines, and as the Sky Sox got their last licks, Mel and I started rooting for a tie. We'd get nine innings of baseball one way or another. With one out, Kenny Perez hit a fly ball single to center field and advanced to second on Eric Young Jr.'s walk. Christian Colonel was put in the game as a pinch-runner for Perez, and he scored on Mike McCoy's grounder to right. Young and McCoy advanced one base on the throw. Mel and I then started cheering for a double play, but no such luck. Henry Rodriguez threw a pitch behind Matt Miller--now that's a wild pitch--and Young scored from third.

MiLB Reports: Game Recap Box Score

Game over, I dragged Melvin to the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Broadmoor hotel. I say "dragged" not because Mel doesn't like FLW, which he does, but because the architect designed the Biltmore Hotel outside of Phoenix. Oops, wrong desert. [Update, May 5, 2011: Wright did not design the Biltmore either.  The architect was Albert Chase McArthur, who studied with Wright for two years.]  The Broadmoor was designed by the Warren & Wetmore. It wasn't such a terrible mistake, since our next stop was relatively close. Magic Town is a 1:6 diorama of city life by sculptor Michael Garman, perhaps wearing Tom Waits's sunglasses. It seemed interesting enough from the examples in his showroom, where shoppers can buy individual figurines, but we balked at the $7.00 admission charge. We went to one last destination but, after a little soul-searching, used the bathroom and headed back to Denver.

Mile High Miscellany

Today we dropped several thousand feet and landed in Denver in time for the Rockies game, with great club-level seats courtesy of Rob’s cousin, who lives here.

While the drive was beautiful, I don’t have much to say about it, which may be why I am usually left unconvinced when people enthuse over how much they love living here on that account. Not that there’s anything objectionable or weird about getting off on looking at trees, but I just don’t see how much enjoyment there is in that. I grew up near the White Mountains and spent most of teenage summers there, and I do like mountains, forests, lakes, and all that. But it’s no sort of life.

The residents of Winter Park and the other small, cute towns along U.S. 40 in Colorado doubtless disagree. We poked through the early but growing crowd for the Winter Park Jazz Festival and spotted something we haven’t seen much of in the last few days: black people. We did see nonwhite people in Utah and Oregon, but they were Latino or Asian. The tremendous differentiation of populations across the country does make me wonder sometimes why we even bother with national aggregates.

We didn’t have a lot of extra time before the game, but we saw a little of what they call LoDo—the old warehouse district near Coors Field that has become a hot area. The stadium itself is a delight and doesn’t look its age (16)—perhaps because, we only belatedly realized, it’s been the template for some other places we’ve been. Rob found it particularly reminiscent of CitiField—or, rather, he realized that CitiField is reminiscent of here. Despite the stadium’s considerable size, it didn’t seem overwhelming in scale, and the breadth of amenities was remarkable—never before had we seen a stand selling only gluten-free food. Rob likened the ballpark workers to a hotel staff, in demeanor and efficiency. Which is actually a little weird, but it’s nothing to complain about.

The game itself saw some nice defensive plays by the Rockies. The Giants pitching looks suspect, though of course our exposure has been minimal. (I saw the Cubs host the Giants in May, but that’s about it.) Rockies fans—and there are a lot of them, given Denver’s huge catchment area--see the division title in reach, however delusional that may be. With the weakness of the NL Central this year, though, the wild card could be theirs in a walk. Rockies 4, Giants 2.

Afterward, we were underwhelmed by the famous Tattered Cover bookstore—great aesethetics, surprisingly few books. My friend John, an expatriate New Yorker, took us to his local, The Thin Man, which was delightful, even though we did not spy Myrna Loy lounging at the bar with a rye manhattan in hand. John then took us to City O City for fantastic vegan pizza—you read that right.

The Rockies left town for New York after the game; next for us was Colorado Springs. Well, we all have to be somewhere.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

"A day without baseball is a day at the rodeo."

I think Anita Bryant said that--and that was long before "Where's the beef?" Coincidently, this first day without a baseball game is also my birthday. I don't really celebrate, but how could even I resist a twenty-foot dinosaur, in cowboy hat and bandana, with a lariat in its hand and inflatable birthday cakes at its feet. We had to stop for photographs.

