Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Home stretch

Awoke at 3:20 a.m. Outside, it was still surprisingly mild, with winds out of the southeast. No sign of any storm. While I was sleeping, the rest area had filled with trucks and a few cars.

Refueled in Rock Springs at 6:30. The morning work commute was just beginning. It felt like a gritty "blue collar" town. Along this part of the I-80 corridor, daylight began to reveal an unpleasantly scarred and littered landscape. The arid landscapes, with their sparse and slow-growing vegetation offer little concealment of human impacts. Perhaps we don't appreciate the natural beauty in such landscapes, and so trash them. I don't know. The economy here looks quite poor. Maybe the two go hand-in-hand.

I was now heading into strong winds, the cold front rapidly moving in. There was now snow in the higher passes, white veils hanging from the clouds. As the highway turned southwestward into Utah, I felt the tension ease. Hopefully I would keep ahead of the worst weather descending out of the north. Crossing the mountains at Park City, the snow started falling steadily, though the roads remained good.

Exited the freeway west of Salt Lake City near the airport. A sign indicated a cluster of hotels. Surely there would be a coffee shop. But no. All I saw were hotels. No other services. Very odd. And what’s worse, the roads only seemed to lead me back to SLC. I was furious at being channeled back into the engineering tangle that is SLC’s crazy highway interchanges.

After about a five mile detour, I left I-80 at the Tooele exit. Here, there is a cluster of fast food restaurants and gas stations. I stopped at McDonald’s to try some coffee from their “McCafe”. (Climbing out of the truck, I discovered several more of those obnoxious air freshener tags hidden behind the seats and removed the disgusting things. I thought I had found them all after renting the truck!) McDonald's charges $1.07 for a small coffee, which seemed reasonable. (And, I had to admit, it wasn’t terrible. Probably a product of Green Mountain Coffee Roasters in Waterbury, VT.)

Listened to KRCL radio in the Salt Lake area. An interesting station. I had grown weary of the talk radio shows, all selling gold and investment, insurance and HR scams.

Once again, I stopped at the Bonneville Salt Flats rest area. A much prettier day, with storm clouds covering Salt Lake City and the Wasatch Front, and to the west, blue sky scattered with snow clouds.

I got out to take some pictures, but the frigid wind was whipping across the salt flats at probably 50 to 60 mph. Even wearing glasses, I couldn’t keep my eyes open for more than a few seconds. Out here, goggles would be required. Quickly shot a photo or two and jumped back in the truck.

Around noon, I exited the highway at Wendover, just west of the Salt Flats. A billboard indicated there is a Starbucks inside the Wendover Nugget Casino. Parked in the casino's huge parking structure and struck out in search of coffee. After a big loop of the gaming floor, I found the Starbucks concession just off the lobby where I had entered. (Casinos seem to do this to me - overwhelm and disorient!) The young lady who took my order spoke with an Eastern European accent.

"Are you from the Czech Republic?" I asked.

She replied that she is from “the former Yugoslavia.” ("What brought you to Wendover, of all places?" The question remained unasked.) Though she misses her homeland, she said she likes living here in America.

Wendover straddles the Utah-Nevada state line. I thought I would explore all the gas stations to determine which state offered the lower price. (This is when it would be nice to have one of those "applications" which show the real-time price comparisons by state.) But in Wendover the price was $2.859, whether on the Nevada or the Utah side.

I had to stop to take a photo of the dramatic 10,704-foot Pilot Peak, crowned in clouds. Rising out of the high desert plain, it reminded me of the volcanoes I saw crossing from Bolivia to Chile.

Reached Elko after 1:00. Here I saw swallows flitting through the air and wondered "isn’t it time for their migration to Central or South America?" At a gas station, I watched from a distance as two motorcyclists, geared up for long distance travel, prepared to get back out on the highway. I sympathized with them – it’s a tough day for riding, especially if they’re eastbound. After refueling, I drove across the road to a Raley’s supermarket. After so much junk food, a deli sandwich sounded appealing. Bought a Panini and soda. It felt uncomfortable to be in this rather upscale market, representing the "world of affluence", and here I was, nearly penniless. (“I’m a jobless poser!")

Yet I watched the employees go about their chores and (though I’m sure it’s comforting to be working for such a solid employer,) it seemed so dreary. Near the door, I noted the Red Box video rental system in use here. I had first seen it in Waitsfield, Vermont recently, and have heard it’s taking a bite out of Blockbuster’s business. As I walked back to the truck, a light sleet or frozen rain was falling from a solitary cloud overhead.

Out "in the midde of nowhere", I passed the huge coal-powered Valmy Power Plant. Though hardly obvious, I'm sure there's a "sensible" reason for siting it here.

Crossing the country on I-80, I’ve encountered hundreds of miles of paving projects. Many in Nevada. It definitely has a cumulative effect and must become frustrating and stressful for long-haul drivers. I don’t know how they deal with it, especially if under pressure to meet a tight schedule. Driving single file in narrow lanes for miles on end is all-consuming and fatiguing.

Where the four-lane crosses dry lakebeds northeast of Fernley, small black rocks are laid out in the desert to spell out names and messages, a kind of harmless, movable graffiti. (I had also seen this at Bonneville.)

Nightengale Hot Springs is right along I-80, and it’s quite an odd vision, steam rising out of the landscape in many spots. A major industrial complex has been erected to capture some of the energy. (I passed a similar complex to the east, but at the time did not recognize its purpose.)

A 6:30 p.m. stop at the Boomtown Chevron near the Nevada-California border. Gas is $2.899. It's getting painful! Added only about 5 gallons, just enough to get over Donner Pass, perhaps to Auburn and, hopefully, lower prices. The sun had just slipped behind the Sierra, so driving would be easier (until darkness presented new hazards.)

Immediately upon crossing into California, serious highway construction begins. It is one of the most treacherous construction zones imaginable. Jersey barriers are set up to channel traffic into single lanes – the narrowest lanes I’ve ever seen on a freeway. Still, traffic was moving around 60 mph. It was harrowing, as the road wound up through the Truckee River Canyon.

The only consolation was the fairly light traffic. Aware of the project, many motorists must be using alternate routes.

At the Truckee California Agricultural Inspection Station, a young officer directed me to open the box and then asked a few questions about what I was carrying. Nothing living back there, I was free to go.

Highway repairs continued in long stretches over Donner Summit and down the western slopes. I was appalled at the inadequate safety measures used to separate traffic from the construction zone. In one area, where the concrete roadway is being replaced, the two-foot-thick slabs have been cut out, leaving a precipice and gaping hole just a few feet from traffic. Reflectorized plastic cones and drums are all that separates moving vehicles from disaster.

In areas they weren’t working, the old pavement is terrible and I don’t see how they can finish the work before the snows arrive.

At the Dutch Flat rest area, I stopped to try and call Henry and Charlene. I was relieved to find payphones, but it turned to aggravation when I found I couldn’t use my calling card. Instead, a recorded message directed me to dial a number for a “rate quote”. (The last time I called for such a "quote", it was nearly $20 for what should have been a $1 call.) The few remaining pay phone providers prey on those who are often least able to pay.

Stopped in Auburn at the In-N-Out restaurant. Next door is a Holiday Inn Express, so I walked over to see if they had pay phones. Now, even hotels have removed them, but the clerk was kind enough to let me use the desk phone to call Henry and Charlene. I reached their voice mail and left a message that I would arrive in Santa Rosa around 11:00. If they were not around, that was fine. I’d come back tomorrow (and find a place to camp tonight – though I wasn’t quite sure where. Perhaps Sugarloaf Ridge State Park.)

Decided against the hamburger after all. I've been eating "constantly", and (since these restaurants are so abundant in California) I couldn’t use the excuse that I may not have another opportunity to have a “Double-Double Animal”.

From Roseville onward, traffic grew noticeably more aggressive and I could feel the tension rising. Speeding cars wove in and out of lanes (much like I would often drive in my BMW sedan!) The roads, the traffic, the sprawling metropolis and dwindling natural impressions – all this led to a “rude awakening”. I was beginning to pine for the rural tree-covered landscapes of Vermont. Just as my arrival in Vermont had triggered an emotional urge to turn around. A slight panic. ("This may be hopeless.")

Reached Fairfield around 9:45. Another rude awakening: the Shell station selling gas for $3.099! ("This can’t be true!") And to add insult to injury, as soon as I initiated the transaction, the pump started talking, followed by a TV commercial for “CSI”. I shut it down almost immediately, adding just enough gas to get me home. "Fuck you, Shell!”

The road work continued to amaze me. ("Stimulus dollars" at work!) Highway 12 west of Cordelia is being widened. The Carneros Highway is undergoing a major widening from highway 29 to the Sonoma County line. In Sonoma, highway 12 north of town, out to Boyes Hot Springs, is now lined with quaint old-fashioned metal lamp posts. (I'm amazed that something so frivolous could be funded in these tough times!) Highway 12 through Sonoma Valley has also been widened, perhaps with the intention of creating a center turning lane.

Pulled up to Morita’s house at 11:00. No one was home, but on a hunch, I found a key to the granny apartment under the door mat. Moved only a few essentials inside this evening.

Soon after, Henry and Charlene arrived home. They were returning from Sacramento, and were also shocked by all the construction. Though I urged restraint due to my "odoriferous emanations", Charlene gave me hug. "We knew you'd be back!" They said it seems "just yesterday" that I left. I learned that Jessica had just vacated the apartment earlier in the day! We didn’t talk long, because all were tired.

