Diary of a Saloon Owner: 2005


JULY 2005

SUNDAY, JULY 31ST...Received the nicest compliment this afternoon from Stuart Kenworthy, rector of Georgetown's Christ Church. He stopped me to say, "Nathans has become everybody's favorite restaurant." This proves there's life after death.

Otherwise, can't believe it's the last day of July. Not fair! Slow down. I want another two months of summer and then I want it to be autumn, just like that, with an overnight arrival ushered by gusty winds and a brooding sky. Was up very early this morning to work out, walk, read the paper, get started on this and that. Wrote letters to some of the people on my lunch "wish list" and then walked to various doorsteps and slipped them throug the mail slots. I hope the recipients don't mind, but too often when I go through gatekeepers the intended is not even told. I'm rejected at the get-go. I understand. The lunches are unique, and there's no point of reference to help image handlers know if it's their employer's best interest to appear. I can claim this, though: virtually everyone who has appeared at Nathans, especially those who didn't know what to expect, came away pleased (except for C.Z. Guest, understandably, because her books didn't arrive), particularly by the intimacy of the back room. How often do bold faced names get to be interviewed in rooms where they can see the faces of the audience?

Set aside the Spa at Home for one night last night to go to the movies and dinner with Dorothy McGhee. We saw "Must Love Dogs," and my advice is to love this film one Must Love Sitcoms. Why doesn't someone give Diane Lane another strong part that uses her maturity, her depth, her torment? Geez, the entire film she looked like she wanted to be someplace else. Some wonderful supporting players, though, especially a girl who does a great ditzy blond. John Cusack is still cute, though he needs a meaty role, too, and Christopher Plummer and Stockard Channing do very well and use like 1% of the their talent. Having written all this, it should be noted everyone else in the audience laughed. Broke my regimen to have a cocktail, wine, and some french fries and a chocolate desert. Oh, and a salad of watermelon and heirloom tomatoes and an entree of steamed mussels. Guest where?

Then we stopped into Nathans, which was snap happy with people. The bar was full, the dining room was full. The streets were semi-full. Lots of families. Lots of young people. I wonder who's at the beach?

SATURDAY, JULY 30TH...Didn't mean to be so pathetic last night. Not my natural state. It's quite possible a good massage stirs stuff up, which is good (you know, up and out), and then there was the gloomy, gray weather. I have this other theory, too, which came to me while ruminating a brief spell this morning. (And I imagine this happens to everyone). But being away gave me that freedom to take flight and move forward, to get my head into my dreams and strengths. Returning put me right back into Howard's world, because every time I walk in the door of Nathans it is a walk into the past, into him, as he is in every square inch of the place, except for the Q&A lunches, which are mine. And that's the theory. Most likely it's all of the above. Can't emphasize enough how important it is for widows/widowers to move on with their lives, and if I were independently wealthy I would have cut the sea anchor long ago. So I resolve to focus even more on the lunches. (I love Nathans. But Nathans is Howard's place - always has been, always will be.)

BTW, got the sweetest e-mail from a reader and patron, who wrote, "When I win the lottery I will make you an offer you can't refuse on the bar." That's one of the most endearing notes a man has sent to me - ever!

Someone asked me today, "Will you be appearing again at the Mandarin?" and they weren't referring to my Time Treatment next week. This has come up with Alan Novak, but we haven't sat down to talk. Certainly we had a strong turn-out at the Mandarin for Jane Stanton Hitchcock, the setting was excellent. At Nathans we can fit in only 65 patrons, and at the Mandarin we had 90. And apart from no A/C, and a little understandable opening night confusion, the show went off well and the paying customers departed happy, and we sold all the books. I had a good time. Jane did, too. But that answer is, "I don't know." For the moment I'm thinking only of booking up the Nathans lunches. Got a lot of white space on the calendar. But also have a lot of targets in my view. Watch out - you might be one of them.

FRIDAY, JULY 29TH...Even with my misgivings of a few days ago I have to hand it to Scotland Yard today. Chasing down and shooting to death an innocent man did not knock them off their game. They apologized sincerely, and got back on the hunt for the real bad guys and have been bagging suspects almost daily, especially today. They don't mess around. I wonder how it would be different if TONY BLAIR was the shot calla in Iraq? I wonder if the project would be done now? The Brits probably wouldn't even be there. After all, they quite possibly see this as not the world vs. Iraq but Bush vs. Saddam Hussein. They are there out of loyalty to us, which is what they do. I hope Homeland Security is borrowing a few pages, if not the whole book, from Scotland Yard.

Walked around beautiful Georgetown this evening. The weather is gray and humid but less hot and people are out and about. I eavesdropped on a group of men trying to decide where to go. They had Nordic accents, and one of them said, "Look, we'll just find which place has the best looking girls and go there." Whenever I overhear people on the street debating where to go to dinner I so want to volunteer advice, especially to recommend Nathans. But I zip my lip. It wouldn't be cool, and it could backfire. However, if they are standing at the door perusing the posted menu I often will lean in with, "It's a great place. Trust me." I'm into my second week of trying to Spa at Home, and it's going okay. My thing is this: I could spend money I don't have and go to a spa and eat the right diet, work out a lot, and get massage, or I could try to save some money and do it at home. This involves a lot of will power and discipline. So far, so good. I've shed the pounds I gained on the road trip and I'm chipping away now at established girth. I treated myself to a massage at the Four Seasons, which would have been sublime, except for the rude and robotic admonitions of one of the staff, who wanted me to know I was not permitted to touch the equipment. It's not that she didn't have a right to tell me this -- hey, they have their rules - it was the way she lurked near me, acting like she was fiddling with some equipment, waiting to pounce on me when I stepped off the elliptical, and then feigning sweetness as she scolded me. "If you are here for a massage you are not allowed to use the equipment. It is for memebers only. We would be happy to give you an application..." Just before that happened, I was thinking of signing up for some more massages. But not now.David Sendzul gave me a terrific massage, btw. And I have a deep, long admiration for the Four Seasons, but sometimes the attitude is a bit much. One thought: most gyms allow massage customers to use the equipment, sometimes for a small fee. What's the big deal? Besides, there was no one else there. Apart from that awkward moment, Day 10 of the Spa at Home has gone well. And it works, and I recommend it. The Mandarin has invited me over next week for a "Time Ritual" at their spa and I can't wait. I hope ANTHONY LANIER continues on the path of possibly opening a club/gym/day spa. I hope. I hope. I hope. As it is one of his apartment buildings has a handsome rooftop swimming pool that overlooks the river, Rossyln and a good chunk of DC. But it is decidedly only for residents.

Returned to Nathans to have a plate of the yummy clams casino and tasted a new champagne by the glass that is from France and is delicious and is only $8 glass. It's a deal. But the smoke in the bar sort of got in the way of my taste buds. No one cared but me.

Imagine this: you are standing on a frozen lake when suddenly it cracks and everything that is solid beneath you falls in and you with it. You crawl out, in a state of shock, when suddenly an avalanche falls on you. Getting out from under the avalanche completely consumes all of your energy and focus and will to live and when, a long time later, you are out from under the avalanche it doesn't even occur to you to deal with the earlier crisis of falling through the ice into the lake. This is a very lame attempt to explain that while I totally processed and got through the struggle with the IRS and saving Nathans (the avalanche), that maybe I didn't process everything to do with Howard's sudden death (falling through the ice). I say this because I find, at this tender age, that I'm not any good anymore at attaching myself to people, to places, to things. I have this awful fear of losing them, and the biggest fear is not wanting to experience that kind of pain again. It's complicated and large, but it's what I was thinking about as I walked around Georgetown tonight enjoying the sights and the sounds. I will go to bed thinking I should erase this last paragraph, but why have a blog if I'm going to do that?

THURSDAY, JULY 28TH...It's booking madness here at the producer's desk of the Q&A Cafe. Already announced, MICHAEL ISIKOFF will be the first guest when we launch the new season Tuesday, September 20th. Michael not only breaks the news (notably MONICA LEWINSKY; Rove as the source on Plame), but recently he made the news (the Koran in the Gitmo toilet story). As for other tip top guests you won't want to miss: ANDREW KOHUT, President of The Pew Research Center, who will appear Tuesday, October 18th. For ten years, Andy was president of The Gallup Organization, then he founded Princeton Survey Research Associates, and now he runs Pew. He writes frequently for the NY Times op-ed page. He's also a Georgetowner. RICK KAPLAN, president of MSNBC is scheduled to appear Wednesday, November 2nd. Rick and I go way back to the CBS Evening News in the 1970s. But since then he has climbed many mountains. He enjoyed huge success as executive producer of Nightline, and later Prime Time Live, but then had a controversial turn as President of CNN. For the last year he's been pulling up MSNBC. He's an interesting man with great stories to tell, and pointed insight re broadcast news. Though a precise day hasn't been confirmed yet, save the first week of October for photographer DIANA WALKER. I should have a fixed date tomorrow. Also, I have a yes from DR. MITSUNORI ONO, the world-renowned phytochemical expert from Harvard, who will help us all to slow down the aging process. And HAROLD EVANS and I are e-mailing. Stay tuned for more.

By the way, there was a special MPDC ceremony honoring JOE POZELL to retire his badge, the first time this honor was accorded a reserve officer. This came a week after the Georgetown Business and Professional Association paid special tribute to Joe. When I cross the intersection, which I do many times every day, Joe's there, looking out for all of us in the pedestrian nation.

While I'm on traffic and DC, the new parking meters seem to be working out okay so far, but my dashboard has become home to a collection of expired parking receipts.

I heard from a friend that WALTER CRONKITE was to be married to the sister of CARLY SIMON, a woman we met with him when we were last in NYC. But then I heard there is no engagement, that they are good friends. Some said it would be too soon for Walter to marry after the death of his wife. Phooey. Everyone deserves comfort, companionship, happiness...and our deceased spouses would want that for us. Maybe this isn't the one, but Walter's a hot catch and I hope one of these days we do read that he's hooking up.

Wednesday, July 27th...Now that we've been home a week it's a good time to asses the cross country road trip. I find when people ask me about it, my spontaneous answer is, "it was spectacular from beginning to end." That's true. I look back on the trip with wonder, mostly over the fact we drove all those thousands of miles. On the wall in my office is the map of the U.S. I used to chart our route, and now I've traced it in green highlight marker. I look at spots on the map and can zoom in like a satellite and recall a diner or an intersection or a dusty main street, fields of corn or soybeans or prairie grass. I can see our hotels and motels, the parks, the shops, the people. So many places have a face for us now. That's the basic point of this trip: we have a better idea of what America looks like. And if you factor in we've already driven Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Connecticut in New England; the coast roads to Hyannis; the Atlantic coast from Florida to DC, well, our picture is almost complete. I'd still like to do the deep South and the Pacific Northwest.

The memories that stand out: that Iowa is a surprisingly elegant state. Yes, it's corn and farmland, but done so well. The farms are beautiful - huge and beautiful. I still regret not photographing the barns that were a faded aquamarine. Wow. Gorgeous against the dark green of the corn stalks and the deep brown of the tilled earth. Too bad the state is utterly land-locked. The terrains of Eastern South Dakota and Eastern Oregon are tough, hard, unwelcoming. But the western areas of the states are gorgeous - South Dakota with the rolling hills and tall grasses of the Badlands, the stark beauty of the Black Hills, and Oregon with its majestic pines and fast blue rivers. In many states, especially Oregon, we saw too much devastation from forest fires. Shocking, actually. I had no idea.
We rolled into lots of towns (western and southwestern) with names from America's history books, but too many, at least on main street, looked like empty city scenes from "On the Beach," while out on the outskirts of town the WalMart parking lot was full. This is not news. We've been hearing about this trend for two decades, but to see it repeated over and over and over was disheartening. I wanted to single-handedly pump life back into those handsome old towns with architecture that speaks volumes about who we once were as a young nation. Typically, the bank building and the land office were on corners and always they were the two buildings made from brick and stone.

We loved Wyoming and Montana. Can't say it enough: would gladly return to both states and especially to spend more time in Jackson Hole. It was in those states that we often drove for miles without seeing another car. That's a treat, especially coming from the East where we're on each other like the strands in a ball of rubber bands. California didn't disappoint, and it's probably not possible to drive the PCH too many times. The desert southwest is memorable for the heat. We crossed the desert with temps outside of 114. Can't imagine getting a flat or having car trouble in those condidtions. Towns come along every 75 or 100 miles. Otherwise, it's brown dust and sand, sagebrush, occasional hills - the earth before man. The scenery was stunning but unrelenting. Had to work hard to not fall into a trance. Thankful for Gene Wilder's good book on tape, and Spencer...who made a project of placing Gummi Bears on the dashboard to see if they would melt in the heat. They did.

The Grand Canyon was all I imagined it would be, though muted by the smoke from forest fires. Would like to return, but not in summer. Just too too too many people in limited viewing areas. I'm glad we bolted to spend the night in Sedona, which was like spending the night in the Grand Canyon, in this case red rock canyons, without the crowds.

