Wednesday, July 29, 2009

(H)all in a day's work

The big black car had been getting quite a work out lately, and when Mr. Hall remarked that he was noticing a little wobble in the old girl when he put the flaps down, Mrs. H. knew it was time for John's Auto Care to check the brakes. Leaving her in John's capable hands, Mr. H. sighed, patted the bonnet fondly and, going to the funeral home hanger, pulled out an absolutely identical big black car and taxiied it to the door. "Hop in- we have to go to Oswego to file a death certificate."
The weather in central New York can be tempermental, but it was a beautiful ride into town, that is until they noticed there wasn't a parking spot to be had in the entire village. "Oh no- Harborfest!", cried Mr. Hall- the one day of the year when everyone comes out. Dodging street vendors and wandering minstrals, they managed to work their way up to City Hall, file and leave, in just under two hours.
When their day was finally done, it was time to change togs and head on out to the Spinning Wheel, in north Syracuse, for the Annual Funeral Director's Clambake Funfest! The clambake is sponsored by the Onondaga Oswego Funeral Directors Association (acronymically known as "OOFDA"), for whom Mr. Hall was president last year. Unfortunately, the economic turndown was evident even at the fest; the prizes and raffles represented leaner times and when the buffets begin to feature not fancy cassaroles, but hot dogs, hamburger and liver with onions and bacon, even the most casual viewer gets the picture that things are not as lively as they used to be. Refusing to be daunted, Mrs. Hall headed straight for the raw bar. "The clams may have been sandy and the mussels dry, but they always have the sweetest, most delectable oysters in town," she proclaimed; and that must have been the case, for Mrs. H. could be seen, slurping with the best of them, for well over a half hour. It was only the gentle insistance of Mr. H. (and the wiping of the last bit of horseradish from the saucer) that persuaded her to move on and leave some oysters for the others. Bon vivant and famous man-about-Marcellus Hugh Norris pulled honors again this year as emcee for the raffle portion of the program, and as everyone knows "Honest Huey" as he is called, would never allow his personal favoritism to interfer with the execution of his job- though it did come into question after Mrs. H. won several nice prizes three years running.
As the twilight began to creep in and the little pockets of partygoers could be distinguished by the glow of their cigars, the Halls bade their farewells and headed back. It was only the work of ten minutes or so to pick their big black car out of the sea of black vehicles in the parking lot ("No, not that one either, dear," Mr. Hall patiently explained....) and full of seafood and fresh gossip, they flew on home.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Mary, Mary, quite contrary

Marcellus residents were amazed Friday morning to open their local fishwraps and find their little town in large letters. The Syracuse Post-Standard reported the whining of a local church (not affiliated with the Syracuse diocese) that a bit of Mexican folk art by Trumansburg artist Geri Keil was not to be tolerated and should be removed. Though the artist is purportedly merely commenting on the current nexus of religious and commercial interests in our southerly neighbor, the church, a St. Pias X community (or perhaps just Pepsi fanciers?) objects to the use of an icon in such a discussion. In an interesting turn of events, a statement by the board of trustees of the Marcellus Free Library said that most of the 78 people who signed the petition did not live in Marcellus and had not seen the piece.
As Oscar Wilde said, "There is only one thing worse than being talked about and that is NOT being talked about", so perhaps, this is an answer to a prayer by the struggling young artist.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Viva Las Vegas!

