Saturday, September 22, 2018


Cruising the Danube: Part 1 of 3

The Danube River originates in Germany’s Black Forest, courses through ten European countries and past several UNESCO World Heritage sites before tumbling into the Black Sea.  

Some of these photos may be worth clicking on to expand for a bigger view.

Catholics and Protestants warred here, as did Russians and Nazis.  In between Mozart and Strauss found inspiration.

On the other hand, some may not.
I’d only visited Europe once before.  There’s so much yet to see in the United States and the west, I have often averred.  Yet, when the Viking Cruise Line long boat river tour catalog somehow arrived in the mail, within minutes that thought was forgotten.  And it’s a good thing that it was.

Here are a few photos and thoughts:

Days 1 and 2:  We arrived in Budapest (pronounced BU-da-PESCHT) Hungary a day or two early in an effort to combat the nine-hour time difference.

The city is really two cities with the historic Buda part on the hilly west side of the Danube and the flatter, larger Pest portion on the east.

The historic Chain Bridge links the two sections. Bombed to destruction during the pitched battle between the Russians and the Nazis in WWII, the span has been rebuilt in a manner that captures its historic beauty.

Dominating the western portion is St Stephan’s Cathedral, also refurbished since those dark days.

Of note: Franz Lizst (Hungarian Rhapsodies) lived and worked here, founding a school attended by Bela Bartok who inspired Richard Rodgers – or was it Oscar Hammerstein? – to produce at least one song nearly all school kids in the world probably know.

Heading upstream to our next destination, we find ourselves sharing a lock with a ship sailing for another company called the Vivaldi. Viking, I know, operates on this river nine months out of the year.  I am left to wonder if the Vivaldi runs all Four Seasons.  (Pause for rim shot.)

Day 3: Bratislava is the capital of Slovakia, the tiny country formed when, as a result of the bloodless Velvet Revolution, Czechoslovakia split in two.  We would visit the Czech Republic later in the week.

Bridges crossing the Danube can be graceful, historic or simply utilitarian.  Through this example, we see Bratislava’s signature historic castle.

A walking tour introduced us to monuments dedicated to those who won and those who lost through time…

… and those who ridiculed those in power.  

(What about this tribute to Hans Christian Andersen’s tales looks painfully familiar today?)

Day 4: We arrive in Vienna, Austria in the morning: a new port with new things to explore.

Viking offers many bus and/or walking tours of the ports of call.  Our touring Vienna, we visited the opera house wherein the works of Mozart and Strauss likely premiered.  Under renovation, its exterior was cloaked in canvas.

This historic European capital houses embassies from countries throughout the world, with only the US embassy dramatically encircled by steel barriers and fences and with an imposing modern checkpoint in front of an 18thcentury facility.  Unlike the diplomatic posts for Japan, Mexico, Argentina, Great Britain, Italy and so many others, I didn’t feel I could just walk into my own and say “Howdy.”

We could, however, visit one of the many Hapsburg Dynasty castles that dot what used to be the domain of that family.

Evening found us swept away by the music of Mozart and Strauss, incredibly in the very city where these two accomplished much of their work.

In the darkened hall, my right hand’s hidden orchestra conductor began to direct this talented group of classical musicians until Candi gently grabbed it and slipped it under my seat.  (I must admit that I direct the orchestra often from the front seat of the Subaru while listening to the local classical station.  It’s a curse known as D.U.I.M. with the M standing for Mozart and it is not a vehicle code violation, but it should be.)

Day 5: Krems is a delightful village located in the Wachau Valley.  

Towering above is the 900-year-old Benedictine Gottweig Abbey.  

The view from the abbey is astounding and its presence reminds us of the long history of the Catholic Church along the stream course of the Danube.

While most of our river travel occurred at night so we could fully enjoy each next day’s adventures, we disembarked Krems at 2:00 in order to enjoy a scenic cruise through a pastoral stretch of the Danube.

History abounds, but I must admit that I was wearying of castles and churches.

Commerce along the river is interesting and I wonder if the captains of the tugs that push barges up and down the river realize how beautiful the place is where they work.

Or is this simply an early iteration of what we now refer to as an interstate?

Day 6:  Linz would be our jumping off point for a bus excursion behind the Iron Curtain. Imagine that!  As a child of the Cold War era, to me, it still seems impossible.

Crossing from Austria into the Czech Republic was as easy as crossing from Butte County into Glenn, and easier than passing from Placer County into El Dorado because there’s less traffic.

Just a single strand of wire paralleling a dirt track.

Our destination would be a 13thcentury village the name of which spell check won’t let me type.

