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Entries in car (4)


Blue Highways: Fredericksburg, Virginia

Unfolding the Map

Four wheels, two wheels, or even three wheels?  Which is best?  As a person who utilizes two wheels of the human powered variety for transportation, I envy motorists sometimes.  But, as William Least Heat-Moon (LHM) stops in Fredericksburg for some gas, I look at the the pros and cons of each, at least in my life.  To see where Fredericksburg sits, pedal or accelerate over to the map.

Book Quote

"Vern, in his antique ways, believed that anyone who got behind a steering wheel could rightly be expected to operate the car rather than just steer it; that's why you wee issued an Operator's Permit.  He believed the more work a driver did, the less the car had to do; the less it had to do, the simpler and more reliable and cheaper to repair it would be.  He cursed the increasing complexity of automobile mechanics.  But, as I say, he was a man of the old ways.  He even believed in narrow tires (cheaper and less friction), spoked wheels (less weight), and the streamlined 'Airflow' designs of Chrysler Corporation cars of the mid-thirties - designs Chrysler almost immediately gave up on before proceeding to build the biggest finned hogs of all.  We boys of the fifties loved their brontosaurean bulk.

"Another of Vernon's themes we laughed at was his advocacy of the comparable economy of and safety of three wheels (he drove a motorcycle with a sidecar) for city driving.  He would say to us, 'Two wheels ain't enough, and four's too many. So where does that leave you, boys?'  'Three wheels!' we'd shout back, mocking him.  'No sir, it leaves money in your jeans.'"

Blue Highways: Chapter 10, Part 1

Downtown Fredericksburg. Photo by Ken Lund and hosted at Wikimedia Commons. Click on photo to go to host page.

Fredericksburg, Virginia

At the time I am writing this post, it is a winter morning in Albuquerque.  We've had no snow yet, but we've finally gotten to the point where the mornings are very cold, around 17 degrees in the morning just when the sun comes up.

For a person who rides his bike to work, such as myself, it isn't the greatest experience, especially when the wind blows.  On those days I bundle up in layers, but not too many, so that I can be warm enough on the ride.  I put on a hat, or a snood, and after the new year my new balaclava, under my helmet and gloves on my hands to keep my hands from freezing.  No matter what kind of gloves I get, they never seem to keep my hands warm enough and I usually end up with biting cold fingers by the end of the ride.

The ride is only about three miles, and I do it as fast as possible.  While mostly downhill, it is a strenuous workout because I have to do a couple of nice rises in there.  Those mornings, however, when the wind is pushing against me so that exposed areas of my face are frozen and after a few minutes certain parts of my body are retreating rapidly like rabbits into a hole, I really wish I had a car.

The reason I don't have a car are various.  Mostly it has to do with money.  Two cars in our family would increase our costs.  We would pay more for gas, though my wife does most of the driving.  Repairs would double, especially since neither one of us has had great luck with cars so there is usually some huge thing that needs to be fixed every three years or so.  I would also have to pay $450 or so a year for the privilege of having a parking space about a half-mile away from my office, or much more if I wanted to park closer.

I am mostly fine with the arrangement, except, as I wrote, on cold winter mornings and the occasional day when I find myself having to ride to work or home in rain or, even worse, slushy snow.  Another advantage is that I get exercise, especially coming back home where my downhill turns to a steep uphill climb, and by the time I get home my heart is pumping hard.

But there are some disadvantages.  If I'm late, I'm usually really late because I can only go so fast on my bike.  I usually have to leave earlier for things that I need to get to.  Also, my freedom of movement is limited to where I can get on my bike.  I envy my wife's ability to go where she wants, even up to Santa Fe, down to Socorro or over to Gallup if she needs to.  Bike racks on the bus could make my radius a little larger, but one is limited to the bus schedule and places they go.  And the safety factor is also a disadvantage.  While Albuquerque is a relatively bike-friendly city, some drivers here see bikers as a hindrance.  This has not been helped by serious bikers, that train in Albuquerque because of the altitude, who sometimes seem to go out of their way to annoy drivers by riding in packs in the middle of the road.  The clash of bike culture and car culture, and people on both sides who don't understand the rules of the road, means that there are far too many "ghost bikes" along the sides of highways.  There is one at an intersection right next to the university where I work.

