The Plan is to Fan This Spark Into a Flame

Friday was a pretty exciting day. Hamilton is coming to Portland for a two-week run March 20-April 8, and tickets went on sale at 10:00 a.m. I had my doubts that I’d be able to snag any, especially when the 6 a.m. news showed people already lined up at the box office, but my good luck with tickets held and I was able to score a pair for me and Tara. Deb and Annie at work are also fans and managed to get tickets too, so we basically spent the next hour lost in a haze of disbelief, talking about the fact that oh-my-god-we-are-going-to-see-Hamilton!! Which admittedly was not great for productivity, but I made up for it in the afternoon. My only mistake was choosing the “best seats available” option when I first logged onto the website, because I found myself with two tickets in my cart that totaled $1,056. I love Hamilton, but you know what I love even more than Hamilton? A roof over my head and food in my belly. So I had to start over, which cost precious minutes and had me convinced I had blown my one opportunity at seeing the Tony-winning Broadway musical, but ended up with a far more reasonable $236 total purchase. Whew!

The day before, by contrast, was super productive. I ended up working from home, because we had ordered some more of the Prairie Berry wine from South Dakota and UPS would not deliver without a signature. I meant to have it shipped to work, but in our excitement over getting more wine I didn’t let Tara, who placed the order, know of my idea until after she had submitted the order. Oh, well; it worked out fine and like I said, I got a lot done. That’s always the case when working from home. I like my coworkers just fine, but there are a ton of distractions and interruptions in the office, especially since it’s an open concept lacking cubicle walls and any sort of privacy whatsoever, so being able to buckle down and just focus on work helps tremendously. At 2:30 there was a knock on the door, and lo and behold, the wine had arrived! 

Working from home on Thursday provided me with a very interesting preview of my probable future. Can’t say I minded it very much; there’s a lot to be said for a commute that is measured in steps rather than miles, and my cat is far less demanding than my coworkers (except when her stomach reminds her it’s feeding time mid-afternoon). Come to think of it, I could say the same thing about my coworkers…

Last weekend my dad mentioned that he thought I might miss the social aspect of working from home full-time, and I will concede that it’s a possibility, though it’ll probably take a while for the novelty to wear off. I also figure I’ll hit up some of the local Rapid City coffee shops with my laptop in tow if I’m craving human companionship (not to mention the excellent macchiato from Harriet & Oak). Either that or I’ll just give in to the solitariness and become a hermit. Because let’s face it, by and large, people suck.

By the way, Tara and I put together a list of places to go/things to do before we leave, and we’re calling it our PNW Farewell Tour. Our list includes the following:

  1. Astoria Wine & Seafood Festival.
  2. Hood River Fruit Loop.
  3. Overnight stay on the Oregon coast.
  4. Afternoon at Powell’s Books.
  5. Visit the Portland Night Market.
  6. Catch a show at the Doug Fir Lounge.

And so forth and so on. We already did the Fruit Loop last month, so that item is crossed off. There are about 30 items on our list, and we probably won’t be able to hit them all, but we’re going to give it a shot! We’ve got 7+ months to go, so we’ll at least be able to check off the majority. The Portland Night Market is happening the day after Thanksgiving, so that’ll be another one down. We even came up with our own custom Instagram hashtag, ’cause that’s how we roll.

#MarTarPNWFarewellTour if you’re in the stalking mood.

There are also separate lists for restaurants and local products. We are nothing if not thorough.

It’s been a pretty chill weekend. We have run lots of errands and played lots of cribbage. Tara cleaned the apartment from top to bottom in preparation for our guests on Thursday, though I talked her out of shampooing the carpet because, really, is anybody going to be scrutinizing our floor that closely? People don’t care. Besides, it makes more sense to clean the carpet after we have a house full of guests, right? We also went grocery shopping, picked up Chinese food, and watched a Netflix movie on the 33 Chilean miners who were trapped underground for 69 days before (spoiler alert!) being rescued. Action packed weekend here, folks. Try to reign in your jealousy.

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The One and Only Billy Shears

Last Monday night, we stayed up late for a concert at the Aladdin Theater in Portland. It was a touring production called Beatles vs. Stones, in which a pair of dueling tribute bands paying homage to these influential British rock groups squared off against one another in a fun competition to answer the question, which band was better? The tickets were a birthday gift to Tara, and she finally got to enjoy her present three and a half months after her actual b-day. She’s a big fan of both groups, as am I, so I figured it would be a fun evening. We were not disappointed.

“It’s wonderful to be here,” I told Tara. “It’s certainly a thrill.”

Each band performed three sets from different eras, changing into outfits to reflect each time period. For instance, Abbey Road (aka The Beatles) started out dressed for the Ed Sullivan show in their very proper English suits and mop-top haircuts, then came back out in Sgt. Pepper attire for the next set, and so on. All the music was great, and everybody really got into character. It’s hard to pick a winner, but I’d say Abbey Road nailed the music best (especially fake-George-Harrison’s blistering rendition of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”) while Satisfaction’s (The Rolling Stones) Mick Jagger lookalike/soundalike was an absolute dead ringer for the real deal, and aced every little mannerism, right down to the patented strut. They took turns trading lighthearted jabs at one another through their witty stage banter (e.g., “Mick’s got a big mouth”). It was all a ton of fun. I am normally not a fan of going out on a Monday night, but in this case it was totally worth the lack of sleep.

If these guys come to your town, check ’em out!


I mentioned in a previous post about stopping in at Prairie Berry Winery on our visit to Rapid City last month and enjoying the wine so much, we came back with 10 bottles. When I said that South Dakota had surprisingly good wine, one of my closest friends – that would be you, Heidi – scoffed at the idea. She and her husband live a stone’s throw from Napa Valley (no, not literally; but they do reside in Sacramento, which is probably more like a few stone throws away) and are connoisseurs of wine.