The other unique photo opportunity was the remnants of the Bottle Hollow Resort, a motel and convention center opened in Fort Duchesne by the Ute tribe in 1971 and abandoned in the 1990s. The complex, built at a cost of $54 million, was designed by Baird-Young and Jones, a Salt Lake City firm. The June 26, 2009, issue of the "Ute Bulletin" reports that new development of the site is under way. Orange snow fence surrounded the buildings, and Melvin and I were very tempted to enter them, or at least get closer, for better photographs of the far-out, tipi-styled structures. However, the xenophobia that we have experienced so far on the trip made me fearful of being arrested for trespassing, and I convinced Mel to get back in the car. If I am going to get busted, I want to get arrested closer to home and not have it screw up my vacation.

There was some dramatic scenery in the Provo Canyon, right outside of Ogden, and east of Fort Duchesne. Otherwise, the two photo-ops were the highlights of the six-hour drive from Ogden, Utah, to Steamboat Springs, Colorado. The latter seemed like the kind of town that would have a good brewpub, but Melvin's research uncovered only bad reviews for Mahogany Ridge. So, instead, we went to the Old Town Pub, where the beer was fine but the food rather undistinguished. But what to do after dinner? It felt strange to not have a baseball game to go to, so we went to a different sporting event, the sixth weekend of the Steamboat Springs Pro Rodeo Series. The ten weekends and final event are part of the Mountain States Rodeo Circuit, which is one of 12 regions in which cowboys and cowgirls earn points to qualify for the Dodge (sponsored) National Circuit Finals Rodeo. Or so we learned from the program; we grew up watching baseball.

We missed the bareback riding but caught the team roping, tie-down roping, steer wrestling, saddle bronc riding, barrel racing and bull riding. Children in the audience ages six to 12 got to take part in the "calf scramble," where they try to grab a flag attached to the animal's tail, and children five and under could enter the "ram scramble." The whole event was punctuated not by any sort of irony or self-aware humor but with Hee Haw-level mother-in-law jokes... some of which we laughed at like crazy, in spite of (or because of?) their incredible stupidity. We both commented that if we ever run out of baseball teams, driving around the country following rodeo might not be so bad. We'd have to change the name of this blog, though.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Orem Owlz 5, Idaho Falls Chukars 1 -- Friday, July 24, 2009

I used to be something of a snob about minor league baseball. The first two minor league teams I saw were the Binghamton and Pittsfield Mets, but they are/were affiliates of the major league franchise I root for. And if a team was geographically close, like the Newark Bears, then I wasn't so focused on the level of play. But in general, I have wanted to watch the best baseball I could, Triple- or Double-A. Melvin has been more ecumenical, even being a big fan of independent baseball, and he has made me less of a snob. However, after seeing three of the four teams in the Southern Division of the rookie-level Pioneer Leagues--Idaho Falls, Ogden and Orem--Mel is starting to jones for some better ball.

Tonight's game wasn't as sloppy as the Hawks-Volcanos game we saw, but it was sloppier than the four errors that will appear in the box score. Most of the scoring occurred in the bottom of the fourth when some Owl got the team on the board with a solid home run. (I would tell you who, but the team was wearing camouflage jerseys and I couldn't read the number. The Utah National Guard was being honored at the game and the camo' jerseys were to be auctioned off at the end of the game. This is a fairly common game promotion and when I attended a similar event in Auburn, New York, a Blackhawk helicopter landed in the outfield to considerable cheering.) Then, with two outs, Owlz (sic) hit a double, single, double and a triple and it was four-nothing. By the way, given the team name, fans cheer, "whoo, whoo," when something good happens.

The Owlz tacked on another run in the fifth when the Chukars pitcher picked up a softly hit ball on the field, rather than letting it roll foul. Based on his gestures, he evidently thought the ball had first hit in foul territory but instead of arguing the point with the umpire, he should have thrown the ball somewhere. By the time he turned to throw the ball to first, it was too late, and the Owl on second smartly ran all the way home during the argument, which was not covered because the catcher had joined in the discussion with the umpire. Argue the play after it is over, guys. This is the kind of stuff that has Mel ready for some higher level baseball. Jordan Parraz, on a rehab assignment from the Double-A Northwest Arkansas Naturals, hit a double and scored in the top of the ninth to let the Chukars avoid a shut-out.