Unable to find a hotel in Victorville, the Halls had made reservations in Barstow and spent the night there, before heading into Nevada. Barstow is home to a couple of neat little attractions. The visitor's center had a desert tortoise as a mascot, (who came out to greet them) and the second largest meteorite ever found in the states; and the railroad museum had the largest collection of (yawn) railroad nails in the U.S. So it was the work of just an hour or two to put it behind them and move on. The road over the mountains out of California was heavy and overcast, but as soon as they cleared the pass into Nevada, the sun broke through the haze and they could see it in the distance- Las Vegas!
Ah, Las Vegas- that diamond of the desert! Give me your handicappers, your bookies, your cardsharps; all ye who yearn for a dead certain hundred to one. Everything is supersized in Vegas, from the 25 foot tall chocolate fountain in the bakery at the Venetian to the giant Trojan Rocking Horse outside the F.A.O. Schwarz toy store. Right in front of their hotel every night on the hour, the huge waterfall covered volcano erupted, spewing fire and "lava" to specially composed tribal rhythms. By resting in the afternoons and casino hopping at night, the Halls were able to beat the heat and enjoy the neon whirlwind that is the strip. Best free show in town: the dancing fountains in front of the Bellagio- coincidentally, they had the best martinis as well. From the top of the Eiffel Tower of Paris to the Pyramid of Luxor to the Roman gardens at Caesar's to the meandering pools and waterfalls of the Mirage; a trip to Vegas is a trip around the world.
The Monitor is happy to report that the Halls had a few coins left to toss about, and even with enjoying just a little gambling, they managed to find their way back to the airport a couple of hundred dollars (and a few pounds!) heavier. Weary and full, they dropped off their rented ride and awaited the red eye flight back to Syracuse, Penguin Hall and boring old everyday life.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Happy Trails

The sun shone, the air was fresh and for a change, it was pleasantly cool and light. "It's always like this here," said Mr. Hall, as he dressed for breakfast. "It's a beautiful day to go look at some more airplanes." Mrs. Hall just shook her head, and finished her coffee.
Their host, Eric Pierce, had to go to work, but his charming daughter, Mistress Tabitha was ready to play navigator, so off they went into the city. First stop: Balboa Park and the San Diego Air and Space Museum. Smack dab in the middle of San Diego and home to several museums and performing arts theaters, it also lies directly in the flight path of San Diego International Airport. It was all Tab and Mrs. H. could do to get Mr. H into the museum; he was so intent on watching the commercial airlines taking off just a few thousand feet over the rooftops. Once inside however, they had a great time, enjoying the fabulous collection of planes and aviation history. There was also a charming display featuring the work of some of the local school childen who had interpreted Da Vinci's ideas of flight by creating their own models. After a break, they decided that since they were so close anyway, why not take a short trip over to Point Loma and visit the Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery, where Mr. Hall's adopted father is interred. Mr. H's memory of downtown San Diego was a little fuzzy, but after a quick trip (or two...) over the Coronado Bridge and Tabitha's excellent help, they were able to find their way to the cemetery and locate Robert Pierce's tablet. The view from the cemetery overlooks the bay and the naval base; they were even able to see a number of submarines docked at the base from the hill.
While it was delightful to pay their respects and watch the sailboats pass in lazy review, they knew it was time to march on. After hugs and well-wishes all around, it was time to head northward, towards Victorville, Apple Valley and an old favorite of both Mr. and Mrs. Hall.
Those Gentle Readers who remember a certain time long ago when Saturday mornings were a fun filled affair, packed with heros, cartoons, and toy and cereal adverts, will no doubt understand the yearnings of the Halls to relive some of those simple joys and take time out to see the old Roy Rogers Ranch, and the burial site of Roy and Dale. The Roy Rogers Museum used to be located in Roy's old home town of Victorville, but as the Halls drove up, it was easy to see how the family could have made the decision to move the shop; lock, stock and stuffed Trigger, all the way to Branson, MO. Located in the high desert area between mountain ranges, the town itself is not exactly a garden spot, and since the only major industry in the area is a concrete plant, it was immediately apparent the local economy had taken a rather hard hit. Even with the help of some travel guides and the GPS device, the closest they ever got to the old ranch was a sign on the barbed wire advertising its auction, sometime last May. Somewhat dejected, but not deterred, they looked around for somewhere to eat, and regroup. Locally well-known and situated on old Route 66 ("The Mother Road" as it is called by those who roam it), Emma Jean's offers good food at a good price, and definitely, for the Halls, a good choice. Best bet for lunch: the Brian Burger; made with two 1" thick slices of homemade bread, slathered with butter and parmesan cheese, toasted on the grill and topped with American cheese, hamburger and sweet green ortega chiles. (They had been contemplating the cherry cobbler for dessert, but the burger put a hearty end to any further thoughts of food!) Full of energy they renewed their search- and the first stop was the Route 66 museum in town. The proprietors were eager to help and provided them with a map to the mortuary where Roy and Dale were buried. Mrs. H. had been thinking it would be a quaint little cemetery, marked with a small sign or plaque- so she was completely surprized when, following the instructions led them to a huge beautiful facility, so well cared for and decorated, that they host receptions and even weddings there! Working at a gem in the middle of the desert, the Sunset Hills mortuary staff were exceedingly gracious, and when they learned that Mr. Hall was himself in the business, they provided him with a personally guided tour of the facility, including a drive down to the site in a little electric golf cart. It was a lovely end to a terrific day. The Halls thanked the staff at Sunset Hills for all their information and help, and, after promising to send them some info about Syracuse as well, they headed into off to their hotel and a well-earned rest. Next episode: Barstow and beyond; stay tuned!

