Sinclair gas station, Arbuckle CA.
At 6:00 AM on Saturday I voyaged east in the sport jalopy to grace Alcalde with my presence over Memorial Day weekend. The trip was uneventful until I got to Ritzville, where I was stopped by a local law enforcement professional for doing 28 in a 20 zone. Apparently there was some sort of big flashing light with the speed limit on it. Whatever. He also had me sign my registration, which I guess is a thing you’re supposed to do, although I don’t think I ever have. But then he let me go! No ticket or anything. Weird.
Anyhow, I spent several intriguing minutes touring downtown Ritzville.
When I arrived at CFP, I got through the gate by drafting behind someone else, then just walked in Alcalde’s front door, which was inexplicably unlocked. All his weapons and electronics are no match for my wily ways.
Alcalde had spent most of the previous week hauling his gun safe up from Riverside, and I arrived just in time to help him unload it from the truck. It was an impressive display of teamwork, similar to our team efforts finding Al in Seborga or putting up monkey bunting. However, when we got it in place and he opened the safe, it was full of styrofoam packing peanuts! No guns at all! Seems like a lot of trouble for a safe full of packing peanuts.
Sunday we made a pilgrimage to Daft Badger Brewery in Coeur d’Alene and then wandered around downtown Coeur d’Alene a little, where we saw many wonders. There was a steampunk salmon robot, a woman carrying a rabbit, the Dingle Building, a place selling monster sushi, a bug in a giant flower, and a moose statue. The Lucky Monkey had t-shirts, but none of them had monkeys on them.
My main goal this weekend, other than mooching off Alcalde, was to set up my new GoPro and Karma drone and complete a test flight. It took longer than expected, because I had to download several firmware upgrades to make the 2016 drone work with the 2018 camera, but I eventually got it all sorted out. It was pretty windy out, so I took it on a simple maiden flight in the sun room that is so popular with local turkeys. It was just a simple take-off and landing, which I accomplished in a quick ten-second flight. Mission accomplished!
And so what if I broke two of the propellers. I had spares, so no big deal. I’m sure SpaceX and Blue Origin have similar setbacks with their test flights.
You might notice the turkey doots in front of the crashed copter. Turkeys have made the sun room their own, to the point where it really makes more sense to call it the Turkey Room.
Throughout the weekend, a good quantity of barbacoa, spicy jerk chicken, and Alcalde’s private stash of Pere Ubu Ale from the wilds of New York nearly made up for the lack of bunting or IceJJFish soundtrack.
All in all it was a smashing success, and another worthy contribution to the grand tradition of invading Alcalde’s home.
The inaugural visitation of Alcalde’s new mansion-chateau (aka Casa Fancy Pants) was a smashing success, as measured by total calorie count and whatever the opposite of cinematic artistry is.
Al, of course, had failed to show up, and sent a hogshead of popcorn as penance. The ricin made the flavor a little odd, but we got used to it.
Lobo arrived Thursday, and he and Alcalde sat around all day. But when I got there on Friday the party really got rolling as Lobo and Alcalde shoved me into the back seat of the Taco and we crossed the state line into exotic Idaho. We had lunch at the Daft Badger in Coeur d’Alene, where Lobo got a half order of pulled-pork nachos which seemed to constitute at least 20% of world nacho output and allowed Lobo to eat increasingly congealed breakfasts for the rest of the weekend.
While in the Coeur d’Alene area, we investigated the mysterious happenings in the erstwhile town of Dudley. Alcalde claims that there was no collusion regarding either Dudley or nearby Cataldo, but we haven’t been watching him the whole time, so who knows what he gets up to. And we didn’t find Dudley, exactly, but we did find Dudley Heights, which is either a real place or a sign that someone put up as a joke.
As a housewarming gift, I brought a package of brightly colored cocktail monkeys, a beloved memory for anyone who had anything approaching a normal childhood in the ’60s or ’70s. They were put to good use as bunting, as well as flair for what were apparently pharmaceutical-grade mojitos. Memories of the rest of that evening are a little fuzzy.