My wife and I often joke about getting a motorcycle with a side car.  The joke goes that I could drive the motorcycle, and we could outfit our dog in goggles and she could ride in the sidecar.  But that will never happen because my wife really doesn't want me on a motorcycle.  "Donorcycles" she calls them.  I've thought of getting a scooter at times, but they face the same disadvantages that a motorcycle does, though I think that my wife is worried about me on a motorized two-wheeler on the open road rather than in a city, which I think is probably more dangerous than the open road.

So when it comes to keeping money in my jeans, as LHM quotes from old story of his youth, I'll probably remain on two wheels, ride defensively and hope that I remain safe.  And I'll just suck it up with those cold winter mornings - they give me a reason to look forward to the warmer temperatures of spring when I can shed my layers and ride in shorts and a polo shirt.  And, as we look for a house, we'll just have to look for one within biking distance of my work, which is where we want to be anyway.

Musical Interlude

I debated putting this video on.  Queen's Bicycle Race was the first song that came to mind when I wrote this post.  The video, featuring naked women in a bicycle race at Wimbledon, has been linked with the song so that one can't think of the song without the images.  So, if you are sensitive to mild images of naked women riding bikes, don't watch the video.  And be assured, I'm not advocating naked bike riding nor have I ever ridden a bike naked.  Nobody wants to see that!

If you want to know more about Fredericksburg

City of Fredericksburg (news site of the Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star)
Greater Fredericksburg Tourism Partnership
University of Mary Washington
Virginia Tourism: Fredericksburg
Wikipedia: Fredericksburg

Next up: Spotsylvania, Virginia


Blue Highways: Somewhere on Lake Michigan

Unfolding the Map

On the high seas...or at least the high lakes!  William Least Heat-Moon (LHM) takes the ferry from Kewaunee to Elberta, and we're on deck with him, watching Wisconsin grow more distant in the early afternoon.  I'm putting us right square equidistant between Michigan and Wisconsin, so get your soundings at the map.

Book Quote

"On the aft deck I took a seat and watched Wisconsin get smaller.  I had long wondered whether all shorelines disappear on a clear day in the middle of Lake Michigan (the name means 'big water').  I would soon find out."

Blue Highways: Part 7, Chapter 13

The Ann Arbor No. 7, later renamed Viking, transported William Least Heat-Moon (LHM) across Lake Michigan from Kewaunee, Wisconsin to Elberta, Michigan shortly before it stopped running for good. Photo at the the Gallery at Click on photo to go to host site.

Somewhere on Lake Michigan

In the short list of things that terrify and fascinate me (spiders, certain types of heights), I'm going to add a couple more.  I know why I have one of these small phobias, but not the other.

Deep water terrifies and fascinates me, but only in a certain sense.  Have you ever been out on a lake or in an ocean, and you jump overboard for a swim, and you realize that your feet are simply dangling and you have no way of knowing where the bottom is?  It isn't the water that terrifies me, but the sudden realization that there's an unknown depth below and anything could be in that unknown depth.  For some reason, that just sends a chill up my spine.  I don't think that's a fear that is unexplainable.  Water is really not a human element, though our makeup is over three-quarters of the stuff.  To me, swimming in an unknown depth is like free-falling in slow motion, or being suspended over clouds off an unknown height where you cannot gauge how high you are.

The other thing that terrifies me, for reasons I cannot fathom (oh, that pun was so intended!), is the sides of ships.  But it's not just the side - if I look at a ship straight on or from a distance, I am fine.  No, the part that terrifies me is imagining that I might be in the water next to the side of a ship.  I think about being in the shadow of that huge thing, with my legs suspended and dangling over an unknown depth, before I'm sucked under the ship and into the propellors.

