Saturday, September 3, 2016

Philadelphia's New Mormon Temple

I don’t remember how I found out that there was a new Mormon temple in the Philadelphia, but my eyebrows arched immediately when I heard the news.  I’ve driven by the Mormon temple on the Washington beltway a bunch of times, and each time I go by I wish I’d been able to check it out.

You can’t just visit as you would any other place of worship; Mormon temples are only open to non-Mormons for a short while before they’re consecrated. After that, if you want to see it, you have to become a Mormon, down to right down to the eschewing caffeine and booze and wearing the special underwear. I wasn’t going to miss my chance as what realtors call a “looky-loo” and right from the start, I'd ruled out religious conversion in order to get a look.

Accordingly, I took a break from enjoying the sun and surf of Stone Harbor NJ (“The Seashore at its Best”) to drive to Philadelphia to check the temple out. Yes, it was difficult to tear me away from making sure that my beach tag was pinned to my swimsuit, that there was air in my bicycle tires, and that I walked past The Fudge Kitchen after dinner every night for my free sample of rich, creamy fudge. The sacrifices I make for my blog!

I called my friend Martha see if she’d join me, but she’d already been and wasn’t up for a reprise of the experience.  She told me that there were scads of volunteers and parking would be a breeze. I’m not sure how many stars that translates into on Yelp, but presumably it’s more than zero.

Martha told me I’d have to go to the temple’s website to make a reservation for a tour.  When I did, I chose a time in midday so I wouldn’t have to sit too long (in theory) in Philadelphia traffic. The website told me that I’d have to print and bring my ticket with me or have it available on my phone. And to dress modestly, too!  In other words, don’t dress for a Kardashian-ready red carpet scene hosted by the panelists on E!’s Fashion Police.

I have only a very limited experience with Mormon-themed tourism. Many, and I do mean many, years ago my friend Pat and I visited the Joseph Smith Birthplace, on LDS Lane in Royalton, Vermont. Joseph Smith, as American history buffs know, was the founder of the church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints, aka the Mormons. The faithful say that he was the scribe of the Book of Mormon—the one you find in the nightstand of every Marriott hotel—not the Broadway show.

The monument features a granite obelisk whose “polished shaft” is 38 ½ feet tall, one foot for each year of Joseph Smith’s life.

In case you’re wondering...as far as Vermont erections are concerned, Joseph Smith’s is dwarfed by the Bennington Battle Monument, which at 306’ is not quite ten times the high of the Joseph Smith memorial. Oh right, size isn’t everything.

And so, on the appointed day, after sitting in a traffic jam on the Vine Street Expressway, I was there, ready for my tour. Martha was correct: parking was a breeze. There were scads of volunteers directing me to the right spot in the garage. Perhaps my modest clothes were a dead giveaway, but no one asked to see proof of my reservation.

I have no doubt that operating rooms at the Mayo Clinic are dirtier than that parking garage. I wouldn’t have been surprised had there been a paper barrier on my parking spot informing me that it had been sanitized for my protection. Are all Mormon-operated parking garages as sparkling?
A smiling Mormon at every turn directed the crowds from the parking garage to the meeting house across the street from the temple for the start of tours.

The exterior of the meeting house looked like a modern-ish suburban church. Inside, it was like every suite of church offices I’ve ever been in, except for newer carpeting, better AV equipment, and no signs about peanut allergies. Smiling Mormons ushered us into a room filled with ten rows of folding chairs.

When there were about 20 visitors in the room, two young women, each with a decidedly Stepford-ish mien, introduced themselves to us. They had the not making eye contact with anyone thing down pat.  Perhaps they cannot smile and make eye contact at the same time? At the end of their somewhat robotic welcome, they played a brief introductory video, that mostly said, God loves us.

The video covered Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptist and that’s pretty much when I lost interest…at the exact point when I decided that the Biblical-era costumes had been recycled from Lancaster’s Sight and Sound Theatre.  When the video ended, the Stepford girls introduced us to our docent and reminded us that we weren’t to take photos in the temple. (I was compliant, all of the interior shots I have used were publicly available.)

We followed our docent out into the hall and down a set of stairsMartha clued me in that there would be lots of stairsand out onto the sidewalk where we waited to cross the street to the temple grounds. While were waiting a man walked down along our group handing people a newspaper. He was from Mission to Mormons, an evangelical Christian group that seeks to convert Mormons into evangelical Christians.  One of the people in my tour group asked the man who his newspaper was from and he said “It’s from me.”  Clearly this wasn't his first rodeo.

The smiling Mormons took no notice of him. They just smiled. In fact, all the Mormons on duty were really good at smiling.  The special Mormon underwear they're famous for must keep chafing to a minimum.

I’d barely had time to look at my paper from Mission to Mormons when it was time to walk across the street to the temple itself.