The last week of the trip was a quick group of transitions - from the southwest to the midwest to the mid-Atlantic. With more time I would have taken that route deeper south, though in Kentucky Louisville and Lexington have a lot to offer on their back roads. It's not possible to see what the region is about from the main highway, because the horse farms and the distilleries are on the rural routes. The closer we got to home, the more traffic on the highway and driving habits got worse. It's interesting how as the speed limit went down the bad driving went up. Maybe out west, at 75 mph, drivers drive better because they know at those speeds there's only one kind of crack up - fatal. Nonetheless, during the last two days of the trip we were eager to get home. We enjoyed ourselves in Missouri, Kentucky and West Virginia, but our minds were on friends, pets, a familiar bed.

Bottom line: everyone should do this trip. Parents with teenage children should do it as soon as possible. Minimum two weeks, better with three, and the round trip is not essential. It could be done one way with lots of zig-zagging. Apart from rooms in the National Parks, it's not necessary to book hotels in advance...though maybe for weekends. Even on July 4th in Cody, Wy., there were rooms, and that was with the rodeo in town. Don't pack a lot. We could have got by with half of what we packed, as long as we did laundry along the way. Our average hotel cost was $100 a night, and these were places with Mobil or AAA 3-star ratings. We splurged in a couple of places - Jackson Hole, Santa Fe - but those were good places to splurge. Gas was affordable most of the way, especially in the west. It got expensive in Oregon and California, around Santa Fe and as we moved East the gas prices climbed. I paid as little as $2.12 a gallon and as much as $2.75. Roadfood.com was indispensible for finding interesting places to eat. We were never disappointed, though in one town the address given lead us to a very shady neighborhood and no eatery. We also used AAA and Mobil, our instincts and recommendations from locals.

Next holiday: one town, one hotel, no driving. But who am I kidding? For the past two days I've wanted to get in a car and drive for miles and miles...

Tuesday, July 26th...Not long after Howard died, on a particularly bleak night, needing a piece of him, needing anything that could give me a sliver of comfort, I went to his chest of drawers. There, in the second drawer down, were his boxer shorts, all neatly pressed and folded. I carefully took out a pair with red and white stripes from Brooks Brothers and put them on. They were incredibly soft. They gave me comfort, I felt close to my husband, and I slept like a normal person rather than a madwoman on the edge of destruction. Before that night I wore only myself to bed. Ever since I've worn Brookers Brothers boxer shorts; Howard's until they fell apart, and now new pairs I buy for myself. But tonight it's so hot and so steamy, the air still and sullen, even with the A/C, that I'm wondering if any clothing is too much clothing.

Here's a potentially unfair gripe, and I'll tell you why it's potentially that. It's me throwing a tiny bitch at another restaurant, and it could just as easily be someone else throwing a bitch at mine. But it brings up a larger point. Went for dinner tonight at a big fave on Capitol Hill. It's in a hotel and they serve awesome french fries. I love the place. It's in my top 3. I've been going there since it opened and always ask for a table in the bar. The staff are great, attentive without cloying, and the food is reliable. But tonight the service wasn't up to snuff and I hope it's not a trend. I hope it's just one of those nights. It wasn't good because it was in stages and the waiter either disappeared or hustled us all the way through. I hate that. I'm a grown up. I know what I want. Coddle me, take care of me, look out for my interests, but don't make me wait endlessly between courses and then try to keep selling me wine while I wait. Don't deliver the french fries 30 minutes after we ask for them, and the appetizers then right on top of that, and the entree 30 minutes after the appetizer's were finished, and then drop the dessert menus and ask about "port, brandy or some other after dinner drink." Pace, baby. It's all about pace. When the pace is right the server is winning, the restaurant is winning, because the diners don't even notice them. It's seamless, effortless, transparent. But the moment a customer begins craning his or her neck in search of the server the restaurant has lost the game. Conversation comes to a halt, the flow has flown, it becomes all about "can we get our_________, please?" It can happen in the best places, but it shouldn't happen anywhere, because there is no discount for bad service. There's just a bad feeling.

And look, I buried the lead. Booked the first Q&A lunch of the season today. It will be with Newsweek investigative correspondent Michael Isikoff on Tuesday, November 20th. Fasten your seatbelts because I'm thinking of jacking the price to $30 per, all inclusive, but it's not in cement yet. Also have two other goodies in the pipeline. I wrote to Isikoff and said, "As a writer you know how it is when you get that first sentence down and the rest just flows. Well, that's how it is booking the lunches. I need to start with one big, hot, fabulous, boffo guest and then I'm off and running. Will you be that guest, please?" He wrote back and said okay, but could it wait until 2009. I wrote back and said "no." And so we settled on 9/20/05. You'll be there if you have any sense. I promise good service.

Monday, July 25th...Since returning to DC last Tuesday we've been dining off separate menus here at home. This because, after three weeks of road food and living large, I needed to detox on a few weeks of modified South Beach while Spen, being a teenager, can carry on as normal. This means cooking two for two. For example, my breakfast this morning was a bowl of Total with skim milk, while for the non-dieter I made blueberry sugar pancakes with butter maple syrup. Lunch, he had a robust turkey sandwich and I had celery and carrot sticks with Laughing Cow Cheese (is your mouth watering yet?). Dinner this evening was salad and sauteed halibut for me, and tacos with all the fixins' for him. I will admit that for my halibut I added some week old champagne to the pan while deglazing, creating a pretty good sauce from olive oil and lemon and jus. Whenever there's a little champagne remaining in a bottle I save it and use it later for sauces, for making mustard. With a good pressure stopper it can last a week in the chiller. Anyway, I feel good, though I coveted his dessert of fresh peaches and chocolate chip cookies.

Made time to see "Hustle and Flow" and feel like I saw a real movie, meaning it had a beginning, middle and end, which is rarer and rarer in modern commmercial films. But the headline is the performances by everyone, particularly Terrence Howard as the pimp turned rapper. Like "8 Mile," it's an up from the gutter story and, like "8 Mile," the music is bumpin'. Another stand-out is Taryn Manning who, coincidentally, was also in "8 Mile." It was all good. The language is rough (hey, it's rap) and there's a burst of PG-13 violence toward the end, but it's mostly driven by plot, performance and music. Now I gotta see "Bad News Bears," because Billy Bob Thornton is always relief from whatever - in this case, the stifling heat. So hot today we fried an egg on the sidewalk.

At Nathans tonight we are featuring some hot weather specials, like gazpacho and cold chicken breast with vegetables, not to forget the Shark Bite in the bar. Anything to take customers' minds off temps in the 90s. We did a good lunch. Fortunately the air-conditioning system has been marching on without clunking or hiccuping, but having written that I will worry I tempted fate. If you could see Nathans' rooftop and our antiquated A/C system you'd probably wonder how it works at all, and why it's not in the Smithsonian. We have a guy who regularly comes in to tinker with it. Speaking of the aging process, my kitchen at home is beginning to seem as ancient as the one at Nathans. All the major appliances are circa l986 and they are a chorus line of decay. I've been getting as-needed repairs done for the past five years, but the repair man thinks they may be terminal. Hello Bray and Scarff and more $$$. Got to prioritize between the bathtub faucets I operate with pliers and a dishwasher that doesn't dispense soap and a refrigerator that doesn't refrigerate. Hmmmm.

Sunday, July 24th...REMINDER: We do have two job openings at Nathans...both important, challenging, well-paying positions. First of all, I need a new administrative assistant to be my wing, and to perform a variety of tasks in the office. It's a Monday-Friday, daytime job, and inlcudes lunch and parking. The other open position is for a floor manager. We are looking for someone with good bar/restaurant experience, who likes the action, the people, the hours, the whole ball of wine, booze, food, staff, and fun. The schedule is fluid, there is night work, weekend work, etc. For either position, write to carol@nathansgeorgetown.com.
Or phone Vito or Erin at
These jobs are open for immediate occupancy.

We did an okay brunch business today. It was steady. Never packed, but always full and constant. This is a change from the last two years. Overall, business is creeping back up. It feels good. I'm encouraged. Of course, as soon as I begin to feel optimistic I stop myself and worry about tempting faint. That's just my nature. But if Vito, Sergio, Mahde, Jenn and the others on the staff want to feel real good about all this, then that's okay with me. Someone should not be superstitious.

Went to see "War of the Worlds," as part of our catch-up to all the pop culture we missed while on the road. Not impressed. It felt derivative. At times I thought I was watching a remake of "Close Encounters." I want Spielberg to make magic no one else has thought of, make me marvel, and this film didn't do it. The monsters looked like he hired them from "Signs." And the whole basement thing was totally from "Signs." Oh, well, my opinion is in the minority. Critics and fans seem to love it. What I want to see are "Rize" and "Hustle and Flow."

Saturday, July 23rd...What I should have written at the end of yesterday's entry was, "Let's hope, dear Lord, that the Brit cops knew what they were doing and that this suspect had something incriminating on him." Then today on the web there was this:

LONDON, July 23 - Scotland Yard admitted Saturday that a man police officers chased and shot to death at point-blank range in front of horrified subway passengers on Friday had nothing to do with the investigation into the bombing attacks here. Senior investigators and officials of the Metropolitan Police said the man was believed to be South American; it was not known whether he was Muslim. No explosives or weapons were found on the man's body after the shooting, police officials said.

The forces hunting down the bad guys need credibility now more than ever. If it's the west against Islamic terrorits, we can't bomb and invade countries claiming they have WMD's when there are none, and we can't shoot terrorist suspects five times in the head in a crowded subway station and then the next day report the victim had nothing to do with the investigation. We have to be righter than right, if we can, because we're supposed to have the power, sophistication and resources to have good intelligence. We know US intelligence screwed up big time on Iraq. I hoped Scotland Yard was better at it. Yesterday, they sounded so certain. Their certainty gave me hope. But, what was that guy doing at the safe house of the bombing suspects? Why did he run from the cops? Why did he jump the turnstile at the subway? What made him a suspect?

They tell us that every day special forces intelligence aces are getting it done, and that what they do can't be served up to the media. This is how they explain Gitmo. We can give them that. But in return, shouldn't they give us, as citizens, no dangerous blunders that potentially worsen the whole picture?

Anyway, enough amateur analysis. It all scares me. I want it over. Done. Resolved. But is that possible in our lifetimes?

Went to see the movie "Wedding Crashers." It was fun to see this film because last summer it was shot partly in Georgetown. Why Georgetown? There is no part of the plot that explains why. However, we watched Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson film some of the scenes on P Street between 31st and Wisconsin. The film company used the outside of the Nitze home and the interiors of the cream colored townhouse next to the Presbyterian Church. They filmed on the canal near Thomas Jeffersons St., but I couldn't spot those scenes. They filmed other parts around St. Michaels, Md., and a big scene on the lawn at the Inn at Perry Cabin. An acquaintance of ours, Henry Gibson, plays a minister in the film and he shot his scenes in Maryland. But he recommended Nathans to the cast, and Isla Fisher, Rachel McAdams and Bradley Cooper came in after shoots. Spencer and I visited with them one evening over dinner. Bradley went to Georgetown and used to wait tables in various neighborhood bistros. Rachel, at the time, was on the big screen in "Mean Girls." Isla, who is an Aussie and is engaged to Ali G. (Sasha Baron Cohen), invited us to one of the locations where Spencer got to meet Vaughn, which was a kick for him. Isla is about 3 feet tall and Vaughn seems 7 feet tall in comparison. He and Wilson made the most of their time in DC, especially late at night.

Incredible thunderstorm last night. Thought the sky was exploding. Lots of trees came down to the northeast. But today the weather is less humid if still quite hot. Not too much business. Okay but not great. This is when we count the days until mid-September, eager for business to get back to normal. Spent some time visiting with C.F. Folk's owner Art Carlson poolside at the Washington Hilton today. David Deckelbaum and Robert Higdon were there, too, along with several dozen other people looking to cool off and get some rays. Art and I talked shop, but he's always the teacher and I'm the student.

Friday, July 22nd...This morning in London special forces police chased a terror suspect into a subway station, and on to a train, where they shot him dead. Reports say two officers held him down while a third put a gun to his head and fired five times. Pardon me, but "right on." Here's a city where the cops don't typically carry weapons, and they took this guy down without hesitation. When I heard they held him down and killed him on the spot my first thought was, "well, they've gotta do something in case he has a bomb. No time to chat about it." It was a revealing contrast to the way we handle terror here in the U.S. There's no way American police would shoot a suspect dead like that, but if they did it would make a difference. In fact, I wish we'd use that kind of tactic in the mountains of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Boom, boom, boom. Dirty Harry style brute force. Maybe some old school Nixonaian carpet bombing, too. Instead, we go after bin Laden through Iraq, we use American soldiers as cops, and we haven't scared off anybody. If anything, our role in Iraq has inflamed the haters even more. They'd hold down any American and shoot to kill on the spot. By tomorrow, if not tonight, the pundits will punish those Brit cops for inappropriate behavior. But maybe we need a little more inappropriate behavior in our tactics with the bad guys. I'd rather we kill them before they blow up a Metro bus or a subway car or detonate themselves inside RFK stadium or McDonald's. Gotta hand it to Tony Blair. He doesn't mess around. Maybe he's the real cowboy in this fight.

