Author Archives: scmckee


The year got off to a good start. Remember the billion-dollar lottery at the beginning of 2023? We won! Well, not the whole thing:

The big news though was about our “new” electric car.  We bought our little Kona at the end of 2022, but we didn’t drive it much until March, when we finally got a place to plug it in.  Faithful readers will remember accounts of remote bicycle trips in June and July, and then our first overnight journey, out to the Pacific Coast, in August. Until then the car still didn’t have a thousand miles on its virtual odometer. We fixed that, with a trip to Arizona in October.

For fans of provocative essays, there’s one from July:  Singularity

But that’s about all the news we had time for!  Here’s wishing you joy and mirth and a happy 2024!

Our Road Trip

 

When we first started looking at electric cars, we knew that we wanted one that would be fun to drive and comfortable to ride in.  We also wanted one that would have enough range for a long journey someday. Still, until recently, our little Kona had spent only a couple nights away from home.

Over the last few decades, relatives and friends have been accumulating in the retirement communities west of Phoenix. (I won’t dox them here, but they know who they are.)  By October of 2023 we were ready to undertake serious travel for the first time in years. We set out for Arizona — and a ballet of route planning, reunions and roadside attractions.

We decided to make the first half of our loop via the freeways, mostly on I-5 and I-10, imagining that we would find better infrastructure and greater efficiency on the main roads.  Then, on the way back, with some experience under our belts, we would have a leisurely drive up the coast, taking in some country we hadn’t seen before. (This plan would also get mountain passes out of the way before there was much chance of snow.)

In olden times this 3,000 mile journey would have been a saga of pluck and determination, but for us it was largely a case study in information management.  Each day began with a clear picture of our route and every possible rest stop and likely optional charging station along the way. The goal was to end every day at a hotel with a Level-2 charger. (There’s information about our car-charging experience on another page.) Associated with each hotel was information about laundry facilities, food options, check-in and checkout times, and the deadline for cancelling its reservation, in case we ever needed to bail out.

These first pictures are from our stay in one of the impressively sustainable-yet-mid-century bungalows at the Joshua Tree Retreat Center on days six and seven of our trip.  Before this we had made one-night stands in Salem, Rogue River, Anderson (near Redding, CA), Modesto, and Bakersfield. The visit to Modesto included a brief pilgrimage.

Our home-away-from-home for six nights was the Hampton Inn at Surprise, Arizona, a neighborhood replete with cousins, old flying buddies, familiar supermarkets and wholesome-but-exotic takeout.  EV charging was free, in a space that was shaded until mid-morning; there’s a Denny’s right across the parking lot for emergency dining.

In these post-pandemic times, since so many stores and restaurants now offer pickup or take-out, menus appear online and it’s possible to know weeks in advance what you’re likely to order on a particular day.  Also, though Alex did most of our route-planning far ahead of time, the car itself offers to find its own way, including locating places to plug itself in.  Until well into our trip we considered GPS to be a distracting gimmick, but after about three weeks we began to rely on it.

On our return trip we spent a night at Cathedral City, near Palm Springs, and then headed toward the coast, aiming to catch Highway 1 at Santa Monica.  There’s always a dearth of highway rest stops in urban areas, but we had learned to look for state parks instead — even small towns often have wonderful parks that they are proud of.  Once past Santa Monica we just turned up Temescal Canyon, spent some time at the park there, and then took Sunset Boulevard back to the highway at Inceville.

The Santa Barbara Inn was our first real attempt at luxury. Our room was above the lobby shown at left, and matched its shape with a wrap-around veranda offering not-one-but-two little outdoor tables where we might have consumed our room-service meal, depending on the time of day and our desire for shade or sunlight. Said repast consisted, in my case, of the spit-roasted chicken with harissa, charmoula, olives, almonds and cauliflower. Here’s a picture of the room:

The next day took us north to Morro Bay, with a stop at La Purisima Mission State Historic Park and a glimpse of what is now the Vandenberg Space Force Base.

This day would require laundry, and so we paused at a laundromat a mile short of the next Hampton Inn, and then made a couple of trips back there before walking over to pick up food at the Taco Bell just across the freeway. Here’s a picture of the famous Morro Rock,  from  a sunset stroll.

