Friday, October 7, 2022

One dozen destinations #11: Pie 'N' Burger

    Spoiler alert. We are getting toward the end of my unpublished and probably unpublishable memoir, "The Quest for Pie." And yes, we find it.

    The sun was high. The day felt torpid, silent. The boys were wilted, staggering along, supremely bored. Edie didn’t complain but her expression said it all. Maybe, I though sadly, they wouldn’t be going to Caltech after all. 
     The halls of science let us down. But Caltech was redeemed by Pie ‘N’ Burger, a landmark diner on California Boulevard we just happened to pass on our way out of town, as luck would have it, about noon. It was one of those spots you just love the moment you walk in, catching sight of the pie clock with “Pie ‘N’ Burger’ in orange neon. 
      We ate burgers — buttery buns wrapped in white waxy paper — and big mounds of hot fries. The plates and cups had that thin green line in the china that let you know you are in a Real Place, or at least someone’s sincere approximation of someplace real. 
      We almost considered passing on the pie — Ross had already drank a milkshake. But we were at the “Pie ‘N’ Burger,” not the “Burger ‘N’ Pie.” The pie came first. And we were on a pie quest, theoretically. We sorta had to. 
      Are the pies homemade? I asked our waitress. 
      “Everything from scratch; nothing comes out of a can,” she said. “We’ve been making pies here for 45 years.” 
      What kind of pies do you have? I wondered. 
     She handed us a sheet of paper titled: “Pie ‘N’ Burger Pies.’’ The choices were: Apple, Boysenberry, Cherry, Pecan, Dutch Apple, Blueberry, Pumpkin, Rhubarb and Custard, for $3.65 for a slice, $16.50 for a whole pie. 
      That was just the start. The next section was “Meringue Pies,” and those included Coconut, Banana, Chocolate, Lemon, Butterscotch, Peanut butter. Then came “Fresh Fruit Pies,” which cost 70 cents more: Peach, Strawberry, Ollallieberry. 
      Our waitress, Emily, explained that ollallieberry was a blend of loganberries and youngberries — a hybrid, I later learned, developed by the USDA and Oregon State University 1935. A type of blackberry, the ollallieberry — “ollallie” is Chinook for “berry” so really it’s called the “berryberry” — never took off, and you won’t find them beyond the West Coast. 
      Edie had to try it. Slave to habit that I am, I chose cherry, along with black coffee. The ollallieberry was excellent — I stole a few forkfuls from Edie’s plate. The berries were hauntingly delicate, dissolving at a touch. This was, we decided, the best pie we ever had, and briefly considered buying a whole pie to take away, balking only when we visualized that pie slowly jostling in the back of the Honda as the hours passed and we headed east, homeward. But we had done what we set out to accomplish: found a small place with good pie. So the trip was a success.

Thursday, October 6, 2022

One dozen destinations #10: The Exploratorium

     I'm on vacation, which means ... well, you've grasped the point by now. Adjoining San Francisco's Palace of Fine Arts, which we visited yesterday, is the Exploratorium, and it makes sense to peek around there next.

     Next door is the Exploratorium, a huge, clangorous hall filled with scientific exhibits, puzzlers and optical illusions, like the classic skewed rooms where the objects on the left seem much smaller than at the right, due to the design of the walls and floor. I stood, arms folded, scowling, the boys enormous, seeming to tower over me, heads scraping the ceiling. 
     No need draw attention to the symbolism here. The children magnified, the parent dwindling. Sometimes I will see some other parent kowtowing to their kids — it’s easier to notice in others — and worry parents nowadays are too accommodating. We need more of the toughness of the past, more Great Santini, less Carole King.* 
     But that passes, and looking at my own flailing attempts, I’d say they got plenty of sternness and plenty of indulgence, hopefully not in too confusing and random a blend. 
     The Exploratorium folks tried to inject a sense of menace to keep the kiddies on their toes—a grand piano, suspended directly overhead by wires. One of the more arresting exhibits was a drinking fountain set into a toilet bowl.
     “The water in this drinking fountain is perfectly clean,” a sign read. “And the toilet has never been used. So why do people often hesitate before taking a drink?” 
     Kent took a drink. So did I. Edie couldn’t, Ross wouldn’t. The sign delivered the lesson, as if it were necessary. 
     “Strong emotional associations with objects or people can make it difficult to act rationally around them.” 
     Ya think?

