Saturday, September 03, 2005

True to form

”It was a broiling August afternoon in New Orleans, Louisiana, the Big Easy, the City That Care Forgot. Those who ventured outside moved as if they were swimming in tupelo honey. Those inside paid silent homage to the man who invented air-conditioning as they watched TV "storm teams" warn of a hurricane in the Gulf of Mexico. Nothing surprising there: Hurricanes in August are as much a part of life in this town as hangovers on Ash Wednesday.

”But the next day the storm gathered steam and drew a bead on the city. As the whirling maelstrom approached the coast, more than a million people evacuated to higher ground. Some 200,000 remained, however—the car-less, the homeless, the aged and infirm, and those die-hard New Orleanians who look for any excuse to throw a party. ”The storm hit Breton Sound with the fury of a nuclear warhead, pushing a deadly storm surge into Lake Pontchartrain. The water crept to the top of the massive berm that holds back the lake and then spilled over. Nearly 80 percent of New Orleans lies below sea level—more than eight feet below in places—so the water poured in. A liquid brown wall washed over the brick ranch homes of Gentilly, over the clapboard houses of the Ninth Ward, over the white-columned porches of the Garden District, until it raced through the bars and strip joints on Bourbon Street like the pale rider of the Apocalypse. As it reached 25 feet (eight meters) over parts of the city, people climbed onto roofs to escape it.

”Thousands drowned in the murky brew that was soon contaminated by sewage and industrial waste. Thousands more who survived the flood later perished from dehydration and disease as they waited to be rescued. It took two months to pump the city dry, and by then the Big Easy was buried under a blanket of putrid sediment, a million people were homeless, and 50,000 were dead. It was the worst natural disaster in the history of the United States.”

From “Gone With the Water”, National Geographic magazine, October, 2004

After painting this “hypothetical” picture, the National Geographic article went on to say that in 2003, the US Army Corps of Engineers had drawn up a $14bn, 30-year plan to protect what’s left of the Louisiana wetlands, which, in addition to levees, might have protect(ed) places like New Orleans from hurricane damage. But the Bush Administration turned it down. The article also explained how shipping, the oil industry and overall development have gradually stripped the area of its natural defenses. Of course the National Geographic is not the only voice to have called for better disaster planning over the years.

Sorry, even in the face of such unimaginable tragedy, I can’t suppress my anger and shame. The Bush administration’s response has been no better than that of a developing country with far fewer resources at its disposal. So since we’re talking about fantasy articles, here’s one I would have liked to hear when I turned on the radio or read when I went to the New York Times website this week:

BILOXI, September 2 - True to form, the President of the United States has reacted instantly to the crisis unfolding in four states on the Gulf coast. Beginning on Tuesday morning, August 30, he visited stricken villages, washed out ports and devastated resorts. He was tireless in the comfort he gave to residents, listening to their stories of grief and desperation, ensuring each of them individually that they would not be forgotten. To maintain order in New Orleans and elsewhere, he ordered 100,000 National Guardsmen to the Gulf coast immediately, many of them to be recalled from Iraq. In a press conference at the end of the day, he stated that in our eagerness to export American democratic ideals, we had forgotten to put aside resources “for a rainy day” back home, and he vowed that would never happen again. He said that a portion of his 1,600 acre Crawford, Texas ranch would be turned into a displaced persons camp for as long as necessary. A huge trailer park would be set up. Roads, a field hospital, and a helicopter pad would be built. Food and water distribution would be organized immediately, residents would have individual needs assessment interviews and counseling, and thousands of land-line and cellular phone connections would be brought in so that refugees could get in touch with their families. The president said, “Even if the cost of the Crawford camp alone runs into the billions of dollars, that’s OK. We’ll just come home from Iraq a few days early to make up for it.” Questioned about the effects of global warming on hurricane activity, President Bush said “I don’t personally agree that global warming is behind all these ills, but maybe my opinion has been colored by my background. Anyway, I’ve decided the risks of ignoring it are too great.” Accordingly he called on the Senate to ratify the Kyoto treaty without further delay, despite all its flaws, because “for the moment, it’s the best treaty we’ve got and we can’t afford to wait any longer”. He concluded by saying, addressing the survivors of the devastated region, “More important than grand ideas and future glory, however, I want you all to know that I will not rest until each of you has seen a semblance or order return to your lives.” At the end of Tuesday and each day since then, he has looked worn, haggard, emotionally drained.