According to the website LDSTemples.com (a self-described labor of love not affiliated with the LDS church);

 The granite-clad Philadelphia Pennsylvania Temple has been designed with architectural elements to complement the classic architecture exhibited in the neighboring buildings and throughout historic Philadelphia where the United States was founded in 1776. The spires, for example, are reminiscent of the clock tower on Independence Hall…

OK, that’s a generous assessment. While the builders get points for trying to respect the architectural and historical context of the site, I wish they’d done something that wasn't quite so literal. I’m not really sure that the clock tower of Independence Hall works when it’s refashioned in granite and plopped atop a building many times the size of anything in pre-Revolutionary Philadelphia. But yes, they did try.

In the building’s forecourt we were met by yet another smiling Mormon (I think the count was up to 10) who pointed out the inscription on the front of the temple: Holiness to the Lord The House of the Lord.  Smiling Mormon #10 acted as if this were the great American novel, boiled down to nine words, something I just wasn’t getting. I didn’t have much time to not get it, since we were soon directed to walk across the forecourt to a station where we would get disposable shoe covers.

I have been on lots of tours where you have to wear disposable shoe covers so that you don’t scratch the floors of the house you’re visiting. They’re standard at the Stone Harbor Garden Club Home Tour. Apparently the conspicuous consumers who open their mega McMansions to garden clubbers and their friends are worried about someone wearing Tory Burch flats tracking Shih Tzu poop into their mega McMansion. Or something. Who knows?
 
However, on the Garden Club Home Tour, you pluck your booties from a tasteful wicker basket on the porch of the mega McMansion you’re about to visit and put them on yourself. 

At the Mormon temple, there was a crew of smiling Mormons who actually put them on for you.  So everyone in my tour group just stood there, leaning on the special bootie donning rail while a smiling Mormon got you kitted out in their special non-fetching white rubber-ish shoe covers. I certainly hope after Labor Day they change the shoe covers to a more seasonally appropriate color.

After waiting in line just a little bit more, we were ushered in to the temple itself, where we were met by another smiling Mormon. We gathered in the small entrance lobby that looked as if it belonged in a spa decorated in a Vegas inspired version of Colonial Williamsburg, or, as one of my profs used to say, Phony Colony, pronounced in a rhyming fashion.  We weren’t allowed to take photos in the Temple so you rely on these publicity photos that the temple management has released.

The Smiling Mormon in the entrance lobby was wearing shoe covers, just like every other Smiling Mormon in the temple. I wondered if they’d taken the plastic slip covers off the furniture just for us.

The central feature of the lobby was a check in desk where, once the building is closed to the public on September 9, Mormons will have to present credentials in order to get in. They didn’t explain in if this involves a secret decoder ring or exactly what. (I’m thinking yes on that score.)

I noted there was a painting of the Founding Fathers signing the Declaration of Independence in the waiting area. Had the painting included Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, or any of the Osmonds, it would have been the best piece of religious art this side of the painting of Jesus handing out diplomas in the chapel at Gettysburg College.  As it was, it only rose to the level of pretty bad. The smiling bootie-wearing Mormon didn’t mention the painting.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a painting of the Signing of the Declaration of Independence in a house of worship before. Perhaps this was just a nod to the local culture; if so, the Bayonne, New Jersey temple probably has a painting of the invention of the toxic waste dump.

The next stop on the tour was the baptismal font room, or baptistry, also decorated in the Vegas Colonial style. The baptistery was a two story square space, with what appeared to be an eight person hot tub in its center.

We were at the second floor level of the room and so could stand at the iron railing and look down to see that the hot tub, I mean baptismal font, was supported by twelve life size bronze oxen. The smiling bootie-wearing Mormon docent in this room noted that oxen symbolized the twelve tribes of ancient Israel. As the above photo clearly shows, the oxen were not wearing booties.

There are some more paintings on the wall, including one of two men in 19th dress, in a river, fully clothed.  Perhaps the painting depicts baptism, perhaps they were just too embarrassed to go skinny dipping. Who knows? None of the smiling bootie-wearing Mormon docents—and there were enough to create quite a line at Starbucks if they would ever go to Starbucks—ever mentioned any of the art at any point in the tour.

So, about that art.

The building is filled with what seemed to be reproductions of paintings done in a School of Thomas Kincaid Does the Children’s Illustrated Bible style. If you were thinking our best and brightest artists would be commissioned to decorate the temple the way Pope Julius II commissioned Michelangelo, think again. And keep thinking.

I purposefully checked out the paintings and some locally inspired works caught my eye:

The three Magi meeting at the Wanamaker’s Eagle while they’re out Christmas shopping

Jesus feeding the multitudes with cheesesteaks from Pat’s AND Geno’s.

Moses parting gaper delay on the Schuylkill Expressway's Conshohocken Curve

And finally, my favorite,

Jesus at the Linc preaching to the angry multitude, Let he who has an all-Eagles fantasy football team cast the first snowball at Santa.

OK, those paintings weren’t really there. But they would have fit right in!