* A reference to a passage early in the book where I discuss parental style:, concluding: 
I try to respect my boys, but you do your kids no favors by continually buckling before their will.  Sometimes they’re wrong, and need to know it.  There is a song, a sweet lullaby by Carole King called “Child of Mine” that contains the line, “You don’t need direction, you know which way to go,” that always makes me wince: I consider it the nadir of squishy, free-form, over-indulgent bad parenting.  Kids need direction, big time. They don’t know which way to go, and if they aren’t to turn into feral animals you had better show them. Demanding that your children stand up every five hours on road trips is not too great of an imposition on their personal freedom, even if you have to threaten bodily harm to get them to do it.  

Wednesday, October 5, 2022

One dozen destinations #9: The Palace of Fine Arts

       A dozen disparate places from my unpublished travel memoir to distract you while I explore new places I will no doubt later share.

     My favorite place in San Francisco is the Palace of Fine Arts, a rose terracotta dome and attached colonnade left over from the 1915 Pan-American exposition. Why? It has that beaux arts, Little Nemo in Slumberland quality of idealized architecture, of materials made ornate and space glorified for no particular purpose. Though for me the icing on the cake is the enigmatic, almost disturbing caryatids, enormous statues of women, 18 feet tall, forming the corners to the dome’s planter boxes. Not facing outward, as would be expected, but turned inward, heads bowed, as if weeping, displaying their broad backs. I’ve never seen anything like them, anywhere in the world. They were originally intended to convey a certain fashionable melancholy. Guards at the 1915 fair were told to inform curious visitors that the statues were “crying over the sadness of art.”

Tuesday, October 4, 2022

One dozen destinations #8: The Redwood Forest.

     I'm still on vacation. And still observing the letter if not the spirit of my every goddamn day pledge by posting snippets from my unpublished and probably unpublishable 2009 memoir, "The Quest for Pie."

     The next day the family waffled up and headed to Davidson and the Redwood Forest. Enormous, ancient trees, wide enough that both boys could tuck into a cleft. One giant was labeled with a hand drawn sign that read: “BIG TREE. HEIGHT 304’ DIAMETER 21 ½ AGE approx. 1500 years.”
     Fern valleys, fat yellow banana slugs on bright green leaves. Ross and Kent were giddy, reverting to small children, running, laughing, free to caper and play in the lush prehistoric setting. Their parents strolling behind, in their wake. At one point they draped their arms around each other.
     “I like this hike,” said Kent. “It’s very beautiful.”
     At one point I got ahead of Edie, tracking the boys. I turned around to check on her, and she was looking up, at the treetops, sunlight in her face, golden hair streaming over her shoulders. I snapped a photo: she looks like a child herself, aglow in wonder.

     Since we could only get one night, the next day we moved from the Requa Inn to the Redwood Youth Hostel, a homey, 100-year-old institution overlooking the Pacific which, true to its communitarian roots had a guitar perched at the ready in a corner of the living room, a wicker basket holding tambourines and bongos, in case guests wanted to burst into song. The cabinets were emblazoned with what pots and utensils went where — everything in its place is the definition of utopia, for some people — and a call to action posted on the wall of the kitchen, an open letter from management, warning that the State of California is in the midst of a massive budget crisis and is debating whether to "close the majority of state parks, including the gorgeous Redwood State Parks."
     All those who love nature were urged to the ramparts in their defense.

Monday, October 3, 2022

One dozen destinations #7: The Bonneville Salt Flats

The good news is this is half over ... what? You're ENJOYING this? Really? I suppose it's possible. Anyway, I'm on vacation, and while I'm gone, I'm force-marching you past one dozen locations cribbed from my 2009 travel memoir, "The Quest for Pie."