But up and at ’em the next day! Alcalde made us some excellent frittatas, although Lobo just chipped away at his nacho clump. After that, a little “hair of the limón” by way of limoncino shots, followed by panther cookie chasers, and we were off to get a mediocre lunch at the English Setter Brewery.
A drive up Mt. Spokane got us not quite to the top, as the road was closed due to inclement weather. We stopped in a nearby parking area to walk around and saw a group of people training rescue dogs. One of the trainers would hide under some camouflage netting, sitting out in an open area and looking absurdly obvious. Then one of the dogs would run around while some of the other trainers would shout encouragement. If the dog found the camouflaged lump that was right in front of it, everyone would cheer and congratulate the dog. If the dog appeared to be having trouble, an arm would reach out from under the netting and squeeze a squeaky toy. Sometimes the dog would still have trouble. The dogs all appeared to be having a good time, but I don’t like the chances of anyone who needs to be rescued by one.
That evening Alcalde provided some excellent steak, grilled to perfection by Lobo on the ostensibly indoor grill. However, we had to open the door to let the smoke out, which really makes it sort of an indoor/outdoor grill.
Things were a bit touch-and-go, moviewise, as Alcalde couldn’t figure out his own audio/video equipment. Luckily, he was able to kludge together a workaround that allowed us to continue with what after all is the central feature of any mash.
Over the course of three evenings we watched Birdemic, Zoltan: Hound of Dracula, Wild Guitar, and The Choppers, the last two featuring Arch Hall Jr. Alcalde fell asleep for all four of them.
On the last full day, after Lobo finally finished his nachos, we went patrolling on Alcalde’s estate grounds. Much of it consists of scrub and deer doots, but it’s still well worth visiting, especially after the taxidermy animatronic show and boat ride goes in.
After a warm-up like that, there was only one thing left to do: Visit downtown Spokane. This centered around the Riverfront, which is, it turns out, along the river. We saw a tower, and a big wagon, and a trash-eating goat, and–as the pièce de résistance–the Riverfront SkyRide, which is like the Disneyland Skyway except that it doesn’t go to Tomorrowland. (Technically, neither does the Skyway, because Disneyland removed it years ago. The SkyRide has the advantage of still existing.)
Then we had a quick lunch at a downtown brewpub that had TVs on every available surface, all showing football games. There were even three TVs in the restroom.
For reasons that are not clear, Lobo scheduled his return flight for 6:30 in the morning, so he got up before 5:00 and spent some time stumbling around and singing songs from Wild Guitar. Then Alcalde and I dumped him at the airport and had a leisurely coffee and pastry at Rocket Bakery on the way back.
On the drive over on Friday I had hit a pothole on the 90 and damaged my tire, so driving back was a little iffy. My sport jalopy has run-flat tires, which means that it can run for about 50 miles at 0 psi, but also has no spare. That’s probably useful if I’m fleeing foreign agents or random ladrones who have shot my tires out, but the trip from Spokane Valley to Redmond would be a little far in the event of a blowout. Fortunately, I made it back without incident and I can get the tire replaced for only $362.
The one disappointment of the weekend was the lack of fossils in the floor slate. They’re supposed to be there, but Lobo and I did a thorough investigation of the slate and found no fossils at all. That’s undoubtedly going to reduce CFP’s Zestimate.
The rest of the story about driving in Berlin is that I got in an accident. I was waiting at a traffic light, and when the light turned green, I turned right (you can’t turn right on red in Germany). There was an empty bus lane to my right, which I thought I was supposed to avoid. As I was turning, I heard a screech of brakes and felt an impact on the rear right corner, so I pulled around the corner and stopped.
It was a taxi driver, who was going straight ahead in the bus lane. She hit my rear right bumper with her rear left bumper and did minor damage to both. On the Trabant, it broke the plastic corner piece; on the taxi, a small dent and scratched paint.