Washington feels so unsafe. It's tangible. Maybe I notice it more because of three weeks on the road in states where the possibility of a terrorist strike isn't as probable as it is here. Wherever we were, whether it was Iowa or Idaho or Nevada or New Mexico, from that perspective Washington and New York seem as dangerous as Tel Aviv or Northern Ireland in the old days. Couldn't help but wonder why anyone would live in either city, but then scratched head and acknowledged that we not only live here, but we live a mere three miles from the White House. It was a lot more pleasant not to think about it. But now that we're home, and with the activity in London, the worry is always somewhere nearby.

It's shark week - why, I don't know - but the staff at Nathans tells me this is a big deal and so we have a drink special called the Shark Bite. It's actually good, and a perfect summer drink - Mount Gay Rum, Orange Juice, a splash of grenadine. One bite won't hurt you. It may not be safe to go into the water, but it's safe to go into Nathans. Also, today at lunch I sampled the Clams Casino. They are so good. Sweet and chewy and buttery and lemony. I could easily eat three orders and finish off with the strawberry shortcake. We make the shortcake in house, the strawberries are wonderfully in season and red all the way through, and the whipped cream is freshly made to order.

I'm thinking about Mike Sorce. Can't help it. I know his misery, and since he makes me happy it's all the more troubling. It reminds me of Joe and Ella Pozell. When Joe died, people said, "I don't know them but I feel horrible about what happened to him and the suffering of his wife and son." Ditto me with the Sorce family. I read somewhere that Sorce will return to the Don and Mike Show on August 1. Work, especially in the company of trusted friends, can be a successful antidote to pain. Regardless, he's in for an awful year or two or three.

Sara Moffett has come to work at Nathans for several weeks to help out as a hostess and in the office. Here's a pic I took tonight of Linda and Sara at the front door, as Linda was putting Sara through training paces:

Sara on the left, Linda on the right.

Thursday, July 21...Anbody who knows us or who read the roadtrip journal over the past few weeks is aware that Spencer and I bond in the car. It's been that way since Howard died. Whenever Spen wants to talk about something, he says, "can we go for a drive?" Much of the time, certainly as we criss cross the region on errands, or do our commute, radio plays a big part in our car time. We bond over it, too. Whether we're sharing mockery of ranters, or laughing at a clever talk show host, reacting to the news or grooving on the same song, the radio is a bridge. With school we're in the car together twice a day, every morning and afternoon. For the morning drive we listen to Howard Stern, who generally makes us laugh a lot. If Howard gets monotnous (usually pertaining to farts or hookers in thongs doing themselves with a vibrator) we switch to Imus. When Imus starts shilling (usually pertaining to literary agent or New Mexico) we switch back to Howard. Occasionally we go to NPR, but if it's too dour we bolt. We listen to radio to not be depressed. In the afternoons we have only one destination - the Don and Mike show on WJFK, featuring Don Geronimo and Mike O'Meara, who at first I thought were two middle-aged dweebs but who turn out to be two smart guys who make Spen and me laugh out loud - and usually over their loopiest stuff. (btw, we're not at all fans of the fcc imposing its will on the airwaves). One compoment of their show was to include Don's wife, Freda Wright-Sorce, in frequent on-air husband/wife chats, disputes, weekend or holiday reviews, that always ended on a note of genuine affection. It was weird to have this feature dropped into this otherwise lad show, like mom coming in to check on delinguent teenagers in the dark, basement rec room, but it worked. She was game. Spencer looked Freda's pic up on the web and declared "she's actually good looking, not at all what I expected." A monster compliment from a teenager. We sometimes debated about Freda's gig on the show, whether it worked, whether she was cool, and he was her steadfast defender.

By chance we picked up the show while driving into Vegas. A little bit of home. We were thrilled. But we were struck that Mike was on without Don. That's odd. Where's Don? Maybe Don's on vacation. But, no, the show takes breaks as a whole, not one or the other. Something must be going on. We got back to DC and still no Don. Even odder. Today I went to their website and learned the shocking news that Freda was killed in a car accident on July 10, when an impatient driver, trying to get around a traffic back up, drove across a median and hit her car head on. This news swamped me as if I'd just learned a friend had died. My heart broke for Don, as I experienced a rush of that first blast of horror that comes with suddenly losing a spouse, a partner. Oh, God, I wondered, how is he doing? How does a funny guy reconcile grief. The same as the rest of us, probably, but I wondered if he was allowing himself to use his great gift as a necessary crutch. Can it break through the nightmare, the despair? I held off giving Spen the news, until long after picking him up at lacrosse camp, because I knew it would hit him hard. It did. I gave him some news copy to read. "My God," he exclaimed. "That's horrible." He looked at me, stunned. We talked a little, but mostly we were silent as we finished the drive home. We turned off the radio.

Wednesday, July 20th...Why should we be any different from anyone else? Why should we return from three idyllic weeks of holiday and expect reality to be anything less than brutal? Unh? All that Wyoming and Montana air made me feel like a teflon solo parent/saloon owner/widow blah blah blah. DC air knocked that notion out of my head right quick today. Nathans employee issues, email from lawyers, housesitter issues, a packing box packed with mail, bills, getting lost trying to find lacrosse camp 12 miles down 395 - twice; doctors office calls to remind of appointments,unpacking, laundry, more laundry, automobiles, weeds (no, not weed, weeds), and, well, it's a familiar tale of woe, and every returning vacationer, I fear, has their version. I'm not a horoscope fiend, but I've found that "Planetarium" in Vanity Fair Magazine usually comes eerily close to real life. Tonight over dinner this landed before my eyes: "When worries, burdens, and responsibilities are heaped upon your head one on top of another and you feel as if you're single-handedly holding up a live pyramid of 100 elephants....act like an adult." Splash. That was the needed glass of cold water. I'll get through it. And, yes, of course it could be worse. I did torture myself just a little, though. I went to weather.com and entered Jackson Hole, Wy., where the daily temps are a high of 83 and a low in the 40s, and no humidity. Oh, my my my.

This week will be a muddle, I suppose, and next week I'll get my groove back. Mostly I want to begin looking toward fall and the schedule of interviewees for the Q&A Cafe. I have a rich wish list and will begin to chip away at it with letters, emails, phone calls, the spontaneous tackling of people in public places. All those hours on the road gave me time to think about who would be great guests, some of the ideas inspired by imagination and others by the news or the rant on the radio, or the music and lyrics on the country stations. When an idea popped into my head, Spencer would write it down. Booking the lunches is sort of like climbing mountains, always steep and challenging, but it feels like a sport to me and I get in my zone. Obviously it was easier in the old days when I called up publicists, press secretaries, communications directors, managers and other gatekeepers to book an interview that would be done in a TV studio by Charlie Rose/Ted Koppel/David Brinkley/Larry King. But I try not to let a little thing like absence of clout mess up my game. I beg harder.

It was good to see Nathans today. The staff seemed happy to see me, too. I hauled in some petrified White Castle burgers and said, "See, this is what the mini-burgers should look like. These are the real deal." Since I've been tracking business from the road I know we've been luffing along in the doldrums - a little gust here, a little gust there. This is a period that's as tough as right after New Year's.

My big disappointment was to hear that Erin Simon, the administrative assistant, is moving to Baltimore. She'd come to us from Neiman Marcus, was doing a good job, and I liked having her there. So, if you know anyone who would like to be my assistant at Nathans, be the office manager, help with so many things but particularly the Q&A lunches, please note this number: 202.338.2000, and this email address: carol@nathansgeorgetown.com. We also have an immediate opening for a floor manager.

Monday, July 18th, White Sulphur Springs, WV...Driving didn't come into my life in any meaningful way until after my husband died. Before then I was always a passenger. This is relevant because we are one four hour drive away from completeing our journey from Washington to the Pacific Ocean and back again. Three legs of it were on trains: overnights between DC and Chicago; Eugene, Or., and San Francisco, Ca; and Las Vegas, NM and Kansas City. Apart from that it was all in the car, and we drove every day a minimum of 300 miles, and a couple of days almost twice that. We drove back roads and highways and, on a few occasions, dirt roads. We stayed in 20 hotels/motels, and the interesting thing is the more highly rated and "luxurious" the more they dinged us for every silly thing - bottled water in the room, internet access, use of the gym, that sort of thing. The motels, the Best Westerns and the Doubletree chain, gave us bottled water, internet access was free, the gym/pool was free and, in the case of the Doubletree, we were handed warm, really good chocolate chip cookies at check-in. Also, the "lesser luxury" hotels never cost more than $100. The higher end hotels, even when we had a great rate, tacked on so many incidental charges (see above) that its debatable whether they were a bargain. And some times they let us down in weird ways. The Brown, for example, last night. We ordered room service dinner in a classic hotel. The waiter brought it but no napkins of table cloth, and we had to set our table with bathroom towels and use same for napkins. Isn't that odd?

We rented three cars from Hertz. The first was a Ford Escape that we picked up in Chicago and dropped in Eugene. The second was a Mercury Marquis that we got in San Francisco and dropped in Santa Fe. The third was a Taurus that we got in Kansas City and will drop tomorrow in DC. The Escape was nifty. It handled all the mountain roads with calm, and had a center console gearbox that made it easy for me to shift to lower gears as we went down 10% inclines. It had a small gas tank but the mileage was good. The Mercury was like driving an RV in the shape of a sedan. It was big, fat, bloated, puffy, squishy, and felt all over the road. It was a boat. It had a big gas tank, though, and that made for fewer fill-ups. The Taurus is a work horse, but I don't trust it in the passing lane. It doesn't feel strong on the uphills. We've had them before, though, and they sort of get it done. No personality. Big enough gas tank. If it was averaged out, I imagine we sptn $2.25 a gallon throughout, with the high being in the Vegas-Santa Fe belt, and the low being all over the high plains. In every case we relied on GPS, called Neverlost in Hertz, to get us where we were going. Occasionally I bought a map, but only this last week when I wanted to find some back roads.

We bailed on only two hotels. The tipi in Pine Ridge, because we overshot it and then the sky turned black and nasty and forged on to Rapid City. And the park service hotel on the edge of the Grand Canyon, because it was dreary and because of the crowds, the heat, the smoke, and the crowds. Spencer's top three hotels were the Rusty Parrot in Jackson Hole, the Greenbrier here in W.Va., the Enchantment in Sedona, AZ. I agree with Rusty Parrot as No. 1 fave, but for me No. 2 would be Santa Monica Beach Hotel, for all the things it is and isn't, and the Hotel Pattee in Perry, Ia., for the incongruous delight it is in the middle of Iowa corn. But big fat shout outs to the little guys as I mentioned earlier, the Best Westerns in Sheridan and Cody, Wy., and the Doulbetree in Santa Barbara. And a big honorable mention goes to The Campbell House in Eugene, Or.,which was lovely, friendly, cozy, well-staffed and served a terrific dinner. The Inn of the Anasazi put up with a lot from us, and the staff never rolled their eyes (at least not in front of us), nor did they seem bothered. The Alex Johnson in Rapid City didn't suit us (no food, the bar, etc.) and the Bullock in Deadwood was nice, but the town -- all the gambling -- was too much for such a small space. Vegas is Vegas and Caesars Palace is Caesars Palace. The room was fine, ditto the service, but you have to pay for everything short of breathing. It all addds up to sticker shock. Our two big chain experiences - the Four Seasons in Chicago and the Ritz in Clayton, Mo., were comfortable, welcoming, relaxing experiences, and the internet access and the gym were free. That matters a lot. They remembered our names as we came and went, and the mattresses were strong and soft at the same time.

I will do more on the trip later. But now it's time to go to dinner here at the Greenbrier, and to celebrate my birthday. This hotel reminds me we are back in the south, and I consider Washington the south. I don't mix easily with the middle south -- New Orleans, Miami, they aren't the middle south - but I'll put a bow in my hair and smile a lot, and try to mind my manners. But I'm not ready to put on make-up again, not yet, and since it's my birthday I don't have to

Later...we had a quick, good dinner. It's all very perfunctory here. You sit down, you order, you eat, you go. But we did pause before dessert and the waitress returned with a big beautiful devil's food birthday cake that Spencer arranged (how i don't know) and we had large slices with vanilla ice cream. As we got up to go a pretty young blond woman approached us and asked, "Is it your birthday?" Nod. "It's my birthday, too.I'm here with my daughter." So we hugged, made introductions and took pictures. Her name is Lisa Fitzgerald, her daughter is Farley, and they are here from Cincinatti...and looking for some fun. But we couldn't help. This place doesn't let the teenagers in anywhere after 9 p.m.

Spencer and I went walkabout and I showed him where the Congressional nuke bunker used to be. it was never used, of course, and kind of a folly ... because they wouldn't have been safe. But a lot of money was spent to make a "secure" facility for the House and Senate. Years ago, when it was first reported by the Washington Post, I snuck in. But now I think it's a tourist attraction...if it even still exists. We went only as far as the hallway.