After Morro Bay we were off to Big Sur.  We were again without an official rest area, so we chose our own, at Carmel Sunset Beach in Carmel-by-the-Sea.


From there we headed south down the coast, along part of Highway 1 we had missed, for a night at the Post Ranch Inn. Only the unavailability of our room kept us from staying longer. The interior design, the food, the service and the provisions there are exceptional. They have eliminated plastic containers — there’s purified water, but in glass milk-bottles; for hiking, there are metal canteens with screw-caps. Snacks, matching our dietary restrictions, also appeared in reusable glass containers. We hadn’t been able to get the roadside sandwiches we had meant to bring for our dinner, so we ended up with room service instead. The ensuing meal was revelatory. The valet took our car, but brought it back charged in the morning, and would have driven us anywhere in a Lexus provided for that purpose. By the way, there are other resorts with guided nature walks, yoga and meditation, but this is the only one we’ve seen that offers falconry.

Since we couldn’t stay longer, we drove north the next day through San Francisco to Tomales Bay, near Point Reyes, stopping at a Chipotle in Daly City for take-out and quick car-charging. That afternoon we drove out to the park, put on our boots long enough to say that we had hiked, and later visited a local grocery store.

Next day we headed inland (the highway does too) and drove to Garberville and the historic Benbow Inn, another opportunity for luxury, or at least gentility. (We, on the other hand, brought sandwiches we had picked up at Amellia’s in town.) Here’s a picture from our balcony. At the right edge of the lawn there’s a path down to the pleasant bank of the Eel River.
The hotel is also a headquarters for seeing the famous redwoods (in California, even the trees have drive-throughs). We did stop at Founders Grove the next day and walked around its pleasant loop trail. We finished the day at the Beachfront Inn, in Brookings, Oregon. Here’s another sample of a do-it-yourself rest stop from the next day:

After that we spent two days in Newport, doing a bit less visiting and a bit more walking on the beach than we had planned. Here’s a view from our room at the Hallmark Inn:


We weren’t through with sightseeing! The Oregon coast is famous for its beaches and big rocks; here, a few miles north of Newport, is the Devil’s Punchbowl. It’s possible, depending on the tide, to walk down for a closer look.
We were on our way to Astoria. Here’s our favorite place to stay there, the Cannery Pier Hotel (partly for the excellent restaurant at the other end of the parking lot, the Bridgewater Bistro). That window looks across the Columbia River toward Washington and the end of our trip, back home in Seattle.

Long Beach

Encouraged by a couple of successful day-trips, we decided it was time to try an overnight journey. A trip to the Washington coast, say, would let us practice our neglected packing skills and prove that we could find a place to charge our car.

We booked a suite at The Breakers in Long Beach, a town north of Deception Bay, the mouth of the Columbia River. It’s one of those places where you stay in somebody’s well-equipped condo, but there’s also hotel staff nearby to make sure that things go well.

It was pure luck, but we left Seattle just as August’s historic heat wave was beginning, and, except for some of our time enroute, we managed to miss all of it.  It was 20 degrees cooler in Long Beach while we were there.

A cyclist pedals along a paved trail through tall grass near beach.

Every coast should have its Long Beach. For most of us the name probably evokes California, but the one in Washington is the longest on the West Coast, at 28 miles. For this purpose it has its own peninsula, lying between the Pacific Ocean and Willapa Bay.

Staying three nights gave us a chance to try two very different bike rides. The first took us east and north, offering access to both bay and ocean by turns.  This route was was pretty urban (by beach-town standards) and involved some narrow highway shoulders, though traffic was light. We stopped for a while at a park that had a tall antenna-like structure; we figured out later that this was the tsunami warning device.

The second day’s ride was along the Discovery Trail, a dedicated bike-and-pedestrian path that starts in the parking lot of our hotel and runs south about seven miles, into the forest where the terrain starts looking hillier. It’s possible to continue well into Cape Disappointment State Park, but we were satisfied with our tour of the grassland and turned around near the Beard’s Hollow trailhead.

