Two Chaosbunnies in the Desert: Of can openers and serendipity

Part 1 of this saga is here. Part 7 of this saga is here.
Part 2 of this saga is here. Part 8 of this saga is here.
Part 3 of this saga is here. Part 9 of this saga is here.
Part 4 of this saga is here. Part 10 of this saga is here.
Part 5 of this saga is here. Part 11 of this saga is here.
Part 6 of this saga is here. Part 12 of this saga is here.

In any human endeavor, there must necessarily be those things that don’t go quite according to plan. Just as Hannibal’s trip over the Alps with an army of elephants met with certain less-than-favorable outcomes, so too did our adventure.

We had to contend with fewer elephants and less snow than the luckless Hannibal, but we faced our own trials nonetheless. Chief among them was a dollar-store can opener, which, like many dollar-store items, was perhaps less splendid in its design and construction as we might have hoped.

This was unfortunate because emanix had, during our provisioning, acquired for us many canned goods, which, lacking a functional can opener, we were unable to use. The hatchet I had thoughtfully packed in the back of the van was an altogether unsatisfactory substitute. Fortunately, emanix is a skilled camper who plans ahead, and she had hidden in her numerous tool belts and pouches a US Army-style miniature can opener, which has a user interface that’s a bit less than obvious but nevertheless succeeded where my can opener failed.

Be prepared, they say.

With our cunning new plan (by which I mean her cunning new plan) to scope out potential ghost towns on Google Earth before journeying forth, we set about revising our itinerary and set off toward Granite, Oregon.

Granite was rather a long way from where we were, as our previous itinerary proved to be almost exactly wrong in every respect when compared with the new. So we set out on a flat ribbon of highway that stretched through the desert of eastern Washington and Oregon, driving for hours along a hypnotic stretch of arid tundra, with nothing to see or do–

“Hey! Pull over!” Bunny said. “What’s that?”

That would, as it turn out, become the refrain of the day “Hey! Pull over! What’s that?”

I pulled over. Just off the road, Bunny had seen a crumbling barn, quietly decaying into the landscape.

We stopped to shoot some pictures, then headed off once more, destined for Granite, where we hoped to–

“Hey! Pull over!” Bunny said. “What’s that?”

I pulled over. Bunny had spotted the top of a crumbling house just peeking out between the trees in a valley right off the road:

When I’d parked just off the road, we hiked back to take a look. We weren’t disappointed.

This was, Bunny said, the sort of thing you don’t see in England. Great Britain is a small, densely inhabited country completely surrounded by water. The western United States is an enormous, sparsely-populated country with vast quantities of land being put to little use. The two could not be further from each other unless England were a suburb of Hong Kong (which, compared to the desert of rural Oregon, it might as well be), so there is a great deal of stuff we take for granted in the more uninhabited part of this country that you don’t expect to find across the pond.

Sadly, we were unable to get closer, as it likely would’ve been quite a lot of fun to explore this magnificent old ruin.

We piled back in the van. The wheels turned, the road hummed by, and–

“Hey! Pull over!” Bunny said. “What’s that?”

Pulling over turned out to be a bit trickier this time, as we were on a narrow paved road with no shoulder cutting through a vast swath of absolute nothingness.

The “what’s that?” in this case turned out to be a deer that had apparently tried to leap over a fence, with sad results.

emanix took pictures, with her parasol and bunny ears…there are moments when I am with her that she just seems so very British.

I felt bad for the deer, though. Nothing should have to die like this.

It will definitely be appearing in the book she’s working on, no question about it.

We set off once more, the van eating away at the miles between us and Granite, bringing us closer with each passing mile to–

“Hey! Pull over!” Bunny said. “What’s that?”

This time, “that” turned out to be the remnants of a long-deserted gold mine.

I should mention as an aside, before I continue on, that the ruins of long-deserted gold mines seem to be a regular theme in my life these days. A few months back, Eve and I were on our way to talk polyamory at a swinger convention in Canada when, from the window of our rented car, we spied a glimpse of a long-abandoned gold mine and, naturally (because we are who we are and we must do that which it is in our natures to do) we stopped to explore. The video that accompanies my Patreon was shot there, and I still intend to write about the place (with pictures! Many pictures!)

This gold mine was much different from that one, an altogether cruder and less Indiana Jones place, and crumbing in much more spectacular fashion.