On the counter, a wrapped plate of home-made cookies and a “welcome home” card from Cooper Cleveland put a smile on my face.

A shower, the first since arriving East Aurora, felt wonderful.


On the Nevada-Utah frontier, the dramatic 10,704-foot Pilot Peak stands crowned with clouds. This image reminds me of the string of volcanoes dotting the altiplano along the Bolivia-Chile frontier.


Bonneville Salt Flats on a clear day. A cold north wind was blowing about 50 or 60 mph, making it difficult to see without goggles.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

More fun with talk radio

(8:30 a.m. "Panera Bread Bakery-Cafe", north of Des Moines, Iowa.)

People here are so nice and clean-cut, "All American"! Smartly-dressed professionals on their way to work. Lots of blonde hair. I was a bit surprised to hit rush hour traffic on I-80 well north of the downtown area. Big city blues. I don't like being reminded of what many in our society have to endure.

Delighted to learn Panera offers free wi-fi and plug-ins, so that encouraged me to retrieve the computer from the truck, and indulge in a couple of pastries and some decent coffee. Again, there is no rush to move on, so perhaps I’ll do a little catching up here. The restaurant is fairly large and the numerous computer-users scattered about do not encroach much (though the log-in screen advises us to be considerate during the lunch hour, and to not occupy the large tables.)

From being in the driver’s seat so long, I still feel a swaying motion and a slight dizziness, reminiscent of coming ashore after being on a ship.

***

This morning, I awoke in the dark, uncertain how long I had slept. It could have been minutes or hours. But I was awake, so there was no point going back to sleep. Dressed and crawled out of the box. Went into the visitors’ center to use the bathroom, wash my face and brush my teeth. A wall clock showed it was almost 6:00 a.m. I had slept perhaps three hours. The vibration and noise from all the nearby parked trucks, their engines running through the night, made it difficult to rest. (Such an amazing waste of energy!) First light on the horizon, Venus high in the eastern sky. I paused to read an historical marker telling the story of the nearby Amana Colonies. Back out on I-80, I was surprised by the heavy truck traffic at such an early hour.

Trying to reach Des Moines, I nearly ran out of gas. I hadn't anticipated the countryside being so sparsely populated. Fortunately, I found two gas stations standing all alone about 20 miles east of the city. The BP station offered gas at $2.59, while the “Kum and Go” just up the road offered it for $2.25. (It seemed crazy, but I guess you pay extra for BP's ANWR lobbying efforts.) The gas tank sucked up over 30 gallons.


LATER

I couldn't resist tuning into the Christian Nation once again. The preacher says “I hope God will save me.” What kind of a god would save some, but not others? A loving god? "He" sounds a bit corrupt to me. As though he might be open to bribes. The folks at “lifeandliberty.org” claim President Obama is “terrorizing” the country. (I think these critics should spend a bit of time in Iraq, Afghanistan or Pakistan. Perhaps they would then better understand the term.)

On the Mike Gallagher Show, I learned about "keepamericasafe.com", created by Bill Kristol and Liz Cheney, two of our most enlightened and unbiased champions of "freedom"! The same lineage that brought us The Unnecessary War in Iraq. Without the psychological weapons of fear and panic, conservatives are impotent. Both Mike Gallagher and Dennis Prager spoke on their broadcasts about losing a loved one recently and how they are dealing with that loss. They use the loss to generate sympathy in service to their agenda, and in so doing, cross a moral line.

And then I listen to Rush Limbaugh, who now comes across as merely irrelevant and hateful. “El Rushbo” claims that with Obama, “it’s all about him.” The pot calling the kettle black? He talks mockingly of “Our Supreme Leader, Barack Hussein Obama”. I listened to Rush for three hours (well, about half of that was cheesy commercials targeting a gullible audience with various scams.) For someone who has been doing this so many years, Rush seems remarkably uninformed. Perhaps it has something to do with the old adage “we have two ears and one mouth that we might hear twice as much as we speak.” In Rush’s case, he clearly speaks much more than he listens.

Okay, maybe I wouldn’t want to be a trucker. (Occasionally I have thought "it would be fun.") The delays due to road paving are wide-spread and aggravating.

Each crossing of the U.S. reveals more windmills – dramatically more.

75mph speed limit in Nebraska!

At exit 314, I stopped at a remote “Dairy Queen”. Ice cream sounded good. (Seems I’m indulging every instinctive whim on this journey!) As I sat in the cab with my chocolate-dipped soft serve, taking in the pleasantly warm and breezy afternoon, I thought “this is pretty good!” (Definitely better than the “creemees” I had in Vermont.)

Out here in the Midwest, I hear many radio ads for Monsanto, touting new and more productive “Round-Up Ready” seeds.

***

The “talk radio” jocks are quite a tag-team, all ripping on Obama, all covering the same talking points, with almost identical scripts. Each expresses outrage that President Obama would travel to Copenhagen to lobby the IOC for Chicago as the 2016 Summer Olympics venue! “Where are his priorities? Why isn’t he here fighting for health care?" (Would that be the health care overhaul you’re doing your damnedest to torpedo?)

"Obama has only met with General Stanley McChrystal once!" (The outrage!)

Laura Ingraham employs the “America in Decline” tagline for her show. And (Michael) "Savage Nation's" tagline: “Twilight Zone of American culture.”

Sean Hannity refers to all the “czars” in the current administration. He (erroneously) describes the health care bill as carrying an “abortion mandate”. He asks his audience “aren’t you horrified? Isn’t it sinful?"

(Like all the others,) John Gibson asked how Obama could go to Copenhagen. But Gibson focused on a different angle of attack. A “YouTube” video is now "going viral”. It apparently shows a Chicago student, Darien Albert, being beaten to death. Showing appropriate outrage, Gibson asks “shouldn’t Obama instead be going to Chicago?”. And he then rolled out Chicago's murder statistics. Just to emphasize the point, the audio from the beating was replayed over and over again. It was sadistic, using the violence to serve himself and his agenda.

Of course, they all had a field day with the arrest in Switzerland of Roman Polanski. (And we all know Lefties love and defend Roman!) Polanski symbolizes the immorality of Hollywood's Liberal Elite.

These shrill and hysterical voices berate President Obama every hour of the day. He can do absolutely nothing right. He is a complete failure, and must go. It is simply amazing that anyone voted for him!

They are all hateful. And yet each claims to speak for the values of a “Christian Nation”. They exemplify duality: free to say anything they want, and be completely contradicted by their actions. There is no accountability here. These are the same people who played cheerleader to an illegal war in Iraq that killed over 100,000 people and sank this nation.

As if to proudly proclaim their hypocrisy and absence of ethics, they personally read product advertisements, offering personal endorsements, no doubt in exchange for free goods and services. It is difficult to tell where the show ends and the commercial begins. Unless they’re lying (which would be incredible,) it seems each of these characters is not immune to a little harmless graft.

***

At Sydney, Nebraska, I passed the world headquarters of “Cabela’s” outdoor shops, and finally the flat landscape slowly gave way to rolling hills. Winds from the south or southeast made driving today fairly easy. (Like the song,) the skies were cloudless all day.

Crossing into Wyoming, I was greeted with sparse pine forests and rough pavement.

Throughout today, I felt a slight twinge when seeing eastbound motorcycles. I wish I were out there. A couple days ago, given the rough weather, I was not so envious of the few bold riders I had seen.

How refreshing to occasionally turn back to NPR programming. I listened to the “World Café” program a few times during this trip. It was nice to hear some new musical voices (including the bands “The Flaming Lips” and “Camera Obscura” which I found enjoyable.)

Reached Cheyenne around 7:00 p.m. Refueled ($2.179/gallon) then pulled over to the “Sonic Drive-in” that had closed just as I arrived here last time. I learned it wasn't really worth the effort. The food is barely passable.

The weather forecast warned of a cold front moving in and bringing snow to higher elevations and to Western Wyoming. I decided to camp at a rest stop in Elk Mountain Pass. This way, if snow did move in, my escape would at least be downhill.

After 5,000 miles, I am just learning how to drive these trucks. (Yes, I'm a little slow.) Shifting into “drive 3” allows me to maintain momentum on the uphill grades.

Monday, September 28, 2009

East Aurora to somewhere in Iowa

Stood in Priscilla’s kitchen this morning, imagining looking for work in the California wine industry again, and no doubt, at my age, facing a harsh reality.

Outside, Priscilla pointed to the turkey vultures above, migrating southward. We realized that when I passed through last time, she had pointed them out to me as they migrated northward. Like these scavengers, I'm following a seasonal migration. Kathy called to ask “have you seen the weather forecast???” A strong storm was moving into the area.

In no hurry, I left Priscilla’s house at 11:00 a.m. But I passed on East Aurora's breakfast attractions: Taste, Starbucks, Tim Horton’s. Traffic kept me moving. “Lake effect” rain was soon pelting the truck, and strong gusty winds pushing it around the road and destroying fuel efficiency. At Hamburg, I became disoriented in heavy rain, construction and a circuitous approach to the Thruway. The worst weather was right along the Erie shoreline. It was quite a buffeting.

The usual heavy truck traffic on I-80 (the New York State Thruway) also provides a challenge. Since this small Penske van's throttle seems to be governed at 75 mph, trying to pass a big rig can be frustrating and difficult. And there are some very bad drivers on these roadways!