The linear organization typical of the beach town makes navigation easy. The little supermarket is right across from the little post office, and we visited often enough to have a favorite parking space. The Breakers itself offers the authentic beach-house experience:  sturdy, versatile housewares, light-blue accents, a collection of maritime knick-knacks, and an easy intimacy with the outdoors.  Every unit has a view straight out toward the ocean, and from the units on the ground floor, like ours, there’s nothing to keep you from just walking there from your back door.  Our unit was near the Level 2 charging station, and we seemed to have it all to ourselves. We charged to 80% capacity, and had about 20% left after the 175 mile drive home, suggesting that the car used some of its energy to cool its battery in the unusual heat.

The trip home took us by the Willapa National Wildlife Reserve and since the weather there was still pleasant we parked and strolled along the walkway. We missed most of the wildlife, but there was public art and some explanatory material.  By the way, Willapa Bay has a Long Island as well as a Long Beach, but we left it to others.

Snoqualmie Valley Trail

Picture of a distant farmhouse among trees.

Encouraged by our trip along the Cedar River, we loaded the bikes on the car again and headed for Duvall, near the northern end of the Snoqualmie Valley Trail, another railbed re-purposed for pedestrians, horses and cyclists.

The convenient starting point is, fittingly, at the well-appointed Depot Park.  The Milwaukee Road built the facilities — and in fact moved the former town of Cherry Valley here — in the early 1900s.  The valley had been the home of the Snoqualmie people until the Treaty of Point Elliott in 1855.  Homesteading began after the Civil War, and Francis and James Duvall arrived in 1871. I believe that locals stress the first syllable when saying the name.

There’s a half-mile of trail north of here, but we rode only south, upriver, with the winding Snoqualmie River and numerous oxbow lakes on our right. Much further upstream, the river’s three main forks provide routes into the mountains, but down here the scene is farm and dairy land.

In fact, the next town is Carnation, named (then un-named and named again) for the evaporated-milk company, once a big presence. The original name of the town was Tolt and I assumed it was Germanic, but in fact it’s the Anglicized version of the Lushootseed name for the river that joins there. Carnation is also the site of several nice big parks, and on our return trip we pedaled into town and ate lunch at the amiable Blake’s Pizza. I don’t think we ever saw those famous dairy cows, but the trail is popular with horses as well as cyclists. We turned around just here after this bridge, a bit short of Fall City, giving the day a total of 27.4 miles.

The seminal book on cycling in Washington, Bicycling the Backroads Around Puget Sound, by Erin and Bill Woods, first published in 1972, focuses on this part of King County (Bill and Erin had built their home out here east of Redmond).  Alex and I did the rides from Duvall to Carnation, and from Fall City to Carnation, and up the Tolt River, back when we were first riding together, back before the railroad turned to gravel trail, back when parts of the trip were still on Highway 203.

The trail offers a less urban experience, and in fact it got woodsier the further south we rode.  In some spots trailside exhibits provided information about wildlife and plants. Speaking of flora, there were salmonberries too, the third and possibly least noticed of the local brambles. These may ripen to a scarlet color, or maybe just stop at golden, but in any case their flavor never amounts to much. In fact, the plant’s leaves, shoots and branches are as likely to be used as the berries are. They do have showy pink flowers in the Spring though.

This trail’s rustic nature seemed to make it dustier than the last one too. Our bicycles were not allowed back in the house, or even off the carrier, before making a trip to the car wash.

Cedar River Trail

A picture of Alex riding through an underpass toward a hillside covered with blackberries.

There will be blackberries.

On the first full day of summer, we got our new-ish bicycles, car and bike rack together for the first time and headed down past Renton to try out the Cedar River Trail.
A picture of gravel trail through woodland.

We started at the far end, near the Landsburg Fish Ladder, figuring to put a park and some facilities near our turn-around point.  Though there’s a commuter-like stretch in the middle (paralleling State Route 169), both the northern and southern ends of our ride were shaded by dense stands of tall old trees. We stopped just short of the Liberty skatepark; we’re familiar with most of the trail north of there because we use it when we ride around the south end of Lake Washington.

A picture of some rapids from the Cedar River Trail.