When the team "dragged" (smoothed out) the infield dirt, it had three of the traditional groundskeepers and one who rode a lawn tractor with one lucky child on his lap. That was a new and nice twist on the mid-game chore. The previous night, in Ogden, the groundskeepers dressed in bad wigs and frumpy women's clothing. "They're drag queens," Mr. I-need-three-seats explained to me, as if I couldn't figure out a pun on my own. "They're faggots," some wit behind us announced. I don't know a whole lot about transvestites, but my guess would be that most cross-dressers are heterosexual. Mel was right; I am ready for another state. I did enjoy the pancake breakfast and parade this morning.

After the Portland Beavers game I wrote, "Beer and baseball have always gone hand-in-hand." Not at Brent & Kim Brown Ballpark. That's a first for Melvin and me, although not altogether surprising since we are in Orem, Utah. We got a six at a Sinclair gas station after the game.

The Eyes Have It

Ogden, I apologize. I didn't mean to imply that you are a worse place than Salt Lake City.

Today was Pioneer Day in Ogden--and, for all I know, in all of Utah. This meant a pancake breakfast on the town square:

And also a parade:

Overall downtown Ogden is a curious mix. There's a lot of unoccupied property--from a dozen-story Wells Fargo tower to a doughnut shop that's lost literally everything but its sign. But there are also some pockets that seem to be thriving--nice parks, a pleasant amphitheater, some interesting-looking restaurants, shops, etc. There's also a fairly new rail connection to Salt Lake City and a great collection of old trains at Union Station (unlike the fakey-fake replicas on their toy tracks out at Golden Spike National Monument).

What I wonder about, though, is the straitjacketing sameness of the concept of a "good community." Sure, people like towns with boutiques and open space and reasonably friendly folks who come out to watch cheerleaders, horses, and old cars go by--but there's something merely aesthetic about it. The parallel that came to mind today (after our Spiral Jetty experience yesterday) was the turn in modern art that came with the work of Marcel Duchamp, away from the dominance of "the optical." With the rise of different strains of conceptual art, what an artwork looked like sometimes became a secondary quality, and greatness in art came to be measured as much or more by how "smart" or self-aware or discursive (in the sense of how it related to other works and other ideas) a piece was than by what it actually looked like per se. The idea of Spiral Jetty is in some ways the better part of its attraction. The same is true of Donald Judd's cubes and bars, which are attractive for their pursuit of precision and the way that they draw attention to the interaction of the artistic gesture and machined fabrication.

These pieces don't have the same meaning without some reflection on the why and the how of them. The same, I think, is true of places. If Ogden is defined by what's on 25th St. from Union Station over to Washington Boulevard, it's a success: socially, economically (mostly), historically, and in terms of design. But these lovely "optical" qualities aren't the whole of the town--and it could be argued that whatever investment went into this stretch (for historical markers, landscaping, etc.) might have gone to better overall use elsewhere. I don't know Ogden well enough to say. But I do know that towns across America do make substantial and often ill-advised investments based on the dominant model of optical success--as when a community decides to create a pedestrian mall because the one in Boulder, Colorado, is so pleasing, whether or not a mall is actually what their community needs. We got a whiff of this in Boise, where there was plainly a crafted area of downtown carved out of the rest of downtown that has been designed to be strollable, retail-friendly, easy to park near, and lush with grass and plantings. We avoided it like chlamydia.

After we'd seen enough of the Ogden parade (hello, Peach Queen!), we headed down to Salt Lake City to see the Mormon Temple area. All we wanted to see was the green roof on the conference center. This picture is looking out from it toward the Wasatch Range, which we cannot seem to get away from:

Unfortunately, we had to submit to a 45-minute evangelical tour, in which we learned primarily that Mormons believe all sorts of things that we don't. Good and irked, we then went out in search of lunch; here we learned that (a) SLC does not appear to have a lot of readily evident mixed-use districts; and (b) there isn't much life at all evident near the university. We finally landed at Lotus Thai, on 500 S, where papaya salad, drunken noodles, and cold caffeinated drinks made everything look better and better and better.