Anyway. Heidi treated the idea of fruit wines with contempt, hardly worthy of residing in a wine rack beside classier numbers like  Chardonnays and Cabernets and Pinot Grigios. Which I really didn’t understand, because a grape is a fruit, right? So aren’t all wines fruit wines?!

Ha. But I get it, though. And I still love you, Heidi. I had the same preconceived bias against “fruit wines” myself, even though my parents brought a bunch back from Florida one time and I thought they were pretty good. But Prairie Berry has won all sorts of local and regional awards, so we kept an open mind when going wine tasting and were very pleased and surprised to find we liked them.

So much so that we placed an online order for a few more bottles the other day, and are having them shipped to us. Thanksgiving is right around the corner, after all, and I really, really want to enjoy a glass or four of their Red Ass Rhubarb with my turkey and trimmings.

(Side note: Why do we call the side dishes and other accompaniments “trimmings”? I suppose I could Google this but I’m feeling too lazy at the moment to bother.)

All this talk of turkey and trimmings and the fact that Thanksgiving is right around the corner reminds me that THANKSGIVING IS RIGHT AROUND THE CORNER. Like, seriously. It’s next week, folks!

Which means I’d better get on the Christmas-present-buying bandwagon, because that ho-ho-holiday is bearing down on us full tilt, as well. Proof of this occurred last night when we were over my parents’ house for dinner. My dad wanted to listen to music, so he put a “sounds of the season” playlist on, thinking it was going to be Veteran’s Day-themed songs. Which would be…John Phillips Sousa marches or something? I’m not sure. Instead, we were treated to Christmas music. After a couple of songs, he turned it off. Can’t say I blame him. As much as I love Christmas music, it felt a little too early yet. Let’s at least get through Thanksgiving first!

You Auto Know

Lost in all the moving hubbub was the fact that Audrey bought her first car a few weekends ago.

Let’s just pretend I’m not old enough to have two kids with driver’s licenses and cars, okay? When I first started blogging, lo these many years ago, Audrey was still crawling around on all fours, a month away from walking. Rusty was in kindergarten and I was married to somebody else. It feels like a different life.

Anyway. Audrey had been saving up her money for months, tucking away cash from her gig at a nameless pizza, pizza joint. With a little help from her grandparents in the name of a loan, she finally had enough money to buy a car and eagerly began virtually shopping for one. She settled on a minivan – don’t ask my why – from a used car dealer in Portland, and we headed down there on a rainy Saturday morning in October.

Fortunately, she was flexible enough not to insist on the minivan, because it didn’t seem like the most reliable vehicle on the lot. For starters, it didn’t. Ha-ha. At least not at first. Took a few turns of the key, and once it got going, it idled roughly. Still, we took it for a test spin, but remained unimpressed. So we got back to the lot and the salesman – who, as far as used car salesmen go, was a pretty decent guy – found some other vehicles in her price range. She settled on a 2003 Ford Taurus that had been a fleet vehicle with two previous owners. This one seemed a much better investment. After a little light haggling, we settled on a price halfway between what both parties wanted, and 30 minutes later drove home. There was still one minor detail left, the fact that Audrey didn’t actually have a driver’s license yet, but her six-month probationary period (a Washington law for those with permits) ended in three days, so a little over 72 hours later I handed her the keys and she drove away from home, all on her own. Just like that, at the risk of sounding melodramatic, I felt one step closer to the grave.

Audrey still has much to learn about cars, though. Because the next day she called Tara in a bit of a panic, informing her that her car wouldn’t start. After my wife ran through a checklist of potential problems, she figured out that Audrey didn’t have the car in PARK when turning the key.

Ha!

A few days later, she was concerned because the “check engine” light came on. But the next day all was well when she informed us that it hadn’t stayed on. You know how everything on your dashboard lights up when you first turn the ignition and start the car?

Yeah. That’s all it was.

Talladega Nights she ain’t. But then again, neither am I. Which is why she’s been telling Tara about these problems rather than dear ol’ dad.


I can’t believe Halloween has come and gone already. I’d planned on dressing up for work, but the night before was costume-less and out of ideas until Tara walked through the door carrying garbage bags and a few dozen printed photos of a certain Caucasian rapper from Detroit.

“I have a great idea for a costume!” she said. “I’m dressing up as a bag of Eminems!”

I thought this was a genius idea actually, not to mention one hell of a pun, so I ended up doing the same thing. Tara helped fashion a makeshift costume, cutting armholes in the bag and affixing a bunch of the Eminem pics to it with Scotch tape. To most coworkers I’m sure I just looked like a homeless guy, but those who got the joke, loved it. I’m forever making obscure pop cultural references anyway, so this was totally up my alley. I didn’t win any of the prizes my employer handed out, but I was not in it for the glory. I just wanted to show a little holiday spirit. Mission accomplished.

Speaking of holiday spirits, that evening I had a bit of a scare.

I got home from work, turned on the fireplace, lit approximately one million candles, poured myself a glass of wine, and settled into my recliner to watch a little TV. A few minutes later, there was a loud creaking noise, and I watched in disbelief as the door to the coat closet slowly opened, all by itself, right before my astonished eyes.

“Surely this can’t be happening!” I said to myself.

But it was happening, and quit calling me Shirley. The door opened wider and wider, and my heart began racing wildly in anticipation of a face-to-face encounter with a denizen from beyond the grave.

And then the cat wandered out and looked up at me quizzically.

Sydney had apparently walked into the closet unbeknownst to me while I was fetching the candles, and I had closed the door with her in there. Oops.

Holy shit, guys. I love the paranormal and don’t often get freaked out by things of this nature, but for a few seconds I was scared out of my gourd.

Yes, that is Halloween humor. So sue me.

The Whys Have It

I am standing on a bluff in the Badlands, looking over a sprawling prairie so vast it appears endless. A towering cumulonimbus cloud blots out the sun as it advances across the plains in a slow, angry march. Thunder rumbles across the prairie, echoing through the canyons and castle-like spires of red-striped rock so intently I can feel it rattling my bones. I am transfixed, lost in awe and humbled by the power of nature. We do not have storms like this back home.

