Thursday, September 29, 2005

Aliquippa, PA

I've spent the last three days in Aliquippa, just up the road from Pittsburgh. It's brought back some memories.

Just 30 years ago, there was this amazing thing in America called "Steel." Humans would take iron ore, coke, and a few other additives, throw it into great furnaces until it all melted together, then pour and press and stamp it into various shapes. It was an extremely strong product, this steel, and could be used to build things that lasted a long time -- things like building frames, railroads, or automobiles. In the evenings over Youngstown, Warren, Cleveland and Pittsburgh, they'd open up the furnaces at shift change for maintenance, and the skies would turn red.

Millions of people all over this area worked to produce this steel and the resulting products. They worked to move the raw materials to the furnaces; to produce the steel; to process it into products; to maintain the equipment they used; and to transport the products to the rest of the world. Steel was more important to this area than oil is to Alaska.

There were these things called "unions:" groups of workers who maintained the standard of work in the mills, and negotiated for fair wages, safe conditions, and retirement programs for those who worked day after day after day to make the steel and value-added products. Thanks to these unions, workers could afford modest houses of their own, medical care for their families, and they could pay taxes to build better schools, better roads, and pay for programs that increased the quality of life for everyone in the community. Of course this meant lower profits for the companies, but for decades those companies still made a good living.

This was The Steel Belt. It was a place where people were proud of their accomplishments and communities, and they had a damned good reason to be. They had worked to build their lives, and they'd done a damned nice job of it.

Then one day, rumblings of the industry's demise began to shake the people who produced this steel and its products. Living in Warren, OH, I remember when Republic Steel began laying off its employees. I remember when the skies stopped turning red at night. I remember when the automobiles stopped rolling off the assembly lines, when our sister cities of Pittsburgh and Youngstown began declining in their quality of life. Pension funds were raided in scandals, leaving little or nothing for those who'd worked their modest lifetimes to make others wealthy.

It is now appropriately known as The Rust Belt.

The collapse of the economy was a complete devastation. I remember standing in line at a fast food restaurant to apply for a single part-time opening when I was 17, when a man came walking down the line to tell us that, unless we were supporting a family, we would not be considered for employment and were wasting everyone's time by being there.

It's *hard* to believe, but understandable. There are several theories about why the mills closed down -- poor management, lack of reinvestment, cheap competition from overseas in Europe and Japan.

In the late seventies and early eighties, the politicians pointed their fingers directly at the people themselves. They said the people were to blame, causing the people to point their fingers at one another. The unions were the blame, they said, because they caused wages to be too high, made people lazy, and for this reason, the entire industrial base of this 150-mile radius was destroyed.

Reagan was the worst of the lot -- when we turned to him for help, he told us it was all our own fault, and actually cut all the work and education programs, like the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA) and the Basic Educational Opportunity Grant (BEOG), cut taxes for the rich, diverted our tax dollars into unnecessary military flights-of-fancy, then took an active role in building a culture that said the unemployed were the enemies of the state. Suicide and divorce rates skyrocketed.

After 30 years, I thought some recovery might have occured, but I've looked for it and found no signs. In the Post-Gazette, I found less than a pageful of employment ads; only one of those was in "Engineering/Technical," and it was for an asbestos removal technician. had only one job in my field here, and it was with a temporary agency. The roads (as I mentioned) and schools are in disrepair. The Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra -- once one of the more respectable US orchestras -- is now asking to renege on its contract with the musicians and asking them to take further pay cuts.

Headline stories mention Pittsburgh's fiscal crisis; they're trying to solve problems with a bizarre property tax assessment scheme that nobody can really explain or understand, while the state is pushing for a tax relief plan (although, if none of these basic services is being met, one has to wonder where the tax money is going in the first place....)

Yet this once working-class stronghold now votes for Republicans who just voted a large wage increase for themselves; and right up the road in Harrisburg, the Scopes Monkey Trial is being replayed due to a right-wing school board forcing the teaching of Intelligent Design instead of science.

Pittsburgh and the surrounding area once had a real reason to be proud. They'd worked hard to build an enviable community, strong in homes, labor, and education, and now? Well, I guess at least the air is cleaner than it was.

Pay attention, Alaska, because this is where you'll be when the oil is gone. At least you know it will end some day -- but I really doubt you'll have the wisdom to plan for it.

Sunday, September 25, 2005

Eccentric Rant #1

BTW, I'm resting for a day in Danville, IL. Yesterday, I drove well over 1,000 miles, starting in Rapid City, SD, across all of Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Illinois (Danville is on the border of IL and Indiana). I'll hit Pittsburgh tomorrow.