Mind you, I don't think about these things often.  They are not an obsessive phobia.  And they are not debilitating.  I will still jump off a boat in the middle of a lake to swim despite my uneasiness.  But when I do think about them, I get a shiver and that hollow feeling in the pit of my stomach.

I bring this up because Lake Michigan is a huge, deep lake.  LHM wonders just how big it is and before he gets sidetracked by a story told by a fellow passenger on the ferry intends to put it to a test and see if the land disappears completely, leaving him surrounded by water.  There is something magical and forlorn in watching land disappear from the deck of a ship.  The only time I've experienced it is on the ferry from Le Havre, France to Rosslare, Ireland.  I was so excited and fearful of getting seasick (another slight phobia) that the uniqueness of my situation was lost on me at the time.  My imagination has filled in the gaps, though.  The land, the anchor to the world, dissolves into the horizon or perhaps mist off the water.  At that point, which I have experienced, the movement of the ship is betrayed only by the sound of the engines, the movement of air over the ship and the ship's wake.  Otherwise, like a lonely swimmer, you seem suspended between water and sky and often at the mercy of the water, until the farther shore materializes in front of you.

I believe I wrote this story before, about not realizing the size of Lake Michigan from a map.  On my first trip to the Midwest I had to take a puddle jumper from Chicago to Benton Harbor, Michigan.  I expected a short flight.  After all, it was only over a lake.  We took off from O'Hare Airport, flew out over downtown Chicago, and then out over the lake.  30 minutes later, we were still over the lake.  It was only my second flight and I began to wonder if we were lost when the land appeared below us and we touched down.  Later, when I lived in Milwaukee, I loved heading to the lakefront, because the vastness of the water reminded me of being on the ocean where I grew up.

The other theme in this passage is the ferry.  LHM might have been one of the last few people to take this ferry because it ceased running in 1982 after 90 years of service.  The ship, the Viking, was known originally as the Ann Arbor No. 7 and was renamed after it was rebuilt.  The Ann Arbor Railroad train ferries originally ran between Kewaunee, Wisconsin and Elberta, Michigan and expanded to other cities on upper Lake Michigan.

In the chapter, LHM remarks how small Ghost Dancing looks next to the boxcars on board, and when he hears some clanking down below hopes that the boxcar hasn't shifted in some way and crushed his van.  The boxcars were actually loaded onto the ferries, taken across the lake, and then disembarked onto tracks there to continue their railway journeys.  Without the ferries, the route would take much longer and therefore be much more expensive.  I did a quick Google Maps route and found that by car, getting from Kewaunee to Elberta would take about eight and a half hours.  By boat, that would be at least cut in half, and by the time LHM took the ferry, it might have been only 3 hours.

Though the Kewaunee ferry has ended, I am happy to say that there is still ferry service on Lake Michigan from Wisconsin.  The Lake Express has been billed as American's first high speed ferry line, and it runs from Milwaukee to Muskegon, Michigan.  It appears to be one of those sleek, double hulled catamarans and the website says it does about 40 miles per hour (34 knots) during the 2 and one-half hour trip.  The ship has been sailing since 2004.  The Lake Michigan Carferry runs between Manitowoc, Wisconsin to Ludington, Michigan.  The ship, the S.S. Badger, appears to be more of a conventional style ferry that plied the Great Lakes.  The website touts her as the biggest ferry to ever sail the Great Lakes and did so from 1953 until 1990, when she was tied up in Michigan.  An entrepreneur bought her in 1991 and had her refurbished, and began running her again shortly afterward.  The cruise takes four hours.

A Great Lakes or ocean ferry is a great way to get a nautical experience without having to endure days at sea, and if you pick the route right, you can get a little of everything.  Sometimes there are big waves and big excitement, sometimes calm seas and relaxation.  Perhaps, if you're lucky, you'll catch that magical point just as the land disappears from view and you too are suspended between water and sky on your personal chariot between space and time.