As I skirted the lakeshores, I envisioned the satellite image: a river of cold air sweeping down from the northwest and arcing around a low pressure trough sitting over the Great Lakes. Southwest winds along Erie changed to west winds south of Lake Michigan, to northwest winds in Western Illinois. (And in Western New York, thunderstorms were moving from east to west, probably dropping into the vortex of the trough.)

Listened to “Family Radio” for a while. It all sounded like children’s stories – fairy tales.

Running low on fuel, I left the Thruway short of the Pennsylvania border. A fuel sign directed me to a now-abandoned station. I was briefly furious, then reminded myself “it’s all part of the experience.” Following an alternate route, I crossed into Pennsylvania, and soon came to a gas station. The detour was fortuitous – the price of gas dropped 25 cents a gallon in Pennsylvania.

My focus today was to make a beeline for the Mississippi River. From my vantage point along the I-80 corridor, I can’t see what anyone finds attractive in Ohio, Indiana and Illinois. I need mountains, and an ocean nearby!

Exited in Sheffield, Ohio to stop at the Cracker Barrel. I wasn’t particularly hungry but saw this as perhaps the last opportunity to dine at one of these restaurants. At 3:00, it was pleasantly quiet, with mostly seniors in the dining room. Ordered the Marionberry (my receipt said “blackberry”) Pancakes and coffee. A notation on the menu caught my eye: “all natural syrup”. What happened to “real maple” syrup? (I had just been talking to Steve at Stowe Maple Products about how Cracker Barrel had been doing the maple syrup industry a service by offering the real thing at their restaurants.) So I asked the server for a side of syrup, just to see what’s up. The syrup is now 55% maple and 45% cane syrup. (It's from Maple Grove Farms of St. Johnsbury, VT – a division of B&G Foods.)(This reminded me of my shock at picking up a "honey bear" at a grocery, only to find in reading the fine print that it was "honey flavored syrup". Another of the many subversive uses for government-subsidized corn syrup!)

Gas in Ohio only $2.279. But I also have to consider the steep highway tolls. Still, New York seems to be the most expensive – high gas prices and high tolls.

Heard the reference to “Michiana” again – the border region between Indiana and Michigan.

Listened to NPR quite a lot today. I found it refreshingly soothing. I had heard it piped in at Stowe Maple Products. But other than that, I've been away from it for six months. I was struck by the sense that the voices all sounded noticeably older.

In the Chicago region, picked up the Moody radio network once again and listened to the Christian programming for awhile. Amazingly divisive. Instilling fear. It’s fascinating, the things that go together: protectionism, xenophobia, hatred, ignorance and scam commercialism. A discussion show focused on Sharia law being introduced into Western countries. (They claim) “there are places in England where Sharia replaces the law!”

Driving at night for the first time in this truck, I found the headlights were out of adjustment, and pointing down at the pavement a short distance ahead. I found that to provide a safe illumination, the high beams were necessary. But this led one trucker (out of the hundreds) to become quite irritated and indignant when I passed him, and he insisted upon dogging me for miles, following close behind with his high beams (and with my governed engine, my only escape was to pull over and let the idiot pass. Of course, I would eventually catch up to him on a grade, pass, and he would repeat his assault.)

I finally pulled into a rest stop west of Iowa City and let the asshole go on his merry way.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

A stop in East Aurora

 

At Charlie and Joanna's Holland, NY house, Cousin Kathy harvests elderberries for pie

 

Priscilla demonstrates her efficient harvesting technique

 

Priscilla checks the pH of her elderberries

 

Back in East Aurora, Kathy cooks up some steaks and dogs, while Charlie hides in the shadows

***

Awoke around 9:45 this morning, thinking it much earlier. The room was darkened, the sky overcast and a light rain still falling. This place is QUIET (especially compared to Waterbury.)

Went downstairs and found Kathy and Priscilla drinking coffee at the kitchen table and browsing through packages of photos from our 1999 Europe Trip. It's hard to believe it has been ten years since I played "Rick Steves", leading a group of family and friends through Europe! They seemed to have such vivid memories, compared to my rather vague or non-existent memories of that adventure. (Fortunately, I kept a journal.)

Kathy remarked that Priscilla had cleaned the house so much, that I should periodically call to warn her I’ll be passing through in a few days.

In the rainy afternoon, we took a ride in Priscilla’s new car out to Holland to visit Charlie and Joanna’s house and pick elderberries for pie. I am amazed at the work Charlie has done restoring an ancient house they purchased out of foreclosure. Charlie and Joanna seem to be leading an enviable lifestyle, working hard, enjoying a variety of experiences, appreciating all they have. Very solid “kids”. Out back, besides the elderberry thickets, they have a prolific pear tree which Charlie says produces great tasting fruit. For some reason, I declined to sample the pears.

After touring the house, we stayed on for a while, watching the Buffalo Bills-Patriots game.

Returning to East Aurora, we enjoyed leftovers for dinner. Not just any leftovers. Sautéing sliced steak with mushrooms, Kathy made excellent Philly-style sandwiches.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Farewell to Vermont



Randall Street landscape - Jeff's house in the background



Sewer replacement and repaving of Randall Street has provided "entertainment" the past couple months. I won't get to see the final result until I return - someday.



Jeff accosting his defenseless neighbor Wanda


Jeff, Wanda and "Ginger"

Alarm set for 7:45. Over breakfast, I worked on some notes from the last couple days. Jeff joined me around 9:15. I was planning a 10:00 a.m. departure.

Off at 11:15, after stopping over to say good-bye to Wanda.

A perfect day for a drive! (“Stunning”, as real estate agents might say.) Not a cloud in the sky until I crossed from Whitehall to New York, and then just puffy cumulus. The ride down Vermont 22A was gorgeous. After a very late start to the growing season, the farm stands are finally beckoning with their abundance. It’s very tempting to stop, but I didn’t want to dally. As I drove, I began to find a few surprises Jeff had hidden in the cab: beef jerky, “Special Dark” pretzels, DVDs I had intended for him to watch, and even Drew’s debut video, “Harry Monument”, which has become a family joke…I mean classic.

The New York side seemed a big step down, aesthetically. It felt “trashier”. The Fort Anne Booster Club was out in traffic trying to collect coins. Getting out on the interstate, I suddenly felt what a confined world I’ve been in this past six months.

Cresting the Adirondacks, I could see far to the west, hazy brownish-tinged high cloud above the layer of cumulus clouds. A sign of changing weather.

By Syracuse, I was into the rain. Per Jeff’s instructions, I left the Thruway at the Pembroke exit and went south past Darien Lake to New York route 20A. Near Kathy’s home (west of Warsaw) I was appalled at the number of huge windmills now lining the ridges. What a blight this is fast becoming! Individual landowners may benefit from leasing their property to the utilities, but for most others around, they don’t see “money”, they just see (and hear) the scarring and industrialization of their rural landscape.

Arrived in East Aurora at 7:15, after exactly 8 hours’ drive.

Later I wrote this update to Jeff:
You would have gotten soaked on the bike! (Though there were a few bikers out there.) But the ride down through Vermont was gorgeous! The clouds started as soon as I crossed to New York.

Kathy, Becky, Priscilla, Charlie, Nancy (who lives behind Priscilla) and Priscilla’s friend Joanie from Connecticut (now back in E.A.) were all here for dinner. Kathy made layered salad, twice-baked potatoes and barbecued steaks – you should have been here!

The truck may have some transmission trouble. I’ll try to get a better sense of it over the next leg of the trip.

Enjoying the peace and quiet for a change?

Thanks for all you have done for me. Especially Harry Monument, Special Darks and Beef Jerky!

I might leave tomorrow, but more likely Monday.

As “usual”, Priscilla had the middle bedroom prepared for me. Everything very tidy. Outside, a light rain fell. And again I found from the upstairs I was able to connect to a open wi-fi signal, so that provided some comfort.

Kathy insisted upon sleeping on the sofa, which she is too accustomed to doing.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Packing up

I lay awake for hours last night, my mind pondering the upcoming return trip to California and reflecting upon how, for the past five years, I’ve had little notion of what lies ahead. In the present circumstances it feels more apparent than ever. (This contrasts with years in offices, where a "to do list", daily calendar, and on-going projects offered a false sense of predictability.)

Other than visualizing a stop in East Aurora, I have thought little of the trip across the country. (Where others might plan such an excursion in great detail, in our family, we just tend to jump in the car – or truck or motorcycle – and take off.)

I was scheduled to pick up the truck at 9:00 and when my alarm went off at 7:30, Jeff also awoke, grumbling about being forced to get up so early. I had suggested several times that he accompany me to East Aurora on his bike, but that pressure was apparently sufficient to purge the thought from his mind.

Though the owner of the South Barre Penske dealership had assured me that together we’d find a way to load the motorcycle on the truck, I learned he was now “called away”, leaving a young woman to run the office and me to figure things out without their assistance. But last night, Jeff took me over to the nearby Vermont State complex to point out a small loading dock we could use.

So, instead of riding the motorcycle to Penske, loading it and going to the camp from there, Jeff would take me over to pick up the truck and we’d return to Waterbury to load the bike (and wine that I had stored in Jeff’s basement.) It would use up quite a bit more fuel, but I saw little choice.