Pittsburgh will be my "hub" for a few weeks. Going to stop at my brother and sister-in-law's place to visit, then head to WV to see my extended family and roots (I haven't seen them in years and years), OH to see my sister and remind myself of the place I escaped; NC to see a couple of friends there. Between these trips, I'll head back to spend time at Bro's place.

The drive here reminded me of one thing I *really* miss about the lower 48 -- spectacular thunderstorms. It rained from the time I hit Minnesota all the way to the Indiana border, and the lightning was as remarkable as the Northern Lights. At times, the rain was pouring down so hard it, when it hit the windshield it made the sound of ice thrown into a deep fryer.

I hadn't really planned on driving so long, but with all the rain, there was really no practical way to set up a campsite anywhere, so I decided to take a hotel.

My first attempt at that was Austin, MN -- every hotel was booked for high school conventions, so I figured I'd just move on. Every town I stopped at was booked solid. By the time I hit Champaign, IL, I could drive no further. Here, too, every room was booked -- for a football game. I called around to neighboring towns and found an open suite in Danville, about 1/2-hour away. Here, every room but one was booked for a gospel revival.

Me + hundreds of tent evangelists = recipe for disaster.

I don't know what gives people the license to walk up to someone they've never met and say (for all intents), "Hi. I don't know you, but you're completely incorrect about the nature of the universe, and unless you're exactly like me, you suck."

There was a time when I would have fought it out with them, but I believe I'm getting a little wiser. The chaos approach is much more entertaining.

When I arrived to retrieve my reservation, the gospelists were gathering to consume their continental breakfast -- dozens of women and children and a few men, all amazingly overdressed in their Sunday costumes. After 19 hours of driving, I looked and acted pretty haggardly -- If not for the shiny credit card, I might have been mistaken for a heroin addict off the street.

The staff had mistakenly told me there was a single room available, and told me they'd give me a suite instead. I collapsed onto the counter and said, "I don't care. I've just driven from SD, and I really need a room, a shower, and lots of sleep."

One of the overdressed woman gospelists in a white lampshade hat approached me and said, "What you really need is JEE-sus-uh!"

(The crowd stirred to life, and a single "hallelujah" emerged.)

I kept a very friendly, sincere smile and demeanor throughout. "Jesusah? Is that a different hotel? I'm not from around here."

"No, Jesus!" she exclaimed, beaming like a Pepsodent model. "You need Jesus, boy!"

"What's that?"

"You know, Jesus!"

"No, I told you I'm not from around here. Where is that place? What do they sell?"

She got a "Whatchu-talkin'-'bout-Willis" look on her face. "Jesus. The living son of GOD!"

("Halleluja!" "Praise him!" "Amen!" from the group)

"Oh. Who's that?"

"YOU DON'T KNOW WHO GOD IS!?" With this, at least 2 dozen of them approached the counter and started mumbling and getting worked up for a session. Little amens and hallelujahs began boiling up regularly from the now-near-dancing crowd.

"What. He a local celebrity or something? Really, lady, I don't live around here, I'm from thousands of miles away."

She started preaching to me, as if she believed that I'd never heard of the guy, telling me that he created us all, then sent his son to be killed horribly. Her voice was singing, complete with that gospel-preaching vibrato, when a very large man in an Amway-blue suit tapped her on the arm and whispered in her ear. She paused and listened for a moment, then looked at me with that whatchu-talkin'-'bout-Willis look again.

"You goin' ta hell. Dat's all dere is. You goin' ta HELL!" Mumbles, amens and hallelujahs from the group reassured her judgement.

"Well, I was going to Pittsburgh, but I have time to travel. Where's that? Good attractions there? I'm kinda mad that the Spam Museum in Austin, MN was closed when I passed through, so I'm looking for something fun. What exit do I take?"

She gathered her children within her arms and backed slowly away from me, never taking her eyes off me, and Amway-man slowly stepped between her and me, as if he felt I was a threat, just as the staff member returned with my keycard.

I smiled and said, "Welp, have a good morning, and thanks for the recommendation. I'll look it up in the tourist guide."

Saturday, September 24, 2005

Finally, photos...

The photo upload is working now. Yellowstone pics.

After living in Alaska for years and years, I'm kinda burned out on the "ooo, aaahh" factor of beauuuuuuutiful nature. The thing that was really interesting there was how life has adapted to this insane environment. Green plants and bacterial formations can be found in the hot runoff. Bison wander through the thermal fields and drink the boiling sulphide water.

Intelligent design my ass.