     Kent was asleep, lower lip puffed out, his head lolled onto his right shoulder, covered to the chin in his blue and orange fleece Chicago Bears blanket, when I passed the sign reading, simply, “Bonneville.” 
     We had left Salt Lake City and were approaching the Nevada border. The green sign announcing “Bonneville” set in motion some gears in the back of my mind that had not turned in a very long time. 
     I was not a fan of cars as a child. My father was a nuclear physicist who drove boxy Volvos, for their safety. I remember marveling that my pals — Paul Marciniak, Paul Zond, Rusty Perry — could actually tell automobiles apart by their shape, by their sound; they knew, almost instinctively it seemed, which one was a Charger and which one was an Impala and a GTO and a Firebird and such.  To me they were all cars. They looked like cars. They had four wheels. 
     But I had gleamed, vaguely, that there was this whole car culture out there. I pumped quarters into gumball machines, hoping for a plastic Rat Fink — Big Daddy Ed Roth’s anti-Mickey Mouse custom car mascot. My pals in junior high read “Car & Driver” magazine. It was a time of homemade dune buggies and hot rods. Every TV show seemed to have its own custom car — Batman’s Batmobile, the Green Hornet’s Black Beauty. The Monkees had their own special car. Even the Munsters had one, a Model T turned into a hearse. 
     And drag racers—long, thin vehicles with huge, fat rear tires and tiny front wheels, cars that sat in pairs, while lights counted down until the green flashed and they took off with an explosion of flame, their front ends rearing into the air like excited horses, shuddering as they picked up speed, tires smoking, blasting through the quarter mile and then, at the end, little drogue parachutes popping out of the back to bring them to a skiddering halt.
     These races, I remembered, often took place at the famed Bonneville Salt Flats. Here was where they tested rocket cars and set land speed records. And that memory was enough for me to ease the car off the highway and follow the access road for about three miles, to where it petered out to a sign, set up by the Department of the Interior announcing, “Bonneville Salt Flats International Speedway.” We got out of the car to read the sign. 
      “These salt flats were formed as ancient Lake Bonneville slowly evaporated...” it began, warning us that the flats were “often moist and unstable.” Aren’t we all? 
     The road around the sign blended smoothly into a fantastical geometric space, a white plain stretching to the horizon, where there was a dim blue outline of low rounded mountains. There was no barrier, no “KEEP OUT” sign, not so much as the lip of a curb or a lone orange cone. A rare spot where the constrictions of society suddenly melt away and you are free to do whatever moves you. It struck me as almost tragic that the occupants of the car already there when we pulled up seemed satisfied to photograph themselves next to the sign, get back in their vehicle, and leave in the direction from which they came. That seemed a stunning failure of imagination. 
     We got back in the van, and I eased it around the sign and onto the salt flats, and soon we were going 50 miles an hour, through blankness, no landmarks to track, the distant light purple hills barely moving as we raced forward into a void. 
     “You wanna learn to drive?” I asked Ross, as we blasted along. 
     “Yes,” he said, and I slowed to a stop and we got out and switched places. The ground was not hard, as I expected, but indeed wet, as the sign said — your shoe sank a 1/8 of an inch, and the car left tracks in the damp salt. As we switched seats, I looked all around us —a giant white tabletop stretching in all directions, with one vehicle, way far off, like a ship on the horizon, the fringe of mountains far away. 
     Ross sat in the driver’s seat, hands on the steering wheel, and I went over the preliminaries. The gas pedal is to the right, the brake to the left. Use your right foot for both pedals; otherwise you’ll hit the brake and the gas at the same time. 
     Ross turned the ignition and the car moved forward — my son was driving! He quickly gathered confidence and speed; soon we were zipping along — he was pushing 60, and I began to grow concerned. 
     “Maybe you should slow down a bit,” I said. It occurred to me that, not knowing any better, he could abruptly cut the wheel and roll us. I explained the basics of turning — ease the wheel to the left, and we go left. To the right and we go right, but gently. 
     Kent chose this moment to wake up. He looked outside at the surreal blank white landscape flashing by, his father in the passenger seat, his brother at the wheel. “Where are we?” Kent cried. “What’s going on?” 
     I explained to him where we were. I also realized that while the place is indeed very flat, it’s still a natural formation, and I couldn’t be certain there wouldn’t be a two-foot ditch somewhere ahead. With each passing second the conviction grew that we should Quit While We Were Ahead. The image that formed in mind was not wrecking the car and killing ourselves, but the grim prospect of the phone call home, explaining that the trip was on hold while we wait for a Honda transaxle and new front suspension to be trucked to Nowhere, Utah. I urged Ross to slow down, then stop, while we went over some of the less exciting fine points of driving, such as what the positions on the transmission stood for.
     “D” is for drive. “R” for reverse. 
     “It is?” Ross asked. “Are you sure?” He thought, charmingly, that R stood for “Rest.” 
     “No, it doesn’t. P is for ‘Park.”
     “Oh.” Time to end the lesson. I turned around to Kent. 
     “You wanna learn to drive?” I asked, smiling benignly. 
     “No,” he said. 
     That startled me. “It’s okay,” I said. “There’s nothing to hit. It’s like the largest parking lot in the world. You’re never going to have a chance like this again.”
     “That’s okay.” This should not be hard, I thought, this should not be an argument. 
     “You’ll always be able to tell your friends that you learned to drive on the Bonneville Salt Flats.” 
     “I don’t want to. I’ll wait until I learn in school.” 
     I looked at him hard. What sort of boy is this? 
     “It’s okay. Your father is telling you it’s okay. I give you permission. There’s nothing to worry about.” 
     Ross and I changed places. I put the van into a large, looping turn and headed back toward the sign, a dot on the horizon. I didn’t want to leave this otherworldly space, but we had been there 20 minutes or so and it felt time to push on. A little cloud floated over my head. I couldn’t understand Kent — was he going to miss his whole life this way? What was he afraid of? 
      Easing back onto the road, I felt enormous gratitude that here, on this spot, there is a place where the grid ends, where the road peters away into freedom, and you can plunge forward into emptiness, at least to the limit of your daring, until the tether of your own timidity snaps taut and you’re pulled back to the road, to civilization and its rules. In Kent’s case, it is still a very short tether. But we could work on that. All people are unfinished masterpieces, or should be.