After the baptismal font, we were shepherded through a bunch of small rooms, sometimes staffed by a smiling bootie-wearing Mormon docent, but mostly empty.  There were special locker rooms where men and women would change into their “temple garments”.  There were lots of small meeting rooms whose purpose wasn’t readily apparent to this non-smiling bootie-wearing Presbyterian. There were some rooms that looked like small theatres, though curiously lacking the stage. Interestingly enough, there isn’t one grand space, as there is in a church, synagogue, or mosque, and none of the rooms in the place had anything that looked remotely like a church pew.

Since there are so many small rooms, all decorated in the Vegas Colonial style, the temple looked like a really nice, brand new, funeral home. Or perhaps a conference center owned by the Mary Kay Corporation. It’s not like any house of worship I’ve been to, and I’ve been to lots of them.

The climax of the tour was when we got to see the Sealing Room on the top floor. It held about 50 chairs which were arranged to face each other, as if we were ready for an all Mormon version of the game show, Family Feud. There was an electric organ in the corner of the room.

A smiling bootie-wearing Mormon married couple explained that in ceremonies in this room you could be “sealed” to your spouse and family for eternity. ETERNITY. As in for longer than life. She thought that this was the best thing ever. I, on the other hand, sat there thinking, “Holy crap. Eternity with my family or the as yet undrafted Mr. Right…I’d kill myself.”

I remembered my friend Kathleen’s 18/36 rule for visiting her parents. Fewer than 18 hours was too short, more than 36 hours was too long.

Eternity, even if during much of that time you are technically dead, well, that’s just beyond the pale.

After, or perhaps before the Sealing Room, my memory is hazy, we also got to see the extra special Celestial Room. It’s decorated in the Even More Over the Top Vegas Colonial Style. This style is also known to shelter mag readers as Liberace Does Colonial Williamsburg.  The room—capacity 80, according to the fire department—is for sitting and having deep thoughts, of which, I was fresh out. I did note that an arm on one of the super fancy crystal sconces was broken. Apparently shoe covers can’t prevent all accidents. At least no Shih Tzu poop was involved.

Once we’d done the Sealing Room and the Celestial Room our tour was over. We were invited to go to the visitors’ center next door—no booties required. There was no gift shop—not even a pop-up, and of course, no coffee shop.

I did the jiffy tour of the visitors’ center. There were no story panels about the building, its construction, the people who built it, or even about the LDS church. There was no model of the building or even a souvenir book.  There was a time lapse video of the building’s construction, which I skipped. There was a large sculpture of Christ, which looked surprisingly out of place given the lack of religious imagery--at least that I recognized--on the tour.

Instead, I focused on the sample boards that gave visitors a model home-esque look at color swatches, a sample of the carpeting—made in China, btw—and various moldings. Of all the million and one things that could tell the story of that particular place, I was astonished that they chose some sample boards with color swatches.

When it was all said and done, I didn’t learn much about the Mormon faith. In fact, I’d hardly learned anything about it. For a faith community so practiced at proselytizing, that was a shock.  None of the smiling bootie-wearing Mormon docents said much about the essential tenets of the faith though they tried to answer the few questions from the folks on our tour. There was more information about the LDS church in the newspaper that I got from the evangelical anti-Mormon than any of the smiling bootie-wearing Mormons provided.

Likewise, I didn't learn much about the Mormon temple. The smiling bootie-wearing Mormons dished out even less information about the Temple building than they did about their religion. If I wanted to know that the exterior was clad in granite quarried in Maine but finished in Canada, I’d have to look elsewhere. They even skipped the details on the unique symbol of their faith, the statue of the angel Moroni statue atop the place. In case you’re wondering, it’s 21 feet, 2 inches tall, made of fiberglass, and covered with gold leaf.

The tour was light on information, but heavy on smiles.  I didn't know a whole lot more than I did before I took the tour, but I did get to see the interior of the temple, and that was the whole point of the visit. My one regret is that I didn't ask someone about Mormons not drinking coffee.

Oh well. I couldn't stand that much smiling in the line at Starbucks anyway.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

What I Did On My Summer Vacation (2016 Edition)

I’ve always wanted to drive coast-to-coast. I'm not sure where I got the idea. Perhaps I’ve been inspired by looking at tiny black and white photos from grandparents' cross country trip in the 1930s. Or maybe it was hearing about the trip from my parents, who did it in the early 1950s. From the vantage point of 2016, travel in the pre-Interstate Highway, Hampton Inn, factory air, GPS, and smartphone era was an adventure even if the specter of the Donner Party wasn’t lurking around every bend.

Or maybe I just wanted to get my kicks on Route 66:

Now you go through St. Louie
Joplin, Missouri
And Oklahoma City looks mighty pretty.
You'll see Amarillo,
Gallup, New Mexico,
Flagstaff, Arizona.
Don't forget Winona,
Kingman, Barstow, San Bernandino.


You’re welcome for that earworm.