But I didn’t. Instead, the real President Bush “toured” the stricken areas today, four days after the hurricane, and said the results of rescue efforts were “unacceptable”. He said there was an “issue” at the New Orleans convention center. This guy likes understatement, doesn’t he? He also said he was looking forward to the day when he could sit on the porch of former senator Trent Lott’s rebuilt house. Now there’s something the president can relate to. Now the disaster is starting to pull at his heartstrings. But if this was his attempt at an “I have a dream” speech, it was pitiful. Incidentally, I wonder what he and former senator Trent Lott will talk about during that future lazy morning on the porch. The good old days?

You can read the full New York Times article here.

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Thursday, September 01, 2005

The Far West

We have returned from two weeks stateside and it has been hard to get back to normal life. All we feel like doing now is planning our next vacation. Maybe we should eliminate vacations. They don’t refresh, they just feed our wanderlust. We had a blast. A bigger blast that we ever had before.

There’s a reason for this. All of our past US trips as a family have been to the East Coast. This allowed us to see my family and certain friends we see only rarely. On each visit, after a helter-skelter week in New York or Boston, we repaired to some New England resort for a second week.

Also in those previous visits, my parents were still alive, but ailing, so much time and energy was spent with them, trying to talk about meaningful subjects while there was still time, but ending up most of the time discussing medication, doctors’ appointments, the latest mishap, and future decisions. Over the years, there have also been other relatives who have fallen ill, or whose already weakened situation took a turn for the worse while we happened to be there. Often, we were glad to be present to offer what little help or comfort we could, but at those times it wasn’t exactly a vacation. So this time, we were itching to go a little further afield and, taking into account our aversion to heat + humidity, we were looking at the maritime provinces of Canada and the boundary waters of Minnesota. Then a stroke of luck occurred.

Around Easter, L., a former au pair for B. and D., came to visit. We started talking about our sketchy vacation plans, and she invited us to come to Eastern Washington instead for a real American West experience. The idea gradually caught on and we found ourselves getting excited about a trip to cowboy country. Cowboy country? Washington? Let’s see.

We weren’t exactly early birds on this, so our flight was somewhat circuitous: Lyon-Paris-Atlanta-Seattle. We left Lyon in the late morning on August 7, and arrived in Seattle at midnight, local time on the same “day”, which means it was 9 am the next day for us. Total elapsed time: about 24 hours. About as much time as you need to get anywhere on the planet. We must really have wanted to do this trip!

Invigorated by four hours of sleep, after which our bodies decided it was time to get up, we picked up our rented car and set out for Olympic National Park. We had reserved a Ford Escape, but they didn’t have one at the rental office, so they upgraded us to a Ford Explorer. The Explorer was cavernous and fun to drive, but was often thirsty. It got around 17 miles to the gallon on the highway, which we calculated to be around 15 liters per 100 kilometers. We were convinced there must be no Explorers in France, … but then I saw one the day after our return.

Back to our travels. Fatigue notwithstanding, we made it to our destination, Lake Quinault, on the western slope of the Olympic Peninsula, just outside the national park. We then spent three days at the Lake Quinault Lodge, located in the temperate rain forest that surrounds the lake and extends well into the park. Lush vegetation – mosses, lichens, mushrooms, ferns - covered everything. The forest canopy was dominated by Sitka spruce, red cedars (they really are red!), hemlocks and lots of garden-variety (at least to me) firs and pines. Nights were rainy and mornings were foggy, but afternoons were even partly sunny. One morning B. and I went canoeing on the lake. Unforgettable beauty! It rains little in the summer, a happy circumstance.

The only mistake we made was taking a day to go to Hurricane Ridge on the other side of the park, near Port Angeles. The town of Port Angeles was nice enough, the little of it we saw, anyway, and Hurricane Ridge was beautiful. From Port Angeles on the Strait of Juan de Fuca opposite Vancouver Island, you climb quickly to commanding views of the Olympic Range. At the end of the little hike we did once on top we could see both Victoria / Vancouver Island on one side of the ridge and the Olympics on the other. The climate was radically different from Lake Quinault, too. To give you an idea, the official statistics put precipitation at Lake Quinault at 160 inches (406 cm) per year. At Port Angeles and the surrounding area, it is estimated at 24 inches (61 cm). But in retrospect we should have stayed at Lake Quinault and absorbed another day of the luxuriant, verdant rainforest. The drive from there to Port Angeles, taking us through such hot spots as Forks, WA, was remarkably long and uninteresting.