Musical Interlude

You won't believe that there aren't many songs about ferries.  You would think that given their importance to our nation's history and growth, there'd be more written about these forms of transportation.  However, I was only able to find one fun song by Bing Crosby and The Andrews Sisters celebrating the the Black Ball Ferries. If you have any other suggestions, Littourati, let me know.

Black Ball Ferry Line


If you want to know more about Lake Michigan and the history of the railroad ferries
Classic Trains Magazine: Lake Michigan Carferries
Great Lakes Information Network: Lake Michigan
Lake Michigan Circle Tour
Railroad History of Central Wisconsin: A Lifelong Love of Lake Michigan Railroad Car Ferries
RRHX: Railroad Car Ferries
Wikipedia: Ann Arbor Railroad
Wikipedia: Lake Michigan
Wikipedia: Train Ferry
Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources: Lake Michigan

Next up: Elberta, Michigan


Blue Highways: Danbury, Wisconsin

Unfolding the Map

Driving with the windows open, trying to get the mosquitoes out, we try to find a place to sleep with William Least Heat-Moon (LHM).  Just more irritants in his trip through Wisconsin.  The post is a little all over the place, because I don't want to do too much backtracking.  But we'll all survive.  Buzz on over to the map to locate Danbury, Wisconsin and our resting spot.

Book Quote

"Lying atop the sleeping bag in the hot night, I heard the first mosquito.  I put the screens in place but it was too late.  Under the pinching bites I lay sweating and cursing.  Unable to stay awake driving, now I couldn't sleep lying down.  I was living someone's nightmare.  "These are the days that must happen to you," Whitman says.

"....Finally I gave up and pulled off the screens, and, with windows wide open, drove flat out down the highway to blast away the insects.  At Danbury I parked by the town hall, put the screens in place, and again went to bed.  I slapped a mosquito and fell asleep."

Blue Highways: Part 7, Chapter 11

The Old Hole in the Wall casino in Danbury, Wisconsin. Photo by Holter and found at Panoramio. Click on photo to go to host page.

Danbury, Wisconsin

I've already written about mosquitoes, so I don't plan to spend much time on them.  But there is one sound that just drives me complete nuts when I hear it.  Here's the scenario.  You are sleeping, or at least dozing, in the early morning.  All of a sudden, you hear it.  A sound at the very edge of your hearing.  A high-pitched whine that sounds far away.  It barely registers on your sleepy awareness.  But it gets louder, gradually, coming closer and closer to one of your ears sticking out invitingly from underneath the covers or, more likely, the sleeping bag.

There are other sounds which cause momentary discomfort, such as fingernails raking down a chalk board or someone's annoying voice.  But a mosquito buzzing your ear, clearly looking to land and make a meal out of your blood, is possibly the most annoying sound ever.  When you slap at your ear, the sound disappears for a moment, only to make a reappearance and slowly draw closer, closer and closer.  If you are going to make it stop, you might have to let the mosquito land on you and try to crush it with a swat.  Otherwise, you'll play a game with the mosquito all morning until you get out of bed.  When you get locked into that repetitive scenario with a mosquito, it can ruin a perfectly fine morning under the covers.

I applaud LHM for his tactic of driving fast with all the windows down to blast the mosquitoes out of Ghost Dancing so that by the time he gets to Danbury, he's rid his van of probably 90 percent of the mosquitoes.  In all my years alive I have never used that tactic to get a flying bug out of the car.  When you get a bug in the car, it can be something that you never see, such as a tiny spider that has set up shop inside your glove box or in the back by the window.  Unless it bites me, I don't really care if such an insect is there.  Sometimes it can be a minor annoyance, like a mosquito, though one curious thing about mosquitoes is once they get into the car they seem to only want to get out, and don't appear to be interested in the occupants at all.  At least that's what seems to happen when I see them in the vehicle in the daytime.  Perhaps the heat of the day warms up the car and plays havoc with the mosquito's infra-red heat detection system.  At night, I can't say because I don't usually notice them.