The closest I’ve come to doing it was an unplanned drive from Omaha to State College in November of 1980 something.  My father and his wife were driving home from a hunting trip to South Dakota when he had heart trouble in Fremont, Nebraska. After a stay in the local hospital, they flew back to Pennsylvania, leaving their Jeep Cherokee in the parking lot at the Omaha airport. I was visiting my sister in Texas at the time, so I flew to Omaha, dug the car out of the snow, spent the night with the parents of a good friend, and headed east.

On my trip home, I found time to beat the rush of architectural tourists at the Louis Sullivan designed bank in Grinnell, Iowa.

For an encore, I stopped at the Herbert Hoover Birthplace and Presidential Library in even smaller West Branch, Iowa. Hot spots on many a bucket list, I know. I spent the night in Elkhart, Indiana, in a Red Roof Inn with the thinnest towels ever. I haven’t stayed at a Red Roof Inn since. In fact, whenever I see a Red Roof Inn I wonder if it has crappy towels, too.

So when my friend Martha asked me to go with her to help move some of her mother’s things from a vacation condo in Arizona to her mother’s new digs in San Rafael, California, I said sure. It might not be Route 66 from Chicago to L.A. or I-80 from Omaha to State College, but the trip offered the prospect of the Mojave Desert in August. What’s not to like about that?!

I did have two nagging thoughts. In the tchotchke moving department, didn't M. remember that I was voted the clumsiest member of the State College Area High School Class of 1975? And as far as the driving was concerned, surely she knew that I was good at wrecking rental cars, especially in Arizona.  Fortunately for my easily bruised ego, if Martha had doubts about me as a he-man tchotchke mover, she kept them to herself.

Since the trip would start by flying to Phoenix and I hate just about everything about the pre-flight security screening, I signed up for TSA Pre-Check. I made an appointment at the TSA service center in Harrisburg and was there several weeks later, on time, with two forms of government-issued ID in hand.  The appointment was five minutes in a cube farm with a nice woman who, for some reason, reminded me of Rosa Klebb. The interview consisted of her asking me if I had any aliases. No aliases here, so I passed. She told me that I should have my clearance in about ten days.

It’s been 45 days since my appointment. Still no TSA clearance. They tell me on the phone that it’s coming soon, a promise along the lines of the check’s in the mail and I’ll respect you in the morning.

Since Martha was coming from Philadelphia and I was coming from State College, we arranged to meet at the Phoenix Airport. I had time to kill so I killed it by the tram between terminals. Yes, I’m easily amused.

I’d reserved a minivan, not because I was trying to pass as a soccer mom, but since Martha was unsure just how many tchotchkes we were picking up. And I got a GPS, too. Just because the specter of the Donner party isn’t lurking around every bend doesn’t mean it’s not lurking someplace.

After leaving the airport we drove through lots of that suburban sprawl that looks the same no matter what city you’re trying to escape.  When the sprawl finally ended we went through a bit of Sonoran Desert, home of the saguaro cactus. That was pretty cool but there wasn’t much of it. Apparently saguaro cacti don’t reproduce as readily as big box stores and fast food restaurants.

After driving for an hour or so we reached Prescott, our destination. Martha’s mother’s condo was in a planned development not far from the center of town.

Lots of people my age (as in old) complain about their parents (at least they have parents) and the nightmare of dealing with their stuff. By stuff, I mean their belongings, not their emotional baggage, though people complain about that too. I hear people complaining about dealing with their parents’ belongings again and again. 

Martha’s mother isn’t exactly a minimalist; but wow, she’s leads a stuff-free existence. No, the condo wasn’t a Miesian glass box furnished solely with a couple of Barcelona chairs. Instead, it almost looked like a model home waiting for the stager to come by with attractive family photos and a tchotchke or two in order to lure an unsuspecting buyer into making an offer. It occurred to me that M’s mother wouldn’t have to downsize too much to chuck it all to run off to live in a commune or ashram or Amish settlement or wherever the whacky living arrangement of the moment is. 

There was no enormous stack of newspapers that documented particularly newsworthy moments, no pickup truck load of Tupperware, only 1/3 of which has matching lids, no collection of VHS tapes of performers who only seem to show up during PBS pledge drives. There were no garden hoses, lawnmowers that hadn’t been started since the Reagan presidency, or a large box of trophies earned for exhibiting prized pigeons. My grandmother actually had large box of trophies that her second husband won for his pigeons. I didn’t even know that people exhibited pigeons. Crazy.

Once we got the lay of the land and had a good idea of how many packing boxes and so on to buy at Walmart, we headed into historic downtown Prescott for some, as they say in Westerns, grub.

Prescott was the first territorial capital of Arizona and has some pretty impressive public buildings in its historic district. Martha consulted Yelp on her phone and we went to some sort of foodie outpost in the center of town that Yelpers seemed to like. It was nice enough, but the charming atmosphere did not make up for the less than meh food.