A cooling gust of wind tickles my skin, marking the storm’s imminent arrival. I scurry back to my car as the first fat drops of rain plunge earthward, jagged streaks of lightning ripping seams in the sky. The heavens open up and day is transformed briefly into night as sheets of rain and hail pummel the landscape, forcing me to the side of the interstate. Ten minutes later the sun is shining brightly once more, wisps of steam evaporating from the asphalt and an ominous black wall of clouds to the east the only evidence of nature’s furious deluge.

This was one of my favorite moments on my solo road trip in 2011. At the time I never imagined that this place I had called home decades earlier, in a long-ago life that seemed impossibly foreign to me, would once again be the place I’d hang my proverbial hat. But come next summer it will be, evidence of life’s impossible-to-predict twists and turns.

Upon hearing the news, most people are supportive but curious. “Why on earth would you move to South Dakota?!” is a fairly standard response, often followed by, “But you love it here!”

I’ve got answers to both.

Why Rapid City

While others view the weather of the Northern Plains as a drawback, to me it’s a draw and I wanna go back. I miss those big, powerful summer thunderstorms; they are a rare commodity in the Pacific Northwest. Ditto the snowstorms that sweep across the prairie every winter. I can’t help it; I’ve long been a weather geek and crave excitement. As a teenager I used to keep detailed climate stats and yearned to become a meteorologist, until math reared its ugly head and I settled on writing instead. But that fascination never waned. The PNW climate is far too monotonous and predictable for my tastes: nine months of gray skies and drizzly rain, followed by three months of sunshine. Wash, rinse, repeat. Tara is sick of hearing me grumble about the lack of thunderstorms and our too-infrequent snow. The real reason we’re moving is so I’ll shut up about those things already.

I kid, of course.

Our main consideration centers on livability, and Rapid City kicks ass in this category. It boasts a low cost of living (4.8% below the national average) and affordable housing. The median home price in Rapid City is $181,400; compare that to Portland ($345,500) and Vancouver ($289,100) and you can see why the area is so attractive to us. A house is our single biggest priority these days, and we’d rather not go broke buying it.

But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Like Washington, South Dakota has no income tax, and Rapid City’s sales tax (6.5%) is 1.9% lower than Vancouver’s. Unemployment rates are super low (3.1% in SD currently, 2.9% in Rapid City), job growth is strong (3%), and wages are on the rise (up .8% in Q1 2017). In 2016, livability.com named Rapid City the 16th best place to live in the U.S. Other national rankings include:

  • #9 for making a financial fresh start (based upon employment, wages, cost of living, and job growth)
  • #9 best places to retire
  • #14 most secure places to live in the U.S. (small towns)
  • #19 best cities to pursue a business or career

And South Dakota is the third-best state for general health and well-being. Damn you, Hawaii and Alaska. (Kentucky and West Virginia finished #49 and #50, in case you were wondering).

Size matters. Rapid City’s population is 73,569; it’s the perfect size, big enough for the essential amenities but small enough to avoid problems like traffic and homeless people on every corner. Tara, especially, has been struggling with all the people in the Portland Metropolitan Area. She’s used to much smaller towns! Downtown is charmingly quaint, with a historic Old West vibe, and easy to navigate. There are good restaurants and bars and a surprisingly robust local food and craft beer scene. There’s even wine! And Main Street Square is like a miniature version of Portland’s Pioneer Square; it’s the city’s unofficial living room and home to festivals and events throughout the year. In the winter, they turn it into a skating rink. Should we long to get out of town, there are a million things to do nearby. The Black Hills are scenic and beautiful, chock full of outdoor opportunities like hiking and camping and looking at dead presidents carved into rock. The walleye fishing is among the best in the country; the Badlands are just an hour’s drive to the east; and should we ever yearn for the Big City (or better still, a Broncos game), Denver is a mere six hours away.

There’s a certain appeal to the Upper Midwest, anyway. It feels exotic to me. And when we retire, buy an RV and travel around the country, that central location could come in handy.

Yes, we’ll be making some sacrifices. Rapid City doesn’t have a Trader Joe’s or Costco, but if you love Target, you’re in luck. The ocean is two days away versus 90 minutes. And it’s a good thing we’ve been to roughly a million concerts over the past five years, because our choices in that department will be far more limited.

But look at all the money we’ll save.

Honestly, the biggest negative I can think of is the politics. It doesn’t get much more conservative than South Dakota, and that’s unfortunate. I’ve always preferred the color blue to red. But if I think of us as infiltrating the enemy’s camp in order to spread a bit of liberal propaganda, it almost sounds enticing. And we did spot Obama and Clinton bumper stickers on a pickup truck with South Dakota plates at the farmer’s market (yes, they’ve got one of those, too), so there are pockets of resistance there. I have hope.

Why Not Portland?

Umm, because we can’t afford it here.

That’s the biggie, but not the only reason. My parents, not to mention a few friends, were shocked because I have long professed a deep love for this place. But feelings change and relationships evolve. Portland and I are now in the friends-only zone. Here’s why.

On May 26, there was a fatal stabbing on a MAX train in Portland. You’ve probably heard about it as the story made national news. A white male passenger was yelling racial slurs at two young Muslim women; when a couple of good samaritans attempted to intervene, he pulled out a knife, fatally stabbing two of them and injuring a third. It was a brutal, ugly attack, and left me reeling. I still haven’t recovered from the shock and shame of this horrible crime.

This is not the town I know and love, I thought. Sadly, it was just the latest in a string of incidents that made me realize the bloom was off the Rose City.

It’s rare when one can point to a specific moment in which a dream dies, but I feel like that was the straw that broke the camel’s back for me.

The dream first took form decades ago. Back in high school, I had a whiteboard on my bedroom wall with a photograph of the Oregon coast. It was a lovely scene featuring rugged forested cliffs and pounding surf, and instilled in me a fascination with the Pacific Northwest, a place I had never been.