On former railbed next to a stream, the path offers a gentle grade.  In a bit over 32 miles we first mostly lost, and then mostly regained about 700 feet.  There are spots along the way to view or approach the water — fishing was popular among the people we met in the parking lot. Upstream from the trail, the Cedar River watershed provides domestic water for our part of Seattle.

A close-up of the leaves and fruit of the thimbleberry -- one of them bright red.There are already thimbleberries. Unlike blackberries, these are borne on the current year’s canes. and they mature quite early.  Like their closer relatives, raspberries, they leave their little white cores behind when picked.  They’re not ripe until crimson, by which time somebody else has usually eaten them, even though they taste pretty much like aspirin until then.

A picture of our modest little black Kona with a load of bicycles on its stern.

Well, it was another year mostly spent close to home.  We did see a couple of milestones though.

We’ve bought an electric car!  It’s a Hyundai Kona SE.  It’s efficient and fun to drive, and we’ve already outfitted it to carry our bicycles and we hope to train it to carry a kayak as well.  We’re still waiting for our condo association to get our charging station wired up, but, on the other hand, after a month and a half, we still haven’t needed to plug our car in.  Sadly, this acquisition meant parting with our 13-year-old Escape hybrid.  The Snowball Diaries, which began with our move to Mexico in 2009, have seen their final entry.

Last year we reported on the purchase of Alex’s e-bike.  This year brought a new bicycle for Scott, as the old one threatened to fail catastrophically.  The new bike promises to be a little more versatile, with fatter tires to handle woodsier parts of the state’s trail system.

Another new thing is the weather.  Used to be, western Washington seemed practically immune from forest fires.  We would sometimes get smoke from across the mountains or from British Columbia, but only if the wind blew just wrong.  With hotter and drier summers, Washingtonians are now producing our own smoke.  I made the mistake this year of bragging about how we’d been spared, and then October kept us indoors most of the time.  There was one day when Seattle had the worst air quality of all the world’s major cities.  Then the smoke was followed by weather that was both cooler and wetter than usual, again casting a pall over outdoor activities.

Still, there were plenty of times during the year when we ventured into the real world. Some earlier forays include an exploration of one of our neighborhood thoroughfares — Broad Street — and an introduction to some local wildlife — Our Crows.  Here’s some holiday cheer from Westlake Park:

Another new bicycle

Well, there we were, at Gene Coulon Park in Renton, nearly half-way into the loop around the south end of Lake Washington, having a snack at Kidd Valley.  I had my bike propped up in front of me, and as Alex was off getting milkshakes, I noticed a tiny black line running much of the way around its downtube, near the fork. 

Unlike steel, aluminum isn’t required to give you any warning before failing.  I was probably pretty lucky to spot this problem, and to have a chance to find another way home and to retire my faithful frame before any catastrophe could occur.

But of course that’s not what I did, riding instead another nine miles very gently to the little picnic area just short of the Allentown Bridge, sending Alex home for the car, and taking this picture meant to represent end-of-the-line for my old Novara.

Alex is familiar with this scenario — it’s pretty much what she did that time I broke my hip, just with a different car and a different bike. And more distance.

And then, while she was on her way, I rode just another half mile to Cecil Moses park, where there are more amenities.

It was clear though that I should get another bike before my luck ran out, so a few days later I ended up at Gregg”s and found a bike about the same size as the old one, but with fatter tires — what they’re calling a “gravel bike”  or “adventure bike” these days. It’s a Trek Checkpoint ALR5, road-bike in shape but with lots of hard points for mounting luggage.  I’ve changed some parts around and it it seems to fit okay. A mere sixty-five years ago I wouldn’t have imagined that someday I would have a bicycle with hydraulic disc brakes. 

 

Broad Street

 

In this part of Seattle, thanks to a disagreement between early settlers, streets run southwest-to-northeast. Broad Street is the only one that ever broke through the east-west grid north of Denny Way, running diagonally from salt water clear to Lake Union.  The picture above shows beginning of Broad Street’s climb up the hill from the north end of Alaskan Way, the former Railroad Avenue.