Note to the hipster restaurateurs out there: don’t mess with Heinz ketchup. You can have your free range non-GMO artisanal heirloom locally sourced grandma’s recipe tomato coulis but it’s not going to taste as good as Heinz ketchup. And when you are trying to dress up some overcooked piece of road kill that may or may not be grass fed Fill-in-the-Blank Ranch 43 year old retired dairy cow, this customer wants Heinz ketchup.

After an evening taping boxes together and carefully packing tchotchkes, we hit the sack early.

Since packing up tchotchkes is a sure fire way to build up an appetite, it was no surprise that we were ready for some hearty fare for breakfast the next morning.  We skipped the places on Prescott's  “Whiskey Row” that offered breakfast shots and instead opted for a cowboy themed place a block away. My rule for cowboy restaurants, the more barbed wire on the menu the better the food is likely to be. The breakfast sure beat that piece of hipster shoe leather that passed for dinner the night before. I don’t know what the freelance Mimi Sheratons on Yelp said, but I liked it.

By early afternoon we had the minivan filled with as they say in decorating mags, a "curated" collection of stuff: tchotchkes, art, some furniture, and so on. We were ready to bid a reluctant farewell to Prescott.

But before we left, I took time to photograph a local landmark. You didn't expect me to ignore the biggest Johnson in town, did you?

I fired up the GPS and we headed to our next stop, Henderson, Nevada.

Along the way, we drove through the Arizona Monsoon. I’m not the brightest bulb on the string; I only watch the Weather Channel during big storms and even then only when the weather jocks are easy on the eyes. I thought a monsoon was something they had in Southeast Asia. Wrong. It rained like hell. And then it would stop. And then rain like hell again. It was easy to understand how unsuspecting yahoos could be immortalized in Weather Channel b-roll infamy when their cars floated down a dry wash that had turned into a serious river.

Fortunately, the bad weather cleared up before we got to Henderson where my friends Tracy and Rick were hosting us for the night. We enjoyed a dip in their pool and a delicious dinner with lots of laughs.

Martha got a kick out of the fact that their daughter Zan still had some of Martha’s books on her shelves. Tracy washed a shirt for me. No surprise there, Tracy always washes a shirt of mine when I visit.

After a delish homemade breakfast—except for the muffins which we all agreed had many hockey puck like qualities—we were out the door. After refueling the van, we were ready to head off to California.

We hadn’t been on the freeway (what we’d call the Interstate back east) long when we started seeing billboards—lots of them—for Alien Fresh Jerky. Yes, jerky as in beef jerky. Baby boomers may remember that Beef Jerky was going to be Jethro Bodine’s stage name when he thought about becoming a movie star in an episode of The Beverly Hillbillies. In terms of choiceness, Alien Fresh Jerky is right up there with the Clampett family.

As we approached the exit for Baker, California, I said to Martha. “Let’s stop at Alien Fresh Jerky. What’s not to like?!”  I’m not sure that Martha agreed with my assessment of “what’s not to like” but she was more than amenable to stopping.

The mascot for Alien Fresh Jerky looked like the alien who used to appear on the front of the less credible supermarket tabloids visiting presidents. He’s on the thin side…obviously needs to eat more jerky!

 
Yes, it was a store that sold jerky and hot sauce. That was pretty much it. Who knew that there was such a market for jerky and hot sauce?  And, of all places, at a low end exit in the middle of nowhere. You gotta love that entrepreneurial American spirit!

There were a zillion different kinds of both jerky and hot sauce. I don’t know about the jerky, but my guess is that there are about four flavors of hot sauce, even though there were about 100 names for the same thing.

Judging by the names of the sauces, if you are a 14-year old boy, or at least think like a 14-year old boy, you can have a career naming hot sauces. Sphincter Snapper. Ass Blaster. Innard Igniter. The fourteen year olds who follow current events have brought us Weapons of Ass Destruction, the Feel the Bern, and the We Shall Overcomb. Hilary Clinton doesn’t rate a hot sauce. Sooner or later NBC’s Chuck Todd will comment on what that the lack of hot sauce honors means in terms of California being safely in the blue state column.

There are plans to expand Alien Fresh Jerky with a hotel. I didn’t read the fine print, perhaps there is a landing pad for the Mother Ship. If so, I’ll be sure to tell some of my relatives. It’s unfortunate that the hotel etc. wasn’t up and running, it would have been the perfect place for a Donald Trump rally.

Before we got back on the Freeway, we made a quick stop next door to Alien Fresh Jerky at the The Mad Greek Cafe, the epitome (note the Greek word!) of all Greek restaurants. Some enterprising architectural historian has probably written a Ph.D. paper on Greek restaurants, but the basic idea is that bad Greek and Roman style statuary and decorative motifs, plus the menu and service from the better class of diner makes a viable business. Décor-wise, when it comes to Greek restaurants, more is more. And most is best.