Nestled along a river bottom with a castle atop a nearby hill, Cesky Krumlov was spared during WWII due to its dearth of economic or strategic value.  Falling under the fist of post-war Russia, development – at least in the western sense – was stunted.  

Strolling the streets, we get a little more genuine feel for pre-westernized Europe may have felt like.  But development is on the way, we are told.  Not sure whether to cheer that.

Day 7: Passau, Germany is our terminal port.  The city rests at the confluence of three rivers.  We are shown that in years of heavy rain, flood waters can rise to incredible heights and have since the mid-1500s.

First floors are routinely flooded although most low-lying building have flood control panels that can be inserted into window sills and doorways to prevent water from entering.

The high ground church has nothing to fear in this regard.

What we did have to fear, however, was a drought that hasn’t allowed meaningful rain in the Danube drainage since last April. An unheard-of record.  Mid-summer voyages along this route found the river too shallow for navigation and had to be bussed from one long ship to another.  Certainly, just part of the adventure, but one we gladly did not have to realize.

Ironically, the about 175 of the 192 of passengers on the Viking Hermod this trip were citizens of the only country in the world not to sign on to the Paris Climate Accords.  Woulda served us right if we’da had to walk.

Day 8:  With an early wakeup, we are bussed from Passau to Munich where, after leaving an iPad at security by mistake, we embark on a 20-hour journey home.  Note to self:  See if this travel can be broken in half if there is a next time…

I do not consider myself a world traveler.  There’s so much to see right here at home. But stumbling onto that Viking Tour catalog and settling on this trip proved to be a most delightful experience.  The cruise line plans every detail.  The accommodations are clean and comfortable.  The staff seems never to tire.  The number of fellow travelers is relatively small.  The food is terrific.  They never let you run out of wine.  And you only have to unpack once.

Viking’s Danube Cruise may be the trip of a lifetime. Or, it could just be one of many more similar trips to come.


Part II of this little series will be a retelling of the dramatic transitions through which citizens of the Czech Republic were drawn from about 1938 through the early 2000s as shared by two lovely and strong women we met along the way whose families lived it.

Part III may be a US/Europe compare and contrast essay.  

Thanks for visiting and stay tuned.

© 2018
Church of the Open Road Press

Tuesday, September 4, 2018


Patience is Rewarded!

Texas Pitmaster James dropped by suggesting that one morning “We should have Brisket Tacos for breakfast.”

“Oh,” says I, “I’m not too successful smoking brisket.  I’m too impatient.”

“Stick with me,” he said.  And I did.

A thirteen-pound hunk of choice beef cost about fifty bucks at Costco, the only sorta-local store to stock the cut we were looking for. Upon arriving home, we coated the beef with The Salt Lick (out of Driftwood TX) Dry Rub.  I’m not a big fan of peppery-hot spices.  I was cured of it when I was a kid.  So, I was a little apprehensive about the ingredients listed in the rub. Particularly the Cayenne Pepper. But I wasn’t going to let on to the Pitmaster.  Thus prepared, it would sit in the refrigerator for about 24 hours.

At 4:00 PM, I gathered and soaked some prunings from the cherry tree out front and set a small charcoal fire (using the charcoal only to start the fire – the cooking would be done entirely with hardwood) in the New Braunfels smoker.  Sadly, this company was purchased by a larger concern and the 25-year-old pit that I have can no longer be purchased.
This barbecue has been my go-to for a long, long time.

Bringing the temperature to just north of 200 degrees, we placed the brisket on the grates at about 5:00.

Then, fortified with wine, whiskey, whatever tonight’s repast was going to be – remember, tonight we were cooking tomorrow’s breakfast – we tampered with the smoker’s firebox adding cherry wood as needed and adjusting the air as needed.  We weren’t particularly accurate with the temperature for the entire process, but, as it turns out, we needn’t have been.  As dusk settled, the neighborhood filled with a tantalizing aroma – or, at least, no one has yet complained about it.

[The Pitmaster suggests – well, more than suggests – that the following secret step is the one you don’t tell anybody about.  So, if anyone asks, you didn’t read it here.]

At 11:00 PM, with the kitchen oven set to 200 degrees, we placed the brisket in a deep dish, covered it with foil, shoved it in and konked out for the night.  

[Some pit masters will wrap the meat in foil at this point and return it to the smoker and monitor the heat at 200 degree for the remainder of the process.  Seems to me that the kitchen oven is an okay alternative to staying up all night.]

The house filled with a sweet smoky ambience and it was tempting to take a 2:00 AM peek, but I didn’t.