To make matters worse, she was seemingly the only person in Germany who spoke not a word of English. Under the circumstances, I could remember no German. After a lot of back and forth, she managed to convey that a) she didn’t want to involve the police any more than I did and b) she was willing to take a cash settlement of 200 euros (this after calling someone — presumably her company). Since it was pretty clearly my fault, I went to an ATM around the corner and withdrew 200 euros, for which she gave me a sort of handwritten receipt with her license number and basic information. (I had already taken a picture of her license plate, but it seemed to show good faith on her part.) As far as I could tell, no mention was made of insurance.
When I returned the car that evening, I told the guy that I had damaged the car and showed him the bumper. He said, “Just the plastic? No problem! I have a lot of those things.” So everyone was happy, except for me presumably.
Or maybe so. In 1986, Alcalde and I were cruising down Pico Boulevard in Los Angeles in my 1972 Datsun 1200 (a car in much worse condition than that Trabant) and we were sideswiped by one Herman Leavitt of Century Park East, who was driving his new SUV and did not yet have insurance. He hit us at about 5 mph and mangled the driver’s side door. We settled for $150 and did not involve any police or insurance companies. $150 in 1986 is worth about $335 today, or 285 euros, so in a way I just borrowed the money from Herman Leavitt in Los Angeles to pay a taxi driver in Berlin 31 years later. And I still have 85 euros on account.
I am Even Steven.
The Trabant was not bad. I rarely needed to go faster than about 40 kph, and the Trabi is highly maneuverable. Berlin traffic is another matter.
I paid extra to have the Trabi delivered to the hotel. The guy was a little late, and there was a very Cold War feel to waiting on the street in East Berlin to meet a man I didn’t know who was driving a Trabant. Although the Holiday Inn Express I’m staying in doesn’t quite fit the scenario.
When he arrived, he gave me a brief rundown on how to drive the car, and we went for a short drive. Then he took the U-Bahn to wherever he was going next, and I took off in the Trabi.
I found one of the two remaining portions of the Wall pretty easily — it was just across the river — but parking was impossible, so I kept going, heading toward Potsdamer Platz, with the vague goal of driving through the Tiergarten. I drove through the heart of West Berlin, past KaDeWe and other high-end stores while impatient people in high-end Mercedes sedans passed me.
After some trial and error, I made it into the Tiergarten and to the Victory Column at the center. Three euros to go to the top.
Then I used Google Maps to guide me to the Berlin Wall Memorial. It got me most of the way there, then inexplicably guided me in a loop through back streets several blocks away. I found the place easily once I turned off the mapping.
The memorial is a park with a section of the wall complex as it existed in 1989, including a guard tower and the death strip between the inner and outer walls. There’s a museum across the street.
Google Maps seems to drain the battery more quickly overseas than in the US. Three times this trip it’s died on me while I’m using it. The third time was shortly after I left the Wall. My only paper map was just a tourist map and not very detailed. Effectively, I had no map at all.
But I could see the Fernsehturm, even after dark, so I figured I could just guide myself by that. My plan was sheer elegance in its simplicity.
This was at about 4:30, and I headed straight into commute traffic. Also, roughly 90% of Berlin streets are under construction for one reason or another. Often, I could see where I wanted to go, but I couldn’t get there because I couldn’t change lanes, or because construction was in the way. I looped around Alexanderplatz three times, at one point crossing the river and getting stuck in traffic that was going to an opera. I escaped by backing down an alley.
I had to go back to the hotel, because that was the only place where I knew I could both park and charge my phone, which I needed to do so I could map where to return the car.
I made it back to the hotel at about 6:00. It had taken me 90 minutes. If I had taken a more normal route, it would have been a ten-minute trip of a little over two miles.
Berlin drivers are pretty aggressive, but mostly pretty good drivers. They remind me of Los Angeles drivers in that respect. Except for the taxi drivers. They drive like Italians.
Through all of this I was a minor celebrity. Everywhere I went, people smiled, waved, and took pictures. I should look into getting one of my own. It seems like it’s kind of a babe magnet.
Yesterday I rented a Trabant station wagon and drove all the hell over Berlin.