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Trifle bazaars

The Halls rose early on their way out of town and stopped briefly at Old Tucson, a quaint recreation of the wild west and frequent backdrop for western movies. They opted not to take the guided tour and just wandered around by themselves, though their paths mostly crossed that of the tour guide anyway- long enough to hear the litany of films that had been shot in and around the premises. After playing around in the old steam engines and peeking in every shop, they hit the high roads again- on to Yuma and points West.
Until this trip, Mrs. Hall had believed that if you've seen one desert, you've pretty much seen them all. This was, of course, based solely on her research in that field¹- (¹ Mr. Wile E. Coyote, Mr. Yosemite Sam, et al.) So it was with with true surprize that she viewed the ever changing vistas of the different deserts as they rolled along. There were lots of Yucca cactus in various shapes, hovering over the highway like dancing warriors along the road. Some deserts were merely scrub and pale sage bushes, others lush with Saguaro cacti standing tall against the chasing winds and some so forbidding it was terrifying even to race through them at 85 MPH. Most were over 100 degrees, generally running anywhere from 104 to 113, with hard ground like paved orange dusty concrete. "It's a dry heat..." Mr. Hall said, in a conciliatory tone.
The only high points in the desert were the interesting and off beat truck stops and watering holes along the way. One of those was the Best Western Space Age Lodge and Restaurant. Essentially just a diner, it had been gussied up with Jetson's style space ships and bric-a-brac, and with some cagey advertising along the way, managed to eek a living out of the scanty tourist trade. Another favorite: a friendly little shop decorated with every sort of living creature rendered in rusty metal, offering the world's best cactus burgers (no; having already eaten, they did not investigate those.) Through valleys at sea level (112 degrees), to mountain passes over 4, 700 feet high (only 77 ), they journeyed on, until finally in the distance they could see the suburbs of San Diego stretched out before them.
Mr. Hall's adopted family resides in Escondido and it was their gracious hospitality that drew them to the San Diego suburb. After an afternoon of listening to the strains of "Mad Dogs and Englishmen" running endlessly through her head, Mrs. Hall could not get into a shower and some fresh duds fast enough. Eric Pierce and his daughter Tabitha were only too happy to show them around their hometown, so with Tab as the navigator, they hit some of the nearby high spots. Next episode: Victorville and the missing cowboys- stay tuned!