The truck rental was a simple matter. I used Jeff’s “AAA” card to get a 10% discount, but then reluctantly opted for the insurance, which brought the total back up to $1,200. (Jeff again reminded me of his own rental experience, in which part of his moving van's box was destroyed in a drive-through lane. So he insisted I take the insurance option, even offering to buy it as a “going away gift”.) As we inspected the truck, he suggested checking all the lights. A good idea, as we then found the left headlight burned out. The agent had to call in a mechanic to fix it. Fortunately, he lived only minutes away, and the truck was soon ready.

Back in Waterbury, loading the bike from the dock was a simple matter. The comedy started when we disagreed about strapping the bike into the truck. Jeff wanted me to use an extra “Canyon Dancer” tie-down system he has. I summarily dismissed such a notion. “I don’t need it!” (I didn’t want any more “stuff”.) But I later realized I was rejecting his offer of help (something I do quite regularly) and this is unkind. He was clearly perturbed by my insistence that I do everything “my way”. Used four tie-downs to attach the bike to pad eyes in the forward bulkhead and side walls. I claimed that once the truck is fully loaded, the bike will be so packed in, “it won’t be going anywhere.” Still, Jeff said I should have used the “Canyon Dancer”. Next, we loaded my wine collection (which fortunately is diminishing.)

Jeff had offered to help load the truck up at the cabin, but my repeated rejection of his assistance left him a bit dejected and detached. As he was making some breakfast, I said I was heading up to the camp and would be back in “about 30 minutes”. A slight exaggeration.

This was the only part of the trip I was concerned with, as the bike and wine could indeed shift in the back of the truck, so I took it very carefully. A spectacular day, blue sky, puffy clouds, crisp, cold, and Autumn color washing the mountains. (“Are you sure you want to leave?”)

Just missed the lunch crowds in Montpelier. There are a few things that really annoy me about Vermonters. They have this habit, when driving down the highway and having the right-of way, of suddenly stopping and insisting that a motorist who is waiting to pull out into the highway go ahead of them. And they do this no matter how much traffic is on their tail. Absent-minded courtesy at the risk of a pile-up. Another peeve is the way pedestrians in Montpelier just step out into the street, assuming traffic will stop. Often they don’t even appear to look!

Stopped at the post office to collect mail, leave a forwarding address (which, I was told, is now done on-line) and turn in my P.O. box keys. Though all the culverts were being replaced on Minister Brook Road, Hampshire Hill Road was in decent shape, so there was no problem getting up to the cabin.

Backed the truck up to the cabin steps. Noted the electric meter reading: just over 10Kwh. I think that’s all we have used since buying the place in 2004! The cabin air was still foul from the rodent infestation. My loading of the truck was a bit haphazard. There was considerably more space than I required and I just needed to assure there would be room to make up a bed at the back of the box.

Left a few things behind: a new electric hot plate (which didn't get much use), some old dishes and flatware, (former owner) Jerry’s tools, a wooden kitchen chair, two folding lawn chairs, some bath tissue and two containers with about seven gallons of water (in case anybody needs the toilet).

It took a few hours. Vacuumed up all the debris from the rodents, left the windows slightly cracked (to let the place "breathe"), then left. Pulled the truck down the driveway, then stopped to take a couple parting photographs. I also took some shots of the foliage out on Hampshire Hill. Nature was putting on such a show, it was difficult to leave.

Now, I was no longer concerned about the load shifting. Picked up a bottle of lemonade at the Worcester store, and headed down the road. Good timing again, as I passed through Montpelier around 3:00 – before commute time.

Jeff was still home – he took the day off. He had just received a letter from the IRS saying that he owes over $2,000 and was trying to figure out why. We sat around for a while, eating cheese and crackers, then I talked him into walking over to The Reservoir for dinner. On the way, we briefly visited with his neighbor Wanda. The road crews had knocked down her phone line, leaving her out of touch with her family. I was a bit sad that I wouldn’t be around to see Randall Street paved (only to enjoy all the construction pandemonium.)

Our favorite Waterbury restaurants, Alchemist, Arvad’s and The Reservoir were all doing a lively business tonight. There was a 20-minute wait at The Reservoir. Impatient as usual, Jeff suggested he’d rather drive to Williston than wait.

“Oh, that makes a lot of sense. You’d rather drive twenty minutes there and twenty minutes back, rather than wait twenty minutes here?”

“Yes. At least I feel I’m doing something…”

So we walked back to the house to retrieve his car. It was a frigid evening.

“I’m getting out of here just in time!” He laughed at my being such a “woos”.

We arrived in Williston and the signs were not good: the Longhorn parking lot was full, people crowded inside the lobby. The Texas Roadhouse lot was jammed, with guests overflowing outside, waiting for a table. We went inside and checked on the wait. Twenty to thirty minutes. The din and chaos were enough to turn us away (though we did grab a couple free bags of peanuts on the way out.)

“Well, it was a nice drive!” And it was: one of those inky orange-blue-black Autumn twilights. A transparent atmosphere with a first quarter moon hanging low in the southwestern sky. We were now committed to The Reservoir.

“Let’s not hit a deer. That would be a double insult.”

Back in Waterbury, there was a fifteen minute wait for a table. While I waited, Jeff drove around looking for the perfect parking spot. Unlike the other restaurants, The Reservoir offers an open floor plan that’s good for people-watching. And there were many young and attractive women for us codgers to admire this evening! The hostess was fun to watch. Jeff liked her “ample behind”. (The lecher! Unlike me.) I saw many others more to my taste.

We had the same waitress who served us once before. She’s sharp and attentive, and that made all the difference in the experience. I ordered Newcastle Brown Ale and a “Mt. Philly Sandwich”. Tasty! Jeff went for a burger (which again came out too rare.) A long, leisurely meal. We both enjoyed it. And though they were busy, the atmosphere was relatively quiet. Perhaps their building is better insulated than other dining establishments.

At the house later, Jeff again mused over his tax returns. He finally recalled that he was originally refunded too much money. The agency finally caught their mistake. So Jeff was not too upset, except for the fact they now wanted to charge almost $200 in interest. Unacceptable.

Tired from insufficient sleep last night and today's exposure to the elements, I retired before midnight. But I soon remembered it was Susan’s birthday and went downstairs again. Jeff made a call to Whidbey Island and, receiving Drew and Susan's voicemail, we left a silly “happy birthday” message.

Vermont "experiment" concludes



All packed up, I say "good-bye" to my little cabin



Autumn colors are just beginning to come to Hampshire Hill



A taste of things to come

Thursday, September 24, 2009

A ride around Northern Vermont

The clouds had cleared out, leaving a clear blue morning, fresh and moist. Two more days here, but I start today just the same as I always do. In a few days, this dream will have ended.

Out front, a small backhoe was digging up the road again, apparently to install lateral sewer lines. Why they didn’t do this when they were laying the main line, I don’t know. Maybe it’s the contractor’s way of padding the project cost. It definitely appears inefficient. (And the constant noise is aggravating.)

I announced to Jeff that I was going to take a ride out to Caspian Lake. He had suggested it. Steve and Robin at Stowe Maple Products had also suggested it and last night there was a biography of Wallace Stegner on TV. It mentioned his love for his Vermont home at Caspian Lake. So, I decided there were enough signs – I should go.

I was so eager to get away from the construction tumult that I didn’t consider carefully what I should wear. I left with only my mesh (summer) riding jacket, and after several miles I began to have doubts that it would be warm enough.

A cold front had come in from the northwest, and the temperature continued to drop throughout the day. Drove up route 100 through Stowe and on to Morrisville. Took 15A to highways 15 and then 16. The autumn color was coming on strong, and was particularly dramatic when contrasted with dark green foliage that had yet to turn.

The area around Wolcott and Hardwick was particularly scenic. With increasing elevation, the temperature dropped, the wind increased and I could feel my core temperature falling. The physical size of Vermont is such that it takes less time than expected to arrive somewhere and things are smaller than I envision from looking at a map. Such is the case with Caspian Lake. I actually drove past it going north, thinking “that probably wasn’t it – it was too small!” But when I reached Craftsbury Road, I stopped and pulled out the road atlas. Indeed, I had passed Caspian Lake. It was very pretty, but not nearly the upscale enclave I had expected.

I continued on to Craftsbury Common, which Jeff had suggested is an “artsy” community. There I found the small Sterling College campus and young people walking the main street, looking out of place in this remote and rural community. I was on the lookout for a coffee shop, a place to warm up. I turned onto the Common Loop and pulled up abreast of two young women walking towards me. I asked about a coffee shop. One answered that they worked at the college and so didn’t need coffee. They said Hardwick would have the closest coffee shop.

I self-consciously didn’t want to seem too forward, so I kept my helmet on, even though I long-ago recognized it is rude to converse through the helmet. One of the women I found quite attractive. She remarked “you have a beautiful motorcycle…” to which I replied “I didn’t have much to do with it.” (Taking a cue from Jeff – that’s what he tells people who compliment his taste in motorcycles.)

I asked about the college and the curriculum. They only have 100 students and focus on the environment, outdoor activity and leadership. I mentioned being from California and the pretty one said she had some “pseudo-family in Napa”. “He drills wells.” I didn’t recognize the firm name. The longer we talked, the more uncomfortable I became (having the helmet on and all – but it was too late to take it off.) So, I had to move on.