We forded a small stream to get there, which alerted me to the fact that my tumble off the log into the river the day before had not only given me a cracked rib but put a hole in my shoe as well–a brief discomfort, gentle reader, that was soon forgotten, driven from my mind by the splendor of large-scale wood structures in decay.

We scrambled up a steep incline to get more pictures.

That little stairway on top, a few short steps to an abrupt and sticky end in the yawning chasm below, is nightmare fuel, for serious.

Let me take this opportunity to assure you, dear reader, that we did in fact eventually make it to Granite. We also passed something along the way that would turn out to be even more interesting than Granite, and I dumped the Adventure Van into a ditch while we were about it…but hat is a story for the next installment.

There is a postscript to this portion of my tale. Yesterday afternoon, as I was preparing for another trip to Canada, I received a package in the mail from Bunny, a gift sent all the way from the UK. Inside, I found this.

If you’re wondering why I love her, that is but one of many, many reasons.

Two Chaosbunnies in the Desert: A Series of Unfortunate Events

Part 1 of this saga is here. Part 7 of this saga is here.
Part 2 of this saga is here. Part 8 of this saga is here.
Part 3 of this saga is here. Part 9 of this saga is here.
Part 4 of this saga is here. Part 10 of this saga is here.
Part 5 of this saga is here. Part 11 of this saga is here.
Part 6 of this saga is here. Part 12 of this saga is here.

We woke, emanix and I, the next morning with birds chirping all about us. She made breakfast and massive quantities of tea (the latter would soon become a regular fixture on our adventure), and discussed where we would go next.

I do not fully understand, dear reader, what strange malformation of logic gave rise to our decision. Somewhere in that conversation, we lost the guiding light of Reason and Logic, and opted to continue down the narrow dirt road in the direction we were headed, rather than heading back to Liberty, the disappointing ghost-town-that-wasn’t and to our previously established route. Perhaps we thought there was another ghost town to be had at the road’s end, though quite what might have given us that idea, I am not sure.

We packed up the van and proceeded down the track, which gradually grew rockier and more treacherous, until soon we feared getting stuck with every passing yard. We pushed on ahead nonetheless, until finally we came to a narrow but quite rapid stream that bisected the road, or what there was of a road, preventing easy passage.

We stood there, debating whether we should risk taking the van through the stream and up the rocky bank on the other side. While we weighed the merits of going on vs. turning around, a young couple in a Toyota Prius pulled up behind us.

They discussed a discussion that followed along the lines of our discussion. “Where does this road go?” we asked them, reasoning (apparently optimistically) that if they were all the way out here, they must have some notion of where they were headed.

“We don’t know!” they said.

Ultimately, they opted to try their luck with the stream. The Prius did that spooky thing Priuses do where it crawled forward with nary a sound, and was soon axle-deep in water. It pulled up on the other side. We waved. They waved.

“Think we can do that?” I asked Bunny. She looked skeptical.

“I wonder what’s on the other side of the stream,” I said. “I want to take a look.”

She set about making lunch while I went upstream a bit and looked for some way across. I found a large log, stripped of branches and leaves, and cautiously walked out onto it.

It turns out, gentle reader, that logs partly submerged in water become quite slippery. You may guess what happened next. My feet shot out from under me, and I plummeted like a stone into the stream, colliding with the log on the way down. The spot where I went in was deeper than it looked, and cold, and moving very fast.

I struggled back out of the water. emanix waved cheerfully. “Lunch is almost ready!”

That episode would have a long-lasting effect on the rest of the trip, as I had, apparently, managed to crack a rib on colliding with the log. For the rest of our adventure, I was reminded of that log every time I tried to lie down at night.

After dinner, we concluded there was no legitimate reason to try crossing the stream, given that we had no idea what (if anything) the other side might offer. We packed up and headed back, retracing our route to Liberty, and from there to the next stop on our cunningly-devised plan.

That next stop turned out to be rather a lot of nothing. We followed Siri’s directions to what would, according to the Web, be an abandoned gold mining town high in the mountains, and discovered…trees. And narrow muddy roads.

At this point, we’d decided we’d had quite enough of navigating the van along steep mountain trails, and headed to the nearest major road to regroup. We spent the night at a rest stop, and woke bright and early the next day. Bunny prepared a rather astonishing quantity of tea, and we were off once more.

We eventually found ourselves, after many hours of driving, sitting in a small country restaurant in a small town in…well, I think it was Washington, though I’m not convinced I’d wager on it.