Ogden Raptors 11, Casper Ghosts 4 - Thursday, July 23, 2009

"I'm ready for another state," Rob said, after we had settled into our front-row seats by third base, with a view of the Wasatches in the distance again.

The proximate cause of this was the jackass who asked us to move down a seat or two so he could splay his gut out further without obstruction--well, actually, he said it was for "the kids," who for some reason had seats not next to his. This of course turned out to be a great fat flaming lie, which is really why it rankles. But we were getting a little testy with Ogden on account of the fact that Lindquist Field--despite some coolio Wildwood-style lettering on the marquee--didn't have much going for it beyond the view.

Principally, the thing it was lacking was the visiting team, the Casper Ghosts, whose bus had broken down several hours previously in Rawlins, Wyoming. When the team did arrive, league regulations gave them an hour to prepare, so we had some time to kill. The food options were mediocre, though the taco salad wasn't too bad until I decided to relocate the majority of it onto my shorts. And what has happened to local beer? Unlike in the past, on this trip the hometown brews have for the most part been pallid and thin. Are they fooling anybody? They must be, I guess.

Anyway, we were two seats down from the jackass with the gut (and, inexplicably, a T-shirt celebrating David Cone's 1999 perfect game for the Yankees) and directly in front of a local wit, who had much to say about how painful it would or would not be to have a baseball extracted from one's rectum. And, what do you know, then an actual ballgame happened.

We saw two real rarities: a straight steal of home by the Casper right fielder, and a 1-2-3 double play. For the latter, Ogden had runners on first and third with one out. The pitch was tight and inside, and the batter check-swung a dribbler halfway back to the mound, then claimed he had been hit by it. This was not the call, however. The pitcher grabbed up the ball, threw it to the catcher, who tagged out the runner coming from third, before whipping the ball to first to get the batter--who was still arguing the call. So, good times, even if it did eventually turn into a laugher.

Still, if I lived in Ogden and didn't drink myself to death inside of a year on that account, I'd spend my baseball time and money schlepping down to Salt Lake to see the Bees instead of coming here too often.

Stones and Stoners

We sped back to Ogden after the Bees game--in part because I managed to book hotel rooms in Ogden and SLC on days other than the ones that we have game tickets for, and in part because Ogden is closer to today's main attraction, Spiral Jetty.

We've found Spiral Jetty to be a litmus test of our friends. Some light right up at the idea of going there, others have no idea what we're talking about, and others still think it sounds insane to drive dozens of miles into the Utah desert, over unpaved and poorly marked roads, to look at a pile of rocks on the edge of the lake. These groups are not mutually exclusive, and the last one may have a point. (We embarked on a similar odyssey last year, when we went from Midland, Texas, out to Marfa and all the minimalist and maximialist installations there.)

Formally, Spiral Jetty is an earthwork sculpture by Robert Smithson that is managed by the Dia Foundation. It has been rising out of and sinking into the Great Salt Lake since 1970, and it is heavily encrusted now with salt--which is actually pretty tasty. Dia, if you're strapped for cash (and who isn't?), I'm telling you that Smithson's Spiral Salt would be a gift-store bonanza. It is both more and less impressive in reality than it is in photographs, which is how most people know it. It is, after all, just a bunch of rocks in a lake--and the drive to get to it is seriously no joke. We rented a four-wheel drive SUV from the crooks at Enterprise, and even still we jolted along, noting places where others had spun their wheels or punctured their oil pans. One fun and thoughtful account of this journey is in Erin Hogan's book, Spiral Jetta. (Hi, Erin!)

But the scale of the thing can't be denied, and the sheer pointlessness of it is breathtaking--to me it spoke to the essential futility of most of the things we attempt, while at the same time being beautiful and in a sense self-aware. The encrustations and changes it has endured are essential parts of it now, and its very persistence is affecting, funny, and maybe a little sad.

