Cars and Kicks


Is that Flo? Wigwam Hotel, Holbrook, AZ. Photo by Aaron J. Wolf
Is that Flo? Wigwam Hotel, Holbrook, AZ. Photo by Aaron J. Wolf

In the twelve-hundred miles of our journey that lay along Route 66, we saw a dozen places that hinted at Pixar’s fictional hamlet of Radiator Springs. No single place captured the essence of that town more than the little burg of Holbrook, Arizona.

Turning a corner where the Route 66 sign pointed to the right we suddenly saw spitting images of Mater and Flo from Cars hanging out at the iconic Wigwam Hotel, itself the model for the film’s Cozy Cones Motel. At some point we all had to wonder whether Pixar’s filmmakers were drawing their inspiration from points along America’s Mother Road, or whether they were providing the inspiration themselves.

Red as a Tow-Mader. Photo by Aaron J. Wolf
Red as a Tow-Mader. Photo by Aaron J. Wolf

Either way is fine with me: I give the Pixar flickmeisters full credit for helping to set the stage for our road trip. The images inspired my son, but what inspired me was a quote from Sally, the Porsche 911 who was Ligthning McQueen’s love interest.

“Well, the road didn’t cut through the land like that interstate. It moved with the land, it rose, it fell, it curved. Cars didn’t drive on it to make great time. They drove on it to have a great time.”

Driving across America proved that beyond a doubt. When we wanted to make time, we got on an Interstate. When we wanted to have fun, we went looking along two-lane roads. If we came home with a single resolution, it was to spend more time on the slow roads. That is, after all, where the real “kicks” are to be found.

California’s Energy Crisis

Cholla Power Plant, Arizona. Photo by Aaron J. Wolf
Cholla Power Plant, Arizona. Photo by Aaron J. Wolf

One thing you learn as you travel across America is that our energy and environmental challenges come from unexpected places. Arizona, a state that for many of us exemplifies alignment with the environment, apparently is not as much so as we might think. Indeed, the state has been singled out by the EPA as a producer of greenhouse gases.

Much of the reason for that lies in the way Arizona has urbanized over the past half century (read “sprawl,”) and the resultant need for an air conditioner in every home, if not every window. For historic reasons, Arizona cannot lay proportional claim to the output of Hoover Dam, so it must turn elsewhere for the energy to keep its citizens cool in the summer heat and dry beneath the annual Monsoons.

The Cholla Power Plant, pictured, gives a clue as to why. The plant is considered by the authorities to be among the dirtiest (most polluting) coal-fired power plants in the US. The EPA has put Arizona Public Service, the plan’s owner, on notice: make costly renovations to clean up the plant, or close it. The jury is still out.

With our mix of nuclear, solar, hydroelectric, geothermal, and the like, California and our public utilities do not face the same stark choices that Arizona does. Nonetheless, we might, and right soon. The growing backlash against nuclear, combined with the effects of an extended drought, mean that we may for our own reasons find ourselves scrambling for the energy to power our future.

Today we are focused on water. California’s next energy crisis is right around the corner, and we won’t be able to blame this one on Enron. We can only wonder if we will be ready for it, or if we will let it catch us as unprepared as we were for the drought.


Friday Extra: Fifty Books that Inspired Me

Riffing off of lists produced by a couple of friends – political thinker Matthew Stinson and Baidu executive Kaiser Kuo – these are the books that I have read in full that inspired my life, my work, my interests, my learning, and my writing.  They are not necessarily the best fifty books that I have read, and, with apologies to my regular readers, only a few are about California. But they are books set me on my path, even if they don’t represent the best of the authors’s ouevres or are even the best on the subject.

I’ll start with the spiritual stuff, so that I can hive it off separately and my atheist/anti-theist/Wicca/Humanist/doubter readers can simply skip past it.

1. The Holy Scriptures
2. The Tanach (Stone Edition)
3. O Jerusalem by Dominique Lapierre and Larry Collins
4. Think Jewish by Zalman Posner
5. Essential Talmud by Adin Steinsaltz
6. Jews, God, and History by Max I. Dimont
7. Toward a Meaningful Life by Simon Jacobson
8. The Chosen by Chaim Potok
9. The Perkei Avoth (Lehman Prins translation)

Now for the more mainstream portion of the list. I have placed an asterisk by those with a California connection:

10. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
11. Where the Red Fern Grows by Wilson Rawls
12. Dune by Frank Herbert
13. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
14. The Prince by Machiavelli
15. Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
16. 1984 by George Orwell
*17. Americans and the California Dream, 1850-1915 by Kevin Starr
18. Birth of the Modern World Society by Paul Johnson
19. The Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy by Barrington Moore
20. Democracy in America by Alexis de Toqueville
21. Das Kapital by Karl Marx
22. Starship Troopers by Robert A. Heinlein
23. War as I Knew It by George Smith Patton, Jr.
*24. Organizing Genius by Warren Bennis
25. Execution by Larry Bossidy and Ram Charan
26. Propaganda by Edward R. Bernays
27. The Cruel Sea by Nicholas Monserrat
*28. The Sea Wolf by Jack London
29. Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail, 1972 by Hunter S. Thompson
30. Tai-Pan by James Clavell
31. Twilight in the Forbidden City by Reginald P. Johnston
32. Family by Pa Chin
33. Count Zero by William Gibson
34. On Writing by Stephen King
35. Fanshen by William Hinton
36. The Watchmen by Alan Moore
37. Mila 18 by Leon Uris
*38. The Moon’s A Baloon by David Niven
39. The Pentagon’s New Map by Thomas P.M. Barnett
40. Quality is Free by Philip Crosby
41. Dispatches by Michael Herr
42. Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein
43. Strategy by B.H. Lidell Hart
44. The Trusted Advisor, by David H. Maister et al.
45. Portnoy’s Complaint by Philip Roth
46. The Medici Effect by Frans Johansson
*47. By the Great Horn Spoon by Sid Fleischman
*48. Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O’Dell
49. Galileo by Bertolt Brecht
50. A Republican Looks at his Party by Arthur Larson

I know I’m missing something here. What books inspired you?

The Lesson of a Petrified Tree

Petrified log and Painted Desert. Photo by Aaron J. Wolf
Petrified log and Painted Desert. Photo by Aaron J. Wolf

There couldn’t have been more than a couple of dozen people in the entire Petrified Forest when we visited. A pity. Walking the paths between these gargantuan Triassic fossils, then reading the climatic history of this region in the layers of the adjacent Painted Desert was a lesson in mortality as well as geology.

A child near us asked her father how long 200 million years was. “Well, I’m 40. So five times that long is 200 years. Now a million times that, and you’re still 25 million years from when these trees fell.” Visiting these ancient giants a week before I turned fifty, I felt like a house fly.

The quiet of the park made me realize how much we have turned into a mass transit culture. Don’t get me wrong: I am an unabashed fan of boats, busses, trains and planes, and believe that these conveyances each have their place.

But sacrificing our freedom to roam as individuals, the kernel of the frontier promise at the heart of our California car culture, would do more than surrender some abstract sense of freedom. It would limit us forever to somebody else’s choices about where we should go, how we should get there, and what we should see.

You cannot enjoy places of wonder like the Petrified Forest and the Painted Desert from the dining car on the Southwest Chief any more than you can from an aisle seat in the Southwest 737 five miles overhead. However the prospect might tittilate the environmental extremist, I don’t think that Teddy Roosevelt would have approved.

We can find cleaner ways to cross the country, but we can never take the road less travelled as glorified commuters. If we are to remain true to our essence without sacrificing our souls, we must apply our creativity to the problem of eliminating the carbon without burying the car.

The Petrified Forest taught me, my wife, and my son important lessons that changed our lives. We need more people to learn those lessons in a way that goes beyond a book, a TED talk, the Discovery Channel, or whatever you can see out of your window at 30,000 feet.





Catching Dreams

Photo by author
The Colorado Plateau looking Northwest from the rim of the Barringer Meteor Crater. Photo by author

There is something about the vastness of the Colorado Plateau that, when seen from a lofty perch, invites contemplation.

Standing atop the rim of the Barringer Crater, first my son and then the rest of us turned our eyes away from the extraterrestrial wonder below and looked across the Plateau toward Humphries Peak. The quiet was profound, the only sounds we heard were our hearts and the wind. Clouds scudded low overhead, and the high desert beneath us seemed to breathe of its own accord.

Caught in that state where there is no longer a divide between what is inside you and what is outside you, we were no more immune than the Anasazi, whose ghosts still walk this land, had been; or the Navajo, who still catch dreams here.

The moment reminded me of something John Muir wrote in his 1912 classic Yosemite,  when he said, “Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul alike.”

Not everybody finds inspiration in the desert, anymore than everyone finds succor in the mountains. Each state we traversed, starting with Arizona, offered its own selection of places like this. It made us realize that what makes California special is not that it is the only state with breathtaking deserts, life-filled forests, enticing coasts, or fertile plains. California’s gift to the dreamers and the damaged alike is that somewhere in its unparalleled variety we can each find a place from where we can draw that strength from nature’s storehouse of life.


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