Morning rolled around and the meat, now slow cooked for about 14 hours had transformed into a dark, succulent, fall-apart mass. Smoky. Sweet. Pull-apart-with-fingers tender. And that spicy rub wasn’t all that spicy.  Just right. The low temp and cooking time allowed things to dissipate, nicely complimenting the natural smoke flavor.

Home-made tortillas were piping hot and a sweet broccoli slaw served as the perfect garnish.

We ate and ate and ate but still have enough for an army.

My past struggles with preparing brisket have centered on not realizing that the size of the cut doesn’t matter in terms of how long it takes the thing to cook.  It takes the same amount of time/energy for the appropriate breakdown of stubborn tissue to occur so that one arrives at this tender, moist work of good-ol-boy, Southern edible art.  And it can’t be rushed.  Key is low and slow.  At two hundred degrees, you aren’t likely to overcook it.

Patience is rewarded.

Thank you, Pitmaster James.


For tips and recipes on barbecue – if you aren’t fortunate enough to have a pit master drop by, check out Smoke and Spice by Cheryl and Bill Jamison.  Harvard Common Press.  In 1994, my copy cost $17. 

© 2018
Church of the Open Road Press

Sunday, August 26, 2018


notes from an eastern Oregon road trip – part 3 of 4

Once I’ve passed the apex of a trip, once I’m on the return home, for reasons I can’t explain – maybe it’s just because I’m smellin’ the barn – I find myself stopping less frequently, taking fewer pictures and logging a few more miles per day.  It’s an inexplicable and dumb idea.  Especially in this case:  My wife, who flew north to join us in the chase car wouldn’t arrive home until the day after I’d arrive.  What was the point?

The summer of 2018 found the west again beset with wildfires.  Hot, stagnant air had pooled over southeastern Oregon and northern California. A road construction delay proved to be uncomfortable, but a needed opportunity to dismount and stretch legs that might otherwise have waited another hour or so.

I snap a picture of the rolling grasslands realizing how tinder dry they are.

I have contended before and will do so again:  US 395 between Riley and Lakeview Oregon is the loneliest road in America regardless of what the US 50 crowd will tell us. 

The feeling of isolation is compounded when the sky is so hazy that the closest ridges seem covered in gauze and the further ones are gone.

Gas available in Lakeview is a welcome commodity.

The section of 395 between Lakeview and Alturas pulls me back in time and I take a side trip to visit a favored barn.  

Yep.  Still standing.

A couple of tenets that ride with me are:

  •       Stay to the high country for as long as possible, and
  •       Secondary roads are far more entertaining that primary roads.

A prime example?  California’s state routes 299 and 139 provide a less traveled alternative to US 395. West on 299 out of Alturas, I pass through high grazing lands and thickening smoke.  Somethings a-lit up this way.  Of course.  Why not?

I turn south on 139 at Adin, home to one of the greatest general stores I’ve ever run across.  Clothing. Huntin’ gear.  Home and hardware.  Groceries and snacks.  A nice folks.

Quaffing a root beer, I check in on the saddle that straddles a nearby fence. Deteriorating.  It won’t be long now.

South into Lassen County and over a rise, I arrive at the Eagle Lake Recreation area.  And over that rise, the air seems to have cleared out.

Skirting the lake on a county road, I pass through a burn scar of perhaps just last year. Blackened pines stand naked against that sky and charred, spikey manzanita indicate that the latest fire in the area wasn’t the first. 

The sky looks bluer than I remember it ever being.

After a night in Chester, the barn smells closer than ever.  Travelling a familiar state route 32 I descend from the Sierra/Cascade into a Sacramento Valley, even in a good year, is beset in an August haze.

The bee-line from here to home actually winds through the heart of the two-weeks-ago Mendocino Complex fires.

Highway 175 which provided a firebreak for most of the “River” portion of those blazes but didn’t fully prevent the conflagration from jumping the pavement.

Click to enlarge for detail

I can still smell the ash.

Home is thirty minutes away and a shower will feel real good.

© 2018
Church of the Open Road Press

Tuesday, August 21, 2018


notes from an eastern Oregon road trip – part 2 of 4

Wallowa Lake and the surrounding Wallowa Mountains are the enchanted northeastern Oregon home of the Ne-moo-poo.  Cycles of glaciation over eons created a topaz-blue lake flanked on the north and east by moraines of till scoured from the mountains that form the southern and western shorelines.  Forests are rich and deep in those mountains, and grasslands in the nearby hills and plans fertile and fruitful.  No wonder the Ne-moo-poo fought to valiantly when the whites arrived.