We also climbed high above the lake--which is extremely flat here. It's actually quite hard to tell where exactly the salted shoreline gives way to actual saltwater--it's like walking in frosting. From above, the scale shifted--look for the SUV (which was the size of a small living room) in the foreground here:

As we left the jetty, we put on some Frank Sinatra Christmas tunes and discussed the ways in which we have been behaving like drug dealers: we're two out-of-staters driving a flashy car on a strange itinerary; we swapped that car for an SUV which we drove to an exceedingly remote location; and now we're jamming the surveillance with both White and Blue Christmas.

We went on to skim through the old-timey locomotive replicas at the Golden Spike National Monument and the white-on-white missile and motor casings at the ATK complex nearby. It is true that for such a remote location, there have been a lot of innovations in transportation (if you consider a nuclear missile as a way of getting around). Afterward, we stopped into the Idle Isle restaurant in Brigham City--where, to continue the theme, the waitress thought I was asking not for pie but for pot--before returning to Ogden and heading to the stadium.

Salt Lake Bees 3, Fresno Grizzlies 5 – Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Due to zoning and land availability and prices, several stadiums are built near railroad tracks. Trains are clearly audible inside Safeco Field in Seattle and visible from Municipal Stadium in Binghamton, home to the Mets’ Double-A affiliate. At Midway Stadium, home of the independent St. Paul Saints, the announcer laconically reports the appearance of every train, some of which blow their horn in greeting, and you can buy a souvenir t-shirt that says, simply, “train.” The number 4 subway can be seen from Yankee Stadium (although more so at the old park) and the Red Line is visible from Wrigley Field. Minute Maid Park is built on the site of the Union Station railyards in Houston and, in tribute, an engine runs back and forth along the left-field wall when the home team hits a home run. Something similar exists at Spring Mobile Park in Salt Lake City. As an advertisement for the train tours it operates, the Heber Valley Railroad runs a small yellow train—really a small tractor dressed up as a locomotive and three or four cars—along a walkway that runs about 40 feet beyond the outfield fence. There was a waiting line.

It is fairly common for a concourse to go all the way around a major league stadium, except in the upper deck(s). It is less common at minor league parks. The only other stadiums Melvin and I can think of are the home fields of the Toledo Mud Hens and the Lakewood (NJ) Blue Claws. I wish more ballparks were built this way. At Salt Lake, fans can spread a blanket and watch the game from a grassy slope inside the walkway, and the area beyond it is set up for the most extensive group picnicking I have seen at any ballpark. I saw three guys in chef’s whites, all taking the food service very seriously. Speaking of which, my brisket sandwich was very tender, and it came with my choice of a green or a fruit salad. I choose the latter since I thought fruit would go better with my choice of the three hefeweizens. The draft beer selection is extensive at Spring Mobile Park.

Beyond the outfield concourse are additional food concessions and restrooms. Above the entrance to the women’s restroom is a sign indicating that is it 474 feet from home plate. That’s a home run! Beyond everything, well off in the distance, are the Wasatch Mountains. A beautiful setting for a beautiful ballpark.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Soda Pop Fizz and Popped by the Fuzz

Pretty atypical day on the road for Melvin and me. First off, we usually plan our trips in great detail and the only event planned for Wednesday, besides the drive to Ogden and Salt Lake City, was picking up Mel's girlfriend at the airport. However, work and other pressures led to her changing her mind about joining us for part of the trip. Second, we have never planned our itinerary or route based on scenic beauty. Narragansett, Rhode Island, is beautiful, but we went there to see the Point Judith Corrosion Test Site. While we were in Boise, residents suggested a route south that we partially followed through valleys framed by mountain ranges, past Bear Lake and up and over the mountain in the Cache National Forest.

Before we did that, however, we visited Soda Springs and Hooper Springs, Idaho. Soda Springs is home to what is presented as the only man-controlled geyser in America. Unlike "Old Faithful," which does its thing when it feels the urge, the geyser in Soda Springs blows every hour on the hour. It is probably not as large as the geyser in Yellowstone National Park, but we pulled right up to the free parking lot and shared the experience with seven other visitors. Good enough for me. Looked pretty much like all the pictures I've ever seen of the more famous geyser to the north. Well, I don't remember if those pictures showed all the organic forms created by the minerals deposited by the water.