Sigh. We pack up and hit the road tomorrow. But can't wait to go nose to nose with the dog and nose to beak with the bird. If not for them, we'd probably just keep on rolling.

Sunday, July 17th, Louisville, KY...I've gone round the bend, over the edge, off the deep-end, here on the eve of my ##!! birthday. After three weeks of listening to country music, I find myself completely besotted with the singers and the songs. The blush of new crush happened today on Route 64 in Missouri, or Illinois, or Indiana. Toby Keith was warbling one of his hit songs on the Billboard countdown, and I was like, "I love this guy." Now I know nothing of Toby Keith - who he is, where he's from, whether he's a big ole' star or a brand new upstart, but his humor, his phrasing, his voice get my pulse all jittery. I don't intend to google his pic, because I'd rather have the fantasy. I'm imagining him as one of those rodeo dudes in Cody. Anyway, I'd like to have that fantasy for my birthday. There are other country artists we've come to know and like, but Toby stands out. We sing out loud with all the songs, like a couple of old Cooters in a pick-up truck.

Guess this means it's time to come home to reality. Literally. We are tonight in Louisville, which is a pretty and pretty cool town, though part seems to be rotting in the past while the other parts struggle to have footholds in the new century - an impressive central business district with tall, this century buildings, and a pumped up shopping area that is similar to Santa Monica's Third Street. Of course, they have the Derby. For them to lose the Derby could be like Newport losing the America's Cup. There's no reason to worry, though. In contrast to the steel and glass downtown, Churchill Downs is a lovely, old world and white wood complex, with a museum that provides access to the track and paddocks when there's no racing. We also visited the Louisville Slugger factory. It's a stylish brick building that combines a factory tour, a movie theater and a concession where customers can buy wood bats from a selection of about a dozen models. If you want the bat personalized they will ship it to you. Flyers beware, there's a big sign that says: AIRLINES DO NOT PERMIT BATS OF ANY SIZE. A sign of the times, for real. Then there's the money shot outside: a stories high Louisville Slugger that's got to be the biggest bat in the world.

We visited the Seelbach Hotel but even Scott Fitzgerald's ghost has left the building. Tom and Daisy Buchanan may have been married there, but the genteel days are gone. The bar, rather than champagne, seems more geared to buckets of beer and appropriate shots. The Brown, by contrast, has some weathered but honest glamour (they could lose the lobby piano that plays itself). It was at the Brown's handsome bar that I ordered a Mint Julep, more for the photo than the drinking. I've never had a palate for bourbon, but the few sips I had were sweet and seductive (and packed a punch). One of their secrets is to infuse the simple syrup with mint during the boiling process. Also, the bartender used Maker's Mark. We drove by the Thomas Edison House, where he lived while working for the telegraph company, and also toured the neighborhoods that feature so-called "chateauesque" homes, a style of architecture that reminds me of Washington's 16th Street.

We covered three states today between St. Louis and Louisville. We crossed the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers. We traveled through mostly farmland in Illinois and Indiana, and rolling hills as we got closer to Kentucky, with the corn getting taller as we moved east. On the way out of St. Louis we stopped by the Gateway Arch, and we were surprised by how much it shimmers in the sunlight. The closer we got the more shimmery and delicate its surface appeared, and it was interesting to watch how it changed as the light changed. Also, close to the Arch there is a re-developed section of town with narrow cobbled streets and lots of pubs and nightclubs. At 9 a.m. it was quiet, but twelve hours later it is likely the hub of downtown nightlife. We drove by a park with a fountain and the fountain had bright blue water! It reminded us of blue raspberry popsicles. It seems St. Louis gets its freak on.

Traffic was not heavy. Every now and then we got buzzed by a pack of motorcyclists, which has been a feature of this trip from the beginning. From the time they appear in the rearview mirror until they zoom by and vanish up ahead they remind me of asphalt-bound fighter jets in a tight formation, but with the the "pilots" in tight leather chaps and sleeveless vests, with beards, potbellies, piercings and multiple tattooes.

Tomorrow, our last stop: West Virginia.

Saturday, July 16th, St. Louis, Mo...Perhaps train travel makes me schmaltzy, but tonight I am in a hotel and have regained a healthy skepticism. Where we are could confuse me in the morning. I could wake and think we'd teleported to Tyson's Corner, Va., though a more elaborate version. Look, and this is not a put-down, but the midwest doesn't change. Visit the chic boutiques and restaurants that attempt an east coast sophistication and even the good ones only half way achieve their goal, or they do New York City five years ago. But visit a shopping mall and it is state of the art - more cutting edge and more contemporary than anything we have outside our eastern cities. Obviously that's why Main Street is usually empty, tired or boarded up. The search for a new camera battery charger today took us to two shopping malls outside of St. Louis and for a moment I thought we'd returned to Nevada's Las Vegas, but in the future. Here, they are ahead of the curve. We saw bigger, bolder versions of all the usual mall stores, but then another dozen we'd not known of before today, each one a hipper derivation of one of the big boys. It felt like the community of suburban St. Louis had come to live their lives this Saturday inside the Galleria, and why not? It was a circus of services, entertainment, provisioning, eating, communing, relaxing and enjoying nature. Plus, a perfectly controlled internal environment spared them the heat and humidity outside. We failed on the battery search, but I was delighted to find a Bissinger's chocolate shop, and eagerly bought chocolate covered raspberries and molasses puffs. But after that, we had to escape. Too many stores, too many people, too many stalls between the stores selling stuff it never occurred to me to need. I yearned for a hot sidewalk caked with zits of petrified gum, a smoggy sky, shops that expose me to the outdoors. But I hand it to the developers of these malls. They have the consumer zeitgeist nailed. Recently, after visiting Georgetown Park, I thought maybe the mall era was over, because the stores there are boring and redundant. But today I saw the future, and it's all kinds of new stores that haven't made it to our block yet.

The St. Louis Ritz, where we're staying at a great rate thanks to a friend who works for the chain, is 20 miles outside St. Louis...so we're not really in St. Louis. Tomorrow, on our way to Louisville, we will visit the Arch and the riverfront. Typically I shy away from these big chain hotels, because the staff often come across like they are reading from a script. But this one delightfully is different. The niceness seems genuine rather than faux, and there is a lot of niceness. Spencer observed, "maybe people are just nicer generally in St. Louis." The grill room was slow and didn't get our order exactly right, but we were forgiving because the waiters were so warm and accomodating. The hostess overheard Spencer say he'd left his Advil in the room, and she showed up at the table with a small paper packet of pills. Our waiter, who was monopolized by other tables, acknowledged our frustration. Also, on a scorcher of a day, we enjoyed the irony of sitting at a cozy table in front of a crackling fireplace. (I can recall Nixon cranking the A/C at the White House to achieve the same ambience, and wondered if the powers at the Ritz knew the provenance of this technique. The skeptic in me asked: coincidence or homage?) After dinner, in the lobby, we briefly sat among a large crowd to listen to a swing band and to watch seriously adept couples jive to the music. We're so not out west anymore. Doddering old fools wobbled by in their Saturday night finery - meaning it's the first time in two weeks I've seen men of a certain age wearing jackets and ties. Women wore make-up and stockings. I took stock of myself in the gym. Three weeks of eating without routine exercise is taking a toll. And, not surprisingly, my gas-pedal leg is stronger than the left leg, which has had nothing to do for 5,000 miles. I'm sure I've gained 5 pounds. It feels like at least that. Oh, well, this isn't a spa holiday. It's a road trip. Wednesday I can begin hibernation, detoxification, and buffination.

Anyway, kudos to the St. Louis Ritz. It's welcoming in a big way. BTW, a friend who works for one of the big chains once explained to me why staff seem to be reading from an etiquette script. "We have to treat Little Bow Wow, who comes in and spends $8,000 in one night, the same way we treat the more conventional CEO who spends a fraction of that." And I will grant them that. No matter what - they treat us just like we're Little Bow Wow dropping a large eight.

Our train arrived on time in Kansas City this morning. That should have been the headline after my many complaints about Amtrak. It was a pleasant overnight trip. Slept very well. Got into KC so early there was nothing to do. We wandered all over town looking for a good breakfast. Settled for blueberry muffins and water at the Phillips Hotel and then, looking at the clock, decided to head on to St. Louis rather than wait for Arthur Bryant's to open. We'll have to come back for some of that great KC barbecue. The drive to SL was not visually interesting, and I was relieved to see our exit after 3 hours of route 70 east. Also, Spen still feeling a little under from his Strep. (This evening he was chipper.) We scanned the radio and found much more Bible beating and Jesus invocations than out west. Much more, and the religion was a mixed bag of whitebread christian, urban soul and latino. We missed the Navajo network and the pet radio network. We did find one country station and they played one of our new favorite songs. It has this line: "I'm not as good as I once was, but I'm as good once as I ever was." Love it. Just love it.

Friday, July 15th, the Southwest Chief, La Junta, Co...Cheap wine sloshing around in a surpisingly stable wine glass, a syncopated rumble from steel wheels down below, the wide, lonely prairie passing by outside the window - we're back on the train again, saying good-bye to the west. It's sad for me and, I think, Spencer, too, but in different ways. I know I may never come this way again. That's poignant because I hate to be reminded of the cruel shortness of life and, speaking of same, I was born here in Colorado on July 18 long, long ago. There is a sentimental connection, a bond I've felt the entire time we've been keeping company with wide open spaces, big skies, Jesus radio and tumbleweed. My Romanian-Scots-Irish-German soul must harbor some DNA from Annie Oakley. I've been at peace with the full menu in the west, and I'll miss it and yearn for it as my life plays out. Spencer has a different sadness. It's the sadness of saying goodbye for a while to a new friend. He's seen much of a country he only knew from popular culture and schoolbooks, and for him it's been "cool," and what I treasure is how it will be with him indefinitely, lurking, coming into play at unexpected moments - in a classroom, a book, a painting a song. It will also serve him as he filters the political/media/lobby hot air back in Washington. Now, when he meets people from "out there," they won't any longer be just from "out there" because he will have the memory of their lakefronts or cornfields or towering mountains, their vast empty deserts and occasionally ritzy or bawdy mountain towns. Also, the nomadic trailer park communities and dusty towns with one stop sign, a general store and cafe named the "Stagecoach Stop" (there were so many) and a gas station. Maybe the visit was brief, maybe he only passed through, but he saw it with his own eyes. He'll have the connection and the reference. For example, as I write this the train is coming to a stop in a town where the main street is a mostly dirt road. It runs from the railroad station up to the top of the hill, and ends. There's one stop light. The creekbed is dry from the drought. We've seen this town over and over. It seems like a speck of sand, but now it is in our geographic vocabulary along with the big cities where we feel at home.

This is not to say we don't look forward to the midwest, to Kansas City and St. Louis. Indeed, we do. But the terrain will begin to look more familiar and, as Spen pointed out, the road signs won't say "next gas 85 miles." The closeness will return. The sky will get smaller. But the views could be gorgeous and the food should be lip-smacking and there will be good pictures to take (even though I left my charger back in Santa Fe. Oh, please let there be a Best Buy that sells replacement chargers.) It seems we just came apart in Santa Fe. Losing the money, Spencer's strep, leaving the invaluable charger. What must that hotel, the Inn of the Anasazi, think of us, the strange mother/son combo who came sweeping through the front door only to deconstruct? Oh. sigh. Some more cheap wine. A taste of roasted chicken. Some salad. There's a storm roaring this way. The clouds here have outsize personalities, like Lyndon Johnson and Bill Clinton and Don King. The Southwest Chief is the nicest of the three trains we've climbed aboard. Maybe I'm feeling benevolent because it was only an hour late into Las Vegas, NM, where we stepped on. Maybe it's because at 1 a.m. we'll pass through Dodge City, and then our view of the west will be out the window of the caboose.

Thursday, July 14, Santa Fe, NM...Coincidentally, Spencer and I today both got hit with a flash of excitement about heading home. Four days and we'll be there, back in Georgetown, back with our friends and, especially, back with the dog and the parrot. This happened as we traveled almost 400 miles from Sedona to Santa Fe, crossing the Navajo Nation, the Petrified Forest and the Painted Desert. Sometimes it just looked like boring desert, and other times it looked like driving through a master painting. We were occasionally rendered speechless by the size of the boulders, the bizarre rock formations, the color of the red rocks and purple and lavender rocks, and the contrasting shades of green in the sagebrush and wheat and brown hues of the dirt and dust. And, yes, tumbleweed blew across the highway. The most interesting landscape were the miles of ancient, dried up, cracked up, lava that rose up on both sides of route 25. It looked like a garden that was freshly tilled, but it was in fact centuries old chunks of lava, frozen in time where it cooled. No animals. Few people. For miles we debated what it was, and then we got it. When we weren't debating nature, or listening to Gene Wilder tell his quirky story, we listened to the Navajo radio station, which switched between commentary in the native tongue and drums, chants and guttural screaming. It went with the terrain.