“I know!” Bunny said. “We should look at Google’s satellite view of all the places we’re headed, so we can tell if they’re worth going to or not!” Such a simple idea, and yet so brilliant.

We hopped on the WiFi and did just that. The ghost town Web site, as it turns out, was a bit rubbish, and most of the places on our route had either come back to life (“zombie towns,” she called them) or faded into nothingness.

We scrapped our previous plan and, after a bit of frantic Googling, put together a new itinerary. Then we piled into the van once more and started down the road toward Hardman.

Hardman, Oregon was settled in 1879, according to Wikipedia. We arrived shortly before sunset, and finally, we got a taste of some real meat.

Hardman is not technically abandoned. A small number of folks still live there, and there are trailers and inhabited houses scattered more or less at random through the ruins.

There’s a community center that’s still in use.

We peeked into the community center. A man who lived in a small shack next to it wandered over. “Want to look inside?” he asked.

“You bet!” we said.

He unlocked the door and ushered us in. “Where are you from?” he said.

“I’m from England,” emanix told him. “I’m from Portland,” I said.

“Portland. It’s full of liberals. Always telling us what to do,” he said.

He ushered us upstairs and showed us around, talking about the history of the place, the ruins of the post office next to the community center, and how he hunts cats in the fields around the town.

We discovered this lovely hulk quietly rusting away just outside the town.

Photos taken, we left town, driving into a most fantastic sunset on the way out.

A much more productive day than falling into the water and cracking a rib, all things considered, but the real jackpots still lay ahead.

Two Chaosbunnies in the Desert: Plans, we have them!

Part 1 of this saga is here. Part 7 of this saga is here.
Part 2 of this saga is here. Part 8 of this saga is here.
Part 3 of this saga is here. Part 9 of this saga is here.
Part 4 of this saga is here. Part 10 of this saga is here.
Part 5 of this saga is here. Part 11 of this saga is here.
Part 6 of this saga is here. Part 12 of this saga is here.

It is a truth often acknowledged that I am not a master of the art of planning. I’ve heard people speak of the many wonderful things that can be accomplished by planning, but the details of this arcane practice have generally been a bit fuzzy to me.

When emanix and I decided to tour the various ghost towns of the Pacific Northwest, I do what I always do: I turned to the Internet. A quick Google search for “ghost towns pacific northwest” turned up a Web site called, logically enough, ghosttowns.com where I could click on states and counties and see lists of ghost towns. Precisely the thing you need if you want to, say, visit ghost towns, right?

As it turns out, it’s not that simple. The site hasn’t been updated in a while, and on top of that, may folks seem to have a…generous definition of “ghost town.”

So it was with the ghost town of Liberty, Washington, a place that was first settled as a gold mining town in the 1800s. We were promised many wonderful things in Liberty. Fresh from the disappointment of Goodnoe, which was less “ghost town” than “a c ouple of old buildings in the middle of a farm,” we set off for Liberty.

Now, it should be mentioned here that the Pacific Northwest is in the New World, and more specifically, in North America. So you can probably understand our confusion, dear readers, when we came upon a sign pointing the way to Stonehenge.

Intrigued, we followed the sign, and discovered…Stonehenge. But not Stonehenge as it is now, oh no. Stonehenge as it was when it was still in operation, in the dim and distant past.

We found a plaque that failed to shed as much light as perhaps it thought it did. Apparently, a Quaker anti-war activist commissioned a 1:1 scale model of Stonehenge in Washington as an anti-war memorial. His reasoning, which I will confess left me scratching my head, was that the original Stonehenge was used for human sacrifice, but the ultimate form of human sacrifice is war, and therefore a model of Stonehenge would be a good anti-war memorial for reasons not clear to your humble scribe. (As it turns out, the original wasn’t used for human sacrifice, it being an observatory and all. I’m not sure what that does to the metaphor.)

Still, it is quite a fantastic place.

We had a discussion about whether or not building a model of Stonehenge in the US counts as cultural appropriation. Can the US culturally appropriate Great Britain’s history?

A quick meal later, I was able to check “have grilled cheese sandwiches prepared on the back of a van at Stonehenge” from my bucket list.

And once again we set off, toward Liberty. Which, after many hours of driving, turned out to be…a still-living town whose residents have made a cottage industry out of promoting as a ghost town.

I have no photos to show you of Liberty, because it seemed weird to us to run around taking pictures of a town that was still very much occupied.