Sometimes, the bug in the car can be downright frightening.  Have you been in a car and suddenly notice a bee trying to get out?  Usually, when I see a bee frantically trying to get out, I pull over and try to get help it somehow using paper or anything that I can wave at it.  The problem with bees is that they get so single-minded in trying to get out the back window, they usually get stuck.  I have found dead bees in the back window when I've been detailing my car, sometimes with nothing left but some legs and wings.

Perhaps driving with all the windows down would cause enough airflow to get a bee out of the car, but I'd be afraid that the bee would blow back on me and sting me.  I don't want to get stung because I have a fear that I'm allergic to bees.  I'm allergic to a lot of stuff, so it wouldn't surprise me that I would be allergic to bees too.  I don't want to go into anaphylactic shock - my wife found out that she's allergic to fire ants in that way and it scared the living hell out of me.  So, when it comes to bees, I'll just pull over and try to get it out the old fashioned way, with paper or some other device I can wave at it.

But mosquitoes?  If they are in my car, I'll make the interior such a wind tunnel that they won't know what hit them!


There's precious little information on Danbury and it's sister Town of Swiss, but apparently it was the scene of a Bigfoot sighting!  If you know me, you know I love unexplained mysteries and strange stuff.  I don't necessarily believe in Bigfoot or Sasquatch, but I love that other people believe and I always keep an open mind.  Apparently, the Ojibwe Indians nearby are familiar with the Danbury creature.  Now that's a reason to visit Danbury!

Musical Interlude

You'd think that there would be a bunch of songs that talk about driving with the windows down, but I could only find Driving With the Windows Down by a band on Myspace called the Crunchy Western Boys, a bluegrass band who appear to hail from New Hampshire.  It's a pretty decent song, in my opinion.  I'd go to see this band!  Hit the "play" button below to hear the song.

Driving With The Windows Down

If you want to know more about Danbury

Forts Folle Avoine
Wikipedia: Danbury
Wikipedia: Town of Swiss

Next up:  West of Minong, Wisconsin


Blue Highways: Cavalier, North Dakota

Unfolding the Map

Engine malfunctions and car repairs in Cavalier, North Dakota.  How LHM has made it 9000 miles without a major engine mishap in an old van with a leaky water pump is pretty amazing.  His luck with engines runs out here, but luckily, the fixes aren't too bad.  If you want to know where to find an honest mechanic in North Dakota, nurse your engine over to the map.

Book Quote

"...I started back to the highway when the smell of gasoline stopped me.  I lifted the hood.  The fuel line below the gas filter had split and was arcing a fine jet of no-lead into the sunlight....

"I made for Cavalier, the nearest town.  Had I not gone to Backoo, the line would have ruptured in Cavalier instead of miles up the road.  So logic would dictate.  The fact is, engine malfunctions happen only in places like Backoo, North Dakota.  Axiom of the blue road....

"At Cavalier I pulled into the first garage I saw, and a teenaged boy with the belly of a man came out and stared.  People don't just throw words around in the North.  I lifted the hood to show him the line.  I didn't speak either.

"'Sumbitch's likely to catch fire!' he said."

Blue Highways: Part 7, Chapter 9

Downtown Cavalier, North Dakota. Photo at "afiler's" photostream in Flickr. Click on photo to go host page.

Cavalier, North Dakota

I wondered when it might happen.  LHM complained about a knocking water pump even as he pulled out of Columbia, Missouri so many stops and posts ago.  He seemed to be magically gifted, despite all the miles he put on, with very few mechanical problems in old Ghost Dancing.  But you have to love his axiom of the road..."engine malfunctions happen only in places like Backoo, North Dakota."

I also have been blessed with very few problems like this in my driving history.   Of course, like everyone I've had my share of flats to fix, batteries that have worn down, alternators that have died and starters that went bad.  I've had an occasional radiator problem, and once, when I was a teenager, I think an axle broke while I was driving my mom's car and went over a very hard bump.  But these incidents all occurred in populated areas where I could easily get to repair services.  It might have been a hassle or a headache, and it may have cost me some money, but within hours or at the most a day or two, the car was fixed and I could get back to my normal life.