Sunday, October 2, 2022

One dozen destinations #6: Teton Village

Teton Village was such a let-down I did not
take any pictures there. This is from the tram
up Rendezvous Mountain.

     I don't think Teton Village is as well-known as some of the other places I'm serving up to you while I'm cooling my head in a pan of water. But it certainly was memorable when my boys and I visited it in 2009. This is from "The Quest for Pie," my unpublished memoir of that trip.

     Forced out of the lodge, we could have returned to the Virginian. But that seemed a failure of imagination. Been there, done that. I figured Teton Village would be worth exploring. I hadn’t done any research, but it had a nice sound to it: “Teton Village.” 
     Driving there, civilization certainly fell away — suddenly we were navigating a single lane dirt road cutting through the middle of a golden wood. That seemed promising. “Perhaps,” I told the boys, “we will be charmed by the Teton villagers and their rustic ways.” Okay, I didn’t really think there would be an indigenous people, wearing seal skins, demonstrating their totem pole carving techniques. But I thought maybe there would be local craft shops or something. 
     The moment we arrived at Teton Village I saw that coming here was a mistake — another mistake. We were at a ski resort in summer, one big, decaying 1970s lodge after another, with nothing else to recommend the place. Not rustic, but run-down, not uncrowded, but empty. There were no craft boutiques, there were hardly any stores of any kind. An abandoned bedroom community. 
      Our hotel had a pool with lots of chairs facing a huge parking lot as if it were the sea. Peeling paint and old dark brown stained redwood walls. In our room, a freestanding air-conditioner — an odd, unexpected device that made the place look foreign, like a hotel room in Bolivia. The boys flipped on the TV while I left to explore the town. 
      There was an alpine tram up Rendezvous Mountain but, given Kent’s balking at Inspiration Point, taking him up a far taller mountain did not seem wise. Beyond that, nothing, not even a decent place for dinner. There was one Italian restaurant, but it was fancy, the kind of restaurant you’d take your prom date to share a bottle of Lancers Rose. Just the idea of putting on a suit jacket was repulsive, and I couldn’t see us eating there in our hiking boots and shorts.
      Thinking about dinner, I stopped in the local grocery — the Mangy Moose — that was really a glorified liquor store with a small food section. The place smelled strongly of dog — there was an Irish setter prowling the aisles. I took a long walk through the liquor section, just looking at the bottles — this would be a good night for it — then shook off the thought with an actual shiver, rather dog-like myself, like a collie shaking off water, then gathered a chunk of cheese, a loaf of bread and a salami and beat it out of there. 
      The boys mashed together some nourishment in front of the television. I sat at the pool, looked at the Tetons, and realized we had to get busy tomorrow. The devil makes work for idle hands.