From Lake Quinault we set out for the Columbia River gorge. Over the past few years I have heard about a great deal of renewed interest in the Lewis & Clark expedition in America, coinciding with its 200th anniversary. Hearing about it in France, I hadn’t really paid much attention, but being “on site” made a big difference. Suddenly it became exciting to read of the two explorers’ travels along some of the same ground we would cover. I also remembered a National Geographic article I read recently about Sacagawea, the young, Shoshone woman who served as a guide and helped the explorers trade for horses to get over the mountains. We visited the Lewis & Clark Interpretive Center at the mouth of the river, one of the many, many sites, museums and parks in the area now devoted to the subject. Even B. and D. were interested! They were also fascinated by how wide the river was at its mouth (almost 4 miles). They wanted to know how that compared to the Amazon.

People had told us the gorge was beautiful, and it was, but I think most of them meant the part near the mouth and in the Cascade mountains. In contrast, we found the most beautiful part to be just after the crest of the Cascades, where the mountains gave way to golden, rolling hills, then to vast stretches of light brown, arid landscapes penetrated by the sharply contrasting blue water of the river. Soon after The Dalles we turned north towards Toppenish, before arriving at L.’s family’s home.

Toppenish is on the Yakima Indian Reservation and is decorated with several dozen murals depicting life in the West. Yet it’s not a tourist trap or a reconstituted Western town. My father-in-law, who, like many of his generation in France, grew up with stories of cowboys and Indians, undoubtedly even more romanticized than what Americans grow up with, would have loved it.

We had met L.’s parents, J. and K., during the year L. was our au pair. They had come to visit her in Lyon. Now we were seeing them on their turf. There’s something magical about seeing people you have met on one continent a few years later on another continent. They looked the same, their smiles, their graciousness and their sense of humor were the same, yet the surroundings were so different.

We ate dinner outside, in the garden behind their home, as the sun set over this oasis in the desert. Flower beds, poplars, fences and horses were silhouetted against the darkening sky, as the heat of the day slowly drained from the air.

The climax of our trip was yet to come. The next morning we loaded our hosts’ four horses, Pete, Repeat, Fortune and Doc, whom B. & D. had already learned to distinguish from one another, into the horse trailer and set out for Omak, around three hours straight north, still in the state of Washington. After a visit to one of the many dams along the Columbia River, geology lessons about the “scablands” of Eastern Washington, an afternoon dip in the river and a meeting with a generous salmon fisherman, we arrived at Omak in time for the Omak Stampede!

Now I’m sure you East Coast dudes like me don’t know what the Omak Stampede is. And if your East Coast upbringing was as provincial as mine (I’m hoping I’m not the only one, you see) you didn’t know that rodeos were still an integral part of life in the West, just as baseball is or summer theater might be in another part of the country (or bullfighting in France and Spain). Well, I had no idea. I thought they were either a thing of the past, or were put on every now and then for tourists. So here we were, in an ordinary Western town, watching a show like hundreds of others that take place throughout the West all summer long. The events included tie-down calf roping, steer wrestling, saddle bronc riding, bull riding, barrel racing and more. All the events were fun to watch, but I found the barrel racing the most aesthetically pleasing.

S. suggested I ask J. about the condition of the spinal column of the average rodeo participant. J. is an orthopedic surgeon. He grew up in the city and has been in Eastern Washington less than 10 years, but I think he’s had a lifelong love of the West, its culture and its wide open spaces. He enjoyed the rodeo as much as we did, but when the discussion came to rodeo culture his views were decidedly more mixed. Rodeos provide him with a certain flow of customers, but I think he would prefer to see more of those customers healthy and without need of surgery. That would require their getting off the rodeo circuit, however. To give us an example of how accidents can occur during a rodeo, he said that if you wanted to dislocate a shoulder, the steer wrestling position would be the ideal one to adopt. He said his warnings fall on deaf ears. I suppose it’s like telling a pitcher that he has to stop pitching after rotator cuff surgery. He can’t. It’s his life.

As in other venues throughout the West, the rodeo was accompanied by a county fair, but unlike others (I think), there was a strong Native American influence. Omak borders on the Colville Indian Reservation and the Indians infuse a great deal of the energy into this rodeo. The most celebrated event of the evening comes at the end: the “Suicide Race”. The riders start at the top of an embankment on the other side of the Okanogan river, plunge down it, then cross the river and gallop into the arena.