When it comes to long-distance driving mishaps, I can think of only two incidents.  The first occurred when I lived in Milwaukee and made the occasional long driving trip out toward the East Coast.  Even then, the malfunction happened only at the end of the trip, when I was about 40 miles from home.  It was late afternoon and I was driving a Chevy Cavalier that belonged to my place of employment.  I was looking forward to getting home, having a hot meal and relaxing after a long trip.  South of Kenosha, Wisconsin I had settled in behind a car that was doing a good speed and was fiddling with the radio - I can't remember what time of year it was but I might have been trying to catch the last of a Brewers afternoon game or find some interesting music.  The car ahead of me suddenly swerved to avoid something in the road, and I couldn't react fast enough.  I drove right over a large piece of sidewall that had shed itself from a semi.  There was a loud thump in the front of the car, but it seemed everything was all right.  However, as I got to Kenosha, the oil light came on, and then the car started losing power.  I pulled over to the side of the freeway and walked to the next exit.  Luckily, I was near a gas station with some pay phones (yes, this was pre-cell phone days).  I called a road service and then called my girlfriend.  The tow service arrived and would only tow me up to three miles without charge, so he took it to a nearby dealer.  My girlfriend found me there, and took me home.  The dealer looked the car over, told me that there was a puncture in my oil pan and wanted to literally replace the whole engine.  I called my mechanic and he told me to pay for the tow up to Milwaukee.  He ended up replacing the oil pan for a lot less money.

LHM worries, in this chapter, about getting screwed by unscrupulous mechanics that know that you are in a tough spot and figure they can charge you just about anything.  My experience with mechanics has been that if you get a good one, hold on to him or her like gold because many of them are more than willing to tell you a few more things need to be fixed in order to squeeze more out of you.  Luckily for LHM, he found an honest teenager who fixed a dangerous fuel line leak and charged him a couple of bucks for it, and also gave him some honest advice about his water pump.

These kinds of trepidations, about what kind of service I'd find in a small town on the road, are what kept me from seeking weekend service in Kingman, Arizona as my wife and I were driving back to Albuquerque from a two-week visit to my mom in California.  We had stopped in Kingman to get some fast food and continue our drive.  We pulled into a parking lot for some reason and I found that I couldn't get my car, a G20 Infiniti with a standard transmission, into first gear.  Second gear wouldn't work either.  I had to coax it from third gear.  We briefly thought about trying to find a place, but it was late afternoon on a weekend and we didn't want to stay in Kingman.  We decided to try to make it to Albuquerque instead, and decided not to stop except for gas in case the whole gear system decided to go out.  We made it, though I was clenching my buttocks the entire way like LHM described when he thought he might run out of gas.  We did end up having to replace the entire transmission, but it was better and easier to do it at home.  I always felt we got pretty lucky.

The passage that describes what happens with LHM and his car is a long one so I didn't put it all in.  Essentially, he pulls Ghost Dancing into the bay and shuts it down.  He and the mechanic replace the hose and the mechanic charges him $2.10 for hose and labor, probably a $15 repair today.  The mechanic tells him that the water pump needs to be replaced, and is astounded when LHM tells him he's driven it 9000 miles.  He tells LHM that he wouldn't even drive it to Hoople, 18 miles down the road, and that he should take it to the Ford dealer.  LHM does, but the dealer says he doesn't have the part and that he'll need to go to Grand Forks.  So, LHM sets out for Grand Forks, hoping he'll make it but not sure that he'll even get to Hoople.

I like the metaphor that's implied.  When someone asks me from now on how I'm doing, I'll say "I'm just trying to make it past Hoople."

Musical Interlude

I'm not a big fan of the modern Nashville-influenced country genre, preferring pre-Nashville country instead, but I found this song by Alan Jackson, Talkin' Song Repair Blues, to be very humorous and witty.  As he says at the end of the song, "I like might be a hit."

If you want to know more about Cavalier

Cavalier, North Dakota official page
Wikipedia: Cavalier

Next up: Grand Forks, North Dakota