We drove through the town, disappointed, and found a narrow dirt track leading up into the mountains. Thinking, perhaps somewhat optimistically, that anything appropriately decrepit and abandoned might more likely be found on a narrow dirt track in the mountains than on a busy paved road, we ventured up the trail, thinking “we’re heading into the mountains at dusk in a 22-year-old van, what’s the worst that can happen?”

The road got steeper and rougher, then steeper and rougher still, and we soon found ourselves well and truly in the middle of nowhere and facing the unenviable prospect of retracing our steps after dark.

The nice thing about adventuring in the Adventure Van is we always have a bed with us, so we parked on the top of the mountain, surrounded by fantastic scenery, and did precisely that. The view from the campsite looked like this:

emanix has, it must be said, some epic mad camping skillz, which she demonstrated by building a fire and cooking dinner for us.

The day made obvious to us a small but significant flaw in my cunning plan. Clearly, if we were going to make the most of this adventure, we would need some way to separate the wheat from the chaff and focus our effort on only those ghost towns most likely to give us the best bang for our buck.

I’d like to say it was I who came up with the missing ingredient in our earlier plan, gentle readers, but that would be a filthy, filthy lie. It was in fact emanix who got the idea that would set things aright…but that’s a story for the next chapter.

Two Chaosbunnies in the Desert: The Beginning

Part 1 of this saga is here. Part 7 of this saga is here.
Part 2 of this saga is here. Part 8 of this saga is here.
Part 3 of this saga is here. Part 9 of this saga is here.
Part 4 of this saga is here. Part 10 of this saga is here.
Part 5 of this saga is here. Part 11 of this saga is here.
Part 6 of this saga is here. Part 12 of this saga is here.

So there we were, in the middle of the California desert, atop a mountain at 8500 feet where the sun was so brutal it burned us through our clothing and the air was so thin that walking a dozen yards meant sitting down to rest, surrounded by the ruins of cutting edge Victorian technology…

But maybe I should back up a little.

It all happened because emanix is an artist, and land in Britain is scarce and expensive.

The part about her being an artist is important because she conceived an idea for a graphic novel and decided to embark on the arduous process of birthing that idea into a real thing. And the part about land being scarce in the United Kingdom? There are no ghost towns there. People don’t pack up and abandon entire cities, leaving them to crumble quietly into dust.

But I’m getting ahead of myself again.

So, the graphic novel. It’s set in a ghost town, you see. And ghost towns, well, they’re as thin on the ground where she lives as snowmen in the Philippines.

So it came to pass that she flew across the pond to Portland, and we set out to tour the many and varied ghost towns of the western United States. For background research, you see. We would, we thought, spend a few weeks living in the back of a camper van–tax-deductible, of course–surveying and photographing abandoned towns for the sake of making art.

That was the extent of our cunning plan…more a cunning intention, really. We are chaosbunnies, she and I. One does not become a chaosbunny by forming a plan and sticking to it.

I did some research, by which I mean I typed “ghost towns” into Google and typed the result into Google Maps. It chewed for a while, an enormous massive parallel supercomputer bending some small part of its mighty attention to the task of drawing dotted lines on a map of the western United States. We piled our suitcases into the van and we were off…

…to a Wal-Mart to get supplies and an oil change. Then we were off…

…to the Wal-Mart parking lot, to meet my sweetie zaiah, who had realized I’d forgotten my jacket and kindly ran it out to me. Then we were off…

…and realized we’d nearly forgotten ice for the cooler. That taken care of, we were off, on a three-week adventure that would take us nearly 4,000 miles, across narrow dirt trails winding high into the mountains and through trackless expanses of Forest Service land, looking for places where people had once lived and didn’t any more.

The thing that worried me the most was the shovel. We’d packed a shovel, emanix and I, because she felt there might be an occasion during which we might have to poop in a hole. I’ve never quite got the hand of pooping in the hole. To be honest, I tend to regard the process with some suspicion, not to mention a fair degree of horror.

Minor reservations about the shovel aside, we set off with boundless optimism to venture into the desert, just the two of us and a 22-year-old van, bunny ears perched jauntily upon our heads.

The ears I’m wearing are new, a gift from emanix to replace the previous set she gave me some five or six years ago, and which, after accompanying me on countless adventures across the globe, have become somewhat shabby and dilapidated for the wear. Shabby bunny ears are a sad thing, but everyday, around-town ears are surprisingly difficult to come by.

The first leg of our plan intention had us traveling through Washington, exploring a number of old mining towns throughout the state.