I could live there, I thought.

And when the opportunity presented itself a few years later, I jumped at the chance. In November 1994, my ex and I left the Bay Area behind for Oregon. 15 months later we purchased a house in Vancouver, WA. I have lived in that town ever since.

Those first few years were heady, exciting times. Everything felt like an adventure. I quickly fell in love with the area and all it had to offer: terrific scenery, a mild (if wet) climate, a plethora of outdoor attractions, and loads of culture. Back then, rents were low and housing was cheap. In the late 90s, Portland felt like a well-kept secret.

Unfortunately, word got out. As with all things that are too good to be true, changes occurred. They weren’t for the better.

I don’t remember exactly when this happened. The shift was subtle yet undeniable. The restaurant scene exploded. Those neighborhoods we had formerly steered clear of after dark suddenly became trendy. A dilapidated industrial area morphed into the hip, upscale Pearl District. Voodoo Doughnut opened. Food cart pods became a “thing.” Everybody started talking about Portland, and when “Portlandia” debuted on IFC, they wouldn’t stop talking about it. Portland became the place to be.

Eventually, Portland devolved into a self-parody of itself thanks to that show. I love you, Fred Armisen, but I blame you for its demise. Not only did we embrace our unofficial motto, “Keep Portland Weird” (which wasn’t even ours – we stole it from Austin, Texas), we tried to up the weirdness ante at every turn. A guy wearing a Darth Vader and kilt, playing the bagpipes while riding a unicycle, became a local celebrity, and nobody batted an eye. More people took to riding bikes. Unashamedly naked people of all shapes and sizes, and still, nobody batted an eye. Despite its quirkiness, Portland still retained a charm that made it easy to overlook the steadily increasing population of homeless people and the ever-worsening gridlock on the freeways. Because, Salt & Straw! Beast! Rimsky-Korsakoffee House! The Doug Fir Lounge! Powell’s Books! Lardo! McMenamin’s! There are so many cool places here, it’s ridiculous.

But with its newfound trendiness came droves of people, and they caused our housing prices to skyrocket. They clogged our freeways, overburdened our infrastructure.

And then Trump was elected President and all hell broke loose. Portland has always been a protest-happy place, but things got out of hand after the election. There were anti-Trump protests, and pro-Trump protests, and protests against protests. Everything was protested, and while I’m all in favor of free speech and the right to assemble, ours became violent, ugly affairs that – once again – made national headlines. Back in the late 80s, Portland had a sordid reputation. It was a mecca for skinheads and racists, and the city was christened “Little Beirut” by George Bush Sr. That stuff had been swept under the rug and largely forgotten for about 20 years, but following the election it all reared its ugly head again, culminating in the MAX stabbing.

And suddenly, Portland isn’t nearly as charming as it once was.

To be fair, Portland still has much to offer. But there are a lot of drawbacks that did not exist just a couple of years ago. The cost of homes has gone up 9.2% in the past year, an increase that ranks among the highest in the nation, and the trend does not seem to be slowing down. If you already own a home here, great – you’re golden! But Tara and I are not golden. The rent on our apartment is $1400/month. In Rapid City, we can buy a house, finance it for 15 years vs. 30, and still end up with a lower monthly mortgage payment.

All these factors added up, and we eventually reached the tipping point.

Yes, I will miss certain aspects of living here. More than anything else, proximity to family. But we plan on visiting once or twice a year. I mean, we will have to stock up on the essentials, like Wild Roots vodka and Jacobsen Sea Salt and Atlas Cider. And drop in to Shanahan’s for our fried pickles. So we may be going, but it is certainly not for good.

Here’s to fresh starts and new adventures!

Inverse Correlations and Escaping Cats

Cats weren’t meant to be kept in bags, so I’m going to let this one out now and share a bit o’ news with y’all:

Tara and I are moving to Rapid City, South Dakota next summer.

Funny how something that started out as an off-the-cuff remark I never expected my wife to take seriously turned into a huge, life-changing decision.

It all began with a Zillow listing on June 16, my knee-jerk response to the realization that we simply could no longer afford to live here. Portland has become too popular, too trendy, too crowded, and too expensive. My employer is having a hard time attracting top talent because prospective candidates are scared off by the cost of housing and rent. That’s pretty telling.

Once upon a time I swore I’d never leave, and now I can’t wait to go. Funny how your attitude changes over the years.

Reactions have been mixed. There is an inverse correlation in the level of acceptance: the more closely related the person is to us, the less enthusiastic they are over our decision. But that’s to be expected, I suppose. My biggest fear was letting my boss know, because I love my job and don’t want to give it up. Fortunately, writers/editors can write/edit anywhere these days, so I put together a telecommuting proposal and presented it to him the week we came back from our trip to Rapid City. It was very well researched and spoke of the benefits to the company (lower costs, increased productivity, etc.) with all sources professionally cited. Still, you never know how these things will go over. So I took him to the corner bar, bought him a beer, and gave him a brief overview of my request. To my surprise, he was extremely supportive and is 100% behind the idea. Said he wished he could move back home, too. He still has to walk it up the chain of command, but thinks in all likelihood the senior management team will sign off on the plan. After all, we’ve done that for others in the past, and their jobs aren’t nearly as remote-friendly as mine. That’s both a huge relief and the greatest news ever! It demonstrates how much they value my contributions to the company, and will allow me to work from home full-time. Because of favorable tax laws (like Washington, South Dakota has no state income tax) and a lower cost of living, it’s like I’m getting a raise! Everything is falling into place.

Honestly, the decision was easy and came quickly. We agreed this was something we wanted to pursue over fried pickles and drinks at Murphy’s Pub & Grill in Rapid City the Saturday night we were there. We couldn’t say anything until ironing out a few details, though plenty of hints were dropped. Like the Facebook post from last weekend, where I wrote it was our Annual (and probably last) trek to Hood River for the Fruit Loop. When one friend asked “why last?” I told her I got some bad news from my doctor, ha. Maybe that wasn’t the nicest thing to do, but at least now I know she’d miss me if I died!