Speaking of the minerals in the water, if you go to nearby Hooper Springs (by the phosphorus plant), you can sample the water in a pool originally built under the Works Progress Administration. I thought it tasted like club soda, only stronger. Melvin found it reminiscent of Cel-Ray Tonic, a celery flavored soda you can still find sometime. He thought it would make a good gin fizz.

Before we did that, however, I got pulled over, allegedly for speeding. While I might admit to, oh, let's call it driving at the speed of the predominant flow of traffic while on the Interstate, I made an effort to obey the local speed limits once I left the highway. I suppose it is possible that I missed a sign. If the restrictions were as described by the polite young deputy sheriff, the speed limit went from 65 to 45 to 65 to 45 and back to 65. If that is the case, I am sure that is for safety reasons and not just to create a speed trap. But what was curious was how the conversation between the sheriff's deputy and me kept coming back to the subject of drugs. It really started to feel like we had been pulled over based on a profile. On last year's trip to Texas, we saw an art installation that included a fake methamphetamine lab, but that and that Bruce Springsteen song are about all I know on the subject. Anyway, in the end, we left with a written warning and were out of that county within minutes. As I said, a pretty atypical day on the road for Melvin and me.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Iatrogenic Idaho

Let’s get the big obvious topic out of the way upfront: Idaho is boring. Really boring. Topographically boring. Culturally boring. Boring. As boring as these sentence fragments.

I don’t say this lightly. When I was fifteen or so I eagerly stayed up till 2 a.m. or so watching PBS’s feed from some spacecraft that was nearing Saturn or Uranus or some uninteresting icy place. The picture was grainy, black and white, and largely static (in both senses), but I watched it for hours. This might also explain my tolerance for the music of Steve Reich.

Anyway, the boringness of the drive is actually part of the appeal here. It’s a signal of being out of the normal routine, which is boring in other ways, but recognizably urban ones. At no point over the rest of the year do I find myself asking not entirely rhetorical questions like “Why is sagebrush apparently not like sage?” and “What on earth were Lewis and Clark thinking anyway?” Still, even though I know that there are countless stories on and under this land, I can’t muster the interest. (Who am I, John McPhee?)

After the painted hills and all of eastern Oregon, it would be hard for any other state to compete. But seriously, Idaho, you’re not even trying. At least the southern part of you isn’t. I shouldn’t make fun--this is not a place that much tolerates being made fun of. And it isn’t as if Boise doesn’t have its charms: it’s compact, scenic, and more diverse than I had expected, what with the significant Basque population. (The Basques seem to have come to Boise for the same reason the Somalis more recently came to Minnesota: happenstance.) All the same, even the locals struggled for recommendations on how we should spend our time here.

We stayed in the Leuk Ona Hotel in downtown’s Basque Block--“Leuk Ona” apparently being Basque for “hotel that is actually a bar,” which it was. In Portland, we had wondered why more bars didn’t have rooms upstairs for patrons who found themselves perhaps less than able to leave at the end of the night, and here was just such a place. It was perfectly fine, except that our room abutted about forty-three Dumpsters, which were each lovingly lifted and emptied around 4:30 in the morning.

After a visit to the local history museum –which features a miracle of taxidermy I won’t dignify with description—and a Basque breakfast (more chorizo, basically) we got on the highway east, marveling at the sheer dullness of the landscape. I’m harping on this now, but there’s a difference between “empty” and “dull.” Emptiness has a lure, a scope, a wow factor of its own. Dullness is, well, just not worth looking at anymore than necessary.

Perhaps this is why people travel this road with hand grenades.

Ho-ho, ha-ha, right? Sadly, no. It seems some yob on the run got pulled over on I-84 near Mountain Home, and the presence of a grenade in his car caused a complete law-enforcement freakout, including the closure of the interstate in both directions. We and lots of pissed-off truckers got off and poked through Mountain Home, in the process missing the exit we’d intended to take. Worse (and even less ho-ho, ha-ha), there’d been a fatal accident at the point where westbound traffic was being detoured off the road on account of the grenade guy. So, to recap: a decision made in the name of public safety led indirectly to the death of an innocent young woman. There’s a word for this, but unfortunately the word is “iatrogenesis”—the process by which a solution engenders the problem it is trying to address. I have found this to be a surprisingly common dynamic, once I started to look for it.