The owners of The Mad Greek Cafe gave a place of honor, right inside the door, to a poster for an often overlooked cinematic masterpiece. I’m referring to, of course, The Greek Tycoon starring Anthony Quinn as “Theo Tomasis” (wink) and Jaqueline Bisset as “Liz Cassidy” (wink again). There was a disclaimer on the poster that said: "The characters in this film are fictitious and any resemblance to persons living or dead is purely coincidental".  Whoa Nelly! I thought that movie was about Aristotle Onassis and Jacqueline Kennedy!

The restaurant wasn’t very crowded, and they were certainly saving money on maintenance. They’d been saving money like that for quite some time; the statuary was a little long in the tooth. I hope it's the only thing in the restaurant past its sell by date. 

Baker’s third great attraction was—perhaps not coincidentally—right across the street from The Mad Greek.  Yes, it was The Bun Boy Motel. It’s not often that you see a motel that doesn’t offer a AAA discount but offers a NAMBLA discount instead. Those buns had seen better days and no amount of rehabbing was going to bring it back to its former glory, especially when Alien Fresh Jerky has plans for a megaplex right across the street. Interestingly enough, Google tells me that the owner of the Bun Boy Motel also owned the equally defunct “world’s largest thermometer” that was nearby. Apparently he shot his wad, so to speak, business-wise and moved on to greener pastures. Or firmer buns. Who knows?

So, we reluctantly bid farewell to Baker and once again pointed the tchotchke-laden minivan towards the highway.

Unfortunately we were in the wrong lane when we passed Zzyzx Road.  But don’t let anyone tell you that it’s lovely at this time of year. The place looked pretty grim. There wasn't even a jerky store!

Near a place called Yermo, traffic slowed for a checkpoint where California law enforcement types could stop us to see if we were bringing any agricultural contraband to the state. Fortunately, they were not worried about the little known but insidious Hummel Figurine weevil. We were waved through the checkpoint by a smiling officer.

The next place of note was Barstow. It looked pretty bad from the freeway, even if it’s immortalized in the lyrics of Route 66. So we took a pass on stopping to check out the local attractions. What's more, I believe in saving something for the next trip...which to Barstow might be never. We left the freeway at Barstow and headed onto CA 58 north.

Though we skipped Barstow, we never considered passing the little town of Boron. Did you think I could pass up the 20-Mule Team Museum and Visitors’ Center? I drove up to the town’s main intersection and thought to myself, “I bet this place has a meth lab.”

Boron’s a happening spot, alright.

The museum is a tiny place, right in the center of what passes for beautiful downtown Boron. It was about 100 degrees and sunny when we nabbed our Pope-worthy spot, right in front of the museum. Since it was a dry heat, it felt as if it were only 99.

We were the only visitors at the place, which was in an old house that looked as if it had once been part of the Green Acres set. If I had to guess, I would say that we were the only two visitors in a long time.  A LONG time. The exhibits were old, really old. And tired, really tired.

The mannequin of a miner looked as if it had been deaccessioned by the Village People Museum eons ago. Yellowed newsprint was the color of the day. But if you stopped to read the text panels, you could read the story of how hearty folk had mined borax and transported it to market before the arrival of the railroad.

In a nutshell, the borax was mined in Death Valley and loaded onto huge wagons for the 170 mile trip to the railroad in the town of Mojave. The borax folks did some experimenting and found that the best power-to-weight ratio was a team of twenty mules, or eighteen mules and two horses. When they finally constructed a narrow gauge railway the mules and muleskinners were out of a job. Presumably all of this is Crooked Hillary’s fault. I understand The Donald is going to bring back all those mules.

While the 20 Mule Team Museum and Visitors Centre was bad, it wasn’t nearly as bad as the Saxon Aerospace Museum right next door. It’s not hard to spot, there was a Vietnam era F-4 Phantom parked in what passed for a front yard. A large, scary woman with bad teeth was sitting on the front porch of the museum. She welcomed me and told me that admission was free.

This is an actual museum display.
I don’t mean to cut to the chase, but even at free, it was overpriced. It seemed to me that the museum was the repository of every piece of crap (and I do mean crap) cleaned out of every closed USAF base in the lower forty-eight states from 1950 to 1990. And instead of displaying it thoughtfully so that it told a story or stories, it was thrown in the building willy-nilly. My guess is that whoever was in charge was a recurring character on the series Hoarders. As far as cleanliness was concerned, the Saxon Museum made its neighbor, the 20 Mule Team Museum look like a NASA clean room. I enjoy a good military museum as much as the next guy, but wow, this was not one of them. I could not get out of there fast enough.

And so without staying to linger over an iced drink or buy some locally made meth in downtown Boron, Martha and I got back in the minivan started on our way again.

I apparently hadn’t had my fill of borax, because in a few miles we came to a very corporate looking sign advertising the Borax Visitors Center. We could see a great industrial complex in the distance. Of course we stopped. I’m glad we did; it was a highlight of our trip.