We got to Santa Fe at 3 o'clock, just in time for a big black storm cloud to open up with buckets of rain and lightening like daggers. Check in at our hotel was frantic and in the chaos I managed to lose my envelope of cash. I looked everywhere and could not find it! This plunged me into a panic and a depression. I was mad at myself and despondent. Finally I had to get over it. Spencer wanted to go out and see the town. I decided the loss of $$$ balanced the $$$ that came my way from the media outlets that have bought my Valerie Plame/Joseph Wilson photo. I did not lose THAT much, and they did not pay THAT much. I didn't take the pic to make money. So, it was a wash. In fact, when I get back to town I plan to invite Valerie and Joe to have dinner with me, and let me treat them. That's how I feel about it. I have to find some logic about the lost money, because it is gone. Spencer commented that the town of Santa Fe is similar to Jackson Hole, and that's true...but it's more Native American and less Cowboy than Jackson, and there's some more tourist glitz and a larger population of lost souls hanging around in the streets and parks. Spen said "Jackson Hole is Nantucket and Santa Fe is Martha's Vineyard." To me, Jackson seemed more under control, but Santa Fe has gorgeous architecture and color. What Santa Fe does have that blew my mind is The Plaza restaurant on the plaza (duh), with marvelous Mexican food and drinks. Love the menu so much I gave it a big hug. It's creative and independent-minded and based on freshness and region. I could eat breakfast, lunch and dinner there and not get bored. Spen agreed. After a bite there we visited the big church off the plaza and the La Fonda hotel and looked in a few of the shops. There's so much jewelry for sale it is impossible to edit. Ditto art and artifacts. It becomes mind-numbing.

We passed an oxygen bar and, despite some resistance from the teenager, went in and had a ten minute fix, a first for me. We were greeted by a pretty dark skinned woman with long black hair. She made me feel welcome. Once I agreed to the order of ten minutes of O2 she led me through some curtains to a room that look designed by college students in 1968 - tie-dyed walls, etc. "You have a choice of the bar (she pointed to a room behind another curtain that had a bar in it) or here," and she gestured to what were basically reclining lawn chairs. Beside each was an oxygen dispenser. "Here is fine," I said. She attached a nasal cannula to me, turned on the oxygen, and left me to settle in. Spencer took pictures. Felt no different after but it was relaxing.

Dinner tonight at the hotel. But Spen not feeling well. We ate tasty haute southwestern cuisine but, truth be told, I prefer the street food.

Wednesday, July 13, Sedona, AZ...We weren't meant to be in Sedona tonight, but after an hour at the Grand Canyon we decided to move on. The GC is resplendent and awesome with all the natural wonder that is expected, but after sitting in a long line to get into the park, after waiting for parking spaces, after standing shoulder to shoulder three and four deep at the rim, it is enough. Add to that a standing temp of 110, air mixed with forest fire smoke, and a motel room that was dreary at best, we simply decided to roll on. (Best to return at a time that is not the height of summer.) The big debate was whether to roll on for 6 hours to Santa Fe (tomorrow's destination) or 90 minutes to Sedona. Because so many people said, "you gotta see Sedona," and the fact we could get a room at a good rate at the Enchantment Resort, decided our choice. And wow, oh, wow. Sedona and the hotel are A+. We arrived as the sun was turning the red rocks into deeper shades of terracotta, rose and purple. The casitas of the hotel blend so naturally into the setting they could almost go unnoticed. After the crowds of Vegas and the Grand Canyon we welcomed the solitude of Enchantment's 70 acres, plus the hotel is only half occupied. (That and phoning at 6 p.m., helped with the rate). We checked in and then quickly got into bathing suits and headed for the spa. There we swam in a huge, tranquil pool under an indigo sky, a lovely antidote to today's searing temps. Silhouettes of the hulking red rock canyons made the setting more dramatic. On the terrace nearby, by candlelight, a group of six people had a quiet dinner. We hopped in and out of the pool and steaming hot whirlpool (a waiter brought me a margarita and Spen a fresh fruit smoothie), and then showered, put on bathrobes and returned to the room for dinner of mahi mahi tacos, chile relleno, other veggies and cookies. I'm especially enjoying this luxurious respite because tomorrow we have a 6-7 hour drive to Santa Fe, and much of it through more desert. The desert is beautiful, truly beautiful, but in contrast to the high desert of Wyoming and Oregon, it is fightening. There is no welcome mat, no hope for life. Death valley, indeed.

We did enjoy two stops earlier today: Lake Mead and Hoover Dam. Lake Mead is as surprising as finding a lake on the moon. In the middle of nowhere there is this spread of cool blue water. Few cars, few people, lots of water. We turned into a lonely marina cafe and had breakfast. Outside, teams of carp begged for our leftovers. Hoover Dam was ten minutes down the road. It can't be avoided on the west-east route from Vegas to Arizona. A big, intimidating security checkpoint greets you, followed by driving through a gauntlet of dam area reconstruction ("possible 30 minutes delays," the signs warn). The dam itself was a non-event. It was not gushing today. We negotiated our way through heavy equipment and dozens of tourists, marked the moment, and rolled on. But the architecture is interesting and all the deco brass is polished to a bright shine.

We heard no news today. Instead we listened to Gene Wilder's self-told autobiography. Did e-mail with Erin at Nathans about the ongoing media interst in the photo of Valerie Plame that appears on this website. It's the little picture that could.

Tuesday, July 12, Las Vegas, NV...Las Vegas can't be appreciated until after the sun has set. Like a showgirl, it shouldn't be seen in daylight. In the daylight it is like Liza Minelli without make-up. In daylight you feel like the victim of a bait and switch scam. But by night, it is the most garish and fantastical of showstoppers. The sun should not rise on Vegas.

This is what mid-day arrival is like: Drive across 200 miles of hot desert, crest a hill, and on the horizon appears a clump of assorted tall buildings. Drive through what seems like the back parking lot of a construction site first. Get a few miles closer and the gawdy details come into focus. That's Vegas. Drive another 10 miles, and it disappears. Can't say we're really in love with this place, and it's not because we don't gamble. Sure, the gambling is here. It's everywhere. I put $2.00 in a slot machine and lost it all. The slots don't even have pulls anymore. It's all push button. Where's the fun in that? Overall it's all very clean, polite, tidy, plastic, pasteurized. There's none of the Bugsy Siegal, Rat Pack renegade spirit. It really is to danger and romance what the new Ocean's 11 was to the old. The aura of Sinatra, Martin, Davis is gone, replaced by the condom safe groove of Affleck, Pitt, Hilton, etc. Spencer keeps looking for the excitement, but finds the elements are not much more exciting than Disney or a shopping mall. Plus the endless packs of conventioneers in Dockers or shorts, wearing these ridiculous identity that hang round their necks on cords and rest on their chests like placards. Every elevator ride is with 15 other people. And it's so blistering hot that any attempt to walk outside is aborted after 5 minutes. We had a late lunch at Joe's Stone Crab, a family favorite from Miami, and the waiter told us how most of the workers just "come in the back door, get dressed for work, work, and never get involved with all this," as he waved his hand toward the famous Forum Shops mall. (Very good sweet potato fries). But having looked around beyond the strip we can't imagine what it is like to live here. This is like an outpost on the moon. The residents must be made of tough stuff, or the rewards of the Vegas paycheck make it worthwhile.

Caesars Palace is fine, though firmly in the last century, if not Roman times. I'm sure all the hotels are alike. Lobbies paved with slots and gaming tables. This one has 3,000 bedrooms, which is about the norm. They ding you for everything. To use the gym is $24 per person. To get online is $12.00. To drink the small bottled water in the room is $4 a pop, and they leave them around with no notice of the fee. There are two towels, no bathrobes, and getting online, after paying the $12, took most of the evening. However, the bathroom is spacious. Ditto the whirlpool bath for two (though wasted, in that sense, on us). And the room rate, $139, is reasonable. When I checked the car with the valet the fella who took it away told me parking is included. I find that difficult to believe, but we'll see. The lobby at night is lively. In some locations they ignored Spencer. In others they kicked him out. They seem to want kids and not want kids all at the same time. Which is it? The poliching was always arbitrary. There is a lot of security. Lots and lots of security. People ask you for I.D. at random times and for random reasons. It began to bother me. I do not feel it is keeping me safe from Osama bin Laden or Tony Soprano.

We had a terrific dinner at The Palm. Surf and turf, and our friend Fred Thimm, president of the company, looked out for us. It made us feel at home in a foreign land. We went to Circo at the Bellagio for dessert and though the restaurant was near empty they told us to get a table it had to be a "full dinner." We returned to Caesars, where Bobby Flay's Mesa Grill welcomed us warmly. The hotel told we could stand outside the Pussycat Dolls show at Pure and watch through the windows (because under 21 can't go in), and when we got there one of the bouncers was very nice. "Just wait here," he said. "They'll pull the curtain soon." We waited, and then a cop came and shooed us away. You just roll with it here.

Monday, July 11, Santa Monica, CA...this felt like a day off from the road trip. Maybe that's because Santa Monica feels almost like home to us, with good friends here like Harry Shearer and Judith Owen, and being so comfortable at the Loews Santa Monica Beach Hotel. There are a couple dozen hot L.A. area hotels, all in about the same price range and each with particular features of note, but the Loews on the beach manages, uniquely, to combine all the flash trendy reasons we come to L.A., and which appeal to the young like my son, and all the traditional comforts of a first class hotel, which appeal to me. Plus it has an awesome gym, terrific pool, and a good attitude toward children. The beach and pier are only steps away. Some of the best restaurants in the city are up the street or around the corner, ditto some of the best shopping. And it's a safe distance from the Beverly Hills rabble. So, it's a winner. We spent an entire Christmas holiday here a couple of years ago, and today they welcomed us back as if we'd never departed. That's three Michelin stars, 5 Mobil stars, and 5 AAA diamonds in my book.

So it was a day off with friends and a little business with new friends. We visited the Fox lot to watch the recording session for the Simpsons. Then we had lunch at Cora's Coffee Shop with Melissa Bachrach, the producer who has optioned my story to try to turn it into a TV series. Spencer called her "cool" and I agree. What couldn't have been more apt, given that Spen and I are on a road trip, was "Easy Rider" Dennis Hopper sitting at the table next to us. We said nothing to him, but the vibes were outstanding. After lunch we walked from one end of Montana Avenue to the other, with me dragging Spen into all the fashion-forward shops. He endured this torture with good humor. We also went to the pier and rode the roller coaster twice, walked the beach and the boardwalk, hit the gym and the pool, and then joined Harry and Judith for a fun, good dinner at Josie's on Pico.

Not much else to say except the surf is pounding musically outside our window, the air is cool. We love it here. We would live here if we could. There are pics at the Virtual Roadtrip. Tomorrow we begin our journey home, starting with Las Vegas.

Sunday, July 10, Santa Barbara, Ca...It came down to this, either we stay on the Coast Starlight, already running two hours behind schedule, and arrive in Santa Barbara who knows when, or we take matters into our own hands. So, in Oakland, after a good night's sleep rolling through Oregon and southern California, we jumped off the train at 10:30 a.m., caught a cab to Hertz at the Oakland Airport, and picked up a rental car. What this allowed us was the freedom to make some quick hits on Market Street, Coit Tower, North Beach, Fisherman's Wharf, Market Street, and to get some good coffee and some sourdough bread, and then have a glorious drive down the Pacific Coast Highway, stop in at the Ventana Inn for sentimental reasons, have a quick lunch at Nepenthe in Big Sur (artichoke and french fries for me, hamburger and fries for Spen), and arrive at our hotel here around 8:15 p.m. While we were pulling our bags out of the car, the Coast Starlight rolled by. It was supposed to have been in Santa Barbara at 6 p.m. So, you understand the logic of our decision. The entire day was easy and beautiful. PCH was not crowded. Of course, we were in caravans of cars, but always moving. Motorcyclists, as they have been this entire trip, were around us like nats on speedballs. The views were among the best in the world, because the PCH is one of the great roadways. Crashing surf, endless sapphire sea, cool breezes in the mid-60s by the sea, warmer inland, bright sun. Our hotel in S.B. is one of those big corporate hotels, and so we loaded our own bags onto the baggage cart and brought them to the room ourselves. There are few services that get done, though the staff smile a lot and mean well and read their scripts with alacrity. We're holding the baggage cart hostage so we can make a fast out in the morning. For dinner, I went to the lobby restaurant and got a carry-out salad. Sure, room service would have been nice, but they were running 45-60 minutes behind schedule. Enough behind schedule for one day. As stated at the beginning, it was a day to do our own driving. Now it is late and time for bed. Outside our window we hear soft surf and the barking of seals or sea lions. When I picked up my salad, a friendly British man, also waiting for carry-out from the restaurant, struck up a conversation. It turned out he is in the last nights of a cross-country trip coming from the other direction: New York, via the Carolinas, Florida, Texas, Nevada, etc. He will end his cross-countr trip with Hawaii, which I find admirable. "Then I have to decide whether to take a job in London or Florida," he said. "It was no week to be either place," I replied. We compared trip notes and laughed that we were "ships passing in the night." And then he got his soup and I got my salad and we returned to our rooms and our families.