Saturday, October 1, 2022

Northshore Notes: Better Late than Never

     Happy October! EGD Northshore correspondent Caren Jeskey and I are very different people, luckily for her. But we do keep discovering similarities in outlook, such as our sharing the Big Love for architect Jeanne Gang. When the University of Chicago Press asked me to write my upcoming book, a daily history of Chicago, my very first thought was: "I've got to get Jeanne Gang in there." And I did.
     Although today's post underscores a difference: just because I need a vacation doesn't mean our indefatigable Saturday essayist needs one too. Caren isn't about to neglect her duties just because the cat's away. So I'm pleased to pause my "Dozen Destinations" space filler to share her Saturday report. Another snippet of my 2009 travelogue returns Sunday. 

By Caren Jeskey

     Chicago continues to surprise and amaze me. A friend called to say she could not make it to my September birthday dinner, so she suggested a local kayak trip instead. We met at the WMS Boathouse last Saturday morning, which Jeanne Gang designed. As a Gang fan, I was delighted. The structure was completed back in 2013, yet it had not been on my radar. 
     One of the buildings houses rowing training equipment and an education center complete with padded benches nestled into the woodwork, and a library of books children can take home. The design is fresh and crisp with skylights, floor to ceiling windows, and light colored wood ceilings and staircases. Gang earned the U.S. Green Building Council’s silver LEED score for the sustainability factor of the building. 
     In Gang’s words, “Ecologically, the overall goal of a healthy river led the design team to focus on diverting stormwater from the city’s combined sewer system, one of the largest impediments to improved water quality. The boathouse’s roof drainage elements and site design together function as its stormwater management system, diverting 100 percent of runoff from the sewer. Green infrastructure—porous concrete and asphalt, native plantings, gravel beds, and bioswales (rain gardens)—is used to store and filter runoff before slowly releasing this filtered water back into the river. Existing habitats were maintained and strengthened with a mix of native grass, plants, and trees, and silt fabric prevented compaction and erosion during construction. These efforts serve as a model for softening the river’s edge, supporting its ongoing revitalization. With structural truss shapes alternating between an inverted 'V' and an 'M,' the roof achieves a rhythmic modulation that lets in southern light through the building’s upper clerestory. In summer, the clerestory lets in fresh air, while in winter, it allows sunlight to warm the floor slab, minimizing energy use throughout the year."
     Then it was time to get into the water ourselves. Boat stewards fitted us with life jackets and expertly placed our single person kayaks into the river. They gave us step by step guidance on how to get in and out of the boats. The last time I dismounted a kayak was back in Austin, which ended in an unplanned lake dip. Thankfully, I managed to avoid a dunk this time.
     We set off northbound from the dock between Belmont and Addison at a leisurely pace. Regal herons perched on concrete slabs and tree branches. One took flight right over us, showing us its 6’ wingspan and graceful ability to soar. It was a cloudy day, so turtles were not sunbathing along the shore, but a few peeked their heads out of the water to check us out as we floated along.
     Folks who are interested can take part in planning river development on October 1 and 6 for the South Branch and Bubbly Creek areas.
     After our relaxing water jaunt, we took a short walk past The Garden bike park. We watched cyclists young and old landscaping dirt mounds, and doing twisty turny things in the air from atop their bikes. We headed south and saw a father and son who’d set up a Pickleball net in an empty parking lot, which reminded us that we’ve been talking about visiting the court at the new Architectural Artifacts location. We followed the path to Belmont Avenue and found a sweet view of the city.
     When it was time to leave this burgeoning nature oasis in the city, we headed to Avondale Coffee Club with our laptops to get some work done. Turns out, the pair of friends who founded the shop were there to regale us with stories about their establishment. Jacqueline and Adam let us know that everyone who works there functions as equals, like a well-oiled family. They bought their first 150 pound bag of beans from a farmer in Guatemala via an Instagram post about seven years ago, and the rest is history. They source most of their coffee beans through Golden Mountain Coffee Growers whose mission is to "fight poverty through quality coffee." Jacqueline roasts the coffee at Reprise Roasters in Libertyville. She won a Gold Medal for her "Double Anaerobic Fermentation Category 3: Filter" last month at Golden Bean, the "world's largest coffee roasting competition," and is heading to the Word Championship in Hawaii later this year.
     We also met Kati, their business partner and Adam's life partner, as well as teammates Brian and Zach. They are celebrating three years at their Evanston location today and this evening, where they are offering a rare 20 percent discount on their beans from 5-8pm.
     Damn you, mortality. I wonder how many amazing finds Jeanne Gang, the gang at Reprise, and other talented locals have in store for us? If only we could live forever and find out.