The Borax Visitors’ Center was a couple of miles from the main drag. If we’d been traveling a night, it would have been a dark desert highway. (Thank you Eagles; I have replaced Route 66 with Hotel California.) 

The road ended at an industrial complex right out of James Bond. The only thing missing were workers of indeterminate national origin running around in jumpsuits, the hallmark of your better Bond villain’s workforce.  We proceeded past the gate and up a hill to the enormous and deserted visitor center.  Martha and I were met there by a super friendly, super knowledgeable docent, Jim. He was the polar opposite of his peers down in downtown Boron. He’d worked in the borax industry and he’d been a campground host so not only did he know about borax, he had actual social skills. Topnotch social skills, at that!

After a few preliminaries, our visit started with a well-produced video from Rio Tinto, the facility’s owner about borax and the borax business. Borates have lots of uses. They are used in agriculture, ceramics, detergents, glass, insulation, specialty applications, textile fiberglass, and wood protection, among other uses. Most importantly, Martha used borax in her diaper pail. This is not a recent usage, since her kids are almost out of college, but it remains an important moment in the history of borates.

When the video was over I practically wanted to have the stuff for breakfast lunch and dinner. The film reminded me just a bit of the old National Lampoon Radio Hour episode, King Creosote. King Creosote was a parody of Industry on Parade, the mini documentaries from the 1950s with the anti-Commie message. My brother and I used to watch on TV before Saturday morning cartoons. I understand that Donald Trump learned everything there is to know about manufacturing from watching Industry on Parade.

After the film, docent Jim took us to the back of the theatre and opened huge curtain, revealing an equally huge window overlooking the even more huge borax mine and attendant facilities. Although the facility was quite a distance away there was no disguising its enormity. Jim explained how the mine worked in terms that were just technical enough for us to understand.

After getting the basics down pat, we did the jiffy tour of the exhibits and mandatory gift shop. We learned that not only Ronald Reagan, but also Clint Eastwood and George Takei had appeared in episodes of Death Valley Days, sponsored by Twenty Mule Team Borax.

Martha and I attempted a selfie with the model of the twenty mule team. The photo turned out better when we weren't in it. The temperature was 102 degrees. Since it was a dry heat, it felt as if it were only 101.

When I got home, I looked up borax on the internet, and on YouTube, which as conspiracy theorists know, is the truest part of the Internet.

According to 20 Mule Team Laundry detergent, it controls "teen odors". Yay!

Many people are saying borax is an aphrodisiac for men and women. Double Yay!

Borax “improves attention, both short and long term memory, perception, hand-eye coordination, and manual dexterity.”  Sold!

I should by the whole damned mine!

As fun as it would have been, we couldn’t hang out in Boron all day. We had tchotchkes etc. to deliver. It was time to head back to the main road.

We enjoyed a cold drink at the Buttonwillow, California, McDonald’s. The place had some cleanliness issues. I thought about sending over some borax. For some reason the palms in the parking lot made me think of "the big W" in It's a Mad, Mad, Mad World. Shortly after we left the place, the car thermometer registered 106. Since it was a dry heat, it felt as if it were only 105.

We drove past past orchards and fields and outposts of agriculture on a scale unknown back east. And then we got on Interstate 5 ("The Five") drove on and on and on past more of the same. And then I noticed that our low fuel light was on. Ack! I hadn’t been paying attention and now an idiot light was staring me right in the face. And as far as I could tell, we were technically in the middle of nowhere.

Like manna from heaven (something that eluded the Donner Party) an exit appeared, as if on cue, and we were soon filling up the minivan.

It wasn’t long after we pulled into the gas station that I realized that I’d gotten gas there before…on the way to or from my grandmother’s house in Merced.  She died in 1995, so this would have been a LONG time ago. I guess the exit hadn’t changed a whole lot.

With a gas in our tank we pushed on, and soon enough the freeway went from two lanes to four lanes and then some as we neared the Bay Area. We passed lot of wind farms as we drove through the coastal mountains. It was as windy as hell; whoever decided to put those wind farms there knew what they were doing. The temperature dropped like a rock and I wondered if I should have brought a sweater along.

I think we arrived at our motel in San Rafael at 7:30 or 8:00. It was 40 degrees cooler than it was earlier that afternoon in Buttonwood. It was not a dry heat. Yes, I should have brought a sweater.

After a drive of about 600 miles that day, Martha and I weren’t up for a Lochte-esque night on the town, so after a light dinner w Martha’s family and a convenience store beer, we turned in.

Martha’s sister recommended a great breakfast spot in downtown San Rafael, so we were at Theresa and Johnny’s Comfort Food as soon as it opened at 8:00 the next day. The décor was plenty funky, and of course, the servers had enough visible tattoos to make me shake my head (trust me, it doesn’t take many). The tasty apricot jam more than made up for the watery mess substituting for Heinz ketchup in Prescott two days earlier.