Oh. And I think members of Fight Club designed the warning signs

Check-out time is in ten minutes. It was nice to have a bed and a shower. I haven't even looked at the Atlas yet to see which direction I'm going today (other than generally East) -- I'll get that over breakfast.

See you folks in a few days....

Friday, September 23, 2005

Montana, Yellowstone, Wyoming, and now S. Dakota

A busy few days. Too busy.

Some photos *would* have been available at the photo place thingy, but the .zip upload isn't working correctly and I don't have time tonight to upload the individual files
It's late, I got into Rapid City, South Dakota after spending 2 days at Yellowstone. The drive from there to here was *work*. Fed. Route 14 in Wyoming links Yellowstone to I-90, and it goes up over a mile on twisty, curvy roads that won't allow more than 30 mph in most places.

For the folks back home -- just imagine if Thompson Pass was shaped like a corkscrew...

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Boise, ID

The drive across Oregon was a spectacle. As the road gained elevation (The Truck had a workout yesterday), all of the green was replaced by blonde. Bluffs and cliffs appeared everywhere, and eventually I found myself in agriculture territory.

The last twenty miles of Oregon smelled like onions.

The first fifty miles of Idaho smelled like manure.

I got to Boise and figured I'd get a hotel room for the night. Boise, the town that closes at 9:30, was full, thanks to some popular golfers (Hah! Popular golfers!) coming to town for something or other. I finally found a room in a downtown hotel, and walked around for a few hours to see if there were any restaurants -- all closed, including McFood. At 9:30 (and yes, I changed to Mountain Time).

Some bars were open, and showed that segregation is practiced here -- patrons at some bars looked more like Portlanders. The remainder of the bars had patrons with straw cowboy hats.

And odd, I've seen no non-white humans since I hit the Idaho border.

Anyway, off to Yellowstone, and I doubt I'll have connectivity for the next couple of days....

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

On the road to ID

I'm hitting the road late this morning, probably won't make Yellowstone today, but I'll be on the road in that direction. I'll probably stop at/between Boise or Pocatello tonight, hit Yellowstone tomorrow.

Photo space is secured, although I didn't have time to upload all yet -- I'll put more context to them later. You can see a few shots from Juneau here.

Sunday, September 18, 2005

Next stop: Yellowstone

I'm starting to feel too much at home here in Portland. It's hard to remember that this wasn't the entire destination of the trip....

I've gotten nearly everything I needed here in Portland. For the first time ever, I'm now laden with a cellular telephone. I've also beefed up the laptop to 2gb of RAM, have web space for the photos coming tomorrow, a stable e-mail account, etc., etc... All there is left to pick up is a set of tools.

I'll be loading on Monday, and pulling out on Tuesday morning, headed for Yellowstone -- mostly because it's one day east and has lots of camping, but I've always been interested in nature's freak show there. Since my coast-to-coast trip has turned into a coast-to-coast-to-coast trip, I'll probably just head straight toward Pennsylvania and bypass the South/Southwest for now. If I hear from folks there, I'll stop to meet them on the way back to Portland in a 4-6 weeks (loose guess).

None of the magic that happened here in the last ten days has fallen through. When I return, there will still be jobs, art, and old friends.

A quick search of showed 11 full-time jobs in my career field here, and dozens more outside of my niche that I'd be comfortable doing. That doesn't include available work through project contractors or private consulting/contracting.

I really doubt I'm going to find anything better back East, but I'm keeping an open mind. As Fred wisely pointed out, my excitement about Portland might have nothing to do with Portland -- it may just be excitement at being outside of Anchorage for the first time in years.

I could, as my brother suggested, just leave my truck here and fly to PA for the visit, but Fred's point of view is valid -- I think I need to see more of what's left of America before I make the PDX decision final.

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

It hasn't stopped

[Note: POSSIBLE LOST E-MAIL! If you've sent mail from a gmail, yahoo, or aol address, I may have lost it. I noticed today that hotmail has been classifying all mail from theses addresses as "block sender," meaning they're discarded without my being notified.

I've now set up a spam account at, and Bruce has provided me with an address on his server for my regular mail.]

I had some pretty cool human interest stories to tell from the boat trip, and especially from my two nights in the Tongass National Forest and Auke Bay, AK. They're still on hold, because I'm still learning how much there is to do here in PDX.

Today, it began with an e-mail from Fred's other, Terra, a violinist and conductor, inviting me to lunch at the Paradox, which is directly across the street from the theatre company former Toast director Tracy Hinkson is working with (btw, I might be able to sit in on rehearsal tomorrow).