Our tentative/target moving date is June 30, 2018. Our lease is up in March, and we are sick of paying $1400/month for an apartment when we can own a nice home in Rapid City and pay less than that in mortgage. I’d leave tomorrow if we could, but Audrey is a senior and graduates on June 13th. Tara still has to “get her poop in a group,” as she told me, and find a job herself, but I feel confident that her solid experience and impressive work accomplishments will allow her to find one easily enough. It helps that the unemployment rate in Rapid City is a paltry 2.9%.

 

I’ll talk more about the reasons behind our decision in my next post. For now, we are focused on enjoying our last eight months in the PNW. We created a list of places to go/things to do before we leave and christened it our “PNW Farewell Tour,” complete with a custom hashtag. A sampling of the list:

  • Astoria Wine & Seafood Festival
  • Weekend stay on the Oregon coast
  • Portland Night Market
  • Hike Silver Falls State Park
  • Spend a rainy afternoon browsing the shelves at Powell’s Books

The Hood River Fruit Loop was the first item to get crossed off our list. That’s the benefit of having so much time before we leave: we won’t be in a rush to get everything done. As daunting as a 1,250-mile move feels, if we break it down into tiny steps, it’s manageable.

And June will be here before we know it. How exciting!

Open Mouth, Insert Foot

You know how sometimes, occasionally, once in a blue moon, I have a tendency to stick my foot in my mouth and end up in an awkward situation?

Oh, boy. A couple of days ago really took the cake.

It started with a group text from a number I did not recognize. I assumed they’d entered my phone number by mistake, and decided to have a little fun with them. After all, I never miss an opportunity to screw around with telemarketers. The text read,

Hey, girls!!!! This is Ashley. My family is SO excited to host you guys!!! There are 11 of you so make sure you come ready to have some fun and meet some new people!!! We will be going to the football game Friday night and it has been getting CHILLY, so make sure to pack warm clothes! We will be doing a shower sign up, some will have to shower in the morning and some the night before! Can’t wait to see you all tomorrow!

I responded,

Can some of us shower together?

Ashley answered,

Hahaha, your killin me. :) We can talk about all the logistics when you girls get here and figure it all out. :)

My follow-up:

OK. Is anybody bringing pot brownies? Please say yes…

Her answer:

I’m gonna go with a hard no on that one!

I decided to end the charade at this point, after taking one last stab at her.

Funsucker. (Just kidding…this is a wrong number. Enjoy your get together, ladies.)

And she wrote,

Great…bunch of highschoolers coming for a leadership conference…lol you suck! My bad!

And that is when the whole thing dawned on me. Audrey was going away to a leadership conference with a bunch of high schoolers the next day. They must have inadvertently entered my phone number on the group text instead of my daughter’s. Well, shit! So I messaged her back privately, apologized, told her I meant no harm and never made the connection, and thanked her for hosting. Luckily, she was gracious over the whole thing, said she was glad it was a parent and got a good laugh out of it once the truth came to light.

Audrey, on the other hand, was mortified. We texted her last night to see how the conference was going, and she said great, except my text was the first thing that was brought up when she arrived.

Err…sorry…

It’s simultaneously horrifying and hilarious. I’m sure there won’t be any long-term damage to her psyche, but if so, I’ll pay for her therapy sessions. I promise.

I really do blame those telemarketers. The calls have only picked up in frequency, and every time I block a number, they switch to a new one. I don’t know what to do, so usually I mess around with them. A few days after the eclipse some Canadian pharmacy was trying to sell me Viagra and I concocted this tale about how I’d been out staring at the sun and had burned my retinas out and asked if the pill bottles were written in Braille perchance, and when the guy on the line said you can easily tell them apart because they are colored blue, I said, “Well, that’s all fine and good, BUT I’M BLIND!!!” And he hung up on me. The nerve! At least my coworkers got a kick out of the whole thing.

Moving forward though, I’m going to have to be very careful, I s’pose.


You’ve probably surmised that we got back from our trip without incident. Which is true, other than the massive rock chip on my windshield, an unwanted souvenir from a gravel road in Montana. My car is currently in the dealership because the check engine light came on yesterday, only on a Mazda it’s called the “engine system malfunction” warning indicator and that freaked the hell out of me for a few minutes. I assumed my car was either about to burst into flames or the engine block would fall out or something. I’m hoping it’s no big deal, but we shall see. By the way, Mazda, you might want to rename that something far more innocuous.

The Monday that we left Rapid City, we detoured through Spearfish Canyon in the Black Hills to check out the fall foliage, and it was nothing short of spectacular. And then, quite unexpectedly, we ended up hiking two miles to a waterfall on a trail covered in a light snowfall from the day before. Gorgeous!

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We made it as far as Butte, Montana, where we holed up for the night in a crappy Day’s Inn. Got home the next day around 4:00. Breaking up the drive into two more equal portions like that was much easier than the long 15-hour haul across Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming the Friday before.

Now we’re all settled back into our regular routine. It’s been showery and cold, but this afternoon the sun has broken through the clouds and it’s turned into a perfect Autumn day.

Make a Change

The timing of our trip was pretty fortuitous. Yesterday was devoted to exploring the Black Hills, and the weather could not have been more perfect: sunshine, a deep blue cloudless sky, and a temperature in the low 70s. Today was grey and rainy and it never climbed out of the 40s. We didn’t care though, as most of the day was spent either in the car or indoors.

We drove downtown this morning and stopped by Harriet & Oak for a light breakfast. We’d ducked in there yesterday for a cup of coffee and decided we had to come back again today, it was that good. I even splurged and got a caramel macchiato, the first time in years (literally) that I had such a fancy (read: sweet) coffee concoction. It was smooth and creamy and came decorated with an oak leaf. To die for. I had it with a sweet potato and sage scone that was also delicious. This place is right up my alley and again, kind of reminds me of Portland: funky vibe, tatted/pierced staff, indie rock soundtrack, and a VW Bus parked right there in the middle of the coffeeshop. If I were a local, I’d frequent the hell out of the place. 