We had some time to kill before going to Martha’s mother’s to unload the van so we walked around downtown San Rafael for a bit. The Museum of International Propaganda (yes, that’s a real place) wasn’t open yet, so we drove over to the Frank Lloyd Wright designed Marin County Civic Center for some bona-fide architectural tourism.

As cool as it is, going to the Civic Center wasn’t my first choice. I really wanted to see the Bernard Maybeck’s First Church of Christ, Scientist across the bay in Berkeley. It’s a real jaw-dropper, and I have the slightest personal connection—my grandmother—the one stuck with the box of pigeon show trophies—worshiped there a long time ago.

Perhaps there isn’t much demand to see the building, or perhaps, the congregation isn’t up to tourism, but it didn’t seem to have regular weekday hours. M. had looked and looked online for visitor info as I steered the minivan up The Five. The First Church of Christ Scientist's presence in the cloud leaves something to be desired; perhaps some tech and tourism savvy Christian Scientist will read this and address the problem. Though we weren’t entirely sure, it seemed as if the building is only open to the public on Sundays. Drat. I guess I have to save that for my next trip.

Even though it was my second choice, the Marin County Civic Center is pretty cool. Wright designed it in the Jetsons phase—as in the tail end—of his career and didn’t live to see it started, let alone finished. It’s wild. It consists of two long, low wings connected at obtuse angles to a domed central block.

There’s a spire that makes me think of a dirigible’s mooring mast. Oh the humanity!

I thought there would be security and this and that, but we walked in as if we owned the place. The county looks as if it’s doing its best to be a good steward of what surely is a maintenance headache. Wright buildings have a well-earned reputation as expensive to maintain. Even thinking of the taxpayers’ wallets, the place made me nostalgic for the time when our civic buildings were a source of pride to the community and not just some piece of cheap schlock municipalities erect in fear of a taxpayer revolt. If you're in the Bay Area, by all means, go see the place!

When we’d had our fill of Wright, we picked up M’s sister and went over to their mother’s new apartment to unload the minivan. I hung pictures while they unpacked boxes. It didn’t take long for the place to look more like a real home and less like a model home. Martha’s mother thanked me over and over for the help. My guess is that she was astonished that I didn't break anything. Hell, I'm sort of astonished that I didn't break anything!

After I finished hanging the pictures, Martha and crew continued to unpack boxes while I made time to walk across the street to the Museum of International Propaganda. Yes, that’s really what it’s called. Two Marin locals, Tom and Lilka Areton, have rented some retail space and are sharing their collection of posters, paintings, and sculptures produced by some favorite totalitarian regimes. It’s a trip.

A couple of a certain age plus a few years, she was born in the US, and he was born in communist Czechoslovakia. In 1977 they founded a successful student exchange program and are still running it. Oh, and in true California fashion, she has a Ph.D. from San Francisco’s Institute for the Advanced Study of Human Sexuality. She's a sex positive propaganda collector....not something one  runs into every day.

The People's Army and Workers Shall Free Kimchi from Western Imperialists!
Lilka was working at the museum during my visit and was absolutely delightful…a cross between Dr. Ruth Westheimer, Madeline Albright, and your art history T.A. She projects an infectious enthusiasm for the items in the collection and tells you—with a twinkle in her eye--how the museum’s Josef Stalin bust used to be an ornament in her garden. Unfortunately the place didn’t have much of a gift shop. I was sure my neighbors would enjoy seeing a reproduction of that Josef Stalin bust in my garden.

Not long after I finished with the museum it was time to return the rental car. Martha was staying on in California for a few more days and didn’t need a minivan. I got to enjoy some freeway traffic on my way to the rental agency in Oakland. I’m from a small town and if I have to sit through a light or two on my way someplace, I think it’s the end of the world. I’m not sure if I could ever acclimate to commuting to work at a snail’s pace, six lanes deep. The good news was that I learned on that very slow freeway that a GPS could tell you to bear right while bearing left. Who knew? I lead such a sheltered existence.

When I dropped off the minivan they told me that I’d put 1,099 miles on it. And since I’d bought the insurance, there wasn’t a scratch on the thing. I got my bag and my leftover beer and rode the rental car shuttle to the airport where I picked up the airport hotel shuttle. A 6:00 am flight was going to come pretty early.

Nothing like a Google search to find the just the right photo!
On my last night in California, Tracy and Rick’s daughter Zan and her cool husband Todd took me out to eat at Penrose, a foodie sort of place in Oakland. We had a super time. Judging by what I saw of Oakland, Gertrude Stein should make plans to return. It looks as if there’s plenty of there there now.

The restaurant was great, and it turned out that one of two guys at the table right next to ours was a Wahoo. We recognized each other's secret decoder rings. (It happens.) And of course they knew one of my classmates from UVa and showed a cell phone photo of him and his new-ish husband. What were the chances of that?

Then again, what were the chances that I could succeed in helping my friend Martha transport her mother’s tchotchkes and so on 1,000 miles across state lines without a hitch? Donner party, eat your heart out.  (Oh duh! That's pretty much what they did!)