Sunday, July 11, Amtrak, outside Martinez, Ca...It is 8:45 a.m. and the Coast Starlight is running two hours behind schedule. Spencer and I are still in our bunks (him upper, me lower). There is nothing we can do but relax and hibernate. It's better to endure this tardiness from here in our cabin than to be a passenger, waiting on the platform. Imagine that? The ride drops you offon time and two hours later you're still waiting. We are nomads. We exist in a world of travel, two gypsies who never settle, never remain, always move on. We are from wherever we are, or at least that's what it feels like. It's the most I've been removed from the real world since I crewed on a sail boat in the West Indies for 7 months in 1975. Then I saw Time Magazine maybe once. Now, I get snippets of news on my transistor radio in the middle of the night. A little bit of Supreme Court, a little bit of London bombing aftermath, the hurricane in the gulf, the sudden death of a famous person. They all come in streaming wisps, never thorough. We rarely turn on the TV in the motel rooms, except for the weather channel and a marathon recap of The Surreal World, which had Spencer laughing like a 5 year old.

At the moment, our world is the rumble and bounce of the train, the view outside our dirty window of central California flatlands and distant arrid mountains. It is similar to eastern Oregon or Montana, except there are palm trees. We love the palm trees. I want to get out and feel the air. I'm missing the northern west and the rodeo attitude - not the one portrayed by the White House, but the attitude of independence and grit I saw in real people who we met, or who we saw on the streets, in the diners, in their businesses. We liked feeling close to the earth, and the absence of artifice. There was no urgent need to "do," to "multi-task," to be "connected." My life, for a week, felt slower and longer. (Slower except for on the highway). The boots, jeans and hat felt good, (they come with built in swagger), and fit so well with the terrain and tempo of where we were. They would be silly in L.A., and sillier still in Georgetown ... but I'll get a few more opportunities in Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico and maybe Kansas. Spencer wore the jeans and a cowboy belt, but no hat. His cowboy shirts look wonderful.

I wonder what he's telling his friends in his text messages to them. What will this trip mean to him later, when we're done and back to routine. Will it linger? Will it inform his opinions of his country and countrymen and women? We talk a little rolling down the highway, but much of our conversation comes through the songs on the radio, and the stories they tell. There's one by Toby Keith that had us singing along. We sing, we talk, we laugh, we sit silent for long stretches. Sometimes we get testy with each other, but it's not serious and doesn't last. It's usually related to boredom or fatigue or hunger.

9/11 was tragic and I never want our country to again experience something like that. However, I remember the closeness I felt with my neighbors in the aftermath. There was a closeness among everyone, particularly strangers, a brotherhood. This trip makes me want to have that every day.

Saturday, July 9, Amtrak's Coast Starlight...Amtrak could be fixed. It's not impossible. I write this as we are heading south from Eugene, Or., to Santa Barbara, early in the trip and already 90 minutes late. I can't fix that part, because the tracks belong to Union Pacific, and when one of their freight trains wants to go by, Amtrak has to pull over and let them pass. That's how the delays begin, and it builds all the way down (or up) the coast. Yesterday's train arrived in L.A. six hours late. So, why not make the most of the problem? Make it seem like an asset, not a flaw. This could be done by re-inventing many of the best Amtrak routes as Spa Trains. For example, Spen and I don't mind one bit having this time to loll around, read books, and veg after 11 days of hauling across the west. For me, especially, it's a welcomed break. But wouldn't it be great if one car over there were massages, manicures, pedicures. Yoga is impractical with all the bouncing around, but there could be a fitness car with some equipment and trainers. And a quiet car for meditation. The dining car could feature healthy food, and the parlor car could be a version of Starbucks, with espresso, etc. And why not make give the whole train wireless internet? What a treat that would be. As I discussed all this with Spen, he said, "cool" and "neat." All the same young (and not so young) who fly Jet Blue and who hang out in coffee bars, rely on fitness classes, etc., would love this. The great part is being cut off from the rat race. Wouldn't it be wonderful to arrive wherever, 24 hours later, refreshed and revived and feeling health? Anyway, that's what I'm thinking as we sit here. By the way, we brought our own bag of food - fresh fruit from the farmers market, breads, cookies, some sandwiches, cheeses, bottled water, sodas, etc.

Saturday, July 9, Florence, Or...We reached the Pacific ocean today at 1:30 in the afternoon here at Florence, due west of Eugene. We drove an hour and a half to the coast and then had the darnedest time actually reaching the beach, because all the coastal areas were gated communities. We drove an additional 10 miles north until we found a beach road, got there, got parked, and walked to the beautiful and wild sea. It was frothy with rolling surf. Spen got his toes in the cold water, and I dipped in the toes of my boots. It was a landmark moment. Very special for both of us. We travled 3,000 miles for this moment, and every mile was worth it. Now, we head south and then begin the 3,000 miles back to home.

Friday, July 8th, Eugene, Or....Oregon presented two faces to us today. The first half of our drive was the face of eastern central Oregon, the high plains desert, arrid, forebidding, endless, spare. Apart from the two lane black top, and the occasional road sign that says "next gas 89 miles" or "next rest area 101 miles," it is as empty of man's imprint as it has been for centuries. It's beautiful, poetic and lonely. The sun burned down on the prairies of sage brush and rock. There was the occasional chapparal, but it quickly fell away to more desert. We caught the occasional C/W station, but the signal was weak and then there was silence for miles. That was okay. We looked out the windows and got lost in daydreams. Every now and then we'd slow and open the windows. The air was warm and dry, like the finest silk blowing on our skin. It was almost 90 degrees but not the least humid. It was soft and soothing. The more we had the more we wanted. We crossed into Pacific Coast time, gaining and hour, and stopped for lunch in Bend, randomly choosing a Mex placed named Super Burrito, run by a young woman. Small, funky, simple, the taquitos and soft tacos were sublime. Just outside Bend I took my afternoon nap parked with a view of the snow covered Cascade Mountains. Spencer read his 5th Michael Crichton book while I dozed. Got back on the road and the desert became lush hills of fat redwoods so tall that driving through them felt like being shrouded in a thick green canyon. The sky darkened to moist slate clouds so low they sat on the treetops. The rain was our first wet weather in 10 days, since we began our journey. As we drove, beside us raced the white rapids of the McKenzie River. It all fit - the white water, the dark sky, the pines of Willamette National Forest.It was picture postcard Oregon. We're now in Eugene, at our hotel, which I picked because it was a well-recommended B&B, and because it is a short walk to the Amtrak station, where tomorrow we'll board the Pacific Coast Starlight for southern California. First, though, we must see the Pacific Ocean, a landmark moment of this adventure.

Later - a wonderful dinner here at Campbell House, prepared by chef Jeff Parker. It was an Oregon wine dinner. I started with the Gravlax Parfait and the Campbell House Salad, paired with a Chehalem Reserve Chardonnay '01, followed by Marionberry Laquered Pork Medallion, paired with a Del Rio Vintner's Reserve claret. Spencer had the roasted butternut squash soup and the Grilled Double Cut Lamb Rib Chops with Crushed Golden Potato-Mushroom jus, paired with 7-Up. He had strawberry rhubarb cherry crisp for dessert and I had the rainbow sorbet terrine, that included raspberry, mango and peach. With that they served a Campbell House Royal, which was Discovery Brut and a trace of Pinot Noir Port. Tasty, but I couldn't finish it.

Thursday, July 7th, Boise, Id...It's 10:15, we're just back from dinner, and it's twilight. Not sure how we'll adjust to returning East and having the sun set at 9 or earlier. The late sunset is the positive end to our day, especially dinner at the Cottonwood Grill, where we began with Dungeness crab cocktail that was a tasty welcome to Pacific coast cuisine. Spencer went on to have grilled duck with local cherries and I, needing a fix of vegetarian, had a stir fry of local vegetables with tofu, which was not fair to the talented chef. In fact, I was so tempted by his pan fried Idaho trout...but I had trout the past two nights and, to repeat, my body needs veggies. Out on the open road they are so few and far between.
So, here's the headline: the purpose of this trip was to show Spencer how big America is. Therefore today, driving across the southern half of Idaho, he got a master class in the stretches of our fair country that are big, flat, endless and boring. Oh-My-God! The high desert, as they call it, is fresh off a painter's palate, but a straight piece of road is dulling. Take a sheet of construction paper, lay 12 inches of fine thread across it in a straight line, and you will have a microsopic version of my day driving highway 84 across the potato state. And the radio stations wouldn't stay put. Every ten miles we'd lose the station. We had Jackson Hole for about an hour, and they carry a direct feed of the BBC, which filled us in on the breaking news of the bombings. But after that awful news we wanted music. Country music. This is the formula for good country: a broken heart, mama, sometimes papa, a cheating wife or girlfriend, drainkin', fightin', losing the job, losing the wife or girlfriend, guilt about the babies, more drainkin', fightin', and sometimes an ode to the car or truck. Through familiarity Spencer and I have some favorite songs. It's the country music that made me better understand the connection Bill Clinton has with regular folk and why I think to this day the average hard-workin', God-fearin', western dude has more in common with Clinton than George Bush. Maybe this is also because I'm reading John Harris' Clinton book ... but you listen to the music, read the paper, sit next to them at a red light, and I connect Clinton, not Bush. But they love Bush. They love what they think he represents...and what they think the Dems aren't offering to them. If Hillary or whoever can make that same connection, (Kerry was incapable), they can win back the white mansion...
It's obvious I had a lot of time to think today. Checked out Pocatello. No reason to stop. Checked out Twin Falls. The Craters of the Moon park, a stretch of 73 miles where the flat land falls away into a dark, steep, fertile canyon, was worth going several miles out of our way. But, hey, we loved tracing the Oregon Trail. We loved crossing the Snake River a dozen times. We loved hearing the Boise traffic reporter flag motorists to a wreck on "Chicken Dinner Road." We loved seeing amber waves of grain and purple mountain majesty for real. We scratched our heads that 7 miles outside of Boise there were still no suburbs. And we were surprised to find that Boise is a charming, sophisticated city -- a Charleston of the West -- with a lively downtown and a thriving restaurant scene and a gorgeous stretch of greenway along the river. They have a performing arts center and opera and interesting architecture. Unlike a lot of other western cities where we've dropped by, rather than being petrified, Boise is charming and alive and young.

Tomorrow we drive 9 hours across the state of Oregon. It will be challenging, because we will take back roads rather than the highway and the forecast is for rain. But, then, it's Oregon; it's supposed to rain. I'm told it will be high desert until Bend, and then after that it will be rolling hills and wine country. Now we have to finish the laundry and get some sleep. We're at a Marriott Residence Inn ... a new venue for us, and not bad. We have a large "suite" with a kitchen and fireplace for $95, thanks to the AAA discount. All in all, touring in the west has been a bargain. Jackson Hole was an exception, but an exception that was worth it. Gasoline, everywhere but Chicago and Jackson, has cost an average of $2.15 a gallon.

there are always fresh pics from the trip at virtual roadtrip. link

Wednesday July 6th, Jackson Hole, Wy...(A big shout out to Al Long, who patiently minds website mission control back in DC. The cowboys are singing your song round the campfire tonight.)

We love the national parks we've visited, but it was a pleasure to get back to relative normal life today. We were about to O.D. on breath-taking beauty. We needed to go shopping, and Jackson Hole is the perfect stop for that sort of indulgence. First of all, it's a nifty town. It has the high end, plus the best of the low and middle. I'm never quite sure how these hot spot towns work, as in what's the chicken and what's the egg. Is it that the town is perfect and so the rich find it, invest their money, and make it their own. Or is it that the rich find the town first, invest their money, and make it perfect. Whatever the equation, Jackson Hole is a pleasure. Our hotel is in town, only a couple of blocks from the twon square. But for lunch we drove up to the Amangani Resort at Spring Creek to check out what you get for $800 a night. First of all, you get one of the most beautiful settings imaginable, and I'll put up plenty of pics on Virtual Roadtrip. We sat outside by the pool, enjoying a soft breeze, 80 degree temps, and a view to snowcapped mountains and Idaho to the west. We were just about the only people there. A couple of gray-haired, profitable-looking men stood nearby, talking, and I eavesdropped of course. One said to the other, "Sure, this place is great, but it's a money pit. Every five years we have to practically do it over. We need new carpeting all the time. It never ends." Ah, to be a business owner - it doesn't matter where or what, it's always the same.

Speaking of which, while we had a quiet lunch (chopped cobb salad, with crunchy prosciutto,for me; linguini with spices for Spen), I got an email from Erin at Nathans, saying CBS News wanted to use the pic of Valerine Plame and Joseph Wilson that's on this website, from their Q&A at Nathans. I wrote back to her and said, "sure, but see if they'll pay a fee." She wrote back and said, "Yes, they will. $250." Well, that felt good. It was like doing five lunches without having the costs. It was also a great way to do business - me on the terrace of the Amangani, Erin at Nathans. What I liked about it is I did not feel out of touch. Erin's daily email keeps me in the loop. And she can reach me instantly about anything else, as well.