After breakfast we walked around downtown a little bit, but a light rain had begun falling and the wind was blowing briskly, so we did not linger. Instead, we drove around to check out a bunch of houses Tara had found on Zillow, just to get a feel for some of the neighborhoods around town. We learned that we really like Black Hawk and west Rapid City. Actually, there were a couple of nice houses in east Rapid, too. Only a couple of Tara’s listings were in areas that did not appeal to us.

We finished fake house shopping around noon, and decided to drive back into the Black Hills to check out Prairie Berry Winery in Hill City. They make fruit wines and have won all kinds of awards for them. I’m not normally a fan of fruit wines, but we sampled 10 different varieties between the two of us and pretty much loved them all. Which explains how we both spent over $100 on bottles.

Once we were finished going into debt on wine, we drove back to Rapid City to grab cheesesteaks from Philly Ted’s, at the insistence of our friend Kara, who visited the area once and swore by them. Oh, on the drive, we actually saw some snowflakes in the air, a reminder that winter arrives early in this part of the world. Anyway, the cheesesteaks: they were good and totally hit the spot, but honestly, there’s a place in Portland we both agreed does them better. (Grant’s on Sandy Blvd. if you’re interested.) We ate them in the car speeding down I-90 east toward Wall and our next destination, the ever popular tourist mecca known as Wall Drug. Bought the requisite souvenirs and spent a couple of hours there, bummed that we didn’t have enough time to hit the Badlands, which are just a few miles further down the interstate. But I’m telling myself this isn’t a big deal, because we have crammed a LOT into the two full days we have had here.

On the drive back to Rapid City, my gas gauge warning light came on. Somehow, in all the excitement, I hadn’t realized that I was in danger of running out of fuel. Oops! We were sweating it for a few minutes, because on that stretch of highway there is a whole lot of empty prairie land; you can go for miles and miles without seeing any sign of civilization. Luckily we found a gas station in one of those podunk little towns where you wonder what the hell people who live there do for a living. Or for entertainment. Or how they even manage to pry themselves out of bed every morning when they’re out in the middle of freaking nowhere. Then again, I suppose that could be a draw. In any case, we filled the tank and made it back to town no problem. We actually had one glorious hour to kill in the motel before heading out yet again. I spent it writing most of this blog post and uploading pics. Man, social media sure does require stamina. No wonder I’ve had so little sleep these past few nights.

For our last night in Rapid City, we made dinner reservations at Dakotah Steakhouse. We wanted to finish our visit in style, and we did just that. If whiskey cocktails and breaded walleye fingers and prime rib and savory mushroom bread pudding are your idea of “in style.” The meal set us back $101, which by Portland standards is a steal. Yet another plus for RC. (By the way, gas here is ridiculously cheap. It’s $2.18 a gallon. And it’s amazing how quickly you adapt to a new reality. When we pulled off the interstate for our emergency fuel-up in New Underwood and paid $2.43 a gallon, I complained about the expense. Never mind that gas cost $2.89 a gallon at the 7-Eleven down the street from our apartment complex.)

Other observations: the city has a vibrant and surprisingly robust food scene. It’s far more diverse than I expected. We did not have a bad meal here. And while I wrote yesterday that there were no parking meters, I was wrong. We found a few. But get this…

They’re actually “donation stations” that raise money for helping indigent people down on their luck. We fed them some change, and every time you put a coin in and turn the knob, a little “thank you” flag pops up. Is that not the best thing ever?

Also, the newscasts are very different here. When we arrived Friday night, the sportscasters devoted most of their broadcast to recapping the local high school games. And they did it in poetic verse. Seriously. A word-for-word example: “Trevor Pullman shows off some nice moves/all you hear from the crowd are cheers and not boos/the Belle Fourche Broncs would get the stop/here they go again with time ticking off the clock/Tate Hofstedder with time in the pocket/passes to Jackson Tindle, look at that rocket!”

The wholesome earnestness is off the charts, folks.

I love it here. I do.

And yesterday at the farmer’s market, we spotted a pickup truck in the parking lot sporting Obama and Hillary bumper stickers. This may be a red state, but there are pockets of resistance, which brings me hope.

Tomorrow, we begin our long journey back home. Neither of us is looking forward to the drive, but we’re breaking it down into two manageable segments, so we won’t end up stuck in the car for 15 hours either day. So, bittersweet that it’s coming to an end so quickly. We both really enjoyed this getaway. It’s safe to say that Tara digs it here too, which means…we’ve got some things to figure out.

We’ll just leave it at that for now.

Tomorrow’s plan is a little up in the air. We know that we are driving through Spearfish Canyon to check out the scenery and fall colors. Tara brought along a rod and reel and had planned on doing a little walleye fishing at the reservoir, but we may scrap that idea. It just depends on how we feel (and how cold it is).

I won’t update from the road tomorrow. There won’t be much to say (“we drove…we drove some more…”) and I’m sure we’ll be dead tired anyway. I’ll catch up with you all in a few days instead, and promise to respond to comments (and read your blogs) then.

Adios for now, Rapid City…

Today’s Theme is Buffalo

Before our South Dakota trip, I had one goal: to see a buffalo up close.

Also, to eat buffalo. That part was easy enough: I ended up having buffalo, in one form or another, for breakfast, lunch, and dinner today.

Seeing a buffalo? That was a little trickier. It was looking like a bust three-quarters of the way through the Wildlife Loop at Custer State Park. In the end, we saw upwards of 50 buffalo, some of them literally close enough to touch. And I’m a writer by trade. When I say “literally,” I mean, they were right there, just a few feet away.

But first, our day.