Drove back towards Caspian Lake, analyzing what had just occurred. It was a pleasant treat to meet these young ladies, but it was clouded by my lack of consideration and discomfort. Had I been more at ease, and thinking less of myself, who knows where the conversation may have gone, and what I might have learned. Take a lesson!

This time, I drove the perimeter of Caspian Lake, over half of it on gravel roads. I was disturbed to find just one public access point. The entire remainder of shoreline is private property. “Hang the rich!” There are many homes and parcels for sale. Maybe the rich are hurting? Maybe they’re growing old and dying. It seems criminal for this little gem to be reserved for the privileged. That’s what I hate about the Eastern U.S.

The thought of being on the “return trip” helped psychologically counteract the cold. I thought of stopping at the Stowe Coffee House, and that “warmed” me. Returned to the Wolcott area and tried to find an appropriate angle for a photograph of the foliage. Took some side roads, and wandered a bit, but finally gave up the effort.

Outside of Morrisville, I stopped at the Green Top Market for a cookie (and a glance at the always-attractive clerks.) On to Stowe. Settled into my usual window seat with my coffee, seven-layer bar (plus one for Jeff) and my computer. Thawed my body.

Before leaving, I walked over to say good-bye to Richard, the Stowe blacksmith. His assistant directed me to his downstairs office. Through the window, I could see Richard curled up under a blanket on the sofa. Decided not to disturb him.

Next stop, Stowe Maple Products. I wanted to thank them again for doing the trade of maple syrup for wine. Steve was alone, and bottling up 3-ounce maple syrups. He had no customers so I grabbed a couple light fancy syrups from the shelf and started asking questions, picking up the conversation from a few days ago. He’s a wealth of knowledge, having done this much of his life. He gave me the two bottles for $10, well under the retail price. Finally, after over an hour, I said I better let him get back to work. But then I had another half-dozen questions. He seemed to welcome the company. When a customer arrived, I took the cue and said good-bye. But then out at the bike I noticed the camera and decided “I need a picture!” So, I went in to take some pictures as a couple of more customers arrived (and they too brought out their camera.) “You’re a celebrity!” I told Steve.

Steve maintains just under 10,000 taps (all connected to tap lines) and this produces around 3,000 gallons a year. Prices on the bulk market can be around $30 a gallon. (About 70% of Vermont’s production is sold in bulk.) He said the chain-sawing of fallen trees is the most difficult aspect of the job. He said he walks every inch of the tap lines, starting in November, repairing and replacing as needed. The plastic tap heads are replaced every year.

Returned home before 6:00, Jeff arriving a short time later. He had taken his bike to work.

He heated up breaded chicken fillets and instant mashed potatoes for dinner. It’s amazing. I think the only non-processed foods in his house may be two potatoes, and a couple garlics and small onions that are months old. And of course, all this processed food is increasingly consolidated into just a few major corporations. This led me to research aspects of the food chain tonight: General Mills, Pillsbury, Diageo, Nestle, Unilever and Campbell’s. It is time we start miniaturizing our food chain again.

Tonight, we watched TV for hours. I’ll be relieved to return to a world without television. It’s enjoyable at times, but the temporal pleasure is not worth the outrageous "opportunity cost".


"Steve" at Vermont's "Stowe Maple Products" bottles up some gallon containers of his award-winning syrup.



Steve chats with customers

Monday, September 21, 2009

Reasonable advice for Progressives

The following appeared in the latest edition of the Burlington, Vermont independent newspaper "Seven Days".
Obama Nation?

Poli Psy
By Judith Levine [09.16.09]

Only days after the presidential election, I began receiving emails from the Democratic National Committee’s Organizing for America — formerly Obama for America. Several times a week, they implored me to show my support for this or that presidential initiative, and to send money. Such an email arrived a half hour after the president delivered his health care speech last week. “Judith,” it began. “I just finished laying out my plan for health reform at a joint session of Congress. Now, I’m writing directly to you because what happens next is critical — and I need your help.”

As always, I deleted it.

Death row inmates need my help, I thought. Teenagers trying to get late-term abortions need my help. Barack Obama, presidential candidate, needed my help. And on election night, when the TV maps turned blue and a text message appeared on my cellphone signed “Your friend, Barack,” I was thrilled — and proud that I had done my part.

But President Barack Obama, Leader of the fucking free world, needs my help? Dear OFA: I’ll get back to you.

Actually, he probably does. If you doubt this, go back to YouTube and watch those Republicans glaring from the well of Congress last week, their teeth (and, probably, their buttholes) clenched as the Democrats cheered.

Still, something in me recoils at the thought of supporting the president.

It’s not that I’m disillusioned. Sure, Obama has turned out to be a centrist. That’s because he was always a centrist — bohemian mother, Kenyan father and community-organizing stint notwithstanding. Whoever thought they were voting for a man of the left had not heard a word the candidate said on the campaign trail.

It’s not that I’m disappointed, either — though I am. In the last two weeks alone, the administration has moved toward escalating the war in Afghanistan. Obama failed to defend green-jobs czar Van Jones, who was pushed to resign by right-wing nuts objecting to his respectable progressive résumé. (George W. Bush never abandoned his appointees, who were far more radical than Jones, not to mention crooks and war criminals.) And then, in the health care speech, the president pledged to fund neither abortions nor medical services for undocumented immigrants.

He threw progressives, women and “aliens” overboard to keep an agenda afloat. Yuck.

But also, what else is new?

As I said, I had no illusions, so I’m not disillusioned. I’m not disappointed by a centrist, because I didn’t expect a leftist. Truth be told, I’m still pretty blown away that a left centrist — and, let’s not forget, an African American left centrist — is president at all.

My reluctance to support Barack Obama has less to do with the person he is, or even with the positions and actions he’s taken, than with this: I just don’t like presidents.

I have never lived under a president I could admire. From Eisenhower to Bush II, I have learned that part of the job description is a personal character ranging from mediocrity to monstrosity. Kennedy was no exception. In my communist family, we hung no portraits of the sainted martyr who practically took us to war against Cuba and launched the U.S. engagement in Vietnam.

But my distaste isn’t all about individuals. I have a hard time supporting the president because he is the president — or rather, President.

The President is not just a person. He is a symbol. He stands for the United States of America, a beautiful ideal corrupt in virtually every function, from its criminal “justice” system to the corporate ownership of its elected officials. The President stands for the global power of the United States, for its militarism and economic domination. The President stands for government. And, in spite of my late advocacy of a more robust welfare state, government arouses a profound skepticism in this old anarchist.

In fact, until 1980, nine years after I became eligible, I didn’t honor the presidency with so much as a ballot. “Don’t vote,” we used to say. “It only encourages them.” I had no time for encouraging them. I was in the streets discouraging them from doing most everything they wanted to do. That I personally despised practically every man behind the Oval Office desk only made this political opposition feel more cogent.

But now I vote — and, for the first time, voted for a person I fervently wanted in the Oval Office. I’m encouraging him. So the question becomes, Encourage him to do what, and how? Put another way, how can a radical support a centrist president and not sell her skeptical soul? Here are a few thoughts.

1. Be realistic. Progressives have been floundering between feeling reluctant to criticize the man they worked to elect and carping on the sidelines because he’s not the man they (naïvely) thought he would be. We didn’t get a leftist president because a leftist candidate’s chances of winning the 2008 U.S. election were about equal to my chances of winning the 2009 U.S. Open. The same centrist populace elected Congress. It goes without saying that whatever health care bill they pass will be greatly inferior to what progressives — and even the president — want. It will also be better than what we’ve got.

2. Be strategic. In spite of his rhetoric, Obama will not be the last president to deal with this mess. This bill is only the beginning. Failure to pass it could destroy the Democratic majority and, with it, the chance to continue working. We will hate portions of this bill, and must tell our representatives we won’t give up, for instance, on full access for all, including the undocumented, and on comprehensive reproductive services, including abortion. Then we should tell them to vote yes. The perfect should not be the enemy of the good.

3. Be consistent. One day I get an email from MoveOn.org exhorting me to oppose any bill without a public option in it. The next day, I’m asked to tell my representative to vote for whatever gets to the floor. This isn’t strategy; it’s Tweeting.

4. Be radical. The right has always been great at rewarding legislators for each intermediate step toward the radical ideal. At the same time, its activists remind elected officials that they won’t settle for one slice of a loaf. This persistent, uncompromising agitation has paid off in moving popular sentiment, discourse, legislation — and presidents — to the right. Progressives should similarly keep their eyes on the prize. The good should not be the enemy of the perfect.

5. I shock myself by saying it, but … support the president. One of the most endearing qualities of candidate Obama was his insistence that the campaign was about us, not him. Now, a president is not the same as a candidate; an executive is not a community organizer. The president’s job is to lead, and Obama’s collectivist spirit may be a mask for his timidity in doing so. This week, liberal pundits are kicking him for playing golf this summer while town halls burned. They wonder whether his decision to act “presidential” has come too late.

Still, leadership is nothing more than getting other people to do things. Obama’s instinctual style of leadership is the kind that does not dictate but inspires, that is more about community than command. If it’s the kind of leadership a leftist can love, that should be no surprise. He learned it from us.

If we sit on our hands now, embracing our radical marginality and rejecting everything but what is impossible to get — a single-payer system — we will not only sink the chances for a better health care system. We will also send the message that there is only one kind of leader: the “decider.” We will implicitly renounce the brand of leadership the left has been cultivating since the ’60s.