The hours of lunar landscape after this were supposed to be inspirational—what sounds better than “Craters of the Moon National Park”? But we both thought this was just dignifying a landscape that looked like tremendous piles of dried dung.

We finally reached the town of Arco, and here things started to look up. We’d been discussing the nuclear history of the west, and here it was under our feet: a town that had once gotten all of its electricity from atomic power at the nearby Idaho National Laboratory. It is also home to America’s Submarine in the Desert, which I suppose is self-explanatory, once you see it.

Not far away is the world’s first nuclear reactor, now decommissioned, and lots of lab sites that we weren’t allowed to get anywhere near. When you get a funny feeling about what the government is up to, this is one of the places where they’re up to it, along with several suburbs of Washington, D.C.; most of Utah and Nevada; and Oak Ridge, Tennessee, for starters. These kinds of places that have a lure for us—there really is something going on here—but by definition we can never quite see it. (One terrific book on these kinds of places is the Center for Land Use Interpretation’s Overlook: Exploring the Internal Fringes of America.)

After skimming along in the lab’s rush hour traffic, we finally made Idaho Falls, with not a lot of time to spare. We then got mildly lost (since I managed to elide the difference between U.S. 20 and Business U.S. 20), which was really quite an achievement in such a small place.

Mellaleuca Field was opened in 2007 and must be about as swanky a stadium as there is in short-season A ball. The statute of the Unknown Chukar, new this year, is pretty creepy, though. This franchise is a step down the hierarchy from Boise, but the trappings were far nicer—comfortable seats, good sightlines, etc. We settled in with some Red Hook Sunryes in seats just behind the visitors’ dugout and watched the Chukars pound the snot out of the Missoula Osprey, 13–3. A Chukar, incidentally, is not a cricket player, but some kind of raptor (Full disclosure: Before this evening, I thought an osprey was a fish.)

Boise Hawks 4, Salem-Keizer Volcanos 3 -- Monday, July 20, 2009

I saw the Volcanos at home with my father and step-mother three days earlier and the first team in the Northwest League to win 20 games looked strong. However, on Monday it was the Boise Hawks who were dominant in a contest that might have been most notable for sloppy fielding all around. There were as many errors as runs scored, which will happen at this level of baseball, but was still tough to watch.

More positively, Brett Jackson, a Cubs' 2009 first round draft pick, extended his hitting streak to all 16 of the games he has played for the Hawks. Hak-Ju Lee, who has failed to reach base in only one of the 27 games he has played for Boise, also hit and stole a base. At game time, he led the league with 12 stolen bases and was third in the league with 35 hits. Lee looked good in the field as well. Second baseman Logan Watkins also extended his hitting streak, to 12.

Melvin and I had hoped to visit Epi's, a Basque restaurant of considerable acclaim in Boise, but it is closed on Mondays. We settled for a fairly spicy Basque chorizo on a roll, and Fat Tire beer, at the ball park. Memorial Stadium, where the Hawks are celebrating their 20th anniversary, is a simple facility but it has waitress service in the box seats!

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Farm and Garden Report

Part of the reason for driving to Bend after the Beavers' game was to shorten the drive to Boise the next day. Another reason was to visit a couple "folk environments" in Redmond early, before hitting the road. Melvin and I have toured several folk art landscapes on the past couple trips. Some of these can accurately be described has piles of junk, although the creators would certainly claim deeper meanings and purposes. The Fun Farm fell more or less into this category. The most poignant tableau was a field of crosses and a sign, partially faded, apparently making some statement about the war in Iraq.

A couple of miles away, we visited the Peterson Rock Garden, a collection of buildings and sculptures constructed of cement and large, semi-precious stones by a Danish farmer in the middle of the twentieth century. The constructions are in remarkably good shape. Although not religious, this reminded Mel and me of the Ave Maria Grotto, and other sculptures built over a lifetime by a monk, that we saw in Alabama two years ago.

The peacocks that roam the property are beautiful to look at but not so pretty to hear.