There is a saying among those who practice the art of war: a plan rarely survives contact with the enemy. It might, I think, be extended just a bit, to say a plan rarely survives contact with the enemy or a chaosbunny. Two chaosbunnies in one van is, therefore, right out. (Indeed, I suspect that should your life ever bring you into contact with two chaosbunnies in one van, you might well be advised to batten down the hatches, yo, because things likely will get interesting.)

So off we went, the two of us in a van, driving along the highway without a care in the world save for running out of gas, having a breakdown, having a breakdown in the middle of the desert, having a breakdown in the middle of the desert and running out of food or water, getting bitten by a venomous snake in the middle of the desert, having a breakdown in the middle of the desert and running out of food and water and then getting bitten by a venomous snake, and being attacked by clowns. We ventured into Washington and began searching, that first night, for a hotel to stay in, figuring that the van would be our home once the trip really got going.

We pulled into the Scenic Winds Motel…

…and immediately realized that, entirely by accident, we’d started our trip in a ghost motel.

Even Norman Bates might have some reluctance to check in here.

“Ah,” thought we, “this bodes well! We’re finding abandoned places without really trying!”

Sadly, we couldn’t actually camp here, as the proximity to the road and the rather forbidding “no trespassing” signs would, we thought, attract the attention of law enforcement, who are notorious for the absence of their sense of irony.

So we spent the night in a motel that wasn’t abandoned, and set off bright and early on the first leg of our tour.

We did actually make the first stop on our planned itinerary, at Goodnoe Hills, Washington. The Internet assured us this town, first established in the 1860s and abandoned soon thereafter, would be a productive stop. We arrived, ears still jaunty, just in time to be underwhelmed.

Which is not to say that there was nothing left of the old ghost town, only that there was almost nothing left. We discovered an abandoned house that looked like it was last decorated by human hands sometime in the most hideous part of that most hideous decade, the 70s:

There was an astonishing number of birds living in a bedroom on the second floor, and the quantity of guano was something that had to be seen to be believed. Seriously. I will see it in my nightmares for decades to come.

My parents used to have this exact phone. I haven’t seen one of these in a donkey’s age. Kids today probably wouldn’t know how to work one. No, scratch that, a lot of adults today probably wouldn’t know how to work one.

Cool, in its own ghastly way, but definitely not what we were looking for.

We had a bit better luck a few blocks down the road, for some loose definition of “blocks.” We found the ruins of a lovely old church, gradually crumbling into the dusty ground.

We weren’t able to get inside; the church was surrounded by a barbed-wire fence with dire “no trespassing” signs plastered all over it.

Still, it was quite lovely.

A bit further on, we encountered this place. Now this, we thought, was cooking with fire. This was a proper ruin, just the sort of thing we were hoping to find.

Overall, though, Goodnoe was a bit of a wash. The locals had destroyed most of the remnants of the old town and set down farms where the buildings once stood.

This would turn out to be a recurring theme in the early part of our ghost town adventures, until we figured out a new strategy that necessitated abandoning our original plan altogether.

But that’s a story for the next chapter.

Visiting Chrome

“What do you want to do tonight?” I asked Eve.

“Dunno. What do you want to do?”

“I’m up for anything,” I said, in a rare moment of underestimating the true meaning of ‘anything.’

“Well,” she said, pointing to her laptop screen, “this looks interesting.”

And so it was we left this plane of reality and stepped into William Gibson’s version of 2014, as seen from the mid-1980s.

It wasn’t actually our intention to travel to a dystopian alternate reality, you understand. We were looking for an evening’s casual entertainment, and didn’t feel like watching Guardians of the Galaxy. So she did a Google search, and found a thing called Richmond Night Market.

If Canada had truth-in-advertising laws, the name “Richmond Night Market” might raise eyebrows at whatever regulatory bodies (tribal meetings of Kurgan warriors? Men in polar bear skins pounding on each other with long decorative spears?) may exist in the bitter frozen wastelands of the North.

“Richmond Night Market.” It’s what you might call a flea market with unorthodox hours, or perhaps a weekly gathering of fishmongers selling wares straight off the boat to the finest sushi restaurants in downtown Vancouver. “Richmond Night Market.” The name conjures wholesome images of open-air commerce, the sort of place where one might go to buy a new china bowl for serving fruit punch in.

One would not expect, from the name, a gigantic rubber duck. Nor a dystopian world of stimrunners and outlawed bioactives, shivs and black docs.