What makes following, or collaborating with, Obama easier is that this guy likes us; he knows we’re his people. In Minneapolis this weekend, the rapturous crowd cheered the loudest when he talked about the public option. He told them they were a lot more fun than Congress. The rally ended with him leading the chant “We’re Fired Up! And Ready to Go!” One woman told NPR that impetus for reform “has to come from the bottom up, not the top down.”

It has to come from both. We need President Obama’s help, and he needs ours.

Voting only encourages them. But this election seems to have discouraged us, the citizens, from holding our winner to his promises. Just as this health care bill is only the beginning of reform, voting is the beginning, not the end, of activism. By encouraging — that is, lending courage to — the president, we may actually get what we elected him for. In the process we may begin to redeem, even transform, the Presidency of the United States.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Do we have a drug for you...



During these past six months in Vermont, I've had the "opportunity" to watch more TV than at any time in the past 30 years. One striking aspect of today's television is the incredible prevalence of drug commercials. Advertisers help "promote" our addictions for the first half our life, then spend that latter half "helping" us remedy the addiction and repair its ravages. And, of course, this latter phase is where public health programs are expected to step in and assist.

In late-night "CHANTIX" commercials, I've been introduced to "Herb" (above) - a pleasant fellow. He and his wife smile happily and enjoy a sunny afternoon on the veranda, apparently unaware of the voice-over citing the following ominous cautions:
Some people have had changes in behavior, hostility, agitation, depressed mood, suicidal thoughts or actions while using CHANTIX to help them quit smoking. Some people had these symptoms when they began taking CHANTIX, and others developed them after several weeks of treatment or after stopping CHANTIX. If you, your family, or caregiver notice agitation, hostility, depression, or changes in behavior, thinking, or mood that are not typical for you, or you develop suicidal thoughts or actions, anxiety, panic, aggression, anger, mania, abnormal sensations, hallucinations, paranoia, or confusion, stop taking CHANTIX and call your doctor right away. Also tell your doctor about any history of depression or other mental health problems before taking CHANTIX, as these symptoms may worsen while taking CHANTIX.

Some people can have serious skin reactions while taking CHANTIX, some of which can become life-threatening. These can include rash, swelling, redness, and peeling of the skin. Some people can have allergic reactions to CHANTIX, some of which can be life-threatening and include: swelling of the face, mouth, and throat that can cause trouble breathing. If you have these symptoms or have a rash with peeling skin or blisters in your mouth, stop taking CHANTIX and get medical attention right away.
Rest well!

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Destruction of Brazilian Rainforest

This satellite image shows the destruction of Brazilian rainforest along highway corridors through the Amazon region, near the city of Santarem.


View Larger Map

The following details a tiny section of the above image:



Driven by the economic forces of logging, mining, hydroelectric projects, cattle farming and sugar cane and soy bean production for ethanol, much of this clearing has occurred in just the past twenty years.

The Amazon region is often referred to as the lungs of the planet, for its carbon-capturing and oxygen production.

For the view from Ground Zero, see this Big Picture photo essay.

In a related matter, the following image shows destructive gold mining in the Madre de Dios River region of the Peruvian Amazon:


View Larger Map

Monday, September 14, 2009

Clean Water Laws Are Neglected, at a Cost in Suffering

Published on Monday, September 14, 2009 by The New York Times

by Charles Duhigg

Jennifer Hall-Massey knows not to drink the tap water in her home near Charleston, W.Va.

[A water sample collected from a water heater by Patty Sebok, a neighbor of Jennifer Hall-Massey. Residents say such water is typical and has destroyed toilets, dishwashers and washing machines. (Damon Winter/The New York Times)]A water sample collected from a water heater by Patty Sebok, a neighbor of Jennifer Hall-Massey. Residents say such water is typical and has destroyed toilets, dishwashers and washing machines. (Damon Winter/The New York Times)
In fact, her entire family tries to avoid any contact with the water. Her youngest son has scabs on his arms, legs and chest where the bathwater — polluted with lead, nickel and other heavy metals — caused painful rashes. Many of his brother’s teeth were capped to replace enamel that was eaten away.

Neighbors apply special lotions after showering because their skin burns. Tests show that their tap water contains arsenic, barium, lead, manganese and other chemicals at concentrations federal regulators say could contribute to cancer and damage the kidneys and nervous system.

“How can we get digital cable and Internet in our homes, but not clean water?” said Mrs. Hall-Massey, a senior accountant at one of the state’s largest banks.

She and her husband, Charles, do not live in some remote corner of Appalachia. Charleston, the state capital, is less than 17 miles from her home.

“How is this still happening today?” she asked.

When Mrs. Hall-Massey and 264 neighbors sued nine nearby coal companies, accusing them of putting dangerous waste into local water supplies, their lawyer did not have to look far for evidence. As required by state law, some of the companies had disclosed in reports to regulators that they were pumping into the ground illegal concentrations of chemicals — the same pollutants that flowed from residents’ taps.

But state regulators never fined or punished those companies for breaking those pollution laws.

This pattern is not limited to West Virginia. Almost four decades ago, Congress passed the Clean Water Act to force polluters to disclose the toxins they dump into waterways and to give regulators the power to fine or jail offenders. States have passed pollution statutes of their own. But in recent years, violations of the Clean Water Act have risen steadily across the nation, an extensive review of water pollution records by The New York Times found.

In the last five years alone, chemical factories, manufacturing plants and other workplaces have violated water pollution laws more than half a million times. The violations range from failing to report emissions to dumping toxins at concentrations regulators say might contribute to cancer, birth defects and other illnesses.

However, the vast majority of those polluters have escaped punishment. State officials have repeatedly ignored obvious illegal dumping, and the Environmental Protection Agency, which can prosecute polluters when states fail to act, has often declined to intervene. Read more.

Because it is difficult to determine what causes diseases like cancer, it is impossible to know how many illnesses are the result of water pollution, or contaminants’ role in the health problems of specific individuals.

But concerns over these toxins are great enough that Congress and the E.P.A. regulate more than 100 pollutants through the Clean Water Act and strictly limit 91 chemicals or contaminants in tap water through the Safe Drinking Water Act.

Regulators themselves acknowledge lapses. The new E.P.A. administrator, Lisa P. Jackson, said in an interview that despite many successes since the Clean Water Act was passed in 1972, today the nation’s water does not meet public health goals, and enforcement of water pollution laws is unacceptably low. She added that strengthening water protections is among her top priorities. State regulators say they are doing their best with insufficient resources.

The Times obtained hundreds of thousands of water pollution records through Freedom of Information Act requests to every state and the E.P.A., and compiled a national database of water pollution violations that is more comprehensive than those maintained by states or the E.P.A. (For an interactive version, which can show violations in any community, visit www.nytimes.com/toxicwaters.)

In addition, The Times interviewed more than 250 state and federal regulators, water-system managers, environmental advocates and scientists.

That research shows that an estimated one in 10 Americans have been exposed to drinking water that contains dangerous chemicals or fails to meet a federal health benchmark in other ways.

Those exposures include carcinogens in the tap water of major American cities and unsafe chemicals in drinking-water wells. Wells, which are not typically regulated by the Safe Drinking Water Act, are more likely to contain contaminants than municipal water systems.

Because most of today’s water pollution has no scent or taste, many people who consume dangerous chemicals do not realize it, even after they become sick, researchers say.

But an estimated 19.5 million Americans fall ill each year from drinking water contaminated with parasites, bacteria or viruses, according to a study published last year in the scientific journal Reviews of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology. That figure does not include illnesses caused by other chemicals and toxins.

In the nation’s largest dairy states, like Wisconsin and California, farmers have sprayed liquefied animal feces onto fields, where it has seeped into wells, causing severe infections. Tap water in parts of the Farm Belt, including cities in Illinois, Kansas, Missouri and Indiana, has contained pesticides at concentrations that some scientists have linked to birth defects and fertility problems.

In parts of New York, Rhode Island, Ohio, California and other states where sewer systems cannot accommodate heavy rains, untreated human waste has flowed into rivers and washed onto beaches. Drinking water in parts of New Jersey, New York, Arizona and Massachusetts shows some of the highest concentrations of tetrachloroethylene, a dry cleaning solvent that has been linked to kidney damage and cancer. (Specific types of water pollution across the United States will be examined in future Times articles.)

The Times’s research also shows that last year, 40 percent of the nation’s community water systems violated the Safe Drinking Water Act at least once, according to an analysis of E.P.A. data. Those violations ranged from failing to maintain proper paperwork to allowing carcinogens into tap water. More than 23 million people received drinking water from municipal systems that violated a health-based standard.

In some cases, people got sick right away. In other situations, pollutants like chemicals, inorganic toxins and heavy metals can accumulate in the body for years or decades before they cause problems. Some of the most frequently detected contaminants have been linked to cancer, birth defects and neurological disorders.

Records analyzed by The Times indicate that the Clean Water Act has been violated more than 506,000 times since 2004, by more than 23,000 companies and other facilities, according to reports submitted by polluters themselves. Companies sometimes test what they are dumping only once a quarter, so the actual number of days when they broke the law is often far higher. And some companies illegally avoid reporting their emissions, say officials, so infractions go unrecorded.

Environmental groups say the number of Clean Water Act violations has increased significantly in the last decade. Comprehensive data go back only five years but show that the number of facilities violating the Clean Water Act grew more than 16 percent from 2004 to 2007, the most recent year with complete data.