Monday, July 13, 2009

Civil Defense

When the Hall caravan rolled into Tucson, it was quite late, so after a quick shower, they were off to check out the old Flight Safety School (where Mr. H. had trained on Lear 31 simulators about ten years or so ago), and then on to the sparkling new Desert Diamond Casino. The food was no gamble there- casinos always have great buffets! They burned off their dinner with a stroll through the desert and back to their room.
"Get up! There are planes waiting to be seen!" was the hearty cheer that Mr. Hall let out the following morning. In fact, they arrived at the Pima Air and Space Museum so early, they were the first ones through the door. This was by far one of the largest collections they had seen. Featured inside was a SR-71 Blackbird; Mrs. Hall's favorite and now, the third one she could count to have seen in person. Even with the temperatures flirting with 105 degrees, they braved the outdoor displays, mostly by sliding from one wing shadow to another. After dining on the grounds, (and sharing their lunch with a ground squirrel, much to the amusement of a contingent of Australians visiting), they jumped on the guided tour of nearby Davis-Monthan AFB, aka "The Boneyard". The guide was very informative, but the real delight was the air show overhead; the constant background soundtrack to Tucson is that of F-18s, A-10 Warthogs and a delta wing fighter Mr. H. could not identify. There is non-stop action at the 162nd Fighter Wing, and it created a great atmosphere for their visit.
Leaving Tucson and heading south, they came to the Titan Missile Museum; mute testimony to the Cold War's former philosophy of "peace through deterrence". The stark and barren outside gave little evidence to what lay beneath; a complete military outpost, bunkered and huddled underground. The guide was excellent and allowed a small eager boy to sit at the controls and pretend to operate the facility. However, after the guide spent several minutes informing him that the missile he had just launched could not be recalled, blown up or in any other way deterred from its mission of annihilation, the whole affair left the young child (and all of us) quite silent and uneasy for some time. It was a fascinating and horrible experience.
A quieter note was close at hand; nearby and on their way was the beautiful San Xavier del Bac Mission. Originally founded in 1699, the current building was begun in 1787 and is a wonderful example of Spanish and Native American artistry. The outside is almost Moorish in effect, but the interior is completely covered in figurines and frescos. Alone in the valley, nearly ten miles out of Tucson, it was a perfect spot for reflection and contemplation.
Returning to their rented Conestoga, it was time to make tracks, and the Halls took off again. Next stop: Escondido- stay tuned!

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Where Copper is King, er- Queen

When Mr. Hall looked out of his motel room that morning, it was a bracing 92 degrees already, and the desert lay in front of him, all pink sand and scrub. "Another fine morning in Willcox," he announced. "I cannot wait to get out of here." Willcox, while indeed friendly, is known generally as a way station for truckers, and it's primary notoriety stems from its undying devotion to cowboy star and native son, Rex Allen. (Yes, Gentle Reader, there is a museum.) The Halls, pressed for time, had to forego this historic gem, and mushed on.
Their little caravan headed south, down 191 through the Sulphur Springs desert and on to Bisbee AZ, about seven or eight miles or so from the Mexican border. Bisbee was once a thriving cultural center, due in large part to the magnificent copper strike located in the mountains looming around it. While the copper museum and the turn of the century hotel beckoned, it was the tour of the old Queen Mine that really appealed to the Halls. Within minutes, they were suited up with heavy slickers, miner's hats and lights and batteries; all necessary accoutrement for underground exploration. The tour took quite a long time; the visitors straddled an actual mine train and were taken well into the belly of the copper mountain and visited several of the pits and mining equipment. The tour owners had gone to great lengths to evoke a fun atmosphere- visitors are required to sign lengthy waivers regarding the dangers presumably still present in the mine, the old miner giving the lecture made several references to a headless ghost wandering the shafts, and at one point, the train takes off by itself- leaving visitors to speculate their fate (and battery life!) It can be reliably reported here that the little group made it to the surface intact and well, and thoroughly entertained.
The mercury was moving ever northward, and the Halls followed suit; and they set their sights on colorful Tombstone! It was 102 as they pulled into the legendary village, and were amazed to see several of its inhabitants fully dressed in authentic old west garb, strolling the streets and engaging passersby in lively conversation. The Halls were separated for a moment, and when Mr. H. finally regrouped, Mrs. H. explained she had shot the sheriff- with her Canon Powershot digital camera, that is. After a quick lunch at the Longhorn diner, they dashed over to the OK Corral to enjoy a theatrical reenactment of that fateful afternoon. While they had purchased tickets to the event (with memorial facsimile edition of the Tombstone Epitaph included!) it soon became evident that the locals managed to circumvent the whole admission process- during the critical moments of the play, several children could be seen swinging like mad in the little playground adjacent to the corral, so that they could get a view as well!
Of course, no trip to Tombstone would be complete without stopping by Boot Hill to pay their respects. Reading the headstones was entertaining and informative, but as the Halls were becoming nearly as baked as the desert around them, they decided it was time to move on. Not too far ahead lay Tucson, their next destination and a clean hotel and a cool shower. Next episode: Pima Air Museum and the Boneyard- Stay tuned!