The Trabant was the one and only car produced by the DDR, with pretty much the same design from 1963 to 1990. It had a Duroplast body, a two-stroke engine, and a whopping 26 horsepower. I briefly had mine up to 60 kph (36 mph). I don’t think it would have gone much faster.
- You have to open the gas line before starting the car, and remember to close it again when you turn it off. If the engine is cold, you have to pull the choke.
- You can only lock the driver’s side door from the outside. You can only lock the passenger door from the inside.
- You honk the horn by pushing on the blinker lever.
- Column shift! Just like my 1963 Plymouth Valiant.
- There’s no glove compartment. Just a shelf with fuses and stuff.
The two-stroke engine made it smell like my old Vespa, but the closest experience was probably driving the 1937 Oliver tractor on my grandparents’ farm.
The Mash (and Mash it clearly was, despite some peevish braying from the less adventurous) has concluded, and the Mash attendees have gone their separate ways, better for the experience, except possibly for the experience of watching Dondi, which was even worse than expected.
Seborga is beautiful and charming and slightly odd, and almost exactly as I remembered, except that the weather was much nicer this time around. Lobo’s choice of a house was perfect, even to the point of accidentally renting from someone I had met and talked to 16 years ago.
We rented the top two stories of the house in the center of this photo.
It has beautiful terraced grounds.
We parked the car at the upper corner of the steep driveway. (Note the Seborga flag.)
- Motorcycles and motor scooters in both Italy and France pass on both sides wherever and whenever they feel like it. Almost nothing they do would be legal in the US, but here you can just ignore them and it seems to work out.
- The toll roads are pretty darned expensive.
- Limoncino is tasty, but very strong. I was going to get a bottle, but thought better of it. I’d probably drink the whole bottle and have to be treated for alcohol poisoning. Besides, who wants to carry a glass bottle through the Alps?
- Nice is nicer than Cannes.
- The most useful languages to know in this area are French, Italian, and Donkey.
- That song from Birdemic is always funny, and it always will be.
See also: The R4TS4&T2TWH Mash in Review.
Driving on the left was surprisingly easy to get used to. Multi-lane roundabouts took a few tries, but after a couple weeks I’m now yelling at other drivers when they’re too timid. Bloody tourists.
The hardest things are:
- Remembering to get in on the right side of the car. There’s no steering wheel on the left.
- Remembering to reach for the seat belt with my left hand.
- Remembering to signal with my right hand.
So I turn on the windshield wipers when I want to go left. No one seems bothered by it. Kiwi drivers seem pretty mellow, for the most part.
Outside of the major cities, there’s nothing like an American freeway. There are two-lane roads, and the major highways are somewhat less unstraight than the country roads, and they have fewer one-lane bridges, and you’re less likely to encounter sheep.
But there are no guarantees. Even the main highways pass through towns and you have to slow down. Outside of towns you see roadside stands selling honey or cheese or whatever, and you get the occasional crazy programmatic architecture.
It’s a lot like traveling in the US before the interstates. It’s fun if you allow the time for it. It’s sort of like going back in time.
Some other things:
There are few stop signs and few traffic lights outside of the major cities. What they have are Give Way signs, usually with roundabouts. If there’s no one else there, you don’t have to stop. The “California Stop” is not only allowed, it’s encouraged. And it seems to work just fine.
It would be difficult to speed. You would need a car that handles a lot better than the Aotearoaramblemobile, for starters. That thing drives like a tractor. But even so, you couldn’t go much over the speed limit or you would die. Consequently, I never saw a cop giving a speeding ticket.
What they have are propaganda signs everywhere. They say things like “Drive to the conditions” or “Drink, drive, die.” I drove all over the North Island and I don’t think I ever saw the same one twice. I don’t know how effective they are, but it probably doesn’t matter if all the bad drivers get themselves killed anyway.
And some complaints:
People of New Zealand! What do you have against street signs? You have them on some corners; why not put them on every corner? Finish the job!
If the parking garages in Auckland are any indication, New Zealand could learn something from California. Say what you will about California, they generally make very nice parking garages. Just don’t try to copy Seattle.
Update: The Britomart parking garage is pretty good. I give it a B+.