Several people told me that for scenic beauty, a drive across Oregon should be made on US 26 and their advice was accurate. Highlighting the trip was our stop at the Painted Hills Unit of the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument. The "painted hills" are stripped by minerals in the soil that have oxidized, looking like less brightly colored versions of the sand-art-in-a-jar souvenirs that can be made on the boardwalk or at a county fair.

Everyone Says This Is Nowhere

These trips are powered by many things: a love of baseball, a curiosity about the built environment, and a need to poke a little at what Greil Marcus famously called "the old, weird America." They are also powered by caffeine, alcohol, and gasoline--and of these gasoline is the greatest, particularly on this iteration. We left PGE Park secure in the knowledge that the Padres will not compete for a few years at least and walked through the Pearl District to the car. And we left. We never stay anywhere for long, and usually that's a good thing. But on the flip side, everywhere is worth going for at least a little while.

The road to Bend is long and various, unless you had to walk it, in which case it's just long. National forest gives way to flat, dry Indian reservation, punctuated by sudden chasms so deep we could not see bottom from the bridges across them. Acres of sage and unidentifiable crops (what are we, botanists?) were punctuated by small towns with pet spas, taxidermists, and the usual detritus sprawl. But this is America, and we came this way to get off the Interstate and see what's back here. The Dunes Motel in Bend was... let's say somewhat shopworn. But this isn't the lexical luxury tour, it's an attempt to see all the baseball teams in America and everything in between. In the words of Morphine, "You get what you pay for... and now I'm paying and paying and paying and paying."

The road beckons. On to Boise.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Portland Beavers 2, Salt Lake Bees 4 -- Sunday, July 19, 2009

It was a beautiful day for baseball, but these Pacific North Division opponents squared off before a sparse crowd at PGE Park. Portland has been discussed as a possible site for a major league franchise and the stadium there is larger than most Triple-A ball parks. I attended the Triple-A all star game the week before and the almost 17,000 fans were the largest crowd to attend a baseball game in Portland—or an all star game—since 1991. All of the upper rows in PGE are covered with tarp and Melvin estimated that the park could hold 25- to 30,000 fans, not that much smaller than Fenway. Mel and I attended the game with my step-brother Kevin and Brad, his buddy since high school, both of whom live in Portland. As a result, we got a local perspective on plans to bring a major league soccer franchise to PGE, with the baseball displaced to points still unknown. The consensus on Sunday and at the all star game is that Portland isn't a baseball town; when the weather is nice, the locals would rather do something other than sit and watch a baseball game. I am sure there are mayors and directors of economic development in several cities who are already talking about how they can become the host city for the Padres' affiliate if the opportunity arises.

Beer and baseball have always gone hand-in-hand. We had lunch at the Rogue brewpub, one of the many microbreweries in the Northwest. We followed that with another pint in the Widmer beer garden along the right field line (pictured). The seats closer to the field may have a decent view of the action but from where we were sitting, it was not possible to see what was happening on the infield so we relocated to our seats behind home plate. The game was a pitcher’s duel of sorts until the Bees scored three in the top of the sixth. They added an insurance run and the Beavers rally in the bottom of the ninth fell short.

MiLB Reports: Game Recap Box Score

Who Am I and Why Am I Here?

For the past seven years, Melvin and I have taken a more or less annual baseball road trip—which has evolved into something that actually isn’t all about baseball. The 2002 trip, with our wives, took us to Montreal for what we wrongly thought would be the final season of the Expos. Mel and his wife traveled alone the next year to six Midwestern ball parks and the three of us saw six games in Nebraska, Kansas and Oklahoma in 2004. Melvin and his wife dropped out of the 2005 trip, built around the inaugural season of the Nationals, when there was a death in his family prior to our departure. It was just the two of us, now both divorced (one amiably, one not), on a short trip in 2006 to Pawtucket, Boston, and Portland. By hitting two cities in one day twice, the 2007 tour got in 14 games in 12 days, from the District of Columbia to Birmingham and back. Last year we saw the seven teams in affiliated baseball in Texas. The 2009 road trip will have us driving from Portland, Oregon, to Chicago, and as an added experiment, blogging about the trip. There are two off-days scheduled, but the itinerary is major and minor league baseball almost every day, with various sights and diversions along the way.