For the last half of the 20th Century and beyond, Aurora Avenue made north-south travel easy north of Denny, but east-west traffic nearly impossible.  Broad Street crossed under Aurora though, at about the same place as Mercer but in its own idiosyncratic direction. Drivers coming from the freeway could choose to pass to the north of Seattle Center or to the southeast on Broad Street.

Following the 2001 Nisqually Earthquake, big changes came to Aurora Avenue. Then after Amazon’s conquest of South Lake Union, something had to be done about Mercer.  During the last couple of decades Broad Street lost its importance and then, suddenly, about half of its length.  From the west it doesn’t really cross Fifth Avenue any more, though it does get a street sign on the far side. Its old alignment there is now a skate park:

The park is here because the new hockey arena claimed the former location, a quarter mile west.

Bits and pieces of vacated Broad Street appear among newer construction projects.

The photo above shows a scrap of old roadway, now an experiment in urban habitat, next to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s Discovery Center.  The view below looks across the new tunnel entrance, back toward the skate park.

Further east, hints of the old Broad Street show up within parcels that are being developed.   But here’s an interesting thing:  the block that always connected Valley Street to Roy Street, right at Westlake, the part that lies in shadow in the picture below, is signed “Roy St.” on the pole; but if you view it on Google Maps at just the right magnification , it is still labeled “Broad St.”

Another quiet year at home! This summer could have meant a trip to a 50-year college reunion, but instead we spent time perfecting our housekeeping skills. This lull did provide an opportunity for some writing — here’s a link to the memoirs collected as Lockdown Lit, in case you missed them. Next year we’re hoping instead to be able to make the rail journey across Canada that we have already postponed once.

Our biggest milestone this year was Alex’s new e-bike. Until about the time she got it, we were still having most of our foodstuffs delivered; now, she does almost all our marketing by bike, visiting as many as four stores each week.

Here’s the bike on one of its first trips north along the Interurban Trail. An electric bike is a fairly sensible purchase here in Seattle, where two entirely reasonable sections of a route may be separated by a short, steep, disheartening climb. It may well be that Alex gets more exercise now that she doesn’t have to avoid the hardest parts. Her companion certainly does.

Our next step may be an electric car, if our building management is able to install charging stations as planned.  Check back next year, and have a great 2022!

Our Bumblebees

July arrived before I had seen even a dozen bumblebees; I was afraid that they were gone for good.  The blackberries had made alternate arrangements for pollination.  The vegetation installed specifically to support the bees was largely bloomed out — most notably the wild lilac, which I happen to know is their favorite thing in the whole world.

Then I began to see a few bumblebees here and there by the roadside.  And now it turns out that our rooftop garden is loaded with them. Click on the image below (or here for a high-resolution version):

 

These big black bees are Bombus vosnesenskii, the Yellow-Faced Bumblebee. Popular with farmers generally, they’re the champion pollinators of greenhouse tomatoes. Plus, they’re immensely fun to interact with. It’s sometimes possible to touch the luxurious fur of one that’s fully engaged with a flower, though she may wave a  middle leg or two as a warning.  They’re also approachable when their body temperature is low.  Here’s one we met walking across Clay Street:

Bumblebees don’t have the same kind of regimented homelife that honeybees have: a bumblebee won’t always make it back to the nest at the end of the day, and may be found the next morning waiting for enough warmth to get started.  The image of the bee sleeping in the palm of the hand is celebrated in popular music, but note that bees vary somewhat in their disposition.  If the bees in your neighborhood look like ours but turn out to be B. fervidis instead, you may get a different reception.

We used to see three other kinds of bumblebees in Seattle regularly.  To the right is a picture of a Black Tail Bumblebee, B. melanopygus, who was our houseguest for one night back in May of 2006.

These bees are also called orange-rumped, and this second picture, blurred by the subject’s motion, shows why.

The other two species we used to see were much more numerous: B. californicus, which is banded much like B. vosnesenskii but has a black face; and B. sitkensis, smaller, scruffier, and popular in Alsaska for getting its work done in a short growing season.  Our current environment has a different mix of flowers from our old garden, and bees are apt to specialize, so we don’t have a clear picture of how our bees are faring.  The Yellow-Faced bee is said to have edged out its local competitors through a strategy of emerging early; maybe now they’re just resting on their laurels.