We got there after sunset. The line already wrapped around the fenced perimeter, snaking beneath massive concrete pilings supporting the whining elevated trains. Loudspeakers encouraged us to buy books of passes, which would get us in at a discounted rate. Eve climbed a bit of broken concrete and leaned over the perimeter fence for a picture.

We eventually made our way in, via a quick bit of social engineering to persuade the people in line around us to pool our resources for a passbook (“skip the line!” the cute Asian woman hawking them said. “Save fifty cents!”). Passbook in hand, our ratag group went to the special entrance, and stepped through the perimeter into…into…

If Ridley Scott decided to do an adaptation of Neuromancer, this is where you’d go to find a Netrunner. If Neal Stephenson were to reimagine Snow Crash as a Canadian made-for-TV series, you might find Raven here, scowling and skulking among the stalls. If I ever run a postcyberpunk RPG, this place will be there, somewhere, a glittering Easter egg of neon and LEDs waiting for the players to find.

On the surface, the Richmond Night Market is an open-air collection of vendors selling wares. But such a simple explanation fails to do justice to it, in the way that describing the Great Pyramid of Cheops as a “big pile of rocks” or the combined works of William Shakespeare as “a bunch of words about people being awful to each other” fails to convey the pure Platonic essence of these things.

Richmond Night Market is an open-air collection of vendors selling wares. But such a place it is, and such wares.

Upon entering the Richmond Night Market through the special, skip-the-line-with-your-magic-passbook gate, one is confronted with a riot of bright lights and busy signs, most in Chinese and English, some in Chinese only. Crowds of people flow like oil through the interstitial spaces between the stalls, while vendors work busily to separate them from their money.

We passed hastily-erected tents offering e-cigarettes (“Vape! Vape! Better than smoking!”), small radio-controlled drones with cameras on them, and long black swords (“buy one, get one free!”). Next to the stall selling smartphone accessories was another selling DNA typing (“put your name on the registry! Find an organ donor!”). A dazzling display of laser lights led to a bored-looking woman with a collection of drop knives and canisters of pepper spray. Across from her, another booth offered stem cell tissue typing (“must be between 18 and 35,” the stern-looking woman said). Around the corner, we found small paper buckets of battered squid tentacles, deep-fried Mars bars, and computer services (“Unlock your phone! Run any software! Any software you like!”) Eve accepted a sample of exotic tea in a tiny paper cup that leaked. “They don’t seem terribly interested in selling tea,” I said. “Probably contraband biologicals in the back.”

At one booth, a dour-looking man about the size of Philadelphia stood with his arms folded. A small sign was propped against the table, showing two exuberantly muscled men standing back to back, one holding a sword. “What do–?” I started to ask. He growled. “I’ll just keep moving, then,” I said.

Signs tied to an enormous rubber ducky with bits of nylon rope promised a Magical Candyland. We wandered around, blinking, until we found it: a low concrete wall with flaking paint, behind which a couple of elderly women sold lollipops from a yellowing plastic bin. I didn’t ask what the magic was; I’m still not entirely sure I want to know.

A momentary turbulence in the flow of people disgorged a friend of Eve’s. “I found pens!” she said, before the crowd swallowed her again. “Hello Kitty!” Behind her, a man dressed as a panda sold airline tickets to mainland China. “Samsung TV!” said a guy to my right. “True 4K! Only $3,000!”

“Who the hell,” I asked Eve, “comes here and drops three thousand bucks on an impulse buy?”

We wandered through the noise and mayhem, feeling a bit like the main character of Zero Theorem at the party. Everyone around us seemed to move with purpose, crowds of people here each with an agenda, and almost none of those agendas involving Hello Kitty pens. Eddies swirled in the crowd, looking random–one in front of the DNA testing tent, another at the place selling drones. “Vape! Vape! Run any software! Tissue typing!” A crowd gathered in front of the booth advertising “The secret knowledge of the Bible, what Jesus REALLY said!” and disappeared just as quickly.

Eventually, the flow of the crowd deposited us near where we’d come in. “So, um,” she said, “are you ready to leave? Because this place–”

“Yes,” I said. “Yes, I am.”

We headed out empty-handed. I was too old for tissue typing, didn’t have a spare three thousand dollars for a new TV, and wasn’t sure I wanted to start trafficking in restricted biochemical agents just that evening.