Polluters include small companies, like gas stations, dry cleaners, shopping malls and the Friendly Acres Mobile Home Park in Laporte, Ind., which acknowledged to regulators that it had dumped human waste into a nearby river for three years.

They also include large operations, like chemical factories, power plants, sewage treatment centers and one of the biggest zinc smelters, the Horsehead Corporation of Pennsylvania, which has dumped illegal concentrations of copper, lead, zinc, chlorine and selenium into the Ohio River. Those chemicals can contribute to mental retardation and cancer.

Some violations are relatively minor. But about 60 percent of the polluters were deemed in “significant noncompliance” — meaning their violations were the most serious kind, like dumping cancer-causing chemicals or failing to measure or report when they pollute.

Finally, the Times’s research shows that fewer than 3 percent of Clean Water Act violations resulted in fines or other significant punishments by state officials. And the E.P.A. has often declined to prosecute polluters or force states to strengthen their enforcement by threatening to withhold federal money or take away powers the agency has delegated to state officials.

Neither Friendly Acres Mobile Home Park nor Horsehead, for instance, was fined for Clean Water Act violations in the last eight years. A representative of Friendly Acres declined to comment. Indiana officials say they are investigating the mobile home park. A representative of Horsehead said the company had taken steps to control pollution and was negotiating with regulators to clean up its emissions.

Numerous state and federal lawmakers said they were unaware that pollution was so widespread.

“I don’t think anyone realized how bad things have become,” said Representative James L. Oberstar, a Minnesota Democrat, when told of The Times’s findings. Mr. Oberstar is chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, which has jurisdiction over many water-quality issues.

“The E.P.A. and states have completely dropped the ball,” he said. “Without oversight and enforcement, companies will use our lakes and rivers as dumping grounds — and that’s exactly what is apparently going on.”

The E.P.A. administrator, Ms. Jackson, whose appointment was confirmed in January, said in an interview that she intended to strengthen enforcement of the Clean Water Act and pressure states to apply the law.

“I’ve been saying since Day One I want to work on these water issues pretty broadly across the country,” she said. On Friday, the E.P.A. said that it was reviewing dozens of coal-mining permits in West Virginia and three other states to make sure they would not violate the Clean Water Act.

After E.P.A. officials received detailed questions from The New York Times in June, Ms. Jackson sent a memo to her enforcement deputy noting that the E.P.A. is “falling short of this administration’s expectations for the effectiveness of our clean water enforcement programs. Data available to E.P.A. shows that, in many parts of the country, the level of significant noncompliance with permitting requirements is unacceptably high and the level of enforcement activity is unacceptably low.”

State officials, for their part, attribute rising pollution rates to increased workloads and dwindling resources. In 46 states, local regulators have primary responsibility for crucial aspects of the Clean Water Act. Though the number of regulated facilities has more than doubled in the last 10 years, many state enforcement budgets have remained essentially flat when adjusted for inflation. In New York, for example, the number of regulated polluters has almost doubled to 19,000 in the last decade, but the number of inspections each year has remained about the same.

But stretched resources are only part of the reason polluters escape punishment. The Times’s investigation shows that in West Virginia and other states, powerful industries have often successfully lobbied to undermine effective regulation.

State officials also argue that water pollution statistics include minor infractions, like failing to file reports, which do not pose risks to human health, and that records collected by The Times failed to examine informal enforcement methods, like sending warning letters.

“We work enormously hard inspecting our coal mines, analyzing water samples, notifying companies of violations when we detect them,” said Randy Huffman, head of West Virginia’s Department of Environmental Protection. “When I look at how far we’ve come in protecting the state’s waters since we took responsibility for the Clean Water Act, I think we have a lot to be proud of.”

But unchecked pollution remains a problem in many states. West Virginia offers a revealing example of why so many companies escape punishment.

One Community’s Plight

The mountains surrounding the home of Mrs. Hall-Massey’s family and West Virginia’s nearby capital have long been mined for coal. And for years, the area enjoyed clean well water.

But starting about a decade ago, awful smells began coming from local taps. The water was sometimes gray, cloudy and oily. Bathtubs and washers developed rust-colored rings that scrubbing could not remove. When Mrs. Hall-Massey’s husband installed industrial water filters, they quickly turned black. Tests showed that their water contained toxic amounts of lead, manganese, barium and other metals that can contribute to organ failure or developmental problems.

Around that time, nearby coal companies had begun pumping industrial waste into the ground.

Mining companies often wash their coal to remove impurities. The leftover liquid — a black fluid containing dissolved minerals and chemicals, known as sludge or slurry — is often disposed of in vast lagoons or through injection into abandoned mines. The liquid in those lagoons and shafts can flow through cracks in the earth into water supplies. Companies must regularly send samples of the injected liquid to labs, which provide reports that are forwarded to state regulators.

In the eight miles surrounding Mrs. Hall-Massey’s home, coal companies have injected more than 1.9 billion gallons of coal slurry and sludge into the ground since 2004, according to a review of thousands of state records. Millions more gallons have been dumped into lagoons.

These underground injections have contained chemicals at concentrations that pose serious health risks, and thousands of injections have violated state regulations and the Safe Drinking Water Act, according to reports sent to the state by companies themselves.

For instance, three coal companies — Loadout, Remington Coal and Pine Ridge, a subsidiary of Peabody Energy, one of the largest coal companies in the world — reported to state officials that 93 percent of the waste they injected near this community had illegal concentrations of chemicals including arsenic, lead, chromium, beryllium or nickel.

Sometimes those concentrations exceeded legal limits by as much as 1,000 percent. Those chemicals have been shown to contribute to cancer, organ failures and other diseases.

But those companies were never fined or punished for those illegal injections, according to state records. They were never even warned that their activities had been noticed.

Remington Coal declined to comment. A representative of Loadout’s parent said the company had assigned its permit to another company, which ceased injecting in 2006. Peabody Energy, which spun off Pine Ridge in 2007, said that some data sent to regulators was inaccurate and that the company’s actions reflected best industry practices.

West Virginia officials, when asked about these violations, said regulators had accidentally overlooked many pollution records the companies submitted until after the statute of limitations had passed, so no action was taken. They also said their studies indicated that those injections could not have affected drinking water in the area and that other injections also had no detectable effect.

State officials noted that they had cited more than 4,200 water pollution violations at mine sites around the state since 2000, as well as conducted thousands of investigations. The state has initiated research about how mining affects water quality. After receiving questions from The Times, officials announced a statewide moratorium on issuing injection permits and told some companies that regulators were investigating their injections.

“Many of the issues you are examining are several years old, and many have been addressed,” West Virginia officials wrote in a statement. The state’s pollution program “has had its share of issues,” regulators wrote. However, “it is important to note that if the close scrutiny given to our state had been given to others, it is likely that similar issues would have been found.”

More than 350 other companies and facilities in West Virginia have also violated the Clean Water Act in recent years, records show. Those infractions include releasing illegal concentrations of iron, manganese, aluminum and other chemicals into lakes and rivers.

As the water in Mrs. Hall-Massey’s community continued to worsen, residents began complaining of increased health problems. Gall bladder diseases, fertility problems, miscarriages and kidney and thyroid issues became common, according to interviews.

When Mrs. Hall-Massey’s family left on vacation, her sons’ rashes cleared up. When they returned, the rashes reappeared. Her dentist told her that chemicals appeared to be damaging her teeth and her son’s, she said. As the quality of her water worsened, Mrs. Hall-Massey’s once-healthy teeth needed many crowns. Her son brushed his teeth often, used a fluoride rinse twice a day and was not allowed to eat sweets. Even so, he continued getting cavities until the family stopped using tap water. By the time his younger brother’s teeth started coming in, the family was using bottled water to brush. He has not had dental problems.

Medical professionals in the area say residents show unusually high rates of health problems. A survey of more than 100 residents conducted by a nurse hired by Mrs. Hall-Massey’s lawyer indicated that as many as 30 percent of people in this area have had their gallbladders removed, and as many as half the residents have significant tooth enamel damage, chronic stomach problems and other illnesses. That research was confirmed through interviews with residents.

It is difficult to determine which companies, if any, are responsible for the contamination that made its way into tap water or to conclude which specific chemicals, if any, are responsible for particular health problems. Many coal companies say they did not pollute the area’s drinking water and chose injection sites that flowed away from nearby homes.

An independent study by a university researcher challenges some of those claims.

“I don’t know what else could be polluting these wells,” said Ben Stout, a biology professor at Wheeling Jesuit University who tested the water in this community and elsewhere in West Virginia. “The chemicals coming out of people’s taps are identical to the chemicals the coal companies are pumping into the ground.”

One night, Mrs. Hall-Massey’s 6-year-old son, Clay, asked to play in the tub. When he got out, his bright red rashes hurt so much he could not fall asleep. Soon, Mrs. Hall-Massey began complaining to state officials. They told her they did not know why her water was bad, she recalls, but doubted coal companies had done anything wrong. The family put their house on the market, but because of the water, buyers were not interested.

In December, Mrs. Hall-Massey and neighbors sued in county court, seeking compensation. That suit is pending. To resolve a related lawsuit filed about the same time, the community today gets regular deliveries of clean drinking water, stored in coolers or large blue barrels outside most homes. Construction began in August on a pipeline bringing fresh water to the community.

But for now most residents still use polluted water to bathe, shower and wash dishes.