We looked around the hotel and also the adjacent Spring Creek Ranch. Handsome houses, cabins, condos, a stable, tennis courts, pool, hiking trails, shuttle service to town and the slopes. Way out of my price range, but you see the money. Our shopping was to the point: we went Western. There's a place outside town called Corral West, which sells ranch clothes. We bought "rodeo" cut Wranglers. I got a straw cowboy hat and a western style belt, too, and some slip on shoes that look like cowgirl boots cutoff below the ankle and backless. Sounds odd, but okay. Good prices, too. Now I look like every other nutty tourist. I wonder how this look will play at Wisconsin and M? (Note: I don't wear it all at once or my son would not walk with me.)

We crossed the Continental Divide three times today, as it twists back and forth. We're sick and tired of hearing interviews on right wing radio with Ed Klein about his Hillary Clinton-bashing book. Okay, so she's getting her act together and trying to be more moderate and trying to appeal to more voters, so what? Isn't that what a presidential candidate is supposed to do? And give it a break about the evil influences of her husband. Blather. You might say, then change the station. We do, believe me, we do. It's just that there are so few stations...and if we want to get news we sometimes have to listen to this nonsense. Our favorite radio station was the one we had briefly in Montana yesterday. It had the daily Bear report. That worked for us.

The money we saved shopping we spent at the hotel spa. Spen had a massage. I got a facial. The woman who gave me the facial, Reggie, once lived about a half mile down the road from our home at 1125 Cumberstone Road outside Galesville, Md., where we lived until Howard died. Reggie and I didn't know each other then, but I knew her by name, Calhoun, and I knew she and her husband raised horses at Ivy Neck Farm. Now, all these years later, we cross paths here in Jackson Hole. I thought I'd rest during the facial, but it was much more fun and interesting to hear Reggie tell me about her journey from Annapolis to Wyoming, and about trail riding in the nearby forests, and encounters with grizzly bears, and what it's like when Dick Cheney comes to town. I asked her about the men. "Good men here?" Yes, she said, especially the older men. "They are in business and they have interesting lives and like to fish and hike and be outdoors." Is there a better recipe than a man who is a business success but who can also catch a fish and rope a calf and maybe, also, look good in a pair of rodeo jeans and some boots? Yee-Ha. She added, "The younger ones, though, the men in their 30s and 40s, are just looking for a good time." Can't fault them for that.

Tuesday, July 5th, Yellowstone National Park...We watched Old Faithful erupt outside our bedroom window, and then we went to dinner in the dining room of our hotel, the venerable Old Faithful Inn. I like venerable, and this hotel is that in spades. It has all the trimmings of "The Shining," except now it's summer and open for the season and there are no spooky Jack Nicholson type characters roaming the halls. After dinner we walked among the many mineral streams, pools and geysers that surround the hotel and Old Faithful, the big enchilada of them all, erupted again. (It goes off about every 90 minutes.) The evening blast was my third time with O.F. today. When we first checked in I watched it with the hundreds of other tourists, and that was fun. I realized Old Faithful is the Gypsy Rose Lee of natural wonders. Lots of tease before the pay off. Technically it was supposed to shoot it's plume at 6:06 p.m., but that's not what happened. There were little spurts that fizzled, and a lot of steam that went nowhere, and the crowd moved to the edges of their seats. The men, obviously not seeing this performance through my eyes, kept saying to their companions, "here it comes, here it comes, almost, it's coming, no, not yet, just wait, here it comes," and I giggled as I eavesdropped and thought this is basically the longest orgasm. When the geyser finally blew there was a collective thrill that lasted a long four minutes. And then everyone had a cigarette.

This is how I grade Yellowstone National Park:

Scenery - A

Animals - A

Traffic Management - F

We've been spoiled so far on this trip. We were spoiled in Iowa, in South Dakota and yesterday in Wyoming. We were spoiled in Badlands National Park and Black Hills National Forest and Custer National Park. We were spoiled in the Shoshone Mountains today, and in Montana. But Yellowstone brought us back to reality. Yee gads - the traffic almost drove me stark raving mad. It was Wisconsin and M on a Saturday afternoon, the Beltway at high rush hour. It was ridiculous. There were times when we were the 5th car in a 15 car caravan, with our leader (of course) a beastly RV. The signs admonish slower vehicles to pull over at the many turnouts, but they don't. And if it's not the RV's, it's people who simply stop their cars in the middle of the road to get out, stand there, and observe the wildlife. One man just leaned against his car, parked smack in the middle of the road, while the rest of us either sat in park or tried to inch around him. What it does is ruin the pleasure of being here. I drove more than 100 miles in the park today and rarely, if ever, got the needle past 40 mph. There is so much stop and go it's not safe to look up from the car in front and enjoy the view. By the time we reached the hotel I was wiped out. At check in the sweet and chirpy desk attendant said, "Are you having a wonderful time in Yellowstone?" My look must have said it all. "I know," she said. "The traffic is awful. Everyone arrives here ready to kill."

A serious problem are the RV's. They simply don't move at the same speed as regular automobiles. And then the drivers get them stuck on the side of the road, or can't back them up with the family car attached, or just don't give a damn. Why not set aside a day that's RV's only, or a couple of days, and otherwise keep them out. And why not penalize the drivers who park in the middle of the road, or who don't pull over so others can pass? Another option would be to simply have drivers reserve time in the park, like reserving a hotel room, and limit the number of reservations. But they have to do something. SOMETHING. If the Grand Canyon is like this, and they say it is, I may need to have a therapist in the car.

That said, we saw so many beautiful views today we are officially saturated with splendor. We're ready for L.A. We spent the morning in Montana, and we're glad we ventured up there. It's not Wyoming. The terrain changes completely. It gets hard and bare, but the valleys are green with crops. We saw signs that said "open range," and animals grazing freely near the road and crossing the road. We saw wild horses speeding across ridges. Then there's the water. The mountain streams are fast and shallow and clean. They make you want to tear off your clothes and jump in. They are fat and curvy and the prettiest shades of blue. We stopped at a roadside diner in Bear Creek that boasted "the world's best banana cream pie." That was our first morning bite. At the next table two old coots talked about the merits of cars made in 1932 and that nothing's been much good sinch. We drove another 15 miles and had a late breakfast of hueovos rancheros for me and steak and eggs for spen in Red Lodge at the Pollard Hotel and it's a town I'd revisit. That was the northern most point of our trip. Then we headed back down to Wyoming and Yellowstone, across the Beartooth Mountains. The smell of the pine trees. Oh, my, nothing like it. The air was fresh and crisp. We kept the windows open. It seems our lungs have acclimated to the altitude. We've been living at above 5,000 feet for two days now. We were so in the middle of nowhere there was no radio reception. Part of parenting is compromise, especially traveling cross country with a teenager, so the background music to the snowcapped peaks was White Stripes. Different, but not bad.

We haven't seen a grizzly yet, unfortunately, but today in Yellowstone we saw lots of bison and mule dear. Spencer saw a baby brown bear. We saw two moose. Or meese. Or mooses. The bison are so plentiful that here at the Inn, after parking the car in a back lot, I came upon a grazing bison right between me and the hotel's back door. I got up close and snapped a pic and the animal didn't seem to notice.

We've traveled almost 2,000 miles, through eleven states. The only piece missing is having Howard with us, but we talk about him a lot. Of course, often when we check in to a hotel or arrive for dinner reservations someone asks, "is your husband parking the car?" or "will that be three," or "do you want to wait for your husband before being seated." Veterans that we are, our reply is standard: "no, thanks, it's just us."

Earlier, Cody, Wy. It's another beautiful morning in the Wyoming mountains. Spencer is still asleep but I'm up early to reorder the suitcase and to map our route to Yellowstone. We have choices - whether to wander up through Montana and then down into YNP, or make a beeline for the park and have time to wander around there. I'll get the two routes calculated, wake him, and we'll discuss it at breakfast. The morning meal counts out here, and it helps to explain the heft on some of the citizens. The other day a waitress asked if Spencer wanted the "regular" order of french toast, meaning 5 pieces, or the "half" order, which was three. It's the same for sausage, bacon, eggs, pancakes, etc. We order everything in half size. Coffee comes to the table with an empty cup and a thermos that can fill it six times. We have to be careful with eating, because we don't get as much exercise as back home. Spencer does situps and pushups in the hotel rooms, and I try to do a modified workout. And we take a walk whenever possible. We're both yearning for a large bathroom, big bathtub and shower, an opportunity to get all cleaned up. (The bathtub we have at this stop is the right size for washingt a small dog.) Living out of a suitcase is a challenge, but we're okay with it. All our clothing was picked to be wash and wear. While we don't exactly blend in with the locals, our clothes don't shout "silly easterners." Fashion here is simple - blue jeans, a western shirt or styled t-shirt, cowboy boots and cowboy hat. The men and women wear their jeans, mostly Wranglers, like a second skin and they look good. Waist high, handsome belt, shirt tucked in. No low riders in sight. There seems to be a daytime version of the look and a "dress up" evening version.

I have no idea whether we'll get internet access in Yellowstone National Park. If not, we'll feed again from Jackson Hole on Wednesday. Spencer considers JH "a real city." Hmmmm. It will probably be somewhat like getting back to the world we know.

As for now, we departed Washington a week ago and it feels like two or three. What will three feel like?

Monday, July 4th...Independence Day, Cody, Wy., As it happened, we were in the Walmart parking lot when the fireworks launched at 10 p.m. It was a quick hit to buy batteries and a toothbrush, and from inside the store (the size of a city) the kabooms sounded like the cavalry had arrived. We got back to the motel to watch the pyrotechics out our window. In fact, there were two fireworks shows - one to the south and one to the north, and both played out against darkening twilight, the mountains and some dramatic clouds in the big sky. We had an option of walking over to the park behind the Buffalo Bill Historic Center to watch them with the community of Cody, but, frankly, we were ready to bunk. For two hours we'd been at the Cody Stampede, a rodeo extravaganza, and then Tex-Mex dinner at La Comida on the main street. It was our first rodeo and we had nothing to compare it to, and we arrived excited but not sure. Well, it was great. It was like watching any group of outstanding athletes perform at the top of their skill. The calf roping was a little much for me -- I clapped when the cowboys DID NOT rope the calf -- but the real highlight was the bronco riding. How do the cowboys' backs not dislocate? And they get up out of the dirt and walk away...though sometimes with a stiff or hobbled gait. It's a sexist event, of course, because the only women involved are the beauty queens who ride out to herd the calves from the ring. There's an old buck on a handsome palomino horse who gave commentary, and a "clown" who served to distract the crowd when there was a bad fall or to be on the spot when a cowboy needed a hand. There was recorded music and Spencer was impressed that it was a fairly hip selection of classic rock, and the occasional insert of Tone Loc's "Wild Thing." I got some good pics, I think, and some of them are available at the Virtual Road Trip link. When the clown did a pratfall on a trampoline, and faux landed on his privates, he said, "Now I can get married in Massachusetts." The crowd laughed. Spen and I looked at each other curiously.

Everything about the rodeo was impressive, except for the politics. Understandably at the beginning there was a tribute to the flag, a huge one brought out by uniformed soldiers. Then the old buck on the horse started a commentary that could have been scripted for President Bush, about how it's become "politically incorrect" to be a cowboy, but "it's the cowboys" who know how to defend the freedom of the United States of America and to defeat the enemy in Iraq, and it's the cowboys who still believe "in what matters." That sort of rap, followed by a prayer that invoked "our Lord Jesus." Then, the Secretary of the Army rode into the ring on horseback to induct ten new soldiers, men and women, into the Army. Spencer and I found this strange and out of place, and later we talked about whether this was part of some grassroots campaign to whip up support for an unpopular war. For me it's always the same thing, when the guys with the microphones start to talk about how we have to defend the U.S., defeat the terrorists, and avenge our country, I want to shout, "Okay, why not Syria, then? What about Afghanistan? Hey, where's Osama?" Iraq as our primal enemey, the harbor of the WMD's, doesn't sell. Our stadium mates at the rodeo were generous with their applause for the new inductees, as they deserved, but there were only ten of them taking the oath, not 100.

Again, the rodeo was swell, but leave the politics in the barn.

Cody is a charming western town. It's got more going on than Sheridan. It's in a lovely setting, in the valley between two towering mountain ranges. We crossed the Bighorn Mountains this morning, having my first chance to drive serious switchbacks with 10% grades. Up in the mountains we stopped a lot to enjoy the views and to take pictures. Spotting a dirt road that lead up to snow we decided to park the car and walk. Half way up I felt my breathing get shallower. Spencer was up ahead of me and I could not keep up. Then he turned around and came back. "My lungs feel like I just did a cross country race in freezing temperatures," he said. "They ache." I nodded. "It's altitude. We're not used to being up this high." We quickly returned to the comfort of the car, and gave ourselves a few minutes to calmly get normal breathing back.