Still, I will admit to some nostalgia for the days when we thought dystopia would mean netrunners and celebrities with Zeiss Ikon eyes, rather than the dreary same-old same-old of run-of-the-mill corporate malfeasance and Middle Eastern war we ended up with. We had, for a brief, shining moment, a taste of the more interesting ways society might have run off the rails, and that world seemed so much more fascinating than the dystopia we settled for.

Nome, Alaska: There’s gold on that ther beach!

Nome, Alaska was incorporated as a town in 1901, because of a gold rush. In the late 1800s, gold was discovered in the mountains around Nome; in the early 1900s, more gold was discovered in the sand on the edge of the Bering Sea.

There’s still lots of gold in Nome. While there’s no longer a full-on gold rush, there’s still considerable gold mining around Nome, and some of its beaches are designated for “recreational mining.”

For three months out of the year, Nome’s beaches are home to the strangest temporary communities you will find outside Burning Man. But these are not well-off techie hipsters who take drugs and dance around a giant fire. They’re folks from Canada and the United States who head up to Nome, where they set up tents and build makeshift houses from reclaimed materials (shipping pallets, old signs, and whatever else they can find) to spend the summer months sifting the beach sand for gold.

There are all kinds of rules on recreational gold mining. Each “claim” is at most 75 feet wide; claims are temporary and evaporate at the end of the season or when you move off the beach; there’s a limit of 40 ounces of gold per person or group per year, which is about $52,000 worth at current market prices. There are limits on the equipment that can be used.

The people who do this are a really interesting bunch. We talked to several folks on the beach, most of whom come up year after year to look for gold. The people we met were friendly and outgoing, willing to show us their equipment and talk about their favorite techniques. Most were cagey about the amount of gold they find every year, but my impression was they generally tend to get about the 40-ounce limit.

Or at least that’s what they declare at the end of the season.

There’s industrial-scale mining as well, but to me, the hobbyist mining is absolutely fascinating.

Summer in Nome is strange: the sun barely ever sets (it’s a little freaky to go outside at midnight and see the sun still high in the sky), so the beach miners tend to work whenever they are awake and sleep whenever they’re tired–there seems to be little in the way of set schedules. The temperature was pleasant while we were there, though apparently near-constant light rain and occasional storms are normal during parts of the summer. It is still Alaska, which means the environment is still hostile enough to produce the occasional odd survival event without warning; as a result, the community tends to be close-knit, with everyone watching out for everyone else…interesting to see in folks who are prone to say they enjoy doing this every year at least partly to get away from other people.

The sand on the beach looks like this. The red color apparently indicates rich gold-bearing sand.

I’m actually considering going up there next year and spending the summer living on the beach panning for gold. Not because I expect to find any or to strike it rich, mind, but simply for the experience of it. It would make one hell of a “how I spent my summer vacation” story! In fact, Eve has suggested I do a Kickstarter to get the equipment I need, with the goal of producing a coffee-table book about the experience and the folks who do it. (There are rumors the state will not be permitting hobbyist mining on the beach next year, though these rumors seem to have been circulating for years–one person we talked to said he heard the same thing several years back when he did it for the first time.)

Back when the 1940s and 1950s, it was common to mine for gold using enormous dredging machines like this one, now in ruins and slowly crumbling into the tundra:

These gigantic hulks are dotted all over the landscape around Nome. They were expensive to build and ship, and woefully inefficient–at best, they might recover 40% of the gold from the sand. In fact, the tailings left behind by these old machines are being mined again with more efficient techniques, and the amount of gold left in them is quite high.

I’m not sure I want to be doing this, but I am very sure I want to have done it. The book that would come out of this experience would be amazing.

Nome, Alaska: The Last Train to Nowhere

As the result of a lengthy and somewhat improbable series of events, I’m in Nome, Alaska with my sweetie Eve, working on another book.

A few days back, we took a drive on the one road that goes through Nome. Nome is inaccessible by car; the only road links it to the nearby towns of Council and Teller.

If you drive out toward Council, a trip I recommend only during the summer and then only in a large 4WD vehicle, about twenty miles from Nome you’ll come across the long-deserted ghost town of Solomon, a leftover from the gold rush in the early 1900s. Near Solomon, you’ll find what’s left of a failed attempt to bring rail service to Nome.

In 1903, an enterprising group of people formed a company to build a railroad to serve the gold mines near Solomon. They bought a bunch of secondhand elevated railway engines from New York City and hauled them up to Nome by barge.