In Thunder Rolling in the Mountains, a piece of young adult historical fiction by Scott O’Dell, the maiden daughter of Chief Joseph says: “The whites called us Nez Perce, although that was not our name.  They said it meant ‘Hole through the nose.’  None of our people ever put ornaments in their noses, but when the whites decided something was so, nothing could change their minds.”

Something the whites had also decided was so, I thought as I read that line, was “Manifest Destiny.”

Joseph famously lead his people on a grueling journey of escape from the relentless efforts of the US cavalry lead by General Howard.  After months and nearly to Canada, worn out, starving and with children freezing and many young men dead, he surrendered to Colonel Miles saying, “Hear me my chiefs.  I am tired. My heart is sick and sad.  From where the sun now stands, I will fight no more forever.”

He would never return to Wallowa.

This would be our second visit to Joseph, Oregon and to the impressive mountains and waters of Wallowa County.  Joseph, the town, has preserved its rustic western heritage adding a few hip eateries and a couple too many t-shirt shops.  

The museum in the old bank building is musty and great the street side displays of public art is engaging.

Securing lodging in a lovely ranch style house at the north end of the lake, our initial view was breathtaking.

Shifting winds, however, brought smoke from area wildfires as far away as both California and British Columbia.

Still, the serene view provided ample respite between the three days spend riding north and the three days of returning.

Hells Canyon is an hour of serpentine pavement away. Somehow my camera didn’t make it into my tank bag – a bane of being an old guy on a motorcycle, I suppose.

Long time readers may note my railroad-buff-ness.  So, the opportunity to ride the rails – well pedal the rails – from Joseph to nearby Enterprise would not be missed.

The grade is slight between those two villages with the return trip being the uphill – though gentle – portion.  

The two-person pedal cars are quiet, light and easy to propel.  The one we piloted provided excellent exercise for my game knee – exercise said knee does not receive while riding on the big Yamaha.

Heron, osprey, crows, cattle horses and even a coyote were seen from the right-of-way. All in our party wondered how many other abandoned rail lines might offer a similar experience.

Given that we’d rented a house, we elected to eat in rather than out. The nearest big grocery store is located in nearby Enterprise.  Also, in Enterprise is the Terminal Gravity Brewery. We loaded ourselves in the chase car and stopped in for some suds.  

Ten years ago, I’d ridden the Wallowa Lake Tramway to the top of Mount Howard (to the victors go the spoils) too late in the day to explore.   

This time, the timing mistake would not be repeated. We enjoyed the ride up with its 4,000-foot elevation gain, the two-plus miles of trails around the summit, inquisitive little kids being coached, counseled and exposed to these wonders by their parents, and the views afforded though limited by a smoky haze.

The wildflowers seemed to have reached the end of their season.

But reason was offered for their existence and a rationale for us caring for them.

From lake level, we’d notice hang-gliders drifting off the mountain and sailing over the waters.  Atop Mount Howard, we came across their launching point.

Not the sport for me, I’m afraid.

The trail back to the tramway offered breathtaking views of the surrounding mountain, or perhaps that breath-taken-ness had more to do with hiking at the 8500-foot elevation.

We caught up on a lot of reading and solved many of the world’s problems during the placid evenings on the cusp of Wallowa Lake.

Mounting up and heading off the next day, we lamented that this beautiful place wasn’t just a bit closer to home.

Chief Joseph’s story, and that of the Nez Perce – as well as pretty much all of the native tribes of North America – is not unique in human history.  Theodora Kroeber, in her book Ishi in Two Worlds (University of California Press, 1961) suggests:

Such invasions have occurred many times, and continue to occur in the history of mankind, but also as well in the history of all forms of life; they are part of the biological urge of each plant and animal to make or to take a place for itself and its descendants.  Invasion, then, is a necessitous act in the Darwinian sense of struggle and survival; it is instinctive, primitive and in itself inhumane.  [page 48]

For more insight into Chief Joseph,
Moulton's book is an excellent resource.
Over fifty years of motorcycle touring, I have ridden through once lush meadows now crept in with sage, or once verdant forests now burn scarred due to lightning and populated by chemise and manzanita, due, in large part to environmental changes that benefit the newcomer over the species choked out.  I appreciate and understand the rather sterile, biological explanation Kroeber offers. In the human circumstance, the environmental change has to do with the introduction of disease as well as the employment of technologically advanced weaponry.  So, I get it.

But, having visited the Wallowa Mountains so sacred to Joseph and his people, I don’t particularly like the role my predecessors played in this natural progression.


Next: Returning home – by a different route.  That’s what the wise men did, isn’t it?

© 2018
Church of the Open Road Press