Random stuff: we listened to the radio a lot today. We found a country station that played "classics and legends." Every other song had a patriotic message. I had no idea there were so many contemporary songs that invoked 9/11, or the war. Mixed in were Springsteen's "Born in the USA," and the 70s ode to the "Green Berets." It was wall to wall the same way Santa and mistletoe are on December 24/25. We heard an ad that began, "Do you think Washington, DC is a sewer? Washington, DC, is not a sewer..." and then the narrator went on to cite all of Washington's evils. Not a sewer perhaps, but certainly stinky. Oh, and I got stopped for speeding by a lean, buff and ruddy cop who said I was going 41 in a 35 MPH zone as I came off the freeway (over the cattle guard) before crossing the mountains. My apologies were sincere and he gave me a warning. "Officer, it's funny you should stop me for speeding, because out on the freeway I'm doing my best to keep it at 75, and everyone's passing me." Behind the graying moustache was a smile. "Any advice before we cross the mountains?" I asked. "Watch out for all the people who pass on the solid line," he said. Ha Ha Ha. They pass going uphill at 85. What he didn't tell me about were the cows that would be in the road. They slowed everyone down. A nice touch.

Sunday, July 3rd, Sheridan, Wy....Somewhere outside Deadwood Gulch but before Spearwood, the subject was the decades long sizing up that goes on between people from the East and people from the West, "They look at us like we're aliens," Spencer said. "I know," I said, "but we're looking at them the same way." I told him, "They don't understand how we can live practically on top of each other, and we don't understand how they can endure the 40 miles of wide open land between one family and their next door neighbors." I'm hardly an expert on this subject, but maybe they see us as precious and mannered and way too impressed with ourselves, and we see them as a little rough, maybe too relaxed, and way too impressed with themselves. However, now as then, the West values the East's culture and aggressive business sense, and easterners value the sturdiness and straightforward nature of westerners, and their keen sense of the land and its virtues. There's been so much cross-pollination over the years it all comes together in the end, making us the diverse and interesting country we are. So then we took Willie Nelson out of the CD player and put in Coldplay, and crossed the border from South Dakota into Wyoming. We've fallen so head over heels in love with the natural beauty out here that cresting a mountaintop becomes a moment of anticipation. We wonder what we'll see on the other side, and we imagine what it was like for the early pioneers, as they had to hope it would be manageable. We, on the other hand, welcome the dramatic changes. Wyoming does not look like South Dakota, just as South Dakota does not look like Iowa. The trees are gone, for one thing, except for a few beside ponds or along creek beds. Brutal for any living thing out in the noon day sun. It's rugged and forbidding. North of Sturgis we drove for 10 miles without seeing another car, or person. We saw horses, cattle, deer, but no humans. We drove through the town of Alva, that boasted a population of 50. We crossed creeks with names like Dead Horse, Crazy Woman, Dry Bed. A waitress told us to go to Devil's Tower through Hulett, so we would approach the monument from the north. "It's so much better," she said. That was good advice. We saw that odd mound of volcanic earth from miles away, and it looked as strange as can be. Closer, it was still strange. At its base it was awesome. There were few tourists and we enjoyed hiking around for a while. Up on the cliff face, small as bugs, we saw people scaling the walls. However, nowhere could we find the alien landing base from Close Encounters and that was a disappointment. We did find a field of prairie dogs and got out and communed with them. Spencer called them "adorable brown balls of fluff."

It was a two hour or so drive from Devil's Tower to Sheridan, and along the way we stopped into towns like Moorcroft, Gillette, and Buffalo, hoping to find who knows what. Quaint western towns, I suppose. What we found were empty streets. It was like "The Day the Earth Stood Still." The only businesses that were open were liquor stores, and most of them were drivethru. We got on and off the freeway, noting that the freeway ramps had cattle guards. We saw our first oil rigs, and then, coming over a hill outside Gillette, we saw the snow-capped Big Horn Mountains, with the highest peak more than 13,000 feet. Should I mention the bright blue sky, puffy white clouds, 70 degree temperatures?

This afternoon we visited where Buffalo Bill lived. In fact, you can dine there, if you wish. We walked along the railroad here in Sheridan, too. I stood in the middle of the tracks to take a picture and instantly a nice young cowboy rolled up and said, "M'am, unless it's just for a quick picture please don't do that. It's not safe to stand in the middle of the tracks." This embarassed Spencer, of course. We walked the quiet, empty Main street, looking in the store windows that seem like a time warp from America, circa 1955. There are no Gaps, no H&M's, no Ralph Lauren, no Williams Sonoma, no Safeway or CVS. There's plenty of clothing, household goods, appliances and other consumer goods, but they seem generic and selling themselves on the basis of need. It's so different from the world we know in commercial Georgetown. And that's a commendation, not a complaint. We did find one western "work" wear store open, and Spencer got a shirt and a belt. The sales woman told us the town would be closed through the holiday. (How different is that from back home?) "Where will you be for 4th?" she asked. "Cody," we said. "Oh, you'll have a crowd there. Everyone's heading there for the rodeo." The same crowd will be back in Sheridan on the 9th, for the Miss Wyoming contest at the old Wyo Theatre on Main Street.

Spen and I talked about all the wide open spaces and wondered why more people don't live out here. Why we're all crammed together back east? Why they don't move the White House to South Dakota and the Congress to Wyoming, or move the entire federal government to Montana.? After 1,500 miles of driving across America these ideas don't seem so strange.

Saturday, July 2nd, Deadwood Gulch, SD....Tonight we have Kevin Costner to thank for a good meal. We're in Deadwood, SD., and he owns a restaurant here named Jakes. It's on the top floor of a gambling casino and is a 21st century version of a high end eatery in the 1880s wild west, but one with Dom Perignon and a dozen vintages of Opus One on the wine list, and a menu that is inventive and tasty. Spencer noted that all the waitresses are "babes." It also splendidly showcases the costumes Costner wore in all his movies, and in a way that's interesting and not tacky. For us, Jakes was a chance, after 48 hours of deprivation, to have some fresh vegetables, and fresh meat and fish. You have no idea how difficult it's been to find the kinds of food we take for granted in Washington. We've had good food (Tastee Inn in Sioux Falls comes to mind), but it's been heavy on starch and light on fiber. Our dinner at Jakes capped a remarkable day, one that underscored the core reasons why we're on this trip. We drove 100 miles of National Park roads - Black Hills National Forest and Custer National Park - and saw so much natural beauty it took our breath away. We also did a drive by at Mount Rushmore, but that was more about satisfying curiousity than getting deep into the wilderness where the dear and the buffalo roam. Rushmore is what it is - a big fat tourist attraction. Actually, the prettiest views were from Black Hills National Forest, a mountaintop away. As we drove the terrain shifted from steep hills thick with ponderosa pine to broad, rolling prairies where the buffalo grazed and then, just beyond Custer, it became hard and much less verdant. The trees almost completely disappeared from the landscape. The rocks changed from black granite to a red the color of a terracotta pot, and they formed canyons and cliffs. For a short while we followed the path of an old stagecoach route. Then, 10 miles to the north, we were back into thick ponderosas, as tall as the sky. Once again, there were few other cars, in the parks and on the open road. Rushmore was busy, but not crazy busy. We drove right up, took a pic from the car, and drove right out. (We do some of our touring the way President Bush 41 plays golf). Having the road to ourselves was fine until we were into our last 45 miles enroute to Deadwood and the sky turned navy blue and heavy. I said to Spen, "you know, back home we know how to read the weather, but I haven't a clue out here. I don't know whether this sky is bad or really bad. To me it looks like it could have it's own episode of Storm Stories." He agreed. I wanted another car or two on the road so, if it got rough, I could ask, "what do you locals do with this?" But fortunately it was a fast moving storm and got west of us. Later this evening, to the north, there was another sudden storm with 80 mph winds. Yikes. That's not something to experience 45 miles from the nearest town. And when I say town I mean one store, two houses and a creek. That's population in these parts.

We try to engage locals in conversation, and mostly they welcome the chat. The men do have voices made out of granite and the women have been too-long exposed to the hard winds. The locals are by and of the land. They're made of tough stuff. We see lots of "support our troops" decals on cars, but we've also seen Kerry-Edwards bumper stickers. At the service station, at the lunch counter, in the variety store, there are pictures tacked up of a young man or woman in uniform, or smiling from beside a piece of heavy or artillery in a dust bowl setting which I assume is Iraq. In Iowa the local newspaper had on the front page a story about 400 local air National Guard being shipped off to Iraq, along with a story about soybean crops being cutback and another about a woman who cares for abandoned baby wild animals. In Rapid City the front page featured the fight against obesity in the community and how some farmers are killing and burying their "downers" rather than lettig the Feds test them for Mad cow. The Rapid City, Deadwood area the icons are Ellsworth Air Force Base, Rushmore and Costner. Each is important, promoted and sold to the tourists. Costner shot "Dances with Wolves" nearby, and the locals appear to feel that film got it right. On the local radio talk shows, unlike the national right wing chat shows, the anonymous voices generally support Bush Administration war policy, but the seeds of doubt are there.

I don't know whether Rapid City ever had any charm. Like Sioux Falls, charm may have visited RC once and them oved on. It feels foresaken by the industries that once thrived in the old buildings and is now overtaken by business and lawyers and otherwise forgotten except for a few blocks that have been reclaimed and vaguely yuppiefied. Deadwood, on the other hand, preserved its charm on the outside and packed the inside with wall to wall gambling. The buildings on the facade may say "bodega" or "dance hall," but inside each it's all the same - slots, etc. If you're not a gambler, it can get a little tiring.

Tomorrow we leave South Dakota for Wyoming. Today, in the national parks, I got to practice driving up and down steep roads, moving the automatic gears from drive to "1" or "2" as the slant demands. It's scary when the sign says that up ahead there will be sharp curves, no shoulder and no shoulder rails. The roads are good, though. The secret is to avoid the monsoon rains and 80 mph winds.

Friday, July 1st, Cedar Rapids, SD...We arrived at our destination this evening around 5 pm and then decided, spur of the moment, to drive another 350 miles to Rapid City. This was not a terrible idea, because Yankton didn't thrill us and I had the steam, but about 40 miles outside RC the sky turned evil dark and came down on us like a big black fuzzy bear paw. Exciting, except that it was 9:45 at night and the sun was just about set and I could barely see out of the windshield from all the dead bugs, and was doing my bravest to keep up at 80 mph, with the other vehicles going a minimum of 90. The posted speed limit is 75. Amidst all the country/western and angry/shouting/right wing radio we managed to find a jazz station (NPR, of course), and appropriately they were playing some franctic piece with nervous breakdown horns that underscored our wild, rain thrashed, speeding dash toward the twinkling city on the horizon. It looked so very, very good to us after countless miles of NOTHING. Beautiful nothing, but still nothing. We drove through the Badlands National Park in awe of the rugged, lonely splendor. The radio said there were record numbers of July 4th vacationers on the nations highways, but Route 90 through South Dakota was the opposite of crowded. In fact, when we saw a car up ahead of us blow a tire I wondered, "what happens to me if that happens out here?" For 300 miles we were usually in the company of only another 3 or 4 cars, at most, and maybe one truck. We could easily conjure the early settlers rolling through, dreaming of homesteads and possibilities. The view runs on til it falls off the end of the earth. "No claustrophobia here," Spencer said.

This was after a day crossing Iowa, taking the back roads by choice. Iowa is so warm and friendly. Really. The people and the land. It's one of the friendliest places I've ever been. And driving the back roads is a pleasure. A feast for the eyes and the imagination, as we passed so many farms that could be glossy magazine covers - but they come to their good looks naturally, without effort or pretense. I regret not photographing one that blew me away. All the buildings were a faded aquamarine. Against the green corn and the grasses it was quite a special sight. As soon as we hit South Dakota there was a radical change, in the land and the people. The first half of SD was hard, rough, brittle. But then we crossed the wide Missouri and came upon new terrain and friendlier people. The land took on texture and definition. For twenty miles there would be rolling hills, then we'd cross a pass and come into canyons, and after several miles of that we were in grasslands, and then back to rolling hills. The corn was gone now. The soil, where it was tilled for new planting, so dark it was almost black. The sky just got bigger and bigger. We crossed the time zone into mountain time and enjoyed a sunset that lasted more than an hour - and then the storm.

Now it is way late for my body. Spencer is asleep, and I'm impressed, because it is so noisy. We're in a western city on a Friday night and, as far as I can tell, it's still the wild West here in Rapid City. We're in a famous old downtown hotel that was built in 1928. It's called the Alex Johnson. The lobby feels set up for passengers coming in off a stagecoach, complete with some drunken young bucks arrayed on chairs out front. There is a casino/saloon downstairs, and around the corner a bar with a band. This is the odd part, the band is playing reggae. So out our open window, with the sounds of the railroad as it passed through at midnight, there is reggae. Am I in Rapid City or Nelson's Dockyard? We arrived too late for dinner and had to order pizza delivered from elsewhere, and it's alseep on the bed next to Spen. It's time for me to go there, too.

By coming here instead of staying with our plan I've screwed up the plotted course a little bit, but so what? We'll figure it out in the morning.

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