In 1907, a storm washed out the one rail bridge between Solomon and Nome, leaving the trains stranded on the edge of the water. The company folded and simply walked away, leaving the trains where they were, to quietly rust away into the tundra.

That seems to be a common theme in Alaska. The landscape is dotted with abandoned mining equipment, wrecked construction vehicles, and huge pieces of machinery simply left where they were when they became inoperable.

The locals call this steam engine graveyard “The Last Train to Nowhere.”

Even during the summer, it’s cold and windy here. The train never was reliable under the best of circumstances, so it’s no surprise there was no effort to replace it.

Stopping by the side of the road…

zaiah and I spent the last four days camping near Puget Sound to celebrate our seventh anniversary, and to pick up the new addition to the household: a tiny blue Tonkinese kitten who will be a breeding tom for my kitten Kyla.

On the drive, we passed the ruins of an old house just off the interstate and (naturally) had to pull over to take care of it. The house is located in someone’s back yard, so after we’d hopped off the interstate, we knocked on the door and asked the gentleman living there (a retired engineer) if we could take pictures of it. He agreed, and away we went.

Unfortunately, it was biting cold, so we couldn’t linger. I did get some interesting shots, though. I love this kind of ruin!

Clicky here to see more!

Sex for Science! Chapter 4: Accidental Misadventures

Sex for Science! Chapter 0
Sex for Science! Chapter 1
Sex for Science! Interlude
Sex for Science! Chapter 2
Sex for Science! Chapter 3
Sex for Science! Chapter 4

The morning after our experimentation, the sun rose bright and early in a Seattle sky.

I, however, did not. I slept like a brick until just before checkout. I was so determined to sleep, in fact, that I’m told I totally slept right through random kinky sex happening in the bed not three feet from mine. I’ve always been a bit rubbish in the morning.

Once we had packed everything in the car and checked out, it was off to Portland again…at least, that was the plan. Life sometimes has a way of interfering with one’s plans, though. As it turned out, Life, that tempting and mysterious mistress of temptation, tempted us with a couple of interesting and mysterious tidbits along the way, and so it turned out to take rather longer to get back home than we’d expected.

Many of the Portland test subjects who’d participated in the experiment headed back on their own. We, by which I mean zaiah, the pair of Australians, and I, packed ourselves into the car and headed south along the interstate, unaware of the distractions awaiting us on the drive.

The first distraction was a strange series of steel structures flanking Interstate 5, a bit less than halfway home.

It was entirely too strange to pass up, so we exited the interstate and drove around on some a series of narrow, twisty roads, all alike, until we’d wormed our way back to the place we’d seen.

Apparently, there’s some sort of land-use thing going on there right now.

Curiosity piqued, we (by which I mean half of the pair of Australians and I) figured there was nothing for it but to hop the fence and investigate.

Apparently, according to a quick cell phone Google search, the thing is Gospodor’s Monument, built by oil millionaire Dominic Gospodor, who died in 2010. The monument is supposed to honor Mother Theresa, Native Americans, and Holocaust victims, with minor bits paying respects to Jonas Salk and Susan B. Anthony.

That bit of trespass done, we piled back into the car and headed south once more. Just past the town of Castle Rock, which as near as I can tell has neither a castle nor a rock, we saw a decrepit, falling-down house on the side of the road, right up against the interstate. And once again, there was nothing for it but to pull off the freeway and investigate.

Horror movies start this way, I’m told.

We stayed here for quite a while taking pictures. Well, I stayed here for quite a while taking pictures, while zaiah and our Australian pair mostly humored me.

Click here to see a lot more pics!

Rural Decay

If you drive along Interstate 80 through Nebraska, you’ll see a lot of wheat fields, a lot of corn fields, and very little else.

If you keep at it, and drive until you feel the endless flat landscape pressing against your sanity like Nyarlathotep descending on a tasty morsel of virgin consciousness, you’ll reach exit 382.

There’s nothing there, really. A golf cart store, a gas station, a sign advertising an inn that’s been closed for years…that’s about it. There is also, just to the north of the interstate and a little more than a quarter of a mile from the exit, the ruins of a tiny wooden church, collapsing into decay.

The church itself is here:

When we drove past the church, I had no choice but to stop and photograph it. The ruins are beautiful beyond all comprehension. It’s a pretty hard slog from the exit, through thick brush, and a barbed-wire fence along the interstate prevented me from getting behind it. Plus, I got ticks while getting these pictures. Ticks! *shudders*

Some of these pictures would make awesome posters.

Clicky here for more!