After 4 hours and 21 minutes of sleep Thursday night and a 15-hour drive, I was hoping to catch up on some zzz’s Friday night. But I woke up naturally at 5:30, and was too excited to fall back asleep. It was our first day in South Dakota, and we had a full slate of activities planned. I was excited and raring to go!

We showered, got dressed, and headed into downtown Rapid City nice and early. I love how compact the city is in comparison to Portland, and how simple it is to navigate and get around in. Portland’s population is 639,000, and Rapid City’s is 72,000. The difference is striking. A few initial observations: there aren’t homeless people on every corner like back home, traffic is practically nonexistent, there are no parking meters, and the city is clean.

Also, we did not have to wait in line an hour for brunch. We actually walked into Tally’s Silver Spoon and were seated right away. I ordered the buffalo hanger steak and eggs, with hash browns and whole wheat toast. Breakfast was delicious, and the coffee was especially good. Afterward we walked around downtown for a bit, making a beeline through Art Alley, a funky area of legalized graffiti and murals, then checked out the farmer’s market. It’s small, maybe a tenth of the size of our market back home, but charming nonetheless.

Then it was on to Mount Rushmore. Tara had never been, and even though I have seen it many times in my life, it had been six years since my last visit, and I was excited to show it off to my wife. She was impressed, but you’d have to have a heart of stone not to be. We walked along the Trail of Presidents for some up close views, and made the requisite purchases from the gift shop before leaving. Dear family: hope you enjoy your souvenirs.

I crammed a lot into my visit back in 2011, but regretted not hitting Custer State Park, so I made it a point this time to visit. The drive up there was stunning: the fall foliage in the Black Hills was explosive, the aspen leaves a smorgasbord of yellow and gold amongst the green forests of Ponderosa pine. The timing of our trip was perfect, as the autumn colors are surely at their peak this weekend. It seriously couldn’t be any prettier.

The main point of our trip to Custer State Park, though, was the aforementioned buffalo. They are notoriously abundant throughout the park, so I figured we’d have no problem seeing them. But for the first 45 minutes of our drive along the Wildlife Loop, they were nowhere to be found. The weather was especially beautiful today, clear skies and temperatures in the low 70s, so we decided all the animals were sticking to the cool shade of the surrounding forests and resigned ourselves to the fact that we wouldn’t get to see any. And then, near the end of the loop, we pulled over to the side of the road to photograph some prairie dogs, when a buffalo emerged from the woods. It was followed by another, and then another, and before we knew it a herd of at least 50 of them had wandered down into the field no more than a hundred yards away. We were joined by throngs of onlookers, all of us busy snapping pictures with our cameras, as the bison drew closer and closer. And suddenly they were right next to us, crossing the road and wandering right up to our cars. It was a breathtaking sight, as we were practically surrounded by dozens of these magnificent yet fearsome beasts.

After watching them for close to an hour, we decided it was time to move on. We’d planned on doing a little hiking and it was getting late, so we pushed on, driving down the Needles Highway to the Little Devil’s Tower trail. This part of the Black Hills is especially spectacular, with stunning granite pillars that resemble castle-like formations rising from the forested countryside. Because we got such a late start we limited our hike to about 2.5 miles, but what a hike it was nevertheless. Very different from our hikes back home, which are all ferns, moss, and waterfalls. A cool wind blew through the hills and the aspens put on quite a show. My only regret was that we didn’t have more time to explore. Quite frankly, I’d like to hike the shit out of this area. There is so much to see!

But the sun was racing toward the western horizon and the hour was late, so we retreated to the car and drove back to Rapid City. Stopped by our motel room to freshen up, then headed back into downtown for dinner and drinks at Murphy’s Pub and Grill. I’d read positive reviews on Yelp, and sure enough, the food did not disappoint. The fried pickles wrapped in prosciutto and mozzarella were the star of the show, but my open-faced buffalo meatloaf sandwich wrapped in bacon, stuffed with portobello mushrooms, and served atop a slice of sourdough bread certainly did not disappoint. Best of all, Murphy’s makes a really good Bloody Mary, so I can rest assured that should we end up moving to South Dakota my cocktail needs will be met.

Tomorrow we are checking out some neighborhoods in and around Rapid City, scoping out houses and apartments, and planning a drive out to Wall Drug. We’ve got some other stops to make, and then a romantic dinner at a fancy restaurant. It’s sure to be another busy day, and look at the time: already 11:00. I’d better get to bed!

Montana is Huge

After a long day of driving – emphasis on long, because holy shit, did you know that Montana is huge?! – we arrived in Rapid City a little before 9:00 this evening. We actually woke up at 3:45 in Post Falls, Idaho, and were on the road by 5:00 a.m. Barely spent any time in our motel room there, since we didn’t even get in until 11:00 the night before, but we needed a place to crash, you know? Any hope of arriving earlier was dashed when Tara got stuck at work, as usual. Such is life.

With such an early start, it was a couple of hours before we even saw daylight. And then, just as the sun began to brighten the eastern horizon, we ran into fog. Lots of it. And a temperature that hovered in the low 30s. But the scenery, as expected, was breathtaking. Lots of fall colors in the Idaho panhandle and throughout Montana. We stopped for breakfast at a Perkins in Missoula. I was perhaps a little giddier than I should have been, but Perkins reminds me of my childhood and there aren’t any back home. Eventually the fog burned off and we passed through one lovely Montana town after another. Bozeman, Butte, Livingston. All are impressive. Throw the Rocky Mountains and the Continental Divide into the mix, and we were practically overdosing on beauty. Our drive was mostly uneventful, until we started hearing a strange rattling sound from my car. Uh-oh. When it didn’t go away after a few miles, we decided to pull over and investigate. Turns out a plastic panel on the undercarriage that provides access to a drain plug had come loose and was dragging across the asphalt. Tara grabbed a Leatherman Tool and we ended up removing the whole thing. Our best guess is that the small deer carcass we drove over in the middle of the road back near Wallace, Idaho (yes, I’m serious) must have loosened one of the screws. It doesn’t appear to be anything major, but I’ll have to run my car to the dealership when we get back home to get that panel replaced.