“A parent’s only real job is to protect our children,” Mrs. Hall-Massey said. “But where was the government when we needed them to protect us from this stuff?”

Regulators ‘Overwhelmed’

Matthew Crum, a 43-year-old lawyer, wanted to protect people like Mrs. Hall-Massey. That is why he joined West Virginia’s environmental protection agency in 2001, when it became clear that the state’s and nation’s streams and rivers were becoming more polluted.

But he said he quickly learned that good intentions could not compete with intimidating politicians and a fearful bureaucracy.

Mr. Crum grew up during a golden age of environmental activism. He was in elementary school when Congress passed the Clean Water Act of 1972 in response to environmental disasters, including a fire on the polluted Cuyahoga River in Cleveland. The act’s goal was to eliminate most water pollution by 1985 and prohibit the “discharge of toxic pollutants in toxic amounts.”

“There were a bunch of us that were raised with the example of the Clean Water Act as inspiration,” he said. “I wanted to be part of that fight.”

In the two decades after the act’s passage, the nation’s waters grew much healthier. The Cuyahoga River, West Virginia’s Kanawha River and hundreds of other beaches, streams and ponds were revitalized.

But in the late 1990s, some states’ enforcement of pollution laws began tapering off, according to regulators and environmentalists. Soon the E.P.A. started reporting that the nation’s rivers, lakes and estuaries were becoming dirtier again. Mr. Crum, after a stint in Washington with the Justice Department and the birth of his first child, joined West Virginia’s Department of Environmental Protection, where new leadership was committed to revitalizing the Clean Water Act.

He said his idealism was tested within two weeks, when he was called to a huge coal spill into a stream.

“I met our inspector at the spill site, and we had this really awkward conversation,” Mr. Crum recalled. “I said we should shut down the mine until everything was cleaned up. The inspector agreed, but he said if he issued that order, he was scared of getting demoted or transferred to the middle of nowhere. Everyone was terrified of doing their job.”

Mr. Crum temporarily shut the mine.

In the next two years, he shut many polluting mines until they changed their ways. His tough approach raised his profile around the state.

Mining companies, worried about attracting Mr. Crum’s attention, began improving their waste disposal practices, executives from that period said. But they also began complaining to their friends in the state’s legislature, they recalled in interviews, and started a whisper campaign accusing Mr. Crum of vendettas against particular companies — though those same executives now admit they had no evidence for those claims.

In 2003, a new director, Stephanie Timmermeyer, was nominated to run the Department of Environmental Protection. One of West Virginia’s most powerful state lawmakers, Eustace Frederick, said she would be confirmed, but only if she agreed to fire Mr. Crum, according to several people who said they witnessed the conversation.

She was given the job and soon summoned Mr. Crum to her office. He was dismissed two weeks after his second child’s birth.

Ms. Timmermeyer, who resigned in 2008, did not return calls. Mr. Frederick died last year.

Since then, hundreds of workplaces in West Virginia have violated pollution laws without paying fines. A half-dozen current and former employees, in interviews, said their enforcement efforts had been undermined by bureaucratic disorganization, a departmental preference to let polluters escape punishment if they promise to try harder, and a revolving door of regulators who leave for higher-paying jobs at the companies they once policed.

“We are outmanned and overwhelmed, and that’s exactly how industry wants us,” said one employee who requested anonymity for fear of being fired. “It’s been obvious for decades that we’re not on top of things, and coal companies have earned billions relying on that.”

In June, four environmental groups petitioned the E.P.A. to take over much of West Virginia’s handling of the Clean Water Act, citing a “nearly complete breakdown” in the state. The E.P.A. has asked state officials to respond and said it is investigating the petition.

Similar problems exist in other states, where critics say regulators have often turned a blind eye to polluters. Regulators in five other states, in interviews, said they had been pressured by industry-friendly politicians to drop continuing pollution investigations.

“Unless the E.P.A. is pushing state regulators, a culture of transgression and apathy sets in,” said William K. Reilly, who led the E.P.A. under President George H. W. Bush.

In response, many state officials defend their efforts. A spokeswoman for West Virginia’s Department of Environmental Protection, for instance, said that between 2006 and 2008, the number of cease-operation orders issued by regulators was 10 percent higher than during Mr. Crum’s two-year tenure.

Mr. Huffman, the department’s head, said there is no political interference with current investigations. Department officials say they continue to improve the agency’s procedures, and note that regulators have assessed $14.7 million in state fines against more than 70 mining companies since 2006.

However, that is about equal to the revenue those businesses’ parent companies collect every 10 hours, according to financial reports. (To find out about every state’s enforcement record and read comments from regulators, visit www.nytimes.com/waterdata.)

“The real test is, is our water clean?” said Mr. Huffman. “When the Clean Water Act was passed, this river that flows through our capital was very dirty. Thirty years later, it’s much cleaner because we’ve chosen priorities carefully.”

Some regulators admit that polluters have fallen through the cracks. To genuinely improve enforcement, they say, the E.P.A. needs to lead.

“If you don’t have vigorous oversight by the feds, then everything just goes limp,” said Mr. Crum. “Regulators can’t afford to have some backbone unless they know Washington or the governor’s office will back them up.”

It took Mr. Crum a while to recover from his firing. He moved to Virginia to work at the Nature Conservancy, an environmental conservation group. Today, he is in private practice and works on the occasional environmental lawsuit.

“We’re moving backwards,” he said, “and it’s heartbreaking.”

Shortcomings of the E.P.A.

The memos are marked “DO NOT DISTRIBUTE.”

They were written this year by E.P.A. staff, the culmination of a five-year investigation of states’ enforcement of federal pollution laws. And in bland, bureaucratic terms, they describe a regulatory system — at the E.P.A. and among state agencies — that in many ways simply does not work.

For years, according to one memo, federal regulators knew that more than 30 states had major problems documenting which companies were violating pollution laws. Another notes that states’ “personnel lack direction, ability or training” to levy fines large enough to deter polluters.

But often, the memos say, the E.P.A. never corrected those problems even though they were widely acknowledged. The E.P.A. “may hesitate to push the states” out of “fear of risking their relationships,” one report reads. Another notes that E.P.A. offices lack “a consistent national oversight strategy.”

Some of those memos, part of an effort known as the State Review Framework, were obtained from agency employees who asked for anonymity, and others through Freedom of Information Act requests.

Enforcement lapses were particularly bad under the administration of President George W. Bush, employees say. “For the last eight years, my hands have been tied,” said one E.P.A. official who requested anonymity for fear of retribution. “We were told to take our clean water and clean air cases, put them in a box, and lock it shut. Everyone knew polluters were getting away with murder. But these polluters are some of the biggest campaign contributors in town, so no one really cared if they were dumping poisons into streams.”

The E.P.A. administrators during the last eight years — Christine Todd Whitman, Michael O. Leavitt and Stephen L. Johnson — all declined to comment.

When President Obama chose Ms. Jackson to head the E.P.A., many environmentalists and agency employees were encouraged. During his campaign, Mr. Obama promised to “reinvigorate the drinking water standards that have been weakened under the Bush administration and update them to address new threats.” He pledged to regulate water pollution from livestock operations and push for amendments to the Clean Water Act.

But some worry those promises will not be kept. Water issues have taken a back seat to other environmental concerns, like carbon emissions.

In an interview, Ms. Jackson noted that many of the nation’s waters were healthier today than when the Clean Water Act was passed and said she intended to enforce the law more vigorously. After receiving detailed questions from The Times, she put many of the State Review Framework documents on the agency’s Web site, and ordered more disclosure of the agency’s handling of water issues, increased enforcement and revamped technology so that facilities’ environmental records are more accessible.

“Do critics have a good and valid point when they say improvements need to be made? Absolutely,” Ms. Jackson said. “But I think we need to be careful not to do that by scaring the bejesus out of people into thinking that, boy, are things horrible. What it requires is attention, and I’m going to give it that attention.”

In statements, E.P.A. officials noted that from 2006 to 2008, the agency conducted 11,000 Clean Water Act and 21,000 Safe Drinking Water Act inspections, and referred 146 cases to the Department of Justice. During the 2007 to 2008 period, officials wrote, 92 percent of the population served by community water systems received water that had no reported health-based violations.

The Times’s reporting, the statements added, “does not distinguish between significant violations and minor violations,” and “as a result, the conclusions may present an unduly alarming picture.” They wrote that “much of the country’s water quality problems are caused by discharges from nonpoint sources of pollution, such as agricultural runoff, which cannot be corrected solely through enforcement.”

Ultimately, lawmakers and environmental activists say, the best solution is for Congress to hold the E.P.A. and states accountable for their failures.

The Clean Water Act, they add, should be expanded to police other types of pollution — like farm and livestock runoff — that are largely unregulated. And they say Congress should give state agencies more resources, in the same way that federal dollars helped overhaul the nation’s sewage systems in the 1970s.

Some say changes will not occur without public outrage.

“When we started regulating water pollution in the 1970s, there was a huge public outcry because you could see raw sewage flowing into the rivers,” said William D. Ruckelshaus, who served as the first head of the Environmental Protection Agency under President Richard M. Nixon, and then again under President Ronald Reagan.

“Today the violations are much more subtle — pesticides and chemicals you can’t see or smell that are even more dangerous,” he added. “And so a lot of the public pressure on regulatory agencies has ebbed away.”

Copyright 2009 The New York Times Company