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Sometimes you feel like a nut

Lining the rim of White Sands desert are a series of pistachio farms and road stands. Early on in the voyage, Mr. Hall memorized the refrain, "No, you don't want any" and repeated it every time the billboards appeared, embellished with every praise that could be accorded the humble nut, much to Mrs. H.'s consternation. The sight of a giant looming pistachio was almost too much for Mrs. Hall to pass by, but Mr. Hall assured her the last thing they wanted to do before they flew out was to spend the day vacuuming nut shells out of the crevices of a rental car.
Though the temperatures were starting to rise early in the morning, the Halls were up and about, eager to beat the crowds at the New Mexico Space Museum. And a fascinating museum it was, too; loaded with artifacts displayed engagingly close, the museum employs a neat floor plan that starts not on the first, but on the fourth floor. Visitors move down a series of ramps that hug the outer glass walls, allowing guests to view the stunning landscapes overlooking the white sands, as well as the compelling historical relics. After taking in all the history, from Sputnik to moon rocks to spaceship simulators, it was time to move on. Next on the way was the White Sands National Monument and Park. By this time, the mercury was past the 100 mark and the Halls opted to just drive through the park and marvel at the white sand dunes, but there were plenty of hearty souls anxious to enjoy the grounds despite the heat. Children bearing plastic snow sleds ("Where did they buy those down here?" asked Mrs. H.) were in queue, waiting for the park to open so they could sled down the dunes. Incredulously, there were picnic tables, with metal overhangs, meant to provide the barest minimum of shade in the blistering heat, with little hibachi stoves along side- presumably for any in the crowd who might feel that walking and playing on baking sand produced a desire to make a fire to fuss over, cooking a hot meal. There were also strong advisories regarding desert creatures, such as snakes and dangerous insects. All in all, a true garden spot.
Heading further south, the Halls pressed on; they passed the White Sands Missile Range and attempted to visit, but the public were not allowed in that day. They had met one of the employees at the visitor center who had given them her name and number, offering them an opportunity to call and witness the next launching of a missile, a few days from then, but unfortunately, it would have kept them beyond their schedule, so disappointedly they had to decline.
Crossing the desert they saw numerous dust funnels form and reforming, "Dust Devils", pulling pink sand up off the ground and into a transparent pink funnel moving over the landscape. Off in the distance, storms could be seen marching across the mountains for miles and miles. In Mescalero, they climbed through mountain passes, all part of the Apache Reservation and whizzed past an Apache festival and get together; a temporary city of tents and campers high in the hills. Mrs. Hall spotted what she thought was a dark wild turkey that turned out to be a vulture. South of Las Cruces, they pulled into a little town called Mesilla, a charming old Mexican village, full of Spanish Mission buildings, shops and restaurants. A perfect place to stop for dinner and some authentic margaritas, they agreed. Fascinated by the cactus everywhere, Mrs. Hall was prone to squeaking "ouch!" every time Mr. H. turned his back- it became a subject of some concern over the course of the trip, for with every new variety they encountered, she seemed to incur another puncture. ("The last one leapt out at me!" was her excuse.) Right off the center plaza stood a beautiful courtyard and the 150 year old Spanish mansion restaurant named the Double Eagle. After securing their drinks in the long carved wood bar, they were seated in the breezy atrium for some flautas and cerviche.
Walking off their repast and listening to the live music in the plaza was heavenly, but it was time to press on to their waiting hotel in Willcox. On the way down, the weather closed in and one of the many storms crossing the desert crossed over the road, beating down furiously, pelting and buffeting the drivers on the highway. The winds picked up and tumbleweeds flew across the road in the 35- 40 mph gusts. When they finally pulled into their hotel, the desk clerk looked up and said, "Welcome, Mr. Hall." Mr. H. was a little taken aback- he is used to being recognized elsewhere, but this was certainly more far-flung then he expected. "Oh, that was easy," she said. "You were the only reservation for today- we don't get many folks around here this time of the year; you know, with the monsoon season being upon us." Mr. Hall put his head down and signed the register, pointedly avoiding the looks from Mrs. Hall.
Next episode: from the bottom of the copper mines to the top of Boot Hill; stay tuned!

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