We spent a great time talking about the classical and instrumental music scene in Portland with her violinist/composer friend, Jeff (I believe) -- and there are apparently a number of acoustic musicians here who like to perform experimental music, and there are venues and support for it. There are community orchestras, wind ensembles, etc., for all levels of players, should I decide to pick up the horn again.

After lunch, she took me for a drive around the area, to the park where she and Fred and friends held their handfasting ceremony, and eventually to Mississippi Pizza for music from a neat folk duet.

It's just not stopping. Art is everywhere, here. If I can't find something productive to do here, it'll be my own damned fault.

Monday, September 12, 2005

Overwhelmed in Portland

I haven't the energy left to give more details at the moment, but I've reached an important decision already. Since arriving in Portland, I have decided not to go back to school in Pennsylvania. I'm still carrying out the trip, but will not be staying there for the couple of years I thought I'd be there.

Portland has opened its arms. It wants me to stay here.

In my first 48 hours, I've met with two directors, a playwright, and several graphic artists. A good friend-of-a-friend has invited me to breakfast with a pair of professional animators this weekend. I've been offered the opportunity to score a 10-minute film based on a very special Lanford Wilson play. Tomorrow morning, I'll be meeting again with the directors and with another theatre composer/sound designer to discuss how I could best add to the Portland theatre scene.

I've learned there's work for me all over. An old friend has offered me a place to live if I decide to come back after the long drive.

I keep looking for the man behind the curtain. I haven't even seen a curtain yet.

It's been non-stop opportunities in a place that I wasn't even seeking opportunities. And it's only been 48 hours.

My brain is full. I will be processing and recrunching data for weeks. Portland wants me to stay, and I can't find any reason whatsoever to say that's a bad thing.

Must sleep. Brain overload. But a *good* kind of brain overload.

Friday, September 02, 2005


(It was yelled and phrased more as a statement than as a question. I couldn't tell where the party-horn voice was coming from. I didn't yet know where I was.)

I had fallen asleep in a chair on the top deck -- the Solarium. It was coming back to me. I was on a boat, somewhere between Whittier and Valdez. My sleeping bag, still rolled up and placed upright like a cylinder in the seat next to me, had been serving as a pillow, my head cranked unnaturally sideways to reach it. I'd been out for about 20 minutes.

One slime-covered eye recognized the figure as vaguely elder-womanish, and I struggled to find consciousness, replayed her question a couple of times, and finally answered, "Yes."

"You know, young man, there are deck chairs you can lay down on, right through that door there."

I don't remember if I thanked her or not -- I think I did -- but I followed the direction of her finger through a door on the port side to find the deck chairs as she was saying something about it being the grandmother in her that makes her do such things.

I'd been up for nearly 48 hours, most of which had been spent doing all the physical labor involved in packing The Truck and cleaning out the house. I threw the PC into a locker there, spread the sleeping across the hard plastic slats that constitute these torturous "chairs," and was sure I'd be dead to the world in no time flat.

It was not to be.

During my 20 absense, the sleep-deprived brain and over-extended muscles had decided to unionize, strike, and make life hell for the management.

The muscle cells picketed and sang out loud solidarity chants that found harmonics sympathetic to my crystal skull, causing it to ring and pulsate and nearly shatter. A rogue member took to vandalism, creating a spasm between the shoulder and neck that seemed to drill a hole through the back of my brain, insert a fork, and twirl it as if it were serving up spaghetti.

The demonstration continued for hours. It was clear that a third-party negotiator would be required. I set out to find drugs.

We were porting in Valdez when I made my way to the Purser and asked about the availability of analgesics. After simplifying the question -- "You know, aspirin, Tylenol, Advil, something like that?" -- I was told they were available in the gift shop, which wouldn't be open for another four hours.

(Aside -- the Captain just announced we're passing by Mt. St. Elias, the third-largest peak in North America. Alaska is the land of hyperbole. When I left Anchorage, I could see Denali -- what you Outsiders call "Mt. McKinley," thanks to that asshole congressman from Niles, OH, who thinks Alaskans should all suck William McKinley's dick posthumously forever and ever. The mountain already had a name, you know. Denali is, of course, the tallest peak in North America, and sits next Mt. Foraker, another giant. In order to catch the ferry in Whittier, I had to drive through the longest traffic tunnel in North America -- a 2-1/2 mile hole drilled through the Chugach Mountains. And this morning, we ported in Valdez, epicenter of the largest earthquake ever recorded in North America.)

Eight a.m. finally arrived, and in came ibuprofin to settle the dispute. I slept until I was awakened by the ship's horn when we left port at Tatitlek.

We're currently en route to Yakatat, where we'll port for a couple of hours before heading down to our disembarkement in Juneau tomorrow morning.