Our next round of excitement occurred in Billings, when we stopped for lunch at a place called the Pickle Barrel and ordered sandwiches that, no kidding, were as big as footballs. And those were the “small” 8″ ones. I was more interested in the actual pickles we got to fish out of a barrel. Exciting stuff, lemme tell you.

Just outside of Billings the freeway drops down into a valley and the whole prairie opens up before your eyes. It really makes you understand why they call it “Big Sky Country.” I wrote about how impressed I was upon encountering this on my road trip back in 2011, and this time around was no less awe-inspiring.  Actually, it was surreal to retrace my route from 2011, this time with a wife. My life is so different now!

We ran into some road construction on Highway 212, which slowed us down a bit, but at one point we pulled over to the side of the road when Tara spotted a vast field full of prairie dog mounds. We grabbed our cameras and snapped pics of the critters, who were chattering away like crazy. I know folks around here consider them varmints and pests, but dammit, I just think they’re cute AF.

Somewhere in the middle of nowhere, the sun sank beneath the horizon and the sky lit up like it was on fire. I’m probably overusing the word “stunning,” but really, how else do you describe this?!

By the time we crossed the South Dakota state line, it was completely dark so we were unable to take that selfie in front of the “great faces/great places” sign. But also we’d been on the road for 14 hours by then and were more than ready to reach our destination. Right around that time the full harvest moon rose bright orange over the prairie and hung low in the sky, hugging the peaks of the Black Hills as we drew nearer our destination.

And then suddenly, there it was, the lights of downtown Rapid City glowing serenely as we dropped down out of the hills into town. Tara spotted a Chili’s and it was her turn to become giddy with excitement. It’s the little things, I tell you.

We checked into our room, ordered Chinese food from Great Wall – the same place my family and I dined over 30 years ago – and had it delivered to our room, thankful that after so much time in the car we didn’t have to do any more driving.

For the night, anyway. We’ve got a full day ahead tomorrow: Mount Rushmore, Custer State Park, a little hiking in the Black Hills, and then we’ll check out downtown Rapid City.

G’night, all!

Happy Bruce-iversary!

When I woke up this morning, I realized that exactly one year ago today, I met Bruce Springsteen. 365 days later, it still seems surreal. Happy Bruce-iversary to me!

Sadly, everybody must have forgotten the magnitude of this date, because there was nary a “Happy Bossday” card to be found.

But I remember, Bruce. Those magical ten seconds are etched into my brain forever. Yours too, I have no doubt. I trust, somewhere in Jersey today, you raised a glass in my honor.

Tramps like us? Baby, we were born to run.


Or born to drive, which is precisely what Tara and I are doing tomorrow. We’ve got a lot of ground to cover the next two days; 1,800 miles or so, to be exact, as we head east toward the promised land. Our destination, and perhaps our destiny? Rapid City, South Dakota.

The plan is to leave tomorrow immediately after work. I’m coming into the office for a half day, then leaving at lunchtime and working from home the rest of the afternoon. I’ll have the car all loaded up and ready to go the moment Tara gets home. Anxious much? Considering we have a motel reservation in Post Falls, Idaho – 5 hours and 44 minutes away – plus we’re going to jump ahead an hour (hello, Mountain time zone!), I think it’s understandable. On the off chance that she is able to get off work early, I brought my laptop home and am putting in some hours this evening. Looking at maps online (how did we ever plan trips before the internet, anyway? I guess we looked at actual paper maps, animals that we were!), Missoula is another 2 hours and 45 minutes away, which would make our drive to Rapid City on Friday an even 10 hours versus the 12 hours and 43 minutes it will take from Idaho. I’m a regular math whiz when it comes to planning routes, huh? I do not expect this to happen, as Tara rarely leaves work on time let alone early, but I am forever an optimist and it’s nice to dream, right?

Either way, we get into Rapid City Friday evening. If we’re too beat from driving, we’ll grab dinner from my favorite Chinese restaurant in town (which is, amazingly, still in business three decades after I left!) and hang out in our motel room, but if we have the energy then we’re hitting a local Irish pub I’ve heard good things about.

Funny thing: I’ve actually made a bunch of South Dakota friends on Instagram, and thus have the inside scoop.

Ever since we hatched this crazy idea about moving there, I’ve been following a bunch of SD Instagrammers and scoping out geographically relative hashtags, like #hifromsd. And I came to the rather startling conclusion that there is a big difference in attitudes between Midwesterners and Pacific Northwesterners.

Midwesterners are friendly, while people in the PNW are nice. They are polite to a fault; there’s a great Portlandia sketch where two cars arrive at a stop sign at the same time and they both encourage each other to go first. (“You go.” “No, you go.”) It’s funny because it’s true; that very thing happens here all the time! Nobody honks their horns either, and I know for a fact that is a vastly different mentality than East Coasters have.

You might think “friendly” and “nice” are like two sides of the same coin, but there are subtle differences I find hard to explain. For me the most noticeable difference has been in my interactions on Instagram. PNWers leave positive comments (how nice!) while the SD people have gone out of their way to reach out to me with tips and suggestions. One person in particular has gone out of his way to strike up a friendship, and even suggested we meet up for a drink while in town (but he is unfortunately on the road himself when we’ll be there). I’m not passing judgment either way; “nice” is great and “friendly” is also pretty cool. It’s just an interesting and notable difference between people in different regions. We’ve all heard of the famed Southern hospitality and the stereotype of Northeasterners as rude and aggressive. I’m not saying either is true, but there are certainly differences in attitude, philosophy, and mores in different parts of the country. I find it all pretty fascinating.

I guess we’ll see in person if that Midwestern friendliness is a real thing!

I plan to bring my laptop along on the journey, and who knows? I had so much fun blogging from the road back in 2011, I might just do the same this time around!