But the rodeo was only a small part of the experience we were to have in the next few days. We had “chosen” Omak as our rodeo destination because J.’s sister J. has a ranch nearby. It is on 300 acres, surrounded by 1,700 acres of state and federal land. In other words, there isn’t a neighbor around for miles. By coincidence, S., the Seattle-based architect who designed the new main house they had built on the property, was also spending the weekend there with a friend and their respective children. The house was built in the valley between the hills, foregoing the commanding view from higher up, so as to preserve the traditional layout of the ranch. Instead, atop a nearby hill is a rustic cabin, with no electricity or hot water, nestled in the trees. This is where we stayed. P., J’s husband, loves to tinker, and has devised a system of (cold) running water in the cabin, fed by a rooftop reservoir, as well as a fan that runs on a 12-volt battery. The cabin is one of his smaller projects. Bigger ones include maintenance of his collections of antique clocks and antique cars, mending fences, and building a sturdy tree house for adolescent visitors (the key word here is “sturdy”). And planning strategies to prevent fires, his and J.’s biggest fear.

Remember the generous salmon fisherman I mentioned? He was cleaning fish he had just caught along the shore of the Columbia River, with B., D. and me watching. He asked if I would like to take one home. Suddenly I became embarrassed and thought we were being a little invasive, standing there watching, so I said no. Just then J. came over and was certain the offer was sincere. So he accepted. Now the fish he gave us was only a third the size of the two larger ones he kept for himself. Nevertheless, broiled, delicately seasoned and served with a Caesar salad, it still fed 14 people the next evening! While we were eating it, we said it was a shame we couldn’t thank our benefactor. It was far tastier than the Carrefour-bought salmon we ate a few days after our return to France.

Our meals in general at the ranch belied the American burgers-and-fries stereotype. Apart from the salmon dinner, we had roasted chicken in a prune and olive sauce, London broil with baked potatoes and asparagus, and raspberry, rhubarb and peach pies for dessert. And everyone sat down to dinner together. As the Seattle guests were leaving, another friend from Montana arrived with two boys right around B.’s age. So at all times there were at least 10-12 people present for our evening meal. Come to think of it, emphasis on mealtimes must run in the family, because back at J. and K.’s house, our meals were equally enjoyable, family events!

In between these wondrous meals, there was a lot of horse riding to be done. The first day we rode a bit in the arenas to get used to the horses. B. & D. loved brushing them, washing them, petting them, and of course, riding them. At any moment, they knew instantly who was Pete, who was Repeat, and so on, as if they had been around them for years. But it was a little early for them to go out on a ride, so J., P., S., L., W. (L’s brother) and I went out for an hour or two. Until that day I would have said that the prettiest horseback ride I had ever done was at the Ferme de la Dame Blanche just outside of Lyon, where on a clear day, you can see the Monts du Lyonnais, the Mont Pilat, the Haut Beaujolais, and if you’re lucky, the Alps. But it paled in comparison to the stark, stunning beauty of this ranch ride. Part of it was wooded and part was open; part down in the valley and part on the hilltops. The afternoon light changed by the hour. From the top of a hill we could see a distant house, which was probably that of the nearest neighbor. The parched terrain caused clouds of dust to rise and branches to crackle with each of the horses’ steps, reminding me of P. & J.’s very understandable fear of fire.

The next day it got better for B. & D. They came with us, their horses each led by another rider. As comfortable as they felt, and as docile as the horses were, they – especially D. – would not have had the strength necessary to control full-sized horses on their own. Finally, on the third day, only B. & D. rode, and they stayed in the arena. Sometime later B. smiled and said he had been very pleased, because the horse galloped on his command and he was fully under control. For B., who doesn’t normally let his emotions show, this was tantamount to doing cartwheels. All the while, P., J., J., and K. were virtually giving lessons to all the budding cowboys, as not only were B. & D. riding, but so were the two boys from Montana.

At no time did we feel we were in the way or that the our hosts were overburdened or even burdened with all the work that goes with hosting so many people. They even added extra touches just to make it more fun. One morning, P. took us down into town for an ice cream ... in his 1931 Ford Model A truck. Another day, J. gave driving lessons in a little tractor to B., D., and the two boys from Montana. Granted, with only one forward gear and no other moving vehicle for miles around, there was little risk. But they could have driven it into a fence post or a ditch. Yet J. was as calm and patient as an experienced driving school teacher. On the last day at the ranch, we toured some other nearby towns, and P. drove his 1936 Dodge convertible.

After bidding farewell to the ranch, we spent another day back at L.’s parents house, including an afternoon at the Aquatic Center, where B., D. and I went on a high, twisting water slide for the first time – actually it was the first time any of us had been on any water slide – and another lovely, outdoor dinner. We also outfitted the whole family in cowboy boots. The next day we drove back to Seattle, stopped along the way in an outlet store center, and visited the Pike Place market, the Aquarium and the Tacoma Glass Museum. But as soon as we crossed the Cascades, we knew we had left the Far West.

To see a slide show of our trip, click here.